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New Wine Reviews

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Balzac Communications was kind enough to send me a few wines, even though I’ve been retired for three years, so, as is my wont when this happens, it’s only proper for me to review them on my blog.

A mini-vertical of Parducci “True Grit” Petite Sirah (Mendocino), 2004-2006.

It’s almost a given that wine critics call Petite Sirah ageable. I nearly always did in my career, for a couple reasons. First, it’s really tannic in youth, but balanced, and secondly, I’ve been lucky enough to taste many old Petite Sirahs, so I have first-hand experience. A good one, from a good vintage, will last for decades, in the right cellar. And Parducci’s Petite Sirah is always good; at Wine Enthusiast, when these three wines were released, I gave the 2004 93 points, the 2005 89 points, and the 2006 I scored at 90 points. I’m happy to say the wines continue to offer plenty of interest.

2006: The wine was $30 on release, a lot for a Peite Sirah, but it was quite good. I called it “consistently one of the best in California” and gave it 90 points. It was tasty when I reviewed it in 2009, and now, eight years later, it still is, although it’s showing its age. The fresh fruits—blackberries, currants—are drying out and turning savory and leathery, and there’s a soft, dark chocolate unctuousness, but the spices are still there, and so are the tannins. It’s a very nice wine to drink now, elegant and complex. I would keep the score at 90 points.

2005: When the wine was first released, I called it “young, dry, jammy, acidic and tannicly immature,” a rather “aloof” wine. Now, at the age of 12 years, it’s really blossomed. The tannins are resolved, although still firm, and the primary blackberry-cherry and cocoa nib flavors are evolving into secondary status: dried fruits and currants, with those mushroom, leather and bacon notes that mark more mature bottles of the variety. The wine now has a softness that makes it round and supple. Lovely to drink now, and will last for another ten years, at least. Score: 91 points.

2004: I gave the ’04 my highest score of the three wines, at the time of its release, but it has not aged as well as the ’05 or ’06. The official alcohol on all three wines, according to the winery, is 14.5%, but the ’04 tastes hotter than the other two. The 2004 vintage was, after all, a scorcher. There were multiple heat waves in the crucial month of September that overripened many grapes. I predicted, in April, 2008, that the ’04 True Grit would age, but I was wrong. The fruit is beginning to fade, with a pruney taste and porty heat replacing what once was fresh blackberries and cherries. Perhaps this was not a good bottle. Score: 84 points.

Locations non-vintage NZ Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand); $20.  I have to admit I was not a fan of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc when I was a working critic. I guess I was used to a richer California style. The green, pyraziney aromas were off-putting to me. The pyrazines are certainly there in this wine (call them gooseberries, if you prefer), but for whatever reason, in my dotage my palate has changed, and now I find this green, grassy herbaceousness, when done well, as it is here, adds an attractive, stimulating complexity. In the mouth, while it’s dry, there’s a lot of succulent, sweet fruit: nectarines, a hint of papaya, green melon, figs, and a brilliantly clean, swift acidic minerality. No oak, of course, to get in the way. This is an eminently sippable wine that I would happily drink every night, especially with the right appetizers. Goat cheese comes to mind, smeared on toasted sourdough bread, sprinkled with olive oil and chopped chives and a few grains of good salt. The alcohol is 13.5%. Score: 90 points.

Parducci 2015 “85” Red Wine (Mendocino County); $45. This red blend is rustic, a word I use to describe a wine that is not elegant, in fact awkward in texture, but okay for everyday drinking. There’s a green pepperiness that’s unusual in a California Bordeaux blend, which this is (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc). Fruit-wise, a kick of black cherry brings needed richness, rounded out by vague oak notes. The finish is very dry, and the tannins are pretty hefty. The “85” designation is to acknowledge Parducci’s 85th anniversary, which surely is worth celebrating. Drink this wine now and over the next year or two. Good with steak fajitas. Score: 87 points.

[The following wines were from my cellar, but I thought I’d include them.]

Staglin 2008 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford); $185 on release. When I reviewed this, in late 2011, I wrote that it was a great success for a challenging vintage. I gave it 94 points, and praised it for the lush, dramatic flavors, although I warned it didn’t seem to be a long-term keeper. My judgment now is pretty much the same. It’s still rich and flamboyant in blackcurrants and dark chocolate, yet with a jacket of tannin-acid control that lends elegance and complexity, and seems perfect for drinking now. I suppose it will continue to glide path for another five or ten years, but why wait? Score: 95 points.

