California


The Spire Collection comprises the top products in the expansive stable of Jackson Family Wines. These are limited edition wines, generally from specific AVAs, carefully made, aged with primarily new French oak barrels and priced accordingly. The Spire Collection labels are Anakota (Knights Valley); Arcanum (Tuscany); Capensis (Western Cape, South Africa); Capture (Sonoma County); Cardinale (Napa Valley); Cyneth (Napa Valley); Chateau Lessegue (Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux); Chateau Vignot (Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux); Galerie carpenter(Napa Valley); Hickinbotham (McLaren Vale, South Australia); La Jota Vineyard (Napa Valley); Lokoya (Napa Valley); Maggy Hawk (Mendocino County); Mt. Brave (Napa Valley); Verite (Sonoma County);Windracer (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County). Today we look at red wines from La Jota, Lokoya and Mt. Brave, made by Chris Carpenter, pictured at right. He is also the winemaker for Cardinale, the 2011 version of which I reviewed back in January (here) and Hickinbotham, whose wines I will save for a later post; I mean, Australia is so far away from Napa Valley, and I want to stick to a theme.

The wines of La Jota, Lokoya and Mt. Brave, products of mountainside vineyards, are true vins de garde, that is, wines intended for long aging, in the case of some of these from 10 to 15 years or more, yet they are — conforming to the California ideal — accessible at a fairly young age too. They are wines of character, serious and highly structured but not ponderous, dignified but not aloof. With prices ranging from $75 to $350 a bottle, a legitimate question is, who buys these wines? Who even cares that they exist, in their limited quantities? Loyoka doesn’t even have an online function to purchase its wines; the best one can hope for is to add your name to an allocation list.

The desirability of these wines is not merely an effect of their price and rarity, however. These are great — to use a subjective term — wines that deserve to be in the cellars of anyone who collects such products. As for the rest of us, well, I wouldn’t have access to them either if I weren’t a veteran wine-writer, and I don’t hesitate to say that I enjoyed the hell out of them.

