Best Wines


In warm weather, we eat differently. Of course there’s the occasional steak cooked out on the grill, but mainly we’re after lighter fare that won’t sit heavily on the stomach, that’s more refreshing and delicate than winter’s hearty cuisine. Up until a week ago, LL and I ate out on the screened porch off the kitchen every night; here’s the table set at the end of May for a twilight meal of seared scallops on spinach with bacon, shallots and balsamic red onions and a charming, uncomplicated Trivento Select Torrontes 2008, from Argentina’s Mendoza region (Very Good, about $10). Frankly, now, it’s too hot to eat outside; with the temperature in the high 90s every day, even at 10 p.m., the heat and humidity feel stifling, so we’re dining inside where it’s cool.

The motif of today’s post, as you probably guessed, is summer fare and summer wines, so cue the theme music from Summer Place or The Summer of ’42 or even John Sebastian, and have a read.
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Let’s start with a lovely pasta of Brussels sprouts leaves, onion, garlic and tasso, a variation on a recipe in Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables (HarperCollins, 1996), a cookbook that I sometimes mention. (Instead of red pepper flakes, LL used spicy tasso ham.) This is a lighter dish than it may sound, because the leaves of the Brussels spouts are fairly delicate, and LL just used a little diced tasso, more for a bit of bass note emphasis than for full-fledged flavor. I fried some bread crumbs in butter to go on it. The pasta was delicious on a torrid summer night.

For wine, I opened — easy to do; all Bonny Doon wines are closed with screw-caps — the Bonny Doon Beeswax Vineyard Le Cigare Blanc 2007, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. This blend of 64.3 percent roussane grapes and 35.7 percent grenache blanc is one of the best of the current crop of Rhone-style white wines made in California. It offers lemon curd, waxy white flowers, meadows and dried herbs in the nose, with hints of crystallized ginger and quince, roasted pears and lavender honey. Yes, it’s heady stuff. In the mouth, the wine, which sees a modicum of French oak, delivers pleasing weight and substance; it’s a bit fat, a little sassy, but balanced by spare, scintillating acidity and mineral elements. Notably clean and fresh, the wine is shot through with flavors of ripe lemons and limes and pears, highlighted with hazelnut skin and, on the finish, a touch of astringent grapefruit rind. Clearly not a sauvignon blanc or chardonnay and all the better for it. Excellent. About $22.
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O.K., here’s one of our favorite hot weather dishes, broiled shrimp with mint and cannellini beans on watercress, though watercress can be hard to find — as in never, so just forget it! — so arugula is a good substitute. You make the mint into a sort of pesto. The recipe comes from a book I have mentioned many times over the years, a magazine-size publication of Food & Wine called Fast. This came out in, well, I think 2005. I can’t tell you for sure because the first few pages of the book are missing; it got left out in the rain one day and the cover warped and loosened. Many other pages are stained with oil or wine or vinegar or substances now unknown. It has become sort of an archeology of cooking. Anyway, this is an easy dish, especially if you buy peeled and deveined shrimp; if not, the hardest part is undressing the reluctant crustaceans.

When we had this dish recently, I opened a bottle of the Hazard Hill Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2008, from the Plantagenet winery, established in 1968 and the first producer in Western Australia’s Great Southern region. Made completely in stainless steel, the wine is notably fresh and attractive, featuring aromas of leafy fig and roasted lemon with hints of melon and mint. Citrus flavors with a touch of grapefruit are highlighted by dried thyme and tarragon, all nestled in a sleek structure jazzed by lively acidity. A lovely quaff. Very Good+. About $13. a Great Bargain.
Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal.
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Next is a dish, also from Fast, that marries chicken thighs, garlic and cilantro with a piquant red miso glaze that, with the addition of white wine, turns into a savory sauce. The whole operation takes about 35 minutes, with most of that time spent idling the minutes away with a glass of champagne as the chicken cooks under the broiler. It’s a delicious combination that looks good, too, always an important point when food may end up as an illustration on this blog.

I was going to open a riesling with this dish, but LL, after tasting the broth, suggested something with a little more body, so we went with a Joseph Drouhin Chablis 2007, which turned out to be a good choice. Drouhin, a large and venerable negociant and grower in Burgundy, owns 67 acres of “regular” Chablis vineyards that are farmed organically. The juice is pressed at Drouhin’s facility in Chablis and then trucked to the company’s winery in Beaune, where it ferments and ages seven or eight months in stainless steel.

This Chablis — one hundred percent chardonnay — is clean and fresh and steely, with hints of spicy lemon, green plum, green grape and sauteed mushrooms over layers of earthy limestone. The wine displays gratifying tone and presence, with a hint of Burgundian fatness and weight, though it’s essentially spare and elegant. The spicy nature expands on the finish as well as the intensity of the mineral element. Drink through 2010. Very Good+. About $24.50.
Imported by Dreyfus, Ashby & Co,. New York.
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Finally, here’s a dish we enjoy throughout warm weather, a pasta with a cold tomato sauce. This is utter simplicity. You halve some tomatoes, squeeze them to get rid of the excess juice and then chop them. Put them into a bowl with chopped shallots and basil and some good olive oil and balsamic vinegar and a few grinds of salt and pepper. Let it all sit for an hour to marinate, a good time for more champagne. Cook the pasta — this is best with a short curly-shaped pasta — drain, and toss it with the tomato mixture and grate on some Parmesan. The heat of the just-cooked pasta will warm the tomatoes but not too much, and the tomatoes will cool the pasta. Basically, this is a room temperature dish, and its variations are infinite.

