Russian River Valley


For a guy who doesn’t much cotton to chardonnay wines, I have probably been paradoxical in my inclusion of chardonnays in this “Wine of the Day” series, now at its 22nd entry. I won’t bother to extemporize upon the manifold ways in which I think chardonnay wines can be over-done, over-blown, exaggerated and over-oaked; I have done that more than a sufficient numbers of times on this blog. I will say, however, that when I try a chardonnay that seems to touch on all the points of perfection that I will clasp it to my heart as not only an exemplar but a talisman, and I will shout its virtues from the roof-tops. Such a one is the Amapola Creek Jos. Belli Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. This wine was made by Richard Arrowood, and if ever a winemaker in California deserved the accolade “legendary,” he is certainly at the top of that brief list. Joseph Belli’s certified organic vineyard lies at the extreme western edge of the Russian River AVA in Sonoma County, where the land begins to slope gently upward. Facing east, the terraced and well-drained acreage receives full sunlight in the morning and early afternoon but is shielded by the hills from the harsh light of late afternoon. The color is pale gold with a faint green cast; the entire impression is of a chardonnay that is clean, pure and fresh, balanced yet forward, fervent, almost emphatic in its intensity; classic notes of pineapple and grapefruit are layered with hints of cloves, yellow plums, baked pear and undertones of ginger, quince and damp limestone; a few moments in the glass bring in touches of jasmine and lilac. The wine flows on the palate with sleekness and subtlety, in a texture almost talc-like in its packed nature yet riven by resonant acidity and a brisk chalk-and-flint mineral quality; though quite dry, it offers juicy, spicy and engaging citrus and stone-fruit flavors that lead to a finish finely-sifted with fruit, acid, oak and minerals. The wine went through barrel-fermentation and aged 11 months in a combination of new and used French oak barrels; its presence is apparent as a shaping element, and its tangible influence emerges primarily through the elegance but powerful finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 475 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $45.

A sample for review.

Ripped with white hot heat from the pages of my notebooks are these reviews of 10 pinot noir wines, primarily originating in California but including examples from Western Australia and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I avoid technical, historical or geographical data in these reviews for the sake of brevity and immediacy, hoping to pique your interest and whet your palate. With one exception, duly mentioned, these wines were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Ad Lib Cruel Mistress Pinot Noir 2014, Pemberton, Western Australia. 14% alc. Medium ruby color shading to transparent magenta; pomegranate and cranberry, touch of sour cherry; sassafras and cloves; an intense core of lavender and violets; warm, spicy, satiny. Incredibly charming yet with pleasing heft and substance. Very Good+. About $17, marking Real Value.
Imported by Middleton Family Wines, Shandon, Calif.
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Argyle Spirithouse Pinot Noir 2012, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 13.5% alc. 850 cases. Lovely medium ruby-cerise color; enticing aromas of red cherries and currants, rose petals and lavender, cloves and sassafras, a hint of loam; more serious on the palate, very supple and satiny texture, deftly threads a fine line of acidity and flinty minerality, but you feel some austerity from mid-palate back through the finish, in which the oak makes itself known. Try from 2016 through 2019 or 2020. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $75.
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J Vineyards and Winery Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley. 14.3% alc. This well-known producer, famous for its sparkling wines, was recently acquired by E&J Gallo. Translucent medium ruby hue; red and black cherries, cranberries; notes of cloves and sandalwood, mocha, tar and loam; nothing plush or opulent here, rather spare and reticent but with lively acidity and a lovely satiny drape on the palate and slightly exotic red and black fruit flavors. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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VML Wines Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.7% alc. VML is Virginia Marie Lambrix, owner and winemaker. Dark ruby-magenta hue; cranberry and pomegranate, hints of blueberry tart, cloves and cinnamon, notes of violets and rose petals; a little fleshy and meaty; quite lively and dynamic; sweet red cherries, rhubarb; loam and slightly dusty tannins; a finish of spice, sour cherry and graphite. Pinot noir as force of nature, exotic but true. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $32.
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Paul Dolan Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012, Potter Valley, Mendocino County. 13.5% alc. Radiant and intense medium ruby color; black and red cherries and currants, touch of plum; cloves and sassafras, violets and potpourri, loam, briers and a top-note of tart cranberry; ripe and a little fleshy; quite dry, and it develops a surprising amount of tannin, becomes rather austere on the finish, with oak taking a dominant role. Now through 2018 or ’19. Very Good+. About $30.
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Les Cousins Pinot Noir 2011, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 13% alc. The second label of Beaux Freres Vineyard. Transparent medium ruby-garnet; macerated red currants and cherries permeated by notes of tobacco and cloves, apple peel, with undertones of cinnamon and sandalwood; supple and very satiny in the mouth, balancing the dry/juicy dichotomy with ripe and slightly roasted red fruit and clean acidity; a dry spicy finish and fillips of moss and loam. A pinot of lovely dimension and detail. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $30, a local purchase.
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Reata Three County Pinot Noir 2013, Monterey 53 percent, Sonoma 31 percent, San Benito 16 percent. 14.3% alc. Bright cherry-magenta hue; black and red cherries, pert cranberry and spicy pomegranate, cloves and sassafras; briery and brambly earthiness; a woodsy pinot noir, with notes of allspice and sandalwood, moss and dried porcini; some graphite and mildly dusty tannins; lithe and slightly sinewy texture, quite dry. Now through 2018 to 2020. Very Good+. About $35.
