Sauvignon blanc


I stayed one night at Holman Ranch last September, and the serenity and beauty of the place — the stillness, the magnitude of stars in the night sky — cannot be emphasized too much. Deep in the hills of Carmel Valley, inland and south of Monterey Bay, Holman Ranch occupies land bestowed upon the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo — hence, later, Carmel Valley — during the reign of Spain in these lands. After the mission properties were secularized, the area passed through many owners until in 1928, a Spanish-style hacienda was built and the ranch became an outpost or retreat for Hollywood stars and producers. Clarence Holman, of the Holman Department Store family in Pacific Grove, acquired the ranch in the 1940s and with business-like acumen transformed it from a private hideaway to a resort, which was still popular with Hollywood’s elite. Present owners Thomas and Jarman Lowder, who purchased Holman Ranch from Dorothy McEwen in 2006, restored the facility, the original hacienda, the quaint cabins and the grounds to full operation and comfort.

If you Google “Holman Ranch” you’ll see that the property’s raison d’etre focuses on events and meetings but particularly weddings. Indeed, it would be difficult to think of a more spectacular setting for tying the matrimonial knot. For my purposes, however, it’s more important that Holman Ranch produces small quantities of well-made wines (and olive oil), samples of which were recently sent to me. I found the white wines and the rosé to be engaging and highly drinkable, while the two pinot noirs bordered on exquisite. Search though I did in the brochures that accompanied the wines and on the Holman Ranch website, I found no mention of a winemaker; surely credit must be given when it is earned. All these wines are designated “Estate Grown.”
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Holman Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Carmel Valley, Monterey County. This sleek sauvignon blanc offers a pale gold color and beguiling aromas of lime peel and grapefruit, roasted lemon, hints of thyme and tarragon and a lift of lemongrass. An element of limestone minerality produces a whiff of gunflint and also, in the mouth, bolsters citrus flavors lightly touched with fig and fresh-mown grass, all tied together with brisk acidity. 12.5 percent alcohol. 224 cases. Quite charming, but drink up. Very Good+. About $20.
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Holman Ranch Pinot Gris 2011, Carmel Valley. The color is very pale straw; pure apples and pears pour from the glass, imbued with notes of cloves and lime peel, camellia and jasmine. The wine is quite dry, crisp and zesty, eminently refreshing; citrus and pear flavors are bolstered by a burgeoning limestone and flint element, leading to some austerity through the spicy and slightly steely finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. 323 cases. Very Good+. About $20.
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Holman Ranch Chardonnay 2010, Carmel Valley. This is an elegant and stylish chardonnay, from its pale straw-gold color, to its spare citrus and stone fruit scents and flavors, to its hints of jasmine and honeysuckle and dried herbs; there’s a bright undercurrent of crisp acidity and a distinct influence of limestone minerality. The wine is tasty, well-balanced and integrated but a little delicate (especially for a barrel-fermented chardonnay), so its match will be more delicate hors-d’oeuvre and seafood entrees. 12.5 percent alcohol. 205 cases. Very Good+. About $28.
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Holman Ranch rosé of Pinot Noir 2011, Carmel Valley. Here’s a superior rosé whose brilliant hue of raspberry-tourmaline at least esthetically enhances its aromas of strawberry, watermelon and rose petals; its raspberry-watermelon flavors permeated by hints of pomegranate, cloves and (barely) cinnamon; its appealing touch of dried thyme and limestone minerality; its pert, thirst-quenching acidity. 12.5 percent alcohol. 144 cases. Drink through the end of 2013. Very Good+. About $22.
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Holman Ranch Pinot Noir 2010, Carmel Valley. The enchanting hue is medium ruby-garnet; aromas of black cherries, mulberries and red plums are infused with notes of sassafras, pomegranate, cloves and a hint of rhubarb. This pinot noir evinces a lovely lightness of being at the same time as it embodies intensity of black and red fruit flavors and an exquisite satiny texture. A few minutes in the glass bring in touches of smoke and graphite; the finish is medium-length, supple and subtle. 12.5 percent alcohol. 500 cases. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $33.
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Holman Ranch Heather’s Hill Pinot Noir 2011, Carmel Valley. The color is radiant medium ruby; the whole aura is warm, ripe and spicy, the display is impeccably balanced. Notes of spiced and macerated red currants, black raspberries and cranberries open to hints of cloves and cola. The wine is earthy, with elements of briers and brambles under flavors of red and black currants and cherries, yet it’s elegant, silky, integrated. After 30 or 40 minutes, you feel increasing dryness as the oak and mild tannins assert themselves, but overall this is beautifully made pinot noir. 14 percent alcohol. 444 cases. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $37.
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No, Disappointing Herons is not the name of my next band, it’s an expression of my dismay at the quality of some of a recently tasted group of products from Heron Wines, a company founded by Laely Heron (image at right) in 1995. Her idea was straightforward: own no vineyards but buy grapes from reliable, preferably sustainable sources, make wines with as little manipulation as possible and sell them at a reasonable price, in other words, to fill the role of a responsible negociant.

