Wednesday, 21 October 2009

A tasting of 1998 Southern Rhones - on this evidence, drink up (quickly)!

1998 was universally touted, by trade and media alike, as a great (and potentially long-lived) vintage in the Rhone. Or, at least, it was when the wines were first released. And many of them were indeed deliciously drinkable, at the time, albeit in a typical hot-vintage, rich, baked fruit sort of way. Over the last few years, however, many of those crystal ball commentators have been steadily revising their opinions, given that so many of the very wines have begun to show worrying signs of fatigue. And if tonight's tasting of 1998 Rhones at the Nottingham Wine Circle was any sort of indicator, they are going nowhere fast - apart from downhill. These are my own tasting notes and opinions, although I must say that the rest of the room seemed broadly in agreement.

1. Domaine du Vieux Chene 1998 Cotes du Rhone Villages
Muted nose. Hints of raspberry, tobacco, sous bois. On the palate, the fruit is hanging on - but only just. A bit austere and lacks charm.

2. Domaine Saint Anne 1998 Cotes du Rhone Villages St. Gervais
A touch more expressive on the nose - a mix of bramble and bovril. The palate is a touch confected, with some unresolved tannins and a fair amount of heat. Baked and soupy, almost "pastilley", in a non-fruity sort of way. Needs food.

3. Clos du Caillou Bouquet des Garrigues 1998 Cotes du Rhone
This one has a lovely nose, and it certainly lives up to its name. A mélange of garrigue herbs, polished leather and warm southern Rhone fruit. The tannins are still evident, but there is plenty of fruit and juicy acidity to keep it nicely balanced. A nice wine.

4. Chateau du Grand Moulas 1998 Cotes du Rhone
This smells a bit weird. Volatile and slightly dirty on the nose, with a hint of pastilley fruit, offset by burnt tar. The palate is metallic/ferrous and tart, but not exactly acidic. This is way past its prime, and not pleasant to drink.

5. Chateau de Grand Moulas Cuvée de l'Ecu 1998 Cotes du Rhone
A touch more elegant on the nose than number 4, with hints of Syrah, but I'm trying to be kind to it. Little in the way of discernible fruit aromas or interest. There is actually something of the cheap Bordeaux about it, with notes of green capsicum, tobacco, tannin - and no fruit. Another rather unpleasant wine, which (I hope) has seen better days.

6. Chateau du Trignon La Ramillade 1998 Gigondas
A "negociant" wine, from bought-in fruit. This is yet another baked, rustic, hot-year wine. A bit dirty, a bit rustic, a bit charmless. It was also a bit corked, which at least added a bit of interest(!)

7. Chateau du Trignon 1998 Gigondas
This is the "Chateau" wine, made from fruit from the estate's own vineyards, and is markedly better than number 6. Not a lot going on on the nose, but plenty of sweet fruit and spice on the palate, with slightly rustic tannins balanced by decent acidity and even a bit of elegance. A nice(ish) wine.

8. Cros de La Mure 1998 Gigondas
A distinctly alcoholic nose, with notes of tobacco, coffee and spice. Tastes alcoholic, too. There is a little fruit, but mostly of a secondary nature. And the abundance of alcohol, combined with low acidity, simply renders it completely unbalanced.

9. Domaine Le Clos de Cazeaux Cuvée de La Tour Sarrazin 1998 Gigondas
This shows signs of a rich, substantial wine, which may have been rather nice, about 5 years ago. As it is, though, it is muddy and rustic - and has very definitely fallen off its perch.

10. Chateau Redortier 1998 Gigondas
This one is still a bit of a bruiser. Quite tannic and alcoholic. Still a bit of fruit peeping through, but very definitely in its secondary phase, with additional notes of tar and liquorice. Yet another wine that simply hasn't lasted the course. It would be OK as a winter warmer, with some hearty food, but needs drinking very soon.

11. Domaine Santa Duc 1998 Gigondas
At last, a wine that offers some real enjoyment. A lovely nose of fresh fruit, spices and well-judged oak. Ample red and black fruit flavours, resolved tannins and excellent balancing acidity. Elegant, even. I really liked this one.

