June 2012

A collection of whites again with a couple of rosés, because who can think about big red wines when the mercury is busting out the top of the thermometer and running for its life? Geographically, we touch California, the south of France, Italy’s province of Umbria, Chile and Portugal. There are a few drops of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc in these wines, but the dominant white grapes are pinot grio/grigio and riesling, with contributions from verdiccio and vermentino, gewurztraminer and orange muscat and other varieties. The two rosés are equally eclectic. As usual in these Friday Wine Sips, even if posted on Saturday — ahem, cough, cough — I avoid most historical and technical data for the sake of quick reviews designed to whet your thirst and curiosity. All of these wines were samples for review, as I am required by Federal Trade Commission regulations to inform you. (The same regulations do not apply to print outlets such as magazines and newspaper.)

Lovely image of J Pinot Gris 2011 from nickonwine.com.

Double Decker Pinot Grigio 2010, California. 13% alc. Pinot grigio with 4% riesling and 3% viognier. Double Decker is the replacement for Wente’s Tamas label. Pale straw color; touches of roasted lemon, lavender and lilac, cloves; dense texture, needs more acidity; mildly sweet entry with a very dry finish; fairly neutral from mid-palate back. Good. About $10.
Bieler et Fils “Sabine” Rosé 2011, Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, France. 13.5% alc. Syrah 50%, grenache 30%, cabernet sauvignon 20%. A classic rosé from Provence. Pale copper-onion skin color with a flush of melon; melon in the nose, with strawberry and dried red currants, a distinct limestone edge and a flirtation of cedar and dried thyme; lovely delicate weight and texture, brisk acidity and that mineral element, hints of red currants, melon and peach skin. Delightful. Very Good+. About $11, a Terrific Bargain.
Falesco Vitiano 2011, Umbria, Italy. 12.5% alc. Verdiccio 50%, vermentino 50%. Very pale straw color; spicy, briny, floral, stony; roasted lemon, baked pear and grapefruit with a hint of peach; very dry, crisp, touches of smoke and limestone. Tasty, charming. Very Good. About $11.
Meli Riesling 2011, Maule Valley, Chile. 12.8% alc. Wonderful character and authenticity, especially for the price. Pale straw-gold color; peaches and pears, lychee and grapefruit, hints of petrol and honeysuckle; lithe with bright acidity and a flinty mineral quality, yet soft and ripe, super attractive; citrus flavors infused with spice and steel; quite dry but not austere; long juicy finish tempered by taut structure. Excellent. About $13, a Raving Great Value.
Vina de Defesa Rosé 2011, Alentejo, Portugal. 13.5% alc. Syrah 50%, aragones 50%. Entrancing vivid melon-scarlet color; strawberry and watermelon, touch of dried red currants, pungently spicy, hint of damp, dusty roof-tiles; pomegranate and peach and a bit of almond skin; a little briny, a little fleshy; keen acidity and flint-like minerality. Quite a different style than the Bieler et Fils “Sabine” Rosé 2011 mentioned above. Very Good+. About $15.
J Pinot Gris 2011, California. 13.8% alc. Very pale straw color; celery seed and lemongrass, mango and lemon balm, hints of lime peel and orange blossom; delightfully fresh and clean, laves the palate with spicy citrus and stone-fruit flavors enlivened by crisp acidity and a scintillating mineral element, devolving to rousing notes of grapefruit bitterness on the finish. Lots of personality; consistently one of the best pinot gris wines made in the Golden State. Excellent. About $15, a Freakin’ Bargain of the Decade.
The Whip White Wine 2011, Livermore Valley, California, from Murrieta’s Well. 12.5% alc. Chardonnay 39%, semillon 26%, gewurztraminer 13%, orange muscat 9%, viognier 7%, sauvignon blanc 6%. Medium straw-gold color; boldly spicy and floral, hints of leafy fig, fennel seed, lemon tart, Key limes, almonds and almond blossom, back-note of dried tarragon; very lively and spicy, tasty flavors of grapefruit, kiwi and lychee, almost lush texture but balanced by buoyant acidity and mineral elements. Very Good+. About $20.
Arnaldo-Caprai Grecante 2010, Grechetto dei Colli Martani, Umbria, Italy. 13% alc. 100% grechetto grapes. Pale straw-gold color with a faint green sheen; sleek and suave but clean, lively and spicy; roasted lemon and lemon curd, touches of fig and thyme and camellia, all delicately woven; pert and provocative with snappy acidity and limestone minerality, fresh citrus flavors with notes of dried herbs, grassy salt marsh and yellow plum. Nice balance between seductive and reticent. Excellent. About $20.

We all know what wine is, right, wine is … Well, perhaps the whole topic bears some thought and scrutiny. Here are five definitions, ranging from simple to complicated, rather like the order of wines at a tasting.

