A real mouthful: The 2003 Joh. Jos. Christoffel Erben Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Auslese ***

As you plunge into the world of German Riesling, like so many other novice wine geeks, you are quickly greeted with a reminder of why these wines remain so hard to understand for the general drinking populace. First off they are indecipherable to the uninitiated. Joh. Jos. Christoffel Erben is the producer (and not the only one whose name starts as Joh. Jos., eg. Prum), Urziger Wurzgarten is the vineyard name and Riesling Auslese is the type of wine. The final part means the grapes are picked at advanced levels of ripeness (often starting to dry out on the vine) and more often than not sweet (Trocken Auslese, or dry, is somewhat rare). The three stars are part of the producer’s scheme for designating different styles of Auslese that would otherwise have an identical name. Other producers commonly use capsule color or a number for the same purpose.

Confused? Good, that confusion is why I can spend 25$ on a bottle of very well crafted Auslese that has decades of age ahead of it, from a well-respected producer. A Napa Cabernet that fit that same standard would cost me three or four times as much. Unfortunately sweeter wines are stilled viewed by the uninitiated as synonymous with cheap. Nicki Minaj’s brand of Moscato, that sweet low alcohol club beverage, is proof that if it is sweet and low alcohol, than it is not worth a look.

There are two reasons Riesling is worth the effort to understand. First, world class Riesling typically costs less than 100$ for the finest examples and even then there are plenty of top bottles with decades of potential selling for less than 40$. Second they are a glorious food wine, pairing with typically difficult Asian dishes, heavy spice, and frequently desserts (though not chocolate).

Today’s Riesling was chosen in part because I was able to secure it at auction for such a reasonable price. I have loved the young Rieslings I have tried recently but wanted more to experience the grape with some age. While 2003 was viewed as a extremely hot year in Europe, many producers made fine wine regardless, and this one was said to be among them. At 14 years old, I reasoned an Auslese from a ripe vintage would be drinking very well and offer a lovely opportunity.

A somewhat understated nose of petrol and beeswax greeted me (along with a wet rock kind of minerality), and though the aromatics never got as expressive as I wanted, the taste was perfect. Acid and sweetness were both quite robust and in balance. Tart tropical fruits like pineapple and stone fruits like white peach were in full force with a bit of green fruits and herbs playing second fiddle. This made my very unconventional pairing of Cacio e Pepe (Pecorino cheese and black pepper on spaghetti) a surprising match, though not the ideal on. Next time I will try a mild yellow curry, or a tart fruit dessert. That said, on its own is pretty darn special too.

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2012 Gattinara Franco Patriarca

It’s not news that Barolo and Barbaresco don’t have the monopoly on top quality Nebbiolo that they were once perceived to have, yet it still is tough to find new quality wineries from competition, like Ghemme, Carema, and of course Gattinara.

It’s not news that Barolo and Barbaresco don’t have the monopoly on top quality Nebbiolo that they were once perceived to have, yet it still is tough to find new quality wineries from the competition, like Ghemme, Carema, and of course Gattinara. This Alto-Piemonte poster child is only just north of the Abla and Asti communes, yet with a substantial difference of terroir, that is its volcanic soil. Despite the Alto-Piemonte climate, Gattinara’s volcanic grown Nebbiolo creates deep, aromatic, and mineral wines thanks to the distinctive soil. The region had an unfortunate 15 minutes of limelight back in the 60’s when someone tried to make it fashionable, but being pre-DOC regulations, a flood of cheap knockoffs and downright fraudulent wines flooded the market and ruined its image.

With DOCG regulations as strict as Barolo/Barbaresco and an equally important, though quite different soil composition, Gattinara can produce some pretty stunning Nebbiolo that can last decades. Yet few quality producers remain after the mid-century exodus from the farmlands. It is still only a shadow of the wine-making region it once was, and while Travaligni and Antoniolo still hold the torch, new wineries just aren’t popping up that often. So imagine my surprise at Kermit Lynch in Berkeley, when I find a reasonably Gattinara from Franco Patriarca sitting on the shelf.

With only 250 cases made, this is truly a locally oriented gem. Fermented in steel and age in only large barrels, this is a clean, transparent Nebbiolo.

 

The color is a deep crystalline rose with a pale garnet reflection. The aromas of rosewater and bay dominate the nose, as well as a somewhat unappealing watermelon candy quality. As time goes on, a more tarry, mineral tinged quality lifts from the glass that puts it a very good place. The clean unpretentious quality of this wine is honest and intriguing at the same time. RECOMMENDED

Bedrock Wine Co., North Coast Syrah 2015

Bedrock Wine Company has fast become known for two things: characterful old vine field blends from vineyards like Pagani and Bedrock, and absolutely mind-blowing, critic-swooning Syrah. The North Coast Syrah is their introduction to the Syrah side of their portfolio.

