Cabernet sauvignon


I think I first wrote about the wines of Renaissance Vineyards and Winery in 2001, when I mentioned in what was then my weekly newspaper column (distributed nationally by the Scripps Howard News Service until 2004) the Renaissance Late Harvest Riesling 1993 and, under the winery’s second label, the Da Vinci Late Harvest Riesling 1987. In the succeeding 11 years, I have reviewed numerous wines from the small producer in the remote North Yuba appellation of the Sierra Foothills north of Sacramento. Renaissance became noted, under the tutelage of Gideon Beinstock, winemaker there since 1994, for its hands-off approach that produced wines of admirable spareness and elegance, low alcohol, an almost fanatic resistance to new oak and an unheard of delay in releasing wines, as in sometimes 10 or 12 years after harvest. The winery and vineyard occupy a large estate on land purchased by the Fellowship of Friends in 1971; the group is controversial in its beliefs or at least its former leadership, and as a business entity (separate from but owned by the Fellowship) Renaissance has had to shake off the perception that the Fellowship is a cult.

The inspiration for creating a vineyard came from German-born Karl Werner, the founding winemaker at Callaway Vineyards, way south in Temecula. Under his guidance, members of the Fellowship chiseled terraces from the steep slopes at altitudes of 1700 to 2300 feet and drilled 150,000 holes to plant vines. The first harvest, in 1979, took 20 minutes and produced one barrel of cabernet sauvignon. Werner died in 1988, and his wife, Diana, took over winemaking duties. When Beinstock became winemaker early in ’94, he turned the winery away from its former goals of deep extraction and heavy, densely tannic wines to minimal manipulation, gentle extraction, no yeast inoculation and, gradually, to organic methods in the vineyards. Due to Beinstock’s efforts, Renaissance has produced a series of remarkable, authentic and largely age-worthy wines (in minute quantities) that are like nothing else in a California besotted by super-ripeness, toasty new oak and sweet alcohol.

Beinstock, for the past few years, has worked on a side project, that is, his own winery Clos Saron. He is no longer winemaker at Renaissance, and I would say, Alas that such is the case, except that I don’t know the circumstances of his departure. I do wonder what the direction will be for Renaissance without him.

What I offer today are notes on three of Beinstock’s red wines, the Claret Prestige Red Wine 2001 and 1997, the Renaissance Premier Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, and, a piece of history, the Renaissance Cabernet Sauvignon 1984, one of the last wines made by Karl Werner. Yes, a small amount of the latter wine is still available, and I urge those who are fascinated by the history of the California wine industry or who are looking for a unique and quite wonderful wine to track it down.

These wines were samples for review. Image of Gideon Beinstock from mobile.indievinos.com.
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The Renaissance Claret Prestige Red Wine 2001, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba, is a combination of 29 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent merlot, 19 percent malbec and nine percent each syrah, cabernet franc and petit verdot, a sort of classic Bordeaux blend except for the presence of the syrah. The wine aged 25 months in what is described as “old oak 225L barrels (American and French),” exemplifying Beinstock’s typical avoidance of new oak. The color is radiant medium ruby shading to lighter ruby at the rim. At eleven years old — and the wine was released just two years ago — this Claret Prestige is ripe and spicy and buoyant, with notes of macerated red and black currants and cherries profoundly framed by gripping acidity and graphite-etched tannins in a package so complete, so well-balanced that it feels timeless. A whisper of black olive and dill adds detail to the expansive depth and breath of the wine’s structure and replete yet spare flavors, though the whole feeling of the wine is deftness and lightness. A true marriage of elegance and power. 12.6 percent alcohol. Production was 128 cases. Now through 2020 to ’25. Excellent. About $65.
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The Renaissance Premier Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba, at 15 years old, is, in four words: Not. Ready. To. Drink. A blend of 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 15 percent merlot and six percent cabernet franc, the wine aged 27 months in American, French and German oak barrels. It was bottled in March 2000 and released in September 2010. This Renaissance Premier Cuvee 1997 features towering (but not astringent) tannins; stunning (but not sharp) acidity; forceful (but not overwhelming) granitic and graphite-like mineral elements; and glimmers of ripe, fleshy, spicy and slightly roasted flavors of red and black currants and mulberries. For all this and despite its forthright rigorous character, the wine feels fresh and invigorating, but I wouldn’t touch it until 2015 or ’16, and it’s a cinch to go the long haul, say 2027 to ’30. Alcohol content is 13 percent. 370 cases. Excellent. About $65.
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For 1997, the Renaissance Claret Prestige, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba, is a blend of 43 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent merlot, 12 percent cabernet franc, 6 percent each syrah and sangiovese and 3 percent malbec; the wine aged 27 months is “old oak 225L barrels (French, American and German).” Benefiting from fine weather, the vintage was excellent overall in California, with potentially long-lived cabernet-based wines of exceptional quality; certainly this Claret Prestige and the preceding Premier Cuvee exhibit the deep and profound structure of true vins de garde. The color is dark ruby at the center with a slightly lighter rim; it takes some coaxing, but after a few minutes a ripe, fleshy bouquet emerges, shot with notes of macerated and smoky black cherries and raspberries with touches of black currants, dried fruit, potpourri and sandalwood. Gripping acidity animates the package, while pretty darned hard, unyielding tannins — dusty and granitic — lend deep support through an engaged through fairly austere finish. 12.6 percent alcohol. Production was 430 cases. As with the previous wine, try from 2015 or ’17 through 2027 to ’30. Excellent. About $55.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Now for the treat. Only 54 cases remain of the approximately 1,200 cases that Karl Werner made of the Renaissance Cabernet Sauvignon 1984, North Yuba; Werner was the estate’s founding winemaker. This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon that aged — are you ready? — 34 months in new German oak barrels; that’s right, German oak. At 28 years old, there’s not a thing either fragile or sharp or diminished about this wine, which feels like a finely sifted amalgam of every essential element a cabernet sauvignon should possess but in a barely perceptible autumnal mode. It fills the mouth with a packed yet supple sensation of dried red and black fruit, potpourri and pomander, woody spices like cloves and sandalwood, soft powdery tannins, still lively acidity and bass notes of underbrush and graphite. Truly lovely. 13.5 percent alcohol. I wouldn’t be surprised if this wine drinks well for another decade. Excellent. About $65.
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… or something like that. The Trim Edge and Fuse project represents a sideline for Napa Valley’s Signorello Estate winery, whose Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 I reviewed last week. Trim, Edge and Fuse, predominantly cabernet sauvignon, represent interesting variations on the theme of the grape treated for prices raging from cheap ($12) to moderate ($20) to moderately expensive ($28) while retaining an identifiable linking character, which is to say, polished and voluminously fruity yet intelligently structured. Interestingly, each wine contains some syrah. Grapes are sourced — that is, purchased — from the North Coast counties and, for Fuse, from Napa Valley. Alcohol levels are kept at a tolerable 13.8 percent. As you can see from the striking labels, these are stylish packages and stylish wines, but they don’t feel fraught or mannered.

