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Powers Of Two: Blending Cultures, Countries, Vineyards And Varieties With The Hottest Winemaker In Napa Valley

Vinted on March 15, 2012 binned in elegant wines, kick-ass wines, on the road, wine review, winemaking

It’s not a stretch to say that Philippe Melka is, right now, the hottest winemaker in all of the Napa Valley (hottest as in “most in-demand,” and not as in “most hunky,” though admittedly I’d be a pretty poor judge of the latter). He’s got a 100-point Wine Advocate review under his belt with Dana Estates (no denying the power of that, no matter what your take on wine scores might be), and is now riding high on Dana’s stunning 2012 Premiere Napa Valley auction lot, which took the top-grossing slot at $70K.

So it’s interesting, in retrospect, that he was… let’s just say cautiously optimistic about Californian winemaking potential when coming to Napa from France with Dominus in the early 1990s. Being skeptical is part of the French culture, of course; and being skeptical about Napa wine is probably even more understandable when you’ve cut your winemaking teeth at Bordeaux stalwarts Haut Brion and Pomerol darling Chateau Petrus.

“In France I kept hearing, ‘in California they make good wine, but they have no sense of terroir’” he told me over lunch in the trailer that now marks the entrance to what will become the Napa Valley tasting room for Melka Wines, the only brand to which he’s attached his now-famous (in winemaking terms, anyway) surname. “And to some extent, they were right. I mean, everyone was planting Cabernet Sauvignon no matter what – regardless of the soil, the sunlight, everything. I was looking for limestone in Napa. I am still looking for limestone in Napa!”

Fast forward twenty-some-odd years from those cautiously-optimistic days, and through the thoroughly French exterior, you find someone that seems thoroughly Northern Californian at heart – a laid-back, down-to-earth surfer-dude of a winemaker. Philippe now consults on wines from the elegantly powerful (Vineyard 29, Parallel Wines, Entre Nous) to the sometimes-just-too-damn-powerful (Gemstone and Moone-Tsai), and he’s involved in at least one worst-kept-secret “cult wine” Napa project that I’ve tasted (if you’re wondering if that last one is worth the ton of money it would cost to try it, I’ll say this: I’ve had few wines that were bigger, but also few big wines that were better, and it’s got the purest black licorice and dark chocolate aromas I’ve ever encountered in a wine, period)…

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2009 Bordeaux To Wine World: “Surprise! We’re Overpriced!” (Thoughts From The Union des Grand Crus NYC Tasting)

This is how I imagine many top-tier Bordeaux Chateaux owners end their day:

They put down their small glasses of aged Sauturnes (which have been chilled by Winter fairies blowing ice crystals at them), and are lifted out of their easy chairs on large red ribbons made of the finest silk, held aloft by cherubs singing a lullaby from the music of the spheres, and on the way through their marble hallways to their lavish canopy beds they are heralded by smiling, talking statues who repeatedly exclaim how blessed those owners are to be themselves, and how lucky the world’s mortal wine drinkers are to have their glasses graced by even the tiniest drops from the nectar aging in their chai’s barrels.

I imagine this because living in a fantasy land is one of the few logical explanations for how the 2009 Bordeaux wine prices are shaping up. At least, that’s the conclusion I reached after attending the recent Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux 2009 vintage tasting in NYC.

For sure there were some amazing wines being poured (more on my faves after the jump), but a higher density under one roof of “pretty good” to “errr… uhmmm… not-so-great” wines for $50 and up you are not likely to find anywhere else on the planet. I interviewed Robert Parker a couple of years ago, and in that conversation he told me that Bordeaux wines were dramatically overpriced – the situation appears to have gotten a sight worse since then. As one salesman I met at the NYC tasting told me, when it comes to 2009 Bordeaux prices, “whatever you think it is, add… A LOT!” (that same person hinted that a recent vintage of one of the First Growths was rumored to be $22,000 a case).

But before you start shouting foul play on the part of the Asian wine market being responsible for putting Bordeaux prices out of reach of non-cherub-owning humans, bear in mind that it takes a certain amount of avarice (and probably arrogance) to charge a ton of money for a product that cannot be said be at all a rarity…

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Song Of The Happily Depleted Burgundian Bank Account (Domaine Chanson’s 2009 Grand Crus Hit High Notes, And High Prices)

It’s not often that a wine guy avoids a wine region by choice.

Yet that’s more-or-less where I’ve found myself when it comes to France’s Burgundy, home of both ethereally-exquisite, mind-blowingly-good wines and overpriced, cabbage-in-the-bathwater bad swill, with little to guide the consumer from choosing one over the other apart from painstakingly acquired detailed knowledge of the region’s négociants… and we’ve all go those guys’ details committed firmly to memory, right?!??

Ahem

And so, when you get invited to a vintage tasting in NYC for a Burgundian producer with whom you have no prior experience, even as a critic-of-sorts you steel yourself for what is surely to be the inevitable dropping of the other shoe; as in, having to taste wines that smell like the other shoe dipped in someone’s droppings.

And then, when you’re not only pleasantly surprised by the outcome – as I was at Blue Fin last week, after going through the 2009 lineup from Père & Fils’ Domaine Chanson – you’re practically blown away… Well, then you have to endure the odd-paired painful pleasure of watching your personal assessment of both that producer’s abilities and your own douchebag rating simultaneously skyrocket. [ Editor's note: This pain was salved slightly by the fact that Père & Fils’ was pouring bubbly from Champagne producer Bollinger, which they also own, and which I can now tell you from personal experience washes down the taste of crow with elegant, floral appeal. ]

Much of Domaine Chanson’s rise to within-spitting-distance of Burgundy’s upper-echelon (and therefore arguably the wine world’s upper-echelon) can be attributed to the hard work of its President, Gilles de Courcel – an amicable guy with thinning brown hair, a quick smile and eyes that light up when he gets a chance to exercise his borderline-obsessive passion for describing the tiny geography from which Chanson’s top-tier, tiny production Grand Cru wines originate…

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Surprising Stars From Aussie Wine’s “A+” NYC Event

Vinted on January 26, 2012 binned in elegant wines, kick-ass wines, sexy wines, wine review

Considering that I’ve been so surprised by the high quality of some Aussie white wines in the last several months, it seems surprising that I should be surprised at all when Aussie wine surprises me these days.

And yet, my mind is simple enough (and apparently entrenched enough in its own little preconceived notions) that the Aussie wine surprises keep coming (good and bad, but probably much more good than bad right now).

Such was the case at last week’s A+ Aussie Wine public tasting event at Espace in NYC, called “Around Australia In 80 Sips” and organized jointly by Bottlenotes and Wines of Australia (of whom I was a media guest). [ By the way, the "A+" thing is their marketing label, not mine. ]

The Aussie’s in the biz who attended refer to this sort of public tasting event as a “swim through” – I’ll let your imagination fill in the blanks on what that means, but let’s just say I had to fight to make my way to poorly-placed spit buckets, and I was by far in the minority in terms of actually using them.

The volume of imbibing aside, it was great to see so many people (a few hundred NYCers) – and predominantly young people, who apparently haven’t heard (or are just ignoring) the misinformation that Aussie wine is dead – coming out to get a crash-course in what Aussie wine has to offer the U.S. market.  Something like forty wineries participated – mostly the big ones, which very likely isn’t a true representation of the diversity of the Aussie wine market, but was certainly an accurate representation of the Aussie producers most people are likely to find available on our shores.

The surprises for me this time? The reds

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