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The Power of First Impressions

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s book on the ‘power of thinking without thinking’, he discusses the notion of thin slicing or the ability to make an effective judgment on a situation, person or experience within minutes or even seconds. In other words first impressions are often correct.

This is a concept with which I wholeheartedly agree, but of course, being human, our first impressions are sometimes wrong. At the most recent meeting of Sniff’s tasting group we were tasting four wines semi-blind. We knew that there were two Grenache based wines, a Zinfandel from California and a Primitivo from Puglia but did not know the order in which they were poured, the respective price points, or the specific region of production. Any self-respecting oenophile will tell you that they would not confuse Zinfandel with Chateauneuf du Pape (CNdP) but that is exactly what I did. I arrived at this snap decision based on the smell alone, the predominant aroma was that of bruised apples and tobacco. So why leap to Zinfandel? Well because a ‘classic’ descriptor for Zinfandel (or at least, one that I had in my head), was exactly that, apple and tobacco…At this point my unfortunately simple, lizard like brain refused to consider any other information accrued after actually tasting the wine. In some respects there are legitimate similarities or ‘confusables’ between Zinfandel and Grenache (the dominant variety in CNdP). They are often high in alcohol, moderate in acidity, have red as well as black fruit characteristics yet the tannic structure is very different. Zinfandel has the pithiness of cranberries whereas Grenache has the chalkiness of well…chalk.

What I was actually smelling (the apple thing) was a bit of oxidation and Grenache is a well known for its susceptibility to this aroma altering process. Is this an excuse? I wish it was, the other members of our group who are not on the MW programme treat me as their first among equals, I am not meant to make these kinds of mistakes and of course they didn’t. What it does demonstrate is the power that a small piece of information can wield and that allowing a period of deliberation based on all the facts – two minutes should suffice – before drawing a more rational, evidence based conclusion should see future Grenache based gaffes, minimised.

Below are two of the wines tasted that provide a delicious but inexpensive comparison between the variety Tribidrag (aka Zinfandel and Primitivo).

Papale, Primitivo di Manduria, Puglia, Italy, 2010, 14%
Grape: Primitivo
Wine-making: 8 months in French oak
Note: Ripe and smoky with good depth and concentration for the price. Not hugely complex but this is an enjoyable and well-balanced wine that is as happy on its own as it is with a plate of Orecchiette.
Price: 1,200NT
Score: 16/20
Available from: 

Ravenswood, Old Vine Vintners Blend Zinfandel, California, 2012, 13.5%
Grape: 75% Zinfandel, 16% Petite Sirah, 6% Syrah
Wine-making: 10 months in French oak, a third of which is new.
Note: Very pretty red fruit style with a little bit of that apple and tobacco thing mentioned above. Soft and eminently drinkable without the raging alcohol sometimes experienced. A pleasing introduction to what is possible with Zinfandel.
Price: 930NT
Score: 15.5/20
Available from:

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Happy Chinese New Year 2015

The final meeting of our tasting group in this year of the Horse, before we welcome in a year of lanolin based loveliness (It’s Sheep time), concerned the merits of New World Pinot Noir. I have already made clear my reticence for much of the world’s Pinot, as too often it tends towards expensive, two-dimensional dullness. In speaking with any ambitious producer of Pinot, the majority recognise the difficulties inherent in crafting something that has the perfume and personality they so desperately seek. Most admit that the reason they cherish Pinot is for its ability to act as a conduit for the soil that it sits in. This is great when the wine is fantastic, leaving the winemaker to talk about the incredible nature of the terroir, but what about when the wine is not so good?

An old cycling adage states that there is no such thing as bad weather just bad clothing, well unfortunately, if our tasting was proof of anything, the same cannot be said of making wine from Pinot Noir. No amount of fine ‘clothing’ (low yields, whole berry fermentations, ‘hand plunging’, expensive French oak, heavy bottles etc) can make up for the ‘bad weather’ or unsuitable terroir. And the factor most significant for diminishing the suitability of Pinot based terroir? Heat.

Of the four wines tasted all were from ‘cool’ regions with a reputation for producing qualitatively very good and expressive Pinot. Yet there is ‘cool’ and there is…well…cooler. For us, the cooler areas performed the best, retaining more perfume, and achieving a greater level of overall harmony. Please see the reviews below.

