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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: A month’s worth of wine


SAINTSBURY 2004 ‘GARNET’ CARNEROS PINOT NOIR, CALIFORNIA, USA
I was a little down on the 2003 vintage of this wine when tasting it at the Total Wine Bar in Brooklyn last June; given that I admire Saintsbury and have a soft spot for their Chardonnay, I brought the 2004 home one day for a second opinion. At first it was all quite muted. Though the color was a most pretty translucent red, the nose needed shaking around to stir up flavors of black cherry, the low-acid wine was initially short up front and there was little by way of tannins. But the finish was long, with a chewy spicy leathery sensation that suggested short-term cellaring would surely be a benefit. This instinct was confirmed by how the fruit flavors really opened up on the second night of consumption. The lightness of body might be disappointing to some, but for those of us who know Pinot Noir to be a delicate grape, it’s a welcome change to find such modesty and balance in a Californian wine. saintsbury.com

RUBRATO DEI FEUDI DI SAN GREGORIO 2002, CAMPAGNIA, ITALY
I picked up this bottle in the hope of learning something about the dominant grape (Aglianico) of a rarely discussed region (Campagnia) from the wine world’s most complex country (Italy). Instead, what I got from this dark ruby red glass was the kind of spicy, jammy, peppery, oaky cedar nose and flavors I’d expect from a high-octane Aussie Shiraz, alongside the bright red spicy fruits of an American Zinfandel. This may be the precise profile of Aglianico in Campagnia, but I somehow doubt it. So though it was perfectly drinkable, I found that in its dressed-up desire to be popular, it was entirely anonymous and could have hailed from almost any winery on the planet that has a warm climate and enough money to invest in new oak barrels. When I made these observations to the wine merchant who recommended the bottle, he responded that it was currently the favorite wine of his wife – whom, he then added, pays little attention to terroir, let alone country or grape. A classic example of a modern international wine – and none the better for it. feudidisangregorio.it

A modest Pinot Noir from the Napa; an international Aglianico from Italy


NIETO RISERVA SENETINER MALBEC MENDOZA 2003, ARGENTINA
Fortunately, the Argentinians are proving more devoted to the honesty of their national treasure, the Malbec grape. (Read more iJamming! Malbec reviews here.) I tasted this over Christmas at a party: it came in a broad-shouldered bottle that served as visual warning of strong alcohol (14%) and big body. Crimson purple, it had a gorgeously cloying multi-layered textural profile of blueberry and plum and dark cherry and chocolate; the tannins were soft, and the finish was full of fruit rather than wood. Made from 40-year old vines in the Lujan de Coyo appellation, it stood in direct contrast to the Italian Rubrato up above: evidence that a national grape can taste distinct while remaining user-friendly. No wonder so many people are drinking Malbec. Nietosenetiner.com


ROSENBLUM VIOGNIER 2002 LODI RIPKIN RANCH LATE HARVEST, CALIFORNIA, USA
An ardent enthusiast of the Viognier grape I may be, but I’m limited in my exposure to it in late harvest “dessert” style. I picked this 375cl bottle up for around $15 hoping for a sensational experience, but while this golden colored wine had cloying peach and apricot flavors, very prominent Residual Sugar (a hefty 12%), and a generous dose of caramel, it was decidedly lacking in the silky complexity that marks a good dessert wine or any kind of Viognier, and I grew so quickly bored of it that I never got round to finishing the bottle. Perhaps the fermentation and subsequent ageing in oak masked the grape’s natural perfume. Maybe a Late Harvest Viognier needs to be consumed as quickly as a dry Viognier. Or maybe, and most likely, this was just never destined to be a great wine. Rosenblum.com


BEARBOAT CHARDONNAY RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY 2003, CALIFORNIA, USA

It’s Christmas day now and we’re with extended family at my 30-something nephew’s house, who has bought in a half-dozen wines for the occasion, all priced in the high teens. Clearly his local wine merchant is a fan of the big, bold Californian style: this Chardonnay was “Aged sur lies 6 months,” and in its copious amounts of butter, vanilla, butterscotch, pear, ripe rich apple and cream, was a classic case of overoaking the Chard. This would be understandable, if not necessarily forgiven, had it hailed from Napa, but as it’s from the cooler (and generally excellent) Russian River Valley, its over-the-top nature seems particularly egregious.


