Thu 25 Feb 2010
Founded in 1978, Renaissance Vineyard & Winery turns out unfortunately minute qualities of Bordeaux- and Rhone-style wines that are sterling examples of individuality, integrity, restraint and frankly old-fashioned appeal. Old-Fashioned? Winemaker Gideon Beinstock uses minimal new oak and keeps alcohol levels low, as in generally between 12 and 14 percent. No commercial yeasts are employed and red wines are neither fined nor filtered; the vineyard now is completely organic. He also holds some of the cabernet sauvignon wines for extraordinary lengths of time before releasing them, as in 12 years for the Premier Cuvée cabernets. The winery is in Oregon House, about 70 miles north of Sacramento, in the North Yuba region of the Sierra Foothills; the vineyards lie at elevations of 1,700 to 2,300 feet. If you’re looking for wines that embody the antithesis of the over-ripe, over-oaked, high-alcohol fruit bombs still fashionable today, you need to search for the wines of Renaissance.
We’ll look today at Renaissance cabernets released in 2008 and 2009 (and one white wine after them). These were samples submitted for review.
The blend in the Renaissance Premier Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon 1996, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, is 77 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent merlot, 11 percent cabernet franc; the alcohol level is an eminently sane 12.6 percent. This smooth, mellow but rigorously structured cabernet opens with classic and seductive scents of black pepper, licorice, black cherry and cedar. The wine spent two years in — you have to admire this forthright expression — “old oak barrels,” of German, French and American origin, so the effect of the wood is engaging shapeliness and suppleness, while grenadier-like acidity keeps a keen eye on appealing vibrancy and vitality. In the mouth, flavors of plums and dried red and black currants are packed with potpourri and dried spice and a hint of an earthy, granite-like minerality that expands into the slightly austere finish. 380 cases produced. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $45.
The Renaissance Claret Prestige 1996, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, is composed of less cabernet sauvignon (63%) than the Premier Cuvée ’96, more merlot (25%) and almost the same amount of cabernet franc (12%). Oak aging — 23 months — is a smidgeon shorter. Alcohol is also 12.6 percent. The color is radiant medium to dark ruby with a tinge of light brick-red at the rim. The bouquet is rich and ripe with currants and plums, roasted and fleshy, displaying touches of ground walnuts and walnut shell. Dense, dusty, chewy tannins along with a tremendous backbone of acidity lend the wine plenty of structure, while mossy, forest-floor-like elements provide support of flavors of macerated red and black currants and black cherries freighted with what seems like all the savory dried spices in your cabinet. 390 cases. A great achievement for drinking from 2011 through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $40.
The Renaissance Library Release Cabernet Sauvignon 1995, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, was originally issued in September 1999 and then re-released in May 2009.The blend is a fairly straightforward 86 percent cabernet sauvignon and 14 percent merlot, but there’s nothing ordinary about the wine. The color is deep brick-red with a hint of garnet at the rim. Swirl the glass and take a sniff; the rich, warm bouquet is saturated with spice and dried flowers and black currants, cherries and plums seemingly macerated for a lifetime in spiced brandy. Solid, dusty and slightly gritty tannins give some indication as to the motivation for putting this wine on the market again; a decade ago it must have been formidable, and indeed from mid-palate back through the finish, this cabernet picks up dry underbrushy austerity. Best from 2012 through 2015 to ’20. How great this would be with a roasted game bird, though I typically drank a couple of glasses with a particularly hearty cheese toast. Excellent. About $50.
Released in May 2009 in a quantity of 830 cases — you understand that’s a huge production for this winery — the Renaissance Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2001, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, is a blend of 75 percent cabernet sauvignon, 22 percent merlot and 3 percent cabernet franc and syrah. Aging was up to 18 months in used French, German and American oak barrels; the alcohol level is 13.6 percent. The wine is ravishing. The clean, fresh, perfectly defined bouquet offers spiced and macerated black currants, mulberries and blueberries wreathed with smoke, cedar and tobacco and an edge of dusty, flinty minerality. In the mouth, this cabernet is smooth and mellow but no wimp; as usual with the red wines of Renaissance, the dimensionality of dense, dusty tannins dominates but does not overwhelm the rich warmth of wonderfully proportioned red and black fruit flavors that seem slightly fleshy and feral, with a fillip of wild berry. Best from 2012 or ’14 through 2018 or ’20. Excellent. About $45.
Here’s a note on a white wine from Renaissance that I tasted back in the Summer but neglected to write about.
