Fortified wine


I started this post as a way of commemorating my 30th anniversary in wine-writing, reached, as My Regular Readers know — bless your little pointy heads and may your tribes increase — early in July. Initially, the concept was “Fifty Great Wines,” but I decided that choosing 50 “great” wines from 30 years of tasting would be an impossible and probably just stupid and futile task. In three decades, I tasted thousands and thousands and more thousands of wines — you writers know how it is — so choosing the 50 “greatest” from this immense group would be a Sisyphian exercise.

Then I realized that what would be more significant anyway would be 50 wines that, as the title states, shaped my palate, the wines that shook me to the core, that shifted my perspective about how wine is made and its various effects, that achieved a level of purity and intensity that befit the divine; the wines, in short, that were not only definitive but created me as a writer. Yes, just that. So I spent the past few weeks combing through dozens of old notebooks, through the electronic archives of the newspaper for which I wrote a weekly column for 20 years and of course through the pages of this blog.

Now let’s be frank about some issues. As a wine reviewer, I am dependent on the practice of samples provided by producers, importers, marketers and (to a lesser extent) local distributors; I depend on the occasional trade tasting, lunch with a touring winemaker, on sponsored travel to wine regions in this country and abroad. You will not, therefore, see a list that emphasizes the great wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy, though some are included, more Burgundy than Bordeaux, because I have few opportunities to encounter such wines. Perhaps, however, you will discover here wines that you had forgotten or overlooked; certainly there will be surprises. To those of my wine-writing/blogging/tasting friends who might say, “Cripes, FK, I can’t believe you didn’t put [whatever legendary fabuloso wine] on this list!” I can only reply, “I never had the chance to taste that wine and if you want to send me a bottle, I’ll be grateful but not humbled.” This is about my experience as an individual, as, you might say, a palate.

I benefited early on from the generosity of two people in Memphis, the restaurateur-wine collector John Grisanti and a figure important in wholesale, retail and wine education, Shields Hood. Many of the wines they offered me, exposed me to and sent in my direction truly changed my life and made me what I am today.
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1. Simi Pinot Noir 1974, Alexander Valley. Purchased at a local store, tasted at home March 1984 and still, at least in memory, one of the greatest California pinots I ever encountered.

2. Mercurey Clos des Myglands 1971, Faiveley. Tasted at John Grisanti’s private cellar, September 16, 1984. As in “Ah, so that’s what Burgundy is all about.”

3. Moët & Chandon Cuvée Dom Perignon 1976, Champagne. At a wholesaler’s tasting, with Shields Hood, September 17, 1984.

4. Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Johannesburg Riesling 1978, Belle Terre Vineyards, Alexander Valley. Last week of September, 1984.

5. Chateau La Grange 1926, St Julien Third Growth, Bordeaux. At a special wine dinner at the long-departed American Harvest Restaurant in Germantown, east of Memphis, October 1984. As in, “Ah, so this is what an aged Bordeaux wine is all about.” I love the label.

6. Simi Reserve Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Alexander Valley. My then father-in-law bought a case of this wine at $16 a bottle. High-living in those days. At 10 years old, it was perfect, expressive, eloquent. This was at Christmas dinner, 1984.

7. Clos Vougeot Grand Cru 1971, Grivelet. At John Grisanti’s cellar, June 9, 1985, a great afternoon.

8. Sonoma Vineyards Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 1976, Sonoma County. July 27 and 28, 1985. Fine balance, harmony and integration, a sense of confidence and authority expressed with elegance and restraint. This winery was not renamed for its founder Rodney Strong until after he sold it in 1984.

9. Chateau Latour 1982, Pauillac, Bordeaux. Definitive for the vintage and the chateau; tasted at a trade event in Memphis sometime in 1985; tasted again in New York, October 1991.

10. Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Napa Valley. Purchased at Sherry-Lehmann in NYC, for $20.50(!); consumed with Easter dinner in Memphis, April 1986.

11. Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1977, Alexander Valley. At a tasting in Memphis of Silver Oak cabernets, sometime in 1986.

12. Chateau Haut-Brion 1937, Graves, Bordeaux. At a tasting with collectors in Memphis in 1987; this 50-year-old wine was, incredibly and from a dismal decade in Bordeaux, even better than the fabulous ’59 and ’66.

13. Paul Jaboulet Aîné La Chapelle 1949, Hermitage, Rhone Valley, France. One of a mixed case of wonderful wines I received for annotating a cellar, drunk at a dinner in the Fall of 1988. At 39 years old, one of the best wines I have ever tasted.

