June 2010

We continue with a series that presents two great wines that I tasted within the last three months — April, May and June for this post — but didn’t get an opportunity to write about.

These wines were samples for review.
The “regular” bottling of Renaissance Winery’s Roussanne 2006 was released early in 2009. A year later came the wine under review today, the Renaissance “Vin de Terroir” Roussanne 2006. The winery lies in the North Yuba appellation of the Sierra Foothills region, about 70 miles north of Sacramento. Gideon Beinstock is a thoughtful and careful winemaker who keeps alcohol levels low and new oak at a minimum. The Renaissance “Vin de Terroir” Roussanne 2006 spent two years and eight months in bottle before release. The wine was fermented in stainless steel with natural yeasts and aged nine months in new and one- and two-year old barrels. Just pulling the cork unleashes scents of pears and roasted lemons into the room; the bouquet wafts like fragile tissues of apple, ginger and quince, bee’s-wax and camellia woven together, while a few minutes in the glass bring out hints of orange water and rose petals. Bear in mind that nothing bold or flamboyant mars the delicacy of these sensations. This wine is more spare and more elegant than its young cousin, the Renaissance Roussanne 06; the present “Vin de Terroir” version, though lush enough to be almost viscous, almost oily, is nonetheless very dry, lithe and supple, even austere, providing a gratifying paradoxical nature that balances richness with clean, crisp acidity and a burgeoning limestone element. Flavors of peaches and pears macerated in cloves and allspice unfold before a tide of wood that’s close to ecclesiastical in its dry, dusty, slightly smoky character (but not toasty or charcoal-y; this is not a new oak thing). In its integrity and individual nature, the Renaissance “Vin de Terroir” Roussanne 2006 is an exotic masterpiece. 13 percent alcohol. The rub? Beinstock made all of 63 cases of this wine. Excellent. About $45.
The related wineries Far Niente (founded in 1979), Dolce (1985) and Nickel & Nickel (1997) have been joined by a new affiliate, En Route, dedicated to making pinot noir in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. The first vintage was 2007. Winemaker is Andrew Delos; director of winemaking for the group is Dirk Hampson. Grapes for En Route “Les Pommiers” Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley, derive from two vineyards at different locations in Russian River with a touch of grapes from Sonoma Coast. The wine ages 11 months in French oak, 55 percent new barrels. This is — what’s the word I’m looking for? — gorgeous, but thinking about the case for a few seconds, I hesitate to use “gorgeous” because it implies a quality of blatancy that the wine does not evince. It is, instead — what’s the word I’m looking for? — ethereal or evanescent or beguiling. The hue is moderate cherry-magenta with a slight blue cast, like the color of lipstick that men associate with danger. Aromas of black and red cherries are wreathed with dried cranberries, cloves and cinnamon, while in the mouth, flavors of black cherries, currants and plums nestle in a super-sexy, smooth satiny texture that’s seductive without being heavy or obvious. Traces of smoke, truffles and moss comprise a species of ripe earthiness that deepens the wine into layers of spicy oak and a hint of slate-like minerality. Really just incredibly lovely. Production was 1,993 cases. 14.8 percent alcohol, which might make the tail-end of the finish a trifle hot, but essentially the wine is superbly balanced and integrated. Excellent. About $50.

Every print and online wine publication in the Northern Hemisphere has been promoting what we’ll call Wines for Summer Sipping lately, and here at BTYH we’re no different. Few activities are more relaxing than sitting on the porch or patio, lounging by the pool or gamboling in forest cool and dim or meadow wide and fragrant at a picnic while sipping a refreshing, delicate, summery wine. And here’s one of the most attractive around. The name and label are quite clever; notice, class, the provocative use of negative space.

Innocent Bystander Pinot Gris 2009, from the Yarra Valley region of Victoria — the large geographical bump on the bottom of southeast Australia — is, in three words, charming, delightful, appealing. A blend of 91 percent pinot gris grapes and 9 percent viognier, aged a few months in older French oak barrels, and sporting a lovely pale-straw-gold color, the wine offers a seductive bouquet of jasmine, green apple and lemon balm infused with bee’s-wax and hints of cloves and ginger. Bone-dry but nicely ripe and rounded, Innocent Bystander Pinot Gris 09 delivers flavors of pears and roasted lemon buoyed by touches of dried thyme and lime peel, pea shoots, more ginger and just a pass at the tang of grapefruit’s bracing bitterness, way out at the edge of the finish. Crystalline acidity and a nod at damp limestone complete an irresistible package. Try with grilled shrimp and mango salsa, sushi, simply prepared fish dishes (no cream sauce, please) or as a crowd-pleasing aperitif. Very Good+. About $15-$16, a Great Value.

Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal. A sample for review.

Dear Readers … I learned yesterday that this blog — affectionately pronounced “Btyh” by its many fans — won the “Best Wine Reviews” category in the 2010 Wine Blog Awards now operated by Open Wine Consortium. The awards were announced Friday afternoon at the annual Wine Bloggers Conference, held this year in Walla Walla — motto: “The Town So Nice, They Named It Twice” — and I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to attend. Thanks for your public votes, thanks for the sagacious decision by the judging committee (which looked at many excellent blogs in the competition), and above all, a thousand thanks and bless yer bones for reading Bigger Than Your Head and endorsing what I have tried to do since launching the blog in December 2006: To provide information, education, commentary and level-headed criticism about the history and geography of wine, the wine industry and individual bottles great and small. This is the second year in a row that Bigger Than Your Head has won this award, a fact that not only gladdens my heart but spurs me to taste more wine, write about more wine and just have a fine old time doing so. I hope you do too.

Yes, Oveja Negra means “black sheep” — the outcast, the shunned — but this quartet of blended wines from Chile should be insiders on your table this summer. The wines are thoughtfully made from sustainable vineyards by Rafael Tirado, they’re primarily tasty and approachable, and the price, as you’ll see, can’t be beat. They’re from Chile’s Maule Valley, which lies within the country’s vast and productive Central Valley, which also include the vineyard regions of Maipo, Rapel and Curicó. No new oak is used with these Reserva wines. The bottles are topped with screw-caps for easy opening.

The Oveja Negra Reserva Sauvignon Blanc Carmenère 2009 is absolutely delightful. The blend is 85 percent sauvignon blanc and 15 percent carmenère, which, the sharp-eyed among you will assert, is a red grape, so it’s picked early, slightly under-ripe for the acidity, treated as if it were being made into a rosé wine, with no skin contact, and then blended back. The wine is made completely in stainless steel. This is clean, fresh and delicate, with penetrating scents of grapefruit, crushed jasmine, talc, lime peel and lemon balm; that’s right, you could dab it behind your ears on a soft summer night. Vivid acidity keeps the wine crisp and lively, buoying light flavors of slightly leafy lemon with hints of cloves and new-mown grass. The wine is quite dry and a little chalky, and the finish brings in a note of damp limestone. One of the prettiest wines around. Alcohol content is 13.2 percent. Very Good+. About $12 and a Great Bargain.

I was not quite as enamored of the Oveja Negra Reserva Chardonnay Viognier 2008, a blend of 82 percent chardonnay and 18 percent viognier. It’s simply a stylistic matter; this is rather too boldly and brightly spicy and tropical for my taste, but it’s certainly well-made. Ten percent of the wine is aged eight months in used French oak; in fact, these Oveja Negra Reserva wines see no new oak at all. Roasted grapefruit, baked pineapple, lemon-lime and lemon balm, a hint of spiced mango (and in the bouquet a beguiling touch of honeysuckle from the viognier): juicy but very dry, quite drinkable but more florid than I like, even in an inexpensive white wine. If it’s to your taste, go for it. Alcohol is 13.7 percent. Very Good. About $12.

The aromas of black and red currants that waft from a glass of the Oveja Negra Reserva Cabernet Franc Carmenère 2008 — the blend is 70/30 — are not only ripe and seductive but intense and concentrated and permeated by elements of cocoa powder and cloves, briers and brambles; the wine is deeply spicy and peppery, earthy and minerally in a crushed gravel sort of way, and its luscious, almost velvety black and red fruit flavors (with a whisk of cedary blueberry) lead to a finish with a touch of leathery austerity. The oak regimen is this: 40 percent of the wine aged eight to 10 months in a combination of 60 percent French and 40 percent American used oak barrels; the majority of the wine remained in stainless steel. A lot of personality for the price here, and a natural mate with grilled steaks and hamburgers or hearty pizzas and pasta dishes. 14.1 percent alcohol. Very Good+, and a Great Bargain at about $12.

