Syrah


Longtime readers of this blog — bless your tiny pointed heads and may your tribes increase! — know that a great deal of effort goes into the annual “12 Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” series, but as encompassing as that sequence is, it cannot include all the Champagnes and sparkling wines that I taste from late November through early January. For this edition of Weekend Wine Notes, therefore, I offer an eclectic roster of nine of such products, one from Champagne, a duo from Franciacorta in Lombardy and a Lambrusco, an unusual darker-than-a-rosé sparkler from the far western Loire Valley, and versions from California and Oregon. I deliver as much technical information as might actually be required but concentrate on the essence of the blitzkrieg review: short, incisive and to-the-point. With one exception, these wines were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Antica Fratta Essence Brut 2007, Franciacorta, Lombardy, Italy. 13% alc. 90% chardonnay, 10% pinot noir. A favorite of ours for two Yuletide seasons. Light gold color; a seething horde of tiny bubbles; another year has burnished this sparkling wine; a little spicier, a bit toastier than it was at the previous tasting; roasted lemon and lemon balm, spiced pear; lightly buttered cinnamon toast; keen acidity and a honed limestone element; delicious, with appealing generosity but also a serious edge. Excellent. About $35.
Imported by Masciarelli Wine co., Weymouth, Mass.
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Argyle Brut 2011, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 12.5% alc. 60% pinot noir, 40% chardonnay. Pale gold gold, animated by a shimmer of tiny bubbles; a finely meshed construct of delicate details: lemon balm, verbena and lemon curd, a touch of orange rind; candied quince and ginger and a note of cloves; hint of biscuit; quite dry, bright acidity, lots of flint and limestone; very steely, very steady. Lovely. Excellent. About $27.
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Bonny Doon Sparkling Syrah 2011, Central Coast. 13.8% alc., according to the label, 11.9% alc. says the winery website. 83% syrah, 17% grenache. 378 cases. Opaque purple-black with a violet cast; moderately fizzy; the roasted, meaty and fleshy aspect we expect from syrah, but with vivid elements of deeply spiced and macerated strawberries and raspberries; a high balsamic note; burgeoning hints of violets and lavender; strangely attractive yet very intense, almost demanding, in fact too intense to use as an aperitif; this definitely needs food. Very Good+. About $36, intended for the winery’s club members.
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Cleto Chiarli e Figli Vecchia Modena Premier 2013, Lambrusco di Sorbara Secco, Italy. 11% alc. 100% lambrusco di Sorbara grapes. Bright medium ruby-red cherry hue; definitely and pleasantly effervescent; raspberries, red and black currants; slightly earthy with heather and boxwood; swashbuckling acidity keeps the whole dark, savory package lively and quenching, while a hint of tannin lends body; appealing supple texture balances a touch of dry austerity on the finish. Classic with rabbit pasta, terrines, duck. Very Good+. About $ .
Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Calif.
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Contadi Castaldi Brut Rosé 2008, Franciacorta, Lombardy. 15.5% alc. 80% pinot noir, 20% chardonnay. Pale salmon/onion skin hue; quite effervescent; fresh raspberries and strawberries with hints of rose petals and lilac; freshly baked bread, cloves, anise, orange zest; elegant and ethereal; limestone and almond skin on the finish; lovely texture and structure. Very Good+. About $21
Imported by TMT USA, San Antonio, Texas. Image from altissimocento.net.
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Emma 2013, Vin de France. 9% alc. A blend of gamay and grolleau gris grapes, produced by Domaine de la Coche. The Vin de France classification was created in 2009 and allows winemakers to blend grapes and wines from across France, not just those dictated by their appellation. Domaine de la Coche is an organic estate located in the Pays de Retz that lies south of the Loire estuary and north of the Breton marshlands. Bright purple-magenta hue; gently effervescent, just tickles your nose; rose petals and violets, blueberries and raspberries, surprisingly earthy; detectably sweet initially but segues to dry from mid-palate back; a little dusty and raspy but mainly delightful. Very Good+. About $24, an online purchase.
Imported by Fruit of the Vine, Long Island City, N.Y. I think that Emma needs a label makeover.
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Evolution Sparkling Wine nv, America. Produced by Sokol Blosser Winery. 12.5% alc. A proprietary blend of semillon, riesling, muller thurgau, pinot gris, gewurztraminer, muscat, chardonnay. Sokol Blosser, founded in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1971, delivered a real hit with its non-vintage Evolution White, now in its 18th “edition.” This sparkling wine, now debuting and made from the same grape varieties in Washington state, seemed like a natural development. It’s essentially a Prosecco-like sparkling wine made in the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle. Pale gold color; a tidy splurge of tiny bubbles; apples and lemons, a lot of flowers from the muscat and gewurztraminer, it seems, as well as a hint of muscat funkiness; detectably sweet on the entry but slides toward dryness on the finish; fortunately clean acidity and a hint of limestone keep it honest. Very Good. About $22.
Image from urbanblisslife.com.
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Jacquard Brut Rosé nv, Champagne. 12.5% alc. 53% pinot noir, 35% chardonnay, 12% pinot meunier. Enchanting pale copper-salmon color; a tempest of tiny swirling bubbles; wild strawberries and cherries with a hint of red currants, touches of peach and orange zest; biscuits and cinnamon toast; quince and crystallized ginger; delicate, elegant, an ethereal construct buoyed by crisp acidity and a scintillating limestone quality; a finish half chiseled/half softly appealing. Really lovely. Excellent. About $55.
JAD Imports, Manhasset, N.Y.
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Schramsberg Crémant Demi-Sec 2010, North Coast. 13.5% alc. 88% flora grapes, 11% chardonnay, 1% pinot noir. 96% Napa County, 2.5% Mendocino, 1.5% Sonoma, 1% Marin. The flora grape is a cross of semillon and gewurztraminer developed of UC-Davis. Very pale gold hue; a gentle tug of finely-wrought bubbles; lemon balm, spiced pear and a touch of peach; jasmine and camellia; not so much sweet as ripe, soft and cloud-like; the floral and slightly nutty elements burgeon as the limestone character digs deeper, creating attractive tension even as the wine feels integrated and harmonious. Drink with the most simple desserts, nothing flamboyant; a sugar cookie or biscotti, a fruit tart, light cakes. Excellent. About $39.
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Unbate your breath, My Readers, today I present the annual “50 Great Wines” entry, this edition for 2014. I posted to BiggerThanYourHead 135 times in 2014 and reviewed 582 wines. These 50 Great Wines represent 8.6 percent of the wines I reviewed last year. How do I choose the 50 wines for this honor? First, any wine that I rated Exceptional automatically gets a berth in the roster. After that, the selection process involves going back over every post, looking at the reviews of the wines that received an Excellent rating, reading the notes again and looking for the words or phrases signifying that I felt a wine was exciting, provocative, intriguing, highly individual. You can be sure that this list probably isn’t definitive; how could such a selection of wines be? I cut from the field many wines that could easily have been included, but the limit is 50 and they had to be sacrificed. Even as I clicked on the “Publish” button on WordPress I thought, “Oh no, how could I leave out ……?”

