Chenin blanc


This post of Weekend Wine Sips isn’t exactly a Mother’s Day edition, but I did receive a press release about wines for Mom from a Major Wine Publication that listed only sauvignon blancs (as if mothers drink only that grape variety), so in this roster of white wines for spring and summer I omit sauvignon blanc entirely. Each of these wines is 100 percent varietal; each is from a different region or country; each is made in stainless steel or receives minimal oak treatment including no new oak. (Actually I think that criterion applies to only one of these.) As usual, I eschew detailed technical, geographical and historical information in these brief Weekend Wine Sips reviews the better to whet your curiosity and thirst with incisiveness and immediacy. Prices here range from about $11 to $25; each wine marks a good value wherever it falls within that range. The motivation is delight, freshness, elegance, balance and appeal. These wines were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Plantagenet Omrah Unoaked Chardonnay 2011, Great Southern, Western Australia. 13.5% alc. Pale gold color; a really pretty chardonnay — lemon, lime, lime peel and grapefruit; smoke and a hint of mango, touch of jasmine — but crisp acidity, oyster-shell and limestone all the way through the finish; dry with a bit of austerity. Very Good+. About $15.
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Protea Chenin Blanc 2012, Wine of Coastal Region, South Africa. 13% alc. Pale straw color; beguiling aromas of hay, thyme and tarragon, pears and yellow plums; lovely satiny texture but bristly and prickly, fleet acidity and heaps of limestone and chalk, dry, crisp, refreshing and appealing. Very Good+. About $18.
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Principessa Gavia Gavi 2012, Piedmont, Italy. 12% alc. Pale straw color with a hint of green; sweetly expressive bouquet: pears and greengage, cloves and thyme, hints of leafy fig and sea-salt, jasmine and lemon balm; squinching acidity, lustrous elements of chalk and limestone and flint; deftly balanced between bone-dry and almost winsomely attractive floral and citrus qualities. Very Good+. About $14.
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Grooner Grüner Veltliner 2012, Niederösterreich, Austria. (Produced by Weingut Meinhard Forstreitter) 12% alc. Very pale straw-gold; melon and pears with hints of lemon, lime peel and grapefruit, touch of green pea and thyme; pert, tart, taut and sassy; hint of grapefruit bitterness on the limestone-laced finish. Delightful. Very Good. About $11.
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St. Supéry Estate Moscato 2012, Napa Valley, California. 10.5% alc. Very very pale gold color; apple and apple blossom, pear and peach, hint of lime peel and orange zest; soft, almost cloud-like texture but crisp acidity cuts a swath to the limestone-inflected finish; ripe and sweet on entry, but the acid and mineral elements tone down the sweetness to a sort of blanched dryness, so the finish comes out clean and elegant, delicate and balanced; stands out in the sea of vapid moscato presently engulfing the country; begs for dessert of fresh berries. Excellent. About $25.
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Brooks Runaway White Pinot Blanc 2011, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 11.3% alc. Pale pale straw-gold color; pure lemon with a lime peel twist, hints of jasmine and slightly over-ripe peaches and an elusive scent of lavender; a little earthy and smoky; scintillating acidity and limestone-flint minerality, lots of energy and vitality and a sense of flaking schist and flint; very dry, all stones and bones from mid-palate back; marked spareness and austerity in the vigorous finish. An argument for planting more pinot gris in the appropriate areas and treating it right. 244 cases. Excellent. About $15.
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Villa Wolf Pinot Gris 2011, Pfalz, Germany. 12.5% alc. (Produced by Dr. Loosen) Medium gold-straw color; roasted lemon and lemon balm, quince and ginger, hints of cloves and smoke, slightly earthy; highly animated acidity and spicy qualities fuel this wines liveliness, while a silken texture and underlying limestone elements give it pleasing heft. Delicious. Very Good+. About $14.
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Greywacke Riesling 2011, Marlborough, New Zealand. 12% alc. Brilliant pale gold color; lychee and a touch of petrol, roasted lemon, spiced pear and honeysuckle, hint of lilac face powder; very dry, lean and clean, irresistible texture combining brisk acidity with lovely soft ripeness that does not preclude the glacial authority of crystalline limestone minerality. Excellent. About $25.
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Perhaps we really are in Spring now, or even tending toward Summer, and while it may be banal to say it — or merely a trope of the winewriting and reviewing gig — I think people are looking for lighter wines that provide delight as well as flavor. In fact, if you’re grilling shrimp or making chicken or tuna salad, an appropriate wine to uncork would be the Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2011, from Carmel Valley in Monterey County, a blend of 87 percent organically grown chenin blanc and 13 percent riesling, made all in stainless steel. The color is pale gold with a faint green shimmer; the bouquet, well, you could swim in the bouquet or dab it behind your ears, this winsome and pert amalgam of prickly and briery ripe peach and pear with intensely pungent elements of camellia and lilac with a back note of lavender and a burgeoning hint of limestone. True to its principal grape, in the mouth there’s a touch of hay and yellow plum along with those spiced pear and peach flavors, while the limestone and flint minerality expands from mid-palate back and crisp acidity keeps the wine lively and appealing. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2013. I always look forward to this wine. Excellent. About $23.

A sample for review, as I am required to inform you by ruling of the Federal Trade Commission, an injunction that does not apply to print media.

So, My Readers, today I present the annual “50 Great Wines” in the edition for 2012. Why 50? It’s a nice comfortable round number, but it also makes me work hard to determine those 50 great selections.

