March 2012


It’s a really nice day, the temp in the 80s, bright sun, blue sky, soft breeze, snoozing dogs scattered all over the backyard, looking as if they dropped from airplanes. Perfect time and place to open a bottle of rosé. So I did.

This is the Benessere Vineyards Rosato 2011, Napa Valley, a blend of 69 percent sangiovese grapes, 23 percent merlot and 6 percent sagrantino, a red grape grown in eastern Umbria around the incredibly cute hill-town of Montefalco. The color of this rosé is not super-pale but rather a ruddy copper-salmon hue. The bouquet is a beguiling weaving of ripe and slightly fleshy raspberries and strawberries with a darker tinge of mulberry; give it a moment or two in the glass and the wine brings up hints of spiced peach, nectarines, apple skin and dried orange zest. Though the texture is soft and appealing, the wine is quite dry and possesses the brisk acidity and pert limestone-tinged minerality for true structure and refreshment, while the citrus-permeated red fruit flavors are downright delicious. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 145 cases. Excellent. About $16, and Worth a Search.

A sample for review.

Greg Davis, mayor of Southaven, Miss., is in deep shit; in fact the term “embattled mayor” has become redundant in what’s called the Mid-South because of his (alleged) shenanigans. Southaven, by the way, abuts Memphis immediately to the, well, south, just on the other, the southern side of the Tenn.-Miss. state line.

Davis has been accused of padding his expense account; spending exorbitant amounts of dough on travel, wining and dining, as if he were some Wall Street money-bags; and douple-dipping on his expense reports, that is, submitting the same travel and entertainment receipts to the city and the bizarrely enabling Southaven Chamber of Commerce, a body whose striking naivete will go down in the history of wide-eyed innocence. Yolanda Jones and Marc Perrusquia, reporters for The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis, delivered a wonderful story about the double-dipping last week, in which they reported uncovering 26 instances in which Davis submitted identical invoices to the city and to the Chamber of Commerce, which for two years paid Davis for expenses he incurred in accommodating developers and people in the tourism industry. It was all part of the job! And four months into this imbroglio, Davis declines to resign.


I was particularly intrigued by a credit card receipt for a dinner that occurred on August 17, 2010, at Mesquite Chophouse in Southaven. The bill for six diners — that is, Davis and his five guests — was $469.60, tax was $42.27, and to the $611.77 total the wildly munificent Davis — motto: “It’s only money, and it’s not mine!” — threw in a tip of $200, a whopping 42 percent of the pre-tax amount. An even more grandiose example of Davis’ city-backed largesse, also reported by The Commercial Appeal, was when he and a group of legislators and lawyers dined at The Mint Restaurant in Ridgeland, Miss., and he dropped a $1,000 tip for a bill that totaled $2,509.43, including two bottles of Opus One at $415 each. Damnit, I wanna have dinner with Greg Davis some night!

I wish I could photographically reproduce the credit card receipt for the Mesquite Chophouse affair from the newspaper, but I will instead write it out in similar form. It’s as strange and fascinating a document as Barack Obama’s birth certificate in the fevered imagination of a Tea Party fanatic. Here ’tis:

Jack Black (11 @$5.00) 55.00
MIC ULTRA (2 @$4.00) 8.00
Bud Light (3 @$4.00) 12.00
Crown Royal (3 @$6.00) 18.00
ABSOLUT VODKA (5 @$6.50) 32.50
And Tonic Water
GHOST RIVER DRAUGHT 5.60
LOS ROCAS GARNACHA (5 @$7.50) 37.50
BUFFALO MOZZ SALAD 10.00
GRILLED CATCH OF THE DAY (4 @$26) 104.00
ESTANCIA CHARDONNAY (4 @$8.00) 32.00
Jack Black (2 @$5.00) 10.00
GUMBO 6.00
KJ CHARD GLASS (2 @$9.50) 19.00
Buttery Nipple (8 @$6.50) 52.00
CHOPHOUSE SALAD (2 @$5.00) 10.00
Prime 8oz FILET 28.00
GARLIC MASHED POTATOES 6.00
BLACKENED CATFISH 24.00

Here is a text (or texte) worthy of the analytical mind of Claude Levi-Strauss, but I think we can dope out some significant aspects without unlimbering our well-worn copies of The Raw and the Cooked.

