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“One of the best we’ve ever made”: 1978 and 1977 Cabernet from Sunrise Winery

Since my last post of one month ago, I have spent all of the time I usually dedicate to the wine blog transcribing 18th century letters related to the Madeira trade in America.  To lend you a sense of the effort, just two of the sources I am using, one letterbook and one partial collection of letters, encompass nearly 900 pages.  While I am not transcribing every single line, I am attempting to read each one.  Sometimes an interesting statement regarding Madeira may be hidden amongst a paragraph about fish and flour prices.  It is compelling work but my tasting notes of both young and old wine are piling up.

While the name of Sunrise Arata has been stuck in my head for some time, I cannot recall having drunk a single vintage.  I resolved this issue the other week when Sudip came over.  Sunrise Winery was founded in 1976, at the old Locatelli Winery, by Eugene Lokey and Keith Holfeldt.  In 1977 the Stortz family was brought in as participants due to the unexpected startup costs of the winery.

The Locatelli Winery ceased producing wine by the 1960s.  When Sunrise Winery started up, there were only a handful of vines left but the fermentation building still stood with both redwood and concrete vats.  The concrete vats were of larger capacity than needed and too deteriorated for use.  The redwood vats were taken apart, cleaned up then installed inside the concrete vats.  Small oak barrels were also brought in.  The first vintage was produced that first year in 1976.

During the summer of 1978, the house above the wine cellar caught on fire.  It only burned one wall of the fermentation building but the debris fell down into the cellar where barrels and bottled wine was stored.  Much of the bottled wine was destroyed by the firemen entering the building.  The tops of many barrels were burned to destruction but there was salvageable wine in barrel.  With the help of Martin Ray, Ridge, Woodside, and others, pumps, hoses, and portable tanks were set up to rescue the remaining half of the wine.

They repaired what they could in time for a very small crush that fall of 1978.  A little white wine, some Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon from Arata, and the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon from Frey Vineyard were all that was made.  Ronald Stortz called the 1978 Frey Cabernet “probably one of the best we’ve ever made” during his 1993 interview now found at the D. R Bennon Trust Fund website.

True to history, the 1978 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Frey Vineyard, Mendocino is good!  At first I was underwhelmed but one hour after I double-decanted the bottle it was fully open.  No doubt there is good, clean flavor and attractive grip.  The 1977 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Arata Vineyard, Saratoga, Santa Clara Valley did not fare as well.  Whether it was weak fruit to begin with or torture from the fire and salvage effort, I do not know.  It did, however, evoke old-school cooperage like the old redwood vats it was fermented in.  I find that rather cool.

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1978 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Frey Vineyard, Mendocino
This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 20 months in 50 gallon American oak barrels.  Bottled November 1980.  Alcohol 12.6%.  Dark black fruit in the mouth while initially firm, fleshes out with air.  After one hour, this initially firm wine shows good Cab flavor and still has structure that lends texture in the end.  What was a short finish lengthens and offers grip.  I would not have expected such good, clean flavor.  *** Now but will last.

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1977 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Arata Vineyard, Saratoga, Santa Clara Valley
This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 16 months in 50 gallon American oak barrels.  Bottled August 1979.  Alcohol 12.8%.  Funkier with vintage perfume and very ripe aromas on the nose.  Tart, fresh fruit greets in the mouth with both a greenhouse and old wood cooperage note.  Clearly learner than the 1978, it becomes more herbaceous and ultimately falls apart as the 1978 improves.  * Now drink up.

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Wente’s 1978 Centennial Reserve Petite Sirah delivers

I recently pulled out the pair of 1978 bottles from Wente Bros. for dinner after a tasting with several friends.  I thought I would write about these wines separately, as the history is a bit interesting.  Wente Bros. of Livermore, California was founded in 1883 by Carl Heinrich Wente who came over from Hanover, Germany.  His background was in husbandry but as cellar man to Charles Krug he learned to make wine.  Nearly 80 years later, his grandson Karl Wente took over the management of the winery.  In 1975, Karl Wente was named Wine Man of the year.  This was just the second award given out by the Friends of the Junior Art Center for the first went to Andre Tschelistcheff.  The distinguished company is is not surprising for historic newspaper accounts reveal the high regard held for the wines of Wente.

