Monday, July 28, 2008

Cheap Burgundy--win some, lose some

2005 has been hailed as the vintage of a lifetime for burgundy, especially red burgundy. How quickly 2003 has been forgotten! Conventional wisdom has it that burgundy is all about the vintage, and that a simple wine from a great vintage should be almost as good as a great wine from a mediocre vintage.

North Berkeley Wines recently offered a deal that was too good to pass up. For $199 for one case, or $175 each for two or more, we got a smattering of red burgundies, 9 from the legendary 2005 vintage and 3 from 2006. We've been working on the case longer than we have on this blog, so many of our thoughts are lost to the ether. Or is the ether where we are now? Nevermind.

Last night we tried the latest in the collection: the 2005 Philippe Gavignet Bourgogne Pinot Noir (~$15 at the multiple case price). "Bourgogne Pinot Noir" is about the lowest of the low in the Burgundy Appellation hierarchy, so you can only expect so much. But this is 2005, right?!

Gentle readers, allow us to tell you that vintage only carries a wine so far. True, we've been enjoying super-ripe California pinots lately (see Shane/Spell post, below). But in 2005 ripeness was not an issue for Burgundy. The wine was not underripe--it even had nice flavors of cherries and plums--but it was hard and somewhat disjointed. No one would mistake it for a more renowned wine from a lesser vintage, and we fear that were someone to try this wine as an inexpensive way to get to know Burgundy, they would decide they did not need to get to know Burgundy after all.

To wit, vintage is not and can never be everything. We have no regrets about the mixed case and will be reporting on the other wines whenever we manage to find them. The ones we have already consumed included some tasty, if not overwhelmingly so, treats, and we hope to find more HappyWines(tm) in the remaining bottles. But neither were we surprised to be disappointed by a few of them, no matter how magical the number 2005 on the label may be.

Shane Wine Cellars and a Spell preview


Shane Finley convened a great group of people Saturday at Sebastopol's West County Grill. We had not been to the Grill before, but the food was terrific, and wonderfully paired with Shane's wines. In addition to pouring the current line-up of three Syrahs and his Shane Rose (of Syrah), Shane brought 6 Rhone whites from 2001, most of which were given to him when he worked in the Northern Rhone in 2002-2003.

We started by passing around some bottles of the Shane 2007 Ma Fille Rose (of Syrah, sold out but under $20 on release) while we waited for everyone to arrive and got to know each other. We then turned to the Rhones. Our first flight consisted of two Yves Cuilleron St-Joseph Blancs, one, "Le Lombard," 100% Marsanne, and the other, "Lyseras," a 50/50 Rousanne/Marsanne blend. The third wine of the flight was a Pierre Gaillard 100% Rousanne, also from St-Joseph. The wines were beautiful. For me the pure Rousanne had the most interesting nose, but the 50/50 blend was best on the palate due to its higher acidity.

As we wound down the first flight, the first course arrived: fried squid paired with salt cod croquettes, with a great aioli. We nibbled on that as we finished the first flight, and kept nibbling through the second flight. That flight consisted of two more St-J's and a Crozes-Hermitage, all still 2001 and all Rousanne/Marsanne blends. The Crozes was Domaine Tardy. One St-J was Guigal "Lieu-Dit," and the other was Louis Cheze "Cuvee Ro-Ree." It was remarkable how different these wines were from one another, and how different the set was from the first. All were pleasant, but I found the Guigal a little harsh. The Cheze was rather oxidized but still quite tasty, while the Domaine Tardy was just amazing with the food, again because of higher acid. Ah, memory.

Plates and glasses were cleared and replaced, and Shane personally poured each of his three 2006 Syrahs: Jemrose, The Unknown and Valenti (Jemrose and Valenti sold out; all under $40 on release). We had the tough choice of pairing these with a roast leg of lamb or a Liberty duck breast. Owing to our plural existence, we were able to enjoy both choices.

We were particularly excited to try these wines because we have not tasted them since before they were bottled, and we wondered when we should open our own bottles. The verdict: not for a while. All three wines were extremely delicious now, but they are so tightly wound, dense and layered, that they promise even more down the road.

It was great going back and forth among the wines, back and forth among the lamb and duck, and then back to the wines. It makes no sense to talk of preference at this point, as all the wines are wonderful, different and still very much evolving. While all three were ripe and powerful, the varietal character was true. The Valenti was a bit of a surprise because it was at least as dark and intense as the other two, and Valenti is an Anderson Valley site. The clonal composition of the three wines is different. The Valenti is Shiraz 1, and, perhaps because that's why we detected some flavors associated more with Australia than Anderson Valley. Still, this is very much Syrah rather than Shiraz. The Valenti is also the closest to ready to drink, although we would recommend a vigorous decant to anyone opening one now.

This time when plates were cleared we got to keep our glasses. Out came some Humboldt Fog smothered in chestnut honey, and Shane brought out a treat: a not-yet-released Jemrose Vyd Viognier "Egret Pond" that he Michael are making under the Jemrose label. Dead-on, classic, textbook Viognier (no price available). Delicious and perfect with the cheese.

A plum tart completed the meal, and after wrapping up at the Grill we headed over to the new Shane digs just north of Sebastopol. There we got to taste through the 4 2007 Shane Syrahs and the 2 2007 Spell Pinots, all about a month away from bottling. Spell is Shane's new Pinot project (no pricing as yet). We first tasted the Barton Vineyard (Russian River Valley), which is a blend of Pommard and 115 clones. A 25% whole cluster fermentation, 1 new barrel out of only 2 total. The second Spell Pinot was from the Weir Vineyard in the Yorkville Highlands. Clones DRC, 2a, and Rochioli. 20% whole cluster and 2 new barrels out of 5 total.

The Spells were delicious. Although they are made a bit differently from the Kosta-Browne wines, they were similar to me in their combination of ripeness, power and restraint. These wines are layered, complex, and tasty, but are not overextracted or blowsy.

The 2007 Shane wines for their part are at least the equal of the 2006s. They will similarly need a great deal of time. The new wine in the lineup is the Villain Syrah, blended from Alder Springs and Broken Leg Vineyards, with a touch of Valenti press wine thrown in for good measure. The clones are 383, 470, 170, 99, Shiraz 1 and a splash of 877. The Villain fit very well into the lineup.

Shane's up to great stuff with his Syrahs and Pinots, not to mention the Rose. We wish him the best for the 2008 harvest, and look forward to the release of the 2007s.

Note: What a way to start the blog. These wines are delicious, and more expensive than most we'll be recommending. Nevertheless, we believe they represent great value. There's no pricing info yet on the Spells, but recall that Kosta-Browne is not outrageously priced if you can buy it at suggested retail (good luck!).

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