October 2012


The influence of geography and geology on vineyards, grapes and ultimately a bottle of wine is inestimable. In fact, geology and geography form the Alpha and the Omega of the biological foundation and agricultural process that in collaboration with weather — born itself of geographical and stratospheric principles — pump life into dormant vines, unfurl the leaves and encourage the buds, plump the grapes and bring them to fullness so they may be harvested and turned into wine. It’s not a magical or miraculous occurrence; aside from weather, which is the most variable factor in the tapestry, the elements of geography and geology change little over hundreds of thousands of years. (Global warming and climate change are different issues.)

Monterey County nestles against the Pacific Ocean, slanting to the southeast away from Monterey Bay, where it begins. You might picture, if you will, a flat valley, the Salinas Valley, the runs from the northwest to the the southeast between mountain ranges, the Santa Lucia Range to the west and the Galiban and San Benito ranges to the east. The Salinas Valley, a broad flatland, acts as a wind tunnel, drawing wind currents down from Monterey Bay, home to one of the world’s unique oceanographic features, the so-called Blue Grand Canyon, a name trademarked by the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association. Whatever it’s called, this two-mile-deep (from the surface of Monterey Bay) and 60-mile-long trench in the ocean floor, located less than 100 yards off the coast, generates a colossal amount of cold air that influences the climate of Monterey’s vineyard regions as far south as San Lucas, where the Salinas Valley peters out. As you can see from this relief map, most of Monterey County — the county line is pink — is mountains; the Salinas Valley spikes down between the ranges. The light green area toward the bottom, surmounted by what look like bunny ears, is the San Antonio Valley. (Map from landwatch.org)

The entire valley and the foothills of its adjacent mountain ranges are filled with fog from early morning to late morning or early afternoon, when rising temperatures click on the wind tunnel effect and winds of up to 30 miles per hour begin to churn from the bay down through the valley. The resulting Thermal Rainbow — another trademark — regulates temperatures from the bay, where it’s coolest, down through the Salinas Valley all the way to the Hames and San Antonio AVAs, where the temperature is the warmest, sometimes to a differential of 40 degrees. In the cooler areas, pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah and riesling vines flourish; farther south, the vineyards hold cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and some Rhone Valley grape varieties. The climate of the Central Coast and Salinas Valley is characterized as Mediterranean, meaning dry summers and cool, wet winters, though “wet” is a relative terms for a region where the rainfall averages 17 inches annually, and that’s between November and April. (The image above shows the Panorama Vineyard at the western edge of Arroyo Seco AVA, looking toward the Santa Lucia Range.)

Monterey County is an American Viticultural Area, so designated in 1984, but that doesn’t mean that you can plant grapes anywhere in the county and expect to say so on the label. The Monterey AVA is restricted to the narrow, central part of the county as well as an arm that reaches to the coast around Carmel. Lying along or within the Monterey AVA are eight smaller appellations, some of which are much better known than others: Chalone (1982), high above Soledad in the Gabilan hills below Pinnacles National Monument, home to one winery, Chalone Estate, and two other vineyards, 300 acres planted; Carmel Valley (1983), with five wineries and 300 acres of vines; the crowded Arroyo Seco (1983), with 37 wineries and vineyards and 7000 acres of vines; the seldom seen San Lucas (1987), home to eight vineyards that total 8,000 acres; the increasingly prestigious Santa Lucia Highlands (1991), with 29 vineyards and wineries and 5,900 planted acres; the also seldom seen Hames Valley AVA (1994), with eight vineyards totaling 2,200 acres; San Bernabe (2004), whose raison d’etre is 4,300 acres of vines owned by Delicato Family Vineyards; and the vast and largely empty San Antonio Valley (2006), which boasts three wineries and another vineyard totaling 600 acres.

