January 2015

Rodney Strong Vineyards already has a fairly full roster of chardonnay and pinot noir wines. There are the Reserve Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the Estate Chardonnay, designated Chalk Hill, and Estate Pinot Noir, designated Russian River Valley, and a “regular” Sonoma County chardonnay. Recently, the winery added, under its Estate division, a chardonnay and pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast AVA. Sonoma Coast, officially approved as an American Viticultural Area in 1987, encompasses more than 500,000 acres and stretches from San Pablo Bay in the south to the Mendocino County line in the north. In the past decade or so, the region has established a reputation, primarily because of its ocean influence and cooler climate, as a prime, not to say primal, area for chardonnay and pinot noir. On the other hand, it’s such a large AVA that it’s difficult to establish one fixed identity for it, which is why there are movements afoot to portion off distinct smaller regions as sub-AVAs; Fort Ross-Seaview was approved in 2011, and I wouldn’t be surprised if windy, foggy Petaluma Gap, which contributes grapes to both of the wines under review today, was granted that privilege soon. You’ll notice on the labels illustrated here that the Sonoma Coast designation is given prominence over the grape variety. Winemakers for these examples were Rick Sayre and Justin Seidenfeld. These wines were samples for review.
When I saw that the Rodney Strong Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast, was barrel-fermented and spent 10 months in 85 percent new French oak barrels, my heart sank; that’s a lot of new oak for a chardonnay. However, some (unspecified) amount stayed in stainless steel, which perhaps helped to right the balance. In any case, the color is pale gold; the whole effect is bright, fresh and clean, with beguiling aromas of pineapple, grapefruit and green apple woven with cloves and crystallized ginger and notes of guava and quince; yes, there’s a hint of a tropical element, but it’s not overplayed. Oak is deftly integrated on the palate, with just a touch of the toasty quality, but supported by brisk acidity and scintillating limestone minerality; delicious green apple and spiced pear flavors are nestled in a winsome, moderately dense texture that flows with supple subtlety across the palate. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 to ’18. Excellent. About $25.
The color of the Rodney Strong Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, is an almost translucent ruby-magenta hue. This is a highly fragrant wine, offering prominent notes of cloves and sassafras, black cherries and plums, with hints of red and black currants and pomagranate, and touches of lavender and rose petals. There’s a lovely satiny drape to the texture, but the structure is broad and deep, almost tannic, and framed by spicy, woody, woodsy elements from 10 months in French oak barrels, 35 percent new; a copious amount of loamy, briery and brambly earthiness lends foundation to a well-balanced and integrated package. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $30.

Because I am late with the Wine of the Week, I offer a pair of products to atone for my procrastination. These are two bargain-priced wines from Bordeaux and are definitely Worth a Search. Each, incidentally, was acquired within the past few years by Russian and Chinese companies. Imported by The Wine Trust, Mattituck, N.Y. These wines were samples for review.
Chateau de Birot overlooks the Garonne River from its hillside in Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux. Wine has been made on the estate for more than 200 years; the impressive chateau — the Dutch writer Hubrecht Duijker calls it “alluring” — dates from the second half of the 18th Century. Acquired by Eric and Hélène Fournier-Casteja in 1989, the estate was sold in December 2014 to the Chinese hospitality company New Century Tourism Group.

Blanc de Birot 2012, carrying a Bordeaux designation, is a blend of 65 percent sauvignon blanc grapes and 35 percent semillon; it aged 12 months in French oak, 20 percent new barrels. The color is pale gold; speaking of “alluring,” an extraordinary bouquet of lemongrass, pineapple, fig, lime peel and jasmine teases and tantalizes the nose; on the palate, the wine is clean and fresh, tart with lemon and grapefruit flavors and scintillating with bright acidity and crushed gravel/limestone minerality. The whole effect offers gratifying balance between sassy briskness and a soft talc-like texture. 13 percent alcohol. A wine that practically gets down on its knees and begs for a platter of just-shucked oysters, though it also serves handily as aperitif. Drink through 2016. Very Good+. About $13 or $14, a Bargain of the Decade.
The red wine of this pair is Les Sources de Livran 2009, Medoc, the second label of Chateau Livran, an estate that traces its long history back to 1280, when King Edward I of England granted the right to brother knights Arnaud and Beraud de Got to build a fortress on the land, a few kilometers west of the Gironde estuary. Their more famous brother was Bertrand de Got, who served as Pope Clement V from 1305 to 1314. Nothing of that fortress remains, but the estate itself has produced wine for hundreds of years. In 1889, the property was acquired by the Englishman James L. Denman, and then in the mid-20th Century by Robert Godfren, under whose ownership the estate released what are usually described as “correct” and “adequate” wines. In 2008, however, Chateau Livran was purchased by a Russian investment firm, and if things can be turned around in a couple of harvests, that may have been the case here, because Les Sources de Livran 2009 is a lovely wine, not overly serious or weighty but delicious and satisfying, what the British call a “luncheon claret.”