Going through these wines, many of My Readers may cry “Foul!” because some of them were produced in severely limited quantities, but that’s often the case with great wines. Think of the situation as a challenge wherein you face a sort of scavenger hunt in tracking such wines down. Some of these wines were made by well-known winemakers for prominent wineries or estates; others are far more obscure, but I enjoy bringing attention to young, small, family-owned and -operated properties that otherwise might not receive the exposure they deserve. The usual suspect grapes are included, of course — chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir — but you will also find on this list proponents of trousseau gris and grenache gris, carignane and cinsault, crafted by brave pioneers of the unusual, even rare grapes. With one exception — the Dolce 2005 — these products are the current releases from their wineries, or close to it. I think all of them were samples for review or were tasted at the property. I hope this list of 50 Great Wines inspires you to look for the ones that capture your interest and to try wines you never encountered before. Prices, by the way, range from about $22 to $120. Coming in a few days will be my annual list of 25 Great Bargain Wines $20 and Under.
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Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Sonoma Valley. With 7 percent petit verdot. 1,475 cases. Exceptional. About $70.
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Anakota Helena Montana Vineyard Elevation 950 Feet Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Knights Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $75.
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Animo Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. With 17 percent petit verdot. From Michael Mondavi. Excellent. About $85.
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d’Arenberg The Other Side Shiraz 2010, McLaren Vale, Australia. 14% alc. 96-year-old vines. 200 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $85.
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d’Arenberg Tyche’s Mustard Shiraz 2010, McLaren Vale, Australia. 14% alc. 200 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $85.
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Battenfeld Spanier Mölsheim Riesling 2012, Rheinhessen, Germany. Exceptional. About $23.
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Blair Estate Pinot Noir 2010, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. 481 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc 2013, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. 55% roussanne, 26% grenache blanc, 19% picpoul. 1,965 cases. Exceptional. About $28.
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Bonny Doon Cuvée R Grenache 2012, Monterey County. 593 cases. Excellent. About $48.
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Cade Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $28.
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Catena Zapata White Bones Chardonnay 2010, Mendoza, Argentina. Exceptional. About $120.
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Cenyth 2009, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. 47% cabernet sauvignon, 28% merlot, 10% cabernet franc, 8% petit verdot, 7% malbec. The debut release from this collaboration between Julia Jackson, daughter of the late Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke, and Helene Seillan, daughter of Pierre Seillan, winemaker of Verité. Exceptional. About $60.
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Chêne Bleu Aliot 2010, Vin de Pays du Vaucluse, France. 65 percent roussanne, 30 percent grenache blanc, 5 percent marsanne and some smidgeon of viognier. Exceptional. About $85.
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Clos Saron Out of the Blue, 2013, Sierra Foothills. 90 percent cinsault, 5 percent syrah, 5 percent graciano. (The cinsault vines planted in 1885.) 170 cases. Excellent. About $30.
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Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. 14.7% alc. With 10% merlot. 470 cases. Exceptional. About $80.
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Cornerstone Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Napa Valley. 361 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
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Dolce 2005, Napa Valley. 90 percent semillon, 10 percent sauvignon blanc. A majestic dessert wine. Exceptional. About $85 for a half-bottle.
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Elena Walch Kastelaz Gewürztraminer 2012, Alto Adige, Italy. Exceptional. About $32.
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The Eyrie Vineyards Original Vines Reserve Pinot Gris 2012, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 261 cases. Exceptional. About $33.
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FEL Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $38.
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Fields Family Wines Old Vine Zinfandel 2011, Mokelumne River, Lodi. 200 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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Gallegos Boekenoogen Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 250 cases. Excellent. About $42.
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Grgich Hills Estate Fume Blanc 2012, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $30.
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Idlewild Grenache Gris 2013, Mendocino County. 230 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Inama Vigneto du Lot 2011, Soave Classico, Italy. Excellent. About $30.
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Inman Family “Endless Crush” Rosé of Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $25.
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Inwood Estates Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Dallas County, Texas. Excellent. About $40.
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J. Christopher Wines Lumière Pinot Noir 2011, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 756 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Diamond Mountain District, Napa Valley. With nine percent malbec. Exceptional. About $90.
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Tenutae Lageder Porer Pinot Grigio 2012, Sudtirol, Alto adige, Italy. Excellent. About $25.
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McCay Cellars Carignane 2011, Lodi, 218 cases. Excellent. About $32.
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Newton “The Puzzle” 2010, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. This proprietary wine is a blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 18 percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot and 4 percent malbec. Exceptional. About $100.
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Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. With 3 percent petit verdot, 1 percent each malbec and cabernet franc. Excellent. About $100.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.4% alc. 230 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Phifer Pavitt Date Night Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 588 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
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La Pitchoune Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 279 cases. Exceptional. About $60.
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Pittnauer Rosenberg St. Laurent 2010, Burgenland, Austria. Excellent. About $27.
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Quinta do Vallado 20 Years Old Tawny Porto. 83 cases. Exceptional. About $80 for a 500-milliliter bottle..
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Respite Reichel Vineyard Indulgence 2010, Alexander valley, Sonoma County. A proprietary blend of 65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 22 percent malbec and 13 percent cabernet franc. 77 cases. Exceptional. About $75.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2010. Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 429 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 1,302 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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Steven Kent Winery Merrellie Chardonnay 2012, Livermore Valley. 504 cases. Excellent. About $34.
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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Origin Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Valley. 266 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Sonoma Coast. 170 cases. Exceptional. About $65.
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Tin Barn Coryelle Fields Syrah 2009, Sonoma Coast. 123 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Two Shepherds Trousseau Gris 2012, Fanucchi Vineyard, Russian River Valley. 25 cases. Exceptional. About $25.
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VML Blanc de Noirs 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $50.
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Volta Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $60.
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Wakefield St. Andrews Single Vineyard Release Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Clare Valley, Australia. 250 cases imported. Excellent. About $60.
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Weltner Rödelseer Küchenmeister Trocken Sylvaner 2012, Franken, Germany. Excellent. About $27.
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Brewers that work in the craft or European tradition often issue seasonal or limited release beers, so why should wineries be any different? Here’s an example, and if you’re feeling bewitched, bothered and bewildered — or rather beset by the obligations and responsibilities of late December — turn to Besieged 2013, a limited release red wine from Ravenswood, the well-known zinfandel producer in Sonoma County. Made from an unspecified blend of petite sirah, carignane, zinfandel, syrah, barbera, alicante bouschet and mourvedre grapes, the wine sports a deep ruby color and enticing aromas of ripe blackberries, red and black currants and blueberries, these notes highlighted by elements of briers and brambles, graphite and lavender. This is robust and rustic in all the right ways, with rollicking acidity, lip-smacking tannins and a slightly shaggy texture to support its fleshy and dusty black fruit flavors flecked with hints of ancho chili and cloves. Lots of the power you need to power through big dinners of braised short ribs or lamb shanks, hearty beef stews or just a bacon-cheeseburger. Winemaker is Joel Peterson. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $22.

