September 2010


Consistently one of California’s best sauvignon blanc wines comes from Gainey Vineyards in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley. The Gainey Sauvignon Blanc 2009 includes 20 percent semillon grapes, an element that lends this complex wine touches of leafy fig, a hint of the tropical and a wash of provocative earthiness. Seeing only stainless steel — no oak — the wine is boldly fresh, clean and bright, displaying vivid and pungent scents of lemon and lime and lime peel with a trace of spicy gooseberry and that semillon-influenced fig. In the mouth vibrant acidity keeps the wine pert and compelling; melon is added to flavors of pear and grapefruit, and though the wine is bone-dry, there’s a bit of peach that feels almost honeyed in its ripe richness. The texture is sleek and elegant; the finish brings in more lime and grapefruit and a tide of scintillating limestone minerality. We drank this with grilled swordfish, prepared simply with salt, pepper and lemon juice, and a salad of new potatoes, green beans and red bell pepper in a mustard vinaigrette. Alcohol content is 13 percent. 2,300 cases were produced. Winemaker is Jon Engelskirger. Excellent. About $14, an Astonishing Bargain.

A sample for review.

The restless, seething mind of Jeff Bundschu must keep him awake at night. The man who created Wine Brats some 20 years ago (!) has now come up with Blue Nomad Wine Company, and while this venture includes winemaker Keith Emerson — no, not that Keith Emerson — who makes the wine for Gundlach Bundschu Winery, of which sixth generation Jeff Bundschu is president, the family winery is not connected with Blue Nomad.

Blue Nomad, at this moment, produces two wines that debuted (actually in Memphis) in mid-August: a white, the Bright Light 2009, with a California designation, and a red, the Rockus Bockus 2007, from Sonoma County. Both are multi-varietal blends.

Bright Light 2009 is an unusual combination of chardonnay with gewurztraminer and albariño. The wine is incredibly clean and fresh; peach and pear, lychee and melon are seamlessly woven with a wafting of jasmine and honeysuckle, and then, after a few moments, with notes of tangerine and dried grass. Flavors of roasted lemon and spiced pear (with a hint of dried thyme) are bolstered by tongue-grabbing acidity and a long finish jazzed by the slight bitterness of lemon pith and lime peel. Drink through Summer 2011. Very attractive as an aperitif or with grilled seafood like shrimp and mussels. Alcohol content is 14.1 percent. 1,000 cases were produced. Very Good+. About $10 to $13, a Good Value.

The Bright Light label, designed by artist Andrea von Bujdoss of Brooklyn, screams retro-Hindu-psychedelic with pink and yellow hearts, stars and curlicues. And it glows in the dark, always a handy feature when you’re drinking in a closet.

Rockus Bockus Red Wine 2007 is a kitchen-sink blend of cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, syrah, malbec, merlot and petit verdot; what, no alicante bouschet? This is a juicy, succulent red wine with sufficient acidity and tannin to lend a moderately serious backbone. Scents and flavors of ripe black currants, black cherries and super-dark plums are permeated by traces of bitter chocolate, lavender and ancho chili. A velvety texture is slightly roughened by chewy, grainy tannins, while the finish opens a vein of polished graphite-like minerality. A little suave, a little earthy; a little intense, a little shameless. Drink with burgers, steaks and assorted usual suspects through 2012. Alcohol content is 14.4 percent. Production was 1,800 cases. Very Good+. About $13 to $16, not a bad price.

The bizarre but admittedly striking label art by British illustrator Ben Newman represents a contemporary country mouse/city mouse depiction of Bacchus, god of wine. Yes, now you get it, Rockus Bockus!

Tasted with Jeff Bundschu in Memphis.

Not much Chianti Superiore is made in Tuscany; production is under two percent of total Chianti output, which encompasses, generally, Chianti, Chianti Superiore, Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva. The “Superiore” designation doesn’t necessarily mean that a wine is “superior” to those made in a “lesser” category but that its production requires greater density of planting and lower grape yields in the vineyard and a slightly higher alcohol content than “regular” Chianti. Chianti Superiore is officially categorized as a D.O.C.G., or Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, the highest classification of Italian wine, though in the past 20 years this distinction has been passed out like candy at a children’s birthday party.

