November 2011

Two great red wines from Napa Valley, each a joy to drink:

These were samples for review.
Nickel & Nickel Suscol Ranch Merlot 2008, Napa Valley.
Suscol Ranch lies in a cool valley south of the city of Napa that receives dense fog early in the growing season and year-around wind. The nine-acre vineyard occupies a gently-sloping north-facing hillock atop deep loamy soil. Nickel & Nickel first made wine from the site in the 1997 vintage. The present example, from 2008, aged 16 months in French oak, 44 percent new barrels, 56 percent once-used. An extraordinary bouquet of roasted and fleshy blueberries, black currants and plums is suffused with notes of iodine and iron, mint and sea salt, briers and brambles; tremendous structure, tremendous presence: the wine is supple and sinewy, dense and chewy, bursting with slightly roasted black and blue fruit flavors couched in firm, velvety tannins and an element of graphite that scintillates like ebon fractiles; all of this wrapped around an intense core of smoke and cloves and toast, lavender and potpourri. Awesome purity and integrity. 14.6 percent alcohol. 1,037 cases produced. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $50.
Yes, the label is out-of-date, but it’s the best image that was available.
Oakville Ranch Robert’s Blend Cabernet Franc 2007, Napa Valley.
A wonderful expression of the cabernet franc grape — with 10 percent cabernet sauvignon, so it is a blend — this inky-dark wine, named in honor of the winery’s founder Robert Miner, bursts with black currants and blueberries laved with tar and bitter chocolate, crushed violets and lavender and, telltale mark of cabernet franc, black olives, thyme, black tea and a hint of bell pepper, all layered over an earthy, granitic mineral quality. This is some big, dense, chewy wine, but it displays lovely balance among the essential structural devices of bright acidity; polished, grainy tannins; and spicy, supple oak, from 19 months in French barrels, 60 percent new. In fact, the wine is quite spicy, and as it opens in the glass, its offering of black currant, black cherry and plum flavors takes on more macerated and stewed aspects that encompass a touch of fruitcake and leather. Almost gorgeous but with the necessary leavening of some tannic austerity on the finish. I hate to say this; the alcohol content is 15.5 percent, but you don’t feel the least hotness or sweetness that usually comes with high-alcohol wines; that’s how perfectly balanced and integrated it is. 264 six-pack cases produced. Excellent. About $92.

Black Kite Cellars traces its origins to 1995, when Donald and Maureen Green bought a 40-acre parcel by the Navarro River just west of Philo in Mendocino County, in a cool area eight miles from the coast. They replanted an old vineyard with pinot noir vines and developed two more blocks on a hill above the river. The first crop was harvested in 2003, and the decision to retain a portion of the grapes to make their own wine brought the concept of Black Kite Cellars, named for a bird indigenous to the region, to fruition. Jeff Gaffner became winemaker in 2004; the first wines he worked on comprised the 2005 bottlings of distinct blocks within the estate. I rated the Black Kite River’s Turn Pinot Noir 2007 as Exceptional and made it one of the “50 Great Wines of 2009.”

