Syrah


Here are reviews of 10 wines — one syrah, two sauvignon blancs, three chardonnays and four pinot noirs — that I tasted late in the afternoon of Monday, September 10, at the Holman Ranch in Monterey County’s Carmel Valley, a beautiful setting for trying mainly excellent wines. As usual in these Friday Wine Sips I forgo the technical data of history, geography, vineyard practices, winemaking and personalities in which I typically indulge for the sake of straightforward reviews of a more incisive nature. These producers — Dawn’s Dream, Cima Collina, Silvestri — are small in scale, each making between about 2,500 to 3,500 cases annually, but large in talent. Enjoy…
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Dawn’s Dream Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Carmel Valley, Monterey County. 13% alc. Very pale straw color but shimmering radiance; grapefruit, limestone and gunflint; jasmine and honeysuckle, pears and lemons, mildly herbal and grassy, subtle and supple but crisp and lively acidity with scintillating limestone minerality; finish is sleek, elegant, more spicy. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $24.
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Dawn’s Dream Chardonnay 2011, Arroyo Seco. 14.1% alc. Very attractive chardonnay in the spare, lithe fashion; very dry, bursting with cloves, ginger and quince, hints of grapefruit and pineapple; a floral element grows, twining itself around ripe fruit; mainly structure through, lots of stones and bones; finish falls a tad short. Drink through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $24.
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Dawn’s Dream Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros. 14.1% alc. This will be the last Carneros pinot noir that Dawn Galante makes. Purple-magenta color; very spare, dry, almost sinewy, black and red currants and hints of cranberry and rhubarb permeated by cola and tobacco over layers of briers and brambles, underbrush, spicy oak and dry, brushy tannins; acid cuts a swath; nothing overdone, obvious or voluptuous but capturing the essential cool-climate character of the grape. Now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $24.
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Dawn’s Dream Alyssa Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands. 14.1% alc. Entrancing light cherry-magenta color with a faint violet rim; rhubarb, pomegranate, sassafras, cloves; another dry, slightly foresty/slightly feral rendition, with a lean, keen graphite edge, plangent acidity and just a little too much oak on the finish, still quite enjoyable and a little challenging. Now through 2015 to ’17. Very Good+. About $24.
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Cima Collina Cedar Lane Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Arroyo Seco, 14.7% alc. 320 cases. Pale straw-gold color; remarkably full-bodied, rich and spicy for an all stainless steel sauvignon blanc; scents and flavors of roasted lemons and spiced pears, hints of dried herbs and a slight tendency toward a grassy-meadowy character; quite dry yet juicy with macerated stone fruit flavors; brisk and bracing acidity, touch of sea-salt. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $16 and Worth a Search.
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Cima Collina Chula Vina Vineyard Chardonnay 2008, Monterey County. 14.4% alc. 318 cases. Big, bright and bold; perfectly balanced and integrated; seething with limestone and flint minerality and vibrant acidity yet bears itself with calmness and dignity; a great example of a chardonnay wine seamlessly segueing from youth to maturity; flavors of spicy yellow plums, quince, ginger and pineapple arrow through a finish supple with grapefruit and a hint of oak. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $33.
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Cima Collina Tondre Grapefield Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands. 14% alc. 325 cases. Enticing color of moderate ruby-mulberry with a tinge of violet-magenta at the rim; wow, what a perfect pinot noir, with exquisite balance, tone, harmony and elegance (and seductive spicy red and black currant and rhubarb flavors) yet supported by an almost rigorous structure of graphite-washed minerality; earthy, slightly mossy elements of underbrush, briers and brambles; and acidity the plows a row or two on the palate. Now through 2016 or ’17. Exceptional. About $48 and definitely Worth a Search for fans of SLH pinot noir from one of my favorite vineyards.
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Silvestri Vineyard “Bella Sandra” Chardonnay 2009, Carmel Valley. 14.1% alc. 968 cases. Despite the spicy, slightly vanilla-tinged oak in the background, this manages pleasing restraint and decorum in a subtle, supple package; embellished with burgeoning floral elements and limestone-shale minerality; roasted lemon, spiced pear flavors with hints of bright pineapple and grapefruit that extend through a mineral packed finish; fresh and vibrant at three years old. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $20, a Remarkable Value.
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Silvestri “Rising Tide” Pinot Noir 2009, Carmel Valley. 14.3% alc. 1420 cases. Dark ruby-magenta color; red and black currants and plums, mocha and sassafras, touch of cranberry; foresty briers and brambles, rooty and minerally, very dry, resonant almost resolute acidity; close to sleek above the touch of robust rusticity, and you feel the oak a bit in the finish. Try from 2013 or ’14 through 2017 to ’19. Very Good+. About $32.
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Silvestri Syrah 2009, Carmel Valley. 14.5% alc. 200 cases. Dark ruby-purple with a motor-oil black center; very pure and intense, riveting graphite-like minerality that bursts through lavender, licorice and leather, blackberries, blueberries and plums; slightly fleshy and meaty with a touch of wet dog and black pepper, all wrapped around a core of dry, grainy tannins and bitter chocolate. If this is what people can do with syrah in Carmel, they ought to plant more. Now through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $18, and they’re practically giving it away.
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Driving up and up a twisting dirt track toward the Chalone winery, nothing in the steep, sere hillsides, lying arid and exposed to the glaring sun that reigns over this realm of dust and chaparral, could convince you that the landscape and climate are anything like Burgundy. Yet from this improbable parched landscape, some 1800 feet up the Gavilan range, high over the city of Soledad and just under the Pinnacles National Monument, emerges some of the best (and at times controversial) chardonnay and pinot noir wines in California, as well as pinot blanc and chenin blanc, the latter from a vineyard planted in 1919, the oldest in Monterey County. (This image looks down on Chalone from the hills above.)

