Mollydooker Enchanted Path Shiraz | Cabernet 2007

Yet another Mollydooker wine, yet another custom domain name. Before I begin this time, I’d like to quickly discuss the 2007 Carnival of Love Shiraz, which I finished drinking last night and which led me down a rabbit hole of snide one-liner reviews: Good, but not $85 good. Penfolds St. Henri, but with a shot of grain alcohol. Lovely Shiraz with well-judged oak, but at triple the cost of its competitors. In short, it was a good wine, not great: rich Shiraz fruit without any of the annoying complications of terroir, subliminal oak that helped rather than hindered, once again too much alcohol, and on the whole a perfectly enjoyable wine unless you earn less than six figures and/or prefer moderate alcohol levels, in which case, well, you’re SOL.

Now: on to this wine. Once again, my heartfelt thanks to the good folks at Mollydooker for sending press samples my way; I’m sure they were hoping (as was I) for happy drinking, and I’m pleased to say that I’m finally as near my happy place as I’m going to get. Once again, though, I’ll point out that the cost is well into ridiculous range (you can buy Clonakilla shiraz viognier or Ridge Monte Bello for less money than this), and the alcohol is stratospheric (although thankfully not as noticeable on this wine). And with that, I’m done whingeing. On to the good stuff.

Many, many years ago, shortly before I decided to enroll in the Central Washington University World Wine Program, I attended a tasting in Seattle that was led by the CWU professor responsible for founding their wine program. One of the gentlemen in that afternoon’s tasting – I suspect he was a doctor, lawyer, or someone else with an awful lot of money – expressed concern about a pinot noir’s color – surely something that pale couldn’t possibly taste good? Well, sir, if it’s rich, satisfying, tooth-staining color you like, I’m happy to report that this wine has an awful lot of it, period. Once again we’re dealing with a squid ink black, opaque, monster of a wine, but the color is slightly different than the other Mollydookers: not quite older, but it’s optically slightly less transparent at the rim and with a more usual color to it.

The nose is wonderfully complex; at first, I was reminded of an off-season seaside hotel on the coast of Spain: iodine notes, plus fading fruit, battered wood, fruity esters, the remaining spice from summer guests’ colognes, and all kinds of other interesting things. The one thing I’m reminded of the most is (strangely enough) Comme des Garçons Odeur 53, an avant-garde anti-perfume that is said to contain notes along the lines of ‘dust on a lightbulb’ and ‘pure air of the high mountains’ – in short, lots of highly improbably, artificial things that really shouldn’t be in a perfume. Similarly, not a lot of what I smell in this wine reminds me of traditional wine smells: no obvious Bordeaux toast, raspberry motor oil fruit, etc. Instead, you get a hundred variations on dislocation. There’s a lot here which tends towards the plastic, the cosmetic, the confected, the surreal, but it works just fine in context, strangely enough: at times, it does settle back down into nearly recognizable shiraz-cabernet territory with a whisper of spicy oak, but only briefly.

With alcohol levels this high, the wine does turn hot towards the middle of the palate, which is moderately unpleasant; however, the rich, unctuous, mouth-filling sensuality of the wine is undeniably powerful; even if you’re intellectually opposed to it on grounds of, say, perverting terroir, you’ll still enjoy it, honest. Tannins are forcefully present again, softening slightly, with a slight suggestion of (somehow) harder, unripe tannin that works nicely against the lushness of the fruit. Finally, there’s something almost marine about the very finish… or it could be umami, in which I’m making a very weak connection to seaweed here. It’s definitely porty, with a certain sweetness that goes on for quite a while after swallowing, which might just work with fatty dishes like foie gras.

Taking a tip from their marketing materials, I also tried some of this wine with a handful of Marconi almonds… and they’re dead on correct. Strangely enough, the combination manages to arrive at butter pecan ice cream: rich, creamy fruit with hard, salty nuttiness – absolutely delicious. The salt and fat help cut the alcohol and fruitiness of the wine; I imagine this would be absolutely fantastic with steak.

In short, pretty damn good wine. However, I’ll once again state that there’s too much alcohol, it doesn’t taste like any particular place, and (most importantly) I expect a fully transcendent experience for this kind of money… and it falls short of that. Still, I would gladly drink this … if it were half the price.As an aside: in terms of reviews, I see that this is a Wine Advocate 95 and a Wine Spectator 91. The Spectator is correct: this is a good wine. But the Advocate is just wrong: this is not otherworldly.

Price: $85
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

Mollydooker Blue-Eyed Boy Shiraz 2007

One more thing I love about K&L Wine Merchants? They keep a complete order history available at their Web site, which means I can see that I bought a bottle of the 2006 vintage of this wine in their Hollywood store on August 18, 2007. That’s damn cool. I bought it to share with friends at Mozza in LA; that was a memorable birthday lunch, although of the two wines I brought (the other was a 2002 Penfolds Bin 707 cabernet), the Blue-Eyed Boy wasn’t the one that charmed the sommelier.