These were samples for review.
The color of the Black Kite Kite’s Rest Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, is medium ruby with a slight blue-magenta cast. Scents of leather, briers, intensely ripe black cherries and plums, damp earth and a hefty dose of cloves segue to a wine of lovely heft and substance, with a satiny texture enlivened by vivid acidity; it’s quite spicy, bursting with black and blue fruit flavors revealing hints of cola and cranberry and rounded by soft tannins and moderately polished oak, from 11 months in French barrels, one-third new. Great charm and allure. 1,000 cases. Excellent. About $42.
The Black Kite Stony Terrace Block Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, is almost immodestly dense and intense, spicy and floral. At first, it seems all cloves and sassafras and sandalwood; then it seems all rose petals and violets, perhaps with a flush of lilac; then, however, it takes on firmness and body, it comes close to being sturdy for an Anderson Valley pinot, packed, as it is, with cranberry and leather, root beer and cola, red and black currants and blueberries, ensconced in tannins that feel like tissues and oak that’s lithe and supple; the wine is ultra satiny, deep, a bit muscular even, and it finishes with a touch of wild blueberry. The wood regimen is 11 months in French barrels, two-thirds new. 14.9 percent alcohol. Now through 2014. Production was 230 cases. Excellent. About $52.
What accounts for these differences except for minute fluctuations of geography that somehow result in nuances that shift from wine to wine? Though the Black Kite Redwoods Edge Block Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, receives the same oak treatment at the Stony Terrace and the River’s Turn — 11 months, French oak, two-thirds new barrels — my palate perceives Redwoods Edge as slightly more influenced by oak, as being a bit woodier in the sense of displaying more dried, woody spiciness and a few degrees more austerity on the finish. Other than that aspect, the wine offers a classic dark ruby-mulberry color and attractive aromas of smoky black cherry, rhubarb, cranberry, briers and sandalwood. In the mouth, the story is density, intensity and slightly roasted black and red currants flavors touched with blueberry, and still that pervasive oaky factor diminishes a bit the full suave, savory pinot effect. 14.7 percent alcohol. 170 cases. Drink through 2014 or ’15; let it mellow a bit. Very Good+. About $52.
The color is radiant medium ruby, but what really entices one’s senses in the Black Kite River’s Turn Block Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, is the knock-out bouquet of spiced and macerated black cherries, plums and rhubarb wafted on notes of cloves, cinnamon and sassafras, all with undertones of briers and graphite; the impression is not only of a panoply of delights but of supreme confidence, balance and integration. Give the wine a few minutes in the glass, and it draws up hints of mint, iodine and lilac, qualities that remind you that while there’s plenty of winsome detail to the wine, it also possesses more serious dimensions of minerality, vivid acidity and tannic-oaken structure; it’s powerful and profound but lovely, elegant, so lithe that it’s almost ductile. A few more minutes produce black and red fruit flavors that are slightly stewed, smoky and fleshy, and a long finish that feels supple and transparent. Great winemaking here. 14.8 percent alcohol. 160 cases. Drink through 2014 or ’15. Exceptional. About $52.

We made a quick trip to New York — up Friday morning, back Sunday afternoon — to celebrate a friend’s birthday with other friends we had not seen in three or four years. Naturally the festivities included a great deal of eating and drinking, as in a small dinner Friday, a large birthday bash dinner Saturday and brunch on Sunday. Here are notes, some brief and some not so brief, on the wines we tried.

Image of NYC skyline in the 1950s from
This was a hit. For dinner we were having a casserole of chicken and sausage and onions and fresh herbs — which was deeply flavorful and delicious — at the B’day Girl’s place, and I thought “Something Côtes du Rhône-ish is called for.” She is fortunate enough to live right around the block from Le Dû’s Wines, the store of Jean-Luc Le Dû, former sommelier for Restaurant Daniel, and we traipsed over to see what was available. She wanted to buy a mixed case of wines, and I wanted to pick up a bottle of Champagne and whatever else piqued my interest.

l’Apostrophe 2009, Vin de Pays Méditerranée, caught my eye. The wine is made by Chante Cigale, a noted producer of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a pedigree that reveals itself in its full-bodied, rustic savory qualities. A blend of 70 percent grenache, 20 percent cinsault and 10 percent syrah and made all in stainless steel, the wine sports a dark ruby-purple hue and burgeoning aromas of spiced and macerated blackberries, red and black currants and plums. Black and blue fruit flavors are potently spicy and lavish, wrapped in smoky, fleshy, meaty elements and bolstered by a lithe, muscular texture and underlying mossy, briery and graphite qualities. I mean, hell, yes! This was great with the chicken and sausage casserole. Drink through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $15-$16, representing Real Value.

Imported by David Bowler Wine, New York. (The label image is one vintage behind.)

