November 2010

Certainly autumn brings to mind hearty red wines to serve with hearty fare, but to me it’s also the season for riesling, a multifarious and versatile wine that pairs well with mild pork and veal dishes, with turkey and chicken, with some fish preparations and many kinds of soup. Here today, then, I offer two rieslings, an inexpensive example from Washington state and a more expensive but splendid model of the grape from Napa Valley.

Made all in stainless steel, the Joel Gott Riesling 2009, from the Ancient Lake region of Washington’s Columbia Valley, displays a pure, chilly minerality of dusty limestone and shale. Aromas of green apple and pear are joined by a handful of smoky potpourri and lavender, followed by a characteristic whiff of rubber eraser (some writers call this essential element “petrol” or “diesel”). As the wine warms gently in the glass, it exhibits more richness and gains body, depth and sleekness. Flavors of ripe lemons and pears with backnotes of peach and quince take on increasing earthiness and limestone, as well as a seductive floral quality, like honeysuckle or jasmine. Lovely and enticing. 12.8 percent alcohol. Very Good+, and a Knockout Bargain at about $12.

Last week I mentioned the Trefethen Dry Riesling 2008, from the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley, as one of the wines I would serve at Thanksgiving dinner, and that was indeed the case. (We drank a second bottle with penne pasta and butternut squash sauce.) Along with that wine, I purchased a bottle of the rendition from 2007, to check on the progress of its development; at three years after harvest, it’s perfection. I opened the Trefethen Dry Riesling 2007 last night to sip with a white bean, bacon and red kale soup; first comment: “Wow, wonderful!” The color is radiant medium gold. The complete effect is of a wine that’s deep and rich and spicy but reined-in by the rigorous balancing agencies of whiplash acidity and a scintillating tide of limestone-and-oyster-shell-like minerality. Beguiling aromas of ripe peach and pear are permeated by light roasted and macerated tones as well as a crystalline hint of candied quince and ginger and a wafting of jasmine. This feels just fabulous on the palate, moderately lush, peachy and silky yet tremendously crisp and vibrant. It’s very petrolly on the nose, and that notion should intensify as the wine matures toward 2012 or ’13 and progresses into a state of pure minerality. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. I paid $23; you see it on the Internet as low as $17.

I receive wine samples almost daily, but they come, delivered by the friendly personnel of UPS or FedEx, from wineries, importers and marketing firms here in the United States of America. Recently, however, I received samples directly from a producer in Spain’s Toro region, part of the state of Castilla y León, nestled right up against Portugal, where the Duero river, flowing west and south, becomes the Douro. The producer is Bodegas Fariña, and the wines were made primarily from tempranillo grapes, or, rather, from tinto de Toro, a clone of tempranillo. The snug but scary little plastic foam box arrived at my doorstep despite the fact that my name, the street name and the city were all misspelled. I mean, there might be a mysterious town called Menphis somewhere in Tennessee, emerging now and then like Brigadoon, and the box could have gone astray, but fortunately (miraculously?) it arrived safely.

The town of Zamora, “the museum of the Romanesque,” is the center of the Toro region (and the capital of the province of Zamora) and the headquarters of Bodegas Fariña. The nearest airport, apparently — reports are slightly contradictory — is at Valladolid, the capital of the state of Castilla y León. So the package was assembled in Zamora and taken to the UPS store, driven, one assumes, to the airport at Valladolid, loaded on an airplane and shipped to — Cologne! That’s right, the sticker you see in the accompanying image carries the abbreviation CGN, which happens to be the code letters for the Cologne-Bonn airport, where UPS has a giant European hub. Checked out by the authorities there — no bomb! whew! — from thence, it was flown across the cold, gray, dolphin-flecked Atlantic to land, eventually, at my front door.

The Dama de Toro line is a new label for Bodegas Fariña, at least in the U.S. The winery was founded in 1942, when the region’s wines were rustic and rough and reached alcohol levels on 17 percent. Salvador Fariña revolutionized production by moving the harvest forward, to lower alcohol to 13 or 13.5 percent, and introducing stainless steel tanks. Salvador’s s son Manuel ran the property for many years; his son Bernardo now operates the family-owned winery.

