Wine of the Week

Randall Grahm, irrepressible owner and winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyards, will have his way with us, won’t he? Take his new wine, A Proper Claret 2012, bearing a California designation. Now Grahm hasn’t made a cabernet sauvignon-based wine since 1985; he’s a perennial critic of the full-blown, over-ripe, high alcohol fashion that prevails in many of the Golden State’s wineries. In a sense, then, A Proper Claret 2012 functions as a rebuke to the high-flown cabernet style. (“Claret” is the historic term in the British Isles for the red wines of Bordeaux.) What would a proper claret be? From Bordeaux’s Right Bank communes — think of Pomerol and St.-Emilion — it would be a blend of merlot and cabernet franc, with perhaps a dollop of cabernet sauvignon; from the Left Bank — Margaux, Pauillac, St.-Julien, St.-Estephe — it would be predominantly cabernet sauvignon and merlot with perhaps varying degrees of cabernet franc and petit verdot. What, then, Readers, is the blend of A Proper Claret 2012? First, we have 62 percent cabernet sauvignon, to which is added 22 percent petit verdot. What next? A quite improper 8 percent tannat, 7 percent syrah and 1 percent petite sirah. Every proper claret-loving English person is not amused. Grahm, however, is chuckling behind the scenes, well aware that the visual joke on the label gives the game away. The proper English gentleman depicted there, relaxing in his library, glass of wine and decanter at hand, wears, under his dressing gown, red fishnet stockings supported by a garter belt. The joke is on us.

There’s nothing joky about the wine, though. A Proper Claret 2012 sports a radiant dark ruby-purple color with a violet rim; the bouquet is a melange of black cherries, raspberries and plums permeated by notes of briers, brambles and cedar, wood smoke, lavender and licorice, iron and iodine and a trace of blueberry tart. Plenty of ripe but not sweet black fruit flavors hang on a fairly rigorous yet approachable structure of soft but dense and slightly dusty tannins, dusty graphite minerality and vibrant acidity, all seamlessly arrayed in fine balance. The wine is quite drinkable, even lovely, though it has a serious aspect too. The alcohol content is an eminently manageable 13.2 percent. Now through 2015. We happily drank this wine with Saturday night’s pizza and guessed at a price at least $10 more than it actually costs. Excellent. About $16, a Great Bargain.

This wine was a sample for review, as I am required to inform you by dictate of the Federal Trade Commission.

Here’s a tasty and well-structured red wine for quaffing with hearty meals as the weather turns colder. The Pennywise Petite Sirah 2011, carrying a California designation (and sporting a radically new label design for the brand), is a blend of 86 percent petite sirah grapes, 8 percent merlot and 6 percent tannat. It earned its California moniker by drawing grapes from Lodi (mainly), Mendocino, Clarksburg and (way down south) Paso Robles. The color is medium ruby with a tinge of magenta; aromas of black and red currants, black raspberries and blueberries are touched with notes of cloves, graphite, lavender and licorice. A modicum of slightly dusty, mineral-flecked tannins and a swinge of acid allow for appropriate framing of juicy, spicy and cedary black and blue fruit flavors. The wine is dry and delicious and perfect for simple braised meat dishes, burgers and flavorful pasta preparations. It won’t knock your socks off or sing the birds out of the trees, but that’s not its aim. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $10 to $12, marking Great Value.

A sample for review.

Who ever said that the Wine of the Week had to be posted on Monday? Though that is my wish, my ideal and usually my habit, priorities insist that writing for money takes precedence over writing for mere fame and prestige, that is to say, freelancing for whatever pittance comes before posting to this blog. So, here it is, Thursday, and I am getting around to this week’s Wine of the Week, shamefully tardy but that’s the way the cookie crumbles, and it has nothing to do with the 16-day government shutdown. Having said that, here’s a terrific sauvignon blanc at a great price. Cono Sur — “southern cone” — produces a variety of wines at different price ranges from most of Chile’s vineyard and wine-making regions. From Casablanca Valley, an up-and-coming location for fine sauvignon blanc, comes the Cono Sur Especial Sauvignon Blanc 2011, a wine that is notable for its fresh and clean aura, savory and saline, its notes of jasmine, grapefruit and lime peel, its memorable pungency of earth, gravel and gun-flint. This sauvignon blanc is spicy and lively and replete with flavors of slightly spiced and macerated stone fruit touched with dried thyme and tarragon. A few minutes in the glass bring in hints of lilac and greengage plum, while the finish is long, vibrant and packed with limestone and flint. 13 percent alcohol. Quite engaging personality and depth. Drink through 2014. Excellent. About $15, a Real Bargain.

