January 2012


You have encountered, I’m sure, punishing rieslings that startle and practically scour your palate with clanging acidity, austere dryness and scintillating limestone elements. The Lucien Albrecht Riesling Reserve 2010, Alsace, is not one of those, though I admire the high-falutin’ style in a masochistic way. In fact, my first thoughts about the Albrecht was that there wasn’t much there, but the wine grew on me, and in returning to it several times over the course of a couple of days, I came to like it a great deal. The firm, founded in 1425, in now in its ninth generation of family ownership and involvement. My admonition is not to serve the Lucien Albrecht Riesling Reserve 2010 at a bone-chilling temperature; cool, yes, but not at frost-bite level (and not, please, at room temp). Give it a few moments in the glass, allow the molecules of air to mingle with the atoms of vinousness (good name for a rock band), and you will be rewarded with an irresistible bouquet — and I use that term purposely — of jasmine and honeysuckle, of ripe pear and juicy lychee with a melon back-note, and under all, the riesling grape’s requisite and intriguing touch of petrol or rubber eraser. The wine is beautifully balanced and harmonious in the mouth, with a smoothness that amounts to a golden luster — to toss a little synesthesia into the mix — artfully poised with the necessary crisp acidity and flint-like minerality that lend their sense of liveliness and tension. Flavors of baked pear and lime peel and a sort of inner spiced peach devolve to a finish that admits a trace of grapefruit bitterness. 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $20, representing Great Value.

Pasternak Wine Imports, Harrison, N.Y. A sample for review.


There was a time when consumers who loved the zinfandel grape could follow the “R” rule, that is, they could buy zinfandel wines produced by Ravenswood, Renwood, Ridge or Rosenblum and have no qualms about quality or integrity. The truth, of course, is that many wineries in California make fine examples of zinfandel, and the labels are not confined to one letter of the alphabet, but Joel Peterson, the founder (with partner Reed Foster) of and still the winemaker for Ravenswood, was a leader in using French oak barrels to age zinfandel wines and in making zinfandels from single-designated vineyards.

Peterson, a clinical microbiologist, grew up in a household devoted to food and wine, though both of his parents were scientists. He made his first zinfandel wines — from single vineyards in Sonoma County — in 1976, and in the next five years the wandering winery moved five times. While making wine and trying to build a winery, Peterson worked nights and weekends in the laboratory at Sonoma Valley Hospital, a job he kept until 1992, when the success of the Ravenswood Vintners Reserve brand finally enabled him to become a full-time winemaker and winery owner. Industry giant Constellation Wines acquired Ravenswood for $148 million in 2001; Peterson remains as the winemaker and is a senior vice president at Constellation Wines US.

There are six single-vineyard zinfandels in the Ravenswood line-up. I recently tasted two of them from 2008, the Dickerson, from Napa Valley, and the Belloni, from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. One is high-toned, elegant, distinctly fueled by tannin and minerals; the other is more approachable, definitely more spicy and fruit-driven, though not decadent or over-done. You’ll see which is which. Ravenswood also makes a “County” line of zinfandels from Lodi, Sonoma and Napa, the expanded Vintners Reserve label, and several limited edition wines.

These wines were samples for review.