Anyhow! Here we are again, back in Mollydooker territory. Once again: thank you to the kind folks at Mollydooker who generously sent this wine as a press sample. I’ll begin by noting that the bottle in front of me was opened last Saturday night – which means it’s been open for three days now, although screwcapped and in the fridge for most of that time – and that yes, I did in fact do the ‘Mollydooker Shake’ (not sure if that’s trademarked); the winery suggests that their wines are better after vigorously shaking the bottle to remove traces of nitrogen gas from the wine.

I’ll begin with a quick recap of the tasting group’s notes from Saturday night:

Mark: I like the color. But I’d prefer it with a lot more acidity to it. It’s a style of wine that I recognize… and no, I don’t like it.

Rex: Best wine of the evening so far, but the alcohol level is slightly overpowering Also, the label appeals to <redacted>. I like the wine but I’m troubled by the label.

JP: Trying to figure this out … It feels… thicker? (… than The Boxer shiraz – CP)

Roy: If the others are weaker, I like this one more, it’s got more of a body to it

Henry: Pepper… some cardboard? Lots of tannin for sure. Bitter espresso, smoky chocolate notes?

Me: I like the nose a lot… I feel like all of this wine was destined to go to Dallas. I really feel like the oak is getting in the way of this wine. It’s like it had gross makeup smeared all over the front of it.

Ouch. So: how do I feel about it now? Once again, the color is strikingly dark; it reminds me of flat Hansen’s All Natural Cola, or old-time sarsparailla county fair style (you know, the kind they serve in a metal mug). Kind of pretty. Again, the rim is ‘watery’ (read: this is unconscionably high in alcohol) with a brief twinge of much lighter cherry-red color there, which isn’t particularly anything at all – just thought I’d note it.

Do I still like the nose here? Hard to say. Whatever it was that I smelled Saturday night is fairly well subdued this Tuesday night; what I smell reminds me somewhat of renting a room in a not-often-visited hotel in the mountains, one old enough to have an actual cedar lined closet… that hasn’t been aired out recently. There seems to be some kind of oak here, which imparts a dry, solemn mustiness, but the “explodes in your mouth” (the Marquis’ words, not mine) fruit seems to be strangely somnolent here. Instead, you get a strangely confected, Turkish delight and watermelon bubble gum effect that frankly smells cheap, like perfume sold to tweens. Once again, I find that the alcohol is really getting in the way here; if there were less, it wouldn’t overwhelm the flavors so much, I think. Of course, given the success of Mollydooker and their wines, it’s eminently possible that folks really like the porty, prune-y aspect of this wine.

In terms of mouthfeel, this is much more coherent to me than the ’09 Gigglepot cabernet was. It’s still huge, rich, unctuous, and sweet (not from sugar, but from alcohol, I’m guessing), but the acidity is less shrill, sneaking in to the back palate and offering some respite from the huge-osity here. Tannins are present but discreetly so; they assist the finish with firmly grounded earthiness and are okay, but still slightly hard.

Ultimately, I once again have to say that I don’t really care for this wine. So what’s the problem? Without sounding completely ridiculous, my main problem is that the wine seems to be completely man-made without any kind of historical or terroir-based justification for its existence. More than anything, it exudes a fakeness that I have a really, really hard time dealing with. I’ve had monster Barossa shiraz from the likes of Chris Ringland (cf. First Class shiraz), and there was still a typicity and integrity there that seemed to have come from old vines and judicious use of oak). I’m an unabashed fan of California late harvest zinfandel, which is probably even more alcoholic than this, but again: that style of wine is historically grounded and you don’t have to do too much for it to happen in California (our weather occasionally makes it happen). But Syrah from the McLaren Vale arriving at this particular end point – massive, alcoholic, and fruity in a simple way – just strikes me as, well, wrong. It doesn’t work. For all of the fruit ripeness, alcohol, and sunshine, there’s simply something missing here.

Price: $49
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Mollydooker Gigglepot Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

Mollydooker were kind to send me an entire case of press samples earlier this year; I finally got around to sharing and discussing them with a bunch of mates last Saturday night. Sadly, though, I don’t have anything particularly good to say about them other than that I’m grateful that they sent press samples. I’m sure that even Alder Yarrow would agree that they did it right: they sent the wines, offered literature, and tactfully didn’t offer up any more than that.