12. Domaine Santa Duc Les Haut Garrigues 1998 Gigondas
This cuvée has a more serious, yet less expressive nose. The palate has more oak and more body, and perhaps more complex, in a savoury (rather than fruity) way. A very interesting and well-made wine, and a nice contrast to number 11. Whilst 11 is drinking beautifully now, this one probably needs a few more years. But will it last? As someone else commented, it is impressive, rather than enjoyable.

12a. Clos des Papes Blanc 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape
(an un-announced extra)
Calvados and rotting apples on the nose, with hints of marzipan, toffee and anise. A bit oxidised, perhaps? The palate is a bit bland, for my liking, and definitely lacking in acidity, which means it may never blossom into anything special.

13. Domaine de Marcoux 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Ooh.... this is both perfumed and meaty - and very substantial. A heady mix of aromas, including flowers, fresh fruits, tobacco and spice. Sweet fruit on the palate, augmented by meat, leather, spiced fruit and cloves. It evolves beautifully in the glass and is a classic Chateauneuf - and a really good effort, for the vintage.

14. Les Cailloux 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape (André Brunel)
Damn - corked! Which really is unfortunate, because there is a really excellent wine lurking beneath the TCA. In fact, it is quite the most fragrant of corked wines! A real shame, as I was looking forward to this wine.

15. Pere Caboche Cuvée Elisabeth Chambellan 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Light-bodied and simple, with a bitter cherry kernel palate. Not obviously faulty, but completely lacking in substance or charm.

15a. Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe 1999 Chateauneuf-du-Pape
(another un-announced extra)
Note that this was a 1999, not 1998. And boy, did it show. Just by the nose, I could tell this was going to be the Wine of the Night. It is oh-so complex. A heady mix of fruit and flowers, herbs, spices, meat, vegetables and marmite. The sheer array of enticing aromas is wonderful to behold. If I were asked to give an ideal description of the word "wine", it might well be this one - it really does tick all the boxes. And the palate certainly delivers on the promise of the nose. Fruit in abundance, together with just the right amount of savouriness. A hugely complex wine, with flavours of spiced fruits, garrigue, roasted meat, tobacco and sous-bois. Soft tannins, ample acidity, long, complex - and not even a hint of alcoholic heat. This is probably the finest VT I have ever had the pleasure of tasting - and is definitely in my top three Chateauneufs ever. It may not quite reach the heights of the best that Cote Rotie or Hermitage have to offer - but it runs them pretty damn close. I don't do scores but, if I did, this would be a 95+ on the Parker scale. And it will undoubtedly get better. A glorious wine, and a triumphant end to a rather disappointing tasting.

OK, so this was (apart from the 1999 VT) a far from a stellar line-up, but there were a good few wines on show from growers whose wines would (in other vintages) provide plenty of enjoyment and would be expected to show well at 11 years of age. But few of these 1998's did show well. And, in my opinion, there is only one way they can go from here - and that is downhill. So if you have any 1998 southern Rhones, my advice would be to drink up - but don't expect great things.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

A bunch of lovely wines enjoyed recently, chez Stolarski

Because my house does not have a cellar, my home "stocks" have to be stored in various cupboards in the hallway, under the stairs and even under the kitchen units. With a little imagination, it is possible to store a very decent amount of wine in this way. Nevertheless, my supplies had dwindled a little, recently, to the point where I needed to bring a few mixed cases home from my store. Which has given me the opportunity to open a few old favourites and a few new ones. Here are my notes on a handful that have stood out, for one reason or another, over the past couple of weeks.

Vinedos Organicos Emiliana Coyam 2001 – Central Valley, Chile
I bought half a dozen bottles of this biodynamic wine 2 or 3 years back, when they were on offer for around £8 a bottle at Asda. I loved it then, and it is still very enjoyable now, though I can’t help but feel my tastes have moved on since then. It is certainly not a style I would choose to drink too often, these days, but it did seem to hit the spot on this occasion. The nose is quite bretty and a bit monolithic to begin with, although it does eventually open out to reveal subtle notes of bramble, cedar, undergrowth and eau de vie. The palate is rich, dense and bramble-packed, but with some savoury elements too, notably herbs, meat, leather and dark chocolate. In fact, there is an awful lot going on here, though the softening tannins and a decent amount of acidity just manage to keep the richness in check. I’m not sure what it is trying to be, though. Claret with attitude? Almost, although large doses of Mourvedre and Syrah give it extra dimensions. Perhaps a better description might be California meets Barossa meets Languedoc meets Bordeaux. In other words, an enjoyable wine, with a bit of an identity crisis!

