Review: 2011 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

chateau montelena 2011 cabA lighter style of Cab arrives from Chateau Montelena this year, a rare, fresh Cabernet that you can actually enjoy with warm weather, fresh and lively at just 13.4% abv.

Fresh strawberry and light vanilla cookie notes dominate — altogether unusual for a Napa Cabernet. As the body develops, some mild tannins emerge, but it keeps things focused on the fruit. Increasing notes of strawberry and cherry, touched with wispy smoke, emerge, and given some time, you’ll find notes of balsamic and gentle tobacco notes. More than ready to drink now; not one to hold.

91.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, .5% Cabernet Franc.

A- / $50 / montelena.com

Review: Arteis & Co. Vintage Brut Champagne – 1999 Brut and 2002 Extra Brut

arteis

Arteis is a small French producer of Champagne “micro-cuvees.” The company made its big introduction to the U.S. market in New York last year. Now it’s making more inroads to the U.S., mainly in restaurant markets. We sampled two of the four Arteis vintages now on the market; both are well-aged Champagnes that have just recently been bottled. Thoughts follow.

Oh: Arteis asked us to let you know that on-premise pricing for these wines is considerably higher: $105-150 and $300-350 for the two, respectively.

1999 Arteis Brut Champagne – 40% Chardonnay Couilly, 40% Chardonnay Vertus, 10% Pinot Noir Vertus, 10% Meunier Congy. Disgorged in May 2013, this bright vintage Champagne is a winner. Spicy and floral on the nose (with a healthy but not overpowering yeastiness), it offers rich fig and pear fruit notes on the palate, with notes of both crisp red bell pepper and brown sugar on the finish. Complex and intriguing, but just a touch on the sweet side for a vintage brut. A- / $50

2002 Arteis Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne – 100% Chardonnay from Cuis (Côte des Blancs). Disgorged in August 2013, this is another refined champagne, though quite different from the 1999 due to its bone-dry palate. The nose is light with biscuit notes and light apple fruit. On the tongue, again it recalls the fields more than the fruit — heather and amber waves of grain. Notes of grapefruit and blood orange come along as the finish develops, which is palate cleansing and lightly bittersweet. A- / $129

arteis.co

Review: Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon 2014 Edition

four roses 2014LESmallBatch_Front_US

September is here, which means the second of Four Roses’ annual limited releases have arrived. The 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch release from 4R is a vatting of four different bourbon recipes: 13 year old OBSV, 12 year old OESV, 11 year old OBSF, and 9 year old OBSK. Three of those four, the OB bottlings, are from Four Roses’ “high rye” recipe. While 13 years sounds old, this is actually fairly young stock for this release. Unlike most prior Small Batch releases, the stock here doesn’t reach into the upper teens, and the Small Batch series has never had a whiskey younger than 10 years old in it before now. (That youth may also explain why this cask strength release is so racy, at an estimated 120 proof.)

That said, 9 years is plenty old for a Kentucky Bourbon, and the 2014 Small Batch doesn’t disappoint. It is an exceedingly fruity expression of Four Roses, bursting with notes of cherry, strawberry, orange, and lemon. Compared to the 2013 (which is now drinking as surprisingly austere), the 2012 (burly but increasingly approachable), and the 2011 (balanced but full of spice), it’s positively doused with an almost candylike character to it. I think it’s the cherry notes that ultimately come across the strongest — almost presenting like a Starburst fruit chew. Over time, the nose develops more of a woodsy character that melds with the cherry notes in a fun and enjoyable way — after spending some hours with the whiskey, I found myself thinking of Baker’s. Fans of that Bourbon may find lots to like in the 2014 Small Batch as well.

This isn’t my favorite whiskey in the Small Batch series, but damn if I didn’t enjoy it as much as those that have preceded it. Four Roses and Jim Rutledge love to tout how those 10 vaunted recipes can generate all kinds of different Bourbons when blended with an expert hand. This 2014 release continues to show that they know what they’re talking about.

11,200 bottles made. That’s 40% more than last year, so hopefully there’s more to go around.

A- / $90 / fourroses.us

Review: Cognac Claude Chatelier XO

cognac-claude-chatelier-xo-extra-b

I recently encountered this Cognac for the first time on a trip. I wasn’t familiar with the brand at all, but was pleasantly surprised by what I found inside the bottle of its XO release. No age statement is provided.

