May 2009

Friends, this is not a great wine, but greatness is not always required, and for sitting around on the porch or the patio, for sipping beside the pool or on a picnic, the Domaine de Ballade Sauvignon Blanc Colombard 2008, Vin de Pays de Côtes de Gasgogne, is a quaffable winner. Composed of 70 percent sauvignon blanc and 30 percent colombard — remember when Paul Masson made jugs of “French Colombard”? — this wine smells like pink grapefruit, lime, smoked pears and white pepper. In the mouth, the grapefruit element fades into green grape, though still heightened by the lively lime quality and jazzed by squinching acidity. It finishes with a chalky, minerally and slightly minty character. This is incredibly tasty and refreshing and would be a fine match with ceviche or grilled shrimp. Very Good. About $10, a Terrific Bargain.

Imported by Bourgeois Family Selection, Concord, N.C.

(Yes, the date on the label image is 2006, but the wine under review is the 2008.)

Ever full of surprises, LL brought home a container of squid from the grocery store, already cleaned and ready to be sliced or scored and prepared. She found a recipe on the Internet, and this incredibly delicious, succulent dish — squid cooked with tomatoes, onions and garlic, thyme, saffron and bay leaf, with some black olives and flat-leaf parsley — was the result. We slurped this great stuff up last night and scoured the bowls with pieces of the bread I made yesterday.

I wanted a wine, specifically a chardonnay, that would match the flavorful dish, but I didn’t want a lot of oak; like, when do I ever in a white wine, right? So I opened a bottle of the Ad Lib “Tree Hugger” No Oak Chardonnay 2008, from the Pemberton region of Western Australia. Winemaker is Larry Cherubino — “Little Angel” — one of the best winemakers in Australia today. In addition to his winery, The Yard and the Ad Lib brand, he was until recently winemaker for Merryvale Vineyards in Napa Valley.

Anyway, while the whimsical label and the motto on the back — “No trees were harmed in the making of this wine” — are attractive, the wine in the bottle is even more compelling. The color is pale straw; aromas of roasted lemon and lemon balm, ginger and spice waft from the glass. The wine radiates purity and intensity, offering amazing body, density and character while maintaining a crystalline edge of vibrant acidity and a resonant mineral element that rivals the White Cliffs of Dover. The finish hints at white flowers and orange zest. A beautiful chardonnay. Excellent. About $17, a Great Value. We enjoyed it with the squid tremendously.

Cherubino also makes, in this series, the Ad Lib “Hen & Chicken” Oaked Chardonnay 2008, Pemberton, Western Australia, and though it’s a carefully crafted wine, I didn’t like it as much as the Tree Hugger Chardonnay. The wine sees eight months in new and two-year-old French oak barrels and goes through 80 percent malolactic process. At first, I thought that the wine was fairly Burgundian, with its touches of bacon fat and Parmesan rind, its vivid, ripe pineapple-grapefruit flavors; after a few minutes, it displayed marked smoke and spiciness, with flavors of buttered and roasted peach and grapefruit, and in the end, the oak became a little pushy and strident, where in the beginning I had perceived it as more subtle. If you like a chardonnay with oak that comes to the forefront, you will probably think that this one is Excellent. For me, though, I’ll go with Very Good+, because it’s my palate and my blog and I can do that. About $17.

These wines were imported by Vintage New World, Shandon, Cal.

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One thing I’m sick and doggone tired of is merlot wines from California that all taste the same, and I mean like “red wine with oak” or “cabernet junior.” I taste a couple of these wines every week. A major problem is that merlot is indeed so closely linked with cabernet sauvignon because in Bordeaux and many other of the world’s wine regions it is blended with cabernet sauvignon to mellow cabernet’s authoritative austerity; another is that the quality that make the merlot grape distinctive — its hints of dried thyme, cedar, black olive and bell pepper — are distinctly out of favor in California, where a great deal of merlot wines are produced, and among America’s wine drinkers, who seem to associate herbaceousness in wine with something terrible in their childhoods.

