Merlot


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 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.


I was supposed to receive a sample of the Bedell Cellars “Taste” Rosé 2014, North Fork of Long Island, but the vintage instead was 2012. Generally, we want the most recent year of a rosé wine, for its fresh quality and immediate appeal, but I thought, “What the hell, let’s try it anyway.” Reader: It was great. For 2012 — the blend changes every year — this is an interesting combination of 70 percent merlot, 25 percent cabernet franc, 3 percent cabernet sauvignon and 2 percent syrah, and it touches the authenticity points of sustainably grown estate fruit, whole cluster pressing and indigenous yeast. The color is a slightly darker than usual onion skin infused with light copper; a core of dried sage and thyme and crushed rose petals unfolds notes of slightly candied orange peel, pomander, and dried strawberries with touches of rhubarb and pomegranate. The finish is crisp, clean and savory, accented by hints of flint, grapefruit rind and sour melon. It could easily age another year or two. 11 percent alcohol. Drink with pizza, pates and terrines — rabbit and duck — or such picnic fare as fried chicken, shrimp salad and deviled eggs. Excellent. About $25.

By “all over the map,” I don’t mean that every sub-AVA of the Napa Valley is represented in this post, seventh in a series. True, Mount Veeder is here and Howell Mountain and Rutherford, but what I actually refer to is the technical and stylistic map upon which these examples of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon play their part. Seven of these wines are from 2012, one each from 2011 and 2010. The alcohol levels range from a mild 14.2 percent to a soaring and unmanageable 15.7. The use of oak barrels for aging varies enormously. The intention of the wines feels vastly different, with some wineries going whole-hog for the opulent and super-ripe, others tracking more toward the structured and elegant. In this panoply of approaches, do we discern a Napa Valley style? It’s difficult to say. To my mind — and my palate — the Sequoia Grove, Robert Mondavi and S.R. Tonella 2012s and the Napa Vintage 2011 adhere to a kind of general Napa-ness in their balance of fruit, tannin, acidity and mineral qualities and their pleasing herbal qualities, texture and depth. The other five feel more anomalous, marred by high alcohol or strenuous deployment of oak barrels. Of course no one would want Napa Valley to be homogenous nor its many wineries to operate on identical practices. We celebrate the place and the individuality together. These wines were samples for review.

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Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. There really are towering sequoias — I guess that’s redundant — at Sequoia Grove Winery; one feels rather dwarfish in their company. The winery, founded in 1979, occupies salubrious geography in the Rutherford appellation, in the heart of Napa Valley. President and director of winemaking Mike Trujillo has been at Sequoia Grove since the early 1980s, was appointed assistant winemaker in 1998 and in 2001 took the position he has now. Winemaker is Molly Hill. The winery is owned by its national distributor, Kobrand Corp. Sequoia Grove, while making a variety of wines, focuses on chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, and it’s to the latter that we turn today.

The blend for the Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is 77 percent cabernet sauvignon, 11 percent cabernet franc, 10 percent merlot and 1 percent each petit verdot and malbec, meaning that it employs, even if only in dollops, all five of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties. The wine aged 20 months in barrels, 60 percent French oak, 40 percent American oak. The color is opaque ruby with a tinge of magenta at the rim; the aroma profile begins with dusty leather and graphite and unfolds notes of ripe black currants and plums with a hint of blueberry, all permeated by cloves and allspice and a background of walnut shell and wheatmeal; top-notes are wild and slightly exotic. This is a dense, chewy and dry cabernet that coats the palate with dusty, velvety tannins; it’s loamy and rooty, a bit granitic, and yet bright acidity keeps it lively and boldly ripe and slightly fleshy and roasted black and blue fruit flavors make it delicious. Still, it could use a year or two to meld. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’24. Beautifully crafted and balanced. Excellent. About $38.
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Flora Springs Winery and Vineyard Trilogy 2012, Napa Valley. Trilogy is the flagship wine for Flora Springs. The winery was founded in 1978 on the site of an abandoned 19th Century “ghost winery” by Jerry and Flora Komes, though the real work of establishing the facility and vineyards went to their children John Komes and his wife Carrie and Julie Garvey and her husband Pat Garvey; now the third generation is poised to take command. Winemaker is Paul Steinauer. I generally enjoy the wine of Flora Springs and last year made the Chardonnay 2012 and the Soliloquy Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Wines of the Week. I have a quibble, however, with the Trilogy 2012.

