May 2011


On April 25, I made the Carlton Cellars Cannon Beach Pinot Gris 2010, Willamette Valley the Wine of the Week. Now let’s look at three of the small winery’s pinot noirs, the variety for which it is best known. I tasted these wines with co-owner, grower and winemaker Dave Grooters when he was in town at the end of April, and, after trying these pinots, I was surprised when he said, “I like big fat fruit bombs,” because these wines are anything but “big fat fruit bombs.” Big in structure, perhaps, especially the Cape Lookout and the Roads End, but fruit is well-shaped and expressive without being over-ripe, flamboyant or opulent.
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The Seven Devils Pinot Noir 2009, Willamette Valley, is Carlton Cellars’ entry-level pinot. About 50 percent of the grapes derive from the winery’s Russell-Grooters Vineyard on Savannah Ridge in the Yamhill-Carlton appellation with the rest coming from various other Willamette vineyards. The wine ages 10 months in French barrels but sees no new oak; it’s all second-, third- and fourth-use. The color is medium ruby with a hint of magenta-pink at the rim. Aromas of black cherry and black and red currants are spicy with notes of cloves and cinnamon and quite ripe, meaty and fleshy; the immediately appealing fragrance is heady and seductive. Matters calm down considerably in the mouth, where the wine offers straightforward black and red fruit flavors permeated by baking spice, touches of underbrush and moderately dense but fairly muscular tannins, all leading to a dry, minerally — in the finely-milled graphite sense — finish. Quite enjoyable, though I was a bit surprised by the tannins. Drink through 2014. Production was 950 cases. 14.3 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $22.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Considerably more character comes from the Cape Lookout Pinot Noir 2008, which carries an Oregon designation, though the grape’s all come from the winery’s Russell-Grooters estate vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton. The wine ages 10 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels. This is classic stuff, with penetrating notes of pure, intense and spicy black cherry, cranberry and cola layered over the Willamette Valley’s signature quality of clean earthiness rooted in briers and brambles. Oak gives the wine suppleness and shapeliness and indeed begins to dominate from mid-palate back after a few minutes pass; another year in the bottle will smooth it out more. Still, there’s deep flavor galore here wedded to vibrant acidity and firm, almost plush tannins, though a sinewy texture lends the wine some edge. Russell-Grooters was planted in 2003, so these are young vines that won’t truly come into their own for another three to five years; it’s a vineyard to watch as the vines mature. Production was 576 cases. 13.4 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $30.
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Top of the line at Carlton Cellars is the Roads End Pinot Noir 2008, 40 percent of the grapes coming from Russell-Grooters, the rest from a vineyard in the McMinnville AVA and another vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA. The oak regimen is the same as for the Cape Lookout Pinot Noir 2008, that is, 10 months in French barrels, 50 percent new oak. Boy, you feel the difference, though, in this wine’s engagement and heft, in its increased level of spice, its fine and rich details of blueberry, cranberry, rhubarb and cola, its veritable darkness of intention and effect. The Roads End 08 is a lithe and muscular wine, and if ever a pinot noir exemplified the notion of a pent animal awaiting release, brother, this is it. No, this is not a pinot for fans of the delicate and elegant style, which, I confess, I find more appealing and authentic, but it would be difficult to deny the authority and confidence this model embodies. 288 cases were produced. 13.3 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 to ’15. Excellent. About $45.
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There really is a Mount Beautiful in New Zealand’s Canterbury region, on the South Island, and one can hardly blame David and Leigh Teece for borrowing the name for their label, produced at Teece Family Vineyards in the Cheviot Hills, from this geographical feature. Canterbury lies to the south of New Zealand’s best-known wine area, Marlborough, which produces about 70 percent of the nation’s wine. The Treeces’ bios read like triumphant stories to inspire and abash all the tribe of ill-paid ink-stained wretches: He, a native New Zealander, is Tusher Professor of Global Business at University of California, Berkeley, and a founder and vice chairman of Law & Economics Consulting Corp., while in New Zealand he is known as the co-owner of the CCC rugby brand and so on; she, from California, has degrees in international relations and business from USC and University of Michigan and worked in international banking and venture capital. I admire the decision of these wildly successful people to locate a winery not in a bustling region but in one of New Zealand’s youngest and least-known areas. That said, I found only one of the Mt. Beautiful wines that I tried truly compelling, while the other two were attractive and enjoyable but not essential. The winemaker is Sam Weaver.

Mistarr Wine Importers, Orinda, Cal. Samples for review.
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Refreshing as all get-out, the Mt. Beautiful Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Cheviot Hills, North Canterbury, was delightful with tequila-lime salmon burgers from Whole Foods. More restrained than most sauvignon blancs from New Zealand, or at least from Marlborough, this all stainless steel wine delivers subtle traces of lime and grapefruit, dusty shale, pea shoot, tarragon and guava before segueing to flavors that feel even more spare with tones of pineapple and roasted lemon wrapped in tingling acidity and a moderately silky texture. The finish pumps up the spicy and stony aspect a bit and brings in a flash of lime and grapefruit crispness. 14 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2011. Very Good+. About $18.