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The Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, feels balanced and harmonious from start to finish, though after 30 or 40 minutes, you feel the well-knit oak and tannin begin to assert their spicy, slightly woody and grainy influence. The wine, 100 percent varietal, aged 20 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels, 28 percent one-year-old, the rest older. This is a zinfandel that feels warm with ripe fruit and spice and cool with graphite-like minerality. Notes of lavender, licorice and cloves highlight black currant, black cherry and plum jam scents and flavors in a package that’s sleek, polished and elegant, though tugged by the persistent gravity of those earthy, briery-brambly tannins; a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of bittersweet chocolate and black tea. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 755 cases. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $35.
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The oak regimen for the Ravenswood Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel 2008, Russian River Valley, is close to the process for its cousin mentioned above; 20 months but with 32 percent new barrels and 32 percent one-year-old. The more important difference is in the make-up of the wine. While the Dickerson 08 is completely zinfandel, the Belloni 08 is a blend of 78 percent zinfandel with the balance of petite sirah, carignane and alicante bouschet grapes. For whatever reason — geography, climate, composition — the Ravenswood Belloni 08 make an immediate impression of size, ripeness and succulence, though it avoids anything sweet, jammy or over-ripe. Still, the tannins here, though certainly an influence on the wine’s dimension and structure, are softer, leaning a bit more toward the sanded graphite-in-velveteen camp. The wine is rich and warm and generously endowed with black currant, black plum and blueberry flavors dredged in cloves and allspice (with a touch of the latter’s faint astringency to lend complexity) and a strain of fruitcake that lingers provocatively through the finish. 15 percent alcohol. Production was 535 cases. Now through 2015 to ’16. Excellent. About $35.
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Many kinds of grapes are grown in the Napa Valley, and many sorts of wines are produced there, but cabernet sauvignon is what the region is best known for. Today I offer 12 examples of cabernet-based wines from the Napa Valley, the vintages ranging from 2006 to 2009, the prices spanning $25 to $120. As usual in the Friday Wine Sips series, I relinquish my fondness for the data of history, geography and winemaking matters for the sake of brevity and immediacy. All of these wines were samples for review. The order is by ascending price, because order is necessary, though the choices of order may be innumerable.
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The Rule Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. Primarily cabernet with “a blend of proprietary varieties.” Dark ruby color; vibrant, resonant, very spicy; black currants and cherries, cedar, thyme, black olive; dense and chewy, lots of stuffing, granite and graphite-like minerality and earthiness, layers of packed-in tannins; long, austere finish. Try 2013 through 2017. Very Good+. About $25.
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Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. 13.8% alc. Sleek, suave; abundantly fragrant with licorice, lavender, cassis, plums, graphite; dense, chewy, grainy, a nicely balanced crowd-pleaser; more toast, graphite and iron, bitter chocolate and cocoa; the whole package precisely defined and delineated; quite spicy and velvety. A very well-made and delicious cabernet with a slightly serious edge but not as compelling as the 2007 version. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $49.
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Tudal Family Winery Clift Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. 295 cases. 14.1% alc. Dark ruby color shading to cranberry-magenta; very intense, very concentrated, rigorous, high-toned and austere; paradoxically a Pauillac-like sense of elegance, sleekness and suppleness; rafts of polished oak and dense but gently sanded tannins; nothing opulent or velvety, this is all classic structure and foundation and deep earthy minerality, waiting to unfold. Try from 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $50.
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Benessere Phenomenon 2006, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. Cabernet sauvignon 58%, sangiovese 37%, merlot 5%, syrah 2%. 613 cases. Dark ruby color with a garnet rim; warm, fleshy, spicy, macerated, slightly roasted black currants, plums and blueberries; cedar, cloves, walnut shell, fruitcake; big structure, dense, chewy, lively, packed with dusty graphite, woody spices; finish is long, substantial, dry and austere. Good character but lacks a certain elan and elevation. Now through 2015 to ’17. Very Good+. About $50.
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Hestan Vineyards Stephanie Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. 14.9% alc. 100% cabernet. Dark ruby-purple color; mint, iodine, graphite, spiced and macerated black currants, black cherries and plums; a huge wine, vibrant, intense and concentrated, very dry, fairly austere, good depth and dimension but needs 2 or 3 years to settle comfortably into its structure; you feel the oak and alcohol. Try 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’23. Very Good+. About $50.
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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. With 2% merlot. Lovely balance, harmony, restraint and elegance, but not lacking in power and structure or tannic force; those tannins come up from mid-palate back through the expressive yet slightly briery, slightly austere finish; classic black currants, black raspberries and plums permeated by cedar, tobacco and black olive, notes of oaken spice; beautifully drawn-out from beginning to end. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $55.
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Hestan Stephanie Proprietary Red Wine 2007, Napa Valley. 14.9% alc. “Bordeaux blend” of the five red grapes. More approachable, more manageable than the Hestan Stephanie Cabernet 07; warmer, more generous and expansive; iodine and mint, thyme and black olive, toasted fennel seeds, spiced and macerated black and blue fruit; very intense and concentrated in the mouth, tight, reined-in, furled, you feel the dynamic potential, the brooding energy; finish is long and austere. Try from 2013 or ’15 through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $60.
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St. Supery Dollarhide Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 14.3% alc. 100% cabernet. Big and juicy yet highly structured; mint, eucalyptus, briers and brambles, toast and graphite; black currants, black cherries and plums imbued with cedar, black olives and fruitcake, mocha and bitter chocolate; a graphite-tinged minerality that practically glitters, while the wine smolders like embers of potpourri and lavender; permeated by finely-milled, supple tannins. A cushiony blockbuster. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $85.
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Piña D’Adamo Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. 15.2% alc. 100% cabernet. 191 cases. Despite the alcohol level, this displays great purity, intensity and concentration; black currant and plums, prunes and fruitcake, orange rind and black tea; very deep, very complex, powerful sense of dimension and gravity; stern tannins, almost brutal granite-like minerality and profound earthiness, yet surprisingly appealing; big, austere finish. Try 2014 to 2020 or ’22. Excellent. About $75.
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Piña Firehouse Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Rutherford, Napa Valley. 15.1% alc. 100% cabernet. 236 cases. A huge, broad, deep wine yet rich, warm, spicy and generous; smoke, graphite, dark black and blue fruit aromas and flavors, slightly roasted and macerated, vast range of spice; dense, intense and concentrated, fills and coats the mouth with viscosity like liquid coal dust and dusty velvet sustained by vivid acidity; this needs time, say 2014 or ’15 to 2020 or ’22. Excellent. About $85.
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Piña Buckeye Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 14.9% alc. 100% cabernet. 359 cases. Dust, leather, walnut-shell and wheatmeal, laden with austere, rigorous tannins, furled and tightly focused yet somehow big-hearted and expansive; deeply concentrated. spicy and macerated black and blue fruit flavors; powerful and profound dusty mountainside earthiness and graphite-like minerality; but still such a pleasure to drink such unquestionable authority and integrity. Try from 2014 or ’15 through 2022 to ’24. Excellent. About $85.
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Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. % alc. Beautifully layered and complex yet intense and concentrated; lavender, licorice, iodine; smoky and meaty, walnut-meal, black currants, mulberries and plums; fine-grained tannins and burnished oak, vibrant acidity; deep-down notes of bitter chocolate, cocoa powder and ancho chile; structure like velvet filled with iron filings; long spice-packed finish with some austerity; superbly balanced. A real mouthful of classic Napa Valley cabernet. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $120.
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The “pinotgate” scandal is old news, but the settlement in the class-action suit occurred a few days ago.

