Archive for: May, 2018

Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Langoa Barton, La Lagune, Barde-Haut, Branaire-Ducru

Photo By Bjørn Erik Pedersen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Continuing our series on the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign, today we are looking at offers on the 3rd Growth St. Julien estate of Ch. Langoa-Barton, 3rd Growth Haut-Medoc estate Ch. La Lagune, the St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe estate of Ch. Barde-Haut and the 4th Growth St. Julien estate of Ch. Branaire-Ducru.

For previous installments of our series check out:

Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Palmer, Valandraud, Fombrauge, Haut-Batailley
Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Pape Clément, Ormes de Pez, Marquis d’Alesme, Malartic-Lagraviere

Be sure to subscribe to SpitBucket so you can stay up to date with new installments as more 2017 offers are released.

Langoa-Barton (St. Julien)

Some geekery:

This 3rd Growth estate has been in the Barton family’s hands since 1821 when Hugh Barton of the negociant firm Barton and Guestier purchased Ch. Pontet-Langlois and renamed the estate. A few years later he purchased part of the massive Leoville estate which would subsequently become the 2nd Growth Leoville-Barton.

With the no winemaking facilities, the wines of Leoville-Barton were (and still are) made at Ch. Langoa-Barton with the chateau featured on the label of Leoville-Barton actually being the manor house of Langoa-Barton.

Photo By Jamain - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The chateau of Langoa-Barton featured on the logo of Leoville-Barton.

Today the estate is managed by Anthony Barton and his daughter Lillian with 25 hectare of vines close to neighboring estates of 2nd Growths Leoville Poyferre and Ducru-Beaucaillou as well as the 4th Growth estate of Ch. Beychevelle. The vines are planted to a mix of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot and 9% Cabernet Franc with the percentage of Merlot increasing in recent years.

The winemaking style of Langoa-Barton is very traditional with fermentation taking place in large wooden-vats with the must co-inoculated with MLF bacteria to induce malolactic fermentation during primary fermentation. Around 7,500 cases a year are produced.

The 2017 is a blend of 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Franc.

Critic scores:

92-94 James Suckling (JS), 92-94 Wine Enthusiast (WE), 90-93 Wine Spectator (WS), 90-93 Vinous Media/Antonio Galloni (VM/AG), 91-93 Jeff Leve (JL), 90-92 Jeb Dunnick (JD)

Sample review:

There is no doubt that this offers a good expression of the appellation in the medium to long term, but there’s a slightly wider gap between Léoville and Langoa this year – the first time I’ve felt that in several years, and perhaps a reflection of the slightly cooler terroir here. It’s impressively structured and well held together, with black fruits which aren’t as concentrated as the estate has displayed in the previous two vintages, but it displays an innate St-Julien elegance. Drinking Window 2025-2038. — Jane Anson, Decanter (92 pts)

Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $46
JJ Buckley: $49.94 + shipping (no shipping if picked up at Oakland location)
Vinfolio: $50 + shipping
Spectrum Wine Auctions: No offers yet
Total Wine: $47.97 (no shipping with wines sent to local Total Wine store for pick up)
K & L: $48.99 + shipping (no shipping if picked up at 1 of 3 K & L locations in California)

Previous Vintages:

2016 — Wine Searcher Average $51 Average Critic Score: 91 pts
2015 — Wine Searcher Average $54 Average Critic Score: 92 pts
2014 — Wine Searcher Average $59 Average Critic Score: 92 pts
2013 — Wine Searcher Average $46 Average Critic Score: 89 pts

Buy or Pass?

Photo By Murgh - Self-photographed, Public Domain,

In contrast to Leoville-Barton, the labels of Langoa Barton have no chateau image.


Langoa-Barton was one of the estate that I thought really overachieved in 2014 and I’m grateful that I bought several bottles soon after release in the $48-50 range before the prices jumped. Compared to its sister estate, Leoville-Barton, I appreciate how approachable Langoa-Barton is at a relatively young age for an “old-school style” St. Julien that leans more towards the savory and cedary style.

The cooler nature of their terroir that Anson mention gives me some pause for this cool and frost-prone vintage. Like the 2014, I could take a wait and see approach to taste the 2017 in the bottle before buying in. If the price was north of $50, this would definitely be a pass but the impressiveness of the 2014 and compelling value is tilting me towards Buy–but only for a couple bottles at this point.

La Lagune (Haut-Medoc)

Some geekery:

Ch. La Lagune is noted for its classically style chateau that was designed in 1715 by Baron Victor Louis, the same architect who designed the Grand Theater of Bordeaux. During this time the estate was owned by the wealthy de Seze family that owned many properties throughout Bordeaux including what would eventually become the St. Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classe estate Ch. Troplong-Mondot.

Photo by PA. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Ch. La Lagune


The estate fell on hard times in the early 20th century and was especially ravaged by World War II and the great frost of 1956. By the time George Brunette purchased the property in 1958 only 5 hectares of vines were in healthy production. Brunette started the estate on the path of revitalization that really took off when he sold it to the Ducellier family who owned the Champagne house Ayala.

In 2000, Ch. La Lagune and Ayala were sold to the Frey family who partially own Billecart-Salmon. The Freys subsequently sold Ayala to Bollinger, keeping La Lagune and also acquiring the Rhone estate Maison Paul Jaboulet Aine in Hermitage, Chateau de Corton Andre in the Cote de Beaune region of Burgundy and Chateau D’Arche in the Haut-Medoc commune of Ludon near La Lagune.

Today the estate is managed by Caroline Frey with around 20,000 cases a year produced.

One unique aspect of the winemaking, similar to the style of Ch. Haut-Brion, is that the final blend of each vintage is determined shortly after fermentation with the blended wine being put into the barrel for aging. In contrast, most estates wait till closer to the time of En Primeur in April following harvest to determine the blend and even then the varietal components may be kept separate throughout the aging process until closer to bottling.

Photo by BerndB; GNU free licence;

A 1961 bottle of Ch. La Lagune.


The 2017 vintage is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot. While many estates were hit hard by frost in 2017, causing a drop of around 40% in total production, Ch. La Lagune came out relatively unscathed with only a loss of 5% of their vineyards.

Critic scores:

90-92 VM, 89-90 JS, 88-90 Wine Advocate (WA), 88-90 JD

Sample review:

This has clear damson flesh to the fruit, a good plummy wine with an elegance and freshness to the tannins. It’s good, linear with a precision that you don’t find everywhere. This is still not quite at the 2015/16 level of completeness, but delivers from start to finish, and is a wine that should age well. It has a 2001 type of elegance and lift with a tension to the tannins that gives confidence in its ageing ability. Now certified organic, in conversion for biodynamics. — Jane Anson, Decanter (92 pts)

Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $45
JJ Buckley: No offers yet
Vinfolio: $50 + shipping
Spectrum Wine Auctions: No offers yet
Total Wine: $49.97
K & L: $49.99 + shipping

Previous Vintages:

2016 — Wine Searcher Average $51 Average Critic Score: 91 pts
2015 — Wine Searcher Average $55 Average Critic Score: 92 pts
2014 — Wine Searcher Average $51 Average Critic Score: 91 pts
2013 — Wine Searcher Average $49 Average Critic Score: 89 pts

Buy or Pass?

As I noted in my previous Bordeaux 2017 posts, the focus of my spending this campaign is on value and getting “cellar defenders” with wines that have a good track-record of delivering pleasure at younger ages.

While the La Lagune is offering decent value, I don’t have enough personal track record with the estate to pull the trigger. My previous experience with the estate has been with the stellar 2005 and 2009/2010 vintages. Those wines were certainly enjoyable and encouraged me to buy some more from 2015/2016. But my buying habits are much more cautious for vintages like 2017 so this will be a Pass for me.

Barde-Haut (St. Emilion)

Photo by davitydave. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Vineyards in St. Emilion.


Some geekery:

Ch. Barde-Haut is a relatively young estates who fortunes changed dramatically when it was purchased by Sylviane Garcin-Cathiard in 2000. Today it is owned by her daughter, Hélène Garcin-Lévêque, who previously managed the Pessac-Leognan estates of Château Haut-Bergey and Ch. Banon (now ran by her brother Paul Garcin).

In addition to Barde-Haut, Garcin-Lévêque also owns the Pomerol estate Clos L’Eglise, Château D’Arce in Côtes de Castillon and a new project in St. Emilion near Valandraud called Poesia. Previously known as Chateau Haut Villet, the estate is named after the Garcin-Lévêque estate in the Mendoza region of Argentina.

While her husband Patrice oversees the viticulture, Hélène Garcin-Lévêque is in charge of the winemaking with Thomas Duclos consulting. Around 3,500 cases a year are produced.

