‘Special Purchase’: Masterful Chateaunef, WS Top 100 #22 at Age 20

No wine region has had a better run than the southern Rhone over the last 20 years.  We have tasted copious examples of Chateauneuf over that time frame.  While there are numerous outstanding vintages (2015, 2010, 2007, 2005), in our minds  1998 still reigns supreme.  In every great vintage there have been great examples of the genre, but a few that were perhaps a little over the top.  One of the exceptions is 1998.  Virtually everything we have had the opportunity to taste from the vintage has been impressive for both richness and balance.  Sadly, we drank most of our 1998s a fair bit ago though we never stopped looking for that rare opportunity to grab another example of this wonderful vintage.  As they say, ‘seek and ye shall find’, and we found a gem.

We saw the 1998 Chateau La Gardine on a European suppliers list and could not wait to explore the possibilities further.  Of course given that the wine was twenty years old, we wanted to make sure the juice was in great shape.  We requested a sample from the European purveyor and they sent one.  Ignoring our own rules of letting bottles settle down for a few days after being shipped, we pretty much opened the bottle as soon as we could get it out of the box.  The wine showed beautifully literally right off the truck, which caused to scramble to secure every last bottle we could.

Chateau La Gardine was one of our house favorites early on in our formative years with Chateauneuf, and we fondly remember this from when we sold it the first time around.    The wine was round, and well proportioned (still is), with a definite leaning to darker red fruits in its profilewith a surprising elegance that few Chateauneuf vintages that were this ripe possessed.  The distinctive bottle also made the wine memorable, or a least immediately recognizable.  The story goes that when Gaston Brunel first wanted to expand his cellar, while he was digging in the ground, he found a mouth-blown bottle. He loved its distinctive look and decided to use a similar shape for all his wine. At the beginning, he had to go all the way to Italy to find a glass supplier that was able to make it. Since 1964, all of their wines have come in the unique ‘La Gardine’shaped-bottle.

The Chateau La Gardine Chateauneuf 1998 itself shows a lovely mulberry color with a pure nose of black raspberry, spice and hints of pepper.  In the mouth there are additional streaks of earth, meat, and chocolate along with the insistent, polished fruit.  The finish shows a bit of minerality as well as coffee/chocolate component.  The weight and impression lean more towards a riper Pinot Noir as opposed to the almost oppressive jamminess that occurs in some wines in warmer vintages.  It is a captivating experience and an example of a Chateauneuf that has aged beautifully and can still go a bit longer (though it is in a lovely place right now).

There’s pedigree here, too, as well as a flurry of scores including 92 points from Wine Advocate’s Jeb Dunnuck  (also listed on his own website) from a tasting done in 2015.  He suggests the wine still has 5-7 years of life ahead.  The original Wine Spectator review from 2000 was most enthusiastic and the wine not only got a 94 point review and a Spectator Selection nod, but was #22 in that year’s Top 100.  The review said, “A wonderful, masterful wine. Both firm and opulent, it displays a nice dig into the Rhône terroir as it brings out wet earth, mineral and an interesting, chewy tannin structure. A high-voltage drinking experience, with lots of fruit, spice and mocha. Best from 2003 through 2020.”

It’s all of that.  As to the wine lasting 5-7 more years, it certainly can.  The question is whether one can leave it alone for that long.  It is a rather spectacular drinking experience at its peak, with some 20 years of age already done for you.  This is a rare opportunity for Chateauneuf lovers, a refined and beautifully poised example from a notable producer from one of the best vintages ever.  As you probably guessed, quantities are finite.  Good hunting.

 

THE WINE CRITIC: WILL THERE BE ANOTHER ‘ORACLE’?

When we started in this business, the impact of the media was much different.  There wasn’t a ‘guiding light’ kind of reviewer.  Mostly folks relied on scribes in the newspapers who wrote weekly columns, awards from various wine competitions, and there was a following among elite buyers in a small way for a couple of subscription writers.  Does anyone remember Robert Finigan?  Probably not anymore.  He was arguably the first one to get national attention for wine reviews, but the field was still pretty new at the time.

Back when the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux was being reviewed, Finigan was in a position to make some waves as there was unusual consumer interest in the vintage.  Finigan, a traditionalist, was pretty convinced that the very ripe, somewhat atypical 1982s were an anomaly and would not stand the test of time.  By contrast, an emerging writer from Monkton, Maryland named Robert Parker went full gung ho on the 1982s and the market responded.

From that moment on Parker’s star rose dramatically among hardcore wine collectors and tastemakers.  He achieved a status that perhaps no reviewer in any other field ever had and likely ever will.  About the same time, a more lifestyle centric magazine called Wine Spectator, with reviews, articles, and pretty pictures, captured an even larger, if perhaps somewhat less zealous audience.  Suddenly these publications, aided by an industry that was all too willing to cut and paste reviews rather than do original work, became the defining voices in the wine industry.

While Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar captured a modest audience, it was Advocate and Spectator that had the majority of the attention for a couple of decades.    We always joked about what kind of panic would ensue if anything ever happened to Parker, and knowing that if all went well, he would eventually retire.  In the early days, Wine Spectator had only a handful of regular critics and Advocate was just Bob.  But as demand grew for wider coverage of more wines, both publications added reviewers to cover the workload.

