November 2009

The pizza had a medley of marinated and sauteed mushrooms — oyster mushrooms, shiitakes, chanterelles, criminis — with applewood smoked bacon as primary toppings, with some sliced Roma tomatoes, green onions, thyme, rosemary and oregano and then mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Clearly a boldly flavored wine was required.

Filling that criteria with no problem whatever was the Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Shiraz 2008, from Australia’s Barossa Valley.

This is a rich, ripe, deeply saturated wine that bursts with black currant and blueberry scents and flavors imbued with a wealth of exotic spice, fruitcake notes, briers and brambles and granite-like minerals. Dauntingly dry but luscious and juicy, this shiraz comes close to being jammy, but its exuberance is just held in check by singeing (or singing) acidity and dense tannins that seem fathomless. Hints of brandied plum pudding and bitter chocolate draw in touches of lavender and licorice, all of which are etched on that circumference of pure earthy minerality. Oak is carefully done; the wine aged 12 months in hogsheads, that is to say large barrels, only 12 percent of which were new, so the effect is of tone and suppleness and resonance. There’s no denying the influence of 15.2 percent alcohol; innate ripeness and sweetness gather from entry to mid-palate, where they are subdued by immense tannins through the long, smooth, fruit-and-shale drenched finish. This is, in three words, quite a ride. Closed with a screw-cap for easy opening. Drink through 2012 to ’14. Excellent. About $25.

Imported by Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Illinois, which supplied this bottle as a sample for review.

One night last week, LL said, “Do we have a beer that’s not dark?” I understood her question. Sometimes one wants a beer that doesn’t partake of the full-bodied, lushly expressive, brusquely bitter character of a dark ale but something lighter, more immediately engaging; one want a lager.

I had purchased a couple of beers at Whole Foods from the Samuel Smith’s line, including the Organic Lager. Samuel Smith’s, founded in 1758 in the ancient market town of Tadcaster, is the oldest brewery in Yorkshire. Based on our experience with these examples of their craft, we’ll try more of Sam’s products.

I don’t remember what we drank the Samuel Smith’s Organic Lager with, but the beer was delicious. The color was a radiant light gold-amber, and it smelled cleanly and mildly of toasted oats (or barley, I suppose) and faintly of mint and roasted apples. This lager was beautifully fresh and clean in the mouth, a little earthy, and of course it finished with a bite of bracing, invigorating bitterness. It came in an 18.7-ounce bottle, which was perfect for two to share.

On Thanksgiving day, while we were cooking and cleaning, I said, “Let’s take a little lunch break.” I laid out a board with good British cheddar cheese, brown bread and some slices of salami and opened one of those big bottles of Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale, 2009-2010. Ah, what a reminder of simple pleasures and their ability to bring satisfaction to our lives, and with an ale that I would happily consume year-round. The color is medium-burnished amber, and after pouring, the head leaves a nice filigree around the rim of the glass. Properly robust and full-bodied, this ale partakes of a yeasty earthy wheaty/barley effect, with a touch of nutty spice cake and orange rind halfway through the mouth. The bitterness is deep and smooth and inviting. Yes, we liked this one, but as a brew neophyte, am I being too lenient? Myriad bloggers and posters to blogs are not so impressed.

LL made an interesting point, which she usually does in these matters.

When we think of the earthly effect and extent of wine, metaphorically speaking, we tend to visualize the depth of the vineyard, the soil, the subsoil, the reaching of roots underground toward rock-strewn strata. With beer and ale (and also with scotch) one thinks of surface extent, of vast fields, of wind and rain. Perhaps one could say that wine is a product of geology, while beer and ale are products of geography. Anyway, it all feels like that. As the late Levi-Strauss would say, “It tastes good to think that way.”

Samuel Smith’s products are imported by Merchant du Vin, Tukmila, Wash.

The numbers bruited on the website for Andeluna Cellars do not inspire confidence. Almost every page tells us that the winery in Argentina’s Mendoza Valley encompasses 48,000 square feet and that it harbors a 1 million-liter tank capacity, 720,000-bottle storage capacity and room for 1,200 aging barrels. This sort of statistical braggadocio seems so transparently American, as if the numbers and size so frequently mentioned would alone guarantee quality: “My factory is bigger than your factory, so I make better thingamabobs than you do.”

