December 2011

Here’s a terrific sparkling wine from France that will make your palate and your pocketbook happy. It’s the Marcel Martin Tête de Cuvée Crémant de Loire Brut. The requirements for the Crémant de Loire appellation include originating in the regions of Anjou-Saumur or Touraine, lower grape yields than go into the Loire’s other sparkling wines and a higher percentage of free-run juice, as well as one-year’s aging, as opposed to nine months for other local sparklers. Grapes tend to be chenin blanc and cabernet franc, though chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and some indigenous grapes are allowed. “Tête de Cuvée” on a label implies that the product is top (or “head”) of the line, but the term is not regulated in France, so consumers must depend on the honesty of the producer. These wines are made in the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle.

Marcel Martin Tête de Cuvée Crémant de Loire Brut presents a medium straw-gold color such as Rapunzel’s hair might be; a tremendous fountain of tiny bubbles erupts from the bottom of the glass and surges upward to the surface. This is all roasted lemon, steel and limestone, with hints of winsome acacia and almond, straw and bracing sea-salt. This sparkling wine truly is full-bodied and creamy, though cleanly cut with rapier-like acidity and scintillating limestone and flint minerality. The finish is long, fervent, steely and spicy. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+ (with a couple more +s if I could; it’s that close to Excellent). I paid $23, but I have seen prices as low as $17 around the country.

Imported by The Stacole Co., Boca Raton, Fla.

It may be the Yuletide season, Readers, but I am not inclined to extend generosity to those who mangle the Mother-Tongue and allow way too much wiggle-room in the definition of words. The worst offenders, other than politicians, bureaucrats and sociologists, are advertising copywriters and public relations/marketing interns. Here’s the example that lit a fire under my ire:

The back label of the JCB No 81 Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma Coast, tells us that the wine is “Alluring. Ephemeral. Insatiable.” “JCB” stands for Jean-Charles Boisset, president of Boisset Wine Estates, owner of, among other properties and brands, Buena Vista Winery, DeLoach Vineyard, Lockwood Vineyard, Lyeth Estate, Fog Mountain and Raymond Vineyards in California and Bouchard Aîné & Fils, Domaine de la Vougeraie, J. Moreau & Fils and French Rabbit in France. The JCB line represents the company’s extension into producing fairly limited edition wines from vineyards primarily in Sonoma County. (Image from

Let’s look at these adjectives.

Alluring. I occasionally use “alluring” in reviews to mean that a wine draws the taster in seductively and irresistibly, with a sense of style and glamor; it’s a rather abstract and subjective concept, but one that I think can be employed legitimately and that readers readily grasp. So, O.K. on that.

Ephemeral. I think that the word is incorrect for the wine. According to The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged (1987), ephemeral means “lasting a very short time; short-lived; transitory.” One might apply the word, especially in the realm of “transitory,” to certain wines, say the driest and more delicate rosés or fresh and quaffable white wines such as Vinho Verde or South African chenin blancs. Applied, however, to a Sonoma Coast chardonnay that’s rich and full-bodied and solidly oaked (though nothing out of the ordinary), “ephemeral” would be a negative term; the context is completely wrong.

Insatiable. Here’s a vivid model of incorrect word choice. The RHDEL2 tells us that “insatiable” means “incapable of being satisfied or appeased.” A glutton may be insatiable in his hunger; a sadist may be insatiable in his blood-lust; a dictator may be insatiable in his quest for power. The application of the word to a bottle of wine is nonsensical or, if you prefer, ignorant.

In fact, the marketing device for the JCB wines rests on the three-word trope. For the JCB No 1, a cabernet sauvignon, the figure is “Voluptuous. Opulent. Incorrigible.” For No 22, a pinot noir, the scheme is “Intimate. Tumultuous. Intense.” And, bizarrely, No 8, a pinot noir dry rosé, receives the flamboyant encomium of “Rebellious. Capricious. Seductive.”