MacPhail 2011 Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $49 on release. When I reviewed this, back in the Spring of 2014, I gave it 92 points, and remarked on the acidity, which I called “vibrant.” Now, at the age of six, acidity remains a fundamental feature, making the wine almost sour, except for the core of raspberry, persimmon and rhubarb, which give it a balancing, sweet fruitiness. But what I like best is the complexity. There’s so much going on. The fruit is melding into herbs and mushrooms, so that the flavor experience changes second by second, in an exciting tension between fruit and earth. In my review, I suggested drinking until 2019. I still think that’s the case, and the sooner, the better. Score: 92 points.

MacPhail 2011 Rita’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills); $49 on release. I gave it 92 points back in the Spring of 2014, and called it “flashier than anything that MacPhail has produced in their Sonoma County Pinots.” Indeed, it is a thrill ride of colorful flavors: raspberries, cherries, vanilla parfait, just as rich as they were 3-1/2 years ago. The wine has barely aged. It still has a spine of minerals and that tingly acidity that makes it so clean, although not as tart as the Sangiacomo. I really love drinking this wine, which will pair well with anything Pinot Noir traditionally goes with. For some reason I’m thinking of beef tacos, but anything from filet mignon to ahi tuna. salmon or wild mushroom risotto will highlight the wine’s beauty. Score: 94 points.

Inizi 2012 Charbono (Calistoga); $32. Decades ago, when Charbono used to be planted in considerable quantities in California, I went to a vertical tasting in which we tried bottles that were 20-30 years old. I formed my impression then: A rustic, dark, full-bodied wine in youth that will live practically forever, gradually throwing tannins without necessarily growing more complex. I first reviewed this 2012 near the end of my career at Wine Enthusiast, gave it 90 points with an “Editor’s Choice” special designation, and called it “bone dry and tannic” but “food-friendly [and] of considerable interest.” I wouldn’t change a word. It’s still as black as a moonless night, with just a hint of garnet at the edge, and the aroma, of blackberries and dark chocolate, remains youthful. It’s still dry and tannic, yet at the age of nearly five years, the fruity sweetness is struggling to overcome the astringency, and very nearly succeeding. No doubt it will still be drinkable in 2037. I like this wine a lot despite its rusticity. It makes me think of comfort fare: pizza, short ribs, Szechuan beef, pepper steak, a great cheeseburger. The alcohol is a modest 13.4%, which gives it a shabby-chic elegance. Score: 90 points.


New Wine Reviews: En Garde

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I’ve given En Garde, which is based in Kenwood (Sonoma County), lots of 90-plus scores over the years, and my successors at Wine Enthusiast have followed suit. I taught my young Jedis well! The winery specializes in the two hottest wines in California, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. The owner/winemaker is Hungarian-American Csaba Szakál; his first wine was a 2007 Diamond Mountain Cabernet to which I gave 95 points and a “Cellar Selection’ designation. (I wish I could taste it now to see how it’s doing.) Judging by the wine wines, En Garde remains focused and on-track.

En Garde 2013 Adamus Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $100. This is a reserve-style selection from the winery’s block of the Sori Bricco Vineyard. The price is midway between the Bijou du Roi ($120, 95 points) and the regular Diamond Mountain ($90, 92 points), both of which also are from Sori Bricco. This is certainly a delicious, important Cabernet Sauvignon, rich and opulent, but I wonder why En Garde needs three wines from the same vineyard. With ultra-smooth tannins, complex black currant, green olive and oak flavors, and refreshing acidity, it’s a crowd-pleaser, but really, all three wines are so similar that most people could not detect any difference. Still, kudos to Csaba. He has amazing grapes and he is making amazing, ageable wines. Score: 93 points.

En Garde 2013 Touché Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $180. This is the winery’s most expensive Cabernet. It’s a blend of their best barrels from their Diamond Mountain and Mount Veeder vineyards. It’s also, with their Bijou du Roi Cabernet, the oakiest of the six new releases (100% new French for 28 months). There’s a family resemblance with En Garde’s other 2013s: concentrated blackcurrant, cassis and green olive flavors, plus in this case a bacony, umami tang that adds to the pleasure. Cedary, toasty oak. Thick tannins, and acidity that’s fine and cleansing. If there’s a qualitative difference here, and there is, it’s in the purity. There’s a structural refinement that’s hard to put into words, a wholesome completeness that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Adjectives that come to mind are smooth, impeccable, dramatic, authoritative, delicious, lithe, and let’s not forget ageworthy: I would drink this now, but it should glide effortlessly through the decades. Score: 96 points.

En Garde 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mount Veeder); $90. I fell in love with this wine with the first sip. Profound! So pure, so refined, so essence of Napa Valley mountain Cabernet. The vineyard is above the fogline so it gets more sun than down on the valley floor; there’s a ton of ripe, flashy blackcurrants and blueberries and blackberries. Oak, too: 67% new French for 21 months, which adds clove and vanilla notes. The wine feels dense and important, if you know what I mean: nothing flimsy here, just solid, packed juiciness and complexity. Also lots of mountain tannins that give it a certain astringency. Parker gave this wine 93 points. I’ll go to 95 points. You can drink it now, or over the next 20 years.