These wines were samples for review.
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Trim Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, California, is a blend of 83 percent cabernet, 9 percent merlot and 8 percent syrah. The color is dark ruby-purple with a magenta-violet rim. The exotic bouquet teems with notes of smoke and lavender, cloves and sandalwood, cedar and dried thyme, blackberries and black currants and a hint of black olive. Flavors are pure black currants and black raspberries circumscribed by a distinct contour of spice, smoke, dried flowers and graphite and are supported by velvety (but not opulent) tannins and a backbone of bright acidity. A real crowd-pleaser. Very Good+. About $12, a Great Value. In fact, I would say that Trim ’10 is one of the best cabernet sauvignon wines priced under $15 made in California.
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The black-clad Edge Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, North Coast, like the hipster of this trio, is all smoke and charcoal and cool graphite, while sporting an opaque ruby-purple haircut, I mean color, and intense and concentrated scents and flavors of deeply spiced and macerated black currants, cherries and raspberries. To 86 percent cabernet sauvignon is blended 9 percent syrah and 5 percent merlot. Though it’s more velvet glove than iron fist, the wine offers enough tannic, acid and oak foundation and framing to keep it on the straight and narrow path. It’s a real mouthful of dark savory supple cabernet that would be terrific with braised short ribs or lamb shanks. Very Good+. About $20.
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We would hope, if not expect, that the most expensive of these three wines and the one that derives from the most specific appellation — though amorphous enough — would display the most intensity and concentration and the most character. Fuse Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley, does not disappoint in those aspects. Here, we get substantially more syrah — 15 percent — blended with 82 percent cabernet and only 3 percent merlot. This is indeed the biggest of these cousins, the sturdiest, the most dense and chewy, the earthiest, the most rigorous in its licorice and bittersweet chocolate-licked blaze of black and blue fruit scents and flavors. Drink now with a steak or give it a year. Excellent. About $28.
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All right, after consulting with my board of directors and executive committee and conducting a straw pool among undecided voters in swinging states, I decided to change the name of the “Friday Wine Sips” project to “Weekend Wine Sips,” mainly because I more often post this entry on Saturday or even Sunday than on Friday. At least I don’t have to feel guilty, which for me is a blessing since I would confess to the assassination of the Queen of Romania if pressed to do so; whew, don’t have to worry about that for a while. Anyway, today we have red wines that range from lighthearted to impressive, from drink-right-now to wait-a-few-years. We touch Argentina, Italy, France and California; we have organic wines; we have blends and 100 percent varietal. What we don’t have are reams of technical and historical information, the purpose of these Friday Wine Sips, oops, Weekend Wine Sips being to provide lightning quick appraisals designed to strike to the heart of the wine. These were samples for review or tasted at trade events. Ratings vary from a sad “Good Only” to “Excellent.”
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Cavicchioli Lambrusco Dolce, nv, Emilia-Romagna, Italy. 7.5% alc. Startling bright cherry-mulberry color; mildly effervescent; pure cherry and raspberry, sweet and quite ripe initially but vibrant acidity dries the wine from mid-palate back, without subtracting from its dark juiciness; intriguing contrast and balance between the ripeness of the red fruit and the hints of spice and slightly earthy minerality; avoids the Kool-Aid® aspects of so many lambruscos. Quite charming and you’d be surprised how well it goes with savory food. Very Good. About $9, a Great Price.
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Cecchi Chianti Classico 2009, Tuscany, Italy. 13% alc. 90% sangiovese, 10% colorino Toscano. Rough and rustic, shaggy tannins, leans toward the anonymous, generic side of sangiovese. Should be better. Good only. About $13.
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Bonterra Merlot 2010, Mendocino County. 13.6% alc. Certified organic. “With added touches of petite sirah, syrah and carignane.” Dark purple with a lighter ruby-magenta rim; smoke, black currants and blueberries; quite dense and chewy with dusty tannins; barest hint of black olives and cedar; bright acidity, earthy finish where you feel the oak. Very Good. About $16.
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Bonterra Zinfandel 2010, Mendocino County. 14.5% alc. Certified organic. With “a little petite sirah.” Beautiful ruby-magenta color; nice mouthful of wine but could be cabernet or merlot; what are the distinguishing characteristics, except for a bit of ripe, berryish vitality? Good+. About $16.
