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Two new wine reviews

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Here are two new reviews. Both wines are from the Marlborough, New Zealand winery, Duck Hunter, that’s been getting good reviews in the American wine press. The prices listed are the official ones from the importer, but I’ve seen both wines online for sale at considerably lower cost. Both the Sauvignon Blanc and the Pinot Noir are what you could call “food wines.” They’re super-easy to drink, with good varietal flavor, and versatile at the table.

Duck Hunter 2018 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough): $20. What a lovely wine: crisp and low in alcohol (12.7%), with plenty of flavors: passionfruit, papaya, gooseberry and citrusy limes, although the spectrum is so broad, different tasters will find all kinds of different things to rave about. However you describe it, the wine is elegant, refined and simply delicious. There’s a little residual sugar in the finish, not enough to make it overtly sweet, but rich and mellow. With no oak, what you get are ripely succulent grapes. The wine has none of those infamous “cat pee” aromas sometimes associated with Marlborough Sauv Blanc. I’d happily drink this as a house white wine. Score: 88 points.

Duck Hunter 2018 Pinot Noir (Marlborough); $30. The word I immediately came up with, tasting this Pinot, is “pleasant.” It’s on the light side, color-wise, with a pretty garnet-golden color that’s clear enough to see through. The texture is silky, and the tannins are fine and gentle; with alcohol of only 13.3%, it has something of the crystalline purity of mountain water. There’s nothing light about the flavor, though. The raspberry newton, cola, cranberry, orange zest and baking spices are tangy and delicious. The tech notes say only “limited oak” has been applied. I can barely perceive any wood—maybe that slight smokiness is the only clue. There’s a nice bite of acidity to balance the fruit, and the finish is totally dry, if a bit short. On the whole, a very nice wine, drinkable immediately and for the next few years. Try with roast duck, mushroom risotto, pork, chicken or beef tacos. Score: 89 points.


New Wine Reviews: Pinotage

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As a California wine critic I came across very little Pinotage wine. Over the decades I drank maybe a few dozen, always from South Africa. I formed a generic impression of it, through both my own tastings and from reading other writers, as a dark red wine, dry and high in alcohol, that could be a little rustic—sort of the Zinfandel of South Africa.

But I didn’t really know. Wine critics can’t be expected to be experts on every one of the thousands of vitis vinifera varieties grown around the world! So it was nice when a P.R. rep from Vineyard Brands asked if I wanted to taste four South African Pinotages. Of course, I said yes.

Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, created in South Africa in 1925. The name apparently was coined to suggest a red wine similar to Hermitage, which of course is made from Syrah. In theory, the developers of Pinotage wanted create a wine as delicious as Pinot Noir (thought at the time to be difficult to grow in South Africa), but as easy to farm as Cinsault.

I looked up the Pinotage ratings and reviews from my old magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and was surprised at the consistency of the scores: mainly between 85 points and 92 points, the former range dominated by less-expensive bottlings. Prices are nowhere near those of, say, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or the better California Pinot Noirs.

Ashbourne 2016 Pinotage (Hemel-En-Aared); $58. “Hemel-En-Aared” means “heaven and earth” in Afrikaans. Close to the coast, it has a cool maritime climate. In red wines, the region is famous for Pinot Noir, and this Pinotage has a Burgundian delicacy, while keeping the proper varietal size and weight. It’s easily the best of the four Pinotages I was asked to review. The acidity, which is so fierce in the other wines, has been tamed by letting the wine go through complete malolactic fermentation. Meanwhile, the tannins seem softer, allowing the full range of flavors to reveal themselves: succulent ripe blackberries, with suggestions of spicy cloves, oak-inspired vanilla, and a meaty-beefy teriyaki sweetness. The wine shows the classic proportions of finesse: balance, integrity, cleanliness, power, and complexity. The alcohol is a modest 14.1%. It’s a joy to drink now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it aged well over the next six years. Score: 93 points.

