Take the trek to SF next Saturday for the Zinfandel Experience Public Grand Tasting! The event will be all day, 11am to 4:30pm at Pier 27. Join me and my pal Nerd Stalker to taste some amazing wines. Get TICKETS while you can. . .
I will miss the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition Public Tasting this year, but instead I get to share my thoughts about the exciting results from a wine judge’s perspective ahead of time on KGO! Catch me tonight, February 16th, from 8:45 to 9pm with Pat Thurston.
The SFWC Public Tasting will be Saturday, February 18th at Festival Pavilion, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco from 1:30-5pm.
Get your tickets HERE!
This week I attended the debut of Sammy Hagar’s new lounge The Passage Bar, next to his El Paseo restaurant in downtown Mill Valley.
Cocktails were on the menu where I was able to try the Santorita, Sammy’s new favorite made with his own Santo Mezquila. Here is a short video of us and the preparation.
The first drink Sammy ever made was the Waborita, which featured his Cabo Wabo Tequila and originally developed at the old Avalon Bar in Mill Valley.
|While it’s true that millions of bottles of bubbly from the famous Champagne region of France are popped, sabered and consumed to celebrate New Year, truth is that the flavors of these sparkling gems can easily be celebrated all year long! However, it helps to have a perspective of what to expect, especially when it comes to the higher-priced Champagnes.
With these points in mind, the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series invited a group of talented sparkling winemakers, sommeliers, and other wine professionals to taste through some high-end Champagnes and one special selection from Northern California we slipped in for fun! The price of the Champagnes and sparkling gems featured in this blind tasting range from $99 to $199 per bottle.
The special guests participating on the panel included winemakers Steve Urberg of Gloria Ferrer Wine Caves, James Hall of Patz & Hall Winery and Mike Cox of Schug Winery; sommeliers, wine buyers and wine consultants Michele Fano (Cole’s Chop House), Tammi Herron (Court of Master Sommeliers/GuildSomm) and myself (SawyerSomm.com); and wine pros Anne Moses (Patz & Hall), Jennifer Brown (Wilson Daniels), my colleague Keith Casale (3 Badges), and our gracious host Don Sebastiani.
All the wines were tasted blind and ranked on a 1-6 scale. #1 being the highest ranked of the bunch, #6 being the lowest. The five imports from Champagne were purchased from K & L Wine Merchants in San Francisco, www.klwines.com; while the ringer, a high-end domestic sparkling wine from the North Coast appellation, was provided by Jennifer and the good people at Wilson Daniels in St. Helena, www.wilsondaniels.com.
Here are summaries, rankings and notes for each wine in the order we tasted them blind
Bollinger 2005 La Grande Année Brut, Champagne, France
Group Ranking: #4 of 6 / Price: $109
Details: Established in 1829, Bollinger was formed from the de Villermont family’s holdings in the charming village of Ay near Rheims in Champagne. After Jacques Bollinger married the de Villermont daughter Louise Charlotte, he became an official French citizen in 1837. Then, after the house started to ship low dosage Champagne to Britain in 1865, Bollinger became the Official Purveyor of Champagne to Queen Victoria in 1884. As the official Champagne of the Parliament, the special sparklers from the brand are preferred by James Bond as well.
The 2005 vintage was complicated by a rather hot summer and rain in the early part September which resulted in some botrytis. Thus, the fruit for this vintage was picked between September 15-27. The Pinot Noir portion of the blend (70%) is from around the winery in Ay and the winery’s holdings in Verzenay and the Chardonnay (30%) is from Avize, Chouilly and Le Mesnil.
Panel descriptors: Warm toasty nose with aromatic notes of fresh framboise, stone fruits, dried flowers, honey, vanilla, roasted hazelnuts, mineral, a slight mustiness, and fino sherry tones. On the palate, hip descriptors included wild berry compote, baked peach, apple pie filling, crème brulée, gingerbread, candied fruit, kaffir lime, dried mango, orange peel, flint, and exotic spices.
Group discussion: From the sommelier’s angle, Herron enjoyed the wine’s medium to medium-plus concentration, round and creamy texture, and balanced acidity. While Sebastiani was more intrigued by the musty character of the wine and liked the long, crisp finish.
Other panelists were disappointed by its lack of effervescence and mousse. Hall, Cox and Casale felt that the wine was oxidative and a little reductive. For those reasons, Hall compared the oxidation to an older “English Style” wine with notes of almonds, toast, honey, and wet towel. And although he felt the wine was resolved, round, smooth and layered; he also felt it was tasting a little too old and oxidized for his taste.
On the flipside, Fano was quick to point out that the oxidation wasn’t offensive to her. Instead, as this wine started to warm up, she felt she got to taste what this wine is all about. Urberg concurred. “When I stuck my nose in the glass, the first thing I got was pickle juice. But that’s not an uncommon character for some of the styles of Champagne,” he said. “From there, it took me a while to get to the pleasant black fruit characteristics that opened up with more air. But along the way, it became quite clear that the flavor profile was really driven by the toasty characteristics that went almost all the way to smoky. In my opinion it doesn’t taste too old, but exactly the way they producer wants it to taste.”
In the end, the panel agreed that this was a wine for people with a much more developed palate instead of those who simply buy a bottle of Veuve-Cliquot Yellow Label on a sale rack for the holidays.
Dom Perignon 2006 Vintage Brut, Champagne, France
Group Ranking: #3 of 6 / Price: $169
Details: In 1668 Dom Pierre Perignon became the official treasurer/cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers, where he would spend the next 47 years developing practical techniques of farming red and white grapes, making still wines, and through a variety of trials and tribulations created the secondary fermentation process which would eventually become a foundation for the methode champenoise process that is now used to make popular styles of Champagne and sparkling wines around the world. This classic vintage brut from Dom Perignon is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Panel descriptors: As a rule, Dom Perignon is relatively reduced and tight when it’s first poured. The 2006 vintage is no exception. For that reason, the aromas were rather funky at first with hints of raw yeast, unbaked sourdough bread, candied fruit, petrol and smoke. But as it opened up, the more attractive sniffs of fresh picked flowers, anise, roasted coffee and sea foam started to emerge. On the palate, the flavors were complex and engaging with dazzling flavors of green apple, yellow pear, smoked nectarine, citrus, candied fruits, dark chocolate, and toasted nuts. Silky smooth, weighty and complex, the flavors are further enhanced with roasty, toasty and smoky notes; tangy acidity; and slight briny taste leading to a long elegant finish.
Group discussion: At first, I thought the wine was a little skunky on the nose, but enjoyed it so much more as the concentrated flavors of ripe fruits, wild mushrooms, lemon meringue, sea smoke, and briny character began to emerge. Cox agreed. He too thought the wine was a bit too much at the beginning, but liked the way it opened up. “On the first few sniffs, it was yeasty, smoky and wild,” he said. “In the end, what saved it was the mouthfeel.”
A devoted Champagne lover and producer of a limited release of sparkling wine under the Patz & Hall label, Hall thought it was Dom Perignon from the beginning. “For the first couple smells, it’s always has that smell of burnt rubber,” he said. “But as it opens, it was cool how the classic reductive character changed to more complex flavors lifted by a relatively high level of dosage. As a contrast, while Moses enjoyed the smoky, lessy and floral accents at the beginning, she felt the smoke killed the purity of the wine.
