Merlot



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.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
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.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
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.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Some friends came over a few nights ago for a meeting of a committee that LL and I are chairing for an animal-related fund-raising event, and of course I pulled out a few wines to slake their thirst and accompany a selection of cheeses and grilled vegetables. These friends are not “wine-people”; they just like to drink wine, though when they taste something good they can tell the difference between the good stuff and some bland, innocuous fluff. The temperature was a bit chilly for late March — the month came in like a lion and seems to be going out like one too — so I made it a red wine occasion, to which no one objected. I thought diversity in country and grape variety would be interesting, so here’s what I opened: Gainey Vineyard Merlot 2007, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County; Inurrieta Sur 2007, Navarra, Spain, a blend of garnacha and graciano grapes (maybe; see review below); and La Valentina Spelt 2006, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Italy. These wines were samples for review.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

When I poured a few glasses of the Gainey Merlot 2007, Santa Ynez Valley, someone said, “Ymmmmm, so glad you chose this one!” The wine is a blend of 95 percent merlot, 4 percent cabernet franc and 1 percent cabernet sauvignon; it aged 19 months in French oak, 38 percent new barrels. Boy, this is deep, rich, glittery yet impeccably balanced merlot, permeated by black currant and black raspberry scents and flavors thoroughly imbued with notes of mint and cedar, smoke, graphite-like minerality and polished oak that takes on a bit of toast. The smoky quality, which unfurls to reveal hints of bitter chocolate, black tea and lavender, intensifies as the moments pass, as does the more profound depth of dusty tannins, earthy loaminess and shale. Not that the wine is forbidding; oh, no, these serious qualities, along with vibrant acidity, are necessary to temper, if not tame, the wine’s profuse sensual attractions. Quite a performance. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $20, Great Quality for the Price.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
There’s a bit of confusion about exactly what grapes go into the Inurrieta Sur 2007, from Spain’s Navarra region. The back label tells us that the wine is a blend of garnacha (grenache) and graciano; the printed matter I was sent with the wine says 60 percent garnacha and 40 percent syrah; the winery’s website asserts that the wine contains garnacha, syrah and graciano grapes. O.K., people, let’s get the story straight! The point is, when I poured our friends a glass of the wine, a chorus of “whoa” and “wow” filled the air. The wine is a dark ruby color, while the bouquet is deeply spicy, sooty, smoky, ripe and funky in the fleshy, meaty sense. This is a delectable quaff whose residence in American oak barrels for six months lends a combination of suppleness and sinewy power to the flavors of black currants, black raspberries and mulberries, all slightly macerated and roasted. The whole effect is sleek, burnished, highly drinkable, now through 2012 or ’13. I almost wish I had saved it for pizza, but I’ll find something else, don’t worry. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Very Good+. About $15, representing Great Value.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Wine of the Week on Feb 18 was La Valentina Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2008; now it’s the turn of that wine’s slightly older cousin, La Valentina Spelt 2006. Also made from 100 percent montepulciano grapes, Spelt 06 — the wine is named for the region’s dominant grain crop — ages 18 months, partly in stainless steel; partly in French barriques, new and one- and two-years old; and partly in 25 hectoliter barrels. Nothing rustic here; this is a lovely, balanced, eminently drinkable red wine notable for a beguiling bouquet of mint and eucalyptus, slightly spiced and macerated black currant, black raspberry and plum fruit; and a deep dark woody/spicy/chewy/dusty/tannic/graphite/minerally texture and structure etched with delicate tracings of licorice, lavender and potpourri. Alcohol is a sensible 13.5 percent. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $22.
Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Cal.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

When I open a bottle of wine for Pizza & Movie Night, I follow no pattern or motivation, no agenda. I usually just pluck what’s at hand and give it a try. It was coincidence, then, that the wines for the past two Pizza & Movie Nights were Italian, both from Tuscany yet very different sorts of wines.
Imported by Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, Cal. Samples for review.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

