Today’s “Friday Wine Sips” offers four whites and four reds and that adds up to eight wines if what my high school math teacher Miss Bridger said still holds true. The geographical range includes California, Washington state, New Zealand, Sicily and Austria; the price range is $14 to $20, with a couple of products representing real value. No technical or historical data or philosophical ruminations; just snappy comments taken directly from my notes to give you the essence. These were all samples for review.
Murphy-Goode Sauvignon Blanc “The Fume” 2010, North Coast, California. 13.5% alc. Clean, fresh, buoyant; roasted lemon, tangerine, lime peel; bright and leafy; dried thyme and tarragon; a crisp arrow of grapefruit through the limestone bullseye. Quite tasty. Very Good. About $14, a Bargain.
Airfield Riesling 2010, Yakima Valley, Washington. 13.6% alc. Apple blossom and grapefruit skin; burgeoning and penetrating limestone and flint-like minerality; pungent, resonant, scintillating with crystalline acidity and high-toned touches of quince and ginger, ripe stone-fruit permeated by smoke and cloves; deftly balances a soft, almost talc-like effect with crisp bone and sinew and river rocks. Lovely and delicious. Excellent. About $16, Great Value.
Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Martinborough, New Zealand. 13.5% alc. Suave and savory, with an air of blitheness and frank appeal; lemon, lime peel and gooseberry with notes of cloves and ginger, fresh-mown hay and lemongrass; crisp, very dry, a long, sprightly limestone-flint-and-grapefruit laden finish. Excellent. About $20.
Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Sonoma County. 14.1% alc. (Owned by Jackson Family Wines) Pale straw color; very fresh, clean, exhilarating; grapefruit, lime peel, lemongrass, touches of caraway, tarragon and thyme, hint of honeysuckle; the old hay-foot, straw-foot motif in its deft earthiness; sleek and polished; pear, melon and citrus flavors, slightly herbal, crisp acidity and a touch of flint in the background. Excellent. About $20.
Zantho St. Laurent 2008, Burgenland, Austria. 13% alc. Inky ruby-purple color; smoke, cigar box and tobacco leaf; the slightly resinous quality of cedar and rosemary; spiced, macerated and roasted black and red currants and plums with touches of black olive and tar; but for all this “darkness,” a clean, fresh and lively red, suited to barbecue ribs and braised short ribs. Highly individual wine from an unusual grape. Very Good+. About $14, representing Great Value.
Buena Vista Zinfandel 2010, Sonoma County. 13.5% alc. A fresh, tasty, agreeable zinfandel, quite spicy, bursting with bright black and red cherry flavors infused with hints of blueberry and boysenberry; mannerly elements of tannin and oak, clean brisk acidity. Sports the new “old-timey” Buena Vista Viticultural Society label. For burgers and pizzas. Very Good. About $15.
Tasca d’Almerita Lamùri Nero d’Avola 2009, Sicily. 14% alc. Refreshing and vibrant, this wine avoids the rusticity displayed by many nero d’Avolas; delicious red and black currant flavors, very spicy, a little briery and brambly; grows darker, more intense as the moments pass, conjuring notes of bittersweet chocolate and lavender, tar and graphite. Direct and satisfying. Very Good+. About $20.
Craggy Range Te Kahu Gimblett Gravels Vineyard 2010, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. 13.5% alc. 80% merlot, 8% each cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, 4% malbec. Very harmonious initially but with an edge of briers and brambles, forest floor and graphite and an undercurrent of bittersweet chocolate; black cherry and red and black currants with a touch of blueberry; gets quite dry, packs some tannic, minerally austerity into the finish. Try with a steak or barbecue brisket. Very Good+. About $20.

Sunday is the Big Day, and millions of Americans will gather in their caves around open fires, er, I mean, in their dens, media rooms and home theaters around the hypnotic glow of large-screen televisions to watch Super Bowl XLVI and devour billions of chicken wings, pigs-in-blankets and cheesy barbecue nachos. Many will drink beer, of course, yet there are wines perfectly suited to the hearty, fat-and-calorie-laden snacks that will be crammed into mouths, er, I mean, politely nibbled during the hours when the Giants and Patriots are pummeling each other in Indianapolis. Here, then, are 10 deep, dark, spicy, wild and/or brooding wines that call out to your bowl of chile, your platter of grilled sausages.

As is the case with these “Friday Wine Sips,” I go straight to the brief review and offer no technical, historical of geographical data. What you see is what you get. Unless otherwise indicated, these wines were samples for review. Image from 123rf.com.
Alamos Red Blend 2010, Mendoza, Argentina. 13.5% alc. 40% malbec, 18% tempranillo, 14% bonarda, 14% cabernet sauvignon, 7% petit verdot, 7% syrah. Very tasty; robust, hearty, deep, dark and spicy; ripe black and blue fruit scents and flavors permeated by briers and brambles, dense and chewy tannins and sifted mineral elements, all bolstered by vibrant acidity. Not a blockbuster, but definitely a bruiser. Very Good. About $13.
Zanthos Zweigelt 2009, Burgenland, Austria. 13% alc. Black as the night that covers me from pole to pole, this one radiates tarry, earthy spicy black currant, boysenberry and plum fruit edged with leather, graphite and wild mulberry jam. These boots were made for drinking. Very Good+. About $14 and Worth a Search.
Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Paso Robles, California. 13.5% alc. Miles better than most cabs at the price; loads of character and integrity; weaves the requisite strands of vivid, fresh black currant, black raspberry and plum aromas and flavors supported by spicy oak and clean, tightly-drawn acidity, all spread over a bedrock of earthy, graphite-like minerality and a bit of forest. Delicious intensity and simple purity. It’ll ring yer bell. Very Good+. About $14, a Real Bargain.
Lee Family Farm Silvaspoons Vineyard Rio Tinto 2009, Alta Mesa, Lodi. 13.4% alc. Made from Port grapes: tinta roriz 34%, touriga nacional 28%, alvarelbo 19%, touriga francesa 19%. Blackish ruby-purple color; spicy oak, spicy black currant, black raspberry and blackberry fruit; did I say spicy yet? Deep and dark, yet placid, smooth, despite grainy tannins and elements of underbrush and earthy graphite; then, a whiff of violets. Manly but not muscle-bound. 400 cases. Very Good+. About $16.
Lenore Syrah 2008, Columbia Valley, Washington State. (Corvidae Wine Co., by Owen Roe) 14.4% alc. Big, shaggy, juicy; black currants, blueberries and blackberry jam infused with Port; smoke, ash, roasted plums, furry tannins set amid earthy, glittering iron filings-like minerality. A fountain of fortitude. Very Good+. I paid $16, but you see it around the country as low as $12.
Modern Wine Project Malbec 2007, Columbia Valley, Washington State. (Sleight of Hand Cellars) 14.5% alc. 100% malbec. A Rough Rider of a red wine, robust and rustic, a bit shaggy in the tannin arena, but bursting with dark, smoky and spicy black currant, blueberry and black plum flavors — a little fleshy, a little meaty — framed by polished oak and dusty graphite. Neither bashful nor apologetic. Very Good+. Prices all over the map, but look for $19 to $22.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Anka 2008, Maipo Valley, Chile. (Vina Pargua) 14% alc. Cabernet sauvignon 57%, merlot 16%, cabernet franc 15%, carmemère 7%, syrah 4%, petit verdot 1%. Wildly floral and berryish; black and red currants, mulberries; licorice and lilac; smooth but dense, chewy texture, full-bodied, sleek and sculpted yet vibrant, something untamed here, woolly and roguish. Luaus and late dates. Very Good+. About $20.
Maquis Carmemère 2009, Colchagua Valley, Chile. 14% alc. Dry, dusty and earthy; blatantly spicy, earthy and mineral-laced; very intense and concentrated; the blackest and bluest of fruit, spiced and macerated, a little roasted and fleshy; lots of stones and bones, bastions of fine-grained tannins. Needs a bowl of chili to unleash its testosterone. Very Good+. About $20.
Vale do Bofim Reserva 2009, Douro, Portugal. (Symington Family Estates) 13.5% alc. Mainly touriga nacional grapes. Fresh, spicy, another wild, uninhibited wine; penetrating and poignant aromas and flavors of blackberry, black currants and plums with clear tones of blueberry and mulberry, etched with floral elements and leather, vivid acidity and polished tannins; dry, dense, chewy. Excellent. About $23.
Owen Roe Ex Umbris Syrah 2008, Columbia Valley, Washington State. 14.1% alc. If deep purple had a smell and taste, this would be it. Rich, warm, spicy, enticing bouquet; black currants, black raspberries and blueberries; deeply imbued with leather, underbrush and forest floor; hints of wet dog and damp moss; ripe, fleshy, meaty; dusty granite and a touch of rhubarb and boysenberry. Cries out for barbecue brisket, ribs, osso buco. “Ex Umbris” means “from the shadows.” Excellent. About $24. (I paid $30.)

