Russian River Valley


A raft of chardonnays here from the Golden State, ranging geographically from Santa Barbara County in the south to Sonoma Coast in the north. They’re mainly from 2011 and 2012, with one from 2013. I offer a $10 product so good that you should buy it by the case, which I don’t often say about chardonnay, and reject some models that cost $65 and $70. I mean, as long as producers turn out chardonnays that embody the over-oaked, stridently spicy, tropical-tinged and butter-infused crème brûlée-like style — and the major wine publications continue to pass out high ratings for such wine — I will continue not to recommend them as unpalatable and undrinkable. Little in the way of historical, geographical or technical data today; these Weekend Wine Notes are intended to be quick and incisive, not as detailed as my regular reviews. Enjoy! (Or not.)

These wines were samples for review.

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Clos du Val Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; vibrant and vivid purity and intensity, scintillating acidity and limestone-flint minerality; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with hints of mango and cloves; sleek, lithe, dynamic, beautifully balanced; nothing avant-garde or opulent here, just classic winemaking. Excellent. About $28.
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CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast. 14.1% alc. Pale gold hue; bright, clean and fresh; pineapple-grapefruit-roasted lemon, hints of nutmeg, lemon balm and lemon curd; dense and chewy, packed with spice and seashell-limestone minerality; slightly astringent floral element; quite dry, very attractive weight and substance; earthy finish where the oak comes out a bit more. Very Good+. About $25.
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Dunston Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 13.3% alc. Limited production. Ravishing medium gold hue with a green tinge; pine, cloves, grapefruit and pineapple with notes of mango, roasted lemon and some leafy/green tea element; fascinating in its complexity and risk-taking but ultimately exquisitely balanced, though you feel the tug of polished oak on the finish after an hour or so. Limited production. Excellent. About $45.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium gold color; very bright and bold, even brassy; very spicy with roasted grapefruit and baked peach, slightly caramelized; way too much oak, too much butter and tropical elements; stridently spicy, over-ripe and then austerely dry; fundamentally unbalanced. Not recommended. About $35.
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Gundlach Bundschu Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.3% alc. Pale gold color; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with hint of mango; Chablis-like chalk and flint; smoke and earth, dense and chewy and pretty darned intense and concentrated; a substantial style. Very Good+. About $27.
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Isabel Mondavi Chardonnay 2012, Carneros. 13.7% alc. Medium straw-gold color; smoke, toast, oak; roasted lemon and baked pear; fairly spicy with buttered and caramelized citrus fruit; quite dry, sleek, good acidity and limestone minerality, but doesn’t know what style it wishes to emulate. Very Good. About $30.
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Jackson Estate “Camelot Highlands” Chardonnay 2012, Santa Maria Valley. 14.5% alc. This chardonnay falls under the Kendall-Jackson rubric rather than Jackson Family Wines; does either entity really need more brands? Medium gold; vividly spicy, boldly ripe and tropical; smoke, toast, brown sugar; dense and chewy, almost viscous, carries opulence to ridiculous lengths; toasted coconut and marshmallow; crème brûlée; doesn’t even come close to palatable in my world. Not recommended. About $35.
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Jordan Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. 13.5% alc. Pale gold color; a typical Jordan chardonnay, nothing bold or sumptuous, thank goodness, but well-balanced with keen acidity and an edge of vital limestone minerality to bolster pineapple-grapefruit flavors highlighted by notes of cloves and lilacs; very dry, clean, spare, elegant; oak is an echo rather than a presence. Excellent. About $30.
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Laetitia Estate Chardonnay 2012, Arroyo Grande Valley. 13.8% alc. I generally like Laetitia’s pinot noirs, but this chardonnay is beyond the pale. So: pale gold color; starts off clean and fresh, with pineapple-grapefruit and notes of roasted lemon and mango; then expands with extravagant richness and exaggerated spice, smoke and crème brûlée gone to the dark side; where are the mitigating acidity and minerality? Not recommended. About $18.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Morelli Lane Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 182 six-pack cases. Steven Kent can make clean, balanced and finely detailed chardonnay (see below), but under his La Rochelle label he turns more baroque and fantastical; this wine is so oaky and over-spiced that it felt harsh on my palate. It gets no recommendation from me. About $65.