Louis Roederer 2009 Cristal Brut Millesime, Champagne, France
Group Ranking: #1 of 6 / Price: $199
Details: Since the house of Louis Roederer began crafting the first vintage of Cristal for Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1876, this elite Champagne has been made exclusively with estate fruit from old vines grown on limestone soils. For that reason, this famous wine has always been known for conveying a true sense place. Made with 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, the 2009 Cristal is no exception. Panel descriptors: From the very first sniffs and sips, this wine was fresh, fruity, young and eager to please. Invigorating aromas of honeysuckle, apple, quince, lemon peel, honey and wet stone. On the palate, the dynamic flavors of ripe raspberry, plum, yellow apple, apricot and grapefruit are combined with charming nuances of fresh ginger, marzipan, and roasted hazelnuts. In comparison to the more full-bodied offerings at the table, the wine is relatively lean and delicate but holds its own with layers of complex flavors, fine mousse, and a smooth texture leading to an extended tart, tangy and dry finish. Elegance in motion from start to finish.
Group discussion: The panel was impressed by the way this wine opened up. For starters, it was more fruit-driven than many of the other wines on the table. Steven loved the nose and the balance of the wine. “To me, it suggests that it is higher in acidic to start with or simply has a lower dosage,” he said.
For Moses and I, what set this wine apart was the structure, balance, and the unique burst of natural minerality towards the end. On top of that, we loved the acid-driven flavors and subtle nuances of red fruits, crisp apple, Meyer lemon peel, ginger, almond paste, and elegant toasty notes on the tart and cleansing finish. Michelle also enjoyed the Chardonnay-based flavors enhanced with supple notes of lime zest, chalk, toasted brioche, smoke, and the sour tart note leading to the long cleansing finish. Youthful, very pronounced, dry and dazzling on all levels. Drink now or age for 20 years.
Billecart-Salmon 1999 “Cuvée Nicolas Francois Billecart” Brut, Champagne, France
Group Ranking: #2 of 6 / Price: $99
Details: Although Billecart-Salmon is best known for producing one of the world’s finest versions of Brut Rosé, they also accel at crafting more dynamic, refined and ageworthy cuvée styles of brut. This latest offering from the 1999 vintage is 60% Pinot Noir from montage de Reims and 40% Chardonnay from the Cote des Blancs. Panel descriptors: Lovely floral-citrus aromas with inviting notes ripe peach, fresh lychee, honey, forest, and flan custard characteristics. Bright, clean and crisp Pinot Noir flavors of wild strawberry, plum, blueberry, red apple skin, ruby grapefruit and spice; coupled with classic Chardonnay notes of stone fruits, poached pear, dried apricot, Hand of Buddha and honey; and creamy texture with fine-grained mousse and active layers of tiny bubbles. Rich, round, stimulating and rewarding.
Group discussion: Although this was the oldest and most inexpensive wine on the table ($99), the elegant, complex and refined traits of this wine made it one of the panel’s favorite picks in this blind tasting.
Despite the slight oxidation from the age of the wine, the group loved the way the flavors popped open up in the glass. For example, I was fascinated by the way the ripe red fruits were lifted by the racy acidity and texture. Cox agreed, and noted that the fruit tannins caused by the Pinot Noir added a new layer of power and sophistication that separated this wine from the others samples we tasted. Sebastiani also liked the delicate toast, pleasant flavors and creamy mouthfeel. And we all agreed that the crisp, clean, tart and expressive flavors made it a contender to pair with a complex surf and turf dish served on New Year’s Eve.
Schramsberg 2007 Reserve Brut, North Coast, California
Group Ranking: #5 of 6 / Price: $119
Details: As the secret brown-bag special for this round, Jennifer Brown of Wilson Daniels was nice enough to supply this lovely gem from St.Helena-based Schramsberg Vineyards. The complex blend for the 2007 vintage features 76% Pinot Noir which comes from specialty vineyards that includes Staltonstall (Petaluma Gap/Sonoma Coast), Stevens (Marin County) and Juster (Mendocino). Whereas, most of the 24% Chardonnay comes from the Carneros District of Napa Valley. The finished wine is produced in the historic caves at Schramsberg on Diamond Mountain. Panel descriptors: With a more pronounced style that suggests new world, the wine starts with perfumed aromas of mixed fruits, raw honey, fig, Meyer lemon, orange peel, vanilla, lanolin and toasty brioche. On the palate, bright flavors of fresh berry compote, peach, exotic melon, tangerine and roasted nuts are further enhanced with hints of toffee, caramel and crystalized ginger.
Group discussion: Although Casale thought it started off tasting oxidated, smoky and leesy; he loved the full-bodied flavors of the wine as it opened up. Whereas, Brown was fascinated by the classic brut nose and the flavors of red berries, lemon chiffon, the tart “Sour Patch Kids” burst and stony notes that lead to a lingering dry finish.
Favo and Moses liked the mixture of ripe fruit flavors mixed with notes of orange peel, Grand Marnier, smoky notes and the touch of sweetness on the finish. “It was very showy,” said Moses. “I liked how the fruit character came across in so many different ways as the wine opened up in the glass.” And I enjoyed the balance of the wine, the way it filled the entire mouth and the subtle hint of white truffle as the wine opened up.
The winemakers enjoyed the wine too. For example, Urberg immediately detected the more mature character of this 2007 vintage, as well as the concentrated flavors, moderate acidity and soft texture. James was fascinated by the balance of the acid and the brilliant level of dosage. For that reason, he thought it was the freshest wine of the day. “Order another bottle and let’s go!”
Krug NV Grand Cuvée Brut, Champagne, France
Group Ranking: #6 of 6 / Price: $149
Details: One of the classic brands of Rheims, this winery was founded by German-born winemaker Johann Joseph Krug in 1843. Unlike the other Champagne producers featured in our tasting, which tend to put more emphasis on crafting vintage wines; Krug is much better known prestige cuvees, including their flagship Grand Cuvée, and using barrel fermentation of a percentage of the base wines to create complex flavors with subtle nuances of oak. Panel descriptors: Fragrant aromas of dried flowers, lemon oil, mustard seed, pastry, hay, fennel, yeast, and a hint of smoke. Bright acidity opens up the palate to flavors of pear, green apple, wild berry, bergamot, and toasted almonds. Full-bodied with big tannic structure, rich texture, creamy mousse, a lively mineral burst at the midpalate, and warm and toasty accents leading to a long finish.
Group discussion: Straight forward and pleasant, but nothing too jumps out like the y did in the other samples we tasted. And while the flavors were tart and crisp, the texture was rather one-dimensional. On the more extreme end, Casale didn’t like this wine and compared the profile to the classic Rombauer Chardonnay style with notes of vanilla and buttered popcorn. As a group, we agreed that the wine would be best if served with food.
Gosset NV Grand Blanc de Blancs, Champagne, France
Not Ranked / Price: $100
Details: To prepare our palates for this special tasting of high-end Bruts, we also sampled a special offering of the Grand Blanc de Blancs from Gosset, the first wine house in the Champagne region, founded by Pierre Gosset near Ay in 1584. The winery has gone on to be family-owned for 17 generations. And the recent release is made with 100% Chardonnay grapes grown in Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards in Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Villers-Marmery and Trépail.
