Chardonnay


Here’s a chardonnay that toes the line between richness and elegance with thrilling deftness. The Benovia Winery Chardonnay 2013, Russian River Valley, derives mainly from the winery’s benoviaMartaella Estate Vineyard. It’s barrel-fermented, with indigenous yeasts, and aged 12 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. Winemaker was Mike Sullivan. The color is a pale gold that almost shimmers in the glass; it’s a chardonnay of wonderful purity and intensity, offering aromas of pineapple and grapefruit, quince and crystallized ginger, with a hint of the tropical, a touch of musk, and notes of lilac and heather. Nothing overblown or strident here, nor creamy or toasty, as in so many chardonnays from Russian River, yet the wine’s balance and integrity hinge on pinpoint focus and steely resolve, taking a risk with the integration of lushness and limestone spareness; the oak is like a whisper along the wine’s arc of bright acidity and mineral structure. On the palate, you feel subtle elements of figs, spiced pear and lemon curd, a bit of dusty leafiness, and then a finish that brings in some rigor of grapefruit pith and flint. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 1,580 cases. We drank this bottle last night as accompaniment to seared salmon with a harissa crust and fingerling potatoes, split, tossed in olive oil, smoked paprika, cumin and chili powder, browned in a cast-iron skillet, then roasted in a 500-degree oven. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $36.

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

If your ideal of chardonnay from California is a wine that’s opulent, bold, brash, rich and spicy, tropical and creamy, tinged, perhaps, with vanilla and butterscotch, stop reading right here. The chardonnay I nominate for Wine of the Day, No. 109, takes the opposite stance from all of those burdensome qualities and maintains a character consistent with the vision that Eleanor and Fred McCrea had when they produced their first bottling from vintage 1952. That is, a chardonnay that sees no new oak and undergoes no malolactic fermentation. Those who possess knowledge of the history of the Golden State’s wine industry know that I’m referring to Stony Hill stony hill chard labelVineyard, a winery perched on Spring Mountain above St. Helena that since its inception refused to follow the standard procedures of winemaking and marketing and went its own way, a model of individuality and authenticity. Fred McCrea died in 1977 and Eleanor in 1991, but the winery’s tradition continues with their son Peter, his wife Willinda and their daughter Sarah. Winemaker Mike Chelini has been at Stony Hill since 1971.

The Stony Hill Chardonnay 2013, Napa Valley, fermented in French oak and rested 10 months in barrels that were six to 26 years old. Malolactic is inhibited, so the wine retains a scintillating element of fresh and vibrant acidity. The color is very pale straw-gold; subtle aromas of pineapple and grapefruit, quince and ginger are touched with smoke and a hint of peach and spiced pear. The purity and intensity of this chardonnay, its beautiful balance and integration are incredibly gratifying. On the palate, the texture feels like talc or powdered limestone, while the structure is lithe and supple, flowing across the tongue with vibrancy and mineral-laced resonance. Ripe but not ostentatious citrus and stone-fruit flavors are backed up by the pith and vigor of the wine’s crystalline roots in the earth and the shapely modulation of those old French oak barrels. 13 percent alcohol. Production was 1,852 cases. Drink now through 2023 to 2028; it has the framework and foundation to last. Exceptional. About $45.

A sample for review.

As if we could forget that tomorrow is the day of Saint Valentine. Which means that today people are rushing around trying to find the exact right gift and the exact right card for their sweetheart or spouse of whatever persuasion, gender or genre. Good luck with that! It’s too late! You should have started back in January! In any gratiencase, here’s a delicious and complex Champagne with which to toast undying love or affection or lust or mere gratuitous acquaintanceship. I mean, whatever floats your boat, n’est-ce pas? The house of Alfred Gratien was founded in 1864, which lends some chops of longevity to the enterprise. A testimony to the loyalty shown the establishment is that the current cellarmaster, Nicolas Jaeger, is the fourth generation of the males in his family to serve in that post. In 2000, a majority of the house was acquired by the German firm Henkell & Co., which also owns the well-known Prosecco producer Mionetto. The Alfred Gratien Brut Rosé, nv, offers an entrancing pale rose-gold hue and a tempest of seething tiny bubbles. The composition is chardonnay, pinot meunier and pinot noir, but the firm’s exceptionally reticent website does not reveal the percentages of the blend nor the amount of time that the wine rests on the lees in the bottle. The bouquet is a beguiling melange of orange blossom and orange rind, toasted almonds, heather, strawberries and raspberries and, in the background, a shelf of damp limestone and flint. A satisfying sense of intensity involves a note that feels like slightly caramelized citrus rind and crystallized orange peel and ginger, evident both in bouquet and on the palate. This is a full-bodied and lively Champagne, though manifestly delicate and elegant, and it concludes in a finish replete with scintillating limestone minerality. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $65, but often found at discount.

