Monday, November 30, 2009

Cameron Hughes Lot 102: Cabernet Sauvignon

Cameron Hughes Wine
Cabernet Sauvignon
Lot 102
Napa Valley
Geyserville, California, USA
$13.99 -- Costco, Austin, TX

Color: Medium to dark ruby
Nose: Cassis, cherry, rosemary, anise
Body: Medium to full
Front: Cherry
Middle: Raspberry, black pepper
Back: Herbes de provence, soft tannins
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Composite cork

This is the second in the Cameron Hughes tasting diptych. This wine is more to my taste. And it went well with onion soup, the link to the recipe for which I must provide out of gratitude.

Lot 102 is not a masterpiece of subtlety like the Andrew Will. It's not a powerhouse like the Sattui Preston. But it's the tastiest $14 bottle of wine I've had in years. A caveat, however: I opened this puppy at 4:30 p.m. and didn't drink any of it until almost 8 p.m. It really needs air, so don't take it to dinner at someone else's house unless they've got a big decanter and/or patience and they really like you. That said, I'm not sure it will cellar well, since it's not a particularly complex wine, with the acidic flavors more or less dominating.

Cameron Hughes Lot 115: Chardonnay

Cameron Hughes Wine
Lot 115
Russian River
Sonoma County
Geyserville, California, USA
$10.99 -- Costco, Austin, TX

Color: Medium gold, extremely clear
Nose: Pear, apricot
Body: Medium
Front: Apricot
Middle: Green apple, butter
Back: Minerals, lime
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Composite cork

The smell of roasting onions wafts from my oven. It's freezing tonight (which for Austin means it's 53 degrees), so it's time for some French onion soup.

French onion soup is labor-intensive, done well. It took 14 hours to make the stock that I'm putting into it, and it's going to take four hours of roasting, scraping, and stirring to get 'er done tonight. But the odd thing is, it's practically free to make: the Gruyere at the end is the most expensive part! So with that in mind, I'm tasting two cheap wines with promise (or at least, mixed reception in the reviewing world to date) by a California negociant called Cameron Hughes Wine.

Each of their different blends has a "Lot" number. Poke around on the internet and you'll find their strategy; here I want to focus on these bottles and what's going on inside them. This is not a super-complex wine, but it's nicely balanced, with equal shares of oakiness and acidity, but more importantly, with a definite structure. A little oddly (from my admittedly limited experience), there's a apple or lime flavor at the end of the palate, after the buttery portion has been delivered. It's delightful; I wish they would serve this at the receptions I'll be having to attend as the Christmas season approaches!

In my next entry: the CH Rutherford Cabernet.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Monte Antico Toscana

C. Santa Lucia
Monte Antico
Toscana IGT
Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Pisa, Italy2006
$10.99 -- Whole Foods, Austin, TX

Color: Medium to dark garnet with purple tinge
Nose: Mushrooms, blackberries, green pepper
Body: Light
Front: Cherry, earth
Middle: Some chocolate, a little light here
Back: A little game, soft wet-rock tannins
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Screwcap

This is a delightful, but not beefy, wine. Now, I must confess up front that I'm not a huge Sangiovese fan. But the blend on this wine is balanced, and for a lot of folks who don't like full-bodied wines, but like a varied flavor profile, this will be a gastronomical and economic godsend. The earthy and minerally flavors are nicely balanced with the berry fruits up front.

I had it with pizza and it was fine, but I think a pasta with lemon, butter, white wine, capers, that sort of thing would be better. The cheese was a bit of a challenge for the Monte Antico; something not too spicy or heavy would pair well with it. I'm not listening to music tonight--there's a howling wind outside.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Rex Hill Reserve Pinot Noir

Rex Hill Vineyards
Pinot Noir

Newburg, Oregon, USA
$34.99 -- Austin, TX

Color: Medium garnet
Nose: Cherries, smoke
Body: Full
Front: Red currants, cherries
Middle: Plums, cedar, licorice
Back: Steel, tar
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Cork

This is an intense webfoot Pinot. The fruit is strong, yet there are a bunch of non-fruity flavors lurking all around the dark corners of this one. It's no Vosne-Romanee, but it's got some complexity on its side.

