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Chile’s Aconcagua Valley lies about an hour’s drive north of Santiago, the country’s capital. The region is divided by the Aconcagua River into one area that is quite hot and dry and another, closer to the coast, that is cooler. Aconcagua is not as heavily populated by wineries as several of Chile’s more southerly wine regions, like Maule, Maipo and Rapel, yet it is home to several producers of high quality wines.

One of these is Viña San Estaban, whose label In Situ was selected (by whom I don’t know) as the official wine of the Memphis in May International Festival that this year honors Chile. I tried the In Situ wines last week and found them to vary from decent to very well-made and to represent in most cases Good Value, though the reds are more impressive than the whites. The winemaker for Viña San Estaban is Horacio Vincente, following his father and grandfather at the estate. At 3,000 feet above sea level, the San Estaban vineyards are some of the highest in the world.

There are three levels of In Situ wines: The Reservas, priced at about $11; the Winemaker’s Selection, about $15; and the Gran Reservas, about $20. In addition there’s a proprietary wine, Laguna del Inca (“Lake of the Incas”) that sells for $32 or $33.

Here are brief reviews.
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>In Situ Reserva Chardonnay 2007, Aconcagua Valley. More dimension and character than the price would imply, with tasty pineapple-grapefruit flavors tinged with mango, a keen edge of acid and sleek oak influence, nicely balanced and integrated. Restrained but not quite elegant. Very Good. About $11.

> In Situ Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Aconcagua Valley. Very attractive, with enticing aromas of lime and grapefruit. dried thyme and tarragon, hints of grass and lime peel; crisp and lively in the mouth, loads of chalk and limestone to bolster citrus flavors with touches of fig and smoke. Great Value. About $11.

>In Situ Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Aconcagua Valley. I tasted this wine before finding out what the prices for the In Situ wines are, and I would have tagged it at $25 or $30. Medium ruby hue with a slight tint of garnet at the rim; macerated and slightly stewed black cherry and plum with plenty of well-integrated oak and tannin; smooth and mellow, pulls up mulberry and a hint of exotic spice; very dry, a little austere on the finish. Cries out for roasted game birds. The ’03 is not the current release of this wine, but track it down if you can. Excellent and a Phenomenal Bargain at about $11.

>In Situ Reserva Merlot 2004, Aconcagua Valley. The In Situ line no longer includes a merlot, which is a shame if this example is an indication of the quality. Bordeaux-like in its vibrant acidity, its dusty, spicy black currant and black cherry scents and flavors, its emphasis on a full-fledged tannic and oaken structure that does not detract from fruit etched with touches of cedar, tobacco, green pepper and black olive. Really lovely, mellow, seductive, sleek, and stylish. Excellent and Amazing for the Price, about $11. Worth a Search.

>In Situ Reserva Carmenère 2005, Aconcagua. Dark ruby color with a moderate brick-red rim; robust and rustic, dusty and chewy; intense and concentrated black fruit woven with cedar, bell pepper and black olive; unfolds elements of dried orange rind, bitter chocolate, leather and a mossy black tea. Much pleasing detail but not quite the dimension of the cabernet sauvignon and the merlot, but still Good Value. Very Good+. About $11.
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>In Situ Winemaker’s Selection Chardonnay 2008, Aconcagua. An attractive chardonnay, clean, fresh and bright, with a whisper of oak; spicy pineapple-grapefruit flavors, crisp acid, a vibrant supporting mineral quality. Very Good+. About $15.

>In Situ Winemaker’s Selection Carmenère 2007, Aconcagua. Full-bodied and robust; dense and chewy; black olive, black pepper, black currant and plum; spicy oak, dusty, grainy tannins. Needs a steak. Very Good. About $15.

>In Situ Winemaker’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Aconcagua. Macerated currants and cherries, bell pepper, black olive and cedar; plenty of polished oak and gritty tannins. Fairly rustic. Very Good. About $15.
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>In Situ Gran Reserva Carmenère 2007, Aconcagua. Warm and spicy, exotic, sandalwood and cloves; macerated and roasted black currants and cherries with a touch of wild berry; large-framed, full-bodied, boldly structured; dusty oak girt with dusty tannins, yet a finely honed, very palatable wine. Really requires grilled or roasted red meat. Now through 2011 or ’12. Very Good+. About $20.