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Mandolin Chardonnay 2012, Monterey. 13.5% alc. Clasp this well-made inexpensive chardonnay to your bosom as if it were a long-lost friend. Pale gold color; pineapple-mango-grapefruit, hints of jasmine, crystallized ginger and quince; a tad dusty-earthy; deft balance among acidity, spicy oak and spare limestone minerality; notes of citrus on the finish. Very Good+. About $10 and a Remarkable Bargain.
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Newton Chardonnay 2012, Napa County. 14% alc. Medium gold hue; warm and spicy, bright and bold, but nicely balanced and shapely, with a sheen of oak; ripe pineapple and grapefruit with a note of green apple; brisk acidity and a scintillating limestone finish. Quite attractive. Very Good+. About $28.
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Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. This cousin to the wine mentioned just above is both more ambitious and unfortunately far less balanced; medium gold color; bright, ripe, brassy citrus and stone-fruit scents and flavors; cloves, caramel, brown sugar; very tropical, buttered toast, meringue; yet strangely very dry and austere on the finish. Unpleasant and unpalatable. Not recommended. About $65.
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Olema Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma County. 14.1% alc. (Second label of Amici Cellars) Pale gold color; crisp, taut, fresh; apples, grapefruit and pineapple; spicy and lively, a little lean and sinewy but generous and expansive too; quite pleasant and tasty. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
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Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Uh-oh. Medium gold color; forthright and boldly spicy, forthright and deeply oaky. I couldn’t drink it. Not recommended. About $47.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Pale gold; ineffable weaving of grapefruit and pineapple, Golden Delicious apple, cloves, ginger and quince; very dry but juicy and savory; lovely heft and texture, lithe and supple, almost talc-like but riven and balanced by bright acidity. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; so clean and pure, such crystalline intensity, yet spare, elegant and subtle but with a core of natural richness; roasted lemon and lemon balm; notes of pineapple and nectarine; very dry, packed with limestone and flint minerality, but quite delicious, seductive, compelling. Why can’t all chardonnays be like this? Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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Reuling Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14% alc. 350 cases. Major disappointment. Very pale gold; brightly spicy, boldly scented; nutmeg and cloves, pineapple and grapefruit caramelized in butter; cinnamon toast; too creamy on the one hand, too sharply spicy on the other, essentially unbalanced, paradoxically both cloying and austere. Not recommended. About $70.
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Steven Kent Winery Merrillie Chardonnay 2012, Livermore Valley. NA% alc. 504 cases. Pale gold color; spare, clean and fresh; lemon balm with notes of grapefruit rind, lemongrass and green tea; hints of nutmeg and cloves; heaps of limestone minerality buoying a lovely talc-like texture shot with shimmering acidity; let’s call it beautiful. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $34.
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Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium straw-gold color; a classic of balance and elegance; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors infused with cloves and limestone; lovely weight and heft, that is to say feels dense and weightless simultaneously; clean, bright acidity for liveliness; subtle, supple oak influence and limestone minerality. Excellent. About $28.
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Souverain Chardonnay 2011, North Coast. 13.5% alc. Pale straw-gold hue; smoke, cloves and nutmeg; pineapple and pears; very dry, very spicy but dense with a crème brûlée element with emphasis on the brûlée; astringent grapefruit finish; bright acidity barely saves the day. Good only. About $16.
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William Allen moved into commercial production in 2010, after years as a “garagiste” and writer. This doesn’t mean that he makes a lot of wine. Two Shepherds as a one-man operation, truly a labor of love, so the wines are made in minute quantities; sorry about that. These are Rhone-style wines that see no new oak, are foot-stomped, use natural yeasts and generally exhibit remarkable purity and intensity. I love them; there, I said it.

