Older wines


I started this post as a way of commemorating my 30th anniversary in wine-writing, reached, as My Regular Readers know — bless your little pointy heads and may your tribes increase — early in July. Initially, the concept was “Fifty Great Wines,” but I decided that choosing 50 “great” wines from 30 years of tasting would be an impossible and probably just stupid and futile task. In three decades, I tasted thousands and thousands and more thousands of wines — you writers know how it is — so choosing the 50 “greatest” from this immense group would be a Sisyphian exercise.

Then I realized that what would be more significant anyway would be 50 wines that, as the title states, shaped my palate, the wines that shook me to the core, that shifted my perspective about how wine is made and its various effects, that achieved a level of purity and intensity that befit the divine; the wines, in short, that were not only definitive but created me as a writer. Yes, just that. So I spent the past few weeks combing through dozens of old notebooks, through the electronic archives of the newspaper for which I wrote a weekly column for 20 years and of course through the pages of this blog.

Now let’s be frank about some issues. As a wine reviewer, I am dependent on the practice of samples provided by producers, importers, marketers and (to a lesser extent) local distributors; I depend on the occasional trade tasting, lunch with a touring winemaker, on sponsored travel to wine regions in this country and abroad. You will not, therefore, see a list that emphasizes the great wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy, though some are included, more Burgundy than Bordeaux, because I have few opportunities to encounter such wines. Perhaps, however, you will discover here wines that you had forgotten or overlooked; certainly there will be surprises. To those of my wine-writing/blogging/tasting friends who might say, “Cripes, FK, I can’t believe you didn’t put [whatever legendary fabuloso wine] on this list!” I can only reply, “I never had the chance to taste that wine and if you want to send me a bottle, I’ll be grateful but not humbled.” This is about my experience as an individual, as, you might say, a palate.

I benefited early on from the generosity of two people in Memphis, the restaurateur-wine collector John Grisanti and a figure important in wholesale, retail and wine education, Shields Hood. Many of the wines they offered me, exposed me to and sent in my direction truly changed my life and made me what I am today.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
1. Simi Pinot Noir 1974, Alexander Valley. Purchased at a local store, tasted at home March 1984 and still, at least in memory, one of the greatest California pinots I ever encountered.

2. Mercurey Clos des Myglands 1971, Faiveley. Tasted at John Grisanti’s private cellar, September 16, 1984. As in “Ah, so that’s what Burgundy is all about.”

3. Moët & Chandon Cuvée Dom Perignon 1976, Champagne. At a wholesaler’s tasting, with Shields Hood, September 17, 1984.

4. Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Johannesburg Riesling 1978, Belle Terre Vineyards, Alexander Valley. Last week of September, 1984.

5. Chateau La Grange 1926, St Julien Third Growth, Bordeaux. At a special wine dinner at the long-departed American Harvest Restaurant in Germantown, east of Memphis, October 1984. As in, “Ah, so this is what an aged Bordeaux wine is all about.” I love the label.

6. Simi Reserve Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Alexander Valley. My then father-in-law bought a case of this wine at $16 a bottle. High-living in those days. At 10 years old, it was perfect, expressive, eloquent. This was at Christmas dinner, 1984.

7. Clos Vougeot Grand Cru 1971, Grivelet. At John Grisanti’s cellar, June 9, 1985, a great afternoon.

8. Sonoma Vineyards Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 1976, Sonoma County. July 27 and 28, 1985. Fine balance, harmony and integration, a sense of confidence and authority expressed with elegance and restraint. This winery was not renamed for its founder Rodney Strong until after he sold it in 1984.

9. Chateau Latour 1982, Pauillac, Bordeaux. Definitive for the vintage and the chateau; tasted at a trade event in Memphis sometime in 1985; tasted again in New York, October 1991.

10. Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Napa Valley. Purchased at Sherry-Lehmann in NYC, for $20.50(!); consumed with Easter dinner in Memphis, April 1986.

11. Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1977, Alexander Valley. At a tasting in Memphis of Silver Oak cabernets, sometime in 1986.

12. Chateau Haut-Brion 1937, Graves, Bordeaux. At a tasting with collectors in Memphis in 1987; this 50-year-old wine was, incredibly and from a dismal decade in Bordeaux, even better than the fabulous ’59 and ’66.

13. Paul Jaboulet Aîné La Chapelle 1949, Hermitage, Rhone Valley, France. One of a mixed case of wonderful wines I received for annotating a cellar, drunk at a dinner in the Fall of 1988. At 39 years old, one of the best wines I have ever tasted.

14. Beaune Clos des Ursules 1952, Louis Jadot. At lunch with Gagey pere et fils at the maison in Beaune, March 1990. When I mentioned this to a friend back in the U.S., he said, “Oh, yeah, they pull out that wine for all the Americans.” No matter.

15. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru 1983. Tasted in New York, October 1991.

16. Gaja Barbaresco 1955, Piedmont, Italy. Made by Angelo Gaja’s father, tasted in New York, October 1991.

17. Chateau Beychevelle 1928, St. Julien Fourth Growth, Bordeaux. At a large tasting of multiple vintages of Chateau Branaire-Ducru and Chateau Beychevelle going back to 1893, with collector Marvin Overton and British writer Clive Coates, in Nashville. This ’28 was even better than the examples from the god-like years of ’47, ’45 and ’29; just writing that sentence made me feel like Michael Broadbent.

18. Freemark Abbey 1978, Napa Valley. At a vertical tasting in Chicago, January 1993.

19. Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Napa Valley. I bought six half-bottles of this splendid perfectly aged cabernet from a FedEx pilot who was divesting his cellar and served them at a dinner party in 1996.

20. Chalone Chardonnay 1981, Monterey. A revelation at almost 15 years old; I bought this and some other California chardonnays from the late ’70s and early ’80s out of a cellar that had been kept at 40 to 45 degrees; tasted with LL and a friend at Cafe Society in Memphis, May 1996.

21. Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 1998, Clare Valley, Australia. Tasted at the property, October 1998, very young, filled with power and otherworldly grace.

22. Bass Phillip Reserve Pinot Noir 1997, Gippsland, Australia. Tasted in Melbourne, October 1998; they’re not shy with oak at Bass Phillip, but this was a thrilling monument to pinot noir purity and intensity.

23. Clos Apalta 1996, Rapel Valley, Chile, 95 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon. The initial release, tasted at the hacienda of Don Pepe Rabat, who owned the oldest merlot vineyard in Chile, with Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle and Michel Rolland, April 1998.

24. Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses Premier Cru 1998, Domaine G. Roumier. From the barrel at the property, December 7, 1999, my birthday. The earth seemed to open under my feet.

