Merlot



Oops, not exactly Friday, is it? I must have fallen into the sinkhole of the space-time continuum. Anyway, no theme today, just a group of wines that I tasted recently, some of which I liked and a few that I didn’t. That’s the breaks, n’est-ce pas? As usual in the erstwhile Friday Wine Sips, I eschew most technical, historical and geographical data for the sake of incisive reviews of blitzkrieg intensity. Included today are a delightful pinot noir rosé from Sonoma County, two excellent chardonnays (one from Carneros, one from New Zealand) and an inexpensive red wine blend from the “South of France” that’s worth a search for devotees of organic products.

These were all samples for review.
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Toad Hollow Eye of the Toad Rosé of Pinot Noir 2011, Sonoma County. 11.5% alc. Pure strawberry and raspberry with undertones of pear, melon and peach skin; a hints of orange rind, almond blossom and limestone; quite dry but soft and juicy; more stones and bones on the finish. Delightful. Very Good+. About $13, a Great Bargain.
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Craggy Range Kidnappers Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. 13% alc. A lovely, delicate, elegant chardonnay, yet very spicy, slightly resinous (as in a hint of rosemary), touched of roasted lemon, pineapple and grapefruit with a tinge of mango; underlying richness and complexity, quite dry, always mindful of balance and poise. More than charming, attractively individual. Excellent. About $21.
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Nickel & Nickel Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Carneros, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. Rich but beautifully balanced, bold but not brassy; classic pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors deeply infused with cloves and allspice, hints of lemon and honeysuckle; a golden and sunny chardonnay with a sheen of deft oak, ripe and slightly creamy yet with a prominent limestone edge. Pure, intense, sophisticated. Excellent. About $50.
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Naked Earth 2009, Vin de Pays d’Oc (though the front label says “South of France”). 12.5% alc. Merlot 50%, cabernet sauvignon 25%, grenache 20%, carignan 5%. Certified organic. Surprising character for the price and geographic anonymity; dark ruby color; cedar, tobacco, black olives; black currants and plums; lavender and violets, touch of new leather; dry, dusty tannins, almost velvety texture, spicy black fruit flavors, lipsmacking acidity. Worth seeking out. Very Good. About $12, representing Real Value.
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Green Truck Zinfandel 2009, Mendocino County. 13.5% alc. Certified organic. A generic red wine with wild berries and brambles, very dusty tannins and heaps of graphite-like minerality. People searching for organic wine deserve better. Good. About $14.
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Murphy-Goode Merlot 2009, California. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby color with a lighter rim; toasty oak, caraway and celery seed; cherries, plums and raspberries; very dry, disjointed plus a vanilla backnote. Not recommended. About $14.
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Murphy-Goode Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California. 13.5% alc. Better than the merlot but still fairly ordinary; attractive heft and texture, ripe and spicy black currant, black raspberry and plum scents and flavors, nice balance among fruit, acidity and mildly dusty chewy tannins. Very Good. About $14.
Note that both of these Murphy-Goode products carry a California appellation instead of Sonoma County and are “vinted” rather than “produced,” which means that consumers have no idea whence within the state the grapes came or where the wine was made. Jackson Family Wines acquired Murphy-Goode in 2006.
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Mark West Pinot Noir 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands. 14.2% alc. Dark ruby color with a paler ruby edge; black cherry and leather, cola and cloves; hits all the necessary points without being compelling; dense, chewy tannins, swingeing acidity, very dry with a dusty, earthy, mineral-flecked finish. Very Good. About $14. (Sorry, the price is actually about $19.)
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Davis Bynum Pinot Noir 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. You gotta like wood to like this one. At first, subtly woven black cherry, mulberry, smoke, cola and woody spice (cloves, sandalwood), then you feel the oak sneak up, as it were, from the back to front, smothering everything in its path. Not my cuppa tea. Good. About $35.
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Today’s “Friday Wine Sips” offers four whites and four reds and that adds up to eight wines if what my high school math teacher Miss Bridger said still holds true. The geographical range includes California, Washington state, New Zealand, Sicily and Austria; the price range is $14 to $20, with a couple of products representing real value. No technical or historical data or philosophical ruminations; just snappy comments taken directly from my notes to give you the essence. These were all samples for review.
