Chenin blanc


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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The French wine industry is heavily regulated by government rules about what grapes can be grown where, what kinds of wines can be made from what kinds of grapes, how those grapes are to be treated in the vineyard and the winery and so on. Indeed, most European countries operate in the same highly regulated manner, a situation becoming more complicated as the EU itself imposes its will on the continent’s grape-growing, winemaking and labeling. One can make wine in France outside the permitted practices for a particular appellation, but one cannot label or market such a wine as originating in that appellation. Working outside the system of permitted grape varieties and methods entitles a wine to the simple categories Vin de Table or, recently authorized, Vin de France. Labels for Vin de Table cannot carry a vintage date or the names of grapes; wines coming under the designation Vin de France, which will eventually replace Vin de Table, can convey that information, a change greeted with approbation by many French winemakers for the flexibility it affords.

Today I offer five “outlaw wines” from France. One is Vin de Table, three are Vin de France (one of these is sparkling), while another sparkling wine is entitled only to the term mousseaux. Domaine Viret Paradis Dolia Ambré was made in large clay amphorae; it’s an example of the new “orange wine” phenomenon.

These wines were encountered at the sixth “Return to Terroir, La Renaissance des Appellations,” a tasting of biodynamic wines mounted in New York on February 27.
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Beauthorey Ultima, non-vintage (but 2008), Vin de Table. Alicante bouschet, carignan, cinsault, aramon, gros noir (says the website; Christophe Beau told me that there are 12 grape varieties in this wine). Actually sort of ultimate; deep, rich, ripe, spicy; curiously earthy and fleshy, unique slightly funky mossy and foresty qualities, yet tremendously clean and fresh, blazing acidity, rapt dimensions of roasted and slightly stewed red and black fruit scents and flavors; hints of smoke, licorice, lavender. Amazing what a great winemaker can do with supposedly no-count grapes. Biodynamic. Excellent. About $25 (an estimate; Beauthorey lost its US importer.)
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Domaine de la Garelière Milliard d’Etoiles, non-vintage, Vin de France. (“Billions of stars”) Cabernet franc and chenin blanc. Pale gold color, gently but definitely sparkling; rose petals, peach and peach skin, hints of apples and strawberries, super attractive; crisp and lively, brings in a touch of lime and limestone; ripe, a little fleshy and macerated even, but a seaside tang to it, clean, brisk, bracing. Wish I had a glass right now. Biodynamic. Very Good+. About $NA.
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Bossard-Thuaud Vin Mousseaux de Qualité, non-vintage. Melon de Bourgogne (the grape of Muscadet), folle blanche, chardonnay and a touch of cabernet franc. No dosage, so bone-dry, but despite the spare, lean elegance, quite charming and elevating; exuberant effervescence, pale straw color; very clean, crisp and confident; jasmine and camellia, cloves, limestone and lime peel, faint backnote of almond skin; very refined and stylish, packed with limestone and flint-like minerality that almost glitters, lively, vibrant. Made by Guy Bossard and his wife Annie Thuaud at Domaine de l’Écu. Biodynamic, vegan. Excellent. About $23.
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Domaine Viret Paradis Dolia Ambré, non-vintage, Vin de France. 30% muscat petit grains, 25% roussanne, 20% each bourboulenc and clairette rose, 5% grenache blanc. Light amber color; orange rind, lime zest, cloves, flint, tinge of lemon and melon; bright acidity, dry, crisp, steely, yet smooth and supple; delicate hints of baked apple, roasted lemon, spice box, all in a spare, almost lean package. Biodynamic. Very Good+. $NA.
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Domaine Viret Solstice VIII, non-vintage (but 2010), Vin de France. A blend of mourvèdre, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, caladoc — totally a new one on me; it’s a crossing of grenache and malbec — and marselan. Very pleasant, light and delicate, quite dry, builds power as it develops; notes of dried red fruit and exotic spices, slightly cherry-berry and sour melon; acidity cuts a swath of the palate; gains austerity from mid-palate through the spicy, mineral-flecked finish. Biodynamic. Interesting at first, then growing enjoyable. Very Good+. About $15-$20.
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Here is a sparkling wine that for quality and price you should grasp to your bosom and purchase by the case. The Cuvée Stéphi Ebullience, non-vintage, is a blend of 60 percent chardonnay grapes, 30 percent chenin blanc and 5 percent each mauzac and pinot noir made in the Crémant de Limoux appellation in southwest France, not far from medieval walled town of Carcassonne. The wine is a collaboration between the Bourgeois family, the well-known importers headquartered in Asheville, N.C., and Domaine J. Laurens.