You know me. I like to write extensive reviews of individual wines or groups of wines that include notes on history, geography, climate and terroir, the techniques and methods of winemaking and evaluations of the wines that weigh them in terms of detail and dimension, philosophy and spirit. I don’t, unfortunately, have either time or space to perform that educational and critical function for all the wines I taste, and so this week, in the spirit of the still fairly new New Year, I am launching “Friday Wine Sips,” a new feature on BTYH that will present quick reviews of wines that otherwise might not make it onto the blog. In these “Sips,” I forgo the usual attention to personalities and family history, weather conditions, oak aging, malolactic fermentation and such in favor of stealth missions that present the brief essence of each wine, along with a rating. I’m not giving up my preferred treatment; it’s simply the case that I receive too many wines to give the full FK treatment. Unless otherwise indicated, these were samples for review. Today: nine white wines. (Hmmm, a couple of these are longer than I meant them to be: I have to get used to brevity.)
Jean-Luc Colombo Les Abeilles 2010, Côtes du Rhônes blanc. Clairette 80%, roussanne 20%. Palm Bay International. Fresh and clean and snappy, lanolin and bee’s-wax, camellia and honeysuckle, roasted lemon; spicy and taut with bracing acidity but moderately soft texture, peachs and pears, celery seed and thyme. Very Good+. About $12, Good Value.
Michel Dutor La Roche Pouilly-Fuissé 2009. 13% alcohol. Stacole Fine Wines. Lean and minerally, limestone, jasmine and honeysuckle, quince and ginger, roasted lemon; very dry but a lovely, almost talc-like texture encompassing lithe, scintillating acidity and profound limestone with a hint of chalk. Classic. Very Good+. About $20. Not a sample.
Michael Torino Estate Cuma Torrontés 2010, Cafayate Valley, Argentina. 13.5% alcohol. Frederick Wildman & Sons. Organic grapes. Melon, lemon drop and lemon balm, pea shoots, thyme and tarragon, jasmine and camellia; very dry, very crisp, a spare, slightly astringent sense of almond skin, peach pit and bracing grapefruit bitterness. A terrific torrontes. Very Good+. About $15.
Veramonte Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Casablanca Valley, Chile. 13.5% alcohol. Huneeus Vintners. Fresh, clean, crisp and snappy, pea shoot, grapefruit and lime peel, tangerine; brings in celery seed and green grapes, touch of earthiness; taut with acidity and limestone, stand-up grapefruit bitterness on the finish. Screw-cap. Very Good+. About $12, Good Value.
Roth Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Alexander Valley. 13.2% alcohol. 2% viognier grapes. Very clean, fresh, pure and intense; distinctive without being exaggerated; lime and limestone, tangerine, peach and pear, slightly floral, very spicy, vibrant acidity, grapefruit on the finish. Lots of personality. Very Good+. About $16.
Cadaretta SBS 2010, Columbia Valley, Washington. 14.1% alcohol. 75% sauvignon blanc, 25 % semillon. Sleek and suave, beautifully balanced, no edges except for a crisp line of vibrant acidity; lime and lime peel, camellia, dried thyme and tarragon, pent with energy and vitality; very dry, heaps of limestone and chalk. Lovely wine. Excellent. About $23.
J. Moreau & Fils Le Croix Saint-Joseph Chablis 2009. 12.5% alcohol. Boisset America. Radiant medium gold color; slightly green, flint, pears, roasted lemon, jasmine and verbena; touch of slightly earthy mushroom element; “wow” (in my notes) “what a structure, what a texture”; heaps of powdery limestone and shale and talc but riven by chiming acidity, bracing salt-marsh-like breeziness, all enrobing pert citrus and stone-fruit flavors. Classic Chablis, cries out for a platter of just-shucked oysters. Excellent. About $20. Not a sample.
Leitz Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland Riesling Spätlese 2009, Rheingau. 8.5% alcohol. Michael Skurnick. Pale straw color, hint of spritz; subtle and nuanced, peach and pear, damp hay, jasmine, baked goods; quite spicy, lip-smacking acidity, almost lush texture but with real “cut,” a bit sweet initially but finishes quite dry, even austere, like sheaves of limestone and quartz; superb balance and intensity. Try with trout or skate sauteed in brown butter. Excellent. About $33.

In most European wine regions, place matters. That’s why in Burgundy, for example, and in the Rhone Valley, in Germany, in much of Italy, the term most prominently displayed on a label will be the name of a village or commune, often accompanied by the name of a vineyard. The name of the estate, producer or winery will be in smaller print at the bottom of the label or off to the side or up on a neck label. The implication is that the most crucial factor in producing a great wine is not the human hand and mind, as helpful as they might be, but great terroir, that is, all the geographical, geological and climatic elements, whether as large as the weather patterns or minute as a worm or deep as the soil and bedrock, that influence the vineyard, the vines and the grapes.