First, this party of six spent $188 on food and $281.50 on alcoholic beverages, and that’s without buying a single full bottle of wine. The breakdown in the beverage category is $25.60 for beer, $88.50 for wine by the glass, and a staggering — haha — $167.50 on booze. most in the form of shots or shooters. How much food did this party absorb to temper the effects of the alcohol? Not a great deal. Three salads, a bowl of soup, six entrees and a side-order of mashed potatoes. At least everyone had a main course, but, boy, how these boys could drink!

Did I say boys? Well, I don’t mean to be sexist; I know plenty of women who can drink men under the table and still recite a chapter of Finnigans Wake without missing a Gaelic pun. And of course many women work in the travel, tourism, entertainment and development industries, precisely Mayor Greg Davis’ booze-hound constituency. On the other hand, don’t women have more sense than to consume an amount of alcohol that would cement the party-animal reputation of an Ole Miss frat boy on a post-football Saturday night?

If the order of the receipt is chronological, I think that by the time Davis and his guests got to the task of eating, it was far too late; to paraphrase Dante: “No more business was done that night.” I like that in the midst of the meal, several diners returned to Jack Daniels. Was there a designated driver? A chauffered van? Think of the magnitude of boozing at that table: 29 cocktails, shots or shooters; six beers; 11 glasses of wine. That’s 7.66 drinks per person. Just the kind of table that waiters love.

Perhaps your eye was drawn, as mine was, to the term “Buttery Nipple.” I don’t get out a lot, I suppose, because that was a new one to me. A Buttery Nipple is, in case you don’t get out a lot either, a cocktail or, I suppose, a shooter composed of 3 ounces of Bailey’s Irish Cream atop which is carefully floated 2 ounces of butterscotch schnapps. A couple of those do wonders for your blood sugar.

Apparently all the instruments agree that a good time was had by all; we possess no reports to the contrary. And every drink and every dish was free! Well, free up to a point. The tax-payers of Southaven beg to differ.

Image of Greg Davis, AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis. Image of Mequite Chophouse in Southaven, Miss., from local.yahoo.com.

Now that Spring-like weather is arriving, perhaps, in truth, in fits and starts, you will need an incredibly refreshing white wine to sip while you sit out on the porch or on the patio or while you’re cooking dinner or to drink with a light, delicious supper. Well, here’s one, and though the name may be familiar, if not over-familiar, and the wine may be one that you have sipped before, it deserves attention.

It’s the Rodney Strong “Charlotte’s Home” Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Northern Sonoma. This is a pert, tart and sassy sauvignon blanc, 90 percent fermented in stainless steel, the other 10 percent fermented in French oak barrels, but without the occasional excesses that the New Zealand style can fall into. For its grapes, the wine draws on four areas of Sonoma County — 45 percent Alexander Valley, 24 percent Russian River Valley, 23 percent Dry Creek Valley and 1 percent Knights Valley — and then, from Lake County next door, the final 7 percent.

From the glass waft exuberant scents of tangerine and lime peel, kiwi and celery seed, a touch of leafy fig and tarragon and a powerful element of damp limestone; give the wine a few moments and it gains an almost talc-like exhalation of jasmine and lilac. “Crisp” doesn’t begin to describe how notably crisp and crystalline this sauvignon blanc is, yet that exhilarating factor is balanced by a soft, almost lush texture and a chalky-limestone quality that bolster tangerine, pear and melon flavors that fit snugly into a spicy-herbal parameter; there’s a bright, bracing tinge of grapefruit bitterness on the finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. Interestingly, this wine drank very nicely as accompaniment to a vinegary chicken piccata with a caper and butter sauce. Winemaker was Rick Sayre. Very Good+. About $13.50, a Raving Bargain.

A sample for review.


Today, Friday Wine Sips offers 10 white wines and two reds, the whites mainly chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, mainly California but touching down in Italy, Spain and France, the reds collage-like blends, one from California, the other from Argentina.

As usual, I dispense with matters technical, geographical, climatic, philosophical, historical, anthropological, psychological, heretical and hermeneutic to focus on quick, incisive reviews that get at the essence of the wine. These were samples for review or tasted at wholesalers’ trade events.

