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THE PLEASURES OF PAHLMEYER (October 19,
2002) I guess there will always be a few grumps who mutter that
Pahlmeyer wines are too ripe, rich and showy, just as there are
people who don't like chocolate. As for me, I'm just having trouble
deciding which vintage I like best. Last night, we lined up 6
different Pahlmeyer Reds and Merlots, and the mid-nineties vintages
were so uniformly great, it was almost monotonous.
The MERLOTS may be the three
greatest examples of this grape I've ever tasted from California.
Just to be sure, someday I'd like to taste one of these alongside
1992 Matanzas Creek:
is deceptively juicy at first
sip. With its cocoa aromas and palate-staining
raspberry, blackberry (and any other berry or cherry you're in the
mood for) flavors, you might be tempted to suck it down too fast.
That would be a shame, because as the night wears on, it gets even
***+1994 Pahlmeyer Merlot
***+1995 Pahlmeyer Merlot plays the same flavor notes and may
be the deepest of the trio. It certainly finishes longest, which in
this case is very long indeed. But it's also the leanest in texture
(bear in mind this a relative thing!) and I'm not quite sure what
this means. Perhaps it simply needs more cellar-time.
***+1996 Pahlmeyer Merlot is hands-down the most succulent of
the three and looks to be the darkest, as best I can judge in the
restaurant lighting. The flavors aren't quite as complex as the
1994, but I'm pretty sure this is a tannin thing. Needs a few more
years to fan out. It's very tough choosing among these wines (have
you noticed?), but I'll name this my BEST IN FLIGHT.
The PROPRIETARY REDS (made from a
blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot
and even some Malbec) may be showing a little sterner tonight, but
the ones from the mid-nineties are even more massive than the
Merlots, if that's possible:
is clearly from a
different era -- still pretty youthful, nice in its way, but
higher in acidity and lacking the opulent mouthfeel of later
*+1986 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red Wine
***+1995 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red Wine is, well, HUGE.
Incredibly intense plum and berry fruit, with some pretty blueberry
highlights that I attribute to the Petit Verdot. It's still showing
some oak, but this is a mere babe and can only get more beautiful
over the next ten years. My WINE OF THE EVENING.
***+1996 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red Wine is preferred by at
least one other taster and it may indeed be a bigger wine, but by
this point I'm so dazzled as to be shell-shocked. I think it
may not be quite as perfectly balanced as the 1995 -- a little
plummier? -- but frankly, I'm groping for some flaw, any flaw, to
prevent me from simply gushing about everything in front of me.
ALSO TASTED alongside these
fleshpots are some other good efforts that might have pleased me
even more on some other night. All but one are served blind:
shows higher acid and more tannin than the
Californians, with flavors of cranberry, blackberry and Bordeaux
herb. Finishes well and develops very positively over the hour I
follow it. I guess Bordeaux, which is correct, then impulsively
say Grand Cru, which is not. It's *++1995 Tayac Prestige
from the Côtes du Bourg.
Needs maybe five more years to shed its tannins, at which time it
may merit a higher score.
MYSTERY WINE #1
MYSTERY WINE #2 is a big, fruity wine -- bigger for sure than
the Tayac -- with some dill flavors that doubtless come from aging
in American oak. I blurt out "California" before someone
reminds me that Australia's more likely. Turns out to be *++1997
Brokenwood Shiraz Rayner Vineyard, and maybe I'm being too
stingy. I'm not one of those fragile types who throw their
skirts over their heads and scream at the slightest hint of oak, but
tonight the dill does bother me.
MYSTERY WINE #3 is more in keeping with the Pahlmeyers,
albeit more backward. Dense and loaded with berries, it gets gritty
on the finish, and seems to need another three years at least. I
guess California Cab from the mid-'90s, and it's not the first time
I've been faked out by a new wave Italian Merlot. It's **1996
Ornellaia Massetto Vino da Tavola.