Fortunately, Andeluna, owned by H. Ward Lay, son of Frito-Lay founder Herman W. Lay, turns out well-made wines that are not only attractive in several ways but represent good value. In fact, the basic level wines, selling for about $10, are phenomenal bargains. Winemaker for Andeluna is Silvio Alberto.

Consultant for Andeluna is the ubiquitous traveling enologist Michel Rolland, owner of Le Bon Pasteur and other estates in Bordeaux and an advocate of new oak and ripe, fruit-forward red wines. Surprisingly, the Bordeaux-styled red wines of Andeluna, based primarily on cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec, are more restrained than the products of many of the estates for whom Rolland consults. The basic level of wines ages seven months in a combination of French and American oak barrels; the Reserve wines age 12 months in 80 percent French and 20 percent American oak. The flagship red-grape blend, Pasionado, aged 18 months in new French oak.

I suppose that everyone has noticed that author Salman Rushdie looks like Michel Rolland in disguise. I mean, take away some of Rolland’s hair, add eye-glasses with black frames and a scruffy beard, et voila! Separated At Birth.

Made in stainless steel, the Andeluna Torrontes 2008, Mendoza, presents a medium straw-gold color, a little more emphatic than most pale versions of the grape. Scents of waxy white flowers and lanolin are woven with pear and peach and a hint of spice. The texture is lovely, sensuous and almost lush but cut by startling acidity. Elements of chalk and limestone lend austerity that increases through the finish to end on a note of astringency that approaches harshness. This torrontes offers its pleasures but feels ultimately unbalanced. Good+ About $10

No such quibbles attend the rest of these wines, however much they may vary in particularity.

The Andeluna Merlot 2007, Tupungato, Mendoza, displays a radiant deep purple color and an intense pungency of black cherry, plums, smoke, dusty minerals, cassis and black pepper. Layers of shale and granite underlie spicy oak, grainy chewy tannins and the vivid thread of a vibrant acid backbone; the wine is deep and full-bodied, and while the emphasis is on structure, black fruit flavors with a tinge of red circulate in the depths. There’s 15 percent malbec in the blend. The alcohol level is 14.8 percent. Definitely try with lamb or veal chops. Very Good+. About $10, marking Good Value.

The Andeluna Malbec 2007, Tupungato, Mendoza, includes 11 percent cabernet sauvignon and 4 percent merlot. There’s a “lift” of sweet black fruit that smells slightly macerated, roasted and smoky. The wine is smooth, sleek and appealing, a little softer than its merlot cousin, though it certainly displays plenty of oak and tannic authority. After a few minutes in the glass, it feels freighted with plums and fraught with spice, while a sense of dusty minerality dominates the finish. The alcohol content is 13.9 percent. Very Good+. About $10, Good Value.

Spiced cherry, with classic hints of cedar, tobacco, bell pepper and black olives characterize the nose of the Andeluna Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Tupungato, Mendoza, factors that take on touches of briers and brambles and underbrush. Intense and concentrated flavors of black cherry and black raspberry are borne by a dry, earthy, gravelly nature supplemented by polished, spicy oak and dense, chewy tannins. The wine contains 8 percent merlot and 7 percent malbec; the alcohol level is 14.2 percent. Terrific personality for the price and a natural with steak and pork chops. Excellent. About $10, Great Value.

Now for the reserve red wines.

The Andeluna Reserve Merlot 2005, Tupungato, Mendoza, is warm and spicy, fleshy and meaty, with a tinge of tobacco leaf over shale-like minerals. This is a sturdy wine, yet supple and shapely and with impressive presence. Cassis and black raspberry flavors are permeated by lavender, licorice and potpourri, though the dominant influence is spicy, almost peppery wood. The alcohol content is 14.3 percent. Very attractive and good for grilled meat and roasts. Very Good+. About $20.