Southern Right Pinotage (Walker Bay); $33. Walker Bay, being on the South Africa’s southeast Atlantic coast, is a cool-climate region, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive. Although Pinotage also does well in warmer locales, it shows a liveliness in Walker Bay that makes this wine especially attractive. (The name is an homage to the right whales which swim along the coast.) It shows bright, almost searing acidity and thick, furry tannins, with a dense, hugely-concentrated core of black cherry and black raspberry fruit, super-rich due to long hangtime. The oak notes of vanilla are subtle, while an intense spiciness thrives throughout. The finish is totally dry. An alcohol level of only 13.5% lends delicacy despite the hugeness of the fruit. This Pinotage really made me sit up and think. The fruit is sensational, but it’s the structure that strikes me—so much more complicated and architectural than anything in California. The wine defines itself in the mouth: you can feel its edges and corners. I suppose it will age, but there’s no reason not to drink it now with, say, beef, game or even Indian food. Score: 92 points.

Lievland 2017 Bushvine” Pinotage (Paarl). $19. The Paarl, in the Western Cape, is a warm region, little benefitting from the Atlantic, more than 100 miles away. The term “bush vine” is commonly used in South Africa to denote grapevines grown in the “goblet” or untrellised style, like they used to be. The wine is quite dry and austere, with lots of acidity. There are blackberry and coffee flavors, with plenty of black spices, especially pepper; the oak influence is subtle. Tannins are thick to the point of astringent. If you’re used to, say, Napa Cabernet, this is the complete opposite: not opulent, but rather bitter, more intellectual. For that reason I find it attractive. The winemaker blended in a little Cinsault and Shiraz, which adds to the complexity. All in all, a sophisticated wine which will nicely accompany—and needs–beef. Score: 89 points.

MAN Family Wines 2017 “Bosstok” Pinotage (Coastal Region); $12. “Bosstok” is a word referring to what South Africans call “bush vines”—“goblet,” or untrellised vines, generally used in warmer climates; the leafy canopy shelters the grape bunches from the sun. The “Coastal Region” appellation is a large one, accounting for nearly 50% of all the vines in South Africa. Bottled in a screwtop, with alcohol of 14.0%, it’s a pleasant wine, the kind I’d call an everyday sipper, especially given the price. It’s very dark in color; the flavors are somewhat bitter, with cherry skin, espresso and dark spice notes; there’s some unripeness that gives a green streak. The oak influence is low, lending a touch of vanilla bean. Acidity is pronounced, while the finish is thoroughly dry. The winery suggests slightly cooling it before drinking; this is a good idea, to tame the acids and tannins. Score: 86 points.


Restaurant review: Zuni Café, San Francisco

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I like to think that if I’d had lunch last Tuesday at “Yuni” Café, I would have marveled at the food anyway.

But this wasn’t Yuni Café, it was Zuni Cafe.  Now in its fortieth year in the mid-Market section of San Francisco, Zuni is internationally famous; somehow Chez Panisse overcame it in renown, but Zuni remains vital enough that the San Francisco Chronicle included them—again—in their Top 100 Restaurants this year.

I’ve lived here for 41 years (!!!) and due to my career had access to the greatest restaurants, but for some reason I never actually made it to Zuni. I always was aware of it; it was on my bucket list. So when my cousin Keith had his birthday, and it fell to me in our Northern California family to find a restaurant for lunch, there was no question in my mind.

Zuni.

The neighborhood is sketchy, even by San Francisco standards. The mid-Market area has been marginal for a half-century; even when I lived in the City in the late 1970s and 1980s, it was a scary, dirty district of drug dealers, prostitutes and derelicts. San Francisco passed a law known as the Twitter Tax years ago to reduce taxes on big companies that relocated to mid-Market, in the hope they’d revitalize the neighborhood; Twitter was among them and is still there. Other corporations followed, but mid-Market can still seem like a visit to the Star Wars bar.

Zuni itself is in an old building, a warren of formerly interconnected office spaces, each a mini-dining room. Our table looked out over the copper-plated bar, with street views; the nearest other diner was a good 12 feet away; don’t you hate those restaurants where you’re elbow-to-elbow with other tables?

