Archive for the ‘Vino’ category

Napa and Sonoma Wine Tasting Recap

August 17, 2017

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I made my annual pilgrimage to California Wine Country in July, and went all in this time, spending ten days between San Jose, Napa and Sonoma. For the first time, I was accompanied by a Sidekick. Together we visited 25 wineries and tasted over 125 different wines, taking accurate and precise notes on each together as a team. Once in proper wine country, the four wineries per day plan I had scheduled proved a bit taxing and aggressive for my Sidekick, but she bravely endured it successfully. Here is a rundown of the best wines we sampled, organized by varietal. When scores were the same, the tie was broken by price point, because, duh.  (Above: me, amazed by the expansive 1800 acre behemoth that is the Kunde Estate).

CABERNET SAUVIGNON AND BLENDS

Tasting Cabernet in Napa has become quite the expensive ordeal, and wine enthusiasts had better plan carefully and know what they are getting themselves into, or they might find their wallet about $100 lighter after spending an hour tasting mediocre wines. I can remember coming here ten years ago and popping into Silver Oak to taste wines for $10 and getting a free glass to boot. This is no longer the case, but there are still great experiences to be had that are well worth the cost. Shafer (below) excels on all levels, pouring large tastes of its five offerings, including the highly sought after Hillside Select Cabernet, for a $75 per person fee that is worth every penny. Recent Wine Spectator Wine of the Year recipient Lewis Cellars is one of the best bargains around, as they still pour flights for $45 per person in an intimate setting accompanied by fantastic commentary and information. However, there are plenty of $50-100 per person experiences that won’t be nearly as exemplary as these and could leave visitors disappointed, so do your homework. Meyer Cellars, which pours wine out of a quaint tasting room on the main Yountville stretch shared with Hestan, made a Cabernet for the ages with their 2014 at a price point rarely seen in these parts for this tier of quality.

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1) Meyer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014, 96, $70- Intense and chocolatey, with black currant fruit, black licorice, dark chocolate, wet rocks and rich spice flavors that lend towards mocha. This is insanely concentrated and densely structured, layered elegantly through the long, persistent finish. Rich, detailed and pure. A nearly perfect Napa Cabernet at a compelling price point.

2) Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select Stags Leap District 2012, 96, $275- Light oak, cedar and chocolate aromas above black currant fruits. Ultra smooth on the palate, exerts elegance, with powdery mocha above the perfumed blackberry, plum and licorice notes. Refined and graceful. Finish lingers for minutes with silky tannins. An essay in elegance, with dark chocolatey spice lingering long beyond the dark fruit and subtle cedar.

3) Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley 2014, 95, $175-Powerful black currant nose, showing oaky spice and dry cedar. Pure and concentrated, with a perfumey essence of crushed blackberry and dark plum gliding over a plush, seamless texture. Complex undertones of wet cedar, black olive and mocha spice add complexity. Length lingers long with silky tannins adding backbone. Textbook Cabernet, finishing with powdery chocolate and oak.

4) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Stag’s Leap District 2013, 92, $125- A big, powerful wine full of blackberry, steeped plum, cassis and powdery cocoa flavors. Deep, rich and intense, with cedary spice lingering with vanilla bean, brown sugar and cocoa through the long finish.

5) Chalk Hill W.P. Foley II Chalk Hill 2013, 92, $160- Powdery cocoa and cedar aromas above black currants on the nose. Deep, dark and chocolatey, with intense mocha and espresso above creamy blackberry and black cherry fruit that lingers long and effortlessly. Silky tannins hold together the complex structure.

6) Pride Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain Napa-Sonoma Counties 2014, 91, $70- Deep perfume, cassis and chocolate aromas. Velvety and silky texture, balanced with well-water mineral above blackberry, plum and powdery mocha. Firm tannins linger, cutting off the fruit a bit. This needs time but is very elegant.

7) Lancaster Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2014, 91, $75- Deep black plum, blackberry and licorice flavors, showing dark godiva chocolate undertones. A powerful style, with beefy game notes adding complexity as it lingers long with velvety tannins.

8) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 2014, 91, $85- Heavily perfumed with cassis, minty cedar and tobacco leaf. Silky body of blackberry and dark raspberry above creamy vanilla bean and light chocolate notes. Long elegant finish.

9) Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2014, 91, $185- Very old-world in style and structure, with cool climate aromas of wet mineral and loamy earth above the dark red and black currant flavors that linger behind. Restrained and elegant, with cedary herbs and cocoa/ milk chocolate flavors above sandalwood. Rustic, with minerality lingering with dusty tannins.

10) Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Santa Cruz Mountains 2014, 90, $60- Dark berry fruit, dark chocolate aromas show a hint of black olive. Velvety and elegant, with polished blackberry and black cherry above pepper and loamy earth nuances. Smooth oak and chocolate linger long and deeply. Tighly packed, needs time.

CHARDONNAY

I tasted and scored highly more Chardonnays on this trip than ever before. The star of the show was Sterling (below), which is a highly accessible and slightly touristy stop that is a great first time recommendation. I hadn’t visited here since my very first trip back in 2005, but the views from the gondola ride and once on top of the winery are second to none. It’s important to remember what you are here for though, and it isn’t the tour, as efficient and entertaining as it may be. It’s the Reserve Chardonnay, which they won’t be pouring, so you will have to strong arm your way into an invite to the Members’ Only room like we did. (It isn’t as hard as it sounds, in most all of wine country, showing specific interest in a winery offering will get their attention and they will be happy to pour it for you, especially when you are marching around with a clipboard taking notes and your friend is telling everyone who asks that you have 3 million twitter followers).

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1) Sterling Chardonnay Napa Valley Reserve 2012, 93, $55- Honey and floral citrus combine on the nose. Super viscous and waxy texture, with intense golden delcious apple and pear fruit above complex mineral, petrol, balanced hazelnut and almondy spice, and a cream soda note. Long length, very balance and Burgundian in style as it lingers long with a light hint of smoke. An amazing Chardonnay.

2) Lewis Chardonnay Napa Valley Reserve 2015, 93, $75- Floral aromas show pear and smoky oak. Creamy body is focused and expressive, showcasing juicy pear and cinnamon apple flavors above toasty crème brulee spice and hazelnut cream that lingers long with vanilla bean nuances. Lovely balance and layering between fruit and oak influences, finishing like a cinnamon dolce latte.

3) Shafer Chardonnay Napa Valley Red Shoulder Ranch, 92, $52- Tropical fruit aromas of melon, tangerine. Crisp and clean, showing intense orange citrus notes along with tropical pineapple and honey dew melon. High acidity keeps pumping through the long finish, which picks up light toasty spice nuances as it lingers. Waxy texture.

4) Sterling Chardonnay Napa Valley Reserve 2014, 92, $60- Strong buttery oak and stone fruit aromas. Elegant and creamy texture full of poached pear, golden apple and peach flavors, finishing with a blast of crème brulee and toffee spice. Balanced acidity and super creamy, with toasty spice influences lingering. Long, mouth-coating finish.

5) Ram’s Gate Chardonnay Carneros Hyde Vineyard, 92, $68- Floral citrus and smoky earth aromas. Juicy and fruit-driven, with intense lemon curd and green apple flavors that show racy acidity and tartnes. Very subtle oak nuances linger over the long finish.

6) Chalk Hill Chardonnay Chalk Hill Wright Creek, 92, $75- Burgundian in style, with floral lemon zest and understated stone fruit flavors up front before evolving into layers of toasty vanilla bean. Delicate and graceful as it lingers with subtle minerality and clovey spice. Long finish, lively acidity.

7) Ram’s Gate Chardonnay Carneros, 91, $36- Lots of butterscotch and caramel on the nose, showing honey with golden declious apple notes. Clean and pure fruit flavors of lemon and apple show comp,ex earth and mineral notes underneath, lingering long with toasty spice.

8) Chalk Hill Chardonnay Estate Chalk Hill 2014, 91, $42- Rich, butterscotchy aromas show honey and caramel notes. Creamy body of golden apple, pear and lemon show Werther’s toffee and almondy spices that linger long underneath. Picks up a floral edge as it linfers with toasty oak spices.

9) MacRostie Chardonnay Russian River Valley Bacigalupi 2015, 91, $46- Floral and perfumed aromas. Balanced and elegant on the palate, with golden apple between the dominant tropical fruit notes of melon. Understated but well-intertwined oak nuances. Incredibly well-balanced through the long finish.

10) Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay Sonoma Country Reserve, 91, $50- Refreshing, balanced and juicy, showing rich and full-bodied golden apple, pear and lemon flavors above layers of toasty oak and butterscotch underneath. Finishes long with vanilla bean spices lingering.

Failla Chardonnay Napa Valley Hudson Vineyard, 91, $50- Golden body, aromas of toasty oak, mineral and stone fruit. Clean, crisp and flinty, showing a lovely juxtaposition beween its rocky minerality and toasty oak components, showing poached pear and golden apple flavors underneath. Lingers with toasty spice, balanced and elegant.

