December 2008

We’re in recession mode in the “12 Days of Christmas” Champagne and sparkling wine countdown, keeping prices low for such products, though you may be thinking, “FK, can we ever get to the real stuff, the Champagne we know and love,” and I promise that we will soon, perhaps even tomorrow. For today, though, we’re still in the bargain alternative area. Remember, I’m not repeating sparkling products from the previous “12 Days of Christmas” series.

I’ll admit that when I realized that Greg Norman Estates made a sparkling wine, I thought, “Hmmm, how good can a golfer’s bubbly be?” Norman, however, is a canny businessman, and while the wines from his properties in Australia and California don’t achieve greg.jpg excellence, they’re usually well-made, varietally on-the-mark and tasty.

So, in truth then, I wasn’t surprised that the nonvintage Greg Norman Estates Australian Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir was also well-made and tasty. The label tells us that this clean, fresh and crisp sparkler is made from 61 percent chardonnay grapes and 39 percent pinot noir. First comes a froth of rushing bubbles, then scents of apples, lime and fresh baked bread, backed up by roasted lemon, almond and almond blossom. The roasted lemon and almond elements segue into the mouth, where they’re bolstered by lip-smacking and scintillating acidity, heaps of limestone and damp chalk and an undeniable earthy quality that lends depth to the enterprise. This bubbly gets increasingly dry and minerally on the finish, a little austere and high-toned. No great character but attractive and delicious. Very Good+ and another Great Price, about $18.

FWE Imports (that is, Foster Wine Estates), Napa, Ca.

Pulling the cork on a bottle of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Riesling 2006 last week, I noticed something written on the label. cork_p1160013.jpg That phenomenon is not unusual; corks often have words and numbers printed on them, from practical matter, such as the name of the producer and year the grapes were harvested (which should match the name and vintage on the label; that’s why the waiter presents you with the cork, to check the wine’s authenticity, not really to smell the cork), to the whimsical, as in the “Ribbit” that Frog’s Leap Winery puts on its corks.

This, however, was different. The words were: “I selected this cork to ensure the highest wine quality.” Under this screed was the tiny printed signature of Jess Jackson, owner of the Kendall-Jackson empire. Well, O.K., Jess, that certainly reassures us that your eye is on the cork, if not the sparrow, though was it actually necessary to inform us of the fact? Why not just say, “We buy a million of these doodads because that’s what we decided to do”? Must we get up-close and personal with synthetic corks?

(BTW, I like the legend printed on the cork in this illustration, which translates as “Bottled in France.” That’s really reassuring.)

The cork in question is quite ordinary and is not, as is the case with so many corks today, made of cork. It is, rather — and as the cork industry likes to point out — a synthetic cork, made of some slightly creepy-feeling plasticky space-age material. Many wineries use such bottle stoppers nowadays, made from a variety of materials and all designed to replace the increasingly marginalized “real” cork, a trend that makes the hitherto mentioned cork industry very anxious. As most wine drinkers have experienced, “bad” corks, like bad apples in their barrels, have a deleterious effect on wine, making it “corked,” that is smelling of damp cardboard.

What really struck me, though, standing in the kitchen rolling this ordinary object in my hand, is that a cork stopper for a bottle is an example of a thing made of a certain material that has taken on the name of the material itself. First came the cork tree (an evergreen oak, Quercus suber), and then the small cylindrical or tapering object that someone discovered was perfect for jamming into the necks of bottles so the contents did not flow out. Eureka! And then, in the mid 16th Century, according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Vol. I. A-M), that object became known as “a cork,” not just “something made of cork.”

The NSOAD mentions that this object, this stopper, may be made “of cork or some other material,” acknowledging the fact that a cork is not required to be made of, you know, cork.

