August 2010

The pizza was great, one of my best efforts, and the wine was great too.

Sometimes these matters are ineffable, unexplainable. Whatever the case, I made the pizza dough exactly right, with the correct balance of flours, yeast, water, salt and olive oil; kneaded the dough just as long as it, um, needed; the heat on the back porch was perfect for the first and second rising; I mean it all worked so that the crust, when it emerged from the 500-degree oven after 11 minutes, was thin yet with a slightly dense and chewy texture and a bit crisp at the moderately puffy circumference.

(BTW, I read somewhere that an oven heated at 500 degrees for an hour will reach a temperature of 550, the upper limit for a domestic range. That’s adequate, but I yearn for a wood-fired brick oven and the ideal 800 degrees that cooks a pizza in four minutes and chars the bottom of the crust. Sob. Weep.)

As you can see in the photograph, the pizza was topped with slices of tomatoes and bell pepper — very thin slices — with splotches of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses and Italian sausage. Underneath was a foundation of chopped fresh basil. Also: some diced white onion and two stalks of chopped green onion and, finally, gratings of Parmesan and pecorino cheeses. A dribble of olive oil across the surface as the last touch. Have mercy, everything worked together beautifully.

So did the wine. I opened a bottle of the V. Sattui Black Sears Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, from Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain appellation. At an elevation of 2,400 feet, Black Sears in one of the highest vineyards in California. The wine ages 16 months in French oak, 50 percent new, 50 percent used or “seasoned.” The color is ruby-black, nigh unto opacity, and while that dark hue indicates quite a bit of extraction, the wine is compellingly clean and fresh. The bouquet teems with hints of blackberry, black currant and mulberry is a cloud of cloves, black pepper, lavender, licorice and slate-like minerality. The most important aspect of the wine, other than that it’s downright delicious, is its precise balance and its impeccable integration of elements married to the power of dusty, rock-ribbed mountain-grown tannins and scintillating acidity. It’s the sort of warm, spicy, lively wine that makes you want to keep sipping. Truly a fine example of the zinfandel grape, with no exaggeration, no flamboyance of over-ripeness or high alcohol; by high, nowadays, I mean 15 percent and over. Alcohol in here is 14.5 percent. Production was 400 cases; winemaker was Brooks Painter. Excellent. About $40, at the winery or mail order.

A sample for review.

I won’t say that great pinot noir can only be made in Burgundy nor will I assert that a strict Burgundian interpretation of the grape is the only legitimate course to follow. Yet there is a greatness and fineness about the best models of the pinot noir grape from the Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy that examples produced in other parts of the world seldom achieve. Still, who would decry the fresh, pale, astringent pinot noirs of the Jura mountains, or the uniquely rooty, earthy pinots of Oregon’s Dundee Hills or the bright, fruity pinots of Carneros? One of the most transcendent pinot noirs I have ever tasted hailed from Tasmania. Obviously we must allow room for variation and individual style, yet most important is the notion that place matters; geography, friends, is a dear teacher, and whether in warfare or winemaking only fools will fail to pay heed to its lessons.

The responsibility of the winemaker is to produce a wine that exploits the grape’s best and most expressive character. The first exercise of that responsibility lies in planting grapes in the right location. Soil composition, sub-soil, underlying strata; the folds in hillsides, exposure to the sun and its duration, the ability of the ground to absorb or shed rainwater; the direction of prevailing winds and their distant source; the seasonal range of temperatures throughout the day and night; all of these factors and more coalesce in that precisely measurable yet somehow mysterious notion we call microclimate or terroir. Five hundred years have proven that a group of lamentably tiny vineyards in central-eastern France form the perfect terroir for the pinot noir grape, but that fact will not hinder prophets and pioneers from seeking a similar salubrious combination of effects elsewhere in the world.