SYRAH

Syrah is my favorite varietal of all, but I require it in a certain style. I’m not much for the elegant, feminine style of this grape and prefer big, beefy, muscular, leathery and peppery wines. I’ve always been of the opinion that someday this grape will be the king of the Napa region instead of Cabernet. That hasn’t happened yet, but the choices remain spectacular from top producers and for half the price, so who’s complaining? I’d tasted and scored the excellent Lewis Alec’s Blend 2014 a year ago and was lucky enough to taste it again and confirm my notes, which did not change the score and rendered this offering best of all. But for pure experience, it was hard to beat the Michelin Star lunch we had on the 4th of July at Auberge de Soleil (below), which offers the perennially awesome Plumpjack Napa Valley Syrah for $107, which is not even double the retail markup from the winery that lies just south on the Silverado trail below. Still a bit of a splurge, this was well worth it, paired with an expertly prepared Kurobata Pork Chop to complement a meal that was second to none on our trip.

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1) Lewis Alec’s Blend Napa Valley 2014, 95, $70- Explosive aromas of black and purple fruit, toffee and mocha. Complex as can be, with perfumey elegance in its blackberry, licorice and plum flavors above black cherry cola notes. Creamy toffee and mocha flavors combine with smoked meat, leather, minty cedar, clove and earthy hints of tar underneath that add nuance through the seemingly endless finish. Clove and pepper linger long. Remarkably focused and elegant in the feminine style, with silky tannins behind it all.

2) Plumpjack Syrah Napa Valley 2013, 94, $56- Big aromas of purple fruit and smoked meat. Velvety and deep, with bacon fat, smoked game and beef notes alongside leather nuances that hover above dark plum, black licorice and blackberry. Finish lingers long with black pepper spice and mocha.

3) Robert Biale Like Father Like Son Napa Valley 2013, 93, $48- Deep and complex, with blackberry paste, licorice and black plum flavors above intense cracked pepper and allspice nuances. Long finish as spices linger long behind silky tannins. Elegant for its overall power.

4) Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2013, 93, $90- Perfumey black and blue fruits, lightly smoky and peppery on the nose. Velvety and seamless mouthfeel shows great concentration and balance, with blackberry, blueberry and licorice flavors above complex but understated smoked meat, cracked pepper, espresso, leather and cigar box. This lends more towards finesse than power in this vintage, a rarity for this bottling.

5) Lewis Syrah Napa Valley Ethan’s 2014, 92, $45- Perfumed and smoky on the nose. Chewy body of crushed blackberry, black plum and black licorice. Intense tannins coat the mouth through the finish, which gains traction and complexity from its black pepper and dark chocolate notes.

6) Limerick Lane Hail Mary Russian River Valley 2015, 92, $48- Deep leather and smoke above black currant aromas. Thick, powerful and plummy, with dark plum and blackberry above dark chocolate, smoked meat and black pepper. This is exactly what a Syrah should taste like, lingering long with wet leather hints. Big and monsterous yet maintain smoothness and polish.

7) J. Lohr GSM Gesture Paso Robles 2015, 90, $30- Ripe plum and dark berry aromas with a hint of smoky bacon fat. Elegant body combines floral violet notes above layered, juicy plum, wild berry and cherry notes, giving way to creamy caramel, charred meat and black pepper spice underneath. Complex, long finish held together by firm tannins. Needs time.

8) Pride Syrah Sonoma County 2015, 90, $60- Well-water mineral and purple fruit combine on the nose. Velvety texture, with subtle leather and smoke notes above the licorice, black plum, blueberry and cherry flavors. This finishes with black pepper and cocoa bean notes, silky and smooth.

9) Failla Syrah Fort Ross-Seaview 2014, 89, $58- Combines briary herbs and cracked black pepper with perfumey black fruit and caramel. Wet mineral, hot brick and heavy herbal notes of oregao, sage and rosemary dominate the perfumey blackberry underneath. A streak of cracked pepper runs through and lingers through the dry, medium length.

10) Miner Syrah Napa Valley Stagecoach 2011, 88, $50- Aromas is defined by herbaciousness, with green olive and green pepper notes above hints of smoke and game. Cracked pepper, green herbs and smoke on the palate above medium-bodied licorice and plum but the fruit is very understated. Finishes on a dry tannic note.

ZINFANDEL

I think that wine clubs, for the most part, are a scam, but I do belong to just one, and it is one of the best decisions that I have ever made. Seghesio makes Zinfandel at a price point that continues to astonish me, and some of their most coveted offerings are allocated specifically to wine club members at a discount to those price points. You can simply visit the tasting room for the low fee of $15 without appointment too, or just buy a bottle to take to the bocce ball court. When it comes to Zinfandel, there is Seghesio, and there is everyone else, although several in the general vicinity produce spectacular options as well. Zinfandel is unique in America in that it is the only varietal name that you will see printed on a bottle here but nowhere else. While genetically equivalent to Italy’s Primitivo, you won’t see the word “Zinfandel” anywhere else in the world. For that reason, I’ve made it a tradition to enjoy a bottle every year on the 4th of July to honor America, and you should as well. The common misconception with this grape comes from your grandmother’s “White Zinfandels” of the 80s. That is not what we are talking about here. The red Zinfandel grape when properly cultivated in these regions delivers a wine that is ripe, rich and zesty, showing briary earth, cracked pepper and high alcohol. This combination of flavors is perfect for anything off of the grill and is therefore a perfect pairing on the 4th of July.

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1) Seghesio Zinfandel Cortina Dry Creek Valley 2014, 94, $40- Deep purple fruit aromas above hints of chocolate and briar. Elegant body shows dark fruit flavors of plum, blackberry and licorice with underbrush and briary herbs adding complexity. This lingers long with cracked pepper nuances adding distinction and place. This offering may have passed Home Ranch.

2) Seghesio Zinfandel Home Ranch Alexander Valley 2014, 93, $58- Thick, purple, perfumey fruit showing cocoa and spice on the nose. Super polished and silky on the palate, a classic Zin, with explosive blackberry, black cherry and plum notes that lead into black pepper and briar. Long finish, layered and complex.

3) Limerick Lane Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2014, 92, $42- Big, bold and ripe on the nose, showing red currant fruit and baking spice notes. A strong cracked pepper note permeates all the way through this offering. Fleshy and intense on the palate, with dark raspberry, blueberry and plum flavors above finely integrated cinnamon and briary spice notes. Long finish that shows serious character.

4) Martinelli Zinfandel Giuseppe & Luisa Russian River Valley 2015, 92, $58- Thick, juicy and ripe purple fruit flavors of black plum, blueberry and licoice, carrying undertones of briary spice and cracked peper. This is rich, intense and powerful, with long finish that pumps with peppery spices.

5) Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandel Heritage Vines Sonoma County 2015, 91, $22- Huge, intense and crackling, with tons of briary spice above its dark raspberry, blackberry and licorice flavors. Long, spicy finish with vanilla and mocha oak influences lingering in the background. Might be the best deal in town, an astounding value.

6) Girard Zinfandel Old Vine Napa Valley 2014, 91, $25- Juicy and generous, packed with intense blackberry, black cherry and plum paste flavors. Black pepper spice and briar add complexity as this lingers long, gaining a licorice hint through the finish that the carries the body and pulls it all together.

7) Seghesio Zinfandel Todd Brothers Alexander Valley 2015, 91, $48- A distinctive mix of ripe black fruit and woody characteristics, with crushed blackberry jam and dark fruit flavors that mingle with crackling briar, cedar and black pepper spice. This finishes on a powdery chocolate note as spice lingers long. Fantastic offering in its first vintage.

8) Limerick Lane Zinfandel Rocky Knoll Russian River Valley 2014, 91, $58- Dark berry fruit is ripe and roughly hewn on the nose, showing rocky minerality and peppery spice. Thick, muscular and ripe, with blackberry fruit behind a distinct black pepper note and wet slate undertones. Crushed grape skin adds dryness through the long but tannic finish.

9) Ridge Zinfandel East Bench Dry Creek Valley 2015, 90, $32- Plump and plummy, with notes of cinnamon on the nose. Medium-bodied and spicy, with red plum, cherry and raspberry pie flavors running over white pepper spice notes. Medium length, dry tannins add grip.

10) Kunde Zinfandel Old Vines Century Reserve Sonoma Valley 2014, 90, $50- Smells like Christmas, with evergreen, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove spices streaking through a medium body of dried berry and cherry fruit. Medium length, with exotic Asian spices lingering.

PINOT NOIR

The rise of the quality of wines at Arista in recent years has been nothing short of transcendent, and they now have a top notch arsenal of offerings to accompany their gorgeous views and picnic grounds (below). No longer open without appointment but by no means pretentious, their rise can be attributed to the acquisition of winemaker Matt Courtney, which just so happens to also be the first name of your author and his Sidekick, so that’s pretty neat, to say the least of being easy to remember. The cost to taste here has risen but so has the quality of the wines and the service, and that’s what it is all about. For an off-the-beaten path experience in Napa to switch the palate away from the Cabernet for a bit, I can’t recommend Failla highly enough, as the seated tasting takes place on a rustic living room couch, and the delicious wines keep coming.

