June 2009



Fans of sauvignon blanc looking for a wine somewhat more subtle than the models that come from New Zealand — and their imitators worldwide — should lay in the Silverado Vineyards Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Napa Valley. Not that this estate-grown and bottled wine doesn’t display its own exuberance. Made completely in stainless steel and undergoing no malolactic process, the Silverado S.B. ’08 fairly shimmers with electrifying freshness and crispness. A bright burst of lime and grapefruit, softened with melon and beguiling jasmine, greets the nose, while after a moment or two, a thread of dried tarragon and meadowy dust weaves through the mix. In the mouth, this sauvignon blanc, with seven percent semillon grapes, deftly balances keen liveliness with a moderately lush texture; layers of chalky limestone support spicy roasted lemon and lemon balm flavors with a touch of orange rind. The floral element expands, encompassing hints of lilac and lavender, as if you were secretly sniffing the powder in your mother’s compact, lo, those many years ago! A winsome and delicious sauvignon blanc with a serious structure that we drank with the simplest preparation of seared salmon: salt, pepper and lemon juice; it would also be good with grilled octopus, vegetable spring rolls or sushi, that is, food that is clean, fresh and slightly piquant, and unburdened by rich sauces. Finished with a screw-cap for easy opening. Excellent. About $23.

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Let’s pull the cheese toast thing back a notch. We’ve seen cheese toast with tasso, with sun-dried tomatoes, with roasted peppers, with black bean and corn salsa, with leafy greens, with olive tapenade. I mean, what’s next? Hungarian goulash cheese toast?

Let’s go classic, elegant. The cheese toast pictured here has nothing on it except for mustard and cheese and a dusting of dried basil and black pepper. The cheese, let it be said, is a combination of five cheeses: strips of Emmanthaler in one direction, strips of aged Gruyère in the other direction (making a pretty little lattice), shreds of Manchego, shreds of a Pecorino Stagionata con Vinaccia (soaked in the must of sangiovese and montepulciano grapes) and of course grated Parmesan. All of these melded (and melted) into a welter of great-tasting and piquant cheesy earthiness.

What wine did I choose to accompany this wonder of simple deliciousity? Why what else but a Blaufränkisch from the Finger Lakes!

This is the Heron Hill Reserve Blaufränkisch 2007. The winery, which specializes in riesling, the great grape of the somewhat neglected region in central New York state, also makes wines from chardonnay and other vinifera grapes. Heron Hill sits on the southwest shore of Keuka Lake, about three miles north of Hammondsport. Quick, what are the other Finger Lakes? Once, many years ago, when I was a lad in Rochester, I could have told you instantly, well, Seneca and Canandaigua, of course, but I’m leaving out a couple others, which are … Cayuga and then Owasco and Skaneateles and Hemlock, and more to make 11 together, all carved by glaciers eons ago. Only Keuka, Canadaigua, Seneca and Cayuga are part of the official wine-producing appellation.

Blaufränkisch — “blue grapes of the Franks” — has a long history in Central Europe. Grown primarily in Austria, it is also cultivated in Germany, where it’s called Lemberger. The grape takes various names in the eastern European countries (all local variations of Blaufränkisch) and can even be found in Italy’s northeastern Friuli region as Franconia. As Lemberger, it’s made into a typically robust wine in Washington state.

The Heron Hill Reserve Blaufränkisch 2007 is a first release, not only for the winery but for the Finger Lakes region. The color is deep black-ruby; aromas of red and black currants are permeated by dried baking spices and a slightly leafy, black olive aspect, as if the wine were a combination of pinot noir and cabernet franc. At first, the wine seems light and approachable, but give it a few minutes to marshal its forces, and it gains depth and dimension, adding earthiness and minerality, flavors of ripe and briery black currants, mulberries and plums, loading on the spice and burgeoning floral qualities. The structure is full-bodied and robust, and tannins are dense, grainy and chewy, yet the wine is not rustic or heavy-handed; its character is essentially balanced and integrated. An intriguing, contemplative wine for drinking with cheese toast or strong, aged cheeses or hearty grilled meats or autumnal fare through 2013 to ’15. Production was 250 cases. Very Good+. About $35.
Available beginning July 1 at heronhill.com.

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Last night, of course, was Pizza & Movie Night around here, and by six p.m. I was fretting a bit about the wine. “We have tons of cabernets and zinfandels and merlots,” I said to LL, “but I want something a little lighter, a little more approachable, a little less alcoholic.”

