Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dry Stack Cellars Marie's Block Syrah 2006

From the Bennett Valley - the newest Sonoma AVA - this syrah is very big and very bold. A measly 300 cases of this supremely dense blackish purple darker than concord grape juice wine was produced. While this style of wine is going a bit out of fashion, I still highly respect winemakers that can pull off a ballsy New World syrah without making it syrupy, overly sweet, or one dimensional. This is just such a wine.

With a rich meaty nose, the toffee and stewed black fruits complimented the chocolate, cherry, and coffee aromas that made this smell like a Willy Wonka experiment gone right. The palate was somewhat sweet up front, but very dry in the back end, with proper tannic grip. This is quite alcoholic and extracted, but its concentration is superb and it sits on the good side of the cusp of overdone wine. This is in almost every way a bruiser (albeit with just enough of a soft heart to garner our sympathies), and is clearly an American wine made for high fat American food.

Very Good+
$38 at North Berkeley Wine Merchants

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

B.R. Cohn Olive Hill Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1996

B.R. Cohn doesn't get a lot of press. Sitting in the relatively unpopulated southern Sonoma Valley, Cohn quietly makes stellar Cabernet and outstanding olive oil, both for reasonable prices. Luckily for me when I first came to San Francisco K&L had a huge selection of vintage bottles of Cohn's estate cab, which is one of the most refined in Sonoma in my opinion.

The nose on this beautiful Cabernet was rich and redolent of licorice, plum and dried figs. There was a tremendous depth of aroma here and an intensity suggestive of thick tar. The palate really got into the secondary and tertiary flavours, with tar, tobacco, and cigar box rolling over each other as the palate developed. Still, this had a distinctly warm-climate approach with a lot of fruit concentration and depth of fig, plum and dried black cherries. Amazingly, while many wines might simply be described as herbal, here I could cleanly detect distinct herbs such as thyme and sage. The mid-palate was also undergirded by a touch of earth. This is a stellar Cabernet and at a price that belies its complexity.

Excellent to Excellent+
$40 at K&L

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

De Dolle Brouwers Special Extra Export Stout

Speaking of beer, I'm in the mood to write a beer review, and this fascinating Belgian style stout, brewed at the behest of the Shelton Brothers Importers, is a great beer to write about. Strictly speaking this isn't a traditional Belgian style of beer, but was invented for the English market and re-invented for the US market. It's a remarkable combination of styles and De Dolle does a fantastic job here.

At 9% ABV this did not give off any overly alcoholic aromas or flavours. Rather this was metallic, herbal, and yeasty at the same time as having qualities similar to an oatmeal stout: roastedness and bitter chocolate and malts. The Belgian yeast strain used for this beer is clearly very good as the yeast elements are deep and complex. I also got candied fruits and raisins, but the bitter chocolate provided a great balance to those Belgian-like components. This is nicely carbonated and drinks great from around 54 degrees to 64 degrees. This is a wonderful and unique melding of styles and definitely the best Belgian style stout I've yet had.

Very Good+ to Excellent
$9/12oz at Healthy Spirits

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Wine Bloggers for Beer!

I have been into wine for a fair while now, but I have been into beer for longer. I think micro-brewed beers offer an incredible range of flavours and pairing possibilities that should make any wine drinker go brew-happy.

I think sometimes us wine afficionados can get caught up in our little-big world of wine appreciation and obsession. However, I also think that given wine drinkers' appreciation for the new, for small batches, for unique flavours, for amazing pairing possibilities, and for craft products, I am convinced many wine lovers could find a second love in craft beer.

Thus, I think it would be a great tradition to start up a monthly event where wine bloggers everywhere take a moment out of their busy wine drinking schedules to seek out and write about a micro-brewed beer. You might be amazed what you discover.

If anyone one else is interested in making this a tradition, please post in the comments and maybe we can get something going. I think it would be great to expose the world of wine drinkers to the equally fascinating world of artfully brewed craft beer.

Since American Craft Beer Week is coming up between May 11-17th, I propose that week for the inaugural Wine Bloggers for Beer event. Post a beer review on your wine blog during that week and send the link to me. I will write up the entries. Hopefully I can get more than just me to participate!

A Day in Santa Barbara County: Beckmen Vineyards

My third and penultimate stop during my one day jaunt through Sideways country was Beckmen, one of the top Rhone-style wine producers in California. Sadly, this excellent vinter was not pouring at the Rhone Rangers tasting, compounding all the more my desire to visit their winery.

Firstly, I have to comment that I love how the wineries in central California are so much more down to earth and homey than the mega-rooms that make up Napa County. This makes tasting the wine feel more therapeutic and more focused on the simple pleasures of flavour and aroma. I do have to comment, however, that the pours were pretty stingy here, which even though I spit, is damaging to the experience, especially since not enough wine in the glass means not enough wine to produce a proper bouquet. I tasted through both Beckmen's basic bottling series and their high end wines.

The first wine poured was the 2008 Estate Sauvignon Blanc, a clay heavy and grapefruit dominant patio wine on both the nose and palate. Simple and standad, but clean. Very Good. $16.

Delving into yet another attempt at making Marsanne work in California Beckmen produces the 2006 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Marsanne as a blend of 80% Marsanne and 20% Roussane. The nose on this was weak and very subtle. I felt it lacked expression. The palate was pretty flat, but had some orchard fruits like peach and a bit of hazelnut. I also got some burnt rubber. I'm still passing on almost all of these Rhone style whites. Good+ to Very Good. $25.

Ah Rose - it almost inevitably sucks, even though it doesn't have to. The 2008 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Grenache Rose was very light on the nose with basic red fruits. An off-dry strawberry potion on the palate. Boring. Good+. $18.

Beckmen's Vineyards behind the Tasting Room

The 2007 Cuvee Le Bec was a grenache based red blend that had a dusty and nutty nose. Pepper, simple raspberry, a bit of savory herbs and a touch of hazlenut made the flavours on the palate decent. The overall structure, however, was lacking here. Good+ to Very Good. $20.