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1) Arista Pinot Noir Monomi Vineyard Russian River Valley 2015, 93, $75- Complex aromas of floral rose, smoked cured meats and crushed wild berry fruit. Velvety and intense, showing richness from its perfumed fruit notes and nuance from its milk chocolate and smoke undertones. Chewy tannins add grip. Impeccably balanced.

2) Arista Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2014, 92, $54- Toasty oak, blackberry and lifted potpourri on the nose. Silky texture shows complex layers of perfumey blackberry, plum, blueberry and licorice above creamy oak and exotic baking spice. This is complex and structured, with vibrant acidity keeping the fruit pumping, lingering with wet tobacco spice. Finish is pulled together by with refined but powerful tannins.

3) Failla Pinot Noir Singler Vineyard Russian River Valley 2014, 92, $58- Baked plum and cherry pie aromas. Velvety and polished, with plum and licorice nuances above intense cinnamon, nutmeg and clove spice. This is balanced, elegant and focused, showing layered and concentrated flavors as it lingers with a long, silky finish.

4) Failla Pinot Noir Keefer Ranch Russian River Valley 2015, 91, $45- Dark hued ruby body with bright red currant fruits on the nose. Soft and silky, with dark raspberry and black cherry flavors above floral rose and white pepper spice notes. A hint of white chocolate creeps in as the finish lingers long and seamlessly. Exotic spices linger as well.

5) Martinelli Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2014, 91, $45- Huge, juicy flavors of wild raspberry and black cherry combine with floral watermelon accents and a huge streak of white pepper spice that mingle together through the long, zesty finish.

6) Arista Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2015, 91, $54- Aromas of dark berry fruit, raisin, plum and white chocolate. Bright and expressive cherry and dark raspberry above a backbone of grilled herbs that adds complexiy through the long finish. Fine-grained tannins add structure and balance.

7) Ram’s Gate Pinot Noir Gap’s Crown Sonoma Coast 2013, 91, $70- Big aromas of strawberry and raspberry. Plush mouthfeel of intense red berry fruit flavors, leading into plum pie and blackberry above subtle tobacco spice notes. Perfumed and ripe, juicy fruit is the story here through the long finish.

8) Failla Pinot Noir Lola Sonoma Coast 2014, 90, $48- Ultra ripe and juicy on the nose, showing floral aromas of violet and lilac. Juicy body of crushed red berry fruit- strawberry, wild berry, cranebrry- is backed by smoky tobacco and allspice notes. Picks up a red licorice nuance through the medium length.

9) MacRostie Pinot Noir Wildcat Mountain Sonoma Coast 2014, 90, $56- Elegant black cherry, crushed red berry and cracked pepper/ mushroom aromas. Silky body of peppery crushed berry and cherry fruit are all in balance as brambly spice lingers. Cracked pepper notes are very distinct.

10) MacRostie Pinot Noir Manzana Vineyard Russian River Valley 2015, 89, $56- Rich and perfumey aromas of black fruit, subtle brown sugar and olive. Red plum and black cherry flavors expand into caramel and brown sugar. Slight hint of cardboard adds a flabby edge but exotic spices keep pumping and recover.

MERLOT

Blame it on Sideways talking shit about this varietal over a decade ago if you want, but for some reason, they just don’t pour Merlot very much in NoCal wine country these days. The small sample size makes it hard to give a full report, but the best offerings still forgo the ripe, jammy fruit for deeper, earth driven flavors of cedar and mocha that mingle with darker currant and berry fruit. Ridge was the top performer here in somewhat of a surprise. But at the top of Spring Mountain Road, the cave tour and tasting at Pride (below) is still one of my highest recommendations, and the unique terroir that the appellation delivers consistently is still the best in America short of Washington State. The tour and tasting at Pride is also one of the best deals in the area at $20, and offers picnic grounds overlooking the mountains as well.

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1) Ridge Merlot Santa Cruz Mountains 2014, 91, $50- Perfumey cassis and chocolate on the nose with hints of cedar and oak. Complex and Bordeaux-like, with balanced earth and fruit flavors of dark plum and blackberry above wet limestone, musky cedar and cocoa powder. Velvety tannins carry through the finish, a cool climate style reminiscent of a St. Emilion.

2) Pride Merlot Napa-Sonoma Counties 2014, 91, $60- Dusty berry aromas, notes of brown sugar spice, cedar and forest floor. Juicy plum and blackberry fruit show a creamy cassis nuance that gives way to dark chocolate and forest floor/ wet cedar notes. A touch of loamy earth lingers on the long finish, a distinctive Spring Mountain offering.

3) Lewis Merlot Napa Valley 2014, 91, $80- Cedary and perfumey on the nose, showing hints of mocha and oak. Juicy and ripe fruit body of black cherry, dark plum and pomegranate glides over a fleshy texture, showing spicy cedar and creamy mocha bean notes underneath. Firm tannic grip.

4) Sterling Merlot Napa Valley 2014, 89, $28- Perfumey aromas of cassis and powdery cocoa. Rich body of blackberry and plum fruit, gaining complexity underneath from its caramel and cocoa nuances. Finish lingers long with a hint of herbal spice. Dry tannins add grip.

5) Shafer Merlot Napa Valley 2014, 87, $55- Black currant and vanilla on the nose. Medium-bodied, with dried berry flavors above sage and cedar herbs, gaining toast and mocha notes. Very tannic, dry and earthy through the medium length.

SAUVIGNON BLANC

The great thing about going to this part of the world in July is that you know what you are going to get. The bad part about that is that without fail, you will get days in the high 90s on the regular, but what is a better wine for that kind of weather than Sauvignon Blanc? It seems nearly every winery in Napa or Sonoma makes one now and usually leads its tasting flight with this wine. The best examples show less grass and grapefruit these days, instead exhibiting more juicy tropical fruit and melon flavors that aren’t cloying or sour. Quivira (below) is just over the Lambert Bridge on West Dry Creek Road and makes the best one of these we tasted this trip as well as the best Rose in the area year after year, so this is the perfect stop for a hot day. It’s family friendly, offering picnic tables and even a petting zoo for the kids.

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1) Quivira Sauvignon Blanc Fig Tree Dry Creek Valley 2015, 90, $24- Very refined and polished, with citrusy lemon drop, pineapple and honey dew flavors. Impressively floral and minerally with a fig note running throughout. Little to no tartness as the finish lingers softly and effortlessly.

2) Lewis Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2016, 90, $38- Lifted floral aromas show tropical fruit and melon on the nose. Fruit-driven, with mango, canteloupe and honey dew flavors above lime and lemon accents, lingering with a hint of toasty spice. Creamy and persistent.

3) Chalk Hill Sauvignon Blanc Chalk Hill 2015, 88, $22- Tropical fruit aromas of grapefruit and guava. Crisp and refreshing, toasty spice nuances running through the juicy melon and stone fruit flavors, lingering with a bit of well-water mineral. Medium length.

4) Sterling Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2016, 87, $16- Tropical grapefruit fruit aromas, grassy on the nose. Vivid fruit flavors balanced between tropical melon and acidic grapefruit/ kiwi. Hints of lemon creep in late with white chocolate undertones. This is very soft and smooth.

5) Lancaster Sauvignon Blanc Alexander Valley Samantha’s 2015, 87, $30- Spicy and intense on the nose, with toasty vanilla and citrusy tropical honey dew and peach flavors. Balanced acidity through the medium length. Refreshing with subtle minerality lingering.

Until next year my friends!!!

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California Wine Country Recap

June 20, 2014

I’ve spent a lot of time in California’s wine country in the month of July in the past few years. Over time, I’ve visited in the fall months of September, October and November as well, but before my most recent trip, I had never visited in the spring. During my five day tasting tour of Napa Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Forestville and Anderson Valley, I experienced unseasonably warm weather in mid-May. With temperatures in the 90s, it felt very similar to my recent July trips, if not hotter than some, but there was something different- a strong, undeniable floral aroma that carried through the breeze.

After enduring a severe winter drought that dried up reservoirs across the region, such hot weather so early in the growing season could pose challenges, but vinters in the area showed no signs of panic. Some early spring rains came just before budbreak, staving off potentially catastrophic irrigation dilemmas, and while 95 degrees in the valley in the middle of May is unseasonably warm and there are recent rumors of the onset of veraison even before the summer equinox, there’s still a lot of weather ahead.

Tasting through more of the elegant 2009 vintage, the dramatically acclaimed 2010 vintage, and the cool, more difficult 2011 vintage, one theme stood out for me on this trip. It became apparent that the string of good vintages that the region had enjoyed spanning 2004-2010 benefited those who sought to capitalize on the land itself. While far from ideal, the challenging 2011 vintage really proves to separate the true winemakers from those that are merely wealthy winery owners, as the best among the crafters made fantastic, nuanced, character-driven wines in 2011. While it is a year where buyers should choose carefully, it is also a year that could prove to be a great separator between vinters.

Over five days of constant wine tasting, which I determined once and for all, is pretty much my limit, I tried roughly 125 wines and visited over 20 different wineries. While I won’t dedicate this recap to covering them all, I wanted to focus on each region I visited, and upon the winery that I felt stood out above the rest for each unique appellation, both in terms of wine quality and visitor experience.