Anyway, a few nights ago I made a sauce for penne pasta in this manner: I minced about a quarter of an onion, a small carrot, a stalk of celery and I guess three cloves of garlic and sauted them in some olive oil and a little grease from some chopped Italian sausages I had previously cooked. When the vegetables were just beginning to brown, I poured in about half a cup of red wine, turned the heat up and let that bubble until the wine had evaporated. Meanwhile, as recipes say, I had taken about 15 small and very ripe Roma tomatoes (from the Memphis Farmers Market), halved them, sprinkled them with olive oil, salt, pepper and dried thyme, marjoram and oregano and put them under the broiler until they began to blacken and blister. The skins, what was left of them, slipped off easily. I scraped the tomatoes and any liquid into the pot with the vegetables, stirred all this together and then took a pair of kitchen shears and went in there and scissored everything into the smallest possible pieces. Before serving, I took two very ripe, dark red tomatoes, dipped them into the boiling pasta water for a minute each, stripped off the skins, chopped them and added them to the sauce to heighten the freshness factor. A couple of dippers of the hot pasta water stirred in gave the sauce just the right consistency. Prego!

All of which brings us to Banfi’s Chianti Superiore 2008, one of the wines in the Banfi Toscana portfolio. This is the first release of the wine; it’s available only in the United States. The wine is made from 75 percent sangiovese and 25 percent canaiolo nero and cabernet sauvignon and aged four to five months in French oak barrels. This is an accessible, direct and authentic expression of the sangiovese grape and of the Chianti style that makes up in delicious appeal what it may lack in depth and dimension. Scents and flavors of black cherries, red currants and plums are bolstered by spicy elements that increase as the moments pass, manifesting themselves in hints of cloves and allspice, orange rind and black tea. The structure is just dense and chewy enough to remind you that, yes, the wine indeed has some structure, with slightly dusty tannins unfolding in the background. The Banfi Chianti Superiore 2008 was exactly what was needed with our pasta, its vibrant acidity and dark fruit flavors matching nicely with the rich sauce. Alcohol content is 13.3 percent. Drink through 2011. Very Good. About $11, A Real Bargain.

Nothing on the bottle tells consumers that the image on the label is the painting Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci. The girl — for she was only 16 — is Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Lodovico Sforza, who was Duke of Milan and Leonardo’s patron. The piece was executed in 1489-1490 in oil paint — then a new medium — on panel. It hangs in the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow.

Imported by Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville, N.Y. A sample for review.

The X Winery Red X Winemaker’s Blend 2008, North Coast, truly is a blended wine. First, it’s a blend of four grapes: syrah, 55 percent; tempranillo 23 percent; grenache 14 percent; zinfandel 8 percent. Second, it’s a blend of four North Coast regions: Los Carneros, 55 percent; Mendocino County, 23 percent; Suisun Valley (in Solano County, just southeast of Napa County’s Green Valley) 14 percent; Lake County 8 percent. There’s also a blend of French and American oak, 70 percent neutral, 30 percent new.

So, the effort with this wine is not to deliver varietal or geographical integrity but to produce an enjoyable, drinkable red wine that expresses its own character, as this wine certainly does, consistently over the years, and as the blend of grapes may change. X Winery’s Red X 2008 offers a meaty, fleshy, slightly funky and quite attractive bouquet of black currants, red raspberries and plums with quite a bit of spice and black pepper in the background. The wine is ripe and fleshy in the mouth too, with a texture that’s part velvet and part finely grained tannins; it’s robust without being rustic, though the smoothness is roughened a bit from mid-palate back by tannic grit and grip. Pert acidity keep the wine lively, while elements of spice, leather and briers and brambles and hints of dried flowers come up on the finish. A terrific match with burgers, pizzas, hearty pasta dishes and braised short ribs. Drink through 2012. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Winemakers were Reed Renaudin and Gina Richmond. Very Good+. About $15, representing Great Value.