By the way, I was curious, so I went back and checked through the Friday Wine Sips series, which I launched on January 5, to see how many brief reviews I’ve done, and counting this post today, it’s 86 wines. That’s a lot of juice.
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Hess Select Sauvignon Blanc 2010, North Coast. 13.5% alc. Very dry, crisp and lively, with pert acidity and a sleek texture; kiwi, celery seed, tarragon; tangerine, lemongrass and grapefruit skin, with a touch of citrus rind bitterness on the finish. Uncomplicated and tasty. Very Good. About $11.
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Cortenova Pinot Grigio 2009, Veneto, Italy. (% alc. NA) Clean and fresh, hints of roasted lemon and lemon balm with almond and almond blossom and an undertone of pear; the citrus spectrum in a smooth, crisp, bright package; good character and heft for the price. Very Good. About $13.
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Chateau Suau Bordeaux Blanc 2010, Cotes de Bordeaux, France. (% alc. NA) 55% sauvignon blanc, 35% semillon, 10% muscadelle. A lovely white Bordeaux, brisk and refreshing, bordering on elegance; pear and peach, jasmine and honeysuckle, surprising hint of pineapple; all suppleness and subtlety but in a lively arrangement of balancing elements. Very Good+. About $15, representing Great Value.
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Shannon Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Lake County. 13.5% alc. Crisp and sassy, with tremendous appeal; quince and ginger, lemongrass and peach, lime peel and grapefruit and fennel seed, all intense and forward; animated, provocative in its spiciness, its leafy herbal qualities and alert acidity running through steely citrus flavors. Very Good+. About $16, a Real Bargain.
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Valminor Albariño 2010, Rías Baixas, Spain. 12.5% alc. This boldly spicy and savory albarino offers real grip and limestone fortitude with enticing citrus and grapefruit scents and flavors, whiffs of jasmine and camellia, hints of apple skin and roasted pear; eminently refreshing, spring rain and sea-salt with a bracing punch of earth and bitterness on the finish. One of the best albariños. Excellent. About $20.
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Hall Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Napa Valley. 14.8% alc. An organic wine. Pale straw color with faint green highlights; nectarine, pear and melon, dried thyme, cloves and a hint of fig, jasmine and honeysuckle; dry, smooth, suave; bright brisk acidity, scintillating limestone element; ethereal spareness and elegance of lemon, pear and grapefruit flavors. Excellent. About $20.
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Benessere Pinot Grigio 2010, Carneros, Napa Valley. 13.9% alc. Pretty exotic for a pinot grigio but super-attractive; pale straw color; apple peel, orange zest, roasted lemon and pear; cloves and clover, touch of mango; nicely balanced between moderately lush texture and zippy acidity, crisp and lively but just an undertow of richness; lemon and tangerine with a touch of peach skin; long spicy finish. 895 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Molnar Family Poseidon’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, Carneros, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Uncommonly spicy and savory; deep, rich, full-bodied, yet so light on its feet, so agile, deft and balanced; classic pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors, exhilarating feeling of limestone and river rock minerality; smoke, cloves, cinnamon, hint of sandalwood, yeah, a little exotic but nothing overstated, and blessedly avoids any overtly tropical element. Excellent. About $24.
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Black Dog Cellars Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. (% alc. NA) Exactly the kind of chardonnay I would drink all the time: lovely purity and intensity of the grape; exquisite balance and integration of all features; pale straw-gold color; pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors highlighted by cloves and limestone; oak lends firmness, suavity and suppleness; there’s a touch of camellia in the nose, and an intriguing bit of resinous grip in the long resonant finish, all bound by acidity you could practically strum like a harp. Sadly only 313 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Morgan “Highland” Chardonnay 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 13.8% alc. Bright straw-gold color; fresh, clean, boldly spicy, apple, pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors, just a hint of mango; lovely finesse, balance and integration; rich but not creamy pineapple and grapefruit flavors, touch of cloves and buttered cinnamon toast, all beautifully modulated; limestone and flint come in on the finish. Excellent. About $26.
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And two reds:
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Shannon Ridge Wrangler Red 2009, Lake County. 14.2% alc. 38% zinfandel, 18% tempranillo, 13% barbera, 12% merlot, 12% cabernet sauvignon, 7% grenache. A pastiche of grapes that produced a warm, spicy, fleshy fruity and engaging wine; dark ruby-magenta color; cassis and blueberry, lavender, lilac and licorice; graphite and shale; hint of cloves and vanilla; quite dry, but juicy with black and blue fruit flavors supported by dense chewy tannins and burnished oak. Great for pizzas, burgers and such. Very Good+. About $17.
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Amalaya 2010, Calcahquí, Salta, Argentina. 14% alc. Malbec 75%, cabernet sauvignon 15%, tannat 5%, syrah 5%. Dark ruby-purple color; what a nose: rose hips and fruitcake, walnut shell, black currants, black raspberries and blueberries, cocoa powder and bittersweet chocolate, graphite; in the mouth, very dry, very intense and concentrated, amid the tightly-packed tannins and firm oak a deep core of spiced and macerated blackberries and currants, lavender and licorice, briers and brambles. Needs a grateful steak. Very Good+. About $17.
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The tale has often been told about how the wine we known as Brunello di Montalcino was created by Ferruccio Biondi-Santi (pictured at right) on his Tuscan estate Il Greppo and first bottled in 1888. The family was the only producer of Brunello di Montalcino until after World War II and had, in fact, released the wine only in 1888, 1891, 1925 and 1945, a fact that testifies to incredibly rigorous standards and deep pockets. As the wine’s prestige grew after the war, the number of producers markedly increased, particularly in the 1980s and ’90s.

