Thursday, October 24, 2013

2011 Domaine Leflaive

2011 Domaine Leflaive wines just started arriving to retail shops around the country, and I did not miss the opportunity the taste the entire lineup from Bourgogne blanc up through premier crus. Sadly, grand crus were not yet available to taste, but perhaps it's for the better, as even the premier's are enough to do serious damage to one's wallet - Les Pucelles is starting to approach $300/bottle. Overall, this tasting confirmed what I have already been observing, which is that 2011 whites are very charming, with excellent balance, albeit not as much structure or concentration as 2010's, but still very enjoyable now and in the medium term. The Leflaive's all had superb acidity which makes me believe they will last a long time too, while already being delicious.

Tasting Notes

2011 Domaine Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc - high acidity, high minerality, slight bitter note of citrus peel, tons of pronounced lemon/lime, almost chablis-like, flower water, pretty but lacking depth, and somewhat dominated by citrus acidity. This should be good with seafood, but not as pleasant by itself. Doesn't seem worth $50+.

2011 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet - big step up in extract, depth, and texture, really good, tingling my tongue. Wow, this really punches about its weight.

2011 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet "Clavoillon"- slate on the nose and palate, seawater, a little honey on the finish. Nice.

2011 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet "Les Folatieres" - the most elegant wine of the lineup, a slight and pretty hint of cream and vanilla, but not oaky at all, white flowers and beautiful acid.

2011 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet "Les Combettes" - barely a hint of rubber skid marks and toast, strong lime, intense finish. Super long, but the toast and very strong lime stick out a bit.

2011 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet "Les Pucelles" - sweeter fruit, luscious, very balanced and intense. An impressive wine.

All in all, a terrific showing for these wines - I loved the Chablis-like character with pronounced lemon/lime and slate. For my palate and money, I was most impressed with the Puligny-Montrachet villages and the Folatieres. The village Puligny was probably the best I've had from this domaine in many vintages. The basic Bourgogne was not bad, although not as good as 2010 and 2007 that I have had recently. You cannot go wrong with the Pucelles, if you can afford it.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Vintage Wine Merchants Celebrates 10 Years in Business

View from the Cielo bar roof-top, Santana Row
Is there ever enough Salon? I don't often get to drink it, but when I do, this king of Champagne, perhaps rivaled only by vintage Krug, is always a special affair. Especially so, because I was enjoying it with a glorious view and great food, courtesy of Vintage Wine Merchants, who threw a party of all parties on top of the ultra-swanky Hotel Valencia's roof-top Ceilo wine bar in Santana Row, San Jose. Man o man! What a way to celebrate 10 years in this tough biz. I couldn't keep my eyes off the beauties next to me. I am talking of the wines of course!

The event was well organized, with enough interesting variety but without forcing me to rush. Plenty of generous refills ensured thorough evaluation of the wines. Harry Fong who runs VWM went all out. The wines were amazing, and many deserved an evening of their own. Here are the notes I was able to muster in the blur of this spectacular extravaganza put together for shop's customers. I focused on old world wines, although for Cali lovers there were plenty of impressive names too...

1999 Salon Blanc de Blancs - beautifully clean, fresh, full-bodied, complex, classy champagne. Will evolve for long long time.
1995 Paillard NPU - some bottle variation, the better bottle exhibited wonderful mature mushroom, nuts and citrus notes, with mint.
NV Armand de Brignac "Ace of Spades" - very good, clean, minty fresh, a little less opulent that the Salon, but still very good.

2000 Coche-Dury Puligny-Montrachet "Enseigneres" - pear, green apple, cream or fresh butter (but not fat), mint, complex and delicious. Needed 2-3 hours to open up.
2010 Dominique Lafon Puligny Montrachet "Champ-gain" 1er Cru - wow, excellent white burgundy, very deep, balanced, and delicious right now. Kept drinking it all night. I could still taste it the next morning. Honey, peaches, moderated by fresh acidity...

Tne next 3 grand cru white burgs were rich, lush and thicker-textured, as I expect from Montrachet and its satellites. All very young and not particularly welcoming right now, but well balanced and impressive. The Chevalier was more stern, while the Criots and Batard were a bit leaner than I would expect, but quite intense. It was clear that all three needed time to develop, and commanded undivided attention, which under the circumstance I was sadly not able to give.