Day One- FORESTVILLE

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When it comes to pure dedication and focus, the folks in the tasting facility here would have you believe that there are few in California, if not the world, on the level of Paul Hobbs in terms of winemaking. This lovely tasting takes place seated on comfortable couches in a group setting and overlooks the vineyards, while the highly wine-educated staff take you through a tasting of five wines for $45, while also giving you some historical background on Paul Hobbs’ journey through his love of wine, his meticulous nature, and his rise to superstardom in winemaking.

Hobbs specializes in a variety of grapes, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, and grows them all over the map, with vineyards here at the winery site in the Western Sonoma town of Sebastopol (above) as well as outsourced grapes from Russian River Valley, Carneros and highly sought after single vineyards in Napa such as To Kalon and Stagecoach. Hobbs is an example of a winemaker who was able to make lemonade out of lemons in 2011, as richness shows all the way through the Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2011 (91 Points), which bursts with vibrant fruit and toffee notes, to the deep, almost brooding Cabernet Sauvingnon Napa Valley (92 Points).  Even the Pinot Noir Russian River Valley (91 Points) balances the rugged vintage characteristics with dark wild berry notes behind its earthy mushroom and tobacco notes.

We took the latter wine into the barrel room (below) to take a look at what the future holds. It was most re-assuring the taste one of his famous single vineyard wines after returning to the tasting couch, the Cabernet Sauvignon Dr. Crane 2010 (93 Points). As mentioned above, the greatest winemakers can turn a difficult vintage into something truly special and character driven, but if this is the case, imagine what they do in ideal vintages? This wine, with its super-extracted black currant fruit that combines with cocoa over a silky texture, is evidence of this.

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Day Two- ANDERSON VALLEY

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GOLDENEYE: While traveling through the wineries of the Anderson Valley, which for the most part cover the towns of Navarro and Philo, it made me long for the days of a decade ago in the now comparatively pretentious Napa Valley, the days where my notepad alone was enough to have a tasting fee waived. While I am more than happy to pay for any wine that I taste, it was refreshing to visit an area that pours its wine to sell it, and to spread its own good name above all else.

I visited four wineries on my trip through this somewhat isolated and heavily pine-tree laden region, and none of them charged me a fee. This is Pinot Noir country, and there was no question that I would be planning my day around Goldeneye Winery, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the friendly, personalized service I received here, with a lovely fountain and vineyard backdrop to complement. My host Doug greeted me and was as congenial a man as you’ll meet, which seems par for the course in this neck of the woods. I received a flight of five Pinots here (below), including three single vineyards, and was offered all of the re-tastes that I wanted. The Gowan Creek Vineyard 2010 (94 Points) earned the highest rating of all the Pinots I tried this trip, mostly on the strength of its weightless, integrated texture that combines with juicy fruit and earthy spice. The Confluence Vineyard 2010 (92 Points) and The Narrows Vineyard 2010 (91 Points) demonstrated contrasting, well-executed styles, with the former showing more juicy fruit notes and the latter more herbacious, piney and earth driven. The Gowan Creek seemed to be a beautiful combination of both styles.

So as I sat and sipped and scribbled notes, Doug would come to check on me and engage me in enjoyable conversation. All the while the fountain splashed, the sun beat down on the vines and the grapes began to ripen. I could have stayed here forever and will certainly visit again.

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Day Three- DRY CREEK VALLEY

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SBRAGIA: I’ve driven many wine roads in California in my day, from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles, all the way up to Calistoga, Sonoma, Forestville and Mendocino, and everything in between. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as stunning, lush and concentrated as the Dry Creek Valley Road just north of Healdsburg (above). It has become a mandatory stop on every tasting trip even if only for the drive alone, which incidentally is best done after the lunch hour as the sun beats down and reflects upon the sea of green vines. At the very end of this road, I almost always find myself at Sbragia, with the anticipation of the lovely drive back south always to look forward to after my tasting.

Ed Sbragia was winemaker at Beringer for years, and that establishment needs no introduction, being only one of two wineries in Napa to have ever won Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year award twice, and the only one to earn that honor with two different varietals (Caymus is the other, both with Cabernet). Sbragia excels with everything that he does, but really brings a special touch to his Chardonnay. He is certainly not one to be shy of the oak, and prefers wines of a rich, creamy style, but finds remarkable balance and does not sacrifice the fruit. The Gamble Ranch Chardonnay 2009 (94 Points) is perhaps the finest American Chardonnay I have ever tasted, with Burgundian aromas that offer earthy petrol and mineral nuances, with a rich, oily, stone fruit-driven texture that is almost like a Sauternes. I tasted this alongside three other Chardonnays in an impressively orchestrated vertical tasting (below).

This brings me to my two keys for getting the most out of your tasting experiences in California wine country. First and foremost, email ahead of time and express your interest in visiting the winery, even at a facility like Sbragia that allows walk-ins and where you don’t need reservations. By specifying your interest in particular wines, the staff will realize that you are truly interested and will be willing to offer selections accordingly in many cases. Secondly, if an outdoor seated tasting is available, take advantage of it. I’ve grown incredibly weary of bellying up to tasting bars when the beauty of the vineyards is right outside to be enjoyed. Sbragia in particular offers one of the very best outdoor enviroments in the whole area, and since its laid back tasting room offers wines by the glass or by the bottle, this is a great stop to relax with a group even if you aren’t in the mood for a serious tasting flight. Not surprisingly, I was in the mood to taste quite a few, and my wonderful host Matt had pre-arranged an outdoor seating for me, with a lineup of four Chardonnays (below) and three Cabernets that I had requested ahead of time. It was an incredible experience. Sometimes all you have to do is ask.

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Day Four- NAPA VALLEY (Silverado Trail)

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SHAFER: Shafer’s Relentless is an expressive, perennially powerful Syrah-based blend and was one of the first bottles that resulted in my full blown affliction with the wine bug. I’ve tasted every vintage since 2004, visited the winery for the first time in 2009, and I was ecstatic when the 2008 bottling was awarded the coveted Wine Spectator Wine of the Year award, albeit with mixed feelings. I was so very happy for a wine that had earned such cult status in my individual tasting regimen to receive such a high accolade, but at the same time lamented what the results of such widespread recognition would have upon my own selfish considerations, namely, availability and price. Indeed, the Relentless bottling is much more difficult to locate than it once was, and the price has risen slightly. After a five year hiatus, it was time for another visit to the winery (above).

Doug Shafer, President of the winery (below), wrote the fascinating book “A Vineyard In Napa” in 2010, which describes all of the risks, trials and tribulations that the family dealt with when they moved here on a whim from Chicago in the early 70s. Little did they know way back then, nor did they know that just after the book was published, that the Relentless would receive such an honor. Shafter takes its tasting experience very seriously and reservations are very difficult to come by inside of a month ahead of time, and having planned this trip somewhat quickly, I really had to scramble for one of the last available spots. The informative seated tasting offers a wide open view of the surrounding vineyard accompanied by five large pours of current release wine for a prepaid $55 fee, but to me, although pricey, this is still one of the very best experiences in the area. The highlight of the show is always the Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select, and the 2009 (95 Points) is no exception, demonstrating depth and elegance beneath its black currant, cocoa, cedar and atypical smoked meat notes. The grapes for this terroir-driven wine are carefully selected from the steep single vineyard located on site, and is a special offering. There aren’t too many tasting rooms in Napa that pour their $250 Reserve Cabernet to the public, and perhaps the most refreshing thing about Shafer’s tasting is that unlike so many wineries in the area, they aren’t afraid to pour you their very best stuff for the price you’re paying. To the contrary, they will pour you the very best of what they have available.

As if any more confirmation of the consistency of the Relentless was necessary at this point, I found the monstrous, masculine 2010 (95 Points) to be on par with the Hillside Select in terms of quality, and at less than a third of the price, it still represents significant value in the area if you can get your hands on it at your local wine store. And if you can’t, it’s comforting to know that you can always head straight to the source, provided you are willing to prioritize this stop first and foremost. You’ll also get to taste the current releases of the One Point Five Cabernet, Merlot and Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay, as well as a rare Chocolate Port at the conclusion. Some things in life are worth the splurge, and this remains the case in the Shafer tasting room.

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Day Five- NAPA VALLEY (St. Helena)

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BEHRENS: A drive up Spring Mountain Road is, to me, a mandatory piece of any tasting itinerary while visiting the Napa Valley. There are so many unique producers pouring wines on this winding, moderately treacherous road due west of Highway 29, and they all offer views that are second to none. I’ve made many visits to Pride, I’ve had the pleasure to visit Barbara at Paloma, and have stopped in at Schweiger, Sherwin Family and Charbay. However, until this trip, I’d never made the drive to the very far end of the road, where an air-conditioned trailer (above) and a straight-shooting, wine-loving tasting hostess await, offering exquisite wines and unparalleled views.

