Best Wines


I mentioned in a previous post that I bought three bottles of wine at a fundraiser silent auction, thinking I was merely helping to boost the bidding for a worthy cause, but ended up buying the wines. Lucky me.

Well, it turns out that at least with the first wine we opened, we were lucky.

A few nights ago, we took the Cakebread Cellars Merlot 2002, Napa Valley, to Bari, one of our favorite restaurants in town, where we had, as usual, a simple and wonderful Italian meal. While we had glasses of the Costamolino Vermentino di Sardegna with the first courses — sauteed calamari with tomatoes, garlic and black olives; grilled octopus with grapefruit and red onion — the Cakebread Merlot ’02 stood sentinel-like on the table, waiting silently to perform; I mean, I wish I possessed an iota or two of this wine’s confidence and aplomb. LL ordered pork osso buco for the main course and I elected to have the spaghetti carbonara.

The wine was made by Julianne Laks, who had been assistant winemaker under Bruce Cakebread until he became the winery’s president in 2002, succeeding his father Jack Cakebread, who retired that year, so ’02 was the first vintage Laks had complete control over. Cakebread Merlot ’02 includes 7 percent cabernet sauvignon. The grapes are 42 percent Carneros and 58 percent “mid-valley,” which one assumes means Rutherford, where the winery is located. The wine aged 18 months in French oak, 45 percent new. The alcohol level is 14.9 percent.

The Cakebread Merlot 2002 sports a dark, radiant ruby-purple color, a bit inky at the center. The bouquet is a beguiling, almost delirious weaving of cassis, black cherry, dusty lavender, dried thyme and crushed gravel, with a hint of black olive. At a few months more than seven years old, the wine is poised on the cusp of youthful, brooding intensity and wildness — there’s something almost feral about it — and serene equilibrium and elegance. Black fruit flavors are rich, ripe and intense, though tempered by polished oak, subtle and supple, and dense, pervasive tannins. Here’s a merlot that gives the lie to every bland, generic merlot you’re had from California; the Cakebread ’02 embodies wonderful presence, tone and character, and if you have any in your cellar or closet or that box under your bed, you’re a lucky duck. A great experience. Best from 2011 or ’12 through 2015 or ’16. Remember, I bid on this at a silent auction for a nonprofit organization, so I think I paid a generous $75. Not bad, actually, considering the prices of Cakebread wines nowadays.

LL teaches on Tuesday nights in the Spring semester, so dinner duty falls to me. It’s a good opportunity to try new dishes, some of which are all right — the green lentil curry was O.K. if you like hippie commune food circa 1968 — and several of which are keepers.

A definite keeper is the Pan-Roasted Chicken with Citrus Sauce, from the January issue of Food & Wine magazine. The recipe is a simplified version of the dish created by chef John Sedlar at Rivera in Los Angeles. According to the article, Sedlar uses “a range of citrus, including Cara Cara oranges, blood oranges and pomelos,” though “the dish is just as delicious with a simple mix of navel oranges and limes.” Blood oranges would have been good, but we don’t see them in markets here until late April. And, I’m here to tell you that segmenting a lime is about as easy as picking the white off rice. Even navel oranges don’t segment that easily; they tend to shred. Satsumas, on the other hand — Citrus unshia, formally speaking — peeled and separated easily and beautifully. They’re in the foreground on the accompanying image; the frowsy-looking navel segments are in back, hiding behind the chicken. As you can see, I served the dish with a little farfalle pasta, to soak up the
sauce.

Anyway, this is a terrific, intensely flavored dish, and LL heartily approved.

To drink with the Citrus Chicken, I opened a bottle of the Hugel & Fils Pinot Blanc Cuvée Les Amours 2006, from Alsace. Nothing mysterious or obscure here; Hugel’s Cuvée Les Amours Pinot Blanc is widely known and, in this house, admired. The 2006, with three years on it, delivers a muscat-like floral-oily musky-funkiness that immediately draws you, delicately yet inevitably, into its sensuous and slightly outré precincts. The wine is loaded with notes of roasted lemon and lemon curd, smoked orange rind and lime peel, cloves and ginger, all stretched upon taut strings of bright acidity that keep it fresh and vibrant. Just lovely, for drinking through 2011 or ’12, well-stored. Excellent and Great Value at about $17.

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

Last night’s Pasta alla Norma came from Jamie’s Italy (Hyperion, $34.95), a very engaging book by Jamie Oliver. This was a real winner on any scale of judgment or comparison. The preparation is pretty simple. You fry small skin-on slices of eggplant sprinkled with dried oregano in olive oil until golden brown — and I’m here to tell you that golden brown segues to black ‘n’ burned really quickly — then add some dried red chili, sliced garlic, finely chopped basil stems, a dollop of white vinegar — I used agrodolce — let that cook for a bit and then pour in a can of diced tomatoes and the juice. Give it 10 or 15 minutes to simmer and throw in some basil. Add the pasta and a little of the pasta water. Garnish with more basil, some grated pecorino and crumbles of salted ricotta. This was seriously great and intense, and I have a feeling that I’ll be cooking it fairly often.

Here I opened a bottle of the Easton Wines Zinfandel 2008, Amador County. What a classic of zinfandel purity and faceted completeness! The wine is rich and succulent, deeply spicy and flavorful yet restrained and balanced by a structure that’s stalwart and rugged without being rustic, dense and chewy without being ponderous. Black cherry and blackberry flavors, sporting an edge of molten mulberry, black pepper and crushed gravel, get earthier and fleshier, more briery and brambly with a few moments in the glass; you also feel the wood more, a slightly spicy, dark graininess, from 10 months in French oak. There’s plenty of substance here, a flirtation with black leather allure, but the wine is also clean and forthright, an eloquent and rather wild expression of the grape. Excellent and a Great Bargain at about $16.