Dama de Toro wines are imported by Specialty Cellars, Santa Fe Springs, Cal.
Aged four months in half-and-half French and American oak barrels, and containing a dollop of garnacha (grenache) grapes, the Dama de Toro Tempranillo 2008 offers aromas of pure fresh and dried red and black currants with dried baking spice and touches of dried flowers. It gets a little earthy, a little mossy and funky and then draws up flavors of plum and black raspberry, shale and a sort of minerally-tannic-oaky dusty character as foundation. Nothing profound, but a pleasing personality and delicious effect. 13.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $12, a Great Bargain.
An older vintage, longer time in barrels — eight months American oak — and undefined “old vines” lend the Dama de Toro Crianza 2004 more depth and dimension than its counterpart mentioned above can assay. The color is dark ruby-purple. A seductive bouquet of dried currants, orange zest, plums and violets entices the nose; after a few moments touches of briers and brambles, woody spices and black tea emerge. This complexity is reflected in the mouth in an amalgam of tightly-woven black and red fruit flavors permeated by dried porcini and forest floor, potpourri and violets and, as in the previous example, a plethora of dry, dense, dusty, granite-like features slicked with fairly formidable but finely-milled tannins and balanced by acute acidity. If you’re going to drink this now, try it with braised meat dishes — veal or lamb shanks, short ribs and so on — and rich, mature cheeses or hold on until 2012 or ’13. Alcohol level is 13.5 percent. Very Good+. About $15, another good price for the quality and for an interesting tempranillo experience.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________ The top of this line is the Gran Dama de Toro 2004, made from 80- to 90-year-old vines and aged 15 months in 30 percent French oak, 70 percent American; besides the tempranillo, there’s six percent garnacha in the wine. This is wild and exotic, a creature unto itself, and I found it a little more approachable and drinkable than the Dama de Toro Crianza 2004. What’s here? Macerated and spiced plums and fruit cake; blueberry, mulberry and pomegranate; moss, clean earth, burning leaves and mushrooms; lavender and vanilla, smoke and sandalwood; a dense, dusty velvety texture imbued with fully loaded tannins and a packed-in granite-shale character. This strikes me as a world-class wine that will develop more complexity and be at its best from 2014 or ’15 to 2020 or ’24. Alcohol content is 14 percent. Excellent. About $45.

For a chilly day, I took a package of four pork shanks from the freezer and looked around the larder for what I could do with them. Ah, a container of prunes, left from some other recipe that I do not remember, but there are always leftover prunes, and they last forever. And some fresh rosemary and sage. Things were shaping up nicely. I called LL and asked her to go to the store and get some turnips, carrots, potatoes and mushrooms, which she accommodatingly brought home at lunchtime. Well, I never used the mushrooms because one of the dogs kept stealing them from the counter. Anyway, I browned the shanks in olive oil in a large pot, took the shanks out and sauteed some chopped onions and garlic, scraping up all the little meat bits. To the pot, then, I added chopped turnips, potatoes and carrots — turnips and carrots peeled — and cooked them for a few minutes, stirring them around to pick up any olive oil and rendered fat left in the pot. Then back into the pot with the shanks, along with maybe 16 prunes (sliced in half), handfuls of chopped rosemary and sage, a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of pepper and a bottle of dry white wine. Put the lid on the pot and let those shanks simmer for three hours or so. When LL got home from work, she said, “Wow, something smells really good!” For dinner, I presented her with Braised Pork Shanks with Prunes, Rosemary and Sage. Green beans on the side. A little grated lemon peel on top. So freakin’ good …

Pork and prunes put me in mind of Alsace and Germany, which put me in mind of riesling, but the hearty meatiness of the dish also put me in mind of syrah, particularly the Northern Rhone Valley. In the interests of experimentation, I opened the Peter Jakob Kuhn Quarzit Riesling Trocken 2008, Rheingau, and the Philippe and Vincent Jaboulet Crozes Hermitage 2007. How did the wines turn out as matches with the pork shanks? Read the comments that follow. These were samples for review.
I first tasted the Peter Jakob Kuhn Quarzit Riesling Trocken 2008 when I visited the biodynamic estate in July 2009; my post about that occasion is here. The property is graciously and fervently run by Peter Jakob Kuhn and his wife Angela; he, as winemaker, produces rieslings of remarkable character and dimension. The Quarzit designation is the second rung in the ladder of their roster of wines. My notes at the time: “V. stony, v. pure and intense, v. spicy; yellow flowers, yellow fruit, stone fruit; huge hit of minerals, slate and limestone; v. dry, crisp, vibrant, austere. This is, one admits, a little demanding; it needs a year or two.” Sixteen months later, the wine has opened considerably, but it’s primary motivation remains a scintillating expression of minerality in the form of crushed gravel and shaved granite. The floral element is more apparent; flavors of peach and pear encompass hints of dried thyme and a sort of Platonic grapefruit pithiness. The wine is indeed, as I wrote last year, “v. dry, crisp, vibrant, austere,” all qualities enhanced by acidity of startling vivacity. Ideally, a riesling to match the pork shanks would have halb-trocken — “half-dry” — or even a spatlese; the PJK Quarzit 2008 was simply too dry, too astringent for the richness of the dish, though there were moments when I took a spoonful of prune and turnip in the sauce and then a sip of the wine and felt a brief frisson of perfection. 11.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. Suggested retail price is $28, but prices on the Internet run from about $25 to $40.

Imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York.

Made from 100 percent syrah grapes, the Domaine Philippe and Vincent Jaboulet Crozes-Hermitage 2007 offers a pungent and classic bouquet of smoke, wet dog, cloves and sandalwood, spiced and macerated red and black currants, and, in a few minutes, burning leaves, briers and brambles, moss, rose petals and violets; in fact, give the wine some time in the glass — I mean like an hour or two — and it smells as if you had somehow taken the whole of the Northern Rhone Valley in your hand, all its weeds and flowers and gravelly, loamy earth, and crushed it and rubbed it and inhaled the deep, exotic redolence. Austerity takes over in the mouth, but it’s the austerity of broad tannins rather than oak. Only 20 percent of the wine ages in oak casks for 10 months; the rest stays in concrete and stainless steel tanks, so despite the grainy heft of the structure there’s an aura of freshness and clarity. Still, this was too young, too dense and underdeveloped for the pork shanks. A better choice would have been, to keep with the Rhone but travel further south, a Cotes-du-Rhone Villages, or more toward the home-base, a fruity zinfandel. 900 cases were imported. Excellent potential from 2012 or ’13 through 2017 or ’19. About $31.

Imported by Wilson-Daniels, Napa, Cal. Bottle image by John McJunkin.

And being Thanksgiving, these are the wines I’ll be serving at the festive groaning board on Thursday. These are the same wines I have been offering, but at different vintages and prices, since our first Thanksgiving in this house in 2005. These are American wines, two from California, one from Oregon. I wish I could have some wines from Virginia, Michigan and New York too, but those are hard to come by in what’s called the Mid-South, this corner where West Tennessee, North Mississippi and Eastern Arkansas meet at the banks of Ol’ Man River. (You understand — Geography Alert! — that Tennessee and Mississippi are east of the river, and Arkansas is on the other side.) Anyway. I bought these wines a couple of weeks ago in anticipation of the annual feast.

Trefethen Dry Riesling 2008 & 2007, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. Trefethen’s Dry Riesling is consistently one of the best rieslings produced in the Golden State. It’s quite a versatile wine, matching with a variety of foods, from the Thanksgiving turkey and all the trimmings to a dish we made recently, a Catalan cannellini bean and radicchio soup that was supposed to be vegan, but I cheated and unapologetically used bacon. Boy, it was great! When I said to LL that I was going to look for an appropriate wine, she said, “The Thanksgiving riesling,” and she was absolutely right. About $24. I bought one each of the 2008 and the 07, just to see how the latter is doing since I last tasted it. Here’s a link to the New York Times website with the recipe.

The Ridge Three Vineyards 2008, Sonoma County, is a blend of 74 percent zinfandel, 11 percent petite sirah, 5 percent carignan, 4 percent of mataro (more often called mourvedre or, in Spain, monastrell), and 3 percent each syrah and grenache. I like drinking zinfandel with Thanksgiving dinner, especially in a rendition that brings in a few other grapes like the 15 percent Rhone Valley varieties in this wine. Ridge’s Three Valley, while supple and spicy and flavorful is never over-ripe or over-alcoholic, making it a terrific pairing with the myriad and sometimes contradictory sensations that the Thanksgiving dinner affords. About $25. I bought two bottles of this wine.

Finally, I like to have a bottle of the Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir, from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, on hand. The vintage available in my town is the 2007. The pinot noirs from Domaine Serene to me comprise the perfect balance of power and elegance that’s the hallmark of great pinot. You may ask, “Does pinot noir belong on the Thanksgiving table?” To which I reply, “Hey, it’s my table.” About $47 in my neck of the woods, $42 on the winery’s website. I bought a single bottle of this one.

My plan is to drink one glass of each of these wines, in the order in which I mentioned them here. I like to see how each reacts with the turkey and gravy, the potatoes, the sweet potatoes and so forth.

Whatever wines you choose to serve at Thanksgiving don’t really matter because the meal, being what it is, draws almost any wine close to its heart. That’s why people who write about wine seem to provide such contradictory advice at this time of year; mainly we fall back on our favorites. So go for it, do your thing, be happy, and have a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving.

Nothing wrong with large producers; they often make fine wine indeed, though they can also err in trying to be all things to all consumers and churning out labels at every price-point. What I really love to write about however are the small, family-owned wineries that nestle in the hills and dales of our country’s wine regions, making a few thousand (or few hundred) cases of a small number of wines and selling them or marketing them as best they can, without the benefit of marketing teams and agencies in New York or San Francisco.

Here are reviews of sauvignon blanc and pinot noir wines from two such wineries. These were samples for review.

