Saturday, May 28, 2011

California Dreamin'

A Pride Vineyard
Two years ago, a trip to Napa and Sonoma Valleys changed the way I looked at Californian wine. Being a wine drinker who started and fell in love with Italy, I went to California with an open mind but a lingering thought that I would be disappointed. However, I was far from disappointed, as I came to realize that the wine most people thought of as Californian was far from what the passionate and pioneering producers were making. Wineries such as Pride, Trespass, EMH, Larkmead, Alpha Omega and a host of others successfully showed me that there are juicy, structured and elegant wines of depth and nuance to be found in California.

That trip also resulted in me signing up for a number of lists and making a number of purchases of the bottles I enjoyed. I figured it was about time to check in on some of the wines that thrilled me two years ago, as well as some recent releases from those wineries. To put it mildly, I was happily impressed. If you’re looking to delve into California, this list is certainly a great place to start. None of these are cheap; however, they are all worth their tariff.

If there's one significant impression that I walk away from with this tasting with, its that I need to plan another tasting trip to California in the near future.

On to the wines:

2009 Larkmead Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Lillie B4 Block – On the nose, this wine wowed me with pear and peach, wet stone, a spritz of lime, field grasses and sour clotted cream. On the palate, it was incredibly elegant and soft but with an underlying structure and a core of vibrant acidity that made the mouth water in preparation for the flavors of peach, honeydew and minerals that followed. As this wine finished, a lovely note of pineapple lingered for what seemed to be a full minute. (93 points) Larkmead Website

2009 Massican Gemina – The Gemina had filled out even more since I last tasted it. The nose showed almond, citrus fruit and honeysuckle with white flowers tempting you to taste, and as time passed, I also found a layer of mineral and stone which added a good amount of depth to the wine. On the palate, it was a rich yet refined, medium bodied wine showing honeydew melon, buttery lemon and grapefruit, which lasted into its long finish. (92 points) Massican Website (Also look out for a full review of Massican's 2010 lineup coming soon!)

2008 A.P. Vin Pinot Noir Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard – The nose showed wild herbs, raspberry and strawberry with allspice and hints of wood shop. On the palate, I found cherry with orange rind and sweet spice. The finish was shorter than expected and showed a bit more alcohol than I’d like, but with time in decanter the edges rounded out and left me with an overall good impression of this wine. (90 points) A.P. Vin Website

2008 Larkmead Vineyards Firebelle – The nose showed black currant, cherry liquor, spice, brown sugar and a hint of fresh-turned soil. On the palate, it was velvety smooth and luxuriant with blackberry jam, cherry wood and spice. The finish was exceptionally long with blackberry and currant fruit, yet it was fresh and begging for another sip. (94 points) Larkmead Website

2006 Pride Mountain Vineyards Merlot – The nose showed blueberry and blackberry with molasses, a hint of vanilla and, with air in the glass, sweet confectionary spices. On the palate, it was warm and seductive with a full-balanced body, showing black cherry, cinnamon and spice with dark chocolate and cola leading into the long finish. Pride successfully balanced elegance and structure in this excellent bottle of Merlot. (92 points) Pride Mountain Vineyards Website

2005 Trespass Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Grown – When this bottle was first opened the nose showed strawberry, sour berries, candied sugar and a hint of bell pepper. However, over the course of three hours, it came to life, as the pepper faded back to reveal notes of earth, leather and hints of barnyard. On the palate, it was beautifully structured and surprisingly feminine, as an initial burst of acidity turned soft as velvet on the tongue with flavors of black currant, herbs and a hint of salinity. The finish was long with notes of blackberry jam. (93 points) Trespass Vineyards Website

2006 Trespass Rendezvous – The nose showed ripe raspberry jam, molasses, pepper, spice cookie and a hint of undergrowth. On the palate, I found blueberry and dark chocolate with violet candies and a plush velvety mouthfeel. The finish was long with wild berries and cider mulling spices. (92 points) Trespass Vineyards Website

2006 EMH Cabernet Sauvignon Black Cat – The 2006 EMH vineyards, Black Cat, was on a whole new level from my previous tasting. Almost a year has passed, and this dark beauty has really come out of its shell. Upon pouring, the aromatics leapt from the glass and filled the room with a bouquet of sweet floral notes and dark fruits. With a swirl in the glass, I found blackberry, cherry and anise with notes of pepper and sage. The palate showed rich spicy black currant, cinnamon gram cracker and dark chocolate, yet also showed wonderful vibrancy and finesse. The finish went on and on for over a minute with a seductive mix of clove, cinnamon, star anise and cherry. (93 points) EMH Vineyards Website

