2000 Chateau La Couspaude, St-Emilion

Bordeaux started out the new century with a killer vintage that Robert Parker claimed was “the greatest vintage Bordeaux has ever produced.” Wow! 

But that’s not all — Robert Parker and other famous critics have kept the ‘vintage of a lifetime’ hype going throughout the entire decade. The 2000s were the best, until 2005 of course. But now we have the 2009s, which, according to Parker, “may turn out to be the finest vintage [he has] ever tasted.” 

Perhaps. Or perhaps, like Don Corleone, as he ages he just likes to drink wine more than he used to. Anyways, Bordeaux has been on a run over the past decade. The best vintages keep getting better, and the high prices keep getting higher. Are we in a Bordeaux bubble? Or are these wines truly the best Bordeaux has ever been?

High quality Bordeaux typically needs a decade or more of aging to develop in the bottle before consumption. So while critics have claimed multiple times that Bordeaux had just had its ‘vintage of the century’, the true results are not quite in yet; for most drinker’s palates, the great Bordeaux from 2000, 2005, and 2009 will only be entering their peak drinking windows between now and the next 20-30 years. It’s not a sprint - it’s a marathon.

So, to make a long story short, I’ve only recently started digging into the 2000s I have that appear ready to drink. Tonight’s bottle - Chateau La Couspaude form St. Emilion - was ripe for the picking.

La Couspaude has a bit of a reputation for generous use of oak; the 2000 validated this with a wave of toasty oak aromas that leapt right out of the glass. The oak, however, framed a complex blend of dark fruit, cigar, and notes of coffee and cocoa through the finish. The tannins are fully integrated. The wine is absolutely in its drinking window and is very polished and elegant. 

Are the Bordeaux 2000s like this La Couspaude better than the 2005s and 2009s? I’ll enjoy figuring this out over the coming 20 years :)

1982 Chateau Calon-Segur (St. Estephe)

My wife and I celebrated Valentine’s day early this year so that we could secure reservations at one of our favorite restaurants. Perhaps not the most romantic approach, but practical considering we had our hearts (ok, not funny) set on a specific dinner course.

I selected the ‘82 Calon-Segur for the occasion based on its iconic label art that features a heart. Apparently despite owning Chateau Latour and Lafite — both first-growth top ranked properties — Nicolas-Alexandre, marquis de Segur said his “heart was with Calon.”

Ok, I’m not sure where he was coming from, as I would happily trade my bottle of Calon for a Latour or Lafite any day. Furthermore, I’m also not clear on what a “marquis” is. But it doesn’t matter; the important thing is that a pretty good Bordeaux is available with a heart logo that fits the Valentine day dinner requirements. I fully selected this book by the cover alone. 

The wine’s aroma and flavor are secondary to the label art in this context, so I won’t bother reviewing it. My wife liked it, so it was a success. It’s also hard to really screw up ‘82 Bordeaux. 

1994 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve

The 90s were a special time for me; the decade encompassed the majority of my formal education and development from a youngster to a young adult. The 90s were also a special time for California; though the Judgement of Paris in ‘76 may have put the spotlight on California Cabs, Napa Valley’s run of outstanding vintages from ‘91 to ‘98 gave it the runway it needed to firmly establish its quality reputation globally.

Hard to believe that the bottlings from the early part of the decade are now going on 20 years. (And hard to believe I have a 20 year high school reunion coming up!) It’s an opportune time to be drinking high quality 90s era California Cabs!

Robert Mondavi Winery is legendary. Forget the cheap Coastal Estates and Woodbridge brands, the family drama, and the ultimate acquisition of the winery by Constellation in 2004. Robert Mondavi and his winery were instrumental in putting Napa Valley on the map. The man was a pioneering evangelist for the California wine industry and produced a wide range of outstanding wines over his lifetime. If you have an opportunity to taste a Mondavi Cab reserve (Mondavi’s flagship wine), don’t pass it up! Production volumes are high, but this doesn’t detract from the quality in good vintages.

Robert Parker claimed “the 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve…may be the finest Cabernet ever from Mondavi.” This, however, was back in ‘97 - the questions readers will want to answer is where the ‘94 stands today? 