Foursight Wines produces fewer than 1,000 cases annually of sauvignon blanc and pinot noir from the Charles Vineyard in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley and a Mendocino gewurztraminer. The winery was founded in 2006 by longtime growers Bill and Nancy Charles, with their daughter Kristy Charles and her husband Joseph Webb. That’s it. The wines practically teem with authenticity and integrity and a sense of connection to their cool, coastal region.

The Foursight Charles Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Anderson Valley, is exceptionally clean and fresh and invigorating. It’s like drinking a deconstruction of a grapefruit — without being anything like a snappy, over-eager New Zealand rendition — with the tang of the pulp, the slight bitterness of the pith and the oiliness of the rind, combined with a spicy tangerine-lemon element and a brilliance of limestone-like minerality. The wine is juicy and tasty, yet spare and delicate; made all in stainless steel, it radiates purity and intensity. 216 cases were produced. 14.1 percent alcohol. Now through 2012. Excellent. About $20.

The Foursight “All-In” Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Anderson Valley, is an understated beauty. Fermented with wild yeast, unfined and unfiltered, it offers a beguiling limpid ruby color that’s almost transparent at the rim. Scents of lightly spiced red and black cherries hold undertones of red currants and mulberries with touches of smoke and leather. Lovely balance and integration produce an entrancing mouthful of pinot noir that glides across the palate like satin; a few minutes in the glass add notes of moss and briers, while structure and texture remain subtle and supple. The wine aged in French oak, 20 percent new, the rest two-year-old barrels and older. A pinot noir for devotees of the classic elegant fashion. 407 cases were produced. 14.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $46.
I was at a wholesaler’s trade tasting a few weeks ago and tried some wines from Carrefour Vineyards, a producer I had not encountered before. The Napa Valley winery was started in 1997 by Greg and Marilyn Nitz, a dentist and an airline pilot. They planted 18 acres of vines so that by 2003 they were making estate-grown wines from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc grapes. They began making pinot noir with the 2002 vintage from grapes purchased from the well-known Truchard Vineyard in Carneros. Kelly De’Ianni, formerly at St. Supery, is consulting winemaker for Carrefour. I was particularly taken with the winery’s Sauvignon Blanc 2006 — that’s right, ’06 — and Pinot Noir 2005, and I asked to be sent the next releases of the wines, which reached me recently. That Sauvignon Blanc 06, of which 838 cases were made, could age gracefully for another two or three years, properly stored.

We would expect a Napa Valley sauvignon blanc to be a little lusher and denser than one made in the Anderson Valley (where little sauvignon blanc is grown, by the way) and that’s certainly the case with the Carrefour Sauvignon Blanc 2007; yes, I know, everyone else has released their ’09s. This envelops you in a cloud of roasted peach and pear infused with lemon balm, almond and almond blossom, ginger and quince; the effect is almost honeyed except that the wine is bone-dry. Flavors of roasted lemon and yellow plum (and hints of dried thyme and tarragon) and a texture that balances lushness with leanness are bolstered by crystalline acidity, and the whole package nestles on bedrock of damp limestone and shale. I don’t have information on the production, but say under 1,000. Alcohol level is 13.8 percent. Excellent. About $18 (at the winery; in my local market it would be $23).

The color of the Carrefour Pinot Noir 2006, Napa Valley, is a transparent ripe red cherry; the bouquet is a striking amalgam of black cherry and red currants and raspberries permeated by cloves, cinnamon and sassafras with a dusty plum undertone. Give the wine a few minutes in the glass and it yields rose petals and lilacs and a tinge of pulverized shale. Yes, pretty damned heady stuff yet not flamboyant or obtrusive, instead nuanced, rather poised, almost expectant. In the mouth, flavors of red and black cherries carry a touch of dried red currants and refined spiciness highlighted by finespun tannins and striking acidity that energizes the whole package and cuts a swath on the palate. In its way, this pinot noir is as classic as the Foursight 2007 mentioned previously, but it clearly reflects different climatic influences. Production was 766 cases. 14.1 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $33.

Yes, you read that title correctly: WineS of the Week, as in a white and a red. I don’t promise to offer you two wines every week, but it worked out nicely for this week because of the wines and because of what we ate on succeeding nights. These wines were samples for review.
First, the white. One of our favorite chardonnays from California is Morgan Winery’s Metallico Unoaked Chardonnay, and for 2009 the wine doesn’t disappoint. Metallico 09, Monterey Country, is utterly appealing in its freshness, its clarity and pure chardonnay presence. Scents of lemon with hints of roasted lemon and lemon balm are wreathed with touches of quince and ginger and a high note of honeysuckle; underlying this parade of delights is a scintillating layer of damp limestone. Exquisite balance among racy, tingling acidity, a texture that’s moderately lush without being too soft and juicy, spicy, mineral-laced citrus-drenched flavors imparts not just enjoyment but a sense of authenticity and craftsmanship. It’s a wine that gives a great deal of pleasure, but you don’t quaff it carelessly. Now through 2012. Production was 3,800 cases. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Excellent. About $20.