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The best of this trio is the all stainless steel Mt. Beautiful Riesling 2009, Cheviot Hills, North Canterbury, which displays pinpoint varietal qualities and exactitude of character — one might even call it rectitude –in nose and mouth. The color is very pale straw/gold with faint green highlights; aromas of softly spiced and macerated peach and pear, lychee and mango are accented by touches of petrol (or rubber eraser) and limestone, that admit, after a few moments, a spare hint of honeysuckle. The spareness is built-in to the spicy lime and peach flavors all a-tremble at the portals of neon-bright acidity and bastions of limestone and shale, which do not, however, come across as formidable but deftly, riskily, ultimately perfectly balanced and integrated. I served this wine at a dinner party with an entree of salmon roasted with leeks, bacon and shiitake mushrooms; talk about perfection! Drink through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $19, Good Value for the Price.
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The Mt. Beautiful Pinot Noir 2009, Cheviot Hills, North Canterbury, offers an attractive bouquet of black cherry and cranberry, cloves and cola and rhubarb with a touch of brown sugar. The wine aged 11 months in French oak barrels. The appealing texture is supple and satiny and enfolds black cherry and red currant flavors that grow spicier and earthier as the minutes pass. Hints of potpourri emerge, along with foresty elements of briers and brambles; some fine-grained tannins lend the necessary substance. 14 percent alcohol. Tasty, correct, drinkable. Very Good+. About $23.
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While the 2010 version of the St. Supéry Sauvignon Blanc is slowly making its way toward retail stores across the country, don’t neglect the St. Supéry Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Napa Valley, still widely available and often now priced at discount. “But FK,” you’re thinking, “it’s early May of 2011. Should we be drinking this white wine from 2009?” Would I lead you astray, you innocents of heart? Tasting this at a wholesaler’s trade event a few days ago (and slyly copping another small pour), I could not have asked for a sauvignon blanc any more clean, crisp and fresh, any more scintillating or exhilarating. That sense of freshness so immediate that it’s almost startling is a habitual signature of this wine made all in stainless steel. Dashing aromas of new-mown grass, grapefruit, lime peel, green pea and crushed tarragon explode from the glass, calming down after a moment (or at least pausing for breath) to unfurl hints of pear and roasted lemon. A texture nicely poised among chiming acidity, nervy steeliness and seductive softness both buttress and cushion flavors of leafy fig, caraway and spicy pear and peach. This riot of sensation is bone-dry and a tad austere with chalk and limestone on the finish, though the primary impression is of complete delicious delight. 13.7 percent alcohol. Consume through the end of 2011. Excellent. About $20, officially, but found around the country as low as $15.

By “great,” I mean a terrific — and nicely aged — wine, not a bargain. After all, the purpose of this benefit event was to raise money to fund the spaying and neutering of dogs and cats, so bidders opened their hearts and wallets. (More than 12,000 dogs and cats a year are euthanized at the Memphis Animal Shelter; people, give your pets a dose of planned parenthood. LL and I also bought a genuine Schwinn bicycle, a Madame Alexander doll in the original box, someone’s old stamp collection and other items; we were outbid on the neon Texaco Pegasus sign, and I’m not sure if I’m happy or sad about that.

Anyway, the wine was the Hedges Family Estate Three Vineyards 2005, from Washington State’s Red Mountain appellation, or as the Federal government puts it, “American Viticultural Area” (AVA). Proprietors are Tom and Anne-Marie Hedges, who married in 1976 — she is from France’s Champagne region, he is from eastern Washington — and in 1986 launched American Wine Trade Inc. to export wine to Europe. The first wine from Hedges Cellars came in 1987, after which the couple segued toward vineyard acquisition and the founding of a real facility. Winemaker for Hedges is Tom Hedges’ brother Pete. Red Mountain officially became an AVA in 2001. Not so much a mountain as a steep, long southwest-facing slope, Red Mountain lies in the eastern Yakima Valley AVA, itself encompassed by the vast Columbia Valley region, all of this area being in south-central Washington.

Hedges Family Estate Three Vineyards 2005 is a sort of Bordeaux-style blend of 61 percent merlot grapes, 36 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent cabernet franc. I say “sort” and “style” because the dominance of merlot points toward the Right Bank communes of Pomerol and St. Emilion, where cabernet sauvignon might not make up such a generous portion as we see in this wine. I have no information about the oak regimen for the wine, but pages devoted to the 2007 and 2008 versions on the winery’s website indicate a modest 10 months aging in mainly American barrels, in combination with French and a small amount of Hungarian or “European” barrels, altogether being 50 percent new and 50 percent used or “neutral.” The process indicates a great deal of thoughtfulness in producing a finely-knit and balanced wine, as does the consistently low — for these days — alcohol levels, for the 2005 coming in at a refreshing 13.3 percent.

The wine is lovely and mellow, with subtle poise and integration and burgeoning fields of dried spice, dried flowers and potpourri (largely inflected by violets and lavender) and spiced and macerated red and black currants and plums. The texture is smooth, lithe and a touch sinewy, with vibrant acidity cutting through supple tannins that bear a dusty graphite-like edge and that continue to grow with unassailable power through the dry, briery and brambly finish. That description betokens some austerity in the wine’s final moments in the mouth, but whatever slightly astringent rigor it imposes does not cancel out a delicious strain of black and red fruit flavors that bear touches of cedar, tobacco and fruitcake. Excellent and Definitely Worth a Search. I paid $60 for the bottle that LL and I drank with last night’s pizza — remember, this was for a good cause; it was released at $18, and you can find it occasionally on the Internet for $25 or so.