MW Imports, White Plains, N.Y. A sample for review.

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Not many chardonnay wines feel as pure and intensely varietal as the Pine Ridge Le Petit Clos Chardonnay 2013, Stags Leap District. The wine’s name refers, in French, to a small enclosed vineyard, in this case a tiny area, within a larger vineyard, lying in the shadow of the ridge for which the winery is named. While Le Petit Clos Chardonnay 2013 is barrel-fermented, it ages only seven months in French oak, 65 percent new barrels, and malolactic fermentation is inhibited. The result is a chardonnay of shimmering and simmering integrity, lovely as it can be but with a dynamic core of bright acidity and scintillating limestone minerality. The color is mild gold; aromas of roasted lemon and lemon balm are heightened by notes of pineapple and grapefruit, baked apple and cloves; from the background surges a whiff of gun-flint and shale. The acid and minerality lend sinew to a moderately lush, talc-like texture that cushions a fluid layering of ripe citrus and stone-fruit flavors, hints of quince and ginger, traces of chalk and flint and a suave, subtle, supple oak influence. 14.9 percent alcohol. A downright beautiful chardonnay, for drinking through 2019 to ’23. Excellent. About $75.

A sample for review.

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A lot is going on for the price in the Codorníu Anna Blanc de Blancs Brut Reserva. This non-vintage Cava is a blend of 70 percent chardonnay with 15 percent parellada and a combination of 15 percent xarel-lo and macabeo, the last three grapes being traditional whites in Spain’s Penedès region, just southwest of Barcelona. It’s made in the Champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, resting for 15 months or more on the lees. The color is pale straw-gold, and the essential bubbles stream upward in a swirl of glinting silver. Aromas of honey, lemon balm and spiced pear are very attractive and are given more dimension by notes of mango and papaya, limestone and flint. This Cava is quite dry, taut with bracing acidity that bolsters its savory-saline element and its pert citrus and stone-fruit flavors, while the finish is both minerally and meadowy. 11.5 percent alcohol. Charming and unique. The all-white bottle is pretty, and if someone’s wife or girlfriend is named Anna, well, this one’s a no-brainer for Valentine’s. Very Good+. About $15 and often discounted around the country.

A sample for review.

The Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs 2012, North Coast, isn’t all “noirs”; to its 88 percent pinot noir grapes it adds 12 percent chardonnay. It’s clearly North Coast, drawing grapes from Sonoma (44 percent), Mendocino (33 percent),Schramberg-Vineyards-Blanc-de-Noirs-Label Napa (19 percent) and Marin (4 percent) counties. The color is an ethereal pale gold, enlivened by a steady swirling stream of tiny bubbles. The first notes from the glass blossom with freshly baked biscuits and toasted hazelnuts, hints of lemon and pears spiced with ginger, lightly buttered cinnamon toast and touches of mango, melon and orange blossom, clean, high and elegant. This sparkling wine indeed sparkles on the palate with crisp acidity and a scintillating limestone element that burgeons through the sleek, chiseled finish; slightly macerated citrus tones dominate the flavor profile but in a spare cool fashion that allows the structure to express itself fully. 11.8 percent alcohol. A superb aperitif but also appropriate with such dishes as duck, pork and rabbit terrines, roasted veal and (more humbly) fried chicken. Now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $41.

A sample for review.

One of the best-known vineyards in Sonoma County, if not California, is the Durell Vineyard, perched at the cusp of three appellations, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley and Carneros, just a toe-hold in the latter, but entitled to a Sonoma Coast designation. Dedicated primarily to chardonnay and pinot noir, this vineyard supplies grapes to such labels as (perhaps most famously) Kistler, Chateau St. Jean, Patz & Hall and Robert Craig, as well as Saxon Brown, Loring, Armida, Auteur and others.