I'm sitting by a lovely fire and listening to Lily Allen and it's getting to be about perfect relaxation, taken with this wine. This would pair well with a lot of different foods, but I'd think fish, chicken pot pie, and garbanzos (done not too spicily) in particular.

Piper-Heidsieck Champagne Extra Dry

Piper Heidsieck
ChampagneExtra Dry
Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
Reims, France
$30.02 [usually around $40] -- Grapevine Market, Austin, TX

Color: Medium straw
Nose: Baking apple pie, nutmeg, bread
Body: Medium
Front: Almond, pear
Middle: Cinnamon, orange peel, honey
Back: Apple, pie pan scrapings, a hint of cognac
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Cork

My first sparkling wine review! I drink sparkling wine all the time, actually, but often at restaurants or other people's houses. When I have it at home, it sort of feels like a travesty to write anything down about it. This seems particularly the case with honest-to-Allah Champagnes like this one.

Now, I dig the Piper Brut, which is dryer than this (the crafty French always fool you with their marketing prowess, calling the sweeter wine "extra dry" indeed). But this is a crowd-pleaser, and delightfully complex; the sweets are largely in fruity flavors, not straight-up sugar, so the more subtle things come through. Git you some salty-spicy almonds and nutty semi-soft cheese, and you will be in good company.

Frank Family Chardonnay

Frank Family Vineyards

Napa Valley
Calistoga, California, USA
$23.99 [usually around $30] -- Grapevine Market, Austin, TX

Color: Medium golden yellow
Nose: Buttery violets
Body: Full
Front: Ripe apple, lime
Middle: Butter, pear
Back: Caramel, oak
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Cork

As I've said before, the Frank Family wines are damn tasty. Their Chardonnay is rich but balanced, complex but friendly. It's a sexy wine, if such a metaphor could be used (I seem to recall sort of doing so in writing about their Cabernet).

There are so many flavors in here that I can't describe; it drinks like a much more expensive wine. And remember, Frank Family is one of the few outfits in Napa that still doesn't charge for tastings. This is great with food, and lots of different palates like it -- though don't feed it to friends who claim to just totally hate oak or butter in their Chardonnays; it, and many of your other good wines, will be wasted on them until this phase of popular mimicry passes.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sinskey Merlot

Robert Sinskey Vineyards
Los Carneros

Napa, California, USA
$23.99 -- Spec's, Austin, TX

Color: Medium garnet
Nose: Violets, raspberry, vanilla
Body: Medium
Front: Cassis, pomegranate, cardamom
Middle: Fennel, roasted fig, bitter chocolate
Back: Espresso, a hint of greenness, like kiwi
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Cork

As is probably obvious from the stacked flavor description above, I adore this wine. This is, to my young and inexperienced mind, what Merlot is all about. It's different from, if perhaps inspired by, some Bordeaux classics, the Merlot-heavy ones, that I also like. But it has structure and complexity; the latter exhibited in a mixture on the palate that eludes clear description but that's a mashup of the tastes listed above, and a few more, too. I didn't decant this one, but let it unwind slowly out of the bottle.

Sinskey uses organically grown grapes to make this wine, and all of their wines (I confess to having spent an hour, perhaps more, at the winery) are subtle and complex. Okay, the cardamom taste is subtle, but really, how do you make any kind of cardamom taste out of grapes or oak? Not to say that this kind of alchemy is the foundation, origin, or soul of winemaking--probably, like all aesthetic endeavors, there's no foundation per se. But it's enchanting, that's for sure. Go out and buy a bunch of this, and then send me some.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Canoe Ridge Merlot

Canoe Ridge Vineyard
Horse Heaven Hills

Columbia Valley
Walla Walla, Washington, USA
$14.99 -- Spec's, Austin, TX

Color: Deep garnet
Nose: Cinnamon, nutmeg, licorice
Body: Medium; round, like there's a hole in the middle, yet not watery
Front: Dried cherries
Middle: Cream, plum
Back: Cedar, very soft tannins
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Cork

I read about this wine in Time Magazine online, and was intrigued. It's so cheap! And yet, so tasty! The nose is lovely, though utterly at odds with what the label tells me I should smell. The palate is multilayered, but not overpowering, like yer Merlots tend to be. But it's got presence and weight, and paired well with the New York Strip and organic lettuce and tomato salad I made this evening. The tannins are barely there, but there, giving some texture.