This ’09 is a 50/50 blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, aged 12 months in oak. The color is dark ruby with a touch of garnet at the rim; aromas of dried currants and plums, cloves and sandalwood, violets and potpourri dominate a bouquet that meshes with dusty, woodsy notes, dried herbs and a hint of graphite. Animated by lip-smacking acidity and featuring a firm though not tight tannic grip, the wine is spare but not austere, slightly dusty and powdery in texture and decently furnished with black and blue fruit flavors that peel back touches of dried spices and lavender; in fact, the floral element grows as the moments pass. 13 percent alcohol. Drink this wine through 2016 or into ’17 with game terrines and patés, beef stew or leg of lamb. Very Good+. About $15 to $17, another Great Value.

What could a former snowboarder and a former investment banker do but get together and make wine. Not just wine but cabernet sauvignon in Santa Ynez Valley, in the Central Coast’s southern Santa Barbara County? Jeff Tanner is the former investment banker and Rob DaFoe is the former snowboarding pro, and their enterprise is Tanner DaFoe Wines, a producer of minuscule amounts of very fine cabernet sauvignon wines first released from the 2009 vintage. I have simplified the story a great deal here, but suffice to say that the pairing of these partners was serendipitous — if you’re in the market for full-throated yet spare and lithe cabernets that cost $110 a bottle. Yes, these are luxury items, stylish and sophisticated in every sense, yet displaying none of the flamboyance, opulence and over-ripe/over-oaked character that many of California’s “cult” cabernets exhibit. Not easy to find, they’re definitely Worth a Search if you have the yen and the dollars.

These wines were samples for review.
Tanner DaFoe Rogue’s Blend 2011, Santa Ynez Valley, could be called the producer’s entry-level wine, at least in terms of price. The wine is a blend of 72 percent cabernet sauvignon and 28 percent cabernet franc; it spent 28 months in French oak barrels. The color is deep ruby shading to a mulberry-hued rim; the initial impression is striking aromas of mint and minerals, ripe and spicy black currants and raspberries, lavender and crushed violets, with back-notes of fruitcake, tapenade, cedar and rosemary and hints of ancho chili and loam; the wine projects, in other words, a clearly and cleanly delineated bouquet of great complexity and appealing fervor. This is a wine of tremendous tone and presence, dense, supple and lithe, packed with dusty tannins and graphite minerality, a large-framed wine that nonetheless profits from its poised energy and whiplash acidity and liveliness. A bit rock-ribbed presently, in its dusty, velvety oak and tannins and its lithic character, it opens as the moments elapse to offer hints of dill seed, caramelized fennel and bitter chocolate. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 96 cases. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2024 to ’26. Excellent. About $75.
Tanner DaFoe Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Santa Ynez Valley. The current release of the winery’s 100 percent cabernet sauvignon aged 28 months in French oak barrels. The color is dark ruby with a slightly lighter magenta rim; the raison d’etre here is structure and texture, with intense and concentrated but ripe and spicy cassis, blueberry and mulberry scents and flavors (with a high wild note of black cherry) deeply freighted by iron and iodine, piercing graphite minerality, lead pencil and a touch of cedar. The wine is sleek and chiseled, hewn from obsidian, it seems, supple and muscular, but for all that it offers fleshy and meaty notes of slightly roasted black and blue fruit and the animation of bright acidity. Mouth-filling and deeply savory, this 2011 feels potent, complete and confident, though it would benefit from a few years in the cellar; try from 2016 or ’18 through 2025 to ’29. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 167 cases. Excellent. About $110.
Tanner DaFoe Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Santa Ynez valley. The color is dark ruby with a violet rim; the first impression is of ripe, sweet, spicy black fruit aromas and flavors layered atop an incredible depth and reach of power and elegance; cassis, violets and potpourri, a trace of mint and touch of cedar, with hints of tobacco, sage and leaf smoke and back-notes of graphite, leather and underbrush characterize the seductive aromas. A supple, sinewy structure of lovely equilibrium yet stalwart framing and foundation — again, 28 months in French oak — supports juicy but understated flavors of black raspberry and blueberry; that structure includes dense, dusty, velvety tannins and potent acidity and leads to a polished finish packed with granitic minerality, exotic spices and woodsy accents. Completely gratifying weight, substance and bearing. I drank a great deal of this bottle with lamb chops rubbed with garlic and rosemary, with a smoked pimento and mint garnish; they made one of those transporting eating and drinking moments. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 141 cases. Consume now through 2025 to 2030. Exceptional. About $110.
The Tanner DaFoe Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Santa Ynez Valley, was the winery’s first release, and at a bit more than five years after harvest, it’s drinking beautifully. Every element of the wine feels precisely weighted and measured, finely sifted and balanced, and it flows across the palate like a dark, powdery essence of hillside cabernet grapes, all super-velvety and elegant, yet a little spare, though that description omits its sense of feeling slightly untamed, of being an untapped source of dynamism and power, like a brilliant luxury-status automobile idling before acceleration. I have no technical information about this wine, sold-out at the winery, but as an initial release, it’s a triumph, the best first-release cabernet I have encountered since the Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. Drink through 2020 to 2025. Excellent. $NA.

