Monday, February 28, 2005

The Great White Rhone

Tablas Creek 2002 Cotes de Tablas Blanc
Paso Robles

Shane's Notes

We have read many rave reviews of Tablas Creek’s Rhone style white wines so we were really anxious to try one. We chose the 2002 Cotes de Tablas which is a blend of Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. This wine is dark yellow; it actually looks like non carbonated beer. A quick swirl of the glass releases a strong, acidic, citrusy smell, so it is pleasantly surprising when a sip of the wine reveals mildly complex flavors of tropical fruit such as mango. The tropical fruits of this medium-bodied wine are soon followed by a dry, mineral taste with a lingering finish. The wine is crisp but not as racy as the typical French white. The mineral taste juxtaposed against the sweet fruit taste makes this an extremely interesting wine. We highly recommend it and are looking forward to trying other Tablas Creek white wines.

A Whirlwind Journey Through Burgundy

Burgundy Tasting at K&L, Redwood City
February 26, 2005
Jen’s Notes

Neither Shane nor I have much experience with Burgundies. Mine is limited to Chablis and one lovely Chassagne-Montrachet that I still remember fondly. So, we headed down to Redwood City on Saturday afternoon to sample 11 Burgundies at K&L Wine Merchants. The tasting was $20.00 a person, which is a steal, considering the fact that you could very easily pay $70 and up for one bottle of Burgundy and hate it.

We started off with three whites, all of which I thought were pretty good. I liked all of our early reds as well, but we didn’t hit the jackpot until no. 9, the 2002 Vosne Romanee, "Les Vigneaux," Domaine Jean Tardy. It was excellent, a supremely elegant and refined wine. It boasted a big floral nose, like a bouquet of wildflowers. The flavors were well balanced and supported by smooth, integrated tannins. It is difficult to pin down the flavors; Burgundies tend not to be fruit bombs, although this one boasted hints of strawberries. I also detected exotic spice and herb notes, a touch of vanilla, and maybe some leather and smoke. The finish was long but clean.

The unfolding quality of the flavors in this wine amazed us. The flavors smoothly accordioned and shifted, sometimes significantly, from one area of the palate to the other. This characteristic of Pinot Noir (all the Burgundies we tasted exhibited this characteristic to some degree) is very bizarre to us Merlot/Cabernet drinkers and is very difficult to describe (we suspect that this characteristic of the varietal is partly responsible for Pinot’s high standing with the wine nerds). It is as if the varietal is hosting a very refined and lovely party on your palate.

The Les Vigneaux was a bit more accessible than the other Burgundies with slightly richer flavors and a bit more complexity. Altogether charming and wonderful, and a comparative bargain at $47.99.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Catching Up

Here are our notes on four wines from last week and the weekend.

Sandeman 20 Year Old Tawny Porto
February 16 and 18, 2005
Jen’s Notes

If you ever wondered what an Aunt Sally’s Praline would taste like in liquid form (with an alcohol content of about 20%), then this Port is for you. There were pronounced flavors of pecans (or maybe hazelnuts, though these wouldn’t be in the Aunt Sally version), brown sugar, butterscotch and burnt caramel, all wrapped in a creamy, nearly unctuous coating. Smooth, subtle tannins underscored the rich, sweet, nutty flavors. Spectacular nose, too, perfectly echoing the flavors of the wine. Nice, clean finish.

1999 Taylor Fladgate LBV
February 19 and 20, 2005
Shane’s Notes

On Saturday, I visited a friend who dislikes Port, so I decided to bring him a Late Bottled Vintage Port to change his mind. I went with the Taylor Fladgate 1999 L.B.V. Port which I had never tried but I trust (ed) Taylor Fladgate. I corked it and watched as my friend tasted it and exclaimed, "This is awful – it tastes like cough syrup." My first suspicion was that my friend’s uneducated palate misled him. However, one taste confirmed his pronouncement – the upfront flavor on this wine, a sickeningly, sweet cherry cough syrup flavor, mercifully disappears rather quickly in the midst of some harsh tannins. This wine is definitely disappointing and almost deserves to be poured down the sink. I took the rest of the bottle to Jen’s and after having a sip, she suggested that we chill it to kill the taste. Vintage Ports are only made in declared years; perhaps there are some years in which L.B.V’s should not be made either.