Limoux has an interesting history, because the first sparkling wines were apparently developed there as early as 1531, at the Abbey St.-Hilaire, and pre-dating sparkling Champagne by 150 years. These wines, traditionally made from the mauzac grape, underwent a natural process of second fermentation in the bottle in the Spring after the harvest, as the temperature warmed. The fairly rustic Blanquette de Limoux sparkling wines were supplemented in 1990 by the creation of Crémant de Limoux, designed to be more modern and to exploit the increasing acreage in the region devoted to chardonnay and chenin blanc grapes.

The Cuvée Stéphi Ebullience offers a mild straw-gold color and a plethora of teeming bubbles. The bouquet is a subtle weaving of biscuits, lemon zest and baking spices highlighted by a pointed limestone element; the impression is of pinpoint focus and vibrancy with nothing fancy or flashy. In the mouth, this is clean, bright, effervescent and very dry, a pleasing combination of a soft generous texture (and hints of macerated citrus fruit) with taut acidity and an upright, straight-arrow minerality in the limestone-flint range, much as if it were a cadet version of the hallowed Champagne itself. In fact, not wanting to make too hard a sell here, but the Cuvée Stéphi Ebullience makes a fair bid for elegance, presence and class beyond its station. Don’t neglect this in your sparkling wine plans. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $20.

So today is January 4th, meaning that tomorrow is Twelfth Night and the 12th Day of Christmas, bringing the 2011-2012 edition of this series to an end. Stop by for a couple of valedictory selections.

On Christmas Day 2011, let’s begin this series of Champagnes and sparkling wines with a product that’s not only charming but pretty darned complex and a bargain to boot. The emphasis this time around is on the diversity of French sparkling wines, and we’ll touch on several areas outside of iconic Champagne. The wine today is the Champalou Vouvray Brut, a nonvintage sparkler made from chenin blanc grapes, or as they’re called in the region, pineau de la Loire. Chenin blanc reigns supreme in the central Loire Valley, specifically the part called Touraine, after the city of Tours. The estate was founded in 1983 by Catherine and Didier Champalou, who make only about 12,000 cases of white wine annually, all from chenin blanc grapes.

The Champalou Vouvray Brut is made in what’s called méthode traditionelle, that is the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle; that’s the step that produces the essential bubbles. (The term méthode champenoise, by the way, was outlawed for label use by the EU in 1994.) The Champalou Vouvray Brut is fermented in stainless steel tanks and allowed to rest on the lees of spent yeast cells; then it is transferred to bottles, given a dosage of yeast and sugar (to kick-start the second fermentation) and capped; it spends 20 months in bottles before being corked and released.

The color is shimmering pale gold; effervescence is mild but persistent. Heady aromas of almond and acacia, lemongrass and quince, with a touch of something earthy and straw-like, are tempered by a cut of steel and limestone. This is surprisingly creamy and substantial, almost luscious, but balanced by bright, crisp acidity and more of that clean, slightly austere limestone minerality to bolster flavors of roasted lemons and spiced pears; hints of candle-wax and camellia come out in the long, lively satisfying finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent, and Great Value at about $19 to $26, reflecting prices around the country.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal. A sample for review.

Here’s a terrific sparkling wine from France that will make your palate and your pocketbook happy. It’s the Marcel Martin Tête de Cuvée Crémant de Loire Brut. The requirements for the Crémant de Loire appellation include originating in the regions of Anjou-Saumur or Touraine, lower grape yields than go into the Loire’s other sparkling wines and a higher percentage of free-run juice, as well as one-year’s aging, as opposed to nine months for other local sparklers. Grapes tend to be chenin blanc and cabernet franc, though chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and some indigenous grapes are allowed. “Tête de Cuvée” on a label implies that the product is top (or “head”) of the line, but the term is not regulated in France, so consumers must depend on the honesty of the producer. These wines are made in the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle.

Marcel Martin Tête de Cuvée Crémant de Loire Brut presents a medium straw-gold color such as Rapunzel’s hair might be; a tremendous fountain of tiny bubbles erupts from the bottom of the glass and surges upward to the surface. This is all roasted lemon, steel and limestone, with hints of winsome acacia and almond, straw and bracing sea-salt. This sparkling wine truly is full-bodied and creamy, though cleanly cut with rapier-like acidity and scintillating limestone and flint minerality. The finish is long, fervent, steely and spicy. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+ (with a couple more +s if I could; it’s that close to Excellent). I paid $23, but I have seen prices as low as $17 around the country.

Imported by The Stacole Co., Boca Raton, Fla.

The history of Domaine du Tariquet is complicated — the progenitor was a bear-tamer — so it will suit our purposes merely to say that the same family his owned the property since 1912, first the Artaud family and then, through marriage in the early 1940s, the Grassa family. Today, the third Grassa generation operates the estate, which originally produced only Bas-Armagnac and then in 1982 added white wines in what were pioneering blends of chardonnay and chenin blanc or chardonnay and sauvignon blanc or ugni blanc and colombard. These white wines and a rosé, great values among them, are the subject of today’s reviews. The appellation is Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne, in the southwest region of France called Midi-Pyrénées. For centuries, Gascony, which shares a mountainous border with Spain, was home to a Basque-speaking people whose origins and affinities really lay in Spanish culture; in fact, the root of the words Basque and Gascony is the same. Côtes de Gascogne, surrounded by predominantly red wine regions, is unusual in that 91 percent of the production is white wine, the rest being about 8 percent red and 1 percent rosé.