That vineyard was planted by F.W. Silvear, who after the end of Prohibition sold grapes to Almaden and Wente and made a little wine of his own. He died in 1957, and the property went through various changes of name and ownership until Richard Graff, a Navy veteran with a degree in music from Harvard, bought the insolvent company, with investment from his mother, in 1965. After a great deal of trial and error, the first wines were produced in 1969. Graff was fascinated by Burgundian methods, and he introduced to California the concepts of barrel fermentation and malolactic fermentation for white wines. It wasn’t easy making wine at Chalone. The winery was a former chicken coop that held 40 barrels. The property had no electricity, water or telephone service until the early 1980s; water for irrigation had to be trucked in from Soledad, and at night oil lamps came into service. A “real” winery was constructed in 1982, but it’s more easily described as a facility than a winery; no fancy digs here, no beautiful building designed by a famous architecture, the Chalone winery consists of serviceable offices, metal sheds and tanks. That former chicken coop/winery (see accompanying image) now holds the library of Chalone’s past vintages, a collection that can make visitors downright giddy.

In 1972, Phil Woodward resigned from the accounting firm Touche Ross and joined Chalone Vineyard as vice president of finance, a position that allowed him to take over all marketing and financial matters and to bring in a group of investors and much-needed cash. Graff and Woodward shared a vision that included maintaining Chalone as a fairly small producer but expanding the company through partnerships or through the creation of new wineries in other regions of the state. Thus came about the establishment of Edna Valley Vineyard winery in San Luis Obispo County, the Carmenet winery — since 2009 a brand for cheap wines from Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co. — and Canoe Ridge in Washington and the acquisition of Acacia and Jade Mountain and Staton Hills (in Washington), renamed Sagelands Vineyard. Chalone made an initial stock offering in 1984, the first California winery to go public. The Chalone Wine Group was purchased in 2005 by beverage giant Diageo, though as Robert Cook, Chalone winemaker since 2007, said, “They take care of the books. We take care of the wine.”

Dick Graff was killed in 1998, when his single-engine Cessna went down near the town of Salinas.