The blend is 82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent each merlot, malbec and petite verdot. The wine aged 22 months in French oak barrels, 60 percent new, 40 percent one-year-old. The color is dark but vivid ruby-magenta with an opaque center. The bouquet — indeed the entire package — is centered to an obtrusive degree on the graphite, smoke and charcoal-tinged character of oak. You know how I feel about these matters; if a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, there’s too much oak! Bright glimmers of ripe and spicy black currants, cherries and raspberries emerge, with notes of lavender and licorice and undertones of loam and aged fruitcake, and the wine certainly offers an almost rapturously supple and lithe texture, verging on plush but balanced by clean acidity, dusty tannins and a slightly chiseled granitic structure, but the oak kills it for me. 14.2 percent alcohol. Perhaps a few years in bottle will tame it; try from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’24. Very Good+. About $75.
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Napa Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. Sean Piper grew up in Napa Valley, and after a career in the Coast Guard, he returned to, first, start Wine Consumer Magazine and, now, establish his own wine label, Napa Vintage. The initial outing is sourced from Howell Mountain and is an example of a successful cabernet sauvignon produced in a chilly rainy year. The wine is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, aged 20 months in all new French oak barrels. The color is inky ruby-purple, and the whole package reflects the intensity and concentration available from mountain-grown fruit, with its attendant notes of walnut shell and dried porcini, classic touches of cedar and rosemary (with the herb’s hint of resiny earthiness) and burgeoning elements of black currants and plums highlighted by a hint of pomegranate; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of cloves and allspice, with the latter’s touch of exotic astringency. This is, no surprise, quite dry, replete with densely buttressed tannins, and thoroughly oaked, yet well-balanced and integrated. All these elements are wrapped around a fervent core of lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 414 cases. The Napa Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 seems to me to be a model of an upper-altitude Napa cabernet, displaying its rooted firmness and supple flexibility in fine style. Drink now with a medium rare rib-eye steak, hot and crusty from the grill, through 2020 or ’21. Excellent. About $42.
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S.R. Tonella Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Rutherford, Napa Valley. There’s little doubt that Napa Valley’s Rutherford Bench is one of the most advantageous pieces of earth on which to grow cabernet sauvignon grapes. Lying at the heart of the Napa Valley, west of Highway 29 and bordered (approximately) on the north by Zinfandel Lane, just above the town of Rutherford, and on the south by Oakville Grade, just below the town of Oakville, this area backs up to the foothills of the Mayacamas range in the west. The soil on this alluvial fan is well-drained gravelly loam. André Tchelistcheff, famed winemaker for Beaulieu Vineyards and guiding spirit of its George de Latour Private Reserve, called wines from the bench “dusty,” a term now accepted, perhaps too easily, as “Rutherford dust.” The cabernet wines that originate from the area undeniably often display a dry, dusty granitic aspect but not so uniformly as to make that characteristic applicable in every instance.

Steve Tonella’s heritage goes back a century in Rutherford. His great-uncle, Joseph Ponti, came from Italy to San Francisco after the earthquake in 1906, traveled up to Napa Valley, and became superintendent and winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards, founded in 1900. Ponti’s nephew, Louis Tonella, joined Ponti at BV when he was 17. From his uncle, Louis Tonella inherited vineyards in the Rutherford area to which his son, Raymond Tonella, added purchased acreage. The Neibaum-Tonella Vineyard in Rutherford is the winery’s estate vineyard; Morisoli-Borges, owned by Mike Morisoli, a fourth-generation grower, lies at the heart of the Rutherford Bench. From these sources, Steve Tonella makes his cabernet-based wine.