These notes are a combination of tasting samples for review at home and tasting wines in Napa Valley in March this year.
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La Jota Vineyard Co. dates back to 1898, when Swiss immigrant Frederick Hess purchased 327 acres of George Yount’s Rancho La Jota land grant on Howell Mountain. (The jota is a Spanish folk-dance, in 3/4 or 6/8 time, that achieved broad popularity in the mid 18th Century.) Within a few years, La Jota wines were winning awards at national and international competitions. Phylloxera and Prohibition put an end to the winery’s accomplishments, and the estate did not see a revival until 1974, when the original stone winery and 40 surrounding acres were bought by former oilman Bill Smith and his wife Joan. They planted new vines and added acreage, developed several new varieties and were instrumental in persuading what was then the BATF to declare Howell Mountain a separate American Viticultural Area within Napa Valley. In 2001, Smith sold La Jota to Markham Vineyards and its parent company Mercian Corp. The late Jesse Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke acquired La Jota in 2005.
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La Jota Vineyard Co. W.S. Keyes Vineyard Merlot 2010, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. 82% merlot, 18% cabernet sauvignon. 19 months French oak, 85% new barrels. W.S. Keyes Vineyard, planted in 1888, lies at 1,825 feet elevation on Howell Mountain. Very dark ruby hue with a slightly lighter rim; first note: “just beautiful”; quite rich, ripe and intense but without being opulent or overpowering; cloves and sandalwood, black cherries, currants and raspberries with a wild flash of blueberries; bitter chocolate, cedar, tobacco and mocha; wonderful balance and integration of all elements: dusty, supple tannins, spicy fruit, burnished wood, bright acidity and graphite-tinged minerality, all poised with real depth and precision. Drink now through 2020 to ’24. Production was 296 cases. Exceptional. About $150.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Merlot 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 95% merlot, 5% cabernet sauvignon. 19 months French oak, 97% new barrels. Dark ruby with a magenta rim; laser beam concentration of ripe black cherry, current and raspberry scents and flavors; bitter chocolate and lavender, cloves and graphite; bright acidity with tremendous resonance and pinpoint balance; finish packed with granitic minerals, walnut-shell and dusty tannins. Now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Franc 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 96% cabernet franc, 4% cabernet sauvignon. 19 months French oak, 96% new barrels. Opaque ruby-purple hue; cedar and tobacco leaf, rosemary and pine resin; intense black currant with wild notes of blueberry and raspberry; opens to hints of black olive, oolong tea, white pepper and allspice; dense, dusty tannins, lithe, sinewy texture that’s tight but doesn’t stint on generosity. Now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 82% cabernet sauvignon, 8% merlot, 6% cabernet franc, 4% petit verdot. 19 months in French oak, 91% new barrels. Dark ruby with a magenta rim; graphite and granite, iodine and iron; traces of lavender and violet, bitter chocolate and dusty sage; tannin treads the fine line where strict rigor dissolves into dusty velvet; gradually adds ripe black currants, raspberries and blueberries; austere finish needs time to mellow, though it would be tremendous now with a medium rare strip steak. Try through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Franc 2012, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 100% cabernet franc. 20 months French oak, 81% new barrels. Dark ruby with a vivid magenta rim; bushy and brushy black and red currants, touches of plums, blueberries, notes of cedar, black olives and cloves; lithic structure, plenty of graphite; tannins feel dusty, polished, slightly sanded; also plenty of oak but well-balanced and integrated; robust without being rustic, packs a lot of power into a vibrant package. Drink through 2020 or ’24. Excellent. About $75.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 77% cabernet sauvignon, 11% cabernet franc, 8% petit verdot, 4% merlot. 20 months French oak, 89% new barrels. Dark ruby with a violet rim; walnut shell, wheatmeal and graphite, focus on structure but firmness etched with deeply spicy black currants, raspberries and plums; notes of lavender, mocha and bitter chocolate; briery and brambly on the one hand, sleek and chiseled on the other, dry and granitic, with fissures of black olive and bell pepper; heaps of presence and energy. Try 2017 or ’18 through 2025 to ’30. Excellent. About $75.
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Mt. Brave, named for the Wappo Indians — “the brave ones” — who inhabited the area, was founded in 2007 to exploit the terroir of the former 30-plus-acre Chateau Potelle property that Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke purchased that year.
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Mt. Brave Merlot 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 80% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon. 19 months in French oak, 80% new barrels. Deep ruby-purple color; a dusty, dusky, lithic rooty wine, offering heaps of graphite and a distinctive earthy quality; also layers of ripe black cherry and plum fruit with notes of spicy pomegranate and blueberry; blossoms with a generous wafting of perfume — violets and lavender, incense and heather; lithe and supple texture supported by velvety tannins and vibrant acidity; a long, dense, slightly austere finish. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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Mt. Brave Malbec 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 100% malbec. 19 months French oak, 70% new barrels. Lustrous black as motor oil with a purple-violet sheen; a darkly gorgeous malbec, seething with notes of blueberry and boysenberry, though not over-ripe or cloying; deeply infused with structural elements of graphite, wheatmeal and walnut shell; opens to hints of black cherry and plum, iodine and iron, cloves and violets, a touch of cherry tart; tannins are dense and chewy, robust, and acidity cuts a path on the palate. Quite a performance. Now through 2021 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 94% cabernet sauvignon, 3% each merlot and cabernet frnac. 19 months French oak, 91% new barrels. All right, this is the Big One, very dark and inky in every respect; you sense the mountain roots, the chthonic stirrings in its depths of brushy, briery tannins, fleet acidity and grantic minerality; yet — there’s always a yet — the wine also feels like classic Napa Valley cabernet, sleek, chiseled, almost elegant in its presentation and delicious with a wide-ranging complement of cassis, black cherry and blueberry scents and flavors, with notes of cedar, tobacco, mocha and lavender. Another great package. Now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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Lokoya was founded in 1995. The wines are 100 percent cabernet sauvignon and originate in high-altitude vineyards in the Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain District and Spring Mountain District AVAs. I have tasted only the Mount Veeder version.
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Lokoya Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 100% cabernet sauvignon. Oak regimen was 21 months in French oak, 99% new barrels, a tad finicky perhaps — what difference would one more percent make? — but this winemaker knows what he’s doing. Very dark ruby-mulberry hue; incredible purity and intensity, deep focus and concentration; dusty graphite and granitic qualities that reach far into the depths but allow for the burgeoning of floral notes — lavender and violets — coffee and mocha, black current and blueberry fruit with a wild, high trace of black cherry; a few moments in the glass bring in hints of cloves and sandalwood; the finish — as expected — long, dense, sleek and a bit austere. Tremendous presence, dimension, power and resonance. Now through 2025 to ’30. Exceptional. About $350.
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Founded by a consortium of families in 1976, Duckhorn Vineyards is operated by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, whose present winemaker is Renee Ary. Deciding early on to focus on the merlot grape, Duckhorn is a leader in high-quality production, centered on single- vineyard releases of merlot, such as the famous Three Palms Vineyard. The winery also makes highly-rated sauvignon blanc and cabernet duckhorn merlotsauvignon. Today’s Wine of the Day is Duckhorn’s “basic” merlot, which draws from a variety of vineyards and carries a Napa Valley designation. The blend of the Duckhorn Merlot 2012, Napa Valley, is 88 percent merlot, 7 percent cabernet sauvignon, 2 percent each petit verdot and cabernet franc and 1 percent malbec; the wine aged 16 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels, 75 percent once-used. The color is a radiant dark ruby-purple. Aromas of black currants, blueberries and mulberries are inflected with notes of cloves, allspice and a bit of plum jam, opening, after some airing, to intriguing hints of bell pepper and black olive, cedar and sage. It’s an intense and concentrated wine, wild and loamy, briery and brambly, a little gnarly even, yet lithe, polished, powered by bold acidity and dusty, bristly tannins. It’s deep and spicy, seething with ebon-like fruit flavors; if a beverage could feel inky, this would be it, and yet, there’s a paradoxical sense of sweet balance and elegance on the graphite-infused finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. Loads of presence and personality. Drink through 2018 to 2020 with steak, game, braised red meat. Excellent. About $54.

A sample for review.

Here are two venerable producers in this series to which I have not posted in eight months, so I apologize. I chose to deal with these wineries together because they are what I think of as Old School Napa Valley and because they have each undergone many changes in the cycles of their existence.

Freemark Abbey, which occupies a site east of Hwy 29 between St. Helena and Calistoga, was established in 1886 by ECM299053Josephine Marlin Tychson, who sold the property in 1894. It was acquired in 1898 by Antonio Forni, who named it Lombarda Cellars. The winery specialized in “chianti” until it went out of business with the advent of Prohibition in 1919. The revival came in 1939, when a team of investors bought the property and named it Freemark Abbey, an amalgam of parts of two surnames and a nickname. That era came to an end in 1962 — are you paying attention — and the property lay moribund until 1967, when it was acquired by a partnership that included Chuck Carpy, Laurie Wood, Bill Jaeger and winemaker Brad Webb, who had made his reputation at Hanzell. It didn’t take long for Freemark Abbey to become well-known as a producer of top-ranked cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, particularly, in the first category, for its reserve-style Cabernet Bosché. After the mid 1990s, however, quality faltered. The partners sold Freemark Abbey to The Legacy Estate Group in 2001, but in 2005 that over-extended company filed for bankruptcy and the next year Jess Jackson purchased it for $97 million. The deal included Byron and Arrowood, and those labels, and Freemark Abbley, are now a part of Jackson Family Wines. Winemaker is Ted Edwards.

