January 2009

Thank god for great inexpensive wines! They’re the bedrock — or should be — of wine production, consumption and enjoyment. The wines that get all the publicity and hype, the wines that collectors and connoisseurs swoon about, the Bordeaux Classified Growths, the Burgundy Grand Crus, the California cult wines and Australian icon wines — those account for about five percent of the world’s wine production. The rest is wine meant for everyday drinking.

Oh, sure, I’m delighted to sit down to lunch or dinner with some great cabernet or pinot noir, and I have been known to open, rather shamelessly, a bottle of a completely inappropriate, expensive but wonderful wine on pizza night. The thrill of this job, however, is finding that 12-dollar wine that’s so well-made, so characteristic of its grape or its style (perhaps even of its place) that it feels worth twice the price. That discovery brings real satisfaction, not only because I liked the wine, but because it’s usually widely available for the enjoyment of many people.

Of course I taste multitudes of bland, innocuous, generic cheap wines that make me wonder why they were made in the first place. Such wines compel me to question the sincerity of the producers that churn out these anonymous, characterless products, which are often accompanied by huge marketing campaigns. Gosh, does cynicism exist in the California wine industry?

Oh well, we won’t think about that possibility today.
But wait, before we get to the list, I want to name the Producer of the Year. This honor goes to Spellbound, a division of Folio Fine Wine Partners, founded by Rob and Lydia Mondavi and Patti Romano and Geoff Whitman after the Robert Mondavi Winery was sold to Constellation late in 2004. Folio has fingers in many projects, making, producing and importing wine, but the Spellbound label offers impeccably made wines, varietally true, rich in detail and dimension and downright tasty, and delivers those elements for $15. In recent months I reviewed the Petite Sirah 2005, the Riesling 2006 (a Wine of the Week) and the Cabernet Sauvignon 2006. Each rated very Good+ and received designations of “Great Value.” I tasted and rated previous vintages of Spellbound products with similar results. Because of this consistently high level of quality and quality-to-price ratio, Spellbound is my Producer of the Year.

Here’s a geographical outline of these “25 Great Bargains of 2008”: France 9; California 6; Italy 4; Spain and Argentina 2 each; Australia and New Zealand 1 each. Prices range from $7 to $19. The order is strictly alphabetical.

1. Blason de Bourgogne Cuvée Brut nv, Crémant de Bourgogne. Very Good+. About $11 at Trader Joe’s.

2. Bodegas Tikalo Alba Liza 2005, Tierra de Castilla, Spain. 65 percent tempranillo, 35 garnacha. Very Good+. About $11. (Eric Solomon European Cellars Selection)
3. Castelmaure Col des Vents 2006, Corbières, France. 50 percent carignan, 35 grenache, 15 syrah. Very Good+. About $12. (Kysela Pere et Fils)

4. Domaine des Vercheres Macon-Villages 2006, Maconnais, France. Excellent. About $13. (Martin Scott Wines)

5. Domaine du Tariquet Sauvignon 2007, Vin de Pays de Cotes de Gascogne, France. Very Good+. About $10. (Robert Kacher)

6. Domaine Sainte-Eugene Rose 2007, Corbières, France. 75 percent cinsault, 15 syrah, 10 grenache. Very Good+. About $11. (Robert Kacher)

7. Dominio de Taras Baltos 2005, Bierzo, Spain. 100 percent red mencia grapes. Very Good+. About $16. (Classical Wines)

8. El Ganador Malbec 2006, Mendoza, Argentina. Very Good+. About $11. (Kysela Pere et Fils)

9. Hess Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Lake County, California. Very Good+. About $11.

10. Hugues Beaulieu Picpoul de Pinet 2007, Côteaux du Languedoc, France. Very Good+. About $11. (Kysela Pere et Fils)

11. Jean-Maurice Raffault Chinon Rose 2007, Loire Valley, France. Very Good+. About $14. (VOS Selections)

12. Lee Family Farms Silvaspoons Vineyard Verdelho 2007, Alta Mesa, Lodi County. Excellent. About $15.

13. Louis Latour Viré-Clessé 2006, Maconnais, France. Excellent. About $19. (Louis Latour USA)

14. Marchesi di Montecristo Nerello del Bastardo 2002, Vino da Tavolo Rosso, Italy. Very Good+. About $7 at Trader Joe’s.

