Kurtz Family Boundary Row Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2006

This is the kind of wine I’d usually consume soon after release, in expectation of the sort of plush fruit that can carry 15% ABV; it’s interesting to try this now, after a little time in bottle. That a sub-$20 wine can age few years shouldn’t be taken for granted, so I’m pleased to note this is, at the very least, still very drinkable.

Whether it’s preferable now compared to as a youngster is less sure. There are definite signs of decay here, starting with an aroma that is somewhat liquerous, overlaid with autumn leaves and leather. It’s relaxed, speaking of middle age rather than boisterous youth, perhaps having lost the naive enthusiasm that can make Barossa reds so attractive on release. My only complaint is a thinness to the aroma profile, as if it has lost a tad too much stuffing.

The palate confirms these mixed impressions, from fruit character to leanness of profile. Overall, it’s a dark, brooding wine, treading on the right side of portiness while flowing over the mouth in a surprisingly elegant, quite seamless way. Acid and tannin are both fairly relaxed, creating plenty of space for a clean expression of gently ageing fruit to flow down the line. I wish there were a bit more roundness to the palate structure, more fullness of fruit, because its tendency towards leanness exposes the alcohol, which circles back around to further compress the fruit. It’s also pleasantly warm, though, and a hint of mixed herbs adds to the impression of rustic comfort.

Kurtz Family Vineyards
Price: $NA
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

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

Margan White Label Shiraz Mourvèdre 2009

The concept of a Hunter Valley Shiraz Mourvèdre is a bit tantalising; though classic partners in several regions both here and abroad, Shiraz of the Hunter persuasion, often characterised by earthiness, should be especially well-matched to the savouriness Mourvèdre can bring. Margan’s version is the only one I’m aware of, though, so clearly not a wine that sits in the mainstream.

And that’s a shame, because on the basis of this wine, the combination has more than conceptual merit. This is just all about meaty, earthy, sinewy ropes of dark flavour. The nose kicks off with an uncompromising aroma profile of Morello cherries, on which is piled a good helping of oak, sweet earth and cured meats. It’s a very compact aroma, fully expressive and quite complex, always remaining rather streamlined and to-the-point. Serious, even.

The palate is, in its own way, just as direct. Good impact on entry, a sharp hit of savoury red and black fruits registering first, followed on the middle palate by a slightly broader spread of glossy oak and textured dirt. Good intensity and, within the confines of a narrow line, impressive density. Structurally, this is still pretty raw, the acid in particular cutting a rough line through the palate; this should soften with time. I’ll also be interested to see if a hint of bitterness through the after palate also softens; the wine would improve if it did. A good lilt to the decently long finish.

Although this isn’t a wine of enormous scale, to my mind it’s a real statement of style and intent. I like it.

Price: $A35
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Flaxman Drone Blend 2009

I never know what to expect when I open a Barossa Valley Rhône-ish blend. Stylistically, producers seem to try everything, from the richest of rich wines through to lighter, more claret-like interpretations, a category to which this wine belongs.

On pouring, it’s immediately apparent there’s no great density of colour here, and this is the first clue as to the style on offer. The second comes quickly on the nose, where instead of the wall of fruity goodness one might anticipate, there is instead an angular, prickly aroma profile that teases rather than leaps from the glass. The second interesting feature of this wine now presents: the Mataro component is very prominent. There’s some typically sweet, confectionary Grenache fruit, but dominating this note is a meaty, savoury, frankly challenging set of Mataro aromas that are really fascinating and moreish.

The palate confirms this wine’s light attitude as well as its curious savouriness. Entry is quite striking, with an edge of acid leading to a flash of sweet fruit before the meat takes over and carries this wine through to an elegant, supple middle palate. I like the way the two constituent grapes appear to fight against each other as this winds its way down the line, sweet and savoury intertwining and constantly threatening to pull apart but never seeming to go that far. A lift of well-judged oak supports the after palate and ushers in a dry, slightly resinous finish.

Be careful how you match this with food. Its distinctiveness will be lost with something too robust (like my burger dinner). A subtle, sloppy ragu would be perfect, I reckon.

Flaxman Wines
Price: $A25
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Gilligan Shiraz Grenache Mourvèdre 2009

My tasting notes are, at times, elaborate attempts to understand and perhaps even justify a gut reaction. Indeed, I started to write notes in the first place as a way to help work through the why of my likes and dislikes (and to compensate for my shockingly bad memory). I can probably articulate a particular response better now than I could a few years ago, but what I continue to value above all else is the realisation, be it instant or gradual, that you really love a wine.