Interestingly Beckmen also makes a 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, which had a nice baking spice, cassis, black plum and chocolate nose. Decent fruit quality on the palate, but tempered with firm tannin and ripe acidity. I enjoyed this, but the Star Lane cab is superior. Very Good. $30.

Last up was the basic Syrah bottling from Beckmen - and Syrah is what they are known for down here. The 2007 Estate Syrah had a nose of roasted nuts, chocolate sauce, and smelled distinctly like baking a chocolate cake. A very rich palate holds up a seriously tannic structure. With mostly blackberry up front, this wine is still quite linear and needs time to develop. Nicely integrated, lengthy and layered finish. Very Good. $30.

So given those reviews I suppose I have to admit that I was disappointed with Beckmen's basic bottlings. They tended to be a bit one dimensional and didn't take any risks. Moving into the mid-range, however promised a bit more consistent quality, at least in the reds.

Unfortunately the 2007 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Grenache Blanc left me feeling hollow. The nose was actually quite expressive with peach and apricot. However, it also had a very bubblegum like aroma that didn't do it for me. The palate was quite sweet, with a nice floral element. Overall, though, this is one dimensional. Good+. $30.

The 2006 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Grenache was very promising, however. A dusty spicy nose with strawberry and chocolate providing depth showed me Grenache character that isn't too common in California. Pepper and spice overlay the flowing red fruits and various berries on the palate. This is more on the ripe side and is very tasty - but in the end it is a bit too fruity a style of Grenache for my personal taste. This is not overripe, though, and many will enjoy. Very Good to Very Good+. $48.

Another solid offering was the 2006 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah with its very spicy chile and chocolate nose. I also got a bit of cassis and plum. The palate continued the cool chile/chocolate elements, and added a nice dusty finish. This is still distinctly fruit forward for a syrah, and is very smooth texturally. Very Good. $48.

The last three wines I tasted showed what Beckmen is all about. They were far and away a cut above every other wine and truly showed the phenomenal character of the Purisima Mountain site that Beckmen so fortunately owns.

The 2007 Syrah Clone #1 was actually produced from cuttings originally imported from Western Australia. The original vines from Australia were planted way back in 1863 and were brought to California by UC Davis in the 1970's. The nose on this beauty was heavy and dense with lots of mocha and toffee. The palate tastes very Australian and distinctly like a Western Australian Shiraz - of a very high quality. The palate is quite dusty and restrained, with black fruits, chocolate, and underlying layers of earth and mineral. This is incredibly layered and elegant and a superb Syrah that shows what California can do. Excellent. $52.

I also tried the 2006 Block 6 Syrah from the Purisima Mountain Vineyards - block 6 being the best block of the vineyard. I got brown sugar and heavy plummyness on the nose. But on the palate this was all pepper and spice underlying a masive tannic beast of a wine. Again, this has beautiful layering that translates from the nose to the finish in a seamless development. I think the mid-palate needs time to mellow a bit as the tannins are quite massive right now. However, in a few years this should be really great. Very Good+ to Excellent. $55.

The wine of the day, however, was Beckmen's flagship 2005 Purisima, which is made only in the best years and is meant to represent the pinnacle of what Beckmen can do with their Purisima Mountain fruit. This is 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah. The nose is BIG: rich, forward, and absolutely luscious with hoards of dark fruit, fig, plum and black cherries. There is almost a raisinated component to the nose because it is so dense. The palate was also very big with large dark plummy fruits up front, but dusty dark cocao nibs on the finish. What I loved about this wine, though, was that even though it was massive on the nose and up front, the mid-palate brought in considerable earthy undertones and the finish was both tannic and slightly bitter with the chocolate component. This gave the wine great balance and prevented it from becoming one of those syrupy thick syrahs that seem to do so well in the press. This is a very Californian wine, make no mistake, it just brings everything together perfectly. Excellent to Excellent+. $75.

And so did my visit to the illustrious Beckmen conclude. Unfortunately the tasting room staff was pretty amateurish and clumsily tried to sell me a membership at the end of my tasting. None the less, these guys are worth seeking out simply for the wine.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Franz Hill Vineyards Big and Little Vineyards Zinfandel 2005

Sometimes small production wines really can hit the spot for a great price. This Franz Hill Zinfandel was limited to 10 barrels, which translates at 300 bottles a barrel into 250 cases. So that's a pretty tiny production. I was also fortunate enough to finally partake in one of Berkeley's sacred traditions: a stuffed pizza from Zacharey's, a place so legendary that it has lineups every single day of the week.

On the nose I got pepper, bramble, spice, plum and dark cherry. The palate was 'restrained' for a zin, which I appreciated. Very spicy and dry on the palate, the sweetness levels and jammyness are dialed back on this one. I even got some earth and dust with a good base of acidity. In the end though, this is all about the fresh mixed field berries that paired beautifully with the pizza in their simple way.

And, as for that pizza, it may be lacking somewhat in the crust, but the 2 inches of amazing tomato sauce topping the melty-cheese dough was pretty amazing. I have not really tasted a pizza quite like this before, and it was pretty much the perfect complement to the Zin. So, all in all, a win on both fronts.

$30 at K&L

Friday, April 24, 2009

Five Jolly Pumpkins

Jolly Pumpkin is one of my favourite US brewers. They make nothing but sour ales, but are deft at showing the incredibly wide variety of styles that sour ales can produce. Almost everything Jolly Pumpkin does is both barrel aged and bottle conditioned, meaning most everything will improve with age. I collected these five brews over a few weeks and drank them over another few weeks. Here are the results of my tasting.

Jolly Pumpkin Bam Noire Dark Farmhouse Ale

Very Belgian yeasty on the nose with banana, malts and caramel, this is distinctly in a dark farmhouse style, almost like a Belgian brown ale. Very sour on the palate, this has moderate bitterness and a nice mouthfeel. The smoky finish is pleasant. Overall a solid beer.

Very Good to Very Good+
$12/22oz at The Jugshop

Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza Blanca

I think wheat ales and sour flavours go absolutely fantastic together, and this is no exception. Very wit-like on the nose with spice, pepper and yeast, this is light on the palate and extremely refreshing. Correander, orange and lemon give this a tart and yet alive feeling on the palate. Smooth and balanced, this is a superb sour wit.

