February 2017

Olema_PN (1)
If you can find a well-made, delicious and authentic Sonoma County pinot noir for $20, clasp it to thy bosom with gratitude and fervor. Such a one -tah-dah! — is the Olema Pinot Noir 2014, from Sonoma County but with generous contribution s from the more specific and pinot-friendly AVAs of Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast. Olema is the second, less expensive label of Amici Cellars. The wine aged 12 months in French oak, 35 percent new barrels. The color is a lovely, transparent medium ruby hue with a delicate, almost invisible rim; this is a clean and fresh pinot noir that offers an essential loamy underpinning as support for notes of rhubarb and sassafras, red cherries and smoky plums and just a hint of shy forest flowers. On the palate, the Olema Pinot Noir 2014 feels warm, spicy and inviting, dry, to be sure, but juicy with red and black fruit flavors highlighted by new leather, cloves and black pepper. The wine builds subtle layers in the glass, so after a few minutes, you notice elements of briers and brambles and graphite, all fixed in place by bright acidity and nuanced, slightly dusty minerality. 14.2 percent. A truly engaging pinot noir for drinking through 2018 with roasted chicken or coq au vin, smoked turkey, game birds and grilled leg of lamb. Excellent. About $20, representing Good Value.

A sample for review.

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and the largest province of Italy. Its proximity to the toe of the Italian boot and map of sicilyto the coast of North Africa, and its geographical convergence in ancient sea-lanes means not only that the island was settled early by seafaring peoples from eastward — first the Phoenicians, then the Greeks — but that it served as a flash-point for contention, conquest and subjugation, all the way through the 19th Century. It strikes the heart of the history-lover with awe to think that cities like Syracuse and Palermo are among the oldest continuously inhabited population centers in Europe. The former was established by Greeks on the island’s southeastern coast in 734 B.C. The older Palermo, on the northwest coast, was settled by the Phoenicians, who explored the island’s western regions, in the 10th Century B.C. In fact, as you stroll down the long, straight, narrow main street in Palermo’s oldest quarter, still battered by the Allied bombing of World War II, guides will tell you that it was laid out by the Phoenicians, so you are walking where feet have trod for three millennia.

When you travel through western Sicily, you could readily believe that the island was dredged from the sea by Neptune’s trident and hammered out on Vulcan’s forge. The rugged hills stand precipitous, seemingly random in configuration in great blocks of granite and sandstone. Among those green-swaddled hills and valleys, near the commune of Sambuco di Sicilia, lies Stemmari, a wine estate dedicated to producing enjoyable and authentic varietal wines at affordable prices, aimed primarily at the American market. Stemmari is owned by Gruppo Mezzacorona, the well-known producer in Trentino, in the foothills of the Italian Dolomites. Mezzacorona’s other brands include Castel Firmian; Rotari, which makes traditional method sparkling wines; Tolloy; and Feudo Arancio, also in Sicily.

The winery of Stemmari, spread along a gently sloping hillside, looks out to a succession of crests and valleys that march to the sea. The stemmari 1architecture — clean and elegant — echoes the traditional style of the region, and when visitors stand in the palm-shaded courtyard, they have no idea that behind several of those chaste white walls are arrayed the tanks and barrels and other equipment of winemaking. Winemaker for Stemmari is Lucio Matricardi, a man who defines the notions of affability, volubility and good humor. A tour of Stemmari’s estate vineyards — I and several other winewriters on a sponsored trip — is an exercise in education, information, folktale and local lore, all embellished and enhanced by comedic asides that somehow contribute to the overall learning experience.

