June 2011

There are lots of “Côtes” and “Beaunes” here as we navigate six regional and village Burgundy wines from the venerable house of Joseph Drouhin, founded in 1880. I’ve written oft before about the complex categories that comprise the scheme of Burgundy — a surprisingly small area in eastern-central France — so I won’t do that again here. Let’s just say that the products we’re looking at today occupy the tier below Grand Cru (at the top) and Premier Cru (next down, though several Premier Cru vineyards could stand to be promoted), wines that derive from mainly small, fragmented vineyards so hallowed that they practically win Nobel Peace Prizes with every vintage. What we have today, however, reflects the wide base of the Burgundy pyramid, primarily from vineyards that do not occupy the prime Grand Cru and premier Cru acreage in the middle of the hillsides — a côte is a hill or slope — but the broader areas below the slopes or back on the hilltops or around the sides. Many village or regional wines represent good value, though that term becomes more relative as prices go up, and also make a good stab at embodying the particular patch of land whence they come or at least don’t defy or deny their origin and the nature of their grapes, which are, of course, chardonnay and pinot noir.

As is the case with the other large grower/negociant houses in Burgundy, such as Louis Jadot, Louis Latour and Faiveley, the firm of Joseph Drouhin produces many wines from its own vineyards — 182.5 acres throughout the region, including Chablis — and then purchases grapes from growers under long-term contracts for the rest of the wines, mainly the less prestigious ones, which, however, still involve a process of meticulous winemaking. Drouhin has “modernized” its front label script and art somewhat, which I think is unfortunate, because the package now looks less individual and more generic; I miss that red stripe across the bottom, but one one asked me, did they? The company also instituted a bottle that’s lighter by 10 percent, casting a lighter carbon footprint in shipping, and launched, with the 2009 vintage, QR codes on the back labels of most of their wines.

Imported by Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., New York. Samples for review.

The Joseph Drouhin Montagny 2009 is neither a profound nor a glamorous expression of the chardonnay grape, but it displays the sort of lovely intensity and authenticity that make for a satisfying and pleasurable experience. Montagny is the southernmost of the four communes of the Côte Chalonnaise, which lies just south of the Côte de Beaune, separated by the river Dheune. Drouhin buys grapes for this wine from trusted growers under long-term contracts. The wine ages 6 to 8 months in oak, 20 percent new barrels. Every element is in place in this charming chardonnay: acidity is clean and blade-like; the texture is an appealing silky combination of crispness balanced by moderate lushness; scents of apples, quince and hazelnuts segue into flavors of lightly spiced and macerated pears and lemons; and a burgeoning limestone quality offers scintillating and slightly earthy ballast. 305 cases imported. Highly appropriate for restaurant wine lists and by-the-glass programs. 13 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $23.

Grapes for the Côte de Nuits-Villages appellation come from vineyards in five villages: Brouchon and Fixin in the north part of the Côte de Nuits — Fixin is also entitled to its own appellation — and Comblanchien, Corgoloin and Premeaux-Prissey in the south. Again, Drouhin buys grapes for the Joseph Drouhin Côte de Nuits-Villages 2009 from growers under long-term contracts. The wine ages from 12 to 15 months in oak, with fewer than 10 percent of the barrels being new. The color is medium ruby with a faint plum cast. Aromas of raspberries, mulberries and dried cherries unfold to reveal hints of briers and brambles, dried baking spice and potpourri; in the mouth, vibrant acidity courses through a lithe and sinewy texture that encompasses flavors of black and red cherries with an intriguing and earthy touch spiced rhubarb, all of this couched in fairly dense, dusty tannins. Drink through 2015 or ’16; a year or two will soften the tannins and make the wine more pliable, though it should be fine now with a game bird or roast beef. 575 cases imported. 13 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $21.50.

Where vineyards for Côte de Nuits-Villages wines are found in five villages, grapes for Côte de Beaune-Villages may derive from or be blended from up to 15 villages — but not Aloxe-Corton, Beaune, Pommard or Volnay. Again, Drouhin purchases grapes for these wines but strictly limits the number of sources. Joseph Drouhin Côte de Beaune-Villages 2009 ages 12 to 15 months in oak, 10 percent new barrels. The color is slightly darker ruby than the previous wine and displays a tinge of magenta at the rim. A bouquet of red raspberry and dried red cherries with touches of mulberry and plum is framed by an earthy character manifested in underbrush and briers and a bit of dusty graphite. The wine is firm with dry, slightly austere tannins yet directly appealing because of the vibrant acidity that cuts a swath on the palate. It fills out and fleshes out a bit more than the Côte de Nuits-Villages, though it retains some reticence in its nature. Number of cases imported not available. 13 percent alcohol. Best from 2012 through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $23.50.

Chorey-lès-Beaune lies just north of Beaune the town and Beaune the appellation; in fact, the name means “Chorey near Beaune.” (Pronounced shory-lay-bone.) Drouhin owns about three acres of vines in this small, red-wine-only appellation but supplements that amount by purchasing fruit from other growers. The Joseph Drouhin Chorey-lès-Beaune 2009 is slightly less firm and dense than the Côte de Beaune-Villages described above, which is to say that I found it a bit more subtle and supple, though its typical complement of red raspberry, red cherry and plum scents and flavors are highlighted by a macerated and roasted quality that rendered this wine singular among its cousins. Still, it’s quite dry, a little foresty and brambly in the depths, and the finish brings in a note of austerity. 2,000 cases imported. 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Very Good+. About $25.