My first encounter with a wine from Heron was in the form of the Heron Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, which I received as a sample and subsequently reviewed in a post on January 24, 2009, otherwise known as The Dim Past. Here’s what I wrote:

If you can find the Heron Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, California, anywhere, buy it by the case. Sporting a mild but effective 13 percent alcohol, this irresistible cabernet is a lovely medium purple-magenta color. Aromas of smoke, minerals and earth, cedar, tobacco and black pepper wreathe notes of ripe and slightly roasted black currants and black cherries. The wine is dense and chewy in the mouth, with grainy tannins that permeate succulent and very spicy black currant and black cherry flavors. Aged a judicious eight months in French oak, the wine delivers a firm yet yielding structure that opens to reveal a hint of underbrush and dried porcini on the finish. There’s a lot of heart here for the price. Very Good+ and a phenomenal bargain at about $14.

Now that sounds like a wine you could get behind and feel happy about every time you opened a bottle. Unfortunately, the Heron Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Mendocino, not only has no heart but it lacks soul, conveying the impression of a “red wine” at its most generic common denominator. My notes conclude, “What a shame!”

I tasted five current releases of Heron products courtesy of a local wholesaler now carrying the wines in our market. Two I can recommend, and three, including the Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, I cannot. The other two not recommended are the Merlot 2010, Mendocino County, again a matter of a wine tasting more generic and blah than varietal (though with merlot sometimes I wonder what varietal means) and the Chardonnay 2011, California (a blend of grapes from Russian River Valley, Carneros and Santa Maria Valley, one-third each) that channels the inner sauvignon blanc to which all chardonnays must surely aspire.

Here, though, are the Heron wines that I recommend:
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The all stainless steel Heron Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Mendocino County — that is to say, 75 percent Mendocino and 25 percent Yountville, in Napa valley — displays a bright medium straw color and enticing aromas of lime peel, roasted lemon, grapefruit, thyme and tarragon, with back-notes of smoke and a burgeoning, penetrating tide of limestone and flint minerality. That mineral character permeates spicy and savory flavors of citrus and stone-fruit highlighted by keen acidity and a lean and taut structure that nevertheless admits of a winsome, almost talc-like texture; the contrast is delightful. 13 percent alcohol. Loads of personality; restaurants and bars could sell the hell out of this wine in by-the-glass programs. Drink now through the end of 2013. Very Good+. About $14, a Terrific Value.
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The Heron Pinot Noir 2011, California, derived from Monterey (75 percent), Paso Robles (20 percent) and Russian River Valley (5 percent) and aged a careful nine months in French oak, a combination of new, one-year-old and two-year-old barrels. The color is an entrancing cerise with a touch of magenta; this is clean and fresh pinot noir that offers an engaging Beaujolais-Villages-like aspect of ripe black and red cherries, hints of raspberry and mulberry and a touch of rose petals and violets, with undercurrents of slightly funky earthiness and graphite. There’s enough tannin to give the wine a slight dusty edge, and sufficient acidity to lend vibrancy and liveliness. 13 percent alcohol. Now through 2014. Again, this would be a very attractive restaurant and bar wine to sell by the glass; pair it with a roasted chicken or mushroom omelet. Very Good+. About $14, representing Real Value.
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Sometimes that’s just the way it works out. Some foods and dishes reject wine as a companion — or certain wines — no matter how good the wine is in favor of beer. I’m thinking particularly of Indian and Southeastern Asian cuisines, which with their combination of spicy heat and intensity and often exotic flavors defy a pairing with wine, unless it’s a moderately sweet riesling, pinot gris or gewurztraminer whose keen acidity cuts through the richness of the dish and whose delicate sweetness balances the spice. Such a match is a cliche of the wine-and-food-pairing cohort, but as is the case with many cliches there’s a great deal of truth to the assumption. Unfortunately, the night that I prepared the assertive Chicken Khao Soi, a recipe derived from north Thailand sources — it’s the cover recipe for the March 2013 issue of Bon Appetit — I didn’t have an appropriate riesling on hand, so I tried beer and a sauvignon blanc from California. It’s not the wine’s fault that it couldn’t stand up to the intensity of the Chicken Khao Soi — I did ask a lot of it — but beer just did a better job here.