2009 Philippe Colin Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru
2011 Fontaine Gagnard Criots Batard Montrachet Grand Cru
2010 Blain Gagnard Batard Montrachet Grand Cru

2010 Michel Gros "Clos des Reas" Vosne-Romanee 1er Cru Monopole - very good wine, red fruits, polished, balanced, and deep, good acidity, hints of earth and minerals, nice spice and focus, with some influence of wood, but not in a bad way, which will integrate beautifully in the coming years. Kept coming back to it all night.
2011 Domaine Arlaud Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru - rich, smooth and balanced, good, but lacking excitement a little bit for me.

While the luxuriousness and depth of the grand crus was undeniable, I actually enjoyed the premier crus more at this stage. The Vosne Clos des Reas and the Puligny Champ-Gain were super delicious and drinkable now, but would age too, and they paired great with different foods. The Coche was a bit more esoteric and intellectual.

1994 Giuseppe Rinaldi Brunate Le Coste, Barolo - mature and raisiny/plummy on the nose, but beautifully silky smooth on the palate, with elements of plums and truffle. Contemplative wine to sip and savor.
2000 Fontodi Chianti Classico Riserva "Vigna del Sorbo" - great example of a mature Sangiovese - loads of tobacco and leather, and cherries and plums.
2001 Ceretto Barolo Bricco Rocche - great intensity and freshness, even at 13 years of age.
2009 Ornellaia - rich, supple, mouth-coating, cassis, graphite, tobacco. Smooth and a bit new-worldly in style.
2010 Sassicaia - much more feminine and red/blue fruited than the Ornellaia. 2010 appears to be a relatively light, elegant vintage for this wine. Bright acidity and hints of eucalyptus and sage. Testament to Super-tuscans.

The Italians put on a great show, and certainly for me Ceretto Bricco Rocche and Sassicaia were the most enjoyable and drinkable, while the other three were appealing in different ways.

2010 JJ Prum Riesling Auslese Graacher Himmelreich GKA - excellent. Sweet, but refreshing with crisp acidity, melange of baked apples, citrus and stone fruits, and great chalky minerality. One cannot help but fall in love with wine, when drinking this.
2011 Egon Muller Riesling Spatlese Scharzhofberger, Mosel - very good, already even at this age a pronounced note of petrol.
2012 Far Niente Chardonnay - too Cali in style for me -- buttery and oaky, but by California standards not over the top.
2010 Kistler Chardonnay McCrea Vineyard Sonoma Mountain - surprisingly light on its feet and refreshing, not what I expected. Almondy fresh flavor. Good balance. I preferred the white burgundies, but this was interesting.

Wow. Many thanks to Vintage Wine Merchants for inviting me to this very special event.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Highlights of Wine & Spirits Top 100 Wineries of 2013

Five years in a row I have now attended this great event in San Francisco, organized by Wine & Spirits Magazine. As usual, fantastic ambiance of hors d'oeuvres, wines, chocolates and coffee, live music, and well-dressed people, with a gorgeous view from the City View at Metreon!

I did not intend to provide exhaustive coverage. The following sampling of tweets reflects subjectively my most memorable wines at the event:

For reference, here are the links to the prior years: 2012 2011 2010 2009

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Day Trip to Napa Valley

People keep asking me for recommendations for a day trip in Napa Valley. Here is the latest perfect itinerary, which takes just a little bit of preparation. Schedule no more than two winery appointments. It's about quality, not quantity. Spend 2 hours at each winery on average, and let your world slow down for just one day.

While cruising along the main road - highway 29, pick up your lunch at Bouchon Bakery in Yountville or Oakville Grocery in Oakville - two Napa Valley lunch-picnic "institutions" (with picnic tables outside - simply beautiful on a sunny day). I especially love the frenchified ham-n-cheese from Bouchon - the fresh baguette and Dijon mustard make the sandwich. And their tuna nicoise is the best tuna sandwich ever, and a good match for white wine!

The line outside of Bouchon Bakery in Yountville. Allow yourself 10-15 min to get though, and you won't regret it!

