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The Week In Reviews

Ramon Bilbao, Rioja (Spain) 'Mirto' 2010 ($70):  Some might call Ramon Bilbao's 2010 Mirto a "modern" Rioja, richly layered, lush and generously oaked. I see it another way, given that Haro, the home of Ramon Bilbao, was once long ago strongly influenced by the winemakers of Bordeaux, France. The use of French oak is not traditional for Rioja, so its use in the production of Mirto is something of a novelty, and it works. The French oak delivers a gentle wood spice that is an exquisitely complement to the ripe black-fruit aromas. This is a wine for the ages. At six-years-old, it remains fresh and nervy, brimming with primary fruit. One of the finest Rioja wines I have experienced in quite some time.
97 Robert Whitley

MacRostie, Sonoma Coast (California) Pinot Noir Wildcat Mountain 2013 ($54):  MacRostie's Wildcat Mountain Pinot from this vintage is a firmly structured beauty that exhibits notes of violets and spice on the nose, with layers of blueberry and strawberry fruit, and fresh acidity that lifts the flavors. It finishes with a touch of leafy earthiness. A stunning wine that will only get better.
95 Robert Whitley Jun 28, 2016

Wild Ridge, Sonoma Coast (California) Pinot Noir 2013 ($50): This Sonoma Coast Pinot shows exceptional promise, offering a floral nose with earthy overtones, hints of spice, and layered red and blue fruits. With fresh acidity and smooth, integrated tannins, it's easy to drink now but will hold in a temperature-controlled cellar for another 7 to 10 years.
94 Robert Whitley Jun 28, 2016

Chappellet, Napa Valley (California) Chenin Blanc 2014 ($32):  Chenin Blanc is the Rodney Dangerfield of domestic white wines. While Chenin produces brilliant wines in France's Loire Valley, it has been used more or less as a blending grape for forgettable white wines, most of them made in a sweet or off-dry style, here in the U.S. The handful of producers who make a stand-alone Chenin do a reasonably decent job, but only a few domestic Chenins truly soar. Chappellet's dry Chenin is one of those. The 2014 is a gorgeous wine that shows exceptional balance and fruit purity, with nuances of stone fruits and citrus.
93 Robert Whitley Jun 28, 2016

Les Cadrans de Lassegue, Saint-Emilion (Bordeaux, France) 2012 ($35):  Les Cadrans, the second label of Chateau Lassegue, must qualify as the steal of the vintage, or close. Showing richly layered blackberry and cassis fruit, with a hint of woodsmoke and long, firm tannins, it's a superb candidate for the cellar. It needs another three to five years to approach its peak, which it should easily hold for another dozen years or so.
91 Robert Whitley Jun 28, 2016

Piccini, Toscana IGT (Italy) Poggio Alto 2014 ($21):  Here's a delicious 'Super Tuscan' that won't bust your wine budget. It's a common enough Tuscan red blend of Sangiovese, Colorino, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but made using a technique called Governo All'Uso Toscano, which is similar to a ripasso from the Veneto in that dried grapes are added back to to the wine to create a second fermentation. It's beautifully made, unusually smooth and a novelty most of your friends won't have in their cellar.
91 Robert Whitley Jun 28, 2016

Piccini, Chianti Classico DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) Riserva 2011 ($21):  Piccini's Chianti Classico Riserva gets kudos for its fruit purity, a big dollop of black cherry that lingers on the palate. This is a beautifully made wine that balances acidity and fruit and tannin to end up with a lovely food wine that will pair nicely with tomato sauces, grilled sausages and savory cheeses.
89 Robert Whitley Jun 28, 2016

Follow Robert on Twitter @wineguru.


Texas Winery Shines at San Diego Challenge

Creators Syndicate

A number of eye-popping performances were put on at the 2016 San Diego Wine Challenge.

Italy's Castello Banfi served an impressive Super Tuscan and a sensational Brunello from a so-so vintage.

Australia's Mr. Riggs did what Aussie wineries often do: It dominated with delicious wines at price points typically reserved for second-tier wines.

V. Sattui Winery of Napa Valley soared as usual, and neighboring Imagery Estate — just over the Mayacamas Mountains in Sonoma County — was the life of the platinum-award party.

But the greatest performance of all was given by a winery from Texas Hill Country, due west of Austin, Texas. Grape Creek Vineyards of Fredericksburg, Texas, entered 18 wines and bagged 14 medals, including one platinum (the top award) and four gold.

What made the Grape Creek performance especially noteworthy was the relative obscurity of a wine from the Texas wine industry appearing outside of Texas. It is somewhat rare to see a Texas wine entered in a major international wine competition, and most unusual to see so many entries from one Texas winery.

Grape Creek's platinum award went to a 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah that retails for $37. This wine was released with the generic "American" appellation, suggesting it is composed of a blend of grapes — some from Texas and some from another part of the country — which seems to be the Grape Creek model.

That being said, Grape Creek's list of medals is a reflection of some serious know-how in the winery cellar.

