Merlot


No, blanc de blancs Champagne will not yield its supreme place in my heart to any upstart, but I tasted and, yeah, just outright drank a great deal of what’s called Bordeaux Clairet when I was in Entre-Deux-Mers during the last week of September, and it’s a wine that brings lots of pleasure, delight and savor, qualities that are often overlooked in our search for vinous experiences of the profound variety. Sometimes it’s fine if a wine just makes you feel good and perhaps brings a smile to your undernourished lips and a twinkle to your jaded eye. Bordeaux Clairet — the final “t” should be pronounced according to the regional idiom of Bordeaux — is a bit darker and slightly more substantial and flavorful than Bordeaux Rosé, which is made in the traditional pale French manner, but less dark and less substantial than Bordeaux rouge. The color tends to be brilliant cerise or scarlet rather than the onion skin or light copper of a rosé or the dark ruby of red Bordeaux. In fact, Bordeaux Clairet resembles, as far as people understand, the delicate light-colored wines that began to be exported to England in the 12th century and continued until the late 17th Century when the wine’s character began to be darker, weightier and more age-worthy. Those earlier wines gave the British the word “claret,” by which they still refer to the red wines of Bordeaux.

The grapes for Bordeaux Clairet are the same as for any red wine made in Bordeaux: merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, with malbec and petit verdot allowed but seldom seen. Clairet tends to come from younger vines and typically is not aged in barrels. The ideal is a young, fresh, juicy wine of immediate appeal — think spiced strawberries and mulberries with a hint of black and red currants — that offers moderate texture and body and avoids the austerity or aridity that sometimes defines a very dry and delicate rosé. Clairet really goes well with charcuterie.

The Bordeaux Clairet appellation coincides with all of the Bordeaux region; in other words, chateaux in any appellation, even high-toned Margaux and Pauillac, Pomerol and St. Emilion, could produce Clairet if they so desired. Imagine the cellarmaster at Mouton-Rothschild or Latour saying, “Alors, I have a thought. Let’s take these three rows of not quite up to snuff grapes and turn them into a few thousand bottles of Clairet.” Well, no, that’s not going to happen; grapes at the grand houses are too valuable to waste in such a way; that’s why the concept of the “second wine” was invented.

Realistically, Bordeaux Clairet is made by the smaller properties that produce A.O.C. Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wines. In fact, most of the chateaux we visited on our brief tour offered both Bordeaux Rosé and Bordeaux Clairet, but the latter is not made in large amounts. Clairet production totals about 33,912 hectoliters — a hectoliter, which is a hundred liters, equals 26.4 gallons — or about 377,000 cases. That’s about 13.5 percent of the production of Bordeaux Rosé and just a drop in the barrel compared to AOC Bordeaux Red and Bordeaux Supérieur Red.

Very little Bordeaux Clairet is exported to the United States, if any is at all. Many wineries in California now produce rosé wines in a “New World” style that’s darker, spicier and more flavorful than the traditional pale Provençal-style rosé, so what would it behoove properties in Bordeaux to send their Clairet across the Atlantic? Better, perhaps, for the wine-producing families to keep Clairet for local restaurants, for themselves, their friends and honored guests. I know that I’ll look forward to a glass or two of Clairet when I return to Bordeaux.

Hélène and David Barrault bought Chateau Tire Pé, in Bordeaux’s Entre-Deux-Mers region, in 1997. The couple had no experience growing grapes or making wine, and their families were not involved in those trades either, so by what means except trial and error and hard work and luck did David Barrault manage to produce that rarity in Bordeaux — Bordeaux the encompassing idea and Bordeaux the specific A.O.C. — a 100 percent malbec wine which to describe I am now overdrawn at the bank of the word “beautiful.” It sells in the United States for $25 to $28.

The central part of the house was built in the 1750s; identical perpendicular wings were added soon after. It’s a large but simple two-story edifice, plain and dignified, a sort of glorified farmstead; its rosy salmon colored plaster reflects the early morning and late afternoon sun with a confidential glow. The view from the long wide knoll upon which it stands, 80 meters above the Garonne river, provides a spectacular panorama of the countryside.

The couple converted one wing of the chateau to bed and breakfast accommodations in 2007, a practice that many of the old properties in Bordeaux are taking up, for the same reason that the grand manor houses of England nowadays often include petting zoos and miniature railroads; bills must be paid, banks must be satisfied. The artistic Hélène Barrault designed the labels for Tire Pe’s wine bottles, she makes and glazes pottery, and she decorated, if her elegant intuition allows that word, the three B&B rooms and the downstairs kitchen-parlor in a spare, timeless manner that evokes an ideal of childhood country life, a kind of austere yet inevitable Eden, well, if the WiFi connection were more reliable and if towels were delivered in a more timely fashion. Still, if the proximity of ancient beamed ceilings and the soft luminosity of ambient light in wooden cupboards send you into a nostalgic dither — guilty as charged! — this is the place for you.

The estate’s vineyards slope in well-tended rows down the hills from the focal point of the chateau. Cultivation is along sustainable practices, with no chemical fertilizers or herbicides. The production varies from 40,000 to 50,000 bottles a year — about 3,300 to 4,160 cases annually — of which more than half is sent to the U.S., imported principally by Jenny & François Selections in New York. Barrault, seen in this photograph, allows natural yeasts to start fermentation and limits the use of new oak to 10 to 12 percent, “depending on the vintage, never more.” He employs a few Bordelaise barrels (the standard 225-liter or 59-gallon size) but also 400-, 500-, and 600-liter French barrels “with little toast,” he said, “or between medium and low.” Chateau Tire Pé’s wines carry a Bordeaux designation (and, yes, I promise that I’m preparing a post about the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur A.O.C.s. Soon, maybe not tomorrow, but soon …)

Here are quick evaluations of the wines:

*) Chateau Tire Pé Diem 2010. The estate’s basic wine, 100 percent merlot from young vines; no oak, aging six months in concrete vats. Bright, ripe and vibrant; black currants, blueberries and mulberries; lively, dense and chewy, touches of briers and walnut shell; great presence, personality and length for the price. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $8 in the U.S., said Barrault, so let’s say under $10, and even if it were a few dollars more it would represent Great Value.