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Wild Horse Merlot 2010, Central Coast. 13.5% alc. With 5% malbec, 2% cabernet sauvignon and 4% “other red.” Dark ruby color; black currants and plums, lavender and roasted fennel, cedar, black tea and loam; firm yet supple structure, sustaining acidity, almost succulent but balanced by slightly grainy tannins; no great depth but an attractive individual rendition. Now through 2014. Very Good+. About $19.
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Wild Horse Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Central Coast. 13.5% alc. With 1% syrah. Dark purple shading to medium ruby rim; cedar and tobacco, mint and eucalyptus, spicy black currants and plums; smooth, velvety, slightly dense and chewy; backnotes of oak and dusty tannins; clean, lively finish. Now through 2014. Very Good+. About $20.
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Chakona Estate Selection Malbec 2010, Mendoza, Argentina. 14% alc. Dark ruby-purple, close to opaque at the center; a strapping wine, deep and broad; formidable structure balances grainy tannins, spicy oak and vibrant acidity for a complete package — purposeful and dynamic — that doesn’t entirely conceal lovely character and breeding. Now (with grilled meat) or from 2014 to 2018. Excellent. About $25.
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Artezin Petite Sirah 2010, Mendocino County. 14.3% alc. With 3% zinfandel. Deep ruby-purple color; fresh, bright and fruit, spicy and savory; not a blockbuster but immediately drinkable; black currants, plums and blueberries with hints of briers and brambles, tar and graphite; pulls up squinchy, mouth-coating tannins and adds some mineral-fueled power through the finish. Now through 2014. Production was 212 cases. Very Good+. About $25.
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Artezin Zinfandel 2010, Dry Creek Valley. 14.8% alc. With 3% petite sirah and 1% syrah. Dark ruby-purple; deep, rich and spicy; blackberries and plums with a hint of boysenberry and blueberry tart; a few moments in the glass bring up touches of fig paste, tapenade and soy sauce; very dry, with well-knit tannins and integrated, spicy oak; black and blue fruit a little fleshy; a strain of earthy, graphite-laden minerality dominates the vibrant and slightly austere finish. Now through 2014 or ’15. Production was 360 cases. Excellent.
About $25, representing Great Value.
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Piocho 2009, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. 14.1% alc. 58% merlot, 22% cabernet sauvignon, 18% cabernet franc, 2% petit verdot. From Margerum Wine Company. Consumed at a restaurant, later tasted at a trade event. Dark ruby color; seductive bouquet of black cherries and currants, touch of plums and black mulberries, deeply spicy and savory; lavender, violets, graphite; black olive and thyme; deep foundation of dusty, lithic tannins and smoky oak, coats the mouth and laves the palate with ripe and velvety black and blue fruit flavors that never get blatant or slushy; firm, gripping hand of vital acidity cuts a swath. Frankly delicious. Now through 2014 or ’15. Production was 570 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Hecht & Bannier Côtes du Roussillon-Villages 2009, Languedoc, France. 14.5% alc. 55% grenache, 25% syrah, 15% mourvèdre, 5% carignan. Dark ruby with a lighter ruby rim; meaty and fleshy red and black currants, wildly spiced and macerated, over hints of roses and violets; vibrant, lively, engaging yet deeply imbued with dense dusty tannins and a powerful earthy, graphite-like mineral character; smoke, brambles, touch of moss through the finish. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $26.
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Marziano Abbona Barbera d’Alba Rinaldi 2010, Piedmont, Italy. 14.5% alc. 100% barbera grapes. Dark ruby color; dried spices and flowers, lavender and potpourri, hint of pomander, red and black fruit scents and flavors; deeply foresty and earthy, brushy and briery tannins, precisely balances succulence with a strict regimen of acidity and granitic minerality. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $30.
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Generally when we think of a wine to drink with pizza, we conjure a fairly simple, light-hearted but flavorful red wine with the sort of bright acidity that will stand up to the acid in tomatoes or tomato-based sauce, not that all pizzas involve some form of tomatoes, but many do. That’s why Chianti is a pretty natural choice for pizza (and pasta dishes) or non-blockbuster zinfandel or some of the inexpensive reds blends produced all over California, wines that aren’t too tannic or oaky. On the other hand, I receive many samples of wine every week, and sometimes, on a whim, I’ll open a bottle of an Important Impressive Red Wine for Pizza-and-Movie Night, a gesture I made recently in conjunction with a fairly unusual pizza topped with fresh figs, bacon, basil, green onions and a little mozzarella. This was wonderful.