15. Michele Chiarlo Barbara d’Asti Le Orme 2005, Piedmont, Italy. Very Good+. About $15. (Kobrand Corp)

16. Morgan Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Monterey County. Excellent. About $15.
17. Nobilo Pinot Gris 2007, East Coast, New Zealand. Very Good+. About $13. (Pacific Wine Partners, a division of Constellation)

18. Perrin Reserve Cotes du Rhone Blanc 2006, Rhone Valley, France. Very Good+. About $14. (Vineyard Brands)

19. Riff Pinot Grigio delle Venezia 2006, Italy. Excellent. About $9. (Dalla Terra Winery Direct)

20. Shannon Creek Syrah 2006, Lake County. Excellent. About $19.

21. Sonoma Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Sonoma County. Very Good+. About $15.

22. Tamari Reserva Torrontés 2008, La Rioja, Mendoza. Very Good+. About $14. (Terlato Wines International)

23. Thorne Clark Pinot Grigio 2007, Eden Valley, Australia. Excellent. About $15. (Kysela Pere et Fils)

24. Vino dei Fratelli Chianti 2006, Tuscany, Italy. Very Good+. About $10. (Quintessential)

25. X Winery Red Wine 2006, California. 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 22 syrah, 12 zinfandel, 6 petite sirah. Very Good+. About $14.

We were raking leaves in the backyard, and I decided to take a break and make a little lunch. I sliced some salami and prosciutto, put out a bowl of oil-cured olives, a piece of Morbier and a couple of chunks of a Coastal Cheddar that’s quite good. I made bruschetta using some artichoke-and-lemon and some dried tomato spread topped with mozzarella and thyme. That was it. And I opened a bottle of Lambrusco Cubista from Ca’ da’ Medici in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. Though it has been cold and rainy for the past few days, last Saturday was balmy enough, before the clouds came in, to sit out on the screened porch, nibble a tidbit of two and knock back a few glasses of this compulsively quaffable beverage. “I could drink this stuff all day long,” I said. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” said LL, “but it certainly goes well with this kind of food.”
Lambrusco is a lighty fizzy, low-alcohol wine that the Emilia-Romagnans drink to balance the rich food of the area. Plenty of bland, sweet, merely bubbly Lambrusco exists, but a model like Ca’ de’ Medici’s Cubista makes a mark with some definition of character as well as delight. It’s made from four varieties of the lambrusco grape: salamino, marani, montericco and maestri.

The color is dark purple; the mild fizz produces a pink froth in the glass before it subsides. Aromas of dark raspberries and plums with a hint of spiced mulberries and a touch of wet stones draw you in; in the mouth, this wine is, granted, pretty simple stuff, but wildly delicious, filled with flavors of ripe raspberries, blackberries and plums permeated by (again) spicy, stony elements, all enlivened by vivid acidity. It ain’t going to rock your world, Jack, but at the right time and the right place, it’s irresistible. Very Good. About $10.

Rose Imports, Crestwood, Il.

The 12th Day of Christmas falls on Monday this year, a work-day, and back to work for me, blessedly off since Christmas Eve. twelfth_night.jpg Twelfth Night was traditionally a festive time, with feasts and music and plays, such as Shakespeare’s great comedy of ambition, crossed love, mistaken identity and chastisement, Twelfth Night, or What You Will. We live in a different world than that of medieval and renaissance England, however, less attuned to the year-long procession of holidays and fetes that once ruled the rhythms of people’s lives, even through the 18th Century.

Well, no matter. I suppose I try in my way to reinforce the sense of Yuletide gladness through this “12 Days of Christmas” countdown with Champagne and sparkling wine — because what beverage is more festive than a glass of pale, invigorating bubbly — though I have been deeply suspicious for decades about Christmas itself and its meaning and my place in it. A different bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine every day goes a long way toward dissolving end-of-the-year depression.

So, let’s close this second annual countdown with a glass of the delightful non-vintage Marcato i Prandi Durello, from the Lessini denomination of Italy’s Veneto region. Lessini is a hilly area lying between the venerable cities of Verona and Vicenza; it received official DOC status (denominazione di origine controllata) in 1987. This light, bright, uplifting sparkling wine is made maracto_durello1.jpgprimarily (85 percent) from the rarely seen durello grape; the rest is chardonnay.

The color is pale gold; the bead is flowing and nicely expressed. Scents of bread and biscuits, wet stones, lemons and almonds stir in the nose; the entry is soft, at first, but the wine turns austere toward the finish with steel and limestone, though the overall impression is of spicy citrus flavors and a hint of toast. The mantra here is “Easy to Enjoy,” and truly, the personality is gratifying for a sparkling wine made in tank, that is, not receiving a second fermentation (and bubbles) in the bottle. Very Good. About $16.

Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va.

The Marcato Durello Brut would be a good sparkling wine to sip while watching one of our favorite movies, the Twelfth Night (1996) directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Imogen Stubbs as Viola and Steven Mackintosh as Sebastian, the brother and sister separated on the coast of Illyria by a shipwreck, and Helena Bonham Carter as the aristocratic woman who is somehow in love with them both.

Let’s try a Champagne with a different emphasis from the three we’ve looked at in this “12 Days of Christmas” countdown with Champagne and sparkling wine. Those models, the A.R. Lenoble Brut Nature (4th Day of Christmas), Taittinger Brut 2002 (7th Day of Christmas) and Roland Champion Brut Blanc de Blancs (8th Day of Christmas), are notable for elevating elegance and mumm.jpg high-toned, scintillating minerality.

The non-vintage Mumm Carte Classique, on the other hand, offers a sense of weight and dignity as well as abundant fruit.

The house of G.H. Mumm, founded in 1827, is among the most famous and prolific producers of Champagne. It’s fine, old reputation was marred in the 1980s and early to mid 1990s by a series of misjudgments in the winery and by a spreading of thinning resources. With a new cellarmaster, quality began to show a turn-around in 1995 and ’96, and while Mumm champagnes will probably never possess the racy excitement and verve offered by some of the other venerable houses (not to mention many small artisan producers), they deliver on the promise of traditional virtues of freshness, structure and balance.

Mumm’s Carte Classique has always been my favorite of the firm’s non-vintage roster, and opening a bottle last night confirmed my bias. First produced in 1879, the Carte Classique retains its aura of 19th Century robustness and joie de vivre.

Dominated by pinot meunier grapes — 50 percent, to 35 percent pinot noir and 15 percent chardonnay — this Champagne is a burnished tawny gold color; tiny bubbles surge relentlessly upward. There’s a real fermented yeasty, bready quality in the bouquet, highlighted by scents of apple, guava and quince, etched with spice and caramel. The slight tension in the mouth between ripe sweetness and crisp dryness makes this product Mumm’s most appealing Champagne; notes of orange rind and crystallized ginger underscore elements of biscuits, wheatmeal and limestone, while the finish is long, dry, minerally and substantial. Excellent. About $35 is right, but you can find the Carte Classique anywhere from $26 to $45.

Mumm was acquired in 1999 by Allied Domecq, which in turn was bought by Pernod Ricard in 2005.

This is the season for lists of Best of This and Best of That, and I’m not immune to the disease. Here, then, is my roster of the Great Wines of 2008, taken from wines reviewed on this blog. So as not to be hierarchical (or not too, I mean a list of “The Best” already creates a hierarchy), anyway, the order is chronological, from when the wines appeared on BTYH. I indicate the rating — Excellent or Exceptional — but in no other way make distinctions; these were just the best damned wines I tasted and wrote about last year.
O.K., I take that back. I will make one distinction by naming a Debut Wine of 2008. It’s the Phifer Pavitt “Date Night” 2005, Napa Valley. Here’s part of my review of this first-release cabernet sauvignon (with a touch of petit verdot) from October 3: “Almost the most notable aspect of this wine is its complete sense of confidence and presence, its liveliness and vitality, its supple expressiveness, its dark and statuesque charisma; there’s something of the ultimate reaches of the cabernet sauvignon grape about it, it’s that pure and intense.” Phifer Pavitt “Date Night” 05 the best debut wine I’ve tasted from Napa in the 21st Century. 300 cases were made. I rated it Exceptional. About $75.

Here are my “50 Great Wines of 2008.” In a few days I’ll deliver “25 Unbeatable Bargains of 2008.”

>Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle Brut. Exceptional. About $110. (Laurent-Perrier US, Sausalito, Ca.) ermita.jpg

>Casa de la Ermita Crianza 2004, Jumilla. Monastrell (40 percent), tempranillo (25), cabernet sauvignon (20), petit verdot (15). Excellent. About $19. (Opici Imports, Glen Rock, N.J.)

>Vidussi Podere di Spessa Ronchi di Ravez Collio Bianco 2002. 45 percent ribolla gialla, 30 percent malvasia Istriana, 20 percent friulana. Excellent. About $23. (Opici Imports, Glen Rock, N.J.)