25. Chateau Petrus 1998, Pomerol, Bordeaux. Barrel sample at the property, December 1999. One of the most profound wines I have ever experienced.

26. Robert Mondavi To Kalon 1 Block Fume Blanc 2000, Napa Valley. June 2002, a sample for review.

27. Robert Mondavi Marjorie’s Sunrise Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Oakville District, Napa Valley. June 2002, a sample for review.

28. Sineann Reed and Reynolds Vineyard Pinot Noir 2000, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Tasted at the International Pinot Noir Conference, McMinnville, August 2002.

29. Nicolas Joly Clos de la Bergerie 1999, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, Loire Valley, France. New York, at La Caravelle, January 2003, with the line-up of Joly’s wines.

30. Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1966, South Australia. At a comprehensive tasting of this iconic wine, 1996 back to 1955, at Spago in L.A., April 2003.

31. Chateau d’Epiré 1964, Savennières Moelleux, Loire Valley, France. At a dinner associated with the Loire Valley Wine Fair, February 2004.

32. Domaine de la Pepière Clos des Briords 1986, Muscadet Sevre et Maine, Loire Valley, France. At the estate with proprietor Marc Ollivier, one of the great tasting experiences of my life, February 2004.

33. Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2001. Tasted in New York, June 2004.

34. Tres Sabores Zinfandel 2003, Rutherford, Napa Valley. Tasted in New York, March 2006.

35. Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996, Champagne, France. Tasted in New York, September 2006; fabulous but not nearly ready to drink.

36. Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets Premier Cru 2004, Domaine Jean-Noël Gagnard. New York, September 2006, trade tasting.

37. Corton Grand Cru 2002, Domaine Comte Senard. New York, September 2006, trade tasting.

38. Chateau Montelena The Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Napa Valley. New York, September 2007.

39. Porter-Bass Chardonnay 2004, Russian River Valley. New York, September 2007.

40. Pommard Les Epenots Premier Cru 2004, Dominique Laurent. New York, September 2007.

41. Phifer Pavit Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley. Sample for review, tasted at home October 2008. The best first-release cabernet I ever encountered.

42. Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, Napa valley. Sample for review, tasted at home December 2008.

43. Heyl zu Herrnsheim Niersteiner Pettenheim Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken 1991, Rheingau, Germany. At the estate, July, 2009.

44. Quinta da Roameira Vintage Porto 2007. In Douro Valley, August 2009, at a comprehensive tasting of the 2007 ports at Niepoort.

45. Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Tasted in Piedmont, January, 2010, with winemaker Giorgio Lavagna and a ragtag gaggle of American bloggers.

46 & 47. Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Malbec 2007, Mendoza, & Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Mendoza. Tasted at the property — the chardonnay with lunch — October 2010.

48. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998. Purchased locally and consumed on New Year’s Eve 2010, with Imperial Osetra caviar from Petrossian.

49. Pfeffingen Ungsteiner Herrenerg Riesling Beerenauslese 2004, Pfalz, Germany. A sample for review, tasted December 2011.

50. Müllen Kinheimen Rosenberg Riesling Kabinett 2002, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany. Tasted with Lyle Fass in New York, December 2013.

Well, I already see a couple of wines that I should have included in this roster — Chateau d’Yquem 1975, Sauternes, for example — but 50 is a good wholesome round number with an air of closure about it, so let’s leave it alone. And for the future? The process of learning, having our minds changed, our ideas and consciousness expanded never ends. Perhaps there will be candidates for this list from 2014, among them the Clos Saron Stone Soup Vineyard Syrah 2011, Sierra Foothills, made by Gideon Beinstock, and, oddly enough, the Inwood Estates Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Dallas County, Texas, made by Dan Gatlin. We’ll see how I feel in another 30 years.

I was privileged to be the only writer at an all-day tasting of the wines of Renaissance Vineyard and Winery last month, along with Darrell Corti, the esteemed retailer in Sacramento whose knowledge of the state’s wine industry and memory for wines and vintages is phenomenal; winemakers and owners of other properties in Sierra Foothills; and personnel from RVW. The occasion was a comprehensive look at the library wines in the cellar. When Oklahoma oilman Greg Holman became president of RVW in 2011 (he was already president of its parent entity, the Fellowship of Friends), he found back rooms in the winery that held bottles going back to the 1980s, ranging in size from half-bottles to double and triple magnums, not only of the cabernet sauvignon-based wines for which Renaissance is known but Rhone-style wines and dessert wines made from riesling, semillon and sauvignon blanc. The day of the tasting, Holman walked me through these storage areas; it was astonishing to see boxes and boxes of well-aged wines still on hand, but as Holman said, it was never RVW’s business plan to make a profit, if such a practice can be called a plan.

The question for the winery is what to do with this trove. The purpose of the tasting was to determine the quality of the wines and to have a discussion about their fate. (More about that later.)

Renaissance became noted, under the tutelage of Gideon Beinstock, winemaker there since 1994, for its hands-off approach that produced wines of admirable spareness and elegance, low alcohol, an almost fanatic resistance to new oak and an unheard of delay in releasing wines, as in sometimes 10 or 12 years after harvest. The winery and vineyard occupy a large estate on land purchased by the Fellowship of Friends in 1971; the group is controversial in its beliefs or at least its former leadership and founder Robert Earl Burton, and as a business entity (separate from but owned by the Fellowship) Renaissance has had to shake off the perception that the Fellowship is a cult.

The inspiration for creating a vineyard came from German-born Karl Werner, the founding winemaker at Callaway Vineyards, way south in Temecula. Under his guidance, members of the Fellowship chiseled terraces from the steep slopes at altitudes of 1700 to 2300 feet and drilled 150,000 holes to plant vines. The first harvest, in 1979, took 20 minutes and produced one barrel of cabernet sauvignon. Werner died in 1988, and his wife, Diana, took over winemaking duties. When Beinstock became winemaker early in ’94, he turned the winery away from its former goals of deep extraction and heavy, densely tannic wines to minimal manipulation, gentle extraction, no yeast inoculation and, gradually, to organic methods in the vineyards. Due to Beinstock’s efforts, Renaissance has produced a series of remarkable, authentic and largely age-worthy wines (in minute quantities) that are like nothing else in a California besotted by super-ripeness, toasty new oak and sweet alcohol.

Beinstock left the winery in May 2011 to concentrate on his own project, Clos Saron. Present winemaker is RVW’s former vineyard manager Edward Schulter, also a principal in the Grant Eddie winery. I will have more to say about Clos Saron and Grant Eddie in subsequent posts.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Estate Cabernets:

>2012. 85% cabernet sauvignon, with merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc the remainder. Deep purple, very young, spicy, vigorous; steeply tannic, packed with graphite and dusty oak, bright acidity. Needs four to six years.

