New Zealand

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.

The theme today, such as it is, is diversity. I chose eight wines that were either 100 percent varietal (or a little blended) from eight different regions as a way of demonstrating, well, I guess the amazing range of places where wine can be made. Eight examples barely scratch the surface of such a topic, of course, and a similar post could probably be written in at least eight variations and not use the same grapes as primary subjects. Another way would be to create a post called “1 grape, 8 Places,” to show the influence that geography has on one variety. That topic is for another post, though. All the whites were made in stainless steel and are perfect, each in its own manner, for light-hearted summer sipping. The reds, on the other hand, would be excellent will all sorts of grilled red meat, from barbecue ribs to steaks.
All samples for review or tasted at trade events.
Sauvignon blanc:
The Long Boat Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Marlborough, from Jackson Family Wines, is the archetypal New Zealand model that bursts with pert notes of gooseberry, celery seed, new-mown grass, thyme, tarragon and lime peel; it practically tickles your nose and performs cart-wheels on your tongue. It’s very dry, very crisp, a shot of limestone and chalk across a kiss of steel and steely acidity that endow with tremendous verve flavors of roasted lemon, leafy fig and grapefruit. That touch of grapefruit widens to a tide that sends a wave of bracing bitterness through the mineral-drenched finish. Truly scintillating, fresh and pure. 12.8 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Ca.
The Gunderloch “Jean-Baptiste” Riesling Kabinett 2009, Rheinhessen, Germany, is a fresh, clean and delicate wine that opens with hints of green apple and slate and slightly spiced and macerated peaches and pears; a few minutes in the glass bring out a light, sunny, almost ephemeral note of petrol and jasmine. Ripe peach and pear flavors are joined by a touch of lychee and ethereal elements of lime peel, grapefruit and limestone that persist through the finish; the texture is sleek, smooth and notably crisp and lively. Really charming. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18.
Rudi Wiest for Cellars International, San Marcos, Ca.
Chenin blanc:
Made from organically-grown grapes, the Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2009, Carmel Valley, California, is refined, elegant, almost gossamer in its exquisite melding of tart apple and ripe peach with spiced pear and a hint of roasted lemon; there’s a touch of chenin blanc’s signature dried hay-meadowy effect as well as a hint, just a wee hint, of riesling’s rose petal/lychee aspect. (This wine typically contains 10 to 15 percent riesling, but I can’t tell you how much for 2009 because I received not a scrap of printed material with this shipment, and the winery’s website is a vintage behind; hence the label for 2008. Hey, producers! It doesn’t take much effort to keep your websites up-to-date!) Anyway, the wine is crisp and lively with vibrant acidity and offers a beguilingly suave, supple texture. It’s a bit sweet initially, but acid and subtle limestone-like minerality bring it round to moderate dryness. Lovely. 13.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $25.
Roland Lavantureux makes two wines, a Chablis and a Petit Chablis. Both are matured 2/3 in stainless steel tanks and 1/3 in enamel vats; the Petit Chablis for eight months, the Chablis for 10. The domaine was founded in 1978 and is family-owned and operated. The Roland Lavantureux Petit Chablis 2009 makes you wonder how the French wine laws differentiate between “little” Chablis and “regular” Chablis. This rated a “wow” as my first note. It feels like a lightning stroke of shimmering acidity, limestone and gun-flint tempered by spiced and roasted lemon and hints of quince, mushrooms and dried thyme. This wine serves as a rebuke to producers who believe that to be legitimate a chardonnay must go through oak aging; it renders oak superfluous. (Yes, I know, oak can do fine things to chardonnay used thoughtfully and judiciously.) The Roland Lavantureux Petit Chablis 09 radiates purity and intensity while being deeply savory and spicy; it’s a natural with fresh oysters or with, say, trout sauteed in brown butter and capers. A very comfortable 12.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $19 to $23.
Kermit Lynch Imports, Berkeley, Ca.
Pinot noir:
