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Three Californian Wines from the 1970s

It took nearly one century for the wines of Mendocino County to become recognized for their quality. Grapes have grown in Mendocino County since at least 1880. The vineyards survived and perhaps even expanded during Prohibition as demand for home wine-making spread beyond San Francisco to the east coast. After Repeal grapes made their way to Napa and Sonoma Counties to be used in blends. It was not until the 1970s that the wines became recognized. This was first due to the efforts of Parducci and soon by those of the Fetzer family.

At our most recent dinner with Sudip and his wife Melanie, I brought up two bottles of Fetzer wine from the 1978 and 1979 vintages. We would first spend the afternoon tasting the wines in the living room where a fire burned for hours and a Mercury Living Presence reissue of Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 spun on the turntable. The 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon was produced from purchased fruit coming from Lake County. The 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon was sourced from the Home Vineyard originally planted by the Fetzer family in 1958.

It was a year prior, in 1957, that the lumberman Bernie Fetzer and his wife, moved their family of 11 children from Oregon to the sawmill region in Mendocino County some 120 miles north of San Francisco. Here the family purchased an abandoned 720 acre ranch where they found an old 70 acre vineyard. The family worked the land and in planting vines chose to include Cabernet Sauvignon, the first in the county.

As demand for varietal grapes reduced in the mid 1960s, the Fetzers began to sell grapes to amateur winemakers throughout the country. In 1968 the winery was bonded. The timing was impeccable. It is from this legendary 1968 vintage that Fetzer’s first Zinfandel earned a reputation which lasted for many years.

Nearly the entire family worked for the business. They constantly reinvested in the latest winemaking equipment, developed their own sales force, and sought expansion by purchasing fruit instead of land to develop vineyards on. They earned a reputation for producing pleasing, yet inexpensive premium wine. Even Robert Parker found the entire range “above average to very good” and priced below the “absurd” levels of other wineries. Eight years of nearly 20 percent annual growth in sales allowed them to avoid the cycles of the American wine boom which saw preferences oscillate between American and French wines. Fetzer went from being considered a small  winery to the 25th largest Californian winery in 1983. Volume rose from 2,500 cases in 1968 to half a million cases in 1983.

Fetzer built their reputation on red wines including Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon in part through winning medals at the Los Angeles County Fair. Bernie Fetzer planted Cabernet Sauvignon on the Home Vineyard against the recommendation of UC Davis. He did so because he valued soil and sun exposure before science.

Both bottles had fills where the neck meets the shoulder. The short corks were sound. The 1978 Fetzer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Lake County is mature and herbaceous. Despite rallying after half an hour by taking on some firmness it largely did not hold interest. The 1979 Fetzer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Home Vineyard proved different. There is both more fruit and body with integrated acidity that gave it a bit of zip in the end.

Several LPs and burning logs later we sat down to dinner. I brought out a third bottle of wine this time from the southern half of California. Like Mendocino, San Luis Obispo County has been home to the grape vine since the 1880s. It is the York Mountain Winery that was responsible for the wines of the region until the early 1970s. Zinfandel was their specialty but new money and the wine boom meant several enormous new vineyards were being planted by 1973.

These new vineyards were planted with Zinfandel but the focus appears to be on Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Estrella River Vineyards was one of these new ventures.  It was founded in 1973 by Gary Eberle who went on to found Eberle Winery in 1979, co-found the Paso Robles Appellation, and recently return to Estrella.

Little is written about the early years of this winery but they were one of the new wineries to catch attention at the 1978 Los Angeles County Fair. Their 1977 Chardonnay won a gold medal. When one journalist visited the winery during the winter of 1979 he found the winery but no tasting room. It had not yet been built so with no wine for sale he had to purchase his bottles in town. The Estrella River Vineyard name soon made the pages of the New York Times when Frank J. Prial listed it as one of many award-winning wineries few people had heard of.

It is one of these passing references which caused me to originally pick up the 1978 Estrella River Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon. In perfect condition and again with a solid, short cork the wine first greeted me with an annoying amount of bottle stink. I moved on to find a surprising amount and quality of ripe fruit with fresh acidity. After half an hour the stink was still around, perhaps muted but unwilling to fully clean up. It is a shame as it is quite lively, sporting robust fruit in the mouth. It was ultimately Sudip’s favorite wine. I preferred the 1979 Fetzer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Home Vineyard for it is clean, balanced all around, elegant, and easy to drink.

1978 Fetzer Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Lake County
The herbaceous flavors mix with vintage perfume in this finely textured wine.  It is acidity driven, crsip and bright.  Though surviving the flavors are ultimately uninteresting before it falls apart.  Past.

1979 Fetzer Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Home Vineyard, Mendocino County
This wine was aged for 13 months in American oak barrels. Alcohol 12.3%.  There is good fruit and body with better integration of acidity.  It remains lively in the middle as polished wood notes come through in the finish.  It even has a little zip in the end.   It is more in the vein of elegant, clean fruit with good overall balance.  It did not fade over two hours.  *** Now.