Fourth in this roster is the Oveja Negra Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah 2008, a 68/32 percent blend with the same oak treatment as the Cabernet Franc Carmenère 08 mentioned above. This is a sizable wine, dense, concentrated, chewy, smoky and very spicy; it’s packed with earth- and mineral-infused black currant, blackberry and plum flavors, and the finish is stalwart with grainy tannins and polished oak. A little closed-in now and showing not quite the immediate pleasure of the previous wine. Perhaps a year in the bottle will soften it. 14 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $12.

Imported by Vici Wine & Spirits, Coral Springs, Fla. Tasted at a trade luncheon.

I invited wine-blogging colleague Benito to come over and taste six pairs of mainly limited-edition red wines with me a couple of weeks ago. The wines within each pair were related in some way, mainly in the sense that they were made by the same producer but from different vineyards or appellations. My intention was to see what sort of characteristics the wines possessed and how they expressed the variations in location, if they did so, and to what degree. There were four pairs of cabernet sauvignon-based wines and two pairs of merlot; one pair was from Washington state and the others from California, two from Sonoma County and three from Napa Valley.

Benito knew none of these details; all I revealed to him was that the wines were red, in related pairs and that we would taste them blind. I had a potential advantage, of course, but after I bagged and marked the wines (and removed the capsules), I moved the pairs around the table, and when Benito arrived, I asked him to do the same thing. When we sat down to begin, I realized by looking at the groups of bottles in brown paper sacks that I actually didn’t have a clue what the order was.

Here’s the deal: I found these wines, whose prices range from $35 to $85, generally solid and well-made but unexciting, uninvolving and uncompelling. Many of them shared so many similar qualities that they felt as if they had been engineered by committees. Nor did I discover much of the individuality and personality I was hoping for, either in the single examples or comparatively within the pairs. In fact, they seemed remarkably alike, reflecting a sense of prevalent style. After Benito and I tried the wines on a Thursday afternoon, I set the wines aside, let them rest over night and tried them the next day, and the next and even on Sunday; there was little sense of development or diminishing of oak and tannin. It’s difficult to understand, then, what these wines represent except their own status as iconic products to be featured on high-end wine lists and in the cellars of collectors. The order in which the wines are reviewed follows the order in which Benito and I tasted them.

These wines were received as samples for review.
1. Matanzas Creek Merlot 2006, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County. 88.5% merlot, 7.5% syrah, 4% cabernet sauvignon. 14.1% alcohol. $35. and 2. Matanzas Creek Jackson Park Vineyard Merlot 2006, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County. 100% merlot. 14.1% alcohol. $49. Winemaker is François Cordesse. Matanzas Creek is part of the Jackson Family Wines of Kendall-Jackson.

The “regular” Bennett Valley Merlot 06 offers a dark ruby-purple color and a seductive bouquet of smoke, lilac and lavender, iodine and graphite, cassis and crushed raspberries, with a final fillip of violets and toasty charcoal. (The oak regimen is 14 months in French barrels, 31 percent new, 69 percent used.) So, this aromatic nature is attractive and pretty standard in the California vein, with emphasis on the character that comes from oak aging, all that sort of smoky, crunchy, roasted stuff. The wine is rich, ripe and juicy with black fruit flavors, deeply spicy, solid with dense chewy tannins that grow more austere as the minutes (and days) pass, and altogether very cabernet-like in its sleek, powerful structure.

How does the Jackson Park version compare? Immediately one feels more power and darkness in the glass, more structure and more of the wheatmeal-graham-walnut shell nature, the dusty minerals that indicate the presence of formidable oak and tannin and presage time in the cellar. This wine also spends 14 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, 25 percent one-year-old, 25 percent two-year-old. At first the wine feels pungent, spicy and provocative, but it quickly succumbs to its structural elements, turning very dry and austere from mid-palate through the finish, leading one to wonder if the only way to produce impressive merlot-based wines is to make them like cabernet sauvignon. Try this perhaps from 2012 or ’13 through 2016 or ’17.

I rate both of these merlots Very Good+.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Emblem Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.3% alcohol. $50. and 2. Emblem Oso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 13.7% alcohol. $50. Winemakers are Michael Mondavi and his son Robert Michael Mondavi Jr. of Folio Fine Wine Partners.

