July 2011

As CEO of Merryvale Vineyards from 1997 to 2009, Peter K. Huwiler developed contacts with all sorts of growers and owners of top-quality vineyards and wineries in the disparate regions of Napa Valley. As president and CEO of Napa Station, he draws on those contacts for grapes and wine that make up the small range of products offered by Napa Station, a family concern that he operates with his son Peter Huwiler II, who handles sales and marketing. Huwiler, originally from Switzerland, left a worldwide career in the restaurant business to work in wine, first for Stimson Lane in Washington, then, beginning in 1990, as head of national accounts and exports for Kendall-Jackson. Napa Station, so far, is almost minuscule compared to what is now Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and K-J; total production for Napa Station is about 10,000 cases annually. There’s still a connection with Merryvale; Napa Station’s winemaker is Faith Armstrong-Foster, who is married to Sean Foster, Merryvale’s senior winemaker. Armstrong-Foster was previously assistant winemaker at Frank Family Vineyards; she also has her own label, Onward. The Napa Station wines are very well-made, clean, balanced and harmonious, and prices are reasonable. Deriving grapes from as many as five growing areas of the Napa Valley, these wines strive, it seems, for a sort of authentic “Napa Valleyness” in terms of ripeness and structure without being identified with a specific region like Rutherford or Howell Mountain. Oak is managed very carefully, and as far as I am concerned, Armstrong-Foster could give lessons to many winemakers in California that seem to throw oak at their wines with reckless abandon.
These wines were samples for review. Image of Faith Armstrong-Foster from napastation.com.
The Napa Station Sauvignon Blanc 2009 draws grapes from three areas of Napa Valley: Oak Knoll (predominantly), Carneros and Rutherford. Most of the wine remains in stainless steel tanks for fermentation and aging, though 18 percent goes into neutral — meaning used several times — French oak barrels for four months. No malolactic process occurred, so the wine retains considerable freshness and immediate appeal. The wine includes 2 percent semillon grapes. The color is medium straw-gold; bright aromas of apple and roasted lemon curl around elements of pear and melon and ginger, with touches of grass, dried thyme and tarragon. A lovely texture that nicely balances moderate richness with pert and sassy acidity delivers flavors of lemon and pear that open to hints of leafy fig and a finish that combines a note of grapefruit bitterness with burgeoning limestone minerality; here, one feels the slight sway of burgeoning spicy oak. A pretty suave and sophisticated sauvignon blanc for the price. 13.5 percent alcohol. 1,610 cases. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.

Again, as with the Sauvignon Blanc 09, there’s no new oak in the Napa Station Chardonnay 2008; the wine is made primarily in stainless steel (73 percent) with the rest aging six months in one- and two-year old French barriques. Twenty-three percent of the wine goes through malolactic, lending smoothness and touches of lushness, yet the balance leans toward crisp acidity and a scintillating minerality. The color is moderate straw-gold with a tinge of green; the nose is bright and clean, an attractively fresh amalgam of green apple, pineapple and grapefruit pungent with cloves, lime peel and limestone and a fleeting nuance of Chablis-like gunflint. While it’s quite dry, this chardonnay rolls across the palate like money, offering tasty lemon, peach and baked pear flavors as it simultaneously builds the case for spicy wood and spry acidity. It’s dense and chewy for an inexpensive chardonnay, with more lime peel and a note of grapefruit skin on the finish. A really well-made chardonnay for the price. 13.5 percent alcohol. 1,615 cases. Excellent. About $16, a Great Value.

The Napa Station Merlot 2008 is a blend of 77 percent merlot, 21 percent cabernet sauvignon and 2 percent petit verdot, sourced from three areas of Napa Valley but mainly Los Carneros. The wine aged 22 months in a combination of small oak puncheons (which is to say larger than the standard 59-gallon barrique) and French barriques, 22 percent new. The color is dark ruby with a violet rim, meaning where the surface of the wine touches the glass when you tilt the glass away from you. Intense and concentrated aromas of black currants, cherries and raspberry are permeated by hints of cedar and tobacco, a little toasty/caraway quality and a touch of briers and brambles. This is firm, savory merlot endowed with finely knit, velvety tannins, vivid acidity and a deep graphite-tinged minerality joined by a plethora of foresty/underbrush elements; an hour or so mellows and smooths it out nicely and brings out the spicy black fruit/black tea flavors. Drink now through 2013. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. 525 cases. Excellent. About $22.
Presently, the Napa Station Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 is defined by structure. The wine is a blend of 88 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 9 percent merlot, 2 percent malbec and 1 percent petit verdot; the Huwiler boys draw these grapes from five Napa Valley areas: Rutherford, Oakville, Stags Leap, Atlas Peak and Carneros. The wine aged 20 months in small puncheons and French barriques, 21 percent new. A reflection of a year that produced deep, intense and concentrated cabernets, the Napa Station Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 is quite substantial, a wine packed with dense tannins and all the elements of walnut shell, dried porcini, forest and underbrush that indicate the necessity of additional time in the bottle, say two years, to become more approachable. Even tasted 24 hours later, this wine asserted its compositional prowess and its dominance over fruit, though I bet if you opened a bottle tonight and served it with a great medium-rare steak, a porterhouse for two, say, hot and crusty from the grill, you would be quite happy. 14.5 percent alcohol. 2,525 cases. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $23.