*) Chateau Tire Pé 2009. This is also merlot, made from older vines with lower yields; it spent one and a half years in concrete vats. There’s more acidity here, more structure, more grip, grit and give, more sense of earthy, graphite-like minerality and briers and brambles; this is quite dry, yet very ripe, wild almost, bursting with notes of blueberry and mulberry lashed with dense, chewy yet supple tannins. Begs for a medium-rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the coals. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $12, perhaps $14 depending on the state. Another Terrific Bargain.

*) Chateau Tire Pé La Côte 2007 is a blend of 60 percent merlot and 40 percent cabernet franc; it was fermented in concrete vats and aged in barrels. The year was not an easy one, but Barrault liked it; “it made me pay attention,” he said, “and make progress in my job.” As winemakers say, you delight in the easy vintages and learn from the hard ones. The most rustic of the Tire Pé wines, La Côte 07 is very earthy, loamy and mossy, with tremendous tannic grip and almost fierce acidity bolstering intense and concentrated flavors of deeply spicy black currants and blueberries. A wine to chew on with braised short ribs or venison and best from 2012 to 2015 or ’16. 14 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18.

*) Barrault is justly proud of his 100 percent malbec wine. Chateau Tire Pé Les Malbecs 2009 is frankly riveting in its seductive mulberry-magenta color; its beguiling aromas of blueberries, briery black currants, crushed violets and gravel; its combination of dusty-mossy-graphite tinged depth (there’s a touch of intense bitter chocolate and lavender there) and paradoxically balletic, elevating acidity and spice. A warm, stylish and immensely appealing expression of the malbec grape that doesn’t sacrifice structure for accessibility. Best from 2012 through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $25 to $28.


When you’re on a wine tour, you never know what the next visit is going to bring. On our schedule for the last day of this trip to Entre-Deux-Mers, the entry said merely: “9h30 – 11h00 — Visit Chateau L’Escart in Saint-Loubés with Damien Laurent.” Sounds pretty low-key, but we had a terrific time at Chateau L’Escart and encountered the two wines mentioned in the title of this post, which are available in the U.S. but with geographical limitations.

The chateau, built in 1752, sits in the middle of the village of Saint-Loubés. It’s not a true mansion — we saw some of those — being more of a large and refined stone farmhouse whose center block holds the family quarters — strewn when we visited with children’s toys and scooters — and whose wings encompass barrel-aging rooms and other winemaking necessities. As you can see from the aerial photograph, the estate includes various other outbuildings and sheds, a small park and then the vineyards beyond. Proprietor and seventh generation winemaker Damien Laurent is personable and articulate and clearly loves his work. “Wine is human,” he said, as we sat outside tasting through the wines of Chateau L’Escart, “vineyards, soil, what goes on around here. You cannot sit down for an hour and get the whole picture. It’s more complicated. We don’t have the same tools as the big chateaux. We are small. I am on the tractor. I’m in the tank room, on the phone, I sell the wines. We do it all alone.” And then — because the day feels perfect and the harvest is almost complete — “September is the tender month. I love September. It’s beautiful.”

Chateau L’Escart produces about 220,000 bottles annually — French winemakers always speak in terms of bottles — which means about 18,330 cases. A whopping 80 percent of that wine is exported, to Canada, Australia, the United States, Belgian and, inevitably, China, a huge wine-thirsty country of increasing importance to French producers of any size because there are too many people making wine in the country and more wine than French (or European) consumers can absorb. The output at L’Escart is overwhelmingly red, based on merlot, malbec, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc; a mere 5,000 bottles of white are made, “a warm-up,” Laurent said, “for the reds.” The appellations are Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur (about which more soon).

The estate is run on organic principles, with explorations into biodynamic methods, though Laurent insisted that he is skeptical of some of the biodynamic movements more esoteric practices.

First on the roster of wines we tasted was the basic-level Chateau Bergey 2009, Bordeaux, a blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon and
40 percent merlot that sees no oak. (Estates in Bordeaux often bottle their various grades of wine under different chateau labels.) The color is a lovely cerise-magenta, and the aromas are an exquisite weaving of potpourri, lavender, graphite, black currants and blueberries, with touches of wild raspberries, cedar and tobacco. This displays real grip and presence, with vivid acidity, a penetrating mineral quality, plenty of earthy tannins and round, spicy black fruit flavors. Why do wineries in California so rarely deliver such quality for the price? Very Good and perhaps even very Good+. “The price is the U.S. is about $8,” said Laurent, “certainly under $10.” If you live in New York, North Carolina or Texas, run, do not walk, to the nearest retail store and browbeat your friendly wine merchant into procuring this for your house red. Great Value.

But — always a “but” — even better at not much more cost is the Chateau L’Escart Cuvée Eden 2009, Bordeaux Supérieur, a blend of 60 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent malbec from 35 to 45-year-old vines. This is the wine, frankly, that made my colleagues and I cast sidelong glances at each other, giving the nod with raised eyebrows and mouthing the syllable “Whoa!” Here, at an irresistible price range, is a wine of lovely balance and integration, with all elements working in harmony. There’s plenty of tannin, of course, plenty of the gritty briery-minerally-earthy elements we expect from the clay-and-limestone soil that nurtured these grapes — and don’t forget that 2009 was a superb year in Bordeaux — and yet there’s also a surprising sense of delicacy and refinement, along with a factor of resonance that has to be called confidence; the wine is packed with ripe, slightly macerated black currant and black cherry flavors bolstered by taut acidity and permeated by dense spice and chewy tannins. It will drink nicely through 2014 or ’15. Definitely Very Good+ and another Great Value at $13 to $15.