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Murphy-Goode Sauvignon Blanc “The Fume” 2010, North Coast, California. 13.5% alc. Clean, fresh, buoyant; roasted lemon, tangerine, lime peel; bright and leafy; dried thyme and tarragon; a crisp arrow of grapefruit through the limestone bullseye. Quite tasty. Very Good. About $14, a Bargain.
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Airfield Riesling 2010, Yakima Valley, Washington. 13.6% alc. Apple blossom and grapefruit skin; burgeoning and penetrating limestone and flint-like minerality; pungent, resonant, scintillating with crystalline acidity and high-toned touches of quince and ginger, ripe stone-fruit permeated by smoke and cloves; deftly balances a soft, almost talc-like effect with crisp bone and sinew and river rocks. Lovely and delicious. Excellent. About $16, Great Value.
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Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Martinborough, New Zealand. 13.5% alc. Suave and savory, with an air of blitheness and frank appeal; lemon, lime peel and gooseberry with notes of cloves and ginger, fresh-mown hay and lemongrass; crisp, very dry, a long, sprightly limestone-flint-and-grapefruit laden finish. Excellent. About $20.
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Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Sonoma County. 14.1% alc. (Owned by Jackson Family Wines) Pale straw color; very fresh, clean, exhilarating; grapefruit, lime peel, lemongrass, touches of caraway, tarragon and thyme, hint of honeysuckle; the old hay-foot, straw-foot motif in its deft earthiness; sleek and polished; pear, melon and citrus flavors, slightly herbal, crisp acidity and a touch of flint in the background. Excellent. About $20.
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Zantho St. Laurent 2008, Burgenland, Austria. 13% alc. Inky ruby-purple color; smoke, cigar box and tobacco leaf; the slightly resinous quality of cedar and rosemary; spiced, macerated and roasted black and red currants and plums with touches of black olive and tar; but for all this “darkness,” a clean, fresh and lively red, suited to barbecue ribs and braised short ribs. Highly individual wine from an unusual grape. Very Good+. About $14, representing Great Value.
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Buena Vista Zinfandel 2010, Sonoma County. 13.5% alc. A fresh, tasty, agreeable zinfandel, quite spicy, bursting with bright black and red cherry flavors infused with hints of blueberry and boysenberry; mannerly elements of tannin and oak, clean brisk acidity. Sports the new “old-timey” Buena Vista Viticultural Society label. For burgers and pizzas. Very Good. About $15.
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Tasca d’Almerita Lamùri Nero d’Avola 2009, Sicily. 14% alc. Refreshing and vibrant, this wine avoids the rusticity displayed by many nero d’Avolas; delicious red and black currant flavors, very spicy, a little briery and brambly; grows darker, more intense as the moments pass, conjuring notes of bittersweet chocolate and lavender, tar and graphite. Direct and satisfying. Very Good+. About $20.
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Craggy Range Te Kahu Gimblett Gravels Vineyard 2010, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. 13.5% alc. 80% merlot, 8% each cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, 4% malbec. Very harmonious initially but with an edge of briers and brambles, forest floor and graphite and an undercurrent of bittersweet chocolate; black cherry and red and black currants with a touch of blueberry; gets quite dry, packs some tannic, minerally austerity into the finish. Try with a steak or barbecue brisket. Very Good+. About $20.
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With last night’s pizza, we drank the Clos de los Siete 2009, from Mendoza’s high, dry Uco Valley in Argentina. The number “Siete” refers to master winemaker Michel Rolland, perhaps the world’s best-known consultant, and his six Bordelaise partners and their vineyards in this venture, now in its eighth release. (The version of this wine from 2008 was my Wine of the Week on May 24, 2010.) Clos de los Siete 2009 is a blend of 57 percent malbec, 15 percent merlot, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent syrah and 3 percent petit verdot; in other words the model is a five-grape Bordeaux style blend with syrah substituting for cabernet franc, yet no wine from Bordeaux would feature a majority of malbec. The blend is consistent with the ’08 rendition, with minor adjustments in the percentages. Seventy percent of Clos de los Siete ’09 aged 11 months in French oak barrels, 1/3 new, 1/3 one year old, 1/3 two years old; the rest aged in vats, whether cement or stainless steel is not specified. I don’t mean to make your eyes glaze over by these technical details (which I always find at least interesting if not essential), but I do want you to notice the careful and thoughtful nature of the winemaking process.