A review sample.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Every January, food magazines and newspaper food sections come out with stories about “new,” healthier, sustainable, non-grease-bomb snacks for nibbling while watching two Super Bowl football teams destroy each other in mud, blood and gore on large-screen televisions. But come on, guys, we all know what you’re going to be scarfing down: fiery-hot fried chicken wings with vats of blue cheese dressing; nachos dripping with melted cheese and sour cream studded with ground beef, refried beans and sliced jalapeno peppers; slabs of barbecue ribs slathered with spicy sauce; tortilla chips dipped into mouth-searing salsas; pigs-in-blankets, fer gawd’s sake!

In keeping with the kick-ass tradition of Super Bowl snack food, I offer a roster of kick-ass red wines that will nestle in there amongst your manliness and man the barricades of Guydom Snack Food.

Let’s start with the Penley Estate Hyland Shiraz 2006, Coonawarra, a smoking depth-charge of a wine that smells and tastes like roasted meat, bacon fat, wet dog, black pepper and intensely rich and ripe black and red currants and plums. To give you some idea of this wine’s bragging rights, we drank it last night with flank steak tacos; I slathered the meat with chili powder, chipotle powder, ground cumin, adobo seasoning (onion, garlic, pepper, Mexican oregano, cumin, cayenne pepper) and mapuche spice from Chile, a mixture of cacho de cabra chilies and coriander seeds, let it meditate on its worthiness for four hours and then seared it in a cast-iron skillet. Woo-hoo! The alcohol level is 15 percent, but you can handle it. Excellent. About $19 to $21.
Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal.

Or to stay in the Antipodes, try the Kilikanoon Killerman’s Run Shiraz Grenache 2007, South Australia, a Platonic model of gravel-like minerality, smoke, gritty tannins and pumped-up black and red currants with a rooty, feral tang. Don’t let that touch of rose petals in the bouquet bother you. The blend is 67 percent shiraz, 33 percent grenache. Excellent. About $19 to $21.
Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa Cal.

Also from the Southern Hemisphere, but from the opposite side of the wide Pacific, comes the Trapiche Broquel Bonarda 2006, made from 100 percent bonarda grapes grown in Argentina’s Mendoza region. This intriguing wine, which ages a year in new French and American oak, is dark, dry, spicy and a little exotic, a little black leathery; its compelling black and red cherry and black currant flavors wrap cozily around a core of sassafras and orange rind, smoked ancho chilies and bittersweet mocha with a poignant fillip of fresh cracked pepper. Zowie! Very Good+. About $16.
Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.

Shifting briefly to Europe, we have the Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2007, from Sicily. Boy, this is one smoky, spicy, tarry, exotic and robust red wine for drinking with full-flavored, hearty food. Flavors of ripe red and black currants and plums are bolstered by cloves and bitter chocolate, by some rooty, earthy tea-like element, by notes of wild berry and slightly shaggy tannins. The wine is so engaging and lively that it practically vibrates in the glass. Very Good+, and a Great Bargain at $13 to $15.
Imported by Vin Divino, Chicago.

The rest of these, to set your patriotic minds at rest, were made in the U.S.A., that is, if you consider California part of the country.

“Robust” scarcely begins to describe the rustic, bumptious Seven Artisans Petite Sirah 2007, from California’s Suisun Valley. This is a dusty, dusky wine whose grainy tannic nature is matched blow by blow with ripe, juicy black fruit flavors and resonant acidity. Smoke and ash circulate in the depths, along with hints of lead pencil of granite-like intensity, dried porcini, crushed ancho chilies and a touch of dried cranberries. Potent and sort of charming in its muscularity. Very Good+ About $18.

No, bullshit, readers, the Turnbull “Old Bull” 2006, Oakville, Napa Valley, is as solid as a lineman’s biceps and as
supple as a quarterback’s thighs. It took a buffet of grapes to get the job done here — merlot (44%), tempranillo (18%), sangiovese (16%), cabernet sauvignon (9%), barbera (6%), cabernet franc (5%) and syrah (2%). The wine is packed with dusty tannins, dusty spice, dusty macerated black fruit and dusty minerals; yep, it’s a dusty wine, all right, which is a reflection of its profound earthy character and fathomless structure. The fruit holds up, though, and in addition to the wine’s emphasis on structure, it’s downright lip-smackin’ delicious. Very Good+. I paid $24 for this wine, but the suggested price is $20.

We drank the X Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley, with pork chops smacked with chili powder and cumin, seared in olive oil with garlic, and then baked for about 10 minutes, so you understand its potential for standing up to a tray of chicken wings. Boy, this is one dense and chewy cabernet — with 10 percent merlot and 2 percent petit verdot — that flaunts intense and concentrated black currant and black cherry flavors permeated by smoky potpourri, cedar and tobacco, a woodsy, autumnal dried moss element and immense reserves of dusty tannins and gravel-like minerals. Lots of character for the price. 672 cases. Excellent. About $25.