While voluptuousness and opulence are virtues in cabernet sauvignon wines in some circles — not usually mine — (and they seem redundant anyway), “incorrigible” is another example of a copywriter simply not knowing what words mean. If a chardonnay truly were “bad beyond correction or reform; impervious to restraints or punishment; willful; unruly; uncontrollable,” I think that I would leave it on the shelf and try something else. “Tumultuous” for a pinot noir? (“full of tumult or riotousness; marked by disturbance and uproar; … disorderly or noisy; … highly agitated”) The last thing I want is a disorderly and highly agitated pinot noir. And how would you feel about a rosé that was insubordinate and erratic?

Friends, this is the Silliness of Vocabulary Overkill, the result of poorly prepared writers trying too hard to sound impressive, a common symptom in the world of public relations and marketing. I say that it’s time to retire the concept of the back-label hard sell and storytelling that dominates in New World wines, especially California and Australia, and let the product speak for itself. Tell me about the wine, if that’s necessary, but keep the copy brief and to the point. And please, keep a dictionary on the desk.

The series of “Damn, This Was Good!” posts focuses on terrific wines that made a great match with whatever we were eating that night. In this case, the wine was the Drouhin-Vaudon Chablis Réserve de Vaudon 2008; the dish was the Brussels Sprouts and Mushroom Ragout with Herbed Dumplings, from Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen (Broadway Books, 2005). Madison was the founder of Greens, the well-known vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco. (The book, by the way, is only six years old, and already the pages are falling out in droves; whatever happened to solid bookmaking?) Anyway, this is a deeply earthy, flavorful and satisfying meal that’s vegan without the dumplings, but those puffy, savory little pockets of dough add considerable flair and down-home goodness to the dish, which is wonderful chilly, rainy night fare.

With this recipe, Madison recommends “a New World Chardonnay with rich fruit and a little oak, from Santa Barbara …,” but I demurred and selected this Chablis.

The Drouhin-Vaudon Chablis Réserve de Vaudon 2009 comes from a 14.8-acre area in a biodynamic vineyard that lies between two Premier Cru vineyards. Fashioned completely from chardonnay grapes, as is the requirement, the wine is made in stainless steel tanks and ages “a few months” in oak barrels, according to the material I was sent. (A contradiction is in play here; the winery’s website says only stainless steel, no oak.) In any case, the wine offers a radiant medium straw-gold color with a pale green glow. A lovely expression of the chardonnay grape, this delivers pert, smoky citrus aromas woven with cloves, quince and crystallized ginger and high notes of lemongrass and honeysuckle. Crackling acidity and scintillating limestone-clad minerality greet the palate in startling degree, setting the stage for a lively yet serious and quite dry Chablis rooted in earthiness while it delivers rich roasted lemon and lime peel flavors at an elevated level of purity and intensity; the limestone and shale elements give the impression of increasing in size and extent through the long, artful finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2014 or ’15, properly stored. 800 cases imported. Excellent. About $27.50 but often discounted to $20 around the country. Chablis lovers should not miss it.

Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., New York. A sample for review.

That’s a trick headline. I’m not talking about Rioja, as in one of Spain’s most ancient and notable wine-producing regions, but La Rioja, the oldest of Argentina’s vineyard and winemaking areas known principally for white wines from torrontes and muscat of Alexandria, though recently there have been plantings of red grapes. Lying to the north of the far better-known and productive Mendoza, La Rioja is quite arid and lacks even enough water for irrigation, making grape-growing a challenge. The two red wines I’m going to mention today are not profound or complicated, but they are thoroughly drinkable and enjoyable, besides being priced right. They come from Bodegas San Huberto, the owners of which also have a winery in China, which surely must be the wave of the future, if only producers could figure out what the palates of the people really want. Other than the super wealthy, who spend fortunes on Classified Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy, most wine-drinkers in China, according to recent research, seem to prefer sweet wines.

