May 2009

I was having a little snack a couple of days ago, some bread and cheese — I made that bread, by the way — and a glass of Spanish red wine, taking a moment on the back porch to read a few pages of a book I plucked from the shelves in the sitting room. I decided, in another by-the-way moment here, to start reading books from our library instead of trying to keep up with contemporary literature the way I did for so many years, when I was a book page editor and book reviewer. So the current read is Thomas Mann’s Stories of Three Decades in the edition of 1936 published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Anyway, I couldn’t help being amused by the packaging of the wine. I mean, here is a pleasant, tasty grenache and tempranillo blend — 75/25 — from the Campo de Borja region, the impressively titled Don Ramon Vino Tinto Barrica 2006 that happens to have a suggested retail price of $9, and it displays, on the neck, a red ribbon held in place by the bold splash of a red wax seal. On a $9 wine! It made me happy just to think about a few guys back at the winery in Campo de Borja saying something like, “You know, it’s a nice presentation, but we need something to spice it up a little, give it a touch of glamor and nobility, maybe … a red ribbon and a red wax seal on the neck!” And everybody goes, “Yay! Bravo! Olé!”

Because eccentricity always must grow out of innocence. Eccentricity without innocence is affectation, and affectation leads to pretension. I found neither affectation nor pretension in Don Ramon’s red ribbon and red wax seal; rather, I thought they make a touching gesture of hopefulness and esteem. “See,” say the ribbon and the seal, “this bottle of wine may cost only $9, but it takes its place proudly in the world.”

Don Ramon Vino Tinto Barrica 2006 offers beguiling notes of raspberries and mulberries with touches of spicy wood. The wine is dry and vibrant with acid, well-balanced, gently shaped by oak. A few minutes bring up hints of rose petals and potpourri. A lovely little luncheon wine, or with bread and cheese. Very Good. About, as I said, $9.

All right, here’s another example of eccentricity, and this one is more extreme as you can see in the accompanying image. Yes, friends, the bottle of the Mosen Cleto Crianza 2005 is coated with sand, and if you are thinking, “What the hell?” you echo my thoughts completely. The wine is, like the Don Ramon Vino Barrica 2006, a 75/25 blend of grenache and tempranillo from Campo de Borja., though this model delivers more heft and personality, more of a macerated fruit and dusty, leathery, mineral character. All of this for about $10; I rate the wine Very Good+.

But sand! It boggles the mind. Is there a lot of sand in Campo de Borja? I mean, the region is way inland, just south of Rioja. Such a device, such a mode of packaging, was not, I promise, born in the fevered imagination of a hot young marketer or PR person. No, this oddity, both weird and strangely endearing, was fostered by the same sense of wonder and eccentricity that gave us Don Ramon’s red ribbon and wax seal.

Both of these wines are imported by Scoperta Importing Co., Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I wish that Scoperta’s wines were more widely available, but they are carried mainly in markets in the Upper Midwest and on the East and West Coasts.

My last example is a bottle of Armagnac that LL and I have had for 15 years or so, given to us by a dear friend not long before he died. Our friend brought the bottle back from France, where he had lived for many years, but long in the past. It could be 30 or 40 years old. What’s so eccentric is that the bottle is molded to look as if it’s drunk, obviously listing a bit to one side as if it had consumed too much of its own product. This Rabelaisian manner is reinforced by the great metal seal on the sloping front that depicts the profile of a slightly amused Musketeer. Could one find such a product, such a marvel of individuality today?

The bottle still holds an inch of Armagnac that LL and I keep saying we’ll finish some day but never get around to. Perhaps tonight would be the right moment.

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After work yesterday, LL said, “I need a Friday sort of wine. A rosé would be nice.”

So, I opened a bottle of the Montes Cherub Rosé of Syrah 2008, from Chile’s Colchagua Valley. We remarked on the bright cherry-ruby hue of the wine, noting that it seemed pretty dark to be considered a rosé color; rosé, after all, means pink in French. And while the wine tasted pleasant enough, it conveyed neither a rosé character nor anything particularly syrah-like. The wine seemed to have sacrificed everything that makes rosé wines important to our lives — the delicacy, the immediacy, the minerality, the refreshing and thirst-quenching qualities — for a robust, blockbusterish New World statement that we did not find compelling or even attractive.

It’s the Rosé on Steroids Syndrome.

