Wine of the Week

Well, it’s Summer — and Wednesday, a bit late for the Wine of the Week, sorry — and we need a wine that’s crisp, bracing, racy, filled with nerve and energy, so I’m thinking sauvignon blanc and the eastern Loire Valley, where the soil rests atop vast reaches of limestone dense with marine and shell fossils deposited some 150 million years. You think this Jurassic Park of mineral plenitude doesn’t lend character to the grapes and the wines made from them? Think again, Grasshopper! The best-known region, perched on the east bank of the Loire River, is Sancerre, easy to pronounce, easy to find, but a wine whose popularity has driven up the price. Let’s look instead inside the great curve that the Loire makes here to a lesser-known appellation called Reuilly (“roo-ee”), one of several Sancerre “satellite” appellations clustered about the city of Bourges on the Cher, a tributary of the Loire. Reuilly was granted AOC status early, in 1937, for white wines made from sauvignon blanc; in 1961, red and rosé wines made from pinot noir and pinot gris were added. Today we look at the Domaine de Reuilly Les Pierres Plates 2012. The domaine goes back to 1935, when Camille Rousseau, the grandfather of present proprietor Denis Jamain, first planted vines. The estate, certified organic in 2011, consists of 17 hectares (about 42 acres), 11 planted to sauvignon blanc, 4 to pinot noir and two to pinot gris. Annual production is about 11,000 cases. As the name implies, Domaine de Reuilly Les Pierres Plates 2012 derives from a specific vineyard whose sauvignon blanc grapes go only into this wine. The color is pale straw-gold; the bouquet is a fragrant but very subtle amalgam of roasted lemon and lemon balm, freshly mowed grass, a touch of hay, spare hints of jasmine, pear and juniper and pungency driven by a profound limestone and flint element. What did I assert as the requirements in the first sentence of this post? A wine that’s crisp, bracing, racy, filled with nerve and energy, and boy does this model fulfill those parameters. This is very dry, crisp and lively, a wine animated by vivid acidity and the scintillating presence of limestone-based minerality; it feels cleansing, lithe and chiseled, yet, for all that, exceedingly pleasant and inviting, with real personality. At 12.5 percent alcohol, you could drink a bunch, sitting out on the porch or patio, with a hunk of goat cheese and slices of crusty bread or a platter of grilled shrimp. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $20.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Calif. Tasted at a trade event.

Gregory Hecht and François Bannier founded their negociant firm in 2002 to exploit favorable appellations and vineyard sites in France’s vast Languedoc, a region that encompasses most of the country’s southwest geography that lies along the Mediterranean coast as it slants down toward Spain. Grapes for the Hecht & Bannier Rosé 2012 derive from one of my favorite place-names in France, Étang de Thau, and from the ancient grape-growning area of Saint Chinian, situated at the foot of the Massif Centrale. The étangs form a series of long narrow lakes between the coast and slender islands, all the way from the mouth of the Rhone river to the foothills of the Pyrenees; Étang de Thau is the largest of these lakes. Though Saint Chinian is rocky and landlocked, it still opens to the south to maritime influence. The blend of the Hecht & Bannier Rosé 2012, Languedoc, is 34 percent grenache, 33 percent syrah and 33 percent cinsault. Boy, this is a fresh, tart, clean rose, even a bit sassy. The color is pale copper with a faint peach-like flush, and in fact, under the pert strawberry and raspberry aromas and flavors, there’s a hint of ripe peach and, oddly, gooseberry, for a decided lift in the buoyant bouquet. The wine is quite dry, yet juicy with red and blue berry flavors and a touch of melon; in the background lie hints of dried Mediterranean herbs and a burgeoning stony element. The whole package is delicately strung yet imbued with the tensile energy of crisp acidity. 12.5 percent alcohol. A great wine for porch, patio and picnic. Drink through the end of this year. Very Good+. Prices around the country start at an astonishing $9 but realistically look for $13 to $15.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York. Tasted at a trade event and as a sample for review.

Though Prosecco and Moscato earned a place in the hearts of American sparkling wine consumers over the past decade — Moscato more recently accounting for a surge in sales of sweet wines, its popularity spreading from hip-hop culture — we mustn’t forget that of readily accessible non-French sparking wines, the Spanish Cava has been around these shores for 40 years or more. While the field is dominated by brands such as Freixenet and Codorniu, other labels offer alternatives in the way of style and quality. One of these is Vilarnau, founded in 1949 in the town of Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, the capital of the Cava zone in Catalonia, and acquired by Gonzalez Byass in 1982. By regulation, Cava must be produced in the traditional Champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle.

