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Loire Grolle When I am in study mode I’ll scrupulously break down wine regions into manageable subsections, uncovering esoteric tidbits while committing requisite information like prominent varietals, climate/ microclimates and soil types to memory.  Often I am more democratic about where my information comes from, proffering an area or style to my tasting group to study, like I did a couple weeks ago for the red wines of Loire.

It wasn’t new to me that Cabernet Franc reigns supreme in the Loire Valley, or that even Cot (Malbec) makes an appearance as a blending varietal in Saumur. However, just reading about the expansive Loire Valley, or any appellation by study alone is only a part of it. Tasting wine is essential and is the most important clue in pegging down a region or varietal.

We tried seven red wines from Loire cloaked in brown-bags; we found afterwards that Cabernet Franc dominated the showing, which wasn’t surprising—lip-smacking tannins and herbaceous overtones, the trademarks of the varietal, confirmed our suspicions during the tasting.

The most intriguing wine of the night appeared early on and just funked up my taste buds. I was off-kilter, trying to determine what wine could possibly pitch such a wild aroma of earthen red fruits, fallen white flowers and a Compari note (strong herbal flavors). The dry red was light in body with medium but finely grained tannins and finished as it had started—complexly. It turned out to be a biodynamic Le Cousin Rouge, consisting entirely of Grolleau—an indigenous grape to the Loire, that was completely new to me.

One of the better examples of Cabernet Franc came from Charles Jouget—an established and well-known producer from Chinon, in central Loire Valley. The 2003 Clos de Chêne Vert, despite being harvested in a terribly hot vintage hadn’t lost its step, showing deftness (balance) and youthful vigor with its spectacular display of confected red berries, violets, black pepper and tomato stems. The old vines and a prime vineyard site within the town of Chinon itself produced a structured dry red wine with ripe tannins and finished long with plenty of red fruit and savory herbs.

Even if I study thoroughly there is a good chance I will miss things. My tasting group is not only a wonderful collection of friends and professionals with similar interests but they are a catchall, keeping me honest in my assessments and introducing me to nearly extinct grapes and better examples of wines I thought I knew well. Now it’s time to get back to the books.

HermitAn annual dalliance with the Rhône Valley white wines seemed a weak tribute. Rather than a once-a-year fling, I wanted to taste those unctuous wines again and revel in their visceral texture that leaves way to a seductive honey-and-mineral mousse as they course through the palate. Maybe even show them off with a dinner? Luckily, my tasting group was of the same mind, and we turned our attention to the Northern Rhône.

The region is perhaps best known for Syrah (the only permitted red grape in Northern Rhône), but the terraced slopes and continental climate are extremely hospitable to the principal white grapes of the Northern Rhône—Viognier, Marsanne and Roussane.

Solitude BlancOur tasting featured some of the greatest producers of the North, leaving only the Viognier grape unrepresented. Jean-Louis Chave made three appearances, followed by Paul Jaboulet and François Villard. Tasting blind encourages us to keep unbiased rather than succumb to reputation. The fourth wine was profound, a deep gold painted the inside of the glass with a clean and pronounced intensity of caramel, lemon peel, minerals and essential oils (think extracts) on the nose.  In the mouth, it possessed a youthful vigor with more citrus fruits emerging, sweet spice (vanilla) and a handful of rocks that coalesced into a suave full body, shaped by decent acidity (medium). We saw the cress of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave unveiled, specifically a 2002 Hermitage in the wake of the discarded wine bag disguise; the bottle’s contents’ not phased by age but enhanced by it, matching the pedigree of the wine.

One other bottle happened to really excite me during the tasting, perhaps because it was so wildly different! Before the stately and serious fourth wine, our third bottle stood out as an extrovert, youthful aromas of lime zest, peach, white flowers (Jasmine) fireworked from the glass. On the tongue the wine had a definite swagger; a full body that kept the alcohol, though medium-plus, reined in, and strutted out with rich flavors of white peach, squeezed Lisbon lemons, beeswax and a fleck of vanilla bean for a sultry finish. Flashy! Unfortunately, when we unveiled it, one member of the group missed the memo and bought Southern Rhône, fetching a sexy bottle of 2010 Domaine de la Solitude Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc.

These wines were probably the most difficult to judge blind, they had a lot of overlapping qualities sandwiched between their robust texture and stone-fruit-inflected flavor profiles. However with food, they were a delight. Every aspect seemed to mesh nicely with our seafood accompaniment and although nobody splurged on Chateau Grillet the tasting was another wonderful success. Might make it a quarterly engagement?

ChambolOn a night that would have made Allen Meadows proud, my tasting group concentrated its attention on the village reds of Burgundy’s Cotes de Nuits. In a private room at Wilshire Restaurant, we added an extra member to the roster, to cover a wider reach of appellations from Fixin to Nuits St. Georges.

Our price ceiling was raised, digging a little deeper into the wallets (Burgundy isn’t cheap), to procure a handful of bottles—seven official entries—to show off the marvelous spectrum of Pinot Noir from one of the most respected wine regions in the world.