Carl Heinrich Wente brought cuttings from France to California to plant in his vineyards.  The alluvial deposits of the Livermore Valley were regarded as similar to the soils of Graves thus early plantings included Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and even Chardonnay. It was through the mid 20th century that Wente’s fame came from its Semillon.  In 1939, The Marquis de la Saluces, of Chateau d’Yquem, even visited Wente to see how his Semillon cuttings were coming along.   In the 1940s, you could purchase the “Cali Chateau Yquem” from the “famed” Wente Brothers.  Jane Nickerson commented on the various Wente white wines, noting the Semillon wines were the closest category to French Sauternes.

Second generation, Hermann Wente passed away in 1961.  Third-generation Karl Wente subsequently modernized the winery in 1964 and 1965.  This efforted included a new, large insulated and air conditioned winery, stainless steel presses and stainless steel tanks with temperature controlled jackets.  There was room for one million gallons of wine in tank and 50,000 bottles.  Of course, the old oak oval barrels still had their place in the winery.

In the late 1970s, neighboring Joe Concannon advocated for Petite Sirah from the Livermore Valley.  The Petite Sirah name was often lent to the “more vulgar” cousin Duriff which grew throughout California.  Petite Sirah and Duriff were typically used as a blending wine but Joe Concannon started to bottle Petite Sirah as a single variety.  After many years of bottle aging it would provide a wine with a “dependable bottle bouquet”.  Concannon’s Petite Sirah became a benchmark for the variety.

The fourth generation of Wente brothers took control of the winery in 1977.  Wente followed Concannon for they chose to release the 1978 vintage of Petite Sirah on their centennial anniversary.  Wente had planted Duriff in 1916, which was used in their Burgundy, but it was pulled out for Petite Sirah in 1940.

This choice paid off for 1978 Wente Bros., Petite Sirah, Centennial Reserve, Livermore Valley showed well at our dinner.  After double-decanting, it slowly improved over the course of an hour.  It is a dark flavored wine, supple and dense, yet eminanting from it is an attractive, floral quality.  There are many years of life ahead.  While I do not know if it will ever become more complex, it speaks entirely of 1970s California which I like.  Sadly, the 1978 Wente Bros., Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore Valley has not held up.  It is dark and rich with almost no supporting acidity.

1978 Wente Bros., Petite Sirah, Centennial Reserve, Livermore Valley
This wine was aged for 6 months in small oak barrels then a further 2 years in large oak and redwood cooperage.  Alcohol 12.5%.  Perfumed on the nose, with air dark fruit with floral notes lifting it up.  Supple in the mouth but dark and dense with ripe spices and a lovely, inky nature.  It is perfumed in flavor and expansive in the mouth.  ***(*) Now – 2024.

1978 Wente Bros., Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore Valley
Alcohol 12.5%.  Dark in color, dark in aroma and flavor.  Unfortunately, this wine is past prime, you can smell it on the nose and in the mouth it is flabby with almost no supporting acidity.  It might have been a very fruity, forward wine in youth.  Not Rated.

Young Loire and Mature Cali

Our most recent dinner with Sudip and his family continued the tradition of tasting Californian wines from the 1977 vintage.  While I deal with the older bottles, I put out the 2014 Xavier Weisskopf, Le Rocher des Violettes, Petillant Originel, Montlouis-sur-Loire.  This refreshing bubbly offers spiced flavors in a young frame.  I would recommend cellaring it until this winter at the least.

Rutherford Hill Winery was founded in 1976, just one year before the vintage of our 1977 Rutherford Hill Winery, Pinot Noir, Napa Valley.  It became a partnership of winemakers and growers who had previously sold off their fruit to other wineries.  The roots of the winery date back even earlier and was known for a time as Souverain of Rutherford.  The original Souverain Winery was founded by Lee Stewart who ran it until 1970 when he sold it to Pillsbury Co.  Pillsbury maintained the original Souverain of Rutherford in Napa Valley as well as a new winery in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County.  When Pillsbury sold off its wine assets in 1976, Rutherford Hill Winery was born of Souverain of Rutherford.  This is a particularly flavorful wine, I would guess some other varieties were included with the Pinot Noir.  It is savory and dark flavored but it is a bit on the simple side with a short finish.

