Friday, October 24, 2008

88 - The Number of The Beast?

Another ditty for The 89 Project has me tasting a devil of a wine that good ol' Wine Enthusiast dubbed a "Best Buy" and gave 88 points (hey, it's not technically an 89, but it's close enough for government work, right?): Concha y Toro's 2007 "Casillero del Diablo" Chardonnay Reserve (Casablanca Valley, Chile).

Speak of the Devil. And just in time for Halloween, too.

You know how for some lower-budget wines, you read the tasting descriptor on the back of the bottle and it sort of, but not really, describes how the wine tastes to you; or worse, seems to be describing a completely different wine than the one that you're drinking?

This is not one of those times. The descriptor on the back of the Casillero del Diablo bottle is frighteningly (get it?) accurate:
"A crisp [editor's note: i.e., it's got decent acidity] Chardonnay [well, duh] packed with tropical fruit flavors [there is definately some grapefruit and melon going down in this puppy] "and subtle hints of vanilla [the oak doesn't skewer your nostrils like a wooden pitchfork]. Medium bodied with good balance [it's not a booze-hound from hell] and a fresh finish [i.e., the finish is short but it's good]."
Color me impressed. Especially for a wine this cheap (about $10 USD).

Normally the 89-point range is the Number of the Beast, the veritable wine kiss o' death. But Concha y Toro ought to be very pleased with this rating at this price point. If anything, it's a testament to how well poised Chile is to rule the wine world at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Sure, the CdD Reserve is far from complex. But it's got the Fire. It has the Force. It has the power to make it's evil take it's course!

[Insert trademark Bruce Dickinson awesome butt-kicking heavy metal scream here].

images: (,

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

From the grave yard of 89 point wines

I have been delinquent in my posting to the 89 Project so this is my first post. I usually don’t buy wines for their rating but happened to have this wine at a wine bar the other day. I used my handy dandy Wine Spectator mobile app on the iPhone and checked the rating of the wine and low and behold it was 89 points.

The wine I picked up is the 2005 Esporao Red Reserve from Portugal. The Esporao winery is located in the Alentejo (DOC) region of Portugal, 180 Km east of Lisbon, in Reguengos de Monsaraz. The 2005 Red is comprised of 40% Aragonês , 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Trincadeira. The vineyards for the grapes lie on primarily granit and loamy clay soil and the vines are trained on a Double Guyot style system. This wine has the added benefit of giving me two new wines to add toward my Wine Century Club list.

My Tasting Notes-

Nose – Raisin, prune, grilled meat, wood
Taste – Blueberry, pomegranate, strawberry shortcake and raspberry
Mouthfeel – medium body, fairly high acidity and firm tannins
Finish – long length, fuzzy from the tannins and nice red fruit flavors

This was a great wine that regardless of rating and I would purchase it again. It was 18.99 from Whole Foods here in Richmond which I think is a good price for the quality of the wine. We had the wine with a cheesy, veggie, noodley casserole and it paired great, very nice for a chilly fall evening. In addition to the notes I put above, the nose was slightly reminiscent of a good Port, go figure!


Monday, October 13, 2008

An 89-Point Merlot from Umbria That Even Miles Would Like

Merlot has really been kicked around the block since Sideways. In spite of the fact that Miles downs a considerable amount of Merlot in a fast food restaurant at the end of the film, large numbers of people now refuse to drink Merlot on general principle.

This is good news for you and me. Because Merlot can be fabulous. Not everybody makes their Merlot grapes into blackberry jam. Some actually make it into wine. And because of the dip in demand, there is some great Merlot out there in the market that is priced to sell.

I just had an Umbrian example of Merlot, and it was fantastic--and it in no way resembled a simple, over-oaked fruit bomb or a breakfast spread. Instead, the 2004 Falesco Pesano Merlot was an excellent QPR steal for just under $12. I purchased the bottle back before this blog was born in early July 2006 for $11.99 at Costco. A quick search on Vinquire revealed that if you want a bottle of the stuff now, you can expect to pay $25.99 at the one retailer who sells it online. More recent vintages can be had for between $11.99 and $16.99 in case you want to try your luck.

What did I experience when I pulled the cork? The first thing I smelled was fresh-ground coffee. Yes, not a breakfast spread, but a breakfast drink. This was followed by another breakfast smell: bacon fat. The combination was enticing and mouth-watering. In the flavors, I tasted cherry, blackberry, and more coffee bean. There was a smoky aftertaste that was quite distinctive. This was a lot of wine for $12 and I think that it probably benefited from the 2+ years that it received in my various storage spaces. We had it with meatloaf and potatoes, which was a perfect pairing for the meaty and smoky flavors in the wine, but you could just as easily pair this with a roast or stew. Yes, you could have it with an In 'n Out Burger if you must be like Miles.

