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Californian Pinots, Syrahs and French classics

by Tom Cannavan, 10/99

This tasting dinner was arranged by my very good friends Sam and Leslea Goth while I was visiting them in the Bay Area on the San Francisco leg of my Californian vacation. The theme for the evening was Californian Pinots Noir and Syrahs, particularly from the superb 1994 vintage. There were some outsiders too, notably some older wines and some French classics brought along by other guests.



This was a brilliant tasting (and dinner!) that showcased some really excellent wines and certainly opened my eyes to the quality that Pinot Noir can acheive in California. Unfortunately many of the wines featured are sold on allocation only, so rarely see a retailer's shelves in the US, let alone elsewhere in the world. The French whites with which we started the evening were 2 outstanding wines, and to finish on the '88 Yquem was quite a treat!

The wines were not served blind except for the Yquem.

Vilmart Champagne Grand Cellier
and
Henry Pol-Milan Champagne Terres de Noël Blanc de Blancs
I didn't take extensive notes on these wines, but the Vilmart was toasty, nutty and quite complex with plenty of fruit. Quite delicious. The Pol-Milan was much more reserved and sharp, lemony and tightly-wound. Both worked well with canapés of Sushi and barbecued Mission figs wrapped in ham.

Chave (Rhône) Hermitage Blanc 1990
Vibrant yellow colour with a tinge of green. Wonderful nose of apricot kernals and peach, little highlights of citrus peel. Full bodied with an almost oily texture. This wine has huge presence and a wonderful balance of rich, honeyed fruit, powerful alcohol and fine balancing acidity. Has many years ahead of it too. Superb.

Zind-Humbrecht (Alsace) Rangen de Thann Clos Saint Urbain Tokay-Pinot Gris 1990
Luscious golden colour. Massive, unctuous nose of honey, orange, caramel then brighter lime and flowery nuances. On the palate this is just beautifully full and limpid, with incredibly powerful and intense fruit, yet fine balance and superb length. Another truly awesome white wine.

Joseph Swan (Russian River) Pinot Noir 1990
Astonishing, intense, minty, sasparilla nose. So sweet and focused. There's a really fine, ripe raspberry fruit edge, but also a chocolate note. On the palate a silky finesse and an earthier note with warm berry fruit. Quite delicious, lots of interest and complexity it is long and pure. Very good indeed.

Joseph Swan (Russian River) Pinot Noir 1994
Similar aromatic intensity with a slightly earthier, more vegetal nose with aromas of truffle and dank, leafy vegetation. There is still a core of minty, pure fruit - almost like typically Australian eucalyptus. This is really delightful, though perhaps needs a few years to develop.

Williams Selyem (Russian River) Pinot Noir 1995
Green peppercorn edge to aromatic raspberry fruit. There's a lot of cinammon spice and wild, herbal nuances of thyme and rosemary. On the palate the impression continues. There is a great richness to the fruit and elegant oak in the finish. Very good.

Dehlinger (Russian River) Reserve Pinot Noir 1994
Rich, dark chocolate is the first impression on the nose. There's a meaty density here supporting sweet, super-ripe cherry and mint fruit. The palate is flooded with a silky texture and plenty of chewy fruit. Acidity and tannins are moderate. This is drinking beautifully now, but should last a few years. Lovely complex stuff.

Au Bon Climat (Santa Barbara County) Sanford and Benedict Pinot Noir 1994
There's a slightly metallic, tinny note to spice and black pepper. I think this is slightly corked. Palate is quite lean and savoury with highish acidity. Not quite a sound bottle I suspect.
I visited ABC later on my trip (wonderful - more on that to follow) and extensive tastings suggest this bottle was certainly flawed or possibly in an awkward stage.

Ojai Vineyards (Santa Barbara County) Syrah 1994
Big meaty, game and blackberry nose. There's a streak of minerality and a wild, leafy, herbal edginess that adds great interest. Palate is full and packed with sweet fruit. Very long and well balanced. Very good indeed.

Dehlinger (Russian River) Syrah 1994
A blast of pure, rich, dense chocolate and blackberries on the nose. Some subtle spicy nuances too. Palate has great depth and there seem to be layers of glycerine-rich, sweet and smooth fruits. Velvety mouthfeel and terrific length. A very hedonistic style - terrific.

Qupé (Santa Barbara County) Hillside Select Syrah 1994
Dense purple/black colour. Punchy fruit on the nose again with some earth, spice and a firm mineral edge. There's a really graceful and refined feel to this wine with cool raspberry and blackcurrant fruit. Tannins are firm and there is plenty of dense fruit and complexity to suggest it will age.

Château d'Yquem, Sauternes, Premier Cru Supérieur 1988
(Blind) Lovely deep golden colour. Nose is dominated by new oak at present, but beneath there are notes of mint, melon, lime and vanilla with hints of a coconutty richness. The palate is quite closed. There's a good, rich mouthfeel and fine sweetness. Botrytis is muted and flavours seem very compacted. I'd guess this was a youngish Sauternes - 1988 or '90 perhaps and of good quality, but it is giving away little at present.
I have no doubt this will be a superb wine given several more years. I last tasted the '88 about 3 years ago when it was much more open but, like the 1990 which I re-tasted recently, it appears these 2 super-concentrated vintages of Yquem have gone into a fairly closed phase.

A really terrific evening. The whites where served with a lobster and citrus fruit salad, the reds with a Boeuf Bourguignon and a braised lamb dish. My thanks to Sam, Leslea and their friends for providing so many truly exceptional wines!