Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tasting Bordeaux 2004

Bordeaux producers from the Union des Grands Crus hosted a tasting a few weeks ago of their 2004 wines in San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, and New York. Sandwiched between two highly hyped vintages, 2003 and 2005, and the fact that the usual wine critics haven't spent much ink, so far, writing up about this vintage, the Bordeaux producers have wisely seized the task themselves of spreading the joys of their 2004 wines.


There were several hundred wines being tasted, mostly from stellar producers. Though the First Growths were nowhere to be seen and a handful of top tier producers like Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Pavie, and Leoville-Lascases did not make it, many of the best and brightest of Bordeaux these days were pouring their wines.

Overall, it was not a bad vintage. There is much variability in the quality of the wines, but non-Medoc regions like Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, and Graves showed the most consistency. Pauillac and Margaux appear to yield the least amount of exciting wines, which pretty much explains why this vintage is not getting its fair share of hype. I mean, Bordeaux is a huge place, with microclimates in each of its regions. Almost the entirety of Bordeaux can experience a bad vintage, but as long as key estates in Pauillac and Margaux come up with excellent wines one would hear mainly hype about the vintage from the wine media. Such is the prevailing bias. Pauillac and Margaux, Pauillac especially, hold the keys to the market success of the entire region.

From Graves, I like the wines in both colors that the regeion is famous for. In whites, Domaine de Chevalier produced a thrilling white, the best in the tasting, with very good concentration, freshness, and depth. The whites from this venerable estate are usually second only to the whites of Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. Smith Haut-Lafitte Blanc showed very good balance and minerality and I liked it a lot. Other wonderful white are the ones from Fieuzal, Larrivet-Haut-Brion, and the little-known Chantegrive. Carbonnieux, whose 2003 blanc is one of the best from that difficult vintage for whites, unfortunately did not excite me this time.

Graves reds showed even more brillaince. This time I was impressed with Carbonnieux. But one of the most impressive was Haut-Bailly--seemingly forward in style because of its excellent balance, it's very classy. Larrivet-Haut-Brion and Smith Haut-Lafitte were also impressive. Both displaying the forward style of this vintage.

In St.-Emilion there is even more to choose from. My favorites include Beau-Sejour Becot, Figeac (stunning!), Clos Fourtet, Pavie-Macquin, Troplong Mondot, Grand Mayne, and the little-known Dassault. But I wasn't too thrilled about Angelus, which I found a bit too extracted for the vintage and trying too hard to please. 2004 is a vintage that rewards wines that are more relaxed in style.

The handful of Pomerol estates in attendance did not disappoint, with both Clinet and Gazin showing very good stuff indeed. But La Conseillante was truly spectacular--very ripe, very sweet; the tannins so rich and velvety.

As I mentioned, Margaux did not perform well, however, at least one that stood out was Du Tertre--it was perfumy, ripe, and intense. Its favored exposure at the top of a hill in Margaux plus the brilliant winemaking really paid off. This is one of the best buys of the vintage.

In Sauternes there is much to like. Rayne Vigneau and Lafaurie-Peyraguey turned out exceptional wines that are rich and layered and supported by good acidity. My top picks, though, are La Tour Blanche and de Fargues.


La Tour Blanche picked brutally as a result of the rain during harvest, leaving as much as 70% of the fruit unpicked. The sacrifice was definitely worth it as the wine showed beautiful sweetness and freshness on the palate, with wonderful length on the finish.

De Fargues, which is a separate estate owned by Yquem, also sorted brutally as the hailstorm destroyed about 60% of the crop. This is a wine with much delicacy and charm; instead of wowing you with richness, whcih it has a good amount of, it also seduces with its finesse and elegance. A marvelous feat.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Surreal World of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

The world of Napa Cabernet Sauvignons can be surreal. Take the case of the 2004 Levy & McClellan Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that's breaking all sorts of records (someday some media publication will keep track of esoteric wine stats the way it's done in U.S. professional sports). Meanwhile, the wine blogosphere has been abuzz with this wine and if you happan to have a wine blog yourself you probably shouldn't be caught not posting something about it.

Consider the following:
The 2004 vintage is the first commercial release.
The scheduled release of this first vintage is next year.
It is said that production is set at 300 cases.
Every bottle appears to be already spoken for.
The release price is set at $350/bottle, which appears to be the highest release price of any debut vintage Napa Cabernet, perhaps of any wine on its first release.
No wine critic has even tasted it yet, much less given it a score.
The 6-acre vineyard was planted in 1999, so the 2004 vintage is from 5-year-old vines. This also implies that this piece of land has not produced any wine ever before.
A 3-bottle lot closed at auction today at $2,500.00.