The 16 hectares of vineyards are found mostly on the limestone plateau of St. Emilion by Troplong Mondot and Pavie Macquin as well as parcels near Ch. Fombrauge.

The 2017 is a blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc.

Critic scores:

93-94 JS, 92-94 VM, 91-93 WA, 90-93 WS, 88-90 WE, 92-94 JD

Sample review:

Barde-Haut didn’t see any frost this year due to the altitude of the vineyards. Composed of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, the deep garnet-purple colored 2017 Barde-Haut gives notions of baked blackberries, blueberry compote and Black Forest cake with touches of potpourri, dusty soil and cast iron pan. The palate is medium to full-bodied with a firm frame of grainy tannins and great freshness, finishing long and minerally. — Lisa Perrotti-Brown, Wine Advocate

Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $38
JJ Buckley: No offers yet
Vinfolio: No offers yet
Spectrum Wine Auctions: $221.94 for 6 pack + shipping (no shipping if picked up at Tustin, CA location)
Total Wine: $37.97
K & L: $39.99 + shipping

Previous Vintages:

2016 — Wine Searcher Average $41 Average Critic Score: 90 pts
2015 — Wine Searcher Average $46 Average Critic Score: 91 pts
2014 — Wine Searcher Average $35 Average Critic Score: 90 pts
2013 — Wine Searcher Average $27 Average Critic Score: 88 pts

Buy or Pass?

I think there are exciting things in-store with Ch. Barde-Haut and was thoroughly impressed with their 2015 which is drinking absolutely scrumptious now and probably could be commanding prices north of $50.

But, again, I’m feeling cautious with my wallet and my only “sub-par vintage” experience with this estate was a very underwhelming 2013 (which I can’t hold against any winery) and a 2014 that was super-tight and not fitting the mold of my ideal “cellar defender.” At this point, I’m more incline to Pass on this offer and buy up more of the 2015 before the prices start reflecting its very high quality level.

Photo by PA. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Ch. Branaire-Ducru

Branaire-Ducru (St. Julien)

Some geekery:

This fourth growth estate has a long history dating back to 1600s when it was originally part of the large Beychevelle estate. When the owner of that large estate passed in 1680, parcels of the estate were broken up and sold with Jean-Baptiste Braneyre buying the parcels that was to become Branaire-Ducru. The “Ducru” part of the name was added in 1875 when Gustave Ducru purchased the estate and appended his name to it.

In 1988, the estate was purchased by Patrick Maroteaux who brought in Philippe Dhalluin to help modernize the winemaking. Dhalluin would go on to the revitalize the use of gravity-flow wine production at Branaire-Ducru before moving in 2004 to take over winemaking at the First Growth Pauilliac estate Ch. Mouton-Rothschild. He was succeeded by Jean Dominique Videau with Eric Boissenot consulting.

This was the last vintage of Patrick Maroteaux with him passing away just after harvest in November 2017. His son, François Xavier Maroteaux, has taken over the estate.

Branaire-Ducru covers 60 hectares in the southern portion of St. Julien with parcels in view of the Gironde next to neighboring 2nd Growth Ducru-Beaucaillou and 4th Growth Beychevelle. There are also parcels more inland near 3rd Growth Ch. Lagrange and 4th Growth Ch. Talbot. Around 25,000 cases a year are produced.

The blend for the 2017 is 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 6.5% Petit Verdot and 4.5% Cabernet Franc.

Critic scores:

91-94 VM, 92-93 JS, 91-93 WE, 90-93 WS, 88-90 WA, 90-92 JD

Sample review:

The 2017 Branaire-Ducru offers lovely depth and density. The characteristic dark red/purplish fruit character of Brainaire comes through beautifully. As always, Branaire is a wine of polish and finesse. Stylistically, the 2017 comes across as a smaller scaled and more accessible version of the 2015. — Antonio Galloni, Vinous

Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $49
JJ Buckley: No offers yet
Vinfolio: No offers yet
Spectrum Wine Auctions: $299.94 for 6 pack + shipping
Total Wine: $51.97
K & L: $51.99 + shipping

Previous Vintages:

2016 — Wine Searcher Average $58 Average Critic Score: 92 pts
2015 — Wine Searcher Average $62 Average Critic Score: 92 pts
2014 — Wine Searcher Average $51 Average Critic Score: 92 pts
2013 — Wine Searcher Average $49 Average Critic Score: 89 pts

Buy or Pass?

This is one of my personal favorite estates that is virtually an automatic Buy for me every year. This wine always seems to vastly over-perform its price point and classification–drinking more on par with a 2nd Growth most years. The 2009 vintage (with a Wine Searcher Average price of $92) is one of the best wines I’ve had from that vintage and has put several of its more expensive peers to shame.

With this wine priced in line with 2014 and the estate looking like it is still rolling out the home runs, this was a no-brainer purchase for me.

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Celebrating Oregon Wine Month at Vino Volo


It seems only fitting as I sit at the airport getting ready to board a flight for my trip to the Pinot noir homeland of Burgundy that I indulge in a little Oregon Pinot action at one of my favorite travel haunts–Vino Volo.

While the small bites and wine are a bit overpriced (even by airport standards), there is no better selection of by the glass wines and tasting flight at the airport. Plus with comfy chairs and plenty of plugs to charge the phone, it’s a must stop for me on every trip.

Today I found the SeaTac location offering a “Northwest Noirs” flight of 3 Willamette Valley Pinot noirs for $19. On the menu, the 2015 J. Christopher Volcanique ($18 glass pour/ $30 Wine Searcher Average) was listed but when the flight was brought out, I discovered that instead I was given the 2014 Ken Wright Cellars Willamette Valley. While I enjoy Ken Wright’s wines, I must confessed that I was slightly disappointed not to have a chance to geek out comparing the volcanic soil grown J. Christopher with the marine sediment grown Andrew Rich. But c’est la vie.

The Wines

2015 Stoller Family Estate Reserve Pinot noir, Dundee Hills ($20 glass pour, $56 a bottle at Vino Volo/ $36 Wine Searcher Average)

The Geekery

Stoller was founded in 2001 by Bill Stoller on property that he purchased from his cousin in the Dundee Hills in 1993. Stoller, who was already co-owner in Chehalem Winery with Harry Peterson-Nedry, was born on the property and began converting his childhood home from a turkey farm to plantings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay.

The first vintage of Stoller was released in 2001 with the help of Peterson-Nedry and soon under the winemaking of Melissa Burr would earn critical acclaim–including being named Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year in 2014. Today with 190 acres planted, it is home to the largest contiguous vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA.

The Vino Volo tasting flight. The notes are nice but I often find myself disagreeing with them.

In 2018, Stoller assumed complete control of Chehalem Winery but both estates will continue to be operated as separate entities.

Stoller practices sustainable viticulture on all its estate vineyards and was the world’s first LEED Gold Certified winery in 2006.

The Wine
Medium-plus intensity nose. Very inviting black cherry and fresh rose petals. With some air, a little baking spice of cinnamon and allspice come out but the fruit and floral notes dominant.

On the palate, those cherries notes come through but seem more red and juicy than the black cherry notes on the nose. The ample medium-plus acidity is exceptionally well balanced with the fruit and ripe medium tannins. Very savory and mouthwatering with the spices coming out more for the long finish.

The Verdict

This is very well made and scrumptious Pinot noir that is showing well now but will only continue to develop layers and depth with some bottle age. It’s well worth the $36 retail average but would still deliver plenty of pleasure to merit a $56 restaurant mark up price.

2014 Andrew Rich Marine Sedimentary Pinot noir Willamette Valley ($23 glass pour, $67 a bottle/ $42 Wine Searcher Average)

The Geekery

Andrew Rich was founded in 1994 when Andrew Rich, a protege of Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon, arrived in the Willamette Valley with the goal of producing cool-climate Rhone varieties. Finding limited supply, he drew on his experience studying viticulture in Burgundy to produce Pinot noir in his early vintages while sourcing Rhone fruit from Washington State.

Today he produces around 6000 cases a year (about 1/3 Pinot) at the Carlton Winemakers Studio.

Unfortunately his website doesn’t include tech notes for the 2014 Marine Sedimentary but looking at notes from previous vintages of his Pinot noirs, he sources from several vineyards with this soil type including Beacon Hill in the Yamhill Carlton AVA and Greyhorse in McMinnville AVA.

The Wine

Medium-minus intensity nose. Faint red cherry and raspberry with a rosemary herbal element. Some air brings out a little more of the floral herbal element (akin to Provençal garrigue) but overall this is a rather shy nose.