>In Situ Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Aconcagua. Beguiling aromas of smoke, cedar and tobacco,, violets, macerated black currants and plums; quite earthy and minerally; dried herbs, hints of bell pepper; nicely integrated oak and tannin lend a texture that’s almost velvety, though the finish gets pretty rigorous. A blend of 90 percent cabernet sauvignon and five percent each cabernet franc and carmenère. Best from 2010 to 2012 or ’14. Very Good+. About $20.
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>In Situ Laguna del Inca 2006, Aconcagua. However unusual this blend of 40 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent syrah, 26 percent carmenère and (surprisingly) 4 percent sangiovese may be, it feels classic yet with a wild berry and exotically herbed and spiced edge, roasted and smoky. Real depth, dimension and individuality here in a wine that offers plenty of firm oak and grainy tannins for structure but remains not only eminently drinkable but close to elegant in its proportions, balance and integration, all of these elements supporting Bordeaux-like flavors of black currant and black cherry permeated by dried thyme, bell pepper and black olive. Drink through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $32.
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Sbragia Family Vineyards is the winery that Ed Sbragia, now the master winemaker for Beringer, owns apart from the producer for which he has successfully labored for so many years. The grapes for the Sbragia wines come from vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley, all in Sonoma County, and from sites in Napa Valley.

The Sbragia Family Home Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Dry Creek Valley, derives from vineyards that Sbragia and his family own. Fermented in stainless steel and aged a few months in three-year-old barrels, this is a lovely sauvignon blanc that deftly weaves fruit and spice with bright acid and an elegant suggestion of smoky oak. Aromas of apple and pear, roasted lemon and tangerine with a hint of grass draw you into the wine. The wine is crisp and lively and quite dry, with a texture slightly softened by a blur of wood; fruit is generous and luscious, revolving around lemon, melon, tangerine, orange peel and touches of baking spice. A few minutes in the glass bring up notes of jasmine and orange blossom and refreshing steely minerality. Great with grilled shrimp or seared scallops. Excellent and a Great Price at about $20.

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>I am sick and tired of bland wines with manufactured flavors and engineered mellowness.

>I am sick and tired of organically- and biodynamically-produced wines whose sole justification is the smugness of their back-label texts.

>I am sick and tired of gimmicks and devices and diversions, of PR ploys and marketing skirmishes and industry trends, of cuteness and wackiness and self-satisfied back-stories, anything that detracts from the wine and does not let the wine speak for itself.

> I am sick and tired of producers that apply oak to their wines as if on automatic pilot, whose attitude is “If this is wine, there must be oak; if this is a reserve wine, there must be more oak.”

>I am sick and tired of cheap wines that all taste the same and expensive wines that all taste the same.

>I am sick and tired of the lip-service paid to varietal and regional qualities in wines that display no varietal or regional character.

>I am sick and tired of the lack of individuality in winemaking, of the tendency toward the lowest common denominator, of the implication that wine consumers don’t give a damn what they drink, that all producers have to do is get together a whole bunch of grapes from “California” or “North Coast” or “South Eastern Australia” or “Navarra,” make the wine, slap a critter label on the bottle and send it out there.

And, hey, have a great weekend!


We’ll get back to pizza-making later today, but first, here’s the “Wine of the Week.”

