Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant Réserve 2010

On my first day at Bonny Doon Vineyard, I helped to wash and fill several hundred glass carboys with 2012 Le Cigare Volant. On my second and third days, we washed and filled several hundred more. While doing this work, it occurred to me more than once that maturing wine in this manner had better be worth the effort.

As it turned out, the timing of my visit to Bonny Doon coincided with this annual event, reserved for the very top wines of the estate (the reserve Le Cigare Volant and reserve Le Cigare Blanc). The first step in preparing the carboys for the 2012 Le Cigare Volant was to decant from them the 2010 vintage, which went to tank and, later in the week, to bottle. I assisted with bottling the ’10 and was given a freshly bottled example to taste. I wasn’t sure how the wine would show, given the many phases through which it had passed in just a few days, but found it already-enjoyable with its essential character intact.

The point of ageing these wines on lees in carboys, it seems, is to create for them a highly anaerobic/reductive environment in which freshness can be maintained and desirable flavours developed. On tasting, I was especially interested to see what, if anything, I might discern in the wine from this method of cellaring, and it seems to me the most striking influence is a savoury minerality that asserts itself through the latter half of the wine’s line. This creates for the wine’s palate a nice sweet-savoury narrative. It begins with almost-plush red berries and spice, deceptively friendly given the progressively more savoury countenance the wine adopts from mid-palate onwards. There begins notes of dried meat, minerals and a range of quite subtle reductive components (of the struck match and smoke sort) that create an impression of seriousness and detail. Tannins are fine and firm, meshing well with the after palate’s angularity of flavour.

Although it’s difficult to assess a wine so recently bottled, I do feel the way in which it was raised has contributed a distinctive character to the wine. These more savoury influences add further sophistication and interest to a wine that already benefits from pretty, restrained fruit aromas and flavours. I will look out for this when it’s released.

Bonny Doon Vineyard
Price: $NA
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Gift

Château Musar 2000

Quite a wine. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I approached this, my first Musar, and the overriding impression I’m left with is of a lovely Bordeaux crossed with something completely foreign. It’s a vibrant, rough wine, hewn of distressed leather and sweat, revelling in its imperfections. The aroma shows cigar box, snapped twig and leather, very expressive and dusty in the Cabernet manner, but lacking the poise one might expect of a fine Bordeaux. That, though, is very much part of the wine’s charm, and its wildness contributes to its presence.

The palate delivers dense flavour onto the tongue and its persistence makes sense of a chaotic flavour profile. This fairly attacks the palate with flavour, fruit stubbornly adhering to the tongue. While drinking this wine, I was reminded of old leather goods, noisy markets and desert heat, images that suggest the disorientation of travel. Tannin structure is fine and reminds one that this is, in fact, a really good wine. Generous, messy and quite delicious.

This was tasted alongside a 2000 Lake’s Folly Cabernet whose refinement of form really showed up the Musar. No matter; I kept coming back to this so that it might let me linger in its heady world a bit longer.

Château Musar
Price: $N/A
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

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.

Price: $30
Closure: Diam
Source: Retail

Spinifex Esprit 2009

Mataro, Grenache, Shiraz, Carignan, Cinsault; why not?

Some performances consist of one idea. Sometimes this is enough to carry the weight of the show; it all depends on the strength of the idea and how well the audience connects with it. And so it is with this wine. It says one thing clearly and consistently, which may be the most wonderful thing if you like what it has to say.

The nose is dense and savoury, a strongly liquerous character instantly emerging from the glass, speaking of dark berries and darker oak, shadowy corners and even shadowier conversations. I  see dark tones each time I smell this wine; it’s moody if somewhat monochromatic and blunt. The blend seems beautifully executed in terms of coherence.

The palate is of a piece with the nose, stylistically. It strikes a dense, flavoursome note immediately on entry, the extra dimension here being textural, driven mostly by a streak of acid that sits a little uneasily alongside the fruit’s density of flavour. More dark berry liqueur and velvety plushness on the middle palate, though an element of hardness starts to creep in gradually, perhaps related to the character of the oak. Things get progressively more savoury as the line progresses, before an oak-driven finish of vanilla curls and ice cream rounds things off.

There’s a lot in here by way of flavour and interest, but at the same time I am left wishing for some light and shade, a bit of nuance, less emphatic a statement. Sometimes, less certainty can be charming.

Spinifex Wines
Price: $A40
Closure: Stelvin
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.

Price: $75
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Ridge Lytton Springs 2005

Wine lovers are often bargain hunters too, perhaps by necessity. Back in 2002, Chris and I happened to be in the same city at the same time (Sydney), and experienced the joy of locating, then purchasing, an entire stash of 1994 Ridge Geyserville from a little bottle shop in Chinatown. To find such a wine was grand enough, but the proprietors of the bottle shop in which it lay clearly had no idea what it was, and were happy to sell us the lot for (from memory) about ten dollars a bottle.

