Livermore Valley


A raft of chardonnays here from the Golden State, ranging geographically from Santa Barbara County in the south to Sonoma Coast in the north. They’re mainly from 2011 and 2012, with one from 2013. I offer a $10 product so good that you should buy it by the case, which I don’t often say about chardonnay, and reject some models that cost $65 and $70. I mean, as long as producers turn out chardonnays that embody the over-oaked, stridently spicy, tropical-tinged and butter-infused crème brûlée-like style — and the major wine publications continue to pass out high ratings for such wine — I will continue not to recommend them as unpalatable and undrinkable. Little in the way of historical, geographical or technical data today; these Weekend Wine Notes are intended to be quick and incisive, not as detailed as my regular reviews. Enjoy! (Or not.)

These wines were samples for review.

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Clos du Val Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; vibrant and vivid purity and intensity, scintillating acidity and limestone-flint minerality; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with hints of mango and cloves; sleek, lithe, dynamic, beautifully balanced; nothing avant-garde or opulent here, just classic winemaking. Excellent. About $28.
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CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast. 14.1% alc. Pale gold hue; bright, clean and fresh; pineapple-grapefruit-roasted lemon, hints of nutmeg, lemon balm and lemon curd; dense and chewy, packed with spice and seashell-limestone minerality; slightly astringent floral element; quite dry, very attractive weight and substance; earthy finish where the oak comes out a bit more. Very Good+. About $25.
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Dunston Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 13.3% alc. Limited production. Ravishing medium gold hue with a green tinge; pine, cloves, grapefruit and pineapple with notes of mango, roasted lemon and some leafy/green tea element; fascinating in its complexity and risk-taking but ultimately exquisitely balanced, though you feel the tug of polished oak on the finish after an hour or so. Limited production. Excellent. About $45.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium gold color; very bright and bold, even brassy; very spicy with roasted grapefruit and baked peach, slightly caramelized; way too much oak, too much butter and tropical elements; stridently spicy, over-ripe and then austerely dry; fundamentally unbalanced. Not recommended. About $35.
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Gundlach Bundschu Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.3% alc. Pale gold color; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with hint of mango; Chablis-like chalk and flint; smoke and earth, dense and chewy and pretty darned intense and concentrated; a substantial style. Very Good+. About $27.
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Isabel Mondavi Chardonnay 2012, Carneros. 13.7% alc. Medium straw-gold color; smoke, toast, oak; roasted lemon and baked pear; fairly spicy with buttered and caramelized citrus fruit; quite dry, sleek, good acidity and limestone minerality, but doesn’t know what style it wishes to emulate. Very Good. About $30.
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Jackson Estate “Camelot Highlands” Chardonnay 2012, Santa Maria Valley. 14.5% alc. This chardonnay falls under the Kendall-Jackson rubric rather than Jackson Family Wines; does either entity really need more brands? Medium gold; vividly spicy, boldly ripe and tropical; smoke, toast, brown sugar; dense and chewy, almost viscous, carries opulence to ridiculous lengths; toasted coconut and marshmallow; crème brûlée; doesn’t even come close to palatable in my world. Not recommended. About $35.
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Jordan Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. 13.5% alc. Pale gold color; a typical Jordan chardonnay, nothing bold or sumptuous, thank goodness, but well-balanced with keen acidity and an edge of vital limestone minerality to bolster pineapple-grapefruit flavors highlighted by notes of cloves and lilacs; very dry, clean, spare, elegant; oak is an echo rather than a presence. Excellent. About $30.
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Laetitia Estate Chardonnay 2012, Arroyo Grande Valley. 13.8% alc. I generally like Laetitia’s pinot noirs, but this chardonnay is beyond the pale. So: pale gold color; starts off clean and fresh, with pineapple-grapefruit and notes of roasted lemon and mango; then expands with extravagant richness and exaggerated spice, smoke and crème brûlée gone to the dark side; where are the mitigating acidity and minerality? Not recommended. About $18.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Morelli Lane Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 182 six-pack cases. Steven Kent can make clean, balanced and finely detailed chardonnay (see below), but under his La Rochelle label he turns more baroque and fantastical; this wine is so oaky and over-spiced that it felt harsh on my palate. It gets no recommendation from me. About $65.
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Mandolin Chardonnay 2012, Monterey. 13.5% alc. Clasp this well-made inexpensive chardonnay to your bosom as if it were a long-lost friend. Pale gold color; pineapple-mango-grapefruit, hints of jasmine, crystallized ginger and quince; a tad dusty-earthy; deft balance among acidity, spicy oak and spare limestone minerality; notes of citrus on the finish. Very Good+. About $10 and a Remarkable Bargain.
