Hannover wine roundup I: mostly French wines from Jacques'

Now that I'm living in Hannover, Germany for a while, I'm observing that the quality of life here is very high, especially so in the areas for which this blog is named.  I've already posted a little on physics so here's a bit on wine:

As I've mentioned a few times in discussing some of Trader Joe's wine offerings and elsewhere, German wine retailers seem to have a lot of good and reasonably priced Bordeaux---and French wines generally---available that we don't get in the US, possibly because of the lower transportation costs, and the ease of making direct business contacts with producers who may not sell enough to make it worth marketing across the atlantic.  (The TJ's connection is that as far as I know the latter is privately held in the same hands as German discount supermarket chain ALDI.)   Now that I'm living in Germany, I'm taking advantage of this fact.

Jacques' Wein Depot has stores all over town (and indeed all over Germany), and many bottles always open for tastings.  They had an excellent, medium-full-bodied and quite fruity (strawberry especially), but not sloppy and overripe, Côtes du Rhône from the AOC Rasteau, labeled Ortas Cuvée Prestige 2012, and produced by Caves de Rasteau, for around 7 euros.  Also has a hint of a typical Côtes du Rhône taste I call "leafy".  Excellent deal.  My top pick from Jacques' was Chateau La Croix Romane, AOC Lalande de Pomerol 2011, a right-bank Bordeaux of 80% Merlot and 10% each Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon.  Elegant but still medium-bodied, with some tannin to suggest an optimal drinking window of 4-8 years from now but delicious now, with definite chocolatey flavors and some complexity.  18 euros and well worth it.  2009 was an excellent year in much of Europe it seems, and two moderately priced 2009 Médocs from Jacques, Chateau Castera and Chateau Chantelys, were both excellent, with the former coming in a bit spicier and fuller bodied, the latter a bit lighter and more elegant.  The Castera was about 13 euros on sale (14 normally), the Chantelys I think was less; I think you would have difficulty finding a Médoc of this quality in this price range in the US.  There are cheaper ones at TJ's in the US that are OK, and in general among the better values for reasonably priced Bordeaux in the US, but I would much rather spend in the low teens for one of these.  Besides the business advantages German distributors have, there may be an additional quality advantage to getting French wine in Europe rather than the US: it has not been shipped by boat across the ocean, a roughing-up that probably does some damage to more elegant, subtle, and ready-to-drink wines.

On a different note, for around 9 or 10 euros a 2014 Riesling "Collection les terroirs" from Jean Geiler (Alsace) started a bit rough and ready, but with some air during the course of a meal got more interesting---the back of the bottle claims flavors of ripe lemon and coriander, but I found it more reminiscent of juicy starfruit.  An interesting and tasty bottle in the end; I'll probably get more although not perhaps load up on it.

Departing from the French theme for a moment, a Macedonian wine, STOBI Vranec Veritas (STOBI being the winery, Vranec the grape, Veritas their name for the wine), from the Tikres wine region, was recommended by one of the salespeople at the Kopernikusstrasse branch.  It was very good, fuller-bodied than the French reds mentioned above, closer to a "New World" style but not overripe and sloppy.  I will definitely go for more of it.

I've found the recommendations of the salespeople at these stores to be reliable, their descriptions accurate.

As I've often said, I don't put much stock in numerical wine ratings, but if you want a rough idea of how these might rate in terms of a Parker-type 100 point scale (as he used it circa the mid-1980s, say, which was the era when I paid some attention), I'd give the La Croix Romane a 90, Castera 88, Chantelys 87, Rasteau 86, Geiler Riesling 85, and the Vranec Veritas 88 or maybe 89.  (My impression is that there's been some inflation in Parker and his cohorts' since then: the 85 for the Riesling is still a pretty respectable showing; all of these wines are interesting and worth drinking.)

