France – Bordeaux

Walla Walla Speed Blogging: The Reds

12 October 2018

Amie Brittle of Maryhill Winery, and Liz Barrett, cohost of Name That Wine and writer of What’s in That Bottle, at her first Speed Blogging event

People don’t have shorter attention spans nowadays, according to the Wine Blogger Conference‘s keynote speaker, Lewis Perdue. They’re just more impatient. That’s good news for those of us who write overlong blog posts about wine minutiae. Ahem. And it’s good news for my favorite event at the Wine Bloggers Conference: Speed Blogging.

The conference organizers like to call it “speed dating for wine.” In case you’re too young to remember what speed dating was — does anyone still speed date? — speed dating involved spending a few minutes per person with several different potential matches. I can speak from experience when I say that “eight-minute dating” was about five minutes too long. Nevertheless, I met my husband at a speed dating event, so obviously the format has some merit.

I also love Speed Blogging because, in this era of supposed shorter attention spans, it demands total focus for the hour of its duration. We bloggers, sitting at tables in a big ballroom, have only five minutes each with 12 different wine presenters. They’re trying to tell us about the wine, we’re shouting questions at them, they’re trying to give us carefully produced press kits, we’re tossing them on the floor because we don’t have time to read them… And, through it all, we’re trying to pay attention to the wine so that we can say something intelligent about it. It’s mass chaos, and it’s a joy.

You might reasonably think that we have no business evaluating wines in such a setting. But it’s precisely because of the noise and the speed that Speed Blogging works. I focus intensely on my first impression of the wine, often more intensely than when I’m sitting in my silent living room with no distractions. It’s a challenge to assess wine in these circumstances, and like a vine under stress, the fruit of it can be richer and more concentrated.

On to the reds, mostly from Washington, in the order in which they were presented!

Sager Small of Woodward Canyon

2014 Woodward Canyon “Artist Series #23” Cabernet Sauvignon: The vineyard producing this Cabernet dates back to 1976, making it “old” by Washington State standards. Each label of the Artist Series wines, started in 1992, features a different Pacific Northwest artist’s work (rather like Mouton Rothschild). Composed of 92% Cabernet 6% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot, this wine had a rich, dark fruit aroma with cassis and some vanilla. Very enticing! My mouth filled with fruit, followed by white pepper spice and supple mocha tannins. Oo, that’s a big boy, but with plenty of grace as well — not an easy balance to strike. It’s $59 at retail, and in this case, definitely worth it. “I kind of wish one of you had a steak in your pocket right now,” friend and fellow blogger Liz Barrett told Sager Small, the son of the winery’s owners and its viticulture and production assistant. Alas, he did not.

2015 Mullan Road Cellars Red Wine Blend: Founded by Dennis Cakebread, Washington-based Mullan Road is the “family’s first foray outside of California.”  This blend of 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot and 17% Cabernet Franc had a very appealing aroma of ripe dark cherry, with a bit of chocolate and a touch of green peppercorn spice. Another rich beauty, with full fruit, focused acids and well-integrated, big mocha tannins. Through it all, a shaft of white-pepper spice held everything together. I would pay the $45 retail price for this wine, no question.

2014 Maryhill Winery Malbec: This wine wasn’t the only Washington Malbec that caught my attention at the conference. “We like to consider ourselves representative of the potential of the Columbia Valley; we work with 35 different varieties, and make 50 different wines,” according to Cassie Courtney, marketing director. That’s a lot of wines to keep track of, but certainly they didn’t give the Malbec short shrift. It had delightful fresh plum and prune fruit aromas. Flavors of deep, dark fruit were buoyed by a shaft of green peppercorn spice. Nice, even development, with focused acids and spice — what a deal at $26!

2015 Columbia Winery Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon: Columbia was the first to produce Syrah and Pinot Gris in Washington, but today, they poured their Cab. I liked its plummy aroma, with more of that deep, dark, ripe fruit so many Washington reds seem to have! It developed with grace on the palate, moving from fruit to focused acids and spice to tannins, which get bigger and bigger. The tannins get pretty darn serious by the end, so I would love to try this wine again in a few years. This wine is available only in the tasting room, “So come and see us in Woodinville.” Not at all a bad value at $38.

2015 Domaines Barons de Rothschild “Légend” Pauillac: “I’m in,” as my neighbor said when she saw this wine, and who could disagree? “A wine for every day” produced by the same winery that makes Lafite Rothschild, Légend is intended to make Bordeaux accessible to consumers. This blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot had a fresh plum aroma with some blueberries, and even a touch of cinnamon in the nose. It felt light on its feet, with bright, ripe cherries, some eucalyptus freshness and rather rough-and-ready tannins. They weren’t yet as well-integrated, or as graceful on the finish as I might have hoped for the $50 price. And though I realize that $50 is crazy cheap when compared to Lafite Rothschild, I’m not convinced that price is what most of us are looking to pay for an “every day” wine!