The Rutherford district, progenitor of the famed (or infamous) “Rutherford dust” character, marks the heart of the Napa Valley. Named for the small, unincorporated community on Hwy 29, the district stretches in a broad band across the valley from the foot of the Mayacamas mountains in the west to the smaller Vaca Range on the east. The grapes for the Emblem Rutherford Cabernet 06 derive from a single, unnamed vineyard on the eastern side of the Napa River. This feels, indeed, like classic Napa/Rutherford cabernet, with a nose of cedar and black olives, mint and cloves and very intense and ripe cassis and black cherry scents wrapped in spicy oak and (yes) a dusty, leafy graphite quality. The oak treatment is 22 months in French barrels, of which 66 percent were new. At first, Emblem Rutherford 06 is pretty luscious and juicy, but strapping tannins expand rapidly and take up all the available space, turning the wine austere to the point of astringency. It is, in a word, huge in oak, huge in tannin, huge in that dusty, granite-like mineral element. It’s the old iron-fist in the iron-glove thing. Try from 2012 or ’14 through 2018 or ’20. For now, Very Good+.

Cousinage between these two Emblem wines consists of the factor of 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes and some resemblance in the oak regime, which for the Oso Vineyard 06 is also 22 months in French barrels, but 45 percent of the barrels are new. No matter. The Oso is another substantial, oak-bound, formidably tannic and granite-like wine that’s even more closed, more brooding and more austere than the Rutherford 06. The grapes come from the Mondavi family’s Oso Vineyard in the northern part of Napa Valley, near Calistoga. Considerable time will elapse before it softens and unfolds a bit, though I’ll grant that the wine’s supple texture — the tannins are more velvety than grainy and gritty — is very attractive. Another Very Good+ and hoping for the best after 2013 or ’14.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Northstar Merlot 2006, Walla Walla Valley, Washington. 78% merlot, 17% cabernet sauvignon, 5% cabernet franc. 14.4% alcohol. 1,200 cases. $50. and 2. Northstar Merlot 2006, Columbia Valley. 76% merlot, 19% cabernet sauvignon, 3% petit verdot, 2% cabernet franc. 14.7% alcohol. 10,00 cases. $41. Winemaker is David Merfeld. Northstar is a sister winery to Chateau Ste. Michelle.

The point here is that since Walla Walla is a smaller appellation within Columbia Valley theoretically a Walla Walla merlot will be (or could be) better than a merlot from the larger, more diversified region; how else justify the difference in price and packaging? As it happens, in this blind tasting, Benito and I tried the Walla Walla version before the Columbia Valley rendition, and while I’ll give the Northstar Walla Walla 06 a slight edge over the Northstar Columbia 06, these were both very well-made wines with a pleasing sense of detail and dimension. Walla Walla is, as many devotees of merlot know, a potentially superb area for the grape. Do these Northstar merlots, especially the Walla Walla, evince a definite regional character, points that one would pick out as “Walla Walla”? I would say not. While immensely enjoyable, there’s not much to distinguish these merlots from dozens, if not hundreds, of other examples.

To follow the tasting order, the Northstar Merlot 06, Walla Walla, ages 17 months in French oak barrels, 56 percent new. The grapes for the wine derive from nine blocks within four vineyards. The color is dark ruby-purple with a slightly paler purple rim; the bouquet is intense and concentrated, a tightly furled amalgam of iodine and iron, licorice and lavender, and very ripe and penetrating scents of black currant and black cherry. The wine is deeply rooted in baking spice and macerated black fruit flavors permeated by polished oak, graphite and dense, supple tannins, all ensconced in a sumptuous, velvety texture. Drink now through 2015 to ’16. Very Good+.

Surprisingly, my first notes on the Northstar Merlot 2006, Columbia Valley, are “color is even darker; more intense — more concentrated.” This is actually an incredibly dense, fervently eloquent expression of the merlot grape that, for once, doesn’t seem like just another cabernet in disguise. The wine sees a little more oak than its stablemate — 18 months in 70 percent French and 30 percent American oak barrels, 65 percent new — but it does not come off as besotted or imperiled by wood; in contrast, it feels as if you’re drinking tapestry loaded with cassis, Damson plums, potpourri, mocha and bitter chocolate with a slightly piquant spicy edge and a lacy etching of iron filings. Nothing over-ripe or exaggerated here, and, in fact, this may be the most elegant and balanced wine of the tasting. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Rodney Strong Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 97% cabernet sauvignon, 2% malbec, 1% petit verdot. 15.4% alcohol. $75. and 2. Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 100% cabernet sauvignon. 15.4% alcohol. $75. Winemakers are Rick Sayre and Gary Patzwald, with David Ramey as consultant.