Jim Barry Wines is best known for its flagship product “The Armagh” Shiraz, consistently one of the best shiraz (syrah) wines produced in Australia. In the United States, the price for “The Armagh” runs from $145 to $175 a bottle. The winery offers less expensive wines, fortunately, and one of the most seductive of these is “The Cover Drive” Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, South Australia. Made completely from cabernet sauvignon grapes, the wine ages 12 months in half-and-half French and American oak barrels. It delivers gangbusters aromas of mint and bell pepper, softly spiced and macerated black currants and plums, cedar and tobacco, with a back-note of mulberry. The dark ruby-purple wine is robust without being rustic and full-bodied without being cushiony; it’s powered by sleek and chewy tannins and oak that feels polished with dry, slightly woody spices, while a few minutes in the glass allow the wine to unfurl smoke and potpourri wreathed with scintillating minerals. The alcohol measures a heady 15 percent, but this factor is deftly balanced by lively acid and succulent, but not opulent, fruit. Drink through 2011 or ’12 with grilled steaks or leg of lamb. Excellent. About $17.50 to $20.

Imported by Negociants USA, Napa, Cal.

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So there I was, at 6:30 yesterday morning, trimming the fat from four pounds of ox-tails. Why? Because Benito, of the blog Benito’s Wine Reviews, was coming over for lunch and to taste six vintages of Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel from 1989 back to 1984. What was I going to serve him? I mean, this is the guy who made osso buco in a hotel room and wrote about it on his blog and who once ingested — on purpose! — a whole thermonuclear Naga Jolokia pepper just to see what it would do to him; read his amazing account here; it’s not for the faint-hearted.

So you can see my dilemma. This boy is a food adventurer, used to charting effortlessly over culinary whitewater rapids. So naturally, I thought of ox-tails, and I pulled out a great resource, The Lutèce Cookbook, by André Soltner with Seymour Britchky (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995). (And what ever happened to Britchky? He used to write restaurant reviews in New York that were so knowledgeable and witty that they were criminally accurate and hilarious.) Anyway, I thought, here’s a dish that should meet Benito’s love of unusual food as well as being appropriate with the old zinfandels.

I obtained the wines, nestled in their original wooden crate, each bottle still tightly wrapped in tissue paper, at a benefit auction in Memphis in the early 1990s; I paid $150 for the lot. They have not, I’ll admit, been stored in the exacting conditions that a collector with a real “cellar” would advocate, but I have always keep them in the coolest part of whatever apartment or house we lived in. For a couple of years, they rested in a warehouse where a friend of mine who owned a chain of local diners had a storage room kept at 48 degrees. Benito has recently visited Ridge’s outpost in Dry Creek Valley, and wrote, in his post, that “from my experience, Ridge wines tend to age fairly well under less-than-ideal circumstances.” Well, I thought, here’s the perfect opportunity to try the old Geyservilles.

Ridge has been making a zinfandel from the Geyserville vineyard in the Alexander Valley, part of the old Trentadue family farm, since 1966. Some of the vines go back to the 1880s and 1890s.

The winery was founded in 1959 by a group of colleagues from the Stanford Research Institute who purchased the old Monte Bello vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The friends began making wine, not only from Monte Bello but from vineyards they sought in Amador, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties and in Paso Robles, looking for old-vine zinfandel and petite sirah in particular. In 1969, Paul Draper was hired as winemaker, a fortunate choice, since he is one of California’s great winemakers; under his direction, what was a winery that produced fine but often eccentric wines became one of the state’s finest and most consistent producers. While the Ridge Zinfandels have elevated the names of individual vineyards like Lytton Springs, Geyserville and Dusi Ranch to star status, the Monte Bello cabrnet sauvignon has over 40 years become the stuff of legends; if California had First Growths, as Bordeaux does, Monte Bello would be first among them.

So, our lunch consisted of a salad of escarole, red leaf lettuce, parsley and chopped green onions dressed with a thyme-mustard vinaigrette, followed by the ox-tail stew or soup, basically a bowl of rich, dark broth holding a couple of pieces of the succulent ox-tail. You would be pretty succulent too, if you had braised in a 225-degree oven for four hours with carrots, shallots, onion and garlic in red wine. Benito declined a cheese course to finish because he was leading a tasting that night. We wine-writers are famous for modesty and moderation in all things. I didn’t take a picture of the ox-tails because brown meat in brown gravy isn’t all that photogenic.