Classic Medoc in style — that is to say, it feels like Left Bank Bordeaux — the Napa Station Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 is the wine to drink while waiting a year or two for its cousin from 2007 to gentle down and learn company manners. Slight differences in origin and production: As a grape source, Atlas Peak is dropped in favor of Howell Mountain; the composition is 87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent merlot, 4 percent petit verdot and — where did this “unclassic” dollop come from? — 1 percent petite sirah; the wine aged 22 months in small puncheons and barriques, 23 percent new. The color is dark ruby with an almost opaque center; nicely-defined aromas of black currants and cherries, with cedar and thyme, black olive and a touch of bell pepper set the stage for a well-balanced and integrated cabernet that displays lively acidity, firm but pliant tannins (embodying some dusty, graphite-like minerality) and macerated black fruit flavors bolstered by a flourish of spicy oak. No edges, no surprises, but thoroughly enjoyable; restaurants could sell the hell out of this wine at $10 in by-the-glass programs. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 3,450 cases. Very Good+. Price not available; to be released Sept. 1.

I attended a wine tasting in a retail store — Great Wines and Spirits — in Memphis two nights ago, and while that event may not seem worth celebrating in some other states and cities across The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, it marked a significant change hereabouts. The state legislature recently passed a bill that permitted, for the first time, retail stores to offer customers samples of wine inside the establishments, beginning in July. Yes, friends, Tennessee grew up a little bit today. Now if we could catch up to some other parts of the country where Higher Civilization is represented by the fact that wine and liquor stores can also sell corkscrews and glasses and selections of appropriate food items. That may take a while though. Even longer to accomplish will be grocery-store wine sales. Year after year polls reveal that a majority of Tennesseans desire wine in grocery stores, but the legislature will not be persuaded; too many special interests are arrayed against the notion.
Anyway, this was a great way to begin wine-store tasting in Memphis because the featured wines at this event were four pinot noirs and two chardonnays from the Domaine de la Vougeraie. What was extraordinary, aside from the high quality of the wines, was the fact that four of them were from the 2006 vintage and two from 2003; current releases on the market are the 2009s and ’08s. (Domaine image, much cropped, from jockovino.com)

Jean-Claude Boisset founded his negociant firm in Burgundy in 1961, at the advanced age of 18. He and his wife Claudine purchased their first vineyard, Les Evocelles in Gevrey-Chambertin in 1964, and from that point there was, apparently, no going back. In 1980, the family launched Boisset Family Estates, now the third largest supplier of wine in France. Run by Jean-Claude and Claudine’s son, Jean-Charles Boisset, the company has seen huge expansion over the past 20 years, including in California, where it owns DeLoach, Raymond and Lyeth, among other properties. The most recent acquisition, in April 2011, was Buena Vista Carneros, a descendent of California’s oldest winery, founded in 1857.

Our concern, however, is Domaine de la Vougeraie, founded in 1999 by Jean-Charles Boisset and his sister Nathalie (pictured here); founded in the sense of producing a first vintage of wines. Actually the brother and sister had spent a decade consolidating all the family’s superb vineyards or parcels of vineyards in Burgundy — about 86 hectares or 221 acres — under the name and operation of one domaine named for their parents’ home. The vineyards, many of which harbor very old vines, are farmed organically or increasingly along biodynamic principles. For the Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines, indigenous yeast is allowed to start fermentation. New oak is employed judiciously or not at all. Winemaker is Pierre Vincent, who in 2006 replaced Pascal Marchand, so it was Marchard’s wines we tasted.

If you’re used to drinking pinot noirs from California and Oregon — and yes many of those wines are fine indeed — these four pinots from Burgundy may seem alien to you. Whereas many West Coast pinots are often made from very ripe grapes, are deeply extracted for dark colors, heavy fruit flavors and tannins and see a lot of oak, these Burgundian models are delicate, cleanly layered, finely chiseled, elegant and yet intensely varietal. Of course one could cite differences in climate, geography and philosophy for such discrepancies, yet a pinot noir that looks, smells, tastes and feels like a syrah is a betrayal of the character of the grape.

The domaine’s website, by the way, is the best winery site I have ever seen in its thoroughness and attention to detail in describing its wines and how they are made.

Friends, I am but an ink-stain’d wretch and proud to be counted amongst that company, though the financial rewards are not great, especially in the freelance cadre. I do not, as you can imagine, actually buy wine often, but, yes, I dipped into the credit card zone and bought three bottles of these Domaine de la Vougeraie wines, one each of the Côte de Beaune Les Pierres Blanches 2006, the Beaune Blanc 2006 and Beaune La Montée Rouge 2006. Here follow reviews of all six wines.
Côte de Beaune Les Pierres Blanches 2006. The chardonnay grapes for this wine derive from vines planted in 1989 and 1990, among the youngest in the domaine. The wine aged 10 months in oak barrels, 25 percent new. Lovely, lively; spiced pear and quince, touch of ginger and cloves, honeysuckle, acacia and — how to say this? — old-fashioned face powder. Smooth, supple, subtly earthy over a mantle of scintillating limestone; squinching acidity cuts a swath on the palate; citrus and pear flavors; gets deeper, spicier. A few minutes in the glass bring in lilac and a hint of mango and yellow plum. Incredibly fresh and inviting but with a slight tinge of smoky maturity. Drink through 2014 or ’15. Alcohol content is 12.5 percent. Production was 457 cases. Excellent. About $50.

