September 2008


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The idea of a dry sparking red wine in foreign to most Americans, but the concept is a tradition in Italy’s agriculturally-important Emilia-Romagna region, where dry sparkling Lambrusco pairs well with the rich hearty cuisine. There’s plenty of indifferent or insipid Lambrusco around, but the Albinea Canali Ottocentero Lambrusco dell’Emilia is a superior version. This is a blended wine, made from 50% lambrusco salamino grapes, 40 percent lambrusco grasparossa and 10 percent lancellotta. The effervescence is not like Champagne; this is a semi-sparkling wine, with a gentle presence of bubbles rather than a fount. The color is deep purple; the forthright grapey bouquet offers notes of black currant and black raspberry. In the mouth, this is roasted and fleshy, almost pure blackberry except for a strain of wild mulberry. The wine is spicy and exotic, with a lip-smacking texture and appetite-whetting acid. The alcohol is a low 11.5 percent. I would like this with noodles and a rabbit ragu or a lasagna with wild mushrooms. Very Good+. About $15.
VB Imports, Old Brookville, N.Y.

Usually we think of red wine as smoothing the transition from summer to autumn, as in slightly darker, more substantial pinot noirs and merlots that will lead eventually to full-bodied cabernets, zinfandels and syrahs. (If you have been cooking red meat out on the grill this summer, of course you’ve been drinking those full-bodied red wines anyway, at least occasionally.) Some white wines, however, can have a spicy savory quality that sets them apart from the delicacy and scintillating freshness and crispness that we look for in summertime whites. The examples reviewed today carry more weight, more individuality; you want to roll them around in the mouth and, while you’re enjoying them, think about them too.
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The Nobilo “Icon” Pinot Gris 2005, from the Marlborough region of New Zealand, isn’t a late-harvest wine, but it certainly shares the intensity and some of the flavor profile that late-harvest wines may possess. The color is vivid golden-yellow; the bouquet teems with scents of rich, honeyed apples, peaches and pears with hints of honeysuckle and jasmine. For all its richness and density, however, this is a dry, stony and even austere wine, at least on the finish, at least after you have savored the flavors of spiced, macerated, smoky peaches and yellow plums imbued with crystallized ginger, lime peel and orange zest. At the age of three-and-a-half years, this wine feels fresh, young and vigorous — the acid cuts like a blade — and fully ready to match with a dish of roast pork with apples and chilies or shrimp curry. Let’s call it Excellent and Worth a Search. I have seen this wine priced from about $16 to $19.
Imported by Pacific Wine Partners, a division of Constellation Wines.
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It was about as easy finding information about the Saint-Veran 2006, produced by Vins Auvigne, as it has been digging Al Qaeda out of the mountains of western Pakistan. Surely the importer, listed on the label as Diageo Chateau & Estates, would have some incentive for publicizing the wine, at least to the extent of mentioning it on the company’s website (and providing me with a piece of freaking label art). The point is that this is a forward and audaciously bright Saint-Veran — 100 percent chardonnay — that weaves jasmine, pineapple and grapefruit, mango and Bit ‘O Honey with lemon and lime peel and a hint of ginger; whoa, can this be Burgundy! For all its vividness, the wine offers touches of the autumnal in an undertow of smoke and mushroomy earthiness. I paid about $19 in a little wine store in Croton-on-Hudson, in Westchester County, back in May. Rate it Very Good+ and mark it Worth a Search.
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The Foursight Wines Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Anderson Valley, is the wine, coincidentally, that inspired this post about white wines to take you into autumn. My initial notes on the wine are “Very crisp and lively, yet dense, almost savory.” That sense of the savory comes from the textural quality, from intense spiciness that you feel as if you’re wrapping your tongue around it, from the Mediterranean sensuality of roasted lemon and lemon balm scents and flavors married to the formidably dry and minerally character typical of Mendocino’s Anderson Valley — and of stainless steel fermentation and aging. Great tone and balance. Foursight Wines is a new winery founded in 2007 by longtime growers Bill and Nancy Charles and their daughter Kristy Charles and her fiance (husband?) Joseph Webb. They produce small amounts of sauvignon blanc and pinot noir: I’ll spill some ink about the pinot noir in a week or two. If you caught a little, silver trout (or bought one or ordered one in a restaurant) and it was cooked in the simplest way possible, that is to say grilled or sauteed and served with a light lemon-caper sauce, here’s your wine. “Small amount,” in this instance, means a miserly 189 cases. Sorry. Excellent, and, again, Worth a Search. About $20.