En Garde 2014 Gold Ridge Pinot Noir (Green Valley); $55. I’m giving this the highest score of En Garde’s five new Pinot Noirs. The vineyard is near Sebastopol, planted in the famous Goldridge soils I wrote about years ago in my first book. This soil type is very fine and sandy, with wonderful drainage; Ehren Jordan calls it “rain forest desert.” The Pinots grown in Goldridge have a delicacy that’s otherwise rare in the Russian River Valley, of which the Green Valley appellation is a subset in the chilly, foggy southwest corner. The wine, whose alcohol is 13.5%, is exceedingly fine. It first strikes you for deliciousness: savory essence of raspberries, a vein of red licorice, a taste of wild mushroom, the sweetness of roasted oak, a pleasantly titillating clove-and-white pepper spiciness. Then you notice how light and silky it is, how “transparent” to use that overworked word. Another sip; a third; the wine is addictive. A Pinot Noir triumph, superb to drink now. If I had a case, I’d drink a bottle a year. Score: 97 points.

En Garde 2013 Le Bijou du Roi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $120. This mountain appellation in the Mayacamas Mountains always gives intensely concentrated, yet tannic, Cabernets than can take a lot of time in the cellar. The grapes are from the Sori Bricco Vineyard, which has been source to Cabernets from Nickel & Nickel and Von Strasser—not bad company to be in! The wine is, in a word, immense. The color is very dark, almost impenetrable. The aroma is young and intense: fresh black currants, green olives, oak (100% new French), and a lanolin note, like warm candle wax. In the mouth the flavors of blackcurrants and ripe blackberries have a floral edge of violet petals and anise. Very delicious, very complex. But those tannins are strong. Of course, they’re as finely-meshed as modern winemaking techniques can achieve, and there’s no reason you can’t drink the wine now. Yet in a proper cellar it should stride effortlessly through the next two decades. Great job. Alcohol 14.5%, 112 cases produced. Score: 95 points.

En Garde 2014 Reserve Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $70. The thing to keep in mind about most reserves is that (a) the winery makes a decision in the first place to have one and then, having made that choice, (b) the winemaker chooses the “best barrels” that will comprise it. The selection is therefore arbitrary. In my long experience, reserves aren’t necessarily better, although they are more expensive—sometimes considerably so. This reserve is 15 dollars more than En Garde’s single vineyard Pinots, and 25 dollars more than the regular Russian River Valley. It is a composite of the single vineyard wines: Olivet Court, Starkey Hill and Gold Ridge. It’s a close approximation of them all, made in the winery’s style: rich, dense, layered, complex. It’s also the oakiest of the bunch. The result is delicious: red currants, licorice, cranberries, tea, beet root, wild mushroom, cloves, anise, wrapped into firm tannins. Is it “better” than the rest? Not really. But it sure is good. Score: 94 points.

En Garde 2014 Starkey Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $55. I tasted this alongside the Olivet Court, and the difference was stark. The Starkey, which comes from the Sebastopol area, is much lighter in body and more delicate in structure. It’s also more transparent of the terroir, and less fruit-forward, not so much about raspberries and cranberries, although they’re there, but more subtle sensations. The tea, mushroom, beet, cocoa dust and anise flavors of Olivet Court are there, but the main difference is how light and ethereal this wine feels. The alcohol is only 13.2%. The wine has a grip that’s partly from zippy acidity, and partly from unresolved tannins, and the finish is absolutely dry. Production was 138 cases. I suspect most people will drink this wine soon, and that’s fine; give it some decanting, and enjoy with ahi tuna, lamb, a great grilled steak or wild mushroom risotto. But if you like your Russian River Valley Pinots with some bottle age, it will develop nicely over the next ten years, at least. Score: 93 points.

En Garde 2014 Olivet Court Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $55. What I like about this Pinot is that it has big, flashy, exuberant flavors, but also a complexity that gives it intellectual interest. The fruits suggest raspberries, cranberries, red currants and orange zest. The complexity derives from the earth, with tea, mushroom, beet root, anise and clove notes, finished with the sweet, smoky vanilla of new French oak. It’s a good wine, solid and well-made, with fine acidity and silky tannins. Should be more interesting in a few years, and could go to ten years while dropping sediment and purifying. The vineyard is west of Santa Rosa, and is said to be planted to vines more than 35 years of age. The alcohol is 14.1%. Score: 92 points.