>2005. 75% cabernet sauvignon, 19% merlot, 3% cabernet franc, 2% petit verdot, 1% syrah. Dark ruby; ripe but tightly wound, very spicy, cloves and caraway; bastions of tannin and oak. Needs five to seven years.

>2002, the current release. 87% cabernet sauvignon, 10% merlot, 2% petit verdot, 1% syrah. Dark ruby color; still young, highly structured, with leathery tannins and mineral-laced oak, but encouraging notes of plum and cherry compote. Give it three or four more years.

>1999. (Blend not available.) Dark ruby-garnet; a touch musty and vegetal? A second bottle was fresher and cleaner; while dense, chewy and tannic, it felt like the embodiment of vineyard, geography and fruit, earthy, scintillating, almost elegant, but not exactly drinkable yet. Three or four years.

>1994. Gideon Beinstock’s first cabernet as winemaker. (Blend not available.) Dark ruby-garnet hue; still tannic, solid, tight and well-knit; muscle and sinew, lithe and deeply spicy, glittering minerality, vibrant and resonant. Needs three to five years aging. Terrific potential.

>1993. 90 percent cabenrnet sauvignon, 9% merlot, 1% cabernet franc. Dark ruby-garnet color; woody spice, as cloves and sandalwood; dusty graphite; spiced and macerated currants and plums; a little leafy, notes of cedar and dried rosemary, a little resiny; oolong tea and leather; still tannic. A favorite of this flight. Now through 2020 to 2025.

>1991. (Blend not available.) The first of this group that feels immediately drinkable; soft, mellow, tannin and acid for backbone and flesh; notes of bell pepper and ancho chile; black and red fruit both ripe and dried; elements of dried spice and flowers; black tea and orange zest. Almost lovely. Now through 2018 to 2022.

The next series, 1986, ’84 and ’83, were made by Karl Werner and are 100 percent cabernet sauvignon.

>Reserve 1986. Dark ruby-garnet color; remarkably youthful, vigorous and lively; but very dry, austere, deeply rooty, the essence of wood, iron, iodine and earth. Drink through 2020 to 2026.

>1984 Reserve. This was released before the ’83. Dark ruby-garnet hue; quite dry, lively, dense and chewy but with beautifully shaped structure and fruit and possessing a sense of completeness and confidence. Now through 2020 to 2024. Another favorite; my second encounter with this wine.

>1983. Coming around now; still very dry, dense, tannic and austere but with flavors of stewed fruit compote, notes of resin and almond skin, briers and leather, allspice and dried rosemary. Now through 2018 or ’19 through 2023.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Premier Cuvee, Vin de Terroir, Claret Prestige with some Estate for Comparison:

>Claret Prestige 2012. 40% petit verdot, 27% cabernet sauvignon, 31% cabernet franc, 2% merlot. Very dark ruby-purple; drenched with currant-cherry-plum fruit and baking spices; graphite and lead pencil, cedar and thyme; spiced and macerated; plenty of vibrant acidity and dusty tannins. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2027 or ’30.

>Claret Prestige 2002. 41% merlot, 40% cabernet sauvignon, 11% syrah, 7% petit verdot, 1% sauvignon blanc (yes). Leaping back a decade, here’s a Claret Prestige that offers lovely, almost ineffable spicy black and red fruit scents and flavors but a huge, dense dusty structure and scorching tannins. Don’t touch until 2018 or ’20 and then give it another 10 years.

>Premier Cuvee 1997. 79% cabernet sauvignon 13% merlot 6% cabernet franc. Dark ruby color; rich, warm and spicy, notes of black cherry, fruit cake, graphite, dried thyme and black olive; still quite tannic with lots of woody spice, yet oddly attractive and drinkable. Best, though, from 2017 or ’20 through 2027 to 2030.

>Vin de Terroir 1997. 100% cabernet sauvignon. Opaque ruby-purple hue; very dark, dense, dusty, chewy, minerally, oaky, tannic and needs another decade (or at least five years) to soften its grip.

>Claret Prestige 1997. (Poured from a magnum.) 43% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot, 12% cabernet franc, 6% syrah, 6% sangiovese (yes), 3% malbec. Very backward, very dry and tannic, but paradoxically, after 15 or 20 minutes, it opens quite nicely, relaxes a bit, unfurls hints of fruit, spice, even a floral note. 2017 through 2025 to ’30.

>Estate 1997. 91% cabernet sauvignon, 7% merlot, 2% cabernet franc. Opaque ruby-purple with a garnet rim; reticent, almost truculent, spicy but tight, dry, austere; leafy and autumnal. Might as well wait until 2017.

>Premier Cuvee 1995. 76% cabernet sauvignon, 24% merlot. (Poured from a double magnum.) 76% cabernet sauvignon, 24% merlot. Opaque ruby-purple with a garnet rim; cedar, cigar and tobacco, dried rosemary and pine resin, graphite, leather and briers; bouquet unfolds seductively but this is a big, tannic austere wine, nonetheless with great potential. Try 2017 or ’20 through 2028 to ’30.

>Vin de Terroir 1995. 100% cabernet sauvignon. (Poured from a double magnum.) Don’t touch this until 2020.

>Claret Prestige 1995. 53% cabernet sauvignon, 37% merlot, 10 cabernet franc. Don’t touch until 2018 to ’20 or even 2025.

>Estate 1995. 86% cabernet sauvignon, 14% merlot. Very solid, dark, dense; dusty, tannic; graphite and granitic minerality, leather, briers, yet finally rich, warm and spicy, close to seductive and with sleek, elegant structure. Try 2020 through 2030.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I think I first wrote about the wines of Renaissance Vineyards and Winery in 2001, when I mentioned in what was then my weekly newspaper column (distributed nationally by the Scripps Howard News Service until 2004) the Renaissance Late Harvest Riesling 1993 and, under the winery’s second label, the Da Vinci Late Harvest Riesling 1987. In the succeeding 11 years, I have reviewed numerous wines from the small producer in the remote North Yuba appellation of the Sierra Foothills north of Sacramento. Renaissance became noted, under the tutelage of Gideon Beinstock, winemaker there since 1994, for its hands-off approach that produced wines of admirable spareness and elegance, low alcohol, an almost fanatic resistance to new oak and an unheard of delay in releasing wines, as in sometimes 10 or 12 years after harvest. The winery and vineyard occupy a large estate on land purchased by the Fellowship of Friends in 1971; the group is controversial in its beliefs or at least its former leadership, and as a business entity (separate from but owned by the Fellowship) Renaissance has had to shake off the perception that the Fellowship is a cult.

