California


A blend of grapes from four vineyards and a plethora of classic clones, the Benovia Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, offers a medium ruby color that shades into ethereal transparency at the rim; first come smoke and loam, then an earthy briery-brambly quality, followed by touches of black cherry, cranberry and a hint of pomegranate seemingly macerated with cloves and sandalwood, mulberry and rhubarb; yes, that’s quite a sumptuous panoply of effects. The wine is dense and super satiny on the palate, a pretty wine with pockets of darkness and something sleek, polished and intricate that reminded me of the line from Keats’ sonnet “To Sleep”: “turn the key deftly in the oiled wards.” Not that this pinot noir feels too carefully made — winemaker is Mike Sullivan — because it concludes on a highly individual and feral note of wild berries, new leather, fresh linen and finely-milled tannins, all propelled by bright acidity. Alcohol content is 14.1 percent. Drink now through 2018 to 2020 with roasted chicken, seared duck breast, lamb or veal chops. Excellent. About $38.

A sample for review.

Fire up the grill! Here is a cabernet-based wine perfectly tuned to the broad strokes and the nuances induced by the kiss of flames upon beef, lamb, veal and pork. The Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, is the product of one of those vintages that winemakers refer to with sighs of relief and giddy smiles. It’s a blend of 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent merlot and 3.5 percent each petit verdot and cabernet franc that never sees a smidgeon of artificial herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers and is fermented with indigenous yeasts. The wine spent 21 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels. The color is deep ruby from opaque center almost to the rim, where it shades delicately into a violet-magenta hue; to touches of cedar and rosemary, cloves and allspice, ripe and spicy black currants, cherries and plums, the wine adds grace-notes of black olive and bell pepper, creating a beautifully complicated bouquet that picks up on the slightly resiny woodiness of rosemary and the exotic slightly astringent woodiness of allspice; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of lavender and licorice and a teasing wisp of roasted fennel. On the palate, this cabernet delivers weight and substance without being ponderous or overstated; while sustained by large dimensions of graphite and granitic minerality and deep but soft and finely sifted tannins, it embodies the vivid acidity to keep it engaging and animated and the gorgeous black fruit flavors — now feeling spiced and macerated — to make it eminently attractive. Still, this is a wine that focuses a good deal of attention on structure, and the finish, from mid-palate back, shifts toward a bastion of austerity and aloofness. 14.7 percent alcohol. Try tonight with something grilled or from 2017 or ’18 through 2025 to ’28. Excellent. About $65.

A sample for review.

I don’t cotton to wines with fanciful names, but I’ll admit that after a few moments in the glass the Loomis Family Ember Red Wine 2012, Napa Valley, seethed like a seductive glowing coal of smoldering lavender, licorice and graphite. The wine is a blend of 49 percent syrah grapes, 22 percent grenache and 7 percent mourvèdre, grapes associated, of course, with France’s Rhône Valley, and it aged 20 in French oak barrels. Winemaker is Timothy Milos. The color is dark ruby with a hint of magenta at the rim; aromas of ripe and macerated blackberries, black currants and plums open to elements of briers, brambles and underbrush for a fairly rigorous foundation, leading to a gradually burgeoning structure of chiseled granitic minerality, taut dusty tannins and lip-smacking acidity. There’s a tinge of red to the succulent and spicy black fruit flavors, but despite the frank deliciousness, the wine is quite dry. Give it a chance, and it develops an intriguing earthy, funky edge from mid-palate back, driving an exotic finish that’s packed with cloves and sandalwood, loam and leather. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 75 cases, so mark this wine Worth a Search. Excellent. About $38.

A sample for review, a bit of information I am required to provide according to ruling by the Federal Trade Commission. This dictate applies only to bloggers; print journalists are not so required.

Oh, what the hell, let’s have a bottle of sparkling wine! Surely you can come up with something to celebrate. Or not. I would just as soon drink Champagne and other forms of sparkling wine for any purpose, any whim, any occasion, even if it’s merely standing around the kitchen preparing dinner. For our category of sparkling wine today, then, I choose the Domaine Chandon Étoile Brut Rosé, a non-vintage blend of primarily chardonnay and pinot meunier grapes with a dollop of pinot noir, the sources being the Carneros regions in Sonoma County (58 percent) and Napa County (42 percent). The wine rested sur lie — on the residue of dead yeast cells — five years in the bottle after the second fermentation that produces the essential effervescence. The color is an entrancing medium copper-salmon hue riven by an upward-surging torrent of glinting silver bubbles. Notes of blood orange, strawberry and raspberry unfold to hints of lime peel, quince and ginger, with, always in the background, touches of limestone, lightly buttered cinnamon toast and orange marmalade; think of the tension and balance between the subtle sweet fruitiness and bitterness of the latter. On the palate, this sparkling wine works with delicacy and elegance to plow a furrow of juicy red berry and citrus flavors — with a bit of pomegranate — into a foundation of slate and limestone minerality and lively acidity for a crisp, dynamic texture and long spicy finish. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $50.