Alexander Valley is a narrow, 12-mile long region that stretches southeast to northwest into the upper reaches of Sonoma County. At its lower end, Alexander Valley is buttressed by Knights Valley on the east, Chalk Hill and Russian River Valley to the south and southwest and Dry Creek Valley to the west, but it rises above this crowd and reaches in isolation up to the border with Mendocino County. The Russian River runs right down through the center of Alexander Valley, providing a moderating influence to temperatures that are generally warmer than the rest of the county.

The Brothers Ridge Vineyard, in what we’ll call the northern quadrant of Alexander Valley, lies east of the town of Cloverdale — pop. 6,831; motto “Genuinely Cloverdale” — in hills that reach nearly 1,000 feet elevation. The soil is loam over layers of sandstone, shale and “ancient” greenstone, that is, basaltic rock that was once deep-sea lava. The vineyard faces mainly west. In contrast, the Rockaway Vineyard, which slopes primarily northeast and southwest, lies over a gravelly clay subsoil atop fractured sandstone. A few miles southeast of Brothers Ridge and slightly lower — 750 feet at the highest elevation — Rockaway is a bit cooler. Do these factors of climate and geography produce different wines? Don’t forget the element of oak aging; 22 months in French barrels, 42 percent new, for Brothers Ridge, 22 months, in French barrels, 47 percent new, for Rockaway.

Rockaway 2006 starts with toasty, sweet oak and sweet, ripe black and blue fruit scents straight out of the gate; this bouquet is deliriously seductive, broadly and deeply spicy, with violets, crushed lavender, licorice and an exotic touch of mocha and smoky, incense-like sandalwood. Soon, however, one reaches an impasse; yes, there are the generous spicy nature and glimmers of cassis and blue plums with a hint of fruit cake, but mainly the wine at this point is tightly, massively structured, and three days in the bottle did not do a lot to help it unfurl. On Sunday morning, Rockaway 06 still offered an intensely spicy character that permeated black cherry and red currant flavors, but the tale was told in chewy, grainy tannins and formidably austere oak. Try from 2012 or ’13 through 2018 to ’20. Very Good+ for now.

Brothers Ridge 2006 felt a little looser, a little more open and approachable than its cousin. Here we perceive leather, plums with hints of espresso and prunes — the summer of 2006 was historically hot — the depth and range of the spice cabinet, touches of menthol and cedar. After three days of sweet-talking and coaxing, though, however much the attractive points of macerated and roasted berries became evident, Brothers Ridge 06 remained all about oak, which coated the mouth with austerity and astringency. It’s difficult to imagine that the wine will ever achieve the equilibrium it requires to become palatable. Try, with hope in your hearts, from 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’20. Very Good+ for now.
1. Piña Cellars Buckeye Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 15.1% alcohol. 840 cases. $85. and 2. Piña Cellars D’Adamo Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 15.4% alcohol. 1,085 cases. $75. Winemaker is Anna Monticelli.

The Buckeye Vineyard, high atop Howell Mountain — vineyard elevation up to about 2,200 feet — is a far cry from the D’Adamo Vineyard, nestled in the foothills between the Silverado Trail and Atlas Peak. One feels that difference immediately in this pair of wines from the Piña family, who have been tending vineyards in Napa Valley since the late 19th Century. The Buckeye Howell Mt. 07 displays bastions of resonant tannins for framing and foundation, like the deepest bass notes of a grand pipe organ, yet the bouquet draws you in with bacon fat, lavender and licorice, smoky charcoal, roasted meat (lamb, I would say) and very intense and concentrated elements of black currants, black cherries and plums. By the third day after being opened, this Buckeye Howell Mt. 07 had evolved into a real classic of mountain-grown cabernet, with high notes of cedar, tobacco and mint leading into spiced and macerated black currants and plums; the wine was still inky and granite-like, still awesome with oak and tannin, yet its innate elegance and balance were clearly evident. Of the 12 wines under consideration in this post, this was my favorite. Try from 2013 or ’14 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent.

Not to stint, however, on the virtues of the D’Amado 07, which opened seeming a little sleeker, a little smoother and more supple than its stablemate; in fact, you could swim in this ripe, rich, spicy and floral bouquet, though seemingly fathomless tannins come into play fairly quickly and dominate the wine after 15 or 20 minutes in the glass. Three days later, that bouquet still simmers with spice, cloves and mocha and macerated black fruit, but the bitingly austere tannins, the oak, the mineral qualities had not abated an inch. Give this considerable time, and call it Very Good+ for now with the potential for an Excellent rating.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Markham “The Altruist” Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Calistoga, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.8% alcohol. 507 cases. $53. and 2. Markham “The Philanthropist” Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Yountville, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.8% alcohol. 506 cases. $53. Winemaker is Kimberlee Nicholls. These wines are dedicated to Markham’s 2008 “Mark of Distinction” award winners, Table to Table in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., and the Bartlett Arboretum in Bell Plaine, Kansas.