In a sense, it’s easy to write about my enjoyment of a wine when it has some accepted currency in the dialogue: elegant reds, lean Chardonnays, flinty Rieslings. The conversation is mutually reinforcing of the wine’s quality and my own excellent taste. But wines like this — authentically commercial styles designed for maximum pleasure — can be more difficult to justify. Yet they shouldn’t be. After all, wine is about refreshment and enjoyment above all else, and if a wine provides these things, surely that is its own justification?

This is very pleasurable commercial style. I’ve tasted it over three days and it has held its form and flow well. The nose shows full, ripe plum fruit and a good deal of sexy, malty oak. The impression is cuddly and expressive, like curling up on a comfortable couch with a soft woolen blanket. There’s some gentle spice and detail too, adding nuance to an aroma profile that remains all about generosity.

The palate is more of the same, and this wine’s level of alcohol — 15% abv — expresses itself as a mouthfilling voluptuousness. Despite this, the wine comes across as medium bodied, indeed showing a degree of elegance that is surprising. I think this is mostly due to quite bright acid, which props up the fruit flavours and gives the palate sparkle and flow. The fruit is just so delicious, showing sweet plums, red berries and a hint of more savoury character. There’s perhaps a slightly stressed dimension too, probably reflective of vintage conditions but in no way distracting. A nice long finish that vibrates with oak and juicy plums.

It’s a mistake to undervalue styles like this.

Price: $A25
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Ishtar Grenache Shiraz Mourvèdre 2008

Really curious flavour profile here. Looking back over my notes, I found the 2006‘s fruit character quite sweet, though tempered by spice and meatiness. This wine, all other things being equal, presents a rebalanced set of flavours, tilting further towards savouriness, though retaining hints of the fun, playful Grenache fruit of its predecessor. I like it.

The nose takes some time to blossom. When it does, it shows quite complex aromas of malt, cough syrup, red fruit and twigs. I found it a little confronting at first. I suppose it’s not the kind of aroma profile one expects in a sub-$20 wine, possessing considerable character and feeling somehow risky. Does it all come together? I’m not sure. It’s certainly fun to smell. It will probably polarise drinkers too, perhaps alienating those who prefer a straighter set of aromas. 
The palate retains the moderate intensity of the 2006, while reflecting the complexity of the aroma. Entry is subtle, ushering in little bombs of sweet fruit on the mid-palate, framed by sappy, meaty flavours and underpinned by a softly viscous mouthfeel. This is a light to medium bodied wine, brightly flavoured, unapologetically funky. The after palate is savoury, with medicinal flavours over the top of pepper steak. Finish is sappy and astringent.
A cubist rendition of Barossa GSM. 
Update: another unexpected trait for a wine of this modest price — it tastes even better on day two. Markedly better balance and integration of flavours. A really pleasant surprise!

Balthazar of the Barossa
Price: $A19.50
Closure: Other
Source: Sample

Ishtar Grenache Shiraz Mourvèdre 2006

I don’t envy wine show judges. Quite apart from the difficulty of appearing dignified with purple teeth, there’s the challenge of judging a wine based on a quick tasting, in a lineup of fourty, perhaps even fifty like wines, after what may have been several flights earlier in the day. Even if I had the tasting perspective, I’d no doubt make a hash of the process, simply because I feel terribly disappointed when I derive no enjoyment from wine, and therefore tend to give most wines a chance to show a positive side.

And that can take time, sometimes days. Or, in the case of this wine, about half an hour. Still, I was ready to write it off at first. My initial sip was as follows: bright red, aggressively confected aroma preceding a sweet, medium bodied palate of considerable simplicity. Next!
But oh, how it’s evolved in the glass. After a little time and air, the nose is quite transformed. While it remains within an easy drinking idiom, there’s plenty of interest to the aroma profile, with meaty Mourvèdre and spicy Shiraz framing fruit that, though confectionary in nature, is well balanced against the savoury elements, and has evolved both sour and sweet faces. 
Similarly, the palate is a long way from its initial presentation and shows surprising sophistication in terms of its movement through the mouth. It’s medium bodied at most, with subtle tannins and enough acidity to stay fresh. Well-judged for frictionless consumption, then; this extends to intensity and density of flavour, neither of which call too much attention to themselves. In fact, it threatens to become a bit weedy, but is saved somewhat by a nice surge of sweet fruit as the middle palate transitions to the after palate. A meaty savouriness leads into the finish, which shows cough-syrup flavours and goes on for a decent amount of time.
There’s cheeky intent behind this wine, or at least a reluctance to forego interest for drinkability. Smart quaffing.

