Since 2003, Bonny Doon’s Le Cigare Blanc has consistently been one of the best Rhone-style white wines made in California. The high quality continues with the version for 2010, a blend of 55 percent grenache blanc grapes and 45 percent roussanne grown in the bio-dynamic Beeswax Vineyard, in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County, south of Soledad. This is mainly white grape territory, with chardonnay and riesling leading the pack. Beeswax, indeed, since the wine exudes in plenty the characteristic waxiness of the grapes and a touch of small waxy white flowers, like camellias, to which add roasted lemon and lemon balm, spiced pears and yellow plums and hints of bay leaf, hay and leafy fig. The wine is ripe and spicy and savory — there’s a fleck of rosemary-like or pine-like resin — yet its juicy pear, peach and fig flavors are allied to a sense of spareness and astringency; there’s nothing opulent or voluptuous strung on this glittering structure of plangent acidity and scintillating limestone, aspects reinforced by the long, lively, spice-packed and faintly bitter finish. 12.7 percent alcohol, and boy, it’s a long time since I saw a wine from California with that little alcohol. Winemaker was Randall Grahm. This was terrific with asparagus risotto with roasted garlic and shiitake mushrooms. Now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $24.

A sample for review.

The Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2010, Paso Robles, isn’t just a well-made rendition of a southern Rhone Valley white wine; it’s better than about 75 percent of the examples from the region. A blend of 50 percent grenache blanc grapes, 33 percent viognier, 10 percent roussanne and 7 percent marsanne and made all in stainless steel, Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2010 is a pale straw-gold color; provocative aromas of roasted lemon, lime peel, dried thyme, ginger and quince are highlighted by a winsome note of honeysuckle. Flavors of lemon and spiced baked grapefruit generously open to hints of crystallized pear and Bit o’ Honey, though the wine is as bone dry as bright acidity and a burgeoning limestone element can make it; the complete effect is spare, supple, almost sinewy and yet juicy and savory, sleek and stylish. I bought this bottle at a local store, and we drank the wine last night with Vinegar-Braised Chicken with Leeks and Peas, a fantastic match; it would be great for serving as an aperitif through the Spring and Summer and with grilled fish or chicken. 13.5 percent alcohol. Tablas Creek is a collaboration between the Perrin family of Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s Chateau de Beaucastel and Robert Haas, owner of their American importer Vineyard Brands. Executive winemaker is Neil Collins; winemaker is Ryan Hebert. Excellent. About $20 (though I paid $22).

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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.