Wine industry giants E&J Gallo and Constellation Brands agreed to a $2.1 million payout to consumers who purchased bottles of their inexpensive California wines filled with merlot and syrah passed off as pinot noir by a wily French entrepreneur. That’s right, whoever bought bulk wine for Gallo and Constellation between 2006 and 2008 was fooled by the plonk that would be pinot — 20 million bottles-worth — and approved it for sale under several labels selling to American wine-drinkers for $5 to $8. The Gallo labels were Red Bicyclette, Redwood Creek and Turning Leaf; the Constellation brands were Farallon, Rex Goliath, Talus and Robert Mondavi Woodbridge. (Constellation acquired Robert Mondavi in December 2004.) The fake pinot noir, from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, was shipped to our shores by a firm called Sieur d’Arques, who had purchased the bulk wine from the culprits in the deal, Ducasse Wine Merchants. A dozen Frenchmen were convicted of the fraud last year but got off (seems to me) with slaps on their manly French wrists. You can practically hear the argument: “Zut alors, it’s just a bunch of Americains. What do ze know about le vin anyway?”

Consumers may receive up to $21 even if they do not have receipts from purchasing the wines mentioned above. I know that I certainly saved my receipt from the bottle of Red Bicyclette I bought in 2007. For details of the settlement — and to see if you are entitled to a few bucks — visit frenchpinotnoirsettlement.

What tickles my admittedly perverse funny-bone is the idea that the buyers at Sieur d’Arques, Gallo and Constellation had no idea that they were purchasing bottles of merlot and syrah with perhaps a bit of pinot noir blended in. Perhaps they should have followed the advice on how to tell if a wine is pinot noir from the folks on the website of Sunset magazine, quoted by Jill Krasny writing for Business Insider:

Check the color. Pinot grapes should be nearly transparent.

