Tasting Events

I Wish They All Could Be California

North Coast

Although the French wouldn’t like to hear it, there are some high level similarities between the USA’s AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) and the French Appellations d’Origine Controlées (AOCs), namely that the most prestigious delineated areas are small and sit within larger areas, sometimes with multiple layers – for example, just as Puligny-Montrachet is a part of the Côte de Beaune and then the larger Burgundy area, Russian River Valley is part of Sonoma County, then the North Coast and finally the general California area.

Confusing?  Perhaps, but the relative size of an appellation within a region is one (of several) indicators to a wine’s quality.  Here are three wines from Cline Cellars – a producer I hold in high regard – that illustrate this.

Cline Cellars North Coast Viognier 2013 (14.0%, €17.99 at jnwine.com)

Cline_CATier_Viognier_NV_Stelvin small

The North Coast AVA is illustrated on the map above – it contains the world-renowned Napa and Sonoma plus other great areas such as Los Carneros.  If a producer uses grapes from one of those prestigious areas then s/he will use that on the label, but if the vines lie outside them or the wine is a blend from different regions then North Coast will be used.

This is a 100% Viognier, the aromatic grape that was once almost lost apart from a few plots in Condrieu in the Northern Rhône.  It manages to be fresh and rich at the same time, with typical Viognier aromas of flowers and stone fruit such as apricot and peach.  It has a little oiliness in the mouth and more body than many whites.  Viognier is a grape that I don’t always get on with, but this is the best Californian Viognier I’ve tried to date – and great value too!

Cline Cellars Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013 (14.5%, €22.50 at jnwine.com)


cline_sonomatier_pn_nv_final small

Sonoma Coast is the part of Sonoma County that lies – you guessed it! – on the coast.  This obviously makes it a cooler climate area than inland Sonoma (it also receives more rain than the rest of the county), so it’s more suited to varieties such as Pinot Noir.  That being said, at 14.5% this is no shrinking violet of a Pinot – you’d never wonder if it was actually a rosé rather than a red, like some Pinots!  It has a lot of body and power, but it’s no monster either, as there’s plenty of acidity to keep it in balance, and although it feels silky and voluptuous in the mouth there’s no alcohol burn on the finish.  In line with the experience there’s an abundance of bold black fruit and a twist of exotic spice.  It’s an all-round impressive wine!

Cline Cellars Contra Costa County Big Break Vineyard Zinfandel 2011 (16.0% €29.50 at jnwine.com)


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Based on my somewhat basic understanding of California’ geography, Contra Costa County is actually just outside the North Coast wine area, right at the bottom of the map at the top.  This is a single vineyard wine, so perhaps some sort of equivalent of Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Folatières?  Well, that might be a bit fanciful, but the (unirrigated) vines here are a century old and produce impressive concentration.  The sun beats down fiercely during the day but the nearby Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers provide cooling breezes at night which allow the grapes to rest.

Okay, there’s no hiding from the size of the Big Break Zin (named after an old levee in the area which broke decades ago) but you don’t have to – it’s approachable and cuddly rather than intimidating.  It wears its 16.0% well, just like its little brother Pinot, all down to balancing acidity.  In fact the acidity comes through in the type of fruit tasted on the palate – fresh black cherry and blackberry, with hints of cinnamon and other spices.


Of course the comparison between AVAs and AOCs can only go so far – the latter can be incredibly prescriptive in terms of varieties, yields, vine training, irrigation, alcohol levels and many other things, whereas AVAs are primarily just based on vineyard location.  But I think that the wines above do show that there are different quality levels and that smaller is generally better.  It could just be down to the nature of the grapes for each wine, but above all paying more definitely brings the rewards of higher concentration in the glass.

Are you inclined to agree?


And of course, those lyrics…





My Top 10 Reds of 2014

It was nearly impossible to reduce this list down to 10 reds so there are lots of magnificent wines that didn’t make the cut – some fine Chilean Pinots in particular.  Pinot is well represented from numbers 10 to 8…

10. Cline Cellars Sonoma Coast Cool Climate Pinot Noir 2012

Cline Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012
Cline Cellars Pinot Noir 2012

Very few quality American wines make it to Irish shores, and so discovering Cline Cellars Pinot Noir at the Big Ely Tasting was a revelation.  After tasting it again with Fred and Nancy Cline at the James Nicholson Tasting (and some of their other wines) I was definitely a firm fan.

You’d never mistake it for Burgundy, but to be honest it knocks spots off most red Burgundy under €30.  It’s on the big side for Pinot but it has poise and balance so that all its components remain in harmony.

9. Ata Rangi Martinborough Pinot Noir 2011

Ata Rangi Martinborough Pinot Noir 2011
Ata Rangi Martinborough Pinot Noir 2011

This stood out as my favourite Pinot of the whole Annual New Zealand Trade Tasting in Dublin.  While Marlborough wineries are still working out how to get the best out of Pinot Noir, their Wairarapa counterparts across the Cook Strait can already be considered masters of the grape.

One of the top few producers in New Zealand, Ata Rangi is one of the well established Martinborough vineyards making outstanding Chardonnay and Pinot Gris in addition to Pinot Noir.  This has fruit and power, but is soooo smooth that a bottle can disappear in a frighteningly short time!

8. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 2002

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 2002
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 2002

Yes, I’ve included a Champagne among my reds of the year!  But I have my reasons…

Like many rosé Champagnes, particularly those with some age on them, this was actually closer to a still Pinot Noir than a young white Champagne.  And for good reason when you look how it’s made.  70% of the blend is Pinot Noir from Grand Cru villages, of which around 13% from Bouzy is added as red wine.  This is then topped off with 30% Chardonnay from the Grand Cru villages of Avize, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Oger and Chouilly.

