Overview: Luxury potpourri
We depart from the usual Premium Edition format today so I can share with you the results of an unusual tasting opportunity I enjoyed last week.
In place of the customary deep analysis of a single high-end wine, I thought you might enjoy a quick look at a random but diverse group of luxury-level wines, most of them recent arrivals on the market that will be turning up on retail shelves and restaurant wine lists around the world in coming months.
Thanks to Matt Baugher of Commonwealth Wine and Spirits, a major wine distributor based in Louisville, for inviting me to join a crowd of local wine buyers, retailers and restaurateurs at the company's "Mac Daddy" tasting last week. This annual event presents a broad sampler of the luxury, upper-price-tier wines that Commonwealth distributes - some in achingly small quantities - affording the region's top wine shops and white-tablecloth restaurants an early look at (and opportunity to buy) allocated rarities.
About 150 wines were presented, loosely arranged in categories from sparklers to light, followed by full-bodied whites, to reds by variety and style, ending with fortified and dessert wines. It wasn't possible to taste them all during the three-hour tasting, so I focused on those that seemed most interesting, taking care to pick off a few particularly sought-after items (the Penfolds 2001 Grange and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2001 Richebourg were must-try samples), and ended up with 44 tasting reports. They're posted below, with specific comments on my opinion about the value of each.
The prices shown represent the distributor's "frontline" listing, which I understand to be the top Kentucky wholesale price without discounting. On the street, this price generally seems to track closely with the lowest available retail pricing, with more typical retail ranging 10 to 20 percent higher.
Notes and comments on 44 high-end wines
Piper-Heidsieck Champagne Demi-Sec Cuvee Sublime ($44)
Appley, sweet but tart, with a foamy mouthfeel. No bargain.
Champagne Bollinger Special Cuvee Brut ($47)
Good, rich Champagne nuances of "toast" and "biscuit" over fresh apples, sweet and tart. A favorite non-vintage Champagne, but I liked it better as a value when I could get it for $25.
Tablas Creek Vineyard 2001 Paso Robles Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc ($31)
Bright brass color suggests richness, and the nose and palate deliver, with honey and almonds, warm and full aromas, and steely white-fruit flavors embroidered with complex honey-nut nuances, a New World version of fine white Chateaneuf-du-Pape from the Central Coast partnership of Beaucastel's Perrin family and the importer Robert Haas. Beautiful wine, excellent value, one of my top wines of the tasting.
Marc Kreydenweiss 2001 Moenchberg Pinot Gris Alsace Grand Cru (Price not listed. Expect to pay lower $30s)
Tiny production from an intriguing Alsatian producer who makes his all-organic wines by biodynamic principles. Honeyed, rich, intense, with an intriguing bitterness in the finish, appropriately priced.
King Estate 2003 Oregon Pinot Gris (Price not listed. Expect to pay middle $20s)
Appley and floral, steely acidity and structure, very long, but reaching the upper price limit for Pinot Gris for me.
Joseph Drouhin 2002 Clos des Mouches ($66)
This is why I love white Burgundy. Rich, chestnutty, full and ripe, with a muscular structure beneath the flesh, complex and long. Wonderful in its youth, worth aging. Pricey but worth it for a special occasion ... Chardonnay doesn't get any better than this.
Ridge 2002 Santa Cruz Mounains Chardonnay ($27)
Ripe tropical fruit and butterscotch, big but surprisingly restrained, a wrestler wearing a three-piece suit. Good value against the competition in this price range.
Kumeu River 2003 Kumeu New Zealand Chardonnay ($29)
Tropical fruit and oaky vanillins, apples and butter; steely acidity makes it a standout at a price point dominated by fatter, softer Chardonnays.
Sonoma-Cutrer 2001 "The Cutrer" Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($24)
Pineapple and spice, some presence of oak but dry and structured; shows more elegance than many a mid-$20s California Chardonnay, one of my consistent "go-to" wines in its niche.
Matanzas Creek 2000 Sonoma Valley Chardonnay ($26)
Apples, honey and subtle oak, lush and appealing. Easy to drink, not my favorite style but certainly appropriately priced.