I thought the 2008 version of Tardieu Laurent’s Les Becs Fins Côtes-du-Rhône Villages was terrific, and I feel the same way about the rendition for 2009. The wine is a blend of 60 percent grenache grapes, from a 60-year-old vineyard, and 40 percent syrah, from 20-year-old vines. Les Becs Fins 09 was made all in stainless steel tanks; there’s no oak influence. The color is deep ruby with a faint bluish/magenta rim; pure aromas of ripe black currants and plums are permeated by notes of black olives, dried thyme, smoke, ash, leather and a bit of syrah’s signature wet fur element, all making for a bouquet that while fresh and brisk is a little funkier and earthier than the bouquet of the 2008. The earthy and leathery aspects translate into the mouth, where a dense, chewy texture, freighted with dusty graphite, fine-grained tannins and pinpoint acidity, supports spicy and luscious (but not opulent or jammy) black and blue fruit flavors. This is, in other words, textbook Côtes-du-Rhône Villages that displays real varietal and regional personality and offers a huge amount of pleasure, now through 2014 or ’15. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $22.
The Tardieu Laurent “Guy Louis” Côtes-du-Rhône 2008 is excellent in a different manner than its cousin, Les Becs Fins 2009. It, too, is composed of 60 percent grenache and 40 percent syrah, the former from 50-year-old vines, the latter from 35-year-old vines. One difference is that this wine matures in new and one-year-old French oak barrels rather than stainless steel; another is that the color is a shadowy shade darker. The emphasis here is on a combination of rustic power and sleek stylishness (not the same as elegance), on intensity and concentration; in the mouth, one immediately notices the presence of considerable tannins that are supple, lithe and dry. Still there’s black and blue fruit a-plenty here, with a deeply spicy, dried floral quality and a top-note of sweet ripeness, all imbued with smoke and lavender, cedar and juniper. Loads of character married to granite-and-loam-like minerality that ties the wine to the earth. 14 percent alcohol. 200 six-bottles cases imported, yes, that’s 1,200 bottles for the U.S.A. Drink now, with roasted or grilled meat, through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $28.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ If you’re looking for a white wine that melds high-toned elegance and austerity with lovely sensual appeal, try the Tardieu Laurent “Guy Louis Blanc” Côtes-du-Rhône 2009. Matured in new and one-year-old French oak, the wine is a blend of 60 percent marsanne grapes, 15 percent roussanne, 15 percent viognier and 10 percent grenache blanc. In fact the wine’s steel-edged and chalk-and-limestone-laced minerality feel, at first, as if you’re drinking the White Cliffs of Dover. A few minutes in the glass, however, bring in whiffs of jasmine and camellia, peach and nectarine and notes of bee’s-wax and dried thyme. This is a clean, crisp savory white wine whose stone fruit flavors are tinged with sage, ginger and quince, all backed by scintillating acidity for liveliness and freshness and that unassailable minerality. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. 250 six-bottle cases imported, that’s right, 1,500 bottles for the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. If I were compiling a restaurant wine list, though, I would want a few bottles of this wine. Excellent. About $28.

I was looking for something to drink with the fettuccine with preserved lemon, black olives, thyme and Parmesan I concocted for lunch a couple of days ago, and came upon a second bottle of the Renaissance Vin de Terroir Roussanne 2006, from North Yuba in the Sierra Foothills. Yikes, this was one of my “Best Wines of 2010,” which I tasted back in April or May and wrote about originally in this post in June. Renaissance specializes in small quantities of wines fashioned from Rhone Valley grape varieties, as well as chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. The wine was fermented in stainless steel with indigenous yeasts; it aged nine months in a combination of new and one- and two-year old barrels. Bottled on May 15, 2007, the Vin de Terroir Roussanne 2006 was not released until Jan. 15, 2010; the winery typically holds its products longer than just about any producer in California.

Talk about golden! The color is radiant gold with a tinge of green, and not meaning to be speciously vague or precious, it just feels golden, like a boon of munificence. Notes of peaches and pears and quince spiced with ginger and cloves are ripe and honeyed, though the wine is bone dry; a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of baked pineapple, fig and dried thyme, as well as a touch of bees’-wax and limestone. Despite this panoply of delights, the wine is spare and elegant, a bit coolly detached, even, though supple and shapely in texture. Roasted lemon and lemon curd flavors tilt a nod toward spiced pineapple and fig compote, and there’s a scant bit of grapefruit bitterness on the long, clean, stylish finish. What I want to emphasize is the wine’s exquisite balance among gorgeous fruit and spice elements, its scintillating acidity, bedrock mineral nature and tactful structural reticence; nothing out of place, nothing obtrusive or flamboyant. Winemaker is Gideon Beinstock, a name one does not hear bruited about with the brilliant winemakers of the Golden State, though he certainly deserves inclusion in that company. 13 percent alcohol. Production was 63 cases; I said “small quantities,” didn’t I? Excellent. About $45.

A sample for review.

The pasta was one of those throw-together things. In fact, I was just going to whip up a salt, pepper and Parmesan cheese pasta when I remembered a jar of preserved lemon slices in the fridge, and of course once I had diced one of those, black olives and thyme seemed inevitable, so the dish took on a Mediterranean cast. It was simple and tasty, and the wine, with its elegant old-gold, lemon-dried herb quality, was close to perfect with it.

