Jed Steele is assured a place in the annals of the California wine industry — and in the chronicle of American consumer taste — because he formulated the character of the Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, a ripe, slightly florid and slightly sweet chardonnay that tickled American palates to the tune of millions of cases. The wine was introduced in 1982, when proprietor Jess Jackson was getting started in the business. Steele had worked at Stony Hill and Edmeades and brought a wealth of knowledge, as well as instinct and intuition, to Kendall-Jackson, an ever expanding winery for which he worked until 1991, when Jackson fired Steele amid contentious accusations leading to suits and counter-suits. Jackson asserted that the “formula” for the Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay was a trade secret owned by the company, not by the man who created the wine. Surprisingly, a court agreed with Jackson. Water under the bridge, right. That year, the winemaker started Steele Wines, based in Lake County but drawing grapes from the breadth of California’s wine regions. While he makes a dizzying array of wines from multiple grape varieties, Steele produces several pinot noirs, both on a regional basis and from the single-vineyard standpoint. In today’s post, we look at an inexpensive and approachable example from Lake County, under the Shooting Star label; models from 2013 and ’14 from Santa Barbara County and Carneros; and a single-vineyard offering from the well-known Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Barbara. No one would mistake these wines for anything other than pinot noir, yet Jed Steele imprints his individuality on each one, allowing the grape to express itself while keeping to his vision of what the grape can be.

These wines were samples for review.
Let’s start with the Shooting Star Pinot Noir 2015, Lake County, under a label that’s one of Steele Wines’ subsidiary (and competitively priced) efforts. The wine aged nine months in French and Hungarian oak barrels. The color is dark ruby shading to a magenta rim; aromas and flavors of black cherries and currants are lightly spiced with sassafras and cloves, with a note of red cherry in the background. The texture is silky smooth and animated by brisk acidity; the finish brings in hints of loam and graphite. 13.8 percent alcohol. Very Good+. A Real Bargain at about $14.

The Steele Wines Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Barbara County, aged eight months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby, shading to a medium transparent rim; the beguiling and seductive bouquet offers notes of violets and rose petals, spiced and macerated red and black cherries and currants, with a complex weaving of sassafras, rhubarb, sandalwood and cloves and tantalizing hints of cranberry and sour cherry. The texture is supernally satiny, but make no mistake, this pinot noir delivers a real mouthful of loamy-spicy black and red fruit flavors and vivid acidity, while the finish brings in elements of new leather and graphite. 14.5 percent alcohol. An exotic and highly individual pinot noir drinking beautifully at four years; it should develop well through 2020 or ’21. Excellent. About $21, representing Great Value.
Steele Wines Pinot Noir 2014, Santa Barbara County. The color is dark ruby shading to a transparent rim; this pinot noir is dense with black and red fruit and exotic spice, feeling macerated and slightly fleshy and roasted; black and red cherries and currants display a hint of plum; a ballooning floral element wreathes violets and rose petals, while a penetrating graphite quality arrows through the svelte, succulent texture; lip-smacking acidity keeps the whole package lively. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $21.
The Steele Wines Pinot Noir 2013, Carneros, aged 10 to 12 months in French oak, 10 percent new barrels, a percentage I like. The color is medium ruby-garnet with a transparent rim; the impression is of spiced and macerated red and black cherries and currants, fairly ripe and fleshy and permeated by notes of an element slightly resinous and herbal, like fresh rosemary, and by deeper hints of cranberry and pomegranate, violets and dusty loam. The texture is irresistibly satiny-smooth. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink through 2018. Excellent. About $21.
As with the other pinot noirs in this post, the Steele Wines Pinot Noir 2014, Carneros, delivers a well-modulated, almost subliminal oak presence that doesn’t interfere with its aromas — both lovely and intense — of red cherries and currants permeated by blossoming notes of violets and lavender, sassafras and sandalwood or its expansive flavors of ripe red and black fruit that after a few minutes in the glass take on hints of loam and new leather, bittersweet chocolate and graphite. The whole package is driven by acidity that cuts a path on the palate. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $21.

The Steele Wines Bien Nacido Vineyard Block N Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Barbara County, aged 12 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. An entrancing medium transparent ruby hue shades to a delicate rim; very pure, intense yet generous black and red cherry and currant scents and flavors are permeated by pronounced elements of pomegranate and cranberry, sandalwood and sassafras. On the palate, this pinot noir is lithe, supple and suave, animated by bright acidity and given a firm mineral backbone of graphite and loam. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 150 cases. Should drink beautifully through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $36.