I. Wine is a beverage made by fermenting fruit through the action of yeast so that the natural sugars are converted to alcohol, which becomes an inextricable component of the beverage, and carbon dioxide, which is allowed to escape, except in the second fermentation of Champagne and other sparkling products. Wine can be made from any fruit (or vegetable, for that matter) whose sugar content is sufficient to result in alcohol — apples, pears, peaches, various berries — though the dominant or most important form of fruit turned into wine, both in economic and cultural terms, is grapes. As an alcoholic beverage, wine is intoxicating and inebriating; it gets you drunk, and the more you drink, the drunker and more impaired you become.

That was straightforward enough, but let’s take a different tack:

II. Anthropologically and historically or seen as a function of commerce, the production of wine ensures that a valuable crop, in which a farmer has invested time, effort and money, does not go bad and become useless. Crates of picked grapes become compromised after a week or so; once you buy grapes at the grocery store, they need to be eaten within a week. Turned into wine, however, grapes, in their new form, last longer and are easier to transport. Even in its simplest more immediate form, wine offers more longevity than the fruit from which it is made. Wine also commands a higher price than its constituent fruit. This modality holds true in the example of distilled spirits (though they are not, strictly speaking, our topic), which can be seen as agents for prolonging the production of the harvests of corn, rye, wheat and potatoes beyond the pleasurable but limited functions of the breakfast and dinner table. Again, the economic factor is crucial; a bottle of Scotch commands a far higher price than a box of Wheaties, a comparison that somewhat stretches the point, but you see what I mean.

All right, let’s look at wine and its symbolic relationship to the grapes from which it is made:

III. Not intending to do violence to T.S. Eliot’s notion of the adequacy of narrative and metaphoric forms in the expression of action and feeling — which he writes about in his radical essay on Hamlet, published in 1919 — but I’ll borrow his concept and assert that wine is the “objective correlative” of the grape. That is, wine, especially at its greatest, is the perfect vehicle to fulfill the highest level of a grape’s possible achievement. In this perception, wine conveys a sense of inevitability that other beverages or agricultural products rarely contrive. One does not drink beer, for example, even in its best or most powerful manifestations, and think, “Ah, yes, this is the apotheosis of cereal grains.” The grape, however, is never far from one’s thoughts in the swirling, sniffing and sipping of a glass of wine, nor is the notion, depending on the quality and complexity of the wine, of the place where the grapes were grown and the wine was made. Which leads us to:

IV. A glass of wine, perhaps the one you’re holding in your hand now, serves — let me say should serve — as an emblem of a piece of earth, a stretch of vineyard, a swath of sky, a defined region where its grapes were nurtured and harvested. That sentence summarizes the notion of terroir, the French idea that wine is influenced by and reflects the nature of the vineyard where the grapes were grown. Factors in terroir include the character of the soil and sub-soil, the specific climate in all its nuances and broad strokes, the lie of the land and its direction and exposure to the sun and its drainage. (A few winemakers in California try to assert that terroir includes whatever processes occur in the winery as well as the agency of the winemaker him- or herself. Any thoughtful person will see that this caprice is nonsense; too often the winemaker interferes with a wine and negates the effect of terroir.) The concept of terroir and the belief that a drinker can smell or taste or somehow sense the presence of the vineyard in a wine is controversial. As an ideal, one would want every wine to express its terroir; how a wine would do such a thing remains nebulous, unless the taster possessed years of experience and could tell the difference between, say, Burgundy’s Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses and Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes, vineyards that occupy sites a few yards from each other. We’re approaching a digression here, however, so let’s extend the definition of wine as follows:

V. As a cultural artifact, wine represents an aspirational signifier that no other product of the farm or orchard could hope to emulate. Wine is not “necessary,” just as a car is not a necessity; one could walk or ride a bicycle, as in many societies people do, and food is perfectly palatable without wine. The automobile, however, though merely a mechanical contraption fashioned from steel, plastic and rubber surrounding an internal combustion engine, represents myriad rungs on the ladder of accomplishment, self-image and status, and wine, while we say it’s just a beverage, betokens similar ambitions and yearnings in the realms of knowledge, style, sophistication and prestige. The almost reckless surge of the newly wealthy in Asia, and particularly China, to buy top French Bordeaux and Burgundy wines is motivated by exactly these values.

In 1997, a demographic survey of the readers of the newspaper where I worked full-time revealed that among the local followers of my national weekly wine column the largest group consisted of professional young black women. Initially, I was surprised, but it didn’t take much thought to figure out why this was the case. Wine — in the choosing, serving and matching with food — marks a path toward social acceptability, refinement and savoir faire, whether one is having friends over for a party or dinner or is selecting wine to go with a meal in a restaurant. Few responses are more empowering than the enthusiastic “Excellent choice!” from the waiter when you have selected your bottle of wine from the list. Knowledge of wine and the ability to determine quality and value are ways of completing one’s education in life and joining the ranks of real adults. That was then, and only 15 years later I would say that the attitude among Millennials regarding food and wine is probably more casual, if not effortless, though there is a degree to which wine still represents the pursuit of a paradigm. The ideal for the 22 to 35-year-old cohort, however, tends to be well-made inexpensive yet authentic products (under about $30) that come with interesting back-stories and preferably originate from small, organically-run family estates, and it doesn’t hurt if the wines display off-beat or “fun” labels; in other words, not their parents’ wines.