These wines were samples for review. The labels used for illustration below are one vintage behind.

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The Two Shepherds Pastoral Blanc 2012, Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley, is a blend of four white grapes typical of the southern Rhone Valley: 50 percent roussanne, 35 percent marsanne, 10 viognier and 5 grenache blanc; the wine ages an average of six months in neutral French oak barrels. The color is pale gold; aromas of quince and ginger, peach and spiced pear open to notes of bee’s-wax and camellia, sea-shell and limestone. The wine is rich, focused, enveloped in a structure of moderate and very attractive weight and body, clean, bright and crisp yet almost talc-like in texture. Quite dry, it offers a smoky, earthy and autumnal essence of peaches, nectarines and yellow plums, cloves and allspice and a backwash of limestone-and-flint minerality and salinity. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with grilled or roasted salmon or tuna, grilled mussels, trout with lemon-caper butter or shrimp salad. Production was 105 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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This time not Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley but Saarloos Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley, for the Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc 2012; at first I thought that was a misprint. Santa Ynez, approved as an AVA in 1983, is in southeast Santa Barbara County and bears within it the sub-appellation of Santa Rita Hills. This grenache blanc offers an aura of greenness, by which I do not mean green as in grapes picked before they’re ripe, but green as in leafy green, as in sea-green, as in greengage, as in green apple. The color is pale straw-gold; notes of jasmine and honeysuckle are spare and ethereal, wreathed with tangerine and grapefruit and backed by shell-like minerals and a sort of sea-breeze salinity. A moderately soft and satiny texture is energized by brisk acidity and scintillating limestone minerality, while the finish brings in hints of green tea, orange rind and cloves. Eighty percent of the wine aged seven months in neutral oak, the other 20 percent six months in stainless steel. 13.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with Thai salads, trout quenelles, watercress and cucumber sandwiches (crusts trimmed, of course). Production was 125 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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William Allen made one barrel of the Two Shepherds Trousseau Gris 2012, Fanucchi Vineyard, Russian River Valley, amounting to 25 cases, so while it’s a brilliant wine, the chances of any of My Readers getting their hands on a bottle are about as remote as Beyonce singing La Boheme in Bethlehem. The grape is trousseau gris, not widely found even in its home of the Jura mountains where France nestles against Switzerland. Being “gris,” the grape’s faintly rosy onion skin or grayish color yields a radiant coral hue when the wine is fermented on the skins; in other words, it’s a “white” wine made as if it were a red wine. The seductive and unusual bouquet delivers hints of orange zest and strawberries, melon and lemon balm with intriguing notes of parsley and celery and a touch of flint. It’s quite dry but juicy with ripe peach, red currant and rhubarb flavors deepened by the slight astringency of peach skin and almond skin, smoke, briers and brambles, all wrapped in clean acidity and a note of graphite minerality. The whole package is characterized by remarkable presence, resonance, transparency and vividness. The wine aged eight months in neutral oak barrels, four months on the lees. 13.8 percent alcohol. We drank this versatile bottle over several nights with a variety of food. Now through 2016 or ’17. Exceptional. About $25.
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So, here’s the red wine of this foursome. The Two Shepherds Syrah/Mourvèdre 2011 is a cross-county blend of 55 percent syrah from Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, and 45 percent mourvèdre from El Dorado. It aged 10 months in neutral French oak, the barrels four years old or older, four of those months on the lees. The color is a pronounced dark ruby with a magenta robe; fresh aromas of ripe red and black currants and plums are intensified by cloves, graphite, a hint of new leather and depths of briery, clean mossy earthiness. The wine is fine-grained and supple, riven by incisive acidity, decisively dry, dense and chewy, almost feral in its purity and individuality; despite projecting a vibrant and somewhat unbridled red and black fruit character and texture, the wine feels light on its feet, with nothing ponderous or opulent. 13.8 percent alcohol. Product was 40 cases. Drink now through 2018 or ’20 with grilled leg of lamb, a hot and crusty medium rare rib-eye steak just plunked from the coals, a gamy veal chop. Excellent. About $38.
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Here’s a rosé to entice lovers of all things delicate and elegant. The J Vineyards Vin Gris 2013, Russian River Valley, is 100 percent pinot noir, made all in stainless steel and was bottled a scant three months ago. “Vin gris” means “gray wine” in French, though the color here isn’t so much gris as it is a very pale copper salmon hue, like pink parchment. Ethereal scents of strawberries, raspberries and red currants, slightly spiced and macerated, are wreathed with notes of orange rind and pomegranate, with a hint of limestone in the background; a few moments in the glass bring up a touch of lilac. Pert acidity keeps this rose crisp and lively, while the wine’s texture comes close to being lush; it’s the balance between those elements that lends a bit of animation and electricity on the palate. Flavors of red currants and watermelon are effortlessly buoyed by dusty, brambly flint-like qualities, all notions woven into an ephemeral silken finish. Alcohol content is 14.3 percent. Drink through the end of 2014 with all fare related to the porch, the patio, poolside or picnic. Closed with a screw-cap, so it doesn’t matter if you forgot the corkscrew, again. Winemaker was Melissa Stackhouse. Excellent. About $20.

A sample for review.


Here are quick notes on eight pinot noir wines from California, all eminently desirable, ranging in price from $22 to $70, and in rating from Very Good+ to Exceptional, two of the latter, so pinot fans pay attention. As is usual with these Weekend Wine Notes, I eschew technical, historical, geographical and personnel data for the sake of immediacy, the intention being to pique your interest and whet your appetite. Enjoy, and I hope everyone has a happy and safe Memorial Day Weekend.