Oxford Kitchen

I've eaten at least twice---once tonight, and once or twice last June or so... at The Oxford Kitchen on Banbury Road in the heart of Summertown in North Oxford.  Extraordinarily good food.  Nice ambience and décor, stylish but relatively casual.  Exposed brick walls, large silk-screen Campbell's soup can print a nice humorous touch.  Set price menu is extraordinary value.  Hake with Jerusalem artichokes, parsley risotto and some kind of thin (like, microthin) veggie crisps just superb.  Nougatine with quince sorbet, thin (like, microthin) wafers tasting of burnt sugar, toasted almonds, and some crumbly stuff mind-blowingly good.  Pumpkin velouté starter good, not mind-blowing, but set off the wine I had very nicely.  At £18.50 for 2 courses, £15.50 for 2, it's one of the best foodie values I've encountered anywhere.   Wines are carefully chosen and if you have wine in restaurants you know how important that is.  2013 Boschendal Chenin Blanc, coastal region South Africa, £5/175ml is kind of the Chablis of Chenin Blancs---pretty dry, a bit of stereotypical apple flavor but mostly just tastes like really solid white wine a bit flinty-seeming maybe but that's probably just a bit of tannin, really long, flavorful finish no doubt stuck to the palate with a bit of that unobtrusive tannin, a smooth, just the slightest bit unctuous, and not at all hot (overalcoholic) mouthfeel.  To get a chardonnay of this quality, you'd be looking at good village-level white burgundy from the Côtes de Beaune or Nuits, like maybe a St.-Aubin at least (or maybe some particular thing, known to the cognoscenti but not to you unless from a restaurant like this...from a lesser appellation like Mercurey) at least, and 3-4x the price.  Ditto on the red side if you wanted a pinot noir as good as the Claro Reserva 2012 Pinot Noir from Chile ( also £5/175ml)... lush, a bit spicy and earthy, with generous berry flavors too but not a fruit or alcohol bomb, balanced.  These folks have done the work of tasting through dozens of ho-hum reasonably-priced wines to find the ones that deliver an experience that is usually (well, I don't usually spend that kind of money) much more expensive.  Talisker 10 year old, neat in a nice wide rocks glass with a bit of water to splash in, was a perfect finish.  Lively balance between peat and brighter more floral notes, filling the nose with perfume and crackling like fire on your tongue.

I had the tasting menu once last year, it too was superb.  Don't miss Oxford Kitchen if you're in town and can get up to Summertown for a meal.

Isole e Olena 2005 Chianti Classico

A half-bottle of the 2005 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico, consumed a few days ago, was superb. Medium-bodied, with a fair bit of fine but fairly grippy tannins, this was elegant, and for a somewhat tannic wine, somewhat velvety and a pleasure to drink. It didn't seem at all tired or oxidized. Flavors predominantly dried cherry or other red fruits and a hint of pine, at least to my nose.  Super tasty.  Nice long finish. Easily my favorite of the Chiantis I've tasted. I don't remember how much I paid but recent vintages seem to go for $13-15 a half bottle, $20-25 a bottle, which although not cheap, is a bargain if they turn out this well. To judge by how youthful and tannic it still was at 9 years old, I'd guess this one needs to be aged to be at its best---at 9 years it was clearly getting there, but could probably go another 5 or more years and possibly get even more.

Isole e Olena don't appear to have a website; there is more information about them at Giuliana Imports, the Boulder-based importer of this bottle.  Since I have been encountering a lot of claims to the effect that a lot of writing about wine is basically just noise and fashion-following and strongly influenced by things other than the pure olfactory sensation of the wine, I'll point out that their description of the 2011 is very close to my description of the 2005, despite my not having read it (as befits a truly serious wine there are no olfactory notes on the label, either) which suggests to me anyway that Isole e Olena make this wine in a consistent style that can be identified by taste.  Of course this is just one observation, and there is definitely a lot of noise and influence from nonolfactory things like price and reputation and label appearance that enters into people's writing about wine.  (Mention of "red fruits"  or "dark berries"  could easily be influenced by the wine's color, for example, although in my opinion there is usually more to it than that.)  My point is that I think there is a genuine olfactory basis for some of this stuff too.