There is a tad more life on the palate with the red fruit notes making their presence felt with medium-bodied weight and enough medium-plus acidity to be fresh without straying to tart. The Vino Volo tasting notes suggest blackberries and blackcurrants but there is no trace of dark fruit in this glass. Medium tannins are softer than the Stoller but overall contribute to the thin and light profile of this Pinot noir. Moderate finish lingers on the red fruits with the subtle floral herbs sadly fading.

The Verdict

The only thing “Rich” about this wine was the name.

I fret that this Pinot noir needed a better food pairing than the meat and cheese plate I was having it with. The acidity and herbal notes in particular have me wandering how well it would have done with a mushroom risotto. Though the lightness of the wine may have been overwhelmed by that hearty dish.

That said, it’s hard to find this wine being a compelling value apart from its inclusion in a smashing food pairing. Especially compared to the Stoller and Ken Wright which regularly retail for less.

2014 Ken Wright Pinot noir Willamette Valley (No glass pour list, $47 a bottle at Vino Volo/ $28 Wine Searcher Average

The Geekery

Ken Wright is a native of Bourbon County, Kentucky who went to California to study winemaking and spent years working in Monterey County at wineries like Ventana, Chalone and Talbott Vineyards before moving to Oregon in 1986.

He founded Panther Creek winery that year before eventually selling the winery to Ron and Linda Kaplan in 1994 to open up his eponymous winery in Carlton, Oregon.

Ken Wright Cellars specializes in

vineyard-designated wines with the winery working with over 13 different vineyards. In 2006, Wright’s work with highlighting the different terroirs of the Willamette Valley was influential in the establishment of several sub-AVAs including the Yamhill-Carlton District AVA.

The Willamette Valley Pinot is the “baby brother” of the family and is sourced from several of the vineyards that Ken Wright uses for their vineyard designated line-up which includes such notable names as the Abbott Claim Vineyard and Shea Vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton, Bryce Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, Canary Hill Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills as well as the Freedom Hill and Guadalupe Vineyard in the greater Willamette Valley.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. The Vino Volo notes did hit it right with strawberries. This wine does smell like a basket of strawberries with some cola spice.

On the palate those strawberry notes carry through but are joined by some rich tasting Rainier cherries. The cola spice is still present but has a black tea element that is highlighted by the wine’s phenolic texture and slight bitterness. It’s not off-putting in the slightest but has me wondering what percentage of stems and whole clusters were used in the fermentation. Medium acidity and medium-plus tannins give this wine a lot of weight on the palate, making it feel much heavier than the other two. Moderate finish lingers on the red fruits and black tea notes.

The Verdict

Considering that most of Ken Wright’s vineyard-designated wines run in the $55-65 range, it’s hard not to be impressed with the value of this wine at under $30 retail. While not as much of a complete package as the Stoller, it is still very well-made with lots of layers that would be worth savoring over a few glasses.

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Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Pape Clément, Ormes de Pez, Marquis d’Alesme, Malartic-Lagraviere

Photo by Kassander der Minoer. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated

Continuing our series on the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign, I’m taking a look at offers featuring the Pessac-Léognan estates of Ch. Pape Clément and Malartic-Lagraviere, the St. Estephe Cru Bourgeois Ormes de Pez and the 3rd Growth Margaux estate Marquis d’Alesme.

For my general approach to buying futures for the 2017 vintage and my thoughts on earlier offers, check out my post Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Palmer, Valandraud, Fombrauge, Haut-Batailley.

Pape Clément (Pessac-Léognan)

Brief winery geekery:

One of the oldest estates in Bordeaux with a history dating back to the 13th century. In 1305, the Archbishop of Bordeaux, Bertrand de Goth was elected pope (taking the name Clement V) and was gifted the property in Pessac-Léognan. The property remained in the hands of the Archbishops of Bordeaux until the end of the 18th century when many ecclesiastical properties were confiscated by the French government.

In 1980 Bernard Magrez, an entrepreneur who worked as a negociant for the Cordier group, acquired sole control of the estate from the two families who shared ownership (which included his wife). In 1993, he brought in Michel Rolland as a consultant. The style of Pape Clément during this period has been distinguished by its use of 100% new French oak.

The estate is located very close to the city of Bordeaux with the First Growth estate Ch. Haut-Brion being the closest vineyard neighbor. Both red and white grapes are planted with the vineyard spread of red varieties being 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot. Around 7,500 cases a year of the red Grand Vin are produced.

Photo by Kassander der Minoer. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated

Ch. Pape-Clement


The 2017 vintage is a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Merlot.

Critic scores:

94-97 Antonio Galloni (AG), 95-96 James Suckling (JS), 92-94 Wine Advocate (WA), 91-94 Wine Spectator (WS), 90-92 Wine Enthusiast (WE), 94-96 Jeb Dunnick (JD), 95-97 Jeff Leve (JL)

Sample review:

The 2017 Pape Clément is fabulous. One of the rare 2017s with a real sense of structure, Pape Clément possesses dazzling intensity from start to finish. A rush of dark cherry, plum, chocolate and grilled herb notes hits the palate as this majestic, towering wine shows off its personality. Time in the glass brings out a brighter and more floral set of flavors. The 2017 is the first vintage made with a portion of whole clusters, an inspiration Bernard Magrez takes from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where he recently bought a small property. Quite simply, the 2017 Pape Clément is a magnificent wine by any measure. Don’t miss it. The only problem with the 2017 is that yields are down 40% because of frost. — Antonio Galloni, Vinous

2017 Wine Searcher Average Price: $88
JJ Buckley: $89.94 + shipping (no shipping if picked up at Oakland, CA location)
Vinfolio: $95 + shipping
Spectrum Wine Auctions: $87.99 + shipping (no shipping if picked up at Tustin, CA location)
Total Wine: $89.97 (no shipping/sent to local store)
K&L: $94.99 + shipping (no shipping if picked up at K & L locations in California)

Previous Vintages:

2016 — Wine Searcher Average $ 99 Average Critic Score: 92 pts
2015 — Wine Searcher Average $ 116 Average Critic Score: 94 pts
2014 — Wine Searcher Average $ 96 Average Critic Score: 93 pts
2013 — Wine Searcher Average $ 89 Average Critic Score: 91 pts

Buy or Pass?

To my taste, the style of Pape Clément is very New World-ish which has me comparing its value more to high-end Napa Valley than necessarily to its Bordelais peers. That said, I usually find the wine delivering ample hedonistic pleasure that I would put on par with Napa wines in the $150+ range. This is never a wine that I buy more than a couple bottles of as I’m skeptical about the long term aging potential with this lush, velvety style.

Still, I’m impressed that the average futures price is more inline with the sub-par 2013 vintage–even with the drastically reduced case production. As I noted in my last 2017 Bordeaux Futures post, my objective this campaign is to look for value and “cellar defenders”. To that extent the Pape Clément is compelling enough to be a Buy for me.

Ormes de Pez (St. Estephe)

Brief winery geekery:

The author and her wife with Jean-Michel Cazes.

Cru Bourgeois estate founded in the 16th century in the northwestern part of St. Estephe near Ch. de Pez and Ch. Château Beau-Site Haut-Vignoble. Since 1940, the estate has been owned by the Cazes family who also own the 5th Growth Pauillac estate Ch. Lynch-Bages with the same viticulture and winemaking teams used at both estates.

The vineyard soils are a mix of gravel with high percentages of clay and sand. To optimize the terroir, the Cazes family has been steadily increasing the amount of Merlot planted on the clay dominant parcels with the estate being planted to around 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. Around 18,000 cases a year are produced.

The 2017 vintage is 51% Merlot dominant, 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot.

Critic scores:

92-93 JS, 91-93 AG, 88-91 WS, 91 -93 WE, 89-91 JD, 88-90 JL

Sample review:

Ormes has managed another good vintage after a run of them. This is a lovely wine and a buy for me. Succulent, bristling and charming, it has juicy brambled fruit extraction and tension. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, just asking to be loved. The fruit spectrum is rich with blueberries and damsons, with integrity and a swirl of vanilla bean oak. Includes 6% Cabernet Franc in the blend. No need to wait too long for this. 45% new oak. (92 pts) — Jane Anson, Decanter

2017 Wine Searcher Average Price: $28
JJ Buckley: No offers yet
Vinfolio: No offers yet
Spectrum Wine Auctions: $179.94 minimum 6 bottle purchase + shipping.
Total Wine: $29.97
K&L: $29.99 + shipping

Previous Vintages:

2016 — Wine Searcher Average $ 34 Average Critic Score: 91 pts
2015 — Wine Searcher Average $ 35 Average Critic Score: 90 pts
2014 — Wine Searcher Average $ 34 Average Critic Score: 90 pts
2013 — Wine Searcher Average $ 27 Average Critic Score: 88 pts

Buy or Pass?