Balthazar of the Barossa
Price: $A19.50
Closure: Stelvin

Sandstone Cellars V

There’s something to be said for a wine that makes itself smelled even from across the table. I poured a glass of this, sat down at the computer, and at no point forgot that it was there: it positively exudes perfume. The color is remarkable: rich and deep, dark red with a slightly watery rim, at first giving the appearance of an older wine but somehow it’s all very youthful at the same time.

One smell of this and I’m transported: this does not smell like any wine I’ve had before. All kinds of random associations come to mind: the crisp, dry, crinkly skin of fresh tomatillos; dusty corridors in government buildings in distant counties, dessicating in the summer heat; the smell of the upstairs closet with Mom’s college papers, reel-to-reel tapes and all; a warm summer’s night in the house where grew up in the San Joaquin valley, crickets and trains on the night breeze, the warmth never fully gone from the hay bales outside. It’s remarkable.

Trying to think more traditionally about this for a minute, there seems to be a dry, dusty mint or basil note hovering over dry baker’s chocolate on the nose, wet earth, dried meats (not smoked), and (remarkably) something like dried violets. In all honest, I find it absolutely fascinating: so many different smells, such odd suggestions of things that really don’t have tastes or smells. If a mark of a great wine is that it somehow manages to remind you of things in your past that you’ve forgotten, well, then this wine’s a great one.

The first thing that strikes me about this wine in the mouth is the texture: it seems much richer, unctuous, fat, wide than most others do. Taking a minute to experience the physicality of the wine, I sense that it seems to slip away quietly, somehow vanishing towards the middle-back of the mouth while leaving that same impression of fullness behind. There’s good acidity here, which I suppose guarantees the soft disappearance; the tannins are finely checked and leave a lingering sense of elegance.

As far as the flavor of the thing goes, it again doesn’t really taste like any other wines I know. There are fleeting hints of typical syrah and zinfandel – snatches of deep, plummy fruit and smoky bacon fat – and yet there’s some other flavor dominant which (and I do apologize for the suggestion) somehow reminds me of mucilage or packing tape: it’s definitely not the usual thing. At times I find it challenging and not quite welcome; at other times, especially when paired with some soppressata-style salami, it calms down into something more conventionally agreeable, with flashes of comforting sweetness amongst rich smoky earth and ripe red fruits.

I have absolutely no idea what Don Pullum and the rest of the folks at Sandstone Cellars are doing, but it’s some of the most interesting wine I’ve ever tasted. If there ever needed to be proof that Texas makes serious wine, this is it.

Sandstone Cellars
Price: $25
Closure: Cork

Bonny Doon Old Telegram 2000

I’ll be the first to say that this wine isn’t pretty. Holding up to the light, it’s murky – it looks like river dregs, Delta muck, sediment. It all looks either very unsettled or in the process of disintegrating. Still, can’t say that I remember what this wine was like when it was young, so who cares, right?Right off the bat, the first thing I notice about the nose is that oddball candy-coated playtime of a nose that I associated with Bonny Doon’s experiments with micro-oxygenation from ten or so years back. There’s a strange, fruity, children’s-candy effect that I never particularly cared for; I prefer my mataro earthier, not fruitier. Once you get past it, though, there’s a lightly roasted/smoked coffee effect that’s intriguing, parried by a sort-of wild strawberry ostrich jerky effect. Curious.Relatively light-bodied at first, the wine quickly turns spicy in the mouth, tasting of candied orange peel and slab smoked bacon. Even if it seems light at first, solid tannins make themselves known soon enough, grounding it all in a heavy-handed, gripping manner perhaps better suited to the Detroit police. There’s a rich sweetness to the fruit yet, though, which rides above it all, lending it an air of deeply unserious seriousness that really doesn’t help pull it all together.To me, this wine tastes like the sort of thing a middle-aged winemaker would make: they’ve had some career success, sure, and the cognoscenti are familiar with the brand, but instead of doubling down and recommitting to better wines, middle-aged boredom has set in and now you’re playing around with shiny new toys instead of soberly paying attention to what you’re doing. I’m not disappointed by this wine – I think it’s decidedly unique and I’m glad it exists – and yet it seems that it’s a failure of sorts – a failure to pay attention to what Nature gave you and making that wine instead of whipping our your lab kit and making a wine that could only have been made technologically. What you get is interesting, sure, but it seems alienated from itself (alas, my attention span for Marxist theory was woefully short at university, so I can’t spin this out into a class critique of a wine that was forced to be something it wasn’t, alienating it from its true nature in the process).With more air, there’s a dark smoky fatigue here that suggests the wine is reaching its end of life (later rather than soon, I suspect). I’m enjoying it with pasta and red sauce; the meat of the wine is amplified by the meatballs and vice versa. If you’ve got this, drink it up now.Bonny Doon Vineyard
Price: $30
Closure: Cork

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