We just had to order Zuni’s most famous dish: the broiled chicken. It’s supposedly the best broiled chicken in California, maybe America. It cost $63; we decided the four of us would share it, and each could order further appetizers or entrées. We eventually decided on another Zuni speciality: two Caesar Salads for the table. To this we added a prosciutto pizza. My family had various wines and cocktails; I had an IPA.

So what does a $63 chicken taste like? Very, very good—and very salty. Was it the greatest chicken I ever had? Pretty much—and I’ve had a lot of chicken! I’m a dark-meat guy, so I had the drumstick and thigh. Amazingly delicious, sweet, moist, tender and deeply, royally, sinfully flavorful. But salty. I guess the salt is needed to make it so delicious.

When I was in my twenties I was a sous-chef at an upscale restaurant and I used to prepare Caesar salad tableside, so I know something about it. It’s a very simple salad: not a whole lot going on ingredient-wise, easily replicable elsewhere. This Caesar was a marvel. I guess the romaine was first-class, and the croutons were a marvel, but it was the dressing that clinched it. So light and delicate, so subtle with that anchovy sea tang. I absolutely loved it.

And don’t even ask me about the pizza! Look, I love pizza in any form. Zuni’s is extremely thin-crust. This one, with the prosciutto, was so good, we couldn’t believe it. My family are all foodies; Keith and I just looked at each other in wonder. How can a pizza appetizer be this good?

So it was a simple meal: pizza, salad and broiled chicken. But somehow it will remain in my memory forever as one of the great meals of my life. I have dined in restaurants that people would die to eat in. Why was Zuni so memorable? For the same reason it’s remained at the top for forty years: excellence in all its parts, resulting that mysterious je ne sais qua that makes you adore it.


Wine Reviews: Peju Province

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Peju Province Winery sent me their new releases for review, so here they are. Overall, I was struck by their high quality. Nothing below 90 points, with the 2016 “The Experiment” scoring a stunning 97 points.

2016 Piccolo (Napa Valley). At forty bucks, this is a pretty good value for a Napa wine this distinguished, from a winery with as good a track record as Peju. The proprietary blend is comprised of the major Bordeaux varieties, with Petite Sirah and Sangiovese added for good measure. The result is a wealth of flavors: raspberries, blackberries, cocoa, blueberries, cappuccino, wild anise, thyme, and plenty of spices, pepper especially. There’s not a lot of new oak; the wine doesn’t need it, but what there is brings a rich layer of sweet vanilla and toast. The tannins are what you’d expect from Peju: thick and complex, but soft and ripe. I would drink this wine immediately, with almost anything that wants a medium- to full-bodied, dry, fruity red wine. Score: 90.

Peju 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). A very great wine from a drought vintage, Peju’s 2015 is absolutely delicious. Blended with a little Petit Verdot and Merlot, it shows immense, concentrated flavors of ripe blackberries, Cassis liqueur, sweet black licorice and cocoa, enhanced with oak notes of sweet vanilla and toast. The tannins are complex, lush and ripe, while there’s enough acidity to provide a clean balance of structure. The finish goes on and on. This lovely wine really captures the essence of a Napa Valley Bordeaux blend. It’s so easy to enjoy now, you might want to capture the beauty in all of its youthful brilliance, but it should hold in the bottle for six years or so. Score: 95.

Peju 2018 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley). The first duties of Sauvignon Blanc are to be dry and crisp. This lovely wine succeeds on both levels. With brilliant acidity and just the tiniest hint of oak, it allows the fruit to star: grapefruit, papaya, lime and gooseberry, with a spicy white pepperiness that stimulates the palate. A touch of green grass adds to the complexity. It’s an exceptionally versatile wine at the table, but I might pour it with salad of greens, grapefruit and feta cheese, drizzled with olive oil. At a retail price of $22, it’s affordably elegant. Score: 90.

Peju 2015 Merlot (Napa Valley). Rich and dense in the modern style, this 100% Merlot stuns right out of the gate. It explodes in the mouth with cherries, chocolate and red licorice, while plenty of new French oak brings even richer elements of sweet toast and wood spice. The structure is just beautiful: soft, intricate tannins seem to melt on the palate, while bracing acidity cleanses and refreshes. Made from grapes sourced from various sub-regions of Napa Valley, the wine shows deft skill at the art of blending. I’d drink it now and over the next year or two, before it starts to lose its precocious youthfulness. At $48 the bottle, it’s a good value. Score: 93.

