Grenache


I encountered the cabernet sauvignon wines of L’Aventure at the “Cabs of Distinction” events mounted by the Paso Robles CAB Collective — CAB = “Cabernet and Bordeaux” — April 26 and 27. The fledgling organization is dedicated to promoting the idea that the Paso Robles region, long known as an area fit for Rhone variety grapes and cabernet sauvignon wines of the (ahem) cheaper sort, is capable of producing great, expressive, long-lived cabernets. I was impressed by many of the cabernets I encountered that Friday and Saturday, on a sponsored trip to Paso Robles, and I’ll write about those wines and the possibilities for Paso Robles cabernet soon.

Today, however, I want to focus on L’Aventure, a winery founded in the late 1990s by Stephan Asseo, a Frenchman who founded Domaine Courteillac in Bordeaux in 1982 and whose family owns Chateau Fleur Cardinal and Chateau Robin in Côtes de Castillion. Asseo’s thorough background in French wine and his French education, at L’Ecole Oenologique de Macon, give him the ability to work with the demanding terrain and climate of Paso Robles, in the Santa Lucia Range, and make wines that are rigorous, mineral-influenced and highly structured yet packed with spice and delicious flavors. In these reviews you will find — I hope repeated not too often — the words “beautiful,” “supple,” “balanced” and “formidable.” In fact, those terms pepper my notes on the L’Aventure cabernets from the Paso Robles CAB Collective barrel tasting of barrel ssamples from 2012 — only six or seven months old and still with aging ahead — and from the Grand Tasting event the next day. A few weeks later, back in Memphis, I discovered at a local trade tasting that L’Aventure is represented by a distributor here, though the wines I tried that afternoon were Asseo’s Rhone-style Côte à Côte and his cabernet-syrah blends Estate Cuvée and Optimus.

Some wines quickly strike me with their sense of immediacy, completeness, power and elegance, and that’s how I felt about these chiseled, faceted yet deeply sensuous wines from L’Aventure. They’re not cheap, and they’re not plentiful, but they’re certainly worth seeking out.
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First, the barrel-sample of L’Aventure Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Paso Robles, tried at the Paso Robles “Cabs of Distinction en Primeur” tasting on April 26. The wine is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon; it will age about 15 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels. The color is inky-purple; beguiling aromas of cassis, rhubarb tart, blueberries and fruitcake are penetrated by scintillating notes of iodine and iron; this is a dynamic wine that displays tremendous depth of tannic power, granitic minerality, resonant acidity and an absolutely beautiful fruit character. It is soaking up the spicy oak and turning it into something subtle, supple and elegant. Alcohol content not available. Production will be 300 to 500 cases. Best from 2015 or ’16 through 2025 to 2030. Excellent. About $80 to $85.
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Now let’s look at L’Aventure Estate Cabernet Sauvignon in its versions from 2010, 2007 and 2006, tasted at the Paso Robles “Cabs of Distinction” event on April 27. Each followed the winery’s standard regimen for this wine of aging 15 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels. The rendition for 2010 is 100 percent cabernet; it offers an expressive nose of ripe black and blue fruit packed with graphite, cloves, pepper and lavender, while at not quite three years old it leans greatly on its lithe and lithic structure. Try from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’25. Production was 425 cases. The 2007 contains five percent petit verdot. Perhaps it’s the three year advantage over the 2010, but the ’07 feels riper, just a bit softer and more approachable, more floral and spicy, more “Californian,” yet classically Bordeaux in its cedar-bay leaf-black olive elements and its still formidable tannic-granitic essence. About 1,075 cases produced. The 2006, ah yes, what exquisite balance and poise and integration, albeit a deeply earthy wine, layering its succulent and spicy black fruit flavors with notes of briers and brambles, graphite, a hint of mushroom-like soy sauce; tannins are still close to formidable but shapely, finely-milled; acidity throbs like a struck tuning-fork. Alcohol content and production unavailable. Drink now through 2018 to 2022. Exceptional. These three cabernets each $80 to $85.
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The three wines from L’Aventure that I tasted in Memphis fall into a Rhone Valley mode, or at least that seems to be the inspiration, though batteries of cabernet sauvignon are deployed here too.

L’Aventure Estate Côte à Côte 2010 is a blend of 42 percent grenache, 34 percent syrah and 24 percent mourvèdre; the wine aged 14 months in a combination of half new French oak barrels and half one-year-old barrels. The color is radiant dark ruby; boy, what a lovely wine ensconced in a taut yet generous and beautiful structure; this features aromas and flavors of ripe, roasted and fleshy blackberries, blueberries and plums deeply imbued with lavender and licorice, briers, graphite and cloves, with backnotes of fruitcake and dried rosemary, with that pungent herb’s slightly resinous quality. The wine feels chiseled from oak, granite and tannin, yet even now it’s expansive, expressive and very drinkable, now through 2018 to 2020. How can it feel so perfectly balanced at 16.1 percent alcohol? Production was 900 cases. Excellent. About $85.