Also at Le Dû’s Wines, I gave the nod to Domaine de Fontenille 2009, Côtes du Luberon, a blend of 70 percent grenache and 30 percent syrah produced by brothers Jean and Pierre Leveque. Côtes du Luberon lies east of the city of Avignon in the Southern Rhone region. This wine was a tad simpler than l’Apostrophe 2009, yet it packed the same sort of spicy, savory, meaty, fleshy wallop of macerated black and blue fruit scents and flavors ensconced in the earthy loaminess and soft but firm tannins of briers and brambles and underbrush. Now that prices for Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône-Villages have edged above $20 (and $30 even), wines such as Domaine de Fontenille and l’Apostrophe offer reasonable and authentic alternatives. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $14-$15.

Imported by Peter Weygandt, Washington D.C. (The label image is many vintages laggard but it’s what I could find.)
With poached fennel-stuffed salmon, we drank the At Riesling 2009, Colli Orientale del Friuli, from Aquila dei Torre — eagle of the tower — which at two years old is as clean as a whistle, fresh and lively, and gently permeated by notes of spiced peach, pear and quince with a background of lychee, lime peel and limestone; there’s a hint of petrol or rubber eraser in the bouquet and a touch of jasmine. Made in stainless steel and spending nine months in tanks, At Riesling 09 offers crisp acidity and a texture cannily poised between ripe, talc-like softness and brisk, bracing, slightly austere spareness; the finish focuses on scintillating minerality in the limestone-slate range. The designation means “the eastern hills of Friuli.” Now through 2013. Very Good+. About $22.

Domenico Selections, New York.
We drank the Campo San Vito 2004, Valpolicella Classico Superiori Ripasso, with roast beef at the B’Day Girl’s Big Dinner Bash. I first reviewed the wine in July 2009; here are the notes:

For wine, I opened the Campo San Vito Valpolicella 2004, Classico Superiore Ripasso, a wine that also conveyed a sense of intensity and concentration. Ripasso is a method in which certain Valpolicella wines are “refermented,” in the March after harvest, on the lees of Amarone wines; the process lends these wines added richness and depth. The color here is almost motor-oil black, with a glowing blue/purple rim; the bouquet is minty and meaty, bursting with cassis, Damson plums, smoke, licorice and lavender and a whole boxful of dried spices. Yes, this is so exotic that it’s close to pornographic, but the wine is not too easy, on the one hand, or overbearing, on the other, because it possesses the acid and tannic structure, as well as two years in oak, to express its purposeful nature and rigorous underpinnings. Flavors of black currant and plum, with a touch of mulberry, are permeated by spice, potpourri and granite, as if all ground together in a mortar; the finish, increasingly austere, gathers more dust and minerals. Quite an experience and really good with our dinner. Limited availability in the Northeast. Excellent. About $25.

What was the wine like two years later, at the age of seven? A lovely and beguiling expression of its grapes — corvina, molinara, rondinella — still holding its dark ruby hue and all violets and rose petals, tar and black tea and lavender, stewed plums and blueberries with an almost eloquent sense of firmness, mellow, gently tucked-in tannins and vivid acidity, but after 30 or 40 minutes, it began to show signs of coming apart at the seams, with acid taking ascendancy. Drink now. Very Good+ and showing its age, but everyone should hope to do so in such graceful manner.

Imported by Domenico Selections, New York.
And two rosé wines:

The house of Couly-Dutheil produces one of my favorite Loire Valley rosés, so it’s not surprising that I found the Couly-Dutheil “René Couly” Chinon Rosé 2010 to be very attractive. This is 100 percent cabernet franc, sporting a classic pale onion skin hue with a blush of copper; so damned pretty, with its notes of dried strawberries and red currants over earthy layers of damp ash and loam and a bright undertone of spiced peach, all resolving to red currant and orange rind flavors and shades of rhubarb and limestone. Dry, crisp and frankly delightful. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through Spring 2012. Very Good+. About $19.

Imported by Cynthia Hurley, West Newton, Mass.

Ah, but here comes what could be the best rosé wine I have tasted. O.K., not to be extreme, one of the best rosés I have ever tasted.