The original regimen of barrel-aging for Brunello di Montalcino was a long 42 months, a procedure that resulted — no surprise — in wines of great hauteur and austerity that demanded many years, if not decades, to mellow. That requirement was lowered to three years barrel aging in 1990 and two years in 1998, though Brunello di Montalcino must still age four years before release in a combination of barrel and bottle-aging; it’s the producer’s prerogative as to what that process will be. The wine, first by custom and then by law, must be made from 100 percent sangiovese grapes, a regimen with which many winemakers disagree, seeing the necessity to blend portions of other grapes to soften the wine’s somewhat rigid character.

While modernization has come to all parts of Tuscany, Biondi-Santi serenely follows the path it forged generations ago. Ferruccio’s grandson Franco oversees the estate and the august reputation of its wines today, while his son Jacopo, who founded his own estate in Maremma in 1996, has broken away from the family after disagreements with his father. (The image above, from decanter.com, reveals Biondi-Santi father and son in an apparently rare mood of shared good humor.)

In this post, we look at one of Jacopo Biondi-Santi’s best-known wines, Sassoalloro, in its rendition of 2008, and the Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino Annata 2005; both were made completely from sangiovese grapes. Are the wines different? Does the Pope wear a funny hat? Of course they’re different, but each is engaging and fully engaged in its vastly diverse task.

