Frescobaldi Nipozzano Chianti Rufina Riserva 2005

First off all, let me say thank you to my in-laws for this bottle; my family has always had an informal gift-giving rule that goes something like this: “if you can’t eat or drink it, don’t give it.” I’ve probably bought no more than a case of Italian wine in my entire life, so this represents a lovely departure from the norm for me.Being totally unfamiliar with Italian wines, I had to cheat and look this up: this is sangiovese (OK, I knew that much), but with a fruit salad of other stuff thrown in and making up 10% of the blend (malvasia nera, colorino, and a couple of others).Being only marginally familiar with sangiovese in general – notably through encounters with Penfolds and Bonny Doon wines labeled as such – I wasn’t really expected this wine to smell like it does. It doesn’t smell like the odd, anchovy-esque fruit bomb I usually associate with this grape; instead, it smells deathly serious, like some movie prop “Italian wine” served by an extra from Goodfellas. It smells like smoked meats drying in a strawberry jam factory, warm wooden floors and sawdust below, hazy springtime air blowing in through a window. Frankly, it smells like it’s spent a fair amount of time in barrel; what fruit there is seems well hidden behind casky support.It’s surprising to taste the wine; yes, it’s every bit as tannic as I (stereotypically) expect from an Italian red – although it’s not rustically so, it is a bit off-putting – but there’s pretty much a totally out of control fruit orgy going on here as well. Oh my. This stuff is far from demure; although there is just a bit of the smoked fish note I usually expect from sangiovese, it’s decidedly overridden by suggestions of plum tartlets and floral honey. The finish last for quite some time; it reminds me of the smell you get when you find a pawn shop humidor that hasn’t been used in a decade: dusty, faintly tobacco, and softly wooden.On the whole, I suppose what you have here is an Old World wine that’s been made New World enough to be acceptable to a non-Italian audience; yes, there are still tannins and wonderful woody notes from barrel age and quality cooperage, but there’s also a heart of very ripe, sunny Tuscan fruit that should win over anyone who’s initially a bit put off by the somewhat severe nose. All in all, this is a delicious drink and a not very subtle remind that I am course missing out on a lot of quality drinking by never, ever remembering to buy Italian wines. Mea maxima culpa, indeed.Marchesi di Frescobaldi
Price: $20
Closure: Cork

Wolf Blass White Label Chardonnay 2005

First, provenance. I ended up with this bottle of wine (amongst others) courtesy of the Sydney Royal Wine Show, as a “thank you” for stewarding. The thing is, I can’t find out anything about it other than the fact that it won a silver medal at the 2008 Show. Nothing on the Wolf Blass website. So if you’re after some of this wine — sorry, can’t help you. Unless some of our readers (or the producer) can enlighten us all, of course.

It’s quite a tasty wine, though difficult too. The nose seems mostly influenced by winemaking rather than fruit — savoury mealiness, sweet vanilla oak, a touch of caramel. All pretty delicious if you don’t mind fruit flavours that take a complementary role in the overall profile. The fruit itself is lovely — white peach mostly — but oh-so subservient. Interestingly, this isn’t a totally juggy wine, and there’s enough of a funky thread to the aroma to present as challenging too.

In the mouth, some surprises. It’s not flabby at all, nicely propped up by acid in fact, and I am finding the fruit more prominent here than on the nose, at least initially. The attack is alive and crisp thanks to the acid, creating an impression of vibrant, fresh fruit, but this momentum isn’t maintained because the intensity of the fruit dips quickly as the wine moves towards the middle palate. It’s like a little explosion that disappears from view before you’ve finished taking in the effect. Is the fruit receding, or is the wine perhaps going through a stage? Who knows. Just as disappointment threatens to settle in, things pick up again on the after palate, though flavours here are more oak-driven. Classy oak, to be sure, but a bit blunt too. The finish slides into caramel and oat meal, and feels a bit hot to me.

Overall it seems a bit awkward and gangly, and it may be that I’m drinking it at a disadvantageous point in its trajectory.

