Flavor Notes by Robert Rich: Food, Wine, Restaurants & Recipes


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Monterey Highlands Tasting Notes - 2008

The Santa Lucia Highlands grows some of the richest, most intense Pinot Noir in California. Perched in the mountains and bench land between Big Sur and the Salinas river valley, this region gets cooling ocean fog at night and warm but mild summer days. Of the great Pinot regions, the Monterey area gives elegant balance between the spicy dark expressions of the fruit, with licorice and chocolate overtones, and full ripeness with cleansing acidity. Warmer deeper loam and tropical fragrances contrast these wines against the bright spicy red fruit characteristic of the Russian River and Mendocino area, or the earthy-plum sweetness of Carneros, or the grassy orange-peel character of the Willamette Valley, Oregon. The other great Burgundian variety - Chardonnay - also features prominently in this central California coast region, with expressions that range from ripe to bright.

This year marks my first attendance to this trade tasting of mostly Burgundian style wines grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands. As always, I wasn't able to taste everything. Many excellent wines at the event will be missing from my notes. Whenever possible, I tried to get pricing, and I'll mention them when I know them. Most of these wines range on the high-end, around $30-$60 on average. If the notes ever seem negative, remember the context of top-end neighbors, trying to adjust expectations to price. Almost every one of these wines are excellent.

Gary Pisoni and family


All from single family vineyard, estate wines. 2006 Chardonnay - showed high alcohol (14.6%), giving a bit of heat on the nose, very ripe. Still the fruit shows a lemony crispness along with characteristic varietal hazelnut oily qualities. Intense but smooth on the palate. 2006 Pinot Noir ($48) offers red cherry fruit with the added herbal complex fragrances of crushed raspberry leaves, brambles and mint. Reminiscent of dried melissa herb alongside cherry cider and a hint of Pastis.

Belle Glos
Aiming at the high end, these wines felt soft and round, deep and ripe. 2006 Pinot Noir, Alturas Vineyard ($60) is a big spicy wine, full bodied and beautiful. Nutty (oily) overtones, with front palate flavors dominating, showing deep ripe fruit with licorice, mint and milk chocolate. 2006 Pinot Noir, Cary's Vineyard ($225) is an extravagance whose price seems aimed solely for the prestige clientele. Extremely ripe with dark fruit tones drizzled in chocolate syrup and sweet oak, sufficient acidity perhaps to allow some bottle age, but I think this one is designed to impress with size.

The prices here seemed to outpace the experience in the the glass. 2005 Chardonnay, Rosella's Vineyard ($40) had a buttery but still bright profile, crossing the border between the oaky soft California Chard style and the more fresh unoaked approach (which makes sense considering it's 70% malolactic, 30% new oak - straddling the line.) Hazelnut butter, lemon zest and popcorn. 2005 Pinot Noir, Rosella's Vineyard ($75) showed bright and tighter fragrances of green olive and mint, with some bitter tannins in the finish among dark chocolate and winter spices. One might try cellaring for a few years, perhaps. 2005 Pinot Noir, Tondre ($65) was my favorite among the Bernardus wines, with regional characteristics of smooth oily cherry fruit leather, lingering milk chocolate. This is their more approachable Pinot, with some beautiful overtones.

Hope & Grace
Pouring just one wine, the elegant 2005 Pinot Noir, Sleepy Hollow, one of many Pinots shown on this day that were made from Sleepy Hollow Vineyard grapes. This Pinot covered the spectrum from deep to bright flavors, with black cherry fruit, sandlewood perfume, mint leaves, bright berry spice. Good balance.

Kosta and Browne

Kosta Browne
These wines stood out as excellent representatives of the vineyards from which the grapes had been sourced. 2006 Pinot Noir, Rosella's Vineyard showed dark blackberry fruit, ripe and peppery but not too soft, with some dark roasted coffee elements (thiols, perhaps, from the yeast.) 2006 Pinot Noir, Gary's Vineyard seemed the better wine for my tastes, expressing the characteristic licorice and black fruit, rich and spicy; an earthy, ripe and intense wine.