The Renaissance Carte d’Or 2008, Sierra Foothills, is a blend of 70 percent semillon and 30 percent sauvignon blanc, aged six months in “neutral German oak ovals,” meaning large old German barrels. Few white wines made in California smell or taste like this one. The color is medium gold with a faint green highlight. Aromas of roasted lemon, lemon balm, dried rosemary and thyme with that dried herbal dustiness, smoke and pine resin dominate the nose; the wine is very spicy and lively in the mouth, very dry, quite austere with a tremendous foundation of limestone and chalk minerality under notes of fig, gooseberry and lemon and lime peel all enfolded in the sort of sunny leafiness I expect from dry semillon. Wow, quite a performance and probably capable of aging through 2012. Try with seared trout or swordfish. Excellent. About $20, which would be a Bargain of the Century except that Beinstock made only 58 cases.
With your indulgence, I’ll append my review of this wine in its manifestation of 2007, so you can see the differences that vintages and proportions make, and notice how much more of the wine Beinstock made in ’07:
LL called the Renaissance Carte d’Or 2007 “a gift to vegetarians,” and indeed the wine’s striking fruity, herbal nature would make it appropriate for all sorts of vegetable-based dishes, including risottos (which don’t have to be made with chicken broth) and pastas. The wine is a blend of 60 percent semillon grapes and 40 percent sauvignon blanc that ages six months in neutral German oak ovals. It opens with herbal-grassy scents with touches of apples and figs and smoky dried pear. Carte d’Or ‘07 is very dry, spare, clean, crisp and tart without being citrusy (read: no grapefruit), and it brings up hints of celery, ginger and melon, a bit of riesling-like honeyed peach, a wafting of jasmine. Don’t mistake this for an aperitif wine; it’s too serious, too thoughtful for that blithe purpose. Drink through the end of 2009. Production is 258 cases. Excellent. About $20.
Tue 23 Feb 2010
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under Wine of the Week  Comments
Heated up some leftover turkey and hominy chili with chipotles last night and casting around for a bottle of wine to open, I came across the Prazo de Roriz 2007 from the Douro Valley in Portugal. While it may be an exaggeration to say that table wines will be the saving of the Douro, it’s true that Vintage Porto, while highly lauded in every quarter, is a specialized product, and even more accessible and less expensive renditions, like Late Bottled Vintage and Reserve Portos, are misunderstood and unappreciated in the wider sphere. When producers in the Douro began making table wines from traditional port grapes about 20 years ago, a revolution in style, marketing and revenue was born; many of these producers are offering splendid red wines now, some of which, inevitably, dwell at the more prestigious rungs of the fiduciary ladder. Everyone aspires to greatness, though plenty of cheaper, more readily drinkable products are on hand.
One of these is the Prazo de Roriz 2007. The wine is made at Quinta de Roriz, an estate that dates back to the mid 18th Century and that occupies a stunning vista of steep hillsides along one of the most picturesque stretches of the Douro River. (I was in the Douro last September.) The breakdown of grapes in the wines is touriga nacional (40%), touriga franca (25%), tinta barocca (21%), tinta roriz (12%) and tinto cão (2%). The wine aged seven months in French oak.
Now if the chili had been slightly hotter — it contains two tablespoons of chili powder, a diced jalapeño and two minced chipotles in adobo sauce — the wine would not have worked, but its robust structure and big creamy aromas and flavors of macerated and spiced black currants, black cherries and plums made a fine match. Contributing to this wine’s engaging personality are touches of leather, moss and earth, an element of dried red and black currants, all sustained by vibrant acidity, and an edge of granite-like minerality that penetrates from the finish forward, where you start to feel a little wood and woody spice. Also try with hamburgers and steaks, braised short ribs and barbecue brisket or a hearty beef stew. Drink now through 2012. Very Good+. About $16 or $17.
Imported by Premium Port Wines, San Francisco. A review sample.
Just for the hell of it, I opened a bottle of beer to try with the chili. This was the Dogfish Head Raison d’Étre, brewed with “Belgian beer sugars, green raisins and a sense of purpose” by the well-known, eccentric craft brewery in Milton, Delaware. I’m here to tell you that this brew could certainly give one a purpose in life, though it’s not a deep, dark, thudding model; it is, in fact, surprisingly thoughtful. The color is medium ruddy amber. The nose is clean, fresh and appealing, though with an autumnal tinge of damp earth and mushrooms. It’s quite dry initially, with thrilling balance between fruitiness, acidity and bitterness. There’s baking spice, something a little gingery with a touch of root beer, followed by a hint of raisiny sweetness and the cleansing astringency of peach stone. Quite a beer — I’m sipping from a glass now, as I write these words — and one that achieves its effects largely through a layering of nuance rather than hitting you over the head. About $2.75 at a local store.
