Sangiovese


An Italian pinot grigio and a Chianti Classico, and you’re thinking, “Ho-hum, hum-drum,” but you couldn’t be more wrong. Each is a superior and eloquent expression of grape variety and geography, and they should not be missed.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa Cal. These wines were samples for review, as I am required to inform my readers by the FCC, though print journalists are not so required.
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Pinot grigio here, pinot grigio there, blah blah blah, and then I run across a pinot grigio wine that gives the distinct impression that it performs exactly as the grape was meant to perform in its Platonic ideal. This one is the Ascevi Luwa Pinot Grigio 2010 from Italy’s Collio D.O.C. in the northeastern Friuli Venezia Giulia region, right up near the border with Slovenia. Made completely in stainless steel, this pinot grigio exudes a floral-fruity-mineral-laced presence that feels not only irresistible but totally authentic and inevitable. The color is pale yellow-gold; the nose is a remarkable weaving of roasted lemons and lemon balm, verbena and mint, dried thyme, almond and almond blossom, a touch of hay or straw, and then, after a few moments in the glass, comes a waft of a bracing iodine-tinged salt-marsh briskness. No, friends, this is not your ordinary pinot grigio. In the mouth, the wine is smooth and sleek, tasty indeed with lemon, lime and lime peel flavors highlighted by cloves and a hint of licorice, all bolstered by crisp, clean acidity and a burgeoning limestone element, wrapped, finally, by a persistent lime-grapefruit finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. This is almost too good to serve merely as an aperitif, or if you ask it to perform such function make certain to accompany it with snacks like grilled baby octopus or white bean-and-sage bruschetta or a selection of mild charcuterie. Drink now through the end of 2012. Excellent. About $19.
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Italy, again, this time Tuscany, for the Vignole 2008, Chianti Classico, a wine made along modern lines — “modern” since the 1980s — that manages to be completely and happily old-fashioned in effect. The decree of 1984 called for a minimum of 75 percent sangiovese grapes and permitted small amounts of the traditional blending grapes for Chianti Classico, up to 10 percent red canaiolo grapes and five percent white trebbiano and malvasia, and up to 15 percent of what were called “authorized” grapes, that is nontraditional “outsider,” i.e., international, grapes such as merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon. The Vignole 2008 forgoes the traditional grapes by adding 15 percent merlot to 85 percent sangiovese. Aging in small French barriques is close to ubiquitous in Tuscany now, though Chianti Classico usually is not put through new oak and is better off so. This estate, located in Panzano, noted as a superior site for Chianti Classico since the mid-19th Century, ages the merlot in medium-size casks and the sangiovese in barriques, each for 12 months, followed by two years aging in bottles.

I was completely beguiled by the bouquet of the Vignole 2008, Chianti Classico, a nuanced amalgam of slightly spiced and macerated blueberries and cranberries, with touches of mulberries and plums and undertones of briers and brambles and some wild, woody, foresty aspect; eight or 10 minutes in the glass bring out hints of rose petals and pomegranate. Those earthier elements, the warmth and spice, the red and blue fruit gather in the mouth to be cushioned by dense but soft, supple tannins and subtly-expressed oak, all unfolding around a core of black tea, dried orange zest, sandalwood and potpourri, and enlivened by bright acidity that cuts a swath on the palate. What a pleasure to drink a Chianti Classico — this was with our Saturday Movie Night pizza — that’s not over-extracted or a slave to new French oak or New World dictates. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 to ’15 with rabbit or veal or small game birds. Excellent. About $37.
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It’s been raining for two days is this neck o’ the woods, the temperature is dropping like drones over Afghanistan and we lie poised under threat of snow ce soir. I guess Ol’ Man Winter, wily bastard, is chuckling up his frost-rimmed sleeve right about now. (Which means that the dogs have basically been confined to quarters for two days, and if you don’t believe things are getting pretty damned high-strung …) Obviously it’s time for a robust, flavorful red wine to go two throws out of three with that cauldron of short ribs you have toiling and troubling on the stove this very moment. My recommendation, at least on this direful Monday, is the Pèppoli Chianti Classico 2008 from Antinori. Whereas many other producers in Tuscany are enamored of new French oak barrels — “they’re French! they must be better!” — Pèppoli follows local tradition by being put into large Slovenian oak casks, with 10 percent going into American oak, all this for nine months. The result is a highly aromatic wine that teems with notes of oolong tea, orange rind, black currants and plums, leather and violets and, after a few moments in the glass, hints of cloves and fruitcake. Really heady stuff, though the stuffing comes as the black and red currants and plum flavors slide through your mouth with their display of supple tannic grip and sprightly acidity and a texture balanced between lithe and luxurious. The wine builds in intensity and depth as the minutes elapse, developing richness and concentration, yet it never ceases to offer warmth and generosity. This is a blend of 90 percent sangiovese grapes, with 10 percent merlot and syrah. 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013. Excellent. About $27, though often discounted around the country to $20 or less.