The natural home of rosé wines is Provence, where the pale, fresh, dry wines are perfect for drinking during the hot, windy summers. The method involves crushing red grapes, such as grenache and cinsault, and letting the juice stay in contact with the skins long enough to derive a little color. (Remember that grape juice is clear or “white”; the color of red wine comes from the skins.) The maceration may last anywhere from a eight hours, for the darkest grapes, to two days, for the lightest. After the maceration, the juice is drained or bled off (saignee) and fermentation continues. The palest rosés of all, called vin gris, or “gray wine,” receives no skin contact. The vin gris color is sometimes described as “onion skin” or, more poetically, “eye of the partridge.”

It seems to me that so-called rosé wines so completely macerated or extracted that they defy the pleasures we normally associate with such wines — and we see “rosé” made in this fashion from Australia and South America and to some extent from the West Coast of the U.S. — should be called something else. “Rosé: The Miss California Version” or “Rosé: The Terminator Selection.”

As I’m writing this post, I’ll inform you, I am sipping from a glass of the pale copper/onion skin-colored Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2008, which carries a California designation. This rosé wine offers all of the nervosity and verve, the delicacy and subtlety of a true rosé; its elements of dried strawberries and raspberries and apple blossom touched with melon, orange rind and a hint of dried thyme, its dry, almost chalky minerality and the austerity of its finish testify to a producer who is serious about the archetypal models of rosé wines. (Very Good+. About $15, a Great Value)

Vin Gris de Cigare 2008 is a blended wine. The components are 58 percent grenache, 18 percent cinsault, 10 percent roussanne, 7 percent mourvèdre, 4 percent syrah and 3 percent grenache blanc. Hold on a sec, you’re thinking, roussanne and grenache blanc are white grapes; what are they doing in a pink wine? Well, it’s O.K., in the United States of American there are no prohibitions against blending whatever the hell grapes you want. I mention this concept because it brings up another issue having to do with rosés.

The pragmatic New World attitude of blending red and white wines is not allowed in making rosés wines in France, however, except in the case of rosé Champagne. In Provence and elsewhere in the South of France, in the Loire Valley, where roses are increasingly important, and in other winemaking regions in the country, rosés must be made from all red grapes. (Please understand that I’m well aware that many “New World” producers of rosé wines employ the traditional method.)

That tradition may change, though, if the powers of the EU have their way. In January, the Brussels-based bureaucracy assayed the concept that producers of rosé wines in France should be allowed to blend red and white wines instead of adhering to the old ways. Wow, wouldn’t that be easy! Lots easier than the traditional method! And producers could get rid of their surplus red and white wines just by — yes! — blending them to make rosés! And French producers could compete with Australia and South America and California on their own terms! Watch out, white zinfandel!

This proposal raised such a storm of protest from producers in Provence and elsewhere in France, that the government, which was initially right in line with Brussels, back-tracked a bit and indulged in a lot of placating throat-clearing and harumphing. A final vote at the EU has been postponed until June.

You, my readers, will have no trouble estimating which side I take on this issue. Go ahead, I say, let every damned maker of rosé wines in the world make the stuff any way they want to, as long as they indicate the method on the back-label. (Well, that would be hard to enforce.) As for wine producers in Europe, please enforce the old traditions. Allow them the integrity and authenticity of their heritage, because with a few exceptions, the best rosé wines still come from France.

Top image by LL. The order of the wines (left to right, palest to darkest) is Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2008; Maison Bouachon “La Rouvière” Tavel 2008; Montes Cherub Rose of Syrah 2008.
Second image by FK. The order of the wines is reversed, with the Vin Gris de Cigare on the right.

Nothing could have been simpler or, honestly, more delicious. For dinner last night, LL sprinkled olive oil and tarragon, salt and pepper on a fillet of steelhead salmon and let it sit for a while. She thinly sliced about a dozen fingerling potatoes and sauteed them in olive oil with celery and green onions and dressed them with a vinaigrette to make a warm salad. We had some baby bok choy left from Chinese take-out the night before. She briefly sauteed the salmon in a cast-iron skillet and then put the skillet with the salmon in a 375-degree oven for about three minutes. The salmon came out with a slight crust but was just at rare in the interior. Perfection.

For wine I opened a bottle of the Natura Chardonnay 2008, from the Emiliana winery in Chile’s Casablanca Valley. This is a cool region, northwest of Santiago, where the climate is appropriate for chardonnay and pinot noir. The Natura wines are made from certified, organically-grown grapes.

The grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks; half of the wine stays in tank while the other half goes into French and American oak for five months. This is a chardonnay nicely balanced between steely minerality, earthiness and ripe, spicy fruit. It opens with lime, lime peel and limestone that expand into pineapple and grapefruit. The pineapple and grapefruit linger in the mouth, unfolding touches of quince, ginger and cloves and a hint of mango. In a few minutes, the nose offers a beguiling strain of jasmine and honeysuckle. Grounding this range of delights is a persistent chalk-like mineral quality and lively acidity. A light, delicate chardonnay for summer drinking. Very Good+. About $11 to $13, and a Great Bargain.

Royal Imports, a division of Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville, N.Y.

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So, to accompany this version of cheese toast for lunch — sorry, no picture! but I really was having cheese toast for lunch. LL came home and said, “What! Are you having cheese toast again?” — I opened a bottle of the Casita Mami Old Garnacha Vines 2006, from Spain’s Navarra region. The label is cute and almost too-well designed, and there’s a typical back-label story — “Mami lives in her little house blah blah blah” — but the wine is terrific. The color is dark ruby-purple. Nose the nose, and you smell rich, spicy, earthy, plummy and funky scents of softly macerated red and black currants and mulberries. Red and black fruit flavors are cushioned by robust tannins and enlivened by an acid bite that keeps the wine engagingly vibrant. Give this a few minutes in the glass and it unfolds hints of violets and rose petals, while in the mouth, it gets deeper, juicier, spicier, smoothing out nicely but retaining the dark briery influence of grainy tannins and underbrushy oak. Very Good+, and just what the doctor ordered as a cheese toast wine, fruity and spicy, filled with character but not overwhelming. What would you expect to pay for such a paragon? How about $11? No lie.

I tried two other wines in the Casita Mami line-up. I wasn’t quite as impressed with the Casita Mami Garnacha Graciano 2004, a 60/40 blend that made me want to try a more recent vintage (Very Good, about $14), but I urge you not to miss the Casita Mami Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, a warm, rich, spicy, pungent and flavorful wine that calls in loving tones for a grilled veal chop with rosemary or leg of lamb. At a bit more than four-and-a-half years old, the color is still dark purple, and the aromas of black currants and plums permeated by bell pepper, black olive, cedar and dried thyme are fresh and clean and enticing. It’s a lively and resonant wine, deeply imbued with earthy and minerally elements and packed with dusty tannins and walnut shell-like oak, and in truth, the wine could have used a bit less time in barrel. Still, this is vastly attractive, almost entertaining in its resolute nature and downright deliciousness. Very Good+. About $17.

These wines are imported by Romero & Miller, Bel Air, Maryland.

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Chile’s Aconcagua Valley lies about an hour’s drive north of Santiago, the country’s capital. The region is divided by the Aconcagua River into one area that is quite hot and dry and another, closer to the coast, that is cooler. Aconcagua is not as heavily populated by wineries as several of Chile’s more southerly wine regions, like Maule, Maipo and Rapel, yet it is home to several producers of high quality wines.

One of these is Viña San Estaban, whose label In Situ was selected (by whom I don’t know) as the official wine of the Memphis in May International Festival that this year honors Chile. I tried the In Situ wines last week and found them to vary from decent to very well-made and to represent in most cases Good Value, though the reds are more impressive than the whites. The winemaker for Viña San Estaban is Horacio Vincente, following his father and grandfather at the estate. At 3,000 feet above sea level, the San Estaban vineyards are some of the highest in the world.

There are three levels of In Situ wines: The Reservas, priced at about $11; the Winemaker’s Selection, about $15; and the Gran Reservas, about $20. In addition there’s a proprietary wine, Laguna del Inca (“Lake of the Incas”) that sells for $32 or $33.

Here are brief reviews.
>In Situ Reserva Chardonnay 2007, Aconcagua Valley. More dimension and character than the price would imply, with tasty pineapple-grapefruit flavors tinged with mango, a keen edge of acid and sleek oak influence, nicely balanced and integrated. Restrained but not quite elegant. Very Good. About $11.

> In Situ Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Aconcagua Valley. Very attractive, with enticing aromas of lime and grapefruit. dried thyme and tarragon, hints of grass and lime peel; crisp and lively in the mouth, loads of chalk and limestone to bolster citrus flavors with touches of fig and smoke. Great Value. About $11.