A sample for review.

We don’t drink much merlot in our house because generally merlot wines made in California (and elsewhere in the world except for St. Emilion and Pomerol) tend to be rather uninteresting cadet cabernets. Here, thankfully, is an exception, a 100 percent merlot that displays not only integrity but marked individuality. McIntyre Vineyards lies in Monterey Country’s Santa Lucia Highlands, a growing area occupying terraces in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Range well-known for chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah. The narrow 12-mile-long region looks across the Salinas Valley to Chalone and the awesome rock formation called The Pinnacles. The McIntyre Kimberly Vineyard Merlot 2012 comes not from Santa Lucia Highlands, however, but from Arroyo Seco, an AVA just to the south. The 81-acre Kimberly Vineyard, planted entirely to merlot, occupies a site near the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and Salinas Rivers on an alluvial fan at the foot of the Santa Lucia Mountains, just beyond the influence of the intense Salinas Valley winds, creating a micro-climate much warmer than the surrounding terrain, that is, more suited to merlot than pinot noir. The McIntyre Kimberly Vineyard Merlot 2012 offers an opaque dark ruby hue with a riveting violet-magenta rim that’s almost nuclear; this is a blue-fruit wine — blueberry, blue plum, mulberry — packed with granite and graphite, briers and brambles that allow for notes of lavender, mint and loganberry tart. It is, make no mistake, a powerful, intense and concentrated wine that practically resonates in the glass with energy and dynamism. (The vineyard, by the way, is certified sustainable.) Acidity is profound; the finish is steep and lithic. Still, for all the emphasis on structure, this merlot, deeply committed to its place on earth, delivers myriad pleasures, especially, as we drank the bottle last night, with pork chops marinated in olive oil, soy sauce, lime juice, a mix of black and Szechuan pepper and smoked paprika. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 333 cases. Drink now through 2019 to ’22. Excellent. About $22, representing Great Value.

A sample for review.

For a guy who doesn’t much cotton to chardonnay wines, I have probably been paradoxical in my inclusion of chardonnays in this “Wine of the Day” series, now at its 22nd entry. I won’t bother to extemporize upon the manifold ways in which I think chardonnay wines can be over-done, over-blown, exaggerated and over-oaked; I have done that more than a sufficient numbers of times on this blog. I will say, however, that when I try a chardonnay that seems to touch on all the points of perfection that I will clasp it to my heart as not only an exemplar but a talisman, and I will shout its virtues from the roof-tops. Such a one is the Amapola Creek Jos. Belli Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. This wine was made by Richard Arrowood, and if ever a winemaker in California deserved the accolade “legendary,” he is certainly at the top of that brief list. Joseph Belli’s certified organic vineyard lies at the extreme western edge of the Russian River AVA in Sonoma County, where the land begins to slope gently upward. Facing east, the terraced and well-drained acreage receives full sunlight in the morning and early afternoon but is shielded by the hills from the harsh light of late afternoon. The color is pale gold with a faint green cast; the entire impression is of a chardonnay that is clean, pure and fresh, balanced yet forward, fervent, almost emphatic in its intensity; classic notes of pineapple and grapefruit are layered with hints of cloves, yellow plums, baked pear and undertones of ginger, quince and damp limestone; a few moments in the glass bring in touches of jasmine and lilac. The wine flows on the palate with sleekness and subtlety, in a texture almost talc-like in its packed nature yet riven by resonant acidity and a brisk chalk-and-flint mineral quality; though quite dry, it offers juicy, spicy and engaging citrus and stone-fruit flavors that lead to a finish finely-sifted with fruit, acid, oak and minerals. The wine went through barrel-fermentation and aged 11 months in a combination of new and used French oak barrels; its presence is apparent as a shaping element, and its tangible influence emerges primarily through the elegance but powerful finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 475 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $45.

A sample for review.

Randall Grahm leaves a few unsanded edges in the Bonny Doon Clos de Gilroy Grenache 2014, Monterey County, so the wine comes traipsing on the palate like a happy-go-lucky country cousin, embodying the concept of rusticity in all its beneficial aspects: open-hearted, generous, robust and a little bumptious, forthright. It’s a blend of 89 percent grenache grapes, 9 percent mourvedre and 2 percent syrah, derived mainly from the Alta Loma Vineyard and with dollops from four other vineyards. The color is medium ruby with a magenta rim; aromas of raspberries and red currants, rhubarb and pomegranate are infused with peppery notes of cloves, briers and loam, while vibrant acidity cuts a swath on the palate and moderately dusty tannins offer a touch of density to the texture. The wine is lively and engaging, earthy without being profound or oratorical. Perfect for pizzas, grilled leg of lamb, or with cold roasted chicken on a picnic. When vinous-minded John Keats called for “a beaker full of the warm South,” he must have had this type of delicious, uncomplicated wine in mind. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $20.

