Merlot


We tend to know when a wine is great from the first sniff and taste, because it possesses that ineffable yet very real quality called charisma. Renewed sniffing and tasting confirm that assessment, while adding depth and character. These factors hold true whether a wine costs $19 or $350, the range represented in today’s 2015 edition of the annual “50 Great Wines” post. I wouldn’t pay $350 for a bottle of wine — though apparently some people would — but I appreciate the occasional opportunity to encounter one. Of the wines on today’s roster, 18 rate Exceptional and 32 rate Excellent. Often the dividing line between Excellent and Exceptional is fine indeed, with permutations and intimations running silent and deep in each direction, but since my inclination is toward distinctions, rankings and hierarchies — that’s what graduate school will do for you — I always include a rating for each wine reviewed on BTYH. On the other hand, I refuse to employ the famous 100-point system; I would rather leave room for some ambiguity and imagination.

A great wine satisfies every point of interest and essence that we desire from a wine, exuding a feeling of utter completion and comprehension. Each wine accomplishes this purpose in a different way, of course, and to varying degrees, necessitating different responses. Some of these wines I admire, gravely and humbly; others, I adore rather shamelessly. The ultimate test, I think, is that when we drink a bottle of great wine, our conclusion is thus: “I wouldn’t want it to be anything other than this,” a sentiment we might also share with works of art and love affairs.

Today’s roster is presented alphabetically. Where a wine is a blend of grapes, I include the percentages that compose the blend. I also mention the case production for wines released in limited quantities, of which many on this list, not surprisingly, are. I do not include alcohol levels or names of importers or technical, geographical or historical date That sort of information is available in the reviews. These wines were selected from examples that I wrote about during 2015. The preponderance were samples for review, for which I thank the wineries, importers and marketing people who sent them.

For whatever eccentricities this list of “50 Great Wines of 2015” embodies, blame them on my taste, knowledge, experience and intuition. That is all I — or any of us — have to go on.
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achaval-ferrer-CMendoza-2013
Achaval Ferrer Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Mendoza, Argentina. Excellent. About $25.
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valadorna 09
Arcanum Valadorna 2009, Toscana IGT, Italy. 85 percent merlot, 8 percent cabernet franc, 7 percent cabernet sauvignon. Exceptional. About $80.

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14537_ARG-NHRS-13-F_1
Argyle Nuthouse Riesling 2013, Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon. Exceptional. About $30.
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sangioveto
Badia a Coltibuono Sangioveto di Toscana 2009, Toscana IGT, Italy. 100 percent sangiovese. 750 cases. Excellent. About $60.
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Benovia-2013-Russian-River-Valley-Pinot-Noir
Benovia Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $38.
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occultumlapidem2012us
Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem 2013, Côtes du Roussillon Villages Latour de France. 50 percent syrah, 40 percent grenache, 10 percent carignan. Excellent. About $30.
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BlackKite
Black Kite Cellars Stony Terrace Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 200 cases. Excellent. About $60. (Not exactly the correct label, but this is what they look like.)
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terras gauda
Bodegas Terras Gauda O Rosal 2014, Rias Baixas, Spain. 70 percent albariño, 15 percent loureiro, 15 percent caiño blanco. Excellent. About $24.
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Riesling
Chateau Montelena Riesling 2014, Potter Valley. Excellent, About $25.
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clemens-busch-vom-grauen-schiefer-riesling-trocken-mosel-germany-10529188
Weingut Clemens Busch Grauen Schiefer Riesling Trocken 2012, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $30.
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Terrunyo_Sauvignon_Blanc_Front_Label-300x218
Concha y Toro Terrunyo Los Boldos Vineyard Block 5 Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Casablanca Valley, Chile. Excellent. About $26.
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cornerstone 11
Cornerstone Cellars The Cornerstone 2011, Napa Valley. 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet franc. 100 cases. About $150.
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duckhorn merlot
Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot 2012, Napa Valley. With 7 percent cabernet sauvignon, 2 percent cabernet franc, 1 percent malbec. Excellent. About $54.
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ehlers
Ehlers Estate Sylvanie Cabernet Franc Rosé 2014, St. Helena, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $28.
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FEL-Logo_850x500
FEL Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 645 cases. Excellent. About $65.
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Foursight Jpeg Logo
Foursight Wines Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 224 cases. Excellent. About $46.
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FINAL 2013 ESS LABELb
Grgich Hills Estate Miljenko’s Selection Essence Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Napa Valley. 1,204 cases. Exceptional. About $55.
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Grgich Hills Estate Miljenko’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. 485 cases. Exceptional. About $90.
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inman-rose
Inman Family Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 1,500 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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iron-horse-brut-x
Iron Horse Brut “X” 2010, Green Valley of Russian River Valley. 69 percent pinot noir, 31 percent chardonnay. 500 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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jacquard
Champagne Jacquart Brut Rosé nv. 53 percent pinot noir, 35 percent chardonnay, 12 percent pinot meunier. Excellent. About $55.
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La Jota Vineyard Co. W.S. Keyes Vineyards Merlot 2010, Napa Valley. 296 cases. Exceptional. About $50.
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cuvee rose
Champagne Laurent-Perrier Cuvee Rosé Brut nv. 100 percent Grand Cru pinot noir. Excellent. About $99.
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laurent 2006
Champagne Laurent-Perrier Brut Millesime 2006. Excellent. About $65.
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lokoya
Lokoya Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $350.
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ember-site
Loomis “Ember” Red Wine 2012, Napa Valley. Syrah, grenache, mourvedre. 75 cases. Excellent. About $38.
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maggy
Maggy Hawk “Afleet” Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 156 cases. Exceptional. About $66.