I had purchased two beautiful fillets of swordfish at Whole Foods, each about 10 ounces. For a dinner that came together rapidly, we marinated the swordfish in white wine, fresh sage, orange juice (and a few segments of the orange), garlic and flat-leaf parsley. Quartered some small potatoes, boiled them and then roasted them under the broiler. Chopped, blanched and sauteed broccoli rabe. LL seared the swordfish at high heat in the trusty old cast-iron skillet and used the marinade to make a reduction for a sauce. The result — delicious in every respect — is illustrated in the accompanying image. The Morgan Metallico 09 and the dish were perfect together.

For Saturday’s Pizza and Movie Night — we watched “Wild Grass,” directed by Alain Resnais — I opened a bottle of the Amalaya 2009, a blend of 75 percent malbec grapes, 10 percent each cabernet sauvignon and syrah and 5 percent tannat. The latter is a grape grown principally in the southwest wine regions of France, such as Madiran and Irouléguy, and in South America, where producers in Uruguay have a particular liking for it. Amalaya is produced in the Calchaqui Valley in Argentina’s Salta region, where the vineyards lie at Andean altitudes from 5,250 to 5,580 feet; that’s right, some of these vines are cultivated at more than a mile above sea level. Bodega y Estancia Colomé, which makes Amalaya, among other labels, was founded in 1831 and is the oldest winery in Argentina. It was owned for 170 years by the Isasmendi-Dávalos family; Hess Family Estates acquired the estate in 2001.

Amalaya 2009 offers a rich, spicy bouquet of ripe black currants and blueberries permeated by bell pepper and black olive with whiffs of cedar, tobacco and thyme. While the wine is smooth and mellow and balanced, it hints at something untamed in its dark berryish quality, its slightly exotic, peppery spice and briery-brambly elements. Eighty percent of the wine is aged in tank, which lends freshness, and the rest in French oak for 10 months, developing a sense of spaciousness in the structure. The wine is robust without being rustic and almost plush in its finely-milled tannins, though keen acidity keeps the enterprise lively and drinkable. 10,000 cases were imported by The Hess Collection Winery, Napa, Cal. Alcohol is 14 percent. Now through 2012. Very Good+. About $17.

About a month ago, I started roasted tomatoes for the pizza. Depending on the variety and size of the tomatoes, I halve or quarter them, douse them with olive oil and sprinkle on salt and pepper and dried thyme, marjoram and oregano, and slide them under the broiler. I like them to wilt a little and get a touch black around the edges, so they retain juiciness and flavor. When they’re out of the oven, it’s easy to strip off the skin. I’ve also been giving the pizzas a foundation of black olive tapenade and basil pesto, each drawn in an X-shape on the rolled-out dough. Then thinly-sliced rounds of green pepper; the tomatoes (not too many); diced green onion; chopped bacon (fried while the tomatoes are roasting); a little more thyme, marjoram and oregano; mozzarella and grated Parmesan. Keep it simple is my mantra. These have been great pizzas, some of the best of my pizza-making career. Amalaya 2009 is just the kind of flavorful, spicy, well-structured wine that goes with them best.

Well, I’m way behind on this one. Time is a river blah blah. The world is too much with us late and soon blah blah.

I instituted this series at the end of March to present reviews of a red wine and a white wine that I tasted within a three-month period that I didn’t get to write about but that are clearly superior in quality. So, this pair comes from July, August and September, and I should have posted this five or six weeks ago.

These wines were samples for review.

I don’t often drink or taste or sample the rich, sweet golden wines of Sauternes; who does, except for British wine writers? Understandably, when this bottle of Chateau Suduiraut 1999 arrived I was mightily pleased and filled with anticipation that was not proved errant. At 11 years old, the wine is splendid and has a long life of development and maturity ahead. For a complete (and well-written) history and assessment of the estate, see the account by The Wine Doctor; I could not better his research and experience. Suffice to say that Suduiraut is one of the oldest estates in Sauternes, going back to 1580; that its slightly fortified chateau, rebuilt in the late 17th Century, is a prime example of the architecture of the period; that the wine was granted Premier Cru status in the 1855 Classification, though writers with long memories or access to old books testify to many inconsistent vintages; that it underwent many changes of ownership in the 19th and 20th centuries until AXA Millésimes (the wine arm of the giant AXA insurance group) acquired the property in 1992 and wrought essential improvements; for example no wine was bottled in 1991, ’92 or ’93. The vineyard is planted with 80 percent semillon, 20 percent sauvignon blanc (though contrary Parker says it’s 90/10). The estate typically produces about 10,000 cases a year.