Panel descriptors: Lofty aromas of fresh citrus blossom, green tea, ginger ale and fresh squeezed lemon. Anchored around moderate weight and a silky mouthfeel, the palate is lifted with fresh notes of crisp apple, kiwi, grapefruit, chalk, mineral and subtle spices. All this is helped along with a nice balanced attack of vibrant acidity, creamy texture, and a generous finish. Group discussion: Overall, the panel liked the acid-driven flavors, particularly the crisp apple and tart lemon notes. And all agreed that the warmer it got, the rounder it became. In the end, this process really helped the complex flavors shine. Brown also liked the clean flavors and how the wines was still light on its feet instead of being cloying. For sommelier pairings, I suggested fresh oysters and crab cakes; while Favo favored a creamy Emmental or Petite Basque cheese. However, she was also quick to point out that the bitter flavors of the wine made her shy away from suggesting goat cheese.
In the end, the panel was impressed when they found out the #1 and #2 ranked wines, the Louis Roederer Cristal and Billecart-Salmon, were the highest and lowest priced wines in the tasting. It was also nice to see that each wine had its own merits and what really set them apart from one another was a difference in style.
While it’s true that everyone has their own personal preference for how they like their Champagne served, here are some helpful hints to consider:
While ice cold temperatures can hide flaws in wines, the judges prefer to have their elite Champagnes served between 49-54 degrees (9-12 Celsius). This slightly warmer temperature gives more room for the flavors to expand as the temperature rises in the glass.
To open up the aromas, many of the judges like to drink high-end Champagne and classy sparkling wines in more elegant styles of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc-shaped glasses with wider rims instead of flutes, which generally are more closed at the top and harder to sniff.
As a cool trick, Hall says he likes to have only half the regular amount poured in his glass. That way he can have more control over the temperature and the exposure of more oxidative wines.
Here are some more sommelier food pairings ideas:
For the leaner or medium-bodied styles of high-end Champagnes, great options include raw oysters on the half shell, sushi, crab, prawns, goat cheese, caviar, dainty salads, delicate soups, grilled fish, chicken, pork stew.
For Chardonnay-based medium to full-bodied styles; medium cheeses, roasted chestnuts, creamy soups, pasta with white sauce, seafood medley, pan-seared scallops, lobster, halibut, roasted chicken with fresh herbs, slow roasted pork.
For Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier-based bruts; oysters with red onion mignonette, medium bodied cheeses with nuts and dried berries, tangy soups, tuna tartare, spicy sushi, crab cioppino, salmon, trout, artichokes, roasted vegetables, eggplant parmesan, spicy sausage, gamey meats, duck breast, pomegranate chicken, grilled pork chops, lamb sliders, beef stroganoff, prime rib.
For richer, more complex styles of bruts; full-bodied cheeses, mussels, crab cakes with tangy aioli, charcuterie, heavier soups and stews, richer fish dishes with beurre blanc sauces, pasta with truffles, extravagant Indian and Asian cuisine, pork roast, beef bourguignon, juicy steaks, rack of lamb.
Finally, as a little extra insight on high-end Champagne, sommelier Michele Fano says its’s always important to remember that every guest (or, in our case, wine judges) have slightly different palates. For that reason, she compared our blind tasting to ordering ice cream for dessert. “Do you like vanilla? Butter pecan? Chocolate? Or rainbow swirl? The ones you don’t choose aren’t bad. But instead it’s a matter of taste. For that reason, just as ice cream is always fabulous, so is fine Champagne—especially when it’s served to friends, family, and paired with delicious dishes that make your encounter that much more special,” said Fano, with a smile. I couldn’t agree more!
Happy New Year to all the fans of Champagne, SawyerSomm.com and the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series. Look forward to providing you with more fun wine programs in 2017! -CS
Located in the northwest corner of Spain, for centuries the Galicia region has been known for its abundance of fresh seafood, gorgeous beaches, plush landscape, and the visual tapestry created by its classic combination of Gothic and Baroque architecture. But more recently, this magnificent maritime province has started gaining more recognition for another one of its treasures: Albariño, one of the worlds most distinctive and delicious white wine grape varieties.
Known for its thick skin, green hue and relatively high juice level, the Albariño grape is primarily grown in granite and sandy loam soils in the Rias Baixas region, located between the famous monastic city of Santiago de Compostela to the north and the Portuguese border to the south. Due to its close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, rivers and estuaries (rias in Spanish), the climate is typically mild and often quite damp.
To compensate for these wet conditions and the natural vigor of the Albariño vines, most of the vineyards are trained with a traditional parra system, a seven-foot high canopy hoisted by granite posts quarried locally. This arbor-like arrangement is similar to the pergola system in Italy, which helps vineyard owners circulate air to avoid mildew and spread the leaves in order to capture as much sunlight as possible.
Currently, there are five sub zones of within the Rias Baixas denominacion de origen region established in 1988: Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea, O Rosal, Soutomaior, and Riberia do Ulla. Within these boundaries, more than 6,500 farmers have planted over 20,000 individual plots—some as small as only a half an acre.
During harvest in September, each producer is focused on creating their won signature style which showcases a balanced amount of ripe fruit flavors, bracing acidity, texture, and freshness on the finish. Thanks to the integration of new technology in the region over the past two decades, the process has been made much easier and the quality has steadily increased. As a result, the number of fine producers in the region tripled from 60 in 1990 to 192 in 2005.
However, it wasn’t until the past decade that the wines from Galicia became widely available in the New World—particularly in the United States, which has quickly become the region’s largest export market. So much like the great Spanish reds from Rioja, Priorat and Riberia del Duero have gained recognition in the international wine market, the same is true in the white wine category as delectable Albariños from Rias Baixas are now giving the fine Rieslings from Germany or Gruner Veltliners from Australia a run for the money with sommelier and consumers across the America.
Exploring the Rias Baixas Style
With these thoughts in mind, the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series invited a group of talented winemakers from Sonoma County and Napa Valley to a special blind tasting focused on a set of the higher-end offerings from the Rias Baixas ranging from $19.99 to $44.99.
The special guests participating on the panel included: winemakers Michael Havens (Cave Dog Wine), Michael Scorsone (Emmitt Scorsone Wines) and Alex Beloz (Tricycle Wine Co); sommeliers, wine buyers and wine consultants Darvarti Ananda (Basalt Restaurant), Brandon McEntire (Morimoto Napa), Sydney Paris (Massale Vintures), Bob Orlandi (Aabalat Fine and Rare Wines) and Mike Short (formerly of Sonoma & Glen Ellen Markets); our gracious host Don Sebastiani, my colleague Keith Casale, and myself.
All the wines were tasted blind and ranked on a 1-6 scale. #1 being the highest ranked of the bunch, #6 being the lowest. The five imports from Rias Baixas were purchased from K & L Wine Merchants in San Francisco, www.klwines.com; while the ringer, a domestic Albarino from the Napa District of Carneros, was provided by Michael Havens, who now makes a similar style under his new label www.cavedogwine.com in Napa.
