Fortified wine


The “50 Great Wines of 2018” represent regions of France, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Argentina and various AVAs in California, Oregon, Washington and New York, and, of course, a wide range of grape varieties and styles of wine. Prices range from a fabulously low $15 to a pretty high $140, with plenty bottles falling into the sweet spot between about $20 and $30; a great wine does not have to be expensive. These are wines that I not only admired but loved during my reviewing last year. The roster could have been expanded by 10 or 12 wines, but I like to stick to 50 — as I have for many years — because that number forces me to be analytical as well as emotional and totally subjective. For the first time in preparing this annual list, I include snippets of the original reviews to lend My Readers some clues as to why I doted on particular wines. No technical information is included. With one exception, these wines were samples for review.

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Barton Family Wines “Holiday” Clairette Blanche 2017, Willow Creek District, Paso Robles, California. 94 cases. Excellent. About $32.
“very dry, spare, elegant, yet vibrant with bright acidity …”
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Berryessa Gap Rosé 2017, Yolo County, California. Equal parts grenache, barbera and zinfandel. 225 cases. Exceptional. About $15.
“not just a great rosé but a great wine.”
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Black Kite Cellars “Stony Terrace” Pinot Noir 2014, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Exceptional. About $60.
“incredibly appealing and satisfying on the sensual level but gradually reveals depths of graphite, loam and forest floor …”
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Bonny Doon Vineyards Reserve Vin Gris de Cigare 2016, Central Coast, California. 50 percent grenache, 15 percent grenache blanc, 12 percent each cinsault and mourvedre, 8 carignane, 3 roussanne. 826 cases. Excellent. About $35.
“a savory, silken rosé, fresh as sun and rain …”
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Booker Pink 2017, Paso Robles, California. 92 percent grenache, 8 percent syrah. 250 cases. Excellent. About $30.
“unusual presence and resonance for a rosé. Don’t miss this one if you can get it.”
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Brovia Ciabot del Re Dolcetto d’Alba 2015, Piedmont, Italy. Excellent. About $40.
“I can’t think of a Dolcetto I have tried that was better than this one.”
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Burgess Cellars Estate Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley, California. 75 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent merlot, 11 petit verdot, 2 malbec. Excellent. About $60.
“Classic Napa Valley.”
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Champagne Bruno Paillard Grand Cru Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs, nv, France. 100 percent chardonnay. Excellent. About $70.
“… as steely and elegant, as refined and balletic as Champagne gets.”
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Domaine Carneros Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs 2012, Carneros, California. 100 percent chardonnay. Exceptional. About $115.
“A sparkling wine of impeccable class and sophistication.”
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Catena “La Consulta” Malbec 2015, Mendoza, Argentina. Exceptional. About $20.
“A superb example of the grape.”
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Churchill’s 30 Year Old Tawny Port, Douro, Portugal. Excellent. About $80.
“A lovely evocation of earth and elegance and a joy to drink.”
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Dashe Cellars Les Enfants Terribles Heart Arrow Ranch Zinfandel 2016, Eagle Peak, Mendocino, California. 491 cases. Excellent. About $28.
“… bright and fresh, with seductive, spice-infused black raspberry and cherry scents and flavors, but a glittering edge of graphite, too…”
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Day Wines Johan Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 450 cases. Exceptional. About $42.
“Amazing tone, shape and presence.”
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DeForville San Rocco Nebbiolo d’Alba 2014, Piedmont, Italy. Excellent. About $25.
“… fairly seethes with spare black fruit flavors that lead to a chiseled, faceted finish.”
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Donelan Family Wines “Nancie” Chardonnay 2014, Sonoma County, California. Exceptional. About $48.
“Rich? Oh, yes. Overdone, immodestly ripe and assertive? Certainly not. The balance, in fact, is risky and thrilling.”
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Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2012, Douro, Portugal. Excellent. About $24.
“A powerful expression of the LBV style.”
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Dutton Goldfield Dutton Ranch Freestone Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California. 317 cases. Exceptional. About $72.
“Altogether, a remarkable marriage of power and elegance.”
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Ehlers Estate Cabernet Franc 2015, St. Helena, Napa Valley, California. Excellent. About $65.
“A terrific Napa Valley interpretation of the grape.”
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Ehrhart Domaine Saint-Remy Hengst Grand Cru Riesling 2013, Alsace, France. Excellent. About $30.
“…sleek and suave, tremendous tone and presence but more spare and elegant than opulent.”
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The Farm Winery “Touchy-Feely” 2013, Adelaida District, Paso Robles. 80 percent grenache, 20 percent syrah. 241 cases. Excellent. About $60.
“… elegant and authoritative together, a silken texture emboldened by slightly sanded tannins and stirring acidity, all wrapped in a generous, chiseled, fine-spun granitic structure.”
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Chateau Faugeres 2012, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classe, Bordeaux, France. 85 percent merlot, 10 percent cabernet franc, 5 cabernet sauvignon. Excellent. About $45.
“Beautifully made, and perfect for a standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding.”
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Fields Family Wines Delu Vineyard Vermentino 2016, Alta Mesa, Lodi County, California. Fewer than 70 cases. Exceptional. About $21.
“A truly exquisite wine … scintillates with crystalline purity and intensity.”
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Forge Cellars “Les Allies” Dry Riesling 2015, Finger Lakes, New York. 262 cases. Excellent. About $28.
“… a potent riesling notable for clarity, crispness and depth.”
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Gamble Family Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Yountville, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $25.
“Always one of the best.”
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Grgich Hills Fume Blanc 2016, Napa Valley, California. 100 percent sauvignon blanc. Exceptional. About $31.
“… chiseled, faceted and crystalline with varietal purity and intensity and a feeling of connection to its vineyard, the sun and the wind.”
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Groth Vineyards and Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Oakville District, Napa Valley. 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent merlot. Excellent. About $65.
“… a beautifully balanced and precise cabernet sauvignon that displays admirable equilibrium.”