One of the wine mags gave this an 89, which in my opinion is just plain silliness--just as it was just plain silliness to give the Falesco Vitiano reviewed by Katie P below an 89. This wine was distinctive, widely available when it was released, and worth every penny that it cost and then some. If the more recent versions of this wine are anywhere near this good (and CellarTracker reviews of the 2005 vintage suggest it is) then you should grab this if you see it. You're in for a real treat.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


One of the great unexpected values in Zinfandel has always been the Rancho Zabaco Heritage Vines Zinfandel 2005, though you wouldn’t quite know it from the reviews. This is all that all California Zin fan wants – medium-bodied, smooth mouthfeel, notes of brambly raspberries and chocolate-covered cherries, well-balanced, and juicy all the way through – yet it seems there is some inherent bias against Zin in recent years. Not sure if the reviewers just besmirch a Zin simply because it was produced in an “off” vintage, but here’s another good, solid Zin value offered up to the 89-point boneyard.

Two of the arguably lesser-used wine mags in the business, Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine and Wine Enthusiast, both award this tasty Zin 89 points.

Connoisseur’s Guide reviews it this way: “Well-concentrated blackberry aromas take a decided turn towards cabernet and dried fruits without giving up their attractiveness, and the full-bodied fleshy, slightly-soft palate impressions that follow bring along flavors that are both dense and tannin-impacted. Time is on its side if you care to put some in your cellar, but service with savory meats like garlicky leg of lamb will help it show well now.”

As for Wine Enthusiast: “Gallo did a great job with this wine, producing 31,000 cases, and yet making the wine smooth, balanced and delicious. It’s quintessential Sonoma Zin, with briary flavors of wild cherries and raspberries, and coatings of chocolate, anisette, bacon and spices.”

Neither of these reviews possesses anything negative, other than Connoisseur’s mentioning that its aromas “take a decided turn towards cabernet” inferring that it is not necessarily varietally correct. Aside from that allusion, you’d think that this wine deserves at least a 90. By the definition of the Parker scale, the score is probably correct, but the line between an 89 and a 90 point rating is as vast as the Sahara, and shaded completely gray. Perhaps the QPR is a bit askew, but I didn’t think that that was part of the criteria in reviewing, given that these folks are supposed to be tasting blind (aren’t they?).

Nevertheless, this wine deserves a try. Scores be damned!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Marquis Philips S2 Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

Marquis Philips S2Wine rating systems are imperfect, but often useful. To get the most out of them it helps to be familiar with the reviewer’s palate — if he or she consistently likes the same sort of things you do and has similar criticisms of those you don’t, then you can give their opinions a higher degree of credence.

Consider, then, the Marquis Philips S2 Cabernet Sauvignon. Since its first vintage in 2001 through the 2005, Robert Parker’s newsletter, The Wine Advocate, has rated it in the 90s. Parker really liked the ’05 vintage and awarded it 94 points, making it a really good deal at about $35 per bottle. And that vintage is indeed a Parker-style wine — big, jammy and highly extracted, with lots of fruit and complexity.

Then came the ’06, and the Advocate gave the S2 an 89-point score and a vague review. But it wasn’t a Parker review; it was written by Jay Miller. Regardless of who actually wrote the review, the effect was the same: Now S2 was perceived as an expensive 89-point wine.

So, the ’06 didn’t sell as well as previous vintages. The result: If you look around, you can find it on sale for a lot less than $35 (I got mine for $19.99). And for twenty bucks, it’s a helluva wine!

This is an Aussie Cab that a Californian could love, with cedar on the nose and blackberries and cassis on the palate. Its tannins provide structure without pucker, and its finish is long and dry. It’s a big wine but a refined one, less jammy and more elegant. And it carries its 15.9 percent charge of alcohol gracefully, with no hints of bitterness or heat.

It benefits from half an hour in a decanter, and continues to open and develop in the glass. Short-term cellaring would achieve the same thing — this would be a good wine to buy a case of and revisit every six months. And I’ll bet that even if you paid full price, you wouldn’t be sorry.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

“If I don't stand my own ground, how can I find my way out of this maze...”

If you’re standing in the aisle of a local wine shop, browsing the shelf talkers in the Italian section, and you find 2 bottles standing next to each other, one that costs about $10 and was rated 89 by Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate, and the other also costing $10 which was rated 90, which would you more likely pick up? What the hell exactly is the difference between an 89 and a 90 rating for a bottle of wine? Apparently, the difference is sales. Given a level playing field (same varietal, similar pricing, etc.), the wine that gets to go home with consumers is almost always the higher rated wine, even if it’s a one point difference. These 89-rated wines, lovingly called the redheaded stepchildren of the wine industry, often get the shitty end of the stick when it comes to shelf presence and sales because they miss the 90-point hurdle by an inch or two—according to the wine reviewers that steer the market, that is.