Of course, wines of such dodgy provenance often prove disappointing, let alone ones made of a grape (Zinfandel) whose ability to age is contested. But the first bottle we opened that night — before our most memorable dinner — was good, and so was every bottle tasted thereafter. I’ve long finished my half of the stash, but the memory of both the find and the consumption remain vivid. Chris regularly stokes these fond recollections by providing a bottle or two of Ridge wine whenever we meet to drink, so over the years I’ve been lucky enough to taste everything from various Monte Bellos to a spectacular Syrah that gave a bottle of 2001 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier tasted alongside a run for its money. I remember approaching that Syrah after some initial courses of German Riesling and so on; we were at that point in a grand dinner where the company, food and alcohol begin to meld into a single warm sensation. I smelled it once, not knowing what to expect, and was completely unable to control a spontaneous éclat of laughter. It was so wonderful.

All of which makes it difficult for me to write objectively about Ridge wines. In a sense, though, to approach this wine through a lens of dispassionate evaluation is to miss both what it means to me and what it represents, stylistically. Although I had never tasted this particular vintage before last night, the warm prickliness of its aroma was immediately transportative. To me, this smells of Californian wine, and for that alone I grant it enormous value. Each time I taste a Zinfandel-based wine, in particular those by Ridge, I love the difference of its flavour profile. Here, there’s intense spice and fruit cake, abundant chocolate, coconut and cherries. It’s as if someone stuffed a Cherry Ripe into the ripest, richest Christmas cake imaginable. Hence, it’s not an elegant wine in either character or footprint, and I love that it presents its notes with such blustery confidence.

The palate rebalances the aroma’s intense spice by providing a core of sweet, bright red fruit that cools the flavour profile. Entry is crisp and immediate, starting dark but quickly brightening to show a mix of red and black fruits. These fruits are juicy and perfectly ripened and provide much of the pleasure of eating freshly picked berries. Swirling all around this core are warm, rich spice notes, well-balanced mocha oak and a streak of bright orange juice. The finish leaves one with a lingering impression of the purest, sweetest fruit. Structurally, this is quite spectacular, the acid totally integrated and the tannins chewy and sweet. It’s taken a day to really open up, so I’d be leaving further bottles in the cellar for at least two to three more years before retasting.

In a sense, tasting a single wine prompts one to reflect on the entirety of one’s tasting experiences. This is what makes wine a pastime that becomes exponentially richer as the years pass, and also what can magnify the experience of one wine beyond all proportion. Happily, this wine was able to bear the full weight of my memories.

Price: £25
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Santa Carolina Carignan 2008

Um, wow. Garishly purple in a peculiarly children’s-television kind of way, I can easily imagine Nomi Malone shoplifting some of this at a Sephora in Las Vegas. However, the way the wine smells is a hundred and eighty degrees away from its look: strangely dark, slightly peppery, with a nearly pickled, shoe-polished, venison meat pie edge to it, it’s a wonderfully seductive, complex wine of the sort you generally don’t associate with carignane.Delightfully immature, the wine doesn’t seem like it’s time to integrate itself just yet: there’s an initial impression of candied red fruits that quickly swaps itself out to reveal dusty wood shop shelves, somewhat clunky acidity (that thankfully keeps it all in check), and a thick, fat outro that slides by on groovy, tannic rails towards a long, gentle finish redolent of unfashionable hard candies and earthy, loamy sweetness with suggestions of forest flowers – it almost reminds me of the taste of oxalis that grows near California redwoods, with an almost citric tang combined with that rich, dark, earthy fruit.This is frankly insanely delicious – I wish I had some Parmesan cheese to eat with it, but alas, I don’t. If more wineries made carignane like this, I suspect more people would drink it. Then again, outside of California and Chile, I’m not sure there are a lot of winegrowers who take the trouble to grow it well.Santa Carolina
Price: CLP 6900
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Ridge Buchignani Ranch Carignane 2004