There is a town called Santenay, just south of Chassange-Montrachet, but, unusually for Burgundy, the vineyard appellation of Santenay is broken into four very irregularly shaped areas, two of which are not that close to the town. One frequently reads that the saying in Burgundy is “The last sip of Santenay is better than the first,” and the Joseph Drouhin Santenay 2009 proves the wisdom of the old saw. I found the wine to be the hardest of this group of five pinot noirs, and though I toyed with it for an hour, that is coming back to it several times, it never resolved itself with a clear sense of definition. I did like the balance between swingeing acidity and attractive fullness of body, but essentially the wine lacked character in the middle. Perhaps it needs time, say until 2013 or ’14, to find itself. 265 cases imported. 13 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $27.50.

The difference between the appellations of Côte de Beaune-Villages and Côte de Beaune is that the latter does not revolve around particular, scattered villages but is a vineyard area (not all contiguous) west of the city and higher in the hills than the Premier Cru vineyards of the Beaune appellation. Drouhin owns nine acres of organically-cultivated vines in Côte de Beaune from which it draws for the Joseph Drouhin Côte de Beaune 2009. The wine ages 10 to 12 months in barrels. This is an immediately attractive, warm and spicy pinot noir that teems with notes of black cherry, dried red currants, cranberry and rhubarb, cola and dried flowers; no, it’s not Californian, but it certainly could serve as a model. From top to bottom, this wine offers more detail and dimension than its peers, both in its complex network of spicy, mineral-drenched black and red fruit flavors and in the layering of acidity, oak and dry, fairly stalwart, foresty tannins. The Joseph Drouhin Côte de Beaune 2009 could profit from being undisturbed until 2013 and then should drink very well through 2017 or ’18. About 400 cases imported. The printed material I received called this wine “relatively simple” — and let’s hope that it’s not too “simple” for the price — but I think that description sells it short. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $33.50.

A white wine and a red wine from California, both reasonably priced, and we’ll begin with white.

The Morgan R & D Franscioni Vineyard Pinot Gris 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands (in Monterey County), ages two months in stainless steel and two months in neutral — several times used — French oak barrels. The result is a bright, spicy and appealing wine with an entrancing bouquet of roasted lemon and lemon balm, jasmine and camellia and after-thoughts of lavender, quince and candied fennel. Crisp acidity and a penetrating limestone element give the wine a vibrant structure, while a lissome, moderately lush texture encompasses flavors of ripe tangerine, peach and lemon, with just a hint of dried thyme and tarragon and an elusive sheen of slightly spicy wood. The wine is quite dry, with a touch of mineral austerity on the finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. Drink into 2012 with smoked shrimp or mussels, octopus or squid salad or ceviche. Consistently one of the best pinot gris wines made in California. Bottled with a screw-cap for easy opening. Excellent. About $18.
A sample for review.

The Liberty School label was created in 1975 by Caymus Vineyards to absorb surplus cabernet sauvignon grapes. In 1987, after the brand became popular, the Hope family, which owned vineyards in Paso Robles, began selling cabernet grapes to Caymus. By 1995, production of Liberty School had moved to Paso Robles, and within four years, a Central Coast chardonnay and syrah had been introduced. Liberty School is now a label under the umbrella of Hope Family Wines, which includes Treana, Austin Hope and Candor.

We drank the Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Paso Robles, a few nights ago with a homemade pizza topped with grilled artichoke hearts, Roma tomatoes, bell pepper and spring onions; shards of speck; basil, rosemary and oregano; mozzarella, ricotta and parmesan cheeses. The pizza was great and the wine — robust, spicy and flavorful — was perfect with it. Liberty School Cab 08 isn’t complicated or thought-provoking and heaven forbid that it would be. Instead, you get vivid, fresh black currant, black raspberry and plum aromas and flavors supported by spicy oak — from 12 months aging in French and American barrels, 10 percent new — and clean, tightly-drawn acidity, all of this spread over a bedrock of earthy, graphite-like minerality and a bit of foresty character. Delicious intensity and simple purity. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink through the rest of the year into 2012 with burgers, carne asada, barbecue ribs and, of course, pizza. Very Good+. About $14, a Great Bargain.
A sample for review.

So, yes, this post is a miscellany, a salmagundi, a pot au feu of topics and wines with which I want to deal and get done; well, two, anyway. Here goes:
Not meaning to be a jerk or any such thing, but like all people who write about wine, while I try to cultivate a universal palate, there are certain styles of wine that get my back up; as if you didn’t know, one is over-ripe, tropical chardonnay from California and another is red wine from Tuscany that relies on aging in French oak barrels and ends up resembling nothing more Italian than a Bordeaux or Napa Valley cabernet. So, I was pleasantly surprised to like two wines I encountered recently that reversed my bias, at least in these examples. I’m not a convert, if you please.

The first is the Seven Heavenly Chardonnays 2010, from the Michael David Winery in Lodi (and counterpart to their 7 Deadly Zins, ha-ha), an area of the Central Valley not typically regarded as prime real estate for chardonnay; actually, viognier tends to do better. Anyway, the wine opens in a very ripe, very spicy manner, seething with lemon curd and lemon balm, mango and pineapple, quince jam and crystallized ginger, with underlying notes of cinnamon toast. Holy Hannah, I thought, I’m not going to like this one damned bit! I was wrong. Carefully nurtured by winemakers Adam Mettler and Derek Devries, the wine ages only five months in a combination of 30 percent French oak and 70 percent steel tanks, so after the initial introduction the wood influence smooths out and is actually quite subtle and supple. Though the wine is sizable, and sports a texture that’s almost talc-like in softness, it’s deftly structured with enough acidity and limestone-like minerality to lend it balancing crispness and energy. Flavors still fall into the classic pineapple-grapefruit range but feel fully integrated into a package that while being bold and bright never seems flamboyant or ponderous. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+ and a Great Bargain at about $14. A sample for review.

