July 2009

For most of the time that I remember hanging around retail wine stores, going back decades, almost the only rosé wine available was Château d’Aqueria, usually languishing on some lower shelf because clerks in the store had no idea what to do with it and usually years beyond the vintage. “So, this is what French rosé tastes like, huh?” someone might have said in 1985, while sipping the d’Aqueria from, oh, 1979 that was gathering dust in some vinous Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

No more, because the rest of the world has caught up with Château d’Aqueria, and rosé wines are popping up from every country and many regions and from many producers who even five years ago would not have considered making a rosé were it not for an uptick in the wine’s popularity.

Among the intense — if that word is appropriate when the wine in question should be notable for fleetness and delicacy — I say, in the intense competition for the consumer’s attention, Château d’Aqueria, an estate founded in Tavel in 1595, can not only stand the heat, but it can kick many of the others out of the kitchen. The estate was purchased in 1920 by Jean Olivier; it is operated now by his son, Paul de Bez, and grandsons, Vincent and Bruno.

Five grapes make up the blend of Château d’Aqueria 2008, 50 percent grenache, 15 percent cinsault, 10 percent mourvèdre, which are red grapes, and 20 percent clairette and five percent bourboulenc, which are white; all are common in the southern Rhone Valley and are permitted, for example, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

D’Aqueria ’08 sports a radiant dark melon-light magenta color. A bouquet of strawberries and Rainier cherries is spiced with touches of cranberry, sour cherry candy and melon ball. In the mouth, this is lovely, sleek and smooth and refreshing, featuring deft balance between ripe, lithe cherry and plum flavors and vibrant acidity, with pretty heady intensity for a rosé. The wine finishes with a fillip of citrusy spice and limestone. Made completely in stainless steel, the wine sees no oak. Serve chilled. A perfect luncheon and picnic wine for the rest of this summer or the rest of the year. Excellent. About $19.

Imported by Kobrand Corp, New York.

Readers, I’ll be writing extensively about cabernet sauvignon wines from California throughout the next month, including a major post on classically proportioned wines from some old-line wineries; debut wines that I thought should be embraced or avoided; and caberets from a series of younger producers.

We start today with two wines from a small producer in the Red Hills district of Lake County, the county just north of Napa. Red Hills was approved as an AVA (American Viticultural Area) in September 2004. Lying at the foot of Mt. Konocti and along the southwest shore of Clear Lake, Red Hills is an appellation encompassed within the Clear Lake AVA.

Snows Lake Vineyard offers two wines, called, appropriately, One and Two.
The Snows Lake One 2005, Red Hills, Lake County, is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon. It ages 21 months in French oak, 64 percent new barrels. The bouquet offers an immediate burst of slate, lead pencil, cedar and tobacco leaf, smoky and toasty oak and hints of intense and concentrated black currants and black raspberries; given a few moments, the nose draws up touches of leafy, dried herbs, brambles and underbrush. All of these elements testify to the wine’s structural integrity and tannic power. In the mouth, though, Snows Lake One 2005 feels sleek and elegant; it’s packed with spice and black fruit flavors but it’s neither fleshy nor over-ripe. The wine gains depth and dimension in the glass, darkening, as it were, as more mineral, tannin and oaken qualities make themselves known. The finish concludes with another burst of spice and a wild high-note of foxy plums. This would be great with a crusty rib-eye steak just off the grill, but will drink best from 2010 or ’11 through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $45.
Snows Lake Two 2005, Red hills, Lake County, is a blend of 72 percent cabernet sauvignon and 28 percent cabernet franc. The oak treatment is slightly different; the same 21 months aging in French oak, but 46 percent new barrels. The alcohol level is slightly lower, Two having 14.2 percent and One measuring 14.5 percent, which seems to be the standard nowadays. The cabernet franc lends Two a bit of a darker color and perhaps its sense of being a little denser; certainly the cabernet franc also contributes to the wine’s intensity of licorice and lavender, its touch of astringency balanced by a cleansing element of blueberry tart. Two is compelling in its vibrancy and resonance and the concentrated of its spicy black fruit flavors, but the tannins are rigorous, and they seem to grow more powerful, and the mineral quality grows more forceful, as the minutes pass. Tasted side by side, these cousins reveal, as they should, similarities of place and grape variety as well as the divergences that derive from different intent and treatment. Give Two a little more time, say 2011 or ’12 through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $45.

I derive unseemly amusement from the pronouncements I read that the Fourth of July, our most important national holiday and ritual, requires hearty doses of “that All-American wine, zinfandel.”