In honor of tomorrow’s Mother’s Day celebration, I offer notes on a quartet of inexpensive or reasonably priced sparkling wines — not that the worth of our mothers is to be calculated in dollars but, rather, in tears and joy — that will bring a little lift to the occasion of a lunch or dinner, a party or reception. The style and tone of each of these is different and capable of creating its own mood. There’s still time to hie thyself to a wine store and pick up a bottle or two for the sake of maternal love and obligation. These were samples for review. Image from armymomhaven.com
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The Caposaldo Prosecco from Italy’s Veneto region is an exhilarating Prosecco — the name of the grape and the wine — that sports a very pale straw/gold color and a seething plethora of tiny glinting bubbles. Caposaldo Prosecco is fresh, clean and lively, with whole shoals of limestone and steel buttressing notes of almond and almond blossom, orange rind and lemon and a delicate hint of pear. Heaps of vitality and energy, currents of crisp acidity, very dry, with a pert, stony finish. Quite charming. 11.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+ About $14, representing Good Value.
Imported by Kobrand Corp, Purchase, N.Y.
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The unusual blend of the Trapiche Extra Brut, Mendoza, Argentina, is 70 percent chardonnay, 20 percent semillon and 10 percent malbec. Made in the Charmat method of second fermentation in tank, this sparkling wine offers a radiant light gold color and an entrancing bouquet of dry, dusty acacia and and sweet, honeyed jasmine, orange zest, green apple and roasted lemon. This sparkler is very dry, brightly crisp and delicate, in fact downright elegant, as if its lustrous limestone-damp shale minerality were etched to transparency with silver leaf. Notes of citrus and toasted almond reveal a hint of something spicy, wild, leafy and tropical in the background, a tiny element of unexpected and intriguing exuberance, as well as a bit of buttered toast. How could Mom not love it? 13 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15, a Great Bargain.
Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, N.Y. (Tasted twice in the past six months with consistent results.)
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Made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes in the champagne method, the JJ Vincent Cremant de Bourgogne delivers a tempest of tiny swirling bubbles in a very pale straw color with a slight greenish tint. This is incredibly clean and crisp and lively, with vivid acidity and scintillating lemon-lime and limestone elements (and a hint of green apple) carried by a texture that’s paradoxically crisp yet almost creamy. Though the wine is close to austere in its resolute limestone and chalk-like minerality, it’s saved from being daunting by a suave, elegant tone, refreshing lemony fruit highlighted by touches of ginger and spice (and, I suppose, everything nice) and a trace of sweet floral nature. Delightful but with a slightly serious edge. 12 percent alcohol. So close to Excellent, but still Very Good+. About $20.
Frederick Wildman & Sons, N.Y.
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The Vigne Regali Cuvée Aurora Rosé is made in the champagne method from pinot noir grapes grown in Piedmont’s Alta Langa region.
This is lovely, charming and elegant. The color is lightly tarnished copper over silver salmon scale; the foaming surge of tiny flecking bubbles is deliriously mesmerizing. First one sniffs smoke, red raspberry and dried red currants; then come orange rind, a touch of lime sherbet, melon ball and a slight yeasty, bready element. The wine is crisp, dry, lively, clean and fresh, a tissue of delicacies that add up to a supple, engaging structure — close to sassy yet almost creamy — buoyed by an increasingly prominent limestone minerality. The finish brings in hints of cloves and pomegranate and a smooth conjunction where limestone turns into damp shale, and a final winsome whiff of rose and lilac. 11.5 percent alcohol. Bound to be a crowd-pleaser. Excellent. About $30.
Imported by Banfi Vintners, Old Brookfield, N.Y. (Tasted twice in the last six months with consistent results.)
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Polymath Jack Cakebread, who ran an auto-repair business in Oakland and was a professional photographer, bought land in the Napa Valley in 1971. Located in the Rutherford area on Hwy 29, the winery is surrounded by many of the valley’s best-known vineyards and wineries. The first vintage for Cakebread was in 1973, a total of 157 cases of chardonnay. Jack Cakebread’s sons, Dennis and Bruce, now operate the winery, with Dennis as director of sales and Bruce as president and COO. Cakebread is chiefly known for a range of cabernet sauvignon wines, sauvignon blanc and several chardonnays; the winery also produces merlot, pinot noir, syrah and zinfandel, and a syrah/grenache rosé that I would love to get my hands on.
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The Cakebread Cellars Dancing Bear Ranch 2006 hails from Howell Mountain and vineyards that range from about 1800 to 2200 feet elevation. Howell Mountain, the site of a variety of excellent cabernet and merlot vineyards, pioneered by Randy Dunn and La Jota, stands over the Napa Valley north of St. Helena and east of Calistoga. The wine is a blend of 70 percent cabernet sauvignon, 17 percent merlot and 4 percent cabernet franc. The wine spent 26 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels. This is a cabernet of absolute integrity and authenticity; you feel at once the heft, the dignified austerity of dusty mountainside tannins and granite-like minerality, elements that serve to buttress the uplifting notes of black currants, black raspberries and plums, cedar, tobacco and mint, with a stringent high-tone of iodine. Vibrant acidity melds all of these qualities in a package that’s resonant and resolute, darkly brooding without being truculent, a column of pent energy patiently waiting to be elegant. Black fruit flavors are deep, ripe and spicy, and they benefit from a grounding in touches of bittersweet chocolate, potpourri, ancho chili, graphite and loamy earth. The wine gets more rigorous as the minutes pass — we spent an hour with it and a medium rare steak — and you feel the slow, irrevocable tide of finely-milled tannins and burnished oak filling all the spaces. The wine was terrific with the steak, but it should be drinking best from about 2012 or ’14 through 2018 to 2020. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Production was 2,200 cases. Winemaker was Julianne Laks. Excellent. About $106.