This wine was a sample for review.

Chêne Bleu — “blue oak” — occupies 340 acres in a unique microclimate at elevations from 1,600 to 1,800 feet in a saddle of the Dentelles de Montmirail where four southern Rhône appellations — Gigondas, Côtes du Ventoux, Côtes du Rhône and Séguret — merge. Eighty-seven acres of the estate, called La Verrière for more than six centuries, are cultivated to vineyards; grapes have been grown in the steep, stony area for a thousand years. Xavier and Nicole Rolet purchased the isolated and long neglected property and its ancient ruined priory in 1993 and spent 10 years restoring the dilapidated buildings and shabby vineyards. The first wines were released in 2006. Viticulturalist is Xavier Rolet’s sister Bénédicte Gallucci; winemaker is her husband Jean-Louis Gallucci. The vineyards are managed in a combination of organic and biodynamic methods. The use of new oak barrels is sparing.

The winery eschews the typical appellation system, preferring to use the simpler Vin de Pays du Vaucluse designation or, as that category became a few years ago when the Vin de Pays AOC was dismantled, Vaucluse Indication Geographique Protegée, a step that allows a certain freedom in the choice of grapes they blend. Everything about this stylish, sophisticated winery and its products — and prices — indicates a desire to be considered a world-class estate, and I would not be surprised if such is not the case within the next 10 to 20 years. Greatness is not achievable in winemaking within a vintage or two; it takes time for knowledge and experience to merge perfectly with nature and terroir, though the wines under review today seem well on their way. All five — a rose from 2013, whites from 2012 and 2010 and two reds from 2007, the current releases — display remarkable individuality, personality and character.