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One of the partners in Picket Fence Vineyards is winemaker Don Van Staaveren, who, those with long memories may recall, crafted the Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages Cabernet Sauvignon 1996, a spectacular wine that not only brought increased picketfence.jpg renown to the producer but forced a price hike of about 400 percent for Cinq Cepages. (O.K., it didn’t hurt that the Wine Spectator named it Wine of the Year for 1999.) Anyway, Picket Fence, now in its second vintage, focuses on chardonnay and pinot noir, those mainstays of Russian River Valley. The Picket Fence Chardonnay 2006 is clean, fresh and bright, an absolute classic that balances fruit, acid and oak in exquisite fashion; it’s rich and ripe and spicy without being flamboyant or obvious. Scents of pineapple and grapefruit are wreathed with honeysuckle and jasmine, orange blossom, orange zest and a hint of anise. These qualities may sound flamboyant as hell, but the temper here is subtle, and in the mouth the wine marshals ringing acid, a prominent limestone element and nuanced oak to project steadiness and substance. Why do I place this chardonnay on a list of “Eight White Wines to Ease You into Autumn”? For that precise reason: The manner in which structure asserts itself and subdues the wine’s forthright allure in favor of elegance and suppleness. Production was 8,500 cases. Excellent. About $20.
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The Cadaretta SBS 2007, Columbia Valley, Washington, is the first release from this new winery, founded by the Middleton family, fifth-generation timber-growers in Washington and grape-growers in California. Winemaker is Frenchwomen Virginie cadaretta-sbsfront-finalthumbnail.jpg Bourgue. SBS is a blend of 73 percent sauvignon blanc and 27 percent semillon, made all in stainless steel. The wine is one of those lovely paradoxes, a subtle combination of woven delicacies with a structure that feels inevitable; in fact, if you didn’t know the wine was made in stainless steel, you would swear that it derived some suppleness and tone from oak. Notably clean and fresh, the wine melds notes of roasted lemon with spiced peach and pear layered over touches of lime and grapefruit. That latter element, along with whisking acid, keeps the wine lively, almost brisk, though it feels as if it slows down, taking things steady as they go, through the dense, spicy finish. You want to roll this stuff around on your tongue. A great debut for this winery. Production was 720 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Last week, I wrote about the Bennett Lane Maximus Red Feasting Wine 2005, Napa Valley. Now it’s the turn of the Bennett Lane Maximus White Feasting Wine 2007, Napa Valley. The blend is 86 percent sauvignon blanc, 12 percent chardonnay and 2 percent muscat, the latter smidgeon contributing, no doubt, to an irresistible and slightly astringent aroma of some chaste little white mountainside flower. This is surrounded by crisp apple, lush and lively tangerine, lemon curd and lemon balm. Pretty heady stuff, all right. This is an elegantly proportioned wine, though, nicely layered with limestone and pure citrus, scintillating acid and a soft burr of oak that permeates the structure the way that ink spreads across the lines of an etching plate. Spiced grapefruit gives the bracing finish a tang. Excellent. About $28.
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LL smoked a fillet of Coho salmon over ancho chilies — the result is salmon of silken texture, heightened flavor and deep but subtle spiciness — and made a warm potato salad with green beans to go with it. My job was setting the table and opening this bottle of Domaine Faiveley Mercurey “Clos Rochette” 2006. The Clos Rochette vineyard, in the Cote Chalonnaise in southern Burgundy, is a monopole for Faiveley, that is, a rare instance in Burgundy of a producer owning an entire vineyard; most are mercurey.JPG divided among different, sometimes many different, owners. Clos Rochette (“little rocks”) covers just under 11 acres. This wine, 100 percent chardonnay, ages 40 percent in tank and 60 percent in oak, half of the barrels new. It embodies all the gratifying paradoxes that characterize well-made white burgundy: It’s both plumb and crisp; luscious and dry; sensuous and rigorous. The extraordinary bouquet offers lavender and rose hips, lemon curd and yellow plum and a strain of richness like prosciutto fat and lychee nectar. These elements prevail, also, in the mouth, where the wine’s clean, fresh acidity and limestone dryness bring some discipline, while in the finish there’s a burst of soft, spicy oak, like a burnt offering. It’s an incredible pleasure to drink a wine such as this and contemplate the place where it was made, the seasons that rolled over the vineyard, the labor in the vines through the changing months, the timeless rituals that brought the wine to fruition. Fortunate is the house that could make this its house white wine. Drink now through 2012 or ’14. Excellent. About $34, a Great Price considering how much burgundy costs these days.
Imported by Wilson Daniels.
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The Marc Kreydenweiss Kritt Gewurztraminer “Les Charmes” 2006, Alsace, is classic gewurztraminer. The color is bright straw-gold; scents of pear and melon, lychee and roses and that characteristic “petrol” or “rubber eraser” note twine through the bouquet. The wine is modestly sweet on the entry, bright and crisp, a bit honeyed in its spiced and roasted peach and pear flavors, through from the middle back through the finish, it’s dry and stony and quite spicy, and it’s lent a touch of bracing bitterness by the appearance of grapefruit and lime peel. Eight months in 80-year-old oak casks give the wine not a whit of woodiness but support a lovely, supple shape and texture. Kreydenweiss is a completely biodynamic estate. If you’re serving an autumnal dish like roast or smoked pork loin or grilled sausages, or further on down the line, heaping a table with the Thanksgiving feast, this wine would be terrific. Production was 950 cases. Excellent. About $37.
Imported by Wilson Daniels.
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… I won’t name the winery whose back-label I’m about to quote here and, frankly, hold up to ridicule. The wine is a merlot that costs $35 a bottle.