Truchard 2001 Carneros Chardonnay ($24)
Good tropical fruit and floral aromas; lots of oak, but the wine is big enough to carry it well. Again, not my preferred personality of Chardonnay but good value for those who like this style.
Clos Pepe 2001 Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($45)
Meaty and ripe, full-bodied black-cherry flavors and aromatic smoke; good body and structure, approaching the border where Pinot starts to look a bit like Syrah. Impressive but pricey, good value only if you prefer your Pinot in this muscular California style.
Domaine Drouhin 2001 Oregon Pinot Noir ($34)
Ripe and earthy, dried-cherry and cola aromas; complex, good structure and substantial tannins, could use a little time. "Burgundian" as we expect of DDO; fair value against the Oregon competition, excellent value compared with villages Burgundies.
Domaine Romanée-Conti 2001 Richebourg ($405)
Surprisingly, the hordes that crowded the Grange and Gaja tables were absent when this noble beauty was uncorked. Light garnet in color. Lovely ripe-cherry fruit, clean balanced and long. Soft tannins, youthful but already a delight. Value? This term loses its meaning with a $400 wine, but I'm glad I had a chance to taste it.
Joseph Drouhin 1999 Nuits-Saint-Georges ($34)
Clear, bright ruby color. Sour cherries and leather, light and complex; good acidity and light tannins. Priced above "everyday" wine, but more than fair for a decent village Burgundy of a good vintage with a few years in the bottle.
Chateau de Beaucastel 2001 Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($79)
Dark garnet, black at the core. Complex red and black fruit, leather but not "barnyard," intense fruit flavors well balanced by lemon-squirt acidity and substantial tannins. A beauty, needs cellar time. With the rising Euro, Beaucastel, sadly, is rising well into the range that I'll consider only for the most special occasions. It's one of the best Chateauneuf-du-Papes, but with so many of its peers and near-peers still available in the $25 to $40 range, it's not easy to justify.
Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 2001 Pauillac ($178)
Blackish, deep and dark. Intense cassis (blackcurrant) aromas; full and ripe, heavy tannins, but so much fruit that it's actually drinking well. Deserves 10 to 20 years in the cellar, but sadly, much of this stock will likely be opened too young in celebratory restaurant settings. A classic, its price is certainly justified by history and heritage, but I'm not likely to be buying any.
Gaja 1999 Sori San Lorenzo Langhe ($310)
This item drew a large crowd at the tasting because of Angelo Gaja's storied name, but frankly, this wine is somewhat lost on me despite my inborn affection for Italian reds. Floral aromas, violets and ripe black fruit, are buried under spicy oak; oaky vanillins and anise influence the flavor as well. Intense, but an awful lot of wood. Three hundred bucks a bottle? Not for me.
Gaja 1998 Barbaresco ($198)
Dark garnet. Complex, cherry-berry aromas and herbal nuances shaded toward anise, basil and tarragon. Structured black fruit and stern acidity on the palate, forward but smooth tannins. Needs cellar time, but complexity and balance result in a much better wine than the Sori San Lorenzo at two-thirds the asking price. It's still $200 that I'm not likely to spend.
Beni di Batasiolo 2000 Barbaresco ($33)
Dark garnet. Clean, luscious black-cherry and violet aromas; smooth and balanced, young but drinking beautifully already. Let's see ... six of these, one Gaja. One Gaja, six of these. I know which I'd pick!
Pio Cesare 1998 Barolo ($56)
Ruby, rather light in color. Black cherries and distinct notes of "barnyard." Elegant and balanced but still severely tannic, needs plenty of time. Fairly priced by Barolo standards, but Barolo is becoming a little hard to justify against the similar and more approachable Nebbiolo-based Barbaresco and Gattinara unless you have the facilities to cellar it for many years.
Travaglini 1999 Gattinara ($26)
Ruby, with a youthful-looking clear edge. Very floral, beautiful aromas of spring violets; ripe and fresh flavors, black plums and mouth-watering acidity. A delight, and the first really noteworthy value among the Italians (although the Beni di Batasiolo wasn't bad).
