Those of us who want to do more than just write reviews of wine samples face a dilemma. The samples are mostly wines from the big wine producers, but they tend to be a bit overpriced and not always very interesting. On the other hand, they're free, they're usually widely available (which is not always true of the wines that I buy), and it's not like there is anything obviously wrong with them.
Hence my indecision with something like the Norman ($15, sample), which has been sitting in the wine closet for 18 months — so long, in fact, that the current vintage is the 2008, and the 2009 is probably just around the corner. Did I do the wine a disservice by letting it sit so long?
Probably. This is a well-constructed California cabernet, with more herbal qualities than similarly-priced Napa or Sonoma wines (like the Hayman & Hill). It's still fruity (black cherries?) but the difference in terroir is noticeable — and welcome in a wine at this price. And, in letting the Norman sit so long, I probably did it a favor. The age helped it, though I wouldn't let it sit any longer than it has. The 2008 is probably ready right now.
Drink this wine with red meat, barbecue and similar dishes. It's probably too big to drink on its own, save for the manliest of red wine drinkers. But as something to keep around the house in case someone drops by, it's a good choice.
During the Australian wine boom last decade, one of the big wine companies thought it would be clever to pair a top Aussie winemaker with a leading California winemaker. The result was the $15 Hayman & Hill line. I got to taste with David Hayman, the Australian half, when the brand was introduced, and was quite impressed.
But, as often happens with these things, what seems clever to a big wine company at one moment is forgotten about at the next. The Hayman & Hill wines, despite top-notch reviews, are sporadically available and the label doesn't seem to have its own website any more. And the last I heard, neither Hayman nor Dennis Hill, the American, had much to do with making the wines.
Which is too bad, because Hayman & Hill's bottles deserve the good reviews they get. This Napa Valley cabernet ($15, sample) is a previous vintage, and it sat in the wine closet for a year before I realized it was there. But it was worth waiting for, with lots of black fruit (but not overdone or sweet) and enough tannins to stand up to the fruit and the acid. This is the kind of Napa cabernet that I appreciate: Sturdy, fruit forward and ready for a piece of red meat — but not overpriced.
Reviews of wines that don ?t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month.
? Shoofly The Freckle 2008 ($14, sample): This Australian white Rhone blend is starting to show its age, but does have pleasant honey floral aroma, sweet apple fruit at the back, and a peach pit finish.
? Stag's Leap Artemis 2003 ($40, sample): This is classic and elegant Napa cabernet sauvignon at a time when consumers expect trendy and pushy Napa cabernet. That those consumers don't appreciate it is their loss.
? Bella Sera Pinot Grigio 2009 ($8, sample): Simple, decent, and surprisingly pleasant Italian white wine. This won't offend anyone, which is saying a lot for pinot grigio at this price.
The Wine Curmudgeon's feelings about expensive California cabernet sauvignon are well known: Over-oaked, over-extracted, over-ripe and over-priced.
And then I tasted the Chalk Hill ($50, sample) and marvelled again at what talented winemakers can do with quality grapes. It's certainly Sonoma County wine, with black fruit and moderate (for Sonoma, anyway) 14.5 percent alcohol.
But there was an angularity to it that was quite appealing, some edges and rough spots that one normally doesn't find in these kinds of lush, ripe wines. I wouldn't go so far as to say it was an herbal character, which is a mark of red Bordeaux. But even the impression of herbal is more than one gets in most wines of this style.
Very nicely done, and even a value as these things go. It would make a fine gift for The Holiday that Must not be Named, or as the center piece for a classic red wine dinner.
Reviews of wines that don’t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month. This month, a special all red wines edition.
? Bonny Doon Contra 2009 ($14, sample): This Rhone blend is not exactly an upscale version of the old Big House Red, but it’s close enough. Lots of spice and fruit, though it does need food.
? William Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($23, sample): A surprisingly well done and balanced Napa cabernet that is more or less affordable. It’s a step up from more inexpensive cabernets like Avalon and 337, with more body and structure.
? 181 Merlot 2008 ($15, sample): A merlot from the same company that does the 337 cabernet sauvignon. Offers structure and substance for less than $25, which doesn’t happen often. On the other hand, the tasting notes compare Lodi, where the grapes are from, to merlot’s Garden of Eden in Pomerol, which is a bit much.
It's not easy to find quality, inexpensive cabernet sauvignon. There's plenty of cheap cabernet out there, but most of it is either too tannic, too green (with flavors resembling bell peppers), or too grapey to bother with. In fact, this is one of the few areas where the Wine Curmudgeon has mostly given up finding decent wine for $10 or less.
When you raise the price bar to $15, the standard has always been Avalon's Napa cabernet, which offers a bit of sophistication and style with plenty of quality California fruit. I've always thought the Avalon was superior to wines that cost $20 and more.
Which is why the 337 (about $15, sample) was such a pleasant surprise. I had tasted a previous vintage a couple of years ago when my Cordon Bleu class did its red wine extravaganza, but had not thought much about it until last week. That's when I saw this bottle in the back of the wine closet and remembered that my class had enjoyed the wine. If the 337 is not up the level of the Avalon, that's not an insult. It has cherry fruit that isn't overdone and the requisite varietal characteristics — zingy tannins and a decent finish. It's a red meat wine for cooler fall nights. One note: You might find some of the 2008 vintage, which should be OK.
And the name? 337 refers to the name of the clone of cabernet used to make the wine. What's a clone? It's a version of cabernet that has been bred for a specific purpose. In this case, 337 is the clone of cabernet used to make the wine.