Sun 21 Feb 2010
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under The Chronicle  Comments
On May 29, 1985, we attended a dinner hosted by Les Amis du Vin at Grisanti’s East, “Big John” Grisanti’s restaurant in Germantown, the city that abuts Memphis to the east. Fifty years ago, Germantown was mainly horse farms, with one intersection where the old town was. Even in the 1970s, it seemed as if it took forever to drive from Midtown Memphis to Germantown, and what is now Germantown Road, a six-lane thoroughfare lined with fast-food emporiums, shopping centers and malls and office buildings, was a two-lane highway that ran north and south between cotton fields.
Anyway, it’s possible that in a box in the attic I have a menu from this dinner, but all I show in my wine label notebook is one label and description, and these are for Chateau La Tour Blanche 1976, Sauternes Premier Cru Classe, served in half-bottles with frogs’ legs sauteed in butter with a hazelnut sauce. The match was a stroke of genius on the part of chef Peter Katsotis (Big John’s son-in-law) and whoever provided the wine.
Here are my notes from that night: “A remarkable pairing — this wine with frogs’ legs cooked in butter & nut sauce — surprisingly, it worked. Medium gold color — Buttered toast nose, fruity, touch of raisin; beautifully balanced, not as sweet as I had expected, more mellow and round, lingering sweetness on the tongue and throat, subdued.”
In The New Great Vintage Wine Book (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), a revised and expanded version of The Great Vintage Wine Book of 1982, Michael Broadbent records tasting what sound like remarkable bottles of La Tour Blanche
from 1869 (Broadbent gave this five stars in 1892; the wine was 113 years old!); 1899 (three stars in 1981); 1900 (three stars in 1989); 1904 (three stars in 1985); 1921 (“perfection” and five stars in 1987) and so on. With more recent vintages, however, that is, in the 1970s and ’80s, Broadbent’s notes are more circumspect and ambivalent. As Robert M. Parker Jr. writes in the third edition of Bordeaux (Simon & Schuster, 1998), “Since 1910 the Ministry of Agriculture has run La Tour Blanche and until the mid-1980s seemed content to produce wines that at best could be called mediocre.”
And there was I, at this dinner in 1985, wowed by a glass of La Tour Blanche ’76 and a dish of frogs’ legs. Did I know what the hell I was doing? Who knows? I remember, however, 25 years later, how thrilling the experience was, how risky and satisfying the combination seemed and still does.
And just so you don’t get the idea that back in 1985 I was swanning around all the time trying great Bordeaux and Burgundy at tasting events and dinners, here’s a list of some of the wines we drank at home in April and May that year:
<>Shadow Creek Brut nv, Sonoma County.
<>Columbia Cabernet Sauvignon 1082, Yakima Vally.
<>Mirassou White Zinfandel 1984, Monterey County. (!!!!!)
<>Chateau de La Chaize Brouilly 1983.
<>Cribari Extra Dry California Champagne. (!!!!!)
<>Clos du Bois Merlot 1980, Napa Valley.
<>Petri American Burgundy nv (!!!!!)
Always the reckless experimenter, eh?
Thu 18 Feb 2010
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under Best Wines
, California  Comments
I mentioned in a previous post that I bought three bottles of wine at a fundraiser silent auction, thinking I was merely helping to boost the bidding for a worthy cause, but ended up buying the wines. Lucky me.
Well, it turns out that at least with the first wine we opened, we were lucky.
A few nights ago, we took the Cakebread Cellars Merlot 2002, Napa Valley, to Bari, one of our favorite restaurants in town, where we had, as usual, a simple and wonderful Italian meal. While we had glasses of the Costamolino Vermentino di Sardegna with the first courses — sauteed calamari with tomatoes, garlic and black olives; grilled octopus with grapefruit and red onion — the Cakebread Merlot ’02 stood sentinel-like on the table, waiting silently to perform; I mean, I wish I possessed an iota or two of this wine’s confidence and aplomb. LL ordered pork osso buco for the main course and I elected to have the spaghetti carbonara.
The wine was made by Julianne Laks, who had been assistant winemaker under Bruce Cakebread until he became the winery’s president in 2002, succeeding his father Jack Cakebread, who retired that year, so ’02 was the first vintage Laks had complete control over. Cakebread Merlot ’02 includes 7 percent cabernet sauvignon. The grapes are 42 percent Carneros and 58 percent “mid-valley,” which one assumes means Rutherford, where the winery is located. The wine aged 18 months in French oak, 45 percent new. The alcohol level is 14.9 percent.