Clockwise (L to R) To prime our palates before the blind tasting, we sampled a special offering of Albarin from Cangas in the Asturias region of Spain, which is known for its cheeses and cider; Classic #SawyerSelfieDeluxe with fellow Albarino tasters (l to r): Keith Casale, Michael Havens, Sydney Paris, Bob Orlandi, Darvarti Ananda, Mike Short, and me; Seafood extravaganza! At lunch, fabulous Albarino pairings prepared by Sonoma-based Chef Jason Meyer; The magnificent of selection of ultra-premium Albarino wines tasted from premiere producers Adegas Valtra, Pazo de Senoras, Do Ferreiro, Palacio de Fefinanes and Forjas de Salnes from the Rias Baixas region of Spain and a library selection of Abrente from the Carneros District of Napa Valley.
Here are the summaries and rankings of the wines we tasted blind:
Adegas Valtra 2013 Finca Garbato Albarino, Rias Baixas
Details: On the banks of the Mino River across from Portugal; Adegas Valtra is a cutting-edge winery that specializes in farming and working with special strains of Albarino. The oldest strain on the farm is in the Finca Garbato block, which has its own unique microclimate.
Panel descriptors: Slightly green hue with bright and expressive aromas of white spring flowers, tutti fruiti, fresh citrus, mustard seeds and wet stone. Lively flavors of fresh melon, mango, lemon pith, candied pineapple, and hints of raw almonds, dill and white vinegar lead to a long waxy finish. 13%
Group discussion: Overall, the team liked this wine quite a bit, particularly the alluring aromas, fresh fruity flavors, oily texture and vibrant acidity. However, Bob thought the finish was slightly short and not much on the front of the palate. Sydney also thought the wine was slightly astringent. For that reason, he suggested it would be a good pairing with creme fraiche. Keith agreed and made note of the slight hint of residual sugar and petrol he picked up on the mid-palate. The group agreed that it had enough weight to be paired with a fatty fish dish. Group Ranking: #2 of 6 (tied) / Price: $19.99
Pazo de Senorans 2014 Albarino, Rias Baixas
Details: Near the town of Meis in the historic Val do Salnés subzone of Rias Baixas, Pazo de Senorans winery is highlighted by an organically farmed estate vineyard that includes the traditional pergola-style trellis system and granite posts. Many of the grapes they work with are from some of the older vines. As a result, the winery has become one of the most respected Albarino producers in the world.
Panel descriptors: Waxy aromas with notes of ripe stone fruits, anise, wild herbs, smoke, and a drizzle of honey. On the palate, the wine is lean and gritty. Crisp flavors of white peach, pear, lemon, lime, granite, pine, and a delicate finish. 12.5%
Group discussion: For starters, there was a lot going on in this wine. McEntire, for instance, was intrigued by the slight funk factor in the aromas that included decomposing flowers and overripe pineapple and followed through with the slightly tropical notes in the flavor profile. Short felt the nose was faint, he really enjoyed the slightly creamy texture, tart flavors, and crisp finish. While Havens also liked the wine, he detected a high level of SO2, a technique that can hide sweetness. The team agreed that the lean character and burst of bright acidity would make this wine very appealing to people who like the more complex styles of Chablis and Pinot Grigio. Group Ranking: #2 of 6 (tied) / Price: $19.99
Do Ferreiro 2014 Albarino, Rias Baixas
Details: Founded in 1973, Do Ferreiro is one of the older wineries in the Salnés Valley. Along with 10 hectares of organically grown grapes on the estate property, proprietor Gerardo Mendez farms 130 plots in the valley. For the 2014 vintage, the 15-50 year old vines used in this blend are grown on a mixture of sand and granite-based soils. Beyond Albarino, the other specialty of the Do Ferreiro brand is Oruja, a traditional style of brand made with grape pomace. In Spanish, the traditional term aquardiente de oruja means “pomace firewater.”
Panel descriptors: Lovely light emerald hue. Lofty floral aromas of fresh citrus, green apple jolly rancher, fresh herbs, peppercorn, and sea foam. Pronounced flavors of crisp apple, green fig, lime, lemon zest, and fresh pineapple. Full-bodied with round mouthfeel, bright acidity, creamy texture, and touch of sweetness on the finish. 12.5%.
Group discussion: The panel thought this wine was young, generous and sophisticated. Sebastiani liked the floral aromas and racy acidity. Sydney noted the way the flavors integrated with the tension generated by acid and skin contact. Casale thought it was solid, well-balanced, and liked the way it opened up in the glass. The only downside was that it was young and tasted much more complex when we enjoyed the open bottles with lunch. As a group, we agreed it would be fun to taste this wine after a few more years in bottle. Group Ranking: #4 of 6 / Price: $25.99
1583 by Palacio de Fefinanes 2014 Albarino, Rias Baixas
Details: Within the stone walls of a fortress in the coastal resort town of Cambodos, Palacio de Fefinanes was established in 1904. According to proprietor Count Juan Gil Gonzalez de Careaga, who began the commercial venture at the winery in 1985, the key to the Fefinanes brand is purity. To make this happen, the winery procures Albariño grapes from over 50 separate old vine growers. Today, the top fruit is used to make 1583, a very elite high-end offering named after the birth year of the Viscount of Fefinanes, who built the historic Fefinanes castle in 1647. The first vintage of this wine was produced in 1995.
Panel descriptors: Big, weighty, wild, and complex. Deep aromas of butterscotch, fresh citrus, ripe melon, lemon verbena, mint, and mineral. Vibrant fruit flavors of ripe peach, honeydew, cantaloupe, kaffir lime, almonds, and zippy acidity. Silky texture, rich mouthfeel, and lingering notes of roasted nuts, sea salt and enchanting savory notes lead to a long, elegant finish. 12.5%
Group discussion: Beyond the lovely aromas, Scorsone loved the peach and citrus overlay of the flavor profile, as well as the overall balance of the wine. Davarti and Sebastiani both thought it was a great food wine. And McIntire said he’d love to match the complex flavors of the wine with spicy Indian or Vietnamese-style cuisine. Overall, the mastery of this wine is based on how the naturally sweet flavors combined with the high level of crisp acidity and oak aging create a rich and smooth texture. A magnificent wine to drink now or cellar for 5-10 years. Group Ranking: #1 of 6 / Price: $39.99
Forjas de Salnes 2013 “Leirana” Albarino, Finca Genovera Vineyard, Rias Baixas
Details: Of the five subzones of Rias Biaxas, the Salnes Valley is the oldest, largest, and most affected by the cool, wet and damp conditions caused by its close proximity to the ocean. As a result, the wines tend to be soft, round, and often quite salty. Forjas de Salnes is a boutique family-owned winery known for this style. At the high end of their portfolio, the fruit for the Leirana Albarino comes from stately old vines at the Finca Genovera Vineyard, owned by a 90-year old woman and a portion of the vines are 150-200 years old. History in ever sip!