The next step up for Chateau L’Escart is the Omar Khayam label, introduced with the 1998 vintage. The connection is that the great Persian poet, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), was a mathematician as well as a poet and astronomer, and Damien Laurant’s father was also a mathematician; each vintage of the wine, a beverage about which the poet was fond of writing, features a different verse. The grapes for the Omar Khayam label, as it’s spelled, derive from 50 to 60-year-old vines; the wines age in all new oak barrels from 16 to 18 months. About 830 cases are made, depending on what the year allows. The blend changes but is dominated by cabernet sauvignon. The appellation is Bordeaux Supérieur. We tried the 2009, the 2004 and 2003. The 2009 version is well-balanced and integrated for being so young and being influenced by new oak; it would be best from 2013 through 2020 or ’22. The ’04 was smoother and riper, more fleshy and meaty, with spiced and macerated black fruit scents and flavors supported by sufficiently lively acidity and dense tannins; it’s a warm, spicy, earthy wine for drinking through 2015 or ’16. From the extremely hot year of 2003, Omar Khayam offers fleshy and roasted black and red fruit, heaps of graphite and gritty tannins but feels a bit hollow in the middle and finish, lacking the balance of the ’09 and ’04, which I would rate Excellent, while the ’03 would rate Very Good. The price is about $35.

The last wine was the estate’s top-of-the-line Agape 2009, Bordeaux Supérieur, a 100 percent cabernet sauvignon that aged 15 months in new Burgundy barrels (which are slightly larger than the standard 225-liter or 59-gallon Bordeaux barrel.) Not marketed in the U.S., the wine is certainly well-made for the type but at $50 a bottle seems no more interesting or compelling than hundreds of similar wines made all over the world.


The heart of Bordeaux may be its legendary grand chateaux and the great, long-lived and very expensive wines they produce, but the region’s soul lies in the thousands of small estates where families, some of many generations’ duration, turn out well-made, accessible, little-known wines that labor in the shadows of their illustrious brethren. These are not the wines for which those who possess fiduciary prowess fork over inconceivable amounts of money and store them away in their cellars (increasingly in China); these are, however, the wines that more modestly endowed folk enjoy with lunch and dinner, wines that are solid, dependable and enjoyable.

On the other hand, let’s not eliminate any aspects of ambition. Winemaker Laetitia Mauriac, for example — the writer Francois Mauriac was her great-uncle — is justly proud that her Chateau la Levrette 2007, Bordeaux Blanc, is served at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The small group of writers I’m traveling with this week tasted Mauriac’s wines and those of Chateau Sainte Barbe, made by Antoine Touton, last night at Chateau Sainte Barbe, a charming edifice built between 1760 and 1780 by Jean-Baptiste Lynch, the Irish emigre whose name appears on such well-known classified properties as Lynch-Bages and Lynch-Moussas and who served as mayor of the city of Bordeaux. Touton, a former coffee, vanilla bean and cocoa broker, and his wife Lucy bought the decrepit chateau and estate in 2000 and restored the house and replanted the vineyards.

On the chateau’s terrace, looking right onto the Garonne river, we tried Mauriac’s Bordeaux Blanc and Bordeaux Clairet with bowls of green olives and tiny river shrimp boiled with star anise. (The shrimp were whole; one holds them by their teeny heads and eats the rest, shell and all.) La Levrette 2007 — “levrette” means greyhound — made completely from sauvignon blanc grapes, sports a brilliant golden color and a remarkable bouquet of almond blossom and almond skin, roasted lemons, pears and cloves. The wine aged eight months in new oak, with regular stirring of the lees (b?tonnage), resulting in lovely suppleness in texture and a deeply spicy quality in the ripe, round stonefruit flavors (with hints of ginger and quince), all abetted by crystalline acidity. This is a wine that it would be instructive to revisit in three or four years. Mauriac said, “When I make my white wine, I don’t think of it as Bordeaux. I think of it as a wine that I like.”

I had not encountered Clairet, which has its own Bordeaux A.O.C.. It’s darker and possesses more character than rosé but not as much body and flavor as a straight Bordeaux rouge. Chateau La Levrette 2009, Bordeaux Clairet, embodies pure raspberry and mulberry scents and flavors with heady aromas of mulling spices and soft, moderate tannins for a bit of firmness and structure in the mouth. This was absolutely delightful as an aperitif wine and would be terrific, served slightly chilled, on picnics or around the pool or patio.

Dinner was promoted as “light,” but consisted of two preparations of salmon, roast beef with foie gras and scalloped potatoes, a green salad, a cheese course and two cakes. We ate informally in the chateau’s kitchen and tasted a range of wines that included Sainte Barbe 2009, 2007 and ’05, Mauriac’s La Combe des Dames 2008, Bordeaux Supérieur, and La Levrette 2007, Bordeaux Supérieur, which aged for 14 months in oak barrels. The reds are predominantly merlot blended with cabernet sauvignon. Sainte Barbe is a blend of 70 percent merlot with the rest being cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc; these robust and earthy wines age 9 to 12 months in oak, 30 percent new barrels. It’s interesting that Mauriac and Touton made very attractive wines in 2007, generally a difficult year in Bordeaux.

I’m writing this Monday morning after breakfast. It’s warmer in Bordeaux than I anticipated; I brought sweaters and jackets, but today will be a t-shirt day. I’ll shut down here in a moment, pack my gear, and head out for a day of visits and tastings and, inevitably, eating.

My history with Mayacamas Vineyards begins in late March 1984, when I served the Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 1980 for dinner. I purchased the wine for $11, marked down from $13. In 1985, I bought a bottle of Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel 1978, though I did not record the price or the occasion. There’s a flurry of activity between 1992 and 1996, but after that no tasting notes, no published remarks, no contact. I was very pleased, then, to receive some samples from Mayacamas recently, because I’m an advocate of the winery’s traditional style of varietal purity and intensity and high-elevation grit and graphite, in the cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and flintiness, in the chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

The estate began as a winery and distillery built by J. H. Fischer, high on Mount Veeder, in 1889. Fischer sold his wine in barrels, sending them on barges down the Napa River and thence to San Francisco, but he went bankrupt in the early years of the 20th Century. The property lay derelict until 1941, when Jack Taylor, a Shell Oil executive, and his wife Mary bought the facility and 260 acres of land. Their first release, in 1953, was a minuscule quantity of Chardonnay 1951; winemaker was Walter Richert, who was also technical editor of the journal Wines & Vines and president of the American Society of Enologists. Philip Togni became winemaker for Mayacamas in 1959, going on to make wine at Inglenook, Sterling, Chalone and Cuvaison before launching his own Philip Togni Vineyards on Spring Mountain and becoming a cult figure in the world of cabernet sauvignon.