The wine in question was no “fairly simple, light-hearted” quaff. Instead, the Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley, is an ambitious, profoundly structured limited edition cabernet sauvignon (with 12 percent cabernet franc) that would seem to exist in a world apart from a Saturday night pizza, but, you know, it was there, and surprisingly and happily the wine and the pizza turned out to be perfect for each other.

The Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 aged 20 months in French oak, 52 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby with a hint of radiant violet at the rim. Aromas of lavender, violets and graphite are etched with charcoal and bittersweet chocolate, amid notes of intense and concentrated black currants, black raspberries and plums that after a few moments in the glass take on a spicy, macerated and slightly fleshy aspect; yes, it’s a tremendously attractive and seductive bouquet from which I found it difficult to tear myself away, but one must taste the wine too. Dense, dusty, velvety tannins coat the mouth and support precisely delineated black and blue fruit flavors that unfold in layers of sandalwood and mocha, cedar and loam, all enlivened by bright acidity and a distant mineral edge. The sense of proportion and balance, the character of detail and dimension in this cabernet reflect the quality of the grapes from which it was made as well as thoughtful and careful winemaking. Even as an hour or so passed, and the wine took on some austerity and more earthiness in the finish, we continued to enjoy it with the fig and bacon pizza. 14.7 percent alcohol. Drink through 2020 to ’24. Production was 381 cases. Excellent. About $75.

How did a wine of such scope and intensity manage a blissful marriage with a fig, bacon and basil pizza? Somehow the sweetness and earthiness of the roasted figs elicited a hint of sweetness and ripeness from the wine, while the currant and plum flavors added shades of succulence to the already sweet and savory figs. The savory, smoky meatiness of the bacon reflected similar nuances in the wine. Or perhaps I’m over-thinking the whole scheme; the wine and the pizza were terrific together; we can leave it at that.

A sample for review. The label image is one year off; the wine under review is the 2009.

Susana Balbo, a winemaker since 1981, is often considered the diva, even the Evita, of Argentine wine producers. Her brands include the eponymous Susana Balbo and BenMarco, priced less expensively, and the labels Crios and Bodini, made by her son Jose Lovaglio, often listed among bargains and great values. I tasted the range of these wines recently at a trade event in Memphis, though I have written about and reviewed the wines for several years. As usual, these Friday Wine Sips — whatever day they’re posted! — do not include the technical, historical or geographical data that I and other like-minded readers dote upon; no, the purpose here is quick and insightful (if not soulful) reviews designed to grab the essence of the wine and hand it to you in a few pithy words and images. These wines are imported by Vine Connection, Sausalito, Ca.
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Crios Rose of Malbec 2011, Mendoza. % alc. Lovely melon-mulberry color; strawberries, raspberries and red currants; snappy acidity and limestone minerality; undertones of dried herbs and briery earthiness. Tasty and charming. Drink into 2013. Very Good+. About $13.
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Crios Torrontes 2011, Salta. % alc. Very pale straw-gold color; very fresh, clean, crisp, jasmine and camellia floral elements; savory with roasted lemon and pear flavors, bracing with crisp acidity and a saline quality; texture neatly balanced between suppleness and leanness. Very attractive. Now into 2013. Very Good+. About $15.
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Bodini Chardonnay 2011, Mendoza. % alc. Pale gold color; quite clean and fresh, bright and spicy; pineapple and grapefruit, back-notes of ginger and quince, very dry but juicy and tasty, vibrant acidity and a scintillating limestone element. Appealing with its pinpoint balance and exhilaration. Now into Summer 2013. Very Good+. About $13, marking Great Value.
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Crios Chardonnay 2010, Mendoza. % alc. More subtle than the Bodini Chardonnay 2011, sleeker and more modulated; more intensity and concentration; moderately spicy pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors, slightly macerated; very dry, spare, lots of gravel and limestone in the depths, taut acidity. Now into Spring 2013. Very Good+. About $15.
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Bodini Malbec 2011, Mendoza. Dark ruby color; quite fruity and spicy, almost exotic; black and red currants, cherries and mulberries (with that mulberry tartness); touch of blueberry turnover; briers and brambles, moderately dense and dusty tannins. Tasty, drinkable and appealing personality. Now into Summer 2013. Very Good+. About $13, another Great Value.
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Crios Malbec 2010, Mendoza. % alc. Dark ruby color; pleasant, no great depth, pretty generic “red wine.” Good+. About $15.
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BenMarco Malbec 2010, Mendoza. 14% alc. Dark ruby-purple color; big, gritty gutsy style, dense, smoky, velvety, intense and concentrated; black and red currants, blueberries; grainy tannins and burnished oak; ripe and slightly roasted and briery effects over graphite minerality. Bring on the rib-eye steak or the rack of lamb. Now through 2014. Very Good+. About $19.
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Susana Balbo Malbec 2010, Mendoza. 14.5% alc. Dark ruby-purple color; immediately strikes a serious stance; very intense and concentrated, with real depth and dimension; plenty of dusty, gritty tannin grip but plush and velvety with deep-dyed black and blue fruit and feeling evenly-milled even to the bottom of its dusty granitic minerality; actually a beautiful structure with a long finish and fine focus. Demands grilled red meat. Now to 2015. Excellent. About $25.
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Crios Syrah Bonarda 2008, Mendoza. 13.5% alc. A 50/50 blend. Medium ruby-purple color; first note: “wow, that’s good.” Red and black currants, black cherry and blackberry, very spicy, wild, exotic; smoky and tarry, bittersweet chocolate and graphite; dark and vibrant, quite dry. Now through 2013. Very Good+. About $15.
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Crios Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Mendoza. 13.5% alc. A well-made and unpretentious wine, dark, robust, rustic, pretty intense and concentrated, but manageable tannins, macerated and fleshy black and blue fruit flavors. Now through 2014. Very Good. About $15.
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BenMarco Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Mendoza. 14% alc. Big, dense, dusty, chewy; robust, concentrated, focused; very spicy and with wood all round the circumference; black and red berries, smoke, potpourri, graphite. Well-made but more correct than compelling. Now to 2014 or ’15. Very Good+. About $20.
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Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Mendoza. 14.5% alc. More about structure at this point, you feel the oak and tannin all the way through the finish; needs to age a few years into more delineation; but pulls up intriguing exotic touches of caramelized fennel, sandalwood, cedar and thyme, traces of bittersweet chocolate and lavender; try from 2013/14 to 2016/17. Maybe Excellent for potential. About $24.
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BenMarco Expresivo 2009, Mendoza. 14.5% alc. Malbec 50%, cabernet sauvignon 20%, syrah 15%, tannat 10%, petit verdot 5%. Built for size and power, not speed and grace; big, gritty and grainy tannins; lots of dusty graphite-like minerality, all mouth-coating and tongue wrapping; vibrant, velvety, very dry with a spicy but austere finish. Needs more of the advertised expressiveness. Try through 2015 to ’17. Very Good+. About $35.
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Susana Balbo Brioso 2007, Mendoza. 14% alc. Cabernet sauvignon 60%, malbec 15%, merlot 10%, cabernet franc 10%, petit verdot 5%. Has all the trappings of an ambitious flagship wine except the lively, dashing aspects implied by the name; very large in scope and depth, those dimensions packed with oak and tannin, though the wine does not feel woody or over-oaked, just fairly daunting at five years old. Give it five more years. Very Good+ for now. About $43.
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Susana Balbo Late Harvest Torrontes 2010, Mendoza. 12.5% alc. Pale gold color; very pretty, delicate; jasmine and honeysuckle, peach and pear; light, ephemeral, quite delicious peach and apricot flavors, slightly honeyed, cloves and ginger in the background; soft, graceful texture, a little flinty with acidity; dry from mid-palate through the finish. Delightful. Through 2013 or ’14. Very Good+. About $25. _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Susana Balbo Late Harvest Malbec 2008, Mendoza. 13.5% alcohol. Dark ruby with purple/violet rim; chocolate-covered raisins, spiced and macerated black currants and raspberries, hint of fruitcake; really off-dry and then the acidity and mineral qualities tame the sweetness. They’re very different wines, of course, but given my druthers I would take the Late Harvest Torrontes. Now through 2014. Very Good+. About $25.
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A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness …

When John Keats wrote these opening lines of “Endymion,” he was thinking of the Platonic and transcendental beauty of nature, not a bottle of wine, though he wrote some fine, brief descriptions of wine here and there in his body of work, notably in the second stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where he calls for “a draught of vintage! that hath been/Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth…” Later in this stanza, he calls again, ecstatically: “O for a beaker full of the warm South,/Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,/With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,/And the purple-stained mouth …” I taught this poem for years in the second semester of English Literature survey, and every time I read those lines, I thought, “Damnit! I want some of that wine!”

Unfortunately, unlike the endlessly melodic and unchanging song of the nightingale — “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” — a bottle of wine is not immortal, though some wines are capable of aging into mature beauty. In fact, Keats hits on both of the themes that have dominated the world’s wine industry since the ancient times of the wine-loving Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, and that is that some wines are intended to cool their heels “a long age in the deep-delved earth” until they attain a plateau of subtlety and nuance, while other wines, “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim,/And purple-stained mouth,” something like 95 percent of all wine produced in the world, are meant for more or less immediate consumption. In the wine-reviewing business, we don’t often have the opportunity to try those lovely, old, fully developed wines — and we are jealous of those who do — because our focus is on wines in current release, which we taste too young and have to evaluate more in terms of potential — “Best from 2016 or ’17 through 2025 or ’27″ — than for their ability to deliver pleasure in the present. The truth, though, is that nowadays many winemakers are producing wines, particularly reds of course, intended to be drinkable soon after release as well as 15 or 20 or more years later.

Paradoxically, and perhaps perversely, the wine that inspired this post was not a fine old vintage — though I’ll get to a few of those in a different post soon — but a just released cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley, a region widely and justly acclaimed as having one of the best climates and geographies for the grape. The wine is the St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley, a blend of 87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 2 percent petit verdot and 1 percent cabernet franc that aged 19 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. Winemaker is Danielle Cyrot. A portion of the grapes for Oroppas ’08 came from the valley floor, in Rutherford, but the majority derived from higher altitudes in Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder.