Imported by Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Alabama. Tasted at lunch at Cafe Society in Memphis with bacon-wrapped shrimp in a horseradish cream sauce.

The sparkling wine from Italy that most American consumers are familiar with is Prosecco, made in a specific area of the Veneto region from the glera grape in the bulk Charmat process. Prosecco tends to be simple, tasty, with notes of apples and almond blossoms, and often fairly sweet, though the best examples imported to this country are increasingly dry. Another area of Italy produces sparkling wine that deserves attention, however, and that’s Franciacorta, in Lombardy, where the sparkling wines use not only the traditional champagne method but the typical chardonnay and pinot noir grapes of the Champagne region. These are sparkling wines of real character that make Prosecco and other Italian sparklers look like mere bagatelles. Not that there’s anything wrong with mere bagatelles; sometimes they fill a necessary place in life. My recommendation today, Wednesday, is the Satèn Lo Sparviere non-vintage Franciacorta from the producer Gussalli Beretta. Made completely from chardonnay grapes, this sparkling wine, which fermented 80 percent in stainless steel and 20 percent in large casks, offers a pale gold color with a gentle surge of tiny glinting silver bubbles. The initial effect is clean, fresh and energetic; aromas of roasted lemon, jasmine, ginger and quince and lightly buttered cinnamon toast are delicate and fine-spun, while the whole package, though enlivened by dynamic acidity, is dry, elegant and high-toned, with great bones and a whip-lash limestone spine. 13 percent alcohol. We drank this delightful Franciacorta over several nights as aperitif with various snacks and appetizers. Excellent. About $22, a Steal, and a terrific addition to restaurant and bar by-the-glass programs.

Imported by Siema Wines, Springfield, Va. A sample for review.

Clos du Val gets it right for its first commercially released sauvignon blanc, made all in stainless steel and 100 percent varietal. Took long enough; the winery was founded in 1972. Senior winemaker is Kristy Melton. The color of the Clos du Val Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Napa Valley, is a shimmering pale gold. Aromas of pear, jasmine and cloves are highlighted by ginger, quince and lemongrass and a hint of freshly mown grass and damp straw. The wine is so suave, supple and spicy that one might think it had seen the inside of a few French oak barrels, but that’s not the case; a subtle and sunny leafy-fig element overlays notes of pear, yellow plum and lightly roasted peach and lemon, all wrapped around a vibrant core of steely acidity and limestone-flecked minerality. I’m quite happily having a glass right now with the tuna salad I made for our lunches. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 3,500 cases. Drink now through 2015. Excellent. About $24.

A sample for review.

The Balverne label has quite a pedigree. Its parent winery, Windsor Oaks, occupies land that was part of the Rancho Sotoyome grant in Sonoma County later acquired by Antonio Perelli-Minetti (1882-1976), the Italian immigrant who eventually headed the 20-million gallon California Wine Association near Delano in Kern County. Though Antonio Perelli-Minetti first planted grapes on the property south of Healdsburg, in Russian River Valley, the estate was primarily used as the family’s summer residence. It was purchased in 1972, named Balverne, and the vineyards were replanted; winemakers who came on board in 1978 were recent UC-Davis graduates Doug Nalle and John Kongsgaard, neither of whom, as they say, need any introduction to devotees of fine California wine, having gone on to found their own highly regarded wineries. The 710-acre estate was acquired in 1992 by current owners Bob and Renee Stein, who renamed it Windsor Oaks Vineyards and Winery. Windsor Oaks sold grapes to more than 35 wineries before turning back to wine production in 2005. Last year, the Steins reintroduced the Balverne label and kept the pedigree going by hiring as winemaker Margaret Davenport (Simi, Clos du Bois) and as consulting winemaker, Doug Nalle, creating a sort of full-circle homecoming.