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MFW_Rose_Face
MacPhail Family Wines Rosé of Pinot Noir 2014, Sonoma Coast. 492 cases. Exceptional. About $22.
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loidana-nueva-imagen-def_0_0
Marco Abella Loidana 2010, Priorat, Spain. 60 percent grenache, 25 percent carignane, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon. Excellent. About $30.
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mccay zin
McCay Cellars “Trulux” Zinfandel 2012, Lodi. 479 cases. Excellent. About $32.
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mcintyre
McIntyre Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 368 cases. Exceptional. About $42.
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Morgan_2012_Double_L_Chardonnay
Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 530 cases. Exceptional. About $42.
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beautiful pinot gris
Mt Beautiful Pinot Gris 2014, North Canterbury, New Zealand. 1,500 cases. Exceptional. About $19.
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Pahlmeyer and Jayson Wines Line Up
Pahlmeyer Merlot 2012, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $85.
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pfendler
Pfendler Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. 350 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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post and vine
Post & Vine Testa Vineyard Old Vine Field Blend 2012, Mendocino County. 42 percent zinfandel, 37 percent carignane, 21 percent petite sirah. 143 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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quivira zin
Quivira Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. With 10 percent petite sirah, 1 percent carignane. Excellent. About $26.
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innocent
St. Innocent Freedom Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 948 cases. Exceptional. About $42.
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sequoia grove cab
Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. With 11 percent cabernet franc, 10 percent merlot, 1 percent each petit verdot and malbec. Excellent. About $38.
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smith madrone 11
Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 1,070 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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tonella sb
S.R. Tonella Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Rutherford, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $29.
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2014EstateSauvBlanc
Stonestreet Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $35.

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tanner dafoe
Tanner Dafoe Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County. 141 cases. Exceptional. About $110.

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taylor
Taylor Fladgate Vargellas Vintage Porto 2012, Portugal. Exceptional. About $53.
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joon
Tin Barn “Joon” Coryelle Fields Vineyard Rosé of Syrah 2014, Sonoma Coast. 158 cases. Excellent. About $23.
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torre
Torre San Martino Vigna della Signore 2013, Colli di Faenza Bianco, Italy. Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, albana grapes. Excellent. $NA.
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two shepherds logo
Two Shepherds Grenache Rosé 2014, Sonoma Coast. 90 cases. Exceptional. About $24.
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Vietti Castiglione Barolo 2011, Piedmont, Italy. 100 percent nebbiolo grapes. Excellent. About $50.
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chateau-villa-bel-air-graves-france-10213716
Chateau Villa Bel-Air 2013, Graves, Bordeaux. 65 percent sauvignon blanc, 35 percent semillon. Excellent. About $25.
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2012-Jordan-PN-300x207
Youngberg Hill Jordan Block Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley. 300 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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The Spire Collection comprises the top products in the expansive stable of Jackson Family Wines. These are limited edition wines, generally from specific AVAs, carefully made, aged with primarily new French oak barrels and priced accordingly. The Spire Collection labels are Anakota (Knights Valley); Arcanum (Tuscany); Capensis (Western Cape, South Africa); Capture (Sonoma County); Cardinale (Napa Valley); Cyneth (Napa Valley); Chateau Lessegue (Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux); Chateau Vignot (Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux); Galerie carpenter(Napa Valley); Hickinbotham (McLaren Vale, South Australia); La Jota Vineyard (Napa Valley); Lokoya (Napa Valley); Maggy Hawk (Mendocino County); Mt. Brave (Napa Valley); Verite (Sonoma County);Windracer (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County). Today we look at red wines from La Jota, Lokoya and Mt. Brave, made by Chris Carpenter, pictured at right. He is also the winemaker for Cardinale, the 2011 version of which I reviewed back in January (here) and Hickinbotham, whose wines I will save for a later post; I mean, Australia is so far away from Napa Valley, and I want to stick to a theme.

The wines of La Jota, Lokoya and Mt. Brave, products of mountainside vineyards, are true vins de garde, that is, wines intended for long aging, in the case of some of these from 10 to 15 years or more, yet they are — conforming to the California ideal — accessible at a fairly young age too. They are wines of character, serious and highly structured but not ponderous, dignified but not aloof. With prices ranging from $75 to $350 a bottle, a legitimate question is, who buys these wines? Who even cares that they exist, in their limited quantities? Loyoka doesn’t even have an online function to purchase its wines; the best one can hope for is to add your name to an allocation list.

The desirability of these wines is not merely an effect of their price and rarity, however. These are great — to use a subjective term — wines that deserve to be in the cellars of anyone who collects such products. As for the rest of us, well, I wouldn’t have access to them either if I weren’t a veteran wine-writer, and I don’t hesitate to say that I enjoyed the hell out of them.

