Category Archives: Wine reviews

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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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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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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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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Hospice du Rhône Weekend 2018

The BBQ prep for the closing dinner.

Just got back home from a wonderful weekend down in Paso Robles attending the 2018 Hospice du Rhône. This was my first time attending the event and I can tell you that my wife and I are already making plans to attend the 2020 event April 23rd-25th.

To be honest, we are even thinking about attending the 2019 event in the Rhône Valley.

We purchased two weekend passes at $995 each which got us:

4 seminars featuring 9-11 wines each including many wines with limited releases and very small production.
Two lunches (a Rosé lunch on Day 1 and Live Auction lunch on Day 2)
An Opening and Closing Tasting featuring hundreds of wines with each tasting having a different theme (older vintages for Day 1 and newer vintages for Day 2) so each day had different wines to try.
Farewell dinner and BBQ

As you can probably garner from the first paragraph, my wife and I left the event feeling that the cost of the weekend pass was more than worth it for the experience we got. So I’ll share some of my favorite geeky moments, top wines and the two slight negatives that put a damper on an otherwise stellar event.

I’ll save my reviews of the 4 seminars (South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance, A 6th Generation Crusade in the Barossa Valley, Lost and Found: Old Vine Rhônes Across California, The Majesty of Guigal) for their own individual posts because there was a lot of great stuff from each to unpack.

Top 3 Geek Moments

Meeting two Masters of Wine in Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards and Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co. I got a chance to talk to Billo about the possibilities of Walla Walla hosting a future Hospice du Rhone (would be incredibly exciting!) and with Morgan it was hard not to be charmed with his unabashed geekiness for old vine vineyards in California.

John Alban, Morgan Twain-Peterson and Tegan Passalacqua at the old vine seminar.

Which along those lines….

Having the light bulb flick on about the treasure of old vine field blends. Some of the most exciting wines at the event were old vine field blends featuring a hodge podge of grapes like Mataro (Mourvedre), Syrah, Peloursin, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Trousseau noir, Grenache, Mondeuse, Alicante Bouchet and the like inter-planted and fermented together. In an industry dominated by monoculture and mono-varietal wines, the character of these field blends like Carlisle’s Two Acres and Bedrock’s Gibson Ranch are off the charts.

And no one is intentionally planting field blends right now. This truly is a treasure of the past when farmers, rather than viticulturists, just kind of did their thing and let what would grow, grow. That kind of proposition is way too risky today but that only heightens the importance of saving these old vineyards and supporting the wineries who source fruit from them.

As a Millennial, the character and stories behind field blend plantings is the perfect antidote to the mind-numbing boredom of the “same old, same old”. Millennials are changing the wine industry with their craving for new experiences and new things as well as authenticity–which an old vine field blend delivers in spades. It’s why I’m skeptical that Cabernet Sauvignon will continue it dominance and why I don’t think Merlot’s downturn is just because of a movie.

Potek Winery’s Mormann Vineyard Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills.
Great wine but Potek’s labels are WAAAAAAY too busy. Admittedly in a wine shop I wouldn’t even give them a second look because they’re so hard to read.

Though speaking of that movie…

Screw Pinot. Let’s start drinking Santa Barbara County Rhônes. I mentioned this in my quick take on Day 1 and day 2 only reaffirmed how special these cool climate Rhônes are. I’ll also add the Russian River Valley of Sonoma because not only can you find Carlisle’s Two Acre gem there but I was also thoroughly impressed with the wines from MacLaren.

Top 10 (non-seminar) Wines of the Event

When you have wines like a 2005 Guigal La Turque being poured at the seminars, it would be easy to fill up this list with nothing but seminar wines. But there were a lot of fantastic wines poured at the Opening and Closing tastings so here are 10 of my favorites in no particular order.

2016 Jada Hell’s Kitchen Paso Robles — It was actually hard to narrow down just one of the Jada wines to put on this list because every single one of them were stellar. This one was very full bodied and hedonistic with rich dark fruit, velvety smooth mouthfeel and a long finish with dark chocolate notes.