1978 Estrella River Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, San Luis Obispo County
Alcohol 13.5%.  The bottle stink is strong at first but does lessen with air.  Some of that stink follows through in the mouth but there is also a surprising amount of mature, ripe fruit with quite the youthful grip.  The acidity keeps it lively throughout when it finishes with coffee and sweet cocoa flavors.  ** Now – 2020.


1) WINE: STATUS QUO 20 YEARS LATER, THE FETZER FAMILY Balzer, Robert Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Oct 30, 1988;
ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. N38

2) Santa Barbara? It’s Part of Wine Country Now: Even Actors Get Into Grape Binge on Central Coast Cannon, Carl Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Jul 10, 1977; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. E1

3) SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY: STATE HAS NEW GRAPE-GROWING REGION GRAPES CHROMAN, NATHAN Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Oct 18, 1973; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. F18

4) VINTAGE YEARS TO COME: THE PURPLING OF MENDOCINO CHROMAN, NATHAN Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Nov 8, 1973;
ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. F18

5) Coast Winery Bucks Trends: A Rapid Ascent For Fetzer Winery By THOMAS C. HAYESSpecial to The New York Times New York Times (1923-Current file); Dec 23, 1983; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times pg. D1

6) The Fetzer Line By Robert M. Parker Jr. The Washington Post (1974-Current file); Sep 20, 1981; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post pg. L1

7) Wine Talk: Little-known California wineries winners of many top awards. Prial, Frank J New York Times (1923-Current file); Aug 22, 1979; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times pg. C14

8) Bernie Fetzer: ‘Nonconformist’ With an Award- Winning Vineyard: Wine Notes By William Rice The Washington Post (1974-Current file); Sep 30, 1976; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post pg. E19

9) A Watch on the Wine Smith, Jack Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Feb 13, 1979; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. E1

A quick tasting at the end of the holidays

Exploring old Californian wine is a bit like an archaeological excavation.  You may know what you are looking for but not what you will discover.  Most recently we tasted a few solid wines and one that is downright bizarre.

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Cathy Corison left Freemark Abbey to become head winemaker at Chappellet in 1983.  Lou found many positive comments on Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon from this period but almost nothing with regards to Merlot.  That is ample enough reason to try a bottle.  This bottle of 1986 Chappellet, Merlot, Napa Valley was of fine fill and condition inside but a previously broken bottle splattered the capsule and ruined the label.  I preferred this wine in the mouth for its salty start and balance of acidity and structure.  The nose was a touch disjointed for me with separate aromas of stems and chocolate.  Otherwise I enjoyed the flavor.

We moved back a decade with a pair from the 1977 vintage.  I was curious about the 1977 Ernies, Cabernet Sauvignon, Special Select Zellerbach Vineyard, Sonoma County for the reference to Zellarbach Vineyard.  Zellerbach is, of course, Ambassador James David Zellerbach who first bought property in 1943 on which he founded Hanzell Vineyards winery in 1957.  Hanzell is know for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but what of Cabernet Sauvignon?  The word “socks” was mentioned upon first smelling this wine.  The wine did clean up some but remained a bit dusty with a vegetal note to the aroma and flavor. The 1977 vintage is the second drought vintage in a row so perhaps the vegetal note came from young vines?  After an hour I rather enjoyed the wine but then it cracked up fast.  I certainly did not like the 1977 Zaca Mesa Cellar, Zinfandel, Santa Ynez Valley.  Smelled blind I guarantee anyone would think this a Riesling.  And once tasted you would think it some bizarre red wine which was co-fermented with Riesling!

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As it had just become the New Year, our oldest bottle of 1967 Chateau Latour, Pauillac marked the new 50th anniversary.  Purportedly one of the best wines of the vintage, this particular bottle sported the lowest fill of a group.  No doubt higher-fill bottles will be better but I was attracted to the blood, iron, and cedar aromas.  In the mouth the wine did develop some heft and even a touch of fat.  I give a nod towards this wine because of the better harmony between aroma and flavor.  Sadly, all of the wines cracked up once I returned home.  No great wines this time so Lou and I must simply get back together to pull more corks.

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1986 Chappellet, Merlot, Napa Valley
Alcohol 13%.  This  The color is a bright, garnet ruby.  On the nose there are aromas of some stems and chocolate.  In the mouth this wine is in good shape with bright acidity and noticeable structure from powdery tannins.  There is a dry and certainly salty start before the seamless middle and slightly short finish.  Clearly the youngest wine tasted.  It will last for sometime but I doubt it will improve.  ** Now.

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1977 Ernies, Cabernet Sauvignon, Special Select Zellerbach Vineyard, Sonoma County
Alcohol 13%.  A little smelly at first this wine cleans up with air to reveal dusty, rather old, and slightly vegetal aromas.  In the mouth there are cherry flavors, some greenness, and watering acidity.  Though there is a bit of funk, the wine cleans up but never becomes very expressive.  ** Now.