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Halter Ranch Vineyard Grenache Blanc 2015, Adelaida District, Paso Robles, California. 80 percent grenache blanc, 14 percent picpoul, 4 roussanne, 2 viognier. Excellent. About $28.
“Well, this is just beautiful.”
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Highlands Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley, California. 350 cases. Excellent. About $75.
“… remarkably fresh, exact, dynamic and compelling.”
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Schloss Johannisberger “Gelblack” Riesling Feinherb 2014, Rheingau, Germany. Excellent. About $25.
“… a lovely, golden, savory riesling, fresh and appealing…”
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Jordan Vineyard and Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Alexander Valley, California. 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13.7 percent merlot, 5.8 percent petit verdot, 1.2 percent malbec and 0.3 percent cabernet franc. Exceptional. About $56.
“… an intriguing marriage of power and elegance, finishing with faceted and chiseled granitic minerality.”
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Jordan Vineyard Chardonnay 2016, Russian River Valley, California. Exceptional. About $33.
“… a chardonnay of shimmering purity and intensity that satisfies on every level.”
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Kreck Wines Del Barba Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel 2016, Contra Costa County, California. 45 cases. Excellent. About $42.
“… a surprising elegant and lithe structure that it feels as if it emits a special lightness of being.”
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Lafond Winery and Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016, Sta. Rita Hills, California. Exceptional. About $27.
“… a dense and chewy pinot noir that delivers considerable presence and power on the palate and an uplift of bright acidity.”
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Champagne Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle Grand Cuvée, nv, France. 55 percent chardonnay, 45 percent pinot noir, seven years on the lees in bottle. Exceptional. About $140.
“… amazing presence on the palate, lovely, impressive, regal. ‘Grand,’ indeed.”
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Maryhill Proprietor’s Reserve Albariño 2017, Columbia Valley, Washington. 719 cases. Exceptional. About $20.
“… the finest albariño wine I have tasted… An extraordinary performance.”
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2015, Sonoma Coast, California. 400 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
“… lovely, almost sensual weight and heft on the palate with an elegant and refined feeling of weightlessness.”
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Onward Wines Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, California. 139 cases. Exceptional. About $58.
“… combines the qualities of being elegant and ethereal with incisiveness and a definitely rigorous structure… Remarkable tone and presence.”
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Domaine Ostertag Muenchberg Riesling 2014, Alsace Grand Cru. Exceptional. About $42.
“… a golden wine that feels like liquid money on the tongue… A marvel of resonant personality and varietal character.”
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Ravenswood Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel 2015, Sonoma Valley, California. 96.8 percent zinfandel, 3.2 percent mixed black grapes. 900 cases. About $60.
“… plenty of depth and dimension and a hint of an untamed quality, but the emphasis is on exquisitely poised proportion.”
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Rivers-Marie Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, California. Exceptional About $25.
“My reaction … was, short of weeping, just to fall in love.”
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Roar Wines Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, California. 449 cases. Excellent. About $60.
“… lovely purity and intensity, gaining dimension in the glass even as it offers ethereal elements of talc, violets and rose petals…”
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Sanford Pinot Noir 2014, Sta. Rita Hills, California. Exceptional. About $35.
“… feels as impeccable as anyone could ask for.”
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Domaine Savary Premier Cru Vaillon 2017, Chablis, France. Excellent. About $35.
“For all that focus on structure, however, the wine projects innate delicacy and elegance.”
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Scheid Vineyards Gruner Veltliner 2016, Monterey County. 133 cases, Excellent. About $24.
“A fabulously attractive texture feels almost powdery on the palate, yet it remains light, lissome and elegant.”
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Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery Chardonnay 2014, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, California. 850 cases. Exceptional. About $34.
“… amazing purity and intensity … crystalline tone and chiseled presence.”
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Tres Sabores Rutherford Zinfandel 2014, Napa Valley. California. 500 cases. Exceptional. About $35.
“… a remarkable, incisive, decisive wine of impeccable presence, integrity and allure.”
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Troon Vineyard Kubli Bench Blanc 2017, Applegate Valley, Oregon. 52 percent marsanne, 48 percent viognier. Excellent. About $25.
“An extraordinary wine, sleek with personality and character.”
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Wrath Wines Alta Loma Vineyard Grenache 2015, Monterey County. 82 cases. Exceptional. About $39.
“… you feel as if you’re drinking the vineyard.”
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Wrath Wines Tondre Grapefield Pinot Noir 2015, Santa Lucia Highlands, California. 249 cases. Exceptional. About $49.
“… delivers gratifying depth and breadth in a package that feels wholly complete.”
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Yount Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $38.
“Just lovely.”
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When we speak of the French grenache, that heat-loving grape of the Mediterranean basin, we tend to append, rather snobbishly, “or, as they call it in Spain, garnacha.” The truth, however, is that grenache/garnacha almost assuredly is native to the eastern regions of Spain, in Aragon and Cataluña, and that even in Medieval times was planted in Roussillon, which until 1659 was part of Spain. How naturally, then, the grape hopped, skipped and jumped its way east to the Rhône Valley, where eventually it became a mainstay of the Côtes du Rhône and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. When writers of a different ear tabulated the so-called “noble grapes,” the red models were cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir. No mention of grenache, which thrives in the sun and southern wind, which ripened too easily and soared rather shamelessly into the upper alcohol levels. Still, I think the world’s winemakers came to realize that grown with care and managed in the winery in the way that one might relate to a reckless teenager, grenache/garnacha can be made into wines that while never the epitome of elegance and finesse can balance power and feral impulses with delicious fruit and essential acid structure, usually achieved by blending with other red grapes such as syrah, mourvèdre and carignan. The grape continues to be one of the most widely planted in the world, though acreage in Spain has declined due to replantings of tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon.