2016 Louis Cheze Condrieu Pagus Luminis — Crisp but mouthfilling. Lots of fresh tree fruit notes–apricots and peaches–with some stony minerality.

2016 CR Greybehl The Grenachista Alder Springs Grenache Mendocino County — I guess I could add this to my cool-climate Rhône discoveries. Like Jada, this was a hard one to narrow down because I loved everything from this producer. The Alder Springs had a particular vivacious mouthfeel of juicy blackberries with some spice and floral notes.

While I enjoyed the opportunity to try Saxum, I’m actually far more excited about the wines being made by their assistant, Don Burns, with his wife Claudia at their Turtle Rock Winery.

2012 Turtle Rock Willow’s Cuvee Paso Robles — Made by the assistant winemaker of Saxum. Truthfully, I liked these better than the Saxum wines I tried. Very floral with a mix of red and dark fruit. One of the best noses of the night.

2012 Dos Cabezas Wineworks El Campo Sonoita Arizona — One of the surprises of the event. A Tempranillo-Mourvedre blend from Arizona that tasted like a spicy Ribera del Duero and juicy Jumilla had a baby. Very impressive.

2008 Kunin Alisos Vineyard Syrah Santa Barbara County — Winners across the board from Kunin. Great mix of dark fruit and earthy forest floor. Very long finish. These were wines I wished I had more time to savor.

2012 Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape — This hit my perfect catnip style of savory, meaty undertones wrapped around a core of juicy, mouthwatering fruit. Such a treat to have and I suspect that the 2015 will be even better with a few more years.

2007 Carlisle James Berry Syrah Paso Robles — All in all, Carlisle probably made my favorite wines of the entire event. I can still taste the 2016 Two Acres from the old vine seminar but this James Berry was a close second. Still very lively with dark fruit, mouthwatering medium-plus acid and some spicy minerality on the finish.

A 100% Cinsault pet-nat was not only geeky good but also a palate savior.
Would really love to see more sparkling wines like this at future Hospice du Rhone events.


2017 The Blacksmith The Bloodline Cinsault Pet-Nat Darling W.O. South Africa — This was much needed salvation for the palate (see below) but it would have been a treat to try under any circumstance. Super geeky Cinsault pet-nat, this wine had a huge nose of orange blossoms and cherries that jumped out of the glass.

2005 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage — This wine wasn’t part of any featured tasting and was certainly an unexpected treat that someone brought to the Live Auction lunch on Day 2. This was my first Chave and my lord! Still quite young and powerful for its age with layers of red fruit, savory Asian spices and a long finish of smokey BBQ notes.

Palate Fatigue and a little clicky culture

While overall the event was fantastic, there were two things that stuck out as minor negatives. One was the absence of sparkling wines which are the guardian angels of the palate at tastings like these. As readers of my flashback review of the 2017 Taste Washington know, periodically taking a break from big, heavy reds with some palate cleansing bubbles is a must if you’re going to maximize your tasting experience.

There were a few producers pouring some roses and crisp white wines which helped but it was disappointing not to see more sparkling examples. I know that the Rhône is not particularly well known for bubbles but there is the Clairette de Die and Saint-Péray AOCs producing sparkling wine and Australia has a good tradition of making sparkling Shiraz. I’m sure there are also examples from New World producers experimenting with sparkling Viognier and other varieties. It would be great to give these wines more visibility and they would be absolute god sends during the big tastings.

While some of the “clickiness” at lunch was disheartening, the gracious couple who shared this wine from their table gave me an amazing thrill that was a joy to try.


The second negative was how “clicky” the culture among the attendees were–especially at the lunches. It’s wonderful that the Hospice du Rhône is in its 22nd year and it’s clear that there are many people who have been attending this event regularly. But for a “newbie”, it felt hard at times to break into the crowd.

Again, this was most felt at the lunches where several times seats and entire tables were reserved not by official organizers but other attendees who didn’t seem to have any interest in interacting with people who weren’t part of their local scene.