Imported by Vision Wines & Spirits, Secaucus, N.J. These wines were samples for review.
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The Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino Annata 2005 aged 36 months in large Slovenian oak barrels; the vines for this wine are a minimum of 25 years old. From beginning to end, the wine is a monument to the sangiovese grape. The extraordinary bouquet is an intense and lofty amalgam of dried red and black currants and red cherries, violets and graphite, oolong tea, sandalwood, leather and moss and mushrooms, all seemingly ground by some ethereal mortar and pestal of the gods; you could live in it. While this bouquet is fantastically warm, spicy, inviting and seductive, in the mouth matters quickly turn serious; I did not use the word “monument” casually. The Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino Annata 2005 is dense with iron-clad and finely-milled tannins and dry in an almost ecclesiastical way, in the sense of ancient, dusty wood polished by centuries of use and permeated by the slightly bitter austerity of old incense. The earthy aspects hinted at in the bouquet — the tea, graphite, leather, mushrooms and moss, along with some dusty dried porcini — penetrate the wine’s structure to its deepest foundations, while the clean, bright architecture of acidity gives it amazing vibrancy, despite its formidable depth and dimension; the finish is long, somber and dignified. Old-fashioned? You bet. Do I mind? Not a bit. Try from 2014 or ’15 through 2025 to ’30 with roasted game birds or pappardelle with rabbit sauce. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Production was about 5,876 cases. Exceptional. About $149.
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The appellation for the Jacopo Biondi-Santi Sassoallora 2008 is Scansano, in southwestern Tuscany not far from the seacoast. The wine aged 14 months in untoasted French barriques, that is, small 60-gallon oak barrels. The color is deep ruby with a faint magenta rim; the bouquet is indeed sangiovese — violets and sour cherry, red currants with a touch of blueberry, black tea and brambles, a hint of pomander — but with a fruity and fruitful intensity of ripeness and immediate appeal, a pointed thrust of lead pencil, licorice and bay leaf, all marked by clarity and freshness. The wine is smooth and supple in the mouth, a stream of lithe, concentrated, spicy black and blue fruit flavors wrapped in velvet and tied off with graphite-like minerality and resonant acidity; firm, slightly chewy tannins plow through the long, spice-and-dust packed finish. New-fangled? You bet. Do I mind? Not a bit. 14 percent alcohol. Begs, I mean freakin’ begs, for a medium-rare rib-eye steak, smokin’ from the grill or one of those Florentine steaks for two, sliced and crunchy with rock salt. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $30.
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The cambium is the sheath of cells that lies between the bark and inner wood of any woody plant that transports water and nutrients from roots to the canopy of leaves. Appropriately, then, Sequoia Grove named its new, limited edition cabernet sauvignon-based wine after this essential anatomical feature not only of trees but of grapevines. The winery was founded in 1980, so it just slips into the criterion for this series on Old-School California Cabernets, that is, from producers founded in 1980 and earlier. By “old-school,” I also mean wines that do not tread hard on the pedals of overripe fruit, high alcohol and sweet, vanilla-tinged new oak.

Sequoia Grove occupies the sweet spot in the Napa Valley, between Rutherford and Oakville. President and director of winemaking is Michael Trujillo; winemaker is Molly Hill. The grapes for Cambium 2007, the wine’s inaugural release, derive from Rutherford and Oak Knoll and, in the opposite direction, from a high-elevation vineyard on Atlas Peak. The blend is 76 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent cabernet franc, 8 percent merlot and 4% petit verdot; the wine aged 22 months in French oak barrels. The task here obviously was not to pinpoint the character of a particular vineyard or even a small appellation but to embody some spirit or essence of the Napa Valley, at which I think the wine succeeds admirably.

Sequoia Grove Cambium 2007, Napa Valley, presents a dark ruby color with a blacker interior; scents of spiced, macerated and slightly roasted black currants, black raspberries and plums are permeated by the essential nature of cedar and tobacco, leather and lavender and nuanced whiffs of black olive and thyme. These qualities are all classic features of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon wines. In the mouth, well, think dense, thick, chewy, authoritative; nothing ingratiating here, nor would we want it to be. At this availability and price — see further down — we want a wine that expresses purity and intensity of its constituent parts with robustness and rigor, precision and dignity, and that’s what we get here. Yes, black fruit flavors (with a shade of blue) are certainly present, but the wine’s dominating factors are velvet-flocked and graphite-laced tannins and unimpeachably firm, resonant and deeply spicy oak bound by the crucial element of vibrant acidity. There’s a touch of the dreadnaught about the wine, but it’s skillfully made, so despite its resoluteness it’s neither heavy nor obvious. 14.4 percent alcohol. Drink from 2013 or ’14 through 2020 to ’24. Production was 350 cases. Excellent. About $140.

A sample for review.

Sangiovese is the primary grape of Tuscany, of singular important to three regions: In the typically blended Chianti, though 100 percent sangiovese is allowed (with Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva); in Brunello di Montalcino, where it is the only grape authorized, though many producers would like to change that regulation; and in Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, where the wine is also a blend and the sangiovese grape is known as prugnolo gentile, one of many variations on the grape’s name in Tuscany.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is not as well-known as Chianti and Brunello, and its wines tend to be more rustic (or regarded as more rustic by reputation) than its cousins. Our example today in the Wine of the Week, however, may be robust and full-bodied, but it’s certainly not rustic. The Avignonesi 2007, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, marries the sangiovese grape’s typical sour cherry, slightly bitter foresty nature with a deep, vibrant earthy, graphite character. The wine is a blend of 85 percent prugnolo gentile (sangiovese), 10 percent canaiolo nero and 5 percent mammolo; it aged 18 months in large oak casks and 18 months in second use French barriques. There’s great, supple firmness in the structure, yet the wine is drenched in red and black fruit flavors (and a hint of pomegranate) permeated by alluring notes of coffee and tobacco, potpourri and oolong tea, bay leaf and rosemary (with that touch of resin), while it’s packed with spices from the whole redolent, savory box. Tannins are immense, dense, chewy, and the whole package, indeed, feels multi-dimensional in size and scope. The finish is long, dusty, resonant and ultimately balanced and integrated. 13 percent alcohol. This may not be as sophisticated as many of the wines emanating from its neighboring regions, but, boy, you won’t care about that when you sit down with a bottle and a medium-rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the grill. Drink 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. I paid $26; prices around the country range from about $23 to $30.