The 1977 Estrella River Winery, Zinfandel, San Luis Obispo is only the second time I have drunk a bottle from this estate.  I do not come across many bottles so I was happy to pick this one up from Reid Wines of Bristol, England.  If this seems an odd place to find the wine, this bottle came from John Avery’s cellar.  Avery’s Wine Merchants was founded in the 18th century and became famous for importing New World wines during the 1960s and 1970s.  Estrella Rivery Winery received many awards for its wines during the 1970s but was rather under the radar.  Check out my post Three Californian Wines from the 1970s for just a tiny bit more detail.

For this particular bottle, the label was a bit beat up and the fill was just below the neck so not ideal.  Fortunately, the bottle stink rapidly blew off and over the course of half an hour, it blossomed in the decanter.  At best, it is an old-school bottle with lively, cranberry flavors and sweet wood notes.  Incredibly, it will drink at its peak for several more years.

Both bottles of 1977 were finished off.  While not exciting, they were nevertheless enjoyable which I count as a success.

2014 Xavier Weisskopf, Le Rocher des Violettes, Petillant Originel, Montlouis-sur-Loire – $25
Imported by Vintage ’59 Imports. This wine is 100% Chenin Blanc with zero dosage.  Alcohol 12.5%. Spiced flavors with a racy vein. The firm bubbles are intertwined with spices and a touch of apple. It is balanced with fresh acidity that makes it refreshing. *** Now – 2024.

1977 Rutherford Hill Winery, Pinot Noir, Napa Valley
Alcohol 12.7%. It immediately offers dark and robust flavors. This bottle is in good shape with flavors evocative of a blend. It is savory and saline with bottle age reflected by the old leather and wood box flavors. It is ultimately a little simple and fades. ** Now.

1977 Estrella River Winery, Zinfandel, San Luis Obispo
Alcohol 12.5%. This benefits from half an hour of air becoming redder with sweaty notes and a spine of acidity. Cranberry flavors mix with cedar and sweet redwood. It is a mid-weight wine with old-school flavors. Pretty good! **(*) Now but  will last.

New selections from Day and Ojai

The pair of wines in this post were recently recommended by Andy at MacArthur Beverages.  The 2016 Day, Zinfandel, Sonoma County is a recent project of Ehren Jordan.  It is a pure style of wine which could be called elegant for Zinfandel.  I would drink it as a refresher over the next summer or two.  The 2014 The Ojai Vineyard, Grenache, John Sebastiano Vineyard, Santa Barbara County offers up a bit more complexity.  Given the age, I was a bit surprised that this is a serious wine in need of several more years in the cellar.  While it is of interest now, you will be best served by waiting.

2016 Day, Zinfandel, Sonoma County – $27
This wine is a blend of 95% Zinfandel and 5% Petite Sirah. Pure framboise (jelly!) and other red fruits with an edge of acidity. The flavors sharpen by the finish where it becomes tart, almost tense with a little spice.  A clean, fresh, almost elegant rendition of Zinfandel.  *** Now – 2021.

2014 The Ojai Vineyard, Grenache, John Sebastiano Vineyard, Santa Barbara County – $33
This wine is 100% Grenache.  Alcohol 13.5%. Dense with structure that is intertwined with the fruit. The textured, dry feeling in the mouth morphs into fine, almost bitter tannins by the finish. The wine is a touch savory with dense flavors of red and black fruits, firm acidity, and a pinon note. ***(*) 2021-2026.

A pair of Tablas Creek

Andy pointed out the 2017 Tablas Creek, Marsanne, Paso Robles because this is the first time the store has carried this wine and he thought it is quite good.  I agree!  Whenever my friends taste white Rhone wines, they always comment on how they should be drunk more frequently.  While not from the Rhone, this bottle of Tablas Creek should be on your list of wines to try.  It is exotic and complex on the nose with rounded and dense flavors that persist through the long finish.