“Like what?” she said.

“Oh, a carefree Dolcetto or Barbera, a Italian red with good acid and fruit, not too serious but not frivolous either.”

“You know,” she said, “you can always go out and buy a bottle of wine.”

Drum-roll. The earth stands still. Time stops.

Readers, you understand that I do not buy a lot of wine. I mean as a writer about wine and a reviewer of wine most of the wine I (and we) drink, taste, sip, comes to the house by UPS or FedEx. When I wrote a weekly national newspaper column (1984-2004), an ungodly amount of wine came to the building every day, I mean, cases of wine. I don’t get nearly as much wine now, but it’s a goodly number of bottles that can be handled very nicely, thank you very much.

Now, I’ll confess that for three years — 2005, ’06 and ’07 — I bought heaps of wine. I had my now-defunct website then and in December of ’06 started this blog, and I was always buying wines to “fill in the gaps,” and a couple of times a year I would host a blind tasting here at the house and I would buy wine, expensive wine, for those occasions. And Champagne, I mean, friends, you gotta have Champagne in the fridge! Finally, LL, said, “F.K., you’re outta control. We can’t afford this.” And she was right. You may say, “Wasn’t the wine you bought tax-deductible?” Well, sure, however the accountant could use the tax deduction to help out, but still, every month the old credit card statements come around, and they have to be paid.

So, the point is that I rarely buy wine nowadays, but when LL said, “You can buy a bottle of wine. What you’ll looking for should be pretty inexpensive,” it was like a revelation. Anyway, I got into the car and hied my way to The Wine Market, a retail store that’s about a 10-minute drive from our place. I’ve known the owner for years — he worked at another store for a long time, nursing his dreams — but since it was about 6:15 when I got there, he wasn’t around. I approached the counter and explained to the young people there what I was looking for. I did not say, “Hi, I’m Fredric Koeppel, world-famous wine-writer and blogger, blah blah blah.” What I did say was, “Hey, I need a wine for my pizza tonight, not a cabernet or zinfandel, nothing so big. The pizza is mainly marinated tomatoes and basil with a little pancetta. Maybe if you have a lighthearted Dolcetto or Barbera … ?”

A rather serious, even scholarly-looking young man detached himself from the others and said, “I think I can help you. Let’s go over here. We should be able to find something that will do. How much do you want to spend?”

“Oh, $15 to $20.”

I followed him to a section where a variety of fairly inexpensive Italian wines were displayed, and he pointed to a bottle of Colognole Chianti Rufina 2003. I am, I’ll admit, a bit leery of Chianti, a wine that too often turns out to be dried out and austere. Also, this was a 2003, almost six years old. In fact, I said, “This is a 2003, it’s almost six years old.”

“Right,” he said, “but the tannins have settled down really nicely and mellowed out. This is pretty smooth, and it’s got the fruit.” And it cost $17.

“O.K.,” I said, “I’ll try it.”

How was the wine? Let me put it this way: Basically, today’s post is in the form of a Thank You to the young man whose name I do not know for steering me completely in the right direction and, even more, for being courteous and accommodating.

Chianti Rufina is a region of Chianti production northeast of the city of Florence. Rufina was recognized as long ago as the mid-18th Century, before it became associated with the name Chianti, as an area capable of producing superior wines, because of the soil in the foothills of the Apennines and because the geography allows for cool temperatures at night. (Chianti was originally further south in Tuscany, around Siena.) Colognole, one of the best (and most picturesque) estates of Rufina, has been in the Spalletti family since the 1890s and is today operated by Contessa Gabriella Spalletti.

Colognole 2003 was exactly what I was looking for. Last night’s pizza was simple. I marinated three chopped tomatoes, red onion and basil in olive oil and a touch of balsamic vinegar for an hour, then drained the mixture carefully; we don’t want no stinkin’ soggy pizzas! I had a bit of guanciale — the pancetta I bought last month had turned so moldy that it looked like a science project gone horribly wrong — so I chopped that (I mean the guanciale, which is cured hog-jowl) and fried it. A few dots of fresh mozzarella and some grated Parmesan, and that was it.