Imported by Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, Calif. These wines were samples for review.
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The Chêne Bleu Rose 2013, Ventoux, is a blend of 65 percent grenache, 30 percent syrah and 5 percent cinsault, given a very cold fermentation in stainless steel for five weeks. Twenty percent of the wine aged for three months in a combination of old and new French oak barrels, mainly barrique-size, that is 228-liters or 60 gallons. As I mentioned on Facebook, if this isn’t the best rose wine I tasted this year, I can’t think immediately of what the better one is. The color is a classic pale onion skin hue; the whole impression is of a delicate, even ethereal construct that nonetheless retains a slightly earthy, loamy, smoky aspect. Aromas of dried strawberries and raspberries are wreathed with notes of tangerine, lime peel and green tea, elements that segue generously into the mouth, where they take on touches of damp and dusty limestone and flint, all energized by brisk acidity. Most memorable is the wine’s sense of tone and presence, its suave and elegance weight on the palate. 13 percent alcohol. 800 six-pack cases were imported. Drink through the end of 2015. Excellent. About $31.
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The Chêne Bleu Aliot 2010, Vin de Pays du Vaucluse, is named for Aliot de Montvin, an artisan glassblower of noble birth who named the winery’s estate La Verrière — The Glassblowing Workshop — in 1427. The blend is 65 percent roussanne, 30 percent grenache blanc, 5 percent marsanne and some smidgeon of viognier. Cold fermentation occurred in 600-liter demi-muids — 159-gallon barrels — and the wine aged six to eight months in a combination of old and new French oak. The color is bright yellow-gold; the wine is rich and honeyed in every sense, with scents and flavors of spiced pears and peaches, candied quince and ginger and hints of papaya and mango. Rich and honeyed, yes, but both succulent and bone-dry, vibrant, crystalline, wreathed with notes of cloves and sea-salt, savory spiced and baked pineapple and grapefruit, with a contrasting touch, on the lush finish, of grapefruit bitterness, the entire package permeated by limestone and chalk minerality. 14 percent alcohol. 45 six-pack cases were imported. That’s right readers, 270 bottles for the USA, and we took one to dinner at Erling Jensen restaurant in Memphis, where the wine performed beautifully with an appetizer of crisp sweetbreads with parmesan ravioli, shiitake mushrooms and a veal jus. Drink — carefully stored — through 2018 to 2020. Exceptional. About $85.
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Not quite 100 percent varietal, the Chêne Bleu Viognier 2012, contains 4 percent grenache blanc. The appellation is IGP — Indication Geographique Protegée — Vaucluse, IGP having replaced the old, familiar Vin de Pays. As with the Aliot, mentioned above, this wine was cold-fermented in 600-liter demi-muids and aged six to eight months in a combination of old and new French oak. The color is pale gold; the (to my mind) signature elements of the viognier grape quickly emerge with notes of jasmine and gardenia, cloves and mango, bee’s-wax, baked pear and dried thyme. The wine is distinctly savory, its ripe stone-fruit flavors rife with sage, sea-salt and grapefruit rind; back-notes of dried apricot, ginger and quince lend complexity to lip-smacking acidity, scintillating limestone minerality and a dense, almost chewy texture. There’s nothing heavy or opulent here though; all elements are delicately tied and buoyantly expressed. 13.5 percent alcohol. 300 cases were produced. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $41.
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The blend of the Chêne Bleu Abelard 2007, Vin de Pays du Vaucluse, is 90 percent grenache to 10 percent syrah, the grapes derived from vines that are 45 and more years old. The initial winemaking process involved a three-day cold maceration in wooden vats, 10 days of fermentation and then four weeks of maceration on the skins; The wine spent 11 months in a combination of old and new French oak barrels, primarily 60-gallon barriques; it is unfined and unfiltered. My advice is to decant the wine — not a difficult or scary process, just pour it into a clean glass container — and let it air out for an hour or two before drinking. The color is dark ruby; remarkably fresh for a seven-year-old grenache, this offers scents of ripe and slightly roasted blackberries and plums laden with dusty graphite minerality and notes of fruitcake, old leather, lavender and dried rosemary. Lithe and supple in texture, Abelard 2007, unlike its namesake, does not lack balls; the tannic-acid structure is forthright and more evident as time passes and you pay attention to what’s happening in the glass and bottle, but that rather stern foundation does not submerge the wine’s innate balance, integration and elegance. 14.5 percent alcohol. 800 six-pack cases were imported. Drink through 2020 to 2025. Excellent. About $100.
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The Chêne Bleu Heloise 2007, Vin de Pays du Vaucluse, is the most complicated and intriguing of this group of wines. The winemaking regimen is the same as for its Abelard 2007 stablemate, if it’s permissible to use such a term for these celebrated lovers — or non-lovers — though this is a blend of 60 percent syrah, 37 percent grenache and 3 percent viognier. The color is dark ruby, and at first this Heloise feels more mature than the companion Abelard — sorry, my dear! — more autumnal in its scents of smoky, spiced and macerated red and black cherries and currants and undertones of loam, mushrooms and moss. Give the wine a chance, however, to build its character, either in the glass or by decanting an hour or so before consuming; let it expand with elements of fennel and pomegranate, dried rosemary and cedar and their requisite resiny notes (meaning that in the best way); allow it to gain in suppleness and the savory qualities of sage and sea-salt and depth of spicy red and black fruit flavors. And while its feet are definitely planted in the earth, Heloise 07 succeeds in maintaining an elevating, wild note at the top of its range. 15 percent alcohol. 800 six-pack cases were imported. Drink now through 2018 to 2022. Excellent. About $100.
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Vacqueyras became part of the Côtes du Rhône appellation in 1937 and only in 1990 was it allowed into the ranks of regions whose wines could be bottled with their own place name. It lies south of Gigondas — also a former Côtes du Rhône Villages commune, elevated to its own status in 1971 — on the river Ouvèze, a tributary of the Rhône. Production here is about 97 percent red, with grenache serving as principal grape. The Lavau Vacqueyras 2011 is a blend of 50 percent grenache, 40 percent syrah and 10 percent mourvèdre; the wine aged 20 percent in oak barrels, 80 percent in stainless steel tanks, and indeed it’s notable for freshness and a character that derives little from the influence of wood. The color is radiant ruby-purple, violet-tinged; the wine is intensely floral and spicy, with aromas of marinated black currants, blackberries and plums permeated by lavender and potpourri, cloves and sandalwood, with undertones of briers and brambles, smoke and tobacco leaf. It’s a dry, robust wine, certainly not elegant but not rustic, either; fine-grained tannins and vigorous acidity support delicious black fruit flavors deeply imbued with graphite minerality and earthy, loamy elements. 13.5 percent alcohol. We drank this bottle with beef shanks braised with carrots, potatoes and turnips bathed in a rich winy sauce, and the match was perfect. Now through 2017 to 2020, with similar braised meat dishes. Excellent. About $24.

Imported by Kinson Wines, New York. This wine was a sample for review. The label image is two years behind the example reviewed here, but it was a very clear picture, so I used it.