Today I look at 12 examples of wines made from or wines that include some portion of the grenache grape, seven from France, five from Spain. Two of the French examples are vins du naturel, the fortified wine made in the southwest. Part of the care that goes into making wines from grenache grapes involves thoughtful application of oak aging, and I think that several of the Spanish entries here do not pass the test, being heavy with wood. Still, some of these wines are splendid or at least enjoyable, with the added benefit of reasonable prices.

These wines were samples for review. Image of grenache grapes from decanter.com.
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France
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This organic estate in now operated by the eighth generation of the Coulon family. Rasteau was formerly a Côtes du Rhône designation, but was granted its own AOC beginning with the 2009 vintage. Domaine de Beaurenard Rasteau 2015 was fermented with wild yeasts and aged 12 months in oak vats and foudres: no small barrels, no new oak. The color is intense dark ruby; a knock-out bouquet of blackberry jam, new leather, blueberries and currants rides on a tide of briers and brambles, violets and lavender, wood smoke and bacon fat. These elements segue seamlessly into the mouth, where the wine slides on a texture of slightly gritty tannins, as if lightly sandpapered, and keen acidity that cuts a swath; you feel a touch of heat from the alcohol in the finish, but mainly this is a very nicely balanced effort that displays both personality and character. 15 percent alcohol. Now through 2022 or ’24. Excellent. About $20.
Imported by Wilson Daniels Wholesale, New York.
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One hundred percent varietal and aged eight months in concrete tanks, Domaine de Chateaumar Cuvée Bastien 2016, Côtes-du Rhône, feels like quintessential grenache, though in a minor key. The color is intense dark ruby-magenta, a presage to the depth and density of its black and red cherry and plums scents and flavors permeated by iodine, new leather and lots of graphite; a few minutes in the glass bring out notes of lavender, licorice and black pepper, while a touch of raspberry broadens the flavors. All elements are connected on the palate by vibrant acidity, the whole effect being clean, fresh and appealing. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $16, a Real Bargain.
Imported by Lefgroup LLC, Asheville, N.C.
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Grenache is a minority in this blend of 60 percent syrah, 25 percent grenache and 15 percent carignan, but it contributes a definite fillip of spicy blueberry scents and flavors and a hint of wild thyme. The Chateau des Crés Ricards Stécia 2015, Terrasses du Larzac, Languedoc, aged 12 months in vats. The color is deep ruby-purple, sort of dark plum-colored, and the first impression on nose and palate is plums and more plums, spiced, macerated and a bit roasted; these expand to notes of black currants and the aforesaid blueberries, mint and iodine, and as the moments pass, hints of lavender, black licorice and white pepper creep in. Energized by incisive acidity, this delicious and powerful wine is dense and chewy, replete with dusty graphite and tannins and a seething background of underbrush and oak. 14.5 percent alcohol. Quite a performance. Drink now through 2023 to ’25 with braised and grilled red meats. Excellent. About $18 to $20.
Esprit du Vin, Boca Raton, Fla.
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A blend of 70 percent syrah and 30 percent grenache, the Chateau des Crés Ricards Oenothera 2015, Terrasses du Larzac, Languedoc, aged a year in new French oak barrels. The color is opaque black ruby-magenta; aromas that weave notes of licorice and lavender, bittersweet chocolate, loam and leather gradually unfurl strains of black currants and plums with hints of damp ashes and wet dog, in other words, pretty damned classic syrah, with grenache lending touches of raspberry and blueberry and an elevating, slightly feral element. The wine is dense and chewy on the palate, though bright acidity keeps it animated and flowing, while bastions of dusty tannins and burnished oak play second chair to the lead instrument of gorgeous, spicy, floral black fruit flavors. 14.5 percent alcohol. A wine of total balance and integration, for drinking through 2023 to ’27, with braised rabbit, veal shanks, goat or pig roasted for hours over a wood fire. Excellent. About $25, representing Terrific Value.
Esprit du Vin, Boca Raton, Fla. The blend mentioned above is indicated thus on the bottle’s back label; according to the importer’s website, the percentage is 84 syrah, 16 grenache.
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The Paul Jaboulet Aîné Le Paradou 2015, Beaumes-des-Venise, is a blend of 75 percent grenache and 25 percent syrah that aged 12 months in 15,000-liter tronconiques, upright, cone-shaped neutral barrels of 3,962.6-gallon capacity. That’s a lot of wine. Beaumes-des-Venise, in the Vaucluse region of the Southern Rhone Valley — Côtes du Rhône territory — was once known primarily for its vin doux naturel dessert wines made from the muscat grape, but the red wines achieved such quality that they were granted their own Beaumes-des-Venise AOC in 2005. The color is very dark ruby-black; it’s one of those wines that manages to be clean and fresh, on the one hand, and intense and concentrated on the other hand. Ripe dark plums and currants are permeated by notes of black pepper and lavender, licorice and graphite, with undertones of briers, brambles and woodsy spices. Dusty and slightly velvety tannins support a delicious black fruit framework — adding a hint of blueberry — all driven by potent acidity that keeps the whole enterprise lively and engaging. 14 percent alcohol. A wine that displays terrific tone and presence. Now through 2021 or ’22. Excellent. About $16, so go out and Buy It by the Case.
Skurnik Wines, New York.
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And two fortified dessert wines:
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Domaine La Tour Vieille Reserva Banyuls, nv., is a blend of 35 percent grenache, 35 percent grenache gris (a pink-skinned mutation of grenache) and 30 percent carignan. The aging process is fascinating. After fermentation and the introduction of neutral spirits to raise the alcohol content, the wine is divided into three portions, for aging in large oak foudres and smaller oak barrels for varying amounts of time and large glass jars that sit out in the sun for one year. The wine will be a blend of all three parts, with wines ranging from one year old to 13 years old. The color is medium garnet shading to transparent brick-red; seamlessly woven aromas of cigar smoke and toffee, prunes and fruitcake, spiced and macerated currants and plums offers hints of cloves and vanilla and a backnote of lightly buttered cinnamon toast. These elements segue smoothly to the palate, where the wine is sweet and viscous, enlivened by vibrant acidity yet a bit autumnal in effect; dryness builds through the sleek finish. 16 percent alcohol. Banyuls lies on the French “Catalonian Coast,” where the Mediterranean shoreline aims southward toward Spain. I expect that this wine will drink beautifully for another 10 years. Excellent. About $25-$30.
Imported by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, Berkeley, Calif.
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It’s not often in my game that one gets to taste a 47-year-old wine as a sample, but that was the case with the Chateau Las Collas Rivesaltes 1970, a vin du naturel from that part of Languedoc-Roussillon known as La Vallée d’Agly. Rivesaltes in straight north of Banyuls, the AOC of the wine reviewed just above, and more inland. The Catalan word ribesaltes means “high shores.” The wine is a blend of grenache gris, blanc and rose, from vines 100 years old and more, vinified in cement vats. The color is a pale, tawny, transparent copper hue; nothing attenuated here: scents of fruitcake and toasted almonds, coconut and toffee, walnuts and macerated raisins are fresh and vigorous, with notes of bittersweet chocolate, vanilla and exotic spices extending to the palate. Though sweet on the entry and rich and viscous on the tongue, the wine is remarkably clean and fresh, lively with sinuous acidity and dry from mid-palate back through the satiny finish. 18.5 percent alcohol. I wouldn’t mind trying it again in 2028. Excellent. About $90, but with a question mark; some prices on the Internet seem absurdly cheap and seem to apply to the same wine but with a different label.
Imported by Bordeaux Wine Locator Inc., Tumwater, Wash.
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Spain
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The color of the Corona de Aragon Garnacha 2016, Carineña, is dark ruby-purple, and its expression is pure, ripe raspberry and black cherry. Boy, there’s a lot of traction on the palate, with gripping tannins balanced by lip-smacking acidity and juicy black fruit flavors; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of lavender and licorice, iodine and bittersweet chocolate. 13.5 percent alcohol. Lots of personality and verve for the price. Very Good+. About $16, and a red wine to buy by the case for drinking with the burgers, steaks and pork chops you’ll be grilling this year.
Imported by Sidewalk Wine Merchants, Tampa, Fla.
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Fashioned from vines 100 years old and more and aged four months in French oak, Coto de Hayas Garnacha Centenaria 2015, Campo de Borja, displays a dark ruby-magenta hue that lightens to a transparent rim; intense and concentrated elements of black currants and raspberries gradually open to notes of wood-smoke and tobacco, black pepper, licorice and lavender. This is a resolutely structured wine, dark and spicy, loamy and racy, and buttressed by dusty, resiny tannins that, along with briary oak, fairly well mute the black fruit flavors through the finish. 14 percent alcohol. Now through 2022 to ’25, with your heartiest meals. Very Good. About $15.
Scoperto Importing Co., Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
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I’ll say right here that Las Moradas de San Martin Initio 2010, Aragon, was one of my favorite wines so far this year. One hundred percent varietal and aged 14 months in a combination of French oak barriques and foudres, the wine offers a dark ruby-garnet hue that shades to a transparent rim; aromas of ripe, spicy raspberries and blueberries are permeated by notes of cloves and allspice, sandalwood and dusty graphite, loam and new leather; it’s sleek and lithe on the palate, the black and blue fruit flavors driven by keen acidity and bolstered by dry and moderately velvety tannins; it’s a dense and highly structured wine, but perfectly balanced (even with the alcohol content) and remarkably fresh and engaging. 15 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 or ’22. Excellent. About $17, a Tremendous Bargain.
Imported by Monsieur Touton, New York.
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Made all in stainless steel, the Paniza Garnacha 2016, Carineña, offers a lovely medium ruby-garnet color and pert aromas of spicy and slightly herbal raspberries and black currants; medium-power dusty, velvety tannins provide ballast for flavors that lean toward peppery blueberry and raspberry, as well as lithe acidity. 13.5 percent alcohol. An enjoyable quaff, simple and direct. Very Good+. About $10, representing Good Value.
Imported by Domaine Select Wine & Spirits, New York.
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Bodegas San Valero Particular Old Vine Garnacha 2013, Carineña, wears its granitic tannins, dusty oak and graphite minerality on its ample sleeves, but manages to exert a modicum of juicy raspberry and blueberry fruit that as the moments pass transitions to raspy black cherry. With its dark ruby-magenta hue and its solid yet slightly velvety structure, this is a wine that’s more imposing for size and depth than distinguished by detail. 14 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $18.
Importer N/A.
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I was jesting a few days ago when I posted my “50 Great Wines of 2014” and urged people to get their shopping lists ready. Obviously not many consumers are going to make note of a hundred-dollar cabernet sauvignon or a strictly limited, hard to find grenache gris. Here, though, is the roster that you’ve been waiting for, the “25 Great Wine Bargains of 2014,” a list of fairly widely available, well-made wines that will not but a strain on your budget. You will notice that a wine doesn’t have to be expensive to earn an Excellent rating. Seventeen of these products, priced from $10 to $20 have Excellent ratings; the rest are Very Good+. Not a one would you regret buying, some of them by the case. Now that fact that a number of these wines are from 2011 and 2012 means that they probably ought to be consumed quickly, especially the white wines and rosés; most of the reds can go for a year or two. The point is that these are terrific over-achieving wines that offer more personality and complexity than their prices might imply. The order is descending cost. Enjoy!