2015 Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: “I love this wine, with its cassis and black raspberries,” said Marisa McCann, who handles sales and events at the winery. Please don’t give me tasting notes! Now all I’m smelling is cassis. Well, and a touch of mocha. It’s awfully appealing, I must admit. She said something about Disney and Pretty Woman, but I was too distracted by the wine’s opulent fruit leavened by super-sharp acids and spice, followed by plush mocha tannins. I love it. “That’s a quintessential Napa Cab,” a fellow blogger remarked. Yes. $58

Caleb Foster, winemaker of J. Bookwalter

2015 J. Bookwalter “Chapter 8” Cabernet Sauvignon: This Washington wine comes from vines planted in 1988, which apparently counts as an “old” vineyard. Good Lord! Bookwalter restricts the yield for its Chapter 8 to about one bottle per vine, ensuring impressive concentration. Most vines yield two or three bottles of wine. It smelled of mocha and green peppercorn, and tasted of fresh plum with dark chocolate. I loved the wine’s confident, slow development from fruit to green peppercorn spice and mocha tannins. What a joy! Concentrated, yes, but with real freshness to balance. Sensational. If you can spend $100 on a bottle of wine, you’ll get your money’s worth with this one.

2015 J. Christopher Dundee Hills “Volcanique” Pinot Noir: Dr. Loosen is most famous for its fantastic Mosel Rieslings, but it also partners Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington and Dundee Hills in Oregon. And anything the Doctor has his hands on is bound to be good. Clifford Robben, CFO for Dr. Loosen USA poured this Pinot, which had a bright cherry, cough syrup aroma, leavened with a bit of dust and vanilla. (That’s a very enticing aroma, if you’re in doubt.) It’s a cherrypalooza to start with, moving to white pepper spice and some soft, supple tannins on the finish, with no sag in the middle, as sometimes can happen with lighter-bodied wines. Great balance, and I would certainly pay the $30 price.

2013 G. Cuneo Ripasso Red Wine: I had a little trouble hearing owner and winemaker Gino Cuneo, but I believe he said he dries the grapes for three and a half months on mats, before crushing them. Ah yes, he’s pouring a Walla Walla ripasso, similar in style to an Amarone! I am IN. This blend of Barbera, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo was quite a transparent ruby-red, and wow, it’s nimble, with big cherry fruit, bright and juicy sour-cherry acids, and supple tannins. It’s lighter and less raisiny than I would have expected, but nevertheless, it’s beautiful. A very good deal at $45 a bottle.

2016 Artesana Tannat Merlot Zinfandel: This winery is a project of three girlfriends, according to the presenter, who is foolishly trying to present two wines. In speed blogging, that immediately makes me hate you. This blend incorporates the first and only Zinfandel produced in Uruguay. It has a heady, dark red-fruit aroma, and it’s really lovely, but the chatter about the other wine is driving me crazy. It’s a full, ripe, tannic blend, with sparkling spice and acids keeping it balanced. I rather love it, especially at the $20 price — that’s a great deal. They should have just focused on this wine, since it’s so good. I’ve had mixed experiences with Uruguayan wines in the past, but if this bottling is any indication, they’re making some delicious stuff down there these days.

Is Older Better? Top Bordeaux From The 80s

15 April 2018

Like a fine wine, I get better with age.” This cliché appears on countless birthday cards and sparkly t-shirts in the more commercial winery tasting rooms. It’s a nice turn of phrase, but it’s a lie. At least for wine — even the very best, even the stoutest of Madeiras — there inevitably comes a period when it peaks, followed by decline.

I wrote about this at least once before, but it’s a fact easily forgotten, even by me. I still have two of those bottles of 1975 Inglenook Charbono that I wrote about in that post five years ago. What on earth am I waiting for? They’re not getting any better! Like most wines, that Charbono was surely meant to be consumed on release, or shortly thereafter.

Certain wines, however, do benefit from a few years in the cellar. Great Bordeaux, for example, can improve for some time, especially if stored in optimal conditions. The tannins integrate better, and additional aromas and flavors reveal themselves. And so I felt absolutely thrilled when Liz Barrett, my cohost on Name That Wine, called me up and alerted me that her friend had four bottles from tip-top Bordeaux producers, ranging in age from 30-34 years, and had finally decided to open them up.

Would we like to shoot an episode of Name That Wine around them? Hell yes we would! It’s a blind tasting show, but screw it — how often do we have the chance to try a Mouton Rothschild, young or old?

These four bottles — a 1984 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, a 1985 Château Beychevelle, a 1986 Château Pavie and a 1988 Château Mouton Rothschild — had spent some of their time in good basement conditions, but many of their years at room temperature as well. A couple of them bore their original price tags. Wow, you could get good deals on great Bordeaux in the 1980s!