If all this talk of Pinot has left you cold and pining for some alternative to share with your flock during the festivities, then why not try a variety that shares some of Pinot’s attributes; Sicily’s Nerello Mascalese: aromatic, elegant and delicious.

Craggy Range, Te Muna Road, Martinborough, 2012, 13%
Grape: Pinot Noir
Winemaking: 10 months in 25% new French Oak
Note: Delicate, cherry stone and wet wool aromas. Supple and silky showing old world restraint with a little new world purity. Full of pleasure now but also promises a degree of improvement over the next 3 years.
Price: Approx $30USD
Score: 16-16.5/20
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan 

Cristom, Jessie Vineyard, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon, 2010, 13.5%
Grape: Pinot Noir
Winemaking: 19 months in 61% new French oak
Note: The best wine of the evening and the most ‘old-world’ in style. Complex and engagingly aromatic with bright red fruit combining with truffle, mushroom and floral characters to create a harmonious whole. Sappy and supple, deserving of a nice lamb chop.
Price: 1,850NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: Chateau Wine & Spirit 02 25065875 

Marimar Estate, La Masia, Russian River, Sonoma, 2009, 14%
Grape: Pinot Noir
Winemaking: 30% new French Oak
Note: Spicy and full bodied with a herbal element sitting alongside the red and predominantly black fruit on show here. Good, but feels a little hollow in the middle and this causes the alcohol to protrude slightly.
Price: 2,300NT
Score: 15/20
Available from: Finesse 

Moss Wood, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, 2009, 14%
Grape: Pinot Noir
Winemaking: 14 months in 50% new French oak
Note: Along with the Cristom wine from Oregon, this had the finest array of aromatics. Red cherry, tea leaves and pot pourri allied to a satin-like mouth-feel made this very pleasing. Should continue to improve over the next three years.
Price: 1,850NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: 

Tascante, Ghiaia Nera, IGT Sicilia, 2010, 13%
Grape: Nerello Mascalese
Winemaking: Young vines, planted at 600 metres on the slopes of Mount Etna. Matured in large old oak vats.
Note: Smelling of Chinese medicine, cooked red cherries and with no intrusive oak aromas, this wine delivers on purity. Not overly complex, it is nonetheless a good introduction to this elegant Sicilian native.
Price: 1,400NT
Score: 16/20
Available from: Ascent Way 02 2533 3180


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Something for the Weekend 14. 15% Plus: A Barrier to Balance?

A good wine should keep two people entertained and engaged to the bottom of the bottle. More than an inch or two remaining suggests either an abstemious streak on the part of the drinkers or that something is not quite right with the wine.

The sommelier group of which I’m a part meets once a month to discuss and taste on various matters of a vinous nature. Choosing the topic is my responsibility and this month it concerned wines with an alcohol content in excess of 15%. This choice of subject was a response to our warming climate. Increased sugar levels in grapes (a result of greater heat summation) will ultimately result in a preponderance of wines featured in this high alcohol bracket.

Wines with these elevated levels of alcohol can feel unbalanced. Without sufficient fruit concentration, high alcohol gives a sensation of heat, even sweetness that can render the wines hollow. There are of course, exceptions, the perception of the unbalancing effect of alcohol does not follow a linear path so it quite possible for a wine at 13.5% to feel ‘wrong’ whilst a similar example at 15.5% feels ‘right’.

The seven wines selected were tasted blind (by all but the sommelier who chose the wines) and featured examples from France, Italy, Spain, Australia and the USA. The very pleasant, if unexpected conclusion, was that the reason we were tasting these wines was soon forgotten as the alcohol was as it should be; virtually invisible.

Below are the notes for four of the wines, any of which I would be happy to share and finish.