As a result of last Saturday night, I’ll go about all of this entirely wrong and discuss one of the two wines that I purchased with my own money last Saturday afternoon, shortly before the tasting. I went to two shops in San Diego hoping to find a bottle of the Mollydooker ‘The Scooter’ merlot, a wine that I’d bought in the past and enjoyed well enough. Instead, I bought two bottles from their 2009 vintage: a ‘Two Left Feet’ shiraz-cabernet-merlot (which meant we could do a 2007-2008-2009 vertical of that wine) and this bottle, a 2009 cabernet sauvignon. This is the second time I’d purchased wines in their 2nd tier; I’d bought a bottle of Blue-Eyed Boy shiraz a couple of years back for a friend’s 39th birthday party and thought that bottle was pretty fab at $50. In the meantime, though, the Australian dollar has strengthened – and oddly enough the Mollydooker wines in this range have become ever so slightly less expensive at $45 or so a bottle. (For comparison, a cleanskin Napa cabernet from one of the more prestigious AVAs in the district comes in at about $20, Bordeaux is about $25 for something very good indeed, high end Washington state cabernet is perhaps $50 (what I paid for Cayuse Camaspelo last year), and the Ridge Monte Bello is $80 on futures.) In short, this wine is priced fairly highly, at least in terms of my wallet and other wines. Of course, though, I’m hardly the target market for this wine (or winery).

At the wine shop last Saturday, I overheard a typical conversation between a clerk and two customers (who had arrived shortly before I had; they were driving a Porsche Cayenne SUV). They’d apparently stopped in to buy a case of Rombauer chardonnay, which is a $30 wine from Carneros, a relatively cool California winegrowing area just down from Napa. The clerk gently offered assistance with perhaps trying something new; he mentioned that they had some terrific white Burgundy in stock at clearance prices (and he wasn’t kidding; they had some gorgeous Pouilly-Fuissé, Meursault, and even Puligny-Montrachet at prices equal to or much lower than the Rombauer). The woman gave him a slight smile, and chirped “Well, we do like our points!”Our points. In short, very American. But I digress.

Before I get on to the wine itself, let’s just have a quick discussion of the marketing. There was exactly one single bottle available of this wine at the wine shop in San Diego. The sign above it said something along the lines of “Hurry up and buy this before the point scores are released!” (They were released last month – a somewhat anemic 90 from the Wine Spectator, I believe.)

The winery have taken it upon themselves to register more domain names than I thought could ever be necessary for a single winery; apparently, there’s a  single domain name for each individual wine they produce. In this case, we have; its primary feature is a YouTube video. I won’t transcribe it for you, but I’ll give you the talking points; it features the winery owners themselves discussing this wine. Here’s the gist of what they have to say:

  • This wine is named after their daughter Holly
  • This wine is “amazing” and they’d probably have to say that it’s their favorite wine this year
  • This is a “step up” with “Marquis Fruit Weight™” of “80%”
  • Complex, long, beautiful example of what they can do with cabernet
  • The fruit from this comes from two of their friends’ vineyards in Langhorne Creek and McLaren Vale
  • They didn’t make any of this in 2008, and only 127 cases in 2007, so the supply has been very low and there’s gonna be a lot of demand when they release it

In short, this is for me a dramatic departure from the kind of things I’d like to know about wine before buying it: there’s no discussion of how it was grown, where exactly it came from, no real mention of taste descriptors (other than that it has “lift and character”), no talk of how it was made (oak, yeast, organic, nothing technical). Instead, you get two lovely Australians telling you about their family, mention of a trademarked marketing term that is – how to put this gently – is essentially bullshit, more marketing about how you should “step up” to a more expensive wine, a reference to their winemaking skills as being the relevant thing here (much along the lines of how any wine that, say, Heidi Barrett has touched must be a good wine, placing the locus of wine quality in a person and not in the landscape), and finally a lot of talk about how, well, there isn’t a lot of this, the supply’s really low, and there’s gonna be a lot of demand, so… well, you know, you should probably buy some.

It’s no coincidence either that the word “Buy” features so prominently on their Web page.

So: how’s the wine? First off, I’ll give you raw tasting notes from last Saturday night:

Mark: Grape Kool-Aid with cranberry sauce, but it’s really tasty in an odd way.

Henry: This isn’t as piquant as the Blue-Eyed Boy shiraz. Bitter, flat pomegranate juice… not the sweetened stuff, but the plain pomegranate juice they sell at Whole Foods.

JP: Yeah, pomegranate. Not sure what else.

Rex: This is completely uninteresting.

Yada: This tastes like burning.

OK, so not exactly the most enthusiastic bunch there. Right now, I’ve got a glass of it in front of me – when a dozen red-blooded American males don’t finish a bottle of free wine, you know there’s something wrong. It’s been open for nearly forty-eight hours now. Let’s see how it’s faring:

Color: Super dark, inky black. You could probably fool someone into thinking they were eating squid ink pasta just by passing some of the pasta through a glass of this wine. Obvious legs and clear rim indicate huge amounts of alcohol, but this is actually the least alcoholic of any of the wines we tasted at ‘only’ 15% abv.