These thoughts occurred to me when I opened a bottle of the Cadaretta Merlot 2006, from Washington’s Columbia Valley, to go with a simple rendition of cheese toast, so simple that it consisted of bread, cheese and herbs, with, I think, a little mustard on the bread; sometimes less is more. One doesn’t always have to go for baroque.

Anyway, I was attracted to this merlot precisely because it evinced a highly individual character. Lithe and supple in texture, the wine offered black currant and black cherry scents and flavors that were ripe, smoky and rooty and permeated by a tea-like element that was a little herbal and a little earthy. The wine matures for 16 months in French oak barrels, but only 5 percent of the barrels are new, so there is no influence of toasty new oak or spice; instead, the oak lends a steadying hand to the structure and contributes to longevity. There is, however, considerable tannin in the form of briers and brambles and walnut shell, so the finish is a bit austere. Drink now (with cheese toast, of course) through 2014 to ’16. Production was 145 cases. Excellent. About $35.

Far more widely available — as in 11,000 cases — is the Clos du Val Merlot 2006, Napa Valley, another merlot for which oak was handled judiciously, that is, in a regimen of 16 months French and 25 percent new barrels. This wine is a blend of 77 percent merlot — meaning it barely qualifies for a varietal label, the figure being 75 percent — with 16 percent cabernet sauvignon and 7 percent cabernet franc. (The Cadaretta is 100 percent merlot.) The result is an inky, large-framed, full-bodied wine bearing a swath of minerals that’s almost iron-like, yet etched with hints of cedar and lead pencil, dried herbs and black olive. Fruit, both in nose and mouth, is intense and concentrated in the black range of currants and berries, with a touch of something untamed, perhaps rose hips and wild berries. Structure dominates, though; tannins are grainy and tightly packed, and resonate acidity lends acute liveliness. Fine (actually wonderful) now with a rib-eye steak, but could wait two or three years. Excellent. About $26.

But to be honest, the best merlot I have tasted from California in a considerable time is the Merryvale Vineyards Merlot 2005, Napa Valley, Oak Knoll District. Warm, rich and spicy, this 100 percent merlot wine teems with aspects of flint and shale, lead pencil, hints of black olive and dried rosemary, and roasted black currants, black cherries and plums; I mean, you could kiss this bouquet. There’s lovely purity and intensity here, as the fruit turns more blue in the mouth, as well as more smoky and macerated, and the mineral elements, the chewy tannin, the essential acidity and the polished oak — 18 months in French oak, 37 percent new barrels — weave an impeccable structure that’s dense, burnished and firm. Serious, sensual and entrancing. 2,250 cases. Drink through 2012 to ’15. Excellent. About $35.

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The Loire is not only France’s longest river, but one whose history and tradition of grape-growing and wine-making are the most diverse. In the eastern part of the Loire Valley, sauvignon blanc reigns supreme, with pinot noir on hand for light reds and roses. In the great Central Loire, looking westward from the ancient city of Blois to the ancient city of Angers (near where the confusingly named Loir river runs into the Loire), chenin blanc and cabernet franc reach their apotheosis, though the wide range of grapes planted in these appellations makes the region the most varied of any in France. Farther west, where the Loire debouches into the Atlantic Ocean, the melon de bourgogne grape is made into Muscadet. The four regions, east to west, are Sancerre-Pouilly; Touraine; Anjou and Saumur; and the Pays Nantes.

I recently tried two bargain-priced wines from the Central Loire, a Savennières (Anjou and Saumur) made from chenin blanc grapes, and a Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil (Touraine) made from cabernet franc. Both, I am sorry to report, have limited availability but are Worth a Search.
Whether the chenin blanc grape reaches its fullest potential in Vouvray or Savennières is an issue I will leave to the nit-pickers; each region does exceedingly well by the grape, though while Vouvray is produced in a variety of styles ranging from bone-dry to glowingly sweet, Savennières is a dry wine. Because production of Savennières is so low — about 30,000 cases annually compared to 13 million for Vouvray — a mystique of rarity and quality has developed around the region that is frankly, almost never disappointing. It doesn’t hurt its renown (or notoriety) that Savennières is the home of Nicolas Joly, owner of Coulée de Serrant and the hugely vocal and influential advocate of the biodynamic method.