I was impressed with how well the 2011 Ormes de Pez was showing despite that vintage being much more promblematic than 2017. That gives me a lot of optimism about the quality level that the Cazes family will deliver.

At around $30 a bottle, this looks like the quintessential “Cellar Defender” that will offer short term pleasure and guilt-free enjoyment which will help me keep my paws off of my 2015/16 Bordeaux. This is a good Buy for me, even with a 6 bottle minimum purchase.

Photo from unknown author's private postcard collection. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-PD-Mark

Old postcard featuring the exterior of Ch. Marquis d’Alesme circa 1900-1920.

Marquis d’Alesme (Margaux)

Brief winery geekery:

Third Growth Margaux estates founded in 1585 in the northern part of the commune near Ch. Margaux, Ch. Malescot St. Exupéry and Ch. Ferrière.

In 2006, the property was sold by the Zuger family (who own Malescot St. Exupery) to Hubert Perrodo who also owned the Cru Bourgeois Margaux estate Ch. Labegorce. Following Hubert’s death after a skiing accident, both estates have been ran by his daughter Nathalie Perrodo.

The estate owns three parcels of vineyards, including a significant section close to the D2 road on silica and gravel soils. In recent years, plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc have been increased with the current vineyard mix being around 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc. About 7000 cases a year are produced.

The 2017 vintage of Marquis d’Alesme is a blend of 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot and 6% Petit Verdot.

Critic scores:

92-94 WA, 92-94 AG, 90-93 WS, 91-92 JS, 91-93 JL

Sample review:

The wine quickly shows off its floral essence with black cherry and spice box notes. Sweet and fresh, the wine is full bodied, soft, refined and displays its freshness and ripe cherries with a bit of cocoa just as you approach the endnote. The wine reached 13.5% alcohol. — Jeff Leve, The Wine Cellar Insider

2017 Wine Searcher Average Price: $39
JJ Buckley: No offers yet.
Vinfolio: No offers yet
Spectrum Wine Auctions: No offers yet
Total Wine: $41.97
K&L: $40.99 + shipping

Previous Vintages:

2016 — Wine Searcher Average $ 42 Average Critic Score: 91 pts
2015 — Wine Searcher Average $ 49 Average Critic Score: 92 pts
2014 — Wine Searcher Average $ 43 Average Critic Score: 91 pts
2013 — Wine Searcher Average $ 36 Average Critic Score: 89 pts

Buy or Pass?

Compared to the 2014 (and even 2016) vintage, this does look like a decent value. But I must confess that I’ve never been terribly wowed by Marquis d’Alesme in the past. While in vintages like 2015/16, I’d be more willing to give an estate a flyer or another look, for 2017 I’m leaning more towards estates that I have a track record of enjoying.

Truthfully, I’ve founded the Perrodo’s Cru Bourgeois estate Ch. Labegorce to be a much better value in the $29-33 range. I’m more incline to investigate JJ Buckley, Spectrum, Total Wine and K & L’s offers on that wine and Pass on the Marquis d’Alesme.

The calm before the storm at the UGC tasting for the 2014 vintage in Miami, FL.


Malartic-Lagraviere (Pessac-Léognan)

Brief winery geekery:

This Graves estate was originally known as Domaine de Lagraviere until the Malartic family changed the name in 1850 to honor Comte Anne-Joseph-Hippolyte Maures de Malartic who was a notable Admiral in the French Navy. The boat featured on the wine label also pays tribute to this heritage. In 1990, the estate was purchased by the Champagne house Laurent-Perrier who later sold it to the Bonnie family in 1997.

The Bonnies have modernize the facilitaties and introduced sustainable farming to the vineyards. The terroir of their 53 hectares (located near Domaine de Chevalier and Ch. de Fieuzel) includes deep gravelly soils that can be as deep as 8 meters in the parcels near the Chateau. The vineyards are planted to 45% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot.

The 2017 vintage is a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc

Critic scores:

94-96 WE, 92-93 JS, 90-93 WS, 90-93 AG, 89-91 WA, 92-94 JL, 89-91 JD

Sample review:

Deep crimson. Dark, nicely dusty cassis. Dark chocolate and graphite finesse. Dry, fine tannins with the graphite freshness marked on the finish. Elegant, if not charming at the moment. Attractive restraint. (16.5 out of 20)– Julia Harding, Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages

2017 Wine Searcher Average Price: $47
JJ Buckley: $49.94 + shipping
Vinfolio: No offers yet
Spectrum Wine Auctions: No offers yet
Total Wine: $49.97
K&L: $49.99 + shipping

Previous Vintages:

2016 — Wine Searcher Average $ 59 Average Critic Score: 91 pts
2015 — Wine Searcher Average $ 61 Average Critic Score: 94 pts
2014 — Wine Searcher Average $ 51 Average Critic Score: 92 pts
2013 — Wine Searcher Average $ 41 Average Critic Score: 90 pts

Overall I was fairly impressed with the 2013 and 2014 from Pessac-Leognan at the UGC tastings but for 2017 I’m more incline to buy in for estates like Domaine de Chevalier (pictured) .


Buy or Pass?

This is another estate that looks to be offering decent value but is one that I just don’t have a strong personal track record with. My most recent tastings of Malartic-Lagraviere were at Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux events for the 2014 and 2013 vintages and while I found the wines well-made, there was nothing spectacular about them either. My notes for the 2014, in particular, highlighted how tight the 2014 was and that it would need far more time than what I typically anticipate for a “Cellar Defender”.

As a futures offering, I’m going to Pass on the Malartic-Lagraviere but would certainly be open to tasting it in the bottle at a future UGC tasting and perhaps buying in then if the prices still remain compelling as a good value.

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60 Second Wine Review — Ayoub Blanc de Noir

A few quick thoughts on the 2014 Ayoub Blanc de Noir Pinot noir from the Dundee Hills.

The Geekery

Ayoub Wines was founded in 2001 when Mo Ayoub planted 4 acres of vines in the Dundee Hills. The first few vintages of Ayoub were made by Josh Bergström at the Bergström Winery until space was finished at Ayoub’s home to accommodate production.

Winemaking was turned over to former Stags’ Leap Winery winemaker Robert Brittan (who also makes the wines for Winderlea) and eventually production was expanded from 400 cases a year to around 2000 cases.

The estate vineyard is planted to 5 clones of Pinot noir–667, 777,114, 115, 04. The Blanc de Noir (white Pinot noir) is made by harvesting the red Pinot noir grapes and quickly pressing them to avoid skin contact and color maceration. This style is becoming more common in Oregon with several producers experimenting with different methods (such as harvesting and pressing like Champagne grapes to vin gris production).

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose with an intriguing mix of ripe white peach and red plum notes. Very rich and fleshy aromatics with some subtle oak baking spices in the background.

On the palate those rich fruit flavors carry through with very full-bodied weight. However, the ample medium-plus acidity gives its exceptional balance that keeps the palate from being weighed down. The oak notes on the nose become more faint and give way to exotic Asian spices like tumeric, star anise and, particularly, ginger. The long finish lingers on those spices and the red plum notes.

Photo by Evan-Amos. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Very rich and fleshy red plum notes characterize this white Pinot noir.

The Verdict

There were a lot of similarities with this Ayoub wine and the Henri Gouges La Perrière White Pinot from Nuits-St-Georges (especially with the exotic spices) and I enjoyed geeking out over both wines.

I won’t deny that at $45-55, this is a premium for an Oregon white wine but it’s undoubtedly a very character-driven and interesting wine that I would put on par with some of the state’s great red Pinots in the same price range.

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Wine Geek Notes 5/9/18 — New Wine Books to Geek Out Over

Photo by Varaine. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Summer’s coming which for me brings visions of lounging in the sun with a nice glass of rosé and something geeky to read.

As I get my summer reading list in order, here are a few new wine books that are being released in May and June.

Rosé Cocktails: 40 deliciously different pink-wine based drinks by Julia Charles. Released May 8th.

Speaking of rosé, I must admit that I shudder at thought of “frosé” with its syrupy sweet slushie take on the Provençal classic. Soda-pop wine cocktails have never been my thing. But my curiosity is piqued at what talented bartenders can do crafting serious wine-based cocktail recipes. The popularity of Sherry cocktails has helped sparked new life and interest in the phenomenal wines of Jerez–taking Sherries out of your grandmother’s decanter and turning them into Adonis.

I fret that with the flood of really crappy rosés on the market, we may need to hit rock-bottom first with our brosé, frosé, 40 oz bottles and gummy bears before we’ll get a “renaissance” of taking rosé seriously again. Judging from the book’s description, Rosé Cocktails may not be a rudder steering us towards that seriousness (compared to say Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan’s Rosé Wine and Elizabeth Gabay’s Rosé: Understanding the pink wine revolution which have thankfully less liberal mentionings of “frosé”) but I’m hopeful that Charles’ book will at least offer the bros 39 other options apart from turning their rosés into wannabe frozen margaritas.