2005 Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District – The nose showed black currant, confectioners sugar, spice and a hint of green pepper. On the full-bodied palate, I found sweet raspberry jam and cola, which turned to sour cherry with an herbal quality. The finish showed dark red fruits which turned slightly sour as it faded away. (92 points) Cliff Lede Vineyards Website

2004 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve – The nose showed black currant, cinnamon stick, nutmeg, rosemary, dark brown sugar and whiffs of vanilla. On the palate, I found black cherry, dark chocolate and cola with zesty acidity and beautiful structure. The finish went on and on for over a minute. This wine was massive yet fresh and will easily improve for many years to come. (94 points) Robert Mondavi Website

2007 Sbragia Family Zinfandel Italo's Vineyard – The color of the 2007 Sbragia Family Zinfandel Italo's Vineyard, showed a brilliant ruby red. The nose opened fresh, showing a mix of wild berries, primarily blue but ever-changing with each sniff. A floral component came forward with time, along with a hint of undergrowth, sweet caramel and coffee bean, which added masses of depth. On the full, rich palate, I found candied blackberry and cola, playing a sweet & sour act and carrying this wine’s 14.5% alcohol flawlessly. The finish was fresh and long, showing dried cherries. (90 points) Sbragia Family Vineyards Website

2007 Ridge Geyserville – A beautiful display of rich blackberry fruit, dark chocolate and earthy slate dust. The palate was like velvet yet structured with dark chocolate-covered cherries and cedar. The wine showed remarkable balance and a gorgeous core of well-defined fruit. The finish was long with cherries and dark chocolate. Yum! (91 points) Ridge VIneyards Website

2006 Neyers Syrah Old Lakeville Road – The nose showed wild berries and cherry with undergrowth, dried herbs, and air-dried meats. On the palate, this wine showed smooth and velvety with dark fruits, spicy cinnamon and earth. The medium finish was rich, yet fresh. (91 points) Neyers Vineyards Website

Saturday, May 21, 2011

La casa di Fernando

In my line of work, not many people are willing to cook for you. It’s a sad result of a profession based on making people happy through food. The funny part is that I’ve been amazed by more home cooks than professional chefs in my life. There’s nothing like being in someone’s home and sampling a dish they made to please their guests, along with all the heart and soul that goes into it. I think people believe I’ll expect a culinary masterpiece, when in reality, my favorite foods consist of burgers, BLTs and a well-seasoned, medium-rare porterhouse steaks.

However, there are a few friends who have no problem putting on the chef hat and inviting me into their homes, and to them I am grateful. Fernando is one of those people. On my most recent visit, I was well fed with masses of food from his Argentine-style assado, which included spicy meatballs that would make my nonna shed a tear. An entire host of salads to whet the palate could be found throughout the table, as well as roasted vegetables and cheeses. Then there was the flan, which is an art I’ll leave to the experts like Fernando, who prepared it perfectly… And then there was the wine.

The tasting table in my cellar
You see, my friend Fernando, has what I would describe as a mature, balanced cellar. Something that I’ve been working very hard to create over the past five years and am only beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel (probably about five more years before I beginn reaping the benefits). What I mean by this is a wine cellar, built over time, where a good selection of whites, reds, early drinkers and bottles to mature are all stored. The best thing about a balanced cellar is that when you have company over, you can pull out a range of wines that would make, even the most experienced tasters, eyes light up. That’s exactly what Fernando did on this night.

The wines below are from a mix of different regions and styles. Each bottle was great in its unique way and most were entering maturity, with some upside potential, but very little baby fat. There are a number of gems in the mix below. Enjoy, and thanks to Fernando for the excellent meal.

On to the wines:

2006 Vie di Romans Friuli Isonzo Flors di Uis – The nose was amazingly fragrant and continued to pick up nuances as it sat in the glass. A bouquet of spring flowers, tart lemon, peach, orange skins and green apple dazzled the senses. On the palate, it showed a medium weight with a citrus zing, more floral notes and stone fruits. The finish was long with sour citrus fruits, yet mouthwatering and begging you to take another sip. (93 points)

2002 Schloss Lieser Niederberg Helden Riesling Auslese – The nose showed bacon fat and white flowers. On the palate, I found fresh cranberry, and pineapple with a soft yet vibrant feel on the tongue. The finish was at first sweet and then sour with hints of grapefruit. (88 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

1990 Bodegas Vega-Sicilia Ribera del Duero Valbuena 5° – The 1990 Vega-Sicilia wowed me with its rich yet elegant personality. The nose showed cherry preserves and cranberry with hints of clove, vanilla and burnt sugar. However, with how rich and young the nose seemed, there was an underlying earthiness and hint of musky animal fur that truly kept it interesting. On the palate, it was elegant, with a velvety feel on the tongue as flavors of rich red, then black fruits and dusty spices assaulted the senses. The finish was long and turned from juicy to sour as the fruit faded away. (96 points)