One does not often come across inexpensive wines from Savennières, so I was delighted to find the Moulin de Chauvigné “Clos Brochard” 2007 from Sylvie Termeau, who with her husband launched the Moulin de Chauvigné estate in 1992. Clos Brochard 2007, which sees no oak, offers a distinctive, brilliant light straw-gold color; the beguiling nose wreathes roasted lemon, quince and yellow plums with hints of cloves, crystallized ginger and jasmine. Moderately lush, the texture feels silky but not heavy and is enlivened with tingling acidity, conveying a sense of fleetness and elegance. Lemon balm and a hint of roasted peach, slightly honeyed yet achingly dry, are permeated by smoke and spice, with touches of straw and dried herbs. The finish becomes increasingly dry and fairly austere. As attractive as it is now, the wine would benefit from two or three years aging. Excellent. About $20, a Great Value.

Imported by Fruits of the Vines, New York.
St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil is an appendage to Bourgueil proper, producing less robust yet often delightful red wines from the cabernet franc grape; cabernet sauvignon may be blended up to 25 percent in both areas. These are ideal picnic and outdoor cooking wines, well-suited to burgers and hot dogs, grilled chicken and leg of lamb. Or try with a fried pork chop or a ham sandwich. We’re talking about versatility.

The Maison Audebert et Fils “Vignoble de la Contrie” 2005, St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, sports a deep purple-black color with a touch of magenta-blue at the rim. Aromas of black currant and mulberries, lead pencil and smoke and flint, new leather and violets burst from the glass. There’s something untamed here in the wine’s hints at wild blueberry, at some mossy-rooty tea-like element, its leathery, briery-and-brambly, black olive qualities. The leather and brier components gain power toward the finish, as the minerals pile up, and the wine turns rather dusty and austere. An intriguing combination of exuberance, rusticity and flat-out deliciousness. The alcohol level is only about 12 percent; how sane and helpful. Very Good+. About $15, a Great Value.

Imported by Fruits of the Vines, New York.

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Usually we celebrate summer’s unofficial but consensual beginning with a steak or burgers cooked on the grill, but last night LL came home with four fillets of tilapia and a package of tortillas. “Blackened tilapia tacos,” she announced, firing up the good ol’ cast-iron skillet and turning on the fan in the hood over the stove. Wow, they were great! And packed a spicy, heated punch, too! When I asked her what she used to coat the tilapia, she said, “Everything!” but then listed cumin, chili powder, ground chipotles, smoked paprika, Mexican oregano and adobo seasoning. Lord have mercy! As you can see in the accompanying image, we had little bowls of guacamole, red salsa and a black bean, corn and red pepper mixture to spoon onto the tacos. No wine with this dish; we drank beer instead.

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It is an article of faith in Burgundy that the nuances of terroir that influence even vineyards lying next to each other — soil and subsoil, elevation, exposure, drainage — justify the Burgundian system of vineyard classification and the prices that these famous vineyards command. Remember that in Burgundy, while the domaine that made the wine is indeed an important factor, it’s the vineyards that are officially classified, not the domaines.

Quickly and a little simplistically, Burgundy’s vineyards are divided into three tiers: the village or commune level; the Premier Cru level; and, at the top, the Grands Crus. (Red wines are made from pinot noir grapes, white wines primarily from chardonnay.) A label that says Gevrey-Chambertin (I’ll use this commune as the model) is a village wine, the pinot noir grapes for which were drawn from vineyards designated for that purpose; such a wine should, ideally, convey a general sense of what the commune’s characteristics are.

A label that adds a Premier Cru vineyard to the statement — Gevrey-Chambertin Aux Combottes, for example — will adorn a bottle of wine made only from that vineyard, and the term “Premier Cru” is required; the wine should reflect the character of that particular vineyard. A Grand Cru wine dispenses with the name of the village or commune and, in august fashion, adorns the label with its sole presence, as in Chambertin or Clos de Beze, two of the Grand Cru vineyards of Gevrey-Chambertin.