I reviewed 642 wines on this blog in 2012, so 50 choices represent only 7.78 percent of the wines I reviewed. Wines that I rated as “Exceptional” automatically make the cut. In 2012, I ranked 16 wines “Exceptional,” or only 2.5 percent of all the wines I reviewed. How did I ascertain the other 34 wines? That’s where the task got difficult. I read all the reviews of wines that I rated “Excellent” and wrote down the names of 68 that seemed promising, but of course that was already way too many wines; I had to eliminate half of that list. I went back through the reviews and looked for significant words or phrases like “an exciting wine” or “a beautiful expression of its grapes” or “epitomizes my favorite style” or “I flat-out loved this wine,” terms that would set a wine apart from others in similar genres or price ranges, even though they too were rated “Excellent.” By exercising such intricate weighing and measuring, by parsing and adjusting, by, frankly, making some sacrifices, I came to the list of wines included here, but I’ll admit that as I went over this post again and again, checking spelling and diacritical markings and illustrations, there were omissions that I regretted. You get to a point, however, where you can’t keep second-guessing yourself.

Notice that I don’t title this post “50 Greatest Wines” or “50 Best Wines.” That would be folly, just as I think it’s folly when the slick wine publications select one wine — out of 15,000 — as the best of the year. The wines honored in this post are, simply, 50 great wines, determined by my taste and palate, that I encountered and reviewed in 2012. Some of them are expensive; some are hard to find. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, though, at how many of them are under $40 or even in the $20 range; the price of a wine can be immaterial to its quality, and I mean that in both the positive and the negative aspects. Where I know the case limitation, I make note. With wines that are, for example, chardonnay or pinot noir, you can count on them being 100 percent varietal; in other cases, I mention the blend or make-up of the wine if I think it’s necessary.