Images: three wines glasses from fitfloridian.wordpress.com; loading wine casks onto cart from ebay.com; Italian vineyard from italylogue.com; friends drinking wine from richardtimothy.com.

Stepping Stone is the second label of Napa Valley’s Cornerstone Cellars, founded in 1991 by two doctors and a couple of investors in Memphis. The motivation was to produce great cabernet sauvignon wines, and in that purpose the enterprise has flourished. (Here are my notes on the excellent Cornerstone Howell Mountain and Napa Valley cabernets from 2004 and 2005; I have not tasted subsequent vintages.) The Cornerstone wines are built to age, are limited in quantity and dear in cost (though not as expensive as many comparable Napa Valley cabernets), so Stepping Stone was created to offer drinkable products at more accessible prices. Winemaker for Cornerstone and Stepping Stone since 2010, and the company’s first full-time winemaker, is Jeff Keene.

The Stepping Stone Corallina Syrah Rosé 2011, Napa Valley, derives from the Boyd Family Vineyards in Napa’s Oak Knoll appellation. This rosé is made not by the saignée method of bleeding off some juice from the crushing of red grapes intended for another wine but by gently pressing whole clusters to obtain a pale juice that is then taken off the skins. The wine undergoes a long cool fermentation in stainless steel tanks and then, in an unusual process for a rosé, is aged five months in well-used French oak barrels. The result is a rosé that retains all the delicacy and elegance we associate with the best models but one just slightly more robust and structured. The color is indeed coral with a shimmer of copper-orange topaz; in other words, entrancing. Aromas of dried raspberries and red currants are highlighted by hints of orange zest, lilac and lime peel; within flavors of citrus modality notes of melon and raspberry make an appearance, all enlivened by brisk acidity and a scintillating element of limestone minerality. The wine is shapely, supple and spicy — there are touches of cloves and cinnamon — and altogether suited for a variety of Summer and early Fall dishes, from cold fried chicken and deviled eggs to rabbit terrine and veal blanquette. Serve chilled and drink through 2013. Production was 455 cases. Excellent. About $20.

A sample for review.

After a career in the publishing business, John Shafer moved his family to the Napa Valley in 1972, purchasing a 210-acre estate — with 50 acres of vines — in what is now the Stags Leap District AVA, officially designated without an apostrophe. The first crush occurred in 1978. The winery’s vineyard property gradually increased to 205 acres, with 79 acres in Stags Leap, 60 acres just south of SLD in Napa Valley and 66 acres in Carneros. By variety, the breakdown is 97 acres devoted to caberet sauvignon (Napa’s great hero grape), 66 of chardonnay, 24 of syrah, 12 of merlot and 6 of petite sirah. John Shafer’s son Doug became winemaker in 1983; when he was elevated to company president in 1994, assistant winemaker Elias Fernandez became winemaker, a position he still fills today.

Shafer is one of Napa Valley’s elite wineries, and if California possessed a system similar to the classification of Bordeaux — don’t worry, that will never happen, at least not “officially” — it would certainly be listed among the First Growths. The commitment is to cabernet sauvignon, though forays into chardonnay and syrah have proved highly successful. The wines tend to see a boodle of new French oak, 100 percent new oak for some of the wines, but they seem to absorb that wood and make it an integral part of the package; I have never tasted a wine from Shafer tainted by the blatant, smoky vanilla qualities of new barrels. The winery is making an effort to enumerate more accurately the alcohol content of its wines, once listed as a blanket 14.8 percent. Since federal regulations allow a one-degree leeway, an indication of 14.8 percent could mean anywhere from 13.8 to 15.8. The degrees indicated now represent an attempt to tell consumers what they’re actually getting.