2004 Beaujolais Noveau, Domaine Manoir du Carra
February 19, 2004
Shane’s Notes

Is Beaujolais Nouveau a legitimate wine or is it just another White Zinfandel? I had never had one and was anxious to add my voice to the debate. Jen, having drank several Nouveaus in the past and completely disliking them, was uninterested so I sacrificed $8.50 to satisfy my curiosity and told her we could pour it down the sink if it were undrinkable. Jen chilled the Nouveau for about fifteen minutes prior to serving it, and I’m probably going to lose my standing as a serious oenophile but I really enjoyed it. It is not complex but I don’t expect complexity from an inexpensive wine. It has a spritzy feel to it as it slightly tingles the tongue. It has some citrus flavors and just enough tannins to provide structure. If I had been blindfolded, I might have mistaken it for a Sauvignon Blanc. It is a light red wine and would be great for a hot summer day, so it’s unfortunate for this particular wine that the Nouveaus come out in winter and do not last until summer. It is a fun wine to drink and I would definitely buy it again. Even Jen grudgingly admits that she likes this one.

2001 Provenance Cabernet Sauvignon
February 20, 2005
Jen’s Notes

This wine boasted big, round, berry fruit with well-integrated, slightly smoky tannins. Gorgeous, fruity-floral nose and a medium-length, clean, dry finish. Very well balanced and smooth. I thought the Provenance was unusually fruit-forward for a Cab, which is certainly not a flaw. Typically, however, with fruit of this magnitude (not quite a bomb), that’s all you get. Provenance definitely went the extra mile with those supple, supporting tannins. It is a fabulous deal at $27.99.

Friday, February 18, 2005

One Wine, Two Opinions

2001 Chateau Larruau, Margaux
February 16, 2005

Jen’s Notes

I chose this delightful young Bordeaux to accompany our Valentine’s Day dinner, which we had on the 16th. Dinner was very French: rotisserie chicken, confit potatoes, and brussels sprouts. The wine went perfectly with the food and with our cheese plate.

I decanted it, which I would definitely recommend. While I enjoyed the evolution of flavors in my glass, a more approachable result could be achieved with about 30 minutes of breathing time in the decanter. For the patient types, about 5-7 years of bottle age would be just about perfect.

The first aromas were gorgeous – big blueberry fruit mingled with herbs; the first sips, however, were a bit intimidating. I tasted the tannins more than anything else, but I also detected black fruit with a bit of vanilla underneath and notes of cedar and spices.

As the evening progressed, richer, sweetly decadent cassis fruit emerged, as well as lovely cigar box aromas on the nose. I found the wine to be very well structured, with all the flavors well-balanced and harmonious. The tannins were definitely there, as they should be in a wine this young, but they were not overpowering. Toward the end of my last glass, blueberry, vanilla, and sweet, musky spices predominated. Long finish.

Shane’s Notes

This was the first serious Bordeaux I have tasted, and I found the experience a bit bewildering. I am much more used to the predominant flavors in the meaty Rhones and in the power Cabs of Napa. The flavors in this wine were just too subtle for me. I definitely noticed the vanilla (both on the nose and up front) but had difficulty detecting much else. I suppose I noticed a hint of blueberry but I could not detect the cassis, cedar, or spices that Jen tasted. The tannins were also a little harsh for me. I enjoy wine with a nice structure but I want the tannins to be like the bassist in a rock group – in the background and barely noticeable.

This wine was just too young to enjoy. This is the type of wine that needs at least five years of aging to smooth out the tannins and to elicit the flavors.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Three Reds from the Weekend

2002 Bordeaux, Yvecourt
2002 Hawk Crest Cabernet Sauvignon
2003 Red Bicyclette, Syrah, Vin de Pays d’Oc
February 14, 2005
Jen’s notes


Shane and I went to BevMo in San Francisco for wine to take to dinner at my mom’s. We were on a bit of a budget and figured that our best bets were from France. We found the 2002 Yvecourt Bordeaux for, shall we say, less than $10.00. This wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc; according to the "shelf talker," it boasted sumptuous fruit. Unfortunately, the shelf talker has a lead palate. While there was a bit of fruit upfront, it was, as I have said about other wines, "generic," lacking anything suggestive of a specific fruit, such as cherries, berries, or cassis. There was nothing to follow that initial, tentative fruit; it just dropped off and finished without so much as a wave goodbye.

The wine also lacked complexity and structure. Shane pointed out that the addition of Cabernet Franc (which he loathes, incidentally) is no substitute for structure, and he is exactly right. It is certainly common in Bordeaux to shore up a blend with CF when the Cabernet Sauvignon in that particular vintage year didn’t fare so well, but CF is not going to make up for lack of winemaking skill.