It has a solid nose (winespeak for aroma) of oak, ash, and some blackberry/cassis flavored cough syrup. Its color retains a classic deep crimson red in the center of the glass, but clearly shows some age with bricking at the edge. No longer in its youth, this wine has picked up some wrinkles and character. It has a great silky smooth mouthfeel - another sign this is not a Mondavi Cab in its younger days. Its fruit has now matured (and arguably faded a touch beyond desired) but still shows presence. A complex web of dark fruit and tobacco leaf layers keep this drink interesting. 

Is it the greatest Mondavi of all time? Highly doubtful at this point - this wine is a touch past its prime. The ‘94, however, remains an outstanding wine and its elegant flavor profile after 18 years should make it very appealing not only for California Cab fans, but also Bordeaux purists. 

Robert Mondavi is no longer with us. And his winery is now run by Constellation (though it still produces great wines!). Readers who are interested in following the Mondavi story should seek out Tim Mondavi’s ‘Continuum' wines.  

2008 Henry of Pelham Pinot Noir - Niagara Peninsula

The Niagara Peninsula, which runs along the South shore of Lake Ontario on the Canadian side, is home to many wineries and is reported by the Canadian Vintners Association to account for 80% of the nation’s grape-growing volume. It features a cool climate (no shocker!) and is best known for icewines, a type of desert wine produced from grapes that literally have been frozen on the vine. 

Henry of Pelham, the producer of this wine, was an early pioneer in the region dedicated to premium estate grown releases. I previously tried their Baco Noir but, sadly, was not a big fan. Regardless, I thought I should give this producer another shot.

This Pinot is light in color and, unfortunately, aroma. It’s unlikely to win awards for its smell, though on a positive note nothing awkward jumped out of the glass. It offers spry, zingy berry flavors that echo characteristics of Pinot from better known regions but certainly represent, as the winery suggests, the ‘authenticity’ of the Niagara Peninsula terroir.

Do I recommend readers rush out and track this down? Nope. But for those curious about wines grown in this very cool climate, Henry of Pelham is a good go-to source given their long history and reputation producing premium wines in the region.

Wines from new regions (for me) can occasionally be a challenge; though I respect the technical winemaking, my palate was developed by tasting hundreds (ok, thousands) of bottles from more common wine regions of Europe and the U.S.

Given more exposure and tastings of wines from this region, it’s quite possible I’d develop a stronger taste and appreciation for the local style. There’s only one way to find out, so I’ll be sure to rotate in some Niagara selections over time before drawing firm conclusions!

2007 Leone de Castris Salice Salentino Riserva

Salice Salentino is a red wine composed of Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera varietals grown in Southern Italy. Italian speakers will recognize the words negro as “black” and amaro as “bitter.” No surprise, therefore, that Salice Salentino wines are a dark color with a flavor profile that is typically considered rustic and a bit rough around the edges. 

With the word “bitter” in its name, a $13 price tag, and a label that doesn’t inspire my creative imagination, I had set low expectations for this bottle. Sure, this wine was a staff pick from my local wine merchant, but I was still suspicious this could have been a ploy to clear out some overstock run-of-the-mill swill.

Absolutely. Not. The. Case.

This Salice Salentino brings, as Gary V would say, the thunder. Rich and bold, it has gobs of black cherry, mineral, and smoke flavors that explode across the palate. Tons of structure, character, and complexity for a wine at this price. If I had paid 2-3x more for this, I still would call this out as a value buy - it clearly over delivers for a $13 bottle.

Drinking wine made from a grape formally named “bitter” may not sound appealing, but in the hands of the Leone de Castris winery this varietal sings! This is an absolute steal for the price and a wine worthy of stocking up by case. It will certainly age gracefully over the next decade so there will be plenty of opportunities to throw this down the hatch.

2008 Pheasant’s Tears Saperavi Republic of Georgia

I’m always on the lookout for bottles from unusual places. So I was excited to try my first wine from Georgia. (For purposes of clarity, I’m referring to the country, not the U.S. state, which actually also produces a range of wines.)

As I was opening up the bottle, I noticed the label claimed Georgia was the “cradle of wine civilization.”