The distinctions between and the fame of many of Burgundy’s Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards go back a thousand years; certainly these qualities were fixed 200 or 250 years ago. Chambertin was the favorite wine of Napoleon, whose troops, it is said, reversed arms in the vineyard’s honor when marching past it.

My purpose today, however, has not to do with Gevrey-Chambertin and its eight Grand Cru and 26 Premier Cru vineyards, but with Nuits-Saint-Georges (south of Gevrey-Chambertin in the Cote de Nuits section of Burgundy), which has no Grands Crus but 27 Premiers Crus, one of which, Les Saint-Georges, has recently been the subject of a petition to elevation to Grand Cru status. One of the petitioners is Domaine Henri Gouges, a venerable producer, now run by the third generation, which makes wine only from Nuits-Saint-Georges vineyards, including Les Saint-Georges.

Henri Gouges created the domaine in 1925 when he became one of the first growers in Burgundy to bottle and sell his wine under his own name. The typical practice was to sell grapes or wine to negociants, who finished, or “elevated” the wine and sold it under their labels. The domaine is now run by Henri Gouges’ grandsons, the cousins Christian and Pierre. The domaine owns 14.5 hectares of vineyards, just under 40 acres, in Nuits-Saint-Georges and produces a red and a white Bourgogne (the white from pinot blanc), a Nuits Villages and seven wines from Premier Cru vineyards, four of which I want to compare, Les Chenes Carteaux, Clos des Porrets St. Georges, Les Pruliers and Les Saint-Georges, all from 2007.

Domaine Henri Gouges makes old-fashioned, firmly structured wines. New oak is kept to a maximum of 20 percent, so the wines are not overly influenced by toasty oak or woodiness, but they tend to be quite tannic, a common quality of these four wines. Henri Gouges Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Chenes Carteaux Premier Cru 2007, for example, is characterized by significant yet attractive weight and heft; aromas of minerals and clean earth and tightly furled black fruit, slightly spicy and floral, feel both serious and inviting, In the mouth, the wine is expansive, intense and concentrated, a little meaty, very dry, minerally and, at the finish, austere with plush, grainy tannins. This needs three or four years to become a bit more yielding. Very Good+.

The Henri Gouges Nuits-Saint-Georges Clos des Porrets Saint-Georges Premier Cru 2007 retains the chewy tannins of its cousin but the structure here feels more muscular and sinewy, and the aromas are a little earthier, spicier, with a touch of roots and wheatmeal. Fruit tends more toward red, as in red currants and plums, but with a hint of black currants. Tannic, yes, but also supple and powered by brisk acidity. Best from 2011 to 2016 or ’18. Excellent.

You have to remember that all of these vineyards are located not more than a few hundred yards from each other. Though Ronciers (which Henri Gouges does not cultivate) lies between Clos des Porrets and Les Pruliers, a good place-kicker could kick a football from one to the other. As to the differences between these two wines, the Henri Gouges Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Pruliers Premier Cru 2007 is darker, substantial, more brooding and more subdued, a powerhouse of dry tannins etched with finely delineated acid. Try this after 2012 and expect good results through 2017 or ’19. Excellent potential.

Finally, we come to the Henri Gouges Les Saint-Georges Premier Cru 2007. The wine is immediately enticing, with aromas of spiced and macerated red fruit, touches of leather and potpourri and dried herbs; in the mouth, the wine feels huge, immensely earthy and mineral-like, permeated by dense tannins, though hinting at succulence and a satiny texture. Great presence, tone and character. Give this remarkable wine four to six years and enjoy through 2018 or 2020. Excellent potential.

These wines will be released in the United States toward the end of 2009. Approximate prices will be about $80 for Les Chenes Carteaux; about $82 for Clos des Porrets Saint-Georges; about $86 for Le Pruliers; and about $147 for Les Saint-Georges.

The importer is Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.