The Taylors sold Mayacamas to Robert and Elinor Travers in 1968; they still own the property, and Bob Travers continues as winemaker, a fact that must qualify him for some kind of longevity and dedication award. From 52 acres of vines Mayacamas produces primarily cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay with smaller amounts of merlot, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir — I have never tasted the pinot noir — remaining true to a vision practically demanded by the geography the vineyards occupy at 2,000 to 2,400-feet elevation on the slopes of an extinct volcano, a site that offers a complicated soil composition. Let’s be honest, however. The Travers built the reputation of Mayacamas on splendid, long-lived cabernets from the late 1960s through ’79 and ’80; quality suffered in the 1980s and only began to reassert itself within the last 15 years or so. The cabernets are built on deeply-rooted tannins that at first seem unassailable, and during this, shall we say, troubled period it felt as though the tannins not only dominated the wines but dried them out. The Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, which I am savoring even as I write these words, reveals the tannic structure upon which the winery has erected its reputation but also — after considerable airing — lovely generosity and expansive spirit.

Mayacamas no longer makes wines from zinfandel grapes, but one of my favorite wines of 1996 was the Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel 1984, two bottles of which I bartered from a friend by giving him some Cerutto Barbarescos.

For information about the history of the winery, see Charles L. Sullivan’s indispensable “A Companion to California Wine” (University of California Press, 1998) and the fourth edition of Norman L. Roby and Charles E. Olken’s “The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of the Wines of California and the Pacific Northwest” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). Both books need updated new editions.
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As I mentioned above, I bought a bottle of the Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 1980 in March 1984; I commented on this wine in a post on this blog in March 2009. What’s remarkable is that the current release, the Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley, conforms to the same spirit as its cousin from 31 years ago, though that long-distant wine carried a California designation; Mount Veeder did not receive AVA status until 1990. The Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 2008 aged for eight months in 1,000 gallon American oak casks; in comparison, the standard French oak barrel (barrique) holds 59 gallons. The wine is notably clean, fresh, spare and elegant from beginning to end. O.K., I’ll just say it; this demonstrates wonderful character, class and breeding and should not be neglected by anyone who loves the sauvignon blanc grape. Notes of baked pear, quince, ginger, yellow plums and papaya are touched with hints of smoke and cloves and a flare of cold steel; it’s like drinking liquified limestone and flint infused with ripe, spicy stone fruit flavors, each element of the wine etched with cunning definition, precision and scintillating acidity yet remaining compellingly attractive and delicious. Notice that for a sauvignon blanc this is not grassy or herbal; it doesn’t assault the nose and mouth with strident grapefruit or gooseberry/cat’s-pee afflicted with attention deficit disorder. No, readers, this is cool, harmonious, balanced and poised; yes, one feels the wood in the spicy element and in the wine’s firm yet forgiving framing and foundation, though ultimately the complete integration of all components is the utmost consideration. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 294 cases. Drink through 2014 or ’15 (well-stored). Among the very best of sauvignon blanc wines produced in California. Excellent. About $25.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ The first chardonnay from Mayacamas that I tasted was the 1990. Someone was working in public relations and marketing for the winery — I don’t remember if it was someone at the winery or at an outside firm — but this young man got in touch with me, probably in 1994, and asked if I wanted some samples of current and past releases. Well, yes, I did. And in addition to the samples, I bought six bottles of the Cabernet Sauvignon 1985, so one fine day I received, at the newspaper office, a large box that contained those six bottles, samples of the Cabernet Sauvignon from 1990, ’89, ’85 and ’83, and chadonnays from 1990 and a vintage of which I can no longer find record. I’ll mention the cabernets in a moment, but let me here append my review of the Mayacamas Chardonnay 1990: The Mayacamas Chardonnay 1990 is so perfectly balanced that you don’t notice its stupendous 14.5 percent alcohol, so beautifully integrated that its 12 months in oak barrels seem merely to have lent an inextricable sheen to each atom in the bottle. No gushing, buttery, billowy, toasty tropical chardonnay here; its essence lies in hints and nods toward spice, limestone, caramel, flowers and dried herbs and citrus flavors, bolstered with essential but respectful oak and acid. Wow. About $20.

Interesting that for the Mayacamas Chardonnay 2008, Mount Veeder, the alcohol content is the same as for the 1990, a now-typical (for California) 14.5 percent; things were different 21 years ago, when 14.5 percent seemed over the top and beyond the pale. Far more dissimilar is the oak treatment; for the 2008, not 12 months but 20 months, that’s right, 20 months!, an extraordinary length of time for a chardonnay to spend in wood, in this case eight months in those 1,000-gallon American oak casks, followed by a year in small French oak barrels. Yikes, thinks my inner curmudgeon, what a great way to ruin a chardonnay! The regimen, however, calls for only 10 percent new oak, no sur-lie aging (on the spent yeast cells, a process that adds richness) and no malolactic; the result is a crisp, fresh, crystalline chardonnay that resonates with varietal character and authenticity and rests on a beautifully balanced and harmonious foundation of silky, spicy resonant wood. The first phrase in my notes is: “gorgeous but not flamboyant.” There’s a hint of the tropical in aromas of pineapple and mango with a touch of lightly toasted grapefruit dusted with cloves; a few moments in the glass bring in undercurrents of quince marmalade, ginger and orange blossom, all borne on the wings of crisply etched limestone and slightly spicy wood. Bear in mind that all of these elements partake of the subtlest nuance; nothing is overbearing or egotistical. The wine’s texture is beautifully poised between moderate lushness of ripe fruit (more citrus in the mouth, with a bit of roasted lemon) and the fleet tension of taut acidity, with immense reserves of shale-like minerality in the background. A masterpiece. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2015 or ’16. Production was 876 cases. Exceptional. About $30
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(more…)