There’s five percent merlot in the S.R. Tonella Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012; the wine aged 28 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. The color is opaque ruby-magenta; the wine is deep in its dimensions, intense and concentrated, full-bodied and flush with dense, dusty, lithic tannins. Aromas of walnut-shell, dried porcini, loam and graphite yield little space to hints of ripe black currants and black cherries that carry classic notes of cedar, tobacco and mocha. It’s a cool yet savory and spicy cabernet wrapped around a tight core of bitter chocolate and lavender buoyed by vibrant acidity; the finish, not surprisingly, is focused, dynamic and granitic. 14.4 percent alcohol. Despite it’s size and substance, the S.R. Tonella Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 feels well-balanced, filled with energy and personality. Fewer than 500 cases were made. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2028 to ’30. Excellent potential. About $74.
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Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. Robert Mondavi wasn’t the first person to think that the Napa Valley was capable of producing world-class cabernet sauvignon wines, but after he founded his winery in 1966, he brought the full force of his conviction, enthusiasm and larger-than-life personality to the task. Barrels of ink and puncheons of pixels have been spilled in outlining and commenting on the history of Robert Mondavi — the man, the family and the winery — so I will forgo that endeavor for this post. The winery continues to turn out excellent products under the ownership of Constellation (since late in 2004) and the tutelage of winemaker Genevieve Janssens, though I’ll say that this admittedly well-made cabernet felt almost too typical of its place and intention; it could have used a bit more individuality. On the other hand, it’s not a single vineyard or sub-appellation cabernet, so perhaps we should all just enjoy it.

The wine employs all five of the “classic” Bordeaux red wine varieties: 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent cabernet franc, 4 percent merlot and 1 percent each petit verdot and malbec. Thirty percent of the grapes came from the famous To Kalon vineyard in the Oakville AVA, with 14 percent derived from Mondavi’s Wappo Hill vineyard in the Stags Leap District, with the rest, I assume, grown in other estate or nearby vineyards; the intention obviously was to create a “Napa Valley” style cabernet sauvignon without reference to a particular sub-AVA. The wine aged a very sensible 16 months in French oak, only 15 percent new barrels. The color is a rich dark ruby with a magenta tinge; aromas of cassis and black cherry are permeated by notes of cedar, tobacco and dried thyme, with deeper hints of lead pencil, briers and brambles and loamy graphite. Tannins are dry, a bit earthy and leathery, firm yet unobtrusive; fleet acidity keeps the wine energetic and thirst-quenching; a subtle oak influence shows up in the wine’s supple, lithe texture and in a wafting of exotic spice.The sense of balance and integration is well-nigh perfect. Alcohol content is the now New World average of 14.5 percent. What’s not to like? Drink now through 2020 or ’22. Excellent. About $29.
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Petar Kirilov made 50 cases of his Kukeri Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, aging it 36 months — yes, My Readers, three years — in French oak. Come now, sir, this is not Brunello di Montalcino, but Kirilov believes in oak, so oak it is, and the inky dark wine wears its oak on its sleeve. Aromas of cedar, tobacco and dried rosemary are drenched with notes of walnut shell, dried porcini, leather and loam, with all the attendant resinous, foresty, underbrushy elements we would expect. Fruit? Yes, there are glimmers. Acidity? Oh, sleek and dynamic. I still wouldn’t touch this wine, though, for five more years. The 2011 is the current release, made in 79 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Rating? Anybody’s guess, but time will be the ultimate judge, as it is in all matters concerning these sublunary precincts. About $79.
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Jamieson Ranch Double Lariat Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. Jamieson Ranch Vineyards is the southernmost winery in the Napa Valley. Formerly known as Kirkland Ranch Winery and Reata Vineyard, the company changed its name to Jamieson Ranch in 2013. The history of the property is tangled, involving dubious business decisions going back to the late 1990s and bankruptcy filings, but it is owned now by Madison Vineyard Holdings of Greenwood Village, Colorado, a company involved in myriad enterprises including high-end art storage in New York. Jamieson Ranch produces about 35,000 cases annually under its eponymous label, retaining the Reata name for some pinot noirs and chardonnays, and uses the Light Horse brand for inexpensive products. Winemaker is the Chilean Juan Jose Verdina.

About 2/3s of the grapes for this wine went through “flash détente,” a process much used in Europe, South America and Australia but fairly new to California. Before fermentation, grapes are heated to about 180 degrees and then sent to a vacuum chamber where they are cooled and the grape skins burst from the inside. The result — don’t ask me how — is better extraction of skin tannins and anthocyanins, the phenolic compounds responsible for the color of red grapes. That’s the simplified version, believe me, and doesn’t begin to approach the complications inherent in the process or the opportunities for manipulation they present.