Obviously something cool and clean and fresh was required, so we tried the Famiglia Bianchi Sauvignon Blanc 2008, San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina. Cool and fresh, indeed, and bright and very drinkable, the wine features lemon and lime aromas woven with almond, almond blossom and jasmine. There’s a hint of the tropical, a sort of mango married to pear quality, and sheaves of leafiness and dried grasses. A lovely soft texture is enlivened with shimmering acidity and an audacious limestone element. The finish brings in a bit of grapefruit edginess to the package. Very attractive. Very Good+. About $16.
Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal.

Judd’s Hill is a busy place. First, of course, it’s a winery, owned by Art and Bunnie Finkelstein, former owners of Whitehall Lane, a producer of exemplary cabernet. Assisting are son Judd Finkelstein and his wife Holly. Judd’s Hill makes about 3,000 cases of wine annually, keeping things small to concentrate on the details. There’s also a frenetic side to the enterprise, one of which is Judd’s Enormous Wine Show, a sort of demented love child of a blog and a video created by Judd Finkelstein and his childhood friend, Rudy McClain. (I’m always amazed that people even have childhood friends. Sniff. Sob.) Another aspect of Judd’s Hill is MicroCrush, a custom winemaking service; if you have a ton of grapes or if you’re looking for a ton of grapes, MicroCrush will take care of everything, all the way to bottling the final wine.

O.K., great, but what about the wine from Judd’s Hill?

I tried four red wines recently and found them to range from excellent to exquisite.
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Let’s take the oldest wine first. The Judd’s Hill Estate Red Wine 2002, Napa Valley, is a blend of 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent merlot and 5 percent cabernet franc. The winery typically holds the Estate Red Wine back a few years so that it’s mature or ready to drink on release. This is a large-framed, serious wine, delirious with minerals, rapturously fruity and blessed with great dimension, detail and gravity. Black currants and dusty plums are permeated by cedar and tobacco with touches of walnut shell and underbrush. The texture feels like velvet, but the wine is not opulent or voluptuous, its sensuous nature held in check by grainy, chewy tannins, dense and moderately spicy oak — 20 months in a mixture of new and old French barrels — and a scintillating acid backbone. There’s nothing over-ripe or demonstrative here; rather, the emphasis is on intensity and balance. The finish brings in hints of bark and mossy forest floor for some austerity. Still, at not quite seven years old, the wine feels young, and should drink well with roast beef and grilled steaks through 2015 or ’16. Production was 280 cases. Excellent. About $75.
This wine is garbed in the winery’s previous rather stodgy label; these other three come dressed in the more modern label shown above.
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My first note on the Judd’s Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley, is “superb.” I suppose I could stop there — I mean, you can take my word for this — but I’ll fill in the background anyway. It’s interesting that the composition of this wine and its oak treatment are the same as for the Red Wine 2002 mentioned just above, a fact that testifies to a healthy consistency of viewpoint and technique. Of course there are differences too; first, 2005 and 2002 are different (and excellent) vintages, each with its own nature, and, second, the grapes for the Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 derive from three vineyards, while the Red Wine 2002 comes from one estate vineyard in Conn Valley, east of the town of St. Helena. So, in saying “superb,” partly what I refer to is this wine bold, classic structure, a sort of architecture of depth and breadth with framing and foundation provided by bastions of dry, grainy tannins and buttresses of oak. So deep purple that it’s almost black, the wine weaves black and red currant and blackberry scents and flavors with cedar and walnut shell, briers and brambles and undercurrents of mossy earthiness. Imponderable intensity and concentration here, leavened by winsome strains of licorice, lavender and potpourri. Try from 2010 through 2015 or ’16. Production was 1,580 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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The Judd’s Hill Old Vine Petite Sirah 2005, Lodi, was so profoundly earthy and minerally that at first I thought something was “off” about it; was it a tad “corked”? Repeated swirls, sniffs and sips revealed, however, that the wine was simply so pure and intense and concentrated that it radiated authenticity and individuality almost unprecedented. This is, I’m saying, the real goods when it comes to petite sirah. The wine is deep, rich and spicy, on the one hand, bursting with ripe, slate-glazed black currant, blackberry and plum flavors yet, on the other hand, it features such heart-stopping tannins that the glass feels heavier in your hand than it should (sort of). Immense gravitas is the raison d’etre. There’s 12 percent zinfandel in the blend. A true smoked ribs wine, through 2011 or ’12. Production was 360 cases. Excellent. About $30.
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Honestly, though, my favorite of this quartet is the gorgeous Judd’s Hill Pinot Noir 2007, Central Coast, from the San Ysidro Vineyard in the southern Santa Clara Valley. Now when I say “gorgeous,” I’m not implying that this is a pushover, a pretty face of a wine, because, as all great pinot noir should, this possesses that paradoxical quality of feeling full-bodied and complete at the same time as it feels spare and reticent and delicate. Gorgeous it is, though, with a panoply of dried sweet spices ranging over red and black currants and plums and an almost insane level of violet and rose petal and an irresistible satiny texture. A few minutes in the glass conjure hints of mulberry and raspberry, along with, from mid-palate back, increasing dryness and austerity. Interestingly, five percent syrah grapes go into this wine; to buck it up a bit perhaps? to add color and depth? Why? The last thing this wine needs is bolstering of any kind, a factor acknowledged in the oak regimen: eight months in neutral French barrels, so the wood influence offers gentle shaping to the wine rather than a direct influence. Anyway, this is the sort of shimmeringly pure pinot noir that restaurants serious about their California lists should have a few bottles on hand for discerning patrons eager to avoid the flamboyance that characterizes too many examples of the state’s pinot noir. 668 cases. Excellent. About $26.
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What do you do when fava beans are in season? (And we are getting to the end of the season for fresh favas.) Well, in our house you make fava risotto, which LL did Sunday night, from a recipe found in Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters (HarperCollins, 1996), which also uses green peas and tender asparagus tips for a true taste of Spring.

