Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wine Tasting Notes: Budget Wines (and Three Wineries)

Okay, so unless you are financially very comfortable indeed, you probably aren't drinking $30+ bottles of wine as an everyday type of thing. Here's a review of some of the more affordable wines we've tasted in the past few months.

I have to say, I just can't tolerate 90% of wines that go for less than $13 or so, so I don't even bother with them. Some people can drink them and be fine with it and probably that is because we all look for different things when it comes to wine. I suppose it's like "lite beer": some of my friends drink it, and enjoy it, and that's great for them. For me, I can't touch the stuff. So what is meant by "budget wines" here is really wines in the $13-$20 range (the price of wines varies quite a bit from region to region, so these wines might be 20% cheaper or more expensive where you are located).

I also recently went on a guided tour of the Sonoma and Napa wine country about three weeks ago, so I'm including some impressions from those estates at the end of this post. We only visited three wineries (Madonna, Cline and Sebastiani), and tasted about five to seven wines at each. I didn't take as detailed notes on those as I would on wines I taste at home, and the tasting conditions were not exactly ideal, so the reviews are more along the lines of general impressions.

The Good:

Frei Brothers Reserve Pinot Noir, Sonoma Russian River Valley, 2012. ($20). Very deep red color, nose is fruity, dark cherries. Mouthfeel is medium to full body with tons of fruit: very fruit-forward, delicious and chewy, with just a little bit of peppery bite. A pleasing finish, if not terribly long or complex. This is a very quaffable, enjoyable wine--very approachable with a mouthwatering quality. Not a meditative wine by any means, but if you can find it in the $20-$25 range (I've seen it go as high as $28), it's a very nice for regular drinking. This wine made me want to explore the better Pinot Noirs that California has to offer. Would recommend having it with food, but you can drink it straight. We picked up a half-case. 89 pts.

Domaine Brocard, Chablis, 2012. ($20) Nose is very nice, young fruit. Stony minerality in the mouth, good bracing acidity. Although the varietal of Chablis is Chardonnay, you know you're not drinking a Californian or Australian Chardonnay when you have this wine: while you get the fruit, you also get the stony terroir of the region. Very dry, very excellent! Really like this wine. 90 pts.

D'Arenberg, "Hermit Crab," Voignier/Marsanne, 2012. ($13). This is a great value and an excellent white wine from Australia that is a blend of the Voignier and Marsanne varietals--which makes for a nice change if you're more used to drinking Chardonnays, Pinot Grigios or the other more common whites. Nose is open and very fruity with underripe fruit notes. Very smooth, pretty full mouthfeel. On the palate, there is overwhelming fresh young fruit that stays throughout a surprisingly long finish for such a young and inexpensive wine. Goes well with Thai curry or sashimi. Would be good with shellfish. The strong, full fruit on this wine is evident from nose to palate to finish. Light and refreshing. Worth repeating as everyday wine, and something you can have with Asian food. 89 pts.

The Okay:

Laurent Reverdy, Sancerre. ($13). We picked this up at Trader Joe's. Sancerre is one of my favorite whites for everday drinking with food (goes great with seafood, especially lobster, white fish, shellfish), and it's unusual to find one at this price, so my expectations were low. Nice light nose of fruity underripe apples and green grapes, apricots, pears. Medium acidity. Lightweight feel in the mouth without much strong character. Medium sweetness--I've noticed some Sancerres can be very dry and mineral, but and some lean towards a lot of sweetness in the mouth--this one leans a bit in that sweet direction (Not that it is a sweet wine, of course!). Minimal minerality for a Sancerre: you're not really getting the classic terroir here. Not much finish. All in all, not bad for a comfortable lunch wine but not that memorable. Still, at this price, I would consider repeating. But I do love Sancerre! If you're not that into Sancerre or Sauvignon Blanc, I'd probably look for a better example to introduce you to the joys of this type of wine. 86 pts. 

Louis Jadot, Macon-Villages, 2013. ($13) Another Trader Joe's wine. Jadot is a very big producer in the French Burgundy region, as well as an old one (dating back to 1859), but it seems that the domaine manages to maintain a remarkably high quality across their wines while keeping prices low. Their Macon-Villages is naturally a French Chardonnay, and has a pale yellow color, somewhat golden, but very pale and translucent--not the deep gold you would get from some Chardonnays. Nose is nice: green granny smith apples, macintosh apples, green grapes, trace of green olives--overall light and refreshing. Mouthfeel is medium light, but not too light. In the mouth, you get a bit of the bite, acidity and crispness you'd want in a Macon, and just a trace of the minerality from the terroir, combined with some nice underripe fruit (again green apples, citrus, maybe a trace of pears and melon), but it's actually quite smooth in the mouth, and some may prefer that to the biting acidity of some Chablis, finding it more accessible. Medium finish with a trace of minerality there also. This is a very approachable wine. Light, refreshing, but with enough there to keep you interested and to remind you that this is a French Chardonnay. A lunchtime wine for us. Worth repeating at the price. 88 pts.