The beer was Pistil, a unique seasonal product brewed with dandelion petals (as well as hops, malts and oats) by Magic Hat Brewing Company in South Burlington, Vermont; Pistil is available from January 15 to March 31. Magic Hat was founded in 1994; in 2010, it was acquired by North American Breweries of Rochester, N.Y. — my home town! — which in turn was acquired in 2012 by Florida Ice & Farm Co., of Costa Rica. Globalization moves on apace, and while it’s not entirely relevant to this post, I’ll mention that the Brewers Association, a nonprofit advocate for craft brewing in this country, offers as one of its definitions of a craft brewery a restriction of 25 percent ownership or control by “an alcoholic beverage industry member not itself a craft brewer.” In other words, a craft brewer that is wholly owned by a large company or conglomerate has lost its hallowed independence and is, by definition, no longer a craft brewer, even if production remains at or below six million barrels. Anyway

Delightful isn’t a word one finds often in reviews and commentary on beer, but I thought that Pistil was delightful in its light, slightly brassy gold color; its mildly creamy but not prominent head with a good formation of what beer tasters call “lace”; and its aromas of orange peel, lemongrass, slightly sour wheat and an earthy element that really develops in the mouth, along with some bitterness and a fairly leafy, spiced tea-like flavor. 4.5 percent alcohol (by volume). Neither too heavy nor too light, this was excellent with the complex flavors of the Chicken Khao Soi. Magic Hat Pistil is about $1.79 for a 12-ounce bottle.

So, what about the wine that bravely held its head up like a good soldier? The Silverado Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, is always one of my favorite sauvignon blanc wines, and for 2012 — that’s right, the wine isn’t even six months old — it shows itself in fine fashion. The color is a very pale straw hue; snappy yet stylish aromas of grapefruit, lime peel and limestone, fig and tarragon, thyme, sage and bay tantalize the nose; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of fresh-mown grass and gooseberry. The whole enterprise is lively and vibrant, energized by crisp, finely-etched acidity and scintillating, crystalline elements of flint and steel. The 98 percent sauvignon blanc portion, fermented in stainless steel, is supplemented by two-percent barrel-fermented semillon that contributes just a touch of spice and a bit of suppleness to the lovely, slightly powdery texture. As you can see, a great deal of the success of this wine lies in its precise balance between the energy of the acidity and mineral elements and the ripeness and moderate lushness of its texture and fruit. After a few more moments, the Silverado Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2012 unfolds hints of tangerine and jasmine, pear and caramelized fennel, all of these qualities expressed with delicacy and finesse. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through Summer 2014. Excellent. About $22, representing Great Value.

The wine was a sample for review; the beer was a purchase.