The Real Bargain of these eight wines is the St. Francis Red 2006, Sonoma County, a blend of merlot (48%), cabernet sauvignon (28%), syrah (10%), zinfandel (3%) and the mysterious category of “mixed blacks” for 6%. There are truckloads of personality in this hearty, dark, boldly spiced and flavorful wine that partakes of fleshy roasted elements, macerated black currants, black cherries and plums and enough dusty, earthy tannins for whole pallets of wine. Nothing complicated here, but an engaging, slightly rock-ribbed quaff to buy by the case. Very Good+. About $10.

Except for the Turnbull “Old Bull” 2006, these were sample wines submitted for review.

Thanks to these sources of images:
Football: msg.com
Nachos: utopiankitchen.com
Barbecue ribs: bbq-ribs.com
Pigs in Blankets: girlofwords.com
Chicken wings: eldoradobbq.com

Founded in 1979 by brothers Jim and Steve Allen, Sequoia Grove just slips under our limit (of 1980) for Old School California wineries. Sequoia Grove occupies the site of a 19th Century property in what is now known as the Rutherford Bench. There, it owns its original 24-acre estate vineyard as well as the recently acquired 50-acre Tonella Vineyard, also in Rutherford, as well as property in Carneros. The winery focuses on cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, though it produces cabernet franc, syrah and sauvignon blanc in limited quantities.

There is nothing flashy or flamboyant about wines from Sequoia Grove, which are notable for depth, complexity and reticence. You will notice that through the reviews of the two wines runs the common thread of tannin, because these are indeed tannic, earthy red wines that require considerable aging to become more approachable. Be that the case, one cannot help being impressed by their authenticity and integrity.

Director of winemaking operations at Sequoia Grove, Mike Trujillo, has been with the winery since 1982. Winemaker is Molly Hill. The Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2007, Carneros, Napa Valley, made my recent “50 Great Wines of 2009.” Here’s the original review.

These wines were received as review samples.
_____________________________________________________________________________________

The Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley, is 100 percent varietal. Fifty-six percent of the grapes derive from the winery’s estate vineyard, 12 percent from Oakville, and the rest from vineyards as far-flung as St. Helena in the north to Atlas Peak in the southeast. The wine is, in other words, an expression of Napa Valleyness, if such a thing is possible, rather than an embodiment of a more narrow sub-appellation.

The wine ages 18 months in American oak, 45 percent new barrels.

So, what do we have? A classic seductive bouquet of cedar, tobacco and lead pencil that cushions notes of briery black currants and black cherries with a background of walnut shell and dried porcini mushrooms. In the mouth, this is dense with grainy, chewy tannins and earthy, iron-like minerals, a panoply of dried baking spices and dusty potpourri, more walnut shell and dried porcini, underbrush and moss. The wine’s raison d’etre, in other words, seems to be structure — a noble, dignified structure — with glimmers of black fruit flavors patiently poised in the wings; there are intimations of generosity. Try from 2011 through 2015 to ’17. Very Good+ with Excellent Potential. About $34.
____________________________________________________________________________________
The make-up of the Sequoia Grove Rutherford Bench Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley, is 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 8 percent cabernet franc and 1 percent each petit verdot and malbec. The majority of the grapes comes from the winery’s estate vineyard in Rutherford. The oak treatment is different from that of the “regular” cabernet; the Rutherford Bench Reserve sees no American oak but ages 20 months in French oak, 48 percent new barrels.

This is a powerfully earthy, minerally cabernet, intense and concentrated and as deep as the alluvial soil that fans from the western mountains and provides the basis for many of California’s — and the world’s — greatest and most distinctive cabernet sauvignon wines. Sequoia Grove’s Rutherford Bench Reserve ’04 is monumental, a superb example of the balance and integration of acidity, oak and tannin, with tightly furled black currant and blackberry — the latter unusual in a cabernet — lurking in the fathoms. Give it a few minutes in the glass and hints of mocha, some mossy, root-like tea, licorice and black pepper emerge, over a seething element of smoldering potpourri. The finish is aloof, a little austere. The alcohol level is a fairly modest 14.4 percent. Best from 2011 or ’12 through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $75.
_____________________________________________________________________________________

When I went back through BTYH looking for great wine bargains for 2009, I was surprised at how many candidates there were. I mean, I taste a lot of bland, generic cheap wine year in and year out, but it was encouraging to realize how many wines priced between about $9 and $19 I really liked. So many that I quickly tallied a list of 63, which I then, of course, had to cut back to 25. Ouch, major surgery! I think the result is a very strong roster of wines that reflect authenticity, integrity and pure enjoyment with considerable personality and character thrown into the mix. And speaking of mix, this is an eclectic, geographically-challenging group of wines. Perhaps some of your favorites are here.
_____________________________________________________________________________________
25 Great Bargains of 2009

<>Ad Lib “Tree Hugger” No Oak Chardonnay 2008, Pemberton, Western Australia. Excellent. About $17. (Vintage New World)

<>Ad Lib Wallflower Riesling 2008, Mount Barker, Western Australia. Excellent. About $17. (Vintage New World)

<>Andeluna Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Tupungato, Mendoza. Excellent. About $10. (San Francisco Wine Exchange)

<>d’Arenberg The Stump Jump Verdelho 2008, McLaren Vale, South Australia. Very Good+. About $11. (Old Bridge Cellars)

<>Attems Pinot Grigio 2008, Collio, Friuli. Excellent. About $18-$20. (Folio Fine Wine Partners)

<>August Kesseler Riesling QbA 2007, Rheingau. Excellent. About $16. (August Kesseler Importing Co.)