Perfectly fruity nose, with notes of cherry, apricot, and a bit of ruby Port. Some woody notes give it an incense character, too. On the palate, again the fruit dominates, offering pretty citrus, touches of plum, vanilla, and more of that woodsy incense character. A touch of heat makes the finish a bit racy, just enough to give this Cognac some curiosity, keeping it from devolving into an an utter fruit bomb. An all-around excellent effort at a very affordable price level.

80 proof.

A- / $50 / claudechateliercognac.com

Review: Aberlour Double Cask 12, 16, and 18 Years Old

aberlour 12 years old

Years ago I wrote about Aberlour’s beloved cask strength a’bunadh bottling, but I have long overlooked some charming offerings from this Speyside-based distillery. (Never mind the “Highland” on the label.) Aberlour’s standard age-statemented, more typical proof whiskies rely on some uncommon barrel aging techniques to create some unusual and easy-drinking single malts. Thoughts follow on the 12, 16, and 18 year old expressions.

Aberlour Highland Single Malt 12 Years Old Double Cask Matured – Not a sherry-finished whiskey. Rather, whiskies are either fully aged in a traditional oak cask or a sherry cask, then these two whiskies are married after each age for 12 years or more to create this expression. Just coming out of its youth, the nose offers fruit and a touch of heather and cereal. The body features lots of dried fruit notes — apricots, golden raisins/sultanas, and a healthy dose of woodiness. Really on fire at this blend of sherry and bourbon oak — proof that whisky needn’t be aged to the hilt in order to be masterful and delicious. 80 proof. A- / $43

Aberlour Highland Single Malt 16 Years Old Double Cask Matured – Made using the same dual-aging method as the 12 year old expression, just 4 years older. Considerably darker in color, almost ruddy in complexion. While the 12 year old is relatively light and carefree, the 16 shows off a much more powerful depth of flavor, heightening just about every aspect of the whisky. The dried fruit is punchier here, and so is the wood. Overall it’s the sherry character that gets the most notice with the 16 year old, a pungent orange peel and citrus oil note that endures throughout a lengthy session with this spirit. 80 proof. B+ / $75

Aberlour Highland Single Malt 18 Years Old – The label doesn’t say it’s double cask matured like the above, but this malt undergoes the same production treatment as its younger siblings. It is however bottled at 43% abv, a bit hotter than the rest. Similar notes here, but the 18 takes on a dark chocolate note, with hints of cinnamon and root beer. Some hospital notes tend to endure, driven mainly by the higher alcohol level. 86 proof. B+ / $92  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

aberlour.com

Review: Blue Nectar Tequila

blue nectar special reserve

Blue Nectar is a new brand producing three varieties of tequila from the Lowlands of Mexico. The three expressions are not the traditional trio you might be familiar with in the tequilaverse, but let’s not spoil the surprise.

All expressions are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Blue Nectar Tequila Silver – Intense bell pepper, jalapeno, and red chilis on the nose lead to a racy and spicy initial rush. This manages to settle down quickly to reveal some surprising layers of sweetness — light butterscotch and a bit of vanilla. You can’t keep that vegetal/pepper character down for long. It makes an overwhelming encore on this enigmatic — and slightly off-putting — spirit. B / $37

Blue Nectar Tequila Reposado – Claimed to be “a unique blend of reposado and limited production extra anejo” tequilas, which puts this into a category of bizarre tequila recursion. Is Blue Nectar Reposado somehow blended with itself? No matter. The addition of some three-year anejo aside, this is a well-made reposado, offering a pleasing mix of rich agave, silky caramel, and gummy vanilla notes. Both the savory and sweet sides of this spirit are in balance here, giving it a punchy, peppery counterbalance to its sweeter side. Lots to like. A- / $40

Blue Nectar Tequila Special Reserve – You might presume this is a fancy name for Blue Nectar’s Anejo. You’d be wrong. It is actually reposado “tequila infused with natural spice flavor.” Said spices are not revealed, but they do include “vanilla, nutmeg, and orange peel, plus a hint of agave nectar.” The overall impact is a bit weird and hard to pin down. It’s a very light, almost fruity spirit, with notes of orange juice, banana, vanilla ice cream, and a dusting of agave spice on the back. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad product. In fact, it’s pleasant enough, but it’s harmless to the point of being nearly inconsequential. I’m not sure what Blue Nectar did to this spirit, but it ultimately did a bit of a disservice to the raw material. B- / $45

bluenectartequila.com

Review: 7 Beers from North Coast Brewing Co.

north coast Pranqster.750mlFort Bragg, California-based North Coast Brewing Co. isn’t your typical Cali brewer. Its focus on fruitier, malt-heavy, European-style ales is a far cry from the traditional west coast style IPAs that dominate its region. It’s particuarly ironic since North Coast is actually situated directly on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. You don’t get much more “west coast” than that.