The winemaker’s next responsibility is to allow a grape variety to seek its most natural level of eloquence; such a wine must be made without ego or agenda. Excellent grapes picked from a great vineyard need little help in accomplishing this goal, yet winemakers are an interfering lot. All details and variations of place and year aside, the pinot noir grape does not express itself best when the alcohol level is high, when the grapes are extremely ripe, when through deep extraction and oak aging the winemaker tries for size, voluptuousness and power. Let me state my feeling clearly: A pinot noir wine that, because of its size, its extraction, its power, reminds the taster, even in part or in passing, of, say, a syrah or a zinfandel, is a flawed wine, is, frankly, a failure, and it has been made in bad faith. The compact was been broken between the winemaker and the grape, and the wine amounts to an act of betrayal. I’m not saying that a pinot forced into larger-than-life dimension could not be enjoyable, match well with certain foods and so forth; I’m saying that it’s not pinot noir, and you might as well be drinking something else.

Over the past two or three weeks, I tasted 30 to 35 pinot noir wines from various regions of California; all are from vintages 2007 and 2008. I present my findings in a three-part series beginning today. A few of the examples displayed exactly what lovers of the pinot noir grape hope for, that ineffable marriage of delicacy, elegance, earthiness and authority that no other grape can offer in the same balance or proportion. More, however, and sadly, seemed heavy-handed, over-wrought, stridently-oaked and burdened with alcohol. Of course the pinot noir grape is not alone in such misfortune.

Image of pinot noir grapes from

Benovia Winery was founded in 2005 by Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane, with winemaker Mike Sullivan as co-owner. The wines produced are chardonnay and zinfandel and a variety of single vineyard or proprietary pinot noirs. New French oak ranges from 53 to 60 percent; fermentation is induced by indigenous yeast.

The Benovia Savoy Vineyards Pinot Noir 2006, Anderson Valley, is pure and intense, rooty, loamy and minerally in the graphite sense. Scents and flavors of macerated black cherries, currants and plums are full-blown and spicy, yet the wine retains a tinge of reticence and austerity. Ten or 15 minutes in the glass bring out hints of pert cranberry and mulberry and burgeoning spice, but you feel the oak too, a tide that pushes against the swathing of fruit. The “Savoy” is the most sinewy, the most powerfully structured of this trio. 14.1 percent alcohol. 372 cases. Excellent. About $58.

The Benovia Cohn Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Sonoma County, is a little warmer, a little spicier and certainly more exotic, with notes of sassafras, sandalwood and cloves. The texture is satiny, almost plush, but with a backbone of rigorous acidity and shale-like minerality. The black fruit flavors become rather marinated and roasted and hints of rhubarb and fruit cake seep in. Again, one feels the oak from mid-palate back, drying the finish. 14.4 percent alcohol. 372 cases. Very Good+. About $58.

One notices immediately that the warmest, the most generous and multi-dimensional of these pinot noirs is the Benovia Bella Una Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, for which grapes are drawn from the Martinelli, Dutton and Manzana vineyards. The wine is also the earthiest, with layers of a moss-like Oolong tea, and traces of tobacco leaf and sandalwood. This is frankly a big mouthful of pinot noir, and fortunately it possesses a core of delicately wrought black fruit flavors to play against the forceful oak and tannic structure, offering convincing balance. 14.5 percent alcohol. 195 cases. Excellent. About $58.

Samples for review.

Davis Bynum, who could be counted among the Sonoma County pioneers, founded his winery in 1975, concentrating on chardonnay, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. Well-known winemaker Gary Farrell came aboard in 1986 to bring some steadiness to the label, before starting his own winery. The label is now owned by Tom Klein and is part of Rodney Strong Wine Estates. Winemaker is Gary Patzwald, for whom 2007 was the first vintage.

Fine so far, I suppose, but I have to say that the Davis Bynum Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, is one of the most un-pinot-like pinot noirs I have experienced, and I have to wonder what good ol’ Davis Bynum, with his label in other hands, thinks of it. The color is a deeply extracted dark ruby-plum hue; aromas of plum and black cherry, fruit cake, lavender and rose petal (some dark, heady damask-like rose) seethe in the glass in a promiscuous smoky, fleshy welter. The wine is dense, succulent, almost viscous, and the intense ripeness pushes the fruit toward boysenberry, just as the 14.9 percent alcohol shoulders through the finish as a kind of sweet heat. Is it zinfandel? Is it shee-razz? The grapes, we’re told, are pinot noir, but the effect is bizarre. Not for this boy. About $35.

