Vinography Unboxed: Week of 8/20/23

Hello and 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 featured a number of spectacular wines that I’m very excited to share with you.

Saying the latest vintage of Champagne Louis Roederer’s “Cristal” is excellent seems a bit like saying the latest model of Ferrari is fast. I’ve certainly never had a bad vintage of Cristal. But I can say that the wines vary by vintage, and those variations can mean the wines are more or less accessible in their youth. I found the 2014 vintage quite lean and austere when it was first released, for instance, leading me to believe it was best drunk not now, but in a couple of years. (And, of course, these wines can age beautifully for decades).

The 2015 Cristal, on the other hand, is broad and generous, seemingly quite ready to drink now, and offers everything you could want in a prestige vintage Champagne bottling. Impeccable precision, gorgeous aromatics, and mouthwatering salinity. Now if I could only afford to buy some… But if your budget swings to the mid-three digits for wine, this is one you’ll want to enjoy.

Let’s come back to earth a bit with a couple of wines from Armenia, a country that may have been the place where mankind first figured out how to deliberately make wine at scale. With 6000 years of winemaking history under its belt, along with some very interesting native grapes, it’s going through a renaissance of winemaking these days. The Voskevaz bottling of the white grape Voskehat and the NOA Wine bottling of Areni demonstrate this new wave of quality wine perfectly. Both are unique and delicious.

A bit closer to home, I’ve got a pleasant Chardonnay from Trois Noix to recommend as well as a Grenache rosé from Mathis Wines. Each fresh and ready for your late summer table.

Santa Barbara winemaker Drake Whitcraft sent along a very special bottling of Pinot Noir from Jason Drew’s vineyard up on Mendocino Ridge in Mendocino County, and boy is it a knockout of a wine. Silky, complex, vibrant, and delicious. Only one barrel of this stuff got made, but if you’re looking for something special in Pinot Land, this is something to seek out.

One of the things I like about Whitcraft’s wines (and a few others that I consider to be the apogee of Pinot Noir in California) is their expression of beautiful fruit flavors at very modest alcohol levels. So many winemakers in California continue to state unequivocally that in order to get great flavor you must get optimal ripeness, which to the majority of people making Pinot Noir in California usually means making wines that clock in between 14% and 15% alcohol. When asked about picking earlier, these winemakers usually pull a face and talk about greenness and the lack of flavor development, etc., etc.

Well, as an alternative to that point of view, I present Michael Cruse’s 2021 Heintz Vineyard Pinot Noir, which, truth be told, was made originally to add some color to his Ultramarine rosé sparkling wine. But it tasted so good, he decided to bottle some of it on its own as a still Pinot Noir. It’s bursting with bright fruit flavor (yes, a bit on the nervy, sour-cherry side rather than black cherry, but hardly green and nasty). Alcohol level? A mere 10%. Try it, and see if you don’t agree that flavor is not directly correlated with sugar.

If you’re in the mood for a reasonably priced, well-aged Italian wine, I tasted the 2018 Badia a Corte Riserva from Chianti producer Torre a Cona this week and found it quite tasty as it evolves into its secondary aromas and flavors.

I generally try to review wines here that are already on the market (and typically ask producers to send me stuff that has been released or is just about to be released). I’ve got four wines to recommend to you this week that fall into that “just about” category. The first is the Durrell Vineyard Syrah from Gavin Chanin, another superstar from Santa Barbara dabbling in fruit from up north, in this case, the famed Durrell Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast AVA. Chanin’s 2021 Syrah has lovely savory notes and a distinct cool-climate character while being quite accessible even in its youth.

Lastly, I can’t recommend highly enough that you take a look at the 2020 wines from Cathy Corison, which demonstrate all of the finesse and elegance that many of us have come to expect from Cathy. In what was a disastrous year for a majority of Napa Valley producers thanks to the horrible fires, Cathy had picked her Cabernet more than two weeks prior to the outbreak of the fires and was able to seal up her winery tight (and cautiously add some air filters) to allow the wines to avoid any threat of smoke taint. The resulting wines are positively tremendous, and demonstrate what an excellent vintage 2020 was until all hell broke loose for so many. Corison’s 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon will be released in a few days, her Cabernet Franc in about a month, and her single vineyard Sunbasket Cabernet Sauvignon will be out in about 6 months, but I can tell you today just how good all of them are.

Notes on these and all the rest below.

