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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: www.drinks.com.tw 

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: www.hengjo.com.tw

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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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Monuments 2

Chinese New Year celebrations can prove costly so spending your money wisely is essential. Choosing wine with which to celebrate, needs to fulfil a number of challenging criteria. It should be expensive but not so decadent as to leave you financially imperilled, you want to enjoy this wine not feel bullied by it. It needs to be globally recognised so that everyone appreciates that not only are you generous but also knowledgeable. Finally it should be something that demonstrates a little thought…so consider wines other than Bordeaux and Burgundy; my suggestion being California.

Ridge is famous, quite rightly for creating some of the most particular, long-lived and elegant wines of not only this State but anywhere. Although its reputation may have been founded on French varieties grown in the Santa-Cruz mountains, we are in America so why not buy something which is considered the American variety (whatever its European heritage): Zinfandel. Because of this variety’s association with medium sweet rosés and pleasurable but somewhat burly reds from further inland in California, it is understandable that some people regard Zinfandel as mediocre rather than monumental. But this is why Ridge (and at this point you could choose any number of their offerings made using this grape) and Lytton Springs in particular should figure highly on any serious wine-drinker’s wish list, because it demonstrates the apogee of what is possible. The inclusion of a good glug of Petite Sirah, a perfumed and opinionated variety, lends some grip to Zinfandel’s grease, leaving a wine worthy of celebrating the birth of a prosperous New Year.

Ridge, Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley, California (any vintage but the last I had was the 2009 which was drinking beautifully in 2014)
Grape: Normally a minimum of 70% Zinfandel with the remainder being primarily Petite Sirah
Wine-making: American oak barrels, 25% of which are new.
Note: Sweet and ripe with red and black fruit, spiced tea and pithy almost cranberry like tannins. Even with 14.5% alcohol this has a freshness and poise to match the restrained power. Delicious.
Cost: Approx 40USD
Score: 18/20 for the 2009
Available: Globally

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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%
Grape:
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: icheers.com.tw

L’Ecole No 41, Estate Merlot, Walla Walla (Washington), 2008, 14.5%
Grape:
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: icheers.com.tw

Clos du Val, Napa Valley Merlot, 2010, 13.5%
Grape:
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: icheers.com.tw

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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%
Grape:
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%
Grape:
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: http://t.co/mdSW36ZtQv

Joseph Phelps, Insignia, Napa Valley, 2008
Grape:
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
Grape:
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
Score:18.5/20
Available from: Finesse 0982 982 999

Joseph Phelps, Insignia, Napa Valley, 2010
Grape:
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
Grape:
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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