Organic grapes and wines


I keep reading that there has been a general toning down of oak in chardonnay wines produced in California, but you wouldn’t know it from the wines I taste, of which I offer today a selection of 16. I’ve uttered these sentences before, and I’ll probably utter them many more times before I close the computer a final time and drag my weary fingers to the catacombs, and I don’t care if you’re tired of reading them; to wit: If a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, it has too much oak. AND: Oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible. Oak barrels are instruments, and they should not define a wine or establish its character; definition and character derive from the vineyard and the grape. It traduces every aspect of common sense that winemakers would want to send out into the world and into the grasp of innocent consumers chardonnays that taste as if they were made from liquid sawdust, yet many chardonnay wines feel exactly like that … and they’re not cheap. To those who say, “But, FK, plenty of people like their chardonnays to smell and taste like oak,” my reply is “Fine, start your own blog. Call it ILoveToastyOak.com.” This, however, is my blog, and on this blog we abhor wines that obliterate the purity and intensity of the grape and the authority of the vineyard through the heavy-handed agency of oak barrels.

Anyway, the scorecard today reads Excellent, 4; Very Good+, 5; Very Good, 1; Good, 1; Not Recommended 5. Among the Not Recommended chardonnay’s but also earning an Excellent rating are three from La Rochelle, a winery I admire for its individuality and willingness to take risks, though that’s a stance that to my palate doesn’t always work, as you can see. Still, I would rather a winery extend itself and skate sometimes over the edge than produce more bland innocuous “me-too” wines.

As usual in these Weekend Wine Notes (previously Weekend Wine Sips and before that Friday Wine Sips), I eschew reams of technical, geographical, geological, climatic and historical data for quick incisive reviews designed to pique your interest, if not, in some cases, whet your palate. Enjoy! (Or not.)