A sample for review.
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The name of the Grant Eddie winery derives from partners Grant Ramey and Edward Schulten. The winery is located in Oregon House, North Yuba in the Sierra Foothills, where Ramey is vineyard manager for Renaissance Vineyard and Winery. Like Renaissance, Grant Eddie turns out small quantities of carefully-made wines that focus on the needs of the grapes instead of on the egos of the winemakers or the strictures of heavy-handed oak. The 12 acres of organic estate vineyards lie at over 1,900-feet elevation. Natural yeast is utilized; alcohol levels are sensible in an age when cabernet sauvignon wines routinely attain 15 percent abv (alcohol by volume).

I recently tasted Grant Eddie’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah from 2006, and while the cabernet is well-made the syrah is superb. I also have a bottle of the Grant Eddie Port 2009, but I’m saving that for a bit. These wines were samples for review.
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The Grant Eddie Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Ramey Mountain Vineyard, Sierra Foothills, is a model of the marriage of power and elegance. Deeply earthy and minerally — in the granite/graphite mode — it offers classic notes of black currants and plums, cedar and tobacco, lavender and potpourri. It’s grand in proportion but not grandiose, being suave, sleek, supple, smooth and polished though bolstered by fairly dense chewy tannins and pinpoint acidity. A few minutes in the glass lend the wine expansive dimension while adding to the spicy intensity of its black fruit flavors. What’s not to like? Nothing really, but I felt in the end that the wine, for all its virtues, was more correct than compelling. Or am I being nit-picky because I tasted this wine after the exciting syrah? I mean, it really is good. 13.8 percent alcohol. 125 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Truly compelling and rich in detail, the Grant Eddie Syrah 2006, Whitman’s Mountain Vineyard, Sierra Foothills, delivers everything we want of the purity and intensity of the syrah grape, especially when it takes the manner of France’s Northern Rhone Valley as exemplar. Spiced and macerated blackberries, black currants and blueberries are wreathed with piquant notes of black pepper and black olive, dusty thyme and rosemary and touches of fruitcake and plum pudding. That fruit grows more meaty, fleshy and smoky in bouquet and flavor as the moments pass — and with the grape’s signature trace of wet fur — and the wine gains depths of clean, earthy slate-like minerality and the essential resonance of vibrant acidity. The wine deftly balances the juicy appeal of its black and blue fruit flavors with a honed astringent edge that speaks of its spare, burnished tannic character. Here’s a syrah that touches on every necessary point without being hot and sweet with high alcohol or obvious and heavily extracted or stupid with oak, common flaws in California. Drink now through 2015 to ’17. Alcohol content is 14.1 percent. 150 cases. Exceptional. About $27.
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Sipping a rosé wine with my cheese toast for lunch is from a view-point more of hope than practicality, since today in my neck o’ the woods the sky is gray, rain is falling relentlessly and the temperature is far below normal. This in addition to the fact that Ol’ Man River is higher than flood stage and its streams and tributaries are in full-flood, driving people in low-lying areas away from their homes and businesses. Matters look fairly serious in the Mid-South, so call it an act of optimism that I broach the Gustave Lorentz Le Rosé 2009, a 100 percent pinot noir rose wine from Alsace. This, friends, is classic. While most of the rosés we drink this summer will be from 2010, don’t neglect the 2009s, many of which are drinking splendidly now, with a bit of added flesh and heft to them. The Gustave Lorentz Le Rosé 2009 is delightful and elegant. The color is exactly what one wants from a rose, a shade of copper slightly darker than the traditional onion skin, a hue a bit more salmon-like than what’s called “eye of the partridge”; how about pale topaz shimmered with tarnished silver? I think you get the idea. So: dried raspberries and red currants, a hint of watermelon, a rosé of stones and bones yet almost juicy with its red fruit and stone-fruit flavors (there’s a touch of peach) and late lavings of mint, lavender and dried Provencal herbs underlain by a modest yet appropriate amount of limestone-like minerality. Spare, sleek and (did I say this before) elegant yet so damned tasty. Yeah, you could just drink it by the freakin’ gallon! (But don’t!) Through September or October this year. 12.5 percent alcohol. I rarely rate rosé wines Excellent, but here goes: Excellent! About $20.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa Cal. A sample for review, as I am required to state by the FCC.

… including some that I should have tasted months ago or last year or maybe years ago, but the process proved interesting in some ways, disappointing in others. Since the majority of the chardonnays were produced in California, many of them, perforce, were stiff and unwieldy with oak. Well, why should I have been disappointed; too much oak, strident spice and austere finishes (or cloying buttery, creamy, tropical, dessert-like qualities) are typical in chardonnays from the Golden State. All the more reason, then, to praise the few on this roster that actually celebrate the purity and intensity of the chardonnay grape itself.

Of necessity, these reviews will be briefer than usual, and I will devote less space to the negligent wines and more space to the successes. To avoid a hierarchical scheme, the order is alphabetical. I receive at my doorstep, you will perceive, all sorts of wines in many styles and at many prices. Unless otherwise indicated, these wines were samples for review.
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Alamos Chardonnay 2009, Mendoza, Argentina. This is the inexpensive line from the Catena family. Spiced apple, pineapple and grapefruit, a haze of oak; very pleasing dense, slightly chewy texture; lively acidity, a firm limestone background, essential balance. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink through the summer of 2012. Very Good. About $13, representing Good Value.