But with many additional voices, there was perhaps a little bit of dilution in the power of the message.  There were a few folks that came and went because they didn’t fit in with their Wine Advocate roles a couple were even a little controversial.  The turnover of writers had to affect some aspects of the readership loyalty, though the presence of Parker as the anchor kept a lot of that from becoming too problematic with Wine Advocate at the time.

As to Wine Spectator, things went pretty well for a long time.  Then lead writer for European wines James Suckling parted company with the magazine.  Their domestic specialist, known here as ‘Angry’ James Laube, started toughening up on scores.  Dishing out 91 point scores to $200 Napa Cabernets definitely made him less ‘quotable’ in the broad market.  It seems Spectator’s impact in the marketplace has abated a little.

That brings us to today.  Spectator still has wide distribution, but we’d suggest less impact than the glory days.  Their ex-patriot Suckling set up shop on his own.  Parker isn’t doing much for Advocate these days, and former reviewers Antonio Galloni and Jeb Dunnuck left to set up their own programs.  Galloni’s Vinous absorbed the Tanzer team and recently hired former Advocate Bordeaux and Burgundy reviewer Neal Martin.  With such a dramatic reshuffling of the scribes, and the changing faces of the former ‘powers’, one has to wonder where it goes from here.   That isn’t even taking into account the various other ‘wannabes’ that are vying for relevance.

Our point is that today’s field is crowded and it is hard to predict who, if anyone, will become the next ‘oracle’.  There are a half dozen review platforms that have some amount of clout, and a number of others who could emerge down the road (though we have our doubts).  The quirk of today’s market is that purveyors are trying to prolong the sell-by-reviews format that has been the widely practiced norm for at least the last quarter century.

Within that context, it is a proven fact that ’89s don’t sell wine’.  These days the same can be said for a lot of scores relative to certain price points.  A 91 might move a $12 wine, but won’t even register a blip for a $30 wine.  Therein lies the problem.  The purveyors know they need bigger ‘numbers’ to excite buyers and consumers, and have taken it upon themselves to present the best score possible without regard to the source.  People present us the reviews of 2nd and 3rd tier critics all the time (and all-too-often not accurately).

We know the difference and who is who.  But the average consumer seeing it on a sign in a store doesn’t necessarily have knowledge of the hierarchy (if you can call it that) and many take the number at face value.  All too often wines are presented with floating reviews, which say a wine received a 95 point score but doesn’t cite where it came from.

Given all of this, the industry is concerned about how to reach the next generation of wine buyers.  The ‘score’ thing has worked well for a lot of people for a long time.  But will that continue?  Are reviewers going to have the same impact with millennials they did with baby boomers?  Our first guess is probably not.   Who knows what kind of dynamic will be the basis for information moving forward.  A hybrid of some current market trend-setter?  Some self-proclaimed hipster critic?  Yelp?

Then again, with hand held devices connected to world-wide internet 24/7, it would be easy to get information on a potential wine purchase from some review site in seconds.  So it is difficult to fathom the possibility that all of the critics websites will disappear.  These days, convenience matters, particularly for the most impatient of generations.  But whose reviews are they going to follow?  That is the question.  Who best speaks to the market in the post-Parker era?  What exactly is the wine market as defined today?

One might ask who we follow.  In truth, we don’t really follow anyone.  We’ll look into things based on reading articles because not everything comes to our door.  Then we’ll use whatever reviews we think will get people to try a wine we already liked and bought, provided those reviews come from sources we feel are legit.  It is important for us to associate with proven and reasonably well-followed review sources.  We aren’t inclined to quote the ‘scribe of the week’ simply because he/she gave the highest, most quotable number.  ‘Steve’s mom gave this 94 points’ isn’t going to resonate with anyone.   There may be critics out there that will be widely quoted down the road, once they have established themselves.   But for now we’ll focus on the half dozen or so that seem to be the most followed.

The working theory moving forward, as we have stated, is that the guys with the highest reviews will get quoted because the market responds to higher numbers, and therefore will receive more ‘reinforcement’ in the public eye.  Though these all represent relatively new independent voices, James Suckling, Jeb Dunnuck, and some of the Vinous crew, have historic connections with top sources.  So they have historic credibility as long as they don’t overdo it and give everything 100 points.  They will typically run somewhat higher scores (a point or two, say) because they are still trying to expand their audience, or maybe they really are that much more excited.  Enthusiasm sells.  Just saying everything is ‘pretty good’ or ‘just OK’ won’t motivate anyone to act, or more importantly acquire.

For that reason we see the current Spectator ‘tough guy’ approach as being counter-productive in the broad sense with respect to wine reviews, though there will be an audience for their travel, food, and “People Magazine” portions of the publication.  Page after page of middling scores (by today’s standards) will cause consumer’s eyes to glaze over.

The Advocate has been something of a revolving door having lost two top reviewers who created their own sites, and another that went to work for one of the competition.  Will the new crew catch on?  Hard to say at this point.  It is probably still their game to lose, but we can’t see where a bunch of folks that the public doesn’t know as well, talking up mainly wines that no one can find or afford, as a recipe for long term success.

When we mine some positive prose from those publications, there is interest in the individual wines.  But we used to know when a new edition of those publications came out because the phones rang off the hook.  That has not been the case in recent years.  The point is that, when we present a wine with a review from one of those sources we mentioned, there is usually some response.  But we aren’t sure how many people are reading these publications on their own and reacting from that research any more.

