Jalama “Carg” Pinot Noir 2010

Forgive me, Julian, for I have sinned. It has been some ridiculous amount of time since my last confession tasting note. That being said, it’s a new year, a new site (thank you for your hard work), and it’s high time I pulled my own weight around here and contributed something. Right! Off we go: Last year, I was fortunate enough to have drunk several very, very good bottles of wine with this guy named Tom. Tom and I work for the same company, but at relative opposite ends of the totem pole: I’m a humble support tech, and he’s the capo di tutti support services at the company. Better yet, the guy has a seriously good sense of taste when it comes to wine… and he shares. Now, Julian, you may remember that we used to joke about how those of us in the colonies have an amusing habit of referring to anything exceptionally good as being world class or having European styling; this is of course also very, very true in the wine world. If a wine’s especially good, well, then of course it’s world class. To name one example, there’s a very fine, very exclusive winery called in the Santa Rita Hills AVA called Sea Smoke. Support tech that I am, I’d heard of them, sure, but I’ve never actually seen a bottle of theirs, much less tasted it, until Tom cracked one open. Sure enough, just as the <TITLE> tag of the Sea Smoke website claims, it’s world-class: rich, generous, unobtrusively oaked, with fine grained tannins and impeccable taste. There’s a reason it’s mailing list unobtainium and much sought after, and as much as I wanted to find fault with it (being so close to Los Angeles, surely it would have a touch of vulgar Hollywood surgical amplification about it, n’est-ce pas? But no, it’s pure class.)

But I digress. The wine I have in front of me is superficially similar and at the same time not the same thing at all. This is from a small, family-owned vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, not a larger, long-established, well-known winery. Although it’s presumably grown with the same care in a similar climat, and also raised in new French for quite a long time, it’s a relative steal at forty-six bucks, or about four times the price of an oak-chipped monstrosity from the California Central Coast. So: Is it worth it? The short answer is thankfully fuck yeah.

Let’s start with the look of this wine. As rock sage Nigel Tufnel once said, it’s none more black, reall. Unlike Oregon pinot, this one isn’t lacking in the anthocyanin department, no sir. This is the kind of manly pinot that screams Hey ladies, check out my excellent taste in wine as well as my bank balance, which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. On the nose, it’s got everything you could hope for in a pinot: soft, fragrant oak just hanging out like Neal Cassady at the Salinas Greyhound station, crisp saline air drifting in from the coast with just a touch of smoke from the Spreckels plant down the road. Mixed in with very pretty strawberry-cherry notes, there’s also just a little bit of something very Robert Smith in there as well, serious as a heart attack, nervy and tense, tightly coiled. It’s very, very groovy.

Finally, the taste of the stuff? Yeah, pretty much what you’d expect, but better. Magically, it’s light on its feet in the mouth, not heavy or syrupy as California pinot sometimes tends to be. The French oak is a bit more noticeable on the finish – for my taste, I could stand perhaps a touch less, but then again, this is very much a la mode and it’s absolutely spot on for the local style. It finishes with some very smooth, fine grained tannin and a lingering soft, cedary note that unfurls into a wonderfully refreshing, acid-supported vibrancy that has a real way of making you wonder why you don’t drink this kind of wine more often.

Really, why don’t you?

Jalama
Price: $46
Closure: Cork
Source: Winery

Aborigen Ácrata Portada 2006

This wine’s presumably grown somewhere near Ensenada – that’s the only address on the back of the bottle – but exactly where, I have no idea. All I know for sure is that this wine is half grenache, nearly half carignane, and a little bit durif. Period. Sorry.

Clearly unfiltered, swirling the wine leaves the glass with a sparkly coat of residue. The color is that massively purple purple that carignane seems to do so well; it still looks joyously young, even if the wine itself is a hair over five years old at this point. The wine is all sweet fruit with a backing of toasted acorn mush; there’s a savory, umami edge to the cheery/cherry Pop-Tart fruit and thankfully very little of the varnished carignane note I was expecting.

The first big surprise is the weight of the wine; although there appears to be quite a bit of alcohol judging by the legs, there’s not very much at all for a New World wine: just over thirteen percent. As a result, the fat, unctuous Rolland-esque mouthfeel the visuals suggest is absolutely nowhere to be found. Instead, you get a savory mouthful of dried grape and date pudding, with a long, dusky finish of subliminal oak and soft, gentle tannin.