Panel descriptors: Full-body with a pale yellow hue. This expressive wine features sexy aromas of spring flowers, pie crust, stone fruit, citrus, honeycomb, mineral, and sea smoke. On the palate, the flavors are layered with ripe apple, Asian pear, quince, grapefruit pith, nougat, cinnamon, and a harmony of sweet, sour and salty notes on the finish. 12.5%
Group discussion: While the wood influence was more pronounced than the other examples in this flight, the salty character and style of winemaking helped showcase the crisp and clean attributes of this wine. But in the end, everyone had a different view of this high-end offering. Casale and Sebastiani, for instance, used terms like “yeasty,” “earthy” and “salty” in their descriptors. Others felt it was slightly sour and bitter. And while Short liked the well-rounded mouthfeel, he felt the wine needed more acidity to support its weight, especially on the finish. Group Ranking: #5 of 6 / Price: $44.99
Abrente 2012 Albarino, Napa District, Carneros
Thanks to his travels as a young man, Napa Valley-based winemaker Michael Havens has been in love with Albarino long before wines from Rias Baixas hit the US market on a large scale. As a result, he was one of the first winemakers to start working with the grape in the new world. For that reason, he was generous enough to slip a library selection of the Abrente 2012 Albarino, which he made with fruit grown in Carneros, into our blind tasting. Today, Havens bottles his annual releases of Albarino under his Dog Wine Cave label.
Panel descriptors: This special cellar selection has a light hay color with green edges. In the glass, the aromatic notes are bursting at the seams with ripe melon, apricot, lime oil, candied pineapple, petrol, savory herbs, and stones. On the palate, vivacious flavors of ripe peach, golden delicious apple and pineapple combine with hints of yellow heirloom tomatoes, white pepper, and roasted nuts.13%.
Group discussion: After the wines were revealed at the end, Havens said the wine was made in 100% stainless steel tanks with whole clusters that went direct to press and spent three months on the lees (with skins). Despite being a year or two older than the other wines in the blind tasting, the purity of the fruit showed. As a result, the panel was impressed by the wine’s mouthwatering character, generous flavors, vibrant acidity, and the long follow-through on the finish. Overall, a very lovely fruit-forward style of Albarino from America. Group Ranking: #6 of 6 / Price: $24.99
Bodega Vidas 2013 Siete Vidas Albarino, Cangas
Details: Outside of the Rias Baixas region, Albarino is also a popular grape to grow in Cangas, where the grape variety is called Albarin. So to prime our palates, prior to tasting the grouping our team ranked, we sampled this delicious release from Bodega Vidas.
Panel descriptors: Very floral with notes of lavender honey, light mineral, butterscotch, pineapple, and vanillin. Lively flavors of slate, almond, pineapple, white peach and apple. Medium-bodied wine with layers of fruity flavors and lavish texture 12.5%.
Group discussion: Overall, the wine was very well received. Havens liked the complex nose, nice phenolics, and firm structure. The team also liked the wine’s combination of minerality and grainy texture, neutral oak, medium to high acidity, and round mouthfeel. Not ranked / Price: $27.99
On the gastronomical side, Albariños pair nicely with spices, salsas, olives, shellfish, grilled fish, white meats, classic Spanish ham and medium-bodied cheeses. They also work great served chilled as aperitifs or by themselves in the afternoon or evening during the warmer months. For more information about the Rias Baixas region, the producers, finished wines and more food pairings, visit www.riasbaixaswines.com.
Also, stay tuned for our new reports on high-end Champagne and Super Tuscan-style wines coming up in late December and early January. In the meantime, holidays cheers to our great followers and the fabulous winemakers, wine buyers, and sommeliers that have participated on the panels for the Sawyer-Casale Series in 2016. More to come in 2017!
I will be back for the second annual Petaluma Gap-Wind to Wine Festival being held at the Sheraton Petaluma, on Sunday, November 6th, from 11am to 4pm. This is your opportunity to experience what makes this region special with more than 100 Petaluma Gap wines available for tasting!
There are two VIP Seminars to choose from:
Food Friendly Wines hosted by myself. Joining me will be winemakers Ana Keller(Keller Estate), Erica Stancliff (Trombetta Family Wines), andowner/chef Peter White (Sugo Trattoria). Food provided by Chef Richard Visconte.
Cool Climate Syrah led by my friend Dan Berger, which includes David Ramey(winemaker, Ramey Wine Cellars), Pax Mahle (winemaker,Pax Mahle Wines), Duncan Meyers (winemaker, Arnot-Roberts), and Cyrus Limon (wine writer, SoloSyrah).
The Grand Tasting will take place in the Sheraton’s Grand Ballroom, with more food stations, more space to mingle, and even more wines to sample! There are a limited number of Early Bird tickets available, which entitles you to a coupon worth $20 that can be applied to a wine order at the event.
For devoted Pinot Noir fans, all roads ultimately lead to the Côte de Nuits region of Burgundy, in France. Located between the historic city of Dijon to the north and the border with the Côte de Beaune to the south, this region is the birthplace of the noble Pinot Noir grape that is now grown in regions around the world.
The history of winegrowing in the region dates back to 400 B.C. and the first formal viticultural practices were introduced to the area by the Romans in the 3rd century AD. Around the same time, the larger region was named for the Baltic tribe known as the Burgundians who came to the area to defend against the Germanic tribes moving south.
After earning a reputation for making high-quality red wines with Pinot Noir grapes indigenous to the area; the big turning point came when the physician for Louis XIV proclaimed that wines from Côte de Nuits offered health benefits to those who could get their hands on bottles from the region. Needless to say, the growing popularity of the wines from this region have made Côte de Nuits one of the most famous wine areas in the world.
In comparison to the 18 villages in the Côte de Beaune winegrowing region to the south; there are only 9 villages in Côte de Nuits. But on the flipside, the 24 Grand Crus in the smaller sub-appellations inside its borders are triple the amount found in Côte du Beaune.
Geographically, the region is very small. Running from village to village, the long strip of vineyards running from the hills to the villages and rivers range from 1.5 miles wide to only a ¼ mile at its most narrow points. With the exception of a small batch of white grapes grown in the hamlet of Musigny and a few other tiny sites; Pinot Noir is the exclusive grape of the entire region.
Each site has its own variation of soils. With that in mind, the best grapes are grown on slopes ranging from 800 to 1,000 feet, where the highest concentration of Marl (a combination of clay and limestone with smaller portions of sand and gravel) can be found. For this reason, the term terroir was ultimately defined by the vineyards of Cote de Nuits, especially at the famous grand cru sites that include: Romanée-Conti, La Tache, Richebourg, La Romanée, Romanée-St. Vivant and La Grand Rue around the village of Vosne-Romanée; Echézeaux and Grand Echézeaux around the hamlet of Flagey- Echézeaux; and the small monopole of Clos de Vougeot.
Granted, the limited releases from the grand cru sites of Côte de Nuits are often among the most expensive wines of the world. With these thoughts in mind, the latest study of the Sawyer-Casale series was focused premiers cru wines from the small AOCs of Chambolle-Musigny, Gevrey-Chambertin and Morey-St-Denis that make up the cooler northern section of the region.