A sample for review.

Donum Estate occupies the former Tula Vista Ranch in Carneros, which the Racke family held onto after selling the Buena Vista Carneros Winery to Allied Domecq in 2001. Buena Vista traced its origin to 1857, when it was founded by the Sonoma County wine pioneer, Count Agoston Haraszthy, so even peripherally, there’s a lot of history here. President of Donum is Anne Moller-Racke, who came to California from Germany in 1981 and by 1997 was vice president of vineyard operations for Buena Vista; Moller-Racke is highly regarded as a grower, and her experience with the vineyards from which Donum draws its estate grapes goes back 20 and 30 years. I understand how meticulously the estate is run, how thoughtful and careful the vineyard practices are; I comprehend the innumerable questions and details that Moller-Racke and winemaker Kenneth Juhasz address in trying to achieve what the winery’s website calls “the purest possible expression of site and vintage.” So why do I find this trio of pinot noirs not thrilling? These are large-framed, packed-in pinot noirs, very Californian in tone and presence, and there’s nothing wrong with that nature, necessarily — all pinot doesn’t have to be Volnay or Chambolle-Musigny –but the persistent presence of new French oak in these wines is distracting, distancing and, particularly in one case, unbalancing.

The color of the Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Carneros, is medium-darkish ruby. Scents of black and red cherries and cloves with a touch of cola and rhubarb burst from the glass in a welter of macerated and slightly roasted fleshiness; this is heady stuff, indeed. The spicy black and red fruit character continues seamlessly through the mouth, ensconced in a satiny texture that flows smoothly and lushly across the palate; the wine is substantial, even weighty for the pinot noir grape, and you feel the pull of the oak — 11 months, 70 percent new barrels — as it takes over the finish. 14.4 percent alcohol. 800 cases. Very Good+. About $65.

Even more seductive and exotic is the bouquet of the Donum Estates West Slope Pinot Noir 2007, Carneros, a seething cauldron of red currants and black cherries, sandalwood and ashes of roses, lavender, rhubarb, sassafras and smoky Oolong tea, like some hippie cologne concocted in Kathmandu. The wine is smooth, silky, plush, dense and dusty with moderately chewy tannins and a touch of slate; altogether, it takes the grape’s sensuous possibilities almost to the limit, that is to say, almost beyond a sense of natural pinot noir-ness. In quite a feat, Moller-Racke and Juhasz pulled off a minor miracle by putting the wine through 16 months in French oak, 70 percent new barrels, and not overwhelming the wine (and its drinkers) with too much wood. Try through 2013 to ’14. Alcohol content is 14.4 percent. 150 cases. A grudging Excellent. About $70.

Beyond the pale for this palate, however, is the Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, a wine that opens with sweet succulence and quickly proceeds to display the tangible panoply of its oaken arsenal. The regimen was 11 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels; the result is very foresty, very briery, with dry woody spice and dusty austerity. Where’s the fruit? 14.4 percent alcohol. 500 cases. Not recommended. About $65.

Samples for review.

In 1998, Bill Foley, who has deep pockets, founded his winery in the Santa Rita Hills, a sliver of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley. Not long afterward, he swung into acquisition mode, and now Foley Wines owns 16 wineries or labels, including the venerable Firestone and, as of December 2008, the even more venerable Sebastiani. The Foley label itself focuses on chardonnay and pinot noir from the estate’s Rancho Santa Rosa vineyard. Winemaker is Kris Curran, who before she came to Foley established the very successful pinot noir program at Sea Smoke Cellars.

Lord have mercy, the Foley Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Rita Hills, is lovely. Despite 16 months in French oak, the wine is a model of subtlety, poise and elegance. Poignant aromas of red and black currants and cherries are married to piercing slate-like minerality and a wafting of cloves and the slight asperity of allspice. As is the case in great pinot noir, slashing acidity cuts a swath on the palate, so the wine’s luxurious satiny texture does not overwhelm or turn into exaggeration; the wine is so fresh that even the spare tannins feel clean and wholesome. The bouquet’s heady perfume increases as the moments pass, while the ripe black and red fruit flavors deepen and darken. A wonderful amalgam of grace and authority; close to perfection. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 to ’14. Excellent. About $40, but prices on the Internet can be as low as $32.