>Morey-Blanc Meursault Boucheres Premier Cru 2005. Exceptional. About $110. (Wilson-Daniels, Napa, Ca.) cigare.gif

>Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc 2006, Central Coast. 75.3 percent grenache blanc, 24.7 percent roussanne. Exceptional. About $23.

>Landmark Damaris Reserve Chardonnay 2005, Carneros. Exceptional. About $35.

>Adegas d’Altamira 2006, Rias Baixas. 100 percent albarino. Excellent. About $25. (Quintessential, Napa, Ca.)

>Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2007, Carmel Valley. Includes 11 percent riesling. Excellent. About $25.

>Henry’s Drive Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Padthaway. Excellent. About $37. (Quintessential, Napa Ca.)

>Figuero 15 Months in Barrel Reserva 2004, Ribera de Duero. 100 percent tempranillo. Excellent. About $55. (Quintessential, Napa, Ca.)

>Taconius Crianza 2002, Vinos de Madrid. 45 percent tempranillo, 40 percent cabernet sauviignon, 15 percent syrah. Excellent. About $35. (Well-Oiled Wine Co., Leesburg, Va.) fournier.jpg

>Fournier Pere et fils Les Belle Vignes Sancerre 2005. Excellent. About $26.

>Truchard Chardonnay 2006, Carneros-Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $30.

>Truchard Pinot Noir 2005, Carneros. Excellent. About $35.

>Cavallotto Riserva Barolo San Giuseppe Bricco Boschis 2001. Excellent. About $100. (Marc de Grazia Selection for Vin DiVino, Chicago.)

>Serramarrocco Grillo del Barone 2006, Sicily. Grillo is an up-and-coming white grape in Sicily. Excellent. About $26. (Marc de Grazia Selection for Vin DiVino, Chicago.)

>Loring Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006, Santa Rita Hills. Exceptional. About $50.

>Hendrey Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay 2004, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $26.

>Nickel & Nickel Medina Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Russian River Valley. Exceptional. About $45.

>Renaissance Carte d’Or 2007, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills. 60 percent semillon, 40 percent sauvignon blanc. Excellent. About $20. beau4.gif

>Domaine Latour Beaune Vignes Franches Premier Cru 2005. Exceptional. About $55.

>Louis Latour Chambertin Grand Cru Cuvée Héritiers 2005. Exceptional. About $220.

>Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Ice Wine 2006, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario. Excellent. About $95 for a half-bottle. (Icon Estates, Napa, Ca.)

>Sausal Vineyard & Winery Zin XXXV 2006, Alexander Valley. Excellent. About $35.

>Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc 2006, Paso Robles. A Rhone-style white blend of roussanne (65 percent), grenache blanc (30) and picpoul blanc (5). Excellent. About $45.

>Vérité Le Désir 2001, Sonoma County. A blend of 48 percent merlot, 42 percent cabernet franc and 10 percent cabernet sauvignon. Exceptional. About $200. ljj023.jpg

>Louis Jadot Domaine de la Chapelle aux Loups Saint-Véran 2006. Excellent. About $18.

>Girard Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Napa Valley. About $17.

>Clos du Val Chardonnay 2006, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $24.

>Sanford Pinot Noir 2006, Santa Rita Hills. Excellent. About $34. mercurey.JPG

>Domaine Faiveley Mercurey “Clos Rochette” 2006. A white wine from this primarily red wine village. Excellent. About $34. (Wilson-Daniels, St. Helena, Ca.)

>The Yard Pedestal Vineyard Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Willyabrup, Western Australia. 83 percent semillon, 17 percent sauvignon blanc. Exceptional. About $25. (Tom Eddy Wines, Calistoga, Ca.)

>Bunnell Family Cellar Boushey-McPherson Syrah 2004, Wahluke Slope, Yakima Valley. Exceptional. About $44.04bousheysyrahf_1214957583_1215194329.jpg

>Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2005, Russian River Valley. Exceptional. About $48.

>The Lane “Beginnings” Chardonnay 2005, Adelaide Hills. Exceptional. About $45. (Tom Eddy Wines, Calistoga, Ca.)

>Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2005. Exceptional. About $100. (Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.) beaucastel.JPG

>Tom Eddy Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $90.

>Oakville Ranch “Robert’s Blend 2004, Napa Valley. The blend is 83 percent cabernet franc, 17 percent cabernet sauvignon. Excellent. About $90.

>Mazzocco Maple Reserve Zinfandel 2005, Dry Creek Valley. Excellent. About $60.

>Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $85.

>Foursight Wines Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006, Anderson Valley. Excellent. About $46.

>Henriot Brut Millésimé 1998. Excellent. About $95. Henriot USA, New York) grgich.jpg

>Grgich Hills Estates Merlot 2005, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $42.

>Gérard Raphet Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru Cuvée Unique 2005. Exceptional. About $125. (North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Ca.)

>La Pousse d’Or Volnay “Clos de la Bousse” Premier Cru 2006. Excellent. About $125. (North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Ca.)

>Amicus Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $55.

>Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $39. graefenberg_etikett1.jpg

>Robert Weil Kiedrich Grafenberg Riesling 2005, Rheingau. Excellent. About $60.

>Robert Keenan Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $45.

>Frank Family Vineyards Blanc de Noirs, Napa Valley. 100 percent pinot noir sparkling wine. Exceptional. About $35.

We continue with reasonably-priced alternatives to Champagne. charlesduret.jpg

The non-vintage Charles Duret Crémant de Bourgogne is composed of 70 percent pinot noir and 30 percent chardonnay grapes. Made in the venerable champagne method — or méthode traditionelle — this delicate, taut and paradoxically creamy sparkling wine offers uplifting aromas of biscuits and hazelnuts and enticing meadowy scents. It’s fashioned in a light, tight, satisfyingly effervescent manner, with a sense of lovely well-knit tone and presence. Flavors of toast and lime zest lead to a slightly spicy, limestone-etched finish. Very Good+ and Great Value at about $20.

Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va.

Our revels now have sort of ended, meaning that Christmas and New Year’s are over, but the Yuletide season continues until bertiol.jpg January 6th, the day of Epiphany — and boy, I could use one of those this year! — hence this “12 Days of Christmas” countdown with Champagne and sparkling wines, Twelfth Night being Epiphany Eve, if you will.

So, let’s tamp things down a bit and relax with a glass of Prosecco, the sparkling wine from northeastern Italy, mainly from the Veneto but produced in other close-by regions too. Prosecco is made in tank, that is not in the traditional champagne method, and is always non-vintage. At its worst, Prosecco, named for the grape from which it is made, is bland fizzy plonk that features a few wobbly bubbles of unseemly size; at its best, while still basically a simple quaff, it displays keen acid, bright citrus flavors and a fine mineral edge.

Such an example is the Dom Bertiol Proseccco Veneto, a superior rendition of the genre that offers a pale straw-gold color and a persistent cloud of tiny bubbles. Aromas of almond blossom and apple lead to a sparkling wine that’s clean and fresh and nicely defined. Citrus flavors are highlighted by snappy acid and a characteristic nutty-metallic blade as limestone takes over from mid-palate back through the finish. This is as close as Prosecco gets to elegance. Very Good. About $16 but often discounted to $14 or less.

Opici Import Co., Glen Rock, N.J.

Usually I cook a Southern breakfast — eggs, grits, country ham and red-eye gravy, biscuits — on Christmas morning, but this yearThe table set and ready for breakfast. there was some confusion about Christmas Eve dinner or Christmas Day and going to visit people Christmas afternoon, so I postponed the Big Breakfast until this morning. Before doing that, however, I got up early, fed the dogs, read the newspapers and cooked the black-eyed peas with hog jowl and greens for good luck in 2009.

Later, though, we sat down to breakfast, brunch, I guess, since it was 11:30, with a bottle of the sublime Roland Champion Blanc de Blancs Brut Grand Cru Champagne. Yes, we always have Champagne with the Big Southern Breakfast, with orange juice and coffee, too.
Roland Champion is a small family-owned producer, now with the fourth generation, in the village of Chouilly (“shoo-ee”), which has only Grand Cru vineyards. Made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes, this Champagne offers ethereal grace and poise and harmony; if I were fighting a duel tonight, I would ask for this Champagne as my last beverage. The nose here is about the richness of warm biscuits and hazelnuts, dried fruit and spice, like a Platonic, ineffably light fruitcake; in the mouth, however, it’s about a structure that encompasses an incredible marriage of power and elegance, like the delicacy and strength of the finest bone china. And there’s something porcelain-like about this Champagne, in its notable crisp, lively character, its transparency and its slightly chalky, shale-like mineral elements. Forget the Champagnes that come on with heavy toasty, caramel qualities; here, instead, is a wealth of subtlety and nuance touched with a racy, dynamic edge. Exceptional. About $65.

Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va.

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