Beaune Blanc 2006. Just under two acres (.74 hectares) includes vines planted in 1973 and ’74 and vines planted in 1994 and ’95. The wine aged 14 months in oak barrels, 25 percent new. Wow, what a chardonnay, and what a great price (relatively speaking, n’est-ce pas?). Gorgeous pineapple-grapefruit strung across serious depths of stones and bones; cool and clean, yet seductively spicy, seemingly infused with Parmesan rind and bacon fat, cloves, quince marmalade and ginger scones, Bit O’ Honey; yet very dry, austere even, with swingeing acidity and a huge component of river rock and limestone; gets increasingly spicy and savory and floral; thoroughly compelling but a little daunting. Drink through 2015 or ’16 (well-stored, I mean). 13 percent alcohol. 290 cases. Excellent. About $50
Beaune La Montée Rouge 2006. The vineyard is a hair under nine acres (3.46 hectares); the pinot noir grapes for this wine are drawn from several small parcels planted in 1964 and ’65 and 1985 and ’86. The wine aged nine months in oak barrels, 30 percent new. Here’s what we want from classic pinot noir: a pale but radiant ruby-brick red color with a hint of garnet at the rim; a delicate and impeccably knit congeries of dried red currants and plums, cloves and a touch of cola with a slight earthy/mossy/mushroomy cast; a supple, suave and satiny texture that entices the tongue while plangent acidity plows the palate; this is quite dry, a little brambly, slightly austere and woody on the finish, nothing that a roasted chicken wouldn’t cure. Drink through 2014 to ’15. 13 percent alcohol. 270 cases. Very Good+. About $50.
Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Corvée Paget Premier Cru 2006. From vines planted in 1987/’88, so fewer than 20 years old at harvest; the parcel is miniscule, about .85 acres (not much larger than my backyard). The wine aged 15 months in oak barrels, 50 percent new, though, interestingly, after 2006 this wine sees no new oak. Light ruby-mulberry color, faint blush of garnet; beautiful aromas of slightly spiced and macerated red cherries, red currants, mulberries and cloves, just a hint of smoke and cola; a few minutes swirling and sniffing unfold delicate tissues of plum pudding, fruitcake and roses; supple and satiny in the mouth, impeccable layering of red fruit flavors (including dried currants), vibrant acidity, a burgeoning spicy element and just a touch of briery, tannic austerity on the finish. Just freakin’ pretty. Drink through 2015 or ’16. 13 percent alcohol. 100 cases. Excellent. About $85.

Savigny-lès-Beaune Les Marconnets Premier Cru 2003. The name “Marconnets” is found on documents going back to the 13th Century. The vineyard parcel is about 4.7 acres and has been farmed on biodynamic principles since 2001. The wine aged 12 months in oak barrels, 45 percent new, but after 2006 will see no new oak. A beautiful but vivid faded ruby-garnet color, almost transparent at the rim; spiced and macerated plums and red cherries, touch of fruitcake, hints of roots, moss and leather; light, elegant, wonderfully knit, spare, tends toward dryness and austerity, especially on the slightly earthy, slightly woody finish; a diminishing beauty though still with power to provoke. Drink through 2013. Alcohol is 13 percent. 564 cases. Very Good+. About $50.

Vougeot Le Clos du Prieuré Rouge Monopole 2003. A monopole, a vineyard owned solely by one person, family or house, is rare in Burgundy, where vineyards tend to have been fragmented by marriage and inheritance over two centuries. Le Clos du Prieuré — the wall of the priory — is a small vineyard, a whisper over one hectare, meaning that it’s close to 2.57 acres. The vineyard has been carefully maintained — now on biodynamic principles — with plantings that go back to 1901/’02; the last planting was in 1982 and ’83. The wine aged nine months in oak barrels, 30 percent new. The color is a gently faded ruby-garnet with a flush of ruddy brick-red; the aromas are smoky, a little roasted and fleshy, spicy and macerated, with hints of plum pudding and fruitcake; it’s a grand wine, dignified, supple and subtle, seductively satiny in texture yet spare, graceful, polished; a few minutes in the glass bring out notes of smoldering potpourri and sandalwood, incense, forest floor, mildly woody tannins. What a beauty! Drink through 2015. Alcohol content is 13 percent. 261 cases. Excellent. About $75.

Early last week I wrote about two products from the Toad Hollow winery, the Unoaked Chardonnay 2010 and Erik’s the Red 2009. Today it’s the turn of two pinot noir wines, a “regular” pinot and a rosé. These wines were samples for review.