The Vilarnau Brut Nature Reserva 2009 is a blend of 55 percent macabeo grapes, 30 percent parellada and 15 percent chardonnay. After second fermentation — that’s when the bubbles are made without which sparkling wines would not sparkle — the wine aged in bottle for a minimum of two years. The color is pale gold, and the upward rush of bubbles is a foam of glinting gold. “Brut nature” implies a dry wine, and the Vilarnau Brut Nature Reserva 2009 is indeed dry, though loaded with lemony notes and hints of grapefruit and lime, with undertones of limestone and lime peel. It’s quite crisp with bright acidity and offers a texture nicely balanced between fleet-footed effervescence and pleasing density. 11.5 percent alcohol. We drank this over several nights with a variety of appetizers. Very Good+. About $19.

Imported by San Francisco Wine Exchange. A sample for review.

Generally, I try to keep the prices of the Wines of the Week fairly reasonable. It would be a rare product that would inspire me to go above $25, but today is one of those occasions, because the Rombauer Zinfandel 2010, Napa Valley, is — I’ll be frank — the best zinfandel I have tasted this year. The color is dark ruby-purple; in the nose and on the palate, the wine displays remarkable depth, purity and intensity of black currant, plum and blueberry scents and flavors permeated by cloves and white pepper, briers and brambles and penetrating graphite-granitic minerality. Give this wine a few moments, and it unfurls hints of bay leaf, leather, lavender and licorice, with bottom-notes of bitter chocolate and sandalwood, all of these elements bound by vivid acidity and dense but supple, slightly dusty tannins. The 2010 has 6 percent petite sirah, and it aged 15 months in French and American oak barrels. The alcohol content is a soaring 15.9 percent, yet the wine feels completely balanced and harmonious, showing no trace of over-ripeness, sweetness or alcohol heat. Rather, it offers a distinct feeling of appealing personality and dignified character together and serves as a model of the marriage of power and elegance. The 2011 version of this wine has been released, but if you look online, you’ll find plenty of the 2010 available; even the winery has half-bottles on its website. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. The price at the winery is $34, it’s $30 in my neck o’ the woods, and around the country you see it as low as $25. Don’t miss it.

Tasted at a trade event in Memphis.

We often drink the Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc in restaurants, occasionally buying a bottle but more often by the glass, so obviously we like it. Cakebread Cellars was the first winery I visited on my first trip to Napa Valley, in 1987, covering the Napa Valley Wine Auction. The winery celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, having been founded in 1973 by Jack Cakebread, photographer and owner of Cakebread’s Garage, an auto repair shop in San Francisco started by Leo Cakebread in 1927. I say that Jack Cakebread founded the winery, but his wife Dolores and sons Steve, Bruce and Dennis cannot be left out of even a brief account of the Cakebread history. The company is still family-owned and has grown from its original 22 acres to hundreds of acres with vineyards throughout Napa Valley and a pinot noir outpost in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Jack Cakebread is CEO, Bruce is president and COO, and Dennis is senior vice president for sales and marketing. Winemaker since 2002 has been Julianne Laks.

The Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Napa Valley, is a carefully calibrated wine that offers so much pleasure that it does not feel micro-managed. The grapes derive from the estate’s vineyards in Rutherford, Calistoga, Carneros and southeastern Napa Valley. The blend is 92 percent sauvignon blanc (4 percent of that the aromatic sauvignon musque clone) and 8 percent semillon. The wine fermented primarily in stainless steel (82 percent) with the rest in one-to-four-year-old French oak barrels. Ninety percent of the wine aged five months in neutral French oak, that is, in barrels previously used to the extent that any wood influence is minimal. The point is that the wine sees no new oak (with its taint of vanilla and toast) and what oak it comes in contact with provides gentle shaping and suppleness and spice without dominating the package. The other point is that thoughtful winemaking disappears into the wine.