Anyway, I spent almost a week trying to think of another example of this occurrence, an object known by the same name as its glass_empty.jpg material, and then yesterday, I was standing in the kitchen staring at the cabinet that holds the — you know what’s coming, right? — glasses, and I thought, “Oh, yeah, right.” Glasses, vessels made of glass for holding and conveying, generally, liquids, are known by the name of the material from which they are made.

The NSOED offers, as part of a long segment on “glass,” this definition: “A glass vessel or receptacle. Also, the contents of such a vessel or receptacle. A drinking-vessel made of glass; a beverage, (esp. alcoholic) contained in such a vessel,” in the sense that we say, “Have a glass of wine,” when what we mean is “Have a glass filled with wine.” And when the responder replies, “Sure, I’ll have a glass,” they mean, “Sure, I’ll have a glass filled with wine.”

We also say “glasses” for the objects we wear on our noses to enhance vision, a locution that goes back to the mid 17th Century. And from the early 17th Century, magnifying objects like telescopes and microscopes with lenses made of glass were called a “glass,” as when the dreaded pirate says, “Pass me the glass, matey, so I can spy out the cut of yon jib.”

Well, we have wandered far from our original subject here, but if you object to this linguistic digression, all I can say is “Put a cork in it, Jack,” though it’s up to you to decide of what material the cork is made.

Images from wikimedia.

Let’s celebrate Boxing Day with a glass of the Mirabelle Brut, from California’s North Coast appellation, a region that encompasses, basically, all the winemaking counties north of San Francisco. Mirabelle is the “everyday” sparkling wine from Schramberg Vineyards, mirabelle.JPG whose products define excellent methode champenoise wines in California. Mirabelle Brut is a multi-vintage blend of 69 percent chardonnay and 31 percent pinot noir from these counties: Napa, 53 percent, Mendocino, 22 percent, Sonoma, 23 percent, and Marin, 2 percent.

So much for the technical details. The gist is that the Mirabelle Brut is a refreshingly clean and brisk sparkling wine that offers enticing scents of bread dough, quince and roasted pear with a touch of toasted almonds. It’s surprisingly substantial in the mouth, engagingly crisp and effervescent, with citrus flavors deepened by hints of caramelized pear and apple permeated by wheatmeal and cloves. The color is light gold; the bubbles are fleeting golden flecks. The finish brings in a touch of limestone austerity. Very Good+ and a bargain at about $22.

And so we launch another “12 Days of Christmas Countdown” with sparkling wine and champagne. Today’s selection is the Wolfberger Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé, made by a cooperative founded in 1902 in the town of Eguisheim in Alsace. wolfberger_cremantrose.jpg

Made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes, this Brut Rosé offers scents of macerated peaches and strawberries with a hint of apple and a touch of fresh bread. The color is pale copper-melon enlivened with an upward stream of tiny bubbles. (It’s made in the “champagne method” of second fermentation in the bottle; that’s where the fizz comes from.) This sparkler is animated by crisp acidity, yet the texture is almost creamy, close to lush. Flavors run to strawberries and cherries with a subtle spicy element. The finish is quite dry and stony; something exotic unfolds there: A touch of pomegranate? Completely charming and delightful. Very Good+ and a bargain at about $22.

Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va.

Join me tomorrow, Christmas Day, readers, as I begin what to me is the most fun I have all year on Bigger Than Your Head, the “12 Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” countdown. These bottles, generally one each day, take us from the day xmas2.jpg of Christmas itself to Twelfth Night, when the Yuletide season traditionally ends. I say “one each day,” but I tend to offer three or four on New Year’s, just for the hell of it. The examples in this segment of “12 Days of Christmas” will not duplicate the Champagnes and sparkling wines I mentioned last time.

And in keeping with the straitened economic situation we find ourselves in at the end of 2008, I’m going to keep prices lower and direct you to more alternatives than actual Champagnes from that region of France, though I promise that there will be a few, if I can keep them under $50.