Weekend Wine Sips has been devoted rather relentlessly to red wines from California, so for a complete change of mood and mode, we turn to white wines from France, one from Bordeaux, one from the Loire Valley, one from Burgundy, the remainder from the South. One is a sweet sparkling wine, three are dessert wines and the other five are dry and perfectly suited to the changes in weather and food that are inching upon us. These are quick reviews, taken often directly from my notes, designed to pique your interest and spark your palate. I keep technical, geographical and historical information and ruminative speculation to a minimum, so the emphasis is on the wines and my impressions of them. The “Little James,” the Sancerre, the Bourgogne and the Muscat Beaumes de Venise were my purchases; the rest were samples for review. Enjoy… and have a good rest of the weekend.
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Jaillance Cuvée Impériale Clairette de Die “Tradition”, nv. 7% alc. Muscat blanc à petits grains 90%, clairette blanc 10%. My previous experiences with Clairette de Die were dry sparklers, but they were 100% clairette; this jaunty example is definitely sweet. Pleasantly effervescent, a lovely mild straw-gold color; pears and peaches, softly ripe, notes of cloves, lime peel, spiced tea and limestone; hint of jasmine and some tropical fruit, lively acidity. A bit too douce for my palate, but should be pleasing as an aperitif or with desserts with fresh berries. Very Good+. About $16, a Good Value.
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Little James’ Basket Press 2011, Vin de Pays d’Oc. 13% alc. 33-year-old viognier from Minervois with sauvignon blanc and muscat of Alexandria. From Chateau de Saint Cosme, established in Gigondas in the Northern Rhone in 1570. Pale straw gold; pears, yellow plums and a touch of peach, some astringent little white flower nestled in a briery hedge; fig and thyme, hint of caramelized fennel; very dry, very crisp and taut, a bit of greengage and grass. Highly unusual, really appealing. Very Good+. About $14, making Great Value.
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Paul Mas Estate “Single Vineyard Collection” Picpoul de Pinet 2011, Coteaux du Languedoc. 13.5%. 100% picpoul grapes. Pale straw color; honeydew melon, yellow plums, orange blossom and zest; crisp acidity but with a lovely silken texture; bracing, savory and saline, a hint of salt-marsh with dried grasses, thyme and sage; sleek mineral-packed finish. Delightful. Very Good+. About $14, Buy by the Case.
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Paul Mas Estate “Single Vineyard Collection” Chardonnay 2011, Vin de Pays d’Aude. 13.5% alc. 100% chardonnay. Pale gold color; very dry, taut, crisp, vibrant; lemon and cloves, ginger and a hint of quince; lemon balm and a touch of grapefruit with its welcome astringency; attractive texture subtly balanced between moderately dense lushness and pert acidity; lots of limestone and flint. An attractive and slightly individual chardonnay. Very Good+. About $14.
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Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre 2011, Loire Valley. 11-14% alc. 100% sauvignon blanc. Scintillating purity and intensity; pale straw-gold color; gunflint and limestone, roasted lemon and lemon drop, lime peel and tangerine; bare hint of grass in the background; very dry, tense, lean, pent with energy; deeply earthy with a hint of sauteed mushrooms; long flinty, steely finish, a little austere. Feels archetypal. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $25.
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Capitain-Gagnerot Bourgogne “Les Gueulottes” 2009, Hautes Côtes de Beaune. 12.5% alc. 100% chardonnay. Medium straw-gold color; just freakin’ lovely chardonnay, minutely, gracefully sliding into maturity; roasted lemon and lemon curd, touch of grapefruit and mango; limestone under a soft haze of spicy oak; very dry, with plangent acidity and a lithe but generous texture; a wayward hint of orange blossom and lime peel, ginger and quince jam; long silken finish. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $27.
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Les Petits Grains 2011, Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois. (Les Vignerons de la Mediterranee) 15% alc. Pale gold color; orange blossom and candied orange peel, baked peaches, pears and quince; cloves and sandalwood; bananas Foster with buttered rum; dense and viscous without being heavy; lightly honeyed cinnamon toast; a long sweet finish balanced by vibrant acidity. Very Good+. About $14, for a 375-milliliter half-bottle, a Steal.
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Domaine des Bernardins 2009, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. 15% alc. Brassy gold-light amber color; softly ripe and macerated peaches and apricots; tremendous sweetness that turns dry mid-palate then austere on the finish, testifying to the immense powers of rigorous acidity; crème brùlée with a touch of the sweet ashy “burned” sugar; caramelized apricot with a hint of baked pineapple; that distinctive slightly funky muscat floral character; lip-smacking viscosity. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $25 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.
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Chateau de Cosse 2008, Sauternes. 13.5% alc. 85% semillon, 15% sauvignon blanc. The second label of Chateau Rieussec, owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). Medium gold color with a greenish tint; smoke, spiced peach and candied grapefruit, pungent with lime peel and mango and a touch of buttered pear; cloves, vanilla and toasted almonds; satiny smooth, clean, pure, dense yet elegant; exquisite balance and verve. Now through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $35 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.
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I made a Salade Lyonnaise one night, and to drink with it pulled out a bottle of Grgich Hills Estate Fumé Blanc 2011, Napa Valley. That worked intensely well.

The essence of Salade Lyonnaise, or salad in the style of the city of Lyon, is the combination of strong bitter greens, typically frisée, a type of chicory; pieces of bacon — what the French call lardons; and a poached egg, dressed with a warm vinaigrette. I have seen versions that include potatoes, which is how I made the dish, with new potatoes segmented into small pieces and roasted. And I fried my egg instead of poaching it. I know; purists weep. My greens were spinach, red and green chard and baby kale.

The Grgich Hills Estate Fumé Blanc 2011 was made from 100 percent sauvignon blanc grapes grown in certified organic and biodynamic vineyards in Napa Valley’s American Canyon and Carneros regions. Eighty percent of the grapes were fermented, using indigenous yeasts, in 900-gallon French oak casks, the rest in already used 59-gallon French oak barriques; after fermentation, the wine aged six months in neutral barrels. No fetish for new oak here! This Fumé Blanc — a name invented by Robert Mondavi almost 50 years ago to indicate a sauvignon blanc wine supposedly modeled on those of the Loire Valley — is beautifully and subtly balanced and integrated, yet feels poised with energy and purpose. The color is pale straw-gold; aromas of roasted pears and lemons are woven with tangerine and lime peel, a touch of tarragon and caramelized fennel, and, with a few minutes in the glass, a whiff of quince and ginger. Those elements segue seamlessly into the mouth, where the wine is quite dry yet engagingly juicy and flavorful and bolstered by an almost powdery texture enlivened by scintillating acidity that cuts a swath. The spice-packed finish brings in a burgeoning limestone and flint quality that provides a poignant snap of mineral potency. Alcohol content is a blessed 13.2 percent, thanks to a cool growing season. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $30.

A sample for review.

