Wednesday, February 10, 2016

La Paulee 2016 coming to San Francisco

This year the much heralded La Paulee event comes back to San Francisco (last year was in New York), with the focus on 2013 vintage in Burgundy. It really needs no advertisement, the event tends to be fully booked, regardless of the lofty admission price tags, because of the quality of wineries and wines showcased there, and the grandeur of the events. I will be attending the grand tasting for the 4th time in a row, and this tends to be my most memorable wine event of the year, and the opportunity to taste once-in-a-lifetime burgundies and rub elbows with gods of the wine world. Last time in SF (in 2014) featured the 2011 vintage and was covered here.

I will point out a couple of lesser known events in the week-long La Paulee program. The Off Grid tasting and the Roulot Play.

The Off Grid "Tasting of Burgundy's Hidden Gems" event showcases 50 wineries from Burgundy's less premium appellations and up-and-coming winemakers, along with small plates from SF's trendy restaurants. For more info, click here.

The Roulot Play is unexpectedly a theater act by one of Burgundy's preeminent winemakers - Jean-Marc Roulot, who also happens to be an accomplished actor. He will be starring in Meursault Les Luchets 2011, A Play by Jean-Marc Roulot. This sounds cool! See details here.

Enjoy! And hope to see you there!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Rombauer Vineyards

I don't always drink new-world Chardonnay, but when I do, it's Rombauer! Stay thirsty, my friends!

kidding... kidding...

My palate gravitates toward French, Italian, and German. For whites - white burgundy - Chardonnay that expresses fruit, minerals and cooler climate of Côte de Beaune (Burgundy, France) and Chablis in a leaner, higher acidity, and dare I say, a more nuanced way that challenges many American palates. Polar opposite of Rombauer. Rombauer is colloquially known as everyone's mother's favorite Chardonnay - a rich, sweetly, buttery, and approachable California Chardonnay, a style that huge number of domestic consumers adore. I rarely make it to Napa anymore, but recently when I got an invitation for a press tasting and tour at Rombauer, I cast my personal preconceived notions aside, and decided to learn more about what makes Rombauer a public's darling, with 100,000 cases of their "house-style" Carneros Chardonnay sold each year. It's polarizing - on one side are wine geeks for whom Rombauer is a symbol of what's wrong with New World wine. On the other side are consumers who just love the taste at the price they can afford, without necessarily the need for intellectual intrigue of Old World, or the prestige, exclusivity and price tag of California top "cult" producers (like Kistler, Marcassin, etc). Keeping an open mind, and after having tasted Rombauer Chardonnay before, and again at this event, I find it an unapologetically rich and oaky style, and I think it represents "sweet spot" (pun intended) value $$-wise. I respect that. I could see enjoying a glass of Rombauer Chardonnay by itself or with buttered lobster or heavier fried foods that can stand up to the caramelized fruit and oak flavors - a slutty, guilty pleasure. In fact, tasting their four Chardonnays, I couldn't help but imagine I was drinking liquified buttered lobster. It turned out to be the wrong imagery because a few days later when paired with lobster roll from Lobsta Shack, the Rombauer all but overwhelmed it.

Frankly, having a whole meal with the 2014 Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay initially seemed like a good idea, for about 1 glass. After that I couldn't go on. The (14.5%) alcohol, heft, and the sweet caramel / butterscotch really tired out my palate long before the dinner ended. A bit too young obviously, I expect with age the oak flavors would integrate better. Some of my friends who love Rombauer told me they love drinking it without food.

At Rombauer I learned that their Cabernets are also of solid quality but seem to be made in less opulent style than the Chardonnays. They too are value in the category of premium Napa Cab.

The tasting and tour began with Richie Allen greeting the press with a glass of 2015 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Very fresh expression, a good start. Richie is the director of viticulture and winemaking since 2013, after he had worked his way up through the ranks of Rombauer, starting as a harvest-time intern in 2004. They have 2 more winemakers, but Richie is the boss now. Originally from Australia, he is extremely enthusiastic and passionate about Napa Valley and his employer.

The owner, "KR" Rombauer (Koerner Rombauer III), son of the founder Koerner Rombauer, showed up with his dog. He explained his family had moved to Napa valley in 1972, and been in wine business ever since. His dad's great aunt, Irma Rombauer was the author of the internationally-renowned Joy of Cooking cookbook, perhaps the most famous American cookbook of all time! Originally partners in Conn Creek winery, the Rombauers founded Rombauer Vineyards in 1980, and over the years have been expanding their holdings to support the enormous appetite of American public for their Chardonnay. His philosophy: "Understand what customers like, and what customers love. Make wines their customers love."