Domaine Giraud, Chateauneuf du Pape Tradition, 2010, 15%
Grape: 60% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 5% Mourvedre
Wine-making: The Syrah is aged in barriques and the wine is neither filtered or fined.
Note: Super ripe with an almost Port-like chocolate, damson and slightly raisined character. Perfumed, powerful and with good levels of concentration from this excellent vintage. Delicious.
Price: 2,100NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: Oriental House

Seghesio, Home Ranch, Zinfandel, Alexander Valley, 2006, 15.7%
Zinfandel with a small portion of Carignane and Petite Sirah
Wine-making: No overt oak evident.
Note: I have not tasted many Zinfandels this old but this was still showing very well. There were some signs of maturity with an oxidative, leathery aroma accompanying the red and black fruit. Even at 15.7% the alcohol was well integrated. Very good.
Available from: A3 Cellar

Domaine Tempier, Cuvee La Tourtine, Bandol, 2001, 15%
70-80% Mourvedre, 10% Grenache, 10% Cinsault
Wine-making: 18-20 months maturation in old oak and bottled without fining or filtration.
Note: This was the only wine out of the seven that I thought tasted a little hot. The mushroom and soy-like aromas indicated that this was no longer young but there remained some balancing sweet and spicy red berry fruit. Good complexity but perhaps slightly cumbersome.
Price: 3,900NT
Score: 16/20
Available from: Oriental House

Mitolo, G.A.M, Shiraz, Mclaren Vale, 2010, 15%
Wine-making: Matured in 70% new French and American Oak for 18 months.
Note: Opaque, tarry and with mouthcoating tannins and great concentration of black fruit, this was quintessential South Australian Shiraz. The power on display was balanced by some sweet and sour acidity and very good length; intense but not wearing.
Price: 2,100NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from:  Wooloomooloo

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The Diversity of Sauvignon Blanc

Historically I have not been one of Sauvignon Blanc’s biggest fans, finding it rather wearing after a glass or two. Sauvignon’s big draw is its hugely aromatic scent, but it is exactly this rather brash trait that leaves me a little underwhelmed. Too often behind all the perfume is a hollow and sometimes hard wine; a one trick pony.

Yet like so many grape varieties, Sauvignon does possess what it takes to be great. Anyone who has ever tasted Domaine de Chevalier’s white from Pessac Leognan knows how intense, complex and elegant this variety can be. Two regions of the world where the styles are often the antithesis of each other are, Marlborough in New Zealand and Sonoma County, California. Marlborough is synonymous with the most effusive examples, floral, fruity and bright. The best from California (usually labelled ‘Fumé Blanc’) are more restrained. These wines are often fermented and matured in oak giving a sweeter fruit style and, in the best examples, have added complexity from time spent on lees and from their slow exposure to air.

The two Sauvignon Blancs below would make for a great comparative tasting. The Matua is a premium example from Marlborough. It has greater depth, weight and concentration than is normal for the region, whilst retaining all the flamboyance that has made Marlborough Sauvignons famous. The ‘La Petite Etoile’ has a more restrained character with a leesy, nutty and bruised apple aroma that reminds me of Chenin Blanc from the Loire. The warmer climate of Sonoma (in comparison to the other great Sauvignon regions of the world) is partly responsible for this more muted style and the use of the Musqué clone adds extra richness and body. Whichever style you prefer, both are excellent examples and are worth seeking out.

I have included a review of the delicious Chianti Classico Riserva from the ‘La Route’ range, for those of you who prefer red. This was my wine of the afternoon and mature enough to have allowed sufficient softening of Sangiovese’s naturally rather strident tannins.


Matua, ‘Lands & Legends’, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2013, 13.5%
Grape: Sauvignon Blanc
Wine-making: No oak, this is all about fruit purity and intensity.
Note: Ultra clean but not boring Marlborough Sauvignon, that has extra intensity and focus in comparison to many of its competitors. That extra concentration comes at a premium but is well worth comparing with the Fume Blanc below to experience the vastly different styles that Sauvignon can produce. Delicious.
Price: 1,500NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: La Route 02 8780 0959


Chateau St Jean, ‘La Petite Etoile’, Russian River, Fume Blanc, 2011, 14.5%
Grape: Sauvignon Blanc, includes a portion of the ‘Musque’ clone which adds a little extra aromatic and textural dimension.
Wine-making: Barrel fermented and two thirds matured in a mix of old and new French oak for 8 months.
Note: Engaging, complex and classy. Nutty, leesy and with bruised apple and citrus aromas that are supported by a ripe but savoury and persistent palate. Very good, a Sauvignon version of Savennieres.
Price: 1,200NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: La Route 02 8780 0959


Castello Gabbiano, Chianti Classico Riserva, 2009, 14%
Grape: 95% Sangiovese, 5% Merlot
Wine-making: Maturation in both old and new oak.
Note: A ‘proper’ Chianti that already looks old in the glass with its rich, garnett colour. Leathery, herbal and dried strawberry nose coupled with some spice and very fine powdery tannins. Mature and delicious, this is perfect drinking now and comes highly recommended.
Price: 1,300NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: La Route 02 8780 0959

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Bottles & Gifts Part 2

Dry Reds

Joseph Phelps, Insignia (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon), Napa Valley, USA, 2010. (I really like this vintage of Insignia) 19/20
Rich, fine and engaging. Insignia at its majestic best.

