January 2008

The travel section of Sunday’s New York Times featured a story on that oxymoron traveling frugally in Hawaii. The writer, Matt Gross, said this about Hawaii’s too evident charms: “Hawaii is easy, Hawaii has nothing to hide. Hawaii is, touristically speaking, pornographic in its single-minded baring of its assets.”

Substitute the words “California chardonnay” for “Hawaii” in those sentences and you have a pretty good summation of the general tone of chardonnay wines from the Golden State, many of which make a shameless appeal to be adored, enveloping our senses — or “our every sense,” as PR scribes like to pen — with clouds of cream and butter and cinnamon toast and coconut cream pie and butterscotch and roasted marshmallows and pineapple-upside-down cake. They’re chardonnays for our most basic instincts, a French kiss straight to our simplest sense of gratification: “If it tastes like dessert, it must be good.”

There’s an alternative, often found in actual French chardonnays from the homeland, the cradle of chardonnay, Burgundy, and, I’m happy to report, they don’t have to be expensive (see montagny.jpg previous entry). The wine I mention in this post is the Montagny Domaine de la Croix Jacquelet 2005 from the venerable and well-known domaine of Faiveley.

This is not a chardonnay that flatters you and tries to make you like it. In fact, at first I was feeling a little snubbed by this wine, thinking that perhaps its standoffishness was, you know, my fault; I mean, it was like taking in a mouthful of chilled limestone and steel. My famously austere high school geometry teacher was friendlier than this. Gradually, though, as we poured, swirled, sniffed and sipped — we were cooking dinner, a pasta with grilled sausages — the wine gave in slightly, became less distant, more rounded and shapely, though always with this bright edge of minerals etched with scintillating acid. It took on touches of roasted lemon and lemon curd, dried thyme, a bit of roasted hazelnut and a hint, a bare hint, of glazed grapefruit. Richness began to filter back toward us, but in a subtle, constrained fashion; this wine was not going to lose a grip on its purposeful purity and intensity.

Made two-thirds in stainless steel and one-third in barrel, the wine sees no new oak: Yippee! Wilson Daniels, in St. Helena, Ca., imported 900 cases. I rate this chardonnay for grown-ups Excellent. The suggested retail price is $24, though you can find it on the Internet for $19.50. Drink through the end of 2009 with fresh shellfish, grilled trout, quenelles of pike, dry goat’s-milk cheeses.

These email messages arrived within about six minutes of each other, the first from the Burgundy division of Sopexa USA (the French trade group) based in New York, announcing its fourth annual “Burgundy Best Buys”; and the second from the estimable 185 smackers a whack! Burgundy Wine Company, also in New York (and from which on occasion I have purchased wine), trumpeting the triumphant return of Clos des Lambrays Grand Cru in the superb 2005 vintage.

One understands Sopexa’s efforts to promote affordable products from Burgundy, a small, hallowed region whose tiny, segmented vineyards yield minuscule amounts of some of the world’s greatest and most expensive wines made from chardonnay and pinot noir grapes. The names of those vineyards, particularly the prestigious Grand Crus, are spoken with respect and reverence, and the wines that issue from them are not for the likes of ordinary pocketbooks like mine and (I guess) yours. The 20 wines on the new “Burgundy Best Buys” list (which I will reproduce in full below) range in price from about $16 to $35, depending in what part of the country you live, and would provide a great deal of versatility and pleasure in your household. Are these the best, the highest level of examples of Burgundy? Well, no, but judging from the labels and producers that I have tried the wines are well-made, satisfying, delicious and authentic. And they don’t cost $185 a bottle, which is what Burgundy Wine Company is charging for Clos des Lambrays Grand Cru 2005.

Burgundy Wine Company’s newsletter welcomes Clos des Lambrays 2005 to the fold with the joy which which the father greeted the return of the Prodigal Son: “And so it’s back!” Indeed, this has been a troubled domaine (Domaine des Lambrays) and a troubled vineyard. The property had fallen considerably in repute from the end of the 1940s through the 1970s, under the Cosson family, and it was purchased in 1979 by a group led by the Saier family, who worked hard and managed, in a rare instance of a change in the Burgundy classification system, to have Clos des Lambrays elevated to Grand Cru status. Still, neither the vineyard nor the wine made from it earned much respect from critics, and when I visited the domaine in March 1990, the Saier brothers seemed subdued and defensive. It was, I’ll admit, a chilly, gloomy day. In the mid 1990s, the estate again changed hand; the owners now are Gunther and Ruth Freund.