My concern today (and in a subsequent post), after this introduction, is Santa Lucia Highlands, a long, narrow and increasingly populated AVA that over the past two decades has built a solid reputation for wines made from (especially) chardonnay and pinot noir grapes. SLH perches along the eastern terrace of the Santa Lucia Range, on the west side of the Salinas Valley, looking across to the distant Chalone AVA and Pinnacles National Monument (see accompanying image, from santaluciahighlands.com). From any vantage point or dizzy coign, the valley spreads northwest and southeast in a fertile quilt-like patchwork of various intense green hues, the country’s abundant basket of lettuce, cabbage and other leafy vegetables, that would not be possible without irrigation. SLH benefits from its semi-lofty placement on the escarpment — vineyards go from about 300 to 1,400-feet-elevation — where morning fog from Monterey Bay brings moisture and late morning sun and afternoon winds dry the grapes; the cool winds also slow photosynthesis, ensuring a long, even ripening of the grapes. Soil is primarily fine alluvial sandy or gravelly loam.

I’ll look today at SLH products from two young (or youngish) winemakers, Sabrine Rodems at Wrath Wines (she also has some Monterey AVA wines) and Chris Weidemann, who owns Pelerin Wines. A post coming next week (at a rough estimate) will discuss Figge Cellars, Tudor, Boekenoogan and Hahn Estate’s Lucienne single-vineyard pinot noirs. All of these wines were tasted on a sponsored trip to Monterey during the second week of September.
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Sabrine Rodems is fast-talking, brash, opinionated, animated, funny and sincere and totally dedicated to making authentic wines with balance, integrity, grace and no small measure of power. As winemaker for Wrath Wines — formerly San Saba Vineyards –she produces very limited quantities of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and syrah under three labels: Ex Anima Wines, Winemaker Series and Single Vineyard Series.

The Wrath Ex Anima Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Monterey, practically climbs out of the glass with its brash bright notes of green apple, grapefruit and gooseberry and hints of fresh-mown grass; made all in stainless steel, this is very clean, crisp and tart, with appealing personality and mineral grip. 12.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $19. The Wrath 3 Clone Chardonnay 2010, Monterey, goes the whole route: barrel-fermentation, 10 months in “40 or 50 percent” (Rodems said) new French oak and full malolactic; almost miraculously, the result is not overwhelming richness but exquisite balance, lovely heft, density and texture, reams of spice-infused apple, grapefruit and pineapple scents and flavors heightened by a trace of jasmine and deepened by shimmering limestone and flint minerality. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $35.

The Ex Anima Pinot Noir 2010, Monterey, aged 10 months in a combination of stainless steel tanks and two-to-four-year-old French oak; no window-dressing here, this is all pinot noir purity and intensity, cleanness and freshness, with clove-and-cola- inflected raspberry and red currant scents and flavors, a sleek satiny texture and invigorating acidity that cuts a swath on the palate. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $25. Rodems makes a pinot noir from the Boekenoogan Vineyard (about which more later); the version for 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, reveals a bit more obvious hand with oak, but the wine is essentially well-balanced, smooth, suave and polished. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $49.

Finally, the Wrath Fairview Vineyard Syrah 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, offers all the blackberry and blueberry fruit, baking spice and black pepper and potpourri you could ask for in a supple package bolstered by plenty of dusty, briery tannins and earthy graphite-like minerality. 14.6 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $35.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Sometimes you encounter wines that seem such an embodiment of grace and elegance, purity and integrity that you would like to drink them forever. It’s fitting that the labels of Chris Weidemann’s Pelerin Wines feature the profile of an elderly pilgrim depicted as if part of an ancient mural; that sense of classical decorum and timelessness is intrinsic in Weidemann’s wines, all of which carry the Santa Lucia Highlands designation. He specializes in chardonnay, pinot noir and red and white Rhone Valley grape varieties and produces about 2,200 cases annually.

The Pelerin Paraiso Vineyard Les Tournesols 2010 is a blend of 58 percent viognier and 42 percent roussanne grapes; the wine spent six months in neutral oak barrels, that is, barrels used several times before. What a completely lovely, perfectly balanced wine, with notes of jasmine, fig, melon and roasted lemon and a hint of lime peel and limestone; audacious acidity and a firm but limpid limestone element support a structure and texture of beguiling shading and dimension. 14.4 percent alcohol. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $27. The Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 offers a bright gold color and grapefruit-pineapple scents and flavors that hint at the tropical without falling into the trap of overstatement or ungovernable ripeness; it’s a beautifully balanced and harmonious chardonnay, smooth, subtle and supple but with an edge of spice and flint, ginger and quince that raises the level of discourse a notch or two. 14.4 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $42.