These wines were samples for review. This post is the seventh of 2015 on BTYH.
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Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $20.
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Joseph Cattin “Brut Cattin” Crémant d’Alsace, France. Variable blend of pinot blanc, pinot gris, riesling and chardonnay. Excellent. About $19.
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Nieto Senetier Nicanor Blend 2011, Mendoza, Argentina. 34 percent cabernet sauvignon, 33 percent malbec, 33 percent merlot. Excellent. About $19.
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Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla Sherry, nv, Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain. Excellent. About $18.
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McCay Cellars Rosé 2013, Lodi. Old vine carignane with some grenache. Production was 253 cases. Excellent. About $18.
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Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Marlborough, New Zealand. Excellent. About $18.
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Jean Ginglinger Cuvée George Pinot Blanc 2011, Alsace, France. Excellent. About $17.
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Livon Pinot Grigio 2013, Collio, Italy. Excellent. About $17.
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J Pinot Gris 2013, California. Excellent. About $16.
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Prazo de Roriz 2010, Douro, Portugal. Tinta barroca 37%, “old vines” 18%, touriga nacional 16%, touriga franca 15%, tinta amarela 7%, tinta cao 7%. Excellent. About $16.
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Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio 2012, Dolomiti, Italy. Excellent. About $15.
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CVNE Monopole 2013, Rioja Blanco, Spain. 100 percent viura grapes. Very Good+ verging on Excellent. About $15.
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Fratelli Chianti 2011, Toscana, Italy. 100% sangiovese. Very Good+. About $15.
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Domaine Les Aphillanthes Rosé 2013, Côtes du Rhône, France. Cinsault, grenache, counoise, mourvèdre. Excellent. About $14.
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Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc 2011, Western Cape, South Africa. Excellent. About $14.
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Dry Creek Fumé Blanc 2013, Sonoma County. Very Good+. About $14.
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Palacios de Bornos Verdejo 2013, Rueda, Spain. 100 percent verdejo grapes. Excellent. About $14.
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Stemmari Dalila 2012, Bianco Terre Siciliane, Italy. 80 percent grillo grapes, 20 percent viognier, Excellent. About $14.
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Wolfberger Pinot Blanc 2013, Alsace, France. Excellent. About $14.
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Aia Vecchia Vermentino 2013, Toscana, Italy. With 5 percent viognier grapes. Very Good+. About $12.
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Pedroncelli Signature Selection Dry Rosé of Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $12.
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Li Veli Passamante 2012, Salice Salentino, Italy. 100% negroamaro grapes. Very Good+. About $12.
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Trim Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, California. With 15 percent merlot, 3 percent malbec. Very Good+. About $11.
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Mandolin Chardonnay 2012, Monterey County. Very Good+. About $10.
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Tres Ojos Garnacha 2011, Calatayud, Spain. 85 percent grenache, 7 percent each cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo, 1 percent syrah. Very Good+. About $10.
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Unbate your breath, My Readers, today I present the annual “50 Great Wines” entry, this edition for 2014. I posted to BiggerThanYourHead 135 times in 2014 and reviewed 582 wines. These 50 Great Wines represent 8.6 percent of the wines I reviewed last year. How do I choose the 50 wines for this honor? First, any wine that I rated Exceptional automatically gets a berth in the roster. After that, the selection process involves going back over every post, looking at the reviews of the wines that received an Excellent rating, reading the notes again and looking for the words or phrases signifying that I felt a wine was exciting, provocative, intriguing, highly individual. You can be sure that this list probably isn’t definitive; how could such a selection of wines be? I cut from the field many wines that could easily have been included, but the limit is 50 and they had to be sacrificed. Even as I clicked on the “Publish” button on WordPress I thought, “Oh no, how could I leave out ……?”

