October 2011


Two wines from France, first the white, from the Maconnais region in the south of Burgundy, then the red, a Bordeaux Superieur.
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The Henri Perrusset Macon-Villages 2010 is the real deal as far as chardonnay goes, and I mean that this little beauty, because of its intensity, dimension and detail, could pass as a ringer for a Cote de Beaune blanc — all right, a minor Cote de Beaune blanc –at half the price. My first note on the wine, which was made all in stainless steel, was, “Damn, that’s good!” Lovely purity of chardonnay character here, with spicy roasted lemon and baked pear scents and flavors accented by cloves, quince and ginger and a scintillating limestone element that goes hand in hand with crystalline acidity; oh, and a zephyr-like wafting of camellia. Yes, this is fresh, clean and vibrant, and it delivers terrific balance and integration; not only does it taste good, but it feels good in the mouth. 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013. Very Good+. About $16-$20.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Ca. Tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event.
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Speaking of the real deal, the Chateau Senailhac 2005, Bordeaux Superieur — from a great vintage in Bordeaux — is the real deal as far as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc are concerned. In fact, unusually for Bordeaux Superieur, this wine contains all five of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties: 43 percent merlot, 25 percent cabernet sauvignon, 23 percent cabernet franc, 7 percent malbec and, finally, a 2 percent dollop of petit verdot. At six years old, the wine displays a transparent medium ruby color tinged with brick-red/garnet at the rim; classic, too, is this bouquet of spiced and macerated black currants and black cherries with hints of cedar and tobacco, black olive and bell pepper and a touch of walnut shell and brambles. The wine offers slightly fleshy and meaty flavors of black currants and plums encompassed in a dense and chewy structure that’s firm and close to velvety without being heavy or obvious; tannins are mellow and a little chewy, a bit gritty with dusty graphite-like minerality that extends through the finish. Chateau Senailhac 2005 is drinking beautifully now and should do so through 2014 to ’16. Alcohol content is 13 percent. Very Good+. I paid $19; prices around the country start at $16.

Imported by Luxco Inc., St. Louis.
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Sequana Vineyards produces only pinot noir wines from Russian River Valley, in Sonoma County, and Santa Lucia Highlands, in Monterey County. These are elegant pinots that eloquently express the marriage of delicacy and grace with resonance and power. Winemaker is James MacPhail. The winery is part of the Hess Family Estates.

These wines were samples for review.
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The color of the Sequana Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, is a lovely, limpid medium ruby hue; lovely, too, is the sense of classic balance, tone and integration represented by a seamless amalgam of smoky red and black cherries and red and black currants with hints of rhubarb, cola and cloves, all consistent in nose and mouth, where an ultra-satiny texture is buoyed by pert acidity. The wine aged nine months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels, a process that contributed spice and suppleness to the package. Irresistible. You could drink this pinot noir all day; actually, I think I did. 13.9 percent alcohol. 6,202 cases. Now through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $32.
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The Sequana Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley, is a little knottier than its cousin from Santa Lucia Highlands, denser and spicier, with more earthy and mineral elements; this is warm and attractive, like plum coffee cake with touches of rose petals and violets, a hint of leather and sassafras, black and red cherries. There’s a bit more tannic grip here; the wine is slightly less gorgeous than the model from Santa Lucia Highlands, yet with its briery-brambly aspects and some dark graphite-like minerality and depth, it also feels more grown-up. It aged 11 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. 13.9 percent alcohol. 2,350 cases. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $38.
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We expect a certain amount of character from a single-vineyard wine, else why make the wine at all and promote it as such? The Sequana Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2009, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, delivers. The wine is quite intense, dense, pure, even a bit grave; it calls forth the whole panoply of potpourri, dried baking spices (with an extensive into the exotic, like sandalwood and sassafras), fresh and dried floral elements, and fresh and dried red and black fruit qualities, all ensconced in a super-satiny texture enlivened with ringing acidity that cuts a swath on the palate. A backbone of tannin, slightly dusty and granite-flecked, keeps this pinot noir firmly in place. The wine aged nine months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. 13.8 percent alcohol. 514 cases were produced. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $45.
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I included the Marchesi di Gresy Martinenga Barbaresco 2006 in my Best Wines of 2010; I wouldn’t be surprised if the version for 2007 makes it onto my Best Wines of 2011.