The Toad Hollow “Eye of the Toad” Dry Rosé of Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma County, is not a saignée rosé, in which some juice is bled off from the tank before fermentation to concentrate the resulting wine (i.e., less juice to the same amount of skins). This is, instead, made from pinot noir grapes gently pressed and then pulled from the skins after a sort maceration that yields a fine-hued rosé color, a sort of melon pink infused with light copper with a hint of violet at the rim. While “Eye of the Toad” represents the winery’s name, it’s also a take-off on those traditional rosé-color descriptions, “eye of the partridge” and “eye of the swan.” What a completely charming rosé, one of the best I have tried this summer. Delicate aromas of pomegranate and strawberry are infused with touches of spiced peach, red currants and cranberries, with undertones of limestone. The wine is quite dry and crisp, a little tart even, and it delivers tasty elements of melon, dried red currants and an increasingly spicy, slightly herbal aspect, all grounded on limestone-like minerality. Clean, scintillating and refreshing. Perfect with salade Niçoise. Alcohol content is a gentle 11 percent. Very Good+. About $13, a Great Bargain.

I don’t want to over-use the word “lovely,” but, damnit, the Toad Hollow Goldie’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, won’t allow me to use a different or lesser term. Aged in French and American oak barrels for 15 months, the wine is smooth, supple and satiny. Beguiling aromas of black cherry, red currants and plums, slightly spiced and macerated, open to hints of pomegranate and mulberry; give it a few minutes in the glass, a bit of time and swirling, and softly earthy touches of tomato skin, thyme and moss emerge. The wine takes on a smoky element in the mouth and more spice, becoming earthier, a little “darker,” yet never losing hold of its delicious black and red fruit flavors and its seductive succulence balanced by vibrant acidity. Try with grilled or roasted chicken (if it’s not too hot to fire up the grill or turn on the oven) or with a spread of charcuterie and mild cheeses. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2012. Very Good+. About $19.

Last night LL made a damned amazing pasta dish using the recipe for salt and pepper seared shrimp from Sally Schneider’s The Art of Low-Calorie Cooking (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1990; large-format paperback edition 1993), a book we have cooked from so many times that the pages are coming loose and the recipes are spotted and stained; try to track it down. (The page with the “Cajun Meat Loaf” recipe actually has a curiously shaped smear of blood, like a clue in an Agatha Christie mystery novel; “I say, Poirot, look at this curiously shaped smear of blood in this cookery book! And what the devil is Cajun?”) Anyway, LL had made pesto from a bunch of basil we brought home from the Memphis Farmers Market on Saturday, and she tossed the pesto and the spicy, peppery shrimp with whole grain fettuccine (also from the MFM); that was it, brother, and it was great.

I opened a bottle of the Hugel “Hugel” Gewurztraminer 2008, from Alsace, and was glad that I did, because the spicy element in the wine — “gewurz” means, and is almost onomonopaeic for, “spicy” — and its vivid acidity proved to be a good foil for the dish, while its intensely floral and fruity qualities acted as a sort of congenial buffer. The “Hugel” designation indicates that the wine is part of the ancient estate’s “Classic” line of wines, and by ancient I mean founded in 1639. Grapes for these “Classic” wines derive either from estate vineyards or local vineyards under long-term contract. The wine opens with gentle whiffs of ripe peach and pear over a mild note of lychee; a few minutes in the glass bring out hints of quince and yellow plum, honeysuckle and rose petal and undercurrents of cloves, allspice and Evening in Paris, the perfume in the blue bottle we all used to buy at the local drugstore for Mother’s Day. The description so far makes the wine sound like a simple sort of an attractive, even seductive “don’t-bother-your-pretty-little-head” wine, but in the mouth matters get a bit more assertive as the spicy character gains momentum, the shimmering acidity and limestone-like minerality take control, and the wine turns itself willingly over to its structural components. Not that there’s not plenty of supple, suave apple, peach and pear flavors available for your pleasure, all of this devolving to a finely-knit, spicy, mineral-inflected finish. Not acutely intense — you would have to go back to 2006 for that — but very tasty and satisfying. 13 percent alcohol. Currently, the 2009 version of this wine is on the market, while the 2007, which you can still find in pockets around the country, is drinking very nicely and is likely discount-priced. Very Good+. Prices range ludicrously, as in from about $18 to $28, with most falling into the $22 to $25 point.
Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York. A sample for review.

Congratulations to these blogs and their authors in winning the following awards, announced last night at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville. Writing about wine online is hard work, requiring discipline, objectivity, a palate that’s both sensitive and iron-like (sort of like syrah) and technical skills. This roster of winners reflects the growing influence of wine blogging in the industry, the beginning of blogging’s absorption into the mainstream (while retaining the essential role as outsider) and a lot of dedication, knowledge, experience and social media savvy. Again, congratulations!