“What is the point of Carignane?”That’s how I was originally going to begin this review. However, I then remembered that I’d already written about this wine a few months ago – and frankly, why revisit it? I said it was naff, right? A historical curiosity, nothing special, purple and childish?I am however in the habit of listening to my elders, to people that know far, far better than I; last week, I was reading through Randall Grahm’s tweets and noticed that he had this to say about carignane:Carignane is the quintessential Ugly Duckling grape, maybe the best thing grown in CA. [link]With that in mind, I’ll try to approach this wine differently this time around. So what does this wine smell like? Mineral? “Rocks and raspberries?” To me, yes, I suppose, but paying closer attention yields smells of expensively tanned leather. Leaning in further, it’s more suggestive of very mild beef jerky with something like lavender-infused caramelized sugar, a strange mix of the meaty and the floral, dusty leather bindings in a gentleman’s library with delicate French confections.Drinking some at last allows me to experience the full complexity of what’s on offer; yes, it can be drunk as a “quaffing” or “bistro” wine (as the back label suggests) – it’s rich, full, grapey, alcoholic, all of those good things you want with your steak frites on a Friday night – but is there more? Well, yes. It’s just speaking a language that doesn’t come naturally to me. There’s a softness that suggests the wine’s peaking in terms of its development; tannins are fully resolved and it’s an ethereal kiss, a sly glance from someone attractive who’s just walking out of the ballroom. Is there real minerality? Well, it’s not as in your face as a Loire red, but yes, listen carefully and you’ll sense it, speaking quietly as the Sonoma hills in Indian summer do. Although there’s that suggestion of sweetness on the nose, there isn’t really any in the wine; the roundness is from ripe fruit, yes, but it’s not porty, not overwrought. More than anything else, though, there’s a sense that it’s too easy to ignore this as something ordinary, something simple, something unexceptional… and much like that quiet girl in the back of the class who you didn’t notice at first, time spent with her, oblivious to questioning looks from your classmate, might just turn into something beautiful.Buy this, drink it, repeat until you get it. That’s the point of carignane.Ridge
Price: $24
Closure: Cork

Ridge Buchignani Ranch Carignane 2004

Honestly? The first word that comes to mind here is naff. This isn’t a stylish wine, it’s not fashionable, never has been, never will be. The only reason this stuff exists is because Italian immigrants to California took it with from the old country; it’s survived here and there for over a century, and this wine is produced from some of those ancient vines.It’s a wine-y wine in that it smells like generically good wine. There’s not a lot of complexity; I’m not imagining old libraries, fresh mushrooms, straw in autumn sun, none of that stuff. Instead, it smells like bright, rich, clean, wholesome fruit. There is also a kind of fall-off to the smell that is hinting at bottle age, but it doesn’t necessarily seem like a bonus: instead, it seems like a reminder not to keep the wine around so long the next time.Once drunk, the wine is fairly simple and bright, with a chunky, tannic finish that’s quickly rescued by sprightly acidity. There’s a certain weight to the palate that’s attractive, but ultimately this isn’t one for the ages; it isn’t compelling enough to drink on its own, but would probably shine with charcuterie or a leg of lamb. Ultimately, the most interesting thing about this wine is simply that it exists at all. When I drink this, it’s satisfying to know that a small part of my state’s heritage exists in a consumable form to this day.Ridge
Price: $24
Closure: Cork

Ridge Zinfandel Stone Ranch 2004

Rich and dusty, there’s also the suggestion of medicine here, medicine that’s hiding something darker underneath an allegedly friendly façade. To me, it’s suggestive of dusty, decaying leather and no longer fashionable roses, a perfume that’s not friendly enough to sell well at Target. But that’s fine by me; a famous Frenchman once said that a perfume should smell of a woman who neglects herself, and this wine is heading in that same direction. It’s the smell of a wine that doesn’t particularly care what you think – kind of punk rock, I suppose.Deeply purple, youthful, and unapologetically alcoholic (if the jambes are to go by), it begins to give it up for fruitiness after a few minutes’ worth of exposure to air. Still, the fruity jam is nicely framed by that savory, dusty edge of dirt and restraint.Brighter than you’d expect in the mouth, what you get is a very floral, bright wine with hints of an aged character. In fact, it almost seems like there’s a skosh of volatile acidity lurking here; it just seems to… well, perky. It’s all moderately good… and yet it seems like there’s something every so slightly out of balance here. Even so, the character of the wine sneaks to the foreground from time to time, with a dusty, frankly kind of generically Zin-ny characteristic that’s good enough… almost. I’d be lying if I said I weren’t disappointed by this; all of the elements of a good Ridge zinfandel appear to be here; the problem is that they aren’t coherent, interrupted as they are by that acidic brightness and the odd sharpness of the wine. If I have anything particularly nice to say about this wine, it’s probably simply that it’s relatively inexpensive for a Ridge.Tannins, by the way, seemed missing in action for me, but my friend Mark says “wow, it’s all chunky tannins!” It could be simply that my taste buds have gone walkabout for the evening!Update: Ten minutes on, it’s warmed up a bit from the cellar, and now it’s going a sort of cassia bark path, devolving into a sort of vanillin spice box character. Interesting.Ridge
Price: $24
Closure: Cork