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by Tom Hill

A self-admitted wine geek, Tom lives in Northern New Mexico and works as a computational physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory doing numerical neutron transport & large scale code development. He has been tasting wines since 1971, participates locally with a couple of large tasting groups in his area, and is practically a fixture at most California wine festivals, such as the Hospice du Rhône, Rhône Rangers, and ZAP. Other interests: Tom is heavily into competitive sport fencing (foil & epee), biking, cooking, basketball, skiing, backpacking, mountain climbing.

Santa Fe Wine & Chili Festival - September, 2010

This weekend was the SantaFe Wine&Chile Fiesta. I've followed this event from the very start,
some 20 yrs ago in the back parking lot of SanBusco. This year, for the first time since they
started having Seminars, I didn't find a single one that appealed to me. I fully expect that
trend will continue, alas.

On Thurs night, we attended the TablasCreek dinner at Luminaria restaurant. The food was
excellent, the wines were excellent. JasonHaas showed the current versions of the Cotes de
Tablas Blanc (Viognier-based) and the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (Roussanne-based). For the reds, he showed the Cotes de Tablas Rouge (Grenache-based) and the Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge (Mourvedre-based). The Esprits were both mightly impressive wines. Balance is their hallmark and the alcohols are restrained compared to many of the highly-touted/somewhat-overblown/highly-scored Rhones coming out of Paso these days. And there's no reason that both those wines won't go out at least 10 yr and beyond.

But the highlight of the evening was the:

1. TablasCreek Vin de Paille Quintessence (100% Roussanne; 8.6%; Pressed at 42 Brix; 1200 hlf btls; RS: 28%; www.TablasCreek.com) 2006: Med.gold/burnished brass color; huge intense grapey/lush/floral/honeyed very clean/concentrated nose; fairly tart very sweet huge/ intense/grapey/floral/honeyed flavor; very long/very lingering huge/intense/grapey/floral/honeyed tart very sweet finish that goes on & on. Not identifiable that I could tell as Roussanne. Very sweet but the high acidity keeps it from being cloying. Incredible dessert wine that should have a long life ahead of it.
And a wee BloodyPulpit:
1. From the TablasCreek wines I've been tasting, I think they're making some of the best wines they ever have in their history; they keep going from strength to strength. They are often not as dramatic/bombastic as other Calif Rhones in their youth, but I think they have the structure and balance to age into amazingly good wines.
2. This Vin de Paille is, of course, modeled on the very rare Vin de Pailles made in the Rhone Vlly; where the grapes are laid out on straw mats to raisen in the sun and concentrate the sugars (and acidity) and evaporate the water. I've only had 2-3 Rhone versions and they were not nearly as good as this TablasCreek version. For Tablas, they take fully ripe (but not overripe) Roussanne grapes, lay out the single bunches on straw-covered trays in their greenhouse and let them dehydrate to the desired sugar level, then press them to barrel and let the juice ferment, often taking several yrs. It is then given a fine filtering and put to bottle at a fairly low alcohol level. This Quintessence is on of the most extraordinary Calif dessert wines I have had. Something like 2% of their production came to Luminaria for that dinner.
3. This Vin de Paille (they've also made a Mourvedre-based version I've not yet tried) is an example of what in Italy is called a Passito wine. These (non-botrytis) wines can be extraordinary (see the Saphir note below). The Valpolicella Reciotos are another example of this style; where ripe grapes are laid out on plastic trays in the wineries and warm aiir blown over the trays to dehydrate the grapes. It is a genre of dessert wine, though labor intensive, that I think should be much more widely pursued in Calif.

Passito wines are simply made from dehydrated grapes. They can be made in a number of different ways:

a. The grapes can be picked, laid out on paper or plastic sheets in the vnyd between the vines and allowed to raisen in the sun, until they achieve high sugar levels.

b. The grapes can be picked, laid out on straw-covered tables in a greenhouse, drying in the sun, until a high sugar level is achieved. This is how TablasCreek does it. Jason asserted the use of (free-range?) straw mats gives the wine a certain earthiness and character that mere plastic trays would nor achieve. I'm a bit sceptical of his claim, but have no evidence to the contrary.

c. The grapes can be laid out on plastic trays in the wineries and warm air blown over the trays until the desired sugar level is achieved. This is how Recioto is typically made.

d. The grapes can simply be left on the vine and allowed to reach super high levels of sugar, at which time the bunches are picked and pressed off. This is a classic late harvest wine and exactly how Ridge makes their stunning Essence Zinfandels.

e. The grapes can be pickked at normal ripeness level, destemmed and crushed, and then the juice put thru a vacuum concentrator to remove the water until the desired sugar level is achieved. Or....the juice can be put thru a spinning cone or RO to remove some water. This juice is then fermented to make a Passito.

f. The grapes can be left on the vine after the first frost has killed & dropped the leaves, stopping photosynthesis, allowing the grapes to shrivel, and then awaiting the first freeze to freeze the grapes clear thru, then picking these bunches afore daylight, and pressing until the desired must weight has been achieved. This is the classic way that German & Ontario Eiswein is made.

g. The grapes can be picked at normal ripeness levels, destemmed and crushed, and the juice frozen in a freezer until chunks/ice cubes form in the juice and these are then fished out of the juice until the desired must weight is achieved. Or, alternatively, the grapes can be destemmed, put into a freezer until frozen solid, then pressed off until the desired must weight is coming out the press. This is the classic way of making freezer Ice Wine in Calif and NewMexico.