89 seems to be the kiss of death—so close and yet so far—but in an almost arbitrary way. What is it that keeps a bottle from hitting the elusive 90 milestone? Is it well made, structured and nicely priced but just doesn’t soak your shorts? Or is it the one that’s priced at a point that you expect a lot from, and it fails to deliver the goods? How, in the name of all that is holy, do you taste a friggin’ one point difference in wines? It’s a stigma, and it’s bull crap. So in the name of giving 89-point wines a second chance, in hopes that someone won’t give them a cold shoulder next time they see them on a shelf, let’s dig for gold…

Falesco Vitiano 2006 – A red blend from Umbria containing cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sangiovese. Over the last few years, this wine has teetered between 88s and 89s in the big rags. The Spectator’s most recent review? “The 2006 Vitiano Rosso is another intense, deeply flavored wine. This powerful effort bursts from the glass with an array of jammy plums, cherries, cassis, graphite and minerals. It will offer much pleasure now and over the next few years and is a terrific value for the money.” It was even listed among the WS’s Top 53 Wines of Value in Italy. It generally sells for about 10 bucks.

Here were my tasting notes from a while back: “13% alcohol. Dark garnet. Smoke and violets on the nose, with a little earthiness and minerality. Lots of plum. Very spicy finish, mellow tannins. Good acidity—can sit for a couple of years.

89? 90? Do we really give a crap? It’s a great wine with an even better QPR. Stop thinking that the one sitting next to it is somehow substantially better because of one point, will you please? Give the underdog a chance once in a while, cuz he may just be your next best friend.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pineau d'Aunis: the 89-Point Grape

When I read the wine magazines--and yes, I do read them--there are times when I see an 89-point review and it seems like a travesty, based on what I think a wine delivers in terms of flavor and bang for the buck. Then there are are times when an 89-point review seems like over-inflated hype, for exactly the same reasons.

And then there are the times when I wonder if a wine has received an 89-point review from a major magazine because somebody lost their nerve on the way to a 90+ rating and settled for something a little more safe. It often happens when the grape is weird, or unfashionable, or both. It can even happen when the winemaker or region is weird and/or unfashionable.

Today I'm reviewing just such a wine: the 2004 Domaine de Bellivière Coteaux du Loir Le Rouge-Gorge. ($14.99, K & L Wines; the 2005 vintage is available from other merchants for $17-$25) It received an 89 from Spectator, and try as I might I wasn't able to find any Pineau d'Aunis that had ever received more than an 89 from the magazine. (I could be wrong on this point, but I spent 3 hours looking through the database before I gave up. If I am wrong, I'm sure that someone from WS headquarters will be by to correct me.) This 89-point and below niche for Pineau d'Aunis is surprising, given the fact that the wines are often described as exhibiting textbook varietal characteristics. So what's the deal?

I'm not the only person asking this kind of question regarding wine scores. If you want to see what other writers are wondering about wine scores, check out dhonig's collaborative 89 Project blog. For those of you who aren't familiar with this effort, dhonig gathered up a bunch of interested folks and asked them to be on the lookout for wines that received 89-point ratings from the major wine critics. 89-point wines are, in the words of dhonig, "the red-headed step children of the wine world." The 89 Project gives us a chance to take a second look at some overlooked wines and, in doing so, discover some truly interesting and often affordable treasures that those who are slavish to shelftalkers will see right through at the store.

Treasures just like Pineau d'Aunis. Domaine de Bellivière is a family-owned winery in the Loire that specializes in making wine from two of the region's traditional grapes: Chenin Blanc and Pineau d'Aunis. While Chenin Blanc has gained some traction among American wine drinkrs, Pineau d'Aunis is a relative rarity over here. And it's not likely to become any more widely accepted, given the fact that the wine normally scores below 90 points with most wine critics.

One of the reasons for these scores may be that Pineau d'Aunis will simply not be to everyone's taste. It's a grape that actually seems to try to make you wrinkle up your face and wonder what you're drinking. The defining character of Pineau d'Aunis is often "pine"--a slightly resinous, green, and herbal quality to the wine that some people react to as if you'd just poured Pine-Sol into their Pinot Noir.

So what was my reaction to the 2004 Domaine de Bellivière Coteaux du Loir Le Rouge-Gorge? At first I was reminded of a gamay from the Beaujolais by its dark ruby color and the light-medium body of the wine. The aromas of topsoil and forest floor were also not unlike Beaujolais, which I often find has a wonderful earthiness. The flavors of cherry, earth, and spice were strong and definite, which will make some people love it,and others hate it. Pineau d'Aunis is at its best--like many wines--with food. This is not really a stand-alone wine unless you are wanting to come to terms with it on an intellectual level. This is only going to work with food, and then think about something earthy like mushrooms, truffles, beans, and charcuterie.

This is not a big fruitbomb: fat and sassy and easy to love. What it is, however, is textbook Pineau d'Aunis. And for under $15, it is certainly a very good QPR choice if you are looking for a traditional bottling of a very special grape. As such, shouldn't it get more than a B+? I sure think so, and so does Parker who didn't lose his nerve and gave it a 90 instead of an 89. Are there other grapes that routinely get consigned to the under-90 bin? If so, let me know what they are because I'd love to try some more of them. If they're as interesting as Pineau d'Aunis, they'll spice up my evening glass of wine for years to come.