Mount Veeder Winery doesn’t own the 19th Century legacy that Freemark Abbey does, but that fact does not prevent it veeder logofrom possessing a distinguished heritage. Mike and Arlene Bernstein planted vines on Mount Veeder in the mid 1960s, and in 1973 released their first wine, a zinfandel. They built the reputation of Mount Veeder Winery on bold, large-framed, brooding zinfandels and cabernet sauvignons, with a little chardonnay on the side, but in 1982 sold the estate to Henry and Lisille Matheson of San Francisco. Seven years later, the Mathesons sold the property to Agustin Huneeus, president of Franciscan Vineyards, and his partners, for about $2.6 million. Much like what occurred at Freemark Abbey, the ability of Mount Veeder Winery to produce top-notch cabernet wines seemed to sag after the mid 1990s, yet it maintained enough history and status to be acquired by what’s now known as Constellation Brands in 1999, when the company purchased Franciscan Estates, the first of several high-profile purchases that included Ravenswood and Robert Mondavi. Winemaker at Mount Veeder is Janet Myers.

So, where do these wineries fall on the maps of tradition and quality? The cabernet sauvignon-based wines that I tasted for this post — all samples for review — seem well-made, thoughtfully-crafted and enjoyable in every way. Large on structure, they will probably age and develop for 10 years or more. Are they exciting, exalted, deliriously seductive, do they catch the edge of transcendence? No, sir, they are not and do not. They do, on the other hand, seem to be essential embodiments of place and soil, central-west Napa Valley for Freemark Abbey and the steep slopes of Mount Veeder, and confronted with a medium rare rib-eye steak, hot and crusty from the grill, I would be more than happy to pop the cork on any of them.
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Freemark Abbey’s “basic” cabernet in the current release is the Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, a blend of the five so-called Bordeaux grape varieties: 76.5 percent cabernet sauvignon, 16.6 percent merlot, 3.3 cabernet franc, 2.6 petit verdot and 2 malbec. Yes, apparently each and every smidgeon counts. The wine aged a bit more than two years in barrels, 86 percent French, 14 percent American, in combination 40 percent new oak. This strikes me as classic Napa Valley cabernet, with every element in place and nothing exaggerated or knotted in clenched intensity and concentrated. In two words, fairly generous, despite its firmness of structure and depth of character. The color is dark ruby, not quite opaque; the wine is built around layers of graphite and granitic minerality and dense, dusty tannins that are brightly etched with scents and flavors of black currants, black raspberries and plums adorned with hints of lavender and mocha, brambles and walnut shell. Acidity runs like a bright taut thread through this package, leading to a slightly austere finish on which you feel the oak. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now (with a steak) through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $44.
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The Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, from the Rutherford AVA, harks from three vineyards in that appellation in central-western Napa Valley, backing up to the Mayacamas range. The blend, to be precise, is 83.2 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8.3 percent merlot, 4.6 petit verdot, 3.9 cabernet franc. The wine aged 24 and a half months in 49 percent French oak barrels, 51 percent American oak. The color is opaque black-ruby with a magenta rim; intense and concentrated, the aromas offer hints of black currants, black raspberries and plums, with notes of lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate, briers, brambles and loam. The wine is inky in every sense, sporting very dry, dusty and graphite-tinged tannins and a lithic, earthy structure that still opens to a tender filigree of floral and dark berry elements around the circumference; the finish is packed with granitic minerals, velvety tannins and spicy oak. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’18 through 2026 to ’30. Excellent potential. About $70.
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The color of the Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley, is opaque ruby-purple with a glowing magenta rim. The wine is a blend of 81 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 4 malbec, 3 petit verdot and 1 percent each cabernet franc and syrah; information about oak barrels and aging was not available on the winery’s unusually reticent website. If your notion of a red wine made from mountain-grown grapes is of a vinous edifice that’s intense and concentrated, brooding, packed with notes of gnarly briers and brambles, weathered shale and airy notes of cedar, sage, tobacco and a hint of resinous rosemary, well then, this is your baby. Also featured: black currants, raspberries and plums; wheatmeal and walnut shell; a dusty, velvety tannin structure; and a solid finish that unleashes a final fillip of blueberry tart. 14.5 percent alcohol. Give this until 2017 and then consume through 2023 to ’25. Excellent. About $44.
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As we can reasonably expect for a reserve product, the Mount Veeder Reserve Red Wine 2012, Napa Valley, from vineyards that reach 1,600 feet elevation, displays even more intensity and concentration than its cadet stablemate does. The blend is a fairly straightforward 91 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5 merlot and 2 percent each malbec and petit verdot; the wine aged 20 months in 100 percent new oak barrels, I assume French, but we’re not given that information. In any case, that’s a lot of new oak, but these small, tight mountain-grown grapes soaked up that wood and turned it into something firm and rigorous yet supple, spicy and smoky. The color is opaque black-purple, rather like motor oil, though thankfully not as dense; dense, however, is the word for this wine’s impression on the palate, dense, chewy, magesterially weighty yet not ponderous or blatant, really, since it possesses the necessary degree of balance and elegance. Still, despite the details of black currant and raspberry fruit, of a hint of a floral element, the wine concludes with an austere, granitic finish packed with walnut shell, wheatmeal and loam. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2025 to ’28. Excellent potential. About $90.
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Opening a bottle of chardonnay from California is always a tricky proposition. Will you be getting a lithe, energetic, deftly balanced amalgam of fruit, acid and minerality or a heavy concoction as cloying as a dessert selection from the cart at a third-rate Landmark_2013_Overlook_ChardSonoma_simple_sRGB_M-300x980continental restaurant? I swear, My Readers, that it boggles my mind to read the notices in the Big Wine Magazines that run something like “Rich, buttery and tropical; with notes of coconut cream pie, caramelized mango and lemon curd, against a lush background of French toast, candied pineapple and roasted marshmallows.” 93 points! High-fives all around! I mean, please, let’s not encourage America’s vast childish sweet-tooth any more than necessary with these undrinkable wines. Consumers looking for a more rational approach should pick up a bottle of the Landmark Vineyards Overlook Chardonnay 2013, a California chardonnay that for grapes draws primarily on vineyards in several Sonoma County AVAs but also reaches way down south to the well-known Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Maria Valley. The grapes fermented with native yeast; the wine aged 10 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels. (Winemaker was Greg Stach.) This is a bright, keen and moderately rich chardonnay that avoids flamboyance through well-developed details and an impeccable dimension of lively acidity and scintillating limestone and flint minerality. The color is medium gold; fresh and ethereal aromas of green apple, grapefruit and pineapple are subtly woven with hints of cloves, heather and green tea. The wine is beautifully proportioned in the mouth, where a supple and fine-edged texture cuts a swath on the palate while providing support for flavors of lightly spiced pear and grapefruit; the chiseled finish practically glitters with limestone. 14.2 percent alcohol. If I had to choose a house chardonnay chez nous, this would be it. Drink through 2017. Excellent. About $25.