Longtime readers of this blog — bless your tiny pointed heads and may your tribes increase! — know that a great deal of effort goes into the annual “12 Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” series, but as encompassing as that sequence is, it cannot include all the Champagnes and sparkling wines that I taste from late November through early January. For this edition of Weekend Wine Notes, therefore, I offer an eclectic roster of nine of such products, one from Champagne, a duo from Franciacorta in Lombardy and a Lambrusco, an unusual darker-than-a-rosé sparkler from the far western Loire Valley, and versions from California and Oregon. I deliver as much technical information as might actually be required but concentrate on the essence of the blitzkrieg review: short, incisive and to-the-point. With one exception, these wines were samples for review. Enjoy!

Antica Fratta Essence Brut 2007, Franciacorta, Lombardy, Italy. 13% alc. 90% chardonnay, 10% pinot noir. A favorite of ours for two Yuletide seasons. Light gold color; a seething horde of tiny bubbles; another year has burnished this sparkling wine; a little spicier, a bit toastier than it was at the previous tasting; roasted lemon and lemon balm, spiced pear; lightly buttered cinnamon toast; keen acidity and a honed limestone element; delicious, with appealing generosity but also a serious edge. Excellent. About $35.
Imported by Masciarelli Wine co., Weymouth, Mass.

Argyle Brut 2011, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 12.5% alc. 60% pinot noir, 40% chardonnay. Pale gold gold, animated by a shimmer of tiny bubbles; a finely meshed construct of delicate details: lemon balm, verbena and lemon curd, a touch of orange rind; candied quince and ginger and a note of cloves; hint of biscuit; quite dry, bright acidity, lots of flint and limestone; very steely, very steady. Lovely. Excellent. About $27.

Bonny Doon Sparkling Syrah 2011, Central Coast. 13.8% alc., according to the label, 11.9% alc. says the winery website. 83% syrah, 17% grenache. 378 cases. Opaque purple-black with a violet cast; moderately fizzy; the roasted, meaty and fleshy aspect we expect from syrah, but with vivid elements of deeply spiced and macerated strawberries and raspberries; a high balsamic note; burgeoning hints of violets and lavender; strangely attractive yet very intense, almost demanding, in fact too intense to use as an aperitif; this definitely needs food. Very Good+. About $36, intended for the winery’s club members.

Cleto Chiarli e Figli Vecchia Modena Premier 2013, Lambrusco di Sorbara Secco, Italy. 11% alc. 100% lambrusco di Sorbara grapes. Bright medium ruby-red cherry hue; definitely and pleasantly effervescent; raspberries, red and black currants; slightly earthy with heather and boxwood; swashbuckling acidity keeps the whole dark, savory package lively and quenching, while a hint of tannin lends body; appealing supple texture balances a touch of dry austerity on the finish. Classic with rabbit pasta, terrines, duck. Very Good+. About $ .
Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Calif.
Contadi Castaldi Brut Rosé 2008, Franciacorta, Lombardy. 15.5% alc. 80% pinot noir, 20% chardonnay. Pale salmon/onion skin hue; quite effervescent; fresh raspberries and strawberries with hints of rose petals and lilac; freshly baked bread, cloves, anise, orange zest; elegant and ethereal; limestone and almond skin on the finish; lovely texture and structure. Very Good+. About $21
Imported by TMT USA, San Antonio, Texas. Image from altissimocento.net.
Emma 2013, Vin de France. 9% alc. A blend of gamay and grolleau gris grapes, produced by Domaine de la Coche. The Vin de France classification was created in 2009 and allows winemakers to blend grapes and wines from across France, not just those dictated by their appellation. Domaine de la Coche is an organic estate located in the Pays de Retz that lies south of the Loire estuary and north of the Breton marshlands. Bright purple-magenta hue; gently effervescent, just tickles your nose; rose petals and violets, blueberries and raspberries, surprisingly earthy; detectably sweet initially but segues to dry from mid-palate back; a little dusty and raspy but mainly delightful. Very Good+. About $24, an online purchase.
Imported by Fruit of the Vine, Long Island City, N.Y. I think that Emma needs a label makeover.
Evolution Sparkling Wine nv, America. Produced by Sokol Blosser Winery. 12.5% alc. A proprietary blend of semillon, riesling, muller thurgau, pinot gris, gewurztraminer, muscat, chardonnay. Sokol Blosser, founded in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1971, delivered a real hit with its non-vintage Evolution White, now in its 18th “edition.” This sparkling wine, now debuting and made from the same grape varieties in Washington state, seemed like a natural development. It’s essentially a Prosecco-like sparkling wine made in the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle. Pale gold color; a tidy splurge of tiny bubbles; apples and lemons, a lot of flowers from the muscat and gewurztraminer, it seems, as well as a hint of muscat funkiness; detectably sweet on the entry but slides toward dryness on the finish; fortunately clean acidity and a hint of limestone keep it honest. Very Good. About $22.
Image from urbanblisslife.com.