Each of these small winegrowing areas have their own special strengths. Chambolle-Musigny, for example, is home to 24 premiers crus vineyards and a mixture of soils that create wines known for their floral aromas, concentrated flavors, a subtle layers of spice. Down the road, Gevrey-Chambertin is home to 26 Premiers Crus and 9 Grand Crus, the most of any village in Burgundy. In general, the wines from the region are elegant with plenty of depth and complex flavors. And although it is smaller and overlapped by the Bonnes-Mares region, Morey-St-Denis is home to 20 premiers cru and 4 grand crus. In general, the profiles of wines from this region tend to be more graceful and feminine with more emphasis on texture, acidity, and flavors of red fruits, forest, and earth. In general, high-quality wines from these three regions run from $65-$150, which makes them ideal for sommeliers, retailers and consumers looking to build a collection of ultra-premium wines from Côte de Nuits that give them more bang for the buck.
Tasting is Believing
To investigate these profiles in more detail, the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series invited a group of talented winemakers from Sonoma County and Napa Valley to a special tasting focused on the 2010, 2012 and 2013 vintages from the revered regions of Gervey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny and Morey-St-Denis, as well as a hidden gem from Oregon’s Willamette Valley provided by our host Don Sebastiani of Sonoma. All wines from Cote de Nuits were provided by our good friends at Aabalat Fine and Rare Wines in Petaluma, www.aabalat.com.
The special guest participating on the panel included winemakers Ana Moller-Racke of The Donum Estate, Steve MacRostie of MacRostie Winery, TJ Evans of Domaine Carneros, Kurt Beitler of Boheme Wines, Sean Foster of Starmont Wines, David Jelinek of The Prisoner Wine Co., Mike Cox of Schug Winery, David Marchesi of Madrone Vineyards Estate, Michael Scorsone of Emmitt Scorsone Wines, Alex Beloz of Tricycle Wine Co, Don Sebastiani, my colleague Keith Casale and myself.
All the wines were tasted blind and ranked on a 1-7 scale. #1 being the highest ranked of the bunch, #7 being the lowest. Here are summaries and rankings of the wines organized in the order we tasted the wines blind:
Theirry Mortet 2010 Clos Prieur, Gevrey-Chambertin
Details: As children, Theirry Mortet and his brother Denis grew up farming grapes at the Charles Mortet et Fils, a small domaine owned by their father. When the brand was splint in 1991, the brothers went off to start their own wineries. Today, Thierry works with 4.5 hectars he owns, including Clos Prieur, a special block located in the Gevrey-Chambertin AOC.
Panel descriptors: Dark red hue with a hint of purple with attractive aromas of dried cherry, ripe berries, black tea, wild mushrooms, violet, leather, and crushed rock. In the glass, the entry is tart at first, but opened up during the tasting. Highlights included vibrant notes of raspberry, red plum, stewed cherry, pomegranate, delicate herbs and mineral. Overall, a well-crafted medium-bodied wine, with generous mouthfeel, chalky tannins, bright acidity, and a long, clean finish.
Group discussion: Granted, this is the oldest wine in the tasting. But with that said, the tasting team thought there was a disconnection between the nose and the palate. While much of this was due to the tart flavors which eventually blew off with more time in the glass, the other quirky part was the hard tannins which covered the true flavors of the grapes. Evans, for instance, thought the ripe fruit aromas on the nose were very engaging, but was surprised that the palate was quite sharp, young, and fairly lean. Whereas, Scorsone liked the way that the oak was nicely integrated, but questioned the use of grapeseed tannins to make the wine more powerful than it needed to be. And Cox simply though the tart flavors took away from the balance. Overall, a good wine from Gevrey-Chambertin but not a show stopper.
Group Ranking: #6 of 7 / Price: $86.95
Robert Groffier et Fils 2013 Seuvrees, Gevrey-Chambertin
Details: Robert Groffier and his son Serge have earned a reputation for making impact wines with deep flavors that are balanced with the minimal use of fine French oak to express the flavors of the site where the grapes are grown. This is one of those beauties that proves that point and then some.
Panel descriptors: Classic pale red hue. Lovely mixture of earthy and floral aromas highlighted by black and blue fruits, rose petals, pie crust, ruby grapefruit peels, anise, moist soil, and a touch of French cellar funk. On the palate, the flavors are deep and sensual with notes of blueberry, wild strawberry, fresh sage, cocoa, savory spices, and toasty oak. Overall, a very well-structured wine that dazzles the mouth with dense tannins, layers of flavors and admirable length.
Group discussion: Led by layers of earthy notes, there is no doubt this is a classic Burgundy style. With a relatively low pH and high acidity, the wine kept changing in the glass. For that reason, it was a learning experience in liquid form. This process was helped along by the fact that the tannins became more resolved as the wine opened up once it got some air in the glass. In the end the wine was intriguing, complex and generous but not sweet. At under $100/bottle, it’s a great wine to age or explore after decanting for an hour before serving.
Group Ranking: #2 of 7 / Price: $88.95
Drouhin Laroze 2013 “Les Rosette” Chambolle-Musigny
Panel descriptors: Pale ruby hue with fragrant scents of red berries, blue fruits, wet stone, wild herbs, leather and oak spice. In the mouth, the wine offers a nice textured entry with delicate flavors of ripe raspberry; plum, blueberry, sour cherry, cardamom, lavender and baking spices; a soft, velvety texture; moderate to low acidity; firm tannins; and great length at the end.
Group discussion: Another wine that smelled like a classic Pinot Noir-based wine from Burgundy. Besides the generous flavors, the team was also impressed by the great structure and balanced tannins that make it a very food-friendly wine. At under $80, its a great value too.
Group Ranking: #3 of 7 / Price: 73.95
Domaine Dujac 2012 Chambolle-Musigny
Details: Founded by Parisian Jacques Seysses in 1968, Dujac has quickly become one the most respected brands in Côte de Nuits. The fruit they get from Chambolle-Musigny is from some of the top vineyards and the finished wines are consistently delicious.
Panel descriptors: Light ruby red hue with hints of purple and strong aromas of a fresh fruit basket, sweet cherry tarts, cola, orange peel, earth, potpourri, wet stone, and spice. Firm entry with rich, ripe and savory flavors of raspberry, cranberry, rhubarb, wild mushrooms, cinnamon, mint Indian spices, and an intriguing hint of roasted green bell pepper on the end. These components were further accentuated by the supple texture, dry tannins, and medium length.
Group discussion: Although the wine was initially reduced, many of the tasters were impressed how this medium-bodied wine opened up in the glass. The group agreed that the strength of the wine was at the front of the palate. For that reason, the flavors start to fade at the mid-point of each sip but compensates for it with wet stone/mineral notes on the finish. In the end, a relatively light wine on its feet but definitely a great example from Chambolle-Musigny and a nice crowd-pleaser to serve to people with a wide range of palates.
Group Ranking: #4 of 7 / Price: $106.65
Lucien Le Moine 2013 Clos des Ormes, Morey-St-Denis
Details: Based in Beaune, Lucien Le Moine is a high profile negotiant that sources fruit from the finest regions in Burgundy. In Robert Parker’s Buyers Guide, the wines produced by the company are in the high-ranked category of “excellent.”
Panel descriptors: Enchanting crimson hue and lofty aromas of ripe brambly fruits, roasted coffee, dried herbs, smoked bacon, and heavy use of sweet oak. Bright entry with rich flavors of high tone fruits, dark cherry, blackberry, cranberry, smoked meats, soy sauce, earth, firm tannins, and a touch of bitterness on the edges.