The second example of a wine that surprised and pleased me is Le Volte 2009, a Toscana IGT from Tenuta dell’Ornellaia. Truly, I open red wines from Tuscany with constant trepidation, because I know the way of thinking in that ancient realm of traditional winemaking is that if a wine is good, it will be better if it ages in French barriques. This concept is a complete misconception, of course, yet producers all over the world cling to it as the drowning to a lifeboat; the result is that many of the (especially) red wines I open and taste deliver an overwhelming smack of smoky, toasty, austere woody wood right to my nose and palate. It’s a shame. So, I extracted the cork from this bottle of Le Volte 2009, a blend of 50 percent merlot, 30 percent sangiovese and 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, with a rueful sigh. And guess what? Prego, the wine was absolutely lovely, balanced, integrated and delicious. Yes, the wine aged in French barriques, but only for 10 months, and the barrels ranged from 2 to 4 years old and were all, as they say, “third-use,” having been employed previously in the production of the estate’s flagship wine Ornellaia. Here’s a “modern” Tuscan red, dominated by “international” grape varieties that does not seem hopelessly devoted to the models of Paulliac or the Napa Valley. The wine offers the essence of thyme-and-cedar-infused black currants with a touch of black olives and wild traces of mulberry, rhubarb and sandalwood underlain by a generous element of graphite-tinged earthiness. The whole shebang is ripe and a little fleshy, spiced and macerated (with a hint of sangiovese’s black tea, dried roses and orange rind), and it glides across the palate on sweetly orchestrated bearings of finely-milled, well-oiled tannins and polished oak. Lithe and elegant, yet with a touch of the unbridled free spirit about it. Drink now through 2015 to ’17. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Excellent. About $30.
Imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Ca. A sample for review.

The current vintage of Pillar Box White in the United States in the 2008; in Australia, they’re drinking the 2009. Having lunch in Memphis a couple of weeks ago, however, with Kim Longbottom, owner of Henry’s Drive Vignerons, producer of the Pillar Box wines, we tried the 2007. This situation resulted from a conflict between distributors about changing brands and having to get wine from a distributor on the other side of the state — and Tennessee is a very long state — all the ramifications of which I did not comprehend, but the upshot was that the Pillar Box White 07, a blend of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and verdelho grapes, is drinking beautifully now. Remember, this is basically a simple, direct white wine intended for easy quaffing and not thinking about too much. I was amazed then that this four-year-old uncomplicated white wine offered beguiling notes of roasted lemon and bees’-wax, some hints of sunny, leafy figs and quince, a touch of lanolin, a delicate infusion of limestone and shale. Certainly I would not hold onto the wine for even another year, but it’s so graceful and charming now that it’s irresistible. 13 percent alcohol. Very Good+. You can find this around the country at $7 to $12, representing Great Value.
Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Ca. Image from isleofwine.com.au.

Another wine from 2007 that I encourage My Readers to look for the Chateau Thivin Côte de Brouilly 2007, a cru Beaujolais from one of the hardest areas to find. Made 100 percent from gamay grapes, as by law the wines of Beaujolais must be, this delivers that true gamay combination of black currants, red cherries and high-tones of fresh grapiness permeated by briers and brambles and a hint of clean slate. Three and a half years have given the wine a little fleshy ripeness, a whiff of lilac, a back-note of fruitcake. Smooth, mellow, engaging, downright delicious. The wine spent six months in large oak casks. Zaccharie Geoffray bought the small estate and chateau at auction in 1877; his descendents still own and operate the property, now with grand-nephew Claude Geoffray, his wife Evelyne and their son Claude-Edouard. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $20 to $28 around the country, the latter the price I paid locally.
Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal.

I bought a bottle of Egly-Ouriet “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru Brut late last year, and we drank it with the New Year’s Day breakfast of fried eggs, country ham, red-eye gravy, grits and biscuits. I posted a review as the 8th Day of my annual “Twelve Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” series and included it back in January in my “Best Wines of 2010” post. A few weeks ago, casting about for a Champagne to sip while LL was opening her birthday present, I decided to purchase another bottle from the same store; this bottle is from the same batch that was disgorged in November 2007 after spending 40 months in the bottle on the lees, that is, the spent yeast cells that can contribute depth and character to white wines; it’s common for high-class chardonnays to rest on the lees (sur lie) in barrels for the same reason.

Calculating in reverse, we can conclude that the Egly-Ouriet “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru Brut was bottled around July 2004 and that the principle grapes came from vintage 2003, so the product in question is about eight years old. It’s unusual for a non-vintage Champagne to spend 40 months on the lees and also for a Champagne to be made completely from red pinot meunier grapes, which typically form the lesser percentage in a Champagne that uses greater amounts of chardonnay and pinot noir. Pinot meunier is important in Champagne because it buds late and ripens early, qualities that are useful in the region’s demanding wintery climate.