2006 Pinot Noir, Gary's Vineyard must have been picked earlier than other wines from this vineyard in this vintage, or from a less ripe block. Showing tones of Calamata olive and grass, it lacks the intense rich fruit of its brethren, opting instead for a tighter quality. The 2006 Pinot Noir, Rosella's Vineyard tasted a bit richer, with more black fruit and oily licorice tones, but still herbal and bright compared to the other huge ripe Pinots in the room. I'm curious to learn whether these wines become more seductive with time. As I'm one of those (also as a winemaker) who appreciates tight wines along with seductive ones, I don't think of these comments as negative. I think a wine like this could pair better with food than many of the fruit-bombs tasted this day.

The red wines struck me as a bit cooked, or oxidized. I'm rather sensitive to this softened quality, which others sometimes don't mind, as if a bottle had been opened the day before. On the positive side, however, Manzoni's 2005 Chardonnay, Lucia Highland Vineyard ($23) tasted clean and fresh, with hints of nutmeg and winter spices around Juicy Fruit gum - tropical tones - in a balanced body (open, slightly thin). 2005 Pinot Noir Private Reserve showed the oxidized quality I mentioned, otherwise rather tight with green olive aftertaste. 2006 Pinot Noir Estate showed very high acidity, brambles, sandlewood, with slightly bitter tannins at the end. This might age into something quite interesting in a few years. (It didn't smell cooked, like some of the others.) 2005 Syrah, Paraiso Vineyard did show that cooked smell, oxidized, with black olive and veggie notes. Not a favorite.

Martin Alfaro
I recognized the name as the person who baked delicious bread in Santa Cruz and Watsonville in the '80's and '90's. Alfaro sold his bakery to Sarah Lee in 1998 and apparently started making wine, with good results. 2006 Chardonnay, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard ($25) shows full malolactic buttery flavors, balanced with bright green apple overtones, crisp acidity, new French oak -- on the buttery side of California Chardonnay, an excellent wine despite my tendency to prefer less oaky Chardonnay. 2006 Pinot Noir, Gary's Vineyard ($42) shows the herbal side of this cool climate, with black and green olive, winter spices, brambles and berries. A lingering thick finish gives signs of good potential over several years. 2007 Pinot Noir, Vigna Monte Negro Vineyard Barrel Sample - a memorable taste this day, even before release, hugely oversized and ripe though it may be. (14.8% alc) Milk chocolate and smooth lingering oily quality, berry jam, lingering aftertaste of some tannic bitterness belies its youth.

Mer Soleil
I sought out Mer Soleil because I love some of the wines that Austin Hope of Treanna has made from these grapes. 2006 Chardonnay, Silver Unoaked ($35) is a clear pure expression of this vineyard, with a big floral nose, nuanced with spicy nutmeg hues, dust and chalk; and a crisp palate of apple and pineapple layered with... mint and coriander perhaps? Complex and mysterious. 2005 Chardonnay (Oaked - $35) has a more musky, buttery profile as expected, with lingering green apple shining within butterscotch sweet tones. 2004 Late Harvest Dessert Wine ($35/375 ml) shows candied citrus and pineapple fragrances with lingering caramel tones and a very sweet finish.

Definitely at the more affordable side on this day's tasting, with wines ranging from $16-$38. 2005 Chardonnay, Estate ($18) shows refreshing bright notes of green apples and spearmint with herbal grassy characters that clean the palate. 2005 Chardonnay "Eagle's Perch" ($28) shows a chalky nose that suits its Dijon Clone heritage. Like some of the best Chardonnays it highlights the contrasts between clean and sweet expressions of this grape, with tropical pineapple ripeness, minerals, musk and earthy qualities, vanilla and taffy from the oak, yet fresh clean acidity. 2006 Pinot Noir Estate ($24) has again a chalky and herbal profile, with green olive and crushed dry leaves, and a finish that falls off a bit quickly. 2006 Pinot Noir "West Terrace" ($38) has a nose hinting of aldehydes (often called VA - volitile acidity, a fault of high acidity and over-exposure to oxygen, allowing acetobacter to grow.) Otherwise, this wine's clean finish and well modulated dusty dry oak make it seem like a food-friendly wine.