<>Domaine Catherine Le Goeuil Cairanne “Cuvée Léa Felsh” 2006, Côtes-du-Rhône
Villages. Excellent. $15-$18. (Kermit Lynch)

<>Channing Daughters Cabernet Franc Rosato 2008, North Fork, Long Island. 369 cases. Excellent. About $17.

<>Clayhouse Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Paso Robles. Excellent. About $14.

<>Elsa Bianchi Torrontés 2008, Mendoza. Very Good+. About $9. (Quintessential)

<>Excelsior Chardonnay 2008, Robertson, South Africa. Very Good+. About $12. (Cape Classics Imports)

<>Folie à Deux Merlot 2007, Napa Valley. Excellent. $14-$16.

<>I Stefanini Monte de Toni 2006, Soave Classico. Excellent. $15-$17. (Domenico Selections)

<>Jim Barry Wines “The Cover Drive” Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, South Australia. Excellent. About $19. (Negociants USA)

<>Josh Amber Knolls Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Red Hills, Lake County. Very Good+. About $15.

<>Justin Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Paso Robles. Excellent. About $15.

<>Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $17.

<>Morgan Winery R.& D. Franscioni Vineyard Pinot Gris 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Excellent. About $17.

<>Oak Ridge Winery OZV Zinfandel 2005, Lodi. Excellent. About $15.

<>Domaine Le Peu de la Moriette 2007, Vouvray, Loire Valley. Excellent. About $19. (Vineyards Brands)

<>Petraio Nero d’Avola 2007, Sicily. Very Good+. About $9.50. (Scoperta Importing Co.)

<>Ravenswood Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $15.

<>Le Rosé de Mouton Cadet 2008, Bordeaux. 65% merlot, 20% cabernet franc, 15% cabernet sauvignon. Very Good+. About $10. (Constellation Wines USA)

<>Rued Chardonnay 2007, Russian River Valley. Excellent. About $18.

<>!ZaZin Old Vines Zinfandel 2007, Lodi. Excellent. About $17.

“Better late than never!” people say, hoping that adage is correct. Perhaps being only midway through two-faced January it’s all right to offer this annual story now rather than immediately after the turn of the year as usual. So be it.

To arrive at the “50 Great Wines of 2009,” I went back through all the posts for last year, read all the reviews, made notes, looked again, made more notes, thought hard, and came up with a list of candidates numbering 70. Now the difficult part began; how to eliminate 20 very worthy wines? First, any wine rated Exceptional is assured of a place. After that step, it’s a matter of fine-tuning and dealing with nuances that involve the commitment of the reviews, the excitement conveyed by the language and the implication of the ratings. If there are, for example, two pinot noirs that cost $25 and each rates Excellent but of one I said, “and also great value for the price,” or words to that effect, then that’s the wine that makes the list. If there are three cabernets at $45, and two rate Excellent and one rates Exceptional, well, I discard the two with the Excellent ratings.

Readers, this takes days, and it’s with genuine sorrow that some of the wines have to be eliminated from the roster, but 50 wines is what I’m after and 50 it has to be. Sort of like an audition for “A Chorus Line.”

The order here is Exceptional wines, from highest to lowest price, then Excellent wines, also from highest to lowest price. There is no hierarchy, no “No. 1 Wine,” no “Best Wine of the Year.” Not included are a few older wines I was fortunate enough to taste here and there, like older rieslings in Germany or Ports in the Douro Valley. The point is that these are current releases, or they were when I tasted and wrote about them. Notice that great wines don’t have to be expensive. This list begins at $19, and quite a few bottles cluster in the $20s, $30s and $40s. If a wine is limited in availability, I’ll mention the case production, if I have that information.

First, though, a category in which one wine does get singular attention.
_____________________________________________________________________________________
Best Debut Wine of 2009

Trivium is a collaboration of Napa Valley grape-grower Doug Wright, winemaker Jack Stuart and marketer Stu Harrison. The winery’s debut product is Trivium Les Ivrettes Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, St. Helena. Composed of 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, the wine spent 19 months in oak, 85 percent French barrels, 60 percent new. This is a great Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. Nothing opulent or flamboyant here, this wine of awesome purity and intensity beautifully balances elegance and power and seems to draw for its dense and concentrated character upon the nature of the soil and strata on which the vineyard stands. A terrific achievement that devotees of classic Napa cabernet won’t want to miss. Best from 2010 through 2015 or ‘16. Production was 318 cases. Excellent. About $60.
_____________________________________________________________________________________

Now, 50 Great Wines of 2009.

<>Mount Veeder Reserve Red Wine 2004, Napa Valley. 53% cabernet sauvignon, 44% merlot, 3% malbec. Exceptional. About $80.

<>St. Supéry Élu 2004, Napa Valley. 66% cabernet sauvignon, 23% merlot, 8% cabernet franc, 2% petit verdot, 1% malbec. Exceptional. About $70.

<>William Humbert Jalifa Rare Old Dry Amontillado Solera Especial, Jerez, Portugal. Exceptional. About $70. (Kindred Spirits of North America)

<>Roland Champion Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut, Champagne. Exceptional. About $65. (Kysela Père et Fils)

<>Two Hands “Harry & Edward’s Garden” Shiraz 2006, Langhorne Creek, South Australia. Exceptional. About $65. (Terlato Wines International)

<>Morgan Winery Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 600 cases. Exceptional. About $62.

<>Black Kite Cellars “River Turn” Pinot Noir 2007, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 195 cases. Exceptional. About $52.

<>Quinta da Romaneira Vintage Porto 2007. Exceptional. About $50, following by several big question marks. (Vintus)

<>Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay 2007, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $42.

