Monday, April 20, 2015
A League of Their Rhône Rangers--Part Two
I don’t recall what year it was, but at one of the Hospice du Rhône Grand Tastings in Paso Robles it was 114℉! It was so hot, the local squirrels were using the Rosés to chill their nuts. It was so hot, you couldn’t tell if the Syrah smelled like bacon, or if that was the fat guy pouring it. Man, it was hot. And at the Paso Robles Fairgrounds, the “air conditioning” was provided by swamp coolers. Yeah, that works. It was like tasting wine in CeeLo Green’s underpants. A lot of really sweaty things rubbing against each other. It was miserable, and yet the Rhône crowd was in pretty good spirits. It’s just a fun crowd. And that was the first tasting I’d attended where, because of the heat, it was the Rosés that stole the show. First of all, they were cold. Second of all, they were good, though we didn’t care about that being good part. At the outdoor luncheon, the Rosés vanished like there had been a saignée Rapture.
I am of the opinion, and I’ve been in lots of arguments about this over the years, that the best Rosés are made from Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Sangiovese. I don’t like Pinot Noir Rosé. I find it almost unfailingly insipid and boring. It’s the press release of Rosé. There is the occasional compelling Rosé from another variety, and once in a while I taste a Pinot Noir Rosé I like, though I’ll deny it, but I’m drawn to Rosés from those three aforementioned varieties. At the recent Rhône Rangers tasting, the Rosé I liked the most was Tercero 2014 Rosé of Mourvèdre. Weirdly, I thought it smelled a bit like Sauvignon Blanc, but in an earthy vein. It has that feral Mourvèdre character, but it also shows terrific strawberry and watermelon flavors. This may not be for everyone, but if you like traditional Bandol Rosé, give this wine a chance to age a bit in the bottle, don’t serve it too cold, and it will speak to you.
Of the red Rhône varieties, it’s Grenache that owns my heart. I’ve written before about my love for Chateau Rayas, which is nearly 100% Grenache, and whenever I ask a winemaker who focuses on Grenache what wine they model their Grenache after, it seems like Rayas is inevitably their response. I’ve yet to find a domestic Grenache in Rayas’ league, at least in that remarkable Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s best vintages, but great Grenache is glorious stuff. There were a couple of Grenaches I quite liked at the 2015 Rhône Rangers tasting, but I didn’t taste one that truly captured my heart.
Law Estate is a newish Paso Robles property with Scott Hawley making the wines. Scott has his own label, Torrin, which has something of a cult following for Syrah. He clearly understands Grenache as well. The Law Estate 2010 “Beguiling” was beautiful, but perhaps a bit too polished for my liking. I guess I mean that I like Grenache with a bit of wildness about it, an edge, not so seamless and, well, slick. At that point, the wine is less about place and more about winemaking. I suspect the wine will get high scores, and I certainly understand why, but while I’d recommend it, I think it’s quite good, I wouldn’t buy it for myself. Yeah, I know, damning with faint praise. (The Torrin Syrahs, while not at this tasting, are quite good, and I have bought them—which is damning with HoseMaster praise.)
Whereas I would happily buy the Skinner 2012 Grenache. How often do we mention a wine that is fun to drink? Too often we fret about big wines, “profound” wines, wines that will amaze us and impress our friends—the Law Estate might do that for you. The Skinner 2012 Grenache has all of the grape’s bright, sweet red fruit, cherry and raspberry, but with a subtle bit of what they would call “garrigue” in France—that ineffable aroma of an herbal landscape. (I’m tempted to say the Skinner Grenache is a garrigueste wine, but that’s far too vague and stupid. Or exactly too vague and stupid, depending on what you think about my writing.) I looked, and the 2012 Skinner Grenache is sold out on their website. But sign up and buy the 2013 when it’s released; it will be terrific, I’m sure, and well worth the $26. I’ve liked every bottle I’ve tasted from Skinner, and loved many, if not most. If you love Rhône varieties at very fair prices, man, start buying Skinner.
Do I even have to mention the Tablas Creek 2012 Grenache being delicious? No, didn’t think so. Though I think, for my palate, Tablas Creek does Mourvèdre better, I’d happily stash some of their 2012 Grenache in my cellar. The sweetness and energy of the fruit is irresistible.
Grenache might own my vinous heart, but I do also love Mourvèdre. When I taste one I like, I can’t resist breaking into song. “Mataro! Mataro! I love you Mataro!/You’re only a day away.” (I hate that joke, almost as much as the red fright wig I don when I sing it.) Mourvèdre has a savory character that is unusual among grapes, that umami thing, a character I find delicious, even as unsavory a character as I am. And there were two particularly brilliant, and several damned fine, Mourvèdres I discovered at the tasting.