On the whole, I really do like this wine. On the other hand, it’s something of a surprise to drink a carignane that is so tasteful and/or elegantly restrained. The other wine I’ve had from this winery was 100% carignane, twice the price, and was a massive sensorily overwhelming experience that was pure visceral pleasure. This wine, on the other hand, reminds me of what French wine is like when it’s very, very good: mineral, savory, elegant, and yet fruity without being trashy. It’s exceptional, and yet I almost find myself wishing it were more rambunctious.

Aborigen
Price: $30
Closure: Diam
Source: Retail

The Scholium Project the wisdom of Theuth 2010

Here in San Diego, it’s a balmy 25.7°C – sure, it’s technically winter, but it sure doesn’t feel like a good time to bust out the high octane Zinfandel that goes so well with a fireplace (bearskin rug optional, of course). Instead, I’m splitting the difference with a heavy white wine.

On an aside: I’m even more confused about the whole verdejo-verdelho thing after a recent trip to Spain; I came home with a bottle of godello, which is apparently the same as verdelho, which is apparently distinct from verdejo. Go figure. Anyhow: Australians and Californians say verdelho just as surely as we say mataro, so verdelho it is.

You could easily mistake this wine for Asturian cider if you served it in the wrong glass: it’s got that fat, rich, flat sparkling wine color to it. As is usually the case for this winery, there’s obviously a metric ton of alcohol involved, with the kind of legs that would be banned in Utah. The nose is wonderfully complex, with an initial hit of cucumber cold cream, lemon zest, bitter almonds, and empty, waxed wooden floors in a cold German hallway in the countryside, with traces of hay and old leather bookbags.

Unctuous and slippery, the wine is bone dry; all of the texture is strictly alcoholic. There’s a fine-grained acidity that works well against the bitter chalkiness of the wine; there’s an elegant tension between a sense of fresh baked bread with slightly green edges on the nose and the bottom-heavy, quince marmelade of the wine. Finally, apparently only to drive home the point that this wine is serious business, there’s a seductive hint of stony minerality.

Should you age this wine? No, probably not. What you should do is obvious (and a categorical imperative): buy some, cool it (but don’t chill it), and serve it to friends with marzipan or strong cheeses. I know it’s a vanishingly small category, but The Scholium Project is (I believe) far and away the finest producer of verdelho in North America. If you don’t know what verdelho tastes like, this is your best introduction to the genre.

The Scholium Project
Price: $28
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Sandstone Cellars III

First off, allow me to note that I did not pay full retail for this wine. A couple of years ago, I had to travel to San Angelo, Texas to do some work at a local hospital. It was cheaper to fly to Austin and drive, so I did; I passed Sandstone Cellars on the way over to San Angelo, thought it looked kinda interesting, got my work done there, and stopped in on the way back. I thought the wine was damned good and bought a bottle; leaving Mason, the town where the winery’s located, I checked my email and saw that they’d sent an email a few hours earlier, so I made a U-turn and headed back to the winery to chat a bit more. They offered the bottle at half price; I met them half way, and that’s the story here. So: I paid $30, which – now that I’ve finally opened the bottle – feels like I ripped them off for $10.

Right. First time I’ve had this wine, second Sandstone Cellars wine I’ve ever tasted. What’s it like?The first impression I get is of whatever you call the tea leaf equivalent of coffee grounds. If you make a pot of tea – and I’m thinking something malty like, say, Assam – and leave the used tea leaves aside, they tend to smell like this, especially if (say) someone’s made lavender Earl Grey out of them; think vanilla, orange blossoms, just a touch of smoke and cedary wood. It’s lovely, and it doesn’t remind me of anywhere else I can think of. Nice to see that the second bottle I’ve had from Mason County is as idiosyncratic as the first: both have been of uniformly high quality, and it seems that Don Pullum, the winemaker (do check out his Twitter feed if you haven’t), is definitely onto something here.