All wines were opened for ~1-2hrs prior.

1. 2015 Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc, 14.2%. 10% neutral (5yr old) French oak, pick in August (cooler site) bottle in Dec. Very classical grass and lime, some glycerol but not thick, actually quite fresh and elegant, good acidity, and not hot despite the alcohol in the 14% range. $24. Quite good quality. Richie recommends drinking this from Spring 2016 while young.

For reds, 40% of 2013 Napa Valley cab and all reserve cabs are barrel fermented and barrel aged in new French oak. The red varietals are partly barrel fermented for richer, deeper, rounder profile. Richie would have them all that way, but he is constrained by time, resources, space, etc. Barrel fermentation approach is extremely labor intensive, as it requires turning barrels by hand frequently during fermentation. He talks a lot about relentless focus on the quality, sorting, types of barrels and how key they are to the quality and style of their wines. Clearly at Rombauer, Chardonnay is the claim to fame, but Richie is very serious and excited about their reds program as well.

Then we head to the chilly caves dug in the side of the mountain abutting the production facility where hundreds of barrels are resting. Here we have a taste of Merlot. A bit too cold. Everything is so pristine, without the spittoon I can't gather the courage to spit on the ground. So I take a small sip and savor it in my mouth for a long time, before finally swallowing.

2. 2012 Rombauer Carneros Merlot - 86% merlot, clay soil, small amount of barrel fermented. Chocolate, ink, smoke/tar, black cherry / blackberry. Quite good. Not heavy, not thick, quite lively actually. $35

Back at the main facility, we continue with a sit-down portfolio tasting of Rombauer Chardonnays, Cabernets, and Zinfandels.

3. 2014 Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay (house-style) ripe pineapple coconut vanilla nose (Pina Colada). Heavy rich full body, very viscous, spice, a lot of melted popcorn butter, caramel, butterscotch. Recommended started drinking 2 years in. Low acidity. Really begs for lobster with butter, but in actuality turns out a better match with coconut-popcorn shrimp. KR Rombauer recommends cellaring for 7-10 yrs for aged flavor. 100k cases. 1/3rd new oak. 14.5%

4. 2014 Rombauer Buchli Station Chardonnay more lifted nose. A bit lighter in profile, more refined and citrusy, but otherwise similar. Longer finish. 120 cases. 50% new oak, mostly French. 14.6%. This was my favorite of all the Chardonnays.

5. 2014 Rombauer Home Ranch Chardonnay lifted citrus again on the nose, sweet flower pollen. Spicy minerals more evident on the palate. Verbena? (Aloe spice?) Quite spicy finish. Sweet caramel & flower spice. Heavier and slightly less acidity than Buchli. 14.6%. 120 cases

6. 2014 Rombauer Proprietor Selection similar. A lot of thickness, viscosity. It's solid underneath, but why this much sweetness? 800 cases. Recommend drinking 4-5yrs.

Then come the Cabs.

7. 2013 Rombauer Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - crushed stones, spice, well balanced, deep but not thick or heavy. Tannic. 12k cases

8. 2012 Rombauer Diamond Selection Cabernet Sauvignon - tannic, clean & spicy. 1500 cases

9. 2012 Rombauer Atlas Peak Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon - smoother & sweeter, graphite, but still tannic. 250 cases

10. 2012 Rombauer Stice Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon - quite grapy (welsh's grape juice), unsweetened chocolate, crushed gravel. 250 cases

11. 2012 Rombauer Le Meilleur du Chai "Best of the Cellar" blend (75% cab) - tannic, dark, still not super dense (which I appreciate), inky. 250 cases.

The Chardonnays are poster-boy Cali Chard, full of richness and brute-force sex appeal. If that is the style you like, I think the quality is solid and they are a relative value at $30+/btl for the Carneros Chardonnay (wine-searcher pricing) and $65 for the single-vineyard and reserve cuvees sold at the winery. The cabs are more restrained but are also well made and represent value, in the range of $35-100/btl, possessing a consistent, intense but not heavy style with some strong fine tannin, relatively light on their feet, not thick texture, crushed gravel & graphite. Solid stuff.

We were also served 3 different Zinfandels with lunch. They paired nicely with duck confit smothered with lentils and roasted dry fruit jam. I recall Fiddletown Zin was particularly satisfying in a sweet and juicy kind of way.

