April 2010

Earlier this week, I had Jamie Oliver’s Parsnip and Ginger Soup and Coda alla Vaccinara (Roman Oxtail Stew) ready for LL after her teaching night; she gets home about 8:45 or 9. The soup is from Jamie’s Food Revolution (Hyperion, $35); the oxtail stew is from the April issue of Saveur, and can be found here. While both dishes require some chopping and mincing, once you’ve done that, they’re easy.

Oliver’s book is subtitled “Rediscover How to Cook Simple, Delicious, Affordable Meals.” Recipes are simple but inflected with the chef’s habitual enthusiasm. The soup truly is delicious, smooth and earthy, but needed more gingery flavors. Oliver calls for “a thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger root,” and I guess that thumbs come in different sizes.

The triumph was the Coda alla Vaccinara, a superbly rich and flavorful rendition of oxtail stew in an intense tomato sauce that simmers for about three hours, the last 40 minutes or so with stalks of celery that turn meltingly tender. This is the dish that requires a lot of mincing: pancetta or guanciale, onion, celery, carrots, garlic. After you brown the oxtails, which are cut into small sections, and remove them from the pan, you soften all the minced stuff in the remaining, highly flavored olive oil, add red wine and cook until it evaporates — this process adds to the intensity — and then put the oxtails back in the pan with the contents of a large can of tomatoes (squashed by hand) and some water. Cover the pan and go about your business for two hours. Then, for the last 45 minutes to an hour, with the celery stalks, you leave the lid off the pan, so the sauce reduces and the flavors and texture become concentrated. Altogether, it cooks about three hours. Yeah, this is a great dish, and the sauce alone would be fabulous with pasta. In fact, I prepared the recipe for four people, so I think when it’s time to hit the leftovers, I’ll scrape the meat from the bones and serve meat and sauce with penne or farfalle.

I know that I should have served an Italian red wine with the oxtails, but the only Italian reds I have on hand are some Barolos and Barbarescos from 2005, and I’m not touching those for five years. Instead, I turned to the Loire Valley, cabernet franc and the Clos Cristal Hospices de Saumur 2008, from the Saumur-Champigny region. Along this stretch of France’s longest river, the appellations of Anjou, Saumur, Bourgueil and Chinon all cultivate the cabernet franc grape, known in these areas as côt. Unlike in Bordeaux, where cabernet franc is an integral factor among other grapes in the red wines, in the Loire cabernet franc is not blended with other grapes.

Since 1928, profits from the Clos Cristal Hospices de Saumur wines have benefited a local children’s hospital.

The first impression is of a smoky, dusty, earthy wine that faintly emits hints of black currants and black cherries; a few minutes in the glass bring out touches of cedar and tobacco, powdered shale, and more deeply spiced and macerated black fruit. Dusty, graphite-laced tannins deliver not a little austerity for the first few hours the wine is open, though the next morning the wine had smoothed out beautifully, revealing lovely balance and tone– and more smoke and a whiff of black olive — though retaining a tight grip on vibrant acidity and a spare, reticent character. A textbook model of Loire Valley cabernet franc that could be a bit less unbending. I recommend opening the wine three or four hours before serving. Drink now through 2016 or ’18. Very Good+. About $20 to $25.

A Bourgeois Family Selection, Asheville, N.C. A sample for review, but not from the importer.

So last night, we did use the rest of the oxtail stew for a pasta sauce, first carving and scraping all the tiny shards and shreds of meat from the chunky little bones. This was such a rich, hearty and deeply flavorful sauce that we didn’t even grate any Parmesan cheese; it would have been superfluous.

For wine, I opened the Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel 2007, Napa Valley, made from a biodynamic vineyard certified by Demeter (if that means anything to you and if you care). The year saw much less rainfall than normal, so yields were reduced and grapes were smaller, a factor reflected in this wine’s intensity and concentration. What’s interesting is that in contrast to the ideal (or delusion) of heavily extracted zinfandels in California, this zinfandel offers a lovely medium ruby color rather than the dark purple nigh unto black that we so often see. (Remember, the opaque darkness of the color of a red wine has nothing to do with its quality.) This zinfandel is very spicy and peppery, bursting with notes of blackberry and blackcurrant with a back-tone of strawberry. Dusty, velvety tannins are palatable but firm, while the oak influence — 15 months in large French casks (no new small barrels) –contributes subtle shape and suppleness. Layers of briers and brambles, a distinct mossy/foresty element add complexity to the ripe black fruit flavors, which include hints of mulberry and boysenberry, and the wine finishes with a filigree of wild fruit and exotic spice. Alcohol content is 14.9%. A model zinfandel made in a thankfully non-exaggerated manner. Drink now through 2014 to ’15. Excellent. About $35.

A sample for review.

Most wineries in California are content to produce one sauvignon blanc wine. Some offer a “regular” sauvignon blanc and a “reserve” bottling. And a few make (or attempt to make) a distinction between a sauvignon blanc style and a so-called fumé blanc style. Only Dry Creek Vineyard, as far as I can tell, produces four wines from the sauvignon blanc grape.

First, a bit of history.