Or if you are in the mood for something heftier, stop further up the highway right before St. Helena at Gott's (previously Taylor's Refersher) and get a Texas Burger - that thing is as great an awesomeness of a burger as you will ever find in a "fast food" joint. Everything in all three of these places is very good. But don't eat there - grab your food and head to the first winery for a lunch picnic.

I recommend Joseph Phelps winery which offers one of the most beautiful views you can enjoy from a picnic table while sipping some wonderful Napa wines.

Awesome view from the terrace of Joseph Phelps winery

The key is to make an appointment in advance, and ask for a table. Two different levels of terrace tasting are offered - one for $35 and another for $70. Read more here. Don't gulp down all the wines - you will get drunk quickly, because generous quantities are poured and there are multiple wines to try. I recommend going through the entire lineup, sipping with food, and then coming back to the one or two wines that you liked the best, and lingering with those. Clearly, Joseph Phelps Insignia is the wine to savor. It's a Bordeaux-style blend from six estate owned vineyards from several Napa Valley appellations. For the higher-end tasting option, you get to try two Insignias - the current release (2010), and one from the library (currently 2005). Both wines are delicious - the 2010 offers juicy black cherries, liquid chocolate, mint, lively acidity, and soft tannins. The 2005 with a few years of age has smoothed out its tannins to a velvet, and is drinking so nice right now! Of course, Joseph Phelps is legendary in the Valley. They've been making cabs since the 70's, and their 2002 Insignia was named Wine Spectator's #1 wine of the year, world-wide!

Me with Mary Sugrue, Advanced Sommelier and an awesome instructor at Phelps.
Enjoying 2010 and 2005 Insignia, and a rare 1996 Joseph Phelps Vin du Mistral Syrah (last made in 2006)

To top off the tasting, you might try a crazy-delicious white dessert wine called Eisrebe - made from an obscure locally grown German variety Scheurebe, with grapes that are late-harvested and then frozen. The wine has a floral but dry nose, and an explosive icewine-like flavor with excellent acidity - a delightful finish to a great visit.

Next stop, depending on your level of wine saturation, you may then head on to a second winery, or relax at one of the fancy spas available throughout the Valley, or head to a quaint downtown in Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville or Napa (take your pick - it's all good!) to walk around.

If you go to another winery, I recommend Pride Mountain Vineyards, on top of the Spring Mountain, about 20-30 min drive from Joseph Phelps. This property has a rich history dating back to 1870's when it was known as Summit Ranch. Pride have been making wines under their current label since the mid 90's. Riding the crest of the Mayacamas Mountain Range at an elevation of 2,100 feet, the 235 acre property is bisected by the Napa/Sonoma county line. There is an actual line etched into the concrete between two wine crush buildings, so standing there you can literally have one foot in Sonoma County and another in Napa.

Wonderful views, an interesting tour of the vineyards and caves, the wine-making facilities, and a popular array of wines await you at Pride, culminating in the flagship 2010 Pride Reserve Cabernet, a strong expression of the mountain fruit - deep dark inky mouth-coating wine, with hints of graphite and tobacco, that will benefit from a few years to come into its prime (for me, probably 12 years or so). The basic (non-reserve) 2010 Cabernet is a touch less refined but has similar flavor profile for half the $$. I was also impressed with Pride's 2012 Viognier - an intense and serious wine, with floral and honeyed notes, excellent acidity, good focus, slight minerality covered by orchard, citrus and exotic fruits, and hint of smoke (40% neutral French oak, 60% stainless steel) - a respectable Napa Valley answer to Condrieu, albeit perhaps bigger, and not as minerally or nuanced as the best examples from the Northern Rhone.

Beautiful view from the terrace of Pride, on top of Spring Mountain

Pride offer picnic tables (if you ask when making appointment), and a wonderful veranda to sit on and take in the gorgeous surroundings. Take at least a couple of hours to enjoy. Again, I highly recommend not getting trashed. There are classy spittoons all over the place, or you can carry a paper cup for more discretion. Leave space for a dinner wine later.

Coming to Napa in late September through mid October is especially fun, because ripened grapes are still hanging, and it's perfectly acceptable (in most places) to sample them right from the vines. It's an awesome visceral experience. And they taste so concentrated and good!

Sipping all these wines while enjoying wonderful airy views really whets your appetite.
Then you are ready for dinner.