En Garde 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $90. A first bottle was severely corked. The second showed well, displaying a plethora of ripe, Napa-esque Cabernet flavors: blackberries, black currants, cassis liqueur, blueberries, pencil lead and dark shaved chocolate, accented by 60% new French oak aging for 28 months. The tannins are strong, as you’d expect from Diamond Mountain, and there’s good, savory, balancing acidity. I would cellar this for 4-5 years. Score: 92 points.

En Garde 2014 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $45. It’s true that this regional Pinot isn’t quite as concentrated as En Garde’s single-vineyard bottlings, which it’s a blend of. But that is in its favor, because it’s the most drinkable of the winery’s five Pinot Noirs at this time. It’s quite classic, with lively acidity highlighting flavors of raspberries, cranberries, balsam, crispy bacon, orange zest, tea, pepper and cloves. Bone dry, with moderate alcohol (14.3%) and a silky mouthfeel, it’s not an ager, but it’s a real beauty for drinking now, and every bit as good as the Olivet Court, which costs ten bucks more. Production was 130 cases. Score: 92 points.

En Garde 2013 Tempranillo (El Dorado); $40. Body-wise, this wine is like a full-sized Pinot Noir, veering into a lighter Merlot, but with the spiciness of Zinfandel. With alcohol of 14.4%, it features oaky, fruity flavors of red licorice, red currants, cocoa nib and teriyaki beef, with soft tannins and good acidity, all wrapped into a silky texture. It’s a good, drinkable wine, although not particularly Tempranillo-esque, whatever that means in California. The grapes were grown at an altitude of 2,800 feet in the Sierra Foothills, where the summer weather is quite hot and dry during the daytime, but chilly at night. The winemaker interestingly blended in a little Petit Verdot—for structure? Steak would be the ideal partner, unless you’re a vegetarian, in which case a mushroomy lasagna will suffice. Score: 88 points.

En Garde 2013 Greenville Summit Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $70. I can’t say I found this Cab in the same league as the winery’s Napa Valley bottlings. It’s sound, it’s good, it’s drinkable, but it simply lacks their lush, rich opulence. The blackcurrant and cassis fruit, the oliveaceous notes are there, but the wine is quite tannic and dry and tart, and there’s something herbal: maybe it’s the Hungarian oak that gives it a dill weed aroma. I would decant this wine before drinking it; it should provide decent drinking over the next 4-5 years. Score: 87 points.


New wine reviews

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Steven Kent 2013 Lineage (Livermore Valley); $155. I’ve long had a fondness for Steven Kent’s Bordeaux-style wines, of which Lineage is the best. (He also makes the Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.) Lineage is a meritage-style wine; this ’13 is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc, 15% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec. It is, in a word, superb. The mélange of flavors fascinates me; there’s fresh fruit (cherries, blackberries, blueberries), dried fruit (currants), liqueur (cassis), sweet dried leather, milk chocolate, smoky oak (cedar, vanilla, toast) and licorice (anise). The texture is mind-blowing: so smooth and velvety, so seamless. For all the richness, there’s a structural control, courtesy of the acid-tannin balance. I don’t know if it will age; it’s pretty soft now, but it’s so balanced, it might. You never know, but then again, it’s so good, so complete and wholesome and delicious, there’s no reason not to drink it now or over the next year or two. The alcohol is 14.4%. Only 275 cases were produced. The wine spent two years in French oak, most of it new. I can’t praise this wine enough. It’s really expensive, but compared to the price of many Napa Cabs, it’s a bargain. Score: 97 points.

 

Chateau Smith 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Washington State): $20.This is a succulent, juicy Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s rich in black currants, with firm, rich tannins and the most lively acidity that really gets your mouth watering. It’s from Charles Smith, and I’m not sure if they mean for the “Chateau Smith” to be a different brand, or a proprietary name under Charles Smith. The technical notes state it’s from the Columbia Valley; the label simply says “Washington State.” Why, oh why can’t these wineries get their story straight? Whatever, it’s quite a fine red wine, robust, bone dry and moderate in alcohol, clocking in at 13.5%. It strongly suggests a grilled steak. Score: 91 points.

 

Steven Kent 2016 LOLA White Wine, Ghielmetti Vineyard (Livermore Valley): $24. A classic blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillion, this wine demonstrates why Livermore Valley was famous long ago for white Bordeaux-style blends. It’s really lovely, with citrus, tropical fruit, apricot and fig flavors cut through with a trace of pyrazine-inspired green grass. The finish is dry, although there may be a little residual sugar to give it a round, mellow mouthfeel. Meanwhile, the acidity is racy, and the alcohol is a refreshingly low 13.4%. The wine is entirely unoaked. I might have given it a touch of wood to bring that fancy edge of vanilla smoke, but nonetheless it’s a super-nice wine, at a good price. Score: 91 points.