Bittman being Mark Bittman, and the recipe was the Baked Rigatoni with Brussels Sprouts, Figs and Blue Cheese from his recently published The Food Matters Cookbook (Simon & Schuster, $35). Mondavi being the Robert Mondavi Winery and its Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2012, Napa Valley. The match: Exquisite, though allow me to emphasize, as anyone writing about food and wine pairing should, that there’s no such thing as one wine being the sole Platonic beverage to sip with one particular dish; both food and wine are more versatile than that “perfect marriage” trope would have you believe.

Anyway, I think Bittman wouldn’t mind that we added a handful of diced applewood-smoked bacon and a scattering on top of homemade breadcrumbs to enhance the dish, since he offers variations on many of the book’s recipes himself. And the combination of bacon, figs and blue cheese seemed a triumvirate almost unholy in its synergistic appeal. Cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts (and, notoriously, artichokes) can be difficult to match with wine because of the presence (Education Alert!!) of phenylthiocarbamides, which produce bitterness — the ability to detect PTC, by the way, is genetic — and the sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates. Still, in this dish the Brussels sprouts are chopped and distributed throughout along with other ingredients and the whole shebang baked. For the wine, I chose the Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2010 almost randomly and with a trace of doubt. I need not have worried.

The grapes for the wine derive from the Wappo Hill Vineyard in the Stags Leap District (51 percent), from Mondavi’s well-known estate vineyard To Kalon in Oakville (30 percent) with the remaining 19 percent from other vineyards in Napa Valley, the point being to balance grapes from different microclimates in terms of the effect that varying temperatures and soils have on their development and character. Sixty-nine percent of the grapes were fermented and then the wine aged five months in French oak barrels, the rest in stainless steel tanks. The blend is 94 percent sauvignon blanc and six percent semillon grapes. Winemaker is Genevieve Janssens.

The Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2010, notable for restraint and elegance, offers a pale straw-gold color with faint green highlights. Aromas of lemongrass, roasted lemon and verbena sift from the glass with back-notes of freshly mowed hay, lime peel, fennel seeds and a bare whiff of fig and gooseberry; you detect just a touch of oak in a sort of blond shimmer of wood and spice. This seeming welter of sensations is subdued to an admirable structure of harmony and poise, though there’s nothing delicate or fragile about it. It’s a mouth-filling wine, not quite dense but certainly displaying pleasing heft on the palate; at the same time, there’s an element of fleetness and transparency, abetted by crystalline acidity. To the citrus and herbal qualities are added hints of quince and ginger, a slightly more emphatic dose of fig — there’s that semillon! — and an ineffable quality of sunny leafiness through the finish. Again, you feel the oak as an influence on the wine’s spicy nature and the suppleness of its texture. Somehow the wine made a terrific match with the Baked Rigatoni with Brussels Sprouts, Figs and Blue Cheese (and Bacon), allowing everything rich and savory and slightly sweet about the dish to have complete integrated expression and in turn bringing out the savory, spicy qualities of the wine. Drink now through 2014. Excellent. About $20, an Incredible Bargain.

This wine was a sample for review.