Going through these wines, many of My Readers may cry “Foul!” because some of them were produced in severely limited quantities, but that’s often the case with great wines. Think of the situation as a challenge wherein you face a sort of scavenger hunt in tracking such wines down. Some of these wines were made by well-known winemakers for prominent wineries or estates; others are far more obscure, but I enjoy bringing attention to young, small, family-owned and -operated properties that otherwise might not receive the exposure they deserve. The usual suspect grapes are included, of course — chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir — but you will also find on this list proponents of trousseau gris and grenache gris, carignane and cinsault, crafted by brave pioneers of the unusual, even rare grapes. With one exception — the Dolce 2005 — these products are the current releases from their wineries, or close to it. I think all of them were samples for review or were tasted at the property. I hope this list of 50 Great Wines inspires you to look for the ones that capture your interest and to try wines you never encountered before. Prices, by the way, range from about $22 to $120. Coming in a few days will be my annual list of 25 Great Bargain Wines $20 and Under.
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Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Sonoma Valley. With 7 percent petit verdot. 1,475 cases. Exceptional. About $70.
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Anakota Helena Montana Vineyard Elevation 950 Feet Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Knights Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $75.
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Animo Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. With 17 percent petit verdot. From Michael Mondavi. Excellent. About $85.
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d’Arenberg The Other Side Shiraz 2010, McLaren Vale, Australia. 14% alc. 96-year-old vines. 200 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $85.
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d’Arenberg Tyche’s Mustard Shiraz 2010, McLaren Vale, Australia. 14% alc. 200 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $85.
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Battenfeld Spanier Mölsheim Riesling 2012, Rheinhessen, Germany. Exceptional. About $23.
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Blair Estate Pinot Noir 2010, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. 481 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc 2013, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. 55% roussanne, 26% grenache blanc, 19% picpoul. 1,965 cases. Exceptional. About $28.
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Bonny Doon Cuvée R Grenache 2012, Monterey County. 593 cases. Excellent. About $48.
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Cade Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $28.
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Catena Zapata White Bones Chardonnay 2010, Mendoza, Argentina. Exceptional. About $120.
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Cenyth 2009, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. 47% cabernet sauvignon, 28% merlot, 10% cabernet franc, 8% petit verdot, 7% malbec. The debut release from this collaboration between Julia Jackson, daughter of the late Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke, and Helene Seillan, daughter of Pierre Seillan, winemaker of Verité. Exceptional. About $60.
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Chêne Bleu Aliot 2010, Vin de Pays du Vaucluse, France. 65 percent roussanne, 30 percent grenache blanc, 5 percent marsanne and some smidgeon of viognier. Exceptional. About $85.
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Clos Saron Out of the Blue, 2013, Sierra Foothills. 90 percent cinsault, 5 percent syrah, 5 percent graciano. (The cinsault vines planted in 1885.) 170 cases. Excellent. About $30.
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Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. 14.7% alc. With 10% merlot. 470 cases. Exceptional. About $80.
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Cornerstone Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Napa Valley. 361 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
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Dolce 2005, Napa Valley. 90 percent semillon, 10 percent sauvignon blanc. A majestic dessert wine. Exceptional. About $85 for a half-bottle.
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Elena Walch Kastelaz Gewürztraminer 2012, Alto Adige, Italy. Exceptional. About $32.
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The Eyrie Vineyards Original Vines Reserve Pinot Gris 2012, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 261 cases. Exceptional. About $33.
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FEL Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $38.
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Fields Family Wines Old Vine Zinfandel 2011, Mokelumne River, Lodi. 200 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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Gallegos Boekenoogen Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 250 cases. Excellent. About $42.
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Grgich Hills Estate Fume Blanc 2012, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $30.
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Idlewild Grenache Gris 2013, Mendocino County. 230 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Inama Vigneto du Lot 2011, Soave Classico, Italy. Excellent. About $30.
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Inman Family “Endless Crush” Rosé of Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $25.
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Inwood Estates Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Dallas County, Texas. Excellent. About $40.
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J. Christopher Wines Lumière Pinot Noir 2011, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 756 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Diamond Mountain District, Napa Valley. With nine percent malbec. Exceptional. About $90.
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Tenutae Lageder Porer Pinot Grigio 2012, Sudtirol, Alto adige, Italy. Excellent. About $25.
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McCay Cellars Carignane 2011, Lodi, 218 cases. Excellent. About $32.
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Newton “The Puzzle” 2010, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. This proprietary wine is a blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 18 percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot and 4 percent malbec. Exceptional. About $100.
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Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. With 3 percent petit verdot, 1 percent each malbec and cabernet franc. Excellent. About $100.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.4% alc. 230 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Phifer Pavitt Date Night Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 588 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
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La Pitchoune Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 279 cases. Exceptional. About $60.
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Pittnauer Rosenberg St. Laurent 2010, Burgenland, Austria. Excellent. About $27.
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Quinta do Vallado 20 Years Old Tawny Porto. 83 cases. Exceptional. About $80 for a 500-milliliter bottle..
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Respite Reichel Vineyard Indulgence 2010, Alexander valley, Sonoma County. A proprietary blend of 65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 22 percent malbec and 13 percent cabernet franc. 77 cases. Exceptional. About $75.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2010. Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 429 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 1,302 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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Steven Kent Winery Merrellie Chardonnay 2012, Livermore Valley. 504 cases. Excellent. About $34.
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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Origin Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Valley. 266 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Sonoma Coast. 170 cases. Exceptional. About $65.
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Tin Barn Coryelle Fields Syrah 2009, Sonoma Coast. 123 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Two Shepherds Trousseau Gris 2012, Fanucchi Vineyard, Russian River Valley. 25 cases. Exceptional. About $25.
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VML Blanc de Noirs 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $50.
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Volta Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $60.
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Wakefield St. Andrews Single Vineyard Release Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Clare Valley, Australia. 250 cases imported. Excellent. About $60.
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Weltner Rödelseer Küchenmeister Trocken Sylvaner 2012, Franken, Germany. Excellent. About $27.
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I started this post as a way of commemorating my 30th anniversary in wine-writing, reached, as My Regular Readers know — bless your little pointy heads and may your tribes increase — early in July. Initially, the concept was “Fifty Great Wines,” but I decided that choosing 50 “great” wines from 30 years of tasting would be an impossible and probably just stupid and futile task. In three decades, I tasted thousands and thousands and more thousands of wines — you writers know how it is — so choosing the 50 “greatest” from this immense group would be a Sisyphian exercise.