A Short History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where, and When Humankind Has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to the Present by Mark Forsyth. Released May 8th.

Considering this is written by the same guy (The Inky Fool) who wrote the uber-geeky The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, I have a feeling that there will be a lot of fun word play and nerdy trivia in this 286 page “short history”.

Photo by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Frankly a couple glasses of Madiera puts me in the mood more to cuddle with dogs than anything else.


In fact, I would LOVE to see a book focusing on the etymology of grape names and wine words. You can find bits and pieces of things in various books (like Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes) but even that doesn’t go quite into detail about things like how did the Esgana Cão (Sercial) grape of Madeira and Bucelas DOC get the name “dog strangler”?

Wine Grapes suggests that it was because of the grape’s “fiery acidity” but that makes more sense as an explanation for the Friuli red grape Tazzelenghe (tongue cutter) than it does for “dog strangling”. Then you have Mourvedre which has a similar synonym “Estrangle Chien” that is instead attributed to the grape’s high tannins and tough skins.

I’m not expecting A Short History of Drunkenness to clear any of that up but mostly I’m just excited by Forsyth’s foray into the world of wine and hopeful that he’ll keep applying his sharp wit and geeky gifts to more vinous volumes.

Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor and the Search for the Origins of Wine by Kevin Begos. Release date June 12th.

Wine wasn’t necessarily “invented” but its ancient origins and how civilizations accidentally discovered it, time and time again, is a fascinating topic. Two must-reads for those wanting to geek out about wine’s origins are Patrick McGovern’s Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture and Hugh Johnson’s Vintage: The Story of Wine.

From the book’s description, it looks like Tasting the Past is going to focus on Begos’ personal journey through the modern remnants of ancient wine cultures in the Mediterranean, Middle East, Caucasus and the Americas–probably intermingling with historical details of wine origins in those places. That is an interesting approach that will be different from McGovern and Johnson’s work or even Paul Lukacs’ 2007 book Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures.

I’m particularly intrigued by Tasting the Past’s promise to explore “distinctive wines from a new generation of local grapes” which suggests plenty of geeky fodder involving unique grape varieties and characterful wines that depart from the “same ole, same ole”.

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60 Second Wine Review–WillaKenzie Pinot blanc

Continuing our Oregon Wine Month celebration, here are a few quick thoughts about the 2013 WillaKenzie Pinot blanc from the Yamhill-Carlton District.

The Geekery

WillaKenzie was founded in 1991 by Bernard and Ronni Lacroute with the winery named after the mustard color series of sedimentary soils prominent in the Yamhill-Carlton District, McMinville and Ribbon Ridge AVAs.

With a slogan “Dirt Matters”, author Kenneth Friedenreich notes in Oregon Wine Stories that along with the Campbells of Elk Cove, Kramer Vineyards and the Bergs of Roots Wine Co., WillaKenzie helped raised the profile of the Yamhill-Carlton District as a destination in Oregon wine country.

In 2016, the Lacroutes sold the winery to Jackson Family Estates where it joined a portfolio of brands that now includes Copain, Carmel Road, Cardinale, Freemark Abbey, La Jota, Brewer-Clifton, Byron, Cambria, Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Matanzas Creek, Gran Moraine, Zena Crown, Penner-Ash among many others.

With the changing ownership came a change in winemakers with Erik Kramer (previously of Domaine Serene) taking over from Thibaud Mandet who was mentored by WillaKenzie’s longtime winemaker Laurent Montalieu before he left the winery in 2003 to focus on his Solena, Domaine Loubejac and Kudos labels.

The 2013 Pinot blanc is sourced from the winery’s estate vines that were planted in 1992-93 and are sustainably farmed.

The Wine

Medium-minus intensity nose with green apples and faint Meyer lemons.

Photo by  Genet. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Rich citrus notes like Meyer lemons characterize this wine.


On the palate the lemon notes become more pronounce and have a slight custardy texture with the medium-plus body weight. Medium acidity gives some balance but could probably use more. There are no overt vanilla oak notes but some subtle baking spice (clove, allspice) notes appear on the moderate finish that suggest maybe a touch was involved.

The Verdict

At around $23-28, this is not a great value but it is a decent white wine for fans who crave something with body but different than a Chardonnay.

At 4+ years of age, it is holding up fairly well but is clearly on its last legs so I would recommend drinking it soon.

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Playing the Somm Game in Vegas

“Unicorns aren’t real, but the house advantage is.”

I just got back from a weekend in Las Vegas where I lost far more than I care to admit at the casinos.

Growing up in St. Louis with church bingo and riverboat casinos, I will always have soft-spot for the gambler’s heart.

But man does it suck losing.

However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found one game that I love playing in Vegas where I’m a sure bet to come out a big winner–the Somm Game.

How to Play

It’s a simple game. You go to a nice restaurant with a thick, Bible-size wine list.

Give the sommelier your budget, what food you are ordering, let them know you are open to anything and then let them take it from there.

That’s it. That’s the game and the payoff is almost always better than anything you’ll find at the tables or slots.

Why the Somm Game works

First off, your objective is to have a great dining experience. You know who else shares that same objective? The sommelier. Their entire job is to give you a memorable experience so the house odds are already in your favor.

Just like I’m sure you perform best at your job when your clients let you do your thing, so too do sommeliers really get a chance to shine when you simply trust them to do what they are trained to do—which is far more than only opening bottles and pouring them into decanters.

And *spoiler alert* sometimes they have bottles like this just “lying around”.


Sommeliers are professionals and many have spent years honing their craft, studying, tasting and traveling the world of wine. With certification programs from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine & Spirits Education Trust, International Sommelier Guild and the like, the quality of wine education in the industry has never been higher. Why let that advantage go to waste?

And it is an advantage–one that even the most savvy and experienced wine drinkers don’t readily have.

Look I know my fair share about wine. I can open up a wine list and recognize most every name and region on it. I can hold my own rattling off producers, soil types, grapes varieties and facts. But I’ll tell you what I don’t necessarily know—how everything on the list is drinking now and what exactly will pair best with the particular flavors of the chef’s cuisine.

No matter how much a person knows about wine, the odds are that the sommelier team knows their own list and their own food at least a little bit better than you do. Especially at a restaurant with a good wine program that involves frequent tastings and pairing exercises, they’re going to have a leg up on you with what is drinking great right now and is paring well.

“But Amber, I don’t want to get ripped off by restaurant mark ups!”

Okay, I know restaurant mark ups can be painful to swallow. Believe me, it’s even tougher when you’ve been in the business and know intimately what the typical wholesale and retail prices are of the wines you frequently see on wine lists.

But here’s the beauty of the playing the Somm Game and trusting the sommelier to make the wine picks—most likely you’re going to avoid getting the crazy mark up wines and instead get the gems that the sommeliers themselves would pick for their own dinners.

By trusting the sommeliers you are far less likely to get “ripped off” by markups than you would be ordering on your own. They don’t need to sell you the crazy high mark up wines because your fellow diners are already buying those wines and paying the “Ego Tax” on them.

The “Ego Tax”

Restaurants are businesses and all businesses aim to make a profit. With margins on food being so tight, it naturally falls on the beverage side of the business to earn healthy returns.

In the wine industry, there are certain well known brands that restaurants know will sell off their wine list without any effort. These are your Jordan, Caymus, Rombauer, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Opus One and Silver Oak type wines of the world.

There is no need for effort because wine consumers will order these wines on their own as frequently these are the only names on the list they recognize. Often their ego (either hubris or an irrational fear of looking helpless) keeps them from seeking the sommelier’s assistance so they retreat to the comfort of a known quantity.

But these “known quantities” are often the highest marked up wines on the entire list!

That hesitance to relinquish control and trust the sommelier to guide you out of realm of the “the same ole, same ole” is not limited to just “regular wine drinkers”. It hits folks who “know wine” and have been around the industry. I mean come on! We don’t need help. We know how to order wine and what’s good!

General rule of thumb–if an average wine drinker would recognize the name on a wine list then you are probably going to pay an “ego tax” ordering it.

And that is why restaurants make bank off of the “Ego Tax”.

Which is fine, I suppose, if you are living off an expense account and paying with someone else’s dime. But most of us in the real world aren’t expense account dandies so it’s pointless to be paying the “Ego Tax” when all we’ve got to do is trust the somm and have some fun.