First is a simple yet tasty Borgianni Chianti 2007, made by Castello di Volpaia from sangiovese grapes grown in the Chianti Colli Senesi area near Siena. The wine is made completely in stainless steel tanks and receives not the slightest kiss of oak; there’s a little canaiolo in the blend, which is traditional for Chianti. What do you want in a quaffable Chianti? How about a dark ruby-colored, robust and slightly sinewy wine that bursts with notes of black and red currants, smoky oolong tea, dried orange rind, cloves and potpourri? Would that get it for you? Borgianni 07 is nicely balanced, with moderately rich black and red fruit flavors cushioned by moderately dense and chewy tannins and enlivened by pert acidity. The wine is quite dry and a bit austere on the briery, foresty finish. 3,000 cases imported. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 or ’13 with pizza, burgers and red-sauce pasta dishes. Very Good+. About $14, a Terrific Deal.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Tenuta di Biserno is a collaboration between the brothers Marchese Piero and Marchese Lodovico Antinori, of the well-known and venerable family that has been involved with winemaking in Tuscany since the middle of the 14th Century. Piero Antinori runs the vast family business from the Palazzo Antinori in Florence. Lodovico was the founder and owner of Tenuto Dell’Ornellaia in the Bolgheri region in southwestern Tuscany; the first vintage of the flagship “super Tuscan” Ornellaia was in 1985. After various complicated partnerships and buy-outs involving Robert Mondavi, the Frescobadli family and Constellation Brands, Lodovico lost the estate to the Frescobaldi family in 2005.

Tenuta di Biserno was established in 2001. The estate lies in the Alta Maremma region adjacent to Bolgheri near the town of Bibbona. The estate produces three wines, all red, of which Insoglio del cinghiale is considered the entry-level wine. No traditional Tuscan grapes are used here; all devolves upon “international” varieties, and indeed the blend of the Insoglio del cinghiale 2008 — syrah and merlot each 32 percent, cabernet franc 30 percent and petit verdot 6 percent — one might expect to see in California or Australia. Careful winemaking, however, allows Insoglio 2008 to retain individuality outside the category of mere internationalism.

Insoglio 08 is, first, a sleek, elegant and expressive wine whose oak regimen — 40 percent of the wine aged only four months in new and 1-year-old French barriques; the rest in stainless steel — lends it lovely suppleness and firm dimension. The whole effect is of engaging richness, presence and tone tempered by a background of clean, earthy, loamy and graphite-like mineral qualities married to polished and fine-grained tannins that slide through the mouth as if on well-oiled ball-bearings. As many well-made and ambitious wines do, Insoglio 2008 balances intensity and concentration with expansiveness and generosity, and while a few minutes in the glass unfurl depths of minerals and leather, the wine never loses grip on its innate, deeply spicy and macerated black and blue fruit flavors. 14 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 to ’18. Essential drinking, I would think, with rare to medium rare steaks or braised veal shanks, though LL and I happily consumed it with last night’s pizza. Excellent. About $32
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Wine writers all over the country are receiving samples in a new format called TASTE, which stands for “Total Anaerobic Sample Transfer Environment.” Simply stated, this means that tiny samples of wine are drawn from full, 750-milliliter bottles and transferred into cute little 50-milliliter bottles in a “sealed, zero-oxygen chamber.” The idea is that this “mini-sample,” as it were, provides an utterly fresh, clean, uncontaminated version of the wine submitted for review. The mini-bottles are closed with itsy-bitsy screw-caps, and the samples are accompanied by a recommended “taste-by” date.

I received a “Flock Box” sampler of six wines from Blackbird Vineyards, a high-class outfit in the Oak Knoll District of the Napa Valley. Blackbird is owned by Michael Polenske, an investment manager-philanthropist-gallery and restaurant owning-”life aesthetic” sort of person who, fortunately, happens to turn out very impressive wine, though a great deal of credit must be given to actual winemaker Aaron Potts. The Flock Box is aimed at people who want to purchase wines from Blackbird without committing to buying full bottles untasted or perhaps only read about. This device is a boon, because the Blackbird wines are limited in quantity and they’re not cheap. On the other hand, there’s a distinct scent of exclusivity about the whole enterprise; as the winery’s website states:

Blackbird wines are available in limited quantities to private clients and the finer restaurants and resorts throughout the world. If you are not on our private client list and desire to receive an allocation, we invite you to Join the List, to receive a unique Username and password, which will enable you to immediately purchase an allocation from our portfolio of wines.

These brief reviews, therefore, are for those who possess the fiduciary prowess and the inclination to participate in such exclusionary rigmarol or who happen to find themselves looking at a wine list in a finer restaurant or resort throughout the world. The problem with the small-format bottles is that they preclude saving some wine to try the next day or tasting with a meal. After all, 50 mls equals 1.69 fluid ounces, providing, indeed, a few sips.