Bedrock Wine Company has fast become known for two things: characterful old vine field blends from vineyards like Pagani and Bedrock, and absolutely mind-blowing, critic-swooning Syrah. The North Coast Syrah is their introduction to this half of their portfolio, and one of their most inexpensive wines at 20-24$ retail. Its a tired cliche to hear folks talk about a wine ‘punching above it weight’ but every single time I try a North Coast Syrah from these guys, I do a double take at my receipt. I would have no problem guessing 30-35$ for this wine if I tasted it blind. Hopefully it doesn’t go that high!

 

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This pours a deep dark purple and opens with aromas of dark fruit, pepper and olive brine. Saline, slate, and garrigue follow with a really delightful blend of savory and plummy fruits. The palate is concentrated and full bodied with damson, boysenberry, and saline qualities leading to a medium finish of gritty tannin. Great acidity, good with food and by itself for those who appreciate the oomph in the glass.

Despite the robust, well delineated structure and gritty tannin, I would peg this as a early to medium term wine, though developing really well over the next 5-7 years. For my taste, I have zero problem decanting one of these and drinking them asap.

Bordeaux Feature -Union de Grand Cru Tasting Santa Monica

The UGC swept through Santa Monica/LA on its way to San Francisco this week and gave local enthusiasts and professionals a chance to try dozens and dozens of Bordeaux Superieur and Blanc from the 2014 vintage. The attendance was fabulous as all but the most ratified producers were there (so no Mouton, Latour, Cheval, Montrose etc).

2014 was a tough vintage at first, with cooler weather through the summer before a more favorable harvest. Most agree the wine to emerge was quite fine, though quantity was lower. Comparisons to 05 and 06 have been made, while others think it is too distinctive to reliably compare to any other year.

I will attempt to transcribe my notes below, on each sub-zone as well as specific bottles that leaped out. The trouble with such a tasting is that many of the wines were quite tight, and few tables used a decanter. For much of the tasting, what I was assessing was structure and body rather than aromatics, for that you must simply know the Chateau and their house style to make any predictions. This will be a good, but not great vintage, with classic qualities that should reward fans of Left Bank and Sauternes in particular, with reliable drinkers.

Overall Impressions

Reds

Much of the Right Bank reds from Pessac-Leognan, St Emillon, and Graves were quite dull at this stage, without mid-weight texture, and poor balance. The quality seemed to fall with the greater percentage of Merlot, an earlier ripening grape. 2014 was cooler it the summer and autumn, and thus it seems the Merlot suffered in quality. Those with greater Cabernet Franc in the assemblage were far better.

The later ripening Cabernet Sauvignon benefited from the late vintage uptick in weather quality, and as we moved to the Left Bank, such as the Haut-Medoc and Margaux, greater balance and some emerging aromatics were evident. Better fruit and concentration was notable in Cabernet Sauvignon dominant wines, such as St Julien and Paulliac. This is not to say these wines were universally better, but generally more accessible.

I believe the better wines this year to be those left bank wines, as well as Cabernet Franc, while right bank and Graves were quite savory and gripping, showing more of the cooler vintage

Whites

While I was unable to devote myself entirely to the whites given the shortness of the evening, the overall impression was of greater consistent quality than the Reds, with particular success for Sauternes, which were some of the more marvelous young bottles I have had. The Chateau Guiraud was in particular a mesmerizing experience.

Pessac-Léognan

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For the first portion of the room, the dry wines of Graves and Pessac-Leognan were on show. The very first wine I tried ended being one of the better in attendance, the Chateau Les Carmes Haut-Brion. An unusual blend of 45% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc, and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon  was likely the reason for this, as the aromatics of the C. Franc were in better form. This region suffered for me because many of the finer sites (Smith Haut-Lafite) were either not present or were drunk dry quite quickly. The Chateau Carbonnieux was also particularly fine, though outshone by their fresh and balanced white wine.

