Napa/ Sonoma Tasting Report 2009

I spent 4th of July weekend in Wine Country for the second straight year with my wife and a group of friends, and it is becoming quite the tradition in our circle. Over the course of five days, I visited 20 wineries and tasted over 100 wines. Aside from the beauty of the region, I am always taken aback by the unique feeling of calmness that I am overcome by when I visit here. I will live here someday.

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After spending months planning our tasting itinerary, the wines that I tasted were not lacking for substance. I was most impressed by the recent quality of Chardonnay in the region, especially the 2007 vintage, my favorite of which received the highest score for that grape of my tasting lifetime. I’ll start there and then break the rest down by varietal. Other notable surprises included the 2006 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon,  as well as a sudden drastic increase in the quality of America’s only true indigenous grape, Zinfandel, which is truly exciting, especially during grilling season. It was very difficult to make this list, but rest assured that every wine that I gave a mention to is well worth a try at the listed price.

CHARDONNAY

1. Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay Napa Valley 2007, $47, 92 Points- Golden body with aromas of tropical fruit above subtle oak. Crisp, acidic body is explosive with its generous green apple, mango and white peach notes that evolve into creamier notes of vanilla bean and hazelnut and linger with clovey spice through the long finish. Complex and delicious with impeccable balance.

2. Landmark Chardonnay Damaris Reserve Sonoma Valley 2006, $35, 91 Points- Buttery and oaky with melon fruit on the nose. Concentrated citrus fruit dominates with honeydew, peach and orange peel over lots of nutmeg spice and vanilla through the long, impressive finish.

3. Sbragia Chardonnay Home Ranch Dry Creek Valley 2007, $25, 91 Points- Crisp citrus aromas of pear and tropical pineapple notes. Creamy texture with vibrant tropical fruit notes of pineapple, lemon and pear with very subtle oak undertones and crisp acidity intertwined with a lingering white pepper spice through the long finish.

4. Darioush Chardonnay Signature Napa Valley 2007, $42, 90 Points- Golden body with lots of creamy golden apple, honey and oak aromas. Delicious texture with orange blossom, golden apple and peach above creamy, nutty oak and caramel notes. Full finish of crème brulee and exotic spice, yummy stuff.

5. Domaine Chandon Carneros 2006, $25, 90 Points- Buttery notes of pear and honey on the nose. Creamy texture, with tons of spicy pear, green apple and melon fruit above undertones of honey and mineral. Long finish with spiced pear pie notes lingering beyond everything else.

6. Landmark Chadonnay Overlook Santa Barbara-Sonoma-Monterey 2006, $30, 90 Points- Golden body, buttery on the nose with oak and hazelnut aromas. Very creamy with tons of citrus, white peach, golden apple and pear above notes of hazelnut, almond and exotic spice, laced with crisp acidity.

7. Sbragia Chardonnay Gamble Ranch Vineyard Napa Valley 2006, $40, 90 Points- Aromas of deep oak and golden apple citrus. Creamy texture with lots of golden apple and lemon fruit above present French oak notes, deep and creamy throughout with butterscotch and toffee lingering long with the fruit.

8. Artesa Chardonnay Limited Release Carneros 2007, $40, 90 Points- Tropical nectars of peach, apricot and mango fruit on the nose. Intensely concentrated citrus flavors of tropical mango, lime and peach fruit above perfectly intertwined oak. All elements linger long with a crisp, minerally bite.

9. Merryvale Chardonnay Carneros 2007, $35, 89 Points- Golden body, very buttery on the nose above golden apple notes. Thick, creamy texture with lots of toffee and butterscotch holding together the golden apple and pear fruit. Full, deep finish with oaky vanilla lingering.

10. Artesa Chardonnay Carneros 2007, $20, 89 Points- Floral aromas with golden apple and pear notes above softly stated oak. Lots of pear and apple fruit over a crisp, fruity body with hints of oak in the background. Sleek and concentrated fruit with enough oak to carry through the creamy finish.

OTHER WHITE VARIETALS

1. Darioush Viognier Signature 2008, $42, 90 Points- Crisp, clean apricot and peach on the nose above honey and candy sugar. Sweet and sugary, almost a dessert wine, with peach, orange blossom and melon fruit. Undertones of ginger and exotic spices, bright acidity through the long, balanced finish with hints of vanilla and honey lingering.