And finally, a rare and quite tasty bottle of 2011 vintage Zin Port from El Dorado County, which is Richie's pet project, currently not commercially available.

Bottomline - good quality, good value. Matter of style. Chardonnay is a bombshell Napa. I asked Richie if he had tried making them without oak, just as an experiment, and he replied "I like my toast buttered." There you have it. At 100,000 cases of their "house" Carneros Chardonnay made and sold each year, the public clearly agree.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Dunn Petite Sirah

When I started covering Dunn Vineyards few years back, they seemed to be a classic winery, kind of left in the past, unpretentious, un-marketed, appreciated mainly by wine geeks. I immediately fell in love with the wines, and wrote about them with great enthusiasm and appreciation on this blog. In the last couple of years, the famous critics seemed to have re-discovered Dunn, bestowed raving articles and high scores upon them, and the winery now enjoys more prestige and buzz, which in my opinion they duly deserve. I am proud to have jumped on the Dunn band-wagon earlier, and happy to see that Mike Dunn has not let the recent recognition go to his head. Still the same down-to-earth, easy-going man that makes you feel comfortable whenever you sit down with him at the Dunn's family home in Angwin (Howell Mountain). Unfortunately, alas, prices expectedly are up, though still far below other top cabs.

In January, I made a trek over there to pick up my case of 1998's - one of my favorite Dunn vintages, both Napa Valley and Howell Mountain, and to catch up with Mike. He surprised me with a mini-vertical of Dunn's little-known Petite Sirah, made in classical Dunn style by Randy in the stretch of 4 vintages - 1992-1995, and practically forgotten in the cellars until about 10 years ago, when they decided to dust them off and offer to select customers. With only a few cases now remaining from the original production of approximately 150 cases, these are very rare bottles. Just like the Dunn cabs from the 90's, Dunn's Petite Sirah is very different from what I have come to expect from that varietal in California, which usually delivers heavy, jammy, thick fruit and high alcohol. In the hands of Randy Dunn, these wines produced from the Park Muscatine vineyard near their house show savory, dark, tarry mountain fruit, lithe body, great acidity, low alcohol, and grippy tannins, quite serious albeit more rustic than the cabs. Even at 20+ years, they seem to need another 10 to mellow out, not totally surprising given that Petite Sirah is known for being a very structured, tannic grape, often blended in to reinforce Zinfandel. Would have never guessed this was Petite Sirah though - an impressive effort.

In 2003 Mike got Randy to agree to let him make his own wine. So Randy handed the Petite Sirah Park Muscatine vineyard to Mike, who proceeded to make wine from the same good old vineyard and the same good old vines under his own Retro Cellars label. So it was fascinating to taste the 2003-2005 vintages of the Petite Sirah right next to Randy's original 1993-1995. It appears when Mike was getting started on his own, he went into higher level of ripeness and alcohol, but the more recent vintages of Retro Cellars Petite Sirah pulled the alcohol and ripeness back down to 12-13%, and I recall them being more drinkable and closer to the classical Dunn style.

Tasting (wines were opened 1 hour prior)

1993 Dunn Howell Mountain Petit Sirah (13.6%)
Very restrained. High acid, tannic, fresh, foresty, herbs, zesty, pretty

1994 Dunn Howell Mountain Petit Sirah (13.6%)
Fresh zesty nose. Smoother tannins, herbs but not herbaceous

1995 Dunn Howell Mountain Petit Sirah (13.6%)
More powerful, sweeter, orange peel, good acid, smooth tannin, old leather. I tasted it the next day again. It didn't smell quite as "old". Zesty peppercorns, tart plums, olives (briny and leathery), still tannic and tight (not super aromatic). With braised beef, this was singing! Then after pouring off to a half bottle (3/4 of 375ml filled) and keeping it refrigerated, a week later it was still going strong when paired with rare New York steak which brought out the earthy tones of the wine. That's Dunn DNA! It suggests that the wine is still about 10 years away from its peak.

Next, Mike's wines. The key to making good Petite Sirah, according to Mike, is the right kind of oak barrel, with tight grain, that serves to soften the tannins without imparting much wood flavor.

2003 Retro Cellars Howell Mountain Petite Sirah (14.4%) plum liqueur, a hint of brandy, herbs, leather, loads of tannin, acid

2004 Retro Cellars Howell Mountain Petite Sirah (14.2%) - riper, smokier, cumin, tannic, pepper, probably would be great w/ Chilli.