Ed Durell, a food broker in San Francisco, acquired the land in 1977, intending to raise cattle but planted vines bill-600x880instead, and, as it turns out, this area, just at the foot of the Sonoma Mountains, was prime soil and climate for those grapes. In 1998, Durell sold the 200-acre vineyard, by now a prestigious site, to Bill and Ellie Price. Bill Price III, a co-founder of TPG Capital (image at right), which bought Beringer Wine Estates and sold it to Fosters and if that’s not a great introduction to the wine business I don’t know what is, and Ellie Price divorced in 2001 but each retains ownership of Durell Vineyard. Price is chairman of Kosta Brown Winery and Gary Farrell Winery — you know those names — and has interest in Kistler, another name you know. He purchased the well-known Gap’s Crown Vineyard in 2013.

Price’s Three Sticks label — named for his old surfing nickname — draws grapes from Durell as well as from other vineyards in Sonoma County and down to Santa Barbara County. These 2013s were made by Don Van Staaveren, who is now winemaker emeritus, having handed his former duties to director of winemaking Bob Cabral (former winemaker at Williams Selyam), associate winemaker Ryan Prichard and assistant winemaker Ashley Holland.

These wines were samples for review.
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I’m sorry to begin this series of reviews on a discouraging note, but the Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Valley, received the full in-house treatment, and it shows. Fermented in French oak barrels, aged for 15 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels, and undergoing complete malolactic fermentation, the wine came out bold, bright and brassy, dense and lush to the point of being viscous, bursting with candied and caramelized citrus and stone-fruit flavors, stridently spicy, cloying and creamy and lacking the saving grace of minerality. It is my understanding that some people like this overdone, exaggerated character in chardonnay, but not me. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 713 cases. Not recommended. About $50.

Now, on to more pleasant matters.
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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Origin Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Valley, fermented 28 days in concrete eggs and aged for 12 months, unusually, completely in stainless steel. No oak for this baby! It did not go through malolactic fermentation, the transformation of sharp malic (“apple-like”) acid to creamy lactic (“milk-like’) acid that can occur during barrel aging. The color is medium gold, and the first impression is of a bold, forthright but not flamboyant chardonnay that features quite spicy lemon and peach scents and flavors with notes of ripe and slightly roasted pineapple and grapefruit, all permeated by elements of cloves, quince and ginger. It’s a deep, almost rooty chardonnay with structure to burn and a smoky, cigarette paper character that lends depth and dimension. Crystalline acidity cuts through a supple texture and rich stone-fruit flavors enlivened by a burgeoning limestone quality. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 409 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $48. One of my favorite chardonnays produced in California.
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Unlike its stablemate Origin Chardonnay mentioned just above, the Three Sticks One Sky Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Mountain, ferments in French oak barrels and ages in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, for 15 months; it undergoes 100 percent malolactic. Sometimes that full oak treatment works out fine, thank you very much, but it has to be thoughtful and finely balanced. The color is bright, brassy gold to match the wine’s bright, brassy aromas and flavors. Lots of volume here, lots of structure and dimension, personality and character. Spiced and macerated grapefruit and pineapple have a slightly floral overlay, while the wine coats the mouth with ripe and slightly dusty citrus and stone-fruit flavors that open to hints of toffee and lightly candied and caramelized lemons, peaches and grapefruit. While the description of this panoply of sensual delights may sound overwhelming, the wine is actually deftly controlled and engaging, gliding over the palate with confidence and some fancy footwork. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 274 cases. Drink now through 2018 to ’21. Excellent. About $50.
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2012-RRV-PN_Bottle-Shot
The Three Sticks Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, aged 16 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. The color is medium ruby shading to a transparent rim; transporting and exotic notes of cloves and sandalwood, sassafras and rhubarb lend highlights to a macerated compote of cranberries and red and black cherries; a few moments in the glass bring in hints of smoke, lavender and heather. The texture is supremely satiny, with a luxurious drape on the palate that’s balanced by brisk acidity, slightly dusty tannins and touches of graphite and shale minerality, all at the service of tasty, spicy red and black fruit flavors. 14 percent alcohol. Production was 573 cases. Drink now through 2019 to ’21. Excellent. About $60.
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The Three Sticks “The James” Pinot Noir 2013, Sta. Rita Hills, gathers grapes from three familiar vineyards in this region of Santa Barbara County: Burning Creek, La Rinconada and (perhaps the best-known) Sanford & Benedict. The wine aged 16 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color is an irresistible limpid medium ruby that shades to transparent at the rim; you could call this wine “cherries, cherries, cherries,” though the heady influence of black and red raspberries and currants is undeniable, along with notes of cloves and sassafras, graphite and lavender; a few moments in the glass pull up hints of pomegranate and rhubarb. It’s a supple, sleek and satiny pinot noir, whose slightly dusty tannins, clean acidity and burnished oak keep it on the sane side of succulence, though let’s admit that it’s really tasty, too. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 through 2013. Excellent. About $60.
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The Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, aged 16 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, but you don’t feel the oak influence until the finish, where the wood element feels sanded and burnished. The color is transparent medium ruby; aromas of sassafras and cloves, black and red cherries and currants are permeated by hints of loam and an autumnal briery-brambly quality, like some ancient root-like brew; give it a few minutes and it dredges up a mysterious and seductive floral tone, as if dried violets and lilacs had been steeped in oolong tea. It’s all quite extraordinary. In the mouth, well, taut acidity cuts a swath on the palate, leading the way for a texture that feels both delicate and tense, poignant and dynamic; deeply spiced red and black fruit flavors seem suspended in a foundation of lightly dusted tannins and an increasing lithic, graphite character. Altogether a beautiful performance, exquisitely balanced, tensile with power. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 585 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Exceptional. About $65.
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The Three Sticks Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, received the same oak regimen as the Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir ’13 mentioned just above, and for whatever reason, you feel the oak more in this wine, a persistent presence from mid-palate back through the finish. Still, this is pinot noir of fine detail and dimension, offering a light transparent ruby-magenta hue and a meaty, fleshy, roasted bouquet that pulls up fathoms of spice in the juicy, peppery red and black fruit scents. Again, the wine hints at some rooty, loamy tea steeped in bark and mushrooms, with an allusive and tantalizing floral element. Flavors of very ripe, sweet cherries and currants open to touches of cranberry and rhubarb, while a supple lithe texture runs like warm satin across the tongue. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 329 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Very Good+. About $65.
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Rombauer Vineyards is well-known for its zinfandels, which I consider among the best in California, and its rich, full-throated, California-style chardonnays, which I cannot drink. Today, however, I am happy to include, as the 2014 Romb_SB_f+b_v5100th entry in the Wine of the Day series, the Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Napa Valley. Yes, 2015! Harvest for the grapes occurred in the second and third weeks of August last year, the wine was made and rested for a few months, 90 percent in stainless steel tanks, 10 percent in neutral French oak barrels, and will actually be released in February, so jot down one of those little remindy note things on your phone. This wine marks the first national release of a sauvignon blanc for the winery; the first vintage, the 2014, was available only through the tasting room. So, the color is a shimmering pale straw-gold with an allusive green inflection. The lively bouquet offers grapefruit, lime peel and lemongrass, gooseberry and a subliminal trace of jasmine and honeysuckle, all enveloped in a lovely dusty-sunny-leafy fig character. The wine slides across the palate with a sense of supple presence yet with litheness and lightness; spiced pear and stone-fruit dominate in the mouth with the merest touch of guava and mango. Neither the tropical nor the floral element is emphasized, lending this fairly tart, limestone-influenced sauvignon blanc a feeling of ineffable balance. The finish concludes with a wisp of bracing grapefruit peel. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink through 2017. Excellent. About $24.