Domaine de Montcalmes 2004 - Coteaux du Languedoc
This is a really delicious Syrah-dominated wine, with myriad fruit aromas including raspberry, bramble and cranberry, along with notes of tobacco, herbs, spice and schiste. It isn’t overly cheap, at around £15 a bottle, but is very elegant and classy, with soft tannins, cracking acidity and complex primary and secondary fruit flavours, augmented by touches of herby garrigue and warm-climate savouriness. It is a bit of a cliché, I know, but this wine is almost Burgundian in style, but with more than a nod towards the northern Rhone, too. Complex stuff, and well worth checking out if you can find it.

Joao Pato Vinho de Mesa 1990 – Bairrada region, Portugal
This is a wine composed of 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 75% of the quaintly-named Baga. And what a lovely Baga it is! A lovely pale/medium mahogany core, fading to an even paler orange rim, with some fine sediment floating about - which never bothers me. Squished plum and cherry aromas, cedar, butter cream, crushed pepper and herbs, with some old (but clean) wood and a hint of tar. Hardly "primary fruit", but all in all a quite delightful nose, worthy of contemplation. And for a 16 year old wine - from what I assume is a quite lowly denomination – it never fails to offer enjoyment. The palate is beautifully mellow, with plenty of aged red and black fruit flavours - still with a beautiful sweet core - with soft tannins, a lovely, fresh, acidic backbone and spicy finish. I bought my first lot of this wine 3 years ago, from a well-known auction house, since when it has cropped up with great regularity at nearly every subsequent auction. In fact, it has pretty much become my “house” wine. By my estimation, some merchant or other has drip-fed at least 100 cases of this wine through various auction houses, and the supply doesn’t seem to have dried up yet! And at the going rate of around £5 a bottle, it really is a serious bargain. In fact, if I had paid that price on release (15 years ago?) I would not have been disappointed at how it turned out. And it certainly has a good few years of life left in it. Which is just as well, because I still have a case or two left – and will buy more, given the chance. A remarkable wine for the money. Yum!

J.M. Alquier Reserve Les Bastides d’Alquier 1997 - Faugeres
This is another wine I picked up at auction, around a year ago, for £7.50 a bottle – which is about half the price that the current vintage retails for! It has a deep, dark ruby/blood red core, which belies its age, with only a tiny, slightly bricking rim to give it away. The nose offers up great wafts of woodsmoke, bramble and plums, with all sorts of other things going on - notably violets and lilies, sichuan peppercorn, a lick of brett and a good dose of schiste minerality. Oh so complex and still a relative baby, with lovely weight of bramble and redcurrant fruit and a touch of bitter chocolate. With slightly rustic tannins, lovely acidity and gently warming alcohol (14.0%) this is a wine that manages to be both mouth-puckering and mouth-watering at the same time. Although possessing some nice Grenache notes, this really is all about the Syrah - sort of Cornas-meets-Languedoc. It is a complex and compelling wine, and with such depth of fruit, it will certainly go for another 5+ years before peaking. But it is so lovely, I will find it hard to resist drinking my remaining bottles before then.

Chateau Musar 1996 – Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
I wasn’t sure what I should open to accompany roast pork last weekend. OK, so roast pork can be matched with so many wines (of all colours) but I have just brought home from my store a few boxes of mixed wines, since my choices for “drinking” wines were starting to get a bit limited. However, a thread on the wine-pages forum about 2001 Chateau Musar pretty much made my mind up for me. I am a big fan of Musar, so a rather lukewarm note about the (very young) 2001 current release got me thinking about the so-called lesser vintages of this wine, especially as a few other Musar fans were adding their two penn’orth to the debate. All I can say is that “Musar heads” really should know better than to judge or dismiss an 8 year-old vintage, so early on in its development. I have heard/read this sort of snap judgement so many times that it has become a bit of a bugbear of mine. Suffice to say that I have already tried the 2001 (and have a few more bottles tucked away) and would say that it should be kept for at least another 3-5 years before making a more reasoned assessment.

