December 2011


… and of course New Year’s Eve means celebrating with Champagne or some other form of sparkling wine. I could make tons of recommendations for inexpensive sparkling wines to serve tonight, especially if you’re hosting a soiree with a cast of thousands, but since the emphasis in this sequence of “The Twelve Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” is on France, I’ll put my money on the Simonnet-Febvre Brut Blanc, a Crémant de Bourgogne from Chablis. From Chablis? Mais oui, mes amis, Chablis is nominally considered part of Burgundy, though its climate is far different and it lies some distance to the northwest of the Côte d’Or. Simonnet-Febvre has been producing Champagne method sparkling wine in Chablis since it was founded in 1840 and is the only firm in Chablis still doing so. Simonnet-Febvre also makes excellent Chablis still wines at every level and sells them for reasonable prices. The company was acquired by Louis Latour in 2003. The Simonnet-Febvre Brut Blanc is a blend of 60 percent chardonnay and 40 percent pinot noir. The wine is exuberantly outfitted with bubbles and conveys a racy, nervy note of effervescent combined with fleet acidity and a keen limestone edge. This is clean and fresh, almost tangy with apple and slightly roasted citrus flavors ensconced in a crisp, lively texture. 12 percent alcohol. A crowd-pleaser. Very Good+. Prices countrywide range from about $14 to $19.

But say that your plans tonight include not teeming mobs drunkenly intoning the half-forgotten words of “Auld Lang Syne” but a more intimate gathering, perhaps even only one other person for whom you require something elegant and impressive. Turn, then, to the Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut, the label that defines the house style for Perrier-Jouët (the final “t” is prounounced). The company was founded in 1811 and achieved a high reputation in the 19th Century, especially for supplying Champagne to various royal courts of Europe. In 1959, Perrier-Jouët was acquired by the Mumm Group, which was later taken over by Seagram. In 1999, the latter sold Perrier-Jouët and Mumm to private investors who immediately turned around and, um, unloaded the house to Allied Domecq, which, of course, was subsumed by Pernod Ricard, the present owners. Sometimes you have to keep a score-card. Anyway, Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut, a blend of 40 percent pinot noir, 40 percent pinot meunier and 20 percent chardonnay, offers a bright golden-yellow color and a stately upward procession of tiny bubbles. I was, frankly, surprised at how robust and full-bodied this Champagne is; it’s the real deal when it comes to the toasty, bready fashion, and to match its generous dimension, the details of toffee, sea-salt, roasted lemon and hints of apples, almonds and almond blossom flesh it out considerably. This is quite dry, vibrant and resonant, almost chewy, and its chiming acidity (there are hints of grapefruit and lime peel) and elements of limestone tracery develop power — yet with finesse to match — through the finish. 12 percent alcohol. True class and breeding. Excellent. I paid $52, but realistically prices range from about $40 to $56.

Simonnet-Febvre Brut Blanc imported by Louis Latour Inc., San Rafael, Cal.; Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut imported by Pernod Ricard USA, Purchase, NY.

The bubbles keep on coming! Here’s another grower or farmer Champagne from the village of Bouzy, a blend of 80 percent pinot noir and 20 percent chardonnay from Grand Cru vineyards. The small house of Jean Vesselle — winemaker is Delphine Vesselle — turns out about 7,000 cases of Champagne a year. To make the picture a bit confusing, Bouzy is also home to the houses of Georges Vesselle and Maurice Vesselle. If with your befuddled eyes you can read the small print on the label included here, you’ll see the words Récoltant-Manipulant, indicating that Jean Vesselle grows the grapes and makes the Champagne rather than buying-in grapes from other vineyards.

The pale, pale Jean Vesselle Brut Réserve, non-vintage, is as blond and bracing as a kiss from Jean Harlow followed by a slap from her well-manicured hand. This is very high-toned, very elegant, a tense yet expansive and still whisperingly nuanced profusion of steel, roasted hazelnuts, lime zest, ginger, quince, cloves and limestone. The texture is almost cloud-like in its softness and brisk, exhilarating effervescence, yet the Champagne is also lithe and angular with the authority of crisp acidity and a crystalline mineral character that grows more intense from mid-palate back. A few minutes in the glass bring out shades of biscuits and lightly buttered cinnamon toast. Yeah, we loved this one. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. Suggested retail price is $44.75; I paid $50 here in town.