A dark ruby-purple color, Clos de los Siete 2009 delivers terrific tone and presence, whether in nose or mouth. Seductive aromas of ripe black currants, blueberries and mulberries are woven with notes of cloves and sandalwood, with smoke, potpourri and violets, with graphite, shale and an intriguing fleck of iodine. The package balances sleekness with robustness; the palate is dominated by polished tannins that feel, by contrast, a touch shaggy, as if lightly roughened by fine-gauge sandpaper, and by a subtle oak structure that lends the wine beneficent suppleness and spice. Slightly macerated, fleshy and stewed blackberry and black currant flavors contain something wild — fecund, floral, fruity — while reaching deep for a core of brambles, bitter chocolate and mountain dust. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $18, One of the World’s Great Wine Values.

Imported by Dourthe USA, Manhasset, New York. A sample for review. Cropped image from strangerandstranger.com.

The pizza was inspired by a handful of lovely locally-grown shiitake mushrooms, mahogany-brown and lustrous, to which I added strips of speck (made in Georgia) and roasted red pepper, chopped green onion and thin slices of the last of the season’s tomatoes; fresh oregano and thyme; mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. The crust was about 3/4s organic white bread flour and 1/4 organic rye flour. The wine was a gratifying match.

Two great red wines from Napa Valley, each a joy to drink:

These were samples for review.
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Nickel & Nickel Suscol Ranch Merlot 2008, Napa Valley.
Suscol Ranch lies in a cool valley south of the city of Napa that receives dense fog early in the growing season and year-around wind. The nine-acre vineyard occupies a gently-sloping north-facing hillock atop deep loamy soil. Nickel & Nickel first made wine from the site in the 1997 vintage. The present example, from 2008, aged 16 months in French oak, 44 percent new barrels, 56 percent once-used. An extraordinary bouquet of roasted and fleshy blueberries, black currants and plums is suffused with notes of iodine and iron, mint and sea salt, briers and brambles; tremendous structure, tremendous presence: the wine is supple and sinewy, dense and chewy, bursting with slightly roasted black and blue fruit flavors couched in firm, velvety tannins and an element of graphite that scintillates like ebon fractiles; all of this wrapped around an intense core of smoke and cloves and toast, lavender and potpourri. Awesome purity and integrity. 14.6 percent alcohol. 1,037 cases produced. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $50.
Yes, the label is out-of-date, but it’s the best image that was available.
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Oakville Ranch Robert’s Blend Cabernet Franc 2007, Napa Valley.
A wonderful expression of the cabernet franc grape — with 10 percent cabernet sauvignon, so it is a blend — this inky-dark wine, named in honor of the winery’s founder Robert Miner, bursts with black currants and blueberries laved with tar and bitter chocolate, crushed violets and lavender and, telltale mark of cabernet franc, black olives, thyme, black tea and a hint of bell pepper, all layered over an earthy, granitic mineral quality. This is some big, dense, chewy wine, but it displays lovely balance among the essential structural devices of bright acidity; polished, grainy tannins; and spicy, supple oak, from 19 months in French barrels, 60 percent new. In fact, the wine is quite spicy, and as it opens in the glass, its offering of black currant, black cherry and plum flavors takes on more macerated and stewed aspects that encompass a touch of fruitcake and leather. Almost gorgeous but with the necessary leavening of some tannic austerity on the finish. I hate to say this; the alcohol content is 15.5 percent, but you don’t feel the least hotness or sweetness that usually comes with high-alcohol wines; that’s how perfectly balanced and integrated it is. 264 six-pack cases produced. Excellent. About $92.
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Two wines from France, first the white, from the Maconnais region in the south of Burgundy, then the red, a Bordeaux Superieur.
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The Henri Perrusset Macon-Villages 2010 is the real deal as far as chardonnay goes, and I mean that this little beauty, because of its intensity, dimension and detail, could pass as a ringer for a Cote de Beaune blanc — all right, a minor Cote de Beaune blanc –at half the price. My first note on the wine, which was made all in stainless steel, was, “Damn, that’s good!” Lovely purity of chardonnay character here, with spicy roasted lemon and baked pear scents and flavors accented by cloves, quince and ginger and a scintillating limestone element that goes hand in hand with crystalline acidity; oh, and a zephyr-like wafting of camellia. Yes, this is fresh, clean and vibrant, and it delivers terrific balance and integration; not only does it taste good, but it feels good in the mouth. 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013. Very Good+. About $16-$20.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Ca. Tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event.
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Speaking of the real deal, the Chateau Senailhac 2005, Bordeaux Superieur — from a great vintage in Bordeaux — is the real deal as far as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc are concerned. In fact, unusually for Bordeaux Superieur, this wine contains all five of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties: 43 percent merlot, 25 percent cabernet sauvignon, 23 percent cabernet franc, 7 percent malbec and, finally, a 2 percent dollop of petit verdot. At six years old, the wine displays a transparent medium ruby color tinged with brick-red/garnet at the rim; classic, too, is this bouquet of spiced and macerated black currants and black cherries with hints of cedar and tobacco, black olive and bell pepper and a touch of walnut shell and brambles. The wine offers slightly fleshy and meaty flavors of black currants and plums encompassed in a dense and chewy structure that’s firm and close to velvety without being heavy or obvious; tannins are mellow and a little chewy, a bit gritty with dusty graphite-like minerality that extends through the finish. Chateau Senailhac 2005 is drinking beautifully now and should do so through 2014 to ’16. Alcohol content is 13 percent. Very Good+. I paid $19; prices around the country start at $16.