The color is pure intense dark red-ruby, while the bouquet presages the perfect balance and harmony that characterize the wine; no edges here, no risks, just the sheer beauty of a wine that’s so totally poised and integrated. Aromas of licorice, lavender and potpourri, warm and slightly roasted and meaty black currants, black cherries and a touch of wilder mulberry are permeated by hints of cedar and thyme, graphite and bittersweet chocolate. Yes, there are tannins and they grow more powerful or at least evident over 20 or 30 minutes, but they’re tannins of the finely milled, minutely sifted variety, sleek and suave as the oak influence on the wine is sleek and suave and almost invisible. Who said that oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible? Why, that was me! And so it is here! I mean, the wine soaked up that oak and turned it into another dimension. This cabernet sauvignon is, in other words, an absolutely lovely, pure and intense expression of the grape, delivering the immediate gratification that’s so important for consumers in these times yet possessing enough backbone and grip and earthy minerality — and nothing overdone, nothing too ripe or opulent — to allow the finish its quiet and slightly demanding moments of dignity and austerity. 14.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $55.

Why did this wine inspire the post you’re reading now?

To corral another poet to my purpose, Wallace Stevens, in “Sunday Morning,” one of the greatest poems written in the 20th Century, said “Death is the mother of beauty.” Though that sentence sounds like a grim sentence indeed, Stevens means that beauty is born of its inherently fragile and inevitably ephemeral character. We value beauty all the higher because its very nature embodies its impermanence, its decline and final dissolution. Keats’ nightingale is not immortal in the individual bird; they all die, but the identical song lives on in each generation of nightingales. The greatest wines ever made — Margaux 1900, Mouton-Rothschild ’29, Cheval Blanc ’47, Petrus ’49, Lafite ’59, Latour ’82 — however extravagantly lauded and loved will soon be gone from this ever-changing earth, faded, weakened, cracking up, fled, departed. That G. Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1998 that you’ve been holding onto like Silas Marner his hoard of gold (a wine that shook me to the core when I tasted it from barrel in December 1999, as it happens on my birthday); drink it, my friend, because it will soon go the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon. That last bottle of Heitz Martha’s Vineyard ’74 in your cellar, you lucky bastard (depending on its condition, of course)? Gather your loved ones, roast a chicken, sit down together and eat and drink. It will not last much longer nor was it meant to.

St. Clement Oroppas 2008 is an absolutely gorgeous wine, fine and beautiful in every small detail and broad stroke, and when we drank it, we felt privileged. I would love to try the wine again in 10 years. It is not immortal, nor does it stand among the greatest cabernet wines ever produced. It was made for pleasure, both now and through the next decade, and that is a goal and accomplishment not to be disparaged, and a great deal of its pleasure lies in what Keats, so wise for one so young — he was 25 when he died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821 — wrote about in another poem, “Ode on Melancholy.” Melancholy, he wrote, “dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die;/And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu…” Dissolution and decay dwell with the beauty of great wines, and tasting them, drinking that lambent, plangent liquor, we feel the death inside them and the beauty, and we are made glad.

Image of John Keats from Bettmann/Corbis; image of dusty old wine bottles from rapgenius.com. The St. Clement Oroppas 2008 was a sample for review.

Hope you’re not sick of reading about cabernet sauvignon, because I have lots more examples to write about, though I’ll keep it within reasonable proportions.

For this seventh edition of “Pairs of Great Wines,” we turn to Hawk & Horse Vineyard, established in Lake County — that’s the county above, that is, north of, Napa County — in 1999 by Mitch and Tracy Hawkins (pictured at right) on the El Roble Grande Ranch that Tracy Hawkins’ stepfather David Boies bought in 1982. The three are partners in the enterprise. The Hawkins planted vines in 2001. The vineyard is operated on biodynamic principles; a small herd of Scottish Highlander cattle is kept on the property to provide the all-important manure. The estate produces only two wines, a cabernet sauvignon and the Latigo cabernet dessert wine. Tracy Hawkins acts as executive winemaker, while consulting winemaker is Dr. Richard Peterson, one of those personages to whom the label “legendary” is inevitably attached.

Peterson grew up on a farm in Iowa, making his first wine at home in 1948. He began his career in California in 1958, going to work for E.& J. Gallo in new product development and research. He was picked by Andre Tchelistcheff to be winemaster at Beaulieu Vineyards, where he served from 1968 to 1973, going on to The Monterey Vineyards and then Atlas Peak. He headed a group of investors that acquired Folie à Deux in 1995, selling to Trinchero Family Estates in 2005. Peterson now is proprietor of Richard Grant Wines (his first and middle names) where he makes small amounts of sparkling wine from a unique pinot noir clone that he brought back from England. His daughters are the well-known winemaker and consultant Heidi Peterson Barrett and chef and entrepreneur Holly Peterson. Peterson’s quest for innovation led him along every high and low path in the vinous arsenal, from making the finest cabernet wines and pioneering sangiovese to concocting the formula for Hearty Burgundy and inventing the wine cooler for Monterey Vineyard. Each task he takes on is a problem to be solved; few imaginations can be, like his, both visionary and pragmatic.