The Chalone American Vitacultural Area was approved in 1982, the first AVA in Monterey County, as Chalone was its first bonded winery. Though the region now contains seven vineyards, it has only one winery, Chalone itself. As long ago as the 1890s, when Frenchman Maurice Tamm planted vines in the declivities of these long, dry slopes, the area’s unique properties — its deep calcareous soils and its paucity of rainfall, about 14 inches a year — were recognized for the demands they would make on vines to work hard for nourishment and for the element of minerality the soil contributes to the wine.
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Here are the wines we tasted, under a blue sky and bright sun, on Wednesday, September 12:
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Sorry that I produced no “Friday Wine Sips” last week, but here we are again and on a Friday as it should be. Eclecticism reigns, with three versions of pinot gris/grigio, a sauvignon blanc from Washington and an albariño from California’s Central Coast. For reds, there a blend dominated by syrah from Paso Robles, an “international” blend from Tuscany and a pure and intense pinot noir from Anderson Valley. No geeky technical information here, just blitzkrieg reviews designed to take no prisoners on the way to your hearts and minds and palates. There’s a quibble here and there but mainly these are all attractive wines. These were samples for review.
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Bivio Pinot Grigio delle Venezie 2001, Italy. 12.5% alc. Pale gold color; almond, sea-salt, roasted lemon and thyme; clean, vibrant acidity, heaps of limestone-like minerality; spiced pear, citrus, touch of jasmine; very dry, fairly stony finish, which falls a tad short. Still, quite enjoyable. Very Good. About $14.
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Barrymore Pinot Grigio delle Venezia 2011, Italy. 12% alc. Barrymore as in Drew. Very crisp and lively, powerful limestone and flint elements, very stony and austere; pushes the elegance and spareness at the expense of fruit, spice and floral aspects that would soften acidity and minerality. Very Good. About $17.
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Domaine Paul Blanck Pinot Gris 2010, Alsace, France. 13.5% alc. Pale gold color; very attractive tone and presence, smells good, feels good, tastes good; spiced pears, cloves and clover, quince and a hint of crystallized ginger; a golden wine, almost honeyed but quite dry, loaded with limestone and flint, but nothing bleak or austere. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $22.
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Cadaretta SBS 2011, Columbia Valley, Washington State. 13.1% alc. Sauvignon blanc 76%, semillon 24%. Graceful, balanced, restrained; both scintillating and elegant, almost spare; spiced lemon and pear, thyme and tarragon, hint of leafy fig, notes of jasmine and honeysuckle; very attractive texture, lushness modulated by crisp acidity and an urgent limestone element; long, drawn-out, spicy finish, wrapped up by a touch of bracing grapefruit bitterness. Now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $23, and Worth a Search.
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Bonny Doon Vineyard Albariño 2011, Central Coast, California. 13.2% alc. Gosh, what a treat. Pale straw color, faint green highlights; so deftly polished, balanced and harmonious; roasted lemon and lemon balm, hints of verbena, jasmine, yellow plums and an invigorating breeze-borne sea-salt element; practically shimmers with resonant acidity and a clean limestone-shale element. Now through 2013 or ’14. 527 cases and one wishes there were more. Excellent. About $18, a Definite Bargain.
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Clayhouse Syrah 2010, Paso Robles, California. 13.5% alc. 77% syrah, 23% petite sirah. Medium to dark ruby color with a tinge of blue; black and red currants and plums, pepper, black olives, lavender and a hint of black licorice; heaps of earthy briers and brambles, dry, dusty and slightly leathery tannins but tasty red and black fruit flavors wrapped around tar and potpourri; medium-length finish. Now through 2014. Very Good+. About $15, representing Real Value.
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Tenuta di Biserno Insoglio del cinghiale 2010, Toscana, Italy. 14% alc. Cabernet franc 33%, syrah 32%, merlot 30%, petit verdot 5%. Smooth, burnished and polished, suave and elegant but plenty of earthy, loamy structure; plums, black currants and cherries, graphite, lavender, potpourri; touch of what the French call garrigue, implying the scent of warm, dusty, slightly resinous wild herbs; a bit velvety but buttressed by vibrant acidity and agreeable tannins. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $32.
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Champ de Rêves Pinot Noir 2010, Anderson Valley, California. 14.5% alc. Entrancing medium ruby-violet color; cranberry, black cherry, hints of rhubarb and pomegranate, cloves and sassafras; lovely satiny texture, almost lush but with the essential acidity to lend cut to the palate; smoky black cherry and red currant flavors; supple, spicy oak in the background. Very seductive. Through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $40.
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Perhaps Bonny Doon’s Le Pousseur Syrah is thus named because it’s a trickster or con man disguised as an actual syrah-based wine from France’s Rhone Valley. I’ll say that for 2009, Le Pousseur exudes such deep earthy aromas and flavors that it feels as if it sprang from the ancient, stony soil of one of those steep Northern Rhone hillsides rather than from a selection of sites in California’s vast Central Coast appellation, including the well-known Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Maria Valley. Bonny Doon winemaker Randall Grahm also makes a single vineyard syrah from Bien Nacido.

Bonny Doon Le Pousseur Syrah 2009, Central Coast, sports a deep ruby-purple color with a dark jewel-like center that approaches motor-oil black in opacity. No mistaking what grape is the heart and soul of this wine; classic syrah aromas of black pepper, wet dog fur, blackberries and blueberries are woven with elements of briers and brambles, smoky potpourri and profound mossy-earthy qualities. In the mouth, the wine — aged in French oak — is as sleek as satin, bright and vibrant, yet slightly roughened by fine-grained tannins that dig tenaciously into the palate for an essential factor of grip and grit; both generous and focused, the ripe black and blue fruit flavors are broadly imbued with touches of exotic spices — sandalwood, allspice — lavender, bitter chocolate and graphite. This panoply is seamlessly bound by resonant acidity and a finish that extends into lithic realms. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 953 cases. We drank this with pork chops coated with a dry rub of cumin, chili powder and coffee spices and grilled over hardwood coals. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $22, though you see it on the Internet as low as $18.

A sample for review.

Devotees of adding grape varieties to their Century Club roster may find a few candidates among the wines reviewed in this edition of Friday Wine Sips, posted for you actually on Friday! The theme today — not that we always have a theme — is blended red wines, and not the usual cab/merlot/cab franc/petit verdot or syrah/mourvèdre/grenache agenda but some blends that draw perhaps on those grapes but even more on eclectic notions of what grapes are right, fit and proper together. The inclusion of a couple of wines from Portugal that feature indigenous varieties guarantees a couple of grapes that some of my readers may be unfamiliar with, while for the first time in the epic history of this Higgs boson-haunted cosmos I feature a wine from Turkey and a pair of grapes that will tip the mercury in your thermometer of exoticism. Once a producer blends four or five or six red grapes from a broad area or from several regions, the point obviously is not to pay homage to the purity of a grape variety or the integrity of a vineyard but to assemble a wine that’s appealing and tasty or, perhaps more important, that structurally and philosophically makes sense on its own terms. Several of the wines considered today accomplish this task handily, a few range from decent and acceptable to a little iffy, and one employs five grape varieties from three counties in California and succeeds only in manufacturing something generic. As usual in these Friday Wine Sips, I avoid most technical, historical, specifically geographical and personal information for the sake of quick, incisive notices designed to make you say “Hot damn, gimme some o’ that!” (Or not.)