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Artesa Chardonnay 2011, Carneros. 13.8% alc. Pale gold color; clean and fresh, touches of apple and pear, hint of pineapple; quite spicy, smooth and supple, not creamy or viscous, “just right” as Goldilocks said; almost savory in its slightly roasted fruit qualities and modulated spicy aspects; bright acidity, and the limestone and flint elements and sense of oak expand through the finish. Nicely-made. Very Good+. About $20.
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Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay Reserve 2010, Carneros Napa Valley. 14.9% alc. A bold and powerful expression of the grape but balanced and integrated; bright medium gold color; pineapple and grapefruit, ginger and quince, hint of cloves; wet stones and flint mineral element that grows as the moments pass; no doubt about the oak but it contributes creaminess to the mid-palate, a supple texture and spice; long spice-and-mineral-packed finish; tremendous tone and presence. 14.9% alc. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $55.
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Cuvaison Estate Grown Chardonnay 2011, Carneros Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. The last Carneros Chardonnay I reviewed from Cuvaison was the 2007; I rated it “Excellent.” Not this example. Pale to medium gold color; bright, bold, ripe, spicy; you feel the oak from the moment you take a sip; grapefruit and pineapple, notes of lemon and lemon curd; plays a subtle floral card; plenty of acid and limestone minerality; supple texture at first but it feels as if the wine stiffens and becomes slightly unyielding with oak, which coats the palate and leave an astringent sensation in the mouth. Perhaps a year or two will help. Good only. About $25.
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Davis Bynum River West Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. First note: “Man, that’s a lot of wood.” & it goes on from there. Medium gold color; insistently spicy and cloying; austere and astringent oak dries the palate unpleasantly; like drinking liquid sawdust. Not recommended and consistent with my reviews of Davis Bynum chardonnay (and pinot noir) from previous vintages. About $30.
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Dry Creek Vineyard Foggy Oaks Chardonnay 2010, Russian River valley. 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; apples, pears and grapefruit, undercurrent of pineapple, moderately spicy, firm foundation of gunflint and limestone; lovely balance and poise, shaped by vibrant acidity and a burgeoning oak element that provides a modulating quality to the wine’s richness. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $20, signifying Great Value.
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Ferrari-Carano Tre Terre Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. “Vineyard Select Limited Production.” Bright medium gold color; banana and mango, baked grapefruit and pineapple, cloves and smoke; big, deep, rich and savory; bacon fat, ginger, lemon balm, have mercy; feels like multiple layers of limestone and flint-like minerality; a bit daunting and needs a little nuance and elegance, but not over-oaked, not cloying. Perhaps it needs a year of age. Very Good+. About $32.
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Gallo Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. 87% Laguna Vineyard, 13% Del Rio Vineyard. I always thought the winemaker’s thumbprint — in this case Gina Gallo, whose name is on the front label twice — was too heavy on this wine; bright medium gold color; rich, warm, spicy, almost dense and chewy for a chardonnay; very ripe citrus and tropical scents and flavors; butterscotch, vanilla, cloves — what is this, a dessert cart? the oak and spice elements are overwhelming; so unbalanced. Not Recommended. About $30.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Pale gold color; fresh, clean, bright; pungent with cloves, slightly roasted peaches and yellow plums melded with pineapple and grapefruit with a whiff of white pepper; smoky oak, smoky caramel around the edges, quite dry yet feels innately balanced. Now through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $35.
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Most writers describe the Yamhill-Carlton District, an American Viticultural Area in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, as horseshoe-shaped, but as you can see from the accompanying map, it doesn’t look anything like a horseshoe; more like a deconstructed triumphal arch. The region, which occupies parts of Yamhill and Carlton counties, was approved in 2004, but only for elevations between 200 and 1,000 feet. Vineyard plantings in the district measure about 1,200 acres. The five wines under consideration today are all single-vineyards bottlings from Yamhill-Carlton, tasted at an afternoon event — a hot afternoon — at Elk Cove Winery in conjunction with the 2012 Wine Bloggers’ Conference held in Portland last August. The question, of course, is whether the five pinot noirs, all from 2010, display identifiable regional characteristics. If the experience had been based only on the first three wines, I would have said that the soil, elevation and microclimate of Yamhill-Carlton encourage bright fruit of brilliant purity and intensity, lean yet supple structures and fairly profound yet balanced earthy qualities. That assessment was thrown off, however, by the last two wines, which were tannic and austere. I make no conclusions, therefore, but encourage a search for the Belle Pente, Penner-Ash and Elk Cove pinot noirs in particular.
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Belle Pente Winery Belle Pente Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010. Jill and Brian O’Donnell established Belle Pente in 1994 and produced their first wines in 1996. Estate vineyards amount to 16 acres, farmed on organic and biodynamic principles. Production in 2010 was 3,600 cases. The Belle Pente “Belle Pente” Pinot Noir 2010 offers a medium ruby-cranberry color; it’s a wine of tremendous purity and intensity, with spiced and macerated black and red currants and plums that feel slightly stewed and undertones of briers and brambles, roots and branches for a distinctly earthy, loamy, foresty character; nonetheless, what dominates, as it were, are the utter transparency of beautiful fruit and clean acidity that cuts a swath on the palate. 785 cases. Information about oak aging and alcohol content is not available. Drink through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $35.
Image, much cropped, from vindulgeblog.com.
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Penner-Ash Wine Cellars Dussin Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010. The winery was launched in 1998 by Lynn and Ron Penner-Ash; winemaker is Lynn Penner-Ash. Fifteen acres are planted to vines, now Oregon Certified Sustainable. Production in 2010 was 8,000 cases. This wine aged 10 months in a carefully calibrated regimen of French oak: 38 percent new barrels; 29 percent one-year-old; 29 percent two-year-old; four percent neutral. The color is a rich garnet-mulberry; the bouquet draws you in with seductive aromas of smoke, cedar and tobacco, sage and bay leaf, spiced and macerated red and black cherries and currants with a hint of plum. It’s a pinot noir that balances substantial presence in body and tone with an elevating and almost ethereal cast of red and black fruit flavors, enmeshed in a hint of lightly spiced oak. A seamless marriage of power and elegance. 575 cases. Alcohol level is 13.5 percent. Drink through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. about $60.
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Elk Cove Vineyards Mt Richmond Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010. Elk Cove, founded in 1974 by Joe and Pat Campbell, was a pioneer in Yamhill-Carlton long before the notion of that AVA was a gleam in anyone’s eye. Producing acres on the estate amount to 232. Winemaker is Adam Godlee-Campbell. Production in 2010 was 35,000 cases. The Elk Cove Mt Richmond Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 displays a slightly darker ruby-cherry color than the previous two pinot noirs; again, lovely purity and intensity, impeccable balance and integrity; ripe, sweet red and black cherry scents and flavors tinged with smoke and a hint of oak and dried spice in the cloves and sassafras range; undercurrents of briers and brambles lend an earthy foundation, along with tongue-swabbing acidity for liveliness and allure. The oak expands from mid-palate back through the finish, along with a touch of dusty tannins for a bit of austerity. 696 cases. Alcohol content N/A. Drink through 2016 to ’17. Excellent. About $48.