Imported by Robert Kacher Selections, Washington DC. Samples for review.
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Domaine du Tariquet Classic Ugni Blanc Colombard 2010, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. 70 percent ugni blanc, 30 percent colombard. Ugni blanc is the same grape as the usually nondescript Italian trebbiano; by keeping things simple and controlling the grape’s inherent withering acidity, it’s capable of making an attractive, lively wine of no huge character; it would help if yields were kept low. Paradoxically, ugni blanc is the principle grape in Cognac and Armagnac, precisely because its neutral nature and high acidity make it perfect for distillation and wood aging. Anyway, this little quaffer is as alluring as all get-out, offering hints of lemon, pear and yellow plum woven with touches of jasmine and cloves, a bit of almond skin and something slightly herbal. Fresh, clean, delightful and very nice as an aperitif or with mild cheeses and seafood dishes. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $9, a Real Bargain.
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Domaine du Tariquet Chenin Chardonnay 2010, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. Chenin blanc 75 percent, chardonnay 25 percent. This is pleasant enough but certainly not the most attractive or compelling of this group of wines. Crisp and vibrant, with tasty touches of lemon, quince and green plum and a burgeoning spicy element supported by a hint of limestone. 12.5 percent alcohol. Good+. About $11.
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Domaine du Tariquet Chardonnay 2010, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. While the other wines noted in this post receive no oak aging, Tariquet’s Chardonnay 2010 was given three months in barrels. Amazing quality for the price here: this is clean, fresh and bright, with pears and roasted lemon for the nose, highlighted by hints of grapefruit and pineapple and gentle spice and a touch of buttered toast, while a few minutes bring round a note of jasmine; the texture deftly balances moderate lushness and a very pleasing texture with resonant acidity and a bit of limestone in the background. Surprising heft, presence and personality for a chardonnay in this range. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $11.
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Domaine du Tariquet Cote 2010, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. This beguiling wine is a well-balanced blend of 50 percent chardonnay and 50 percent sauvignon blanc, each grape nicely delineated yet fitting seamlessly into the package. Fresh aromas of apples, pears and slightly spiced and macerated lemons with hints of thyme and freshly-mown grass and a touch of jasmine; crisp and quite lively, with spicy, roasted lemon and grapefruit flavors ensconced in a texture seductively poised between chardonnay’s ripe lushness and sauvignon blanc’s tidy spareness, all encompassed by a finish packed with limestone. We enjoyed this wine with seared rare tuna, under a dense peppercorn crust. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
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Domaine du Tariquet Rosé de Pressée 2010, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. My favorite of this group. A blend of 30 percent each merlot and cabernet franc, 25 percent syrah and 15 percent tannat, the wine was made in the fashion of a white wine, that is grapes pressed and the juice removed from the skins, rather than the saignée method of crushing the grapes and bleeding off some juice before it colors completely. This example is unusually ripe and fleshy for a rosé, though the color is a pale melon-copper; aromas of fresh strawberries, red currants and melon unfold to elements of pomegranate, almond skin, thyme and limestone; a lovely, almost silken texture is riven by scintillating acidity and limestone-like minerality, pointing up spicy red fruit flavors that aim toward a finish that gets spare and almost austere. A superior rosé, charming yet with a fairly serious edge. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $12, a Great Bargain.
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The theme today, such as it is, is diversity. I chose eight wines that were either 100 percent varietal (or a little blended) from eight different regions as a way of demonstrating, well, I guess the amazing range of places where wine can be made. Eight examples barely scratch the surface of such a topic, of course, and a similar post could probably be written in at least eight variations and not use the same grapes as primary subjects. Another way would be to create a post called “1 grape, 8 Places,” to show the influence that geography has on one variety. That topic is for another post, though. All the whites were made in stainless steel and are perfect, each in its own manner, for light-hearted summer sipping. The reds, on the other hand, would be excellent will all sorts of grilled red meat, from barbecue ribs to steaks.
All samples for review or tasted at trade events.
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Sauvignon blanc:
The Long Boat Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Marlborough, from Jackson Family Wines, is the archetypal New Zealand model that bursts with pert notes of gooseberry, celery seed, new-mown grass, thyme, tarragon and lime peel; it practically tickles your nose and performs cart-wheels on your tongue. It’s very dry, very crisp, a shot of limestone and chalk across a kiss of steel and steely acidity that endow with tremendous verve flavors of roasted lemon, leafy fig and grapefruit. That touch of grapefruit widens to a tide that sends a wave of bracing bitterness through the mineral-drenched finish. Truly scintillating, fresh and pure. 12.8 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Ca.
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Riesling:
The Gunderloch “Jean-Baptiste” Riesling Kabinett 2009, Rheinhessen, Germany, is a fresh, clean and delicate wine that opens with hints of green apple and slate and slightly spiced and macerated peaches and pears; a few minutes in the glass bring out a light, sunny, almost ephemeral note of petrol and jasmine. Ripe peach and pear flavors are joined by a touch of lychee and ethereal elements of lime peel, grapefruit and limestone that persist through the finish; the texture is sleek, smooth and notably crisp and lively. Really charming. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18.
Rudi Wiest for Cellars International, San Marcos, Ca.
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Chenin blanc:
Made from organically-grown grapes, the Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2009, Carmel Valley, California, is refined, elegant, almost gossamer in its exquisite melding of tart apple and ripe peach with spiced pear and a hint of roasted lemon; there’s a touch of chenin blanc’s signature dried hay-meadowy effect as well as a hint, just a wee hint, of riesling’s rose petal/lychee aspect. (This wine typically contains 10 to 15 percent riesling, but I can’t tell you how much for 2009 because I received not a scrap of printed material with this shipment, and the winery’s website is a vintage behind; hence the label for 2008. Hey, producers! It doesn’t take much effort to keep your websites up-to-date!) Anyway, the wine is crisp and lively with vibrant acidity and offers a beguilingly suave, supple texture. It’s a bit sweet initially, but acid and subtle limestone-like minerality bring it round to moderate dryness. Lovely. 13.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $25.
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Chardonnay:
