Review: 2015 Chasing Venus Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough

chasing venus

JL Giguiere, which makes the Matchbook line of wines, imports this sauvignon blanc from New Zealand and bottles it in the U.S. No surprises here for anyone familiar with NZ wines: Hope you like pineapple and mango, because Chasing Venus is loaded with it. Fans of Jamba Juice will find plenty to enjoy in this sweet and lightly acidic offering, which finishes clean with a touch of cucumber and mint.

B / $16 / crewwines.com

Review: Armorik Breton Single Malt French Whisky – Classic, Double Matured, Sherry Finish (2016)

armorik

It’s been five years since we last checked in with Armorik, a single malt whisky producer in Brittany, France. Its lineup has been radically revamped and updated, with numerous new expressions hitting the market in the intervening years. The 80 proof expression we reviewed in 2011 is no longer produced under that name, but you can still get it as “Armorik Original Edition” if you are interested.

Among the changes: a stronger use of sherry, locally-sourced wood, and, most notably, increasing the alcohol level to the current 92 proof (which is the abv at which all of the below are bottled). Today we look at three of the company’s expressions that are now available in the U.S. Thoughts follow.

Armorik Breton Single Malt Classic – A marriage of spirits aged in sherry and bourbon casks, representing a variety of ages. Herbal and slightly floral on the nose, with notes of flamed orange peel. On the palate, it offers a classic single malt composition — ample malt, honey and vanilla sweetness, roasted nuts, and a bit of cocoa. The finish is a touch astringent and youthful with some green notes, but approachable enough for an everyday dram. B / $50

Armorik Breton Single Malt Sherry Finish – While Armorik Classic is a blend of whiskies matured in either bourbon or sherry casks, all the whisky in Sherry Finish spends time in both — first bourbon casks, then sherry casks for a few months of finishing. This whisky doesn’t come across like your typical sherry finished spirit, offering caramel, barrel char, and coffee notes on the nose. The palate is a bit mushroomy, with overtones of charred bread, more barrel char, and a heavily malty finish. The sherry just doesn’t make much of an impact at all here, either because it doesn’t spend enough time in those barrels, or because they’re spent from too much reuse. B- / $60

Armorik Breton Single Malt Double Matured – A somewhat unique whisky, Double Matured starts not with bourbon casks but with casks made from wood cut from Brittany’s forests. After “many years” in these casks (used or new is not stated), the whisky is then transferred to sherry casks for finishing. Though there’s still no age statement, the whisky inside on average is likely a little older. Age comes across on the nose, which provides a more complex and intricate experience right away, with notes of cloves, menthol, and sherried fruit. The body is nuttier and richer than the Classic, with a heavier (but surprisingly balanced) wood component. The whisky finishes strong but doesn’t overpower, the ultimate impact being something of a hybrid of a single malt and an American whiskey. Interesting stuff, worth exploring. B+ / $60

heavenlyspirits.com

Review: The Hilhaven Lodge Whiskey

Hilhaven Lodge whiskey bottle shot

The Hilhaven Lodge is a funny name for a whiskey. That’s because the name also belongs to a home in Beverly Hills. It’s been part of Hollywoodland since 1927 (Ingrid Bergman owned and James Caan rented it at one point) and is now owned by director Brett Ratner, best known as the director of Rush Hour. What does Ratner have to do with whiskey? Not much — except that, like most of us, he’s a big fan.

Ratner obviously had enough credibility to get a deal with Diageo, and together they blended up a wacky new whiskey. It’s a marriage of “three different styles of whiskey spanning three decades – bourbon from the 2000s, Tennessee whiskey from the 1990s, and rye whiskey from the 1980s.” If I’m reading that correctly, then there is some whiskey in here that’s at least 27 years old — all for 40 bucks.

That said, the producers don’t offer any more specifics than the above (including provenance, proportions, mashbills, or aging specifics). The whiskey however is bottled at Stitzel-Weller and is currently available in California and Florida. (Also of note, a 2015 trademark lawsuit between Ratner and Heaven Hill went in favor of Ratner, and a trademark for Hilhaven Lodge was granted.)

Rye-bourbon blends are becoming increasingly popular, but adding in some Tennessee whiskey, too? That’s definitely a new one. Anyway, let’s give this oddball blend a taste and see what the director of Hercules, starring Dwayne Johnson, knows about whiskey, shall we?

On first blush, it doesn’t come across as particularly old, though the nose is loaded with dessert-like notes, including butterscotch, vanilla, and nougat. Some drying, rye-driven spice emerges with time in glass along with a curious and unusual, seaweed-like maritime note.

The palate is dominated by all of the above, but the body is quite light and feathery, a bit of char coming forward at times, with ample caramel notes throughout. Moderately fruity as the finish develops, it’s lively with apple, banana, and just a hint of tropical character — but in the end, it’s some leathery, wood-heavy notes that fade away last, leaving the palate a bit dry but, to be honest, ready for another round.