14. Beaune Clos des Ursules 1952, Louis Jadot. At lunch with Gagey pere et fils at the maison in Beaune, March 1990. When I mentioned this to a friend back in the U.S., he said, “Oh, yeah, they pull out that wine for all the Americans.” No matter.

15. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru 1983. Tasted in New York, October 1991.

16. Gaja Barbaresco 1955, Piedmont, Italy. Made by Angelo Gaja’s father, tasted in New York, October 1991.

17. Chateau Beychevelle 1928, St. Julien Fourth Growth, Bordeaux. At a large tasting of multiple vintages of Chateau Branaire-Ducru and Chateau Beychevelle going back to 1893, with collector Marvin Overton and British writer Clive Coates, in Nashville. This ’28 was even better than the examples from the god-like years of ’47, ’45 and ’29; just writing that sentence made me feel like Michael Broadbent.

18. Freemark Abbey 1978, Napa Valley. At a vertical tasting in Chicago, January 1993.

19. Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Napa Valley. I bought six half-bottles of this splendid perfectly aged cabernet from a FedEx pilot who was divesting his cellar and served them at a dinner party in 1996.

20. Chalone Chardonnay 1981, Monterey. A revelation at almost 15 years old; I bought this and some other California chardonnays from the late ’70s and early ’80s out of a cellar that had been kept at 40 to 45 degrees; tasted with LL and a friend at Cafe Society in Memphis, May 1996.

21. Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 1998, Clare Valley, Australia. Tasted at the property, October 1998, very young, filled with power and otherworldly grace.

22. Bass Phillip Reserve Pinot Noir 1997, Gippsland, Australia. Tasted in Melbourne, October 1998; they’re not shy with oak at Bass Phillip, but this was a thrilling monument to pinot noir purity and intensity.

23. Clos Apalta 1996, Rapel Valley, Chile, 95 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon. The initial release, tasted at the hacienda of Don Pepe Rabat, who owned the oldest merlot vineyard in Chile, with Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle and Michel Rolland, April 1998.

24. Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses Premier Cru 1998, Domaine G. Roumier. From the barrel at the property, December 7, 1999, my birthday. The earth seemed to open under my feet.

25. Chateau Petrus 1998, Pomerol, Bordeaux. Barrel sample at the property, December 1999. One of the most profound wines I have ever experienced.

26. Robert Mondavi To Kalon 1 Block Fume Blanc 2000, Napa Valley. June 2002, a sample for review.

27. Robert Mondavi Marjorie’s Sunrise Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Oakville District, Napa Valley. June 2002, a sample for review.

28. Sineann Reed and Reynolds Vineyard Pinot Noir 2000, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Tasted at the International Pinot Noir Conference, McMinnville, August 2002.

29. Nicolas Joly Clos de la Bergerie 1999, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, Loire Valley, France. New York, at La Caravelle, January 2003, with the line-up of Joly’s wines.

30. Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1966, South Australia. At a comprehensive tasting of this iconic wine, 1996 back to 1955, at Spago in L.A., April 2003.

31. Chateau d’Epiré 1964, Savennières Moelleux, Loire Valley, France. At a dinner associated with the Loire Valley Wine Fair, February 2004.

32. Domaine de la Pepière Clos des Briords 1986, Muscadet Sevre et Maine, Loire Valley, France. At the estate with proprietor Marc Ollivier, one of the great tasting experiences of my life, February 2004.

33. Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2001. Tasted in New York, June 2004.

34. Tres Sabores Zinfandel 2003, Rutherford, Napa Valley. Tasted in New York, March 2006.

35. Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996, Champagne, France. Tasted in New York, September 2006; fabulous but not nearly ready to drink.

36. Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets Premier Cru 2004, Domaine Jean-Noël Gagnard. New York, September 2006, trade tasting.

37. Corton Grand Cru 2002, Domaine Comte Senard. New York, September 2006, trade tasting.

38. Chateau Montelena The Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Napa Valley. New York, September 2007.

39. Porter-Bass Chardonnay 2004, Russian River Valley. New York, September 2007.

40. Pommard Les Epenots Premier Cru 2004, Dominique Laurent. New York, September 2007.

41. Phifer Pavit Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley. Sample for review, tasted at home October 2008. The best first-release cabernet I ever encountered.

42. Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, Napa valley. Sample for review, tasted at home December 2008.

43. Heyl zu Herrnsheim Niersteiner Pettenheim Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken 1991, Rheingau, Germany. At the estate, July, 2009.

44. Quinta da Roameira Vintage Porto 2007. In Douro Valley, August 2009, at a comprehensive tasting of the 2007 ports at Niepoort.

45. Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Tasted in Piedmont, January, 2010, with winemaker Giorgio Lavagna and a ragtag gaggle of American bloggers.

46 & 47. Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Malbec 2007, Mendoza, & Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Mendoza. Tasted at the property — the chardonnay with lunch — October 2010.

48. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998. Purchased locally and consumed on New Year’s Eve 2010, with Imperial Osetra caviar from Petrossian.

49. Pfeffingen Ungsteiner Herrenerg Riesling Beerenauslese 2004, Pfalz, Germany. A sample for review, tasted December 2011.

50. Müllen Kinheimen Rosenberg Riesling Kabinett 2002, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany. Tasted with Lyle Fass in New York, December 2013.

Well, I already see a couple of wines that I should have included in this roster — Chateau d’Yquem 1975, Sauternes, for example — but 50 is a good wholesome round number with an air of closure about it, so let’s leave it alone. And for the future? The process of learning, having our minds changed, our ideas and consciousness expanded never ends. Perhaps there will be candidates for this list from 2014, among them the Clos Saron Stone Soup Vineyard Syrah 2011, Sierra Foothills, made by Gideon Beinstock, and, oddly enough, the Inwood Estates Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Dallas County, Texas, made by Dan Gatlin. We’ll see how I feel in another 30 years.

The Madeira Archipelago, an autonomous region of Portugal, sits in the North Atlantic Ocean about 625 miles southwest of the European continent and 466 miles west of Morocco. It is the outermost reach of the European Union. Encountered primarily by shipwrecked sailors until the 15th Century, the islands were claimed by Portugal in 1419. Situated advantageously in the sea-lanes that ships used to journey to Africa, South America and India, Madeira and its capital of Funchal became a natural port-of-call and supply station for shipping companies. The islands’ major agricultural product was sugar cane and its industry sugar refineries, though when those activities migrated to the New World, vineyards and winemaking developed, and that’s where this post is concerned.

Madeira became a fortified wine sometime toward the end of the 16th Century, that is to say that, like Port, alcohol was added to the wine to strengthen it for long sea voyages; with fermentation stopped, the wine retained residual sugar and became sweet to varying degrees. Madeira was very popular in North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as Brazil, North Africa, Great Britain and Russia. In fact, the Russian Revolution of 1917 dealt a severe blow to the Madeira industry, though from the mid-19th Century double whammies came from powdery mildew and phylloxera. From the 30 shippers working in Madeira at the end of the 17th Century, now there are six, with several of the better-known companies, such as Blandy and Cossart Gordon and other brands, gathered under the rubric of the Madeira Wine Company, of which the Symington family of Oporto has controlling interest.

The island of Madeira is mainly vertical, meaning that vineyards are allocated on steep and narrow terraces that must be tended and harvested by hand. The climate is subtropical, the rainfall high, so the altitude of the vineyards, some over 5,000 feet, helps alleviate problems of mildew and rot. What makes Madeira unique is that the wine is deliberately oxidized through a process called estufagem in which the wines in barrels are exposed to induced heat for periods ranging from at least 90-days — for bulk wines in stainless steel — to six months to a year in 158-gallon wood casks for better Madeiras to periods as long as 20 years for the finest products, these aging in the lodges in Funchal heated by the sun. While a number of lesser grapes made be grown in Madeira for the bulk wines, the best products are made from sercial, verdelho, bual and malvasia grapes; these are listed on labels as an indication of the relative dryness or sweetness of the wine.

Today, we look at seven Madeiras from Blandy’s, founded by John Blandy, who arrived at the island in 1808. His descendents still run the firm, though now in partnership with Symington.

