Marsanne


No holds are barred in California, unlike in the Old World, where government agencies determine where grapes can be grown and what grapes go into certain wines. Many wines, of course, are famous for their combinations of grapes, like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which may contain any ratio of up to 13 grapes, red and white, or Bordeaux, where winemakers fashion cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc (primarily) into some of the world’s most elegant, powerful and best-known red wines. No such customs or regulations abide in the Golden State, and today we look at five wines that offer some unusual blends of grapes, some more successfully than others. The trick is to create a blend that delivers distinctive, if not original, qualities rather than something than comes out smelling and tasting like a generic “red wine.” These wines were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Bonny Doon Vineyards A Proper Claret 2013, California. 13.5% alc. Cabernet sauvignon 46%, merlot 17%, tannat 15%, petit verdot 13%, syrah 8%, petite sirah 1%, the point being that this is a very improper claret — Bordeaux red wine — indeed. Dark ruby-purple with a magenta rim; solid, tannic, fills the mouth with briers, brambles and underbrush but builds layers of cloves and allspice, cedar, ancho chili, then undertones of dusty black currants, raspberries and plums; no molly-coddle here, intense and concentrated, lip-smacking acidity; dense, chewy; needs a medium rare strip steak or a great joint of venison. Now through 2018 to 2020. Loads of personality. Very Good+. About $16, a Real Bargain.
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Casey Flat Ranch Estate Red Wine 2012, Capay Valley, Yolo County. 14.8% alc. Cabernet sauvignon 56%, syrah 30%, cabernet franc 13% viognier 1%. Dense ruby-purple; cassis, black cherries and raspberries; hints of menthol, violets, hedge and heather, then graphite and underbrush, leather and mocha; bushy and brushy but succulent, balanced, integrated; a touch of the iodine-and-iron complex (sounds like a vitamin) under delicious black fruit flavors with a note of blue; wild berry notes, licorice and lavender lend some elevation to a wine of true class, distinction and character. Now through 2020 to ’22 with steaks and braised meats. Excellent. About $45.
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Gnarly Head Limited Release Authentic Black 2012, Lodi. (Delicato Family Vineyards) 14.5% alc. Petite sirah-based blend. A limited edition wine for Fall. The problem with the Gnarly Head wines is that they’re not gnarly enough. One of the purplest and most opaque wines I have ever seen; very ripe, spicy, grapy, gamy; plummy and jammy with sweetish blackberry, blueberry and currant scents and flavors, plush and velvety, “soft in the middle,” as Paul Simon says; quite juicy, smoky, a little loamy; comes across as unfocused and inauthentic. Good+. About $12.
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Juxtapoz Red Wine Blend 2012, North Coast. (Delicato Family Vineyards) 15% alc. Syrah 55%, zinfandel 23%, petite sirah 9%, malbec 6%, cabernet sauvignon 4%, “other reds” 3%. Dark ruby with an opaque center; first impression is of woody spices and walnut shell, then ripe black currants, cherries and plums, hints of plum skin, cedar and black olive; a few moments in the glass bring in notes of slightly caramelized fennel; scrunchy tannins and bright acidity make a fairly robust wine; you feel the alcoholic heat a bit on the finish; takes an hour or so for this to come together, and it finally convinced me that it worked. Cheesy label, though. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Very Good+. About $25.
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Renwood Clarion Red Wine 2012, Amador County. 15% alc. 25% each zinfandel, petite sirah, syrah and marsanne; that’s right, one-quarter of this wine is from white grapes. Dark ruby purple color; a deep spicy wine, bursting with notes of blackberries, black currants and blueberries permeated by violets, lavender, potpourri and graphite; sleek, supple and integrated and manages not to be overwhelmed by the alcohol content; picks up hints of cloves, walnut shell, briers and brambles through a wildly fruity but earthy, mineral-packed finish. Tasty and intriguing. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $20.
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William Allen moved into commercial production in 2010, after years as a “garagiste” and writer. This doesn’t mean that he makes a lot of wine. Two Shepherds as a one-man operation, truly a labor of love, so the wines are made in minute quantities; sorry about that. These are Rhone-style wines that see no new oak, are foot-stomped, use natural yeasts and generally exhibit remarkable purity and intensity. I love them; there, I said it.