When the 19th Century wine pioneers in California were growing grapes and making wine, they often labeled their products in such a way that American consumers would relate them to European counterparts, though these resemblances were often based more on romance than reality. Thus the Claret and Hock, the Burgundy (made from anything except pinot noir) and Sauterne (without the final “s”), the Chianti and French Colombard and Chablis — remember Gallo’s Chablis Blanc, in case you couldn’t tell it was white? — that graced the tables of American for many decades of the 20th Century. After Prohibition, however, and especially after World War II, producers in California began to evince independence from Europe and pride in their own achievements by highlighting the names of their wineries and the principal grape in the wine on bottles, thus giving birth to the varietal labeling that dominates the New World wine industries today and has even crossed back over the Atlantic to show up in Europe. “Hock” image from weimax.com.

So, I’m fascinated by the label for this wine, because it’s an attempt to market an American wine based not on the name of the winery or producer and not on the name of the grape but — on the model of much of Europe — on the name of a federally-recognized vineyard region or American Viticultural Area, as the official term expresses it. Notice, in fact, how much the label resembles a label of a Premier Cru vineyard Burgundy (as in the Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses above).

The most prominent feature on this label is Red Mountain, granted AVA status by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in 2001. Red Mountain, not so much a mountain as a steep, long southwest-facing slope of deep gravelly soil, lies within the Yakima Valley AVA, which is part of the sprawling Columbia Valley AVA; with only about 600 acres under cultivation, Red Mountain, known for its distinctively tannic and minerally cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, wines of grain and substance, is the smallest of Washington state’s grape-growing regions. It’s close to Benton City — “A Tuscany Sort of Place” — pop. 2,800. The application for AVA recognition was initiated by Hedges Family Estate and supported by Kiona Vineyards, Blackwood Canyon Vintners, Sandhill Winery, Seth Ryan Winery and Terra Blanca Winery.

The proprietors of Hedges Family Estate are Tom and Anne-Marie Hedges, who married in 1976 — she is from France’s Champagne region, he is from eastern Washington — and in 1986 launched American Wine Trade Inc. to export wine to Europe. The first wine from Hedges Cellars came in 1987, after which the couple segued toward vineyard acquisition and the founding of a real facility. Winemaker for Hedges is Tom Hedges’ brother Pete.

So, the label of the wine in question is from the Hedges stable. While Hedges produces other wines from the Red Mountain appellation, the name of the winery and the grapes take precedence on the labels, as is typical with American wines. This one, however, modeled, as I said, on certain French examples, is produced by Descendants Liegeois Dumont — seen at the bottom of the label — a combination of the two names of Anne-Marie Hedges’ family in Champagne. Under “Red Mountain” is the name of the vineyard — Les Gosses — and under that the special name for this production “Cuvée Marcel Dupont,” Anne-Marie Hedges’ grandfather, and, finally and modestly, Descendants Liegeois Dumont.

A major difference between the Red Mountain “Les Gosses” designation on this wine and, for example, Chambolle-Musigny “Les Amoureuses” is the sense of history and reputation. All lovers of fine wine know that Chambolle-Musigny is one of the stellar wine villages of the Cote de Nuit section of Burgundy and that Les Amoureuses is a Premier Cru vineyard (deserving elevation to Grand Cru status) whose renown stretches back to the 19th Century. Forgive my bluntness, but who the hell knows anything about Red Mountain?

Marketing California wines or American wines generally, I think, would be difficult, though more successful, theoretically, if the AVA indicated is very well-known for the quality of the wines in produces, focused on particular grape varieties, or small and fairly unique. Nobody is going to buy a wine based on the words Central Coast or North Coast displayed prominently on the label; the scope is too vast, the identifying characteristics too vague, the quality too variable. (The same argument is true, of course, for huge, tractless regions like the Loire Valley or just Toscana.) I mean, I would be interested in a pinot noir that boldly announced its terroir as Santa Lucia Highlands or Santa Rita Hills or cabernet sauvignon whose label was emblazoned with Mount Veeder or Howell Mountain. And if some brash producer featured the seldom-seen Fair Play AVA (in the Sierra Foothills) as the paramount element in its label design, I would probably take a chance on it, if only because it’s very small — only 350 acres of vines — and because it’s the highest elevation AVA in California. (Yeah, I had to look it up.)

I may be taking the label of the Red Mountain “Les Gosses” Cuvée Marcel Dupont 2009, Descendants Liegeois Dupont, way too seriously; there’s a good chance that this homage to French practices on the part of the Hedges family is purely whimsical. Still, and despite earlier caveats, I applaud this tiny effort at place-based nomenclature.

The wine, by the way, is superb. One hundred percent syrah — a grape that takes to the Red Mountain terrain the way fondant icing snuggles up to a petit four — it aged 14 months in a combination of American (65%), French (30%) and Hungarian (5%) oak, half new barrels, half neutral. Heady aromas of mint and eucalyptus, black currants and blueberries are woven with briers and brambles, earth and slate; a few minutes in the glass bring up traces of cloves and sandalwood, smoke and ash and moss, rose petals, potpourri and bitter chocolate. Right, try to stop sniffing that. In the mouth, the wine is dense and chewy, an impermeable sifting of finely-milled tannins, burnished wood and polished granitic elements that gradually unveil deep spicy and floral roots that support ripe and macerated black and blue fruit flavors in a package that’s quite fresh and vibrant and ultimately beautifully balanced and integrated. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. 986 cases. Excellent. Suggested retail price is $25; I paid $30 in Memphis.

By “great,” I mean a terrific — and nicely aged — wine, not a bargain. After all, the purpose of this benefit event was to raise money to fund the spaying and neutering of dogs and cats, so bidders opened their hearts and wallets. (More than 12,000 dogs and cats a year are euthanized at the Memphis Animal Shelter; people, give your pets a dose of planned parenthood. LL and I also bought a genuine Schwinn bicycle, a Madame Alexander doll in the original box, someone’s old stamp collection and other items; we were outbid on the neon Texaco Pegasus sign, and I’m not sure if I’m happy or sad about that.

Anyway, the wine was the Hedges Family Estate Three Vineyards 2005, from Washington State’s Red Mountain appellation, or as the Federal government puts it, “American Viticultural Area” (AVA). Proprietors are Tom and Anne-Marie Hedges, who married in 1976 — she is from France’s Champagne region, he is from eastern Washington — and in 1986 launched American Wine Trade Inc. to export wine to Europe. The first wine from Hedges Cellars came in 1987, after which the couple segued toward vineyard acquisition and the founding of a real facility. Winemaker for Hedges is Tom Hedges’ brother Pete. Red Mountain officially became an AVA in 2001. Not so much a mountain as a steep, long southwest-facing slope, Red Mountain lies in the eastern Yakima Valley AVA, itself encompassed by the vast Columbia Valley region, all of this area being in south-central Washington.