Jacquard Brut Rosé nv, Champagne. 12.5% alc. 53% pinot noir, 35% chardonnay, 12% pinot meunier. Enchanting pale copper-salmon color; a tempest of tiny swirling bubbles; wild strawberries and cherries with a hint of red currants, touches of peach and orange zest; biscuits and cinnamon toast; quince and crystallized ginger; delicate, elegant, an ethereal construct buoyed by crisp acidity and a scintillating limestone quality; a finish half chiseled/half softly appealing. Really lovely. Excellent. About $55.
JAD Imports, Manhasset, N.Y.

Schramsberg Crémant Demi-Sec 2010, North Coast. 13.5% alc. 88% flora grapes, 11% chardonnay, 1% pinot noir. 96% Napa County, 2.5% Mendocino, 1.5% Sonoma, 1% Marin. The flora grape is a cross of semillon and gewurztraminer developed of UC-Davis. Very pale gold hue; a gentle tug of finely-wrought bubbles; lemon balm, spiced pear and a touch of peach; jasmine and camellia; not so much sweet as ripe, soft and cloud-like; the floral and slightly nutty elements burgeon as the limestone character digs deeper, creating attractive tension even as the wine feels integrated and harmonious. Drink with the most simple desserts, nothing flamboyant; a sugar cookie or biscotti, a fruit tart, light cakes. Excellent. About $39.

Dear Readers: A few days ago I posted an entry to BiggerThanYourHead that brought the number of posts since its beginning in December 2006 to 1,500. That’s an average of 187 posts each year or slightly more than 15 per month. Perhaps it’s time to step back and get a little perspective.

Last week, Jonathan Cristaldi posted to FirstWeFeast.com an amusing and educational essay titled “10 Dirty Secrets of Wine (That Nobody Wants to Talk About),” an exercise that received quite a bit of comment on Facebook and on other people’s blogs. In his prefactory remarks, Cristaldi mentions among “sinister forces at play” in the wine world the “in-fighting among critics and bloggers.” Does such “in-fighting” exist, with its implications of envy, rivalry and hurt feelings? If it does, I hadn’t noticed, but perhaps I am isolated in my Slough of Despond here in what’s called the Mid-South.

One of the “10 Dirty Secrets of Wine” in the piece is “Wine Critics are not necessarily more qualified than bloggers.” Not necessarily more qualified. The point I take from this statement is that typically wine critics are regarded as more qualified than bloggers, but surely these loaded terms require definition. I assume that a wine “critic” is a person employed by a newspaper or magazine or online entity who is paid for his or her efforts, hence a “professional.” A wine “blogger” on the other hand is anyone who establishes a blog or has a blog designed and set up and then writes whatever he or she desires about wine, hence an amateur. The Federal Trade Commission certainly adheres to this view. That regulatory body made effective on December 1, 2009, a ruling that bloggers must disclose the source of products they review and whether those products were samples. (Didn’t know that, youngsters?) That stipulation does not apply to writers who review for print media, the assumption being that newspapers and magazines undergo editorial control that somehow makes the process more trustworthy and legitimate.

The distinction between professional and amateur is irksome. The widely held belief is that one is professional if you get paid for what you’re doing, while amateurs perform out of interest, involvement or love (as the word implies) without regular financial compensation. A professional can also be a person who is certified by an overseeing board or entity, having passed certain tests and qualifying procedures; amateurs typically lack such credentials. Yet since reviewing wine or being a wine critic, whether for a print journal or online, tends toward matters of taste and subjectivity, just as reviewing books or music or theater does, notions of who is professional and who is amateur become more tenuous. The real criteria rest in knowledge and experience, sensitivity and imagination and the ability to transform physical and emotional sensations, as well as history and geography, into evocative language.