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McIntyre Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 14.5% alc. 368 cases. Absolutely entrancing mulberry-magenta color, limpid and transparent; every element that I adore about pinot noir but both generous and intense; ripe black cherries, currants and plums, violets and lavender, notes of cloves and sassafras; a touch of graphite and hints of leather and woodsy aromas; a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of tobacco and leaf smoke; a layer of briers and brambles underlies spicy and succulent black and red fruit flavors ensconced in a lithe and supple texture through which bright acidity cuts a swath; a sleek and elegant pinot but with a feral edge. Now through 2018 to 2020. Exceptional. About $42.
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Dolin Estate Pinot Noir 2012, Sta Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County. 14.3% alc. 485 cases. Transparent medium ruby color; smoke, cinnamon toast, rhubarb and sassafras, red currants and cranberries; underbrush and loam, vital and vibrant acidity, juicy with red and black fruit flavors yet spare, a bit chiseled; gradually unfolds notes of cloves and sandalwood, leather and slightly creamy oak, and you feel the oak influence etched along the circumference; lovely and dynamic presence and heft yet with a beguiling ephemeral quality, a bit elusive and tantalizing. Now through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $ .
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Kukeri Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 13.9% alc. 61 cases produced. Limpid medium ruby color; sandalwood, violets and cloves, macerated red currants and cherries with a hint of strawberries and some dried fruit in the background, notes of mint and tobacco leaf; sleek, subtle and satiny, quite dry; a few moments in the glass bring up touches of pomegranate and rhubarb, loam and old leather; an autumnal, woodsy feeling as the oak comes up through the finish. Not quite Excellent, because the oak in some measure mutes the wine’s sensual aspects; otherwise it’s quite beguiling, so, Very Good+, with final judgment withheld. About $42.
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While other wineries attempt to be all things to all consumers — “Maybe we better make a moscato, they’re hot now!” — Jordan Vineyard and Winery goes right on doing what it has always done since starting in 1976, producing chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon wines from its estate vineyards, Alexander Valley for cabernet, Russian River Valley for chardonnay. These are not opulent, flamboyant, super-ripe or over-oaked wines. Alcohol levels are kept low — see the wines reviewed below — and new oak is employed thoughtfully. Jordan’s wines drink exceptionally well with food, and while in some quarters such an assertion is greeted with disdain, that factor seems to me to be the highest purpose and achievement of wine. Jordan also fields a website almost unparalleled in California for its usefulness, range and flow of information and accessibility. Pay heed, all you wineries that cannot manage to get your latest releases on your websites.

These wines were samples for review.
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Two-thirds of the Jordan Chardonnay 2013, Russian River Valley, was barrel-fermented, one-third fermented in stainless steel. The wine aged six months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels; only 18 percent of the wine went through “malo” — the so-called malolactic fermentation that transforms sharp malic (“apple-like”) acid to creamier lactic (“milk-like”) acid — thus retaining most of the wine’s crisp, vibrant character. The color is bright but pale gold; classic aromas of pineapple and grapefruit are highlighted by notes of cloves, quince and ginger, with tinges of mango and jasmine lingering in the background. This is quite fresh, lively and appealing, poised among spicy citrus and slightly roasted stone-fruit flavors, a scintillating limestone element and a texture just lush enough to add some sensuality to its spare elegance. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 or 2020 with seared salmon or swordfish, trout with brown butter and capers, seafood risottos. Excellent. About $30.
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The Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Alexander Valley, is a blend of 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 17 percent merlot, 3 percent petit verdot and 1 percent malbec. Interesting that 85 percent of the grapes derived from Alexander Valley; 14 percent came from Mendocino County and a scant 1 percent from Dry Creek Valley; this is called choosing your sources carefully. The wine aged 12 months in 73 percent French oak barrels and 27 percent American oak, a total of 37 percent being new barrels; it spent 22 months resting in bottle before being released. The color is a transparent medium ruby with a slightly lighter rim; the wine is unusually intense and concentrated on structure, with aromas of briers and brambles and loam permeating notes of black currants, cherries and plums, accented by hints of cloves and allspice, with the latter’s element of exotic woodsy astringency. On the palate you taste the spicy black fruit flavors wrapped around a firm core of iodine and iron etched with lavender and violets and a touch of bitter chocolate; the texture is lithe and supple, while the whole package, animated by bright acidity, is dense and chewy with dusty, graphite-tinged tannins. While this cabernet may display a tad less elegance than Jordan cabernets typically do, it feels imbued with more dignity and character; consider it a triumph from a difficult year. 13.8 percent alcohol. Try with steak or grilled veal or pork chops from 2016 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $53.