Best Overall Wine Blog – Fermentation
Best New Wine Blog – Terroirist
Best Writing on a Wine Blog – Vinography
Best Winery Blog – Tablas Creek
Best Single Subject Wine Blog – New York Cork Report
Best Wine Reviews on a Wine Blog – Enobytes
Best Industry/Business Wine Blog – Fermentation
Best Wine Blog Graphics, Photography, & Presentation – Vino Freakism

The theme today, such as it is, is diversity. I chose eight wines that were either 100 percent varietal (or a little blended) from eight different regions as a way of demonstrating, well, I guess the amazing range of places where wine can be made. Eight examples barely scratch the surface of such a topic, of course, and a similar post could probably be written in at least eight variations and not use the same grapes as primary subjects. Another way would be to create a post called “1 grape, 8 Places,” to show the influence that geography has on one variety. That topic is for another post, though. All the whites were made in stainless steel and are perfect, each in its own manner, for light-hearted summer sipping. The reds, on the other hand, would be excellent will all sorts of grilled red meat, from barbecue ribs to steaks.
All samples for review or tasted at trade events.
Sauvignon blanc:
The Long Boat Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Marlborough, from Jackson Family Wines, is the archetypal New Zealand model that bursts with pert notes of gooseberry, celery seed, new-mown grass, thyme, tarragon and lime peel; it practically tickles your nose and performs cart-wheels on your tongue. It’s very dry, very crisp, a shot of limestone and chalk across a kiss of steel and steely acidity that endow with tremendous verve flavors of roasted lemon, leafy fig and grapefruit. That touch of grapefruit widens to a tide that sends a wave of bracing bitterness through the mineral-drenched finish. Truly scintillating, fresh and pure. 12.8 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Ca.
The Gunderloch “Jean-Baptiste” Riesling Kabinett 2009, Rheinhessen, Germany, is a fresh, clean and delicate wine that opens with hints of green apple and slate and slightly spiced and macerated peaches and pears; a few minutes in the glass bring out a light, sunny, almost ephemeral note of petrol and jasmine. Ripe peach and pear flavors are joined by a touch of lychee and ethereal elements of lime peel, grapefruit and limestone that persist through the finish; the texture is sleek, smooth and notably crisp and lively. Really charming. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18.
Rudi Wiest for Cellars International, San Marcos, Ca.
Chenin blanc:
Made from organically-grown grapes, the Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2009, Carmel Valley, California, is refined, elegant, almost gossamer in its exquisite melding of tart apple and ripe peach with spiced pear and a hint of roasted lemon; there’s a touch of chenin blanc’s signature dried hay-meadowy effect as well as a hint, just a wee hint, of riesling’s rose petal/lychee aspect. (This wine typically contains 10 to 15 percent riesling, but I can’t tell you how much for 2009 because I received not a scrap of printed material with this shipment, and the winery’s website is a vintage behind; hence the label for 2008. Hey, producers! It doesn’t take much effort to keep your websites up-to-date!) Anyway, the wine is crisp and lively with vibrant acidity and offers a beguilingly suave, supple texture. It’s a bit sweet initially, but acid and subtle limestone-like minerality bring it round to moderate dryness. Lovely. 13.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $25.
Roland Lavantureux makes two wines, a Chablis and a Petit Chablis. Both are matured 2/3 in stainless steel tanks and 1/3 in enamel vats; the Petit Chablis for eight months, the Chablis for 10. The domaine was founded in 1978 and is family-owned and operated. The Roland Lavantureux Petit Chablis 2009 makes you wonder how the French wine laws differentiate between “little” Chablis and “regular” Chablis. This rated a “wow” as my first note. It feels like a lightning stroke of shimmering acidity, limestone and gun-flint tempered by spiced and roasted lemon and hints of quince, mushrooms and dried thyme. This wine serves as a rebuke to producers who believe that to be legitimate a chardonnay must go through oak aging; it renders oak superfluous. (Yes, I know, oak can do fine things to chardonnay used thoughtfully and judiciously.) The Roland Lavantureux Petit Chablis 09 radiates purity and intensity while being deeply savory and spicy; it’s a natural with fresh oysters or with, say, trout sauteed in brown butter and capers. A very comfortable 12.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $19 to $23.
Kermit Lynch Imports, Berkeley, Ca.
Pinot noir:
Bodega Chacra, which makes only pinot noir wines, was established in Argentina’s Patagonia region — the Rio Negro Valley in northern Patagonia — in 2004 by Piero Incisa della Rochetta, the grandson of Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, the creator and proprietor of Sassicaia, one of the most renowned Italian wineries, and nephew of Niccolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta, who currently manages the family’s winemaking enterprises. Bodega Chacra produces three limited edition pinot noirs, one from a vineyard planted in 1932, one from a vineyard planted in 1955, and the third made from a combination of these old vineyards and grapes from two 20-year-old vineyards. The vineyards are farmed on biodynamic principles; the wines are bottled unfiltered. The Barda Pinot Noir 2010, Patagonia, is an example of the third category of these wines. It spends 11 months in French oak barrels, 25 percent new. Barda Pinot Noir 2010 is vibrant, sleek, stylish and lovely; the bouquet is bright, spicy and savory, bursting with notes of black cherry, cranberry and cola highlighted by hints of rhubarb, sassafras and leather. It’s dense and chewy, lithe and supple; you could roll this stuff around on your tongue forever, but, yeah, it is written that ya have to swallow some time. Flavors of black cherry and plum pudding are bolstered by subtle elements of dusty graphite and slightly foresty tannins, though the overall impression — I mean, the wine is starting to sound like syrah — is of impeccable pinot noir pedigree and character. 12.8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $30.
Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y.
If you grow weary, a-weary of zinfandel wines that taste like boysenberry shooters, then the Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, California, is your cup of, as it were, tea. No bells and whistles here, just the purity and intensity of the zinfandel grape not messed about with. Grgich Hills is farmed entirely organically and by biodynamic principles, and winemaker Ivo Jeramaz uses oak judiciously, in this case 15 months in large French oak casks, so there’s no toasty, vanilla-ish taint of insidious new oak. The color is medium ruby with a hint of violet-blue at the rim; the nose, as they say, well, the nose offers a tightly wreathed amalgam of deeply spicy, mineral-inflected black and red currants and plums with a swathing of dusty sage and lavender, wound with some grip initially, but a few minutes in the glass provide expanse and generosity. Amid polished, burnished tannins of utter smoothness and suppleness, the black and red fruit flavors gain depths of spice and slate-like minerals; the whole effect is of an indelible marriage of power and elegance and a gratifying exercise in ego-less winemaking. 14.7 percent alcohol. We drank this with pizza, but it would be great with any sort of grilled or braised red meat or robustly flavored game birds. Excellent. About $35.
Cabernet sauvignon:
You just have to rejoice when you encounter a cabernet, like the Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Mendoza, Argentina, that radiates great character and personality — yes, those are different qualities — and maintains a rigorous allegiance to the grape while expressing a sense of individuality and regionality. The vineyards average 3,510-feet elevation; that’s way up there. Five percent malbec is blended in the wine; it aged 15 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels, and while that may seem like a high proportion of new oak, that element feels fully integrated and indeed a bit subservient to the wine’s strict high-altitude tannins and granite-like minerality. Aromas of black currants and black plums are ripe and fleshy, a bit roasted and smoky, yet iron-like, intense and concentrated; a few moments in the glass bring up classic touches of briers and brambles, cedar and wheatmeal, thyme and black olive, a hint of mocha. This is a savory cabernet, rich, dry, consummately compelling yet a little distant and detached, keeping its own counsel for another year or two, though we enjoyed it immensely with a medium rare rib-eye steak. What’s most beguiling are the broadly attractive black and blue fruit flavors permeated by moss and loam and other foresty elements married to muscular yet supple heft, dimensional and weight. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $25.
Imported by Vine Connections, Sausalito, Ca.
Here’s a terrific, slightly modern version of Rioja, by which I mean that it’s not excessively dry, woody and austere, as if made by ancient monks putting grapes through the Inquisition. Bodegas Roda was founded by Mario Rotillant and Carmen Dautella in 1991, in this traditional region that abuts Navarra in northeastern Spain. The deep and savory Roda Reserva 2006, Rioja, Spain, blends 14 percent graciano grapes and five percent garnacha (grenache) with 81 percent tempranillo; the wine is aged 16 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, and spends another 20 months in the bottle before release. The color is rich, dark ruby, opaque at the center; aromas of black currant and black raspberry are infused with cloves and fruit cake, sage and thyme, bacon fat, leather and sandalwood, with something clean, earthy and mineral-drenched at the core. That sense of earth and graphite-like minerality persists throughout one’s experience with the wine, lending resonant firmness to the texture, which also benefits from finely-milled, slightly dusty tannins and vibrant acidity, all impeccably meshed with smoky, spicy flavors of black and red fruit and plum pudding. 14 percent alcohol. An impressive, even dignified yet delicious wine for drinking now, with grilled meat and roasts, or for hanging onto through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $45.
Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y.