These wines were samples for review. The labels used for illustration below are one vintage behind.

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The Two Shepherds Pastoral Blanc 2012, Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley, is a blend of four white grapes typical of the southern Rhone Valley: 50 percent roussanne, 35 percent marsanne, 10 viognier and 5 grenache blanc; the wine ages an average of six months in neutral French oak barrels. The color is pale gold; aromas of quince and ginger, peach and spiced pear open to notes of bee’s-wax and camellia, sea-shell and limestone. The wine is rich, focused, enveloped in a structure of moderate and very attractive weight and body, clean, bright and crisp yet almost talc-like in texture. Quite dry, it offers a smoky, earthy and autumnal essence of peaches, nectarines and yellow plums, cloves and allspice and a backwash of limestone-and-flint minerality and salinity. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with grilled or roasted salmon or tuna, grilled mussels, trout with lemon-caper butter or shrimp salad. Production was 105 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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This time not Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley but Saarloos Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley, for the Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc 2012; at first I thought that was a misprint. Santa Ynez, approved as an AVA in 1983, is in southeast Santa Barbara County and bears within it the sub-appellation of Santa Rita Hills. This grenache blanc offers an aura of greenness, by which I do not mean green as in grapes picked before they’re ripe, but green as in leafy green, as in sea-green, as in greengage, as in green apple. The color is pale straw-gold; notes of jasmine and honeysuckle are spare and ethereal, wreathed with tangerine and grapefruit and backed by shell-like minerals and a sort of sea-breeze salinity. A moderately soft and satiny texture is energized by brisk acidity and scintillating limestone minerality, while the finish brings in hints of green tea, orange rind and cloves. Eighty percent of the wine aged seven months in neutral oak, the other 20 percent six months in stainless steel. 13.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with Thai salads, trout quenelles, watercress and cucumber sandwiches (crusts trimmed, of course). Production was 125 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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William Allen made one barrel of the Two Shepherds Trousseau Gris 2012, Fanucchi Vineyard, Russian River Valley, amounting to 25 cases, so while it’s a brilliant wine, the chances of any of My Readers getting their hands on a bottle are about as remote as Beyonce singing La Boheme in Bethlehem. The grape is trousseau gris, not widely found even in its home of the Jura mountains where France nestles against Switzerland. Being “gris,” the grape’s faintly rosy onion skin or grayish color yields a radiant coral hue when the wine is fermented on the skins; in other words, it’s a “white” wine made as if it were a red wine. The seductive and unusual bouquet delivers hints of orange zest and strawberries, melon and lemon balm with intriguing notes of parsley and celery and a touch of flint. It’s quite dry but juicy with ripe peach, red currant and rhubarb flavors deepened by the slight astringency of peach skin and almond skin, smoke, briers and brambles, all wrapped in clean acidity and a note of graphite minerality. The whole package is characterized by remarkable presence, resonance, transparency and vividness. The wine aged eight months in neutral oak barrels, four months on the lees. 13.8 percent alcohol. We drank this versatile bottle over several nights with a variety of food. Now through 2016 or ’17. Exceptional. About $25.
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So, here’s the red wine of this foursome. The Two Shepherds Syrah/Mourvèdre 2011 is a cross-county blend of 55 percent syrah from Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, and 45 percent mourvèdre from El Dorado. It aged 10 months in neutral French oak, the barrels four years old or older, four of those months on the lees. The color is a pronounced dark ruby with a magenta robe; fresh aromas of ripe red and black currants and plums are intensified by cloves, graphite, a hint of new leather and depths of briery, clean mossy earthiness. The wine is fine-grained and supple, riven by incisive acidity, decisively dry, dense and chewy, almost feral in its purity and individuality; despite projecting a vibrant and somewhat unbridled red and black fruit character and texture, the wine feels light on its feet, with nothing ponderous or opulent. 13.8 percent alcohol. Product was 40 cases. Drink now through 2018 or ’20 with grilled leg of lamb, a hot and crusty medium rare rib-eye steak just plunked from the coals, a gamy veal chop. Excellent. About $38.