Burgundy Wine Company has — or had, yesterday — eight cases of Clos des Lambrays 2005. Purchasers of a case will receive (or would have received) a 10 percent discount, bringing the price per bottle to $166.50, thus a case being $1,998.

On the other hand, for the price of one bottle of Clos des Lambrays 2005, you could buy seven or eight bottles of wine from the “Burgundy Best Buys 2008” roster; altogether, the 20 wines would cost — again depending on geography and availability — $529. What fun!

Now I understand clearly the the world operates strictly, and always has, on the principle of “You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.” So be it, right? You got the time, you got the dime, you get to finish the rhyme.

But I can’t help thinking that in a world that is drastically different economically than it was six months ago, when housing foreclosures are sky-high, and the stock markets in the United States are tanking and taking the rest of the world’s markets with them and my 401(k) is going down faster than a $10 hooker in the back seat of a Coupe de Ville, as I say, I can’t help thinking that it’s unseemly for Burgundy Wine Company to crow quite so gleefully and giddily about the “return” of a wine that costs $185 a bottle or $1,998 a case with your discount.

I mean, talk about bad timing.

Here are the 2008 “Burgundy Best Buys” from Sopexa.
1.Cremant de Bourgogne 2004, Dufouleur Pere et Fils. $16.
2. Bourgogne Chardonnay 2005. Maison Louis Jadot. $17.
3. Chablis 2006, Domaine Christian Moreau Pere et Fils. $23
4. Pouilly-Fuisse 2006, Laboure Roi. $18.
5. Bourgogne Chardonnay 2006, Domaine Pernot et ses Fils. $30.
6. Vire Clesse Vieilles Vignes 2006, Domaine des Chazelles. $30
7. Saint-Aubin 1er Cru “Le Sentier du Clou” 2006, Domaine Sylvain Langoureau. $35.
8. Mercurey (blanc) 2005, Chateau de Chamirey. $34.
9. Chablis 1er Cru “La Singuliere” 2005, La Chablisienne. $28.
10. Saint-Aubin 1er Cru “Le Charmois” 2005, Champy. $25.
11. Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2005, Chanson Pere et Fils. $21.
12. Bourgogne “Emotion de Terroirs” Pinot Noir 2005, Vincent Girardin. $22.
13. Bourgogne Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes 2005, Maison Albert Bichot. $17.
14. Mercurey Domaine de la Croix Jacquelet 2005, Maison Faiveley. $23.
15. Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2005, Domaine Dominique Gallois. $32.
16. Cotes de Nuits-Villages Vieilles Vignes 2005, Nicolas Potel. $30.
17. Mercurey (rouge) 2005, Chateau de Chamirey. $34.
18. Beaune du Chateau 1er Cru 2005, Bouchard Pere et Fils. $34.
19. Pernand-Vergelesses 1er Cru “Les Fichots” 2005. Champy. $25
20. Beaune 1er Cru “Aux Cras” 2005, Champy. $35.

If you’re like us, here toward the end of January, you’re cooking full-flavored, hearty dishes to combat the chill creeping into your bones. As Ezra Pound wrote, “Winter is a-coming in, lude sing goddamn!” Damn right, Ezra! A couple of nights ago, we concocted pennino_magful.jpg a vat of white bean, sausage and escarole soup that will sustain us over several meals. We recently made Michel Richard’s potato stew with black olives, onions, mushrooms and slab bacon; talk about stomach-filling and soul-satisfying! Perhaps you’re braising short ribs or veal shanks or assembling stick-to-the-ribs beef or lamb stew.

In any case, at KoeppelOnWine, I posted a page with a raft (i.e., a dozen) big-hearted red wines from California that will belly up to your mid-winter dinners and match them with warmth, grit and vigor. These include four old-fashioned blockbuster zinfandel wines from Mazzocco, four of Ed Sbragia’s single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon wines from his Sbragia Family Vineyards and — let’s say it — a truly great zinfandel, balanced and powerful and elegant, from Rubicon Estate, the Edizione Pennino 2005.

By the way, I had a difficult time finding slab bacon at my local grocery stores. In one, for example, there was “slab” bacon in the case, but it was sliced. I asked one of the butchers if he had slab bacon and he said, “Sure,” and took me to the case where the sliced “slab” bacon was. And I said, “But that’s sliced. If it’s sliced, it’s not in a slab anymore.” He looked at me as if he had just seen rat droppings around the meat slicer. “That’s what we got,” he said. Do we actually live in a world where there’s no respect for language and common sense? Or is my life a complete fantasy?