2007 Roussanne Blend "Les Tournesols" ($27) -- a lovely white wine, one of my personal favorites of the day. My notes simply say, "Yum! floral and big" which summarizes my impressions pretty well. I'll need more time with this beautiful elixir to appreciate its subtleties. Tastes from the 2005 Pinot Noir, Rosella's Vineyard (magnum) show fragrances of grassy green olive and tight overtones, but the flavors finish more full and thick than expected, with cleansing acidity among big smooth tannins. This one might need some time in the bottle to become its best.

Pey - Lucia Vineyards

One of my favorites during the tasting. This Pinot Noir impressed me very much, especially at this price range. 2006 Pinot Noir "Frisquet" ($39) with 1/2 Pommard clones, 1/3 new oak barrel aged, 14% alc. and a 15 barrel output. Long lingering cassis fruit, lasting smooth flavors, rich and oily, excellent balanced acidity within the ripe fruit. Hints of licorice, chocolate and mushrooms, low in tannin and not over-oaked. Excellent.

Gary Pisoni is a force to be reckoned with. Several of my friends in the trade have warned me, in case I should find myself at a party at his house, never to take a Jeep ride with Gary Pisoni around his vineyards. I understand these parties are as epic as his Jeep rides are frightening. So are the grapes that he grows, and so are the wines that his son Jeff is making from those grapes. These Pinot Noirs balance huge ripe flavors with excellent acidity and smooth tannins with lots of new French oak, to make some of my favorite wines in the region. 2006 Lucia Pinot Noir, Garys' Vineyard shows surprising brightness with zippy acidity coursing under fruit notes of raspberry, chocolate, herbal crushed dry leaf character and exotic (oak) spices like cinnamon-vanilla-nutmeg-sandlewood, with caramel oak sweetness. 2006 Pisoni Pinot Noir, Estate ($65) has a richer smoother mouth feel, more weighted toward the ripe fruit, loamy forest fragrances, and some tannins in the lingering finish that offer a leathery texture. These are big wines, yet pleasingly balanced, not over the top. Kudos.

Puma Road
2006 Chardonnay SLH ($45) shows the light and bright expressions of Chardonnay, with partial malolactic allowing green apple fruit to show through in the finish along with chalky minerality. 2006 Pinot Noir SLH ($55) bridges the gap between the fruity rich expression of Pinot and the more austere taught style, offering the best of both qualities. Spicy cinnamon oak flavors linger in the finish along with finessed red cherry fruit. Excellent, and alas a bit expensive, like most of the best wines in the room.

Siduri / Novy
Creating Pinot Noir and Syrah from some of the best vineyards in the region, these wines often tended towards darker notes of coffee, black licorice, more smokey or earthy than other wineries' reflections of these same vineyards. 2006 Siduri Pinot Noir SLH ($32) showed what I suspect to be some signs of thiols, a burnt-coffee artifact of yeast metabolism during fermentation. These toasty smells contribute an interesting layer to sandlewood spice tones within the dark fruit profile. 2006 Siduri Pinot Noir, Rosella's Vineyard ($45) has a bigger profile than the SLH, with more oily black cherry fruit in the mouth, still with some burnt coffee and sandlewood notes. 2006 Siduri Pinot Noir, Gary's Vineyard ($49) was my favorite among these Pinots, with black licorice and tarry qualities in the mouth, brighter acidity and a delicious lingering spicey finish. An excellent Pinot. 2005 Novy Syrah, Rosella's Vineyard, shows some very smokey tones reminiscent of Côte-Rôtie, with blueberry, bacon, and metallic fragrances, brooding and meaty. 2005 Novy Syrah, Susan's Hill offers richer more chocolate notes with mint and a black fruit finish.

Six Strings
A new winery named after the favorite instrument of its guitar-playing owners. Relative to the other wines in the room, these are value priced, and I think they're pretty good for the money. 2006 Chardonnay SLH ($27) has the crisp un-oaked profile that I personally prefer in Chardonnay, with a nose of green apple and pineapple, some floral tropical qualities and bright open nutty qualities among the flavors. 2005 Pinot Noir SLH ($29) still shows some sulfur artifacts that need to blow off (burnt matchstick) and herbal indications of high acidity that include green olive and raspberry brambles, in a slightly lighter body than the blockbuster wines at nearby tables. 2006 Pinot Noir ($35, barrel sample) shows where those crushed raspberry leaf fragrances come from, more magnified in this younger wine, fresh and crisp despite 18 months barrel age.