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Elyse Winery is best-known for its single-vineyard cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels, though what I review today are three excellent examples of its Rhone-style wines. Elyse was founded in 1987 by Ray and Nancy Coursen, after Ray had spent nine years at Whitehill Lane. The wines were made at various facilities until in 1997 the Coursens purchased a small winery on Hoffman Lane in Napa Valley, west of Hwy 29 between Oak Knoll and Rutherford. Winemaker is Mike Trotta. These were samples for review.
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Elyse L’Ingenue Naggiar Vineyard 2011, Sierra Foothills. This Rhone-style white is a blend of 52 percent roussanne grapes, 32 percent marsanne, 11 viognier and 5 grenache blanc. The wine aged 16 months in “experienced” French oak barrels, that is to say, previously used. This is a lovely wine, offering a pale straw-gold color and beguiling aromas of jasmine and quince, pears and yellows plums, a touch of a slightly resinous herb like rosemary and a deeper floral note that I finally sussed out as camellia. Attractive flavors of roasted lemons and pears (and a hint of slightly honeyed peach) are balanced by a spare texture and delicately astringent elements of grapefruit and limestone minerality, all bound by spanking acidity. Saline and savory, sensuous yet elegant. 14.6 percent alcohol. Now through 2015 or ’16. Production was 416 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Elyse C’est Si Bon Naggiar Vineyard 2009, Sierra Foothills. Here’s a blend much like a traditional Chateauneuf-du-Pape — 39 percent grenache, 33 percent mourvedre, 12 syrah, 8 cinsault, 5 counoise and 3 viognier. The aging occurs in French puncheons — usually 500 liters (some manufacturers measure a puncheon as 475 liters) — a bit more that twice the size of the ubiquitous barrique at 225 liters (59 gallons); 10 percent of these barrels are new. I dwell on these matters of wood to show how careful the regimen is at Elyse, how little new oak is used, how the size of barrels varies. The wine lives up to its name: It’s so good, not merely as an expression of quality, though it is damned good, but as an embodiment of elan and joie de vivre and all that French stuff. The color is dark ruby with a magenta edge; the bouquet weaves notes of black and red currants and plums, mulberries and blueberries into a well-knit fabric that includes graphite and lavender, a hint of fruitcake, a touch of smoke. It’s light and fresh in the mouth, spicy and berry-like, invigorating and appealing, silky supple in texture yet slightly roughened by the sanding of subtle tannins. Not to mean that the wine is delicate; no, it delivers a firm foundation of vibrant acidity and granitic mineral qualities as well as a depth of smoke and ash and mossy earthiness. 14.4 percent alcohol. Now through 2015 or ’16. Production was 1,594 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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The raven, indeed. Elyse Le Corbeau Hudson Vineyard 2008, Los Carneros, a blend of 90 percent grenache and 10 percent syrah — more like a modern Chateauneuf-du-Pape — is as dark as a raven’s wing and offers something of that bird’s wild and irascible character; it aged 22 months in small French oak barrels, 20 percent new. The wine bristles with life and personality, but it finishes in a brooding manner that befits E.A. Poe’s famous bird, he of the limited vocabulary. Aromas of black currants, blackberries and plums seethe with notes of graphite, briers and brambles, smoky lavender and bitter chocolate. Luscious and deeply spicy black and blue fruit flavors are leavened by fine-grained and persistent tannins and vigorous acidity, all culminating in a close to profound earthy, rooty lithic character, though there is nothing ponderous or truculent here; the wine is too well-balanced for that. 14.4 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 to ’18. Production was 300 cases. Excellent. About $37.
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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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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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Weekend Wine Sips and it’s only Friday afternoon. If you live in the Northeast, you probably won’t be able to get to a liquor and wine store tonight — two feet of snow? 50- to 75-mph winds? — but for the rest of the country, time’s a-wasting! There’s one wine in this post that I strongly do not recommend, otherwise these range from pleasant to impressive to memorable. Six eclectic white wines and four reds today, ranging in price from about $13 to $25, with a couple that merit ranking as Bargains and Values. As usual, little in the way of historical, geographical or technical detail; instead I offer quick reviews intended to pique your interest and whet your palate. These were all samples for review, and the order is alphabetical.