The blend for the Jamieson Ranch Double Lariat Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is 86.5 percent cabernet sauvignon, 9 percent merlot, 4.5 percent — surprise! — petite sirah. The wine aged 18 months in French oak barrels, amount of new oak not specified. A dark ruby-purple color is fresh and vibrant; aromas of ripe and spicy black currants, raspberries and plums are wreathed with notes of leather and lavender and a touch of graphite. Slightly dusty and granite-tinged tannins are well-integrated in a lithe texture that’s animated by bright acidity, while black fruit flavors are deep and rich; the finish brings in the oak influence. 14.8 percent alcohol. A well-made and enjoyable but not compelling cabernet sauvignon. Drink now through 2019 to ’22. Very Good+. About $40.
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Priest Ranch Somerston Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley.

Perhaps it’s the 14.9 percent alcohol, but I found this cabernet to be inchoate and unbalanced. It’s 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, aged 22 months in French oak, 35 percent new, 65 percent neutral, a regimen with which I fully agree. It displays a dark ruby-mulberry hue and all the austere elements of wheatmeal, walnut shell and dried porcini mushrooms over loam, dusty tannins and a startlingly high yet hollowed-out level of acidity. On the other hand, the black and blue fruit flavors are not only very ripe but sweet and jammy, making, altogether, for a package that does not cohere. Perhaps a few years in bottle will calm the wine down, but I’m not hopeful. Not recommended. About $48.
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Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. The story begins in 1977, with Ray Signorello’s purchase of 100 acres on the Silverado Trail in eastern Napa Valley. Originally intending to grow grapes to sell to other wineries, the emphasis shifted to making wine in 1985. Ray Senior died in 1998, and Ray Signorello Jr. operates the estate now. He is listed as proprietor/winemaker and Pierre Bierbent as winemaker/vineyard manager. This is a luxury wine estate, with packaging and prices to match its aspirations.

A touch of cabernet franc — 6.5 percent — completes what is otherwise all cabernet sauvignon in this large-framed and fairly lumbering wine. Fermented with native yeast, yes, that’s nice; aged 21 months in French oak. all new barrels, okey-dokey, but 15.7 percent alcohol? Please! The color is motor-oil-opaque with a purple-violet rim; it’s a vivaciously ripe wine, with sweet scents and succulent notes of cassis, black raspberry jam, brandied cherries, fruitcake and a hint of zinfandel-like blueberry tart. By contrast, potent tannins and truckloads of dusty graphite define a structure that becomes formidably dry and austere, leading to a feeling that the wine is at war with itself; imbalance and lack of integration personified. Give it a few years if you so desire, but don’t invite me when you eventually open a bottle. Not recommended. About $90.