L’Aventure Estate Cuvée 2010 is a blend of 42 percent each syrah and cabernet sauvignon with 16 percent petit verdot; the wine aged 15 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels. The color is deep ruby-mulberry with a kind of motor-oil sheen; again a ripe and fleshy wine but permeated by smoke and spice and nervy graphite-like minerality; it’s very intense and concentrated, dusty with minerals and tannins that coat the palate, dense and chewy and tightly packed, rigorous but a bit succulent and opulent too. 15.7 percent alcohol. 1,350 cases. Try from 2015 or ’16 through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $85.

Still available in my local market and elsewhere, I assume, is the nicely aged L’Aventure Optimus 2006, a blend of 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 45 percent syrah and 5 percent petit verdot. The wine offers a dark ruby color with a slightly lighter magenta rim; again I find myself waylaying the adjective “beautiful” for this occasion, because Optimus 06 delivers lovely poise and equilibrium and a seamless amalgamation of ripe slightly stewed black currants and blueberries, fine-grained tannins, polished oak and vibrant acidity, all pierced by the great abiding character of these wines from L’Aventure, a lean, lithe lithic quality that sustains, challenges and gratifies. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $45.

I’m quoting suggested retail prices; in my neck o’ the woods prices may be $5 to $10 higher.
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Let’s have another rosé wine for Wine of the Week. This one’s a beauty, and it’s delicious too. Clos LaChance is a family winery, owned and operated by Bill and Brenda Murphy — her maiden name was LaChance — and their two daughters. Director of winemaking is Stephen Tebb. The Clos LaChance Dry Rosé 2012, Central Coast, is a blend of 65 percent grenache, 16 percent mourvèdre, 7 percent each zinfandel and pinot noir and 5 percent syrah; it’s like a Rhone-style blend with a touch of California. The color is a riveting blue-tinged cerise-melon hue, not the traditional pale copper but not extracted either. The association with the color is sympathetic, because the aromas surge from the glass in a welter of pure cherry and watermelon with hints of strawberry and raspberry and undertones of orange rind, dried thyme and limestone. This is juicy and tasty, brisk with zesty acidity that balances slightly macerated strawberry and melon flavors, all wrapped in a deftly poised, even lightly tense package that delicately combines elegance and savory powers. The final word is “lovely.” 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014. Production was 2,000 cases. Excellent. About $15.

A sample for review.

Gregory Hecht and François Bannier founded their negociant firm in 2002 to exploit favorable appellations and vineyard sites in France’s vast Languedoc, a region that encompasses most of the country’s southwest geography that lies along the Mediterranean coast as it slants down toward Spain. Grapes for the Hecht & Bannier Rosé 2012 derive from one of my favorite place-names in France, Étang de Thau, and from the ancient grape-growning area of Saint Chinian, situated at the foot of the Massif Centrale. The étangs form a series of long narrow lakes between the coast and slender islands, all the way from the mouth of the Rhone river to the foothills of the Pyrenees; Étang de Thau is the largest of these lakes. Though Saint Chinian is rocky and landlocked, it still opens to the south to maritime influence. The blend of the Hecht & Bannier Rosé 2012, Languedoc, is 34 percent grenache, 33 percent syrah and 33 percent cinsault. Boy, this is a fresh, tart, clean rose, even a bit sassy. The color is pale copper with a faint peach-like flush, and in fact, under the pert strawberry and raspberry aromas and flavors, there’s a hint of ripe peach and, oddly, gooseberry, for a decided lift in the buoyant bouquet. The wine is quite dry, yet juicy with red and blue berry flavors and a touch of melon; in the background lie hints of dried Mediterranean herbs and a burgeoning stony element. The whole package is delicately strung yet imbued with the tensile energy of crisp acidity. 12.5 percent alcohol. A great wine for porch, patio and picnic. Drink through the end of this year. Very Good+. Prices around the country start at an astonishing $9 but realistically look for $13 to $15.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York. Tasted at a trade event and as a sample for review.

Grenache is a versatile grape, but if it’s mishandled it can come dangerously close to being that generic nadir all things to all people, not a pretty pickle for a grape to find itself in. For today’s Wine of the Week, I offer two versions of the grape, one from Lodi, the other from Dry Creek Valley — obviously both from California — that fulfill quite different functions without doing the slightest damage to the grape’s reputation and in fact enhancing it. Each of these wines is made completely from grenache grapes. Both were samples for review.