These wines were samples for review.
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Cambria Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Maria Valley. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby with a magenta tinge; deep, rich and spicy; thyme and caramelized fennel, black and red cherries, currants and cranberries with a hint of rhubarb; succulent and satiny, dense, quite dry but sweetly ripe; earth and loam, graphite underpinnings; flavorful and tasty. Now through 2016. Very Good+. About $22, representing Good Value.
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Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2011, Carneros. 14.3% alc. 479 cases. Medium ruby color with violet tones; lovely balance, dimension and detail; black cherry and cranberry, sassafras, cloves and rhubarb; deep and rooty, yet it retains ultimate delicacy and elegance; paradoxically dark, spicy and wild, hints of briers, loam and graphite; black and red fruit flavors that feel almost transparent and weightless, though the wine drapes like the finest, most sensuous satin on the tongue. Now through 2017 to ’18. Excellent. About $72.
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Isabel Mondavi Estate Pinot Noir 2011, Carneros. 14.4% alc. Dark ruby color with a magenta tinge; cranberry and rhubarb, hints of pomegranate, cola and cloves with back-notes of tar and loam; surprisingly burly and robust, very dry, texture like satin born of dusty velvet; burgeoning floral element: roses and violets; deeply plummy and curranty with a touch of raspy raspberry and mulberry. Absolutely lovely, with a bit of mystery and sexy hauteur. Now through 2016 to ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.4% alc. Entrancing “robe” — almost opaque ruby-purple at the center and lightening subtly to a violet-magenta rim; smoky black cherries and plums, pomegranate and cranberry, cloves and cola; a graphite and loamy element that cuts the dense, chewy satiny texture; plump with ripe black fruit, deeply spicy with a hint of mint and mocha but doesn’t push into opulence; instead, displays exquisite, slightly risky balance. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $55.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.4% alc. 230 cases. Dark ruby-magenta color; plums, raspberries and mulberries, hints of pomegranate and dusty graphite; cloves, sassafras; super sleek, supple and satiny, almost sultry; smoke, burning leaves, a touch of moss and brambles; some astringency and rigor to the structure, a lash of granite and acid at the core of deep spicy black and red fruit flavors. Tremendous tone and presence. Now through 2017 or ’18. Exceptional. About $45.
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Reata Three County Pinot Noir 2012, California. (48% Monterey County, 44% Sonoma County, 8% San Benito County). 14.3% alc. Dark ruby color; pomegranate, cranberry, blueberry with some graphite element under a sanding of woody spices; quite dry, dense, supple lip-smacking texture with vibrant acidity; you feel the glassy polished tannins and oak like a granitic bastion but the wine is deeply flavored, rich, exotic, with keen balance between the succulent and the rigorous. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $26.
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Reuling Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14% alc. 1,000 cases. Dark ruby-magenta color; black cherries, mulberries and cranberries with notes of cloves and allspice, dried fruit and potpourri with crushed violets and lilacs; pushes oak to the limits with a great deal of dry structure and asperity, but it is smooth, lithe and svelte and above all delicious; I like the risks with oak because the wine offers really lovely balance; it finishes with a seductive display of mocha, pomander and bitter chocolate. A serious pinot noir, packed with the gratifying and the unexpected. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $70.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2010. Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 429 six-pack cases. Fairly dark ruby-magenta hue; a wine of fantastic and deepening complexity; cloves, sandalwood, sassafras; spiced and macerated black cherries, currants and plums; briers and loam set into a superlatively satiny texture, yet thoroughly imbued with a sense of graphite and oak defined dimension and gravity; quite dry, almost austere, but resilient, supple and elegant. Now through 2017 or ’18. Exceptional. About $48.
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In the brave annals of vinous experimentation, the J Vineyards Misterra Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, is one of the strangest. If you are a purist when it comes to pinot noir, the thought of blending other varieties with that grape seems a violation, a stain on the snowy tunic of a Vestal Virgin, like adding a dollop of syrah or cabernet franc to a Chambolle-Musigny. The J Misterra 2012 blends six percent pinotage and four percent pinot meunier to Russian River pinot noir. Pinotage, widely known as “the signature grape of South Africa,” was created in 1925 as a cross between pinot noir and cinsault by Abraham Izak Perold, the first professor of viticulture at Stellenbosch University. While the survival of the seedlings was in doubt, the grape eventually thrived and became the backbone of the South African wine industry, though I’m here to tell you that it’s an acquired taste. Pinot meunier is most familiar as a red grape grown mainly in Champagne as a blending element; it’s a natural for J Vineyards because of their excellent sparkling wine program.

So, what is this pinot + pinot + pinot like? Pinotage is a powerful influence, and even at only six percent tips Misterra 2012 toward the earthy, loamy, rustic camp. The color is medium ruby-magenta with a lighter transparent rim; the whole package is very spicy, deeply fruity and wildly floral, with notes of spiced and macerated black and red currants and cherries with a trace of blueberries and, as a few minutes pass, tobacco and roasted coffee beans. Full-bodied and robust, fairly dense with dusty and graphite-laden tannins, this combines cloves, black cherries, bitter chocolate and rhubarb with spanking acidity and granitic minerality in a robust structure that’s more solid and shaggy than smooth and supple. Though it manifests myriad points of satisfaction, this is not what I want pinot noir to be. 14.3 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Melissa Stackhouse, who previously worked for La Crema and fashioned excellent pinot noirs for that winery. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Very Good+. About $50.

A sample for review. Image from vivino.com.

There are rosés, and then there is the Inman Family “Endless Crush” Rosé of Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. The wine’s nickname commemorates the long relationship between winery owner and winemaker Kathleen Inman and her husband, Simon. At first, she made the wine only for them and the family, but you can’t keep a great wine hidden endlessly. This rosé derives from Inman’s Olivet Grange Vineyard, from pinot noir vines dedicated to that purpose. It is fashioned, of course, completely in stainless steel. The color is the true Provençal rosé hue of light salmon-copper, more gris than pink; delightful and enticing aromas of dried currants and strawberries are buoyed by thyme, damp gravel and a tinge of ripe tropical fruit. This is a zesty rosé, layered with notes of peaches, watermelon and cloves riven by crisp acidity and a lacy limestone element that seems to lend tensile strength to what might be ephemeral and evanescent. The total effect is dry, spare, elegant, lively, irresistible. 12.8 percent alcohol. Production was 1,350 cases. Drink now through the Summer of 2015 with such picnic fare as cold fried or roasted chicken, deviled eggs, watercress and cucumber sandwiches, rabbit terrine. I don’t often rate rosé wines Exceptional, but this one is an exception. About $25.