Once more a wine direct shipping bill has been introduced into the Tennessee state legislature. Will it be doomed to failure as the others have been, brought low by an unsavory alliance of the state’s wholesalers and retailers with conservative Christians?

Senate Bill 2686 was introduced by Doug Jackson, a Democrat from Dickson County, in Middle Tennessee, not far from Nashville. The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville

It would seem that the timing is propitious to give residents of Tennessee the right to purchase wine from retailers or wineries in other states and have it shipped to them, just as they can with clothing or food or books or furniture or just about any other consumer item. In its decision in 2005 in Granholm v. Heald, the U.S. Supreme Court stated the case pretty plainly: “States may not enact laws that burden out-of-state producers and shippers simply to give a competitive advantage to in-state businesses.” In other words, if retail stores and wineries can sell wine to consumers in-state, so can sellers from out-of-state. The prevalence of Internet wine sales and auction sites makes this tendency inevitable, and retailers and wholesale distributors in Tennessee need to face the reality of the wine world of the future and make adjustments.

Some state legislatures have done an end-run around the Supreme Court. Illinois, for example, enacted a law that forbids ANY winery, in-state or out-of-state, from shipping directly to consumers, dealing a serious blow to the state’s small wine industry. Surely that act will be challenged soon.

Summarizing the bureaucratic language of Senate Bill 2686, the propositions, besides details of enforcement and paperwork, are these:
1. Any “wine manufacturer, producer, supplier, importer, wholesaler, distributor or retailer” in-state or out-of-state may register in Tennessee and obtain a license — the initial cost is $500 with annual renewal for $250 — to ship up to two cases of wine annually “directly to a resident of Tennessee who is at least twenty-one (21) years of age” for personal use. Shipments must be clearly marked as containing alcoholic beverages.
2. The wine may not be shipped to “a county or municipality that has not authorized the sale of alcoholic beverages by local option election.” That’s right, readers, Tennessee still has dry or partially dry counties and towns. Until 1972, you couldn’t buy a cocktail in a restaurant in Memphis, and as many people know, Jack Daniels in distilled in a dry county.
3. Sales and excise taxes must be paid on the wines, whether shipped from in-state or out-of-state entities.

Tom Wark, executive director of the Specialty Wine Retailers Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the passage of direct shipment legislation — and proprietor of the Fermentation blog — called S.B. 2686 “a good bill.”

“The proposed Tennessee direct shipping bill means that consumers in the state have complete access to the wines they want,” Wark wrote to me in a recent email message. “This also means that the bill conforms to the requirements that states must treat in-state and out-of-state shippers equally, as noted in the Granholm v. Heald Supreme Court decision and the recent Siesta Village Market v. Perry decision in Texas that proclaimed that retailers as well as wineries are protected by the principles announced in Granholm. The bill provides for the state to collect taxes on retailer and winery shipments, which is important for the state. And, finally, it provides for safeguards with regard to minor access to wine, a very prudent addition to the bill.”

While Wark — and everybody who would potentially benefit from passage of the bill — would like to see a higher limit on the amount of wine that can be shipped to an individual, “this is something we can live with,” he said.

Now let’s hope that the politicians, the retailers and wholesalers and their fundamentalist allies don’t try to inject fear and loathing into a campaign against the bill, conjuring the horrific — and completely false — specter of crazed teenagers using their parents’ credit cards to order cases of Screaming Eagle over the Internet. That scare tactic is complete baloney.

The New York Times carries a fascinating and cautionary story this morning on A1 about the global cooking oil crisis. Now this Global Warming Chart doesn’t seem like such a big deal in America, where people can spend an afternoon at a gourmet food shop deciding which extra virgin olive oil they’re going to purchase, but for people in Africa, Asia and Latin America, it’s a big deal indeed.

Subsistence farmers and their families may be able to survive on the food they grow. but they have to buy the oil with which to cook that food, and the price of that oil is rapidly escalating. The production of soybeans is declining in favor of oil-producing grains and legumes more suited to bio-fuel conversion, while the deforestation that occurs in South East Asia to increase the acreage devoted to oil palm trees — the trees take eight years to mature — is resulting in the loss of habitat for indigenous peoples, orangutans and rare species of rhinos. And of course the manufacturing of palm oil requires carbon-based fuel, leading to pollution and contributing to global warming. It’s the classic spiral of over-population, industrialization, greed, poverty and hunger that leads to protest and insurrection. The story reports that “food riots have erupted in recent months in Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen.”