Like all great wines that issue from Sauternes, Chateau Suduiraut 1999 combines a directness of appeal with layers of complexity that feel almost unfathomable. The color is pure brilliant medium yellow-gold; there’s not a tinge of amber. The bouquet immediately announces the presence of botrytis cinerea — the “noble rot” — in its luscious, earthy scents of over-ripe, spiced and macerated peaches and apricots drenched in honey and butter and roasted until they dissolve in their own delirious juices; add notes of smoke, honeysuckle and jasmine and sun-warmed rocks, and you have an absolutely classic Sauternes nose. In the mouth, the wine is dense but silken; you might be sipping apple tart and creme brulee through which run threads of quince and crystallized ginger, orange rind and tangerine and just a touch of semillon’s tell-tale leafy quality. Suduiraut ’99 is quite sweet on entry, almost dangerously and decadently so, one’s instinct says, but the sweetness is tightly reined by assiduously deft acidity, so it is balanced, and then checked, and the wine finishes dry and stony and with a bare swipe at something toffee-like. It’s simultaneously exquisite and luxurious, like drinking the gold that Zeus rained upon Danaë. Now through 2019 to 2024 or ’25, properly cellared. Perhaps this lacks the grand paradox of transcendent refinement and incomparable tautness that the very best Sauternes display, i.e. Yquem, but it’s still pretty damned stunning. Exceptional. About $60.
The Morgan Double L Vineyard Syrah 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, is one of the purest expressions of the syrah grape I have tasted from California. Dan Lee had made wines for Durney Vineyards and Jekel Vineyards but decided to concentrate on his own label in the early 1980s. While producing chardonay, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir from several appellations — Alexander Valley, Carneros, Monterey — he concentrated more as the years passed on a few vineyards in Monterey County. Double L, acquired in 1996, is Morgan’s home vineyard. Situated at the northern end of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, the 65-acre property slopes gently to the east; the vines are oriented north-south for maximum exposure. Forty-eight-and-a-half acres are planted: 28.5 for pinot noir, 18 for chardonnay and one each for syrah and riesling. Double L has been certified organic since 2002.

Both brooding and exuberant, the bouquet of the Morgan Double L Vineyard Syrah 2007 twines scents of smoked plums, smoked bacon, spiced and macerated blackberries and blueberries with old leather, a clean, earthy mossy element and the authentic touch of wet dog for a tinge of funkiness. (The color: “as through a glass darkly.”) A few minutes bring up pungent notes of lavender, sandalwood, white pepper. In the mouth, this syrah is ripe and intense and concentrated, almost ferociously spicy and fruity yet packed with dusty, fine-grained tannins that slowly emerge (or are slowly unleashed), an oak influence — 14 months in French barrels, 25 percent new — that feels deep and iron-bound, and, speaking of iron, a scintillating geological quality in the damp granite and slate range. The wine is dry, foresty, a little autumnal, like the smoke and ash from burning leaves, and ultimately austere enough to require another year or two in the bottle, though it’s awe-inspiring with a medium-rare steak. Altogether a wine of immense character, depth and dimension. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 75 cases. Exceptional. About $40.

Image of Double L Vineyard from

Well, this is impressive. Ever wonder how strong those bags are inside the box that holds the wine? Well, turns out that they’re pretty damned strong. This bag-in-the-box of Folonari Pinot Grigio delle Venezie “Fresh Cask” 2009 happened to be sitting on a shelf in a room where we’ve been keeping a foster dog named Buddy. This handsome beast was not so handsome when we rescued him from a mobile home park north of town, along with a smaller female companion dog. They had been abandoned and were living in some woods on their own when, after some months, a couple tried to befriend them and feed them.

The dogs, named Buddy and Ladybug, would come up to the couples’ home every few days to be fed but were otherwise fairly wary. When we met them, they looked terrible. We agreed to take on the responsibility of having our vet examine them, spay and/or neuter them and give them all their shots. Not surprisingly, they had heartworm and are now undergoing that treatment. Buddy has a worse case, and that’s why he has been confined to quarters, with no running around, for about six weeks. I take him for slow walks on a leash six times a day.

Anyway, Buddy, who now weighs about 70 pounds, has been astonishingly good about living in one room, though he occasionally gets bored and chews up a magazine or, regretfully, a book (um, which happened a few minutes ago). Still, how would you like to be incarcerated like that? He’s actually a sweetheart, a big sort of Scooby Doo galumphing sort of dog. And, yes, in a moment of boredom or perhaps from the thrill of curiosity, he dragged this box of Folonari Pinot Grigio “Fresh Cask” ’09 from the shelf and masticated it thoroughly, tearing it apart and trying to extract the bag of wine. What he did not manage to do was pierce the inner skin, that is, the bag itself, though it bears teeth marks galore. Even the mangled spout still worked. Could you have survived such a going over? Thus technology triumphs over canine carnage.