Nose: Curious Asian spices of indeterminate origin, and very odd. Smells like cosmetics? More than anything, just smells like generic red wine, almost like an inexpensive fortified dessert wine. There’s kind of a curiously high, plastic, cherry-red note that doesn’t sit well; it’s like it’s been flown in from Beaujolais. I don’t really discern anything by way of cocoa, toasty barrel char, or other oak-derived interest here; instead, all I get is alcohol, that odd star anise-like note, fake-y red fruits… I really have to wonder: this is Cabernet? All of the things that make a good Cabernet interesting to me are MIA here: no tobacco or cigar box, no interesting green flavors, no spicy oak, no rich mulberry fruit… this just seems perverse.

Taste: Huge mouth feel (hello alcohol) on the entry followed by a surprise intrusion of acidity and again no particular varietal flavor that I can taste. Instead, there’s a mildly unpleasant tannic puckerfest towards the finish, which is admittedly quite long and mouth-filling (this is I suppose the quality that the winemakers are attempting to describe as Fruit Weight). I think the burning that Yada described here is simply overly enthusiastic alcohol levels (and in some part the surprising acidity, which doesn’t really make this feel fresh, just a little out of joint); it really doesn’t benefit from those, aside from a certain sweetness and fatness that I suppose are hugely appealing to its target audience.

More than anything, though, the most disappointing thing about this wine to me is this: it doesn’t really taste like anything in particular. It reminds me most of Jonesy port, a cheap and cheerful $8 fortified wine from South Australia (I think): it’s red, it’s deeply colored, it’s alcoholic, and it tastes of sweet, simple red fruit with a hint of spices. I can’t for the life of me imagine who would find this a good value at $44 – it’s not dramatically different than the Pillar Box Red wine sold for $7 at warehouse stores – unless I think back to the Porsche SUV driving soccer mom in the wine shop last weekend who did like her points. I imagine that Mollydooker have coasted a long, long way on that initial 99 point score for their Carnival of Love wine from their initial vintage; that and the huge score for The Boxer shiraz seemed to cement their reputation as makers of world class wine with huge point scores at low prices… even if that doesn’t seem to be the case four years on. Heck, even I bought a bottle of the Carnival of Points when it first came out; it was $55, I think, and I felt like it was worth it. But something seems to have changed in the interim: this wine isn’t particularly good (and by that I mean that it isn’t making me feel something other than pleasantly flush with alcohol), or at least not particularly unique, and charging this much money for it seems to be the height of chutzpah, especially given the easy availability of, say, Yalumba ‘The Menzies’ cabernet, which doesn’t cost any more than the Mollydooker but speaks (again, to me, at least) of a real sense of place, has a long, proven historical track record of high quality, ages well, etc. etc. etc.

With all due respect, I’m not giggling.

Price: $44
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Mollydooker Tasting: Introduction

Tonight, we’re going to taste ten Mollydooker wines. I’ve assembled a group of friends to assist me:

  • Dan, my partner. Software engineer, regular wine drinker.
  • Rex, journalist, mostly a fan of vodka and brandy, but drinks wine when I make him
  • Roy, very modest wine drinking experience
  • Mark, mostly an Italian red drinker, regular drinker since 1998
  • Jared, normally a Bud Light drinker, been to a couple of wineries, done some wine tasting
  • Travis, Two Buck Chuck aficionado (“it’s cheap!”)
  • Henry, mostly a fan of dessert wines, Port… but when he wants a good time he goes for Colt .45
  • John, Mark’s partner, also a big fan of Italian reds but also fascinated by the Italian concept that wine is food and he’s fascinated by wine food pairings

There may be a couple more, but they’re not here yet… so I’m gonna get started!

Yalumba The Menzies Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1998

After accidentally reorganizing the JK Carriere and Cayuse racks in my wine cellar, I finally found what I’d gone in there to look for earlier this evening: a bottle of wine that would hopefully be so good that I could forget about the corked Penfolds I ran into before. This is why I’m looking at this bottle now: it seemed like the best thing I could find to remind myself that not all cork-finished wines are bad. Thankfully, this one isn’t.Like India ink cut with cherry juice, the wine’s beautiful in the glass with virtually no signs of aging. It’s only when you peer carefully at the rim that you notice that aha! yes, this wine is getting on in years, with very fine particulate matter silhouetted against a slightly darker brown, now tending towards watery rim.The nose is absolutely massive, monolithic: it brings to mind fresh pumpernickel, dark brown sugar, good Cuban cigars, and ripe blackberries trod into freshly tilled soil. In short, it’s ravishing. Drinking it’s quite another matter; it quickly asserts a rather more European personality, savory yet with tell-tale Coonawarra sweetness, eucalyptus, and (most of all) mint. Most surprising of all is the nervy acid perched atop a thickly tannic spine, deftly holding it in balance – or, rather, tension – between the simple pleasures of the overly ripe New World and the more challenging, introspective beauty of the Old. The more you drink, the less focused and resolved it all becomes, with plum tart, dusty cocoa, bramble, and sweet malt pastilles all jostling for attention. In fact, my only criticism at all would be that I have absolutely no idea what this wine wants to be – but honestly? That’s just fine by me. It is what it is, it tastes delicious, and it could easily go another five or ten years before fading.My only real complaint is that I don’t have any more of this wine. Delicious.Yalumba
Price: $33
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2002