Bottled with a screw-cap for easy opening. A sample for review.

One tries to cultivate a thick-skin in the business of journalism, especially in the segment devoted to reviewing and criticizing. Believe me, in several decades of reviewing books, wine, art, restaurants, classical CDs, movies and other cultural forms, I’ve had the equivalent of a box-load of dead cats flung at my head, including — regarding a negative restaurant review — a death threat that the newspaper I formerly worked for took seriously enough to provide me with security. (Those were the days!) Still, it rankled my pointy little head to receive the following comment in response to a post on this blog, on May 19, about Kendall-Jackson’s proliferating range of brands and labels:

“I know it’s just a small factual detail (never let the facts interrupt a good story) but Kendall-Jackson is not a company. It doesn’t own anything. Kendall-Jackson is a brand with its own winemakers, etc. just like the other wineries you mentioned. A minor point to you, no doubt, but when assuming the role of informing the public, it is sometimes reassuring to know that the writer has a basic knowledge of the subject.”

This comment came from Hugh Green and it was posted on Sept. 15; I stumbled on it a few days ago.

Apparently, this sentence from that post contained the offending word:

“Though at 5.5 million cases a year in 2009 (according to San Francisco Business Times), K-J doesn’t compete with Diageo, Gallo, The Wine Group or Constellation, the company makes and sells a hell of a lot of wine.”

All right, let’s start at the most basic level. The New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edition (2005) offers its first definition of “company” as “a commercial business.” Kendall-Jackson — or any other winery or producer, large or small — is certainly that. However they might market the image of wine country, the wine life, elegance, sophistication, connection with nature, hands-on craftsmanship, wineries are in the business of selling wine; if they don’t perform that function, they don’t survive.

On the issue of Kendall-Jackson not owning anything, the point on which Green thinks I have erred so drastically that I have betrayed the trust of my readers, he’s wrong. Soon after the winery produced its first vintage in 1982, owner Jess Jackson started acquiring properties. In 1988, for example, he bought Edmeades Vineyards in Mendocino. In 1994, he purchased Robert Pepi, the winery and vineyards. (Pepi cannot use his name on labels now and makes cabernets under his Eponymous label.) The year 2006 saw Jackson in high acquisition mode; within two months that summer, he took in Robert Pecota and Murphy-Goode and then for $97 million purchased Legacy Estates, which owned Freemark Abbey, Arrowood and Byron, a purchase that included winery facilities, brands, inventory and vineyards, all of these brought under the Kendall-Jackson umbrella. Altogether, Kendall-Jackson owns about 14,000 aces in California. This list is just a selection of Kendall-Jackson’s acquisitions over 25 years and does not include properties in Italy, Chile and Argentina.

A company, however, doesn’t have to “own” anything. Many companies provide services. In fact, these days, a company can consist of nothing more than a person in a room with a computer. Even I could be a company except for the fact that this “commercial business” doesn’t make any, you know, money.

I’m doing a three-part series about California pinot noir, with the first entry posted on August 29. I’ll get to the next part, well, I don’t know exactly; these are long and complicated efforts, but soon, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.

Meanwhile, here’s a review of a pinot noir that I tasted over the past two days and thought was really terrific, actually an exemplar of what Monterey County pinot should be. This is the Talbott Logan Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands. “Logan” is Talbott’s designation for less expensive wines that do not carry a vineyard designation, though the grapes for this wine derive from the winery’s well-known Sleepy Hollow Vineyard. The Talbott name is familiar from Robert Talbott Inc., the company that has manufactured classically proportioned men’s clothing since 1950. Robb Talbott, who planted the winery’s Diamond T Vineyard in Carmel in 1982 and acquired Sleepy Hollow in 1994, owns the winery and is chairman of the board of the clothing company that his parents founded. The winery makes only chardonnay and pinot noir.