These wines were samples for review.
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The Hawk & Horse Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Red Hills, Lake County, includes 2 percent merlot midst all that cabernet sauvignon; the wine aged 18 months in French oak, 50 percent new, 50 percent two-year-old barrels. The color is dark ruby-purple almost to the rim, where it shades to a violet-magenta hue. The bouquet rates a “Wow!” as my first note; this pungent and potent amalgam of mint and iodine, iron and graphite, spiced and macerated black and red currants, mulberries and blueberries embodies the decisive cabernet paradox of delivering a sense of warm spice and cool minerals simultaneously, all underlain by a dusty, slightly brambly and mossy earthy element. Though solid and firm of structure, this is no truculent powerhouse of a cabernet sauvignon; rather it’s smooth and supple, almost lithe and sinewy, with dense, chewy dusty tannins that lend texture and depth to the ripe black and blue fruit flavors and vibrant acidity that offers essential liveliness and verve. You sense the oak more prominently through the finish, which is packed with granitic minerality, woody spice and hints of fruitcake and bitter chocolate. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 1,150 cases. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $65.
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The previous vintage produced something different. The Hawk & Horse Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Red Hills, Lake County, is 100 percent cabernet and received the same oak treatment as the 2008, or I suppose I should say that the 2008 received the same oak treatment as the ’07; the alcohol content, 14.1 percent, is also the same, so the point is the consistency. (Of course producers are granted leeway by federal regulations in stating the degrees of alcohol in a wine.) By different, I mean that the ’07 displays more rigorous structure than its cousin from 2008, yet equal vitality. The bouquet is all smoke and cedar and thyme, cloves and allspice and walnut shell, elements that gradually unfold to reveal intense and concentrated yet seductively ripe notes of black currants, black cherries and plums, so the balance is between slightly austere, woody, spicy qualities and luscious fruit; adding dimension (to the texture as well as depth to the bouquet) is a reservoir of graphite and loam. Yeah, that’s quite a performance. The wine is full-bodied, mouth-filling, seamlessly layered, though emphasizing, still, the framing and foundation of slightly leathery, tarry tannins, polished oak, resonant acidity and a resolute granite and shale lithic quality. Production was 430 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $65.
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Maintaining the theme of cabernet sauvignon, instigated by last Thursday’s World Cabernet Day, I offer as the Wine of the Week an inexpensive crowd-pleaser from Argentina.

The Graffigna Centenario Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 comes from a winery founded in 1870 in what is now Argentina’s state of San Juan by Italian immigrant Santiago Graffigna. San Juan is the country’s second largest producer of wine, after Mendoza, which lies just to the south. The vineyards of both regions thrive in the fairly arid altitudes of the Andean foothills. The family sold the estate in 1980 to Allied Domecq, which in turn was acquired by Pernod Ricard. Winemaker for Graffigna is Gerardo Danitz. At four years old, the Graffigna Centenario Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, which aged 12 months in 85 percent French oak barrels and 15 percent America, has shed the initial hard edge of its tannins and become something altogether softer, plusher and more approachable. The first impression is a wafting of fresh wild black raspberries couched with black currants and blueberries, cloves and sandalwood, with hints of cedar and thyme and spicy wood. The wine is smooth and polished in the mouth, luscious in its battery of ripe black and blue fruit flavors but held to rigorous deportment by vibrant acidity, mildly robust tannins and a tinge of graphite and bitter chocolate. 14 percent alcohol. Though the current release of this wine is 2010, the Internet reveals plenty of this eminently drinkable ’08 in the pipeline. Very Good+. If you pay more than $15, you wuz robbed; I’ve seen it as low as $10.

Imported by Pernod Ricard USA, Purchase, NY. A sample for review.


Yesterday was World Cabernet Day, but I extend the concept to today’s “Friday Wine Sips” because I have a boodle of cabernet sauvignon wines or blends on hand. Here are 15, from 2009, ’8 and ’07, mainly from Napa Valley and Sonoma County but also an example from Lake County and two from Lodi. In fact, this column serves as a transition or segue to September, which for some reason has been designated California Wine Month. A couple of these wines I am lukewarm about — there’s even a “Not Recommended” — but 10 receive an Excellent rating. I haven’t done a “Friday Wine Sips” in two weeks, so I’ll remind My Readers that these brief, incisive, insightful reviews eschew technical data and historical, personal and geographical narrative for the sake of getting to the essence. All of these wines were samples for review.