Tasted at a trade event.
The Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay 2010, Carneros, is an absolutely exquisite and classic representation of the grape. The wine aged 14 months in 75 percent new French oak barrels and 25 percent stainless steel tanks. Since it does not go through what’s called malolactic fermentation, the wine delivers a sense of grace, purity and intensity that does not involve the extraneous and often cloying creamy, dessert-like aspects that the process can produce (and which some wine publications unaccountably dote upon), while the oak influence is subtly revealed only in the wine’s sleekness and suppleness and its spicy nature. The color is pale gold; aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit are tinged with quince and ginger and hints of cloves and limestone. In the mouth, ripe and spicy stone-fruit flavors are ensconced in a texture that’s almost lush and powdery, though balanced, indeed cut, by powerful limestone and flint minerality and the scintillating effect of crystalline acidity; tremendous presence, heft and tone, yet exquisitely drawn and finely detailed, right through the spare, elegant finish. 14.9 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 or ’17, well-stored. Excellent. About $48.
Sometimes I think that I would rather drink hot grease than another merlot from California, but then an example like the Shafer Merlot 2009, Napa Valley, comes along to gladden my heart and make the world seem fit to live in. This is a merlot of jewel-like transparency, detail and definition; I mean, it feels effortless, though there’s nothing delicate or evanescent about it. (There’s 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent malbec in the blend.) The wine aged 20 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby-purple; aromas of ripe and macerated mulberries, black raspberries and blueberries are highlighted by notes of rose petals and brambles, white pepper, bittersweet chocolate and penetrating graphite-like minerality. The heft and balance, the absolute confidence and insouciance of this merlot are truly lovely, though the wine does not neglect the important aspects of a rigorous tannin and acid structure that lends a sense of tension and grip. It you love merlot and sometimes despair of its fate, don’t fail to get a few bottles of this quite beautiful model. 15.1 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to ’20. Exceptional. About $48.
You could call the Shafer Relentless 2008, Napa Valley, a blend of 75 percent syrah and 25 percent petite sirah, a blockbuster — I kept using the word tremendous in my notes — except that it displays so much finesse; its, um, tremendousness feels like an inextricable weaving of infinite strands of subtlety and nuance bound by, er, tremendously huge tannins and tautly wrought acidity. (The wine aged an astonishing 30 months in 100 percent French oak barrels.) The color is deep, dark ruby-purple; the bouquet bursts from the glass in a dynamic welter of black and blue plums, black currants and blueberries, mocha and black pepper, violets and lavender and the classic Northern Rhone notes of wet fur, tar and hot stones; if ever a bouquet could be called muscular, it’s this one. Still, for all its tannic and oaken power and its iron-like minerality (and shall we mention 15.6 percent alcohol content and the bravado ripeness of its black and blue fruit flavors?), the wine does not feel ponderous or overbearing; it takes a lot of skill and experience to assemble these components into a balanced, coherent wine that feels utterly faithful to its constituent grapes. Best from 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $60.

The Shafer One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Stags Leap District — 98 percent cabernet with 2 percent petit verdot — offers a deep almost opaque purple color and burgeoning aromas of cassis and black raspberry, smoke, bittersweet chocolate, underbrush, iodine and iron. (This aged 20 months in 100 percent new French oak.) There’s a great deal of depth and grip and forceful tautness here, an energetic element that makes the wine lively and resonant — the tannins, at least, are finely milled, seeming well-oiled and seamless — yet of the five wines under review here, this is the one that feels the least integrated. Perhaps it’s simply the earthiest (I wouldn’t say rustic) and just needs a couple of years to come together, say 2014 to ’15 and then drinking until 2020 or so. 15.3 percent alcohol. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $70.

Shafer’s flagship wine is the Hillside Select, Stags Leap District, which for 2007, the 25th Anniversary vintage, brings together all the virtues of place and grape for a virtuoso performance. This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon; the wine aged 32 months in all new French oak barrels. Real weight, heft and substance here, stupendous earthy-granitic minerality, roiling acidity and deeply-rooted grainy tannins; this is not about elegance or finesse, but it is about power, balance and total integration of all elements into dynamic, resonant completion, the whole package feeling as if it had been lightly sanded and burnished. There’s some toughness here, too, dense, tense, a little truculent for the next few years, yet, paradoxically, the wine is almost voluptuous in texture, a fitting cushion for heady and penetrating qualities of ripe, bright cassis, black cherry and dark plum flavors. 15.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to 2025. Exceptional. About $225 (a bottle).

Interesting, versatile and charming white wines today, appropriate for summer pleasure (though they don’t have to be limited to warm-weather usage), and each one utilizing different grapes, since variety, as someone said, is the spice of life. Actually, that someone was English poet and hymn-writer William Cowper (1731-1800), and the lines are from his book-length poem The Task of 1785, more properly: “Variety’s the very spice of life,/That gives it all its flavor.” Well-said, Bill. Anyway, we touch Germany, Italy and California in this post, while the prices range comfortably from $10 to $20. All these wines were samples for review. As usual in these Friday Wine Sips, I eschew most technical, historical, geographical and philosophical info or data to bring you incisive and penetrating notices of the wines. Enjoy!
Bex Riesling 2010, Nahe, Germany. 9.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; green apple, lychee and pear; slightly sweet initially but hints of melon and lemon curd are truncated by scintillating acidity and limestone-flint elements so dry they attain aching austerity; for riesling lovers devoted to intense minerality. Does not quite achieve the dimension and appeal of the 2009 version. Very Good. About $10, still Good Value for the style.
Rocca Sveva Soave Classico 2010, Veneto, Italy. 12.5% alc. 100% garganega grapes. Pale straw color; roasted lemon and spiced pears, whiffs of green plums and grapefruit, hints of almonds and orange blossoms, wild thyme; sense of earthiness, lots of limestone; crisp acidity and liveliness; close to lush texture but borne by a distinct quality of spareness and reticence. Even better than the 2009 rendition, which I made a Wine of the Week in April 2011. Very Good+. About $12, a Great Bargain.
McManis Family Vineyards Viognier 2011, California. 13.5% alc. 100% viognier grapes. Pale straw-gold color with a faint yellow blush; nicely balanced among floral, spicy and fruit elements, with hints of thyme and sage; lemons and pears, touches of peaches, tangerines and grapefruit; bit of lanolin and camellia; slightly powdery texture yet crisp with acidity, almost taut; quite dry, slightly bitter finish. Very Good+. About $12, representing Good Value.
Bindi Sergardi Oriolus 2010, Toscana Bianco, Italy. 12% alc. Trebbiano, malvasia Toscana, chardonnay. Pale straw color; fragrant and floral, roasted lemons, yellow plums, hints of almonds, almond blossom; very crisp and lively, quite spicy, lots of limestone minerality, yet sleek and suave, with a seductive soft texture though it goes all dry and austere on the finish; begs for fresh shellfish. Very Good+. About $15.
Beni di Batasiolo Bosc Dla Rei 2011, Moscato d’Asti, Italy. 5.5% alc. Pale gold color; pure apple and apple blossom, pear and tangerine, orange zest and lime peel; gently effervescent; ripe and modestly sweet entry followed by pert acidity and a dry limestone-infused finish. Quite charming and goes down oh so easily. Very Good+. About $17.
Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Sonoma County, California. 13.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; beautifully fresh and appealing; slightly grassy and herbal with scents of lemon, lemon balm and lightly macerated pears, with celery seed, lemongrass and tarragon and a lovely touch of lilac; tart and crisp, jazzed by snappy acidity and bright, clean limestone and flint running through citrus and stone-fruit flavors; lean and sinewy, spare and bracing. Excellent and one of the best at the price, about $20.