Imported by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Woodinville, Wa. A sample for review, as I am required to inform you by the FCC.

Two Italian wines today, a white from Umbria and a red from Tuscany, both made in stainless steel, so no oak influence, both accessible, approachable and tasty.
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Two weeks ago, I made the Arnaldo-Caprai Montefalco Rosso 2007 the Wine of the Week — here — so today it’s the turn of that wine’s cousin made from the white grechetto grape, the Arnaldo- Caprai Grecante 2009, Grechetto dei Colli Martani. The grape came from Greece — think El Greco — in ancient times, or else was thought to have been; the same claim is made for greco bianco, the grape that makes Greco di Tufo. Anyway, The Arnaldo-Caprai Grecante 2009, made from vineyards in the Martani hills in eastern Umbria, is delicately spicy and floral, a sort of tissue-like congeries of citrus effects: orange blossom, roasted lemon, lime peel and a hint of pink grapefruit; add a touch of peach, and there’s a great deal of winsome beauty in the wine. This is clean, fresh, spare, slightly lean and sinewy in texture but also lovely in its slightly talc-like weight, its ripeness and modest density. We enjoyed this wine with seared rare tuna and Romesco sauce. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012. Very Good+. About $20.
Imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Ca.
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The Bindi Sergardi Chianti Colli Senesi 2008 is made from 100 percent sangiovese grapes in Tuscany, not around Florence but near Siena; in fact, Chianti Colli Senesi means “Chianti from the hills of Siena.” The Bindi Sergardi family has been growing grapes and making wine on their estate for six centuries. The Bindi Sergardi Chianti Colli Senesi 2008 is a medium ruby color with a tinge of magenta. Because it receives no oak aging — it’s made all in stainless steel — the wine offers delightful purity and intensity of grapy mulberry and black and red currant aromas and flavors grounded in earthy touches of briers and brambles and leather. A few minutes in the glass bring up hints of lavender and violets, baking spices and black tea; the wine finishes with a smoky, slightly meaty aspect and dry, fairly dense tannins. The combination of fruit and spice, of smoke and vibrant acidity makes this wine attractive and highly drinkable, now through 2012 or ’13; great with burgers, pizzas, red sauce pasta dishes and steaks. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Imported by Le Vignoble Fine Wines, Memphis, Tenn.
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Speaking in vinous terms, Umbria tends to play second fiddle to Tuscany, its illustrious cousin to the north, yet this province of shadows offers many bright spots, not only in beautiful, historic towns and cities — Orvieto, Todi, Urbino, Perugia, Assisi — and varied landscape but in wine. Still relatively undiscovered are the wines made from the indigenous sagrantino grape around the tiny and fabulously cute hilltown of Montefalco — mount of the falcon — in eastern Umbria. Interestingly, though sagrantino is the area’s primary grape, Montefalco Rosso mainly involves the sangiovese grape, usually blended with sagrantino or other varieties. That’s the case with the Arnaldo-Caprai Montefalco Rosso 2007, a blend of 70 percent sangiovese, 15 percent sagrantino and 15 percent merlot; the wine ages 12 months, half in botti (large oak casks) and half in small French barriques. This is a dark, deeply spicy, savory red wine that bursts with notes of black currants and red cherries unfolding to a smoldering core of black tea, lavender, licorice, sandalwood and graphite and just a hint of sangiovese’s characteristic dried orange peel. It takes a few minutes for the wine to build layers of intense, meaty, smoky qualities that infiltrate clean ripe black and red fruit flavors permeated by the briery-brambly nature of earthy, smoothly-knit tannins. Spend enough time with the wine and it begins to reveal some austerity, especially through the slightly woody finish, but that’s after two hours. Hugely enjoyable, especially with a rich, savory pizza (as we had) or with similarly styled pasta dishes or grilled or roasted beef or lamb. 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $23.
Imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Ca. A sample for review.