Tonight LL and I have our usual Christmas Eve dinner: rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes, Brussels sprouts in brown butter and a selection of cheeses to finish. A bottle of Renaissance Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 from the Sierra Foothills. As soon as I post this entry, I’ll start cooking. I finished my last story of the year for the newspaper this afternoon about 2 o’clock, and I’m off until January 5.

Have a great night, friends, and a Merry Christmas.

Image from

Robert Keenan founded his winery in what is now Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District in 1974, on the site of the old Conradi keenancab.jpg Winery that closed during Prohibition. This venerable institution flies a bit under the radar; while glossy, high-tech producers with multi-million-dollar facilities turn out glossy, high-tech cabernet sauvignon and merlot wines and charge $150 a bottle out of the starting gate, Robert Keenan continues to make classic, well-structured hillside wines intended for aging and in the process not churning up much publicity or charging exorbitant prices.

So I was happy to see a table devoted to Robert Keenan wines at a recent trade tasting, and while we all know that trade events do not provide the same optimal environment for tasting as one’s own dinner table, for many writers, including moi, they’re necessary and useful.
The Robert Keenan Chardonnay 2006 sees no malolactic fermentation; 20 percent of the wine is fermented and aged in stainless steel, the rest in French oak, but only seven months. The result: A chardonnay of impeccable balance and integration, clean, bright and vibrant, delicious pineapple-grapefruit flavors, awash with spice and limestone, highly perfumed bouquet, floral and seductive; overall spare, elegant yet bold in dimension and detail. Excellent. About $28.

A study in contrasts: The Robert Keenan Merlot 2004 is warm, spicy, plush and velvety with ripe black currant, cherry and plum flavors, but underneath lies a firm structure of vibrant acid and dense tannins wrapped in toasty oak. This ’04 contains 3 percent cabernet franc, a smidgeon that must contribute to a bouquet so enveloping that you could swim in it. The Merlot 2005, on the other hand — 100 percent merlot — is all briers and brambles, cedar and tobacco, wheatmeal and walnut shell; huge in structure, dynamic, formidable (but not forbidding), earthy and minerally, a wine to savor for its lip-smacking tannins and concentrated fruit, but best from 2010 onward. Each rated Excellent; each about $35.

Well, now. The Robert Keenan Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 takes the idea of structure to the nth degree. Nothing flamboyant or overdone here, this is a huge wine in every way (100 percent cabernet), dry, dense, intense and concentrated, furled around a pristine core of cedar, lead pencil and minerals and conveying a sense of roots deep in stony, high elevation vineyards, where the vines have to work for their nurture. Enormous potential from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 or ’18. Excellent. About $45.

How great to taste a zinfandel that’s not over-the-top with super ripeness or that doesn’t employ slash-and-burn tannins!

Francis Ford Copploa’s Director’s Cut Zinfandel 2006, Dry Creek Valley, with its distinctive filmstrip label, is balanced and harmonious and packed with spicy black fruit flavors. Nicely framed by slightly toasty oak — half new French barrels, half one- and two-year-old — this classically styled zinfandel features blackberry, black currant and blueberry scents and flavors enlivened with hints of clove and sandalwood and a touch of port-like jam. The wine is rich without being overblown, and it’s wrapped around a core of intense licorice, lavender and minerals. Tannins are smooth and polished, bringing up characteristic elements of briers and brambles and a clean, minerally finish. We drank this with pizza, but it would be great with a variety of braised meat dishes or steaks and chops. Excellent. About $22.

Not chardonnay or sauvignon blanc because I’m saving those grape for their own posts coming up soon (or fairly soon). So we have a variety of white grapes here and a range of prices from about $8 to $20. Not all these wines are great; some are simply enjoyable and quaffable. Cheap enough, and no harm done. You pays yer money and you makes yer choice.