A sample for review.

Three pinot noirs, two cabernet sauvignons, one syrah; a nice sense of symmetry, n’est-ce pas? Five from California, one from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. All rated Excellent. One more costly than most of us can afford, the others more reasonable. All offering many virtues and confidences of the vineyard, the grape, the winemaker’s gentle and genial art. Quick notices here, eschewing technical matters and such geographical and historical information as much stimulate our fancies; the idea is that these notes — not as full-bodied as actual reviews — will inspire your interest and whet your palates. Enjoy!

These wines were samples for review.
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Olema Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma County. 14.2% alc. (The second label of Amici Cellars.) Radiant ruby-magenta color; plums, mulberries and cranberries, brier rose; hints of cloves, rhubarb and pomegranate; dense, supple and satiny; ripe and lightly spiced red and blue fruit flavors; a few moments in the glass bring in notes of roses and violets, leather and tobacco; undertones of graphite, earth and mild tannins. Really lovely. Now through 2016. Excellent. About $20, marking Great Value.
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Elizabeth Chambers Cellar Winemaker’s Cuvée Pinot Noir 2011, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 13.9% alc. Transparent medium ruby color; quite spicy and lively, with macerated red currants and cherries, seductively ripe but balanced by a spare structure and long elegant lines; hints of cloves, cola and rhubarb, leather and loam, subdued oak; lovely satiny texture, but again that sense of reserve and delicacy, with acidity that lays an arrow across the palate. I could drink this one all day long and almost did. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $32.
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Ramey Wine Cellars Syrah 2011, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. With 5% viognier. 780 cases. Dark ruby color; deliriously spicy; notes of
macerated and slightly fleshy black currants, blackberries and raspberries, roughened by brambles and underbrush elements; robust, dynamic, powered by bright acidity, graphite minerality and sleek tannins; quite dry but flavorful, deft balance of spareness and rigor with generosity and expressiveness; finish packed with woody spices, granite and lavender. Perfect with pork chops coated with cumin, urfa pepper and chili powder. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Entrancing ruby-magenta hue; nicely layered aromas of cloves and allspice, hint of sandalwood; macerated red currants, plums and cranberries; notes of rhubarb and pomegranate; gently sifted tannins over loam and slightly granitic minerality; a touch of lightly candied red cherry; lithe, supple, sinewy; exhibits terrific confidence and authority without being ostentatious. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $45.
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Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 13.9% alc. With 8% each merlot and cabernet franc. 1,302 cases. Dark ruby color; rigorous structure with mountain roots but such a pretty surface, violets and lavender, cassis, plums and black cherries, note of licorice; stout, robust tannins and dusty oak bastions; walnut shell and underbrush; gets dustier and more austere but still scrumptious; lithic chambers of blueberries, sweet smoke, soy sauce and barbecue; iodine, iron, resonant acidity. Drink 2015 or ’16 through 2025 to ’30. Always one of Napa Valley’s best and most characterful cabernets. Excellent. About $45, representing Great Value for the Quality.
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Hestan Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. 14.7% alc. 400 cases. An exemplary Napa Valley cabernet, and at the price it ought to be. Dark ruby-purple hue; iron and iodine, lavender and violets; black currants, black cherries and raspberries with a graphite/ancho chili edge, a hint of black olive, a dusting of dried rosemary; glossy tannins and a polished oak superstructure, all enlivened with brisk and elevating acidity; a long, dense yet lithe finish. If you have on hand a medium-rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the charcoal grill, introduce it to this wine. Now through 2020 to 2025. Excellent. About $110.
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When Constellation purchased Ravenswood for $148 million in 2001, the consensus was: “Uh-oh.” No way, we thought, will the giant alcoholic beverage company allow Joel Peterson to make those single-vineyard old vine zinfandels with the same individuality, if at all. These fears proved groundless, as a decade shows. Peterson founded the winery in 1976, and it’s a measure of his dedication — and the slim profits that the winery generated — that he kept his day-job as head of a medical laboratory at Sonoma Valley Hospital until 1992, when the success of the Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend wines enabled him to devote what must be his every waking moment to making wine and running the facility. Under review today are three samples of Peterson’s genuinely old vine products, as in each vineyard — Old Hill Ranch, Barricia, Belloni — contains at least part of the original vines planted more than a century ago. What I like about these zinfandels is that they deliberately eschew the blockbuster qualities of high alcohol, deep extraction and super-ripe fruit; don’t look for anything plummy and jammy in these wines, no cloying boysenberry flavors or alcoholic heat. Peterson’s hallmarks are purity and balance in terms of structure and fruit. He succeeds admirably.
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When one steps into Old Hill Ranch, in what is now the Sonoma Valley AVA, there’s a feeling of being on sacred ground. The vineyard was planted around 1880 by William McPherson Hill, who established his farm in 1851. The property passed through his descendents until Otto and Anne Teller acquired it in 1981 and decided not to uproot the historic but abandoned overgrown vines but to restore the vineyard to productivity, working with Joel Peterson, who released Ravenswood’s first Old Hill zinfandel in 1983. The vineyard contains more than 30 varieties of red grapes, the majority zinfandel but also a remarkable array of the well-known and the obscure. It is now farmed by Otto Teller’s stepson, Will Bucklin, who has his own label.

The Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel 2011, Sonoma Valley — 75 percent zinfandel, 25 percent mixed black grapes — offers a medium ruby-magenta color and pungent aromas of fresh raspberries and blueberries infused with lavender and graphite, with hints of dried thyme and cedar, all highlighted by some clear wild berry notes. The wine is quite dry but balanced and integrated, its moderately dense but supple tannins and lithe acidity providing support for black and blue fruit flavors inflected by pepper, cloves and a touch of mint. The wine aged 19 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels, but the influence stays firmly in the background. The finish is clean and well-knit, packed with spice and graphite minerality. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 1,200 cases. Drink now through 2018 to ’21. Excellent. About $60.
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Barricia looks Italian or Spanish, but it’s a combination of the first names of Barbara Oleson and Patricia Herron, who bought the historic property in 1978. How historic is it? In the 1840s, the land belonged to Sonoma pioneer General Mariano Vallejo, who traded it to his children’s music teacher for piano lessons. Of the 10 acres of zinfandel vines on the estate, six were planted before 1892, the rest in 1995; two acres of petite sirah were planted in 1998. The vineyard now belongs to Mel and Angela Dagovitz.

The Ravenswood Barricia Zinfandel 2011, Sonoma Valley, is a blend of 75 percent zinfandel and 25 percent petite sirah grapes. Fermentation is by indigenous yeasts; the wine aged 19 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. The color is intense medium ruby; the wine is bright, clean, fresh and spicy, roiling with notes of macerated raspberries, plums and mulberries wreathed with hints of white pepper, leather and loam. In the mouth, this is, characteristically, muscular and sinewy but light on its feet and enlivened by brisk acidity; still, the tannins build incrementally, chiseled and faceted, along with granitic minerality, leading to a very dry, almost austere finish. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 1,250 cases. Try from 2015 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $35.
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The property that became Belloni Vineyard was planted around 1900 and acquired by Italian immigrant Ricardo Belloni in 1971. Joel Peterson started making zinfandel from the vineyard after meeting Belloni in 1991. The owner died in 1997, but his widow, his children and grandchildren keep the legacy going. This is a flat, sea-level site in a cool foggy Russian River Valley climate.

The Ravenswood Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel 2011, Russian River Valley, is a blend of 75 percent zinfandel and 25 percent mixed black grapes — Peterson’s magic numbers; the wine is fermented on native yeasts and aged 19 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels. The color is glowing medium ruby; the vivid bouquet offers spiced and macerated black and red cherries and raspberries with notes of sandalwood and fruitcake, licorice and lavender, staying just on this side of the exotic. As with its sister wine from Barricia, the Belloni ’11 gradually layers its sleek tannins, its granitic core and its seething acidity in seamless balance, while the oak component provides supple framework and foundation. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 800 cases. From 2015 through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $35.
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Call me a romantic, but I was raised on Keats and Tennyson, Chopin and Brahms; how could I be anything else? So, here I am again, offering a roster of brut rosé Champagne and sparkling wines for your Valentine’s celebration. Yes, the idea is trite, but it’s also right for the occasion. We hit Italy, Spain, France and California in this post and offer prices that range from a highly manageable $15 to the elusive $100. Whatever the differences in price and character, these are all very satisfying — and in some instances, exciting — products. Pop the cork (carefully) and pour (carefully) into tall flute-style glasses, gaze upon the vivid colors, revel in the effervescence, enjoy the lively flavors and the tingle on your palate. Above all — share with someone you love.

These products were samples for review. Image from clipartguide.com.
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When a sparkling wine bottle comes robed in pink, my first thought is “Gack, sweet!” The Anna Codorníu Brut Rosé, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain, however, feels crisp and bone-dry. Composed of 70 percent pinot noir grapes and 30 percent chardonnay, “Anna” is made is the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, as the regulations for Cava dictate. The color is fiery copper; aromas of blood oranges, raspberries and dried red currants are heightened by notes of cloves and orange rind; dry and crisp, yes, but leavened by juicy orange, lemon and strawberry flavors that arrow in to a lively grapefruit zest, lime peel and limestone finish. 12 percent alcohol. This estate goes back to 1659, when Anna Codorníu married Miquel Raventos; their descendants still run the company. Very Good+. About $15, a Distinct Value.