I won’t make the Benessere Rosato 2010, Napa Valley, the Wine of the Week because there’s not enough available. If it’s sold in your neck o’ the woods, however, or if you can order it from the winery, please do; this is a terrific rosé in the New World sense, meaning that it’s darker in color than the often much paler, “gris”-type rosés we see from Europe, particularly the South of France; those wines, indeed, occupy a sacred place in my heart. The color of the Benessere Rosato 2010, on the other hand, is an entrancing true crimson, that is deep, vibrant red — not ruby! — with a tinge of maroon, which in this case includes a pale brick-red or garnet rim, like the world’s most beautiful rose. The wine, made in stainless steel, is a blend of 49 percent zinfandel, 41 percent sangiovese and 10 percent merlot, a unique marriage that results in a heady bouquet of black and red currants, dried cherry, cranberry and an intriguing earthy hint of pomegranate. Limestone fills the background, with black cherry and red raspberry flavors given a savory quality by touches of dried thyme, cloves and briers. You’re thinking, “Gosh, FK, this sounds like a red wine,” but I promise that it is a rosé, just one with an unusual amount of dimension and character; it’s still a congeries of delicacy and nuance, light-hearted and carefree. I had a glass at lunch recently with scrambled eggs, tomatoes, scallions and black olives, though it would be equally appropriate with fried chicken, potato salad, quiche and other picnic and brunch fare. Serve chilled, through summer of 2012. Winemaker was Jack Stuart. 13.6 percent alcohol. The tag on the bottle said 350 cases; the printed material that came with this sample for review says 284 cases. In either case, mark this rosé Worth a Search. Excellent. About $16.

Well, first, it wasn’t really a contest. I volunteered to take some appropriate red wines to a birthday lunch for my former father-in-law, Ed Harrison, who just turned 94, and while he may not be as spry as he once was, he’s a gracious, good-humored person and all-around gentleman. The fare was pulled pork shoulder with beans and slaw and sauce, brought in from a local purveyor, and (second) just to remind My Readers who live outside this vicinity, the word “barbecue” in Memphis is a noun, not a verb, and it refers to pork shoulder or ribs slow-cooked over hickory coals with a basting sauce. (Don’t believe the outside propaganda that “Memphis-style” barbecue is “dry”; traditionally it has been “wet,” that is, cooked with a basting sauce and served at table with a different sauce.) We don’t say “let’s barbecue tonight” or “let’s have a barbecue” as people apparently do in the North and West regions of this great, vast country. “Barbecue” is the stuff itself in these parts. Got that? And, yes, in these parts the slaw goes in the sandwich.

I pulled six hearty red wines from the rack to take to lunch, and here’s what they were:

*Clayhouse “Show Pony” Red Cedar Vineyard Petite Sirah 2007, Paso Robles.
*Kilikanoon Killerman’s Run Shiraz Grenache 2007, South Australia.
*Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2008, Russian River Valley.
*Villa Cecchi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2007, Tuscany.
*Mettler Epicenter Old Vines Zinfandel 2008, Lodi.
*Cruz Andina Malbec 2008, Mendoza.

These wines were samples for review. BBQ sandwich image from lifesambrosia.com; this is a great site for recipes for simple, authentic everyday food, with excellent art and thoughtful commentary.

Let’s eliminate three of these wines immediately. The Mettler Epicenter Old Vines Zinfandel 2008, at 15.8 percent alcohol, epitomized everything that is shamelessly sweet and over-ripe and cloying and awful about high alcohol zinfandel, and I found it undrinkable. About $20. The Cecchi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. made from 90 percent sangiovese grapes with 10 percent mammolo and canaiolo nero, was lean and very dry and austere and not nearly ready to consume; frankly something about the angularity of the wine just didn’t feel right with the rich, smoky, slightly spicy barbecue. Try it in a couple of years, however, with porcini risotto or roasted game birds. About $30. Finally, the Kilikanoon Killerman’s Run Shiraz Grenache 2007 seemed unbalanced between its own smoky, fleshy spicy character and dry, almost rigorous austerity. Not a success. About $19 to $24.