How does one achieve such a state? Through constant reading and tasting and writing, through seeking out opportunities to experience a wide range of wines through regions and vintages, through travel, if possible, and visits to the home turf where grapes are grown and wine is made. The “professionals” who write for print outlets may possess all sorts of qualifications, but they are not infallible nor do they always display particular artistry or articulateness in their expression; the same may be said of many bloggers. As far as consumers are concerned, they need to find writers or critics or bloggers whose voices they admire and can engage with, whose intellects they find amenable and whose palates they trust. I started writing about wine in a newspaper column in 1984, before many of the marketing and PR people who send me press releases and samples were born, and I continued that weekly, nationally-distributed column for 20 years (and was a full-time reporter and critic). Did that make me a professional? And when I left the newspaper and launched myself online, did I decline from being a professional to being an amateur?

Those issues are ancient history, however, and wine-blogging and critiquing are about the here and now, as each vintage succeeds the one before, and producers around the world watch the weather and the climate for the minute (or dramatic) changes that make each year and harvest different. The issue I really want to approach is my own motivation for adhering to an avocation that takes up a good deal of time and space and produces little material reward except — and this is a big “except” — for the wine samples I receive and the occasional sponsored trip that I go on. My Readers are thinking, “Those should be reasons enough,” and indeed I don’t discount them, but there are other aspects.

Most important is the wine itself — a uniquely complex and evocative beverage and a perpetual reminder of our connection to the earth and its seasons — and the ability to follow producers and wines from year to year. One of the most gratifying factors in this endeavor is the contact I have with new, small wineries that send me their products for review. Next is the responsibility to My Readers, bless their hearts, who depend on me for honest and fair assessments of wines and for supporting historical, geographical and technical information, which to me is an essential part of writing about wine. Then there are the friendships I have made and that I treasure in many moments of tasting wine and food and sharing knowledge and experience and stories of travel and adventure.

Lord knows how many mass tastings I have attended over 30 years, those trade events where journalists carry a glass in one hand and a notebook in the other and move from table to table, producer to producer and swirl-sniff-sip-spit their way through a hundred wines. Not the best way to taste wine, but sometimes such events are the only way to be exposed to a broad range of products. Then there are the weekend mornings when I stand in the kitchen and taste through a dozen cabernets or pinot noirs or rieslings. My favorite way to experience wine though is with dinner at home, when LL and I sit down with a wine that I have held back and open it and take a sniff and taste and look at each other and whisper, “Holy crap, that’s good.”

You see, friends, we’re all amateurs.

If you’re looking for a hearty robust red wine to drink with burgers, braised spare ribs or grilled pork chops, slide the cork out of a bottle of the Gundlach Bundschu Mountain Cuvée 2012, Sonoma County. The venerable winery began its modern period in 1973, under Jim Bundschu, though traces its history back to 1858; that’s ancient in terms of California. Understand, we’re not talking about finesse or elegance here but about power, grip and deep flavors. The color is dark ruby-purple; the bouquet of this cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend is ripe, meaty and fleshy, bursting with notes of black and red currants and cherries, a strain of graphite and hints of cloves, crushed violets, vanilla and slightly creamy oak. A mouthful of dusty, velvety tannins serves as backdrop for black fruit flavors that offer a tinge of blue and a core of tightly wound lavender, bitter chocolate and woody spices. The whole effect is gamey and a little feral, with qualities of wild berries and forest-floor that emerge in the finish. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $20.

A sample for review.

A brief entry into Weekend Wines Notes today, featuring a pair of whites from South Africa and a pair of tasty reds from wineries in Lodi. This is the 11th post of 2015 on this blog and the 1500th post since December 2006.
First, two white wines from the Bellingham estate in South Africa, founded in 1693, making it old by any standards.

Bellingham “The Bernard Series” Grenache Blanc Viognier 2013, Paarl Region. 14% alc. 75% grenache blanc, 25% viognier. Pale gold color; very spare, fresh and clean; notes of orange zest, jasmine and spiced pear; bees’ wax, dusty thyme and rosemary; a few moments in the glass bring in beguiling hints of crushed violets, lemon balm and crystallized ginger; crisp and lively but with a paradoxical air of summery languor; a bit savory and saline; lovely stone fruit flavors imbued with limestone, almond skin and grapefruit rind. Irresistible. Excellent. About $22.