At one time, the sauvignon blanc grape was treated as a stepchild in California. If it was not used in blending to make innocuous jug wines, it was produced in a semi-sweet fashion to appeal to what was thought of as the rather simpleminded palate of American consumers. Robert Mondavi changed all that in 1966 by bottling a dry sauvignon blanc under the name “fumé blanc,” a take-off on the Pouilly-Fumé appellation at the eastern edge of the Loire Valley region, where the sauvignon blanc wines display a sort of smoky (“fumé”) aspect. Winemakers in California leaped on this term and immediately began to differentiate between two styles of sauvignon blanc wines, the “fumé blanc,” Loire Valley style and the more elegant and austere “sauvignon blanc” Bordeaux style. Often these distinctions were made visual by the package; fumé blanc wines were produced in the slope-shouldered Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume bottle, and sauvignon blanc wines were produced in the high-shouldered Bordeaux-type bottle.

As the decades progressed, these differences became more theoretical, and it seems that fewer wineries use the term “fumé blanc” or the Loire-style bottle these days, a hold-out being Ferrari-Carano, whose Fumé Blanc can be found on restaurant wine lists across the land.

So, does Dry Creek Vineyard need four wines made from sauvignon blanc grapes? That’s their choice, of course — practically and economically — but only if real distinctions can be made among the wines.

The Dry Creek Vineyard Fumé Blanc 2008, Sonoma County, made all in stainless steel, is as fresh as a daisy and as clean as a whistle. Lively scents of kiwi and lime peel, fennel and grapefruit, with hints of melon and dried thyme and tarragon, make for an irresistibly appealing bouquet. The wine is very dry, crisp and snappy; flavors of smoky lemon are a little grassy, with a bit of leafy fig in the background, all encompassed in a texture that neatly marries the litheness of limestone minerality to a slightly lush quality. This sauvignon blanc carries a Sonoma County designation between the grapes derive from Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley. The alcohol content is 13.5%. Widely available. Very Good+. About $12, a Great Bargain.
Where the Dry Creek Fumé Blanc 2008, Sonoma County, is brash and buoyant, the Dry Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Dry Creek Valley (a new release for the winery), is restrained and elegant, at least in the nose. The color is pale straw with a faint green cast; intense aromas of almond blossom, orange rind, Key lime and jasmine gently unfold. In the mouth, the wine is dry and zesty and vibrant with crisp acidity; flavors of pear, melon and yellow plum contain a hint of leafy fig at the core, along with a touch of grass and hay. The finish brings in a little chalk and limestone to round out the effect of depth and elegance. Lovely texture and balance make this an extremely attractive wine, with pleasing personality and tone. The wine includes six percent sauvignon musqué, an aromatic clone of sauvignon blanc. Production was 9,649 cases. Alcohol is 13.5%. Excellent. About $16, Great Value.

Next in the roster is the Dry Creek Vineyard DCV3 Estate Fumé Blanc 2007, Dry Creek Valley. Made from the winery’s original vineyard planted in 1972 (the first planting of sauvignon blanc in Dry Creek Valley), this wine of crystalline purity and intensity offers aromas of pear and melon, ginger and quince, lime peel and a sort of dusty chalky quality. Exquisitely textured, it’s a sauvignon blanc of pinpoint focus and clarity, with every element feeling locked into place yet generous and expansive. Flavors are dominated by grapefruit, pear and lemongrass lent scintillating effect by laser-like acidity and limestone-and-shale-like minerality. A beautiful sauvignon blanc, shapely yet elegantly spare. 394 cases were produced. Alcohol is 13.5%. Drink through 2011. Excellent. About $25.

Here’s where I part company with Dry Creek’s quartet of sauvignon blanc wines. The Dry Creek Taylor’s Vineyard Musqué 2007, Dry Creek Valley, illustrates, at least to this palate, the inappropriateness of bottling the musqué clone on its own. Yes, as a blending grape it can bring a fine floral element to sauvignon blanc, but as a 100 percent varietal wine I find that it lacks vividness and verve. Sure the bouquet on this example is an appealing melange of peach and apricot, a little sweetly ripe and tropical, and yes, there’s a hint of jasmine and honeysuckle, but I would like a bit more zing in the fairly plush texture and a little less than 14.5% alcohol in the slightly hot finish. Pleasant in its way, but it doesn’t work for me as a model of balance or authority. 333 cases. Very Good. About $25.
These wines were samples for review.

I don’t want to oversell this little wine, but it would be advantageous to have a case around to drink this summer. It’s the Este de Bodegas Alto Almanzora, from Spain. No vintage date. No stated grapes. No stated region. (The “year of harvest” is 2007.) That’s because it’s a Vino de Mesa, a “wine of the table,” and as such the lowest common denominator of wine according to EU regulations. That status doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not a tasty little quaffer perfectly suited for grilled leg of lamb, steaks, burgers, pizzas, red-meat pastas and such fare. Bodegas Alto Almanzora, founded in 2004, is a forward-looking producer with an ultra-modern winery in Andalusia. The image of a pregnant mare on the label is a Paleolithic cave drawing symbolizing fertility, promise and hope. This is a ripe, meaty and fleshy wine, a little funky (in the best sense) in its ripeness and earthiness. It’s rife with scents and flavors of blackberry, black currant and plum with a touch of boysenberry, all permeated with the contents of the baking spice-box and a backwash of slate-like minerality. After a few minutes, the fruit turns more macerated and juicy, almost roasted in its smokiness. That’s about it. No great depth or character. Just really delicious fruit and enough tannic structure and acidity to make it real. The grapes are monastrell, tempranillo, garnacha, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. Alcohol is 14%. Very Good. I paid $12 for this wine, but elsewhere in our fair land you can find it as low as $8.