Hedges Family Estate Three Vineyards 2005 is a sort of Bordeaux-style blend of 61 percent merlot grapes, 36 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent cabernet franc. I say “sort” and “style” because the dominance of merlot points toward the Right Bank communes of Pomerol and St. Emilion, where cabernet sauvignon might not make up such a generous portion as we see in this wine. I have no information about the oak regimen for the wine, but pages devoted to the 2007 and 2008 versions on the winery’s website indicate a modest 10 months aging in mainly American barrels, in combination with French and a small amount of Hungarian or “European” barrels, altogether being 50 percent new and 50 percent used or “neutral.” The process indicates a great deal of thoughtfulness in producing a finely-knit and balanced wine, as does the consistently low — for these days — alcohol levels, for the 2005 coming in at a refreshing 13.3 percent.

The wine is lovely and mellow, with subtle poise and integration and burgeoning fields of dried spice, dried flowers and potpourri (largely inflected by violets and lavender) and spiced and macerated red and black currants and plums. The texture is smooth, lithe and a touch sinewy, with vibrant acidity cutting through supple tannins that bear a dusty graphite-like edge and that continue to grow with unassailable power through the dry, briery and brambly finish. That description betokens some austerity in the wine’s final moments in the mouth, but whatever slightly astringent rigor it imposes does not cancel out a delicious strain of black and red fruit flavors that bear touches of cedar, tobacco and fruitcake. Excellent and Definitely Worth a Search. I paid $60 for the bottle that LL and I drank with last night’s pizza — remember, this was for a good cause; it was released at $18, and you can find it occasionally on the Internet for $25 or so.

Here’s what I wrote in September 2008:

The Bunnell Family Cellar Boushey-McPherson Syrah 2004, Wahluke Slope, Yakima Valley, is wonderfully rich and pure, intense and vibrant. Under ravishing flavors of ripe and smoky black and blue fruit, the wine is deeply grounded in the earth with layers of bark, moss and mushrooms over strata of minerals. It’s too easy for wine-writers to say, so glibly, “Oh, yes, this wine makes you feel as if you’re drinking the vineyard;” what does that even mean (though I think I have been guilty of such a pronouncement)? Yet I have to say that, if ever that statement were true, it could be made about this wine, which feels like a dark celebration of everything that goes into producing a wine of such profundity. This sees only Hungarian oak. Drink now — venison comes to mind — through 2014 or ’15. Production was 274 cases. Exceptional. About $44.

The wine made my list of “50 Great Wines of 2008.”

I tasted the Bunnell Family Cellar Boushey-McPherson Syrah 2004 last week and found that 30 months later the wine is evolving beautifully. The bouquet now features hints of menthol and mint, iodine and graphite and a sort of brisk sea-salt effect that freshens notes of spiced and macerated blackberries, blueberries and plums. In the mouth, that black-and-blue fruit feels a little bruised, a little stewed and beefy, yet the wine remains clean as a whistle, vital and vibrant; it’s quite dry from mid-palate back, unfurling layers of burnished wood and well-honed tannins folded with smoke and ash and a late attitude of iron-clad minerals softened by deep elements of bitter chocolate and potpourri. Drink through 2014 to ’16, properly stored. Still Exceptional. About $42 to $45.

I recently tasted through a range of wines from Owen Roe — the winery is in St. Paul, Oregon, and produces wines from Oregon and Washington — and found many of them designed for consumers with iron palates to bear the weight of immense tannins, along with towering purity and intensity; these stylish wines are clearly made for the long haul or the motorcycle gang’s picnic. One wine from Owen Roe that is more accessible is Sinister Hand 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington, a blend of 70 percent grenache grapes, 26 percent syrah and 2 percent each mourvedre and counoise, according to the label; the winery’s website cites slightly different percentages. The grapes derive from the Six Prong Vineyards in the Columbia Valley’s Horse Heaven Hills region that lies along the Columbia River in south-central Washington.

Sinister Hand 2009, I’ll come right out and say, is a lovely example of how a Cotes-du-Rhone Villages-style wine can be intelligently made with grapes from the right vineyard in the correct location. The color is glowing medium ruby with a hint of darker ruby/cherry at the center. The bouquet builds slowly through layers of spice, dried flowers and fruit both ripe and dried: cloves and cinnamon, lavender and violets, dried red currants with spiced and macerated red and black cherries and a hint of wild mulberry. The wine ages 10 months in French oak barrels, only 17 percent of which are new, so the influence of wood is warm, subtle and supple. An edge of shale-like minerality penetrates this warmth and the wine’s spicy black and red fruit flavors with a cool tinge that leads downward to areas of briers, brambles and moss and a bass ground in tannic walnut shell, though all elements are so well-balanced that the tannins feel almost transparent. The essential acidity that binds these factors I have to describe as beautifully vibrant and authoritative. A deeply satisfying wine, with 14.6 percent alcohol but not a blockbuster in any sense. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $24, but I paid $30 in my neck o’ the woods.

All right, I know that this is the list My Readers most want to see, a roster of terrific and affordable wines. No hierarchy; the order is chronological as the wines appeared on the blog. Prices range from $8 to $20, and notice that most of these inexpensive wines were rated Excellent. The value quotient on this list is unimpeachable.

<>Chateau des Vaults Brut Sauvage, Crémant de Loire, Savennières, Loire Valley, France. A sparkling wine composed of 85 percent chenin blanc and 25 percent cabernet franc. Excellent. About $18. (LDM Wine Imports)

<>Morgan Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Monterey County. Excellent. About $15.

<>Morgan Winery Cotes du Crow’s 2008, Monterey County. Syrah 55 percent, grenache 45 percent. Excellent. About $16.

<>Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $16.

<>Clos de los Siete 2008, Mendoza, Argentina. Malbec (56%), merlot (21%), syrah (11%), cabernet sauvignon (10%), petit verdot (2%). Excellent. About $19. (Dourthe USA, Manhasset, N.Y.)

<>Plantagenet Riesling 2008, Great Southern, Australia. Excellent. About $20. (Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal.)

<>Gainey Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County. 1,450 cases. Excellent. About $15. (Also the Gainey Sauvignon Blanc 2009 rates Excellent and sells for $14; production was 2,300 cases.)

<>Girard Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $16.

<>Oveja Negra Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Carmenère 2009, Maule Valley, Chile. Very Good+. About $12. (Vini Wine & Spirits, Coral Sp[rings, Fla.)

<>Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages 2009, Beaujolais, France. Very Good+. $10-$12. (W.J. Deutsch & Sons, Harrison, N.Y.)

<>Graham Beck Gamekeeper’s Reserve Chenin Blanc 2008, Coastal Region, South Africa. Excellent. About $16. (Graham Beck Wines, San Francisco)

<>La TrinQuée Juliènas 2009, Les Vins de Georges Duboeuf, Beaujolais, France. Excellent. About $16. (W.J. Deutsch & Sons, New York)

<>Llai Llai Pinot Noir 2008, Bio Bio Valley, Chile. Very Good+. About $13. (W.J. Deutsch & Sons, New York)

<>Prieler Johanneshöle Blaufränkisch 2007, Burgenland, Austria. Excellent. About $19-$20. (Terry Theise Selections for Michael Skurnik Wines, Syossett, N.Y.)