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Angelini Sangiovese 2008, Colli Pesaresi, Marche, Italy. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby color; lovely warm sangiovese nose of dried red currants, cloves, black tea and orange zest; pert acidity, an element of graphite-like minerality and a rather lean structure contribute to a sense of spareness and angularity, though the wine never loses its charm and appeal. Drink through the end of 2013. Very Good+. About $16.
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Brancaia “Tre” 2010, Toscana, Italy. …% alc. 80% sangiovese, 20% merlot and cabernet sauvignon, from three estates, hence “Tre.” Deep ruby color; intense and concentrated; dried red and blue fruit, dried flowers (lavender and potpourri), dried spices like cloves and allspice; hints of thyme, rosemary with its slightly resiny quality, earthy and slate-like minerality; black tea and black olives; the oak comes out on the finish a bit obviously, but lots of personality. Now through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $18.
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Edna Valley Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Central Coast, California. (Owned by Gallo since 2011) 13.9% alc. Very pale straw color; scintillating bouquet of lime peel, lemongrass, kiwi, tarragon and grapefruit; segues smoothly to the palate, enhanced by rousing acidity and a keen limestone edge. Now through the end of 2013. Totally attractive. Very Good+. About $15.
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Franz Keller “Schwarzer Adler” Pinot Blanc 2010, Baden, Germany. 13% alc. Pale straw-gold color; pear and peach with a trace of lychee and spicy backnotes; very crisp, lively and flinty; vibrant acidity, taut, clean, fresh; touch of limestone-laced earthiness to buoy the ripe citrus and stone-fruit flavors; svelte, elegant, lots of authority yet charming. Now through 2015. Excellent. About $22.
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Hooker Betsy’s Vineyard “Home Pitch” Syrah 2010, Knights Valley, Sonoma County, California. 14% alc. Deep ruby color with a magenta rim; robust, intense and concentrated, roasted and fleshy, smoke and ash, damp mossy earth and leather; ripe blackberry and black currant scents and flavors with notes of wild raspberry and plums; a little nutty and toasty; builds power as it goes, accumulating layers of graphite, licorice, bitter chocolate, briers and brambles. Pretty darned classic. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $24.
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Poliziano Lohsa 2010, Morellino di Scansano, Tuscany, Italy. 14% alc. Unusual blend of 80% cabernet sauvignon and 20% alicante, petit verdot and carignano (carignane). Dark ruby color; black currants and plums, touch of red cherry, deeply imbued with spice and brambly elements, notes of oolong tea, mushrooms and sour cherry; neatly balanced rusticity with pleasing poise and integration; slightly shaggy tannins abound. Now through 2015. Very Good+. About $15, representing Great Value.
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Santiago Ruiz 2011, Rias Baixas, Spain. 13% alc. 70% albariño, 15% loureiro, 10% caiño, 5% treixadura and godello. Pale straw color; spanking fresh and clean as new ironed sheets, with a savory, bracing sea-salt, sea-breeze exhilaration as well as a stony and steely backbone; thyme and mint, peach, kumquat and quince, touch of bay leaf; deftly handled texture halfway between prettily lush and bony spare; very polished sense of heft and presence. Now through the end of 2013. Excellent. About $17, a True Bargain.
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Treana 2010, Central Coast, California. 14.5% alc. (Hope Family Wines) 50% each marsanne and viognier. Again and again, I try to like this wine but cannot. Two grapes that are capable of lovely finesse and ardent dimension are treated in such manner that the wine comes out brassy, over-ripe and florid, stridently spicy, candied and over-blown. Oh, and way too oaky. I know that people love this wine, but I don’t recommend it. About $23.
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Wente Riverbank Riesling 2011, Arroyo Seco, Monterey, California. 12.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; a very appealing riesling at the right price; a touch of sweetness in the entry tones down to just off-dry across the palate; jasmine, lychee, pear and a hint of ripe peach; a little fleshy but good acidity; a hint of grapefruit on the finish. Now through Summer 2013. Very Good+. About $13, representing Real Value.