Then I realized that what would be more significant anyway would be 50 wines that, as the title states, shaped my palate, the wines that shook me to the core, that shifted my perspective about how wine is made and its various effects, that achieved a level of purity and intensity that befit the divine; the wines, in short, that were not only definitive but created me as a writer. Yes, just that. So I spent the past few weeks combing through dozens of old notebooks, through the electronic archives of the newspaper for which I wrote a weekly column for 20 years and of course through the pages of this blog.

Now let’s be frank about some issues. As a wine reviewer, I am dependent on the practice of samples provided by producers, importers, marketers and (to a lesser extent) local distributors; I depend on the occasional trade tasting, lunch with a touring winemaker, on sponsored travel to wine regions in this country and abroad. You will not, therefore, see a list that emphasizes the great wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy, though some are included, more Burgundy than Bordeaux, because I have few opportunities to encounter such wines. Perhaps, however, you will discover here wines that you had forgotten or overlooked; certainly there will be surprises. To those of my wine-writing/blogging/tasting friends who might say, “Cripes, FK, I can’t believe you didn’t put [whatever legendary fabuloso wine] on this list!” I can only reply, “I never had the chance to taste that wine and if you want to send me a bottle, I’ll be grateful but not humbled.” This is about my experience as an individual, as, you might say, a palate.

I benefited early on from the generosity of two people in Memphis, the restaurateur-wine collector John Grisanti and a figure important in wholesale, retail and wine education, Shields Hood. Many of the wines they offered me, exposed me to and sent in my direction truly changed my life and made me what I am today.
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1. Simi Pinot Noir 1974, Alexander Valley. Purchased at a local store, tasted at home March 1984 and still, at least in memory, one of the greatest California pinots I ever encountered.

2. Mercurey Clos des Myglands 1971, Faiveley. Tasted at John Grisanti’s private cellar, September 16, 1984. As in “Ah, so that’s what Burgundy is all about.”

3. Moët & Chandon Cuvée Dom Perignon 1976, Champagne. At a wholesaler’s tasting, with Shields Hood, September 17, 1984.

4. Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Johannesburg Riesling 1978, Belle Terre Vineyards, Alexander Valley. Last week of September, 1984.

5. Chateau La Grange 1926, St Julien Third Growth, Bordeaux. At a special wine dinner at the long-departed American Harvest Restaurant in Germantown, east of Memphis, October 1984. As in, “Ah, so this is what an aged Bordeaux wine is all about.” I love the label.

6. Simi Reserve Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Alexander Valley. My then father-in-law bought a case of this wine at $16 a bottle. High-living in those days. At 10 years old, it was perfect, expressive, eloquent. This was at Christmas dinner, 1984.

7. Clos Vougeot Grand Cru 1971, Grivelet. At John Grisanti’s cellar, June 9, 1985, a great afternoon.

8. Sonoma Vineyards Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 1976, Sonoma County. July 27 and 28, 1985. Fine balance, harmony and integration, a sense of confidence and authority expressed with elegance and restraint. This winery was not renamed for its founder Rodney Strong until after he sold it in 1984.

9. Chateau Latour 1982, Pauillac, Bordeaux. Definitive for the vintage and the chateau; tasted at a trade event in Memphis sometime in 1985; tasted again in New York, October 1991.

10. Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Napa Valley. Purchased at Sherry-Lehmann in NYC, for $20.50(!); consumed with Easter dinner in Memphis, April 1986.

11. Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1977, Alexander Valley. At a tasting in Memphis of Silver Oak cabernets, sometime in 1986.

12. Chateau Haut-Brion 1937, Graves, Bordeaux. At a tasting with collectors in Memphis in 1987; this 50-year-old wine was, incredibly and from a dismal decade in Bordeaux, even better than the fabulous ’59 and ’66.

13. Paul Jaboulet Aîné La Chapelle 1949, Hermitage, Rhone Valley, France. One of a mixed case of wonderful wines I received for annotating a cellar, drunk at a dinner in the Fall of 1988. At 39 years old, one of the best wines I have ever tasted.

14. Beaune Clos des Ursules 1952, Louis Jadot. At lunch with Gagey pere et fils at the maison in Beaune, March 1990. When I mentioned this to a friend back in the U.S., he said, “Oh, yeah, they pull out that wine for all the Americans.” No matter.

15. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru 1983. Tasted in New York, October 1991.