The winery is completely solar-powered, recycles water and employs sustainable practices in the vineyards. Stemmari was the first winery in Italy to receive EMAS 2 certification on the entire production and is certified according to UNI-ENISO 14011 environmental guidelines. The estate continuously experiments with grape varieties planted in different plots, and if that variety doesn’t perform as anticipated in that particular climat, the vineyard is torn out and replanted. I mentioned to Matricardi that such a procedure must be expensive. “That’s true,” he said, “but we want to get things right. And the money is there. Mezzacorona sells grapes to producers in Trentino that would surprise you, such as –,” but here his importer representative cut him off. The importer is Prestige Wine Imports, based in New York and a subsidiary of Gruppo Mezzacorona.) The implication was clear; Mezzacorona possesses deep pockets since the company controls one-third of the production in Trento and sells surplus grapes to other producers.

And what about the wines?
1432227244Stemmari Dalila NV Bottle
Of the 11 products in the Stemmari roster, nine are 100 percent varietal and two are blends. The indigenous grapes grillo and moscato, for white, and nero d’avola, for red, are made as varietal wines and also blended into the proprietary Dalila (80 percent grillo, 20 percent viognier) and Cantodoro (80 percent nero d’avola, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon). The “international” grape varieties pinot grigio, chardonnay, pinot noir — which Matricardi called “the mother-in-law” grape for its difficulty — and cabernet sauvignon are also made into 100 percent varietal wines. Nero d’avola, in addition, is made into a rose. The use of oak barrels, for the chardonnay and the red wines, is discreet.

As I mentioned, the Stemmari products are designed to sell inexpensively, that is, for about $10 and can be found throughout the country priced from about $9 to $12. Within that range, these are bargains. In fact, I’ll go farther and say that the Stemmari Pinot Noir, stamped with varietal and geographic clarity, ranks among the best moderately priced pinot noirs available in America, followed, in my estimation, by the robust, earthy Nero d’Avola and the charming, fruit-filled Dalila. Stemmari fashions grillo grapes into the delicate, slightly effervescent, wildly floral Baci Vivaci, a delightful quaff our group must have consumed gallons of with our meals. These are not wines intended for the ages or to compete with the world’s prestigious labels. They are, instead, wines made thoughtfully and seriously and offered at a more than decent price.

The dominant force in Sicilian cuisine, not surprisingly, is the sea. Every meal consists of a procession of crustaceans and fish prepared by different methods, though often served raw and lightly dressed. The famous deep-water red shrimp — Aristaeomorpha foliacea— make a regular appearance at the beginning of lunch and dinner, the tiny fire-engine-hued crustaceans bathed in olive oil and lemon juice and eaten au natural. Grilled octopus is a requirement, sometimes accompanied by white beans. Grilled or seared fish are presented simply, straight from the fire or the saute pan, keeping them as fresh as possible. Pasta dishes tend to have a seafood component, sea urchin being a favorite ingredient.

Our introduction to Sicilian fare was dinner at Restaurant Porto San Paolo, located in a 400-year-old fortified tower that looms over ristorante_da_vittorio_porto_palo_1E3-600x300 the harbor of the town of Sciacca, on the island’s southwest coast. Our table on a second-floor balcony gave us a wonderful view of the fishing boats tied up at twilight and the vista of clouds at dusk. Lunch the next day was at the beautiful Da Vittorio Restaurant in Porto Palo di Menfi. It’s a beach-front establishment that allows a breathtaking panorama of the aquamarine Mediterranean, just beyond the windows. (That’s their red shrimp in the image above.) The food here seemed incredibly fresh and briny, deeply flavorful and handled with minimum interference in the kitchen. Our final dinner was in Palermo, at the chic and sleek one Michelin Star Restaurant Bye Bye Blues, where the chef, Patrizia Di Benedetto, a native of Palermo, prepares elevated and imaginative versions of the island’s traditional cuisine.