Tasted at a trade event.
Rich Frank — no pun intended — sough relief from the stress of the Hollywood media industry by buying a house in Napa Valley in 1990. He had been chairman of Disney’s television and telecommunications division and president of Walt Disney Studios. In 1992, he and a partner — subsequently bought out — purchased the defunct Kornell Champagne Cellars on the old Larkmead Winery near Calistoga. Larkmead had been established in 1884. Frank Family Vineyards concentrates on chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, and though I have liked the cabernets and chardonnays, I have found the zinfandel overbearing. The pinot noir discussed today is the first pinot that the winery has released for national distribution; a Reserve Pinot Noir is sold only in the tasting room. Winemaker is Todd Graff.

The Frank Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2008, Napa Valley-Carneros, is one big snootful and mouthful of pinot noir. Scents of red and black cherries and plums are dominated by ripe, earthy, fleshy elements and by piercing slate-like minerality and spicy oak. The treatment is entirely reasonable — 11 months in French barrels, 25 percent new, 75 percent one- and two-years-old — yet wood pervades every aspect of the wine, building from mid-palate back through the finish and providing, paradoxically, a sort of robust balance between voluptuousness and austerity. A few more details emerge in hints of cherry cola and briers, rose petals and licorice, but this is a wine primarily dominated by structure. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 954 cases. Very Good+. About $35.

A sample for review.

The Gainey family hails from Minnesota, where they built Josten Inc., a company devoted to academic and athletic products and services, into a Fortune 500 company, while, at the same time, dedicating their lives to the raising of Arabian horses. That avocation brought them to the Southwest and then to Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley, where Daniel J. Gainey, son of the family patriarch, in 1962 purchased 1,800 acres of farmland and open range. Grapevines came later, and in 1984 Gainey Vineyards released its first wines. The ranch is the largest diversified farming operation in Santa Ynez Valley, with 1000 acres for cattle, 600 for organically cultivated farmland, 100 acres for horses and 100 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards. Winemakers are Kirby Anderson and Jon Engelskiger.

The Gainey Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Rita Hills, offers lovely balance and integration, with delicately wreathed notes of smoky black cherry, red currants and plums, touches of orange zest and lapsang souchang tea and an intriguing back-tone of spiced apple. The wine drapes the mouth like satin, and then pulls out the panoply of dried baking spices and subtle hints of blueberry, cranberry and dried currants. A modicum of briers and brambles testifies to the presence of firm but unobtrusive tannins, while the oak influence, probably inescapable after 16 months in French barrels, 30 percent new, hews a dry, slightly woody path through the finish. I personally would rather see a tad less oak on the finish, but this is by and large a very warm and appealing pinot noir. Alcohol is 13.9 percent. production was 450 cases. Excellent. About $32.

A sample for review.
In Part II of this post about California pinot noir, I’ll review wines from Hahn and Hahn SLH Estate, three pinots from La Crema from 2008, two single-vineyard pinots from Lucienne (2007), three from MacMurray Ranch and the Meiomi 2008 from Belle Glos.

I’m working on a major post about pinot noir in California, in which I will write about 30 examples of 2007s and 2008s from various regions within the state. I hope that this will be on the blog within a week (or so). Meanwhile, I was in a nearby retail wine shop and saw a couple of cases of the MacRostie Pinot Noir 2006, Carneros, and I bought a bottle, because, frankly, I think that MacRostie’s chardonnay and pinot noir are some of the best around, always filled with character but restrained and elegant. Steve MacRostie had been the winemaker for Hacienda when he left in 1987 to start his own winery. MacRostie made the wines for his label, which include merlot and syrah, until 2004, when he passed that position to Kevin Holt.