Imported by Luxco Inc., St. Louis.
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Mount Veeder stands at the southern end of the Mayacamas range that separates Napa County from Sonoma County to the west. Though the first wine was produced on Mount Veeder in 1864, made by Captain Stelham Wing, the small, high-altitude region was not granted official AVA status (American Viticultural Area) until 1993. Mt. Veeder, named for a German Presbyterian pastor who lived in Napa during the Civil War period, had long been recognized as a source of top-quality, rigorously-structured cabernet sauvignon wines. Indeed, of the appellation’s 1,000 acres of vines, 513 are dedicated to cabernet sauvignon grapes. These vineyards, based on thin volcanic soil, vary in steepness up to a 30 percent grade, so most of the work is done by hand. The output of the 20 or so wineries that occupy the Mount Veeder appellation is not huge, averaging 40,000 cases annually, less than 2 percent of the Napa Valley production. I wrote about the wines of Mayacamas Vineyards back in August, and mentioned more recently a couple other Mount Veeder wines here and here. Today I look at cabernets and chardonnays from Fontanella, Godspeed, Robert Craig and Y. Rousseau.

These were samples for review. Map from mtveederwines.com.
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Fontanella Chardonnay 2010, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. Jeff Fontanella worked for Opus One, ZD Wines and Saddleback Cellars before opening his own winery in 2008 with his wife Karen Kruse Fontanella. His chardonnay, from 2010, is bright, fresh and steely. The color is pale straw-gold; aromas of spiced lemon are woven with hints of pineapple and grapefruit with a touch of lemon balm and lime peel; a multitude of citrus flavors dominate the palate in a dense, almost chewy texture enlivened by vibrant acidity and a resonant limestone-shale element. This is a large-framed chardonnay whose finish brings in more oak and woody spice, though the regimen is moderate: nine months in French oak, 33 percent new barrels, and only 12 percent of the wine went through malolactic fermentation. I found this to be a chardonnay of appealing and authentic purity and intensity, though the oak influence on the finish is a little bothersome; a year in the bottle may give this more balance and integration. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 600 cases. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $34.
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Y. Rousseau “Milady” Chardonnay 2009, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. The “Y” stands for Yannick, the owner and winemaker of this small winery. His “Milady” Chardonnay 09, made from a vineyard at 1,800-feet elevation, is a radiant pale straw-gold color; in the nose, classic notes of pineapple and grapefruit carry a hint of mango, with touches of cloves, quince and ginger, these qualities replicated with depth and detail in the mouth, where the spicy element expands through a texture that’s suave, supple and elegant. Rousseau uses native yeasts; the wine was barrel-fermented in oak, 20 percent new barrels, and aged for 11 months with no malolactic. Pert ‘n’ sassy acidity keeps this chardonnay lively and vital, while the whole package is deftly balanced between the crispness of the acid and mouth-filling density. The finish is long and finely-spun. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 195 cases. Excellent. About $38, and Worth a Search.
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Godspeed Vineyards Chardonnay 2008, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. The winery belongs to Larry Stricker, an architect of resort hotels, who since 1990 has bottled half the harvest, selling the rest of the grapes to well-known producers. The vineyard lies at 1,500-feet altitude. This chardonnay, now three years old, exhibits lovely balance and integration; it’s taut with shimmering acidity yet generously supple, almost silky, almost talc-like. Pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors are permeated by wood-land spices that hint at smoke and pomander buoyed by the limestone and lime peel effect, and while the wine fills the mouth it also displays remarkable delicacy, as well as, from mid-palate back through the finish, an element of scintillating limestone-like minerality. The wine was barrel-fermented, aged 12 months in French oak, 20 percent new barrels, and did not go through malolactic. The real deal, radiant with the purity and intensity and the hard-earned structure of high-elevation grapes. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 250 cases. Excellent. About $25, a Fine Value.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Robert Craig Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. Real power and presence and impeccable tone, from Robert Craig’s vineyard, planted in 1990 at 1,800-feet elevation. Intense and concentrated notes of black currants and plums are woven with cedar and sage and hints of lead pencil and bitter chocolate; a few minutes in the glass bring in touches of mulberry and smoke. The wine is a blend of 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent merlot and 3 percent malbec; it aged 18 months in French oak, 70 percent new. The result is a cabernet that’s superbly proportioned, deep and resonant, with an oak presence that’s insistent without being aggressive. Tannins are sleek and finely-milled, and they permeate, with their infinitesimal sifting, every molecule of ripe and spicy black currants and black raspberry flavors, all chiming with the tracery of whip-lash acidity. Yeah, this is good. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 846 cases. Drink from 2012 or ’13 through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $70.
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Godspeed Vineyards Trinity 2005, Napa Valley, and Godspeed Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. The Trinity 05 is a whole-hearted, two-fisted blend of 42 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent malbec and 33 percent syrah; it carries a Napa Valley designation because only 67 percent of the grapes — the cabernet and malbec — come from Mount Veeder, the syrah deriving from the Oak Knoll district on the valley floor. This is about structure now, being a tightly woven fabric of wheatmeal and walnut-shell, dried porcini, graphite and iron that allows a glimmer of intense and concentrated black currant, black cherry and mulberry fruit, tinged with dried spices and mocha, to shine through. The immense tannins, dense and fine-grained, need several years to soften, so try this from 2013 or ’14 through 2020 to ’22. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Production was 600 cases. Very Good+ with the potential for an Excellent rating. About $40.