A sample for review.

How do the Smith brothers do it? Normally, I would find a chardonnay that was 100 percent barrel-fermented and aged in 100 percent new French oak barrels (for eight months) undrinkable because of the influence of wood, but Charles and Stuart Smith, who produce only limited bottlings of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and riesling, smith madrone chardonnaymanage, once again, to deliver a chardonnay notable for its bright, clean brilliance; its chiseled restraint that still allows for the grape’s natural richness; its lithe, supple juiciness. Perhaps this result has to do with the age of the mountain-side vineyard, where the vines were 41 years old for this vintage, or with the fact that the vineyard is dry-farmed, seeing no irrigation during periods of little rain, so the roots have to struggle to find nutrients and moisture, a sort of vinous variation on the “no pain-no gain” principle. In any case, the Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2013, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, is a beauty. The color is pale straw-gold with a faint green tinge; classic aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit carry a thread of mango and cloves, with high notes of jasmine, talc and limestone. The intimation of limestone, and its aide-de-camp, flint, in the nose expands righteously on the palate, and combined with chiming acidity produces a chardonnay of crystalline clarity that feels lit from within. Despite the oak regimen, any wood activity lies in subtly shaping and sculpting the wine, a significance as gentle but urgent as a Summer zephyr. Flavors are more stone-fruit — peach, yellow plum — than citrus, and all elements devolve to a long, limpid and luminous finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. An essential chardonnay, exquisite in its parts, elegant in balance, dynamic in total. Production was 806 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Exceptional. About $32.

A sample for review.