Bellingham “The Bernard Series” Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2013, Coastal Region. 14.3% alc. 100% chenin blanc from vines averaging 43 years old. Brilliant medium gold hue; peach and guava with touches of hay, lanolin, cloves; boldly ripe, generous, with notes of honey and loam, lime peel and lemongrass; sumptuous in the mouth but riven by bright acidity and slightly detectable spicy oak, particularly on the finish; beautifully layered and balanced but admits some floridness and flamboyance in its make-up. Excellent. About $22.

Imported by Pacific Highway Wine and Spirits, Petaluma, Calif. The bottle image is one vintage behind.

And two delicious reds from wineries in Lodi.

Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc 2012, North Coast. 14.4% alc. 100% cabernet franc. Medium ruby color; pungent, spicy, a little feral; black and red currants and plums with a touch of blueberry and a hint of black olive and thyme; clean, lively acidity and moderately dense but supple tannins provide structure; it’s quite dry but delectably drinkable. Now through 2016. Very Good+. About $27.

Estate Crush Bechthold Vineyard Cinsault 2012, Lodi. 100% cinsault grapes from a vineyard planted in 1886, among the very oldest in California. 100 cases. Brilliant medium ruby color; red cherries and currants, hints of cloves and leather; touch of wild berry; slight herbal note; mild tannins but penetrating graphite minerality; vibrant acidity; spare, lithe and close to elegant. Now through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $26.

Any producer in Napa Valley will report that 2011 was a challenging season because of the cool weather, cloud cover and rain, all occurrences that inhibited ripening and delayed harvest until a burst of fine weather in October provided a respite. The five examples of cabernet sauvignon-based wines that I look at today came out fine, thank you very much, and yet despite marked similarities, especially in their acute mineral qualities, they also reveal distinct differences, several lying in the camp of opulence, others adhering to a more spare and elegant mode. These wines — all samples for review — are not cheap; prices range from what seems like a light-hearted $45 a bottle to a blockbuster $250. Go figure, Readers, and weigh the discrepancies of supply and demand, hubris and accountancy. This post is, as the title asserts, the sixth in a series that examines the cabernet sauvignon wines of Napa Valley, a region noted for its production, if not always for the finesse, of that grape. This is also the 10th post to BTYH of 2015.
Cardinale Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. Jess Jackson (1930-2011), founder of Kendall-Jackson Winery, decided in 1983 that the company needed a flagship cabernet sauvignon wine to serve as a Napa Valley icon among the other well-known Napa Valley cabernets. Eventually becoming its own brand with a dedicated facility in the Oakville District, site of the old Robert Pepi winery, Cardinale indeed is a tribute to mountain-grown grapes, of which it is mainly composed, and a model of self-assurance and command. Cardinale 2011 is a blend of 89 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes and 11 percent merlot. The majority of the grapes of which it is composed — 87 percent — derive from vineyards on Mount Veeder and Howell Mountain with a bare two percent from Diamond Mountain. The wine aged 18 months in French oak, 81 percent new barrels. Winemaker is Christopher Carpenter.

Matching its nature as the embodiment of intensity and concentration, the color is opaque ruby with a tinge of magenta; the wine is boldly earthy and spicy, featuring aromas and flavors of ripe black currants, cherries and raspberries permeated by notes of briers and brambles, walnut shell and dried porcini, cloves and lavender and the slightly resinous herbal character of rosemary pared from the stalk. This is a persistent and authoritative cabernet sauvignon, framed by burnished oak and dusty, graphite-inflected tannins, all animated by penetrating acidity; as the moments pass, the fragrance deepens and expands, bringing in hints of dried fruit and flowers, and the black fruit flavors achieve a state of savory generosity, while the structure remains stalwart, tense and resonant. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’18 through 2030 to ’35. Excellent. About $250 (a bottle).
Caymus 40th Anniversary Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. The website for Caymus Vineyards lists no technical information about its celebratory cabernet sauvignon for 2012, released in honor of the winery’s founding in 1972, by Charles and Lorna Wagner and their son Chuck, the present owner and winemaker. Caymus grew from modest beginnings into a bulwark of Napa Valley cabernet, with its Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon a perpetual contender for top cabernet of the vintage and a darling of collectors, even as the price climbed. Through its Wagner Family of Wines, Caymus now includes Mer Soleil, Conundrum, Belle Glos and Emmolo.