The chenin blanc grape doesn’t get a lot of love in America, though it is widely planted, yet it’s a grape capable of making world-class wines, fit to stand among the ranks of chardonnay, riesling and sauvignon blanc. The best examples occur in the grape’s homeground of the Loire Valley, particularly in the appellations of Anjou, Bonnezeaux, Coteaux de Layon, Quarts de Chaume, Saumur, Savennieres and Vouvray. Several of these areas devote their efforts to sweet wines of awesome dimensions, while others are dry — Savennieres — or produce a full range of styles, as in Vouvray. Our featured wine today is the dry Champalou Vouvray 2015, a delightful and reasonably priced chenin blanc — usually called pineau de la Loire in the region — from a house that practices sustainable agriculture and employs native yeasts in fermentation. The wine sees no oak, but ferments in stainless steel and rests in tank on the lees for 11 months. The vines for this wine average 35 years old. The color is pale gold; aromas of hay and heather, roasted lemon and spiced pear, quince and ginger draw you in enticingly, while a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of green tea and lemongrass, with hints, almost echoes, of fennel and celery seed. This is spare and dry on the palate, yet ripe with flavors of slightly baked stone-fruit, with a background of dusty mountain herbs and damp stones; bright acidity impels the wine to a bright, lightly honeyed, buoyantly bracing finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2019 or ’20. We drank this with last night’s dinner: baked cod with ginger and sesame and a field-pea ragu. Excellent. Average price around the country is about $20.

Imported by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, Calif. A sample for review.

It’s always easy to toss around the word “unique,” especially in the realm of the world’s wines, since an infinite number of grapes, blends, regions and styles exists in a dazzling and confounding array. Still, I will venture out to the tip of the twig here and assert that the Borealis non-vintage white blend, Willamette Valley, is pretty damned unique. It’s a product of Montinore Vineyards, one of whose pinot noir wines I will write about soon. It is, first, of interest because non-vintage wines are unusual from the West Coast. “Non-vintage” really means “multi-vintage,” because as a concept it allows winemakers to assemble a cuvée from several harvests in order to achieve the particular balance they’re looking for, also the basis for non-vintage Champagne and sparkling wine. Second, the blend on this Borealis is straight out of Alsace, reflecting the style called edelzwicker, in this case being a provocative combination of 38 percent müller-thurgau, 32 percent gewürztraminer, 19 percent riesling and 11 percent pinot gris. The color is very pale gold; aromas of honeysuckle and quince, peaches and spiced pears are spare and delicate and serve as introductory foil to the wine’s lip-smacking succulence jazzed by bright acidity. A few moments in the glass bring in notes of lychee, apple skin and almond blossom. This is quite dry, fine-boned and chiseled in structure, like the most fragile of china tea-cups, yet there’s tensile power too, as the racy acidity propels the wine through a finish flecked with petrol and grapefruit rind. 12.3 percent alcohol. A lovely aperitif or for drinking with mildly spicy Southeast Asian food, seafood risottos and stews, or, paradoxically, with pork roast and apples. Excellent. About $16, representing Great Value.

A sample for review.

The focus on cabernet franc nowadays aims at Argentina, where the grape is ubiquitous and too often of cookie-cutter quality. The original area where cabernet franc thrives as a single variety is France’s Loire Valley, particularly the appellations of Saumur, Bourgueil and Chinon. (The grape is also essential in Bordeaux, but as a factor in the blends, featured prominently on the Right Bank.) While the Alain de la Treille Chinon 2016, our Wine of the Day, doesn’t reach the profound heights and depths of which cabernet franc is capable in the hands of producers like Bernard Baudry, Charles Joguet and Olga Raffault, it offers true cab franc quality at a bargain price. The Alain de la Treille Chinon 2016, which sees no oak, offers a deep ruby-purple hue and penetrating aromas of blueberries, gravel and tar, with notes of raspberry and raspberry leaf, and a concentrated core of violets, black olives and bittersweet chocolate. These aspects segue smoothly into the mouth, where the wine displays plenty of silky tannins for structure, lip-smacking acidity that whets your taste-buds for another sip, and spicy black and blue fruit flavors. A few moments in the glass bring in hints of smoke, leather and rosemary, with a touch of that herb’s slightly resinous character. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2019 or ’20 with braised short ribs or veal shanks, meat pies or just good old cheeseburgers. Excellent. About $19, representing Good Value.

Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va.

