June 2008

Beverage mega-giant Constellation Brands has been in such a buying mode since purchasing the Robert Mondavi Winery in November 2004 (for $1.03 billion) that it’s almost stupefying to learn that the company has actually gotten rid of some California estates, purchased as recently as December 2007. In that month, to refresh your memories, Constellation bought, from Fortune Brands’ Beam Wine Estates, for $885 million, Geyser Peak, Atlas Peak, Buena Vista Carneros, Gary Farrell Winery, XYZin and Clos du Bois. Four of those wineries (or brands) — Atlas Peak, Buena Vista, Gary Farrell and Clos du Bois — had been owned by Allied Domecq, from which Fortune had acquired them in 2005.

In the recent transaction, announced Tuesday, Constellation retained Clos du Bois and Wild Horse (also a former Beam property) while selling, for $209 million to the newly organized Ascentia Wine Estates, these properties: Geyser Peak, Atlas Peak, Buena closdubois.gif Vista Carneros, Gary Farrell, XYZin, the Washington State wineries Columbia Winery and Covey Run and Idaho’s Ste. Chappell. Together, these wineries produce about a million cases of wine annually. Ascentia is headquartered in Healdsburg, Sonoma County. The company was launched by Jim DeBonis, who was chief operating officer of Beam Wine Estates, with major investment from William and Peter Deutsch, whose W.J. Deustch & Sons is one of the country’s best-known wine importers (Yellowtail, Georges Duboeuf), and GESD Capital Partners of San Francisco.

That’s the succinct version of these mergers and acquisitions. Things get really complicated if we trace them back 10 or 15 years; some of these wineries have had more owners than Lindsay Lohan has had mug-shots.

Anyway, these maneuverings seem aimed at one result: To give Constellation the power, using Clos du Bois’ ubiquitous columbialogo.jpg inexpensive chardonnay, to complete against equally ubiquitous Kendall-Jackson in the all-important $12 chardonnay niche, both in retail and in restaurant by-the-glass and bottle sales. Besides that factor, Clos du Bois has been an under-achiever for decades. Will Constellation put the money into Clos du Bois to return its flagship cabernet sauvignon-based Marlstone and Briarcrest wines to the glory days of the late 1970s and early ’80s? The fact that Clos du Bois is not grouped with Constellation’s top-brand Icon Estates properties would imply that we shouldn’t bet on it.

The properties that Ascentia acquired make an interesting and slightly difficult roster. Buena Vista Carneros — the original winery was founded in 1857 — has lately been turning out excellent cool microclimate pinot noirs and syrahs. Gary Farrell Winery produces highly regarded pinot noirs in the Russian River Valley, but the winery’s eponymous founder left after selling to Allied atlas-peak.jpg Domecq in 2004. Atlas Peak, which has undergone many shifts in ownership, is now a brand, making primarily cabernet sauvignon wines from purchased grapes; the former Atlas Peak vineyards are owned by Tuscany’s Piero Antinori, who was always a partner in the deal. Columbia Winery and Covey Run are two of Washington’s best-known labels and are fairly familiar to American wine consumers as producers of a variety of popularly priced products, especially riesling. Geyser Peak makes a widely appreciated sauvignon blanc as well as focusing on regional and vineyard designated merlot and cabernet sauvignon wines; however, the Australian winemaker Darryl Groom, who brought Geyser Peak to an acme of recognition in the 1990s, is no longer with the label.

My point is that most of these wineries are in a state of transition or are simply not well-known, and Ascentia will have to work hard to bring some order to the arrangement and to find niches for a dizzying array of products. As production costs go up and wine sales flatten, it will be a challenge to present some of these labels as fresh and meaningful and as compelling choices for consumers inundated by brands at every price point. Deutsch’s established national distribution network should help.

Meanwhile, we’ll wait breathlessly for Constellation’s next move. More acquisitions? More divesting? More consolidation? Remember, readers, the wine industry is all about markets and marketing and what American wine consumers can be persuaded that they need to drink.

