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, 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'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 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 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.

Nipozzano Chianti Rufina Riserva 2006

Here's a wine available (as of a few weeks ago) at LCBO that I can wholeheartedly recommend:  the 2006 Nipozzano  Chianti Rufina Riserva, produced by the Marchesi de Frescobaldi.  (Don't know what LCBO is?  Lucky you.  But they deserve some credit for stocking this.)  This is the third vintage I've had of this wine, and I've been happy with all of them, but this one's the best.  Dark fruits, soft full flavors but definite tannic backbone to keep it together, some nice chalky minerality behind it all showing up on the longish finish with some slight hints of mintiness, and hints of bitterness.  A clear, clean, leafy version of  "Tuscan funk" lurks barely perceptible behind this, perhaps ready to contribute some heady, perfumy, but unpredictable, notes with age.  In short, fairly complex, and mixing classic Chianti characteristics with notes--including the slightest, but pleasant, hints of greenness or vegetality---that are definitely characteristic of Cabernet.  I could imagine this wine repaying 5, perhaps even 10, years of cellaring by evolving into something stunning, but this is always unpredictable, the more so as I don't have any experience cellaring this wine.  (Comments invited from anyone who does.)

Chianti Rufina is, if I recall correctly, one of three main zones for higher-end Chiantis, the largest being Chianti Classico covering a hilly area between Florence and Siena, with Chianti Montalbano and Chianti Rufina, each much smaller than the Classico area, being the other significant DOCG's. (I've also had very good Chianti from the Colli Fiorentini, i.e. the "Florentine Hills".)

Victor Hazan's superb, extremely well written and observed 1982 book "Italian Wine" (yes, he's Marcella's husband) reports Frescobaldi as "the most celebrated producer" of the area, with the Nipozzano Chianti "nearly as fine" as their single-vineyard, limited production Montesodi, but "much more accessible in price and quantity".  At $21.55 Canadian at LCBO, that "accessible in price" still seems right 27 years on, given the quality of the wine.  I acknowledge that's a heck of a lot to pay for a bottle if you're not a wine geek like me, but I'm much happier paying it for this wine than the $15 to $20 CDN I've paid for many a mediocre bottle from LCBO (or the $10-15 US I've paid for some mediocre bottles in the States).

I'll probably raise expectations too high if I quote Victor Hazan further on Chianti Rufina: "A choice Rufina can match in authority, and sometimes surpass, Chianti Classico at its finest.    In character it is closest to a Chianti from Radda [...], making forceful first impressions that precede layer after layer of unfolding flavor." One of my best wine experiences ever (involving quantum physics, as well, so perhaps I'll post about it at some point) involved a wine from Radda, the Monte Vertine Riserva (I don't even recall seeing the word Chianti on the bottle), from the early 1980s.  1981 sticks in mind but at this remove---I had the wine in Turin in 1995 or so---who knows.  And this wine, though less aged, reminds me of how that Monte Vertine might have tasted in its youth.  So I think Hazan is right on in this comparison, and it says good things.  Now this is just wine, for chrissake---if you want revelation, for less money you could go out and buy the remastered deluxe edition of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.   But still, good stuff.  If you have the money, and the inclination, and you've already got a copy of A Love Supreme, give it a try.  OK, try it even if you don't have a copy of A Love Supreme---but you really should get one of those, too.

Notes on previous editions of this wine:

2001, half bottle with dinner at Mövenpick, Zurich airport, August 2005:  "Excellent---has dark fruits and some complexity/silkiness.  Balanced."

2002 (tasted 2004 or 2005): "Even better than the 2001, probably.  Velvety, fairly rich, notes of cocoa in the nose.  Good with George's deep fried "little pizzas" from Campania, with red pepper, cayenne, tomato sauce.  Stands up to it.  Hints of minerality.  Superb!"  George is my son;  he likes to cook on occasion, especially Italian.  Perhaps it's his Italian heritage from my wife, who is 100 percent Italian-American; perhaps it's  his food-obsessed (though not more so than your average Italian) heritage from my side of the family.