The wine sported a lovely, warm medium brick-red color; aromas of dried red cherries and red currants with dried baking spices wafted from the glass. After a few moments, heady scents of lilac and rose petal began to weave their seductive way, followed, yet again, by elements of earthy minerals, moss and black tea. Those qualities, in a spare and lithe manner, make up the flavors too. Colognole typically ages 12 months in 660-gallon Slavonian and French oak casks, far larger than the standard 59-gallon French barrique, and then ages additionally in stainless steel tanks and concrete vats. The wine is indeed smooth and mellow, but it’s animated by a keen edge of acidity that keeps the package lively and taut (and that helped the wine work beautifully with the tomato-dominated pizza). What a treat! This is what old-fashioned Chianti is all about. Excellent for drinking through 2011 or ’12, and a Bargain at $15 to $17. Worth a Search.

Imported by Vin Divino, Chicago.

In warm weather, we eat differently. Of course there’s the occasional steak cooked out on the grill, but mainly we’re after lighter fare that won’t sit heavily on the stomach, that’s more refreshing and delicate than winter’s hearty cuisine. Up until a week ago, LL and I ate out on the screened porch off the kitchen every night; here’s the table set at the end of May for a twilight meal of seared scallops on spinach with bacon, shallots and balsamic red onions and a charming, uncomplicated Trivento Select Torrontes 2008, from Argentina’s Mendoza region (Very Good, about $10). Frankly, now, it’s too hot to eat outside; with the temperature in the high 90s every day, even at 10 p.m., the heat and humidity feel stifling, so we’re dining inside where it’s cool.

The motif of today’s post, as you probably guessed, is summer fare and summer wines, so cue the theme music from Summer Place or The Summer of ’42 or even John Sebastian, and have a read.
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Let’s start with a lovely pasta of Brussels sprouts leaves, onion, garlic and tasso, a variation on a recipe in Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables (HarperCollins, 1996), a cookbook that I sometimes mention. (Instead of red pepper flakes, LL used spicy tasso ham.) This is a lighter dish than it may sound, because the leaves of the Brussels spouts are fairly delicate, and LL just used a little diced tasso, more for a bit of bass note emphasis than for full-fledged flavor. I fried some bread crumbs in butter to go on it. The pasta was delicious on a torrid summer night.

For wine, I opened — easy to do; all Bonny Doon wines are closed with screw-caps — the Bonny Doon Beeswax Vineyard Le Cigare Blanc 2007, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. This blend of 64.3 percent roussane grapes and 35.7 percent grenache blanc is one of the best of the current crop of Rhone-style white wines made in California. It offers lemon curd, waxy white flowers, meadows and dried herbs in the nose, with hints of crystallized ginger and quince, roasted pears and lavender honey. Yes, it’s heady stuff. In the mouth, the wine, which sees a modicum of French oak, delivers pleasing weight and substance; it’s a bit fat, a little sassy, but balanced by spare, scintillating acidity and mineral elements. Notably clean and fresh, the wine is shot through with flavors of ripe lemons and limes and pears, highlighted with hazelnut skin and, on the finish, a touch of astringent grapefruit rind. Clearly not a sauvignon blanc or chardonnay and all the better for it. Excellent. About $22.
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O.K., here’s one of our favorite hot weather dishes, broiled shrimp with mint and cannellini beans on watercress, though watercress can be hard to find — as in never, so just forget it! — so arugula is a good substitute. You make the mint into a sort of pesto. The recipe comes from a book I have mentioned many times over the years, a magazine-size publication of Food & Wine called Fast. This came out in, well, I think 2005. I can’t tell you for sure because the first few pages of the book are missing; it got left out in the rain one day and the cover warped and loosened. Many other pages are stained with oil or wine or vinegar or substances now unknown. It has become sort of an archeology of cooking. Anyway, this is an easy dish, especially if you buy peeled and deveined shrimp; if not, the hardest part is undressing the reluctant crustaceans.

When we had this dish recently, I opened a bottle of the Hazard Hill Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2008, from the Plantagenet winery, established in 1968 and the first producer in Western Australia’s Great Southern region. Made completely in stainless steel, the wine is notably fresh and attractive, featuring aromas of leafy fig and roasted lemon with hints of melon and mint. Citrus flavors with a touch of grapefruit are highlighted by dried thyme and tarragon, all nestled in a sleek structure jazzed by lively acidity. A lovely quaff. Very Good+. About $13. a Great Bargain.
Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal.
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Next is a dish, also from Fast, that marries chicken thighs, garlic and cilantro with a piquant red miso glaze that, with the addition of white wine, turns into a savory sauce. The whole operation takes about 35 minutes, with most of that time spent idling the minutes away with a glass of champagne as the chicken cooks under the broiler. It’s a delicious combination that looks good, too, always an important point when food may end up as an illustration on this blog.

