The rules start simple: Everyone contributes a bottle of wine that either sold for or is now worth $100. (And keep in mind this is Kentucky, where fine wine prices can be 30 – 50% higher than in more active markets.) To make things interesting, there are other rules: it has to be a red blend of at least three grapes, no more than 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. The rules, as you will see, were loosely enforced.
Yesterday in the back room at Westport Whiskey & Wine we toted-in our pride & joy wines. They were dutifully wrapped and numbered by Chris Zaborowski. And then we tasted blind, in flights of two. While no precise vote was taken, the mood-of-the-room at the end of the night seemed to put three wines above the others: 2003 Domaine du Pegau Cuvee Reserve, 1996 Duckhorn Estate Grown Merlot, and 2005 Clos des Papes. Also, the mushroom paté kicked significant ass.
Tasting notes below, with my 20-point Davis scale ratings in parentheses.
Duckhorn Estate Grown Merlot 1996 — Wait a minute: how’d a pure Merlot make it into a blend tasting? Darn lucky it’s a hell of a wine. Browning plum color. Complex, subtle nose with black licorice and a touch of mint. Medium acidity and soft tannins that are nonetheless very present. Long, clean, cherry finish. An excellent wine the kicks the evening off with a gentle splash. (16)
Blackbird Vineyards Illustration 2007 — Merlot-based, this is bigger, newer than the Duckhorn. Pure, dark purple in color with a fruity, fresh nose that is maybe a little hot. Tannins that attach themselves to the palate quickly, with a big, deep and slightly astringent front and a long finish of cherries and berries. If the donors have any more in their cellar they should pack it away for another five years in hopes that the tannins calm down and the flavors integrate before the fruit fizzles. (15)
Termanthia 2005 — Purple so dark it coats the glass. Balanced nose, low notes, subtle to the point of being elusive. On the palate clean and big, even a little syrupy in its dense core. This is a bottle dying too young. (12)
Alto Vista Alto 2005 — Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, another wine that slides in a little under the rules. But oh well. It’s a serious wine, so we’re not going to hunt down the donors or anything. Dark, dark garnet. Pleasant nose, cooked raspberries and dried figs. Dark, bittersweet chocolate on the palate. (14)
Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe 2000 — Given the rules of the tasting, I knew we’d have a bunch of Chateauneufs, and here they come. This one is faded, significantly brown with heavy sediment. The nose is all Grenache with some strawberry and volatile acidity. This is a wine past its prime, which is a little surprising because it’s not that old. (11)
Domaine du Vieux Telegraph 2008 — Pretty clearly the same wine, newer version. Pale garnet with an earthy nose and strawberry palate. There’s a pleasant core of Chateauneuf’s signature garrigue and some other low notes, all twisted into a bundle that’s trying not to be seen. Maybe another hour in the decanter would open it up; maybe it’s not ever going to come out into the light. (15)
Halftime. Everyone gets up, stretches, contemplates the inadequacy of our tasting skills. Scuttlebutt at this point is that the Duckhorn rocked. I hear almost no one talking about the Termanthia, which surprises me but maybe speaks volumes.
Then we’re back at it.
Chateau de Beaucastel 1986 — Tawny color, crystalline. Complicated, subtle nose of earth and berries, which is matched on the palate. Light body, clean, very pleasing. I bet when it was new it could stand up to burned meat, but over time it has become more of a tasting than food wine. I liked this one a lot. (16)
Chateau de Beaucastel 2003 — Dark garnet with bright flashes of light. Deep nose that is subdued, reminiscent somehow of Paul Robeson humming. The fruit is fast, like a splash of berry syrup with a little whiff of charcoal smoke or bacon. (16)
Chateau Magdelaine 1989 — This is out of whack. It’s browning and has some sediment, which isn’t surprising given its obvious age. The nose is thin and a little medicinal. The tannins are remarkably hard and out of balance with what has aged into a light-bodied, sleek wine. There are some cherries and herbs, but not a lot. When Chris reveals its identity I’m surprised. I could have guessed for a long time before I got to “Merlot-based St. Emilion.” (11)
Antinori Tignanello 2006 — Dark and glass-coating. Big, fresh nose of dark berry and oak. Fills the mouth with flavor, though the barely medium tannins leave the structure a little flabby. In the Old World/New World guessing game, New World predominates, and we’re wrong. Should have guessed Italian from the long, acidic finish. (14)
Clos des Papes 2005 — Slight brick in the color, another obvious Chateauneuf with berries and bramble in the nose, like you can smell the sun on the pudding stones. Sipped, the wine has a sharp attack of red berries. Someone in the back of the room comments that the wine tastes sweet, and even if it isn’t there’s something valid in the description. (15)
Domaine du Pegau Cuvee Reserve 2003 — Garnet with a little browning at the edge. Big floral nose with smoke and raspberry. Very complex, very fresh. Big, lip-smacking tannins that are balanced by the density of wine. This is a good wine now and it’s going to keep getting better for a long time. (18)
As a bonus, one of the participants chipped in a 1999 La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi Colmera, Tim Mondavi’s blend of Sangiovese, Syrah, and Teroldego. What a nice wine this one turned out to be. It was crisp and fresh, with a smoky nose and strawberries on the palate. Even in the denouement of the larger tasting it stood out.