But there were certainly more than enough gracious attendees who were welcoming and approachable (as well as the organizers themselves like John and Lorraine Alban, Vicki Carroll and Faith Wells) to make the event exceedingly enjoyable and well worth attending again.

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60 Second Wine Review — Domaine des Pins St. Amour Les Pierres

A few quick thoughts on the 2015 Domaine des Pins Les Pierres from the Beaujolais cru of St. Amour.

The Geekery

Founded by Jean-Francois Echallier, Domaine des Pins was sold in 2011 to David Gobet, a family friend. The Les Pierres bottling is made in partnership with the Pardon family who have been making wine in Beaujolais since 1820.

One of the 10 crus of Beaujolais, St. Amour is unique for being in the Saône-et-Loire department of the Mâconnais while the rest of the crus (and greater Beaujolais region) are in the Rhône department.

The Les Pierres is 100% Gamay produced with 50-80% semi-carbonic maceration where whole clusters of grapes are loaded into a fermentation tank that is then sealed. The process is “semi” because the tank is not pre-filled with carbon dioxide to initiate an intracellular fermentation. However, as the weight of the grapes crush the clusters underneath and release juice, native yeast start fermentation–filling the closed tank with carbon dioxide. This triggers carbonic maceration for the intact berries higher up in the tank.

Among the distinctive aromas produced by carbonic maceration, particularly in grapes like Gamay, are fruity esters such as benzaldehyde that produce cherry kirsch aromas and ethyl cinnamate that encourage raspberry and strawberry notes.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Cherries and raspberries with some spice and floral notes.

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

Bright, juicy cherry notes characterize this wine.

On the palate those red fruit notes come through but bring an herbal (rosemary and thyme), rather than spicy, element with them that wasn’t present on the nose. With the medium-plus acidity those notes take on a savory quality that is intriguing. Medium tannins have some grip but are balanced well with the medium-plus body fruit. Moderate length finish brings back the floral notes but lingers on the cherry flavors.

The Verdict

At $15-20, this is certainly a step up from your basic Beaujolais but it has enough character to more than merit the jump.

Charming and easy drinking, this wine lends itself easily to food pairing though it is quite enjoyable on its own.

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Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner

Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue, Washington is one of my wife and I’s favorite restaurants to visit. Each year they host a Champagne Gala that we love going to. Even when we’re not thrilled with the wines selected, we nonetheless always enjoy the exquisite food crafted by Executive Chef Kevin Rohr and a chance to try interesting food pairings.

Recently I got to attend a dinner featuring the wines of Stags’ Leap Winery with Assistant Winemaker Joanne “Jo” Wing.

The Background

I geeked out about some of the backstory of Stags’ Leap Winery in my 60 Second Review of their 2013 Napa Valley Merlot. With a long history dating back to the late 19th century, the winery is one of Napa’s most historic properties.

In California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube notes that the rise of the modern-era of Stags’ Leap Winery under Carl Doumani went hand in hand with the “Cabernet boom” of the 1970s that saw the notable Cabs of Burgess, Cakebread, Caymus, Clos du Val, Mount Eden, Mt. Veeder, Silver Oak and Joseph Phelps hit the scene. It also saw the birth of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and decades-long legal intrigue.

The War of the Apostrophe” soon took off with Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (and winner of the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris) suing Doumani–who promptly counter-sued.

The two men eventually settled their differences in the mid-1980s and released a special collaborative bottling between the two estates called Accord from the 1985 vintage to commemorate. The agreement was that Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars would have the apostrophe to the left of the ‘s’ while Doumani’s Stags’ Leap Winery would have it to the right.

You could tell that the Treasury Wine Estate rep at the dinner wasn’t too happy about the apostrophe typo on the menu.

Around this time, the two wineries faced another challenge with other wineries in the area like Gary Andrus’ Pine Ridge Winery, Steltzner Vineyards, Shafer Vineyards and more wanting to use the Stags Leap name and petitioning for American Viticultural Area (AVA) approval under that name for the region. After more legal challenges, a compromise was struck for the name of the new AVA to be the Stags Leap District (SLD) sans apostrophe.