I opened this on the day we celebrated my wife’s birthday – something to enjoy while we got ready to go out. My wife wasn’t that impressed by it, but that just meant more for me! The texture is the key for me – it wasn’t that fizzy or zippy, but it had an amazing Pinot nose and soft red fruit on the palate.  I don’t tend to drink much rosé but this shows what it can do.

7. Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz 2009

Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz
Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz 2009

The so-called Baron Of The Barossa, who sadly passed away in 2013, Peter Lehmann was the maker of several ranges of Barossa gems.  They started above the level of everyday wines but went right up to this flagship – more expensive than most people would spend on a regular basis but nowhere near the price of other Aussie icons such as Hill Of Grace or Grange.

At the Comans silent tasting, the 2009 showed that it’s still young and would reward patient cellaring, but it’s so drinkable now that it’s hard to resist.  It’s made in a rich, concentrated old-vine style which is defiantly and definitively Barossa, but there are layers and layers of complexity.  It packs a punch but also makes you think.

6. Château Pesquié Ventoux Artemia

Château Pesquié Ventoux "Artemia" 2006 en magnum
Château Pesquié Ventoux “Artemia” 2006 en magnum

I was lucky enough to taste three different vintages of this southern Rhône superstar during the year – the 2012 from bottle and the 2006 from magnum at the Big Rhône Tasting at Ely, and then the 2005 from magnum at a jaw-droppingly excellent food and wine dinner at Belleek Castle (more to come on that!)

Although its home of Ventoux is situated in the southerly reaches of the Rhône, the cool winds coming off the Mont de Ventoux and Valcluse mountains help maintain acidity and freshness.  Artemia is Château Pesquié’s premium bottling made of equal parts of Grenache and Syrah, both from low-yielding sites

The wines are rich and unctuous, with dark black fruit and spice competing for your attention.  But it’s not all about big fruit, there’s also acidity and minerality there.  I’m trying to see if I can get my hands on a few magnums for myself!

5. Antinori Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva 2008

Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva 2008
Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva 2008

Forget Galaxy Chocolate, this is possibly the smoothest thing known to man – pretty unusual for a Chianti!

The biggest producer in Italy, family owned and run Antinori bought the estate in 1987 and set out to create the ultimate expression of Tuscan Sangiovese.  Clones were specially selected to give velvet and acidity – hence the smoothness.

It has an amazing nose of red and black fruit, but these are joined on the palate by rich dark chocolate. It has an international sensibility but is unmistakably Chianti Classico.  By some distance it’s the best Chianti I have tasted to date!

4. Torres Mas La Plana 2005

Torres Mas La Plana 2005
Torres Mas La Plana 2005

When wines are this good, choosing between different vintages much be like choosing between different children, but if a choice has to be made of all the different vintages tasted of Torres’ Cabernet flagship Mas La Plana then 2005 was the chosen one.

Although regarded as an interloper by many in Spain, Cabernet Sauvignon can actually thrive in the right settings.  As it’s my favourite black grape I say boo to tradition and enjoy this blackcurrant beauty!  Compared to an excellent Rioja there are quite noticeable differences – primarily black fruit rather than Tempranillo’s red strawberries and smokey French oak rather than big vanilla from American oak.

The 2005 still has loads of primary fruit, but has already developed some interesting cedar and tobacco notes. It’s in full bloom but has the structure to last until the end of this decade at least.

3. Gérard Bertrand AOC Rivesaltes 1989

Gerard Bertrand AOC Rivesaltes 1989
Gérard Bertrand AOC Rivesaltes 1989

I didn’t taste enough sweet wines this year for them to deserve their own category, but this fortified Grenache muscled its way into the Reds list.  A Vin Doux Naturel from the Roussillon in South West France, this is similar-ish to Rasteau from the Rhône and Maury close by in Roussillon – and not a million miles away from Port.

Unexpectedly this was my favourite wine from the O’Briens Autumn Press Tasting – Age has taken away with one hand – colour has faded significantly – and given back with the other – complexity writ large.  It’s definitely a wine for the winter season but it’s something to look forward to.  Class in a glass.

2. Katnook Estate Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Katnook Estate Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Katnook Estate Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

This was technically drunk in 2015 as it was popped after midnight on New Year’s Eve, but I love it so much I have to include it.  A long time favourite producer since my visit to Coonawarra in 2000, and undoubtedly one of the standout in terms of consistent quality, Katnook Estate makes big cabs that are to die for.

This young example had fresh blackcurrants – so fresh and intense that you would swear you were actually chewing on them – with Coonawarra’s trademark eucalyptus providing additional interest.  It’s my go-to red for good reason!

1. Penfolds Grange 2008

Penfolds Grange 2008
Penfolds Grange 2008

I am an unbashed fan of Australia’s first world class wine, and included some older vintages of Grange in my best wines of 2013.  Without the 2008 for reference I’m pretty sure I would have picked the 2009 for the top spot this year – the 2009 was very nice indeed – but the 2008 was on another level altogether.  Apparently it was awarded the full monty 100 points by both the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator

Only a couple of years after release, it is still an absolute baby of course, but is actually drinkable now.  It has tremendous concentration, and although you can find the American oak if you search for it, fruit dominates the nose and palate.  Blackberry, blackcurrant and damson are tinged with choca-mocha and liquorice.

It’s an immense wine without being intimidating –  At 14.5% the alcohol is fairly middling for an Aussie Shiraz, perhaps tempered by 9% fruit from the cooler Clare Valley.  It’s made to last for decades, but unlike some flagship wines I tasted this year its elements are already harmonious.

As a “collectible” wine that has become bought more and more by investors, Grange has now moved firmly out of my price range.  I am still tempted nevertheless!!