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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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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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Brief Napa reports: Trinchero Napa Valley

[Continuing my brief write-ups from Napa.] I had lunch and a tasting with Barry Wiss, a charming host who had a pile of my wine science books for signing. Education is a big emphasis at Trinchero, and here they have a particular focus on wine and food. Trichero run an education centre, offering a range of classes in food and wine that can lead to certification.

The facility I visited in Napa is a new one (the site was previously occupied by Folie à Deux), and it is devoted to high-end wines, with a sparkling new winery. The beautifully designed visitor facility and restaurant offer scenic views of the surrounding vines. Trinchero Napa Valley makes just 13 000 cases annually from estate vineyards.

But you are more likely to have heard or Trinchero’s more commercial wines, including the famous Sutter Home White Zinfandel. Trinchero is actually the second largest family-owned wine company in the world (only Gallo eclipses them), with a 13 million case annual production.

It was in 1920 that the Trinchero family came to the USA from Italy. Mario was a speakeasy bartender in 1920s New York, and his older brother John became a broker buying bulk wine and sending it to the east coast. In his travels he found a run down winery, Sutter Home, and bought it in 1947, paying all he had ($12 000). Here he started making wine on a small scale.

They muddled along, and in 1960 John handed over winemaking duties to his son Bob. In 1968 Bob made his first Reserve Zinfandel. In 1972, he took off the free run juice and made a Zinfandel Rosé, which he named oeil de perdrix in homage to the classic European style. It wasn't a great success.

But then the Trincheros had a lucky break. In 1974 two things conspired to change their fortunes. Bob's pink Zinfandel experienced a stuck fermentation, leaving it slightly sweet. And rather than label it oeil de perdrix he decided on 'White Zinfandel'. The wine exploded in popularity, and was to form the basis of the rapid expansion of the Sutter Home brand.

However, not everyone was so keen on this new creation. Bob Mondavi and the Beringers, neighbours in the Napa, criticized Bob Trinchero for associating Napa with a wine like this. [Ironically, Beringer now sell more white Zinfandel than anything else they make.]

These days, Trinchero is still family owned. Bob is chairman of the board, with his younger brother Roger as CEO. President is Bob Torquelson, whose the first in this post from outside the family.
Green issues are a concern to Trinchero. Their 250 acres of Napa vineyards are certified Napa Green. Their 7000 acres in Lodi also have sustainable certification. One of the Lodi wineries is 100% solar power operated, with one of the largest solar facilities in the state. 'It is a huge capital expenditure,' says Wiss, 'but we are looking into the future.'

Trinchero have even tried biodynamics in one of their Napa vineyards. It's a property where they have some cattle, too - 23 acre Chicken Ranch vineyard in Rutherford. Interestingly, the Cabernet Sauvignon vines in this vineyard had a bad leafroll virus problem, and within a few years of farming with biodynamics this was cured.

What about the wines? They’re made in quite a sweetly fruited, blockbuster style. The Mary’s Vineyard Napa Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($20) was bright, refined and lemony with a creamy texture. Mario’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($50) was sweet, rich, lush and ripe, but not without hedonic appeal (15.3% alcohol), and the Cabernet Franc 2007 was probably the most distinctive wine, with a subtle greenness to the lush, dark autumnal fruits and incredibly soft tannins ($35).


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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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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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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