The Andeluna Reserve Malbec 2005, Mendoza, with 5 percent cabernet sauvignon, is similar to the merlot but a little spicier and a little more exotic, with wild berry, blueberry and mulberry scents and flavors and a hint of Asian spices, as well as the typical cassis and black cherry flavors. There are also touches of fruitcake and bitter chocolate in the depths, which circulate around grainy, chewy tannins and granite-like minerals touched with a piercing sense of iodine purity. Drink through 2014 to ’16, especially with barbecue or smoked duck. The alcohol level is 13.7 percent. Excellent. About $20, Great Value.

The most reticent of this trio of reserve wines is the Andeluna Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Tupungato, Mendoza. This is solid, almost block-like, as well as dusty, earthy and minerally, large-framed, very spicy, mouth-filling, packed with briers and brambles and filled with oak and tannin, of which one feels more here than with the Reserve Merlot ’05 and the Reserve Malbec ’05. Best from 2011 to 2015 or ’16. Until then, Very Good+. About $20.

Composed of cabernet sauvignon (35%), merlot (35%), malbec (20%) and cabernet franc (10%), the Andeluna Grand Reserve Pasionado 2004, Mendoza, is as good a rendition of the Medoc style as any wine coming out of Argentina. This exhibits classic traits of cedar and tobacco, bell pepper and black olive, with a hint of celery seed, all these nuances blended with cassis, black cherry, dried spice and flowers. This is a wine of immense gravity and dimension, yet despite its size, it conveys a sense of delicacy and decorum, of fine detail that does not suffer from the larger sense of structure. In fact, the balance among fruit, acid, wood and tannin in the Pasionada ’04 is exquisite. Don’t think, however, that I’m described anything winsome or wimpy; this is, actually, a tremendously dark, resonant, monumental red wine. The alcohol level is 14.1 percent. Drink through 2015 to ’17 with roasted meat and game or hearty stews. Excellent. About $50.

The Andeluna wines are imported by San Francisco Wine Exchange, San Francisco, Cal.
These wines were submitted to me as samples for review. No additional seductions or blandishments accompanied them.

One of the traditions maintained by “Big John” Grisanti was that the first time a guest visited his wine cellar at home, he or she could pick a bottle of wine to take with them. The task could be overwhelming, so on the occasion of my first visit, struck dumb by the choices, I allowed Grisanti to choose for me, at which prompting he handed me a bottle of Chateau Haut Brion 1975, a First Growth red wine from the Bordeaux region of Graves. I, in turn, gave the bottle to my (former) father-in-law as a housewarming present; he and my mother-in-law had just moved into a new house in East Memphis. (Now a widower, he still lives there, in his mid-90s every bit the gentleman he was raised to be.) He opened the wine for us to enjoy at the Thanksgiving dinner in November 1984.

Records of vines being cultivated at the estate of Haut Brion go back to 1423. The Pontac family built the chateau depicted on the label in 1550. In his diary entry for April 10, 1663, Samuel Pepys mentions a visit to the Royal Oak Tavern in London where “I drank a sort of French wine called Ho-Bryan which hath a good and most particular taste which I never before encountered…..” The estate went through several changes of ownership in the 18th and 19th centuries, and after a period of decline was purchased by the Dillon family in 1935.

Haut Brion was listed as a First Growth in the 1855 Classification of the wines of the Medoc. Whatever variations of quality and fortune it endured through the 20th Century, the estate has performed at the highest level of quality and consistency since 1975. The vineyards at Haut Brion are planted with 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 37 percent merlot and 18 percent cabernet franc; the proportion of grapes in each wine differs according to vintage conditions. The “second” wine of Haut Brion is Bahans Haut Brion. The estate also produces one of the region’s greatest white wines. Production of Chateau Haut Brion is about 11,000 cases annually; Bahans Haut Brion is about 7,300 cases and the blanc is 650 cases.

In Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine (Harcourt, 2002), the British auctioneer and writer gives 1975 a four star rating (out of five stars), though he calls the year “irregular” and “certainly interesting, not to say challenging.” His notes on Haut Brion 1975 are ambivalent, though he rather grudgingly comes around to liking the wine by 1995. Robert M. Parker Jr. calls the year “tricky,” with “the overall quality level … distressingly uneven and the number of failures … too numerous to ignore.” Yikes! Haut Brion 1975, however, Parker rates as “a great wine and one of the top dozen or so wines of the vintage.”

My impression of Haut Brion ’75, on Thanksgiving 1984? Here are my original notes: “A great wine. Surprising color, deep brown, like mahogany. Cedar nose, lead pencil, fruity, quite tannic, emerging fruit, exotic, dry but with an underlying core of succulent sweetness. Years to go.”

At the time, in Memphis, the Haut Brion ’75 sold for $100 to $110.

Well, today we don’t have a Bordeaux First Growth to grace the Thanksgiving board. Instead, there are three bottles of my standard Thanksgiving wine, the Ridge Three Valleys, Sonoma County, this from 2007. For this vintage, the blend is zinfandel (75%), petite sirah (8%), syrah (7%), grenache (6%) and carignane (3%). I also have a bottle of Trefethen Riesling 2007, Napa Valley, because I do like a riesling with the Thanksgiving feast. Some bottles of pinot noir — Morgan, Terlato, Sokol Blosser — await in case our guests’ tastes incline that way. All American wines, yes, because this is, after all, a great American celebration.

On the menu: Clementine-Salted Turkey with Redeye Gravy (a Matt and Ted Lee recipe); Sweet Potato Stuffing with Bacon and Thyme; Wild Mushroom-Collard Green Bundles; green beans, roasted carrots and bacon-topped cornbread. There’s a pumpkin pie for dessert, and a pear crisp with candied ginger. If anyone wants a dessert wine, I have a couple of vintages of Dolce and Beringer Nightingale on hand.

All of that should get the job done.

I hope that all of my readers partake of excellent food and excellent wine today, blessed with family and friends, and remember, while you’re at it, all of those who have neither food nor wine, family nor friends, and let us help them at all times of the year.

The account in The New York Times this morning of Barach and Michelle Obama’s first state dinner makes it sound glorious. Hey, we voted for the guy! Where was our invitation? My intent here, however, is to praise the wine choices for the meatless menu — in honor of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India — prepared by guest chef Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit. I don’t know who manages the White House wine cellar and oversees the wine served there, whether for the First Family or their guests, but in this case he or she did a great job.

Here is the menu with the wines:

>Potato and Eggplant Salad, White House Arugula with Onion Seed Vinaigrette. The wine: Modus Operandi Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Napa Valley.

>Red Lentil Soup with Fresh Cheese. The wine: Brooks “Ara” Riesling 2006, Willamette Valley.

>Roasted Potato Dumplings with Tomato Chutney, Chick Peas and Okra or Green Curry Prawns, Caramelized Salsify with Smoked Collard Greens and Coconut Aged Basmati. The wine: Beckmen Vineyards Grenache 2007, Santa Ynez.

>Pumpkin Pie Tart, Pear Tatin, Whipper Cream and Caramel Sauce. The wine: Thibaut Janisson Brut, Sparkling Chardonnay, Monticello.

Notice that the dinner is a weaving of culinary threads from Indian, African and the American South. Samuelsson took a bold step in including Indian ingredients and techniques; generally, it is considered undiplomatic and competitive to serve Indian cuisine to Indian statesman outside of their country.

Notice, too, the eclectic nature of the wines served at the dinner. Two are from different growing regions of California, one is from Oregon, and one is from Virginia, not far from the White House. The wineries are all small and family-owned; there’s nothing corporate or global here, just a reliance on artisan standards of production and quality. And perhaps the choice of a riesling for the lentil soup — how interesting is that? — will spur sales of that versatile but neglected variety. Certainly the wineries will benefit from the publicity.