Readers, several weeks ago, on a whim, I embarked on a research project about the classic cocktail called the French 75, named for the World War I-era artillery piece. I have been trying French 75s in bars and restaurants all over town; my research culminates in a series of articles for my Restaurant Insider column that runs in the Saturday Memphis News. The first part occurs this Saturday, July 23. In the meanwhile, because I have swallowed mainly “house versions” of the French 75, including a bizarre rendition that not only contained far more gin than sparkling wine but — sacre bleu! — a healthy pour of grenadine, I decided to make some at home for LL and me. I followed the recipe in my favorite bartender’s guide, the snappily written, perceptive and persnickety Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century (Viking, 1998), by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead.

4 ounces Champagne
1/4 ounce gin
1/4 ounce Cointreau
1/4 ounce lemon juice

Shake gin, Cointreau and lemon juice with cracked ice; strain into a chilled flute. Top with chilled Champagne and garnish with a lemon twist. (Harrington and Moorhead permit a variation with cognac instead of gin, which makes a very different cocktail, you bet.)

The quality of the sparkling wine makes a difference. Most of the French 75s I have sampled lately in local bars have been made with inexpensive California or anonymous French sparkling wine. At one place, a young bartender used Mumm Cordon Rouge by mistake; it certainly made a superior cocktail (though she used too much lemon juice). I employed the Champagne Duval-Leroy Brut — I paid $35 locally — and that was even better. Tanqueray Gin, naturally, not a gin that’s too assertive. I thought I had an old bottle of Cointreau gathering dust in the back of the liquor cabinet, but that was not the case, so I had to buy one of those too, about $27 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle. This was beginning to be not a cheap cocktail, but if you’re going to do something it has to be done right. And of course after we had our excellent cocktails — and they were excellent, the best — we drank most of the rest of the Champagne. And Cointreau lasts practically forever. Gin, not so long in our house.