I was going to open a riesling with this dish, but LL, after tasting the broth, suggested something with a little more body, so we went with a Joseph Drouhin Chablis 2007, which turned out to be a good choice. Drouhin, a large and venerable negociant and grower in Burgundy, owns 67 acres of “regular” Chablis vineyards that are farmed organically. The juice is pressed at Drouhin’s facility in Chablis and then trucked to the company’s winery in Beaune, where it ferments and ages seven or eight months in stainless steel.

This Chablis — one hundred percent chardonnay — is clean and fresh and steely, with hints of spicy lemon, green plum, green grape and sauteed mushrooms over layers of earthy limestone. The wine displays gratifying tone and presence, with a hint of Burgundian fatness and weight, though it’s essentially spare and elegant. The spicy nature expands on the finish as well as the intensity of the mineral element. Drink through 2010. Very Good+. About $24.50.
Imported by Dreyfus, Ashby & Co,. New York.
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Finally, here’s a dish we enjoy throughout warm weather, a pasta with a cold tomato sauce. This is utter simplicity. You halve some tomatoes, squeeze them to get rid of the excess juice and then chop them. Put them into a bowl with chopped shallots and basil and some good olive oil and balsamic vinegar and a few grinds of salt and pepper. Let it all sit for an hour to marinate, a good time for more champagne. Cook the pasta — this is best with a short curly-shaped pasta — drain, and toss it with the tomato mixture and grate on some Parmesan. The heat of the just-cooked pasta will warm the tomatoes but not too much, and the tomatoes will cool the pasta. Basically, this is a room temperature dish, and its variations are infinite.

Obviously something cool and clean and fresh was required, so we tried the Famiglia Bianchi Sauvignon Blanc 2008, San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina. Cool and fresh, indeed, and bright and very drinkable, the wine features lemon and lime aromas woven with almond, almond blossom and jasmine. There’s a hint of the tropical, a sort of mango married to pear quality, and sheaves of leafiness and dried grasses. A lovely soft texture is enlivened with shimmering acidity and an audacious limestone element. The finish brings in a bit of grapefruit edginess to the package. Very attractive. Very Good+. About $16.
Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal.

1. Don’t send me a press release about an Argentine wine and start it with the line “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.”

2. Don’t send me a press release that includes every iota of technical information about a wine but not the suggested retail price.

3. Don’t spell my name wrong. Don’t spell my name wrong. Don’t spell my name wrong.

Judd’s Hill is a busy place. First, of course, it’s a winery, owned by Art and Bunnie Finkelstein, former owners of Whitehall Lane, a producer of exemplary cabernet. Assisting are son Judd Finkelstein and his wife Holly. Judd’s Hill makes about 3,000 cases of wine annually, keeping things small to concentrate on the details. There’s also a frenetic side to the enterprise, one of which is Judd’s Enormous Wine Show, a sort of demented love child of a blog and a video created by Judd Finkelstein and his childhood friend, Rudy McClain. (I’m always amazed that people even have childhood friends. Sniff. Sob.) Another aspect of Judd’s Hill is MicroCrush, a custom winemaking service; if you have a ton of grapes or if you’re looking for a ton of grapes, MicroCrush will take care of everything, all the way to bottling the final wine.

O.K., great, but what about the wine from Judd’s Hill?