Here’s what I wrote about Egly-Ouriet “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru Brut on Jan 1, 2010:

The color is pale gold-blond with silver highlights; the infinitesimally tiny bubbles surge upward in a dynamic fountain. What is most fascinating about this champagne is the way in which every aspect of it must be abrogated to the concept of steel. It smells like apples, poached pears, thyme and steel. Oh, and it smells like brioche, hazelnuts and steel. And, oh yes, it offers flavors of spiced pear, ginger, lemon curd and steel. It displays the elegance of steel and the power of steel and altogether seems to be an entity for which the adjective “steely” was conceived. Yet there’s warmth here too, a subtle attractiveness; before it goes all high-toned and austere, this champagne kicks up its heels a bit. Excellent. And fascinating. About $70.

Now, 18 months later, this Champagne has lost a great deal of its steely, scintillating minerality and has tamped down its lovely elevated, balletic nature, but it has gained depth and power; previously, it was cool and elegant, though certainly full-bodied and intense, but now it’s warmer, spicier, bursting with mature notes of buttered cinnamon toast, toasted almonds and toffee, roasted lemon, an almost tropical strain of ginger and quince, and a heaping helping of cloves. Fortunately, it retains acid grip and limestone for structural tenacity and an extended finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. I would say that with proper storage the Egly-Ouriet “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru Brut should drink well through 2014. Excellent and still fascinating. About $70 for me locally, though you see it around the country as low as $55.

North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Ca.

When I was a kid, I thought that picnics must be pretty damned cool and racy events, because I was familiar with Manet’s great painting Dejeuner sur l’herbes that hangs in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. In the book of reproductions that I looked at constantly, the two men and two women depicted in the work were described as “dining al fresco,” and since one of the women was nude and the other partially so, I thought that a picnic meant eating outside naked. Well, it didn’t turn out that way, damnit, but naked or not, picnics (under controlled conditions) can be quite charming. The foods I favor at these occasions include deviled eggs, cold roasted chicken, cucumber sandwiches, potato salad and strawberry shortcake; I don’t normally cotton to strawberries, the stupidest of the berry line, but in the picnic situation, they’re allowed. What’s also allowed are young, fresh, attractive wines that we can enjoy without worrying our pretty little heads too much; wines that offer an interesting level of complexity without being ponderous or demanding or shrill. That’s what I bring to you today, because as the temperature moderates slightly in some parts of the United States of America, My Readers might be contemplating picnics, even if they occur on the safety of their own porch or patio or backyard, rather than say, Yosemite.

None of these wines sees the least smidgeon of oak; none has an alcohol content higher than 13 percent; all slide across the counter at a reasonable price. The primary motifs are charm, delight, drinkability. With one exception, these wines are from vintage 2010; one is from 2009. All rate Very Good+ with one exception, and that’s a superb rosé that I scored Excellent. These are versatile wines intended to match with all sorts of casual fare, not just my ideal picnic menu. Samples for review, except for one that I bought.

Image from artchive.com.
Let’s start with a delightful sip of something just a little sweet. Innocent Bystander Moscato 2010, Yarra Valley, from an area just northeast of Melbourne in Australia’s Victoria region, is exactly the color in your glass as you see in this illustration: a very pale melon/bubble gum pink. It’s what Italians call frizzante, which is to say sparkling but more of a light fizz than gushing effervescence. The wine is a blend of 65 percent muscat of Alexandria and 35 percent muscat of Hamburg. Here is pure raspberry and strawberry notched up by a spike of lime with delicate scents of watermelon and rose petals and something slightly earthy and foxy. In the mouth, Rainier cherries and orange zest come into play and a hint of cloves enveloped in chiming acidity and a bit of limestone-like minerality. The wine is slightly sweet initially, but it quickly goes bone-dry, while retaining a sense of ripe softness and talc-like lushness balanced by that crisp structure and gentle, fleeting bubbles. Absolutely charming and — a word I seldom employ apropos wine — fun. 5.5 percent alcohol, so you can drink a lot! Very Good+. Half-bottles about $10 to $12.
Old Bridge cellars, Napa, Ca.

Torres Vina Esmeralda 2010, Catalunya, Spain. Well, now, what a sweetheart this one is! The color is pale straw-gold with a slight green sheen. The wine is composed of 85 percent muscat of Alexandria grapes and 15 percent gewurztraminer, so it’s not surprising that what you first notice about the bouquet are aromas of jasmine and honeysuckle, followed by peach and pear, and then a hint of lychee and petrol. The wine is sprightly, spicy, snappy, quite dry; it’s permeated by prominent strains of limestone and shale (though the texture is moderately lush) that bolster flavors of roasted lemon, canned lychee and some of its juice and a touch of peach nectar, all devolving to a stony, acid-lashed finish that reveals a hint of bracing grapefruit bitterness. Really charming. 11.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Imported by Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., N.Y.