Imported by Alamos USA, Haywood, Ca. (i.e., Gallo).
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Albamar “William Cole” Chardonnay 2010, Casablanca Valley, Chile. The problem with this otherwise attractive wine is that it seems in every respect more like a sauvignon blanc than a chardonnay, right down to its sauvignon blanc-like notes of leafy fig and dried thyme and tarragon. Also touches of peach and pear and roasted lemon; very dry, heaps of limestone; austere finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. Not recommended. About $11.
Global Vineyard Imports, Berkeley, Cal.
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A. et P. de Villaine Les Clous Bourgogne Chardonnay 2007, Cotes Chalonnaise. About a month ago, I wrote about the A. et P. Villaine La Fortune Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2007; now comes the turn of its stablemate chardonnay, an absolutely lovely and authentic example that I wish I could have as a house wine. If I were compiling a wine list for a restaurant, I would certainly include this both by bottle and glass. Pale gold color; roasted lemon and pear, jasmine and acacia (think of some pert, astringent little white flower); earthy and minerally in the limestone and wet shale range; quite dry but juicy, almost luscious, yet superbly matched by a texture that balances spareness with a talc-like effect; all wrapped in scintillating acidity. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. I paid about $25.
Imported by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, Cal. (Current release is the 09.)
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Apaltagua Reserva Unoaked Chardonnay 2010, Casablanca, Chile. I don’t know how widely available this chardonnay is, but it’s worth the effort to make a search. Bright, clean, seductively fragrant; green apple, pineapple and grapefruit; honeysuckle and cloves; touch of roasted lemon and baked pear in aroma and flavor; brings in some peach; heaps of flint- and limestone-like minerality; quite dry but tasty; a lovely chardonnay with a slightly serious acid and mineral edge. 14 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $11, a Fantastic Bargain.
Global Vineyard Imports, Berkeley, Cal.
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Aquinas Chardonnay 2007, Napa Valley. Obviously I forgot about this wine and allowed it to languish in the wine fridge, but boy, did I get a surprise when I tried it. Full-bodied, vibrant and resonant; spiced pineapple and grapefruit, roasted lemon; dense and chewy; good balance though the oak comes in more prominently through the finish; dry, stony. Quite attractive and drinkable. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15 (according to the tag on the bottle; website says $20. This is apparently the current release of this wine.)
From Don & Sons division of Don Sebastiani Family of Companies.
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Benziger Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay 2008, Carneros. Sangiacomo is one of the most important vineyards in California; many producers have made award-winning chardonnays from its grapes, but of course what happens in the winery is beyond control of the vineyard and poor little ol’ grapes themselves. This is a big, bold, powerfully spicy and thoroughly oaked chardonnay, and the oak influence continues to gain momentum, like a force of nature, through mid-palate to finish. If all you care about is oak, you’ll like this. I don’t. 14.1 percent alcohol. Biodynamically produced. Not recommended. About $20.
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Box Car Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma Coast. Pale straw color; very attractive poise and balance, moderately rich pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors; spicy, vibrant, dense and chewy; good integration, through the wood — 10 months in French oak, 10 percent new barrels — comes through a bit on the finish. Still, it’s tasty and pleasing. 13.4 percent alcohol. 917 cases. Now through 2012. Very Good+. About $23.
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B.R. Cohn Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma County; B.R. Cohn Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, Carneros. The differences between these chardonnays (one from the well-known Sangiacomo Vineyard) lie in degrees of power, intensity and dimension. The 09, Sonoma County, offers a pale straw color; green apple, pineapple and grapefruit; it’s bright, ripe and spicy, with dusty limestone and damp shale and a long finish woven of ripe fruit, clean acidity and spicy oak. Eight months in French oak. 14.1 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $24. The Sangiacomo 09, on the other hand, which is barrel-fermented and matures in 100 percent new French oak, eight months, is not just bright and ripe and spicy but boldly stated and authoritatively proportioned, a true well-bred luxury item; the wine is intense and concentrated, though it greets your first sniff and sip with accommodating freshness and cleanness. Again, the oak regimen layers its effects as the wine builds, yet the balance is never compromised; in fact, the wine gets better as the minutes pass. 14.4 percent alcohol. Best from 2012 through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $35.
Winemaker is Tom Montgomery.
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Bridlewood Chardonnay 2007, Monterey County. The most difficult wines to write about are the ones that are just fine, thank you v. much, that are completely O.K. and fairly pleasant in every sense but not memorable. So, the Bridlewood Chardonnay 2007 — it’s a Gallo label — offers interesting notes of pear and quince, cloves and yellow plums; the balance is nicely maintained; there’s a slightly chewy, slightly dusty texture and heaps of limestone on the very dry, almost austere finish. Oak and stainless steel fermentation and aging. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $15.
Winemaker is David Hopkins.
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Coppo Costebianche Chardonnay 2007, Piemonte. What happened here? The 08 version of this wine has been released, but there’s no reason why the 07 shouldn’t be, well, maybe not as fresh as a daisy but certainly attractive and nicely developed. Instead, this is all buttered toast, toffee, burnt orange, burnt match, sherry-like and very dry. Bad storage? Bad shipment? Or a wine that contravenes everything that I believe proper about making chardonnays? 12 percent alcohol. Not recommended. About $20.
Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Ca. (My previous and more approving post on Coppo’s Barbera d’Asti wines and a Barolo is here.)