<>Morgan Double L Vineyard Syrah 2006, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 100 cases. Exceptional. About $40.

<>Peter Jakob Kühn Oestrich Doosberg Riesling 2007, Rheingau. Exceptional. About $38. (Domaine Select Wine Estates)

<>Renaissance Roussanne 2006, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills. 76 cases. Exceptional. About $35.

<>Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2006, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. Exceptional. $29.

<>Frankland Estate “Poison Hill” Riesling 2008, Frankland River, Western Australia. Exceptional. About $28. (USA Wine West for The Australian Premium Wine Collection)

<>Frankland Estate “Isolation Ridge” Riesling 2008, Frankland River, Western Australia. Exceptional. About $28. (USA Wine West for The Australian Premium Wine Collection)

<>Smith-Madrone Riesling 2007, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $25.

<>Girard Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $23.

<>Mt. Horrocks Watervale Riesling 2006, Clare Valley, South Australia. Exceptional. About $19. (USA Wine West for The Australian Premium Wine Collection)

<>Joseph Drouhin Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2007, Burgundy. 60 cases imported. Excellent. About $172.

<>Mongeard-Mugneret Grands-Echézeaux Grand Cru 2007, Burgundy. Excellent. About $163. (Vineyard Brands)

<>Henri Gouges Nuit-Saint-Georges Les Saint-Georges Premier Cru 2007, Burgundy. Excellent. About $147. (Vineyard Brands)

<>Herdade da Malhadinha Nova Malhadinha Tinto 2004, Alendejo, Portugal. 45% aragonês (tempranillo), 40% alicante bouschet, 15% cabernet sauvignon. Excellent. About $90. (Quintessential)

<>Brandlin Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $85.

<>Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut Champagne. Excellent. About $85. (Laurent-Perrier USA)

<>Quinta do Vale Meao Douro Red 2005, Douro Valley. Excellent. About $75. (W.J. Deutsch & Sons)

<>Guy Charlemagne Reserve Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, Champagne. Excellent. About $65> (William-Harrison Imports)

<>Reale Andrea Borgo di Gete 2005, Colli di Salerno. 100% tintore grapes. Excellent. About $55. (Domenico Selections)

<>Eddy Family Wines Elodian Pinot Noir 2007, Yamhill-Carleton District, Willamette Valley. 580 cases. Excellent. About $45.

<>Black Kite Cellars Kite’s Rest Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 726 cases. Excellent. About $42.

<>Sanford Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Rita Hills. Excellent. About $40.

<>Sausal Century Vines Zinfandel 2007, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $40.

<>Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs 2006, North Coast. Excellent. About $40.

<>Benovia Zinfandel 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 197 cases. Excellent. About $38.

<>Merryvale Merlot 2005, Oakville District, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $35.

<>Rossi Wallace Pinot Noir 2007, Napa Valley. 399 cases. Excellent. About $35.

<>Kühling Gillot Ölberg Riesling Grosses Gewächs 2007, Rheinhessen, Germany. Excellent. About $32.50. (Domaine Select Wine Estates)

<>Jackson Estate “Vintage Widow” Pinot Noir 2008, Marlborough, New Zealand. Excellent. About $32. (Avanti Fine Wine Selections)

<>Clos du Val Pinot Noir 2007, Carneros. Excellent. About $30.

<>Domaine de la Mordorée Rosé 2008, Tavel, Rhone Valley. Excellent. About $30. (Kysela Père et Fils)

<>Gargiulo Vineyards Money Road Ranch Rosato di Sangiovese 2008, Oakville District, Napa Valley. 450 cases. Excellent. About $30.

<>Sbragia Family Gino’s Vineyard Zinfandel 2006, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $28.

<>Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2007, Carneros, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $28.

<>Judd’s Hill San Ysidro Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Central Coast. 668 cases. Excellent. About $26.

<>Two Angels Divinity 2006, High Valley, Lake County. 52% syrah, 22% grenache, 20% mourvèdre, 6% petite sirah. Excellent. About $25.

<>Loan Semillon 2005, Barossa Valley, South Australia. Excellent. About $22. (The Grateful Palate)

<>Potel-Aviron Fleurie 2007, Cru Beaujolais. Excellent. About $22. (Wilson Daniels)

<>Serre del Prete Aglianico del Vulture 2007, Basilicata, Italy. Excellent. About $22. (Domenico Selections)

<>Swanson Vineyards Pinot Grigio 2007, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $21.

<>Moulin de Chauvigné Clos Brochard Savennières 2007. Excellent. About $20. (Fruits of the Vine)

<>Silverado Vineyards Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $20.
_____________________________________________________________________________________
In a few days, I’ll post “25 Great Bargains of 2009″
_____________________________________________________________________________________

There’s a sense — or possibly several but never mind that now — that I live in a different world than many of my readers do, and that’s because I receive wine samples for free. Many of these are unsolicited; the friendly UPS or FedEx person comes to the door and hands over a package or two and I sign for them and bring them inside and open them, and sometimes I think, “Oh, great, this will be interesting” or “Oh, yikes, wow” or “Geeze, why do they send me this crap.” Much of it comes after inquiry. Them: “May we send you such-and-such wine?” Me: “Why, yes, thank you very much.” Some I ask for a sample. Me: “Would you send me this wine to try?” Them: “Hell, yeah.” I’m certain there are writers and publications that receive far more wine than I do, but I probably receive more wine than writers and bloggers just starting out. After all, I’ve been doing this for 25 years.

