2013 Nickel & Nickel – Branding Iron Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon

A group of friends, some new and some old, came together tonight for some great vino while a nor’easter raged outside. Although the winds gusted and trees toppled nearby, inside we were all smiles while enjoying great grapes like this 2013 Nickel & Nickel, Branding Iron Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a 100% Cab from the Oakville appellation in Napa Valley and a fantastic beverage–many thanks to Jorge and Denise for hosting and opening this gem.

2013 Nickel & Nickel - Branding Iron Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, USA

2013 Nickel & Nickel – Branding Iron Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, USA.

The vineyard is close to the base of California’s Mayacamas Mountains and comprises “well-drained clay loam”, with vines vertically trellised to maximize their exposure to sunlight in morning and afternoon times. It was planted in 1998 on eight acres that have to be pretty valuable at this point, located north of Yountville and near the famed Stag’s Leap District. Its grapes were harvested in October 2013 and aged for 17 months in French oak (47% new; 53% once-used) before released to the public in September of 2015. The vineyard’s website contains excellent information to expand upon this snapshot if you are so inclined.

Rather than visit those notes, however, you might better spend your time ordering a bottle or tasting this big, mixed berry treat. It’s more purple than red in your glass, and wow does it have legs. This single-vineyard wine practically slouches down your glass and is so endearing on your palate…it’s fantastic. There is definite blackberry in the mix, and an earthiness too I think. Having said that, there was also some Johnny Walker Green Label on the counter and it may just be the idea of good whisky that influenced my brain on the deep peat moss notes that I was smelling.

This is the first time I’ve sampled a Nickel & Nickel Branding Iron Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and, with a little luck, it will not be the last. Several friends have shared their praise for the vineyard too, and I can understand why. This wine commands your attention, with its big mouthfeel and easy finish–thanks again to our hosts for breaking out this showstopper.

2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cliff Lede Vineyards

Yes this is the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon from Cliff Lede Vineyards in the Stag’s Leap District of Napa Valley, California. Great juice, here, and no surprise that it resonated so powerfully with this aficionado of the region and the varietal.

2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cliff Lede, Stag's Leap District, Napa Valley, California, USA.

2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cliff Lede, Stag’s Leap District, Napa Valley, California, USA.

This AVA is one of the best known in the world, and the small 60-acre lot that produces the fruit for Cliff Lede fuels a state-of-the-art processing operation set into the California hillside. The winery’s technology is well-described here if you’re curious for a deeper dive; more interesting to me was learning of the ‘rock blocks’ (My Generation, Dark Side of the Moon, etc.) used to name each segment of the vineyard. Love that kind of fandom…

…and speaking of fandom I loved this  2014 Cab. How could you not? Crafted by winemaker Christoper Tynan it is a real beauty of a wine, with grapes sourced from their Poetry Vineyard, Twin Peaks Vineyard, and a few gracious (and surely well-compensated) neighbors in the District. Given the terroir described for these areas there are some really interesting layers at work in the Cliff Lede Stag’s Leap District Cab. Of course there is plum and blackberry, and some things hinting at vanilla but not quite. It is crazy dark purple in your glass and amazing on your tongue, layers of something that reminds me of high-end soaps and their subtle fragrances.

Says the winemaker: “Interwoven into the floral notes are unctuous layers of plum, blackberry, and black currants.  Loads of smoked cardamom, cinnamon, and black licorice unwind onto the palate where the vibrant acidity carries the long finish to a state of balance and equilibrium.

Whoa. Said in short? Helluva wine. Yeah it’s got the mash up that I so enjoy in Bordeaux-style red. This one comprises a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec, and 2% Merlot. They made 7,246 cases of this stuff, bottling it in July of 2016 after aging in French oak barrels for 21 months.

Do yourself a favor and read about the sorting, fermentation, and related production notes…and then get a bottle for the next big celebration you have. You can thank me later.

2013 Antica Corte Amarone, Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore

Notes has recently covered several different Valpolicella Amarones for your edification, and this one should be rated highest on that list, just ahead of the Vella Maffei and the Juliet (I have the Montessor ranked as the weakest of the set despite its ambitious price tag). This 2013 Antica Corte Amarone was a very generous birthday gift that managed to sit undisturbed over these last two months until I decided to unveil it with a tip of the cap to my brother on his own birthday.

2013 Antica Corte Amarone, Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore, Valpolicella, Italy.

2013 Antica Corte Amarone, Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore, Valpolicella, Italy.

I had stored this beauty at 55 degrees since bringing it home from the store; some knowledgeable sites counseled at storing Amarone at that temperature while others implied no hard and fast storage requirements. I did not decant the 2013 Antica Corte, as I was in a rush to taste once I realized it was was wine thirty and into happy hour. On this occasion I had the Amarone in a Cabernet Sauvignon glass–not quite the norm but the wine played in this stemware very well.