The Caymus 40th Anniversary Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 offers an inky-purple color and chastening notes of iron and iodine that expand into exotic and spicy and quite ripe scents and flavors of macerated black currants, plums and blueberry tart; hints of cloves, lavender and licorice are swathed in touches of bitter chocolate and intense graphite. The wine is ostentatiously floral, plush with dusty, velvety tannins barely reined in by a tremendous mineral element, with back-notes of vanilla and sandalwood. Despite this panoply of riches, the wine is quite dry and finishes with a line of polished oak and some briery, brushy austerity. 14.6 percent alcohol. Best from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’25; it could stand to calm down a little. Excellent. About $60.
Cornerstone Cellars The Cornerstone 2011, Napa Valley. The Cornerstone is the flagship cabernet of Cornerstone Cellars, produced from the winery’s Oakville Station Vineyard blocks in To-Kalon District. For 2011, the blend is 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot and 5 percent cabernet franc; the wine aged 22 months in all new French oak barrels. Winemaker is Jeff Keene. The winery is owned by two doctors in Memphis and a group of investors. General manager is Craig Camp, who has overseen Cornerstone’s expansion in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

The color is dark ruby shading to a lighter mulberry-hued rim; aromas of spiced and macerated black currants, raspberries and plums are permeated by elements of iodine and iron — slightly feral and sanguinary — cedar and tobacco, walnut shell and underbrush, woven with notes of lavender and caramelized fennel, aged fruitcake and loam, all making for a profoundly layered and provocative bouquet. On the palate, this cabernet is dense and chewy, lithe and lithic, deeply rooted in dusty, finely-sifted oak and tannins and propelled by keen acidity; the long, vibrant finish is packed with cloves, blueberries, bitter chocolate and graphite. A cabernet of tremendous confidence and authority. 14.4 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 through 2028 to 2030. Production was 100 cases. Excellent. About $150.
Shah Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. It’s a bold move to charge top-dollar for the initial release of a wine, but Bijal and Sinead Shah, owners of this fledgling winery, were not deterred. Shah and his wife Sinead, a pilot for United Airlines, own The Woodhouse Wine Estates in Washington, where they produce a variety of wines under the Kennedy Shah, Dussek and Darighe labels. This cabernet and its stablemate chardonnay represent the couple’s first venture south. The winemaker is Jean Claude Beck, originally from Alsace. The grapes for this 100 percent cabernet wine were grown in Caldwell’s Block 11, part of a vineyard in Coombsville, a fairly obscure AVA in southeastern Napa Valley that received official recognition in 2011. The wine aged 24 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels.

The color is deep ruby-mulberry, dark but not opaque; vivid notes of mint, eucalyptus and toasty oak, poised against a background of ferrous iodine, are meshed with ripe and very spicy black currant and cherry fruit touched with lavender and bitter chocolate; hints of dried rosemary and cedar lend a piquant earthy/herbal aspect. In the mouth, this cabernet is supple and sleek, almost chiseled in its granitic minerality and quite intense in its drenching, almost sweet black fruit flavors, woven with nuances of cloves and oolong tea. New oak intrudes somewhat on the long, spicy, mineral-flecked finish; I would recommend opening in 2016 or after; for drinking through 2022 to ’25. Production was 168 cases. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $150.
Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. The fact that brothers Charles and Stuart Smith continue to keep prices for their exemplary wines so much lower than the competition is one of those miracles and mysteries that make life interesting, and as far as I’m concerned we should not question this phenomenon. The grapes for their cabernet-based wine — for 2011 a blend of 83 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent cabernet franc and 7 percent merlot — are grown on steep, dry-farmed slopes at an elevation of 1,800 feet on Spring Mountain, west of the city of St. Helena. Made from 39-year-old vines, the wine aged 19 months in French oak barrels.

The color is intense, vibrant dark ruby; it’s a deeply loamy cabernet, saturated with closely focused black currant and cherry scents and flavors but infused with notes of graphite, briers and brambles, lavender and dried porcini, redolent with a sort of dusty rosemary, thyme and cedar aspect that’s slightly resiny; the kind of wine you could spend hours swirling and sniffing, an intellectual as well as a sensual exercise. It’s quite concentrated in the mouth, lithe and sinewy, but not lacking in a generous character; dense, chewy tannins are part velvet, part graphite, made lively by a flare of bright acidity and a faceted granitic quality and given depth by an almost primal, dusty, robust earthiness; you feel the elevation, the scrappiness and spareness of the soil, the mineral underpinnings where the roots dig deep for sustenance. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 1,070 cases. Nothing flamboyant or over-ripe here. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2025 to 2030. Excellent. About $48, a bargain in this company.