Catena Alta, Historic Rows Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina, 2009. 18.5/20
This was just about perfect when opened a couple of months ago. Vibrant, pure yet profound.

Ridge, Lytton Springs (predominantly Zinfandel), Sonoma County, USA, 2009. 18/20
Zinfandel that is more than a one trick pony.

Pontet Canet, Pauillac (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon), Bordeaux, France, 2011. 18/20
I would happily drink this now. Forget the 2009s and 10’s and focus on the more ‘classic’ vintages of the last ten years (04, 06, 08, 11) to accompany the big bird.

Poderi Aldo Conterno, Barolo (Nebbiolo), Piedmont, Italy, 2004 (drinking very well now). 18/20

Jamet, Cote Rotie (Syrah), Northern Rhone, France, 2008. 17/20
I wish I could drink this kind of wine everyday, fresh, delicate and so very elegant.

La Rioja Alta, Gran Reserva 904 (predominantly Tempranillo), Rioja, Spain, 1998. 18/20
This or the 2001 make for perfect drinking now.

Yarra Yering, Dry Red Number 1 (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon), Yarra Valley, Australia. 18.5/20
The only Australian on the list this year, speaks more of the choice available in Taiwan than the quality coming from Oz.

Duemani, CiFRA (Cabernet Franc), Tuscany, Italy, 2011. 17/20
Like the Jamet, this is very much my kind of wine. Juicy, grippy but charming.

Groot Constantia, Gouverneur’s Reserve (predominantly Cabernet Franc), Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2011. 18/20
South Africa gives you some fruit that has clearly benefited from some warmth but also tannins that remind you of Europe, a winning combination.

Logodaj, Melnik 55 (100% Melnik). Struma Valley, Bulgaria, 2012. 17/20
This really opened my eyes to Bulgaria, I would be more than happy to drink this with my goose.

Chateau de la Font du Loup, Chateauneuf du Pape (predominantly Grenache), Southern Rhone, France, 2012. 18/20
This provides what I want from CNdP, pretty fruit, perfume but with some underlying grunt. Lovely.

Mas Amiel, A Alt 433M (predominantly Grenache), Maury Sec, Roussillon, France. 17/20
Wild, untamed and very good.

Marquis d’Angerville, 1er Cru les Champans, Volnay (Pinot Noir), Burgundy, France, 2008. 18/20
A lesson in what Volnay is meant to be about, delicacy, elegance and that ethereal Pinot charm.

Pieve Santa Restituta, Renina, Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese),
Tuscany, Italy, 2007 (delicious vintage from here). 18.5/20
Powerful but beautifully balanced, I loved this.

Clos Mogador (predominantly Garnacha and Carinena), Priorat, Spain, 2008. 18.5/20
Great wine from great people often tastes…well, great.

Chateau Pichon Baron, Pauillac (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon), Bordeaux, France, 2008. 17.5/20
I really like the 2008 vintage, sleek and ripe enough and with grainy tannins that help this wine persist on the palate.

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Bottles for your Boy & Gifts for your Girl

If someone asks me what I want for Christmas I hesitate to say wine because I know that people fear getting it ‘wrong’. The problem is that the amateur cannot look at a label and derive much needed information about the quality in the bottle. If, on the other hand, I want to buy my beloved a handbag, whether I know the relative merits of Fendi vs. Fiorelli is immaterial, my judgement on the suitability of the aesthetic is alone, the deciding factor (not that I am pretending that this purchasing decision is free of danger).