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Newspaper reporter Davis Bynum began making wine at home in Berkeley in 1951. He became sufficiently adept that in 1973 he purchased 84 acres in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley that turned into the home of his eponymous winery. Ready to retire in 2007, after making wine for some 60 years, Bynum sold the brand to Tom Klein, owner of Rodney Strong Vineyards. Present winemaker is Greg Morthole, with the ubiquitous David Ramey serving as consulting winemaker. The Davis Bynum winery today focuses on pinot noir and sauvignon blanc from Jane’s Vineyard and chardonnay from the River West Vineyard. I’m a fan of the pinot noirs, both the “regular” bottling and the clonal selections, and the cool, clean, crisp and herbal sauvignon blanc from Virginia’s Block; I am not a fan of the over-wrought chardonnay, as you will see in the review that follows. Jane’s Vineyard lies on Fulton Road, west of Highway 101, northwest of the city of Santa Rosa. The soil is gravelly loam, shallow and fast-draining. The vine rows run east-west, so clusters on the south side receive more sunlight than those on the shadier north side of the rows. These sorts of nuances of exposure lend complexity to the final product.

These wines were samples for review.
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Let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way first. The Davis Bynum River West Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley, was made in exactly the manner that produces chardonnays that set my teeth on edge. The grapes were barrel-fermented; the wine went through full malolactic fermentation, the chemical process that transforms crisp malic (“apple-like”) acid into soft creamy lactic (“milk-like”) acid; the wine aged 11 months in French oak barrels, of which 29 percent were new, not a bad regimen, but the wine rested sur lie, on the residue of spend yeast cells, and received “plenty of batonnage,” that is, stirring to agitate the lees and promote richness in the wine. The result is a chardonnay that is bold, bright, brassy, stridently spicy and imbued with dessert-like qualities of creme brulee, lemon meringue pie and caramelized pineapple. At the same time, a paradoxical austerity from mid-palate through the finish contributes to the wine’s fundamental lack of balance, integration and integrity. This is a chardonnay that’s not about a vineyard and the grapes but about pumping up an extraneous character through the devices of its making. 14.5 percent alcohol. Not recommended. About $25.
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Now, on to happier matters.
The Davis Bynum Jane’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, derives from selected blocks within the vineyard. The wine spent 10
months in French oak barrels, 30 percent of which were new. The color is a limpid medium ruby-garnet hue; aromas of black and red cherries and plums are highlighted by notes of sour cherry candy and melon ball, with hints of cloves, sassafras and exotic sandalwood and a burgeoning element of violets and rose petals, altogether a most enticing bouquet. On the palate, the wine offers a super satiny and polished texture for its spicy and moderately succulent cherry and currant flavors, while earthy underpinnings in the form of fresh loamy qualities provide foundation. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. A real pleasure. Very Good+. About $ .
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________The Davis Bynum Dijon Clone 115 Jane’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, aged 10 months in French oak, 31 percent new barrels. The color is an entrancing medium ruby with a light cerise robe; scents and flavors of cranberries and pomegranate, with a hint of cherry and plum compote, are riven by bristling elements of briers and brambles and undertones of loam; a few moments in the glass bring up notes of violets and lilac and a beguiling whiff of talcum powder. Lovely drag and flow over the tongue induce a feeling like silky static, and while the wine is darkly tasty, it’s quite dry and almost tannic in effect; the wine grows earthier and more burnished as time passes. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 480 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $55.
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The oak treatment for the Davis Bynum Dijon Clone 667 Jane’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, is slightly different from that of its Clone 115 stablemate mentioned above; for this wine, it’s 11 months in French oak, 32 percent new barrels. Another difference is that this pinot noir is a bit more reticent, rather more spare and structured than the 115. The color is medium ruby with a transparent rim; aromas of cranberries, black cherries and plums open to subtle notes of lavender and sage and nuances of violets and cloves. Surprisingly, the wine is fairly tight on the palate, with a prominent display of slightly dusty tannins and an earthy, almost granitic and austere finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 507 cases. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $55.
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I have used Wordsworth’s lines so often — “The world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” — that I won’t allude to them on this occasion but merely issue an apology and assert that sometimes I just can’t keep up with tasting and writing. In fact, this post is probably the first in a series of “mea culpa” catch-up entries that I will issue over the next few weeks — if I have time. Ha-ha! These wines, a miscellaneous dozen from California, 11 red, one white, were all samples for review.
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Amapola Creek Monte Rosso Vineyard “Vinas Antiguas” Zinfandel 2011, Sonoma Valley. Winemaker Dick Arrowood mixed 5 percent petite sirah to this zinfandel derived from one of Sonoma County’s legendary vineyards, where the zinfandel vines are 118 years old. The wine aged 15 months in a combination of new and used French and American oak barrels. Generally, I have been a fan of Arrowood’s efforts at Amapola Creek, rating everything I have tasted either Excellent or Exceptional. The exception, however, will be this example, because the heat and sweetness from 15.5 percent alcohol tip the wine off balance and render it into a clunky blockbuster. That’s a shame, because such details as its melange of ripe and spicy black currants and blueberries, cloves, sandalwood and smoked fennel and a chiseled granitic quality would have been gratifying in a different package. Production was 310 cases. Not recommended. About $42.
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Amici Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. There’s an aspect of darkness about this (nonetheless) winsome pinot noir: a dark ruby color; a certain dark shading in its spicy elements of cloves and sandalwood; the smokiness of its black cherry scents and flavors hinting at currants and raspberries; the earthiness of its brier-brambly structure. The lovely texture, though, is all warm satin, while bright acidity keeps it lively and quaffable. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Production was 1,300 cases. Very Good+. About $35.