People often say, “Words fail,” an assertion I find ridiculous, because words and language are adequate for all purposes; it’s not the words that fail, it’s us and our imaginations. So, words don’t fail at the prospect of describing the Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, but they certainly stand rather awe-struck. Not that there’s anything super-dimensional about the wine; just the opposite, and if you’re weary of pinot noir wines from California that push the limits with extraction and richness and ripeness and alcohol, then this pinot noir is what you have been longing for. The fruit profile is red and blue, as in red currants and plums and blueberries with a hint of the tartness of cranberries and notes of cola and cloves; supple, satiny, yes, but spare, elegant and understated, except for the essential crisply-etched acidity that plows a row on the palate and a seemingly fathoms-deep element of graphite-like minerality and earthy briers and brambles, all this panoply subdued in honor of divine harmony. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 or ’15. Exceptional. About $42.

Finally, the Pelerin Paraiso Vineyard Les Violettes Syrah 2008 is a model of balance, purity, intensity and utter drinkablility, yet behind that sapid facade, with its tasty black and blue fruit flavors, lingers a savory bastion of tar and tapenade, leather, black pepper and graphite. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $36.
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I came across Abita Root Beer at Fresh Market, where a single, 12-ounce bottle is $1.69. Six-packs are also available. It’s a product of the well-known brewery based in Abita Springs, Louisiana, famous for its Turbodog dark brown ale, its Restoration Pale Ale and Purple Haze, a lager with raspberries, as well as a full line of seasonal and specialty brews. I’m an advocate of full disclosure on labels, and on that standard, Abita Root Beer fails. Here’s the list of ingredients: “Carbonated water, cane sugar, caramel color, root beer flavor, phosphoric acid.” Root beer flavor? Come on! Compare that evasive or at least inattentive term to the roster of ingredients found on bottles of Virgil’s Root Beer:

Carbonated water and unbleached cane sugar; anise from Spain, licorice from France, vanilla (bourbon) from Madagascar, cinnamon from Ceylon, clove from Indonesia, wintergreen from China, sweet birch from the southern US, molasses from the US, nutmeg from Indonesia, pimento berry oil from Jamaica, balsam oil from Peru, cassia oil from China.

Now you might say that Virgil’s list is a bit fussy and foodist in its details — Madagascar! China! Peru! — but at least consumers know what’s in the bottle, unlike the incomplete transparency of “root beer flavor.” Abita’s website mentions vanilla and yucca, the latter a foaming agent, but those brief citations don’t inform drinkers about the actual derivation of the scents and flavors.

And here’s what I wrote previously about phosphoric acid:

“Phosphoric acid (H3PO4) is an inorganic mineral acid that lends liveliness and tang to cola-style soft drinks. It’s cheaper and more widely available than citric acid. Phosphoric acid is also used as a rust remover — ‘naval jelly’ — and has been linked to lower bone density in habitual cola drinkers.”

I’ve had five or six bottles of Abita Root Beer recently, and I found the product more interesting than appealing. It’s pretty reticent for a sweet soft drink, but with good balance between acidity and sweetness and adequate creaminess. The spicy, rooty aspects — and root beer should by definition be a little rooty, n’est-ce pas? — are subdued to a kind of general cloves-and-vanilla quality, while the finish is bracing and surprisingly austere.

Not my favorite root beer, but definitely offers more character than some of the better-known brands such as Dad’s and Frostie.

Image from abita.com.

The mantra seems to be: “Wines of the Mosel are delicate and nuanced; wines of Rheinhessen and Rheingau are more earthbound.” As is the case with much accepted wisdom, there’s more than a little truth to this assumption, and yet here we have the Weingut Max Fred. Richter Mülheimer Sonnenlay Riesling Kabinett-feinherb 2011, from Germany’s Mosel region, that practically revels in the earthy, gravelly grounding that bolsters its more typical ethereal effects. There’s a fairly new term on the label. We used to see halbtrocken, meaning “half-dry,” indicating a wine that’s slightly sweet, primarily on entry, though usually segueing to a dry finish because of the crisp acidity and limestone-like minerality. We will increasingly see the word feinherb as a replacement for halbtrocken; though feinherb literally means “delicately bitter” — go figure — in the context of German wine labels it denotes a half-dry wine, which somehow is predicated as drier than “semi-sweet.”