What, you ask, do these circumstances have to do with wine?

The relevant sentences in the story, written by Keith Bradsher in Malaysia, are these: 1. “Soaring fuel prices have altered the Temperate Zone Vineyards: A Thing of the Past? equation for growing food and transporting it across the globe.” 2. “And all this is happening even as global climate change may be starting to make it harder to grow food in some places best equipped to do so, like Australia.”

Let’s remember that before grapes get transformed into wine that they’re an agricultural product like any other. That like any agricultural product, be it wheat, soybeans or apples, they have to be farmed and harvested and, once made into the final product, transported, often over long distances, to viable markets. Think of wine, if you will, as a method of prolonging grapes far beyond their normal shelf-life. Think, if you will, how much it costs to transport French oak to California, Argentina, Chile and Old Wines: Who Cares? Australia. And remember that the vast majority of the wine made in the world is made from grapes grown on huge farms in southern France, in California’s Central Valley, in South Eastern Australia, in Spain and Ukraine. These are not hand-tended, hand-picked and hand-crafted wines; they’re industrial products that require carbon-based fuel for their manufacture, and whatever the advocates of artisan wines may think of this mass-produced wines, millions of people around the world happily gulp them down with their dinners every night.

The point is that because of the costs associated with what will inevitably be the search for new vineyard regions as global warming makes present regions inappropriate for fine wines (or even, more drastically, any wines at all) and because of the rising costs involved in sea, air and land shipping, the price of wine at every level is going to rise significantly in the next few years. In fact, within 50 years the whole notion of wine and wine-making and its consumption may change radically, and wine connoisseurship and collecting may become as arcane as No theater, as obsolete as the sundial. Oh, yeah, ha-ha, yer right, they already are!

Global-warming chart from newscientist.com.
Vineyard image from avalonwine.com.
Image of old wine bottles is copyright jeffshanberg.com.

The French used to jeer at Americans for the health warnings required on the back labels of American wines and wines imported from other countries. “Zut alors,” they would sneer, “we are adults. We know how to drink wine. It is part of our French culture and heritage. You sissy American worry-warts!”

But ha-ha to you, Pierre, now the French, who are undergoing a national turmoil of political correctness — packages of snack Warning Labelfoods in France carry directives to eat more fruit and vegetables — are seeing mandatory warning labels on the back labels of their wines.

Worse, though, far worse — and thanks to the vigilant Tom Wark at Fermentation for pointing this out last Thursday and providing links — is that a county court in Paris recently ruled that a story in the newspaper Le Parisien about Champagne, an editorial piece (not a paid advertisement) that offered recommendations, prices and details about the champagne houses, amounted to a form of advertising. The court said — I’m quoting a story by Oliver Styles on decanter.com for Jan. 10 — that the article “was intended to promote sales of alcoholic beverages in exercising a psychological effect on the reader that incited him or her to buy alcohol.”

A spokesman for the French National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Addiction added, “Any communication in favour of an alcoholic drink, such as a series of articles in favour of Champagne, constitutes advertising and is therefore subject to the public health code.”

The implications of this move on freedom of the press are horrendous. Will newspaper articles about the drug industry and specific medicines have to carry long sidebars about proper dosage and possible side-effects? Will newspaper stories about the automobile industry be required to state: “Buckle Up for Safety: It’s the Law”? Must a piece about the merger of fast-food chains include a box with a black border that describes the dangers of trans-fats and childhood obesity?

And think about this. When you’re served a bottle of wine in a restaurant, the waiter shows you the front of the bottle but not the back. Are we entering a situation in which waiters will be required to display the front label — “Sir, Chateau Le Chien Perdu 2004” — and then the back label — “And, the obligatory health warning, as authorized by Ordinance 2451.” Or the waiter dribbles a splash in your glass for you to evaluate, leans down and whispers confidentially, “Sir, be sure when you leave the restaurant not to operate any heavy machinery. Fork lifts, drill-presses, you know.” Or perhaps wine lists themselves will have to carry health warnings at the bottom of every page.

And then there are wine blogs. Oh, yes, do you think we will be exempt?