For example, the 1996 vintage has often been dismissed as weak. Nevertheless, I bought a case at auction 2 or 3 years ago and have been enjoying the occasional bottle ever since. I have around half a dozen left, and it seems to get better with every one I open. So, prompted by the forum discussion, I opened another one. Now admittedly, 1996 is a fairly "light" vintage by Musar standards, but it also happens to be one of the cleanest and most elegant vintages I have ever tasted. In fact, if I were tasting this bottle blind, I might even mistake it for a very (very) good 1er Cru Burgundy - it is that good.

I am very much looking forward to enjoying my remaining bottles of 1996 Musar over the next 5 to 10 years, whilst occasionally dipping into the remainder of my stash of the brilliant and classic (i.e. much faultier!) 1991. The 2001 might be a little bit sleepy, at the moment, but its time will undoubtedly come. Patience is the watchword!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Paxman v Johnson - a bruising encounter (and an honourable draw)!

I must admit that I do have some fairly deep-rooted and long-standing political views - all moderate, I might add - although a (generally) wine-related blog is certainly no place to air them. Furthermore, I suspect that I am no different to 95% of the population in currently being thoroughly hacked-off with politicians of all persuasions, be they left, right or centre. In fact, come the next election, I may well be voting for "none of the above", such is my disillusionment with the choices on offer.

Having said that, I do like a good laugh, and politics - just like any other normally "serious" subject - does have a habit of throwing up the occasional genuine comedy moment. And one such moment is now available for all to see on the BBC iPlayer. It features a bout between the (until now) undisputed UK heavyweight champion political interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, and Boris "Rocky" Johnson of Her Majesty's Opposition (and current Lord Mayor of London). The venue is, of course, the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. I must admit that (whatever my own political leanings) I do have a soft spot for dear old Boris and have always been a fan of Paxo. Frankly, when he interviews a politician, they stay well and truly interviewed - and they are all fair game, as far as I am concerned!

I won't spoil the fun by telling you all about it. Suffice to say that it is very funny, no blood is spilt, and (on my card, at least) it finishes as an honourable draw. I just can't wait for the re-match!

For those of you reading this outside of the UK (or indeed if it has disappeared from iPlayer by the time you do read this) then don't worry. It has already been preserved for immortality (I hope) on YouTube. Enjoy!

California - a chance to taste some really interesting wines

Although my personal preferences in wine have always favoured the old world over the new, I have always had a soft spot for California. So last night at Nottingham Wine Circle provided an opportunity to taste some really interesting stuff, courtesy of my friend Andy Leslie. The line-up consisted of 14 wines, majoring on three excellent growers - Joseph Swan, Ridge and Tablas Creek - but starting with a delicious Mumm Cuvée Napa Rosé sparkler.............

1. Mumm Cuvée Napa Rosé NV - Napa Valley
A gorgeous pale pink colour, with an expressive nose. A lovely wine, packed full of lemon and cranberry fruit. Rich, creamy, lightly toasty and aged sufficiently for any hard edges to have softened beautifully. Elegant and long and delicious.

2. Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc 2005, Paso Robles
70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc and 5% Picpoul - but this, to me, smelled and tasted more like a decent Alsace Pinot Gris than a Rhone-style blend. But that is not to detract from a nicely made wine - rich, dense and with excellent structure. Elegant, too.

3. Joseph Swan Saralees Vineyard Gewurztraminer 2005, Russian River Valley
Very Gewurztraminer - by which I mean extremely perfumed, in a turkish delight-steeped-in-rosewater sort of way! Dry(ish) on the palate, but that overtly rich, perfumed Gewurztraminer profile (i.e. it tastes even stronger than it smells) is definitely an acquired taste - and not one I can ever see myself acquiring. As somebody else remarked, Alsace on stilts! OK stuff, but not for me.

4. Joseph Swan Angelo's Old Vine White 1994, Russian River Valley
Old vines - and old wine. By which I mean well past it, in an oxidised, cheesy, sherry-like way. Having said that, it wasn't too unpleasant to drink - which at least made it more palatable (to this dry sherry hater) than just about any Fino I've ever encountered!