<>Bodegas Aragonesas Coto de Hayas Garnacha Syrah 2009, Campo de Borja, Spain. Very Good+. About $8. (Scoperta Importing Co., Cleveland Heights, Ohio)

<>Bodegas Agustin Cabero Unus Old Vine Macabeo 2009, Calatayud, Spain. Very Good+. About $9. Scoperta Importing Co., Cleveland Heights, Ohio)

<>X Winery Red X 2008, North Coast. A provocative blend of 55 percent syrah, 23 percent tempranillo, 14 percent grenache and 8 percent zinfandel. Very Good+. About $15.

<>Ventisquero Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Casablanca, Chile. Excellent. About $13. (Austral Wines, Atlanta)

<>Bastianich Adriatico Friulano 2009, Colli Orientali del Friuli, Italy. Excellent. About $15. (Dark Star Imports, Neww York)

<>Frisk Prickly 2009, Alpine Valley, Victoria, Australia. 83 percent riesling, 17 percent muscat of Alexandria. Very Good+. About $10. (Old Bridge Cellars, Napa Cal.)

<>Calcu Red Wine 2008, Colchagua, Chile. 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent carmenère, 15 percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot. Very Good+. About $12. (Global Vineyard Importers, Berkeley, Cal.)

<>Alma Negra Bonarda 2007, Mendoza, Argentina. Excellent. About $20. (Winebow, New York)

<>Carrefour Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $18.

<>Joel Gott Riesling 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington. Very Good+. About $12.

<>Niner Estate Syrah 2006, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County. Excellent. About $20.

The top shelf of the white wine fridge, that is. I received so many wines after I returned from South America that I needed to clear out space for some of the in-coming stuff, so I lined up the bottles that were lying on the top shelf of the refrigerator devoted to white wine and tasted them all. So that’s the category today: Miscellaneous Whites. These reviews follow the order of tasting. All of these wines were review samples.

A blend of sangiovese, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, the Centine Rosé 2009, Toscana, offers an appealing pale onion skin color. A bouquet of strawberries, raspberries and dried red currants with a hint of dried herbs and limestone leads to a dry, crisp mouthful of wine permeated by delicate touches of strawberry and melon and a sort of woodsy berryish mossy note. The finish brings in more limestone and a trace of clove-like spice. The alcohol content is a highly quaffable 12.5 percent. Bottled with a screw-cap. Drink up. Very Good. About $11.

Imported by Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville, N.Y.

Well, the Frisk Prickly 2009, Alpine Valleys, Victoria, is completely adorable. A blend of 83 percent riesling and 17 percent muscat gordo (an Australian synonym for muscat of Alexandria), the pale straw-gold colored wine is indeed a bit prickly and rather frisky, with its hint of spritz and star-etched crystalline acidity. The wine is moderately sweet going in, but by the time it flows past mid-palate, it’s classically dry and minerally in the crushed limestone/damp shale sense. Green apple, peach and pear, with a tinge of juicy mango; lilacs and camellias; a final delicate wash of river rocks, like a pale watercolor painting of water; these comprise a delightful wine that I found irresistible. Alcohol is 8.7 percent. Bottled with a screw-cap. Very Good+. About $10, an Absolute, Freaking Bargain.

Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal.

The Lorentz family has been making wine in Alsace since 1836; the tradition, the heritage and the experience seem evident. The Gustave Lorentz Rèserve Pinot Gris 2008, Alsace, is a radiant medium gold color; the bouquet delivers a heady amalgam of roasted lemon, lemon balm and almond blossom over subtle tissues of pear, toasted almonds and clean earthiness. Moderately rich notes of lemon, lime skin and pear (with touches of quince and ginger) seethe with teeth-rattling dryness and aching limestone-like minerality; this is, obviously, a very dry, very crisp wine that for all its litheness, leanness and chalky austerity offers wonderful body and presence. I love this detail: according to the winery’s website, its Reserve wines age in wood, stainless steel and glass containers. Drink now through 2014 or ’15, well-stored. 13.5 percent alcohol. Bottled with a screw-cap. Excellent. About $24.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal.


The color of the Gustave Lorentz Rèserve Riesling 2008, Alsace, is pale straw-gold; pungent aromas of pear, lychee and petrol (or rubber eraser) teem in the bouquet, along with hints of jasmine and damp rocks. This is a high-toned, elegant riesling, completely classic in every aspect, from its pinpoint balance between swingeing acidity and supple texture to its tremendous dose of limestone and shale that verges on pure minerality to its gorgeous peach, pear and roasted flavors. Mainly, however, this is about structure; you feel, beneath the fruit, the stones and bones of true authority and austerity, the chime of bright acidity extending into every bright molecule. Drink now through 2015 to ’18. Alcohol content is 13 percent. Excellent, though I liked it a degree or two less than the Rèserve Pinot Gris mentioned above. About $24.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal.


Pert and pleasant but at the same time fairly neutral, the Centine Bianco 2009, Toscana, a blend of 40 percent sauvignon blanc, 30 percent pinot grigio and 30 percent chardonnay, does little to bring glory, much less discernible varietal character to any of its constituents. The wine is dry; it is crisp; it is quite minerally, but not in the pristine form of pure scintillating minerality. Even dividing the wine for fermentation and four months’ aging in French barriques doesn’t result in a memorable personality. Let’s face it: Tuscany ain’t prime real estate for sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio or chardonnay. 13 percent alcohol. Good. About $11.

Imported by Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville, N.Y.

It’s always interesting to read the technical sheets that accompany wines from Kendall-Jackson to my door because, for one reason, they confirm what a meticulous winemaker Randy Ullom is. The Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Pinot Gris 2009 carries a Monterey County designation, though the wine includes wee portions of grapes from down south in San Luis Obispo County (3%) and farther north in Napa County (2%); don’t forget that there is a Napa County appellation as well as Napa Valley. The wine is fermented primarily in stainless steel tanks; 26 percent is barrel fermented. Pinot gris grapes account for 93 percent of the wine; blended are marsanne (2%), chenin blanc (2%), viognier (1.6%), roussanne (1%) and, rather incredibly, 0.4 percent chardonnay. I wonder how efficaciously the presence of less than half of a percent of chardonnay affects the wine, though my purpose is not to second-guess the winemaker, whose attention to detail I admire. (Actually that’s not true; I second-guess winemakers all the time. No sense being a hypocrite.)

Why, then, don’t I like this wine better? It’s certainly pleasant, clean, crisp and fresh, and it packs a terrific wallop of limestone-and-shale-like minerality, yet it leaves little impression of fruit or even the fruity/floral personality one would expect from the grape. I hate to be a snot, but I have to ask the question: Why was this wine made? Why was so much time and concentration devoted to it to end up just sort of decent and drinkable and forgettable. Well, there’s a place for such wines, but they don’t usually come with this sort of pedigree. Good+. About $15.