Ha-ha, so a little joke. Actually those names refer to grape varieties, and if they’re new to you, I’ll admit that they’re new to me too. They are the components of the Esporão Reserva 2011, a white wine (branco) from Portugal’s Alentejo region, which covers most of the lower one-third of the country, though it does not extend all the way south to the Atlantic. Alentejo is Portugal’s least populated area, and one of the poorest; cork tree plantations comprise the region’s primary industry, while the recent popularity of its wines seems to be bringing economic growth.

My Readers understand, of course, that most of the wines I write about are not wines that I purchase but come to my threshold as samples for review via FedEx and UPS or are presented at various kinds of trade events. The wines delivered to me are a mixed bag, to be sure, a few being real treasures or Big Guns that are truly gratifying to taste or drink with food, others turning out generic, bland and anonymous and many others then occupying every vinous point in-between. Occasionally, however, I open a wine, a label I have never encountered or even heard of, not necessarily costly, and it’s such a revelation that I bring it to the attention of My Readers with a sense of thanksgiving and joy; these are the wines that I believe the cohort of wine writers lives for, and such a one is the Esporão Reserva 2011.

The color is pale but radiant gold; the bouquet is rich, spicy, honeyed, nutty, a seductive amalgam of roasted lemons and baked pears, lavender and tarragon, lanolin and bees’-wax, honeysuckle and camellia. The wine is bone-dry but deeply flavorful, round and almost juicy, though lean, spare, close to sinewy in structure; the lushness of its ripe, spicy and macerated lemon, peach and pear fruit is so more than balanced by sea-breeze/salt-marsh/dried Mediterranean herbal qualities that it brings you up short and clears your head. Yet the wine is not merely attractive in its sensual elements and sense of paradox but downright seductive, while the finish brings in slightly austere notes of allspice, white pepper and flint. Absolutely unique. (The wine aged six months in French and American oak.) Esporão’s chief winemaker is David Baverstock; white winemaker is Sandra Alves, to whom I say, “You go, girl!” I noticed that the 2010 version of the Esporão Reserva branco contained some semillon in the blend; I can’t see why that grape would boost the wine’s appeal in the least and am happy that it was not included in 2011. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About — ready? — $20, marking a Wonderful Bargain.

A sample for review.

LL and I were, up until two days ago, visiting our friend, Carol, on Lower Sugerloaf Key in the Florida Keys. On our final night, she took us to meet her friends, Bill and David, who live in a 1960s house they remodeled and added to beautifully and ingeniously. This house and its yard stand on a sort of peninsula so that they are surrounded by water on three sides; at sunset, the setting was stunning. We drank a bottle of Roederer Estate Brut sparking wine that I had brought, and then David brought glasses of white wine, saying that it was a pinot grigio. I’ll admit that the thought cloud above my head said, “Pinot grigio? Oh… great.” One sniff, however, told me that this was no ordinary pinot grigio.

This was the Navarro Pinot Grigio 2011, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. (Coincidentally, the Roederer Estate Brut is also a product of Anderson Valley; I paid $25 at a small store outside Key West.) The Navarro winery was founded in 1974 by Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn, who are still the proprietors. Navarro quickly established a reputation for spicy Alsace-style white wines, especially gewurztraminer, though it also makes sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and wines made from other grape varieties. The winery distinguishes between its pinot grigio, ostensibly fashioned in an Italian manner, and its Alsatian-modeled pinot gris. The grapes for both wines derive from the same vineyard, but grapes for the pinot grigio, from a smaller and newer block of vines, are harvested during the first 10 days of an overall three-week picking period; the riper grapes go into the pinot gris. Each wine ferments and ages in oak, but gently and thoughtfully.