We have selected this classic Bordeaux varietal from vineyards nestled on the gentle slopes of Sonoma Valley to produce an exquisite wine that rivals the very best Pommerol chateaus.

This brief screed offends me on so many levels that I feel it way down in the murky pools of my Behavioral Sink, but then I’m a sensitive guy.

First, and most evident, is the misspelling of Pomerol. I mean, really, people writing copy for wine labels shouldn’t misspell the names of wine regions, especially a wine region that’s a world-famous avatar of its grape and style of wine. I mean, Pomerol is to merlot as La Tour d’Argent is to pressed duck, as Wagner is to mytho-poetic Teutonic selfhood, as Tarantino is to violence. Pomerol is, in several words, the cradle of merlot, the Promised Land, the ne plus ultra.

Second is the fact that “varietal” is an adjective, not a noun (“variety”), but I’ve fought this hopeless battle before.

And third, the claim that this “exquisite wine … rivals the very best of [Pomerol]” cuts such a huge swath of unrealistic hype that it’s breathtaking. Confidence is good, of course, but delusion is treatable, one hears. The very best of Pomerol includes some of the — let’s say it — very best and most expensive wines in the world. These include Petrus, Lafleur, Le Pin, La Conseillante, Trotanoy, Certan de May, La Fleur de Gay, L’Eglise-Clinet, Clinet, L’Evangile, Latour-a-Pomerol and Vieux-Chateau-Certan.

Does the wine of which I speak here measure up? In one word, No. It’s well-made, attractive, tasty, with moderate complexity and weight, a shoo-in for a Very Good+ rating from me. (Shouldn’t a wine that sells for $35 rate better?)

But come on, let’s show a little common sense about these matters. PR is PR, marketing is marketing, these things we know are true and take with typical heaps of salt, but let’s not be stupid about them.

Vintage 2005 was a splendid year for cabernet sauviignon in California, a year perhaps to rival 2001. Much depends upon the winemaker, of course; many a ton of terrific grapes has been ruined by over-oaking in the winery, while in lesser years thoughtful and careful winemakers can turn out great wine; this is a principle that prevails in all the world’s winemaking regions.

These 12 examples of cabernet sauvignon or cabernet-based wines were tasted within the last six months; I’ve been saving them for a moment when they could logically work together in one post. They are not all excellent wines, but neither are any of them marred by the contemporary bedevilments of too much oak, too much alcohol and too much ripeness. My favorites here — and they will be readily apparent — display the best balance between elegance and power, between fruit and structure. They don’t give too much away too quickly; they prize gravitas and detachment and austerity. Well, o.k, a couple are pretty shamelessly appealing, but then they roll out their serious natures.
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It’s a bold move to name your cabernet blend Maximus and then give it the nickname “Feasting Wine;” shades of banquets and revelry! The Bennett Lane Maximus “Red Feasting Wine” 2005, Napa Valley, however, is densely structured enough that I would hesitate to open a bottle for tonight’s banquet; feasting in 2010 through 2015 or ’16 would be more like it. The blend is 64 percent cabernet sauvignon and 25 percent merlot, and you would be forgiven for thinking that we’re on our way to something modeled on St. Estephe or St. Julien, except that the other 11 percent is syrah, a grape that the Bordelaise don’t even dream about. Maximus ’05 opens with distinct aromas of cedar, tobacco and walnut shell that unfold around elements of intense and concentrated black currant, black cherry and plum. The flavors are similar, but deep, rich and spicy, quite earthy and minerally. The texture is dense and chewy with slightly gritty tannins that help make this a solid and substantial wine rather than a supple or vibrant one. Very Good+ with a nod toward Excellent potential in three or four years. About $35.
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For 2005, winemaker Marco DiGuillio took the Black Coyote Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which is 100 percent cabernet, from the Stags Leap District to Atlas Peak. The immediate impression is of roots and branches, briers and brambles and cedar; then come black currants, plum pudding, saddle leather and licorice. Aged 22 months in French oak, 85 percent new barrels, this is a wine that almost vocalizes its marriage to the subtleties and blandishments of wood, while stewing in a welter of immense polished, grainy tannins. The wine is very smoky, very minerally and increasingly austere, yet its core feels not ponderous but resonant and lively. Production was 800 cases. Try from 2010 or ’11 through 2015 to ’18. Excellent. About $65.
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If you are like me — and you may be in ways that I cannot begin to fathom (or want to know about) — then you think that the Blackstone label represents the cheap seats of restaurant wine lists and grocery store shelves, especially that ubiquitous merlot, so serviceable, so innocuous. So who can blame the producer for wanting to move up the scale? I tasted the Blackstone Rubric Sonoma Reserve 2005 blind and was knocked out by the quality, especially when I learned the price. The salmagundi of a blend blackstone.jpg is 65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 14 percent syrah, 9 percent cabernet franc, 8 percent petite sirah, 2 percent merlot and — ready for this? — 2 percent teroldego. No one would blame you, mon lecteur, for never having heard of this grape — nor had I — but a few minutes with my research staff, Miss Google, provided its provenance; it’s a rare red grape found in Italy’s northeast region of Trentino-Alto Adige, especially in the zone called Campo Rotaliano, where its wines are highly valued.