According to ancient legend, wood cut on December 30 and 31 or January 1 “shall not rot, or be full of worms, but always wax harder the longer it is kept,” so get out those axes!

North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Cal.

Remember, readers, that the focus of the 2011-2012 series of “The Twelve Days of Christmas …” is on Champagne and other French sparkling wines. Remember, also, that since this project began I have not repeated a label, so every sequence brings new recommendations. For this day, December 29 — also the Holy Day of Thomas Becket, murdered by Henry II’s knights in 1170 –our selection is the Gustave Lorentz Crémant d’Alsace, non-vintage, produced in the traditional Champagne method and a blend of one-third each chardonnay grapes, pinot blanc and pinot noir. The distinguished estate of Gustave Lorentz, founded in 1836, is still family-owned and in its seventh generation.

The color of the Gustave Lorentz Crémant d’Alsace is pale straw-gold; a dizzy fume of tiny bubbles surges upward. This sparkling wine is appealingly fresh, clean and brisk; hints of apples and pears are woven with roasted lemon and lemon balm and touches of quince and crystallized ginger. In the mouth, notably crisp acidity pairs with a scintillating mineral element; it feels as if you’re drinking liquid limestone. Naturally there’s considerable austerity through the finish, but this is primarily a completely delightful Cremant d’Alsace, high-toned and taut in structure but expansive in spicy citrus flavors. A terrific aperitif served with almonds and cashews or goat cheese and a great foil to charcuterie. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $26.

Imported by Quintessential Wines, Napa, Cal. A sample for review.

Among the hottest items in the hipster world of wine are “grower” or “farmer” Champagnes, that is, Champagnes made by a person or family who also grew the grapes rather than bought the grapes from other sources. The contrast is between that bucolic, artisan’s ideal and the large, established firms that purchase tons of grapes (as well as using their own vineyards) and blend dozens if not hundreds of samples to achieve a recognizable and consistent house style. The grower Champagnes, on the other hand, should, theoretically, reflect a sense of individuality and specific place, though the number of experts who could decipher a region, much less a village or actual vineyard in a glass of Champagne must be rather small. I adore both styles of Champagne, the grower or farmer versions and the house-style of the big firms. To me it’s equally satisfying to open a bottle of Pol Roger Réserve Brut and know that it will be just like all the other bottles I have opened and enjoyed or to pour a glass of a grower Champagne and savor its individual qualities. You can tell if a Champagne was made by a grower if the initials RM appear somewhere on the front or back label; RM stands for Recoltant-Manipulant, literally, “harvester-maker.” You can see that imprint in tiny type at the bottom of this label for the Paul Bara Brut Réserve, my selection for the Fourth Day of Christmas, which is also, incidentally, Childermas or the Day of the Holy Innocents, referring to the children of Bethlehem under the age of two slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers.

The small house of Paul Bara lies in the village of Bouzy, the favorite place-name in all of winedom. In the World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, revised and updated edition, 2003), Tom Stevenson calls Paul Bara “one of Bouzy’s greatest Champagne growers.” I call the Paul Bara Brut Réserve “beautiful”; it’s a blend of 80 percent pinot noir and 20 percent chardonnay from Grand Cru vineyards. (Winemaker is Paul Bara’s daughter Chantale.) The color is pale straw gold; a great cloudy dither of bubbles streams forcefully to the surface. This offers real grip and power yet yields lovely generosity and delicacy of detail. Amazingly clean and fresh aromas of acacia, hay and sea-salt, cloves, roasted lemon and lime peel unfold to hints of freshly baked biscuits and almonds. Huge presence and tone, staggering acidity and limestone minerality make for a compelling, dense, chewy structure, while this tensile strength feels adorned by the shimmering tinsel of steel, lemon zest and pear nectar. Deeply savory, impeccably balanced, a seamless marriage of power and elegance. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $45 to $50 nationwide, though I paid — ahem — $66 in the Bluff City, as Memphis is jocularly termed.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal.

Remember that this series in “The Twelve Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” focuses on the diversity of bubbly products made in various regions of France, as well as Champagne. The Third Day of Christmas, by the way, is also the feast day of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, author, according to legend, of the book of Revelations, and of the Gospel and the three Letters we find under his name, all composed, we are told, in the worst Greek of the New Testament. Shoulda stayed in school, right? Anyway, our sparkling wine today originates in the Loire Valley, as did the example on Christmas Day, but instead of coming from Vouvray, this was made in Chinon, southwest of Vouvray and still in the Central Loire region. You won’t find the name “Chinon” on the label, however, because the rules of the appellation do not allow for sparkling wine; you can make a sparkler if you want, you just can’t label it or market it as being from Chinon.