The Navarro Pinot Grigio 2011, Anderson Valley, offers a heady bouquet of summer in a glass, with winsome aromas of jasmine and honeysuckle, almond and a hint of almond blossom, peach and pear, touches of lemongrass and wild thyme, quince and ginger; it all smells like beautiful golden-yellow, if, of course, colors had scents, so forgive my bout of synesthesia. Smooth as satin, the wine is enlivened and balanced by pert acidity and a prominent limestone element; the oak comes through subtly in the supple texture and in a burgeoning spicy quality. Flavors of slightly roasted lemons and baked peaches, with an unexpected hint of leafy fig and tart persimmon, lead to a finish that’s more spare and elegant, even more bracing, than one might expect. 13.6 percent alcohol. Production was 991 cases. Now through 2013. Excellent. About $16, representing Real Value.

Here’s a merlot wine that actually tastes like something distinctive and not a cadet version of cabernet sauvignon. (I realize that today is Wednesday, but we had internet problems after a storm Monday and I’m just back to the keyboard. I mean, Wednesday is a day of the week. And now LL and I are on vacation.)

The Gundlach Bundschu Merlot 2009, Sonoma Valley, is a blend of 80 percent merlot, 14 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent each petit verdot and malbec; it aged 17 months in French oak barrels, 40 percent new. The upshot? A deep but radiant ruby-purple color; intriguing aromas of black currants and plums, with touches of blueberries and mulberries and back-notes of thyme and black olive, oolong tea and licorice and an even more exotic hint of sandalwood. The wine is smooth and mellow, packed with ripe and spicy black and blue fruit flavors with a hint of something deep and unfettered that lends a sense of exhilaration. Dense and polished tannins provide well-mannered support, as do vibrant acidity and an element of graphite-like minerality. The finish is long, lively and flavorful. 14.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $30.

A sample for review.

And that brings up the question: Why don’t more states, counties and municipalities allow package stores to be open on Sunday? Are they afraid that Christians will go straight from church to purchase a half-pint of Old Thunderbolt? I mean, come on, if you can buy a shirt or a lawn mower or a six-pack of brew on Sunday, you ought to be able to buy a fifth of booze or a bottle of wine to drink with lunch or dinner. Anyway, here are brief looks at five wines — a rosé, two whites and two reds — that will get you through the week in terms of just about anything you’re eating, generally sans technical, historical, geographical and personnel-type information in favor of incisiveness and immediacy.

These wines were samples for review.
Charles & Charles Rosé 2011, Columbia Valley, Washington State. 12.7% alc. 100% syrah. Pale copper-onion skin color; lovely aromas of strawberry, red currants and watermelon with hints of briers and limestone; very dry and spare but tasty strawberry and raspberry flavors, just a touch of pomegranate; crisp acidity, finish drenched in limestone and flint. Quite charming. Very Good+. About $10 to $12, often discounted to $9. Great Value.
Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Marlborough, New Zealand. 13.6% alc. Very pale straw color; grapefruit, melon, thyme and celery seed, hints of lychee and tarragon, back-notes of tangerine; really attractive balance between vibrant acidity and a supple texture (a touch of old French oak is involved); flavors of roasted lemon, lime peel and celery, calls in some spice; sleek finish imbued with limestone and grapefruit. Excellent. About $20.
Ad Lib Tree Hugger Chardonnay 2010, Western Australia. 12.5% alc. Pale gold color; fresh, vital, clean as a whistle; pineapple-grapefruit with hints of lemon zest and lime peel, heaps of limestone-like minerality; the briskness of grapefruit acidity and some of the dry spareness of the pith, with lemon and pineapple; soft, round texture, a suave flowing over river rocks. Drink up this summer. Very Good+. About $17.
Echelon Red Blend 2010, California. 13% alc. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot “& other reds.” This won’t compel you to fire off a telegram to your broker — “Buy the company!” — but it’s a decent, nicely proportioned quaff that features ripe and spicy cassis, black cherry and plum scents and flavors etched with hints of bittersweet chocolate, cedar and tobacco, black pepper, lavender and potpourri; a modicum of smooth chewy tannins and sufficient acidity keep it honest. Drink with steaks, burgers, pizzas. Very Good. About $14.
Clayhouse Malbec 2010, Paso Robles. 13.6% alc. Malbec 85%, petite sirah 11%, tempranillo 4%. Dark ruby-purple color; vibrant in every sense, spicy and robust; deep black currant and black cherry scents and flavors, with a touch of something reddish like red plums and currants; hints of cedar, thyme, black olive and a touch exotic in sandalwood and licorice; solid, firm, supple, with moderately dense tannins; black and red fruit flavors; an earthy, mineral-flecked finish. Very Good+. About $15, a Real Bargain.