Imported by Classics USA, Napa, Ca.

I’ll show you on the map to the right. Though nominally included in any survey of the Loire Valley, tiny Fiefs Vendéens actually lies fairly far south of the city of Nantes and the surrounding region of Muscadet, the farthest western area in the long reach of the Loire River where it debouches into the Atlantic. When I encountered the wines of Domaine Saint Nicolas at the “Return to Terroir: Les Renaissance des Appellations” tasting in New York last week, my question was exactly the title of this post: “Where the hell is Fiefs Vendéens?” You have to love the opportunity to try wines from tiny, out-of-the-way areas!

The Vendée lies in the ancient province of Poitou, the birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitaine and part of her vast realm. The area was devastated during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and during the internal Wars of Religion (1562-1598). The Vendéens are fiercely independent and royalist, launching a major — and doomed — pro-Catholic war against the Revolution (1793-1795), refusing to recognize the authority of Napoleon when he escaped from Elba in 1815, and attempting a revolt against Louis-Philippe in 1832. Things are calmer now.

Vineyards are a small segment of the flat agricultural landscape of the Vendée. The grape-growing and wine-making activity of Fiefs Vendéens centers on four communes — Mareuil, Brem, Vix and Pissotte — with many of the vineyards lying a stone’s-throw from the sea. The vines, not trained on trellises, bend low to the ground because of the constant wine. Grapes for red wine are gamay, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir; for white wine, the grapes are chenin blanc, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc; other, more obscure grapes, such as groslot gris (also called grolleau), are also permitted. The small region labored in obscurity for many years, finally achieving VDQS status — between Vin de Pays and AOC — in 1984. VDQS stands for Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure; the designation accounts for about 1 percent of French wine. In March 2011, Fiefs Vendéens was granted full AOC recognition.

A great deal of that advancement is due to Thierry Michon of Domaine Saint Nicolas, of the shore-hugging commune of Brem. The fully biodynamic estate, since 1995, is located on the Ile d’Olonne; Michon cultivates 37 hectares, about 95 acres, of vines, an enormous amount for the region. The wines are beguiling, flavorful yet spare, and highly individual, thoroughly unfolding their connection to the schist and limestone soil that dominates in Brem. It was a pleasure and somewhat of a gratifying puzzlement to try them, since all authentic wines have something of the paradoxical about them.