So, Blackstone’s Rubric 2005 radiates purity and intensity of black fruit scents and flavors; it’s dark, high-toned and vibrant, and it offers lovely balance and integration, though it could use a slightly lighter hand with the easy fix of spicy oak. The wine is both tightly wound and generous, in the way that wines can be when a resolute structure supports lavish notes of lavender and licorice twined with minerals and walnut shell. Not a great wine, but I’ll happily rate it Very Good+ — it could use some fine-tuning — and recommend consumption through 2012 or ’13 with hearty red meat dishes. About $19.
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The grapes for the Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Sonoma County — 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent cabernet franc, 2 percent petit verdot — derive from vineyards in Knights Valley, Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley. This is a “vinted” wine according to the label. Nothing wrong with purchasing grapes to make your wine; many a venerable house in Burgundy was built on the same principle. This all-too-typical example however, while competently-made, feels as if it were fashioned by a committee. Yes, it’s pungent and savory with ripe, dusty, minerally black currants, black cherries and plums; yes, the tannin and oak are sleek and polished; yes, it gathers notes of leather and minerals and charcoal, briers and brambles, cedar and tobacco; yes, it’s dense and chewy. So do and so are a hundred other cabernets from Napa and Sonoma. From Chateau St. Jean, we need more personality, if actual character is not too much to hope for. Very good+. About $27.
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I have probably said this a thousand times, but once more won’t hurt. Because they are elegant rather than monumental, because they are poised instead of exuberant, wines from Clos du Val tend to be undervalued if not downright ignored. 05_nv_cab_label.jpg Whenever possible in a restaurant, if I’m dining on beef especially, I order a bottle of Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon, because I know that it will have both the character and the sensuous appeal to match the dish and satisfy my palate. “Oh,” you’re saying archly, “a restaurant wine,” as if that’s a term of condemnation, as if wine’s primary purpose were not to, you know, be drunk with food.

The Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley, delivers exquisite balance and equilibrium along with purposeful intensity and concentration; it is, in other words, a perfect example of the permeation of power and elegance. The blend is a Pauillac-like 85 percent cabernet sauvignon with 10 percent cabernet franc, 3 percent merlot and 2 percent petit verdot; the winery’s co-founder Bernard Portet was born in Bordeaux, and his father was, for many years, technical director at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. The wine is drenched in ripe cassis and black cherry etched with nuances of cedar, walnut shell, dried flowers and dried spice; these aspects rest on formidable, completely present but never overdone elements of polished oak and well-oiled tannins that layer suppleness over a foresty character — briers and brambles, moss and dried mushrooms — that increases in austerity through the long finish. Paramount about this wine is its quality of vitality and resonance. There has been comment, if not complaint, from critics that Clos du Val has within the last decade forsaken its righteously tannic and austere fashion for a more stylish, approachable wine. If that has happened, I see the benefit in a cabernet that might be drinkable now — Clos du Val cabernets are wonderful with medium rare steak — but that will age gracefully for 10 or 12 years, properly stored. Excellent. About $32.
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You could swim in it. That’s my first impression of the Fritz Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Dry Creek Valley, it’s that seductive and sumptuous. Billowing dried spice, ballooning cassis and black cherry, unfurling lavender and licorice; and then, inky minerals that form the wine’s bed-rock, bold tannins and polished oak that sculpt a firm, supple Brancusian structure and bring in the burgeoning austerity on the finish. Perhaps it’s the 10 percent malbec that lends the wine an intriguing, slightly tart note, a hint of cranberry and blueberry and exotic spice. Lest you worry that this sensual carnival of a wine is too heady to bear, consider that the alcohol level is a sensible 13.8 percent. The ultimate impression is of muscular elegance. Try from 2009 through 2012 or ’15. Excellent. About $30.
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If you’re thinking of throwing a rib-eye or strip steak on the grill this week or maybe pork chops crusted with chili powder, cumin broquel_malbec.jpg and garlic, pull the cork on a bottle of the Broquel Malbec 2006, from Argentina’s Mendoza region. This is a label produced by the huge Trapiche winery.