There is more great wine out there now than at any time we can remember.  With so many things to evaluate one has to wonder why folks aren’t flocking to critics’ sites and publications to sort it all out.  Maybe they are.  But the impact of the reviewer has certainly changed over the past dozen years.  Is it because there are too many critics, reducing the impact of each one?  Whose reviews will reign supreme?  Is it because the industry has gone overboard in presenting reviews to sell wine so that most consumers feel they are getting all the info they need?  Or is this format going the way of the VCR and experiencing a decline in popularity with the next generation?  After all, how many of the younger crowd cares about 20-year drinking windows?  Most of it gets consumed in a week.

This aspect of the wine business, which has driven the market oveer the last couple of decades, is in flux right now .  Honestly, it could go any number of ways.  Among critics, sadly, we feel the high scorers will win as long as the ‘number’ takes precedent over the meat of the write-up.   The ‘number’ is the quick answer in a world where faster is better. We have lived largely in the world of review-driven sales.  While the ‘players’ may change,  we believe the role of the critic will remain significant at least until a better way comes along.  We can’t envision what that would be.  The 100-point system didn’t dominate wine marketing, until it did.  Arguably the success can be tied loosely to the system of education most people grew up and are familiar with.  But the fact remains that it is an easy, quick format for people to digest.

Possibly the industry could take charge of their own business and try to educate consumers through their own articles, tastings and one-on-one dialogue.  Maybe there are unicorns, too.  We have always presented our own ideas, sometimes without any reference to third party opinions. But the number system has created a life all its own for the time being.   As to more of the industry taking the ‘bull by the horns’, we aren’t going to hold our breath.  Telling someone they should buy a wine because ‘so-and-so gave it 95 points’ is still so… much… easier.  We’ll wait and see whose ‘95’ moves the needle the most as time passes.

 

 

 

 

 

OREGON UPDATE: KEEPING UP WITH THE DROUHINS

When Veronique Drouhin came to Oregon in 1986, she had just completed her masters in enology.  In what was probably conceived as a scouting mission, Veronique worked the harvest with three of Oregon’s early pioneers, the Letts of Eyrie, the Casteels of Bethel Heights, and the Adelsheims.  The lasting impression was that something important was happening in the Willamette Valley.  A year later, Robert Drouhin was invited to participate in the International Pinot Noir Celebration.  It was on that trip that this scion of a century-old Burgundy producer decided to buy land in the Dundee Hills.  In 1988, the first edition of the Domaine Drouhin Oregon project was made.  As they say, the rest is history.

The winery is celebrating their 30th Anniversary this year.  It seems a good time to look back on what had to have been viewed as one of the defining moments in the history of Oregon viticulture.  When someone of Drouhin’s stature establishes roots in Oregon, it had to have the effect of validating the entire region.  We have been fans of this project since day one and some of those early releases were kind of groundbreaking in terms of shining light on what was possible in the Willamette Valley.

We aren’t going to say that the road was without any bumps.  There was a period where we wondered where the mojo of this house had gone.  There were a few vintages that simply weren’t all that special.  We have no explanation as to why.   As inexplicable as that little dip in quality was, the winery seems to have snapped back and is now doing some of their best work ever.  Veronique is definitely rolling now as this trio of their traditional releases indicates.

Not surprisingly given the vintage, the Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Dundee Hills 2015 is a riveting, pure example of proper Oregon Pinot with the intense dark red fruits, palate-tingling interplay of high-toned spice and savory notes, and bright flavors right through to the end.  This reminds us of some of those earliest offers, but with more harmony and finesse.  Oregon vintners have definitely raised their game and Drouhin has, too.

It caught the attention of James Suckling, who offered, “A great pinot noir that shows dried flowers, violets and orchids. Cherry and raspberry undertones, too. Medium to full body with an incredible polished texture. Ripe and round tannins and a fresh and vibrant finish. Delicious now but better in 2020…95 points.”

Josh Reynolds expands, “Brilliant red. Fresh cherry and raspberry on the nose, complicated by candied rose, licorice and musky earth flourishes. Juicy, finely etched red berry and bitter cherry flavors show very good energy, and a deeper, sweeter suggestion of cola emerges with aeration. Closes on a bright, spicy note, with sneaky tannins lending framework and grip.”  Also ’91’ from both Wine Advocate and Vinous, the wine clearly shows ripe Oregon fruit but a Burgundian sensibility and harmony.

Also from a great vintage, the even more expressive reserve bottling Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Laurene Dundee Hills 2014 takes It up another level.  Named for Veronique’s daughter, Laurene is their flagship bottling assembled in the cellar from selected ‘best barrels’.  From Vinous, “Vivid red. A sexy, highly perfumed bouquet evokes ripe red berries, cola and rose oil, and a smoky flourish builds in the glass. Fleshy, expansive black raspberry, bitter cherry and floral pastille flavors show impressive depth as well as energy, picking up a hint of star anise with air. Finishes juicy, supple and very long, offering lingering spiciness and pliant, even tannins that fold effortlessly into the lush fruit… 93.”