Nickel & Nickel’s Darien Vineyard Syrah is consistently one of the best syrah wines made in California; I rated the 2007 version Exceptional and made it one of My Best 50 Wines of 2010. I think I would rate the 08 rendition Excellent, rather than Exceptional, but boy this is a deep, dense, darkling plain of a wine, headily fragrant, intense and concentrated in its spicy and macerated blackberry, black currant and plums scents and flavors and developing over 20 to 40 minutes added levels of detail and dimension. The wine aged 16 months in French oak, 44 percent new barrels. 1,108 cases. About $50. Actually, this wine was too complex, too multi-dimensioned for the barbecue, which required a wine a little less magnificent, a little more down-to-earth and immediately appealing. Those qualities we found in the Clayhouse “Show Pony” Petite Sirah 2007, Paso Robles, and the Cruz Andina Malbec 2008, Mendoza.

The fresh clean vibrant Clayhouse “Show Pony” Red Cedar Vineyard Petite Sirah 07 is all smoky plums, spicy blueberries and graphite-laced blackberries, ensconced in a smooth, supple structure supported by authoritative, slightly grainy but non-threatening tannins. This went down very nicely with the pork shoulder barbecue, beans and sauce. An expressive version of the petite sirah grape that doesn’t try to knock you down with high alcohol and baroque over-ripeness. This aged 20 months in a combination of French, Eastern European and American oak. Very limited production, unfortunately. Excellent. About $40.

I kept going back and pouring a little more of the Cruz Andina Malbec 2008, a blend of 85 percent malbec, 8 percent syrah and 7 percent cabernet sauvignon derived from Mendoza’s Lujan de Cuyo and Uco Valley areas. The wine was made in a partnership of Chile’s Veramonte winery and Carlos Pulenta, a third-generation vintner in Mendoza. Cruz Andina 08 aged 14 months in French oak barrels, 30 percent new. The whole package is smooth and mellow and tasty, with intense blueberry and red currant flavors supported by elements of smoke and cedar, black olive and potpourri and hints of pepper and spice. This was perfect with the barbecue and fun to drink. Very Good+. About $20.

When I open a bottle of wine for Pizza & Movie Night, I follow no pattern or motivation, no agenda. I usually just pluck what’s at hand and give it a try. It was coincidence, then, that the wines for the past two Pizza & Movie Nights were Italian, both from Tuscany yet very different sorts of wines.
Imported by Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, Cal. Samples for review.
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First is a simple yet tasty Borgianni Chianti 2007, made by Castello di Volpaia from sangiovese grapes grown in the Chianti Colli Senesi area near Siena. The wine is made completely in stainless steel tanks and receives not the slightest kiss of oak; there’s a little canaiolo in the blend, which is traditional for Chianti. What do you want in a quaffable Chianti? How about a dark ruby-colored, robust and slightly sinewy wine that bursts with notes of black and red currants, smoky oolong tea, dried orange rind, cloves and potpourri? Would that get it for you? Borgianni 07 is nicely balanced, with moderately rich black and red fruit flavors cushioned by moderately dense and chewy tannins and enlivened by pert acidity. The wine is quite dry and a bit austere on the briery, foresty finish. 3,000 cases imported. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 or ’13 with pizza, burgers and red-sauce pasta dishes. Very Good+. About $14, a Terrific Deal.
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Tenuta di Biserno is a collaboration between the brothers Marchese Piero and Marchese Lodovico Antinori, of the well-known and venerable family that has been involved with winemaking in Tuscany since the middle of the 14th Century. Piero Antinori runs the vast family business from the Palazzo Antinori in Florence. Lodovico was the founder and owner of Tenuto Dell’Ornellaia in the Bolgheri region in southwestern Tuscany; the first vintage of the flagship “super Tuscan” Ornellaia was in 1985. After various complicated partnerships and buy-outs involving Robert Mondavi, the Frescobadli family and Constellation Brands, Lodovico lost the estate to the Frescobaldi family in 2005.