Les Behrens doesn’t own any vineyards, but he is a winemaker who executes low-production wines by purchasing grapes with careful precision, and the results are bottles that demonstrate remarkable character, balanced with earth-driven elements over a seamless texture–the most consistently soft, silky and structured tannin composition of any winery I visited on this trip. The Behrens production is wide and varied, but focuses primarily on Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. The incredibly unique tasting experience takes place in a trailer offering views from the very top of Spring Mountain, covers about eight different wines for a $40 fee (waived with a two bottle purchase), conducted by Robin Cooper, a true wine-lover who has a collection herself of some 6000 bottles. Robin’s passion for the Behrens wine is evident, and I was most impressed by her willingness to discuss her appreciation of many other winemakers in the area. She truly exhudes an attitude of collective success for the whole region, which has become a bit of a rarity in this particular, highly competitive appellation. Behrens sells out of nearly all of their wines, so they have no incentive to badmouth other wineries, but her honest appraisal of the surrounding vinters was certainly a breath of fresh air.

The Behrens wines have so much personality, and this is evident before tasting them even by the way they are bottled. The leathery, earth-driven Sainte Fumee 2011 (93 Points) comes in a stout, port-shaped bottle, and shows off circus-like artwork as so many of these bottles do, while the unique Cabernet Sauvignon Thanksgiving 2011 (95 Points) attempts to suggest an immediate pairing by its name, and appropriately so– that was the best Cabernet I tasted over this entire trip, with its intense earth aromas reminiscent of a Bordeaux that combine with deep, dark fruit notes. Like they say in marketing, half of the battle is getting the customer to see the bottle in the first place, although none of these bottles will make it to your local wine store anyway, so I digress. Still, the entire concept implements a perfect balance between having fun with the wines and simulatenously taking them incredibly seriously, and this balance carries over to the structure of the wines themselves. Best to go to the source.

CABERNET SAUVIGNON AND BLENDS

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1) Behrens Cabernet Sauvignon Thanksgiving Napa Valley 2011, 95 Points, $115-  Bordeaux-like aromas, with iron mineral, leather and cigar box above crushed berry fruit notes. Impossibly polished and seamless, with intense, powdery mocha, layers of blackberry and deep plum above terroir-driven, expressive earth elements of tobacco, fresh leather and road tar. Long finish with refined tannins adding grip. This is all about texture.

2) Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select Napa Valley 2009, 95 Points, $250- Lovely aromas of cassis and minty cedar. Velvety body of blackberry and black cherry show complex notes of wet petrol mineral and smoked meat underneath. Atypical for the varietal, as elements of cedary spice and cocoa creep in and engage the back of the palate. Phenomenal texture, with the slightest hint of dry tannin creeping in late as structured dark fruit and mineral linger for minutes.

3) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Oakville 2010, 94 Points, $80- Big aromas of plummy cassis, chocolate, toast and cedar. A real mouthful, with dark plum, black cherry and blackberry exploding above creamy vanilla, toffee and milk chocolate undertones, with complex hints of sweet tobacco creeping in late. Impeccable texture and balance through the long finish.

4) Behrens Cabernet Sauvignon Crowley Vineyard 2010, 94 Points, $85- Huge, rich crushed blackberry jam aromas with hints of cedar and pine underneath. A juicy, gutsy style, with tons of blackberry fruit that is incredibly lush and layered, with earthy tobacco spice notes that pick up leather in a stunning shift underneath. Utterly packed, with an impeccable texture through the long finish, which shows velvety tannins.

5) Hestan Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2010, 94 Points, $110- Rich aromas of black fruit, dark chocolate and cedar. Polished, dark and aggressive body of black licorice, blackberry and mocha bean that show cedary undertones. Dark chocolate creeps in late. A monstrous, masculine wine, still showing huge tannins on the finish, but the texture is silky and the flavors are pure and focused. Needs to soften, but this is packed and powerful.

6) Meyer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2009, 93 Points, $48- Rich, perfumed cassis and chocolate aromas. Lush texture of blackberry, black plum and black cherry above hints of chocolate as tobacco and cigar box notes creep in late. The finish is all dark, polished fruit though, as it lingers.

7) Sbragia Cabernet Sauvignon Rancho Del Oso Howell Mountain Napa Valley 2009, 93 Points, $75- Piney, wet forest floor aromas. Lush and velvety, with perfumey black currant fruits above subtle chocolate notes, stony minerality and cedary spice that lingers for minutes. Textured and detailed, with silky tannins adding structure.

8) Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley 2011, 93 Points, $135- Aromas of black currant, cigar box and mocha powder. Seamless and dark, with brooding blackberry, black licorice and Godiva dark chocolate notes above mocha powder and undertones of tobacco spice. Silky, refined tannins add depth and structure. Long finish with spicy tobacco and chocolate lingering for minutes. Well done in a tough year.

9) Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon Dr. Crane Napa Valley 2010, 93 Points, $175- Gorgeous on the nose, with perfumed black currants and subtle cocoa. Seamless, silky body with super-dark and refined blackberry and black cherry that tastes thick but feels light. Super-extracted and dark, with a long, refined finish that goes on and on, gaining traction from its silky tannins. Thick and chewy finish.

10) St. Clement Oroppas Napa Valley 2011, 92 Points, $55- Marked by its black cherry cola and cedary underbrush aromas. Ultraripe on the palate, with a focused core of juicy crushed blueberry and blackberry cassis notes along with black cherry that are layered impressively above mocha, dark chocolate, cedar and oak notes. This lingers long with some exotic baking spices adding intrigue, a strong effort in a tough vintage. Shows elegance and dimension in its youth.

11) Behrens The Heavyweight Napa Valley 2010, 92 Points, $75- Rich black cherry, wild raspberry and hints of black olive on the nose. Silky texture unfolds with detailed, balanced red currant fruits, complex undertones of cigar box, leather, sage and herbs, with a faint hint of petrol earth. Distinct and weightless, showing silky tannins and a complex, earth-driven length.

12) St. Clement Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder Paras Vineyard Napa Valley 2010, 92 Points, $80- Huge nose of cocoa powder, black olive and black currant. Very terroir-driven and earthy, with chocolate and olive elements above dark plum and black licorice running over a smooth, silky texture. Refined, silky tannins add structure through the long finish.

13) Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2011, 92 Points, $90- Classic varietal profile, with black olive and cocoa powder above black currants. Dark black fruit flavors of plum and licorice combine over dark chocolate and black olive earth, all over a silky texture. A big, masculine wine, showing depth through the long finish.

14) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap 2011, 92 Points, $100- Big, rich nose of black cherry, coffee and cedar. Silky texture shows dark cherry and blackberry fruit notes, evolving into sweet vanilla and mocha/espresso notes and burnt toast nuances, finishing with a grip and lingering long, showing fresh minty notes. Very well done in a tough vintage.

15) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2011, 91 Points, $50- Toasty graham cracker and cinnamon spice aromas shade blackberry and black cherry. Juicy, complex body of black currants and melted licorice show cool vintage characteristics of wet forest floor and briary spice with undertones of clove and tobacco lingering. Dry tannic grip, and needs to soften, but there’s lots going on here.

 ZINFANDEL

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1) Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel Sonoma County 2011, 92 Points, $38- Toasty on the nose, with dark berry and black cherry fruit aromas. Super-dark and elegant on the palate, with rich chocolate-covered black cherry notes that wrap around spicy pepper and vanilla bean through the long finish. Surprising darkness, as earth and spice elements power down the fruit, somewhat atypical and unique from old vines.

2) Hartford Family Old Vine Zinfandel Dina’s Vineyard Russian River Valley 2011, 92 Points, $55- Enticing aromas combine dark fruit with exotic spice. Full, supple and spicy body, with intense wild berry, dark raspberry and black cherry fruit flavors above spicy white pepper, herbs and fennel which cleanse the back of the palate. Very layered and detailed through the long, spicy finish.

3) Hartford Family Old Vine Zinfandel Fannuchi-Wood Russian River Valley 2011, 92 Points, $55- Massive aromas of raspberry pie, briar and dark red currant. Bursting on the palate with its juicy, concentrated raspberry and boysenberry fruit, shwoing darker notes of blackberry and blueberry that are understated but add a purple element. Smooth finish carries a savory underbrush note and a hint of chalky mineral that gets out of the way quickly as the fruit and briary spice lingers long.

4) Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County 2012, 91 Points, $24- Lively cherry and rich raspberry pie aromas lead into darker flavors of blackberry and black licorice, with undertones of exotic spice, cracked pepper, briar and vanilla bean. Long and substantial, for fans of the juicy and hot style, but shows a polished texture.

5) Girard Zinfandel Old Vine Napa Valley 2012, 91 Points, $24- Spiced red plum and cherry aromas show a hint of cinnamon. Juicy, ripe and spicy, with cherry and plum pie flavors understated by white pepper and cinnamon spice. Most impressive for its texture, which is silky and polished without the slightest hint of dryness. A classic spicy old vine fruit bomb, for fans of the style.

6) Mauritson Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2012, 90 Points, $29- Black cherry and a hint of toasty oak in the nose. Vibrant acidity showcases bright cranapple, raspberry and cherry flavors that gain traction from toasty spice and understated white pepper notes, which linger nicely on the finish with firm tannins. A lovely, blended example of the surrounding single vineyards.

7) Ridge Zinfandel Paso Robles 2012, 90 Points, $30- Juicy aromas of cherry and wild raspberry. Seamless texture with a pure, focused fruit beam of bing cherry, wild berry and blueberry above a strong cracked pepper note through the long finish. Refined tannins add structure.