What’s disheartening about this wine is that I rated the Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (the last I tasted) as Excellent and named it as one of my “50 Great Wines of 2012.” It came in at 14.7 percent alcohol. The cabernet under review today feels as if it had been given different marching orders.
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I have used Wordsworth’s lines so often — “The world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” — that I won’t allude to them on this occasion but merely issue an apology and assert that sometimes I just can’t keep up with tasting and writing. In fact, this post is probably the first in a series of “mea culpa” catch-up entries that I will issue over the next few weeks — if I have time. Ha-ha! These wines, a miscellaneous dozen from California, 11 red, one white, were all samples for review.
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Amapola Creek Monte Rosso Vineyard “Vinas Antiguas” Zinfandel 2011, Sonoma Valley. Winemaker Dick Arrowood mixed 5 percent petite sirah to this zinfandel derived from one of Sonoma County’s legendary vineyards, where the zinfandel vines are 118 years old. The wine aged 15 months in a combination of new and used French and American oak barrels. Generally, I have been a fan of Arrowood’s efforts at Amapola Creek, rating everything I have tasted either Excellent or Exceptional. The exception, however, will be this example, because the heat and sweetness from 15.5 percent alcohol tip the wine off balance and render it into a clunky blockbuster. That’s a shame, because such details as its melange of ripe and spicy black currants and blueberries, cloves, sandalwood and smoked fennel and a chiseled granitic quality would have been gratifying in a different package. Production was 310 cases. Not recommended. About $42.
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Amici Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. There’s an aspect of darkness about this (nonetheless) winsome pinot noir: a dark ruby color; a certain dark shading in its spicy elements of cloves and sandalwood; the smokiness of its black cherry scents and flavors hinting at currants and raspberries; the earthiness of its brier-brambly structure. The lovely texture, though, is all warm satin, while bright acidity keeps it lively and quaffable. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Production was 1,300 cases. Very Good+. About $35.
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Bonny Doon Vineyards Le Cigare Blanc reserve 2011, Arroyo Seco. The blend for this highly aromatic wine is 62 percent grenache blanc and 38 percent roussanne, from the Beeswax Vineyard; the grapes were fermented together in stainless steel and aged in five-gallon glass carboys, also called demijohns or bonbonnes, of the sort typically employed in home brewing and winemaking. The color is very pale gold, and it seems to shimmer in the glass. All of the lemon kingdom has assembled here in its guises of roasted lemon, lemon balm and lemon curd, highlighted by notes of quince and ginger, lanolin, lilac and camellia. It’s a savory and saline wine, spare, lean and supple and quite dry yet generous with its citrus flavors that delve a bit into stone-fruit. The entire package is animated by crystalline acidity and crackling limestone minerality. Alcohol content is a pleasing 12.5 percent. Production was 480 cases. Excellent. About $54.
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Daou Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Paso Robles. The wine is a blend of 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent merlot and 9 percent petit verdot that spent 19 months in French oak barrels, 80 percent new. The color is very dark ruby-purple, almost opaque; seductive aromas of spiced, macerated and slightly roasted black cherries and raspberries are permeated by notes of graphite, cedar and tobacco and a hint of rosemary’s brash resiny quality; a few moments in the glass bring in touches of black olive and loam. This is a solid, tannic, granitic-based wine, spare and dusty and quite dry but with plenty of ripe black and blue fruit flavors; fairly rock-ribbed presently, it needs a lot of air to unfurl its attractions. 14.2 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2021 to ’25. Excellent. About $56.
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Davies Vineyards Nobles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. This pinot noir, which aged 15 months in 41 percent new French oak barrels, originated from an area of the Sonoma Coast region recently designated as the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. Don’t be surprised if in the coming years we see more segments of the vast Sonoma Coast fragmented into smaller AVAs; Petaluma Gap, anyone? The color is a beguiling medium ruby hue, though that limpidity is belied by the wine’s sense of power and muscularity; this is intensely spicy, bursting with ripe and macerated black cherry and plum fruit, while a few minutes in the glass bring up pungent notes of old leather and pomegranate. It’s a fairly dense and chewy wine, displaying incisive graphite minerality and acidity that I can only call flaring and buoyant. Quite a performance on pinot noir’s dark side. 14 percent alcohol. Production was 550 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $55.
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Davies Vineyards Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Here’s a pinot that’s a bit more to my taste than the Davies Vineyards Nobles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 mentioned above, at least in terms of style. This spend 15 months in French oak, 22 percent new barrels. The color is a transparent medium ruby, and the first impression is of the earth, with rooty and loamy aspects under briers and brambles; then come black and red cherries and currents segueing to dusty plums, smoky sassafras and exotic spices like sandalwood and cloves. Within this sensual panoply expands a core of nuance — lavender, violets, a bare hint of beet-root — and clean bright acidity. 14 percent alcohol. Production was 400 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $55.
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Dunstan Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011. Sonoma Coast. The color is dark ruby with a mulberry tinge. I would say that this pinot noir displays glorious purity, intensity and clarity, but “glorious” implies an emphatic nature that I want to avoid; let’s say, instead, that it’s perfect and adorable in the expression of those qualities. Aromas of red and black cherries and currants are imbued with notes of cloves and sandalwood, sassafras, rose petals and violets, with undertones of briers, brambles and loam, all amounting to a seamless marriage of elegance and power. The texture is supremely satiny, rolling across the palate like liquid money, but the wine’s ripe and spicy black and red fruit flavors are buoyed by slightly leathery tannins and back-notes of polished oak, the whole effect enlivened by fleet acidity. 14.5% alcohol. Excellent. About $55.