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Davis Bynum Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley. In chapter and verse, in song and refrain, this excessively spicy chardonnay is about oak, oak and more oak. Eleven months in French barrels, 70 percent malolactic fermentation. Winemaker was Gary Patzwald. It doesn’t help that the alcohol level is 14.9/15 percent alcohol. Not recommended. About $25.
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Franciscan Estate Chardonnay 2009, Napa Valley. Toasty, buttery, cinnamon and cloves, spicy and roasted fruit aromas; very dry; tons of oak, almost fruitless in mouth, unbalanced. Seven months in French and American oak, 20 percent new barrels; that doesn’t sound like much exposure to wood, but this came out wrong. 13.5 percent alcohol. Not recommended. About $18.
Winemaker was Janet Myers. Franciscan is owned by Constellation Brands.
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Forest Ville Chardonnay 2008, California. (A Bronco label) Bright, clean, fresh; apples, pineapple and grapefruit; pear and melon flavors, a bit of grapefruit on the finish; well-balanced, ripe, tasty, slightly floral. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good, and a Terrific Bargain at about $6.
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Glen Carlou Chardonnay 2009, Paarl, South Africa. You feel the pull of the oak in this bright, bold, resonant chardonnay, but its baked pear, spiced pineapple and hazelnut scents and flavors are pretty engaging, balanced by vibrant acidity and an almost lacy sense of limestone minerality. 10 months in French oak, 30 percent new. 14 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $16.
The Hess Collection New World Wines, Napa Ca.
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Gloria Ferrer Chardonnay 2007, Carneros. This estate-grown and bottled chardonnay may be 3 and a half years old, but it feels as bright and radiant as the day it was made. It takes oak to the edge for my palate, yet the buttered toast, pear compote and smoky pineapple elements are nicely balanced by a prominent limestone quality and scintillating acidity. Suave and sophisticated. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18 to $20.
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Haywood Estate Los Chamizal Chardonnay 2008, Sonoma Valley. Peter Haywood’s wines are never shy, and this chardonnay is no exception. Serious structure, dense, chewy; builds layers of dimension and detail, all manner of ripeness and boldly spicy qualities; gains power but also nuance in the glass and essential vibrancy and resonance; exquisite balance yet slightly over-the-top. Quite a performance. 14 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $28. A great choice for restaurant wine lists that specialize in a wide range of California chardonnays.
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Heller Estate Chardonnay 2008, Carmel Valley. All Heller wines are certified organic and vegan (no animal products used in filtering or fining). Pure loveliness: sage and lemongrass, jasmine and honeysuckle, pineapple, grapefruit, quince, yellow plums; some time in the glass pulls up spiced peach and baked pear; vital with limestone minerality and crystalline acidity; nothing too rich or powerful though texture is fairly lush. Quite attractive, with a very dry, slightly woody finish. 12 months in French oak, 35 percent new barrels. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $24. Tasted twice with consistent results.
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Hook & Ladder Chardonnay 2003, Russian River Valley; Hook & Ladder “Third Alarm” Reserve Chardonnay 2003, Russian River Valley. Your eyes do not deceive you; these chardonnays are from 2003, yet the freshness, the balance are amazing. The “regular” bottling is absolutely lovely in the way that only well-made, mature chardonnays can be: smoky pears and peaches, deeply spicy, slightly honeyed yet bone-dry, touch of guava, quince and ginger, polished, supple oak, chiming acidity; authoritative yet winsome: one could mistake this for a superior Puligny-Montrachet village wine. 14.2 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $18-$20(?)The “Third Alarm” Reserve, which I assume received more oak — that’s what “reserve” tends to mean in California — does project more of a woody-dried spice character and again the spiced and macerated peaches and pears, but this is earthier, more intense and concentrated, very dry, leaning toward austerity. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $25(?)
Hook & Ladder is the winery Cecil De Loach founded after selling the De Loach winery.
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J Vineyards Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley. Attractively clean, bright and fresh; vibrant and lively; seductive heft and presence; spicy pineapple-grapefruit flavors with a pronounced citrus turn and underpinnings of cloves, quince and limestone: a long spicy finish. Barrel-fermented and aged in French oak (40 percent new) with malolactic fermentation. 14.3 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $28. Tasted twice with consistent results.
Winemaker is George Bursick.
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Kendall-Jackson Avant Chardonnay 2009, California. This wine is K-J’s entry into the unoaked (or “little-oaked”) segment of the market, and I immediately liked it better than the ubiquitous Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, the wine that put K-J on the map back in 1982. Fresh, crisp and clean; attractive scents and flavors of apple and mango, pineapple and grapefruit, which, in the bouquet, are woven with subtle touches of jasmine and honeysuckle. A few moments bring up nuances of almond and almond blossom; dry, stony finish has a bit of almond skin’s mild bitterness; dense, almost cloud-like texture; whole package animated by lively acidity. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $14, representing Great Value.
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1. La Crema Chardonnay 2009, Monterey; 2. La Crema Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma Coast; 3. La Crema Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley; 4. La Crema Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley. Let me say rat cheer that I’m a fan of winemaker Melissa Stackhouse’s pinot noirs (which I will mention soonishly) but not of these chardonnays, with one exception. (The winery was founded in 1979 as La Crema Vinera — how many people remember that label? — struggled financially and quality-wise for years and after a bankruptcy was purchased in 1996 by Kendall-Jackson; it is now one of the Jackson Family Wines.)
1. & 2. Though new oak is kept to a minimum, both of these wines are thoroughly oaked and woody, and the density and fairly strident character either dull or mask the fruit. Neither recommended. Each about $20.
