Thursday, June 24, 2010

Down Country Roads

By John Engstrom
Last weekend I visited a couple of wineries that are a bit off the main wine country highways. Coincidentally, both wineries locales were chosen because of the soil similarity to a region of France

The first was Tablas Creek Winery in the northwestern reaches of Paso Robles. Opened at the dawn of this century by the owners of the renowned Chateau Beaucastel of Châteauneuf du Pape, Tablas Creek grows grape varieties native to the Rhone Valley. Whites are Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc. Reds are Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache Noir, and Counoise.

Instead of the usual one long wine tasting bar, the tasting area is actually several small tasting bars that are opened and closed as the number of tasters waxes and wanes. Gustavo was pouring for me and a foursome from Southern California as results from the England vs. U.S. World Cup match were relayed about the facility.

The tasting started with the 2008 Côtes de Tablas Blanc. With Viognier and Roussanne making up 42 and 26 percent of the blend respectively, I anticipated a flowery aroma, and I was not disappointed. Honeysuckle and apricots on the nose were followed by white peaches and Bartlett pears on the palate. A medium body and crisp finish make this both a great summer sipper as well as a great wine to go with sautéed scallops or a salad that included shaved fennel and avocado. **** (on a scale of 5) / $25

Next on the agenda was their flagship white, the 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. The blend of 65% Roussanne and 30% Grenache Blanc (the remainder is Picpoul Blanc) is a fuller bodied white, and as I was sipping it I thought “the rest of the world is wasting their time with over-oaked, flabby Chardonnay, when this is what they should be drinking”. This wine is aromatic, yet not perfume-y; fruity, but dry; well-structured, but not oak driven; and possesses superb balance and a lingering finish. In short, an ideal full bodied white wine. ***** / $40

The third white was a 2008 Roussanne (100%). I generally love Roussanne, and this one was very good, but it doesn’t have the balance or finesse of the Esprit Blanc. Still, it was a delicious example of the variety with aromas of peaches and orange blossoms and flavors of white peach and apricot. **** / $27

The 2009 Rose was a blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache and Counoise (46/39/15), that was pleasantly dry. This wine is more serious and food oriented than many Rhone style dry roses, probably due to the biggest component being the Mourvèdre. Mourvèdre tends to have smoky and meaty aromas as a red wine, and this rose was not overtly fruity in either aroma or flavor as a result. *** / $27

The reds started out with the 2008 Cotes de Tablas. Like its “blanc” equivalent, this is Tablas Creek’s “little brother” Rhone-style blend to their Esprit de Beaucastel flagship blend. In this case, the main component is Grenache (42%), with Syrah, Counoise and Mourvèdre playing the supporting roles. The resultant wine has mixed berry and plum fruit component in the nose, mouth and finish that is very appealing, but not necessarily intriguing, analogous to the difference between a beautiful girl and an attractive woman. Still, a well made wine. *** / $25

Wine Spectator awarded the 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel 93 points and named it one of the Top 100 wines of 2009. Baking spices and cherry aromas are followed by figs, plum and tobacco notes in the mouth, and a gravelly – leathery finish. The blend is 44% Mourvèdre, 29% Grenache Noir and 21% Syrah, with a little Counoise making up the difference. This is a really fine wine, to be sure. **** / $50

However, it was exceeded by the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel in every way. The ’07 showed more fruit, more power, and yet, more balance, and the structure to withstand longer aging. Compared to the ’06, the cherry aromas are riper, the mouth feel a little fuller, and the finish a little richer and more memorable. The differences are all in the vintage because the percentages in the blend are virtually identical. ****+ / $50

The 2007 Grenache had the unenviable task of following that act. A blend of 90% Grenache Noir and 10% Syrah, it showed cherry and plum up front that morphed into a cherry cola flavor at the end. It has a nice vibrancy that would make it a wonderful wine with a number of foods. Anybody for grilled duck sausage? ***+ / $35

The 2007 Syrah is the “yin” to the Grenache’s “yang” being a blend of 90% Syrah and 10% Grenache Noir. More plumy and earthy than the Grenache, it has more panache, but less pizzazz. It would be wonderful with a mushroom risotto. Better yet, grab a bottle of this, a bottle of Grenache and the best sausage and mushroom pizza you can find. *** / $35

Just as Tablas Creek was situated where the founders felt the soils were very similar to the soils of the Rhone valley, Chalone Vineyards was founded by people that thought the soils reminded them of Burgundy. Chalone is at the foot of the western slope of the Pinnacles National monument. Unlike Tablas Creek, there are no other wineries along the road to stop off at along the way. You go to Chalone to go to Chalone, or on your way back from a hike in the Pinnacles. There was no other tasters when we arrived, and only two pairs of hikers came in while we were there.