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Newton Chardonnay 2012, Napa County. 14% alc. Medium gold hue; warm and spicy, bright and bold, but nicely balanced and shapely, with a sheen of oak; ripe pineapple and grapefruit with a note of green apple; brisk acidity and a scintillating limestone finish. Quite attractive. Very Good+. About $28.
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Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. This cousin to the wine mentioned just above is both more ambitious and unfortunately far less balanced; medium gold color; bright, ripe, brassy citrus and stone-fruit scents and flavors; cloves, caramel, brown sugar; very tropical, buttered toast, meringue; yet strangely very dry and austere on the finish. Unpleasant and unpalatable. Not recommended. About $65.
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Olema Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma County. 14.1% alc. (Second label of Amici Cellars) Pale gold color; crisp, taut, fresh; apples, grapefruit and pineapple; spicy and lively, a little lean and sinewy but generous and expansive too; quite pleasant and tasty. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
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Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Uh-oh. Medium gold color; forthright and boldly spicy, forthright and deeply oaky. I couldn’t drink it. Not recommended. About $47.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Pale gold; ineffable weaving of grapefruit and pineapple, Golden Delicious apple, cloves, ginger and quince; very dry but juicy and savory; lovely heft and texture, lithe and supple, almost talc-like but riven and balanced by bright acidity. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; so clean and pure, such crystalline intensity, yet spare, elegant and subtle but with a core of natural richness; roasted lemon and lemon balm; notes of pineapple and nectarine; very dry, packed with limestone and flint minerality, but quite delicious, seductive, compelling. Why can’t all chardonnays be like this? Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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Reuling Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14% alc. 350 cases. Major disappointment. Very pale gold; brightly spicy, boldly scented; nutmeg and cloves, pineapple and grapefruit caramelized in butter; cinnamon toast; too creamy on the one hand, too sharply spicy on the other, essentially unbalanced, paradoxically both cloying and austere. Not recommended. About $70.
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Steven Kent Winery Merrillie Chardonnay 2012, Livermore Valley. NA% alc. 504 cases. Pale gold color; spare, clean and fresh; lemon balm with notes of grapefruit rind, lemongrass and green tea; hints of nutmeg and cloves; heaps of limestone minerality buoying a lovely talc-like texture shot with shimmering acidity; let’s call it beautiful. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $34.
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Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium straw-gold color; a classic of balance and elegance; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors infused with cloves and limestone; lovely weight and heft, that is to say feels dense and weightless simultaneously; clean, bright acidity for liveliness; subtle, supple oak influence and limestone minerality. Excellent. About $28.
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Souverain Chardonnay 2011, North Coast. 13.5% alc. Pale straw-gold hue; smoke, cloves and nutmeg; pineapple and pears; very dry, very spicy but dense with a crème brûlée element with emphasis on the brûlée; astringent grapefruit finish; bright acidity barely saves the day. Good only. About $16.
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Perhaps we should all be like the young doctor whose party in the Mississippi Delta we attended some 20 years ago. He poured magnums of Chateau Margaux 1981 as house wine, and folks were knocking it back as if the night would never end. As we were trying to leave, he insisted that we finish a bottle of Echezeaux ’59; I forget the name of the producer. (He wasn’t so happy with me the next morning, after he found out that I kicked a couple of ivories off his grand piano, but that’s another story. I did apologize.) The point is that some people in a highly elevated and rarefied realm can drink great wine all the time, while most people — including yours truly — make do with more ordinary vinous material. And isn’t that really as it should be? Would we not find a constant regimen of the world’s best wines cloying, tiring, demanding? Well, perhaps not, but most consumers are content with wines that don’t require deep thought and a fund of fiduciary prowess to obtain. Here, then, are eight decent quaffs — four white, four red — drinkable, enjoyable and not overly complicated wines to accompany all sorts of meals and occasions. Nothing flamboyant or brilliant here, just wines that you would not be unhappy to sip with friends and family around the table. No need for a lot of technical folderol; just read these brief reviews and go buy a selection to get you through the next few weeks. Enjoy!