 

Charles Smith 2014 The Velvet Devil Merlot (Washington State): $13. This is so good for the price, I’m almost shocked. It’s translucent ruby in color, suggesting a light- or medium-bodied wine, which it is, with only 13.5% alcohol. The aroma is red cherries, red currants and espresso, with a sprinkling of cocoa dust, a suggestion of beet root, and just a whiff of violets and dusty earth. So pretty. In the mouth, it’s entirely dry, but rich and complex. The spicy finish is longer than you’re think in a thirteen dollar wine. And, yes, it does feel velvety in the mouth. This is not an ageable wine, but it is a beauty for drinking now. Although the label doesn’t say so, the grapes are from the Columbia Valley. Buy this one by the case. Score: 91 points.

 

Trentadue 2015 Estate Bottled La Storia Petite Sirah (Alexander Valley): $TK. Alc. 14.8%. I’ll give this wine kudos for its sheer mass. It’s just what you expect a modern, warm-climate Petite Sirah to be. Dark in color, full-throttle in body, and humungous in flavor. Waves of chocolate, black cherry jam, mocha, anise, white pepper and smoke, wrapped into thick but ultra-soft tannins, and brightened by just-in-time acidity. This is the kind of wine I always call a barbecue wine, meaning its practical usage is limited because of the size. But if you’re grilling up those old babybacks, go ahead and slurp away. Score: 91 points.

 

Charles Smith 2015 Kung Fu Girl Riesling (Washington State): $13. Such a deal! This is a super price for a Riesling of this purity. I love the apple, orange marmalade, petrol, nectarine and white flower flavors, and the way the acidity makes it all so lively. There’s also a tangy minerality, like cold metal. The alcohol is a refreshingly low 12%, and yet the wine tastes just off-dry (I’m sure it has a little residual sugar to round it out). Really a delight to drink. I would buy this by the case. Score: 91 points.

 

Steven Kent 2014 BDX Collection Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Franc (Livermore Valley); $48. The first duty of Cabernet Franc is to be different from Cabernet Sauvignon. Otherwise, what’s the point? This small production (249 cases) bottling certainly is. While it has weight, it’s lighter in color and silkier than Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s also redder in fruits: not black currants and cassis, but cherries and kirsch. Thoroughly dry, it exhibits quite a lot of complexity, showing earthy tea notes, dried mushrooms and smoky new oak. User alert: it’s very tannic. We’re talking palate lockdown, although a great steak might prove a worthy opponent. Will it age? I don’t think it will beyond five years. My advice to Steven Kent is to figure out a way to manage those tannins in future vintages. Score: 90 points.

 

Charles Smith 2015 Boom Boom Syrah (Washington State): $18. Boom Boom is the right terminology. This is a big, rich, dense, robust Syrah. It’s jam-packed with flavor: blackberries, mulberries, shaved dark chocolate, coffee and teriyaki beef, with black pepper accents and a smoky oakiness. The color is inky black, the tannins dense but fine, and there’s a welcoming bite of acidity. With a totally dry finish and an alcohol level of just 13.5%, it’s quite food-friendly. Drink now. Score: 90 points.

 

Geyser Peak 2015 River Ranches Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley): $22. Aromatically, heaps of lemongrass and freshly-mown hay characterize this bone dry, crisp 100% Sauvignon Blanc. If there’s any oak at all (the tech notes don’t say, unfortunately), it’s not evident. In the mouth, juicier notes of figs and spearmint emerge, but it’s still a rather severe wine, and quite a good one in that style. I think of Chinese food, or shellfish, or feta cheese, or drinking it as a stylish appetizer. The alcohol is a refreshingly low 13.5%, and 1,590 cases were produced. Score: 91 points.

 

Geyser Peak 2013 Walking Tree Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley): $30. This is a very nice Cabernet, rich and delicious. It has a ripe Cab’s classic flavors of crushed blackberries and mocha, while the addition of 7% Petite Sirah seems to add a peppery mushu plum sauce taste. The tannins are ultra-smooth and the wine is a little on the soft side, suggesting immediate drinkability. Thirty bucks is the suggested retail price, but I’ve seen this wine for $20 or less. If you can get it for that price, it’s a lovely sipper for summer steaks. Score: 90 points.

 

Miro 2014 Coyote Ridge Vineyard Reserve Petite Sirah (Dry Creek Valley): $TK. This delivers just what you’d expect from a Dry Creek Petite Sirah. It’s dry, heady and incredibly rich in blackberry jam, brown sugar and coffee flavors. The tannins are thick and hard, and there’s a nice burst of acidity. A big, big wine, dark and voluptuous, ideal for barbecue. The official alcohol level is 14.5%. Score: 88 points.