Roland Lavantureux makes two wines, a Chablis and a Petit Chablis. Both are matured 2/3 in stainless steel tanks and 1/3 in enamel vats; the Petit Chablis for eight months, the Chablis for 10. The domaine was founded in 1978 and is family-owned and operated. The Roland Lavantureux Petit Chablis 2009 makes you wonder how the French wine laws differentiate between “little” Chablis and “regular” Chablis. This rated a “wow” as my first note. It feels like a lightning stroke of shimmering acidity, limestone and gun-flint tempered by spiced and roasted lemon and hints of quince, mushrooms and dried thyme. This wine serves as a rebuke to producers who believe that to be legitimate a chardonnay must go through oak aging; it renders oak superfluous. (Yes, I know, oak can do fine things to chardonnay used thoughtfully and judiciously.) The Roland Lavantureux Petit Chablis 09 radiates purity and intensity while being deeply savory and spicy; it’s a natural with fresh oysters or with, say, trout sauteed in brown butter and capers. A very comfortable 12.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $19 to $23.
Kermit Lynch Imports, Berkeley, Ca.
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Pinot noir:
Bodega Chacra, which makes only pinot noir wines, was established in Argentina’s Patagonia region — the Rio Negro Valley in northern Patagonia — in 2004 by Piero Incisa della Rochetta, the grandson of Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, the creator and proprietor of Sassicaia, one of the most renowned Italian wineries, and nephew of Niccolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta, who currently manages the family’s winemaking enterprises. Bodega Chacra produces three limited edition pinot noirs, one from a vineyard planted in 1932, one from a vineyard planted in 1955, and the third made from a combination of these old vineyards and grapes from two 20-year-old vineyards. The vineyards are farmed on biodynamic principles; the wines are bottled unfiltered. The Barda Pinot Noir 2010, Patagonia, is an example of the third category of these wines. It spends 11 months in French oak barrels, 25 percent new. Barda Pinot Noir 2010 is vibrant, sleek, stylish and lovely; the bouquet is bright, spicy and savory, bursting with notes of black cherry, cranberry and cola highlighted by hints of rhubarb, sassafras and leather. It’s dense and chewy, lithe and supple; you could roll this stuff around on your tongue forever, but, yeah, it is written that ya have to swallow some time. Flavors of black cherry and plum pudding are bolstered by subtle elements of dusty graphite and slightly foresty tannins, though the overall impression — I mean, the wine is starting to sound like syrah — is of impeccable pinot noir pedigree and character. 12.8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $30.
Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y.
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Zinfandel:
If you grow weary, a-weary of zinfandel wines that taste like boysenberry shooters, then the Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, California, is your cup of, as it were, tea. No bells and whistles here, just the purity and intensity of the zinfandel grape not messed about with. Grgich Hills is farmed entirely organically and by biodynamic principles, and winemaker Ivo Jeramaz uses oak judiciously, in this case 15 months in large French oak casks, so there’s no toasty, vanilla-ish taint of insidious new oak. The color is medium ruby with a hint of violet-blue at the rim; the nose, as they say, well, the nose offers a tightly wreathed amalgam of deeply spicy, mineral-inflected black and red currants and plums with a swathing of dusty sage and lavender, wound with some grip initially, but a few minutes in the glass provide expanse and generosity. Amid polished, burnished tannins of utter smoothness and suppleness, the black and red fruit flavors gain depths of spice and slate-like minerals; the whole effect is of an indelible marriage of power and elegance and a gratifying exercise in ego-less winemaking. 14.7 percent alcohol. We drank this with pizza, but it would be great with any sort of grilled or braised red meat or robustly flavored game birds. Excellent. About $35.
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Cabernet sauvignon:
You just have to rejoice when you encounter a cabernet, like the Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Mendoza, Argentina, that radiates great character and personality — yes, those are different qualities — and maintains a rigorous allegiance to the grape while expressing a sense of individuality and regionality. The vineyards average 3,510-feet elevation; that’s way up there. Five percent malbec is blended in the wine; it aged 15 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels, and while that may seem like a high proportion of new oak, that element feels fully integrated and indeed a bit subservient to the wine’s strict high-altitude tannins and granite-like minerality. Aromas of black currants and black plums are ripe and fleshy, a bit roasted and smoky, yet iron-like, intense and concentrated; a few moments in the glass bring up classic touches of briers and brambles, cedar and wheatmeal, thyme and black olive, a hint of mocha. This is a savory cabernet, rich, dry, consummately compelling yet a little distant and detached, keeping its own counsel for another year or two, though we enjoyed it immensely with a medium rare rib-eye steak. What’s most beguiling are the broadly attractive black and blue fruit flavors permeated by moss and loam and other foresty elements married to muscular yet supple heft, dimensional and weight. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $25.
Imported by Vine Connections, Sausalito, Ca.
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Tempranillo:
Here’s a terrific, slightly modern version of Rioja, by which I mean that it’s not excessively dry, woody and austere, as if made by ancient monks putting grapes through the Inquisition. Bodegas Roda was founded by Mario Rotillant and Carmen Dautella in 1991, in this traditional region that abuts Navarra in northeastern Spain. The deep and savory Roda Reserva 2006, Rioja, Spain, blends 14 percent graciano grapes and five percent garnacha (grenache) with 81 percent tempranillo; the wine is aged 16 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, and spends another 20 months in the bottle before release. The color is rich, dark ruby, opaque at the center; aromas of black currant and black raspberry are infused with cloves and fruit cake, sage and thyme, bacon fat, leather and sandalwood, with something clean, earthy and mineral-drenched at the core. That sense of earth and graphite-like minerality persists throughout one’s experience with the wine, lending resonant firmness to the texture, which also benefits from finely-milled, slightly dusty tannins and vibrant acidity, all impeccably meshed with smoky, spicy flavors of black and red fruit and plum pudding. 14 percent alcohol. An impressive, even dignified yet delicious wine for drinking now, with grilled meat and roasts, or for hanging onto through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $45.
Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y.
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We continue to work our way through one of our favorite cookbooks, Jamie’s Italy (Hyperion, $34.95), by British chef and cooking personality Jamie Oliver. Many of the dishes he presents are eminently suited to the ferociously hot weather we’re enduring, that is, cooking is at a minimum (well, risotto takes some time at the stove) and the effects are light and delicious. We prepared these two meals on consecutive nights this week.