L’audacieuse 2010, Coteaux de l’Ardeche, comes in a Big Deal heavy bottle with a deep punt (the indentation at the bottom); instead of being in a clear bottle, to show off the pretty rosé color, L’audacieuse 2010 is contained within a bottle of serious dark green glass. The producers of this prodigy, a blend of 50 percent syrah, 30 percent grenache and 20 percent cinsault, are Benoit and Florence Chazallon. The estate centers around the Chateau de la Selve, a fortified house built in the 13th Century. The grapes for L’audacieuse 2010 are grown under organic methods and fermented with natural yeasts, 1/2 in barriques and 1/2 in concrete vats; it aged six months in barriques. The color is pale but radiant onion skin or what the French call “eye of the partridge.” An enchanting yet slightly reticent bouquet of apples, lemon rind, orange zest and dried red currants wafts from the glass; in the mouth, well, the wine feels as if you were sipping liquid limestone suffused with some grapey-citrus-red fruit essence, enlivened by striking acidity and dry as a sun-bleached bone. While that description may make the wine sound formidable, especially for a rosé — and it is as audacious as its name — its real character embodies elegance and sophistication, integration and balance of all elements, but with something ineffably wild and plangent about it. This is, in a word, a great rosé. 13 percent alcohol. Production was all of 2,100 bottles and 80 magnums. Drink through Summer 2012. Excellent. About $30 and Worth a Search.

Imported by Metrowine Distribution Co., Stamford, Conn.
I bought the Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé so LL and I could toast our friend Saturday evening before going to her Big B’Day Bash. The house was founded in 1818, but the Billecart family has roots in Champagne going back to the 16th Century. According to Tom Stevenson, in the revised and updated edition of World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, 2003, and really needing another revision and updating), the blend of the Brut Rosé is 35 percent each pinot noir and pinot meunier and 30 percent chardonnay. What can I say? This is a bountifully effervescent rosé Champagne of the utmost refinement, elegance and finesse, yet its ethereal nature is bolstered by an earthy quality that encompasses notes of limestone and shale and by a dose of subtle nuttiness and toffee, while exquisite tendrils of orange rind, roasted lemon and red currants are threaded through it; zesty acidity keeps it fresh and lively. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. I paid $78; prices around the country vary from about $75 to $90.

Imported by T. Edward Wines, New York.

Think of a pork roast slathered with green chilies. Or how about grilled leg of lamb studded with garlic and rosemary. Beer-braised short ribs served with mashed potatoes drenched in a pan-reduction. You get the idea. Food you embrace; food you inhabit. Now open the inky-purple Trapiche Broquel Bonarda 2009, from Argentina’s high Mendoza region, nestled under the sunrise-facing flanks of the Andes. Trapiche is a large producer that owns more than 2,500 acres of vines in Mendoza, but big doesn’t always mean bad. Broquel is the winery’s single-vineyard label; grapes for the Broquel Bonarda 09 derive from the Santa Rosa vineyards that lies at 3,000-foot elevation. The grape presents mysteries. Three grapes bearing the name grow within spitting distance in northwest Italy, but only one of them is actually the bonarda grape, the imposters being croatina and uva rara, facts you may bear with you today as a chalice against your throng of foes. (Chops, but no cash award, to whoever identifies the source of that paraphrase.) However, the “real” bonarda grape, which is itself quite rare in these times, is not — I say, not — the bonarda grape which is the second most-planted red grape in Argentina, the first most-planted starting with the letter M and it’s not merlot. No, the bonarda of Argentina seems to be — I say, seems to be — the charbono grape that used to be grown in California but has now, sadly, almost disappeared.

Anyway, the Trapiche Bonarda 2009 feels wild, untamed, deeply spicy, immoderately savory; slightly jammy black currants, plums and blackberry preserves infused with port characterize the heady bouquet, which opens to hints of blueberry tart, lavender and licorice, potpourri and dusty graphite. It’s rich, dense, intense, chewy, thoroughly imbued with slightly roasted and meaty black and blue fruit flavors laced with burnished oak — from 12 months in new French and American barrels — and soft, velvety tannins. It is, as you surmise, almost a riot of sensations, though fortunately honed with bracing acidity and a touch of granite-like minerality on the finish. Close to being too easy to drink, but it sorta haunts you, too. 14 percent alcohol. Now through 2013 or ’14. Very Good+. About $15.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York. A sample for review.

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