These notes are a combination of tasting samples for review at home and tasting wines in Napa Valley in March this year.
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La Jota Vineyard Co. dates back to 1898, when Swiss immigrant Frederick Hess purchased 327 acres of George Yount’s Rancho La Jota land grant on Howell Mountain. (The jota is a Spanish folk-dance, in 3/4 or 6/8 time, that achieved broad popularity in the mid 18th Century.) Within a few years, La Jota wines were winning awards at national and international competitions. Phylloxera and Prohibition put an end to the winery’s accomplishments, and the estate did not see a revival until 1974, when the original stone winery and 40 surrounding acres were bought by former oilman Bill Smith and his wife Joan. They planted new vines and added acreage, developed several new varieties and were instrumental in persuading what was then the BATF to declare Howell Mountain a separate American Viticultural Area within Napa Valley. In 2001, Smith sold La Jota to Markham Vineyards and its parent company Mercian Corp. The late Jesse Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke acquired La Jota in 2005.
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La Jota Vineyard Co. W.S. Keyes Vineyard Merlot 2010, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. 82% merlot, 18% cabernet sauvignon. 19 months French oak, 85% new barrels. W.S. Keyes Vineyard, planted in 1888, lies at 1,825 feet elevation on Howell Mountain. Very dark ruby hue with a slightly lighter rim; first note: “just beautiful”; quite rich, ripe and intense but without being opulent or overpowering; cloves and sandalwood, black cherries, currants and raspberries with a wild flash of blueberries; bitter chocolate, cedar, tobacco and mocha; wonderful balance and integration of all elements: dusty, supple tannins, spicy fruit, burnished wood, bright acidity and graphite-tinged minerality, all poised with real depth and precision. Drink now through 2020 to ’24. Production was 296 cases. Exceptional. About $150.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Merlot 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 95% merlot, 5% cabernet sauvignon. 19 months French oak, 97% new barrels. Dark ruby with a magenta rim; laser beam concentration of ripe black cherry, current and raspberry scents and flavors; bitter chocolate and lavender, cloves and graphite; bright acidity with tremendous resonance and pinpoint balance; finish packed with granitic minerals, walnut-shell and dusty tannins. Now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Franc 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 96% cabernet franc, 4% cabernet sauvignon. 19 months French oak, 96% new barrels. Opaque ruby-purple hue; cedar and tobacco leaf, rosemary and pine resin; intense black currant with wild notes of blueberry and raspberry; opens to hints of black olive, oolong tea, white pepper and allspice; dense, dusty tannins, lithe, sinewy texture that’s tight but doesn’t stint on generosity. Now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 82% cabernet sauvignon, 8% merlot, 6% cabernet franc, 4% petit verdot. 19 months in French oak, 91% new barrels. Dark ruby with a magenta rim; graphite and granite, iodine and iron; traces of lavender and violet, bitter chocolate and dusty sage; tannin treads the fine line where strict rigor dissolves into dusty velvet; gradually adds ripe black currants, raspberries and blueberries; austere finish needs time to mellow, though it would be tremendous now with a medium rare strip steak. Try through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Franc 2012, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 100% cabernet franc. 20 months French oak, 81% new barrels. Dark ruby with a vivid magenta rim; bushy and brushy black and red currants, touches of plums, blueberries, notes of cedar, black olives and cloves; lithic structure, plenty of graphite; tannins feel dusty, polished, slightly sanded; also plenty of oak but well-balanced and integrated; robust without being rustic, packs a lot of power into a vibrant package. Drink through 2020 or ’24. Excellent. About $75.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 77% cabernet sauvignon, 11% cabernet franc, 8% petit verdot, 4% merlot. 20 months French oak, 89% new barrels. Dark ruby with a violet rim; walnut shell, wheatmeal and graphite, focus on structure but firmness etched with deeply spicy black currants, raspberries and plums; notes of lavender, mocha and bitter chocolate; briery and brambly on the one hand, sleek and chiseled on the other, dry and granitic, with fissures of black olive and bell pepper; heaps of presence and energy. Try 2017 or ’18 through 2025 to ’30. Excellent. About $75.
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Mt. Brave, named for the Wappo Indians — “the brave ones” — who inhabited the area, was founded in 2007 to exploit the terroir of the former 30-plus-acre Chateau Potelle property that Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke purchased that year.
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Mt. Brave Merlot 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 80% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon. 19 months in French oak, 80% new barrels. Deep ruby-purple color; a dusty, dusky, lithic rooty wine, offering heaps of graphite and a distinctive earthy quality; also layers of ripe black cherry and plum fruit with notes of spicy pomegranate and blueberry; blossoms with a generous wafting of perfume — violets and lavender, incense and heather; lithe and supple texture supported by velvety tannins and vibrant acidity; a long, dense, slightly austere finish. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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Mt. Brave Malbec 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 100% malbec. 19 months French oak, 70% new barrels. Lustrous black as motor oil with a purple-violet sheen; a darkly gorgeous malbec, seething with notes of blueberry and boysenberry, though not over-ripe or cloying; deeply infused with structural elements of graphite, wheatmeal and walnut shell; opens to hints of black cherry and plum, iodine and iron, cloves and violets, a touch of cherry tart; tannins are dense and chewy, robust, and acidity cuts a path on the palate. Quite a performance. Now through 2021 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 94% cabernet sauvignon, 3% each merlot and cabernet frnac. 19 months French oak, 91% new barrels. All right, this is the Big One, very dark and inky in every respect; you sense the mountain roots, the chthonic stirrings in its depths of brushy, briery tannins, fleet acidity and grantic minerality; yet — there’s always a yet — the wine also feels like classic Napa Valley cabernet, sleek, chiseled, almost elegant in its presentation and delicious with a wide-ranging complement of cassis, black cherry and blueberry scents and flavors, with notes of cedar, tobacco, mocha and lavender. Another great package. Now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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Lokoya was founded in 1995. The wines are 100 percent cabernet sauvignon and originate in high-altitude vineyards in the Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain District and Spring Mountain District AVAs. I have tasted only the Mount Veeder version.
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lokoya
Lokoya Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 100% cabernet sauvignon. Oak regimen was 21 months in French oak, 99% new barrels, a tad finicky perhaps — what difference would one more percent make? — but this winemaker knows what he’s doing. Very dark ruby-mulberry hue; incredible purity and intensity, deep focus and concentration; dusty graphite and granitic qualities that reach far into the depths but allow for the burgeoning of floral notes — lavender and violets — coffee and mocha, black current and blueberry fruit with a wild, high trace of black cherry; a few moments in the glass bring in hints of cloves and sandalwood; the finish — as expected — long, dense, sleek and a bit austere. Tremendous presence, dimension, power and resonance. Now through 2025 to ’30. Exceptional. About $350.
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Founded by a consortium of families in 1976, Duckhorn Vineyards is operated by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, whose present winemaker is Renee Ary. Deciding early on to focus on the merlot grape, Duckhorn is a leader in high-quality production, centered on single- vineyard releases of merlot, such as the famous Three Palms Vineyard. The winery also makes highly-rated sauvignon blanc and cabernet duckhorn merlotsauvignon. Today’s Wine of the Day is Duckhorn’s “basic” merlot, which draws from a variety of vineyards and carries a Napa Valley designation. The blend of the Duckhorn Merlot 2012, Napa Valley, is 88 percent merlot, 7 percent cabernet sauvignon, 2 percent each petit verdot and cabernet franc and 1 percent malbec; the wine aged 16 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels, 75 percent once-used. The color is a radiant dark ruby-purple. Aromas of black currants, blueberries and mulberries are inflected with notes of cloves, allspice and a bit of plum jam, opening, after some airing, to intriguing hints of bell pepper and black olive, cedar and sage. It’s an intense and concentrated wine, wild and loamy, briery and brambly, a little gnarly even, yet lithe, polished, powered by bold acidity and dusty, bristly tannins. It’s deep and spicy, seething with ebon-like fruit flavors; if a beverage could feel inky, this would be it, and yet, there’s a paradoxical sense of sweet balance and elegance on the graphite-infused finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. Loads of presence and personality. Drink through 2018 to 2020 with steak, game, braised red meat. Excellent. About $54.