Coming in a few days: “25 Great Bargains of 2012.”
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Amapola Creek Cuvée Alis 2009, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County. 55 percent syrah, 45 percent grenache. 95 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Archery Summit Looney Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $85.
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Black Dog Cellars Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. Excellent. About $25.
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Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Vineyard X Block Syrah 2007, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County. 573 cases. Excellent. About $42.
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Champagne Françoise Bedel Entre Ciel et Terre Brut. Excellent. About $75.
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Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino 2005, Tuscany, Italy. 100 percent sangiovese. Exceptional. About $149.
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Chalone Estate Chenin Blanc 2011, Chalone, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $25.
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Chamisal Estate Pinot Noir 2010, Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo County. Excellent. About $40.
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M. Chapoutier Chante-Alouette 2007, Hermitage blanc, Rhone Valley, France. 100 percent marsanne grapes. 350 six-packs imported. Exceptional. About $92.
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M. Chapoutier De L’Orée 2008, Hermitage blanc, Rhone Valley, France. 100 percent marsanne. 40 six-packs imported. Exceptional, About $190.
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Cima Collina Tondre Grapefield Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $48.
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Etude Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros. Excellent. About $42.
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Ferrari-Carano Prevail West Face 2007, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 61 percent cabernet sauvignon, 39 percent syrah. Excellent. About $55.
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Foley Rancho Santa Rosa Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County. Excellent. About $40.
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Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $46.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $42.
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Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2009, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $23.
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Hidden Ranch 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $45.
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Kelly Fleming Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Oakville District, Napa Valley. 540 cases. Excellent. About $30.
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Domaine Michel Lafarge Meursault 2009, Burgundy. Excellent. About $44-$48.
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La Follette Van Der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Mountain. 429 cases. Excellent. About $40.
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Lasseter Enjoué 2011, Sonoma Valley. 73 percent syrah, 24 mourvèdre, 3 grenache. A superior rosé. 570 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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Champagne David Léclapart L’Amateur Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, non-vintage. Exceptional. About $83.
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Lenné Estate Pinot Noir 2008, Yamhill-Carlton District, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 491 cases. Excellent. About $55.
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Chateau La Louvière 2009, Pessac-Lèognan, Bordeaux, France. 85 percent sauvignon blanc, 15 percent semillon. Excellent. About $42.
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Manzoni Vineyards Home Vineyard Syrah 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 494 cases. Excellent. About $26.
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Max Ferd. Richter Veldenzer Elisenberg Riesling Kabinett 2010, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $19.
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Mayacamas Chardonnay 2009, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $30.
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McCay Cellars Jupiter Zinfandel 2009, Lodi. 449 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Domaine Pierre Morey Pommard Grands Epenots Premier Cru 2009, Burgundy. Excellent. About $85.
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Newton “The Puzzle” 2008, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 42 percent merlot, 36 cabernet sauvignon, 14 cabernet franc, 6 petit verdot, 2 malbec. Excellent. About $80.
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Nicolas Joly Clos de La Bergerie 2009, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, Loire Valley, France. 100 percent chenin blanc. 580 cases. Exceptional. About $45-$60.
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Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $42.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County. 250 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. 372 cases. Exceptional. About $75.
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Piocho 2009, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. From Margerum Wine Co. 58 percent merlot, 22 cabernet sauvignon, 18 cabernet franc, 2 petit verdot. 570 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Quivira Fig Tree Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. 862 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Sea-Fog Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Napa Valley. 380 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Shafer Hillside Select 2007, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $225.
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Shafer Merlot 2009, Napa Valley. With 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent malbec. Exceptional. About $48.
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Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. With 12 percent cabernet franc. 381 cases. Excellent. About $75. Date on label is one year behind.
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Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir 2011, Los Carneros. Another superior rosé to drink all year. Excellent. About $28.
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Spotted Owl Chardonnay 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Inaugural release of this winery’s chardonnay. 120 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $125.
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St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. With 10 percent merlot, 2 petit verdot and 1 cabernet franc. Excellent. About $55.
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Domaine André et Mireille Tissot La Graviers Chardonnay 2010, Arbois, France. 552 cases. Excellent. About $26-$30. Label is two years out of date.
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Tudal Family Winery Clift Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. 295 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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Tenuta di Valgiano 2008, Colline Luccesi, Tuscany. 60 percent sangiovese, 20 merlot, 20 syrah. Excellent. About $55-$60.
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Vieux Télégraphe “La Crau” 2009, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France. 65 percent grenache, 15 mourvèdre, 15 syrah 5 cinsault, clairette “and others.” Excellent. About $85.
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Villa Huesgen Schiefen Riesling Trocken 2010, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $35.
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… and I offer, as usual, a variety of Champagnes and sparkling wines to suit, I hope, every taste and pocketbook and every occasion, whether you’re entertaining the entire cast of Survivor: Dude, Is Mars Even Inhabitable? to the most private, secret rendezvous a deux. And be careful tonight and in the wee hours. I don’t want to lose any of My Readers to the vagaries of drunkenness, whether in themselves or others. Happy New Year!
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Yes, the Kenwood Yulupa Cuvée Brut, California, is manufactured in the Champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, and for the price, it’s completely appropriate for large crowds. It’s a racy blend of chenin blanc, French colombard, chardonnay and pinot noir that’s fresh, effervescent, clean, crisp and very dry; packed with limestone-like minerality verging on the saline quality of oyster shells, it offers hints of roasted lemons and pears and a touch of spice. According to Kenwood’s website, the Yulupa Cuvée Brut is available only in December. Very Good. About $12, but discounted as low as $9 throughout the country.
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The story of Gloria Ferrer’s sparkling wines in Sonoma County makes a chronicle of constant improvement and success. In fact, one of the products I reviewed in my first wine column, published in July, 1984, in The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis, was a very early rendition of the Gloria Ferrer Brut, and I didn’t think much of it. I’m happy to say that’s not the case all these years later. The Gloria Ferrer Brut, Sonoma County, is a blend of 91.2 percent pinot noir and 8.8 percent chardonnay, and I sort of dote on that accuracy of detail. The color is medium gold with a pale copper flush, energized by a streaming froth of tiny golden bubbles. Notes of dried strawberries and raspberries reveal hints of roasted lemons and lime peel over a layer of limestone and flint; lip-smacking acidity keeps this sparking wine crisp and lively, while its lovely, dense texture, given a dose of elegance by scintillating minerality, lends personality and appeal. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $22.
A sample for review.
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The Argyle Brut 2008, Willamette Valley, Oregon, a blend of 63 percent pinot noir and 37 percent chardonnay, presents an exuberant welter of fresh biscuits and steel, cinnamon bread and limestone, quince and crystallized ginger. The color is pale gold; tiny winking bubbles spiral ever upward. I cannot overemphasize the terrifically irresistible nature of this sparkling wine, its elegance and elevating nature, its blitheness rooted in the stones and bones of crisp, nervy acidity and the essential, lacy element of limestone-like minerality. In the background are hints of lemons, baked apple and toasted hazelnuts, these elements subsumed into a finish that delivers a final fillip of flint and caramelized grapefruit. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $27.
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All right, so you want real Champagne for New Year’s Eve, like from France, the Champagne region, but you don’t want to hijack your credit card or fall into 2013 already entailed by debt. (Haha, good luck with that!) Choose, then, the Champagne Philippe Fontaine Brut Tradition, a 70/30 pinot noir/pinot meunier blend that will satisfy your festive taste-buds and spirit as well as your wallet. The color is shimmering pale gold, and tiny bubbles indeed shimmer up through the glass. This is an very attractive, clean yet savory and nicely faceted Champagne that features a modulated toasty character, vibrant blade-like acidity, heaps of limestone and flint elements for minerality and a texture engagingly balanced between fleetness and moderate density. What’s not to like? 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. Prices vary widely, but the national average is about $28.

Imported by Bourgeois Family Selections, Asheville, N.C.
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David Léclapart cultivates three hectares — about 7.7 acres — of mainly chardonnay vines in the Premier Cru village of Trépail. I have unfortunately never possessed a whole bottle of any of Léclapart’s four cuvees — L’Amateur, L’Artiste, L’Alchimiste, L’Apôtre — having tasted them on three occasions in New York at trade events, but those encounters made me wish devoutly for more intimate and prolonged contact. The estate has been operated since 1998 on biodynamic principles, certified by EcoCert and Demeter; the wines are made sans dosage, that is, without sugar for the second fermentation, so they are bone-dry, sometimes achingly so. And yet they are, at least to my palate, eminently appealing, though equally demanding, even rigorous. Champagne David Léclapart L’Amateur Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut (sometimes called the estate’s “entry-level” wine) is a 100 percent chardonnay Champagne that was fermented in stainless steel. Notes of limestone, flint and steel practically explode from the glass; paradoxically, while it takes elegance to the farthest extreme in the realms of chilliest allure, L’Amateur reveals a savory, earthy background, as well as an unexpected wisp of camellia and fresh apples and pears. Acidity, it’s almost needless to mention, is of the most resonance and chiseled quality, while the limestone element feels deeply and irrevocably etched. If I were summoned to my fate tomorrow morning on the dueling ground, I would sip a glass of this Champagne before turning to face my foe. 12.5 percent alcohol. Exceptional. Again, price range across the map, but the national average appears to be about $83.

Imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York.
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The holiday Champagne and sparkling wine season will be upon us soon, so I’ll give you a head-start on the proceedings with a very attractive bottle of bubbles from France’s Loire Valley. Crémant de Loire was approved as an appellation in 1975. It’s not merely a type of wine but implies a geographical area, being restricted to the regions of Anjou-Saumur and Touraine, in the central Loire. According to the regulations, grapes for Crémant de Loire must be hand-harvested, and the wine must be aged in the bottle for at least a year. The process must be the Champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle or as it is called in the Loire (and other places in France outside of Champagne) methode traditionelle. Many grape varieties are allowed, but the dominate grates are chenin blanc and cabernet franc.

The non-vintage Gaudrelle Crémant de Loire Brut is made from equal parts chenin blanc and chardonnay grapes. The color is pale gold enlivened by a constant upward stream of tiny glinting bubbles. This lovely sparkler is clean and fresh and effervescent, prolific with scents of lightly spiced apples and pears with back-notes of ginger and quince and a hint of chenin blanc’s slightly earthy straw-like character. The wine is quite dry, almost delicate, deeply imbued with limestone and flint qualities married to juicy citrus and stone-fruit flavors and devolving to a stones-‘n’-bones finish that exhibits taut acidity and high-toned mineral-laced austerity. 12.5 percent alcohol. Really charming. Very Good+. About $19 or $20, but prices around the country range from $17 to $25.

Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va. Tasted at a trade event.


Seven white wines and one rosé; seven Californians and one Spanish wine (not the rosé). Several chardonnays and a viognier made exactly in the fashion I like best. And some irresistible bargains. I do it all for you. No technical data, no paeans to place, no exploring the byways of personnel and personality; just brief reviews designed to perk up your interest and whet your thirst. Enjoy. These were samples for review.
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Pepi Chenin Blanc Viognier 2011, California. 13% alc. 66% chenin blanc, 34% viognier. Pleasant enough and drinkable but the grape varieties get lost in each other; a little citrusy, a little spicy, pleasing texture; no great shakes, but you can’t beat the price. Good to sip when you don’t want to hurt your brain too much. Good+. About $10.
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Sumarroca Temps de Flors 2011, Penedes, Spain. 12% alc. 48% xarel-lo, 40 % muscat, 12% gewurztraminer. Pale straw-gold color; very attractive but with some spareness and slight astringent factor, like little white mountain flowers that don’t take any crap from you, thank you v. much; pear, yellow plum, hint of white peach; acacia with a touch of honey and bees’-wax; lovely, lively, lithe and totally charming. Now into Spring 2013. Very Good+. About $14, offering Great Value.
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St. Clement Chardonnay 2010, Carneros, Napa Valley. 14.6% alc. Pale straw-gold color; just lovely; slightly smoky and steely pineapple- grapefruit scents and flavors, clove and limestone-flecked and with a beguiling trace of honeysuckle; spiced apples and pears, hint of citrus, sleek, smooth, supple and tingling with brisk acidity, superb balance between tense and teasing nervous energy and lightly honed richness, the finish laved with damp limestone and flint. My style. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $19, a Terrific Value.
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Ventana Dry Rosato 2011, Arroyo Seco, Monterey. 13.5% alc. 500 cases. 90% grenache, 10% syrah. Pale melon color; strawberry, dried cranberries and mulberries, hint of dusty limestone; supple texture with crisp acidity; a delightfully delicate and well-knit rosé with pleasing heft for drinking through Summer 2013. Very Good+. About $22.
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Ventana Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Arroyo Seco, Monterey. 14.2% alc. Pale straw-gold color; notably clean and fresh; lemon and pear, dried thyme and tarragon, hints of honeysuckle, lemongrass and gooseberry; vibrant, lively, spicy, engaging, but dry, spare, almost elegant. Now through 2013. Very Good+. About $22.
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Ventana Chardonnay 2010, Arroyo Seco, Monterey. 14.2% alc. Pale gold color; pineapple and grapefruit, a bit of mango, a few minutes bring up notes of greengage and quince and cloves; crisp and lively, texture moderately lush but tempered by acidity and a burgeoning limestone element; very nicely balanced, holds the richness of fruit in check for the essential structure. Through 2013. Excellent. About $22.
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Chamisal Estate Bottled Chardonnay 2010, Edna Valley. 13.9% alc. Very pale gold color; fresh clean aromas of candied quince and ginger, grapefruit and pineapple with a backnote of mango and delicately smoky oak; flavors of green apple and pineapple are boldly framed by baking spice, slightly woody dried spices (and a trace of dried flowers) and a hint of baked lemon; all held in check by bright acidity and a scintillating limestone element. This qualifies as radiant. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $28.
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Stags’ Leap Winery Viognier 2011, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Pale gold color; vibrantly clean, fresh, lissom, elegant; a wine of stones and bones with a hint of jasmine and tarragon laid over tart lemon and pear flavors bolstered by taut acidity and a bracing sea-salt and grapefruit finish; paradoxically, the texture is seductive and enveloping. For people weary of the overwhelming floral style of viognier. Now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $30.
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Driving up and up a twisting dirt track toward the Chalone winery, nothing in the steep, sere hillsides, lying arid and exposed to the glaring sun that reigns over this realm of dust and chaparral, could convince you that the landscape and climate are anything like Burgundy. Yet from this improbable parched landscape, some 1800 feet up the Gavilan range, high over the city of Soledad and just under the Pinnacles National Monument, emerges some of the best (and at times controversial) chardonnay and pinot noir wines in California, as well as pinot blanc and chenin blanc, the latter from a vineyard planted in 1919, the oldest in Monterey County. (This image looks down on Chalone from the hills above.)