Oh there are so many options. Here are some of my faves: Ad Hoc (shut up and eat whatever they give you), Bottega (everything is great), Mustards Grill (best-ever grilled Mongolian pork chop and pan-seared lemon-and-garlic chicken), The Thomas (awesome view and an absolutely incredible melt-in-your-mouth oyster po'boy sandwich), Auberge du Soleil (best-ever Liberty Farms duck, great pork belly, nice risotto), The Bounty Hunter (killer ribs and beer-can chicken). There are of course many more options along the spectrum, as Napa Valley is truly a food-and-wine mecca. But when it comes to dinner, I prefer to bring French or Italian wine, after tasting Napa all day. I have documented many of these restaurants on the blog in the past, so feel free to google for " napa" plus the name of the restaurant.

Some great dishes at Auberge du Soleil restaurant in Rutherford, but not every dish was spot on.
These three were excellent:

Pork belly
pork belly
Risotto w/ prawns and curry
risotto w/ prawns in curry
Liberty Farms duck
Liberty Farms duck

Maybe the best duck dish I've ever had - perfectly roasted, rare duck breast.
Classic pairing with 2000 Clos St Denis Grand Cru Burgundy from Nicolas Potel.

Take it slow, drink plenty of water, and have a designated driver, so you can doze off on the way back!
Relax and enjoy!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Clape Cornas "Renaissance" vertical 2004-2010

A vertical of Auguste Clape Cornas "Renaissance" at a local wine shop provided an excellent look at how the recent vintages of the venerable Northern Rhone producer's younger vines are doing. With Clape, even his entry level bottlings - Vin Des Ami and Cotes Du Rhone are seriously good wines if you like old world Syrah, which I think blows the socks off of any new world contenders I've tried. His Cornas is a classic rivaling great Hermitages and Cote Roties. The "Renaissance" cuvee is made from younger vines, and is a notch below his straight Cornas, and therefore still represents relative bargain, as the prices for the flagship wine have recently shot up to $200 bottle after Parker gave them two consecutive 100-points (in 2009 and 2010 vintages).

Here are my tasting notes:

2010 Clape Cornas "Renaissance" - deep, awesome nose. Dark, elegant, slightly roasted (but not unpleasantly) olives, pepper spice, almost Cabernet-like graphite, but just a bit more pepper than a cab, bacon, blue fruits, violets, vivacious, with super clarity and balance, love it, great wine! My favorite of the "Renaissance" lineup, confirming the monumental grander of the 2010 vintage in Europe.

2008 Clape Cornas "Renaissance" - green and white peppercorn spices, super aromatic, greener on the palate, very nice and reasonably approachable, but lacking depth and punch of the 2010. Very refreshing and enjoyable, seems like a great food wine because of its savoriness. Over the course of 30 min, I kept oscillating between absolutely loving it and maybe just a touch greenish. Overall, probably the most aromatically interesting (i.e. beautifully perfumed) wine of the lineup, and very good. Enjoy it or its bigger brother - the main Cornas - with food, and without any other vinous distractions.

2007 Clape Cornas "Renaissance" - ripe, dark, plush, luxurious, mouth-coating, thicker then 2010. Black pepper that becomes more expressive with airing. Reminds me a bit of Dunn Cabernet from the 90's somehow. Not as refined as 2010 or 2008.

2006 Clape Cornas "Renaissance" - the sweet and almost jammy nose jumps out at you, a bit Bordeaux-like on the palate, graphite, olives, but on the riper side, no overt pepperiness, a bit like a zin but with structure and acidity (maybe Ridge zinfandel comes to mind too).

2005 Clape Cornas "Renaissance" - slightly creamy on the nose, super tannic, dense, monolithic and tightly wound, all the elements there, but very young - probably will be the longest lived of the lineup, tons of stuffing, looks like a great, serious wine in the making, but give it a few years.

As an bonus, I also tried the main cuvee:

2004 Clape Cornas - this was my favorite of the tasting, along with the 2010 Renaissance, despite a somewhat weaker 2004 vintage, which was clearly transcended by this producer's older vines. Haunting aromas of spice cabinet. I swear it reminds me of older Dunn and Ridge. Olive, graphite, hint of roast/smoke and distant echoes of bacon. Beautiful, fresh, juicy, brilliantly balanced, and complete. Reasonably approachable now, but will last for years.

The following day, I had a chance to sample two more Northern Rhones.

2010 Allemand Cornas "Chaillot" - open, aromatic, mineral iron rain-gutter, iron-rich raw animal meat, licorice, spice box and dry herbs, tannic, high acid. Already expressive and should be very nice in 5 years.

2010 Clape Cornas - more closed and reserved than the Allemand Chaillot, deep graphite, sweet Bordeaux-like nose with black olive tapenade, distant scents of spice, much darker and blacker than Allemand Chaillot. On the palate: black fruits, smoke and tar, roasted olives, tannins covered by mouth coating bitter rich chocolate but without any sugariness, very dense. More imposing, denser and tighter than the Renaissance. For the ages!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Top Champagne Tasting of 2013

Joel Butler, MW (left) and Charles Curtis, MW (right)
Another year and another glorious champagne event put together by the Institute of Masters of Wine in the San Francisco's Ferry Building overlooking the Bay. This year marked the first time the grand tasting in the evening was preceded by a super fun and informative seminar in the morning. Two masters of wine (MW's) Charles Curtis and Joel Butler led a presentation entitled "Champagne: House Style or Terroir" accompanied by a terrific set of champagne juxtapositions - blanc de blancs, NV, vintage, Rosé, etc...  Typically a producer of a so-called "grower champagne" (a winery that grows their own grapes) will go after a particular terroir expression of the land they own, because they may not have enough breadth of vineyards or depth of vintages to pull from, in order to blend a consistent "house style" that transcends a specific terroir. However, with many different grower/wine-maker business arrangements common in Champagne, the distinctions between what a grower house and a negociant house will produce are blurry. In general a small grower champagne may make more "interesting / unusual" wines with "freshness, vitality, and zippy energy" as Charles Curtis put it. On the other hand, to my palate, famous houses still reliably produce my favorite champagne of very high quality and consistency, albeit with prices north of $100/bottle. That said, I was impressed by a blanc de blancs from Alfred Gratien (NV brut), a small high-quality negociant. This wine was laser focused with excellent acidity, minerals, and very refined fresh flavor with slight toast and nuts nuances. (Somehow sipping it around 11am felt right to me :) With over 320 million bottles of champagne produced each year, there are a great variety of styles in Champagne, enough to satisfy most palates and price points.

The afternoon tasting was exhausting and exhilarating as usual. Approximately ninety bottles in all categories were tasted, giving me a good outlook at what to buy for the next year.

Here are Iron Chevsky's top picks:

Terrific showing by Veuve Clicquot, culminated by the 1990 "Cave Privee" Brut with no signs of oxidation - fresh, rich, complex and everything one imagines champagne to be. The 2004 "Grande Dame" which I lauded last year continued to show well. Despite being a mass produced and therefore "uncool" brand at their basic NV level, they manage to achieve fantastic quality, particularly in vintage bottlings.

A wine that continues to impress the second year in a row is the 1998 Henriot "Enchanteleurs". I think I like it even better than the 1996. Rich and complex, an ultimate champagne, that (for me) stands out in the company of other great houses.

The 2004 Rosés appealed to my increasing love affair with Pinot Noir, and easily stood out for their stronger red berry flavor and high quality. These three were all terrific and stylistically quite different. The Perrier Jouet 2004 Rosé was all pretty strawberries, while Pol Roger 2004 Rosé seemed to have more structure, and Veuve Clicquot 2004 Rosé showed more raspberry tones, continuing the excellent overall showing by this house.

Blanc de blancs (100% Chardonnay) caught my attention in a big way this time around. De Sousa blanc de blancs NV Brut, a brand I was unfamiliar with, was particularly good. And of course Charles Heidsieck's Blanc des Millenaires 1995 stood out as it did last year for its regal power and refinement - a grand champagne for sure.

A couple of other memorable wines: Piper-Heidsieck Rare 2002 Brut and Ruinart Brut Rosé NV.

In the past, this event took place in both New York and San Francisco, but this year we are luckly to have it solely in the city by the bay. With gorgeous wines and views, and an unprecedented attendance by more masters of wine than I had seen in the past, this continued to be the top champagne event of the year in the Bay Area.

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