Loire Valley

In 1429, during the Hundred Years’ War, Joan of Arc made her headquarters in Blois, a city that maintains a good deal of its Medieval and Renaissance character. Not that such a fact has tremendous bearing on today’s Wine of the Week, except that Blois lies on the north bank of the Loire River, and if you cross the river at this point and drive south, you soon find the charming village of Cheverny, home of a notable chateau (in a region bursting with such edifices) and sleepy — I’ve been there — little seat of a minor winemaking region. This is not Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume, not Anjou or Saumur, yet the white wines — made primarily from sauvignon blanc — command respect for their liveliness and subtly woven delicacy as well as for their generally inexpensive nature. Today’s Wine of the Week is the Monmousseau Cheverny 2009, a blend of 70 percent sauvignon blanc and 30 percent chardonnay that offers hints of lemon balm and tangerine, almond and orange blossom and, as the wine spends a few moments in the glass, a strain of ginger and quince. Flavors of lime peel and grapefruit, animated by sassy acidity (and a brisk bite of spiced pear), are neatly poised with a tinge of dried grass and herbs and a finish that sends up a taut flag of limestone and gun-flint. Drink through 2012. Alcohol content is 13 percent. Very Good+. I paid $14, but it can be found around the country for $12.
Chardonnay is relatively rare in the Loire Valley, by the way, employed only as a blending grape and usually in restricted quantity.
USA Wine Imports, New York.

What could be more straightforward than that? Not that all lists aren’t arbitrary in some degree, but after going through all the posts from 2010 on this blog several times and doing some cogitating and sighing and reluctant winnowing, here they are, The 50 Best Wines of 2010, as experienced by me and written about last year. Wines that I tasted in 2010 but haven’t written about yet will not show up on this list, nor will older vintages that I was lucky enough to taste, which I do damned little enough anyway. The order is wines I rated Exceptional, alphabetically, followed by wines I rated Excellent, alphabetically. Where I think such factors might be helpful, I list percentages of grapes and, for limited edition wines, the case production, if I know it. Prices begin at about $25 and go up to $200, with most, however, in the $30s, $40s and $50s.
<>Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Sonoma Valley. Richard Arrowood’s new label. 996 cases. Exceptional. About $80.

<>Catena Alta Adrianna Chardonnay 2008, Mendoza, Argentina. Exceptional. About $35. (Winebow, New York)

<>Joseph Drouhin Chablis-Vaudésir Grand Cru 2007, Chablis, France. 130 six-bottle cases imported. Exceptional. About $72. (Dreydus, Ashby & Sons, New York)

<>Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Exceptional. About $150, though prices around the country range up to $225. (Winebow, New York)

<>Vincent Girardin Corton Renardes Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes 2007, Burgundy, France. Exceptional. About $70. (Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.)

<>Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2008, Clare Valley, Australia. Exceptional. About $38. (USA Wine West, Sausalito, Cal., for The Australian Premium Wine Collection)

<>Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Syrah 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 75 cases. Exceptional. About $40.

<>Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 974 cases. Exceptional. About $48.

<>Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc 2008, St. Helena, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $32.

<>Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 275 cases. Exceptional. About $75.

<>Rochioli Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 1,200 cases. Exceptional. About $60.

<>Tudal Family Winery Clift Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. 490 cases. Exceptional. About $40.
<>Alma Negra Misterio 2007, Mendoza, Argentina. The red grapes in this blend are never revealed, but count on malbec, cabernet franc and bonarda. Excellent. About $30-$33. (Winbow, New York)

<>Benovia Bella Una Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 195 cases. Excellent. About $58.

<>Francois Billion Grand Cru Cuvée de Reserve Brut Cépage Chardonnay (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Excellent. About $60. (William-Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va.)

<>Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut, Champagne, France. Excellent. About $65. (Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Ill.)

<>Brovia Sorí del Drago Barbera d’Asti 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Excellent. $20-$28. (Neal Rosenthal, New York)

<>Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $35.

<>Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos de Mouches (blanc) 2007, Burgundy, France. 600 cases imported. Excellent. $100-$110. (Dreyfus, Ashby & Sons, New York)

<>Easton Old Vines Zinfandel 2006, Fiddletown, Amador County. “Old Vines” meaning back to 1865. Excellent. About $28.