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1977 Zaca Mesa Cellar, Zinfandel, Santa Ynez Valley
Alcohol 13%.  The lightest color of the quarter.  It smells like petrol!  In the mouth the petrol follows along with red fruit.  Lou found “cherry cola” which I echo with finding a cola flavored finish.  It is mouth filling and still possesses grip from the structure.  Really odd. Not Rated.

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1967 Chateau Latour, Pauillac
A Walter Eisenberg Selection imported by Pearson’s Liquor Annex. Mid-shoulder fill. Though of low fill the color is good.  The nose reveals blood, iron, and with air cedar.  There are similar flavors in the mouth.  The wine does flesh out substantially with black fruit, wood, and even a little fat.  Eventually it becomes more autumnal.  **(*) Now but better bottles will last.

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A Casual Tasting Involving 2013 Finger Lakes Riesling to 1979 Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Earlier this week my brother-in-law and I went over to Lou’s house to taste a selection of primarily American wines.  Lou recently brought back a bunch of wine purchased during his vacation in the Finger Lakes.  The 2013 Forge Cellars, Riesling, Finger Lakes is the first bottle he has shared with me from this new stash.  It is a collaborative project involving Louis Barruol of Chateau Ste Cosme in the Rhone.  It is also interesting because Louis Barruol decided to use old oak when making the Riesling.  This version is crisp and tart but it remained mostly closed throughout the evening.  I would revisit it a few years from now.  Our second white is the $6 dump bin selection of 2006 Barnett Vineyards, Chardonnay, Sangiacomo Vineyard, Carneros.  This is a barrel fermented and sur lie aged Chardonnay which exudes the richness you can obtain in California.  Lovers of this style of wine will gush over it more than I do but I can write that with air it is an enjoyable fully mature wine.

As for the red wines we started with and promptly moved over the 1979 Chateau Prieure-Lichine, Margaux.  The 1982 vintage of this wine still provides pleasure but this 1979 is past any enjoyable drinking window.  We opened it as a vintage pair to the 1979 Gundlach Bundschu Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, 125th Anniversary Selection, Rhine Farm Vineyards, Sonoma Valley.  The 1979 is admittedly not the best Californian vintage and it reflects in the aromatic hints that this wine is moving past maturity.  It came from the Earthquake Cellar hence the label arrived stained and is not a reflection of us spilling wine everywhere.  The wine is pretty tasty in the mouth and was not frail.  It really is just the nose holding this one back.  Completely different is the very youthful 1989 Clos du Val, Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley.  It is slightly herbaceous in a good way, bright, acidic, and structured.  I like the floral aspect and believe you should drink this up now.

We required one more bottle of wine to finish up our sous-vide then grilled flank steak so the cork came out of the 1999 Ravenswood, Pickberry Vineyard, Sonoma.  It offered up flavorful black, bramble berries with some added complexity from age.  This dump bin find is drinking at its top form right now and would make an interesting alternative as a daily drinker.  In the end, none of the wines blew me away or really captivated my attention but that is fine as I spent a good amount of time talking and not taking notes.

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2013 Forge Cellars, Riesling, Finger Lakes
Alcohol 12.8%.  The color is a lighter, yellow green.  The Riesling aromas moves to a richer note of petrol flavor in the mouth that exists in a tart and crisp wine.  There is some body but the fruit is largely closed down.  The wine is very fresh and tart with a chalky finish.  It does round out a bit with air but it really needs several years of age to integrate and open up.  **(*) 2018-2022.

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2006 Barnett Vineyards, Chardonnay, Sangiacomo Vineyard, Carneros
This wine is 100% Chardonnay which was barrel fermented then aged sur lie.  Alcohol 14.8%.  The nose is of yeast and toast that speaks to the winemaking.  In the mouth is a round, glycerin loaded, ripe fruit start.  This wine bears a lot of wine with some green apple flavors and just enough acidity.  It actually brightens up with air and reveals its mature flavors.  ** Now.

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1979 Chateau Prieure-Lichine, Margaux
Imported by Woodley Wine & Liquor.  Alcohol 13%.  There are advanced aromas and roast on the nose.  In the mouth there is a bright start but the wine is too advanced with thin flavors and structure still around.  Past! Not Rated.

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1979 Gundlach Bundschu Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, 125th Anniversary Selection, Rhine Farm Vineyards, Sonoma Valley
Alcohol 13.0%.  The nose speaks of its age and there is a roast hint.  In the mouth this wine has good body and red fruit flavors.  The sweet, powdery fruit coats the mouth leaving ripe tannins on the gums.  Attractive.  ** Now.

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1989 Clos du Val, Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley
Alcohol 13.1%.  The nose is fresh and  slightly herbaceous.  There is still fresh red fruit in the mouth with a balance between fresh floral flavors and an inky hint.  It is a nice wine that becomes a little shy with air.  I believe the structure will ultimately outlive the fruit.  Why not just drink it now?  *** Now but will easily last.