Broquel Malbec 2006 is packed with spice and dried flowers and rich, ripe and intense flavors of black currant, black cherry and plum. A few minutes in the glass add notes of wild berry and blueberry tart, with a hint of bitter chocolate. The body is tremendous for a wine at this price; it’s dense and chewy, vibrant with acid and permeated by dusty, grainy tannins and polished oak, from aging 12 months in barrels, 70 percent American, 30 percent French, of which only 25 percent of the barrels were new, so there’s nothing toasty or overtly woody here. This is all pretty succulent in its New World way, but balanced by dryness and a finish that grows increasingly austere. Drink now through 2010 or ’11. Very good+. About $16.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.

We had a reception for about 50 people to honor a visiting artist. I bought cases of each of these wines. Rate all three as Great Value. We served an array of fairly assertive cheeses, with various crackers and breads; little sandwiches LL made with prosciutto or salami or smoked salmon, with arugula and roasted red pepper; guacamole and hummus and a fresh tomato salsa with tortilla chips; and taquitos, cigarette-size tortilla roll-ups stuffed with chicken and cheese.
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2006_rr_sb_label.jpg The Rock Rabbit Sauvignon Blanc 2006, Central Coast, California, is fresh, clean and sprightly, not overwhelming with grapefruit, but a little softer with lemon-lime and tangerine scents and flavors. There’s a mild herbal element, a snap of celery and gooseberry, a hint of honeysuckle. The wine, made completely in stainless steel, is dry and crisp; the finish allows a bit of grapefruit and limestone to seep in for a bracing conclusion. None of these aspects appear with mark intensity or concentration, but the wine is quite tasty and rates Very Good. About $10.
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Wrongo Dongo 2006, is made from 100 percent monastrell (mourvèdre) grapes in the Spanish wine region of Jumilla; the producer is Bodegas Hijos de Juan Gil. This is a boisterous and rustic red wine, well-suited for hearty fare like smoked ribs or pork chops or Gorgonzola burgers. Robust, spicy flavors of black currant and black plum are bolstered by slightly barky tannins and a distinct clean earthy quality. No great complexity here; just full-throttle flavor in a countrified package. Very good. About $10 and often discounted to $8 or $9.
A Jorge Ordoñez import.
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Alba Liza 2005, Tierra de Castilla, Spain, is blended of tempranillo (65%) and garnacha or grenache (35%); the producer is Bodegas Tikalo. This too is a rustic and robust wine that displays a bit more character than Wrongo Dongo. Crushed black currants, blackberries and plums are woven with lavender, violets and licorice and hints of baking spice. In the mouth the wine mixes chocolate-covered black raspberries and black cherries with potpourri and minerals, while tannins bring in elements of briers and brambles for a moderately austere finish. This is a really well-made wine for buying by the case. Very good+. About $11, but often discounted to $9 or $10.
An Eric Solomon European Cellars Selection.

Does the American Wine Consumer actually purchase wine based on the American Viticultural Area designated on the label?

Mr. American Wine Consumer: “Look, honey, this chardonnay is from the Santa Maria Valley, so it must be good!”

Mrs. American Wine Consumer: “”I’ll say, sweetie, let’s get it!”

Mr. AWC: “Okey-dokey!”

Mrs. AWC: “By the way, where is the Santa Maria Valley?”

Mr. AWC: “Oh, you know, in, um, California.”

Not meaning to denigrate the knowledge of Mr. & Mrs. American Wine Consumer; I realize that a lot of people out there haunting the aisles of the nation’s retail stores have a lot of facts about wine in hand. I know that people who really love wine probably understand that there is or can be or ought to be differences between, for example, pinot noir wines made in Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, Carneros and Santa Lucia Highlands. On the other hand, I would say that most people just want a nice bottle of wine to take home for dinner and rely on experience or the advice of a trusted salesperson or brilliant blogger.

Wine producers, on another hand, are pretty obsessive about the exactitudes of geographical designations, and a great deal of time, effort and money and not a little blood has been spilled in the establishment of AVAs. Petitions for new AVAs appear before the TTB (the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) almost weekly. Being able to say on the label, for instance, that one’s wine is from the Napa Valley, because of the region’s historical and qualitative importance, is theoretically more desirable than a broad “California” designation, while a narrower or more specific AVA, like Oakville or Stags Leap within Napa Valley, is theoretically better than just Napa Valley. Carving out a new and distinct AVA can be an important step to legitimizing a winery and its products, at least in the mind of the producer.

This meditation was inspired by a post from September 12 on Tom Wark’s Fermentation called “Let Russian River Valley Take Over the World” that Looks like the Russian River Valleyparodies the TTB for entertaining the notion that the Russian River AVA should be enlarged to the south by 550 acres of vineyards. Who would want that done? Well, let’s see; the expansion would give 350 acres belonging to Gallo the right to a Russian River Valley designation on the label. Would the TTB grant such an expansion because the world’s second largest wine producer wanted it? Think of this: The last time the Russian River AVA was expanded, in 2005, it benefited Kendall-Jackson.

All the issues in this matter, with appropriate historical, geographical and climatic background, appeared in a story by Kevin McCallum in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat on September 11.