5. Joseph Swan Wolfspierre Vineyard Chardonnay 1995, Sonoma Mountain
In its youth, this would undoubtedly have been extremely oaky, but the oak has integrated nicely and the wine has evolved into something really interesting and even quite elegant. Classic lemon and mineral Chardonnay aromas and flavours, with an interesting "banoffee" richness - like California meets Meursault. I really like this, though it would benefit from being paired with some roast pork.

6. Ridge Litton Springs 2006, Dry Creek, Sonoma
80% Zinfandel, 16 % Petite Sirah, 4% Carignan. This smells and tastes like a decent, though unspectacular, Cotes du Rhone. Big fruit, carbonic maceration(?) and bold flavours. Nice stuff, but I'm not sure it will evolve into anything spectacular. Perhaps it is meant to drink young, rather than to be aged. Either way, it is an enjoyable but fairly simple wine which doesn't merit a price tag of around £22.

7. Joseph Swan Matthew's Station Vineyard Tannat 2005, Russian River Valley
Deep and dark, but certainly not broody or impenatrable - and certainly unlike any Madiran I have ever tasted. Actually, it is pretty delicious, in a fruit-forward, approachable, drinkable sort of way. A real curio - and for around 12 quid, a bit of a bargain.

8. Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel 2002, Paso Robles
57% Mourvedre, 27% Syrah, 10% Grenache and 6% Counoise. The nose is initially closed, but it opens out to reveal southern Rhone-style aromas, with a touch of the Burgundy about it - aromatically, perhaps even white Burgundy, although there is a touch of volatility. The palate is less satisfying, and lacking a little in the fruit department, with some dusty tannins still getting in the way. Not a bad wine, but I don't think it will improve.

9. Joesph Swan Cotes du Rosa 1995, Russian River Valley
100% Carignan. Wow, this is so lovely, with a complex nose of smoke, red and black fruits, pepper and spice and all sorts of things. High-toned, but in a good sort of way - just so fragrant and so elegant. Quite rich on the palate, but perfectly balanced and packed full of sweet, spicy fruit, with soft tannins and cracking acidity. Utterly lovely - and further proof (as if I needed it) that Carignan can and does make great wine!

10. Joseph Swan Stellwagen Vineyard Zinfandel 1995, Russian River Valley
Rich, raisiny, pruney and slightly volatile - but another lovely wine. Sexy was the word which sprang to mind (don't know why)! Wonderfully fruity and packed with mouth-watering acidity. Quirky, spicy, slightly volatile and perhaps even "faulty", in a Chateau Musar sort of way. But give me faulty, characterful wines over boring, formulaic ones, any day of the week. Not as good as the Cotes du Rosa, but still a cracking wine.

11. Joseph Swan Zeigler Vineyard Zinfandel 1995, Russian River Valley
This is even more Musar-like, though with more in the way of secondary aromas and flavours (truffles, undergrowth, cheese) but still plenty of that slightly volatile raspberry and perhaps even citrus fruit. Perhaps I even preferred this to wine number 10, but only just.

12. Joseph Swan Frati Vineyard Zinfandel 1995, Russian River Valley
This is so much bigger and denser than 10 and 11, and perhaps even a bit more "correct" and "clean" - but, for me, less enjoyable because of it. To be fair, the others are perfectly mature, whereas this one seems to have more life left in it, so perhaps it just needs more time to develop all of those delicious faults!

13. Ridge Spring Mountain Petite Sirah 1993, York Creek, Napa Valley
Another wine with a nose like a young Cotes du Rhone, despite it being 16 years old. Dense, sweet fruit and tannins make for a rather backward wine - or is it just a bit boring? Not bad, I can't really see it going anywhere.

14. Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel 1991, Dry Creek, Sonoma
Smells very slightly dirty, but not in a way that spoils it. Indeed, it has quite a complex nose of bramble, blackcurrant, red capsicum, cedar and sous-bois. The palate is big and rich, but soft - similar in profile to a Barossa Cabernet, but more complex and multi-faceted. There is a lot going on in this wine, and it reveals yet more complexity after some time in the glass. Another analogy might be Claret with bells on. Classy and full-bodied, but very elegant with it. A real cracker to finish the evening.

This was such an enjoyable tasting, and a rare treat. Actually, some of these wines are still commercially available, some for as little as 12 quid, which makes them better value than one would imagine can be had for premium Californian wine. Note to self - I must drink more Californian wines!