This is what a pinot grigio should be, not a mouthful of bland, anonymous, vaguely citrusy stuff, but round, full-bodied, yet delicate, a wine of expressive elegance. I’m speaking of the Attems Pinot Grigio 2008, from Italy’s northeastern Collio region. (The estate goes back a thousand years.) The wine is dry, boldly crisp and lively, but close to creamy in the mid-palate — that means halfway back in its brief journey through your mouth; flavors of ripe and roasted lemons and lemon curd are bolstered by hints of apple and grapefruit, while a few minutes in the glass bring out a winsome floral element that’s both seductive and slightly astringent. An incredibly appealing and personable white wine. Excellent. About $18 to $20.
Imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Cal.

And as a note about a wine that’s Worth a Search over the next month or so, the Masi Masianco 2007, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, is still widely available, though the 2008 version is now shipping to this country and can be found in a few markets. A blend of 75 percent pinot grigio and 25 percent verduzzo grapes, the Masianco ’07 is one of the most deliriously seductive and buoyant wines I have tripped across in a long time. The bouquet teems with heady notes of jasmine and acacia, orange rind and tangerine, lemon and lemon curd, quince and crystallized ginger. In the mouth, it combines lemony-citrus flavors with cloves, a hint of dried herbs and damp gravel. The finish is delicately spicy. Pretty as all get-out. Very Good+. About $16 and often found now on discount.
Also imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners.

Both wines tasted at a trade event.

As promised.

No need to make a big deal about the Melini Chianti Borghi d’Elsa 2008, Toscana. It’s a quaffable little trattoria wine, bright, fresh and fruity and decently spicy with galloping acidity to jazz up the red and black cherry and plum flavors. The finish is packed with briers and brambles, leaving an impression of rusticity that doesn’t edge over to the roughneck. Made in stainless steel, the wine is a classic Chianti blend of sangiovese (85%), canaiolo nero (10%), malvasia (3%) and trebbiano (2%). Wines like this have an agreeable slot in the repertoire; slug it down with grilled cheese sandwiches and pizzas. Good+. About $8.
Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.

Let the Falset 2005, from Spain’s Montsant region, breathe for an hour before drinking to let some rollicking funkiness blow off, unless you’re into rain-drenched mushrooms and well-nurtured mulch, which when you think about it, sound pretty evocative. After that opening up, you’ll find a wine whose individuality gives $11 wines a good name. Made in stainless steel from 50 percent grenache and 30 percent carignan — both grape varieties from 100-year-old vineyards — and 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, Falset ’08 offers distinctly ripe and spicy black and red currant, blueberry and blackberry scents and flavors that grow more macerated and roasted in the glass. This is a wine that doesn’t hesitate to tip-toe onto the exotic side, as the spicy element expands and brings with it hints of potpourri, violets and lavender, a bit of fruitcake, a backwash of granite-like minerality. Very good, and a Bargain at about $11, which is what I paid for it.
Ole Imports, Manhasset, New York.
Montsant — “holy mountain” — became an official designated wine region in 2001. It surrounds, on three sides, the better-known Priorat region, southwest of Barcelona. The landscape is hilly and rugged, the climate generally Mediterranean.

Badia a Coltibuono, the thousand-year-old producer of Chianti Classico and other wines in Tuscany, offers an easy-drinking yet nicely complicated red wine in its Cancelli Rosso 2008, Toscana, a blend of 70 percent sangiovese and 30 percent syrah made all in stainless steel (and with a spiffy new label). The color is a compelling deep purple with a tint of magenta at the rim; the bouquet combines red and black cherries and plums with smoke, black pekoe tea, cloves and dried orange rind. Flavors of red and black currants are highlighted by strains of dried meadow flowers, wild berries and moderately dusty tannins. It’s the sort of wine you could drink all night, as long as the pizza and pasta keep coming to the table. The alcohol level is a modest 12.5 percent. Drink through the end of 2010. Very Good. About $11, a Great Value.
Imported by Dalla Terra, Napa, Cal.