An Eric Solomon-European Cellars Selection, Charlotte, N.C.
Image from catavinos.

Now in its 32nd vintage, Insignia sails through the seas of California’s Bordeaux-blend competitors with the aplomb and dignity of an admiral’s flagship reviewing the fleet. Launched in 1974, the Joseph Phelps Insignia remains among the best of the Golden State’s Old School cabernet sauvignon-based wines, along with Ridge Monte Bello, Caymus Special Selection, Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow, Beringer Private Reserve, Shafer Hillside Select — Shafer was founded in 1979, so just qualifies in this series as “old-school” — and Silver Oak Alexander Valley.

A contractor from Colorado, Joseph Phelps came to California in the early 1970s and was involved in the construction of several wineries, including Chateau Souverain and Rutherford Hill. At the same time, he invested in the Sangiacomo Vineyard in Carneros and purchased land east of the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley. That purchase, about 600 acres, became the site of Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

While JPV is renowned for its series of late-harvest dessert wines and its portfolio of Rhone-style wines, cabernet sauvignon has been the heart of its production. In addition to Insignia, the winery produced highly regarded cabernets from the Bacchus Vineyard (which JPV eventually purchased) and the Eislele Vineyard, now owned by Araujo Estate. The first winemaker for Phelps was Walter Schug, who was followed by Craig Williams in 1976; Schug founded his own winery, Schug Carneros Estate, in 1980.

In an episode that cast a sordid light on corporate practices, even in the supposedly rarefied world of wine country, Williams resigned in May 2008, along with Phelps CEO/president Tom Shelton, in a dispute with the Phelps family about compensation from their 40 percent shares in the winery. Shelton died of a brain tumor in July 2008. In Oct. 2008, Judge William Bettinelli in San Francisco ruled that the Phelpses had to pay Williams and Shelton’s family $24 million plus attorney costs.

Unlike the Bacchus and former Eisele bottlings, Insignia is designed to express a general sense of “Napaness” rather than the eloquence of a single vineyard. In recent vintages grapes for Insignia have come from the winery’s estate vineyards in South Napa, Stags Leap District, Rutherford, St. Helena and Oak Knoll. The percentage of cabernet sauvignon grapes in the blend has increased drastically over the years, from under 60 percent early on to close to 100 percent today. In fact, for 2006, Insignia consists of 95 percent cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent petit verdot. The wines age two years in 100 percent new French barriques.


Over the decades, the Joseph Phelps Insignia acquired the reputation as being the most refined of California’s great cabernet wines, but Insignia 2006, Napa Valley, fills the mouth as if it were taking over a country. The wine is packed with slate-like minerals and briery tannins, yet the succulence of its intense and concentrated black currant and black cherry flavors, tinged with cocoa powder and tar, is unassailable. Well, I say “unassailable,” yet this fruit comes behind high-toned austerity of impeccable and hard-earned pedigree; one feels the depth and geography of the Napa Valley in every sip. There’s a gentle unfurling of cedar and tobacco, a touch of lavender, an iota of walnut-shell. Mainly, Insignia 2006 is about impeccable tone and presence and elegant structure, with a great earthy, foresty undercurrent; try from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 through ’20. Excellent. About $200.

Notice the package. This must be what happens to all my old Tanqueray bottles.

A sample for review.

We ate at a popular local restaurant last night, one that probably falls into the “casual/fine dining” category. The place is well-designed and comfortable, a little clubby; there are white table-cloths and napkins; the menu is varied and fairly expensive; the wine list is good; waiters wear pin-striped shirts and white aprons. Our waiter annoyed the crap out of me by consistently addressing our table as “guys,” as in “Are you guys ready to order?” and “Do you guys need anything?” This locution was particularly annoying because our table consisted on one man (me) and five women; I mean, we weren’t a bunch of guys scarfing down Bud Lite and chicken wings in a sports bar. Restaurant owners and managers! Remember that waiters and the manner in which they relate to patrons help set the tone for the establishment!

Anyway, what I really wanted to mention though was this: I brought two bottles of wine to the restaurant, first checking online to be sure they weren’t on the wine list. These were the Morgan Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands, and a Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Alexander Valley. When I take wine to a restaurant, I always buy a bottle or two from the list, in this case a bottle of the Fritz Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Russian River Valley, and a glass of the King Estate Pinot Gris 2008, Oregon. We only drank the Morgan Pinot Noir, so I set the Silver Oak aside.

Now, here’s the kicker; I promise that after decades of dining out and frequently taking wine to restaurants, I had never heard this. When the waiter brought the check, he said, “I only charged you one corkage fee since we didn’t open the other bottle.”

Say wha’? Was I supposed to feel special that we didn’t get charged corkage for a bottle of wine that wasn’t opened? Come on, the corkage fee doesn’t start the moment you walk in the door with the bottle; it’s the opening of the bottle that results in the fee.

I mean it wasn’t a big deal, but it was startling.

