Hello, and welcome to my periodic dig through the samples pile. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.
This week was mostly about bigger red wines, but before we get to these wines (and in some cases their obscenely heavy bottles — more on that in a moment) one white wine stood out this week, from a producer who reliably makes excellent Chardonnays among other things. The MacRostie Wildcat Mountain Chardonnay did a good job balancing ripe fruit, barrel influence and the brightness of acidity. I’d say this was a bit ripe for my tastes, but will appeal to many who want a high-quality California Chardonnay without breaking the bank.
Speaking of values, it’s nearly impossible to beat that value of Calera’s Central Coast Pinot Noir. It lists at the winery for $30 but you can find it at retailers as low as $22, and at that price there aren’t many California Pinot Noirs that can touch it. It’s not horribly complex, but it’s wonderfully satisfying in its ripe berry expression.
Now, moving on to more weighty wines, let’s look at two Sangioveses from Poliziano, a producer in the Tuscan town of Montepulciano. First, they have their single-vineyard Vino Nobile di Montalcino, “Asinone,” which comes from a roughly 27-acre vineyard with stony-clay soils on the south side of the Montepulicano hill. The wine spends 18 months in French oak barrels (6 months more than required by regulation) and at least 1 year in bottle before release. Despite being aged in barriques and having a slightly more international style as a result, the wine does not display much wood character and is easily mistaken for a more traditional wine. It’s a regal interpretation of Sangiovese and can hold its own with many Tuscan cousins.
Also from Poliziano, though under a separate brand name, The Lohsa Morellini di Scansano is also Sangiovese, but from the region surrounding the town of Scansano, which is in the southwest part of Tuscany, closer to the ocean. There are few regulations on Morellini di Scansano save that it must be 85% Sangiovese.
So now let’s return to California and look at a few Napa Cabernets. I tasted quite a few Napa Cabs this week, and a whole bunch of them came in obnoxiously heavy bottles. Many of these wines had oak and ripeness proportional to their weights, and so didn’t even make the cut for sharing with you this week, but a few of them did, and they merit some derision for what has become a real problem in this age of climate crisis. If you haven’t read my article “Ending the Aesthetic Fallacy of Heavy Wine Bottles,” please give it a quick once over.
Then you’ll understand why this week I’m saying, Shafer Vineyards. WTF? It’s time to get rid of the 1KG+ massive glass bottles. Shafer already made a bold move in the last few years, changing all their corks to DIAM. They were worried about a backlash from their customers, and no one said a thing. They need to take the same spirit and apply it to their bottles, which, in the case of the Hillside Select are egregiously heavy.
The Hillside Select is the winery’s top bottling and comes from the winery’s steepest hillsides along their Stags Leap estate. The 2015 is nicely knit together at this point, with extremely well integrated wood. Clocking in at 15.3% alcohol, it remains pretty well balanced with only a tiny bit of heat in the finish, which kept it from getting a higher score from me.
I also tasted the estate’s TD-9 red blend, which is named after the family tractor and is a more affordable wine, if perhaps lacking the regal voluptuousness of the Hillside Select.
Three more reds from Napa this week as well. Let’s begin with the inaugural bottling of a new wine called The Cowgirl and The Pilot. Made by the second generation of the Trefethen family, it is named in honor of Janet and John Trefethen (who are the rodeo queen and navy pilot referenced by the name). After 25 years of making a noteworthy Merlot, Trefenthen will be using this label for their top Merlot each year. The wine possesses admirable structure and an edge that not many Merlots manage in Napa.
Lastly, I’ve got a Cabernet from a producer that is new to me — Martin & Croshaw which shows some nice restraint; and a Napa Cabernet that manages to cost less than $35, which is a rather remarkable achievement in itself. The Silver Ghost won’t win awards for depth or complexity, but as a Napa Cabernet house wine, it would certainly not turn anyone off.
Notes on all these below.
2016 MacRostie Winery & Vineyards “Wildcat Mountain” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma, California
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and pineapple. In the mouth, lightly saline flavors of pineapple and lemon curd have a wonderful neon yellow brightness to them thanks to very good acidity. 14.6% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2017 Calera Vineyards Pinot Noir, Central Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of wet earth, cranberries and dried herbs. In the mouth, raspberry and cranberry flavors have a wonderfully, bouncy and bright aspect thanks to excellent acidity, while herbs and a touch of earth creep into the finish. Lovely balance, and a real contender for best CA Pinot under $25 (price at winery is $30). 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $22. click to buy.
2015 Poliziano “Asinone” Vino Nobile di Montelpulciano, Tuscany, Italy
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells of cedar and cigars and red fruit. In the mouth, powdery, gauzy tannins gain strength as they grasp flavors of cherry, sandalwood, dried herbs and earth in a tightening fist of structure. Very pretty and elegant, however, and bound to improve with age. Delicious. 14.5% alcohol. 100% Sangiovese. Score: around 9. Cost: $62. click to buy.
2017 Poliziano “Lohsa” Morellini di Scansano, Tuscany, Italy
Medium to dark garnet in color, this Sangiovese smells of cherry, leather, and a bit of dried herbs. In the mouth, earthy flavors of cherry and cedar and leather are wrapped in muscular tannins that linger along with notes of leather and earth in the finish. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $18. click to buy.
2015 Shafer Vineyards “Hillside Select” Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District, Napa, California
Inky opaque garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry cola and black cherries. In the mouth, rich black cherry and cola flavors are very juicy thanks to excellent acidity. The fruit nestles into a velvety bed of tannins. The wood is extremely well integrated here and doesn’t stick out at all. Unfortunately, thanks to the 15.5% alcohol there’s a bit of heat on the finish. As usual, comes in an obscenely heavy bottle. Shafer, you switched to DIAM to save your wines and none of your customers cared, why not switch to lighter bottles and save the planet? Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $275. click to buy.
2017 Shafer Vineyards “TD-9” Red Blend, Napa Valley, Napa, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells like sweet mocha and cherry. In the mouth, mocha and cherry are backed by velvety tannins and linger with notes of sweet vanilla in the finish. A blend of 62% Merlot, 22% Malbec, and 16% Cabernet Sauvignon. Reasonably well balanced for its 15.3% alcohol, with just a touch of heat in the finish. The bottle is still a bit heavy, but why not use this one for the Hillside Select? Score: around 8.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.
2016 Trefethen Family Vineyards “The Cowgirl and the Pilot” Merlot, Oak Knoll District, Napa, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of slightly minty black cherry and the barest whiff of green bell pepper. In the mouth, that mintiness continues with black cherry and black plum flavors that are buoyed by excellent acidity and backed by fine-grained tannins. Herbal notes join the fruit through a long finish. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $90. click to buy.
2016 Martin & Croshaw Vineyard “MC4” Cabernet, St. Helena, Napa, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of roasted figs and black cherries. In the mouth, black cherry and raisins have a cool freshness to them thanks to excellent acidity. The wood is reasonably well integrated here, lingering cedar-like in the finish with a hint of mintiness. Faintest tannins powder the edge of the palate. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $75. click to buy.
2017 Silver Ghost Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Napa, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of ripe black cherry. In the mouth, somewhat simple ripe black cherry and black plum flavors have a nice plushness to them, with fleecy tannins that wrap around a the fruity core. This isn’t a horribly complex wine, but its price point makes it something of a steal in Napa. 14.5% alcohol. 6100 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.