The inspiration for creating a vineyard came from German-born Karl Werner, the founding winemaker at Callaway Vineyards, way south in Temecula. Under his guidance, members of the Fellowship chiseled terraces from the steep slopes at altitudes of 1700 to 2300 feet and drilled 150,000 holes to plant vines. The first harvest, in 1979, took 20 minutes and produced one barrel of cabernet sauvignon. Werner died in 1988, and his wife, Diana, took over winemaking duties. When Beinstock became winemaker early in ’94, he turned the winery away from its former goals of deep extraction and heavy, densely tannic wines to minimal manipulation, gentle extraction, no yeast inoculation and, gradually, to organic methods in the vineyards. Due to Beinstock’s efforts, Renaissance has produced a series of remarkable, authentic and largely age-worthy wines (in minute quantities) that are like nothing else in a California besotted by super-ripeness, toasty new oak and sweet alcohol.

Beinstock, for the past few years, has worked on a side project, that is, his own winery Clos Saron. He is no longer winemaker at Renaissance, and I would say, Alas that such is the case, except that I don’t know the circumstances of his departure. I do wonder what the direction will be for Renaissance without him.

What I offer today are notes on three of Beinstock’s red wines, the Claret Prestige Red Wine 2001 and 1997, the Renaissance Premier Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, and, a piece of history, the Renaissance Cabernet Sauvignon 1984, one of the last wines made by Karl Werner. Yes, a small amount of the latter wine is still available, and I urge those who are fascinated by the history of the California wine industry or who are looking for a unique and quite wonderful wine to track it down.

These wines were samples for review. Image of Gideon Beinstock from mobile.indievinos.com.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Renaissance Claret Prestige Red Wine 2001, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba, is a combination of 29 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent merlot, 19 percent malbec and nine percent each syrah, cabernet franc and petit verdot, a sort of classic Bordeaux blend except for the presence of the syrah. The wine aged 25 months in what is described as “old oak 225L barrels (American and French),” exemplifying Beinstock’s typical avoidance of new oak. The color is radiant medium ruby shading to lighter ruby at the rim. At eleven years old — and the wine was released just two years ago — this Claret Prestige is ripe and spicy and buoyant, with notes of macerated red and black currants and cherries profoundly framed by gripping acidity and graphite-etched tannins in a package so complete, so well-balanced that it feels timeless. A whisper of black olive and dill adds detail to the expansive depth and breath of the wine’s structure and replete yet spare flavors, though the whole feeling of the wine is deftness and lightness. A true marriage of elegance and power. 12.6 percent alcohol. Production was 128 cases. Now through 2020 to ’25. Excellent. About $65.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Renaissance Premier Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba, at 15 years old, is, in four words: Not. Ready. To. Drink. A blend of 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 15 percent merlot and six percent cabernet franc, the wine aged 27 months in American, French and German oak barrels. It was bottled in March 2000 and released in September 2010. This Renaissance Premier Cuvee 1997 features towering (but not astringent) tannins; stunning (but not sharp) acidity; forceful (but not overwhelming) granitic and graphite-like mineral elements; and glimmers of ripe, fleshy, spicy and slightly roasted flavors of red and black currants and mulberries. For all this and despite its forthright rigorous character, the wine feels fresh and invigorating, but I wouldn’t touch it until 2015 or ’16, and it’s a cinch to go the long haul, say 2027 to ’30. Alcohol content is 13 percent. 370 cases. Excellent. About $65.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
For 1997, the Renaissance Claret Prestige, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba, is a blend of 43 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent merlot, 12 percent cabernet franc, 6 percent each syrah and sangiovese and 3 percent malbec; the wine aged 27 months is “old oak 225L barrels (French, American and German).” Benefiting from fine weather, the vintage was excellent overall in California, with potentially long-lived cabernet-based wines of exceptional quality; certainly this Claret Prestige and the preceding Premier Cuvee exhibit the deep and profound structure of true vins de garde. The color is dark ruby at the center with a slightly lighter rim; it takes some coaxing, but after a few minutes a ripe, fleshy bouquet emerges, shot with notes of macerated and smoky black cherries and raspberries with touches of black currants, dried fruit, potpourri and sandalwood. Gripping acidity animates the package, while pretty darned hard, unyielding tannins — dusty and granitic — lend deep support through an engaged through fairly austere finish. 12.6 percent alcohol. Production was 430 cases. As with the previous wine, try from 2015 or ’17 through 2027 to ’30. Excellent. About $55.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Now for the treat. Only 54 cases remain of the approximately 1,200 cases that Karl Werner made of the Renaissance Cabernet Sauvignon 1984, North Yuba; Werner was the estate’s founding winemaker. This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon that aged — are you ready? — 34 months in new German oak barrels; that’s right, German oak. At 28 years old, there’s not a thing either fragile or sharp or diminished about this wine, which feels like a finely sifted amalgam of every essential element a cabernet sauvignon should possess but in a barely perceptible autumnal mode. It fills the mouth with a packed yet supple sensation of dried red and black fruit, potpourri and pomander, woody spices like cloves and sandalwood, soft powdery tannins, still lively acidity and bass notes of underbrush and graphite. Truly lovely. 13.5 percent alcohol. I wouldn’t be surprised if this wine drinks well for another decade. Excellent. About $65.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Typically, I ignore such marketing devices as Grenache Day or Riesling Month or Tempranillo Day, which happens to be today. I mean, these “days” are dreamed up by trade groups and marketing firms and usually have no official standing. I gave in to Tempranillo Day, however, because it’s a red grape that has a long history in Spain and deserves to be better known. In tomorrow or Saturday’s edition of “Weekend Wine Sips” I’ll mention some inexpensive and accessible wines made from the tempranillo grape, not seen much outside the Iberian peninsula, not that it hasn’t been tried (especially in Argentina and Australia), but today I focus on two producers of tempranillo wines in the region of Rioja, one a venerable estate, Bodegas Faustino, that makes fairly old-fashioned Rioja, and a much younger producer of a more modern style of tempranillo — new French oak barrels! — Bodegas Muriel. Tempranillo is the primary grape of Rioja and Ribera del Duero (southwest of Rioja) but it’s grown in many other parts of Spain, too, though under widely varying names; in Portugal’s Douro Valley, it contributes to Port under the name tinto roriz.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
This bodega was founded in 1986 by Julian Murua Entrena, in the location of old cellars owned by his parents. The wines, all 100 percent tempranillo, are imported by Quintessential, Napa, Ca. These were samples for review.