The color of the MacRostie Pinot Noir 2006 is moderate but radiant ruby-cherry. Charming aromas of spiced and macerated red raspberries and black cherries waft from the glass; this fruit is ripe and fleshy but not in an obvious or heavily extracted sense. Impeccably balanced yet taut with acidity, the wine goes down like somnolent satin, leaving, in its wake, flavors of black and red cherries, a touch of red currant and traces of sandalwood and sassafras. A few moments in the glass deepen the effect, and nose and palate are equally beguiled by notes of moss and earthy truffles and, as the deepest bass tone, a hint of warm asphalt. The oak regimen was a sensible 10 months in French barrels, of which 30 percent were new. Tremendous pinot noir character, lovely poise and equilibrium, a trove of nuances. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 5,091 cases. Drink through 2012 or ’13, but careful storage is essential. Excellent. Suggested retail price is $30, which is what I paid, with Internet prices ranging from $25 to $32.

Say you’re preparing an Italian dinner, or you want to take a couple of reasonably priced Italian wines to dinner, or you just want a couple of terrific and reasonably priced Italian wines to drink, I mean, I’m not trying to suggest a career path or anticipate your every need, but try this pair:

For the white, La Tunella Pinot Grigio 2009, from Italy’s far northeastern Colli Orientali del Friuli region, or “Eastern Hills of Friuli.” I gripe and bitch and moan about the mediocre quality of 90 percent of the pinot grigio wines on the market, but this is not one of those. And, no, La Tunella does not mean “the little tuna”; it is, rather, the name of a hill and village close to this impeccably run family property. Made all in stainless steel, La Tunella Pinot Grigio 2009 opens with a spurt of spiced and herbed lemon, followed by scintillating green apple and a hint of apple blossom, and then something warmer, acacia, roasted pear. Forget watery pinot grigios; this offers a lovely sense of weight and balance that join crisp, lively acidity with elegant lushness. The wine is spicier in the mouth, especially through the finish, where the lemon and pear flavors are haunted by a hint of grapefruit. Incredibly charming. The alcohol content is 13 percent. Drink as a beguiling aperitif or with grilled fish and seafood. Excellent. About $21.

For the red, here’s a robust example from “the sun-burnt South,” as Keats says, referring to Provence, except that the Rapitalà “Nuar” 2007 is from Sicily, which, as you know, as souther. The wine is a full-throttle blend of 70 percent nero d’Avola and 30 percent pinot nero (pinot noir), as unusual combination, as is the treatment. The nero d’Avola sees only stainless steel, while the pinot noir is fermented in stainless steel and then transferred to small French oak casks for nine months. The result is a wine whose ripe, fleshy, meaty black fruit scents and flavors provide a heady kick that leans to the funky side of the street. These aspects of black cherry, black currant and blackberry are heightened by a touch of fruit cake and baking spices, by an earthy and minerally, slightly granitic vein and highlighted by acidity that stops short of being pert. In several words, the Rapitalà Nuar 2007 is perfect for hearty pizzas and pasta dishes, for barbecue brisket or braised short ribs and other such rib-sticking fare. The alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Drink now through 2012. very Good+. About $16.

Samples for review.
La Tunella imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal.
Rapitalà imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.

I have a quartet of reserve wines from the estate of Gustave Lorentz, founded in 1836, to taste and write about, and by all logic I should write about them together, but our dinner last night was so good and the wine so delectable that I will throw reason out the window and get down to it.

LL has made shrimp risotto countless times, yet for some reason last night’s rendition was particularly memorable; I’ll go ahead and say perfect.

I opened the Gustave Lorentz Reserve Pinot Blanc 2009, from Alsace, and while the risotto and the wine did not match perfectly — the risotto needed something a little juicier — there was no doubt that the wine was a beguiling tissue of subtleties. Fermentation occurs in vats of wood, steel and glass, and the wine rests five months in tank. So, first, a pale straw-gold color and aromas of roasted lemon and lemon balm, something slightly smoky, a touch of jasmine, and after a few moments, hints of quince and ginger; exquisite delicacy in the mouth, but riven by a taut core of clarion acidity and, again after a few moments, damp limestone, revealing, as it were, both tinsel and tensile strength; then nuances of spiced green tea and a bit of orange rind; all leading to a dry, spicy yet elegant finish. Absolutely lovely. Alcohol content is 12.5 percent. Drink now through 2013 to ’15, carefully stored. Excellent. About $20, a Great Value.