Imported by Aveníu Brands, Baltimore, Md.
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Juvé y Camps Brut Rosé, Penedès. Made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes in the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, this crowd-pleaser offers a brilliant ruby-garnet hue and a fount of tiny bubbles; notes of pure strawberry and raspberry with a hint of pomegranate lead to a dry, crisp yet juicy and delicious sparkler that provides plenty of crisp acidity and flint-like minerality for body and structure. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $16 and Worth the Price.

Imported by Winebow, New York.
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Cavicchioli & Figli Vigna del Cristo 2011, Lambrusco di Sorbara, is made completely from lambrusco di Sorbara grapes in Italy’s Emilia- Romagna region. The grapes derive from the Cavicchioli family’s original 12.5-acre vineyard; though in the grape-growing business for over a century, the family first bottled its own wines in 1928. For this example, 50 percent of the free-run juice undergoes second fermentation in tank, lending the wine a mild but very pleasing effervescence. Unlike many lambrusco wines, which manifest a dark ruby-purple hue, the color of the Cavicchioli & Figli Vigna del Cristo 2011 is a ruddy copper-flame color; enticing aromas of ripe strawberries and rose petals open to a background of raspberries and a slight earthy rasp to the texture; the wine is very dry, and a surprising limestone and flint element emerges, as well as an autumnal aura, just a touch over-ripe and mossy. All this adds up to a delightful wine with a hint of seriousness. 11.5 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2014. Very Good+. About $17.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.
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The latest release of the J Vineyards Brut Rosé, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, is a blend of 66 percent pinot noir, 33 percent chardonnay and 1 percent pinot meunier; it’s made in the Champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle. The color is a radiant coral-topaz hue, energized by a gentle upward swirl of tiny silver bubbles. Strawberry shortcake in the bouquet is balanced by notes of raspberries, cloves and orange zest with hints of floral astringency and spiced pears. The stones-and-bones structure is both powerful and elegant, dry and crisp, with a halo of dried red currants and raspberries supported by pert acidity and an impressive limestone character. A lovely sparkler. Winemaker was Melissa Stackhouse. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $38.
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The Ronco Calino Radijan Rosé, Franciacorta, Lombardy, is dedicated to owner Paolo Radici’s father. The color is slightly ruddy, smoky salmon-pink; the bubbles are exceedingly tiny, fine and persistent; first impression is pure strawberry and raspberry but highlighted by notes of orange rind and grated lemon peel, limestone and steel. This is a very lively, spicy sparkling wine, truly effervescent; ripe and macerated red berry flavors are wrapped around a spine of bright acidity and clean flint-like minerality. The whole effect is sensual, charming and appealing yet with dark earthy undertones. 13 percent alcohol. Production was 500 cases. The image of a piano on the label is an homage to the great pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995), to whom the estate once belonged. Excellent. About $31.

Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, N.Y.
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The Domaine Chandon Étoile Brut Rosé, North Coast (Napa and Sonoma counties), is one of the prettiest sparkling wines you’ll find, though it has a serious, even a dramatic side too. A blend of 49 percent chardonnay, 45 percent pinot noir and 6 percent pinot meunier (slightly different than the previous release), it displays an entrancing fiery copper-peach color and a steady pulse of infinitesimal glinting bubbles. The bouquet is characterized by strawberries and red currants enlivened by orange zest and cloves and hints of fresh-baked bread, flint and steel. There’s very agreeable tension among slashing acidity, taut and crisp-edged limestone-like minerality and an almost luxurious sense of round citrus and stone-fruit nuances and irresistible seductive power. This would be a great special occasion — i.e., romantic — sparkling wine. 13 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Tom Tiburzi. Excellent. About $50.
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Delamotte is owned by Champagne Laurent-Perrier (see below), and as such is a sister house to Champagne Salon, one of the greatest, rarest and most expensive of all Champagnes. Don’t worry, though, the Delamotte Brut Rosé is a special brut rosé Champagne priced reasonably for the type. The pinot noir grapes for this blend derive from Grand Cru vineyards at Montagne de Reims; the chardonnay is from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, superior pedigree all round. The color is shimmering copper-salmon, like a deepening sunset; tiny bubbles surge swirling to the surface. This is a high-toned and austere rose, built on strains of steel and limestone wreathed with orange zest, camellia, quince, ginger and lightly buttered cinnamon toast; chiming acidity and an almost crystalline flint and limestone element lend frosty if not glacial elegance, but the effect is more thrilling than forbidding. 12 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Michel Fauconnet, also cellar-master at Laurent-Perrier. Excellent. About $70, though online there’s a wide range of prices.

Imported by Vineyard brands, Birmingham, Ala.
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The entrancing color of the Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut, Champagne, France, is a ruddy copper-salmon color, like tarnished silver over rosy-gold, enlivened by a constant upward froth of tiny glinting bubbles; this is all pinot noir, from 10 Grand Cru villages, presented in an old-fashioned bell-shaped bottle. The initial impression is of raspberries, red currants, orange zest and lightly toasted brioche, quickened by high notes of something wildly berry-like and broadened by bass tones of flint and chalk. The balance between fleetness and suppleness is exciting, and while the whole package is beautifully woven, elegant and sleek, it harbors depths of limestone minerality and bright acidity for resonance. Intense yet buoyant and sophisticated. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $100 suggested retail price but can be found for far less on the Internet.