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Soléna Estate Domaine Danielle Laurent Pinot Noir 2010. The estate is named for the daughter of Danielle Andrus Montalieu and Laurent Montalieu who acquired their first 80 acres in 2000, forming the basis of a certified biodynamic vineyard, Domaine Danielle Laurent. Case production in 2011 was 9,000. Laurent Montelieu is winemaker. This wine aged 13 months in French oak, 37 percent new barrels. The color tends toward ruby-garnet, while the totality of the wine tends toward an expression of oak-mineral-and-tannin structure with acidity playing an essential supporting role; you can almost smell the structure in the wine’s slightly woody-minerally aspects, and you certainly feel the structure on the palate. Perhaps the austere nature of the Soléna Estate Domaine Danielle Laurent Pinot Noir 2010 indicates its motivation as an age-worthy pinot noir; perhaps it will allow its fruit to unfurl in a year or two. Try from 2014 through 2018 to 2020. 13.6 percent alcohol. 480 cases. Very Good+ with a nod toward Excellent potential. About $50.
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WillaKenzie Estate Pierre Léon Pinot Noir 2010. Bernard and Ronni Lacroute founded WillaKenzie Estate in 1992, with the first wines made from the 1995 vintage. Winemaker is Thibaud Mandet. Production in 2011 was 21,000 cases. The winery holds Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine status. I have tasted pinot noirs from WillaKenzie before, but the WillaKenzie Estate Pierre Léon Pinot Noir 2010, which aged 14 months in 50 percent new French oak, is the most tannic and austere example that I have encountered; it’s quite dry and austere and exhibits a full complement of the dusty-brushy-foresty graphite components that indicate a wine intended for the long haul. Is this the best method of treating the pinot noir grape? Not in my book, but they didn’t ask me, did they? I would give this wine from 2015 or ’16 through 2020 or ’22 to flesh out and allow other elements their legitimate expression. 13.5 percent alcohol. Number of cases N/A. Very Good+ with a Big If. About $42.
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Nothing thrilling today, you’re not going to get goose-bumps, but a roster of primarily well-made solid red wines that should make for an enjoyable and possibly interesting experience, especially with the robust fare we tend to partake of now that the Northern Hemisphere rolls toward winter. No tech info, no winery or estate or family histories, no geographical particulars, no humorous asides; just quick notes intended to pique your curiosity. If you want to twist my arm — ouch! — I would say that the real go-to wines today are the Zaco Tempranillo 2010 and The Spur Red Wine 2010.
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Ergo Tempranillo 2010, Rioja, Spain. From Bodegas Martin Codax. 13.5% alc. Dark ruby with a magenta cast; ripe and fleshy with dried spices and dried fruit, touch of fruitcake; black cherries and plums with touches of licorice, cloves and leather; slightly resinous like pine and rosemary. Pleasant but one-dimensional. Very Good. About $12.
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Buried Cane “Roughout” Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington. 14.1% alc. 75% cabernet sauvignon, 23% merlot, 2% syrah. Deep ruby color with trace of garnet flushing the rim; bright, clean and fresh, immediately appealing with a real lift; quite dense and chewy, with black cherries and currants, hints of cedar and thyme, tobacco and lead pencil and a backnote of black olive; dusty tannins and a medium length spicy finish. Very Good+. About $15.
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Clayhouse Caberbet Sauvignon 2009, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County. 13.5% alc. 80% cabernet sauvignon, 20% petit verdot. Medium ruby color; smooth, spicy, fruity; smoke and tobacco, spiced and macerated black cherries and currants; pleasing heft and texture, moderately packed-in tannins and graphite-like minerality; burgeoning spice and lively acidity; solid finish. Very Good+. About $15.
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Vina Zaco Tempranillo 2010, Rioja, Spain. 14% alc. Bright medium ruby color; wood and spice and woody spices; plums, black currants, leather; a wine to chew on in every sense; tannins coat the palate; an intense and concentrated core of graphite, bitter chocolate and lavender; a finish packed with spice and dusty, earthy minerals. Cries out for big steaming bowl of lamb stew. Very Good+. About $15.
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The Spur Red Wine 2010, Livermore Valley, Alameda County. From Murrieta’s Well. 14.5% alc. 48% cabernet sauvignon, 24% petit verdot, 23% malbec, 5% petite sirah. Very attractive, almost-Bordeaux-style red blend. Black cherries and plums, very spicy with seething graphite and bitter chocolate qualities, and a backwash of some red fruit (and hint of lavender); vibrant acidity keeps it lively, while slightly earthy, velvety tannins lend depth and texture. A great steak, meatloaf or burger wine. Excellent. About $25.
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Heller Estate Cachagua Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Carmel Valley, Monterey County. 13.5% alc. All organic. 81% cabernet sauvignon, 11% merlot, 8% malbec. Deep ruby color; plums, currants, mint, thyme and cedar; quite spicy, a little fleshy and macerated; quite intense earthy-dusty-graphite element with plush tannins and a hint of lightly sanded wood; dark black fruit flavors; a long spice-and-tannin-laden finish. Now through 2017 to ’19. Very Good+. About $28.
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Reata Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast. 14.2% alc. Radiant medium ruby color; cola, cloves and rhubarb, black cherries and plums; slightly earthy and loamy, a touch of woody spices and slightly buffed tannins; brings up an intriguing note of dried herbs; smooth, supple, nicely integrated but thins out through the finish. Now to 2014. Very Good+. About $30.
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Heller Estate Pinot Noir 2009, Carmel Valley, Monterey County. 13.5% alc. All organic. If you take the Jura region as the model instead of Burgundy, you’ll get the drift of this interpretation of the grape. Medium ruby-color with a slight garnet rim; mint, rhubarb and pomegranate; hints of fruitcake and tomato skin; dried cherries and melon; cloves, touch of brown sugar (though the wine is dry) with a slight graphite-charcoal edge; more delicate and elegant (and slightly eccentric) than powerful. Now through 2014 or ’15. Made for roasted game birds. Excellent. About $48.
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The French wine industry is heavily regulated by government rules about what grapes can be grown where, what kinds of wines can be made from what kinds of grapes, how those grapes are to be treated in the vineyard and the winery and so on. Indeed, most European countries operate in the same highly regulated manner, a situation becoming more complicated as the EU itself imposes its will on the continent’s grape-growing, winemaking and labeling. One can make wine in France outside the permitted practices for a particular appellation, but one cannot label or market such a wine as originating in that appellation. Working outside the system of permitted grape varieties and methods entitles a wine to the simple categories Vin de Table or, recently authorized, Vin de France. Labels for Vin de Table cannot carry a vintage date or the names of grapes; wines coming under the designation Vin de France, which will eventually replace Vin de Table, can convey that information, a change greeted with approbation by many French winemakers for the flexibility it affords.

