Wine Reviews

Rioja with the Wine School in 2011 (22)

Over two thousand wine reviews! While most of our reviews focus on great wines under $20, we also offer reviews of luxury and collectible wines. As we are located in Philadelphia, most  wines reviewed here are available via PLCB Wine & Spirits Shops in Pennsylvania. Our main reviewer is Keith Wallace, the executive director and founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia.

Treana Winery 2010 Red, Paso Robles (California)

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Treana Winery 2010 Red, Paso Robles (California)

An enduring mystery in the American wine market is why Paso Robles is still undiscovered wine country. After all, it’s one of the best spots in Cali for both both good value and luxury wines. Any place that supplies me with good $8 bottles and awesome $80 bottles is my kind of wine region.

Still, very few consumers are in on the secret. Wineries are reacting to this lack of exposure by trying something new. Instead of branding their winery as a single entity with multiple offerings, somies are doing the reverse.

For instance, Hope Family Wines names most of their wines as separate and unique entities: Treana Winery, Candor, Austin Hope and Troublemaker. Each label offers only two wines, mostly just a white and a red. It’s an interesting gambit in which their wine can become well-known while the Hope Family brand remains obscure to all but a handful of wine geeks.

The tactic is working, especially since many of their wines are interesting blends that don’t fit into any per-determined niche. For instance, Treana Red has earned itself a well-deserved following, despite it’s atypical blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

The wine is an inky black with an aroma of liquorice and blackberries. It’s a big wine with broad but delicious flavors. Smoked vanilla and lush tannins roll over sweet oak notes; rich textures evolve into a distinct scent of roasting game over a fire pit. The finish turns from sweet cherry into spice.

Tamarack Cellars 2011 Firehouse Red, Columbia Valley

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Tamarack Cellars 2011 Firehouse Red, Columbia Valley

A winery town where hard work is valued, winemakers are trained like apprentices, and everyone is a bit rough around the edges. That’s a unique place. That’s Walla Walla, and it doesn’t hurt that they make awesome wines.

This place first got my attention when a friend started distributing L’Ecole No 41 wine in Delaware. The winemaker, Marty Clubb was the first self-taught winemaker I had ever met. I was used to the Napa standard: Davis-trained winemakers and uber-stylish winery owners.

I quickly learned his story  wasn’t unique, at least in the Columbia Valley of Washington State . This was a place where wineries makes great wine, and people become winemakers by working hard at a winery. It sounds so simple, but it doesn’t happen in many wine regions.

Tamarack Cellars is such a place. Owner Don Coleman learned the trade by working at Waterbrook and Canoe Ridge. In turn he brought on Danny Gordon as winemaker, despite a complete lack of experience. Danny in turn has trained folks like Craig Nelsen of Ensemble Cellars. Say what you will about the cycle of life and all that bizness, but that’s a pretty awesome way to build up a trade.

This bottle is a great place to get introduced to Washington wines. It’s a fun bottle that shows off Danny’s skill as a winemaker. This is what’s known in the trade as a kitchen sink blend: odds and ends of oddball varietals blended into one great bottle of unambiguous fun.

This year, he is using Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, Carmenere, Grenache, and Counoise. Yes, that’s as oddball as it sounds. Round and juicy flavors sporting fresh blackberry and eucalyptus. Lots of cinnamon and allspice in the mix with a fresh grind of black pepper. Drink with friends.

Chateau Moulin de Clotte 2010 Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux

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Chateau Moulin de Clotte 2010 Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux

Hmm. Seems like the chateau owner may be in a financial pickle. First, her bottlings from Chateau Ambe Tour Pourret showed up in the PLCB system at stark discounts. That was some great Bordeaux for the money, and was featured here a while ago. Now, this bottling from another of their properties pops up as a Chairman’s Selection in PA. This type of inventory dumping doesn’t happen unless someone in the distribution chain needs some quick money. I did a bit of sleuthing between sips, and it’s likely because they are swapping importers every few years. (from Superb Wine International, to Fruit of the Vine, to ???).