While all six of these wines contain some portion of cabernet sauvignon grapes, the emphasis in most of them is on merlot and cabernet franc, so the ideal, the model, would be Pomerol or St.-Emilion, those Right Bank communes of Bordeaux where merlot and cabernet franc grown so well. All of these wines carry a Napa Valley designation, though they differ in marked degree from over-ripe, super-oaky, high alcohol cabernets turned out by too many produces. The Blackbird red wines display, instead, admirable restraint and balance.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Blackbird Arriviste Rosé 2009. 58 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon 12 percent cabernet franc. Color is light copper-salmon with peach undertones; peach and strawberry in the nose, a rosé of stones and bones, classically lean but slightly plump and creamy at the center, thirst-quenching acidity for backbone, lovely texture. 610 cases. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $24.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Blackbird Arise 2008. Merlot 42 percent, cabernet sauvignon 38 percent, cabernet franc 20 percent. Great character and presence; smooth, sapid, savory; black and red currants, black cherry, thyme, cedar, briers and brambles, dusty plums, lavender and violets: irresistible bouquet; dense and chewy, lively and vital, grainy, granite-laced tannins, fully integrated oak; a few minutes bring hints of mint and iodine; powerful and earthy but refreshing. The most accessible for Blackbird’s red wines. 1,570 cases. 14.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $50.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Blackbird Paramour 2007. Merlot 50 percent, cabernet franc 45 percent, cabernet sauvignon 5 percent. A burst of bitter chocolate, lavender, cloves, thyme and cedar, mocha, deeply spicy and macerated black currants, black raspberry and the richness of cassis; furry, velvety tannins, you could wear them; the rigor of walnut shell and dried porcini, smoke, ask, penetrating granite-like minerality. Great detail and dimension. 534 cases. Didn’t get the alcohol, sorry. Drink 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $90.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Blackbird Contrarian 2007. Cabernet franc 46 percent, merlot 34 percent, cabernet sauvignon 20 percent. Structure right up front; dried porcini, dusty graphite and granite, wheatmeal, cedar, thyme, tobacco; dried spices and flowers, some earthy funk but clean and vigorous; red and black currants; briers, brambles, moss; definitely the foundation and frame to age from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’24. 538 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $90.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Blackbird Illustration 2007. Merlot 70 percent, cabernet franc 20 percent, malbec 5 percent. Sleek, polished, elegant, honed; basalt and granite; dense, intense, concentrated; leather, smoke; ripe, spiced and macerated black currants and plums; great definition, as in slim, lithe, supple and muscled, the weight and substance subdued to a sense of generosity, refinement and mobility. This is, frankly, a wonderful wine, though it could use some age, say from 2014 or ’15 through 2021 to ’24. Production was 1,324 cases. Excellent. About $90.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Blackbird Illustration 2006. 86 percent merlot, 11 percent cabernet franc, 3 pecent cabernet sauvignon. Immediately seductive, with potpourri, lavender and licorice, cloves, dried red and black fruit with ripe black currants and cherries carrying an infusion of dusty granite and slate; this smolders in the glass; smooth and mellow, balanced and integrated, dense and chewy with some plush, show-offy tannins, yet so elegant, so sophisticated that it’s completely entrancing. Drink now through 2016 or ’18. Production was 1,195 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $90.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Fans of super-ripe, velvety, alcoholic cabernet- and merlot-based wines from California might have a difficult time understanding Chateau Bahans Haut-Brion 2001, a classically spare, lean, highly structured yet sensually appealing red wine that we drank with our usual Christmas Eve dinner of standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts in brown butter, followed by a selection of cheeses and Dow’s Trademark Reserve Porto. Yes, very English in the Old Sense.

Bahans Haut-Brion is the “second” wine of the celebrated Chateau Haut-Brion, the only red wine from Bordeaux’s Graves region admitted to the pantheon of the almost sacred 1855 Classification. Many chateaux in Bordeaux use the second wine concept to divert grapes that might not be of the highest quality into a wine that will be much less expensive (and less great) than the primary product but still reflect the character of the estate. Second wines have been around for a long time; Bahans Haut-Brion has been produced since 1907.

Chateau Haut-Brion is an old property, dating back to the mid 16th Century. English diarist Samuel Pepys was a fan, as was American President Thomas Jefferson. It has been owned since 1935 by the Dillon family, the only Bordeaux First Growth in American hands. The part of Graves where Chateau Haut-Brion stands, now encompassed by the busy suburbs of the city of Bordeaux, was designated Pessac-Leognan in 1987. The vineyards yield about 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 37 percent merlot and 18 percent cabernet franc. With the 2007 vintage, Bahans Haut-Brion was renamed Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, after the American banker who bought the estate. For some period, Bahans Haut-Brions was sold as a non-vintage wine, a marvelous example of which I tasted in the late 1980s.