Vicia faba has been a mainstay of Mediterranean cuisine since ancient times. J.G. Vaughan and C.A. Geissler, in The New Oxford Book of Food Plants (Oxford University Press, 1997), report that the earliest archeological findings of the beans date to 6800-6500 B.C. in Israel, and that the plant apparently spread south along the Nile Valley to Ethiopia and eastward to northern India and China, which now, thousands of years later, produces 65 percent of the world’s crop.

Favas are as protected from harm as a Victorian damsel in her multiple foundation garments. First, the bean must be extracted from the long tough pod, which, depending on the species, holds six or eight beans. Once that is done, the bean must be stripped of its pale green skin, which grows increasingly bitter as the season progresses and the plants mature. Very young favas may be eaten with the skin on and in parts of Italy are consumed raw with sharp young cheese. Waters mentions that dried fava beans, which are usually available at Italian and Middle Eastern food-stores, may be soaked overnight, drained and dried and then fried crisp in olive oil; these are served with salt and lemon wedges, as a snack or appetizer.

Anyway, the risotto, for which one makes a fava puree, was wonderfully redolent and sweetly flavored with fresh and mild green vegetable earthiness. It was pretty too, dotted with peas and asparagus and garnished with shaved Parmesan.

I decided that night to try three Soave wines from one producer, and I can already hear you saying, “F.K., forget it, I’m closing up shop here and going to watch reruns of Gilmore Girls. I mean, don’t you know that the Soave region is overextended geographically and overcropped generally and that even the establishment of a DOCG in 2002 not only didn’t improve quality but complicated almost beyond comprehension the minutiae of label designations.”

Uh, well, yes, thank you, I did know that, and I know that reputable producers of Soave wines have a hard row to hoe, I guess literally and figuratively, in persuading American consumers that what they make bears little resemblance to the familiar swill — good name for a rock band — that emanates from the whorish alluvial plains instead of the rigorous hillside vineyards. One of these hard-working producers is I Stefanini, a small estate owned by the Tessari family since the 1950s. Vineyard manager is Valentino Tessari; winemaker is his son, Francesco. Production is about 2,500 cases annually of three levels of Soave: Il Selese is a basic Soave; Monte de Toni is Soave Classico; Monte di Fice is Soave Classico Superiore. Tessari father and son are particularly to be praised for raising the quality of Soave without resorting to oak barrels, the usual procedure in neglected or rising wine regions where producers throw oak at a wine to pump up its appeal to the so-called American palate. These wines see no oak and are all the better for it.

We tried Il Selese and Monte de Toni while cooking dinner, had the Monte di Fice with the risotto and then went back to try the others.