Albariño is Spain’s white grape of the moment, and the Martin Códax Albariño 2010, Rías Baixas (in Galicia in northwest Spain) is a worthwhile interpretation. I found this wine’s invigorating dry grass-sea salt-roasted lemon-limestone character irresistible, and it immediately put me in mind of trout seared in an iron skillet with butter and capers over a camp fire (or Coleman stove), though that example truly sounds more like a cook-out on a camping trip than a halcyon picnic in a bosky dell. Add to those qualities hints of dried thyme and tarragon, yellow plums, quince and ginger, touches of fennel and cloves and a late-comer bloom of jasmine, and you get a well-nigh perfect picnic or patio wine. 13 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Imported by Martin Codax USA — i.e., Gallo — Haywood, Ca.
Grapes for the Chamisal Vineyards Stainless Chardonnay 2010, Central Coast, derive from all up and down the vast Central Coast region of California, but include a portion from the winery’s estate vineyard in the Edna Valley of San Luis Obispo. I love the name of this wine — “Stainless Chardonnay,” as if it were a product of immaculate conception — but the free-of-sin cuteness makes a point; this wine is made all in stainless steel and goes through no malolactic process in tank, so it functions as an epitome of freshness, bright flavors, vibrancy and minerality; it’s not just “no-oak” but “anti-oak.” My first note is “Lovely.” Pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors are imbued with hints of mango and guava (though the wine seems not a whit tropical) and touches of quince and lime. The texture is shapely and supple; it just feels beguiling sliding through the mouth, while plenty of limestone and steel and a hefty dose of jazzy acidity keep the keel on a purposeful cutting path across the palate. Thoughtful winemaking here from New Zealand native Fintan du Fresne. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18.
With its engaging manner, crisp liveliness and lovely tone and presence, the Domaine du Salvard Cheverny 2010 seduces the nose and gladdens the mouth. Made all in stainless steel from 100 percent sauvignon blanc grapes, this product of a small appellation south of the city of Blois and the Loire River offers notes of fresh-mown grass, dried thyme and tarragon, roasted lemon and ripe pear and heaps of lime and limestone. Lemon and lime flavors are touched by hints of sunny, leafy fig with a bell-tone echo of black currant at the center. Juicy and spicy, yes, but dry, stony, steely, deftly balanced between scintillating acidity and a delicately ripe, rich texture. The domaine was founded in 1898 by the Delaille family and has been owned by them since then; it is operated by Gilbert Delaille and his sons Emmanuel and Thierry. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15 to $18.
Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Ca.

Befitting a white wine that hails from an island, the Sella & Mosca La Cala 2009, Vermentino di Sardegna, is savory and spicy, brisk as a sea-wind fledged with brine, replete with notes of pear and almond skin, a sort of sunny lemony quality, and underlying hints of bees’-wax and jasmine. The winery was founded in 1899 by two friends from Piedmont named — ready? — Sella and Mosca. The wine is made from 100 percent vermentino grapes, some of which, after harvest, are allowed to dry before being pressed, a process that adds some richness and depth to the wine without detracting from its notable freshness and immediate appeal. Ringing acidity keeps La Cala 09 vibrant and resonant as a bow-string, yet the tautness is balanced by a texture of almost powdery softness. Completely lovely. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $12, an Absolute, Freaking Bargain.
Palm Bay International, Boca Raton, Fla.

Boy, is this pretty! The Bindi Sergardi Oriolus 2009, Bianco di Toscana, made in stainless steel, is a blend of trebbiano, malvasia Toscana and chardonnay grapes, to produce an unusual and very attractive combination. “Bianco di Toscana” is a basic designation that means, as if you didn’t know, “white wine of Tuscany,” so producers can do just about anything they want with it. In the case of Oriolus 09, we have a light straw color with a sort of ghostly green tone and a bouquet of almond and almond blossom, spicy lemon and lemon balm, cloves and shale and limestone. A few minutes in the glass bring up elements of spiced peach and pear, which provide high-notes in the aromas but dominate flavors bolstered by clean, fresh acidity and subtle touches of dried herbs, tangerine and steely limestone. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Imported by Le Vignoble, Cordova, Tenn.

Luna Mater Franscati Superiore Secco 2009, produced by Fontana Candida, represents a rendition of the famous “wine of Rome” that is indeed superior. Such quality might not be such a difficult task to attain considering that most Frascati is bland and innocuous, but efforts are being made, and Luna Mater — “Mother Moon” — is among the best. Made all in stainless steel, the wine is a blend of 60 percent malvasia bianca di Candia, 30 percent trebbiano Toscano and 10 percent malvasia del Lazio, from vineyards that average 50 years old. What’s here? Almond and almond blossom with a touch of almond skin bitterness; green apples, roasted lemon and a bit of peach; dried thyme and lemon verbena; a very dry, steely and minerally effect in the mouth, with taut acidity, a rousing note of breeze-borne sea-salt and salt-marsh; rollicking spiciness from mid-palate back through a finish flecked with quince and ginger. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $23.
VB Imports, Old Brookville, N.Y.

Chateau des Annibals “Suivez-moi-jeune-homme” 2010, Coteaux Varois en Provence, from the area of Provence between Marseilles and Toulon, an absolutely classic South-of-France-style rosé, a blend of 60 percent cinsault grapes and 40 percent grenache, with a lovely pale onion skin color slightly tinted with very pale copper; dried raspberries and red currants with a tinge of melon and peach; bone-dry, scintillating acidity, a spicy finish flush with limestone; wonderful tautness and presence, a little electrifying yet pleasantly supple and nuanced. The best rosé I’ve had this summer. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $18 to $20.
Bourgeois Family Selections, Asheville, N.C. I bought this one.

Readers, colleagues, friends, this blog, Bigger Than Your Head, has been nominated for a third year in the category of “Best Wine Reviews” in the annual Wine Blog Awards. We won the first two times, and I hope you won’t consider me selfish to want to win again! It’s an interesting rosters of nominees, with several strong contenders. The awards are based 50 percent on popular vote and 50 percent on the judges’ evaluations, so your vote really counts. If you enjoy the blog, if you learn something from my posts, if my reviews lead you to an understanding of individual wines and wine as a whole, if the complete package is informative, educational and a little amusing, then give me another chance to add a third winner’s badge to the sidebar. Voting ends June 27. Here’s a link to the voting page: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/CNTK5P8

Thanks! Cheers!