I’ll come right out and say that the best wine of this little event was the bottle I served with the salad, you know, something to whet the palate and clear our heads. This was the August Kesseler Lorcher Schlossberg Kabinett Riesling 2004, from Germany’s Rheingau region. The word that came to our jaded lips was “Glorious.” LL and I drank a bottle of this wine in April 2008 — click here
– when I rated the wine Very Good+. A year’s aging has given the wine more polish and heft and a sense of deeper spice and soft, ripe stone-fruit flavors. I would go with Excellent now. About $25 to $30.

Here, then, are brief summaries of the Ridge Geyserville Zinfandels from 1989 back to 1984 and the percentages of the blends. The alcohol levels, by the way, are consistently between 13.3 and 13.6 percent.

>1989. Dark, sweet berries; woody, spicy undertones; touch of mint; quite mellow and drinkable, very attractive, though it gets a little shellac-y after 30 minutes or so. (75% zinfandel, 22% petite sirah, 3% carignane)

>1988. Spiced and macerated red and black fruit; solid, tasty, a little port-like, delicious, though trailing off into briers and brambles that take on dusty austerity. My second favorite of the flight. (82% zinfandel, 13% carignane, 5% petite sirah)

>1987. Dark, rich, spicy, sweet black fruit; great structure and balance, almost Bordeaux-like; cedar, tobacco, gets drier and more austere as minutes pass. (88% zinfandel, 8% carignane, 4% petite sirah)

>1986. A little off-putting at first, a little mossy and undefined; but gets better, pulls together, though acid dominates; pulls up lavender and violets, a little meaty, bacon-fat element. (84% zinfandel, 10% petite sirah, 6% carignane)

>1985. The best of this group for me; ripe, beefy, chocolate-y; gains power and strength in the glass; plummy, jammy, port-like. (85% zinfandel, 19% petite sirah, 5% carignane)

>1984. Attenuated, gritty at first; a few minutes lend it more structure, hints of smoke and tobacco; very dry, increasingly woody and austere. (90% zinfandel, 10% petite sirah)

Ridge Geyserville is now called Geyserville Red Wine instead of Geyserville Zinfandel, a label device that allows Draper and his staff to vary the amount of zinfandel grapes in the blend according to the dictates of the vintage. Geyserville 2006, for example, contains only 70 percent zinfandel.

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In the past few years, chocolate has gotten pretty complicated and high-minded. This is a fad, of course, but since I like — i.e., adore — dark chocolate, it’s a boon to go into a grocery store like Fresh Market or Whole Foods and see the array of producers and the almost infinite variety of products. Of course everyone offers plain dark chocolate in a range of “darkness,” usually listed as a cacao percentage, but they also seemingly compete to deliver combinations that range from delicious but mundane, like dark chocolate with roasted coffee nibs — I never noticed coffee having nibs — to infusions that are daring and sexy, like the famous and decadent “Mo’ Bacon” chocolate bar from Vosges, which indeed incorporates bacon in its make-up.

Many of these companies espouse worthy causes, utilize organic methods and and support fair trade. You’re not merely buying a chocolate bar; you’re buying (or buying into) a philosophy. Not surprisingly, quite a few of these chocolatiers are on the West Coast.

O.K., so I stand in Fresh Market and read all the text on the back of these various chocolate products, all about where the chocolate came from and the name of the estate and so on, and that’s all become standard stuff, but on the back of a bar of Chuao Chinita Nibs (“Dark Chocolate Bar with Caramelized Cacao Nibs and Nutmeg”) was a term I had never seen on the package of a chocolate bar:

“Slave-free cacao.”

Now I know that slavery is a grave problem in many parts of the world. Sexual slavery is rampant in Southeast Asia, labor slavery is found in many parts of Africa, women from former Soviet republics are sent to America to be nannies and maids in an indentured servant situation. Slavery is real, and it’s serious.