These wines were samples for review.
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Esporão Alandra Red Table Wine nv, Portugal. 13% alc. A blend of moreto, castelão and trincadeira grapes. Dark mulberry-plum color; very smoky and spicy, ripe black and blue fruit scents and flavors; deep, dense, chewy, sapid and savory, heaps of robust grainy tannins; finish packed with slate, forest, thyme and dried porcini; sort of amazing presence and personality for the price. Begs for grilled sausages (though it’s not a wine to beg, really, more like demand). Very Good. About $7, an Outrageous Bargain.
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Bonny Doon Vineyards Contra Old Vine Field Blend 2010, California. 13.7% alcohol. 69% carignane, 31% syrah. Dark ruby-purple with a magenta rim; pungent, ripe, fleshy, black cherry and black currant with hints of plums, blueberries, smoke, graphite; intense core of potpourri and bittersweet chocolate; very spicy, quite dense and chewy with grainy tannins, vibrant acidity, lots of structure; an old-fashioned, rather rustic, juicy, briery California quaffer for burgers, steaks, pizzas. Very Good+. About $16, representing Good Value.
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Peter Lehmann Layers 2010, Barossa Valley, Australia. 14.5% alc. 55% shiraz, 18% tempranillo, 17% mourvèdre, 10% grenache. Dark ruby-purple color; intriguing aromas of black currants, blackberries and plums with touches of black pepper, iodine, cloves and foresty elements; dense and chewy yet smooth and mellow, drinks like a charm; deep, spicy black and blue fruit flavors, delicious and unfettered; a satisfying, moderately long finish packed with spice and earthy notes. We drank this wine with a hearty pizza. Very Good+. About $17.
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Ghost Pines Red Blend “Winemaker’s Blend” 2009, Napa County 46%, Sonoma County 36%, San Joaquin County 18%. (A Gallo label.) Cabernet sauvignon 33%, petite sirah 29%, zinfandel 22%, merlot 10%, syrah 6%. Solid, well-made, symmetrical and unexciting; good acidity and smooth tannins, tasty black fruit flavors, but lacks personality and delineation. Maybe it would be O.K. at five dollars less. Very Good. About $20.
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Highflyer Centerline 2008, California. 14.8% alc. 81% syrah, 12% petite sirah, 4% tempranillo, 3% zinfandel. Deep purple-black with a motor oil-like sheen; very intense, very concentrated; black currants, black raspberries and plums with some plum-skin bitterness and underbrush on the finish; iron and iodine, exotic, wild, coats the mouth with brooding tannins and yet elevating touches of sandalwood, cloves and fruitcake; still, needs a year or two or a huge medium-rare steak hot and crusty from the grill. Try 2013 through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $20.
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Gundlach Bundschu Mountain Cuvée 2009, Sonoma County. 13.9% alc. 42% cabernet sauvignon, 28% merlot, 17% cabernet franc, 6% zinfandel, 3% syrah, 3% petit verdot, 1% malbec. Dark ruby color; packed with spice, earth, shale-and-slate-like minerality; very intense and concentrated, pretty damned densely tannic and oaky; robust, almost exuberant, but needs a couple of years to ease the reins of its furled nature (furl its reins? rain on its fur?). Try 2013 or ’14 through 2018 or ’19. Very Good+. About $24.
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Kayra Imperial 2008, Elazig, Denizli, Turkey. 14% alc. Okuzgozü 80%, bogazkere 6%, syrah, 7%, petit verdot 7%. Very dark ruby-purple; bright, vivid, very spicy; blueberries and mulberries, smoke and graphite-like minerality; very appealing, furry tannins and a velvety texture, but oak and tannin also give it some structural rigor, all being nicely composed and well-knit; a bit of austerity on the finish. A fascinating wine. Very Good+. About $25.
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Esporão Reserva 2009, Alentejo, Portugal. 14.5% alcohol. A blend of aragonez (that is, tempranillo), trincadeira, alicante bouschet and cabernet sauvignon. Color is inky-purple; first impression: oak and tannins pretty blatant; smoky, fleshy and meaty, lots of spice, touch of mint, slightly herbal, dark and succulent black fruit flavors; there’s a personality here waiting to unfold but give it a year or two or three. Very Good+. About $25.
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Spelletich 3 Spells Blend GHK Red Wine 2007, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. 57% merlot, 28% sangiovese, 15% cabernet sauvignon. Dark ruby-purple; rates an initial “wow”; ink, iodine and iron, graphite, lavender and licorice, violets and bittersweet chocolate; black and red cherries, raspberries and plums; smooth and mellow but something born free about it, almost feral; plush and voluptuous but held in check by resonant acidity, substantial tannins and granite-like minerality; definitely Californian and all the better for it. 300 cases. Now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $26 and Worth a Search.
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A collection of whites again with a couple of rosés, because who can think about big red wines when the mercury is busting out the top of the thermometer and running for its life? Geographically, we touch California, the south of France, Italy’s province of Umbria, Chile and Portugal. There are a few drops of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc in these wines, but the dominant white grapes are pinot grio/grigio and riesling, with contributions from verdiccio and vermentino, gewurztraminer and orange muscat and other varieties. The two rosés are equally eclectic. As usual in these Friday Wine Sips, even if posted on Saturday — ahem, cough, cough — I avoid most historical and technical data for the sake of quick reviews designed to whet your thirst and curiosity. All of these wines were samples for review, as I am required by Federal Trade Commission regulations to inform you. (The same regulations do not apply to print outlets such as magazines and newspaper.)