With 42 DOC wines and 17 DOCG wines in Piedmont, it’s little wonder that some tiny areas and their products remain largely unknown. Such a one — and totally new to me — is a wine made from the pelaverga piccolo di Verduno grape of which the entire production derives from about 15 hectares — some 37 acres — in the Langhe region, west of the charming city of Alba. This minuscule area lies, in other words, in the midst of a sea of nebbiolo vineyards. Now, let’s be honest. Pelaverga piccolo does not make the sort of great wines of which nebbiolo is capable in the form of Barolo and Barbaresco. What it can make, on the other hand, is light, fine-grained, lively and spare red wines that are what I like to drink every day. This example, the Bel Colle Verduno Pelaverga 2015, fermented and aged six months in stainless steel tanks. The color is an utterly transparent ruby-garnet hue; aromas of red and black cherries and currants are permeated by notes of melon and sour cherry, graphite and lavender and an intriguing hint of white pepper. The wine flows lithe, lively and tasty on the palate, energized by pert acidity that dives headlong into dusty, mineral-flecked tannins doing their duty without being too obvious or domineering. The finish brings in elements of briers, brambles and lightly inflected loam, all of these aspects accomplished with fleet-footed agility. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through the end of 2018 with porcini risotto, pappardelle with rabbit, salumeria and hard cheeses, gnocchi with sage. Production was 1,600 cases. Excellent. About $30, and I’ll confess that I would be happier if this wine were priced closer to $20, though, to be fair, it is a small-production wine from a rare grape.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Calif. A sample for review.

Argentina produces an ocean of wine made from the malbec grape, enough so that the country and the grape are synonymous. Standing out in that sea, like a lighthouse above perilous waters, is El Malbec de Ricardo Santos 2016, hailing from the well-known Mendoza region and La Madras Vineyard, which lies at 2,800 feet elevation. The wine aged in French and American oak barrels for six months. The color is inky-purple with a glowing purple rim; the wine gives an impression of freshness and clarity, though it’s also quite intense and concentrated with notes of black currants, blueberries and plums permeated by a strain of graphite and iodine and a lighter aspect of cloves, lavender and bittersweet chocolate. Vivid acidity cuts through a dense, almost chewy texture and velvety tannins, all serving to bolster ripe, tasty black fruit flavors; the tannins lead to a slightly austere finish. 14 percent alcohol. Drink this well-balanced and complete wine through 2021 to ’23 with burgers and hearty pizzas and pasta dishes, with steaks and pork chops. Excellent. About $20, representing Good Value.

Global Vineyards Importers, Berkeley, Calif. A sample for review.

Let’s say this right up front: These four chardonnays from Grgich Hills Estate are world-class wines, competitive with chardonnays from any country and any region. They embody everything about the marriage of grace and power that characterizes the best examples of the grape, as well as the volumes of intuition, knowledge and experience required to produce such wines. The use of oak barrels is particularly thoughtful and deft. While the talented and skillful winemaker for Grgich Hills is Ivo Jeramaz, over all hovers the benign and venerable presence of Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, one of Napa Valley’s great pioneers. Devotees of the finest chardonnay wines will want these in their cellars.

These wines were samples for review, as I am required to inform My Readers by dictate of the Federal Trade Commission.
The lean, tight and focused Grgich Hills 40th Anniversary Chardonnay 2014, Napa Valley, was fermented and aged 10 months in the standard 60-gallon French oak barrique, in this case 70 percent new barrels, the rest neutral. It’s a chardonnay of magnificent power and range, detail and dimension; it was shaped to offer a sense of poise and dignity that leans close to austerity while also delivering the complete package of juicy pear, pineapple and grapefruit flavors (slightly macerated and roasted) and encompassed in a texture that deftly balances incisive crispness with talc-like softness. I cannot emphasize enough what an impression of dynamism and completeness this wine makes on the palate or how powerful the influence of limestone minerality is from beginning to end, making for a chardonnay that feels perfectly poised between crystalline vibrancy and delicacy, on one hand, and the potent earthiness of smoke, ash and loam, on the other. 14.1 percent alcohol. A wonderful achievement, commemorating the winery’s 40th anniversary in 2017. Now through 2024 to ’28, if properly cared for. Exceptional. About $50.
The Grgich Hills Miljenko’s Selection Chardonnay 2014, Napa Valley-Carneros, was fermented (with native yeast) and then aged 11 months in 900-gallon oak casks, and in case My Readers wonder about the size of the barrels, think in comparison that the standard barrel, the one you see when you tour wineries or in atmospheric photographs of aging cellars, contains 60 gallons. The color is pale straw-gold; it’s permeated by yellow fruit and flowers — pears, peaches and quince; jasmine and honeysuckle — bolstered by definitive notes of limestone, flint and graphite, heather and damp dusty roof tiles. Boy, this chardonnay offers tremendous presence on the palate; it’s dry and dense, even chewy, bursting with energy and vitality yet, withal, beautifully knit, almost elegant in its balance, this character lasting through the long, vibrant, mineral-laden finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 882 cases. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $62.
The Grgich Hills Miljenko’s Selection Chardonnay 2015, Napa Valley-Carneros, received the same oak treatment as its cousin from 2014, also with fermentation induced by native yeast — the yeast that naturally occurs in the vineyards and on the grapes — and did not undergo malolactic. In a testimony to consistency, these stablemates are very similar in character, though the 2015 possibly offers a slightly more refined, brighter aspect. The color is light straw-gold; aromas of pineapple and grapefruit are permeated by notes of mango and toasted coconut, apple and spiced pear, graphite and gun-flint. The lovely balance the wine displays is exquisite; all elements feel strung along a finely wrought line of fleet acidity and delicately chiseled limestone. A few moments in the glass bring out hints of lilac and camellia, while the structure, nicely dense yet lithe and supple, leads to a mineral-packed finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 875 cases. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $60.
Talk about lots of oak! The Grgich Hills Paris Tasting Commemorative Chardonnay 2014, Napa Valley, fermented in and then aged 12 months in French barriques, 70 percent new, and then six more months in French oak foudres, that is barrels that hold 1,500 gallons, though foudre is a flexible term. How did the wine emerge from this regimen? Crystalline with chiming acidity, scintillating with limestone minerality, vibrant, resonant, earthy and powerful, yet elegant, almost delicate in its marshaling of detail: notes of slightly baked pineapple and grapefruit, pear compote, smoke and cloves, mango, jasmine and almond skin. The color, by the way, is light gold; the wine is quite dry, yet so sleek, suave and supple that the texture comes close to being luxurious; its heft on the palate is glamorous and dynamic. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 942 cases. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Exceptional. About $94.