Bodega Chacra, which makes only pinot noir wines, was established in Argentina’s Patagonia region — the Rio Negro Valley in northern Patagonia — in 2004 by Piero Incisa della Rochetta, the grandson of Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, the creator and proprietor of Sassicaia, one of the most renowned Italian wineries, and nephew of Niccolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta, who currently manages the family’s winemaking enterprises. Bodega Chacra produces three limited edition pinot noirs, one from a vineyard planted in 1932, one from a vineyard planted in 1955, and the third made from a combination of these old vineyards and grapes from two 20-year-old vineyards. The vineyards are farmed on biodynamic principles; the wines are bottled unfiltered. The Barda Pinot Noir 2010, Patagonia, is an example of the third category of these wines. It spends 11 months in French oak barrels, 25 percent new. Barda Pinot Noir 2010 is vibrant, sleek, stylish and lovely; the bouquet is bright, spicy and savory, bursting with notes of black cherry, cranberry and cola highlighted by hints of rhubarb, sassafras and leather. It’s dense and chewy, lithe and supple; you could roll this stuff around on your tongue forever, but, yeah, it is written that ya have to swallow some time. Flavors of black cherry and plum pudding are bolstered by subtle elements of dusty graphite and slightly foresty tannins, though the overall impression — I mean, the wine is starting to sound like syrah — is of impeccable pinot noir pedigree and character. 12.8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $30.
Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y.
If you grow weary, a-weary of zinfandel wines that taste like boysenberry shooters, then the Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, California, is your cup of, as it were, tea. No bells and whistles here, just the purity and intensity of the zinfandel grape not messed about with. Grgich Hills is farmed entirely organically and by biodynamic principles, and winemaker Ivo Jeramaz uses oak judiciously, in this case 15 months in large French oak casks, so there’s no toasty, vanilla-ish taint of insidious new oak. The color is medium ruby with a hint of violet-blue at the rim; the nose, as they say, well, the nose offers a tightly wreathed amalgam of deeply spicy, mineral-inflected black and red currants and plums with a swathing of dusty sage and lavender, wound with some grip initially, but a few minutes in the glass provide expanse and generosity. Amid polished, burnished tannins of utter smoothness and suppleness, the black and red fruit flavors gain depths of spice and slate-like minerals; the whole effect is of an indelible marriage of power and elegance and a gratifying exercise in ego-less winemaking. 14.7 percent alcohol. We drank this with pizza, but it would be great with any sort of grilled or braised red meat or robustly flavored game birds. Excellent. About $35.
Cabernet sauvignon:
You just have to rejoice when you encounter a cabernet, like the Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Mendoza, Argentina, that radiates great character and personality — yes, those are different qualities — and maintains a rigorous allegiance to the grape while expressing a sense of individuality and regionality. The vineyards average 3,510-feet elevation; that’s way up there. Five percent malbec is blended in the wine; it aged 15 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels, and while that may seem like a high proportion of new oak, that element feels fully integrated and indeed a bit subservient to the wine’s strict high-altitude tannins and granite-like minerality. Aromas of black currants and black plums are ripe and fleshy, a bit roasted and smoky, yet iron-like, intense and concentrated; a few moments in the glass bring up classic touches of briers and brambles, cedar and wheatmeal, thyme and black olive, a hint of mocha. This is a savory cabernet, rich, dry, consummately compelling yet a little distant and detached, keeping its own counsel for another year or two, though we enjoyed it immensely with a medium rare rib-eye steak. What’s most beguiling are the broadly attractive black and blue fruit flavors permeated by moss and loam and other foresty elements married to muscular yet supple heft, dimensional and weight. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $25.
Imported by Vine Connections, Sausalito, Ca.
Here’s a terrific, slightly modern version of Rioja, by which I mean that it’s not excessively dry, woody and austere, as if made by ancient monks putting grapes through the Inquisition. Bodegas Roda was founded by Mario Rotillant and Carmen Dautella in 1991, in this traditional region that abuts Navarra in northeastern Spain. The deep and savory Roda Reserva 2006, Rioja, Spain, blends 14 percent graciano grapes and five percent garnacha (grenache) with 81 percent tempranillo; the wine is aged 16 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, and spends another 20 months in the bottle before release. The color is rich, dark ruby, opaque at the center; aromas of black currant and black raspberry are infused with cloves and fruit cake, sage and thyme, bacon fat, leather and sandalwood, with something clean, earthy and mineral-drenched at the core. That sense of earth and graphite-like minerality persists throughout one’s experience with the wine, lending resonant firmness to the texture, which also benefits from finely-milled, slightly dusty tannins and vibrant acidity, all impeccably meshed with smoky, spicy flavors of black and red fruit and plum pudding. 14 percent alcohol. An impressive, even dignified yet delicious wine for drinking now, with grilled meat and roasts, or for hanging onto through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $45.
Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y.