A sample for review.

Northstar was launched by Ste. Michelle in the early 1990s to exploit the terrain of several Washington state AVAs that seemed amenable for the merlot grape. The first vintage was 1994. Now, the winery produces a range of merlots, some vineyard and northstarAVA-specific, and at least one, today’s Wine of the Day, that carries a more general savor of western Washington. The first winemaker for Northstar was Jed Steele, since replaced by David “Merf” Merfeld. The Northstar Merlot 2011, Columbia Valley, gathered grapes from 13 vineyards in six AVAs — Walla Walla Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope, Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley and Red Mountain — and one non-AVA area, Floyd Slope. It’s a blend of 78 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon and 2 percent petit verdot. The color is dark ruby shading to a lighter violet rim. This is a sleek, chiseled merlot, notable for its elements of mint, graphite and lavender and its underlying touches of iodine and iron; fruit scents and flavors fall into the blueberry, mulberry, black cherry range. The wine is quite lively, almost turbulent on the palate, deeply spicy in its tasty blue and black fruit flavors, but very architectural in its tannins etched with dust and charcoal, its burnished oak and austere finish packed with granitic minerality and rooty-underbrush qualities. 14.7 percent alcohol. There’s a lot of there here. Drink through 2020 to 2023 with steaks, game, braised meats and hearty pasta dishes. Excellent. About $40.

A sample for review.