Here are the websites of these restaurants, all of which I would return to in a heartbeat:




Made from free-run juice of early-picked grapes, all in stainless steel, the Pedroncelli Dry Rosé of Zinfandel 2016, Dry Creek Valley, PRT_ZR0162_PRTSMALLPIC_20170131_161452sports a lovely coral-pink hue and enticing aromas of Rainier cherry and tomato skin, rose petals and orange rind, over hints of dried thyme and a faint briery aspect. It’s a ripe and slightly fleshy rosé, though quite dry on the palate and bright with snappy acidity. A few moments in the glass bring out notes of watermelon, pomegranate and graphite. Really attractive presence with a feeling for the ethereal. 13.7 percent alcohol for easy drinking, now through the end of 2017. Production was 2,100 cases. Very Good+. About $15, marking Good Value.

A sample for review.

Settling down to a lunch of duck and rabbit terrine, perhaps? A lamb chop? A roasted game bird? Or maybe just a plate of perfect cheese GD_Domaine_Moulin_A_Vent_De_La_Vigne_Romaine-LABELtoast? (The latter more likely, of course.) Open a bottle of the Domaine de la Vigne Romaine Moulin-a-Vent 2015, from the ubiquitous Beaujolais producer George Duboeuf. Made in a small quantity from gamay vines that average 50 years old, this A.O.C. Cru Beaujolais aged eight months in a combination of stainless steel tanks and one-year-old French oak casks; no new wood, no small barrels. The color is a riveting opaque blue-black-violet that displays a glowing rim; it’s pure gamay in its pungent aromas of blackberries and black currants etched by cloves, smoke and graphite, with a special ripeness of raspberries and mulberries in the depths. Give the wine a few minutes and it conjures notes of tar and forest, lavender and black cherry licorice, all encompassed in a lithe, silky texture and dry, slightly raspy tannins. Frankly, a joy to drink now but a wine that will benefit from a brief hibernation, say until 2018 or ’20 through 2024 or ’25. Production was 300 cases. Excellent. About $25.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Calif. A sample for review.

Most wine consumers probably understand that when a label states “Napa Valley” or “Mendocino County” or “Finger Lakes Region,” that the wine in the bottle came primarily from the stated regions. A certain comfort level of consumer-friendliness is involved.

Not that I’m being extra-patriotic, especially in these fraught times, but “America” or “American” can be listed on a wine label as the varaplace of origin of the product in the bottle, though we don’t see it often. Not that the country that lies between two shining seas is an American Viticultural Area (AVA), the delineated wine regions regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a division of the Department of the Treasury; it’s too vast for that distinction. AVAs must have, theoretically, some sort of geological, geographical, climatic and historical coherence. I say “theoretically” because not all AVAs seem to benefit from a logical approach and feel quite obviously geared more to marketing purposes than any guidance for consumers. An example is the vast San Francisco Bay AVA, approved in 1999, amended in 2006, and apparently designed to appeal to fans of Tony Bennett.

But let’s get back to America, so to speak, by taking a look at the bottle I present here. This is the Vara Wines Tinto Especial Lot #012, American Table Wine. Notice a few peculiarities. First, there’s no vintage date. Second, in a wine culture that emphasizes the grapes that wines are made from, there’s no mention here of grape varieties, at least not in the leading position. And third, there’s that “American Table Wine” designation.

According to TTB regulations, wines made from cross-state grape origins — that is, the grapes derive from two or more states — have to be termed “American.” And in that circumstance, no vintage dates are allowed on labels, though in this case, the legend “Lot #012” gives away the mystery; the year was 2012. The reason why the wine does not display a prominent mention of a grape is because the primary variety here, tempranillo, is only 62 percent of the blend. To be featured as a sort of branding device, a wine under the “American,” or a broad state-wide designation, must contain at least 75 percent of that variety. Vara Wines doesn’t tell us what states the grapes derive from — not even on the winery’s website — but we do know what the blend is, as stated on the label in small print: 60 percent tempranillo, 28 percent garnacha, 7 percent syrah and 5 percent monastrell (mourvedre). In other words, the wine aims to be an approximation of a Spanish red, an appropriate stance since Vara is the importing and production arm of The International Brand Family of Spanish and American Wines Commemorating Native American and New World History, based in Albuquerque. The cross-state situation becomes more ambiguous, however, when we consider that a few AVAs actually cross the borders of two states, like the Walla Walla AVA in Washington and Oregon.

