2005 Red Bordeaux

We are hearing that the 2009 vintage is going to be in the same league as the icon vintage of the noughties, the much vaunted 2005’s. In his preface to the Master of Wine Tasting of no less than 124 wines, which was held in the Vintners’ Hall, London last November, my fellow MW Charles Taylor described the 2005 vintage: “The climatic conditions in 2005 were as close to the ideal as I have ever seen.” A sunny Spring led to a successful flowering in June and rapid and even fruit set. A warm July and August gave over to scattered showers in September with warm days and cool nights, and the resultant slow ripening of the fruit. Picking conditions were perfect, with growers able to choose the precise timing of the vendage in each vineyard. “The result is wine not only of great density and concentration but also of finesse and freshness.”

All regions of Bordeaux enjoyed these conditions and all have made stellar wines.

I tend to score wines using Greek Alphabet scoring α, β etc. I am happy to say there were no γ wines. The beauty of this method is that you can add +’s or –‘s to each letter. So Ch Haut Brion for example scored α+++. To show what a great vintage 2005 is, only six of the wines were in the β’s.

I would like to provide a tasting note for every wine tasted but alas time and space make it impossible. Suffice it to say that I scored 38 wines at α+ or more and that, in other terms, means 95 points or more. All the first growths from both left and right bank justified their position at the top of the tree. What I would like to pick out are a handful of wines lower down in the hierarchy which really succeeded. So, as they say, in no particular order, and from a wide range of price categories..

Ch Leoville Lascases 2eme Cru Classé St Julien
Deep purple black in color, massive Cabernet Sauvignon fruit on the nose and palate, cassis balanced with powerful tannins. A mouthful of complexity and elegance. No where near ready for drinking. Needs another ten to fifteen years when it will be sensational. α++

Ch Siran Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel Margaux
This wine may not be officially classified as a Grand Cru Classé, but it is playing magnificently out of its league. It has fine elegant fruit on the nose, and on the palate it is full juicy and already very attractive. Glorious balance and elegance with a lingering finish. α+

Ch Pichon-Longueville Baron 2eme Cru Classé Pauillac
Stunning deep opaque purple in color. Gloriously rich powerful nose of cassis, eucalyptus, massively concentrated. On the palate it is rich, juicy with great elegance and structure. It has enormous length and will last forever – 50 years certainly! This wine behaves like a first growth and maybe one day will be. Qui sait? α+++

Ch Palmer 2eme Cru Classé Margaux
Opaque, deep purple, with subdued but very refined mulberry fruit on the nose. On the palate the concentrated juicy fruit and tannins balance beautifully with the acid. Despite being already very appealing, it is a wine to keep as long as you can. α++

Ch Cos d’Estournel 2eme Cru Classé Saint-Estèphe
Deep, deep purple in color, concentrated and massively elegant dark berry fruit on the nose. On the palate, it is a blockbuster, as fine and as classy as any Bordeaux at any level. Long, lingering finish. Faultless. α+++

Ch Bastard-La-Tonnelle Grand Cru Classé Saint-Emilion
Deep in color, wonderful elegant fruit on the nose. Soft round and juicy on the palate, velvety ripe Merlot fruit. Juicy and classey on the finish. A jewel of a wine and not expensive. α++

Ch Bellevue Grand Cru Classé Saint-Emilion
Deep purple in color with elegant mulberry fruit on the nose, firm round and juicy on the palate with enormous concentration and elegance. Another example of a truly magnificent and affordable Saint-Emilion α++

Ch La Conseillante Pomerol
This wine is one of my weaknesses. Every time I drink or taste it, I am transfixed. The 2005 is no exception. Deep purple in color with a glorious cedar and cassis nose. On the palate it is beautifully balanced with soft fruits and tannin, and firm complexity. It will last for years and be increasingly seductive. α++

Of the other wines, currently listed on Wine.com, which are not mentioned above, here are my notes on those that I tasted.