16. Gaja Barbaresco 1955, Piedmont, Italy. Made by Angelo Gaja’s father, tasted in New York, October 1991.

17. Chateau Beychevelle 1928, St. Julien Fourth Growth, Bordeaux. At a large tasting of multiple vintages of Chateau Branaire-Ducru and Chateau Beychevelle going back to 1893, with collector Marvin Overton and British writer Clive Coates, in Nashville. This ’28 was even better than the examples from the god-like years of ’47, ’45 and ’29; just writing that sentence made me feel like Michael Broadbent.

18. Freemark Abbey 1978, Napa Valley. At a vertical tasting in Chicago, January 1993.

19. Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Napa Valley. I bought six half-bottles of this splendid perfectly aged cabernet from a FedEx pilot who was divesting his cellar and served them at a dinner party in 1996.

20. Chalone Chardonnay 1981, Monterey. A revelation at almost 15 years old; I bought this and some other California chardonnays from the late ’70s and early ’80s out of a cellar that had been kept at 40 to 45 degrees; tasted with LL and a friend at Cafe Society in Memphis, May 1996.

21. Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 1998, Clare Valley, Australia. Tasted at the property, October 1998, very young, filled with power and otherworldly grace.

22. Bass Phillip Reserve Pinot Noir 1997, Gippsland, Australia. Tasted in Melbourne, October 1998; they’re not shy with oak at Bass Phillip, but this was a thrilling monument to pinot noir purity and intensity.

23. Clos Apalta 1996, Rapel Valley, Chile, 95 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon. The initial release, tasted at the hacienda of Don Pepe Rabat, who owned the oldest merlot vineyard in Chile, with Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle and Michel Rolland, April 1998.

24. Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses Premier Cru 1998, Domaine G. Roumier. From the barrel at the property, December 7, 1999, my birthday. The earth seemed to open under my feet.

25. Chateau Petrus 1998, Pomerol, Bordeaux. Barrel sample at the property, December 1999. One of the most profound wines I have ever experienced.

26. Robert Mondavi To Kalon 1 Block Fume Blanc 2000, Napa Valley. June 2002, a sample for review.

27. Robert Mondavi Marjorie’s Sunrise Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Oakville District, Napa Valley. June 2002, a sample for review.

28. Sineann Reed and Reynolds Vineyard Pinot Noir 2000, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Tasted at the International Pinot Noir Conference, McMinnville, August 2002.

29. Nicolas Joly Clos de la Bergerie 1999, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, Loire Valley, France. New York, at La Caravelle, January 2003, with the line-up of Joly’s wines.

30. Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1966, South Australia. At a comprehensive tasting of this iconic wine, 1996 back to 1955, at Spago in L.A., April 2003.

31. Chateau d’Epiré 1964, Savennières Moelleux, Loire Valley, France. At a dinner associated with the Loire Valley Wine Fair, February 2004.

32. Domaine de la Pepière Clos des Briords 1986, Muscadet Sevre et Maine, Loire Valley, France. At the estate with proprietor Marc Ollivier, one of the great tasting experiences of my life, February 2004.

33. Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2001. Tasted in New York, June 2004.

34. Tres Sabores Zinfandel 2003, Rutherford, Napa Valley. Tasted in New York, March 2006.

35. Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996, Champagne, France. Tasted in New York, September 2006; fabulous but not nearly ready to drink.

36. Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets Premier Cru 2004, Domaine Jean-Noël Gagnard. New York, September 2006, trade tasting.

37. Corton Grand Cru 2002, Domaine Comte Senard. New York, September 2006, trade tasting.

38. Chateau Montelena The Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Napa Valley. New York, September 2007.

39. Porter-Bass Chardonnay 2004, Russian River Valley. New York, September 2007.

40. Pommard Les Epenots Premier Cru 2004, Dominique Laurent. New York, September 2007.

41. Phifer Pavit Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley. Sample for review, tasted at home October 2008. The best first-release cabernet I ever encountered.

42. Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, Napa valley. Sample for review, tasted at home December 2008.

43. Heyl zu Herrnsheim Niersteiner Pettenheim Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken 1991, Rheingau, Germany. At the estate, July, 2009.

44. Quinta da Roameira Vintage Porto 2007. In Douro Valley, August 2009, at a comprehensive tasting of the 2007 ports at Niepoort.

45. Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Tasted in Piedmont, January, 2010, with winemaker Giorgio Lavagna and a ragtag gaggle of American bloggers.

46 & 47. Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Malbec 2007, Mendoza, & Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Mendoza. Tasted at the property — the chardonnay with lunch — October 2010.

48. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998. Purchased locally and consumed on New Year’s Eve 2010, with Imperial Osetra caviar from Petrossian.

49. Pfeffingen Ungsteiner Herrenerg Riesling Beerenauslese 2004, Pfalz, Germany. A sample for review, tasted December 2011.

50. Müllen Kinheimen Rosenberg Riesling Kabinett 2002, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany. Tasted with Lyle Fass in New York, December 2013.

Well, I already see a couple of wines that I should have included in this roster — Chateau d’Yquem 1975, Sauternes, for example — but 50 is a good wholesome round number with an air of closure about it, so let’s leave it alone. And for the future? The process of learning, having our minds changed, our ideas and consciousness expanded never ends. Perhaps there will be candidates for this list from 2014, among them the Clos Saron Stone Soup Vineyard Syrah 2011, Sierra Foothills, made by Gideon Beinstock, and, oddly enough, the Inwood Estates Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Dallas County, Texas, made by Dan Gatlin. We’ll see how I feel in another 30 years.

The Madeira Archipelago, an autonomous region of Portugal, sits in the North Atlantic Ocean about 625 miles southwest of the European continent and 466 miles west of Morocco. It is the outermost reach of the European Union. Encountered primarily by shipwrecked sailors until the 15th Century, the islands were claimed by Portugal in 1419. Situated advantageously in the sea-lanes that ships used to journey to Africa, South America and India, Madeira and its capital of Funchal became a natural port-of-call and supply station for shipping companies. The islands’ major agricultural product was sugar cane and its industry sugar refineries, though when those activities migrated to the New World, vineyards and winemaking developed, and that’s where this post is concerned.