Break down the flavor. “Sniff for cloves and cinnamon, violets and mint, mushrooms and loam under the fruit. And taste for licorice, olives, espresso?…”

Scrutinize the weight. Pinot should be delicate and silky, not full-bodied and “dramatic.”

(Olives and espresso? Those qualities seem rather anomalous for pinot noir.)

‘Scuse me while I fall off my chair laughing. When was the last time you tried a pinot noir wine whose color was “nearly transparent”? (I assume that the intention was to say “wine” rather than “grapes.”) When was the last time you tasted a pinot noir that was “delicate and silky”? I’m talking particularly about pinots from California and Oregon, where alcohol levels of 15 percent or more are common, where the wines are deeply extracted for opaque, brooding color and super-ripe, syrah-like flavors, where “full-bodied and dramatic” pinot noirs are as reckless as deductions on Mitt Romney’s tax return. Every week I taste purported pinot noirs that display all the character of a syrah or zinfandel in their darkness, richness, extreme spicy qualities, extravagant textures and burdensome tannins. I recently came across a producer of limited edition, high-end pinots whose motto is “Bold Decadent Daring.” Whatever happened to “Reticent Elegant Balanced”?

No wonder the noses and palates at Gallo and Constellation couldn’t tell that the “pinot” they were buying was actually mostly merlot and syrah. (We have to assume, of course, that they cared. Would I be cynical enough to suggest that the big deal for Gallo and Constellation was not that they bought fake pinot but that they were bamboozled by the French?) What’s a nose and palate to do when so many pinot noir wines, even made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes, carry all the effects of merlot or syrah or zinfandel? And if the result of farming the vineyard and tinkering with the wine is a pinot noir that resembles syrah, why bother with making pinot noir in the first place? Just make freakin’ syrah and be done with it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it today and probably in the future too. Winemakers who do not try to bring out the best qualities of their grapes, that is the character inherent in the grapes grown in the most sympathetic and advantageous soil and climate, are making wine in bad faith. A high-alcohol, deeply extracted, super-ripe, excessively spicy pinot noir of which one is compelled to say, “That certainly is a syrah-like [or zinfandel-like] pinot noir,” does not have the right to the name pinot noir. I’m not saying the all pinots not made in Burgundy must slavishly follow the Burgundian model; obviously geography, latitude, elevation, climate and soil will impose their subtle or not-so-subtle influences. The pinot noir grape, however, performs at its best when it is allowed to assume its gratifying and paradoxical blending of elegance and power, of delicacy and sinew, nuance and structure, transparency and luster. Winemakers should pay heed to what grapes know best about themselves and want to express most eloquently; everything else is an exercise in ego.

By the way, the composition of the Red Bicylette Pinot Noir 2009? 86 percent pinot noir, 7 percent syrah, 7 percent merlot.

Tasty, enjoyable, delightful wines are always a pleasure, of course, but it’s even more of a boost when there’s something unusual about them. The Patrick Bottex “La Cueille” Bugey-Cerdon, non-vintage sparkling wine, hails from Bugey, a tiny appellation in eastern France, lying between the cities of Lyon, Grenoble and Geneva, that only achieved AOC status in 2009. This sparkling wine is made in a méthode ancestrale that may precede the more famous méthode champenoise by several centuries. Cerdon is one of three crus in Bugey, and La Cueille is a mountainside village where Patrick and Catherine Bottex cultivate five hectares (13.85 acres) of vines focused primarily on the gamay grape, with some of the indigenous poulsard, from vineyards planted between 1960 and 2010. It’s a labor of love and dedication. The blend of this sparkling wine is 90 percent gamay, 10 percent poulsard.

The Patrick Bottex “La Cueille” Bugey-Cerdon sports a lovely blushing salmon-copper color and a gentle yet persistent cascade of tiny bubbles. This is pure strawberries and raspberries with rose petals and an earthy touch of briers and brambles; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of dried cranberries, apple peel and orange zest. “La Cueille” is fresh and lively, with a texture that comes close to being dense, almost viscous, except that it’s balanced by keen acidity and brisk effervescence. It’s a bit sweet on entry, but totally dry from mid-palate back, and the finish is smoothly furnished with lime peel and limestone. Alcohol content is 8 percent, so you can drink twice as much! Not really! Completely charming. Very Good+. About $20.