All right, let’s do this again. Recently, I posted the entry “8 Grapes, 8 Places, 8 Wines,” and it was an agreeable way to celebrate the diversity of wine in the world’s wine-making regions, but such an effort doesn’t even qualify as a molecule of a gnat’s whisker on the needle-point of the teeniest tippy-tip of the vinous iceberg, if you see what I mean. So let’s do it again. In the previous post, I reviewed wines made predominantly from these grapes: sauvignon blanc, riesling, chenin blanc and chardonnay; pinot noir, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo. The regions were Mendoza and Patagonia in Argentina; Rheinhessen in Germany; Chablis in France; Rioja in Spain; Marlborough in New Zealand; and Carmel Valley and Napa Valley in California. So, today, none of those grapes and none of those places. The first post offered four whites and four reds; today the line-up is five whites, fairly light-bodied and charming for summer, the reds rather more serious.
These wines were samples for review or were tasted at trade events.
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Albariño Rias Baixas is the most important wine region in the province of Galicia in northwest Spain, right up against the Atlantic coastline. The white albariño is the principal grape. Albariño does not take well to oak, and its quality diminishes exponentially when it is over-cropped, so care must be taken in the vineyard and the winery. No such worries with the Don Olegario Albariño 2010, Rias Baixas, made all in stainless steel tanks from grapes grown using sustainable practices. Heady aromas of jasmine and camellia are twined with roasted lemon, lemon balm, limestone and a bracing whiff of salt-strewn sea-breeze; lovely heft and texture, almost lacy in transparency yet with a tug of lushness bestowed by ripe citrus and stone-fruit flavors (touched with a bit of dried thyme and tarragon), all enlivened by brisk acidity and a scintillating limestone element. Albariño is not grown much outside of Spain and Portugal, where it’s known as alvarinho and goes into Vinho Verde; Mahoney Vineyards, however, makes an excellent example in Carneros. Great with fresh seafood, grilled fish and risottos. 12.8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012. Very Good+. About $18.
Imported by Kobrand Corp, Purchase, N.Y.
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Falanghina We are used to the promiscuous regard of grapes in Italy, in which one variety can be found in many provinces throughout the country and usually under different local names. Not so the ancient falanghina, grown in a small area of Campania, the state of which Naples is the capital; it is grown nowhere else except in vineyards near the coast north of Naples. Perhaps this situation is a healthy and profitable one for the producers of wines made from the falanghina grape, because they can at least make a claim for uniqueness. A great introduction to the grape is the Falanghina dei Feudi di San Gregorio 2009, Sannio Falanghina. Made all in stainless steel, the wine is notably clean and fresh and appealing. The color is pale straw-gold with green notes; it’s a savory, spicy, floral wine, bursting with hints of apple, roasted lemon and baked pear, cloves and allspice, lilac and lavender, all given a slightly serious tone by the bracing astringency of what I have to call salt-marsh and some hardy sea-side flowering plant. There’s a touch of the tropical in flavors of pineapple and banana, with strong citrus undercurrents and a hint of dried thyme and tarragon, all of this bolstered by crisp acidity and a burgeoning quality of limestone-like minerality. A natural with seafood, grilled fish and sushi. Winemaker is Riccardo Cotarella. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012. Very Good+ About $18.
Imported by Palm Bay International, Boca Raton, Fla.
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Melon de Bourgogne This grape was kicked out of Burgundy in the 18th Century, leading to the eventual ascendancy of the chardonnay grape. It made a pretty perfect fit, however, with the maritime climate and stony soil of the Nantais, way to the west of the Loire region. While it’s true that 90 percent of Muscadet wines are cheap, bland and forgettable, in the right hands the melon de Bourgogne grape is capable of finer things. The Éric Chevalier Muscadet Côtes de Grand Lieu 2009 feels like an exhalation of sea wind, bright, clean, salt-flecked, exhilarating. The wine is spare and pared-down, lean and sinewy, with notes of roasted lemon and pear imbued with hints of honeysuckle and yellow plum. Chiseled acidity etches deep and scintillating limestone-like minerality resonates like a blow on an anvil, yet the wine remains warm, slightly spicy and tremendously appealing. If ever a wine got down on its knees and practically begged, I repeat begged, to be consumed with a platter of just shucked oysters extracted from cold, briny waters a fleeting moment past, by damn, this is it. 12 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012. Very Good+. About $16.
Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Ca.
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Pinot gris Let’s just come right out and say that the Innocent Bystander Pinot Gris 2009, Yarra Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia, is delightful, but at the same time, while “delight” might conjure a notion of being too eager to please, the wine is also fresh, pert and sassy, talkin’ back and takin’ names, an Ellen Page of a wine. The bouquet is freighted with aromas of cloves and ginger, jasmine and honeysuckle, apple and spiced pear, with undercurrents of lime, fennel and thyme. Bright and vibrant, this pinot gris zings with crisp acidity and sings with crystalline notes of limestone minerality, while offering tasty peach, pear and quince flavors. It drinks almost too easily. We had it one night with seared swordfish marinated in lime, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and white wine. The wine ages in neutral or used French oak barrels, a device that lends it a sheen of woody spice and a lovely, shapely structure. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Imported by Old bridge cellars, Napa, Ca.
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Vermentino The white vermentino grape is found in nooks and crannies up and down the Italian boot but does its best work in Tuscany and Sardenia, with good examples coming recently from Tuscany’s Maremma region, an isolated area in the southwest by the Tyrennian Sea. So, the Val delle Rose Litorale Vermentino 2010, Maremma, Toscana (one of the Cecchi Family Estates), could be called another seaside wine (or at least in proximity), though unlike the Falanghina dei Feudi di San Gregorio 2009 mentioned above, this is not so much a savory, spicy drink as a wine of delicacy and nuance. This is a blend of 85 percent vermentino and “15 percent other complementary white grape varieties,” a vague designation that occurs not merely on the printed matter that accompanied the wine to my door-step but on the website of Banfi Vintners, the wine’s importer. What I really want to know, of course, is what those other grapes are, but I’m writing this post on Sunday morning, so I won’t worry my pretty little head about the issue. Anyway, yes, the Litorale Vermentino 2010 — sporting a radically different label that emphasizes the wine’s coastal or desk-side drinkability — offers subtle tissues in a well-wrought fabric of almonds and almond blossom, lemon and lime peel, a slightly leafy character and just a hint of mango and papaya. It’s balanced and harmonious in the mouth, with mildly lush citrus and stone-fruit flavors, though crisp acidity and chalk-like minerality lend to its lively, thirst-quenching nature and a sprightly finish. Drink through summer 2012. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $17.
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Carmenère The story of how for decades all that merlot in Chile was really carmenère — widely planted in Bordeaux in the 19th Century — but this fact wasn’t discovered until the 1980s and so on has often been related, even by me on numerous occasions, so here’s a link to something I wrote previously on the issue and let’s leave it at that. Apaltagua is a small estate in the Apalta Valley of Chile’s Colchagua wine region, itself part of the Rapel Valley south of Santiago. The winery is owned by the Edward Tutunjian family; winemaker is Alvaro Espinoza. The Apaltagua Reserva Carmenère 2010, Apalta Valley, Colchagua, impresses immediately with its clarity, purity and intensity of expression. The color is deep ruby-purple; vivid scents of black currants, blackberries and blueberries are permeated by notes of black olive, dried thyme, briers and brambles, smoky cedar and lavender. Your mouth will welcome a dense chewy texture founded on dusty, graphite-imbued tannins and ripe, spicy black and blue fruit flavors — adding a bit of plum — buoyed by vibrant acidity. Sorta like cabernet sauvignon and merlot but sorta itself, too. A terrific red to quaff with burgers, meat loaf, pepperoni pizza and such. 14 percent alcohol. Drink through 2013. Very Good+. About $11, a Fantastic Bargain.
Global Vineyard Imports, Berkeley, Ca.
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Merlot Merlot doesn’t receive a huge amount of respect because it’s so much like cabernet sauvignon in many ways, or at least it’s made that way, so when you run across an example of the grape that expresses some individually, a little character that sets it apart from cabernet, then it’s time to splurge on a case. The Kunde Family Estate Merlot 2006, Sonoma Valley, California, is one of those models. The deep ruby color may be dark, but the wine is bright and clean with intense aromas of very spicy black currants and red and black cherries that take on a slight edge of graphite-like minerality and smoky wood; the wine aged 18 months in small barrels of French, Hungarian and American oak, 30 percent new. The Kunde Merlot 06 is dense and chewy, robust without being rustic, solid without being stolid, and a few minutes in the glass smooths it out nicely and lends a bit of finesse and elegance. In fact, the hallmark of this wine is lovely balance and harmony among oak and tannin, fruit and acidity, while its pass at wildness in hints of oolong tea, moss and blueberry gives it a sense of off-beat but appropriate personality. 13.8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $18 — Good Value — but found around the country at prices ranging from $14 to $20.
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Syrah Bonny Doon Le Pousseur Syrah 2008, Central Coast. This wine features on the label a depiction of the montebank, the alchemical trickster from the Tarot deck, but there’s nothing shifty or tricky about the wine in the bottle. Made by the inimitable Randall Grahm, Le Pousseur 2008 offers a deep, dark ruby color with a fleck of magenta at the rim; it’s winsome and involving simultaneously, with seductive aromas of ripe, spicy, dusty black currants, blueberries and plums that unfold to hints of rhubarb and mulberry and, deeper and more intense, layers of licorice, lavender and sandalwood. Great grip and definition make for a wine that fills the mouth and nurtures the palate while grounding its effects in slightly sandpapery tannins and earthy elements of briars, brambles and underbrush, all serving to promote savory, up-front flavors of blackberries and blueberries tinged with a little smoke and bacon fat. Scrumptious but with a nod to syrah’s more serious (but not too severe) side. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 with roasted and grilled meats and such hearty fare. 2,705 cases were made. Excellent. About $20, representing Great Value.