While many wines made from Sicily’s nero d’avola grape are tarry, rustic and bumptious, Tonino Guzzo, winemaker for d’Alessandro, manages to produce an example that’s deep and dark without being tarry, robust without being rustic and lively without being bumptious. Yet the d’Alessandro Nero d’Avola 2008, Sicilia, still embodies the wild, slightly exotic nature of the grape. The property, near the town of Agrigento — a seaport founded by the Greeks around 580 B.C. on the island’s central southwest-facing coast — goes back to 1820, though Giacomo d’Alessandro did not found the winery until 2006. The wine is made 100 percent from nero d’avola grapes; it ages three months in cement tanks, meaning that there’s no oak influence. At two and a half years old, d’Alessandro Nero d’Avola 2008, sporting a black-purple color, is clean and fresh and appealing, with notes of black currant, blueberry and mulberry permeated by lavender, dried thyme and black olive and high-tones of cloves and sandalwood. This is pretty stylish stuff, sleek and smooth, but offering plenty of the grape’s dense, chewy, mouth-filling tannins, vibrant acidity and tasty plum and blueberry flavors imbued with potpourri, black tea and bitter chocolate. The finish is a tad austere with briers and brambles and a bit of slightly mossy dried porcini mushrooms, the best part of being somewhat earthy/funky. 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012 or ’13 with burgers, steaks and red meat pastas. Very Good+. About $14 or $15.

Vinifera Imports, Ronkonkoma, N.Y. A sample for review. Image, slightly cropped, from amazinggrapeswinestore.com.

I have been inundated by press releases suggesting that Port would make an appropriate gift for Father’s Day, despite the fact that a great deal of the country is sweltering under unprecedented high temperatures. (“Hey, honey, the paint’s melting off the walls. Let’s open that bottle of Port!”) I do understand the impulse, though. Fathers are men and men are manly, and manly men sit enthroned in their studies or libraries, comforted by the ease of their leather wingback chairs, surrounded by ancient leather-bound books, dim portraits of famous racing horses and beloved hunting dogs, admiring their collections of antique canes, dueling pistols, hand-colored maps and shaving brushes and sipping on a fine old vintage Port, while a Cuban cigar importantly smolders in an ash-tray nearby. I mean, that’s how I live and I assume that’s how the rest of you fathers and manly men live; Port is just a natural part of being a man, n’est-ce pas?

So I will recommend a Port that you can run out today and buy for Dad and that can be drunk now, rather than waiting five or 10 years for a Vintage Port. This is the Fonseca Bin No. 27 “Finest Reserve” Porto, and it’s the finest, to borrow that word, reserve-type port I have tasted in years. A “reserve” Port is basically a Premium Ruby Port that offers more character and depth than a typical pedestrian Ruby Port, the latter having earned a reputation over the years as a catch-all for the lowest-common denominator of blended and pasteurized products suited for a cheap and easy binge. After all, didn’t Pope pen a couplet something like this:

By the lamp-post a tilting sot holds down the fort,
awash in the sickly reek of ruby port.

Well, actually, I wrote that, but you see what I mean, right? No wonder we don’t encounter the term “ruby port” much on labels nowadays; “reserve” conveys a far better tone, and most Port firms now offer a brand of Reserve Port that exemplifies their house style.

Anyway, the color of the Fonseca Bin No. 27 “Finest Reserve” Porto is dark ruby-purple, opaque at the center, with a tinge of plum/magenta at the rim. The aromas begin with a high grapy note that expands into blackberries, black currants and plums infused with spice cake and plum pudding — there’s a plum motif — licorice and lavender, a touch of bacon fat and stewed rhubarb; a few minutes in the glass bring in a touch of dusty graphite. This Reserve Porto is powerfully sweet initially but quickly goes dry, from mid-palate back, under the influence of sleek dust-laden tannins and rollicking acidity; luscious black and blue fruit flavors fill the mouth and arrow brightly over the tongue, bringing hints of cloves and citron, slate and potpourri. The finish is long, rich and deep. A Reserve Port of uncommon intensity which, once opened, will drink nicely for three or four days. 20 percent alcohol. Excellent and A True Bargain at about $19.

Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y. A sample for review.

The point of making wines from a single vineyard or even more precisely from selected blocks within a vineyard is to highlight particular qualities of character and excellence that those locations or rows of vines theoretically embody. Such a principle is the philosophical and esthetic guiding light, for example, of Burgundy, where legendary vineyards separated by no more than a low stone wall or narrow country lane serve as testimony to the nuances imposed upon a wine by the minute shifts in exposure, drainage, soil composition and wind direction that we call terroir. It takes a taster possessing years of experience with Burgundy — a Clive Coates or Allen Meadows — to be able to detect the differences between an estate’s bottling of the adjacent vineyards of Chambolle-Musigny Les Chabiots and Chambolle-Musigny Les Borniques (seen in the accompanying map, left of center) or Montrachet Les Pucelles and Montrachet Le Cailleret. Most of us, even in the wine-writing business, are not called upon to render such rarefied distinctions, though we are, of course, grievously envious of those who have the opportunity.