I Stefanini wines are imported by Domenico Selections, New York, and are, sadly, limited in distribution.
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I Stefanini “Il Selese” 2007, Soave, made completely in stainless steel and with 10 percent chardonnay blended with the typical garganega grapes, offers an enticing bouquet of stone fruit, yellow plums, lanolin and little waxy white flowers and a zap of spice. Flavors of roasted lemon and lemon curd unfurl hints of peach, spiced pear and dried herbs, and as the wine warms slightly in the glass, it becomes positively summery, with a whiff of meadow flowers and clean earth. All of these qualities are fused and fueled by vibrant acidity. A beguiling Soave for drinking through 2010. Very Good+, and a Bargain at $11 to $13.
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Made in stainless steel from 100 percent garganega grapes, I Stefanini “Monte de Toni” 2006, Soave Classico, manages that difficult feat of seeming intense and subtle simultaneously, and in that leap of craft and faith establishes itself as an entity that scarcely exists in the realm of other Soaves. Lovely in tone and character, seductive in texture and remarkably floral is this wine, and yet its dryness and brisk, almost clinging acidity take your palate by surprise, and its layers of dusty minerality announce a serious intention that fortunately does not belie its delicious flavors of spiced lemon and pear. A wonder. Drink (well-stored) through 2011 or ’12. Excellent, and a raving great value at $15 to $17.
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I Stefanini “Monte di Fice” 2006, Soave Classico Superiore, is a real mouthful of wine that exhibits the purity and intensity of which the garganega grape is capable, one element of which is, unexpectedly, elegance. Lemon in every aspect — fresh, lip-smacking lemon, roasted lemon, lemon curd and lemon drop — characterize aromas that are permeated by lanolin and white flowers (similar to its younger cousin, Il Selese, but more pronounced) and a prominent mineral quality. An amazing texture that’s almost powdery is enlivened by crisp acid, while a few minutes in the glass reveal notes of lavender, tarragon (for a slight herbaceous touch) and spiced peach. The wine is quite dry, earthy, enclosed in limestone, yet the finish is light, spare and thirst-quenching. Another terrific effort. Drink (well-stored) through 2011 or ’12. Excellent. About $20 to $22.
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Casting about at lunchtime for what to put on my cheese toast, I came across some leftover black bean and corn salsa and thought “Eureka!” And I would have said it in Spanish if I had known how. So, first I slid the bread into the toaster for a minute so it wouldn’t be too soft and get soggy and fall apart under the juiciness of the salsa. Then, I slathered the slightly toasted bread with mustard, dropped on some diced tomato, and spooned on the salsa. This I followed with shredded and grated Cheddar, Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses. Over these toppings, I sprinkled salt and pepper and some powdered chipotle. Because the cheeses were shredded or grated, under the heat of the broiler they melted into the salsa, as you can see in the accompanying image. Wow, all I needed was a mariachi band and a glass of wine!

Looking for the wine, I decided — defying all expectation! countermanding common sense! — to go with a crisp cool white, in this case the Mahoney Las Brises Vineyard Albariño 2007, Carneros, since, after all, the albariño grape is widely grown in Spain, where the population speaks Spanish, and in Portugal, where, well, they don’t. Anyway, my wine of choice is a light straw color and offers aromas of spiced lemon and peach with a hint of jasmine and a touch of dried herbs. Flavors of lemon balm and lemon verbena find support in zinging acidity and a bright mineral note, leading to a finish in which a bit of spicy, roasted pineapple seems swathed in meadowy hay and straw. A lovely wine, subtle and supple and highly drinkable, even with “Tex-Mex” cheese toast, though seafood dishes would be more logical. Production was 350 cases, so mark this wine Worth a Search. Excellent. About $18.