White wine is always followed by red in my house so I accompanied the Marsanne with the 2007 Tablas Creek, Esprit de Beaucastel, Paso Robles.  I found this a treat as well, for there are earthy, savory flavors delivered with verve.  It is just coming into mid-life so give it a good decant if you try it out this year.  You may find the Marsanne along with other bottlings at MacArthur Beverages.

2017 Tablas Creek, Marsanne, Paso Robles – $36
This wine is 100% Marsanne.  Alcohol 12.2%. An attractive golden color. The nose is floral and complex with stone fruits, lemon, and pineapple. The flavors are of focused white nuts, rounded with body. The stone fruits last through the long finish where dense, chalky flavors come out. This is a pure, fresh wine with excitement from the acidity. **** Now – 2024.

2007 Tablas Creek, Esprit de Beaucastel, Paso Robles
This wine is a blend of 44% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 21% Syrah, and 6% Counoise.  Alcohol 14.5%.  Almost crisp with a touch of earth from the Mourvedre. Blue and mineral in the middle with some leather. It still has structure and is just entering mid-life. The cola-like verve matches the articulate and textured fruit. Satisfyingly savory. **** Now – 2029.

A wine dinner with aged Chardonnay, Sonoma County oldies, and decades old Spanna

February 24, 2019 1 comment

A mixed group of wine drinkers and wine lovers recently met up at the house for a wine dinner.  We drank the sparkling and white wines while introductions were made and dinner was prepared.  It is with dinner that we tucked into three flights of red wine.  If the first flight of reds was a mixed bag the final two flights, featuring a pair of 1970s Sonoma County reds and a pair of 1960s Italian Spanna were my stars of the night.  Please find my notes below.

Sparkling

NV Ruinart, Champagne Brut Rose
Imported by Moet Hennessy USA. Alcohol 12.5%.  A copper rose color.  A strong wine with fine, firm bubbles, red fruits, and a biscuit flavor.  Robust in a way.  *** Now – 2024.

2014 Dirty & Rowdy, Sparkling White Wine, El Dorado County
Alcohol 12.4%.  Sweet, floral tree fruits with bubbles.  Solid but not my favorite. ** Now but will last.

White Wines

The white wines were of more interest.  On their own the 2009 Williams Selyem, Chardonnay, Drake Estate Vineyard, Russian River Valley and 2008 Williams Selyem, Chardonnay, Hawk Hill Vineyard, Russian River Valley are quite different.  The 2009 is the bigger, rounder yet also a softer wine.  The 2008 is mature in flavor yet young in delivery.  If you could merge the two of them the results might be quite good.  The 2002 Maison Louis Latour, Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot was the first bottle of white finished.  The nose is its strength yet while the flavors do not quite match, the balance and youthful delivery are admirable.  This wine should develop slowly for some years to come.  Almost everyone was drawn to this wine.

2009 Williams Selyem, Chardonnay, Drake Estate Vineyard, Russian River Valley
Alcohol 14.4%.  Verging on full-bodied, certainly rounded, with good mouth feel.  Youthful flavor but leaves an impression of softness due to the lower acidity.  *** Now.

2008 Williams Selyem, Chardonnay, Hawk Hill Vineyard, Russian River Valley
Alcohol 14.9%.  Mature in flavor but young in delivery.  Nearly crisp acidity, bright.  ***(*) Now – 2024.

2002 Maison Louis Latour, Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot
Imported by Louis Latour Inc.  Alcohol 13.5%.  A lovely nose which is not quite matched by the flavor.  Balanced all around, this is surprisingly young in profile and remains that way throughout the evening.  Is it evolving at a glacial pace?  **** Now – 2029.

A Variety of Reds

This first flight of red wines was a bit of a mixed bag.  The 1996 Faiveley, Nuits St Georges 1er Cru Clos de la Marechale seems like it is locked down but of solid material.  The nose of the 1997 Ridge, Zinfandel, York Creek was sadly reminiscent of dust.  Though better in the mouth, I was too distracted.  The magnum of 1998 Domaine Paul Autard, Chateauneuf du Pape should have been drunk promptly after double-decanting.  At that point it is a solid, mature Rhone red but after a few hours it is too bloody.