$12/22oz at The Jugshop

Jolly Pumpkin Fuego del Otono

A fall/winter seasonal beer this is brewed with chestnuts and spices. The nose is very much like an amber ale and is quite subtle. I didn't get any spices until the palate, which was mostly fruity with some twigs and dried indian spices like mustard seed and correander. The beer was on the bitter side, but still quite drinkable. In the end, though, this just is not as good as most of Jolly P's offerings.

Very Good
$15/22oz at City Beer

Jolly Pumpkin La Roja

A perennial favourite of mine, La Roja is a flemish style red ale, but aged in oak. This is spicier and more hopppy than most Flemish ales, and distinctly on the woody over the fruity side of things. The nose is very rich, and the beer itself has great structure. As I mentioned, this is not at all sweet tasting and offers currants, lime and lemon zest with some secondary spice notes. This is a very tasty beer and pairs very well with chiles and Mexican food generally.

Very Good+ to Excellent
$10/22oz at City Beer

Jolly Pumpkin Madrugada Obscura Dark Dawn Stout

One does not usually see a sour stout, so I was pretty excited to try this extremely dense brew. The first sip of this is very exciting - incredibly robust, deep and flavourful and yet unique. The sourness adds a simply wonderful edge to the otherwise dark roasty flavours of chocolate and coffee. The sourness cuts the heavyness that can weigh down many stouts, and the much higher than average carbonation adds a great mouthfeel to this superbly crafted stout. A beer for the jaded palate.

$15 at The Jugshop

Dogfish Head Raison D'Extra

This is an extreme version of Dogfish Head's Raisin D'etre, a beer brewed with, yes, raisins. I've had both versions and am happy to report this is the better of the two. Almost like a barley wine, this is malty and sweet on the nose. The palate is distinctly raisin-y, but that adds quite a nice layer to the barley wine style body, with its strong alcohol. Well balanced, the alcohol is not dominating, even as it adds body. On a really basic level I enjoy this beer tremendously.

$9 USD

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Just Grains Launch

Due to the increasing size of this blog and my movement towards blogging on more and more craft beer I have decided to create a dedicated beer site where I will put mirror posts of all my beer reviews from now on. Dedication brings better searchability and better management of the two main niche's on which I write. The main point is to make all the beer reviews I do more accessible and searchable. Just Grapes will still be the main blog.

The name of this sister blog? Just Grains.

A Day in Santa Barbara County: Dierberg and Star Lane

Dierberg and Star Lane are two labels run by the same people. Both are focused on producing a more restrained style of wine from Santa Barbara County. Dierberg focuses on Burgundy varietals and Star Lane on the Bordeauxs (not all that common in Santa Barbara). I spent an hour or so tasting at their new tasting room just outside of Buelton.

Up first I tried the 2006 Star Lane Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Ynez Valley, which had a nose with a touch of mineral, but big citrusy New Zealand style fruit. The palate was a little poopy and filled with fresh cut citrus and grass. A good sipper. Very Good to Very Good+ $20.

The 2005 Dierberg Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley had a full bodied and enticing nose of mostly roasted hazlenuts. It reminded me somewhat of Ridge's Santa Cruz Mountain Chard. The palate was nutty again, but also added caramel, apple, licorice and a good dose of acid. A very tasty partial malo-lactic chard at a fair price. Very Good+. $32.

Moving into reds, I was quite impressed with the 2006 Dierberg Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley, which had a soft red fruits nose and an earthy and peppery palate, with a touch of savory herbs. A nice pinot, but I did prefer those from Alma Rosa. Very Good+. $42.

However, when I turned to the Star Lane offerings I was very surprised to find extremely Bordeaux style reds that still had solid ripeness to them. These are not what anyone would expect from California Bordeaux varietal wines and I think there is tremendous promise here to produce some pretty fantastic bargains so long as big media doesn't come in and jack up the prices. Fortunately, given the minerally and vegetal cut to these wines, that seems unlikely.

The 2006 Star Lane Merlot, Santa Ynez Valley is grown where all the Star Lane wines are: way out in a wamer portion of the easterly Santa Ynez Valley. Because the valley is oriented on a North-South axis, the vines are protected from the sea breazes that make the Santa Maria Valley so cool and ideal for Pinot. The nose had soft red fruits, mint and a distinct meatyness. The palate was big, but rough and only moderately sweet. Lots of red berries and earth. A nice tannic grip leads the mid-palate into a well structured finish. Very Good+. $36.

Less interesting, perhaps because so many around this area are making better examples, was the 2006 Dierberg Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley, with its nose of meat, chocolate and stems. The palate is very large and meaty, with black berry and plum skins. This is still green and needs a little age. Very Good. $34.

The final wine - a 2005 Star Lane Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Ynez Valley was the most interesting of the bunch. I got very leafy overtones on the otherwise classic nose of mint, chocolate and cassis. This, however, is very herbal on the palate, with tomato vine, thyme, sage, etc. This is very driven by the earth and herb components rather than the fruit and reminds me very much of Bordeaux. Nonetheless, there is a solid black berry fruit component sliding through the middle of this well structured wine. Very Good+. $50.

Dierberg and Star Lane are producing solid wines across the board, and if you are looking for something with a bit more of a French edge but with a California pedigree, it is worth checking out the Star Lane merlot and Cab Sauv. Additionally, all of these wines are available in BC, albeit for higher prices. Another solid producer from Santa Barbara County.

Mikkeller Black

This beer defies description. And it defies your palate too, at every step. No one would ever think this were beer if you never told them - it's that unique. With a smell that overwhelms with soy sauce and chocolate fondue reduced with fine spirits this gets ever bigger and weirder in the mouth. Pouring jet black, this is huge as hell, atom dense, and has the intensity of a pure shot of espresso, but a bigger more engulfing mouthfeel. Sweet up front with lots and lots and lots of malts, the finish is astringent and bitter. Finishes with a scotchy smokyness. Some will definitely like that component, though. Really a love it or hate it drink, this pretty much makes evaluation impossible. A paradox of a beer. And the kicker? This is 17.5% ABV. This will ruin your liver.