First is the Frisk Prickly Grenache 2011, from Lodi’s Woodbridge District — in the Central Valley east of San Francisco Bay — a charming, refreshing wine that features low alcohol, a touch of sweetness and a hint of gently sparkling petillence (not petulance, never that). The Frisk wines, imported by Old Bridge in Napa, were previously made in an area of Australia’s Victoria region called Alpine Valley. What to call this color? Topaz? Copper? Coral? Embarrassed peach? In any case, the wine, made all in stainless steel, offers notes of melon, sour cherry and pomegranate with a tease of cloves and an initial tantalizing strain of candied orange rind. Clean, vivid acidity keeps it dry from mid-palate back through the spicy, slightly limestone-and lime-peel-flecked finish. 11.9 percent alcohol. Completely delightful and wholly appropriate for Summertime drinking with light appetizers and salad-based meals. We had a glass with scrambled egg and pork tenderloin tacos with little yellow tomatoes, sorrel and oregano. Drink through the end of 2013. Very Good+. About $14.

A more traditional approach to the grape is represented by the Quivira Wine Creek Ranch Grenache 2011, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, traditional in that it’s aged in oak barrels, but rather nontraditional in that this wine is 100 percent grenache grapes, not bolstered with mourvedre or syrah, as typically occurs in the South of France and in Australia. The color is the entrancing medium cherry-mulberry hue seen in glasses of wine in Dutch still-life paintings. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if the wine in all those still-life paintings was French, since the Dutch dominated trade in Europe in the 17th Century and regularly shipped wine from France to the Baltic nations. Anyway, this wine aged an indeterminate length of time — the winery’s website is coy about this matter — in a combination of small French and Eastern European oak barrels and in larger 600-gallon casks. Enticing aromas of black and red currants and raspberries are wreathed with hints of briers and brambles and back-notes of cloves and rhubarb and lightly smoked meat; give it a few minutes to emit traces of lilacs and violets. The Quivira Wine Creek Ranch Grenache 2011 offers lovely heft and transparency, delicacy and elegance; there’s nothing heavy or obvious here, all is smooth and supple, spare and lithe. Flavors of spiced and roasted plums open to touches of black cherries and raspberries, as well as deeper elements of forest and graphite. Tannins gently grip the palate and roll on. Don’t pair this wine with brutal red meat dishes, your haunch of venison, your saddle of boar; save this for grilled leg of lamb, though we will be forgiven for drinking it with zucchini lasagna. 14.1 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 or ’15. Production was 501 cases. Excellent. About $30.