8) Seghesio Zinfandel Cortina Dry Creek Valley 2011, 90 Points, $38- Aromas of briary dried raspberry and toasty oak. Zesty and balanced with its dark raspberry and black cherry fruit, gaining depth from savory herbal underbrush nuances and a toffee note through the finish.

9) Mauritson Zinfandel Rockpile Ridge Rockpile 2012, 90 Points, $39- Briary and peppery on the nose, with dark raspberry, toasty spices and a trace of stone mineral. Cracked black pepper runs through the juicy raspberry and cherry fruit, finishing with crushed rock undertones. Firm tannins add medium grip through the long length, which extends the fruit and spice components.

10) Mauritson Zinfandel Westphall Ridge Rockpile 2012, 90 Points, $40- Warm, toasty aromas of dark berry and mocha bean. Complex body, with forest floor, savory herbs and mocha spices above dark red currant fruit notes and dill creeping in through the long finish. Plush texture needs time to soften on the back of the palate, as firm tannins dry out the length a bit, but this shows potential and complexity.

CHARDONNAY

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1) Sbragia Chardonnay Gamble Ranch Napa Valley 2010, 94 Points, $40- A Burgundian nose, with stony mineral bracing squeezed lemon notes. Impeccable texture, with a Sauternes-like depth, complete with honey, apricot and peach above hints of petrol and wet stone. Understated oaky spice pulls it all together and adds complexity. A massive, courageous Chardonnay, one of the greatest terroir-driven American Chards I’ve ever tasted.

2) Beringer Chardonnay Private Reserve Napa Valley 2012, 92 Points, $44- Inviting aromas of pear, guava, melon, green apple and toasty vanilla bean. All in perfect balance with its toasted oak nuances not overpowering expressive tropical fruits, with juicy pineapple, pear suace, honey dew and canteloupe melon. An essay in balance, with toasty spice lingering long with the fruit.

3) Sbragia Chardonnay Home Ranch Dry Creek Road 2009, 91 Points, $26- Rich and buttery aromas, full of honey, apricot and stone fruit. Creamy body shows golden delicious apple, peach and dried apricot, with a streak of butterscotch, toffee and beeswax running all the way through. Brown sugar spice lingers with the fruit through the long, soft finish.

4) Sbragia Chardonnay Home Ranch Dry Creek Road 2012, 91 Points, $28- Lifted floral citrus notes of lemon and grapefruit on the nose. Seamless and weightless on the palate, with creamy but understated oak influences above effortless lemon custard, tangy grapefruit and a luscious crème brulee aftertaste that lingers long.

5) Paul Hobbs Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2011, 91 Points, $47- Butterscotch and golden citrus aromas. Vibrant and refreshing on the palate, with golden delicious apple laced with toffee and brown sugar spice. All in finesse, with deft balance between its acidity and oak influences, with neither getting in the way of the fruit. No tartness, as golden citrus and toffee spice lingers through the long finish.

6) Shafer Chardonnay Red Shoulder Ranch Napa Valley Carneros 2012, 91 Points, $50- Meyer lemon and tropical fruit aromas, with very subtle shades of oak. Crisp and clean, with lively green apple, pineapple, and lemon fruit that is juicy and acidic. Maintains balance from its very subtle oak influences underneath, but citrus really shines here through the long, polished finish.

7) Lewis Chardonnay Barcaglia Lane Russian River Valley 2012, 91 Points, $75- Big, butterscotchy oak aromas shade citrus notes of bartlett pear. Lovely, creamy texture, with juicy tropical fruit flavors of peach and canteloupe melon along with the pear up front that shift into a rich, toasty underbelly of toffee and vanilla bean spice. Lingers long with a beeswax nuance and vibrant acidity. Long finish, very layered and balanced.

8) Ridge Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains Estate 2012, 90 Points, $30- Lemon meringue pie aromas show hints of butterscotch and floral nuance. Creamy body of lemon, golden apple and pear citrus, laced nicely with almondy spice. Clean and crisp through the long finish.

9) Laird Chardonnay Red Hen Ranch Napa Valley 2012, 90 Points, $30- Crisp and clean throughout, with a focused beam of peach, canteloupe and toasted pear. Lingers with spicy but subdued oak notes. Very finessed, showing vibrant acidity and balanced oak undertones. Elegant all the way through, lingering with a floral note.

10) Hartford Court Chardonnay Four Hearts Vineyard 2012, 90 Points, $45- Rich and buttery aromas, with traces of orange blossom and stone citrus. Smooth, creamy body of golden delicious apple and orange peel spice, balanced impressively with vanilla bean and hazelnut spice. Shows juicy acidity balanced by toasty undertones through the long finish.

PINOT NOIR

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1) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Gowan Creek Vineyard Anderson Valley 2010, 94 Points, $80- Fresh forest floor aromas combine with deep plum and black currants. Remarkable texture, with perfumey plum, boysenberry, wild berry fruit that dance on the palate, showing undertones of white chocolate, exotic spices and wet cedar, pine cone and understated tobacco through the long finish. Detailed and engaging, with lovely floral lilac and lavender notes lingering with the fruit and soft, refined tannins pulling it all together.

2) Seghesio Pinot Noir Costeira Russian River Valley 2009, 93 Points, $42- Gamey aromas of smoked meat, with mushroom nuances above red currant fruit notes. Delicate mouthfeel of floral black cherry, strawberry and rose petal above white pepper spice, smoke, tobacco and earthy mushroom through the long finish. Remarkable texture, complexity and elegance.

3) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Confluence Vineyard 2010, 92 Points, $80- Jammy raspberry aromas show hints of earthy mushroom. Weightless on the palate, with lovely floral violet nuances giving way to rich plum, blueberry and raspberry fruit notes that sit above creamy, toasty vanilla bean spice and understated mushroom and tobacco earth. Complex, layered and delicate through the long finish, which lingers with silky tannins holding it all together.

4) Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2011, 91 Points, $50- Svelte and ripe, with complex mushroom and tobacco spice aromas. This starts silky on the palate with earthy mushroom up front, then gains steadily riper berry fruit notes of black cherry and dark, wild raspberry. This is impressive for its evolution and layering in a tough vintage.

5) Goldeneye Pinot Noir The Narrows 2010, 91 Points, $80- Tons of fresh pine cone and herbaciousness on the nose. A distinctly herbal offering, with pine and cedar influences above vivid raspberry and blueberry notes, gaining toffee and charred oak elements over an even texture. Lingers long with toasty herbal spices and a mocha note, showing a hint of off-balance tartness and dry tannins, but impressively structured.

6) FEL Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2012, 90 Points, $40- Big, inviting nose of perfumey red currants backed with toasty oak and herb nuances. Rich plum and red cherry fruit flavors combine on the palate above herbal undertones and burnt toast. Bursting with fruit and savory spice through the long finish.

7) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2011, 90 Points, $55- Aromatic with its dried berry and floral notes, showing a hint of smoke on the nose. Silky and elegant, with raspberry and black cherry fruit notes above subtle sweet tobacco spice underneath. Graceful and polished through the long finish, as dry tannins add grip.

8) Breggo Pinot Noir Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley 2011, 90 Points, $55- Campfire smoke and black cherry aromas. A darker style, with black cherry and licorice fruit above black coffee, smoke and charred oak notes. Lingers with a savory edge, as cedar, sage, cracked pepper and crushed rock elements creep in late. Complex and well-executed in a tough vintage.

9) Hartford Court Pinot Noir Far Coast Sonoma Coast 2010, 90 Points, $70- Elegant nose of rose petal and red currant fruits. Delicate mouthfeel shows deep, expressive red plum, raspberry and boysenberry above complex rose and violet floral nuances that deepen into subtle tobacco spice and chalky mineral that linger with grainy tannins.

10) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Migration Russian River Valley 2012, 89 Points, $35- Elegant on the nose with its lifted, perfumed red currant fruit notes. Juicy wild berry fruit intertwines with white pepper spice, hints of cigar box and wet mineral. Silky texture with refined tannins through the long finish.

SYRAH, PETITE SIRAH AND MERLOT

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1) Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2010, 95 Points, $75- Complex as always on the nose, with fresh mint, smoke and leather above wild berry and dark currant aromas. Deep, rich and explosive with its dark raspberry and black cherry fruit that evolves into complex undertones of campfire smoke, cedar, café mocha, peppery spice, road tar and charcoal through the long finish. Weightless on the palate for its incredible depth, lingering with firm tannins. Structured and impressive. Syrah.

2) Behrens Sainte Fumee 2011, 93 Points, $55- Toasty and leathery aromas show wild berry fruit undertones. Elegant and peppery on the palate entry, as the dark berry and black licorice take a backseat to the earthy leather, peppery smoked meat and graphite notes. Amazing texture through the extended length, and proof of what a great winemaker can do with a cool vintage. Syrah.

3) Seghesio Petite Sirah Il Cinghiale 2010, 92 Points, $38- Inky purple fruit aromas. Prune, raisin, black licorice and fig flavors are intense and detailed on the palate, leading into complex, layered undertones of road tar, charcoal and peppery spice, finishing with a smooth, extended length. A powerful, masculine wine; not for the faint of heart.