$20/12oz at City Beer

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Day in Santa Barbara County: Alma Rosa

Paper and exam season is upon me now with the shining light being the completion of my law degree in four weeks time. For now I will have to reminisce on previous good days, my relatively recent trip to Santa Barbara County Wine Country (aka Sideways territory) being one of them.

Without being aware that I was, through coincidence, going to be visiting wineries that appeared in the grumpy man's wine movie I set off for Santa Barbara County for some impromptu drop ins (no appointments necessary unlike Napa). What struck me about wine country in south central california was the lack of development and the extremely pastoral landscape: most wineries are at least a good 10-15 minute drive apart from each other (other than the Los Olivos strip), separated by expanses of lush green rolling hills, vines, and the occasional domesticated beast.

Alma Rosa's Vineyards

I chose to drop by Alma Rosa since I was informed that they were producing some of the most 'Burgundian' pinots in the County. I later found out that this is the Sanford family's actual base of operations, the 'Sanford' winery being completely separately owned and operated. Some sordid tale of intrigue occupies the reason for this, but I did not pursue any further with the kind Wine Room manager. I drove in past a few vineyards and out of the sightline of the main road to come to the tasting room and winery:

I opted for the Pinot Noir flight and set out to delve into six intriguing wines. First up was the 2006 Pinot Noir Vin Gris El Jabalie Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills, a Rose which was fermented in steel tanks and bottled without oak or malo-lactic. The nose was quite nutty and brightly fruity. A very clear palate this is on the drier side, but has a touch of sweetness, which was well integrated. A great summer wine. Very Good+. $20. 231 cases.

The 2007 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir was the first of the two flagship bottlings from Alma Rosa, and where the full pinot love began. Earthy subtle fruit on the nose, I definitely appreciated a Burgundian element underlying the fruit - there was a bit of savory dirtyness to the nose that imparted an almost feral quality to the wine. On the palate this is much earthier than most from this region - and subtle with the fruit layering of strawberry and cherry. Very Good+ to Excellent. $38. 6301 cases.

The 2006 Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills is made in a fuller style compared to the basic santa rita bottling. The nose is richer and more intense, with spices such as cinamon and nutmeg. The palate, however, retains personality with a very savory character up front and a development of herbal elements on top of the just-ripe nose of Rhubarb and raspberry. This is on the heavier side of pinots that I enjoy, but it is securely within the very drinkable domain. Very Good+. $49. 1300 cases.

The last three Pinots I tried were essentially experimental bottlings of the components that go into the two main bottlings from Alma Rosa. It was pretty fascinating to see how each differed dramatically and contributed certain components to the finished products. These were also very drinkable on their own, but I preferred the polish and completeness of palate on the two primary bottlings.

The 2007 Pinot Noir Mt. Eden Clone El Jabali Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills is made from vines derived from Mount Eden cuttings obtained by Richard Sanford in the 1970's. The nose on this was very vegetal with a lot of tomato leaf coming through. The palate was tannic and bright, and short on the back end. Good, but more interesting as a blending component of the Sta. Rita bottling. Very Good. $49. 236 cases.

A sniff of the 2007 Pinot Noir 667 Clone La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills revealed a stark mineral edge, light red berries, and a tinge of dust. The palate was still quite closed, but promised a future replete with spice, earth and dark berry fruit. Sporting a very long finish, I think this has a lot of potential, and shows how certain clones can bring a hell of a lot of structure and backbone to a blended wine. Very Good+ to Excellent. $49. 234 cases.

Last up was the 2007 Pinot Noir 777 Clone La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills, which had a punchy nose of baked dark fruits (plums maybe) and some spice. The palate is very fruity and deep, round and full with nice notes of strawberry, cherry and cinamon. This is authentic fruit - like freshly squeezed raspberry and blackberry juice - and certainly not over-extracted or relying on high alcohol for body. Clearly the fruit depth of the main Encantada bottling comes from this clone. Very Good+. $49. 235 cases.

My final take on Alma Rosa, which apparently did appear in Sideways - something I did not realize until after I had left and it dawned on me why they seemed so perturbed when I pulled out my camera - was that this place is trying to do something really great with Pinot in SB county, and is avoiding the overly alcoholic fruit baths that a lot of other places go for in these parts. Clearly they take their blending seriously and like to share that experience with their guests. I highly recommend their wines. And, I think it's probably a good thing that even with the success of the movie I wasn't made aware of its presence for one second while tasting the wines. That in my books takes a bit of integrity.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

An Unholy Trinity: Three High Octane Avery Beers

California is a world of variety and experimentation. Whether you are talking about education, politics, or alcohol, you can be assured that something radical is happening here. This is both inspiring and risky, but is perhaps the great charm of this land. One can risk it all, put oneself completely out there - that opportunity in itself is uncommonly rare. Failure is likely most of the time, but when you've excessively devoted yourself to something and it works, well there's nothing quite like it.

Avery, even though from Colorado and not California, fits in that realm of excess. These three beers all go way out there to try and offer something utterly unique. Each works in its own way and to varying degrees, but one has to admire the sheer conviction evident in each one of these brews. And, if I can be blasphemous, sometimes it is at the utter ends of excess that one finds the perfect balance, moderation, and ultimately, expression that makes it all worth while.

Avery The Beast Grand Cru, Batch 4, 2008

In one word: Massive. 16.3% abv. This is malty, thick, syrupy with deep flavours of caramel, brown sugar, cigar, tobacco and popcorn. Incredibly deep and full, this is surprisingly well balanced. A remarkable beer in its own right, and certainly unique.

Very Good+
$11/12oz at City Beer

Avery Samael Oak Aged Ale Batch 3, April 2007

This smells like heavily buttered popcorn, likely due to the heavy oak aging. This is a mind boggler - unique, woody, buttery as hell, but tasty despite its incredibly intense oakyness. For some reason the intense oak works a lot better than with wine. Drinkable, despite its very high alcohol at 15%, this will get bourbon lovers into beer. You can't call this 'nuanced', but you can certainly call it ball busting, and utterly singular. I commend Avery for their daring-do.

