Carneros



So, it’s a beautiful mild Saturday afternoon in Memphis, Tennessee, after a wild night of high winds and thunderstorms, so it must be time for the “Friday Wine Sips,” today focusing on groups of pinot noir wines from Laetitia Estate, MacPhail Family Wines, Donum Estate and Sanford. Locations range from the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County to Arroyo Grande Valley in San Luis Obispo to Anderson Valley in Mendocino. As usual, I eschew the typical reams of technical, historical and geographical info — interesting though I find that stuff — for the sake of brevity and insight. These wines were samples for review.
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Laetitia Estate Pinot Noir 2010, Arroyo Grande Valley. 14.1% alc. Intense medium ruby color; classic nose: black and red cherries, cranberry and rhubarb, cola and loam; wonderful balance and integration; super satiny texture; woody spice and briers and brambles at the circumference while the interior glows with cherry and blueberry flavors with potpourri and bitter chocolate; draws elemental earthiness and oak from the fringe and gathers them for a more somber, slightly austere finish. Through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $25, representing Great Value.
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Laetitia Reserve du Domaine Pinot Noir 2010, Arroyo Grande Valley. 14.3% alc. Deeper, darker, a little more concentrated in every sense than its cousin mentioned above; the structure more evident but still suave, smooth and satiny, a lovely drape on the tongue; slightly fleshy (not quite meaty), lip-smacking acidity cuts a swath; wonderful weight, presence and tone; elegance with fundamental power. Through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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MacPhail Family Wines Sangiacomo Vineyards Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Coast. 14.3% alc. The Hess Collection acquired the MacPhail in 2011. Medium ruby-cranberry color; unusually ripe, fleshy and meaty for pinot noir; spiced and macerated black and red currants, cherries and plums; lush and satiny but bracing with vibrant acidity; prominent graphite/underbrush quality, dense and chewy, a little feral; you feel the polished oak and slightly muscular tannins through the finish. 325 cases. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $49.
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MacPhail Wildcat Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Coast. 14.3% alc. Medium ruby color; very spicy, fleshy and meaty; spiced and macerated red and black currants, plums and cranberries, touch of rhubarb and pomegranate, smoke and tobacco, a hint of spiced apple; super-satiny, almost voluptuous, oak and tannin come through from mid-palate back asserting some control but this doesn’t have quite the balance or integration of the other two. 325 cases. Now through 2014 or ’15. Very Good+. About $49.
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MacPhail Frattery Shams Vineyard PInot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 14.3% alc. More black and blue fruit and more blue/magenta to the color; not so flamboyantly ripe, fleshy and florid, more graphite and earthy minerality and more balanced structure; hints of sassafras and cloves, candied apple; lovely, lithe, bright and clean. Delightful with an undercurrent of seriousness. 200 cases. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $49.
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Donum Estate Grown Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley. 14.4% alc. Not feeling the pinot love or the complex layering that I should here; perhaps this needs a year or two to meld; the nose is gorgeous, offering the full spectrum of spice, flowers, fruit and minerals, but you feel the oak as rather ostentatious on the palate and the finish is a little hot. Try from 2013 to 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $65.
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Donum Estate Grown West Slope Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros. 14.4% alc. Dark ruby color; initially nicely balanced among barnyard earthiness, oak, bright acidity and mildly dense tannins; black and blue fruit flavors; the oak element grows more prominent after 20 or 30 minutes and especially in the finish to which it brings a touch of astringency, as the tannins add a dry, dusty, brambly quality; still, there’s that billowing satiny texture. Best from 2013 or ’14 through 2016 to ’18. Very Good+. About $85.
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Donum Estate Grown Thomas Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros. 14.4% alc. Best of this Donum Estate trio. Dark to moderate ruby color; sour cherry, cranberry and blueberry, hints of root beer, cloves and rhubarb; the most perfectly balanced of these three with a seductive satin drapery texture made a little rigorous by deep slatey minerality, scintillating acidity and smooth but slightly earthy tannins; altogether reticent, subdued, supple and subtle, with gratifying detail and dimension. Try from 2014 or ’15 through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $100.
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Sanford Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County. 14.5% alc. This is a blend of the Sanford & Benedict and La Rinconada vineyards. Vibrant and radiant medium to dark ruby color; cranberry, cola, red cherries and cloves, hint of brown sugar; full-bodied, a sinewy, muscular style with a measure of grace and elegance and a lovely satiny texture; takes a few minutes in the glass for all elements to cohere but structure comes through resolutely. Quite beautiful. Now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $40
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Sanford Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Rita Hills. 14.5% alc. Medium ruby with a darker ruby/magenta core; black cherry, beetroot, rhubarb, briers and brambles; a lot of power and structure but true to the grape; succulent but just enough spareness and litheness not to be obvious or opulent. Another beauty. Now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $60.
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Sanford & Benedict La Rinconada Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Rita Hills. 14.6% alc. Dark ruby shading to a medium ruby/violet rim; robust, muscular, powerful, viscous; dense and chewy; dark spicy slightly stewed black and red fruit flavors; this is where pinot noir walks on the wild side; you feel the alcohol a bit in the slightly hot finish. I’d like to try this one in a year or two. Very Good+. About $54.
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It was a casual Friday night. We had been to an art exhibition opening and were home again about to watch the last episode of The Borgias on DVD– it’s like The Sopranos set in late 15th Century Rome but better — and LL said, “Let’s do something with eggs,” and faster than you could say “La plume de ma tante” we had a beautiful salade Lyonnaise. My assignment was poaching the eggs. (Also with bacon, green beans, little potatoes, pieces of ripe tomato on a bed of baby kale, doused with a vinaigrette.) Ah, but what to drink with the notoriously hard-to-match-with-wine eggs? No problem, as waiters say incessantly today, a classic, dry rosé, but one made from grapes grown in California’s Los Carneros region.

The Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir 2011, Los Carneros, is a true vin gris (“grey wine”) color, a light, slightly copperish onion skin hue. The wine is not made by bleeding off juice from the crushing of red grapes; this one is whole-cluster pressed, carefully, and then taken off the skins to leave that pale pigmentation. This is, I’ll assert right out loud, a world-class rosé, not just spicy but savory, not just fruity but flavorful, not sweet at all but bone-dry and yet almost luscious in texture. Aromas of dried red currants and raspberries are woven with hints of orange rind, camellia, limestone and a sort of dusty slate aspect; a few minutes in the glass bring in an intriguing grassy/dried thyme note. In the mouth, you feels layers of complexity, red fruit, of course, but touches of rhubarb, beet-root and peach skin, cloves, warm stones, the lithic edge of slate and a citric tang to the scintillating acidity. Immensely attractive and pleasurable, a rosé with an unusual marriage of energy and elegance, and a great drink with the salade Lyonnaise. 13.8 percent alcohol. Now through summer 2013. Excellent. About $28; I paid $30 locally. Very limited production, so mark this Worth a Search.

Wine image from robertsinskey.com.

After a career in the publishing business, John Shafer moved his family to the Napa Valley in 1972, purchasing a 210-acre estate — with 50 acres of vines — in what is now the Stags Leap District AVA, officially designated without an apostrophe. The first crush occurred in 1978. The winery’s vineyard property gradually increased to 205 acres, with 79 acres in Stags Leap, 60 acres just south of SLD in Napa Valley and 66 acres in Carneros. By variety, the breakdown is 97 acres devoted to caberet sauvignon (Napa’s great hero grape), 66 of chardonnay, 24 of syrah, 12 of merlot and 6 of petite sirah. John Shafer’s son Doug became winemaker in 1983; when he was elevated to company president in 1994, assistant winemaker Elias Fernandez became winemaker, a position he still fills today.

Shafer is one of Napa Valley’s elite wineries, and if California possessed a system similar to the classification of Bordeaux — don’t worry, that will never happen, at least not “officially” — it would certainly be listed among the First Growths. The commitment is to cabernet sauvignon, though forays into chardonnay and syrah have proved highly successful. The wines tend to see a boodle of new French oak, 100 percent new oak for some of the wines, but they seem to absorb that wood and make it an integral part of the package; I have never tasted a wine from Shafer tainted by the blatant, smoky vanilla qualities of new barrels. The winery is making an effort to enumerate more accurately the alcohol content of its wines, once listed as a blanket 14.8 percent. Since federal regulations allow a one-degree leeway, an indication of 14.8 percent could mean anywhere from 13.8 to 15.8. The degrees indicated now represent an attempt to tell consumers what they’re actually getting.