There really is a marchesi at this property, and he is Alberto Cisa Asinari di Gresy, as charming and unassuming a personage as one could wish to meet or desire to emulate. The historic property. Monte Aribaldo (24.86 acres for dolcetto, chardonnay, sauvignon blamc), surrounds a 19th Century hunting lodge built by Alberto di Gresy’s grandfather in the commune of Treiso d’Alba. Alberto di Gresy, born in 1952, took over the operation of the property right out of university and began producing wine, instead of selling grapes to other producers, in 1973. Another vineyard nearby, Martinenga (59.28 acres, mainly nebbiolo, and the source of the wine we consider today), has been in the family since 1797; this is the location of the central winery. A third vineyard, La Serra consists of 27.21 acres of moscato, barbera and merlot, while the 6.38-acre Monte Colombo is for barbera and merlot.

My first note on the Marchesi di Gresy Martinenga Barbaresco 2007 is “how lovely.” Those are not the two words that one would apply to many Barbarescos these days, producers leaning instead toward hard tannins and blatant oak. And even though this wine aged six months in new French oak barrels and 14 months in Slavonian oak casts, it came out utterly smooth and mellow, balanced and integrated. The color is medium ruby-garnet; aromas of spiced and macerated red currants and plums and mulberries are wreathed with dried spice and potpourri, a touch of orange zest and black tea, and backnotes of violets and loamy earth. Lovely indeed. Vibrant acidity cuts a swath on the palate, lending the wine engaging vivacity while supporting elements of dried black and red fruit, cloves and sandalwood and a hint of nebbiolo’s tarry depths; fine-grained tannins and any oak influence are completely absorbed, giving the wine seductive firmness and suppleness yet not overwhelming its spare elegance. A beauty for drinking now through 2016 or ’17 with small roasted game birds or fricassee of rabbit, though I sipped a glass most happily with my cheese toast at lunch this week. Alcohol content is 14 percent. Excellent. About $50.

Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Ca. A sample for review.

Today I return to the Hugues Beaulieu Picpoul de Pinet, which I last made a Wine of the Week in 2008, for the version of ’07. Now it’s the turn of the rendition of 2010.

The Picpoul de Pinet HB 2010, Coteaux de Languedoc, produced by the Caves de Pomérols cooperative, reiterates this wine’s status as one of the Great Cheap Wines of the World. Made from white picpoul grapes — also known as folle blanche — and seeing only stainless steel in its production, the wine is exuberantly fresh and spicy, exhilarating in its crisp acidity, seductive in its roasted lemon scents and flavors spiked with lime peel and grapefruit and permeated by hints of dried thyme and tarragon and an exotic note of salt-marsh. The soil in this seaside area of Languedoc, just west of the great lagoon of the Bassin de Thau, where the French coast starts its long curve downward toward Spain, is composed of clay and pebbles and fragments of limestone and fossil shells over marl, a perfect mixture for the grape’s dry delicacy, lightness and stony, sun-drenched nature. Buy by the case to drink over the next six months. Superb with shellfish — especially oysters — but we happily consumed a few glasses with Chinese take-out. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $10-$11.

A sample for review.


Mount Veeder stands at the southern end of the Mayacamas range that separates Napa County from Sonoma County to the west. Though the first wine was produced on Mount Veeder in 1864, made by Captain Stelham Wing, the small, high-altitude region was not granted official AVA status (American Viticultural Area) until 1993. Mt. Veeder, named for a German Presbyterian pastor who lived in Napa during the Civil War period, had long been recognized as a source of top-quality, rigorously-structured cabernet sauvignon wines. Indeed, of the appellation’s 1,000 acres of vines, 513 are dedicated to cabernet sauvignon grapes. These vineyards, based on thin volcanic soil, vary in steepness up to a 30 percent grade, so most of the work is done by hand. The output of the 20 or so wineries that occupy the Mount Veeder appellation is not huge, averaging 40,000 cases annually, less than 2 percent of the Napa Valley production. I wrote about the wines of Mayacamas Vineyards back in August, and mentioned more recently a couple other Mount Veeder wines here and here. Today I look at cabernets and chardonnays from Fontanella, Godspeed, Robert Craig and Y. Rousseau.