When I realized that this chenin blanc from South Africa’s Western Cape region was a “wooded chenin,” I thought, “Gosh, what I really want from a cheap chenin blanc is crispness and freshness, not wood.” The Golden Kaan Chenin Blanc 2007, however, is thoughtfully and subtly made, with 70 percent of the wine kept in stainless steel and 30 percent seeing French oak for three months. The wood influence is more of a haze, a smoky blondness of wood than anything obvious. The wine is quite delectable, bursting with peach and yellow plum and quince scents and flavors, which, in the mouth, are sustained by a texture that would classify as lush if it weren’t jazzed by vibrant acidity and a scintillating limestone finish. For all its sensual appeal, this chenin blanc is a little too structured to serve as an easy-going aperitif; better to try it with grilled fish or seafood pasta. 977 cases were imported. Lots of personality for the price. Very Good+. About $10.

Imported by Racke USA, Sonoma Cal.

Sometimes more is just more; you can’t always do the “less is pure” thing.

So, for this rendition of cheese toast, I started with slices of seeded, multi-grain bread and spread them with black olive tapenade, over which I lay leaves of fresh arugula. Then I thinly sliced, I mean almost paper-thin, a Roma tomato, placed the pieces on the arugula and then topped the pieces of tomato with wedges of olive oil-cured dried tomatoes. Next, shavings of an Irish Cheddar cheese and an aged Gruyere, topped with grated Parmesan. Fresh thyme, salt and pepper. A light scattering of our favorite new condiment, Turkish Urfa pepper flakes. A dribble of olive oil. Then run those suckers under the broiler for four or five minutes, until the cheese gets just beyond the bubbling point.

Do I have to tell you how good this was?

The wine I opened matched this rather baroque version of cheese toast blow for blow.

The Morgan Cotes du Crow’s 2007, Monterey County, is a beguiling and riveting Rhone-style blend of 55 percent syrah and 45 percent grenache. The color is a gorgeous dark ruby-magenta with blue highlights; the nose teems with ripe and meaty black currant, blackberry and plum aromas permeated by lead pencil and minerals. In the mouth, the wine is luscious and lipsmacking, but it doesn’t allow sensual glamor to overwhelm an appropriate sense of vigorous structure in the form of grainy, chewy tannins and polished oak from 10 months in French barrels, 20 percent new, as well as lively, resonant acidity. In a few minutes, wild berry comes up, and an unrestrained floral nature, as in violets and lavender, and smoky potpourri. Loads of personality. Excellent. About $20.

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Fire up the grills, backyard cooks, the weather is sweet and balmy, the sky is clear and blue — temporarily, anyway, we’ve had an especially rainy month of May — and a ribeye steak with the voice of a Siren seductively calls. With that steak, hot and crusty from the coals, you would be wise to open a bottle of the Quinta do Crasto “Crasto” 2006, from Portugal’s Douro Valley.

It took the venerable producers of port a surprisingly long time to realize that they could take the same grapes that port in its many varieties is made from and fashion table wines for popular consumption. That movement really got underway in the 1980s, and now scarcely any port house does not also have a line-up of table wines made from tinta roriz, tinta barroca, touriga franca and touriga nacional.

Crasto 2006 is a fine example. One is greeted by amazing aromas of rose hips and lavender, briers and brambles, black currents and plums and wild berries. There’s nothing understated here but also nothing exaggerated or eccentric, though a beguiling note of exoticism creeps in. In the mouth, the dark ruby-colored wine is ripe, earthy and meaty, bursting with flavors of black cherry and plum, sweet spices, potpourri and minerals, all grounded on underbrush and mossy elements, dusty, chewy tannins and vibrant acidity. Bring on that steak, that pork chop marinated in Southwestern spices, that leg of lamb studded with garlic and rosemary. Drink now through 2011 or ’12. Very Good+. About $20.

Imported by Broadbent Selections, San Francisco.