I tried four red wines recently and found them to range from excellent to exquisite.
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Let’s take the oldest wine first. The Judd’s Hill Estate Red Wine 2002, Napa Valley, is a blend of 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent merlot and 5 percent cabernet franc. The winery typically holds the Estate Red Wine back a few years so that it’s mature or ready to drink on release. This is a large-framed, serious wine, delirious with minerals, rapturously fruity and blessed with great dimension, detail and gravity. Black currants and dusty plums are permeated by cedar and tobacco with touches of walnut shell and underbrush. The texture feels like velvet, but the wine is not opulent or voluptuous, its sensuous nature held in check by grainy, chewy tannins, dense and moderately spicy oak — 20 months in a mixture of new and old French barrels — and a scintillating acid backbone. There’s nothing over-ripe or demonstrative here; rather, the emphasis is on intensity and balance. The finish brings in hints of bark and mossy forest floor for some austerity. Still, at not quite seven years old, the wine feels young, and should drink well with roast beef and grilled steaks through 2015 or ’16. Production was 280 cases. Excellent. About $75.
This wine is garbed in the winery’s previous rather stodgy label; these other three come dressed in the more modern label shown above.
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My first note on the Judd’s Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley, is “superb.” I suppose I could stop there — I mean, you can take my word for this — but I’ll fill in the background anyway. It’s interesting that the composition of this wine and its oak treatment are the same as for the Red Wine 2002 mentioned just above, a fact that testifies to a healthy consistency of viewpoint and technique. Of course there are differences too; first, 2005 and 2002 are different (and excellent) vintages, each with its own nature, and, second, the grapes for the Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 derive from three vineyards, while the Red Wine 2002 comes from one estate vineyard in Conn Valley, east of the town of St. Helena. So, in saying “superb,” partly what I refer to is this wine bold, classic structure, a sort of architecture of depth and breadth with framing and foundation provided by bastions of dry, grainy tannins and buttresses of oak. So deep purple that it’s almost black, the wine weaves black and red currant and blackberry scents and flavors with cedar and walnut shell, briers and brambles and undercurrents of mossy earthiness. Imponderable intensity and concentration here, leavened by winsome strains of licorice, lavender and potpourri. Try from 2010 through 2015 or ’16. Production was 1,580 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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The Judd’s Hill Old Vine Petite Sirah 2005, Lodi, was so profoundly earthy and minerally that at first I thought something was “off” about it; was it a tad “corked”? Repeated swirls, sniffs and sips revealed, however, that the wine was simply so pure and intense and concentrated that it radiated authenticity and individuality almost unprecedented. This is, I’m saying, the real goods when it comes to petite sirah. The wine is deep, rich and spicy, on the one hand, bursting with ripe, slate-glazed black currant, blackberry and plum flavors yet, on the other hand, it features such heart-stopping tannins that the glass feels heavier in your hand than it should (sort of). Immense gravitas is the raison d’etre. There’s 12 percent zinfandel in the blend. A true smoked ribs wine, through 2011 or ’12. Production was 360 cases. Excellent. About $30.
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Honestly, though, my favorite of this quartet is the gorgeous Judd’s Hill Pinot Noir 2007, Central Coast, from the San Ysidro Vineyard in the southern Santa Clara Valley. Now when I say “gorgeous,” I’m not implying that this is a pushover, a pretty face of a wine, because, as all great pinot noir should, this possesses that paradoxical quality of feeling full-bodied and complete at the same time as it feels spare and reticent and delicate. Gorgeous it is, though, with a panoply of dried sweet spices ranging over red and black currants and plums and an almost insane level of violet and rose petal and an irresistible satiny texture. A few minutes in the glass conjure hints of mulberry and raspberry, along with, from mid-palate back, increasing dryness and austerity. Interestingly, five percent syrah grapes go into this wine; to buck it up a bit perhaps? to add color and depth? Why? The last thing this wine needs is bolstering of any kind, a factor acknowledged in the oak regimen: eight months in neutral French barrels, so the wood influence offers gentle shaping to the wine rather than a direct influence. Anyway, this is the sort of shimmeringly pure pinot noir that restaurants serious about their California lists should have a few bottles on hand for discerning patrons eager to avoid the flamboyance that characterizes too many examples of the state’s pinot noir. 668 cases. Excellent. About $26.
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You say that you just took a slab of long-smoked ribs or a brace of chile-and-cumin glazed pork chops off the grill?

Look no further than the Sbragia Family Gino’s Vineyard Zinfandel 2006, Dry Creek Valley, for the matching wine. The vineyard holds some sentimental attachment for owner Ed Sbragia; named for his father, it’s where Sbragia played as a child, growing up in Dry Creek Valley. The blend — 85 percent zinfandel, 10 percent carignane and 5 percent petite sirah — is modeled on the zinfandel wines made in the late 19th Century by the Italian immigrant winemakers who settled in Sonoma County and did so much to make the region known for its hearty red wines.