A sample for review. The label image in one vintage behind.

High altitude cabernet sauvignon from Mendoza yesterday; high altitude zinfandel from Howell Mountain today — yes, ma’am and sir, the Wine of the Day requires Seven-League Boots, a vast imagination and flexible taste-buds. The zin in question is the Elyse Winery Zinfandel 2011, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, a blend of 89 percent zinfandel grapes and 11 percent petite sirah, the zinfandel derived from Howell Mountain’s well-known dry-farmed, sustainably-operated Black Sears Vineyard, which rises to 2400-feet elevation. Ray Coursen is the owner and winemaker of Elyse. The wine aged 10 and a half months in American oak barrels, 25 percent new. The color is dark ruby-purple, and the bouquet, which I thought at first was too earthy, smoothed out admirably into an exemplar of the grape’s classic aspects of blackberry and loganberry with undertones of black currants and plums etched with notes of graphite, lavender and wood smoke, all borne on a foundation of loam, iodine and iron. Many of these characteristics segue faultlessly onto the palate, where the wine’s scintillating purity and intensity resonate with a feeling that combines energy with a brooding nature. Here, this zinfandel turns knotty, briery and brambly, adding to its ripe and spicy black fruit flavors long-drawn out touches of brandied raisins, black pepper, bitter chocolate and dusty tannins. 14.7 percent alcohol. Production was 864 cases. Drink now through 2018 to ’20 with steak, venison, boar and similar hearty and big-hearted fare. Excellent. About $37.

A sample for review.

Faithful readers of this blog — bless yer pointy little heads and may yer tribes increase! — know that California chardonnay and I have an uneasy and sometimes contentious relationship. I find too many of them over-blown, buxom, viscous and stridently ripe and spicy. On the other hand, chardonnays that display florid ripeness but manage to maintain an edgy balance with racy acidity and striking mineral elements can be not just delicious but exciting, even risky. Such a one is the Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands. The winery was founded by Dan Morgan Lee and his wife Donna in 1982; winemaker since 2005 has been Gianni Abate. The Lees purchased the Double L property, at the northern end of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, in 1996, planting the following year. At present, the vineyard consists of 48.52 planted acres: 27.99 acres planted to pinot noir, 18.45 acres of chardonnay and minuscule amounts of syrah and riesling. The vineyard is certified organic. The Morgan Double L Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 30 percent new, the rest one- and two-year-old barrels. This is a golden and glittering chardonnay, offering a mild medium gold hue and forthright aromas of baked pineapple and caramelized grapefruit entwined with notes of jasmine, smoke, cloves and heather, spread on a background of damp crushed gravel. It’s indeed a sizable wine, quite dry but ripe and juicy with spicy citrus and stone-fruit flavors and animated by shattering acidity and dusty, scintillating limestone minerality. Oak provides a finely sifted and supple framework and foundation; a few minutes in the glass bring out hints of lemon balm and walnut oil. The finish is dense yet nimble, serious and exquisite together and radiant with chardonnay’s purity and intensity. 13.9 percent alcohol. A chardonnay this rich and layered, though elegantly (and dynamically) balanced, requires dishes of utmost simplicity; ultra-rich fare would compete with and clash with the wine. Something like grilled trout with brown butter and capers or roasted chicken with tarragon would be perfect. Drink through 2018 to 2020. Production was 530 cases. Exceptional. About $42.

A sample for review.

Let’s be honest. Rosé wines should not be too serious, thought-provoking or complicated. Their raison d’etre is delight and evanescence, the way that a quick cooling breeze brings delight and relief on a hot afternoon. On the other hand, occasionally I taste — or greedily consume — a rosé of such startling freshness, such intense loveliness and layered pleasure that it transcends mere prettiness and joy and attains a level of perfection and provocation, as a scent-laden gloaming works upon our senses, memories and imaginations. Such a one is the Ehlers “Sylviane” Cabernet Franc Rosé 2014, from the St. Helena AVA of the Napa Valley. This is, frankly, about the most beautiful rose I have encountered in my life of writing about wine. The estate is run on biodynamic principles and is certified organic; the grapes derive from portions of the vineyard dedicated to making rosé, so this one is not an afterthought. It sees no oak, only stainless steel. The color is a radiant light fuchsia-sunset hue; aromas of raspberries and watermelon are woven with rose petal and woodsy notes, with touches of flint, dried thyme and balsam. A few moments in the glass bring up hints of strawberries and a sort of Necco wafer dustiness. The wine slides across the palate in a lively (but not crisp), sleek, lithe flow that propels flavors of wild berry compote and citrus rind through to a delicate, elegant finish. More time, more sniffing and swirling encourage the unfurling of an extraordinary core of lilac, talcum powder and Evening in Paris perfume; it’s hypnotic and tantalizing. 12.9 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2016. We had this last night with a Spanish omelet with potatoes, sausage and parsley. Exceptional. About $28.

A sample for review.

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