Very Good+ to Excellent
$9/12oz at Liquid Bottleworks

Avery Mephistopheles Stout Batch #3 November 2007

Another crazy big beer at 16% ABV. That said, don't discount this as overly alcoholic. Rather, this has the proper amount of age to smooth that out to perfect levels. The nose here is like a vanilla caramel sunday. Chocolate and vanilla are quite evident on the palate, but surprisingly there is an edge of minerals and metal, which is quite unique and does not clash with the sweeter flavours. Caramel arises again on the finish. This is very very tasty, but I wouldn't call it utterly complex. That said, there is layering of flavour that exposes itself as the beer warms up, and this is certainly one of the best Imperial Stouts I've had. This is the best of the three devlish beers sampled here, and that is no small feat.

$9/12oz at Liquid Bottleworks

Schlossgut Diel Dorsheimer Goldloch Riesling Spatlese 1997

I've mentioned this before, but I simply can't get over the ease at which one can pick up excellent provenance aged wines for good prices in California. It provides the impatient wine lover with an immediate outlet for experiencing what usually takes fortitude. But, I suppose that is the American way.

The nose on this was very petrolly, but also incredibly deep. I also detected vanilla and a little peach. This has a significant mid-palate that may have been tempered with age. By that I mean the sweetness levels are significantly less than what I'd expect for a full blown non-trocken (dry) Spatlese. The wine is layered and nuanced and slightly effervescent with grapefruit, peach and nectarine predominating. Also, at 7.5% ABV, you can down a whole bottle, which I did with some excellent Thai food. Diel, like Donnhoff, resides in the Nahe region of Germany, and I can say that I am building a very strong appreciation for rieslings from that particular pin on the map.

Very Good+
$40 at K&L

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Terra Valentine Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2005

Spring Mountain is one of the 'prestige' AVAs in Napa Valley. It's rare to find a Cabernet from here that costs less than $50. Mostly, that prestige is well earned, especially for those who appreciate big tannic cabs replete with sun and intensity. Enter Terra Valentine, a lesser known producer who has started to make strides towards some very promising wines at very inviting prices.

The colour of this wine could might best be described as utterly blackened juice. The mountain fruit is in clear evidence with the massive nose of brambly cassis, alcohol, twizzlers, and mocha. The palate is filled with flavour, but avoids going over the top. Frankly I was expecting a lot less balance than what came forth. But be prepared, this is supremely new world: caramel toffees, black currant jam and vanilla make this unctuous and hedonistic. With a strong and built mid-palate, the wine also does not dissapoint with its tremendous and lengthy finish. My only real complaint (and one that lowers the rating one notch) is that this is a bit 'hot', or overly alcoholic, which I imagine would dissipate with decanting. Say what you will, this is a great price for a very high quality cab that exhibits true Spring Mountain characteristics.

Very Good+
$33 at K&L

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mikkeller Black Hole

I suppose one should call this a stout, but Mikkeller does not do much by the books. Apparently this is their attempt at reproducing Alesmith's famed Speedway Stout, which I have not been fortunate enough to try yet (although there is some hope). Nonetheless, this is an awesome super flavourful chocolate and coffee bean mash up. The malts are deep and complex, and the palate is thick and viscous. A subtle tinge of caramel or toffee glides through the dessert like palate. This beer has an incredible robustness, depth and balance. And it is the best I've had from Mikkeller. Pair this with rich meats and you will be in heaven, or at least lost in a gravitational abyss.

Excellent to Excellent+
$13/375ml at City Beer

Mini Vertical: Peter Lehmann The Mentor

It seems as though great deals abound here in California since I was able to score two vintage bottles of Lehmann's Barossa Bordeaux blend "The Mentor" for a pretty fantastic price. Furthermore, Australian wines are not known so much for their ageability, and I was curious how a wine like this, from a major producer, would fair with moderate age on its back. Here are the results:

The Mentor 1999

A big cassis blast on the nose and not showing fatigue. Wood, eucalyptus and cedar smoke. Quite aromatic and very Australian. However, the palate was definitely a lot softer than I remember recent versions of this wine being. Notes of caramel opened the palate, but it was the purity of the cassis that was most impressive - one of the more authentic expressions I've tasted. It reminded me of an ice cream shop I loved when I was a kid that home made black currant ice cream by folding numerous fresh berries into it - and man was that good. Quite a long finish, and actually semi-earthy. The 9 years of age has made this quite an elegant wine, even if it is not super complex. It has layered very nicely and is still an excellent wine.

Very Good+
$25 at K&L

The Mentor 2002

Showing cedar, chocolate, cassis, eucalyptus and blackberry on the densely layered nose, this promised a lot. The palate, however, was a bit disjointed and this is definitely not showing as well as it did last year. In fact, this has become alsmost too cashmere in texture, and it lacks the layering and elegance of the 99. Cassis and cedar predominate on the palate, which feels quite round in the mouth. So, while the wine has good flavour, it is lacking the punch I expected from its more youthful visage.
Very Good to Very Good+
$25 at K&L

Clearly these wines can age, although I would suspect there is reasonable bottle and vintage variation in the quality of the aged wines. Also, I don't find them to be that much more expressive or complex than the most recent vintages; rather, the difference is in texture and elegance. I will enjoy continuing to sample some older Aussie wines to get a fuller sense of how they fare over time.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rhone Rangers: Grand Tasting

I've been meaning to write up this event for several weeks now, but have always been put off by the sheer number of notes I took, and by how many tasty wines I enjoyed. The Rhone Rangers is held in the same space as the ZAP tasting at Fort Mason; however, it does not enjoy the same number of visitors and the hall felt positively empty in comparison to ZAP. That is unfortunate since there are some pretty interesting Rhone-style wines coming from California. However, there were notable absences from some pretty major players like Beckman and Ojai. I'm not sure why they weren't there, but it would have been nice to see some more of the standard bearers at the tasting. That said, I did get a chance to meet and talk with Bob Lidquist of Qupe and Randal Graham of Bonny Doon.

Due to the sheer volume of notes I have, I will keep most of them brief unless I think the wine or winery deserves a little more of a writeup.