Some of the bottles, alas, did not make it. Flavors and aromas in these ranged from “funk” to “fecal.” Some of them did, however, and wow. Which bottles made it and which tasted like stinky French socks?

This was a tasting I won’t soon forget.

If you liked that video, please subscribe to our YouTube channel! Recent episodes include a gefilte fish pairing, French versus Argentine Malbec, and an Irish Cream taste test.

Value In The Médoc: Bordeaux’s Moulis Appellation

9 March 2018

Christophe Labenne of Château Poujeaux

The words “Bordeaux” and “value” don’t often appear in close proximity. Some of the world’s most highly prized and most expensive wines come from Bordeaux, and many of those come from the Médoc. The Left Bank of the Gironde estuary is home to great châteaux like Mouton Rothschild and Margaux, which, at hundreds of dollars a bottle, don’t really qualify as values (whether they’re worth it is another matter).

But just because Bordeaux is one of the wine world’s most famous names doesn’t mean that there aren’t values to be had. As usual, it’s in the region’s lesser-known nooks and crannies where one must look. One of the value crannies of the Médoc is Moulis, an appellation between the more august names of St. Julien and Margaux.

With just 1,500 acres of vineyards, Moulis (moo-lee) ranks as the smallest appellation in the Haut-Médoc. It has no classed growths, but that’s not to say Moulis doesn’t produce wines of quality. In a 2003 Cru Bourgeois reclassification, two of Moulis’ châteaux earned ratings of “Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels,” the highest possible distinction. This classification system has since been scrapped, but the châteaux that earned top honors remain.

According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “…the best wines [of Moulis] can offer good value, being as well-structured as any Haut-Médoc, often with some of the perfume of Margaux to the east.” And of the châteaux in Moulis, “The finest of these is usually long-lived Château Poujeaux,” according to the Companion. The World Atlas of Wine agrees, more or less, noting that Poujeaux is “showing increased polish recently”.

At the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in Chicago, I had a chance to chat with Poujeaux’s managing director, Christophe Labenne, who explained that “Moulis wines are usually well-balanced, with the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon and the suppleness of Merlot,” the varieties which form the main components of its blend. “Moulis is popular with many people,” he went on, “because it goes with lots of food, and because prices tend to be in the $25-$40 range.” That’s not inexpensive, but it’s exponentially less than one of the Médoc’s most famous wines.

I tasted the 2015 Château Poujeaux, which had an aroma of cassis (currant), vanilla and violets. Its rich dark-red fruit flavors were buoyed up by freshness, and though the tannins weren’t the finest-grained in the Médoc, they felt well-integrated. The 2016 Poujeaux futures at Binny’s currently sell for about $30 a bottle, which is a steal (older vintages sell for $40-$45).

Just to the north of Château Poujeaux is another big name in Moulis, Château Maucaillou, which “can sometimes offer exceptional value and is, unusually for this less-glamorous stretch of the Haut-Médoc, open to casual visitors,” according to the World Atlas. The 2015 Maucaillou had an enticingly dark aroma, with a savory note and again that delightful perfume of violets. The wine had “some real stuffing,” I wrote in my notes, with excellent balance and integration. On Wine Searcher, the 2015 sells for about $25-$30, a superlative value.

To the south of Poujeaux is Château Chasse-Spleen, which, together with the two châteaux above, accounts for about half of Moulis’ production. So when seeking out Moulis, Poujeaux, Maucaillou and Chasse-Spleen are the names you’ll most likely encounter. According to The World Atlas of Wine, “Chasse-Spleen can be viewed almost as an honorary St-Julien for its smoothness, its accessibility, and yet it does not lack structure.” I quite liked its aroma of plummy fruit and vanilla, and indeed, I wrote that it felt “supple; softer than the others,” with mouth-watering juiciness. Yet it had some kick from white-pepper spice, and no shortage of tannins on the finish. At Binny’s, the 2015 vintage sells for $33, which strikes me as another very good deal.

So if you’re in the mood to splurge on a bottle between $25 and $35, Bordeaux’s lesser-known Moulis appellation is a fine place to turn.

Ideally give these wines a little time to age, so that the tannins soften a bit, but even the 2015 is perfectly drinkable now, especially if you decant.

Pomerol: Making The Case For Merlot

29 January 2018

“If anyone orders Merlot I am leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot!” Those two little sentences from the 2004 film Sideways continue to f*** up Merlot to this day. Certain large California wineries didn’t do the grape any favors, producing all too much flabby, overripe, jammy, unbalanced Merlot. It’s understandable that it developed an unfortunate reputation in the United States.