Advocate’s Lisa Perotti-Brown, MW, has this take, “Pale to medium ruby-purple, the 2014 Pinot Noir Laurene offers a very fragrant nose of exotic spices—anise, cardamom and fenugreek—over a core of pomegranate, rhubarb, Bing cherries, fertile loam and truffles. Medium-bodied with a taut, fine structure of fine tannins and refreshing acid, the fruit has plenty of earth and red berry layers that linger with great persistence. ..92+ points.”

One of the most significant developments across Oregon over the last few vintages is that they have finally figured out Chardonnay.  The wrong clones planted in the wrong places definitely made Chardoannay the ‘also-ran’ varietal in this part of the world.  But the times, they are a changin’.  Meanwhile Drouhin did it right in the first place, some of these vines dating back to 1990.  The Domaine Drouhin Arthur Chardonnay Dundee Hills 2015 definitely follows the French model with crisp underpinnings and streaks of perceived minerality.

Josh Raynolds of Vinous offered, “(raised in a 50/50 combination of stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels, 20 percent of the oak new) Light gold. Intense, mineral-accented citrus and orchard fruits on the nose, complicated by hints of buttered toast and honeysuckle. Lush and creamy but focused as well, offering concentrated dried pear and peach flavors and a touch of bitter lemon pith. Turns firmer on the incisive finish, which repeats the citrus and mineral notes and leaves a hint of chamomile behind…92 points.”

James Suckling was more succinct, but even more enthusiastic, ” A layered and pretty wine with dried apples and fresh fruit. Linear and spicy, showing plenty of salty undertones. Full-bodied, solid and fresh. Lovely intensity. Drink now…94 Points.”

It is fair to say these wines were more than 100 years in the making, and the knowledge the Drouhins brought to the New World has been good for Oregon as a whole.  There are plenty of ‘young guns’ grabbing media attention these days.  But Drouhin is doing fine work and definitely is still a standard-bearer for the region.   These subtle, proportioned wines belong in everyone’s cellar.

 

 

PENFOLDS KOONUNGA HILL: STILL ONE OF THE BEST VALUE REDS

Back when we first discovered Penfolds in the 80s, the wines represented some of the most compelling values in the marketplace.  A lot has changed since that time.  In fact it would take quite a bit of space to go over all the changes.  Perhaps the key points are that Penfolds is not the same entity we sold all those years ago.  A purchase by Southcorp some years ago, and subsequent ‘market factors’,  changed the brand forever.

Since that time there has been financial intrigue, an explosion of demand in Asia that shot prices of Penfolds Bin 389 and 407 to 2-3 times their norm, and a period where most of the moderately priced Penfolds wines bordered on undrinkable (they were ferociously over-acidified).  We won’t even get into some of the bizarre marketing moves that have recently come about.  It would be very easy to let this behemoth go the way of the dinosaurs except for one small thing…they still have the ability to make some pretty interesting wines.

The 2016 Penfolds Shiraz/Cabernet Koonunga Hill South Australia  is still one of the more compelling and straightforward value reds in the marketplace.  It is a blend of 65% Shiraz and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from a variety of locales (Padthaway, McLaren Vale, Wrattonbully, Barossa Valley and Coonawarra if you want to know) that sees 10 months in American oak.  Sylistically it is round, plump, surprising ample for the price but not overdone.  No self-respecting critic is going to give this more than an upper-80s type review simply because it is a ‘little wine’.  But it is a delicious, engaging little wine and that should always be the point.

The Syrah is the star here imparting a good bit a blackberry fruit and spice, with the Cabernet providing some redder fruit, a touch of olive and a hint of vanilla.  Is it a ‘fastball down the middle’?  Absolutely, and what’s wrong with that?  You would be hard pressed to find a more crowd pleasing red for this kind of price.   Up-front, expressive fruit, straightforward flavors, just enough acidity and laid back tannins, it’s an outstanding, budget-friendly choice for  parties, grillin’, and everyday applications.  We don’t really need to sell commercial stuff like this, but when it’s this good, why not?

THE BEST LAUREL EVER?

Sometimes it is interesting to go back to the beginning.  In 1988 Daphne Glorian, at the time employed by an English Master of Wine in his Paris office, decided to spend her life’s savings on 17 terraces of hillside vines just outside the village of Gratallops.  Newly minted friends René Barbier and Alvaro Palacios encouraged her and together with Carles Pastrana and Jose Luis Perez, they pooled their talents and resources to make a new style of wine in a region rich in history but that had only really produced sturdy wine for the local markets.  In 1989 the modern Priorat was born.

Fast forward to today, and Clos Erasmus is considered one of the elite producers of the Priorat.   Their body of work is impressive and includes 98 (twice), 99 (three times) and 100 (twice) point efforts as reviewed by Robert Parker. The problem with Clos Erasmus through the years has definitely not been quality, but quantity.  There has been precious little to go around. Old vine Grenache, Carignane and a little Cabernet fruit make magic in Priorat in the right hands, and Daphne, along with her current super-star winemaker, the diminutive, dreadlocked Ester Nin are at the top of their game.

