Tuesday, May 11, 2004

An American in Rhone
A Tasting of Easton and Terre Rouge

It was with great pleasure that I finally met Bill Easton, a Sierra Foothills winemaker who specializes in Rhone cépages. Unlike other Californian ‘Rhonaphiles,’ Easton takes it a step further. He only uses French oak. He often compares his wines with their French brethren. He seeks out cooler climates, even planting on northern exposures in order to assure that his grapes don’t over-ripen. The result are some very unique wines that if I were to launch one criticism, it would be that they sometimes seem to fall in the void between the two countries. At times I found myself wanting of that Cali coyness, that instantaneous whahoo of accessibility, that instantaneous gratification. But all in all, an interesting exercise in winemaking and wine drinking, Here’s the rundown.

White Wine

Natoma 2000, Sierra Foothills, Easton Wines ($26)
The Easton name is used for non-Rhone varietals. Here we find a 60-40 Sauvignon, Sémillon blend. We had this wine on a tasting menu around 6 months ago and I remember it having a bit more cut to it. Just 6 months later, I found this 2000 vintage a little less zingy and a little more fat, as if the Semillon was slowly taking over. Still good, not what it was, I liked it less. Maybe with mussels.

Enigma 2000, Sierra Foothills, Terre Rouge ($37)
A blend of Marsanne, Viogner and Roussanne, and one of my favorites of the tasting. An exquisitely complex nose combining floral scents with hints of fruit and stones that carry right through each sip. A wonderful creamy, honey-like texture with enough acidity to keep it fresh. A touch more and it would have been super-fresh.

Red Wine

Mourvèdre 1999, Amador County, Terre Rouge ($40)
I love Bandol and appreciate anyone attempting Mourvèdre. Easton’s effort is pretty good… rich, full bodied, almost like drinking a piece of meat. I couldn’t find much fruit, and that which I did find was infused with that tomato leaf odor one often encounters with this grape. Okay, but I would have gone for a little more of the ‘Bandol Funkiness,’ that he said he was trying to avoid. Perhaps it is still too young but sometimes 'la beauté c'est dans le défaut.'

Noir 1998, Sierra Foothills, Terre Rouge ($36)
Bill’s hommage to Châteauneuf (La Nerthe to be precise). I liked it simply because it wasn’t that. Here the Mourvèdre plays a supporting role to the 45% Grenache, adding depth and complexity to the Grenache’s slightly chewy texture and dark cherry flavors. The Syrah gives it a wonderfully spicey finish and the alchohol and tannins are well integrated. It screams for a piece of meat with a wild mushroom sauce.

Zinfandel 2000, Shenandoah Valley, Estate Bottled, Easton ($55)
My favorite of the day. It is here that the French influence has paid the most dividends. None of that suffocating oak, no over the top jamminess. I can’t remember tasting a Zin with this much class, this much elegance. Expansive, spicey and balanced. Great.

Syrah 2001, Côtes de l’Ouest, Terre Rouge ($27)
We began the Syrah series with what Easton calls his ‘fruit forward,’ bottling. I found it a little austere, in fact lacking a bit of fruitiness. He is the master of spice and subtle layerings of aromas…. But not the wine of the summer bar-b-q.

Syrah 2000, Sierra Foothills, Terre Rouge ($47)
Syrah 1999, Sentinal Oak Vineyard, Pyramid Block, Terre Rouge ($68)
I put these together ‘cuz my critiques are the same. Following the styling of the Côte de l’Ouest, though with greater depth and complexity, these are Syrah’s to keep for awhile. As they drink now, I found them too spicey, with a smokey woodiness that overpowered the fruit that I could sense was in there. Again, very elegant though perhaps a little more of that Californian forwardness would make them a little more hospitable. It’s not that we want the fake tits or anything, perhaps just a tan and a bikini….

Syrah 1999, Sierra Foothills, Ascent, Terre Rouge ($129)
A blend of the best barrels of the vintage and an extremely good wine. Expensive, but very, very good. Here the spices are coupled with dark, luscious berries and held together with razor fine tannins that give length and composure. Sublime and serious, I found it very drinkable for a wine of such concentration, such density of flavors. Too bad I’m a bit broke these days or I would spring for a bottle.


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