If you’re going to emulate my efforts, remember that 1/4 ounce equals 1 and 1/2 teaspoons. And, no, you don’t have to pour real Champagne, but do make certain that it’s a good-quality sparkling wine. Use a good peeler to render a very thin strip of lemon peel for the garnish.

A great French 75 is actually easy to make, and it’s a perfect cocktail for summer, light, delicate, effervescent and a little piece of cocktail history.

A red and a white for your drinking this week, from Toad Hollow Vineyards. The winery was launched in 1993 by Todd Williams (1938-2007), retired from an illustrious career in bars and restaurants, and Rodney Strong (1927-2006), the former Broadway dancer and Sonoma County pioneer who had long had no hand in the winery that bears his name. Williams was the older brother of comedian and actor Robin Williams. Artist of the whimsical Toad Hollow labels is Maureen Erickson. Samples for review.
The Toad Hollow Francine’s Selection Unoaked Chardonnay 2010, Mendocino County — Francine is the winery’s owner Frankie Williams — offers a radiant straw-gold color and fresh, beguiling aromas of green apple and pineapple with hints of mango and grapefruit. Though made entirely in stainless steel, the wine goes through complete malolactic “fermentation” (as a process that has nothing to do with fermentation is called), so it delivers quite a bit of spice, richness and full body; flavors of roasted lemon and pear tart are shot through — “sliced” might be appropriate — by a keen blade of acidity and bright layers of limestone minerality for an effect of Chablis-like austerity on the finish. A chardonnay of scintillating purity and intensity and remarkable character for the price; lay out, right now, a feast of grilled shrimp and mussels to be preceded by a whole raft of just-shucked oysters. 13.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
The Toad Hollow Erik’s the Red 2009 was released under the California rubric; the wine used to carry a Paso Robles designation. This is one of those smorgasbord-of-grapes wines that producers in California dream up and that actually often turn out to be delightful. To merlot and cabernet sauvignon from Sonoma County and zinfandel from Lodi are added dollops of varying amounts of souza, tannat, syrah and petite sirah; the result is a dark and vibrant wine that falls under the robust and rustic label, fitting it for pairing with robust and rustic food; I had a glass with leftover pasta Bolognese for lunch one day, and the dish and the wine definitely made friends. The wine is rooty and earthy, bursting with scents and flavors of black currants, spiced plums and cherries highlighted by some element of feral berries and underlying graphite-like minerality. Erik’s the Red 09 is briery and brambly, moderately dense and chewy with slightly velvety, grainy tannins, and lively with pert acidity; ripe and spicy black fruit flavors are bolstered by a modicum of oak from nine months in barrels. A great barbecue and grilling wine for consuming through 2012. Very Good+. About $15.

Sometimes it’s the regional oddities of the world of wine and spirits that offer the most interest, the most appeal. Thousands of people produce cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay wines, but how many make the anything-but-natural vin doux naturel or the “forbidden” fragolino? The category of intensely, almost jealously regional applies to Pineau des Charentes, a fortified aperitif or dessert wine made in the Cognac region, where the départements — like states in France — are Charente and Charente-Maritime. Pineau des Charentes, simply put, is a combination of young Cognac (it must be at least a year old) and lightly fermented or just about to ferment grape must; with fermentation stopped, the spirit retains the sweetness of the grape juice. By law, the result must age in wooden casks until July of the following year; “Vieux Pineau” classification is awarded Pineau des Charentes that aged at least five years.

What do we make, then, of Pineau des Charentes that matured in cask for 25 years?

Nicolas Palazzi has done it again. The young Frenchman (with an Italian name), based now in New York, haunts ancient cellars in Cognac and exercises his talent for sniffing out old and forgotten barrels, bottling the contents and hand-selling the limited edition products to high-class restaurants, bars and retail shops around the world. Late last year I mentioned his Paul-Marie et Fils “devant la porte” Grand Champagne Cognac, distilled in 1951; Palazzi produced 257 bottles and sold it for $600 a bottle. Now it’s the turn of the Paul-Marie et Fils Pineau des Charentes Tres Vieux Fut #3; about 1,280 bottles are available, and it’s much cheaper than the Cognac.

Paul-Marie et Fils Pineau des Charentes Tres Vieux Fut #3 — “very old barrel, third bottling” — is a beautiful medium amber color; aromas of orange rind and cloves, candied and crushed almonds, toffee and grapefruit marmalade with its peel slowly unfold to reveal hints of chestnut honey, dark chocolate and crystallized ginger. It smells like Scotch, but slightly lighter and more exotic; it feels historic, deeply imbued with an immutable sense of a particular time and place. This Pineau des Charentes is very smooth, very supple, dense and chewy, almost viscous in its combination of sweetness, body and alcohol, and yet there’s an elevating quality about it, an element of lacy transparency to the structure. Marvelous stuff, unique, heady, yet calm and stately. Pineau des Charentes is usually described as a dessert wine, but this was superb, we found, with a piece of a dry Piave Nuda Stravecchio cheese and some of the hazelnut-fig crackers we like. Serve Pineau des Charentes chilled; once open, it will keep in the fridge for a week or so. 17.5 percent alcohol. Exceptional. About $90.