A sample for review.

Napa Valley’s Somerston Wine Co. encompasses three labels: Somerston, Priest Ranch and Highflyer. Today we look at the Priest Ranch PR-LogoFinal-EstateGrenache Blanc 2013, from a grape not commonly found in Napa Valley. The wine was fermented by native yeasts — that is, yeasts naturally occurring on the grapes, rather than inoculated in the winery — in stainless steel drums and tanks, with aging carried out in stainless steel with 10 percent neutral French oak barrels. No toasty new oak for this baby! The color is what I think characteristic for grenache blanc, a pale gold hue with a sheen of shadowy tarnish. The bouquet is a subtle melange of lemon and melon, greengage and white pepper, dried thyme, lavender and cedar. The wine is spare and elegant and nicely balanced with juicy roasted lemon flavors highlighted by notes of peach and spiced pear; for all its delicate felicity, though, it pulls up a slightly dusty, faintly tannic element that lends a mysterious earthy effect and leads to a finish lithe with an austere saline and savory quality. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 1,151 cases. This should drink well through 2016 with light fish and seafood dishes. Winemaker was Craig Becker. Excellent. About $22.

A sample for review.

Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena is best-known for its long-lived chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon wines. Riesling is something of a Rieslingsideline, but that doesn’t mean the approach is casual. The Chateau Montelena Riesling 2014, Potter Valley, is anything but off-hand. Potter Valley, in Medocino County, was approved as an American Viticultural Area in 1983; it’s the northernmost AVA in the vast North Coast region. This is a riesling of crystalline intensity and presence that begins with a pale gold hue and continues with arresting aromas of peach and lychee, spiced pear and lime peel, jasmine and lilac; there’s a snap of gunflint and a whiff of damp limestone. Chiming acidity cuts through a talc-like texture that whatever its burgeoning lushness feels spare, chiseled and elegant, presenting a thoughtful paradox of sensations to the palate. The wine is quite dry yet juicy with flavors of slightly dusty roasted lemon and candied kumquat; the finish brings in touches of limestone and spiced grapefruit, ending with a bracing saline note. 13.5 percent alcohol. We drank this wine last night with salmon dusted with fennel pollen rub and seared in a cast-iron skillet. Winemaker was Matt Crafton. Excellent. About $25.

A sample for review.

If what you’re looking for in a zinfandel is a super-charged, over-ripe, sweet and hot alcoholic fruit-‘n’-spice bomb, then you might as well close this page and go on to the video of the kitty and the bunny riding skateboards off a dining-room table. I have other frank logothings in mind for you today, chief among them the well-balanced Frank Family Vineyards Zinfandel 2012, Napa Valley. This wine is a blend of 79 percent zinfandel grapes, 18 percent petite sirah and 3 percent cabernet sauvignon; it aged 18 months in French oak, 33 percent new barrels, 67 percent once- and twice-used. Winemaker was Todd Graff. The color is dark ruby shading to a scarlet rim. This is pure raspberry and blueberry in the nose and on the palate, with aromas that touch on cloves, boysenberry, rhubarb and gardenia; as the moments pass, the heady and seductive floral elements blossom with violets and lavender, permeated by notes of fruitcake and lightly caramelized fennel. Tannins are well-knit, graphite-flecked and dusty, and bright acidity cuts a swath through slightly loamy red and black fruit flavors. The finish is sleek, chiseled and elegant, offering subtle layers of spice and granitic minerality. 14.6 percent alcohol. Drink through 2017 or ’18 with grilled steaks or pork chops, braised short ribs or hearty pizzas and pasta dishes — or with Thanksgiving dinner. Excellent. About $37.

A sample for review.