Based on perusing people's notes on the web (after writing mine), it seems that a lot of people liked this wine young, opinions diverged at about 3-7 years after vintage, and the consensus is more clearly positive over the last few years, suggesting it might have gone through a "dumb"  phase as many wines do during aging.  Also, some people seem to object to the relatively lighter-bodied style, which I happen to love when it is combined, as here, with intensity.  This is a serious producer that has been around at least as long as I've been tasting wine, and based on this sample, their Chianti is indeed a classic.  My sense is that if you have the ability to age it to 9-15 years after vintage you can't go wrong buying multiple bottles of this wine in any decent vintage.

What I just wrote is more meaningful than trying to assign some arbitrary number, but I guess on a Parkeresque 100 point scale, I'd give it something like a 92... and not in the inflated sense where anything you like gets 90---to get 90 or above in my book, a wine has to be at least a bit extraordinary.

Domaine La Millière 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge Vielles Vignes

Not much on wine recently, so here's a quick one on a wine I had with my parents recently:  the 2006 Domaine La Millière Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Old Vines, Red).    Simply put, this is delicious wine with no flaws; perfection, essentially.    Scent, flavor, and finish are all strongly present and are pretty much of a piece, with a pronounced note of chocolate that reminds me of many Vacqueyras I've tasted, but with a more balanced, elegant character, and definitely not the glyceriney mouthfeel that some of these Vacqueyras have had.  Noticeable tannin, but not at all closed or hard, just helping give the wine some backbone and probably help stick the flavor to the tongue for the strong finish.  Aside from the chocolate, perhaps red fruits, raspberry and maybe cherry, maybe a bit less herbal or spicy than some Châteauneufs I've tasted but that's not a criticism.  Reminiscent a bit of a great Pauillac in some ways (OK, I've only ever tasted one first-growth Pauillac, a free taste of the1984 Lafite-Rothschild, but this does remind me of it in terms of elegance, delicious forward flavors of fruit and sweets, though there was maybe a bit more vanilla than chocolate in the Lafite).  Nothing at all funky or off.  Somewhat silky or velvety... really delicious and refined.  This is a smashing success, I'd say pretty much a great wine.  If I had to give it a Parkeresque rating, something in the 91-93 range (as of the time I first paid any attention to his ratings, which is probably around 1985) would probably do.  Various other vintages of this are in the 19 to 23 euro range at La Millière's website---seems like a bargain to me if they are anything like this quality.  Available in the US for sure...I notice that North Berkeley Imports has them, and I have seen them in Santa Fe at the Casa Sena wine store.  I would, though, age them for 7-10 years or so... at 8 years old this seemed definitely ready to drink but whether it's at its peak or has 5 more years of interesting development I wouldn't pretend to know.  About 60% Grenache and 10% each Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Counoise.  The dominant chocolate and red fruits notes likely have a lot to do with the Grenache, with Syrah and Mourvèdre perhaps adding some complexity and depth and maybe, along with the Cinsault, tannin and body.  (I don't know what Counoise is, but perhaps I should find out.)   If this is in your price range, and you're able to keep it till at least 6-7 years from the vintage, I'd say snap up a few bottles or more.  (Might be good younger, for all I know... but I suspect that would be a waste of its potential.)

Christmas wines: Stratus 2007 Cabernet Franc, VQA Niagara Peninsula, and 2005 Chateau Suau update

Stratus is a rather high-end winery in Ontario's Niagara Peninsula area, at least to judge by their prices and modern, fashion-conscious tasting room out on the vine-laden flats between the QEW expressway and Niagara-on-the-Lake.  I picked up a bottle of their 2007 Cabernet Franc while tasting there a few years back, and we had it this Christmas with our traditional vegetarian Christmas dish of Chiles en Nogada --- a vegetarian modification of the Mexican recipe, made of Poblano chiles stuffed with a tofu, tomato, onion, raisin and spice mixture and topped with a cream and ground walnut sauce and pomegranate.