Imported by Premium Ports & Madeiras, San Francisco. These wines were samples for review. Image of terraced vineyards from madaboutmadeira.org.
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Blandy’s Sercial Madeira Aged Five Years. The color is light golden-amber; initial aromas are dominated by toasted almonds, hay, dried thyme and caramelized fennel, opening then to toffee and honey. This Madeira is dry yet filled with a strain of slightly honeyed and roasted peaches, enlivened by cloves and allspice, with the characteristic astringency of the latter; it’s quite vibrant and resonant, with vivid acidity cutting through the salted caramel flavor and a lovely satiny texture. The finish is dry and clean but slightly earthy. 19 percent alcohol. Delectable. Excellent. About $24.
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Blandy’s Verdelho Madiera Aged Five Years. Here the color is medium amber with a hint of green; here toasted almonds are married to toasted coconut with touches of almond skin and orange zest, cloves and ginger. The dense, chewy silky texture is seductive, though buoyed by brisk acidity, while the finish brings in notes of sea salt, salt-marsh and salted caramel; the impression is of shapely sweetness that tapers to dryness from mid-palate back. 19 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $24.
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Blandy’s Bual Madeira Aged Five Years. The color is burnished medium to dark gold-amber; hints of maple syrup and pine resin, toasted walnuts and coconuts, cloves and sandalwood waft from the glass. This Madeira is undeniably sweet, at least on the entry, but is neither cloying nor opulent; it’s quite lively and vibrant, spicy, wild, sleek, yes, dense and chewy and imbued with toffee and creme brulee flavors. The finish is clear, clean and lively. 10 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $24.
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Blandy’s Malmsey Madeira Aged Five Years. Now the color is brilliant dark amber with a golden rim; aromas of toasted almonds and hazelnuts, fruitcake, orange zest, cloves and quince jam are finely-knit yet generous. This Madeira is rich and honeyed, thick and chewy, viscous but not heavy; it flows like money across the tongue in the denominations of baked peaches, spiced pears, salted toffee and crystallized ginger. 19 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $24.
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Blandy’s introduced the Alvada 5 Year Old Rich Madeira in 2002 as a different expression of the wine designed to appeal to younger consumers who don’t know anything about Madeira or believed that it’s the domain of crusty of English gentleman. In a radical move for the island, Alvada is a blend of Malmsey and Bual. The color is medium gold-amber; rich and smoky aromas of fruitcake and figgy pudding, toasted almonds and coconut, cloves, allspice and orange zest are woven in an alluring amalgam that subtly reveals a ghostly hint of bacon-wrapped dates grilled over an open fire. Dense, chewy, viscous, of course, but with high notes of roasted peach, toffee and caramel-apple, all wrapped in sea salt and almond skin. 19 percent alcohol. Pretty riveting stuff.. Excellent. About $18 for a 500-milliliter bottle.
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Blandy’s Sercial Madeira Aged 10 Years. A medium golden-amber hue seems both dense and transparent; this is an earthy Madeira, with dark notes of autumn leaves and moss under a surface of toffee, smoke and tobacco and the typical toasted coconut and almonds. A few minutes in the glass bring in notes of orange zest, bitter chocolate and candied grapefruit rind. This is dense and chewy, deeply satiny, but given resonance by blinding acidity and a dry, spicy finish. 19 percent alcohol. Very Good+. $29 for a 500-milliliter bottle.
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Blandy’s Malmsey Madeira Aged 10 Years. The color is an entrancing tobacco-amber hue with a copper-gold rim; notes of buttery toffee and roasted caramel are blended with an aroma that personifies the best fruitcake, with all that implies of dried fruit and exotic spices and a sort of dark rum-imbued wheatmeal; this is rich, savory and saline, a Madeira that’s lively and vibrant, with a core of strong lapsang souchang tea, bitter chocolate, macerated peaches and maple syrup nestled in a luxurious texture that’s viscous without being heavy or cloying. The finish is surprisingly dry and vivid. 19 percent alcohol. Deliriously attractive and sensuous, and a few sips suffice. Excellent. About $30 for a 500-milliliter bottle.
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Though the grape and wine industry in the High Plains of Texas goes back only 40 years, it has already spawned a pedigree, at least in this sense. Kim McPherson, owner of his eponymous winery in Lubbock, is the son of the legendary “Doc” McPherson, founder, in 1976, along with Bob Reed, of LLano Estacado, the region’s first winery. In fact, these two remain the only wineries in the High Plains, a dry, flat, wind-swept terrain into which hedge-fund millionaires and ex-CEOs do not come parachuting and buying up land to make expensive cult wines. There are 35 grape-growers here, according to the website of the High Plains Grape Growers Association, and they tend to live in modest farm-houses with their families and raise such row-crops as cotton, sorghum and peanuts in addition to grapes.

McPherson Cellars occupies a building in Lubbock that was erected in the 1930s as the local Coca-Cola bottling facility. Though extensively remodeled, its wide-open spaces and high ceilings made it ideal for refurbishing into a winery. I visited McPherson Cellars three weeks ago and tasted through a range of the winery’s products, a line-up that illustrates the shift in High Plains from “classic” grapes such as chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon — the climate really isn’t suited — to more amenable varieties likes viognier, marsanne and roussanne for white and grenache, carignan, mourvèdre and tempranillo for red. In other words, grapes we associate with Spain, Italy and the south of France, the Mediterranean basin. Tempranillo, particularly, is looked on as the grape that will put High Plains on the vinous map.