4) Behrens Front Man 2011, 91 Points, $80- Ripe, exciting nose of red plum, cherry and hints of cedar. Bursting at the seams with its flawless red currant fruit and forest floor notes. Smooth, polished and seductive. Finessed and textured, with a long finish of herbal spice lingering. Merlot.

5) Shafer Merlot Napa Valley 2011, 91 Points, $50- Aromas of fresh pine and cedar with powdery cocoa bean influences. Silky and elegant body that shows the cool climate of the vintage with its forest floor, loam and chocolate notes hanging above the black cherry and dark raspberry fruit. Shows a remarkably polished texture for this vintage, with refined tannins adding structure. Lingers long with cedar and vanilla bean spice.

6) Girard Petite Sirah Napa Valley 2012, 90 Points, $30- Aromas of leather, chocolate and dark red berries. Chewy texture shows muscular red fruit notes of dark raspberry and black cherry. Earthy leather, tar and briar show up underneath but this is quite velvety overall for the varietal. Long finish shows firm tannins but has lots of cellar potential.

WINE OF THE YEAR- 2013

December 30, 2013

As my passion for wine deepened further in the year 2013, I was able to taste and record ratings for just over 400 different wines, more than half of which came during two long, wine-centric vacations. The first, which I made in April, realized a lifelong dream, as I spent a week in the Southern Tuscan town of Montalcino visiting its famous wineries and tasting as much of its luscious, velvety Brunello as I could. The extended touring and relaxed pace of tasting in that region allowed a visit to just a winery or two per day, followed by an afternoon of sipping my purchases on a massive balcony overlooking the hillside below, and savoring the aromas of gamey campfire roasts as dusk approached.

In July, I made my annual pilgrimage to Napa and Sonoma, and extended the trip out beyond a week to ensure I was able to hit every stop I needed to following a trip in 2012 that felt too short. Aside from being able to sample what would turn out to be the most highly regarded vintage of the young century in the 2010 Cabernets, new stars emerged, including the rapidly improving examples of Petite Sirah and the always unique Zinfandels of Dry Creek Valley.

Still, aside from these great vacations, I managed to locate and sample a great deal of fine wine through various other outlets. Despite the disappointing discontinuation of tasting events at Binny’s retail stores (I attended only one this year, very early on), the distribution chain continued to sponsor two fantastic Taste at the Track Events; the weather co-operated with one, but not with the other.

I’d be remiss not to mention the company dinner I attended at Del Frisco’s in Chicago, where I was able to sample the highest scoring and most expensive bottle of my life, the Penfolds Grange 2008. At $850 retail, the $995 menu price for a wine that had been given the first 100 point score from the Wine Spectator in nearly two years seemed a worthy splurge for a special occassion. While this was my highest rated wine of not only 2013, but of my entire life after nearly 4000 wines tasted (99 Points), its high price point and relative lack of availability forced me to look elsewhere for my Wine of the Year choice. In fact, I was arguably more impressed at that dinner by the Shafer Relentless 2009, which at $130 on the wine menu provided equal power and easily 1/8 the quality (95 Points). Price matters, my friends.

The wine I have selected as Wine of the Year was the very best of the bunch of nearly 30 high end Bordeaux wines that I tasted way back in February, and is my second highest scoring wine of 2013 at 97 Points. For a wine to stand out the way that it did in such esteemed company, and for the memory of its superiority that night to stick with me was long as it has, this was an easy choice for me. I present the Wine of the Year for 2013, from the right bank of Bordeaux:

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Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere St. Emilion 2010, 97 Points, $104, 4500 Cases Produced- Huge, toasty nose offers smoked meat, violet, blackberry and mocha bean. Gorgeous balance of deep, refined blackberry, plum and licorice above layers of complex, creamy café mocha, smoke, spice and powdery chocolate, hanging with a chalky mineral note that hits late and adds depth. An amazing wine, remarkably polished and put together at this young age.

OTHER WINES I TASTED THAT SCORED 94 OR HIGHER:

Penfolds Shiraz Grange South Australia 2008, 99 Points, $850

Casa Piena Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2008, 96 Points, $150

Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron Paulliac 2010, 96 Points, $220

Chateau Prieure Lichine Margaux 2009, 95 Points, $45

Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2009, 95 Points, $65

Chateau Pavie Macquin St. Emilion 2010, 95 Points, $130

Vietti Barolo Rocche 2008, 95 Points, $130

Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Superiore Ornellaia Bolgheri 2009, 95 Points, $175

Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2004, 95 Points, $180

Chateau Lynch Bages Pauillac 2010, 95 Points, $160

Clos de l’Oratoire St. Emilion 2009, 94 Points, $50

Booker Oublie Paso Robles 2010, 94 Points, $60

Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino 2007, 94 Points, $60

Argiano Brunello di Montalcino 2007, 94 Points, $70

Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape La Crau 2010, 94 Points, $78

Altamura Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2009, 94 Points, $85

Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2010, 94 Points, $90

Beaux Freres Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge The Upper Terrace Willamette Valley 2009, 94 Points, $90

Chateau Larcis Ducasse St. Emilion 2010, 94 Points, $95

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Bergfeld Vineyard 2010, 94 Points, $110

Altesino Brunello di Montalcino Montosodi 2008, 94 Points, $120

Chateau Leoville Barton St. Julien 2010, 94 Points, $125

Gallica Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2009, 94 Points, $125

Chateau Rauzan Segla Margaux 2010, 94 Points, $150

Chateau Pape Clement Pessac-Leognan 2010, 94 Points, $160

Chateau Troplong Mondot St. Emilion 2010, 94 Points, $160

Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes 2008, 94 Points, $325

Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Tenuta Greppo 1997, 94 Points, $425

WINES OF THE YEAR- VALUE WINES

December 22, 2013

Before focusing in on the wine that I’ve selected as my Wine of the Year for 2013, I wanted to take a moment to recognize some producers who made great everyday drinking wines that are widely available at affordable prices. Some of these found their way into my Wine of the Month feature, but here’s a more organized listing of the best wines in the “Under $10” and “$11-19” price categories. While some of these exact vintages are long gone and have moved on to the next in stores, this is more a general list of producers than anything else, as these wineries have found a way to deliver consistent quality at remarkable prices with high yields of fruit. Happy shopping, and your wallet can thank me later.

BEST VALUE WINES $11-19

 1) Columbia Crest H3 Les Chevaux Horse Heaven Hills 2010 ($15, 91 Points)- Inviting nose of floral, elegant red plum and cherry fruit that shows off elements of baking spice. Supple and plush on the palate with a controlling streak of creamy vanilla bean holding together the red currant and blackberry fruit notes, and finishing with a blast of exotic spice that lingers long beyond the fruit and oak influences. Juicy and complex without being overripe, light on its feet. The spicy finish is commanding, picking up just a dash of mineral as well.

 2) St. Cosme Cotes du Rhone 2011 ($15, 90 Points)- Powdery cocoa, black fruit and perfume aromas. Creamy mouthfeel with black plum and blackberry above dark chocolate, chalky rock notes and spice. Still tannic, but should soften up a bit. Thick body is loaded with dark black fruits, charcoal, graphite and tar notes.

 3) Milbrandt Cabernet Sauvignon Traditions Columbia Valley 2011 ($15,  90 Points)- Full-bodied and in the Washington style, with a smooth palate of blackberry that gains depth from the cedar and dark chocolate notes underneath. Deep, creamy and long. A great value wine.

 4) Paringa Shiraz South Australia 2010 ($12, 89 Points)- Inviting aromas of blackberry, licorice, leather and pepper. This is very round and polished on the palate, with wet, tarry mineral and leather intertwining with juicy black currants, licorice and anise notes and a hint of sarsparilla through the spicy finish.

 5) Milbrandt Riesling Traditions Columbia Valley 2011 ($13, 89 Points)- There’s lots of floral peach citrus on the nose, leading into a juicy body of tropical melon and pineapple fruit. Very fruit forward finishing with a subdued note of tang. The minerality is very understated through the finish, but the vibrant fruit notes keep pumping.

6) Trivento Amado Sur Mendoza 2011 ($15, 89 Points)- Juicy and peppery, with a rich body of blackberry above black pepper and mocha undertones. Finishes with a charcoal tinge. Malbec, Bonarda and Syrah.

 7) A To Z Wineworks Pinot Noir Oregon 2011 ($18, 89 Points)- Floral cherry and rose petal on the nose. Light on the palate with well-balanced strawberry, watermelon and bing cherry notes that finish with white pepper, tobacco and mushroom notes that carry through the finish. There’s a hint of cocoa that lingers, making this unique for its weightlessness, but snappy fruit needs time to gain its full potential.

8) Domaine Sigalas Asiritiko-Athiri Blend Santorini 2012 ($17, 89 Points)- Floral and tropical, with white peach opening through a creamy texture that showcases refreshing acidity. Stone fruit and melon notes carry through the long finish, showing a juicy profile without any tartness.

9) D’Arenberg Viognier-Marsanne The Hermit Crab McLaren Vale 2011 ($17, 89 Points)- Very floral on the nose, with pear and honey dew fruit influences. Clean and creamy on the palate, as straightforward melon and pear citrus lead into subtle nectarine, orange and peach, finishing on a spicy, creamy honey note.