These were samples for review. Map from mtveederwines.com.
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Fontanella Chardonnay 2010, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. Jeff Fontanella worked for Opus One, ZD Wines and Saddleback Cellars before opening his own winery in 2008 with his wife Karen Kruse Fontanella. His chardonnay, from 2010, is bright, fresh and steely. The color is pale straw-gold; aromas of spiced lemon are woven with hints of pineapple and grapefruit with a touch of lemon balm and lime peel; a multitude of citrus flavors dominate the palate in a dense, almost chewy texture enlivened by vibrant acidity and a resonant limestone-shale element. This is a large-framed chardonnay whose finish brings in more oak and woody spice, though the regimen is moderate: nine months in French oak, 33 percent new barrels, and only 12 percent of the wine went through malolactic fermentation. I found this to be a chardonnay of appealing and authentic purity and intensity, though the oak influence on the finish is a little bothersome; a year in the bottle may give this more balance and integration. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 600 cases. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $34.
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Y. Rousseau “Milady” Chardonnay 2009, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. The “Y” stands for Yannick, the owner and winemaker of this small winery. His “Milady” Chardonnay 09, made from a vineyard at 1,800-feet elevation, is a radiant pale straw-gold color; in the nose, classic notes of pineapple and grapefruit carry a hint of mango, with touches of cloves, quince and ginger, these qualities replicated with depth and detail in the mouth, where the spicy element expands through a texture that’s suave, supple and elegant. Rousseau uses native yeasts; the wine was barrel-fermented in oak, 20 percent new barrels, and aged for 11 months with no malolactic. Pert ‘n’ sassy acidity keeps this chardonnay lively and vital, while the whole package is deftly balanced between the crispness of the acid and mouth-filling density. The finish is long and finely-spun. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 195 cases. Excellent. About $38, and Worth a Search.
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Godspeed Vineyards Chardonnay 2008, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. The winery belongs to Larry Stricker, an architect of resort hotels, who since 1990 has bottled half the harvest, selling the rest of the grapes to well-known producers. The vineyard lies at 1,500-feet altitude. This chardonnay, now three years old, exhibits lovely balance and integration; it’s taut with shimmering acidity yet generously supple, almost silky, almost talc-like. Pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors are permeated by wood-land spices that hint at smoke and pomander buoyed by the limestone and lime peel effect, and while the wine fills the mouth it also displays remarkable delicacy, as well as, from mid-palate back through the finish, an element of scintillating limestone-like minerality. The wine was barrel-fermented, aged 12 months in French oak, 20 percent new barrels, and did not go through malolactic. The real deal, radiant with the purity and intensity and the hard-earned structure of high-elevation grapes. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 250 cases. Excellent. About $25, a Fine Value.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Robert Craig Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. Real power and presence and impeccable tone, from Robert Craig’s vineyard, planted in 1990 at 1,800-feet elevation. Intense and concentrated notes of black currants and plums are woven with cedar and sage and hints of lead pencil and bitter chocolate; a few minutes in the glass bring in touches of mulberry and smoke. The wine is a blend of 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent merlot and 3 percent malbec; it aged 18 months in French oak, 70 percent new. The result is a cabernet that’s superbly proportioned, deep and resonant, with an oak presence that’s insistent without being aggressive. Tannins are sleek and finely-milled, and they permeate, with their infinitesimal sifting, every molecule of ripe and spicy black currants and black raspberry flavors, all chiming with the tracery of whip-lash acidity. Yeah, this is good. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 846 cases. Drink from 2012 or ’13 through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $70.
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Godspeed Vineyards Trinity 2005, Napa Valley, and Godspeed Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. The Trinity 05 is a whole-hearted, two-fisted blend of 42 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent malbec and 33 percent syrah; it carries a Napa Valley designation because only 67 percent of the grapes — the cabernet and malbec — come from Mount Veeder, the syrah deriving from the Oak Knoll district on the valley floor. This is about structure now, being a tightly woven fabric of wheatmeal and walnut-shell, dried porcini, graphite and iron that allows a glimmer of intense and concentrated black currant, black cherry and mulberry fruit, tinged with dried spices and mocha, to shine through. The immense tannins, dense and fine-grained, need several years to soften, so try this from 2013 or ’14 through 2020 to ’22. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Production was 600 cases. Very Good+ with the potential for an Excellent rating. About $40.