Winemaker comments from Penfolds Rewards of Patience, Sixth edition, 2008:COLOUR Medium deep red.NOSE A lovely vintage. The wine is fresh and primary with blackberry, liquorice, camomile, spice aromas.PALATE Sweet plump blackberry, liquorice flavours and dense, ripe, generous, chocolaty tannins. Delicious to drink now but will steadily improve for another ten years.My comments from Full Pour, unlimited edition (unlimited supply!), 2010:CAPSULE Medium deep red. Southcorp branding machine in full effect here as it’s been changed from previous vintages in favor of a slightly naff plastic number. Wonder what Pantone number this exactlyCORK Oh fuck me, it’s another cork. Sure hope this isn’t a bad bottle. Shouldn’t this cork be slightly higher in the neck? Hm. Well, here goes nothing… (Chris removes cork with corkscrew bought at a SAQ in suburban Montréal) Well hey, at least this isn’t a composite cork. Still looks kind of half ass and cheap, though. What’s this? “Australia’s Most Famous Wine?” That nice, but is that supposed to, you know, entice me? I mean, come on. Men At Work is still Australia’s most famous band, but given the choice I’d rather listen to Scattered Order. I wonder if I should be a complete toff and smell this thing?Ugh.This doesn’t bode well.COLOUR Shiny in that filtered to death kind of way. Deep dark opaque monster.NOSE When I was a kid, Mom seemed to enjoy eating peanut butter sandwiches with sweet pickles on them. Those were disgusting, but not as disgusting as this wine. We’re dealing with the worst kind of cork taint here: that entirely subtle amount of TCA that’s like a slow, fat person walking in front of you on the Tube. You know where you’re going, but damn it, you just can’t get around that person to get there. It’s a bummer. No matter how you try, just as you think you’re about to smell delicious, older Aussie shiraz, you get a snootful of vile, cardboardy, annoying, frustrating cork taint.PALATE Who fucking cares? This is going right down the sink. Shame I didn’t save the receipt from when I bought it five years ago so I can drive the 1100+ miles back to the shop where I bought it to get my money back. Instead, I’ll make a note not to buy any more Penfolds wine unless it’s either screwcapped or on incredibly deep discount, which given the near-parity of the Aussie dollar with the US dollar is about as likely as me voting for Meg Whitman next month.Sigh.Penfolds
Price: $20 that I could have spent on
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Ross Estate Shiraz 2002

After quickly dismissing the five geese Shiraz last night as being essentially boring, I realized over the next couple of hours spent with the wine that it wasn’t boring, really, but rather incredibly elegant. If you like your Syrah unencumbered by challenge – and I really don’t mean for that to sound as condescending as it undeniably is – then the five geese is really a lovely wine (and excellent value for money). Everything about it was absolutely even-keeled, with that lovely South Australian rich red fruit well supported by oh-so-tasteful oak. It’s just that it left me feeling, well, just a little bit bored.This wine – which is from a warmer wine growing region about two hours’ up the road from McLaren Vale – cost roughly the same amount of money, but doesn’t seem at all stylistically allied with the five geese. Instead, the Ross Estate seems much more idiosyncratic, offering up all kinds of sensory experiences that you can choose to view as either charming or annoying, depending on who you are and what you want from a bottle of wine.This wine looks much darker, denser, and older than the five geese. It’s nearly black in the glass with some browning/fading at the rim; it looks very much like soy sauce or old balsamic vineyard. On the nose, it seems to offer up a whiff of volatile acidity, dill pickle, dusty old barrel, neglected library books, and unaired cupboards. It also offers up finely ground cocoa powder, rich spicy oak, elegant, serious red-black fruit, and freshly baked pecan pie crust. In short, it comes at you from all sides at the same time; it’s either woefully backwards or tantalizingly, classically Old World depending on what kind of a mindset you’ve got.Simultaneously somewhat thin (at first) and paradoxically very mouth filling (thanks to lovely fat tannins that are not yet fully resolved), a mouthful of this wine strikes me as being frankly pretty massive, but not alcoholic. It tastes of lush red fruit coated in spicy cocoa nibs, all with refreshing acidity and moderately huge tannins that would work incredibly well with roast mutton. The finish stays around for a good long while, with faint hints of white pepper and dried herbs; there’s also a suggestion of butter toffee walnuts or burnt sugar. It’s much darker and somehow more serious than the five geese, but the acidity and relatively wild aromas on the nose could be less than appetizing for some folks.To sum up, this wine is more like what I’m looking for when I drink syrah, but from a technical standpoint isn’t necessarily better or worse than the five geese. If your preference is for wines of subtlety, balance, and elegance, choose the five geese; if you like it a little rough, with heavier, darker, cocoa-dusted edges, then this is probably a better call. Either of them are drinking beautifully now, and I’d reckon they still have a few years left to go before fading into obscurity.Really good stuff.Ross Estate
Price: $16
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

