November 2017

No limp, wimpy red wine here, the Clos Pegase Mitsuko’s Vineyard Merlot 2015, Napa Valley-Carneros, sings of its character is full-throated ease, with rippling muscles and lithe structure, like the person on the treadmill next to you at the gym. If you drive along Highway 29, the central thoroughfare in Napa Valley, Clos Pegase is unmistakable. Designed by well-known architect Michael Graves, the winery, founded in 1984 just south of Calistoga, resembles a post-modern rendition of a Mayan temple. Owner Jan Strem, also an active collector of contemporary art, sold the winery (but not the art) to Vintage Wine Estates in 2013. The vineyard in Carneos was named for Strem’s wife. The wine is a blend of 90 percent merlot and five percent each petite sirah and cabernet sauvignon; it aged 16 months in French oak, 32 percent new barrels. It’s as opaque a black-ruby hue as a wine can be, alleviated by a glowing purple rim; the wine’s aromas of crushed black currants and cherries are permeated by notes of iodine and loam, smoke and graphite, with high-tones of lavender and licorice, dried thyme and rosemary (with some of the latter’s hint of woodsy astringency). Oh, it’s a brawny one all right, but sleek and polished and deeply flavorful, borne on a strain of arrowing acidity and dusty, velvety tannins. The finish is all briers and brambles and granitic minerality. 14.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2023 to ’25 with a medium-rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the coals. Excellent. About $40.

A sample for review from the local distributor.

The Côtes de Gascogne vineyard region lies in — guess where? — Gascony, in southwest France, home of Armagnac and d’Artagnan and known as Aquitaine, the much-contested property of England from 1137 to 1453, that year marking the end of the Hundred Years’ War. Our Wine of the Day is a tasty quaffer, the Domaine La Salette Gascogne Blanc 2016, a blend of 80 percent colombard grapes, 10 percent gros manseng and 10 percent ugni blanc, made all in stainless steel. The color is very pale straw-gold, but there’s nothing pale or shy about the wine’s abundant aromas of hay and heather, thyme and lilac, lime peel, lemon and licorice. This is notably crisp, dry, vibrant and thirst-quenching, delivering bright acidity that drives expressive citrus and stone-fruit flavors through to a finish of limestone and seashell salinity. 12 percent alcohol. I don’t want to oversell this little beauty, but you should buy it by the case. Very Good+. Prices around the country range from $11 to $14, representing an Irresistible Value.

Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va. A sample for review from the local distributor.

Willis Mercer moved west and settled in the new town of Prosser in 1886, three years before Washington became a state. The family succeeded at shepherding and then brought in cattle and planted wheat. Irrigation was introduced to Mercer Ranches in 1968, and in 1972, the first grapes were planted, though the family didn’t start making wine until 2005, the year that Horse Heaven Hills was granted status as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). The expansive region — 570,000 acres, with slightly more than 6,000 acres of vines — lies in southeastern Washington, within the larger Columbia Valley AVA. Our Wine of the Day is the Mercer Estate Sharp Sisters Red Blend 2015, Horse Heaven Hills, an interesting blend of 29 percent cabernet sauvignon, 27 percent syrah, 18 merlot, 14 petit verdot, 10 grenache and 2 percent carignane, making a sort of Bordeaux-Rhone hybrid. The wine aged 18 months in French and American oak barrels. Winemaker was Jeremy Santo. The vintage produced the hottest Summer on record in the region, followed by a moderate period of warm days and cool nights. The result was heady ripeness balanced by bright acidity. The color, if that’s the word, is opaque ebony-purple shading, if that’s the word, to a magenta rim; the immediate impression is of penetrating aromas of graphite and iodine, lavender and violets and bittersweet chocolate serving as gloss to intense and concentrated notes of black cherries, raspberries and plums. On the palate, the wine is rich, dusty, dynamic and deeply flavorful; a few moments in the glass bring in hints of sage and rosemary, cloves and just a tinge of vanilla, all these elements bound by velvety tannins and acidity taut as a bow-string; the finish is both generous and chiseled. 14.8 percent alcohol. Drink through 2019 or ’20 with roasted pork, braised lamb shanks or short ribs and other hearty fare. Excellent. About $20, representing Good Value.