And how does it taste? First off, it’s tannic (still). Firm, dusty, blocky tannins a go go. It’s also nicely acidic; the overall mouthfeel doesn’t approach the silky smooth California profile I’m used to (think higher alcohol and a bit of residual sugar). Fruit’s here too, thankfully: more than anything, I taste Zinfandel, but the label tells me we’re mostly working with Mataro here; I don’t sense the Mataro particularly save for the smoky-floral notes on the nose. To me, this wine shows a real tension between the fruit, tannin, and acidity; although there’s plenty to love about the vanillin, cherry-blackberry fruit, it’s slightly attenuated by the acidity (think food wine). That being said, part of what makes this wine such a pleasure is its tension: it’s the vinuous equivalent of a tritone.

The finish… yes, Dorothy, there is a finish, and it’s very Bach: four part harmony all the way down. Sweet fruit, nervy acidity, lingering tannins, and spice, not staying in any one key too long before nervously jumping to the next.Sitting here thinking about this wine (and the people that made it), I find myself wondering if there’s a place in most folks’ wine cellars for this kind of thing. Looking at CellarTracker, for example, I see that there’s less than a dozen bottles of every wine they make represented on the Internet. They don’t ship to California, I couldn’t find a bottle in Dallas to save my life last year, and this kinda bothers me. Look, I know I’m something of a hipster when it comes to wine: I prefer the experimental over the tried-and-true, I’m always up for things I haven’t heard of from places I can’t pronounce, and novelty is more interesting to me than safety. Part of this is of course financial: unlike my Dad, I grew up in a world where first growth Bordeaux costs as much as a month’s rent. Much of my drinking has necessarily been local or obscure: if you can’t afford Pingus, might as well make the best of Bierzo.

Even more: as a Californian, I’ve always been especially open to things that are (strictly speaking) unique to my region and my cultural traditions. Field blends (‘mixed blacks’) for example: drinking something like that is a tangible link to the past I share with everyone else in this state, and I honestly believe that’s there no reason why that shouldn’t stand tall compared to other countries’ traditions (be it Hunter semillon or autochtonous Georgian grapes fermented in clay amphorae). And when I come across something like this wine, I really do get excited at the possibility that someone, a pioneer, may be discovering (crafting?) something new, something specifically Texan, something that a hundred years from now will be as well known as, say, California Zinfandel, something that’s universally recognized as Texan.If so, this a damn good start.

Sandstone Cellars
Price: $40
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

2009 Scholium Project Midan al-Tahrir

Let’s start with the finish, shall we?

The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic.

– David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

If the experience of drinking a sip of this wine somehow included an involuntary oblivion, slyly eliding the first four-fifths of the line, it would have been enough. Heck, it would have been more than enough; the final, sneaking outro, the slouching into the past on little cat feet, soft scratch of nails against slate and clay, that alone’s far more interesting than most wines manage.

Let’s start with what this wine is not: it’s not identifiably varietal, it’s not faithful to a style (and in that sense is assuredly not a vin d’effort, it’s immoderately alcoholic, and it may well be de trop in terms of food pairings (although it might work wonders where pale, cool sherries would).

In the glass, the color’s nothing; it’s undifferentiated white wine product, visually unexceptional… but don’t be fooled. The nose is as subtly differentiated as a Rothko painting; subtle variations unfold towards the margins. The effect is akin to watching an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie: in the center of the frame, a water buffalo escapes its post, slowly, leaving you to experience the beauty of the moment. This wine requires patience.

There are peaches, simple canned peaches, with a hint of the fresh linens worn by the cafeteria ladies who served you those peaches when you were in fourth grade. There are spices, refreshing and clean. They smell like Mom. There’s a wonderful, nutty oxidation, like a steel-green Chardonnay. The closest thing I’ve ever smelled to this was a sparkling Scheurebe from Saxony, all fresh bright fruits with a subversive edge of fresh sugar snap peas. If you’ve ever taken the time to watch – and I do mean really watch – a simple Dan Flavin sculpture of fluorescent tubes shimmering bright white light against a smooth concrete wall, you might have experienced something like the calm, hazy torpor this wine induces.

