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June 20, 2007

Critics Challenge: Champagne Charles Heidsieck Impresses Again

A few observations from the 2007 Critics Challenge, while they're still fresh in my mind.

Champagne Charles Heidsieck has become a force to be reckoned with. This house's multi-vintage Brut Reserve was among the finest Champagnes I tasted at the recent Concours Mondial, but its performance across the board at the Critics Challenge was nothing short of stunning, with five significant awards from its five wines entered.

Three Charles Heidsieck bubblies -- the 1995 Blanc des Millenaires, the 1995 Vintage Champagne, and the 1985 Champagne Charlie -- took Platinum awards, and two -- the 1999 Rose and the multi-vintage Brut Reserve -- captured Golds.

I felt compelled to give this brilliant Champagne house the Director's Award as top European winery in a tie with the Cockburn's Port house, which submited the Best of Show Dessert wine. 

Best Sparkling, however, went to Piper-Heidsieck's multi-vintage tetes de cuvee, Cuvee Rare. This was another of the top Champagnes that I tasted at the Concours Mondial, proving that these wines are not only exceptional but consistent.

My Director's Award for top importer went to San Francisco's Old Bridge Cellars, which brings in the first-rate d'Aarenberg wines from South Australia. D'Arenberg was named Winery of the Year for the Southern Hemisphere after taking nine awards in this year's Challenge.

The top U.S. wineries, each with a slew of awards, were Missouri's St. James Winery for the Eastern U.S. and Mendocino County's Navarro Vineyards for the Western U.S.

All of the results can be found at the Critics Challenge website.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 2:33 PM

June 13, 2007

Give This Baby a Medal for Real!

I love tasting 'blind' not because I worry about showing coarse bias for or against wines, but because I worry about the subtle psychological phenomenon of 'auto-suggestion,' by which one is influenced by one's own--often unconscious--preconceptions.  However, I can't always taste blind, for the simple reason that I don't always have someone around to 'shuffle the deck,' as it were, by obscuring bottles or scrambling glasses.

I didn't taste Santa Rita's "Medalla Real" Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 wine blind, and as a result, I sensed my own hesitation when scoring it:  Can a $19 wine really be this good, even if it comes from Chile's Maipo Valley, one of the world's prime Cab sources?  Do I really want to drop 92 points on a wine at this price point, at the risk of being thought a soft touch?

So, just to be sure, I stuck it in the refrigerator (more on this below) to look at it again on the following evening.  And the wine looked even better on the second night than it did when first opened.

It looked pretty damned good on the first night, and that is saying something, since that happened to be a birthday of mine with a zero in the second digit.  I mention this only because, given the occasion, I naturally dug something special out of my cellar, namely, 1982 Gruaud Larose.  Which rocked.  I tasted this Medalla Real after checking out the Gruaud, and was amazed to find some hints of commonality:  light cedar notes, subtle graphite tinges, a mineral edge, and a vaguely earthy backnote.

To be sure, there were about a dozen other notes that the Gruaud Larose brought to the table that the Santa Rita couldn't muster, but I won't belabor this with a comprehensive rundown.  On the other hand, the Santa Rita had a lot of punchy, dark berry fruit that the Bordeaux couldn't match, and which may actually be more appealing to those who aren't accustomed to the vaguely musty charms of 25 year-old wines.

The upshot of all this is clear:  Santa Rita's Medalla Real is, in its top vintages, a spectacular over-achiever and a remarkable value, and this rendition surely fits that bill.  With a core of blackberry and black cherry fruit that is fully ripe but still bright and not at all chunky and sweet (as is distressingly true of many reds from over the mountains in Argentina), this is a winner even before you get to the accent notes of tobacco leaf, cedar, spices, and graphite.

A last word on the fridge:  For overnight storage purposes, only a few brands of heavier-than-air preservative sprays can match the prophylactic powers of a refrigerator in warding off the degrading effects of oxygen on an opened bottle.  Even if you use such sprays, the fridge will work in tandem with them as a supplementary preservative, so remember to pitch that red into the icebox at the end of the evening--however counter-intuitive that may seem.

Moreover, with summer getting in gear here in the northern hemisphere, it is time to chill your reds before enjoying them.  Anything that isn't straight out of my cellar gets a good 20 minutes in the fridge before tasting this time of year.  This is extremely important.  Reds at 72 degrees Fahrenheit are really too warm, and won't have the freshness and focus they'll show if cooled down a bit.  And if your red is poured at 78 degrees (not an uncommon room temperature in summer weather), you are committing vinous malpractice.

Posted by Michael Franz at 9:38 AM