No holds are barred in California, unlike in the Old World, where government agencies determine where grapes can be grown and what grapes go into certain wines. Many wines, of course, are famous for their combinations of grapes, like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which may contain any ratio of up to 13 grapes, red and white, or Bordeaux, where winemakers fashion cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc (primarily) into some of the world’s most elegant, powerful and best-known red wines. No such customs or regulations abide in the Golden State, and today we look at five wines that offer some unusual blends of grapes, some more successfully than others. The trick is to create a blend that delivers distinctive, if not original, qualities rather than something than comes out smelling and tasting like a generic “red wine.” These wines were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Bonny Doon Vineyards A Proper Claret 2013, California. 13.5% alc. Cabernet sauvignon 46%, merlot 17%, tannat 15%, petit verdot 13%, syrah 8%, petite sirah 1%, the point being that this is a very improper claret — Bordeaux red wine — indeed. Dark ruby-purple with a magenta rim; solid, tannic, fills the mouth with briers, brambles and underbrush but builds layers of cloves and allspice, cedar, ancho chili, then undertones of dusty black currants, raspberries and plums; no molly-coddle here, intense and concentrated, lip-smacking acidity; dense, chewy; needs a medium rare strip steak or a great joint of venison. Now through 2018 to 2020. Loads of personality. Very Good+. About $16, a Real Bargain.
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Casey Flat Ranch Estate Red Wine 2012, Capay Valley, Yolo County. 14.8% alc. Cabernet sauvignon 56%, syrah 30%, cabernet franc 13% viognier 1%. Dense ruby-purple; cassis, black cherries and raspberries; hints of menthol, violets, hedge and heather, then graphite and underbrush, leather and mocha; bushy and brushy but succulent, balanced, integrated; a touch of the iodine-and-iron complex (sounds like a vitamin) under delicious black fruit flavors with a note of blue; wild berry notes, licorice and lavender lend some elevation to a wine of true class, distinction and character. Now through 2020 to ’22 with steaks and braised meats. Excellent. About $45.
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Gnarly Head Limited Release Authentic Black 2012, Lodi. (Delicato Family Vineyards) 14.5% alc. Petite sirah-based blend. A limited edition wine for Fall. The problem with the Gnarly Head wines is that they’re not gnarly enough. One of the purplest and most opaque wines I have ever seen; very ripe, spicy, grapy, gamy; plummy and jammy with sweetish blackberry, blueberry and currant scents and flavors, plush and velvety, “soft in the middle,” as Paul Simon says; quite juicy, smoky, a little loamy; comes across as unfocused and inauthentic. Good+. About $12.
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Juxtapoz Red Wine Blend 2012, North Coast. (Delicato Family Vineyards) 15% alc. Syrah 55%, zinfandel 23%, petite sirah 9%, malbec 6%, cabernet sauvignon 4%, “other reds” 3%. Dark ruby with an opaque center; first impression is of woody spices and walnut shell, then ripe black currants, cherries and plums, hints of plum skin, cedar and black olive; a few moments in the glass bring in notes of slightly caramelized fennel; scrunchy tannins and bright acidity make a fairly robust wine; you feel the alcoholic heat a bit on the finish; takes an hour or so for this to come together, and it finally convinced me that it worked. Cheesy label, though. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Very Good+. About $25.
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Renwood Clarion Red Wine 2012, Amador County. 15% alc. 25% each zinfandel, petite sirah, syrah and marsanne; that’s right, one-quarter of this wine is from white grapes. Dark ruby purple color; a deep spicy wine, bursting with notes of blackberries, black currants and blueberries permeated by violets, lavender, potpourri and graphite; sleek, supple and integrated and manages not to be overwhelmed by the alcohol content; picks up hints of cloves, walnut shell, briers and brambles through a wildly fruity but earthy, mineral-packed finish. Tasty and intriguing. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $20.
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Here’s a syrah wine that gets to the nitty-gritty of the grape. The Bonny Doon Le Pousseur Syrah 2012, derived from four cool climate vineyards in the Central Coast appellation, offers reams of spicy black fruit and whole tomes of briery-brambly-underbrush structure. True to the grape’s youngster mode, the emphasis is on spiced and macerated blackberry-blueberry-plum scents and flavors powerfully inflected with dense, chewy, lithic tannins and evocative notes of mossy earthy, loamy minerality. Call it robust without being rustic and deeply dark (and a little shaggy) without being inchoate, and allow it a few or considerable minutes to open to its more floral, spicy, attractively ripe aspects, and you have a red wine whose chiseled, faceted (yet inherently sensual) character lends itself as accompaniment to braised short ribs or veal shanks, beef stew or medium-rare rib-eye steak, hot and crusty from the grill. The Poser may be a trickster, but there’s no chicanery here. 13.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 or ’20. Winemaker is, of course, Randall Grahm. Excellent. About $26.

A sample for review, tasted with a variety of salamis and hard cheeses.

The Grant and the Eddie of Grant Eddie Winery in North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, are Grant Ramey and Edward Shulten. Their label was called Ramey Shulten until a letter came from the well-known Ramey Wine Cellars in Sonoma County that said, in essence, “Oh no, boys, you’re treading on our trademark.” That’s when the brand became Grant Eddie. Ramey, a North Yuba native (on the right in this photo), was for many years the vineyard manager at Renaissance Vineyards and Winery. He began making wine at home from selected sites among the Renaissance hilltop vineyards in 1986. Shulten, originally from the Netherlands, was a well-traveled winemaker and sommelier; he is now winemaker for Renaissance, replacing Gideon Beinstock, who concentrates on his Clos Saron project. Ramey, who knows the acres of Renaissance better than anyone, leases some of the best sections for cabaernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, grenache and other red varieties.

Production is tiny at Grant Eddie, perhaps 700 cases annually, and the quality is very high, especially in the red wines. Alcohol levels are kept below 14 percent; the words “new oak” are not uttered unless in disparagement, though Ramey and Shulten are too polite to be disparaging. Vineyards are tended organically; grapes are fermented naturally and sulfites are kept to a minimum. When I was in California’s Sierra Foothills region back in June, I sat down with Grant Ramey and tasted through a wide range of Grant Eddie wines. I would encourage My Readers to look for the syrahs and the grenache wines particularly, though the zinfandels and cabernets thoroughly reward consideration; the cabernets tend to need five to seven years to shed their tannins. The whites — fewer than 200 cases altogether each year — are highly individual wines that lean toward eccentricity yet are interesting enough to merit a try.