A sample for review.

The grapes for the Stéphane Aviron Vieilles Vignes Chenas 2015, a cru Beaujolais wine, derive from a pre-phylloxera vineyard whose vines average 100 years old. Truly, the wine qualifies for the designation “Old Vines.” Made from 100 percent gamay grapes — there’s no blending in Beaujolais — the wine aged for 12 months in a combination of 1-year-old to 4-year-old French oak barrels, hence, no new oak. The color is dark ruby that shades to a transparent robe and magenta rim; immediately apparent are aromas of black currants, mulberries and plums, very spicy, slightly macerated and poached, or, to put the case differently, like a compote of black and blue fruit, all abetted by notes of lavender and violets, cloves and allspice, a few minutes in the glass bringing in hints of sage and bay. As befits a wine made from century-old vines, on the palate this Chenas is dense, dusty and concentrated, with plenty of appealing and suave ripe fruit flavors but also graphite-tinged tannins for structure and bright acidity for a lithe and chiseled texture. 13 percent alcohol. While drinking beautifully now, this Chenas could age a few years, say through 2022. I can see this wine snuggling right up to your Thanksgiving turkey. Excellent. About $21, representing Good Value.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York. A sample for review.

I wonder why the people at Grgich Hills Estate feel it necessary to include on the label of their Fumé Blanc wines the script “Dry Sauvignon Blanc.” Is anyone out there in America worried about picking up by mistake a bottle of sweet sauvignon blanc? I seriously doubt it. Anyway, rhetorical questions aside, the Grgich Hills Fumé Blanc 2015, Napa Valley, displays all the virtues of a wine that’s always one of my favorites and a high point in tasting the sauvignon blanc grape every year. Made from certified organic vineyards, the wine aged six months on the lees in neutral oak barrels, 20 percent in the standard 59-gallon barriques, 80 percent in large old foudres of 900-gallon capacity. It offers a pale straw-gold hue and arresting aromas of roasted lemon and lemon balm, celery seed and lemongrass, lilac, gunflint and graphite. As is typical of this wine — winemaker is Ivo Jeramaz — the texture is seductively soft and almost talc-like while being animated by vivid acidity, factors that create a lovely sense of tension and balance between lushness and crispness, all at the service of herb-inflected stone-fruit flavors. A few moments in the glass bring in notes of leafy fig and fennel seed, quince and ginger; the finish feels etched and crystalline. 13.5 percent alcohol. We drank this wine happily with a curry of mushrooms and butternut squash. Now through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $31.

A sample for review.

I managed to squeak by Merlot Month — October — by only mentioning the grape once. Whew! I deplore these marketing gimmicks, except, of course, World Champagne Day. That one, I happily go along with. Anyway, we look in this post at three merlot wines from Duckhorn Vineyards, a producer of merlot since 1976, not merely venerable but distinguished, even archetypal, particularly from the famed Three Palms Vineyard. Renée Ary was promoted to winemaker at Duckhorn in 2014, just in time to craft the Three Palms Merlot for that vintage, a stupendous wine that rates Exceptional in the review below. The other merlot wines here are from Gundlach Bundschu (Very Good+), Chelsea Goldschmidt (Excellent and a Great Value) and Mt. Brave (Excellent).

These wines were samples for review.