Tenuta di Biserno was established in 2001. The estate lies in the Alta Maremma region adjacent to Bolgheri near the town of Bibbona. The estate produces three wines, all red, of which Insoglio del cinghiale is considered the entry-level wine. No traditional Tuscan grapes are used here; all devolves upon “international” varieties, and indeed the blend of the Insoglio del cinghiale 2008 — syrah and merlot each 32 percent, cabernet franc 30 percent and petit verdot 6 percent — one might expect to see in California or Australia. Careful winemaking, however, allows Insoglio 2008 to retain individuality outside the category of mere internationalism.

Insoglio 08 is, first, a sleek, elegant and expressive wine whose oak regimen — 40 percent of the wine aged only four months in new and 1-year-old French barriques; the rest in stainless steel — lends it lovely suppleness and firm dimension. The whole effect is of engaging richness, presence and tone tempered by a background of clean, earthy, loamy and graphite-like mineral qualities married to polished and fine-grained tannins that slide through the mouth as if on well-oiled ball-bearings. As many well-made and ambitious wines do, Insoglio 2008 balances intensity and concentration with expansiveness and generosity, and while a few minutes in the glass unfurl depths of minerals and leather, the wine never loses grip on its innate, deeply spicy and macerated black and blue fruit flavors. 14 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 to ’18. Essential drinking, I would think, with rare to medium rare steaks or braised veal shanks, though LL and I happily consumed it with last night’s pizza. Excellent. About $32
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I needed to taste the Nickel and Nickel Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay 2008, Carneros, and it happened that I was about to serve dinner, the cumin-spiced shrimp and chorizo gumbo, and while it didn’t occur to me beforehand that the wine and the gumbo would make a great (or even appropriate) match, together they actually formed one of those slightly edgy BINGO! moments. The zingy cumin- and chili powder-inflected gumbo, for which I concocted a moderately-dark roux, did not make a dent in the wine’s immense elan. This chardonnay is barrel-fermented and ages nine months in French oak, 48 percent new, but does not go through malolactic “fermentation,” the transformative shift that turns crisp malic (apple-like) acidity into creamy lactic (milk-like) acidity. The wine is a radiant medium gold color; it’s rich, spicy and generous, with notes of lemon drop and quince, mango and guava backed by a sprightly piquancy of ginger and clove. Boy, this is vibrant and resonant, a real mouthful of chardonnay, a Girl of the Golden West; it is, however, quite dry, amidst the delicious pineapple and grapefruit flavors (tinged with fig and pear), and your palate feels the tug of oak and woody spice pulling you into the long, dense yet filigreed finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 1,484 cases. Excellent. About $45.
Winemaker is Darice Spinelli
A sample for review.
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I squeezed a little lime juice and dribbled a bit of soy sauce on two swordfish steaks and then patted into the surface a handful of an Asian-style rub. For the cooking process, LL heated olive oil in a cast-iron skillet until it was smoking and dropped the fish in and seared the steaks for a couple of minutes on each side. That was it. They were rare and juicy and filled with flavor. I opened a bottle of Highflyer Grenache Blanc 2008, Napa valley, a wine made 95 percent in stainless steel with five percent aged six months in new French oak. The grapes derive from a 2.7-acre block of the Somerston Vineyard, in the hills east of Rutherford at 1,100-feet elevation. The wine offers lovely balance and integration, beautifully combining spare elegance of structure with rich flavors of lemon drop, Bit o’ Honey (remember those?), pear and quince with a hint of ripe peach. While the wine is dry, crisp and lively, that five percent French oak provides a hint of spice in the background and some suppleness to the silken texture. This was delicious with the swordfish, with a great flavor-to-flavor profile and some keen acidity to cut the richness of the fish. Production was 720 cases. Alcohol content is 13.9 percent. Excellent. About $17, a Raving Bargain.
Craig Becker is owner and winemaker. Back in December, I reviewed the Highflyer Centerline 2007, a red wine blend.
A sample for review.