Ch Cantenac-Brown 3eme Cru Classé Margaux
Deep purple in color, soft elegant berry fruit on the nose with spicey notes. Lovely structure and very elegant on the finish. Will age well. α+

Ch Branaire Ducru 2eme Cru Classé St Julien
Dark plum in color, Classic spicey St Julien fruit on the nose, medium weight but great concentration of elegant fruit and fine tannin, Elegant finish. Another keeper but not for too long! α-

Ch Leoville-Poyferré 2eme Cru Classé St Julien
Very deep red in color, velvety round plumy fruit on the palate, slightly auster. Needs a lot of time. α

Ch Clinet Pomerol
Deep deep purple in color, soft elegant berry fruit on the nose. Balanced elegant blackberry fruit and finesse. A classy wine for drinking from 5 years on. α

Ch Mouton-Rothschild Premier Cru Classé Pauillac
Deep purple in color, powerful cedary cassis on the nose. Very refined and elegant, also very closed. This wine lives up to its reputation and, dare I say it, price in every way. α+++

I will attempt to catch up on those missing over the next few months. Also if anyone wants my notes of any wine not mentioned above, please let me know. I will answer providing of course I have tasted it.

Hold your breath for the 2009’s. We will be hearing about opening prices in the next few months. Cross fingers they are sensible.

Anthony Foster M.W.

Pinotage Party: Southern Right 2007 Pinotage

My goal was to taste and blog about a Pinotage that I have not yet tried. Alas, a long week and not enough time to go searching led me to my cellar where my old Pinotage standby lives… Southern Right from Walker Bay. But it’s a good wine to right about because it was the Pinotage that got me back into trying Pinotage and the winery has a story behind it. And we love a wine with a story.

The story behind Southern Right is a good one. Founded by Hamilton-Russell, a winery known for their walkerbayoutstanding Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the premise for Southern Right Cellars was to create stellar Pinotage – not the burnt rubber, bubble gum Pinotage so maligned by wine lovers, but a wine that expressed the true essence of Pinotage and South Africa. This second label for Hamilton-Russell was started by Anthony Hamilton-Russell in 1994 when he took over the winery from his father.

Both Hamilton-Russell and Southern Right vineyards are planted just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean in the Walker Bay appellation. The home of Southern Right Cellars is right outside of Hermanus, a town where people come from all over to watch the whales. The name Southern Right actually comes from a baleen whale of the same name, hence the label. The other cool thing about Southern Right Cellars is that with each sale of Southern Right wines, they make a contribution to Southern Right Whale conservation in the Walker Bay.

So that’s the company. How about the wine? I actually got to visit this property in South Africa when I was there on my honeymoon in 2008. It was stunning and the wines were excellent (don’t get me going on how much I love Hamilton Russell Chardonnay). The Pinotage stuck out in my mind because it was really quite good – and while I’ve never hated Pinotage, I never quite loved it either. This one made me want to give the grape another chance. I tasted some other Pinotage on this trip that stood out as well. Spice Route Pinotage was a huge winner in my book, giving tons of fruit forward deliciousness, with very subtle smoke undertones. I believe “Christmas” was how I described the nose.

I’ve had it since that trip and always enjoyed it. So I opened another bottle for this tasting. I have to say, at first I was disappointed. Something was missing – the wine seemed thin and the smoky nose was leaning towards that burnt rubber aroma.

So I waited and let it open up in my glass for a while, and when I returned, the Pinotage I remember was back. Whew…

southern rightSouthern Right Pinotage 2007

Color: Deep ruby purple, with a light ruby/purple rim

Nose: Smoky! As so many South African wines are, especially Pinotage. Smoke and roasted meat was definitely prominent, but also wild berry and currant.

Taste: That South African smokiness comes through on the palate as well, with ripe berry fruits and a touch of spice. Tannins are in check and the acidity is excellent here, making this a perfect food wine.

Favorite non-Champagne Bubblies for Valentine’s Day

heart boxFlowers, chocolate and bubbly. Somehow Valentine’s Day has a marketing hold on all three. The history of Valentine’s Day is slightly hazy, though mid-February as time of romance dates back to Pagan festivals in ancient Rome. In the 5th century, however, the Pope declared February 14th as St. Valentine’s Day, giving the holiday a Christian orientation. There were at least three St. Valentines, though it is thought that St. Valentine’s Day was named for the one from the third century who lived and died during the reign of Emperor Claudius.  Okay, that’s enough history for now, let’s move onto one of Valentine’s Day’s celebration accessories – BUBBLES. Something about celebrating love means breaking out sparkling wine. And indeed, sparkling wine is something to swoon over, and has been known to make one swoon. These days, however, grabbing that bottle of Dom Perignon is tougher on people’s wallets. Champagne prices are still fairly pricey, and for those of us who want to celebrate with a glass of bubbles, but want to keep spending in check, here are some excellent non-Champagne sparklers to try on this Valentine’s Day.
Oh, and make sure you tune in to View from the Bay on Wednesday, February 10th, where we taste and talk about these delicious bottles!