In some ways, it’s more fun to compile the “25 Great Wine Bargains” than it is to fret over the “50 Great Wines.” This present list of wines priced at $20 and under offers more geographical and varietal diversity, as well as appealing to people — most of the wine-drinkers on the face of the earth — would would rather pay $15 for a bottle of excellent wine than $150 for a bottle of exceptional wine. What’s particularly pleasing about today’s roster is that of the 25 wines included, all but two rate Excellent. The truth is that wines don’t have to be high-priced to be thoughtfully and precisely made or to embody all the characteristics of a terrific drink. An excellent sauvignon blanc for $11? Who would pass that up? These 25 Great Wine Bargains are cause for celebration, so have at it. Remember, though, that not all wines are available in every market. For bottles that can’t be found in your local retail stores, a search on the Internet may be helpful. Enjoy!

All of these selections were samples for review or were tasted at wholesaler trade events.
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kerner
Abbazia di Novacella Kerner 2013, Valle Isarco, Alto Adige, Italy. Kerner is a white hybrid grape created as recently as 1969. It is found primarily in Germany but certainly performed well in this section of Alto Adige. Excellent. About $19.
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baur
Francois Baur Brut Réserve nv, Crémant d’Alsace, France. Pinot blanc, riesling, chardonnay, pinot gris. Excellent. About $18.
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cattin riesling
Joseph Cattin Riesling 2013, Alsace, France. Excellent. About $14.
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Eric Chevalier Clos de la Butte 2013, Muscadet Côtes de Grand Lieu sur Lie 2013, Loire Valley, France. Excellent. About $16.
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Michele Chiarlo Le Madri Roero Arneis 2014, Piedmont, Italy. 100 percent arneis grapes. Excellent. About $18.
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Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $18.
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Eguia_Rosado_FT
Viña Eguía Rosado 2014, Rioja, Spain. 80 percent tempranillo, 20 percent garnacha. Very Good+. About $12.
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cava
Isaac Fernandez Seleccíon Biutiful Cava Rosé nv, Penedes, Spain. Excellent. About $15.
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Schloss Gobelsburg “Gobelsburger” Riesling 2013, Kamptal, Austria. Excellent. About $18.
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Hidalgo_Fino
Emilio Hildago Fino Jerez Seco nv, Jerez, Spain. Excellent. About $14 (500 milliliter bottle).
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leitz
Leitz Rudesheimer Berg Schlossberg Riesling Trocken 2013, Rheingau, Germany. Excellent. About $20.
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martini-cab
Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $20.
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masi
Masi Campofiorin 2011, Rosso del Veronese IGT, Italy. Corvino, rondinella and molinara grapes. Excellent. About $18.
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Mud House Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Marlborough, New Zealand. Excellent. About $17.
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pazo
Pazo San Mauro Albariño 2014, Rías Baixas, Spain. Excellent. About $19.
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ped sb
Pedroncelli East Side Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $15.
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Domaine Perraud Vielles Vignes Mâcon-Villages 2013, Mâconnais, France. 100 percent chardonnay. Excellent. About $20.
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Amauta-Absoluto-Torrontes
El Porvenir de Cafayate Amauta Absoluto Torrontés 2012, Salta, Argentina. Excellent. About $16.
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prodigo
Prodigo Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Friuli Grave, Italy. Excellent. About $11.
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scaia-garganega
Tenuta Sant’Antonio Scaia Bianca 2014, delle Venezia IGT, Italy. The label asserts 55 percent garganega, 45 percent chardonnay grapes. Press materials and website say 50 percent garganega, 30 percent chardonnay, 20 percent trebbiano Soave. Whatever. Excellent. About $11.
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segries
Château de Ségriès Côtes-du-Rhône 2013, Rhone Valley, France. 50 percent grenache, 30 percent syrah, 10 percent each cinsault and carignane. Excellent. About $15.
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Charles Thomas Côtes-du-Rhône 2013, Rhone Valley, France. (Maison Jean-Baptiste Bejot) 50 percent syrah, 40 percent grenache, 10 percent mourvedre. Very Good+. About $12.
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valentina
La Valentina 2014, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, Italy. Rosé of montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Very Good+. About $12.
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Vina Robles “White 4” 2014, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County. 54 percent viognier, 22 percent vermentino, 15 verdelho, 9 sauvignon blanc. Excellent. About $16.
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Zemmer-Pinot_Bianco_Square
Peter Zemmer Punggl Pinot Blanc 2013, Alto Adige, Italy. Excellent. About $18.
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