Where are these wines? Distribution is very limited outside California. The wines are available through the website — grantedwinery.com — or if you happen to be in the area, you can find Grant Ramey at local farmer’s markets on weekends. Yes, in the Golden State wineries can offer tastings and sales of wines at these institutions.
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First, the white wines, all made half in French oak, half in stainless steel, the lees stirred once a week for five or six months. The white production at Grant Eddie is so small — about 200 cases altogether — that the wines seem almost superfluous, though because of their individual, even idiosyncratic character they’re worth exploring, especially the Semillon 2012 and the White Pearl from 2010 and ’11.

Semillon 2012. Medium gold color; roasted lemon, yellow plum, figs, leafy and savory; very dry, dusty, notes of loam and limestone; lovely texture, almost lush but cut by tremendous acidity; super attractive for drinking through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $22.
White Pearl 2010, a blend of 60 percent semillon and 40 percent sauvignon blanc that spent seven or eight months in two-to-four-year-old barrels. Medium gold color; very ripe, a little earthy; creamy fig, roasted lemon, a note of dried thyme; hint of creme brulee; quite dry, though, with a lovely moderately lush texture cut by fleet acidity; fairly austere on the finish. Excellent. About $22
White Pearl 2011. Moderate gold color, an idiosyncratic wine, highly individual and not quite fitting into any set of expectations; notes of roasted lemon, lime peel and and slightly over-ripe mango; very spicy, lively; very dry, with a taut acid-and-limestone structure, yet generous, yielding, a bit buxom. Very Good+. About $22.
Chardonnay 2013. Medium gold color; pineapple, grapefruit, mango; florid, bold, fairly tropical; quite dry, very spicy, doesn’t quite hang together. Very Good. About $22.
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Now the reds, first grenache, about 100 cases annually. From Ramey Mountain Vineyard.

Grenache 2011. Dark ruby, opaque; very earthy, briery and loamy; ripe, very spicy, a little wet-dog-funkiness; sweetly
ripe and intense blackberry-blueberry-raspberry flavors; fairly dense and chewy tannins but light on its feet; svelte, supple. Best after 2015, then to 2019 or ’20. Excellent.
Grenache 2010. Deep ruby color; intoxicating evocative bouquet of dried flowers, dried spices, fresh and macerated black and red fruit; clean and incisive, briers and brambles, loamy earthiness and graphite minerality; pinpoint acidity; dusty tannins; a supple, shapely grenache. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent.
Grenache 2007. Medium ruby hue; ripe, warm, spicy, a little fleshy; macerated and slightly roasted red and black currants and plums; lovely texture, sapid, savory; lip-smacking acidity in perfect balance with fruit, oak and gently dusty, leather-clad tannins; great length and tone. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent.

Sangiovese, about 50 cases annually.

Sangiovese 2011. 13.3% alc. Ramey Mountain Vineyard. Dark ruby-purple; wholly tannic, needs three to four years to learn company manners. Very Good+. About $22.
Sangiovese 2007. 13.6% alc. Whitman’s Glen Vineyard. Medium ruby color; raspberries, red and black currants, cloves, orange rind, black tea, hint of olive; fresh, agile, elegant; lovely fluid texture; classic. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent.

Zinfandel, 50 to 60 cases annually.

Zinfandel 2012. 13.9% alc. Ramey Mountain Vineyard. Deep purple with a magenta rim; clean, fresh, lithe; very pure and intense; blackberries, blueberries, black currants with a vein of poignant graphite minerality; perfectly managed tannins for framing and foundation, a little austere on the finish. Try from 2015 or ’16 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $27.
Zinfandel 2007. 13.5% alc. Whitman’s Mountain Vineyard. dark ruby with a garnet rim; ripe, meaty, fleshy, warm, spicy; macerated black fruit; vibrant, resonant structure, lively and vital, drinking beautifully. Through 2017 or ’18. Excellent.

Merlot, from Ramey Mountain Vineyard

Merlot 2011. 13.6% alc. Deep ruby-purple; very minerally, earthy and briery, distinct graphite and iodine element; large-framed, dense, dusty, chewy, fairly muscular tannins and bright acidity; will this evolve into something like merlot or more like cabernet? Try 2016 through 2020 to ’22. Very Good+. About $27.
Merlot 2008. 13.6% alc. Deep ruby-purple color but softer and riper than the ’11, almost luscious, but cut by iron-like tannins and arrow-bright acidity; black currants, blueberries and plums; clove and allspice build in the background over lavender and biter chocolate; needs more time, say 2015 or ’16 through 2018 to ’20. Excellent.

Syrah, this winery’s strength. “Syrah takes a while to even come to the beginning of something,” Ramey told me. You have to work with nature and the demands it makes on you.”

Syrah 2009. 13.7% alc. Ramey Mountain Vineyard. Deep ruby color; incredible concentration and intensity of variety, confidence and purpose, though almost pure graphite and granitic minerality now and draped with dense dusty tannins; youthfully inchoate, needs three or four years to find balance, but the depths of character are apparent. Try from 2015 or ’17 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $27.
Syrah 2007. 13.8% alc. Whitman’s Mountain Vineyard. Dark ruby with a slightly lighter garnet rim; a tad riper and more approachable than the ’09 but lots of dusty minerality, iron and iodine; the purity and intensity of black fruit are impressive and alluring; quite dry, the finish a bit austere. Now through 2017 to 2020. Excellent.
Ramey Schulten Syrah 2004. 13% alc. Meadow’s Knoll Vineyard. This is beautiful, such depth and layering, such a combination of character and personality, with pinpoint and vibrant fruit, acidity and graphite minerality; such a feeling of poise and expectation, though still huge, dense, chewy, with real edge, grit and glamor. A masterpiece, to drink through 2018 to ’20. Exceptional.