Couly-Dutheil is a distinguished house in Chinon, founded in 1921 and still owned by the family, that makes a roster of wines from the red cabernet franc grape — only about two percent of the region’s wines are white — as well as a fine rosé and, it turns out, this “forbidden” sparkling wine with which I recently became acquainted. The Couly-Dutheil Brut de Franc, non-vintage, is billed as the only sparkling wine in the world made completely from cabernet franc grapes, and for all I know, this claim may be, if St. John does not mind my saying so, gospel. I certainly can’t think of another one. Do, though, track this down. The color of the Couly-Dutheil Brut de Franc is shimmering pale gold, and the bead, as the British term the stream of bubbles, is fine, energetic and frothy; the bouquet, well, the bouquet is a seductive weaving of blood oranges, peaches, red currants and sweet Asian spices, with a hint of rose petals. The wine is ripe and almost soft in the mouth yet imbued with tremendously vibrant acidity and a resonant limestone element, the combination of which lends the finish marked dryness and some high-toned austerity; it’s quite appealing and frankly delicious but with a moderately serious edge. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $21, though you see higher and lower prices around the country.

Imported by Frank-Lin International, San Jose, Cal. Tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event.

The Wine of the Week doesn’t always have to be a bargain; that’s not the point. Today, however, we definitely have a terrific value. This is the Chateau des Rozets 2009, Coteaux du Tricastin, from a region in the southern Rhone Valley east of the Rhone River and directly north of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Avignon. In this red wine area, the Bernard family, producers of Domaine des Rozets, has been cultivating vines since 1794, and, yeah, I’m a sucker for that kind of longevity and dedication. The wine is a blend of 65 percent grenache grapes, 35 percent syrah and 5 percent cinsault; it’s made completely in stainless steel tanks, so what you smell and taste are pure fruit and its attendant characteristics. Heady aromas of black currants, blackberries and plums are woven with notes of briers and brambles, cloves and back-notes of violets and tar, and I mean tar in the very best sense. Chateau de Rozets 2009 is robust but not rustic, with vivid black and blue fruit flavors, a mildly earthy-leathery nature and slightly grainy tannins, all supported by clean, bright acidity. Nothing earthshaking, but boy how satisfying it was with a roasted Cornish hen. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $12.

Imported by Chloé Wines, Seattle, Wash.

Here we are, Boxing Day, which features (or used to), in the United Kingdom and related countries, the post Christmas distribution of largesse to servants, customarily not one’s own but the servants of one’s friends. This is also the Feast of Saint Stephen — when the snow lay all about, deep and crisp and even — who was the first Christian martyr, stoned circa 35 AD for preaching that Christ was the Messiah and fulminating, rather impolitely, against the Jews; see Acts 7:51. December 26 is the first day of Kwanzaa, an African-American end-of-the-year festival devised in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, at the time chairman of Black Studies at California State University in Long Beach.

So, for this day, we turn to actual Champagne in the guise of the Comte Audoin de Dampierre Brut Cuvée des Ambassadeurs, a non-vintage blend of 50 percent chardonnay from Grand Cru vineyards and 50 percent pinot noir from Premier Cru vineyards. What does that mean? The vineyards of Champagne are rated village by village on a quality percentage system. Only the vineyards rated 100 percent receive Grand Cru status; vineyards rated between 90 and 99 percent are granted Premier Cru status. There are 17 Grand Cru villages and 43 Premier Cru villages. Labels on bottles of Champagne will often advertise the fact that the product is Grand Cru or Premier Cru, though realistically most Champagnes are blends of many vineyards and several vintages (which is what “non-vintage” means). A classification by individual vineyard rather than overall village would more accurately reflect true quality.