The wine in question, a sample for review, features a transparent medium ruby hue and pungent aromas of dried red berries, dried Mediterranean herbs and flowers, with emphasis on cherries and currant, cloves and thyme and notes of violets and lilacs; touches of iodine and graphite, leather and loam add depth, while vivid acidity and dusty, slightly shaggy tannins lend depth. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $24.

This post is the first in an occasional series about the regulations that govern the production of wine in America.

It’s a gorgeous Spring day here in the Mid-South, and pretty mild elsewhere in our nation, except for California, now enduring a Weather Apocalypse, and we hope all our friends out there stay safe. And if you wonder about the origin of the term “Mid-South,” it was coined in the 1920s — so I heard at a lecture once — by an editor at The Commercial Appeal to define the newspaper’s circulation area: West Tennessee, northern Mississippi, eastern Arkansas and the Missouri Bootheel. Now you know. Anyway, if you’re planning to enjoy this great day by kicking back after work and sitting out on the porch or patio or high on an apartment balcony, or if your plans for the weekend include a picnic or some other bucolic expedition to the bosky groves or warm sands, here’s the wine for you. The Pratsch Grüner Veltliner 2015, made by Stefan Pratsch in Austria’s Niederösterreich wine region, is certified organic and produced all in stainless steel tanks at low temperatures to retain freshness and immediate appeal. The color is very pale straw-gold; the wine features what I think of as the primary characteristics of this grape, a kind of white pepper-hay-and-heather highlighting of spiced pear and roasted lemon elements with a dim back-note of quince and ginger, all abetted by crisp acidity and a fledgling flinty-limestone edge. Readers, that’s it, and what more do you need when you’re chilling with family and friends being all familial and friendly and what not? Oh, this would be tasty with seafood-based appetizers and tapas or just as a very pleasant quaff. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. And the price? About $14, for a one-liter bottle, representing Good Value.

Imported by Winesellers Ltd, Niles, Ill. A sample for review.

A rosé wine can be made in one of three ways. First, mix red and white wine, just a touch of red. Voila, it’s pink! Generally, this method is avoided in making still rosés, and in fact is primarily used in the production of brut rosé Champagne and sparkling wines. Second, and endless crushmost common, is maceration, in which the skins of red grapes macerate with the juice for a brief period, usually two to 20 hours, and then the juice is removed from the vats when the desired lightness or depth of hue and flavor is reached. (The color of red wine, whether medium ruby or motor-oil purple, derives from the skins; grape juice itself has no or little color.) Third is saignée, a French term meaning “to bleed.” The process involves siphoning or “bleeding off” some of the juice from the macerating tanks before it becomes too dark, a step that helps concentrate the “real” wine as well as produce a rosé. The rosé wine considered today was made by maceration of grapes grown especially for this wine, not as an after-thought or coincidental product bled off from a more important wine. The Inman Family “Endless Crush” Rosé of Pinot Noir 2016, Russian River Valley, was made from organic grapes grown in the winery’s Olivet Grange vineyard and picked in August last year. After a few months in stainless steel tanks, the wine was bottled on December 7, making it all of about six months old. The color is very pale petal pink; oh, this is a delicate and ethereal wreathing of strawberries, red currants and watermelon that opens to a fine web of honeysuckle and lilac, orange rind and grapefruit, all encompassed by a slightly earthy undertone of damp and slightly dusty tiles and river stones. Tensile strength emerges with the wine’s bright, lip-smacking acidity and mouth-watering juiciness and the contrast between its crisp nature and an almost lush texture. 11.9 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2017. Production was 672 cases, and it goes fast. A superior rosé wine that feels like a kiss from Spring and a caress from Summer. Exceptional. About $35.

A sample for review.