1996 Faiveley, Nuits St Georges 1er Cru Clos de la Marechale
Imported by Wilson Daniels LTD.  Alcohol 12%.  Bright red fruit, slightly spiced then black fruit flavors in the finely textured finish.  Firm flavor with a spine of acidity and taut structure.  It has yet to open up but will be greatly improved if it does.  *** Now – 2029.

1997 Ridge, Zinfandel, York Creek
Alcohol 15%. An herbaceous nose mixes with dust.  In the mouth the cherry flavors are rounded with controlled ripeness.  There is a hint of Kirsch.  The fruit is balanced by the acidity and the structure is resolving.  The nose never cleans up with the dustiness becoming more dirty. An off bottle.  Not Rated.

1998 Domaine Paul Autard, Chateauneuf du Pape en magnum
Imported by MacArthur Liquors.  Alcohol 15%.  A modest, mature mix of blue and red fruits, garrigue, and spice.  But after an hour or so it picks up hints of blood and iron until it becomes evocative of liquid meat.  A solid wine if drunk upon opening when it is ripe and big bodied.  At best a ** Now.

Sonoma County Oldies

My first experience with the 1977 Ernie’s, Cabernet Sauvignon, Special Select, Zellerbach Vineyard, Sonoma County was with a regular bottle. It was a bit dirty but underneath lurked some interesting material.  This magnum improved over several hours, until there was no more left, and captured the attention of more than a few people.  I have had good luck with Ernie’s lately.  This magnum and the 1974 Round Hill, Cabernet Sauvignon highlight the quality of wine he purchased.  The 1978 Louis J. Foppiano, Zinfandel, Sonoma County is infinitely better than the bottle of 1974 that I tried several weeks back.    It delivers ample flavor from the very first glass.  It does not have the complexity of the Ernie’s but it is more hedonistic.  On the following evening, the remains were nearly as pleasurable.

1977 Ernie’s, Cabernet Sauvignon, Special Select, Zellerbach Vineyard, Sonoma County en magnum
Alcohol 13%.  Aromatic with eucalyptus and bright fruit but then it turns deeper and a touch darker.  In the mouth is good body with cool flavored fruit, a spine of acidity and a finish of leather.  This is a good, clean, fresh example that after several hours reveals its complexity.  Notes of fat and oily whole nuts add to the attractiveness.  **** Now – 2029+.

1978 Louis J. Foppiano, Zinfandel, Sonoma County
Alcohol 12.5%.  Some animale notes mix with cherry-berry aromas.  Beautiful berry fruit greets and with that ripe fruit comes a hint of raisin.  However, this zippy wine is in great shape, effortlessly delivering waves of flavor.  With air it develops baking spices and comforting notes of sweaty, old leather evocative of old Californian wines. Pure pleasure.  ***(*)  Now – 2024.

Old Spanna

Surely one of the coolest labels I have seem in some time is on the 1967 Cantina Cooperative Villa Bianzone, Valtellina. The graphic drawing of Dionysus with hair of vines with leaves and beard of grapes is reason alone to purchase the wine.  There is little background information on this cooperative in the Wasserman’s book.  Despite other negative reviews of the 1967 they felt it is a “very fine vintage”. For being a basic Valtellina DOC wine it is actually quite good.  Moving west of Valtellina to the Novara-Vercelli Hills, the 1964 A. Brugo, Romagnano Riserva stems east of Gattinara.  According to the detailed Wasserman’s, this is a blend of Bonarda, Croatina, Spanna, and Vespolina, the later of which is sourced from Ghemme.  This is quite good as well.  I found my preference oscillating between the two wines as the developed in my glasses.  In the end, I would say the Bianzone has the more complex nose with brighter, controlled flavors.  The Brugo delivers that sweaty, old-school character with more grip.  I was happy to have separate glasses of each!

1967 Cantina Cooperativa Villa Bianzone, Valtellina
Imported by T. Elenteny.  Aromas of dried, old leather with balsamic notes make for a complex nose.  It is a cool nose that reminds me of the inside of the Air & Space Museum in DC.  In the mouth are very bright flavors with an earthy/leather note that cuts through.  Beautiful in the mouth. ***(*) Now but will last.