Now we’re not talking greatness with the Forest Glen Riesling 2007, California, but for a cheap riesling, this is certainly decent and pleasant. The wine offers a slightly floral bouquet, tasty peach and pear flavors, moderately crisp acidity, and a nice texture. It’s a bit sweet at the beginning but finishes dry. Not terrifically focused. but enjoyable. Good+. About $8.
A few rungs up the ladder is the Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Riesling 2006, California. The nose delivers pretty scents of apricot and peach with a slightly astringent floral note and a high tone of roasted pear and lychee. The wine is not as detailed in the mouth, but vibrant acidity keeps it lively, peach and apricot flavors are round and tasty, and the dry finish fairly scintillates with limestone and a hint of bitterness. Very Good. About $10.
The blend in the Villa Antinori 2007, Toscana IGT, is — imprecisely — 70 percent trebbiano and malvasia, 30 percent chardonnay, pinot bianco and pinot grigio. Made completely in stainless steel, the wine is smoky and steely, offering subtle notes of almond and almond blossom, lime and limestone, roasted lemon and pear. Citrus and pear elements dominate the flavors, which are animated by snappy acid and a mineral aspect that increases as the minutes pass. A delightful wine, with plenty of personality for the price. Very Good. About $12.
Imported by Ste. Michelle Wines, Woodinville, Wa.
The Henry’s Drive Pillar Box wines are consistently pleasing values. The grapes in the Henry’s Drive Pillar Box White 2007, South Australia, are 56 percent chardonnay, 30 percent sauvignon blanc and 14 percent verdelho; it’s interesting to see a Portuguese grape in Australia, where verdelho has a cult following. The result, anyway, is a poised and harmonious wine, bursting with lemons and citrus scents and flavors, hints of almond and jasmine, and great swaths of earthy limestone. The wine is quite spicy, almost startlingly so — like gooseberry and baking spice — yet the texture is dry and spare, and the finish brings in a bracing tone of grapefruit bitterness. Very Good. About $12.
Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Ca.

Torrontés has become the signature white grape of Argentina, and the Bodegas Tamari Reserva Torrontés 2008, from La Rioja region, is one of the best. It’s such a pretty wine, all wreathed with jasmine and honeysuckle, peach, pear and yellow plum, with a whiff of lychee at the end. In the mouth, flavors are consistent, with stone fruit and pear wrapped in a lovely texture that’s crisp and taut with acid yet lush enough that it feels like powdered silk, all of this supported by limestone and shale that provide a sense of depth and foundation. A superior rendition of the grape. Very Good+. About $14.
Imported by Terlato Wines International, Napa, Ca.
The Shady Lane Cellars Dry Riesling 2007, Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan, is dry indeed, a delicate and charming riesling with peach and pear scents and flavors opening to a high tone of lightly spiced fig and the grape’s requisite touch of petrol or rubber eraser. The spicy elements expand as the minutes pass, while the finish chimes with notes of grapefruit and limestone. Worth seeking out. Very Good+. About $16.50.