1994 Henschke Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon – The nose showed vibrant cranberry fruit, red beets and undergrowth in a big yet airy style. On the palate, it was massive and rich, yet still juicy with black fruits and spice. The finish was fresh and clung to the palate. (90 points)

1997 Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva – The nose showed cherry, herbs, dusty potpourri and hints of blue cheese. On the palate, this wine was soft and mid-weight with zesty acidity and flavors of sour red fruits and salinity. The finish was slightly drying and still showed a good amount of structure for Chianti with 14 years on it. (89 points)

1997 Cabreo Il Borgo Toscana IGT – The nose showed rich cherry fruit, minerals, dried leaves and floral notes. On the palate, it was velvety smooth with dark chocolate, black currant, spices and hints of licorice. The medium-long finish showed fading dark fruits, broth and a bit of salinity. (93 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

1998 Fattoria Petrolo Galatrona Toscana IGT – The nose showed black currant, hints of toast and animal musk. On the palate, it was at first silky smooth but turned dry as this wine showed its still youthful structure. Rich, concentrated black fruits and spices attacked the senses and faded into a long finish. This wine came across as still needing a number of years before it could really show its true colors. (90 points)

1998 Domaine de Marcoux Châteauneuf-du-Pape – The nose showed blue and black fruits with meaty, peppery notes wrapped in shroud of vanilla. On the palate, it was rich with a core of zesty acidity that kept things interesting as dark chocolate, sweet spices and waxy red licorice filled the senses. The finish clung to the palate with dark fruits and spices. This bottle was almost too big for its own good but remained restrained enough to leave me with a very pleasing experience. (92 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

1999 Bodegas Mauro Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León Terreus Pago de Cueva Baja – The nose showed cranberry and plum sauce, with sweet spices and herbs. On the palate, it was velvety and made its presence known in a mix of full-bodied rich black fruit and spice-laden vibrant acidity. Black cherry, cinnamon and vanilla lingered into the long finish, which turned a little dry, but otherwise showed this wine has many years of life ahead of it. (92 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

1990 Chapoutier Cote-Rotie – The nose showed blackberry, citrus rind, minerals and hints of pepper. On the palate, it was soft, with a medium weight showing cherry, herbs and hints of salinity. The finish was medium-long and refreshing. (89 points)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Older Nebbiolo: Barolo, Barbaresco & Spanna

There is one certainty which I came to understand very early in my wine drinking life: I love aged Nebbiolo. I could even say that I love aged wine in general, but Barolo and Barbaresco hold a very special place in my heart, a place that can’t be filled by any other substance on earth. Not everyone enjoys fine aged wine; it’s got to be in you—or maybe you’ve yet to have that one bottle that turns you into a believer. However, I’m convinced that once it happens, there is no going back.

This brings me to the tasting of “Old Nebbiolo”. The parameters were simple: any Nebbiolo-based wine from 1985 and before. Why 1985? For one thing, the chances are with each of these vintages that they have either reached their peak or would be just shy of achieving their full maturity. However, what’s more interesting is that these wines were produced before climate change made it easier to consistently bring Nebbiolo to full ripeness on the vine and at a time before anyone had heard of the modernist vs. traditionalist argument. For the most part, these are all wines which enjoyed long fermentations and aging in large neutral casks.

I often wonder what the Baroli of today will one day taste like, because so much has changed since these wines were made. The wines of today are no doubt cleaner, more focused and certainly easier to enjoy when young, but what will they taste like in 30 years? Only time will tell. Until then, we have these vintages of old to keep us happy and in love with what Nebbiolo is capable of in 25 to 30 years time. Tastings like this don’t come along every day, and as a regular taster of Barolo and Barbaresco, it’s nice to sit back from time to time and enjoy wines in their full maturity. It is pure indulgence.

To me, the bottles encompassed in the tasting notes below are all of exceptional character. If you can find them, buy them and relish in their perfect maturity. Most of them aren’t going to get any better with time and a few of them still have some tricks up their sleeves.