Anyone could spend 10 minutes in a wine store and realize that 20 sauvignon blanc wines amount to about a quarter of a drop in a whole large bucket of sauvignon blancs produced in California every year. And why not? It’s a terrific grape with tremendous potential for making wines that range from simple, direct, snappy little numbers for quaffing out on the back porch to profound examples possessing great depth and character capable of aging for 25 or 30 years. Of course, it can also make wines that are bland, insipid and watery or screaming with acidity, but that’s hardly the grape’s fault. The Ur-territory for sauvignon blanc is the eastern end of the Loire Valley, in Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and several related areas, and Bordeaux’s Left Bank, where the grape is generally blended with semillon (and sometimes muscadelle) to produce grand expressions of the grape and some favored terroir. Even in Bordeaux, however, sauvignon blanc can be a work-horse grape, as in Entre-Deux-Mers, and fashioned into simple, tasty wines of no great importance. Sauvignon blanc wines are produced almost anywhere in the world that grapes can grow, from South Africa and New Zealand to northeastern Italy and (in our own country) the state of Virginia and just about everywhere in California. The wines described in this post occupy the complete geographical range, from Santa Barbara County in the south to Knights Valley in the north, and a full complement of styles. As they say on the carnival midway, “You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.” With a couple of exceptions duly noted, these wines were samples for review. A subsequent post will deal with sauvignon blanc wines from other regions and countries.
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The Bernardus Grivia Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Carmel Valley, was fermented in stainless steel and aged “several months” in 24-year-old French oak tanks. The wine contains a dollop of semillon grapes. The color is pale straw-gold; it’s a fresh, clean and sprightly sauvignon blanc, with subtle herbal and grassy elements and notes of pea-shoot, roasted lemon, tarragon, lime peel and grapefruit. The wine is sleek and supple on the palate, energized by bright acidity and a slightly chiseled limestone quality, while delivering a boatload of juicy citrus and stone fruit flavors; there’s a bracing hint of leafy fig and grapefruit bitterness on the finish. 13.2 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Dean DeKorth. Very Good+. About $22.
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The Cliff Lede Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Napa Valley, has a complicated genesis. The primary vineyard source, located in eastern PrintRutherford, has old vines planted to a heritage musqué clone and semillon. Another component of the sauvignon blanc came from a vineyard in the southeastern hills of Napa Valley standing on ancient, weathered, alluvial fans of silty impoverished soils. Other grapes derive from a cooler climate vineyard on the east side of Napa, while a vineyard in Chiles Valley, a small pocket in eastern Napa County, contributes sauvignon vert planted in 1947. The final blend was 85 percent sauvignon blanc, 12 percent semillon and 3 percent sauvignon vert. The grapes fermented and the wine aged 44 percent in stainless steel tanks, 49 percent in mostly neutral French oak barrels and 7 percent in concrete eggs. What was the result of all this activity and contrivance? A frankly beautiful sauvignon blanc with seductive and almost unlimited appeal. The Cliff Lede Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2014 displays a very pale straw hue and riveting aromas of jasmine and honeysuckle, roasted lemon, lemongrass and a hint of mango, with herbal and grassy elements poised in the background; a few minutes in the glass bring up notes of fennel and grapefruit. The wine is very dry, crisp with fleet acidity and almost tannic in structure, while a soft, talc-like texture offers a haze of smoke and light oak accents; the finish offers hints of limestone, grapefruit and spiced peach. 14.7 percent alcohol. This wine should drink beautifully through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $25.
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The Dry Creek Vineyard Fume Blanc 2014, Sonoma County, is composed of grapes half from Russian River Valley and half from Dry Creek
2014_fume_labelValley. It sees no oak, only stainless steel. The color is very pale straw with a faint green tinge; the leafy, grassy bouquet is characterized by notes of celery seed and caraway, grapefruit, lime peel and lemongrass, with hints of jasmine and lavender in the background. Crisp and pert, the wine exhibits lovely purity and intensity in its lithe texture and lightly spiced citrus flavors, finishing with touches of lime peel, grapefruit and limestone. Very refreshing and engaging. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2016. Winemaker was Tim bell. Very Good+. About $14, a Terrific Bargain.
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The Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Dry Creek Valley, is a bit milder and more subtle than its Fume Blanc stablemate. It 2014_Sauvignon_Blanc_label_rgb1
incorporates 14 percent of the sauvignon musque clone and 4 percent sauvignon gris. It, too, was made completely in stainless steel.The musque contributes honeysuckle and spiced pear to a melange of orange zest, honeydew melon, roasted lemon and lime peel and notes of grapefruit and tarragon. The wine is quite dry and crisp, supple and lively on the palate and bright with citrus flavors leaning gently toward stone-fruit and a tropical tinge; damp flint minerality infusing the clean finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2016 into 2017. Excellent. About $18, marking Great Value.
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A wine of shimmering purity and intensity, the Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2014, St. Helena, made from certified organic grapes, sees only stainless steel and neutral oak in its making. The color is very pale, an ethereal almost-not-there straw-gold; delicate notes of lime peel, grapefruit, lemon balm and lilac wreathe themselves with hints of thyme and tarragon and a faint grassy tinge; matters are a bit bolder in the mouth, where chiming acidity contributes riveting crispness and a scintillating limestone and chalk element lends poignant vibrancy, all cutting through a slightly creamy texture. 13.2 percent alcohol. A masterpiece for drinking through 2017 or ’18. Winemaker was Kevin Morrisey. Excellent. About $28.