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As CEO of Merryvale Vineyards from 1997 to 2009, Peter K. Huwiler developed contacts with all sorts of growers and owners of top-quality vineyards and wineries in the disparate regions of Napa Valley. As president and CEO of Napa Station, he draws on those contacts for grapes and wine that make up the small range of products offered by Napa Station, a family concern that he operates with his son Peter Huwiler II, who handles sales and marketing. Huwiler, originally from Switzerland, left a worldwide career in the restaurant business to work in wine, first for Stimson Lane in Washington, then, beginning in 1990, as head of national accounts and exports for Kendall-Jackson. Napa Station, so far, is almost minuscule compared to what is now Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and K-J; total production for Napa Station is about 10,000 cases annually. There’s still a connection with Merryvale; Napa Station’s winemaker is Faith Armstrong-Foster, who is married to Sean Foster, Merryvale’s senior winemaker. Armstrong-Foster was previously assistant winemaker at Frank Family Vineyards; she also has her own label, Onward. The Napa Station wines are very well-made, clean, balanced and harmonious, and prices are reasonable. Deriving grapes from as many as five growing areas of the Napa Valley, these wines strive, it seems, for a sort of authentic “Napa Valleyness” in terms of ripeness and structure without being identified with a specific region like Rutherford or Howell Mountain. Oak is managed very carefully, and as far as I am concerned, Armstrong-Foster could give lessons to many winemakers in California that seem to throw oak at their wines with reckless abandon.
These wines were samples for review. Image of Faith Armstrong-Foster from napastation.com.
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The Napa Station Sauvignon Blanc 2009 draws grapes from three areas of Napa Valley: Oak Knoll (predominantly), Carneros and Rutherford. Most of the wine remains in stainless steel tanks for fermentation and aging, though 18 percent goes into neutral — meaning used several times — French oak barrels for four months. No malolactic process occurred, so the wine retains considerable freshness and immediate appeal. The wine includes 2 percent semillon grapes. The color is medium straw-gold; bright aromas of apple and roasted lemon curl around elements of pear and melon and ginger, with touches of grass, dried thyme and tarragon. A lovely texture that nicely balances moderate richness with pert and sassy acidity delivers flavors of lemon and pear that open to hints of leafy fig and a finish that combines a note of grapefruit bitterness with burgeoning limestone minerality; here, one feels the slight sway of burgeoning spicy oak. A pretty suave and sophisticated sauvignon blanc for the price. 13.5 percent alcohol. 1,610 cases. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
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Again, as with the Sauvignon Blanc 09, there’s no new oak in the Napa Station Chardonnay 2008; the wine is made primarily in stainless steel (73 percent) with the rest aging six months in one- and two-year old French barriques. Twenty-three percent of the wine goes through malolactic, lending smoothness and touches of lushness, yet the balance leans toward crisp acidity and a scintillating minerality. The color is moderate straw-gold with a tinge of green; the nose is bright and clean, an attractively fresh amalgam of green apple, pineapple and grapefruit pungent with cloves, lime peel and limestone and a fleeting nuance of Chablis-like gunflint. While it’s quite dry, this chardonnay rolls across the palate like money, offering tasty lemon, peach and baked pear flavors as it simultaneously builds the case for spicy wood and spry acidity. It’s dense and chewy for an inexpensive chardonnay, with more lime peel and a note of grapefruit skin on the finish. A really well-made chardonnay for the price. 13.5 percent alcohol. 1,615 cases. Excellent. About $16, a Great Value.
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The Napa Station Merlot 2008 is a blend of 77 percent merlot, 21 percent cabernet sauvignon and 2 percent petit verdot, sourced from three areas of Napa Valley but mainly Los Carneros. The wine aged 22 months in a combination of small oak puncheons (which is to say larger than the standard 59-gallon barrique) and French barriques, 22 percent new. The color is dark ruby with a violet rim, meaning where the surface of the wine touches the glass when you tilt the glass away from you. Intense and concentrated aromas of black currants, cherries and raspberry are permeated by hints of cedar and tobacco, a little toasty/caraway quality and a touch of briers and brambles. This is firm, savory merlot endowed with finely knit, velvety tannins, vivid acidity and a deep graphite-tinged minerality joined by a plethora of foresty/underbrush elements; an hour or so mellows and smooths it out nicely and brings out the spicy black fruit/black tea flavors. Drink now through 2013. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. 525 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Presently, the Napa Station Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 is defined by structure. The wine is a blend of 88 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 9 percent merlot, 2 percent malbec and 1 percent petit verdot; the Huwiler boys draw these grapes from five Napa Valley areas: Rutherford, Oakville, Stags Leap, Atlas Peak and Carneros. The wine aged 20 months in small puncheons and French barriques, 21 percent new. A reflection of a year that produced deep, intense and concentrated cabernets, the Napa Station Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 is quite substantial, a wine packed with dense tannins and all the elements of walnut shell, dried porcini, forest and underbrush that indicate the necessity of additional time in the bottle, say two years, to become more approachable. Even tasted 24 hours later, this wine asserted its compositional prowess and its dominance over fruit, though I bet if you opened a bottle tonight and served it with a great medium-rare steak, a porterhouse for two, say, hot and crusty from the grill, you would be quite happy. 14.5 percent alcohol. 2,525 cases. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $23.
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Classic Medoc in style — that is to say, it feels like Left Bank Bordeaux — the Napa Station Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 is the wine to drink while waiting a year or two for its cousin from 2007 to gentle down and learn company manners. Slight differences in origin and production: As a grape source, Atlas Peak is dropped in favor of Howell Mountain; the composition is 87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent merlot, 4 percent petit verdot and — where did this “unclassic” dollop come from? — 1 percent petite sirah; the wine aged 22 months in small puncheons and barriques, 23 percent new. The color is dark ruby with an almost opaque center; nicely-defined aromas of black currants and cherries, with cedar and thyme, black olive and a touch of bell pepper set the stage for a well-balanced and integrated cabernet that displays lively acidity, firm but pliant tannins (embodying some dusty, graphite-like minerality) and macerated black fruit flavors bolstered by a flourish of spicy oak. No edges, no surprises, but thoroughly enjoyable; restaurants could sell the hell out of this wine at $10 in by-the-glass programs. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 3,450 cases. Very Good+. Price not available; to be released Sept. 1.
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A red and a white for your drinking this week, from Toad Hollow Vineyards. The winery was launched in 1993 by Todd Williams (1938-2007), retired from an illustrious career in bars and restaurants, and Rodney Strong (1927-2006), the former Broadway dancer and Sonoma County pioneer who had long had no hand in the winery that bears his name. Williams was the older brother of comedian and actor Robin Williams. Artist of the whimsical Toad Hollow labels is Maureen Erickson. Samples for review.
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The Toad Hollow Francine’s Selection Unoaked Chardonnay 2010, Mendocino County — Francine is the winery’s owner Frankie Williams — offers a radiant straw-gold color and fresh, beguiling aromas of green apple and pineapple with hints of mango and grapefruit. Though made entirely in stainless steel, the wine goes through complete malolactic “fermentation” (as a process that has nothing to do with fermentation is called), so it delivers quite a bit of spice, richness and full body; flavors of roasted lemon and pear tart are shot through — “sliced” might be appropriate — by a keen blade of acidity and bright layers of limestone minerality for an effect of Chablis-like austerity on the finish. A chardonnay of scintillating purity and intensity and remarkable character for the price; lay out, right now, a feast of grilled shrimp and mussels to be preceded by a whole raft of just-shucked oysters. 13.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
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The Toad Hollow Erik’s the Red 2009 was released under the California rubric; the wine used to carry a Paso Robles designation. This is one of those smorgasbord-of-grapes wines that producers in California dream up and that actually often turn out to be delightful. To merlot and cabernet sauvignon from Sonoma County and zinfandel from Lodi are added dollops of varying amounts of souza, tannat, syrah and petite sirah; the result is a dark and vibrant wine that falls under the robust and rustic label, fitting it for pairing with robust and rustic food; I had a glass with leftover pasta Bolognese for lunch one day, and the dish and the wine definitely made friends. The wine is rooty and earthy, bursting with scents and flavors of black currants, spiced plums and cherries highlighted by some element of feral berries and underlying graphite-like minerality. Erik’s the Red 09 is briery and brambly, moderately dense and chewy with slightly velvety, grainy tannins, and lively with pert acidity; ripe and spicy black fruit flavors are bolstered by a modicum of oak from nine months in barrels. A great barbecue and grilling wine for consuming through 2012. Very Good+. About $15.
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By “great,” I mean a terrific — and nicely aged — wine, not a bargain. After all, the purpose of this benefit event was to raise money to fund the spaying and neutering of dogs and cats, so bidders opened their hearts and wallets. (More than 12,000 dogs and cats a year are euthanized at the Memphis Animal Shelter; people, give your pets a dose of planned parenthood. LL and I also bought a genuine Schwinn bicycle, a Madame Alexander doll in the original box, someone’s old stamp collection and other items; we were outbid on the neon Texaco Pegasus sign, and I’m not sure if I’m happy or sad about that.