What else is on this label? (Attention! Education Alert!)

At the top, the name of the producer, Weingut Max Ferd. Richter and just below that the name of the village where the estate is located, Mülheim. Since we’re reading top to bottom, next is a picture of the old building and below that the indication that the estate has been owned by the same family since 1680. Now we get to the heart of the information. The vintage is 2011, prominently displayed, but even more typographical emphasis is placed upon the village, the vineyard, the grape variety and the style of wine. Mulheimer Sonnenlay means that the grapes were grown in the Sonnenlay vineyard that stands in the village of Mulheim, or, rather, it occupies an area of a hillside just to the southeast of the town. This is not one of the vineyards that photographs so beautifully because its steep terraces hover over the river; that picturesque aspect was precluded some 250,000 years ago when the Mosel changed course slightly and left the hill high and dry. The name of the vineyard means something like “sunshine/slate,” and if there are two more important factors in the nurture of the riesling grape, that is to say sun and soil, I don’t know what they are.

Kabinett is an indication that this wine falls into the category of the theoretically driest of the German wines of superior lineage; see the term Deutscher Prädikatswein just below. Remember that the categories of these wines — Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese and so on — don’t refer to the sweetness or dryness of the wine in the bottle but to the level of ripeness at which the grapes were harvested, the factor being that the longer the grapes hang on the vine, the more concentrated and filled with sugar they will be. “A.P.Nr 2 593 049 03 12″ is the official approval number of this wine and gives the testing boards a code to track the wine in case issues of authenticity arise. Finally, in large letters, “MOSEL,” the name of the region.

And that’s your lesson today in reading a German wine label. Did I cover all the intricate points? Oh, no, that would require a complete post, and this is, after all, the Wine of the Week.

So, to get on with it, the Max Fred. Richter Mülheimer Sonnenlay Riesling Kabinett-feinherb 2011 offers a very pale gold color that almost shimmers with radiance. Aromas of lightly spiced peaches and pears with an overlay of lychee and petrol/rubber eraser are wrapped in a sheen of jasmine and an element of clean earthy/flint-like minerality. That earthiness, a seeming combination of light loam and limestone, provides the bass notes for the wine as it laves the palate with the certainly present but delicately modulated ripeness of those peaches and pears, a ripeness that the tongue perceives as initial sweetness that flows into a sense of increasing dryness as the bright and keen acidity and the vibrant limestone and slate mineral qualities dominate from mid-palate back through the airy, ethereal finish. 11 percent alcohol. A lovely riesling, charming and engaging, with a touch of seriousness, for drinking through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $21, representing Great Value.

Imported by Langdon Shiverich, Los Angeles. A sample for review.