That vineyard was planted by F.W. Silvear, who after the end of Prohibition sold grapes to Almaden and Wente and made a little wine of his own. He died in 1957, and the property went through various changes of name and ownership until Richard Graff, a Navy veteran with a degree in music from Harvard, bought the insolvent company, with investment from his mother, in 1965. After a great deal of trial and error, the first wines were produced in 1969. Graff was fascinated by Burgundian methods, and he introduced to California the concepts of barrel fermentation and malolactic fermentation for white wines. It wasn’t easy making wine at Chalone. The winery was a former chicken coop that held 40 barrels. The property had no electricity, water or telephone service until the early 1980s; water for irrigation had to be trucked in from Soledad, and at night oil lamps came into service. A “real” winery was constructed in 1982, but it’s more easily described as a facility than a winery; no fancy digs here, no beautiful building designed by a famous architecture, the Chalone winery consists of serviceable offices, metal sheds and tanks. That former chicken coop/winery (see accompanying image) now holds the library of Chalone’s past vintages, a collection that can make visitors downright giddy.

In 1972, Phil Woodward resigned from the accounting firm Touche Ross and joined Chalone Vineyard as vice president of finance, a position that allowed him to take over all marketing and financial matters and to bring in a group of investors and much-needed cash. Graff and Woodward shared a vision that included maintaining Chalone as a fairly small producer but expanding the company through partnerships or through the creation of new wineries in other regions of the state. Thus came about the establishment of Edna Valley Vineyard winery in San Luis Obispo County, the Carmenet winery — since 2009 a brand for cheap wines from Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co. — and Canoe Ridge in Washington and the acquisition of Acacia and Jade Mountain and Staton Hills (in Washington), renamed Sagelands Vineyard. Chalone made an initial stock offering in 1984, the first California winery to go public. The Chalone Wine Group was purchased in 2005 by beverage giant Diageo, though as Robert Cook, Chalone winemaker since 2007, said, “They take care of the books. We take care of the wine.”

Dick Graff was killed in 1998, when his single-engine Cessna went down near the town of Salinas.

The Chalone American Vitacultural Area was approved in 1982, the first AVA in Monterey County, as Chalone was its first bonded winery. Though the region now contains seven vineyards, it has only one winery, Chalone itself. As long ago as the 1890s, when Frenchman Maurice Tamm planted vines in the declivities of these long, dry slopes, the area’s unique properties — its deep calcareous soils and its paucity of rainfall, about 14 inches a year — were recognized for the demands they would make on vines to work hard for nourishment and for the element of minerality the soil contributes to the wine.
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Here are the wines we tasted, under a blue sky and bright sun, on Wednesday, September 12:
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As the guru of modern biodynamism, Nicolas Joly has a lot to account for. The proprietor of the ancient estate of Coulée de Serrant, in Anjou’s tiny Savennières appellation, a fleck of prized Loire Valley real estate southwest of the city of Angers, in 1980 he by chance (on a skiing trip) came upon the obscure Rudolph Steiner’s semi-mystical homeopathic/astrological principles of agriculture, delivered in a series of lectures in 1924, and embraced them with the zeal of an aimless fanatic ripe for the fall. Wonder what would have happened if, instead of Steiner, Joly had discovered Wilhelm Reich, thereby filling vineyards around the world with enigmatic orgone machines instead of cow horns filled with silicalized dung. Or L. Ron Hubbard. Some people require a higher power to which to submit, and Joly found his in Steiner, who was not, allow me to point out, a farmer, yet somehow has been beatified as the Madame Blavatsky of viticulture.

Readers may think that I approach this subject with undue levity. Well, sorry, shoot me, but while some of the practices of the biodynamic movement make complete sense for anyone thoughtfully engaged in farming and are already widely employed in aspects of sustainable and organic agriculture — avoiding chemical pesticides and herbicides, using cover crops between rows, trying to establish a sense of natural harmony within the vineyard — other methodologies seem to come straight out of a New Age commune where flower-decked nymphs and satyrs promulgate fertility according to the alignment of the stars. Why do otherwise intelligent people not understand that the stars are really very very far away and that the so-called astrological “signs” are primeval figments of mythic imaginations?

(The best introduction to the principles of biodynamic agriculture and to the history of Coulée de Serrant and the wines of Nicolas Joly comes from Chris Kissack, aka The Wine Doctor. I highly recommend this post.)