For the day after Thanksgiving, with those turkey samosas and turkey burritos, open the Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages 2008, an emblematic Beaujolais-Villages — 100 percent gamay grapes — for its brightness and appealing nature. The lovely bouquet is a wreathing of black currants and black raspberries woven with lavender and violets and intriguing notes of slightly tarry earthiness. That hint of gravity, a pulling of the wine toward dark depths, lends some character, a combination of firmness and winsomeness, to the delicious attraction of spicy black currant and mulberry flavors. The wine is quite dry, lively with acidity — that’s part of its “brightness” — and even a bit foresty and brambly on the finish. Charming and versatile and far better than the Beaujolais Nouveau that’s stacked in all the retail stores now. Very Good+ and Great Value at about $12.
Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y.

Here’s a primitivo for those weary of having their tongues tromped on by farmers’ brogans. In other words, Castello Monaci Pilùna Primitivo 2007, Salento, from Italy’s Boot-heel, is robust without being rustic and a little rowdy without being roughshod. Ripe black currant, blueberry and plum scents and flavors are packed with dried flowers, baking spices and smoke; the chewy texture is composed of dense, briery tannins and dusty, granite-like minerals framed by exuberant acidity. After a few minutes in the glass, notes of black pepper and oolong tea sneak in. Aged in a combination of French barriques and stainless steel tanks, the Pilùna Primitivo 2007 is solid, well-made, tasty stuff, well-suited to the lamb shank pizza with which we drank it on a recent Pizza-and-Movie Night. Very Good+. About $13, Good Value.
Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.

Like a good-natured puppy looking for companionship and affection, the Wagtail Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Coonawarra, South Australia, just can’t help being upfront about its virtues. Yep, if this wine could lick your face with its big, rich, jammy black currant, cherry and raspberry scents and flavors, it damned well would. The texture is dense and chewy, almost port-like, and the intense and concentrated fruit is permeated with smoke, potpourri, new leather and an iodine-like minerality. Then, as many canines do, it turns all canny and ambiguous, finishing with a dry bite of austerity fueled by briery-brambly tannins. Quite a package. Very Good. About $13, Good Value. O.K., O.K., the wagtail is a bird, not a dog, I know that.
Imported by The Country Vintner, Ashland, Va.

Whoa, the Kamiak Rock Lake Red 2007, Columbia Valley, Washington, delivers one of the most audaciously fragrant bouquets ever to have crossed the portals of my nostrils. (Actually, nostrils are portals, n’est-ce pas?) An exhilarating zephyr of clove, cinnamon and licorice Necco Wafers, lavender, dust, cedar and juniper, black currants and plums wafts from the glass. After this heady panoply, the wine settles down to a proper (and not very exciting) sort of display of spicy oak — 16 months French and American oak barrels –equally spicy black fruit flavors; dusty, chewy tannins; and a fairly austere finish. The combination of grapes here is cabernet sauvignon (44%), merlot (26%), syrah (25%) and malbec (5%), a kind of but not exactly Bordeaux blend, because of the syrah. Attractive and drinkable, this is not quite the bargain, at its price, as its sister wine, the Kamiak Windust White 2008 is at $10. Very Good. About $15.

It’s interesting and puzzling that the Three Loose Screws division of Don Sebastiani & Sons would offer pinot noir wines from two of its labels at the same price, $15. Isn’t that working against each other? Or is there some marketing kink here that I’m not comprehending? The wines are Flock by Smoking Loon Pinot Noir 2008, Monterey County, and Aquinas Pinot Noir 2007, Napa Valley. The alcohol level of each wine is 13.5 percent. Production of the Flock Pinot Noir ’08 is 5,400 cases; for the Aquinas Pinot Noir ’07 it’s 27,000 cases.

Flock by Smoking Loon Pinot Noir 2008, Monterey, offers beguiling aromas of black cherry, cranberry and rhubarb highlighted by lilac and rose petal, a mossy/leather element and a touch of sweet earthiness. The wine is quite dry, a little brambly and briery, yet the texture is sleekly satiny, and the black and red fruit flavors carry through to the spicy, woody finish. Very Good. About $15.
Do look for the Flock Old Vine Zinfandel 2007, Dry Creek Valley, which I made a Wine of the Week three months ago.