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Saint-Emillon

A difficult portion of the evening for me, but the St. Emillon were disappointing, the most I can hope for is that they unfold in 5 years or so into something more elegant. The tannic structure was certainly present in many of these but little texture, and poor concentration. As before, those wines with greater Cabernet Franc in their assemblage fared better almost every time, including Ch. La Gaffeliere (with 30% C. Franc) and Ch. Canon-la-Gaffeliere, with a whopping 40% C. Franc. Canon-la-Gaffeliere was particularly pure and well structured with a textural balance that presaged an elegant future

Pomerol

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Pomerol suffered from much the same weakness as Saint-Emillon, with higher Merlot % forecasting a poorer showing. Ch. Beauregard was a favorite of many in front of the table, and with 30% C. Franc, did show greater complexity than its neighbors, showing some garden herbs, plum, and chocolate aromas. Others like Le Bon Pasteur lacked any real weight or fruit to counteract the currently un-integrated oak, which I hope will soften.

 

 

Listrac/Moulis En Medoc

Here was the first inkling of good things to come with the poorly named Ch. Clarke, at 70/30 Merlot/C Sauvignon, it showed some under ripe black fruits and cedar in a surprisingly accessible stage for such a young wine. Simlarly Ch. Maucaillou had a denser, but still ripe fruit profile, with chocolate and cigar wrapper giving a greater sense of balance. It was no surprise that the assemblage for Maucaillou was 51% C Sauv, 42% Merlot, and 7% Petite Verdot. While not to my taste, it was certainly refreshing to see some complexity and ripeness.

 

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Here we had some of my first real wows since the Le Carmes Haut-Brion at the very beginning! A perennial modern favorite, the Ch. Cantemerle was in fine form, with an exceptionally balanced and elegant structure, but robust too. Gravely with pencil shavings, cassis, and leather, this appears certain to age well. In contrast to many previous wines in this tasting which were impossible to suss. There was some disagreement as to the assemblage, while the notes said 60% Cabernet, the gentleman at the table claimed it was 47%/38% C. Sauv and Merlot.

 

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wp-1485559664989.jpgCh. Citran was a new one for me, and had very attractive citrus peel, graphite, and herbaceous aromatics. La Tour Carnet was highly structure with an elegant spicebox profile, certainly this was as old-world as it gets, but one wonders if any fruit will emerge in a few years.

My overall impressions of the Haut-Medoc were positive, with more evident quality being apparent among the wines.

 

Margaux

Here in Margaux we found wines that showed the most individual personality of any wp-1485559639901.jpgsub-region so far. Most had tell-tale notes of violets and oyster shells, with the greater maritime influence thanks to the proximity to the water. The texture on these wines were generally quite soft and elegant, and the aromatics more generous (though still tight).

Ch. Dauzac was a good value and quite an early drinker with the least amount of tannin and most expressive nose. Ch. Siran was quite a pretty wine with higher toned red fruit and softer tannin, while Ch. Kirwan and Desmirail were favorites of the crowd, showing violets and sea shells, with stronger tannic backbone elevating it all.

Saint Julien

Saint-Julien marked a continuing trend towards greater consistency. Ch Beychevelle had aromas of citrus and red fruits, and filled the mouth with acidity and tannin. While the oak was a bit too present, I imagine that will integrate well. Ch Leoville Poyferre had more upfront creme de cassis and accompanying textural richness to make for a very taste wine. Gruaud Larose had the greatest freshness of the wines, with black fruits, coffee grounds, and chocolate making for a rich, darker profiled Bordeaux. The Chateau Gloria was also a nice surprise, quite accessible with fresh fruit, menthol and vanilla. I imagine it will drinking well somewhat earlier. Not Pictured is Ch. Talbot, which did quite well though incredibly tightly wound at this stage. Unlike the Saint-Emillon I imagine the Talbot will open up into something quite lovely in 5-10 years.

Pauillac/St Estephe

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I was sad that by the end of the evening, Ch. Lynch-Bages, and others, were all tapped out, however concentration and power associated with Pauillac and St Estephe were on full display with the remaining tables. Lynch-Moussas was more herbal in character, with subtle dark fruits, while Ch. Le Ormes de Pez was quite raw and clumsy, though youth might be to blame.

I was disappointed I couldn’t give a greater account of these two regions. Unfortunately after 2.5hrs and dozens of wines, having these at the end proved disastrous.

 

Sauternes

It is no mistake that many proclaimed the 2014 Sauternes as the winner of the tasting. Not a one was showing poorly, though a range in depth and concentration was evident. Many almost came across as off-dry, with such fabulous acidity and freshness that you wanted to gulp down a large glass right on the spot. Ch. Guiraud was a possible wine of the night for my own taste. The Guiraud Sauternes had none of the syrupy gloopiness that some over-eager examples had. It was all fresh orchard and tropical fruits, honey and flowers with a long elegant finish.