Lovely image of J Pinot Gris 2011 from nickonwine.com.

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Double Decker Pinot Grigio 2010, California. 13% alc. Pinot grigio with 4% riesling and 3% viognier. Double Decker is the replacement for Wente’s Tamas label. Pale straw color; touches of roasted lemon, lavender and lilac, cloves; dense texture, needs more acidity; mildly sweet entry with a very dry finish; fairly neutral from mid-palate back. Good. About $10.
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Bieler et Fils “Sabine” Rosé 2011, Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, France. 13.5% alc. Syrah 50%, grenache 30%, cabernet sauvignon 20%. A classic rosé from Provence. Pale copper-onion skin color with a flush of melon; melon in the nose, with strawberry and dried red currants, a distinct limestone edge and a flirtation of cedar and dried thyme; lovely delicate weight and texture, brisk acidity and that mineral element, hints of red currants, melon and peach skin. Delightful. Very Good+. About $11, a Terrific Bargain.
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Falesco Vitiano 2011, Umbria, Italy. 12.5% alc. Verdiccio 50%, vermentino 50%. Very pale straw color; spicy, briny, floral, stony; roasted lemon, baked pear and grapefruit with a hint of peach; very dry, crisp, touches of smoke and limestone. Tasty, charming. Very Good. About $11.
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Meli Riesling 2011, Maule Valley, Chile. 12.8% alc. Wonderful character and authenticity, especially for the price. Pale straw-gold color; peaches and pears, lychee and grapefruit, hints of petrol and honeysuckle; lithe with bright acidity and a flinty mineral quality, yet soft and ripe, super attractive; citrus flavors infused with spice and steel; quite dry but not austere; long juicy finish tempered by taut structure. Excellent. About $13, a Raving Great Value.
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Vina de Defesa Rosé 2011, Alentejo, Portugal. 13.5% alc. Syrah 50%, aragones 50%. Entrancing vivid melon-scarlet color; strawberry and watermelon, touch of dried red currants, pungently spicy, hint of damp, dusty roof-tiles; pomegranate and peach and a bit of almond skin; a little briny, a little fleshy; keen acidity and flint-like minerality. Quite a different style than the Bieler et Fils “Sabine” Rosé 2011 mentioned above. Very Good+. About $15.
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J Pinot Gris 2011, California. 13.8% alc. Very pale straw color; celery seed and lemongrass, mango and lemon balm, hints of lime peel and orange blossom; delightfully fresh and clean, laves the palate with spicy citrus and stone-fruit flavors enlivened by crisp acidity and a scintillating mineral element, devolving to rousing notes of grapefruit bitterness on the finish. Lots of personality; consistently one of the best pinot gris wines made in the Golden State. Excellent. About $15, a Freakin’ Bargain of the Decade.
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The Whip White Wine 2011, Livermore Valley, California, from Murrieta’s Well. 12.5% alc. Chardonnay 39%, semillon 26%, gewurztraminer 13%, orange muscat 9%, viognier 7%, sauvignon blanc 6%. Medium straw-gold color; boldly spicy and floral, hints of leafy fig, fennel seed, lemon tart, Key limes, almonds and almond blossom, back-note of dried tarragon; very lively and spicy, tasty flavors of grapefruit, kiwi and lychee, almost lush texture but balanced by buoyant acidity and mineral elements. Very Good+. About $20.
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Arnaldo-Caprai Grecante 2010, Grechetto dei Colli Martani, Umbria, Italy. 13% alc. 100% grechetto grapes. Pale straw-gold color with a faint green sheen; sleek and suave but clean, lively and spicy; roasted lemon and lemon curd, touches of fig and thyme and camellia, all delicately woven; pert and provocative with snappy acidity and limestone minerality, fresh citrus flavors with notes of dried herbs, grassy salt marsh and yellow plum. Nice balance between seductive and reticent. Excellent. About $20.
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Stepping Stone is the second label of Napa Valley’s Cornerstone Cellars, founded in 1991 by two doctors and a couple of investors in Memphis. The motivation was to produce great cabernet sauvignon wines, and in that purpose the enterprise has flourished. (Here are my notes on the excellent Cornerstone Howell Mountain and Napa Valley cabernets from 2004 and 2005; I have not tasted subsequent vintages.) The Cornerstone wines are built to age, are limited in quantity and dear in cost (though not as expensive as many comparable Napa Valley cabernets), so Stepping Stone was created to offer drinkable products at more accessible prices. Winemaker for Cornerstone and Stepping Stone since 2010, and the company’s first full-time winemaker, is Jeff Keene.

The Stepping Stone Corallina Syrah Rosé 2011, Napa Valley, derives from the Boyd Family Vineyards in Napa’s Oak Knoll appellation. This rosé is made not by the saignée method of bleeding off some juice from the crushing of red grapes intended for another wine but by gently pressing whole clusters to obtain a pale juice that is then taken off the skins. The wine undergoes a long cool fermentation in stainless steel tanks and then, in an unusual process for a rosé, is aged five months in well-used French oak barrels. The result is a rosé that retains all the delicacy and elegance we associate with the best models but one just slightly more robust and structured. The color is indeed coral with a shimmer of copper-orange topaz; in other words, entrancing. Aromas of dried raspberries and red currants are highlighted by hints of orange zest, lilac and lime peel; within flavors of citrus modality notes of melon and raspberry make an appearance, all enlivened by brisk acidity and a scintillating element of limestone minerality. The wine is shapely, supple and spicy — there are touches of cloves and cinnamon — and altogether suited for a variety of Summer and early Fall dishes, from cold fried chicken and deviled eggs to rabbit terrine and veal blanquette. Serve chilled and drink through 2013. Production was 455 cases. Excellent. About $20.