On the other hand, the Aquinas Pinot Noir 2007, Napa Valley, is a darker, spicier pinot, less floral, more dense and chewy; hints of new leather and underbrush underlie black currant and plum flavors that feel macerated and roasted. This pinot delivers more dimension and persistence than its stablemate, but it, too, earns a Very Good rating from me. I enjoyed several aspects of each of these pinot noirs, but altogether, they lack the few degrees of personality that would make them more compelling. About $15. This is the new, more dignified label for the Aquinas line.

Three Loose Screws also produces these labels: Pepperwood Grove, The Crusher, Mia’s Playground, Screw Kappa Nappa, B Side and Used Automobile Parts.

You don’t expect the elegance and balance from a cabernet that’s the price of the Josh Amber Knolls Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Red Hills, Lake County. (“Amber Knolls”? Isn’t that the name of the girl you met that night at the Donkey Island Club?) Anyway, this cab, made by Joseph Carr, offers ripe and smoky black currant and black cherry flavors that are dense with spice and minerals and enlivened with acidity that practically glitters. A firm foundation of polished oak and grainy tannins ensures a solid yet supple structure. Sounds just all right, so far, perhaps, like a hundred other inexpensive cabernets, but what is almost unaccountable is this cabernet’s sense of purpose and confidence, an expression of liveliness and engagement that is rare at the price. It made me happy to drink it. Very Good+. About $15, a Great Bargain.

Rancho Zabaco is one of Gallo’s great success stories, though I am not as fond of the winery’s second and less expensive label, Dancing Bull; “less expensive” is a relative term, since the Rancho Zabaco wines usually represent good value. The Rancho Zabaco Sonoma Heritage Vines Zinfandel 2007, Sonoma County, teems with spicy, floral-inflected black currant and blueberry scents that carry threads of boysenberry and black cherry. That black fruit and its inherent spiciness sustain themselves in flavor too, nestled in a dense and chewy texture shot through with lively acidity. Notes of coffee and bitter chocolate, brambles and shale-like minerals round out the long, plump finish. A delicious, classically-proportioned zinfandel that would be terrific with Thanksgiving dinner. Very Good+. About $18, but found on the Internet as low as $14.

Masi created the Campofiorin brand in 1964, capitalizing on the ripasso method of fermenting grapes on the skins or pomace of previously fermented wine, giving the resulting product a deep jolt of juiciness and luscious fruit. So, the Masi Campofiorin 2006, Rosso del Veronese, a blend of corvino (70%), rondinella (25%) and molinara (5%), is indeed deep and dark and flavorful, while being, also, notably clean and fresh. Spiced and macerated black and red cherries dominate the nose, adding touches of orange rind and smoky oolong tea as the moments pass. A dusty mineral-like character permeates flavors of black cherries, currants and plums that become spicier and more exotic, as moderate tannins shaded with mossy, foresty elements dominate the finish. Drink with roasts, game and hearty pasta dishes. Very Good+. About $18, but seen on the Internet as low as $15.
Imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Cal.

We never drink liqueurs. They’re too sweet, thick and cloying. Oh, there are ancient bottles of Grand Marnier and B & B in the back of the liquor cabinet, bought because we needed two tablespoons in a dessert of some kind and then forgotten, but if we’re going to sip something after dinner, we want it to be port with cheeses or a tipple of single malt scotch or something bracing like Amaro Nonino.

I was at a trade tasting a couple of days ago, however, and was offered a decent portion of Belle de Brillet liqueur, the blend of Williams pears and cognac from the venerable Maison Brillet, a family-owned cognac producer since 1850.

Smooth as silk and mildly honeyed in sweetness, Belle de Brillet offers the essence of pears. (Twenty pounds of pears go into each 750 milliliter bottle.) Think first of a fresh pear, juicy and flavorful; then consider a spiced and macerated pear, roasted with white wine and thyme; then ponder an oven-dried pear, intense and concentrated. Somehow Belle de Brillet manages to capture and balance every nuance of these aspects of a pear’s useful transformations. The cognac base of Belle de Brillet provides subtle touches of toffee and orange rind and distant back-notes of toasted almonds and woody spice. Truly lovely, comforting stuff, so much so that I did what one is not supposed to do at a trade event, where people are seriously working the floor; I held out my glass and said, “Uh, may I have some more, please?” Excellent. About $42.