Wolf Blass
Price: $A40
Closure: Cork

Foundry Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2003

Such beautiful packaging, and such a shame to unwrap the bottle from its stylish red paper, but my cat just got back from the vet and deserved something to help him overcome the trauma, so there you go. This has been languishing in my cellar for years, picked up in Walla Walla during their spring tasting weekend; that time, I had stayed in the Bridal Suite at the Howard Johnson’s – don’t laugh, it was only $5 more, and turned out to have fewer amenities than their usual rooms, but I digress.I was shocked to smell this at first; the first impression is of, well, shit. Ewww. However, once you get past the shock, it does improve, but the bad smell seems to be on an endless, faulty merry-go-round with the other smells of Walla Walla fruit and Kalamata olive. I… am not a fan, admittedly; this smelled quite a bit different when I tasted the wine on site.Thankfully, when you get it past your nose and into your mouth, what you get is a lovely, elegant, supple Washington cabernet that is everything that good wines from that state are: brightly/subtly acidic in the background, with rich, lush, ripe red fruits in the front, all set off nicely against a lumbering backdrop of quality French oak. There is also a very distinctive, very hard for me to describe of something like green olives, salt water, and stale fruitcake hovering around the midpalate; I have a feeling that this wine may be a bit de trop for your average American red wine drinker, but honestly? Try to see beyond the oddness and you may be richly rewarded.Bonus: Jim Dine did the label, which is quite handsome. This wine really does look and feel like a $100 cult Cabernet from California; it’s insanely good value.Foundry Vineyards
Price: $30
Closure: Cork

Bonny Doon Cigare Alternative A 2001

The marketing materials suggested that this wine would greet 2010 “in fine fashion,” so how is it doing in 2009? I never did try it when originally shipped to wine club members many years ago, but here it is now, after two interstate moves; I’m tired of schlepping it around and now it’s time to slug it back.Immediately after opening the bottle, the smell of this stuff managed to overwhelm the homemade tamales I bought from a door-to-door vendor and has for dinner earlier tonight: this stuff is pungent. Boys and girls, the word of the day is Sauerkirschen: this smells like sour cherries, Moravian I suppose, or whatever those large, cheap glass jars contained back when the USSR still existed and you could buy them cheaply at any American grocery store. Whoa. Really strong, bright, dark, sour cherries. There’s also a hint of something that reminds me of freshly polished shoes: a light leathery note with the sharp tang of shoeshine polish. Pretty cool.What this wine taste like? Again, strong, sour cherries with only the faintest hints of darker flavors. There’s also a rather strange, herbal note here that is something like off-brand spearmint mouthwash; that sounds worse than it is, I know, but it’s very distinctive and not something I’ve encountered before. All of this is tightly grasped by still present, still somewhat hoary tannin, which at first was so unpleasant I considered throwing it out – but over time, it does loosen up enough to get past. Overall, the mouthfeel is pretty strange; it’s like a tug-of-war between not-yet-resolved tannins taking place in the shallow end of a pool. The color of this wine is dark and foreboding, yet it all seems fairly medium-bodied in the mouth, which is I suppose normal for a mature wine like this.All in all, I really don’t know what to make of this wine. Is it too old? Probably not. Was it better young? Who knows? Is the overall disorienting mouthfeel a relic of Bonny Doon’s then-obsessions with spinning cones, microbullage, and other weird winemaker tricks? I’m thinking yes; there’s something just not right about this wine, something getting in the way of the direct transmission from Mother Earth. I get the feeling that if Randall Grahm had made this ten years later it would be OK – but as it is, I imagine that he’d be recherching an awful lot of temps perdu if he were to open this puppy now.To paraphrase Stephen Malkmus: A for effort, B for delivery.Bonny Doon Vineyard
Price: $30
Closure: Cork

Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly 2006

This color seems wrong: too deep, too rich, too red. Surely it can’t be Beaujolais, can it? There it is, though, that telltale bright purple rim, something out of the effects department from Twilight; it’s impossibly young and is, I suppose, a market of an “unserious” wine (as would Carignane as well).However! This isn’t your ordinary banana-scented Beaujolais that someone brought home from last November’s sales; sure, there’s just a hint of that tropical fruitiness that carbonic maceration seems to produce, but it’s also much more at Burgundy than Beaujolais, somehow. To me, it smells of black pepper, balsamic vinegar, strawberries: dessert-y, sure, but also somehow very sophisticated. There’s also a sort of leathery component which makes me wonder if this wine has seen oak at some point; it seems relatively complex.Nicely tannic at the edges, the wine uncoils from its mineral depths and into a very fine, well judged middle-weight palate that delivers strawberries and cream with a sassy acid backdrop, allowing the fruit in the foreground to truly shine. It all finishes on a very bright, grapey note that reminds me of pears poached in a port wine sauce: lovely dark fruits seamlessly mixed with fresh produce from a spring garden.To me, this wine is utterly delightful: it seems to exist at that magical interstice between unserious and very, very serious. This isn’t supposed to be a grape worth paying attention to, but treated sensitively, as this wine is? It’s a rare treat.Château Thivin
Price: $20
Closure: Cork