Napa Valley is best known for its wines based on the cabernet sauvignon grape, exceeded in reputation only, if not actually, by Bordeaux. The merlot grape often lives in the shadow of cabernet sauvignon, used to add “flesh and roundness,” as Michael Broadbent says, to cabernet wines. Merlot, however, can make superb wine on its own or when used in the majority, as is demonstrated by the red wines of Bordeaux’s Right Bank, especially in the commune of Pomerol. Whether in recognition of that cousinage or because American consumers learned how to pronounce “mair-low” back in the 1990s, producers in Napa Valley cannot resist making merlot wines that may attain a competitive level. Here are six. These wines were samples for review.
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cornerstone merlot
The Cornerstone Cellars Oakville Station Merlot 2012, Napa Valley, represents one thrust in a focus on specific-site wines for Cornerstone Cellars. (Regrettably, I have no information about oak aging or other technical matters.) The color is a deep and concentrated ruby hue. Boy, you could eat this bouquet with a spoon; layers of ripe, fleshy black currants, raspberries and plums are infused with graphite, lavender and violets and notes of cassis, cedar and rosemary. The wine displays a lovely taut surface supported by dense, velvety tannins, supplemented, after a few minutes pass, by dusty, granitic minerality, underbrush and a root-like tea effect; bright acidity keeps the whole package lively and engaging, despite its sizable nature. Though the wine finishes with a touch of austerity, the fruit is gorgeous from beginning to end. 14.5 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Jeff Keene, no longer with the winery. Production was 97 cases. Drink through 2020 to 2022. Excellent. About $75.
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The Flora Springs Merlot 2013, Napa Valley, contains 4 percent malbec in an otherwise pristine field of merlot. Most flora merlotof the fruit came from those districts that we think of as the heart of Napa Valley — 75 percent Rutherford, 9 percent Oakville — with 16 percent hailing from isolated Pope Valley — population 583 — east of Calistoga in the northern Napa Valley. The wine aged 15 months in 80 percent French and 20 percent American oak barrels, a combination of new and old. If opaque ruby-purple qualifies as a color, the definition is in this glass. It’s a very dark, rooty, spicy merlot, intense and concentrated yet animated and appealing. Spiced and macerated black and blue fruit scents and flavors are permeated by notes of smoke and tar, cedar and rosemary, black licorice and oolong tea; the character here is dusty and dusky, pierced by graphite-flecked tannins and keen acidity. 14.2 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Paul Steinauer. Drink now through 2020 through 2023. Excellent. About $30.
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The 100 percent varietal Grgich Hills Estate Merlot 2011, Napa Valley, embraces the palate with ripe, spicy, smoky grgich merlotblack cherry, raspberry and mulberry fruit, but despite its richness, depth and density, the wine doesn’t feel opulent or overbearing. The grapes fermented with indigenous yeast; the wine aged 18 months in a combination of large and small French oak barrels, 30 percent new. It’s actually a fairly austere merlot, at least from mid-palate back through the finish, bursting with earthy notes of briers, loam, underbrush and dried porcini and bolstered by velvety, graphite-flecked tannins. The texture is taut, supple and lithe, and it flexes itself accordingly. A perfectly sensible 13.5 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Ivo Jeramaz. Drink through 2020 to 2023. Excellent. About $42.
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Pahlmeyer and Jayson Wines Line Up
I try to maintain that essential sense of critical distance and discretion whatever wine I’m writing about, but then along comes a wine like the Pahlmeyer Merlot 2012, Napa Valley, and I feel myself giving in to paean and panegyric. This is a blend of 91 percent merlot, 7 percent petit verdot and 2 percent cabernet sauvignon. The grapes underwent native fermentation, and the wine aged 18 months in heavy-toast French oak, 75 percent new barrels. Friends, that’s a lot of oak, but the wine feels sleek, supple and effortless; there’s no sense of being oaky or over-played. This is a wine of unimpeachable character and presence, and you discern its confidence, depth and dimension with every sniff and sip. The color is dark to medium ruby; piercing aromas of black currants, blueberries and plums feel ripe, macerated and slightly roasted, while every molecule of the wine exudes lithic qualities of graphite and granite, iodine and iron. Rare is the wine that feels so deeply rooted in the bedrock of the vineyard. Mouth-filling? Ho-ho! Full-bodied? Are you kidding? This is a wine that caresses the palate with lithe and muscular attention even while it avoids any element of opulence or succulence; balance is all, from the purity and intensity of its start to its spice-and-mineral-packed finish. 15.2 percent alcohol. Yep, that’s high, but you feel no alcoholic heat or sweetness. Winemaker was Kale Anderson. Drink now through 2022 to 2025. Exceptional. About $85.
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The Rutherford Hill Merlot 2012, Napa Valley, begins with an entrancing dark ruby hue with a hint of magenta at the hillrim. The wine is a blend of 76 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, 2 percent syran and 1 percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot; it aged 15 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels, a process that lent the wine shape and suppleness. Black currants and raspberry scents are ripe and fleshy, and they offer notes of blueberries, cloves, sandalwood and graphite, with a tantalizing hint of violets. This is an open-knit and juicy merlot that stops short of being lush because of its underlying granitic rigor and dusty tannic structure; it fills the mouth with luscious fresh and dried black fruit flavors, tempered by elements of iodine and iron, giving the wine a ferrous and sanguinary effect. Above all, it offers terrific balance and personality. 13.9 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Marisa Taylor. Drink now through 2019 to 2021. Excellent. About $28.
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swanson merlot
The sleek and chiseled Swanson Merlot 2011, Napa Valley, is a wine that exhibits edges and glances, as in a bright edge of iodine and mint, a deft glance at smoke, cloves and allspice. It’s not quite 100 percent merlot; there’s a bit of cabernet franc from Rutherford and Yountville and a dollop of petit verdot from Oak Knoll, south of Yountville. The color is dark ruby with a magenta rim; aromas of black currants, black cherries and plums are rooty and briery, opening to hints of ancho chile and bitter chocolate, and those other edgy, glanced at attributes. It’s a robust, vibrant merlot, with a panoply of dusty, bristly tannins, polished oak elements and clean acidity for structure and presence, though these qualities do not detract from an elegant, nuanced finish. 14.6 percent alcohol. Drink through 2019 to 2021. Winemaker was Chris Phelps, no longer at the winery. Excellent. About $38.
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Here we go, nine red wines entirely fit for drinking with such fare as pizza, hamburgers, lasagna, spaghetti and meat balls, hearty sandwiches and so forth. These reviews are brisk, brief, incisive — forgoing technical, historical and geographical detail for the sake of immediacy. All these wines were samples for review or were tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event. Enjoy! ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Illuminate-2012RedBlend_NorthCoast-frontIlluminate Red Blend 2012, North Coast. 13.9% alc. 95% merlot, dollops of cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot. (A second label of Kimmel Vineyards) Red and black berries with a touch of roasted plum; smoke, cedar and tobacco, hint of black olive; pleasing heft, lively and appealing; slightly slappy and sappy tannins, soft and dusty. For enjoyable, quaffable drinking. Very Good. About — ready for this? — $10, so Buy by the Case.
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neprica
Tormaresca Neprica 2011, Pulgia. 13.5% alc. 40% negroamaro, 30% primitivo, 30% cabernet sauvignon. (Tormaresca is Antinori’s outpost in Puglia.) Very deep ruby-purple; very dark and spicy red and black berry notes, permeated by dust and graphite, tar and oolong tea with hints of licorice, lavender and leather; robust and rustic in the best way, bristly, briery and juicy; lively acidity and chewy tannins in a dense but polished package. Tremendous personality for the price. Very Good+. About $11 (and often discounted around the country), marking Terrific Value.
Imported by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Woodinville, Washington
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gnarly head
Gnarly Head “1924” Double Black 2013, California. 15% alc. Zinfandel, merlot, syrah. A “limited edition” wine though number of cases is unspecified. (A label of Delicato Family Vineyards) Inky purple-black with a magenta rim; nothing subtle here but a strapping, muscular and juicy number, with ripe, spiced and macerated blackberry, blueberry and loganberry scents and flavors; briery and brambly, graphite and violets, bitter chocolate; pert and lively acidity, a core of mocha, lavender and velvety tannins; both concentrated and generous. Very Good+. About $12, Real Value.
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castelmaure_col_des_vents_2014_hq_label
Castelmaure Col des Vents 2014, Corbières, France. 13.5% alc. 50% carignan, 35% grenache, 15% syrah. Always a favorite. Medium ruby color; thyme and sage, spiced and macerated blackberries and currants and a hint of blueberries; juicy, tasty, lively; a note of graphite minerality over moderately dusty, slightly rustic tannins. Very Good+. About $12, a Great Bargain.
Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va.
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charles_thomas_cotes_du_rhone_rouge_hq_label