 

Geyser Peak 2015 Water Bend Chardonnay (Sonoma County): $26. Oaky and superripe, with vanilla, sweet cream and honey-infused tropical fruit and apricot jam flavors. It’s the kind of Chardonnay you either like or don’t. I do. It’s rich, soft, a little sweet and eminently drinkable. The alcohol is 14.5%, and 632 cases were produced. Score: 87 points.

 

Stanton Vineyards 2014 Petite Sirah (St. Helena); $45. This is textbook Petite Sirah, in the black color, the massive extract and the solid tannins. The flavors are blackberries, ripe and sweet and rather liqueur-like, due to 15.3% alcohol. There’s a milk-chocolate richness, too, but the wine actually is dry. The tannins are evident, but they’re in the modern style: soft and finely-ground. The oak overlay shows up in the form of smoky vanilla. I am bothered by something “off” in the aroma. It could by pyrazine, indicating a celery unripeness; it could be a bit of mold. Score: 87 points.

 

Parducci 2013 Small Lot Petite Sirah (Mendocino County): $?. This is a decent sipper for stews, barbecue and such. It’s dry, smooth and easy to drink, with blackberry, tea, tobacco, cocoa dust, anise and pepper flavors. The acid-tannin balance is gentle. Try it as an alternative to Zinfandel or Merlot. Score: 87 points.

 

Zin-Phomaniac 2015 Old Vine Zinfandel (Lodi): $15. The price is the main attraction on this Zinfandel. The connoisseur crowd will object that it’s too ripe and plummy, too chocolatey, too hot, and has some unevenly ripened fruit. That’s all true, but it is a savory mouthful of wine, with a flood of raspberry jam, caramel, vanilla and spicy flavors. I call it a barbecue wine, and for fifteen bucks or less, there’s nothing wrong with that. Score: 86 points.

 

Steven Kent 2014 Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $65. I find this 100% Cabernet too brawny for my tastes. If you’re a fan of fruit, you’ll like the blackberry jam, chocolate macaroon, spice and toasty oak flavors. The tannins are very fine and smoothly-ground, and there’s a nice bite of acidity. The year 2014 was of course a drought year, and while the official alcohol here is a modest 13.9%, I also detect overripe prune notes. Don’t bother aging it. Score: 86 points.

 

Charles Smith 2014 Eve Chardonnay (Washington State): $13. The winery says this Chard has no new oak and was aged in barrel for only five months, but it tastes oaky to me. Either that, or it’s tired, with the fruit dropping out and the oak sticking out. The tropical fruits are turning apricotty. It’s okay, but I can’t really say I like it, even at this price. Score: 84 points.

 

Tie Dye 2014 Red Wine (North Coast); $15. This is a pretty bland wine. Comprised of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Grenache, it’s soft, dry and dull, with vegetal overtones. You’ll find enough flavor to make it acceptable for drinking with simple fare. Score: 82 points.


New Wine Reviews: Loring Wine Co.

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I’ve reviewed a lot of Loring wines over the years, and in going over my scores, I note that very few were lower than 90 points. Loring is one of those California wineries, like Testarossa and Siduri, that don’t own vineyards of their own, but take advantage of grower relationships to purchase fruit from some of our most famous vineyards, and then designate them on the label. The wines are almost always impeccably crafted, but due to their ripe, fruity style, are not particularly ageworthy. If there’s a certain sameness to them, it’s a delicious, food-friendly sameness. All Loring’s wines are bottled in screwtops. If this bothers you, you’re a snob.

Loring 2015 Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills); $54. The first word that popped into my head on tasting this wine was: “Pretty.” And that is a compliment, not a slight. “Ravishing” works, too: raspberries and strawberries, with hints of bitter cranberries and pomegranates, wrapped into a tart, silky Pinot Noir that finishes with oaky vanilla and spicy-sweet coffee and mushroom earthiness. It is so easy to drink, you might not even appreciate how layered it is. The vineyard is, of course, a pioneer in the Santa Rita Hills, in the tenderloin of the appellation, along the Highway 246 corridor. As pretty as it is, there’s a young, grapey sappiness that suggests midterm ageability. Drink now, after decanting, and through 2021. Alcohol 14.8%, 150 cases produced. Score: 94 points.

Loring 2015 Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands): $54. This is an excellent Pinot Noir. It tastes a bit more “cold climate” than Loring’s other 2015s, to judge from the cranberry and heirloom tomato notes, but there’s still a ton of riper plums, and oak gives it the most delicious vanilla-smoke nuances. It also shows a spiciness that intrigues, especially on the finish. Like Loring’s other single-vineyard Pinots, the acidity is perky, the tannins soft and silky. Lip-smackingly good. Alcohol 14.8%, case production 300. Score: 94 points.