I used the word “lovely” so many times in my notes on the Talbott Logan Pinot Noir 2008 that I started to feel like a songwriter of the 1930s. The color is a lovely medium ruby with a darker, more intense core. The (lovely) bouquet, pure and radiant, offers plums, red currants and a bit of mulberry with hints of sassafras and cloves and a slight undertone of briers and brambles. This is smooth as silk, sleek as satin, subtle and supple, almost edgeless in its impeccable balance. Black cherry and red currant flavors open to elements of smoke, lavender and sandalwood, with further dimensions of foresty earthiness and slate-like minerality, though these qualities are almost subliminal. The wine aged 11 months in French oak but you recognize that fact only by a slight increase of woody spice and dryness of texture on the finish. Oddly, the label tells us that the alcohol content is 15.1 percent, though the tech sheet on the winery’s website says 14.4 percent; in any case, there’s certainly nothing “hot” and overwrought about this wine. Winemaker was Dan Karlsen, who started his career at Dry Creek Vineyard and went on to Dehlinger and Domaine Carneros and was winemaker and general manager at Chalone from 1998 to 2007.

Just freakin’ lovely. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. I paid $29; you see prices around the country as low as $21.50.

You may have to get up off your shiftless butt and do a bit of legwork to find this Vin Doux Natural from a small appellation in the South of France, but a little research is good for the soul, and the result will be splendid. I never said that the Wine of the Week would be easy.

The product is Chateau Tour de Farges 2006, Muscat de Lunel. This A.O.C. region lies between Montpellier and Nîmes in the Languedoc; the required grape for Vin Doux Natural here is the evocatively dubbed Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. Despite its name, V.D.N is not all that natural; the wine is fortified with grape spirits — to stop fermentation and leave sugar in the wine –to about 15 percent alcohol.

Chateau Tour de Farges has a long and storied history. The property was evidently established in the 16th Century and has been owned since the end of the 18th Century by the Sabatier d’Espeyres family. During the 19th Century, the chateau was presided over by the celebrated Viennese singer Caroline Ungher, whom François Sabatier married in 1840. Intellectual, sentimental, charming and gregarious, she attracted to Tour de Farges such figures as artist Gustave Courbet, who executed an appropriately poetic depiction of the chateau; novelist Alexander Dumas; and the as-yet-unknown political and economic theorist named Karl Marx. I don’t often include the websites of wineries in these posts, but the website of Tour de Farges is so charming and eccentric and filled with anecdote that I will break my injunction for this occasion.

Chateau Tour de Farges 2006 sees no oak; it ages six months in stainless steel tanks and concrete vats. The color is very pale yet glowing straw-gold. The wine manifests every fraction of lightness and elegance yet offers real presence and consequence on the palate. The lithesome bouquet is woven of ripe peach and spiced apricot with hints of apples, apple pie and roasted almonds. The entry is moderately sweet and honeyed, but from midway back the effect is increasingly dry, balanced by pinpoint, almost electrifying acidity. Poised in paradoxical equilibrium between rich and spicy peach, apricot and quince flavors and a texture that’s close to lacy transparency, this wine is a true sweetheart that exhibits its earthy side in a mineral-permeated finish of stones and bones. Luscious and supple but with inner spareness and a sense of discretion. Drink now through 2016 to ’18 (well-stored) with the simplest of desserts, like unadorned fruit tarts or even a shortbread cookie. For a culinary frisson, try with seared foie gras, a classic match. Excellent. About $24.

Imported by Martine’s Wines, Novato, Cal. Tasted at a trade event. The label image says “2005,” but it is the 2006 under review here.