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

Here are notes on two terrific French white wines we took to dinner at Restaurant Iris in Memphis. Great meal, too, and thanks to our generous friend Allison Jacob, editor and publisher of CorkIt! magazine, for bringing the splendid Eagles Trace Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley.
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Chateau La Louvière, fortuitously located in the Bordeaux commune of Pessac-Léognan, traces its origins to the year 1476, when the first vines were planted, though for the modern period the important date is 1965, when André Lurton acquired the property and completely transformed it. The exquisite Neo-Classical style chateau, dating from the late 18th Century, is listed in the official Roster of Historic Properties. La Louvière produces about 12,500 cases of red wine and about 4,160 cases of white wine annually, as well as red and white wines under the second label, L de La Louvière. The cepage for the blanc is 85 percent sauvignon blanc and 15 percent semillon. The wine ages typically for 12 months in a combination of oak barrels, 30 to 50 percent new, depending on the year.

Chateau La Louvière 2009, Pessac-Léognan, is about exactly what one wants a sauvignon blanc-based wine to be, or at least it thoroughly convinces you that that’s the case when you’re drinking it. (Pessac-Léognan was separated from Graves in 1987 and granted its own AOC status; most of the finest chateaus in this former area of Graves were included in the new appellation.) The wine opens with a burst of roasted lemon and a snap of flint, quickly joined by notes of grapefruit and jasmine, lemon curd and acacia; a few minutes in the glass unfold hints of a sunny, leafy, slightly herbal element and a touch of fig. This is so clean and fresh, utterly youthful, shot through with bright, almost joyful acidity — well, the liveliness makes you feel that happy — and bolstered by a keen limestone edge; these factors do not prevent the wine from exhibiting lovely resonance and vibrancy and a texture that’s close to talc-like while balanced by intense crispness and a supple, lacy spiced oak structure. So complete, pure and intense, yet balletic and light on its feet. Drink through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. Average price in the U.S. is $42, but I sure did pay $50 right here in good ol’ Memphis, Tennessee.

Imported by W.J. Deutsch & Sons, White Plains, N.Y.
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The William Fevre Bougros Grand Cru Chablis 2006 is the best white wine I have tasted in a blue moon; it’s the kind of wine to which one says, “O.K., I place myself in your hands. Do with me what you will.” This is an astonishing revelation of the purity, intensity and authority of the chardonnay grape, and while the wine does undergo oak aging — a controversial position in Chablis where many great wines are made in stainless steel — the amount of new oak barrels at the domaine was reduced in 1998 when the Champagne house of Henriot acquired the property. The color is light straw-gold with a slight green tint; the knock-out bouquet weaves tremendous elements of limestone and flint with lemon balm and lemon curd, fleshy and lightly spiced stone-fruit and an earthy undercurrent — just a hint — of sauteed mushrooms. The wine is indubitably rich, almost lavish, yet it’s taut with crystalline acidity and scintillating limestone elements and exhibits really amazing energy and dynamic qualities; call it charisma, because this is one freakin’ gorgeous wine! And yet, for all its star-quality, the William Fevre Bougros Grand Cru Chablis 2006 is built on layers of subtlety and nuance, and ultimately it allows its elegant character to dominate its power. At just over five years old, this is drinking beautifully and should continue to drink beautifully through 2016 to ’18, as long as it’s well-stored. Exceptional. I paid $70.