So, a pale gold color that leads into a wine that’s all nuance and freshness and frank appeal. Notes of lemongrass and acacia, roasted lemon and gooseberry are woven with hints of melon, lime peel, grapefruit and tarragon, all conveyed with delicacy and grace. The character is totally lovely tone and presence, with a sense of precision in the (slightly smoky) limestone mineral element and a chiseled quality to the bright, vivid acidity; citrus flavors tend toward grapefruit, lemon and orange zest, with infusions of cloves, bay leaf and green apple bolstered by a texture of moderate lushness perfectly balanced by a trace of spare elegance. 14.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014. We had this over several nights, once with tuna and again with salmon. Excellent. About $24.

A sample for review.

Grenache is a versatile grape, but if it’s mishandled it can come dangerously close to being that generic nadir all things to all people, not a pretty pickle for a grape to find itself in. For today’s Wine of the Week, I offer two versions of the grape, one from Lodi, the other from Dry Creek Valley — obviously both from California — that fulfill quite different functions without doing the slightest damage to the grape’s reputation and in fact enhancing it. Each of these wines is made completely from grenache grapes. Both were samples for review.

First is the Frisk Prickly Grenache 2011, from Lodi’s Woodbridge District — in the Central Valley east of San Francisco Bay — a charming, refreshing wine that features low alcohol, a touch of sweetness and a hint of gently sparkling petillence (not petulance, never that). The Frisk wines, imported by Old Bridge in Napa, were previously made in an area of Australia’s Victoria region called Alpine Valley. What to call this color? Topaz? Copper? Coral? Embarrassed peach? In any case, the wine, made all in stainless steel, offers notes of melon, sour cherry and pomegranate with a tease of cloves and an initial tantalizing strain of candied orange rind. Clean, vivid acidity keeps it dry from mid-palate back through the spicy, slightly limestone-and lime-peel-flecked finish. 11.9 percent alcohol. Completely delightful and wholly appropriate for Summertime drinking with light appetizers and salad-based meals. We had a glass with scrambled egg and pork tenderloin tacos with little yellow tomatoes, sorrel and oregano. Drink through the end of 2013. Very Good+. About $14.

A more traditional approach to the grape is represented by the Quivira Wine Creek Ranch Grenache 2011, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, traditional in that it’s aged in oak barrels, but rather nontraditional in that this wine is 100 percent grenache grapes, not bolstered with mourvedre or syrah, as typically occurs in the South of France and in Australia. The color is the entrancing medium cherry-mulberry hue seen in glasses of wine in Dutch still-life paintings. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if the wine in all those still-life paintings was French, since the Dutch dominated trade in Europe in the 17th Century and regularly shipped wine from France to the Baltic nations. Anyway, this wine aged an indeterminate length of time — the winery’s website is coy about this matter — in a combination of small French and Eastern European oak barrels and in larger 600-gallon casks. Enticing aromas of black and red currants and raspberries are wreathed with hints of briers and brambles and back-notes of cloves and rhubarb and lightly smoked meat; give it a few minutes to emit traces of lilacs and violets. The Quivira Wine Creek Ranch Grenache 2011 offers lovely heft and transparency, delicacy and elegance; there’s nothing heavy or obvious here, all is smooth and supple, spare and lithe. Flavors of spiced and roasted plums open to touches of black cherries and raspberries, as well as deeper elements of forest and graphite. Tannins gently grip the palate and roll on. Don’t pair this wine with brutal red meat dishes, your haunch of venison, your saddle of boar; save this for grilled leg of lamb, though we will be forgiven for drinking it with zucchini lasagna. 14.1 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 or ’15. Production was 501 cases. Excellent. About $30.

Looking for a cheap, decent drinkable red wine to pour with ribs, grilled pork chops, barbecue and burgers and pizza? Here ’tis. The Grove Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, which carries a general California designation, so don’t ask where the grapes originated, is one of Bronco Wine Co.’s long roster of labels; in this case, winemaker is Kimberly Sapp, and to her I say brava for bringing in a well-made wine at this price. A bit of eccentricity is involved: on the Bronco website, we’re told that the grape blend it 76.9 percent cabernet sauvignon (barely qualifying the wine to be labeled as cabernet sauvignon); 13.6 percent “Proprietor’s Dry Red” and wouldn’t we all like to know what that means; and 9.5 percent segalin, and if at this point My Readers are muttering “wha’ da fuck” I certainly cannot blame them. Segalin — Education Alert! — is a cross of the grape varieties Juraçon noir and Portugais bleu and is used as a blending grape in Southwest France; I had to look it up. Anyway, the Grove Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 offers a dark ruby color; intense and concentrated scents and flavors of black currants, black cherries and plums, with some wild spicy, fruity note in there; a slightly smoky, fleshy character; moderately dense and chewy tannins with undertones of graphite; and clean vibrant acidity. I mean, what more do you want? 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through the end of 2013. Very Good. About $10 but often discounted to $8. A Real Bargain.