The Not So Good:

Au Bon Climat, Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara, California. ($17). A world apart from the Frei Brother Pinot. Color is very light, translucent light red, almost pinkish, and gives you the impression of a very lightweight wine. Not much in the way of aromatics; sweetens slightly with more alcohol in the nose after 45 mins, but be careful because this wine can't breathe long before it turns vinegary. The light impression from the eye is confirmed in the mouth: light mouthfeel, light bodied, very insubstantial. Taste is of light cherries. I keep using the word "light" -- well, this is one of the lightest reds we've had in a long while! Finish is minimal. Not terribly impressive. I suppose if people are really turned off by heavy reds and prefer whites, and don't like much terroir, earthiness or complexity in their wines, they might go for this. Personally, it seems to represent the downside of Californian Pinots: it has neither the fruit you would want from a modern, new world wine, nor the character, complexity and terroir you would want from a French Burgundy. Wouldn't repeat. 80 pts.

Jacques Bourgignon, Chablis. ($13) Another wine from Trader Joe's, bought mainly for the price. This wine is a world away from the Brocard Chablis reviewed above. You're getting very little fruit and no terroir at all here. No minerality, complexity or character, and not much bite in the acidity. I've read people say that if you consider this a Chablis, you'll be terribly disappointed (as I was) but if you think of it as just a Chardonnay in comparison to $10 Californian Chardonnays, you may find it more acceptible. That may be true, but I don't drink $10 Californian Chardonnays, so I found it not worth repeating. A much better bet (for the same price) is the Louis Jadot Chablis, also available at Trader Joe's. 80 pts.

Domaine LaFage, "Nicolas," Grenache, 2012 ($17). Okay so Robert Parker's Wine Advocate gave this French wine, which is 100% Grenache, 93 points -- an incredibly high score for a wine that costs $12-$17 most places in the US. You may see wines that cost $30-$80 getting scores of 93. So naturally, when a wine gets 93 points, you have certain expectations. When I tasted this wine, though, I thought "What was Mr Parker smoking when he gave this wine a 93?" What I didn't realize is that when you see that label that says "Robert Parker's Wine Advocate" and then has the score and description, it does not mean that the review and score actually came from Robert Parker. In this case, the score comes from a young associate, Jeb Dunnuck, who was hired by WA about a year ago (in 2013). Mr Parker has given responsibilities for the Rhone Valley, France, to this fellow. That's rather unfortunate, in my opinion, because I love Rhone Valley wines, and Mr Parker is a real authority on that area. If Mr Dunnuck (a software writer and blogger, according to the Wine Advocate) is the new voice for WA for Rhones, I am somewhat concerned, at least based on his review of this one. 

Now for the wine itself: The color is medium dark; nose is of new leather and a bit of earthy terroir; mouthfeel is medium, chew and earthy; finish is medium but not complex. Yes, you can tell it's a Grenache and you can tell it's French, and no it's not terrible. 

But Mr Dunnuck calls it "an off-the-hook value" and he also writes: "it offers layers of kirsch, underbrush, licorice and serious floral notes in its medium to full-bodied, elegant and seamless profile. Getting a big "wow" in the notes and showing fine tannin and serious length, it should be snatched up by savvy readers." Just can't agree with that. The fruit is muted, there's nothing elegant and seemless about the profile, and although the wine does have a medium-length finish, there's nothing particularly elegant or refined about it: it's a straightforward finish that doesn't change or show complexity as it develops (it doesn't develop). All in all, if you can find this wine at $12, then it might be worth a try. To be fair, Mr Parker himself reviewed the 2010 vintage and gave it 90+ pts. Maybe the bottle we had was defective, but we didn't taste any defects. Wouldn't repeat. We give it 83 pts.

Sauternes, Haut Charmes 2009. ($13). Sauternes is our favorite dessert wine. This is an inexpensive offering: a bit too sticky sweet, with not much complexity, somewhat enjoyable but certainly not a great example of what a Sauternes could be. Would not repeat. 80 pts.

And lastly, the three Californian wineries:

Madonna Estate. This is a small winery in the Carneros region of Sonoma that doesn't have very good distribution, so you're not likely to find their wines in your local wine shops. The winery is on a very pretty piece of land and is very nice to visit. The staff were friendly and it was nice to see their oak barrels--all French oak. I tasted the Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Merlot and Dolcetto and found them all to be sub-par. Their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was a better offering, but not worth the price they were asking ($30-$35).

Cline. Almost everyone on the tour agreed that Cline offered the best wines of the three wineries we visited. I tasted a decent Pinos Gris with underripe green fruit, apple nose; light and refreshing; definitely drinkable and could probably hold its own alongside Italian versions of this varietal. Their Viognier was a bit less enjoyable but still drinkable. I was eager to try their Mourvèdre, since this grape is typical of the Rhone valley and isn't that popular in the new world, but I found it a bit overpowering, and not terribly enjoyable. Rhone wines don't typically try 100% Mourvèdre, which is what this was. Maybe it's better when tempered with other varietals. Their Syrah was better -- decent but not exciting. Overall, good wines, though.