2. Signorello Seta Estate 2007, $32, 90 Points- Truly beautiful and toasty aromas of passion fruit, lime and pear that carry into a full palate that benefits from a complex undertone of ginger. This cries for spicy asian food as pear and ginger spice dominate through the long, crisp finish. 60% Semillion, 40% Sauvignon Blanc.

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3. St. Clement Sauvignon Blanc Bale Lane 2008, $20, 89 Points- Sugary, tropical fruit aromas of grapefruit and pineapple above soft vanilla. Crisp, creamy body of juicy grapefruit, lemon, mango and pineapple. Creamy for the varietal, with vanilla bean and crisp minerality adding complexity through the medium but focused finish.

4. Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2007, $20, 89 Points- Loaded with tropical citrus fruit notes of grapefruit, mango and orange all above hints of grassy earth. Very focused and fruity with a crisp, refreshing finish that isn’t the least bit tart and lingers long.

5. Barnett Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2008, $30, 88 Points- Lots of lemony and grassy notes on the nose above subtle grapefruit. Creamy texture with refreshing lemon, mango and grapefruit notes above hints of grass and creamy vanilla, delicious through the long finish.

RED ZINFANDEL

1. Seghesio Zinfandel San Lorenzo Alexander Valley 2006, $60, 92 Points- Very deep and exotic with dark plum, blackberry above oregano and bay leaf spice along with hints of vanilla. Intense mouthfeel of dark fruits and well-integrated pepper and herbal spice through the long finish.

2. Frank Family Zinfandel Napa Valley 2006, $35, 91 Points- Floral red and purple fruit on the nose that carries into the body, with violets, plums and blueberries showing well. An exotic Zin, with a texture almost like Pinot Noir and offering a shocking blue streak throughout. Very floral with notes of ginger and loaded with flavor, with mocha, orange blossom and exotic spice lingering long and with intrigue.

3. Seghesio Zinfandel Home Ranch Alexander Valley 2007, $35, 91 Points- Rustic wild berry fruit aromas. Very pretty, with dark plum, berry and black licorice flavors above tons of black pepper spice. Long, long finish with peppery spice lingering with cinnamon notes adding complexity.

4. Sbragia Zinfandel La Promessa Dry Creek Valley 2006, $32, 91 Points- Bursting with spiced red cherry, red licorice and red plum on the nose and palate. Thick and juicy but not jammy, with a decisive streak of black pepper spice running throughout. Long finish of fruit and spice, firm tannin grip as the spice heats up as the flavors linger.

5. Rosenblum Zinfandel Lyons Reserve Napa Valley 2006, $45, 90 Points- Spicy red apple, blackberry and smoke on the nose. Great balance of peppery black cherry, licorice and blackberry above smokey campfire notes and peppery spice through the long, tannic finish.

PINOT NOIR

1. Landmark Pinot Noir Kanzler Vineyard Sonoma Coast 2007, $65, 93 Points- Jammy, floral red berry notes mingle nicely with tobacco spice on the nose. Incredible mouthfeel of spicy, elegant raspberry, black cherry and strawberry with a decisive streak of exotic white pepper spice. Very balanced through the long finish, spice lingers.

2. Siduri Pinot Noir Muilfield Vineyard Willamette Valley 2006, $40, 92 Points- Beautiful aromas of rose petal, dark cherry, blueberry and chocolate. Fantastic body of floral blueberry, plum and cherry fruit carries into complex undertones of white pepper spice and potpourri. Long finish with mocha chocolate lingering with the fascinating flavor combinations.

3. Siduri Pinot Noir Clos Pepe Santa Rita Hills 2006, $55, 92 Points- Toasty aromas of red fruit, vanilla and pepper spice. Dark but deep, with blackberry and blueberry above lots of toast, chocolate and cinnamon spice. Long finish that is elegant and delicious. Deeper fruit for the varietal but typical of this appelation, floral hints linger along with the chocolate.

4. Seghesio Pinot Noir Costiera Russian River Valley 2007, $42, 91 Points- Deep ruby body with an appealing nose of lavender and violet. Elegant with its deep, perfumey floral notes that lead into blueberry and understated white chocolate all backed by some tobacco spice through the impressive finish.

5. Siduri Pinot Noir Gary’s Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands 2006, $50, 90 Points- Ripe, bright red fruit aromas with hints of tobacco spice. Silky texture with strawberry, blueberry and raspberry notes and very present acidity. Fruit really shines here above subtle tobacco and white pepper spice through the long, slightly dry finish.