The pricing for McPherson wines reflects its owner and winemaker’s comment that he is “the workingman’s friend,” to which he added, “I love screw-caps.” Neither expression should persuade tasters that his wines are down-market in quality, because they’re not; they are, mainly, delightful and charming, and they edge, in some cases, into serious structure.
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McPherson offered 504 cases of a sparkling wine — sold out at the winery — from 87 percent riesling and 13 percent vermentino grapes grown in High Plains, though the product was made by his brother Jon McPherson in Temecula via the Charmat process. Though pleasant enough, it felt a bit heavy and needed more cut and minerality. Good+. Price N/A.
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The next wine, however, I found exemplary. This was the McPherson Les Copains Rosé 2013, with a Texas rather than a High Plains designation, a blend of 55 percent cinsault, 30 percent mourvèdre and 15 percent viognier. A fount of delicacy and elegance, this rose was pungent with notes of strawberries and raspberries, lilac and lavender, and it displayed deft acidity and limestone minerality. 12.9 percent alcohol. Production was 480 cases. Excellent. About $11.
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The Tres Colore 2013 is a blend of carignan and mourvèdre with a touch of viognier. This is a lovely quaff, medium ruby color with a blush of magenta, fresh, briery and brambly, intensely raspberry-ish with some of the “rasp,” a hint of rose petal and good balance and acidity. 13.9 percent alcohol. 934 cases. Very Good. About $12 to $14.
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The white Les Copains 2012 is a blend of 45 percent viognier, 35 roussanne, 16 grenache blanc and 4 marsanne; I mean, we might as well be in the southern Rhone Valley. The color is medium gold, and the seductive aromas weave notes of jasmine and honeysuckle, peach, pear and papaya; very spicy stone fruit flavors are rent by pert acidity and limestone elements, while a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of dusty lilac and Evening in Paris cologne. Very charming. 13.9 percent alcohol. 616 cases. Very Good+. About $13.
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La Herencia Red Table Wine 2012 is a blend of 75 percent tempranillo, 9 percent syrah, 6 mourvèdre and 5 percent each grenache and carignan. This wine is characterized by pinpoint balance among a smooth and supple texture, graphite minerality, juicy red and black fruit flavors and bright acidity. A highly perfumed bouquet exudes hints of macerated red and black currants, orange rind and pomegranate. Another charming and drinkable wine, though with a steady spine of structure. It aged 14 months in new and neutral French oak barrels. 13.9 percent alcohol. 986 cases. Very Good+. About $14.
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McPherson also turns out 100 cases of Chansa Solera Reserve Single Cream Sherry that ages two years in American oak barrels. It’s made from chenin blanc and French colombard grapes. With its dark amber color, its notes of toffee and toasted coconut, cloves and allspice, bitter chocolate and roasted almonds, its sweet entry but bracing, saline finish, this is a pleasant way to end a meal. 16.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $28.
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Weekend Wine Sips has been devoted rather relentlessly to red wines from California, so for a complete change of mood and mode, we turn to white wines from France, one from Bordeaux, one from the Loire Valley, one from Burgundy, the remainder from the South. One is a sweet sparkling wine, three are dessert wines and the other five are dry and perfectly suited to the changes in weather and food that are inching upon us. These are quick reviews, taken often directly from my notes, designed to pique your interest and spark your palate. I keep technical, geographical and historical information and ruminative speculation to a minimum, so the emphasis is on the wines and my impressions of them. The “Little James,” the Sancerre, the Bourgogne and the Muscat Beaumes de Venise were my purchases; the rest were samples for review. Enjoy… and have a good rest of the weekend.
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Jaillance Cuvée Impériale Clairette de Die “Tradition”, nv. 7% alc. Muscat blanc à petits grains 90%, clairette blanc 10%. My previous experiences with Clairette de Die were dry sparklers, but they were 100% clairette; this jaunty example is definitely sweet. Pleasantly effervescent, a lovely mild straw-gold color; pears and peaches, softly ripe, notes of cloves, lime peel, spiced tea and limestone; hint of jasmine and some tropical fruit, lively acidity. A bit too douce for my palate, but should be pleasing as an aperitif or with desserts with fresh berries. Very Good+. About $16, a Good Value.