>In Situ Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Aconcagua Valley. I tasted this wine before finding out what the prices for the In Situ wines are, and I would have tagged it at $25 or $30. Medium ruby hue with a slight tint of garnet at the rim; macerated and slightly stewed black cherry and plum with plenty of well-integrated oak and tannin; smooth and mellow, pulls up mulberry and a hint of exotic spice; very dry, a little austere on the finish. Cries out for roasted game birds. The ’03 is not the current release of this wine, but track it down if you can. Excellent and a Phenomenal Bargain at about $11.

>In Situ Reserva Merlot 2004, Aconcagua Valley. The In Situ line no longer includes a merlot, which is a shame if this example is an indication of the quality. Bordeaux-like in its vibrant acidity, its dusty, spicy black currant and black cherry scents and flavors, its emphasis on a full-fledged tannic and oaken structure that does not detract from fruit etched with touches of cedar, tobacco, green pepper and black olive. Really lovely, mellow, seductive, sleek, and stylish. Excellent and Amazing for the Price, about $11. Worth a Search.

>In Situ Reserva Carmenère 2005, Aconcagua. Dark ruby color with a moderate brick-red rim; robust and rustic, dusty and chewy; intense and concentrated black fruit woven with cedar, bell pepper and black olive; unfolds elements of dried orange rind, bitter chocolate, leather and a mossy black tea. Much pleasing detail but not quite the dimension of the cabernet sauvignon and the merlot, but still Good Value. Very Good+. About $11.

>In Situ Winemaker’s Selection Chardonnay 2008, Aconcagua. An attractive chardonnay, clean, fresh and bright, with a whisper of oak; spicy pineapple-grapefruit flavors, crisp acid, a vibrant supporting mineral quality. Very Good+. About $15.

>In Situ Winemaker’s Selection Carmenère 2007, Aconcagua. Full-bodied and robust; dense and chewy; black olive, black pepper, black currant and plum; spicy oak, dusty, grainy tannins. Needs a steak. Very Good. About $15.

>In Situ Winemaker’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Aconcagua. Macerated currants and cherries, bell pepper, black olive and cedar; plenty of polished oak and gritty tannins. Fairly rustic. Very Good. About $15.

>In Situ Gran Reserva Carmenère 2007, Aconcagua. Warm and spicy, exotic, sandalwood and cloves; macerated and roasted black currants and cherries with a touch of wild berry; large-framed, full-bodied, boldly structured; dusty oak girt with dusty tannins, yet a finely honed, very palatable wine. Really requires grilled or roasted red meat. Now through 2011 or ’12. Very Good+. About $20.

>In Situ Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Aconcagua. Beguiling aromas of smoke, cedar and tobacco,, violets, macerated black currants and plums; quite earthy and minerally; dried herbs, hints of bell pepper; nicely integrated oak and tannin lend a texture that’s almost velvety, though the finish gets pretty rigorous. A blend of 90 percent cabernet sauvignon and five percent each cabernet franc and carmenère. Best from 2010 to 2012 or ’14. Very Good+. About $20.
>In Situ Laguna del Inca 2006, Aconcagua. However unusual this blend of 40 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent syrah, 26 percent carmenère and (surprisingly) 4 percent sangiovese may be, it feels classic yet with a wild berry and exotically herbed and spiced edge, roasted and smoky. Real depth, dimension and individuality here in a wine that offers plenty of firm oak and grainy tannins for structure but remains not only eminently drinkable but close to elegant in its proportions, balance and integration, all of these elements supporting Bordeaux-like flavors of black currant and black cherry permeated by dried thyme, bell pepper and black olive. Drink through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $32.

Sbragia Family Vineyards is the winery that Ed Sbragia, now the master winemaker for Beringer, owns apart from the producer for which he has successfully labored for so many years. The grapes for the Sbragia wines come from vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley, all in Sonoma County, and from sites in Napa Valley.

The Sbragia Family Home Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Dry Creek Valley, derives from vineyards that Sbragia and his family own. Fermented in stainless steel and aged a few months in three-year-old barrels, this is a lovely sauvignon blanc that deftly weaves fruit and spice with bright acid and an elegant suggestion of smoky oak. Aromas of apple and pear, roasted lemon and tangerine with a hint of grass draw you into the wine. The wine is crisp and lively and quite dry, with a texture slightly softened by a blur of wood; fruit is generous and luscious, revolving around lemon, melon, tangerine, orange peel and touches of baking spice. A few minutes in the glass bring up notes of jasmine and orange blossom and refreshing steely minerality. Great with grilled shrimp or seared scallops. Excellent and a Great Price at about $20.