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I was nibbling, for lunch, an excellent dry, nutty “clothbound” Cheddar cheese, with a few fig and hazelnut flatbreads, and I opened a bottle of the Renaissance Mediterranean Red 2006, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba. (The winery is about 70 miles north of Sacramento in Oregon House.) ’06 is the current vintage for this wine, which is a blend of 47 percent mourvedre grapes, 27 percent syrah and 25 percent grenache. It ages 36 months — yep, that’s three years — in a combination of one- to six-year-old oak barrels and large puncheons The color is dense ruby-red with a hint of magenta at the rim. This is a deeply spicy and savory wine, with scents and flavors of red and black currants and slightly macerated and stewed plums thoroughly imbued with briery-brambly forest-like elements, smoke and ash, dried flowers and spices and a burgeoning ripe, fleshy, meaty character. The Southern Rhone or “Mediterranean” nature of the wine is evident in its expressiveness and intensity married to a sense of delicacy and decorum. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Production was 244 cases. 14.1 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $25.
Winemaker at Renaissance is Gideon Beinstock. A sample for review.
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We went to dine at Bari, the restaurant that features the cuisine of southeastern Italy. As usual, to start we ordered two glasses of the always delightful Vietti Rorero Arneis 2009, from Piedmont — the wine list is all Italian and so is the extensive menu of cheeses — and after a while I asked our waiter to open the bottle I brought to the restaurant. This was the Colognole Riserva del Don 2004, Chianti Rufina, produced at an estate in the historically highly-regarded Rufina region northeast of Florence; in fact, Rufina shares no border with the other Chianti areas and has a very different terrain. The property is owned by Contessa Gabriella Spalletti Coda Nunziante, a fact that almost dares the wine not to be great. At a little more than six years old, Colognole Riserva del Don 2004 is wonderfully smooth and mellow and seamless, with its characteristic sangiovese traits of red currants and red plums, moss and black tea, orange zest and potpourri thoroughly amalgamated with a modicum of woody spice and gently assertive, finely-milled tannins. A real treat and particularly good with our cheese course. Excellent. I paid $35 for this wine, though the national average is more like $30.
Imported by VinDiVino, Chicago.
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We didn’t finish the cheeses, so we brought them home, and the next day I made the Grandfather of All Cheese Toast, which included a truffled gorgonzola, Piave Vecchio, a pecorino, something unknown, grated Parmesan, Urfa pepper, mapuche spice and a dribble of good olive oil. Perhaps paradoxically, I opened a bottle of pinot noir, this being the Angela Pinot Noir 2008, Oregon, though the grapes are from the Clawson Creek Vineyard on Savannah Ridge in the Yamhill-Carlton District of the Willamette Valley. The wine aged 10 months in French oak, 57 percent new, and you feel that reticence (materially and philosophically) in the wine’s ineffable blending of suppleness and sinuosity, in its elegant spareness matched with a seductive satiny texture. The color is medium ruby shading somewhat darker at the center; aromas of red currants with a touch of cranberry and cola are fleshed out with a bit of smoke, briery and mossy earthiness, rose petals and just a hint of cedar and sandalwood. In the mouth, this pinot noir offers some sweet ripeness of black and red fruit, but it’s not opulent or pushy or showy; again, all is breeding and grace, poise and harmony. Just a freakin’ lovely pinot noir that emits authenticity and integrity. When LL got home from work, I gave her a glass and said, “Try this Oregon pinot.” She sniffed and sipped, thought for a moment, and said, “This tastes like a pinot made by Ken Wright.” And by golly, she was correct. Production was 821 cases. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $50.
A sample for review.
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Last night LL made one of our favorite cool weather dishes, the roasted chicken with figs, garlic, thyme and bacon. Yes, it’s exactly as good as it sounds, and as we were chowing down, we kept stopping, each of us, and saying something like, “Holy shit, what a fabulous dish!” I wrote about this item previously, in October 2009; follow the link for a fuller description of the dish and how it’s made.

Anyway, to drink with this delight of savory and hearty flavor, I opened a bottle of the Niner Wine Estates Bootjack Ranch Merlot 2008, Paso Robles. which I’ll get to in the reviews further along.