Gundlach Bundschu Pinot Noir 2005

One smell of this and whoa, you’re in California. This doesn’t come across anywhere near as lean and means as Burgundy or Oregon: instead, you’re in distinctly warmer territory here. I can’t quite put that smell into words, but sometimes you smell a pinot and it just isn’t delicate; there’s a hint of varnish hovering over the full, red fruitiness.There’s a distinct earthiness or sappiness here as well, though, so it isn’t all shiny happy berries, which is a relief. There seems to be a dark, bitter chocolate note there as well, so I’m guessing this stuff has seen a fair whack of oak at some point.In the mouth, though, the wine is surprising: nimble and light on its feet, avoiding any sense of stewed fruit or overripeness. The flavor profile isn’t at all what I was expecting, tending towards the fairly sour with a fleshy midpalate, tasting largely of dusty leather, pipe tobacco, and sour raspberry jam. The finish is slightly overly acidic for my liking, but of course all that means is that you’d best drink this one with charcuterie; by itself, it seems just a bit incomplete, but it does offer up a wide range of flavors ranging from standard Pinot all the way through to earthy sap. For my money, this isn’t really a match for Oregon pinot or Burgundy – it’s just a bit too big and top-heavy in some way – but it’s a very fine example of Sonoma pinot noir and easily holds its own with some of the classic, e.g. Gary Farrell. Price-wise it’s fairly priced, too, which is unusual for this part of the state. Oddly enough the wine it reminds me most of is Bass Philips, albeit in kind of a cartoony way – this isn’t anywhere near the wine that is, but it has a similar fullness of profile, I reckon.Gundlach Bundschu
Price: $35
Closure: Cork

Mountain X Hunter Shiraz 2006

Despite having published a series of turgid articles (1, 2, 3, 4) arguing precisely the opposite, I think there’s something deeply authentic about Australian wines that are a blend of material from several regions. For a start, many of our great winemakers (Roger Warren, Max Schubert, Maurice O’Shea and Colin Preece, for starters) often used this approach. It remains a part of our industry to this day, arguably representing the mainstream.

The intent is often to create a better wine than can be crafted from any one constituent component. For example, I’ve read that Colin Preece used to sometimes include some rich, ripe Rutherglen red in his elegantly spicy Great Western material to create a superior end result. There are many such examples, Grange being the most obvious and enduring. So one could pursuasively argue that a multi-regional blend vibrates with the sort of authenticity that can’t be achieved by simply doing it the way they do in, say, Burgundy. Perhaps this is the Australian way.

Is this even important? Surely, what’s in the glass is all that matters. Well, yes and no; to me at any rate. I’m not of the “wine is just a drink” school. I believe intent matters. And I think the degree to which a wine engages (or disengages) from a certain winemaking tradition should be considered. None of that changes what’s in the bottle, but wine exists in a context and, when I taste it, the purely sensual experience intersects all these things.

Perhaps I should apologise to the creators of this wine, Gary Walsh and Campbell Mattinson, for not getting straight to the point. But, in a sense, this is the point. Well-known wine writers, Messrs Walsh and Mattinson have ostensibly created the Mountain X label not only to produce something very tasty, but to explicitly draw on various Australian winemaking traditions.

This may be the first seriously postmodern wine that I’m aware of, at least locally. The name recalls O’Shea’s naming conventions. It’s a blend of Hunter Valley and Yarra Valley wine. And it’s a blend of Shiraz and Pinot Noir varieties. Hardly anyone does Shiraz/Pinot blends any more; it’s certifiably niche, and yet fits naturally into the history of the Hunter Valley. Even the outdated nomenclature of Hunter Burgundy suggests it. So neat on so many levels.

Indeed, the conceptual side would threaten to overwhelm the wine if it weren’t deliciously, obviously good. And it’s so good, fully justifying its existence to those who just want to drink a quality wine. The nose for starters. First impressions are of expressively funky brambles and stalk, fully ripe and strongly suggestive of the Pinot component. There’s also what I presume is an oak influence, sweetly malty and nougat-like, not too assertive in volume or aggressive in flavour. Then, some mellow berry fruit, straddling sweet and savoury. This is such a relaxed aroma profile, one that gently glows in the glass and calls you back not with a shout but with a sweetly harmonised tune.