I decanted our Christmas Eve bottle of Chateau Bahans Haut-Brion 2001 an hour before dinner, not because of the possibility of sediment — there was none — but because a taste I had tried several weeks earlier indicated some hardness that needed a little airing to soften. By the time we sat down to eat, the wine seemed close to drinkable, though it continued to evolve as several hours passed. At first sniff, the wine offers notes of wheatmeal and walnut shell, cedar and tobacco and a tinge of dried spice and dried red and black currants. Gradually, as moments passed and we sipped and partook of perfectly rosy-rare slices of beef, Bahans Haut-Brion 2001 unfurled hints of violets and lavender, mocha and bitter chocolate, the latter seemingly wrapped around ripe black currants, black raspberries and plums. Even as it opened and became more approachable and enjoyable, though, the wine retained a sense of lithe sinewy muscularity and animation, based on an architecture of dry, dusty tannins, polished oak and profound acidity. The wine did not let us forget that while it was, after all, made from grapes, that fruit found its origin in dirt, subsoil and underlying strata, nor did it neglect, finally, the beguiling, vinous appeal that compelled us to return to the glass. 13 percent alcohol. Typical production of Bahans is 7,500 cases; production of Chateau Haut-Brion itself is about 15,000 cases. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. Prices on the Internet range, ludicrously, from about $40 to $70. I was fortunate enough to purchase two bottles at the lower end of that spread.

Imported by Diageo Chateau & Estates, New York.

Last night LL made one of our favorite cool weather dishes, the roasted chicken with figs, garlic, thyme and bacon. Yes, it’s exactly as good as it sounds, and as we were chowing down, we kept stopping, each of us, and saying something like, “Holy shit, what a fabulous dish!” I wrote about this item previously, in October 2009; follow the link for a fuller description of the dish and how it’s made.

Anyway, to drink with this delight of savory and hearty flavor, I opened a bottle of the Niner Wine Estates Bootjack Ranch Merlot 2008, Paso Robles. which I’ll get to in the reviews further along.

The winery was founded in 2001 and is owned by Richard and Pam Niner. Richard Niner, a product of Princeton and Harvard Business School, spent 30 years investing and turning around small businesses before visiting San Luis Obispo County and deciding to get into the wine industry. He bought the Bootjack Ranch on the east side of Paso Robles in 1999; a later purchase was Heart Hill Vineyard, in the western reaches of Paso Robles, 12 miles from the ocean and often 10 degrees cooler than Bootjack. Chuck Ortman consulted for the first vintages produced by the winery; since 2004 winemaker has been Amanda Cramer.

These wines were samples for review.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