So, today, I offer as Wine of the Week the Balverne Rosé of Sangiovese 2012, from Chalk Hill, a sub-appellation within Russian River Valley. The wine is a estate-grown blend of 88 percent sangiovese and 12 percent grenache grapes and is made completely in stainless steel tanks; no oak influence here. The color is a lovely shade of russet-Rainier cherries, slightly darker than pink or onion skin. Speaking of cherries, notes of red cherries, strawberries and mulberries dominate a bouquet that subtly unfurls its hints of rhubarb, cloves and limestone. This rosé is tart on the palate, bright and lively, and here the red fruit, with tinges of sour cherry and melon, takes on a slightly riper and macerated tone, though the wine is spare, bone-dry and permeated by limestone and chalk minerality. The finish brings in a touch of dried orange rind and pomegranate. 14.1 percent alcohol. Drink through 2014 as an aperitif or with simple picnic or luncheon fare. Excellent. About $20.

A sample for review.

The small-minded might say that Bonny Doon’s Clos de Gilroy is the least of the winery’s products, but let’s assert, instead, that Clos de Gilroy 2012, Central Coast, should not be regarded as “least” or “lesser” — that is, compared to some of Randall Grahm’s more expensive and expressive syrahs and Rhone-style blends — but as a wine that definitely fills a purpose, is a wine that could even boast of a certain raison d’être, and that is to be pleasing, approachable, delicious and drinkable. So there. Clos de Gilroy 2012 is a blend of 84 percent biodynamically-farmed grenache grapes, 11.5 percent syrah and 4.5 percent mourvèdre. The wine has no contact with oak barrels and is all the better for it. The color is medium ruby with a mulberry tinge; aromas of black currants and cherries are wreathed with hints of blueberries and plums and touched with cloves, potpourri and a bit of clean mossy earth and leather. Black and blue fruit flavors taste ripe and spicy, a trifle macerated and fleshy, and are bolstered by vibrant acidity and a nod toward granitic minerality. The finish is sleek and supple and delicately imbued with lavender and graphite. 14.4 percent alcohol. We tasted this for a couple of days — it’s closed with a screw-cap — with a variety of lunch and dinner dishes. Production was 1,444 cases. Drink through 2015. Very Good+. About $18.

A sample for review.

What, you say, you’re making a wine from 2007 the Wine of the Week? Are you mad? Neither mad nor angry, Readers, and if you follow my advice, you will be not only neither mad nor angry but gratified and wise. Colognole, in the area east of Florence dubbed Chianti Rufina — not the producer Ruffino — is one of my favorite estates in the region. Rufina, which, unusually, is not contiguous with the rest of the vast Chianti DOCG, was singled out for mention by Cosimo III Grand Duke of Florence in his edict of 1716 as one of the zones of superior production for the wine; as is the case of the Chianti Classico terrain that Cosimo also commended, the Grand Duke was correct. There’s nothing flashy or flamboyant about the wines of this traditional estate, acquired by the Spalletti family in 1890 and owned now by Contessa Gabriella Spalletti Coda Nunziante; you just don’t find names like that in the USA. Colognole Chianti Rufina 2007 offers a lovely, limpid medium ruby-garnet color; the complete balance, harmony and integration of this wine are not awe-inspiring — remember, there’s nothing showy here — but rather intensely satisfying and, well, humane, in the sense that one really wants to share the wine with family and friends around a table set with a simple, delicious meal. Aromas of red and black currants and red cherries are woven with hints of sour cherry, dried cranberries, lilac and rose petal; give the wine a few minutes in the glass and notes of graphite, moss, black tea and loam enter the picture. Colognole typically ages 12 months in 660-gallon Slavonian and French oak casks, far larger than the standard 59-gallon French barrique beloved by many producers at the various levels of Chianti, and then ages additionally in stainless steel tanks and concrete vats. Colognole Chianti Rufina 2007 is enlivened by fine-edged acidity that cuts a swath on the palate but doesn’t disrupt the wine’s enticing suppleness and lithe character. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. This is the first release from a vineyard replanted in 1995; one has to appreciate the 12-year wait to allow the vines to mature. The blend is about 95 percent sangiovese, 5 percent canaiolo. Excellent. I paid $19, the average of prices around the country.