The winery was founded in 2001 and is owned by Richard and Pam Niner. Richard Niner, a product of Princeton and Harvard Business School, spent 30 years investing and turning around small businesses before visiting San Luis Obispo County and deciding to get into the wine industry. He bought the Bootjack Ranch on the east side of Paso Robles in 1999; a later purchase was Heart Hill Vineyard, in the western reaches of Paso Robles, 12 miles from the ocean and often 10 degrees cooler than Bootjack. Chuck Ortman consulted for the first vintages produced by the winery; since 2004 winemaker has been Amanda Cramer.

These wines were samples for review.
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For a winery that concentrates on red wines, Niner turns out a splendid sauvignon blanc; in fact, along with the Merlot 2008 and Syrah ’06, the Niner Bootjack Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Paso Robles, was my favorite of this group of recently tasted wines from the producer. The color is very pale straw-gold. Aromas of roasted lemon, tangerine and grapefruit are imbued with notes of lemongrass, dried thyme and tarragon and a pungent element of gunflint and limestone; this is a bouquet I could sniff and contemplate for hours. The wine ages briefly in a combination of stainless steel barrels and once-used and neutral French oak, so the wood influence is subtle and supple, a soft blur and burr of dusty spice. In the mouth, the wine is taut with spanking acidity and clean limestone-backed minerality; pert flavors of lemon and grapefruit wrap around hints of meadow grass and leafy fig; the finish is long, lacy, spicy, chalky. A great sauvignon blanc for drinking through 2012. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 1,395 cases. Excellent. About $17, a Remarkable Value.
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The Niner Bootjack Ranch Merlot 2008, Paso Robles, is one of those rare merlots from California that asserts its individuality from under the mantle of cabernet sauvignon; that is to say, it smells and tastes like something other than cabernet. This polished beauty offers notes of blueberry, mulberry and cassis ensconced in graphite, cedar, lavender, thyme, pepper and black olive. The wine retains something untamed and plangent, high tones of wild berry and exotic spice, along with more typical black and red currant flavors bolstered by shale-like minerality and burnished oak from French and Hungarian barrels, one-third new. Tannins are finely-milled and plush, with just a trace of rigor and authentic austerity on the finish. This was terrific with our dish of roasted chicken, bacon, figs, garlic and thyme, with which we had roasted potatoes and sauteed chard. Now through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.7 percent. Production was 908 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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The Niner Bootjack Ranch Sangiovese 2007, Paso Robles, is a curious matter in that it’s a thoroughly enjoyable wine, but it doesn’t have much to do with the character of the sangiovese grape. Actually, it behaved more like a well-made, non-blockbuster zinfandel. The color is deep ruby-red; the bouquet offers red and black currants, black cherries and touches of smoke, coffee and tobacco. Dense, grainy tannins, polished oak and vibrant acidity provide structure that’s firm and lively in its support of luscious black currant and cherry flavors. Now through 2012 or ’14. Production was 851 cases. 14.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $24.
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I was, on the other hand, quite pleased with the Niner Bootjack Ranch Syrah 2006, Paso Robles, which I will call, as a matter of fact, one of the best renditions of the grape I have tasted from the Golden State. The color is deep ruby with a slight magenta/blue cast, an entrancing hue; the ripe, meaty, fleshy bouquet offers a rapt rendition of spiced and macerated red and black currants, blueberries and blackberries backed by black pepper, briers and brambles, smoke and moss, honed granite and slate, all seamlessly layered atop a foundation of clean loamy earth and a touch of wet dog funk. Yes, this is the real thing. At fours years old the wine is beautifully balanced and integrated, and while 16 months in small French and Hungarian barrels (one-third new) lend the wine a character of unassailable oak, added to dense, velvety tannins, broad and generously spiced black fruit flavors make this very drinkable, especially with such full-bodied fare as venison, pork chops and beef stew, now through 2005 or ’06. Production was 1,281 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $20, representing Great Value.
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My slight beef with the Niner Bootjack Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Paso Robles, is a strain of vanilla that my palate and sensibility register as a flaw, if not a downright aberration; if vanilla is what you want, order a dish of crème brûlée. ANYWAY, this cabernet, like its merlot cousin fairly individual in style, is big, dense, furry, chewy, intense and concentrated; sleek, polished and honed; black currant and black cherry flavors are touched with wild berry, lavender and violets, licorice, smoke and potpourri, rhubarb and sandalwood; a few minutes in the glass bring out classic tones of cedar and tobacco.. The exoticism does not get out of hand, however, held firmly in check by keen acidity, heaps of granite-like minerality and tongue-swathing tannins. I sipped this with a strong Irish cheddar-style cheese, and it was perfect thus. Drink now, with a steak, through 2016 or ’17. Production was 2,294 cases. 14.3 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $28.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ I’m sorry to say that my reaction to the Niner Fog Catcher 2005, Paso Robles, was not ecstatic, though the wine, a blend of 65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent cabernet franc and 10 percent merlot, is well-knit, impeccably balanced and integrated, smooth and mellow, enjoyable, with classic notes of smoky cedar, fruit cake and spice cake, brandied black cherries, honed shale and so forth. It’s just not very exciting; it doesn’t offer that edgy poise between power and elegance, dynamism and transparent austerity that great cabernet-blend wines should possess. Plenty of pleasing personality here but not enough character; a wine at this price should not be so easy. 550 cases. 14.1 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $58.
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Not much Chianti Superiore is made in Tuscany; production is under two percent of total Chianti output, which encompasses, generally, Chianti, Chianti Superiore, Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva. The “Superiore” designation doesn’t necessarily mean that a wine is “superior” to those made in a “lesser” category but that its production requires greater density of planting and lower grape yields in the vineyard and a slightly higher alcohol content than “regular” Chianti. Chianti Superiore is officially categorized as a D.O.C.G., or Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, the highest classification of Italian wine, though in the past 20 years this distinction has been passed out like candy at a children’s birthday party.