When I first tasted the Oak Knoll Winery Pinot Noir 2011, assembled from six vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, my reaction was, “Well, O.K., that’s nice.” As I continued to sniff and sip the wine, however, my assessment changed to “Hmmm, that’s really good” and finally to “Excellent. Well-done.” The point is, give this pinot a little time, say 25 to 30 minutes, to develop in the glass. The color is a lovely transparent medium ruby-garnet; aromas of spiced tea, rose-hips and loam are blended with notes of macerated raspberries and currants, tobacco, briers and mushrooms. A few moments bring in hints of cloves, lavender and sassafras, and the wine, both in nose and mouth, becomes a little fleshy and meaty, picking up some slightly dusty tannins and graphite elements. The wine also develops more firmness, offering a tantalizing texture that’s part dense, part ephemeral, all enlivened by spanking fresh acidity. 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Reticent, spare, elegant. Oak Knoll was founded in 1970 by Ron and Marjorie Vuylsteke; it is operated now by their sons, Tom and John. Excellent. About $18, marking Good Value.

A sample for review. This post is the 9th on BTYH for 2015.

I have been writing about the pinot noir wines of Black Kite Cellars since their releases of 2007, and many of them in subsequent vintages showed up on my annual list of “50 Great Wines” of whatever year. The examples under review today are from 2011 and 2012. Black Kite Cellars traces its origins to 1995, when Donald and Maureen Green bought a 40-acre parcel by the Navarro River just west of Philo in Mendocino County, in a cool area eight miles from the coast. They replanted an old vineyard with pinot noir vines and developed two more blocks on a hill above the river. The first crop was harvested in 2003, and the decision to retain a portion of the grapes to make their own wine brought the concept of Black Kite Cellars, named for a bird indigenous to the region, to fruition. Jeff Gaffner became winemaker in 2004; the first wines he worked on comprised the 2005 bottlings of distinct blocks within the estate. He is also well-known as owner and winemaker of Saxon Brown Wines. Alas, among these five Black Kite pinot noirs is the only product from this usually exemplary winery that I cannot recommend.

These wines were samples for review. This post is the eighth on BTYH of 2015.
Black Kite Redwoods’ Edge Pinot Noir 2011, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. The color is a vivid medium red cherry hue; aromas of spiced and macerated red and black cherries and a touch of plum are permeated by notes of sassafras and pomander and a hint of allspice, with its inflection of slightly exotic astringency; a few moments in the glass bring up elements of cranberry and candied rhubarb, all subtle and well-balanced. The texture seems to drape with supreme satiny effect on the palate, while a fairly dense and almost chewy structure features slightly dusty tannins and freshening acidity. 13.8 percent alcohol. Production was 149 cases. Oak regimen was 11 months, all French oak, 2/3s new barrels. Now through 2017 to 2020. Excellent. About $55.
Black Kite Stony Terrace Pinot Noir 2011, Anderson Valley. The color, medium-range and almost transparent, is a shade more mulberry-magenta than ruby-cherry; this is notably spicier than the Redwood’s Edge, segueing through a panoply of cloves and cinnamon and sandalwood but also displaying depths of loam and graphite, briers and brambles, all in support of rich black and red currants and cherries. In the mouth, this is more austere than Redwood’s Edge, a little mossy and earthy, with touches of leather and lavender and undertones of bitter chocolate and raspy raspberry. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 203 cases. 11 months in French oak, 2/3s new barrels. I like its spareness and sense of elusiveness. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $ .
Black Kite River Turn Pinot Noir 2011, Anderson Valley. A perfect ruby-magenta hue with a slightly lighter rim; this runs through the whole cherry gamut, spiced and macerated, a bit roasted, some of the hint of bitterness and austerity of the skin and seed; cloves, sassafras and pomegranate lead to notes of cranberry and — interestingly — blueberry. This is lively, lithe and supple, almost muscular in texture, and you feel the oak a bit more than with the previously mentioned pinot noirs. Not that it’s unbalanced, just that the wood influence announces itself more prominently, surrounding and slightly muting the other elements. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 148 cases. 11 months French oak, 2/3s new barrels. Now through 2018 to 2020. Very Good+. About $ .
Black Kite Stony Terrace Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley. The color is bright ruby-magenta; notes of cranberry, pomegranate, cloves, violets and rose petals elide with ripe red and black currants with hints of mulberry, graphite, briers and brambles. Here is a great marriage of power and elegance, with pinpoint poise between spareness and succulence, between black and red fruit flavors and foresty, leathery tannins, between vibrant acidity and a faintly brooding animal aspect. Very attractive, wild, intriguing and compelling. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 200 cases. A beautiful pinot noir. 11 months French oak, 2/3s new barrels. Now through 2018 to 2021. Excellent. About $60.
Black Kite Soberanes Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Uncharacteristically dark ruby-purple color; very ripe, quite spicy, almost jammy; where’s the pinot noir in this? Unbalanced; smells and tastes like zinfandel. A pinot noir done in by its alcoholic sweetness and heat. A disappointment. 15.2 percent alcohol. 348 cases. Not recommended. About $55.

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