For a winery that concentrates on red wines, Niner turns out a splendid sauvignon blanc; in fact, along with the Merlot 2008 and Syrah ’06, the Niner Bootjack Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Paso Robles, was my favorite of this group of recently tasted wines from the producer. The color is very pale straw-gold. Aromas of roasted lemon, tangerine and grapefruit are imbued with notes of lemongrass, dried thyme and tarragon and a pungent element of gunflint and limestone; this is a bouquet I could sniff and contemplate for hours. The wine ages briefly in a combination of stainless steel barrels and once-used and neutral French oak, so the wood influence is subtle and supple, a soft blur and burr of dusty spice. In the mouth, the wine is taut with spanking acidity and clean limestone-backed minerality; pert flavors of lemon and grapefruit wrap around hints of meadow grass and leafy fig; the finish is long, lacy, spicy, chalky. A great sauvignon blanc for drinking through 2012. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 1,395 cases. Excellent. About $17, a Remarkable Value.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Niner Bootjack Ranch Merlot 2008, Paso Robles, is one of those rare merlots from California that asserts its individuality from under the mantle of cabernet sauvignon; that is to say, it smells and tastes like something other than cabernet. This polished beauty offers notes of blueberry, mulberry and cassis ensconced in graphite, cedar, lavender, thyme, pepper and black olive. The wine retains something untamed and plangent, high tones of wild berry and exotic spice, along with more typical black and red currant flavors bolstered by shale-like minerality and burnished oak from French and Hungarian barrels, one-third new. Tannins are finely-milled and plush, with just a trace of rigor and authentic austerity on the finish. This was terrific with our dish of roasted chicken, bacon, figs, garlic and thyme, with which we had roasted potatoes and sauteed chard. Now through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.7 percent. Production was 908 cases. Excellent. About $24.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Niner Bootjack Ranch Sangiovese 2007, Paso Robles, is a curious matter in that it’s a thoroughly enjoyable wine, but it doesn’t have much to do with the character of the sangiovese grape. Actually, it behaved more like a well-made, non-blockbuster zinfandel. The color is deep ruby-red; the bouquet offers red and black currants, black cherries and touches of smoke, coffee and tobacco. Dense, grainy tannins, polished oak and vibrant acidity provide structure that’s firm and lively in its support of luscious black currant and cherry flavors. Now through 2012 or ’14. Production was 851 cases. 14.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $24.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
I was, on the other hand, quite pleased with the Niner Bootjack Ranch Syrah 2006, Paso Robles, which I will call, as a matter of fact, one of the best renditions of the grape I have tasted from the Golden State. The color is deep ruby with a slight magenta/blue cast, an entrancing hue; the ripe, meaty, fleshy bouquet offers a rapt rendition of spiced and macerated red and black currants, blueberries and blackberries backed by black pepper, briers and brambles, smoke and moss, honed granite and slate, all seamlessly layered atop a foundation of clean loamy earth and a touch of wet dog funk. Yes, this is the real thing. At fours years old the wine is beautifully balanced and integrated, and while 16 months in small French and Hungarian barrels (one-third new) lend the wine a character of unassailable oak, added to dense, velvety tannins, broad and generously spiced black fruit flavors make this very drinkable, especially with such full-bodied fare as venison, pork chops and beef stew, now through 2005 or ’06. Production was 1,281 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $20, representing Great Value.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

My slight beef with the Niner Bootjack Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Paso Robles, is a strain of vanilla that my palate and sensibility register as a flaw, if not a downright aberration; if vanilla is what you want, order a dish of crème brûlée. ANYWAY, this cabernet, like its merlot cousin fairly individual in style, is big, dense, furry, chewy, intense and concentrated; sleek, polished and honed; black currant and black cherry flavors are touched with wild berry, lavender and violets, licorice, smoke and potpourri, rhubarb and sandalwood; a few minutes in the glass bring out classic tones of cedar and tobacco.. The exoticism does not get out of hand, however, held firmly in check by keen acidity, heaps of granite-like minerality and tongue-swathing tannins. I sipped this with a strong Irish cheddar-style cheese, and it was perfect thus. Drink now, with a steak, through 2016 or ’17. Production was 2,294 cases. 14.3 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $28.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ I’m sorry to say that my reaction to the Niner Fog Catcher 2005, Paso Robles, was not ecstatic, though the wine, a blend of 65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent cabernet franc and 10 percent merlot, is well-knit, impeccably balanced and integrated, smooth and mellow, enjoyable, with classic notes of smoky cedar, fruit cake and spice cake, brandied black cherries, honed shale and so forth. It’s just not very exciting; it doesn’t offer that edgy poise between power and elegance, dynamism and transparent austerity that great cabernet-blend wines should possess. Plenty of pleasing personality here but not enough character; a wine at this price should not be so easy. 550 cases. 14.1 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $58.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Location matters in retail, real estate and winemaking, and perhaps in wine-tasting too. My group visited Veramonte in the cool Casablanca Valley, northwest of Santiago, yesterday afternoon — and it was pretty damned cool, I’ll say; I was glad that I brought gloves and a scarf –and we rode out and up into the vineyards, stopping at mid-rim of a wide shallow valley to taste the Veramonte Reserva Merlot 2009; “Reserva” is the winery’s basic level of wines, widely available in the United States. Yesterday was not only cool but cloudy and intermittently foggy; the wine was served at what seemed like true “cellar” temperature, bringing out the merlot’s minerality and clean acidity. In fact, I was impressed by the wine, which felt lively, intense and pure. It ages about eight months in French and American oak barrels, 20 percent new. Though previous vintage have contained smidgeons of cabernet, the ’09 is 100 percent merlot. Classic notes of black olive, cedar, bell pepper and tomato skin are permeated by intense and concentrated scents and flavors of black currants and black raspberries, the whole package inundated by a pert and penetrating graphite element edged with smoke and bitter chocolate. Drink with burgers, hearty pizzas and pasta dishes, steak and roast pork. Expert winemaking here to produce an inexpensive wine that feels a bit above its station. Very Good+. About $10 to $12, a Great Bargain.