Randal Graham of Bonny Doon

Starting with Bonny Doon, which does warrant a bit more attention since Mr. Graham was the original "Rhone Ranger" and has been touting Rhone varietal wines for quite some time. Never one to go the standard or easy route, Graham is producing some fascinating stuff, and all of it biodynamically farmed. Here's what I had:

2007 White Blend "Le Cigare Blanc": Floral, honeyed, ripe and round. Very Good. $22.

2005 Red Blend "Le CIgare Volant": Peppery, meaty on the nose with plum and chocolate. The palate was veyr dry and tannic, with pepper and mineral. Very different from the 2004, and Randal explained to me this was more of a Grenache based wine than that vintage. Needs time in the bottle. Very Good+. $32.

2008 Rose "Vin Gris de Cigare": Candied fruit, cherry, not that interesting. Good+. $15. not yet released.

2006 Syrah "Le Pousseus": Rich fruit, dark and brambly. Briar patch. Very dry and peppery, and still quite tannic. Very Good. $20.

Delille Cellars (Doyenne)

I was very happy that one of my favourite Washington producers showed up: Delille. Delille makes Rhone style wines under their sister label "Doyenne". I think WA is one of the best places for syrah in the New World.

2007 Roussane: Round apple and orchard fruits. Not overly oaky, A good tasting white for fish or rich chicken dishes. Very Good. $34.

2006 Red Blend "Metier": GSM - Chateaneuf style. Has a very rich nose of red and black berry with some caramel. The palate is much richer than any CdP wine I've had, but still balanced and properly acidic. Very Good to Very Good+. $35.

2006 Syrah "Signature": Rich, ripe, dark up front fruit with a mineral core. Maybe the best Syrah of the show. Excellent to Excellent+. $50.


Bob Lidquist's Head on the left, surrounded by adoring fans at the crowded table

Very popular, especially amongst the trade crowd. And, for good reason. Qupe is one of the leading CA producers of Rhone style wines, with a wine maker who knows how to do it right. You will not find a single oaky, high Ph, flabby wine amongst the bunch. Not to mention they have a huge range and have built this from good relationships with growers and not the desire to flood the market with false choice. NB: they just opened a tasting room in Los Olivos.

2008 Verdad Grenache Rose Edna Valley: Very Good. $15.

2007 Marsanne Santa Ynez Valley: Tart orchard fruit, and sharp on the mid-palate. Very Good. $20.

2006 Roussanne, Bien Nacido Hillside Estate: Richer and rounder than the Marsanne. Creamy and very fruity. Very Good. $40.

2007 Syrah Central Coast: dry cut mineral syrah. Basic, but good and exceptional value. Very Good to Very Good+. $17.

2007 Grenache Purisima Mountain Vineyard: light in colour, but full in body with minerals, pepper and raspberry. Classic Grenache - the most Rhone like I tasted at the show. Very Good+. $35.

2006 Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard: Ripe, minerally, serious pepper on the mid-palate. Very Good to Very Good+. $30.

2006 Syrah Alisos Vineyard: Very chewy, dark and rich. Wood and mineral predominate. Very Long finish. Very Good+ to Excellent. $35.

2006 Syrah Nielson Vineyard: sweeter style. Dark fruits. Very Good+. $35.

2006 Syrah Stolpman Vineyard: dusty dark fruit. Bigger and more forward than the other vineyards. Very Good+. $35.

2005 Syrah Bien Nacido Hillside Estate: Really mouthfilling, with massive power but surprising elegance. Ripe fruit with tremendous character. Excellent. $45.

2005 Syrah Bien Nacido X Block: Super dense and rich. Oaked more than the others. Needs age, but layered character of multiple types of plum and black berries. Chocolate. Has a beautiful background of earth and mineral. Incredible length. Excellent to Excellent+. $100.

Tablas Creek

Another classic producer, and another making a huge range of high quality wines. However, less impressive than Qupe for my money.

2007 White Blend "Cotes de Tablas Blanc": apple juice. Medium acid. Good+ $25.

2007 White Blend "Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: sweet and round, full and layered. A great food wine. Very Good to Very Good+ (the bottle I had on its own was better). $40.

2005 Roussanne: burnt caramel, orchard fruit, soft texture. Very Good to Very Good+. $27.

2008 Rose: Good+ to Very Good. $27.

2006 Red Blend "Cotes de Tablas": Very Good. $25.

2006 Mourvedre: Good+ to Very Good. $35.

2006 Syrah: Very Good. $35.

2006 Red Blend Esprit de Beaucastel: their top dry red. Good, but not great, esp. for the price. Very Good+. $45.

2006 Dessert Wine "Vin de Paille": why california producers think they can charge this much for mediocre dessert wines is beyond me. Good+ to Very Good. $65.

The Remainder

Hagafen Cellars 2005 Syrah Prix Vineyards Reserve Napa-Sonoma: Very full and rich with classic california notes of rich dark fruits, caramel and chocolate. Really develops with air. Needs a good decant. Very Good+ to Excellent. $65.

Katin 2007 Syrah Glenrose Vineyard Paso Robles: lots of fruit and character. Reserved in style. Very Good+ to Excellent. $45.

Joseph Phelps Le Mistral Red Blend: Wanted to try this for some time - good but disappointing for the price. Very Good. $45.

Michael-David Vineyards Earthquake Syrah 2005: not super expressive on the nose. Masssive fruit and wood palate, but good if you like that creamy sweet style with backbone. Very Good. $28.

Ridge 2005 Syrah Lytton West: Very french in style. Dry with a touch of Viognier that makes the nose quite expressive. Long minerally finish. Loved this. Very Good+ to Excellent. $36.

Ridge 2002 Syrah Lytton Estate II: No notes, but rated Very Good. $36.

Ridge 2004 Petite Sirah Dynamite Hill: I'd been wanting to try a pure Ridge PS for some time, so this was a special treat. (not sure how this is a Rhone Variety though). Vegetal and savory. Very dry and tannic. Not what I expected. Almost like a bordeaux style PS. Earthy and old-worldy. Very Good+. $?.

Rosenblum Cellars 2006 Syrah Riminger Vineyard Yolo County: These guys made some really good value syrah. California forward style, lots of fruit, but also good grip and tannin. If you like big chewy and intense wines with great extraction but not to the point of no return, this and the next wine are a good bet. Very Good to Very Good+. $25.