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Little James’ Basket Press 2011, Vin de Pays d’Oc. 13% alc. 33-year-old viognier from Minervois with sauvignon blanc and muscat of Alexandria. From Chateau de Saint Cosme, established in Gigondas in the Northern Rhone in 1570. Pale straw gold; pears, yellow plums and a touch of peach, some astringent little white flower nestled in a briery hedge; fig and thyme, hint of caramelized fennel; very dry, very crisp and taut, a bit of greengage and grass. Highly unusual, really appealing. Very Good+. About $14, making Great Value.
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Paul Mas Estate “Single Vineyard Collection” Picpoul de Pinet 2011, Coteaux du Languedoc. 13.5%. 100% picpoul grapes. Pale straw color; honeydew melon, yellow plums, orange blossom and zest; crisp acidity but with a lovely silken texture; bracing, savory and saline, a hint of salt-marsh with dried grasses, thyme and sage; sleek mineral-packed finish. Delightful. Very Good+. About $14, Buy by the Case.
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Paul Mas Estate “Single Vineyard Collection” Chardonnay 2011, Vin de Pays d’Aude. 13.5% alc. 100% chardonnay. Pale gold color; very dry, taut, crisp, vibrant; lemon and cloves, ginger and a hint of quince; lemon balm and a touch of grapefruit with its welcome astringency; attractive texture subtly balanced between moderately dense lushness and pert acidity; lots of limestone and flint. An attractive and slightly individual chardonnay. Very Good+. About $14.
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Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre 2011, Loire Valley. 11-14% alc. 100% sauvignon blanc. Scintillating purity and intensity; pale straw-gold color; gunflint and limestone, roasted lemon and lemon drop, lime peel and tangerine; bare hint of grass in the background; very dry, tense, lean, pent with energy; deeply earthy with a hint of sauteed mushrooms; long flinty, steely finish, a little austere. Feels archetypal. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $25.
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Capitain-Gagnerot Bourgogne “Les Gueulottes” 2009, Hautes Côtes de Beaune. 12.5% alc. 100% chardonnay. Medium straw-gold color; just freakin’ lovely chardonnay, minutely, gracefully sliding into maturity; roasted lemon and lemon curd, touch of grapefruit and mango; limestone under a soft haze of spicy oak; very dry, with plangent acidity and a lithe but generous texture; a wayward hint of orange blossom and lime peel, ginger and quince jam; long silken finish. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $27.
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Les Petits Grains 2011, Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois. (Les Vignerons de la Mediterranee) 15% alc. Pale gold color; orange blossom and candied orange peel, baked peaches, pears and quince; cloves and sandalwood; bananas Foster with buttered rum; dense and viscous without being heavy; lightly honeyed cinnamon toast; a long sweet finish balanced by vibrant acidity. Very Good+. About $14, for a 375-milliliter half-bottle, a Steal.
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Domaine des Bernardins 2009, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. 15% alc. Brassy gold-light amber color; softly ripe and macerated peaches and apricots; tremendous sweetness that turns dry mid-palate then austere on the finish, testifying to the immense powers of rigorous acidity; crème brùlée with a touch of the sweet ashy “burned” sugar; caramelized apricot with a hint of baked pineapple; that distinctive slightly funky muscat floral character; lip-smacking viscosity. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $25 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.
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Chateau de Cosse 2008, Sauternes. 13.5% alc. 85% semillon, 15% sauvignon blanc. The second label of Chateau Rieussec, owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). Medium gold color with a greenish tint; smoke, spiced peach and candied grapefruit, pungent with lime peel and mango and a touch of buttered pear; cloves, vanilla and toasted almonds; satiny smooth, clean, pure, dense yet elegant; exquisite balance and verve. Now through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $35 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.
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Well, O.K., make that 176, though the venerable firm in Jerez celebrated its dodransbicentennial last year with great fanfare. Founded, therefore, in 1835, Gonzales Byass is still family-owned, now in the fifth generation. The company owns 850 hectares (2,184.5 acres) of prime vineyards in Jerez Superior, where they grow mainly palomino, the chief grape for the production of sherry. Because of its low acidity and low sugar content, palomino does not make acceptable table wine — such wines tend to be flabby and bland — but it’s perfect for the unique process that results in sherry.