Imported by Henriot Inc., New York.
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A dozen chardonnays from California, some of which exhibit the too-common stylistic pitfall of heavy reliance on French oak barrels to shape a wine and malolactic fermentation to give it a rich “character.” A few others are excellent models of purity and intensity and fidelity to the grape, a concept that must rule paramount above all other considerations in making wine. As usual in these “Friday Wine Sips,” I eschew most technical and historical information for direct, fairly spontaneous jottings adapted from my original notes.
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Rodney Strong Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma County. 13.5% alc. Disappointing from this generally consistent producer (and a chardonnay ubiquitous in restaurants). Big flush of vanilla that dominates, lots of cloves, buttery and emphatic, over-oaked finish; the balance is way off. Que pasa? Not recommended. About $13.50.
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Butternut Chardonnay 2010, California. 13.9% alc. Though this chardonnay ages in 100% new French oak and undergoes complete malolactic fermentation (aka, the kiss of death), it’s surprisingly well-balanced and integrated; pineapple and grapefruit, spiced peach; bright acidity, keen limestone element; dense and chewy without being viscous or heavy; actually very attractive, though not quite in the style I favor. Still … Very Good+. About $18.
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MacMurray Ranch Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma Coast. 13.9% alc. Pretty standard but picks up lots of oak and woody spice on the finish; a bit over the top but not too bad if you like the style, I mean at least it’s not super-tropical or wallowing in cloying dessert notes. Very Good. About $20.
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St. Supery Oak Free Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley. 13.6% alc. Who needs oak? Not this incredibly attractive chardonnay. Fresh and zesty, slightly floral (honeysuckle); lemon and pear, lime peel and quince with a hint of a tropical melon element; leafy and a bit herbal, a sort of greengage quality; quite lively but with a lovely silken texture and a grapefruit-tinged finish. Excellent. About $20, Good Value.
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Heller Estate Chardonnay 2009, Carmel Valley, 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; a brash, bright, bold chardonnay; dry, quite vibrant, flashy, fleshy stone-fruit and pineapple; rather too spicy for my palate. Very Good. About $22.
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Hess Collection Chardonnay 2009, Napa Valley. 14.4% alc. Clean, pure and intense; smoke, roasted lemons, touch of honeysuckle; tasty pineapple-grapefruit flavors; transparent structure, pleasing lightness of being; very nicely balanced. Very Good+. About $22.
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Roth Estate Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Way too much oak here and possibly malolactic; burnt match, the brûlée of crème brûlée, brown sugar, butterscotch, pineapple upside-down cake; sweet and strident at the same time. Not Recommended. About $22.
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Mount Eden Chardonnay 2009, Edna Valley. 13.4% alc. & Mount Eden Saratoga Cuvée Chardonnay 2008, Santa Cruz Mountains. 14% alc. Beyond the pale; both are determinedly oaky, woody, flagrantly spicy; the “Saratoga” particularly too big, too dry, unbalanced, parched with wood. I have seen the “Saratoga” compared favorably to Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru; let’s hope these comments were made in jest, because Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru would never be made like this. Not recommended. The first is $20, the second $26, but neither represents good value.
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Jordan Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley. 13.5% alc. Practically a lesson in deftness and lovely balance; pale but radiant straw-gold color; lemon balm and pineapple, ginger and quince; rich and flavorful but pared to elegance, vivid acidity and a resonant limestone element. Classic shape, structure and poise. Drink through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $29.
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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Karia” Chardonnay 2009, Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. Graceful, indeed, and elegant, sleek and suave, with a deceptive inner simplicity; this is crystalline, plangent, buoyant with spiced stone-fruit and green apple and its peel, ginger and cloves and a back-note of pear, a hint of smoke, a touch of limestone; all understated, fresh, appealing. An exemplar of Napa Valley chardonnay. Excellent. About $35.
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Oakville Ranch Chardonnay 2009, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. Major disappointment from a producer I greatly admire; very very spicy, very dense, I mean obtrusively so; very dry yet imbued with the dessert-like effects of roasted lemons, baked pears and apples, spiced quince, brown sugar and toffee; the palate is overwhelmed and wearied. Que pasa? Not recommended. 178 cases. About $45.
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La Follette Wines grew out of Greg La Follette’s Tandem label that he founded in 2001. He met Pete and Terri Kight in 2008, and the couple bought Tandem, folding it into a new winery and label that generously carried the winemaker’s name. I tried three of the winery’s five pinot noirs; La Follette also makes a roster of chardonnays. Many of these wines are made from high-altitude vineyards that seem to lend power and individuality to the product, while not straying too far from the pinot noir grape’s inherent elegance. Well, not too far.

The engraving that decorates the labels of La Follette wines is derived from a rare 19th Century French winemaking manual, though for this purpose the implement the vigneron was holding has been supplanted by a magic wand.