These rustic hillsides produce wines of great power and character, yet in Ester’s hands also retain a surprising elegance.  Bordeaux had something like a three century head start and one has to appreciate how far Priorat has come in a mere three decades.  Like Bordeaux, one of the best values in exceptional wine comes from the second wine of Clos Erasmus called Laurel. From the younger vines on the property, plus some declassified Clos Erasmus, this is the Catalan equivalent of Chateau Margaux’s Pavillion Rouge or Lafite’s Carruades. It is also another poster child for our mantra of buying little wines from the very best producers.  Typically Laurel is a pretty sensational drink, but Ester and the gang have outdone themselves this year.

Flavors of currant, black cherry, coffee, cocoa and an insistent minerality from the llicorella (yic-o-raya) black slate soils makes Priorat a very special place for grapes.  The 2015 Clos I Terrases Priorat Laurel screams of its class and breeding. In fact this version is the best we have tasted.  It is aromatic, inviting, layered and remarkably engaging.  It delivers plenty even if you aren’t feeling cerebral and just want to relate to it on a purely hedonistic (sensual) level.   If you need some numbers, this second wine has received 93 points or better in every vintage since 2004 save one (2010, curiously enough the only vintage reviewed by Neal Martin during a very short stint as Advocate’s Spanish reviewer).   The wine in question, this lovely 2015 Laurel, registers at 95 points with Advocate.

Clos Erasmus and Laurel are not vineyard designations, but they do begin to take shape in the vineyard. Meticulous farming and observation take place throughout the year so by the time fruit starts to reach the cellar in autumn, most of the blends have already been mapped out by Daphne. When the primary fermentations are winding down these decisions begin to coalesce and wines intended for Laurel are racked into a combination of 20hl wooden tanks, second- and third-fill 228L French oak barrels and clay amphorae. It rests for 16-18 months before final blending and bottling.

At this point we’ll defer to Luis Gutierrez, whose review supplies most of the relevant technical information as well as well as a rousing endorsement, “The 2015 Laurel is the second wine here, and it has evolved with time. It’s a transparent and bright blend of Garnacha with 20% Syrah and some 5% Cabernet Sauvignon from vines between 11 and 22 years of age. The blend is different each year, as the vines are becoming older and wiser. It shows extremely aromatic and expressive, open and elegant. It really does not show any heat; on the contrary, it feels quite fresh. It’s not a muscular wine—it’s very elegant. Part of the wine matured in amphora, and there’s no more pigéage (since 2012), only very soft pump overs just to keep the cap wet. The extraction is a lot lower than in earlier years. This is nothing short of spectacular. ..”

Jeb Dunnuck provided an early revieew on this one as well, “ … it boasts a deep purple color as well as perfumed notes of resinous herbs, blackberries, liquid violets and pepper. It’s rich, concentrated, and voluptuous, yet pure and elegant on the palate. It’s undoubtedly the finest vintage of this cuvée I’ve tasted …95 points…”.  Amen to that.  This is a release we have looked forward to every year since we first ran across the 2005 some years ago (we’ve been following Erasmus since the late 90s), and this one is special.  Do not miss it!

2015 CHATEAUNEUF UPDATE

These are the ‘best of times’ when it comes to the southern Rhone.  Yes, we have sold through a number of great vintages before.  But we don’t ever remember a back-to-back quite like 2015 and 2016 in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Yet it’s hard to know even how to approach the current all-star lineup on the floor.  We could quietly hum ‘these are a few of our favorite things’ because this lineup is stocked with a number of offerings that truly are favorites.  Bosquet des Papes, Cristia Vielle Vignes, Saje and Bastide la Dominique all predominantly showcase gorgeous, sappy old-vine Grenache laced with complex spice and mineral unlike anywhere else on the planet.  They remind one of a richer version of great Burgundy.

The still Grenache-heavy Pegau, Mayard Crau du Ma Mere, and Cristia Rennaissance offer variations on that theme with higher proportions of the other varietals like Mourvedre and Syrah that add lift, darker fruit notes, and different nuance to the mix.   We could echo the campaign of a certain gas station snack area that claims ‘too much good stuff’, but this is so far beyond that.  Let them eat nachos.  We truly are proffering some of the best you can buy in an elite category from top producers in an excellent year.

If you are into reviews, this lineup has them in spades.  If you haven’t seen an overall vintage report, here is an excerpt from Vinous’ Josh Raynolds entitled 2015 Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Power and Balance, “…While the 2015s are definitely on the rich side, they’re much more in the style of the 2009s than the superripe 2007s or the frequently roasted 2003s. Broadly speaking, I view 2015 as a cross between the richness of 2009 and the energy and structure of 2010, with the overall personality of the wines leaning closer to ’09 than to ’10. The best examples show serious depth along with very good definition and back-end vivacity, and little in the way of cooked-fruit character…”

In other words, what you have here is very tasty Chateauneuf from top producers.   This lineup is also in the sweet spot, elite efforts where the prices aren’t crazy.  The one thing that is difficult here is to make a mistake.  This lineup is ‘all killer and no filler’, the only mistake being not grabbing some to enjoy now and ten years on.