<>Egly-Ouriet Brut “Les Vignes de Vrigny” (nonvintage). Champagne, France. Made, unusually, from all pinot meunier grapes. Excellent. About $70. (North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Cal.)

<>En Route “Les Pommiers” Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 1,993 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Bodegas Fariña Gran Dama de Toro 2004, Toro, Spain. Tempranillo with six percent garnacha. Excellent. About $45. (Specialty Cellars, Santa Fe Springs, Cal.)

<>Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuisse 2008, Burgundy, France. Excellent. About $30. (Kobrand, New York)

<>Champagne Rosé Premier Cru de Veuve Fourny Brut (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Pinot noir with a dollop of chardonnay. Excellent. About $55. (Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal.)

<>Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 407 cases. Excellent. About $46.

<>Marchesi di Gresy Martinenga Barbaresco 2006, Piedmont, Italy. Excellent. $45-$55. (Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Cal.)

<>Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel 2007, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $35.

<>Haton et Fils “Cuvée Rene Haton” Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Excellent. About $62. (William-Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va.)

<>Heller Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Carmel Valley, Monterey County. 154 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Domaine Huet Brut Vouvray Petillant 2002, Loire Valley, France. Excellent. About $30-$35. (Robert Chadderdon Selections, New York)

<>Iron Horse Brut Rosé 2005, Green Valley, Sonoma County. 81 percent pinot noir/19 percent chardonnay. 950 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. With 19.5 percent merlot, 4.5 percent petit verdot, 1 percent malbec. Excellent. About $52.

<>Kruger-Rumf Munsterer Rheinberg Riesling Kabinett 2008, Nahe, Germany. Excellent. About $22-$25. (Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, New York.)

<>Margerum Rosé 2009, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County. 100 cases. Excellent. About $21.

<>Mendel Semillon 2009, Mendoza, Argentina, Excellent. About $25. (Vine Connection, Sausalito, Cal.)

<>Misty Oaks Jones Road Cabernet Franc 2008, Umpqua Valley, Oregon. 75 cases. Excellent. About $28.

<>Oakville Ranch Robert’s Blend Cabernet Franc 2005, Napa Valley. With 10 percent cabernet sauvignon. 393 six-bottle cases. Excellent. About $90.

<>Joseph Phelps Insignia 2006, Napa Valley. Excellent. about $200.

<>Renaissance Late Harvest Riesling 1992, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba. Renaissance holds wines longer than any other winery; this dessert wine was released in 2008. Production was 364 cases of half-bottles. Excellent. About $35.

<>Renaissance Vin de Terroir Roussanne 2006, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba. 63 cases. Excellent. About $45.

<>Ridge Vineyards Three Valleys 2008, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $22.

<>St. Urban-Hof Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Piesling Auslese 2007, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. Excellent. About $55. (HB Wine Merchants, New York)

<>Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvée Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $42.

<>Talbott Logan Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Excellent. About $25.

<>Tardieu-Laurent Les Becs Fins 2008, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, France. 50 percent syrah/50 percent grenache. 1,008 cases imported. Excellent. About $22. (Wilson-Daniels, St. Helena, Cal.)

<>Chateau Tour de Farges Vin Doux Natural 2006, Muscat de Lunel, France. Excellent. About $24. (Martine’s Wines, Novato, Cal.)

<>V. Sattui Black-Sears Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 400 cases. Available at the winery or mail order. Excellent. About $40.

<>Yangarra Estate Mourvèdre 2008, McLaren Vale, Australia. 500 six-bottle cases. Excellent. About $29. (Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Cal.)
Coming Next: 25 Fantastic Wine Bargains.

First, a lesson in wine geography and nomenclature.