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Bonny Doon Vineyards Le Cigare Blanc reserve 2011, Arroyo Seco. The blend for this highly aromatic wine is 62 percent grenache blanc and 38 percent roussanne, from the Beeswax Vineyard; the grapes were fermented together in stainless steel and aged in five-gallon glass carboys, also called demijohns or bonbonnes, of the sort typically employed in home brewing and winemaking. The color is very pale gold, and it seems to shimmer in the glass. All of the lemon kingdom has assembled here in its guises of roasted lemon, lemon balm and lemon curd, highlighted by notes of quince and ginger, lanolin, lilac and camellia. It’s a savory and saline wine, spare, lean and supple and quite dry yet generous with its citrus flavors that delve a bit into stone-fruit. The entire package is animated by crystalline acidity and crackling limestone minerality. Alcohol content is a pleasing 12.5 percent. Production was 480 cases. Excellent. About $54.
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Daou Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Paso Robles. The wine is a blend of 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent merlot and 9 percent petit verdot that spent 19 months in French oak barrels, 80 percent new. The color is very dark ruby-purple, almost opaque; seductive aromas of spiced, macerated and slightly roasted black cherries and raspberries are permeated by notes of graphite, cedar and tobacco and a hint of rosemary’s brash resiny quality; a few moments in the glass bring in touches of black olive and loam. This is a solid, tannic, granitic-based wine, spare and dusty and quite dry but with plenty of ripe black and blue fruit flavors; fairly rock-ribbed presently, it needs a lot of air to unfurl its attractions. 14.2 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2021 to ’25. Excellent. About $56.
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Davies Vineyards Nobles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. This pinot noir, which aged 15 months in 41 percent new French oak barrels, originated from an area of the Sonoma Coast region recently designated as the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. Don’t be surprised if in the coming years we see more segments of the vast Sonoma Coast fragmented into smaller AVAs; Petaluma Gap, anyone? The color is a beguiling medium ruby hue, though that limpidity is belied by the wine’s sense of power and muscularity; this is intensely spicy, bursting with ripe and macerated black cherry and plum fruit, while a few minutes in the glass bring up pungent notes of old leather and pomegranate. It’s a fairly dense and chewy wine, displaying incisive graphite minerality and acidity that I can only call flaring and buoyant. Quite a performance on pinot noir’s dark side. 14 percent alcohol. Production was 550 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $55.
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Davies Vineyards Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Here’s a pinot that’s a bit more to my taste than the Davies Vineyards Nobles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 mentioned above, at least in terms of style. This spend 15 months in French oak, 22 percent new barrels. The color is a transparent medium ruby, and the first impression is of the earth, with rooty and loamy aspects under briers and brambles; then come black and red cherries and currents segueing to dusty plums, smoky sassafras and exotic spices like sandalwood and cloves. Within this sensual panoply expands a core of nuance — lavender, violets, a bare hint of beet-root — and clean bright acidity. 14 percent alcohol. Production was 400 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $55.
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Dunstan Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011. Sonoma Coast. The color is dark ruby with a mulberry tinge. I would say that this pinot noir displays glorious purity, intensity and clarity, but “glorious” implies an emphatic nature that I want to avoid; let’s say, instead, that it’s perfect and adorable in the expression of those qualities. Aromas of red and black cherries and currants are imbued with notes of cloves and sandalwood, sassafras, rose petals and violets, with undertones of briers, brambles and loam, all amounting to a seamless marriage of elegance and power. The texture is supremely satiny, rolling across the palate like liquid money, but the wine’s ripe and spicy black and red fruit flavors are buoyed by slightly leathery tannins and back-notes of polished oak, the whole effect enlivened by fleet acidity. 14.5% alcohol. Excellent. About $55.
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Gallo Signature Series Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Gina Gallo employed grapes from the family’s Olson Ranch Vineyard to craft this well-made but not compelling pinot noir that aged eight months in a mixture of new and used French oak barrels. The color shades from dark to medium ruby at the rim; aromas of black cherries and cranberries, smoke and loam, cloves and pomegranate characterize the attractive bouquet, while on the palate the wine is satiny smooth and supple; a few minutes in the glass bring out pretty floral elements. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $35.
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Pedroncelli Mother Clone Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. The “mother clone” of this wine is a vineyard planted to zinfandel vines since 1904; some of those grapes are included here. Other parts of the vineyard represent the second generation of vines cloned from the original plants, all blended here with six percent petite sirah grapes. The wine aged 11 months in American oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby with a magenta rim; pungent aromas of black currants, blackberries and blueberries feel warm and spicy but with edges of graphite, briers and brambles. Bright acidity brings liveliness to dense dusty tannins and a slightly chiseled granitic minerality that testifies to the wine’s origin in an old hillside vineyard; however, black fruit flavors are equally bright and faceted, gradually opening to touches of lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $18, representing Great Value.