Anyway, the question of Chinese wine-drinkers aside — though it looms over Europe — the San Huberto Malbec 2010, La Rioja, offers a dark ruby-purple color and meaty, fleshy spicy aromas of ripe black currants, blueberries and plums. In the mouth, the blue and black fruit flavors taste slightly macerated; there’s a touch of fruitcake, a hint of cloves, a shy note of bittersweet chocolate. The wine is smooth and mellow, moderately dense and chewy, with enough soft, grainy tannins and lively acidity to lend support and make it appealing. Both of the wines under consideration today are 100 percent varietal; both were made completely in stainless steel. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2012. Very Good. About $11, though often discounted around the country to $9.

The San Huberto Bonarda 2009, La Rioja, also sports a dark ruby-purple color but tinged with magenta. This is rangier, earthier, wilder than its stablemate, opening to layers of briers and brambles and graphite-like minerality; it feels drenched in ripe blackberries, blueberries and mulberries imbued with baking spices and a slightly roasted quality, and it definitely has more edgy tannic grip, though it’s quite approachable. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2012 with burgers, pizzas, braised meat dishes. Very Good+. About $11, a Terrific Value.

Jomada Imports, Lake Zurich, Illinois. Samples for review.

The Bandwagon Chardonnay 2009, Monterey County, is completely delightful. Yes, the 2010 version is on the market, but plenty of this 09 is available in stores. The wine was made by Tony Leonardini, hence the name of his outfit, The Little Lion Wine Company. (Leonardini’s parents own Whitehall Lane Winery, and he grew up in the wine business.) Bandwagon Chardonnay 2009, made entirely in stainless steel, is a pale straw-gold color; lovely aromas of ripe apples and pears reveal hints of mango and jasmine with a background of cloves and limestone. Pineapple and grapefruit flavors, with touches of spice and smoke, are deftly balanced by pert acidity and a burgeoning mineral element through the finish; the texture is silky-smooth but lively and appealing. There’s a lot of character here for the price. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink through Summer 2012. Very Good+. About $16.
For the second choice in this twofer Wines of the Week, let’s turn to the Keenan Chardonnay 2009, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. Boy, this is so fresh and clean and pure, so scintillating yet subtly layered that it’s irresistible. Eighty percent of the wine fermented in barrels, with the other 20 percent in stainless steel; the wine spent seven months aging in oak but with no malolactic fermentation. The result is remarkable intensity and dimension married to elegance and suavity. Classic notes of pineapple and grapefruit are permeated by quince and crystallized ginger and a hint of cloves; there’s nothing tropical or buttery here, thank goodness, just a sheen of nuanced oak balanced with bright citrus flavors, chiming acidity and an almost palate-tickling limestone quality. A chardonnay to revel in for its integrity, authenticity and charm. 13.9 percent alcohol. Consulting winemaker is the venerable Nils Venge. Production was 2,600 cases. Drink through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $30.

These wines were samples for review.

At the end of October, I reviewed three pinot noir wines from 2009 from Sequana, a small winery that specializes in that grape derived from vineyards in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley and Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands. Lo and behold, a fourth showed up at my door a few weeks later. This is the Sequana Sundawg Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Green Valley of Russian River Valley.

Green Valley lies in the southwestern portion of Russian River Valley. The AVA (American Viticultural Area) was approved in 1993 as Green Valley-Sonoma County — there’s also a Green Valley AVA in Solano County — and modified in 2007 to Green Valley of Russian River Valley. It’s a small appellation, whose proximity to the Pacific Ocean 10 miles to the west and its frequent foggy conditions make it appropriate for cool-climate grapes like chardonnay, pinot noir and gewurztraminer.

The Sequana Sundawg Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, is a radiant medium-ruby color with a slight blue tint around the rim; it offers sweet red cherry and smoky black cherry aromas with hints of plum, cola and cloves — the intensity, the loveliness rated a Wow! in my notes. And wait, there quickly follows a backwash of mulberry and cranberry. The texture is super-satiny but not plush or velvety, actually almost spare, delicate and elegant; a few moments bring in the earthy element of briers and brambles, a touch of graphite and shale to sustain the black and red fruit flavors, all of this utterly smooth, balanced and integrated. And yet a few more minutes deepen the wine’s spicy nature, and the whole package gets denser and more chewy, earthier, in the grip of rounded yet slightly grainy tannins, powered from within by polished oak and vibrant acidity. Pretty much a masterpiece; the winemaker is James MacPhail. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink through 2014 to ’15. Production was 523 cases. Excellent. About $50.