This quiet sophistication carries through to the palate. All the obvious markers of quality are here — intensity, length, complex flavour — as they are in thousands of other wines. What’s fascinating about this wine is the flavour profile. As with the nose, it’s quite funky but not in a dirty way. In fact, this wine is a great example of how to achieve character without resorting to questionable flavours. I’m not sure I can tease it apart, but I’ll give it a go. A strong thread of sour cherry. A small amount of intensely sweet, positively confectionery fruit (sort of like Redskins, but of course in a clever adult sort of way). Brambles. Nougat. I’m not sure I’m communicating things accurately (or completely, as it’s quite complex) but suffice it to say it’s coherent and attractive. Structurally, this is acid-driven, though delicately so, such that it’s not forbidding in any way. Body is medium, with a sprightly mouthfeel that also manages to feel luxurious. The finish echoes the very beginning, with ripe, stalk-like flavours freshening the palate as sweet fruit lingers like an echo somewhere up high.

Performance art in a bottle. Serve it to non-wine nerds and enjoy both the wine and a quietly smug chuckle.

Mountain X
Price: $A30
Closure: Diam
Source: Sample

McPherson Grenache-Mourvedre 2005

I’m currently on a business trip to San Angelo, Texas, which is a relatively small city of about 80,000 people pretty much in the middle of nowhere, about four hours’ drive due west of President Bush’s ranch.Although there’s an airport here with daily flights to Dallas, it was far less expensive to fly into Austin, the state capital, and drive. More importantly, the Texas Hill Country AVA is about an hour and a half west of Austin, so I thought it’d be a kick to see what’s going on in Texas wine country.I did stop at one winery, which I won’t name here: it opened relatively recently, with a very good looking tasting room with a tasteful selection or merchandise, plenty of parking, and a very friendly tasting room employee who informed me that Texas was now the #2 wine producing state in the nation. (Trust me, it’s not. Washington and Oregon dwarf Texas’s wine production by far.) Tellingly, their whites were generally made from California grapes (where, I have no idea; neither did their employee), but they did have a couple of Texas red wines. The best of the bunch was a thoroughly humdrum Bordeaux blend that approaches Rawson’s Retreat quality levels, but at the amazing price of $55.That’s right. Fifty-five bucks. I think I now know what Enron executives were doing with their money!Anyhow, enough about “the #2 Wine Destination in America” (according to the tourist brochure put out by the local vintners’ co-op marketing board).Tonight, I went out and found a lovely wine shop here called In Vino Veritas. The staff were very friendly, even if they couldn’t pronounce “mourvèdre”; the place looked like a great place to sit and enjoy a glass of wine with friends, even if the owner’s humongous dog was stinking up the place and eating off of a plate of tiny cheese cubes. I don’t mean to sound rude by pointing these things out; I’m just noting that it was, ahem, a bit different than your typical snooty West Coast wine shop. They went so far as to uncork my bottle for me (no corkscrew in my hotel room!) and recork it with a Turley cork (sexy!), and now I’m enjoying it out of Hampton Inn’s finest plastic stemware.On pouring the wine, it seemed to me that the color was a bit wan; to me, this is either indicative of a marginal climate (unlikely; this appears to be from Lubbock, which is up towards Oklahoma*) or a winemaker who’s trying hard to emulate the French classics and not produce a total hedonistic fruit bomb (e.g. a Turley).The aroma of the wine is decidedly pretty, smelling very soft and sweet with a deliciously floral perfume of warm red raspberries; I don’t really smell much of the typical mataro gaminess here. There’s also just a hint of what’s probably volatile acidity; it’s almost a nail polish remover note, but it’s so subtle that I really don’t think it’s a flaw in any way; it just adds to the charm of this stuff. In the mouth, this is indeed a little bit thin compared to the stuff I’m used to from California, but the flavors are very fine indeed, with a soft, smoky undercurrent to subdued brambly fruit. There seems to me to be a hint of tobacco sheds and spice box here; there is definitely just a bit of classic Shiraz pepperiness and it’s well integrated with the fruit.All in all, this wine is A-OK by me. I’m not sure there’s anything here that tastes different enough to make me think West Texas is the next Marlborough or Mendoza, but this is a very well crafted, well-judged wine that would be ideal to drink with a first rate Texas steak. Based on this wine alone, I’d love to try more of Kim McPherson’s wines.* Not actually true (I had to check the map); Lubbock is just south of the southern border of Oklahoma. My apologies.McPherson Cellars
Price: $15
Closure: Cork