Though June is only one week old, summertime is well upon us, so I offer today a roster of white wines designed to cool, to refresh, to quench, to accompany your lighter summer snacks and meals, your moments of relaxation on the porch or patio, at pool-side or on picnics. Life is no picnic, as they say — the economy lost another 345,000 jobs in May, and we’re supposed to be happy about that — but let’s try to make it as much of a pleasant outing as possible. The wines are listed by grape variety, with no attempt at order, class or hierarchy; it’s summertime, and life is too short.
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>Pinot Gris. The incredibly appealing Morgan R & D Franscioni Vineyard Pinot Gris 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, offers aromas of green apple, roasted lemon and lemon curd with hints of jasmine and honeysuckle. A soft blur of oak — from four months in three-year-old French barrels — provides a lovely texture, deftly balanced between moderate lushness and crisp acidity, a fitting support to spicy pear, melon and lemon flavors that extend to a lively, slightly bitter grapefruit finish. The Morgan Franscioni Pinot Gris is consistently one of the best pinto gris wines in California, and the ’08 version does not disappoint. Excellent. About $17.
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>Sauvignon Blanc. Get ready for a knockout nose of roasted lemon, peach and mango from the Rodney Strong Charlotte’s Home Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Sonoma County, an exuberantly fashioned sauvignon blanc that avoids the kiwi-pea-grapefruit excesses of the prevalent New Zealand style. Nestled in a seductive texture that’s almost pillowy, while retaining crispness and vibrancy, delicious citrus flavors are highlighted by orange zest, leafy currant and a refreshing wash of limestone. Another perennial achiever; great with vegetable spring rolls and sushi. Very Good+, and Great Value at about $15.
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>Muscat. We were quite happy drinking a bottle of the Bonny Doon Ca’ del Solo Muscat 2008, Monterey County, with shrimp risotto. The wine, made from the producer’s biodynamically-farmed (if you care) Ca’ del Solo vineyard, is composed of 88 percent moscato giallo grapes and 12 percent louriero, the grape that in Portugal is made into Vinho Verde. The aromas are incredibly floral, encompassing honeysuckle and almond blossom and one of those mysterious, astringent little white flowers, which lends an air of spareness. Scents and flavors of peach and pear are coddled with dried spices; a slightly herbal aspect, like fresh pea shoots; and a touch of fig. This charming wine bears a texture that’s smooth and suave, almost viscous, and there are hints of petrol and grapefruit in the slightly astringent, stony finish. Delightful. Very Good+. About $18.
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>Riesling. Well, I felt as if I could eat the Ad Lib Wallflower Riesling 2008 with a spoon. This seductive riesling from Western Australia’s Mount Barker region bursts with apple, orange zest, lime and grapefruit, jasmine and honeysuckle and a touch of the grape’s requisite petrol or rubber eraser element. The wine radiates purity and intensity, scintillating acidity and resonant minerality, while flavors of citrus and peach with a hint of lychee are etched with hints of cloves and crystallized ginger. Despite this array of delights, the wine displays a high-toned sense of reticence emphasized by a finish that bristles with grapefruit and limestone. Excellent. About $17.
Imported by Vintage New World, Shandon, Cal.
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>Viognier. I realize that The Crusher label (from the Three Loose Screws division of Don Sebastiani & Sons) refers to the mechanical device that crushes grapes before they go into the fermentation tank, but you have to admit that the name conjures a super-hero out of a Marvel comic book (or movie). Extra-cultural considerations aside, the label is devoted to wines from California’s Clarksburg region, west of Sacramento. The Crusher Wilson Vineyard Viognier 2007, Clarksburg, opens with notes of macerated peach and spiced pear, with an overlay of guava, smoke, dried herbs and fennel. In the mouth, a keen edge of acidity slices through a slightly cushiony texture that bolsters roasted peach and lemon flavors heightened by a dry meadowy aspect. Bracing bitterness buoys the finish. Try with moderately spicy Southeast Asian cuisine. Very Good+, and well-worth about $13.
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>Semillon. I think of semillon as an underrated grape, being, for most producers, more handy for lending luster and glamor to sauvignon blanc than as a star on its own. So, I’m happy to go to bat for the Brokenwood Semillon 2008, Hunter Valley, New South Wales (a few hours drive north of Sydney), a 100-percent semillon wine made completely in stainless steel. In classic form, this wine displays leafy, figgy, nutty qualities that adorn scents and flavors of apple and ripe stone fruit that segue into green grapes with a touch of lychee. Lemon, lime and limestone — but no grapefruit — coincide with snappy acidity, while a few minutes in the glass bring up notes of almond blossom and orange zest. At 10 percent alcohol, this goes down very easily, but don’t think for a moment that it’s uncomplicated. We had this bottle with baked salmon wrapped in lemon slices and kale, a great pairing. Excellent. About $20.
The label illustration is from the previous vintage; it is the 2008 under review here.
Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal.
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>Chenin Blanc. The chenin blanc grape receives its apotheosis in France’s Loire Valley, in dry, semi-dry and dessert wine manifestations. The Domaine Le Peu de la Moriette Vouvray 2007, made by the family-owned Domaine Pichot, is, yes, slightly sweet at the intake — don’t be afraid! — but by mid-palate feels bone-dry and indeed exhibits a touch of refreshing astringency on the finish. Beguiling aromas and flavors of slightly honeyed peach, pear and yellow plum are imbued with smoke, anise, lavender and a hint of flint. In the mouth, the wine is quite earthy and minerally yet displays a texture so delicate and finely woven that it’s gauze-like in lovely effect and appeal. The wine sees no new wood, resting six months in used 450-liter oak barrels, twice the size of the standard 225-liter barrel of Bordeaux or the 228-liter barrel of Burgundy; the point is that oak here provides shading and nuance rather than a direct woody, spicy influence. Drink with roasted or grilled fish, quenelles, blanquette de veau or as an aperitif with goat cheese. Excellent. About $19.
Imported by Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.
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>Chardonnay. Inexpensive and well-made chardonnays are about as easy to find as foie gras in a vegan’s refrigerator, but the Joseph Drouhin Mâcon-Villages 2007 comes through for us. It doesn’t hurt that ’07 is an excellent vintage in Burgundy, including the Mâconnais, which serves as a sort of southern appendix — one has to count the Chalonnais too — to Burgundy’s more majestic Cote d’Or to the north. Whatever the case, Drouhin’s Mâcon-Villages 2007 — made completely in stainless steel –reflects vintage, region and grape in its attractive spiced peach and pear bouquet that offers a sibilant whisper of spice and a bright nudge of pineapple; a few minutes in the glass unfold a hint of honeysuckle. In the mouth, the wine exhibits moderate richness and an almost creamy texture cut by the electric vibrancy of crisp acid and the sober scintillation of limestone, an element that really comes to the fore on the spare finish. A delightful chardonnay for serving with grilled fish and seafood pastas and risottos. Very Good+. About $14.50.
Imported by Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., New York.
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>Finally … let’s admit it: sometimes all we want to do is lie back in the sun — or shade, whatever your wont may be — put the feet up, relax and have a glass of quaffable wine we can knock back mindlessly and not bother our pretty little heads about, and I mean that only in the most positive sense. New Age White Wine, a non-vintage gulper from Valentin Bianchi, in Argentina’s Mendoza region, fills the bill handily. Made from sauvignon blanc and malvasia grapes, a 50/50 ratio, this young, fruity, spritzy sweetheart — fermentation is stopped early, so some residual carbonation and sugar remain — offers apple, apple and more apple with a hint of lemon, apple blossom and orange zest in a 9.5 percent alcohol package that gets the job done. Drop a slice of lime in the glass, and, baby, you’re good to go — or not go, that being the whole idea. Good+. About $10.
Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal.
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Picnic image from frenchrabbit.com.
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One thing I’m sick and doggone tired of is merlot wines from California that all taste the same, and I mean like “red wine with oak” or “cabernet junior.” I taste a couple of these wines every week. A major problem is that merlot is indeed so closely linked with cabernet sauvignon because in Bordeaux and many other of the world’s wine regions it is blended with cabernet sauvignon to mellow cabernet’s authoritative austerity; another is that the quality that make the merlot grape distinctive — its hints of dried thyme, cedar, black olive and bell pepper — are distinctly out of favor in California, where a great deal of merlot wines are produced, and among America’s wine drinkers, who seem to associate herbaceousness in wine with something terrible in their childhoods.