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Sanctuary Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Maria Valley. This is a beautiful pinot noir in every sense, from its lovely transparent medium ruby-cherry hue, to its bouquet permeated by notes of spiced and macerated red and black currants and cherries, with hints of rhubarb and cranberry, tobacco leaf and cigarette paper, to its subtle undertones of loam and moss and brambles, to its seductive satiny texture. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 841 cases. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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Silverado Vineyards Mt George Merlot 2010, Napa Valley. This classically balanced and structured wine is a blend of 77% merlot, 19% cabernet sauvignon, 4% malbec, 1% petit verdot. (Yeah, that’s 101 percent.) The color is very dark ruby-purple, verily, verging even unto motor-oil black; it’s quite pungent, unleashing penetrating aromas of ripe, meaty and fleshy black cherries and raspberries bursting with notes of cassis and black olives, bell pepper and tobacco. Chiseled and polished graphite rules the day, with hints of iodine and saline qualities, earth and loam; the texture is supple, lithe, dense and chewy, yet somehow refined and elegant, never forgetting its obligation to beautiful but not showy black and red fruit flavors. 14.9 percent alcohol. A terrific, finely-honed and tuned merlot that displays great character. Drink now through 2018 to 2022. Excellent. About $35.
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Steven Kent Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Livermore Valley. The blend here is 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5
percent each petit verdot and merlot and 2 percent cabernet franc; the wine aged 24 months in 60 percent new oak barrels, mostly French with a small portion of American oak from the Appalachians. A dark ruby hue transcends inky purple; the bouquet is clean and fresh, very cherry-berry with some raspberries and their sense of faint raspiness, briers and brambles in the background, with an intensifying element of violets, lavender and potpourri. This panoply of sensual pleasures doesn’t quite prepare your palate for the rush of dusty tannins, the wheatmeal and walnut-shell austerity, the espresso and graphite elements that characterize the wine’s passage through the mouth. Still, coming back to it in an hour or so reveals its expression of a more approachable side, so give it a chance. A nicely manageable 13.5% alcohol. Production was 983 cases. Excellent potential, 2016 or ’17 through 2020 to ’24. About $48.
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Sojourn Cellars was launched in 2001 with 100 cases of cabernet sauvignon. The winery, based in the town of Sonoma, was founded by Craig and Ellen Haserot with winemaker Erich Bradley. The (not uncommon) idea was to produce limited quantities of pure and intense chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir wines from excellent vineyards. Judging from my experience with a selection of chardonnays and pinot noirs from 2010 — link to my reviews here — and these examples from 2012, the team succeeds in their aim. As you will see, the chardonnay from the Durell Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast AVA was a bit flamboyant for my palate, but I find the pinot noirs to be perfect models of the grape’s delicate yet tensile marriage of power and elegance. All the wines are fermented by native yeasts; the pinots see 50 percent new French oak barrels. Though the length of time in oak was not specified in the technical information I received with these samples, the influence of the span spent in the new and used barrels resulted in wines of lovely suppleness and nuance.
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The Sojourn Cellars Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast, is a “3 Bs” chardonnay: Not Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but bold, bright and brassy. The color is luminous medium gold; forthright aromas of lightly roasted and caramelized pineapple and grapefruit are permeated by notes of cloves and ginger and hints of mango and orange rind; a quadrille of ripe and macerated stone-fruit parades across the palate, and I wish it revealed a bit more of a limestone and flint element and brisk acidity to balance the richness. Still, it’s not blatantly tropical, it’s not dessert-like, it’s not stridently spicy, though it’s a little over the top for my taste. The wine was barrel-fermented in 40 percent new French oak and underwent malolactic fermentation while aging. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 275 cases. Very Good+. About $54.
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The color of the Sojourn Cellars Wohler Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, is an entrancing medium ruby-mulberry hue, while the hypnotic bouquet wreathes notes of cranberry and sassafras, black and red cherries, lavender and crushed violets with undertones of oolong tea and orange rind and hints of loam and mushrooms. These intoxicating elements segue seamlessly onto the palate, where they drape and flow like a dense satiny fabric of luxurious cost, though there’s nothing heavy or obvious here; this is a pinot noir that whatever its heft retains an essential grasp on the ineffable. The aromas deepen as an hour or so passes, and the wine grows increasingly floral and spicy; it’s quite dry, however, with a long finish that’s surprisingly mineral-flecked and tannic. Exquisite proportions, 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 550 cases. Drink now through 2017 to ’20. Excellent. About $40.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ The Sojourn Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast, is characterized by racy acidity, and while the wine is delicate and elegant, it offers plenty of vitality and cut. The color is medium ruby-magenta; aromas of cloves and sassafras, red cherries and currants blend with hints of pomegranate and cranberry and notes of dried fruit and sandalwood, yes, there’s incense-like pungency in the glass. Despite a touch of cherry-berry succulence, the wine pulls up an element of briery-brambly earthiness and underbrush-infused loam for depth under its savory, slightly macerated black and red fruit flavors. Despite those factors, the wine feels poised, graceful and delectable. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 1,150 cases. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $54.
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The Sojourn Ridgetop Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast, offers a limpid medium ruby-mulberry hue with a transparent rim; this is the earthiest of this trio of single-vineyard pinot noirs, displaying a full complement of briers, brambles and loam under layers of redness: I mean red cherries and raspberries, a hint of cranberry, a touch of red licorice. Vibrant acidity cuts a swath on the palate, making for a texture that’s spare and lithe though not meager; this, like its stablemates, remains generous and expansive in terms of fruit and spice while making rather serious demands in terms of its tannic and mineral-flecked structure, making it the most Burgundian of these examples, not that the comparison matters, but it indicates to me a certain style and philosophy. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 450 cases. Best from 2016 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $59.