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The Flora Springs Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Napa Valley, is beautifully modulated in every aspect — fruit, acidity, body, minerality. The 2014_napa_valley_sauvignon-blanc_labelgrapes, from the winery’s estate vineyard in Oakville, fermented in concrete and stainless steel tanks and aged nine months in large French oak casks and stainless steel drums. A very pale hue is almost colorless; subtle layers of lightly spiced stonefruit and citrus, herbs, fresh-mown grass and meadow flowers are delicate strung. The wine is quite tart and crisp, displaying lovely and elegant weight and heft, purity and intensity; it finishes with an infusion of limestone and grapefruit. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink through 2018. Winemaker was Paul Steinhauer. Excellent. About $25.
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Made from certified organic grapes, all in stainless steel, the Frog’s Leap Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Rutherford, Napa frog's sbValley, is about as limpid, lithe and crystalline as the grape gets. Notes of pea-shoot, gooseberry, lychee, fig and lime peel open to hints of grapefruit, orange blossom, licorice and lilac in a welter of sensation that amounts to awesome purity and intensity. Wonderfully poised among bright, accented citrus flavors, brilliant acidity and shattering limestone-chalk minerality, the wine is crisp and zesty yet not overly tart and quite dry without being austere. 12.1 percent alcohol. Drink through 2017 or ’18. Winemakers were John Williams and Paula Moschetti. Excellent. About $22, a local purchased. (I paid more.)
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GP_VarietalTier_SauvBlanc_2012
Winemaker Ondine Chattan reaches out to Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and Solano counties, and east to Clarksburg in the Sacramento Delta for the grapes that go into the Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2014, which carries a California designation. For the price, this is a surprisingly subtle and nuanced sauvignon blanc. The color is pale gold; we get the expected notes of grapefruit, lime and orange zest, along with hints of leafy and herbal elements and touches of bell pepper and fennel, with a whiff of earthy white pepper. There’s plenty of pep here, without feral exuberance, in a wine happy to be crisp and vibrant and appealing. 13 percent alcohol. Drink up. Very Good+. About $14, meaning A Real Bargain.
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2012 RR Sauv Blanc- bottle shot
The difference in the Geyser Peak River Ranches Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Russian River Valley, and its cadet stablemate mentioned just above is not merely the much narrower geographical focus — a single vineyard within an AVA inside Sonoma County — but in degrees of intensity and concentration. Again, the color is pale gold; the emphasis here is on gooseberry and dill seed, lime peel and spiced pear, with a marked enveloping of jasmine and verbena. The wine is quite dry and crisp, with bright acidity animating a pleasing softness in texture and tasty, slightly leafy citrus and stone fruit flavors, all wrapped in a scintillating limestone element and green notes of grass and thyme. NA% alcohol. Drink through 2017. Excellent. About $22.
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2013_The_Hess_Collection__Napa_Valley_Sauvignon_Blanc__Front_Label
They don’t all come as pert, tart and sassy as The Hess Collection Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Napa Valley, though the wine is not as flamboyantly crisp as some examples can be. Still, this pale straw-gold quaffer is energized by gripping acidity that carries a lithesome freight of tangerine, lime peel, green apple and spiced pear through to a limestone-laced finish. In the bouquet: almond blossom, jasmine and apple skin, grapefruit, peach and tarragon. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2016. Dave Guffy is director of winemaking. Very Good+. About $22.
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Illuminate-2014SauvBlanc-front-web
The current release of this wine is 2014, but I was sent the 2013 several months ago, and it’s still drinking very nicely. The very pale Illuminate Sauvignon Blanc 2013, North Coast, made all in stainless steel, offers notes of lime peel and melon, celery seed and caraway; it’s very clean and fresh, energized by riveting acidity and limestone minerality; the finish admits hints of peach and apple skin. 13.8 percent alcohol. Drink up. Very Good+. About $14.
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Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara was designated an American Viticultural Area in 2009; it occupies the far eastern and warmer end of sybariteSanta Ynez Valley. The Margerum Wine Company Sybarite Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, was made 91 percent in stainless steel and 9 percent in a combination of neutral and new French oak barrels, aging for 10 months. The result is a clean, spare and elegant sauvignon blanc that dips deeply into a dusty foundation of limestone and gun-flint, licorice and lilac. Notes of lime peel, thyme, heather and talc make for a beguiling entry into a wine that’s vibrant without being snappy and dry without being austere, though the finish comes on with prominent limestone and chalk minerality. 13.06 percent alcohol. Drink through 2017. Doug Margerum is director of winemaking; winemaker is Michael Miroballi. Excellent. About $21, a local purchase. (I paid more.)
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matanzas bennett
The Bennett Valley AVA, granted official status in 2003, exists primarily because of the petition of Matanzas Creek Winery, a part of Jackson Family Wines. Bennett Valley lies almost totally within the Sonoma Valley AVA, with some overlap into Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Mountain. The Matanzas Creek Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Bennett Valley, was made in stainless steel and used French oak foudres and barrels. The color is pale straw-gold; it’s a jaunty, zippy sauvignon blanc, sporting grapefruit and tropical notes infused with lime peel, fennel and thyme. Though quite dry and even a bit austere on the finish, it’s a pleasingly balanced and integrated wine that offers a sunny, leafy aspect with hints of fig and yellow plum; bright acidity keeps its aim straight through a limestone and flint-packed finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2016 or ’17. Winemaker was Marcia Monahan-Torres. Excellent. About $32.
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matanzas helena bench