As faithful readers of this blog know — bless yer little pointy heads! — every feasible Saturday night it’s Pizza-and-Movie Night in the FK/LL household. This has been a steady occurrence for 15 years or so, and for most of that time I adhered to pretty much the same routine in making the pizza. Recently, though, I radically changed the way I make pizza, in terms of basic ingredients and technique.

The first inspiration was an article that ran in the food section of The New York Times on May 18 (and available online), called “The Slow Route to Homemade Pizza,” by Oliver Strand. Following the advice of a number of professional pizza-makers, the story advocates making the pizza dough and letting it rise at room temperature for 24 hours or at least overnight. Now I’ve always indulged in what I thought of as a slow rising of the dough at about eight hours, but overnight was new to me. I tried the technique soon after I read the article, making the dough on Friday night and leaving the bowl on the counter until the next morning. About 11 o’clock, I punched the dough down, kneaded it a few times, put it back in the bowl and set it out on the back porch. By the time I was ready to make the pizza at 6 p.m., the dough has been working for about 20 hours.

What happened next was remarkable. Usually, when you roll out the dough, you have to have do it a couple of times because the gluten is still elastic, so it has to rest for a couple of minutes and then be rolled again. With the new technique, I rolled the dough out and it immediately spread across the edges of the wooden paddle and onto the counter. Whoa! I actually had to trim the circumference because the pizza would have been too big for the stone. (Sorry I don’t have images of the process.) When we ate the finished pizza, the crust was thinner than I have ever achieved before, yet still chewy, not cracker-like, with a texture that had a little give and a rim that was slightly puffy. Fabulous, yes, but for me anyway, this technique is a little tricky, and over the past two months or so, I have had — it seems to me; LL is more generous –about a 25 percent failure rate, by which I mean that the crust was not up to a fine standard. I think I just have to keep trying to tune the method until I get it right.

The other change is that I began buying, at the Memphis Farmers Market, the hard white whole grain wheat flour from Funderfarm, a milling operation run by a young couple in Coldwater, Miss. The flour is not cheap — $8.50 for four pounds — but it’s ground the day before I purchase it, and it contributes wonderful texture and flavor to pizza. Now I can’t make a pizza with only the Funderfarm flour (the result is rather heavy), so I worked out a formula of about 40 percent Funderfarm hard white whole grain flour, about 50 percent King Arthur Bread Flour and about 10 percent rye flour from Whole Foods. All of these flours are organic.

We have also benefited from a bumper crop of local aubergines, including little globular eggplant; slim, tender baby eggplant; and pale lavender eggplant with faint white stripes. I slice these thin, marinate the slices in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, thyme and oregano, salt and pepper and then grill them briefly over hardwood charcoal. This is great on pizzas, especially in conjunction with pepper-cured bacon (as in the image above), and what’s interesting is that usually I can’t stand eggplant, it sort of
hurts my stomach. Ratatouille, yuck! I also like combining fresh tomatoes and marinated dried tomatoes on the same pizza, dribbling on a bit of the marinade as the final touch. (This image is of a small vegetarian pizza I made one Saturday when LL was traveling.) And recently I’ve been using four cheeses: mozzarella, feta, parmesan and pecorino.

Anyway, that’s what’s happening in My Pizzaworld. As far as wine is concerned, here are notes on the variety of wines we’ve had with pizza over the past few months. These were all samples for review.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