These thoughts occurred to me when I opened a bottle of the Cadaretta Merlot 2006, from Washington’s Columbia Valley, to go with a simple rendition of cheese toast, so simple that it consisted of bread, cheese and herbs, with, I think, a little mustard on the bread; sometimes less is more. One doesn’t always have to go for baroque.

Anyway, I was attracted to this merlot precisely because it evinced a highly individual character. Lithe and supple in texture, the wine offered black currant and black cherry scents and flavors that were ripe, smoky and rooty and permeated by a tea-like element that was a little herbal and a little earthy. The wine matures for 16 months in French oak barrels, but only 5 percent of the barrels are new, so there is no influence of toasty new oak or spice; instead, the oak lends a steadying hand to the structure and contributes to longevity. There is, however, considerable tannin in the form of briers and brambles and walnut shell, so the finish is a bit austere. Drink now (with cheese toast, of course) through 2014 to ’16. Production was 145 cases. Excellent. About $35.

Far more widely available — as in 11,000 cases — is the Clos du Val Merlot 2006, Napa Valley, another merlot for which oak was handled judiciously, that is, in a regimen of 16 months French and 25 percent new barrels. This wine is a blend of 77 percent merlot — meaning it barely qualifies for a varietal label, the figure being 75 percent — with 16 percent cabernet sauvignon and 7 percent cabernet franc. (The Cadaretta is 100 percent merlot.) The result is an inky, large-framed, full-bodied wine bearing a swath of minerals that’s almost iron-like, yet etched with hints of cedar and lead pencil, dried herbs and black olive. Fruit, both in nose and mouth, is intense and concentrated in the black range of currants and berries, with a touch of something untamed, perhaps rose hips and wild berries. Structure dominates, though; tannins are grainy and tightly packed, and resonate acidity lends acute liveliness. Fine (actually wonderful) now with a rib-eye steak, but could wait two or three years. Excellent. About $26.

But to be honest, the best merlot I have tasted from California in a considerable time is the Merryvale Vineyards Merlot 2005, Napa Valley, Oak Knoll District. Warm, rich and spicy, this 100 percent merlot wine teems with aspects of flint and shale, lead pencil, hints of black olive and dried rosemary, and roasted black currants, black cherries and plums; I mean, you could kiss this bouquet. There’s lovely purity and intensity here, as the fruit turns more blue in the mouth, as well as more smoky and macerated, and the mineral elements, the chewy tannin, the essential acidity and the polished oak — 18 months in French oak, 37 percent new barrels — weave an impeccable structure that’s dense, burnished and firm. Serious, sensual and entrancing. 2,250 cases. Drink through 2012 to ’15. Excellent. About $35.

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The Loire is not only France’s longest river, but one whose history and tradition of grape-growing and wine-making are the most diverse. In the eastern part of the Loire Valley, sauvignon blanc reigns supreme, with pinot noir on hand for light reds and roses. In the great Central Loire, looking westward from the ancient city of Blois to the ancient city of Angers (near where the confusingly named Loir river runs into the Loire), chenin blanc and cabernet franc reach their apotheosis, though the wide range of grapes planted in these appellations makes the region the most varied of any in France. Farther west, where the Loire debouches into the Atlantic Ocean, the melon de bourgogne grape is made into Muscadet. The four regions, east to west, are Sancerre-Pouilly; Touraine; Anjou and Saumur; and the Pays Nantes.

I recently tried two bargain-priced wines from the Central Loire, a Savennières (Anjou and Saumur) made from chenin blanc grapes, and a Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil (Touraine) made from cabernet franc. Both, I am sorry to report, have limited availability but are Worth a Search.
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Whether the chenin blanc grape reaches its fullest potential in Vouvray or Savennières is an issue I will leave to the nit-pickers; each region does exceedingly well by the grape, though while Vouvray is produced in a variety of styles ranging from bone-dry to glowingly sweet, Savennières is a dry wine. Because production of Savennières is so low — about 30,000 cases annually compared to 13 million for Vouvray — a mystique of rarity and quality has developed around the region that is frankly, almost never disappointing. It doesn’t hurt its renown (or notoriety) that Savennières is the home of Nicolas Joly, owner of Coulée de Serrant and the hugely vocal and influential advocate of the biodynamic method.