Knights Valley is warmer than the fog-influenced Bennett Valley, a condition perhaps accounting for the slightly more ripe and spicy nature of the Matanzas Creek Helena Bench Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Knights Valley, a pale gold-colored wine made two-thirds in stainless steel, one-third in neutral French oak barrels. There’s more fennel and roasted lemon in this wine, with hints of yellow plums, quince and ginger and a distinct herbal quality; a touch of oak lends suppleness and spice initially but grows to more than a hint from mid-palate back, dominating the finish and muting the character of the grape. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $40.
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Careful winemaking by Patrick Muran produced a beautiful Niner Wine Estates Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Paso Robles. The 14 PR Sauvignon Blanc ninerwine aged five months in 90 percent stainless steel tanks, 5 percent new French oak barrels and 5 percent neutral French oak, but that new oak was used only for the 10 percent semillon grapes that go into the blend; the rest is 62 percent sauvignon blanc and 28 percent musque clone. Yeah, that’s a lot of “percents” to read about, but I like for My Readers to understand what kind of thought goes into making a wine of authority and concentration. The color is pale straw-gold; penetrating scents of grapefruit and lime peel, peaches, quince and cloves are melded to layers of limestone and flint, while above all waft scents of jasmine and honeysuckle. This is a very dry sauvignon blanc, with about it something saline and savory, bracing and slightly astringent; it’s a bit smoky and earthy, a touch roasted in its citrus flavors that flow to a long, vibrant, steely finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. Drink through 2017. Excellent. About $20.
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2014-rodney-strong-estate-sauvignon-blanc-charolette-label-72dpi
A perennial favorite, the pale gold-colored Rodney Strong Charlotte’s Home Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Northern Sonoma, was fermented 90 percent in stainless steel and 10 percent in French oak barrels. This is one of the most elegant and delicate of the sauvignon blanc wines enumerated in this post. Aromas of pear and roasted lemons offer notes of peach, hay and new-mown grass, with subtle hints of quince and greengage plum; the wine is dry, buoyed by brisk acidity and a smoky-stony-steely quality that lifts the mildly spicy citrus and stone-fruit flavors. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2016. Winemaker was Greg Morthole. Very Good+. About $17.
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tonella sb
A subtle haze of oak envelops the S.R. Tonella Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Rutherford, but it’s an element that adds depth and resonance to a beautifully detailed wine. The color is pale but rich gold; the bouquet is characterized by pear and roasted lemon, hints of figs, banana and mango and spare notes of cloves, quince and ginger; any nuances of grass and herbs are kept to a minimum. The wine is quite dry but juicy with the softness of ripe peach and lemon flavors; brisk acidity enlivens a slightly powdery texture, leading to a finish packed with limestone and chalk minerality. 14.4 percent alcohol. Drink through 2018 or ’19. Production was “under 500 cases.” Winemaker was Fred Delibert. Excellent. About $29.
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2014EstateSauvBlanc
Beautifully balanced and integrated but displaying tremendous energy and vigor, the Stonestreet Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Alexander Valley, derives from vineyards 900 feet up the western slopes of the Mayacamas range. The grapes fermented 70 percent in stainless steel tanks, 30 percent in neutral French oak foudres, that is, large barrels; the wine did not undergo barrel aging. The color is pale gold; beguiling aromas of lemon balm, verbena, lime peel and grapefruit open to notes of fennel and celery seed, lemongrass and lilac, quince and ginger. On the palate, the wine is seductively poised between crisp vibrancy and a moderately lush, talc-like texture riven by brisk acidity and a crystalline limestone element; roasted lemon and slightly caramelized grapefruit flavors are mellowed by a touch of spiced pear on a finish that segues through deep resonant mineral qualities. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2018 to 2020. A real dreamboat of a sauvignon blanc. Winemaker was Lisa Valtenbergs. Exceptional. About $35.
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Four months in neutral French oak barrels lend the Trione Vineyards River Road Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Russian River Trione-2014-Sauvignon-BlancValley, suppleness and suavity. The very pale straw-gold hue is as attractive as the aromas of pea shoot, grapefruit and lime peel that open to notes of spiced pear and roasted lemon, celery seed and fennel, all encompassed in a leafy, grassy character. The wine is exuberant without being flamboyant, a quality that extends across the palate in a line of bright acidity and freshness that culminates in a finish chiseled from damp limestone and flint. 13.9 percent alcohol. Lots of personality. Drink through 2017 or ’18. Winemaker was Scot Covington. Excellent. About $23.
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Made all in stainless steel, the Vina Robles Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Paso Robles, offers a very pale straw-gold hue and bright aromas of lime peel, tarragon and celery seed, fennel, grapefruit and thyme; pretty darned crisp, tart and zingy, the wine sings through the mouth on a stream of citrus and stone-fruit flavors touched with leafy fig and infused with flint and limestone. 14.6 percent alcohol. Drink up. Winemaker was Kevin Willenborg. Very Good+. About $16, representing Fine Value.
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Dry Creek Vineyard has been keeping the faith with the chenin blanc grape for 44 harvests, and not only with the grape but with the 2014_Chenin_label_rgbsame vineyard, Wilson Ranch, in the Clarksburg AVA of the Sacramento Delta. The wine is 100 percent varietal and is made completely in stainless steel tanks. I won’t tout the Dry Creek Vineyard Wilson Ranch Dry Chenin Blanc 2014 as a summer sipper, obviously, since we’re edging into the second week of November, but it works as a superb aperitif, as a quaffing wine while you’re hanging out in the kitchen cooking dinner, or as accompaniment to oysters and other fresh seafood, to clam linguine, chicken salad or lighter fish dishes. With its pale gold color and aromas of spiced pear, quince and ginger, jasmine and honeysuckle and notes of damp straw and heather, this is an eminently attractive wine. It’s silky and vibrant on the palate, featuring peach, melon and mango flavors generously spiced and enlivened by crisp acidity and a hint of limestone minerality. 13 percent alcohol. A lot of personality for the price. Drink up. Very Good+. About $12, a Remarkable Bargain.