The Muriel Seleccion 2009, Rioja, aged four months in new American oak barrels. The color is dark ruby; the bouquet is warm, spicy and quite attractive in its notes of macerated and slightly fleshy black cherries, currants and plums. It’s savory and flavorful, dense, chewy and almost velvety in the mouth — nothing of the grape’s spareness here — though lipsmacking tannin and acidity keep it honest. The wine is dry, robust and lively and should drink nicely through 2015 or ’16, especially with beef, lamb or veal. 13.5 percent alcohol. 2,000 cases imported. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.

Muriel JME 2007, Rioja, named for the owner of the winery, aged five months in new French and American Oak barrels, the standard 225-liter (59-gallon) barrique. The wine is intense in every way, from its dark ruby color to its heady aromas of smoke and figs and caramelized fennel and spiced and macerated currants, blueberries and plums to its graphite infused red and blue fruit flavors; yet JME 2007 is more spare, balanced and elegant than one would think initially, almost belying its claim to modernism. The wine is very dry, enlivened by furrowing acidity and devolving to a finish packed with cloves, sandalwood and dried violets and lavender. 14 percent alcohol. 664 cases imported. Now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $25.

In the Spanish regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero, a crianza is a wine that has aged a least one year in oak casks. Muriel Crianza 2005, Rioja spent exactly that long in American oak. For whatever reason — that’s not a huge amount of wood exposure for wine — this Crianza ’05 feels like the woodiest of this quartet. While the wine is at first quite bright, spicy and appealing, it would probably be more palatable (and I’m speaking of my palate, of course) if its notes of dried spices, dried fruit and flowers had not received such an edge of smoky, charcoal-permeated oak and if the fine-grained tannins did not feel so strictly dry. Still, with roasted duck or grilled leg of lamb, this might be fine. 13 percent alcohol. 1,700 cases imported. Through 2015 or ’17. Very Good+. About $17.

In terms of overall price/quality ratio, the Muriel Reserva 2004, Rioja, is the bargain of this stable. The color is a beautiful limpid dark ruby that shades to medium ruby-garnet at the rim; aromas of fig, balsam, bay leaf and vanilla-tinged red and black currants and cherries are laden with cloves, sandalwood and potpourri. The wine is smooth, mellow and savory but surprisingly girt with dense but finely milled tannins and spicy oak, from two years in French and American barrels. 13 percent alcohol. A candidate for game birds or dry flavorful cheeses. 600 cases imported. Now through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $20.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The producer traces its origins to 1861, though the Faustino label was not created until the late 1950s; the estate is still owned by the same family. Their cellars hold 9 million bottles of Reserva and Gran Reserva wines from multiple vintages. The wines of Faustino are imported by Palm Bay Imports, Boca Raton, which made these older vintages available. The Gran Reserva wines are very limited; in ’99, for example, only 700 bottles were made. Tasted at Wine Bloggers’ Conference 2012 in Portland, Oregon.

Faustino I Gran Reserva 1999, Rioja. This wine is a blend of 90 percent tempranillo and 10 percent mixed mazuelo and graciano grapes; it aged between two and three years in oak casks, followed by four years in the bottle before release. The color is a beguiling and radiant medium ruby; first note: “god that’s lovely.” I meant lovely as in a seductive bouquet of black cherries and currants with notes of dried cranberries and blueberries over hints of fruitcake, lavender and graphite. The wine reveals spice in the form of cloves and sandalwood, and juicy black and red fruit flavors gently supported by fine-grained tannins and vibrant acidity; the finish is dry, slightly woody and austere. 13.5 percent alcohol. Now through — who knows? — 2030 or ’40. Excellent. About $35 to $45, an Astonishing Bargain.

Going back 17 years, the Faustino I Gran Reserva 1982, Rioja, offers a color that’s more garnet-brick red than ruby and a blossoming bouquet that’s earthy and a little funky — I mean in the sense of mushrooms and damp moss — with back-notes of briers and brambles that segue through to the delicately spiced and macerated flavors of currants and plums; the wine is delicious, soft and mellow, yet for a wine that’s 30 years old, it reveals a surprisingly rigorous structure of graphite-infused tannins and keen acidity. A blend of 85 percent tempranillo and 15 percent graciano, the wine aged 30 months in American oak. 12.5 percent alcohol. It could go another 10 years. Very Good+. Average price nationally is about $78, a Great Value for a fascinating experience.

Finally, the Faustino I Gran Reserva 1964, Rioja, provides all the elements we expect from a 48-year-old wine in terms of development and drinkability (understand that I’m not talking about fine aged Bordeaux): Savory and sweetly, mildly ripe fruit; a delicate expression of maturity, just slightly earthy; tranquil and dignified in its fine-boned structure, with slightly dusty tannins and muted but still viable acidity. Tasting this wine made me long for a roasted game bird, a pheasant or woodcock; that would have been perfect. A blend of 80 percent tempranillo, 10 percent each graciano and mazuelo, aged 30 months in American oak. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $174, though found around the country much cheaper and much more expensive and definitely Worth a Search
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

… Give it a try.

Our wine fridge tends to be filled with chardonnays, because we drink the sauvignon blancs, rieslings, chenin blancs, Rhone-style whites and such before chardonnay, because unless you know the producer and have had the wines before, you never know what you’re going to get. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s having to open three or four chardonnays to find one that’s drinkable while dinner gets cold. So, searching for a wine to accompany the soup that I’ll describe in a moment, I was rummaging through the wine refrigerator and happened upon a bottle of Höpler Riesling 2007, from Austria’s Burgenland region. “Hmmm,” I thought, “could this possibly be OK?”

Reader, it was better than OK. Of course you could be thinking, “But, FK, rieslings have the capacity to age well.” True enough in many cases, especially of the grander reserve-type rieslings from Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz, or from Alsace. This riesling, however, was an just a regular inexpensive riesling designed, it seems, for immediate gratification.

This Höpler Riesling 2007 offered a sort of dusky medium straw-gold color and exquisite aromas of lightly spiced peaches, pears and lychees with back-notes of jasmine, quince and ginger. Above, below and beyond all that, the wine felt like a shattering expression of pure and intense limestone and flint minerality borne by taut, throbbing acidity and a texture like galvanized talcum powder, all packed into a lithe, sinewy stones-and-bones finish. A slight trace of delicately over-ripe stone fruit and a touch of funky earthiness reveal the wine’s maturing state, but if well-stored — had you a bottle in the fridge — this could go another year or two. Excellent. Originally $16.

Not faring quite so well was the Höpler Guttenberg Gruner Veltliner 2006, which opened nicely, with notes of apple skin, peach and slightly honeyed and roasted apricot and sporting a silky smooth texture, but acidity flagged in the home-stretch, leaving the wine a bit saggy and loose from mid-palate back. Very Good. Originally about $18.