There really is a Mount Beautiful in New Zealand’s Canterbury region, on the South Island, and one can hardly blame David and Leigh Teece for borrowing the name for their label, produced at Teece Family Vineyards in the Cheviot Hills, from this geographical feature. Canterbury lies to the south of New Zealand’s best-known wine area, Marlborough, which produces about 70 percent of the nation’s wine. The Treeces’ bios read like triumphant stories to inspire and abash all the tribe of ill-paid ink-stained wretches: He, a native New Zealander, is Tusher Professor of Global Business at University of California, Berkeley, and a founder and vice chairman of Law & Economics Consulting Corp., while in New Zealand he is known as the co-owner of the CCC rugby brand and so on; she, from California, has degrees in international relations and business from USC and University of Michigan and worked in international banking and venture capital. I admire the decision of these wildly successful people to locate a winery not in a bustling region but in one of New Zealand’s youngest and least-known areas. That said, I found only one of the Mt. Beautiful wines that I tried truly compelling, while the other two were attractive and enjoyable but not essential. The winemaker is Sam Weaver.

Mistarr Wine Importers, Orinda, Cal. Samples for review.
Refreshing as all get-out, the Mt. Beautiful Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Cheviot Hills, North Canterbury, was delightful with tequila-lime salmon burgers from Whole Foods. More restrained than most sauvignon blancs from New Zealand, or at least from Marlborough, this all stainless steel wine delivers subtle traces of lime and grapefruit, dusty shale, pea shoot, tarragon and guava before segueing to flavors that feel even more spare with tones of pineapple and roasted lemon wrapped in tingling acidity and a moderately silky texture. The finish pumps up the spicy and stony aspect a bit and brings in a flash of lime and grapefruit crispness. 14 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2011. Very Good+. About $18.
The best of this trio is the all stainless steel Mt. Beautiful Riesling 2009, Cheviot Hills, North Canterbury, which displays pinpoint varietal qualities and exactitude of character — one might even call it rectitude –in nose and mouth. The color is very pale straw/gold with faint green highlights; aromas of softly spiced and macerated peach and pear, lychee and mango are accented by touches of petrol (or rubber eraser) and limestone, that admit, after a few moments, a spare hint of honeysuckle. The spareness is built-in to the spicy lime and peach flavors all a-tremble at the portals of neon-bright acidity and bastions of limestone and shale, which do not, however, come across as formidable but deftly, riskily, ultimately perfectly balanced and integrated. I served this wine at a dinner party with an entree of salmon roasted with leeks, bacon and shiitake mushrooms; talk about perfection! Drink through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $19, Good Value for the Price.
The Mt. Beautiful Pinot Noir 2009, Cheviot Hills, North Canterbury, offers an attractive bouquet of black cherry and cranberry, cloves and cola and rhubarb with a touch of brown sugar. The wine aged 11 months in French oak barrels. The appealing texture is supple and satiny and enfolds black cherry and red currant flavors that grow spicier and earthier as the minutes pass. Hints of potpourri emerge, along with foresty elements of briers and brambles; some fine-grained tannins lend the necessary substance. 14 percent alcohol. Tasty, correct, drinkable. Very Good+. About $23.

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.

What, oh what to drink with fried soft-shell crab sandwiches?

The preparation couldn’t be simpler. Clean the little creatures, dip them first in milk and then in bread crumbs (with salt and pepper and maybe a squeeze of chili powder) and fry them in olive oil. We like these sandwiches with ciabatta rolls because they have a nice chewy texture and stand up well to any grease or drippiness. (And what’s a soft-shell crab sandwich sans a bit of grease and drippiness?) A dollop of remoulade sauce, layers of lettuce and tomato, and voila! mighty fine eatin’ as they say in Gay Paree.