Vintners Estates Direct Importing, Healdsburg, Cailf.

Italian Wine Week continues into its second week — The Week So Big One Week Can’t Hold It! — with the Allegrini Palazzo della Torre 2009, Veronese, a wine for which the Allegrini family takes a general designation (“Veronese”) rather than the more specific Valpolicella or Valpolicella Superiore. This is a ripasso, that is, a wine made from a majority of normally fermented grapes (70 percent here) combined with a portion of grapes that were left to dry (in this vintage until January after harvest) and then added to the “regular” wine to referment. The result is a wine — deep, dark and spicy — that feels both robust and sleek, powerful yet elegant. The blend of grapes is 70 percent corvina Veronese, 25 percent rondinella and the surprise of 5 percent sangiovese, not a typical grape in the Veneto. Aromas of black cherries, raspberries and currants are permeated by notes of plums and fruitcake, cloves and cardamom (just a trace), and winsome hints of violets and lavender. It’s a very dry wine, rigorously yet seamlessly structured and balanced by ripe and delicious black and blue fruit flavors; the background is polished grainy tannins and vibrant acidity with a slightly earthy funky character highlighted by touches of bittersweet chocolate, dried orange peel and oolong tea. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with hearty pasta dishes and roasted or grilled red meat. Excellent. About $22.

Imported by Winebow, Inc. New York. A sample for review.

Lambrusco, the slightly fizzy red wine made in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, tends to be dismissed as soda-pop by most wine consumers in the USA, especially if they remember and were burned by all those television commercials in the 1970s, back before most of you bright youngsters were born. Lambrusco, however, is the classic wine of Emilia-Romagna, and if you happened to dine in a restaurant in Bologna or Modena (the center of Lambrusco production) chances are that you would be sipping a delightful and darkly fruity Lambrusco to cut the richness of the food. Our Wine of the Week is the Cleto Chiarli “Vigneto Enrico Cialdini” 2011, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, made by a estate launched in 1860, when Cleto Chiarli decided to close his inn, the Trattoria dell’Artigliere (“the gunners’ restaurant”) and go into full-time production of the Lambrusco he had been making for his patrons. This selection from the firm’s roster is named for Enrico Cialdini, Duca di Gaeta (1811-1892), soldier, politician, diplomat and foe of Garibaldi; in some circles Cialdini is regarded — still! — as a war criminal, so it’s interesting, I think, and by “interesting” I mean “strange,” that this single vineyard Lambrusco comes from a property named for such a controversial figure (who was born near Castelvetro, so maybe he’s a grandfathered-in local hero of sorts). Anyway, he said, actually knowing very little about 19th Century Italian politics, and by “very little” I mean “doodly-squat” (except for that movie with Burt Lancaster), the Cleto Chiarli “Vigneto Enrico Cialdini” 2011, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, is more than just charming and delightful. The color is dark purple-magenta with an intense violet rim; the wine is grapy and teasingly effervescent, bursting with deep notes of ripe blackberries, raspberries and black cherries imbued with hints of violets and rose petals; it’s very dry, spicy and savory, incredibly refreshing with swingeing acidity, yet with surprising depth of earthiness and smoke and a sense of burgeoning graphite minerality. All this and only 11 percent alcohol, so you can drink a lot. In moderation, of course. And versatile. I had a glass of this for lunch one day with spaghetti with roasted cherry tomatoes and yellow peppers, salami, green olives and Parmesan and that night with a grilled veal chop; it was perfect with both dishes. Drink up. Excellent. About — gasp! — $15, representing Insane Value.

Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Calif. A sample for review. I will be looking at a variety of Italian wines this week.

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