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1999 Ravenswood, Pickberry Vineyard, Sonoma
This wine is a blend of 72% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvigon, and 3% Cabernet Franc. Alcohol 13.6%.  There are plummy, black fruit and bramble berries.  Rather flavorful but the acidity and structure balance make for a good feeling in the mouth.  There is a good balance between bottle aged complexity and fruit.  *** Now.

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Notes from the Dump Bin: Sometimes Old Wine is Simply Old

I have a deserved reputation for trying almost any wine.  I do not keep track of my success ratio but sometimes I find fun stuff such as the bizarrely decent 1971 Chateau Montgrand-Milon, Pauillac.  Who knew that the second wine of a Crus Bourgeois Superieur would still be solid?  Those $10 bottles were worth every cent.  Earlier this year I grabbed a trio of wines priced in the $3 to $10 range.  I had hoped that the 1981 Cellier des Dauphins, Cotes du Rhone was stabilized in some form rendering it immune to age.  It was not.  At least the bottle shape is different. The 1983 Chateau La Cardonne, Medoc would be better if the fruit did not exist solely in the finish.  Lovers of blood and iron will rate this wine higher.  For me, half a glass was fine. Most disappointing is the 1997 Delas Freres, Les Calcerniers, Chateauneuf du Pape.  Wine Spectator gave this bottle 80 points upon release.  I think it has lost one point for every year of age.  If you see these wines then stay away!  These wines were taken from the dump bin at MacArthur Beverages.

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1981 Cellier des Dauphins, Cotes du Rhone
Imported by Cellier des Dauphins.  Alcohol 12.5%.  Should have been drunk 34 years ago.  Past.

1983 Chateau La Cardonne, Medoc
Imported by Chateau & Estate.  Alcohol 11%-12%.  The color is quite advanced and would be alarming if this bottle did not cost just a few Dollars.  The flavors are a bit better with slightly dense and rounded blood and iron start.  There is watering acidity that keeps things going.  The wine is best in the finish with some grippy red fruit, more blood but then there is an aftertaste of roast earth.  * Past.

1997 Delas Freres, Les Calcerniers, Chateauneuf du Pape
Imported by Maisons Marques and Domaines.  Alcohol 13.5%.  The nose of roast earth does not bode well.  In the mouth the wine is balanced in feel and in no way in poor condition.  However, the wine tasted old with the fruit all gone and the flavors are lean. There is still a good body and mouthfeel. Poor. Past.

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Though the cork dropped in our bottle of 1970 Cheval Blanc, the NV Peter Lauer, Riesling Brut rocked!

February 8, 2016 1 comment

Lou and I managed to squeeze in a quick tasting last week at his house.  As I had never tried the NV Peter Lauer, Riesling Brut, Saar Lou opened up a bottle. Wow! Wow! Wow!  This was such a lovely bottle so much so I saved none for the next day.  It is a particularly satisfying sparkling wine which already tastes quite complex and mature.  I see no reason to cellar this further.  It is a stunning wine for the price.  As Lou pointed out, you would not mistake it for Champagne but it is far more satisfying than many bottles available in our area at that price.  Also tasting fully mature and still from Germany was a bottle of 2001 Weingut Kurt Darting, Rieslaner Auslese, Durkheimer Nonnengarten, Pfalz.  With a botrytis note, dried apricot flavors, and just enough acidity this is a fully mature Riesling to be drunk now.  I should add that the Peter Lauer overshadowed everything this evening.

When rummaging around for wines to drink I thought of the 1970 Chateau Cheval Blanc, St. Emilion.  With very top shoulder fill it seemed like a good candidate.  Unfortunately, when I looked at the bottle a good length of the cork was visible in the neck, beneath the end of the capsule.  Originally, only a tiny bit of cork was visible.  Every time I looked at the bottle the cork seemed to be lower and lower.  Once I realized this was not an illusion I decided it had to be drunk.  I cut the capsule, gently pushed the cork in then sealed it up.  Though it cleaned up on by the second evening, this was just a robust relic of a curiosity.  Not sure of what to drink next we tried an unknown bottle of 2013 Stephane Montez, Cuvee du Papy, Saint-Joseph.  The wine was completely underwhelming so I saved my part of the bottle and returned to drinking the Peter Lauer.  On the second night the Montez was very attractive on the nose and in the mouth.  It was a complete surprise.  In the end this is a beautiful wine which I think could stand some cellar time so that there is more access to the flavors.  It is not a wine you want to mature into a different spectrum of flavors,  it just needs to open up.

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NV Peter Lauer, Riesling Brut, Saar
Imported by T. Elenteny Imports for vom Boden.  Alcohol 12%.  This aromatic wine was very flavorful with floral fruit and a sense of maturity.  The soft bubbles popped immediately leaving a creamy mousse with a firm underlying foundation.  This ripe, flavor wine had some animale flavors before the soft, chalky finish.  **** Now.