The Cadaretta SBS 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington, is a blend of 78 percent sauvignon blanc and 22 percent semillon; the grapes derive from hillside vineyards planted in 1992 and 1995, and the wine is made completely in stainless steel tanks. The wine offers notes of roasted lemon and yellow plums, with the semillon contributing touches of leafy fig and white waxy flowers, say camellias. There’s nothing grassy about this Bordeaux-style wine, but it does deliver sheaves of dried thyme and tarragon with a broad spectrum of dried savory spices. Elements of limestone seep in around the circumference and within a few minutes the wine is permeated by shale-like minerality, while the finish brings in hints of lime, tangerine and slightly bitter grapefruit. 13 percent alcohol. Production was 500 six-pack cases. Winemaker was Virginie Bourgue, who has since left Cadaretta to focus on her own label. Very Good+. About $23.

At the end of July, I reviewed the Yangarra Estate Vineyard Mourvèdre 2008, McLaren Vale, and wondered why the winery, which is owned by Kendall-Jackson, put the words “vinted and bottled by … ” on the back labels. Shortly thereafter I received an email message from winemaker Peter Fraser, who informed me that the estate’s winemaking facility was almost complete and that future vintages will be estate-bottled.

The Yangarra Roussanne 2009, McLaren Vale, sees no new oak, aging, instead, in 35 percent two-year-old French oak barrels and the rest in even older, neutral French oak; the wine does not go through malolactic fermentation. The result is a subtle, supple wine with a lovely sleek texture that deftly balances crisp, apple-fresh acidity with the moderate lushness of ripe pears and roasted lemon. This roussanne is a pale straw-gold color; aromas of green apple, pear and lemon peel are infused with notes of bee’s-wax, jasmine and honeysuckle. The entire effect is of spareness and elegance endowed with confidence and varietal authority, and besides, it’s delicious. 13.5 percent alcohol. Bottled with a screw-cap. Production was 1.045 six-bottle cases. Excellent. About $29.

Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Cal.

The Charles Krug Chardonnay 2009, Carneros, was pitched to me as the chardonnay that redraws the map for chardonnay, but it seemed to me to be just another weary Baedeker into the dead-end territory of manipulative excess. It took “three new yeasts” to get the job done here, including “Dave’s super secret yeast” — winemaker is Dave Galzignato — and while I admire the restrained use of oak (seven months in French oak, 35 percent new) and malolactic (only 23 percent), the wine came out smelling and tasting like a brown sugar/toffee/crème brûlée dessert bomb. This is too bad, because it opened nicely, with hints of pear and peach, lemon peel and orange zest, but it descended quickly to strident spice and cloying fruit. Tsk tsk. 14.5 percent alcohol. On the other hand, you will be surprised that I rate this wine Good+ rather than Avoid, because the next chardonnay is even worse, and a guy has to draw the line somewhere. About $20.

Erk! Gack! Bananas Foster goes psycho-killer! I found the Hanna Estate Grown Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley, completely beyond the pale. Going through full barrel fermentation, malolactic “fermentation” — to remind you, ML is a natural process but not inevitable that transforms crisp malic (“apple-like”) acid into creamy lactic (“milk-like”) acid — and aged in 75 percent new French oak, this bastion of butterscotch and brown sugar is strenuously toasty, muscularly spicy and aggressively oaky, with an unpleasantly dry, austere finish. At this point, some of my readers are saying gently, “Um, F.K., isn’t this a matter of taste and stylistic preference?” Well, no, it isn’t. Wines such as this one (and the preceding model) are travesties that have nothing to do with the chardonnay grape, just as over-oaked, over-ripe, sweet, cloying, high-alcohol zinfandels have nothing to do with the zinfandel grape. It’s a matter of respect; if you truly respect the chardonnay grape, you don’t make a wine that smells and tastes like a combination of the dessert trolley in a continental restaurant and a lumber yard. A wine writer whom I admire enormously wrote in a recent column that he would never tell a winemaker how to make wine. Oops, hey, I sure would! Look at it this way: I have reviewed books for 25 years — I was book page editor from 1988 to 2003 of the newspaper where I used to work — and I have produced a fair number of negative reviews. A negative review, even only partially, is a way of saying that an author was wrong about how he or she wrote the book, and the same principle holds true with wine and winemakers. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens in the winery goes out with every bottle of wine. Where was I? Oh, right. 14.5 percent alcohol. Not for me, O.K.? I mean, I’ll acknowledge that there are wine drinkers (and reviewers at Wine Spectator) who like this “style” of chardonnay, but their palates are beyond my comprehension. About $22.

This is really interesting, a non-vintage dessert wine, and I don’t mean port or some other fortified type. The Höpler Beerenauslese nv, Burgenland, Austria, tasted from a 375-milliliter half-bottle, offers a radiant medium gold color and seductive aromas of roasted apricots and peaches, baked pears, quince jam, honeysuckle and touches of ginger and cloves. In the mouth, this sweetheart is honeyed and viscous; flavors of spiced and brandied peaches with a touch of honeydew melon and mandarin orange are balanced by resounding acidity and a strain of earthy, slightly funky minerality. The wine is definitely sweet on the entry, but halfway across the palate the sweetness melts away, so the finish is resolutely dry and a little stony. The wine is a blend of 40 percent chardonnay, 40 percent sämling 88 (a synonym in Burgenland for Germany’s scheurebe grape) and 10 percent grüner veltliner. This doesn’t project the weight or presence or ultimate finesse of a great dessert wine, but it’s very attractive and even irresistible. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About — this is a guess based on imperfect Google results — $24.

USA Wine Imports, New York.

Here’s a revealing comparison: the Höpler Beerenauslese nv mentioned above contains 136 grams per liter of residual sugar (the sugar level after fermentation has run its course); the Höpler Trockenbeerenauslese 2007, Burgenland, contains 214.1 grams per liter of residual sugar, and you feel it in the wine’s massively ripe opulence and succulence, in its sense of softly dissolving grapes and skins, of macerating peaches and apricots liquifying in spiced brandy, of smoky pomanders and crème brûlée and tangerine clafoutis, of roasted honey and orange marmalade. This dazzling panoply of nectar is saved from cloyingness by a tremendous charge of limestone-like minerality and by acidity that feels electrified. “Exquisite” scarcely begins to describe this wine, made completely from sämling 88 grapes. The alcohol content is 11.5 percent. Drink now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $52 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.

USA Wine Imports, New York

The SantoWines Vinsanto 2003, Santorini, Greece — the company also deals in capers, fava beans and tomato products as well as non-dessert wines — is a blend of 70 percent assyrtiko and 30 percent aidani grapes, both widely grown on the island of Santorini; the wine was bottled in 2008 and is throwing a sediment. The color is medium amber with a translucent rim; the bouquet offers aromas of toffee, roasted raisins and toasted almonds, fruit cake and a sort of Platonic cinnamon toast. These beguiling qualities segue into the mouth, where such flavors are a little torn between a very sweet entry and an achingly dry finish. Let’s call it an enjoyably rustic version of vinsanto that just misses essential balance. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $40 for a 500-milliliter bottle.

Stellar Importing Co., Whitestone. N.Y. Image, slightly cropped, from Benito.