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Gallo Signature Series Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Gina Gallo employed grapes from the family’s Olson Ranch Vineyard to craft this well-made but not compelling pinot noir that aged eight months in a mixture of new and used French oak barrels. The color shades from dark to medium ruby at the rim; aromas of black cherries and cranberries, smoke and loam, cloves and pomegranate characterize the attractive bouquet, while on the palate the wine is satiny smooth and supple; a few minutes in the glass bring out pretty floral elements. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $35.
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Pedroncelli Mother Clone Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. The “mother clone” of this wine is a vineyard planted to zinfandel vines since 1904; some of those grapes are included here. Other parts of the vineyard represent the second generation of vines cloned from the original plants, all blended here with six percent petite sirah grapes. The wine aged 11 months in American oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby with a magenta rim; pungent aromas of black currants, blackberries and blueberries feel warm and spicy but with edges of graphite, briers and brambles. Bright acidity brings liveliness to dense dusty tannins and a slightly chiseled granitic minerality that testifies to the wine’s origin in an old hillside vineyard; however, black fruit flavors are equally bright and faceted, gradually opening to touches of lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $18, representing Great Value.
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Sanctuary Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Maria Valley. This is a beautiful pinot noir in every sense, from its lovely transparent medium ruby-cherry hue, to its bouquet permeated by notes of spiced and macerated red and black currants and cherries, with hints of rhubarb and cranberry, tobacco leaf and cigarette paper, to its subtle undertones of loam and moss and brambles, to its seductive satiny texture. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 841 cases. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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Silverado Vineyards Mt George Merlot 2010, Napa Valley. This classically balanced and structured wine is a blend of 77% merlot, 19% cabernet sauvignon, 4% malbec, 1% petit verdot. (Yeah, that’s 101 percent.) The color is very dark ruby-purple, verily, verging even unto motor-oil black; it’s quite pungent, unleashing penetrating aromas of ripe, meaty and fleshy black cherries and raspberries bursting with notes of cassis and black olives, bell pepper and tobacco. Chiseled and polished graphite rules the day, with hints of iodine and saline qualities, earth and loam; the texture is supple, lithe, dense and chewy, yet somehow refined and elegant, never forgetting its obligation to beautiful but not showy black and red fruit flavors. 14.9 percent alcohol. A terrific, finely-honed and tuned merlot that displays great character. Drink now through 2018 to 2022. Excellent. About $35.
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Steven Kent Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Livermore Valley. The blend here is 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5
percent each petit verdot and merlot and 2 percent cabernet franc; the wine aged 24 months in 60 percent new oak barrels, mostly French with a small portion of American oak from the Appalachians. A dark ruby hue transcends inky purple; the bouquet is clean and fresh, very cherry-berry with some raspberries and their sense of faint raspiness, briers and brambles in the background, with an intensifying element of violets, lavender and potpourri. This panoply of sensual pleasures doesn’t quite prepare your palate for the rush of dusty tannins, the wheatmeal and walnut-shell austerity, the espresso and graphite elements that characterize the wine’s passage through the mouth. Still, coming back to it in an hour or so reveals its expression of a more approachable side, so give it a chance. A nicely manageable 13.5% alcohol. Production was 983 cases. Excellent potential, 2016 or ’17 through 2020 to ’24. About $48.
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The idea behind Rotation Wines is to produce drinkable cross-vintage blends and sell them at reasonable prices. No sneakiness enters into the concept. It is acceptable to the TTB — widely recognized abbreviation for Federal agency, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau — that if a vintage wine carries a general “California” designation, it must contain at least 85 percent of wine from stated vintage, or only 85 percent — see the TTB code: §4.27(a)(2). A vintage wine that displays a specific American Viticultural Area (AVA), like Russian River Valley or Paso Robles, must contain at least 95 wine from the stated vintage. So, the Rotation Red Blend 2012, California, is a blend of 60 percent merlot and 30 percent zinfandel from 2012 and 10 percent ruby cabernet from 2010; the zinfandel was briefly aged in oak barrels. The grapes derived from Napa Valley and “nearby areas.” One does not often see ruby cabernet mentioned as a grape on a label, and indeed its use even as a blending grape in California is diminishing. It’s a cross between carignan and cabernet sauvignon produced at the University of California, Davis, in 1936. And what about the wine under consideration today? The Rotation Red Blend 2012 offers an intense, dark ruby color and fleshy, meaty aromas of spiced and macerated black and red cherries and currants; the spice notes involved lean toward the woodsy side of cloves and sandalwood; there’s also a touch of lavender and graphite. On the palate, the wine is simple and direct, very tasty with black fruit edged with red (both ripe and slightly baked) and bolstered by moderate tannins and lively acidity. Drink through the end of this year or into 2016 with burgers and pizzas, with hearty pasta dishes and fajitas. Very Good. About — and here’s the great part — $9 to $10.

A sample for review.

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