Today I offer five “outlaw wines” from France. One is Vin de Table, three are Vin de France (one of these is sparkling), while another sparkling wine is entitled only to the term mousseaux. Domaine Viret Paradis Dolia Ambré was made in large clay amphorae; it’s an example of the new “orange wine” phenomenon.

These wines were encountered at the sixth “Return to Terroir, La Renaissance des Appellations,” a tasting of biodynamic wines mounted in New York on February 27.
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Beauthorey Ultima, non-vintage (but 2008), Vin de Table. Alicante bouschet, carignan, cinsault, aramon, gros noir (says the website; Christophe Beau told me that there are 12 grape varieties in this wine). Actually sort of ultimate; deep, rich, ripe, spicy; curiously earthy and fleshy, unique slightly funky mossy and foresty qualities, yet tremendously clean and fresh, blazing acidity, rapt dimensions of roasted and slightly stewed red and black fruit scents and flavors; hints of smoke, licorice, lavender. Amazing what a great winemaker can do with supposedly no-count grapes. Biodynamic. Excellent. About $25 (an estimate; Beauthorey lost its US importer.)
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Domaine de la Garelière Milliard d’Etoiles, non-vintage, Vin de France. (“Billions of stars”) Cabernet franc and chenin blanc. Pale gold color, gently but definitely sparkling; rose petals, peach and peach skin, hints of apples and strawberries, super attractive; crisp and lively, brings in a touch of lime and limestone; ripe, a little fleshy and macerated even, but a seaside tang to it, clean, brisk, bracing. Wish I had a glass right now. Biodynamic. Very Good+. About $NA.
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Bossard-Thuaud Vin Mousseaux de Qualité, non-vintage. Melon de Bourgogne (the grape of Muscadet), folle blanche, chardonnay and a touch of cabernet franc. No dosage, so bone-dry, but despite the spare, lean elegance, quite charming and elevating; exuberant effervescence, pale straw color; very clean, crisp and confident; jasmine and camellia, cloves, limestone and lime peel, faint backnote of almond skin; very refined and stylish, packed with limestone and flint-like minerality that almost glitters, lively, vibrant. Made by Guy Bossard and his wife Annie Thuaud at Domaine de l’Écu. Biodynamic, vegan. Excellent. About $23.
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Domaine Viret Paradis Dolia Ambré, non-vintage, Vin de France. 30% muscat petit grains, 25% roussanne, 20% each bourboulenc and clairette rose, 5% grenache blanc. Light amber color; orange rind, lime zest, cloves, flint, tinge of lemon and melon; bright acidity, dry, crisp, steely, yet smooth and supple; delicate hints of baked apple, roasted lemon, spice box, all in a spare, almost lean package. Biodynamic. Very Good+. $NA.
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Domaine Viret Solstice VIII, non-vintage (but 2010), Vin de France. A blend of mourvèdre, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, caladoc — totally a new one on me; it’s a crossing of grenache and malbec — and marselan. Very pleasant, light and delicate, quite dry, builds power as it develops; notes of dried red fruit and exotic spices, slightly cherry-berry and sour melon; acidity cuts a swath of the palate; gains austerity from mid-palate through the spicy, mineral-flecked finish. Biodynamic. Interesting at first, then growing enjoyable. Very Good+. About $15-$20.
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Stone Edge Farm, set in the verdant foothills of Sonoma Mountain, is a collaboration between Mac McQuown, who helped finance Chalone Winery in what seems like a whole different era, and perennial winemaker Jeff Baker. The two were partners in the old Carmenet Winery, launched in 1980. (The Chalone Wine Group sold the Carmenet brand in 2002 to what was then Beringer Blass Wine Estates; it’s now a cheap label for Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co. What a fall was there.) Stone Edge produces two limited edition cabernet sauvignon-based wines — Stone Edge and Surround — from the five-acre Stone Edge vineyard, planted in 1996, and the higher-elevation two-acre Mt. Pisgah vineyard planted in 1998, seen in the accompanying image. Both vineyards are certified organic by the nonprofit CCOF and are managed by well-known organic viticulturist (and winemaker) Phil Coturri. These are, frankly, splendid cabernets that while receiving considerable aging in new French oak barrels manage to achieve enviable harmony and balance between the forces of power and elegance. They’re definitely Worth a Search.