Nino Franco Rus tico Prosecco ($16.99) – Prosecco, often known for the perfect bubbly for bellinis and mimosas, comes shining through here as what they term, a “Champagne look-alike.” From the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene DOC, this wine does show some amazing sparkles for the money. It is bright, crisp, full of citrus and mineral notes and seriously persistent bubbles. Elegant, lovely, refreshing.

Gruet Blanc de Noirs ($14.99) – Hailing from New Mexico, how can you NOT try this wine – it’s sparkling wine from New Mexico! In 1984, Champagne producer Gilbert Gruet planted an experimental vineyard of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in New Mexico. His family re-located and began focusing on making American sparkling wine using the traditional – or Champagne – method. They produce a number of wines, including a Rose, a Blanc de Blancs, a Demi-Sec and a Blanc de Noirs. Lots of juicy red fruit on this wine, rich in the palate. This is more on the full bodied side and perfect with food!

Roederer Estate Brut ($18.99) – From the Champagne house of the same name (Louis Roederer), this NV sparkler is a go-to favorite! Love this wine! Balanced, delicious, a perfect blend of citrus, stone fruit, mineral and toast. Fantastic bubbles, uber-long finish, creamy texture. Total rockin bubbly.

Jansz Premium Rose – ($19.99) -  This wine is actually owned by Yalumba, a fantastic Australia producer located in Barossa. This wine, however, is made from grapes from Tasmania, a very cool climate, indeed. Bright red fruit, crisp acid, terribly refreshing and just really pretty.

Off the Beaten Path: Spanish Finos

Leaving Madrid on a Southbound train, Europe’s highest capital city scales down to scattered suburbs before disappearing entirely. Olive trees step in and take the place of buildings. Beautiful and then monotonous, the scenery is one continuous stream of thousands of olive trees on thousands of white rolling hills. My recent trip to Spain lasted only nine days, just enough time for me to explore Andalucia’s historical treasures and discover the Montilla-Moriles wine region, located 30 km south of Cordoba.

Cordoba itself is famous for its rich history as a Roman city and then a Moorish capital until its reconquest by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1236. Hundreds of years of Moorish rule produced the architectural jewel, the Mezquita. Recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site, the Mezquita is a rare architectural example of two of the worlds greatest religions occupying the same space and time. A single visit allows one to see a 8th century mosque and a 13th century cathedral. Moving to say the least and a bit like meeting a celebrity for history buffs like me.

As usually happens wherever Roman roads lead, vineyards follow. Less famous than it’s popular big brother, Jerez, the Montilla-Moriles region is a collection of small towns connected by the swathes of olive trees and vineyards. The earth here is poor in organic nutrients but high in calcium carbonate, a result of a rich concentration of ancient seashells. In fact, if one looks closely at Cordoba’s many city walls, one see’s hundreds of fino picintact seashells. Calcium carbonate helps retain moisture in this hot, arid region.

First a bit about the word "Sherry." I bring this up because one finds wines from Montilla-Moriles labeled as "Sherries" at restaurants or wine shops. Like "Champagne," true "Sherry" comes only from Jerez region. Jerez employs the Solera process for making its famed wines. Now zip over to Montilla-Morilles which also employs the Solera process. Using similar techniques produces similar wines, these similarities cause them to be lumped together into the "Sherry" category. There are many types of "sherries" but the one explained here is the Fino. Difficult to find and underappreciated, the Fino has escaped the notice of the American market. However, these wonderful wines can forever change one’s notion of what wine tastes like. These are delicate, dry wines, lacking fruity aromas. Instead they display salty and nutty aromas. Fino’s are incredibly popular in Spain and enjoyed with or without food. Given their rarity, I was extremely pleased to find a little time to explore at least one Bodega and see the Fino winemaking process in-person.

We arrived in the white-walled town of Montilla without any plan, map or reservation, risky in a region that enjoys very long siestas. Thankfully, the city provided signs pointing the way to its many Bodegas. We attempted to find the tourist station but gave up after seeing so many signs pointing the way. Getting a bit lost landed us at the door steps of Bodegas Cruz-Conde.