One does not often come across inexpensive wines from Savennières, so I was delighted to find the Moulin de Chauvigné “Clos Brochard” 2007 from Sylvie Termeau, who with her husband launched the Moulin de Chauvigné estate in 1992. Clos Brochard 2007, which sees no oak, offers a distinctive, brilliant light straw-gold color; the beguiling nose wreathes roasted lemon, quince and yellow plums with hints of cloves, crystallized ginger and jasmine. Moderately lush, the texture feels silky but not heavy and is enlivened with tingling acidity, conveying a sense of fleetness and elegance. Lemon balm and a hint of roasted peach, slightly honeyed yet achingly dry, are permeated by smoke and spice, with touches of straw and dried herbs. The finish becomes increasingly dry and fairly austere. As attractive as it is now, the wine would benefit from two or three years aging. Excellent. About $20, a Great Value.

Imported by Fruits of the Vines, New York.
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St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil is an appendage to Bourgueil proper, producing less robust yet often delightful red wines from the cabernet franc grape; cabernet sauvignon may be blended up to 25 percent in both areas. These are ideal picnic and outdoor cooking wines, well-suited to burgers and hot dogs, grilled chicken and leg of lamb. Or try with a fried pork chop or a ham sandwich. We’re talking about versatility.

The Maison Audebert et Fils “Vignoble de la Contrie” 2005, St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, sports a deep purple-black color with a touch of magenta-blue at the rim. Aromas of black currant and mulberries, lead pencil and smoke and flint, new leather and violets burst from the glass. There’s something untamed here in the wine’s hints at wild blueberry, at some mossy-rooty tea-like element, its leathery, briery-and-brambly, black olive qualities. The leather and brier components gain power toward the finish, as the minerals pile up, and the wine turns rather dusty and austere. An intriguing combination of exuberance, rusticity and flat-out deliciousness. The alcohol level is only about 12 percent; how sane and helpful. Very Good+. About $15, a Great Value.

Imported by Fruits of the Vines, New York.

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It is an article of faith in Burgundy that the nuances of terroir that influence even vineyards lying next to each other — soil and subsoil, elevation, exposure, drainage — justify the Burgundian system of vineyard classification and the prices that these famous vineyards command. Remember that in Burgundy, while the domaine that made the wine is indeed an important factor, it’s the vineyards that are officially classified, not the domaines.

Quickly and a little simplistically, Burgundy’s vineyards are divided into three tiers: the village or commune level; the Premier Cru level; and, at the top, the Grands Crus. (Red wines are made from pinot noir grapes, white wines primarily from chardonnay.) A label that says Gevrey-Chambertin (I’ll use this commune as the model) is a village wine, the pinot noir grapes for which were drawn from vineyards designated for that purpose; such a wine should, ideally, convey a general sense of what the commune’s characteristics are.

A label that adds a Premier Cru vineyard to the statement — Gevrey-Chambertin Aux Combottes, for example — will adorn a bottle of wine made only from that vineyard, and the term “Premier Cru” is required; the wine should reflect the character of that particular vineyard. A Grand Cru wine dispenses with the name of the village or commune and, in august fashion, adorns the label with its sole presence, as in Chambertin or Clos de Beze, two of the Grand Cru vineyards of Gevrey-Chambertin.

The distinctions between and the fame of many of Burgundy’s Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards go back a thousand years; certainly these qualities were fixed 200 or 250 years ago. Chambertin was the favorite wine of Napoleon, whose troops, it is said, reversed arms in the vineyard’s honor when marching past it.

My purpose today, however, has not to do with Gevrey-Chambertin and its eight Grand Cru and 26 Premier Cru vineyards, but with Nuits-Saint-Georges (south of Gevrey-Chambertin in the Cote de Nuits section of Burgundy), which has no Grands Crus but 27 Premiers Crus, one of which, Les Saint-Georges, has recently been the subject of a petition to elevation to Grand Cru status. One of the petitioners is Domaine Henri Gouges, a venerable producer, now run by the third generation, which makes wine only from Nuits-Saint-Georges vineyards, including Les Saint-Georges.

Henri Gouges created the domaine in 1925 when he became one of the first growers in Burgundy to bottle and sell his wine under his own name. The typical practice was to sell grapes or wine to negociants, who finished, or “elevated” the wine and sold it under their labels. The domaine is now run by Henri Gouges’ grandsons, the cousins Christian and Pierre. The domaine owns 14.5 hectares of vineyards, just under 40 acres, in Nuits-Saint-Georges and produces a red and a white Bourgogne (the white from pinot blanc), a Nuits Villages and seven wines from Premier Cru vineyards, four of which I want to compare, Les Chenes Carteaux, Clos des Porrets St. Georges, Les Pruliers and Les Saint-Georges, all from 2007.