So.....as an exercise for the student: Which technique makes the best dessert wine, and why? Which technique is the most natural, and why? Which technique would AliceF***ing approve of and which would she rail against? Curious minds and all that.

The following night, Susan & I had JasonHaas/TablasCreek and JaneYoung and SusieBynum, here representing the MeritageAlliance at SFW&CF, over for dinner. Susan made a simple but hearty meal. Her Tomato/Basil soup is to die for. Main course was simple roasted vegetables surrounded by grilled LondonBroil. The SemiFreddo for dessert hit the spot. If the SusieBynam name sounds familiar, it's because she's the daughter of Davis Bynum. When the wnry was sold, she went on to becoming marketing director at EhretFamilyWnry in KnightsVlly. Her brother, HampdenBynum, does vnyd consulting in the area. And her Dad, Davis, still lives in the area and is hale & hearty.

I dredged up a few interesting wines:

1. failla-jordan Viognier AlbanVnyd/EdnaVlly (14.3%) 1998: Med.dark gold color; some oxidized/mouse nest somewhat nutty/sherry/toasted hazelnuts light pencilly/oak complex nose; tart rather honeyed/waxy some nutty/toasted hazelnuts slight peachy bit metallic complex flavor; long toasted hazelnutty/nutty light peachy/waxy slight earthy/minerally/chalky finish; a bit too oxidized/sherry in the nose but not as oxidized on the palate; an intellectual experience but not much of a sensual experience; pretty much on its last legs.
2. AlbanVnyds Viognier AlbanEstateVnyd/EdnaVlly (14.7%) 1999: Med.light gold color; very strong burnt/charred/smokey/oak/ozone/WWII beacon/forest fire slight peachy/waxy/figgy/herbal complex nose; very rich/lush/peachy/ripe pear somewhat charred/burnt/toasty/oak some Viog/ floral/ waxy/figgy complex flavor; very long lush/ripe peachy/honeyed/floral/figgy/waxy charred/ toasty/oak complex finish; still loads of charred/oak but still has some lush/ripe fruit and in amazingly good shape; the old girl still lives.
3. Ch. de Fonsalette Cotes du Rhone Syrah Reserve (14%) SCEA Ch.Rayas 200: Med.dark color w/ slight bricking; very strong pungent/smokey/coffee/roasted/Cornas-like some blackberry/ Syrah some meaty/gamey bit earthy/dusty lovely/complex nose; tart rather tannic/bit dried out/astringent very coffee/roasted/espresso/NorthernRhonish/pungent/charred some blackberry/ Syrah complex flavor; long tannic/hard/astringent/bit dried out strong coffee/espresso/roasted charred/pungent/earthy/dusty finish; a really lovely/complex nose that resembles a Clape Cornas w/ something slightly out of whack; a bit dried out/tannic on the palate and may not get any more pleasurable.
4. CarnerosCreekWnry CabernetSauvignon NathanFayVnyd/NapaVlly (12.6%) 1977: Med.dark color w/ some browning; strong herbal/Cabernet bit weedy/rosemary some earthy/herbal/Bdx-like slight bretty/horsecollar light toasty/pencilly/oak rather complex/Bdx-like nose; tart/lean somewhat bretty/barnyardy/horsecollar somewhat herbal/ earthy/Bdx-like bit blackcurranty/Cab some charred/toasty/pencilly/oak some tannic/hard flavor; long bit hard/
tannic rather herbal/Bdx-like some bretty/horsecollar light toasty/pencilly/oak finish; lots of old-timey Bdx character in the nose but drying out on the palate; a bit too bretty/horsecollar for my taste but rather interesting expression of what Caalif Cab used to be like.
5. AlbanVnyds Syrah Reva EdnaVlly (14.1%) 1998: Black color; beautiful pungent/smokey/ toasty/charred/Fr.oak intense blackberry/Syrah/chocolaty slight volatile complex nose; tart big/blackberry/Syrah/boysenberry/chocolaty rather charred/toasty/oak some tannic/hard fairly youthful flavor; very long charred/burnt/toasty/oak very strong blackberry/Syrah/boysenberry bit chocolaty some hard/tannic some complex finish; still has some yrs to go to resolve the tannins and may never come together; loads of charred oak but big fruit to back it up; interesting classic Alban Syrah.
6. Laimburg Saphir Sauvignon Passito DOC: Sudtirol/AltoAdige (12%; www.Laimburg.Bz.It) 1999: Deep gold/bronze color; very intense grapey/peachy slight raisened some complex nose; soft very sweet intense grapey/clean/peachy strong vanilla/vanilla extract slight raisened slight complex flavor; very long/lingering very sweet intense grapey some vanilla slight earthy fairly clean finish; huge grapey character but not a lot of development or complexity; quite an interesting dessert wine but no Sauvignon character.