This bottle hails from the Bordeaux satellite region of Castillon, a personal favorite spot for quality and value. Françoise Lannoye has done wonders in developing this chateau over the past decade, and it really shows in this vintage. Aromas of dark fruit with cedar and sage components. Asian five-spice and toasted coriander move through the ripe flavors of cherry and plum. This wine is structured to develop gracefully over the next few years. I expect another year in bottle will show even more delight than what shows today.

Roth Estate 2011 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast (California)

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Roth Estate 2011 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast (California)

Ever wonder how empires start? Keep an eye on Bill Foley. Last I checked in with him,  he was running Foley Estates. I was drinking with his assistant winemaker in the wine cellar when he walked in. Nice guy, but I really hadn’t thought about that moment until I started writing this review.

I was a bit surprised when I discovered he had purchased the Roth winery, along with Lancaster Estate, in 2012.

Then I pulled up his bio. He now owns Chalk Hill Winery, Altvs, EOS Estate, Firestone Vineyard, Keuleto Estate, Lincourt Vineyards, Merus, and Sebastiani Vineyards. And that is just in California. He also owns Four Graces in Oregon and Three Rivers in Washington. And that is only what he owns in America. He also recently picked up Vavasour and Clifford Bay Estate in New Zealand. It’s a bit comforting that Bill and I have the same taste in wine. I just buy a case of the wine. He buys the winery.

Winemaker Jesse Katz has remained on board at Roth and Lancaster since the ownership change, and the wines are better for it. He also still keeps David Ramey on as a consultant. The major pitfall of the change is the likelihood that fruit destined for the Roth and Lancaster brands will be diverted to the better known Sebastiani and Firestone brands. My suggestion is to enjoy the 2011. I’ll let you know if the wine quality keeps up in coming years. (as an aside, it’s financial moves like this that have much more effect on wine quality than vintage)

The majority of the grapes for this Roth Estate bottling come from cooler corners of the Russian River Valley and the wine aged for a year in French oak.

The typicity of roses: it’s a good way to describe classic floral notes of this Pinot Noir. Fresh red fruit and mulled spices flesh out the aroma. This medium-bodied wine is buttressed with bracing acidity and smoked vanilla. Flavors of bing cherry and anise rise come forward in the mid-palate which forest floor and acacia notes in the finish that turn a tough brittle on the tannic finish.

La Follette 2009 Chardonnay Manchester Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge (California)

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La Follette 2009 Chardonnay Manchester Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge  (California)

Greg La Follette is not someone who would name a winery after himself. The winery was named Tandem until he sold to Quivira Winery. The purchase agreement allowed him to keep running the winery with one small change: he had to put his name on the label.

Greg isn’t a well-known winemaker outside of the tight-nit community of Cali winemakers. He never was a superstar at a boutique winery. He is a quiet man who opted for positions outside the lime light. He was a researcher in U.C. Davis’ oenology department. He worked with André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards. He ran Chardonnay production for Yarra Ridge in Victoria, Australia. He consulted for Jarvis and Kendall-Jackson back in Cali. He designed the winery and winemaking program at Flowers.

In winemaking circles, he is known for his focus on mouth feel. His wines, especially his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are remarkable for their complex and delineated textural components. His wines are often lack the rich weight and powerhouse flavors of Cali’s luxpop bottlings. His wines offer up something closer to Burgundy.

This bottle is no exception. Aromas of ocean air and violets are underpinned with fresh pear. Medium bodied with a wave of juicy blood orange flavors that merge into toasted clove and peach pit. The texture remains silky despite the bright freshness and curls like cream into a wildflower-accented finish. Beautiful. 91+

Clos de los Siete 2009, Mendoza (Argentina)

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Clos de los Siete 2009, Mendoza (Argentina)

Clos de los Siete is a spectacle at the edge of the world. It consists of five great chateaus on the edge of Argentina, close against the Andes Mountains. Each of these estates is run by a one of the leading families of Bordeaux: Chateau Malartic-Lagraviere, Chateau Leoville-Poyferre, Chateau Montviel, Château Clarke, and Château le Bon Pasteur each have their counterpart located here in the Uco Valley. Each of these wineries sources wine from the same three square mile vineyard; each produces a brilliant wine, fully unique from the other four.