Domaine Henri Gouges makes old-fashioned, firmly structured wines. New oak is kept to a maximum of 20 percent, so the wines are not overly influenced by toasty oak or woodiness, but they tend to be quite tannic, a common quality of these four wines. Henri Gouges Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Chenes Carteaux Premier Cru 2007, for example, is characterized by significant yet attractive weight and heft; aromas of minerals and clean earth and tightly furled black fruit, slightly spicy and floral, feel both serious and inviting, In the mouth, the wine is expansive, intense and concentrated, a little meaty, very dry, minerally and, at the finish, austere with plush, grainy tannins. This needs three or four years to become a bit more yielding. Very Good+.

The Henri Gouges Nuits-Saint-Georges Clos des Porrets Saint-Georges Premier Cru 2007 retains the chewy tannins of its cousin but the structure here feels more muscular and sinewy, and the aromas are a little earthier, spicier, with a touch of roots and wheatmeal. Fruit tends more toward red, as in red currants and plums, but with a hint of black currants. Tannic, yes, but also supple and powered by brisk acidity. Best from 2011 to 2016 or ’18. Excellent.

You have to remember that all of these vineyards are located not more than a few hundred yards from each other. Though Ronciers (which Henri Gouges does not cultivate) lies between Clos des Porrets and Les Pruliers, a good place-kicker could kick a football from one to the other. As to the differences between these two wines, the Henri Gouges Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Pruliers Premier Cru 2007 is darker, substantial, more brooding and more subdued, a powerhouse of dry tannins etched with finely delineated acid. Try this after 2012 and expect good results through 2017 or ’19. Excellent potential.

Finally, we come to the Henri Gouges Les Saint-Georges Premier Cru 2007. The wine is immediately enticing, with aromas of spiced and macerated red fruit, touches of leather and potpourri and dried herbs; in the mouth, the wine feels huge, immensely earthy and mineral-like, permeated by dense tannins, though hinting at succulence and a satiny texture. Great presence, tone and character. Give this remarkable wine four to six years and enjoy through 2018 or 2020. Excellent potential.

These wines will be released in the United States toward the end of 2009. Approximate prices will be about $80 for Les Chenes Carteaux; about $82 for Clos des Porrets Saint-Georges; about $86 for Le Pruliers; and about $147 for Les Saint-Georges.

The importer is Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.


Sometimes more is just more; you can’t always do the “less is pure” thing.

So, for this rendition of cheese toast, I started with slices of seeded, multi-grain bread and spread them with black olive tapenade, over which I lay leaves of fresh arugula. Then I thinly sliced, I mean almost paper-thin, a Roma tomato, placed the pieces on the arugula and then topped the pieces of tomato with wedges of olive oil-cured dried tomatoes. Next, shavings of an Irish Cheddar cheese and an aged Gruyere, topped with grated Parmesan. Fresh thyme, salt and pepper. A light scattering of our favorite new condiment, Turkish Urfa pepper flakes. A dribble of olive oil. Then run those suckers under the broiler for four or five minutes, until the cheese gets just beyond the bubbling point.

Do I have to tell you how good this was?

The wine I opened matched this rather baroque version of cheese toast blow for blow.

The Morgan Cotes du Crow’s 2007, Monterey County, is a beguiling and riveting Rhone-style blend of 55 percent syrah and 45 percent grenache. The color is a gorgeous dark ruby-magenta with blue highlights; the nose teems with ripe and meaty black currant, blackberry and plum aromas permeated by lead pencil and minerals. In the mouth, the wine is luscious and lipsmacking, but it doesn’t allow sensual glamor to overwhelm an appropriate sense of vigorous structure in the form of grainy, chewy tannins and polished oak from 10 months in French barrels, 20 percent new, as well as lively, resonant acidity. In a few minutes, wild berry comes up, and an unrestrained floral nature, as in violets and lavender, and smoky potpourri. Loads of personality. Excellent. About $20.

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Lunchtime. “Hmmm,” I thought, “I better make some cheese toast.”

Slices of baguette, a smear of mustard, some Irish cheddar cheese, a few sprigs of thyme, grated Parmesan, a dribble of olive oil, salt and pepper. Run them under the broiler for a couple of minutes until the cheese melts and goes just past the bubbly stage and the edges of the bread get toasty.

Wine? At random I plucked a bottle of the Clos du Val Pinot Noir 2007, Carneros, from the shelf and was happy that I had done so.

This is a true earthy pinot noir, with stirring aromas of moss and briers, smoky black cherry, cola and a touch of sassafras, a whiff of beetroot. All of these elements are woven into seductive strands that entice the nose rather than assailing it. The lovely texture feels like cool satin sliding over the tongue. Flavors run to blueberry, mulberry and red currant wrapped in briers and brambles and borne by vibrant acid that cuts a swath on the palate and subtle, supple, slightly spicy oak from aging 14 months in French oak, of which only 2 percent of the barrels were new. An elegant and classically proportioned pinot noir with grit and grip at the heart. The alcohol level is a mild 13.5 percent. Now through 2012. Excellent. About $30.

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