Or, the subtitle might be “There Is Such a Thing as Too Much Raw Veal.”

In the village of Barbaresco, we had a major tasting event at Gaja, with Gaia Gaja, and then her father, the legendary, the visionary, Angelo Gaja joined us for a chat, and then we went to lunch with Gaia Gaja at a charming place up the hill, just beyond the church and under the 13th or 14th Century tower, called, appropriately, Trattoria Antica Torre.

In the picture you can see a remnant of the snow that unexpectedly blanketed Piedmont on Tuesday and Wednesday (March 9 and 10). And notice in the following images how even though this is just a trattoria in a village and it’s lunchtime that there’s a white cloth on the table, that the plates and bowls are supported by chargers and that the plates and bowls are good china. No short cuts here, and that’s the way I have found things at restaurants in Italy generally. There’s no fear of formality; it’s ingrained in the culture, and it feels, to this diner, comfortable and comforting. I hate this American notion that a white tablecloth is supposedly stifling and stuffy and that proper service somehow takes the “fun” out of eating out.

Anyway, Trattoria Antica Torre fields a traditional Piedmontese menu, with which, by this time, we were pretty familiar. The genial proprietress seated us upstairs and asked if she should bring a selection of tradition dishes, and we agreed to that. She also mentioned that rabbit was on the menu, and my ears perked up. Call it Peter, call it Thumper, but I love rabbit when it’s cooked right.

A couple of our group were feeling a bit puny, and she graciously offered to bring them bowls of brodo — broth — to ease their unsettled stomachs. I’ll admit to feeling a big smug and superior that guys half my age were succumbing to the weariness, overeating and gladiatorial drinking that a hectic wine-trip imposes while I was fit as a fiddle and ready for lunch. It didn’t hurt that we were drinking the Gaja Rossj-Bass 2007, a lovely chardonnay and sauvignon blanc blend, and the Gaja Barbaresco 2006.

First came the usual veal tartare, and not a small serving either. Obviously at Trattoria Antica Torre lunch was taken seriously. This was delicious stuff, clean and ripe in the way that the best raw meat is, but enough was enough. I hardly ate half of my portion.

Next came the ubiquitous pasta of the Piedmontese region of Langhe, tajarin, a form of egg noodle like tagliatelle except cut, ideally, about 1/12th of an inch wide. This is typically served with an intense ragu of veal and pork and sometimes rabbit made with no tomatoes. Again, the portion would have been enough to satisfy me for a meal, and delicious as it was, I couldn’t finish the serving.

Our hostess that not forgotten my interest in rabbit, and she surprised me by bringing a plate that held not, say, one piece for me to sample but three pieces with roasted potatoes and glazed carrots, enough for a hearty dinner. It was, I’ll make clear, the best rabbit I have eaten, braised to tender and succulent perfection, but one piece, I think a thigh, and a few potatoes and carrots utterly defeated me. A cup of rich, bitter espresso either revived me or delivered the coup de grace.

After a few hours of driving around and what seemed to my addled brain a series of fruitless ventures and visitations, we arrived at dusk at the winery of Negro Angelo e Figli, where the Negro family has been cultivating grapes since 1670. Our hostess, Marissa Negro, who conducted a tasting for us, was attractive and amiable and the wines, particularly the whites made from the arneis grape, were excellent. It was Friday, however, and we had tasted hundreds of wines since Monday, and I think we were all feeling pretty slogged out.

Actually, I was feeling more than slogged out; I was feeling distinctly as if my innards were protesting, rebelling, mounting an assault, mounting …. and as discreetly as possible I rose from my chair, soundlessly left the room, found the restroom, closed and locked the door and, yielding to an irresistible force, violently tossed my cookies. It took two more trips to the toilette to resolve these issues, by which time my compatriots were beginning to look askance. I smiled mirthlessly but I hope reassuringly, waving a hand to dismiss concern. Later, however, when someone asked if I were feeling all right, I confessed to being grossly importuned.

I think, honestly, that there wasn’t a thing wrong with the meal I ate at lunch. I think it was simply too much of a good thing added to too much more of a good thing, and my stomach couldn’t take the punishment. After the group returned to Asti that night, my colleagues went out for a pizza. I stayed in my hotel room and drank sparkling water and finished Sense and Sensibility. In the morning, I was ready to start again.

Joan Didion was once asked to lecture on the topic “Why I Write.” Her response was something like, “Look at the vowels in those three words: I, I, I.” In other words, writing is all about me, myself and I, and writing on a blog is the same deal. Wait! No! Those are the other blogs! This blog is all about you, you, you, my readers! Just so, the title of this post, “Nine White Wines,” encloses those “I, I, I” implications, but is really about wine choices for you, though today I limit those choices somewhat by excluding wines made from the chardonnay grape. I’ve tried some pretty good ones recently but also some chardonnays that were sodden with oak, so that grape will get separate posts in a week or so, “a week or so” being such a comfortingly elastic expression of futurity. (I’ve never seen this photograph of Joan Didion before, from 1970; wow, what a dish! And one of my favorite writers and heroes for her courage, her unflinching gaze, her slashing prose! I’m on a project now of reading or re-reading all her books.)

Anyway, Nine White Wines (and a bonus at the end).