Still, the thinking in the wine industry is that while a wine, let’s say chardonnay, that carries a Napa Valley designation may be good, a chardonnay from Carneros will, hypothetically, be better because it derives from a smaller, more specialized area, while a chardonnay from a particular vineyard in Carneros, say Truchard or Sangiacomo, will be the best because it originated from a designated and well-known patch of land. And occasionally this scheme works. Certainly wineries and their marketing teams would like to persuade us that this is the case because single-vineyard products generally command higher prices than wines from a more general appellation. The problem is that even some of the most famous vineyards in California aren’t more than 40 or 50 years old; people have cultivated those fragmented vineyards in Burgundy for a thousand years. The track-record for many vineyards in California, Oregon and Washington is far from complete or even necessarily convincing.

Oh, yes, a winery like Diamond Creek made its indisputable reputation on cabernet sauvignon wines produced from three teeny-weeny and very different vineyards, bottled separately, nestled around a little pond high on Diamond Mountain west of Calistoga; those cushioned by trust funds can savor and debate the subtleties of those expensive wines. For every successful producer of single-vineyard wines like Diamond Creek, however, there are dozens that trade on the supposed superiority of vineyard-designated wines for which the public will pay.

All of which leads me to the trio of wines being considered in this post today: the Terrunyo wines produced by Concha y Toro, one of Chile’s most historic producers and the source, under its roster of labels, of almost 25 percent of the country’s wine production. The Terrunyo wines are not simply single-vineyard wines; the grapes come from specific blocks of vines within these vineyards. They are, according to the press release lying here on my desk, “The Ultimate Definition of Chilean Terroir.” Let’s look at each individually. Winemaker was Ignacio Recabarren. These were samples for review.

Map of the commune of Chambolle-Musigny from Atlas des Grands Vignobles de Bourgogne (Le Grand Bernard des Vins de France, 1985), by Sylvain Pitiot and Pierre Poupon. Notice, if you can see it, that the Premier Cru Les Bornique directly abuts the Grand Cru Les Musigny. How much difference does a few feet make; in Burgundy, a lot.

The Terrunyo Carmenere 2007 originates from Block 27 of the Peumo Vineyard in the Cachapoal Valley of the Rapel region. This information isn’t very enlightening if one doesn’t know much about the geography of Chile’s wine regions; suffice to say that Rapel is part of Chile’s vast Central Valley that starts immediately south and southwest of the city of Santiago with Maipo and continues south with Rapel, Curico and Maule, each of which is divided into sub-regions and zones. Cachapoal lies along the river of that name, so not surprisingly the soil is alluvial in nature, deep and loamy. Carmenère is a grape grown almost exclusively in Chile. In the 19th Century, it was considered as important as cabernet sauvignon in Bordeaux but fell from favor because of its irregular ripening pattern; by the early 20th Century, carmenère had basically been eliminated from Bordeaux, but cuttings had been imported to Chile along with merlot. This field blend planting became so dominant that it wasn’t until the early 1990s that DNA testing revealed that something like 80 percent of what was thought of as merlot in Chile was actually carmenère; now, on its own or blended with merlot and cabernet sauvignon, it has become the country’s signature red grape. I’ve noticed, by the way, that many wineries in Chile have dropped the accent that should properly be part of carmenère; is this supposed to make matters somehow easier for Americans? Fie, leave the accent alone!

So, Terrunyo Carmenere 2007, Block 27, Peumo Vineyard — the vineyard was planted in 1990 — is a dark ruby-purple color; aromas of cedar and tobacco, mint and graphite are woven with spiced and macerated blueberries, black currants and plums. This is a dusty, earthy, minerally, leathery wine, steeply endowed with oak and tannin and all their austere attributes of underbrush, forest floor and dried porcini mushrooms; it aged 18 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels, and you really feel the dry, mouth-coating mocha-bitter chocolate/briery-brambly influence of that process. Where’s the fruit? I mean, wine is made from grapes, remember? One has to wonder what aspect of Block 27 of the Peumo Vineyard is left in this wine after it was been fashioned with so much oak and tannin. The motivation of such a wine is to be a distinctive reflection of a specific site within a specific vineyard, while what emerges in this case is a carmenère made like many others in Chile, with a high level of aspiration that’s choked by technique. I’m not saying that Terrunyo Carmenere 2007, Block 27, Peumo Vineyard, couldn’t be enjoyed with a steak, just that it doesn’t do what it claims to do. 14 percent alcohol. Try from 2012 or ’14 through 2017 to ’18. Very Good+. About $38.