A sample for review.

After a career in the publishing business, John Shafer moved his family to the Napa Valley in 1972, purchasing a 210-acre estate — with 50 acres of vines — in what is now the Stags Leap District AVA, officially designated without an apostrophe. The first crush occurred in 1978. The winery’s vineyard property gradually increased to 205 acres, with 79 acres in Stags Leap, 60 acres just south of SLD in Napa Valley and 66 acres in Carneros. By variety, the breakdown is 97 acres devoted to caberet sauvignon (Napa’s great hero grape), 66 of chardonnay, 24 of syrah, 12 of merlot and 6 of petite sirah. John Shafer’s son Doug became winemaker in 1983; when he was elevated to company president in 1994, assistant winemaker Elias Fernandez became winemaker, a position he still fills today.

Shafer is one of Napa Valley’s elite wineries, and if California possessed a system similar to the classification of Bordeaux — don’t worry, that will never happen, at least not “officially” — it would certainly be listed among the First Growths. The commitment is to cabernet sauvignon, though forays into chardonnay and syrah have proved highly successful. The wines tend to see a boodle of new French oak, 100 percent new oak for some of the wines, but they seem to absorb that wood and make it an integral part of the package; I have never tasted a wine from Shafer tainted by the blatant, smoky vanilla qualities of new barrels. The winery is making an effort to enumerate more accurately the alcohol content of its wines, once listed as a blanket 14.8 percent. Since federal regulations allow a one-degree leeway, an indication of 14.8 percent could mean anywhere from 13.8 to 15.8. The degrees indicated now represent an attempt to tell consumers what they’re actually getting.