Peju 2016 The Experiment (Napa Valley). They call it an “experiment” because the winemaker used dozens of different coopers and barrel-roasting regimens to create this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. But far from chaotic, it shows exquisite control. Certainly the darkest and sturdiest of Peju’s new releases, it’s a big, bold wine of immense depth and complexity. The flavors, of black currants, chocolate, vanilla bean, espresso and oaky toast, are not unique—most upscale Napa Cabs share it. But what makes this wine stand out is its sheer elegance. That’s a hard word to define, but you know it when your palate experiences it. I would place this wine beside the most culty of Napa Cabs and bet that it would acquit itself well. It’s so luxurious and delicious now that there’s no reason to age it, but if you want to, it should hold for a decade. Score: 97.

Peju 2016 Cabernet Franc (Napa Valley). Over the years, my reviews of Peju’s Cab Franc routinely described it as soft, delicate and gentle. That remains the case, although it does seem more delicious than in past vintages. A rich ruby-garnet in color, it brims with forward flavors of cherry compote and anise, while balanced new oak provides a toastiness and a note of vanilla. There’s a lovely herbal note: think of sweet green peas. The addition of some Cabernet Sauvignon adds a darker, deeper structural integrity. I love the tannins: complex and intricate, but pliant, making it instantly drinkable. I see no reason to cellar this, but if you insist, it will hold for four or five years. Score: 92.


A wine tasting in San Francisco

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I went to a great wine tasting on Friday, “Flights,” put on by ZAP, the Zinfandel consumer and trade group I’ve known and enjoyed for many decades. The event was held in the elegant, posh Palace Hotel, in San Francisco.

A “flight” is a series of individual wines, tasted and evaluated side by side. All of the wines share a common theme. In this case, the theme was that they were all comprised of Zinfandel, or of “related” grape varieties.

These “related” varieties, which included Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet and Carignan[e], are not related to Zinfandel in any ampelographic way. Instead, the relationship consists in the historical fact that Zinfandel was frequently interplanted with the other varieties by [mainly] Italian-American immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries; the wines made from them (the grapes were often co-fermented) are called “field blends.” These old vineyards, once threatened with being torn out for housing development or with being replaced by more popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, have been rediscovered over the years, with the vines lovingly tended. Some of the very interesting wines made from them were included in the tasting.

There were four flights, 13 wines in all. Here are my tasting notes, followed by a brief discussion. My notes follow my traditional pattern: starting with color/appearance, then proceeding through aromatic notes to flavors and finish.

First flight: 100% Zinfandel

McCay Cellars 2015 “Faith Lot 13 Estate,” Lodi. $32, 13.8% alcohol. Bright, clean. Red berries, esp. raspberries. Lots of peppery spice, sandalwood, briary notes. Delicious! Medium-bodied, elegant, claret-like. Good acidity, very well-balanced. Score: 93.

Easton Wines 2015 Estate, Shenandoah Valley (Amador County). $35, 15.1%. Darker, riper than the McCoy. Prune and dark chocolate aromas. Flavors of Dr. Pepper, cassis, tapenade. Full-bodied, a little porty and hot. Score: 87.

Day Zinfandel 2016 Grist Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley. $43, 15.2%. Made by Ehren Jordan, of Failla. A stellar wine, classic Dry Creek Zin. Good garnet color. Complex, alluring aroma: earthy, briary, spicy, tobacco, raspberry, toffee, licorice. Super-spicy, deep, juicy, fabulous complexity. No heat at all, refreshing acidity. Score: 94.

Hendry Wines 2015 Block 7, Napa Valley. $36, 15.4%. Darkest of all. Exotic aromas: wild mushrooms, blackberries, licorice, pepper. Deep, dark chocolate, berry and coffee flavors. Full-bodied, spicy, full-throttle Zin. Long finish. Will age. Score: 90.

Second flight: Carignan.