 

Final Notes

Tasting young Bordeaux is a difficult task, many of the best will get lumped in with the worst due to being inaccessible in youth (like the Talbot), while others will be rewarded by early assessments for being easy. The clear strategy here is the tough one, find the house style you like and buy some bottles, waiting patiently.

That said, from this disadvantaged standpoint, The clear stars were St Julien, Sauternes Et Barsac, and Margaux. All three zones featured wines of balance, freshness, and concentration. What aromatics peaked through had great typicity. As one producer noted, 2014 will be one of the best of the ‘lesser’ vintage, and hopefully full of good values compared to the 2015s. If you already know which Chateaus you prefer, this is a wonderful year to stock up on some reliable Bordeaux for mid-term enjoyment.

 

A New Classic Brunello – Albatreti

About a year ago, several wine retailers/preachers/bloggers (K&L, Garagiste) all simultaneously started raving about a new producer in Montalcino, making Brunello and Rosso on a tiny plot just South-west of the town, at one of the higher elevations in the appellation. The vintner Gaetano Salvioni, was a hobbyist until the 2009 vintage, and with his 2010 vintage began to make waves. The prices were rock bottom, the style classic and pure, the only problem was availability as Mr Salvioni only makes about 5,000 or 6,000 bottles.

I managed to get my hands a few of his 2009 and 2010 Brunello, and the 2009 Rosso. As 2010 resulted in famously structured and long-lived Brunelli, I decided to open up his 2009s. My notes are below, but the take home is should you see these bottles, grab them with both hands. The prices are astounding for Brunello, and the quality is sky-high in a very unpretentious, character filled manner. You will find all the hallmarks of Brunello in these wines, wrapped in a pure classic style that does not appear to making a statement or trying too hard.

 

Albatreti 2009 Rosso di Montalcino

2009 Albatreti Rosso di Montalcino

This one needed a ton of air to unwind. Surprising concentration given its Rosso designation and the color. Some browning around the edges, aroma is muddy at first, but menthol and garden herbs emerge along with an overall sauvage quality. Exceptional Tuscan personality, and a sense of terroir that immediately brings vibrant images of the landscape to your mind. Underbrush and red earth, with warm, soft red fruits.
Palate also took a few hours but found balance eventually. A mid-weight, textured, red with fine tannin that cling to your tongue. Fruit is typical, and quite subdued. My only question about the wine going for longer is the rather buried or faded fruit. Given the mix of developed tertiary aromas and still vibrant structure, this wine is at its peak. The structure and balance are quite fine for a Rosso designation.

 

2009 Albatreti Brunello di Montalcino

2009 Albatreti Brunello di  Montalcino

Garnet color, medium concentration. Nose is a shifting aroma of burnt orange peel, bright red cherry, and a nice herbal component (mint/laurel). Palate is high toned, good acid and very fine tannin. There is nothing over ripe or lush, it has good tension.
This definitely has a long-ish life ahead of it, at least another 5 years. The wine has definitely found a nice balance and is drinking well but unlike the Rosso, has not revealed any signs of tertiary development yet. Overall this is a rustic style, not the big glamorous over-oaked Brunellos chasing parker-points, beloved by the inspirations for the casts of Wall Street or American Psycho. Good wine for food and company.

Donnafugata ‘Ben Rye’ Passito di Pantelleria

On the dry, wind swept isle of Pantelleria, closer to the coast of Tunisia than Sicily, Donnafugata crafts one of the best sweet wines of its class, from the Zibbibo grape: “Passito di Pantelleria.

On the dry, wind swept isle of Pantelleria, closer to the coast of Tunisia than Sicily, Donnafugata crafts one of the best sweet wines of its class, from the Zibbibo grape: “Passito di Pantelleria.” Named Ben Rye, Arabic for Son of the Wind, it clocks in at about 14% abv from year to year, with a golden hue and absolutely intoxicating nose of apricot and almond. If you are a fan of Sauternes you owe it to yourself to find a bottle.

– 2012 Ben Rye 375ml  –

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Rich, vibrant golden color with a shimmering intensity. The nose is all apricot marmalade, with a background nuttiness that keeps you guessing. The palate is similar, with a rich glycerol texture and that coats the palate all the way back and lingers for a minute or more. Notes of orange peel, and butterscotch emerge with some time. The acid is just enough to keep it lively but make no mistake, this is a dessert. Likely this will evolve and hopefully show some other elements, but right now the fruit is so dominant, and hedonistic that you can scarcely imagine how.