Seven white wines and one rosé; seven Californians and one Spanish wine (not the rosé). Several chardonnays and a viognier made exactly in the fashion I like best. And some irresistible bargains. I do it all for you. No technical data, no paeans to place, no exploring the byways of personnel and personality; just brief reviews designed to perk up your interest and whet your thirst. Enjoy. These were samples for review.
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Pepi Chenin Blanc Viognier 2011, California. 13% alc. 66% chenin blanc, 34% viognier. Pleasant enough and drinkable but the grape varieties get lost in each other; a little citrusy, a little spicy, pleasing texture; no great shakes, but you can’t beat the price. Good to sip when you don’t want to hurt your brain too much. Good+. About $10.
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Sumarroca Temps de Flors 2011, Penedes, Spain. 12% alc. 48% xarel-lo, 40 % muscat, 12% gewurztraminer. Pale straw-gold color; very attractive but with some spareness and slight astringent factor, like little white mountain flowers that don’t take any crap from you, thank you v. much; pear, yellow plum, hint of white peach; acacia with a touch of honey and bees’-wax; lovely, lively, lithe and totally charming. Now into Spring 2013. Very Good+. About $14, offering Great Value.
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St. Clement Chardonnay 2010, Carneros, Napa Valley. 14.6% alc. Pale straw-gold color; just lovely; slightly smoky and steely pineapple- grapefruit scents and flavors, clove and limestone-flecked and with a beguiling trace of honeysuckle; spiced apples and pears, hint of citrus, sleek, smooth, supple and tingling with brisk acidity, superb balance between tense and teasing nervous energy and lightly honed richness, the finish laved with damp limestone and flint. My style. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $19, a Terrific Value.
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Ventana Dry Rosato 2011, Arroyo Seco, Monterey. 13.5% alc. 500 cases. 90% grenache, 10% syrah. Pale melon color; strawberry, dried cranberries and mulberries, hint of dusty limestone; supple texture with crisp acidity; a delightfully delicate and well-knit rosé with pleasing heft for drinking through Summer 2013. Very Good+. About $22.
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Ventana Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Arroyo Seco, Monterey. 14.2% alc. Pale straw-gold color; notably clean and fresh; lemon and pear, dried thyme and tarragon, hints of honeysuckle, lemongrass and gooseberry; vibrant, lively, spicy, engaging, but dry, spare, almost elegant. Now through 2013. Very Good+. About $22.
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Ventana Chardonnay 2010, Arroyo Seco, Monterey. 14.2% alc. Pale gold color; pineapple and grapefruit, a bit of mango, a few minutes bring up notes of greengage and quince and cloves; crisp and lively, texture moderately lush but tempered by acidity and a burgeoning limestone element; very nicely balanced, holds the richness of fruit in check for the essential structure. Through 2013. Excellent. About $22.
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Chamisal Estate Bottled Chardonnay 2010, Edna Valley. 13.9% alc. Very pale gold color; fresh clean aromas of candied quince and ginger, grapefruit and pineapple with a backnote of mango and delicately smoky oak; flavors of green apple and pineapple are boldly framed by baking spice, slightly woody dried spices (and a trace of dried flowers) and a hint of baked lemon; all held in check by bright acidity and a scintillating limestone element. This qualifies as radiant. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $28.
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Stags’ Leap Winery Viognier 2011, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Pale gold color; vibrantly clean, fresh, lissom, elegant; a wine of stones and bones with a hint of jasmine and tarragon laid over tart lemon and pear flavors bolstered by taut acidity and a bracing sea-salt and grapefruit finish; paradoxically, the texture is seductive and enveloping. For people weary of the overwhelming floral style of viognier. Now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $30.
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As in the 36 hours that the Attems Cupra Ramato Pinot Grigio 2011 spent in contact with the grape skins as opposed to the Attems (“regular”) Pinot Grigio 2011, which received no skin contact. The latter offers the palest of pale straw-gold colors, as we would expect; the former, the Cupra Ramato, delivers a very pale peach-copper color, just the faintest flush or blush. So, is Cupra Ramato a rosé or, as they say in Italian, a rosato? No, because a rosé is a pale wine made from red grapes. Cupra Ramato is made from a “white” grape, though that word is misleading. The grapes made into “white” wines, which aren’t really white strictly speaking, are typically green or greenish yellow, and while pinot grigio (and its French counterpart pinot gris) are nominally white wines, the grigio (or gris) segments of the names point to the grape’s rosy-grayish hue. Today’s wines are from Venezia Giulia, part of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region in northeastern Italy; Austria is to the north, Slovenia to the east, the Adriatic to the south.

Cupra Ramato is, in essence, an “orange wine,” the phenomenon that’s been such a trend — dare we say fad? — in the world of white wine-making for the past 10 or 12 years. The technique of fermenting and aging white wines on the skins is ancient and actually was employed in Italy as recently as the 1950s and ’60s, but producers abandoned the tradition because crystal clean white wines were seen as more commercially viable. Some commentators credit Friulian winemaker Josko Gravner with reviving the practice, though he moved far beyond usual winemaking methods by aging his “white” wines in terra cotta amphorae lined with bees’-wax and buried up to the rims in the earth. Thirty-six hours on the skins is mild compared to the practices of some of the more fanatical orange wine producers. Slovenian
winemaker Ales Kristancic ferments and then ages his Movia Lunar, made from ribolla gialla grapes, seven months in barrels buried 30 feet underground.