When I was in Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County, last week, I spend a couple of hours at Tablas Creek Vineyard, tramping through the acreage of vines (certified organic) spreading in rolling hills across the limestone-clay soil, feeling how the mid-afternoon breeze filtered in from the Pacific, seeing how different grape varieties are planted in rows on slopes that face different exposures to sunlight, and, back in the tasting room, going through a roster of the wines with general manager Jason Haas. Tablas Creek is owned and operated by the Perrine family, longtime owners of Chateau de Beaucastel, one of the great properties of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and the Haas family, owner of Vineyard Brands, the importer of Beaucastel. The families began planting vines west of the city of Paso Robles in 1994; the 90 acres of vineyards produce about 20,000 cases of wine annually, some of the wines released in limited quantities. How refreshing to walk through a winery and see no French barriques, that is, the ubiquitous 59-gallon oak barrel, and instead see squads of larger puncheons and 1200-gallon foudres, so the wood influence on Tablas Creek wines is kept to a supporting and not dominant role. The emphasis, not surprisingly, is on Rhone Valley grape varieties and Rhone-style wines. The thread that runs through these wines is an earthy, briery, loamy character, a bristly, prickly liveliness that is more prominent in the reds but is certainly presence in the whites. Winemaker is Neil Collins. These brief reviews are intended to strike to the heart, the essence of the wines, and to whet My Readers palates for more.
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Patelin de Tablas Rosé 2012, Paso Robles. 14% alc. 1,250 cases. 75% grenache, 20% mourvèdre, 5% counoise. Very pale onion skin color; sleek, suave, lively, a bristly-limestone-flecked background; dried red currants and raspberries, with a flush of ripe strawberry; hint of cloves and (intriguingly) tobacco leaf; flint-like minerality builds through the finish. Eminently delightful. Very Good+. About $20.
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Dianthus 2012, Paso Robles. 14.5% alc. 1,200 cases. 60% mourvèdre, 25% grenache, 15% counoise. A great rosé. True onion skin color but with a blush of pale copper; again, dried red currants and raspberries but a deeper hint of mulberry and plum; touches of briers and dried herbs, full body, dense, almost lush for a rosé, yet crisp, keen, lively; lovely lustrous, limestone-etched finish. Excellent. About $27.
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Vermentino 2012, Paso Robles. 12.5% alc. 1,300 cases. 100% vermentino grapes. Very pale straw-gold color; extremely fresh, clean and crisp; brisk, saline, almost savory; all hints and nods of roasted lemon and yellow plum, honeysuckle; pert acidity yet a soft delicate feeling overall. Very Good+. About $27
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Côtes de Tablas Blanc 2011, Paso Robles. 13% alc. 1,475 cases. 27% viognier, 25% grenache blanc, 25% marsanne, 22% roussanne. Pale straw-gold color; graham crackers and camellias, subtly earthy and perfumed; spare and elegant; hints of roasted lemons and pears, bare touch of spiced peach; very dry but juicy and flavorful, with scintillating acidity and chalky limestone elements; beautiful balance, tone and presence. Excellent. About $27.
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Marsanne 2011, Paso Robles. 13% alc. 225 cases. 100% marsanne grapes. Light straw-gold color; a wine of great subtlety and nuance, like tissues of delicacy woven into a taut and resilient fabric; quite dry, spare, reticent; bracing salinity, a hint of dried thyme and marsh-grass, gently floral; touches of citrus and stone-fruit; an earthy background with flint and shale minerality; altogether finely-knit and supple. Excellent. About $30.
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Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc 2010, Paso Robles. 13.5% alc. 2,100 cases. 60% roussanne, 35% grenache blanc, 5% picpoul blanc. Pale straw-gold color; lovely balance and poise, light on its feet with a wonderful well-knit texture with finely-honed acidity and plangent steely, limestone qualities; again, a white wine of shades and degrees of nuance, lightly spiced, delicately fitted with lemon and pear flavors and a hint of apricot; all bound with that spruce-tinged minerality. Excellent. About $40
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Patelin de Tablas 2011, Paso Robles. 13.7% alc. 8,460 cases. 52% syrah, 29% grenache, 18% mourvèdre, 1% counoise. Medium ruby-mulberry color; meaty and fleshy; bacon fat, black olive, slightly roasted red and black currants and plums with a hint of blackberry; quite dry, moderately dense, chewy tannins; attractive fairly incisive finish, touches of graphite, briers and brambles. Very Good+. About $20, representing Good Value.
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Côtes de Tablas 2011, Paso Robles. 13% alc. 1,560 cases. 49% grenache, 28% syrah, 15% mourvèdre, 8% counoise. Dark ruby-magenta color; earthy, loamy and foresty but clean and fresh; intense and concentrated but not closed or aloof; focused tannins and acidity that drive the wine’s energy and allure; very dark, spicy and slightly meaty black and red currants and raspberries with hints of blackberry and blueberry; long spice- and graphite-packed finish. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $30.
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Mourvèdre 2010, Paso Robles. 14.1% alc. 720 cases. 100% mourvèdre grapes. Dark ruby color with an opaque center; pure raspberry with all the raspiness of briers and brambles and foresty qualities, backed by clean earth and loam, iodine and iron; for all the structure and groundedness in place, the stones and bones, strangely winsome and lovely. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $40.
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Grenache 2010, Paso Robles. (Wine club only). 14.8% alc. 733 cases. 100% grenache grapes. Medium ruby color; red raspberries, black cherries and hints of blackberries; quite earthy and briery; fairly intense and hard-edged tannins, in fact, the most tannic and least integrated of these red wines; deeply spicy, long dense finish. Try from 2014 or ’15 through 2018 to ’20. Very Good+. About $40.
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Esprit de Beaucastel 2010, Paso Robles. 14.5% alc. 4,400 cases. 45% mourvèdre, 30% grenache, 21% syrah, 4% counoise. A deep, dark, earthy and loamy wine in every sense; dense, leathery, foresty tannins; briers, brambles and graphite; a spice-cabinet’s-worth of exoticism; an assemblage of great confidence and authority worthy of a flagship wine. Try 2014 to ’16 through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $55.
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Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Paso Robles. (Tasting room and online only) 13.5% alc. Just under 100 cases. 100% cabernet sauvignon grapes. A one-off production produced from a couple of rows of cabernet grapes. Perfect cabernet color of dark but radiant ruby with an opaque center and a rim that verges on violet-magenta; classic notes of black currants and raspberries, cedar and tobacco, black olive and lead pencil; lots of graphite and granitic minerality, iodine and iron; fairly knotty tannins that dictate two or three years more aging, or open it with a medium rare strip steak, hot and crusty from the grill; drink through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. $40.
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Vin de Paille “Quintessence” 2010, Paso Robles. 11.5% alc. 100 cases. 100% roussanne grapes. Glowing light gold-amber color; apricot, baked peaches and candied, caramelized pineapple; a little musky and dusty; cloves and honey, bananas Foster; powerful acidity and a huge limestone mineral presence keep the initial sweetness from being cloying and indeed turn the wine dry from mid-palate back through the deep, rich, earthy finish. Now through 2018 to 2022. Exceptional. About $85 for a 375 milliliter half-bottle.
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I didn’t produce a Weekend Wine Sips — “the world is too much with us late and soon getting and spending we lay waste our powers” blah blah — so I offer today a twofer Wine of the Week, a single-varietal white and a blended red. Because that’s the kind of guy I am. Both of these wines represent Excellent Value. These were samples for review.