These wines were samples for review.
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The Van Der Kamp Vineyard, farmed on organic principles, lies at 1,400 feet elevation on Sonoma Mountain. My first note on La Follette Van Der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Mountain, is “This has it all.” The color is dark ruby with a violet-magenta rim; aromas of smoky black cherry, beet-root, cola and cloves, cranberry and rhubarb are layered over new leather and dusty graphite — a bouquet one does not easily forget. In the mouth, this pinot noir is seductively supple and satiny, supporting ripe and spicy (but not overly luscious) black cherry, mulberry and plum flavors in balance with a definitive smack of acidity for liveliness along with subtle, gentling shaping oak from 10 months in French barrels; through the finish, slightly dense tannins stir something earthy and almost tarry. 14.6 percent alcohol. 429 cases. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $40.
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The Mendocino Ridge AVA — American Viticultural Area — established in 1997, is not contiguous, rather it encompasses three similar but disconnected mountain slopes along the coastal range in Mendocino County. It’s a huge region, but fewer than 100 acres are planted to vines, all above 1,200 feet, higher than the fog line. From one of these peaks, located at 2,000 feet, comes La Follette Manchester Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Mendocino Ridge. One senses the mountain-side origin of the grapes in the wine’s distinct briery, brambly and leather qualities, in the foresty presence that inhabits the finish, in what I have to call tremendous tannin. Fruit is red with a black undertone — red currants and red cherry, rhubarb and mulberry, a hint of black plum — all deeply spiced and macerated, all permeated by cola and cloves and a hint of fruitcake. (It spends 10 months in French oak.) This is, by my lights, frankly large for pinot noir, densely structured, chewy, not exactly syrah-like but pushing the grape to the extreme; still, what can I say? It’s pinot noir; I pretty much like it. 14.7 percent alcohol. 494 cases. Drink now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $50.
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La Follette Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Coast, is characterized initially by striking freshness and purity, followed by waves of smoke and exotic spices that imbue aromas of ripe black cherry and blueberry, mulberry and rhubarb. At 15.5 percent alcohol, there’s a lot of power here, and as the wine spends time in the glass it begins to yield evidence of the alcohol and the oak to the detriment of its other virtues, and the first impression of freshness and purity is subsumed by heat and a general sense of imbalance. Perhaps a few years aging, say, through 2013 or ’14, will smooth this wine out and bring integration, but my money would be on the two previous wines. Very Good (for potential). About $40.
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Jim Moore has had a distinguished career as a winemaker in California. He was at Robert Mondavi from 1979 to 1998, developing the Carneros appellation chardonnay and pinot noir programs, reintroducing zinfandel to the roster and redesigning the style and packaging for the proprietary dessert wine Moscato d’Oro. Moore created and developed the long defunct La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi line of Italian varieties, in California (it was an interesting concept), and was instrumental in launching red wines Luce and Lucente, a collaboration with the Frescobaldi family in Tuscany. While consulting with or managing several small wineries, Moore developed l’Uvaggio di Giacomo — “James’ wine” — to exploit the possibilities of Lodi for Italian grapes like vermentino, primitivo and barbera. In 2003 he became the director of winemaking for the Bonny Doon Ca’ del Solo line in Santa Cruz, but left a year later to devote himself full time to revitalizing his Uvaggio project, whose primary purpose now is to produce authentic Italian-style wines at reasonable prices.