If this is the toughest choice you have to make today…it’s a pretty special day.  Here are some quick notes with full reviews below.  Don’t miss these and good hunting!  Quantities are definitely finite…

Bosquet Des Papes Chateauneuf du Pape Gloire De Mon Grand Pere 2015- “… Made from mostly (60-70 year old vine) Grenache… another beauty that’s up with the crème de las crème of the vintage. Kirsch, strawberries, dried flowers and spice notes give way to a full-bodied, supple, sexy red that has sweet tannin and a great finish. While it’s a big, rich wine, it glides across the palate and is never heavy. It should keep for 10-15 years. 95 points-“  Jeb Dunnuck

Bastide Dominique Chateauneuf du Pape Secrets De Pignan 2015- From vines planted in 1920, “…Coming from the Pignan lieu-dit, … just beside Rayas …it offers a beautiful, singular style in its blackberry, currant, leafy herbs, thyme, and olive scented bouquet. This carries to a full-bodied, sexy Grenache that has loads of fruit, terrific purity and a blockbuster finish…95 points”- Jeb Dunnuck

Cristia Chateauneuf du Pape Renaissance 2015-This has an intense core of crushed plum, raspberry and boysenberry fruit flavors, draped with melted licorice notes and backed by a wave of warm fruitcake. Hedonistic for sure, but accents of anise, violet and singed apple wood dart around, adding extra facets of intrigue to hold your attention. Grenache (60% from 100-yeaar old vines) and Mourvèdre (50 yr. old vines). ..96 points – Wine Spectator (also WA 95, JD 95)

Cristia Chateauneuf du Pape Vieilles Vignes 2015- “…This delivers a lush, enticing blast of cassis and raspberry and boysenberry preserve flavors, carried by a silky structure that lets the fruit play out at length, giving adequate time for black tea, singed apple wood, dried anise and fruitcake notes to fill in throughout. Dreamy. Grenache (80-100 year old vines). –97 Points.” Wine Spectator (also JD 95)

Mayard Chateauneuf du Pape Crau De Ma Mere 2015-  “… fabulous notes of strawberries, black cherries, saddle leather and garrigue. Full-bodied, impeccably balanced, concentrated and layered, it’s a terrific cuvée and is certainly one of the standouts in this vintage. It’s also the finest wine I’ve tasted from this estate…95 points– Jeb Dunnuck

Pegau Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvee Reservee2015- “…A vintage compared to 2010 by Laurence, the 2015 Châteauneuf-du-Pape looks to be one of the big successes in the vintage. Possessing a ripe, rounded, sexy style backed up by solid density and concentration, it offers classic Pegau notes of currants, pepper, and cured meats. Big, rich, concentrated and beautifully textured, it offers a rare depth of fruit and richness in the vintage…95-97 Points“-Jeb Dunnuck

Saje Chateauneuf du Pape Marquis Anselme Mathieu  2015- “I enjoyed all of the wines from this estate, but I was blown away by the complexity and purity of the 2015 Chateauneuf du Pape Marquis Anselme Mathieu … Not only does it show beautiful cherry and stone fruit notes, it layers on hints of clove, allspice, garrigue and green peppercorn. There’s ample weight and texture on the palate, with the plush tannins drawing to a silky, spicy finish that lingers for minutes…96 Points!”  – Joe Czerwinski, Wine Advocate

TROCKEN THIS, PART ONE: FRANKLAND ESTATE RIESLING

We know we have been a little harsh on the whole German trocken (dry Riesling) phenomenon.  Some might have said, “ these guys say they love Riesling, what’s their problem”.  Well, there are a couple of things.  One is execution.  Far too many are lean and skeletal as trocken wines.  The fruity examples with a little residual sugar to counterbalance blazing acidity is a true joy to us.  There’s nothing quite like a good traditional kabinett or spatlese anywhere in the wine world.

The other point is ‘why’?  Why muck with a good thing?  Plus, it has been done.  The Australians and Austrians have been making compelling dry Riesling for a long time.  There doesn’t seem to be a good reason to have another, less successful choice other than it’s German.  But we are not here to bag on the Geremans (they are probably cranky enough after the 2018 World Cup).  Rather we are here to praise some of the outstanding dry Rieslings that we do endorse.

We’ve been acquainted with the wines of Frankland estate for probably to decades.  The story is always a bit puzzling.  What possessed this family to head on out to one of the more remote parts of southwestern Australia to plant grapes is baffling.  To take a chance on a varietal like Riesling that doesn’t perform just anywhere  was a leap of faith.  But they have become one of the icon Riesling producers in Oz and have developed a unique and flattering style.  Delicate apple and pear, some pleasing citrus and floral notes, with a nice underpinning of a delicate earthy minerality, this is tender and fresh and lifted without being at all edgy.

The 2017 vintage in Australia is quite successful (a cracker!) and 2017 Frankland Estate Riesling is a beautifully composed expression of pristine fruit.  Made from various parcels from the estate including some of the original vines from 1988 and a 2006 planting on an ‘ironstone’ ridge, it is a subtle, layered, mouth-watering, ‘pretty’ example of the genre from a very special, if really isolated place.

We aren’t sure how much of a ‘Riesling guy’ Advocate’s Joe Czerwinski, but he seemed to like this one as well, “Scents of lime blossom and orange sherbet practically erupt from the glass. The exuberant 2017 Riesling is medium-bodied with slightly rounded edges and hints at red berries to go along with all of the expected citrus and green apple notes. It’s approachable now but should continue to drink well for a decade or more… 91 Points!”  This is how you trocken.