Charles Thomas Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge 2013, Côtes-du-Rhône, France. 13.5% alc. (From Maison Jean-Baptiste Bejot) 50% syrah, 40% grenache, 10% mourvedre. Vibrant dark ruby hue; lovely evocation of the southern Rhone: lavender, cloves, leather, sage; blackberries, currants and plums; a few minutes bring in hints of lavender and licorice; well-developed, ripe and spicy black fruit flavors bolstered by graphite, bright acidity and slightly chewy, medium-impact tannins. Very Good+. About $12, Amazing for the Price.
Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va.
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valentina
La Valentina 2012, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Italy. 13% alc. 100% Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Dark ruby-purple hue with a violet rim; red currants and raspberries with a nod toward black currants and blueberries; cloves, lavender and black pepper, sage and briers; brisk acidity and bright red and blue fruit flavors buoyed by moderately plush, dusty tannins; a robust finish, packed with spice, dried flowers and graphite. Very Good+. About $14, Excellent Value.
Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Calif.
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segries
Chateau de Ségriès Côtes-du-Rhône 2013, Côtes-du-Rhône, France. 14% alc. 50% grenache, 30% syrah, 10% each cinsault and carignan. Talk about an over-achiever! Dark ruby hue, tinge of violet at the rim; mint, smoke, leather and a touch of iodine; blackberries, black and red currants and plums; violets and lavender; lithe and supple texture, flows deliciously across the palate, but tannins feel burnished and slightly roughened, as though polished with fine sandpaper; a finish packed with spice and granitic minerality. Drink now through 2018 or 2020. Excellent. About $15, an Unbeatable Bargain.
Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va.
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hito
Cepa 21 Hito 2014, Ribera del Duero, Spain. 14.5% alc. 100% tempranillo. Dark ruby with a violet-magenta rim; an inky, savory and saline tempranillo, with notes of lavender and graphite, leather and lilac, black cherries, currants and plums, all smoldering in the glass; a few minutes unfold hints of iodine and mint; cozy and cushiony tannins have a lithic-briery bite; clean acidity runs through it, lending energy and verve; the ripe, dusty black fruit flavors persist through a dense, slightly austere finish. Lots of presence for the price. Now through 2019 to 2021. Excellent. About $16.
Imported by Moro Brothers Inc., New York
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hess treo
Hess Select Winemaker’s Blend 2012, California. 13.8% alc. 38% petite sirah, 29% syrah, 22% zinfandel, 11% merlot. Dark ruby hue, faintly purple; and then if “purple” had a smell and taste: inky but not brooding, spiced and macerated black and red currents, red raspberries and a hint of mulberry, all infused with cloves, graphite and lavender; robust but more sleek than rustic, vibrant acidity to keep your taste-buds wanting more; non-threatening tannins frame it nicely along granitic lines. Now through 2016 into 2017. Very Good+. About $17.
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The Jackson family acquired the Arcanum estate, a 2,500-acre property in Tuscany, in 1994. Of that land, 223 acres are planted in arcanum_l1vines. The property is located at the southeast corner of the Chianti Classico region, near the city of Siena. (Jackson Family Wines also owns an estate in the Chianti Classico zone, Tenuta di Arceno.) No traditional Tuscan grapes are grown at Arcanum — I mean sangiovese; the focus is on cabernet franc and merlot, as if we were in St.-Emilion, that Right Bank appellation of Bordeaux famed for its wines based on those grapes. Cabernet sauvignon plays a minority position in these wines, and what’s also interesting is that all three age in French oak barrels only for a year. Winemaker is Pierre Seillan, yes, a Frenchman in Tuscany, who also makes the wine at Chateau Lassègue, Jackson Family Wines’ outpost in St.-Emilion, and at its Vérité estate in Sonoma County. The cultivated areas of Arcanum are divided into 63 small blocks of vineyard that range in elevation from 1,000 to 1,500 feet above sea level, each treated as a representative of its minute differences in micro-climate and soil. These are splendid wines, replete with authority, confidence and personality. I was especially taken with the merlot-dominate Valadorna 2009, though picking a favorite among these three is an exercise in folly. I use the phrase intense and concentrated in each of these reviews, a factor for which I will not apologize, because it summarizes the dense, substantial, coiled and slightly esoteric nature of the wines.
Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Calif. These wines were samples for review.
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Il fauno is the cadet of the trio of wines produced by this estate, which is not to imply that there’s anything inchoate or faunosecondary about it. The blend for Il fauno di Arcanum 2010, Toscana I.G.T., is 56 percent merlot, 23 percent cabernet franc, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon and a bare 1 percent petit verdot; the wine spent a year in French oak barriques. The color is dark ruby shading to medium ruby at the rim; the bouquet mounts a wonderful evocation of dried black and blue fruit, flowers and spices in a heady and exotic amalgam pointed with graphite, lavender, roasted fennel, rosemary and that herb’s redolent resiny note. It’s quite a dry wine, and you feel the effect of spicy oak, dusty tannins and vibrant acidity all the way to the inky bottom, though that character does not negate the presence of intense and concentrated black currant, blueberry and plum flavors. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now — with a medium-rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the grill — through 2020 or ’22. Excellent. About $30.
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Valadorna 2009, Toscana I.G.T, is a blend of 85 percent merlot, 8 percent caberet franc and 7 percent cabernet sauvignon; it aged in valadorna 09French oak barrels, 40 percent new, for 12 months. If only all merlot-based wines displayed this sort of integrity and character. The deep ruby hue seems to reflect the wine’s ferrous and sanguinary nature, its fleshy iodine and iron qualities; again, I’ll deploy the words intense and concentrated, not in the sense of tightly wound or unyielding but in the way of saying that it feels as if there’s more there packed into the wine then should be there by rights. Black and red currants and raspberries are deeply dyed with cloves, allspice — with the latter’s slight astringent element — lavender and licorice and notes of sage, espresso and ancho chile. Formidable tannins feel dusty, granitic and fathomless, while acidity strikes a spark through the whole resonant package. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now or wait a year or two through 2021 through 2025. Exceptional. About $80.
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Arcanum is the flagship wine of the estate, a true vin de garde denoting dignity, station and longevity. Arcanum 2009, arcanumToscana I.G.T., combines 68 percent cabernet franc, 22 percent merlot and 10 percent cabernet sauvignon in a wine that aged 12 months in French oak barriques, 70 percent new. The color is dark ruby, opaque at the center, shading to mulberry at the rim; the wine’s primary attributes revolve around structure in the form of stalwart, lithic yet not hard tannins; blazing but not raw acidity; and a sense of dusty, spicy burnished wood. In addition to the familiar qualities of iodine and iron, Arcanum 09 displays loamy, briery and brambly attributes that grow more rigorous as the moments pass — I mean when you’re 30 to 40 minutes into the wine — and its dry, intense and concentrated nature barely opens to encourage notes of mocha and cocoa powder, white pepper and bay leaf, licorice and lavender and a pass at black and blue fruit flavors; there’s a tinge of cabernet franc’s blueberry, black olive and leather character. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from the end of 2016 or into 2017 through 2027 to 2030. Excellent. About $100.
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The Trione family, third generation grape-growers in Sonoma County, launched their eponymous winery in 2005. The family cultivates vines in the Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley and Sonoma Coast appellations, producing a broad range of fairly individually Trione-2011-Red-Wine-Henrys-Blendstyled wines. Winemaker is Scot Covington. Today’s Wine of the Day is the Trione Geyserville Ranch Henry’s Blend 2011, Alexander Valley. This is not an inexpensive wine, and it pushes above the limit I try to set for the Wine of the Day — not that this series is a vehicle for cheapness — but I wanted to feature something from a small family-owned and -operated estate. Henry’s Blend 2011 is a combination of 35 percent cabernet sauvignon, 34 percent merlot, 13 percent each petit verdot and cabernet franc and five percent malbec, touching what we think of as the five classic Bordeaux red grape varieties, though in truth malbec plays little role in Bordeaux nowadays, its plantings having declined radically since the 1950s. The wine aged 18 months in small French oak barrels, 40 percent new. The color is an entrancing deep ruby-purple with a vivid violet-hued rim; vivid also are the scents of iodine, cedar and graphite, cloves and black pepper, all permeated by notes of quite ripe, spicy and fleshy black currants, raspberries and blueberries. This is a dry, dark and rooty wine, with layers of loam and granitic minerality, dusty and velvety tannins and the suggestion of oaken suavity and suppleness seamlessly animated by bright acidity; fruit is not forgotten, though, all those previous elements serving to bolster vital and tasty currant and plum flavors infused with lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate. Quite a performance. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink through 2019 to 2022 with hearty, meaty fare. Production was 1,730 six-pack cases. Excellent. About $54.