2005 Retro Cellars Howell Mountain Petite Sirah (14.3%) - ripe, very tannic, herbs, sweet plums, cherries, chocolate.

Petite Sirah is a lot more work to farm, says Mike, and it is not a great business, doesn't sell as well as other varieties, especially when he charges ~$40-45/bottle to justify the effort he puts in. He plans to reduce production from ~1000 cases down to 400. It was a great way originally for him and his wife to venture out on their own, but now Mike feels he is happy to invest more of his energy elsewhere. Interestingly, the nursery that supplied the original vines for the Park Muscatine vineyard must have accidentally included some genetic ancestors of Petite Sirah -- Syrah and Peloursin, the latter being a very rare variety now. There is apparently enough of it found in the vineyard that Mike will actually bottle some - a hoot for wine geeks!

Bonus bottle

2011 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet (13.9%) opened 4 days prior, about half full now. Hint of zesty roasted bell pepper, delicious velvety fruit, like a rich velvety borscht, unsweetened chocolate, tannins, with very fragrant red fruit and zesty herbs, fantastic food wine, fine tannins, tart zesty finish. Should be great with time (10yrs+). Finished the bottle the following day. Mineral dust, rich velvety roasted root vegetables, caramelized tomato, pomegranate, unsweetened cherry extract, herbs, hint of chocolate. Happy to have two hand-signed mags of this in the cellar for my son's birth-year collection.

Great visit, as always. Thank you Mike and Randy!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Chianti Classico Gran Selezione

Chianti Classico wine region (DOCG) in Tuscany, identified by a black rooster logo, covers the territory lying between the provinces of Florence and Siena, and includes a number of communes such as Greve, Castelnuovo Berardenga, Radda, Castellina, and a few others. Encompassing the original Chianti zone dating back to 1716, it's officially different and more prestigious than Chianti (DOCG) which had spread outside the initial boundaries, and includes areas such as Chianti Ruffina, Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Colli Aretini, Chainti Colli Pisani, etc.

In 2013, producers of Chianti Classico created a new denomination of quality within their zone, the highest rung in the ladder, their version of a "grand cru" called "Gran Selezione". Approximately 10% of the production based on stricter selection and longer aging qualifies to be the creme of the crop, one step above the already serious Riserva designation. While Brunello has more prestige and commands higher prices, the insiders know that Chianti Classico can produce equally compelling expressions of Sangiovese. Earlier in May, the 600+ members strong Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico presented the inaugural tasting of Gran Selezione wines, the first release they are so marked. For most, it was the much-acclaimed 2010 vintage, but some debuted with another vintage, whatever happened to be their top qualifying wine currently being offered.

My overall impression is that Chianti Classico is a very reliable wine. The highs and lows are not as dramatic as some other regions (like Bordeaux or Burgundy, for instance), and the vintage variations though perceptible, do not, in my opinion, doom the quality. That is to say, as I tasted Riservas and Gran Selezione through 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011, there was not a bad wine in the line-up of about 30 producers, each offering 2-3 wines, although some wines were moderately marred by reduction (a sort of a burned rubber flavor, which should dissipate with age or oxygenation). I was particularly impressed with 2009, a vintage that is showing lots of flesh and polish, with smoother tannins, while maintaining balance. And with 2011, that seems to me like a blockbuster year - the wines are ripe and expressive, but not overripe, with strong but fine tannins, depth, excellent acidity, and overall are more pleasant than the more austere 2010's. There were also a number of basic 2012 Chianti Classico's, tannic and fruity, which left me with positive impression.

My favorite wine of the tasting was 2011 Fontodi  Chianti Classico Vigna Del Sorbo Gran Selezione - simply a gorgeous expression of (mostly) Sangiovese, dense, tannic, with layers of flavors I didn't find in others, one of the best Sangiovese in the world, period - and it's a relative bargain for $60-70/btl. The 2006 Isole e Olena Gran Selezione was also quite superb but much more expensive (they quoted over $200/btl). Felsina was fine as usual, and this was the first time they imported their highest-end Chianti Classico Colonia Gran Selezione (should be $80-100 retail), a very good wine.

Other memorable wines were Riserva and Gran Selezione selections from Volpaia, Il Molino di Grace, Castello di Brolio, Ormanni, Castello la Leccia, and Badia a Passignano (Antinori). As mentioned, the level of quality was high across the board.