Someplace Hugh Johnson (I think) says that there are two main ways to get a great wine and food pairing:  a brilliant contrast in which each sets the other off, and an echoing in which the two are similar, yet different, for a total experience more complex than either one separately.  This was indeed a great pairing, mostly of the second kind, with the spiciness and slight grassy or vegetal elements characteristic of Cab Franc echoing the Poblano pepper.  Good strong fruit flavors too, and medium-grained tannins.   A very balanced wine, but fairly full-bodied, reminscent of a good Bourgeuil like the Domaine de la Chanteleuserie "Alouette"  but with some aspects more like an excellent Bordeaux:  it seemed a bit on the smooth and elegant side for a Cabernet Franc, but with no lack of flavor.  Tannins seeming to get more pronounced as the meal went on, fairly grippy on the finish, which is fairly long perhaps due to the tannins sticking the flavorsome stuff to the tongue.  Not obnoxiously tannic, though.  Still I'd guess this wine, though delicious and somewhat evolved now, has 3-8 more years of beneficial evolution in store.  Unfortunately I only bought one bottle---I recall it was fairly pricey (retail price was listed as $38 on release but I think it was on sale for less at the winery).

If one has to numerically rate it, perhaps a 8.5 or 9 on my 10 point scale that goes to 11, maybe 89 Parkeresque points.  Great stuff, anyway...an unfortunate example of fairly expensive wine for which I know no cheaper substitute with quite the same qualities, though the Chanteleuserie comes close.  One of quite a few superlative Ontario wines I've had the pleasure of drinking this year... more on the others anon.

Good as this wine was, my wife's Chiles en Nogada were, as usual, the true pièce de résistance of the meal.  Dessert was pampepato, served with the 2005 Sauternes from Chateau Suau.  I've had several 375ml bottles of this, a couple of them somewhat disappointing after an initially fabulous experience...this one seemed back to form, with pineapple, cotton candy, and a little bit of burnt sugar flavors.  The overall format seemed relatively low-acid, not super-crisp, nor super-complex beyond the abovementioned flavors, but nonetheless fairly fresh-tasting.  Quite sweet, but not quite to the point of seeming syrupy.

2010 Chateau Mayne-Guyon, Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux

I liked the 2009 Chateau Mayne-Guyon Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux a lot, in fact thought it one of the best values around in red wine.  A quick note to let you know I liked the 2010 Chateau Mayne-Guyon, also available at Trader Joe's, even better.  I drank it a few months ago, so you can take details with a grain of salt, but I'd say it's more elegant, less chunky and tarry, than the 2009, but still fairly full-bodied and quite flavorful.  More emphasis on delicious berry fruit, a bit less on dark/minerally tastes, but still enough of the latter for complexity, enough tannin to avoid flabbiness and suggest ageability, and perhaps a bit better balanced than the 2009 as well.  I'd guess this would be serious competition for much more expensive (and properly aged) Bordeaux---perhaps not 2nd classed growths but probably some of the better Crus Bourgeois---in a blind tasting.  Another no-brainer for multiple bottle purchases at $8.  If one has to rate, I guess I'd say 8/10 on a 10-point scale that goes to 11, corresponding to around 87-89 Parker points, and I'm probably being conservative here.  On my last visit to TJ's there was a big empty spot with one or two bottles of this on the shelf, so perhaps the secret is out... I already got my stash of four or five bottles.

Trader Joe's Wine Roundup 7/1/2013

No, the Wine Roundup is not some event Trader Joe's sponsors out in its Wild West locations like Santa Fe, it's just me rounding up some empties I wanted to post about before chucking them.