For white, try the Plantagenet Riesling 2011, from the Mount Barker appellation of Western Australia. The 320-acre estate, founded in 1968 by Tony Smith, was the first winery established in the Great Southern region of Western Australia and is regarded as having senior status in the area, not just for longevity but, let’s face it, for high quality. Winemaker is Cath Oates. This riesling, made entirely in stainless steel, is about as pure and intense as they come. The color is pale pale straw-gold; the penetrating bouquet delivers scintillating lime peel, grapefruit pith and limestone elements over notes of yellow plum and roasted lemon that open to hints of lemon balm, jasmine and lychee. It’s one taut, lean and lovely riesling that deftly balances its litheness, flinty character and crystalline acidity with subtly spicy stone-fruit and citrus flavors and an appealing soft, dusty texture, creating an intriguing sense of tension and abundant liveliness on the palate. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16 with fresh oysters and mussels, simply prepared grilled or seared fish or, perhaps counterintuitively, charcuterie . Excellent. About $21.
Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Ca.

For red, we turn to the Paul Mas Estate G.S.M. 2011, Coteaux du Languedoc. The estate goes back to 1892 and now encompasses 100 hectares (247 acres) of vines that lie between Pézenas and Montpellier, close to the Mediterranean, down where the coast curves to the southwest, headed toward Spain. The property gained momentum in its contemporary guise when Jean-Claude Mas of the fourth generation took over operations in 1999 and created Domaine Paul Mas, named for his father. The blend here is 35 percent each grenache and syrah, 30 percent mourvèdre; 20 percent of the wine aged in oak barrels for six months. The color is deep dark ruby; aromas and flavors of blackberries, black currants and blueberries are bolstered by hints of briers and brambles, tar and leather. A few minutes in the glass bring in touches of slightly stewed plums and elements of smoked meat, fruitcake and graphite. The texture is appropriately robust yet supple, and tannins are present yet moderately dense and chewy; the wine’s mineral nature stays firmly (in both sense) in the background. 14 percent alcohol. Now through 2015 with lamb chops or grilled leg of lamb festooned with garlic and rosemary, grilled sausages, braised short ribs, pasta with rabbit or wild boar. Very Good+. About $16.
Imported by Esprit du Vin, Port Washington, N.Y.