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>I am sick and tired of bland wines with manufactured flavors and engineered mellowness.

>I am sick and tired of organically- and biodynamically-produced wines whose sole justification is the smugness of their back-label texts.

>I am sick and tired of gimmicks and devices and diversions, of PR ploys and marketing skirmishes and industry trends, of cuteness and wackiness and self-satisfied back-stories, anything that detracts from the wine and does not let the wine speak for itself.

> I am sick and tired of producers that apply oak to their wines as if on automatic pilot, whose attitude is “If this is wine, there must be oak; if this is a reserve wine, there must be more oak.”

>I am sick and tired of cheap wines that all taste the same and expensive wines that all taste the same.

>I am sick and tired of the lip-service paid to varietal and regional qualities in wines that display no varietal or regional character.

>I am sick and tired of the lack of individuality in winemaking, of the tendency toward the lowest common denominator, of the implication that wine consumers don’t give a damn what they drink, that all producers have to do is get together a whole bunch of grapes from “California” or “North Coast” or “South Eastern Australia” or “Navarra,” make the wine, slap a critter label on the bottle and send it out there.

And, hey, have a great weekend!

I could tell you go go out and spend $300 on a rare bottle of tête de cuvée Champagne for your mother, but I’m not going to do that. I’m going to tell you to go out and spend $100 on slightly less rare bottles of Champagne, because nothing is too good for your mother. I mean, she hoed the row, she toed the line, she felt the pain and you, my friend, were the gain, at least I hope you turned out that way.

These selections are appropriate not only for Mother’s Day but for celebrating other great occasions, for example, when the bank — for once! — honors that suspect check and you can turn those annoying deputies away from your front door, or when the appeals judge quashes the pesky little indictment that has been following you around ever since the bridge collapsed. There’s so much to feel good about!

But now, we’re thinking of Mom, and I think I’ll propose something interesting, two Champagnes, one made from all pinot noir grapes, the other from all chardonnay, and a sparkling wine from California made from a traditional blend of chardonnay and pinot noir. Anything to keep the old girl happy!

The Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut, 100 percent pinot noir grapes from Grand Cru vineyards, offers an entrancing color that’s like slightly tarnished rose-gold overlaid with tarnished silver; millions of tiny bubbles explode in an exhilarating upward froth. Beguiling scents of dried raspberry and dried red currants are woven with smoke, orange zest and lime peel and a profoundly deep mineral quality. The balance between a creamy texture and finely resonant acid keeps the wine vibrantly poised, with its spare elegance constantly weighted with an impression of lushness, while to a palette of red fruit flavors, a touch of wild berry paints a more intense tone. All of these elements are sustained by a tide of limestone that dominates the finish. Excellent. About $100.

Imported by Laurent-Perrier U.S., Sausalito, Cal.

The 100 percent chardonnay Champagne is the Delamotte Blanc de Blancs Brut 1999, also made of grapes from Grand Cru vineyards. The color is about as pale blond as you can get and still be considered blond; the bubbles resemble a surging tempest of foam. Aromas of fresh bread and biscuits, roasted almonds and almond blossom fill the nose. The wine is scintillating in its crispness and achingly dry, boldly effervescent, high-toned and elegant yet earthy and almost succulent in its roasted lemon and lemon curd flavors lit by a touch of spicy tropical fruit. The limestone quality that provides the foundation for this panoply is awesome. 750 cases imported. Excellent. About $92.

Imported by Wilson-Daniels, St. Helena, Cal.

We turn to California for the J. Schram 2001, North Coast. This sparkling wine is a blend of 77 percent chardonnay and 23 percent pinot noir grapes drawn from four counties: Napa (48%), Sonoma (26%), Mendocino (20%) and Marin (6%). A dark gold sparkler of remarkable tone, resonance and balance, this is toasty and nutty and bready, richly dimensioned, more powerful than elegant. Flavors of roasted lemon and pear with macerated lime peel are layered with baking spices and crystallized ginger, high-lighted with hints of caramel and toasted almonds. Very dry, persistently effervescent, loaded with mineral elements, the wine finishes with austerity so profound that it could be called Olympian detachment, except that the thing is so damned delicious. Excellent. About $100.