Chateau Haut Sorillon, Bordeaux Supérieur, 2010. Tasty and medium bodied, not complex but fairly balanced and without any of the characteristics that can be offputting in inexpensive Bordeaux. Excellent with tomato and pasta salad and with bread and cheese (Manchego and Cambozola) while picnicking at St. John's College's Wednesday night Music on the Hill. Kind of the straight-ahead hard bop of wine...gets the job done in a satisfying but not ultra-flashy or revelatory way, like one of your more your basic Hank Mobley or Lee Morgan cuts. Very good value at 8 bucks.  Lessay 8 points or so on my 10 point scale that goes to 11.  85 on a Parkeresque scale.

Looks like one NatashaZ93 is keeping far better track than I have time or capacity to, of the TJ value parade...here's her take on the Haut S.

Panilonco Carménère DOC Colchagua (Chile) 2011 Reserva.  I liked the 2009.  I like this too, maybe even better.  Uncomplicated, good varietal flavor, good plush fruitiness and a bit of green tomatoey acidity (but not too much).  Yup.  This'll set you back all of 4 bucks.  I'd say 7.5 points... 83 on a Parkerish scale.

Bois de Lamothe AOC Côtes de Duras 2010  Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon.  Good stuff.  Along the same lines as the Haut  Sorillon (very Bordeaux like) but a bit more austere and rustic, and possibly a hint of something funky in the nose but not enough to be offputting.  Good flavors of  blackberry, a little vegetality to add complexity, maybe even a bit of tarriness.  Another 4 buck wonder!  If one must rate, I'd say the same as above... 7.5, or 83 Parkeresque points.  No, not that Parker... this is more like early Jackie McLean.

I blended together the last glass or so worth of the Panilonco and the Lamothe after they'd been sitting in the fridge for close on a week...it made quite a good blend, possibly even better than each wine alone.  Panilonco added lushness, the Lamothe restrained the Carménère's fruitiness a bit.

Terredora di Paola Irpinia Falanghina 2012

Figured I should get a few quick comments out on some wines while still timely... here's the first

The 2012 Irpinia (DOC) Falanghina (grape) from Terredora di Paolo, $15 at Susan's Fine Wines and Spirits in Santa Fe, was excellent and unusual. Just the sort of thing I was hoping for in an unfamiliar Italian white. Strong flavors, a little bit of almond and lemon and maybe minerality, typically Italian hint of bitterness, a nice smooth but not glyceriny feel in the mouth, a long finish.   Surprisingly high in alcohol (14%) but able to stand up to it with concentration of flavor and freshness. Not something I would age, not super super complex, but not one-dimensional either.  Great clarity of flavor, vigorous but pretty balanced. Not inexpensive but a very fair price for the quality...you are unlikely to get such concentrated flavor combined with balance, even elegance, for less.  I wasn't familiar with the grape variety, a local grape of Campania, the Italian region in which Naples is situated. I'd never been to Susan's before, although I'd read and heard good things, so I checked it out and was impressed by what looks like a carefully chosen and interesting selection. This wine was recommended by Susan herself; based on it, I'll be going back for more of her recommendations.

Three Nebbiolos and a Barbera

Over the past couple of months I've had four remarkable red wines from the Piedmont region of Italy.  The Langhe---the region 30 or so miles south and southeast of Turin, whose hills, dotted with old castles and churches and commanding panoramic views, begin to rise just south of the wine, truffle, and nougat town of Alba, is the source of  most of the best Italian wines made from the local Nebbiolo grape (a few other places in Italy, such as Ghemme and Gattinara in northeastern Piedmont, also traditionally use the grape).  Three of the wines I'll discuss in this post are made from Nebbiolo: one from each of the two noble red-wine appelations, Barolo and Barbaresco, within the Langhe, and a straight Nebbiolo Langhe which, however, could legally have been sold as a Barbaresco.  The fourth wine is a Barbera d'Asti, from the region roughly north of the Langhe, around the town of Asti.