Finally, I'm sorry I didn't have more time to savor the
delightful **1978 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars "Stag's Leap
Vineyard Lot #2". Shows some oxidation at first, but those
notes are quickly drowned out by a chorus of cherries and hot fudge.
Silky texture. Lovely exemplar of gracefully aging California Cab.
CHAVE BLANC VERTICAL
(October 12, 2002) If I ever needed convincing that Marsanne can be
profound, tonight would have sealed the deal. The white wines of
great Rhône producer J. L. Chave
are just as majestic in their way as his reds, and this evening we
tasted 12 different vintages:
*++1984 Chave shows aromas of sherry, sweat and olives
at first. Over the hill? But as minutes tick by, hidden fruit
comes out to play. Marzipan and almonds emerge. Good stuff and
quite a comeback.
Delicious from the first sniff, **+1985 Chave only gets
better. Lots of honey, some cashews and a big wallop of mineral
flavors. Oily and velvety on the palate; seems to be holding more
treats in reserve. The group and I vote it our FAVORITE OF FLIGHT.
*-1986 Chave starts out almost as nice as the '85, then
falls apart abruptly, just as the 1984 starts to swell. It never
quite dies, though. After a while, aromas of petrol and road tar
emerge. Decent wine, but lacks the stuffing of the others. LEAST
FAVORED IN FLIGHT by group vote.
Some love **-1987 Chave at first taste, but it polarizes
the table. I'm put off by the alcohol and what may be some
volatile acidity. Like it better after some airing -- sweetens up,
gains depth, acid falls back. A few vote it their favorite of the
flight, but most prefer the '85.
*++1988 Chave, though not too shabby, is plainly the
weakest in this strong flight. LEAST FAVORED IN THE FLIGHT by
group vote, it's still very much alive and appealing, but just
can't compete with wines like the following three.
The yummy **++1989 Chave quickly blows off some bottle
stink and delights with flavors of buttered toast and marmalade, but
if you think that's exotic, try the sensational...
***1990 Chave! Take all the above, add a sexy honeysuckle
fragrance, sensuous, slippery texture and a tremendous finish. It's
my favorite of the flight, but the group is even more impressed with
the next vintage.
Now, I'll admit the ***-1991 Chave is very special,
with flavors of peach, almond, apricot, even a hint of pastry.
There's some tangy botrytis at play too -- and weird as it sounds,
the finish reminds me of RED Burgundy, with more than a hint of game
and raspberry. Try serving this one in black glasses and see if your
guests guess the color. GROUP FAVORITE OF FLIGHT and I can't fault
their choice, but I prefer the 1990.
1992 Chave has a nice thick texture, but something funky's
going on. Oxidation and raisin flavors make it the weakest wine in
the tasting. Just seems out of place with the others. Over the
hill or bad bottle? LEAST FAVORED IN FLIGHT by group vote.
Nothing wrong, however, with the **1993 Chave! Tasted
blind, you might guess Batard-Montrachet. Tropical fruits, minerals,
vanilla, ample length, lovely balance.
If tonight were two years from now, ***1994 Chave might be
the wine of the tasting. Right now it seems a little closed and
refuses to budge, swirl though we may. Very concentrated and pure
with a very long, mineral-laden finish.
Finally, there's nothing shy about the fantastic ***+1998. This
stuff is knock-your-back HUGE. Showers your palate with melon,
peach, tropicals, wet stones. Big attack, great palate presence,
lingering finish, home run. What a way to end the vertical. GROUP
FAVORITE OF FLIGHT and my WINE OF THE EVENING.
Next, just for fun, we open a RED
FLIGHT from various parts of the Rhône...
is a fruit bomb at this stage, oozing raspberry,
blueberry and blackberry juice, with a hint of vanilla on the
tail. (POSTSCRIPT: Just tasted the currently available **-2000
Relagne Cuvée Vignerons
today and it's very similar -- great buy for about $23. For a few
bucks less you can have the *+2000 Relagne regular cuvée,
a more drink-me-now style that's also quite delicious.)