Decoy is Duckhorn’s label for (relatively) inexpensive wines. The Decoy Merlot 2015, Sonoma County, is a blend of 92 percent merlot, 4 percent cabernet franc and 2 percent each cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah. The color is dark ruby shading to a transparent violet rim; aromas of red currants, black cherry and blueberry are infused with cloves and graphite and a hint of loam; this is a briery, brambly merlot, not rustic — the texture is sleek and supple — but rooty and woodsy, the whole package kept lively by vibrant acidity; the finish is solid with dusty tannins and a hint of oak. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 or ’20. Very Good+. About $25.
The Duckhorn Merlot 2014, Napa Valley, represents an intense and concentrated rendition of the grape; it’s a blend of 88 percent merlot, 7 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent petit verdot and 2 percent cabernet franc, aged 16 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. A totally opaque black-ruby color presages a merlot that’s dark in intensity and effect. This one reveals an oak influence greater than its stablemates also reviewed in this section, a factor that tends to mute the elements of red and black currants and blueberries that circulate below the surface, while adding a spicy and dried herb quality that manages to feel more generous and appealing. Graphite? You bet. Granitic minerality? Uh-huh. Dusty, velvety tannins? Count on ’em. A finish that expands the oak and tannic sway through toasty woody notes? Mais oui. 14.5 percent alcohol. Give this merlot another year to settle down and find better balance, and then consume through 2024. Very Good+, with Excellent potential. About $54.
You’ll hear not a quibble or a qualm from me about the Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Merlot 2014, Napa Valley. This single-vineyard wine set the standard for Napa Valley merlot decades ago and continues to handily best the competition. For 2014, the blend consists of 86 percent merlot, 8 percent cabernet sauvignon, 4 percent malbec and 2 percent petit verdot; it aged 18 months in French oak, a whopping 75 percent new barrels. As often happens, however, when excellent grapes from a great vineyard meet a rigorous oak regimen, the wine soaked up that oak and turned it into a subtle, supple shaping factor rather than a dominating influence. The color, if that’s the word, is as opaque a black-ruby-purple as could be imagined; the gamut of sensations is here, but sustained, restrained and codified by the demands of immense dusty bastions of granitic-glazed tannins and a tremendous reserve of penetrating graphite minerality. While that description makes the Three Palms Merlot 14 sound as if it’s all about structure now, this wine adds intriguing and interesting detail to its dimension: black and red currants with touches of blueberry and raspberry, all slightly spiced and macerated; mocha and fruitcake, pomegranate and loam; dried porcini and woodsy herbs and flowers. This panoply is animated by bright acidity that plows a furrow through to the austere, mineral and oak infused finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. A monumental achievement, and thank god I have another bottle. Best from 2019 or ’20 through 2030 to ’34. Exceptional. About $98.

Named for winemaker Nick Goldschmidt’s eldest daughter, the Chelsea Goldschmidt Merlot 2015, Alexander Valley, is a 100 percent varietal wine that aged 12 months in 25 percent new oak, 60 percent French barrels, 20 percent each American and Hungarian. The color is deep dark black-ruby with a purple rim; aromas of cassis and black currant jam are permeated by notes of cloves and licorice, iodine and graphite, lavender and bittersweet chocolate. Chewy, gritty tannins reach fathoms into layers of granitic minerality, all enlivened by vibrant acidity and laved by tasty black and blue fruit flavors. Yeah, it’s sort of like drinking gravel, and I mean that in the best way. 14.5 percent alcohol. Best from 2019 through 2025 to ’28. Excellent. About $19, an Incredible Value for this quality.
If you dote on juicy, jammy red wines — as I do not — this one’s for you. The Gundlach Bundschu Merlot 2014, Sonoma Valley, is a blend of 89 percent merlot, 5 percent petit verdot, 4 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent each malbec and cabernet franc, thereby accommodating the five classic Bordeaux grape varieties. The wine aged 17 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. The color is inky, opaque black-purple with a magenta rim; this opens with pure blackberry jam, penetrating aromas of graphite and lavender and a deeply spicy, macerated character that includes blueberries and mulberries. It’s quite dry but ripe, juicy and succulent, very dense and chewy and energized by bright acidity that rips through dusty, velvety tannins; you feel the sweet ripeness of the 14.8 percent alcohol on the finish. Drink now through 2020 or ’22. Very Good+. About $35.
None of these examples is a wimpy wine, as some people think of merlot, but the Mt. Brave Merlot 2014, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley, pretty much takes the prize for structure. Made from grapes grown between 1,400 and 1,800 feet in elevation — it’s the old Chateau Potelle property — this 100 percent varietal wine aged 19 months in French oak, 93 percent new barrels. The wine displays another inky-black-purple hue with a violet rim; every aspect is intense and concentrated, from the tightly-wound notes of black currants, blueberries and (just a hint) boysenberry to the piercing granitic-and-graphite minerality to its rigorous tannins permeated by iodine, iron and loam. Give it a few minutes in the glass, and it calls up the dusty herbaceous quality of dried thyme and rosemary (with a touch of rosemary’s slightly astringent woodsy nature) that I associate with high-elevation red wines, all of these elements energized and bound by keen acidity; the finish feels chiseled from stone. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 532 cases. Winemaker was Chris Carpenter. This is a wine built to age; try from 2019 or ’20 through 2030 to ’34, properly stored. Excellent. About $80.

