Thursday, June 30, 2011

My favorite expensive American white wines last week

Yesterday I wrote about judging expensive white wines at Sunset magazine's Western Wine Awards, but I may have buried the lead: I didn't mention actual wines.

I don't know which wines won, even in our categories. Sunset asks each judge to rate each wine on a 20-point scale and tabulates the results later. But I can tell you which wines I liked best, and why. All of these I scored either 18 or 19.

Schramsberg "Mirabelle" North Coast Brut Rosé NV ($27) Order here
There's no pink category in the Sunset awards, so pink bubblies have to sit with the whites. I liked this one for its red fruit, smoke and citrus notes. This is actually Schramsberg's cheaper rosé, and I was surprised to learn that because I found it quite elegant. I don't think Schramsberg will do well in these awards because one of our tasters, who recognized the bottle said, "I'm not a Schramsberg fan." Well, I am, and have been for years. I guess it's a question of style: their bubblies are often richer and more complex than some others in California, although it's fair to say they don't sell them at bargain prices. But I wouldn't say that about this.

Corison Winery "Corazón" Anderson Valley Gewurztraminer 2007 ($30) Order here
One of California wine's defenders, Steve Heimoff, recently launched a rant against wine writers complaining about oversized California Cabernet in which he wrote, "stop, puh-leeze, trotting out Cathy Corison every time as your poster child for what you think Cabernet should be." True enough, but I think Corison earns this modest recognition on merit, not solely through writers' laziness, and the fact that I loved this wine when tasted blind -- and had forgotten she makes a Gewurztraminer -- validates that theory. What I liked about it is exactly what I like about her Cabs: it's elegant and not overdone. It's mineral-driven, with citrus fruits and ginger on a long finish. Hard to believe two things: 1) an '07 is the current release, and 2) it doesn't taste of age at all.

Robert Sinskey "Abraxas" Los Carneros 2010 ($34) Order here
We weren't given the fanciful name "Abraxas" for this, which would have revealed the winery. But we also weren't given the full blend, perhaps for space reasons: it's 43% Pinot Gris, 32% Pinot Blanc, 15% Gewurztraminer and 10% Riesling. Instead, all we knew was that we were tasting a 2010 "Vin de Terroir." We mocked the name, which seems both pretentious and a way of getting a high price for mixed grapes. But this was one of my three favorite wines of the day: dried apricot with mineral, ginger and floral notes. Great complexity, and it doesn't taste like anything else. There's some claptrap on the winery website about how the name comes from a Greek god I've never heard of: "Abraxas, with the head of a cock, the body of a man and legs of the serpent, was the overlord of the 365 spheres and (just in case you did not make the connection that Abraxas was responsible for the year) the Greek letters of Abraxas add up to 365." Yeah, yeah. I'm glad I didn't read that before tasting it. Nice wine.

Skipstone Alexander Valley Viognier 2009 ($40)
I'm not a huge Viognier fan; many California versions taste overdone to me, because this is a grape that gets overripe in a hurry. But we had just 2 Viogniers in this tasting and I loved both of them. This was a nice, tightly wound version with floral notes, apple fruit and a light-medium body. It's mailing-list only.

Cowhorn Applegate Valley Viognier 2010 ($30)
Biodynamic theory may be voodoo, but it's hard to argue with results like these, as I think this was my single favorite wine of the day. I didn't know it was biodynamic, or from Oregon, when we tasted it. But if you had asked me to guess one wine on the table that was, I might have picked this, because it had the quality I expect in good biodynamic wines: Liveliness. Just 13.5% alcohol, this wine had lovely violet and apple blossom notes.

Tablas Creek "Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc" Paso Robles 2009 ($40) Order here
This Rhone-style blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc is dry and peppery, with good balance and preserved lemon fruit on the finish. These wines age well, and I might put this one away, but it was also drinking pretty well last week. Tablas Creek has a funny relationship with the other wineries in Paso Robles: It's a terroir-driven winery largely for Francophiles in what might be the most American-ophile of all of California's top wine regions. So it's kind of like Cathy Corison for Paso, in that all wine writers who mention Paso pay homage to it, often while slagging other area wines as overdone. Well, here's more homage.

Ponzi Reserve Willamette Valley Chardonnay 2008 ($30)
My favorite Chardonnay of the day at any price, and we had some that cost much more. It's comforting to pick out a wine that I've enjoyed in the past, although that just indicates that I'm consistent in what I like; your results may vary, but if you like a nicely balanced, toasty, lemony wine with a long finish, you might agree. I would send you to the Ponzi website to buy it, but it crashed my browser.

Chanin Wine Company Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay 2008 ($30)
Built for the long haul, this wine has great acidity and is quite toasty on the finish. It comes from some of the oldest vines at Bien Nacido, planted back in the mid-1970s.

Lynmar Estate Quail Hill Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2009 ($40) Order here
I love the way they describe this wine on the Lynmar website: "This youthful wine presents you with a bouquet of spring flowers." It sounds like a pasty-skinned waif in a sundress trying to seduce me, and that makes me feel like Hannibal Lecter, since I plan to consume it. I would describe it as a cloudy, unfiltered wine (that's good) with elegant character, balanced between lemon confit and wheat toast. The Lynmar website also says: "A virtual harvest of white peaches, lemon and lime zip into play while aromas of orange blossom and acacia dance beneath your nose." So that's who those dancers were! They were damn tasty.

Suacci Carciere Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2008 ($45)
This was my favorite white wine over $40; it had easily the most character in a very conservative group. There's plenty of lemon fruit, a hint of apple and strong minerality. After my assumptions about pricey wines from yesterday's blog post, I wonder if it's actually too tasty for its price tag.


Jason Haas said...

Hi Blake,

Thanks for the nice comment on Tablas Creek! The Esprit Blanc is my favorite wine that we make, and it seems like it often gets lost in the comments on the reds. It's great to see it get some attention. I did want to see if you could check the vintage, though... we haven't bottled the 2010 yet. Is it possible you tasted the 2009?

Thanks again,

Mark Sinnott said...

You should try the Delille Cellars Chaleur Estate Blanc from Washington/Columbia Valley (Bordeaux blend). Not sure if available where you are, but definitely worth seeking out. It's personally my favorite American white wine, and I'm lucky enough to live near the tasting room in Woodinville (near Seattle). About $35 I believe.

W. Blake Gray said...

Jason: Thanks for the correction, I changed it. Nice wine.

Mark: Sorry to tell you this, but we tasted that wine blind and it was one of the wines I rated the lowest in the category. I don't take extensive notes on wines I'm not planning to write about, and I don't remember the flavor. All I have written down is "Too much oak." Personal tastes differ. Don't let me talk you out of enjoying it.

Mark said...

Yikes! Thats surprising, but you're right... personal tastes are everything. Now I'm curious to what I'd think if I tasted it blind in a large flight...

kenyan wine brat said...

Thanks for all the useful information on this post. It will really be helpful the next time i plan to buy wine.

SteveinOakland said...

Hey Blake. Interesting that you feature some of my favorite and most consistent wine makers on your list. Finally balance and good acidity (e.g. food friendly, but with complexity) seems to be what is getting recognition.

Christian Miller said...

A review of a wine named Abraxas complete with snarky commentary on the word, yet no mention of Santana's 2nd album? What kind of SF wine journalist are you?

W. Blake Gray said...

Um, one who hates Baby Boomer music?