**-1998 Domaines des Relagnes "Cuvée
***Chapoutier Le Pavillon Cuvée
MC2 (Non-Vintage Hermitage) is a fascinating wine, made from
late '70s and early '80s juice. Starts out dripping with bacon fat,
but straightens out in a hurry. Cassis, old saddle leather and rare
steak -- very Rhône-ish and
very much strutting its stuff.
***+1992 Chapoutier Le Pavillon (Hermitage) is barely out of
rompers. Adhesive tape and blackcurrant, with some new leather and
game on the finish. Dense and almost syrupy, it could use another
few years in the cellar.
Just as big, ***+1989 Château
Beaucastel (Châteauneuf du Pape)
is a pristine example of this legend. Nothing from the barnyard here
-- just a barge-load of raspberries, herbs and a finish that keeps
rolling along like ol' man river.
The red 1988 Chave (Red Hermitage) starts out smoky
and gamy, resembling the NV Le Pavillon. Then it suddenly turns to
library paste. Oh well.
But **++1994 Chave (Red Hermitage) is a fine coda to the
flight, showing mostly sweet blackberry with a touch of smoke. This
one was served blind and it's so much about ripe fruit, folks mostly
guessed California Syrah.
And for dessert, we're treated to a
***+1990 Yquem. "I'm not sure this qualifies as
white wine," says one amazed taster, and that about sums it
up. Perhaps it's a sin to open it now -- but the attack is so
piercing, the finish so endless, I'm glad somebody did.
21, 2002) Huge cuts of prime rib stare up at us, demanding to be
matched to great wine. Who could resist pitting Napa Valley Cab
against Bordeaux? The order of battle:
Tasted twice this year, ***+1983 Château
Pichon-Lalande once again makes the table look up, drop jaws,
gush praise. Again I wonder if the more famous 1982 could possibly
be more loveable. Deep purple and surprisingly youthful, this
pristine bottle deals aces in PL's strong suits –—
velvety texture, sweet blackcurrant fruit, thundering finish. Some
call it Bordeaux of the evening, but my favorite is...
***+1990 La Conseillante. This wine doesn't bang your head
for attention, but it's got so much finesse in the word's
correct sense. "Elegant" can be code for "lacks
oomph," but not here. The '90 La Conseillante is deep as you
could desire, plus an astonishing acrobat. CrLme
de cacao gives way to cherry and finally raspberry, then all
flavors play at once. At one point I'm tasting different notes on
the top and bottom of my palate. (Humans have taste buds on
the tops of their palates. You could look it up.)
Outstanding but not quite as sublime is **1989 La
Conseillante. Like many '89s, it's more tannic and may
need more cellaring, but I doubt it will ever be quite such an
athlete as its sister.
I may be underrating plummy, ultra-ripe **+1990 Troplong
Mondot. Approaches the Pichon-Lalande in power, but doesn't
yet match its complexity or that of '90 La Conseillante. This one
may indeed benefit from further aging.
Served blind, *+1994 Mouton shows mysteriously like Montrose.
Why? Anyhow, notes of blood, brass and meat
predominate, with some rough edges on the
satisfying finish. Not the toasty, cleanly-made style you'd expect
from Mouton. Widely dissed tonight, it doesn't live up to its price
tag, but let's be fair. It's still good, if not great wine.
1990 L'Angelus is regrettably, infuriatingly corked. But
there's little time to cry when you've still got to open...
I've had great bottles of ***+1991 Dominus, but this
one...woo-woo-woo! The expected chorus of cherry, tobacco and game
greets you at the git-go, and then the real fun begins. Broadens,
deepens, could Cabernet get any better than this?
But watch out, here comes...
***+1991 Shafer Hillside Select is a stealth wine, always
has been. At first pour, it doesn't overwhelm and it's so supple,
you assume that's the show. An hour later, you take a sip and think
hmm, I underrated this wine. Two hours go by and it's kicking the doors
down. Tonight it starts out significantly behind the Dominus,
catches up and... well, I think it narrowly wins. They're about
even in concentration, length and complexity, but those black
cherry flavors in the Shafer are irresistible. This is the second
time I've experienced this –— the first at a blind tasting of '91s
where I assumed it must be Dominus, because it stomped the field.