We drank the Höpler Riesling 2007 with a Pork, Kale and Sweet Potato Soup with Sizzling Rice, taken from the recipe in the October issue of Food and Wine magazine. This is a terrific Fall weather concoction, rich and savory and flavorful; it looks great too. A link to the recipe is here.

USA Wine Imports, New York. These wines were samples from a local wholesale house.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness …

When John Keats wrote these opening lines of “Endymion,” he was thinking of the Platonic and transcendental beauty of nature, not a bottle of wine, though he wrote some fine, brief descriptions of wine here and there in his body of work, notably in the second stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where he calls for “a draught of vintage! that hath been/Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth…” Later in this stanza, he calls again, ecstatically: “O for a beaker full of the warm South,/Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,/With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,/And the purple-stained mouth …” I taught this poem for years in the second semester of English Literature survey, and every time I read those lines, I thought, “Damnit! I want some of that wine!”

Unfortunately, unlike the endlessly melodic and unchanging song of the nightingale — “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” — a bottle of wine is not immortal, though some wines are capable of aging into mature beauty. In fact, Keats hits on both of the themes that have dominated the world’s wine industry since the ancient times of the wine-loving Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, and that is that some wines are intended to cool their heels “a long age in the deep-delved earth” until they attain a plateau of subtlety and nuance, while other wines, “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim,/And purple-stained mouth,” something like 95 percent of all wine produced in the world, are meant for more or less immediate consumption. In the wine-reviewing business, we don’t often have the opportunity to try those lovely, old, fully developed wines — and we are jealous of those who do — because our focus is on wines in current release, which we taste too young and have to evaluate more in terms of potential — “Best from 2016 or ’17 through 2025 or ’27″ — than for their ability to deliver pleasure in the present. The truth, though, is that nowadays many winemakers are producing wines, particularly reds of course, intended to be drinkable soon after release as well as 15 or 20 or more years later.

Paradoxically, and perhaps perversely, the wine that inspired this post was not a fine old vintage — though I’ll get to a few of those in a different post soon — but a just released cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley, a region widely and justly acclaimed as having one of the best climates and geographies for the grape. The wine is the St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley, a blend of 87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 2 percent petit verdot and 1 percent cabernet franc that aged 19 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. Winemaker is Danielle Cyrot. A portion of the grapes for Oroppas ’08 came from the valley floor, in Rutherford, but the majority derived from higher altitudes in Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder.

The color is pure intense dark red-ruby, while the bouquet presages the perfect balance and harmony that characterize the wine; no edges here, no risks, just the sheer beauty of a wine that’s so totally poised and integrated. Aromas of licorice, lavender and potpourri, warm and slightly roasted and meaty black currants, black cherries and a touch of wilder mulberry are permeated by hints of cedar and thyme, graphite and bittersweet chocolate. Yes, there are tannins and they grow more powerful or at least evident over 20 or 30 minutes, but they’re tannins of the finely milled, minutely sifted variety, sleek and suave as the oak influence on the wine is sleek and suave and almost invisible. Who said that oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible? Why, that was me! And so it is here! I mean, the wine soaked up that oak and turned it into another dimension. This cabernet sauvignon is, in other words, an absolutely lovely, pure and intense expression of the grape, delivering the immediate gratification that’s so important for consumers in these times yet possessing enough backbone and grip and earthy minerality — and nothing overdone, nothing too ripe or opulent — to allow the finish its quiet and slightly demanding moments of dignity and austerity. 14.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $55.

Why did this wine inspire the post you’re reading now?

To corral another poet to my purpose, Wallace Stevens, in “Sunday Morning,” one of the greatest poems written in the 20th Century, said “Death is the mother of beauty.” Though that sentence sounds like a grim sentence indeed, Stevens means that beauty is born of its inherently fragile and inevitably ephemeral character. We value beauty all the higher because its very nature embodies its impermanence, its decline and final dissolution. Keats’ nightingale is not immortal in the individual bird; they all die, but the identical song lives on in each generation of nightingales. The greatest wines ever made — Margaux 1900, Mouton-Rothschild ’29, Cheval Blanc ’47, Petrus ’49, Lafite ’59, Latour ’82 — however extravagantly lauded and loved will soon be gone from this ever-changing earth, faded, weakened, cracking up, fled, departed. That G. Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1998 that you’ve been holding onto like Silas Marner his hoard of gold (a wine that shook me to the core when I tasted it from barrel in December 1999, as it happens on my birthday); drink it, my friend, because it will soon go the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon. That last bottle of Heitz Martha’s Vineyard ’74 in your cellar, you lucky bastard (depending on its condition, of course)? Gather your loved ones, roast a chicken, sit down together and eat and drink. It will not last much longer nor was it meant to.

St. Clement Oroppas 2008 is an absolutely gorgeous wine, fine and beautiful in every small detail and broad stroke, and when we drank it, we felt privileged. I would love to try the wine again in 10 years. It is not immortal, nor does it stand among the greatest cabernet wines ever produced. It was made for pleasure, both now and through the next decade, and that is a goal and accomplishment not to be disparaged, and a great deal of its pleasure lies in what Keats, so wise for one so young — he was 25 when he died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821 — wrote about in another poem, “Ode on Melancholy.” Melancholy, he wrote, “dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die;/And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu…” Dissolution and decay dwell with the beauty of great wines, and tasting them, drinking that lambent, plangent liquor, we feel the death inside them and the beauty, and we are made glad.

Image of John Keats from Bettmann/Corbis; image of dusty old wine bottles from rapgenius.com. The St. Clement Oroppas 2008 was a sample for review.

How often does one get to try what is commonly regarded as New Zealand’s greatest wine? Not often, I would say, and certainly not in my case. What is that wine? Hint: It ain’t sauvignon blanc.

I was at a meeting last week of a new board for the glossy year-old local wine magazine Cork It! Memphis, and of course people on the board of a wine magazine would bring wine to the meeting, n’est-ce pas? I took a bottle of the Trimbach Gewurztraminer 2007, a wine transcending to a state of beautiful pure minerality. Enough of that though, because another member of the board brought the Te Mata Estate Coleraine Cabernet/Merlot 1998, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. That’s right, 1998. Where do people get these wines?

The Hawkes Bay wine region (without an apostrophe) occupies a semi-circle of geography around Hawke’s Bay in the southeast area of New Zealand’s North Island. Muddying the waters, however, the Hawkes Bay wine region is sometimes also written with an apostrophe, so if you are the kind of person who gets Stag’s Leap, Stags’ Leap and Stags Leap mixed up, you’ll be right at home here. Though the region is the oldest wine-producing area of New Zealand — the first winery was established there in 1851 — and home now to about 75 wineries, that’s a recent development, in vinous terms; even in the early 1970s, there were fewer than 10.