The Comte Audoin de Dampierre Brut Cuvée des Ambassadeurs — there really is such a person, as well-known for his collection of antique automobiles as for his Champagne — offers a radiant pale medium gold color and a surging, twining fountain of tiny bubbles. This is a substantial Champagne, generously proportioned and authoritative, yet a scintillating nervy line of keen acidity runs through and energizes it. Aromas hint at pear, jasmine and toasted almonds, with touches of fresh bread, smoky toffee and sea-salt and underneath a foundation of limestone and steel. This Champagne is spicier in the mouth, with notes of slightly macerated and roasted citrus flavors, but primarily it’s a vessel for conveying intense minerality and a dense, almost chewy texture, all leading to a long, vibrant, limestone-laced finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. I tasted the Comte Audoin de Dampierre Brut Cuvée des Ambassadeurs at a trade event and was impressed enough to purchase a bottle later. We consumed it throughout Christmas Day. Excellent. Prices around the country range from about $36 to $50.

Imported by Frank-Lin International, San Jose, Cal.

On Christmas Day 2011, let’s begin this series of Champagnes and sparkling wines with a product that’s not only charming but pretty darned complex and a bargain to boot. The emphasis this time around is on the diversity of French sparkling wines, and we’ll touch on several areas outside of iconic Champagne. The wine today is the Champalou Vouvray Brut, a nonvintage sparkler made from chenin blanc grapes, or as they’re called in the region, pineau de la Loire. Chenin blanc reigns supreme in the central Loire Valley, specifically the part called Touraine, after the city of Tours. The estate was founded in 1983 by Catherine and Didier Champalou, who make only about 12,000 cases of white wine annually, all from chenin blanc grapes.

The Champalou Vouvray Brut is made in what’s called méthode traditionelle, that is the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle; that’s the step that produces the essential bubbles. (The term méthode champenoise, by the way, was outlawed for label use by the EU in 1994.) The Champalou Vouvray Brut is fermented in stainless steel tanks and allowed to rest on the lees of spent yeast cells; then it is transferred to bottles, given a dosage of yeast and sugar (to kick-start the second fermentation) and capped; it spends 20 months in bottles before being corked and released.

The color is shimmering pale gold; effervescence is mild but persistent. Heady aromas of almond and acacia, lemongrass and quince, with a touch of something earthy and straw-like, are tempered by a cut of steel and limestone. This is surprisingly creamy and substantial, almost luscious, but balanced by bright, crisp acidity and more of that clean, slightly austere limestone minerality to bolster flavors of roasted lemons and spiced pears; hints of candle-wax and camellia come out in the long, lively satisfying finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent, and Great Value at about $19 to $26, reflecting prices around the country.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal. A sample for review.

… and that means I’m about to launch the annual “Twelve Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” series. Traditionally, the twelve days of Christmas run from December 25, Christmas Day, to January 5, being Twelfth Night, the Eve of the Epiphany. Tomorrow, I will post the first sparkling, bubbly product and continue to post one each day, though I tend to include a wider selection on New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night. This year’s series focuses on France, not only Champagne but such alternatives as Cremant de Bourgogne, Cremant de Loire and sparkling wines from other appellations. In the Champagne category, I’ll offer some choices from the established houses as well as from the smaller operations that grow the grapes and make artisan-style products, what we might call farmer Champagnes. As ever in this series, I do not repeat brands or labels from year to year; I have not written about any of the Champagnes or sparking wines included in this segment of “Twelve Days of Christmas” before. Now around the periphery, so to speak, of the “12 Days,” I’ll post about other sparkling wines and Champagnes, some of which I may have covered previously and some of which I have not; the point is, that from tomorrow through January 5, BTYH is all about bubbles.

Festive image from thebeehiveblog.net.

In these egalitarian times, we don’t often speak of what were once called the “noble grapes,” because such a hierarchical scheme would imply that grapes omitted from that brilliant roster were somehow inferior. A generation ago, however, the term was common among writers about wine and commentators on the wine industry. Generally, six grapes were allowed “noble” status: Chardonnay, riesling (see accompanying image) and sauvignon blanc; cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir. You’ll notice the French bias immediately; we’re talking about Bordeaux and Burgundy, with a bone thrown to Alsace and parts of Germany with riesling. Notice that nebbiolo and sangiovese don’t make the cut; those are Italian grapes. Chenin blanc? Forget those divine dessert wines of the Loire Valley; they’re not Sauternes.

Still, there was a point to the noble grape concept, and I tell you that some grapes are simply better — or potentially better — than others. Chardonnay is capable of making splendid wines that grapes such as, say, torrontes or albarino, however charming and refreshing they may be, just can’t match. Cabernet sauvignon grapes can be turned into wines of the sort of depth, dimension and dignity that, oh, alicante bouschet or refosco could not begin to reach. No matter, of course, in the grand scheme, because we derive pleasure from all kinds of wines for many different occasions and reasons, but the truth is that certain grapes deserve their elevated reputations, if, I have to add, they are handled carefully and thoughtfully in the vineyard and the winery.