North Coast makes a plethora of brews. We turn our attention to a lineup of seven — all of which are available in 12 oz. bottles instead of just 22 oz. bombers, so typical for high-abv rarities like some of these listed below.  (750ml bottlings of many of the higher-end beers are also available… like the one pictured here.)

Thoughts, as always, follow.

North Coast Old Stock Ale 2014 – An old ale made in the English style, with all-imported, English ingredients. Starts off fresh and fizzy, then the chocolate, coffee, and toffee notes come rushing at you like a freight train. The beer quickly turns into a burly, brooding monster with moderate sweetness and an epic finish that knocks you down with its notes of wine, figs, and intense malt character. Could use a touch more bitterness (or maybe some time in the cellar) to balance all of the above out. Ageable. 11.8% abv. B+ / $14 per 4-pack

North Coast Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale – A Belgian strong dark ale, this is a chewy, malty brew that brings a lot of fruit to the forefront. Raisins, figs, and plums are all amply represented here, with a dense, almost chocolate-driven core. Minimally hopped. The various components come together after a time — let it warm up a tad — creating a surprisingly harmonious whole. This drinks a bit more cohesively and less aggressively than the Old Stock Ale (at least without it seeing considerable cellar time). Ultimately it proves surprisingly silky and pleasant. 9.4% abv. A- / $12 per 4-pack

North Coast Le Merle Saison Belgian Style Farmhouse Ale – Slightly sour, this fruity saison offers notes of cherries and rhubarb, balanced with some yeast character. Dark caramel and coffee notes emerge on the finish, punching down some of this beer’s initial fruit notes. The overall impact is a little muddy, but compelling enough for enjoying on a hot day. 7.9% abv. B+ / $12 per 4-pack

North Coast Pranqster Belgian Style Golden Ale – Another strong Belgian ale, but not a dark ale — a pale ale. Initially a bit sour, this beer settles down with a strong granary character plus mild notes of apricots and peaches. A more modest dosage of hops give Pranqster a better balance than Brother Thelonious without requiring any aging time at all. Ultimately, the silky mix of bitter hops, chewy malt, and seductive fruit is a winner. 7.6% abv. A- / $10 per 4-pack

North Coast Scrimshaw – Even North Coast’s pilsner is burly and malty, a chewy, grain-heavy brew that is rounded and mouth-filling. Light citrus notes give it some complexity, but on the whole it’s a relatively simple brew with an Old World backbone. 4.4% abv. B+ / $8 per 6-pack

North Coast Blue Star Wheat Beer – A pale wheat ale, this Americanized hefeweizen drinks crisp and clean, lightly grainy (probably the least grain-forward of all the beers reviewed here) with a touch of juicy lemon and a hint of pine needles to it. As it warms, the wheat becomes more prominent, which makes things even simpler — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 4.5% abv. B+ / $8 per 6-pack

North Coast Old No. 38 Stout –  As stouts go, this rendition is dry and restrained, hoppier than most while nodding only gently toward those Old World notes of coffee and chocolate that are traditionally part and parcel of this category. No. 38 starts off with a gentle bitterness before fading into a sort of sweet-and-sour character that is only modestly dusted with notes of hot cocoa (er, cold cocoa), walnuts, and some lighter vegetable notes. A very pleasing and more easy-drinking (vs. dark and brooding) rendition of stout. 5.4% abv. B+ / $9 per 6-pack

northcoastbrewing.com

Review: Guinness Blonde American Lager

GUINNESS Blonde American Lager Bottle Shot-0

Bar the doors and shutter the windows. Hell’s freezing over and it’s starting with the world of beer, of all places.

What happened? Guinness, the mother of all black-as-night stouts, is releasing a standard, pale, American lager.

Made in Latrobe, Pennsylvania(!), Guinness uses American Mosaic, Willamette, and Mount Hood hops plus its Dublin-born Guinness yeast to create Guinness Blonde, a chewy blonde lager that’s unlike anything else the company has ever produced. (That said, this is the first volley in the new “Guinness Discovery Series,” so it’s possible a cranberry lambic is coming up next.)