Why don’t people drink more Chateauuneuf-du-Pape? Unfamiliarity with the grapes and the geography perhaps? A strange sort of name, maybe? Limited availability? Bad marketing?

In any case, Chateauneuf-du-Pape — “the pope’s new castle” — deep in the southern Rhone Valley, north of Avignon, was the first wine region in France to be subject to rules of self-regulation, proposed in 1923 by Baron Le Roy of Chateau Fortia. The wine is unusual in that the red Chateauneuf-du-Pape may officially contain the juice of 13 grapes, though the reality today is that most renditions consist of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. Traditional producers, however, often include dollops of the other permitted varieties, which include cinsault, muscardin, vaccarèse, picpoul, terret noir and counoise, as well as the white grenache blanc, clairette, bourboulenc and roussanne grapes. These white grapes also make the region’s rare Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, about 3 to 5 percent of the production.

During the so-called “Babylonian Captivity” of 1309 to 1378, the papacy moved to Avignon. Pope John XXII selected the village of Calcernier — not called Chateauneuf-du-Pape until the 19th Century when the wine began to gain renown — as the site of his summer palace, the ruins of which are seen in the accompanying image.

Today’s Wines of the Week are a red and a white Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine Vieux Lazaret. Owned by the Quiot family, the domain is named for an ancient hospice for the poor and sick in the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, once operated by the Lazarists, a silent order of monks founded in 1625 by St. Vincent de Paul.

Tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event. Image of the pope’s summer palace from
The Domaine Vieux Lazaret Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2008 is a beautifully knit and bountifully spicy wine blended of 45 percent grenache blanc, 30 percent clairette, 20 percent bourboulenc and 5 percent barrel-fermented roussanne. One expects from the best Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc a seamless melding of roundness and lushness with lithe, spare elegance, a character this example provides in spades, along with bell-ringing acidity for crisp liveliness and a kind of vast, gradual unveiling of limestone-like minerality. Hints of peaches and pears, decked out with roasted almonds and a touch of almond blossom and some waxy floral element are supremely enticing; a few minutes in
the glass bring up notes of cloves, quince and ginger and touches of dusty dried herbs like thyme and marjoram. Well-made versions of these wines age well; drink this now with pleasure or let it develop more depth and dimension through 2015 to ’18. A lovely effort. Excellent. Prices around the country range from about $25 to $35.

Definitely needing time is the Domaine Vieux Lazaret Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2008, made from 67 percent grenache, 22 percent syrah, 5 percent mourvèdre and 6 percent of smidgeons of the 10 other grapes allowed in the wine by law. The wine ferments in concrete vats and then spends 18 months in large vats and foudres, meaning no new oak, no small barriques. The aromas form a seductive weaving of black and red currants, black raspberries and plums, potpourri, lavender and allspice, with fairly stark notes of briers and brambles, new leather and sandalwood. In the mouth, however, these sensual qualities fade out, and the wine leans more toward the dry, forest and underbrush nature of grainy tannins and the imposing flank of granite-like minerality; the finish is tight and austere, though the tannins are not the blunt, scorching tannins that afflict some renditions of red Chateauneuf-du-Pape. While you’re enjoying the Vieux Lazaret Blanc 2008, allow its rouge cousin to rest until 2013 or ’14, for drinking through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. Prices around the country range from about $24 to $36.

Imported by David Milligan Selections, Sagaponack, N.Y.