Our guide explained that, unlike Jerez, where the primary grape is the Palomino grape, here the primary grape, Pedro Ximenez, serves as the base for all for all of its wines. While Jerez is situated near the Atlantic, Montilla is about 5 hours inland and experiences very hot and dry conditions. This desert climate relies on a high concentration of calcium carbonate to maintain soil moisture. The vines here are not trellised and grow small and gnarled. With pride, our guide told us that grapes grown here ripen fully in the intense heat and consequently achieve higher sugar levels. This is critical because higher sugar levels allow for higher alcohol levels. So high, in fact, that these wines are not fortified at all at reach and reach fifteen-percent alcohol! This is huge difference from Jerez wines because, in Jerez, the grapes are unable to reach high sugar levels and must be fortified with brandy to increase the alcohol content to roughly fifteen-percent. Consequently, wines from Montilla-Moriles exhibit much lighter bodies and more delicate and subtle aromas.

We were guided into the wine cellar where the wine is barrel aged after fermentation. The barrels were stacked in layers up to 4 barrels high (and go higher where space permits). The ground level layer of barrels is called the "Solera" and derives from the the word "suelo" meaning "floor". The layers stacked on top are the crianzas. The Solera level barrels contain the oldest wine, the next layer up contains slightly younger wine, and so on with each layer. Logically, the youngest wine is found in the barrels stacked at the very top. Wine for bottling is taken from the solera level barrels (the oldest wine) and replenished with wine from the barrels immediately above them (slightly younger wine). Those barrels in turn are replenished with yet younger wine from the barrels stacked on top of them. Thus, younger wine is constantly filtering down to the solera level barrels. Complicated and labor intensive? You bet, but this process allows for uniformity and constant vintage blending. As a visual learner, I really needed to see it in person to appreciate the process. While traditionally unique to Spain (and a handful of other places in Europe), the use of a Solera to blend wine is now appearing in the New World.

But the real magic happens inside the barrel during the blending process. The barrels are only partially filled, creating a large air space. Within that airspace yeast thrives and creates a yellowish veil of "flor" over the surface of the wine. The flor simultaneously shields the wine from the air and imparts the major nutty and salty aromas present in these wines.

So what the heck does a "veil" of yeast on wine look like? Well, thankfully, our guide was ready with a glass-walled barrel so that we could see inside a barrel. Yup, it looks like a layer of yellow muck floating on the wine. Delicious.

So how about a barrel tasting? Because the flor layer protects the wine from the surrounding air, our guide explained, it is critical that the flor be disturbed as little as possible so that once the layer is broken and wine collected, the flor can immediately close over the hole and prevent bacteria from contaminating the wine. To do this our guide showed us a "venencia." The long flexible handle is made of baleen and at the end is a narrow cup (narrow to make a only a tiny hole in the flor). Our guide lined the venenzia up as straight as possible and dipped in and out quickly, then swung the venencia up high and poured its contents into the glass. I took a photo of myself pretending to do the same.

I took a sip and was so pleased to find the characteristic bone-dry, nutty, salty air qualities that make Fino’s so special and unique. These wines may not sound like a wine you might enjoy, but they have a mouthwatering quality about them and unexpected food friendliness that keeps Fino lover’s scouring wine lists to find them.

Year in Review – Top Appellations of 2009 Part 3: Argentina

Argentina is hitting it big these days. With the popularity of Malbec still growing, and the recognition from media and retailers to some grapes sarge vinespecific to Argentina (like Torrontes and Bonarda), Argentina is on the right track. Sales of wine from here grew 60% last year and most of the wines coming from this country are well in the value range, which is what people like these days!

Argentina Facts:

-Argentina is the 5th largest producer of wine in the world
Malbec, the grape most often used as a blending variety in Bordeaux and Bordeaux blends, has found a home in the high elevation vineyards of the country.
Torrontes, a white variety unique to Argentina, is delightfully aromatic and crisp. Salta is a region further north that is becoming well known for Torrontes and other white wines.
-Many of Argentina’s vineyards are very high elevation, which is one of the reason’s Malbec is able to thrive – the dry air and strong temperature catenawineryshifts keep it disease and rot-free. But they do have to mind the hail storms here…
-Mendoza is the heart of Argentina grape growing, and is just a 45 minute flight from Santiago. Though you wouldn’t want to try the drive as that would take you through the Andes mountains.
Bonarda   is a unique Argentine grape variety that is used mostly in blends, but occasionally as a single varietal – worth trying!

While Malbec is definitely the “state bird” of Argentina, other grapes are making excellent wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and, becoming ever more popular, red blends. So pick up some wine from this tango country – you’ll find many deals under $20 and the wines are certainly well worth it.

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