While writing this post, I have a glass of the wine next to me, and I’m nibbling a dry, nutty sliver of Piave Nuda Stravechia cheese. It works beautifully.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal. A sample for review.

I don’t mean that the Ridge Vineyards Three Valleys 2008, Sonoma County, is the kind of wine that brings you to your knees, makes you want to kiss the earth and thank your lucky stars that you’re alive. Those wines are rare. What I do mean is that this is a reasonably priced, thoughtfully crafted, quietly confident wine that dictates no extremes and tolerates no exaggeration. Its balance and integration are lovely to behold, and it happens to be delicious. It’s not an Exceptional wine in my rating scheme, but in its own way, it’s perfect.

Last night, I made Jamie Oliver’s Pasta alla Norma, about which I have written before, and opened to drink with the dish this Ridge Three Valleys 2008. The wine is a blend of 74 percent zinfandel, 11 percent petite sirah, 5 percent carignane, 4 percent mataro and 3 percent each syrah and grenache. Mataro is a little-used synonym for the mourvèdre grape. Notice the oak regimen: American oak barrels, 33 percent new and 1-year-old; 20 percent 2-years-old; 47 percent 5- or 6-years old. No taint of toasty new oak or woodiness mars the integrity of the wine’s fruit and finely-meshed tannic structure. Bouquet and flavor profile meld seamlessly in a welter of dusty plums, black and red currants and a touch of pert mulberry bolstered by hints of potpourri, sandalwood and granite-flecked minerals. Vibrant acidity whets the palate, leaving your taste buds eager for another sip, while the smooth, supple texture fills the mouth with impressive but not imposing weight. To remind us that the majority of grapes in the blend are zinfandel, the finish brings in notes of briers, brambles and black pepper. While head winemaker at Ridge is still the venerable, if not saintly, Paul Draper, the artisans of this wine were Eric Baugher, winemaker at the company’s Monte Bello facility, and John Olney, winemaker at Ridge’s Lytton Springs winery. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. Suggested retail price is $22; I paid $25 here in Memphis.

Reading over what I wrote in this post, it occurs to me that in its wholesome clarity of purpose, its authenticity and integrity, its complete level of sensual and intellectual satisfaction, its general unfussiness and lack of ego, the Ridge Three Valleys 2008 is precisely the sort of wine that should make us thank our lucky stars.

First, a lesson in wine geography and nomenclature.

Readers familiar with the official A.O.C. system — Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée — that governs grape-growing and winemaking in France probably know that there are basic wines from Bordeaux that can be labeled as such and basic wines from Burgundy that can be labeled as Bourgogne. The same is not true, however, for the Loire Valley region. Burgundy is minuscule in extent compared to Bordeaux, while Bordeaux is dwarfed by the Loire Valley, noted for being France’s largest and most diverse vineyard and wine-producing area. Grape varieties in Burgundy and Bordeaux, to stay with these handy examples, are limited and consistent; the Loire Valley is blessed — some would say cursed — with a dizzying array of grape varieties. If you picked up a bottle labeled Bourgogne Blanc, you could count on chardonnay being inside the bottle (well, yes, there’s a little pinot blanc in those vineyards); similarly, you would know that Bordeaux Blanc would be a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, perhaps with a touch of sauvignon gris or muscadelle. What would be inside a bottle labeled generically as Loire Valley Blanc, however, would be anybody’s guess.

This little disquisition leads to the Wine of the Week, the Pascal Jolivet Attitude Sauvignon Blanc 2009, which carries the designation Vin de Pays du Val de Loire. “Ah ha,” you crow, “there it is, F.K. ‘Val de Loire.’ Loire Valley.” Ah ha, yourself. Notice that this wine is a Vin de Pays, a “country wine,” and therefore a step below the A.O.C. wines in the French scheme of vinous things. Once known by the rather meaningless title Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France, the name was changed to Vin de Pays du Val de Loire in 2007, lending a regional identity which is still somewhat misleading, since this Vin de Pays encompasses 14 departments..