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2001 Weingut Kurt Darting, Rieslaner Auslese, Durkheimer Nonnengarten, Pfalz
A Terry Theise Selection imported by Michael Skurnik Wines.  Alcohol 10.5%.  The amber color matched the sweet and weighty flavors in the mouth.  As Lou pointed out there were notes of botrytis which mixed with dried apricot flavors.  It took on some apple orchard notes with extended air.  There is enough acidity right now but no need for holding on any longer.  *** Now.

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1970 Chateau Cheval Blanc, St. Emilion
Shipped by Compass Wine Ltd.  Imported by Direct Import Wine Co.  There were aromas of blood, meat, and medicine that were slightly off putting.  Though the nose eventually cleaned up, it was better in the mouth.  It was only a shell of what it should be with leather, roast, and dust.  Not Rated.

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2013 Stephane Montez, Cuvee du Papy, Saint-Joseph
Imported by Weygandt-Metzler.  This wine is 100% Syrah sourced from old vines.  Alcohol 13%.  On the second day the strong, floral nose revealed pure, purple aromas.  In the mouth were very clean, with a finely ripe and textured core of dense flavor.  The acidity was very tightly bound in along with the very fine tannins.  The wine developed a sense of grapiness and graphite by the finish.  There is a good mouthfeel right now with some ink.  However, this deserves to be cellared so that it opens up not necessarily for the flavors to develop.  ***(*) 2017-2022.

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A blind tasting of super Tuscans from the 2000 vintage

December 17, 2015 Leave a comment

Last week I also found maturity and pleasure in a recent vintage.  I was the guest of David for his turn of hosting his tasting group.  We gathered in his living room to first eat cheese and drink 2013 G de Guiraud, Bordeaux Blanc Sec while we waited for the others to arrive.  My familiarity with Guiraud was limited to the sweet side of things so it was a surprise to try this dry blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.  It was slightly grassy on the nose with citric flavors, some fat, good acidity, and a mineral finish.  Upon revisiting it I found attraction in the sappy flavors and grippy mild structure.

When we sat down at the dinning table we were greeted by five brown bagged wines.  David had opened the wines and drunk off the top bits over six hours prior.  Initial guesses at David’s theme were made difficult by the differences in maturity.  There appeared to be a general agreement that there were some Bordeaux grapes in the mix.  Whether they were from France or Italy was intended to be difficult to ascertain due to the ordering of the bottles.  The clues slowly came out, Italy which I could believe.  They were all from 2000, no way!  And they were all from Tuscany except for the Bordeaux ringer.  Until this tasting, I had not tried any mature super Tuscans.

Unfortunately the bottle of 2000 Antinori, Tignanello, Toscana was off.  Fortunately for us, the replacement bottle of 2000 Antinori, Solaia, Toscana was in top form.  It drank great from the very first pour, so much so that I spent more time drinking it than jotting down notes.  This bottle seemed at the peak of maturity.  The 2000 Argiano, Solengo, Toscana also drank well.  It was forward with more jammy and sexy flavors.  In slight contrast, the 2000 Tua Rita, Giusto di Notri, Toscana sported more concentration and potential for future development.  Though youthful, the savory and racy flavors were hard to resist.  The 2000 Antinori, Tenuta Guado al Tasso, Bolgheri Superiore showed depth with quite a bit of a structure; I would cellar this further.  The 2000 Clos de l’Oratoire, Saint Emilion proved the most elegant and youthful.  Granted, the super Tuscans were more opulent but I did not think this wine had as much complexity to give.  We wrapped the meal up with a very young and fine bottle of 2001 Chateau Coutet, Barsac.  I would cellar this further.  Many thanks to David for including me and hosting a fine evening.

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1 – 2000 Tua Rita, Giusto di Notri, Toscana
Imported by Winebow.  This wine is a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Franc.  Alcohol 14%.  This wine exhibited a medium core of color with some garnet.  The nice nose was a touch fresh but in the mouth this maturing wine had a savory, racy vein of flavor leading to the mineral finish.  The concentrated flavors of black and red fruit was accented by a greenhouse note and a leather hint.  The structure existed as slightly spicy tannins.   ***(*) Now – 2025.

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2 – 2000 Clos de l’Oratoire, Saint Emilion
Imported by Calvert Woodley.  This wine is a blend of 90% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.  Alcohol 13.5%.  This wine was aromatic with plummy notes.  The wine tasted younger than the first with more structure and dry, very fine tannins.  The cherry core remained youthful with a little salivating acidity, and leather.  *** Now – 2025.

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3 – 2000 Antinori, Tignanello, Toscana
Imported by Remy Amerique.  Alcohol 13.5%.  Clearly older than the second wine the nose revealed candy cane aromas but the mouth revealed this wine was off.  It was tart and citric with red fruit, puckering acidity, and very fine strong tannins.  Not Rated.