A bit more accessible is the Godspeed Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Mount Veeder, a 100 percent cabernet wine. Classic touches of cedar and black olive, bay leaf and sage are etched with traces of spicy black currants, black cherries and plums. This is a real mouthful of wine, characterized by scintillating acidity and shale-like minerality and by layers of leather and moss, dried porcini and fruitcake, iron and iodine. You could happily and, I hope, thoughtfully, drink this wine with a steak tonight or cellar it to try from 2014 to 2020. Alcohol content is 14.1. Production was 250 cases. Excellent. About $40.
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Fontanelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. The blend is 91 percent cabernet sauvignon, 9 percent merlot; the wine aged 21 months in French oak, 80 percent new, and it soaked up that oak like a sponge and turned it into a thing of sleekness, suavity and inherent suppleness. The color is deep purple-black; aromas of very intense and concentrated cassis, black cherry, plums, lavender and potpourri, cedar, fennel and black olives circle a packed core of briers and brambles, iron and iodine, all accumulating in an extraordinary bouquet. For a cabernet that’s drenched in dry, foresty, granite-tinged tannins, this displays amazing succulence and richness of ripe and spicy black currants and plums with, deep down, like some dark bell-tone, a note of blueberry tart. Mainly, however, the Fontanelle Cabernet 08 is for now a wine for tremendous structural integrity and gravity, and while it could doubtless be served tonight with a veal chop grilled with rosemary and garlic, it also doubtlessly would benefit from a few years in the cellar, for drinking perhaps from 2013 or ’14 through 2020 to ’24. Alcohol content is 14.9 percent. 750 cases were made. Exceptional. About $52. If you are a collector or at least a devotee of Napa cabernets, this remarkable quality at such a price represents a bargain compared to the $150 to $300 that the Big Name Cult Cabernets command, so in that sense, it’s Worth a Search.
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Y. Rousseau “Le Roi Soleil” Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. Rousseau’s “Le Roi Soleil” 08 is a 100 percent cabernet sauvignon that aged 18 months in French oak, 70 percent new barrels. The vineyard, at 1,800 feet elevation, is sustainably farmed. The color is dark ruby with a magenta rim; aromas of cassis drenched with graphite, blueberries, smoke, cedar and dried thyme are intense and concentrated yet totally seductive. Black and blue fruit flavors tinged with mulberry, bitter chocolate and lavender are cushioned by dry, dusty, finely-milled tannins and burnished oak for an impression that’s suave and sleek yet powerful and resonant, even a little unyielding. Some foresty, brushy austerity on the finish dictates a year or two in the cellar — or that box in your coat closet — for trying from 2013 or ’14 through 2018 or ’20. Alcohol content is 14.3 percent. 109 cases were made. Excellent. About $65.
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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.

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