Some wineries and importers have been sending me wine for 15 or 20 years, a process that allows consistency in my coverage and reviewing. And some wineries and importers stopped sending wine when my weekly newspaper column folded in 2004 and never picked up again. C’est la vie.

I mention these matters in an attempt to prove that when I drink a glass of the Morgan Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands ($48), with my cheese toast, as I did yesterday at lunch, I’m not trying to be a jerk and imply, “Ha-ha, loser, see what I get to drink with my cheese toast and you don’t.” I mean, the wine is there, it needs to be tasted, there’s an opportunity, so why not? Sure, the pleasure principle is a factor too, as in, “Hmmm, maybe I should open this skimpy, undernourished little $6 merlot with my cheese toast instead of the Morgan Double L Pinot ’07,” and then I say, “Nnnnaaaahhhhh.” After all, I can always do the SULM in a line-up with a bunch of other inexpensive reds, n’est-ce pas?

On the other hand, perhaps none of this requires any explanation or justification whatsoever.

Allons.

The Morgan Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands, is absolutely beautiful, a smooth, shapely, harmonious mouthful of wine. Aromas of smoky black cherry and cola twine with mulberry, rhubarb and hints of cloves and mossy-like earthiness; a few minutes in the glass bring whiffs of violets and camellia. In the mouth, the wine performs as a model of the marriage between elegance and power; between balance and integration, on the one hand, and buffed tannins and vibrant acidity on the other. Flavors of black cherry, black currant and plum burgeon with spicy nuances, laid on a foundation of rooty briers and brambles and a texture that drapes the palate like satin. The subtle oak regimen is 11 months in French barrels, 50 percent of which are new. Double L is farmed organically. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Production was 1,050 cases. Excellent. About $48.

Last night, LL braised ox-tails with bacon and a smoked ham hock, a bottle of merlot and a bouquet of celery, carrots, leeks, sage and parsley. This cooked in the oven for, oh, four hours. She served it with a mash of celery root, sweet potatoes and white potatoes. It was brilliant.

Casting about for a wine, naturally I thought about syrah/shiraz or zinfandel, but then I decided to throw discretion and even sense to the winds, and I opened a bottle of Joseph Drouhin Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2007. If ever a red Burgundy could stand up to such a hearty dish, this would be it.

At about 125 acres, Vougeot is the largest vineyard in Burgundy, It is also the most minutely parceled, its area divided among 70 owners, some of whom have proprietorship over only a few rows of vines; this is pinot noir, of course. The firm of Joseph Drouhin owns two parcels that amount to 2.25 acres. Placement is everything in Vougeot; vines at the bottom of the hill do not produce wine as good as vines higher up the slope. Drouhin’s parcels are on the incline, facing east. The parcels are farmed according to biodynamic principles (though how do you compensate for the people around you that don’t farm by the same method?); harvesting is by hand; yeasts are indigenous. The wine rests is oak 14 to 18 months, depending on the year, but typically only 20 percent of the barrels are new.

Drouhin’s Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2007 is a beautiful wine, too, but in a different way. This is the beauty of confidence balanced between poise and assertiveness. It’s a wine that could swagger if it wanted to but clearly doesn’t need to. In fact, beyond this wine’s warmth and richness, beyond its layers of spiced and macerated black cherries and plums grounded in dried spice, shale-like minerality and acidity that plows an authoritative furrow, there’s a sense of reticence, of holding itself back for the proper moment. The elements of dried spice, tending a bit toward the exotic, blossom amazingly in the glass, pulling black fruit with them, turning increasingly seductive; at the same time, however, the wine becomes drier, picking up sinew and dusty tannic austerity. Try this from 2011 or ’13 through 2017 or ’20. Sixty cases were imported to the U.S. Excellent. About $172.

Wow, you’re saying, if both of these wines rate Excellent, why not just forget about the Clos de Vougeot ’07 and go with the Morgan Double L? Well, sure. Let’s admit that not many people possess the fiduciary prowess to buy the Clos de Vougeot or the cellar in which to let it mature. On the other hand, the two wines offer quite different but equally eloquent and authentic expressions of the grape. You pays yer money and you takes yer choice. I’m lucky enough that I was able to try both of them on the same day and to tell you about them.

Last night LL made a perfect carbonara. Like so many Italian pasta creations, whether classic or contemporary, the thing is utter simplicity: butter, garlic, pancetta, eggs, Parmesan and Romano
cheeses. The whole process takes even less time than it takes the pasta to cook. We didn’t have pancetta — spiced and cured but not smoked pork belly — but applewood smoked bacon made a fine substitute. Nor did we have Romano cheese, so I grated half Parmesan and half Campo de Montalban, a hard cheese made from goat’s, sheep’s and cow’s milks. The ability to improvise, but not compromise, is essential, in cooking and in life, n’est-ce pas?

Anyway, this was a great dish. To accompany it, I opened – with a deft twist of the wrist — a bottle of the Monte Antico 2006, Toscana, a blend of sangiovese (85%), cabernet sauvignon (10%) and merlot (5%). The label is owned by its American importers, Neal and Maria Empson. The wine is made in the Tuscan province of Pisa by Franco Bernabei.