These were samples for review.
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Uvaggio Vermentino 2009, Lodi, is about as lovely and appealing as vermentino gets. The color is pale straw; aromas of lemon and lemon balm are woven with hints of almond and almond blossom, lime and cloves and a slight astringent note, a sort of breezy sea-salt briskness. The wine is made in stainless steel, except for 10 percent that’s aged briefly in neutral — well-used — oak barrels, a device that subtly influences the supple texture and the touch of spice in the melon, pear and stone-fruit flavors. This suppleness is buoyed by crisp acidity and just a smidgeon of limestone-like minerality that lends the wine a bit of snap. The finish is sleek and a little spare. 11 percent alcohol. We drank this quite successfully with a risotto with kale, roasted parsnips and sage. Now through the end of 2012. Very Good+. About $14.
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At first, I thought that the Uvaggio Primitivo 2009, Lodi, was simple, tasty and enjoyable, and there’s not a thing wrong with those qualities, but I came back to it about four hours later to find that it had unlimbered a pleasing arsenal of dark and spicy traits. The color is a limpid ruby-purple; scents of raspberry and black cherry are highlighted by intriguing notes of rhubarb and sandalwood and a slightly earthy undercurrent of briers and brambles, all of which conspire to give the wine a touch of wildness. The wine ages 9 months in 15 percent new Hungarian oak barrels and 85 percent once-used French oak; there’s a dollop (2.5 percent) of barbera. Uvaggio Primitivo 2009 is robust but not rustic, intensely flavorful in the spiced and macerated range of black and red fruit, zesty with vibrant acidity and savory all around. 13 percent alcohol. Now through 2013. Very Good+. About $16.
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Mixed reds and whites today, with some great wines, some good wines and some clunkers. Geography and prices are all over the map; this is how it gets done. Arrangement is by ascending outlay of shekels. Unless otherwise indicated, these were samples for review. As is the case with this “Friday Wine Sips” series, inaugurated last week, these brief reviews do not go into the more technical aspects of winemaking, history or geography.
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Un4seen Red Wine 2009, California (though Lodi & Clarksburg). 13.9% alc. A blend of zinfandel, malbec, petit verdot and merlot. Nothing offensive but even inexpensive wine needs more personality than this example of the bland leading the bland. Good. About $11.
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Much better is the un4seen White Wine 2010, California (again, Lodi & Clarksburg). 13.5% alc. A blend of chardonnay, semillon, moscato & viognier. Pale straw color with faint green tinge; fresh apple and peach, slightly leafy and floral, touch of fig; very dry and crisp, very nice texture, almost lush, vibrant, spicy; hint of grapefruit on the finish. Charming; drink up. Very Good. About $11, A Bargain.
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Villa Antinori 2010, Toscana I.G.T., Bianco. 12% alc. 50% trebbiano & malvasia, 35% pinot bianco & pinot grigio, 15% riesling. Dry, crisp, lively; apples and pears, hint of thyme and tarragon, touch of almond and almond blossom; scintillating limestone gradually insinuates itself (say that three times fast); quite pleasant and engaging, nice balance between bright acidity, clean and spicy citrus flavors and a modestly lush texture. Drink through Summer 2012. Very Good+. About $12, Great Value.
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Tormaresca Torcicoda Primitivo 2009, Salento I.G.T. 14% alc. Heaps of black pepper and cloves, forest, graphite, smoky black currants and plums; robust, plummy, juicy, chewy, dense with soft, grainy tannins and mineral elements; unusually well-balanced and integrated for primitivo; great with pizza, burgers, braised meats. Drink through 2013. Very Good+. About $17.
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Concannon Conservancy “Crimson & Clover” Red Wine 2009, Livermore Valley. 13.7% alc. Blend of 50% petite sirah, 25% cabernet sauvignon, 15% syrah, 10% zinfandel. Lacks oomph, stuffing, character; we speak of chemistry to describe the energy and magnetism of movie couples, but the grapes in this blend don’t provide that “chemistry.” Pleasant enough, but we deserve more for the price. Good. About $18.
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Ponzi Tavola Pinot Noir 2010, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 13.5% alc. Ponzi’s “entry-level” pinot. Entrancing medium ruby color with blue-black depths; smoky, spicy, earthy, wild; black cherry and mulberry edged by cranberry and rhubarb; super-satiny, dense, verges on chewy; graphite-like minerality, leather, brambles. Pure pinot with an untamed heart. Now through 2013. Excellent. About $25.
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Chateau Gombaude-Guillot 1996, Pomerol, Bordeaux. 13% alc. This is typically about 65% merlot and 30% cabernet franc with a dollop of malbec. Lovely balance and maturity, sweet spices, dried black and red fruit and flowers, undertones of cedar, tobacco and potpourri, mild earthiness and hints of leather. A real treat. I bought this to accompany our traditional Christmas Eve dinner of standing rib roast, Brussels sprouts in brown butter, roasted potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. Excellent. About $99.
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