Anyway, the wine was the Hedges Family Estate Three Vineyards 2005, from Washington State’s Red Mountain appellation, or as the Federal government puts it, “American Viticultural Area” (AVA). Proprietors are Tom and Anne-Marie Hedges, who married in 1976 — she is from France’s Champagne region, he is from eastern Washington — and in 1986 launched American Wine Trade Inc. to export wine to Europe. The first wine from Hedges Cellars came in 1987, after which the couple segued toward vineyard acquisition and the founding of a real facility. Winemaker for Hedges is Tom Hedges’ brother Pete. Red Mountain officially became an AVA in 2001. Not so much a mountain as a steep, long southwest-facing slope, Red Mountain lies in the eastern Yakima Valley AVA, itself encompassed by the vast Columbia Valley region, all of this area being in south-central Washington.

Hedges Family Estate Three Vineyards 2005 is a sort of Bordeaux-style blend of 61 percent merlot grapes, 36 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent cabernet franc. I say “sort” and “style” because the dominance of merlot points toward the Right Bank communes of Pomerol and St. Emilion, where cabernet sauvignon might not make up such a generous portion as we see in this wine. I have no information about the oak regimen for the wine, but pages devoted to the 2007 and 2008 versions on the winery’s website indicate a modest 10 months aging in mainly American barrels, in combination with French and a small amount of Hungarian or “European” barrels, altogether being 50 percent new and 50 percent used or “neutral.” The process indicates a great deal of thoughtfulness in producing a finely-knit and balanced wine, as does the consistently low — for these days — alcohol levels, for the 2005 coming in at a refreshing 13.3 percent.