2002 five geese Shiraz

Dusty and mostly forgotten, this bottle’s been hanging on my living room wall for nearly for years now, apparently and rather sadly consigned to the role of wall ornament, not wine. Coming home from work today in the cool San Diego rain, though, I figured it was time to actually drink the stuff.Showing only faint traces of age at the rim, the wine looks like your standard Aussie shiraz: opaque, with nearly invisible particulate matter that suggests fine tannin. In short, just fine by me. The nose is more interesting than many wines in this price range, with oaky raspberry accompanied by suggestions of Medjool dates and Moroccan olive; it seems clear that this wine has seen plenty of oak, but it seems integrated and not overly showy.Mouthfeel is lovely, especially given the age, with moderately fleshy fruits tempered by a more serious backbone of absolutely correct, if slightly humorless oak. There’s well judged acidity backing everything up, resulting in a wine that is just serious enough to potentially pass for Crozes-Hermitage but which is still obviously ripe enough to please anyone who enjoys a glass of red with their meal. In short, everything’s in its right place, but the overall effect is strangely nowhere in particular. Other red wines from the McLaren Vale seem to show a lot more exuberance and joy than this particular bottle; that may result in wines that are alcoholic and faintly ridiculous, but isn’t it better to create something that uniquely speaks of place rather than keep it tastefully in check and wind up with a wine that is tasty but somehow vacant, devoid of personality? I’m not sure about this wine. As an aside: my French is rusty, but shouldn’t Sue Trott describe herself as a vigneronne, not a ‘female vigneron?’five geese
Price: $14
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Domaine des Nembrets Denis Barraud Pouilly-Fuissé "Sur La Roche" Vieilles Vignes 2008

What is it about Chardonnay?

Flying back to California last Monday, I was lucky enough to score a guest pass to the ANA lounge in Tokyo airport. I was delighted to find that they had all you can drink, well, everything available, including Grace Family Vineyards koshu, which is a pretty damn good wine made from an indigenous Japanese grape that you never, ever see outside of Japan. After pouring myself a glass, I noticed a generically middle class American woman staring at my glass with a look of obvious disgust. “It’s koshu,” I said. “It’s delicious, they don’t export it, you almost never see it. Would you like to try some?” “No,” she said. “I was looking for the Chardonnay.”

Later on in the week, I received an E-mail from a male reader concerning a review of a Pouilly-Fumé I’d posted earlier in the year. “You might want to change your notes on this wine. Sauvignon Blanc not CHARDONNAY…,” it read. In short, pretty much the opposite reaction: because the review contained the word “chardonnay,” it triggered disgust that I had somehow mistaken sauv blanc for chardonnay, which of course would be a most grievous offense. After all, if you’re a sauv blanc drinkin’ kind of guy, wouldn’t you be offended if someone mistook your drink for, you know, CHARDONNAY?

As a result of all of this, I’m sitting here with a glass of Pouilly-Fuissé, partly because I want a glass, and partly because I want to somehow desperately prove that I do in fact know the difference between Fumé and Fuissé. So: about this wine…How do I know Chardonnay is a noble grape? Simple: I’ve had so many different tasting chardonnays in my life that the only other white grape that comes close is Riesling. With gewürztraminer or viognier, muscat or pinot gris, there aren’t too many surprises (I’m looking at you, Josko Gravner): you know what you’re in for. But with Chardonnay, well, you have to know more about where it came from and potentially something about who made it in order to know what you’re getting yourself into exactly. Me, I was never a great student, and although I’m pretty sure I once passed an exam where I had to explain why Chablis was different than other white Burgundy, I still can’t remember the details of all of the other appellations. Pouilly-Fuissé, Meursault, Montrachet, you name it: they’re not Chablis, so they’re probably manipulated more, but other than that? You got me. All I can do is describe this one wine.

Strikingly bright, there’s something about this wine that doesn’t look quite right to me: it’s got that dead sheen of a filtered wine. The color’s darker than Chablis, too: if anything, it reminds me of a flat German pilsener, something like Kölsch that was left out overnight. The nose is instantly appealing, with a brief suggestion of green apple quickly subsumed by bright acidity, movie theater popcorn butter (just the tiniest amount, mind you), and the warm, sunny smell of rocks and freshly washed sheets drying in the sun after being sprayed with lavender water: it’s a friendly, moderately complex nose that smells like American perfume. In short, it smells of clean.