Ravenswood Winery 2015 Angeli Vineyard, Alexander Valley. $42, 14.5%. 100% Carignan, grown in the hot region of Cloverdale. Very dark color, purple-black. Aromas of meat (teriyaki beef), blackberry, coffee, black raspberry, spice. Very deeply flavored, enormous mouthfeel, yet elegant and balanced. Very good. Score: 92.

Ridge Vineyards 2015 “Geyserville”, Alexander Valley. $48, 14.5%. A blend of 70% Zinfandel, 15% Carignane, 12% Petite Sirah and 3% Alicante Bouschet. Very dark color, very ripe. Chocolate, blackberry, coffee, spice flavors. Tastes hotter than the official 14.5%. Some raisins, prunes, lots of sweet, savory fruit. Very tannic. Too ripe for me. Score: 88.

Bedrock Wine Co. 2017 Papera Ranch “Heritage,” Russian River Valley. $60, 14.6%. From Morgan Twain Peterson, son of the Flights moderator, Joel Peterson. From a vineyard planted in 1934. 49% Zinfandel, 44% Carignan, 7% “other.” Very dark. Complex aromas of spice, licorice, mincemeat, blackberry, blueberry. Insanely rich and sweet, glyceriney. A bit clumsy now, needs a few years to settle down. Score: 89.

Third flight: Petite Sirah.

Turley Wine Cellars 2016 Hayne Vineyard Petite Sirah, Napa Valley. $75, 14.4%. Very, very dark. Big, eruptive aromas of meat, fig, briar, blackberry, cocoa. Full-bodied and stuffed with big, sweet tannins. Leathery tastes and feeling, with more sweetness emerging mid-palate: sandalwood, peppermint patty. Delicious, gulpable. Score: 90.

Beekeeper Cellars 2012 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel, Rockpile. $NA, 14.75%. Contains 20% Petite Sirah. The vineyard is between 1,200’ – 1,500’. Good, dark saturated color. Impressive aromatics: black currants, raspberries, spices, coffee-toffee, vanilla. Very rich, sweet, fruity, long finish. Will age, but fully drinkable now. Score: 92.

Matrix Winery 2016 Bacigalupi Vineyard Red Wine, Russian River Valley. $38, 15.6%. This is a 50-50 blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. The color is inky black, impenetrable to light. The nose is muted at first, gradually suggesting earthy tobacco, blackberries and spice. Very tannic, and pretty oaky. Oodles of sweet black fruits, cinnamon bun, cocoa, with some overripe raisins and heat on the finish. Needs time. Score: 90.

Fourth flight: Alicante Bouschet.

St. Amant 2017 Alicante Bouschet, Lodi. $21, 12.93%. Good translucent garnet color, so much lighter than the Petite Sirahs. Lovely, uplifted raspberry, vanilla, cedar and spice aromas and flavors. Pinot Noir-like in texture, silky and satiny, with delicate raspberry fruit and refreshing acidity. Very fine, delicate, delicious. Score: 91.

Once & Future 2016 Teldeschi Vineyard Frank’s Block Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley. $50, 14.8%. Inky-black color, no doubt from the Zinfandel and Carignane, which constitute 88% of the blend. The remainder is Alicante. Deep, bold, assertive aromas: packed with wild blackberries, earth, tobacco, leather, clove, anise. Full-bodied, lots of sweet fruit, figs and currants. Super-high quality. Score: 92.

Hartford Family Vineyard 2016 Dina’s Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel, Russian River Valley. $60, 14.9%. Mainly Zinfandel, with 6% Alicante Bouschet and a few drops of other, undefined varieties. The color is very dark. The aroma is spicy and earthy, with notes of blackberries, cassis, blueberries and cocoa nib, as well as some overripe raisins. Dry and tannic, a big, ripe barbecue wine, although a little too robust for my taste. Score: 89.

The surprise of the tasting was the Alicante Bouschets, so out of place among those dark, tannic, heavy wines. What a pity more California winemakers don’t play with it, although who can blame them? The public is hardly ready for yet another obscure varietal. Among the Zins, Carignanes and Petite Sirahs, the Zinfandels showed best. Zinfandel is a noble variety in this family; the others can rise to the occasion, but always show some rusticity.


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