After we polished off the Yvecourt (there were four of us at dinner, so we didn’t have to endure much of it), we moved on to a similarly unstructured, but otherwise totally different wine from California, the 2002 Hawk Crest Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Hawk Crest, while not exactly enjoyable, was definitely interesting. It hit me immediately with gobs of fruit, unfortunately still generic, but better than the alternative, I suppose. It was kind of like a poor man’s Silver Oak, if only for that sweet, intense-ish fruit burst. I say intense-ish, not to describe a depth or complexity of flavor, but the fact that it was so attention-getting, like that girl who really shouldn’t be wearing quite so much make-up. Shane noticed that the wine had loads of vanilla, too, which was rather pasted on and not integrated into the wine.

There weren’t any balancing acts in this wine – very little acidity and no tannins to speak of. It wasn’t undrinkable, but it was disappointing, given the fact that (1) this is Stag’s Leap’s little brother (same winemaker), and (2) the Hawk Crest Chardonnay is pretty good, if memory serves.


To make up for drinking one of our "house" reds on his own, Shane bought us the 2003 Red Bicyclette Syrah. Finally, finally, a good wine. We were actually quite pleasantly surprised at how good this was. Interestingly enough, Red Bicyclette is produced by Gallo (hence the surprise).

I took my first sip and looked and Shane, not saying anything. He sipped his. We looked at each other until one of us had the guts to break the silence, perhaps fearing that our palates had been deceived. "I like it," he said. Relieved, I burst out, "I do, too! It’s good!"

The first sip floods the palate with lush, jammy fruit, not too in-your-face or obvious, but most assuredly there. This was deep, brambly, blackberry tart, accented with toasty, just-enough oak and cedar. The mid-palate mixed it up a bit with spicy notes and supporting tannins, leading smoothly into a satisfying finish. We were very pleased.

We have discovered that the second glass of wine is usually better than the first. We think that this is due to a combination of the wine opening up a bit with aeration and our palate adjusting to the flavors of the wine. With the Red Bicyclette, the second glass definitely showed more complexity in the fruit (as if someone added currants to that tart, and baked it in a gorgeous butter pastry) and spice notes.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Birthday Dinner for Shane

Shane's Tasting Notes
February 5, 2005

For my birthday dinner at the Outback, Jen and I went with one of our all time favorites – the Harris Vineyard Merlot from Nickel and Nickel. My parents, not being oenophiles, would not appreciate the Nickel and Nickel ("too dry" would be their refrain), but they were paying for dinner so Jen and I decided to bring a second bottle of wine that would be more accessible to them. I had recently been to their house and was surprised to see them drinking a pseudo port – a California monstrosity priced at $10 for a magnum. I tried it out of curiosity, and it had a slight sweetness which was quickly engulfed by a flood of oak and tannins – it was more discordant than a post modern symphony. I almost gagged when I drank it. Jen and I decided to give them a genuine, affordable port experience, so we brought the Krohn Late Bottled Vintage 2000.

We really enjoyed strutting up to the Outback with our fancy wine carrying case. I also had a corkscrew in my pocket because we were concerned about the corking proficiency of the Outback staff. We set the wine on the table and watched in horror as the waitress whisked the bottles away and said she would have them opened for us. Now we were unable to witness the corking and intervene if our help was required. As the minutes ticked away, our fears were partially confirmed when the waitress said that we would have our wine shortly but that they were having problems with the corks. I immediately offered my services but she politely declined. After she left, Jen began crossing herself and praying to St. Bacchus for help. It was a tense, silent five minutes, but two bottles of cork-free wine were finally delivered to our table. Catastrophe averted.

My family turned the after dinner port into a pre dinner port which actually worked out quite well – family gatherings always run more smoothly when everyone is "happy." My dad screwed up his face in disgust when he tried the port but my mom and brother really enjoyed it and couldn’t believe how much better it tasted than the "port" they had been drinking. In fact, I had difficulty saving a little so that Jen and I could enjoy it after dinner. The Krohn was as good as I remember – it has a nice, sweet berry flavor up front (the typical vintage port sweetness) with a smooth finish and just some very mild tannins on the backside. It’s an excellent deal for the price.

The Nickel and Nickel Merlot was superb. A red wine from Nickel and Nickel is like a symphony by Mozart – they both exhibit complexity within a beautiful structure. The Nickel and Nickel Merlot has a beautiful, silky texture and a nice upfront berry flavor mixed with a tinge of vanilla. The tannins are beautifully integrated providing a sound structure without any astringency.

However, with the exception of Nickel and Nickel and perhaps a few others (Rutherford Hill in a good year), merlots are insipid and lack complexity. If the Napa winemakers are listening very closely, they can hear me whispering, "Please start blending your Merlots."