Readers familiar with the official A.O.C. system — Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée — that governs grape-growing and winemaking in France probably know that there are basic wines from Bordeaux that can be labeled as such and basic wines from Burgundy that can be labeled as Bourgogne. The same is not true, however, for the Loire Valley region. Burgundy is minuscule in extent compared to Bordeaux, while Bordeaux is dwarfed by the Loire Valley, noted for being France’s largest and most diverse vineyard and wine-producing area. Grape varieties in Burgundy and Bordeaux, to stay with these handy examples, are limited and consistent; the Loire Valley is blessed — some would say cursed — with a dizzying array of grape varieties. If you picked up a bottle labeled Bourgogne Blanc, you could count on chardonnay being inside the bottle (well, yes, there’s a little pinot blanc in those vineyards); similarly, you would know that Bordeaux Blanc would be a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, perhaps with a touch of sauvignon gris or muscadelle. What would be inside a bottle labeled generically as Loire Valley Blanc, however, would be anybody’s guess.

This little disquisition leads to the Wine of the Week, the Pascal Jolivet Attitude Sauvignon Blanc 2009, which carries the designation Vin de Pays du Val de Loire. “Ah ha,” you crow, “there it is, F.K. ‘Val de Loire.’ Loire Valley.” Ah ha, yourself. Notice that this wine is a Vin de Pays, a “country wine,” and therefore a step below the A.O.C. wines in the French scheme of vinous things. Once known by the rather meaningless title Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France, the name was changed to Vin de Pays du Val de Loire in 2007, lending a regional identity which is still somewhat misleading, since this Vin de Pays encompasses 14 departments..

Now, here’s the interesting part. The grapes for this wine derive from two vineyards in the Touraine A.O.C., a Central Loire area rich in history and grand chateaux and a long heritage of winemaking. A Touraine Blanc A.O.C. does exist; the wine can be a blend of chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, arbois and up to 20 percent chardonnay. There’s even an appellation for Sauvignon de Touraine. So, why did Pascal Jolivet elect to label this wine as VDP du Val de Loire rather than the A.O.C. Sauvignon de Touraine? The clue perhaps lies in the letters “I.G.P” after the VDP designation on the label. The initials stand for Indication Géographique Protégée — “protected geographical region” — and it’s part of a five-year modernization of wine regulations launched by the French government in May 2008. IGP will replace the VDP level of wines, and among other easing of the former rules, it will allow producers to make wines from whatever grape varieties they chose and to take grapes from two or more regions. (It also allows the use of wood chips instead of oak barrels.)

Anyway and finally, the Pascal Jolivet Attitude Sauvignon Blanc 2009, made all in stainless steel, is a charming wine with enough seriousness about it to demand some consideration. The color is very pale straw-gold. Aromas of lemon and lime are imbued with elements of limestone and flint and hints of grapefruit skin and apple skin. There is indeed a bit of “attitude” about the wine, evidenced in its bright spiciness and the boldness of its clean acidity. Flavors of roasted lemon, quince and ginger are bolstered by deep, pervasive minerality, a sort of chalk over limestone foundation, while the texture is both lively and supple. The finish is rounded with a bracing bell-tone of grapefruit pith. Alcohol content is an eminently sane 12.5 percent. This was terrific with seared sock-eye salmon, potato salad and chard. Very Good+. About $17.

Imported by Frederick Wildman and Sons, New York. A sample for review.

Joan Didion was once asked to lecture on the topic “Why I Write.” Her response was something like, “Look at the vowels in those three words: I, I, I.” In other words, writing is all about me, myself and I, and writing on a blog is the same deal. Wait! No! Those are the other blogs! This blog is all about you, you, you, my readers! Just so, the title of this post, “Nine White Wines,” encloses those “I, I, I” implications, but is really about wine choices for you, though today I limit those choices somewhat by excluding wines made from the chardonnay grape. I’ve tried some pretty good ones recently but also some chardonnays that were sodden with oak, so that grape will get separate posts in a week or so, “a week or so” being such a comfortingly elastic expression of futurity. (I’ve never seen this photograph of Joan Didion before, from 1970; wow, what a dish! And one of my favorite writers and heroes for her courage, her unflinching gaze, her slashing prose! I’m on a project now of reading or re-reading all her books.)

Anyway, Nine White Wines (and a bonus at the end).