The ranch of Halter Ranch Vineyard originated in 1881 when Edwin Smith, a wholesale butcher in San Francisco, bought 3,600 acres in the Adelaida area west of Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County. Smith threw himself into country life, becoming a dealer in farm produce and livestock and investing in silver mining and race-horses, keeping a stable for thoroughbred horses on the estate. In the late 1890s, his business empire foundered, and the estate was soon broken up. During World War II, the MacGillivray family acquired 1,200 acres of the old ranch; after farming the land for more than 50 years, they planted grapevines in 1996. In 2000, Swiss entrepreneur Hansjörg Wyss purchased 900 acres of the ranch, renovated Smith’s historic farmhouse (seen in the image here), and began enlarging the vineyard to its present 280 acres. And that estate is Halter Ranch Vineyard. Winemaker is Kevin Sass, who was winemaker at Justin Vineyards and Winery until 2011; owners Deborah and Justin Baldwin sold their property to Roll International, owners of FIJI Water, late in 2010. General manager is Skylar Stuck. These Halter Ranch wines, about half of the winery’s roster, were tasted at a dinner at Acre restaurant in Memphis with representatives from the winery, the local distributor and a group of retailers.
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The Halter Ranch Côtes de Paso Blanc 2011, Paso Robles, covers most of the white grapes of the southern Rhone Valley in its blend of 33 percent grenache (blanc), 26 percent roussanne, 20 percent picpoul blanc, 12 percent marsanne and 9 percent viognier. The grapes ferment and the wine ages four months in neutral French oak barrels, that is, barrels that have been used to age wine several times so their influence will be minimal. The wine did not go through malolactic fermentation. The result is a white wine that displays a beautiful medium gold color and an appealing bouquet of jasmine and honeysuckle, almonds, roasted lemons and lemon drops, with a touch of lime peel in the background. It’s quite crisp with vibrant acidity and an element of chalk-infused limestone, and the texture is lively and supple. A haze of soft spicy oak washes the palate, while the whole package offers lip-smacking viscosity. A few minutes in the glass bring up notes of figs and yellow plums. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 1,000 cases. Drink through 2014. Excellent. About $25.
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Five grapes also come into play in the Halter Ranch Côtes de Paso 2010, Paso Robles, a blend of 49 percent grenache, 23 percent mourvèdre, 11 percent syrah, 13 tannat and 4 counoise; no cinsault this vintage. The wine aged 14 months in French oak, 20 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby shading to light magenta, pretty damned entrancing. The gorgeous bouquet is a weaving of penetrating graphite minerality, exuberant spicy element and ripe blackberry, black currant and plum fruit permeated by lavender, violets and red licorice. If you can tear yourself away from this panoply of effects, prepare for a red wine that’s robust and vigorous, intense and resonant yet growing more generous and expansive as the moments pass; this is black fruit flavors with a red tinge, velvety tannins with a hint of something rigorous, polished oak that offers support without being obtrusive and a finish that squeezes out more granite-like minerality. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 750 cases. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $30.
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The Halter Ranch Synthesis 2010, Paso Robles, is, in a sense, the winery’s entry-level red wine, though it’s not really more of a synthesis than any other of these wines, all of them made from a synthesizing (but not homogenizing) blend of grapes, a practice managed at Halter Ranch with a great deal of finesse. Having said that, I’ll now say that Synthesis 2010, while nicely balanced and integrated, is the most rustic, the most solid of this group of wines, meaning that it lacks a little of the elevating power that a great wine exerts. It’s a blend of 78 percent cabernet sauvignon, 17 percent syrah and 5 percent malbec, the syrah perhaps accounting for a note of leather and black pepper in the nose. The color is deep ruby, almost purple with a tinge of mulberry at the rim; leather, as I said, black pepper and thyme and cedar, intense and concentrated black and blue fruit scents and flavors; terrifically vibrant and resonant, the wine bursts with tannins that feel both velvety and a little shaggy and infused with graphite-like minerality. 15 percent alcohol. 750 cases were made. Drink now through 2016 or ’18. Very Good+. About $20.
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The Halter Ranch Syrah 2010, Paso Robles, is the most furled of this group of red wines, needing two or three years to unclench. It too is a blend, classic Southern Rhone with 84 percent syrah, 8 percent mourvèdre and 3 percent (white) viognier, with a decidedly unclassic 5 percent malbec, but that’s why California exists. The color is dark ruby, almost opaque purple at the center, and despite the wine’s reticence, it delivers a distinct but almost anti-sensuous bouquet of iodine and graphite, black pepper and sea-salt, briers and brambles and, after quite a while, an infinity or two, a lovely wafting of lilacs and violets, and your nose goes, “Bingo, I’m in love.” Things grow tighter, more concentrated, mouthwise — there’s a touch of tough love in this romance — yet even here, after a demanding few minutes, this syrah opens to delicious flavors of ripe blackberries, blueberries and plums with bass notes of clean earth, dried spice and flowers and a fairly austere granitic mineral element. The oak regimen was 18 months in French barrels, 30 percent new. 15.2 percent alcohol, which you feel a bit in the finish. 1,200 cases. Try from 2014 or ’15 through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $32.
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The Halter Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Paso Robles, feels deep, dense and minerally. mouth-filling, a wine of burgeoning vibrancy and resonance; the color is dark ruby, opaque at the center, while the bouquet of ripe and spicy black currants, raspberries and plums unfolds with hints of cedar and tobacco, black olive and bay leaf. The blend is 77 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent malbec, 11 percent merlot; the wine aged 18 months in French oak, 35 percent new barrels. Though this Halter Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 revolves around its oak, tannin, acid and mineral structure, it’s surprisingly smooth and drinkable, and I don’t mean to denigrate it one whit by saying that this could sell gangbusters in restaurants, by the bottle or glass. Elements of graphite, plum pudding and bittersweet chocolate form a core for spicy and slightly raspy black and red fruit flavors; the finish is long and packed with spice and dusty mineral qualities. 15 percent alcohol, and while I think that generally cabernet does not perform well at 15 percent alcohol or higher, this one feels balanced and integrated. 2,200 cases. Drink now through 2017 to ’20. Excellent. About $32.
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A selection of the best barrels of a given year, Ancestor is Halter Ranch’s flagship wine. For 2008, this “Estate Reserve” is a blend of 25 percent petit verdot, 24 percent cabernet sauvignon, 24 percent syrah, 15 merlot and 12 merlot. It’s unusual to see one-quarter of a blend made of petit verdot and, in a sort of Bordeaux blend, to see this much syrah. Still, it feels pretty classic. Classic what? Classic California red wine at a high caliber of performance; we could call this velocity Californication, in terms of this heady rush of plush, velvety tannins, of graphite and granitic minerality, of bittersweet chocolate and lavender, of ripe, spicy black currant and black cherry fruit packed with intimations of cedar and tobacco and rosemary; all this sensuality leavened, even restrained by the most prominent oak and tannin of any of these red wines; the program was 18 months French oak, 50 percent new barrels. The alcohol content is a faintly disturbing 15.6 percent, and there is indeed a slight bit of sweet heat on the finish that mars the surface of this otherwise sleek, polished production. 695 cases. Try from 2014 through 2020 to ’22. Excellentish. About $50.
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Tower 15 is a project of The Pali Wine Co., known for chardonnay and pinot noir from various vineyards. Tower 15 is centered in Paso Robles and makes wines primarily from Rhone Valley grape varieties. The Tower 15 wines are less expensive than the Pali wines but are also, unfortunately, limited in production. I’ll go ahead, though, and make Tower 15 “The Jetty” 2010, Paso Robles, the Wine of the Week because national distribution is growing. Winemaker for Tower 15 is Aaron Walker.