And here I was thinking Georgian wine was an esoteric find; it turns out I’m just emerging from the cradle myself. Georgia is one of the oldest wine producing regions of the world with a culture of cultivating grapevines going back over 8,000 years. Ok, let me revise my initial sentence: I’m always on the lookout for under appreciated bottles of wine from old-school regions who brought the world wine culture from day one. 

So what is this bottle all about? Saperavi is a varietal known for its intensive dark-red color — so dark, in fact, that it’s often referred to as black by locals. Saperavi is one of many varietals grown in Georgia, but is common for export wines as it’s considered one of the better grapes.

This wine was dark, but closer to purple hues than black. Aromatically, it felt like I used a freshly sawn wooden shovel to scoop up a healthy portion of moist earth (probably with some worms) topped by dark stewed fruit syrup.

It is rich and fruit-forward, but with an interesting finish of dusty tannins and slowly fading minerals. If you’re not an everyday Saperavi drinker (and let’s face it, most of us aren’t!), this wine requires an open mind. But with the right approach, I’m sure most readers will conclude there’s a lot of wine here for <$20. 

So readers please remember this - Georgia wines aren’t “unusual.” They actually are amongst the first wines every made. In the entire history of humankind. 

So if you want to bring your evening back to basics, secure some Georgian fermented grape juice for the evening and party like it’s 6000 BC.

2009 Domaine Faiveley Monthelie 1er Cru “Les Champs Fulliots”

Recently Burgundy has been growing on me.

For some time, I’ve considered Burgundies pleasant but underwhelming next to the raw power and concentration of Bordeaux. Switching from a glass of Pauillac to a glass of Cote d’Or is like switching from a playlist of hyper-compressed French house music (think Justice or Daft Punk) to a playlist of classic jazz trios. The former turns the volume up to 11 with raw power and constant intensity; the latter presents a softer, relaxed experience that requires more of the listener’s attention to hear and appreciate the complexity and details of the music.

I think I am finally getting Burgundy. To borrow from my music analogy, it generally has more dynamic range and complex arrangements that require more of the drinker; its message is quieter but for the those who will listen closely, the rewards are immense.

I’ve nursed this bottle of Monthelie over the past three days, constantly intrigued with its depth. On the first day, it presented a perfumed fruit-forward bouquet of red raspberry. On day two, it mellowed and delivered more earthly flavors. Finally, on day three it hit its stride completely and came up with a gorgeous nose of herbs with standout notes of rosemary. I wish I could look forward to day four, but with the bottle down to its final sips, it has run its course. I may be forced to cellar a few bottles for a decade to find out what “day four” is about.

Readers hooked on Robert Parker’s loud pop band cranked to 11 need to approach wines like this with a different mindset. Burgundies need to be appreciated and evaluated for what they are. Just as one wouldn’t review a classical symphony based on aesthetic paradigms of rock, one shouldn’t grade Burgundy based on concepts like absolute power and intensity derived from Bordeaux. 

Different circumstances call for different music and different wines. There is a time and place for most things, including the more delicate and subtle passages of life (OK, not everything - some things, and wines, just suck and/or are boring).

Get familiar with Burgundy, and rotate it in your playlist when the time is right :)

2009 Domaine Billard-Gonnet Pommard “Clos de Verger” x 2007 MacRostie “Wildcat Mountain Vineyard” Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

My wife and I enjoy a good steak as much as the next person (vegetarians excepted!), but our typical daily fare is much lighter than a rib-eye — plenty of vegetables, white meat (chicken/pork), and seafood. So though heavy blockbuster Bordeaux and California Cabs were the first wines I fell for, on many nights they simply do not make the best pairing option. 

I’ve been meaning to drink more Pinot - “meaning” being the operative word here. My natural inclination is still to pull Cabs daily from the cellar like I pull socks out of the dresser. It takes some discipline to change behaviors, and so I’ve been making a conscious effort to dial back the power quotient on our wine selections a few notches to fit better with our meals.

I’m a few years into the wine (bad) habit, but still pretty new to the Pinot world. So I’m taking the shotgun approach; I often open two at the same time to compares and contrast, and also try the 2nd and 3rd day leftovers to get a sense of how they will age. This weekend I matched a well reviewed Californian with a well reviewed Burgundy to see who would emerge victorious. 