A sample for review.

The Dorgogne region is one of the oldest inhabited areas of France, as testified by numerous caves filled with wall paintings and etchings that date back 30,000 and 40,000 years. It’s also one of the country’s wildest and most beautiful areas, marked by rugged and towering cliffs, many topped by ancient castles; deep river valleys; rolling hills and forests; and a network of villages and towns that retain much of their medieval appearance. Recently, we spent a week in France’s Dordogne region, with LL’s son and his children, Julien, 14, and Lucia, 10, eating local food — dominated by foie gras, magret and confit of duck — and drinking local wines. We rented a centuries-old stone cottage outside the village of Beynac et Cazenac — pop. 560 — an almost mythically quaint hamlet perched right on a bank of the Dordogne River and winding up the cliff dominated by an immense castle, Chateau de Beynac, seen in this image from sourcedordogne.free.fr.

Our locale was at the southeastern corner of the Dordogne department, not wine-country itself but not too far from the appellations of Bergerac, Côtes de Bergerac, Montravel and Pécharmant, all cultivating the Bordeaux grape varieties and producing country cousin versions of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot for red, sauvignon blanc and semillon for white. About a two-hour drive to the east in the Lot department is Cahors, a traditional region for hearty wines made from the malbec grape, known as cot in that area. Though I had been offered visits to chateaus and wineries by some of my contacts in importing and marketing in the US, my determination was that this sojourn would be strictly vacation and that any wine we drank would come either from grocery stores, open-air markets or restaurant wine lists.