On the other hand, the Shady Lane Cellars Semi-Dry Riesling 2007, Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan, is a simpler wine than its Dry Riesling stablemate, which delivers far more character. Good+ About $16.50.
Albariño seems destined to be the white grape from Spain and Portugal that Americans most adore, or at least can pronounce. (The viura grape, however, sounds like the name of an automobile from the Czech Republic.)(Or a butter substitute.)(Or an anxiety med.) Anyway, the Adegas D’Altamira Albariño Brandal 2007, Rias Baixas, is a seductive rendition of the grape. The wine is rich and spicy, yet spare and elegant, a delivery system for lemon in all its vinous suggestions: lemon drop, roasted lemon and lemon balm, macerated in dried thyme and tarragon. Acid is crisp and lively, and a stream of minerals flows from mid-palate back, bringing cool balance to the enterprise. A wine that begs for roasted or broiled fish. Very Good+. About $17.
The 12th edition of Sokol Blosser’s Evolution non-vintage American White Wine combines — ready for this? — pinot gris, muller thurgau, riesling, semillon, muscat canelli, gewuraztraminer, pinot blanc, chardonnay and sylvaner. Since each of these grapes on its own is capable of being made into excellent, if not exceptional, wines, I don’t know if “the grapes come together and create a flavor greater than the sum of its parts,” as the press release says, but I do know that this is a terrifically charming and flavorful wine. The wine displays a sense of flamboyance neatly wedded to asperity; notes of ripe peach, lime and lychee are twined with some astringent white flower, and if you add orange zest and a touch of candied lime peel, a wash of minerality and a hint of bracing bitterness in the finish, well, you have a wine that’s pretty damned irresistible. Very Good+. About $18.
OK, the price is pushing it for inclusion in the “inexpensive” category, but the way wine prices are increasing $20 is the new $15, and anyway, you see this on the Internet as low as $14. So, the MacMurray Ranch Pinot Gris 2007, Sonoma Coast, is vibrant, lively and bracing, dry and crisp. Lemon balm, peach and melon flavors are swathed in smoky spicy oak, from a deftly handled regime of 19 percent of the wine aging two months on the lees in used French barrels. Almond and apple blossom segue in, and a bright edge of limestone dominates the finish. Lovely personality and presence. Very Good+. About $20.

Amicus is the flagship wine of X Winery, founded by Reed Renaudin in 2001. He is winemaker and CEO. The winery concentrates on cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley’s hillside districts and sauvignon blanc from Lake County. Renaudin also makes limited quantities of chardonnay, zinfandel, pinot noir and petite syrah and the Red X blend, the cheapest wine at about $14, and a perennial favorite on BTYH. Except for Amicus, prices for the X wines are under $25.
The Amicus Special Blend 2005, Spring Mountain District, is a powerhouse of a red wine, huge, vibrant and dynamic. The blend is 51 percent cabernet sauvignon, 28 percent merlot, 11 percent petit verdot and 10 percent cabernet franc. The wine ages 30 months(!) in French oak, 50 percent new barrels. Spice, leathery tannins and minerals assail the nose and fill the mouth; the wine offers incredible density and concentration, embodied in a core of very intense bitter chocolate, macerated black currants, lavender and granite. Chewy, grainy tannins bring in a tide of underbrush, forest floor and walnut shell to tie up the finish in a knot of austerity. Best to ponder this wine, or let it ponder itself, until 2010 or ’11 for drinking through 2015 or ’17. On the other hand, we drank this with a rib-eye steak, and they sang in primal harmony. Production was 400 cases. Excellent potential. About $40.
Huge in every dimension, the Amicus Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Spring Mountain District, is all about structure, though, interestingly, it allows more glimmers of fruit than its cousin Red Blend ’05. Black plum, blueberry and black currant flavors are permeated with cedar, smoke and tobacco leaf and the elements that attend on the presence of formidable tannins: leather, underbrush, briers and brambles. In its own way, however, the wine is vivid and vital, creating an impression of succulence married to severity. The wine is 100 precent cabernet; it ages 30 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels. Production was 224 cases. Enormous potential, from about 2011 or ’12 through 2016 or ’18. Excellent. About $55.

You’re thinking, in tones of mock outrage, “Twenty-two smackers for a pinot grigio?” Yes, friends, but this is no ordinary pinot grigio. La Tunella Pinot Grigio 2007, from Colli Orientali del Friuli — “Eastern Hills of Friuli,” nestled against Slovenia — is boldly spicy, deeply minerally and bountiful in flavor. Made completely in stainless steel, the wine is crisp and vibrant enough to be tart yet lush enough to be seductive (from resting on the lees in tank). The bouquet blossoms with orange flower and almond, cloves and roasted lemon; flavors of baked pear and apple and a touch of citrus are supported by layers of shale and limestone. This wine manages to be resonant in dimension and winsome in detail, a pinot grigio that’s bursting with both character and delight. Excellent. About $22.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Ca.

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