In order to forestall that eventuality — because all things are possible in this world — I will go ahead and provide the warning now:

The BiggerThanYourHead Warning Label

1. This blog may incite you to purchase and drink wine, and that wine may taste to good you, leading you to purchase another bottle.
2. The wine that this blog incites you to purchase may match the food in your lunch or dinner so perfectly that you will be transported to a state of complete satisfaction.
3. This blog may inspire you to seek out many different styles and types of wines, leading you to expand your awareness, knowledge and pleasure.
4. Since you’re an adult and already know that drinking too much wine or other alcoholic beverages may result in temporary impairment or, in the case of desperately prolonged consumption, permanent health problems, this blog expects you to drink moderately, to behave yourself and not act like a freakin’ maniac and bring harm to yourself and others.

What a relief to drink a nice, clean, fresh, crisp Saint-Véran after the California white wines I’ve been trying for the past week. I don’t mean just chardonnays, the dead horse that I flog relentlessly, because most white wines from California tend to be bigger, bolder and brighter than their European counterparts, and I’m talking about the examples that I like.

I was fortunate, for example, to taste more white Burgundies than usual last year, mainly from 2004 and 2005, and no matter how rich they were, no matter how deep and layered and textured, none of them was over-wrought, none of them was sodden with the excessive oak and tropical fruit and dessert-like flavors that make many chardonnays from California so cloying that they’re undrinkable. And those are the kinds of wines — at least some of them — that I tried last week, though there were also a few that were beautifully, impeccably made, by which I mean, naturally, that they displayed perfect balance among all elements: fruit, acid, oak; flavor, texture, structure. You can read reviews of 12 California white wines — ratings vary from Excellent to Avoid — here.

Anyway, as I was saying, after some of these hard-hitting white wines, it was almost thrilling to drink a bottle of the Domaine veran_01.jpg Perraud Saint-Véran Vieilles Vignes 2005 with a simple Italian chicken soup with pasta, spinach and Parmesan cheese and a beaten egg whipped into each bowl. I guess that qualifies as Italian egg-drop soup. The wine combined many elements of lemon — fresh lemon with touches of roasted lemon and lemon curd — along with a hint of jasmine, a touch of spice and loads of limestone that practically vibrated from the vigorous acid that kept the whole package taut and lively. I immediately want to take back the word “taut,” though, because that makes it sound as if the wine were not also dense and smooth and silky, which it certainly was, the point being that as with most enjoyable white wines the slight tug-of-war between crispness and density was exhilarating. This is the second bottle of the Perraud V.V. Saint-Veran ’05 that we’ve had in three months, and both times it was delightful. North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Ca. I rate it Very Good+. About $18-$20.

Here are two more wines from Saint-Véran that I tried last night.

The Saint-Véran 2006 from the Cave de Prissé delivers a bouquet that you want to swim in or dab behind your ears. Apple, pear saintveran_011.jpg and lemon, lime peel, limestone and jasmine and a touch of smoke combine for a boundlessly appealing beginning for this wine. It’s crisp and lively and notably earthy and minerally, with roasted lemon and grapefruit flavors set into a bracing and austere limestone and shale structure. In the mouth, actually, this Saint-Véran doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its bouquet, but it’s still an attractive and tasty accompaniment to grilled fish and fresh seafood. William-Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va. Very Good. About $16.

The venerable house of Joseph Drouhin offers a Saint-Véran 2005 that’s unusually bright and lively, with lemon, lime and pear 10630.jpg scents and flavors etched with beguiling notes of clove and ginger. The wine is very dry and crisp, quite earthy and minerally, and so pure and intense that it feels crystalline. The finish is stony, steely and austere. Imported by Dreyfus, Ashby & Co, New York. Very Good+. About $12.50-$16.

Saint-Véran, to touch on geographical matters, lies in the southernmost reaches of Burgundy, between Mâconnais and Beaujolais. Only the chardonnay grape is allowed. The wines are best consumed within one to three years of the vintage. Pouilly-Fuissé, which produces wines of greater character and longevity, is a separate appellation within Saint-Véran.

Now we come to the end of our champagne and sparkling wine celebration of The Twelve Days of Christmas. In Merry Old chp_feste.jpg England, at least, Twelfth Night was a night of bonfires and wassailing. In fact, according to the Julian Calendar, which was used in England until 1752 (though abandoned by the rest of Europe in 1582), January 5 was the Old Christmas Day. In any case, from Roman times, this was a day of revels, and appropriately, Shakespeare’s pay Twelfth Night, or What You Will, one of his most engaging and romantic comedies of misadventure, mistaken identity and crossed love, was written to be performed during Twelfth Night festivities.