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SYRAH

1. Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2005, $70, 95 Points- Deep, smokey aromas of dark purple fruits and blackberries. Velvety, inky dark fruit notes of blackberry, dark plum and black licorice above a present note of campfire smoke along with leather, cocoa and black pepper spice. Turns deep and creamy on the finish, with earthy, smokey elements lingering longest of all. Rich and impressively balanced.

2. Darioush Shiraz Napa Valley 2006, $65, 94 Points- Deep, dark, purple fruit aromas with notes of leather and pepper spice. Intensely concentrated flavors with black licorice, blackberry and black plum above layers of chocolate, coffee and black pepper that resonate through the long finish, all with a decisive earthy note that includes leather and clove elements. Finish goes on for minutes.

3. Landmark Syrah Steel Plow Sonoma Coast, $30, 93 Points- Soft, elegant, lifted red fruit aromas with hints of cinnamon spice and vanilla. Insanely silky and intense on the palate with its dark raspberry, blueberry and complex notes of exotic asian spice, game and black pepper. Amazingly balanced with a long, long, elegant finish with lots of spice lingering beyond the focused fruit flavors. Drink with smokey tri-tip steak on a warm Sonoma night.

4. Novy Syrah Russian River Valley 2006, $27, 93 Points- Almost purple in color with a deep nose of blackberry, dark plum and licorice. Deep, spicy body with purple fruits resonating through the velvety texture, all backed by black pepper spice, black coffee and tar notes. Great balance and a soft, plush depth throughout on the palate and through the long finish.

5. Rosenblum Syrah England-Shaw Vineyards Solano County, $35, 92 Points- Loaded with chocolate, leather, blackberry, dark raspberry and smoked meat on the nose. A big, burly monster, with smokey meat notes leading into dark, intense blackberry above leather and peppery spice through the long, dark finish. My kind of Syrah, and vastly different than the suave fruitier 03 version I tasted a few weeks back.

6. Novy Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands 2006, $27, 92 Points- Deep blackberry, leather and beef aromas. Thick, chewy, beefy, smokey notes on the palate, leading into deep blackberry fruit above hints of tar and chocolate. Black pepper spice creeps in late in a big way and lingers long with dark earthy notes nearly overwhelming the fruit. Still a bit tight, but monsterous in style.

7. Novy Syrah Christensen Vineyard Russian River Valley 2006, $27, 91 Points- More plump and fruity than their typical wines, with dark plum and black cherry on the nose. Velvety body with lots of dark purple fruit flavors above subtly intertwined leather and pepper spice. Tannic, but put together through the long finish.

8. Carlisle Syrah Russian River Valley 2007, $25, 90 Points- Lots of ripe but dark raspberry and blackberry fruit above hints of leather, chocolate and pepper spice that lingers long behind its silky texture and round tannins.

9. Landmark Syrah Steel Plow Sonoma Coast 2007, $35, 90 Points- Very deep on the nose with its blackberry, cocoa and spice nuances mingling with hints of soy. All blackberry on the palate, benefiting from dark undertones of black tea, dark chocolate, soy and a blast of black pepper spice. Spice lingers with fairly aggressive tannins that could use some softening time.

10. Novy Syrah Napa Valley 2006, $25, 89 Points- Deep, dark perfumey aromas. Juicy blackberry, licorice and fig fruit dominate the body. Subtle tobacco spice lingers through the finish with the big fruit notes, still a bit tight.

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CABERNET SAUVIGNON

1. Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select Napa Valley 2004, $215, 96 Points- Elegant aromas of black and red currant fruit lead into a polished, focused body of intense black cherry and wild berry fruit. Complex undertones of cedar, tobacco, loam and dusty chocolate creep in through the incredibly soft mouthfeel and impressive layers. So velvety and creamy without a hint of dryness, chocolate lingers long with the fruit elements. This is just as refined as can be.

2. St. Clement Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley 2004, $80, 94 Points- Velvety body with creamy black cherry, blueberry and dark raspberry notes running throughout. Leather and chocolate spice creep in late to add complexity, this is delicious as always, with big, mouthcoating tannins and finishing on a bit of a floral note that lingers long with the fruit and earth components.

3. Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon One Point Five Stags Leap District Napa Valley 2006, $70, 93 Points- Complex mix on the nose with perfumey currant fruit above earthy graphite, mineral and lead. Velvety and deep, with a streak of chalky mineral behind the elegant, floral blackberry and black cherry notes. Silky tannins pull it all together with great finesse and elegance that tastes like a Bordeaux that is ready to drink, terroir really shows here through the long finish.

4. Frank Family Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2005, $45, 92 Points- Very elegant fruit, with perfumey dark plum and black cherry above campfire smoke and exotic spice. This is impressively innovative, with cinnamon running through the light, elegant body, interesting and odd for Cabernet, but I love it.

5. St. Clement Cabernet Sauvignon Star Vineyard Napa Valley 2005, $80, 92 Points- Bright red cherry and dark raspberry aromas above subtle cedar. Chocolate-covered cherries dominate the body with complex cedar spice bursting throughout the long finish. Soft, oaky vanilla cream adds complexity.

6. Sbragia Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Cimarossa Napa Valley 2005, $75, 92 Points- Deep, lush blackberry fruit aromas above cedary spice notes. Juicy dark plum and blackberry fruit above tobacco spice, cedar spice, dark chocolate, creamy oak and firm tannins through the long finish.

7. Hawkes Cabernet Sauvignon Pyramid Alexander Valley 2005, $60, 92 Points- Lots of cassis and eucalyptus/ mint on the nose. Super-velvety body with perfumey blackberry fruit above lots of cedar, mocha spice and pepper. This is deep and extremely elegant throughout the long finish.

8. Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2005, $60, 91 Points- Very deep aromas of blackberry and cassis above subtle cocoa notes. Big, deep flavors of blackberry and dark plum above cedar and chocolate, smokey meat and black tea. Long, complex finish with hints of peppery spice. Firm tannins here, but should improve with time.

9. Signorello Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006, $50, 91 Points- Bright and perfumey aromas of black cherry, brown sugar and tobacco spice. Rich body of dark raspberry, black cherry and blackberry fruit above vanilla and complex, persistent peppery spice. Still very dry and tannic through the long finish.

10. Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap Napa Valley 2006, $50, 91 Points– Deep garnet body with clovey spice immediately evident above its floral black currant nose that is complemented by other exotic spices. Fleshy black cherry, blackberry and hints of exotic orange spice and a slight floral note. Lots of dark, jammy fruit here with a lot of potential as tannins dissipate, spice adds complexity through the long finish with mocha creeping in.

RED BLENDS-

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1. Opus One 2005, $190, 93 Points- Lots of cocoa powder, black olive, black cherry, dark raspberry and floral notes on the nose. Silky, elegant body that is incredibly sofy on the palate, leading into dark raspberry and cherry fruit above complex olive, cedar and dark cherry notes that carry through the long finish, just a beautiful texture with hints of nutmeg spice lingering with chocolate and fruit notes. Silky tannins, surprisingly mellow overall but loaded with complexity.

2. St. Clement Orropas 2006, $55, 93 Points- Dark plum, roasted coffee and licorice on the nose. Elegant, rich, thick body of blackberry, black licorice, mocha spice and cedar. Deep as can be with exptic spice notes underneath of cinnamon covering the dark chocolate undertones. Beautiful stuff, with mocha spice lingering long through the long length that is still pretty tight but should soften perfectly with time.

3. Darioush Duel 2006, $45, 92 Points- Dark raspberry, black cherry, cola and black pepper spice dominate the nose. Gorgeous, deep mouthfeel that is soft on the palate with its blackberry and cherry cola notes that lead into peppery spice and bitter coffee and chocolate notes that take on and earthy, clovey note. Long finish with spices mingling and then lingering long, complex and structured throughout.

4. Girard Artistry Napa Valley 2006, $40, 92 Points- Very juicy red fruit aromas of cherry amd raspberry above cedary hints. Silky texture with moathcoating black cherry, dark raspberry, red currants and cedar. Full and fruity through the long, spicy finish with extremely well-integrated tannins. Rich, creamy dark red fruit here with an intriguing, lingering black olive and herbal spice.

5. Girard Artistry Napa Valley 2003, $40, 89 Points- Inky red fruit nose with notes of mineral, lead and soy. Perfumey and bursting with red plum and black cherry flavors above lots of dusty, rustic mineral and teryaki beef notes. Complex, interesting herbal notes and tannins that are beginning to hit their stride.

Until next time…

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