The Somm Game in Action

When I play the Somm Game, I start by introducing myself as a wine geek and telling the sommelier that all I want to do this evening is “geek out” a bit. Sometimes in the conversation that follows I will mention my wine industry background but that is rarely brought up. My approach is to present myself as just a geek that trusts and respects the sommelier’s judgement and expertise.

I give them a budget and tell them that I’m open to anything–glass pours, half-bottles, full-bottles. I recommend going a little higher in your budget than you would usually give yourself for ordering a single bottle because the more flexibility you give the somms, the more fun you can have. Trust me, it will pay off dividends.

I share with them what food I’m ordering–again emphasizing my openness in going with whatever the sommelier thinks will work best whether it be glass pours for each course or half/full-bottles, etc.

Then I sit back and have fun.

This weekend I had the opportunity to play the Somm Game at two restaurants–Lago by Julian Serrano at the Bellagio and at Aureole by Charlie Palmer at Mandalay Bay. Both restaurants have tremendous wine programs overseen by Master Sommelier Jason L. Smith, Executive Director of Wine for MGM Resorts International, and Mandalay Bay Director of Wine Harley Carbery.

When playing the Somm Game, it helps to increase your odds by playing with a stack deck.

Lago

At Lago, we were served by head sommelier Jeffrey Bencus, an Advance Sommelier who is on the cusp of achieving his MS. Talking with him, we found out that he has separately passed his theory and tasting exams for the Master Sommelier certification–just not within the same testing cycle.

On my own, when out for a nice dinner I usually aim for a bottle in the $250-300 range so I gave Jeffrey a budget of $350 and laid out the perimeters above. I told him we were geeks and opened to pretty much anything.

The style of cuisine at Lago is small plates so we started off with short rib cannelloni and red wine risotto. These were red wine heavy dishes but we were delighted when he brought out a half bottle of 2015 Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault.

Granted, coming from the tremendous 2015 vintage this wine was already playing with a full house.

With plots in the enviable “second crus” of Les Chaumes de Narvaux (upslope from the Premier cru vineyards of Les Bouchères and Les Gouttes d’Or) and Le Limozin (flanked by 1er crus Les Genevrières and Les Charmes) as well as 65 to 75+ year old vine plantings in Les Clous and Les Criots, this village-level Meursault was delivering premier cru quality pleasure.

Textbook Meursault with subtle butteriness, hazelnuts and that liquid-rocks minerality that makes this place so special for Chardonnay. I don’t remember what the restaurant price was, but the Wine Searcher Average for the 2015 was $65. Well worth finding.

The following course was Italian sausage skewers with red pepper sauce and a filet with a Gorgonzola demi-glaze. Originally Jeffrey was thinking a classic 2012 Brunnello di Montalcino but decided to geek it up more for us with a 2012 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi from the legendary Campanian producer. I was quite familiar with Mastroberardino and their flagship Taurasi but my initial instinct was that a 2012 would be far too young.

But, again, here is where a somm’s expertise and experience with their own wine list pays off because with nothing more than a splash decant the Radici was absolutely singing with the savory floral and spicy undertones of Aglianico complimenting not only my steak but also my wife’s Italian sausage with its sweet roasted red bell pepper sauce.

Black olives and black fruit with a long savory finish. A masterful wine from Mastroberardino that was drinking surprisingly well for a young Taurasi.


The Wine Searcher Average for this wine is listed at $47 but that is skewed a little by some discount Hong Kong retailers. In the US, it is far more common to find it retailing for $55-60.

For dessert we had a creme brulee and citrus cannoli and boy did we hit the jackpot with the Somm Game!

My wife and I were flabbergasted when Jeffrey brought out a tiny 187ml split of 1993 Château Pajzos Tokaji Esszencia.

I don’t think this wine was even on the wine list!

While I’ve had Tokaji several times, this was my first experience trying an Esszencia because of how rare (and expensive) it is. Made from the free-run juice of dried botrytized grapes, residual sugars can go as high as 85% and take over 6 years to ferment because of how sweet and concentrated it is. Tokaji Esszencia is truly one of the wonders of the wine world.

This wine was the #3 ranked wine on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 1998 and was described as “a perfect wine” with 100 pts from Robert Parker.

And it was just….wow! I think I finally found a wine that broke my mental 94 point barrier. It’s been over four days since I had this wine and I can still taste the amazing concentration of liquid figs, honey, cognac and lingering spice.

Folks….this is a WHITE wine!


Incredibly difficult to find retail due to its limited supply (only 165 cases made), the Wine Searcher Average for a 500ml of the 1993 Pajzos Esszencia is $698.

A stunning treat and life-long memory.

All together, the three wines were well around our $350 budget. As we were finishing up dinner while savoring that amazing Esszencia, I noticed the table next to us had ordered a bottle of 2006 Opus One which was $995 on the Lago’s restaurant list.

While I’m sure they enjoyed that bottle of Opus fine enough, I can’t help but think that we came out WAY ahead in our wine and food pairing experience by paying around a third of what they did.

Heck, all three of the wines we had which included one 375ml half bottle, one 750ml bottle and one 187ml split was less at restaurant mark-up than what one single bottle of 2006 Opus One averages at retail price.

That folks….is winning big with the Somm Game.

Aureole

The next night we visited Aureole at Mandalay Bay where we rolled the dice for the Somm Game with Kyran O’Dwyer, an Advance Sommelier since 2006.

While Kyran didn’t have an extra 187ml bottle of an uber-rare wine lying around, he had his own ace up his sleeve and delivered a remarkable and personalized experience that far exceeded our expectations.

We didn’t finish this bottle till just before dessert and it paired exquisitely with every dish we had.

Giving him the same $350 budget, the first roll came up sevens when he brought out a perfectly geeky Champagne–the Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Blancs featuring some of the rarest grapes in Champagne.

A blend of 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Blanc Vrai (Pinot blanc) and 25% Chardonnay to round it out, the wine was aged 3 years on the lees before being bottled with a dosage of 4 g/l. The Wine Searcher Average for it is $61 but most retailers in the US have it closer to the $120 release price noted by Wine Spectator. However it is incredibly difficult to find with most retailers (like K & L) getting less than a couple cases.

But oh is it worth the hunt! This is a “unicorn Champagne” like the ones I’ve been on the prowl for since I finished reading Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles. High intensity aromatics that continually evolved in the glass with a mix of citrus lemon custard and orange blossoms with some creamy creme brulee action. Exceptionally well balanced between the creamy mousse, racy citrus notes and dry dosage, the long finish brought out intriguing salty mineral notes that lasted for several minutes after you swallowed.

For appetizers my wife got a black garlic Cesar salad while I had the foie gras du jour–which was seared foie gras with a balsamic berry reduction paired with a French toast concoction that had the chef’s homemade nutella filling. While we enjoyed the Champagne, he gave us each an additional 2-3 oz “taster pour” of the 2014 Braida Brachetto d’Acqui to go with the foie gras.

A seriously good sweet wine worth geeking out over.

The wine was lively and fresh with ample acidity to balance the sweetness. The wine tasted like you were eating ripe strawberries picked straight from the bush. In a market flooded with Moscatos, Roscatos and Stella Rosa, sweet wines often get a bad rap as overly simple but tasting a wine like the Giacomo Bologna Braida Brachetto d’Acqui is a great reminder about how joyful and delicious “simple sweet wines” can be. At a retail average of $18 a bottle, it is also a great deal for folks wanting to trade out of the same ole, same ole for something new to try.

For dinner I had braised short rib ravioli with a smoked tomato cream sauce while my wife had one of the most delicious vegetarian lasagnas that we had ever tried. It must have had at least 20 layers of fresh pasta, butternut squash, sage, spinach and mascarpone. My ravioli was great but her lasagna was outstanding.

Of course, these dishes were quite different and not necessarily the easiest to pair with the same wine. Truthfully, on my own, I probably would have “wimped out” and took the easy route of ordering a village-level Burgundy with the thinking of acidity for my tomato cream sauce while some earthiness could play well with the lasagna without being too big or tannic. Not a perfect pairing but a serviceable one.

But Advance Sommeliers do not settle for serviceable.

One of the tell-tale signs of a good restaurant wine program is when the wine list has gems like this Portuguese Douro on it. Few people are savvy enough to recognize or order them but the sommeliers know what’s up.

Instead, Kyran surprised me with a 2012 Prats & Symington Post Scriptum de Chryseia from the Douro. I was already very familiar with the Symington family’s stable of Port houses like Cockburn, Dow, Graham, Warre and Quinta do Vesúvio but wasn’t aware of this particular Douro red wine label.