I had a lunch appointment yesterday and thought that it would be a good gesture to take a bottle of wine. Now I’m a journalist, not a doctor or lawyer or captain of industry, damnit — my regular job is being a reporter for the daily newspaper in Memphis — so I don’t have a wine cellar. There is a wine rack though, and sometimes I find an older, not a really old, wine on a bottom shelf, like “whoa, where did that come from?” That was the case with La Fleur de Boüard 1999, Lalande de Pomerol. fleur.jpg

The chateau is a small property owned by Hubert and Corinne de Boüard de Laforest, co-proprietors of the splendid Chateau Angelus, a Premier Grand Cru Classe estate in Saint-Emilion. These are so-called Right Bank appellations of Bordeaux, meaning that they lie on the right side of the Dordogne river, about 45-minutes drive east of the city of Bordeaux, which lies on the left bank of the Garonne river. The two waterways merge north of Bordeaux (the city) to form the wide and mighty Gironde, which flows to the Atlantic. St.-Emilion is one of Bordeaux’s great appellations; Lalande de Pomerol, not as significantly situated, is often called a “satellite” commune or appellation, which doesn’t mean that great wines cannot emerge from it, as this example illustrates.

Anyway, in the Right Bank communes, the principal grape is merlot, which benefits from the clay-like or clay-gravel soil; the merlot is typically blended with smaller amounts of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. In fact, the blend for La Fleur de Boüard 1999 is 80% merlot, 15% cabernet franc and 5% cabernet sauvignon. The wine tends to age 18 to 24 months in oak barrels, of which 80 to 90% are new. This is fairly rigorous treatment, but La Fleur de Boüard ’99 comes through terrifically well.

The bouquet is ripe and warm and meaty and laden with scents of spiced and macerated black currants, black cherries and plums. That sensation of warmth, of downright appeal, continues in the mouth, where the wine is smooth and mellow and drinkable, with a texture like dusty velvet. It takes a few minutes before the durable structural elements begin to assert themselves: the earthiness and minerality, the tannin packed with layers of walnut shell, dried porcini and underbrush, the polished oak. At the same time, the aromas unfurl hints of lavender and sandalwood and dried spices.

At almost eight years old, what an enticing wine! I rate it Excellent. It’s one of those bottles that I wish I had six or so around, to test it over the next few years. It should be a lovely wine through 2012 to ’15.

I think I paid $38 or $42 for this three or four years ago, though I’ve seen it on the Internet as low at $26. Recent vintages are more expensive, going up to $65, but all wine from Europe is more expensive now. And have you seen French and Italian cheeses? Outrageous!

Staying with the white theme, today’s Wine of the Week is this phenomenal bargain, the Louis Latour vir-cless.jpg Viré-Clessé 2006, from Burgundy’s Maconnais region; the grape is chardonnay. Made completely in stainless steel, this little wine is distinctively minerally and notably spicy. It features enticing freshness and clarity, with scents of apple and lemon and a hint of fresh-baked bread. It takes on more earthiness in the mouth, and while the wine is dry and crisp, even a touch austere, the lovely texture is smooth, lustrous, almost lush. This is what minor Burgundy — and who can afford anything from Burgundy except the minor? — is all about, though I don’t mean to denigrate the qualities here by using the word “minor.” This is deep and pure and authentic. Excellent. The wine lists for $18, but I find it on the Internet from $14 to $20. This one is for buying by the case and drinking through 2009 or ’10.

Last week we had our first temperatures in the 90s, and the weather forecast predicts the same for the coming week — today the high is supposed to be 96 with humidity a zillion percent — bringing to mind the necessity for refreshing and delightful and perhaps rather serious or seriously good white wines. With one exception, the prices of these six examples tend to be seriously inexpensive or at least more than fair. Three are from France, and one each from Washington, Oregon and California.

*For quality/price ratio, I was knocked out by the sleek and refreshing Domaine du Tariquet Sauvignon 2007, made by the tariquet.jpg Famille Grassa in Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne. The bouquet teems with notes of celery and dill, thyme and lime and grapefruit. The wine, laced with lemon, lime and orange zest flavors with hints of dried herbs, is amazingly crisp and lively, with a touch of spritz and echoes of chalk and limestone. Imported by Robert Kacher, Washington D.C. Very good+. About $10 and a freakin’ bargain. Drink through the end of 2008.

*Here’s another knock-out and a fabulous value. The Domaine des Vercheres Macon-Villages 2006 displays tremendous weight and presence for its station in life. The wine is clean and minerally, with a dense. almost powdery texture and flavors that are like an infusion of roasted lemon and lemon balm permeated by tangerine and hints of candied orange rind. Acid is buoyantly lively, and layers of limestone and shale kick up their heels. A wafting of honeysuckle slips through on the finish. Excellent and clearly a superior model of the type. Imported by Martin Scott Wines, Lake Success, N.Y. About $13.