Since the “Weekend Wine Sips” for the past two weeks concerned red wines, today I’ll offer a group that consists of two roses, five
sauvignon blancs and two chardonnays. There should be a bottle here to appeal to most every palate and pocketbook. Nothing extensive in the way of background information, just quick reviews designed to strike to the heart of the matter and tempt your taste-buds. These were all samples for review.
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Jean Luc Colombo Cape Bleue Rosé 2012, Mediterranée IGP, France. 12% alc. 67% syrah, 33% mourvèdre. Classic pale onion skin color; dried strawberries and red currants, hints of cloves and Earl Grey tea; back-notes of lavender and limestone, hint of mineral austerity on the finish; juicy but bone-dry. Quite charming. Now through end of 2013. Very Good+. About $12, a Terrific Bargain.
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Calcu Rosé 2012, Colchaqua Valley, Chile. 12% alc. 50% malbec, 40% syrah, 10% petit verdot. Distinctive pale salmon/melon color; wild cherry and dried red currants and cranberries with a touch of plum; soft and inviting, touches of dried herbs and stones. Now through end of 2013. Very Good. About $14.
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Peñalolen Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Limari Valley, Chile. 12.5% alcohol. Pale straw color; pert and sassy; mandarin orange, thyme and tarragon, lime peel and grapefruit; winsome touch of honeysuckle; vibrant acidity and a pleasing moderately lush texture. Very Good+. About $13, representing Good Value.
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Calcu Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Colchaqua Valley, Chile. 12% alc. Pale straw-gold color; fresh, clean, crisp; grapefruit, kiwi, lime peel all the way; hints of thyme and tarragon; very spicy, sprightly, vibrant. Uncomplicated, super appealing. Now through Summer 2013. Very Good. About $14.
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Rodney Strong Charlotte’s Home Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Northern Sonoma. 13.5% alc. Pale straw-gold; bright, clean and fresh; lime peel, celery seed and tarragon, roasted lemon and yellow plum; resonant acidity and a keen limestone edge. Lots of personality. Now through 2013. Very Good+. About $15, Excellent Value.
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Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc 2012. Marlborough, New Zealand. 12.5% alc. Pale straw-gold with faint green highlights; very bright, scintillating with acidity and limestone-like minerality; grass, thyme and fennel seed; celery, kiwi and lime peel, touches of grapefruit and some astringent floral note; more balanced and restrained than many NZ sauvignon blancs and all the better for it. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $16, a Great Value.
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Ladera Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. Just great. Notes of green plums, lemon grass and roasted lemon, grapefruit and lime; crisp, lively, spicy and vibrant, terrific tone and presence, balances leanness and sinew with suppleness; tremendous minerality in the shale and flint range. Now into 2014. Production was 946 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Matanzas Creek Winery Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma County. 14.4% alc. (Jackson Family Wines). Did I forget this wine in the white wine fridge? In any case, it’s drinking perfectly right now; balanced and harmonious, everything in place: baking spice, fleet acidity, citrus fruit with a tropical overlay, mineral elements, sweet floral top-note; ultimate freshness and brightness; lovely, svelte and lithe texture. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $26.
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Robert Turner Wines Dutton Ranch Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 13.9% alc. Lovely class and elegance; clean and fresh, hints of peach and spiced pear under pineapple and grapefruit with a burgeoning limestone component; very pleasing texture, assertive but not quite lush; deft oak a presence just around the circumference. Thoughtful and well-made. 150 cases. Now though 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $30, and Worth a Search.
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… that is the question, and my reply, unsurprisingly, would be, when in doubt, don’t, and even if you’re not in doubt, think twice before you do. Oak aging can enhance a wine, and it can kill a wine. Careful! This observation emerges after tasting two very similar wines from the same producer; one was made in stainless steel, while the other matured in new French barriques. Therein lies the difference.

The Zuani winery was founded in 2001 in Italy’s Collio region, in the northeast near Austria and Slovenia, by Patrizia Felluga, a fifth-generation winemaker and producer. She runs the operation with her adult children, Caterina and Antonio Zanon (see photo, right). From its 30-acre vineyard, the winery makes only two wines, both white, from a combination of friulano, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio grapes. In terms of methodology, the grapes for the Zuani “Zuani,” a “reserve” style wine, are generally picked two weeks later than the grapes for the Zuani “Vigne,” so the ripeness factor is more intense. “Zuani,” then, is the wine that receives new oak. In both cases, we have sleek, sophisticated wines, but, though I don’t want to be ungracious, my preference is the unoaked Zuani “Vigne.”

The Zuani wines are imported by Martin Scott Wines, Lake Success, N.Y. These were samples for review. Images from zuanivini.it.
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The Zuani “Vigne” 2011, Collio, offers a pale gold color with faint green highlights. It’s a spare, lean, elegant white wine that doesn’t neglect its earthly origins in dominant layers of shale and schist that buoy elements of roasted lemon, dried thyme, lime leaf, lemongrass and green tea; there’s a tantalizing hint of camellia. If that description makes the wine sound inviting and appealing, then you’re securely in my camp. Acidity is taut and vibrant, lending crisp, coiled energy, while the mineral component gives the wine a sense of chiseled, frangible transparency. It’s dry yet juicy with flavors of lemon, spiced pear and grapefruit, all devolving to a finish that brings in more limestone and a touch of chalky austerity. 13 percent alcohol. Loads of personality. Now through 2014 with the classic Venetian risotto with mushrooms and peas, or with grilled fish or smoked or cured salmon. Excellent. About $24.
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I’ve already told My Readers that the Zuani “Zuani” Riserva, 2010, Collio, was picked from slightly riper grapes and aged in new French oak. The color is radiant light gold; the wine overall is soft, supple and spicy, delivering notes of roasted lemons and yellow plums with a hint of almond blossom. As with its younger, unoaked cousin, this wine is resonant with bright acidity and scintillating limestone and shale minerality, but casting a veil over every characteristic is a sheen of blond oak, and though that woody camouflage gives the wine the sort of suavity upon which elegance seems to be based, in reality it masks and blunts that character that makes the first wine so attractive: the character of freshness and verve, of clean-cut, faceted clarity. I’ve said it before, and I’ll take this opportunity to say it again: If a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, there’s too much oak. 13.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 or ’15. Very Good+. About $37.
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It may surprise My Readers to know that it’s even more difficult to decide on the “25 Great Wine Bargains” than it is the “50 Great Wines.” I could probably, from 2012, have compiled a completely different roster of 25 bargain wines, but after much cogitation, meditation and drinking, I thought, No, just leave it alone, because these are all terrific wines. The break-down is 18 white wines, 6 reds and 1 rose; by country or region: California 9, Argentina 4, Spain 4, Chile 3, Washington state, Italy, France and Hungary each 1. Go for it. The order is alphabetical; no hierarchies here.
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Airfield Estates Riesling 2010, Yakima Valley, Washington. Excellent. About $16.