Monte Antico 2006, as befits its broad grounding in the sangiovese grape, is clean and spare yet warm and spicy. Aromas of dried black and red fruit, dried spice and flowers are woven with orange rind and a sort of floral-rooty black tea and hints of tobacco and smoke. The smokiness increases as the black currant and macerated plum flavors take on their freight of dusty tannins, crushed gravel and vibrant acidity. This is sleek, polished and harmonious and will drink nicely through the end of 2010 or into 2011. Very Good+ and a Great Bargain at about $13, though seen on the Internet as low as $10.
Imported by Empson USA, Alexandria, Va.

Notes on other recently tasted red wines from Italy:
_____________________________________________________________________________________

I once heard a winemaker in Australia say that there were no great wines without oak. This point of view ignores many of the great wines of Chablis and Alsace and portions of Germany, but those are white wines, and perhaps he referred only to red. It’s true that the great red wines of the world, from Bordeaux and Burgundy to Tuscany and Piemonte, from Napa Valley to the Barossa Valley, tend to be aged in wood, and they tend to be made from “noble” grapes like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, sangiovese, nebbiolo and syrah. What then do we make of the Serra de Prete 2007, a deep-dyed, towering blockbuster of a red wine made by the producer Musto Carmelito in the rustic Italian province of Basilicata, a wine made with nary a speck of wood? No, my friends, this staggering wine spends six months in stainless steel tanks, four months in cement vats and two months in bottle before it is unleashed to an unsuspecting world. Now if the definition of a great wine is one that will develop and mature into mellow nuance, refinement and subtlety, as we expect with Bordeaux and Burgundy, then Serra de Prete 2007 doesn’t approach greatness. If however a wine achieves a supreme expression of a single grape variety and vineyard, if it practically shivers with authenticity and integrity, well, that’s a different kind of greatness. The grape in question is aglianico del vulture — “vool-CHUR-ay” — and it provides Serra de Prete 2007 with a color that’s like some nocturnal Lovecraftian deep purple shading into black; with intense and concentrated scents and flavors of licorice/oolong tea/tar-stained black currants; with a dense, supple, chewy texture that draws on the power of fathomless tannins; and a tone somber and brooding but not rustic or truculent. In fact, the blessing of keen acidity keeps the wine unexpectedly vibrant and resonant. Best after 2011 or ’12. Excellent. About $20-$22, Good Value.

Imported by Domenico Selections, N.Y. Available in the Northeast and limited in the rest of the country.

Double disclosure: This wine was sent to me as a review sample, AND I borrowed the image from Benito and modified it.
______________________________________________________________________________________

In the old days, that is, the 1950s through the 1980s, the grapes that went into Amarone were hung up in the rafters of the wineries or spread out on mats to dry. Now, however, the grapes — corvina and rondinella — are dried in temperature-controlled rooms and carefully monitored. Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone, as the wine used to be called, is the great red wine of the Veneto region, though it must be carefully made to retain freshness and clarity. One that does just that is the Masi “Costasera” Amarone Classico 2005, a dark vigorous, boldly flavorful wine, deeply spicy, dauntlessly dry yet succulent. Aromas of fruit cake and spice cake are twined with dried black and blue fruit and hints of orange rind, toasted almonds and bitter chocolate; nothing raisiny or toffee-ish mars the wine’s sleekness and its profound presence or tone. Paradoxically, this Amarone is dramatic, displaying a flair for overt statement of fruit, structure and acidity, yet at the core, it is calm, generous and, through the finish, austere. Drink now through 2015 to ’18 with hearty stews and braised meat or strong cheeses, or allow it to mature into a wine that encourages contemplation and meditation. Excellent. Prices range ridiculously across the board for this wine, as in from about $35 to $65.

Imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Cal. Tasted at a trade event.
_____________________________________________________________________________________

The Moccagatta Nebbiolo 2007, from Piedmont’s Langhe region, represents the entry level wine for the Minuto family’s Moccagatta estate, founded in 1952. Made from 100 percent nebbiolo grapes (from young vineyards) and aged a scant six months in old barriques, the wine offers the typical nebbiolo aromas of tar, smoke, violets, spiced plums, damp leaves and moss and gravel. Flavors of macerated black currants and blueberries are draped on a spare, taut structure whose bright acidity cuts a swath on the palate. Nothing opulent or easy here; the wine is an eloquent expression of a grape at a level of purity and intensity that’s especially gratifying from vines that are less than a decade old. Dried heather and thyme seep through the bouquet after a few minutes in the glass, as the wine gets increasingly spicy, dry and austere, with touches of old paper and dust. While the Moccagatta Nebbiolo ’07 doesn’t display the dimension or detail of Moccagatta’s more expensive single-vineyard Barbarescos, it’s an admirable statement of a grape variety and winemaking philosophy. Best from 2010 or ’11 through 2015 to ’17. Bring on the pappardelle con coniglio. Excellent. About $25.

Marc de Grazia Imports, Winston-Salem, N.C.
_____________________________________________________________________________________