Anyway, a few nights ago I made a sauce for penne pasta in this manner: I minced about a quarter of an onion, a small carrot, a stalk of celery and I guess three cloves of garlic and sauted them in some olive oil and a little grease from some chopped Italian sausages I had previously cooked. When the vegetables were just beginning to brown, I poured in about half a cup of red wine, turned the heat up and let that bubble until the wine had evaporated. Meanwhile, as recipes say, I had taken about 15 small and very ripe Roma tomatoes (from the Memphis Farmers Market), halved them, sprinkled them with olive oil, salt, pepper and dried thyme, marjoram and oregano and put them under the broiler until they began to blacken and blister. The skins, what was left of them, slipped off easily. I scraped the tomatoes and any liquid into the pot with the vegetables, stirred all this together and then took a pair of kitchen shears and went in there and scissored everything into the smallest possible pieces. Before serving, I took two very ripe, dark red tomatoes, dipped them into the boiling pasta water for a minute each, stripped off the skins, chopped them and added them to the sauce to heighten the freshness factor. A couple of dippers of the hot pasta water stirred in gave the sauce just the right consistency. Prego!

All of which brings us to Banfi’s Chianti Superiore 2008, one of the wines in the Banfi Toscana portfolio. This is the first release of the wine; it’s available only in the United States. The wine is made from 75 percent sangiovese and 25 percent canaiolo nero and cabernet sauvignon and aged four to five months in French oak barrels. This is an accessible, direct and authentic expression of the sangiovese grape and of the Chianti style that makes up in delicious appeal what it may lack in depth and dimension. Scents and flavors of black cherries, red currants and plums are bolstered by spicy elements that increase as the moments pass, manifesting themselves in hints of cloves and allspice, orange rind and black tea. The structure is just dense and chewy enough to remind you that, yes, the wine indeed has some structure, with slightly dusty tannins unfolding in the background. The Banfi Chianti Superiore 2008 was exactly what was needed with our pasta, its vibrant acidity and dark fruit flavors matching nicely with the rich sauce. Alcohol content is 13.3 percent. Drink through 2011. Very Good. About $11, A Real Bargain.

Nothing on the bottle tells consumers that the image on the label is the painting Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci. The girl — for she was only 16 — is Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Lodovico Sforza, who was Duke of Milan and Leonardo’s patron. The piece was executed in 1489-1490 in oil paint — then a new medium — on panel. It hangs in the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow.

Imported by Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville, N.Y. A sample for review.

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