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The reputation of Russian River Valley’s Inman Family Wines rests on chardonnay and pinot noir, but if you grow pinot noir, you might as well produce a rosé, n’est-ce pas, and if you make pinot noir, you might as well experiment with carbonic maceration. That technique is explained below, with a review of Inman’s Whole Buncha Love Pinot Noir 2013. Owner and winemaker Kathleen Inman asserts that this wine is her favorite pinot noir that she has made, and while I think that statement is rather hyperbolic — she makes terrific “regular” pinot noir — this first effort at carbonic maceration resulted in a wine of great authority, detail and dimension. So, under review today are the recently released Inman Family Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir 2014 and Whole Buncha Love Pinot Noir 2013. These were samples for review, and I’m really happy that I was able to try them, “try” being a euphemism for “drink every damned drop.”
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Kathleen Inman’s Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River Valley, represents the first rosé table wine I have tasted this year, by which I mean that I’ve also had rosé sparkling wines. Made from the winery’s OGV Estate — Olivet Grange Vineyard — it marks a great way to begin what I hope will be a whole season of brilliant or at least tasty rosé wines. Made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes and seeing only stainless steel, the Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir 2014 displays a shimmering light pink-mauve hue — call it the modest blush of an aroused nymph — and a captivating bouquet of strawberries and red currants, dried cherries, jasmine and violets, with background notes of cloves and orange rind and a mysterious and seductive scent I can only name as licorice Necco wafer. The wine is sleek and spare on the tongue, building its structure from brisk but not tart acidity and crystalline limestone minerality, though achieving too a modicum of nicely balanced lushness; to its strawberry and raspberry flavors it adds a hint of spiced peach and, on the finish, juicy watermelon. 12.8 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2015. Production was 1,500 cases. Excellent. About $25.
The image is of the previous vintage label.
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The Inman Whole Buncha Love Pinot Noir 2013, from the winery’s OGV Estate in Russian River Valley, is made in the carbonic maceration method. Put rather simply, the process involves putting whole bunches of red grapes in a tank, covering the mass with a blanket of carbon dioxide to create an anaerobic situation, and allowing the bunches on top and in the middle gradually to crush those below. (It is not employed for white wines.) The bunches on the bottom undergo a kind of natural fermentation due to wild yeasts on the skins, while the whole bunches above, in a complicated chemical transformation, achieve a state of non-yeast-induced fermentation inside the grapes. Carbonic maceration is associated most closely with Beaujolais and the gamay grape, though method is also used in Burgundy. In a response to a post on my Facebook page, Kathleen Inman described her procedure:

I made this by placing 4 tons of 100% whole clusters in an open top fermentor. The only juice released was from the weight of the clusters, about 70 gallons in the end. I covered the fruit with dry ice (CO2) and tarped the tank to seal it. Four times a day for 28 days, I opened the top, pumped over the juice to help promote the native fermentation (no yeast or bacteria was added to the wine) and then I reapplied the dry ice and sealed it up. (Now you can see where the “Whole Buncha”" and the Love came from!). There is no excessive CO2 in the wine although the fermentation that happens within the skins of the grapes does produce CO2 that is trapped. When you pop one of the fermented grapes into your mouth it is not dissimilar to a pop rock! This wine was very fresh and fruity when it was first dry, but as it aged in the barrel for 15 months and was stirred periodically, any CO2 dissipated, so there is no frizzante character to the wine. It is my favorite Pinot Noir I have made to date.

The color is bright and translucent cherry red; penetrating aromas of loam, red and black currants and cherries, sassafras, pomegranate and cranberry are infused by notes of cloves and allspice and a hint of lavender. The texture offers a lovely satiny drape on the palate, though buoyed by bright acidity and a piercing graphite element; 15 months in neutral French oak barrels lend firmness, subtlety and suppleness to the wine’s structure. Flavors of crushed cherries and currants are borne on a burgeoning wave of clean loam and underbrush qualities, with the complete effect of intense purity and an eloquent evocation of varietal character. 14.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 to ’19. Production was 168 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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Unbate your breath, My Readers, today I present the annual “50 Great Wines” entry, this edition for 2014. I posted to BiggerThanYourHead 135 times in 2014 and reviewed 582 wines. These 50 Great Wines represent 8.6 percent of the wines I reviewed last year. How do I choose the 50 wines for this honor? First, any wine that I rated Exceptional automatically gets a berth in the roster. After that, the selection process involves going back over every post, looking at the reviews of the wines that received an Excellent rating, reading the notes again and looking for the words or phrases signifying that I felt a wine was exciting, provocative, intriguing, highly individual. You can be sure that this list probably isn’t definitive; how could such a selection of wines be? I cut from the field many wines that could easily have been included, but the limit is 50 and they had to be sacrificed. Even as I clicked on the “Publish” button on WordPress I thought, “Oh no, how could I leave out ……?”