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Heretic! Heretic!

2003 Chateau d’Oupia "Les Heretiques" Vin de Pays l’Herault
February 2, 2005
Jen’s notes

How could you go wrong with a wine called The Heretics? I picked this one up at K&L Wine Merchants the other night, having gone there to buy the wine** for Shane’s birthday dinner. The blue-purple label immediately caught my eye, and then I saw that name. And then I saw that it was only $7.99! K&L’s write-up looked promising, so I figured, what the heck?

The label, by the way, bears a partial astronomical map, conjuring up images of poor Galileo proclaiming, "I recant! I recant!" Ah, if only he’d had this wine to give him strength; we wouldn’t recant at all, and look forward to enjoying it again.

The Goods

The wine is the dark red-purple of rubies, with hints of violets and berry fruit on the nose. Deceptively light in body, given the deep color. This is the perfect food wine – nice flavors, but not overwhelming; very clean and accessible. Although we detected the violet and cherry flavors in our first few sips, it took about half a glass or more to uncover deeper, rounder fruit, blended with peppery spices, cardamom and tobacco. This wine definitely developed more complexity in the glass. I found myself enjoying the second glass much more than the first. The flavors, harmonious from the beginning, practically sang on my palate, and seemed even more pronounced.

Region and Varietals

Les Heretiques is from the Languedoc region of France, which, over the last 15 years or so, has begun developing better and better wines. L’Herault, in particular, has seen improvements in planting and vinification techniques.

Interestingly, the varietals used in Languedoc, and l’Herault in particular, are often the same as those used in Rhone, such as Marsanne, Mourvedre, Syrah, Carignan and Grenache. One of the improvements in Languedoc is the increasing use of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as well.

While Les Heretiques exhibited some lovely Rhone characteristics, such the hints of violet on the nose and palate, this wine was lighter in body than some of the Rhones to which we were accustomed.

The Nerd Lecture

There is an important distinction between a Vin de Pays (VdP), of which Les Heretiques is an example, and Vin du Pays. Vin de Pays means "country wine." This is the third-highest category in France’s quality control system. It is important to note that this system is purely regulatory; its purpose is to set certain minimum standards for the production of wine.

Conventional wisdom among American consumers of French wine is that Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) is the only wine worth drinking. While AOC wines occupy the highest level in France’s system, this assertion is a mistake. Les Heretiques is merely one example of a delightful, food-friendly table wine that is often found among the VdP.

The rules for Vin de Pays are similar to those for AOC and the second category, Vin Delimite de Qualite Superieure (VDQS). The main difference is that for Vin de Pays, higher yields and lower alcohol content are permitted. Vin du Pays, in contrast, means "local wine" and has no legal meaning. In other words, it is not among the categories in France’s quality control system.


** In celebration of Shane's birthday, we will be enjoying two old favorites: 2001 Nickel & Nickel Merlot, Harris Vineyard and 2000 Krohn Porto LBV. Check back soon for the tasting notes!

Acknowledgements: Herbst, The Wine Lover’s Companion (Barron’s 2003); K&L Wine Merchants,

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Tasting Trip No. 1.0

This technically isn't our first tasting trip, but it is the first one of our blog. Shane got the idea to write up tasting notes to send to our friends (which we did), and from there, the blog seemed like a natural progression. So, here it is, our first set of tasting notes:

Shane and Jen’s Tasting Notes – January 29, 2005
Wineries Visited:
Prager Port Works
Silver Oak
Rutherford Hill

We discovered some nice surprises outside of Napa’s big three (Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay). Duckhorn poured a wonderfully crisp Sauvignon Blanc that showed a nice complexity most likely due to its blending with Semillon. This wine had all the lovely crispness of Sauvignon Blanc but without some of the disagreeable characteristics that you sometimes see in this varietal (such as the flavor of cat urine). We had a few nice Zinfandels, as well – the Rombauer 2002 Zinfandel is the quintessential Napa power Zin – the wine exhibits a bold fruit explosion and is a great deal at $23 a bottle. Duckhorn also a has nice field blend, featuring Zinfandel (along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot), which their marketing gurus labeled "Paraduxx" (think about it). The 2002 showed all of the lush, upfront fruit of the Zinfandel grape, as well as the structure of Cabernet and the softness of Merlot. We were both very excited about this wine until we saw that it sold for the double the Rombauer – it would be a nice deal at half the price. We also tasted the 2001 Paraduxx, which was not nearly as fruit-forward.

Since Shane has recently discovered Ports, and Jen is a Port snob of some repute, we thought we would give the Napa port-style wines fair tasting. We tasted at Prager Port Works and Rutherford Hill, and purchased a half bottle at Heitz. Notably, Heitz was the only one of the three that used the traditional Port varietals. Prager used Petite Sirah and Cabernet, while Rutherford Hill used Zinfandel. Regardless of the varietals used, the results were quite similar - all of these ports displayed a nice sweetness and flavor up front and just when you are getting excited about them, the flavor disappears. None of them had the intensity and complexity of a true Port, although the Rutherford Hill and Heitz efforts were the closest contenders. Other than that, we were left feeling that Napa port-style wines are like Elvis impersonators – entertaining but not the real deal.

We were eagerly anticipating the Cab tastings at Duckhorn and Heitz. Shane was somewhat disappointed, while Jen was a bit more forgiving. Duckhorn poured three 1998 Cabs, each hailing from a different vineyard. Shane felt that the wines were faded and past their prime, whereas Jen enjoyed the "bare-bones" structure of these older Cabs.

At Heitz, we tasted the 2001 Napa, Bella Oaks, and Martha’s Vineyard Cabernets. Both the Napa and the Bella Oaks were inaccessible – too tannic and not much fruit showing. The Martha’s vineyard, while similarly immature, hinted at beautiful fruit. Of all of these cabs, we saw the most potential in Martha’s Vineyard. We agreed that we would like to revisit it in 5-10 years.

The raison d’etre for this tasting trip was the semi-annual release party at Silver Oak. This was the next to last stop on our trip, and the entire morning before, we heard of long lines, big crowds. The wine being unveiled this time was the 2000 Napa Valley Cab. We were anxious to taste it, having recently enjoyed the 2000 Alexander Valley Cab.

As we approached the winery, we noticed that cars were parallel parked up and down Oakville Crossroad. We quickly parked behind a car bearing a license plate frame proclaiming the ubiquitous Silver Oak slogan, "Life is a Cabernet," and joined the pilgrimage of the faithful to Cabernet Heaven. As we approached the scene, Shane thought we had left Napa and entered Oktoberfest – big white tents dominated the grounds, where what looked like thousands of people were eating barbecued appetizers and looking at souvenirs. As we got closer, we saw folks spread out on towels and lounging in lawn chairs. This was the place to be on January 29. This red carpet feeling was confirmed by the winemaker, who signed the logo wine glasses as if he were a rock star.

Somewhere in this melee, the actual tasting took place. After paying $20 for our glasses, we headed toward the densest part of the crowd to get our first 2 oz. ration. First ration, because the wine kept flowing, with everyone going back for more.

Initially, it appeared to us that some people were receiving rather large pours, nearly a full glass, while we on received a mere 2 oz. tasting portion. After a few moments of observation, we realized that many people were going up in groups of four and then pouring all their tastings into one glass so that someone in their group, usually a princess in a half-top proudly displaying her belly button, would have the decadent privilege of possessing a full glass of Silver Oak. One young lady of note ended up wearing more wine than she drank; her purple-splotched white blouse had probably just tripled in value due to the price of the fluid responsible for the splotches.

The wine itself displayed a burst of flavor which I described as vanilla-like (rather similar to a powerful Zin) while Jen insisted that it wasn’t a particular flavor as much as it was just "fruit," enveloped in velvet. While that flavor-burst was decadent and delicious, once it disappeared, there wasn’t much behind it. Although we liked the flavor and mouthfeel, and found the wine enjoyable for that, we were disappointed at the lack of complexity and structure and hence, capacity for aging. It is the quintessential Napa Cab in that it is drinkable upon release and accessible even to those who otherwise don’t drink wine, in contrast to the more austere style of Bordeaux and a smattering of Napa renegades. As Jen so eloquently put it, a French winemaker would take one taste and spit it out asking "Why did you serve me this? Are you trying to poison me?"

After a mixed-bag of Cab tasting, Shane suggested that we head over to Rutherford Hill and try their 2001 Cab. We’d heard and read good things about it, and Shane was quite certain that their Cab would easily stand up to the others we had tasted. We were not disappointed – this is a wine that deserves to be taken seriously. The wine displays some nice bing cherry flavors up front and, as the wine descends down your palate, the cherry flavors transform into a panoply of secondary flavors including a touch of chocolate, a smattering of tobacco and a hint of oak. These flavors are supported by mild tannins which do not interfere with the flavor but suggest that this wine, while eminently quaffable now, definitely has some aging potential. The complexity of the flavors should increase with two to four years of bottle age. This is the wine that I would hand to the French winemaker who is spitting out the Silver Oak.