A sample for review.

Napa Valley is best known for its wines based on the cabernet sauvignon grape, exceeded in reputation only, if not actually, by Bordeaux. The merlot grape often lives in the shadow of cabernet sauvignon, used to add “flesh and roundness,” as Michael Broadbent says, to cabernet wines. Merlot, however, can make superb wine on its own or when used in the majority, as is demonstrated by the red wines of Bordeaux’s Right Bank, especially in the commune of Pomerol. Whether in recognition of that cousinage or because American consumers learned how to pronounce “mair-low” back in the 1990s, producers in Napa Valley cannot resist making merlot wines that may attain a competitive level. Here are six. These wines were samples for review.
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cornerstone merlot
The Cornerstone Cellars Oakville Station Merlot 2012, Napa Valley, represents one thrust in a focus on specific-site wines for Cornerstone Cellars. (Regrettably, I have no information about oak aging or other technical matters.) The color is a deep and concentrated ruby hue. Boy, you could eat this bouquet with a spoon; layers of ripe, fleshy black currants, raspberries and plums are infused with graphite, lavender and violets and notes of cassis, cedar and rosemary. The wine displays a lovely taut surface supported by dense, velvety tannins, supplemented, after a few minutes pass, by dusty, granitic minerality, underbrush and a root-like tea effect; bright acidity keeps the whole package lively and engaging, despite its sizable nature. Though the wine finishes with a touch of austerity, the fruit is gorgeous from beginning to end. 14.5 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Jeff Keene, no longer with the winery. Production was 97 cases. Drink through 2020 to 2022. Excellent. About $75.
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The Flora Springs Merlot 2013, Napa Valley, contains 4 percent malbec in an otherwise pristine field of merlot. Most flora merlotof the fruit came from those districts that we think of as the heart of Napa Valley — 75 percent Rutherford, 9 percent Oakville — with 16 percent hailing from isolated Pope Valley — population 583 — east of Calistoga in the northern Napa Valley. The wine aged 15 months in 80 percent French and 20 percent American oak barrels, a combination of new and old. If opaque ruby-purple qualifies as a color, the definition is in this glass. It’s a very dark, rooty, spicy merlot, intense and concentrated yet animated and appealing. Spiced and macerated black and blue fruit scents and flavors are permeated by notes of smoke and tar, cedar and rosemary, black licorice and oolong tea; the character here is dusty and dusky, pierced by graphite-flecked tannins and keen acidity. 14.2 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Paul Steinauer. Drink now through 2020 through 2023. Excellent. About $30.
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The 100 percent varietal Grgich Hills Estate Merlot 2011, Napa Valley, embraces the palate with ripe, spicy, smoky grgich merlotblack cherry, raspberry and mulberry fruit, but despite its richness, depth and density, the wine doesn’t feel opulent or overbearing. The grapes fermented with indigenous yeast; the wine aged 18 months in a combination of large and small French oak barrels, 30 percent new. It’s actually a fairly austere merlot, at least from mid-palate back through the finish, bursting with earthy notes of briers, loam, underbrush and dried porcini and bolstered by velvety, graphite-flecked tannins. The texture is taut, supple and lithe, and it flexes itself accordingly. A perfectly sensible 13.5 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Ivo Jeramaz. Drink through 2020 to 2023. Excellent. About $42.
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Pahlmeyer and Jayson Wines Line Up
I try to maintain that essential sense of critical distance and discretion whatever wine I’m writing about, but then along comes a wine like the Pahlmeyer Merlot 2012, Napa Valley, and I feel myself giving in to paean and panegyric. This is a blend of 91 percent merlot, 7 percent petit verdot and 2 percent cabernet sauvignon. The grapes underwent native fermentation, and the wine aged 18 months in heavy-toast French oak, 75 percent new barrels. Friends, that’s a lot of oak, but the wine feels sleek, supple and effortless; there’s no sense of being oaky or over-played. This is a wine of unimpeachable character and presence, and you discern its confidence, depth and dimension with every sniff and sip. The color is dark to medium ruby; piercing aromas of black currants, blueberries and plums feel ripe, macerated and slightly roasted, while every molecule of the wine exudes lithic qualities of graphite and granite, iodine and iron. Rare is the wine that feels so deeply rooted in the bedrock of the vineyard. Mouth-filling? Ho-ho! Full-bodied? Are you kidding? This is a wine that caresses the palate with lithe and muscular attention even while it avoids any element of opulence or succulence; balance is all, from the purity and intensity of its start to its spice-and-mineral-packed finish. 15.2 percent alcohol. Yep, that’s high, but you feel no alcoholic heat or sweetness. Winemaker was Kale Anderson. Drink now through 2022 to 2025. Exceptional. About $85.
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The Rutherford Hill Merlot 2012, Napa Valley, begins with an entrancing dark ruby hue with a hint of magenta at the hillrim. The wine is a blend of 76 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, 2 percent syran and 1 percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot; it aged 15 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels, a process that lent the wine shape and suppleness. Black currants and raspberry scents are ripe and fleshy, and they offer notes of blueberries, cloves, sandalwood and graphite, with a tantalizing hint of violets. This is an open-knit and juicy merlot that stops short of being lush because of its underlying granitic rigor and dusty tannic structure; it fills the mouth with luscious fresh and dried black fruit flavors, tempered by elements of iodine and iron, giving the wine a ferrous and sanguinary effect. Above all, it offers terrific balance and personality. 13.9 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Marisa Taylor. Drink now through 2019 to 2021. Excellent. About $28.
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swanson merlot
The sleek and chiseled Swanson Merlot 2011, Napa Valley, is a wine that exhibits edges and glances, as in a bright edge of iodine and mint, a deft glance at smoke, cloves and allspice. It’s not quite 100 percent merlot; there’s a bit of cabernet franc from Rutherford and Yountville and a dollop of petit verdot from Oak Knoll, south of Yountville. The color is dark ruby with a magenta rim; aromas of black currants, black cherries and plums are rooty and briery, opening to hints of ancho chile and bitter chocolate, and those other edgy, glanced at attributes. It’s a robust, vibrant merlot, with a panoply of dusty, bristly tannins, polished oak elements and clean acidity for structure and presence, though these qualities do not detract from an elegant, nuanced finish. 14.6 percent alcohol. Drink through 2019 to 2021. Winemaker was Chris Phelps, no longer at the winery. Excellent. About $38.
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