Going through these wines, many of My Readers may cry “Foul!” because some of them were produced in severely limited quantities, but that’s often the case with great wines. Think of the situation as a challenge wherein you face a sort of scavenger hunt in tracking such wines down. Some of these wines were made by well-known winemakers for prominent wineries or estates; others are far more obscure, but I enjoy bringing attention to young, small, family-owned and -operated properties that otherwise might not receive the exposure they deserve. The usual suspect grapes are included, of course — chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir — but you will also find on this list proponents of trousseau gris and grenache gris, carignane and cinsault, crafted by brave pioneers of the unusual, even rare grapes. With one exception — the Dolce 2005 — these products are the current releases from their wineries, or close to it. I think all of them were samples for review or were tasted at the property. I hope this list of 50 Great Wines inspires you to look for the ones that capture your interest and to try wines you never encountered before. Prices, by the way, range from about $22 to $120. Coming in a few days will be my annual list of 25 Great Bargain Wines $20 and Under.
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Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Sonoma Valley. With 7 percent petit verdot. 1,475 cases. Exceptional. About $70.
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Anakota Helena Montana Vineyard Elevation 950 Feet Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Knights Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $75.
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Animo Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. With 17 percent petit verdot. From Michael Mondavi. Excellent. About $85.
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d’Arenberg The Other Side Shiraz 2010, McLaren Vale, Australia. 14% alc. 96-year-old vines. 200 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $85.
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d’Arenberg Tyche’s Mustard Shiraz 2010, McLaren Vale, Australia. 14% alc. 200 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $85.
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Battenfeld Spanier Mölsheim Riesling 2012, Rheinhessen, Germany. Exceptional. About $23.
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Blair Estate Pinot Noir 2010, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. 481 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc 2013, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. 55% roussanne, 26% grenache blanc, 19% picpoul. 1,965 cases. Exceptional. About $28.
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Bonny Doon Cuvée R Grenache 2012, Monterey County. 593 cases. Excellent. About $48.
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Cade Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $28.
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Catena Zapata White Bones Chardonnay 2010, Mendoza, Argentina. Exceptional. About $120.
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Cenyth 2009, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. 47% cabernet sauvignon, 28% merlot, 10% cabernet franc, 8% petit verdot, 7% malbec. The debut release from this collaboration between Julia Jackson, daughter of the late Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke, and Helene Seillan, daughter of Pierre Seillan, winemaker of Verité. Exceptional. About $60.
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Chêne Bleu Aliot 2010, Vin de Pays du Vaucluse, France. 65 percent roussanne, 30 percent grenache blanc, 5 percent marsanne and some smidgeon of viognier. Exceptional. About $85.
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Clos Saron Out of the Blue, 2013, Sierra Foothills. 90 percent cinsault, 5 percent syrah, 5 percent graciano. (The cinsault vines planted in 1885.) 170 cases. Excellent. About $30.
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Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. 14.7% alc. With 10% merlot. 470 cases. Exceptional. About $80.
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Cornerstone Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Napa Valley. 361 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
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Dolce 2005, Napa Valley. 90 percent semillon, 10 percent sauvignon blanc. A majestic dessert wine. Exceptional. About $85 for a half-bottle.
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Elena Walch Kastelaz Gewürztraminer 2012, Alto Adige, Italy. Exceptional. About $32.
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The Eyrie Vineyards Original Vines Reserve Pinot Gris 2012, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 261 cases. Exceptional. About $33.
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FEL Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $38.
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Fields Family Wines Old Vine Zinfandel 2011, Mokelumne River, Lodi. 200 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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Gallegos Boekenoogen Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 250 cases. Excellent. About $42.
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Grgich Hills Estate Fume Blanc 2012, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $30.
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Idlewild Grenache Gris 2013, Mendocino County. 230 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Inama Vigneto du Lot 2011, Soave Classico, Italy. Excellent. About $30.
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Inman Family “Endless Crush” Rosé of Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $25.
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Inwood Estates Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Dallas County, Texas. Excellent. About $40.
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J. Christopher Wines Lumière Pinot Noir 2011, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 756 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Diamond Mountain District, Napa Valley. With nine percent malbec. Exceptional. About $90.
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Tenutae Lageder Porer Pinot Grigio 2012, Sudtirol, Alto adige, Italy. Excellent. About $25.
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McCay Cellars Carignane 2011, Lodi, 218 cases. Excellent. About $32.
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Newton “The Puzzle” 2010, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. This proprietary wine is a blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 18 percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot and 4 percent malbec. Exceptional. About $100.
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Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. With 3 percent petit verdot, 1 percent each malbec and cabernet franc. Excellent. About $100.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.4% alc. 230 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Phifer Pavitt Date Night Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 588 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
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La Pitchoune Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 279 cases. Exceptional. About $60.
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Pittnauer Rosenberg St. Laurent 2010, Burgenland, Austria. Excellent. About $27.
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Quinta do Vallado 20 Years Old Tawny Porto. 83 cases. Exceptional. About $80 for a 500-milliliter bottle..
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Respite Reichel Vineyard Indulgence 2010, Alexander valley, Sonoma County. A proprietary blend of 65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 22 percent malbec and 13 percent cabernet franc. 77 cases. Exceptional. About $75.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2010. Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 429 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 1,302 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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Steven Kent Winery Merrellie Chardonnay 2012, Livermore Valley. 504 cases. Excellent. About $34.