Tasted several times this year with consistent notes, **++1991
Joseph Phelps Insignia, while beautiful, can't overtake Shafer
and Dominus. With plenty of ripe cassis, cigar and a touch
of smoke, it may have done better among the Bordeaux, rather than
duking it out with these sluggers.
Finally, we assess a wine poured blind from an enormous
bottle. With opening notes of adhesive tape and shoe polish,
followed by lots of ripe red cherry flavors, **-1998 Schrader
Gaudeamus tastes like a scaled-back Peter Michael Les Pavots.
Nice juice, but the container is over the top. Please, cult
producers, have mercy on our racks.
So who wins tonight? We
do. If I had to name a favorite wine, it might be 1990 La
Conseillante, but three others could just as easily claim the crown.
HOW'S IT GOING, OLD
FRIEND? (September 17, 2002) It's always nice to check up on a
favorite wine and find it's still going strong, but alas, one old
friend has bit the dust...
was once a lush, juicy
exemplar of realistically priced Napa Valley Cab. Guess I should
have gone through my case a bit quicker. My next-to-last bottle,
opened this week, might have been good for salad dressing. Gets me
wondering how many other '92s could be secretly dropping their fruit.
1992 Judd's Hill Cabernet Sauvignon
Happily, though, these bottles had
*++1992 Clos Pegase Hommage is fully mature and
pretty darned tasty. Blackberries and a pinch of pomegranate keep
flowing convincingly through the evening and the texture is
*1990 Château Fourcas
Loubaney (Listrac) is still enjoyable, but drink up! This
Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois was once a dead ringer for a classified
growth Médoc, but 12 years from
vintage may be pushing your luck. The cedar has gained on the fruit
since I last tried it, a year ago.
*++1994 Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon is just coming
into its own, with ample mineral-laden cassis to balance those
Mount Veeder tannins. Consumed over the course of
several evenings, the last third of this bottle was easily the best
-- very smooth and Bordelaise -- so I won't be in any hurry to consume my remaining few.
**1995 Clarendon Grenache "Blewitt Springs" remains
my benchmark for Australian Grenache, though I fear it's lost a step
since release. It's developing more like
Zinfandel than Châteauneuf du
Maybe it's gained some complexity, but the once-overwhelming raspberry flavors have
moderated, and the tradeoff doesn't wow me.
And my last bottle of **1991 Ravenswood Pickberry Proprietary Red
Wine proves to be a sheer pleasure, expanding over the course of two
hours to flaunt its full spectrum of earth, blackberry, gunpowder and
game. No reason to rush if you're holding any, but you won't go wrong
BUBBLIES FOR ULTIMATE
BRUNCH (September 15, 2002) I've got a friend who's idea of
Sunday brunch exceeds most people's dreams for Thanksgiving dinner.
Over the course of some five hours, while we weren't scarfing
down his delectable cold crab and fresh corn soup, caviar with whole
wheat blinis and crLme
fraiche, peel-and-eat jumbo shrimp with mango-ginger dip, smoked
salmon, grilled chicken and a whole lot more, we popped a few corks
and compared the merits of:
Believe it or not, they make
sparkling wine on the Golan Heights. I've tasted still wines from
Yarden that were pretty good, but the contents of this bottle are
oxidized, halfway flat and, well, you get the idea. I'm not sure
whether the damage was done at the winery, in transit, or at the
store where I (yes, I brought this dud; seemed like a brilliant
idea at the time) purchased it. I don't intend to repeat the
experiment, so I guess we'll never know.
Yarden Brut "Galil."
*+1997 Reisling Brut Sekt b.A. Geisenheimer Monchspfad
from Schumann-Nagler gives Champagne a far better run for
its money. I've had sparkling Riesling that would make you run
from the very idea, but this one gets the sweetness, acidity,
fruit and bubbles all balanced just right. The diesel aromas are
not exactly what you'd expect from Champagne, but I like 'em!