Now, here’s the interesting part. The grapes for this wine derive from two vineyards in the Touraine A.O.C., a Central Loire area rich in history and grand chateaux and a long heritage of winemaking. A Touraine Blanc A.O.C. does exist; the wine can be a blend of chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, arbois and up to 20 percent chardonnay. There’s even an appellation for Sauvignon de Touraine. So, why did Pascal Jolivet elect to label this wine as VDP du Val de Loire rather than the A.O.C. Sauvignon de Touraine? The clue perhaps lies in the letters “I.G.P” after the VDP designation on the label. The initials stand for Indication Géographique Protégée — “protected geographical region” — and it’s part of a five-year modernization of wine regulations launched by the French government in May 2008. IGP will replace the VDP level of wines, and among other easing of the former rules, it will allow producers to make wines from whatever grape varieties they chose and to take grapes from two or more regions. (It also allows the use of wood chips instead of oak barrels.)

Anyway and finally, the Pascal Jolivet Attitude Sauvignon Blanc 2009, made all in stainless steel, is a charming wine with enough seriousness about it to demand some consideration. The color is very pale straw-gold. Aromas of lemon and lime are imbued with elements of limestone and flint and hints of grapefruit skin and apple skin. There is indeed a bit of “attitude” about the wine, evidenced in its bright spiciness and the boldness of its clean acidity. Flavors of roasted lemon, quince and ginger are bolstered by deep, pervasive minerality, a sort of chalk over limestone foundation, while the texture is both lively and supple. The finish is rounded with a bracing bell-tone of grapefruit pith. Alcohol content is an eminently sane 12.5 percent. This was terrific with seared sock-eye salmon, potato salad and chard. Very Good+. About $17.

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

I’m really bummed that I missed National Root Beer Float Day last week, but that notion does bring up the question of what kind of root beer would you use to make a float. After all, one needn’t cook with the best wine; that would be a waste. (I mean, you can if you want, but still.) To make kir, you use a few drops of cassis in aligoté, an inexpensive acidic white wine, not lush, more expensive chardonnay. And you wouldn’t degrade a fine sparkling wine or champagne to make a mimosa.

Just so, I would not make a root beer float, much as I love them, with Virgil’s Root Beer. It’s too good for that use.

Virgil’s soft drinks are made by Reed’s Inc., which also makes a line of very authentic and gingery ginger ales and other ginger products. The formula for Virgil’s Root Beer was concocted by Ed Crowley, of the Crowley Beverage Corporation in Wayland, Washington, who sold the company in 1999 to Original Beverage Corporation, which changed its name to Reed’s Inc. in 2001. The company was founded by Christopher Reed, a sort of ginger guru, in 1987.

Here are the ingredients of Virgil’s Root Beer:

Carbonated water and unbleached cane sugar; anise from Spain, licorice from France, vanilla (bourbon) from Madagascar, cinnamon from Ceylon, clove from Indonesia, wintergreen from China, sweet birch from the southern US, molasses from the US, nutmeg from Indonesia, pimento berry oil from Jamaica, balsam oil from Peru, cassia oil from China.

Virgil’s contains no artificial ingredients and no preservatives; it is, instead, pasteurized after bottling.

The first impression is of a root beer that’s clean and spicy and sweet, but well-balanced. There’s a distinct piney element as well as a powerful and slightly medicinal rooty/herbal character, as if it were a healing concoction brewed by medieval monks. Virgil’s Root Beer is full-bodied and creamy, quite effervescent, with high notes of cool mint and vanilla and barky-tarry hints in the depths. The finish is a little bitter, like an Italian digestivo. Altogether, it’s a great and complex root beer.

Virgil’s products — I also like the black cherry cream soda — are primarily available at gourmet and specialty stores. In Memphis they can be found in single bottles at Fresh Market and at Whole Foods in four-packs for $3.49.