From the vast sea of wine turned out in Puglia comes this distinctive number, the Masserie Pisari Negroamaro 2005, Salento Rosso. Made from a grape that’s often treated like a bludgeon, the Masserie Pisari ’05 takes rich, deep black currant, blueberry and plum scents and flavors and adds exotic spice and a note of wild cherry. After a few moments in the glass, matters turn tarry, briery and brambly; the wine grows more exotic, wilder and spicier, more roasted and smoky, with an expanding tide of dusty tannins, dried thyme and rosemary and a warm, meadowy aspect, all enlivened by brisk acidity. The wine does sort of hit you over the head, but gently; there’s something almost droll about it. Definitely calls for burgers, pizzas and hearty pasta dishes. Very Good+. About $16, which is what I paid in Memphis, Tenn., but prices on the Internet go as low as $10.
A Marc de Grazia Selection for Vin Divino, Chicago.
_____________________________________________________________________________________
I wish I hadn’t paid $19 for this wine; the national median is about $16. We live and learn (or not). That range in prices isn’t the fault of the wine though. The Marcarini Fontanazza 2008, Dolcetto d’Alba, which we drank on Pizza-and-Movie Night, opens with aromas of black cherries and plums with a background of sour cherry, a tea-like spice and a touch of dried orange rind. In other words, this is classic Piedmontese dolcetto, with that good old dependable northern Italian acid structure, piano-string taut and vibrant, and the requisite black currant-leather-tobacco nature that leans lightly on supple tannins. Here’s another wine that sees no oak and is all the better for it. Very Good+. About (oh, well) $16.
Imported by Empson USA, Alexandria, Va.
_____________________________________________________________________________________

Except for vintage port, the wines of Portugal have languished in relative obscurity. That has not been a bad situation, because it has kept international trends and the pressures of the marketplace from the doors of small producers. Circumstances have changed in Portugal, as indeed everywhere, since the middle of the 1990s, bringing more Portuguese wines to our shores as well as opening producers to global marketing and ideas. This process is certainly occurring in an off-the-beaten-track region like Alentejo, nestled against the Spanish border southeast of Lisbon. Here the kings of the vineyards are tempranillo, which goes by the local name aragonês, and the alicante bouschet grape, which doesn’t get a whole hell of a lot of respect elsewhere in the world.

The unusual wine I’m urging on you today — as a great gift for a wine person or for yourself because you were so good this year — is Malhadinha Tinto 2004, made in the Alentejo region by the small producer, Herdade da Malhadinha Nova. The simple winery and the vineyards occupy an abandoned farm purchased by the Soares family in 1996. Winemaker is Luis Duarte. This is the first vintage of the wine brought into the U.S.

Composed of 45 percent aragonês grapes, 40 percent alicante bouschet and 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, Malhadinha Tinto 2004 is drop-dead gorgeous. Yes, I actually wrote those words, and I’m not sorry. You could stop at the Penelope Cruz-like bouquet of cassis, hot stones, smoke, coffee, mocha and tar, but then you would miss the wine’s lovely shape and tone, its robust and vigorous nature, its ripe black currant and plum flavors infused with baking spices and sweet oak, all tempered by supple, chewy tannins and a background of crushed gravel. Malhadinha 2004 aged 14 months in new French oak barrels, but the wood influence is beautifully integrated into the texture and dimension of the wine, so there’s no taint of new oak toastiness or creaminess; instead, vibrant acidity gets the last word. Production was 1,433 cases. Excellent. About $90.

More accessible, at one-third the price, is this wine’s cousin, the Monte da Peceguina Tinto 2007, composed of 50 percent aragonês grapes, 25 percent alicante bouschet, 9 percent touriga nacional and 8 percent each cabernet sauvignon and tinta caiada, a grape that apparently grows only in Alentejo. The wine is solid and resonant, stalwart but with a sense of light-boned delicacy, a prime example of the marriage of power and elegance. The color is dark ruby-purple, the flavors are dark, too, in the black currant, blackberry and black plum range, and the spicy character carries a tinge of dark exoticism. Aged seven months in new French oak, the wine is sleek and polished but not superficially sophisticated; the finish is an amalgam of finely ground wood, dried flowers, granite-like tannins and slate. When it comes to a rib-eye smack-down, this wine would be all over a piece of rare beef. 7,083 cases. Excellent. About $30.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal., which provided these samples for review.

Those madcaps at Renaissance Vineyard and Winery have done it again, releasing a wine that’s not only unique but sort of crazy. If you think you have tasted everything, you must try this.

The wine is the Da Vinci Petite Sirah from the Sierra Foothills. (Da Vinci is a second label that Renaissance uses occasionally.) Notice that no vintage is stated on the label. That’s because this petite sirah is a “cross-vintage” blend from 1979, 1980, ’81 and ’82 — 70% from 1982, 20% from 1981, the remainder from 1980 and 1979. (Federal regulations state that if a label carries an American Viticultural Area designation, then 95% of the grapes must come from the stated vintage.) The wine was bottled in 1984 and was released on Oct 15 this year. That’s right, readers, this wine, in its finished state, has been aging at the winery for 25 years, though the base wines go back 30 years.

The Da Vinci Petite Sirah (nv) offers all the attributes of a well-made, perfectly aged and mature red wine. It’s mild and mellow, yielding hints of mint and white pepper, spiced and macerated black and red cherries and a touch of cedar and tobacco. Sporting a ruddy, luminous ruby-garnet color, the wine is smooth and harmonious; flavors of black and red currants are wreathed with cloves and spiced plums, and as the minutes wear by, a wafting of smoke emerges. Despite its age, there’s nothing puny about the wine, which is enlivened by bold but unobtrusive acidity and framed by gently faded yet still persistent tannins. A masterpiece!

Renaissance produced about 300 cases of this petite sirah, a true California classic. It’s the kind of wine you savor with duck or pheasant or squab. Most mature red wines from 25 or 30 years ago would cost hundreds of dollars, but the price here is $65. It’s available by mail from the winery in states where direct shipment of alcoholic beverages is legal, which of course it should be in every state of this union. I mean, come on, can’t we all act like grown-ups?

Sent to me as a review sample, and am I ever glad it was.

« Previous PageNext Page »