Riesling certainly deserves inclusion in the pantheon of noble grapes, as I was reminded as I stood in the kitchen at home and spent a couple of hours with this group of nine wines made from the grape. One winning aspect of riesling is its versatility; riesling is, in fact, the most versatile of the noble grapes. Even in this limited encounter, you can see that the wines range from delightful and appealing to stunning and profound without losing authenticity and integrity. The grape is geographically versatile, too; these nine wines encompass three of Germany’s best-known regions — Mosel, Rheingau and Pfalz; two areas in Australia, two in California and Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. The styles range from bone-dry to sumptuously sweet, but all are characterized by the grape’s inherent acidity and limestone-like minerality. This was a flight that I really liked.

With one exception, these wines were samples for review.
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The Frisk Prickly Riesling 2011, Victoria, Australia, is a real sweetheart of a riesling, a bit moscato-like in its initial delicate sweetness, floral nature and cloud-like softness, but just ripping with crisp acidity and honed limestone minerality. As the name implies, it’s lightly frizzante, that is, gently sparkling, just a tickle, as it were, that helps deliver notes of green apple and pear to your nose in a delightful manner. Ripe citrus flavors are touched with lychee and a hint of smoke; the wine sheds its sweetness and turns increasing dry and structured crossing the palate, finally reaching an austere, mineral-laced finish. Quite charming as an aperitif or with shrimp or chicken salad. 8.9 percent alcohol. Drink through Summer 2012. Very Good+. About $12, an Incredible Bargain.

Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Ca.
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The Bex Riesling 2009, Mosel, Germany, is fresh, crisp, juicy and lively; sporting a pale straw-gold color, it offers a bouquet of lime peel, grapefruit and honeysuckle deeply imbued with riesling’s signature petrol or rubber eraser aroma and a transparent foundation of damp limestone and shale. This is lovely, lithe and lacy in structure, fairly simple and direct, to be honest, but tasty with ripe apple, pear and lime flavors, very dry with a finish of crushed oyster-shell minerality. 9.5 percent alcohol. Drink through Summer 2012. Very Good+. About $10-$13.

Imported by Purple Wine Co., Graton, Ca. Great image from yumsugar.com.
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This is a terrific spätlese, deftly balanced between sweetness and dryness, between generosity and focus. The color of the Weingut Max Ferd Richter Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2009, Mosel, is glinting pale straw; aromas of spiced peach and pear, with delicate back-notes of quince and lychee, are woven with hints of rose petals and limestone. Pretty heady stuff, all right. In the mouth, you feel the slight tension, the sliding resolution between the initial sweetness, partaking of very ripe and macerated stone-fruit, and the striking acidity and limestone minerality that dominate the wine from mid-palate through the long earthy yet finely-tuned finish. 8.5 percent alcohol. This should develop nicely through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $24-$28, Good Value. The estate has been owned by the family since 1680.

Imported by Langdon Shiverich, Los Angeles.
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Seeing the vintage of the Trefethen Dry Riesling 2008, Oakville District, Napa Valley, you may ask, “But, FK, why the 2008 when the 2010 is the current release?” The answer is that I like to drink Trefethen’s rieslings at three to four years old, when they become, as it were, like shafts of bright and shining limestone and shale-like minerality. We always have a bottle of this wine on the table at Thanksgiving; last year it was the 2007. (In fact, the 2010 was my Wine of the Week on August 29th this year.) The 2008 we consumed at this year’s Thanksgiving dinner indeed practically vibrated with the minerality I mentioned, from start to finish, as well as exuding notes of petrol and peach and pear, a hint of jasmine, but, boy, is it ever a profound matter of stones and bones. It sort of wrapped itself around the turkey and dressing and potatoes and so on and supported everything subtly and beautifully. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. I paid $26.
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Let me just get this word out right now: Superb. I’m referring to the Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 2008, Clare Valley, Australia. The color is radiant medium gold; the bouquet draws you in irresistibly with aromas of baked apple, roasted peach and apricot skin nestled in a honeyed radiance of cloves, sandalwood and orange marmalade. This description makes the wine sound heavy, but instead it is ineffably delicate, almost lacy and transparent in its wreathed character; paradoxically — and great wines embody myriad paradoxes within their balance and harmony — it’s also profoundly dense and earthy, its viscous nature splendidly belied by tremendous acidity whose tautness could ring church bells from Brisbane to Boston. A wonderful achievement. Stephanie Toole operates this small estate, which I visited in the far-off days of October 1998, with meticulous attention, producing only 4,500 cases annually of five wines. Alcohol contest is 11 percent. Drink through 2013 or ’14 with the simplest of fruit desserts or a plain sugar cookie or on its own. The current release in Australia is 2011. Exceptional. About $27-$36.