This time the region is Calatayud, just south of the region of Campo de Borja in northern central Spain. Produced by Bodegas Agustin Cubero, the Unus Old Vine Garnacha 2007 draws on vines planted between 1934 and 1960; the wine is 100 percent garnacha (grenache) and ages eight months in a combination of French, American and Hungarian oak barrels. The color is a radiant medium ruby; aromas of ripe black raspberries and red currants, with many forms of plums and a touch of slightly astringent mulberry are bolstered by dry scents of briers and brambles. The wine is quite dry but bursting with lipsmacking, almost plush ripeness of black fruit flavors as well as savory tannins that become more foresty and austere as the moments pass. Layers of slate-like and granite-infused minerality form the wine’s stalwart foundations, but after an hour it mellows out nicely. An appealing yet fairly serious wine with heaps of personality to drink with hearty red meat dishes or hard, dry cheeses like an aged Piave, which, as a matter of fact, I was nibbling as I tasted. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Drink through 2012 or ’14. Very Good+. About — ready for this? — $10, a Raving Good Value.

Scoperta Importing, Cleveland heights, Ohio. A sample for review.

With a pick-up pasta last night — onion, garlic, country ham, diced tomatoes — I opened a bottle of Coto de Hayas Garnacha Syrah 2009, from the Campo de Borja region of Spain. The producer, Bodegas Aragonesas, is located in the foothills of the Sierra Moncayo in Zaragoza, where the dry, hot climate and the extreme temperature contrasts between day and night make the perfect site for the garnacha (grenache) grape, which has been cultivated there for eight centuries. This is one of those wines that you start by characterizing as “little” — “what a nice little wine” — as if it were nothing more than pleasing, undemanding and even perhaps a bit innocuous. Just so, Coto de Hayas Garnacha Syrah 2009 inspired me to jot down the words, “bright, vivid, fruity, tasty.” And that would have been fine as far as it goes, except that as the moments elapsed this little wine took on detail and dimension surpassing its supposed station in life. We get red and black currants. dusty plums and warm meadowy lavender; potpourri and baking spice; leather, wild berries, brambles. The texture is moderately dense, slightly chewy and swathed with plush tannins packed with slate-like minerals and rooty earthiness. Yeah, see what I mean? A great pasta and pizza wine to drink through 2012. The alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Very Good+. About $8, a Wonderful Bargain. Sadly, most of the red wines we try from California at this price feel manufactured and anonymous; this, on the other hand is lively and individual.

Scoperta Importing Co., Cleveland Heights, Ohio. A sample for review.

Chianti Rúfina is an enclave on the sloping foothills of the Apennines, in the northeastern reaches of Tuscany, that for centuries has had the reputation of producing red wines that are both more refined and more concentrated than their cousins, also made from the sangiovese grape, in the Chianti regions closer to Florence. At least they have that potential. We won’t generalize from the example of one bottle, but the Nipozzano Riserva Chianti Rúfina 2006, from Marchesi de Frescobaldi, is a fine model indeed. Composed of 90 percent sangiovese and 10 percent a blend of malvasia nera, colorino, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, the wine aged 24 months in second- and third-use French oak barrels, so while there’s plenty of wood influence in the wine’s taut, powerful structure, there’s no taint of pumped-up vanilla-ish new oak. Nipozzano Riserva 2006 offers the warmth, generosity and elegance that sangiovese can deliver in its best manifestation. The color is medium ruby-garnet with a darker, bluish cast at the center; aromas of plums, dried currants, cloves, tobacco leaf and oolong tea draw one’s nose to the glass, with, in a few moments, additions of orange rind and new leather. This is all classic stuff, well-knit and impeccably balanced, made vibrant by lip-smacking acidity, and seamlessly wedded in its segue of scents and flavors. In the mouth, black fruit is awash with notes of potpourri and lavender, dried spice and shale-like minerality; the wine is smooth and mellow but gently roughened in the depths and circumference by dusty, slightly chewy tannins. We drank the Nipozzano Riserva Chianti Rúfina 2006 with Saturday night’s pizza, and that was great, but its highest function is to accompany steaks; pappardella with porcini mushrooms, duck or rabbit; full-bodied braises and stews; or venison. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Drink now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $22.

Imported by Folio Wine Co., Napa, Cal. A sample for review.

Next Page »