Blithe and winsome, the Anne Amie Cuvee A Amrita 2006, from Oregon, is a blend of muller-thurgau grapes (35%), pinot gris (33%), riesling (13%), chardonnay (10%), viognier (6%) and melon de bourgogne, the grape that makes Muscadet (3%). The wine features a bouquet of lemon, lime peel and orange zest with hints of almond and almond blossom. In the mouth, there’s a tide of spiced peach and roasted pear, yet while those qualities sound opulent, the wine’s texture is crisp, spare, almost lean, yet pleasingly silky. A charming and individual quaff. Very good+ About $15.

*Ron Bunnell, former red wine maker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, released wines from his own property in Washington’s Yakima Valley in 2007. The Bunnell Family Wines are dedicated to strikingly authentic versions of Rhone style wines, some of which I will mention in a post coming up soon; the River Aerie label offers less expensive wines that include flavorful whites made in stainless steel and red blends. The River Aerie Gewurztraminer 2006 delivers precise notes of peach, pear and lichee with undercurrents of jasmine, orange zest and the grape’s characteristic element of rubber eraser. The wine is very lively, very spicy, scintillating with crisp acid and damp pebbles, all leading to a shiveringly dry finish with touches of elegance and austerity. Drink through 2009 or ’10. Excellent. About $18.

*Well, I feel guilty recommending the Hendry Ranch Albarino 2007, Napa Valley, so highly because only 110 cases were made, so mark it definitely worth a search. This is a lovely, indeed stunning rendition of the Spanish white grape. It shamelessly overflows with jasmine and honeysuckle, roasted lemon and lemon balm, lime and orange peel. Made in bone-dry style, all in stainless steel with no malolactic process, the wine is, of course, notably crisp and vibrant, with stirring minerality, and yet the texture balances that crispness with lovely, lush denseness and weight; it’s a consummate example of the ineffable married to the substantial. Drink through 2009. Excellent. About $19.

*Vintage 2005 was superb in the Loire Valley, part of the trend for that year, actually, in most of Europe. A product of that fournier.jpg felicity is the Fournier Pere et Fils Les Belles Vignes Sancerre 2005, made completely from sauvignon blanc grapes. Lordy, this is as fresh as new mown grass and hay laced with thyme and tarragon and borne upon strata of flint and limestone. It’s wonderfully fresh, bright and vivid, bursting with notes of lemon, lime and tangerine, and yet it’s tremendously earthy, almost mossy, with impressive body and weight while retaining cleanly, sharply etched acid for liveliness and vibrancy. Drink through 2010 or ’11 (well-stored). Imported by Martin Scott Wines, Lake Success, N.Y. Excellent. List price is about $26, but I paid $19.

Where food is concerned, astonishment does not equal happiness. Great cooking does not require prestidigitation but thoughtful consideration of the virtues of simplicity, intensity and inevitability. (Apply this concept to making wine, too.) I would take a perfect roasted chicken any day over the Frankensteinian kitchen feats that transform sea urchins into matchstick fries and olives into bubbles.

LL and I discussed these matters Wednesday after dinner because she had prepared, two nights running, what I decided were perfect meals: porcini risotto on Tuesday and salmon and bok choy on Wednesday. I always tell her that she’s a great cook, a designation she denies. “All I do,” she said that night, as we finished a bottle of Landmark Damaris Reserve Chardonnay 2005, “is try to get the most flavor out of the ingredients as possible.” Zut alors, what an idea! Perhaps the chefs of all the restaurants of the world could stitch those words into a sampler and hang it in their kitchens.

As far as porcini risotto is concerned, LL remains haunted by the by-now nearly mythical (or perhaps mystical) flavors of the dish as she experienced it on her first visit to northern Italy some 40 years ago. Often has she described to me the platonic earthiness, the sublime woodsy nature of that encounter. As she has made porcini risotto for us over the years, and I have reacted by asserting, “Wow, that’s fabulous,” she would demur and say, “Well, it’s good, I suppose, but it’s not like … ”

We had several packages of fragments of dried porcini mushrooms; they’re far cheaper than packages of the whole dried mushrooms, but they’re going to be chopped up anyway. LL soaked them in boiling water, but just to cover, so the flavor and color would be concentrated; then she used that “broth” in the risotto. She also chopped and sauteed a handful of shiitake mushrooms to add flavor. The whole process is a matter of cooking down, reducing, to intensify the elements.