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Apaltagua Envero Gran Reserva Carménère 2010, Calchagua Valley, Chile. Excellent. About $14.

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Aventino Tempranillo 2007, Ribera del Duero, Spain. Excellent. About $13.

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Bastianich Adriatico Friulano 2010, Colli Orientali del Friuli, Italy. Excellent. About $16.

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Bonny Doon Vineyard Albarino 2011, Central Coast, California. Excellent. About $18.

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Burgo Viejo Reserva 2006, Rioja, Spain. Excellent. About $19.

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Bodegas Carchelo “C” 2010, Jumilla, Spain. 40 percent each monastrell and syrah, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon. Excellent. About $16.

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Callia Alta Torrontés 2011, Valle de Tulum, San Juan, Argentina. Very Good+. About $9.
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Cima Collina Cedar Lane Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. Excellent. About $16.

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Count Karolyi Grüner Veltliner Veltliner 2011, Tolna, Hungary. Very Good+. About $11.
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Hess Allomi Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $16.

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J Pinot Gris 2011, California. Excellent. About $15.

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Lee Family Farm Silvaspoons Vineyard Verdelho 2010, Alta Mesa, Lodi. Excellent. About $15.

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Meli Dry Riesling 2011, Maule Valley, Chile. Excellent. About $13.

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Michele Chiarlo Le Orme 2010, Barbera d’Asti Superiore. Excellent. About $15.

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Domaine Mittnacht Fréres Terre d’Etoiles Pinot Blanc 2011, Alsace, France. Excellent. About $19.
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Morgan Winery R&D Franscioni Vineyard Pinot Gris 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Excellent. About $18.

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Navarro Pinot Grigio 2011, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $16.

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Numero III Rosado de Monastrell 2011, Bulles, Spain. Excellent. About $12.

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Quirvira Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $15.

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St. Clement Chardonnay 2010, Carneros, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $19.

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San Huberto Malbec 2010, Castro Barnas, La Rioja, Argentina. Excellent. About $11.

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Terrazas Reserva Torrontés 2011, Cafayate Terrace, Salta, Argentina. Excellent. About $15.

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Una Seleccion de Ricardo Santos Semillon 2012, Mendoza, Argentina. Excellent. About $16.

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Ventisquero Queulat Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Casablanca Valley, Chile. Excellent. About $18.

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So, My Readers, today I present the annual “50 Great Wines” in the edition for 2012. Why 50? It’s a nice comfortable round number, but it also makes me work hard to determine those 50 great selections.

I reviewed 642 wines on this blog in 2012, so 50 choices represent only 7.78 percent of the wines I reviewed. Wines that I rated as “Exceptional” automatically make the cut. In 2012, I ranked 16 wines “Exceptional,” or only 2.5 percent of all the wines I reviewed. How did I ascertain the other 34 wines? That’s where the task got difficult. I read all the reviews of wines that I rated “Excellent” and wrote down the names of 68 that seemed promising, but of course that was already way too many wines; I had to eliminate half of that list. I went back through the reviews and looked for significant words or phrases like “an exciting wine” or “a beautiful expression of its grapes” or “epitomizes my favorite style” or “I flat-out loved this wine,” terms that would set a wine apart from others in similar genres or price ranges, even though they too were rated “Excellent.” By exercising such intricate weighing and measuring, by parsing and adjusting, by, frankly, making some sacrifices, I came to the list of wines included here, but I’ll admit that as I went over this post again and again, checking spelling and diacritical markings and illustrations, there were omissions that I regretted. You get to a point, however, where you can’t keep second-guessing yourself.

Notice that I don’t title this post “50 Greatest Wines” or “50 Best Wines.” That would be folly, just as I think it’s folly when the slick wine publications select one wine — out of 15,000 — as the best of the year. The wines honored in this post are, simply, 50 great wines, determined by my taste and palate, that I encountered and reviewed in 2012. Some of them are expensive; some are hard to find. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, though, at how many of them are under $40 or even in the $20 range; the price of a wine can be immaterial to its quality, and I mean that in both the positive and the negative aspects. Where I know the case limitation, I make note. With wines that are, for example, chardonnay or pinot noir, you can count on them being 100 percent varietal; in other cases, I mention the blend or make-up of the wine if I think it’s necessary.