A (very small) sample for review.

Ummmm …… Probably not.

Not that I don’t enjoy a glass of Moscato, especially from the wine’s home-base around the city of Asti in Piedmont. When I was in that region last year, blogging for the Barbera 2010 conference, visits to wineries and estates often began with a glass of clean, crisp, slightly sweet Moscato d’Asti that went surprisingly well with the bountiful spreads of meats, cheeses and breads typically laid out for us. Moscato d’Asti is lightly sparkling, what the Italians call frizzante, as opposed to spumante, full sparkling, so it can be quite refreshing without being blatantly effervescent or filling. Moscato d’Asti also works well as a dessert wine, actually is mostly assumed to be a dessert wine, especially when served with simple confections like uncomplicated fruit tarts. Its low alcohol content — 5.5 percent — makes it easy to quaff. Moscato d’Asti is made from the moscato bianco grape, the Italian name for muscat blanc a petits grains, the best of the numerous muscat varieties. The hallmarks of Moscato d’Asti are its delicacy, its musky, floral aromas and a sensation of sweetness more implied than acted upon; crisp acidity is essential for balance, though it must not ruffle the wine’s innate softness.

Now, a great deal of Prosecco is fairly sweet, though it need not be, and a remarkable quantity of the wines are bland and innocuous, which they also need not be. The official expansion of Prosecco’s approved growing area in the Veneto will not bolster quality. Nonetheless, Prosecco is among the fastest growing segments in the imported wine market in the United States, and at the best it can be a fine and thoroughly enjoyable sparkling wine. (Prosecco is the name of the grape and the product.) Prosecco can be a still wine, though that manifestation is rare, and it can be both frizzante or spumante, with the latter type outnumbering the former three to one. My point is that as delightful and subtle as Moscato d’Asti can be — and I mean the best examples, not the vapid, sappy-sweet ones — it has limited utility in the diurnal round. Prosecco, on the other hand, especially those few models produced from superior zones in a dry, minerally style, can be not only versatile but engaging and elegant.

Many winemaking areas in Italy produce some version of a moscato wine, and you find it increasingly throughout the world; one of my favorite non-Italian versions, a true delight, is produced by Innocent Bystander in Australia’s Yarra Valley; here’s a link to a recent review. I have tasted a number of Italian Moscatos lately; I’ll mention the most gratifying. Those made outside Piedmont may have slightly more alcohol than 5.5 percent.

Image of Moscato in glass from spiritofwine.blogspot.com.
First, three genuine Moscato d’Asti wines:

The Coppo Moncalvina Moscato d’Asti 2010 is a real classic. Apple, pear and melon on the nose, slightly spiced and honeyed, a little foxy, with almond and almond blossom, orange zest and orange blossom; very refined, very delicate, a softly sweet entry that quickly goes dry on the palate with lip-smacking acidity and a scintillating limestone element; despite the crisp acidity, though, a lovely cushiony texture that supports flavors of peach and pear with mild effervescence. Quite charming. 5 percent alcohol. Very Good +. About $17.
Imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Ca.

The Cascinetta Vietti Moscato d’Asti 2009 seems to offer more bubbles than Moscato d’Asti wines typically do. Pale straw-gold color; apple, peach and pear, almond and almond blossom, musk-rose; shimmering acidity tingles the tongue; sweet as biting into a ripe peach but tempered by acid and a very dry limestone-drenched finish that runs under the lushness of stone-fruit flavors; delicately married to an intriguing hint of earthiness. Lovely. 5.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $16.
Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Ca.

A tad simpler than the preceding examples, the Saracco Moscato d’Asti 2010 is still quite tasty and tempting. Pale straw-gold color; a gentle froth of bubbles; melon bubble gum, peach, orange blossom, almond; seductively lush with a talc-like texture cut by keen acidity and limestone-like minerality. A nice quaff. 6 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $15.
Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa Ca.

The bubbles on the Seven Daughters Moscato n.v., Veneto I.G.T., offer barely a prickle; this is true subtlety, though a mildly pleasant sensation on the tongue; green apple, peach and pear, quite fresh and appealing, a little spicy; a burst of sweetness at the beginning but zippy acidity and a flush of damp limestone turn it pretty darned dry from mid-palate back; a bracing bit of bitterness on the finish. 7 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $15.
Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Il.

The Cantine Maschio Cadoro Moscato n.v, Puglia, is a fascinating product, first because it derives from Apulia, down in the southeast, and second because of its heightened effervescence — it’d spumante rather than frizzante — and third because it is more substantial than delicate; call it a super-Moscato, perhaps. Amid this host of bubbles is a welter of apple and melon, peach and pear, all slightly spicy and honeyed and a little woodland wildness; a sweet entry moderated by swingeing acidity and a prominent limestone, shale element wrapped around lush stone fruit flavors, all devolving to a touch of apple peel/almond skin bitterness on the finish. Intriguing and delicious. 7.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.

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