Tasted at a trade event.
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The Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay 2010, Carneros, is an absolutely exquisite and classic representation of the grape. The wine aged 14 months in 75 percent new French oak barrels and 25 percent stainless steel tanks. Since it does not go through what’s called malolactic fermentation, the wine delivers a sense of grace, purity and intensity that does not involve the extraneous and often cloying creamy, dessert-like aspects that the process can produce (and which some wine publications unaccountably dote upon), while the oak influence is subtly revealed only in the wine’s sleekness and suppleness and its spicy nature. The color is pale gold; aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit are tinged with quince and ginger and hints of cloves and limestone. In the mouth, ripe and spicy stone-fruit flavors are ensconced in a texture that’s almost lush and powdery, though balanced, indeed cut, by powerful limestone and flint minerality and the scintillating effect of crystalline acidity; tremendous presence, heft and tone, yet exquisitely drawn and finely detailed, right through the spare, elegant finish. 14.9 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 or ’17, well-stored. Excellent. About $48.
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Sometimes I think that I would rather drink hot grease than another merlot from California, but then an example like the Shafer Merlot 2009, Napa Valley, comes along to gladden my heart and make the world seem fit to live in. This is a merlot of jewel-like transparency, detail and definition; I mean, it feels effortless, though there’s nothing delicate or evanescent about it. (There’s 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent malbec in the blend.) The wine aged 20 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby-purple; aromas of ripe and macerated mulberries, black raspberries and blueberries are highlighted by notes of rose petals and brambles, white pepper, bittersweet chocolate and penetrating graphite-like minerality. The heft and balance, the absolute confidence and insouciance of this merlot are truly lovely, though the wine does not neglect the important aspects of a rigorous tannin and acid structure that lends a sense of tension and grip. It you love merlot and sometimes despair of its fate, don’t fail to get a few bottles of this quite beautiful model. 15.1 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to ’20. Exceptional. About $48.
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You could call the Shafer Relentless 2008, Napa Valley, a blend of 75 percent syrah and 25 percent petite sirah, a blockbuster — I kept using the word tremendous in my notes — except that it displays so much finesse; its, um, tremendousness feels like an inextricable weaving of infinite strands of subtlety and nuance bound by, er, tremendously huge tannins and tautly wrought acidity. (The wine aged an astonishing 30 months in 100 percent French oak barrels.) The color is deep, dark ruby-purple; the bouquet bursts from the glass in a dynamic welter of black and blue plums, black currants and blueberries, mocha and black pepper, violets and lavender and the classic Northern Rhone notes of wet fur, tar and hot stones; if ever a bouquet could be called muscular, it’s this one. Still, for all its tannic and oaken power and its iron-like minerality (and shall we mention 15.6 percent alcohol content and the bravado ripeness of its black and blue fruit flavors?), the wine does not feel ponderous or overbearing; it takes a lot of skill and experience to assemble these components into a balanced, coherent wine that feels utterly faithful to its constituent grapes. Best from 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $60.
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The Shafer One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Stags Leap District — 98 percent cabernet with 2 percent petit verdot — offers a deep almost opaque purple color and burgeoning aromas of cassis and black raspberry, smoke, bittersweet chocolate, underbrush, iodine and iron. (This aged 20 months in 100 percent new French oak.) There’s a great deal of depth and grip and forceful tautness here, an energetic element that makes the wine lively and resonant — the tannins, at least, are finely milled, seeming well-oiled and seamless — yet of the five wines under review here, this is the one that feels the least integrated. Perhaps it’s simply the earthiest (I wouldn’t say rustic) and just needs a couple of years to come together, say 2014 to ’15 and then drinking until 2020 or so. 15.3 percent alcohol. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $70.
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Shafer’s flagship wine is the Hillside Select, Stags Leap District, which for 2007, the 25th Anniversary vintage, brings together all the virtues of place and grape for a virtuoso performance. This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon; the wine aged 32 months in all new French oak barrels. Real weight, heft and substance here, stupendous earthy-granitic minerality, roiling acidity and deeply-rooted grainy tannins; this is not about elegance or finesse, but it is about power, balance and total integration of all elements into dynamic, resonant completion, the whole package feeling as if it had been lightly sanded and burnished. There’s some toughness here, too, dense, tense, a little truculent for the next few years, yet, paradoxically, the wine is almost voluptuous in texture, a fitting cushion for heady and penetrating qualities of ripe, bright cassis, black cherry and dark plum flavors. 15.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to 2025. Exceptional. About $225 (a bottle).
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The title of this post says it all: Some Big-Hearted, Two-Fisted Reds for That Memorial Day Cook-Out. We cover a wide geographical range: Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Australia, Napa Valley and Lake County in California. Whether you’re grilling hots dogs or sausages, burgers or steaks; pork chops or leg of lamb or ribs, there’s a robust red for you. No technical, historical or specific regional/terroir-type information; just quick, incisive, evocative reviews intending to whet the palate and create a craving. If you’re lucky enough to merit a three-day weekend, have fun, consume alcohol moderately, drive safely and remember that Memorial Day honors the men and women of the American military forces who gave their lives so that we could enjoy our rights and freedoms — whatever party and philosophy we subscribe to and however ambiguously we regard the notion, the operation and the effectiveness of our pretty darned great but surely imperfect democracy. These wines were samples for review or were tasted at trade events. There are some truly great bargains among these reviews.
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Monte Velho 2010, Alentejano, Portugal. 13.5% alc. Grapes: trincadeira 40%, aragonez 40%, castelao 20%. Well, this is really different, beginning with the trio of indigenous grapes. Boisterously spicy, buoyantly fruity, dark and alluring; currants, plums, mulberries and more than a touch of some wild exotic thing; briers, brambles, soft slightly grainy tannins; notes of dried spice, dried flowers; fruit and spice-packed finish with a graphite-slate element. Nothing complicated, mind you, but tasty and, well, different. Very Good. About $10, an Amazing Value.
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San Huberto Malbec 2010, Castro Barras, La Rioja, Argentina. 13% alc. Inky-ruby color; clean and fresh yet dusty, earthy and minerally; black olive and celery seed, thyme and cedar, black currants and black cherry with a hint of blueberry; wild, untamed, close to exotic, solid structure with dusty, fine-grained tannins and spicy oak; touches of licorice and pomegranate, quince paste and macerated figs wrapped about a black tea and bittersweet chocolate core; dense, dark, almost brooding finish. Now to 2015 to ’16. Excellent. About $11, a Bargain of the Century.
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Lamadrid Single Vineyard Reserve Malbec 2008, Mendoza, Argentina. 14% alc. Dark ruby-purple; ink, iron and iodine bouquet, mint and lavender; dusty, intense and concentrated black currants and plums with a hint of wild berry; impressive weight and substance married to a paradoxical sense of refinement, even delicacy; finely-milled tannins; subtle, supple oak; bright acidity; a moderately long finish freighted with clean earth and underbrush qualities. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $15, representing Great Value.
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Jip Jip Rocks Shiraz Cabernet 2008, Limestone Coast, Australia. ?% alc. Medium ruby color; intense and generous, a little fleshy and meaty, mint, eucalyptus, cherry-berry and an unusual touch of strawberry; exotic spice; earthy, smooth, honed tannins, a minerally-foresty back-note. Lots of personality, almost charming. Now through 2013. Very Good+. About $17.
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Burgo Viejo Reserva 2006, Rioja, Spain. 85% tempranillo, 10% garnacha, 5% carignan. Deep ruby with a dark violet rim and a purple center; tobacco leaf, sandalwood, bacon fat and tar; vivid notes of black and red currants and cherries, undertones of rose petal and fruitcake; then hints of leather, cloves, sandalwood and green peppercorns; beautifully balanced and integrated, dense, slightly grainy tannins, a subtle and supple oak influence for a firm foundation and framework, a burgeoning element of graphite-like minerality; spiced and macerated black and blue fruit flavors; vibrant acidity, a sleek, spice-and-floral finish. Through 2015 or 2016. Excellent. About $19, a Great Bargain in a mature Rioja.
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Obsidian Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Red Hills, Lake County, California. 14.3% alc. 94% cabernet sauvignon, 3% each cabernet franc and petit verdot. Deep ruby-purple; sleek and scintillating, notably clean and fresh, a powerhouse of spicy black and blue fruit scents and flavors strictly tempered by layers of earthy, dusty graphite and plush finely-milled mineral-laced tannins dressed out with vibrant acidity; comes close to being elegant, though concealing a barrow-load of coiled energy. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $30.
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Mullineux Syrah 2008, Swartland Wine of Origin, South Africa. Dark ruby color; black and red currants, plums, fruitcake, a spike of black pepper and cloves; very earthy and spicy, wild and ripe mulberries, blueberries and plums; deeply earthy, supple, sinewy, bolstered by plush, grainy tannins and dusty granite; exuberant acidity and a long, spice-packed finish. Quite a performance. now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $33.
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Priest Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. 14.9% alc. With 3% petite sirah. Dark ruby-purple; penetrating graphite and granite minerality, a real charcoal edge; cranberry, mulberry and black currant, very dry, dense and chewy, velvety, touch of iodine and iron, smooth integrated tannins; deeply spicy and slightly austere finish. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $40.
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I love rosés. There, I said it and I’m not sorry. Once the temperature goes above 70, I’m ready to be charmed and delighted by these pale, dry, stony evocations of sun and wind and dusty herb gardens and hot stones and bowls of dried or fresh and spiced fruit. Today we look at a group of rosé wines that includes examples from the South of France, their natural home; from France’s Loire Valley; and from diverse areas of California: North Coast, Central Coast and Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey. The range of grapes is diverse too, mainly reds that we associate with Provence, the Rhone Valley and Languedoc — syrah, grenache, cinsault and mourvèdre — but also pinot noir, cabernet franc and even pinot gris, whose pinky-gray skin — it’s nominally a “white” grape — can impart the slightest pale hue to the wine. Rosés are versatile in their relationship with food, and we tend to drink them throughout the Spring and Summer with just about everything from snacks and appetizers to entrees except fish, which can make the wines taste metallic. Whether you’re feeling carefree or care-worn, a crisp, dry elegant rosé will perform wonders at elevating the mood and creating a fine ambiance.

