Last night LL made one of our favorite cool weather dishes, the roasted chicken with figs, garlic, thyme and bacon. Yes, it’s exactly as good as it sounds, and as we were chowing down, we kept stopping, each of us, and saying something like, “Holy shit, what a fabulous dish!” I wrote about this item previously, in October 2009; follow the link for a fuller description of the dish and how it’s made.

Anyway, to drink with this delight of savory and hearty flavor, I opened a bottle of the Niner Wine Estates Bootjack Ranch Merlot 2008, Paso Robles. which I’ll get to in the reviews further along.

The winery was founded in 2001 and is owned by Richard and Pam Niner. Richard Niner, a product of Princeton and Harvard Business School, spent 30 years investing and turning around small businesses before visiting San Luis Obispo County and deciding to get into the wine industry. He bought the Bootjack Ranch on the east side of Paso Robles in 1999; a later purchase was Heart Hill Vineyard, in the western reaches of Paso Robles, 12 miles from the ocean and often 10 degrees cooler than Bootjack. Chuck Ortman consulted for the first vintages produced by the winery; since 2004 winemaker has been Amanda Cramer.

These wines were samples for review.
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For a winery that concentrates on red wines, Niner turns out a splendid sauvignon blanc; in fact, along with the Merlot 2008 and Syrah ’06, the Niner Bootjack Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Paso Robles, was my favorite of this group of recently tasted wines from the producer. The color is very pale straw-gold. Aromas of roasted lemon, tangerine and grapefruit are imbued with notes of lemongrass, dried thyme and tarragon and a pungent element of gunflint and limestone; this is a bouquet I could sniff and contemplate for hours. The wine ages briefly in a combination of stainless steel barrels and once-used and neutral French oak, so the wood influence is subtle and supple, a soft blur and burr of dusty spice. In the mouth, the wine is taut with spanking acidity and clean limestone-backed minerality; pert flavors of lemon and grapefruit wrap around hints of meadow grass and leafy fig; the finish is long, lacy, spicy, chalky. A great sauvignon blanc for drinking through 2012. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 1,395 cases. Excellent. About $17, a Remarkable Value.
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The Niner Bootjack Ranch Merlot 2008, Paso Robles, is one of those rare merlots from California that asserts its individuality from under the mantle of cabernet sauvignon; that is to say, it smells and tastes like something other than cabernet. This polished beauty offers notes of blueberry, mulberry and cassis ensconced in graphite, cedar, lavender, thyme, pepper and black olive. The wine retains something untamed and plangent, high tones of wild berry and exotic spice, along with more typical black and red currant flavors bolstered by shale-like minerality and burnished oak from French and Hungarian barrels, one-third new. Tannins are finely-milled and plush, with just a trace of rigor and authentic austerity on the finish. This was terrific with our dish of roasted chicken, bacon, figs, garlic and thyme, with which we had roasted potatoes and sauteed chard. Now through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.7 percent. Production was 908 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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The Niner Bootjack Ranch Sangiovese 2007, Paso Robles, is a curious matter in that it’s a thoroughly enjoyable wine, but it doesn’t have much to do with the character of the sangiovese grape. Actually, it behaved more like a well-made, non-blockbuster zinfandel. The color is deep ruby-red; the bouquet offers red and black currants, black cherries and touches of smoke, coffee and tobacco. Dense, grainy tannins, polished oak and vibrant acidity provide structure that’s firm and lively in its support of luscious black currant and cherry flavors. Now through 2012 or ’14. Production was 851 cases. 14.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $24.
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I was, on the other hand, quite pleased with the Niner Bootjack Ranch Syrah 2006, Paso Robles, which I will call, as a matter of fact, one of the best renditions of the grape I have tasted from the Golden State. The color is deep ruby with a slight magenta/blue cast, an entrancing hue; the ripe, meaty, fleshy bouquet offers a rapt rendition of spiced and macerated red and black currants, blueberries and blackberries backed by black pepper, briers and brambles, smoke and moss, honed granite and slate, all seamlessly layered atop a foundation of clean loamy earth and a touch of wet dog funk. Yes, this is the real thing. At fours years old the wine is beautifully balanced and integrated, and while 16 months in small French and Hungarian barrels (one-third new) lend the wine a character of unassailable oak, added to dense, velvety tannins, broad and generously spiced black fruit flavors make this very drinkable, especially with such full-bodied fare as venison, pork chops and beef stew, now through 2005 or ’06. Production was 1,281 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $20, representing Great Value.
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My slight beef with the Niner Bootjack Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Paso Robles, is a strain of vanilla that my palate and sensibility register as a flaw, if not a downright aberration; if vanilla is what you want, order a dish of crème brûlée. ANYWAY, this cabernet, like its merlot cousin fairly individual in style, is big, dense, furry, chewy, intense and concentrated; sleek, polished and honed; black currant and black cherry flavors are touched with wild berry, lavender and violets, licorice, smoke and potpourri, rhubarb and sandalwood; a few minutes in the glass bring out classic tones of cedar and tobacco.. The exoticism does not get out of hand, however, held firmly in check by keen acidity, heaps of granite-like minerality and tongue-swathing tannins. I sipped this with a strong Irish cheddar-style cheese, and it was perfect thus. Drink now, with a steak, through 2016 or ’17. Production was 2,294 cases. 14.3 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $28.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ I’m sorry to say that my reaction to the Niner Fog Catcher 2005, Paso Robles, was not ecstatic, though the wine, a blend of 65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent cabernet franc and 10 percent merlot, is well-knit, impeccably balanced and integrated, smooth and mellow, enjoyable, with classic notes of smoky cedar, fruit cake and spice cake, brandied black cherries, honed shale and so forth. It’s just not very exciting; it doesn’t offer that edgy poise between power and elegance, dynamism and transparent austerity that great cabernet-blend wines should possess. Plenty of pleasing personality here but not enough character; a wine at this price should not be so easy. 550 cases. 14.1 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $58.
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