This Amarone comes from Verona, which is about 90 minutes east of Venice, and grapes for it are traditionally harvested in October from the most matured grapes (e.g., Corvina, Molinari, and Rondinella) in the region’s vineyards. They are dried during the winter almost into “raisin” form, a period of about 120 days when the grapes will lose 30 to 40 percent of their weight. This obviously intensifies the concentration of flavor and sugar content, which results in higher alcohol levels in an Amarone. Since the winemakers use much more fruit to make an Amarone (approximately 2x as many grapes as normal wines, with >45 days of slow fermentation), price tags elevate in similar fashion.  The 2013 Antica Corte Amarone is aged in Slavonian oak barrels for 36 months and the end product is spectacular.

A bottle this delicious is perfect to enjoy with friends, in part to share in the richness, and also so they get a sense of what you consider the ‘good stuff’. This evening the 2013 Antica Corte accompanied a mixed green salad, accented by fresh cucumber, onion, carrots, and radishes, a baked potato, and thick-cut steaks fired on the grill. After a week of poor eating on the road it was a “Welcome Home” treat to be sure. It poured not like the jammy juice of a Petite Petit or Cabernet Sauv, and not the thinner red of a Pinot Noir–it’s truly a ruby red somewhere in the middle of these extremes. It smells a bit like spiced cherry, like a kicked up box of raisins with all the right scents turned up for your senses. It’s so good that I just stopped writing for a second to go back for another whiff.

I understand that it’s a treat to drink Amarone, and I thank my mother for gifting the 2013 Antica Corte Amarone and making this experience possible for me. May you find great occasions (or any/every occasion) to enjoy one yourself–I know you’ll be glad you did.

2012 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon

My first ever bottle of Silver Oak, one of Alexander Valley’s most well-recognized Cabernets. This one is of the 2012 vintage, and was part of a beautiful day and Easter celebration with my other family (you know who you are!). All afternoon we had great foodstuffs and sampled good grapes–none as delicious as this one.

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2012 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, California, USA.

Thanks for allowing me to join you all and partake in so many good things: food, “Patrick TV”, deck fishing, family, and friendship. Notes on this one will have to come some other time–while the 2012 Silver Oak is exceptional, it pales in comparison to the day we just enjoyed. Looking forward to the next one already.

2001 Bordeaux, Chateau Mongravey

Out for family dinner at J & K Steakhouse and we’re celebrating the occasion with a special bottle–a 2001 Bordeaux from Chateau Mongravey. I met my brother-from-another-mother, his wife, and their amazingly well-behaved son (who’s about nine months old but looks twice that). His father brought out this Bordeaux as a treat for us all, and his great call was our collective benefit.

2001 Bordeaux, Chateau Mongravey, Margaux, France

2001 Bordeaux, Chateau Mongravey, Margaux, France

I’m not sure how long the bottle was stored but was glad to enjoy it with dear friends tonight. The waiter almost struggled with the cork and I wondered how many 15-year-old bottles he wrestles in a given week. He didn’t react to the vintage or region but I promise you my eyebrow was raised and I was excited to sample it for sure. The baby looked on as we partook of the grapes, and from this evening I’ll always remember Patrick rotating in his highchair like some toddler’s version of Linda Blair.

And the eats? I started with blue iceberg salad and snickered at the balls of the restaurant to charge $9 for lettuce. Granted, it was cut in some interesting way and covered with red onion, bacon, and blue cheese–all favorites–but it’s still just kicked-up lettuce. I also forked up some of the delicious Brussel sprouts and my entrée, a 14-ounce New York strip steak that was cooked just as ordered. It was good, but honestly the highlight was the company and the 2001 Chateau Mongravey.

I haven’t had a Bordeaux since April, and that bottle was a far cry from this Haut-Medoc gem. The Mongravey was fragrant, and had far less of a Cabernet Franc or Sauvignon bite to it, even without any time to breathe. The 2001 Chateau Mongravey had far more blueberry notes than strawberry or cherry, and it had just a whiff of leather to it. Not quite an earth tone but slightly fragrant in that way? It was gone too soon, but left us all with great memories.

Thanks pal for sharing your evening and your great bottle.

 

2014 Caymus Cabernet Blind Tasting

One of my favorite wine shops caught my attention with a special promotion–centered around the 2014 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a simple concept, one Winestore has run annually since 2010. The 2014 Caymus carries a sizable price tag, but is it justified? Does it outperform $25 competitors on reputation or actual taste?

Winestore lined up eight bottles, identical in size and shape, each masked with aluminum foil and numbered with a simple Sharpie. I was a rookie in that I’d never done a blind taste test, and never tried Caymus. Could I really pick it out against other worthy wines?

Masked bottles at Winestore, endeavoring us all to hunt for Caymus.