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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Origin Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Valley. 266 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Sonoma Coast. 170 cases. Exceptional. About $65.
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Tin Barn Coryelle Fields Syrah 2009, Sonoma Coast. 123 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Two Shepherds Trousseau Gris 2012, Fanucchi Vineyard, Russian River Valley. 25 cases. Exceptional. About $25.
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VML Blanc de Noirs 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $50.
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Volta Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $60.
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Wakefield St. Andrews Single Vineyard Release Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Clare Valley, Australia. 250 cases imported. Excellent. About $60.
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Weltner Rödelseer Küchenmeister Trocken Sylvaner 2012, Franken, Germany. Excellent. About $27.
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Audrey and Berry Sterling bought the 300-acre property in Russian River Valley that became Iron Horse Vineyards in 1976. The estate was named after a railroad stop that was sited on the property in the 1890s. Rodney Strong rediscovered it as a vineyard site in 1970, planting the original 55 acres of chardonnay and 55 acres of pinot noir. Joy Sterling, Audrey and Barry Sterling’s daughter — image at right — became CEO of the company in 2006, after 20 years of representing the family’s wines. Winemaker is David Munksgard. While Iron Horse produces still wines, it is best-known for its diverse roster of sparkling wines made in the champagne method. I reviewed two of those sparklers in the 2010/2011 edition of this series — the Brut Rosé and the Blanc de Blancs from 2005 — but recently tasted a pair of the winery’s limited edition efforts.

These wines were samples for review, as I am required to inform My Readers by ruling of the Federal Trade Commission. This is the third post to this blog of 2015.
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The Iron Horse Winter’s Cuvée 2010, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, is a blend of 74 percent pinot noir and 26 percent chardonnay. An interesting aspect is that the final dosage includes a touch of Audrey Sterling’s Pinot Noir Brandy from 1987. The color is very pale straw-gold; a terrific storm of tiny glancing bubbles fills the glass. This sparkling wine opens with winsome though slightly chilly elements of acacia and jasmine, apple and pear and bare hints of guava, ginger and quince; there’s an intriguing, almost otherworldly note of pine and juniper. It’s indeed a wintry sparkling wine, deeply etched with bright acidity, glacial in its chiseled limestone minerality and displaying tremendous resonance and vibrancy. All these aspects are deftly balanced and integrated into an eminently attractive, yet delicately demanding, package. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 250 cases, available to the winery’s club members and through the tasting room, including online. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $58.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ The point of the Iron Horse Brut “X” 2010, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, is that it receives no dosage, so it’s presumably bone-dry. Of course sparkling wines and Champagnes typically exhibit such roaring acidity that even with some residual sugar they feel dry anyway. So, what do we expect from this blend of 69 percent pinot noir and 31 percent chardonnay? First, the color is very pale gold, a kind of platinum blond; as with its stablemate mentioned above, the bubbles surge in an upward torrent to the surface. This is very clean, crisp and lithe, quite elegant and fine-boned; a kind of lemony-gingery haze wraps a smoky, steely core, decorated with nuances of almond skin, lime peel, spiced pear and grapefruit rind. Almost needless to say, this is a sparkling wine of tensile power, scintillating limestone and flint minerality and exhilarating drive. It’s the quaff you knock back before tossing your glass off the snowy peak. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 500 cases. Drink through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $50.
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The Sixth Day of Christmas is always scary because it marks the halfway point in the sequence of 12 days and reminds me that I have so many Champagnes and sparkling wines to write about and so little time in which to accomplish my goal. So, here goes.

The VML of VML Wines is Virginia Marie Lambrix, who operates not only her own winery in the Russian River Valley, focusing on chardonnay and pinot noir but since 2012 has been director of winemaking for Truett-Hurst Winery in Dry Creek Valley. Lambrix has a scientific background not usually seen in the California wine industry; before returning to school at UC-Davis and earning a master’s degree, she worked for the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany. Her previous winemaking experience came at Hendry Ranch, Concha y Toro S.A., Lynman Winery and De Loach Vineyards. This sparkling wine is the only product I have tasted from VML Wines, and it’s a humdinger.

The VML Blanc de Noir 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, is a blend of 74 percent pinot noir and 26 percent chardonnay; it’s a collaboration, according to the winery website, with Iron Horse Vineyards, a well-known producer of sparkling wine. The glowing, jewel-like color is very pale onion skin; you could not ask for a more exhilarating or invigorating spiral of tiny glinting bubbles. Subtle scents of dried strawberries and red currants are wreathed with notes of orange rind, tangerine, rose petal and spiced pear, all arrayed against a backdrop of flint and limestone. Boy, this sparkler offers tremendous tone and luster, with lots of verve propelled by pinpoint acidity and a texture both lithe and lively yet attractively lacy and cloud-like; rather Alpine in effect, the finish is packed with glacial minerality and fractal elegance. 13.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $50.

This wine is one of those samples that arrives unheralded and accompanied by no information, and the winery website is pretty reticent too, so I have no idea how many cases were produced and how wide the distribution is; I’m guessing not many and not widespread. Mark this, then, Worth a Search via Internet or telephone. You won’t be sorry.

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