The wine is lovely and mellow, with subtle poise and integration and burgeoning fields of dried spice, dried flowers and potpourri (largely inflected by violets and lavender) and spiced and macerated red and black currants and plums. The texture is smooth, lithe and a touch sinewy, with vibrant acidity cutting through supple tannins that bear a dusty graphite-like edge and that continue to grow with unassailable power through the dry, briery and brambly finish. That description betokens some austerity in the wine’s final moments in the mouth, but whatever slightly astringent rigor it imposes does not cancel out a delicious strain of black and red fruit flavors that bear touches of cedar, tobacco and fruitcake. Excellent and Definitely Worth a Search. I paid $60 for the bottle that LL and I drank with last night’s pizza — remember, this was for a good cause; it was released at $18, and you can find it occasionally on the Internet for $25 or so.

My Readers can tell from the title of this post that I’m a fan of Twomey Cellars, three of whose wines I encountered a few weeks ago at a local wholesaler’s trade tasting.

Raymond Duncan, an oilman from Colorado, partnered with former Christian Brother Justin Meyer, as winemaker, to start Silver Oak Cellars in 1972. Concentrating on cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley and Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, the winery quickly acquired a cult following, a situation that continues today. In 1999, Duncan, with his four sons, launched Twomey Cellars with winemaker Daniel Baron. The winery’s range is not quite as restricted at that of Silver Oak, though still pretty rigorous; Twomey makes only sauvignon blanc, pinor noir and merlot-based wines in limited quantities. Two of Duncan’s sons, Tim and David, are the estate’s managing partners. Winemaker for pinot noir is Ben Cane. Twomey has wineries in Calistoga, Napa Valley, and Healdsburg, Sonoma County.

Sampled at a wholesaler’s trade event.
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With the Twomey Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Napa Valley, you feel as if you’re drinking the grape in its most concentrated and distilled character, though despite the intensity, the wine is generous, approachable and delicious. No zingers or palate-whiplash here; oh, yes, the acidity is crystalline and quenching, but it lends the wine appropriate structure and authority without the audacious citric/grapefruit snap that so many other sauvignon blancs deliver. The tale this sauvignon blanc tells is of balance and harmony, with just enough of a keen limestone edge and whiff of gunflint to get your attention in the finish. Tangerine and stone fruit, a whisper of baked pear, hints of fresh-mown grass and dried thyme form a seamless amalgam in bouquet, while similar flavors emphasize the grape’s slightly spicy, leafy, curranty side. The wine aged in oak barrels, steel drums and tanks, so any wood influence is almost subliminal. Drink through 2013. Alcohol content is 13.9 percent. Excellent. About $25.
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The Twomey Pinot Noir 2008, Sonoma Coast, is frankly exquisite, revealing the delicate and necessary equilibrium between power and elegance, between deceptive lightness and satiny grace that distinguishes the best pinot noir wines. The color is radiant cerise with a slight bluish-magenta cast; ethereal aromas of black cherry, red and black currants and mulberry are etched with tracings of cranberry, cola and cloves. Despite its purity and intensity, this pinot noir feels transparent, its draping texture more supple and sensuous than obvious or weighty; it doesn’t hurt that vibrant acidity cuts a cleansing swath across the palate. The spicy aspect emerges more prominently through the finish, where a bit of oak — from 13 months in French barrels, 40 percent new — brings in some polish and grain. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $50.
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Occasionally, in whatever setting and with whatever intention, I take a sniff and sip of a wine and think, “Oh yes, this is the grape with all its virtues revealed, intensified and concentrated.” That was my thought on first encountering the Twomey Merlot 2006, Napa Valley, a flawlessly, impeccably balanced wine of remarkable depth and surface appeal; it includes six percent cabernet franc grapes. The initial whiffs of mint and iodine, graphite and ripe black currants and blueberries give way to hints of cedar, black olive and dried thyme. This is truly a sizable wine, almost awesome in dimension, and deeply earthy and minerally (in the granite and slate realm), yet it moves, as it were, on little cat feet, utterly deft and refined and elegant. It aged 16 months in French oak, 45 percent new barrels, 55 percent once- and twice-used, but there’s no interference of toasty wood here, only a firm yet resilient shapeliness throughout as support to spice-infused black and blue fruit flavors and dense chewy dusty tannins. A great merlot. 14.1 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 to ’18. Exceptional. About $50.
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