I cast about looking at this wine and that wine, taking a sip here and a sip there, and finally settled on the Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2009, from New Zealand’s well-known Marlborough region. This is a delicious and eloquent expression of the sauvignon blanc grape, but I’m as fascinated by its making as by its lovely qualities, so if it doesn’t totally geek you out, allow me to mention a few factors. The grapes ferment in a combination of French oak barriques and stainless steel tanks, 12 percent of the former, 88 percent (of course) of the latter. The oak barrels themselves are a combination of new barrels — a bare 4 percent — and “seasoned” barrels, that is, previously used, so they have largely lost their toasty character. After fermentation, the wine ages in these carefully chosen vessels for four months, on the lees of spent yeast cells.

So, what do we have?

A sauvignon blanc from New Zealand that avoids the excesses and exaggerations that we have come to recognize instantly in so many sauvignon blanc wines from that nation of narrow islands. The Craggy Range Te Muna Road Sauvignon Blanc 2009 displays fine balance between stone fruit and citrus fruit, meaning the lushness of peach and nectarine, on the one hand, poised with the zesty, lean and slightly bitter nature of lime peel and grapefruit on the other; a touch of apple blossom in the nose serves as a bridge to a hint of green apple in the mouth. Lively acidity, like a clear bell-tone, lends the wine sinew and nerve, while a prominent mineral element — soft as talc and sharp as limestone — builds the structure from mid-palate back through a clean, spicy finish. Now through 2012, whether with soft-shell crab sandwiches, sushi, grilled shrimp or fried trout in a classic brown butter and caper sauce. Excellent. About $22.

Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y. A sample for review.

As I mentioned recently, LL works on Tuesday nights during the Spring semester, and I try to have dinner ready for her when she arrives at our door about 9 p.m. Last Tuesday, I chopped or sliced a beet, a parsnip, a red onion, a sweet potato, a carrot and a hunk of knobbly celery root, doused them with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted them at 425 degrees for about 45 minutes. I got the idea from the March Food & Wine magazine; the intention in the recipe is to make a salad. Instead, I cooked some wholewheat fuselli, tossed it with the roasted vegetables, shaved feta cheese and a dollop of a thyme-mustard vinaigrette I had on hand, and, Voila! a really delicious and healthy pasta dish. I didn’t take a picture because I thought the thing was going to be unphotogenic, but actually the roasted vegetables looked like little glowing jewels nestled amongst the corkscrew-shaped pasta.

I opened a bottle of the Craggy Range Fletcher Family Vineyard Riesling 2009, from New Zealand’s Marlborough region, and was glad that I did. Made completely in stainless steel, this riesling is dry, crisp and juicy, a bundle of lime, roasted lemon and spiced peach twined with the requisite pungency of petrol/rubber eraser. A reticent touch of pear and lanolin (and a hint of jasmine) lend sleekness and suavity, while a seductive texture neatly balances keen acidity with moderate lushness. An intense tide of limestone rises from the finish, moving forward as the moments pass and preparing the palate for a final squinge of bracing bitterness, like the tang of grapefruit skin. A very attractive and tasty riesling, yet with a strain of seriousness. Excellent. About $22.

The wine served as a refreshing complement to the sweetness and earthiness of the roasted root vegetable pasta.

The next night, following the trail of The New York Times food section from that morning, LL prepared fillets of cod — the recipe called for halibut, but the stores I tried had none — topped with rosemary, black olives and thin slices of lemon and roasted in the oven. For all its simplicity, this was a terrific dish, deeply tinged with the Mediterranean spirit of freshness and savory, herbal qualities. Those thin slices of lemon were browned and crisped by the oven and brought a touch of citric nerviness to the dish, all of whose elements worked together in fine style. We’ll cook this one often.

The Craggy Range Fletcher Family Riesling ’09, closed with a screw-cap, was still in the refrigerator, so I brought it out and tried it with the cod. This was an even better match than with the roasted root vegetable pasta. Something about the combination of the dusty herbal quality of the rosemary married with the lemon and the earthiness of the black olives brought out both the juiciness and the mineral structure of the wine. It also acted as a foil to the slight bitterness of the sauteed broccoli rabe on the plate.

Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y. A review sample.

Mystery Sauvignon Blancs
I can go along with a stunt with the best of them, so when the offer came from Terlato Wines International to sample three sauvignon blancs wrapped in black paper so I would, if I wanted to, taste them blind, my response was, “Oh, sure, what the hell.” Lined up on the kitchen counter, they looked sort of cool and elegant in their black habits, like monks with marathon numbers.

LL works late on Tuesdays, and I usually cook dinner — late enough to be called supper since we sometimes don’t sit down until after nine — and last night I decided to make a sort of spring-like dish of eggs on toast with mushrooms and onions cooked in Fried Eggs on Toast with Sherried Mushrooms sherry. You scatter chopped flat-leaf parsley on top .This is from the April 2009 issue of Food & Wine magazine. You can see in the image of the dish that I added some basil oil for color and piquancy. On the side, I served a simple mixed green salad. Oh, for mushrooms, I used crimini, porcini and a few precious, pungent morels.

I tasted the wines in the kitchen, while I was cooking the mushrooms, put the bottles back in the fridge, and then got them out and LL and I tried them during dinner.

A hitch occurred when I unwrapped Wine #1, and there was the cork, with the winery name printed on it; so much for subterfuge! The other bottles were closed with screw-caps, so I truly did not know what they were. To keep to the program, I won’t mention what the first wine was yet.

So, Wine #1 offered a fresh clean, vibrant bouquet with green apple, citrus, baking spice, thyme and tarragon. Touches of grass and hay came into play, along with, in the mouth, citrus and green plum flavors. This had attractive heft, a sense of textural authority that comes from oak, though obviously held to a minimum.

Wine #2 gleefully cried “New Zealand!” with its audacious lime, gooseberry, fennel and grapefruit aromas and snappy acidity.

Wine #3, however, immediately won my heart through its winsome pear, honeydew and jasmine bouquet, its hints of almond blossom and orange zest, its engaging liveliness and immediacy.

While we ate supper and tried the wines again, going back to each several times, details and dimensions were filled in. Wine #1 fleshed out with notes of leafy fig, a rich hint of currant and a layer of slightly dusty yet clean earthiness. Wine #2, unfailingly exuberant, added touches of green pea and fresh-mown grass, while Wine #3 continued to impress with its lovely balance and integration, with piercing purity and intensity. It was clearly my (and our) favorite.

All were quite delicious, in their different manners, with the eggs and sherried mushrooms on toast.

The wines? Ta-dah! hanna.gif

#1. Markham Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Napa Valley. With 10 percent semillon grapes, this is fermented in stainless steel and then given 3.5 months in wood tanks, not small barrels. Excellent. About $17.

#2. Wairau River Family Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Marlborough, New Zealand. Made completely in stainless steel. Very Good+. About $19.

#3. Hanna Winery & Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Russian River Valley. Also made completely in stainless steel. Excellent. About $19. If I hadn’t already posted a Wine of the Week, this would be it.

I had lunch this week — o.k., 25 other people were there — with Daniel Schuster, an owner and winemaker of the winery in New Zealand that bears his name, and he had so much to say about wine and winemaking that made so much sense that I could hardly keep up with jotting down his words of wisdom. Let me lay out three sentences, however, that seem to me to be essential and timeless in their relationship to this beverage that we love.

1. “Wine is always part of something bigger than yourself.”
2. “Wine should be shaped by the environment where it grows.” danny_01.jpg
3. “Great wine has structure, a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Founded in 1986, in the Waipara district of North Canterbury, Daniel Schuster Wines is owned by the Schuster and Hull families. The vineyards are farmed organically, and all processes in the winery are kept as simple as possible. Moving and racking of wines is by gravity; as Daniel Schuster said, “Gravity has been here for a long time, and it’s free.” The down-to-earth nature of that statement, with its hints of practicality and wit, summarizes Schuster’s character. With his bristling mustache and casual clothes, his gruff, hearty and friendly manner, he looks and acts like a farmer, not like one of the world’s great winemakers and consultants.