As the guru of modern biodynamism, Nicolas Joly has a lot to account for. The proprietor of the ancient estate of Coulée de Serrant, in Anjou’s tiny Savennières appellation, a fleck of prized Loire Valley real estate southwest of the city of Angers, in 1980 he by chance (on a skiing trip) came upon the obscure Rudolph Steiner’s semi-mystical homeopathic/astrological principles of agriculture, delivered in a series of lectures in 1924, and embraced them with the zeal of an aimless fanatic ripe for the fall. Wonder what would have happened if, instead of Steiner, Joly had discovered Wilhelm Reich, thereby filling vineyards around the world with enigmatic orgone machines instead of cow horns filled with silicalized dung. Or L. Ron Hubbard. Some people require a higher power to which to submit, and Joly found his in Steiner, who was not, allow me to point out, a farmer, yet somehow has been beatified as the Madame Blavatsky of viticulture.

Readers may think that I approach this subject with undue levity. Well, sorry, shoot me, but while some of the practices of the biodynamic movement make complete sense for anyone thoughtfully engaged in farming and are already widely employed in aspects of sustainable and organic agriculture — avoiding chemical pesticides and herbicides, using cover crops between rows, trying to establish a sense of natural harmony within the vineyard — other methodologies seem to come straight out of a New Age commune where flower-decked nymphs and satyrs promulgate fertility according to the alignment of the stars. Why do otherwise intelligent people not understand that the stars are really very very far away and that the so-called astrological “signs” are primeval figments of mythic imaginations?

(The best introduction to the principles of biodynamic agriculture and to the history of Coulée de Serrant and the wines of Nicolas Joly comes from Chris Kissack, aka The Wine Doctor. I highly recommend this post.)

A few producers and winemakers around the world have embraced the biodynamic principles, to greater or lesser degrees, perhaps encouraged by Joly’s writings and his boundless sincerity — the crushing sincerity of the zealot — and often these producers and winemakers turn out wonderful wines; I encounter such wines at the “Return to Terroir” biodynamic events regularly, and I have written extensively about them over the past three months, which you must not take as an endorsement but as curiosity and concern. As far as Joly’s wines are concerned, I have never encountered the problems with oxidation that some writers mention, and even when they may have been difficult to assess, as they tend to be initially, the wines have exhibited nothing less than tremendous energy and vitality. On the other hand, I taste many wines not produced under the strictures of biodynamic principles that are also models of energy, vitality and verve. Readers may point to the successes bred by biodynamic methods and say, “See, they work,” to which I reply, “Except when they don’t.”

My first encounter with a wine from Nicolas Joly was at the restaurant Rubicon in San Francisco around Thanksgiving 1996. The wine was the Clos de la Bergerie Savennières 1992, Joly’s “second-tier” chenin blanc and it cost $48 on the wine list. (Big sighs, groans, rolling of eyes and the chorus, “Those were the days!”)

In January 2003, I had dinner at La Caravelle in New York and tasted one Coulée de Serrant wine from 2000 and two from 1999. (The “entry-level” Les Vieux Clos used to be labeled Becherelle for the American market). I’ll include the notes from my old newspaper column:

Though at first it seems serious and reticent, Joly’s Becherelle 2000, which carries a straight Savennières designation, blossoms with honeysuckle and jasmine and seethes with a sort of liquid minerality (mineral liquidity?) that amalgamates lemon-lime and limestone with peaches and baking spice and rollicking acid. This should drink beautifully through 2010. Excellent. About $33.

Joly’s decadent but not decorative Clos de la Bergerie 1999, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, sports a bright gold color and a bouquet that teems with smoke and old wood, orange zest, creme brulee and roasted apricots. Though touched with the earthy, damp leaf complexity of botrytis – the “noble rot” that affects very ripe grapes in proper autumn conditions and helps produce the world’s great dessert wines – this wine is bone-dry and perfectly balanced with a flinty-limestone element; the effect shows up in its plangent intensity, overwhelming ripeness and vibrancy. Keenly wrought, racy and elegant, Clos de la Bergerie 1999 is a great match with rich fish and seafood dishes. Well-stored, it could be a 15- to 20-year wine. Exceptional. About $43.

Third in this roster is the exotic, exuberant Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 1999, a bright golden-yellow wine (made from 40 to 80-year-old vines) whose qualities of cloves and cinnamon, pineapple and pineapple upside-down cake, bitter orange and tangerine seem not of this world. You have to keep reminding yourself: This is a dry wine! The tension and constant resolution here among a luxurious silky texture, ripe buttery fruit, zinging acid and deeply rooted mineral elements are thrilling. Long life ahead, 20 to 25 years. Exceptional. About $80.

In New York again, for the first and third “Return to Terroir” tastings in 2004 and 2006, I found the Joly wines from vintages 2002 and 2003, respectively, difficult to fathom, reticent, closed, oddly brooding in spirit for white wines, all qualities that match the reputation the wines have for not showing well in the first three or four years.

Then, in March 2007 I discovered a cache of Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2000 at a local retail store, $40 a bottle; I bought three. Here’s what I wrote (some extraneous comments edited) at the time on this blog:

Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2000, Savennières, Loire Valley. At a bit more than six years old, this example bursts with quince, peach and pear, spice-cake, mango and orange rind that get smokier and more roasted as the minutes pass, all nestled in a plush texture cut by vibrant acid. The wine tastes like honey, but it’s completely dry, so dry, in fact, that the finish is austere, offering the slight bitterness of grapefruit rind tempered by lanolin and a touch of jasmine. Exceptional, and under-priced at $36 to $40. Long life ahead; drink now through 2010 to ’14 (well-stored). 2010 to ’14! More like 2018 to ’20 I would say.

