Wednesday, April 20, 2011

2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape, more like 2007

The annual tasting of Chateauneuf-du-Pape (abbreviated informally as "CdP") took place in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. Imported by Alain Junguenet Selection and distributed in California by Angeles Wine Agency, this is the most prominent CdP tasting of the year in the Bay Area. Granted, some of the biggest names in Chateauneuf such as Vieux Telegraphe, Beaucastel, and Rayas are not in their portfolio, but this is still a formidable and a representative lineup. The focus was on the latest vintage about to hit the streets - 2009. Some producers will begin releasing as early as May 2011. For others, it will take a few more months, or perhaps even a year or so.

Those who have read my past articles on the region know that I have an "interesting" relationship with Chateauneuf - I rarely find myself drinking these wines, as they tend to be quite wild and new-worldly for me. Especially in the riper vintages such as the critically acclaimed 2007, they are right there with the "worst" of California in jamminess and alcoholic potency, although they still have more acidity, spice, and barnyardiness than Cali, which  is definitely a plus in CdP's favor. All that said, a nicely aged Chateauneuf, even from a jammy vintage, eventually sheds its sweetness and often develops incredible flavors of herbs and spices, metals and minerals (imagine a slightly rusty rain gutter full of crisp, clean water after a rain), tomato paste, blood and meat, all mixed in with juicy berry compote - it's like a "Bloody Mary" only much better! Really fascinating and delicious stuff. You can check out this special encounter with a '99 CdP that left a deep impression. It is possible to get a glimpse of that from a younger CdP, but much experience and imagination are required. Wines from cooler, "lesser" years, like the 2008, which I praised a year ago, tend to be more transparent. For those who find 2008 perhaps too light, I'd go for 2006.

In the end, my faves were not from 2009, but rather from the "library wines" table manned by the president of Angeles Wine Agency - Jeff Wellburn.

Jeff Wellburn treating me to a magnum of the '98 Domaine de la Cote de 'Ange from his personal stash.

The three wines below were particularly tasty, including the one on the right from the super-hot 2003, which managed to possess lively acidity and satisfying secondary fruit.

Where is 2009 relative to the above?  Well, it's closer to 2007. The ripeness and jamminess are back. Growers, producers and critics are extolling the vintage. Maybe not as "big" as 2007 (and probably not as long-lasting, due to lighter tannins), clearly not my style. I think the warmth of 2009 will reflect better in Northern Rhone and Burgundy. Too hot for the South, in my opinion. Which is perhaps a great news for all those who loved the 2007.

Here is the list of the CdP producers at the event:

Pierre Usseglio and Vieux Donjon were reliable as always. Most everyone else was in the ballpark as well. To me, this was more about the vintage than a producer.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


At the top of Napa cabs are several cult wineries whose names cause drool from the lips of new world wine drinkers, followed by images of rapidly thinning wallet. Next to the likes of Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate and Bond Estate, Colgin and Bryant Family is Araujo. At 1600 cases of their first wine selling out at $275/bottle without any difficulty, this California darling manages to impress even old-world drinkers, especially when an opportunity arises to sample the goods with James Hayes - Araujo's VP of Sales and Marketing, previously the Wine Director at Thomas Keller's restaurant group (taking over from Paul Roberts with whom I recently met at Bond), and Francoise Peschon, who has been overseeing Araujo’s winemaking for almost 20 years.

All Araujo wines come from a single estate vineyard, called Eisele (pronounced "Eyes-lee") that has been continuously cultivated since the late 1800's. Cabernet vines were first planted in the 1960's. Until Bart and Daphne Araujo purchased the property in 1990, the fruit had been sold to wineries such as Ridge, Conn Creek and Joseph Phelps. Since then, the Araujo family together with Francoise Peschon and the current winemaker Nigel Kinsman, have been working to improve the vineyard and the wine. In 1998, they were certified organic, and in 2005 - biodynamic. "But why?" I asked.
Francoise Peschon at the Araujo Eisele Vineyard
"I had your 1994 last year, and it was spectacular. What are you trying to improve?" After some prodding, the theme that emerges is that great years produce great wines, but lesser vintages do not - and that is where the quest for improvement comes in. "'94 was a great year. We didn't have organic or biodynamic. We didn't have techniques. And the wine was still great!", said Francoise. James re-stated: "The reason we desire such constant improvement is to allow for greater consistency over time, regardless of what nature gives us from year to year. Farming and nature are dynamic – one can’t remain the same and expect to get the same results year after year. We work hard to get to know our vineyard, and our fruit better every year." The second reason is social responsibility - develop the land sustainably, in unison with nature. Finding natural replacements to chemicals is expensive and labor-intensive. But it's also about creating a healthy ecosystem. Araujos produce not just red and white wine, but also honey, olive oil, and even olive-oil-based soap, all from the same vineyard. And they live right there as well.