BURGUNDY BARGAIN HUNTER: EPISODE 2

The Haute Cotes refers to some of Burgundy’s highest vineyards along the crest of the generally east facing hills, typically above the more famous vineyards on the upper slopes.  Usually fairly rugged land with the vines planted in more rock than dirt, these are typically firm and sturdy and require a bit of time to come around.  The difference a little bit more sunshine makes is that there is more ripe fruit over the typically edgy acidity and sometimes stern minerality.  That changes the whole personality of these wines for the good and gives them a more fruit driven persona.

The Clairs have owned parcels in the region for generations but sold mainly to negociants.  Denis founded the domaine in 1986 with the intention of bottling his own wine.  Here the dark red leaning to blue fruits has a tension with the more typical fresh acidity to create a rather compelling mouthful, and the extra weight from the vintage makes the whole proposition work in a way that it rarely does giving the wine a tenderness and weight that will appeal to a larger audience, though there is still plenty of tension from these elevated sites.

The Francois & Denis Clair Haut Cotes de Beaune 2015 comes from 35 year-old vines situated with a south-east exposure looking out over Maranges.  All hand harvested, the wine sees 15 months in vat.  What a difference a little bit more flesh can make and, once again, the area’s more typical lack of fame helped keep the price down.  It’s a rather screaming bargain for a red Burgundy in the in-demand 2015 vintage at under $20.

BURGUNDY BARGAIN HUNTER: EPISODE 1

Named for the 300-year-old Southern Burgundy village in which it is located, Monthelie-Douhairet was run by the Douhairet family for many years.  In 1989, Madame Douhairet asked renowned winemaker André Porcheret to take charge and added his name to the domaine.  One of the great figures in Burgundy during the past half-century, André was the cellar manager at the Hospices de Beaune from 1976–1988, before he was hired by Lalou Bize Leroy to make wines at the newly created Domaine Leroy from 1988–1993. He returned to the Hospices de Beaune from 1994–1999, and since 1989, he has also been overseeing Monthelie Douhairet Porcheret’s 15 acres, mainly in the Côte de Beaune appellations of Pommard, Volnay, Meursault and Monthelie.

Located between Volnay and Auxey Duresses set back a bit from the main route through Burgundy, this is one of those spots that has a solid history but only hits the high notes in top vintages.  For a winemaker like Porchoret in a warm year like 2015, the sweet red fruits pulled all of the minerality and earth notes together within one elegant presentation.  The Monthelie Douhairet Porcheret Monthelie 1er Cru Les Duresses 2015 presents dusty cherries, a bit of mulberry, and some subtle stony minerality underneath.

What a vintage like 2015 does is provide the additional flesh and weight that this area usually is a little short on, which changes the whole dynamic of the wine.  And, with the less exalted reputation of the region overall, there is an upper limit to what vintners can charge,  making the price something of a bargain.  In truth this producer has been a go-to in warmer vintages here for several years now.   A fine effort.

IN THE PINK, PART TWO: ROSE TIME AGAIN

We spoke our piece last time about the current market for pink wine.  In short, it is stronger than ever, but there has been a proliferation of labels well beyond what should have been.  In other words, there is a lot more rosé to look at these days, which by definition would give us more things to choose from.  That is partially true.  There are more good rosés out there, but a much higher percentage of clunkers in the mix because there are a lot of mediocre efforts being made by people who are just trying to participate in the market and many examples being made from places that really haven’t made them before.

All of this just makes our job harder because there is much more pink wine to slog through to find the few gems.  But it’s summer, we love pink wine, and the 2017s are generally quite satisfying.  So here’s another update on a few more favorites from this year’s crop.

LE PARADOU CÔTES DE PROVENCE ROSÉ 2017– This wine’s performance should be no surprise given the people involved.  The Paradou project is a partnership between the brothers Alex and Fred Chaudière of Château Pesquié and importer Eric Solomon.  We have been selling Pesquié wines for years and appreciate the honest, terroir driven character that the wines exude.  It seems only natural that these folks could create something enjoyable for this label and the  Le Paradou Côtes de Provence Rosé 2017 is that wine.

The grapes for this wine come from the more remote center of Provence, a land of lavender fields, olive groves, and wild herbs growing on the hillsides.  This is far from the French Riviera and the Cinsault, Grenache and Vermentino (known as Rolle in this part of the world) grapes come from a vineyard at the foot of Sainte  Victoire, a peak featured in a number of works by Cezanne.  The term ‘Paradou’, while it might sound like some ancient French word for ‘paradise’, actually refers to the old watermills that once dotted the landscape

Each grape plays its part.  The Cinsault provides this wine’s delicate fruit flavors reminiscent of raspberries and strawberries, the Grenache its color and spice, and the Vermentino its freshness and acidity plus a hint of white stone fruit in a supporting role.  Put it all together and you have one engaging, tasty rosé.  Here they do all the right things as the grapes are sustainably farmed, harvested by hand in the early morning, and pressed whole cluster in a cool cellar to extract the lightest color possible.

The 2017 pinks in general show a bit rounder demeanor up front and a bit more weight, yet still deliver the classic rosé experience.  Besides that the wine is nicely packaged and well priced.  Again, this one checks all the boxes.  Jeb Dunnuck had some praise for this juicy pink, “Light pink in color, the 2017 Côtes de Provence Rosé from Le Paradou is a juicy, yet textured, lively rosé that does everything right. Offering lots of white cherry, strawberry, and floral notes, with an almost salty minerality, this beauty hits the palate with medium-bodied richness, nicely integrated acidity, and a clean, dry finish. This is what Provençal rosé is all about and it’s worth a case purchase….90 points.”