There’s nothing photogenic about a wide, shallow bowl filled with porcini risotto; it’s just a mass of nubby, slightly glistening biege — LL shaved a little Parmesan cheese on the servings and scattered some diced green onion — but boy, did enticing smells rise from it! She took a bite and got this dreamy look on her face. “That’s it,” she said. “Whew,” said I.

Typically, I would have served a medium-bodied, not too boldly flavored red wine with this dish, say a lighter pinot noir or a cigare.gif Dolcetta d’Alba, but when LL called for a some white wine for the risotto, I plucked from the refrigerator a bottle of the Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc 2006, from California’s Central Coast, and poured us each a glass. We liked it so much that we decided to drink it with the risotto. I haven’t been thrilled recently with Bonny Doon’s red wines, but I’ve been knocked out by the whites, particularly Le Cigare Blanc 2006, and not just because it’s a faithful rendition of a white wine from the France’s southern Rhone Valley. Comparisons aside, it’s an entrancing and alluring wine.

Composed of 75.3 percent grenache blanc grapes and 24.7 percent roussanne grapes and aged about six months in neutral (that is, used) French oak barrels, the wine practically glimmers and vibrates in the glass. The color is limpid pale gold; the bouquet features green apple, pear and peach with hints of yellow plum, limestone and honeysuckle. The back label tells us that the roussanne grapes were affected by botrytis, the harvest-time mold that occurs under certain weather conditions and concentrates grape sugars, making the grapes appropriate for dessert wines. In this case, the roussanne was given the minority influence in the wine, but since the residual sugar — the natural grape sugar left after fermentation in dessert wines — is only 0.16 percent by weight, well below the detectable level, the wine is bone-dry but imbued with extraordinary inner richness and broad definition of fruit. The point is that the wine exhibits wonderful tone and balance, a lovely dense, satiny texture, though acid is as crisp as an apple plucked from the tree and cleaved with an ax. At the end — you have to stay with me here — it’s as if the wine embodied two different sorts of floral elements: a little white astringent flower, high-toned and chaste, and a little white sweet blossomy flower, shy, sly and sensual (a sort of Lolita enters the convent wine), while the acid and limestone feel precise, chiseled. In a word: remarkable. Production is 1,830 cases. I rate the wine Exceptional. About $22.

So, next night, we had two fillets of steelhead salmon from Costco. At the local Fresh Market, I bought four heads of baby bok choy. This would be dinner. Preparation of the salmon could not have been simpler. Salt, pepper and lemon juice. Saute about a minute on each side on the stove in the trusty old iron skillet. Slide into a 400 degree oven for about two minutes, three at most. The result is salmon that is indeed cooked but with a layer of rosy rareness at the center. Such a salmon needs no spices, no sauces, no embellishment of any kind. Hollandaise would have been superfluous, “barbecue buerre blanc” or “mango coulis” an insult. These splendid pieces of fish, among the nobility of the finny tribes, were allowed to speak eloquently for themselves.

Similarly simple with the bok choy. Parboil in a very small saucepan, so the leaves stick out from the pot and get slightly charred by the fire. Then saute them briefly in olive oil and garlic and a squeeze of lemon. That’s it.

I wrote about the Landmark Damaris Reserve Chardonnay 2005, Carneros, from the well-known Sangiacomo Vineyard, a few son544_m.jpg months ago. Having another bottle on hand, I opened it to drink with the salmon and bok choy. Talk about marriages made in heaven! This wine represents everything that is best or can be best about chardonnay in California. It’s not Burgundian, but it’s marked by Burgundy’s elegance, balance and proportion; it’s definitely Californian in its bold ripe flavors, but it avoids the excesses of the flamboyant, tropical, dessert-like style of which the reviewers in the Wine Spectator are so enamored. Its richness and ripeness, its slightly brazen nature are tempered by vibrant acid, resonant mineral qualities and a tremendous sense of self-confident purity and intensity. It’s another Exceptional wine. Internet prices range from about $29 to $38.

Visit Bonnydoonvineyard.com and landmarkwine.com.