The winery dates back to 1896 and was acquired by present owner John Buck in 1974. Launched in 1982, Coleraine was made from a single vineyard until 1988; since that vintage, it has been made from parcels of vines in other Te Mata estate vineyards but with the preponderance of the cabernet sauvignon coming from the original Coleraine Vineyard.

Te Mata Estate Coleraine Cabernet/Merlot 1998, Hawkes Bay, is a blend of 68 percent cabernet sauvignon and 32 percent merlot. The wine aged 20 months in French oak barriques. The estate’s website touts Coleraine as a 10 to 15-year wine, and I would say that at the age of 14 it’s definitely fully mature and will remain on this plateau for another four to six years. The wine — this bottle, anyway — was as smooth and mellow as you could ask a cabernet/merlot blend to be, with richness and succulence defining the spicy, slightly macerated black currant and plum aromas and flavors, while structure was founded on depths of well-honed tannins and polished oak which, like the Holy Spirit, were everywhere present but nowhere visible. Beyond those factors was a permeation of earthy, graphite-like minerality and still vital (and essential) acidity that tied the wine together, both lively and grounded. Wines like Coleraine Cabernet/Merlot 1998 exist on a plane of integrity, confidence and completeness all their own; when the opportunity to taste one comes along, take it and thank the people who can afford it and offered you a glass. I don’t mind being humble. Current vintage is 2010. Excellent. About $110.

I happened upon a local Mom-and-Pop wine and liquor store recently with which I was unfamiliar. Right inside the front door stood the “Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” sign, four months late. The shelves and racks held a typical selection of wine and spirits genres, brands and labels. Oh, well, I thought, doing a little exploring, not much interesting here. And then I spied a couple of shelves that presented a different appearance, an aura, as it were, of confidence, prosperity and unlimited potential. These shelves held rows of California cabernet sauvignon wines going back to 1995 and coming up to 2007, with all the years between represented. Some top-flight wines, well-known names. I felt a frisson of wonder and beguilement, expressed in a whispered, Holy shit! The selections seemed equally divided between those still at their original prices and those that had been reduced in price. I casually perused the labels and vintages and then plucked a couple from their resting places: Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Napa Valley, and Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Oakville District, Napa Valley.

Mount Veeder was founded in 1973 by Michael and Arlene Bernstein, 2,000 feet up the mountain for which the winery is named. From the beginning, they produced earthy, tannic, mineral-laced cabernets that often required a decade to shed their austerity and then rewarded those having patience with deep, rich, resonant flavors and balanced structures. Occasionally, the mountain-side tannins got the better of the wines, and there are Mount Veeder cabernets from the 1970s and early ’80s that never came around. Still, it was always gratifying to know that one could expect no compromise from this focused winery. The Bernsteins also made a little zinfandel, chenin blanc and chardonnay.

The Bernsteins sold the winery to Henry and Lisille Mathieson in 1982, but the significant change came in 1989, when the Mathiesons sold Mount Veeder to the partnership of Agustin Huneeus and the Eckes Corp. of what was then West Germany. The Eckes had hired Huneeus, a Chilean, to put Franciscan in shape to be sold, but under his sensible leadership, the winery had turned around and improved. In optimistic expansion mode, Huneeus launched Estancia, and then acquired the venerable Simi and Mount Veeder wineries. Along with Veramonte, in Chile, these properties comprised Franciscan Estates. The whole kit-and-kaboodle was sold to Constellation in 1998. Mount Veeder is now part of that giant corporation’s Icon Estates portfolio.

And what about the vintage?

The cabernet sauvignon grape profited from a series of fine years in the 1990s, particularly 1994 through ’97 but at each end of the decade too. The Spring and late Summer of 1998 were atypically rainy, and uneven ripening required careful practice in the vineyards and brought the prospect of a late harvest. September came through, though, with warmth and clean skies, and the harvest, which was somewhat reduced, lasted into early November.

So, the color of the Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 is a lovely dusky ruby with a faint garnet-hued rim; aromas of spiced and macerated red and black currants are just touched with cedar and tobacco and hints of mossy forest floor and dried mushrooms, while after a few minutes in the glass, the wine pulls up notes of iron-and-iodine-tinged minerality and lightly toasted walnuts. It’s quite dry in the mouth, with red and black fruit flavors ensconced in silky, finely-milled tannins and spicy, supple oak; give it 30 minutes or so to develop elements of dried orange zest, mocha and oolong tea, even as the acidity begins to assert itself a bit sharply. The finish is austere, a little woody, sweetly autumnal. 13.5 percent alcohol. This wine, a graceful and elegant measure of a mature Napa Valley cabernet, should drink nicely through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $42.

In the New York Times (sort of) recently, classical music reporter and reviewer Zachary Woolfe explored the notion of what it means when an opera singer or classical music performer has charisma, prominently using the example of Maria Callas. “Charismatic performers,” Woolfe writes, “are those whom you simply can’t look away from. Their charisma is an almost physical presence, a spark that powers even the most unassuming musical passage.” He continues: “To experience a charismatic performance is to feel elevated, simultaneously dazed and focused, galvanized and enlarged. It is to surrender to something raw and elemental, to feel happy but also unsatisfied.” Unsatisfied may seem a strange factor in our reaction to the presence of charisma, but that feeling arises from a sense of incomprehension, because while we can describe charisma its source remains mysterious and, I suspect, because a charismatic performance must end, never to be repeated in the same way.

The notion of charisma extends to other sorts of performers — rock singers, actors — to other sorts of celebrities and public figures and occasionally to politicians. I covered a booksigning event for Bill Clinton when his memoir came out, and you could feel the charisma, the power or magnetism when he came into the store; he glowed; just standing there, talking to people, shaking hands, signing books, he was stunning.

Of course not all opera singers or pianists or presidents are blessed with charisma; it’s a rare phenomenon. A violinist, say, can be technically superb, gifted with expressiveness and interpretive genius yet not possess charisma; a statesman can be wise, diplomatic and daring, yet not embody an ounce of charisma. All reports tend to agree that Liszt had charisma, while Chopin did not. A person can be great at what he does or just great without charisma; that’s an extra, the transcendent yet forcefully felt presence that lifts an experience of a person or that person’s art into a realm that seems not of this world.

And can wine have charisma?

If you are fortunate enough to have spent time tasting a wide variety of wines, you have probably come across one that wasn’t just excellent or exceptional, that didn’t just display impressive and impeccable character, it floored you, changed your mind about how greatness in wine should be defined. It was a wine that because of its tremendous sense of presence and tone, its incredible quality of potency and power (and ultimate elegance), struck you almost as otherworldly. All sorts of wines can compel one to exclaim “holy shit!”; a wine with charisma engenders a holy whisper.