The 2005 "La Loggia" Barolo, at around $15 from Trader Joe's (probably sold out in many TJ's), while not at the level of true greatness that the appellation is apparently capable of, is an excellent wine and a great bargain.  It is on the light side of medium-bodied, somewhat tight or closed, but with some good raspberry flavor, hints of carameliness or vanilla in the nose and mouth, perhaps violets or rose petals or at any rate something floral, though only a hint, and most interestingly a definite rhubarb-ish note that I've found in some other Barolos and Barbarescos and that is very pleasant, becoming more noticeable in the finish.  Reasonably well balanced and smooth.  Tannins are noticeable, showing a bit of bite but not in a harsh way, and feel relatively fine-grained.  This is not a blockbuster complex Barolo, nor does it exactly have a silky velvety feel that the lusher, more immediately appealing ones do, but it is not priced like high-end Barolos either.  And it definitely gives a taste of some of the characteristics Nebbiolo exhibits in these high-end wines, and is a very enjoyable and interesting wine in its own right.

The 2009 "Rocca dell'Olmo" Barbaresco, $10 from TJ's, is an even better value.  It doesn't show much in the nose, perhaps a bit of strawberry, but in the mouth is fuller bodied than the Barolo, opening up over time in the glass though still not acquiring much of a nose.  Flavors are more intense, with strawberry, perhaps cherry, perhaps floral notes again, and darker, more mineral notes along with the pleasing and interesting rhubarb-like flavor mentioned in connection with the La Loggia above.  The finish maintains the same flavors experienced with the wine in the mouth, but is extraordinarily long and flavorful, definitely the most impressive aspect of this wine.  Tannins are a bit more pronounced and have a peppery, slightly coarser-grained feel than those in the Barolo, but are definitely under control and not coarse.  This went extremely well with a vegetarian supper of quinoa and a salad of chopped red and green peppers, tomatoes, feta, and mint dressed with olive oil and lemon juice.  The rhubarb-ish vegetal elements apparently echoed and complemented these tastes nicely.

I bought 5 or 6 more of these to age after trying this bottle.  The finish on this is first-rate, what one would expect from a great wine, and if bottle-age gives it a significant and complex bouquet, as seems possible, it will in fact have developed into a great or near-great wine... for 10 bucks.  We will see.  If this works, I'm guessing it will peak at around 3-7 years (from now, i.e. 7-11 years from the vintage). An extraordinary value in any case.

The third Nebbiolo is a plain Nebbiolo delle Langhe 2009 from Sottimano.  A bit more expensive ($22, not including mixed-half-case-discount, from the Casa Sena wine shop in Santa Fe). This is a really excellent wine. The description of the 2010 vintage, linked above, makes it clear that the wine could legal be labeled Barbaresco (from the "cru" area of Basarin, in fact), but has been downclassified by the winery to Langhe Nebbiolo because the vines are youngish (13-14 years old at the time of the 2009 vintage), and "cannot yet express the richness of polyphenols or all the aromas and the "nuances" that an important cru like this could have."  That right there tells you something about the values and aims of this winery:  many US wineries would have no problem considering vines that old more than ready for their higher-priced bottlings.  When tasted just after opening, this wine seems a bit on the light and tight side, with fine but slightly aggressive tannins, but still quite flavorful and balanced, with much more of a nose (still red berries but also typical Nebbiolo floral elements) than the Rocca dell'Olmo. It rapidly opens up to become a bit more velvety and smooth on the palate than the Rocca, the tannins starting to carry the flavor around the mouth and make it stick, the flavors developing to include more definite notes of caramel and hints of minerality.  Good length of finish, maybe less dark and mineral than the Rocca's, but still complex. I got the feeling from this wine's opening up to be fairly complex, but grapey and natural, and intense on the palate, that it was likely unfiltered. Sure enough, looking at it in the glass (the color is relatively toward the violet rather than red end of the red-wine spectrum) one can see a slight cloudiness of grapey particulate matter, and the Sottimano website confirms that it's neither filtered nor fined. A very good sign. From the website, it looks like the other wines they make are high-end Barolos and Barbarescos from named vineyards; Casa Sena has some of them, priced in the $60ish range. These probably are fuller-bodied, somewhat more tannic, and probably really need at least 7 years of age, perhaps substantially more. The Langhe Nebbiolo is good now, will likely benefit substantially from about 3-5 years of aging, but is not going to need (or perhaps, handle) the aging that the Barolos and Barbarescos do. Still, a very serious wine from what is clearly a very serious estate, a real taste of what serious winemaking with a light touch can do to grapes from an area with real terroir, and another excellent bargain even though not cheap. On my next visit to Casa Sena, I scarfed up the last two bottles for my cellar, and it looks like that may be the last of the 2009 around here. (Kokoman, at Pojoaque Pueblo, now has the 2010 though...).