The question then, for this post, is What difference does it make that one pinot grigio is made in the accepted (or once-accepted) manner and the other in the new skin-contact fashion? While the differences are not earth-shaking, these two examples of pinot grigio might have come from diverse sensibilities; both are very well-made and quite charming. Northeastern Italy is home to many of the best pinot grigio wines made on the planet — and many of the worst, the most industrial and over-manufactured. Attems, fortunately, can be depended on consistently to make some of the best.

First, the Attems Pinot Grigio 2011, Venezia Giulia, a model that offers far more in body, texture and complexity than the run-of-the-mill pinot grigio. Aromas of almond and almond blossom, orange rind, roasted lemons and yellow plums unfold to reveal hints of lime peel and limestone and a whiff of some mysterious tropical fruit for a touch of the exotic. The wine is blended from grapes derived from vineyards planted in 2002 but also in 1963, so there’s the grip and character of vines that are almost 50 years old; mostly stainless steel but 15 percent aged in French barriques. One feels the texture lively and persuasive on the palate, bright with acidity, scintillating with limestone-and-shale-like minerality yet almost lush with citrus and stone fruit flavors deeply imbued with notes of cloves, quince and ginger. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2013. Excellent. About $19.

The Attems Cupra Ramato Pinot Grigio 2011, Venezia Giulia, is not a sibling but a cousin to the producer’s regular pinot griogio, made from different vineyards averaging 15 years old. Again, the wine matured four months, 15 percent in barriques, the rest in stainless steel; first, however, came the 36 hours on the skins. The color is very pale copper-peach; aromas begin with apples and pears, with a touch of orange rind, and then gather notes of dried strawberries, hay, flint and cloves. The whole package is subtle, delicately modulated, lightly spiced; in the mouth the accent is on fresh and dried Rainier cherries and baked pears enlivened by fresh, crisp acidity and undertones of slate, sea salt and a sort of paradoxical mocha-like earthiness. This is very charming, lovely and very easy to drink, but despite the skin contact, it lacks the dynamic personality and depth of the previous wine. Drink through 2013. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $19.

Imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Ca. Map from winetours.co.uk. These were samples for review.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness …

When John Keats wrote these opening lines of “Endymion,” he was thinking of the Platonic and transcendental beauty of nature, not a bottle of wine, though he wrote some fine, brief descriptions of wine here and there in his body of work, notably in the second stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where he calls for “a draught of vintage! that hath been/Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth…” Later in this stanza, he calls again, ecstatically: “O for a beaker full of the warm South,/Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,/With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,/And the purple-stained mouth …” I taught this poem for years in the second semester of English Literature survey, and every time I read those lines, I thought, “Damnit! I want some of that wine!”

Unfortunately, unlike the endlessly melodic and unchanging song of the nightingale — “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” — a bottle of wine is not immortal, though some wines are capable of aging into mature beauty. In fact, Keats hits on both of the themes that have dominated the world’s wine industry since the ancient times of the wine-loving Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, and that is that some wines are intended to cool their heels “a long age in the deep-delved earth” until they attain a plateau of subtlety and nuance, while other wines, “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim,/And purple-stained mouth,” something like 95 percent of all wine produced in the world, are meant for more or less immediate consumption. In the wine-reviewing business, we don’t often have the opportunity to try those lovely, old, fully developed wines — and we are jealous of those who do — because our focus is on wines in current release, which we taste too young and have to evaluate more in terms of potential — “Best from 2016 or ’17 through 2025 or ’27″ — than for their ability to deliver pleasure in the present. The truth, though, is that nowadays many winemakers are producing wines, particularly reds of course, intended to be drinkable soon after release as well as 15 or 20 or more years later.

Paradoxically, and perhaps perversely, the wine that inspired this post was not a fine old vintage — though I’ll get to a few of those in a different post soon — but a just released cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley, a region widely and justly acclaimed as having one of the best climates and geographies for the grape. The wine is the St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley, a blend of 87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 2 percent petit verdot and 1 percent cabernet franc that aged 19 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. Winemaker is Danielle Cyrot. A portion of the grapes for Oroppas ’08 came from the valley floor, in Rutherford, but the majority derived from higher altitudes in Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder.