The wines of Domaine Saint Nicolas are imported by Jon-David Headrick Selections, Asheville, N.C. The prices I list are more approximate than usual, if available. Image of Thierry Michon from jimsloire.blogspot.com
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Domaine Saint Nicolas Gammes en May 2010, Fiefs Vendéens. Made from 100 percent gamay grapes, this punningly-named crowd- pleaser is utterly fresh and clean, blithe and bracing, with notes of red and black cherries and dried raspberries and undertones of roses and violets and an intriguing slightly mossy earthiness. The color is bright cherry with a tinge of dark ruby at the center. There’s a brief episode of sweetness on the entry, but this is, at least from mid-palate back, a dry wine, vibrant with acidity and couched in terms of — here’s that word again — an intriguing complex of red and black fruit flavors. both ripe and dried, flinty earthiness and exotic spice. 13 percent alcohol. Not complicated but truly charming. Very Good+. $NA.
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The Domaine Saint Nicolas Reflets 2010, Fiefs Vendéens, will appeal to those for whom enjoying a rose is a matter of pleasure shaded by Puritan tartness and asperity, for this is indeed a very dry rose permeated by the crispness of resonant acidity and the austerity of limestone-and-flint-like minerality. It’s a blend of pinot noir grapes, gamay, groslot gris and negrette that results, on the other hand, in lovely scents and flavors of red currants and mulberries with a pale touch of plum and peach skin. I was tasting this wine mid the madding crowd of a major trade event, but it instantly put me in mind of crusty bread, rabbit terrine and a blanket outdoors. 13 percent alcohol. Very Good+. $NA.
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The Domaine Saint Nicolas Les Clous 2010, Fiefs Vendéens, is, depending on the source you read, a blend of 80 chenin blanc, 15 percent chardonnay and 5 percent groslot gris; the wine aged eight months, 80 percent in tank, 20 percent in oak barrels. I don’t want to overuse an adjective — you know, “intriguing” — so allow me to say that the wine is mysteriously curious and captivating. I couldn’t say precisely what the 5 percent groslot gris brings to the wine, but from the chenin blanc come dominating elements of straw, greengage plum, lemon balm, pear and precision-tooled acidity; the chardonnay, I would say, contributes a bit of body, moderate lushness and back-notes of cloves and grapefruit. No great depth or concentration but delightful and delicious. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $17.
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The make-up of the Domaine Saint Nicolas Le Haut des Clous 2010, Fiefs Vendéens, is 100 percent chenin blanc. The wine is spanking fresh and clean, bracing as a brine-laden sea-breeze after a morning rain, deeply minerally in the limestone and flint range; it’s quite racy and nervy, animated by the tang of lemon pith, lime peel and slightly bitter peach skin, yet softened with appealing touches of camellia, lemon balm, spiced pear and damp straw. Super attractive and drinks like a charm. Excellent. About $20-$25.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Can there be another wine in the world that blends pinot noir with cabernet franc? That’s the case with the unusual and ambitious Saint Nicolas Cuvée Jacques 2007, Fiefs Vendéens with pinot noir in the dominant 90 percent position. I have no information about the oak regimen — zut alors! the winery’s website needs a total overhaul — but I will say the the wine is dry, spare, elegant, packed with notes of dried spices and flowers and great reserves of dry, earthy tannins. Perhaps the cabernet franc, blended at 15 percent in some vintages, accounts for a paradoxical tinge of ripe fatness, a hint of the grape’s black olive and bay leaf character and rugged structure, though this is, again paradoxically, if not quixotically, quite subtle; somehow, the wine achieves smooth balance and integration. I’ve never tasted anything like it, and I mean that as a compliment. Excellent. About $25-$27.
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The Domaine Saint Nicolas Pinot Noir 2009, Fiefs Vendéens, is distributed only in the United States of America. It’s a rather spare, delicate pinot noir, offering fresh and clean scents of red and black cherries and a bit of red and black currant permeated by dried spice, touches of rose petal and pomegranate and a hint of cola, all presented in a manner much more French than the ripe, opulent pinots of California and Oregon. Lovely purity, with moderate intensity. Very Good+. $24.
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The French wine industry is heavily regulated by government rules about what grapes can be grown where, what kinds of wines can be made from what kinds of grapes, how those grapes are to be treated in the vineyard and the winery and so on. Indeed, most European countries operate in the same highly regulated manner, a situation becoming more complicated as the EU itself imposes its will on the continent’s grape-growing, winemaking and labeling. One can make wine in France outside the permitted practices for a particular appellation, but one cannot label or market such a wine as originating in that appellation. Working outside the system of permitted grape varieties and methods entitles a wine to the simple categories Vin de Table or, recently authorized, Vin de France. Labels for Vin de Table cannot carry a vintage date or the names of grapes; wines coming under the designation Vin de France, which will eventually replace Vin de Table, can convey that information, a change greeted with approbation by many French winemakers for the flexibility it affords.

Today I offer five “outlaw wines” from France. One is Vin de Table, three are Vin de France (one of these is sparkling), while another sparkling wine is entitled only to the term mousseaux. Domaine Viret Paradis Dolia Ambré was made in large clay amphorae; it’s an example of the new “orange wine” phenomenon.