Around here, Sottimano seems to arrive via Giuliana Imports of Boulder, Colorado; Sottimano's website lists their other US importers by region.

Finally, there's the 2010 Rocca dell'Olmo Barbera d'Asti. Barbera makes fairly full-bodied, lusty wines with elements of leafiness, often fairly chewy tannins, and a bit of dark complexity.  Matt Kramer has said it's rubber-like.  Barbera from Asti (southeast of Turin---Barbaresco separates it from the Alba region and the Barolo appelation) is usually less expensive, and a bit more acidic, even sharper, than Barbera d'Alba. This wine has a bit of that sharpness, but also the full body, chewy tannins, and tasty autumn-leafy flavors that are usually evident in Barbera d'Alba. An excellent buy at $6. From TJ's again, of course; I'm guessing Rocca dell'Olmo is a label put together for them by some Piedmontese négociant with whom they have a big contract.  Perhaps this négociant has the local connections to buy up lots of wine from producers in the high-end appelations, that end up being not quite up to the standards of the super-expensive producers, perhaps because they are lighter than desired, slightly unbalanced, or just didn't fit into the final blend.  It seems to me that that may be one of TJ's major modus operandi in both Europe and California (though in the latter case, many of the wines get sold under TJ's own name).   The somewhat lower standards and much lower prices, though, probably apply mainly to the high end appelations (Barbaresco and Barolo in this case).  This Barbera d'Asti is in no way an inferior example: it is just what a Barbera d'Asti should be, not super-complex or elegant, but a good full-bodied wine tasting fully of the Barbera grape, with just the right hint of the Asti tartness and acidity, an excellent wine to have with strongly flavored foods, and priced, I think, at about what such a bottle would cost in Italy.

2001 Renwood Old Vines Zinfandel (Amador County)

More song and philosophy than wine here lately, but I'll try to put out some quick reviews of outstanding wines I drank in 2012 and more recently.  I visited New Orleans in October (I think) of the year before Katrina, to give a talk at Tulane, and was served the 2001 Renwood Old Vines Zinfandel at the fabulous Lilette.  I was eating more meat then... it went great with a slow-cooked pork belly dish, really cutting through the fatty intensity which in turn helped tame the wine's tannins.  So I bought a case, at something like $10 or $12 a bottle, when I got back to New Mexico.  As I recall, the first bottle was quite close to the experience at Lilette, but then it seemed to go through a closed period, or maybe I just got some ho-hum bottles...so that I was thinking maybe this was just a decent wine to bring to barbeques and such where a really good wine might get lost.  A recently opened (December 2012) bottle was really excellent, though:  loads of very typical Amador County (it's in California's Sierra Foothills) flavors, especially tobacco which is very characteristic, a bit of chocolate, blackcurrant... maybe cherry and hints of coffee... whatever.  Strong and tasty.  Although it had some silkiness, and plenty of sediment had dropped, this was not the most elegant, velvety wine around...it has something of a late harvest, high-alcohol style, but enough flavor to handle it.  Almost reminiscent of a port.  It handles being consumed over several days with refrigeration inbetween, which is usual for me, quite well, although it does become more port-like over time.  Luckily, I have more than half the case left.  But I want to try aging this wine again with a newer vintage.  Really good flavors seem to have developed with aging.  I've always liked the tobacco and chocolate cherry flavors of Amador reds (I've tasted it in some Cabernets too), so I urge folks to check 'em out.