Cabernet sauvignon.

There are two Grant Eddie cabernet sauvignon wines for 2012, one that’s 100 percent cabernet, the second a blend that includes four percent merlot and three percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot. Not necessarily predictably but it turned out that the 100 percent version features an almost pure graphite-granitic-iron-and-iodine character with tannins that are hard, lithe and dusty but not punishing. Give this one until 2018 or ’20 and drink until 2028 or ’30. The alternate rendition is fairly burly and tannic but offers notes of cassis, black cherry, lavender and cloves as concession. Excellent potential for each, and each about $28. The 2009 and 2007, each from Ramey Mountain Vineyard and delivering 13.7 percent alcohol, and not nearly ready to drink, offering penetrating minerality and acidity. Give them three or four more years’ aging.
Let’s go back, however, to the Ramey Schulten Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, a blend of 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent syrah and 15 percent each cabernet franc and merlot, for a wine of gorgeous shape and proportion that displays sweetly ripe black and red fruit scents and flavors, evocative spice and mild herbal qualities and deep foundational tannins and resonant acidity for essential structure. This and the Syrah 2004 were the best wines of an extraordinary tasting.

Grant Eddie also produces 75 to 100 cases of port (or port-like) wine every year, made from the classic Douro Valley grapes, of which the inky-purple California Port 2012 is young, bright, vigorous and intensely minerally, with soft elegant tannins (about $33); the Ramey-Schulten 2001 is lightly spiced and macerated, a bit sweet and plummy; and the gently faded Ramey Schulten 1992 — a real treat — offers notes of fruitcake, toffee, figs, cloves and orange zest in supple and mildly tannic structure.
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Take your choice. Either at our backs we always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near OR the world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Choice, did I say?! Or, did I say?! Heck no, it’s both, incessant, ceaseless, seemingly infinite! So, anyway, it’s difficult to keep up with all the wines I need to review, so here, today, I offer 12 wines, rated Very Good+ to Exceptional, that I should have written about this year but didn’t have the time or space. I’m trying to make amends. There should be something in this post to appeal to a variety of palates. Most of these wines are from California, but we also touch on Oregon’s Willamette Valley; Baden, in Germany; France’s Alsace region; and Clare Valley in South Australia. With one exception today, I purposely avoid technical and geographical information in favor of quick, incisive reviews designed to pique your aching interest and whet your anticipatory taste-buds. These wines were samples for review. Enjoy — in moderation, of course.
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Josmeyer Pinot Blanc 2009, Alsace. 12% alc. Bright medium gold color; slightly honeyed ginger and quince, papaya and mango, quite floral with hints of jasmine and honeysuckle; slightly dusty limestone minerality, a touch of diesel; a sweet impression because of the ripe juicy roasted lemon and stone-fruit flavors but actually very dry, enlivened by bright acidity and that scintillating limestone element. Taut yet generous, a real beauty. Now through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $20 to $22.
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Steven Kent Winery “Lola” Ghielmetti Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Livermore Valley. 13.9% alc. 100% sauvignon blanc. 401 cases. Very pale straw-gold hue; gorgeous aromas of honeysuckle and camellia, tangerine, lime peel and lemongrass, cloves and ginger, hints of hay and thyme; lemony with a touch of peach and guava; wonderful talc-like texture riven by bristling acidity and bright limestone minerality; touch of celery seed and grapefruit bitterness on the finish. Irresistible. Now through Summer 2015. Excellent. About $24.
Image from cuveecorner.blogspot.com.
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McCay Cellars Tres Blanc 2013, Lodi. 14.5% alc. Blend of vermentino, verdelho, muscat and pinot noir. 218 cases. Pale gold color; intensely floral with jasmine and lilac; celery seed, fennel, roasted lemon, spiced pear, slightly leafy, with notes of fig and lime peel; dry but juicy, keen acidity and lovely viscosity; limestone and grapefruit finish. Very charming. Drink through Summer 2015. Very Good+. About $24.
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Grgich Hills Estate Fume Blanc 2012, Napa Valley. 13.55 alc. 100% sauvignon blanc. Pale gold color, shimmering; grapefruit, lime peel, roasted lemon, hint of peach; lemongrass and thyme; exotically floral, lilac, hyacinth; extraordinary texture, tense and tensile with steely acidity, limestone and damp rocks but contrastingly soft, silky, caressing, all this in perfect balance, along with notes of yellow plum, quince, ginger and just a hint of mango. Consistently one of the best sauvignon blanc wines made in California. Now through 2017 or ’18. Exceptional. About $30.
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Alexander Laible “Chara” Riesling trocken 2012, Baden, Germany. 13% alc. 100% riesling. Medium gold color; peach and pear, lychee and jasmine, wet stones, touch of apricot and diesel; very ripe entry, just a brush with sweetness but quickly turns dry; huge limestone element and chiming acidity give it tautness and resonance; lovely, lively delicate texture, yet plenty of lithe muscularity. Just terrific and delicious. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $40.
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Waterstone Pinot Noir 2011, Carneros. 14.5% alc. 100% pinot noir. 868 cases. Medium ruby color; red currants and cranberries, cloves and cinnamon; touch of candied cherries; rhubarb and pomegranate; very warm and spicy; mild tannins and a subtle oak presence; slightly foresty and briery, hints of leaf smoke, moss, a bit autumnal but fresh and clean. Quite appealing. Now through 2015. Very Good+. About $22.
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McCay Cellars Carignane 2011, Lodi. 13.5% alc. 100% carignane from a vineyard planted in 1908. 218 cases. Medium ruby-mulberry color; briery red currants and cranberries; rose petals, sandalwood, potpourri, brings up an infusion of red and black cherries; a little sappy and loamy; the whole package grows more expansive, generous and exotic as the minutes pass; supple but slightly smacky tannin and straight-arrow acidity; grows richer and more powerful through the brambly, flinty finish. Tasty and individual. Well worth a search. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $32.