Made all in stainless steel, the Dry Creek Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2008, Wilson Ranch, Clarksburg — in the Sacramento Delta region of Northern California — opens with whiffs of lemon balm and dried thyme, with tangerine and a hint of orange zest. This is an incredibly fresh and refreshing wine whose crisp acidity whets the palate and lays the groundwork for juicy citrus flavors touched with a bit of mango; lightness and delicacy are wedded to a moderately lush texture. The finish rounds out the wine with some lime peel and bracing grapefruit bitterness. The alcohol is a soothing 12.5 percent. Always a favorite for summer quaffing with grilled shrimp, seafood risotto or linguine with clam sauce. Closed (for the first time) with a screw-cap. Very Good. About $12, representing Great Value.

The torrontés grape makes charming and delightful wines but not great wines, and that’s nothing for it to worry its pretty little head about; how happy we are, for example, to meet a person who is consistently charming, delightful and undemanding. Sort of like me. The Trivento Amado Sur Torrontés 2009, Mendoza, Argentina, however, blends 15 percent viognier grapes and 10 percent chardonnay with 75 percent torrontés. What, I thought, is this an attempt to pump up the virtues of a simple grape and turn it into something “important,” a “Super Torrontés,” as it were? The fact is, this is a terrifically appealing wine that offers scents of ripe peach, pear and quince with meadowy undertones and a whiff of camellia. It’s very dry, very crisp and mounts a limestone element so piercing that it’s almost poignant. Give the wine a few minutes and it becomes slightly honeyed (but not sweet), with notes of candied grapefruit and ginger, but there’s always that crystalline acidity and austere minerality to leaven the sensuousness; the finish brings in the forthright bitterness of grapefruit and lime peel. So, I suppose this is a kind of Super Torrontés and no worse for the bolstering. Very Good+. About $15, Good Value.

Imported by Excelsior Wine & Spirits, a division of Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville, N.Y. Trivento — “three winds” — is the Argentine outpost of Chile’s giant wine producer Concha y Toro.

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

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Ca.

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

The Winter’s Hill Pinot Blanc 2007, Dundee Hills, delivers wonderful tone and presence while maintaining a fleetness and delicacy of effect that’s exhilarating. Mildly spicy pear and lemon scents segue into spicier flavors of pear, roasted lemon and melon, with a touch of almond skin. The balance and restraint here, the equilibrium and sense of elegance allied to a feeling of slightly repressed depth, are not only admirable but irresistible. So many wines could profit from this sort of decorum that never feels fastidious. Production was 840 cases, so mark this Worth a Search. The alcohol level is 14 percent. Excellent. About $18.

The Guado al Tasso Vermentino 2008, from Antinori’s winery in Bolgheri, in southwestern Tuscany, is a sort of seaside wine; one feels the briskness and breeziness of the sea-wind, the snap of salt and crusted oyster shells. There’s the slight fragrant astringency of rosemary crushed in the hand, the richness of roasted lemon and lemon balm, a subtle note of honeysuckle and jasmine. Adding to the freshness are tingling acidity, a touch of spritz –this is all stainless steel — and heaping elements of damp limestone. So this is delightful and charming, but not simpleminded; there are serious bones here, the structure of elegance, an evocative whisper of Olympian distance in the austere finish. 13 percent alcohol. We drank this with roasted salmon with a potato and artichoke hash. Excellent. About $25.

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


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

Imported by Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.


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

Whatever the combination of knowledge and experience Parker and Hepworth represent, they got the Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc 2008, St. Helena, Napa Valley, exactly right. While there’s nothing wrong (or not much) with the larky, snappy, blastingly citric and tropical sauvignon blancs that flood the market today, it’s nice to sip a sauvignon blanc fit for grown-ups. First, all things lemon are here, from roasted lemon to lemon balm and lemon curd, with an infusion of dried thyme and tarragon and a hint of dusty summer meadows. The wine is quite lively, sporting a keen edge of damp limestone and a tingling line of crisp acidity. The oak is subtle and supple, the result of eight months in new French oak puncheons — generally defined as holding 500 liters — and one- and two-year old French barriques, holding 225 liters or 59 gallons; in other words, the winemakers consciously decided to forgo the influence of new barriques for a more nuanced approach. What can I say? This is a sauvignon blanc of immense presence and authority that doesn’t neglect the elements of elegance and grace. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. The alcohol content is a sensible 13.5 percent. Exceptional. About $32.

The Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2008, Clare Valley, South Australia, delivers exactly what you want from a Clare Valley riesling: a classic bouquet of lychees and peaches, lime peel and petrol (or rubber eraser) and penetrating aromas of gunflint and damp shale. If you could drink such a bouquet you could stop there, but move along, please, to flavors of orange zest, grapefruit and mango ensconced in a very dry, very crisp and spare structure that makes it feel as if you’re drinking liquid limestone that dates back to the Ice Age it’s so pure and immediate, and yet, paradoxically, here comes a gentle whiff of rose petal and lilac. The finish, not surprisingly, is elegantly-wrought, all high cheek-bones and unblemished foreheads, very cool, pale, princesse lointaine, complete. The whole effect is beguiling and seductive, and I wish I had a glass sitting right here beside me (though I’m having a fine old time with this quaffable Domaine “La Garrigue” Cuvee Romaine Côte du Rhône 2008 that I’m sipping rather too much of at the present moment). Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Screw-cap closed. Exceptional. About $38.

Imported by USA Wine West, Sausalito, Cal., for The Australian Premium Wine Collection.

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

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

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

Imported by Louis/Dressner, New York.

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

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

As those of you know who have read this blog faithfully and in a state of more than semi-consciousness, Saturday marks Pizza & Movie Night in our house and has for 15 years or so. Last night was no exception. I had purchased some very cute baby eggplant and beautiful basil at Whole Foods, and yesterday, from opening day of the Memphis Farmers Market, we brought home, among other green things, garlic sprouts and spring onions.

I sliced the eggplant thinly, doused the pieces with olive oil, salt and pepper, and slide them under the broiler, watching carefully so they didn’t burn. For the rest, I used thin slices of Roma tomatoes, one of those garlic sprouts — they’re quite peppery — , chopped spring onions, diced applewood smoked bacon, and mozzarella, parmesan and pecorino romano cheeses. The dough had rolled out perfectly, so I was entertaining intimations of this being a great pizza, perhaps one of the best.

Now, to fill in the background of this story, we have been fostering a pit bull-boxer mix dog since December. Her name is Mary Sue. She’s not particularly large, weighing probably 35 to 37 pounds, but she’s very strong. I mean the muscles in her thighs are terrific; it looks as if she goes to the gym every day and works out with a personal trainer. Mary Sue’s obsession is fabric. When she first came to stay with us, she slept on a pallet of dog mats, blankets and towels that she carefully arranged when it was time for a nap or to settle in for the night. I mean, she would actually move the blankets and towels around and put them in what was to her proper order. (She sleeps in a crate now.)

When Mary Sue was intoduced into the kitchen/sitting room with the rest of the dogs, she transferred this fabricophilia to dish-towels, hot-pads and napkins, which at every opportunity she would filch from counter-tops and towel racks and dash off with, to chew and mangle and generally have fun. We find this activity quite annoying and try to stop her at every opportunity.

So, last night I had finished making the pizza, which takes me about an hour, with all the chopping and dicing and rolling out the dough and laying on the ingredients. Just before the moment of truth, that is, sliding the pizza from the wooden paddle onto the hot stone in the oven (always a tense interlude), I turned for a moment to store the cheese in the refrigerator. This action took all of five seconds, and when I turned back, there was Mary Sue, dragging the uncooked pizza off the counter.

I shrieked with the pain of any artist seeing a creation (and dinner) being destroyed by the teeth of a ravaging canine. LL came running and we managed to get the pizza out of Mary Sue’s mouth — by this time of course all the dogs were jumping around, snatching pieces of bacon, tomato and mozzarella from the floor — and fling it back on the paddle, a deconstructed heap of sticky dough clotted with food-stuff. I, ever the pessimist, said, “Well, that’s it. The pizza’s ruined. So much for Pizza & Movie Night.” LL, however, said, “Maybe we can salvage it.”

