We hit three pretty good gatherings over the past several weeks, and not surprisingly, there were some darned good wines being tasted. As always, this taster had pen and pad in one hand and a stem in the other, in order that I might dutifully report on what went down. Notes from such gatherings are necessarily brief, since one often has to scramble just to get a glass of something before it evaporates. Therefore, we offer for your consideration a series of snapshots, if you will, general impressions of a number of fine wines.
Some friends of the victim gathered at the
Common Grill in Chelsea, Michigan
recently to spring a surprise party on one Mark Smith on the occasion of yet another 29th birthday. The food was good, the corkage was reasonable and a great time was had by all. The wines were decidedly Cali-centric, with a few notable exceptions. We started with some chardonnay made by an old friend.
2000 Château de Lancyre La Rouvière, 13.5% alc.: I’m a fan of this producer’s reds, but this was the first chance to taste one of their whites, which is actually a medium gold in color. I got but a hint of fennel on the stingy nose, but the thick, almost unctuous flavors show rich peachy pear that are low acid and quite enjoyable. I could have gotten to know this better, but look what I had waiting, nay, make that what was beckoning me to come hither…
1997 Williams Selyam Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Allen Vineyard, 13.8% alc.: Ruby garnet, with a soft, smoky black cherry bouquet that echoes and expands dramatically in the rich flavors; there’re still tannins to resolve here, with decent acidity and a long finish. A beautiful perfume emerges with but a bit of swirlatude, making for a classic California Pinot Noir that’s still on the way up.
1999 School House Napa Pinot Noir Spring Mountain, $75: Bob Foley made this big dark garnet Pinot from grapes grown by John Gantner; it’s one of those syrah-like numbers that some people just don’t care for, but I like it real good. Made from fruit borne of some of the original Ingelnook vines that were transplanted on Spring Mountain, this is one intense, highly perfumed wine that reminds me a little of those of Flowers from the Greg LaFollette era, with its smoky black cherry and plum character. Another one I would have liked to get to know better, but something else was calling my name...
1994 Dominus Napa, 14.1% alc.: The earthy cassis and red currant bouquet doesn’t really say Cabernet to me, but the big cassis, black currant and cigar box flavors sure do. One of Gary’s all time favorite wines, this is very dry, showing soft tannins, good acidity and a very nice finish; frankly, it drinks like fine Bordeaux, and that’s just fine with me. My notes read, "All this needs is a good steak."
Right about then, somebody scored. That was about the same time that Gary decided to conduct one of his cunning 'Mystery Wine' contests. Three reds were served blind; all Gary asked for was the place of origin, telling us that all three came from the same appellation.
#1: Dark garnet, with not much nose; John Wolf noted a little bacon. Thick, concentrated, with dry black fruit and fuzzy tannins; a big wine.
#2: An inky garnet, again with not much on the nose; more fruit here, both red and black, along with some bacon and plum. Mark Smith likes this one.
#3: Another inky garnet, this is like a breakfast wine, with big bacon, coffee and toast flavors and aromas; Kim mentioned some jam and jelly as well. Easily the tastiest of these right now, and most everybody’s favorite.
My preferences were in reverse order, 3-2-1. Mike Jett and Mark Smith thought these were northern Rhônes of some kind, but there was something about wine #3 in particular that said Pic St. Loup to me, and darned if I wasn’t correct! I won nothing more than the adoration of those in attendance, but that was enough for this taster. Oh yes, the wines were:
#1: 1998 Chateau de Valflaunes Pic St. Loup
#2: 1998 Chateau de Lancyre Grande Cuvee Pic St. Loup
#3: 1999 Guilhem Gaucelm Ermitage du Pic St. Loup
From there, it was on to a couple that really WERE from the northern Rhône, a pair of ’96 Cornas.
1996 M. Chapoutier Cornas, 13% alc.: Of this deep, dark garnet, Mike Jett exclaimed, "It smells like the sewers of Calcutta, but I like it!" There is indeed a funky quality about this, along with red and black fruit, smoke, matchstick, garrigue and a little green rhubarb. Not nearly as deep, dark and dense as I would have expected or liked, this one loses a little something on the mid-palate and finish. Not bad, but nothing special either.
1996 Voge Cornas, 12.5% alc.: A deep wine, this inky garnet blows the Chapoutier out of the water, with its garrigue, bacon fat and black fruit character. Astringent and tannic right now, yet showing so much promise, this will be a real beauty when it finally matures.
2000 Gaja Ca’Marcanda Promis, 13.5% alc.: When first poured, the nose on this dark garnet is all about twigs, stems, sticks and "wet moss," according to Gary; underneath all that is some forest floor and musty deep, dark dried black cherries. There’s lots of red fruit on the palate however, mainly in the dried cherry and black cherry spectrum. It opens dramatically in the glass, becoming richer and redder, and while John Wolf says it needs food, I like it fine without. A beautiful wine with a fine future.
1994 Soquel Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon: The fruit for this dark garnet came from the original Martin Ray vineyards’ pre-phylloxera vines. Kim commented that it "smells like women’s perfume," but I found mainly subtle saddle leather over cassis and black currant character, and there was even a hint of underbrush. Rich and delicious, this is still a young wine in some regards, so don’t be in too big a hurry to pull out a bottle if you have any.
2000 O’Shaughnessy Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain, 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot: From 5 year old vines, this inky garnet exudes an "incredibly sexy perfume," according to John Wolf, and I would not disagree. Deep, dense and intense, the dark chocolate, cassis and black currant profile explodes from the glass and on to the palate, wowing everyone. Simply delicious.