Chianti Classico, particularly at the Riserva and Gran Selezione levels definitely strikes me as a reliable appellation with typical flavor profile of dark cherries and leather / tobacco, with excellent structure (tannic/acidic presence & balance), that doesn't quite reach the highs of other more premium regions (like Burgundy), but it also doesn't disappoint as often.

All in all, I walked away impressed and encouraged.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Thibault Liger-Belair 2012

Thibault Liger-Belair's 2012 red burgundies are a step up from any previous vintage I recall from this producer. I hadn't drunk many of his wines in the past, simply because on the occasions I had tried them, they had left me uninspired. However, the 2012's are high-quality, albeit not necessarily all to my liking in terms of style and flavor. The domain is relatively young, though the vineyard holdings go back for generations. In its present shape under Thibault's name, it was established in 2001 by then the 26-year-old passionate Thibault Liger Belair who took back family vineyards from share-croppers. It is perhaps not surprising that several years were required for the results of that work to start showing. The 2012's certainly make me re-consider the 2012 as a more serious vintage for reds than I have been giving it credit for.

Recently, I had an opportunity to taste several of Thibault's 2012's and though not exhaustive, the tasting pulled this producer from the shadow of his cousin Louis Michel Liger-Belair of Comte Liger-Belair, a hugely successful vigneron and owner of the monopole La Romanee from Vosne Romanee. Thibault is back on my radar, especially considering he is one of the few owners in the famed Richebourg terroir.

Tasting Notes

2012 Thibault Liger-Belair Nuits-Saint-Georges "La Charmotte" village wine - very light cranberry color, especially compared to others. Lovely spicy red berries, licorice, oak, a bit like a light Vieux Telegraphe (Chateauneuf-du-Pape) from a lighter vintage (like 2006 and 2011), in a good way, but with more Pinot elegance. Very light body, strange, perhaps the lightest red from 2012 I've had, almost makes me imagine a second tier village (like Savigny or Pernand) from a lighter vintage. I asked the owner of the wine shop if other bottles of this wine have been like this, and he said yes. The color and palate suggest hints of secondary flavors and some premature development, with earthy caramelized carrots, but in a good way. Pine forest, game / pate / leather, hint of metallic, earthiness. This is really good, for short-to-mid-term drinking (3-5 years).

2012 Thibault Liger-Belair Gevrey-Chambertin "La Croix des Champs" village wine - (open for 2 hours). Nose: meaty, very fine pepper spice dust and (expert use of) ripe stems, floral, attractive. Palate: a lot of extract, hint of leather, stems, smoky spice on the finish. Clean, pure, balanced, meaty and dark. Quite leathery, soft persistent tannins. Good.

2012 Thibault Liger-Belair Vosne-Romanee "Aux Reas" village wine - (open for 2 hours). Nose: redder, velvetier, sweeter than the Gevrey. Palate: consistent with nose. Smoother, riper, sweeter. Plush and delicious. Vanilla, wood. Velvety tannins, spices, none of the stemmy character of the Gevrey, lovely hint of apricot / orange. Pretty decadent for a village wine.

2012 Thibault Liger-Belair Clos Vougeot Grand Cru - (pop and pour). Yummy nose of black cherries and cream. Palate: silky smooth, black cherries, plums and vanilla cream, some earthy beets. Nice silky cushioned texture gives the wine very luxurious feeling, gently tannic. Very good! My favorite of the tasting, and a wine that vindicates Clos de Vougeot for those who doubt the vineyard's grand cru pedigree. I would be happy to buy this wine.

2012 Thibault Liger-Belair Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru - I heard this wine is over 15% alcohol. While it was big and rich, the alcohol wasn't sticking out for me. However, the wine did very much remind me of an elegant version of a Northern Rhone, i.e. it was very robust for a red Burgundy, and not really my style, at least at this stage of its life. Nose: almost Northern Rhone-like pepper, floral/stems, oak. Palate: spicebox (exotic peppercorns), again reminds me of Northern Rhone, tarry cherry and plum, rich black cherry. Looking at and tasting the Charmes-Chambertin side-by-side with the Nuits-Saint-Georges (in the first photo above) shows the two dramatic extremes of this producer's range - the light and elegant Nuits-Saint-Georges and the dark, rich and robust Charmes. On one hand, this makes Thibault Liger-Belair interesting for me, but on the other, one should be aware that tasting is necessary in order to calibrate the wines to one's own preferences, because the range is strikingly diverse.

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