A bit more accessible is the Godspeed Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Mount Veeder, a 100 percent cabernet wine. Classic touches of cedar and black olive, bay leaf and sage are etched with traces of spicy black currants, black cherries and plums. This is a real mouthful of wine, characterized by scintillating acidity and shale-like minerality and by layers of leather and moss, dried porcini and fruitcake, iron and iodine. You could happily and, I hope, thoughtfully, drink this wine with a steak tonight or cellar it to try from 2014 to 2020. Alcohol content is 14.1. Production was 250 cases. Excellent. About $40.
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Fontanelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. The blend is 91 percent cabernet sauvignon, 9 percent merlot; the wine aged 21 months in French oak, 80 percent new, and it soaked up that oak like a sponge and turned it into a thing of sleekness, suavity and inherent suppleness. The color is deep purple-black; aromas of very intense and concentrated cassis, black cherry, plums, lavender and potpourri, cedar, fennel and black olives circle a packed core of briers and brambles, iron and iodine, all accumulating in an extraordinary bouquet. For a cabernet that’s drenched in dry, foresty, granite-tinged tannins, this displays amazing succulence and richness of ripe and spicy black currants and plums with, deep down, like some dark bell-tone, a note of blueberry tart. Mainly, however, the Fontanelle Cabernet 08 is for now a wine for tremendous structural integrity and gravity, and while it could doubtless be served tonight with a veal chop grilled with rosemary and garlic, it also doubtlessly would benefit from a few years in the cellar, for drinking perhaps from 2013 or ’14 through 2020 to ’24. Alcohol content is 14.9 percent. 750 cases were made. Exceptional. About $52. If you are a collector or at least a devotee of Napa cabernets, this remarkable quality at such a price represents a bargain compared to the $150 to $300 that the Big Name Cult Cabernets command, so in that sense, it’s Worth a Search.
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Y. Rousseau “Le Roi Soleil” Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. Rousseau’s “Le Roi Soleil” 08 is a 100 percent cabernet sauvignon that aged 18 months in French oak, 70 percent new barrels. The vineyard, at 1,800 feet elevation, is sustainably farmed. The color is dark ruby with a magenta rim; aromas of cassis drenched with graphite, blueberries, smoke, cedar and dried thyme are intense and concentrated yet totally seductive. Black and blue fruit flavors tinged with mulberry, bitter chocolate and lavender are cushioned by dry, dusty, finely-milled tannins and burnished oak for an impression that’s suave and sleek yet powerful and resonant, even a little unyielding. Some foresty, brushy austerity on the finish dictates a year or two in the cellar — or that box in your coat closet — for trying from 2013 or ’14 through 2018 or ’20. Alcohol content is 14.3 percent. 109 cases were made. Excellent. About $65.
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Vintage 2009 in Beaujolais received a tremendous amount of praise as the “best year ever” or “the vintage of the century” — it’s a pretty short century so far — and other superlatives, and indeed 2009 produced terrific wines across the board, but in its way, 2010 may have resulted in even deeper more structured wines. Perhaps I’m rushing to judgment, basing this conclusion on an excessively limited number of examples, but I was very impressed by the wines mentioned in this post and their character and their eloquent expression of the gamay grape, or, to give its full name, gamay noir à jus blanc, called thus because while the skin is dark, the flesh is pale.

As well known as it is, especially for the frothy, forgettable Beaujolais nouveau released on the third Thursday of November, Beaujolais is somewhat of an outsider. It’s often considered to be part of Burgundy, that region’s southernmost area, below Chalonnais and Maconnais, yet Beaujolais could alternatively be counted as the northernmost wine region of the Rhône départment; mainstream Burgundy, including Chalonnais and Maconnais, lies in the next down départment of Saône et Loire. In addition to that geographical anomaly, Beaujolais devotes itself with almost fanatical monoculturalism to the gamay grape, while the rest of Burgundy, with equally focused devotion, cultivates chardonnay and pinot noir. (Yes, a tiny amount of chardonnay goes into Beaujolais Blanc.)

Three of the wines I discuss in today’s post are Beaujolais Cru wines, that is, they derive from one of the 10 villages or communes that produce the top echelon of the region’s gamay wines; the fourth example is a “regular” Beaujolais. Making the third category and falling between Beaujolais and the Cru wines is Beaujolais-Villages. The Cru communes occupy the best hillside sites in the northern area of the Beaujolais region; they are, going from north to south, Saint-Amour, Juliènas, Chenas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly.

These wines would be perfect with the food we associate with Autumn’s chill, braised and roasted meats, hearty casseroles and game birds.