Despite the exotic blend, Hilhaven Lodge drinks primarily like a bourbon — a solid one, but a rather plain one, to be sure. That said, given its approachable price and solid construction, it’s hard not to recommend whiskey fans at least give it a go.

80 proof.

B+ / $40 / diageo.com

Review: Trinchero 2014 Sauvignon Blanc Mary’s Vineyard and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Mario’s

trinchero

New wines from Trinchero Napa Valley, which just opened a brand new state-of-the-art visitor center. Let’s give the duo a try.

2014 Trinchero Sauvignon Blanc Mary’s Vineyard Calistoga Napa Valley – A rather dry style of sauvignon blanc, offering gentle grapefruit notes mixed with lemon peel and fruit custard. All’s well and good until the finish, which is quite herbal and almost oppressively bitter. It may be built for summertime sipping, but it needs a meal to back it up in order to show off its strengths. B / $24

2012 Trinchero Cabernet Sauvignon “Mario’s” Napa Valley – A lively estate cabernet, this rich and balanced wine offers a dense plum and currant core, notes of licorice, tobacco, chocolate-covered raisins, and a gently bittersweet but lengthy finish. Again, the beautiful balance, which evokes light floral notes right alongside its dense fruit backbone, makes this wine so compelling that it’s tough to put down. A truly beautiful example of what Napa cabernet can be. A / $50

trincheronapavalley.com

Review: Laphroaig Lore

Laphroaig_Bottle and Tube_LORE_

“The most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies.” “A stunningly complex expression.” “The story of how we make Laphroaig, encapsulating the skills that have been passed down from generation to generation for over two centuries.”

Laphroaig doesn’t beat around the bush when describing Laphroaig Lore, its newest limited edition release from the peat-filled island of Islay.

Lore is heavy on superlatives but short on actual production information. What is known is that it is a “marriage of classical Laphroaig styles and many ages of Laphroaig; some as old as vintage 1993.” What that means is that Lore is essentially a vatting of a wide range of Laphroaig casks, including including “double matured first-fill ex-Bourbon barrels followed by virgin European Oak, first-fill Oloroso Sherry butts, first-fill and refill quarter casks, and refill ex-Laphroaig stock.”

So, you can take a shot of every bottle of Laphroaig in your collection and mix it up… or try this.

The results are quite good, completely in line with some of Laphroaig’s best expressions.

The nose is loaded with classic and heavy peat notes, all iodine, seaweed, and beachside fire pit. The sweetness lies beneath, taking the form of green banana, tangerine, and some scorched cloves.

On the palate, things start off as expected, with dense and sticky-smoky-sweet peat over everything. Quite a bit of that fruit comes through — primarily sherry-driven citrus notes, backed up by notes of sugar cookies, lemongrass, and lots of salty brine. The finish is big, bold, and lengthy, gripping the palate for ages. All the stuff of classic Laphroaig, just a bit outsized in comparison to standard expressions.

Lore doesn’t reinvent the wheel (Laphroaig would likely argue that it merely rediscovers it), but it’s not one that was in need of reinvention in the first place.

96 proof.

A- / $125 / laphroaig.com

Review: Ardbeg Dark Cove

dark cove

There’s been much chatter about Ardbeg’s latest special release, Dark Cove, which uses a lot of flowery language to say that this “darkest Ardbeg ever” is blended from a mix of bourbon cask-matured and sherry cask-matured (presumed to be Pedro Ximenez) stock. No age statement is included, per the norm.

Saying this is the darkest Ardbeg ever (which is always very pale in color) is a bit like me bragging about my darkest tan ever, but perhaps that’s irrelevant. How does Dark Cove actually taste? Let’s give it a shot.

The nose shows sherry first, with an undercurrent, quite restrained initially, of pure peat. Touches of coffee, anise, and cloves fade in and out, giving the whisky an exotic approach. The body is smokier but still mildly peaty, with notes of smoked fish, creosote, dark (nearly burnt) toffee, and some fresh ash. The sherry-driven citrus notes find a purchase here, but only for a time before the slightly rubbery finish takes hold.

Ardbeg’s limited edition releases have slowly been dialing back their heavy peat character for years now, and Dark Cove is another step along that journey. The sherry masks some of the youth that’s otherwise evident in this release, but I can’t say I don’t like the way it works with the addition. It’s not my favorite expression of Ardbeg to arrive in recent years — and in comparison to a number of recent releases it’s on the lackluster side — but on the whole I still find myself managing to enjoy it well enough to cautiously recommend.

93 proof.

B+ / $190 / ardbeg.com 

Review: 2015 Matchbook Rose of Tempranillo Dunnigan Hills

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It’s been a few years since we’ve reviewed this wine, produced by JL Giguiere under its Matchbook brand, a Yolo County rose made from Tempranillo grapes. Not much seems to have changed. Heavily fruit-forward, with notes of orange blossoms, strawberry, and vanilla, it’s a summertime sipper with ample sweetness but an appropriate amount of bite underneath. The finish is so full of berry notes that it drinks like a summery cocktail.

B+ / $12 / crewwines.com