I invited wine-blogging colleague Benito to come over and taste six pairs of mainly limited-edition red wines with me a couple of weeks ago. The wines within each pair were related in some way, mainly in the sense that they were made by the same producer but from different vineyards or appellations. My intention was to see what sort of characteristics the wines possessed and how they expressed the variations in location, if they did so, and to what degree. There were four pairs of cabernet sauvignon-based wines and two pairs of merlot; one pair was from Washington state and the others from California, two from Sonoma County and three from Napa Valley.

Benito knew none of these details; all I revealed to him was that the wines were red, in related pairs and that we would taste them blind. I had a potential advantage, of course, but after I bagged and marked the wines (and removed the capsules), I moved the pairs around the table, and when Benito arrived, I asked him to do the same thing. When we sat down to begin, I realized by looking at the groups of bottles in brown paper sacks that I actually didn’t have a clue what the order was.

Here’s the deal: I found these wines, whose prices range from $35 to $85, generally solid and well-made but unexciting, uninvolving and uncompelling. Many of them shared so many similar qualities that they felt as if they had been engineered by committees. Nor did I discover much of the individuality and personality I was hoping for, either in the single examples or comparatively within the pairs. In fact, they seemed remarkably alike, reflecting a sense of prevalent style. After Benito and I tried the wines on a Thursday afternoon, I set the wines aside, let them rest over night and tried them the next day, and the next and even on Sunday; there was little sense of development or diminishing of oak and tannin. It’s difficult to understand, then, what these wines represent except their own status as iconic products to be featured on high-end wine lists and in the cellars of collectors. The order in which the wines are reviewed follows the order in which Benito and I tasted them.

These wines were received as samples for review.
1. Matanzas Creek Merlot 2006, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County. 88.5% merlot, 7.5% syrah, 4% cabernet sauvignon. 14.1% alcohol. $35. and 2. Matanzas Creek Jackson Park Vineyard Merlot 2006, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County. 100% merlot. 14.1% alcohol. $49. Winemaker is François Cordesse. Matanzas Creek is part of the Jackson Family Wines of Kendall-Jackson.

The “regular” Bennett Valley Merlot 06 offers a dark ruby-purple color and a seductive bouquet of smoke, lilac and lavender, iodine and graphite, cassis and crushed raspberries, with a final fillip of violets and toasty charcoal. (The oak regimen is 14 months in French barrels, 31 percent new, 69 percent used.) So, this aromatic nature is attractive and pretty standard in the California vein, with emphasis on the character that comes from oak aging, all that sort of smoky, crunchy, roasted stuff. The wine is rich, ripe and juicy with black fruit flavors, deeply spicy, solid with dense chewy tannins that grow more austere as the minutes (and days) pass, and altogether very cabernet-like in its sleek, powerful structure.

How does the Jackson Park version compare? Immediately one feels more power and darkness in the glass, more structure and more of the wheatmeal-graham-walnut shell nature, the dusty minerals that indicate the presence of formidable oak and tannin and presage time in the cellar. This wine also spends 14 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, 25 percent one-year-old, 25 percent two-year-old. At first the wine feels pungent, spicy and provocative, but it quickly succumbs to its structural elements, turning very dry and austere from mid-palate through the finish, leading one to wonder if the only way to produce impressive merlot-based wines is to make them like cabernet sauvignon. Try this perhaps from 2012 or ’13 through 2016 or ’17.

I rate both of these merlots Very Good+.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Emblem Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.3% alcohol. $50. and 2. Emblem Oso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 13.7% alcohol. $50. Winemakers are Michael Mondavi and his son Robert Michael Mondavi Jr. of Folio Fine Wine Partners.

The Rutherford district, progenitor of the famed (or infamous) “Rutherford dust” character, marks the heart of the Napa Valley. Named for the small, unincorporated community on Hwy 29, the district stretches in a broad band across the valley from the foot of the Mayacamas mountains in the west to the smaller Vaca Range on the east. The grapes for the Emblem Rutherford Cabernet 06 derive from a single, unnamed vineyard on the eastern side of the Napa River. This feels, indeed, like classic Napa/Rutherford cabernet, with a nose of cedar and black olives, mint and cloves and very intense and ripe cassis and black cherry scents wrapped in spicy oak and (yes) a dusty, leafy graphite quality. The oak treatment is 22 months in French barrels, of which 66 percent were new. At first, Emblem Rutherford 06 is pretty luscious and juicy, but strapping tannins expand rapidly and take up all the available space, turning the wine austere to the point of astringency. It is, in a word, huge in oak, huge in tannin, huge in that dusty, granite-like mineral element. It’s the old iron-fist in the iron-glove thing. Try from 2012 or ’14 through 2018 or ’20. For now, Very Good+.

Cousinage between these two Emblem wines consists of the factor of 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes and some resemblance in the oak regime, which for the Oso Vineyard 06 is also 22 months in French barrels, but 45 percent of the barrels are new. No matter. The Oso is another substantial, oak-bound, formidably tannic and granite-like wine that’s even more closed, more brooding and more austere than the Rutherford 06. The grapes come from the Mondavi family’s Oso Vineyard in the northern part of Napa Valley, near Calistoga. Considerable time will elapse before it softens and unfolds a bit, though I’ll grant that the wine’s supple texture — the tannins are more velvety than grainy and gritty — is very attractive. Another Very Good+ and hoping for the best after 2013 or ’14.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Northstar Merlot 2006, Walla Walla Valley, Washington. 78% merlot, 17% cabernet sauvignon, 5% cabernet franc. 14.4% alcohol. 1,200 cases. $50. and 2. Northstar Merlot 2006, Columbia Valley. 76% merlot, 19% cabernet sauvignon, 3% petit verdot, 2% cabernet franc. 14.7% alcohol. 10,00 cases. $41. Winemaker is David Merfeld. Northstar is a sister winery to Chateau Ste. Michelle.

The point here is that since Walla Walla is a smaller appellation within Columbia Valley theoretically a Walla Walla merlot will be (or could be) better than a merlot from the larger, more diversified region; how else justify the difference in price and packaging? As it happens, in this blind tasting, Benito and I tried the Walla Walla version before the Columbia Valley rendition, and while I’ll give the Northstar Walla Walla 06 a slight edge over the Northstar Columbia 06, these were both very well-made wines with a pleasing sense of detail and dimension. Walla Walla is, as many devotees of merlot know, a potentially superb area for the grape. Do these Northstar merlots, especially the Walla Walla, evince a definite regional character, points that one would pick out as “Walla Walla”? I would say not. While immensely enjoyable, there’s not much to distinguish these merlots from dozens, if not hundreds, of other examples.

To follow the tasting order, the Northstar Merlot 06, Walla Walla, ages 17 months in French oak barrels, 56 percent new. The grapes for the wine derive from nine blocks within four vineyards. The color is dark ruby-purple with a slightly paler purple rim; the bouquet is intense and concentrated, a tightly furled amalgam of iodine and iron, licorice and lavender, and very ripe and penetrating scents of black currant and black cherry. The wine is deeply rooted in baking spice and macerated black fruit flavors permeated by polished oak, graphite and dense, supple tannins, all ensconced in a sumptuous, velvety texture. Drink now through 2015 to ’16. Very Good+.