A blend of 53% Touriga Franca, 45% Touriga Nacional and 2% other Portuguese varieties, the wine was remarkably “St. Emilion-like” with a beautiful mix of blue flowers, dark fruit and savory baking spice notes on the nose. Far from being “too big” or “too tannic” for the vegetable lasagna, the wine was beautifully balance with juicy medium-plus acidity and velvety medium-plus tannins.

If this was a blind tasting and I pegged it as a St. Emilion, I would have been expecting it to be in the $45-55 range retail for a bottle. But here is where the savvy of a good sommelier comes into play because this absolute gem of a wine from a very underappreciated region is a total steal at around $26 a bottle retail.

The wine list price for this bottle was $67 which, compared to the usual 3x retail mark up common in the industry, was a great deal in its own right. Frankly, you would be hard-pressed to find a better bottle than this on most restaurant’s wine lists for less than $80.

We would have been more than happy with only this bottle for both our main courses but Kyran also brought my wife out a glass pour of the 2015 Domaine Laroche Vielle Voye Chablis to compliment her vegetarian lasagna. Sourced from 70+ year old vines, this village-level Chablis way over delivered and is another great value at $36 a bottle (and probably a $20-25 glass pour, at least).

The wine….they just kept coming!

Then for dessert my wife went with a blood orange creamsicle parfait while I ordered a maple brown butter creme brulee (my favorite dessert if you haven’t guess yet). Once again Kyran decided to individualize the pairing for us with my wife getting a glass of the 2008 Jackson Triggs Vidal Ice Wine from Niagara that was chock-full of orange blossoms and apricot notes while I got a 2011 Kracher Beerenauslese from Burgenland that had amazing lightness in the mouthfeel despite its rich concentration.

And coming…..
Like a hot slot machine.


With Wine Searcher averages of $93 and $61 respectively, my wife and I rarely buy full bottles of dessert wines because we never finish them. For us, it’s worth paying a little bit of a premium to enjoy them by the glass pour at a restaurant with a nice dessert. Yet, I rarely ever feel like I am paying a premium compared to the amount of pleasure I’m getting with the pairing.

With an end total of 2 bottles, 3 glasses and two taster pours over the course of a fabulous dinner with a personalize touch made this another jackpot win for the Somm Game. There is truly no way that I could have spent my money better that evening than just letting Kyran run the table with his fantastic pairings.

That is the beauty of the Somm Game.

Yes, it’s still gambling

And the house is going to get its share.

Of course, I could have likely bought (assuming I could even find them) bottles of the wines I had at each dinner for less than $350 on the retail market but that’s the same truth when comparing the cost of the food ingredients if you cooked the meal at home versus what you paid at a restaurant for a dish.

No one should approach the Somm Game or buying wine at restaurants with the perspective of beating retail prices. It’s never going to happen. These restaurants are businesses with overhead and staff that deserve to be paid living wages and benefits.

I’m not advocating the Somm Game as a way of “beating the house” though I do wholeheartedly endorse it as a way of getting the most out your money and having a kick-ass experience.

There is really not a dollar amount that you can put on your own personal pleasure or the joy of trying something new. You “come out ahead” when you end up getting more than you expected with a tremendous evening of great wine, great food and great memories that happened just because you let the professionals do the very thing that they are really good at doing.

No, there is not guaranteed 100% success each time you play. Sometimes you may be at a restaurant that doesn’t have a serious wine program with trained sommeliers. Sure you can still roll the dice but, as with all forms of gambling, there is always a chance you will crap out.

I recommend checking out the wine list and asking questions of the staff to get a feel if this is the type of place that is worth playing the Somm Game at.

But in Las Vegas, with its high density of outstanding restaurants and sommeliers, I’ve found no surer bet.

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60 Second Wine Review — Toil Pinot noir

Continuing our celebration of Oregon Wine Month, a few quick thoughts about the 2014 Toil Pinot noir from the Willamette Valley.

The Geekery

Toil is the Oregon wine project of Chris and Gary Figgins (of Leonetti fame). After years of running their successful Walla Walla winery, the Figgins were inspired by Oregon producers such as Domaine Serene and King Estate buying fruit from their Seven Hills Vineyard and decided to “return the favor” by exploring Pinot noir in the Willamette Valley.

2012 was the inaugural vintage of Toil with 235 cases produced from fruit sourced from the Schindler Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills and the Ridgecrest Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge sub-AVA of the Chehalem Mountains. The success of that vintage encouraged the Figgins to purchase 42 acres in the Chehalem Mountains.

The following year Toil didn’t release any wines due to the difficulties of the 2013 vintage in Oregon.

The 2014 vintage of Toil was sourced from vineyards in Ribbon Ridge. The wine spent 11 months aging in French oak barrels (30% new) with 316 cases made.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Big dark fruits, black cherries and black plums with even some dark chocolate notes. At first the wine smells remarkably like a California Merlot until a little bit of air brought out the cola and spice notes I associate more with Oregon Pinot.

Photo By Tahir mq - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The rich black plum notes of this wine reminded me more of a Merlot than a Pinot at first.

Those dark fruits carry through to the palate with medium-plus bodied weight and ripe medium-plus tannins contributing to a very filling mouthfeel. The medium-plus acid give enough freshness to balance. Moderate finish brings back a little of those spice notes.

The Verdict

This is a big Pinot that is tailor-made for fans of big, bold reds like Cab, Merlot and Syrah. For the Pinot purist, though, it may not be their cup of tea.

At $55-65, it is one of the more affordable wines in the Leonetti stable but compared to its Oregon peers you will still be paying a bit of a premium.

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Cinsault — The Black Prince of South Africa

As promised in my summary post about the 2018 Hospice du Rhône Weekend, I’ll tackle each of the four seminars with their own posts beginning with the first seminar on Friday — South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance.

I’m hard-pressed to narrow down which of the four seminars were my absolute favorite but, without a doubt, this seminar was the most eye-opening. In my Quick Take on Day 1, I commented how neither Cinsault nor South Africa tends to be on the radar of most US consumers. The trade organization WOSA (Wines of South Africa) reported in 2016 that the US receives only 3% of the wine exported from South Africa. In 2014, when US sales of wine (both domestic and exported) were around 370 million cases, wines from South Africa accounted for less than 0.33% of those sales.

But after attending this seminar moderated by Lauren Buzzeo of Wine Enthusiast and reading about my friend Adrienne’s wine adventures drinking South African wines in Nambia, it’s clear that South Africa is a wine producer worth paying attention to—not the least of which for the country’s treasure trove of old vine Cinsault.

The seminar featured 9 Cinsaults and Cinsault-dominant blends from 7 producers with winemakers Tremayne Smith (The Blacksmith Wines), Andrea Mullineux (Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines), Danie Steytler (Kaapzicht Wine Estate) and Ryan Mostert (Silwervis) on the panel.

I will get into my tasting notes on the individual wines in the moment but first some geeking about Cinsault.

Cinsault: The Mediterranean “Pinot noir”?

Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that the earliest recorded mention of Cinsault was under the synonym ‘Marroquin’ in 1600 by the French writer Olivier de Serres. The modern spelling ‘Cinsault’ emerged in the 1880s as a likely derivative from ‘Sinsâou’ that was used in the Hérault department along the Mediterranean coast as early as 1829.

Photo by Varaine. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Cinsault growing in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

DNA analysis suggest this area is the probable birthplace of Cinsault due to its close genetic relationship to the Piquepoul varieties and the potential parent-offspring relationship with Rivairenc (Aspiran), the very old Languedoc grape.

Today some of the oldest vines of Cinsault in the Languedoc date back to 1900. While Cinsault suffered the same post-WW II image problem here it did in South Africa, it is also benefiting from renewed interest in the variety with even acclaimed Burgundian producers like Anne Gros (of the notable Vosne-Romanée family) and her husband Jean-Paul Tollot tending to 50+ year old vines in Minervois.

Outside of France, the grape is found in the Puglia region of Italy where it is known as Ottavianello and must make up a minimum of 85% of the red blends in the Ostuni DOC. In Morocco it is the most widely planted grape variety but that is largely because Cinsault is also a popular table grape variety.

Chateau Musar has long championed the grape variety in Lebanon, frequently blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

In Washington State, Paul Gregutt describes wines made from Cinsault as like a “good Beaujolais” and notes in Washington Wines that it can be found in Walla Walla in the Morrison Lane and Minnick Vineyards as well as in the Horse Heaven Hills at Alder Ridge.

Cinsault in South Africa

Tim James in Wines of the New South Africa notes that Cinsault was introduced to South Africa in the 1880s and quickly became a popular planting. By 1909, it was the most widely planted red grape variety and the third most popular grape after Greengrape (Semillon) and Muscat.