These were samples for review. Image of Mt. Pisgah Vineyard from stoneedgefarm.com.
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The Stone Edge Farm Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma Valley, blends 81 percent cabernet sauvignon with 19 percent merlot. The wine aged 26 months in all-new French oak barrels. Boy, this is a wild, smoldering, unfettered wine that seethes with notes of ripe, spicy black currants, plums and mulberries drenched in cedar and black olives, lavender and graphite. The wine is dense with dusty fine-grained tannins and firmly bolstered by oak that feels sanded and burnished to a gleam, ever-present, assuredly, yet suave and understated; black and blue fruit flavors are permeated by these elements, as well vibrant acidity and a relentless yet somehow effortless cast of graphite and iron-like minerality. The finish is long, packed with woody spice and scintillating minerals and intriguing notes of caraway, dried thyme and dill seed. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 600 cases. Drink now through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $60.
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The combination of grapes in the Surround Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma Valley, is 86 percent cabernet sauvignon and 14 percent merlot; aged, like its cousin, for 26 months, it take 70 percent new French oak barrels rather than all-new. And rather than the grapes being all from Stone Edge and Mt. Pisgah, there are contributions from two other vineyards managed by Phil Coturri, one high in the Mayacamas range. Surround ’07 is a remarkably ripe, fleshy, spicy, earthy and minerally wine; its aromas and flavors of black currants and black cherries unfold to notes of mint and blueberries, a hint of red currants, elements of leather and moss and a fascinating smoky-eucalyptus-caraway edge. Dusty tannins, polished oak and resonant acidity provide enveloping structure, while the texture is more spare than opulent. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 780 cases. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Were I supervising a restaurant wine list, I would try to snag a couple of cases if this wine to offer at a fairly reasonable price with steaks and chops. Excellent. About $30.
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You know me. I like to write extensive reviews of individual wines or groups of wines that include notes on history, geography, climate and terroir, the techniques and methods of winemaking and evaluations of the wines that weigh them in terms of detail and dimension, philosophy and spirit. I don’t, unfortunately, have either time or space to perform that educational and critical function for all the wines I taste, and so this week, in the spirit of the still fairly new New Year, I am launching “Friday Wine Sips,” a new feature on BTYH that will present quick reviews of wines that otherwise might not make it onto the blog. In these “Sips,” I forgo the usual attention to personalities and family history, weather conditions, oak aging, malolactic fermentation and such in favor of stealth missions that present the brief essence of each wine, along with a rating. I’m not giving up my preferred treatment; it’s simply the case that I receive too many wines to give the full FK treatment. Unless otherwise indicated, these were samples for review. Today: nine white wines. (Hmmm, a couple of these are longer than I meant them to be: I have to get used to brevity.)
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Jean-Luc Colombo Les Abeilles 2010, Côtes du Rhônes blanc. Clairette 80%, roussanne 20%. Palm Bay International. Fresh and clean and snappy, lanolin and bee’s-wax, camellia and honeysuckle, roasted lemon; spicy and taut with bracing acidity but moderately soft texture, peachs and pears, celery seed and thyme. Very Good+. About $12, Good Value.
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Michel Dutor La Roche Pouilly-Fuissé 2009. 13% alcohol. Stacole Fine Wines. Lean and minerally, limestone, jasmine and honeysuckle, quince and ginger, roasted lemon; very dry but a lovely, almost talc-like texture encompassing lithe, scintillating acidity and profound limestone with a hint of chalk. Classic. Very Good+. About $20. Not a sample.
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Michael Torino Estate Cuma Torrontés 2010, Cafayate Valley, Argentina. 13.5% alcohol. Frederick Wildman & Sons. Organic grapes. Melon, lemon drop and lemon balm, pea shoots, thyme and tarragon, jasmine and camellia; very dry, very crisp, a spare, slightly astringent sense of almond skin, peach pit and bracing grapefruit bitterness. A terrific torrontes. Very Good+. About $15.
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Veramonte Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Casablanca Valley, Chile. 13.5% alcohol. Huneeus Vintners. Fresh, clean, crisp and snappy, pea shoot, grapefruit and lime peel, tangerine; brings in celery seed and green grapes, touch of earthiness; taut with acidity and limestone, stand-up grapefruit bitterness on the finish. Screw-cap. Very Good+. About $12, Good Value.
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Roth Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Alexander Valley. 13.2% alcohol. 2% viognier grapes. Very clean, fresh, pure and intense; distinctive without being exaggerated; lime and limestone, tangerine, peach and pear, slightly floral, very spicy, vibrant acidity, grapefruit on the finish. Lots of personality. Very Good+. About $16.
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Cadaretta SBS 2010, Columbia Valley, Washington. 14.1% alcohol. 75% sauvignon blanc, 25 % semillon. Sleek and suave, beautifully balanced, no edges except for a crisp line of vibrant acidity; lime and lime peel, camellia, dried thyme and tarragon, pent with energy and vitality; very dry, heaps of limestone and chalk. Lovely wine. Excellent. About $23.
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J. Moreau & Fils Le Croix Saint-Joseph Chablis 2009. 12.5% alcohol. Boisset America. Radiant medium gold color; slightly green, flint, pears, roasted lemon, jasmine and verbena; touch of slightly earthy mushroom element; “wow” (in my notes) “what a structure, what a texture”; heaps of powdery limestone and shale and talc but riven by chiming acidity, bracing salt-marsh-like breeziness, all enrobing pert citrus and stone-fruit flavors. Classic Chablis, cries out for a platter of just-shucked oysters. Excellent. About $20. Not a sample.
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Leitz Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland Riesling Spätlese 2009, Rheingau. 8.5% alcohol. Michael Skurnick. Pale straw color, hint of spritz; subtle and nuanced, peach and pear, damp hay, jasmine, baked goods; quite spicy, lip-smacking acidity, almost lush texture but with real “cut,” a bit sweet initially but finishes quite dry, even austere, like sheaves of limestone and quartz; superb balance and intensity. Try with trout or skate sauteed in brown butter. Excellent. About $33.
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Pinot noir wines produced in California and Oregon can be fine indeed, though many, because of winemaking philosophy and perhaps climate issues, fall into the lush and opulent or sturdy and hardy categories, seeming to take their cues from some ideal of zinfandel or syrah. Often these pinot noirs convey a sense of sweetness founded on ripeness, extended oak aging and high alcohol. Nothing wrong with those stances, of course, it’s a question of choice and fashion, but I urge devotees of those styles of pinot noir, and their makers, to try a wine that takes the opposite tack, a modest wine, perhaps, but one that possesses the power to offer a lesson, if not enlightenment. This is the Domaine A. et P. de Villaine “La Fortune” Bourgogne 2007, from the Côte Chalonnaise, south of Burgundy proper. Aubert de Villaine is one of the most respected and widely-known proprietors in the world, being co-owner and co-director and the public face of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, an entity from which issues Grand Cru Burgundy wines of awe-inspiring achievement and price. A. et P. Villaine, on the other hand, is a smaller, more personal project, based in Bouzeron in Côte Chalonnaise and owned by Aubert de Villaine and his wife Pamela. The estate is impeccably run and has been certified organic since 1986 by Qualicé-France.