A sample for review.

Perhaps we really are in Spring now, or even tending toward Summer, and while it may be banal to say it — or merely a trope of the winewriting and reviewing gig — I think people are looking for lighter wines that provide delight as well as flavor. In fact, if you’re grilling shrimp or making chicken or tuna salad, an appropriate wine to uncork would be the Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2011, from Carmel Valley in Monterey County, a blend of 87 percent organically grown chenin blanc and 13 percent riesling, made all in stainless steel. The color is pale gold with a faint green shimmer; the bouquet, well, you could swim in the bouquet or dab it behind your ears, this winsome and pert amalgam of prickly and briery ripe peach and pear with intensely pungent elements of camellia and lilac with a back note of lavender and a burgeoning hint of limestone. True to its principal grape, in the mouth there’s a touch of hay and yellow plum along with those spiced pear and peach flavors, while the limestone and flint minerality expands from mid-palate back and crisp acidity keeps the wine lively and appealing. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2013. I always look forward to this wine. Excellent. About $23.

A sample for review, as I am required to inform you by ruling of the Federal Trade Commission, an injunction that does not apply to print media.

The Valle d’Itria spreads across the provinces of Bari, Brindisi and Taranto in the region of Apulia in southeastern Italy. Known mainly for olive oil and the curious conical structures called trulli, Valle d’Itria is also home to vineyards that primarily grow indigenous grapes. One of those is the verdeca grape, which makes up 90 percent of Masseria Li Veli Askos Verdeca 2011, Valle d’Itria; the other 10 percent is fiano minutolo. Li Veli, which produces a range of red wines made from primitivo and negroamaro grapes, is owned by the Falvo family; winemaker is Stefano Chioccioli. Masseria Li Veli Askos Verdeca 2011 sees only stainless steel tanks for fermentation and aging, and the wine does not go through malolactic fermentation. The result is wonderful freshness and buoyancy and appealing intensity. The color is pale gold; the seductive bouquet weaves aromas of yellow plums and roasted lemons, lavender and lilac with a hint of pear and dried thyme. For a white wine this crisp and nervy, it offers a surprisingly full body and moderately luscious texture, tempered by pert elements of green tea, lemongrass and grapefruit, with touches of cloves, sea-salt and that slightly resinous character of rosemary. It smells and tastes like the Mediterranean! 13 percent alcohol. Really charming, especially with grilled vegetables, fresh seafood and grilled fish. Now through 2014. Very Good+, and Good Value at about $18.

Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Ca. A sample for review. Image by Anne Cusack, Los Angeles Times.

I made the Toad Hollow “Eye of the Toad” Dry Rosé of Pinot Noir 2012 my Wine of the Week on March 19. Now it’s the turn of the Toad Hollow Erik’s the Red Proprietary Red Wine 2011, which carries a general “California” designation. Pour quoi? Because the zinfandel and petite sirah grapes for this robust blend came from Lodi, the syrah and malbec from Central Coast, and the dolcetto from Mendocino County. I have a great deal of fondness for this winery that delivers well-made wines at prices sometimes far below what could be asked if quality were the criterion; in other words, Toad Hollow turns out authentic and drinkable wines at great prices. The last Erik’s I reviewed was the 2009; the blend for that wine was primarily merlot, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel with dabs of souza, tannat, syrah and petite sirah. A different roster of grapes, however, has not changed this wine’s defining characteristic, a combination of attractive rusticity and bumptiousness with full-throttle dark and spicy black and blue fruit flavors and fine detailing of acid, tannin and mineral elements. The color is dark ruby-mulberry; the bouquet teems with notes of black currants, plums and blueberries with hints of mocha, black tea, black olives and pepper. The wine is lively and vibrant, moderately dense and chewy and bursting with ripe, slightly roasted and macerated black cherries, raspberries and currants; a wash of earthy briery-brambly-graphite completes the finish. 13.9 percent alcohol. Great for barbecue ribs, grilled pork chops and steaks or hearty pasta dishes, through the end of 2013. Very Good+. About $15.

A sample for review.

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