Today the winery is owned by Treasury Wine Estates where it is part of a vast portfolio that includes 19 Crimes, The Walking Dead wines, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, Ch. St Jean, Penfolds, Provenance, Hewitt Vineyard and more.

The current winemaker is Christophe Paubert who succeeded Robert Brittan when the later left Napa to make wine in Oregon at his own Brittan Vineyards and consult for wineries such as Winderlea.

A Bordeaux trained winemaker, Paubert has extensive experience working at such illustrious estates as the 2nd Growth St. Julien estate of Ch. Gruaud-Larose and the First Growth Sauternes estate of Chateau d’Yquem. Prior to joining Stags’ Leap in 2009, Paubert was the head winemaker for 4 years at Canoe Ridge Vineyards in Washington State.

Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing is a New Zealand native who started out at Indevin, one of New Zealand’s largest wine producers. She gained experience working harvest across the globe from Saintsbury in Napa to Mount Pleasant Winery in the Hunter Valley of Australia as well as in Bordeaux before accepting a position at Stags’ Leap as a harvest enologist and working her way up to Asst. Winemaker.

Gorgeous Viognier that is well worth seeking out.


Passed hors d’oeuvres paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Winery Napa Valley Viognier
Smoked sablefish with soft scrambled farm egg, ikura, chives and Chevre crostini with watermelon beet, grilled apricot, chili spice

I’m not a big beet person so I let my wife try the Chevre Crostini while I had the smoked sablefish with the ikura roe caviar. Both were smashing pairings with the Stags’ Leap Viognier with the wine being a particular revelation.

Sourced primarily from cooler climate vineyards in the Carneros AVA and Oak Knoll District, the Viognier had medium-plus intensity nose of orange blossoms and white peach notes.

On the palate, those white peach tree fruits carried through but also brought some tropical notes of passion-fruit and papaya. However this Viognier never came close to the tutti-fruity “Fruit Loop Cereal” style that unfortunately befalls many domestic Viogniers–especially those fermented and aged only in stainless steel. To avoid that pratfall, Paubert and Wing fermented the wine in neutral French oak barrels with weekly batonnage for 4 months. This very “Condrieu-style” approach produced a Viognier with textural weight and depth but with enough medium-plus acidity to keep it from being flabby or overly creamy.

The acidity also matched perfectly with the hors d’oeuvres, cutting through the “fishiness” of the sablefish and roe. My wife was particularly impressed at how well the acidity matched with the Chevre–the tangy goat cheese that often calls for high acid whites like Sauvignon blanc.

At $22-27, this is an outstanding Viognier with loads of personality and complexity that I would put on par with the àMaurice Viognier from Washington State as one of the stellar domestic examples of this variety.

The preserved kumquat vinaigrette on the salad were quite a treat.


First Course paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Chardonnay
Spring Salad with Belgian endive, baby kale, avocado, marcona almonds, preserved kumquat vinaigrette

Sourced from the Carneros and Oak Knoll District, this Napa Chardonnay counters the stereotype of over-the-top, oaky, buttery Chardonnays. With 25% fermented and aged in new French oak, 50% in “seasoned” French oak and the rest in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation, this Chardonnay aimed for an elegant and food-friendly style.

The wine had a medium intensity nose with apple and citrus lime notes. A little subtle baking spice from the oak rims around the edge.

On the palate, the citrus notes came through the most and played off the baby kale and avocado very well. Medium-plus acidity maintained freshness and balanced the moderate creaminess in the wine. The clove oak spice and an almost marzipan nuttiness lingered on the moderate finish.

Overall, this was a very drinkable and pleasant Chardonnay that did hit the target for food-pairing. But, admittedly, at $25-30 it didn’t jump out as anything wow-worthy–especially following in the footsteps of the scrumptious Viognier. It’s a very well made California Chard but it is still one of hundreds of similar well-made and similarly priced California Chards.