Masked bottles at Winestore, endeavoring all comers to hunt for the 2014 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sampling

I was interested to sample this highly regarded Wagner release, and interested to see if my modest tasting experiences over the past years would be of any value in differentiating it from the competition. I paid my fee and started with #8–you know why. Its color seemed slightly lighter than a typical Cabernet, and its easy finish I considered more Pinot- or Zin-like. Not too much in the way of earth tones or spices, and I considered it lower in price almost immediately. I jotted down tasting notes, swirled, and dialed up my next wine.

Number 7 was a shadow of #8. Almost immediately I was thinking neither of these was the Caymus, in part because neither was “blow you away” impressive and in part because there was less differentiation between them. That said, #7 carried a hint of smoke and slightly more raspberry than cherry or blackberry. All of this went onto my tasting sheet, and I started eyeing bottle #6.

Six was big flavor, an explosion of fruit. It was the right color. This wine’s big, jammy feel reminded me right away of the Petite Petit from Michael David that I love so much. Pretty cool, too, since it was Winestore that first opened my eyes to the Petite about two years ago. This is juice, this is big cherry, and the blackberry I thought missing from the previous samples.

The #5 wine was also a big contrast, very different from all three that came before it. The fifth was as dry as #6 was juicy. I’m not thinking Cabernet tannins here, and I’m catching a feel that is more Roija and Mediterranean than Californian. My notes say “Spanish? Grenache?” Was I right about that? We’ll get to that in a moment. Onward, true readers…

…to bottle #4. This one too was an easy disqualification. Very much not California, very much not a Cabernet. So not Caymus, but pretty damn good. I’m thinking Spanish Rioja here again. This sort of made another pairing. So far I’ve got #7 and #8 in proximity to one other, and #4 and #5 as semblances too.

By the time I hit #3 the wheels are turning, but I’m thrown out of the zone when the dispenser sputters and runs sort of empty as I fill my tasting glass. I sip, I swirl, I mull this one over. It’s got the right color, and my brain says “#3 always does right by you“. Wine #3 throws off the earthy notes that clearly signify Cabernet, and perhaps California at that. This smells special and tastes that way too. Is this my goal or just a windmill? I wonder how much of my game has been thrown by the sputtering dispenser.

There are fun people in the store, a few tackling this same Caymus challenge, and a couple others just enjoying time and each other’s company as they sample vino. I cracker up, I rinse my glass, and I make my way to #2.

It’s pretty damn good–is this the 2014 Caymus? It pours with the right color, has the right legs in the glass. I whiff and sip. I’ve never seen someone do the slurpy thing in real life, and I’ll be honest in telling you I swallowed every drop that I tasted today. This one in particular, because it is fine. Real fine! It is big fruit, it is layered, and it has a Cab-like finish.

Only #1 remains, and I hit it. It’s okay but doesn’t measure up to the last two bottles I’ve sampled. There’s a hint of something in this wine that I can’t quite place. It’s not vanilla, and it is not spice, leather, or licorice. Even now I’m not sure what it was, but it was closest to the licorice. Beautiful red color in bottle #1 yet no California Cabernet. (Look, if you read this column with any regularity, you know that an overwhelming percentage of all wine in Notes is Californian, so most times I know it when I taste it. This isn’t it.)

Making the Call

I think I’ve got my pick, and I’m wondering about the psychology of the order as I make my way over the employees managing the testing. Did they assign bottles to position at random? What does recency bias do to your taste buds? Do professional tasters wrestle over questions like this, and would they scoff at anyone who would confuse Caymus for these other wines? What’s the price of these other wines, which I have ordered by quality in my own brain in a way that’s independent from label, reputation, or cost?

2014 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, USA. AKA #6!

2014 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, USA. AKA #6!

Moment of confession–at this last minute, I hedge my bet. I ask the employee if the Petite Petit is among the samples. When he says no, I know right then and there that Caymus is Bottle #6 and I make my prediction. Yes, I get it right, but I still half-kick myself for not having the confidence to say so without wanting to first disqualify the David. The 2014 Caymus Cabernet is reminiscent of both Conundrum (which I have had on several prior occasions) and, obviously, the Petite Petit.

So what did I learn? Looking back, I recognize my palate has begun to tell me things about red wines and, to a growing extent, to differentiate between rich, nuanced reds and others that lack the subtleties that come in higher-regarded (and pricier) releases. I get the sense that I can discern California Cab from other varietals. And I also learn that I can find 90 to 95 percent of Caymus’ amazing taste in the Conundrum and Petite Petit bottles that cost 50 to 60 percent less. Fun occasion–thanks to the Winestore team for the compelling promotion.

The Wines

#8 was the 2014 Snowvale Cabernet ($12.99)

#7 was the 2011 Americano Petite Sirah ($14.99)

#6 was the 2014 Caymus Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($64.99)

#5 was the 2014 Waccamaw Proprietary Red ($14.99)

#4 was the 2013 Las Flors de le Peira ($34.99)

#3 was the 2014 Willowlake Napa Cabernet ($59.99)

#2 was the 2013 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz ($34.99)

#1 was the 2011 Marge Priorate ($19.99)