"How about your expenses?", I asked about investments the winery makes in bettering both the vineyard, the winery, and the wines. Even the labels are attached by hand, in order to fit perfectly between the seams of the bottle.
"The costs keep going up", said Francoise. One way to offset them is to bottle the second wine - Altagracia (a $95/bottle cab), from the sub-blocks that don't quite measure up to the quality of the flagship wine, particularly from some of the younger vines. That said, I often find second wines from great wineries are still very very good, and are a value compared to the main wine. "In the past, we would have to sell those grapes off in bulk! But they were great fruit.", said Francoise. That said, I am sure that cost is not the driving factor for Araujos - a financially well-off family who got into Napa winemaking after having been a successful real estate developer (similar to Bill Harlan). The Eisele Vineyard is exclusively what they do now, and what they have been doing exclusively for 20 years. "Their boots are dirtier than anyone else’s here... This is their heart and soul.", said James.

James, Iron C, and Francoise
Araujo caves
Hand-tagging and wrapping Araujo

The 2007 Eisele that we tasted (already sold out) and several individual block samples of the 2009 (yet to be blended and released) showed the wines to be of far more restrained and nuanced character than your typical new world fruit bombs. James who used to pour European wines at Thomas Keller's restaurant Per Se in New York said "Araujo is a California cab with old-world sensibilities. That's why I love it." This is the same sentiment I heard at Opus One and Dominus.

Delicious wines, with clearly Napa character of dark berries and chocolate, and with a subtle much-appreciated herbal note evident in some of the blocks. Intensely flavored with medium texture (i.e. not thick on the palate), with enough acidity to keep them lively (somewhere between Dunn and Dominus in terms of acid). We tasted 4 different block samples, and for each one I said - "why not bottle this individually!? It tastes great!" The winery looks to Michel Rolland to advise on the final blends. Personally, I am fine with or without the blends. The blend is sort of a "polished" version of the wine. I like the slight variations between the different blocks too. The 2007 Eisele was not as explosive as the single-block 2009's. Interestingly, while James Suckling from Wine Spectator gave it 98 points, Parker was initially down on it. (Note that Parker reviewed the '07 three times, and the third time he brought his score up to 93):
Parker Review:
Perhaps the biggest shock here was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Eisele Vineyard. My first notes were, A change of style? This wine looked sensational last year, but while lacking the power, concentration, substance, and depth of the greatest vintages, the wine came across as restrained and low key. I rarely see such dramatic shifts as noticed with the 2007 Eisele Vineyard. We will see wines do go through unusual states, and this has been a remarkable Cabernet Sauvignon from one of the great heritage sites of Napa Valley for nearly 40 years, so one has to give it the benefit of the doubt, but I am calling it the way I tasted it. 90-92 points.
Suckling Review:
This is a little riper on the nose than the 2006, with a light raspberry and blackberry jam character combined with a vanilla latte. Full bodied and juicy, with broader shoulders and round tannins. This is powerful and rich, with loads of ripe tannins and fruit. This is all about layers. Don't touch this until 2015. 98 points.
Considering that I care about what Parker says as little as I do about James Suckling, I found the 2007 to be a fine wine - neither overly muted nor jammy. I didn't pick up any over-the-top oak influences, although the notes of vanilla did present themselves in the 2007, and slight toastiness was obvious in one of the 2009 single blocks (2A).

We chatted a bit about Napa cab prices, having a hard time coming up with a great Napa cab under $75/bottle. Francoise and James' view is that Napa should be for premium cabernet, and "value" should be sought elsewhere. "We want to be compared to the first and second growth Bordeaux", said James. He added: "Napa leads the US in sustainability, land preservation, and green winemaking in general. Our price (and the prices of many Napa wines) are high for tangible reasons… The Valley’s high standards and commitment to excellence have a hand in dictating that. It is terribly important to all of us that the story of how hard we work and the careful decisions we make about everything are primary ingredients in a bottle of Araujo. The expense is wrapped up in all of that."