The wines mentioned here were imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Ca.; they were tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event. I apologize for the lack of the diacritical marking on Maconnais; WordPress just would not allow an “a” with a circumflex.
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Forget all your conceptions of “straight” Beaujolais as light-hearted, grapey, quaffable stuff. The Dupeuble Beaujolais 2010, made from vines ranging from 50 to 100 years old, is very evocative, dark and smoky, seething with blackberry, currant and blueberry scents and flavors laden with cloves and sandalwood and a distinct earthy-minerally-briery quality. Quite dense and chewy for a Beaujolais, this displays great character and presence and a long finish packed with rhubarb, blueberry tart and graphite; vibrant acidity provides a taut structure. This received not a scrap of oak, fermenting and aging in cement vats and stainless steel tanks. Alcohol content is 12.5 percent. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Very Good+. About $16.
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Wow, the Chateau Thivin Côte de Brouilly 2010 exudes the power of the grape, the vine, the earth that harbored and nourished the roots. Oh, right, call me a romantic, but this is one of those wines that feels as if the soil and bedrock not only influenced its personality and character but seeped up the vines into the grapes themselves and thence into your glass. Made from vines that average 50 years old and aged six months in foudres — large barrels of various dimensions — the Thivin Côte de Brouilly 2010 is dense, dark, smoky, spicy and chewy, almost brooding in nature, though that aspect is beautifully balanced by the brightness and immediacy of ripe, vivid black currant and black raspberry flavors permeated by notes of dusty briers and brambles and by lip-smacking acidity. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $24.
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The Jean-Paul Thévenet Vieilles Vignes — “Old Vines” — Morgon 2010 is unusually large-framed, resonant and dry, even for Morgon, usually cited as the biggest and most structured of the Beaujolais Cru wines. O.K., so, multi-dimensioned, richly detailed, vibrant, with a ravishing fleshy, meaty, spicy bouquet, all slightly exotic black and blue fruit, violets and rose petals, and then a seductive firmness and viscosity to the texture. The grapes came from two parcels of vines, one 45 years old, the other 110 (!) years old, and you feel that age and maturity, that sense of knowledge and experience, to be anthropomorphic about it, in the wine’s depth, in its grip and generosity. The wines at this estate, founded in 1870, receive long skin contact and age six to eight months in old Burgundian barrels, deriving from those processes rich color, heady aromas and a supple structure. If you are one of those who do not deign to drink Beaujolais, this one may change your mind, though that assertion holds true for all of these wines. Best from 2012/13 to 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $35.
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Another “wow” for the Domaine Diochon Cuvée Vieilles Vignes Moulin-à-Vent 2010, a Beaujolais Cru wine that radiates purity and intensity. Again, this is broad and deep, dark and dense, intense and concentrated and revealing loads of character. What makes it different from the other Beaujolais Cru wines in this post? I would say that it’s distinguished structurally by not only the typical briery-brambly and earthy qualities but by an unusually sharply-etched dusty floral-graphite-granite element that gives the wine real point and grip and beguilement. Still, the wine would benefit from a little age, even a year, so try from 2012 or ’13 through 2018 to ’20. Alcohol content is 13 percent. Excellent. About $25.
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Zaca Mesa was a pioneer in bringing syrah to Santa Barbara County, planting that region’s first syrah vines in 1978. Founded in the early ’70s, the winery first planted just about every grape variety available but gradually narrowed the field to Rhone Valley types. Since the 1990s, Zaca Mesa has produced only Rhone-style wines, with a focus on estate and single-vineyard syrah. Winemaker is Eric Mohseni.

Wine of the Week is the Zaca Mesa Syrah 2008, Santa Ynez Valley, the producer’s basic syrah wine. Aged 16 months in French oak barrels, 35 percent new, 65 percent up to four years old, the wine offers complex layering of spicy, floral and earthy elements woven with dense, chewy grainy tannins and lively acidity, all set in fine balance. The color is dark ruby-purple; aromas of blackberries, black currants and plums are permeated by notes of sage and thyme, smoky oak and leather, violets and lavender and a pointed dusty graphite quality. So far, this is textbook syrah, and the impression deepens with ripe, spicy and concentrated black and blue fruit flavors founded on a classic character of slightly mossy underbrush qualities that generously unfold to reveal a core of potpourri, bitter chocolate and scintillating slate-like minerality. The finish is long and spicy. Lovely purity and authenticity and well-suited to an upcoming Fall season of braised and grilled meat. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $25.

A sample for review.

As a basic concept, a Bordeaux wine is any wine made within the defined region of Bordeaux, a geographical but not a political entity in the Gironde départment in southwest France. Within Bordeaux, however, there are 57 separate appellations, that is, official growing and winemaking areas defined by the INAO, the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, established in 1935 and taxed with regulating (in great detail) some 470 wines and spirits as well as other agricultural products. The fact that a region like Bordeaux consists of 57 appellations might seem difficult enough to encompass, though the system is further complicated by the existence of different rules within appellations — white wine made in Margaux, for example, cannot be designated as Margaux AOC — and by certain limited choices of designation that producers can make.