These wines aged in French oak barrels 28 months and 27.5 months respectively, longer than any of the other wines tasted for this post, and the extra time shows in the intractability and impenetrability of their textures and structures. These are two freakin’ big tannic, oaken, dusty-iron-and-granite-girt wines! Will they ever come around? Making two 100 percent cabernet sauvignon wines from distinct areas in Napa Valley — Calistoga, north of St. Helena, and Yountville, in the central south –and treating them much the same in the winery would seem to point to the notion of emphasizing the wines’ origins in different micro-climates and soils, but the imposition of long oak aging and of deeply extracting tannins rendered that potentially interesting point moot, null and void. These cabernets are about their making, not about their vineyards or locations. As much as I played with them from Thursday afternoon until Sunday morning, I could elicit from them only the stringent rigor of their fabrication. Try, if you will, from 2014 or ’15 to 2020 or so, and let me know what happens. You know where to find me.

It’s so blasted hot here — it’s predicted to go up to 101 this afternoon with a heat index of 105 to 110 — that cooking food over, you know, heat seems like the last thing we want to do, so LL has been looking for cool dishes for torrid weather. Last night she relied on one of our favorite summertime dishes, a variation on vitello tonnato that uses slices of roasted pork loin instead of veal; this also works well with slices of roasted turkey breast (which, frankly, we prefer, though the pork was tasty). I bought a roasted pork loin at Fresh Market; boy, that was easy! The sauce is simple to put together — a can of tuna in oil, anchovies, chicken broth and lemon juice blasted in the food processor — and you just put the meat on a bed of fresh spinach leaves, spoon on a generous dollop of sauce, sprinkle on a few capers and serve it with lemon wedges. Tomatoes are good too. Anyway, this is a fine cold dish for a hot evening, and we settled in with it to watch the delightful and rather provocative Fantastic Mr. Fox.

We’re very much into rosé wines at the moment, and considering the character of this cold dish, I opened a bottle of an absolutely classic Côtes de Provence model, the Coeur Estérelle 2009, a traditional blend of carignane, cinsault and grenache grapes made by Chateau du Rouët. Classic how? First, the color is that pale, pale, very pale russet-orange-copper called onion skin or eye of the partridge –I’ve never looked a partridge in the eye, but I’ll take the word of the French for this — a vrai vin gris. The wine is spare, delicate and elegant in every respect, from its bouquet of dried red currants, peaches and watermelon, to its lovely texture where crisp and crystalline acidity meets the moderate lushness of ripe strawberries, red currants and a hint of tart pomegranate. The wine is bone-dry, slightly earthy, with undertones of limestone and dried thyme. Immense charm. Very Good+. About $13 to $15.

A Christopher Canaan selection, for Europvin U.S.A., Van Nuys, Ca. A sample from the local wholesaler.

I am fortunate to live within short or fairly easy driving distance of four or five excellent wine and liquor stores, and I happened to be in one of them a few days ago when my eye fell upon a selection of rosé wines. Now it’s already stinkin’, freakin’, awesomely and unseasonably hot in Memphis — it’s supposed to hit 100 today, and don’t talk about the heat index — and well-made, thirst-quenching rosé wines are among my favorites, so I perused this display with interest. There, amid the usual pale suspects, was a label I had never seen. This was the Margerum Rosé 2009, Santa Ynez Valley. The label was restrained and typographically elegant, but what really caught my attention was the line: “This is bottle 0801 of 1200”. Gathering the forces of a razor-sharp intellect, I performed a quick calculation and realized that only 100 cases of this wine were made, and the puffy, luminous thought-cloud above my head contained the question: “How the hell did this wine get to Memphis?”

Douglas Margerum makes this rosé by bleeding off some juice from a variety of grenache vineyards he works with, fermenting and storing in stainless steel, and then blending back 30 percent of the “regular” grenache. The result is a rosé whose color is a bit ruddier than watermelon pink and a tad paler than copper, with a cerise-like radiance at the center. Scents and flavors of strawberries and red currants with a hint of peach in the background are sustained by a wash of damp gravel and dusty roof tiles — how to explain? Think of limestone after a rain and the warmth of the sun on fired clay. There’s an undertow of plum, a touch of cloves and cinnamon, and evidence of a mild but firm tannic structure. Dry, crisp and vibrant, this is a rosé of uncommon suavity and resonance. Excellent, and definitely Worth a Search. The price at the winery is $21; I paid $23.