On entry, the wine is immediately surprising, showing greater complexity than the nose would suggest. There’s an immediate suggestion of cashew butter and pear, quickly followed by apple cider, perhaps slightly oxidized notes (stupid cork!), quickly swelling to a tasteful crescendo of cream tending towards butter gently lifted by subtle oak. The texture is textbook: rich and creamy, but elegant, not overwrought. Simultaneously, there’s that sheen of incredible freshness, counterbalanced by sun-dried herbs and a curious note that frankly reminds me of those green not-quite-pickles you sometimes get in New York delis, of green youthful exuberance. The finish takes its own sweet time, oh does it ever, lazily circling through variations of spice, toast, butter, nuts, and beautifully acidic fruit.

In short, it’s damn good. The only thing that gives me pause is that I honestly do wonder if the cork’s contributing something here that it shouldn’t: I occasionally get hints of creeping oxidation that I’m not sure are intentional – but they don’t particularly dent the experience, so I really can’t complain, especially at this price.

Two Verdelhos

Last Friday, I invited some friends over to the house so that we could open two wines, drink them together, and talk for a while about the differences between the two.

I’ll start with some background: both of these wines were Verdelho. Being a Californian (and not an Australian), Verdelho basically means absolutely nothing to me. If I hadn’t had spent so much time in Australia, I likely wouldn’t have been familiar with the grape at all: it has no role in my nation’s cultural history (whereas it absolutely does in Australia’s). The first Verdelho I ever drank was most likely something I encountered whilst on vacation in Western Australia in early 2002; they seemed to be legion, with most wineries having at least one on offer. (Capel Vale, perhaps? Dang it, I should have taken better notes.)

After nine months’ travels throughout Australia, I eventually came to know Verdelho as a generically rockin’ good time: you could count on it to taste good in a simple, pleasing manner without giving you all too much to think about, and that was just fine by me. After returning home to California, I’d occasionally see Australian Verdelho gathering dust in the “miscellaneous white wine” bin in a shop; I usually picked up a bottle, took it home, and drank it mindlessly. Thanks to a strong US dollar and the utter unfashionability of the wines, prices never hit double digits and I never grew tired of them.

As always, however, I digress. I’m here to talk about these two wines in particular: the 2009 Mollydooker The Violinist Verdelho and the 2009 Scholium Project Lost Slough Vineyards Naucratis. These are both straight varietal Verdelho from the same vintage year, albeit from opposite ends of the globe. Climactically, both wines are produced from similar geographic origins; McLaren Vale, in South Australia, is relatively warm with daily summer temperatures around 90 degrees, Clarksburg, in California, is warmer still with daily summer temperatures in the high 90s. (For you Australians, that would be 32 and 36 degrees C, respectively.) In short, nothing too dramatically different.

Soils, too, are probably not wildly different; the California wine is presumably grown on poor soil, and I imagine the Aussie wine isn’t that different either. In short, probably not hugely different either.

The major difference, then, at least superficially, would be between the two wineries. One is a spinoff (or, rather, the logical next step arising from) a once phenomenally successful Australian-American wine import business that made its name during the Bush administration importing, well, hedonistic fruit bombs; Dan Philips (and Marquis-Philips, his joint venture with the Marquis family, who became Mollydooker) had the brilliant idea of critter wines on steroids: double or triple the price of cheap and cheerful Aussie imports, but with vastly superior label design, bi-national critters (google Roogle if you’d like), and delicious, high octane, pleasurable wines that seemed just the perfect thing to serve at a megachurch BBQ celebrating to invasion of Iraq.

I will pause here for a moment and apologize for the intrusion of the political in to a nominally aesthetically oriented wine blog: one of these wines was a press sample, and God knows the generosity of the winemakers should not be abused. However, if one of the objectives of shipping samples is to potentially result in interesting ways of thinking about the wine, then I suppose they’re getting their money’s worth, even if obliquely. These sorts of wines – high alcohol, usually Shiraz, occasionally lavishly yet softly oaked – seemed to have sprung up shortly after that Mission Accomplished banner did, and it seems no mere coincidence that The Grateful Palate, Dan Philips’ importing business, ceased to exist shortly after President Obama took office and not too much longer before the cessation of combat operations in Iraq. In short, I am unfairly and hopefully amusingly positing that there is an odd synchronicity at work here between the go-go Bush years, filled with foreign policy adventuring beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and the heyday of massive, plush, jammy, hedonistic wines (at this point, I am imagining someone with a distinctly non-West Coast accent spitting them into a football helmet on YouTube, for some reason), an odd crosstalk where one informs the other, a mad rush of consumption and decadence leading… well, I’m still not sure, exactly, except for the wines, which always, always led to massive ibuprofen consumption the morning after.

Of course, again, I digress.