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4 – 2000 Argiano, Solengo, Toscana
Imported by Vias Imports.  This wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and a bit of Petit Verdot.  This was young and jammy on the nose with both sweet fruit and oak aromas.  In the mouth this deep and young wine had attractive, chewy flavors.   Drinking forward and sexy.  **** Now – 2020.

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5 – 2000 Antinori, Tenuta Guado al Tasso, Bolgheri Superiore
Imported by Remy Amerique.  This wine is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 10% Syrah that was aged for 14 months in oak casks.  Alcohol 14%.  The good aromas bore a touch of greenhouse.  In the mouth there were some deep flavors, ink, power, and a racy finish.  There were some significant very fine tannins with a bitter finish.  ***(*) 2020 – 2030.

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Backup – 2000 Antinori, Solaia, Toscana
Imported by Remy Amerique.  This wine is a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese, and 5% Cabernet Franc.  Alcohol 13.5%.  This drank great from the moment it was poured.  The sweet nose of dark fruit made  way to maturing, rounded flavors that mixed with spices and supportive, old wood.  Drinking at its peak.  **** Now – 2018.

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2001 Chateau Coutet, Barsac
Imported by Calvert Woodley.  Alcohol 14%.  A young tasting bottle with hints of goodness to come.  With warmth and air the residual sugar became noticeable in this textured wine.  It showed some roast character.  *** 2025-2045.

“Legendary Potions”: An old wine dinner back to 1929

December 16, 2015 5 comments

Mature vintages are a normal part of any discussion with Darryl and Nancy.   However, when it came to selecting our wines for a recent dinner, they led off deep with a double salvo of vintages from 1929 and 1931.  This soon led everyone else to offer up bottles from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

It was easy to be seduced by the final wine list.  The vintages from 1929, 1931, 1937, and 1942 were at one time not only difficult but impossible to secure in America.  The oldest wines were initially not imported due to Prohibition.  The others would have been held up for a few years due to transportation difficulties caused by World War 2.  In fact, Jane Nickerson wrote in The New York Times that the first tasting of imported wines since the war only took place in New York City during 1946.  For these reasons, in part, all of the oldest bottles bore modern import strips.

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It turned out that ullage as an indicator of condition reined king.  With one loose cork, two bottles low in the shoulder, and even one below shoulder wine, these bottles were doomed from the start.  Whether this was due to poor storage in Europe or America is not known.

However, you cannot find fault in trying a low fill 1929 Chateau Duhart-Milon, Pauillac or even a 1949 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, Graves  for they are rather difficult to acquire.   The 1929 Duhart-Milon is largely regarded as an excellent wine.  This particular vintage represents the last great vintage of the estate before it succumbed to the economic depression of the 1930s and ravages of the war.  With no capital to spare, the old vines slowly died off with the overall acreage declining as weeds took over.  It was not until 1962 that the estate was turned around after the acquisition by Domaines Barons de Rothchild.

Such history was in the back of my mind when, with bottles in hand, eight of us gathered last week at The Grill Room in the Capella Hotel located in Georgetown.  Present were Darryl, Nancy, Tim, Scott, Lily, Josh, Morgan, and myself.  For our dinner Chef Frank Ruta created a six course menu around our wine flights.  The wines themselves were overseen by Master Sommelier Keith Goldston.  There was much discussion with about the service of the wines to let them show their best.  While there was no help for some bottles, the dead bottles of Bordeaux were tempered by other tenacious old red wines and an incredible opening flight of Champagne.

Tempura
cod and colossal squid from Denmark, sweet onions, dauphines
grilled soy braised daikon

I have drunk Salon only once before but given the situation I did not note the vintage nor how the wine tasted.  Our bottle of 2002 Salon, Cuvée ‘S’, Les Mesnil, Blanc de Blancs, Brut Champagne  from the current release was deep in the aromatic nose, with cream and fat in the mouth, and a racy finish.  It was young in the mouth but when I returned to it I could not help but see what all was in store.  It was a very good but perhaps due to youth not as compelling as what was up next.  The first mature wines were perfectly fresh.  The 1973 Moët & Chandon, Cuvée Dom Pérignon, Champagne was a tremendous bottle, holding nothing back for the first hour or two.  I was beguiled by the fat and oil textured flavors.  As the 1973 began to fade the 1976 Moet & Chandon, Cuvée Dom Pérignon, Champagne finally opened up.  This was always more austere in nature with yeast notes, dry flavors, and vibrant acidity.  It finally showed good complexity and even suggested the need for several more years in the cellar.

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2002 Salon, Cuvée ‘S’, Les Mesnil, Blanc de Blancs, Brut Champagne
Imported by Vineyard Brands.  Alcohol 12%.  The nose was very aromatic with remarkable depth, a hint of yeast, and underlying earthiness.  This lovely wine was rich in the mouth with very fine and strong bubbles that quickly dispersed to leave a dry texture and chalk infused finish.  With air it took on cream and fat, which never became heavy because it was racy.  Young!  **** 2020-2050.