"We pick our grapes and carry them to the winery just a few steps from the vineyard. But if you look at what happens when grapes are transported from far-away vineyards to some other wineries, you pick them up and there is brown juice at the bottom, from damaged grapes and oxidation. They can still make good wine, but not great. Yes, having everything done in one place gives us the best quality.", emphasized Francoise. "Being an estate like Araujo means total control over every decision.", continued James, echoing the point I'd heard from Tom Mostero, director of Viticulture and Winemaking at Dominus Estate.

I recognize that at $275/bottle, select few can afford these wines. Still, they sell out, regardless of the economy. Personally, after having tasted the best and most world-renowned Napa cabs in the past year, priced from just under $100/bottle to close to $300/bottle, the correlation between taste and price is not direct, and seems more to do with economics, philosophy, and brand name of the winery than what's actually in the glass. What's in the glass is delicious and refined, just very pricey. A point further reinforced by having stopped by a local wine shop the other day for a sip of the 2005 Monbousquet Saint-Emilion ($70-80/blt) - a fabulous earthy Bordeaux from a great vintage at a price point where one can still find tremendous wines from Bordeaux. But for a new world enthusiast, Araujo delivers at the top of the class.

 About the 2009's, my wine connoisseur friend Dan who accompanied me on this visit wrote on

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Kosta Browne 2009 Sonoma Coast

Kosta Browne just shipped their 2009 allocations. I normally ignore domestics. But this time a friend brought a bottle of Sonoma Coast to try. I was impressed. Soft tannins, sensuous mouth-feel, elegant, medium body that doesn't overwhelm the palate yet delivers plenty of flavor, subtle spice, not as acidic or earthy as Burgundy, but not as sweet, fruity, or alcoholic-tasting like a typical domestic. At under $60, one of the best California Pinots I've had. Here is a pairing tip for you -- toss green salad, add balsamic vinegar and some dry berries, and pair it with American Pinot Noir.  Enjoy!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Donato will get you married

Last year, I was an honored guest at a heart-warming wedding. The two souls had been match-made six months earlier by my dear wife at a wine dinner at Donato Enoteca, and they decided to seal the deal at the same place. That turned out to be a magnificent event, documented here.

Now two of my other friends are getting married. An exclusive dinner planned with just the close family, not an extravagant affair for the hundreds. Where?

Rona and I took them to Donato Enoteca to check it out. They had never been - what outrage! Of course, they loved it - gourmet yet relaxed, five different spaces available for parties, plus an outdoor veranda which looks gorgeous during Spring cherry blossom season.

We asked Donato to cook an "omakase" menu (whatever he likes), and Kate & Scott (who is a gourmet chef himself) were dazzled. I stuck to a modest order of mushroom/sausage Pizza - Donato makes one of my faves in the Bay Area - and then I focused on the two wines in front of me.

We paired early courses (of seafood and burrata) with the luscious Bollinger La Grande Annee 2000 vintage Champagne - a wine that impressed me throughout dinner with its seductive scents of candied ginger. You drink a sparkling wine like that, and you immediately know - it's Champagne. All other regions in the world may aspire (and I admire Trento and Franciacorta appellations in Italy), but the real thing is unmistakable. James Bond's beverage of choice - if Bollinger is good enough for Mr. 007, it's got to be good enough for Iron Chevsky, right?! The relatively high percentage of Pinot Noir (60%+) in the blend gives it an extra dimension and body that is hard to resist. ( and a number of other fine wine shops still carry this vintage.)

The latter courses were matched with a classic 1998 Bartolo Mascarello - a Barolo so beautiful and complex that smelling it alone could last me hours. Aromas of orange zest and "peaty scotch-iness" (as Scott aptly put it for its indescribable flavor of something like liqueured cherries in scotch), a hint of leather and chocolate in the background, medium bodied, very intense yet floating on my palate.

1998 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo - a beauty.

Best-ever pork medallions, slightly pink inside - delicious & juicy.

Always reliably delightful fall-apart-at-the-touch-of-a-fork beef short-ribs.

One of my favorite pizzas - mushroom and sausage. Perfectly decadent with Bartolo Mascarello Barolo.

After a dinner like that, how could Scott and Kate not trust Donato with their wedding reception! Congrats to the soon-to-be-newlyweds!

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