Imported by USA Wine West for The Australian Premium Wine Collection.
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The frozen grapes for the Inniskillin Riesling Icewine 2008, Niagara Peninsula, Canada, were harvested from the last week of December 2008 and into early January; the wine is not aged in oak. A beguiling medium gold color seems to inspire aromas of candied orange zest, marzipan and creme brulee layered over baked peaches and apricots and a hint of mango; the wine is supernally rich, honeyed and viscous — it rolls over the palate like money — yet balanced by whiplash acidity and profound and penetrating slate-like minerality. A few minutes in the glass bring in notes of smoky cloves, lime peel, a touch of jasmine and depths of spiced and macerated flavors, like stone-fruit dissolving in brandy. Inniskillin is owned by Constellation Brands, and it’s good to see that despite being part of a giant conglomerate that has swallowed dozens of wineries and brands the quality of the product has not diminished. Winemaker is Bruce Nicholson. 9 percent alcohol. Drink through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $80 for a tall, stylish half-bottle (375 ml).

Imported by Icon Estates, Rutherford, Ca.
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The Schloss Reinhartshausen Erbach Schlossberg Riesling 2007, Rheingau, Germany, is a damned serious riesling all right. The color is pale straw-yellow; aromas of jasmine and lychee, pear, quince and crystallized ginger open to notes of grapefruit, limestone and shale. The wine is seamless from front to back, but there’s nothing ethereal about its earthy character or its crisp, snappy acidity, and despite latter-day touches of fig, peach and marzipan, it’s not sweet at all; this is achingly dry, resonant, austere, even partaking of a sort of Olympian detachment through the stony finish. Still, as I said, the wine is seamless, beautifully balanced, authoritative without being blatant. 14 percent alcohol. Drink through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $29-$40. The term Erstes Gewächs on the label is the German equivalent of Grand Cru.

Imported by Palm Bay International, Boca Raton, Fla.
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At seven years old, the Pfeffingen Ungsteiner Herrenberg Riesling Beerenauslese 2004, Pfalz, Germany, feels perfect, yet I wager it will age beautifully for another seven years. The color is brilliant medium gold; a poignant and penetrating hit of petrol or rubber eraser permeated by hints of softly over-ripe peaches and apricots identifies this wine as a classic riesling dessert wine, though the richness and honeyed nature are balanced by or even serve as foil to some astringent floral note. The viscosity of the gorgeous texture fills and coats the mouth, while the wine grows more intense, more freighted by cloves and quince, more deeply imbued with flavors of orange zest, crystallized ginger and apricots. In the manner of great dessert wines, however, a slashing blade of acidity lends the wine keen vibrancy and a dry, scintillating finish. A grand achievement. 8.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2018 or ’20. Exceptional. About $50 for a half-bottle (375 ml).

A Rudi Wiest Selection for Cellars International, San Marcos, Cal.
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Twenty-three years old, yes, but the Renaissance Late Harvest Riesling 1988, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills was only released in 2010, when it was a relatively young 22, after spending 20 years in bottle. The color is caramel-amber with a deep copper glint; the bouquet partakes of barely overblown flowers, like peonies and camellias before they begin wearily to drop their petals, along with coconut, toasted almonds, candied ginger and roasted and slightly caramelized peaches; a few minutes in the glass bring up notes of pine resin and maple syrup. There’s a deep caramel circumference to the flavors of burnt orange, lime peel and spiced apricots, and that’s where the sweetness stays, at the edge of the palate, while the interior flow, as it were, is not just surprisingly but audaciously dry, leading to a finish of daunting austerity and limestone-like minerality. There’s a touch of confusion about the balance between mid-palate and finish, but primarily this wine is a delightful and intriguing example of what can happen when riesling gets all grown-up. 12 percent alcohol. Drink through 2013 to ’15. Excellent. About $45.
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