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1973 Moët & Chandon, Cuvée Dom Pérignon, Champagne
Imported by Schieffelin & Co.  Alcohol 12.7%.  The darkest of the pair, this bottle revealed pure aromas of coffee and latte with bits of nut added in.  In the mouth the lively, firm bubbles made way to a drier, richer, and creamy wine.  It lost bubbles with time but it developed remarkable amount of fat and oil before the racy finish.  This tremendous wine delivered all it could before fading after an hour or two.  ****(*) Now – 2025.

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1976 Moet & Chandon, Cuvée Dom Pérignon, Champagne
Imported by Schieffelin & Co.  Alcohol 12.1%.  Though it bore familiar aromas, there were more yeast notes.  The flavors were youthful with pretty floral components and better defined acidity.  Nice flavors developed after a few hours of air making this a vibrant, mature wine. **** 2020-2035.

Shoat Belly
chestnut coulis, apple and turnip salad

Michael Broadbent noted the 1973 German vintage as the largest vintage on record with most wines set for early consumption.  I might have hedged once the nose opened up on the 1973 Egon Müller, Scharzhofberg Kabinett, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer but the flavors were getting tired in the mouth.  While fine enough to drink I did not crave more.

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1973 Egon Müller, Scharzhofberg Kabinett, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer
Shipped by Weinexport Hattenheim BMGH.  Imported by Kobrand Coporation.   The nose was first evocative of geraniums before developing complex aromas of herbs and old lady perfume.  In the mouth were apple-like flavors with some old and dusty notes.  ** Now.

Hand Cut Tagliatelle
with kabocha squash, truffle and shaved reggiano

The 1929 Duhart-Milon, Pauillac turned out to be a shell of its former self.  Perhaps speaking to its original potency, the nose was incredibly aromatic but of herbs and greenhouse plants.  This was followed by tart and strange flavors in the mouth.  No doubt old but refusing to let go was the 1931 Fontanafredda, Barolo.  This is a remarkable bottle because very little appears to have been written in English about this vintage let alone the wine.  The Wasserman’s described the vintage as “widely considered to be the greatest of the century” in their book Italy’s Noble Red Wines (1991).  Michael Broadbent wrote that “pre-war vintages are scarce” for Italian wine which remains true to this day for there are but a handful of tasting notes.  The  Wasserman’s made note of the 1931 Giacomo Conterno, Barolo, there is also Michael Broadbent’s note on the 1931 Giacomo Borgogne, Barolo Riserva Speciale, and finally Jamie Wolff (Chambers Street Wines) mentions a  good bottle of 1931 Marchesi di Barolo.

Fontanafredda has a royal history dating back to the mid-19th century.  Trying times began with World War I and reached a low mark with the economic depression of 1929.  After changing ownerships a few times, Fontanafredda went into bankruptcy in 1930 then was acquired by a bank in 1932.  Kerin O’Keefe writes in Barolo and Barbaresco (2014) how this bank turned the estate around.  You can imagine my delight when this bottle, produced during economic turmoil and bottled under new ownership, turned out to be fabulous.

Darryl had double-decanted the 1931 Fontanfredda, Barolo almost 24 hours prior to our tasting.  He reported that the wine had gained weight since he first pulled the cork.  It was in the mouth that this wine shined.  It had richness and weight but it was the tension which kept me returning to my glass all night long.

Also drinking very well, was the 1937 Camille Giroud, Hospices de Beaune, Cuvee Blondeau, Volnay.  The excellent 1937 vintage also happens to be the same year of the first Burgundy pavilion during the Paris Exposition.  Our bottle was fairly pigmented when first poured but the color shifted to include more browns which matched the old wine flavors that also came out.  The wine was sexy but unlike the rich body of the Barolo, our Volnay had structured black fruit and minerals.  If it was more firm the aftertaste was coating and long.

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1929 Chateau Duhart-Milon, Pauillac
Shipped by J. Calvet & Co.  Imported by Ginday Imports.  Alcohol 12.5%.  Below shoulder fill.  The dark brown color let to aromatic herbal and greenhouse aromas that also took on notes of dill.  The flavors were similar in profile with a tart start, strange flavors, and an old wine finish.  Sadly not worth drinking.  Not Rated.

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1931 Fontanafredda, Barolo
Imported by T. Elenteny Imports. Alcohol 11%-14%.  The nose did not prepare one for the surprising richness of the flavors.  It showed a racy personality with inkiness and most importantly, tension.  This was an elegant, compelling wine.  **** Now – 2035.