Made all in stainless steel, the Dry Creek Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2008, Wilson Ranch, Clarksburg — in the Sacramento Delta region of Northern California — opens with whiffs of lemon balm and dried thyme, with tangerine and a hint of orange zest. This is an incredibly fresh and refreshing wine whose crisp acidity whets the palate and lays the groundwork for juicy citrus flavors touched with a bit of mango; lightness and delicacy are wedded to a moderately lush texture. The finish rounds out the wine with some lime peel and bracing grapefruit bitterness. The alcohol is a soothing 12.5 percent. Always a favorite for summer quaffing with grilled shrimp, seafood risotto or linguine with clam sauce. Closed (for the first time) with a screw-cap. Very Good. About $12, representing Great Value.

The torrontés grape makes charming and delightful wines but not great wines, and that’s nothing for it to worry its pretty little head about; how happy we are, for example, to meet a person who is consistently charming, delightful and undemanding. Sort of like me. The Trivento Amado Sur Torrontés 2009, Mendoza, Argentina, however, blends 15 percent viognier grapes and 10 percent chardonnay with 75 percent torrontés. What, I thought, is this an attempt to pump up the virtues of a simple grape and turn it into something “important,” a “Super Torrontés,” as it were? The fact is, this is a terrifically appealing wine that offers scents of ripe peach, pear and quince with meadowy undertones and a whiff of camellia. It’s very dry, very crisp and mounts a limestone element so piercing that it’s almost poignant. Give the wine a few minutes and it becomes slightly honeyed (but not sweet), with notes of candied grapefruit and ginger, but there’s always that crystalline acidity and austere minerality to leaven the sensuousness; the finish brings in the forthright bitterness of grapefruit and lime peel. So, I suppose this is a kind of Super Torrontés and no worse for the bolstering. Very Good+. About $15, Good Value.

Imported by Excelsior Wine & Spirits, a division of Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville, N.Y. Trivento — “three winds” — is the Argentine outpost of Chile’s giant wine producer Concha y Toro.

Bold in stone fruit, the Adegas D’Altamira Albariño Brandal 2008, from Spain’s northwestern region of Rias Baixas in Galicia, takes yellow plum and peach and blends them with dried thyme, sage and white pepper for a striking bouquet; in a few minutes you’ll notice touches of orange zest and lime peel, grass and hay. The texture is amazing, so plush that it feels talc-like yet cut with riveting acidity and a scintillating limestone quality. Flavors are more melon and pear than stone fruit, with hints of cloves and ginger, the whole package being dry, zesty and savory. The wine is made all in stainless steel and does not go through the malolactic process, so it retains buoyant freshness and concentration. I can hear it now, on its knees, begging, “Please, please, please, serve me with oysters right out of the sea!” Or mussels grilled with rosemary would be good too. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012. Excellent. About $18.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Ca.

Winter’s Hill farm was established in 1961 by the Gladhart family in what is now Oregon’s Dundee Hills appellation within the Willamette Valley. Dundee Hills is where David Lett, Dick Erath and the Sokol Blosser family started their pioneering wineries in the 1960s and early ’70s, staking a claim for pinot noir. The Gladharts planted their first vines in 1990. The winemaker now is Delphine Gladhart, a Frenchwoman married to Russell Gladhart.

The Winter’s Hill Pinot Blanc 2007, Dundee Hills, delivers wonderful tone and presence while maintaining a fleetness and delicacy of effect that’s exhilarating. Mildly spicy pear and lemon scents segue into spicier flavors of pear, roasted lemon and melon, with a touch of almond skin. The balance and restraint here, the equilibrium and sense of elegance allied to a feeling of slightly repressed depth, are not only admirable but irresistible. So many wines could profit from this sort of decorum that never feels fastidious. Production was 840 cases, so mark this Worth a Search. The alcohol level is 14 percent. Excellent. About $18.

The Guado al Tasso Vermentino 2008, from Antinori’s winery in Bolgheri, in southwestern Tuscany, is a sort of seaside wine; one feels the briskness and breeziness of the sea-wind, the snap of salt and crusted oyster shells. There’s the slight fragrant astringency of rosemary crushed in the hand, the richness of roasted lemon and lemon balm, a subtle note of honeysuckle and jasmine. Adding to the freshness are tingling acidity, a touch of spritz –this is all stainless steel — and heaping elements of damp limestone. So this is delightful and charming, but not simpleminded; there are serious bones here, the structure of elegance, an evocative whisper of Olympian distance in the austere finish. 13 percent alcohol. We drank this with roasted salmon with a potato and artichoke hash. Excellent. About $25.

Imported by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Woodinville, Washington.


Yes, you’re reading this correctly: Pinot blanc grapes — a mutation of genetically unstable pinot noir — do grow in Burgundy, though they are found rarely in vineyards and even more rarely bottled as a single wine. (They thrive in cooler Alsace.) The venerable Domaine Henri Gouges, however, employs pinot blanc for its Bourgogne, and for 2007 produced a delightful example. Did I say “delightful”? Actually, the Domaine Henri Gouges Bourgogne Blanc Pinot Blanc 2007 is one of the prettiest wines I have tasted in dog’s years. This is wonderfully fresh, clean and pure, with notes of jasmine and chalk, macerated lemons and lemon curd with a touch of spiced pear and quince. Avid acidity flashes like a bright blade — man, I just freakin’ love alliteration! — enlivening a texture that inextricably weds crispness to slightly cushiony lushness. If this didn’t fall a tad short on the finish, it would be well-nigh perfect, though it’s still well-worth seeking out. Very Good+. About $26 to $32.