Bordeaux, in its most celebrated guise, is home to some of the world’s greatest wine estates, well-nigh legendary properties that annually release to the waiting arms and open pocketbooks of connoisseurs, collectors and high-end restaurants wines of finesse, breeding, power and longevity. These wines, famous indeed but only about five percent of the region’s total production, tend to originate in the appellations of Graves, Pessac-Léognan, Margaux, Pauillac, St.-Estephe, St.-Julien, Pomerol and St.-Emilion, all for red wine, and Sauternes and Barsac for dessert wines. Most of these appellations are communal, meaning that they are named for old towns and villages around which the vineyards and chateaux cluster.

In the regional sense, however — and let’s not forget that Bordeaux is also a city on the Garonne river that has been a center of wine-trading for eight centuries — in the narrowly (or formally) determined sense, the word “Bordeaux” officially applies to seven of the 57 appellations according to the A.O.C (Appellation d’Origine Côntrolée) regulations: Bordeaux Red; Bordeaux Supérieur Red; Bordeaux White; Bordeaux Supérieur White; Bordeaux Rosé; Bordeaux Clairet; and Crémant de Bordeaux — yes, small amounts of champagne method sparkling wine are produced in Bordeaux, and its quite tasty, if generally simple and direct. These seven appellations and their growers are represented by the Syndicat Viticole des AOC Bordeaux et Bordeaux Supérieur from its headquarters at Planete Bordeaux in Beychac et Caillau, just south of the Dordogne river in Entre-Deux-Mers.

The vineyards that supply the grapes for the seven “Bordeaux” appellations account for 54 percent of Bordeaux’s vineyard area, some 61,000 hectares, or about 156,770 acres. These vineyards are farmed by 6,085 growers, many of whom make, bottle and market their own wines, though the majority sell either grapes or wine to cooperatives, of which there are 44. The average holding for each grower is just under 26 acres; these are not large landowners, and they do not sell their wines for hefty prices. Obviously we are talking about a realm far removed from the heady preserves of the Classified Growths and grand chateaux nestled in their parks and illustrious, historic vineyards from which spring the hallowed, long-lived wines — Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Mouton-Rothschild, Petrus, Ausone, Cheval Blanc and so forth — that command tremendous feats of fiduciary prowess on the part of American CEOs and Asian magnates. No, I am writing here of smaller, more intimate chateaux, glorified farmhouses really, surrounded by a few hectares of vines often tended by the same families for generations, even back to the 18th Century. (Let me add that there are many beautiful old estates and chateaux in all regions and appellations of Bordeaux.)

Like the tremendous gulf that yawns between the salaries of business leaders and wage-earners in America, the untenable gap between the prices fetched for the top five percent of Bordeaux wines and the rest of the vast sea of wine produced in the region is economically insupportable. And where are these small landowners going to sell their products now that the French consume less wine than at any point since records began being kept yet more wine — a glut of wine — is being made? (Answer: The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China.)

Anyway, the differences between Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC are matters of degrees. Bordeaux Supérieur red wine is supposed to be made from older vines (though the age is unspecified in the regulations) and aged for 12 months; it must finish with a minimum of 10.5 percent alcohol, as opposed to the minimum of 10 percent for “regular” Bordeaux, though the reality is that almost all the wines produced from both appellations vary from about 11.5 to 13.5 percent. The “Supérieur” designation does not mean that the wine is inherently “better” or “superior” to a wine that carries a plainer “Bordeaux” designation; the implication, however, is that because the rules are slightly more demanding, the possibility exists that a Bordeaux Supérieur wine would display more character and be capable of aging for four or five years.

One may think of Bordeaux, then, as a structure of concentric circles, with Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC, which may be made anywhere in the overall Bordeaux region, as the outer circles, while the rest of the (theoretical) circles become smaller and smaller, until finally we come to the communal appellations and their Classified Growths. Bordeaux Rosé AOC, Clairet and Crémant can also be made anywhere in the Bordeaux region, but you can bet that such production is limited to the broad AOCs; the winemakers at Classified Growths have better things to do with their expensive pedigreed grapes than knock out a few cases of rosé. There’s always the possibility that an estate could take advantage of the allowance to declassify a wine to Bordeaux AOC in an irregular year, though that decision has to be reached before the wine is made, not after; Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC are not to be used as dumping appellations for inferior or mediocre wines.

