Vinography Unboxed: Week of 3/14/21

Welcome to my weekly dig through the pile of wine samples that show up asking to be tasted. 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 offered an unusually strong set of samples beginning with an absolutely fabulous white Rioja from the boutique producer Abel Mendoza. Husband-and-wife team Abel Mendoza and Maite Fernandez farm about 50 acres and make about 6000 cases of hand-crafted wines each year. The two have been making their own wines since 1988, and have made a name for themselves producing single-variety white wines in a region where, until recently, such wines were not allowed. This white, however, features all 5 white varieties that the couple grows, and it is a stunning expression of fruit and minerality that stopped me in my tracks. Their Seleccion Personal Rioja, which I also tasted this week, is equally as compelling. I highly recommend both wines.

There was a time (as recently as 15 years ago) when California rosé pretty much sucked. One of the problems it faced was that most folks in California didn’t know how to make it well. Most rosés were from saignee, meaning juice that was just pulled out of a tank that would go on to make red wine, rather than being wines that were made from grapes picked specifically to make rosé. Those crappy California rosés were all usually quite dark in color, and at the time, it was rare to see a pale, pink rendition that resembled the rosés of Provence. Now, thankfully, properly picked-for-rosé wines are much more common in California, and so it’s not uncommon to find wonderfully pale-colored pink wines from all over the state.

Having said that, the rosé I tried this week from Raeburn is perhaps one of the most pale-colored I’ve ever seen in California, but that lack of color doesn’t translate to a lack of flavor, however. It offers the bright range of refreshing flavors everyone has come to love in these versatile, delicious wines. I wonder, perhaps, if the pale color may be just an extra little hedge against the risk of smoke taint, the compounds of which are found in the skins of affected grapes. Regardless, there is zero perceptible taste of smoke in this wine, so either such efforts paid off, or there wasn’t anything to worry about.

Perhaps the most impressive wine I tasted this week was the latest wine from the collaboration between Burgundy’s Jean-Nicolas Méo (of Domaine Méo-Camuzet), and music entrepreneur Jay Boberg (among other things, one of the founders of IRS Records) named Nicolas-Jay. Along with the help of Associate Winemaker Tracy Kendall, this estate has been making exceptional Pinot Noirs in Oregon’s Willamette Valley for several years, with a particular emphasis on single-vineyard bottlings. Every year, however, there have always been some barrels or blocks that stand out, even from their single-vineyard focus, and in 2018, the trio decided to assemble a wine from these standout, best-of-the-best lots of wine. To this new wine they gave the name “L’Ensemble” and it truly sings. At the moment it is quite young, but the wine is both delicious and indicative that it will become even more so with age.

This week I also tasted two new releases from Acumen, one of Napa’s more interesting young wine labels. Their “Mountainside” wines are their less-expensive bottles, and both the Cabernet and the Red Blend are very tasty, and like all the Acumen wines, show a restraint of both alcohol and oak that are admirable for Napa.

Lastly, the wine world has been a bit abuzz lately with the announcement of the Penfolds California Collection, the venerable Australian producer’s set of California wines. Comprised of four wines, two of which, quite unusually, are blends of wine from both California and Australia, these were a pretty impressive set of wines.

The wines range in price from $50 to a whopping $700, but all display the extremely competent winemaking that has turned Penfolds into a powerhouse producer. My favorite of the group was the “Lot 149,” a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon from both Napa and Australia that had an herbal zing and wonderful juicy acidity. Despite having 85.1% of the wine come from Napa, with 14.9% of the wine coming from outside the US, the wine has received the most generic appellation designation there is in this country: “American.” If only all American Cabernet Sauvignon was this good.

The other three wines are definitely worth seeking out, though I suspect the Quantum bottling may end up being little more than a collectors curiosity.

Tasting Notes

2019 Abel Mendoza “5V” Rioja Blanca, Spain
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of star fruit, melon, and candied grapefruit. In the mouth, juicy and bright Asian pear, melon and grapefruit flavors mix with dried yellow herbs and a wonderful citrus pith and saline quality that builds through the finish. Fantastically balanced between richness and mouthwatering juiciness. A blend of the five white grape varieties (hence the name) grown on the estate: Torrontes, Viura, Grenache Blanc, Tempranillo Blanco, and Malvasia. 14.5% alcohol. 3797 bottles made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.