But the reason to pair this wine with your Big, Smoky Red Meat Dishes isn’t sentimental. It’s because this big-hearted, two-fisted old-fashioned zinfandel offers the fruit and substance to stand up to richness and full-flavored cuisine and meet it blow for blow. Scents and flavors of black currant, blueberry and cranberry are permeated by notes of rhubarb, fruit cake, black pepper and fairly toasty oak. Sbragia does like oak; this spends 10 months in 100 percent new French barrels. And while in another wine I might object to this flood of wood, here it sublimates itself to the purposes of framing and foundation for the wine’s structure and serving as a sort of spice accelerator. Of course a wine’s architecture is nothing without a backbone of vibrant acidity and, in the case of red wine, layers of dusty, chewy tannins, which this possesses in abundance. This wine is, overall, an intense and concentrated zinfandel, blessed by not being overripe or jammy, gratifying in its traditional virtues. 14.5 percent alcohol fits the wine like a glove. Drink through 2011 or ’12. Excellent. About $28.

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In case you didn’t know, cherries are incredibly healthy, and, in case you have a tendency to gout, as I do, they’re terrific gout attack preventatives. (So is pineapple.) And, in case you didn’t know, blackberries are packed with antioxidants. In fact, a story by syndicated health writer Megan Murphy that ran in the local paper this morning informs us that blackberries come at the top of a list of 1,900 foods and their antioxidant properties. So, whew, it’s a good thing that this weekend I bought some beautiful Rainier cherries at Costco and some plump, glistening blackberries at Whole Foods. Why do blackberries cost so freakin’ much, though? You’d think that each one sprang full-blown from the brow of Zeus.

And what better way to consume our essential antioxidants than with — ice cream! Organic ice cream, of course.

So, after dinner last night — there’ll be a post later; we had one of our favorite summer dishes, shrimp with cannellini beans, mint and watercress — and after cleaning up the kitchen, LL washed and pitted some of the cherries — and performed a little experiment in which she discovered that dogs do indeed like cherries very much, thank you — and I washed the blackberries and scooped the ice cream into some small bowls, and we devoured a delicious and sumptuous (and antioxidant providing!) dessert,
which, frankly, we don’t often do at home, I mean, have dessert.

And as we were eating the cherries and blackberries and ice cream, a notion struck me, and I reached into the refrigerator (first opening the door; I’m not a magician) and pulled out a small bottle of the Innocent Bystander Moscato 2009, from Australia’s Victoria region. A blend of 65 percent Muscat of Alexandria and 35 percent Muscat of Hamburg, the lightly effervescent wine embodies pure strawberry and rhubarb laced with a strain of the muscat grape’s natural earthy foxiness and a hint of roses; flavors tend more toward watermelon and Braeburn apples. Made in stainless steel and endowed with bountiful freshness, mild sweetness and vibrant acidity, the wine is completely delightful and bursting with personality. At only 5.5 percent alcohol, you could drink this stuff all day long! Very Good+. About $12 for a 375 ml half-bottle.

And it was wonderful with dessert, very fresh and certainly tasty and rather cleansing.

Quercus petraea continues to be my bête noire. To wit:

As many loyal readers — bless your bones! — of BTYH know, Saturday marks Pizza & Movie Night in our household. The movie comes from Netflix, the pizza from my own hands. We decided that we wanted to watch the “Bourne” series again, so last night it was the first outing, The Bourne Identity, which did not seem quite as stylish as it did in 2002. (Clive Owen, btw, portrays an assassin without a three-day-growth of beard. He didn’t look like himself. I thought that three-day-growths of beard were written into his contracts. If he were playing Mr. Darcy, he’d do it with a three-day-growth of beard.)

Anyway. I needed to find an appropriate wine for the pizza, and what I really wanted was just a nice, simple uncomplicated pizza wine, you know, the kind of wine that I could write up as “a nice, simple, uncomplicated pizza wine” and recommend as Good Value. So I picked up a bottle of a well-known brand of inexpensive Tuscan blends, and there on the back label were the words, “aged six months in French barriques.” Gack! I thought, when did they start doing that? French oak is not what I had in mind.

So, I hefted a bottle of an inexpensive Spanish tempranillo-cabernet sauvignon blend, thinking that it would probably be fine, and there, on the back label, were the words, “Aged 12 months in new oak … for a touch of vanilla.” Criminy! I thought, I don’t want a “touch of vanilla” in any wine, much less a red wine to drink with pizza. “12 months in new oak,” fer cryin’ out loud! Again, that was not what I had in mind.

So, I thought, the hell with it, and I asked LL to get down a couple of the big Riedel cabernet glasses, and we would just go ahead and drink something smooth and sleek and minerally and elegant from California, making this supposition on the fact that we had drunk this particular wine’s more expensive cousin from the same estate last week and liked it a lot.