1964 A. Brugo, Romagnano Riserva
Imported by T. Elenteny.  Deep and slightly sweaty red fruits on the nose…smells old-school.  In the mouth are sweaty flavors of red, grippy fruit and bright acidity.  In great condition with watering acidity carrying through to the still-structured finish.  ***(*) Now but will last.

“There is no such thing as Round Hill”: 1974 Round Hill, 1970 LMHB, and 1978 Mastantuono

January 4, 2019 3 comments


Sickness and scheduling issues meant I was never able to host any tastings this holiday break. I did manage to meet up at Lou’s house for an impromptu tasting of mature wine.  I was given several bottles of 1970 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, Graves from that odd DC cellar years back.  With ratty labels (the 1970 is still visible though) and good fill, the cork came out in good shape.  Just a brief bit of bottle stink soon blew off to reveal deep aromas.  It is deep flavored as well, yet also lifted, quickly showing fully mature flavors.  Equally good, the 1974 Round Hill, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley lived up to my hopes.

It is due to these two wines that I stayed at Lou’s for nearly five hours as we finished off both bottles.  Two years ago I mentioned Round Hill in the context of some old Ernie’s bottles I had opened.  Ernie Van Asperen ran a chain of more than 80 liquor stores in California.  He also operated a negocient business, purchasing up extra wine from wineries who bottled it for him under the Round Hill and Ernie’s labels.  Round Hill wines could be highly regarded and won medals at the Los Angeles County Fair.  Frank J. Prial, a judge at the fair, wrote in The New York Times that he found this “amusing because there is no Round Hill.”

As for what was in our bottle we do have some clues.  In 1980, the Underground Wine Journal wrote that the 1974 Ernie’s “Special Selection” Cabernet came from old Souverain stocks that were sold off in the 1970s.  In 1974, Souverain was sold by J. Leland Steward to a group of investors.  They in turn sold Souverain to Pillsbury Co. under which the new winery was constructed in Alexander Valley.  It was not a profitable deal, for Pillsbury sold off the Souverain winery and its assets in 1976.  Round Hill was founded in 1977.  That same year Frank J. Prial noted that wine from Sonoma Vineyard and Souverain were bottled under the Round Hill label.

There is a strong chance, then, that the 1974 Round Hill is actually Souverain.  Whatever it is, Ernie knew what he was doing for it is an excellent wine at the height of maturity.

I do love a good surprise and the 1978 Mastantuono, Zinfandel, Dusi Vineyard, San Luis Obispo County represents just that.  I refrained from any prior research so was quite impressed with the savory and saline profile of this full-bodied, red fruited wine.  Founded in 1976, Mastantuono is the fifth oldest winery in Paso Robles.  The Dusi Vineyard was planted in 1923 so even at the time, the Mastantuono was made from old vines.  The 1978 vintage was a hot year producing “intensely flavored” Zinfandel according to Robert Parker Jr. in The Washington Post during 1981.  This bottle is intense yet savory, lending interest as it reflects both the vintage and vineyard.  It lasted about two hours in a decanter before it started to fade.

The wines that evening were a treat!

1970 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, Graves
Deep flavored with ripe hints and goof lift.  Additional notes of low-lying leather and minerals adds complexity.  The watering acidity weaves through the palate as the wine grips the sides of the gums, turning redder in flavor.  With air it offers up deep flavors of cranberries and other bright fruit.  **** Now but will last

1974 Round Hill Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Alcohol 12.5%.  A deep, black cherry color offers more pigment than the LMHB.  Immediately striking as medium-bodied with good fruit weight and rounded nature.  This wine is rich in flavor with no hard edges due to fully integrated structure.  It is dense and gravelly with minerals and grip by the middle.  It took half an hour to open up in the decanter, eventually offering big mouth feel and flavor for hours.  A touch of structure comes out in the end. **** Now but will last.

1978 Mastantuono, Zinfandel, Dusi Vineyard, San Luis Obispo County
Alcohol 12.5%. A fresh nose with an herbaceous hint.  A savory, salty start soon yields bright red fruit that is deep in flavor.  This is a medium to full-bodied wine with quite the weight to the fruit.  Flavors of candied berry and old leather mix with good watering acidity, actually zippy acidity.  A very solid wine.  The savory personality makes it stand out.  *** Now but will last.