Sherry — the name is jealously guarded by international trade agreements — is made only in the arid region around the seacoast city of Cadiz in way far southern Spain, around on the Atlantic side, west of Gibraltar. The combination of grapes varieties, the chalky soil, proximity to the ocean, the close to drought-like climate — annual rainfall is 19 inches — and the unique solera process result in a wine that at its best rivals the great wines of Europe’s other famous winemaking regions. The corollary is that lots of anonymous, generic, mediocre sherry is also produced.

Sherry is a fortified wine made principally from the palomino fino grape (95 percent) with some estates still cultivating minuscule amounts of Muscat of Alexandria and Pedro Ximenez, the latter for dessert wines that can attain legendary qualities. After fermentation, the wines are fortified with grape spirit to 15 or 15.5 percent (for elegant fino sherry) up to 18 or 19 percent for richer oloroso style sherry. The lower alcohol content in fino sherry does not inhibit the growth of the flor, the natural yeast the grows across the surface of the wine in the barrel and contributes to fino sherry its typical and unforgettable light mossy-nutty character. The sherry houses are situated in three towns, Jerez de la Frontera — “sherry” is an English corruption of “jerez” — Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria; though geographically not too distant from each other, the three locations impart different qualities to the fino sherries that originate in them.

The solera system is essentially a method of blending in which some of the oldest wine is withdraw from its barrel and topped up with the next oldest and on down the line to the youngest wines that entered the solera after fermentation and fortifying. The constant process of topping off in this manner keeps refreshing the older wines and ensures a steady house style year by year. Some houses run complicated systems of as many as 20 different solera to satisfy the demands of the different types of sherry that they produce. Unfortunately, modern times have seen the adulteration of the method through shortcuts and the addition of sweetening agents, mainly used for cheap versions and for so-called “Cream Sherry.”

The types of sherry can be confusing, certainly as confusing as the many types of Port. Basically, the system goes like this: Fino is the most delicate and elegant of sherries and the best to be served with tapas and other light appetizers. A fino from Sanlucar is a Manzanilla. If a fino, either through natural process or induced, loses its flor, the increased exposure to air will result in a darker, more flavorful sherry; this is the famous Amontillado. The sherries called Oloroso, fortified after fermentation to around 18 percent alcohol, never develop flor, and so their character is far different, being darker in color and more intense and concentrated. All of these are dry wines. The rarest and best sweet sherries are made from sun-dried Pedro Ximenez grapes, though vast quantities of sweet sherries are turned out using other, cheaper processes.

This summation could be expanded into a book, but we’ll leave the matter in this brief, simplified form for our purpose today, and that’s to taste six of the most popular sherries from Gonzalez Byass.

Imported by The San Francisco Wine Exchange, San Francisco. These were samples for review. Image of one of the solera at Gonzalez Byass by Jim White for secretsherrysociety.com
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Tio Pepe — “Uncle Pepe” — is one of the best-known fino sherries in the world. This is made from 100 percent palomino grapes and spends an average of five years in solera in American oak barrels, under the layer of flor. The color is pale straw; subtle aromas of toasted almonds and coconut are enlivened with a hint of sea-salt. This sherry is very dry, almost achingly so, yet the total effect is of elegance and finely balanced delicacy and nuance, along with penetrating earthy nutty flavors. Always terrific with handfuls of almonds, cashews and green olives or, the classic match, sherried pea or sorrel soup. 15 percent alcohol. Serve quite chilled and return the recorked bottle to the fridge; don’t store on a shelf or sideboard. Very Good+. About $18.

Image, fairly cropped, from delongwine.com.
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It’s highly probable that more people have read Edgar Allen Poe’s story “A Cask of Amontillado” — or can mindlessly quote “For the love of god, Montressor!” — than have actually tasted Amontillado, which, I’ll say right here, is my favorite style of sherry. The Gonzales Byass Vina AB Amontillado is made from 100 percent palomino grapes; it enters the solera, where it develops a skin of flor, and then when the flor fades, the wine is transferred to a Vina AB solera where exposure to air allows it to oxidize; it stays in American oak barrels for an average of eight years. The color is an entrancing medium bronze-amber; the bouquet wreathes touches of toasted coconut, caramelized raisins, roasted hazelnuts and a hint of toffee, and while the aromas seem to imply sweetness, the wine is bone-dry, intense, concentrated, though smooth and supple; the dryness, the slight sense of rigor, lead to a limestone-laced, high-toned, fairly austere finish. 16.5 percent alcohol. Should be served at room temperature or slightly chilled. Try with white gazpacho or paper-thin slices of really good Iberian ham. Excellent. About $20.
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The color of the Alfonso Oloroso Seco — “seco” means dry — is a ruddy medium copper-amber hue, perhaps tending toward mahogany; smoke and cinnamon toast, roasted raisins, toffee, orange zest and a slightly resiny quality are woven in the bouquet. This is 100 percent palomino grapes; the wine spends an average of eight years in American oak in the solera. This is full-bodied, though not viscous, vibrant, earthy, permeated with the flavors but not the sweetness of maple syrup and brown sugar; it’s dry, like cloves and citrus peel, and hovers at the edge of woodiness. 18 percent alcohol. Serve chilled. Very Good+. About $20.
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The Cristina Oloroso Abocado — “semi-sweet” — is a blend of 87 percent palomino and 13 percent Pedro Ximenez grapes; it spends an average of seven years in solera in American oak barrels. The color is medium amber; this offers the typical toasted almonds-coconut-raisins bouquet and flavors with toffee, orange rind and bitter chocolate. The entry is sweet, but from mid-palate back through the finish, the wine is dry, and though the texture is seductively supple, Cristina feels a bit rough-edged, like the least balanced and integrated of these six sherries. 17.5 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $20.
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The “dulce” of the Solera 1847 Olorosa Dulce says it all; this is a sweet, robust, full-bodied sherry suitable for certain cheeses or savory pates and desserts that include fruit and nuts; it would be devastating with foie gras. It’s a blend of 75 percent palomino grapes and 25 percent Pedro Ximenez, and it spent an average of eight years in American oak in the solera. A dark amber color, slightly ruddy garnet around the rim, this sherry exudes notes of smoke, oolong tea, toffee and orange zest, figs, fruitcake and bitter chocolate, all consistent in flavor too. You feel the liveliness and resonance of firm acidity and the recognizable yet indefinable presence of a winning and winsome personality. A few moments in the glass bring in more aspects of woody spices — cloves, cinnamon, sandalwood — and a more intense impression of fruitcake woven with potpourri and pomander. The finish is dry, drawn-out and spicy. 18 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $20.