If the TTB grants the expansion of the Russian River Valley appellation — and there’s no reason to think that it won’t — the action will serve to emphasize, yet again, that the AVA system is, in some part, meaningless for producers and consumers. According to the AVA guidelines, “We designate viticultural areas to allow vintners to better describe the origins of their wines and to allow consumers to better identify wines they may purchase.” How does that disingenuous expression of good intentions apply to, for example, the North Coast AVA, which encompasses three million acres in Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties? (AppellationAmerica.com lists 12 wineries in Solano.) And how does it benefit consumers that the 15,500-acre Dos Rios AVA in Mendocino, approved in November 2005, exists because of one winery, Vin de Tevis, that cultivates six acres of vines? I mean the TTB seems to pass AVAs out like candy — or to the highest bidder.

Of course, many of the AVAs make sense in terms of soil, climate, geography and traditional usage, but those that don’t merely focus our attention on the often ludicrous character of the enterprise and on the political nature of its sometimes dubious accomplishments.

While one might suppose that such issues are managed better in Europe, with its centuries-old heritage of vineyards, small growing and winemaking areas and a pervasive wine culture, one would, to some extent, be wrong.

Oh certainly the communes of Bordeaux and the tiny Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards of Burgundy seem irrefutable and secure in the AOC (appellation contrôlée) pantheon and the self-regard of Big Spenders. And it’s gratifying to see, as was recently announced, the addition of a 51st Grand Cru area in Alsace, the 175-acre Kaefferkopf of Ammerschwihr, based on a particular geologic formation, part granite and part limestone, that sets it apart from its neighbors; Kaefferkopf’s elevation to Grand Cru status is also based on a heritage of delimitation going back to 1932. Of course the French being the French and Alsace being Alsace, the percentage of grapes in blending — gewurztraminer, pinot gris and riesling — is prescribed by law. You won’t find that in the Russian River Valley.

On the other hand, the approval of the expansion of Champagne’s vineyard area earlier this year cannot be a harbinger of better quality. The squeeze is on in Champagne, demand is high and prices for grand marques and artisan products are rising, thanks especially to parts of the world — Russia and Asia — where people actually have money to spend. Better to let the situation sort itself out, however painful it might be, than to dilute the reputation of a hallowed region. (Yes, I know, it can be argued that the Grand Marque houses are diluting reputations themselves by overproduction and a certain mechanical aptitude.)

France is also home to one of my favorite bizarre designated wine regions, the Vin de Pays de Méditerranée, a vast area that Looks like the Mediterranean encompasses 10 departments in the lower Rhone Valley, Provence and the island of Corsica, which is, of course, not officially attached to the mainland of France. One appreciates the desire of local cooperatives to band together for solidarity and marketing purposes, but this Vin de Pays seems to be based primarily on a notion of all things romantic and salable conjured by the word “Mediterranean.”

My point is that consumers are far better off educating themselves in what kinds of wine they enjoy most than in depending on the potential quality of an AVA (or any country’s scheme of designation), whether a vast one or one that’s strictly limited. If you’re interested in pinot noir or sauvignon blanc, buy as many as you can afford from different regions and taste them blind, that is with labels concealed. If you consistently like the examples from one region, concentrate on that region, try other wines of the same genre, explore what’s offered in the style of wine that you like. Ask your friendly trusted retailer (or brilliant blogger) for advice in delving more deeply into what’s available. Trust your palate.

Images from appellationamerican.com and vin-de-mediteranee.org.

One of the most reliable and individual inexpensive wines from California is X Winery’s “Red Wine.” The blend is always different and 06_x_redx_large.jpginteresting, and the wine is versatile in matching with many dishes, from pizzas and pastas to steak. pork chops and barbecue brisket. The X Winery Red Wine 2006 — the winery is in the Napa Valley but the designation here is California — is a blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 22 percent syrah, 12 percent zinfandel and 6 percent petite sirah. Not surprisingly the wine is robust and spicy, drenched with flavors of black currant, black raspberry and plum with hints of blueberry; that fruit is wrapped around a core of lavender, bitter chocolate and minerals. It’s an intense and concentrated wine, a bit heady at 15 percent alcohol, and bolstered by purposeful tannins that permeate a dense and chewy texture. The grapes for this wine derive from Lake County (74%), Paso Robles (17%) and Napa Valley (9%). X Winery makes 6,000 cases of the Red Wine 2006, far more than the production of their other wines. Very good+. About $14, and Great Value.

The point about these eight New World examples of the syrah grape — three from Washington and five from California — is that despite alcohol levels that go up to 15.5 percent they retain allegiance to the timeless model of France’s Northern Rhone Valley. Yes, they feature luscious fruit flavors — these are downright delicious wines — yet their principle raison d’etre lies in the essential shaping elements of structure, acid and tannin, on earthy mineral elements. There’s little here that is flamboyant, over-ripe and hot; much that is elegant, balanced and cool.

Most of these are limited edition wines. A bit of Googling with reveal where they’re available, whether at retail stores around the country or at the wineries.