– 2008 Ben Rye Limited Edition 750ml  –

Bottled as part of an anniversary for the winery, 2008 was a stellar year for the Passito. They made a careful selection of lots to remain in barrel longer, with additional bottle aging at the winery. The result is a far deeper color than younger regular releases I have tried, almost mahogany. Slightly oxidative notes of caramel, but awash in its intoxicating aromas of dried peaches and apricots, sweet baking spices and even a pleasant medicinal aspect. Great emphasis on butterscotch and orange peel than younger bottles too, reminding me slightly of lighter styles of Vin Santo. Acidity and sweetness were in balance, which was a relief as that was my chief worry with trying a older bottle.
Nectar of the gods for sure.

Find the “best” Thanksgiving wine, by embracing contradictions

So I have decided to leap into thanksgiving talk a bit early, and go over this well covered but confusing topic: that is how to choose a wine for Thanksgiving. There are as many options in the world of wine there are people. The true question of what to serve at Thanksgiving is actually two separate questions that I will try to break down clearly: What wine goes well with Turkey and the standard accompaniment  , AND how to serve wine for a larger group with varying tastes.

 

For the traditional thanksgiving fare, Turkey is in the fore, yielding some difficult flavors and textures to work with. Turkey tends to soak up pretty any flavor you match with it, which makes it easy to run roughshod with a bold wine. The fixings tend to be quite full flavored and rich. So delicate flavor that won’t overwhelm, and enough food friendly acidity is key. Hence, the full bodied white or light red. I will also cover some great outliers that will satisfy the fans of big California red wines.

To start as people lounge around a kitchen, the smells antagonizing the stomachs, start with Sean Thackrey’s Pleiades XXIV (22$), it’s light enough for an aperitif, but could pair with a lighter meal too. For a crowd that appreciates the earthier, tarter wines that transform a meal, you could choose a nice Southern Italian Etna Rosso, even Palari’s Faro (70$) from that volcanic region if you wanted to spend a little extra. The impeccable balance and intense minerality make it one of the best food reds I can think of.

If you have to have that classic Pinot Noir and nothing else will suffice (or keep your guests in line) Oregon’s Cristom makes Pinot at several price points (20-40$) that will satisfy any group. Also look at Soter’s North Valley Pinot Noir (20$) from Northern Willamette. Its robust and earthy and can stand up to anything short of Pumpkin pie and sibling rivalries.

 

But Poultry being Poultry, your guests might clamor for chardonnay, while a lean Chablis would cut through the stuffing and a fine Mersault would impress, more flavor and body is going to serve you well for a white wine, so go with an Oregon Chardonnay from Big Table Farm (45$). The humble farmers at Big Table are out Burgundying Burgundy with this 2013 bottling featuring full lush notes of lemon meringue and crushed gravel. Best of all it doesn’t need to be served ice cold, and will improve as it warms up on the table in front of the family. You can also go out on a limb and pick up an outstanding Verdicchio from either Villa Bucci (20$) or Fattoria La Monacesca (30$). Classico or Riserva, These wines have all the minerality and structured you need for each and every course.

 

So these light reds and full whites cover a lot of territory in taste and food, but there are plenty of full ripe red wines from California for those who just don’t give a s%&t about what goes well with Turkey, and I would be remiss if I ignored that demand. What’s going to taste good and get everyone prepared for a long holiday season? Limerick Lane from Sonoma has made waves with their old vine Zinfandel, but its their outstanding Syrah/Grenache (30$) blend that is a force to be reckoned with. It is decadent, its ripe, and can be drunk alone or with the meal. Across the Atlantic, the previously reviewed (here) Domaine du Gour de Chaule Gigondas (25$) is a nice old world alternative with rustic acidity and herbaceous aromas. You could go a step further with another high level offering from Sean Thackrey, either his Petite Sirah (45$) or even his Pinot Noir (45$), which is fairly full bodied as well.

 

Maybe at this point you are shouting at the screen, “Rory! I have 25 people coming over, I can’t serve them these wines, they’ll drink me to the poorhouse!” Ok first, I occasionally feel that way with just one guest (me), but there are wines abound that you won’t feel bad about serving (or paying for). My favorite options are the Felsina Chianti (16$), which is earthy, fruity and infinitely variable, or Planeta La Segreta (11$) from Sicily, with its rustic minerality and sun drenched fruit.

Whatever your go-to wine is for thanksgiving, you’re going to end up balancing the needs of a group of family member’s and the meal that they are gathering around. When in doubt, open two. Good Luck.