The Cakebread Merlot 2002 sports a dark, radiant ruby-purple color, a bit inky at the center. The bouquet is a beguiling, almost delirious weaving of cassis, black cherry, dusty lavender, dried thyme and crushed gravel, with a hint of black olive. At a few months more than seven years old, the wine is poised on the cusp of youthful, brooding intensity and wildness — there’s something almost feral about it — and serene equilibrium and elegance. Black fruit flavors are rich, ripe and intense, though tempered by polished oak, subtle and supple, and dense, pervasive tannins. Here’s a merlot that gives the lie to every bland, generic merlot you’re had from California; the Cakebread ’02 embodies wonderful presence, tone and character, and if you have any in your cellar or closet or that box under your bed, you’re a lucky duck. A great experience. Best from 2011 or ’12 through 2015 or ’16. Remember, I bid on this at a silent auction for a nonprofit organization, so I think I paid a generous $75. Not bad, actually, considering the prices of Cakebread wines nowadays.
Wed 17 Feb 2010
LL teaches on Tuesday nights in the Spring semester, so dinner duty falls to me. It’s a good opportunity to try new dishes, some of which are all right — the green lentil curry was O.K. if you like hippie commune food circa 1968 — and several of which are keepers.
A definite keeper is the Pan-Roasted Chicken with Citrus Sauce, from the January issue of Food & Wine magazine. The recipe is a simplified version of the dish created by chef John Sedlar at Rivera in Los Angeles. According to the article, Sedlar uses “a range of citrus, including Cara Cara oranges, blood oranges and pomelos,” though “the dish is just as delicious with a simple mix of navel oranges and limes.” Blood oranges would have been good, but we don’t see them in markets here until late April. And, I’m here to tell you that segmenting a lime is about as easy as picking the white off rice. Even navel oranges don’t segment that easily; they tend to shred. Satsumas, on the other hand — Citrus unshia, formally speaking — peeled and separated easily and beautifully. They’re in the foreground on the accompanying image; the frowsy-looking navel segments are in back, hiding behind the chicken. As you can see, I served the dish with a little farfalle pasta, to soak up the
Anyway, this is a terrific, intensely flavored dish, and LL heartily approved.
To drink with the Citrus Chicken, I opened a bottle of the Hugel & Fils Pinot Blanc Cuvée Les Amours 2006, from Alsace. Nothing mysterious or obscure here; Hugel’s Cuvée Les Amours Pinot Blanc is widely known and, in this house, admired. The 2006, with three years on it, delivers a muscat-like floral-oily musky-funkiness that immediately draws you, delicately yet inevitably, into its sensuous and slightly outré precincts. The wine is loaded with notes of roasted lemon and lemon curd, smoked orange rind and lime peel, cloves and ginger, all stretched upon taut strings of bright acidity that keep it fresh and vibrant. Just lovely, for drinking through 2011 or ’12, well-stored. Excellent and Great Value at about $17.
Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.
A review sample.
Last night’s Pasta alla Norma came from Jamie’s Italy (Hyperion, $34.95), a very engaging book by Jamie Oliver. This was a real winner on any scale of judgment or comparison. The preparation is pretty simple. You fry small skin-on slices of eggplant sprinkled with dried oregano in olive oil until golden brown — and I’m here to tell you that golden brown segues to black ‘n’ burned really quickly — then add some dried red chili, sliced garlic, finely chopped basil stems, a dollop of white vinegar — I used agrodolce — let that cook for a bit and then pour in a can of diced tomatoes and the juice. Give it 10 or 15 minutes to simmer and throw in some basil. Add the pasta and a little of the pasta water. Garnish with more basil, some grated pecorino and crumbles of salted ricotta. This was seriously great and intense, and I have a feeling that I’ll be cooking it fairly often.
Here I opened a bottle of the Easton Wines Zinfandel 2008, Amador County. What a classic of zinfandel purity and faceted completeness! The wine is rich and succulent, deeply spicy and flavorful yet restrained and balanced by a structure that’s stalwart and rugged without being rustic, dense and chewy without being ponderous. Black cherry and blackberry flavors, sporting an edge of molten mulberry, black pepper and crushed gravel, get earthier and fleshier, more briery and brambly with a few moments in the glass; you also feel the wood more, a slightly spicy, dark graininess, from 10 months in French oak. There’s plenty of substance here, a flirtation with black leather allure, but the wine is also clean and forthright, an eloquent and rather wild expression of the grape. Excellent and a Great Bargain at about $16.
A review sample.
Mon 15 Feb 2010
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under Zinfandel 1 Comment
You’ll have to do a bit of searching for the Purple Hands Oregon Red Wine 2007, because the ’08 version is on the market. The ’07, however, is a wine of such marked individuality that I urge you to track it down.