And a wee BloodyPulpit:

1. CarnerosCreek: This Cab was from the 2'nd year of a 2-year drought and was pretty intense Cabernet in its youth. The alcohol level is shockingly low...what you'd expect in old-time Bdx. But that was sorta the standard of the day back in the '70's. The model was great Bdx and the wines came in at these appalling low alcohol levels. Of course, when the Calif uber-ripe NapaVlly Cabs with tons of toasty/French oak started receiving uber-scores from the critics, Bdx changed their model and followed Calif's lead and were able to ramp up their scores as well. RedBdx wines made in the style of the '60-'70's, and NapaVlly Cabs made in the style of this CarnerosCreek, would nowadays be widely derided by the critics.

I followed FrankMahoney's wines from the very start...the '72 GamayBeaujolais. PinotNoir was, of course, Frank's passion, and he did them very well. But he made some pretty amazing Zins and Cabernets back in those days as well. And his '75 PetiteSirah (and the MtVeeder) was a wine of monumental proportions.
2. Viognier Don't Age??: I love trying older Viogniers. We are, of course, told by the critics that Viognier doesn't age and you should drink 'em young. If you demand that your Viognier display that intense/peachy/pear/floozy/DollyParton character...then you're probably right. But I find that Viognier, given a fair degree of acidity, can often age into a pretty interesting wine. These were two good examples. The failla was a bit sherry/oxidized on the nose, not so much on the palate; but pretty much on its last legs. But the Alban was in amazingly good condition and, though dominated by the toasty/oak, still had a lot of intense Viognier fruit to it.
3. Laimberg Saphir: I was interested in serving this dessert wine to Jason as it reminded me, in its youth, of his Quintessence Roussanne. It was pretty much where I expected it to be. It still has very intense grapey/fruit; but is not showing much complexity like you get in botrytis/dessert wines. His Quintessence is an absolutely stunning dessert wine that dazzles w/ its intense fruit. Will it ever develop that coveted complexity that you desire in an aged dessert wine?? Beats heck outta me.

On Saturday, the GrandTasting was held at the SFOpera parking lot. It was the usual zoo. The SF restaurants usually go all-out to show off their dishes. I am always apalled at this event by the lack of courtesy the attendees display. You should approach the table, ask for a pour, and then retreat out of the way so others can receive their pours. Invariably, there are groups blocking a table, yammering away, oftentimes snarfing down their food from the adjoining restaurant, displaying their cleavage, totally oblivious that others behind them would like a pour. Utterly disgusting and uncalled for.

Because the SFW&CF is in the last weekend of Sept, it is very seldom that winemakers can attend because of the onrush of crush. So the pouring tables are often manned by sales reps and marketing types; and little useful information can be obtained. In other cases, as with TablasCreek, these reps are very/very good and really know their wines. In a few cases, the winemaker is there, as with RichSanford/AlmaRosa, and many of the NewMexico wineries. Susan was pouring at the TablasCreek table w/ Jason, and reports they were pretty much slammed the entire day. She was pretty amazed by the amount of cleavage presented to their table.

As usual, there were a lot of quotidian wines being poured, though precious few WhiteZinfandel that I could see. Easily the best of the wines being poured were the TablasCreek, the AlmaRosa, and the Rameys. There was an article in the latest LocalFlavor on Meritage wines that was apparently read by some folks. Jane & Susie's MeritageAlliance was slammed and they ran out of their wines...alas, before I got over there to try them. I also had some very good Oregon wines from ElkCove and Foris; particularly PinotGris and PinotBlanc. Foris had a MoscatoFrizzante, dry, that I really liked. I wanted to try the DomaineSerene Pinots, but that table was always jammed, so I gave up. I also liked many of the Lucas & Llewelyn wines, but they didn't, alas, have their Nebbiolo. Of the NewMexico wines, the Vivacs were easily the best. Their latest Refosco is as good as any Refosco found anywhere, from Paola's Deming grapes. The PinotNoir, from his grapes as well, was surprisingly good, given that torrid/hot climate down there.

That night, for dinner, we cracked:

1. failla-jordan Syrah QueSyrahVnyd/SonomaCoast (13.2%) 1998: Med.dark color w/ slight bricking; slightly reduced/pungent nose that clears to very smoky/pungent/AlainGraillot-like  beautiful spicy/espresso/roasted/Rhonish some blackberry/Syrah/peppery complex/Rhonish nose; tart some lean/tannic lovely roasted/espresso/Rhonish/smoky rather peppery/cold-climate some blackberry/blueberry/Syyrah light floral/violets complex flavor; very long Rhonish/espresso/ roasted/coffee/smoky/pungent some cracked black pepper/blackberry/Syrah finish w/ a bit of a
hard/tannic backtaste; beautiful/complex NorthernRhone character but starting to dry out a bit; probably won't get any better.


[Additional Wine Reviews from Tom Hill]


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