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William Hill Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley, California. 14.5% alc. (Gallo acquired William Hill from Beam Wine Estates in 2007.) Pale gold color; a generous and expansive version of the grape, fresh and vibrant with enticing personality and authority; dry, crisp and bright, with moderately ripe pineapple and grapefruit flavors barely touched by mango and jasmine and what people like to describe as “a kiss of oak”; nothing bold or brassy here, just clean balance and integration and, through the finish, a hug of limestone minerality. Now through 2013. Excellent. About $25.
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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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Driving up and up a twisting dirt track toward the Chalone winery, nothing in the steep, sere hillsides, lying arid and exposed to the glaring sun that reigns over this realm of dust and chaparral, could convince you that the landscape and climate are anything like Burgundy. Yet from this improbable parched landscape, some 1800 feet up the Gavilan range, high over the city of Soledad and just under the Pinnacles National Monument, emerges some of the best (and at times controversial) chardonnay and pinot noir wines in California, as well as pinot blanc and chenin blanc, the latter from a vineyard planted in 1919, the oldest in Monterey County. (This image looks down on Chalone from the hills above.)

That vineyard was planted by F.W. Silvear, who after the end of Prohibition sold grapes to Almaden and Wente and made a little wine of his own. He died in 1957, and the property went through various changes of name and ownership until Richard Graff, a Navy veteran with a degree in music from Harvard, bought the insolvent company, with investment from his mother, in 1965. After a great deal of trial and error, the first wines were produced in 1969. Graff was fascinated by Burgundian methods, and he introduced to California the concepts of barrel fermentation and malolactic fermentation for white wines. It wasn’t easy making wine at Chalone. The winery was a former chicken coop that held 40 barrels. The property had no electricity, water or telephone service until the early 1980s; water for irrigation had to be trucked in from Soledad, and at night oil lamps came into service. A “real” winery was constructed in 1982, but it’s more easily described as a facility than a winery; no fancy digs here, no beautiful building designed by a famous architecture, the Chalone winery consists of serviceable offices, metal sheds and tanks. That former chicken coop/winery (see accompanying image) now holds the library of Chalone’s past vintages, a collection that can make visitors downright giddy.

In 1972, Phil Woodward resigned from the accounting firm Touche Ross and joined Chalone Vineyard as vice president of finance, a position that allowed him to take over all marketing and financial matters and to bring in a group of investors and much-needed cash. Graff and Woodward shared a vision that included maintaining Chalone as a fairly small producer but expanding the company through partnerships or through the creation of new wineries in other regions of the state. Thus came about the establishment of Edna Valley Vineyard winery in San Luis Obispo County, the Carmenet winery — since 2009 a brand for cheap wines from Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co. — and Canoe Ridge in Washington and the acquisition of Acacia and Jade Mountain and Staton Hills (in Washington), renamed Sagelands Vineyard. Chalone made an initial stock offering in 1984, the first California winery to go public. The Chalone Wine Group was purchased in 2005 by beverage giant Diageo, though as Robert Cook, Chalone winemaker since 2007, said, “They take care of the books. We take care of the wine.”

Dick Graff was killed in 1998, when his single-engine Cessna went down near the town of Salinas.

The Chalone American Vitacultural Area was approved in 1982, the first AVA in Monterey County, as Chalone was its first bonded winery. Though the region now contains seven vineyards, it has only one winery, Chalone itself. As long ago as the 1890s, when Frenchman Maurice Tamm planted vines in the declivities of these long, dry slopes, the area’s unique properties — its deep calcareous soils and its paucity of rainfall, about 14 inches a year — were recognized for the demands they would make on vines to work hard for nourishment and for the element of minerality the soil contributes to the wine.