Washington

Ron Bunnell retired from Chateau Ste. Michelle, where he had been winemaker for red wines, in Spring 2005 so he could concentrate on his own projects. Bunnell Family Cellar produces Rhone-style wines from classic grape varieties; River Aerie Winery makes a range of inexpensive to moderately expensive (and more widely available) wines, including excellent riesling and gerwurztraminer and, oddly enough for Washington, a terrific Barbara 2006 that sells for about $18 to $20.

The syrah and syrah-based wines that emerge from Bunnell Family Cellars should not be missed. They convey to a remarkable degree both authenticity and individuality. Bunnell uses no French oak with the two syrahs I mention today, preferring a combination of American and Hungarian barrels. The wines contain smidgeons of the aromatic white viognier grape. 05clifhillsyrah_1216863906.jpg

The Bunnell Family Cellar Clifton Hill Syrah 2005, Wahluke Slope, Yakima Valley, is permeated by scents of mint and minerals, black currants and plums, smoke and lavender and violets. The style is Old World: muscular, sinewy, robust, brooding, dense with lip-smacking tannins, yet juicy with spiced and macerated black fruit flavors. Not surprisingly, the finish is austere, a bit untouchable. Drink now with hearty fare through 2012 or ’13. Production was 162 cases. Excellent. About $46.

The Bunnell Family Cellar Boushey-McPherson Syrah 2004, Wahluke Slope, Yakima Valley, is wonderfully rich and pure, intense 04bousheysyrahf_1214957583_1215194329.jpg and vibrant. Under ravishing flavors of ripe and smoky black and blue fruit, the wine is deeply grounded in the earth with layers of bark, moss and mushrooms over strata of minerals. It’s too easy for wine-writers to say, so glibly, “Oh, yes, this wine makes you feel as if you’re drinking the vineyard;” what does that even mean (though I think I have been guilty of such a pronouncement)? Yet I have to say that, if ever that statement were true, it could be made about this wine, which feels like a dark celebration of everything that goes into producing a wine of such profundity. This sees only Hungarian oak. Drink now — venison comes to mind — through 2014 or ’15. Production was 274 cases. Exceptional. About $44.

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The 2005 version of this wine has been released, but a Google search turns up plenty, well, not plenty but some of the Matthews Syrah 2004, Red Mountain, available in stores around the country. If you’re a fan of big, smoky, inky syrahs, this is for you. The wine is packed with spice and minerals, and it emphasizes the walk-on-the-wild-side meaty/ashy aspect of roasted and indelibly flavorful black and blue fruit. A few minutes in the glass bring up touches of fruit cake and potpourri. The wine is a powerful statement of the paradox between the warmth of spice and fruit and the coolness of minerals. Drink now through 2014 or ’16. Excellent. About $52.

California
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Here’s a syrah that’s considerably less expensive than the others on this brief roster. The Shannon Ridge Syrah 2006, Lake County, is a blend of 80 percent syrah grapes and 10 percent each cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. The wine bursts with scents of black currant, plum and blueberry woven with lavender, violets and exotic spice; the flavors stay true to the initial bouquet, adding smoke and minerals and hints of walnut shell. This syrah fills the mouth with the density and chewiness of dusty velvet; slightly gritty tannins provide some austerity to a package that without it would trade in shameless deliciousness. 1,494 cases. Finished with a screw-cap for easy opening. Drink now through 2010 or ’11. Excellent. About $19, and Good Value.
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The program at Nickel & Nickel is 100 percent varietal wines from designated vineyards. The Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2005, Russian River Valley, is, in a word, astonishing. Everything about this wine is deep: Deep, fleshy, meaty, ripe black fruit scents and flavors; deeply and darkly and wildly spicy; tremendously deep in its earthy and mineral-laden nature; deep in its polished oak and grainy tannins, though far from being rough or gritty, the wine is lushly supple and lithe; finally this syrah is deep in its dryness, its austerity, its, well, call it nobility. Best from 2009 or 2010 through 2015 or ’17. Exceptional. About $48.
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The Bourassa Vineyard Rhapsody3 Syrah 2004, Napa Valley, marries power to elegance with seemingly effortless flair. It’s undeniably a huge wine, massive in structure and stalwart with oak from 19 months in new French and American barrels, yet its balance and integration, its clarity, purity and intensity are what impress the most. Succulent black and blue fruit flavors are charged with vibrant acid and dredged with polished, dusty tannins that feel exceptionally well-milled. The wine seems to expand in the glass, gaining dimension and detail as the minutes pass, mounting in density and minerality, yet remaining smooth and mellow. Great winemaking here. 375 cases. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $50.
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The S and T of the S and T Cellars Brookside Vineyard Syrah 2005, Napa Valley, are Susan and Tom Ridley. If you ever have contact with Hendry Cellars in the Napa Valley, you probably know Susan Ridley, because she handles the winery’s public relations and marketing. S and T Cellars is a side-project, a labor of love for the couple. Maybe the love shows: this is an exquisitely fashioned, absolutely classic syrah that juxtaposes bright, vivid, spicy and juicy black and red fruit flavors with redoubtable structure, indubitable acid and unassailable elements of earth and minerals. The color is deeply saturated purple; the bouquet grows more seductively redolent and exotic as the moments accrue, and yet the wine is cool in nature, well-schooled in reticence, properly austere. Production is 220 to 250 cases. Drink now through 2013 or ’15. Excellent. About $28.
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Earthquake is a product line from Michael-David Winery, which also produces the popular 7 Deadly Zins, 7 Heavenly Chards and other labels. Earthquake zinfandels, syrahs, petite sirahs and cabernets are meant to “rock your world” with their size, structure, depth and stupendous levels of alcohol. Certainly the Earthquake Syrah 2005, Lodi, fits that description; it’s huge, powerful, deep and, at 15.5 percent alcohol, pretty damn high on the Richter scale. What’s remarkable about the wine, however, is its quality of perfect balance, of poise; it feels like a runner — lithe with pent energy — the moment before the starting shot is fired; at the same time, it basks in its sense of completeness and accomplishment. The wine is, it almost goes without saying, ripe, spicy and luscious, floral, earthy and minerally. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $28.