Bring da Tuscan funk---aging Sangiovese-based wines from Tuscany

Over the past year or two I've had some mid-range Tuscan wines made from the Sangiovese grape that I've cellared for awhile, and it's mostly been an enjoyable experience to see how these wines have evolved.  They typically develop a very characteristic bouquet that I've seen described as "forest floor," reflecting scents that are a little bit mushroomy, a little leafy, a little earthy, but to some extent distinctive and found nowhere else.  I can imagine not everyone liking this bouquet, but I usually do.

A 2004 Fattoria di Lucignano Chianti from in the DOCG Colli Fiorentini tasted in Sept. 2006 was, according to my notes, excellent.  "Not very tannic but with some structure, but juicy, with a balance between flavors of red fruits and dark fruits, and minerally and leafy notes, a slight glyceriny smoothness and hints of caramel and chocolate cherries.   By April or May of 2009 it had a "nice bright crimson color, getting a brick-red edge," and was "Delicious, medium-bodied, perfumy, with a typical aged-Sangiovese "forest floor", "tuscan funk" aroma, "lifted" flavors of cherry, strawberry, and hints of leather.  Just what a Chianti that is evolving correctly ought to be. "

A 1999 Barco Reale di Carmignano was a bit more elegant wine, but evolved similarly.   Young, it was a little darker and more tannic, but still balanced and enjoyable;  tasted a few time during the last few years, it was gaining clarity, perfume, and a more balanced and integrated version of the funky aged-sangiovese bouquet.

Monte Antico, a Sangiovese-based Tuscan wine produced very near Montalcino (of Brunello fame), is a reasonably priced (now around $10) wine that often ages very well---one of the best deals in Tuscany in a good year.  Around Christmas a few years back, I had the 1985 and it was nicely aged, mellow and with some sweet, chestnutty aromas with only hints of leafiness and shroominess, and nice cherry fruit flavors---not a blockbuster but definitely showing some of the benefits of aging.  The 1998, unfortunately, was not such a good year--- in February 2009 it was "OK--sediment about to drop but still suspended---rather light-bodied and not complex--some typically Tuscan funky elements in the aroma".  In summer 2007, I wrote "aromas not so developed--red fruit flavors, fine tannins, not so concentrated but sappy and with some complexity.  Nona think it smells bad!" [that must've been the hint of aged-sangiovese funkiness] "Red cherry, black cherry, a bit of tea, a hint of licorice.  Tasty!! Evolving to smoky, slightly barnyardy aromas."  So maybe it was always slightly awkward and light, and is now going over the hill...or maybe it will open up again with more aging.  I have a few more bottles of various vintages back in the USA... and this is always one to pick up at the store and leave lying around in your basement to see what will happen.

I'll cover some Sangiovese-based wines tasted at a younger age in a future post.

Interview with a terroirist: Randall Grahm at 1winedude

Not to be missed, an interview with Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, creator of Le Cigare Volant and one of the most entertaining winery newsletters ever (although it has been over a decade since I was on their mailing list).  I still remember the time I tasted wine there, sharing the tasting bar with a biker who lauded the fact that Bonny Doon's wines were the only ones that didn't give him a headache...

Herbsaint, New Orleans (Restaurant review)