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Here are the wines we tasted, under a blue sky and bright sun, on Wednesday, September 12:
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Maison M. Chapoutier traces its roots to 1808, when Marius Chapoutier and his family moved to the Northern Rhône town of Tain l’Hermitage from the Ardeche mountains. In their new home, Marius broke into the wine business by acquiring an estate owned by Comte Monier de la Sizeranne, but the dedicated acquisition of vineyards didn’t actually begin until 1879 with Polydor Chapoutier. For much of the 20th Century, the domaine was run by the well-known, out-spoken and miniscule Max Chapoutier, though when he retired in 1977, quality went into decline. The revival occurred in 1990, when 26-year-old Michel Chapoutier took over operations, and in the process of building back the family’s reputation and in expanding throughout the Rhône — the company produces wine from every region of the long north-south-running valley — and into other areas of the South of France and to other countries made himself into one of the wine world’s most influential figures.

Chapoutier has been run on biodynamic principles since 1991. Use of new oak and small barrels is judicious. In a region where wines are frequently blends of several grape varieties, Chapoutier often holds to a single-variety philosophy; the two white wines under consideration today, for example, employ only marsanne grapes, with no roussanne, as might be typical, while Chapoutier’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape is all grenache. The other innovation for which the company is well-known is that since 1996 the labels for all Chapoutier wines include information in Braille.

You know how it is when you sniff and then take a sip of a wine and you don’t want the experience and the sensation ever to end? That’s how I felt with these Hermitage blanc wines from Chapoutier, which I tasted at “The Return to Terroir” event in New York at the end of February. I didn’t want that one-inch pour (if the pourer is generous); I wanted a full glass, the bottle, a table at a great restaurant overlooking Central Park or the Seine with LL and simple but extraordinary food and a chauffeur-driver Mercedes at my disposal, a brilliant night in which strange and wonderful constellations leaned out from their galactic watch-towers. In the circumstance, I had to content myself with what I was given, and believe me I harbored these pours as if they were liquid gold, of which, in fact, the wines reminded me. In whatever amount, these were magnificent, complete, confident, rare, expensive — and very different — wines.

Imported by Terlato Wines International, New York. Image of Michel Chapoutier from vitaminbwine.com.
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Made completely from marsanne grapes, the M. Chapoutier Chante-Alouette 2007, Hermitage blanc, was made one-third in new oak casks and two-thirds in stainless steel, the understanding being that casks are generally larger than the standard barriques. This is a complex and many-layered wine, packed with detail in deep and broad dimension, exuberant without being flashy. Fairly amazing aromas jump from the glass in a welter of roasted lemons and peaches, buttered cinnamon toast and Bit o’ Honey, jasmine and honeysuckle, bees’-wax and hazelnuts. Plump and fleshy without being quite voluptuous, the wine is steadied by the implicit tact of taut acidity and buttressed by scintillating limestone-like minerality. To flavors of peaches and greengage plums add notes of quince, ginger and slightly bitter orange marmelade (without the latter’s sweetness, for the wine is boldly dry) and touches of dried thyme and cedar. The finish is long, racy, spicy, with hints of slate, lime peel and grapefruit rind. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. 350 six-pack cases imported. Exceptional. About $92.
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M. Chapoutier De L’Orée 2008, Hermitage blanc, shares pedigree with its cousin of the Lark’s-Song yet feels very different. There’s more structure here, more reticence and a sense of rigorous elimination for the sake of purity and intensity, spareness and elegance. Also made completely from marsanne grapes, grown on vines 60 to 70 years old, the wine aged half in “big wooden barrels” (quoting the winery website) and half in cement vats for six months. The color is medium gold with faint green shadows; the bouquet features scents of verbena and lemongrass, some austere and slightly astringent little white flower, candle wax, roasted lemon and a back-note of sage, all tightly woven and subtly unfurling. The wine’s spicy element grows — cloves, sandalwood, allspice — as does its mineral qualities in the limestone-shale range, ensconced in a texture that’s dense, chewy and supple. Flavors of macerated quince, pears and peaches are full-blown and tasty, yet their ripeness is subdued by a savory quality and by the authority of brisk, bright acidity. The finish packs in limestone and slate to the point of crystalline austerity. 13.5 percent alcohol. 40 six-pack cases imported. This for the near future and the ages; best from 2014 or ’15 to 2028 or ’30. Exceptional. About $190.
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