Tasting Notes

2015 Louis Roederer “Cristal” Champagne Blend, Champagne, France
Light gold in the glass with a faint bronze hue and moderately fine bubbles, this wine smells of sea air, toasted nuts, and lemon pith. In the mouth, bright flavors of roasted nuts, citrus pith, toasted brioche, and butterscotch are shot through with a fantastic salinity, oyster shell chalkiness, and the faintest whisper of aromatic sweetness that lingers in the finish. Over time, hints of dried citrus peel emerge. Beautifully balanced and quite generous already, this is a poised, regal wine that is immensely pleasurable to drink right now, as opposed to some vintages that can be much more austere in their youth. Delicious and compelling. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $375. click to buy.

2017 Voskevaz “Karasi Collection – Vielles Vignes” Voskehat, Armenia
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith, struck flint, and white flowers. In the mouth, flavors of peach and lemon mix with white flowers and vanilla pastry cream. Decent, if a bit delicate, acidity. Made from old vines grown at 1200 meters of altitude, aged in terra cotta and Armenian oak. 13.5% alcohol Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $49. click to buy.

2021 Troix Noix “Muir-Hanna Vineyard” Chardonnay, Oak Knoll District, Napa, California
Light gold in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of lemon curd, pineapple, and grapefruit zest. In the mouth, lemon curd and grapefruit flavors have a sneaky acidity that creeps up on you, as notes of orange peel and pineapple linger in the finish. 13.5% alcohol. Certified B Corp. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2022 Mathis Wines Rosé of Grenache, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma, California
Palest peachy pink in color, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and unripe strawberries. In the mouth, green strawberry and watermelon flavors have a nice wet chalkboard quality and decent acidity. Crisp and dry. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2021 Whitcraft Winery “Sofia Romaneé un Rêve Devenu Réalité – Fait de Mer Farm” Pinot Noir, Mendocino Ridge, Mendocino County, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs, forest floor, and berries. In the mouth, incredibly bright and floral berry fruit is wrapped in gauzy tannins that stiffen over time and are shot through with herbs, dried flowers, and earth. Fantastic acidity and gorgeous aromatics. A fairly stunning wine. 13.57% alcohol. 22 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $165.

2021 Cruse Wine Co. “Heintz Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and redcurrant. In the mouth, tart, bright juicy raspberry, cranberry, and sour cherry flavors are bright and very tangy, even slightly sour. Super juicy and bright and crunchy. This is the Pinot Noir that goes into the Ultramarine rosé. Three-day maceration. A shockingly low 10% alcohol. 900 bottles made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $49. click to buy.

2019 Noah of Areni “NOA” Areni Noir, Vayots Dzor, Armenia
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of licorice and berries, with a hint of incense. In the mouth, bright berries, herbs, carob, and dried flower flavors have a nice juicy acidity and a faint, wispy tannic structure. Supple and silky on the palate, with a hint of red apple skin in the finish. Tasty. 30% of the wine ages in 2nd use barrels. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $29. click to buy.

2018 Torre a Cona “Badia a Corte Riserva” Chianti Collo Fiorentini, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in the glass with orange highlights, this wine smells of orange peel, dried herbs, dried flowers, and cherry. In the mouth, cedar and cherry flavors mix with orange peel and dried herbs as bright, juicy acidity keeps the saliva flowing. Faint wispy tannins and the slight scent of oak linger in the finish. Pretty. 14% alcohol. Closed with a synthetic cork. Score: around 9. Cost: $32. click to buy.

2021 Chanin Wine Company “Durelll Vineyard” Syrah, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and white pepper. In the mouth, blackberry and black cherry fruit mixes with aromatic white pepper and dried herbs as a cloud of powdery tannins fill the mouth. The tannins stiffen a little over time, but this is a surprisingly supple wine, with nice savory notes to balance the fruit. I find myself wishing for just a little more bite from the acidity, but that’s just a quibble with a very attractive wine. 13% alcohol. 50 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $?? Not yet released.

2020 Corison “Helios – Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Franc, St. Helena, Napa, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of crushed nuts, plum and cherry. In the mouth, juicy and bright flavors of cherry and plum skin mix with pencil lead and dried herbs. Excellent acidity keeps things juicy, as limber, athletic tannins embrace the palate. Elegant. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy. (to be released 10/1/23).

2020 Corison “Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cocoa powder and black cherry. In the mouth, bright black cherry and plum flavors have a touch of cola and cocoa powder as bright acidity makes for a mouthwatering experience. Faint, ethereal tannins, with an overall fantastic balance and elegance, and light oak notes in the finish. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $225. click to buy. (to be released in April 2024).

2020 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of back cherry and cassis. In the mouth, gorgeous cherry, dried flowers, and herb flavors have an ethereal quality as bright acidity makes for a mouthwatering package. The tannins are wispy ghosts that hang in the corners of the mouth. Refined AF. The idea of a wine this gorgeous being made in a year when a large percentage of producers in Napa made no wine at all thanks to the fires positively boggles the mind. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy. (to be released 9/1/23).