Well, of course the simplest pasta would be a bowl of naked noodles, but one step up in complication and yet remarkably delicious is the Roman dish Spaghetti a Cacio e Peppe, that is, Spaghetti with Pecorino Romano cheese and Black Pepper. You cook the pasta — as you can see, I used farfalle because I love those cute little bow-tie shapes — and when the pasta is cooked, reserve a little of the water and then drain the pasta as usual. Put it back into the pot, grate on a bunch of pecorino cheese and fresh cracked pepper and stir in a bit of the pasta water to help it all cohere. That’s it! I added — please don’t curse me, you sweet old lady goddesses of Roman cuisine! — a dribble of olive oil. It’s great stuff, and one bowlful made a more than adequate lunch for me yesterday.

For wine, I opened a bottle of the Argiano Non Confunditur 2007, a Rosso Toscano blend of 40 percent cabernet sauvignon and 20 percent each merlot, syrah and sangiovese. Argiano, whose winemaker bears the unexpected name of Hans Vinding-Diers, is a viticultural estate in Brunello di Montalcino that goes back to 1580, though the present ownership, of Countess Noemi Marone Cinzano, began in 1992. Non Confunditur is a Latin tag that means something like, “not to be confused,” and if the point is that this wine should not be confused with Brunello, well, don’t worry, small chance of that.

The wine is dark, ripe and robust and seductive with its aromas of macerated and fleshy black currants, black cherries and black raspberries, along with a whiff of black pepper. The wine ages one year in a combination of French barriques and Slavonian vats, so the oak influence manifests itself in the wine’s framing and foundation, exerting a sense of subtle, supple woodiness and blond, slightly exotic spice. Notes of red currants, orange rind, lapsang souchong tea, tobacco leaf and a tinge of cabernet’s graphite-like minerality develop in the glass. A stream of taut acidity keeps the wine lively and enticing throughout its soft almost plush ripeness, while dry, dusty tannins contribute to a build-up of briery and brambly austerity on the finish. Impressive character and confidence. The alcohol content is 14 percent. Drink now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. National prices are all over the map, as in about $16 to $24.

Vias Imports, New York.

Sometimes the story is almost as interesting as the wine. The wine in question is the Llai Llai Pinot Noir 2008, from Chile’s Bio Bio region, 300 miles south of Santiago and the southernmost of the narrow country’s vineyard areas.

Pierre Marchand, head winemaker for Bodegas Corpora, has been the winemaker for several prestigious producers in Burgundy, including Domaine Bruno Clair, Domaine Comte Armand and Domaine de la Vougeraie. In 1999, he joined the Boisset Group and went to work for the company’s joint venture in Chile with Corpora. When Boisset sold its share in the venture, Corpora took Marchand on as chief winemaker to oversee production for all its labels. Marchand does this while he continues to produce a negociant label in Burgundy under his own name. Making wine in Burgundy in one season and in South American at the following harvest must build up the frequent flyer miles. Winemaker for Llai Llai is Louis Vallet, another Burgundian who works two harvests a year, six months and many thousands of miles apart.

Despite their Burgundian orientation, Vallet and Marchard do not impose a classic (or trite) framework on Llai Llai Pinot Noir 2008, allowing for the individuality dictated by a rather exotic location for the grape. The wine sees some oak, but it’s a 50/50 combination of one-year-old French oak and stainless steel for 11 months, so any wood influence is persuasive yet gentle. The color is a lovely medium ruby with a magenta glow. The bouquet wafts a sweet exhalation of cloves and sassafras, dried red currants, tobacco leaf and spiced and macerated plums. This pinot noir is quite dry, lively and spicy, with flavors of red currants, cranberries and mulberries that unfurl a touch of cinnamon and a hint of briers and clean earth and enough tannin to make it slightly chewy. All factors are deftly handled, so the wine feels light without being tenuous and fleshed-out without being obvious. Alcohol content is 13.4 percent. Drink now through 2012. Very Good+. About $13, a Raving Bargain.

Imported by W.J. Deutsch & Sons, Harrison, N.Y. A sample from a broker.

Next Page »