**1988 Champagne L'Harbonville "Premier Crus En Fft
De ChLne." This
tLte de cuvée
by the relatively small producer Ployez-Jacquemart was hand-carried
from the winery by our host. Treads a taut thread between fat and
finesse -- thick and creamy, yet racy and elegant. Nice trick. Cuts
through the oil of the caviar and sets off the flavors beautifully.
(Checking availability in the U.S., I see the 1990 vintage of this
cuvée is imported by Weygandt-Metzler.
***1989 Champagne L'Harbonville "Premier Crus En Fft
De ChLne." This
vintage veers more toward fat and richness, and to me it succeeds
even more brilliantly. At least one other taster disagrees,
preferring the leaner 1988 -- but if you like your sparklers
voluptuous, this is your date.
**++1988 Piper Heidsieck "Rare" underscores what vintages can
do in Champagne. The '88
L'Harbonville actually has more in common with this wine than with
its '89 stable-mate. I give a slight edge to the Piper with its
***+1990 Dom Perignon can wow you or underwhelm, depending on
how it's been stored. (Pet peeve. So many bottles of Dom
Perignon are cooked before the corks are pulled!) This one wins big,
delivering the unctuous, silky, yeasty nectar I remember so fondly.
May not be as good a match to some of the foods as the '88s above,
but not to the point where I really care. Love this stuff!
*+Pierre Gimmonet et Fils 1er Cru Brut NV is
apple and pear-scented, crisp, complex on the palate and holds up well
against stiff competition. This 100% Chardonnay cuvée from 40-year-old
vines is one of my favorites from Terry Theise's portfolio of
And once again, **Egly-Ouriet Brut Rosé
Juillet 2001) gets my vote for the World’s Best Rosé
Champagne for under $75. Graceful, long, raspberry scented -- well,
if you've never had it, you're missing one of the most sinful
pleasures you can have on a Sunday afternoon (after getting out of
No meal's complete without a red, and **1998 Cape D'Estaing
Cabernet Sauvignon "Kangaroo Island" fits the bill
admirably. Served blind, it reminds me of 1994 St. Francis Pagani
Ranch Zin, minus the high alcohol -- so drenched with raspberry and
blueberry flavors, you could top it with whipped cream. Not what I'd
call a typical Cab, but how can you not love a wine from
1997 CALIFORNIA CABS:
AWKWARD AGERS? (September 13, 2002) Some wine geeks have been
whispering that 1997 California Cabernet Sauvignons are wandering
into prunes-ville. As barrel flavors fade, they say, hidden flaws
Is it true, or are my friends just sour
on California prices? What a great excuse to pull some corks! Here's
what happened when I blind-tasted a bunch in the company of
similarly selfless, knowledge-seeking wine geeks:
Mild dry cherry, earthy notes and whoosh, the
whole thing falls apart. Before long all you can smell is wet
fireplace. Uck. Can this really be a '97? No, it's 1992 Bernard
Pradell Howell Mountain.
WINE #2. Ultra-ripe aromas. Pruney? No, not quite. Some nice
cassis on the palate. Finishes a little short, but not upsettingly
so. Not bad, not a star, this turns out to be *-1997 Gallo Sonoma
Barelli Creek Vineyard.
WINE #3. Bottle funk quickly blows off and -- ooh. Now this
is more like it. A great big bucket of chocolate-covered cherries.
Very ripe, almost like kirsch, but not over the top. Penetrating.
Finish won't quit. Too acidic? Guess not. Overall, I'm impressed
with ***1997 Tom Eddy Napa Valley.
WINE #4. Strawberry scents plus tobacco. Doesn't have quite
the oomph of wine #4, but pleases many with its Bordeaux-like
breeding. Supple when you sip it. Fairly lengthy coda. A few herbal
notes betray the fact that it's **++1997 Pride Cabernet Franc.