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Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 13.5% alc. 100% pinot noir. Lovely, limpid medium ruby-mulberry hue; raspberries and plums, touch of black cherry, with a slightly raspy character; rose hips, violets, exotic with potpourri, lavender and sandalwood; rooty, loamy and a bit leathery; lithe and sinewy with lively acidity that cuts a swath on the palate; spare, savory, somehow like autumnal bounty slightly withheld. Tremendous integrity and authority, yet graceful, elegant, thoughtful. A pinot noir such as we do not often see made in the United States of America. Now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $35.
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Eponymous Syrah 2009, Napa Valley. 14.4% alc. With 4% cabernet sauvignon. Dark ruby-purple with a magenta rim; a syrah of real class and purpose; blackberries, blueberries and plums; clean earth, loam, graphite and new leather; hints of violets and lavender, dried rosemary and roasted fennel; touch of fruitcake; very dry, iron-like tannins and dusty oak; long spice-packed and granitic finish. Tremendous tone and presence yet sleek, elegant, light on its feet. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $38.
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Grgich Hills Estate Merlot 2009, Napa Valley. 14.8% alc. 100% merlot. Dark to medium ruby color; smolders with lavender and licorice, meaty and fleshy black currants and black raspberries, cloves and allspice; there’s a pungent dusty charcoal-graphite edge; a sizable, vibrant, resonant mouthful of merlot, with elements of leather, briers and brambles, underbrush and tannins of deep deliberation, all in all intense and concentrated yet sleek, well-balanced and integrated. Drink now through 2019 to ’22. Excellent. About $42.
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Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Alexander Valley. 13.5% alc. With 16% merlot, 7% petit verdot, 1% malbec. I typically don’t mention technical details in these Weekend Wine Notes, but I highly approve of the thoughtful oak regimen for this wine: 12 months aging in 74% French and 24% American oak barrels, of which, collectively, only 39% of the barrels were new. How sane! How rational! Thank you! Deep ruby-purple color; utterly classic, suave, delicious, well-structured; blackberries, black cherries and plums, hints of fennel, lavender, licorice and violets; though the wine is characterized by velvety, cushiony tannins, the tannic nature firms up in the glass and builds a sort of walnut shell-briers-and-brambles austerity through the finish; a perfect display of power and elegance. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $53.
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Wakefield “The Visionary” Exceptional Parcel Release Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Clare Valley, South Australia. 14% alc. 100% cabernet sauvignon. Dark ruby color; mint, iodine and iron, spiced and macerated black currants, plums and cherries; graphite and granite minerality that accumulate like a coastal shelf; dusty tannins, walnut-shell and loam; dense, chewy. A powerhouse of presence, tone and resonance, yet not in the least overwhelming or ponderous. Try from 2016 through 2030. Excellent. About $120.
Image from wineanorak.com
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I say “affordable” because this French company, overseen by managing director Christian Seely, owns a group of high-powered properties whose products are not to be mentioned in the same sentence with the word “cheap.” AXA’s estates include the Bordeaux chateaux of Pichon Longueville Baron (Second growth in the 1855 Classification) and Pibran in Paulillac, Suduiraut (First growth) in Sauternes and Petit-Village in Pomerol; the distinguished Domaine de L’Arlot in Burgundy; Disznóko in Hungary, producer of top-notch Tokaj; and Quinto do Noval, one of the oldest — dating back to 1715 — and most prestigious Port properties in the Douro Valley. Man and woman cannot, however, live by expensive wine alone, so the company provides, from its outpost in the Languedoc and from Noval (table wine, not Port), less costly products that mere mortals can afford and enjoy. These are imported by Vintus LLC in Pleasantville, N.Y. and were, in this case, samples for review.
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So, the Cedro do Noval 2009 is a blend of 50 percent touriga nacional grapes, 30 percent touriga franca, 10 percent tinta roriz (known as tempranillo in Spain) and 10 percent syrah, and it’s the minor inclusion of the syrah that prevents this wine from carrying a Douro designation, syrah not being an allowed grape in that famous river valley. Thus the designation Vinho Regional Duriense, a term, I confess, that I have not seen until now. The color is a youthful dark ruby purple, and at almost five years old, the wine is notably fresh, pure and lively. Aromas of cedar, dried rosemary and its slightly resinous nature, dried thyme, spiced and macerated plums and red and black currants open to deeper touches of dusty graphite. Cedro do Noval 2009 defines robust and rustic, embodying a hearty, full-bodied character in its dense, chewy texture and ripe, deeply spicy and savory red and black fruit flavors; a supple structure emboldened by 18 months in French oak barrels is permeated by earthy, leathery tannins. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to ’20 with the heartiest of grilled, roasted or braised meats. Very Good+. About $22.
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A blend of 60 percent syrah grapes, 30 percent grenache and 10 percent mourvèdre, Mas Belles Eaux “Les Coteaux” 2009, Languedoc, aged 15 months in one-to-three-year-old French oak barrels. The color is dark ruby with a magenta tinge at the rim; expressive aromas of ripe plums, cherries and blackberries are deeply spicy and laden with hints of lavender and potpourri, cloves and sandalwood, notes of leather, briers and brambles, all for an effect that’s both earthy and exotic. As was the case with the Cedro do Noval 09, this wine, at five years old, is fresh and clean and appealing, offering tasty plum and currant flavors infused with hints of dried spice and flowers and dusty graphite and supported by a structure of vibrant acidity and moderately firm tannins. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 to ’18 with roasted veal, coq au vin, rabbit fricassee. Excellent. About $20.
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