The color is pure intense dark red-ruby, while the bouquet presages the perfect balance and harmony that characterize the wine; no edges here, no risks, just the sheer beauty of a wine that’s so totally poised and integrated. Aromas of licorice, lavender and potpourri, warm and slightly roasted and meaty black currants, black cherries and a touch of wilder mulberry are permeated by hints of cedar and thyme, graphite and bittersweet chocolate. Yes, there are tannins and they grow more powerful or at least evident over 20 or 30 minutes, but they’re tannins of the finely milled, minutely sifted variety, sleek and suave as the oak influence on the wine is sleek and suave and almost invisible. Who said that oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible? Why, that was me! And so it is here! I mean, the wine soaked up that oak and turned it into another dimension. This cabernet sauvignon is, in other words, an absolutely lovely, pure and intense expression of the grape, delivering the immediate gratification that’s so important for consumers in these times yet possessing enough backbone and grip and earthy minerality — and nothing overdone, nothing too ripe or opulent — to allow the finish its quiet and slightly demanding moments of dignity and austerity. 14.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $55.

Why did this wine inspire the post you’re reading now?

To corral another poet to my purpose, Wallace Stevens, in “Sunday Morning,” one of the greatest poems written in the 20th Century, said “Death is the mother of beauty.” Though that sentence sounds like a grim sentence indeed, Stevens means that beauty is born of its inherently fragile and inevitably ephemeral character. We value beauty all the higher because its very nature embodies its impermanence, its decline and final dissolution. Keats’ nightingale is not immortal in the individual bird; they all die, but the identical song lives on in each generation of nightingales. The greatest wines ever made — Margaux 1900, Mouton-Rothschild ’29, Cheval Blanc ’47, Petrus ’49, Lafite ’59, Latour ’82 — however extravagantly lauded and loved will soon be gone from this ever-changing earth, faded, weakened, cracking up, fled, departed. That G. Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1998 that you’ve been holding onto like Silas Marner his hoard of gold (a wine that shook me to the core when I tasted it from barrel in December 1999, as it happens on my birthday); drink it, my friend, because it will soon go the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon. That last bottle of Heitz Martha’s Vineyard ’74 in your cellar, you lucky bastard (depending on its condition, of course)? Gather your loved ones, roast a chicken, sit down together and eat and drink. It will not last much longer nor was it meant to.

St. Clement Oroppas 2008 is an absolutely gorgeous wine, fine and beautiful in every small detail and broad stroke, and when we drank it, we felt privileged. I would love to try the wine again in 10 years. It is not immortal, nor does it stand among the greatest cabernet wines ever produced. It was made for pleasure, both now and through the next decade, and that is a goal and accomplishment not to be disparaged, and a great deal of its pleasure lies in what Keats, so wise for one so young — he was 25 when he died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821 — wrote about in another poem, “Ode on Melancholy.” Melancholy, he wrote, “dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die;/And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu…” Dissolution and decay dwell with the beauty of great wines, and tasting them, drinking that lambent, plangent liquor, we feel the death inside them and the beauty, and we are made glad.

Image of John Keats from Bettmann/Corbis; image of dusty old wine bottles from rapgenius.com. The St. Clement Oroppas 2008 was a sample for review.

We drink quite a few rieslings because the wines can be versatile, matching well with a variety of dishes. Primarily, we try rieslings with fish preparations but also with certain pasta dishes and risottos and with light meats like pork and (when LL is traveling and I’m cooking on my own) veal. The combination of crisp acidity, floral and stone-fruit scents and flavors, sometimes intense spiciness and an underlying earthiness that rieslings often embody — as well as a touch of initial sweetness — also bode well for drinking with moderately hot Indian and Southeast Asian fare.