As for the beer, it is awfully good. Thick and rich, this malty brew drinks like a Czech style pilsner, with a core of buttery biscuits and a very mild nuttiness underpinning it. The body is moderately creamy, which balances the mild fresh-baked bread character quite well, and it offers a curious touch of brown sugar and cinnamon on the back end. Guinness Blonde American Lager is both filling to the stomach and pleasing on the tongue. It’s hardly the deep dive into the abyss that standard Guinness Stout is, but it makes for an interesting foil to the standard Guinness bloodline — and an obvious choice for the bottom half of a Black and Tan.

5% abv. Available September 2014.

A- / $9 per six-pack / guinness.com

Review: Bluewater Distilling Organic Vodka and Halcyon Gin

bluewater halcyon ginBluewater Distilling in Everett, Washington makes a variety of spirits (including an aquavit!), but it’s best known for two major staples, a gin and a vodka, both organically produced and crafted in a classic copper pot still — not a column still, which is by far the norm for most vodkas and gins.

Thoughts on both of these spirits follow.

Bluewater Organic Vodka – Pot-distilled from organic wheat. Immediately enticing. Classic, old-world nose, with rich light medicinal character and undertones of old wood and wet earth. This intriguing aroma leads you into an even more engaging palate. The body is surprisingly mild and easygoing, yet it’s quite punchy with flavor. It kicks off with notes of toffee and butterscotch, then develops fruit and acidity as it builds on the tongue. Within a few seconds, it’s pummeling the palate with lemongrass and grapefruit, black pepper, and some pine tree/cedar notes. The finish is both silky and sharp, but lacking in the expected astringency. One of those vodkas that’s easy to sip on at length, even at room temperature. 80 proof. A / $27

Bluewater Halcyon Organic Distilled Gin – Note that the “Bluewater” is very small on the bottle here. You’ll most likely find it listed under “Halcyon” instead. The wheat-based distillate on this London Gin style gin is crafted with a classic 24-hour infusion of juniper, orange, lemon, coriander, angelica root, orris root, licorice root, and cassia bark. The intense nose features lots of fruit, modest juniper, and some spongy, earthy notes driven by a few of the root-based ingredients. Unlike with the vodka, there are few surprises on the palate here. Lemon and orange remain strong, and the juniper is a bit more present on the tongue than the initial nosing would indicate. All in all it is stylistically on par with many a UK-crafted gin and a versatile spirit that works in all kinds of classic cocktails. 92 proof. A- / $30

bluewaterdistilling.com

Review: 2 Wines from the SommSelect Website

chanin winesIf you’ve ever seen the documentary Somm, you will remember Ian Cauble, the bright-eyed sommelier who seems like a shoo-in to pass the Master Sommelier test administered at the end of the film. I won’t spoil what happens in the movie, but fast forward to today, and Cauble has his own internet wine website, SommSelect. Essentially a spin on the “daily deal” website, SommSelect is focused on bringing limited-release, high-end, international wines to market at discount prices. You won’t find $5 bargain bins here, mind you. The two wines the company sent us to try out both hover around $40 retail (though pricing as they appeared on the SommSelect site during their original offer is not available).

I can’t comment on SommSelect’s service — though the website seems really straightforward and you get free shipping if you buy just two bottles — but I can talk about a couple of the wines the company recently had on offer. Thoughts follow.

2011 Clos du Mont-Olivet Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Unique – This southern Rhone wine drinks like a much more mature bottling than it is, rich with earth tones, raisiny/Port notes, and some chalkiness. Despite a somewhat harsh attack on the palate, a little too balsamic-meets-barnyard for my taste, the wine settles down as it gets some air, offering notes of blackberry jam and distinct notes of fruit-flavored tea. An intriguing combination of Old World and New World, though ultimately those barnyard notes are tough to shake. B / $47

2012 Chanin Wines Chardonnay Los Alamos Vineyard Santa Barbara – Surprisingly tart and lemony for a Chardonnay, only 15% of this wine is finished in new oak, the rest remaining in neutral oak barrels. Bright with fruit and grassy notes, it does open up as it warms (as Cauble’s tasting notes promise), revealing apricot notes, creme brulee, ginger, and a seductively mushroomy, earthy backbone. A- / $38

sommselect.com