So we got all settled and the movie started and I opened the wine and poured it and — guess what? — toasty oak up and down, back and forth, in and out and all over the place. All I could smell was toasty oak; all I could taste was toasty oak; and if toasty oak possessed tactile ability, I would have felt toasty oak too.

So, friends, let’s sing the chorus of that classic soul hit along with Aretha:

L-E-S-S O-A-K
Can’t you make your wine that way?

Please, don’t sock it to me.

Oak tree image from oas.com.

Occasionally we read in the more high-toned wine publications articles that pose the ancient, imponderable and futile question, “Is Great Bordeaux a Greater Wine Than Great Burgundy?” or the reverse. And occasionally you see the comment, usually from an old school writer about wine or from the notes of a famous old connoisseur that Bordeaux is a young man’s drink while Burgundy is for middle age; understand that we’re referring to red wines.

Well, fie, what does all that folderol mean anyway? Great Bordeaux wines and great Burgundy wines are, you know, great. It’s like comparing kumquats and toothbrushes (especially electric toothbrushes). The geography is different, the climates are different, the philosophies and systems are different, not to mention, of course, the grapes. (Have you ever noticed that when people say, “not to mention,” they go ahead and mention whatever it is they pretend that they’re not going to mention in the first place?) Bordeaux wines are almost always blended; Burgundies are 100 percent varietal, that is, pinot noir for the red wines. Before the Revolution, most of the famous vineyards of Burgundy were owned and farmed by religious orders; Bordeaux, on the other hand, was the home of the well-known rationalist and skeptic, Montaigne, who served as mayor of the city from 1581 to 1585. See? You can’t compare these places.

Here’s a story:

In December 1999, actually on my birthday, I stood in the chilly cellar of Domaine G. Roumier in the village of Chambolle-Musigny, in Burgundy, as winemaker Christophe Roumier, grandson of the domain’s founder, piped a dribble of dark purple Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1998 from the barrel into my glass. I sipped. I trembled. I succumbed. I thought, “Holy shit, that’s the best wine I have ever tasted in my life.”

Three days later, I stood, still chilly, in the surprisingly modest old stone building that connoisseurs around the world recognize as the seat of Chateau Petrus in Pomerol, an hour’s drive northeast of the city of Bordeaux, maker of the best merlot-based wine in the cosmos. I take a sip of a barrel sample of Petrus 1998, so dark that it’s almost black, and feel as if a thunderclap has gone off in my head. “Holy, shit,” says the thought-cloud above my cranium, “this is the best wine I have ever tasted in my life.”

And yet … about the greatest pinot noir wines, whether of Burgundy or certain very specific spots in California or certain very specific spots in Oregon’s Willamette Valley (I’m not sold on New Zealand), in addition to their profundity, their gravity, their nobility (qualities they often share with Bordeaux wines), there wafts the elusive ineffable, what Christophe Roumier described that day, in connection with his Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1998, as “the power of delicacy.” It diminishes the mystery to call it “roses and slate” or “violets and wet bark” or “satin and loam.” It’s that almost indescribable marriage of opposite forces that leads pinot noir lovers ever onward in search of the grail.

All this serves as prelude to reviews of four groups of three pinot noir wines, one from a great estate in Burgundy, Mongeard-Mugneret, the rest from California.
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Yes, three more mystery wines, wrapped in black tissue, and all I knew was that they represented pinot noir of three vintages from the same producer in California.

Here are my notes, transcribed from my little blue notebook:
>Mystery Pinot Noir #1: “Medium ruby-purple color; red currant — blackberry — cranberry & cola; pretty classic; dried cloves w/ a hint of allspice astringency; v. dry — slightly herbal; succulent but demanding too & w/ a shyly austere finish… lots of tone & grip, a little brambly, foresty and earthy, good acidity.”
In other words, “pretty classic” indeed, with keen acidity cutting a swath on the palate and making, along with the wine’s gentle but persistent tannins and subtle oak influence, a structure both purposeful and suave. A compelling young pinot noir of a recent or most recent year. Excellent.

>Mystery Pinot Noir #2: “Color a touch lighter than the previous example; a little earthier, a little funkier — fruit ripe and more macerated, black and red fruit but adds a note of rhubarb and hint of sassafras — very well-knit, smooth and polished; the spicy element unfolds slowly — intriguing touches of old saddle-leather, moss and beetroot to compose the earthy quality.”
So, an older year, a slightly more mature pinot noir, recognizably in the same style, that is, smooth, satiny, supple and subtle and with fruit opening and softening. Absolutely delicious. Excellent again.