Il Poggione 1998 Brunello di Montalcino ($52)
Moving from Piemonte to Tuscany we find this dark-ruby wine, showing a bit of bronze color. Earthy aromas surround red fruit and spice over a warm, faintly Sherry-like impression. It's subtle, but if this bottle wasn't "cooked," it's showing awfully premature signs of age.
Antinori 2000 Tignanello ($64)
Inky, black, breathing pleasant black-cherry and leather aromas with a hint of "barnyard." Ripe and full, balanced and quite tannic, needs more time. One of the first "Super Tuscans" and still one of the most popular, I'm always happy to drink "Tig," but to be honest, there's an awful lot of strong competition in this genre for $10 to $40 less.
Penfolds 1999 Grange South Australia Shiraz ($198)
Call me a heretic, but I just don't "get" Grange, and never have. When it's young like this, it's oak, oak, oak, vanilla and spice, monolithic black fruit overwhelmed by wood. With age it gets a little more complex, but the oak never really integrates. Two hundred dollars? Get out!
Penfolds 1998 St. Henri South Australia Shiraz ($35)
Blackish purple, perfumed, quite oaky, but Shiraz menthol and black fruit punch through. Easier to enjoy than the Grange, frankly, and a fair pick for the price against the competition. Still not a great value in my book.
Peter Lehmann 1999 "Eight Songs" Barossa Shiraz ($48)
Now, this is more like it! Still clearly Barossa in style, big and brawny and shaped by oak, here we find abundant plummy fruit and menthol, ripe and appropriately tart, balanced and long and promising years of cellar time, and a strong competitor in its class in the $50 range.
Neil Ellis 2002 Stellenbosch Shiraz ($20)
Earthy and wild, this South African Shiraz shows ripe black fruit and lots of "barnyard," with sweet black fruit shaped by tangy acidity on the palate. A real mouthful if you don't mind them on the rustic side, and a serious bargain at this price.
Tablas Creek 2000 Paso Robles Esprit de Beaucastel ($31)
The Perrin-Haas partnership doesn't ring my chimes quite as loud with this Rhone-style red as they did with the white, but it's still a decent, complex wine focused on full and ripe red fruit. A Chateauneuf-du-Pape-style blend of Mourvedre (35%), Syrah (26%), Grenache (25%) and Counoise (14%), I enjoy it but find it hard to justify against the competition in the lower $30s.
Freemark Abbey 1999 Bosché Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($56)
Good Napa "eucalyptus" provides an aroma accent against blackcurrant and dark chocolate and an oaky whiff of dill. Mellow and complex, easy sipping, a high-end crowd-pleaser. No great bargain at the price, but it's certainly competitive against other "name" Napa Cabernets.
Silverado Vineyards 2001 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($35)
Eucalyptus and chocolate add dimension to fresh cassis; ripe, almost sweet, forward fruit gives way to smooth tannins. Good value in a Napa Cabernet.
Stags' Leap 2001 Napa Valley Merlot ($27)
Chocolate-covered cherries, luscious, gulpable. Well worth the under-$30 toll for Merlot-lovers.
Merrivale 1999 Napa Valley "Profile" ($81)
Black in color. Ripe and appealing on the nose, perfumed cassis fruit and milk chocolate; more structured and acidic than the luscious aromas suggest. A Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (59%), Merlot (35%), Petite Verdot (4%) and Cabernet Franc (2%), it's pricey, but I'd rank it against some of its "cultish" neighbors that rise into the three-figure range. Particularly if you can cellar it, it's worth consideration as a very special gift for a friend, business associate ... or yourself.
Seghesio 1999 "Four Generations" Sonoma County Red Wine ($37)
An offbeat blend of old-vines Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, it's inky blackish-purple, breating deeply perfumed scents of blackcurrant and plum, balancing ripe fruit and tart acidity on the palate. Could use some cellar time; an interesting wine, but I'm not persuaded by the price point.
Archipel 2000 Red Wine (Price not listed. Expect to pay about $30)
Blackish-purple, opaque. Toasty oak dominates ripe, luscious fruit in a full-bodied, tannic flavor; needs cellaring. A blend of three varieties (69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc) from two counties (83% Sonoma, 17% Napa). Might justify this relatively modest price after a few years.