Tasted at a trade event.
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The Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay 2010, Carneros, is an absolutely exquisite and classic representation of the grape. The wine aged 14 months in 75 percent new French oak barrels and 25 percent stainless steel tanks. Since it does not go through what’s called malolactic fermentation, the wine delivers a sense of grace, purity and intensity that does not involve the extraneous and often cloying creamy, dessert-like aspects that the process can produce (and which some wine publications unaccountably dote upon), while the oak influence is subtly revealed only in the wine’s sleekness and suppleness and its spicy nature. The color is pale gold; aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit are tinged with quince and ginger and hints of cloves and limestone. In the mouth, ripe and spicy stone-fruit flavors are ensconced in a texture that’s almost lush and powdery, though balanced, indeed cut, by powerful limestone and flint minerality and the scintillating effect of crystalline acidity; tremendous presence, heft and tone, yet exquisitely drawn and finely detailed, right through the spare, elegant finish. 14.9 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 or ’17, well-stored. Excellent. About $48.
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Sometimes I think that I would rather drink hot grease than another merlot from California, but then an example like the Shafer Merlot 2009, Napa Valley, comes along to gladden my heart and make the world seem fit to live in. This is a merlot of jewel-like transparency, detail and definition; I mean, it feels effortless, though there’s nothing delicate or evanescent about it. (There’s 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent malbec in the blend.) The wine aged 20 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby-purple; aromas of ripe and macerated mulberries, black raspberries and blueberries are highlighted by notes of rose petals and brambles, white pepper, bittersweet chocolate and penetrating graphite-like minerality. The heft and balance, the absolute confidence and insouciance of this merlot are truly lovely, though the wine does not neglect the important aspects of a rigorous tannin and acid structure that lends a sense of tension and grip. It you love merlot and sometimes despair of its fate, don’t fail to get a few bottles of this quite beautiful model. 15.1 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to ’20. Exceptional. About $48.
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You could call the Shafer Relentless 2008, Napa Valley, a blend of 75 percent syrah and 25 percent petite sirah, a blockbuster — I kept using the word tremendous in my notes — except that it displays so much finesse; its, um, tremendousness feels like an inextricable weaving of infinite strands of subtlety and nuance bound by, er, tremendously huge tannins and tautly wrought acidity. (The wine aged an astonishing 30 months in 100 percent French oak barrels.) The color is deep, dark ruby-purple; the bouquet bursts from the glass in a dynamic welter of black and blue plums, black currants and blueberries, mocha and black pepper, violets and lavender and the classic Northern Rhone notes of wet fur, tar and hot stones; if ever a bouquet could be called muscular, it’s this one. Still, for all its tannic and oaken power and its iron-like minerality (and shall we mention 15.6 percent alcohol content and the bravado ripeness of its black and blue fruit flavors?), the wine does not feel ponderous or overbearing; it takes a lot of skill and experience to assemble these components into a balanced, coherent wine that feels utterly faithful to its constituent grapes. Best from 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $60.
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The Shafer One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Stags Leap District — 98 percent cabernet with 2 percent petit verdot — offers a deep almost opaque purple color and burgeoning aromas of cassis and black raspberry, smoke, bittersweet chocolate, underbrush, iodine and iron. (This aged 20 months in 100 percent new French oak.) There’s a great deal of depth and grip and forceful tautness here, an energetic element that makes the wine lively and resonant — the tannins, at least, are finely milled, seeming well-oiled and seamless — yet of the five wines under review here, this is the one that feels the least integrated. Perhaps it’s simply the earthiest (I wouldn’t say rustic) and just needs a couple of years to come together, say 2014 to ’15 and then drinking until 2020 or so. 15.3 percent alcohol. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $70.
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Shafer’s flagship wine is the Hillside Select, Stags Leap District, which for 2007, the 25th Anniversary vintage, brings together all the virtues of place and grape for a virtuoso performance. This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon; the wine aged 32 months in all new French oak barrels. Real weight, heft and substance here, stupendous earthy-granitic minerality, roiling acidity and deeply-rooted grainy tannins; this is not about elegance or finesse, but it is about power, balance and total integration of all elements into dynamic, resonant completion, the whole package feeling as if it had been lightly sanded and burnished. There’s some toughness here, too, dense, tense, a little truculent for the next few years, yet, paradoxically, the wine is almost voluptuous in texture, a fitting cushion for heady and penetrating qualities of ripe, bright cassis, black cherry and dark plum flavors. 15.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to 2025. Exceptional. About $225 (a bottle).
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Oops, not exactly Friday, is it? I must have fallen into the sinkhole of the space-time continuum. Anyway, no theme today, just a group of wines that I tasted recently, some of which I liked and a few that I didn’t. That’s the breaks, n’est-ce pas? As usual in the erstwhile Friday Wine Sips, I eschew most technical, historical and geographical data for the sake of incisive reviews of blitzkrieg intensity. Included today are a delightful pinot noir rosé from Sonoma County, two excellent chardonnays (one from Carneros, one from New Zealand) and an inexpensive red wine blend from the “South of France” that’s worth a search for devotees of organic products.