MASON NAPA VALLEY SAUVIGNON BLANC 2003, CALIFORNIA, USA
It’s difficult to restrain Sauvignon Blanc in the torrid Napa climate, but Randy Mason appears to have done a stellar job here: there’s strong citrus flavors (most noticeably grapefruit), a whisp of oak, some tropical fruit shining through and maybe some fig in the mix. A big wine that could never be confused with a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire, it’s nonetheless well made and balanced. If I hadn’t been working my way through so many wines for tasting purposes, I’d surely have enjoyed a glass or two for lunch. Masoncellars.com

RIDGE SONOMA COUNTY THREE VALLEYS 2003, CALIFORNIA, USA

Ah, good old Ridge and their Zinfandel-dominated blends. (This one rounded out with a near-30% mix of Carignane, Petite Sirah, Grenache and Mataro.) The Three Valleys label was introduced by the esteemed winemaker Paul Draper in the 2001 vintage as an entry-level, affordable Ridge wine blended from various vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and the Russian River Valley. But despite the price, it’s no wimp. I caught a ripe minty nose, the distinctive odor of cedar, and more alcohol than the 13.6% label suggested; on the palate, there was an assault of those lovely ripe zin-type berries, a really strong earthy meaty texture on mid and back palate, and a long, strong finish. Moody and surprisingly serious for a comparably low-price wine, it felt less like a Zin than a brooding Bandol. That’s a compliment. Ridgewine.com


AMADEU CABERNET SAUVIGNON RESERVE 2000, SERRA GAUCHA, BRAZIL,
Brazil? Yes, Brazil. I visited the country in Spring 2003 and picked up the most expensive home-grown wine I could find: it cost me all of twenty U.S. dollars. Given the quality of wines emanating from other South American countries, there’s no reason Brazil should not be added to the list – except for the fact that the country is mostly either desert or rainforest. This wine hails from the Serra Gaucha mountain region, where the grapes grow at an impressive altitude of 800 meters. That much I learned from the back of the bottle, which I’d held onto it since my return, unsure whether there would be any “legs” in such a low-alcohol wine from such a lowly regarded country, but hoping that what it would at least reward a couple years cellaring.
Fortunately, it did. Very light in color and flavor, merely 11.8% in alcohol, it started out reticent, but then some blackcurrant emerged alongside the mild austerity on the back palate that reminded me of a decent Cab-dominated Bordeaux. Over a half-hour period the wine really grew on me, with its light fruit, slight chewiness, and pleasant cedar-tobacco finish. A world away from the fruit-packed, often high alcohol wines of neighboring Argentina and Chile, this was surprisingly – and perhaps controversially – reminiscent of a modest Bordeaux. Clearly, there’s considerable hope for the nascent Brazilian wine industry – and one that, in the case of Amadeu, is not without a sense of humor. Making the most of the red wines’ low alcohol content, the Chilean-born winemaker Mario Giesse observes online that “They are an excellent option, as unbelievable as it may seem, to accompany caloric dishes instead of alcoholic wines that, with the first goblet, invite us to Morpheus arms or to get a driver to drive us safely back home.” Amadeu.com

Good wines on the Christmas dinner table: the Ruffino ‘Gold’ Ducale Chianti Classico Riserva and an exquisite Cabernet Sauvignon from Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley by O’Shaugnessy.


RUFFINO RISERVA DUCALE CHIANTI CLASSICO 2001, TUSCANY, ITALY

On to my sister-in-law’s house for dinner, where this bottle was already open on the table, primed to match her vegetable lasagna. By all rights, the Ruffino ‘Gold’ Ducale is a benchmark among Chianti Classico Riservas – produced in big enough numbers that it’s readily available for $20 – but this bottle was dark and almost impenetrable. There were serious herbal flavors on the nose, some of the Sangiovese grape’s familiar bitterness on the palate, but essentially it was a big black wine that refused to give up any secrets. The 2001 vintage is highly regarded in Tuscany; on this evidence, these are wines that need time. ruffino.com


O’SHAUGHNESSY HOWELL MOUNTAIN CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2002, CALIFORNIA, USA
And then there’s this big baby from 2002, just ripe to drink now. The story behind how this expensive, hard-to-find wine ended up at my sister-in-law’s is long and irrelevant; suffice to say that her husband willingly opened it for me as a celebration of the season. I was half-expecting another of the offensively arrogant Californian fruit bombs of which I often complain, but at a certain price point, the producers of the Golden State come into their own. And when you factor in a micro climate like the acclaimed, slightly cool and fog-free Howell Mountain region at the north-eastern tip of Napa Valley, the only question should be: did we open it too soon?
No we did not. This Cabernet was a beautiful ruby color, with long alcoholic legs dripping down the glass; I caught tell-tale mint and blackcurrant on the nose; there was a surprisingly soft attack with tons of acidity, followed by tons of sage-like herbs on the mid-palate, beautiful forward fruit, and an extravagantly silky finish. I used the word “Exceptional” as I made notes, and I don’t often do that. I also wrote that “the fruit is forward but there’s nothing obtrusive. Very seductive for a big Cali Cab.” Indeed, it was hard to tell this was almost 15% alcohol, a mark of fine wine-making. And though it was remarkably succulent for such a young Cabernet, it should surely have five-ten years drinking pleasure in it. My brother-in-law and I debated whether a wine as good as this should last longer because we desire to savor every sip, or whether it’s destined to be finished sooner as a mark of its quality. Either way, we polished it off over the evening, mostly without the intrusion of food. The following morning found me hangover-free and eager to go running on the boardwalk. Put simply, this was as good a Californian Cabernet Sauvignon as you’re likely to find – assuming you can actually find it. OShaughnessyWinery.com

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