OK, if a $100 sounds a bit steep, you ungrateful wretches, here’s an alternative from Argentina, Mendoza in this case, where a few producers are beginning to make sparkling wine in the traditional Champagne method.

The non-vintage Bianchi Extra Brut, from Bodega Valentin Bianchi, is composed of 60 percent chardonnay and 40 percent pinot noir. This is a delightful, very pale sparkling wine, offering notes of chalk and limestone, lime zest, toasted hazelnuts and fresh bread. It is indeed quite dry, as the designation “extra brut” implies, spare and elegant, with whiplash acid to electrify the package and mountains of minerals. Altogether, it displays charming balance between delicacy and earthiness. Very Good+. About $30.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal.

Old-fashioned nostalgic image of motherhood from

Image of a highly idealized Ma Barker from Today’s Inspiration, a wonderful blog devoted to the pulp fiction and magazine illustrations of the 1940s and ’50s. This illustration was created by Ken Riley and originally ran in the June 1955 issue of Saturday Evening Post. The blog’s proprietor, Leif Peng, describes Ma Barker here as looking like “a younger, hotter, deadly June Cleaver.” Everybody’s favorite Mom!

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Lunchtime. “Hmmm,” I thought, “I better make some cheese toast.”

Slices of baguette, a smear of mustard, some Irish cheddar cheese, a few sprigs of thyme, grated Parmesan, a dribble of olive oil, salt and pepper. Run them under the broiler for a couple of minutes until the cheese melts and goes just past the bubbly stage and the edges of the bread get toasty.

Wine? At random I plucked a bottle of the Clos du Val Pinot Noir 2007, Carneros, from the shelf and was happy that I had done so.

This is a true earthy pinot noir, with stirring aromas of moss and briers, smoky black cherry, cola and a touch of sassafras, a whiff of beetroot. All of these elements are woven into seductive strands that entice the nose rather than assailing it. The lovely texture feels like cool satin sliding over the tongue. Flavors run to blueberry, mulberry and red currant wrapped in briers and brambles and borne by vibrant acid that cuts a swath on the palate and subtle, supple, slightly spicy oak from aging 14 months in French oak, of which only 2 percent of the barrels were new. An elegant and classically proportioned pinot noir with grit and grip at the heart. The alcohol level is a mild 13.5 percent. Now through 2012. Excellent. About $30.

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The “two hands” of Two Hands, an Australian producer founded in 1999, are Michael Twelftree and Richard Mintz. Winemaker is Matthew Wenk. While the winery is in Barossa, Two Hands sources grapes from vineyards all over the continent’s southeastern regions. Two Hands produces four levels of wines, primarily shiraz (syrah) but also cabernet sauvignon and grenache. The three “Flagship” wines are the Ares Shiraz, the Aphrodite Cabernet Sauvignon and the Aerope Grenache. Next is the “Single Vineyard” series, three shiraz and one cabernet sauvignon. The “Garden” series offers six shiraz wines from different locations. Finally, the “Picture” series includes nine wines that expand the varietal base in the direction of riesling, moscato, mataro, semillon and so on.

The wines from Two Hands that I have tried — many of the “Picture” series and the recent releases of the “Garden” series, the actual subject of this post — are distinctive for the careful nature of the winemaking and the attention to detail, and they exude varietal purity and intensity. Now, these are not cheap wines. Prices for the “Flagship” wines are $165-$175; the “Single Vineyard” series runs $100 to $110; the “Garden” series wines cost $65; and the “Picture” wines vary from $20 to $50.

The six shiraz wines in the “Garden” series are huge in structure, dimension and impression, but they are not heavy or obvious or over-oaked; balance and integration of all elements are the goals. While all six reveal with stunning clarity that they are made from the same grape, none is an imitation of any of the others; the wines are true yet individual.

When I mention the alcohol content of the wines in the following reviews, there’s a discrepancy between some of the figures I took from the bottles I sampled and the labels in the illustrations.
Two Hands Sophie’s Garden Shiraz 2006, Padthaway. The first impression is of immensity; my initial notes are “huge huge, deep deep — black black — spicy spicy.” One need not say a whole lot more for those who favor huge, deep, black spicy wines, yet it feels necessary to expound on the subtleties that are available here too. Subtleties? Yes, as paradoxical as it sounds, the size of this wine is composed of an amalgamation of many threads of qualities and nuances. For example, while the influence of oak is felt in the wine’s structure and spicy qualities, the wine aged 16 months in French hogsheads, an imprecise term that refers to large barrels of various sizes; the important point is that small barrels were not involved, so the effect of wood is less. Twenty-three percent of the wine aged in new hogsheads, 20 percent in one-year-old barrels and 57 percent in two- and three-year-old barrels, by which time the interior of the barrel is almost neutral, so the influence is close to subliminal. I won’t dally with so much detail about oak for each of these wines, but I’m impressed with the thoughtful treatment the wines receive.