And so, working slowly and meticulously, we managed to pull the inter-folded dough apart and gingerly spread it out into an irregular shape. We picked through the ingredients and placed them back in some semblance of a pattern. It looked bizarre, but I slid it into the oven.

Mary Sue looked completely untouched by regret or remorse and, in fact, when the pizza came out of the oven thought she saw a second chance to grab the thing, though I kept it beyond her reach. It looked pretty damned good, and actually turned out to be a Great Pizza and One of the Best in the History of FK’s Pizza-Making.

To drink with it, I opened a bottle of the Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon 2007, a 100 percent cabernet franc wine from France’s Central Loire Valley, where cabernet franc is the dominant red grape. The domaine, founded in 1975, is fairly young by the standards of the Loire Valley. Bernard Baudry produces four levels of Chinon cabernet france, of which the “Domaine” bottling, produced from 35-year-old vines, is the second. Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon 2007 is made from two terroirs, 50 percent gravel and 50 percent limestone soil. The wine is fermented in concrete vats and aged about a year in a combination of large casks and small barrels. No herbicides or chemicals are used at the estate.

This is classic Chinon, smoky and fleshy, though a bit broodsome in its notes of blueberry and black currant and its layers of black olive, dried thyme and leather. The wine is quite dry, and slightly woody tannins and dusty shale-like minerality produce some austerity from mid-palate back through the finish; I left the bottle with the cork in it overnight and by morning it resolved nicely, bringing in elements of Oolong tea, sage, bergamot, patchouli and bitter chocolate, though the tannins, bolstered by lively acidity, still cut a swath. Yes, it’s pretty heady stuff. I would recommend letting the wine breathe for an hour before serving. Drink now to 2016 or ’17, with hearty fare such as braised or roasted meat or eggplant-and-bacon pizzas. Very Good+. About $18 to $22.
Imported by Louis/Dressner Selections, New York. A sample for review.

One of the most gratifying aspects of producing the “Twelves Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” series lies in the discovery of new or different products that bring knowledge and delight, to readers, I hope, as well as to me and LL (who would not allow me to taste anything sparkling without her participation).

Such a discovery is the Château des Vaults Brut Sauvage, from the renowned Domaine du Closel in the tiny Savennières appellation in the central Loire Valley. Southwest of the medieval city of Angers, this area, part of the Anjou-Saumur region, is the cradle, the homeland of chenin blanc, which supplies 85 percent of the grapes for this wine, designated Crémant de Loire; the other 15 percent is cabernet franc, obviously quickly taken off their dark purple skins, because the Château des Vaults Brut Sauvage reveals not the merest blush of pink. This is pale, pale, palest gold with a shadow of silver unfolded when one turns the glass in the light. “Brut Sauvage” means that after the second fermentation in the bottle — the heart of the champagne method — the wine receives no dosage, the final topping off with sugar that determines the sweetness of a sparkling wine. Rather, sans dosage, this is bone-dry yet not distant or austere. Aromas of yeast and fresh biscuits support hints of macerated peach and baked pear and a wispy scent of a shy white flower. In the mouth, a delicate line of lemon, lime peel and toasted hazelnuts threads through what feels like liquid, effervescent limestone. The whole effect is sleek and elegant, real yet evanescent; it’s quite a beauty. Excellent, and a Bargain at about $18. Limited distribution, so mark it also Worth a Search.

LDM Wines Imports (Louis/Dressner), New York.

This was a sample bottle for review.

About as much white wine is made in Chinon, in France’s Loire Valley, as red wine is made in Burgundy’s Puligny-Montrachet. Really damned little! Chinon, part of the Touraine region smack in the middle of the Loire, is largely cabernet franc country. No bistro in Paris would be without Chinon on its wine list; I wish we saw more examples of this quintessential restaurant wine in America. A little rose is made in Chinon and a smaller proportion, about two percent of the production, is white wine made from chenin blanc grapes.

Thus, the shimmering pale Les Chanteaux 2008, from Couly-Dutheil, was a revelation. LL had seared a fine filet of swordfish, just enough to give it slight char on the exterior and leave the interior moist, flavorful and almost rare at the center. She paired that with a piece of salmon that she had cooked a few days before, that fish having marinated in a black pepper-jalapeno sauce brought home from a Vietnamese restaurant. The combination, a sort of surf ‘n’ surf deal, was striking; the salmon, served cold, was dense, packed with spicy heat; the swordfish was lush and succulent. Also on the plate were rice and buttery, garlicky kale.