Considered from a marketing standpoint however — and what between the shining seas cannot be considered from a marketing standpoint? — Chuao, based in San Diego and run by two Venezuelan brothers, has scored a coup. If no slaves were employed in the farming and harvesting of the cacao that goes into the Chuao Chinita Nibs, what about all the other gourmet chocolate bars whose cacao originates in South and Central America? I mean, I might have to buy no chocolate other than Chuao Chinita Nibs just so I know there’s no chance that I might be supporting slavery.

Look at it this way. When a box of crackers or chips states “No Gluten” on the package, we know that assertion establishes a contrast with all the other cracker and chip products that do contain gluten because they’re made either completely or partially from wheat. I mean, when was the last time you saw a box of Ritz crackers or a package of Chips Ahoy — both names being hallowed trademarks and I mean no disrespect — that said “Gobs o’ Gluten!” Well, no. There’s a thin but discernible line between promoting and warning.

My point is that Chuao Chocolatier has, with this tiny gesture, cast doubt on all the other chocolate producers that do not tell us that no slaves were involved in the production of their cacao.

Think of that the next time you stop at the Pac’N'Snac to pick up a Snickers.

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Normally, readers — though which of us would define normal? — I would not select as Wine of the Week a product that costs $30 a bottle. I try not to go over $25 and usually make an attempt to keep the price under $20. If, however, I were to tell you that this 30 buckeroos would buy you what is perhaps the finest rosé wine you will ever drink, would you be tempted? I hope so.

The Domaine de la Mordorée — the word means “woodcock” — is a meticulously run property that produces Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the wine in question, the Domaine de la Mordorée Rosé 2008, from Tavel. The blend of grapes is what one would expect from a Cotes-du-Rhone or Cotes-du-Rhone Villages: 60 percent grenache, 20 percent syrah, 10 percent cinsault and 10 percent clairette, a white grape not of much account itself but often blended in small quantities into the red wines of the southern Rhone, Provence and Languedoc.

The color is what LL called “red tourmaline,” which to my eye appeared to be a sort of rosy-pink-light cherry hue with no copper or peach; this is pure radiance. The nose? Strawberry and raspberry with undertones of red currant and plum. Flavors encompass red currant with melon and dried red fruit and hints of dried thyme; a few minutes in the glass bring in some spice, an intriguing touch of Red Hots, a note of wild berry and heaps of limestone in the finish. Most roses can’t approach the Domaine de la Mordorée in terms of substance and style; it’s bone-dry, of course, yet ripe and seductive, deftly balanced between crisp, mouth-watering acidity and a silky texture. This should drink well through the end of 2010. Excellent. About — as I said — $30.

On Saturday for lunch, LL made some open-face ham sandwiches with black olive pesto and put some potato salad and white bean salad on each plate. This rosé was perfect with that sort of luncheon, picnic-type fare. Sunday afternoon, we finished the bottle sitting on the back porch. Again, perfection.

Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va.

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… that Smith-Madrone made only 378 cases of its Riesling 2007, from the Spring Mountain District of Napa Valley. Smith-Madrone’s is a legendary California riesling, along with rieslings from Trefethen, Navarro and a few other producers.

Last night, LL brought to the dinner table filets of salmon (coated with gray sea-salt and thyme), a white bean and carrot salad and sauteed Swiss chard, while, for my part, I opened a bottle of the Smith-Madrone Riesling 2007. This is a wine that breathes the essence of crystalline clarity and purity, of perfect balance and poise. A pale straw color, the wine opens with scents of lychee and camellia, with back-notes of pear and peach and a hint of the grape’s requisite petrol-ish element. Sheaves of delicacies are strung on a wire of electrifying acidity that keeps the wine virtuous and vibrant without breaking the aura of subtlety and nuance. Mildly spiced and roasted lemon dominates citrus flavors imbued with a tinge of melon; the wine’s texture serves as an exemplar of how tautness and crispness may seamlessly coexist with juicy flavors and moderate lushness. Along with a tremendous wash of limestone minerality in the finish, the wine brings in a final fillip of lime zest and orange rind. Drink (well-stored) through 2012 to ’15. Exceptional. About $25.