Loring 2015 Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands): $54. Strikes a careful balance between the exuberance of its fruit and the integrity of its structure. The result is just fine, perfect for upscale drinking wherever Pinot-friendly food requires liquid partnership. The raspberries, cherries and plums have a mushroomy earthiness. The tannic grip is sandy and refined, the acidity mouthwatering. Really a nice example of Pinot Noir’s silky, sexy nature. Will remain delicious over the next six years. Alcohol 14.5%, case production 150. Score: 94 points.

Loring 2015 Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands): $54. Garys’ Vineyard is the joint effort of the two Garys, Franscione and Pisoni. It’s in the tenderloin of the Santa Lucia Highlands. This bottling is so delicious in cherries and plums, and so balanced in acidity, oak and tannins, you’d be hard pressed to find something better to drink now with filet mignon, grilled salmon or ahi tuna. The alcohol is 14.8% and the case production was 150 cases. Score: 93 points.

Loring 2015 Kessler-Haak Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills); $54. Juicy, crisp and fruity are the highlights of this single-vineyard Pinot Noir, whose wines I’ve given good, sometimes great, scores to for many years. With lowish alcohol (14.2%), it’s lithe in the mouth, showing a silky delicacy. But there’s nothing delicate about the flavors: raspberries, cherries and pomegranates, spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon and crushed black pepper, and accented noticeably by toasty oak. It’s really complex and approachable now. Score: 93 points.

Loring 2015 Sierra Mar Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands): $44. Tropical fruits are the theme here: ripe, sweet papayas, golden mangos, juicy nectarines, tangerines, even sautéed bananas. Throw in some buttered toast, vanilla custard and brown spices, and you have this insanely rich, but balanced, Chardonnay. Such pretty acidity, the kind that makes your mouth water. And a hint of creamy lees for good measure. It’s a definite crowd-pleaser. The vineyard is yet another effort from Gary Franscioni, one of the partners (with Gary Pisoni) of Garys’ Vineyard. Alcohol 14.3%, 100 cases produced. Score: 93 points.

Loring 2015 Rosella’s Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands): $44. The trick to California Chardonnay is to take advantage of the summer sun that ripens the grapes to fruity richness, but also to maintain an architectural precision that gives the wine structure, and keeps all that sweetness from cloying. This Chard succeeds. I love the tropical fruit, Key lime pie, white peach, butterscotch, sweet cream and toasty vanilla flavors, but there’s also a flinty minerality and keen acidity that are so balancing. I went over all my past scores for Rosella’s Chardonnay, from all wineries, and, except for a handful of instances, all were 90 points or above. Alcohol 14.3%, 100 cases produced. Score: 93 points.

Loring 2015 Keefer Ranch Vineyard Pinot Noir (Green Valley): $54. On the spectrum of Pinot Noir, this bottling plays it down the middle: rich, but tart; fruity, yet elusive; dry, yet sweet in fruit. The raspberries and pomegranates have a touch of bitter cranberry, which certainly makes the mouth water. The oak is perfect, bringing sweet toast, vanilla and wood sap to the formula. And the finish is dry and long in fruity essence and cola spice. All in all, a lovely Pinot Noir, delicate and feminine, super-drinkable now and over the next five or six years. Score: 93 points.

Loring 2015 Rancho La Viña Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills); $54. I tasted this blind and knew right away it was Santa Rita Hills from the acidity, which is so fresh and keen. Clearly a cool-climate Pinot Noir, it has a cranberry tartness, but is also rich and decadent in black cherry and raspberry jam, with an earthy coffee-bean quality. The vineyard is along Santa Rosa Road, in the southerly part of the Santa Rita Hills; the owners also sell fruit to several other wineries. I like the way the wine balances voluptuousness with a streamlined, tantalizing, elusive personality, which really is what Pinot Noir at its best should do. Alcohol is 14.3% on the label, and case production was 300. Score: 93 points.

Loring 2015 “Cooper Jaxon” 2015 Pinot Noir (California): $60. This looks like a second label from Loring, with its “California” appellation and old-fashioned label, but in fact, it’s their most expensive Pinot Noir. Apparently it’s a blend of two of Brian Loring’s “favorite barrels,” and named after his young nephew. It’s a big wine, bursting with all kinds of wild berry aromas and flavors, cherries especially, but notes of licorice, dried herbs, cocoa powder, tea, espresso, white pepper, nutmeg and black pepper. It is, in other words, an incredibly complex wine. Acidic and fresh, with fine, intricate tannins, the sort of Pinot Noir that belongs on a fine wine list. The alcohol is fairly hefty, officially 14.9%, and there’s a bit of heat, for which I deducted a point or two. Only 35 cases were produced. Score: 92 points.


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I met Oded Shakked years ago when I was writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. He had started Longboard Vineyards and I was giving him good reviews. His story—how he got from the Israeli Army to the Russian River Valley—was fascinating. Oded continues at the Longboard helm; I’ll be visiting with him at the tasting room in Healdsburg this weekend. He recently sent me his latest releases, which I was pleased to taste.