2020 Raeburn Rosé, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Palest peach in color, to the point of being nearly colorless — certainty one of the lightest rosés I’ve had from California, this wine smells of watermelon and strawberry gum. In the mouth, faintly sweet flavors of watermelon, strawberry and raspberry fruit have a nice brightness thanks to excellent acidity, with an orange peel citrus note as well as a little jalapeño heat on the finish. Perhaps slightly candied for my taste, but doubtless a crowd-pleaser. An unusual blend of 74% Pinot Noir, 22% Zinfandel, and 4% Grenache. 13.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $17. click to buy.

2018 Nicolas Jay “L’Ensemble” Pinot Noir, Oregon, Willamette Valley
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a slightly shy nose of dried flowers, raspberries, and cherry aromas. In the mouth, beautiful filigreed acidity brings flavors of raspberry, cherry, and forest floor alive. There’s a deep stoniness to this wine that is quite compelling, as well as a coiled potential that suggests it will blossom into something even more spectacular with age. Lovely faint tannins linger in the finish with hints of orange peel and cherry. Fermented with native yeasts and aged in 33% new French oak for 14 months. 13.5% alcohol. 1145 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $75. click to buy.  

2017 Abel Mendoza “Seleccion Personal” Rioja, Spain
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of rich cherry and dark earth, shot through with dried flowers. In the mouth, cherry and earth and forest floor flavors mix with the exotic perfume of dried flowers and herbs. Gorgeously savory, with suede-like tannins that hang back at the edges of the palate and excellent acidity, this is an understated powerhouse of a wine that has beautiful balance and poise. It’s got a gorgeous voice, but it’s not shouting at you. Step closer and listen closely to what it has to say. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $61. click to buy.

2018 Acumen “Mountainside” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cocoa powder, and tobacco. In the mouth, cherry, boysenberry, chocolate, and cola flavors have a nice brightness thanks to excellent acidity. Faint tannins buff the edges of the palate while notes of slightly-bitter and earthy licorice root linger in the finish. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2018 Acumen “Mountainside” Red Blend, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, plum, and a touch of green herbs. In the mouth, plummy fruit and green herbs mix with cola and a berry note that are all juicy with excellent acidity. There’s a hint of bitterness in the finish that reminds me of Chinese medicinal tea.14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2018 Penfolds “Bin 600 – Cabernet Shiraz” Red Blend, California
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and blackberry fruit. In the mouth, black cherry and blackberry flavors are bright and slightly spicy, with excellent acidity and a nice powdery, gauzy throw of tannins. Hints of orange peel linger with the blackberry bramble in the finish. Tasty. A blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Shiraz, some of which comes from a vineyard planted by Penfolds in the Camatta Hills of Paso Robles in the 1980s. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2018 Penfolds “Bin 704” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis, tobacco and earth. In the mouth, rich black cherry, cola, and licorice flavors are wonderfully savory and juicy with excellent acidity. The wood influence here is subtle and not overwhelming, though it does surface in the finish, leaving the wine with a faint woody aftertaste. A nicely made wine, though. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2018 Penfolds “Bin 149” Cabernet Sauvignon, USA
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis and black licorice. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and blackberry flavors have a faint minty juiciness that it’s easy to imagine comes from the Australian component of this blend, though that’s not entirely certain. Quite juicy and very tasty, with supple, fleecy tannins that wrap around the mouthwatering core of fruit. Notes of mint and green herbs linger in the finish along with black cherry and licorice. Juicier and more satisfying than the Napa-only bottling that is part of this collection. Labeled a “Wine of the World,” this is an unusual blend of 85.1% Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and 14.9% Australian Cabernet. In all likelihood, this is the single best Cabernet without an AVA designation you’ll ever have. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $149. click to buy.

2018 Penfolds “Quantum – Bin 98” Cabernet Sauvignon, USA
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cola. In the mouth, rich black cherry and cola flavors have a nice juicy brightness thanks to excellent acidity. There’s an interesting cedar and camphor quality to this wine, with a high-note that has an herbal incense quality to it. Very fine-grained tannins and a long finish. A blend of 87% Napa Cabernet, and 13% Australian Cabernet. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $700. Yes, you read that correctly. $700. click to buy.