Robert Talbott
Talbott owns the excellent Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, which he planted in 1972; but sometimes the owners of the best vineyards aren't actually making the best wines from their own grapes. Talbott makes some very good wines, but I think some of the purchasers of Sleepy Hollow grapes are making better wine than these. Logan is the second tier brand, Talbott is the top tier. 2006 Logan Chardonnay, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard ($22.50) shows the ripe, soft and buttery sides of this variety, with full malolactic and barrel fermentation but refreshingly low oak profile and decent acidity which prevents the rich fruit from getting cloying. Fruit qualities of apricot and pineapple offer plush roundness in the mouth. 2005 Talbott Chardonnay, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard ($45) shows good balance between acid and fruit, a more open mouth-feel with citrus notes and full bodied lingering finish. 2005 Logan Pinot Noir, Sleepy Hollow ($30) had a slightly hot nose exposing high alcohol, and slightly bitter herbal green olive notes on the palate alongside the requisite cherry and licorice qualities, not my favorite among these wines. 2005 Case Pinot Noir Sleepy Hollow showed more ripe black cherry and licorice notes in the fruit, also a bit alcoholic in the nose, with a somewhat tight and tough mouth feel that one hopes will mellow with some bottle age.

2006 Pinot Noir
($30) shows big spice and pepper in the nose with some lingering tannins and full bodied red fruit in the mouth. A very well made wine for the money. 2006 Pinot Noir, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard ($38, barrel sample) has a more oily finish in the mouth, big but quite elegant, not heavy handed, with notes of dark roasted coffee and brambles.

Testarossa's Winemaker Bill Brosseau

I featured Testarossa about 7 years ago in one of my newspaper columns, back when Ed Kurtzman was the winemaker. Since then, Ed's assistant Bill Brosseau took the winemaking helm when Ed moved on. Brosseau's wines maintain the excellent pedigree of Testarossa, managing to express the grapes from these top vineyards with a balance between full flavor and clean herbal character, avoiding the over-ripe tendencies that can easily afflict high end California-Burgundy style wines. 2006 Chardonnay "Castello" ($30) blends grapes from various regions, and offers clean, light mineral & spice qualities. 2006 Chardonnay, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard ($40) has a much more viscous mouth feel, still with palate-cleansing acidity and fresh fruit flavors of pineapple and key lime, with trailing tones of nutmeg. This was one of my favorite Chardonnays of the day. 2006 Pinot Noir "Palazzio" ($37) blends ten different vineyards in a release of 3600 cases, showing herbal and floral notes resembling oregano, black olive, rose petals and licorice. A surprisingly tight wine that could benefit from some bottle age. The top shelf 2006 Pinot Noir, Sleepy Hollow VIneyard ($60) has an 800 case production, with clean high acidity and oily qualities in the fruit, herbal black olive, and brambly deep/tight red cherry flavors.

2005 Pinot Noir, Tondré Grapefiled ($43) - Light body, sweet oak, hints of orange peel in the nose. Perhaps one of the most Burgundian of the wines this day, although without the intense minerality of the French wines. Bernardus and Tudor may have made better wines from these grapes in the same year, but I enjoy the open texture of this interpretation.

Dan Tudor's wines stood out in excellent company

One of my favorite winemakers during this tasting. (In my opinion his best wine uses Tondré grapes with much better results than the vineyard that grew them.) The more affordable 2005 Pinot Noir SLH ($40) has a classic bright and ripe profile, with black cherry and strawberry fruit, hints of brambles and black olives from the herbal character within the acidic structure - just as it should be. It does a good job of hiding a very strong 15.8% alcohol from what must have been a rather late harvest. The excellent 2005 Pinot Noir, Tondré Vineyard ($59) shows even more intense fruit, with tones of oily Belgian dark chocolate, a friendly competition between strawberry and blackberry, very rich, with a hint of sweetness in the finish. Standing aside from the Burgundian offerings this day, Tudor also poured his 2006 Reisling (Radog) at 12.5% alc, some residual sugar, with bright clean fragrances of honeysuckle and lemon. He's wisely marketing this in southeast Asia, and I suspect it goes beautifully with Thai food. I'm hoping to try this with some of our own Asian style cooking at home. It's a very worthy Reisling and should pair beautifully with many styles of light or spicy food.

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