Longboard 2013 Mavericks – Chrome Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley): $65. Winemaker Oded Shakked is a surfer (hence “Longboard”); the name of this wine honors the Mavericks surfing competition, held annually south of San Francisco. The “Chrome,” Oded explains, is for a photograph of a big wave; I haven’t seen it, but supposedly it’s quite famous. Oded used to make a Cabernet from the Rochioli Vineyard. I don’t think he still does, but he learned his chops. He’s moved his Cabernet sourcing further east, to the warmer Alexander Valley, on the east side of the valley, where the appellation meets Chalk Hill and Cabernet has no problem ripening. The wine contains a splash of Malbec and Merlot from Oded’s own vineyard, in the northern Russian River Valley, from where the structure and acidity come. It’s quite a good wine, showing lush, plush black currant, teriyaki, anise and chocolate flavors, with a sweet-spicy earthiness that suggests black olive tapenade. I really like this Cab right now. You can probably age it for 5-8 years, but why bother. The alcohol is 14.5% and only 72 cases were produced. Score: 93 points.

Longboard 2014 Mystos Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley): $55. This is a big, luscious Pinot Noir, the kind that smacks of the summer sun. Oded doesn’t want to reveal the name or location of the vineyard, other than to say it’s “hillside.” That’s a confidentiality agreement, common in wine country. It’s a solid wine, packed with ripe raspberries, persimmons and cherry cola; one-third new French oak for a year adds layers of vanilla and toast. The alcohol is a modest 13.9%. It’s super-drinkable now. I’m thinking of lamb or char-broiled filet of beef, or grilled salmon with wild mushrooms. Score: 92 points.

Longboard 2013 Syrah (Russian River Valley): $30. This is quite a delicious Syrah, easily worth the price. It’s soft and smooth, housing ripe, lush blackberry and blueberry jam, cocoa, crispy bacon, espresso, black pepper and smoky oak flavors, with a glyceriney sweetness in the finish. Glides over the palate like a velvet tapestry. I don’t know the exact grape sourcing; the Russian River Valley is a big place, but it tastes like it’s from the warmer, northerly parts. The wine is 100% Syrah, aged for 18 months in 30% new French oak. Oded, who is of Israeli extraction, says he likes this wine with lamb and kebab dishes. I concur. Drink now-2021. Alcohol 14.5%, production 422 cases. Score: 92 points.

Longboard 2014 Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley): $50. Oded Shakked is one of the few winemakers fortunate enough to obtain grapes from his old friends, the Rochiolis. The vineyard, in a warmer part of the valley on Westside Road, is, of course, one of the greatest in California for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This fresh, young wine is made in the classic Burgundian way, with 40% new French oak barrel fermentation and aging on the lees. It’s very rich and intricate, with layers of crème brulée, orange custard, golden mango, honey and buttered cinnamon toast. That makes it sound like a dessert wine, but it’s quite dry and racy. Oded predicts that it will age; I don’t think so. So drink it now with the richest foods: Dungeness crab, lobster, scallops, a wild mushroom risotto. Alcohol 14.2%, 186 cases produced. Score: 92 points.

Square Peg is a winery I was unfamiliar with until they sent me these two Pinot Noirs. Both are from the estate vineyard, which is near Occidental, at the junction of Russian River Valley, Green Valley and Sonoma Coast. The vineyard is dry-farmed, unusual in my experience for this part of the world. The owner is a guy named Brad Alper, a former American Airlines pilot who retired in 2012. The winemaker is William Knuttel, who was winemaker at Saintsbury for a long time, and knows Pinot Noir.

Square Peg 2014 SP-SL Vineyard Block 8 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $65. The winery hasn’t made clear what the difference is between their Block 1 and Block 8 Pinots [see below]. The alcohol, 14.5%, is the same. The case production is roughly the same. The acidity and pH are pretty much the same. The difference seems to be that Block 8 was harvested at significantly lower brix than Block 1, and that does seem to be the crucial difference. The wine is lovely, with raspberry, strawberry and cherry fruit, and a tight, taut mouthfeel. I’m giving it two extra points over Block 1 because it has more delicacy and finesse. Score: 93 pojnts.

Square Peg 2014 SP-SL Vineyard Block 1 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $65. No stems in the fermentation of this garnet-colored wine, which despite its alcohol level of 14.5% is silky and delicate, with refined tannins. The flavors tread an interesting line between earthy-mushroomy, with a slight tomatoey greenness, and more generous raspberries, cherries and persimmons. The acidity is just fine. It’s a wine that hints of complexity. Fine to drink now and over the next six years. Score: 91 points.


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