Alcohol, of which there is plenty, lends a fat happiness here, but thankfully relatively little heat. Not sweet, you can choose your own adventure here if you’re so inclined: this could be slightly oxidized Chardonnay, this could be from Franconia, this could be very fresh and clean. Peaches and cream, spice and almonds seem to be the main themes here; however, it’s only when it goes quiet that it really sings.

After the wine is gone – and I have no idea how the gods have arranged this – there’s that final, languid pause before unseen pleasures surprise you. If you’ve ever heard Evelyn Glennie play a note that she didn’t actually play, it’s something like that. This wine tastes like memory feels.

Scholium Project
Price: $24
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Fecha 2006

I’ll keep this short. Three weeks ago, I joined Turista Libre! for an art tour to Tijuana. After visiting the Tijuana cultural center and seeing one of the most interesting exhibits I’ve seen in years (largely to do with the visual language of Tijuana), I was fortunate enough to have lunch at cielo, an amazingly good restaurant in the brand new Via Corporativo building, Tijuana’s first high-tech green office building, which also houses Mision 19, the hottest new restaurant in Mexico, as well as a new branch of la CONTRA, an impossibly stylish Mexican wine shop.

Earlier in the week, I’d seen the label for this wine on their Web site and decided that it was a categorical imperative that I buy a bottle. As luck would have it, it was not only far more expensive than I was expecting – I had to beg my partner for cash to complete the purchase – but it wasn’t even made from noble grapes, whatever that means. Oh, hell no. It’s made from Carignane, which is about as low rent as grapes get in this part of the world.

Flash forward to this evening: it’s a work night, and I’ve convinced a coworker who also knows a thing or two about good wine to come over after work and share a pizza. We start with a 1998 Clonakilla shiraz viognier, which is beautiful, elegant, tranquil, and calming – and then I figure, oh, what the hell, might as well open this bottle of Mexican wine that is probably wildly overpriced and not terribly good.

I haven’t been more wrong about a bottle of wine in years. I’ll keep this mercifully short: this is one of the best wines I have tasted in years. Much like the Mogor-Badan chasselas from the same part of the world, this wine is simultaneously breathtakingly beautiful and deceptively plain. With a sweet nose of bacon-smoked cherries, hickory wood, and dried plums, the wine suddenly detours into a wonderfully somber, heavy-tannined, plush murmur of serious bass (think Orange amplification, of course) along the lines of, say, an Om LP. This wine does all of the things that good wines do: every time you smell it, it changes: sometimes it smells of oranges and Christmas spices; other times, it smells of finely ground white pepper in a blazing white kitchen with sauerbraten cooking. The acidity is rude in the best possible way, reminding you that, hey, this is carignane, you know, and not some brain-dead Napa cab. The finish goes on so long that Rebecca Black is probably responsible for it. More than anything, else, though, is the overwhelming, ecstatic sense you get that you’ve never, ever drunk anything like this before. This, my friends, is Mexico.

Fecha
Price: $75
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Monte Xanic Chardonnay 2007

It’s a funny thing: if I stand up on the roof of my house, I can see Mexico. The city where I live used to be Mexican, most of the workers in Californian vineyards are Mexican, and yet finding Mexican wine in these parts is dang near impossible. Sure, San Diego’s just an hour’s drive away from the finest vineyards in Mexico – and yet it’s easier to find Uruguayan tannat or Romanian fetească albă here than a simple Chardonnay grown just down the road.

This bottle was retrieved from Costco Mexicali; I would hazard a guess that it represents solid middle class Chardonnay in Mexico. Given the high taxes on wine in Mexico, it’s roughly twice the cost a similarly positioned California chard would cost, which is a real shame.

The wine is strikingly clear, somewhat pale gold with a tinge of green. The nose is quintessentially Burgundian, with matchstick, cashew, and cream in abundance. There are also hints of pear and toasty oak as well as something approaching cherimoya.

Unabashedly fat, the first impression I get here is frankly that of a clumsy hommage to the likes of K-J Vintners Reserve chard. This doesn’t quite hold true, though, as there appears to be no residual sugar here; more tellingly, there is plenty of acidity on the back palate to hold off the initial creamy onslaught. Even so, the overall effect is of dairy cream candy a thousand miles away from Chablis – until the finish, that is, when the acidity takes over and almost allows the wine to finish on a refreshing note… almost.