Rosenblum Cellars 2006 Syrah England Shaw Vineyard Solano County: Very Good+ to Excellent. $35.

Saddleback Cellars 2006 Syrah Carneros: Minty and chocolatey on the nose - very Napa. Syrah, merlot and biognier blend. Smooth for a syrah (from the merlot), but lots of fruit. Not out of this world, but very solid and stood out from many other Syrahs at the show. Very Good+. $45.

Snoqualmie 2006 Syrah Columbia Valley: Hands down winner for best value of the show, and from Washington to boot. A dark fruit personality, and tremendous character and grip for such a cheap wine. This is real wine for $10. Very Good to Very Good+. $10.

Snoqualmie 2005 Syrah Reserve: Who else makes such a high quality reserve for $20? Restrained and powerful. Dark fruits with pulling grip. Great layering on the mid-palate. Very Good+. $20.

That was probably about half of the wines I tasted, but I only wrote up the big boys and the wines that I thought stood out from the crowd. Overall, quite an enjoyable event, especially since it is so rare to taste so many Rhone style California wines side by side. My final assessment is that there is tremendous potential for syrah in California, and while some are already top flight, others need to work on their product to reach the quality of syrah grown in France. But, there are so many good value and tremendously enjoyable syrahs amongst this bunch that I feel this is a great place for the industry to be growing.

That said, the Grenache wines were mostly disappointing (save for Qupe's great example), mainly because they were too forward or overly peppery, and way too extracted. Grenache to me is the Rhone's equivalent of Pinot Noir - it can pair beautifully with foods, and it is actually a fairly refined red in the Rhone. On the other hand, if you go to Priorat in Spain old vine Grenache is producing some of the most outstandingly complex and singular ball-busting wines in the old world. Sure, some have become over-extracted there too, but the best producers are making a bold style Grenache that works. But that's the beauty of this variety. The young vines can make a wonderful table wine while the old vines can punch out something with as much complexity as a great Syrah. California has a long way to go to reach that level of purity and power.

Additionally, I have yet to be impressed by a California Marsanne or Roussane. They tend to be too sweet and round and not acidic enough. When the acidity is brought up in these grapes they tend to taste like apple juice. I am not sure what people are doing wrong here, or if it is simply climate, but the white varieties have a very long way to go. That said, I am not super impressed with a lot of Rhone whites either, but there are some great ones (Chapoutier's Hermitage Blanc's) that show what these varieties are capable of. And the Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc is by far the best of that style I've tasted from California, with a lot more complexity and layering than normal. Hopefully we will see some improvement over the years. Thus, syrah remains king of the hill, for now.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ommegang Three Philosophers 2008

Ommegang are a bit hit and miss for me - but this is probably their most solid beer I've had to date. A Quadrupel in style, but fused lightly with cherries, this has a lot of complexity and density for an average priced bottle of microbrewed beer.

The nose was very nice and quite expressive - traditional heavy malts coupled with distinctive belgian yeast (banana, root beer, etc.) However, the cherries are not just a gimmick, but add a dimension of complexity that brings out more complexity in the malt profile. The palate continues the promise of the nose, with a great smoothness despite the high ABV at 9.8%. Yet, there is also a drawn back bitter component that keeps this from being one of those overly sweet Quads. They must have kept the Ph low enough so the cherries wouldn't make this too sweet. And, to cap it all off, this has a tremendously long finish for a beer.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Spring Valley Uriah 2001

Spring Valley is a highly respected Washington producer whose winemaker and owner died in a car crash in 2005. I mention this only because the industry seemed unsure about the direction of the winery after that tragic event. Luckily I was able to get my hands on an older vintage of one of their top Bordeaux style blends.

Here we have a nose of mint, cassis, garden soil and very predominant eucalyptus. The palate itself is quite soft, with a sweet forwardness filled with cassis and blackberry jam. Unfortunately, this is surprisingly hot on the back end, especially for an early 2000's WA cab based blend. Nonetheless, this is round, and full and very nicely textured, with a drawn and lengthy finish. I suppose I was expecting more from this reputable producer, but this is still a good wine.

Very Good to Very Good+
$45 at Benchmark Wines

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Jacques Puffeney Trousseau Arbois Cuvee Les Berangeres 2005

You don't see a lot of Arbois wines around, which is a shame if this bottle is any indication. Given, Puffeney is acknowledged as the top producer of the region, but still, there is something special going on here. Arbois is a relatively large appellation located in the Jura region of eastern France. The red wines of the region are made from Pinot Noir and Poulsard grapes.

This is both a singular and an absolutely compelling wine. With a nose of earthy and minerally berry fruit, this is elegant and yet forward with a touch of licorice. The palate had awesome tart earth and loamy elements, with heavy minerality and yet juicy fruit that you don't see as much in true old world wines. With a combination of beautiful flavour and fundamental elegance, this wine will appease most any jaded palate. 13.5% abv.

Excellent and Highly Recommended.
$30 at K&L

Neyers Cuvee D'Honneur 2004

I have been consistently impressed with Neyers' wines. As many probably know, Neyers was created by Kermit Lynch importer Bruce Neyers in 1992, and has grown to produce an incredible range of high quality wines influenced by the French wines that Neyers cut his teeth on with Kermit Lynch. With highly respected winemaker Ehren Jordan at the helm (of Turley), Neyers is making some pretty interesting and varied products that all have a great sense of personality.

At first when I opened this Cuvee, made in a Northern Rhone style - but with more fruit, and given its name in honour of Theirry Allemand, Auguste Clape and Noel Verset (who helped influence this wine), I was taken aback by its intense gameyness and heavy leaf notes. This is not what you normally see in California Syrahs or Syrah based blends. More like a backwards Cornas, in fact, at first this was somewhat unbalanced and I was disappointed. However, after a day in the fridge (which I assume was equivalent to a good decant), this opened up dramatically and really smoothed out.

