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Toasted Head R. H. Phillips 1996 Toasted Head California Cabernet Sauvignon/55%-Syrah 45% ($14.95)
The blend of Bordeaux and Syrah red grapes is unexpected, and the quirky label (actually a reference to the lightly charred ends of the oak barrels in which the wine is made) doesn't instil confidence in those who shun excessively woody wines. But for the second year in a row, this full-bodied California red proves persuasive. It has been a little over a year since I tasted the 1995 Toasted Head, but this one strikes me as little better balanced in the fruit-vs.-oak department.

It's dark garnet in color, with black fruit and the ration of toasty oak that the name suggests in its aroma. With time in the glass, though, much of the oak blows off to reveal ripe fruit and fragrant pepper. Full and grapey fruit shows on the palate, juicy and easy to quaff. It reminds me in a way of the fruity style of Australian Shiraz, but with a more sturdy structure and body. (Sept. 7, 1999)

FOOD MATCH: Couldn't ask for a better match with a spicy Mexican-style turkey and eggplant en adobo.

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All my wine-tasting reports are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores.

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