It’s ironic that the logo for August Briggs Winery features a delicate dandelion puff-ball with a few of its gossamer filaments a-drift on a gentle zephyr, because these six red wines are anything but gossamer-like. They are, instead, in a few words, solid, substantial, robust. The winery is on the Silverado Trail in Calistoga, in the north part of Napa Valley, but August Briggs draws on vineyards not only in Napa but in Sonoma and Lake counties, making small quantities of 16 wines. Under review here are two cabernet sauvignons, two pinot noirs, a petite sirah and an old vine zinfandel.

Samples for review.
The August Briggs Pinot Noir 2008 derives from three vineyards in Russian River Valley. The color is medium ruby with a radiant darker shade within. Aromas of black cherry, plums, cloves and cola unfold to hints of moss, autumn leaves and smoke. The oak regimen was eight months in 30 percent new French barrels, 70 percent two- and three-year-old barrels. There’s nice balance here initially between delicacy and something more dynamic, but the wine is also quite dry, and it reveals more spice and wood, in the form of brown sugar and allspice, that turns a little astringent on the finish. More time in the glass intensifies the cherry fruit. Production was 503 cases. Alcohol content is 14.2 percent. Very Good+. About $38.
More detail and dimension surface in the August Briggs “Dijon Clones” Pinot Noir 2008, Napa Valley. This is slightly darker than the Russian River Valley pinot noir, and its bouquet is more pure, intense and entrancing. Subtly expansive black cherry, cranberry and mulberry aromas are gently infused with sweet baking spices and a touch of the exotic, a hint of smoke and sandalwood. The oak treatment is the same for this wine as for its Russian River Valley stablemate, but you feel its slightly woody presence a bit more on the finish, but before that moment, your palate is engulfed in a lush swathing of satiny succulence and earthy, rooty black and red fruit flavors. Still, 20 or 30 minutes bring in the same austerity that defines the August Briggs’ Russian River Valley pinot noir, so what we see here is a stylistic choice. Perhaps a year or two of aging will soften the wine. Production was 805 cases. Alcohol is 14.5 percent. Very Good+. About $40.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________ Let’s do these two 100 percent cabernet sauvignon wines, one from Napa Valley, one from Sonoma Valley, together.

The August Briggs Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley, is all about structure. You smell it in the aromas of dust, briers and brambles, granite and lead pencil, cedar and walnut shell; you taste it in a mouthful of dusty minerals, dusty tannins and dusty oak from 20 months in half-and-half French and American barrels. Yet you also feel a richness, a smoothness and sense of dimension that speak of this wine’s potential for development over the next six to eight years; try from 2012 or ’13 through 2016 or ’18. Two vineyards were involved, the Stagecoach Vineyard in Atlas Peak and the Corbett Vineyard on Spring Mountain. 498 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+ now with the possibility of Excellent. About $52.

Let’s remember that the Napa Valley designation on the previous wine implies a large growing region with smaller appellations, like Atlas Peak and Spring Mountain, within it. Sonoma Valley, on the other hand, is a vineyard appellation (or American Viticultural Area) within the larger Sonoma County region. In the case of the August Briggs Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Sonoma Valley, it’s also vineyard-specific, and a venerable vineyard it is, first planted in 1880, purchased in 1938 by Louis M. Martini and replanted, and owned since 2002 by Gallo.