3. La Crema Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley; big, resonant, vibrant, vital; very spicy, oak, oh yes, but held in check, allowed its own sense of deliberation; pineapple-grapefruit, ginger and quince, deeply floral and smoky; nothing tropical, nothing dessert-like; heaps of limestone and shale. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $30. But see the following:
4. What a difference from No. 3. RRV 09, cloves, cinnamon, hazelnuts; seductive powdery texture, smoky lilac and lavender; but drenched in oak; very dry, stiff, unbalanced. 14.5 percent alcohol. Wanted to like it, but couldn’t. Not recommended. About $30.
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Luca Chardonnay 2008, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina. Luca is a personal project of Laura Catena, daughter of Nicolas Caterna, patriarch of the venerable Catena Zapata winery. The grapes for the Chardonnay 08 come from vineyards lying at 4,710-feet elevation; the Catenas indeed believe in high-elevation vineyards. Winemaker is Luis Reginato. The wine aged 12 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. I loved this wine; it’s like drinking limestone cliffs infused with baked pear, roasted lemon and lemon balm, all permeated by the astringent scent of some little white mountainside flowers and fashioned with impeccable elegance and elan. Production was 1,500 cases, so this is definitely Worth a Search. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $26.
Imported by Vine Connections, Sausalito, Cal.
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Ministery of the Vinterior Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley. Ha ha, o.k., nice pun, though I’m not so fond of wines with punning names, still, this is an appealing chardonnay: quite dry and stony; beguiling notes of green apple, lemon and lime peel, touch of pineapple-grapefruit; snappy acidity, delicately floral; one of those wines that makes you think, “Gosh, I’m glad to be drinking this.” A first release from this winery. 13 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
Winemaker is Daniel O’Donnell.
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Moobuzz Chardonnay 2009, Monterey. 85 percent Monterey, 15 percent Clarksburg; there’s two percent viognier in the wine. Talk about punning or “fun” names! Hey, all you cows and bees! Anyway: clean, crisp and refreshing; pineapple-grapefruit, touches of lemon balm and lemon curd, very spicy; attractive, moderately lush texture cut by bright acidity; very dry finish, a bit austere. 13.5/13.8 percent alcohol (depending on if you’re reading the label or the printed matter). Four months in oak barrels. Very Good. About $15.
From The Other Guys, part of the Don Sebastiani Family of Companies. (& a very strange opening device!)
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Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Chardonnay 2008 and 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands. Morgan’s Double L Vineyard is certified organic.
2009: Pale straw-gold color; bright, bold, dense, chewy; roasted lemon, baked pineapple, grapefruit, hint of peach; ginger and cloves, jasmine and camellia; oak — 10 months French barrels, 33 percent new — is supple and resonant and shapely; a powder-like texture riven by crystalline acidity; the whole thing just fucking sings of the purity and intensity of the chardonnay grape given thoughtful and gentle handling; just at the finish: a tiny fillip of buttered cinnamon toast over slate. 14.2 percent alcohol. 560 cases. Now through 2015 or ’16. Exceptional. About $36.
2008: Pineapple-grapefruit, jasmine-honeysuckle; deeply spicy, deeply flavorful; fruit is slightly creamy and roasted without being tropical or dessert-like; dense chewy almost voluptuous texture, the approximation of liquid gold, but held in check by crisp acidity; oak is ever-present — 10 months French, 30 percent new — yet as a permeable, shaping force. A fairly serious chardonnay, now through 2014 or ’15. 14.4 percent alcohol. 450 cases. Excellent. About $36.
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1. Nickel & Nickel Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, Napa Valley, Carneros; 2. Nickel & Nickel Medina Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley; 3. Nickel & Nickel Searby Vineyard Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley.
Winemaker is Darice Spinelli; director of winemaking is Dirk Hampson. The Nickel & Nickel chardonnays do not undergo malolactic fermentation.
1. First note on the N&N Truchard Chardonnay 09, “Wow, what power and elegance!” Green apple that segues to roasted lemon, lemon balm, spiced pear and peach; it’s a substantial chardonnay, no lie, fully framed and fleshed-out, yet it’s a construct of myriad delicate details; firm, supple texture; a few minutes bring in hints of cloves and allspice, with the latter’s touch of dry astringency amid the lushness of savory ripeness. Nine months in French oak, 45 percent new barrels. Pretty much a masterpiece. Excellent. About $48.

2. First note on the N&N Medina Chardonnay 2009, “Golden.” A shimmering and lustrous chardonnay that spent nine months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels; expansively floral, deeply rich and spicy without being strident or cloying, in fact the lushness of savory, slightly roasted stone fruit and pineapple-grapefruit flavors is almost rigorously tempered by the spare elegance of bright acidity and limestone-like minerality. Frankly beautiful. 14.6 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Production was 1,093. Exceptional. About $48.

3. The N&N Searby Chardonnay 08 aged nine months in French oak, 51 percent new barrels. The vineyard was planted in 1972. Big, rich, bright and bold, but not brassy or obstreperous; firm, suave, supple and silky, frankly gorgeous; apple-pineapple-grapefruit with hints of fig, cloves, ginger and slightly creamy quince; touch of honeysuckle; deeply permeated by spice; lovely talc-like texture enlivened by crisp acidity and a monumental limestone element. Now through 2015 or ’16 (well-stored). 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 1,986 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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Picket Fence Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley. The last time I wrote about Picket Fence, it was a new endeavor one of whose partners was Don Van Staaveren, formerly winemaker at Chateau St. Jean and creator of that winery’s fabulously successful Cinq Cepages Cabernet Sauvignon 1996. Now Picket Fence is a brand owned by Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co.; the wheels in California grind pretty damned quickly and exceedingly fine. This chardonnay is clean and fresh, modestly appealing but mainly generic and pedestrian; it also displays a bit more oak than it needs. 13.5 percent alcohol. Good. About $15.