We were coming to the end of the evening, as somebody won the big game and I seemed to be neglecting to note alcohol levels in the later wines, due no doubt to those in my blood stream. Still, I was getting snapshots of everything being tasted, and I wasn’t about to miss these last three sweeties.
1993 Ridge Essence: The last Ridge Essence made from the Dusi Ranch in Paso Robles, this still hasn’t changed much since it was released, according to Gary, and he’s had more than a few of them. Still primary, like sweet crushed overripe raspberries and black raspberries, no one disagreed with Mike when he enthused "velvet, perfect."
1997 Vigil Tradicion Late Harvest Zinfandel, 15.8% alc.: Gary opened this to compare with the Ridge, explaining that Vigil had been striving for an Essence-like wine, and indeed, "It tasted like Essence out of the barrel, but..." Vegetal qualities dominate the overripe red fruit, and Kim found it to be diluted. Gary and Georgine couldn’t hide their disappointment in this, wondering, "How did they f*@& this up?!"
1991 Ridge Essence: Since he’d already opened the last two bottles, Gary thought one more selection would serve the comparison well, and indeed, unlike the ’93, this is starting to evolve. While it shows some port-like qualities, it has little if any of the heat; it does have plenty of those overripe raspberries and black raspberries, along with a nice big note of chocolate, and made for the perfect ending to a most delightful evening.
Who won that game, anyway?
1997 Chateau Woltner Howell Mountain Chardonnay Frederique Vineyard, 14% alc.: Medium gold, with bees wax and chalk over pear and subtle oak; fairly rich and lush when poured, becoming even richer with some air, but this remains a "waxy" wine (and that's not a bad thing), with low acidity and a long finish.
1997 Newton Napa Chardonnay Unfiltered, 14.5% alc.: Pale - medium gold, with a big pineapple, butterscotch, tropical fruit and vanilla bouquet that echoes and expands on the palate; well oaked, low acid and rather viscous, this is a little over the top for me, but Kim rather likes it.
1996 Calera Mount Harlan Pinot Noir Mills Vineyard, 13.5% alc.: Ruby dark garnet, with a big brassy smoky black cherry and plum character, shaded with earthy, match stick nuances and Asian 5 spice overtones. Fairly dense, the flavors have a bit of a vegetal quality that adds interest, rather than detracts. Still good tannins here, with good acidity as well, this can use several more years in the cellar to reach full maturity.
1999 Rodney Strong Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Alden Vineyards, 13.9% alc.: Dark garnet, with a big sweet oak, vanilla, hint of dill bouquet that follows through on the palate; it was almost like drinking angel food cake covered with blackberries and blueberries to my tastes. Tannins need a few years yet, and the acidity is fairly low; turns a little earthy and stemmy on the finish.
2000 Culler Napa Syrah, 14.5% alc.: Deep dark garnet, with toasty oak over big purple plum and blackberry flavors and aromas; not quite as deep on the mid-palate as the aromatics and entry promise, a symptom of the vintage, no doubt. Still, it delivers a good dose of rich flavor, with 3-5 years worth of tannins, low acidity and a decent finish.
1995 Rosemount McLaren Vale Syrah Balmoral, 13.5% alc.: Another deep dark garnet, with effusive balsa, Brasso ®, plum, blackberry, black cherry and smoke characteristics; smooth, not too tannic at all, with low acidity and a nice finish. Intense flavors and aromas, but not quite as much so as the'96 version of this wine, the only non - Left Coast selection of the evening.
1999 Christopher Creek Russian River Valley Zinfandel, 14.9% alc.: Dark garnet, with a deep dark zinberry personality showing undertones of sweet oak. Not too tannic, good acidity and a medium full body; not that long on the finish, but all in all, a solid, if unexceptional zinfandel.
2001 Robert Biale Napa Zinfandel Black Chicken, 15.5% alc.: Dark garnet, with raspberry, blackberry and cranberry flavors and aromas showing the perfect kiss of sweet oak and a hint of chocolate. Rich and lovely, but not as big as I expected, being medium full to full bodied; however, it seems to put on some weight as it opens. Quintessential Biale, and one of the best zins this taster has had in the last few months.
1997 Dehlinger Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Estate, 14.5% alc.: Ruby dark garnet, and not as effusive as some from this producer that we've had; still, the smoky black cherry and plum bouquet shows hints of tea leaf, Asian 5 spices and subtle vanilla, carrying over to the medium full bodied flavors where they really blossom. Silky tannins, perfectly balanced acidity and a long finish make for one very nice pinot noir, but this one is still on the way up, so try to hold off for at least a few more years.
2001 Renard Lodi Syrah Schatz Vineyard, 14.5% alc.: This dark garnet syrah sports a great label on the bottle; the wine itself gives a funky, poopy nose, with black fruit underneath. The rich earthy, tarry plum and blackberry flavors lose a little something on the mid-palate and turn very earthy on the finish. This needs some time (3-5 years?) but shows promise.
1999 Paraduxx Napa Valley Red Wine, 14.5% alc.: I've been wanting to try one of these oddball cabernet - merlot - zinfandel blends for a while now; this one's an opaque purple garnet, cassis and blackberry flavors and aromas that show subtle oak shadings and hints of tar and earth. Smooth, dark and decidedly dry, and yet the zinfandel lends a certain extra element of fruit. A nice glass of wine, but one that goes for well over $40 in Michigan; I'd like it a lot better at around $25 - 30.
1999 Ridge Lytton Estate Syrah, 92% Syrah, 7% Grenache, 1% Viognier, 14.8% alc.: An opaque dark garnet with a road tar, Draper perfume and black fruit bouquet; showing big plum and blackberry flavors, with significant tannins, this is all about promise, which it has in spades. Give it at least another five years, because it'll be a beauty.