Map from chilediscover.com.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ All right, let’s turn to the Terrunyo Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Las Terrazas Block, Old Pirque Vineyard, Maipo region, Maipo being the area of the Central Valley closest to Santiago. This vineyard was planted in 1978. The oak regimen is the same as for the Terrunyo Carmenere 2007, that is, 18 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels. And as with its carmenère cousin, the Terrunyo Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 is made from grapes influenced by a nearby river, the Maipo, and its alluvial, deep gravelly soil. For whatever reason, despite its quite evident earthiness, leather and granite/graphite-like minerality, this wine is a little brighter, its black currant, black cherry and plum aromas given a lift of ripeness and freshness. A few minutes in the glass bring out classic cabernet touches of cedar and black olives, dried thyme and rosemary, with the latter herb’s slightly resinous quality. Still, tannins are stalwart, a shaggy, dusty bastion bolstered by sleek polished oak that sends a line of austerity directly through the mouth and into the wine’s dry, woody/spicy finish. Well, so, here’s a cabernet that’s fine up to a point but doesn’t deliver on its promise of reflecting the virtues of a particular, limited set of vines within a significant vineyard; whatever details of cabernet-like nuance Las Terrazas Block night have imparted seem subsumed to a general idea of international cabernetness such as could be found in many other examples of cabernet sauvignon from Chile or California, Italy or Australia. Good to drink with a medium-rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the grill? Sure. A unique terroiristique expression of the cabernet sauvignon grape? Sorry, no way. 14 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $38.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Hailing from Block 34 of the Rucahue Vineyard in the Rapel Valley, the Terrunyo Syrah 2007 is a wine that simply does not assert anything of the character of the grape. Grape varieties do, of course, have individual character, which is why we make wine from cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir, from chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, so we can savor the differences between them. Everything you love about the syrah grape — the meaty, fleshy, slightly stewed black and blue fruit scents and flavors; the touches of bacon fat, wet dog and fruitcake; the spicy, peppery qualities; the bit of funkiness balanced by piercing minerality and scintillating acidity — don’t look for any of that here, because this is a syrah wine that so closely resembles a cabernet sauvignon that it’s almost indistinguishable from the wine reviewed just above. Indeed, this wine’s panoply of dry, leathery, earthy, austere tannins, with their notes of walnut shell, wheatmeal and bitter chocolate pretty much out-cabernets most cabernets: mark, and I pray you, avoid it! 14 percent alcohol. Good+. About $38.

Yes, he’s on his high-horse again. Or flogging a dead horse. It must be done, so I’ll ask a question I have asked before: why go to the effort, the time and the expense to produce a vineyard-designated wine or even more narrowly, as in the case of these Terrunya examples, ones from specific blocks within vineyards, if you’re not going to allow the grapes to express what’s unique about the site? Without using those wines to define what’s unique about the site and make a case for their legitimacy? Unfortunately, the world of wine is filled with such wasted opportunities.

These attractive, approachable wines come from Henry’s Drive Vignerons, the winery in Australia’s Padthaway region that releases its products under labels that relate to the country’s 19th Century postal system. The Morse Code connection lies in the fact that it used to be postal telegraphists — a term that rates the common parlance nowadays of typesetters and clock-winders — that operated the keys that sent messages of alarm and condolence across vast networks of wires. The Morse Code wines occupy a price point just under the winery’s popular Pillar Box series. I’ll admit to a soft spot for anything to do with Morse Code, because my late father, who had a bug about education because he was not well-educated, insisted that our family — he and my mother, my older brother and I — learn Morse Code; this was in the early 1950s. You have to picture us sitting around the kitchen table after dinner, each with a telegraph key fastened to a small block of wood, using our little guidebooks to Morse Code and tapping out messages to each other. My mom: “D.i.d. y.o.u. l.e.a.r.n. a. l.o.t. a.t. s.c.h.o.o.l t.o.d.a.y.?” Me: “No.” We also came late to television.

Anyway, Padthaway is in South Australia, in an area called the Limestone Coast, not because there are great cliffs but because the sandy-loamy soil is based on old limestone-permeated seabeds. This is considerably south of the lovely city of Adelaide — wonderful bookstores! — facing the Indian Ocean to the southwest. Though Padthaway is inland, it still receives some maritime influence because of the relatively flat or gently rolling terrain. There’s not much rainfall: 19.7 inches average annually, with about 7.6 inches of rain during the growing season; irrigation is a precondition. Surprisingly, considering the climate and geography, chardonnay is the great success of the region, though riesling, shiraz (syrah) and cabernet sauvignon are also grown extensively.

Each of these wines is 100 percent varietal. The Morse Code on the label spells the name of the grape. Henry’s Drive wines are imported by Quintessential, Napa, Ca. I tasted these wines with Kim Longbottom, the owner of Henry’s Drive, in Memphis last week.

Image of a very handsome telegraph key, slightly cropped, from mtechnologies.com.

The Morse Code Chardonnay 2010, Padthaway, South Australia, is lean and sprightly and as fresh as a sea-breeze. An array of lemony notes — lemon, lemon balm, roasted lemon — is woven with grapefruit and lime peel with a grounding in cloves and limestone. Keen acidity keeps the wine lively and puckish, buoying citrus flavors that open to a bit of peach and pear, ginger and quince marmalade. The wine saw a little oak, that is, about 30 percent spent four months in French barrels, and that manifestation lends a texture deftly balanced between moderate silky lushness and brisk, crisp liveliness. The finish brings in more spice and a burgeoning, scintillating limestone element. 13.5 percent alcohol. A perfect white wine for porch, patio and picnic. Very Good+. About $9.

The Morse Code Shiraz 2009, Padthaway, South Australia, is given a whisper of oak, but is largely made in stainless steel. This is an eminently drinkable shiraz that displays a beguiling elevated quality of blackberry and blue plum scents infused with licorice and lavender, a touch of eucalyptus, and a smoky, fleshy, slightly roasted element; a few minutes in the glass add hints of blueberry and rhubarb. The smoky, slightly leathery character increases in the mouth, as does an earthy-graphite-tinged element that gives the wine some backbone and bottom while never challenging the freshness and appeal of its delicious fruity essence. Tannins are sleek and supple, a bit velvety but subdued and nicely balanced. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try with burgers and steaks, hearty pasta dishes and pizzas. Very Good+. About $9.

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