A sample for review.

It’s not easy to find inexpensive, well-made, varietally authentic pinot noir; the sensitive grape rarely reveals its allure for cheap-seats treatment. Such a good one, however, can be had in the Estancia “Pinnacles Ranches” Pinot Noir 2010, Monterey County. Estancia began in 1986 as a Franciscan Vineyards label for moderately priced wines from Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley. After the Franciscan owners bought acreage in Monterey County, however, and built a winery, eventually all activity centered on Estancia’s Pinnacle Ranches vineyard in Monterey, that is, until 1999, when vineyards in Paso Robles were also acquired. Franciscan was a troubled winery that between its founding in 1973 and 1979 went through four ownerships; it only began to prosper when Agustin Huneeus took over in 1985. It’s interesting that the websites for Franciscan and Estancia don’t mention that the wineries have been owned by Constellation Brands since 1998; in fact, Constellation’s fine wine division was called Franciscan Estates until 2005, when that segment of the business was renamed Icon Estates.

Anyway — the tangled workings and ravelings of the California wine industry aside — the Estancia Pinot Noir 2010 is a child of whole-cluster fermentation, native yeasts and gravity-flow systems, which is why, I assume, that the label asserts that the wine was “Handcrafted” and “Artisan Grown,” though I find the latter designation pretty nebulous; one imagines the artisans in their smocks and berets lightly treading the rows and gently snipping grape clusters one by one. Anyway — sorry — the Estancia Pinot Noir ’10 derives from the producer’s Pinnacles vineyards and also from its vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands. Attractive aromas of smoky black cherry, cranberry and rhubarb are woven with notes of cola and cloves, while a satiny, supple texture testifies to 10 months oak aging. Lip-smacking viscosity, pert acidity and fine-grained tannins support ripe black cherry and plum flavors suffused with slightly earthy elements of moss and brambles, with a hint of graphite in the background. Actually, despite my quips and quibbles, this is a model of an inexpensive pinot noir with a gratifying amount of personality for the price. Alcohol content is a sensible 13.5 percent. Drink through 2013. Very Good+. About $16.

A sample for review.

With last night’s pizza, we drank the Clos de los Siete 2009, from Mendoza’s high, dry Uco Valley in Argentina. The number “Siete” refers to master winemaker Michel Rolland, perhaps the world’s best-known consultant, and his six Bordelaise partners and their vineyards in this venture, now in its eighth release. (The version of this wine from 2008 was my Wine of the Week on May 24, 2010.) Clos de los Siete 2009 is a blend of 57 percent malbec, 15 percent merlot, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent syrah and 3 percent petit verdot; in other words the model is a five-grape Bordeaux style blend with syrah substituting for cabernet franc, yet no wine from Bordeaux would feature a majority of malbec. The blend is consistent with the ’08 rendition, with minor adjustments in the percentages. Seventy percent of Clos de los Siete ’09 aged 11 months in French oak barrels, 1/3 new, 1/3 one year old, 1/3 two years old; the rest aged in vats, whether cement or stainless steel is not specified. I don’t mean to make your eyes glaze over by these technical details (which I always find at least interesting if not essential), but I do want you to notice the careful and thoughtful nature of the winemaking process.

A dark ruby-purple color, Clos de los Siete 2009 delivers terrific tone and presence, whether in nose or mouth. Seductive aromas of ripe black currants, blueberries and mulberries are woven with notes of cloves and sandalwood, with smoke, potpourri and violets, with graphite, shale and an intriguing fleck of iodine. The package balances sleekness with robustness; the palate is dominated by polished tannins that feel, by contrast, a touch shaggy, as if lightly roughened by fine-gauge sandpaper, and by a subtle oak structure that lends the wine beneficent suppleness and spice. Slightly macerated, fleshy and stewed blackberry and black currant flavors contain something wild — fecund, floral, fruity — while reaching deep for a core of brambles, bitter chocolate and mountain dust. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $18, One of the World’s Great Wine Values.