When Easton says “old vine,” they’re not kidding. The grapes for the Easton Old Vine Zinfandel 2006, Fiddletown, derive from the Rinaldi-Eschen Vineyard, some of whose vines date to the original planting of 1865, up there in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley. Can there be an older vineyard still producing grapes in California? This is a beautifully balanced and integrated zinfandel, with loads of poise and character. The color is rich dark ruby with an opaque center and just a nod to cherry-garnet at the rim. Scents of macerated and meaty plums and red and black currants are permeated with smoke and cloves with a touch of leather and briers. In the mouth, the wine is rich and warm, displaying an intriguing combination of the savoriness of ripe, fleshy black fruit flavors with a sweet core of spicy oak and a touch of the grape’s brambly, black pepper nature. It’s quite dry, though, gaining a bit of dignified austerity and mineral presence on the finish. Nothing jammy, nothing overdone, and surprisingly elegant for an “old vine” zinfandel. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Winemaker was Bill Easton, who also makes Rhone-style wines under the Terre Rouge label. Alcohol is 14.5. percent. Excellent. About $28 and definitely Worth a Search.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Grgich Hills Estate Merlot 2006, Napa Valley, asserts an individual character, unlike so many merlot-based wines that just taste “red” or like an imitation cabernet. From the winery’s Demeter-certified biodynamic vineyards, this intense and concentrated merlot delivers a bouquet of ripe black currants and black cherries etched with smoke and bitter chocolate and hints of lavender and Damson plum. A few minutes in the glass bring on a slightly roasted element, with flavors of black currants and blackberries permeated by cedar and dried thyme, all of these sensations cushioned by gritty, velvety tannins and fairly militant dusty, gravel-like minerality. The wine aged 18 months in a combination of French barriques and casks (that is, small and large barrels), some 30 percent of which were new. Such a regimen lends the wine shape, tone and seriousness without the frippery of toast or overt spiciness. Try from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 to ’18. Winemaker is Ivo Jeramaz, nephew of the winery’s co-founder and winemaker emeritus, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich. Alcohol is 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $42.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________

The winery was founded in Australia’s Barossa Valley as Karlsburg Wines in 1973 by Czech winemaker Karl Cimicky; his son Charles changed the winery’s name to Charles Cimicky Wines when he took the reins. The blend in the Cimicky Trumps Grenache Shiraz 2007 is 55 percent of the first, 45 percent of the second. The wine spends 15 months in two-year-old French oak barrels that lend subtle spice and suppleness. This is a big, dark, rich and, yes, jammy red wine that bursts with aromas of ripe black currants, blackberries and plums swathed with licorice and lavender and crushed gravel. Despite the intense black fruit nectar-like ripeness, the wine is completely dry, even austere toward the finish, but it also just rolls across the taste-buds like liquid velvet couched in furry, chewy tannins. A little swirling unfurls notes of clean earth, new leather and smoke. This was terrific with the night’s pizza, but Lord have mercy, would it ever be great with a medium-rare, pepper-crusted rib-eye steak. Alcohol content is 14 percent. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $15 to $18.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

La Mozza is jointed owned by Lidia Bastianich, her son Joe Bastianich and his partner is the restaurant business, Mario Batali. None of these celebrities — especially Batali — needs an introduction. (Mother and son also own a winery, launched in 1997, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, in the Colli Orientali Giulia D.O.C. region.) La Mozza was founded in 2000 and is located in Tuscany’s southwestern Maremma area. La Mozza Aragone 2006, Maremma Toscana I.G.T., could be called a combination of Italy and France; on the Italian side we have 40 percent sangiovese and 25 percent alicante grapes, and on the French side, specifically the southern Rhone Valley, we have 25 percent syrah and 10 percent carignane. The wine aged 22 months in 500-liter French casks; the standard French barrel is 225 liters, so theoretically, because of the greater mass of wine in proportion to wood, the oak influence with a cask is less, or at least more subtle. Not that the point matters tremendously for this dark, robust and vigorous red wine. Scents of red and black currants (and a touch of mulberry) are permeated by elements of graphite and potpourri, moss, briers and brambles and a bass note of mushroomy earthiness. Yes, there are intriguing, seductive layers in the bouquet, and if the wine is a bit more brooding in the mouth, that’s nothing that a little bottle aging won’t ease. The wine is well-balanced, but the emphasis is on dense but smooth, almost sleek tannins and rich, smoky black fruit flavors that need a year or two to develop. Try from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 to ’18. Alcohol content is a comfortable 13 percent. Excellent. A few months ago, the price range for this wine was about $38 to $42; today it’s about $28 to $35.

Dark Star Imports, New York.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Yangarra Estate Vineyard, located in Australia’s McLaren Vale appellation, is part of the Jackson Family Wines empire. While the Yangarra wines are promoted as “100% estate grown,” the federally required designation on the back label mysteriously does not say “Produced and Bottled by …” but “Vinted and Bottled by …”; the implication is that the Yangarra wines (at least the ones shipped to the U.S.) are not made at the estate. Whatever the case, the Yangarra Mourvèdre 2008, McLaren Vale, is a wonderful, I’ll say it again, a wonderful expression of the mourvèdre grape. While a traditional component of the blended red wines of the Rhone Valley, Provence and Languedoc in southern France, mourvèdre is seldom bottled on its own except for a few instances in California and Australia. At first, this is all black: Blackberry, black currant, black plum, black pepper, black olive. Then a touch of dried red current enters the picture, along with sweet cherry and sour cherry, red plum, new leather. Give the wine a few more minutes and it turns into a glassful of smoldering violets and lavender, with overtones of bitter chocolate, espresso and dried thyme. The mineral element expands into layers of dusty granite and graphite that permeate the bastions of polished, chewy tannins. The wine aged 18 months in French oak barrels, only 15 percent of which were new, so the wood influence is sustained yet mild and supple and slightly spicy. This could mature for a year or two, so drink from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 to ’18. Production was 500 six-bottle cases; winemaker was Peter Fraser. Alcohol content is the now standard 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $29.

Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Cal.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Just as the Yangarra Estate Mourvedre 2008 mentioned above represents a Platonic embodiment of the mourvedre grape, the Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2007, Russian River Valley, performs a similar service for syrah. Syrah was planted in Darien in 2000 and 2001, so the vines have reached a point of development that should lend rich character to the wine and continue on a plateau of quality for 50 or 60 years. There’s a whole truckload of crushed thyme, marjoram and Oolong tea in this wine, as well as baskets of blackberries and blueberries imbued with hints of prunes, plums, lanolin and leather and an all-over sense of ripe fleshiness. The color is inky with a faint violet/purple rim; the granite and shale-like mineral element feels/seems inky too. So add the caprice of lavender, licorice, bitter chocolate and potpourri crushed by mortar and pestle and scattered on a smoldering field of wild flowers and herbs. Yes, I’m saying that this is a syrah that reaches a level of delirious detail, depth and dimension, and the deeper it goes, the darker and denser it gets, until you reach the Circle of Austerity and the Chamber of Tannins and the Rotunda of Oak. (The wine aged 14 months in French barrels, 42 percent new.) Despite those fathoms, the wine is surprisingly smooth and drinkable, huge in scope yet polished and inviting. Production was 974 cases. Alcohol content is 14.9 percent. Drink from 2011 or ’12 through 2018 to ’20 (well-stored). Winemaker was Darice Spinelli. Exceptional. About $48.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________
Desiring something probably less complicated and certainly cheaper on a subsequent Pizza-and-Movie Night, I opened the Estancia Zinfandel 2007, Keyes Canyon Ranches, Paso Robles. Estancia was founded in 1986 on the old Paul Masson vineyards in Soledad, in Monterey County. The winery is now owned by Constellation. Keyes Canyon is in Paso Robles, down south in San Luis Obispo. The wine is touted on its label as “Handcrafted” and “Artisan-Grown,” whatever those nebulous terms mean. As is the case with many of the products from wineries purchased by Constellation, this wine says on the label “Vinted and Bottled … “; check your bottles of Mt. Veeder and Franciscan, also owned by Constellation. Actually what the complete line on this label says is “Vinted and Bottled by Estancia Estates, Sonoma Co.” So the question is: Where the hell was the wine made?

Anyway, I didn’t like it. I tried manfully for 15 or 20 minutes to coax something out of the glass that might resemble anything to do with the zinfandel grape, but all I got was a generic sense of smoky, toasty red wine that could have been cabernet or merlot. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Winemaker was Scott Kelley. Avoid. About $15.

Finally, LL said, “Oh, just open something else. Something better.” So I went looking and found the next wine.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Yes, as you know, I’m the kind of guy who will open a Jordan Cabernet to go with pizza, but, damnit, the movie was going and we were chowing down and I had to grab something. And of course I’m not implying that a wine that costs $52 is necessarily better than a wine that costs $15; the case is simply that every wine should perform up to or better than its price range, and the Estancia certainly didn’t do that.

Anyway, the Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, offers lovely balance, integration and harmony. The blend is 75 percent cabernet sauvigon, 19.5 percent merlot, 4.5 percent petit verdot and 1 percent malbec. Aging was 12 months in French (67%) and American (33%) oak barrels, of which 33 percent were new. The bouquet is first a tangle of briers and brambles, cedar, thyme and black olive with a background of iron and dusty walnut shell; a few minutes bring in the notes of black currants, black cherries and cassis. The wine is intense and concentrated, dense and chewy, with finely-milled tannins and polished oak enfolding flavors of spicy black currants and plums and a streak of vibrant acidity contributing a sense of purpose. A model of the marriage of power and elegance and a delight to drink. Try now through 2015 or ’16. The alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Winemaker was Rob Davis. Excellent. About $52.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

« Previous PageNext Page »