Tower 15 “The Jetty” 2010 is a blend of 62 percent grenache, 33 percent syrah and 5 percent mourvedre; the wine aged 16 months in French oak barrels, 30 percent new. The alcohol level is startlingly high — 15.1 percent — but the wine is balanced, harmonious and well-modulated in all elements. The color is deep saturated ruby; notes of ripe and macerated black currants, plums and mulberries are highlighted with hints of leather, cloves and allspice and a back-note of fruitcake. Rollicking acidity keeps the wine fresh and vigorous, while darker elements of damp fur, loam and graphite lend depth and dimension; smooth, slightly briery tannins extend into the finish. The sort of wine that makes one happy to be drinking it. A great match with braised red meat, hearty pastas or burgers. 598 cases. Excellent. About $21.

A sample for review.


This second edition of Weekend Wine Sips for 2013 offers seven red wines from California. There’s cabernet sauvignon, of course and a couple of pinot noirs from the Sonoma Coast appellation and also a great merlot and a seductive grenache. Prices range from $22 to $65, and I have few quibbles about any of the wines. I offer little in the way of technical, historical or geographical information in this series of brief reviews, other than alcohol content and the make-up or blend of grapes in each wine; if a wine is limited in production, I mention the number of cases that were made. These wines were samples for review.
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Tower 15 “The Swell” 2010, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County. The Tower 15 label is a venture of The Pali Wine Co., noted for pinot noir. 14.8% alc. 31% cabernet sauvignon, 28% malbec, 27% merlot, 14% petit verdot. Dark ruby color; clean, fresh, spicy, wildly berryish and very appealing; black currants and plums with hints of blueberry and mulberry; dusty graphite, a bit earthy and loamy; pliant and lithe, close to sexy; the finish rather more serious with influx of walnut-shell and forest-like austerity. 707 cases. Very Good+. About $22.
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La Crema Pinot Noir 2011, Sonoma Coast. 13.9% alc. 100% pinot noir. Jeeze, what a sweetheart of a pinot noir! Medium ruby-mulberry color; black cherry, sour cherry candy, rhubarb and cola with notes of rose petal and watermelon; flows across the palate with beguiling heft and drape and deft delicacy; still, though, plenty of earth and loam, hints of underlying briers and brambles; then overtones of pomegranate and sandalwood. Just lovely. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $25.
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Ferrari-Carano Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. Primarily cabernet sauvignon with dollops of syrah and petit verdot. A lovely cabernet; dark ruby-purple color; ripe, fleshy black and blue fruit scents and flavors; classic notes of cedar, black olive, truffles and oolong tea with hints of loam and violets; supple, dense and chewy, slightly dusty tannins and graphite-like mineral elements; spicy oak lends support; long, complex, fully-formed finish. Now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $30.
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Gundlach-Bunschu Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast. 14.4% alc. 100% pinot noir. Dark ruby-magenta color; deep, rich, succulent; black cherries and plums, notes of rhubarb, cola and cloves and a hint of sassafras; lovely satiny texture; quite spicy, lipsmacking acidity and a slight drying effect through the finish from oak and gentle tannins. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $35.
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Chamisal Vineyards Grenache 2009, Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo County. 14.8% alc. With 10% syrah. Medium ruby-magenta color; attractive, soft fruity spicy bouquet; plums, red currants and cranberries, cloves and Red Hots, spiced apple; earthy and minerally, moderate tannins and oak beautifully balanced and integrated; opens to briery and slightly mossy elements on the finish. An evocative rendition of the grape. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $38.
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Grgich Hills Estate Merlot 2008, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. Certified biodynamic. 100% merlot. Dark ruby color, hint of magenta at the rim; black currants and blueberries with a touch of mulberry, notes of cedar and tobacco; earthy and flinty, tremendous presence and resonance, clean, intense and pure; a faceted and chiseled merlot, with tannins that feel as if they’ve been turned on a lathe; dense, sleek, polished and elegant but with an untamed edge. An impressive and expressive merlot. Excellent. About $42.
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Hawk & Horse Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Red Hills, Lake County. 14.8% alc. Certified biodynamic. 100% cabernet sauvignon. Deep, pure, vivid and vibrant, totally attractive; ripe, smoky and fleshy red and black currants and mulberries, hint of black cherries; very spicy and lively, practically glitters with granite and graphite and resonates with bright acidity; dense and chewy and thoroughly grounded but exhilarating in its balletic wildness and elevation. Quite a performance. 1,350 cases. Now through 2019 to 2022. Excellent. About $65.
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So, My Readers, today I present the annual “50 Great Wines” in the edition for 2012. Why 50? It’s a nice comfortable round number, but it also makes me work hard to determine those 50 great selections.