WINE #5. Harsher oak treatment than #3 and #4 makes a few
folks wrinkle their shnozzes. The finish is more dilute too and it
doesn't get better with air. Taste that dill? American oak. Could
this possibly be *-1997 BV George de Latour Reserve? Yes, and
WINE #6. Now what have we here? Sensational, spicy, exotic
aromas. Huge blackberry and sour cherry flavors that roar through
the finish. Tannic youngster, but in balance and enjoyable right
now. Love it, but what the heck is it? A ringer! ***1998 Paolo
Bea Sagrantino di Montefalco Secco -- made in Umbria, from a
little known Italian grape that's deservedly attracting a cult. (My
thanks to savvy taster Don Demuth for providing this eye-opener. For
more information about Paolo Bea from the U.S. importer's website, click
WINE #7. Starts out stern and structured, but smooths out in
about 15 minutes. Plenty of chocolate, pinch of Asian spice, some
cigarette and uh, prune whip. If that sounds like I'm panning the
wine, I'm not -- I like it, overripeness and all. Outstanding stuff,
but this is one wine that does justify my friends'
complaints. It's **+1997 Beringer Private Reserve.
WINE #8. Big bruiser in velvet boxing gloves. Sexy violet
aromas, plus some gamy notes. Deep fruit flavors that go beyond
blackcurrant. Carries its alcohol well, but it's obviously higher
octane. Are you ready for the shocker of the tasting? This fabulous
stuff is ***+1997 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon.
WINE #9. Medium-bodied stuff that may suffer a little in
comparison to wine #8. Balanced, classic Cab flavors with a moderate
finish. No complaints, but I'm not overly excited over *++1997
Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon.
WINE #10. Very similar flavors to #9 -- is this the same
wine? No, not quite. Medium body with plenty of cassis, some anise
and quite a long finish. A balanced, well-mannered beauty that won't
shout for attention, and may deserve more praise than it got today.
It's **+1997 Arrowood Réserve
WINE #11. Quite a step down in quality here. American oak
with a fairly heavy char. We mutter about "Australian
style" and the weedy dill on the finish. It's the second
appearance today for *-1997 Gallo Sonoma Barelli Creek Vineyard
and we're still not bowled over.
WINE #12. Way overripe! Super depth, but surreal in the fruit
department. After the prunes play, I like the watermelon notes that
kick in at the close. Another double-entry, it's a pretty consistent
showing for **1997 Beringer Private Reserve.
WINE #13. Couldn't be more different than #12. Flavors are
textbook Cab. Peppery accents, some pretty stern tannins and a whale
of a finish. Like wine #9, this wine doesn't holler, more than holds
its own. Super showing for ***1997 Robert Mondavi Reserve.
WINE #14. Yow, is this wine stuffed! Concentrated essence of
blackcurrant that rips through your senses from first sniff to
wonderful finish. Previously, I've faulted ***+1997 Château
St. Jean Cinq Cépages for
being too oaky, but not today. Can't find anything not to
like. WINE OF THE TASTING.
Finally, with dessert, one of us produced a...
BONUS! WINE #15. Nearly black but smooth as silk, with
flavors reminiscent of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia. Still has youthful tannins
to shed, but they're round and ripe. This wine could have been a '94 tasted in
its youth. It's ***1997 Etude Napa Valley.
SO WHAT'S THE VERDICT?
At least one or two wineries are guilty.
Of all the wines we tasted today, the **Beringer Private Reserve
seems to have pushed ripeness furthest. Some liked it -- I
found it outstanding, but this was in spite of the overripe flavors.
I'm also unsure how it will age. If the prunes come out any further,
things could get ugly.
The *-Gallo Sonoma Barelli Creek
also tests the bounds of ripeness, but not quite as far. It's the
weakest 1997 Cab we tasted today, but for other reasons.
Lastly, some stubborn purists might carp
about the super-ripe ***1997 Tom Eddy Napa Valley, but not
me! I like it a whole lot just as it is.
Conclusion: I'm not too worried about
the '97s in my cellar. If you have evidence to the contrary, shoot
me an email.
tasting notes (July-August 2002)