Image from vendomestore.com.
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The Gonzales Byass Apostoles Palo Cortado Viejo is a blend of 87 percent palomino and 13 percent Pedro Ximenez; this sherry spends an average of 30 years in the solera in American oak barrels. Palo Cortado is a rare sherry that started out to be Amontillado but did not, by happenstance, develop the covering of flor, so it ages, instead, as a dry oloroso of unusual complexity. The color is medium amber with an inner radiance of golden embers; fruitcake, baking spices, roasted hazelnuts, toffee, smoky maple syrup; dense and viscous in the mouth but stays just shy of sweetness and on the inside of dryness in risky but empathetic poise. The finish is dry, earthy, spicy. Not really a dessert wine but demanding intensely flavored pates, terrines and cured meats. 20 percent alcohol. Drink now or cellar through 2020. Excellent. About $49 for a 375 milliliter half-bottle.

Image, slightly cropped, from thisislondon.co.uk.
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Sometimes it’s the regional oddities of the world of wine and spirits that offer the most interest, the most appeal. Thousands of people produce cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay wines, but how many make the anything-but-natural vin doux naturel or the “forbidden” fragolino? The category of intensely, almost jealously regional applies to Pineau des Charentes, a fortified aperitif or dessert wine made in the Cognac region, where the départements — like states in France — are Charente and Charente-Maritime. Pineau des Charentes, simply put, is a combination of young Cognac (it must be at least a year old) and lightly fermented or just about to ferment grape must; with fermentation stopped, the spirit retains the sweetness of the grape juice. By law, the result must age in wooden casks until July of the following year; “Vieux Pineau” classification is awarded Pineau des Charentes that aged at least five years.

What do we make, then, of Pineau des Charentes that matured in cask for 25 years?

Nicolas Palazzi has done it again. The young Frenchman (with an Italian name), based now in New York, haunts ancient cellars in Cognac and exercises his talent for sniffing out old and forgotten barrels, bottling the contents and hand-selling the limited edition products to high-class restaurants, bars and retail shops around the world. Late last year I mentioned his Paul-Marie et Fils “devant la porte” Grand Champagne Cognac, distilled in 1951; Palazzi produced 257 bottles and sold it for $600 a bottle. Now it’s the turn of the Paul-Marie et Fils Pineau des Charentes Tres Vieux Fut #3; about 1,280 bottles are available, and it’s much cheaper than the Cognac.

Paul-Marie et Fils Pineau des Charentes Tres Vieux Fut #3 — “very old barrel, third bottling” — is a beautiful medium amber color; aromas of orange rind and cloves, candied and crushed almonds, toffee and grapefruit marmalade with its peel slowly unfold to reveal hints of chestnut honey, dark chocolate and crystallized ginger. It smells like Scotch, but slightly lighter and more exotic; it feels historic, deeply imbued with an immutable sense of a particular time and place. This Pineau des Charentes is very smooth, very supple, dense and chewy, almost viscous in its combination of sweetness, body and alcohol, and yet there’s an elevating quality about it, an element of lacy transparency to the structure. Marvelous stuff, unique, heady, yet calm and stately. Pineau des Charentes is usually described as a dessert wine, but this was superb, we found, with a piece of a dry Piave Nuda Stravecchio cheese and some of the hazelnut-fig crackers we like. Serve Pineau des Charentes chilled; once open, it will keep in the fridge for a week or so. 17.5 percent alcohol. Exceptional. About $90.

A (very small) sample for review.