This is a curious wine and damn near a very good one indeed. My only real problem here is that it seems to be somewhat undecided about what it wants to be: all signs point towards creamy, lees-y, over-the-top Californian chardonnay, and yet that finish betrays its European side more than anything else. Ultimately, though, it’s a lot more interesting than other wines in its price class and definitely worth checking out. (Just don’t try to bring more than one bottle back if you’re a California resident and you’re driving yourself back across the border – I learned the hard way that Draconian laws here will result in a lengthy detention in secondary inspection while la migra waits for you to empty all of your other bottles into a sink. Oops.)

Monte Xanic
Price: $20
Closure: Diam
Source: Retail

2005 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot

You ever pop the cork on a bottle, pour some in a glass, smell the wine, and say to yourself: Is that it? I mean, really? Well, this might just be one of those bottles… at least right away. After waiting fifteen minutes – actually, baking a frozen pizza – the nose finally did get somewhere. Unfortunately, though, that somewhere was more like the Greyhound station in Modesto than, you know, Pomerol or something.

This wine smells like wine. It doesn’t even smell like expensive wine: it just smells bland. There’s a little bit of sour kirsch, some spicy plums, and an awful lot of dead air. Moderately fat on the palate, there’s also an unnerving sense of absence: instead of fatness and plush, classic Napa merlot, you get the vinous equivalent of a receding hairline: as quickly as you can latch onto something worth noticing, it ebbs away into a thin, acidic, spicy, uninteresting puddle of a sweet, alcoholic cash drain. Over the course of a glass, the only marked change is that of the tannins, which tend to build over time into a thick fuzzy wall of sorts; they’re not sweet, refined, or pleasant, but they’re definitely there in an obstinately retro, oaky kind of way.

I really don’t know what to make of this wine. This was a present from some very generous coworkers a few years ago, and I was looking forward to it in a sort of ‘so this is what the other side drinks’ kind of way. I imagine that Napa merlot was Very Big Indeed in the 1990s; those were the days when every marketing executive at a company holiday party would hold forth on how the cheap crap they were pouring was no match for Pahlmeyer or what have you. Is this just a brand name coasting on reputation, hoping that rubes in less with-it parts of the country will keep on paying fifty bucks for this because they don’t know any better?

Seriously: Just grab a bottle of Hedges Red Mountain wine for a third the price and tell me why the Duckhorn even needs to exist with competition like that. Yeesh.

Duckhorn Vineyards
Price: $50
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

Field Recordings Koligian Vineyard "Chorus Effect" 2008

This is American wine.

Fabulously complex, this wine shows the very best America has to offer while still maintaining a respectful echo of Old World tradition. The nose is cedary (without smelling like a wardrobe), spicy within tasteful bounds, and displays a finely layered, overlapping, intricate mesh of little red fruits. It’s reminiscent of balsamic vinegar in which strawberries have steeped, or perhaps of dried plums and brandy. More intriguingly, there’s a faint hint of cold, wet granite and faded violets: the initial sweetness of the nose is quickly replaced by something more serious, more complex, more interesting.

Texturally, the wine is a marvel, rich and full in the mouth without being sappy or fat. The firm tannins resolve quickly and firmly into a sharp, precise stop; then, the finish then creeps forward ever so slowly with hints of molasses and dried cherries, smoke and fading embers. In the distance, you can feel the cold northern lights fading, wisps of wintergreen and peat in the air.

No two mouthfuls taste exactly the same: it’s much like listening to a La Monte Young drone piece. Imagine a six channel audio setup in which every speaker is playing something different at the same volume; if you can will yourself to cede concentration and lose yourself to the moment, you’ll experience overlapping washes of physical experience. Pretty cool, come to think of it: if some wines bowl you over with sheer power and others with delicate beauty, the joy to be found here seems to exist in the tension between its multiple, unresolved elements. Difficult as hell to pull off, this is an excellent example of the genre.

The best New World wines are like this one: wonderfully ripe, exuberant, and bold – and yet restrained enough to give you time and space to appreciate the subtleties of place. There is absolutely no possible way this could have come from Bordeaux; that is a strength, not a fault. Just as Ridge Geyserville or Hedges Red Mountain are distinct, unique wines that don’t feel like they could have come from anywhere else, this wine only leaves me with one question: Why hasn’t anyone made this before? It just feels right, somehow.