The French rosés here were tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event; the others were samples for review.
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Saint Martin de la Garrigue “Tradition” Rosé 2011, Coteaux du Languedoc. 13.5% alc. 50% cinsault, 30% syrah, 20% grenache. Pale melon color with a slight violet tinge; classically proportioned, dry, austere; raspberry and a touch of tart cranberry, dusty and herbal, wet stones, flint and chalk. Very Good+. About $15.
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Eric Chevalier Pinot Noir Rosé 2011, Vin de Pays du Val de Loire. 11.5% alc. Ruddy copper-salmon color; dried currants and raspberries, hint of mulberry; provocative whiffs of thyme and white pepper; chalk and limestone, crisp, tense acidity, with a spicy, flinty finish. Excellent. About $15, representing Great Value.
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Domaine de Fontsainte Gris de Gris Rosé 2011, Corbières. 12.5% alc. 70% grenache, 10% each mourvèdre, carignane, cinsault. Pale copper-salmon color; very floral, very spicy, compote-like maceration of strawberries and raspberries highlighted by dried spice; limestone and flint, slightly dusty and earthy, touch of dried thyme; crisp and lively. Super attractive. Very Good+. About $16.
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Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2011, Central Coast. 13.5% alc. 73% grenache, 10% mourvèdre, 8% grenache blanc, 5% roussanne, 4% cinsault. Pale yet radiant melon-copper color; fresh and dried strawberries and red currants, hint of watermelon with an overlay of peach skin; a little dusty, earthy and brambly; very dry, spare, elegant, an infusion of macerated fruit with scintillating liquid limestone. Excellent. About $16, a Real Bargain.
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Domaine de Reuilly Pinot Gris Rosé 2011, Loire Valley. 12% alc. Very pale onion skin color; dried raspberries and red currants, quite dry, spare, elegant; lots of stones and bones and crisp acidity; hints of roses and lilacs; buoyant tenseness and tautness balanced by an almost succulent texture. Really attractive and tasty. Excellent. About $20.
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V. Sattui Rosato 2011, North Coast. 13.5% alc. Grenache, syrah, carignane grapes. A Florida of a rose, that is, florid, floral, the color of hibiscus, the scent of roses, violets, strawberries and raspberries, cloves, hints of orange rind and peach; more layered and substantial than most rosés, like what in Bordeaux is called clairette, falling between a rosé and a full-blown red wine; savory limestone and spice-laden finish. This could age a year. Excellent. About $21.75.
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Charles Joguet Chinon Rosé 2011, Loire Valley. 100% cabernet franc. Very pale melon color; ripe and fleshy yet cool, dry, packed with limestone and bright acidity, a touch austere; spice-infused red currants and raspberries. Very Good+. About $22.
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La Rochelle Pinot Noir Rosé 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 12.5% alc. Very pale shimmering onion skin color; very dry, spare, austere; imbued with nuances of spiced and slightly macerated red currants and raspberries and, as in a dream, an evocative and fleeting scent of dried rose petals; structure is all clean acidity and honed limestone. A superior rosé. 119 cases. Excellent. About $24, and Worth a Search.
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