Imported by A. Hardy USA, Des Plaines, Illinois.

Image from

The Jackson Estate “Vintage Widow” Pinot Noir 2008, from New Zealand’s Marlborough Region, is more expensive than the typical Wine of the Week, but it’s the wine I was most excited about (under $30) over the past few days, so here it is. The Jackson Estate is owned by John Stichburg, the fifth generation of his family to farm the same land along the Wairau River. He planted vines in 1987 and produced the first wines in 1991. The property has no connection with Jess Jackson’s Jackson Family Wines in California.

Great pinot noir wines embody certain qualities: a combination of delicacy, elegance and power; a satiny texture balanced with acidity that plows the palate the way a keel parts the waves; red and black fruit flavors that ride atop a clean, rooty earthy factor. Whatever the inevitable regional variations inherent in the vineyards of the Cote de Nuits, the Santa Lucia Highlands or the Willamette Valley, or in Marlborough or Central Otago in New Zealand, these are the elements that prevail, and the Jackson Estate “Vintage Widow” Pinot Noir 2008 has them in spades.

The color is a dark but almost translucent purple with a blue shimmer at the rim; a bouquet of cranberry, mulberry and smoky black cherry unfolds strata of cloves and allspice and mossy earthiness. With a texture that drapes the mouth like satin — but lightly, sensitively! — the wine offers lovely heft and suppleness, enlivened by blade-like acidity. Black cherry and plum flavors are imbued with soft chalky minerality that leads to a long, subtly spicy finish. One of the most elegant and expressive pinot noirs I have tasted. Winemaker for Jackson Estate is Mike Paterson. Excellent. About $32.

Imported by Avanti Fine Wine Selections, Lafayette, Cal.

Number 25 in this chronicle, one-quarter the way through. At this rate, it will take six more years. I’ll try to move along more speedily.

Now, this, friends, is a wine label. For about a decade, the Chateau Lagrange 1926, from Bordeaux’s Left Bank commune of St.-Julien, was the oldest wine I tasted. I encountered in it October 1984 (I didn’t record the day) at a special dinner at American Harvest, a restaurant in Germantown, a municipality abutting Memphis on the east, owned by John Grisanti and helmed by his son-in-law, Peter Katsotis. The event was organized and hosted by Ed Chidester, then owner of Mt. Moriah Wine & Liquors in Memphis, a store where I regularly went looking for unusual wines.

It constantly amazed me at the time, and was a source of gratification, that even though I had been writing my newspaper wine column only for three months that doors were continually being opened, giving me the opportunity to try all sorts of wines. This was largely due to my new association with “Big John” Grisanti, who promoted me, nurtured me, educated me and, yes, badgered and browbeat me.

I also didn’t record what courses were presented at this dinner, so I can’t tell you what the 58-year-old wine was paired with. It was, not surprisingly, fully mature. A bit of mustiness blew off after a few minutes, and the wine, which displayed a modestly diminished garnet color, stood up like a soldier with a complement of dried spices, that St.-Julien signature of cedar and tobacco, and gently macerated and fading red and black fruit flavors over some mossy earthiness, before making an honorable retreat. What a treat!

Ownership records for Chateau Lagrange go back to 1631. The Bordeaux Classification of 1855 ranked Lagrange as a Third Growth, at which time the estate consisted of about 700 acres. The Cendoya family bought the estate in 1925 and sold it to Suntory in 1983; by then, the property had been reduced to about 392 acres, and the quality of the wine had been in decline for decades. Suntory spend million of dollars upgrading the estate and the facilities and replanting vineyards.

The label from 1926 is a work of art, of its kind, clearly based on late Renaissance models of printmaking craftsmanship. Notice how the pair of soldiers-at-arms is carefully differentiated, from their armor and helmets and plumes to their magnificent mustaches and beards. A riot of typefaces and curlicues, the image is indeed busy, but elegant and authoritative for all its doodads and devices. By comparison, the contemporary label is bland and generic.

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