Coming in a few days: “25 Great Bargains of 2012.”
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Amapola Creek Cuvée Alis 2009, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County. 55 percent syrah, 45 percent grenache. 95 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Archery Summit Looney Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $85.
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Black Dog Cellars Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. Excellent. About $25.
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Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Vineyard X Block Syrah 2007, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County. 573 cases. Excellent. About $42.
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Champagne Françoise Bedel Entre Ciel et Terre Brut. Excellent. About $75.
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Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino 2005, Tuscany, Italy. 100 percent sangiovese. Exceptional. About $149.
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Chalone Estate Chenin Blanc 2011, Chalone, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $25.
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Chamisal Estate Pinot Noir 2010, Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo County. Excellent. About $40.
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M. Chapoutier Chante-Alouette 2007, Hermitage blanc, Rhone Valley, France. 100 percent marsanne grapes. 350 six-packs imported. Exceptional. About $92.
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M. Chapoutier De L’Orée 2008, Hermitage blanc, Rhone Valley, France. 100 percent marsanne. 40 six-packs imported. Exceptional, About $190.
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Cima Collina Tondre Grapefield Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $48.
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Etude Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros. Excellent. About $42.
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Ferrari-Carano Prevail West Face 2007, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 61 percent cabernet sauvignon, 39 percent syrah. Excellent. About $55.
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Foley Rancho Santa Rosa Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County. Excellent. About $40.
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Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $46.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $42.
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Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2009, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $23.
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Hidden Ranch 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $45.
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Kelly Fleming Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Oakville District, Napa Valley. 540 cases. Excellent. About $30.
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Domaine Michel Lafarge Meursault 2009, Burgundy. Excellent. About $44-$48.
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La Follette Van Der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Mountain. 429 cases. Excellent. About $40.
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Lasseter Enjoué 2011, Sonoma Valley. 73 percent syrah, 24 mourvèdre, 3 grenache. A superior rosé. 570 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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Champagne David Léclapart L’Amateur Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, non-vintage. Exceptional. About $83.
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Lenné Estate Pinot Noir 2008, Yamhill-Carlton District, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 491 cases. Excellent. About $55.
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Chateau La Louvière 2009, Pessac-Lèognan, Bordeaux, France. 85 percent sauvignon blanc, 15 percent semillon. Excellent. About $42.
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Manzoni Vineyards Home Vineyard Syrah 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 494 cases. Excellent. About $26.
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Max Ferd. Richter Veldenzer Elisenberg Riesling Kabinett 2010, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $19.
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Mayacamas Chardonnay 2009, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $30.
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McCay Cellars Jupiter Zinfandel 2009, Lodi. 449 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Domaine Pierre Morey Pommard Grands Epenots Premier Cru 2009, Burgundy. Excellent. About $85.
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Newton “The Puzzle” 2008, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 42 percent merlot, 36 cabernet sauvignon, 14 cabernet franc, 6 petit verdot, 2 malbec. Excellent. About $80.
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Nicolas Joly Clos de La Bergerie 2009, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, Loire Valley, France. 100 percent chenin blanc. 580 cases. Exceptional. About $45-$60.
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Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $42.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County. 250 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. 372 cases. Exceptional. About $75.
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Piocho 2009, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. From Margerum Wine Co. 58 percent merlot, 22 cabernet sauvignon, 18 cabernet franc, 2 petit verdot. 570 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Quivira Fig Tree Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. 862 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Sea-Fog Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Napa Valley. 380 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Shafer Hillside Select 2007, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $225.
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Shafer Merlot 2009, Napa Valley. With 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent malbec. Exceptional. About $48.
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Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. With 12 percent cabernet franc. 381 cases. Excellent. About $75. Date on label is one year behind.
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Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir 2011, Los Carneros. Another superior rosé to drink all year. Excellent. About $28.
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Spotted Owl Chardonnay 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Inaugural release of this winery’s chardonnay. 120 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $125.
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St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. With 10 percent merlot, 2 petit verdot and 1 cabernet franc. Excellent. About $55.
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Domaine André et Mireille Tissot La Graviers Chardonnay 2010, Arbois, France. 552 cases. Excellent. About $26-$30. Label is two years out of date.
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Tudal Family Winery Clift Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. 295 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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Tenuta di Valgiano 2008, Colline Luccesi, Tuscany. 60 percent sangiovese, 20 merlot, 20 syrah. Excellent. About $55-$60.
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Vieux Télégraphe “La Crau” 2009, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France. 65 percent grenache, 15 mourvèdre, 15 syrah 5 cinsault, clairette “and others.” Excellent. About $85.
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Villa Huesgen Schiefen Riesling Trocken 2010, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $35.
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