What follows therefore is a brief list of some of the wines that I have particularly enjoyed over the last year. I have not listed the wines by price (as typing the name of each into Google will give you a more accurate idea of their cost in your local market) and if you would like more detailed information, many have been reviewed on Sniff in the last few months. It is far from exhaustive and the criteria for appearing on this list was less about the score (I have left out many with similar ratings) and more about those wines that have forced me to engage with them, either as a result of their sheer gustatory pleasure or because of some beguiling complexity. These are, therefore, wines that should make any wine-lover happy (be it your Mum, manager or man-friend) and if you are lucky they may even share their gift with you, ensuring a happy Christmas for all concerned.

One last point – don’t fret too much about the vintage, I state if the vintage is hugely influential to the choice.

Dry Whites

Ken Forrester, The FMC (100% Chenin Blanc) Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2010. 17.5/20
Rich and intense but with a seam of supporting acidity. Chenin at its South African best.

Hans Herzog, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ‘Sur lie’, New Zealand, 2009. 17/20
Quince, pineapple, marzipan and nettle form just part of this complex, very un-Marlborough like, Sauvignon.

Millton, Riverpoint Viognier, Gisborne, New Zealand, 2011. 17.5/20
Warm peach, lemon oil and honey. Vibrant for Viognier and with great length.

Henri Bourgeois, La Bourgeoise, Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc), Loire France, 2010. 18.5/20
My favourite Sauvignon of the year, as elegant as it gets.

Eric Morgat, Cuvee l’Enclos, Savennieres (Chenin Blanc), Loire, France, 2009. 18/20
Weighty but with that special mineral and salty line running through it which separates the great from the good.

Von Buhl, Forster Ungeheuer GG (‘Grosses Gewachs’ meaning a dry wine produced from the best vineyards), Riesling trocken, Pfalz, Germany, 2011. 18/20
Full of tension and vitality.

Cantina Terlan, Winkl, Sauvignon Blanc, Alto Adige/Sudtirol, Italy, 2013. 17.5/20
The best producers of Italian Sauvignon?

Nik Weis, St. Urbans Hof, Laurentiuslay GG, Riesling trocken, Mosel, Germany, 2012 (I love this vintage here). 19/20
Stunning, the most arresting white I tried this year.

Domaine Labet, Fleur de Savagnin ‘en Chalasse’, (100% Savagnin), Jura, France, 2012. 17.5/20
No need to chill this as the driving acidity and persistence make this feel like it is already chilled. Brilliant.

Les Heritiers du Comte Lafon, Clos du Four, (100% Chardonnay) Macon-Milly-Lamartine, Burgundy, France, 2011. (I love this vintage here) 18/20
Delicious, approachable and most importantly, highly affordable Burgundy.

Domaine Ramonet, 1er cru ‘les Caillerets’, Chassagne Montrachet, Burgundy, France, 2008. 18/20
Delicious and approachable but you’ll pay a bit more for this classic than for the Macon.

Jean Bourdy, Chateau Chalon, (100% Savagnin), Jura, France, 2005. 19/20
Flor influenced brilliance. Gob-smackingly fine with an intensity, complexity and persistence rarely found in any other white wine. Outstanding.


Sweet & Sparkling

Rolly Gassmann, Rotleibel de Rorschwihr, Pinot Gris, Alsace, France, 2008. 18/20
A little chubby but only in the most alluring way, I could drink a glass of this every day.

Grahams, The Stone Terraces, Vintage Port, Douro, Portugal, 2011, (special vintage). 19/20
From the spectacular 2011 vintage, this is Graham’s newest addition to their line-up.

Dow’s, Vintage Port, Douro, Portugal, 1994. 18/20
Perfect drinking now.

Chateau Pajzos, Tokaji Essencia, Hungary, 1999. 19.5/20
I had tears in my eyes on tasting this. The most mesmeric wine I tasted this year.

Bruno Paillard, NPU 1999, Champagne, France. 18.5/20
Very complex sparkler that deserves your full attention. Don’t waste this on a celebration, drink with your nearest and dearest.

Camel Valley, Pinot Noir Rose Brut, Cornwall, England, 2012. 17/20
Panettone anyone?

Charles Heidsieck, Brut Reserve NV, Champagne, France. 18/20
Surely the best value Champagne on the market.