Last year, Wine of the Day No. 168 was the Aia Vecchia Vermentino 2015. We return to the next iteration of the product for Wine of the Day No. 308. The Aia Vecchia Vermentino 2016, hails from the Maremma region of Tuscany, close to that province’s southwestern shoreline. Made all in stainless steel and including 5 percent viognier grapes to its 95 percent vermentino, the wine offers a very pale, almost colorless hue, though there’s nothing colorless about the wine’s beguiling aromas of bee’s-wax and heather, camellia and lilac, roasted lemon and spiced pear with a note of quince. Lest you think that the wine is a mere vehicle for sensual allure, though, pay heed to its dry character, its talc-like texture balanced by keen acidity and scintillating limestone minerality, its finish that’s lively with bracing seashell salinity and a note of grapefruit pith bitterness — and with no neglect of juicy, lightly macerated stone-fruit flavors. 13 percent alcohol. A delightful wine with a slightly serious side for drinking with all manner of fish and seafood dishes or as a charming aperitif. Very Good+. About $12, a Great Bargain.

Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Calif. A sample for review.

Here’s a pinot noir wine that lovers of the grape should buy by the case. The Averaen Wines Pinot Noir 2015, Willamette Valley, is a product of the same team that owns Banshee Wines in Sonoma County. The grapes derive from vineyards found in four of Willamette’s sub-AVAs: McMinnville, Yamhill-Carlton, Eola-Amity Hills and Van Duzen Corridor. The grapes fermented in a combination of stainless steel tanks and well-used French foudres, that is, quite large barrels, followed by aging 10 months in French barriques. The color is an entrancing, totally transparent medium to light ruby hue; aromas of sandalwood and sassafras, black and red cherries and pomegranate are delicate yet tensile, gaining deliberation through subtle notes of graphite and loam, rose petals and lilacs. The texture is pure, light, winsome satin, lithe and lovely; it’s a dry pinot noir yet juicy with red and black berry flavors upheld by bright acidity and given a touch of seriousness by a burgeoning structure dark with elements of underbrush and forest floor. 14.1 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Adam Smith. Drink now through 2020 or ’21. Excellent. This was a local purchase; prices nationally are about $19 to $22, representing Good Value.

Syrah is not the red grape that leaps to mind when we think of Oregon; that would be pinot noir. Still, a surprising number of wineries produce syrah in the Beaver State, and among the best is Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, also known, of course, for its excellent pinot noir wines. The Penner-Ash Syrah 2015, carrying a general Oregon designation, derived from six vineyards. The wine aged 17 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels, 35 percent one-year-old, 15 percent two-year old and 20 percent neutral. The result is a syrah that displays plenty of power and energy without being overwhelmed by a tide of oak, the influence of which remains steady but suave and subtle. The color is unimpeachable motor oil black-purple that devolves to a narrow, gleaming magenta rim; aromas of spiced and macerated black cherries, currants and plums are permeated by penetrating beams of iodine and iron, a characteristic graphite-granitic quality that drives the wine from initial sniff and sip through the spice-and-mineral-packed finish. Velvety, grainy tannins provide a bolster for the lip-smacking acidity that helps animate the wine, while a few minutes in the glass unfurl an intense core of lavender and violets, loam and bittersweet chocolate. 14.9 percent alcohol. A classy, well-knit syrah for drinking with hearty fare through 2021 to ’23. Production was 495 cases. Excellent. About $40.

A sample for review.

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