Imported by Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.


Here’s what hard work and perseverance (and maybe being in the right place at the right time) will do for you. Damian Parker, director of winemaking for Joseph Phelps Vineyard, came to the winery in 1981 as bottle-line supervisor. Ashley Hepworth came to Joseph Phelps in 1999 to work the crush, after two years in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter, and in 2008 was promoted to winemaker. America is a great country after all!

Whatever the combination of knowledge and experience Parker and Hepworth represent, they got the Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc 2008, St. Helena, Napa Valley, exactly right. While there’s nothing wrong (or not much) with the larky, snappy, blastingly citric and tropical sauvignon blancs that flood the market today, it’s nice to sip a sauvignon blanc fit for grown-ups. First, all things lemon are here, from roasted lemon to lemon balm and lemon curd, with an infusion of dried thyme and tarragon and a hint of dusty summer meadows. The wine is quite lively, sporting a keen edge of damp limestone and a tingling line of crisp acidity. The oak is subtle and supple, the result of eight months in new French oak puncheons — generally defined as holding 500 liters — and one- and two-year old French barriques, holding 225 liters or 59 gallons; in other words, the winemakers consciously decided to forgo the influence of new barriques for a more nuanced approach. What can I say? This is a sauvignon blanc of immense presence and authority that doesn’t neglect the elements of elegance and grace. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. The alcohol content is a sensible 13.5 percent. Exceptional. About $32.

The Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2008, Clare Valley, South Australia, delivers exactly what you want from a Clare Valley riesling: a classic bouquet of lychees and peaches, lime peel and petrol (or rubber eraser) and penetrating aromas of gunflint and damp shale. If you could drink such a bouquet you could stop there, but move along, please, to flavors of orange zest, grapefruit and mango ensconced in a very dry, very crisp and spare structure that makes it feel as if you’re drinking liquid limestone that dates back to the Ice Age it’s so pure and immediate, and yet, paradoxically, here comes a gentle whiff of rose petal and lilac. The finish, not surprisingly, is elegantly-wrought, all high cheek-bones and unblemished foreheads, very cool, pale, princesse lointaine, complete. The whole effect is beguiling and seductive, and I wish I had a glass sitting right here beside me (though I’m having a fine old time with this quaffable Domaine “La Garrigue” Cuvee Romaine Côte du Rhône 2008 that I’m sipping rather too much of at the present moment). Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Screw-cap closed. Exceptional. About $38.

Imported by USA Wine West, Sausalito, Cal., for The Australian Premium Wine Collection.

What you need to know about the St. Urbans-Hof Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Auslese 2007, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, is, first (working backward), that it’s from Germany’s Mosel region; second, that it derives from the excellent and even better year of 2007; that’s the ripeness level of Auslese is pretty damn ripe and potentially sweet; that the grape is riesling; that the vineyard is the well-known, even legendary Goldtropfchen; that the commune wherein the vineyard resides is the equally well-known Piesport; and that the producer is St. Urbans-Hof. Got that? And they say that German wine labels are too complicated!

The color is shimmering pale gold; aromas of softly spiced and macerated peaches and pears are permeated by lime peel and cloves and by subtle earthiness, clean and damp, and pert slate-like minerality. The acidity is so tremendous that the wine practically vibrates in the glass, yet the faint sweetness, a subtle sense of honeyed and baked stone fruit, like brioche with peach and plum marmalade, cuts the acid down to layers of etched limestone. This is vital, resonant and lively, though the finish comes through with an aura of stately balance and integration. We drank this with roasted salmon accompanied by roasted potato salad in a cilantro/jalapeño vinaigrette. Yay, LL! Now through 2017 or ’20, well-stored. Excellent. About $55.
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Yer Bonus: Two sparkling wines from Vouvray, Loire Valley, meaning chenin blanc grapes. Each made in the traditional champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle.

The Francois Pinon Vouvray Brut (non-vintage) is all steel, limestone and shale, roasted lemons, quince and ginger; the color is pale straw/gold, the myriad tiny bubbles as uncountable as the galaxies in the heavens. Very clean and fresh and crisp, with touches of biscuits, baking spices and toasted almonds, with a faint whiff of almond blossom. We drank this while cooking dinner one night and snacking on flatbread slathered with dried tomato and walnut pesto. Charming and delectable. Very Good+, and a Bargain at about $17.

Imported by Louis/Dressner, New York.

Maison Huet — “oo-ay” — has been among the best producers of dry, semi-sweet and late-harvest Vouvray wines since it was founded in 1928. You will notice that the Domaine Huet Brut 2002, Vouvray Petillant, is seven and a half years old, and at this point it is drinking to perfection. Pop the cork — I mean open it properly and gently — and you smell the fresh bread, biscuits and granite from a foot away. The color is medium gold; the “bead” is gently effusive — petillant implies lightly sparkling — and mildly effervescent. This sparkling wine, which ages four years in the bottle on the yeast, evinces the straw/hay quality of the chenin blanc grape but offers, also, touches of buttered toast, cinnamon bread and a hint of roasted hazelnuts and macerated lemons and pears preserved with cloves. I hope readers get the idea that the Huet Brut 2002 is not just “a reasonable alternative” to Champagne but a fine expression of a grape and a style of sparkling wine in itself. It should be consumed within a year or 18 months. Excellent. About $30 to $35.