The limited edition “Miljenko’s Selections” wines from Grgich Hills Estate are named for the winery’s co-founder and longtime winemaker 2014-ESS-FRONT-WITHOUT-ALCMiljenko “Mike” Grgich, and the label is a fitting tribute to this Napa Valley pioneer. (Present winemaker is Ivo Jeramaz.) Our Wine of the Day is the superb Grgich Hills Miljenko’s Selection Essence Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Napa Valley, a sauvignon blanc of riveting purity and intensity. The wine fermented with natural yeasts and aged nine months in large oak casks, so any wood influence is subtle, almost subliminal. The color is pale straw-gold; aromas of lime peel, lemongrass and gooseberry are heightened by notes of jasmine and lilac and a kind of sunny, leafy fig suggestion. The texture is both soft and talc-like and boldly crisp with assertive acidity; flavors take on a wisp of stone-fruit rounded by a tangerine edge, all finishing with grapefruit rind, seashell and limestone scintillation. The energy and elegance of this sauvignon blanc cannot be overstated, nor can its poignant, piercing minerality or its lovely sense of presence; it is one of the most sheerly beautiful examples of the grape I have encountered. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 646 cases. Drink now through 20 to ’22. Exceptional. About $55.

A sample for review. The label image is one vintage behind; 2015 has not made it onto the winery’s website.

Consumers can find plenty of wines from Sicily made from the so-called international grape varieties like chardonnay and cabernet grillosauvignon, but it seems more fitting to me to drink wines fashioned from indigenous grapes such as grillo for white and nero d’avola and nerello mascalese for reds. A fine example of that white grape, long a staple in the production of Marsala, is the Tenuta Regaleali Grillo Cavallo delle Fate 2015, Sicilia, a wine that seems to embody the encompassing geography of sea, sky and mountain in one sleek, spare package, mirroring the shimmer of its pale gold hue. Notes of roasted lemon, spiced pear and acacia open to aspects of dried meadowy herbs and flowers and a kind of sunny leafy rasp; there’s a touch of fig and a wisp of salty iodine to a finish replete with burgeoning limestone and flint minerality; acidity bright as sunlight lends vibrant immediacy.13 percent alcohol. We drank this last night with swordfish that I marinated for a few hours in a bath of olive oil, soy sauce and lime juice. The olive oil, infused with garlic and thyme, has been used the previous night in chicken confit, so there’s that. The wine was a perfect foil for the richness of the swordfish. Drink through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $20.

A Leonard LoCascio Selection for Winebow Inc., New York. A sample for review.

The St. Urbans-Hof Nik Weis Wiltinger “Alte Reben” Kabinett Riesling 2015, Mosel, is a thrilling example of the riesling grape offered suhwar12frontat a remarkably fair price. How old are the old vines — alte reben? They originate in a vineyard established in the early 1900s, with some of the vines dating back that far. The soil sits on Devonian slate with a high iron-content that lends the wines a profound sense of minerality. The wine is made all in stainless steel with indigenous yeasts. The color is a shimmer of pale straw-gold; the wine is fresh and bright and tends toward brilliant immediacy of effect in its notes of jasmine and honeysuckle, peach and lime peel, lemongrass and green apple bolstered by a burgeoning element of flinty-limestone. The spicy stone-fruit flavors display a slightly honeyed element, but the wine is totally dry, enlivened with chiming acidity and crystalline minerality of intense focus and purity, all leading to a finish animated by graphite and grapefruit. The wine’s texture and structure, lithe and balletic, flow across the palate like liquid money. 10.5 percent alcohol. I cannot say enough how exciting this riesling was to drink, how much it felt like an embodiment of the spirit of the grapes and place where they were grown. No, it does not possess the depth of character of a “Grand Cru” vineyard, but, wow, what a fabulous, scintillating surface it conveys. It was perfect with a soup of cabbage, pork and shiitake mushrooms with lots of garlic and ginger that I made last night. Excellent. About $18, a Crazy, Raving Bargain.

An R. Shack Selection, for HB Wine Merchants, New York.

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