A few producers and winemakers around the world have embraced the biodynamic principles, to greater or lesser degrees, perhaps encouraged by Joly’s writings and his boundless sincerity — the crushing sincerity of the zealot — and often these producers and winemakers turn out wonderful wines; I encounter such wines at the “Return to Terroir” biodynamic events regularly, and I have written extensively about them over the past three months, which you must not take as an endorsement but as curiosity and concern. As far as Joly’s wines are concerned, I have never encountered the problems with oxidation that some writers mention, and even when they may have been difficult to assess, as they tend to be initially, the wines have exhibited nothing less than tremendous energy and vitality. On the other hand, I taste many wines not produced under the strictures of biodynamic principles that are also models of energy, vitality and verve. Readers may point to the successes bred by biodynamic methods and say, “See, they work,” to which I reply, “Except when they don’t.”

My first encounter with a wine from Nicolas Joly was at the restaurant Rubicon in San Francisco around Thanksgiving 1996. The wine was the Clos de la Bergerie Savennières 1992, Joly’s “second-tier” chenin blanc and it cost $48 on the wine list. (Big sighs, groans, rolling of eyes and the chorus, “Those were the days!”)

In January 2003, I had dinner at La Caravelle in New York and tasted one Coulée de Serrant wine from 2000 and two from 1999. (The “entry-level” Les Vieux Clos used to be labeled Becherelle for the American market). I’ll include the notes from my old newspaper column:

Though at first it seems serious and reticent, Joly’s Becherelle 2000, which carries a straight Savennières designation, blossoms with honeysuckle and jasmine and seethes with a sort of liquid minerality (mineral liquidity?) that amalgamates lemon-lime and limestone with peaches and baking spice and rollicking acid. This should drink beautifully through 2010. Excellent. About $33.

Joly’s decadent but not decorative Clos de la Bergerie 1999, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, sports a bright gold color and a bouquet that teems with smoke and old wood, orange zest, creme brulee and roasted apricots. Though touched with the earthy, damp leaf complexity of botrytis – the “noble rot” that affects very ripe grapes in proper autumn conditions and helps produce the world’s great dessert wines – this wine is bone-dry and perfectly balanced with a flinty-limestone element; the effect shows up in its plangent intensity, overwhelming ripeness and vibrancy. Keenly wrought, racy and elegant, Clos de la Bergerie 1999 is a great match with rich fish and seafood dishes. Well-stored, it could be a 15- to 20-year wine. Exceptional. About $43.

Third in this roster is the exotic, exuberant Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 1999, a bright golden-yellow wine (made from 40 to 80-year-old vines) whose qualities of cloves and cinnamon, pineapple and pineapple upside-down cake, bitter orange and tangerine seem not of this world. You have to keep reminding yourself: This is a dry wine! The tension and constant resolution here among a luxurious silky texture, ripe buttery fruit, zinging acid and deeply rooted mineral elements are thrilling. Long life ahead, 20 to 25 years. Exceptional. About $80.

In New York again, for the first and third “Return to Terroir” tastings in 2004 and 2006, I found the Joly wines from vintages 2002 and 2003, respectively, difficult to fathom, reticent, closed, oddly brooding in spirit for white wines, all qualities that match the reputation the wines have for not showing well in the first three or four years.

Then, in March 2007 I discovered a cache of Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2000 at a local retail store, $40 a bottle; I bought three. Here’s what I wrote (some extraneous comments edited) at the time on this blog:

Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2000, Savennières, Loire Valley. At a bit more than six years old, this example bursts with quince, peach and pear, spice-cake, mango and orange rind that get smokier and more roasted as the minutes pass, all nestled in a plush texture cut by vibrant acid. The wine tastes like honey, but it’s completely dry, so dry, in fact, that the finish is austere, offering the slight bitterness of grapefruit rind tempered by lanolin and a touch of jasmine. Exceptional, and under-priced at $36 to $40. Long life ahead; drink now through 2010 to ’14 (well-stored). 2010 to ’14! More like 2018 to ’20 I would say.

I include these notes on previous Joly wines I tasted (or drank) because they reveal a sense of consistency that seems to run true, at least in my experience, from year to year. They do not make an immediate bid for your regard, yet even in youthful reticence they offer tremendous vitality and the innate potential for richness. Some writers, particularly French critics with long experience and memory, decry the era of Nicolas Joly and prefer the wines produced by his mother before the son took over the estate. I cannot speak to those issues. I can only assert that generally I find the wines of Nicolas Joly and Coulée de Serrant to be among the world’s greatest expressions of the chenin blanc grape. Do biodynamic practices make them so? Do these esoteric methods “work”? Yes. No. I don’t know. The philosophy is what it is; the wines are what they are.