The Quiot family has been making wine in France’s Rhône Valley since 1748. Some 260 years later, they own numerous properties in the South of France, including Domaine du Vieux Lazaret and Domaine Duclaux in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine Houchart in Provence and, our concern today, Chateau du Trignon in the Côtes du Rhône region of the lower Rhone Valley. Among the wines made at the latter property is the tremendously refreshing and downright pretty Chateau du Trignon Roussanne 2009, Côtes du Rhône. Made completely from roussanne grapes, this white wine is not exposed to oak, retaining all the liveliness and pert acidity that come from being fashioned in stainless steel tanks. Delicate aromas of peach, pear and apricot are woven with hints of jasmine and camellia, cloves and almonds. The wine is more emphatically ripe in the mouth, with flavors of spiced and macerated peaches and yellow plums highlighted by notes of lime peel, dried thyme and limestone-like minerality. It glides across the tongue with dreamy aplomb. The essence of a delicious and appealing spring and summer wine. Very Good+. About $16 to $20.

Imported by David Milligan Selections, Sagaponack, N.Y. Tasted at a trade event.

We continue with a series that presents two great wines that I tasted within the last three months — April, May and June for this post — but didn’t get an opportunity to write about.

These wines were samples for review.
The “regular” bottling of Renaissance Winery’s Roussanne 2006 was released early in 2009. A year later came the wine under review today, the Renaissance “Vin de Terroir” Roussanne 2006. The winery lies in the North Yuba appellation of the Sierra Foothills region, about 70 miles north of Sacramento. Gideon Beinstock is a thoughtful and careful winemaker who keeps alcohol levels low and new oak at a minimum. The Renaissance “Vin de Terroir” Roussanne 2006 spent two years and eight months in bottle before release. The wine was fermented in stainless steel with natural yeasts and aged nine months in new and one- and two-year old barrels. Just pulling the cork unleashes scents of pears and roasted lemons into the room; the bouquet wafts like fragile tissues of apple, ginger and quince, bee’s-wax and camellia woven together, while a few minutes in the glass bring out hints of orange water and rose petals. Bear in mind that nothing bold or flamboyant mars the delicacy of these sensations. This wine is more spare and more elegant than its young cousin, the Renaissance Roussanne 06; the present “Vin de Terroir” version, though lush enough to be almost viscous, almost oily, is nonetheless very dry, lithe and supple, even austere, providing a gratifying paradoxical nature that balances richness with clean, crisp acidity and a burgeoning limestone element. Flavors of peaches and pears macerated in cloves and allspice unfold before a tide of wood that’s close to ecclesiastical in its dry, dusty, slightly smoky character (but not toasty or charcoal-y; this is not a new oak thing). In its integrity and individual nature, the Renaissance “Vin de Terroir” Roussanne 2006 is an exotic masterpiece. 13 percent alcohol. The rub? Beinstock made all of 63 cases of this wine. Excellent. About $45.
The related wineries Far Niente (founded in 1979), Dolce (1985) and Nickel & Nickel (1997) have been joined by a new affiliate, En Route, dedicated to making pinot noir in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. The first vintage was 2007. Winemaker is Andrew Delos; director of winemaking for the group is Dirk Hampson. Grapes for En Route “Les Pommiers” Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley, derive from two vineyards at different locations in Russian River with a touch of grapes from Sonoma Coast. The wine ages 11 months in French oak, 55 percent new barrels. This is — what’s the word I’m looking for? — gorgeous, but thinking about the case for a few seconds, I hesitate to use “gorgeous” because it implies a quality of blatancy that the wine does not evince. It is, instead — what’s the word I’m looking for? — ethereal or evanescent or beguiling. The hue is moderate cherry-magenta with a slight blue cast, like the color of lipstick that men associate with danger. Aromas of black and red cherries are wreathed with dried cranberries, cloves and cinnamon, while in the mouth, flavors of black cherries, currants and plums nestle in a super-sexy, smooth satiny texture that’s seductive without being heavy or obvious. Traces of smoke, truffles and moss comprise a species of ripe earthiness that deepens the wine into layers of spicy oak and a hint of slate-like minerality. Really just incredibly lovely. Production was 1,993 cases. 14.8 percent alcohol, which might make the tail-end of the finish a trifle hot, but essentially the wine is superbly balanced and integrated. Excellent. About $50.

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