Speaking of know-how, Jen Wall, winemaker of the value brand Barefoot Wine & Bubbly, did her usual number, winning 10 medals for Barefoot Bubbly and 10 medals for Barefoot Cellars. The most expensive Barefoot wine retails for $9.99, but the modest price hardly suggests mediocrity. There were nine gold medals and one platinum in Barefoot's 20-medal haul.

Banfi Wines took home four medals — two platinum, two gold — for its Montalcino estate, including the 2011 ExcelsuS ($90), which was one of the three best wines I, as director and overseer of the Best of Class and Best of Show awards, tasted over the course of the competition. Banfi's other division, which includes the Chianti and Piedmont regions, bagged five medals, including one platinum and two gold.

For a complete list of competition awards, including the Best of Show and Best of Class, visit www.SanDiegoWineChallenge.com.

Best Value

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Cirque du Vin 2012 Red, Paso Robles ($16) — This wine is surely an eclectic blend — including syrah, petite sirah, zinfandel, merlot, malbec and tannat — but delicious nonetheless. It has a big burst of blueberry fruit, a somewhat rustic texture on the palate and a subtle note of oak spice that is just the right touch. Rating: 94.

Savor Collective 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($16) — True to its roots, the Savor Collective sauvignon delivers a pungent air of grapefruit on the nose and a stony minerality on the palate. The finish is long and clean. Rating: 94.

Cycles Gladiator 2014 Petite Sirah, California ($11) — This wine is a cross between the old-fashioned, mouth-puckering petite sirah of yesterday and the juicy, bright petite sirah that is more common today. There is plenty of inviting red-fruit aroma and a gripping finish — a little something for everyone! Rating: 90.

Tasting Notes

Girard Winery 2013 "Artistry," Napa Valley ($45) — If a $45 wine can be called a value wine, Girard's 2013 "Artistry" certainly fits the description. This Napa Valley gem, a blend of all five red Bordeaux grape varieties, is an excellent example of Napa's capabilities in the realm of Bordeaux red blends. Showing bright aromas of red currant, black cherry and plum, as well as an overlay of oak spice and beautifully integrated tannins, this Bordeaux blend could stand out among much more expensive reds from the pricey Napa Valley neighborhood. Rating: 95.

Louis M. Martini 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($35) — This vintage may very well be the finest Martini Alexander Valley cab I've tasted. Martini also produces a Napa Valley cab that outshines this wine, but that would be a tall order in this vintage. The 2013 is beautifully balanced, delivers exceptional ripeness and fruit purity and has a long, seductive finish with exceptional persistence. The oak is nicely judged, lending a subtle note of spice. Rating: 95.

Black Stallion Estate Winery 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($30) — This wine is a remarkable value from the Napa Valley. It is expressive on the nose with notes of violet and cassis, which is are mirrored on the palate. Exceptional purity of fruit comes through. It is well-balanced and finishes with a seductive spice note. Rating: 94.

Brutocao Cellars 2013 Merlot, Bliss Vineyard, Mendocino County ($22) — Brutocao's Bliss Vineyard merlot from the 2014 vintage has impressive weight and depth and flavors of layered plum, black cherry and a hint of wood spice. Rating: 92.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.


California Wine's Best-Kept Secret

Creators Syndicate

South Coast Winery in Temecula, California, recently pulled off a feat no other California winery can claim: winning its fourth Golden Bear Trophy at the California State Fair earlier this month.

The trophy is awarded to one California winery each year, chosen from the hundreds that enter the state fair's annual wine competition. Considering that more than half the wine consumed in the United States is produced in California, this trophy is a significant accomplishment.

The fact that this one small winery — situated in the unheralded Temecula Valley 60 miles north of San Diego — has captured the title four times against stiff competition speaks volumes about the winemakers, Jon McPherson and Javier Flores.

The two are longtime colleagues who joined forces a quarter-century ago at another Temecula winery, Culbertson, which is now known as Thornton. They are the unlikely heroes of the South Coast Winery saga. McPherson was born in Texas, and Flores was born in Mexico. Neither place is more than a blip on the world's wine radar, but both arrived to Southern California with solid roots in the wine business.

As the son of the most respected winemaker in Texas, Doc McPherson of Llano Estacado Winery, Jon McPherson learned at his father's feet. Flores began working as a teen at L.A. Cetto Winery in Baja California, Mexico, thought by many to be Mexico's finest winery.

Despite its four Golden Bear trophies, South Coast is one of the best kept wine secrets in California, largely because the Temecula Valley is off the beaten path and tiny compared to more renowned and larger regions, such as Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, among others.

That said, the wines of Temecula can be quite good, especially those made by McPherson and Flores at South Coast. Carter, whose previous farming experience centered on ornamental trees, sees to it that the vineyards do their part in the winemaking equation.

"It's my job," said Carter, "to make sure Jon and Javier have the best possible grapes to work with. That's my passion."