Thanks to Jana Kravitz of Vin’Animus for clearing up some points of confusion; if there’s anything confusing in this account, it’s my fault. Image of the old port of Bordeaux from darvillsrareprint.com.

If you know anything about Renaissance, located near the town of Oregon House, north of Sacramento in the North Yuba area of the Sierra Foothills, you’ll know that the use of the word “rarities” means that these wines are rare indeed, since the winery usually makes only a few hundred cases, and certainly fewer than a thousand, of most of the wines it produces.

Winemaker Gideon Beinstock is uncompromising in his avoidance of new oak barrels and in advocating a strictly “less-is-more” attitude in the cellar, and the result tends to be wines that may be understated but are decisively authentic and expressive.

Take the Renaissance Carte d’Or Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2009, Sierra Foothills, a blend of 60 percent sauvignon blanc and 40 percent semillon, fermented in stainless steel and aged 6 months in “neutral French puncheons,” that is, very large, often-used oak barrels. Now we all know what a sauvignon blanc-semillon blend should be like, right? Grapefruit! Lime peel! Green bean! Fig! Grass ‘n’ herbs! Not this glittering shaft of spare elegance. The color is medium straw-gold with a slight green tint; aromas of quince and quinine, roasted lemon and almond skin, teas both green and orange pekoe devolve to a wisp of spiced pear. This is quite dry and sleek, unemphatic in its serene balance yet crisp and lively with almost crystalline acidity; a touch of fig and leafiness, yes, but mostly this is citrus and stone-fruit and a texture riskily poised between taut and talc. I tried the wine, recorked it, stuck it in the fridge and served it with dinner; the clean camellia-tinged floral element was in high gear. LL pronounced it beautiful. 13.2 percent alcohol. Production was — sorry! — 58 cases. Drink through 2013. Excellent. About $20 and definitely Worth a Phone Call. How can they sell such a wine so inexpensively?

I’m sorry to say that Beinstock produced even less of his Renaissance Rosé 2010, Sierra Foothills. Made from 100 percent syrah grapes and, unusually for a rosé, aged four months in neutral French oak barrels, the wine displays the classic pale onion skin hue of a Provençal rosé. The bouquet offers notes of dried strawberries and peaches, a touch of apple, hints of woodsy spice, orange rind and watermelon. These qualities are consistent in the mouth, where the wine is delicate, subtle and supple, though after a few minutes in the glass it gains a bit of weight, becoming more ripe, a little fleshy. Overall, though, this rosé is an elegant and evanescent tissue of grace and charm — spare, deliberate, exquisite. 12.6 percent alcohol. Production? Well, 23 cases don’t go very far; again, this is a matter of calling the winery and seeing if they’ll send a few bottles. Drink through 2013. Excellent. About $18.

These were samples for review.

The history is complicated.

The Mirassou family has been in the wine business in California since 1854, qualifying them for a place among the industry’s pioneering pantheon. For most of the first century, the family grew grapes in Santa Clara and (discounting Prohibition) sold bulk wine. I won’t go into all the details of the family’s splits, buy-outs and mergers as the generations succeeded each other — Charles L. Sullivan provides the narrative in the essential A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California press, 1998) — except to say that by the mid 1960s Mirassou had moved decisively into bottling varietal wine and that they were crowded out of Santa Clara by suburban development and had expanded to Monterey, buying some 600 acres in the northern part of the county.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Mirassou struggled with quality and finally achieved the sort of standards and technical ability that result in decent and drinkable and sometimes more than decent wines. Production centered on about 70 percent white wine — the “White Burgundy,” mostly pinot blanc, and the Harvest Reserve Chardonnay being notable — 10 percent sparkling wine and 20 percent in red.

In 2002, the family’s fifth generation sold the brand to Gallo, which uses it for cheap, innocuous bottlings; the family retained the winery and property, then reduced to 15 acres by encroaching habitation and commercial endeavor. The name was changed to La Rochelle, in honor of the French sea-coast town from which Louis and Pierre Pellier embarked for America (bringing with them what would become California’s first pinot noir vines); in 1881, Pierre H. Mirassou married Pierre Pellier’s daughter Henriette, who was already running her father’s vineyards, thus paving the way for the Mirrasou enterprise.

In June, 2005, as reported by W. Blake Gray in the San Francisco Chronicle, brothers Daniel and Peter Mirassou sold the La Rochelle brand to their cousin, Steven Kent Mirassou, who owns the Steven Kent Winery, a producer of small edition cabernet sauvignon in Livermore, east of San Francisco Bay. La Rochelle now concentrates on limited release pinot noir wines from vineyards throughout California and in Oregon. Some of those pinot noirs, which I find fairly unpinot-like, will be our focus in this post. In fact, I thought that these wines displayed an alarming variance in quality, tone and effect. Winemaker is Tom Stutz.