The star of the night. I can still taste the braised short ribs and that delectable sauce.

Second Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Braised short ribs with seared sea scallops, morel mushrooms, chervil

From a food perspective, this was the winning course of the night. The braised short ribs melted in the mouth and had you dearly wishing you had more than just the bite. The scallops were perfectly cooked and while I was skeptical with pairing them with a big Cab, the morel and au jus sauce from the short ribs offered just enough weight to carry the pairing.

As with other wines in the white label Napa Valley series, the Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon includes some estate fruit but is mostly sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley. Joanne Wing noted that while Paubert likes the flexibility of having some fruit from warm climate sites like Calistoga, he’s far more excited about the fruit from the cooler southern reaches of Napa like Coombsville, Oak Knoll and Yountville.

Medium-plus intensity with rich dark fruit–black currants, black plums, blackberries. This screams Napa Cab from the nose but it is not as overtly oak-driven as the norm with a little tobacco spice element.

On the palate those dark fruits carry through but there is a little earthy forest-floor element that emerges that adds some intrigue. Medium acidity adds juiciness to the fruit but not enough to be mouthwatering. The oak is a little more pronounced but is more spice driven than vanilla. The medium-plus tannins are still quite firm and young but are more tight than biting. Moderate length finish ends on the fruit which testifies to the youth of this wine.

Stags’ Leap Winery Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing.

At $45-50, this is priced in lined with many of its Napa peers as a sort of “entry-level” Napa Cab. It’s hard to say it is a compelling value compared to what you can get for equivalent pricing from other regions like Washington and Paso Robles. Like the Chardonnay, I feel like this Cab is certainly well made but not blow-your-socks-off-you-must-find-it good partly because of the premium you are paying for the Napa name (and the winery’s history).

However, I do suspect that this wine could kick it up a couple notches with a few more years of bottle age that potentially could make it far more compelling.

Third Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap “The Investor” Red Blend
Piedmontese New York Steak with herb polenta, spring vegetables, blackberry demiglace

Admittedly, this was one of the few times I’ve been disappointed with a Daniel’s steak. Perhaps it was just this cut but I found it was in the weird position of being both too fatty and too dry and lacking flavor. The polenta and blackberry demi-glace were excellent though. But I found myself again wishing that the braised short ribs were the main course.

A unique blend of Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, The Investor pays homage to former owner Horace Chase who made his fortune investing in gold and silver mines during the Gold Rush days of California. The Merlot and majority of the Petite Sirah come from estate fruit in the Stags Leap District and Oakville while the Cabernet and Malbec are sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley.

The medium-plus acidity and savory, herbal element of The Investor red blend definitely helped interject some much needed flavor into the Piedmontese New York steak.

Medium-plus nose with a mix of red and dark fruits–plums and currants. There is more overt oak vanilla on the nose of this wine than with the Cab but it doesn’t seem overwhelming. Underneath there is also a blue floral element that is not defined.

On the palate, the mix of fruits carry through with mouthwatering medium-plus acidity tilting the favor towards the red fruit. Some savory herbal and smokey notes join the party that dearly helps the food-pairing with the flavorless Piedmontese New York steak. The vanilla oak notes add a layer of velvety softness to the high tannins that still have a fair amount of gripe. Like the Cab, the moderate length finish ends on the youthful fruit.

At $50-60, The Investor intrigues me a lot more than the Napa Cabernet (and the Napa Merlot) because of the savory, smokey element and mouthwatering acidity. It’s still young and has some “baby fat” of oak that needs to be shed but this is a unique blend that could turn into something exceptionally good.

Dessert paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Petite Sirah
Chocolate torte with Devonshire cream, coconut crisp

While the chocolate torte was amazing and sinfully delicious and the wine outstanding, this was not a winning pairing. The wine was nowhere near sweet enough to balance with the torte.

While delicious on their own, the pairing of the chocolate torte with the Stags’ Leap Petite Sirah just didn’t do it for me.