I include these notes on previous Joly wines I tasted (or drank) because they reveal a sense of consistency that seems to run true, at least in my experience, from year to year. They do not make an immediate bid for your regard, yet even in youthful reticence they offer tremendous vitality and the innate potential for richness. Some writers, particularly French critics with long experience and memory, decry the era of Nicolas Joly and prefer the wines produced by his mother before the son took over the estate. I cannot speak to those issues. I can only assert that generally I find the wines of Nicolas Joly and Coulée de Serrant to be among the world’s greatest expressions of the chenin blanc grape. Do biodynamic practices make them so? Do these esoteric methods “work”? Yes. No. I don’t know. The philosophy is what it is; the wines are what they are.

The wines of Nicolas Joly are imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York. Prices are approximate and represent a range found on the Internet. Image of Nicolas Joly from jimsloire.blogspot.com; map from vinsurvin-blog.com.

Nicolas Joly Les Vieux Clos 2009, Savennières. The color is pale gold with faint greenish-gold highlights; the aromas come first as classic chenin blanc — hay, candle wax, camellias, a delicate touch of honey — then deeper aspects of cloves, quince and ginger, dried orange rind, a winsome whiff of lilac, and, amid these sensual delights, a touch of something slightly astringent, slightly bracing and withholding, perhaps a hint of salt-marsh. The richness expands across the palate, not quite buttery but certainly ripe and fat yet — always a “yet” — again that feeling of resisting its own power, of insisting on a sense of spareness or refusing to surrender to its own florid potential; remember, this is a completely dry wine. Flavors of spiced and roasted lemons and pears are permeated by bright animating acidity and the presence of clean scintillating limestone minerality that burgeons through the finish. 15.2 percent alcohol. Approximately 580 cases produced. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. Prices vary widely; say $35 to $50.
Nicolas Joly Clos de La Bergerie 2009, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines. The 33-hectare vineyard of Roches aux Moines, among the most important in Savennières, is its own appellation; Joly owns 3.5 hectares. The vines average 30 to 40 years old, though some are as old as 80 years. There’s an immediate impression that Clos de La Bergerie 2009 is both more intense and concentrated and more generous than its cousin, Les Vieux Clos ’09. It’s a golden wine, rich, shimmering, honeyed, again almost buttery yet imbued with a formidable acid and mineral structure that provides a reservoir of inner resources; this is authoritatively dry, fine-boned, crystalline, a-quiver with crispness, liveliness and vitality and beautifully balanced among the suppleness of its texture, the ripe, spicy forwardness of its stone-fruit flavors and — here we are once more — the sense that the wine (as I scribbled in my first note): “resists too much richness.” That quality of inherent leanness, of a vibrant linearity, saves the wine from excess and flamboyance and keeps it consistently inviting as well as multi-layered; the evidence points to terrific grapes from an excellent year (following the inconsistent vintages of 2006, ’07 and ’08 in the central Loire) and skillful winemaking. So: macerated peaches and greengage plums with a vivid hint of pineapple; hay and straw, quince jam and lemongrass, a slightly earthy note; a spice-packed, resonant, elegant finish. The alcohol level is controversial: the label, as you can see, states 13.5 percent; in his survey of the Joly 2009s, Chris Kissack at thewinedoctor.com, says that the alcohol content of this wine is 15 percent; and the importer’s website has it at 15.8 percent! Whatever, there’s no trace of alcoholic sweetness or heat; the wine is exquisitely balanced, but with a gratifying risky, nervy edge. About 580 cases. Now through 2020 to ’25 or ’26. Exceptional. About $45 to $60.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Nicolas Joly Clos de Coulée de Serrant 2009, Savennières-Coulee de Serrant. The 7-hectare Coulee de Serrant vineyard — about 17.3 acres — is wholly owned by Nicolas Joly; like Roches aux Moines, it is a sub-appellation of Savennières. At a little more than two and a half years old, the wine is a beguiling and intriguing merging of dryness that hints of a core of sweet ripeness with a lush yet spare, lithe texture and intense resonance and vibrancy married to profound limestone-like minerality. Does this wine out-perform — not that it’s a contest — Clos de La Bergerie 2009? Again, I would say that the case is one of matters of degrees; the wines are similar in character, but Clos de Coulee de Serrant 09 possesses not only the limpid, luminous, spicy stone-fruit qualities — and, yes, the quince and cloves and ginger, the earthiness of damp hay, a touch of leafy fig and greengage, an extra hint of lightly buttered cinnamon toast — of its stablemates but it feels actually savory and mouth-watering; this wine practically glistens and gleams with personality (the topmost layer) while it delivers a pretty damned consummate iteration of the depth and dimension of which the chenin blanc grape is capable. 15.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2014 through 2024 to ’28. Excellent. About $65 to $90.

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