These were samples for review. The Mirassou labels in this section are from my wine notebook for 1983.
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First, if you can possibly get your hands on a case or a few bottles of La Rochelle Pinot Noir Rosé 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, do so. This is perhaps the best rosé from California (or the “New World”) that I tasted this year. Color is pale but radiant onion skin with a light copper glow; it’s all dried red currants, Rainier cherries, melon ball and a hint of spiced peach; a lovely almost satiny texture made vital and vibrant by crisp acidity and a scintillating limestone element. Loads of personality yet quietly elegant. 13.2 percent alcohol. Production was 157 cases. Excellent. About $22, and Worth a Search.
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La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, seems pretty over-heated and syrah-like for a Russian River pinot. It’s very spicy and slightly sweet, with powerful waves of cloves, cinnamon and Red Hots permeating intense aromas and flavors of black and red cherries with a touch of dried red currants and blueberries; a beguiling floral element, bursting with violets and rose petals, is immediately apparent. The texture is blatantly and sleek satiny but neither heavy nor obvious, though the finish starts to fall apart, not knowing if it’s meant to be dry, briery and earthy or super-ripe, candied and glossy. Shall I be generous and call this wine a curiosity rather than a failure? 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 137 cases. Drink now, if you’re of a mind, through 2013 or ’14. Very Good. About $42.
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A shadow darker, a shade more subdued is La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2008, Sonoma Coast — and also more balanced and integrated than the Russian River version mentioned above. It’s actually fairly placid and brooding, though not truculent, definitely earthier and more deeply imbued with graphite-like minerality, still managing, however, to display aspects of finesse and gradations of spice (instead of an assault) that marry well with the delicious but almost spare black and blue fruit flavors layered with notes of briers, brambles and forest floor. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 156 cases. Drink now through 2012 or ’14. Very Good+. About $42.
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La Rochelle Pinot Noir La Cruz Vineyard 2008, Sonoma Coast, is unabashedly gorgeous and seductive, star-making qualities to be sure but not necessarily the first aspects one thinks of pertaining to the grape. The fine print reveals the fact that this wine carries 15.3 percent alcohol, a heady element perhaps accounting for a bouquet of black cherry compote, spiced and macerated cranberries, mulberries and plums, though backnotes of mint and iodine and graphite-like minerality provide a bit of leavening. Violets and roses, yes, plum pudding, the latter also prominent in the profile of ripe and roasted black cherry and currant flavors steeped in cloves and sassafras, with some notion of briers and brambles hinting at a foresty layer. The wine is potent with alcohol, and the dry, austere finish feels rather flat-footed. A pinot for zinfandel-lovers. Drink now through 2013 to ’14. Production was 171 cases. Very Good. About $48.
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Despite the 15.3 percent alcohol, La Rochelle Sarmento Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, initially displays a modicum of the fleetness, finesse and elegance and the black cherry, cranberry, rhubarb and cola notes that we associate with the best pinot noir wines. On the other hand, sadly, its excessively spicy, assertively macerated and roasted nature tends to overshadow those qualities and bring to the foreground obtrusive elements of brown sugar and caramel and high alcohol’s over-ripeness and cloying sweetness; a good pinot noir should have a satiny texture, but this is almost viscous. In the end, one cannot figure out exactly what this wine is supposed to be. Drastically unbalanced. 141 cases. Not recommended. About $48.
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Finally and thankfully — I loved La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Cruz Mountains, the most balanced, integrated and seemingly authentic of these five pinot noir wines, excluding the rosé, which, as you’ll note above, I also adored. The color is an entrancing cherry-cerise with a dark ruby center; classic aromas of black cherry and blueberry tart — this is California — are generously wreathed with touches of rhubarb and cola, moss and leather, briers and brambles, all seamless, reserved, tranquil. In the mouth, this pinot noir expands into more earthy, mossy, foresty realms that provide ballast for ravishing black and blue fruit flavors that gain flesh, ripeness and substance after 20 or 30 minutes in the glass. The texture is lovely, smooth, satiny, flowing, the finish sweetly delineated, long, spicy. A beautiful pinot for drinking through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.9 percent, high for pinot noir in my book but not obvious here. 138 cases. Excellent. About $38 and Worth a Search.
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