First was the Fennel Risotto with Ricotta and Dried Chili. This is basically a risotto, made the usual way, with minced onion and garlic (or shallot), white wine, a little butter, but halfway through, you add the thinly sliced fennel that you’ve slowly sauteed with pulverized fennel seeds, garlic and olive oil. You add ricotta, Parmesan and lemon zest before the cooking is finished and at the last minute sprinkle on the crushed — or “bashed up,” as Oliver says — dried red chilies, fennel tops and more Parmesan. This was a seriously tasty dish, bursting with sweet, earthy flavor and heat but not heavy or too spicy.

With the risotto, I opened a bottle of the Graham Beck Gamekeeper’s Reserve Chenin Blanc 2008, from the Coastal Region of
South Africa. Traditionally, the chenin blanc grape is called steen on labels, but that usage is becoming rare as the country’s wines are imported more widely into the United States. What a beauty this is! Scents of quince, yellow plum and pear are wreathed with crystallized ginger and cloves and a touch of honey. There’s more of a citrus tang on the tongue, like lime peel and grapefruit, with a hint of mango. The wine is notably crisp and lively, yet the lovely texture is neatly balanced between spareness and almost luxurious lushness. This aspect is tempered, as the minutes pass, by a tide of piercing minerality in the form of limestone and damp shale. At a bit more than two years old, the Gamekeeper’s Reserve Chenin Blanc 2008 offers an alluringly mature example of the grape. The winemaker was Erika Obermeyer. Alcohol is 13.5 percent. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $16, representing Great Value.

The wine was terrific with the risotto, the richness and fruitiness of the chenin blanc working well with the sweetness and richness of the risotto yet playing off the heat from the dried chilies.