Surprisingly, my first notes on the Northstar Merlot 2006, Columbia Valley, are “color is even darker; more intense — more concentrated.” This is actually an incredibly dense, fervently eloquent expression of the merlot grape that, for once, doesn’t seem like just another cabernet in disguise. The wine sees a little more oak than its stablemate — 18 months in 70 percent French and 30 percent American oak barrels, 65 percent new — but it does not come off as besotted or imperiled by wood; in contrast, it feels as if you’re drinking tapestry loaded with cassis, Damson plums, potpourri, mocha and bitter chocolate with a slightly piquant spicy edge and a lacy etching of iron filings. Nothing over-ripe or exaggerated here, and, in fact, this may be the most elegant and balanced wine of the tasting. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Rodney Strong Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 97% cabernet sauvignon, 2% malbec, 1% petit verdot. 15.4% alcohol. $75. and 2. Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 100% cabernet sauvignon. 15.4% alcohol. $75. Winemakers are Rick Sayre and Gary Patzwald, with David Ramey as consultant.

Alexander Valley is a narrow, 12-mile long region that stretches southeast to northwest into the upper reaches of Sonoma County. At its lower end, Alexander Valley is buttressed by Knights Valley on the east, Chalk Hill and Russian River Valley to the south and southwest and Dry Creek Valley to the west, but it rises above this crowd and reaches in isolation up to the border with Mendocino County. The Russian River runs right down through the center of Alexander Valley, providing a moderating influence to temperatures that are generally warmer than the rest of the county.

The Brothers Ridge Vineyard, in what we’ll call the northern quadrant of Alexander Valley, lies east of the town of Cloverdale — pop. 6,831; motto “Genuinely Cloverdale” — in hills that reach nearly 1,000 feet elevation. The soil is loam over layers of sandstone, shale and “ancient” greenstone, that is, basaltic rock that was once deep-sea lava. The vineyard faces mainly west. In contrast, the Rockaway Vineyard, which slopes primarily northeast and southwest, lies over a gravelly clay subsoil atop fractured sandstone. A few miles southeast of Brothers Ridge and slightly lower — 750 feet at the highest elevation — Rockaway is a bit cooler. Do these factors of climate and geography produce different wines? Don’t forget the element of oak aging; 22 months in French barrels, 42 percent new, for Brothers Ridge, 22 months, in French barrels, 47 percent new, for Rockaway.

Rockaway 2006 starts with toasty, sweet oak and sweet, ripe black and blue fruit scents straight out of the gate; this bouquet is deliriously seductive, broadly and deeply spicy, with violets, crushed lavender, licorice and an exotic touch of mocha and smoky, incense-like sandalwood. Soon, however, one reaches an impasse; yes, there are the generous spicy nature and glimmers of cassis and blue plums with a hint of fruit cake, but mainly the wine at this point is tightly, massively structured, and three days in the bottle did not do a lot to help it unfurl. On Sunday morning, Rockaway 06 still offered an intensely spicy character that permeated black cherry and red currant flavors, but the tale was told in chewy, grainy tannins and formidably austere oak. Try from 2012 or ’13 through 2018 to ’20. Very Good+ for now.

Brothers Ridge 2006 felt a little looser, a little more open and approachable than its cousin. Here we perceive leather, plums with hints of espresso and prunes — the summer of 2006 was historically hot — the depth and range of the spice cabinet, touches of menthol and cedar. After three days of sweet-talking and coaxing, though, however much the attractive points of macerated and roasted berries became evident, Brothers Ridge 06 remained all about oak, which coated the mouth with austerity and astringency. It’s difficult to imagine that the wine will ever achieve the equilibrium it requires to become palatable. Try, with hope in your hearts, from 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’20. Very Good+ for now.
1. Piña Cellars Buckeye Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 15.1% alcohol. 840 cases. $85. and 2. Piña Cellars D’Adamo Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 15.4% alcohol. 1,085 cases. $75. Winemaker is Anna Monticelli.

The Buckeye Vineyard, high atop Howell Mountain — vineyard elevation up to about 2,200 feet — is a far cry from the D’Adamo Vineyard, nestled in the foothills between the Silverado Trail and Atlas Peak. One feels that difference immediately in this pair of wines from the Piña family, who have been tending vineyards in Napa Valley since the late 19th Century. The Buckeye Howell Mt. 07 displays bastions of resonant tannins for framing and foundation, like the deepest bass notes of a grand pipe organ, yet the bouquet draws you in with bacon fat, lavender and licorice, smoky charcoal, roasted meat (lamb, I would say) and very intense and concentrated elements of black currants, black cherries and plums. By the third day after being opened, this Buckeye Howell Mt. 07 had evolved into a real classic of mountain-grown cabernet, with high notes of cedar, tobacco and mint leading into spiced and macerated black currants and plums; the wine was still inky and granite-like, still awesome with oak and tannin, yet its innate elegance and balance were clearly evident. Of the 12 wines under consideration in this post, this was my favorite. Try from 2013 or ’14 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent.

Not to stint, however, on the virtues of the D’Amado 07, which opened seeming a little sleeker, a little smoother and more supple than its stablemate; in fact, you could swim in this ripe, rich, spicy and floral bouquet, though seemingly fathomless tannins come into play fairly quickly and dominate the wine after 15 or 20 minutes in the glass. Three days later, that bouquet still simmers with spice, cloves and mocha and macerated black fruit, but the bitingly austere tannins, the oak, the mineral qualities had not abated an inch. Give this considerable time, and call it Very Good+ for now with the potential for an Excellent rating.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Markham “The Altruist” Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Calistoga, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.8% alcohol. 507 cases. $53. and 2. Markham “The Philanthropist” Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Yountville, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.8% alcohol. 506 cases. $53. Winemaker is Kimberlee Nicholls. These wines are dedicated to Markham’s 2008 “Mark of Distinction” award winners, Table to Table in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., and the Bartlett Arboretum in Bell Plaine, Kansas.

These wines aged in French oak barrels 28 months and 27.5 months respectively, longer than any of the other wines tasted for this post, and the extra time shows in the intractability and impenetrability of their textures and structures. These are two freakin’ big tannic, oaken, dusty-iron-and-granite-girt wines! Will they ever come around? Making two 100 percent cabernet sauvignon wines from distinct areas in Napa Valley — Calistoga, north of St. Helena, and Yountville, in the central south –and treating them much the same in the winery would seem to point to the notion of emphasizing the wines’ origins in different micro-climates and soils, but the imposition of long oak aging and of deeply extracting tannins rendered that potentially interesting point moot, null and void. These cabernets are about their making, not about their vineyards or locations. As much as I played with them from Thursday afternoon until Sunday morning, I could elicit from them only the stringent rigor of their fabrication. Try, if you will, from 2014 or ’15 to 2020 or so, and let me know what happens. You know where to find me.

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