Imported by Laurent-Perrier U.S., Sausalito, Cal.
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Including not merely a roster of pinot noir wines from California but a pinot meunier made as a still wine — it mostly goes into Champagne and sparkling wine — and two pinot gris/grigio wines, one from northeast Italy, the other from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. As usual in these quick reviews, ripped, as it were, from the fervid pages on my notebooks, I eschew the available range of technical, historical, geographical and personal (or personnel) detail to concentrate on immediacy and my desire to pique your interest and whet your palate. Enjoy!

These wines were samples for review.
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Ascevi Luwa Pinot Grigio 2012, Collio, Italy. 12.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; winsome aromas of hay and almond blossom, saline and savory; roasted lemon, spiced pear; a little briery; very dry, crisp and chiseled but appealing moderately full body and texture; a far more thoughtful pinot grigio than one usually encounters. 1,500-case production. Excellent. About $19.
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MacMurray Ranch Pinot Gris 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 15% alc(!). A Gallo label. Medium gold color; jasmine and honeysuckle, lemon and lemon balm, baked pear, all very spicy and intricately woven; attractive supple texture and bright acidity, but you feel some alcoholic heat on the slightly unbalanced finish. Very Good. About $20.
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La Crema Pinot Noir 2012, Monterey County. 13.5% alc. Jackson Family Wines. Medium ruby-violet color; black cherries and currants, cloves, tobacco and sassafras, hint of brown sugar; earthy and loamy, moss and mushrooms; very dry but satiny and supple, with tasty black fruit flavors; the oak comes up a bit in the finish, along with some graphite-tinged minerality. Now through 2016. Very Good+. About $23.
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La Crema Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 13.5% alc. Jackson Family Wines. Lovely limpid ruby-magenta color; sour cherry and melon, pomegranate, cranberry and cloves, develops a hint of smoke and black cherry; lovely and limpid, again, in the mouth, flows like satin across the palate but enlivened with keen acidity; notes of earth and brambles. Drinks very nicely but doesn’t have the heft that La Crema pinot noirs typically display. Now through 2015. Very Good+. About $25.
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La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Coast. 14.9% alc. 326 cases. Enrapturing ruby-magenta color; a lithe and supple pinot noir that takes 45 minutes to loosen up a bit; cranberry and cola, dried cherries and raspberries; cloves and allspice, fairly exotic; buoyed by bright acidity and slightly bound by oak and tannin. Now through 2015. Very Good+. About $42.
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La Rochelle Deer Meadows Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 14.3% alc. 235 six-pack cases. A real beauty. Lovely medium ruby-plum color; black and red cherries, pomegranate and pomander, oolong tea, sassafras and beetroot, slightly earthy and loamy, yes, the whole panoply of sensation; a few moments bring in notes of iodine, mint and graphite; very dry, dense, almost chewy, quite notable tannins for a pinot noir but well-managed and integrated; gathers power and paradoxical elegance in the glass. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $75.
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La Rochelle Saralee’s Vineyard Pinot Meunier 2012, Russian River Valley. 13.9% alc. 866 cases. Pinot meunier is primarily grown as a minority component in Champagne and sparkling wine production. Entrancing transparent ruby-magenta color with a clear rim; delicate, dry, slightly raspy in the sense that raspberries and their leaves can be raspy; black and red cherry compote, spiced and macerated, with a subtle element of dried fruit, flowers and spices; damask roses, note of violets; dust, earth, a touch of loam, enlivened by swingeing acidity that plows a furrow. Now through 2016. Oddly Excellent. About $38.
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Liberty School Pinot Noir 2012, Central Coast. 13.5% alc. The first pinot noir from this label known for well-made and moderately priced cabernet sauvignon. Makes sensible claims and meets them: Medium ruby color; black cherry and plum, hints of rhubarb and tart mulberry; smoke and cloves; reasonably supple texture; a little merlot-ish overall, though. Very Good. About $20.
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MacPhail Family Wines “The Flyer” Pinot Noir 2011, Green Valley of Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium ruby-magenta color; quite intense and concentrated for pinot noir, ripe and vivid black and red cherries, smoke, cloves; vibrant acidity cuts a swath, it’s very satiny but with a tannic and oaken core that ramps up the power and somewhat masks the varietal character. Still, it makes an impression. Very Good+. About $59.
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Rodney Strong Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Medium ruby color; pungently spicy and floral, notes of tobacco and coffee bean, cranberry, pomegranate and rhubarb; black cherries with a briery, mossy undercurrent; very satiny, drapes over the palate as it flows; fairly deep and dark aura for pinot noir, with a graphite element and resolutely spicy with cloves and sandalwood, moderately dense tannins. Quite a package. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $25.
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