What is special about the single-vineyard “La Fortune” Bourgogne 2007 — 2008 and ’09 are also available — is its very simplicity and directness; nothing interferes with the consumer’s primary experience of the pinot noir grape. The wine is a medium ruby color, not dark or dangerous-looking or deeply extracted. Aromas and flavors of ineffably smoky black cherry, red raspberry and plum are completely aligned from beginning to end with elements of clean, fresh earth, slightly nervy briery and brambly qualities and a burgeoning aspect of spice and potpourri. The wine’s texture and structure are similarly inextricable, being one in their spare, dry elegance and sinewy character with vibrant acidity that cuts a swath on the palate. There it is, a portrait in purity and intensity that more expensive pinot noirs, sometimes more heavily manipulated, too often miss. The alcohol content is a sensible 12.5 percent. Excellent. About $25. I bought this one.
Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, California

LL and I drank half a bottle of the Domaine A. et P. de Villaine “La Fortune” Bourgogne 2007 last night with dinner, a lovely tomato soup with fennel-orange zest gremolata, potato “croutons” and Fontini cheese, along with slices of a dense olive and rosemary bread. The recipe is in the March 2011 issue of Food & Wine magazine.

Perennially one of the best wines for summertime drinking is Heller Estate’s Chenin Blanc. The winery in California’s Carmel Valley, in Monterey County, southeast of the town of Carmel, is operated on rigorous organic terms, and its wines are not only organic but vegan, meaning that no animal products such as eggs or milk were used in fining, the process by which an innocuous substance is introduced to the wine to help precipitate solid particles to the bottom of a barrel or tank. Heller uses the traditional bentonite — Education Alert! — an absorbent clay (aluminum phyllosilicate) that has an astonishing number of industrial and medicinal uses, from the drilling and engineering industries, to a wide range of ceramics applications that include sand casting and rocket nozzles, to skin creams, laxatives and (paradoxically) cat litter.

Those with long memories may recall that Heller Estate occupies the old Durney Vineyards, first planted in 1968. Heller’s winemaker is Rich Tanguay.