Our concern, however, is with the effervescence providing by champagne and sparkling wine, and for this, our final post in this series, I’m going to provide six choices of bubbly products (in order of ascending price) for your own festivities (this eve or any time), so, with no further ado — and much ado about something — here ’tis, though with briefer descriptions than previous entries

*Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2004, California. The B de B is always Schramsberg’s most delightful, lilting sparkling wine. For schramsberg_01.jpg 2004, this 100 percent chardonnay sparkler is notably fresh, clean and attractive; it offers notes of green apple, orange zest and roasted lemon with touches of fresh biscuits, toast and almond skin. It’s full-bodied and lush but energized by crisp acid and limestone elements. Great as an aperitif and with light appetizers. Excellent. About $35.

*Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut. Wow, this is great! Made from 100% chardonnay grapes, the Gimmonet grim_01.jpg B de B Brut is unusually ripe and fleshy, spicy, macerated, bursting with pear and lemon, almond blossom and acacia flower; it’s incredibly fresh and clean and crisp, scintillating with acid and minerals. Tremendously appealing. Excellent. About $45 to $55. A Terry Theise Estate Selection for Michael Skurnick Wines, Syosset, N.Y.

*Gosset Grande Reserve Brut. Made from 54 percent red grapes (pinot noir and pinot meunier) and 46 percent chardonnay, all from Grand and Premier Cru vineyards, Gosset’s Grande Reserve is an elegant and luscious blond beauty, subtle yet zesty, grandreserve_gosset_small.jpg tremendously appealing and impeccably balanced among mandarin orange and Meyer lemon flavors; toasty, yeasty elements; limestone qualities; and crystalline acid. Excellent. About $63. Palm Bay Imports, Boca Raton, Florida.

*Bruno Paillard Premiere Cuvée Rosé Brut. This rose is a blend of 85 percent pinot noir and 15 percent chardonnay. The style here balances touches of macerated dried red fruit with tremendous energy, power and weight. The champagne is very dry and crisp, full-bodied, quite toasty and yeasty, packed with dried spice and roasted hazelnuts and limestone. A great effort. Excellent. About $75. Martin Scott Wines, Lake Success, N.Y.

*Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut. All pinot noir, all verve and steel and flaring bubbles in a pale gold color with a ruddy sheen that LL called “cold fireworks.” This is quite dry and austere but rounded out with a trace — I mean a trace — of macerated peach and strawberry and spiced almonds. Mainly, this is about elegance and hauteur and star-power. Excellent. About $80. Laurent-Perrier US, Sausalito, Ca.

*Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle Brut. “This is almost like food,” said LL, and indeed Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle Brut, made from grand_01.jpg half and half chardonnay and pinot noir from Grand Cru vineyards, is amazingly deep and complex and substantial; no delightful aperitif sparkler, this is a champagne that demands attention and really needs to be consumed with dinner, I mean macaroni and cheese, veal Prince Orloff, lobster thermidor, quenelles of pike, old-fashioned decadent fare. Wheatmeal, almond and apple skin, cinnamon toast, roasted lemon, monumental amounts of toasty bread and limestone, but with a delicate tracery of jasmine and candied lime: All of these qualities add up to a package of wonderful elegance and power. Exceptional. About $110. Laurent-Perrier US, Sausalito, Ca.

Image credit for the costume design of Feste the clown from Twelfth Night: ocw.mit.edu.

Sometimes it feels as if I have been condemned to a Circle of Hell, a mild circle certainly, compared to the more ingenious and punitive arrangements further down, but still one in which I am enjoined eternally to taste millions of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay wines that all seem alike. The cabernets feature heaps of toasty new oak, super-ripe fruit, cushiony textures and alcohol levels of 14.5 to 15.2 percent; the chardonnays feature heaps of toasty new oak, super-ripe fruit, cushiony textures and alcohol levels of 14.5 to 15.2 percent. Such wines are professionally-made, well-intentioned and boring. Wait, this is no mythical Circle of Hell; this is my life!