The wines of Nicolas Joly are imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York. Prices are approximate and represent a range found on the Internet. Image of Nicolas Joly from jimsloire.blogspot.com; map from vinsurvin-blog.com.
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Nicolas Joly Les Vieux Clos 2009, Savennières. The color is pale gold with faint greenish-gold highlights; the aromas come first as classic chenin blanc — hay, candle wax, camellias, a delicate touch of honey — then deeper aspects of cloves, quince and ginger, dried orange rind, a winsome whiff of lilac, and, amid these sensual delights, a touch of something slightly astringent, slightly bracing and withholding, perhaps a hint of salt-marsh. The richness expands across the palate, not quite buttery but certainly ripe and fat yet — always a “yet” — again that feeling of resisting its own power, of insisting on a sense of spareness or refusing to surrender to its own florid potential; remember, this is a completely dry wine. Flavors of spiced and roasted lemons and pears are permeated by bright animating acidity and the presence of clean scintillating limestone minerality that burgeons through the finish. 15.2 percent alcohol. Approximately 580 cases produced. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. Prices vary widely; say $35 to $50.
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Nicolas Joly Clos de La Bergerie 2009, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines. The 33-hectare vineyard of Roches aux Moines, among the most important in Savennières, is its own appellation; Joly owns 3.5 hectares. The vines average 30 to 40 years old, though some are as old as 80 years. There’s an immediate impression that Clos de La Bergerie 2009 is both more intense and concentrated and more generous than its cousin, Les Vieux Clos ’09. It’s a golden wine, rich, shimmering, honeyed, again almost buttery yet imbued with a formidable acid and mineral structure that provides a reservoir of inner resources; this is authoritatively dry, fine-boned, crystalline, a-quiver with crispness, liveliness and vitality and beautifully balanced among the suppleness of its texture, the ripe, spicy forwardness of its stone-fruit flavors and — here we are once more — the sense that the wine (as I scribbled in my first note): “resists too much richness.” That quality of inherent leanness, of a vibrant linearity, saves the wine from excess and flamboyance and keeps it consistently inviting as well as multi-layered; the evidence points to terrific grapes from an excellent year (following the inconsistent vintages of 2006, ’07 and ’08 in the central Loire) and skillful winemaking. So: macerated peaches and greengage plums with a vivid hint of pineapple; hay and straw, quince jam and lemongrass, a slightly earthy note; a spice-packed, resonant, elegant finish. The alcohol level is controversial: the label, as you can see, states 13.5 percent; in his survey of the Joly 2009s, Chris Kissack at thewinedoctor.com, says that the alcohol content of this wine is 15 percent; and the importer’s website has it at 15.8 percent! Whatever, there’s no trace of alcoholic sweetness or heat; the wine is exquisitely balanced, but with a gratifying risky, nervy edge. About 580 cases. Now through 2020 to ’25 or ’26. Exceptional. About $45 to $60.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Nicolas Joly Clos de Coulée de Serrant 2009, Savennières-Coulee de Serrant. The 7-hectare Coulee de Serrant vineyard — about 17.3 acres — is wholly owned by Nicolas Joly; like Roches aux Moines, it is a sub-appellation of Savennières. At a little more than two and a half years old, the wine is a beguiling and intriguing merging of dryness that hints of a core of sweet ripeness with a lush yet spare, lithe texture and intense resonance and vibrancy married to profound limestone-like minerality. Does this wine out-perform — not that it’s a contest — Clos de La Bergerie 2009? Again, I would say that the case is one of matters of degrees; the wines are similar in character, but Clos de Coulee de Serrant 09 possesses not only the limpid, luminous, spicy stone-fruit qualities — and, yes, the quince and cloves and ginger, the earthiness of damp hay, a touch of leafy fig and greengage, an extra hint of lightly buttered cinnamon toast — of its stablemates but it feels actually savory and mouth-watering; this wine practically glistens and gleams with personality (the topmost layer) while it delivers a pretty damned consummate iteration of the depth and dimension of which the chenin blanc grape is capable. 15.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2014 through 2024 to ’28. Excellent. About $65 to $90.
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Pine Ridge Winery, founded in the Napa Valley in 1978 by a partnership headed by Gary Andrus, made its reputation on cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, but the smartest business move the producer ever made was in creating a chenin blanc-viognier blend and selling it cheap. This justly popular wine — if I owned a restaurant I would sell it by bottle and glass — hits all the points the American palate desires in an inexpensive white wine: it’s tasty, nicely complex for the price and a trifle sweet.

The Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc + Viognier 2011 is a blend of 79 percent chenin blanc and 21 percent viognier. The wine is clean and fresh, with beguiling aromas of ripe pears (and pears and more pears), roasted lemons and a hint of peaches, twined with touches of mango, lemongrass, jasmine and green tea, for a flirtatious note of the exotic. Pear, peach and citrus flavors are spicy enough (and slightly herbal) that the wine is almost savory, not to mention crisp and lively with bright acidity that cuts through a lovely, moderately lush texture. That trifle of sweetness emerges mainly in the finish, but makes the Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc + Viognier 2011 a good match with slightly spicy cuisine. It’s versatile too; we drank it one night with whole-wheat linguine with walnuts, orange zest and red chilies and the next with cod and chorizo stew. 12 percent alcohol. Michael Beaulac is Pine Ridge’s general manager and winemaker. Bottled with a screw-cap for easy opening. Very Good+. About $14, representing Fantastic Value.

A sample for review.

I’ll show you on the map to the right. Though nominally included in any survey of the Loire Valley, tiny Fiefs Vendéens actually lies fairly far south of the city of Nantes and the surrounding region of Muscadet, the farthest western area in the long reach of the Loire River where it debouches into the Atlantic. When I encountered the wines of Domaine Saint Nicolas at the “Return to Terroir: Les Renaissance des Appellations” tasting in New York last week, my question was exactly the title of this post: “Where the hell is Fiefs Vendéens?” You have to love the opportunity to try wines from tiny, out-of-the-way areas!

The Vendée lies in the ancient province of Poitou, the birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitaine and part of her vast realm. The area was devastated during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and during the internal Wars of Religion (1562-1598). The Vendéens are fiercely independent and royalist, launching a major — and doomed — pro-Catholic war against the Revolution (1793-1795), refusing to recognize the authority of Napoleon when he escaped from Elba in 1815, and attempting a revolt against Louis-Philippe in 1832. Things are calmer now.