Anyway, the Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2008, which is drinking beautifully now, is a blend of 90 percent chenin blanc grapes and 10 percent riesling, or, as the winery notes say “Johannesburg Riesling.” Actually — another Education Alert! — the term “Johannisberg (proper spelling) Riesling” was phased out on Jan. 1, 2006 by the U.S. Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau aka TTB. American wine labels must now say “Riesling” or, for some reason “White Riesling,” as if there’s a lot of red riesling around to confuse us. Anyway, with no more digressions, as the winery’s hillside vineyards (1200 to 1500 feet elevation) have matured, the proportion of chenin blanc in the wine has increased; 10 years ago, the blend was more on the lines of 75 percent chenin blanc to 25 percent riesling. For 2008, the wine bursts with notes of honeydew melon, mango and litchee, with more subtle hints of straw, dried thyme, peach and tangerine; a few minutes in the glass bring up a hint of jasmine. Acidity that’s taut as a bow string keeps the wine lithe and lively, though the texture is a pleasing combination of crispness and slight lushness, and flavors of apple, roasted pears and softly spiced and macerated peaches are bolstered with a finishing touch of grapefruit bitterness. Serve as an aperitif or with moderately spicy seafood dishes. Excellent. About $25.
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Heller makes a minute quantity of pinot noir; based on the Heller Pinot Noir 2007, Carmel Valley, I wish they made more, because this is frankly exquisite. The color is medium ruby with a pale violet rim. Aromas of black cherry, red currant and plum are wreathed with hints of nutmeg and cloves and a touch of something wild, like mulberry and rose petals. Bright acidity cuts a swath on the palate, holding a steady course through warm, smoky cherry and currant flavors ensconced in a seductive satiny texture that remains airy and elevating. Hints of clean damp earth and a kind of mossy-mushroomy quality lend a sense of true Burgundian character over undertones of slate-like minerality so chiseled that they feel transparent. Oak from 13 months in French barrels, 35 percent new, gently shapes the wine, providing subtlety and suppleness. Above all, this pinot noir exudes spareness and elegance and finely-tuned poise. The alcohol level is a modest 13.5 percent. 154 cases were produced. Excellent. About $50.
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The petit verdot grape is not often made into its own wine, finding its purpose primarily in Bordeaux-style blends with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Even in Bordeaux, its natural habitat, petit verdot is not planted as much as it was 50 years ago. Still, a few wineries keep the faith, and Heller is one. The Heller Estate Petit Verdot 2007, Carmel Valley, doesn’t offer much in the way of elegance or poise; instead, it’s robust, earthy and succulent, virtues not to be denigrated when you have a steak sizzling on the grill or a rack of ribs slumbering in the smoker. The deep-purple colored wine opens with a dark fusillade of black pepper, blackberry and currant permeated by baking spice, graphite and bitter chocolate; gradually notes of lavender and lilacs, briers and brambles emerge. This is all rich, juicy, brambly black fruit in the mouth, an opulent sensation tempered by rousing acidity, dense chewy slightly dusty tannins and well-wrought oak, from 18 months in French barrels, 60 percent new. Give the wine a few more minutes, and it begins to smolder with wood smoke and bacon fat. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Production was 170 cases. Quite a performance — if you like wines that perform rather than simply exist — though I would be happier if it cost under $30. Excellent. About $50.
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These wines were samples for review.
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There’s a sense — or possibly several but never mind that now — that I live in a different world than many of my readers do, and that’s because I receive wine samples for free. Many of these are unsolicited; the friendly UPS or FedEx person comes to the door and hands over a package or two and I sign for them and bring them inside and open them, and sometimes I think, “Oh, great, this will be interesting” or “Oh, yikes, wow” or “Geeze, why do they send me this crap.” Much of it comes after inquiry. Them: “May we send you such-and-such wine?” Me: “Why, yes, thank you very much.” Some I ask for a sample. Me: “Would you send me this wine to try?” Them: “Hell, yeah.” I’m certain there are writers and publications that receive far more wine than I do, but I probably receive more wine than writers and bloggers just starting out. After all, I’ve been doing this for 25 years.

Some wineries and importers have been sending me wine for 15 or 20 years, a process that allows consistency in my coverage and reviewing. And some wineries and importers stopped sending wine when my weekly newspaper column folded in 2004 and never picked up again. C’est la vie.

I mention these matters in an attempt to prove that when I drink a glass of the Morgan Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands ($48), with my cheese toast, as I did yesterday at lunch, I’m not trying to be a jerk and imply, “Ha-ha, loser, see what I get to drink with my cheese toast and you don’t.” I mean, the wine is there, it needs to be tasted, there’s an opportunity, so why not? Sure, the pleasure principle is a factor too, as in, “Hmmm, maybe I should open this skimpy, undernourished little $6 merlot with my cheese toast instead of the Morgan Double L Pinot ’07,” and then I say, “Nnnnaaaahhhhh.” After all, I can always do the SULM in a line-up with a bunch of other inexpensive reds, n’est-ce pas?

On the other hand, perhaps none of this requires any explanation or justification whatsoever.

Allons.

The Morgan Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands, is absolutely beautiful, a smooth, shapely, harmonious mouthful of wine. Aromas of smoky black cherry and cola twine with mulberry, rhubarb and hints of cloves and mossy-like earthiness; a few minutes in the glass bring whiffs of violets and camellia. In the mouth, the wine performs as a model of the marriage between elegance and power; between balance and integration, on the one hand, and buffed tannins and vibrant acidity on the other. Flavors of black cherry, black currant and plum burgeon with spicy nuances, laid on a foundation of rooty briers and brambles and a texture that drapes the palate like satin. The subtle oak regimen is 11 months in French barrels, 50 percent of which are new. Double L is farmed organically. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Production was 1,050 cases. Excellent. About $48.

Last night, LL braised ox-tails with bacon and a smoked ham hock, a bottle of merlot and a bouquet of celery, carrots, leeks, sage and parsley. This cooked in the oven for, oh, four hours. She served it with a mash of celery root, sweet potatoes and white potatoes. It was brilliant.

Casting about for a wine, naturally I thought about syrah/shiraz or zinfandel, but then I decided to throw discretion and even sense to the winds, and I opened a bottle of Joseph Drouhin Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2007. If ever a red Burgundy could stand up to such a hearty dish, this would be it.

At about 125 acres, Vougeot is the largest vineyard in Burgundy, It is also the most minutely parceled, its area divided among 70 owners, some of whom have proprietorship over only a few rows of vines; this is pinot noir, of course. The firm of Joseph Drouhin owns two parcels that amount to 2.25 acres. Placement is everything in Vougeot; vines at the bottom of the hill do not produce wine as good as vines higher up the slope. Drouhin’s parcels are on the incline, facing east. The parcels are farmed according to biodynamic principles (though how do you compensate for the people around you that don’t farm by the same method?); harvesting is by hand; yeasts are indigenous. The wine rests is oak 14 to 18 months, depending on the year, but typically only 20 percent of the barrels are new.