Lately, we’ve had the Domäne Wachau Federspiel Terassen Riesling 2011, Wachau, Austria, at home with salmon and swordfish and a vegetarian pasta. (I was sent two bottles.) Made all in stainless steel — winemaker is Heinz Frischengruber — this sprightly riesling offers the palest of pale gold colors and a delicate bouquet woven of apples, peaches and pears, touches of jasmine and honeysuckle, hints of lychee and petrol (or rubber eraser) and a background of damp limestone. Sounds pretty irresistible, huh? By sprightly I don’t mean that the wine is effervescent but that it’s brisk, lively and vibrant and that these buoyant qualities animate the tasty and moderately rich flavors of pears and yellow plums — there’s a wisp of baked apple — but before you think that this all feels sort of exuberant, I’ll say that the wine is a tissue of nuances and that from mid-palate back it’s modulated by crystalline acidity and limestone minerality. A nicely balanced 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $13, a Terrific Bargain.

The intensely picturesque Wachau, a UNESCO Heritage Site, lies along the Danube between the towns of Melk and Krems. The “Terrassen” designation on the label of this wine refers to the steep terraced slopes that line the river. Wachau is the smallest of Austria’s vineyard and wine-producing regions and the most inland; the country’s wine areas are all in the easternmost part of Austria, primarily adjacent to the borders with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia.

Imported by Vin Divino, Chicago. A sample for review.

Though the concept of an etude could legitimately refer to any area of technical study, we are mainly familiar with its use in the realm of music, where an etude is a miniature piece designed to exercise a particular aspect of skills, such as, for the piano, playing runs with double octaves or developing speed and accuracy in chromatic passages. The most famous sets of etudes are Chopin’s Opus 10 and Opus 25, published in 1833 and 1837 respectively, brief works of fiendish difficulty and often ravishing melody, though some of the pieces are profound in their depths of fervor and bravado. It’s almost a paradox, then, that when well-known winemaker and consultant Tony Soter launched Etude Wines in 1985 he named the winery for an idea based on exercises that seek for mechanical proficiency, though Chopin demands emotional and psychological commitment from his performers, as Soter always did, in a sense, from his consumers. Whatever the case, these examples of a chardonnay and pinot noir from Etude reveal an extremely high level of proficiency and dedication. Winemaker is Jon Priest. Soter sold Etude’s brand and inventory — there was no winery facility — to Beringer Blass in 2001. Through a demerger from the Fosters Group in 2011, Etude (and a host of other interesting or important brands in California and Australia) is owned by Treasury Wine Estates.

These wines were samples for review.
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The Etude Chardonnay 2010, Carneros, rated a “just beautiful” as my first note; this is exactly what I want chardonnay to be: cool, spare, elegant, pure and transparent yet displaying inner richness and succulence restrained by dazzling acidity and scintillating mineral elements. The wine aged 10 months in neutral French oak, meaning barrels that have been used for aging wine several times so that their effect on a wine is subtle and nuanced. Notes of green apples, spiced pears and grapefruit are buoyed by hints of limestone and flint and a bit of jasmine; this is wonderfully suave, smooth and supple, with an abundance of intensely ripe and spicy stone fruit and citrus flavors that are both off-set and highlighted by a crisp vibrant acid presence and an almost crystalline edge of limestone and chalk. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $32.
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All right, so my first note on the Etude Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros, was “OMG!” As with the Etude Chardonnay 2010 reviewed just above, this exemplary model embodies exactly what I want a New World pinot noir to be: satiny and savory, with power and elegance married in equal measure and with a sense of delicacy bringing restraint to its intent and purposefulness. Many of the Etudes in Chopin’s Op. 10 and Op. 25 deliver a metaphorical sense of ineffable tinsel supported by the backbone of tensile strength, and this eminently drinkable yet somewhat age-worthy pinot noir feels the same. Under the lovely effects of pure and intense black cherries, black currents and plums permeated by hints of rhubarb and pomegranate, blueberry and sassafras, this wine delivers a lash of vivacious acidity and an undercoat of graphite and shale, all leading to a finish packed with the resonance of deep, spicy black and blue fruit flavors — there’s a hint of fruitcake, too, and a whiff of smoke and a bit of lavender — and the welcome earthiness and slight austerity of briery, brambly qualities. Now through 2015 or ’17. Excellent. About $42.
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