To say that the wines of South Coast are as eclectic as they are delicious states the obvious. One of the best South Coast wines I tasted recently was a blend of touriga nacional and tempranillo, which the winery calls "TNT."

Neither grape is commonly grown in California, but both McPherson and Flores returned from trips to Portugal, where the grapes are indigenous, firmly convinced the Mediterranean climate and rolling hills of Temecula were ideal for Portuguese grape varieties.

Temecula is unique among California's inland wine valleys because of a narrow opening in the Santa Margarita Mountain Range some 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The Rainbow Gap creates a cooling affect in the evenings that lowers temperatures and retains freshness in the grapes.

"We thought the climate was so similar to what we saw in Portugal that Touriga and Tempranillo (called Tinto Roriz in Portugal) would do well here," said McPherson. "And they have."

Touriga and tinto roriz red grapes are the backbone of Portugal's sweet port wines, but both are witnessing growing acclaim for dry table wines. McPherson and Flores also took a shot with a white grape from Portugal, verdehlo, which is found mostly on the Madeira Islands.

This crisp, dry white is one of the finest wines produced at South Coast. France's Rhone Valley is also well-represented in the South Coast lineup through a beautiful white wine, Viognier, made from grapes grown at the Carter Estate, and a red blend that includes syrah, grenache and mourvedre.

South Coast also makes a line of sparkling wines, including a sparkling touriga, and is about to launch an upscale "Carter Estate" brut that McPherson and Flores hope will compete with the likes of Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Carneros and Schramsberg.

South Coast may well be the best winery you've never heard of, so its wines aren't likely to be readily available at your favorite wine merchant. But you can purchase these wines, including many of its 21 medal-winners from the California State Fair, online at www.SouthCoastWinery.com.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.


John Jordan True to His Roots

Creators Syndicate

You could say John Jordan was born into the wine business, although he spent most of his adult life avoiding it.

His parents, Tom and Sally Jordan, were dedicated Francophiles. They signed the deed on their Alexander Valley wine estate in May 1972, the same day John was born, so the story goes. John and his sister Jenny grew up amid the vines, while older sister Judy was away at college. Tom and Sally redefined California cabernet.

Over the years, Jordan's reputation for cabernet sauvignon made in a Bordeaux style, with elegance and balance and the ability to age, established it as a benchmark California cabernet house (the winery also produces a Burgundian-style chardonnay).

John eventually got away from it all and pursued dual careers as an attorney and a naval intelligence officer. Running the Jordan winery wasn't his driving ambition as a young adult.

"I wasn't sure for the longest time if it was something I even wanted to do," he said over a recent lunch in San Diego.

Now, 10 years into his tenure as CEO of the iconic Jordan Winery, it seems as though it was always meant to be. When John took over the winery in 2005 it was his challenge to improve upon perfection or not. He could have done nothing but serve as caretaker and the iconic California winery would have been none the worse for his unwillingness to try to fix something that wasn't broken.

Or he could dig a little deeper and take Jordan to a higher level.

"My parents' vision was the (Andre) Tchelistcheff vision of balance in wine," said Jordan. "But you're always learning something new in the wine business."

That's when John went to Rob Davis. Rob was handpicked to craft Jordan Winery's first vintage in 1976 by Andre Tchelistcheff, the legendary wine consultant who made his mark on California wine when he created the iconic Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon over in the Napa Valley.

John asked Rob if there was something he wanted to do with the wine at Jordan that he had been constrained from doing in the past. Rob said yes, and set about creating what John called "a super blend."

"It really was extraordinary," said Jordan. "I said, 'Rob, wouldn't it be great if we could do this all the time?' Rob said, 'We can.'"

Now, most vintners would have taken that as a cue to create a reserve cabernet.

"We would never do that," John said emphatically. "It would break the covenant Jordan has with wine consumers. If a wine has the Jordan label, that label represents that it's the best we can do. I have other outlets for my entrepreneurial ambitions. Messing with the Jordan brand isn't one of them."

There was but one thing to do, then, and that was to turn Davis loose and make all Jordan cabernet sauvignon in the same manner as the "super" blend.

That meant reaching outside the Jordan estate, where 200 acres of vines were planted on the valley floor, and sourcing additional cabernet from the nearby benchlands.

The grapes from the valley floor had always imparted an herbal quality to Jordan cabs, but Davis had to work diligently each harvest to eliminate patches of the vineyard that produced more vegetal aromas, what John Jordan refers to as "the green beans and bell pepper."

"Rob had stumbled across these cabernet vineyards in the benchlands, and we were able to rid ourselves of the green beans," said Jordan.

But that wasn't all. Jordan had always used a blend of French and American oak barrels. Slowly the regimen changed to work in more French barrels. With the 2014 vintage the evolution was complete, and the Jordan barrel regimen became 100 percent French oak.

What's remarkable is that John and Rob were able to tweak the Jordan cabernet to a higher level without abandoning Tom and Sally's original vision to produce California cabernet sauvignon with Bordeaux sensibilities.

You might say John Jordan was true to his roots.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.

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