Imported by Graham Beck Wines, San Francisco. A sample for review.
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The next night, we tried grilled swordfish with salsa di Giovanna, which could also be done with tuna. Giovanna sauce is really just a vinaigrette, but in addition to the olive oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper, it contains finely sliced garlic and chopped fresh mint and oregano. I mean, that’s it, but, mama mia, what a sauce it made for a wonderful, thick swordfish steak LL bought at Whole Foods. You just grill or saute the fish, and when it’s on the plate, dribble the sauce over it. Oliver gives credit to Giovanna, a cook at an estate in Sicily for teaching him this method. We tend to under-cook swordfish, so this was incredibly moist, tender and flavorful in the way swordfish can be when it’s not over-cooked, as it almost always is in restaurants. LL made roasted potatoes and bok choy sauteed in olive oil and garlic to go with the swordfish.

On this occasion, I opened the Margerum Klickitat Pinot Gris 2009, which carries a designation of “American.” That means that the grapes were grown in one state, in this case Washington, and the wine was made in another state, in this case, California. According to the TTB — Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau — you can make a cross-county wine and list the counties on the labels –as in, say, 65% Napa 35% Mendocino — but not so with an interstate wine; those have to be called “American.” “Klickitat” is a county in southern Washington named for a Native American tribe of the Yakima group. The winery is in the town of Los Olivos, in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley.

The Margerum Klickitat Pinot Gris 09 is a super-attractive wine on the model of the versions of Alsace, where the pinot gris grape can reach its apotheosis. Apple, lemon and pear aromas are woven with apple blossom and jasmine that develop, after a few minutes, lovely notes of tangerine and orange blossom. Plenty of flowers, yes, but the bouquet remains charming, balanced and compelling and not overwhelmingly floral. Spicy and herbal elements — spiced pear and lemon; dried thyme — make themselves known, both in the nose and mouth, and they increase their effect at the same time as the wine takes on more damp gravel-like minerality; while delicate in its constituent parts, the wine adds up to a substantial presence in its weight and lively, slightly lush texture. This all went down so easily, and it paired beautifully with the swordfish and Giovanna sauce. Winemaker was Doug Margerum. Production was about 1,450 cases. Drink through 2012. Excellent. Suggested retail price is about $16 (I mean at the winery), but here in Memphis, I paid $22.
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Joan Didion was once asked to lecture on the topic “Why I Write.” Her response was something like, “Look at the vowels in those three words: I, I, I.” In other words, writing is all about me, myself and I, and writing on a blog is the same deal. Wait! No! Those are the other blogs! This blog is all about you, you, you, my readers! Just so, the title of this post, “Nine White Wines,” encloses those “I, I, I” implications, but is really about wine choices for you, though today I limit those choices somewhat by excluding wines made from the chardonnay grape. I’ve tried some pretty good ones recently but also some chardonnays that were sodden with oak, so that grape will get separate posts in a week or so, “a week or so” being such a comfortingly elastic expression of futurity. (I’ve never seen this photograph of Joan Didion before, from 1970; wow, what a dish! And one of my favorite writers and heroes for her courage, her unflinching gaze, her slashing prose! I’m on a project now of reading or re-reading all her books.)

Anyway, Nine White Wines (and a bonus at the end).
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Made all in stainless steel, the Dry Creek Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2008, Wilson Ranch, Clarksburg — in the Sacramento Delta region of Northern California — opens with whiffs of lemon balm and dried thyme, with tangerine and a hint of orange zest. This is an incredibly fresh and refreshing wine whose crisp acidity whets the palate and lays the groundwork for juicy citrus flavors touched with a bit of mango; lightness and delicacy are wedded to a moderately lush texture. The finish rounds out the wine with some lime peel and bracing grapefruit bitterness. The alcohol is a soothing 12.5 percent. Always a favorite for summer quaffing with grilled shrimp, seafood risotto or linguine with clam sauce. Closed (for the first time) with a screw-cap. Very Good. About $12, representing Great Value.
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The torrontés grape makes charming and delightful wines but not great wines, and that’s nothing for it to worry its pretty little head about; how happy we are, for example, to meet a person who is consistently charming, delightful and undemanding. Sort of like me. The Trivento Amado Sur Torrontés 2009, Mendoza, Argentina, however, blends 15 percent viognier grapes and 10 percent chardonnay with 75 percent torrontés. What, I thought, is this an attempt to pump up the virtues of a simple grape and turn it into something “important,” a “Super Torrontés,” as it were? The fact is, this is a terrifically appealing wine that offers scents of ripe peach, pear and quince with meadowy undertones and a whiff of camellia. It’s very dry, very crisp and mounts a limestone element so piercing that it’s almost poignant. Give the wine a few minutes and it becomes slightly honeyed (but not sweet), with notes of candied grapefruit and ginger, but there’s always that crystalline acidity and austere minerality to leaven the sensuousness; the finish brings in the forthright bitterness of grapefruit and lime peel. So, I suppose this is a kind of Super Torrontés and no worse for the bolstering. Very Good+. About $15, Good Value.