Vineyards are a small segment of the flat agricultural landscape of the Vendée. The grape-growing and wine-making activity of Fiefs Vendéens centers on four communes — Mareuil, Brem, Vix and Pissotte — with many of the vineyards lying a stone’s-throw from the sea. The vines, not trained on trellises, bend low to the ground because of the constant wine. Grapes for red wine are gamay, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir; for white wine, the grapes are chenin blanc, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc; other, more obscure grapes, such as groslot gris (also called grolleau), are also permitted. The small region labored in obscurity for many years, finally achieving VDQS status — between Vin de Pays and AOC — in 1984. VDQS stands for Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure; the designation accounts for about 1 percent of French wine. In March 2011, Fiefs Vendéens was granted full AOC recognition.

A great deal of that advancement is due to Thierry Michon of Domaine Saint Nicolas, of the shore-hugging commune of Brem. The fully biodynamic estate, since 1995, is located on the Ile d’Olonne; Michon cultivates 37 hectares, about 95 acres, of vines, an enormous amount for the region. The wines are beguiling, flavorful yet spare, and highly individual, thoroughly unfolding their connection to the schist and limestone soil that dominates in Brem. It was a pleasure and somewhat of a gratifying puzzlement to try them, since all authentic wines have something of the paradoxical about them.

The wines of Domaine Saint Nicolas are imported by Jon-David Headrick Selections, Asheville, N.C. The prices I list are more approximate than usual, if available. Image of Thierry Michon from jimsloire.blogspot.com
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Domaine Saint Nicolas Gammes en May 2010, Fiefs Vendéens. Made from 100 percent gamay grapes, this punningly-named crowd- pleaser is utterly fresh and clean, blithe and bracing, with notes of red and black cherries and dried raspberries and undertones of roses and violets and an intriguing slightly mossy earthiness. The color is bright cherry with a tinge of dark ruby at the center. There’s a brief episode of sweetness on the entry, but this is, at least from mid-palate back, a dry wine, vibrant with acidity and couched in terms of — here’s that word again — an intriguing complex of red and black fruit flavors. both ripe and dried, flinty earthiness and exotic spice. 13 percent alcohol. Not complicated but truly charming. Very Good+. $NA.
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The Domaine Saint Nicolas Reflets 2010, Fiefs Vendéens, will appeal to those for whom enjoying a rose is a matter of pleasure shaded by Puritan tartness and asperity, for this is indeed a very dry rose permeated by the crispness of resonant acidity and the austerity of limestone-and-flint-like minerality. It’s a blend of pinot noir grapes, gamay, groslot gris and negrette that results, on the other hand, in lovely scents and flavors of red currants and mulberries with a pale touch of plum and peach skin. I was tasting this wine mid the madding crowd of a major trade event, but it instantly put me in mind of crusty bread, rabbit terrine and a blanket outdoors. 13 percent alcohol. Very Good+. $NA.
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The Domaine Saint Nicolas Les Clous 2010, Fiefs Vendéens, is, depending on the source you read, a blend of 80 chenin blanc, 15 percent chardonnay and 5 percent groslot gris; the wine aged eight months, 80 percent in tank, 20 percent in oak barrels. I don’t want to overuse an adjective — you know, “intriguing” — so allow me to say that the wine is mysteriously curious and captivating. I couldn’t say precisely what the 5 percent groslot gris brings to the wine, but from the chenin blanc come dominating elements of straw, greengage plum, lemon balm, pear and precision-tooled acidity; the chardonnay, I would say, contributes a bit of body, moderate lushness and back-notes of cloves and grapefruit. No great depth or concentration but delightful and delicious. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $17.
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The make-up of the Domaine Saint Nicolas Le Haut des Clous 2010, Fiefs Vendéens, is 100 percent chenin blanc. The wine is spanking fresh and clean, bracing as a brine-laden sea-breeze after a morning rain, deeply minerally in the limestone and flint range; it’s quite racy and nervy, animated by the tang of lemon pith, lime peel and slightly bitter peach skin, yet softened with appealing touches of camellia, lemon balm, spiced pear and damp straw. Super attractive and drinks like a charm. Excellent. About $20-$25.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Can there be another wine in the world that blends pinot noir with cabernet franc? That’s the case with the unusual and ambitious Saint Nicolas Cuvée Jacques 2007, Fiefs Vendéens with pinot noir in the dominant 90 percent position. I have no information about the oak regimen — zut alors! the winery’s website needs a total overhaul — but I will say the the wine is dry, spare, elegant, packed with notes of dried spices and flowers and great reserves of dry, earthy tannins. Perhaps the cabernet franc, blended at 15 percent in some vintages, accounts for a paradoxical tinge of ripe fatness, a hint of the grape’s black olive and bay leaf character and rugged structure, though this is, again paradoxically, if not quixotically, quite subtle; somehow, the wine achieves smooth balance and integration. I’ve never tasted anything like it, and I mean that as a compliment. Excellent. About $25-$27.
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The Domaine Saint Nicolas Pinot Noir 2009, Fiefs Vendéens, is distributed only in the United States of America. It’s a rather spare, delicate pinot noir, offering fresh and clean scents of red and black cherries and a bit of red and black currant permeated by dried spice, touches of rose petal and pomegranate and a hint of cola, all presented in a manner much more French than the ripe, opulent pinots of California and Oregon. Lovely purity, with moderate intensity. Very Good+. $24.
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