These wines were samples for review.
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Alamos Torrontes 2013, Salta, Argentina. 13% alc. Very pale gold hue; jasmine and camellia, spiced pear, yellow plum and a hint of peach; notes of lilac, roasted fennel and ginger; spare, crisp, lively, very dry; shimmering acidity and limestone minerality. Quite tasty. Drink up. Very Good. About $13.
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Apothic White Winemaker’s Blend 2012, California. (A Gallo label.) 12% alc. Chardonnay, pinot grigio, riesling. Light gold color; jasmine and honeysuckle, spiced pear and slightly over-ripe peach; muscat-like muskiness, with a touch of lychee; sweet entry tamed by crisp acidity to a dry finish. Quite enjoyable. Drink up. Very Good. About $14.
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Wente “Louis Mel” Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Livermore Valley, California. 13% alc. Light gold color; fresh, clean and crisp; roasted lemon, notes of quince and ginger, lime peel and grapefruit, mildly grassy and herbal; spicy and savory; falls off a bit in the middle but offers nice follow-through with the spice-and-limestone-laced finish. Drink up. Very Good. About $15.
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Garzon Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Uruguay. 13% alc. Very pale gold; lime peel and grapefruit, pea shoot, lemongrass and celery seed, lilac and caraway; super fresh and refreshing; brings in notes of roasted lemon and fig; needs more verve and attitude in mid-palate but a delicious sip of sauvignon blanc. Drink up. Very Good. About $17.
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Pedroncelli friends.red 2012, Sonoma County. 13.9% alc. Merlot, syrah, zinfandel, petite sirah. Dark ruby-purple color; warmly stacked with cloves and allspice, ripe black currant, plum and mulberry scents and flavors; notes of briers, brambles and loam, touch of graphite; mainly supported by sleek tannins and a bit of oak. Easy-going with a hint of seriousness. Drink through 2014. Very Good. About $12, making Fine Value.
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Tercos Bonarda 2011, Mendoza, Argentina. 13.9% alc. 100% bonarda grapes. Dark ruby color; earthy, rooty and sappy; ripe and spicy black currants, plums and blueberries, with a touch of dried fruit, fruitcake and pomander; mouth-filling, dense and chewy, notes of tar and beet-root; tannic and savory. Intriguing character for the price. Drink through 2014. Very Good. About $13.
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Vino dei Fratelli Primitivo 2011, Puglia, Italy. 13% alc. 100% primitivo grapes. Dark ruby-purple color; currants, plums and blueberries, cloves and graphite; dusty tannins and a velvety texture; hints of zinfandel-like briers and brambles; tasty, substantial. Now through 2015. Very Good. About $15.
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Fratelli Chianti 2011, Toscana, Italy. 13.5% 100% sangiovese. Medium ruby color; warm and spicy, laden with graphite minerality and loam; red and black cherries and currants, smoky and a little plummy; chewy, satiny tannins, dark and spicy with notes of black olive, orange zest and bitter chocolate-covered black cherries. Lots of personality. Where’s the rabbit ragu? Through 2014. Very Good+. About $15, Excellent Value.
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“NV” stands for “non-vintage,” though on the face of it, that’s a ridiculous proposition. All grapes are harvested in a particular year; hence those dates on wine labels and the notion that some vintages are better than others so the wines from those years are more valuable. However, wine does not have to be made from grapes harvested all in the same year. The great example of this concept occurs in Champagne, the famed French region of prestigious bubbles, where something more than 80 percent of the product is non-vintage, though the term “multi-vintage” is really more useful. Champagne producers maintain stores of reserve wines to blend with the wine from the current vintage being used (generally about three years old) to ensure a consistent house style. Other wines employ the multi-vintage trope, including, surprisingly, Portugal’s Vinho Verde, “surprisingly” because Vinho Verde tends to be a fresh young wine intended for immediate consumption. In France, bottles plucked from roadside stands, service stations and highway convenience stores are often multi-vintage (or really “nonvintage”) and fairly anonymous; examples I have tried range from truly awful to not too bad.

Anyway, today we look at three “nonvintage” products that happen to be remarkably diverse.
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The Calamares Vinho Verde nv, Portugal, offers a bright gold color and mild, almost subliminal effervescence. The blend of grapes is 40 percent arinto, 30 percent trajadura (also known as treixadura) and 30 percent loureiro. Enticingly fresh and clean, the wine delivers notes of roasted lemon and lemon balm, quince and ginger, green apple and lime peel in a saline, limestone-inflected setting; while it’s a wine of the moment, this Calamares is not ethereal, instead possessing gratifying body with an almost talc-like finish touched with candied grapefruit. Acidity is flagrantly crisp and flint-like. Nine percent alcohol. Drink up. Very Good+. About $7, and do I have to tell you to buy it by the case to drink this Summer?