Imported by Excelsior Wine & Spirits, a division of Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville, N.Y. Trivento — “three winds” — is the Argentine outpost of Chile’s giant wine producer Concha y Toro.
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Bold in stone fruit, the Adegas D’Altamira Albariño Brandal 2008, from Spain’s northwestern region of Rias Baixas in Galicia, takes yellow plum and peach and blends them with dried thyme, sage and white pepper for a striking bouquet; in a few minutes you’ll notice touches of orange zest and lime peel, grass and hay. The texture is amazing, so plush that it feels talc-like yet cut with riveting acidity and a scintillating limestone quality. Flavors are more melon and pear than stone fruit, with hints of cloves and ginger, the whole package being dry, zesty and savory. The wine is made all in stainless steel and does not go through the malolactic process, so it retains buoyant freshness and concentration. I can hear it now, on its knees, begging, “Please, please, please, serve me with oysters right out of the sea!” Or mussels grilled with rosemary would be good too. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012. Excellent. About $18.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Ca.
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Winter’s Hill farm was established in 1961 by the Gladhart family in what is now Oregon’s Dundee Hills appellation within the Willamette Valley. Dundee Hills is where David Lett, Dick Erath and the Sokol Blosser family started their pioneering wineries in the 1960s and early ’70s, staking a claim for pinot noir. The Gladharts planted their first vines in 1990. The winemaker now is Delphine Gladhart, a Frenchwoman married to Russell Gladhart.

The Winter’s Hill Pinot Blanc 2007, Dundee Hills, delivers wonderful tone and presence while maintaining a fleetness and delicacy of effect that’s exhilarating. Mildly spicy pear and lemon scents segue into spicier flavors of pear, roasted lemon and melon, with a touch of almond skin. The balance and restraint here, the equilibrium and sense of elegance allied to a feeling of slightly repressed depth, are not only admirable but irresistible. So many wines could profit from this sort of decorum that never feels fastidious. Production was 840 cases, so mark this Worth a Search. The alcohol level is 14 percent. Excellent. About $18.
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The Guado al Tasso Vermentino 2008, from Antinori’s winery in Bolgheri, in southwestern Tuscany, is a sort of seaside wine; one feels the briskness and breeziness of the sea-wind, the snap of salt and crusted oyster shells. There’s the slight fragrant astringency of rosemary crushed in the hand, the richness of roasted lemon and lemon balm, a subtle note of honeysuckle and jasmine. Adding to the freshness are tingling acidity, a touch of spritz –this is all stainless steel — and heaping elements of damp limestone. So this is delightful and charming, but not simpleminded; there are serious bones here, the structure of elegance, an evocative whisper of Olympian distance in the austere finish. 13 percent alcohol. We drank this with roasted salmon with a potato and artichoke hash. Excellent. About $25.

Imported by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Woodinville, Washington.

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Yes, you’re reading this correctly: Pinot blanc grapes — a mutation of genetically unstable pinot noir — do grow in Burgundy, though they are found rarely in vineyards and even more rarely bottled as a single wine. (They thrive in cooler Alsace.) The venerable Domaine Henri Gouges, however, employs pinot blanc for its Bourgogne, and for 2007 produced a delightful example. Did I say “delightful”? Actually, the Domaine Henri Gouges Bourgogne Blanc Pinot Blanc 2007 is one of the prettiest wines I have tasted in dog’s years. This is wonderfully fresh, clean and pure, with notes of jasmine and chalk, macerated lemons and lemon curd with a touch of spiced pear and quince. Avid acidity flashes like a bright blade — man, I just freakin’ love alliteration! — enlivening a texture that inextricably weds crispness to slightly cushiony lushness. If this didn’t fall a tad short on the finish, it would be well-nigh perfect, though it’s still well-worth seeking out. Very Good+. About $26 to $32.

Imported by Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.

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Here’s what hard work and perseverance (and maybe being in the right place at the right time) will do for you. Damian Parker, director of winemaking for Joseph Phelps Vineyard, came to the winery in 1981 as bottle-line supervisor. Ashley Hepworth came to Joseph Phelps in 1999 to work the crush, after two years in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter, and in 2008 was promoted to winemaker. America is a great country after all!