>Mystery Pinot Noir #3: “Just lovely … tobacco — lavender — roses — slate; macerated and roasted blue and red fruit; very dry, austere, briers and brambles, hints of sassafras and wheatmeal… years to go.”
A fairly paradoxical pinot noir, opening with tremendous sensual appeal and then, once you get into it, closing down and turning a blank, almost truculent visage to the drinker. Try in two or three years. Excellent but more in potential than present enjoyment.

It turned out that these wines were from Cuvaison, an all-estate producer specializing in chardonnay and pinot noir. The pinots I tasted — in this order, according to the way they were wrapped and numbered, 2007, 2005, 2006 — are from the winery’s Carneros estate in the Napa Valley. The winery was founded in 1969, near Calistoga, in the northern part of Napa. Cuvaison has been owned since 1979 by the Schmidheiny family of Switzerland. The wines have been marketed and nationally distributed since 1996 by Terlato Wines International (formerly Paterno). Winemaker is Steven Rogstad.

I was happy to discover that these beautifully balanced and proportioned pinots came from Cuvaison, because I blow distinctly hot and cold on the winery’s chardonnays, some of which I find unbearably overwrought. It’s interesting, or strange, that a producer is capable of making chardonnay in a manner so flamboyant and strident that my palate finds them undrinkable, and yet fashion pinots in a finely knit, elegant and spare style. Some mysteries are just unfathomable, I suppose.

So, again, here are the wines in the order of tasting: Cuvaison Point Noir 2007, 2005 and 2006, all Napa Valley, Carneros, all rate Excellent. The 2005 and ’06 are about $30; the 2007 is about $33.
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The Mongeard family has been making wine in Vosne-Romanée since the middle of the 18th Century. The domaine owns about 65 acres of village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards in Côte de Nuits, the northern part of Burgundy proper. These pinot noir wines tend to embody old-fashioned virtues like reticence, intensity and concentration, representing a sense of decorum and elegance, yet not neglecting sensible, even rigorous structure. The wines will be released at the end of 2009. They are imported by Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.
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The first words in my notes about the Mongeard-Mugneret Savigny-lès-Beaune Narbantons Premier Cru 2007 are “Lovely, sleek.” The bouquet teems with lilac and rose petals, smoke, black cherries and currants. This pinot noir is quite dry and earthy, packed with juicy black and red fruit flavors cloaked in soft grainy tannins and polished oak for an effect that’s high-toned and elegant. The domaine owns 1.39 hectares (3.57 acres) of the 9.49-hectare (24.38 acres) Narbantons vineyard. The vines average 53 years old. The wine sees about 35 percent new oak. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Very Good+. About $43.
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The Mongeard-Mugneret Echézeaux Grand Cru 2007 did not allow many ways in; it frankly rebuffed ingress by its formidably sizable and tannic character. What one perceives — or is allowed to perceive — is a sense of dark, immutable vibrancy and resonance coupled to a depth of rich spicy fruit that feels both inchoate and unfathomable. This needs years, say from 2013 or ’14 through 2019 to 2024. Echézeaux, at 96.8 acres, is by far the largest vineyard in the great and glorious commune of Vosnes-Romanée; Mongeard-Mugneret owns a hair over 7 acres. Excellent potential for the patient and well-heeled. About $98.
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This is the bouquet that you write love letters to, though they may be returned unopened, the bouquet that turns you into a stalker, a hopeless romantic and victim of obsessive love, finally flung into a sordid gutter, a dried-out, pathetic husk of your former self. Of course, you reveled in every moment of your seduction and degradation. And then comes the water-boarding of the tannins, the thwack of 100 percent new oak against your tongue, the impenetrable blackness of fruit, the unerring aim of drone acidity and yet — AND YET! — the wine’s structure is not only monolithic but balletic, elevated, ineffable, a model of pinpoint balance and poise. The wine is the Mongeard-Mugneret Grands-Echézeaux Grand Cru 2007, from a 23.5-acre vineyard of which Mongeard-Mugneret owns 3.7 acres. The vines are 40 to 68 years old. Enormous potential, but don’t touch until 2013 or ’15 and then consume until 2020 to ’25. About $163 (a bottle).
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