Imported by Robert Chadderdon Selections, New York.
Samples for review, except for the Domaine Henri Gouges Bourgogne Pinot Blanc 2007, tasted at a trade event in New York. Photo of Joan Didion, Hollywood, 1970, by Julian Wesser, Time Life Pictures/Getty Images. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________

As many wine writers and consumers do, I dote on unusual combinations of grapes. Not that every one works, but when they do, the result can be enlightening. I thought about this proposition last night as LL and I prepared dinner — shrimp and chicken gumbo — and sipped on glasses of the Trapiche Extra Brut non-vintage sparkling wine from Argentina’s Mendoza region. The blend — and you have to sort of wrap your mind around this — is 70 percent chardonnay, 20 percent semillon and 10 percent malbec. Now maybe every winery in Argentina follows this scheme, and it’s like, “Oh, yeah, that,” but it was new to me. Made in the Charmat method of second fermentation in tank, this sparkling wine offers a radiant light gold color and an entrancing bouquet of acacia and jasmine, orange zest, green apple and roasted lemon. It’s very dry, brightly crisp and delicate, in fact downright elegant, as if its lustrous limestone-damp shale minerality were etched to transparency with silver leaf. Notes of citrus and toasted almond reveal a hint of something spicy and wild and tropical in the background, a tiny element of unexpected risk. Ideal for summer aperitifs and light appetizers. Very Good+. I would have guessed $20, but the price is $13, a Great Bargain.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York. A sample for review.

As those of you know who have read this blog faithfully and in a state of more than semi-consciousness, Saturday marks Pizza & Movie Night in our house and has for 15 years or so. Last night was no exception. I had purchased some very cute baby eggplant and beautiful basil at Whole Foods, and yesterday, from opening day of the Memphis Farmers Market, we brought home, among other green things, garlic sprouts and spring onions.

I sliced the eggplant thinly, doused the pieces with olive oil, salt and pepper, and slide them under the broiler, watching carefully so they didn’t burn. For the rest, I used thin slices of Roma tomatoes, one of those garlic sprouts — they’re quite peppery — , chopped spring onions, diced applewood smoked bacon, and mozzarella, parmesan and pecorino romano cheeses. The dough had rolled out perfectly, so I was entertaining intimations of this being a great pizza, perhaps one of the best.

Now, to fill in the background of this story, we have been fostering a pit bull-boxer mix dog since December. Her name is Mary Sue. She’s not particularly large, weighing probably 35 to 37 pounds, but she’s very strong. I mean the muscles in her thighs are terrific; it looks as if she goes to the gym every day and works out with a personal trainer. Mary Sue’s obsession is fabric. When she first came to stay with us, she slept on a pallet of dog mats, blankets and towels that she carefully arranged when it was time for a nap or to settle in for the night. I mean, she would actually move the blankets and towels around and put them in what was to her proper order. (She sleeps in a crate now.)

When Mary Sue was intoduced into the kitchen/sitting room with the rest of the dogs, she transferred this fabricophilia to dish-towels, hot-pads and napkins, which at every opportunity she would filch from counter-tops and towel racks and dash off with, to chew and mangle and generally have fun. We find this activity quite annoying and try to stop her at every opportunity.

So, last night I had finished making the pizza, which takes me about an hour, with all the chopping and dicing and rolling out the dough and laying on the ingredients. Just before the moment of truth, that is, sliding the pizza from the wooden paddle onto the hot stone in the oven (always a tense interlude), I turned for a moment to store the cheese in the refrigerator. This action took all of five seconds, and when I turned back, there was Mary Sue, dragging the uncooked pizza off the counter.

I shrieked with the pain of any artist seeing a creation (and dinner) being destroyed by the teeth of a ravaging canine. LL came running and we managed to get the pizza out of Mary Sue’s mouth — by this time of course all the dogs were jumping around, snatching pieces of bacon, tomato and mozzarella from the floor — and fling it back on the paddle, a deconstructed heap of sticky dough clotted with food-stuff. I, ever the pessimist, said, “Well, that’s it. The pizza’s ruined. So much for Pizza & Movie Night.” LL, however, said, “Maybe we can salvage it.”

And so, working slowly and meticulously, we managed to pull the inter-folded dough apart and gingerly spread it out into an irregular shape. We picked through the ingredients and placed them back in some semblance of a pattern. It looked bizarre, but I slid it into the oven.

Mary Sue looked completely untouched by regret or remorse and, in fact, when the pizza came out of the oven thought she saw a second chance to grab the thing, though I kept it beyond her reach. It looked pretty damned good, and actually turned out to be a Great Pizza and One of the Best in the History of FK’s Pizza-Making.

To drink with it, I opened a bottle of the Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon 2007, a 100 percent cabernet franc wine from France’s Central Loire Valley, where cabernet franc is the dominant red grape. The domaine, founded in 1975, is fairly young by the standards of the Loire Valley. Bernard Baudry produces four levels of Chinon cabernet france, of which the “Domaine” bottling, produced from 35-year-old vines, is the second. Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon 2007 is made from two terroirs, 50 percent gravel and 50 percent limestone soil. The wine is fermented in concrete vats and aged about a year in a combination of large casks and small barrels. No herbicides or chemicals are used at the estate.