The term “steen” in the name of today’s wine, The Royal Old Vines Steen Chenin Blanc 2016, Western Cape, is the name that the chenin blanc grape traditionally goes by in South Africa. Made all in stainless steel tanks, the wine brings forward all the engaging qualities of chenin blanc at a remarkable price. The color is pale gold; the impression is immediately bright, clean and fresh, with scents of lime peel and pear, a slightly tropical hint of guava and gardenia, and in the background the grape’s signature notes of hay and heather. A lovely texture deftly balances a crisp edge with modest lushness to balance flavors of spiced peach and pear with seashell and limestone minerality and a fairly bracing saline finish. 13 percent alcohol. This wine is a product of Riebeek Wine Cellars, where the winemaker is Eric Saayman. Drink as a tasty aperitif or with light fish and seafood dishes. Very Good+. About $11, marking Wonderful Value.

Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va. A sample for review.

It’s an article of faith among marketers of wine and spirits that the Millennial cohort wants to consume products with stories that somehow make what they’re drinking seem more authentic and connected with human qualities. Well, here’s a story they’ll clasp to their bosoms with glee and gratitude.

Robin and Andréa McBride are half-sisters who grew up not knowing of each other’s existence. They shared a father who was not part of their lives. Andrea lived in New Zealand, having been placed in foster-care at the age of six, after her mother died. Robin was raised by her mother in Monterey, California, all the way on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Before their father died in 1996, he asked his family to try and connect the girls. They finally met in 1999, after tremendous efforts by their father’s family, and discovered that each worked in the wine industry on their separate continents. What else could they do but form a partnership in that business? They make and import a saugivnon blanc and a brut rosé from New Zealand and produce a chardonnay and the red blend under consideration today from the Central Coast. They are among the very few black women working in California’s predominantly white male wine industry.

The McBride Sisters Collection Red Blend 2015, Central Coast, is composed of merlot, zinfandel, malbec and petite sirah grapes — percentages not revealed — derived from Paso Robles and Monterey. The wine aged 18 months in primarily French oak barrels with a small portion in American and Hungarian oak. The color is dark ruby fading to a transparent violet rim; scents of red and black currants unfold to notes of blueberry and mulberry, cloves and allspice, espresso, tar and lavender. A few moments in the glass unfurl hints of dusty thyme and rosemary, pomegranate and fruitcake and elements of briers and brambles; bright acidity keeps the wine on an even keel, while light graphite-tinged tannins provide ballast (to sustain the nautical metaphor), and ripe and juicy black and blue fruit flavors charge through to the slightly mineral-and-woodsy-inflected finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. A lot of satisfying detail and dimension at a more than fair price. Excellent. About $17.

A sample for review.