For a wine to effect us with its charismatic nature, that is to say, for a wine to exhibit the character of true greatness, it must originate in the very best grapes grown in the very best mature vineyards that are the most appropriate in terms of soil, drainage, exposure and climate — terroir! — for those grapes. The grapes, after their seasons of thoughtful care in the vineyard — and, one hopes, perfect seasons of weather, cold and heat and rain, for an exceptional vintage — must have been harvested at the optimum moment so that all the chemical components that reside in the skins, the pulp and juice, the sugars and acids and myriad trace elements are poised in platonic harmony. These are the grapes that strike farmers and winemakers with awe at the potential they hold. (We know, of course, that ripeness and how it is defined and how it is measured constitute one of the great controversies in 21st Century winemaking.)

In the winery or garage or cellar, the grapes must be handled extremely carefully, by which I mean that every effort must be made to allow the grapes to express themselves and their origins with minimum intervention by human beings and not to destroy their potential through the ego of the winemaker or producer. How easy for a winemaker to say, “I’m going to shape the wine to my ends,” when in truth the wine shapes itself and expresses its purity and intensity but with sensitive and intelligent nurturing in the cellar. (Wine does not literally “make itself” as people often assert.)

Above all, these are the wines that, because of the perfect confluence of all the requisite factors that make a wine great, feel as if they exude more presence, more character, more resonance and vibrancy at a level that other wines could not possibly attain. These wines practically hum in the glass, and they fill the mouth almost beyond our ability to understand, though we do comprehend the enormous pleasure they impart, pleasure, it must be said, that may often be founded on or must accommodate to fathomless tannins, austerity and a sense of aloofness. At the same time, charismatic wines tend to exhibit exquisite balance from the beginnings to the ends of their trajectories, balance being a relative and shifting ideal as a wine develops in the bottle.

So, here then are 20 wines that in my experience projected charisma. Chronologically, they span 70 years, from a red Bordeaux from 1937 to an Argentine malbec from vintage 2007; in terms of my on-going education, they cover a period from 1984, the year that my newspaper wine column was launched, to eight months ago on New Year’s Eve 2010, with LL and me at home nibbling osetra caviar and sipping one of France’s greatest Champagnes. I spent a day going through old — ancient , it seems — wine notes, but what’s interesting is that when I started contemplating this post, I knew what most of the wines were that I wanted to include; that’s how persistent they have been in my memory.


1. Simi Pinot Noir 1974, Alexander Valley (purchased at a local store, tasted at home March 1984 and still one of the greatest pinots I ever encountered)

2. Chateau Latour 1982, Pauillac (tasted at a trade event in Memphis sometime in 1985; tasted again in New York, October 1991).

3. Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Johannesburg Riesling 1978, Belle Terre Vineyard, Alexander Valley (tasted in John Grisanti’s cellar, some time in 1989)

4. Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Napa Valley (purchased at Sherry-Lehmann in NYC, for $20.50[!]; consumed with Easter dinner in Memphis, April 1986)

5. Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1977, Alexander Valley (at a tasting in Memphis of Silver Oak cabernets, sometime in 1986)

6. Grivelet Clos Vougeot 1971 (at John Grisanti’s restaurant, sometime in 1987)

7. Chateau Haut-Brion 1937, Graves (at a tasting with collectors in Memphis in 1987; this 50-year-old wine was, incredibly and from a dismal decade in Bordeaux, even better than the fabulous ’59 and ’66)

8. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru 1983 (tasted in New York, October 1991)

9. Gaja Barbaresco 1955 (made by Angelo Gaja’s father, tasted in New York, October 1991)

10. Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 1998, Clare Valley, Australia (tasted at the property, October 1998)

11. Domaine G. Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses Premier Cru 1998 (barrel sample at the property, December 1999, on my birthday)

12. Chateau Petrus 1998, Pomerol (barrel sample at the property, December 1999)

13. Sineann Reed and Reynolds Vineyard Pinot Noir 2000, Oregon (tasted in Oregon, August 2002)

14. Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2001 (tasted in New York, June 2004)

15. Tres Sabores Zinfandel 2003, Rutherford, Napa Valley (tasted in New York, March 2006)

16. Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996 (tasted in New York, September 2006)

17. Phifer Pavit Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley (sample for review, tasted at home October 2008)

18 & 19. Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Malbec 2007, Mendoza, & Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Mendoza (tasted at the property — the chardonnay with lunch — October 2010)

20. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998 (purchased locally and consumed on New Year’s Eve 2010)

Wait, wait, wait, I just remembered — one more: 21. Paul Jaboulet Aine Hermitage La Chapelle 1949, one of a case of bottles mainly of Bordeaux and Burgundy from the 1950s and 60s that I received for cataloging a private wine cellar in 1988. I invited five or six people to join me at a local restaurant sometime that Fall to taste — nay, drink — all of the wines, and they were truly memorable, I mean the whole evening was a superb education and an orgy of great food and wine, but the Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1949, at 39 years old, was certainly among the very best and most extraordinary wines I have tasted in my life.

But wait, again, wait ….. no, we’ll save that wine for another day.

Here’s what I wrote in September 2008:

The Bunnell Family Cellar Boushey-McPherson Syrah 2004, Wahluke Slope, Yakima Valley, is wonderfully rich and pure, intense and vibrant. Under ravishing flavors of ripe and smoky black and blue fruit, the wine is deeply grounded in the earth with layers of bark, moss and mushrooms over strata of minerals. It’s too easy for wine-writers to say, so glibly, “Oh, yes, this wine makes you feel as if you’re drinking the vineyard;” what does that even mean (though I think I have been guilty of such a pronouncement)? Yet I have to say that, if ever that statement were true, it could be made about this wine, which feels like a dark celebration of everything that goes into producing a wine of such profundity. This sees only Hungarian oak. Drink now — venison comes to mind — through 2014 or ’15. Production was 274 cases. Exceptional. About $44.

The wine made my list of “50 Great Wines of 2008.”

I tasted the Bunnell Family Cellar Boushey-McPherson Syrah 2004 last week and found that 30 months later the wine is evolving beautifully. The bouquet now features hints of menthol and mint, iodine and graphite and a sort of brisk sea-salt effect that freshens notes of spiced and macerated blackberries, blueberries and plums. In the mouth, that black-and-blue fruit feels a little bruised, a little stewed and beefy, yet the wine remains clean as a whistle, vital and vibrant; it’s quite dry from mid-palate back, unfurling layers of burnished wood and well-honed tannins folded with smoke and ash and a late attitude of iron-clad minerals softened by deep elements of bitter chocolate and potpourri. Drink through 2014 to ’16, properly stored. Still Exceptional. About $42 to $45.

Next Page »