Of note are Clos de Los Siette and Cuvelier los Andes, both of which have distribution in the greater Philly region. I will review the Cuvelier in a future column. Today, I want to highlight the man behind this massive project: super-star enologist Michel Rolland; and his signature wine from this massive project: a blend derived from all the five estates. It is aptly named Clos de los Siete.

About half Malbec, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah filling in the rest of the blend. Rich with slippery blackberry and fatty fig, the fruit flavors are followed by smoked vanilla and mocha. A note of fresh sage turns to ripe tannins and more complex fruit flavors that twist toward a tightening finish of mineral and burnt marshmallow. Intense and beautiful and full of everlasting joy. A wonderful bottle of wine. Highly undervalued. 91 points.

Mill Creek 2010 Merlot, Alexander Valley

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Mill Creek 2010 Merlot, Alexander Valley

There is no shame in not knowing Mill Creek Vineyards. It is easy to miss.

This is a tiny, family-run operation covering 55 acres in Sonoma County. Its focus is on high quality wines, and has been since its founding in the 1960s. Jeremy Kreck is a third generation winemaker: he and his extended family do it all themselves. This is pretty remarkable when most wineries outsource some (or all) elements of grape growing, winemaking, bottling, or sales.

A decadent and lush offering of drop-dead beautiful Merlot. Round and soft on the tongue, it offers up a complex potion of milk chocolate, rum raisin, and vanilla cola. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some serious bone fides, though. Aromas of graphite and currant and a finish of bay leaves and cherry stones shows a level of sophistication that often is missing from such a luxury-driven wine.

Villa Cafaggio 2010 Chianti Classico

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Villa Cafaggio 2010  Chianti Classico

The winery dates back as far as the 14th Century. At the time, it was labelled the “Cahago,” the Tuscan term for a walled field. It was bought by the Farkas family in the 1960′s and has gone through consecutive rounds of modernization and revitalization under their care. Four generations tilled the vineyards at this villa. However, the winery was bought in 2006 by La Vis, a winery cooperative. Despite that, quality levels have continued to rise.

A tight balance between rich earthen flavors and dynamic fruit notes intertwine; aromas of cedar and tobacco echo through the nose. Added notes of allspice and fresh raspberry unfold on the palate, while flavors of fresh fruit and savory oak add to a lustrous finish. An excellent bottle of Sangiovese.

Domaine Des Ardoisieres 2010 Argile Blanc, Savoie

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Domaine Des Ardoisieres 2010 Argile Blanc, Savoie

Domaine Des Ardoisieres is a tiny, 17 acre winery in Savoie. This mountainous French wine region is located near the border of Switzerland, below Jura, and is producing some of the most exciting white wines in France right now.

This wine is a vineyard blend of Jacquère, Mondeuse Blanche, and Chardonnay from forty-year old vines. It is one of the most beautiful white wines to be found under $50.

The flavors and scents of this wine are truly transformative, pushing to a poetic beauty that’s staggering. I’ll try to make sense of it in words, but this wine truly defies both words and logic. Sea smoke rises out of the glass. A scent of sweet toasted pine nuts and lemon oil flickers by. A richness on the palate stretches tight with a laser cut clarity. Flavors of white peaches, nectarines, and chestnut honey ripen into fully formed fruit with a touch of ocean brine above a wet granite beach.

Zocker 2012 Gruner Veltliner, Edna Valley

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Zocker 2012 Gruner Veltliner, Edna Valley

Zocker, which is the Austria word for “gambler”, is a new project by the Niven Family Wine Estates, already a top producer in California’s central coast.

The Gruner Veltliner varietal is a rare and idiosyncratic pleasure in California. It’s a grape much more known in its homeland of Austria, where it makes crisp and mineral-laden wines of great vigor.

This bottling by Zocker offers similar pleasures, but is in a league all its own. Crystalline flavors of peach, ginger, and grapefruit comprise the nose, very similar to a high-toned Sauvignon Blanc. Secondary flavors of iron, ocean air, and peaches add a wonderful complexity to this exotic wine. Strongly recommended for the coming summer months.