Les Chanteaux 2008 opened with a burst of camillia and honeysuckle, pear and quince, tangerine and exotic spice. As if this panoply of delights were not enough, the wine is bright and lively, with a tone of some piquancy wrapped around notes of white pepper and lychee, baked apple and in the limestone-laced finish, a hint of some shy, astringent meadow flower. Les Chateaux sees no oak, but rests on the lees in tank to pick up some nuance. Immensely appealing, and it tied together the elements of our meal very nicely. Very Good+ and definitely Worth a Search. I paid $25 for this bottle, which is the median price around the country.
Imported by Frank-Lin International, San Jose, Cal.

The longest river in France defines the country’s largest and most varied winemaking appellation. It’s fortunate for the 05381.gif summertime wine consumer that in addition to its celebrated white and red wines, its dessert wines and sparkling wines, the region produces a wide range of delightful rosés, generally from cabernet franc and pinot noir grapes. Here are three examples.

*The Domaine des Nouelles Rosé d’Anjou 2007, produced by B. Chereau, is simple, direct and delicious, offering a bouquet that flaunts orange blossom, orange zest and red currants with a hint of strawberry and limestone. A touch of sweetness in the front of the mouth is balanced by crisp acid, prominent mineral elements and a dry finish. The color is pale salmon/coral. The vineyards from which the cabernet franc and grolleau grapes derive lie southwest of the city of Angers, a charming town that boasts a picturesque medieval section and a formidable castle, once the seat of a powerful dukedom. I rate the wine Very Good. About $10 and Good Value. Imported by Monsieur Touton, New York.

*Here’s a Great Bargain. The Jean-Maurice Raffault Chinon Rosé 2007 delivers amazing style and substance for the price. Made from cabernet franc grapes, the wine shimmers in its light salmon-dark peach color. Spiced apple and pear meet red currant and strawberry in the bouquet, while in the mouth, the wine is almost opulent in weight, dynamic in texture, yet crisp, close to tart in acidic properties, and quite earthy and minerally. Don’t waste this as an aperitif; drink with picnic fare like fried chicken or with Asian food like spring rolls or mild curries. Very Good+. About $14. Imported by VOS Selections, New York. p15578.jpg

*Made completely from pinot noir grapes, the Lucien Crochet Sancerre Rosé 2007 sports a lovely bright onion skin color and equally lovely aromas of spiced peach, pear and melon with a touch of dried strawberry. This crisp and refreshing wine is very stony and minerally and combines hints of dried thyme and tarragon with strawberry-melon flavors, a hint of dried cranberry and its tartness with a limestone element that burgeons through the finish. Very Good+. About $22 (though I have seen this on the Internet as high as $32). Imported by Neal Rosenthal, New York.

The current issue of the “Wine Spectator” — Jan. 31-Feb. 29, 2008 — helpfully recapitulates last year’s reviewing program by listing all the wines reviewed in 2007 by name, price and rating. The descriptions of the wines are omitted, but those tend to be pretty damned telegraphic anyway.

What’s interesting about the issue, though, is a section in which the Spectator’s writers and reviewers go country by country and region by region and reveal the average price of the wines in the different scoring categories. This is particularly important in the top scoring — let’s call it “iconic” — segment of wines rated 90 to 100 points of the WS 100-point scale.

Look for example at this breakdown for France:

Red Bordeaux: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $95.
Red Burgundy: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $116
White Burgundy: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $86.
Rhone Valley: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $72.
Loire Valley: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $32.
Alsace: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $73.
Champagne: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $92
Languedoc & Roussillon: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $35.
Other France: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $41.

Do I have to spell it out for you? B-U-Y L-O-I-R-E.