Drouhin’s Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2007 is a beautiful wine, too, but in a different way. This is the beauty of confidence balanced between poise and assertiveness. It’s a wine that could swagger if it wanted to but clearly doesn’t need to. In fact, beyond this wine’s warmth and richness, beyond its layers of spiced and macerated black cherries and plums grounded in dried spice, shale-like minerality and acidity that plows an authoritative furrow, there’s a sense of reticence, of holding itself back for the proper moment. The elements of dried spice, tending a bit toward the exotic, blossom amazingly in the glass, pulling black fruit with them, turning increasingly seductive; at the same time, however, the wine becomes drier, picking up sinew and dusty tannic austerity. Try this from 2011 or ’13 through 2017 or ’20. Sixty cases were imported to the U.S. Excellent. About $172.

Wow, you’re saying, if both of these wines rate Excellent, why not just forget about the Clos de Vougeot ’07 and go with the Morgan Double L? Well, sure. Let’s admit that not many people possess the fiduciary prowess to buy the Clos de Vougeot or the cellar in which to let it mature. On the other hand, the two wines offer quite different but equally eloquent and authentic expressions of the grape. You pays yer money and you takes yer choice. I’m lucky enough that I was able to try both of them on the same day and to tell you about them.

I recently received a bottle of the first issue of Cecchi’s Natio Chianti 2007, a wine made from organic grapes certified by CCPB. The front label states, “Product with Grapes from Organic Farming,” while the back label says, “Made with Organic Grapes.” Notice that the phrase “organic wine” is not used. That’s because in order to be called “organic wine” that wine would have to be not only made from certified organic grapes but every step of the winemaking process would have to be certified organic, something that the governments and certifying agencies of the world have not figured out a way to measure and regulate.

It’s not mentioned on either front or back label, but Natio Chianti 2007 is suitable for vegans (and possibly Venusians) because, as the press materials state, “No animal by-products were used in production.” And you, My Readers, are thinking, “Animal by-products? Gack! What in heck-to-Remus are you talking about?”

Allow me to explain. One might assume that wine is completely safe for cuisineophiles of every persuasion, from outright carnivores to the most fragile of picky macrobioticists, but such is not the case. There is more to wine than mere water, alcohol and chemicals. A process in winemaking called “fining” has traditionally employed substances from the animal kingdom (or from the fridge, to be practical about it). After fermentation, wine is usually left with a multiplicity of microscopic elements called colloids. Typically, a wine that offers a plush or viscous texture contains more colloids than a light, more delicate wine; removing colloids can also make a wine astringent, though they lend a wine detail and dimension. Fining, in other words, represents a trade-off in terms of a wine’s character, but the process also clarifies wines and eliminates cloudiness or haze.

Substances used in fining are ancient (relatively speaking) in origin; they include egg whites, milk, isinglass, made from fish bladders, and (not so ancient) bentonite, a form of clay found chiefly in Wyoming. These substances are harmless and are almost completely absent from the finished wine. Each has advantages and disadvantages — bentonite is so absorbent that it can diminish the flavor of a wine — but nobody, on the other hand, is going to buy a bottle of wine that isn’t perfectly clean and clear.

Naturally, the idea that wine may contain a glimmer of a molecule of egg white or milk makes it inappropriate for vegetarians or their more extreme cousins, the vegans. Very few wineries allow this sort of information to be printed on their labels because the it would sound more scary than helpful. An exception is Randall Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon Vineyards, who a couple of years ago, after he took the Ca’ del Solo vineyard biodynamic, began stating on back labels the ingredients in the wine and the substances used to make the wine, including fining agents. I doubt if many (or any) producers will follow his lead, at least until government regulations require such statements, as inevitably they will. Grahm is predictably ahead of the curve.

I asked Jane Kettlewell, director of public relations for Banfi Vintners, whose Excelsior Wine and Spirits division imports the wines of Cecchi, why the vegan opportunity was not explored on labels of Natio. Here is her reply:

“It seems there was very little space indeed for back label copy and the conclusion was that as most wines do at some level have some connection with an animal by-product, that vegans don’t tend to be wine drinkers. This seems like a Catch 22 situation – the vegans won’t find us if they’re not aware of the vegan-friendly nature of this wine, but on the other hand, vegans aren’t stampeding into wine stores to begin with.”

True enough, but I hate to think of vegans not enjoying wine with their tofu enchiladas because of a fear of wine’s supposed animal connection.

And the wine? Well, the Cecchi Natio Chianti 2007 falls into the category of Decent Quaff. We drank the bottle with pizza Saturday night and that sums it up: An enjoyable but not memorable Chianti, a little rustic, but delivering authentic sangiovese scents and flavors of dried fruit, dried flowers and spice in a good structure that balances tannin and acid. A meatloaf, burger, pizza wine. Very Good. About $16. I would be more comfortable if it cost $12 or $13, but everything organic is more expensive. It costs to be natural.

Carton of eggs image from middlezonemusings.com. Glass of milk images from bedzine.com.

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