Sebastiani. This winery has the nicest grounds: beautiful and extensive with a nice museum inside and park benches outside. Really lovely and worth a visit. Everyone agreed this was the nicest of the wineries we visited. The wines were not very impressive though. Their Chardonnay had a greenish color, green taste, and was quite mediocre. Their Pinot Noir had no nose, weak color, but not awful in the mouth. Their Merlot -- not as bad as some Merlots -- but Merlot is not my varietal and this one didn't change my mind. Cab Sauvignon was the best of the bunch with some aromatics in the nose, decent mouthfeel, chewy and a smooth finish -- maybe 85-86 pts for that one -- I think it goes for $14 or so.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Wine Tasting Notes: Rhone Valley #1

A little while ago my wife and I started drinking wine again, after a hiatus of 10 years. Our honeymoon had been a trip to the wine countries of Italy and France (after a start in Austria), so we are again returning to that part of the world for our wine tasting adventures. She prefers Italian wines, I prefer French, so our tasting reflects that -- although the fact that I recently visited the Napa and Sonoma valley regions means that I am now slightly more open to the possibility of Californian -- and we've always enjoyed the affordability and quaffability of Australians (I know there are very expensive and classy Australian wines, too -- but I've yet to be able to enjoy one).

France and Italy are both vast wine regions. Within France, we've concentrated mainly on the Rhone valley, and within Italy, mainly in the Tuscany area. Even within the Rhone valley, our focus has been mainly on the appelations of Chateauneuf du Pape, Cote Rotie, Gigondas, and Hermitage. 

Decent Chateauneuf du Pape's generally run in the $30-$40 range, although the best run up to $80-$100, so these are not cheap wines, but they have a character that one is never going to find elsewhere: mainly because of the terroir (the characteristics of the land where the vines grow), but also because they are primarily made from the Grenache grape varietal, which isn't that popular in California or Australia. Typically, most of a CdP is Grenache, with some other varietals mixed in.

Cote Rotie and Hermitage are typically more expensive, especially the latter, but also often less approachable when young. Hermitage, for example, shouldn't really be drunk until 10-15 years old at least. Gigondas lies on the other end of the spectrum: they used to be cheaper than Chateauneuf du Pape wines, but recently they have been creeping up in price and now the better Gigondas go for $35-$45, with some much higher than that. Still, they can be found in the $25-$30 range and are typically much better than a standard Cotes du Rhone or Cotes du Rhone Villages table wine.

Below are the first of the bunch, all tasted in October and November, 2014.

Chateauneuf du Pape, Giraud, "Premices," 2011 ($32). Nose is of dark cherries, cassis, just slight earthiness, deep fruit -- not an exceptionally complex bouquet, but very nice and fruit-forward. Medium to full bodied in mouth. Fruity, modern (not too heavy or earthy) and yet still classy tasting with character of the terroir. Finish is medium length and has a real bite: black pepper and even cayenne pepper, but in a good way! This wine is excellent, and one of the best CdP's we have tried in this price range. While not super complex, it is a wonderful blend of modern and traditional. Ready to drink now. 92 pts.

Chateauneuf du Pape, Quiot, "Les Couversets", ($30). Nice, dark, overripe black fruit--black cherries, blackcurrants, cassis. Restrained nose, chewy and velvety in mouth, decent complexity, contemplative. Not extraordinary but very nice. Drinkable without food. Low tannins. 90 pts.

Chateauneuf du Pape, Domaine Duclaux, 2007 ($41). Nose is complex of medium leather and black fruit, very deep and complex. In mouth the wine has medium body, low alcohol, black pepper, mulling spices, and leather, very low fruit -- more old fruit or dried fruit. Finish is long, complex, contemplative. This is a high class wine with a bit of a mystical, magical quality. Strong sense of the terroir here. Gives the feeling it will improve with some age. Wonderful wine--less approachable than the Giraud "Premices" but also a bit deeper and more profound. 93 pts.

Cote Rotie, Jasmin, 2005 ($30). Nose is of cassis and fruit, new leather, licorice--a nice bouquet. Feels tight and quite light bodied in the mouth. Taste is tart, tight. Not much finish. High alcohol. After an hour, nose is sweeter, caramel and cinnamon. We picked up this wine because it's a relatively low price for a Cote Rotie, but this is disappointing for the region. While the nose is suggestive, it doesn't deliver in the mouth or finish. Possible that it needs more aging, but much more likely is that it's just not a terribly good Cote Rotie. 87 pts.

Gigondas, Chateau du Trignon, ($31). Incredible nose of floral and dark fruit, very fruit-forward, and that continues on into the taste. Medium body mouthfeel, biting acidity, full of fruit, with a nice finish. A very enjoyable and excellent wine. Doesn't have the earthiness, complexity, or terroir-feel of the CdP's of course, but you probably wouldn't want that in this wine anyway. For those who enjoy fruit-forward Californian or Australian wines and want to try out a French Rhone valley wine, this would be a good one to go for. 91 pts.

Well, that's it for the first set. We went back and got 3 more bottles of the Chateau du Trignon Gigondas, would have picked up another Domaine Duclaux (but it was sold out) and are hoping to pick up another two bottles of the "Premices." Those three were our favorites and are all excellent.