This is a product associated with Ken Wright Cellars. If you cast your minds back, you’ll remember when Wright was the winemaker for Domaine Serene and Panther Creek before setting out on his own to make small lots of vineyard designated pinot noir (and a little chardonnay and pinot blanc).
Purple Hands 2007 is a blend of 85 percent merlot, 10 percent pinot noir and 5 percent cabernet franc. Now to many people, myself included, using pinot noir as a blending grape is anathema; pinot noir, the great Holy Grail Grape, stands on its own merits! Yet in Purple Hands ’07, pinot noir lends some fleshiness and spice to a pretty damned seductive wine. It’s warm and funky and meaty, wild and exotic, bursting with black currant, black plum and blueberry scents and flavors that contain hints of cedar and mulberry, lavender, rose petal and gravel. The wine ages 11 months in French oak, only 10 percent of which are new barrels, so wood remains in the background as subtle, supple support. Nothing subtle, though, about the wine’s briery, brambly elements, its touches of damp earth and moss-like tea. A few minutes in the glass bring up layers of fine-meshed, slightly grainy tannins. It’s gratifying to come across a wine that expresses a personality unlike all the other wines out there. Very Good+. About $18-$20.
Purple Hands ’08 should be different; it’s a blend of 50 percent merlot, 35 percent syrah and 15 percent pinot noir.
A sample for review.
Sun 14 Feb 2010
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under Fer Gawd's Sake!  Comments
Last night, LL and I attended a lavish fundraising event for a local nonprofit spay and neuter group. We support several dog organizations, both monetarily and by fostering puppies, two of which we have now.
A couple had generously donated their large Midtown house for the event. In the dining room, an elaborate spread of hors d’oeuvres filled the table and sideboards, while someone poured a selection of red and white wines. In the living room, another station offered Scotch, bourbon and cognac. And in the adjacent den or sitting room, to accompany trays of cookies and chocolates, was an array of cordials and liqueurs. The whole affair was well-organized, and the food and various beverages were excellent.
A small silent auction had been set up in the living room. The host, who has a beautiful wine cellar — he gave LL and me a tour — had donated four bottles: Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, Napa Valley; Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Alexander Valley; Cakebread Cellars Merlot 2002, Napa Valley, and Hartwell Vineyards Misté Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Stags Leap District. This is an interesting quartet of California wines, the Silver Oak cabernets being especially desirable. So about 8 o’clock — the event ended at 9 — I entered bids for three of the wines, excluding the Silver Oak Napa Valley. I was probably more munificent in my bids than I would ordinarily be, but I assumed that I was helping to spur the bidding in the name of a good cause. And I assumed that people looking at the bid sheets would think, “Oh ho, if Koeppel wants these wines, they must be good. I’d better put down a bid.”
Well, Readers, as you know, pride goeth before a fall. Apparently people who move in dog and cat rescue circles are unaware of the vinophilic prowess that the name Koeppel carries. As I would, every 10 minutes or so, cruise by the table and observe that no one — as in not one person — had bid after me, I began to have a premonition that I was going home with the wine. And indeed, when bidding stopped at 9 o’clock — as if it hadn’t stopped long before — mine was the name attached to those three wines.
When I was at the registrar’s table, ponying up, someone came by and said, “Oh, you won all those wines!” To which I replied, “No, I didn’t win them. I bought them.”
To the tune of $245. Added to the $150 it cost us to attend the event. Cats and dogs all over town better be thanking us.
Now I have to decide which of the bottles I’ll open with the pizza tonight.
Sat 13 Feb 2010
I mean, the fact that tomorrow is Valentine’s Day is neither here nor there, right? I mean, if you wanted to get a bottle of a rosé sparkling wine to share with your sweetheart, that’s up to you. I am merely a vehicle, a conduit of information and opinion.
First is a new product from Freixenet, the giant Spanish firm — “among the ten largest wine companies in the world” — best known for its champagne method sparkling wines, that is, the second fermentation (which produces the essential bubbles) occurs in the bottle in which the wine will be aged and sold. The Freixenet Elyssia Pinot Noir Brut Cava, non-vintage, is all steel and strawberries and dried red currants. Made mostly from pinot noir, with 15 percent trepat grapes, this sparkling wine sports a lovely rosy-pink hue with a hint of bluish magenta and a steady stream of glinting bubbles. A touch of sweetness is nicely balanced by bracing acidity, while flavors of red currants and black cherries (and an undertone of peach) are bolstered by a burgeoning mineral element. Nothing particularly complicated here but lots of charm. Very Good+. About $18.
Imported by Freixenet USA, Sonoma, Cal. A review sample.