These were all samples for review.
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Toad Hollow Eye of the Toad Rosé of Pinot Noir 2011, Sonoma County. 11.5% alc. Pure strawberry and raspberry with undertones of pear, melon and peach skin; a hints of orange rind, almond blossom and limestone; quite dry but soft and juicy; more stones and bones on the finish. Delightful. Very Good+. About $13, a Great Bargain.
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Craggy Range Kidnappers Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. 13% alc. A lovely, delicate, elegant chardonnay, yet very spicy, slightly resinous (as in a hint of rosemary), touched of roasted lemon, pineapple and grapefruit with a tinge of mango; underlying richness and complexity, quite dry, always mindful of balance and poise. More than charming, attractively individual. Excellent. About $21.
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Nickel & Nickel Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Carneros, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. Rich but beautifully balanced, bold but not brassy; classic pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors deeply infused with cloves and allspice, hints of lemon and honeysuckle; a golden and sunny chardonnay with a sheen of deft oak, ripe and slightly creamy yet with a prominent limestone edge. Pure, intense, sophisticated. Excellent. About $50.
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Naked Earth 2009, Vin de Pays d’Oc (though the front label says “South of France”). 12.5% alc. Merlot 50%, cabernet sauvignon 25%, grenache 20%, carignan 5%. Certified organic. Surprising character for the price and geographic anonymity; dark ruby color; cedar, tobacco, black olives; black currants and plums; lavender and violets, touch of new leather; dry, dusty tannins, almost velvety texture, spicy black fruit flavors, lipsmacking acidity. Worth seeking out. Very Good. About $12, representing Real Value.
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Green Truck Zinfandel 2009, Mendocino County. 13.5% alc. Certified organic. A generic red wine with wild berries and brambles, very dusty tannins and heaps of graphite-like minerality. People searching for organic wine deserve better. Good. About $14.
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Murphy-Goode Merlot 2009, California. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby color with a lighter rim; toasty oak, caraway and celery seed; cherries, plums and raspberries; very dry, disjointed plus a vanilla backnote. Not recommended. About $14.
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Murphy-Goode Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California. 13.5% alc. Better than the merlot but still fairly ordinary; attractive heft and texture, ripe and spicy black currant, black raspberry and plum scents and flavors, nice balance among fruit, acidity and mildly dusty chewy tannins. Very Good. About $14.
Note that both of these Murphy-Goode products carry a California appellation instead of Sonoma County and are “vinted” rather than “produced,” which means that consumers have no idea whence within the state the grapes came or where the wine was made. Jackson Family Wines acquired Murphy-Goode in 2006.
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Mark West Pinot Noir 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands. 14.2% alc. Dark ruby color with a paler ruby edge; black cherry and leather, cola and cloves; hits all the necessary points without being compelling; dense, chewy tannins, swingeing acidity, very dry with a dusty, earthy, mineral-flecked finish. Very Good. About $14. (Sorry, the price is actually about $19.)
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Davis Bynum Pinot Noir 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. You gotta like wood to like this one. At first, subtly woven black cherry, mulberry, smoke, cola and woody spice (cloves, sandalwood), then you feel the oak sneak up, as it were, from the back to front, smothering everything in its path. Not my cuppa tea. Good. About $35.
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Today, Friday Wine Sips offers 10 white wines and two reds, the whites mainly chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, mainly California but touching down in Italy, Spain and France, the reds collage-like blends, one from California, the other from Argentina.

As usual, I dispense with matters technical, geographical, climatic, philosophical, historical, anthropological, psychological, heretical and hermeneutic to focus on quick, incisive reviews that get at the essence of the wine. These were samples for review or tasted at wholesalers’ trade events.