The other wine, the Californian one, was produced by a small winery founded by a one-time professor from a notoriously obscurantist liberal arts college where they (shudder) still teach Aristotle… in the original Greek, no less. Again curiously coincident with the disastrous economic meltdown of 2008, his wines slowly but surely came to prominence not through glowing Wine Advocate reviews, but rather through one-off New York Times articles and general Terroir (the wine bar) fandom; most reviews I’d read were faintly reminiscent of early Dooniana , filled with remarks along the lines of “I can’t drink this, but I’m excited that it exists.” Much in the mode of recent newcomers such as Field Recordings, Abe the winemaker traveled California, hunting down vineyards that might produce interesting wines; in this case, a wine from a grape no one’s ever heard of (here, at least) from an area that’s generally as well regarded as Redfern (amusingly, the small hamlet of Woodbridge, which gave its name to an ocean of crappy wine that helped bring the Mondavi family to its doom, isn’t too far away to the south).

But again: I digress. On to the tasting notes; these are courtesy of a group of six friends. Both wines were placed in the refrigerator Thursday night and removed about forty-five minutes before tasting; we were hoping for a happy medium between “cold and doesn’t taste like anything” and “warm and tastes gross.” Wines were served in two identical glasses (Spiegelau Authentis red wine); we drank slowly, talking about these for a good half hour, before finishing up for the evening.

  • Both wines smell towards the sweet/syrupy end of the spectrum
  • This wine… well, it doesn’t quite smell like canned peaches because it doesn’t have that tinned smell to it that California viognier does. It’s kind of like viognier, but smoother, I guess.
  • This almost has kind of a sugar cane factory, cut cane, simple syrup, pineapple effect here with not much spice, just a happy go lucky sugar factory really.
  • It’s a little bit floral to me, but hard to say exactly what I’m smelling here. There might be a slight amount of spiciness to it, almost a hint of black pepper… celery salt or perhaps something slightly green there? Really hard to say.
  • Candied/salted spinach perhaps?
  • Seems hot to me.
  • Seems a much richer wine, more concentrated, perhaps even a bit of residual sugar here? Definitely very mouth filling, unctuous rich.. almost flabby. I think this might be going too far.
  • This wine seems… whiter? More like white peach than yellow peach. Some minerality here, really a striking difference. Generally more “serious” and more northern Rhône than the other one; better acidity, tighter, just a tiny bit of astringency to it.
  • Almost bitter, definite complexity on the finish, which lasts for quite a bit of time.
  • This almost has a sort of quinine note, reminiscent of bitters, which it desperately needs to give it complexity and style.
  • Strange to think these are the same grape from roughly similar climates; the simpler one has a deeper, richer yellow color, but the more complex one seems lighter, less imposing in the glass

There was, alas, one thing we all agreed on by the end of the evening: the one wine would have been just fine on its own, but it suffered by comparison with the other wine. It’s funny how things go sometimes: often, in the midst of unbridled enjoyment, it’s hard to imagine how an experience could possibly be better. I’ve personally bought both of these wines in the past – it was happy coincidence that I was given a bottle as a press sample – but having now had them simultaneously, I’m not sure I’d buy any more, especially considering that the pricing is roughly the same for the both of them.What it boiled down for me was this: I know it’s cliché to point this out, but every profoundly beautiful thing has to have a flaw – or at least something there that serves as a counterpoint, a foil, a dissonance to draw the beauty of the object in sharper, finer focus. The real reason I came away from this evening finding one wine profoundly beautiful and deeply satisfying was this: it showed restraint. Similarly high in alcohol, it seemed to have better acidity, more minerality, less residual sugar, but most of all that subtle, quinonic, bitter, savory edge that suddenly shifted it all into vibrant, ecstatic focus. You’d be hard pressed to expect more from a wine like this, especially at $20.My advice to the other winemaker? Simple: The boom years are behind us. It’s time to go beyond simple fruit ripeness, high alcohols, and straight-up appeal; it’s time to find the subtle beauty that’s probably always been there, time to experiment with phenolic aspects, time to consider the joys of Italianate bitter notes. I now know that there is Verdelho beyond the simple, fruity joys I’ve known from Australia from years; it’s there if you want it. Go for it: if you do, I’ll be there to buy it. And I’ll even go out on a limb here and groundlessly speculate: the Americans that were buying your wines in the past were probably buying them using home equity loans on houses that have already been foreclosed. The days of reckless consumption of shiny pretty wines with high point scores seem to have gone missing over the last two years; instead, we’re looking for subtlety, complexity, something with pain, something to match the anxiety and frustration we’re all feeling in these, the empty, anguished dog years after the binge of the Oughts. Give us something we can relate to; your wines remind me too much of those years where we weren’t thinking.

Mollydooker + Scholium Project
Price: $20-$26; average retail price $20
Closure: Other
Source: Sample