For twice the price, you get at least twice the quality with the J Brut Rosé, Russian River Valley (non-vintage). Composed of 59 percent pinot noir grapes and 41 percent chardonnay, the J Brut Rosé offers a very pale onion skin color, like palest gold with a bare blush of pink, and a continuous upward surge of tiny bubbles. This is very dry, quite elegant and high-toned and beautifully balanced among keen acidity, luscious berry and stone fruit flavors and heaps of limestone and shale. The nose is dried strawberries with touches of apple and orange rind with almond and almond blossom; Rainier cherries, peach and lime peel dominate the palate, woven into a texture poised between slightly creamy lushness and crisp, vibrant, steely minerality. Enticing presence and authority conveyed with delicacy and refinement. Excellent. About $35.
A review sample.
Thu 11 Feb 2010
(Readers, this is the 600th post on BTYH.)
I had not seen 1001 Wines You Must Taste Before You Die (Universe Publishing, $36.95), even though the book was released in 2008, but happening upon it in a local bookstore, I picked it up and was intrigued. My thought, of course, was, “How many of these wines have I tasted?”
One does tire of the 1001 … Before You Die phenomenon, which seems to proliferate with the speedy generation of the sappy Chicken Soup for the Soul books and the endless Blankety-Blank for Dummies series. What I’m waiting for is the snappy 1001 Ways to Die, surely a definitive wrap-up to the concept.
Anyway, I bought the compact but hefty tome, brought it home and began to go through it methodically, marking the wines I have experienced with little yellow sticky-note things. Soon the book absolutely bristled with little yellow sticky-note things, like a pale spiky punk hair-do. And yet when I counted the little yellow sticky-note things, they totaled only 232. Sacre bleu! 232! A mere 23 percent! What have I been doing for the past 25 years?
The book’s essential wines, the ones we must taste before we shuffle off this mortal coil, were chosen by a panel of 43 experts, 25 of whom are British, so it’s easy to understand the book’s bias in favor of French wines, with which the British have a relationship going back 800 years and more. In fact, of the 1001 wines mentioned, 323 are French, and of those 104 are from Bordeaux. Not that that’s a bad thing, and I would say that the French wines are certainly balanced by worthy, interesting, intriguing and obscure picks from other parts of the world. If only because the book inspires curiosity and the desire to seek out new and unknown wines, we must count it a (rather intimidating) success.
Here’s the scheme: The book is divided into these sections — Sparkling wines, White wines, Red wines (by far the biggest segment) and Fortified wines. The order within each section is alphabetical. The entry includes some historical detail and a description of the recommended wine, which is always, where appropriate (that is, not a nonvintage product), vintage specific. In other words, the expert doesn’t say, “You must taste Chateau Leoville-Las Cases or Stefano Inama Vulcaia Fume Sauvignon Blanc before you die,” but Leoville-Las Cases 1996 or Stefano Inama Vulcaia Fume Sauvignon Blanc 2001. This method works with a wine like the Leonetti Cellars Merlot 2005, which is available all over the Internet from about $70 to $90, but not so well with, say, the Domaine Hubert de Montille Volnay Les Taillepieds Premier Cru 1985, which I have to say, we should all taste before we die, but good luck with that unless you find some at auction and possess the fiduciary prowess to purchase it.
Certainly a wine like Chateau Mouton-Rothschild is a necessity for anyone with pretensions to a well-rounded palate and historical perspective, but the vintage recommended in the book for Mouton is 1945. Now Mouton-Rothschild 1945 stands loftily among the greatest wines made in the 20th Century, and it should be obvious that, 65 years later, the supply is dwindling. In 2006, a case of Mouton ’45 sold at Christie’s in Beverley Hills for an insane $290,000; you see individual bottles priced from $5,000 to $12,000. So, ideally, in the best of all possible worlds, yes, we would taste Mouton 1945 before we die — and the CVNE Corona Reserva Blanco Semi Dulce 1939 and other old wines — but our chances of doing so are about as remote as Lady Gaga singing Tosca at La Scala.
What’s interesting about the book, though, is that not all the selections are esoteric, expensive or unattainable. There are, for example, two of my favorite inexpensive red wines from Spain, Castaño’s Hecula Monastrell 2004 from Yecla and Borsao’s Tres Picos Garnacha 2005 from Campo de Borja. Must we taste them before we die? I don’t know about that, but they’re damned fine, completely accessible wines that you can buy for 10 or 11 smackers. You would want more recent vintages, of course.
And then there are the book’s provocative eccentricities. Mateus? Blue Nun? Surely the title of that book would be Wines I Would Rather Die 1001 Deaths Before I Tasted. Mateus is described as “one of the few truly global wine brands,” while Blue Nun is called “a triumph of marketing and rebranding.” Aren’t those precisely the reasons why thoughtful consumers don’t drink some products?