Before the start our collective expectations fluttered above the roof. The seven brown-bags, numbered arbitrarily, had our respect before the first sip. We scrupulously studied every pour to see if we could place the esteemed villages of the Pinot Noirs. Off to a good start with each village bringing something unique to the table,  it wasn’t until the fourth bottle that I had actually picked a first favorite. Primly casting a garnet-ruby and emitting a developing perfume of cranberry, coffee and cheese curds. Pure on the tongue, a marvelously lithe structure that flashed a youthful bit of cranberry/cherry cocktail, with sumptuous burnt sugar and café au lait finish. It was elegant and supple; its attractive balance of soft (medium-fine) tannin and sweet ‘n savory flavors went the distance. When it was revealed, a bottle of 2007 Lignier-Michelot Premier Cru Cuvée Jules hailing from Chambolle-Musigny wore the motto of its tiny commune proudly—dubbed the queen of the Cotes de Nuits.

ClosThe regal Chambolle-Musigny was the odds-on favorite (for me), establishing an early lead while I enjoyed the remainder of the tasting order. I had little luck pinning the appellation to the Pinot Noir but it was terrific exposure. That was especially true of the last bottle, but what was clear, was that it was a notch above the rest. A garnet-orange vin—indicative of an older vintage—with a deep aroma of cranberry tea, shitake mushroom, white pepper, minerals, olives, and more undefinable to list. On the palate the wine was in full stride, Popeye-like muscle delivering a bruising, flavorful wallop that followed the developed nose on a long and memorable finish. Shedding the brown paper wrapper we were stunned to see a 1996 Labet & Dechelette Chateau de la Tour Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru—the largest Grand Cru site in the Cotes de Nuits—from a relatively small appellation of Vougeot beaming on the table. The quintessence of Pinot Noir.

Every wine made an argument for place and we couldn’t have ended on a better note. The spit cups were retired and we meditated on the Grand Cru and village reds as we paired them with truffle flat breads for the duration of the evening. In good company, with the hospitality of Chef Nyesha and Wilshire Restaurant, and the best wines we’ve tasted since the groups’ inception—Cotes de Nuits had made a lasting impression.

Arneis BarSix bottles under wraps, amidst charcuterie and cheese plates on a busy table carrying a pitcher of water, spit cups and stemware, the only certainty being that all wines hailed from Piedmont—another chapter from the chronicles of my tasting group.

Right out of the gate we had two white wines split between two heavyweight producers—Favaro’s Erbaluce di Caluso and Vietti’s Roero Arneis. It was that latter that brought the group to their knees.

A golden glimmer in the bulb with a faint petillance (tiny bubbles accruing at the bottom of the glass), the developing nose was dripping of complexity, showing lemon, celery root, candle wax and almonds. The transition to the palate was spectacular, not letting up from those deep aromatics, the Arneis with waxy texture, fanned out across the taste buds, bursting with apricots, lemon oil, toasted almonds and fennel seeds that finished long (medium-plus to pronounced).

After segueing to the red wines we were treated to some bottles that shattered our price ceiling, and in particular the fourth wine of the night (and not the most expensive) blew the others away gracefully. After the reveal we saw a seven-fifty of 2007 Ca’ del Baio Barbaresco Pora, still retaining a lot of youthful character with red cherries and rose petals on top, but as I dug deeper, licorice, leather and Cremini mushrooms were beginning to emanate. A robust mouth feel, with fine-grained tannins (high), high acidity, medium-plus body and alcohol—the winning attributes of a wine that will age effortlessly in the cellar.

After dinner we finished the night with a sweet splash of La Spinetta Bricco Quaglia Moscato d’Asti, reflecting on the varied tasting; half the wines shown were native varietals, sharing the stage with their well-known counterparts from Barolo and Alba. By the end of it my gums were still feeling the tannic grip of Freisa and Nebbiolo but I was ecstatic with the results that almost all the wines in our lineup were very good examples. Until next time.

Syrah Reflection Admitting that Syrah is not my favorite grape, I have no issues with the varietal other than how much I pay to find quality examples. When it was pitched to my tasting group that it would be our next grape of focus, I was reserved but optimistic about the possibilities.

Our group had implemented new rules on buying wine for the tasting, to avoid the same region making multiple appearances—like, say, having Australia’s Barossa Valley light up the scoreboard. The real challenge was certain to be price; we defined our spending limits between the 20-35 dollar sweet spot, fingers crossed for great values.

Topanga RedOur six brown bags were passed around the table, yielding two different wines that were far apart in the flavor spectrum but equally enjoyable. The first wine of the night was actually one of the best, hailing from Edna Valley (in San Luis Obispo County). The 2007 Topanga Red Red Wine Syrah showed a deep and brooding ruby inside the bulb. The wine was voluptuous and darkly skewed, giving black fruits, creosote, black pepper and dried lavender. The finish was a bit warm (the alcohol and body were both in the medium-plus camp) but pleasant, and the red showed a big side of Syrah with balance.