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Something for the Weekend 11: Merlot

Poor old Merlot. Even before Miles spat the now infamous ‘I am not drinking any fucking Merlot’ in Sideways, this variety was rarely spoken about with love and affection. Yet this is the second most widely planted wine grape in the world so why the lack of respect? Well some of it comes down to the promise (real or not) that the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir can deliver a more thrilling wine experience. Hmmm. Whilst this may be true (lovers of Pomerol look away now) too often it is a fallacy. I have spent far too much time, effort and money, hunting for that elusive bottle of Burgundian Pinot Noir that will make me cry like a baby as it reveals its haunting and ethereal charms. Equally, varietal Cabernet Sauvignon is often anything but charming, all edges and bones with a hole in its middle where the guts should be. No, Merlot is more the girl (or boy) next door, with flesh, sweet perfume and an alluring curve to the belly.

With this in mind I chose seven Merlot dominant wines to taste blind (or semi-blind in my case) with some of my students and sommeliers of Taipei. All the wines were of good if not superb quality and represented regions as diverse as Napa and Walla Walla in the States, Pomerol and St.Emilion in Bordeaux as well as Bolgheri (Italy), Hawkes Bay (New Zealand) and Stellenbosch (South Africa). Below are the three wines that I felt best-demonstrated Merlot’s comeliness.

Chateau La Dominique, St.Emilion Grand Cru Classé, 2009, 14.5%
86% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, 2% Cabernet Sauvignon
Wine-making: 70% new French oak
Note: Meaty, ripe blackberry and with just enough tobacco savouriness to add some complexity, this is concentrated and full bodied if a little hefty to be considered elegant. Enjoyable and should improve over the coming decade.
Price: 2,200NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from:

L’Ecole No 41, Estate Merlot, Walla Walla (Washington), 2008, 14.5%
80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon
Wine-making: 40% new French oak
Note: Developed in the glass to reveal both red and dried fruit, vanilla and a concentration that hinted at a warmer climate. The tannins remain firm (more old-world in style) but this has a certain charm that will again reward patience over the next five years.
Price: 2,500NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from:

Clos du Val, Napa Valley Merlot, 2010, 13.5%
85% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot
Wine-making: 25% new French oak
Note: My favourite of the seven wines tasted and the third cheapest. Tutti-frutti nose always brings to mind the West Coast of America. This has just enough of everything; up-front fruit, tannin, spice, body and persistence to achieve a harmonious and satisfying whole.
Price: 1,700NT
Score: 17/20
Available from:

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On the Up

Les Belles Collines’ (LBC) first vintage was the excellent 2007. Since then this Napa based wine label headed by Taiwan’s David Pan, has been on a mission to produce wine in which David can feel proud. This is easier said than done, David is refreshingly critical of LBC’s attempts so far but he need not be too harsh, they have already produced some excellent work. The wine-making model employed by LBC is to source the best fruit they can from various prime sites scattered throughout northern California but with the emphasis on fruit from Napa and Russian River. Contracts that allow LBC first refusal on certain fruit do not come cheap but it allows the wine-making team licence to be very selective.

Like most Napa based wine producers Cabernet is king. The two most significant wines at LBC both in volume and (arguably) quality are their White Label and their prestige cuvee, Les Sommets. Tasting the notoriously cool 2011 vintage there was little of the tell-tale greenness that haunts an unfortunate number of their neighbour’s wines. Both lacked the intensity and concentration of 2007,8,9 and 10 but they are drinking well already and will continue to be worthy drinking over the medium term.

Chardonnay, both in un-oaked and oaked forms, came to fruition with the 2012 vintage. At present I feel that both have a way to go before being considered among the best from the region but with the 2013 already better than the 2012, I would not be surprised to see an excellent LBC Chardonnay emerge in the near future. Where they have really excelled is with 2013’s Russian River Pinot Noir, this is everything (well, maybe not everything) that Pinot producers promise but so rarely deliver: elegant, fine-boned and perfumed. LBC, a producer to keep your eye on.