I happened to be home this morning when the UPS man came to the door, setting off a blood-curdling explosion of barking and howling and growling from the dogs. “You know,” he said, “you’d think they would be used to me by now.” Said I: “Don’t feel bad. They don’t like anybody.”

The box clearly held one bottle of wine. When I opened the box and saw the single initial “R” on top of the dove-gray capsule, I thought, “Ah ha, my Rockaway.” Indeed, that was the wine. rockawayedited.jpg

If you go anywhere near blogs that concern themselves with wine and the wine industry, you cannot have escaped, at the end of August, reading about the controversy surrounding the Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. This limited-edition, single-vineyard cabernet is a separate project under the aegis of Rodney Strong Vineyards, owned by Tom Klein. It’s not actually the wine that’s controversial — everyone who writes about it loves it — it’s the manner in which it was introduced.

This will be a brief recap, since I and many other bloggers wrote about these issues extensively two or three weeks ago. The gist is that a well-known wine blogger conceived the notion that it would be a good test of the influence of the concept of blogging about wine if a number of bloggers all wrote about the same wine within the same time period. Arrangements were made with Rodney Strong Vineyards to supply bottles of the as-yet unreleased debut vintage of Rockaway to the bloggers, with the stipulation that if the bloggers accepted the sample they would post something about the wine — not necessarily a review — to their blogs within a certain number of days. The project would give these bloggers a chance to write about or review an important wine before samples even went to the mainstream wine media. Who could resist?

The problem is that most of the bloggers, though all thoughtful and well-intentioned people, neglected to mention in their posts about the stipulation to publish within a set time-period. This part of the deal seemed unsavory, unduly influential to other bloggers, Wines & Vines ran a story which was picked up by the blog Vinography, and then Tom Wark at Fermentation issued a stunning denunciation of the bloggers who had participated in the experiment, accusing them of lacking ethical judgment.

Perhaps an element of rushing to condemn before the facts were all in place entered this controversy, as well as surprising naivete on the part of the bloggers who participated in the project. Anyway, there was a huge stink in the world of wine blogging, angry and sarcastic words were issued, flinging-down-the-gantlet positions were taken, feelings were hurt and relationships, perhaps a few, may have been damaged irreparably. Yes, I had my say, too, a bit shrill at first and later, I hope, mre temperate.

But, hey, here I am with my bottle of Rockaway 2005. Do I mind that I didn’t get my Rockaway in that first, brave new wave of bloggers’ samples? Do I mind that the Wine Spectator received its bottle before I did? Nah, we all move to different rhymes, rhythms and reasons.

Rockaway ’05 makes an impressive package. Obviously part of the $75-price-tag goes to cover concept and design elements and the heavy bottle with high, sloping shoulders and deep punt, the sort of bottle to which all high-end cabernets aspire. No paper labels here; all text is embossed on the glass, and etched into the circumference, about two-thirds the way up, is a representation of the lines of hillsides and strata that define the vineyard.

Unmentioned by most of the bloggers that first reviewed Rockaway ’05 is the fact that the alcohol content is a soaring 15.4 percent. Such a number is mere child’s-play for a zinfandel, but it’s unusually high for a cabernet. The test is in the balance.

Meanwhile, life goes on, the big fish eat the little fish, the days dwindle down to a precious few and I’m going to wait a week or two before opening my bottle of Rockaway 2005. It’s always a good idea to give a wine a chance to settle down and sort itself out after a long journey by airplane and truck. We’ll probably drink it with a grilled rib-eye steak; it sounds as if it’s that kind of wine. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I borrowed the Rockaway image from Dr. Debs; I hope she doesn’t mind.

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