We started off with the 2006 Estate Chenin Blanc, from head pruned vines adjacent to the former winery building, planted in 1919. If you are used to the soft, easy-drinking, slightly sweet Chenin Blancs of Clarksburg, you are in for a shock. This is a contemplative, serious Chenin Blanc, completely dry, with good acidity, and a minerality that underlines the pear aromas, pear and green apple palate, and especially the lingering finish. Only fine vielles vignes Vouvray comes close to the way this Chenin Blanc tastes. ****+ / $26

The second wine was a 2006 Estate Pinot Blanc. Pears and melon aromas were followed by the same in the mouth. The crisp acidity and persistent mineral quality gave this wine a solid structure from which to hang its luscious fruit. This would be a great wine to buy by the case for a big party. Your wine snob friends would appreciate it as much as the “you mean there’s a red Zinfandel, too?” crowd. ***+ / $26

This was followed by the 2007 Estate Chardonnay. Here is a Chardonnay that is completely dry (no added back unfermented juice), that actually has some acidity, is not so over-oaked that you feel like your sucking on a two-by-four, that isn’t so buttery, that you start wondering where the popcorn is. Here is a Chardonnay that actually has a fruit component. Here is a Chardonnay that will make you actually drink Chardonnay, and enjoy it. The aromas are of Granny Smith apples and a mere hint of vanilla. The flavors add a touch of mango to the apple pie. The finish is long and slightly flinty. Real Chardonnay. ***+ / $26

What can I say about the 2007 Estate Heritage Chardonnay? That it is among the best Chardonnays I’ve ever tasted? Yes, that’s true. That the best Montrachet producers wish they could make a wine like this? That’s probably true, too. This wine uses the mineral backbone that it gets from the limestone soils of Chalone, and balances the perfect amount of green apple, vanilla, mango and baking bread flavors and aromas to create a truly memorable wine, with a finish that seems to go on for days. ***** / $35

Between the great whites and the reds to follow, there was a 2009 Estate Rose. Made in saignee style from Grenache, it was a pleasant, but not memorable wine. Perhaps it suffered by comparison to the wines before and after. ** / $16

The red wines started with their 2006 Estate Pinot Noir. The smell of cherries and red currants fill your nose, but it’s black cherry with hints of leather and tobacco that fill your mouth. Very well balanced, the wine finishes with a stone fruit and gravel touch. ***+ / $37

This was followed by the 2007 Estate Heritage Pinot Noir. Like the Estate Pinot Noir, the superb balance is clearly evident, taking the same basic cherry and red currant aromas and black cherry, leather and tobacco flavors and adding just the right amount of extra richness in aroma and mouth-feel, yet maintaining a solid framework of tannins and acidity and lean cherry fruit. ****+ / $45

Tasting notes for the 2007 Estate Grenache indicate aromas of fresh strawberries, cherries and rhubarb. I didn’t get the cherries; it was more raspberry to me. That was echoed in the mouth with a slightly spicy note. If I didn’t know better, I might have guessed some Sangiovese or Zinfandel in the blend. ***+ / $30

The 2006 Estate Syrah presented with an earthy, slightly herbal, black plum and blueberry aroma. The earthiness and black plum were echoed upon tasting. The Chalone terroir again providing a solid structure. *** / $30

Lastly, the 2006 Estate Condor Blend is so named because five dollars from every purchase goes to California condor preservation. It is a 69/31 blend of Syrah and Grenache. Alas, it doesn’t show the character of either. It’s a well made but muddled wine. Buy the Grenache, and donate the five bucks directly to the Ventana Wildlife Society. **+ / $40

When I started to write this blog piece, I was going to comment that these two, out of the way wineries were definitely worth seeking out. The wines are fabulous, and the country roads to get to them make a lovely detour from the more traveled highways. However, the “powers that be” at Diageo, have decided to close the Chalone tasting room effective June 26. Another great wine experience lost, and more is the pity.

How I rate wines:
***** = Five Stars = Outstanding wines showing excellent balance, style and distinctive character. These are worth seeking out and purchasing as much as you can afford.

****+ = Four Stars plus = Half-way between Four and Five Stars.

**** = Four Stars = Excellent wines with enough character, finesse and balance to distinguish from the rest. Buy a few bottles, and you can thank me later.

***+ = Three Stars plus = Half-way between Three and Four stars

*** = Three Stars = Very Good wines, but lacking that certain something that makes them special. Buy a bottle or two or three.

**+ = Two Stars plus = Half-way between Two and Three stars

** = Two Stars = Good wine, but nothing exciting. Use it to round out the case for a discount.

*+ = One Star plus = Half-way between One star and Two stars.

* = One Star = Mediocre wines that are adequate to drink, but only if nothing else is available.

## = no stars = Seriously flawed wine.

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