Still, it was somewhat fitting to end the Stags’ Leap Winery dinner with the wine that truly epitomizes the estate. While the name “Stags Leap” is synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags’ Leap Winery was always a vanguard in cultivating and promoting Petite Sirah.

High intensity nose that started jumping out of the glass as soon as the waiter poured it. Blackberries and boysenberries with some peppery spice and violets.

On the palate, the first thing that hits you is the weight and richness of the wine with the full brunt of the dark fruits and high tannins. But there is an elegance with the juicy medium-plus acidity and fine balance that keeps the wine from being overbearing. On the moderate finish, there is some subtle dark chocolate notes that come out but not enough to make the food-pairing work. This was definitely a wine to savor on its own.

At $32-40, this is a more premium-priced Petite Sirah but it is well worth not only its price but also its reputation as the winery’s flagship. During this course, Jo told us about the Ne Cede Malis block of Prohibition-era vines that is a field blend of majority Petite Sirah with Muscat, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan and up to 9 other varieties. The grapes are harvested together and co-fermented to produce a limited release bottling. I have to admit that if Stags’ Leap Winery’s mobile ordering website wasn’t so buggy and difficult to navigate, I would have purchased a bottle of the Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah (as well as several bottles of the Viognier) right then.

Overall Impressions

Attending this dinner left me wondering if Stags’ Leap Winery is a victim of its own name and location in Napa Valley. While the winery absolutely shined with its Viognier and Petite Sirah, their more typical Napa offerings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were just “ho-hum”.

I do appreciate that Treasury Wine Estates has let Paubert, Wing and Co. continue producing their more obscure bottlings but I have no doubt that the health of the winery’s bottom line depends on the case sales of the bread and butter Cab, Chardonnay and Merlot. It’s where the money is–especially in Napa–and that is what they’re out to sell.

Yet after tasting their outstanding Viognier, scrumptious Petite Sirah and very character-driven Investor blend, its hard not to think about what more the winery could do with their talented winemaking team and unique approach if they didn’t have to live up to the name Stags’ Leap.

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60 Second Wine Review — 2004 Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant

A few quick thoughts on the 2004 Nicolas Joly Clos de la Coulée de Serrant.

The Geekery

Hugh Johnson describes Nicolas Joly in his Wine Companion as one of the “high priest” of Biodynamics and says he was the first French vigneron to apply Rudolf Steiner’s principles to grape growing.

Located in the Anjou region of the Loire Valley, Savennières is noted for dry 100% Chenin blanc wines that are often distinctly different from the better known Vouvray wines of Touraine.

Along with Château-Grillet and Romanée Conti, the 17 acre vineyard of Coulée de Serrant is one of three estates to have their own AOCs. First planted by Cistercian monks in 1130, the vineyard has nearly 900 years of winemaking history. Owned by the Joly family since 1959, the average age of the vines are 35-80 years.

The wine is harvested late in multiple passes through the vineyard over 3-4 weeks. It is then fermented in neutral wood with native yeasts–allowing the fermentation itself to regulate the temperature. This can often take 2 to 4 months for the wine to get to complete dryness. Around 2,000 cases a year are made.

The Wine

The color looks like an aged Sauternes or an orange wine but the high intensity nose isn’t sweet or oxidized. Instead it is very floral with honeysuckle and apple blossoms as well as some spicy ginger. Underneath there is a little straw hay and subtle orange citrus notes.

Photo by Walter Siegmund. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.5

Very fresh floral honeysuckle notes characterize this 13+ yr Chenin.

On the palate the wine has incredible weight with an oiliness and some tannin texture to the mouthfeel. Lots of rocky minerality that is amplified by the still fresh and vibrant high acidity. The orange notes come through and bring an apricot note that aren’t quite dried but aren’t fresh as well. Long finish brings back the spicy ginger.

The Verdict

Stunningly beautiful for a 13+ year white wine that probably has the legs to go on for several more years.

At $90-110, there is certainly a premium for this wine but the character and complexity is off the charts.

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