LBC Russian River Pinot Noir, 2013, 14.1%
Pinot Noir
Wine-making: Delicate handling and 20% new French oak
Note: Dried rose, raspberry and just a whiff of oak lead to a palate of refinement and poise but super-fine tannins. Russian river’s answer to Volnay.
Price: 1600NT
Score: 17.5/20
Available from: Les Belles Collines 2 2755 6990

LBC California Pinot Gris, 2013, 13.4%
Pinot Gris
Wine-making: Stainless steel. This is about fruit expression.
Note: With some spice and PG’s signature weighty mouthfeel this is definitely in the ‘Gris’ rather than the ‘Grigio’ style of this variety. Adept blending has ensured that the fat is nicely balanced by just enough acidity to please the palate whilst the price achieves the same result from the pocket.
Price: 900NT
Score: 16/20
Available from: Les Belles Collines 2 2755 6990

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Joseph Phelps: Insignia

Certain vineyards impart their very particular character on the wine they help produce. Like many before me, I have found the intense perfume of Chambertin or Clos de Beze in Burgundy markedly different from that of their nearest neighbours. The reality for most producers is that they rarely have such hallowed land with which to play. This, coupled with the vagaries of the weather, make dependence on the produce of such a small holding risky at best.

Having talked last week about the consistency (and value) of the best wines of Rioja it is fascinating to taste through a vertical of one of the great wines of the Americas: Insignia. Joseph Phelps have wisely been acquiring land since the inception of the estate over 40 years ago. Like La Rioja Alta (on a much smaller scale) this gives the team at Phelps the ability to manage significantly different growing season conditions without compromising quality. The geographical spread of the vineyards encompasses some 25 miles of prime Napa Valley from St. Helena in the north down to their Suscol Ranch vineyard that lies within spitting distance of San Pablo Bay. On tasting, the result is clear.

2008 is a highly regarded vintage but for a wine and label that prides itself on its finesse as much as its dense fruit, the warmth of the vintage provided a challenge. The winemaking team sourced a much larger proportion of the fruit than they would normally from their southerly Suscol Ranch vineyard. Being so close to the bay means that it receives more morning fog cover than more northerly sites helping slow ripening, enabling flavour to build and alcohol to remain within the bounds of manageable. Conversely the much-criticised (unfairly in my opinion) 2011 vintage in Napa that was much cooler, includes a greater proportion of grapes from Stag’s Leap and St. Helena. The wine is of course different in structure to the 2008, more restrained with more herbal, Bordeaux-like characters and is less obviously opulent. Yet this remains a fine wine and one that I would make room for in my wine-fridge above some of its more lauded predecessors.

Below are the four most recent vintages of Insignia tasted on the 24/10/14. The prices (which are currently cheaper than the J. Phelps website in the U.S) are current but for a limited time only. This is not inexpensive wine but this is a very fair price for this icon of Napa.

For further guidance on the 2011 vintage in Napa, have a look at Blake Gray’s comments here:

Joseph Phelps, Insignia, Napa Valley, 2008
89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot, 4% Merlot
Wine-making: 24 months in new French oak barrels
Note: Deep and dark with a mineral/tar/graphite aroma mixed in with some herbs, coffee and balsamic syrup. Deliciously fine-grained tannins and balancing acidity but falls away from being perfect due to the warming sensation that the alcohol brings.
Price: 6899NTD
Score: 18/20
Available from: Finesse 0982 982 999

Joseph Phelps, Insignia, Napa Valley, 2009
83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Petit Verdot, 4% Malbec
Wine-making: 24 months in new French oak barrels
Note: Sweeter and more obviously perfumed than the 2008 and with more quintessential blue rather than black fruit character (very Napa). Full-bodied but elegant and once again the tannins provide plenty of grainy grip that helps promise a long future.
Price: 6899NTD
Available from: Finesse 0982 982 999

Joseph Phelps, Insignia, Napa Valley, 2010
84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, 4% Merlot, 2% Malbec
Wine-making: 24 months in new French oak barrels
Note: My favourite wine of the night had a fantastic perfumed nose of mint chocolate, black and blueberries and coffee. Fresh acidity complimented the again wonderfully fine tannins and this had unmatched persistence. Yes please!
Price: 6199NTD
Score: 19/20
Available from: Finesse 0982 982 999

Joseph Phelps, Insignia, Napa Valley, 2011
82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Petit Verdot, 4% Malbec, 2% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc
Wine-making: 24 months in new French oak barrels
Note: More herbal tinged than the others here with an alluring sage-like quality sitting alongside, liquorice, coffee and cola. On smell alone this reminded me of expensive left bank Bordeaux…so no complaints from me. Less dense and opulent but elegant and with enough fine grained tannins to make this my choice from these four for drinking over the medium term.
Price: 6199NTD
Score: 18/20
Available from: Finesse 0982 982 999

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