Group discussion: There was no doubt about this being a wine about the winemaker not the vineyard. For starters, the wine was reductive, but got better as the wine opened up. But once you started getting more into the profile, the smoky oak profile overshadowed the core notes of sweet fruit and green olive. On top of that, there was a slight case of volatile acid, which did not balance with the flavor profile or how the wine works on the palate. On the brighter side, the tasting team liked the savory notes of fresh herbs and forest floor that opened up with more sips..
Group Ranking: #7 of 7 / Price: $89.95
Domaine Dujac 2013 Morey-St-Denis
Details: Started from scratch by visionary Jacques Seysses in 1968, Dujac has become one of the special young brands that has helped put the Morey-St-Denis AOC on the map to stay. Meticulous with their use of oak on their premiere crus wines, their signature style from Morey-St-Denis typically has fragrant aromas and lifted fruit flavors that result in wines that get much better with more time in the cellar.
Panel descriptors: Crimson red with perfumed sniffs of fresh rose petals, red fruits, fresh herbs and spice. On the palate, delicate flavors of ripe raspberry, plum, cherry, mineral, chalky palate bright acidity, supple tannins, and great length. Luxury in a glass.
Group discussion: Extremely complex, elegant and refined. Scorsone thought it was soft, seamless, and commented that he enjoyed the wine’s “beautiful breathe of life and vitality in each sip.” Foster loves the elegant appeal of the wine and balance of flavors, mouthfeel, structure, and finish. His conclusion in two words: “seamless” and “yum!” Overall, a dazzling wine and a great example from Morey-St-Denis and the accessible gems Cote de Nuits has to offer in the US market.
Group Ranking: #1 of 7 / Price: $124.95
Domaine Drouhin 2014 Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley
Details: What’s a Sawyer-Casale Brown Bag tasting without a little something special thrown into the mix? With that in mind, our fantastic host Don Sebastiani supplied the group with a special treat of the Domaine Drouhin 2014 Pinot Noir from the Dundee Hills region in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The Drouhin family has been making fantastic wines in Burgundy since the 1880s. For that reason, the establishment of Domaine Drouhin project with 225-acres of vineyards and a cutting-edge gravity flow system on the Dundee Hills in Oregon brought immediate attention to the Willamette Valley in the 1990s. And thanks to the French-Willamette Valley connection, the attention on world-class Pinot Noir has only increased from that point onwards on the West Coast as a whole!
Panel descriptors: Dark red hue with deep aromas of red and black fruits, brown sugar, vanillin, and integrated oak. On the palate, the entry is sweet and assertive with dynamic flavors of fresh raspberry jam, ripe boysenberry and light herbs. Overall, the wine is young, smooth, balanced and coats the mouth with ripe, juicy flavors that lead to a long finish that makes you want to investigate more in the next sip.
Group discussion: From the beginning, the riper fruit was an early clue that this was a New World wine. While the panel felt the weight of the wine was fantastic, there were a few references to confectionary sweetness on the palate caused by the very ripe fruit profile. Theses factors also provided more firmness in the mid-palate but not much acidity. For those reasons, the group felt the wine was more “jammy” and “hedonistic” than the offering from the Cote de Nuits.
Group Ranking: #5 of 7 / Price: $45 (Available at www.domainedrouhin.com)
Conclusion: Overall, a terrific showing from the northern AOCs of the Côte de Nuits region of Burgundy. All the wines involved in the tasting (including Domaine Drouhin) showed why the unique characteristics of the sites where the grapes are grown determines the complexity of flavors profiles and the ageworthiness of the finished wines from these special cooler climate regions.
Next up: Exploring the unique flavors and aromas of high-profile the unique Albarino grapes grown in the Rias Baixas region of Spain. Just one of the many new reports from the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series to close out the year in style!
It is always a pleasure for me to review previous stories I have contributed to Industry Magazines over the years. Indeed, I learn a lot when writing them, but also have distinctive memories of the trips or tastings involved. Here is an article from a decade ago! Published in The Tasting Panel Magazine, which I still am working with after all this time. Enjoy this read!
The following is a summary from the first wine education event organized by myself and Keith Casale. Please enjoy!
Margaux is known for its producing wines with deep colors, concentrated flavors, firm tannins, and the ability to age in the cellar for decades; Cabernet Sauvignon has become one of the most noble grape varieties grown in many of the top wine regions around the globe.
Until twenty years ago, the origin of this grape was a mystery. That changed in 1997 when a DNA study conducted by Dr. Carole Meridith and her PhD student John Bower at University of California Davis found that the grape was the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. As it turns out, Merlot is also a progeny of Cabernet Franc. From there a true kinship between these three grape varieties became the building block of the famous red wine blends made in the Bordeaux region in southwest France.
The origins of the grape can be traced back to the late 18th century, when the first recorded vines were planted around the new chateaux being developed in the historic Medoc region located between the Gironde Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean and north of the city of Bordeaux The two patriarchs behind this movement were Baron Hector de Brane and his neighbor Armand d’Armailhacq in Paulliac. After selling Chateau Mouton in 1830, Brane went on to plant new vines at the Chateau Brane-Cantenac property located in the nearby commune of Margaux.
Over the next two decades, the success of the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown around Margaux would lead to the highest concentration of vineyards to be named as classified growths in 1855. Among the celebrated sites was Chateau Marguax, which became one of the first four vineyards to receive the prestigious first growths status in Medoc.
As a result, Cabernet Sauvignon is often the highest percentage used to make the red blends in Margaux. As a general rule, the flavor profiles commonly include a mixture of black and red berries, currants, chocolate, and French herbs. Smaller portions of Cabernet Franc and Merlot are then used to add more complex flavors, round and supple texture, and smooth the tannins. Depending on the producers, smaller amounts of Petite Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere are sometimes used to add spice, structure and color to the finished blends as well. Over time, these graceful blends have earned a reputation for being more silky and sensual than the more full-bodied style wines made in the neighboring regions of Paulliac, St-Juilen and St-Estephe to the north.
Tasting is Believing
To study these profiles in more detail, the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series recently invited a group of winemakers from Sonoma County and Napa Valley to a special tasting focused on current releases from the 2009-2012 vintages of Margaux, as well as a few older vintages provided by the host Don Sebastiani of Sonoma.
The special guest participating on the panel included winemakers Bart Hansen of Dane Cellars/Lasseter Family Wines, David Jelinek of The Prisoner Wine Co., Mike Cox of Schug Winery, Scott Covington of Trione Winery, David Marchesi of Madrone Vineyards Estate, Michael Scorsone of Emmitt Scorsone Wines, Kieran Robinson of Kieran Robinson Wines, and Alex Beloz of Tricycle Wine Co.; Wine Business Monthly editor Cyril Penn; Don Sebastiani; my colleague Keith Casale and myself.
All the wines were tasted blind and ranked on a 1-5 scale. #1 being the highest ranked of the bunch, #5 being the lowest. Here are summaries and rankings of the wines organized in the order we tasted the wines blind:
Chateau Brane-Cantenac 2009 Grand Cru Classé Margaux
Details: In 1855, the Brane-Cantenac estate vineyard became one of the special sites to receive second growth grand cru classe status. Today, the 75 acres of vineyards are divided into 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 4.5% Cabernet Franc and .5% Carmenere. These grapes are grown on a combination of sand and clay with a deep concentration of gravel. The 2009 vintage is a blend of 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Franc made exclusively with the best grapes on the property.