So, about my 232 wines, you could say that I cheated in some instances, but I will justify my claims. For example, I have not tasted Domaine Jean Grivot Richebourg Grand Cru 2002, the vintage recommended in the book, but I did taste the 1998, from the barrel, in Grivot’s dim cellar, my toes numb with the chill on a blustery, rainy December afternoon. I have not tasted Chateau Haut-Brion 1989, but i have tasted Haut-Brion 1975, ’67, ’66, ’64, ’62, ’60, ’59, ’57, ’55 and ’37. I have not tasted Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow 1978 (and where the hell would you find it now?), but I did taste Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace 1977 “First Pick” and Red Rock Terrace ’77 “Second Pick,” Volcanic Hill 1979 “First Pick” and Volcanic Hill ’70 “Second Pick,” and the Three Vineyard Blend 1981 and ’84, with Al Brounstein, sitting at a picnic table on the property. My point, Readers, is that you take your cred where you can, and add up the score later.
On the other hand, I was surprised, if not downright pleased, at how many of the wines I had tasted in the specified vintages. Salon 1996? But of course, my dears. Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 1982? It goes without saying. Penfolds Bin 95 Grange 1971 (or Grange Hermitage as the wine was known originally)? Not only 1971 but every vintage going back to 1955. And so on, blah blah blah, that’s all fine, but the humbling factor remains the 769 recommended wines I have not tasted, tons of fascinating wines from Italy, Spain, Australia, South Africa, Portugal. Time’s a-wastin’. I had better get busy.
And I’ll conclude with a dozen perhaps slightly eccentric recommendations of my own, wines that I believe deserve attention, for the book’s next edition (without specific vintages):
Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley.
Tres Sabores Perspective Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa Valley.
Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, Los Carneros, Napa Valley.
Robert Sinskey Vandal Vineyard Pinot Noir, Los Carneos, Napa Valley.
Porter Bass Zinfandel, Russian River Valley.
Tenuta di Valgiano, Colline Lucchesi Rosso.
Reale Andrea Borgo di Gete, Colli di Salerno.
Albet i Noya Lignum Red, Penedes.
Domaine Beauthorey Bella Parra, Pic Saint-Loup, Languedoc.
Champagne David Léclapart Cuvée L’Apôtre. (A vintage blanc de blancs that sees oak.)
Champagne David Léclapart Cuvée L’Amateur. (A vintage blanc de blancs sans oak.)
Peter Jakob Kühn Oestrich Doosberg Riesling, Rheingau.
Tue 9 Feb 2010
Remember, Readers, that this series is devoted to recent releases from classic California wineries founded in 1980 or before.
The story has been told and written many times — I heard it first from Portet at the Napa Valley Wine Auction in 1987 — of how Bernard Portet was looking for appropriate sites in Napa for growing Bordeaux red grapes, and as he was driving along the Silverado Trail in 1970 he felt a cool breeze wafting through a cut in the landscape, and he knew that he had found a microclimate that was tempered by a flow of air from the Pacific. That site is where he and John Goelet founded Clos du Val in 1972. Portet’s roots in Bordeaux go deep; he was born there, and his father was the regisseur, the technical director, at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. Portet is now vice chairman of Clos du Val; John Clews is winemaker and chief operating officer.
Clos du Val’s red wines, which include cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir (from Carneros), are often condemned in the press with the faint praise of being “elegant.” To which I reply, “Thank goodness.” After tasting some of Napa’s high-alcohol, over-ripe, over-oaked, unbalanced cabernets, one turns to Clos du Val’s consistent harmony and elegance for relief and gratification. Not that the wines don’t display depth and complexity.
The Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley, a blend of 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent merlot and 4 percent petit verdot, offers heady ripeness and succulence leavened by grainy tannins, elements of briers and brambles and walnut shell, by cedar with a touch of bell pepper and dried sage, by a dusty-gravelly factor that’s almost ecclesiastical in effect. Fruit? Yes, in the form of black and red currants and black cherry with undertones of dried currants. The wine spent 17 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels, so there’s no taint of toasty wood or vanilla, just a smooth, supple texture and subtle spice. With its vibrant acidity (and reasonable alcohol content of 13.5 percent), this wine cut through the fat of a seared and roasted magret of duck with a mustard-tapenade glaze. I would far rather drink this wine than any of the cult Napa Cabernets that sell for three or four times as much. Drink from now or 2011 through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $35.
Whence and whither Clos du Bois?
Founded in 1974 by Frank Woods, Clos du Bois Winery has been a perennial underachiever at the level of its prestige proprietary red wines Briarcrest and Marlstone. The greatest period for Marlstone — the wine under consideration today — was the mid-1980s, though I also liked the 1990 and ’91.