On to the wines:

1971 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Cavalieri del Tartufo Ovello – On the nose, gravel and soil notes lead to dried strawberry, tobacco and undergrowth. On the palate, an initial burst of acidity attacked the senses, giving this 40 year old Barbaresco lift and vibrancy as fading dark fruits and minerals caressed the senses. The finish showed eucalyptus and spice. I don’t see this wine getting any better, but it’s still highly enjoyable. (90 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

1974 Francesco Rinaldi e Figli Barolo – The 1974 Francesco Rinaldi showed its age with notes of beef broth, dried leaves, salinity and earth. On the palate, this wine was lean at first, as the beefy broth continued and was joined by faded red fruits and old barrel’ but with time in the glass, it began to turn sweeter and rounder with notes of brown sugar. The finish was remarkably long with hints of pipe tobacco and earth. This was a wine for a lover of old traditional Barolo, and although it may be a little over the hill, maybe even a little dirty, I still found much enjoyment in the glass. (87 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

1974 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo – The 1974 Bartolo Mascarello was classic in every way that an aged Barolo should be. The nose showed dried roses, tar, tobacco and earth with a lively floral perfume. On the palate, it was vibrant with dried cherry, more tobacco and notes of copper. With time in the glass, the wine continued to open and gain in volume and sweetness. The long finish showed faded dry strawberry and a bit of tree bark. (93 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

1974 Vietti Barolo Rocche – What a pleasure it was to drink the 1974 Vietti Rocche. The nose showed floral undergrowth, fresh-turned soil with strawberry and, as time passed, a sweet, almost caramel note added outstanding complexities to the already beautiful bouquet. On the palate, it was juicy yet balanced and still showed youthful notes of fresh red berries, cinnamon and sweet floral notes. The finish swung toward the savory side as broth and brown sugar lingered for over 30 seconds. (94 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

1978 Paitin di Pasquero-Elia Barbaresco Sorì Paitin – The earthy nose showed faded cherry fruit with eucalyptus, vine-ripening tomato and hints of sweet peas. On the palate, I found slightly bitter red fruits with plum skins and tobacco. The finish was fresh and still lively. (91 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

1978 Oddero Barolo – The 1978 Oddero Barolo was simply gorgeous and just entering its full maturity. After four hours opened in bottle, it began to show earthy mushroom, dried cherry, dusty minerals and roses on the nose. On the palate, it was vibrant and dark with lush red fruits, spice, tobacco and an acidic lift that added remarkable freshness that stayed into the long finish with plum and a bit of citrus rind. (94 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

1985 Renato Ratti Barbaresco – The nose showed floral undergrowth with strawberry and spice. On the palate, it showed dried red berries with a dusting of minerals and earth, along with a fine structure that should keep it fresh for many years to come. The finish was drying with tannins that are still holding on to this wine’s red berry fruit. (92 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

1969 Antonio Vallana e Figlio Colline Novaresi Spanna Montalbano – The 1969 Vallana Spanna would be nearly impossible to guess as a wine with 40+ years on it. The nose was dark with moist earth and herbs, yet there was a vibrancy to the plumy fruit and spice that followed. On the palate, it was remarkably fresh as it caressed the senses with strawberry, mulling spice and herbs. The finish carried this wine home as red berries and earth lingered on the palate. (93 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

Other older Nebbiolo tasted this year:

1978 Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco – This bottle opened with crushed fall leaves, sauté mushroom and sweet black cherry fruit. The color was ruby in the center with an orange rim. On the palate it showed perfectly resolved, as velvety dried cherry and light strawberry fruit caressed the senses with tobacco, a sweet tea middle-palate performance and a gracefully long red fruit finish. This bottle was all class and finesse. It was a very feminine Barolo at its peak. (92 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

1974 Cordero di Montezemolo Barolo Monfalletto – This bottle was popped and carefully poured immediately with a small amount decanted to remove sediment at the end. The color faded from red to amber and into an orange rim. On the nose, at first I found leather, green stems, cedar and dried flowers but as the wine opened, it became more and more fragrant as cinnamon, coca and dried cherries became prominent. It was a dream to sit and enjoy the bouquet alone. The palate was balanced and perfectly resolved, feeling like silk across the tongue with flavors of red fruit, mulling spices and herbal tea. It was extremely vibrant and fresh for such an old bottle of wine. The finish showed dried cranberry and lasted half a minute. (93 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

1971 Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco – The nose showed dusty potpourri, charcoal, beef stock and slightly faded dried red fruits. On the palate, I found strawberry and cedar, but with time this wine opened further to reveal tobacco and darker, sweeter red fruit with a vibrant, round mouth-feel. The finish was subtle, but elegant, and left me wanting more. (93 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher!

A big thanks goes out to Tolani Wine Restaurant for their hospitality and in helping me to make this tasting special. Tolani, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has certainly made an impact on me. The food is spectacular with a diverse menu from around the world that continues to impress me and a staff that is top notch. I don't remember the last time I enjoyed a meal so much from start to finish. Look for a full review shortly at What’s Cookin’ or at The V.I.P. Table.

For another perspective on this great tasting Doug Smith, a fellow taster, posted his notes here: Cellar Tracker.