So, give this bruiser a few minutes in the glass and let it unfurl notes of blackberry and black currant, black pepper and dusty plums, with a high strain of wild berry running through it. Another few minutes bring out the potpourri, the old leather, the bacon fat, while bolstering every element is the dauntless foundation of earthy minerals and polished, grainy tannins. The alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $65.

Two Hands Max’s Garden Shiraz 2006, Heathcote, Victoria. Boy, this is as clean and sleek and polished as shiraz gets. Though as sizable as the other Garden series wines are, Max’s Garden trades muscle and brawn for suppleness and litheness. It’s characterized by touches of smoke and fruit cake, leather, baking spices, violets and lavender, all wrapped in layers of ripe black fruit flavors with hints of mulberry and blueberry and bittersweet chocolate. The wine ages 14 months in new and used French oak hogsheads. The alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Wonderful tone and presence, a vibrant, lively and almost elegant shiraz. Now through 2012 to ’14. Excellent. About $65.

Two Hands Samantha’s Garden Shiraz 2006, Clare Valley. Very high-toned, very ripe, very minerally, and then a steep ascent of oak and tannin, making “Samantha’s,” for whatever reason, the most influenced by wood, the toughest of this present Garden series. It’s also the highest in alcohol, measuring a towering 16.2 percent. All of these elements together make for a heady experience, though the wine maintains control and innate balance and does not get all jammy, the way high-alcohol zinfandels in California often do. Still, I would hold off on this, perhaps until 2011, and give it a chance to become more integrated. Very Good+ (for now). About $65.

Two Hands Harry & Edward’s Garden Shiraz 2006, Langhorne Creek, South Australia. When my initial reaction to a wine is “wonderful balance and integration,” I know that I’m onto something great, though don’t assume that because of those traits Harry & Edward’s Garden 2006 lacks purpose, dimension and detail. This is a shiraz that’s rich in ripe black and blue fruit scents and flavors; in the framing and foundation qualities of muscular tannins, stalwart oak and scintillating minerals, all jazzed by vibrant acid; in the panorama of nods and hints: dusty potpourri, lavender, black pepper, a touch of sandalwood, a smolder of spiced and roasted fruit flavors that turn fleshy and meaty. Above all, this is a model of power married to poise. The alcohol content is 15.2 percent. Best from 2010 through 2015 or ’17. Exceptional. About $65.

Two Hands Bella’s Garden Shiraz 2006, Barossa. How can a wine so huge be so unaccountably lovely, living up to its name? For all its 15.6 percent alcohol, for all its breadth and depth, this shiraz is about as winsome and pretty as they come, winsome and pretty, though, without forsaking its roots in robust tannins; burnished oak, from 16 months in barrels, 15 percent new French hogsheads, the rest one to four years old; and forthright minerals that feel dredged from the center of the earth. It’s the details that lend this wine its attractiveness, a whiff of beet-root, a sniff of lavender, a hint of baking spice, a touch of flowering bramble, all of this etched onto ripe blackcurrant, blackberry and plum scents and flavors. Drink now through 2013 to ’15. Excellent. About $65.

Two Hands Lily’s Garden Shiraz 2006, McLaren Valen. Even in this fairly distinguished company, Lily’s Garden 2006 stands out. The wine is big, bold and seductive, laden with baking spice, black pepper, ripe (slightly over-ripe) blackberries and blueberries and bitter chocolate, with a final fillip of ancho chili. Enormous reserves of earth and minerals and grainy tannins reign over succulent black fruit flavors and a dense and chewy texture that unfolds robust (but not rustic) aspects of briers and brambles, with a gratifying finish that delivers more spice and an intriguing note of chocolate-covered currants. There’s wonderful equilibrium here between gravity and a wild balletic nature. Curiously, this is the only entry in the Garden series that ages in American oak, in this case 20 percent new hogsheads, the rest one, two and three years old. The alcohol level is 14.8 percent. Now through 2013 to ’16. Excellent. About $65.

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