Ridge 2002 Dry Creek Valley Lytton Springs ($26)
Blackberry jam, ripe, sweet but nicely structured. Could be labeled Zinfandel at 75%, but the Petite Sirah (20%) and Carignan (5%) add complexity and flavor interest. Almost nobody does Zin and Zin blends better than Ridge; it's hard to quibble with this price.
Ridge 2000 Sonoma County Geyserville ($29)
Dark reddish-purple; framboise (raspberry liqueur) on the nose; mouth-filling bramble fruit, lush and "sweet," good balance of full fruit, acidity and tannins. A blend of 76% Zinfandel, 17% Carignan and 17% Petite Sirah in this vintage, Geyserville generally rewards aging - this 2000 is showing well but has years go to - and by any standard exceeds expectations for its price point.
Quinta do Vesuvio 1997 Vintage Port ($68)
Anise adds accent to intense stone fruit; very sweet flavor with "grippy" acidity and a strong tannic presence. Way too young to drink - vintage Port needs 20 years in the cellar to show its best - priced appropriately against the competition.
Rosemount South Eastern Australia "Old Benson" ($22/500ml)
Clear, dark copper color (it's billed as a "fine old tawny port"), dried stone fruits on the nose and palate, luscious and toothache sweet. A lovely after-dinner sipper, but its price (for two-thirds of a standard bottle) is close to the high end in a genre that offers many modestly priced values.
Eos 2000 Paso Robles Zinfandel "Port" ($26/375ml)
Ripe, lush blackberry liqueur aromas lead into an intensely sweet, very-berry flavor, a striking after-dinner wine that's not a true "Port," of course, but that blends a Port-like flavor profile with exuberant Zinfandel fruit. Fun to drink, but at the equivalent of $50-plus for a full-size bottle, it's hard for me to justify the price.
Peter Lehmann 2001 Barossa Botrytis Semillon ($16/375ml)
Peaches and apricots, honeyed fresh-fruit sweetness balanced by shimmering acidity. An excellent late-harvest Semillon, a category in which Australia excels. In comparison with similar wines from Europe, this price makes it a no-brainer if you enjoy this dessert-wine style.
Merryvale Antigua California Muscat de Frontignan ($28/500ml)
Bright gold and displaying startling intensity on the nose and palate, this delicious dessert wine offers orange peel, caramel and stone-fruit aromas and a layered, complex flavor that's luscious, sweet yet steely and very long. Reportedly based on a very old "solera" (blend of older wines) that came from Beaulieu Vineyard, this is a treat, and a virtual steal at this price. If you can find it, buy it.
Inniskillin 2002 Niagara Peninsula VQA Vidal Ice Wine ($52/375ml)
Finally, two of Canada's sought-after ice wines, this one from Ontario and the next from British Columbia. Very pale gold in color, its aromas focus on apricot, full and ripe, with apricot, peach and grapefruit in the flavor, intense sugar sweetness over soft acidity. Lacking a well-developed sweet tooth, it's not for me at $100-plus for a full-bottle equivalent, but you can't quibble when demand far exceeds the supply even at this price.
Paradise Ranch 1999 Okanagan Valley VQA Riesling Ice Wine ($47/375ml)
Clear gold. Apricots and honey dance in a fresh, forward aroma that carries over intact to the palate with good balancing acidity. Not overly complex, but luscious. Again, I find ice wines hard to justify at these price levels, but we're in a realm where both beauty and value are very much in the eye - or palate - of the beholder.
Where to find these wines
On the one hand, many these wines are highly allocated and may not be easy to find everywhere. On the other, because of their fame, they tend to be widely distributed and, with the possible exception of a few of the more obscure American wines, should be available in at least limited quantities in many parts of the world, particularly North America, the UK and Europe.
In seeking individual wines, after checking for specifics with retail sources in your own community or larger cities nearby, try querying Wine-Searcher.com with specific searches for key words in the name of the subject wine. If you'll use the following extended link, this will let our associates there know you came from WineLoversPage.com:
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