So what is this wine that costs $350 a bottle on its first release, which no one except the proprietor/winemakers has ever tasted, which is already sold out a year before its eventual release, which already sold at auction at over $800/bottle a year before release, and which hundreds, if not thousands, of willing buyers are still begging for an allocation?

Wouldn't you agree with me that the world of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon can be surreal?

Friday, January 12, 2007

A Kistler Chardonnay Vertical


A tasting last month of Kistler Chardonnays encompassing five consecutive vintages was very revealing. It showed that Kistler Chardonnays can age over longer periods than widely believed (well beyond five years from vintage date), and that at least this is true for vintages earlier than 2002.

Vintages 1998 through 2001 have turned to a deep yellow color. Some may frown at this and quickly conclude that it’s a visible sign that the wine has turned. Nonsense. It’s oxidation, alright, which is what aging is about, but it doesn’t mean the wine has expired. On the contrary, the 1998s were still tight, particularly the McCrea Vineyard, while both the Dutton Ranch and Durell Vineyard showed better on the second and third days. No doubt the powerful concentration and high levels of polyphenols of these wines help them achieve long maturities.

Surprisingly, though, the youngest wine of the group, the 2002 Dutton Ranch, was the softest and was immediately drinking well. Has Kistler changed anything in their winemaking approach since 2002?

Russian River Chardonnay “Dutton Ranch”, Kistler 1998

Deep yellow color. Nutty, fruity scents. Round and creamy. Showing more vibrancy on the second and third day, plus more minerality.

Dutton Ranch is in one of the coolest microclimates in Sonoma and planted with 30-year-old vines. Many other wineries produce Dutton wines, but no one equals Kistler.

Sonoma Chardonnay “Durell Vineyard”, Kistler 1998
Softer and more open than the Dutton. Ripe, with lush tropical fruit flavors. It showed more substance on the second day

Located in southwest corner of Sonoma, close to Carneros, Durell Vineyard is planted with old Wente clone taken from the Hyde Vineyard in Carneros. Very low yields and small berries result in intense, forceful Chardonnays.

Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay “McCrea Vineyard”, Kistler 1998
The tightest of the three 1998s. It had no nose at all when opened, though the palate was fruity and fresh and showed the most minerality of the three 1998s. The nose remained closed over the next two days and the flavors retained their freshness.

McCrea Vineyard lies 800 feet on the east-facing slopes of Sonoma Mountain. It’s in a very cool microclimate and grapes ripen slowly here and develop full flavor when harvested. Kistler is responsible for farming this vineyard.

Russian River Chardonnay “Vine Hill Vineyard”, Kistler 1999
The most mineral in the group and, therefore, very well textured. Its color is slightly lighter yellow than the 1998s. Started tight on the palate, but its vibrancy made it at least refreshing. It opened up more the next day. Ripe apricot, citrus flavors and layers of minerals.

This is one of Kistler’s estate vineyards. It was planted in 1988 with low-yielding Chardonnay clone that produces concentrated, multilayered wines.

Russian River Chardonnay “Vine Hill Vineyard”, Kistler 2000
Deep yellow color, somewhere in between the 1998s and the 1999, A bit reticent, but soon opened up to lush, tropical fruit flavors. It remained fresh-tasting over the next two days.

2000 was a relatively cool growing season, perfect for expressive, elegant Chardonnays that are able to mature over a longer period.

Russian River Chardonnay “Dutton Ranch”, Kistler 2001
A fat, rich Chardonnay. Just a bit sweeter than the others, but also just as fresh tasting. The color has turned deep yellow, but it tastes very youthful on the first day. The next day the flavors showed more tropical fruit and nuttiness.

Unquestionably one of the finest Chardonnay vineyards in California, Dutton Ranch experienced a long growing season in 2001 resulting in a juicy, ripe, and full-flavored Chardonnay.

Russian River Chardonnay “Dutton Ranch”, Kistler 2002
Lush, round, soft, and creamy-textured. This was very forward and showed no tightness at all. It drinks very deliciously now. With its softness and low acidity, this is stylistically the most different Chardonnay in the group.

A short growing season with severe heat spikes, the fruit ripened quickly and produced a wine that’s fat and opulent, yet mouthwateringly fresh on the palate.