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

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

Coming in a few days: “25 Great Bargains of 2012.”
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Amapola Creek Cuvée Alis 2009, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County. 55 percent syrah, 45 percent grenache. 95 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Archery Summit Looney Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $85.
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Black Dog Cellars Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. Excellent. About $25.
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Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Vineyard X Block Syrah 2007, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County. 573 cases. Excellent. About $42.
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Champagne Françoise Bedel Entre Ciel et Terre Brut. Excellent. About $75.
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Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino 2005, Tuscany, Italy. 100 percent sangiovese. Exceptional. About $149.
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Chalone Estate Chenin Blanc 2011, Chalone, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $25.
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Chamisal Estate Pinot Noir 2010, Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo County. Excellent. About $40.
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M. Chapoutier Chante-Alouette 2007, Hermitage blanc, Rhone Valley, France. 100 percent marsanne grapes. 350 six-packs imported. Exceptional. About $92.
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M. Chapoutier De L’Orée 2008, Hermitage blanc, Rhone Valley, France. 100 percent marsanne. 40 six-packs imported. Exceptional, About $190.
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Cima Collina Tondre Grapefield Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $48.
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Etude Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros. Excellent. About $42.
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Ferrari-Carano Prevail West Face 2007, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 61 percent cabernet sauvignon, 39 percent syrah. Excellent. About $55.
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Foley Rancho Santa Rosa Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County. Excellent. About $40.
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Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $46.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $42.
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Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2009, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $23.
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Hidden Ranch 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $45.
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Kelly Fleming Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Oakville District, Napa Valley. 540 cases. Excellent. About $30.
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Domaine Michel Lafarge Meursault 2009, Burgundy. Excellent. About $44-$48.
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La Follette Van Der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Mountain. 429 cases. Excellent. About $40.
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Lasseter Enjoué 2011, Sonoma Valley. 73 percent syrah, 24 mourvèdre, 3 grenache. A superior rosé. 570 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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Champagne David Léclapart L’Amateur Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, non-vintage. Exceptional. About $83.
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Lenné Estate Pinot Noir 2008, Yamhill-Carlton District, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 491 cases. Excellent. About $55.
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Chateau La Louvière 2009, Pessac-Lèognan, Bordeaux, France. 85 percent sauvignon blanc, 15 percent semillon. Excellent. About $42.
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Manzoni Vineyards Home Vineyard Syrah 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 494 cases. Excellent. About $26.
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Max Ferd. Richter Veldenzer Elisenberg Riesling Kabinett 2010, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $19.
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Mayacamas Chardonnay 2009, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $30.
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McCay Cellars Jupiter Zinfandel 2009, Lodi. 449 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Domaine Pierre Morey Pommard Grands Epenots Premier Cru 2009, Burgundy. Excellent. About $85.
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Newton “The Puzzle” 2008, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 42 percent merlot, 36 cabernet sauvignon, 14 cabernet franc, 6 petit verdot, 2 malbec. Excellent. About $80.
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Nicolas Joly Clos de La Bergerie 2009, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, Loire Valley, France. 100 percent chenin blanc. 580 cases. Exceptional. About $45-$60.
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Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $42.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County. 250 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. 372 cases. Exceptional. About $75.
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Piocho 2009, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. From Margerum Wine Co. 58 percent merlot, 22 cabernet sauvignon, 18 cabernet franc, 2 petit verdot. 570 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Quivira Fig Tree Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. 862 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Sea-Fog Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Napa Valley. 380 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Shafer Hillside Select 2007, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $225.
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Shafer Merlot 2009, Napa Valley. With 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent malbec. Exceptional. About $48.
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Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. With 12 percent cabernet franc. 381 cases. Excellent. About $75. Date on label is one year behind.
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Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir 2011, Los Carneros. Another superior rosé to drink all year. Excellent. About $28.
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Spotted Owl Chardonnay 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Inaugural release of this winery’s chardonnay. 120 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $125.
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St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. With 10 percent merlot, 2 petit verdot and 1 cabernet franc. Excellent. About $55.
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Domaine André et Mireille Tissot La Graviers Chardonnay 2010, Arbois, France. 552 cases. Excellent. About $26-$30. Label is two years out of date.
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Tudal Family Winery Clift Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. 295 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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Tenuta di Valgiano 2008, Colline Luccesi, Tuscany. 60 percent sangiovese, 20 merlot, 20 syrah. Excellent. About $55-$60.
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Vieux Télégraphe “La Crau” 2009, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France. 65 percent grenache, 15 mourvèdre, 15 syrah 5 cinsault, clairette “and others.” Excellent. About $85.
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Villa Huesgen Schiefen Riesling Trocken 2010, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $35.
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