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Mettler Family Vineyards Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Lodi. 15.3% alc. With 8% petite sirah, 4% cabernet franc, 2% petit verdot. Unpalatably sweet, hot and jammy, but alternately brusquely tannic and austere; a zinfandel lollipop gone to the dark side. What were they thinking? Not recommended. About $25.
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Mettler Family Vineyards Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Lodi. 14.9% alc. With 8% petite sirah, 2% cabernet franc. This is better or at least a bit more under control; very dark ruby-purple hue; yes, still big, rich, fruity and jammy — European palates avoid! — very spicy, very brambly and briery, brilliantly-etched black fruit with a blueberry tart edge, a velvet fist in a velvet glove but still more granite and flint minerality and bright acidity for backbone than the rendition of 2008. Now through 2015 to ’17. Very Good. About $25.
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Hess Allomi Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. 14.4% alc. With 9% petite sirah. Dark ruby-purple color; makes a fetish of its deep flint-graphite, iodine-iron character that gradually yields to notes of cassis and blueberry and plums laved with smoke, lavender and licorice; a few minutes bring in potpourri, mulberry and a touch of pomegranate, all ensconced in a dense, chewy texture freighted with finely-milled tannins. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $28.
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Obsidian Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Red Hills, Lake County. 14.3% alc. With 3% each cabernet franc and petit verdot. Sleek and scintillating, notably clean and fresh, a powerhouse of spicy black and blue fruit scents and flavors tempered by layers of earthy, dusty graphite and plush finely-milled mineral-laced tannins dressed out with vibrant acidity; comes close to being elegant, even as it conceals a truckload of coiled energy. Definitely needs a steak. Excellent. About $30.
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Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma Valley. Jackson Family Wines. 15.5% alc.(!) Pure and intense, a bright arrow of granitic minerality, very tight, very concentrated, very ripe and spicy; does it really need so much toasty, vanilla-laced oak? I don’t think so. 250 cases. Very Good+. About $35.
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Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. Jackson Family Wines. 14.5% alc. Cabernet sauvignon 79%, merlot 14%, petit verdot 5%, malbec 1%. Dark ruby shading to medium ruby; lovely bouquet, cedar, lead pencil, tobacco, black currants and cherries with a touch of plum; but tough as nails; here’s the iron fist, where’s the velvet glove? very spicy, a little tart, finish is boldly tannic and austere. Try maybe from 2014 through 2017 to 2020. Very Good+. About $40.
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Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. 14.4% alc. Almost opaque dark ruby color; briers and brambles, cedar, thyme and leather; spiced and macerated black and blue fruit, dredged with dried spice and potpourri; buttresses of fine-meshed tannins and granitic minerality; moody and brooding, a note of tar and sweet oak; feel the power waiting to be unleashed. Try 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $40.
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As I said a few days ago, it’s not as if cabernet sauvignon languishes without fans, it’s not as if cab sav doesn’t have advocates all over the place, but here it is, World Cabernet Day, and what the hell, what else do we have to do to fill our empty lives but give days and months and whole seasons to the celebration of grape varieties. I offer two examples of cabernet sauvignon today, a selection that doesn’t even begin to scratch the top layer of veneer on the massive oak cabinet that metaphorically could stand for the monumental presence that the cabernet sauvignon grape exerts in the living room, as it were, of wine producers, wine drinkers and wine collectors; I mean to say, it dwarfs every other red grape that might attend the party. Cab sav is planted in most of the world’s wine regions, whether suited to them or not, but where does it perform best? The short list: The left bank of the region of Bordeaux (remember, the Right Bank is dominated by cabernet franc and merlot); a few spots in California, principally Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley and Paso Robles; Coonawarra and Margaret River in Australia; Hawkes Bay in New Zealand; a narrow range of southwestern Tuscany, by the Tyrrhenian Sea. Other vineyard areas, such as Maipo and Aconcagua in Chile and Salta in Argentina are showing improvement.

This post, however, offers two fairly directly appealing inexpensive cabernet sauvignon wines that reveal marks of individuality as well as adherence to the character of the grape. These were samples for review, as I am required to inform you by the Federal Trade Commission, though if I didn’t, would they slap me in chains and drop me in the hoosegow?

The photograph, taken by me, is of cabernet sauvignon grapes in the Fay Vineyard, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley, August 6, 2012.
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BenMarco is a label from Susana Balbo who with all respect could be called the mistress of wine in Argentina. The BenMarco Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Mendoza, contains 6 percent merlot and 4 percent cabernet franc; the wine aged a conservative 11 months in 60 percent new French oak barrels, 40 percent in second-use American oak. (The implication of “second-use” barrels is that their influence will be milder and more mellow, less spicy and woody than new oak.) The color is dark ruby-purple; the bouquet offers a heady amalgam of macerated and lightly roasted black currants and cherries, with an undertow of plum, bolstered by black olive, thyme and sage and a touch of lavender. In the mouth, BenMarco Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 is intense and concentrated, a mouthful of boldly framed, slightly grainy tannins, supple oak, vibrant acidity and ripe but slightly dusty black and blue fruit flavors. The finish is packed with spice and underbrushy earthly elements. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Very Good+. About $18, though around the country you find prices from $15 to $20.

I also tried the Susana Balbo Signature Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 and — another Balbo label — the Crios Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, both from Mendoza, and found them oddly stiff with oak and unpalatable.

Imported by Vine Connections, Sausalito, Ca.
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The Jacob’s Creek Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra, South Australia, spent 18 months in French oak hogshead barrels, and while “hogshead” is a rather amorphous measurement of liquid volume I’m sure you get the point that it’s a large barrel, the point being that such a barrel will not have the intensity of influence exercised by the standard 59-gallaon barrel or barrique. This wine has its eccentricities, and they’re lively and attractive ones. The color, first, is dark ruby with a slightly lighter violet rim; aromas of mint, eucalyptus, celery seed and black olives burst from the glass, with notes of cocoa powder, licorice and potpourri, oh yes, and scents of crushed black currants, raspberries and mulberries. I have seen a few reviews of this wine that scored it down because of the herbaceous bouquet, but I think that aspect is part of the wine’s charm and individuality. Flavors of black currants and plums are cushioned by a texture that’s paradoxically a bit lush and velvety while being invigorated by taut acidity and moderately dense, slightly leathery tannins. The finish is rift with sandalwood and cloves and a hint of iodine-and-iron minerality. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Very Good+. About $13, a Distinct Bargain.

Imported by Pernod Ricard USA, Purchase, NY.
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