The wine itself, well, it’s decent and serviceable, clean, fresh and bright, just spicy and floral and lemony enough to qualify as tasty and a little endearing. Serve as an aperitif and don’t think too much about it. It’ll keep in the fridge for several weeks. Good+. About $20 for a three-liter box, which translates to four bottles.

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

Though it clocks in at a heady 15.1 percent alcohol, the Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards “Knotty Vines” Zinfandel 2008, carrying a Northern Sonoma designation, does not come across as a blockbuster. In fact, it not only feels fairly mild-mannered but impresses with its balance and subtlety. True to its nickname, the wine is rather “knotty” in the dusty, slightly woody briery and brambly sense. Some of the grapes here derive from 15 acres of vines planted in 1904 on the west side of the Russian River that Rodney Strong (1928-2006) acquired when he was first buying vineyards in the 1960s. The “Knotty Vines” Zinfandel 2008 includes 1 percent each of syrah and merlot — merlot? — and aged 17 months in American oak barrels (62%) and French oak (38%). The color is medium ruby with a magenta sheen. Aromas of spiced and macerated black and red currants, black pepper, leather and a hint of bitter chocolate waft from the glass; in the mouth, the wine offers black and red fruit flavors with a tincture of mulberry threaded with touches of cloves and tobacco, all ensconced in moderately dense, chewy tannins, acidity so pert that it practically glistens, and an oak influence that turns slightly austere on the finish, an appropriately grown-up rounding-off. What this wine is blessedly NOT is over-ripe, stridently spicy or sweet/hot with alcohol. The winemaker is veteran Rick Sayre. Drink now to 2012 or ’13. This would be very nice with the Thanksgiving feast. Excellent. About $20.

A sample for review.

MENDOZA, Argentina — You just know it when you’re drinking great wine.

At twilight, our group was crowded around a table in the dining room of a tin-roofed “cottage” built in 1912, tasting the wines of Alma Negra. We had ridden the bus way out into the country to find the house, which had originally stood in splendid isolation, though in the century since it was built a village had grown up around it. We were not at the winery, and in fact I couldn’t tell you where the wines are made. Living in the old house are Andrés Ridois, commercial director for Èrnesto Catena Vineyards, and his family. Alma Negra — “Black Soul” — is owned by Èrnesto Catena, son of Nicolás and Elena Catena, who with dignity and quiet authority oversee the well-known estate of Catena Zapata. Perhaps from some other relative Èrnesto inherited his gift for a good joke, even to the point of eccentricity, as in his red wine blends called Misterio, of which he refuses to reveal the blend or even the grapes.

We started with lovely sparkling wines from 2009, a chardonnay and a malbec rosé. Then an eye-opening Viognier 2009, followed by an equally surprising Pinot Noir 2008 from the arid Tupungato region. Then a Bonardo 2007 — with 10 percent malbec and 5 percent cabernet franc — that brought raised eyebrows. I won’t speak for my colleagues, but I thought that I felt a frisson of interest amounting to excitement run through the room as the wines succeeded each other. There were nods here and there; a half-smile; a glance at a neighbor that implied, “Whoa!” or “Wow!” or “This is the real thing!” Such exclamations were certainly revolving through my mind, because these were wines of style and substance, the kind of wines that make an impression of thoughtfulness, confidence, gallantry, nobility both balanced and off-set by a sense of wildness, playfulness and wit.

Then we try Misterio and Gran Misterio from 2007, and they are wild, woolly, monumental and, let’s add, controversial. As great wines often do, these wines of Alma Negra generated a great deal of discussion around the table, about oak and tannin, about the “misterio” device of concealing the grapes and percentages, about the “California” palate and fashion of winemaking. Nonetheless, no one, I adduce, fails to be provoked or affected in some manner.

With dinner, outside on the terrace, a balmy night that happens to be John Lennon’s birthday, we try the first Alma Negra red wine from 2003 and then the Bonarda 2005, and I go back to that Pinot Noir 2008, smoothing out nicely. There’s tangoing, and a musician/singer who performs Lennon’s songs and much dancing and clapping and cheering from the wine writers and lifestyle writers and food writers. There will be photos to go on Facebook, but I suppose we’re past the age of worrying about snoops in college admission offices.

The wines of Alma Negra are imported by Winebow, New York.