It’s also interesting that for California, the guide does not go through all the counties and regions and valleys in similar manner; that would take a book. Instead, the matter is arranged by grape. Here’s the sequence:

Cabernet sauvignon: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $103.
Chardonnay: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $48.
Pinot noir: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $52.
Syrah: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $47.
Zinfandel: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $32.
Merlot: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $52.
Sauvignon blanc: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $24.
Other grapes: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $45.

Do I have to spell it out for you? B-U-Y S-A-U-V-I-G-N-O-N B-L-A-N-C A-N-D Z-I-N-F-A-N-D-E-L.

Now these figures do not take into account the rarity of certain wines, the prestige of properties and vineyards and other factors, but this much is clear: Of all the regions and countries mentioned in this exercise, only New Zealand comes in at a lower average price — $30 — of wines scoring 90 to 100 points than the Loire Valley. And much as the wines of New Zealand have improved in the past 10 or 15 years, they don’t represent nearly the diversity of grapes and styles that the Loire Valley does, from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume in the east to Muscadet in the west, with Chinon and Anjou and Savennieres and Vouvray and Saumur and many other smaller appellations in between.

Perhaps 2008 should be the Year of the Loire, and we should spend the next 10 months exploring its varied treasures.

Alternatively, it seems like a good time to fill the spaces in your wine rack or the boxes in your closet with sauvignon blanc and zinfandel wines from California, experimenting with different regions, vineyards and labels. There would be worst ways to spend the rest of the year.

Tired of the full-throttle lime peel/grapefruit/tarragon/green bean assault you get when you open a bottle of sauvignon blanc from New Zealand (and increasingly from California)? The sauvignon blancs that are so crisp that the glass quivers when you set it down? Sure, those wines are fine sometimes, but they’re so upfront, so aggressive and showy that they get tiresome after a while.

Turn for relief to this trio of classics from Sancerre, in the far eastern reaches of France’s vast Loire Valley region. All three are from 2005, a great year in the Loire, as, indeed, it was in most of France if not the world. This area, where the river makes a 39685.jpg great curve from its northward flow to heading west and slightly southwest, seems to be the natural home of the sauvignon blanc grape. The best-known appellations are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé; lesser designations are Touraine Sauvignon, Menetou-Salon, Quincy, Reuilly and Coteaux du Giennois. All produce, when the grape is properly handled, wines of great verve and energy, grounded in a full range of lemon attributes, nerves of acid and bones of limestone. The best wines are truly elegant, yet that doesn’t mean that different growers and winemakers don’t imbue their wines with varied characteristics. And because of the wide use of stainless steel in these areas, rarely does oak intrude on the grape’s purity and intensity.

Look first at the Sancerre 2005 from Daniel Chotard. This is super fresh and clean, spare and elegant yet earthy. Notes of fresh-cut grass and tarragon are subdued to lemon zest, limestone and a flash of flint. The wine is quite crisp and dry but bright and juicy, too, and it picks up hints of spiced lemon and jasmine on the finish. Attractive and delicious but with a touch of celestinsancerre.jpg reticence. Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Ca. Excellent. About $19 to $26. We drank this with salmon wrapped in lettuce and steamed.

Offering more in the grassy-herbal category is Celestin Blondeau’s Sancerre “Cuvée des Moulins Bâles” 2005. The bouquet embodies mown fields of grass and hay where tangles of thyme and tarragon lay (to be Midsummer Dreamish about it) with powerful accents of lemon and hints of lime peel and tangerine. If this sounds deliriously attractive, well, it is. Acid is crisp and sprightly and even the mineral element is lively. It’s not so much elegance going on here as irresistible vitality. Imported by Ex Cellars Wine Agencies, Solvang, Ca. Excellent. About $19 to $25. mellot.jpg

The most delicate (and paradoxically the earthiest) of these three Sancerres is Alphonse Mellot’s Sancerre “La Moussière” 2005. Mild lemon and roasted lemon scents feel the pull of smoke, ash and limestone that can’t conceal winsome hints of quince, dried thyme and tarragon. The wine is clean and crisp in the mouth, yet limestone and flint come up in a powerful tide, and the texture turns out to be both dense and ethereal. A delicious feat of prestidigitation. Domaine Select Imports, New York. Excellent. About $23 to $26.

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