The answer: well, it’s a tough call, but probably neither (on their own). The Pommard brought the Burgundian earthy funk, but was a touch on the delicate side for my taste. The MacRostie came strong with California ripe fruit power and threw in some savory herbs and spices for good measure. Good stuff, but it lacked the elegance of the Pommard.

My solution? I mixed the two together, roughly 50/50. The result? 1+1=3. Yes dear readers, my entirely unorthodox approach resulted in the greater good for the evening - the best of Burgundy with the best of California, mixed together in a single glass. Saves time, saves energy, and brings the best of both worlds to you in a single sip!

I encourage folks to give wine ‘mash-ups’ a try; while single site vineyard releases are still the focus of wine drinkers (i.e. “taste the place”), mashing up two bottles often results in some good fun and interesting tastes. As Oscar Wilde noted, “life is too important to be taken seriously.” And the same goes with wine…

1997 Langoa-Barton, Saint Julien

The Bordeaux ‘97 vintage hasn’t won many accolades by critics, most of whom have concluded the wines are without sufficient concentration of fruit to be distinctive. There was plenty of rain in ‘97; while this may result in nice juicy table grapes, it’s the last thing a vintner wants as it can result in diluted flavor in wines. Imagine what dousing a glass of water in an outstanding concentrated wine would do - enough said!

Off-vintages like ‘97 are also where value buyers like myself like to focus to seek out gems that sell at a discount to more heralded vintages. K&L in San Francisco, my go-to wine shop, hyped up the ‘97 Langoa-Barton as a top value. Granted, bottles were being sold for $40, hardly a price point considered ‘value’ to many folks; however, considering the 2005 retails for $90, it’s a good deal for a quality Bordeaux with 15 years of age under its belt.

I think K&L made a great recommendation here. The ‘97 Langoa-Barton, a blend of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, features a gorgeous nose (wine-speak for aroma) of leather, herbs, and sweet oak. It doesn’t have the rich concentration of fruit found in better vintages, but it has enough to hold the wine together. Well into its teens, the tannins are now fine and smooth bringing an elegant feel. Overall, a very balanced mature Bordeaux.

In the mood for a Bordeaux but feel the balance and weight of a Pinot would be more appropriate for your meal? In this scenario this wine really shines!

I highly recommend this wine for readers interested in trying a mature quality Bordeaux on a budget. This wine delivers classic aged Bordeaux flavors for less than $50! You’ll miss out on the intense fruit concentration and long finishes found in better vintages and wines, but you’ll also save yourself a ton of money! (And keep in mind for some meals this wine will even pair better!)

[Note: Sadly, this wine does not seem to be widely available anymore; keep your eye out for this!] 

2005 Guy Drew Vineyards Meritage, Cortez, Colorado

Colorado makes wine?! You bet, the state is home to dozens of wineries! Colorado gets tons of sunshine, has a dry climate, and features diverse mountainous geography. Why wouldn’t adventurous vintners give it a try?

Despite that introduction, this was the first time I got a chance to try a Colorado wine as I was transferring through the Denver airport. The airport bar’s wine list had this to say about this selection: “rich, velvet, bright fruit, balanced acidity and integrated tannins.”

I agree that it’s rich — extremely rich with chunky, austere mouth drying dusty tannins. The nose features bright fruit but also some heat from the alcohol. The wine was aged in used and new French oak, and it shows. This bordeaux style blend is intense, rustic and, given its geographic source, an interesting effort. With its concentrated flavor and intense tannins, this would be better with some additional aging - perhaps another 5-10 years. 

The retail price according to the Guy Drew website is $19, a reasonable price to pay for a wine that sees a few years of oak aging before release. I don’t see Colorado wines distributed often (at least outside Colorado!), so curious drinkers will probably need to order direct from the winery.

I’ll stop short of recommending readers seek this out, but I do encourage folks to keep trying new wines, and if you haven’t tried a bottle from Colorado it’s time to hunt one down!

[Note: I tasted this wine by the glass from a wine bar; it is possible that it had been open for a few days before tasting]