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Plantagenent Chardonnay 2008, Great Southern, Western Australia. What a sweetheart of a chardonnay! Clean and fresh with bright acidity; a sense of earthy integrity and authority while offering nicely poised delicacy and deliciousness; mouth-filling, balanced and integrated with a strain of spare and lithe elegance; jasmine and peach and pear; heaps of limestone with a touch of grapefruit on the finish and a hint of buttered cinnamon toast. Nine months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels; no malolactic. 14 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $21, Good Value for the Price.
Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa Cal. Winemaker is John Durham.
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Renaissance Chardonnay 2006, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills. Medium straw-gold color with a green glimmer; spiced and macerated peach and pear, baked pineapple and grapefruit, ginger and quine; dry, stony, woody spice (a sort of blondness); quite earthy, lithe and sinewy; lilac and camellia; after 30 minutes slightly peppery and herbal; suave and sleek yet elemental and authoritative. Aged nine months in new and 1- and 2-year old barrels. Another individually-styled wine from Gideon Beinstock. 13.6 percent alcohol. Production was 81 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma County. Longtime winemaker Rick Sayre crafts a well-made, middle-of-the-road chardonnay that’s fresh and lively, with apple-lemon scents and pineapple-grapefruit flavors that feel like a clarion-call for perfect ripeness and luscious stone-fruit flavors bolstered by lively acidity, undertones of polished oak and a burnished limestone element. Low-key but classic. Sixty percent barrel-fermented, 40 percent in stainless steel; the barrel-fermented portion ages four months in French and American oak. The winery is “carbon-neutral, solar powered, sustainably farmed.” 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $13.50, representing Good Value.
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Sanford Chardonnay 2008, Santa Barbara County. While I am an admirer of Sanford’s pinot noirs, I found this chardonnay to be stern and stiff, drenched with oak, with emphasis on strident spice and cloying toffee and caramel elements. 14.5 percent alcohol. The materials here are great; the grapes derive from some of the best vineyards for chardonnay (and pinot noir) in the Sta. Rita Hills — La Rinconada and Sanford & Benedict — and Sta. Maria Valley — Bien Nacido and El Camino. The wine is barrel-fermented, spends eight months in 20 percent new French oak barrels, and undergoes full malolactic fermentation. Not recommended. About $22.
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Simi Chardonnay 2008, Sonoma County. Very dry, austere, woody. 85 percent barrel-fermented; 6 months in 25 percent new oak. Not recommended. About $18.
Simi, a venerable winery founded in 1867, is owned by Constellation Brands.
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Spelletich Cellars Chardonnay 2007, Napa Valley. This small family winery was launched in 1994 by Timothy Spelletich and his wife, winemaker Barb Spelletich. The material I received with a sample of their wines mentions “minimal intervention” and “when to pull the wine off the oak to pursue something larger and more elusive than your ordinary wine.” Sorry, but I don’t buy those principles, not when this chardonnay went through barrel-fermentation and aged sur lie 18 months — yes, 18 months for a chardonnay! — in French and Hungarian oak. Not much of the grape could survive that manipulation. The wine is bright, bold, spicy, tropical; oily and viscous in texture; very spicy (I say again), very toasty, very ripe to the point of being over-ripe, with baked pineapple and grapefruit, guava and mango, cloves and buttered cinnamon toast; very dense and chewy, almost powdery; where’s the acidity? I find this sort of chardonnay intolerable. 14 percent alcohol. 336 cases. Not recommended. About $27.
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Trefethen Chardonnay 2007, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. A model of classic balance and integration; very pure, very intense and drinking perfectly now at three and a half years old (the current release in 09); you feel the oak at its inextricable framing and foundational purpose but never at the expense of fruit and a suave, silky and lively texture; the chiming acidity and scintillating limestone elements are not only essential but exciting. If you can find some bottles (or a case) drink now through 2014 or ’15, well-stored. Eight months in French oak. 14.1 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $30.
Director of viticulture and winemaking is Jon Ruel; winemaker is Zeke Neeley.
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Windsor Sonoma Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley. A large-framed chardonnay, stones and bones, bright, bold and a little brassy with tasty ripe pineapple-grapefruit flavors holding shades of stone-fruit, cloves and cinnamon; fairly dense texture packed with supple oak, crisp acidity and burgeoning limestone minerality. Indigenous yeast; 10 months in French oak, 50 percent new. Could go through 2012 or ’13. Alcohol is 13.5 percent. Very Good+. About $20.
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X Winery Chardonnay 2009, Carneros. Two vineyards: 60 percent Sangiacomo, 40 percent Truchard. Bold, bright, full-bodied; smoky spicy pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors; vibrant, resonant, sleek and supple, feels crisp, lively and moderately lush; earthy with hints of mushrooms and limestone; oak comes out more on the finish — 8 months in a combination of 90 percent French, 10 percent American oak — but the wine is well-balanced and integrated. 14.5 percent alcohol. (Bottled w/ a screw-cap.) Excellent. About $25.
Winemakers are Reed Renaudin & Gina Richmond.
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