How is wine a part of something bigger than ourselves? A glass of great wine exists at the apex of a pyramid of historical, geographical, culinary and psychological factors. It encompasses the history of the people who made it and the land they inhabit and where the vineyards exist; it involves the food with which it is consumed, whether a grand four-course meal or a heel of bread, a hunk of cheese and a handful of olives, and the myriad sensual and emotional aspects which it appeals to and appeases.

Those factors have something to do with Schuster’s second aphorism, that wine should be shaped by its environment. This statement is a simple way of expressing the notion of what the French call terroir — the congeries of specific geographical and climatic influences that affect a particular vineyard — but the word “shaped” possesses a lovely implication of gentle malleability. Being shaped by the environment also implies that the winemaking process should be as gentle and non-manipulative as possible, more nurturing than demanding. To that end, Schuster eschews the use of small oak barrels and instead employs large casks, hence avoiding the undue influence of wood.

It would seem logical that great wines possess structure — beginning, middle and end — yet too many wines, especially made in California, feel the same in the mouth from start to finish, bursting forth and then collapsing wearily in a welter of toasty new oak and super-ripe fruit. Winemakers seem to have forgotten the importance of precisely balanced acid, the constitutional element that lends wine life and backbone; too much acid and the wine is thin and nervous, too little and it turns soft and flabby.

Here are my notes on the Daniel Schuster wines we tried with lunch at Erling Jensen: The Restaurant in Memphis. Executive chef is the Danish Erling Jensen; his chef de cuisine is Justin Young.

*Daniel Schuster Sauvignon Blanc 2006, Marlborough. This scintillating wine was served as aperitif. It’s terrifically bright, clean and vivid, bursting with lime, grapefruit and limestone jazzed by electrifying acidity that touches to life hints of tarragon and dried thyme, fig and sunny currant. The limestone element expands in the glass, turning the whole package almost crystalline with purity and intensity. Excellent. About $20.
*Daniel Schuster Petrie Vineyard Chardonnay 2002, Waipara. “Huge, oily, buttery chardonnays are barbaric,” said Schuster, and by contrast offered this amazingly clean, vibrant and buoyant rendition of the often-abused grape. This version seethes with classic chardonnay intensity and flavor yet it’s individual too, its grapefruit-pineapple flavors given a sheen of peach and mango, though there’s nothing cloying or overwhelming here. The acid cuts a swath on the palate, lending the wine refreshing liveliness through a lovely, silken texture. The finish is lovely, pure limestone. Excellent. About $28. The dish: House-smoked salmon belly salad with Bibb greens.

*Daniel Schuster Riesling 2006, Waipara. Very clean, pure and intense, with incisive acidity arrowing through beguiling flavors of peach, pear and white pepper permeated by dried spices and limestone. The texture is seductive, crisp, yes, but almost talc-like in softness, and overall, the balance is exquisite. Excellent. About $18, Good Value. The dish: Roasted monkfish on curried parsnip puree.

*Daniel Schuster Pinot Noir 2005, Waipara. As much as I liked all of these wines and the food they accompanied, this pinot and this course were the highlights of the event; the wine points the way to the future of pinot noir in New Zealand, where much has been proclaimed about the grape without the performances yet to back up those assertions. This, however, is superb, an entrancing satiny, smoky and vibrant amalgam of clean earth and minerals, moss and new leather, black cherry, currant and plum flavors, roses and violets, all shaped by subtle and supple wood notes and a bright line of acidity that would make a Burgundian proud. Exceptional. About $28 and Cheap at the Price. The dish, which sticks in my memory: the succulent and deeply flavorful roasted pheasant breast with truffle-risotto croquettes.

*Daniel Schuster Hull Family Vineyard Late Harvest Riesling 2006, Waipara. This is a romantic version of most late-harvest dessert wines, lovely and delicate but with plenty of acid structure, tender pear, peach and apricot flavors — spiced and macerated — and a super-clean, dry finish to round off the hint of sweetness on the entry. Excellent and Very Charming. About $34 for a half-bottle. Dessert was an individual apple-rosemary Charlotte with caramel sauce.


For information about Erling Jensen: The Restaurant, visit

« Previous Page