At a recent Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in Chicago, I mentioned that reputation to Eric Monneret, Managing Director of Château La Pointe in Bordeaux’s Pomerol appellation. He sighed and said, “In the U.S., people don’t believe that Merlot can be fresh. People can’t imagine a fresh Merlot. The window to the harvest is very short — Merlot becomes overcooked very quickly.” Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon are more forgiving, he said, but Merlot — you have to be precise.

Dany Rolland

And I suspect that few places are as precise with their Merlot as Pomerol. “Merlot was born in Pomerol,” Dany Rolland, sister to Michel Rolland, explained to me. “It’s difficult to make elsewhere,” she said, though Pomerol’s neighbor, St-Émilion, might disagree.

The World Atlas of Wine also has kind words for Pomerol, saying that “…an astonishing number of small [Pomerol] properties, for an area no bigger than St-Julien, are generally agreed to be among the best in the whole of Bordeaux.” And if properties are among the best in Bordeaux, that means they’re among the best in the world. Not bad for poor old Merlot!

Unlike many of Bordeaux’s appellations, Pomerol is unclassified, which means that all wines from the region are simply Pomerol. The soil changes too frequently, it seems, and the terroir doesn’t necessarily follow vineyard boundaries. But as The Atlas explains, “Rather than being overwhelmed by the complications of Pomerol, it is worth knowing that the average standard here is very high.” So if you pick a Pomerol more or less at random, you’re likely to get something quite good. Unfortunately, as The Atlas goes on to say, it likely won’t be inexpensive.

I had the chance to taste six Pomerols at the tasting at Chicago’s Drake Hotel, and oh my, they really were a delight.

2015 Château La Pointe: Mr. Monneret told me that in 2015, the Merlot was strong and fresh (sometimes, it’s just one or the other). And certainly his wine was both. A blend of 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc, it had an aroma of fresh dark cherries mixed with some spiciness and a light vanilla note, and it tasted very well-balanced, moving slowly and deliberately from rich, ripe dark-red fruit to ample acids and spice. There was a delectable chewiness to the wine at first. I suspect that will lessen as time goes on, but the wine is a pleasure to drink even now.

Eric Monneret

2015 Château Le Bon Pasteur: The Rolland family used to own this château, but Michel sold it in 2013. Nevertheless, Dany still serves as the winemaker. She told me that 2015 was a sunny vintage that had rain at just the right time. This Pomerol, a blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, had an aroma dominated by mocha, with a cherry note underneath. It tasted rich with chocolate-covered cherries, leavened with hint of coffee-like bitterness. A shaft of acids and spice kept the wine tight, and it had a long, fresh finish. The tannins sneaked up on me, meaning that they were more-than-usually well integrated.

2015 Château Beauregard: This château’s representative was ill at the time of the tasting, so we didn’t have the chance to chat. It’s too bad, because this wine smelled particularly fresh, with the dark-cherry fruit and vanilla notes buoyed by a bright leafiness. It tasted wonderfully fresh as well, with round fruit and supple tannins. All that freshness likely comes from the higher percentage of Cabernet Franc — this bottling is 70% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Franc and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon. Cheerful and refined.

2015 Château Rouget: This château has fallen into the hands of Burgundians! The only Burgundian château-owners in Bordeaux, according to Edouard Labruyère, who represents a family of winemakers going back some 250 years. The Labruyères bought Rouget in 1994, and they farm the vineyards totally organically. “As a Burgundian,” he confided, “I use whole [grape] clusters — I don’t de-stem.” His crazy Burgundian techniques seem to be working, even in Bordeaux. His Pomerol’s aroma had an almost electric tension between ripe dark cherries and bright freshness. It tasted big and juicy and fresh, and the finish went on for ages.

François Estager

2015 Château La Cabanne: Owner François Estager went all-in with Merlot in 2015. Well, almost — his wine is 95% Merlot blended with 5% Cabernet Franc. I loved its aroma of dark cherries mixed with a bit of chocolate and a violet-like perfume. This wine also moved with slow grace, changing effortlessly from ripe fruit to focused spice to supple tannins to a fresh eucalyptus finish. “Zowie,” I wrote in my notebook. You could surely age this, but it’s gorgeous now.

2015 Château Gazin: Gazin’s Technical Director Mikaël Obert used the same blend as La Cabanne. In some years, he explained, he uses a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon too, but in 2015 it didn’t ripen as well, so it ended up in the château’s second-label wine. He also uses just 15% new oak, because he prefers “for the grapes to express their personality, not the barrel.” There was that dark cherry aroma again mingled with dark chocolate, and the flavor was lush and velvety. It moved seamlessly and luxuriously from fruit to spice to a finish of dusty mocha. Or rather, I thought that was the finish, until it moved yet again, on to some eucalyptus freshness. Very polished, and very delicious.

The point of all these tasting notes is that Merlot can be ever so much more than a flabby jam bomb. I most certainly am drinking some f***ing Merlot, and I suggest you do the same. Especially if it’s Pomerol.

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