Friends (and colleagues), zinfandel is about as American as figgy pudding. Or, to keep on topic, as American as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, syrah and, um, alicante bouschet, all grapes that came to the New World from Europe. Years of research and, more recently, cogent DNA testing revealed that zinfandel didn’t, like Topsy, just magically grow in North America. It’s the same grape as primitivo, which grows in Italy’s Pulgia region (and where it has been revived because of the interest in zinfandel wines made in California). Zinfandel/primitivo are related to — but are not the same as — the plavac mali grape of Dalmatia and the islands of Croatia. How American is that?

It’s true that the zinfandel grape reaches its apotheosis of greatness in certain parts of California, but the Golden State also provides zinfandels that plumb the depths of the grape’s weaknesses and Bad Boy attributes.

Anyway, go ahead and drink zinfandel on July the Fourth if you want, I don’t care, I might crack open a bottle myself if I can find an example that doesn’t overpower my pizza with cloying over-ripeness and towering alcohol — July 4th coincides with Pizza and Movie Night at our house — but if you really want to drink American, go to a farm or local winery and buy some scuppernog or muscadine wine. Thomas Jefferson may have brought fine European wines to these shores, but the common folk of the new country were drinking wine made from native grapes. They may be floral, they may be musky and foxy, they may be weirdly spicy, they may taste like sweet gasoline, but they’re All-American in a sense that zinfandel can never be. Nobody ever said it was easy to be American.

(O.K., just a sip. And don’t spit it out, you Europe-centric merlot-lovers.)

Inspiring patriotic image (modified) from flagamerican.net.
Muscadine grape image from appellationamerica.com, courtesy of Irwin-House Winery.

The last time I posted an entry in this series about the wines that I learned the most from — not necessary the best wines, though many are — I said that during the great educational year of 1984 the best wines were clearly the Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1970 and ’75 that I tasted on September 11. Well, I’m not unhappy to drink my words and say that I was wrong. There were too many “best” wines to name just one.

The wine I’m going to mention today constituted my introduction to great red Burgundy. I had tried a couple of red wines from Burgundy in 1983 and 1984 but hadn’t had much luck with the quality or the year. In fact, up until this point, the best wines I had tasted made from pinot noir grapes were from California: the Simi Pinot Noir 1974, Alexander Valley; a Beaulieu Pinot Noir 1979, Los Carneros; and an Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 1982, Santa Barbara County. Where, oh where, was I going to find a Burgundy that was like the wines I read about in books.

In Big John Grisanti’s cellar at home, that’s where.

I was at Big John’s house on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, Sept. 16, 2004, and he asked me where I thought my wine education was lacking. “Burgundy, as in pinot noir,” I said, explaining that the models I had tried didn’t seem real or authentic or very good, at least from what I had read. In Burgundy (Faber & Faber, 1982), Anthony Hanson writes: “A fine wine will have a lovely colour, an attractive bouquet, and the balance, flavour and smoothness to be expected of it. A great wine will have all these things, but in addition something that makes the pulse race, to make one exclaim: ‘How can it smell and taste like that? That is amazing!’ A fine wine may remind one of flowers or spices or fruits, but there is something animal, often something erotic about great Burgundy.” That’s what I wanted to experience.

“Well,” Big John said, “let’s look around and see what we can find,” and he perused the racks in the cellar, and this was a real underground wine cellar, big enough to hold thousands of bottles and 10 or 12 adults standing up. He pulled out a bottle, checked the fill — the level of wine in relation to the neck and shoulder of the bottle — blew off a little dust, and said, “This should do it.”

The wine was a Mercurey Clos des Myglands 1971 from the venerable house of Faiveley, founded in 1825 and still owned and operated by the family. Mercurey is the most prominent commune of the Côte Chalonnaise, south of Côte de Beaune and north of the Mâconnais and Beaujolais. The 15.59-acre Clos des Myglands vineyard, a Premier Cru, is a monopole for Faiveley, that is, a rare instance in which an entire vineyard in Burgundy is owned by one producer or domaine. Now one does not expect truly great wine from the Chalonnaise; one is gratified to be rewarded with authentic pinot noir suppleness and earthiness and fruit. While my experience in 1984 with great pinot noir, especially from the grape’s homeland of Burgundy, was close to nil, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of keen expectation while Grisanti pulled the cork from the bottle and poured the wine.

The color was medium ruby fading to brick red at the edges. The bouquet, well, how could I find the words? Autumn leaves, moss, smoke, loam; an immediate sense of delicacy bolstered by confidence; and then something bigger, richer, almost meaty. Lord have mercy! In the mouth, the wine was quite full, vibrant and intense, yet creating an impression (again) of delicacy, mellowness, suppleness and subtlety, a feeling of warm satin flowing through the mouth to a long, dense, flavorful finish.

Need I say more than this: That Big John Grisanti and I sat in his cellar and slowly savored every drop of this remarkable wine.

By the way, Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., has not imported the wines of Faiveley for years, that task having passed to Wilson Daniels.

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