These wines were encountered at the sixth “Return to Terroir, La Renaissance des Appellations,” a tasting of biodynamic wines mounted in New York on February 27.
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Beauthorey Ultima, non-vintage (but 2008), Vin de Table. Alicante bouschet, carignan, cinsault, aramon, gros noir (says the website; Christophe Beau told me that there are 12 grape varieties in this wine). Actually sort of ultimate; deep, rich, ripe, spicy; curiously earthy and fleshy, unique slightly funky mossy and foresty qualities, yet tremendously clean and fresh, blazing acidity, rapt dimensions of roasted and slightly stewed red and black fruit scents and flavors; hints of smoke, licorice, lavender. Amazing what a great winemaker can do with supposedly no-count grapes. Biodynamic. Excellent. About $25 (an estimate; Beauthorey lost its US importer.)
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Domaine de la Garelière Milliard d’Etoiles, non-vintage, Vin de France. (“Billions of stars”) Cabernet franc and chenin blanc. Pale gold color, gently but definitely sparkling; rose petals, peach and peach skin, hints of apples and strawberries, super attractive; crisp and lively, brings in a touch of lime and limestone; ripe, a little fleshy and macerated even, but a seaside tang to it, clean, brisk, bracing. Wish I had a glass right now. Biodynamic. Very Good+. About $NA.
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Bossard-Thuaud Vin Mousseaux de Qualité, non-vintage. Melon de Bourgogne (the grape of Muscadet), folle blanche, chardonnay and a touch of cabernet franc. No dosage, so bone-dry, but despite the spare, lean elegance, quite charming and elevating; exuberant effervescence, pale straw color; very clean, crisp and confident; jasmine and camellia, cloves, limestone and lime peel, faint backnote of almond skin; very refined and stylish, packed with limestone and flint-like minerality that almost glitters, lively, vibrant. Made by Guy Bossard and his wife Annie Thuaud at Domaine de l’Écu. Biodynamic, vegan. Excellent. About $23.
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Domaine Viret Paradis Dolia Ambré, non-vintage, Vin de France. 30% muscat petit grains, 25% roussanne, 20% each bourboulenc and clairette rose, 5% grenache blanc. Light amber color; orange rind, lime zest, cloves, flint, tinge of lemon and melon; bright acidity, dry, crisp, steely, yet smooth and supple; delicate hints of baked apple, roasted lemon, spice box, all in a spare, almost lean package. Biodynamic. Very Good+. $NA.
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Domaine Viret Solstice VIII, non-vintage (but 2010), Vin de France. A blend of mourvèdre, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, caladoc — totally a new one on me; it’s a crossing of grenache and malbec — and marselan. Very pleasant, light and delicate, quite dry, builds power as it develops; notes of dried red fruit and exotic spices, slightly cherry-berry and sour melon; acidity cuts a swath of the palate; gains austerity from mid-palate through the spicy, mineral-flecked finish. Biodynamic. Interesting at first, then growing enjoyable. Very Good+. About $15-$20.
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Surely it’s not too late to post a Wine of the Week, even though today is Thursday and I typically do this on Monday or even Sunday. Call it the Wine of Down-Trending Mid-Week, if you please, of the Wine of the Up-Coming Weekend. Anyway, here ’tis.

The word ‘classic” tends to come up when writers or reviewers mention the Artezin zinfandels, and yet it feels natural to use that term because this brand’s zinfandel offers classic, if you will, balance and proportion and spicy black fruit scents and flavors. It also tends to be downright delicious.

The Artezin Zinfandel 2010, Mendocino County, is fresh, bright and clean, delivering a snootful and palate-swathing of black currant and raspberry scents and flavors with hints of mulberries, blueberries and just a mite of boysenberry, none of this fruit character being jammy or over-ripe. There’s an infusion of cloves and slightly exotic sandalwood, a pointed touch of graphite. The wine sees no new oak but ages in second and third-use French oak barrels, a device that bolsters the spicy aspect and lends suppleness to the texture, all of this supported by fairly dense but mildly grainy tannins and vibrant acidity. The finish brings in a bit of black pepper, a lick of dried thyme and more of that mineral element. To 89 percent zinfandel, the blend adds 10 percent petite sirah and 1 percent carignan. No extremes here, no hard edges, just a tasty, authentic and reasonably-priced zinfandel appropriate with burgers, steaks, pizzas and hearty pasta dishes. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18.

A sample for review.

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