Whatever the combination of knowledge and experience Parker and Hepworth represent, they got the Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc 2008, St. Helena, Napa Valley, exactly right. While there’s nothing wrong (or not much) with the larky, snappy, blastingly citric and tropical sauvignon blancs that flood the market today, it’s nice to sip a sauvignon blanc fit for grown-ups. First, all things lemon are here, from roasted lemon to lemon balm and lemon curd, with an infusion of dried thyme and tarragon and a hint of dusty summer meadows. The wine is quite lively, sporting a keen edge of damp limestone and a tingling line of crisp acidity. The oak is subtle and supple, the result of eight months in new French oak puncheons — generally defined as holding 500 liters — and one- and two-year old French barriques, holding 225 liters or 59 gallons; in other words, the winemakers consciously decided to forgo the influence of new barriques for a more nuanced approach. What can I say? This is a sauvignon blanc of immense presence and authority that doesn’t neglect the elements of elegance and grace. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. The alcohol content is a sensible 13.5 percent. Exceptional. About $32.
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The Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2008, Clare Valley, South Australia, delivers exactly what you want from a Clare Valley riesling: a classic bouquet of lychees and peaches, lime peel and petrol (or rubber eraser) and penetrating aromas of gunflint and damp shale. If you could drink such a bouquet you could stop there, but move along, please, to flavors of orange zest, grapefruit and mango ensconced in a very dry, very crisp and spare structure that makes it feel as if you’re drinking liquid limestone that dates back to the Ice Age it’s so pure and immediate, and yet, paradoxically, here comes a gentle whiff of rose petal and lilac. The finish, not surprisingly, is elegantly-wrought, all high cheek-bones and unblemished foreheads, very cool, pale, princesse lointaine, complete. The whole effect is beguiling and seductive, and I wish I had a glass sitting right here beside me (though I’m having a fine old time with this quaffable Domaine “La Garrigue” Cuvee Romaine Côte du Rhône 2008 that I’m sipping rather too much of at the present moment). Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Screw-cap closed. Exceptional. About $38.

Imported by USA Wine West, Sausalito, Cal., for The Australian Premium Wine Collection.
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What you need to know about the St. Urbans-Hof Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Auslese 2007, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, is, first (working backward), that it’s from Germany’s Mosel region; second, that it derives from the excellent and even better year of 2007; that’s the ripeness level of Auslese is pretty damn ripe and potentially sweet; that the grape is riesling; that the vineyard is the well-known, even legendary Goldtropfchen; that the commune wherein the vineyard resides is the equally well-known Piesport; and that the producer is St. Urbans-Hof. Got that? And they say that German wine labels are too complicated!

The color is shimmering pale gold; aromas of softly spiced and macerated peaches and pears are permeated by lime peel and cloves and by subtle earthiness, clean and damp, and pert slate-like minerality. The acidity is so tremendous that the wine practically vibrates in the glass, yet the faint sweetness, a subtle sense of honeyed and baked stone fruit, like brioche with peach and plum marmalade, cuts the acid down to layers of etched limestone. This is vital, resonant and lively, though the finish comes through with an aura of stately balance and integration. We drank this with roasted salmon accompanied by roasted potato salad in a cilantro/jalapeño vinaigrette. Yay, LL! Now through 2017 or ’20, well-stored. Excellent. About $55.
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Yer Bonus: Two sparkling wines from Vouvray, Loire Valley, meaning chenin blanc grapes. Each made in the traditional champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle.

The Francois Pinon Vouvray Brut (non-vintage) is all steel, limestone and shale, roasted lemons, quince and ginger; the color is pale straw/gold, the myriad tiny bubbles as uncountable as the galaxies in the heavens. Very clean and fresh and crisp, with touches of biscuits, baking spices and toasted almonds, with a faint whiff of almond blossom. We drank this while cooking dinner one night and snacking on flatbread slathered with dried tomato and walnut pesto. Charming and delectable. Very Good+, and a Bargain at about $17.

Imported by Louis/Dressner, New York.
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Maison Huet — “oo-ay” — has been among the best producers of dry, semi-sweet and late-harvest Vouvray wines since it was founded in 1928. You will notice that the Domaine Huet Brut 2002, Vouvray Petillant, is seven and a half years old, and at this point it is drinking to perfection. Pop the cork — I mean open it properly and gently — and you smell the fresh bread, biscuits and granite from a foot away. The color is medium gold; the “bead” is gently effusive — petillant implies lightly sparkling — and mildly effervescent. This sparkling wine, which ages four years in the bottle on the yeast, evinces the straw/hay quality of the chenin blanc grape but offers, also, touches of buttered toast, cinnamon bread and a hint of roasted hazelnuts and macerated lemons and pears preserved with cloves. I hope readers get the idea that the Huet Brut 2002 is not just “a reasonable alternative” to Champagne but a fine expression of a grape and a style of sparkling wine in itself. It should be consumed within a year or 18 months. Excellent. About $30 to $35.

Imported by Robert Chadderdon Selections, New York.
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Samples for review, except for the Domaine Henri Gouges Bourgogne Pinot Blanc 2007, tasted at a trade event in New York. Photo of Joan Didion, Hollywood, 1970, by Julian Wesser, Time Life Pictures/Getty Images. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________

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