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This pleasing duo comes from the inexpensive Elsa label of Valentin Bianchi, in the San Rafael area of Argentina’s Mendoza region.

Made all in stainless steel, the incredibly fresh and attractive Elsa Torrontes 2008 bursts with notes of honeysuckle and jasmine, lime and limestone, lemon curd and dusty orange rind. In the mouth, ripe and juicy lemon and grapefruit flavors are permeated by dried thyme and tarragon, smoke and minerals. The wine is quite dry, vibrant with crisp acidity, nicely balanced between a sense of spareness and moderate lushness; a bit of time in the glass adds to its richness and palatability. A lovely quaff for drinking through the end of 2009. Very Good+

(The label on the image is 2007; the wine under review is indeed 2008.)

A hint of oak gives the Elsa Malbec 2008 a degree of suppleness and a background of spice. The wine is luscious and flavorful, deep with ripe black currant, black cherry and plum flavors highlighted by touches of wild berry, dried flowers, smoke and leather. Drink through 2010 with burgers, pizzas, hearty pastas and pork tenderloin. Very good.

These wines are priced at about $9, making them (especially the Torrontes) Great Bargains. They are closed with screw-caps for easy opening.

The importer is Quintessential, Napa, Cal.

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Do 2006 and 2007 sound too old for rosé wines, which are supposed to embody all that is fresh and immediate about a delightful, dry, light wine made from red grapes? Can rosés age even a year beyond their making?

Last July, I wrote about two rosés from Prieuré de Montèzargues, an innovative producer in Tavel, a traditional (and often over-produced) seed-bed of rosé wines in the southern Rhone Valley region. The winemaker for Prieuré de Montèzargues, Guillaume Dugas, believes that his rosés, made from fairly high-elevation vineyards, can stand the test of time, as least for two or three years. Recently, I tried the 2006 and ’07 from the producer again, and I thought it would be useful to compare how the wines fare now with how they performed last summer.

Here’s the previous review:

Prieuré de Montèzargues 2007 offers a lovely color of bright garnet flushed with salmon’s orangy-pink. Notes of strawberry, raspberry, peach and orange zest waft from the glass and segue seamlessly to the mouth in consistent flavors. The texture is soft and enticing but energized by crisp acid and a scintillating mineral element that expands to dominate the finish. Great balance and freshness. Very Good+.

And here’s my impression of the Prieuré de Montèzargues 2007 from last week: Pale salmon-peach color; lovely aromas of strawberry and raspberry, melon and mulberry, with a hint of roasted lemon. Quite earthy, almost tannic in the mouth, silky texture, deftly balanced between bright acidity and a substantial quality that would tend toward lushness if a sense of mineral-like discretion didn’t keep it delicate. Flavors of strawberry and dried current are accented by touches of dried herbs. Quite tasty and certainly a completely viable rosé for drinking through the end of 2009. We had this with salmon tacos, made at home. This gets an upgrade to Excellent.

How about the version from 2006? Here are my comments from last July:

The color is similar, perhaps with a shade of magenta, but the wine is robust, ripe and fleshy, delivering scents and flavors of strawberry and peach with touches of melon and dried herbs. A few minutes in the glass bring up hints of cherry/berry and Bazooka Bubble Gum, with orange zest, limestone and earthy notes and a lingering hint of cloves on the finish. This is an unusually complicated rosé for drinking through the end of 2008. Great detail and dimension. Excellent. If you can find the ‘07 and the ‘06, buy some of each.

I was not so impressed when we tried the Prieuré de Montèzargues 2006 last week. The color was a radiant pale copper-salmon; aromas of raspberry and cherry with a touch of roasted peach were seductive. In the mouth, this rosé was very earthy, almost smoky and sooty around the contours, and while flavors of red currants, roasted peach and rhubarb were tasty, the wine lacked middle, and the fairly fragile finish felt overwhelmed by acid. This gets a downgrade from Excellent to Very Good, perhaps to drink with fried chicken or roasted veal, but I greatly prefer the ’07 version.

These wines cost from $18 to $23. They are imported by Henriot, in New York.

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