Originally known as “Hermitage” until the mid-1930s, Cinsault would eventually account for as much as a third of all vineyard plantings in South Africa and was used to make everything from dry reds to sweet fortified wines to even brandy. The rise in popularity of Chenin blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon after World War II would eventually signal the grape’s decline throughout rest of the 20th century but even as its popularity wane it was still frequently used as a blending grape to add perfume and acidity to some of the country’s top Cabernet Sauvignon.

By 2008, Cinsault accounted for around a tenth of all vineyards in South Africa with notable plantings in Paarl, Breedekloof and the ward of Malmesbury in Swartland. Roughly translated to “The Black Land” in reference to the renosterbos (“rhino bush”) shrubs that dot the landscape, it is somewhat poetic that old vine vineyards of the Black Prince in Swartland would be the source of some of the most delicious Cinsault at the seminar.

Seminar Wines

Most of these wines are limited releases and hard to find in the United States. But they are well worth the hunt if you can get them.

Color of the The Blacksmith Barebones. Note how you can read through the core to see the text underneath.


2017 The Blacksmith Barebones, W.O. Paarl (Wine Searcher Average $24)
Medium intensity nose with black cherry and fresh uncured tobacco.

On the palate, those black cherry notes come through and are quite juicy and fresh with medium-plus acidity. Medium tannins and medium body contribute to the “Beaujolais” quality of the wine making it very pleasant and enjoyable with a moderate finish.

2017 The Blacksmith Prince of Bones, W.O. Swartland (No WS listing. At the seminar, Lauren Buzzeo priced it at $45)
Medium-plus intensity nose with lots of blue floral notes to go with the black cherry and tobacco notes exhibited by the Barebones.

On the palate, those fresh uncured tobacco notes from the nose change to more cured tobacco spice–not that dissimilar from Bordeaux wines. Medium-plus acidity maintains the juiciness of the cherry fruit with medium-plus tannins contributing to the medium-plus body of the wine. Long finish ends on the spicy note and mouthwatering fruit. Outstanding wine and probably my favorite of the tasting.

2017 Sadie Family Pofadder, W.O. Swartland (WS Average for 2016 vintage $42)
Medium-minus intensity nose. Light raspberry and some herbal notes. With some air a slight watermelon note (both flesh and rind) come out which is intriguing.

On the palate, the fruit flavors are similarly light. High acidity and chalky medium-plus tannins contribute to a thin and skeletal feel of the wine. Very short finish brings an earthy element that is hard to make out.

2017 Craven Wines Cinsault, W.O. Stellenbosch (WS Average $14 but I’m skeptical as Buzzeo listed the price at $55)
Medium intensity nose with red cherry, rose petals and fresh forest earthiness.

On the palate, the earthy element becomes a little more herbal but also brings a savory black pepper spice note. High acidity and medium-plus tannins are balanced a bit better with the fruit than the Sadie Pofadder so the wine feels more firm and structured rather than thin and skeletal. Seems young but promising.

The Badenhorst Ramnasgras from Swartland was fantastic.


2016 A.A. Badenhorst Cinsault Ramnasgras, W.O. Swartland (WS Average $38)
Medium-plus intensity with black cherry notes and lots of spice and meatiness. A mix of Burgundian and Rhone notes on the nose that had my mouth watering before even taking a sip.

On the palate, the cherry and spice carries through with the mouthwatering continuing with the medium-plus acidity. High tannins hold up the full-bodied fruit of the wine really well and contribute to this wine feeling like a meal in itself. Another favorite.

2016 Kaapzicht Cinsault 1952, W.O. Stellenbosch (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $31)
Medium intensity nose with an intriguing mix of cherry pie spices and leather.

The Kaapzicht 1952. Note how much darker this wine is in the core.


On the palate, those cherry pie notes come through with a toasty graham cracker crust character as well. Juicy medium-plus and ripe medium-plus tannins gives the wine great structure and mouthfeel. Long finish keeps with the cherry pie note with some cured tobacco spice joining the party. Very delicious.

2015 Kaapzicht Cinsault Skuinberg, W.O. Stellenbosch (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $79)
Medium-minus intensity nose. A mix of minty menthol and coffee espresso with some undefined red fruits.

On the palate, the red fruits become more defined as cherry and raspberry but the menthol and espresso dominant. Like the 1952, the medium-plus acidity and tannins give the wine exceptional balance and structure. I just don’t know if I’m a fan of this flavor profile as much.

2015 Leeu Passant Old Vine Cinsault, W.O. Franschhoek (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $103)
Medium-plus intensity nose with black raspberry and blackberry notes. There is also a minty element here but it smells more like fresh mint leaves rather than menthol.

The black fruits carry through on the palate with the minty notes being more subdued. In their place some of that Bordeaux-style tobacco spice emerges which gives the wine a savory element with the medium-plus acidity. Medium-plus tannins balances out the full bodied weight of the fruit. Long finish lingers on the spice. Really well made wine.

2015 Silwervis Cinsault, W.O. Swartland (WS Average $26 but I’m skeptical as Buzzeo listed the price at $50)
Medium intensity nose with coffee and cherry notes. With some air, a little floral mint and fresh tobacco leaf comes out.

On the palate, the coffee notes dominant with fruit present but struggling to emerge. Medium acidity and medium-plus tannins have firm edges to them. Even though this one of the oldest wines at the tastings, it felt really young. Intriguing though.

Takeaways

Cinsault’s diversity is a joy for food pairing but a nightmare for blind tasting.

As I reviewed my notes I saw some patterns emerging (cherry and tobacco) but many of those notes overlap with styles familiar to Burgundy, Beaujolais and lighter Bordeaux. A few examples even hit some of those savory meaty notes of a Rhone. Still, this diversity is exciting because here we have a wine that can be anything from a great picnic & BBQ sipper to something savory and complex that can hold up to robust dishes.

While two of my favorites (The Blacksmith’s Prince of Bones and A.A. Badenhorst’s Ramnagras) were from the Swartland–along with the intriguing but young tasting Silwervis–it was hard to pinpoint terroir characteristics. Considering how much I’ve liked other wines from these producers, I wonder how much of it is more producer style verses the region?

But a big takeaway, and one that the moderator and panelists frequently referred to, was the importance of older vines for Cinsault. The vine lends itself easily to overproduction and with its thin skins can be prone to producing thin flavors. While that may work for bulk rosé, it’s not ideal for making character driven wines.

With over 1600 acres of Cinsault vines over 20 years old (and many of the wines featured in this tasting coming from 40+ year old vineyards), South Africa does have a good bounty of older vines to work with. The really lovely Leeu Passant Old Vine Cinsault from Franschhoek was sourced from South Africa’s 2nd oldest red wine vineyard from vines that are 91+ years old. You can taste the added complexity and concentration from these older vines.

Remarkable stuff that is, again, well worth the hunt to find.

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60 Second Wine Review — ROCO Pinot noir

May is Oregon Wine Month so I’m going to kick off the festivities with a few quick thoughts about the 2012 ROCO Pinot noir from the Willamette Valley.

The Geekery

ROCO was founded in 2001 by Rollin Soles and his wife Corby Stonebraker-Soles. In 1987, Soles founded the sparkling wine producer Argyle in the Dundee Hills with Australian winemaker Brian Croser. Argyle expanded to still wine production in 1992 with Soles at the helm till 2013 when he stepped down as winemaker to focus on ROCO. He is also the consulting winemaker for Domaine Drouhin’s Roserock project in the Eola-Amity Hills.

During his time at Argyle, Soles wines were featured on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list more than any other Oregon winemaker with his Extended Triage Brut being the top scoring American sparkling wine for six straight years.

Prior to his time at Argyle, Soles worked at Wente Brothers and Chateau Montelena in California and at Petaluma Vineyards where he met Brian Croser.

In 2016, Soles released his first post-Argyle sparkling wine, RMS.

The 2012 Willamette Valley Pinot is sourced from vineyards in the Chehalem Mountains, Yamhill-Carlton District and Dundee Hills AVA. Around 2500 cases were made.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Fresh red cherries with a mix of red and blue floral notes.

Photo by CorinthiaBTSm. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Juicy red cherry notes are abundant in this ROCO Pinot noir.

On the palate, the cherries come through and bring raspberry notes with medium body weight. High acidity is ample but doesn’t veer into tartness. Medium tannins have noticeable grip but are soft. Moderate finish introduces a cherry cola note that adds some intrigue.

The Verdict

I was a bit surprised at how elegant and light this Pinot was for the very “California-like” 2012 vintage that saw drought conditions which concentrated flavors. Usually from this vintage, I expect to find more full-bodied and fruit forward Pinots.

Instead, this wine came across as more of a “classic Oregon” Pinot with restrained, but present, fruit and ample acidity that shines on the table. At $27-30, it is a solid bottle for fans of that old-school, classic style.

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