Then there are the cabernets and chardonnays of Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery, perched atop Spring Mountain west of Smith-Madrone Home Vineyard the town of St. Helena in the Napa Valley. Now when I say that Smith-Madrone makes wines that purists could love, I don’t mean snobs or elitists or geeks or nerds; by “purists” I mean consumers who favor wines that focus on fruit and structure, that allow us to taste and feel where the wine came from and where it’s going, what it’s make of and how it sustains itself. That is the kind of wine that Smith-Madrone makes.

The winery was founded by brothers Stuart and Charles Smith, who purchased 200 acres on Spring Mountain in 1971. The wines are made from the same vines planted 32 years ago, for the cabernet, and 34 years ago, for the chardonnay. The steep The Smith Brothers vineyards with their volcanic soil, lying at elevations from 1,600 to 1,800, are dry-farmed, that is, they are never irrigated, relying only on what rain falls according to nature.

I recently — I mean on Wednesday and Thursday — tried the Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 and the Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2006, Spring Mountain District, both current releases. The winery also produces a well-regarded riesling, but the last vintage, the 2006, quickly sold out.

The Cabernet 2003 is a blend of 82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot and 8 percent cabernet franc. This is a great, old-fashioned mountain-side cabernet, deep, rich and spicy, a construct of sinew and muscle and bone. Bright cassis and black smith_madrone_cabernet.JPG cherry flavors are permeated by dusty, leathery tannins, briery, brambly elements and profound earthy and minerally qualities. The wine aged 22 months in American oak barrels, yet it didn’t come out of that process with any bitterness or austerity — American oak has to be used carefully — but absorbed that wood for a firm, supportive structure to which keen acid lends vibrancy. Despite its size and seriousness, however, the wine is a sensualist’s delight for its delicious black fruit (with a hint of cedar and wild berry), for its lacy etching of lavender and bittersweet chocolate, for its impeccable balance between elegance and power. You could drink a bottle tonight with a medium rare strip steak, hot and crusty from the grill, or let it age through 2013 to ’15. The alcohol level, by the way, is only 13.8 percent. Production was 2,302 cases. I rate the wine Excellent. The suggested price is $40.

The Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2006 is a model of purity and intensity. Though the wine was completely barrel-fermented and matured 11 months in French oak, the effect is so subtle that any wood influence is almost imperceptible; it’s more a matter of the oak serving as invisible framing for the wine instead of becoming a tangible or obtrusive factor, as is the case with so many label_chard1998_sm.gif Napa Valley chardonnays. The bouquet offers notes of pear, melon and pineapple with touches of grapefruit and peach, all of this packed with limestone and gunflint. There’s absolutely nothing tropical or dessert-like about this chardonnay; rather, it’s notably clean and fresh and resonant. As with the cabernet, you feel the structure, the muscles and bones of the wine, and yet, paradoxically, for all its substance, this chardonnay feels almost effortless in its crisp attack and moderately lush flowing through the mouth. The alcohol, a surprising 14.2 percent, is totally integrated. Production was 1,171 cases. Here’s another Excellent rating. Suggested price is about $28.

One of the world’s most unusual wines is Inniskillin’s Vidal Sparkling Ice Wine, from Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. Inniskillin, now owned by Constellation Brands, specializes in beautifully-made ice wines made primarily from vidal or riesling grapes, though innisspark1.jpg there’s also a highly unusual ice wine made from cabernet franc that’s deliriously delicious, I mean shiver-inducing, with a piece of dark chocolate.

The Inniskillin Vidal Sparkling Ice Wine 2005 sports a medium gold color with a tinge of brassy-green. The bubbles come not from the traditional champagne method but through the Charmat process of fermentation in a closed chamber to retain carbon dioxide, though you shouldn’t let that worry your pretty little head because the bubbles are constant and lively and true. The wine opens with a burst of pure apple and pear and nectarine, followed by spiced and buttered peaches. Flavors lean toward roasted peaches and apricots with hints of apple skin and orange rind steeped in cloves and cinnamon. The texture is amazing, because for all the crisp acidity and balletic effervescence this is dense, nectar-like, almost viscous from start to finish. Sip this on its own at the end of a meal or with the simplest and least sweet desserts like a plain apple tart or a shortbread cookie. This certainly merits an Excellent rating. Prices range from about $70 to $85 for a half-bottle.

OMIGOD, tomorrow is Twelfth Night, and thus the last entry in our champagne and sparkling wine countdown of The Twelve Days of Christmas! Check back to see how we handle the situation.

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