10) Easton Zinfandel Amador County 2011 ($17, 88 Points)- Aromas of red plum and baking spices. Ripe and juicy on the smooth palate, showing jammy wild berry and red plum fruit that lingers with exotic spices and some white pepper. A chalky mineral finish adds intrigue through the finish.

 10) (tie) Caparzo Rosso di Montalcino 2010 ($19, 88 Points)- Dense and juicy, with ripe black cherry and red licorice flavors at the forefront, showing deeper character of plum and wild raspberry as it deepens. Suave and fruit forward, but not cloying. Lingers enjoyably with a hint of tobacco spice.

BEST VALUE WINES $10 and BELOW

1) Bibi Graetz Casamatta Tuscany 2011 ($10, 89 Points)- Ripe red cherry and licorice on the nose. There’s an impressive rustic note up front on the palate, as wet stone mineral, cigar box and loam intertwine with fresh, ripe cherry, licorice and plum fruit, finishing with a subtle note of graphite and spicy tobacco earth.

2) Chateau Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc Horse Heaven Vineyard Horse Heaven Hills 2012 ($10, 89 Points)- Pale, translucent body gives off bursting aromatics of tropical fruit. Nectarine, guava and pineapple fruit provide fresh, vibrant acidity that keeps pumping through the finish, picking up softer notes of pear underneath Very fruit forward and new world in style, with subtle grassiness and spice lingering long with the fruit. Juicy, not cloying.

3) Rosemount Shiraz Diamond Label South Australia 2010 ($9, 88 Points)- Plum, cherry and wet stone mineral aromas. Fresh and ripe on the palate, with a velvety mouthfeel of ripe cherry, plum and wild berry fruit that shows notes of mineral, nutmeg spice and mocha bean through the impressive finish.

4) D’Arenberg The Stump Jump Blend McLaren Vale 2011 ($10, 88 Points)- Inviting nose that blends aromas of crushed rock minerality with ripe red berry fruit. Soft on the palate with its initial notes of earthy barnyard and wet stone, which lead into pleasantly floral raspberry and red cherry, finishing on a spicy vanilla bean note through the polished length.

5) Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon Grand Estates Columbia Valley 2010 ($10, 88 Points)- Lots of cedar and powdery cocoa on the nose shading dark black fruit notes. Rich and briary, laced with sage and cedar notes above rich, juicy blackberry and plum fruit that finish with a note of dark chocolate as firm tannins add grip. Earthy spice lingers with a lot of dryness.

6) Santa Cristina Rosso Tuscany 2010 ($9, 88 Points)- Full of vibrant, juicy cherry and ripe raspberry flavors above some subtle wet stone components. This is spicy and lively throughout, finishing with a note of chalky minerality through the long finish.

7) Columbia Crest Grand Estates Amitage Columbia Valley 2009 ($10, 88 Points)- Dark red currants and cocoa powder on the nose. Ripe and approachable, with baked plum, raspberry and cherry flavors above a light undertone of briary, herbal spice and a streak of wet mineral. Smooth and silky, with notes of spicy chocolate lingering. Columbia Crest does it again.

8) Delas Ventoux 2011, ($10, 87 Points)- Lovely nose of perfumed black currant combined with minerally graphite earth and pepper. Very perfumey and floral with cassis and plum fruit and a potpourri nuance here, leading into white pepper spice and wet stone. Medium length.

9) Oxford Landing GSM South Australia 2011 ($10, 87 Points)- Fresh, lively and open, with juicy cherry and wild raspberry flavors that sit softly on the palate and lead into subtle undertones of hung game and mineral through the medium length.

 10) Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon Two Vines Columbia Valley 2010 ($7, 87 Points)- Intense aromas of cedar, briary earth and cocoa bean. Creamy body of black cherry fruit gives way to forest floor, pencil lead and powdery chocolate notes that linger impressively with depth and complexity. Remarkably smooth and polished, an absolute steal at this price point.

WINES OF THE MONTH- October and November

November 24, 2013

I wanted to hold off on posting an October wine of the month so I could focus on a couple of different wines to enjoy with Thanksgiving dinner. The smells and flavors of the season can be greatly complemented by pairing the right wine. What you’re looking for here is something not too overpowering and light to medium-bodied on the palate, but also showing big, ripe red fruits and elements of complexity underneath such as spice or subtle minerality, with understated tannins. Grapes like Pinot Noir, Grenache, Gamay and Zinfandel are better choices than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Tempranillo. Since Thanksgiving is an American holiday, it makes sense to stick to wines from the homeland, and I’ve decided to feature one from California and one from Oregon. I’ll be bringing the latter to my Thanksgiving dinner, as it is a widely available and remarkably polished Pinot Noir that was recently recognized by the Wine Spectator as a Top 100 wine of the year. The former, however, a Zinfandel from the middle of California, is well worth seeking out for its unique ripeness and spicy quality. Both should make a perfect match to the turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing on your plate.

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Four Vines Zinfandel Biker Paso Robles 2010, 91 Points, $25, 7000 Cases Made- Inviting aromas of baked cherry pie. Juicy, refined flavors of red cherry and raspberry with a smoky baking spice note that keeps pumping through the long, luscious finish. Impressive for its directness; this is ready to drink and just bursting at the seams.

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A To Z Wineworks Pinot Noir Oregon 2011, 89 Points, $18, 136,000 Cases Made- Floral cherry and rose petal on the nose. Light on the palate with well-balanced strawberry, watermelon and bing cherry notes that finish with white pepper, tobacco and mushroom notes that carry through the finish. There’s a hint of cocoa that lingers, making this unique for its weightlessness, but snappy fruit needs time to gain its full potential.

 

WINE OF THE MONTH- SEPTEMBER

October 11, 2013

The weekend following Labor Day has become a bit of a traditional wine weekend for me in the city of Chicago over the past three years. Friday night’s Windy City Wine Festival showcases some 300 wines, many of the lower end variety, but saavy wine drinkers can definitely seek out some diamonds in the rough. Set in Grant Park by the famous Buckingham Fountain, the event essentially serves as a warm up for the spectacular Taste at the Track event that follows Saturday afternoon. Now a biannual affair, Taste at The Track is a four hour tasting that takes place outside in the lawn area at Arlington International Racetrack. The offerings here tend to run a little deeper in terms of quality, with a vast array of styles and regions. I tend to spend a lot of my time at that particular event tasting Spanish wines; there always seems to be an abundance of quality offerings, and for whatever reason, the workers pouring those wines seem to be incredibly affable. I was very impressed by a particular bottle of a 2005 Rioja Reserva that has just hit the market. A Rioja Reserva must be aged for at least three years before release, but some producers choose to age the wine a great deal longer than that, which really lends itself to allowing the true varietal and regional character of the Tempranillo grape to emerge. At a very affordable price point, this is one of the purest expressions of Rioja I’ve tasted this year.

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LA RIOJA ALTA RIOJA VINA ARANA RISERVA 2005, 92 Points, $30-  Rustic red cherry aromas. Barnyard and wet mineral components form the initial flavor profile, with red licorice and dried cherry fruit showing as well over the elegant, expressive palate. Smoke and barnyard character really carry through the long, refined finish.

WINE OF THE MONTH- AUGUST

September 3, 2013

Earlier last month I found myself sitting outside on a Friday afternoon on Randolph Street at Maude’s Liquor Bar, the latest hot spot from Brendan Sodikoff (of Gilt Bar fame) in Chicago. Styled as a noveau French Bistro, the restaurant offers as a special one of the most unique Cassoulet dishes I’ve ever had anywhere, Paris included. August isn’t exactly Cassoulet season, but this dish consists of full pieces of garlic sausage, marrow, duck confit legs, huge chunks of carrots, and cooks the pork belly across the bottom of the massive entree. It is a dish meant to be shared or taken as leftovers, and even at its $34 price point, it stands as a relative bargain for the sheer quantity of food combined with its intense and authentic flavors. This is very true to the French style, and a gut buster to boot. I even made a return trip later last month and ordered it again after a huge score at the Arlington Million along with another dedicated foodie and close friend.

When making the decision to embark on such an endeavor, a French wine is mandatory, and Maude’s offers no shortage of these. Rhone enthusiasts far and wide are aware of the success of the 2010 vintage (read my full report from my tasting trip to this region last spring here). I spotted a particular Cotes du Rhone that I had yet to taste on the menu, and was pleased with the pairing choice. More than anything, I was reminded how remarkably priced these table wines can be, especially in landmark vintages, and how short lived they are. There will be a day, far sooner than I would like, where you won’t ever see a 2010 Cotes du Rhone on a menu ever again. Time is of the essence, so saavy wine enthusiasts should be keen to notice these wines while they last.

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DOMAINE CRISTIA COTES DU RHONE 2010, 90 Points, $20, 1250 Cases Produced- Ripe and appealing on the nose, with fragrant crushed berry fruit and floral notes. This shows polished cherry, raspberry, boysenberry and red licorice flavors above layers of wet slate and spice. Long, gripping finish.