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There was an interesting story in the New York Times this morning about Darienne M. Page, a young woman whose awesome title is “receptionist of the United States.” Page sits at the desk outside the West Wing of the White House, and, basically, to see the president, you have to pass through her scrutiny first, whether you’re Senator Harry Reid or actor Ben Stiller. As Times reporter Jeff Zeleny writes:

She is on hand to greet nearly every official visitor who has an appointment with the president or his top advisers. She oversees the front of the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, serving coffee to former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, making small talk with a delegation from Kazakstan and trying to chew a mouthful of almonds quickly before saying hello to Tiger Woods as he stands at her desk.

Page is also in charge of the presidential boxes at the Kennedy Center.

I found two aspects of this story shocking.

First, Page, who is 27, makes $36,000 a year, which she could probably do as a pizza delivery person. I mean, she must work long hours every day, she has immense responsibility and she has to chat with Republicans and be nice about it. She should be compensated accordingly.

Second — and this is the big one — the minibars in the presidential boxes at the Kennedy Center are stocked with “small bottles of Korbel champagne, white boxes of M&Ms with the presidential seal on them and a few cans of Bud Light.”

Please, Mr. President, we can do better than that! When you or Mrs. Obama send guests in your name to occupy your seats at a theatrical or musical performance, don’t you want to be represented by — and don’t you want this great country of ours to be represented by — the finest products that reflect the diversity and history of American know-how and achievement?

Take the nibbles. Nothing wrong with M&Ms; I love them myself. When drinking beer and sparkling wine, however, the sweetness of candy clashes with the acidity and the fruit of the wine and the bitterness of the beer. Something savory is called for, and I would recommend Vermont Common Crackers, the oldest continuously manufactured food product in the country. Vermont Common Crackers, two inches across, have been produced in the same place since 1828, so visitors to the Kennedy Center presidential boxes could sample not only a cracker that tastes good but get a taste of history with it. Available in regular and cheddar cheese versions.

And the beer?

Sorry, Mr. President, Bud Light may be fine for knocking back suds at a tailgate party — and I even question that — but will not do at all for the presidential boxes at the Kennedy Center. The remedy is serving a beer from one of the breweries that can be found within a short driving distance of Washington, like the Old Dominion Brewing Company in Loudoun County, Virginia. Or, striking closer to home, how about featuring the Foggy Bottom pale ale and lager, made right there in Washington by the historic Olde Heurich Brewing Company, founded in 1873 by German immigrant Christian Heurich. Now there’s a beer with a significant name!

The issue of a good sparkling wine from an American producer is a bit trickier, if we’re trying to be strictly patriotic, because many of the best of them are owned by foreign — not to say French — companies, but they have to pay taxes in this country and they employ thousands of American citizens. Now Korbel is a venerable company, founded by three Czech brothers in Sonoma County and first producing sparkling wine in 1896, but the quality simply is not there, certainly not to serve to the guests of the president of the United States.

The problem is that most producers of sparkling wine in American don’t offer their wares in small-format bottles; they don’t make enough product to make it worth the cost. You won’t find half-bottles from Schramsberg or Argyle. Indeed, Korbel was crafty in seeing the potential for the half-bottle (375 ml) and split (187 ml) markets. However, two producers of well-made (and better) sparkling wines do provide bottles in the necessary sizes — that is, to fit into a minibar — and those are Domaine Chandon and Mumm Napa. Mumm Napa offers its Brut Prestige in splits; Domaine Chandon produces its Chandon Brut Classic in splits and half-bottles and its Chandon Rosé in splits. I would recommend either the Chandon Rosé or the Mumm Napa Brut Prestige for the presidential boxes at the Kennedy center.

And this would be cool and in the interest of diversity! Gruet Winery in New Mexico, a fine producer of champagne method sparkling wines, offers its Brut and its Blanc de Noirs in the half-bottle format. I recommend both of those choices.

Crackers from Vermont, beer from D.C. and sparkling wine from New Mexico. That sounds really American.

And while I don’t mind performing my citizenly duty, as I have here, I have to ask: Do I have to tell you guys everything?

Photo credit: Doug Mills, The New York Times.

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