The nose shifted so that mint, blackberry and currants predominated and the game and leaf took a secondary character. The palate was equivalent to the colour of the wine: rich and black. Game was dominant on the first day, but then out came chocolate, plums and blackberries. In the end I was quite happy with this wine, although I have to admit I prefer the better QPR of the lakeville road syrah. However, I feel with time this could be really outstanding. Sourced from the famed Hudson vineyards.

VeryGood+ to Excellent (after the fridge); Good+ to Very Good (upon initially opening)
$45 ($38 on sale) at Dean and Deluca in St. Helena

Monday, April 6, 2009

Paul et Jean-Marc Pastou La Cote de Jury Vieille Vignes Sancerre 2006

For those seeking great cutting whites at recession prices, the Loire valley is the first place to look. Sancerre is, of course, the most famous region within the Loire, but it is still producing some superb wines at great prices. This is one such wine. Barrel selected by North Berkeley Wine Merchants (god I love it here, where a wine store barrel selects wine from great producers around the world).

The nose had round orchard fruits and subtle minerals. Simple, but still layered and enticing. The palate is quite tart with lemon and a very sharp citrus bite that slides into a mineral strike in the mid-palate. Mostly restrained in its fruit, this is meant for food, but is a great wine for that purpose. Try this with some tasty goat's cheese such as a Chabichou. Very nice for what it does.

Very Good
$20 at North Berkeley Wine Merchants

Sunday, April 5, 2009

De Hemel Nieuw Ligt Grand Cru 2003

Another paradigm killer, but even more profound than the J.W. Lees. This beer is also officially billed as a Barley Wine, but it couldn't be further from the basic formula than it is. A dark brown, cloudy colour in the glass, the nose brought out a holy *#$(* moment when it mimicked a high quality Sauternes with its profound candied pear, apple, and grapefruit notes.

The palate was, simply put, insanely complex and deep. Layers and layers of honey, grapefruit, pear, and nuts. This is a bastard child of Sauternes and posseses an incredible balance of acidity and sweetness. Pretty much not only the best Barley Wine I've ever had, but maybe the best beer I've ever had. Who would have thought a 6 year old beer could kill it so well.

$10 at the Toronado beer sale (totally unavailable now)

J. W. Lees Harvest Ale Lagavulin Casks 2005

This beer defies a few preconceptions about what beer should be. Firstly, it is bottle conditioned and aged. Secondly, it is aged in Scotch barrels from Lagavulin. This is unlike any beer that a non-aficionado will have ever tasted.

The nose is very rich, very malty and caramelly. But this belies what lies underneath the barley wine-like nose. That is, when you take a sip you are confronted with intense scotch smokyness, a bit of peat, and a smooth and incredibly complex brew. While malty, this is more like drinking a cross between beer and scotch than anything else. Perhaps a bit too sweet for some (who should then consider Ola Dubh beer), but undeniably unique, complex, and a paradigm-shifter.

Excellent to Excellent+
$14/375ml at City Beer

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Napa Redux: Steltzner

The Stag’s Leap District, and Napa generally, is populated with a wide variety of overpriced wineries. Cabs from mediocre upstarts can soar to $80 a bottle, and one can easily begin to see how Napa has jaded many wine aficionados. Steltzner is a contrast to all of these basic paradigms. This is a small operation, and an old one – Steltzner has been making wine since 1965. Not only that but Steltzner likes to experiment with strange varieties and has a philosophy not to gouge their customers, leading to some pretty good value stuff.

I began by tasting the 2005 Pinotage which had an atypical nose of cassis and mint. The palate was big and briary with a massive mid palate. Not your typical Pinotage. Very Good. $32

The 2005 Estate Malbec had a big roasted fruit nose of blackberry, with a touch of gameyness. The palate was filled with raspberry, chocolates and baking spices. The mid-palate was quite soft and not at all like cheaper Argentinian stuff. A BBQ sipper. Good+. $36.

The 2006 Claret had a minty blackberry and dried fig nose. This was spicy upfront on the palate, with an almost Rhone-like pepper component. However, the mid-palate was all California fruit. A huge tannic bite on the back end. Very Good. $20.

The 2005 Estate Cabernet Franc was atypical for the variety. Mint and cassis on the nose, this repeated on the palate and added plum and herbs. There is a strong mineral and stone component on the mid-palate as well. Very Good. $42.

In the end the 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is what it’s all about for this winery. With a nose of dark black fruits such as blackberry and cassis – this also had a nice mint-chocolate component. The chocolate continued on the palate, but added some savory herbs. This is not an overripe Napa cab, but a restrained very well structured example with nice layering and grip. A bargain for Napa cabs. Very Good+ to Excellent. $40.

I ended the tasting with the Non Vintage Merlot Port, made from estate grown fruit. This was quite impressive and very much like an authentic Portuguese port. The nose was woody with soft black fruit, but the palate eschewed the typical syrupy thickness that goes with poorly made California ‘port-style’ wines. Instead, it was all spice, wood, and dark rich fruit with hefty tannins. Excellent weight and density. 18.5% ABV. My only complaint is that it is way overpriced compared to the cost of a good Portuguese Vintage Port in the US. Very Good+. $68.

And thus concluded my second trip to the Valley, and on the first day of Spring I could have asked for nothing better.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Mer Soleil Chardonnay 2006

Made by Caymus and produced with fruit from the Santa Lucia Highlands, which are just east of the Monterey Peninsula, this Chardonnay is all about showing what California style can do. Not only was the colour an absolutely stunning rich golden hue, but the nose was expressive with big tropical fruit like pineapple and coconut, coupled with minerals and toasted caramel. The palate was where this wine really excelled, though. While many California Chards can have an overly buttery texture, or an incredible amount of ripeness that often covers over some of the more interesting flavours Chard can produce, this particular wine was incredibly layered - beyond what is normal for the California style.

I found toasted nuts, pinepapple, vanilla, papaya, coconut, and an edge of minerals. But this did not come all at once. Rather, the toasted nuttyness approached at first, turned into a beautifully layered mid-palate of vanilla and tart tropical fruit, and ended with a minerally finish. This is structured with depth, and filled with intensity - and, available in BC. I promise I will get to the last Napa profile.

Excellent and Highly Recommended
$35 at K&L ($45 in BC)