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New Wine Reviews: En Garde

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En Garde Winery, which is based in Kenwood (Sonoma Valley), produces solid Pinot Noirs from the Sonoma Coast/Russian River Valley. Venturing into Napa Valley, the winery also makes stellar Cabernets from Diamond Mountain, part of the Mayacamas range on Napa’s western side. The En Garde style is thoroughly modern: soft, complex tannins, plenty of upfront fruit, and elegant.

2016 Touché Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $180. To my way of thinking this is the En Garde new Cab for the cellar. The ’16 Le Bijou [see below] has more varietal Cabernet Sauvignon (99% compared to 95%), but the Touché is far more tannic. I don’t know why, but it’s apparent on the palate: tough as nails, with that hard astringency that’s almost old-style in its impenetrable mystery. Bone dry, too, despite the impeccably sweet core of blackcurrants. There’s plenty of new oak, too: you can tell from the vanilla, and that smoky wood char that marries so well with the fruit. Altogether a first-class wine: elegant in structure despite the power, and—if it’s not too much of a stretch—delicate. We need to recognize the official alcohol reading: 15.7%. Yes, that’s high. It’s a heady wine. But there’s no unwarranted heat—the wine’s power balances it out. The alcohol is simply part of the wine’s personality. Vintage Port ages; this Cabernet Sauvignon should too. Stash it for six years and see what happens. Score: 95 points.

2016 Le Bijou du Roi Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $120. I’ve always liked En Garde’s Bijou for its sumptuous flavors. You’d think a mountain wine that’s 99% Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly from Diamond Mountain which is infamous for hard tannins, would be astringent in youth, but no. This one’s so softly delicious, it’s drinkable now. Waves of ripe, sweet blackcurrants and raisin pudding, with notes of licorice, spice and wood smoke, flood together in a complex mélange that lasts through a long finish. There’s a bit of heat from alcohol (15.5%), but that’s the En Garde style; you either like it, or you don’t. I do, especially with a superb steak, or as an after-dinner, Port-style sipper. Score: 94 points.

2017 Reserve Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $70. This is a blend of the Starkey Hill and Pleasant Hill vineyards, and shows the same exuberant fruit: juicy raspberries and cherries, with some riper notes of red currants that mark the finish. It also has a bit more new oak, just enough to give that rich steak of vanilla and toast. The acidity is quite tart (0.65 TA) and stings me; the wine really needs the softening effect of food to tame it. Of all the Pinots, this is the one I’d give cellar time to—say, six years in a good cellar. Yet, if you’re drinking it now, the wine gets much more interesting as you move from “critical” mode into “enjoyment” mode, as there’s real complexity here. Score: 93 points.

2018 Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $50. At only 1-1/2 years of age, this Pinot is taut and tight, offering little pleasure now. The acidity is fierce, while the tannins are a bit brusque, and the finish is very, very dry. There’s a solid core of cherry-raspberry fruit and savory spice, and oak has been modestly applied; still, the toughness dominates. The alcohol level is lower than I remember from past vintages—under 14%–which lets the delicacy of Pinot Noir show through. The overall impression is one of austerity, almost rustic, although elegant enough. So is this an ager? I’d be lying if I guaranteed it. No problem in keeping it for a couple years, but if you drink it now, decant it first to let it breathe. Score: 89 points.

2018 Starkey Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $60. This single-vineyard bottling is considerably more opulent and generous than En Garde’s regular ’18 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Made from grapes grown in Sebastopol, it shows a rich array of cherry, raspberry and date fruits, wrapped into silky tannins touched with a bit of new French oak. The acidity is fine and refreshing; the finish is spicy and dry. On the downside is some heat from alcohol of 15.4%. This is the sort of thing that will annoy some people while leaving others untroubled. I, personally, don’t care, if the tradeoff of high alcohol is richness. I doubt if there’s much ageworthiness here, but who cares? It’s delicious to drink now. Score: 91 points.

2017 Pleasant Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $60. Although this Pinot is a year older than En Garde’s 2018 Starkey Hill, it’s pretty much an identical twin. You’ll find the same ripe fruits of cherries and raspberries, and the same vanilla spice from new oak. The tannins are silky and smooth, the acidity fine. All in all, this 2017 Pleasant Hill is a sumptuous wine that will pair nicely with Pinot-friendly food: steak, lamb, wild mushroom risotto. Score: 90 points.

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