Our first dinner, at a hotel restaurant in Beynac, was mediocre, but we enjoyed the wines. These were a 2011 rouge, in a 500-milliliter bottle, and a 2013 blanc, in a 375 ml bottle, from Chateau Court-Les-Mûts, Côtes de Bergerac. The rouge offered a bright, seductive floral and spicy bouquet but was fairly rude and rustic on the palate; the more palatable blanc was fresh, young and zesty, with yellow fruit and dried herbs. Each cost 14 euros, about $15.66 at today’s rate. Far more successful, in both food and wine, was our dinner the following night, a Sunday, at La Petite Tonnelle, just a few yards up the street from the restaurant of the previous night. Built right into the cliff that dominates this strategic site overlooking the Dordogne river, the restaurant was pleasing in every aspect. Our waiter, a young woman, was friendly and accommodating; the restaurant served the silkiest foie gras, smoked magret and confit of duck I have ever tasted; and the wine list emphasized regional products highlighting sustainable, organic and biodynamic methods. With the hearty fare, we drank a bottle of the Chateau Masburel 2010, Montravel, a predominantly merlot wine with dollops of cabernet sauvignon. The restaurant owner came over and nodded his approval, telling us that it was a powerful wine. Powerful indeed and robust, but sleek too, packed with dusty tannins, graphite-tinged minerality, black fruit flavors and vibrant acidity. It cost 42 euros, about $46 at today’s rate.

Both in cafes and at our rented house, we consumed a great deal of rosé wine, not just because we love rosé but because the weather was unseasonably hot, with temperatures going to 100 and higher every afternoon. Rosés in the Dordogne are made from cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec and typically are more robust than their cousins in Provence. For example, in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, generally just called Tayac, home to the National Museum of Prehistory and the center of a cluster of caves with prehistoric art, we ate lunch at Cafe de Mairie and downed a 500 cl bottle of the delightful Clos des Verdots 2014, Bergerac Rosé, at 14 euros. Other rosés we tried during our sojourn included La Fleur de Mondesir 2014, Domaine de Mayat 2014 and Domaine de Montlong 2013, all Bergerac, and the simple but tasty Mayaret 2014, Vin du Pays Perigord. Tayac is absolutely worth a visit. We were too late to get admittance to the cave called Font de Gaume, which features wall paintings, so we drove to the cave of Les Combarelles, a few minutes away, and saw the exquisite series of rock engravings executed 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. The town itself, with many of its houses and buildings carved directly into the cliffs, is a UNESCO Heritage Site.

Other red wines we tried, back at the house with various dinners, included Chateau des Hautes Fargues 2010 and Domaine La Closerie 2011, both from Pécharmant, and, from Bergerac, the excellent Domaine Maye de Bouye 2010, and the best red wine of our time in the Dordogne, Clos de Gamot 2008, a superb, deeply characterful Cahors that cost all of 12.5 euros, about $13.70. Clos de Gamot is owned by the Jouffreau family and has been in operation since 1610. The grapes derive from two vineyards, one over 120 years old and the other with vines 40 to 70 years old. The wines age 18 months to two years in large old oak casts.

The way to explore this ancient region is to drive to as many of the towns and villages as possible, preferably one each day, park the car (hopefully in the shade) and then wander through the plazas and narrow streets, stopping to walk through churches, alleys and courtyards. If there’s a chance, for a few euros, to tour a castle or old mansion, do that; the rewards in history, esthetics and emotional satisfaction are immense. We particularly enjoyed Sarlot, Domme and the medieval section of Soulliac, and we visited two castles that were traditional enemies during the Hundred Years’ War, Chateau Beynac, “our” castle, and just up-river, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle.

We don’t drink much merlot in our house because generally merlot wines made in California (and elsewhere in the world except for St. Emilion and Pomerol) tend to be rather uninteresting cadet cabernets. Here, thankfully, is an exception, a 100 percent merlot that displays not only integrity but marked individuality. McIntyre Vineyards lies in Monterey Country’s Santa Lucia Highlands, a growing area occupying terraces in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Range well-known for chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah. The narrow 12-mile-long region looks across the Salinas Valley to Chalone and the awesome rock formation called The Pinnacles. The McIntyre Kimberly Vineyard Merlot 2012 comes not from Santa Lucia Highlands, however, but from Arroyo Seco, an AVA just to the south. The 81-acre Kimberly Vineyard, planted entirely to merlot, occupies a site near the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and Salinas Rivers on an alluvial fan at the foot of the Santa Lucia Mountains, just beyond the influence of the intense Salinas Valley winds, creating a micro-climate much warmer than the surrounding terrain, that is, more suited to merlot than pinot noir. The McIntyre Kimberly Vineyard Merlot 2012 offers an opaque dark ruby hue with a riveting violet-magenta rim that’s almost nuclear; this is a blue-fruit wine — blueberry, blue plum, mulberry — packed with granite and graphite, briers and brambles that allow for notes of lavender, mint and loganberry tart. It is, make no mistake, a powerful, intense and concentrated wine that practically resonates in the glass with energy and dynamism. (The vineyard, by the way, is certified sustainable.) Acidity is profound; the finish is steep and lithic. Still, for all the emphasis on structure, this merlot, deeply committed to its place on earth, delivers myriad pleasures, especially, as we drank the bottle last night, with pork chops marinated in olive oil, soy sauce, lime juice, a mix of black and Szechuan pepper and smoked paprika. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 333 cases. Drink now through 2019 to ’22. Excellent. About $22, representing Great Value.

A sample for review.

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