The second winner appeared third in our lineup. An aromatic experience, this Syrah had an elegant perfume that demanded our attention from the first sniff, showing fragrant violets and more red flowers, white pepper, smoke and a blend of berries and plums. On the palate it displayed a softer hand with fine medium tannin, a svelte medium body, keeping the alcohol in check (medium) and flaunting a clean finish that resounded brightly of youthful fruits, herbs and spices. When unveiled it was no surprise that this was a cool climate Syrah from France’s Rhône Valley, specifically Yves Cuilleron’s 2010 Les Pierres Sèches from Saint-Joseph.

Apart from our setting, in a private room of Villetta in Brentwood, and the great spread of food, our tasting was otherwise lackluster: I was disappointed with the overall showing; four out of the six wines were out-of-balance. For these tasting group blogs the verdicts are always personal, sometimes harsh, and strive for concision, but many of the other wines that I omit to review are actually very good. This tasting showed the widest disparity between winners and losers, and unfortunately validated my sticker-price theory for Syrah. Anyone having any suggestions for better Syrah under $30, please feel free to comment! 

Zinfandel is a hedonist’s delight, with its voluptuous body and come-hither ripeness, recalling Peter Paul Rubens’ fleshiness in a beautiful fruit-forward package. I respect Zinfandel immensely and marvel at its ability to knock you on your can while imbibing glass after glass of deliciousness. I kind of fell off the Zinfandel train a few years into wine, preferring subtlety to the overt notes of fruit and tobacco smashing my palate but it is always nice to refresh my memory. I would still have to exercise caution, remain defensive while attending any Zin tasting—making serious use of the spit cup—to keep my senses alert because the wallop that Zins packs is unforgiving and would make the tasting a drag if I let my guard down.

For the coming tasting we met up in West Hollywood; battling traffic (what’s new?) to make it to the tasting that would include a dinner as hearty as the wines of grilled Pork Chops, Momma’s sauerkraut, baked Brussels sprouts, cole slaw and some brownies to wallow in decadence.

I was in charge of the tasting order since one of our mainstays (and a big-time organizer) was off in a far away land. I popped the bottles as they trickled in, allowing for maximum breathing time between each of the brawny Zins. I arranged the bottles by amount of alcohol (not by price) from low to high, trying to be fair to those wines with less ABV in hopes that they would have a fair showing in the tasting later on.

On the table we had the following:

09 Musar Jeune Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Cinsault

08 Zito SLO Zinfandel

05 Acorn Heritage Vines Zinfandel

08 Quivira Zin

05 Papapietro & Perry Zinfandel

09 Mauritson Zinfadel

09 Rockpile Zinfandel “Jack’s Cabin”

09 Seghesio Zinfandel “Blue”

09 Seghesio Zinfandel Old Vines “Red”

 

I was able to open the tasting with a bottle from Lebanon’s major player—Château Musar—and had a bottle of their entry level Cabernet blend. A faint perfume of dried cranberry, herbs and orange blossoms on the nose translated to a little more than Crasins on the palate with drying tannins and moderate acidity. Quickly, we transitioned to the Zinfandels, with the primer in place and moved into the juicy fruit flavors of the Quivira Zinfandel that had a powdered cocoa finish and smooth tannins that perked up my buds.

Moving into another crowd pleaser with notes of blackberry, eucalyptus and coffee filling the nostrils, showing a pleasant blue and blackberry combo with velvety tannins and a long favorable finish, the Acorn “Heritage Vines” Zin was a great sipper on its own.

Not all the wines were as well received, some (he doesn’t name names) showed a little more than baby fat in the mouth and left our collective palates saturated in grape jelly, still we were getting as much traction as we could coming out of the goopy turn, making tracks to Mauritson.

We showed two Mauritson wines back to back, their first Zinfandel shown deep garnet in the glass with notes of ripe cherry and some figs on the nose and following on the palate. The Rockpile Zinfandel showed a detectable difference from its varied soils with some herbs, fruit and potpourri that leaped from the glass and on the palate everything was balanced but big with ripe cherry, tobacco and wood spice lingering on the finish. We concluded the tasting with the two Seghesio wines, side by side. The blue labeled Zin had garnet coloring with red fruits, smoke and oak on the nose. The dry wine was surprisingly herbaceous and we then tasted the “Old Vines” Zinfandel that had potent aromas of red fruits, licorice and boysenberry that was coupled with intense acidity by comparison, in addition to the enjoyable amount of fruit. It was the first time in the night I had paid attention to acidity which to me spoke volumes.

We were ready to eat, devouring a summer night’s fare that complimented the wines remarkably. The sides of Brussels sprouts with fresh thyme mixed well with some of the earthier Zins present and the Sauerkraut was one of my favorite items eaten this year and could easily have been eaten on its own. I knocked off nine wines during this sumptuous tasting, leaving 182 left on the journey and I can assure you that Zinfandel will be making another visit on the countdown.

 

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