Here’s a case where one doesn’t worry about a California wine slavishly following its foreign model, in this instance the tempranillo-based wines of Spain, because this wine is so damned delicious and downright fairly priced. The Matchbook Tempranillo 2005, Dunnigan ff01-0001r2-05-tempranillo-fc_ttb.jpg Hills, is a combination of 80 percent tempranillo grapes, 10 percent malbec, and five percent each petit verdot and graciano (a Spanish blending grape); it ages only about seven months in oak. The result is a lovely bouquet of black currant, black cherry and plum laden with layers of black tea, minerals and dried spice. The wine is warm and rich in the mouth, ripe and fleshy in its black fruit flavors, firm in texture and vibrant in acid, with hints of orange rind, spice and bittersweet chocolate. The wine is quite dry, a bit underbrushy and brambly on the finish, but eminently drinkable. 1,913 cases produced. I rate this Very Good+ and recommend it with burgers, pork chops, steaks and such. About $15, good value.

Visit matchbookwines.com.

The wines of Vinedos y Bodegas Garcia Figuero — to give this estate its full name — are made of 100 percent tempranillo grapes, some of which derive from vineyards that date to the 1930s. For decades, the grapes from the Figueros vineyards went into the wines of other producers in the Ribera del Duero region in north central Spain, part of the province of Castilla y Leon, tinto_figuero_4_month_bottle.jpg until the family launched its own winery in 2001. As far as this palate is concerned, it was a wise decision.

Yes, these wines age in French and American oak barrels, qualifying them for the often-used designation “new” or “modern” wines, in opposition, I suppose, to “old” or “traditional” wines, you know, the ones that aged years in large, ancient wooden casks or vats and emerged dry, austere and fruitless. I tend, as I have iterated many times, to be a purist about such notions of a region’s tradition and heritage, but Figeuros proves that we don’t have to adhere to tradition slavishly. Yes (again), the top levels of these wines display notable austerity on the finish, but that quality is preceded by rich, ripe fruit.

The least expensive of these four wines is the Figueros Roble 4 Months in Barrel 2006; the wood regimen is four months in 85 percent American oak, 15 percent French, all new barrels. The wine is lovely, seductive, bursting with grapey notes of ripe black and red currants and plums. The wine is soft and spicy, permeated by macerated and roasted black currant flavors that seethe with lavender, licorice and bittersweet chocolate. Drink now through 2010 or ’11. About $20 and rated Very Good+.

The Figeuro Crianza 12 Months in Barrel 2004 begins to dip into the estate’s older vines; 80 percent of the grapes come from 20 to 40-year-old vines, the rest from vines that are 50 years old. This wine sees no new oak; the barrels — 90 percent American, 10 percent French — are two and more years old, so there’s no trace of toastiness or vanilla. My first note on the wine is “Wow!” followed a few lines later with “what great character!” The bouquet is packed with cedar and tobacco, the scents of black fruit both fresh and dried and deep rooty, minerally elements. Lordy, what a dark and intense and concentrated wine this is, etched with spice and bolstered by robust tannins that support ripe, roasted and fleshy black currant and plum flavors wreathed with wild berry. After 30 minutes or so in the glass, the tannins expand and grow, seeming to fill the glass — and the drinker’s mouth — with rigorous austerity. I would give this wine until 2010 and then consume it through 2014 or ’16. Excellent. tinto_figuero_15_month_bottle.jpg About $30.

Next is Figuero’s 15 Months in Barrel Reserva 2004, I wine that I found absolutely compelling in smoothness and mellowness, in balance and harmony. The grapes are all from 50-year-old vineyards. Despite aging in new barrels for 15 months — 95 percent American — the wine, like its cousin mentioned above, displays no trace of vanilla or new oak toastiness. Instead, the oak provides a sturdy framework, a permeating presence of spice that never becomes obtrusive. Mint, eucalyptus and cedar float above scents and flavors of black currant, black cherry and plum set into a lush, dense and chewy texture. Drink now through 2012 or ’15. Excellent. About $55.

You will need patience for the Figuero Noble Gran Reserva 2004. The vines whence the grape derive are more than 70 years old, a factor that contributes to the wine’s extreme density, richness and austerity. The aging is sequential, first 15 months in American oak, then six months in French. It’s true that Noble 2004 emits beguiling touches of cedar and tobacco, mint and eucalyptus, but this is mainly about gritty tannins, polished oak and brooding earthy, minerally qualities that will require aging until 2011 or ’12 to achieve company manners. After that, consume through 2018 or ’20. It would be fascinating to watch this wine develop, though I say “would be” because only 583 cases were made and the price is about $160. Excellent.

The wines of Vinedos y Bodegas Garcia Figuero are imported by Quintessential, Napa, Ca.

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