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1937 Camille Giroud, Hospices de Beaune, Cuvee Blondeau, Volnay
A Becky Wasserman Selection imported by Old Vine Imports.  Alcohol 13%.  There was still red color in the glass but with air it took on browner and garnet tones.  This was a sexy, old wine which showed proper mature flavors with air.  It still sported some tannics with a touch of dusty, black fruit and minerals.  I particularly liked how the old fruit flavors clung to the mouth in the rather long aftertaste.  **** Now – 2025.

Bobo Farms Air Chilled Duck Breast
glazed beets, juniper sauce

This next flight featured two well regarded bottles from excellent vintages in Rioja.  In The Finest Wines of Rioja and Northwest Spain (2011) the vintage comments point out that 1942 “Vina Albina from Bodegas Riojanas” is in “top form today.”  The Vina Tondonia “in gran reserva format, represent the peak of the vintage.” The 1942 Bodegas Riojanas, Vina Albina, Rioja was in top-form and really deserved even more air than it received.  This textured wine had citric red fruit flavors and a youthful personality that reminded me of a demi-john aged wine.  Sadly, our bottle of 1947 R. Lopez de Heredia, Vina Tondonia, Rioja was on the tired side.  With the fruit largely gone it was tart and acidic with less flavor.  Both bottles had metal capsules.  The Riojanas bore a more modern Consejo Regulador  Garantia de Origen label on the back with the de Heredia sporting the older Diploma de Garantia.  I feel these labels spoke to the relative release dates of the wines.

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1942 Bodegas Riojana, Vina Albina, Rioja
Imported by The Rare Wine Co.  Bottom neck fill. Quite clear and vibrant in the glass with a meaty nose of sweet berries.  In the mouth the citric red fruit flavors and tannins made it taste like a demi-john aged wine.  The flavors were dry and mouthfilling with watering acidity, a hint of old wood, and a cool, meaty note.  It left good texture on the tongue.  **** Now – 2035.

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1947 R. Lopez de Heredia, Vina Tondonia, Rioja
Imported by T. Elenteny.  Top-shoulder fill.  The wine smelled old with notes of soy.  In the mouth the flavors were very tart and citric, leaving a first impression that the wine was older.  The fruit had largely faded leaving prominent acidity and some old wine flavors.  ** Now.

Dry Aged Shenandoah Rib Roast
locally foraged winter oyster mushrooms, glazed celeriac, red wine jus

This final flight of red wines turned out solid at best.  With the 1949 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, Graves clearly evocative of bananas and the 1955 Cos d’Estournel, Saint-Estephe even worse, the 1959 Chateau Montrose, Saint-Estephe  once again exhibited reliability.  This bottle had better fill and a different shipper than the bottle I tasted this summer.  It proved different too with a robust, tannic, and textured personality.  It is what I drank with my rib roast.  The mallet-shaped bottle of 1964 M. Chapoutier, Cote-Rotie was aromatically described by one guest as “fog of ass”.  It was odd and certainly stinky so much so that I did not revisit the wine until after I finished my course.  Surprisingly, the nose cleaned up and developed a core of robust fruit.  Though a bit clunky, it was a decent glass.

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1949 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, Graves
Though the bottle smelled of sweet fruit, in the glass the wine was strangely evocative of banana foster.  This sweetness quickly faded to reveal old vintage perfume.  In the mouth were highly astringent flavors of tart red fruit and perfume.  It was a bit salty too.  Not rated.

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1955 Cos d’Estournel, Saint-Estephe
Shipped by Tarbes & Co.  Imported by Vintage Wines Inc.  The smelly nose made way to tired, old flavors of menthol.  Worse than the 1949.  Not Rated.

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1959 Chateau Montrose, Saint-Estephe
Imported by Direct Import Wine Company.  Alcohol 11% – 14%.  The wine looked good with a garnet color of color infused with some redness.  This wine presented mature flavors in a youthful, robust, and tannic nature.  While not sporting a ton of fruit, this wine craved air, filling the mouth with textured flavors of maturity.  A good drink.  *** Now – 2025.

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1964 M. Chapoutier, Cote-Rotie
Frederick Wildman and Sons.  Imported by Schallery Wine Company.  Bottom shoulder fill.  This was a very dark cola color.  I initially thought it too old with its odd nose one person described as “fog of ass”.  Upon revisiting it had cleaned up tor reveal a core of red and black fruit with surprising robustness.  A solid wine which just needed to shake its stink off!  ** Now – 2020.

Tarte Tatin aux Coings
Honey buckwheat ice cream, vanilla quince sauce

The final wine of our evening was a fitting last glass.  The mature flavors fit in with all of the other wines but the sweet, tense flavors acted as a refresher.  As such I was satisfied and felt no need to taste anything else.

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1959 Moulin Touchais, Anjou Blanc
Imported by Rolar Imports.  Alcohol 12%.  With a color of vibrant, dark gold and a nose of membrillo this wine was attractive to all of the senses.  The rich flavors hinted at sweetness but this old wine had strong focus and good life from the acidity.  The acidity drove the wine through the end where it tasted like a mature white wine.  Good tension.  ****Now – 2045.

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