Imported by Vision Wine and Spirits, Secaucus, N.J. A sample for review.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ The Gaston Chiquet “Tradition” Brut, nv, Champagne, France, is one of our favorite Champagnes, and I was surprised to see that I have never written about it on this blog. It’s a blend of 40 percent pinot meunier grapes, 35 percent chardonnay and 25 percent chardonnay, all from Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards. The base wine of the present manifestation is from 2010, with the addition of eight percent each from 2009 and 2008. The color is medium straw-gold; the all-important bubbles are myriad, prolific and dynamic. My purpose in purchasing this Champagne was to balance a scallop dish rich in butter and cream, and the clean, incisive acidity of the Gaston Chiquet “Tradition” Brut and its scintillating limestone minerality did just that. (Plus, you know, it’s Champagne.) The bouquet offers notes of lemon, seashell, lightly buttered cinnamon toast and honeysuckle, all quite subdued, and threads of cloves and crystallized ginger; it’s fairly full in the mouth, but not heavy or obvious, leaning more toward a well-knit and elegant character enlivened by crispness and energetic effervescence. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. I paid about $60.

A Terry Theise Estate Selection, imported by Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, N.Y.
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Now comes the wine that inspired this post, the Steven Kent Winery “Evening Vinesong” Grenache nv, Livermore Valley. Produced in a minute quantity and available only to the winery’s Collector’s Circle, a bottle came into my hands via a generous benefactor. The wine is 100 percent grenache — previous editions were a blend — with 60 percent of the grapes grown in 2010 and 40 percent in 2011. Depending on the “year,” the wine ages 24 to 36 months in second-use and neutral French and American oak barrels. The production was 139 cases. The members of the Collector’s Circle who snatch a few bottles or a case of Evening Vinesong Grenache are lucky indeed; this is a beautiful and pure expression of the grenache grape, fruity, spicy, a little raspy and briery. The color is medium ruby-garnet; aromas of red and black currants and cherries are highlighted by pert mulberry and winsome notes of anise, lavender, brambles and dried rosemary (with some of that herb’s pithy, piney quality). In the mouth, the wine is sapid and savory, deftly balanced and integrated; oak is a whisper here, and so is a hint of loam, both forming a background to the wine’s lithe suppleness and elegance. Red and blue fruit flavors are permeated by sandings of cloves and allspice, the whole enterprise ending with a fresh, wild note. I gave LL a glass of this when she came home from work one night; she took one sniff and one sip and said, “Wow, that’s wonderful!” There’s your review. Excellent. For information call (925) 243-6440 or visit stevenkent.com

Founded in 1883, Wente Vineyards is the oldest family-operated wine operation in California; winemaker is the fifth-generation Karl D. Wente. I say “operation” rather than “winery,” because Wente owns vast tracts of vineyards not only in Livermore Valley, where German immigrant Carl H. Wente (1851-1934) was a pioneer, but in Monterey County, where in the 1960s the family also was an early developer. Wente was the first winery to bottle varietally-labeled chardonnay and sauvignon blanc and for several decades both before and after Repeal sustained a reputation as the finest producer of white wines in California. Naturally, in a company with a 130-year history there have been ups and downs, and for Wente Bros. — the name was changed to Wente Vineyards in 1996 — the down occurred during the expansion and acquisitions of the 1980s, when quality slipped. More rigorous standards apply today, though, and Wente offers a range of attractive and fairly serious red and white wines from all its properties.

Today’s Wine of the Week hails from the red side of the roster. This is the Wente Vineyards “Southern Hills” Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Livermore Valley, San Francisco Bay*, and if you don’t find the aromas entrancing, you just don’t have a heart. The color is dark ruby with a medium ruby rim; notes of star anise, lavender and graphite, black olive, cedar and a hint of caramelized fennel leap from the glass, amid a welter of ripe, spicy black cherries and currants. The wine aged 14 months in a combination of neutral** French, American and Eastern European*** oak barrels, a tactic that lends supple and mildly spicy support to tasty blue and black fruit flavors nicely balanced by vibrant acidity, lightly dusted tannins and some slightly ashy iron/iodine minerality on the finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. Loads of personality and just gets down on its knees and begs to be drunk with a fat juicy bacon-cheeseburger. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $18.

A sample for review.

*The ridiculously far-ranging San Francisco Bay AVA was approved in 1999, largely due to the efforts of Wente Vineyards. It gathers under one region not only the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Contra Costa and Alameda and parts of San Benito and Santa Cruz but the city of San Francisco and San Francisco Bay. You can leave your heart in San Francisco and sell your wine everywhere else.

**Meaning already used, as many as two or three times, so the wood influence is very subtle.

***”Eastern European” oak generally refers to Romanian, Slovakian, Slovenian or Hungarian oak barrels.