By the way, I was curious, so I went back and checked through the Friday Wine Sips series, which I launched on January 5, to see how many brief reviews I’ve done, and counting this post today, it’s 86 wines. That’s a lot of juice.
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Hess Select Sauvignon Blanc 2010, North Coast. 13.5% alc. Very dry, crisp and lively, with pert acidity and a sleek texture; kiwi, celery seed, tarragon; tangerine, lemongrass and grapefruit skin, with a touch of citrus rind bitterness on the finish. Uncomplicated and tasty. Very Good. About $11.
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Cortenova Pinot Grigio 2009, Veneto, Italy. (% alc. NA) Clean and fresh, hints of roasted lemon and lemon balm with almond and almond blossom and an undertone of pear; the citrus spectrum in a smooth, crisp, bright package; good character and heft for the price. Very Good. About $13.
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Chateau Suau Bordeaux Blanc 2010, Cotes de Bordeaux, France. (% alc. NA) 55% sauvignon blanc, 35% semillon, 10% muscadelle. A lovely white Bordeaux, brisk and refreshing, bordering on elegance; pear and peach, jasmine and honeysuckle, surprising hint of pineapple; all suppleness and subtlety but in a lively arrangement of balancing elements. Very Good+. About $15, representing Great Value.
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Shannon Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Lake County. 13.5% alc. Crisp and sassy, with tremendous appeal; quince and ginger, lemongrass and peach, lime peel and grapefruit and fennel seed, all intense and forward; animated, provocative in its spiciness, its leafy herbal qualities and alert acidity running through steely citrus flavors. Very Good+. About $16, a Real Bargain.
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Valminor Albariño 2010, Rías Baixas, Spain. 12.5% alc. This boldly spicy and savory albarino offers real grip and limestone fortitude with enticing citrus and grapefruit scents and flavors, whiffs of jasmine and camellia, hints of apple skin and roasted pear; eminently refreshing, spring rain and sea-salt with a bracing punch of earth and bitterness on the finish. One of the best albariños. Excellent. About $20.
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Hall Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Napa Valley. 14.8% alc. An organic wine. Pale straw color with faint green highlights; nectarine, pear and melon, dried thyme, cloves and a hint of fig, jasmine and honeysuckle; dry, smooth, suave; bright brisk acidity, scintillating limestone element; ethereal spareness and elegance of lemon, pear and grapefruit flavors. Excellent. About $20.
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Benessere Pinot Grigio 2010, Carneros, Napa Valley. 13.9% alc. Pretty exotic for a pinot grigio but super-attractive; pale straw color; apple peel, orange zest, roasted lemon and pear; cloves and clover, touch of mango; nicely balanced between moderately lush texture and zippy acidity, crisp and lively but just an undertow of richness; lemon and tangerine with a touch of peach skin; long spicy finish. 895 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Molnar Family Poseidon’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, Carneros, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Uncommonly spicy and savory; deep, rich, full-bodied, yet so light on its feet, so agile, deft and balanced; classic pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors, exhilarating feeling of limestone and river rock minerality; smoke, cloves, cinnamon, hint of sandalwood, yeah, a little exotic but nothing overstated, and blessedly avoids any overtly tropical element. Excellent. About $24.
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Black Dog Cellars Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. (% alc. NA) Exactly the kind of chardonnay I would drink all the time: lovely purity and intensity of the grape; exquisite balance and integration of all features; pale straw-gold color; pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors highlighted by cloves and limestone; oak lends firmness, suavity and suppleness; there’s a touch of camellia in the nose, and an intriguing bit of resinous grip in the long resonant finish, all bound by acidity you could practically strum like a harp. Sadly only 313 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Morgan “Highland” Chardonnay 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 13.8% alc. Bright straw-gold color; fresh, clean, boldly spicy, apple, pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors, just a hint of mango; lovely finesse, balance and integration; rich but not creamy pineapple and grapefruit flavors, touch of cloves and buttered cinnamon toast, all beautifully modulated; limestone and flint come in on the finish. Excellent. About $26.
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And two reds:
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Shannon Ridge Wrangler Red 2009, Lake County. 14.2% alc. 38% zinfandel, 18% tempranillo, 13% barbera, 12% merlot, 12% cabernet sauvignon, 7% grenache. A pastiche of grapes that produced a warm, spicy, fleshy fruity and engaging wine; dark ruby-magenta color; cassis and blueberry, lavender, lilac and licorice; graphite and shale; hint of cloves and vanilla; quite dry, but juicy with black and blue fruit flavors supported by dense chewy tannins and burnished oak. Great for pizzas, burgers and such. Very Good+. About $17.
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Amalaya 2010, Calcahquí, Salta, Argentina. 14% alc. Malbec 75%, cabernet sauvignon 15%, tannat 5%, syrah 5%. Dark ruby-purple color; what a nose: rose hips and fruitcake, walnut shell, black currants, black raspberries and blueberries, cocoa powder and bittersweet chocolate, graphite; in the mouth, very dry, very intense and concentrated, amid the tightly-packed tannins and firm oak a deep core of spiced and macerated blackberries and currants, lavender and licorice, briers and brambles. Needs a grateful steak. Very Good+. About $17.
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