Field Recordings.
Price: $27
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Retail

La Linda Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

Tell you what: This is the new deal. If you send me a sample of your wine, I will do my very best to provide you a piece of writing which may or may not have anything to do what’s in the glass. Think of it as something for nothing (other than a small ding in your PR budget): you send me wine, and you get (hopefully interesting, probably rambling) free association about the semiotics of your wine, random commentary, and maybe even an actual tasting note.

On to this sample, then, courtesy of an East Coast public relations agency who offered it up unbidden. (I replied thanking them and asking them for information on Australian availability, given that many of our readers don’t live in the eastern USA. They didn’t reply to that question, but they did send a bottle, which is lovely.) I initially agreed because I’d heard of Luigi Bosca; I have vague good memories of them from a weekend in Mendoza that was preceded by an incredibly long bus trip thanks to a general strike at the nation’s airports.

I’ll start by saying this: Screw Flash. Really. It’s just annoying. I went to load their Web site (linked below) and had to wait for a lame-ass animation of YAY A CORKSCREW uncorking white space in my browser. You know what, guys? Save the money and put it in your product. All I want from a winery’s Web site is technical sheets about their products (with tasting notes, perhaps), information on where to buy some, and maybe even a list of upcoming events at the winery. That’s it. And you know what else I really don’t want? One of those annoying “Please enter your birthdate!!!” pages. Hint: It’s the Internet. I’m sure that 20-year-olds will see that pages and say “You know what, never mind. I’m not old enough to drink, so I had better leave this Argentine wine site and go back to talking about Justin Bieber on Facebook with my little sister.” Please. It’s just irritating, ESPECIALLY when you have to enter your birthday using a Flash UI. STOP IT. (For the record, I was born on 1 January 1910.)

On to the wine, but before I begin, I’ll note that Luigi Bosca seems to have erupted in a mad bout of branding, PR dollars, and marketing a go go. This is cool; I loved their Gala wines, but if they want to sell twenty different wines at multiple price points with different branding entirely, that’s just fine. This wine, La Linda, or “the beautiful,” is their cheap stuff, selling for well under ten bucks in the USA. With that in mind, I’ll start by looking at the packaging: the foil is a little cheap looking, the cork has some kind of laser-printed inventory or other number on it, but once that’s gone, you have a fairly splendid looking bottle that exudes class. The label is well printed and looks like a twenty dollar wine; there’s exactly enough information on the back label to help your average supermarket consumer decide if this is the wine they’re looking for (geographical information, a straightforward, honest tasting note, and food pairings (red meats!)). In short, everything is perfect here; it looks like it was destined for Oddbins or any decent supermarket.

So what have we got in the glass, then? A bruiser of purplish-black, inky wine, blackberry sweet on the nose, but with an attractive seam of rich, toasty, vanilla oak (chips?). The real surprise is on the palate, where the wine pivots into something much more interesting (and useful to restaurateurs): a higher-toned, nicely acidic, brightly lifted red wine that seems purpose built for the wine list at an all-you-can-eat churrasceria joint in Dallas or Washington. The palate is classy, friendly, and slowly gives way to a firm but friendly tannic finish that should do incredibly well with charcuterie or, well, huge frickin’ steaks. Oh, and I almost forgot the best part: it’s only 13.5% alcohol, which means you can share a bottle with your partner and not have to call a cab home afterwards.The only competition I can really see for a wine like this – at least locally – would be something like a Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot from Washington, which offers an approximately similar drinking experience at a similar price point. Where this wine shines by comparison, though, is the classier packaging, the more complex taste, and perceived value (hey, it’s an import!).

If you run a restaurant, this would be perfect for a steakhouse, upscale Mexican restaurant, or themed Brazilian dining. There’s no reason you couldn’t charge $30 for this and profit handsomely; if I were the importer, I’d concentrate on hospitality sales and avoid retail, where it might not fit in to the standard retail mix (two wines from Argentina, one Torrontés, one Malbec).

Luigi Bosca
Price: $8.99
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample