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Featured Wine Region: California


Three pairs of classically pumped-up Californians, including what might possibly be America’s finest red wine.

1) TWO CHARDS

ROBERT TALBOTT, KALI HART VINEYARD, CHARDONNAY, MONTEREY COUNTY, 2006

Don’t believe what you read. I took a punt on this wine, not only because it was under $20 but because the back label stated its intent “to be a Burgundian-influenced cool-climate Chardonnay.” I should have known this was impossible by its 14.2% alcohol. And sure enough, the color was that serious gold that screams of fresh oak and ripe fruit. I then found the nose extremely muted, only eventually giving up some apple and citrus, but none of the tropical fruit proclaimed on the back label – and yet, once in the mouth, the alcohol came through beyond and above anything else. Was I expecting too much from a modest-priced wine? Or, when a wine makes announces that their wine was “fermented in a combination of neutral French oak and stainless steel,” do I have a right to something that is, indeed, more “Burgundian-influence” and “cool climate” than this rather monolithic Californian monster? The same label notes that the Kali Hart vineyard, planted in 1990 in the northern Santa Lucia Highlands, is the youngest in the Talbott Estate, and perhaps this explains the lack of intense flavor profile – but I’m not sure it excuses it. Avoid at all costs – even just $15.
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RAMEY, CARNEROS, NAPA VALLEY CHARDONNAY, HYDE VINEYARD 2005
Opened on Christmas Day by our hostess, who generally drinks Kendall-Jackson; a gift to her that she was happy to share. From one of the Napa’s more exclusive vineyards in Carneros, this Chardonnay exuded grandeur every bit as much as the Talbott emitted squalor. Of course, as you’d expect from a Napa Cab, it too was a big, big big wine: Yellow-gold in color, very buttery on nose, but with a welcome and unusually bright acidity, so while the butter and vanilla and oak flavors were all there, there was a refreshing citrus quality to the wine that reached around the edge of the usual flavors and even gave off some orange tanginess – though not much by way of the tropical fruits one might typically expect from a Northern Californian Chardonnay. High in alcohol (around 14.5%) as well as in acidity, I suspect that it might actually have benefited from some time in the cellar, but sipped slowly and allowed to open up, it still felt quite special: big, bold and powerful, but not by any stretch a bruising bully. I’m not going to spend $60 on a wine like this for myself, but in comparison to the $15 disappointment above, it demonstrated how, sometimes, you have to pay extra for the extra quality.
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TWO CABS

CLOS DU VAL CABERNET SAUVIGNON NAPA VALLEY 1997;
BURGESS CABERNET SAUVIGNON NAPA VALLEY 1997

The 1997 vintage was heralded as one of Napa’s best for Cabernet Sauvignon; I bought a few around 2000-2001 and have been only gradually opening them, including these two over the holidays. Not sure I’ve had a truly sublime experience with any of them. And unfortunately I lost my notes to the Clos Du Val. (I don’t know about you, but I have scraps of paper with wine notes sitting all around the house, driving my wife crazy.) I remember feeling that it was somewhat muted, suggesting that it had gone a little over the hill. However, I also recall my guests being mightily impressed by its balance and clarity, meaning that whatever it had lost in fruit it had made up for in something else impressive. But I couldn’t help feeling mildly disappointed. The Burgess was much more satisfying. The mintiness soared straight out of the bottle, along with plenty fruit that felt to some degree fresher than the typical blackcurrant texture. There was also plenty herbs and minerality. In the glass, the acidity was still lively, and its profile was very, very clean and pure, not as exuberant as it might have been in its youth, but not overpowering either. Interestingly, whatever tannins had existed had been completely absorbed, leaving not a trace in the bottle – unless they’d been fined and filtered out of existence. A very nice wine. Whether “nice” is good enough when you’re splashing out on Napa Cabs is perhaps a different story, but I found this very satisfying.

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TWO ZIN BLENDS

ORIN SWIFT, THE PRISONER, NAPA VALLEY RED WINE, 2006

Funnily enough, just before someone came round for dinner bearing this as a gift, I had seen a bottle of “The Prisoner” in a neighbor’s recycling container. I had been instantly intrigued, as the bottle only indicates that it’s “Napa Valley Red Wine” – packing a whopping 15.2% alcohol. It turns out to be a high-end blend which, according to the web site, includes “the lush berry flavors of Zinfandel (51%), the power and concentration of Cabernet Sauvignon (23%), the dark black fruit of Syrah (12%), the intensity and structure of Petit Sirah (6%), the flesh of Charbono (6%) and a hint of Grenache (2%) – all combined for a decadent wine with great complexity.”
I like the prose, and I’ll give it the last line as a positive summary, but in terms of flavor profile, the Zinfandel completely overpowered everyth other grape. I would love to have noticed the “power and concentration” of the Cab or the “dark black fruit” of the Syrah, but try as I might, I couldn’t get beyond those “lush berry flavors” of the Zin, except perhaps, for some vanilla oak influence. Fortunately, I’m a big fan of Napa Zinfandel, which exaggerates the grapes’s uusual tanginess, and I loved how the tell-tale aromas of the grape juicily jumped around, though it was powerful that it bordered on “hot.” An impressive wine, if not for the faint of heart. And yet a shame that it tasted more like a pure Zinfandel than a Zin-based blend, as per one of Ridge’s many fine wines.

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RIDGE GEYSERVILLE, SONOMA COUNTY 1999
Talking of which, I couldn’t help but open my lone bottle of this King Of Zins over the December holidays, even though I surely knew even then that it would benefit from longer cellaring. And indeed, I was ecstatic to taste such a delicious, complex, vibrant Californian Zin-dominated wine – though DAMN but I wish I had another bottle. Disarmingly youthful, with a big sweet, jammy nose walloping my olfactory senses the moment I opened the bottle. On the palate, there was a sweet boysenberry fruit attack, with pepper, licorice and tar, pleasant herbal influences and the presence of friendly cedar helping hold it all together. Though I don’t appear to have made such a note at the time, I have the memory of coffee or chocolate in there too. The finish was exceptionally long and complex. While some of the darker textures indicated that the wine was no longer a baby, there was so much fruit here and so many other things going on in all directions that it’s hard not to believe this wine isn’t five years off its peak. As so many people have said of the Geyserville over the years, this is one of THE great wines, one of those rare bottles that you just wish you could savor for ever. And for all that so many Californian wines taste like grape juice on steroids these days, this is the one that shows how power and grace are not mutually incompatible.

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