The color of the August Briggs Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 is dark ruby/purple; the bouquet is rich and warm, fleshy, floral and spicy, and dense, if aromas can be dense, with macerated black and red currants, plums and cherries; a few minutes in the glass bring in elements of iodine, sea-salt, cedar and graphite. As you can tell, the wine, in its bouquet, is a testimony to defining (indeed, provocative) detail. In the mouth, the wine takes a harder edge, with sumptuous, chewy tannins and lavish oak — 20 months French and American, 50/50 — leavened by a feast of granite-like minerality and foresty qualities. Fine now with a piping hot rib-eye steak, but otherwise try from 2012 or ’13 through 2017 to ’20. Production was 598 cases. 14.9 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $55.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________ I’ll admit that the one of these six wines that I liked unabashedly was the exuberant August Briggs Old Vines Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, a clean, bright, pure and authoritative zinfandel whose grapes derived from two vineyards, one planted in 1908, the other in the 1940s and ’50s. Black cherry, black currant and blackberry scents and flavors are infused with smoky lavender and licorice and interesting hints of caraway and wheatmeal, the flavors ensconced in rip-roaring, lip-smacking tannins that are gritty and chewy yet plush, too, almost velvety. Tons of fruit here and tons of structure in great balance. You can’t get away from the fact that the alcohol level is 15.2 percent, but, hell, we get top-flight iconic cabernets now with that factor, so, you can live with it. Wrap this around game meats like venison and boar. 420 cases. Excellent. About $35.
And, the one of these wines that I disliked absolutely was the August Briggs Petite Sirah 2007, Napa Valley, which in its very evident 15.5 percent alcohol, its massive oaken influence and its overwhelming tannins makes a detrimental fetish of muscle-bound bigness. 296 cases. Not for this boy. About $38.

I get so many inexpensive wines from Chile that my heart sinks when I empty a box and see one more carménère. Do not, however, neglect this one.

The Viu Manent Reserva Carménère 2008, Valle de Colchagua, is certainly the best wine made from carménère grapes that I have tried so far this year. Guess what? It doesn’t taste like merlot or cabernet sauvignon, which I consider a real feat, because the principal flaw in inexpensive red wines from Chile (and Argentina) is that they all taste alike. In Argentina, of course, one substitutes malbec — otherwise universally known as “the hope and future of Argentina’s wine industry” — for Chile’s carménère.

Anyway, the Viu Manent Reserva Carménère 2008 is 100 percent carménère grapes, aged 11 months in a combination of French (87 percent) and American (13 percent) oak barrels. Here’s a wine that layers personality over character, from high notes of red currants, Damson plums and blackberries to touches of dried cranberry and cloves and leather to depths of tar, Oolong tea and graphite-like minerality. A few minutes in the glass bring in elements of bitter chocolate and mocha, violets and lavender, briers and brambles and a sense of mossy earthiness. Finally: wood-smoke, spicy wood, smoky spice. LL and I drank this gratefully with seared and baked pork chops under a crust of salt and pepper, chili powder and ground cumin, garlic and lime zest. The alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Now through 2012 or ’13. Very good+. About $14.

Viu Manent — a combination of two family names — was founded in 1935, making it a pioneer in Colchagua. The winery produces five lines or labels that vary in price from about $9 to $75. Colchagua Valley is a zone within the larger Rapel Valley region, about 150 kilometers or about 93 miles south of Santiago.

Imported by Baystate Wine & Spirits, Avon, Mass. A sample for review.

When Benito comes over to taste wine, he habitually brings a gift, and today was no different from other occasions. Traipsing through the door, he handed me a black and silver can and said, “Try the beer that drinks like a port.”

The beer that drinks like a port? Nay, brethren, like a porterhouse steak!

This was the Ten Fidy Imperial Stout from the Oskar Blues Brewery of Lyons, Colorado, population 1,400. Oskar Blues fomented a suds revolution in 2002 by “bottling” its stupendous, hand-crafted, weirdly named brews in specially lined aluminum cans.

Ten Fidy refers to its alcoholic strength — 10.5 percent — though the can of which I partook stated that it was 9.5 percent. No matter. Ten Fidy is in every sense the hand-held equivalent of a Dodge Ram 1500.

Imagine, if you will, a snifter-style goblet that holds a beer the rich shiny mahogany color of coffee dregs, such as Beowulf might quaff in Jutland’s endless night (had coffee and its dregs been available to that legendary hero; of such comparisons are resonant metaphors made). Imagine, then, that this primordial liquifaction smells like the world’s strongest coffee whose beans have been roasted to the point of being caramelized with a handful of roasted barley and the darkest of dark, bitter chocolate. (The word “roasted” shows up a lot here.) Flavor-wise, you take a jolt of thermonuclear-strength espresso, jazz it with a dollop of bitter Italian amaro and black-strap molasses, dark brown sugar, sassafras and prune juice, with, to top it off, another handful of deeply roasted barley.

This is not, as you can ascertain, the sort of beer that you snatch from the ice-chest, chug-a-lug like a demon and then do a belly-flop in the pool. No, this is a contemplative brew, and, as Benito implied, requires solitude and slow, thoughtful sipping at room temperature with a plate of Stilton cheese, some walnuts and an apple. Or, I’m thinking, a hot, open-face roast beef sandwich.

Next Page »