Maybe the single best wine I tasted all day (and I sampled but a mere pittance, about 70 wines, of what was available, so forgive me my hyperbole) was the Skinner Vineyards 2012 Mourvèdre Estate El Dorado. Winemaker Chris Pittenger is one talented guy. Much of his career he focused on Pinot Noir, with time spent at Williams Selyem, and four years working at Marcassin. Bob Cabral and Helen Turley AND John Wetlaufer?! I’m guessing Chris used to be six inches taller. Yet it’s those Pinot Noir guys who seem to grasp the delicacy of Mourvèdre’s aromatics. They aren’t easy to get right, it seems. But the Skinner Estate Mourvèdre is pitch perfect (and from what must be pretty young vines). Blueberries dominate the high notes, but then all the savory components chime in—that garrigue again, olive, balsamic, soy sauce, maybe fennel. It’s that captivating mix of sweet (very sweet blueberry) and savory and it comes across that way as it dances across the palate. It’s $58, but at this level of quality, that’s a fair price. I know it will age beautifully, it has the sort of balance one admires in a ballerina, a balance earned with hard work and talent, and I hope I get to rendezvous with it again one day about fifteen years from now. It was tutu delicious.
The other brilliant Mourvèdre I tasted was the (no surprise) Tablas Creek 2012 “Esprit de Tablas.” Now it’s only 40% Mourvèdre (with 30% Syrah, 21% Grenache and 9% Who Cares?), but I think the Mourvèdre is what makes the wine. It has Mourvèdre’s unmistakable meatiness at its core, but is also loaded with plum and blackberry fruit, with a sweet and savory finish. It’s just a pleasure to drink. That’s one of the things about great wines. Your first impression of them is simple and intense pleasure. Analysis flies out your ears, your mind goes blank, while all of your pleasure measures go off the charts. Great wines have a sensuality that cannot be faked, like the best lovers, the ones you think about even years later and want to be with again. You don’t care how they do it, you just want it done to you again. (Makes you want to give them a score, doesn’t it? Somewhere out there is a woman who’s reading this and thinking, “That guy was an 85 in bed—not bad for being so cheap.”)
I think that it’s the great wines, and I try not to use the word “great” very often when it comes to wine, that are the wines that make a mockery of the worthless and stupid 100 Point Scale. I don’t have a huge problem with all the countless wines rated 89, or 92. Many of them are sort of the same. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. I know what an 89 smells like. It smells like failure. When it comes to the great wines, the numbers are transparently stupid. It seems incredibly idiotic to me to lump all of the great wines in the world into 99 or 98, and assume that has meaning. It’s insulting to the individuality and greatness of the wines. Rayas equals Chave Hermitage equals Grange equals Petrus equals Romanée-Conti? That’s like saying Einstein equals Van Gogh equals Twain equals Beethoven equals Astaire. Genius and greatness defy categorization, and that should be respected. I’m wasting my breath, of course, the 100 Point Scale is too simpleminded to die, and the simpleminded will forever keep it alive.
Where was I? Oh, Mourvédre. I very much liked Tercero 2011 Mourvèdre Santa Barbara County. Where the Skinner Estate was all power and richness, the Tercero is damned lovely, an exotic beauty that shows the floral side of the variety. Yet it still has the savory element, that mushroomy meatiness, that so often characterizes the grape. It’s much lighter on its feet than the other two wines, the Tablas Creek and the Skinner, and I love that about it, its dark-skinned beauty. It just seemed like a fun wine to drink. And it's even more amazing given the difficulties of the 2011 vintage. Maybe it's the thick skin of Mourvédre that helped it through a rainy harvest. I know a lot of winemakers who could use that thick skin.
Brecon Estate was a new winery to me. The Brecon Estate 2013 Mourvèdre Paso Robles was very impressive. It’s quintessential Mourvèdre, a wonderful example of the variety. I don’t think any knowledgeable wine person could taste this wine and not know immediately it was Mourvèdre. The wine is very polished, though I’m not sure that’s praise, and what I loved about it was the beautiful intensity, the mushroom and forest floor edges to the blueberry fruit, and the savory finish, which was nearly as long as this boring post. Next time I’m in Paso Robles, and it’s not 114℉, I’m going to have to visit Brecon Estate, see what else they’re up to.
I hadn’t meant to babble on so long. I haven’t even touched on Syrah. So I guess there will be a Part Three. Crap.
TO BE CONTINUED...AD NAUSEUM