 CHATEAU DE SEGRIES TAVEL ROSE 2017–  Here’s one of those classic Tavels that still thinks it is red wine.  The color is a deep orange/pink and there is considerably more mid-palate weight than most of the rosés out there.  Yet at the same time it still has the required lift to function beautifully in its capacity as a rosé.

Segries has provided us with a number of tasty selections over the years in both the red and pink variety, and it is one of the sources that still provides ‘old school’ value.  It’s added muscle allows it to play with a bit more substantial fare like grilled pork, smoked chicken, sausages, or even meats and provide a more refreshing alternative when the weather is warm.

This is a mix of 50% Grenache, 30% Cinsault, 10% Clairette, and 10% Syrah from 60-year-old vines planted in soils composed of pure silica, sand, clay, pebbles and, of course, stones.  This is a saignée which means it was light pressings from grapes that were ultimately destined to be red wines.  Everything is done by hand, the grapes were destemmed, and the fermentation takes place at low temperatures to preserve the fruit component.

The nose has an almost red wine element to it as well as notes of ripe melon, red berry and blood orange.  All of that plays on the palate along with subtle notes of mineral and pepper.  Like we said, this is a more mouth-filling and weightier version of rose than the rank and file, but it still has the freshness to pull it off.  It is one of the more impressive and distinctive efforts from this year’s crop of pinks.  Thus far the wine got a 92 from Wine Enthusiast with comments, “Beautiful ripe cherry and red berry aromas with floral scents. Good concentration on the palate, flavorful and perfectly balanced. Good acidity and mineral backbone make it a great match with Provençal or Asian cuisine, grilled meat, fresh fruit salads.”  We expect there will be more.

CHATEAU PRADEAUX BANDOL ROSE 2017- Every year as we taste through countless pink wines we find a reasonable number of engaging examples and one or two that play on a level all their own.  Most long time Francophiles will tell you that Provence is a fine source for rose, but that Bandol has ‘home run’ potential.  When a Bandol rosé hits its highest level, it is the quintessential choice.  Domaine Tempier has set the standard for years and now sits in the $40 range more or less, expensive even for Bandol.  But this one was one of the standouts we have tasted this year, and arguably one of the most memorable ever for its sheer richness, style and layered complexity.

We have had a positive, if somewhat inconsistent relationship with Chateau Pradeaux dating back into the 1990s.  This is one of the few times we have had their rosé, but we dare say that it is the most complete, impressive, engaging examples of this category we can recall.  This is classic Bandol rosé in both the most traditional and best possible way.  The current family took the helm around the time of the French revolution, and the near-the-coast location clearly has a profound effect on the wine’s personality.

The blend here is 50% Cinsault and 50% Mourvedre, with the latter imparting the wine’s distinctive undercurrent of that unique musky minerality that seems to be proprietary to how that varietal performs in this terroir.  In more rustic versions it can be overwhelming, but here it is another instrument in a virtual symphony of flavors.  The effusive nose speaks of red berries, blood oranges and that earthy/mineral thing that is so indicative of the region.  In the mouth it shows layers of flavor including, strawberry, orange and spice.  The tension is nearly perfect and there’s enough outgoing fleshiness to easily make friends who aren’t necessarily even fans of Bandol.

The bottom line is that the Chateau Pradeaux Bandol Rose 2017 is an enlightened version of a traditional style and operates in this vintage a level or two above most everything else we have tasted this year.  Rosé doesn’t get much better at any price and, at $25, the intensity and complexity in this wine over delivers.  If you can find a more compelling pink drink, good on’ya.

DOMINIO DEL AGUILA PICARO CLARETE ROSE 2014- Now for something completely different.  First it is important to point out that this is the current release, not some ‘old rosé’ we found in the back room.  Some rosés are built to develop in the bottle.  The Alphonse Mellot we sold last year is still developing and the Tiburon-based wine from Clos Cibonne is kept in bottle a year before release, just to name a couple.  So we are already in rarified air with this element in general, and that is further compounded by the completely unique approach of Dominio del Aguila Picaro Clarete Rose 2014.

Firm, melon, citrus, and berry fruit laced with a kind of chalky minerality and surprising verve for a pink wine at this age, this lets it be known right away that it is not your rank and file pink.  A rather unusual blend of Tempranillo, Albillo (a  white grape unique to the Ribera del Duero), Garnacha, and Bobal (neither of which are usually associated with the Ribera), this unique mix of red and white grapes is sourced from 60-year-old vines sitting at nearly 3000 ft. elevation.  It spends 16 months in a combination of French and American oak, another indication it isn’t necessarily made to be quaffed in its youth.

Wine Advocate’s Louis Gutierrez was quite taken with this wine, and the estate in general.  His comments, “The 2014 Pícaro Clarete… is more in the style of a white wine than a red. There are white flowers, aromatic herbs, fine spices and a touch of petrol? The palate is extraordinary, incredibly fresh and complex, with good weight and very good acidity. This has to be the finest vintage to date. The 2012 is drinking superbly today and it’s still young, so I don’t see why this 2014 should not age the same or even better, as I see more freshness and balance here...93 points.”