It also paired perfectly with the Back Yard Tire Fire that was on the stereo; their record Bar Room Semantics. They're a working-class band, from Chicago, and have a bit of a Wilco sound, but a bit more economic urgency and a bit more actual laid-backness. They have a song on this record about having to wait for your friends to pick you up and how easy it is to lose your cool, even though the stakes are so low and clearly they're not doing it on purpose to piss you off. That is the sort of reflection that this wine ought to induce.

Note: 4 January 2010. I had the 2002, and it's over the hill, by my standards; just strong plum and oak, both too sweet, coming through. A few weeks ago, I had the 2004, and it was quite good, layered and interesting for a $15 bottle.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Longoria Chardonnay

Richard Longoria Wines
ée Diana
Santa Rita Hills
Lompoc, California, USA
$37.99 -- Grapevine Market, Austin, TX

Color: Medium golden yellow
Nose: Hibiscus, orange, caramel
Body: Medium to full
Front: Almonds
Middle: Ripe orange peel
Back: Oak, cinnamon
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Cork

I don't get to drink five-year-old chardonnay every day, so this was a treat. It's quite French; not as oak-forward nor as acid-forward as the two California options tend to be, but an elegant balance of the two. Don't drink it too cold, or you'll lose most of the complexity of the wine. If you doubt that southern California can compete with Napa and Sonoma, try this wine.

I drank it with a sweet Italian sausage and penne dish that was the heated creation of my distracted and overworked brain, and it was a delightful accompaniment. The Norah Jones I paired it with musically was a little too self-conscious for the wine, I think -- something like the Lyle Lovett of It's Not Big It's Large would have been a better match for this grown-up, but not unplayful, wine.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Eberle Côtes-du-Rôbles

Eberle Winery
Syrah, Mourv
èdre, Grenache, Viognier
Paso Robles, California, USA
$22.99 -- Grapevine Market, Austin, TX

Color: Medium ruby
Nose: Strawberries, a little heat, cinnamon
Body: Medium
Front: Cinnamon
Middle: Cassis
Back: Leather
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Fake cork

They say that the region around Paso Robles is good for growing southern Rhône varietals like the ones that make up this one. The syrah-heavy blends from there are certainly good, and Tablas Creek's wines are among my favorites. The truth may be much more complex--the plains and valleys around Paso Robles are extremely varied, with wide-ranging microclimates, and the winemakers there are a mix of experienced old-world types and smart neophytes. Eberle is one of the area's oldest houses.

This is a delightful wine. I've expressed my affection for it before, but if this were available in more places, I'd be buying it by the case for pretty much any everyday meal or taking to friends' houses--much like I would a good and well-priced Côtes du Rhône. It will make just about any red wine drinker happy, and will keep those with more demanding palates interested just long enough to get them out the door. The fruit is tart and the spices are delightful; the tannins are very low.

It was damn fine with a beautiful Texas sunset and a rising chorus of crickets and frogs.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Markham Merlot

Markham Vineyards
Napa Valley
St. Helena, California, USA
$17.99 -- HEB, Austin, TX

Color: Medium garnet
Nose: Cassis, chocolate, flowers
Body: Medium
Front: Raspberry
Middle: Cafe au lait
Back: Cedar, toasted bagel
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Cork

My first taste of this wine was at the Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, DC. It's a superfancy restaurant, and as at most such joints right now, the Merlots are the best values on the list. I had it decanted, since I was dining alone and was expecting a comparatively short evening, and also maybe 'cause I knew I would enjoy the spectacle of pretension (they've got humongous decanters there) brought to bear on a bottle of wine that sells for $17 retail.

That night it was fabulous with roasted pork rib and fingerling potatoes with bone marrow. It's not a big wine, and not many-layered. But it's really smooth, with soft tannins, and plays nice with food. Good with a sunset, or Eartha Kitt, or after some exercise.