Imported by Dourthe USA, Manhasset, New York. A sample for review. Cropped image from

The pizza was inspired by a handful of lovely locally-grown shiitake mushrooms, mahogany-brown and lustrous, to which I added strips of speck (made in Georgia) and roasted red pepper, chopped green onion and thin slices of the last of the season’s tomatoes; fresh oregano and thyme; mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. The crust was about 3/4s organic white bread flour and 1/4 organic rye flour. The wine was a gratifying match.

Yep, this very day, on Dec. 3, 2006, I launched BiggerThanYourHead, and now it’s 950 posts and 2,161,609 visits later (according to Blue Host, the counting service I subscribe to), about the population of Houston or Managua. Much has changed in the world of blogging about wine in five years, mainly that there are about a hundred times more people doing this than there were then. I mean in the United States of America; worldwide, who knows? It boggles the mind. The majority of these bloggers perform their services and make their observations casually, off-the-cuff, for fun, as is true with any kind of blogging, but there’s a core that takes writing about wine and the industry, making reviews and commentary, quite seriously, a factor that leads to another change, and that is that wine-bloggers seem to be taken more seriously by the wine and marketing industries than they were five years ago. Do we make a difference? I don’t know. I do know that I’ll keep doing this until I can’t or until it seems superfluous. Thanks to all you readers for your support and your responses, for your votes in the annual American Wine Blog Awards (which gave me the award for Best Wine Reviews in 2009 and 2010) and for your enthusiasm. I’ll keep writing; you keep drinking. In moderation, of course.

Splendid fifth anniversary image from

Clayhouse Vineyard, owned by Middleton Family Wines, specializes in Rhone-style wines at several grades of production, the Estate level at the top, next the Vineyard level, which adds zinfandel and sauvignon blanc, and, third, the Adobe label, for inexpensive blended red and white wines. The wines offered under the Estate label are produced in very limited quantities, unfortunately, but they are impeccably made and definitely Worth a Search. The two wines under consideration today evoke the plenitude and generosity of the southern Rhone Valley, and they’re versatile wines, suitable for a variety of foods and cuisines. Winemaker is Blake Kuhn.

These were samples for review.

The Clayhouse Estate Cuvée Blanc 2010, Red Cedar Vineyard, Paso Robles, is a blend of 50 percent grenache blanc grapes and 50 percent viognier, made all in stainless steel. The wine is sleek, spare, elegant, a lovely melange of pear and roasted lemon with a touch of peach, a bit of dried thyme and, after a few minutes in the glass, hints of lemongrass and crystallized ginger; there’s a brisk, slightly astringent floral element in the bouquet, like some shy little white flower that does not give up its perfume easily. The texture is lithe, winsome, crisp, and the finish brings in spicy qualities and a penetrating limestone motif. 13 percent alcohol. Very attractive. Drink through 2013. Production was 142 six-pack cases. Very Good+. About $23. We consumed this wine with a simple dinner of seared wild sockeye salmon, steamed bok choy and grated sweet potatoes sauteed with shallots.

As might be expected, the Clayhouse Grenache Blanc 2010, Red Cedar Vineyard, Paso Robles, packs a little more heft and displays more presence than its cousin mentioned above. Not that the wine is ponderous or obvious, far from it; it’s still deftly balanced, almost balletic in its lift and appeal, but the grenache blanc grape simply embodies rather more character than viognier, so by itself, and aided by brief aging in stainless steel and neutral oak barrels, it provides more depth and texture. That texture is transparent, supple, almost sinewy, yet poised between moderate lushness and crisp, resonant acidity. This is all spiced and softly poached stone fruit — and an intriguing high bell-tone of red currant — given the rigor of scintillating shale and limestone; there are back-notes of dusty thyme and sage and an earthy aspect that does not keep the wine earthbound. Quite a performance. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through 2013 or ’14. Production was 140 six-pack cases. Excellent. About $23. We had this with one of our favorite dishes from November through March, the cod and chorizo stew with leeks and potatoes.

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