The Alma Negra Viognier 2009 is so damned pretty. Aromas of waxy white flowers, roasted lemon and spiced peach and pear are subtly modulated, and while those elements amount to a small luxury, in the mouth the wine is very dry, quite crisp and pert, and the emphasis is on limestone-like minerality of scintillating power; citrus and pear flavors, with a slightly exotic, spicy tinge, are a wash of nuance. The oak regimen is nine to 12 months in French barrels, one-third new, one-third second use, one-third third use; you feel the oak start to layer its effects after a few moments from mid-palate back through the finish, though the wine remains sleek and suave and sophisticated. A wine of tremendous character and elan. 2,000 six-pack cases. Excellent. About $24.

The Alma Negra Pinot Noir 2008 opens with a lovely limpid ruby-garnet color, a true Burgundian robe. The bouquet, too, is classic: black cherry, smoke, cloves, rose petal and camellia and an undercurrent of sassafras. Black cherry flavors are tinged with the earthiness of rhubarb and a touch of moss and briers; it’s all quite pure and intense, though (again) the wood influence begins to dominate from the mid-palate; the wine aged 14 months in a half-and-half combination of barriques and larger 500-liter barrels; wouldn’t 10 months have been sufficient? On first tasting, I thought the wine lacked the elegance its color and bouquet would seem to foretell, but going back to it a few hours later, it had smoothed out and mellowed considerably, feeling more balanced and integrated and honestly lovely. 400 cases. Best from 2011 to 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $25.

The identity of the bonarda grape is as opaque as Topsy’s genealogy. Oz Clarke, in his valuable Encyclopedia of Grapes (Harcourt, 2001), tells us that in Piedmont and Lombardy the bonarda grape and the croatina grapes are often confused and even called by the opposite names, not counting the additional confusion of several clones. The Argentine bonarda may be none of those grapes; it might be California’s (rapidly disappearing) charbono grape or it might be related to the Piedmontese dolcetto. Some grape-growers and winemakers in Argentina think that bonarda has the potential to produce better wine than malbec. On the evidence of Alma Negra’s Bonarda 2007, I would say that there’s a good chance of that happening, at least in the right hands.

Blended with 10 percent malbec and 5 percent cabernet franc, the wine is a dark ruby color that’s black at the center and slightly magenta-like at the rim. From first to last, you realize that it’s a wine to set aside for three or four years while it meditates upon company manners. The dominant features are a pungent and penetrating granite-like essence; dense, chewy, finely-milled tannins; and an austere oaky/woody quality. Give it a few minutes of your time and patience, though; swirl the wine in the glass; set it aside for a moment and swirl again and take a sniff: slowly unfurl black currants and blueberries, coffee, warm tar and bitter chocolate, sweet baking spices (and a tinge of sandalwood), leather and dusty briers and brambles, and deep at the core, a winsome strain of lavender. Yes, it’s a blockbuster, but a blockbuster with a heart; it walks on the wild side but its shoes are velvet. Yeah, damnit, I’m getting carried away here, but I found this Alma Negra Bonarda 2007 to be a wine of great character and tremendous possibility; it needs from 2013 or ’14 to 2017 or 2020. Production was 6,000 cases, so there’s plenty. Excellent. About — yer not going to believe this — $20, a Freaking Bargain of Utmost Magnitude.

Now we come to Misterio 2007, a red wine made from grapes that are not revealed in a blend of which we know no detail, though a safe bet is to say that contained within the bottle are malbec, bonarda and cabernet franc. So: sweet oak, lots of it, and sweet spices; granite and shale; the whole spice box; violets and lavender under black cherries and black currants with something wild and a hint of mulberry, piercingly ripe and slightly woodsy; and then a backnote of prune and fruitcake. Austere, well-disciplined tannins; a sense of decorum, despite the untamed nature; pent energy waiting for release; a slumbering giant. Try from 2013 or ’15 to 2020 or ’25. Alcohol content is 14%. Excellent. About $30 to $33.

Frankly, I didn’t detect enough difference in quality between Misterio 2007 and Gran Misterio 2007 to merit the difference in price; perhaps that’s the grand mystery. Not that it’s not a wine that will shake you to your nerves and bones with its power. Of course it’s practically opaque, you know, black as the night that covers me blah blah, and of course the aromas form a thrilling amalgam of licorice, lavender, violets, smoke, meaty and fleshy and roasted black and blue fruit, and then, after a few minutes a hint of bell pepper and black olive, the touchstones of cabernet franc; it seems cool with minerals, warm with spice. Boy, though, it coats the mouth with formidable oak and tannin. Like many an old castle and fortress, Gran Misterio ’07 seems more imposing than distinguished, yet it’s clearly a wine with a presence like few others, a wine to be reckoned with, but from 2014 or ’16 to 2020 or ’25. 160 cases. 14 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $60.

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