This is classic Chinon, smoky and fleshy, though a bit broodsome in its notes of blueberry and black currant and its layers of black olive, dried thyme and leather. The wine is quite dry, and slightly woody tannins and dusty shale-like minerality produce some austerity from mid-palate back through the finish; I left the bottle with the cork in it overnight and by morning it resolved nicely, bringing in elements of Oolong tea, sage, bergamot, patchouli and bitter chocolate, though the tannins, bolstered by lively acidity, still cut a swath. Yes, it’s pretty heady stuff. I would recommend letting the wine breathe for an hour before serving. Drink now to 2016 or ’17, with hearty fare such as braised or roasted meat or eggplant-and-bacon pizzas. Very Good+. About $18 to $22.
Imported by Louis/Dressner Selections, New York. A sample for review.

Perennially one of the best wines for summertime drinking is Heller Estate’s Chenin Blanc. The winery in California’s Carmel Valley, in Monterey County, southeast of the town of Carmel, is operated on rigorous organic terms, and its wines are not only organic but vegan, meaning that no animal products such as eggs or milk were used in fining, the process by which an innocuous substance is introduced to the wine to help precipitate solid particles to the bottom of a barrel or tank. Heller uses the traditional bentonite — Education Alert! — an absorbent clay (aluminum phyllosilicate) that has an astonishing number of industrial and medicinal uses, from the drilling and engineering industries, to a wide range of ceramics applications that include sand casting and rocket nozzles, to skin creams, laxatives and (paradoxically) cat litter.

Those with long memories may recall that Heller Estate occupies the old Durney Vineyards, first planted in 1968. Heller’s winemaker is Rich Tanguay.

Anyway, the Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2008, which is drinking beautifully now, is a blend of 90 percent chenin blanc grapes and 10 percent riesling, or, as the winery notes say “Johannesburg Riesling.” Actually — another Education Alert! — the term “Johannisberg (proper spelling) Riesling” was phased out on Jan. 1, 2006 by the U.S. Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau aka TTB. American wine labels must now say “Riesling” or, for some reason “White Riesling,” as if there’s a lot of red riesling around to confuse us. Anyway, with no more digressions, as the winery’s hillside vineyards (1200 to 1500 feet elevation) have matured, the proportion of chenin blanc in the wine has increased; 10 years ago, the blend was more on the lines of 75 percent chenin blanc to 25 percent riesling. For 2008, the wine bursts with notes of honeydew melon, mango and litchee, with more subtle hints of straw, dried thyme, peach and tangerine; a few minutes in the glass bring up a hint of jasmine. Acidity that’s taut as a bow string keeps the wine lithe and lively, though the texture is a pleasing combination of crispness and slight lushness, and flavors of apple, roasted pears and softly spiced and macerated peaches are bolstered with a finishing touch of grapefruit bitterness. Serve as an aperitif or with moderately spicy seafood dishes. Excellent. About $25.

Heller makes a minute quantity of pinot noir; based on the Heller Pinot Noir 2007, Carmel Valley, I wish they made more, because this is frankly exquisite. The color is medium ruby with a pale violet rim. Aromas of black cherry, red currant and plum are wreathed with hints of nutmeg and cloves and a touch of something wild, like mulberry and rose petals. Bright acidity cuts a swath on the palate, holding a steady course through warm, smoky cherry and currant flavors ensconced in a seductive satiny texture that remains airy and elevating. Hints of clean damp earth and a kind of mossy-mushroomy quality lend a sense of true Burgundian character over undertones of slate-like minerality so chiseled that they feel transparent. Oak from 13 months in French barrels, 35 percent new, gently shapes the wine, providing subtlety and suppleness. Above all, this pinot noir exudes spareness and elegance and finely-tuned poise. The alcohol level is a modest 13.5 percent. 154 cases were produced. Excellent. About $50.
The petit verdot grape is not often made into its own wine, finding its purpose primarily in Bordeaux-style blends with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Even in Bordeaux, its natural habitat, petit verdot is not planted as much as it was 50 years ago. Still, a few wineries keep the faith, and Heller is one. The Heller Estate Petit Verdot 2007, Carmel Valley, doesn’t offer much in the way of elegance or poise; instead, it’s robust, earthy and succulent, virtues not to be denigrated when you have a steak sizzling on the grill or a rack of ribs slumbering in the smoker. The deep-purple colored wine opens with a dark fusillade of black pepper, blackberry and currant permeated by baking spice, graphite and bitter chocolate; gradually notes of lavender and lilacs, briers and brambles emerge. This is all rich, juicy, brambly black fruit in the mouth, an opulent sensation tempered by rousing acidity, dense chewy slightly dusty tannins and well-wrought oak, from 18 months in French barrels, 60 percent new. Give the wine a few more minutes, and it begins to smolder with wood smoke and bacon fat. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Production was 170 cases. Quite a performance — if you like wines that perform rather than simply exist — though I would be happier if it cost under $30. Excellent. About $50.

These wines were samples for review.

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