Panel descriptors: In the glass, the attractive color of dark brick with a hint of blue lead to vivid aromas of dark fruits, red candied fruits, tobacco, old leather, cocoa, vanilla, anise, smoked meats and sweet oak. On the palate, the flavors expand with deep notes of dark cherry, black currant, cola, soy, graphite, dark chocolate nibs, dried herbs, and more woody character towards the end. Overall, a well-crafted, medium-bodied wine with bright acidity, chalky tannins, and a long dry finish.
Group discussion: Hansen liked the way the wine opened up with time in the glass and the distinct flavors that set it apart from the rest; Jelinek liked the chewy tannins and generous finish; and both were intrigued by the Asian accents of soy and ponzu sauce that added more tertiary layers of flavor to the wine. Marchesi liked the entry and the way the wine was lean, tight and leafy. And while Cox thought the wine was a little too dry and astringent at first, he liked the way the flavors and texture became smoother with each sip.
Group Ranking: #3 of 5
Chateau Dauzac 1982 Grand Cru Classé Margaux
Details: With a rich heritage dating back to grapes planted on the property in the 12th century, Chateau Dauzac is one of the oldest estates in Margaux. After receiving its Cinquieme Grand Cru Classé status in 1855, the winery has become known for producing complex blends typically made with two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon and one-third Merlot. This cellar selection from the 1982 vintage was snuck into the mix by Don Sebastiani, who was also nice enough to share bottles of the 2000 vintage from Chateau Brane-Cantenac and Chateau Labegorce at the lunch that followed the tasting.
Panel descriptors: Light red hue with slight browning around the edge. Musty Old World aromas of dark fruits, wild mushrooms, herbs, pencil lead, celery salt, sherry, mineral, earth, cedar and a slight medicinal quality. As the wine opens up, the flavors emerge with lively notes of plum, anise, spearmint, ash and a dusty character; soft tannins; and a long engaging finish.
Group discussion: While all the panelists thought the wine was an older vintage from the very beginning, Cox liked the weight of the wine and the combination of silky tannins, floral aromas as it opened up, and the smoky notes on the finish. Personally, I thought the wine was fairly lean, but the flavors were extremely concentrated and tasty. Hansen enjoyed the varietal characteristics with bottle age and the long finish. Covington thought it was the most interesting wine of the flight and loved the way it blossomed as it opened up. In the end, the group concluded the finish will only get drier with more time in the bottle. Thus, it needs to be consumed sooner rather than later. But an amazing wine that has aged gracefully over time.
Group Ranking: #2 of 5
Details: Chateau Lascombes was another special winery that became classified as a second growth in 1855. After making it through WW II, Alexis Lichine sold the winery to a British brewer in 1971. Today the winery is once again hitting its stride after going through a lull until the mid-1980s. As a departure from the rest of the Cab-based blends in the flight, this offering from the 2010 vintage is 55% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot.
Panel descriptors: Deep and dark red hue with fragrant scents of ripe red and black fruits, bay laurel, orange peel, clove, fresh brioche and fine-grained oak. Concentrated flavors of dark cherry, ripe plum, cassis, blackberry pie, mineral, chocolate bark and layers of spice; fine-grained tannins; silky texture; long earthy finish
Group discussion: At first, Hansen thought the wine was young and closed, but felt it expressed itself much better once it got more air. As a team, we felt it was youthful, lively and rewarding. Overall, a nice example from the region with complex flavors, soft tannins, and spicy nuances.
Group Ranking: #4 of 5
Chateau Brane-Cantenac 2012 Grand Cru Classé Margaux
Details: When Baron Brane purchased the estate in 1833, the winery was called Brane-Mouton. In 1838 he changed the name to Brane-Cantenac after the small commune that surrounds the property. The 2012 vintage was made with 68% Cabernet Sauvignon and smaller portions of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The wine was aged for 18 months in 60% new French oak barrels.
Panel descriptors: Brilliant dark purple hue with seductive aromas of ripe fruits, fresh violets, toffee, black tea, vanilla, peppercorns and fine French oak. Luxurious flavors of ripe tree fruits, plum, dark cherry, blueberry, chocolate malt, espresso and cedar. Fantastic balance of silky tannins, bright acidity, firm structure, and lingering finish. A true gem that keeps getting better with more time in the glass.
Group discussion: Jelinek liked the full-body flavor of the wine and the extra character the Cabernet Franc added to the finished blend. On a similar note, Scorsone liked the elegant and refined character of the wine, the soft tannins, and how seamless it tasted from start to finish. Penn felt the flavor profile was enhanced with notes of fresh herbs, cocoa, oak, and how a refreshing burst of vibrant acidity lingered in his mouth after each sip. And Covington simply referred to the wine as the “mind’s eye of Bordeaux.” I couldn’t agree more.
Group Ranking: #1 of 5
Chateau Rauzan Ségla 2011 Grand Cru Classé Margaux
Details: The history of this winery can be traced back to 1661, when Pierre Desmezures de Rauzan purchased the Noble House of Gassies in Margaux. At the time, Rauzan was the manager of Chateau Margaux. While building his own family brand, he would later go on to work for Chateau Latour and purchase properties in Paulliac that eventually became the well-known estates of Pichon Lalande and Pichon Baron. The 2011 vintage contains 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot grapes primarily planted on gravel and a small portion of clay.
Panel descriptors: Dark red hue. Taste-tempting aromas of ripe black fruits, red berries, roasted coffee, toasted rye, baking spice, leather, earth and cigar box. Deep flavors of blackberry tarts, fresh currants, black raspberry, wild herbs, bittersweet chocolate truffle, roasted almonds, and layers of spice, earth, and oak. From that point forward, the sweet and salty characteristics of the wine is further enhanced with firm tannins, integrated oak, and a warm spicy finish.
Group discussion: This was by far the most controversial wine on the table. Marchesi liked the firm entry and the expressive flavors of ripe blackberry, black olive, earth, and dried tannins. Cox enjoyed the balance of the sweet fruit, slight astringency, woody character, and the depth of the wine. On the flipside, I felt the fruit was a little too ripe, restrained, and hidden by oak. Scorsone agreed. To him, the wine was too squeaky clean and reductive, with not enough personality and too hot on the finish. And while Robinson liked the ripe dark fruit flavors and chalky tannins, he thought the finish was short and simple. In the end, the panel concluded that the wine was more of an international style instead of focusing on capturing the unique flavors Margaux has to offer.
Group Ranking: #5 of 5
Conclusion: The group was very impressed with the lineup of the wines. The ones that stood out the most had deep flavors, balanced tannins, and structure that allow them to age naturally for more than 20 years in the bottle.
Next up: A winemaker’s focus on wines from northern section of the Cotes de Nuit of Burgundy. Stay tuned for more reports from the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series in 2016!
Take a peek at my article Underground Sips, published this June in Napa Sonoma Magazine. In it I lead you through five fabulous wine caves that you can make a part of you amazing Labor Day weekend plans in Sonoma Valley. (That is, after you endeavor the spectacular Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, where you will find moi and other select sommeliers.)