Woods sold Clos du Bois in 1988, and the winery entered the portfolio of The Wine Alliance, a subsidiary of Hiram Walker. The other properties owned by The Wine Alliance were William Hill, Atlas Peak and Callaway. Wine Alliance became Allied Domecq in 1998 and then Beam Wine Estates, a division of Fortune Brands, in 2006. Fortune Brands was swept up by Constellation Wine U.S. in November 2007. Clos du Bois produces wine in three categories; the “Classics,” an inexpensive line often seen in restaurants, carry a Sonoma County designation; Sonoma Reserve wines are from Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley; and, at the flagship level, the proprietary Briarcrest and Marlstone and the Calcaire chardonnay. Winemaker is Erik Olsen.
Clos du Bois Marlstone 2005, Alexander Valley, a blend of 89 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5 percent malbec and 3 percent each cabernet franc and merlot, aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 87 percent new, and the process shows in the wine’s excessive smoky, toasty character. The oak dominates aromas of lavender, mint and granite-like minerals and ripe black currants and black raspberries. I found the oaky nature of the wine off-putting, so I slammed the cork back in the bottle and went back to it the next morning, probably 12 hours later. Now Marlstone 2005 displayed notes of pencil shavings and sandalwood and more lavender with hints of licorice and celery seed. In the mouth, though, the lean and sinewy wine was still all about acidity, tannin and oak; about a dense, chewy, almost gritty texture; about wheatmeal and walnut shell-like austerity that was close to astringent. Good details are present here, but the sum of the parts does not add up to an expressive, satisfying whole. Will time help? Try from 2011 or ’12 through 2015 or ’17. Very Good+. About $50.
A review sample.
Here are reviews and notes on previous vintages of Marlstone, culled from the electronic archives of The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis, for which I wrote a weekly, nationally distributed wine column from 1984 to 2004. (These archives go back only to 1990.) Notice how the proportion of cabernet sauvignon in the blend used to be much less — and the price.
<>The Clos du Bois Marlstone 1997, Alexander Valley, blended from 52 percent cabernet sauvignon, 44 percent merlot and 4 percent petit verdot, is slightly disappointing for California’s best red wine vintage of a glorious decade. True, the wine is clean and minerally, with cedar and tobacco, smoke and black olive in an attractive bouquet, but despite its big, ripe, juicy flavors, polished oak and tannin dominate to the wine’s detriment. There’s nothing really wrong here, but the Marlstone ’97 lacks the vibrant intensity and deep resonance the vintage should have imparted. Very good+. About $38.
<>The Clos du Bois Marlstone 1995, Alexander Valley, emphasizes structure and size now. A gloss of dried herbs and black olive gives color to concentrated cassis and black cherry scents and flavors touched with cedar, tobacco and dried porcini. It requires two to four years aging. Very good+. About $25.
<>The classic Clos du Bois Marlstone 1991, Alexander Valley (54 percent cabernet sauvignon, 35 percent merlot, 6 percent malbec and 5 percent cabernet franc), grows deeper and more complex in the glass, though its impeccable balance is never out of whack; it’s certainly concentrated on the plummy and curranty front, while medium tannins and brisk minerals give it a powerful backbone. Swirl and sip for a few minutes and see how it expands with tar and smoke and berry essence. Excellent. About $18-$20.
<>For 1990, the Marlstone consists of 52 percent cabernet sauvignon, 33 percent merlot, 7 percent malbec, 6 percent cabernet franc and 2 percent petite verdot This is a Beauty and the Beast of a wine, lovely but with a tough core; the intense raspberry and black currant fruit is enticing and so is the plush oaky, dusty texture, but layers of inky minerals, smoke and ash suggest three to five years aging. About $20.
<>More serious, a wine with more subject and structure, is the Clos du Bois Marlstone 1989, Alexander Valley, made from 61 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 26 percent merlot and 13 percent malbec; because the wine contains less than 75 percent of one grape variety, it cannot bear a varietal name. Under a proprietary name, of course, the winery can vary the blend as befits the year and quality of the grapes. This is a wine of permanence and power, deeply earthy and rooty with prominent oak and acid, yet the plum-raspberry fruit also penetrates nose and mouth; it grows rounder and more spicy in the glass, touched with licorice but with plenty of depth and darkness. About $20.
<>The Clos du Bois Marlstone 1987, Alexander Valley, is happily the best Marlstone in years. Predominantly cabernet and merlot, this wine displays tons of oak, with fruit in the black cherry-black currant range, hints of cedar and undertones of spice and olive; it’s quite tannic now, needing five to eight years to soften. About $19.
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