Herbsaint is an excellent restaurant on St. Charles street in the central business district of New Orleans.  I have good memories of eating there a few years ago, and I had dinner there twice this week.  It has a bit more casual and hipper vibe than some of the top foodie meccas here, with white mosaic tile floor with black accents in the bar that looks like it might be original from the 20's, cracks and all, large storefront plate-glass windows, a thick semigloss paint job on the walls and woodwork, off-white with the faintest avocado tinge, some dropped down lighting boxes hung from the ceiling, white tablecloths and comfortable oak chairs with a 20's/30's feel as well.  The place was packed on a Monday night---good sign.  I went with three friends.  We ate in the back room, not quite as nice an atmosphere as the main room, but fine.  My duck gumbo was intensely flavorful and hearty.  Olive oil seared Louisiana shrimp with tomato confit and breaded fried eggplant were delectable.  These were the best shrimp I've had on this trip to New Orleans---flavorful, extremely fresh, touched but not overwhelmed with some spices reminiscent of the New Orleans "barbecue" shrimp (but basically a grilled or sauted preparation, not swimming in the mildly spicy "barbecue" sauce).  The tomato confit was too sharply vinegary for my taste; the eggplant was quite good, though.  We drank a bottle of wine from Chateau de la Liquiere, at Faugeres in the Languedoc, recommended by the waiter over my initial choice of the Chave "Mon Coeur" Cotes du Rhone.  It was a good solid wine, reasonably tannic but not overbearing or rough, and fairly smooth---well flavored, with some golden leafy notes (reminded me of a California oak forest for some reason), but not complex.  My dinner companions raved over it more than I did---perhaps a bit of a sniffle was preventing me from fully appreciating it, or it maybe it was the $55 price tag.  It complemented the food well.  For dessert, I took one of the waiter's top recomendations---the warm banana tart.  It was advice well taken---high-end and homey at the same time, with a delicious, well browned, thick crumbly tart crust, firmish, delicious filling somewhere between pecan pie filling and banana-flavored marzipan, and delectable seared glazed banana slices and mint leaves on top.  This and the shrimp were seriously delicious culinary achivements, the sort of stuff Michelin stars and such are made of.

Too tired to walk far from my hotel, the next night I went back thinking I'd have a small dinner.  I ended up getting the special Italian tasting menu (one each week, for the month of October), for $45.  This one started with a small antipasto of thinly sliced, excellent hard (but not tough!) salame, and some marinated diced eggplant (nice but not as good as the salame).  The Crab Gnudi were superb, gnocchi-like balls of crabmeat held together with ricotta and grilled or seared, served on swirls of delicious, intensely flavored olive oil (and some other delicious sauce that was a pale orange (something citrusy, perhaps?)).    The dish was less delicately flavored than I expected, but superb.  Herbsaint seems to have a style of "high-end heartiness"---perhaps it's a Cajun-food influence: they tend toward big flavors, smokiness, searing along with a little innovation and fusion.  The main course certainly followed that model: baked striped bass with tomatoes, fennel, and basil was served in the paella pan it was baked in, and featured a chunk of firm, flavorful, skin-on bass in a smoky, thick tomato sauce in which big slices of fennel had braised to tenderness.  It was a lot for one person to eat, and if it had a flaw it might have been a bit of excessive smokiness, but was an extremely tasty take on what might be a pan-Mediterranean tradition of cooking fish over wood fires at sea's edge---it called up stories of pine-smoke-scented bouillabaisses on the Riviera, and images of the Ligurian coast.  The server mentioned "a white cake" when I ordered the menu---the menu said Cassata Siciliana, usually a cake of ricotta and candied fruit flavored with liqueur---but it was indeed a square of white cake---high end Sara Lee, basically, with a bit of a caramel syrup and some tasty toasted hazelnuts on the cake.  The cake was velvety and fresh but not too special.  The chocolate salame, however, was excellent.

A Baumard "Cuvee Ancien" (a botrytized sweet wine, presumably a Chenin Blanc from the Loire, as Baumard also produce a Cote du Layon) was a good accompaniment to (and more interesting than) the cake, mellow and sweet but not cloying, and with nice flavor notes of dried orange peel, hints of brown sugar, and botrytis, though not a complex standout.  The main course went perfectly with a very good Commanderie de Peyrassol Rose 2007  from the mountains of Provence, though I suspect my other potential choice, a Barbera from an excellent producer, would also have gone well with it.  The Chateau d'Epire 2006 Savennieres, a firm, slightly steely and minerally Chenin Blanc based wine from the Loire, with a hint of honey and a balanced, smoothness, went perfectly with the crab (though it should have been served a touch colder).

For someone dining alone, the tables in the front window by the bar are a bonus---good seats from which to watch everyone having fun at the bar and in the restaurant, as well as a pleasant view of the outside seating and St. Charles street.

Overall, a very reliable, enjoyable place, well-appreciated by lots of locals, and with a very long and well chosen wine list, much more interesting wines by the glass than many places have, and a menu that is likely to deliver, if not guaranteed constant perfection, hearty, interesting, imaginative food and at least several dishes on each visit that will put you "in the zone."

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