Madeira became a fortified wine sometime toward the end of the 16th Century, that is to say that, like Port, alcohol was added to the wine to strengthen it for long sea voyages; with fermentation stopped, the wine retained residual sugar and became sweet to varying degrees. Madeira was very popular in North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as Brazil, North Africa, Great Britain and Russia. In fact, the Russian Revolution of 1917 dealt a severe blow to the Madeira industry, though from the mid-19th Century double whammies came from powdery mildew and phylloxera. From the 30 shippers working in Madeira at the end of the 17th Century, now there are six, with several of the better-known companies, such as Blandy and Cossart Gordon and other brands, gathered under the rubric of the Madeira Wine Company, of which the Symington family of Oporto has controlling interest.

The island of Madeira is mainly vertical, meaning that vineyards are allocated on steep and narrow terraces that must be tended and harvested by hand. The climate is subtropical, the rainfall high, so the altitude of the vineyards, some over 5,000 feet, helps alleviate problems of mildew and rot. What makes Madeira unique is that the wine is deliberately oxidized through a process called estufagem in which the wines in barrels are exposed to induced heat for periods ranging from at least 90-days — for bulk wines in stainless steel — to six months to a year in 158-gallon wood casks for better Madeiras to periods as long as 20 years for the finest products, these aging in the lodges in Funchal heated by the sun. While a number of lesser grapes made be grown in Madeira for the bulk wines, the best products are made from sercial, verdelho, bual and malvasia grapes; these are listed on labels as an indication of the relative dryness or sweetness of the wine.

Today, we look at seven Madeiras from Blandy’s, founded by John Blandy, who arrived at the island in 1808. His descendents still run the firm, though now in partnership with Symington.

Imported by Premium Ports & Madeiras, San Francisco. These wines were samples for review. Image of terraced vineyards from madaboutmadeira.org.
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Blandy’s Sercial Madeira Aged Five Years. The color is light golden-amber; initial aromas are dominated by toasted almonds, hay, dried thyme and caramelized fennel, opening then to toffee and honey. This Madeira is dry yet filled with a strain of slightly honeyed and roasted peaches, enlivened by cloves and allspice, with the characteristic astringency of the latter; it’s quite vibrant and resonant, with vivid acidity cutting through the salted caramel flavor and a lovely satiny texture. The finish is dry and clean but slightly earthy. 19 percent alcohol. Delectable. Excellent. About $24.
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Blandy’s Verdelho Madiera Aged Five Years. Here the color is medium amber with a hint of green; here toasted almonds are married to toasted coconut with touches of almond skin and orange zest, cloves and ginger. The dense, chewy silky texture is seductive, though buoyed by brisk acidity, while the finish brings in notes of sea salt, salt-marsh and salted caramel; the impression is of shapely sweetness that tapers to dryness from mid-palate back. 19 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $24.
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Blandy’s Bual Madeira Aged Five Years. The color is burnished medium to dark gold-amber; hints of maple syrup and pine resin, toasted walnuts and coconuts, cloves and sandalwood waft from the glass. This Madeira is undeniably sweet, at least on the entry, but is neither cloying nor opulent; it’s quite lively and vibrant, spicy, wild, sleek, yes, dense and chewy and imbued with toffee and creme brulee flavors. The finish is clear, clean and lively. 10 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $24.
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Blandy’s Malmsey Madeira Aged Five Years. Now the color is brilliant dark amber with a golden rim; aromas of toasted almonds and hazelnuts, fruitcake, orange zest, cloves and quince jam are finely-knit yet generous. This Madeira is rich and honeyed, thick and chewy, viscous but not heavy; it flows like money across the tongue in the denominations of baked peaches, spiced pears, salted toffee and crystallized ginger. 19 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $24.
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Blandy’s introduced the Alvada 5 Year Old Rich Madeira in 2002 as a different expression of the wine designed to appeal to younger consumers who don’t know anything about Madeira or believed that it’s the domain of crusty of English gentleman. In a radical move for the island, Alvada is a blend of Malmsey and Bual. The color is medium gold-amber; rich and smoky aromas of fruitcake and figgy pudding, toasted almonds and coconut, cloves, allspice and orange zest are woven in an alluring amalgam that subtly reveals a ghostly hint of bacon-wrapped dates grilled over an open fire. Dense, chewy, viscous, of course, but with high notes of roasted peach, toffee and caramel-apple, all wrapped in sea salt and almond skin. 19 percent alcohol. Pretty riveting stuff.. Excellent. About $18 for a 500-milliliter bottle.
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Blandy’s Sercial Madeira Aged 10 Years. A medium golden-amber hue seems both dense and transparent; this is an earthy Madeira, with dark notes of autumn leaves and moss under a surface of toffee, smoke and tobacco and the typical toasted coconut and almonds. A few minutes in the glass bring in notes of orange zest, bitter chocolate and candied grapefruit rind. This is dense and chewy, deeply satiny, but given resonance by blinding acidity and a dry, spicy finish. 19 percent alcohol. Very Good+. $29 for a 500-milliliter bottle.
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Blandy’s Malmsey Madeira Aged 10 Years. The color is an entrancing tobacco-amber hue with a copper-gold rim; notes of buttery toffee and roasted caramel are blended with an aroma that personifies the best fruitcake, with all that implies of dried fruit and exotic spices and a sort of dark rum-imbued wheatmeal; this is rich, savory and saline, a Madeira that’s lively and vibrant, with a core of strong lapsang souchang tea, bitter chocolate, macerated peaches and maple syrup nestled in a luxurious texture that’s viscous without being heavy or cloying. The finish is surprisingly dry and vivid. 19 percent alcohol. Deliriously attractive and sensuous, and a few sips suffice. Excellent. About $30 for a 500-milliliter bottle.
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Though the grape and wine industry in the High Plains of Texas goes back only 40 years, it has already spawned a pedigree, at least in this sense. Kim McPherson, owner of his eponymous winery in Lubbock, is the son of the legendary “Doc” McPherson, founder, in 1976, along with Bob Reed, of LLano Estacado, the region’s first winery. In fact, these two remain the only wineries in the High Plains, a dry, flat, wind-swept terrain into which hedge-fund millionaires and ex-CEOs do not come parachuting and buying up land to make expensive cult wines. There are 35 grape-growers here, according to the website of the High Plains Grape Growers Association, and they tend to live in modest farm-houses with their families and raise such row-crops as cotton, sorghum and peanuts in addition to grapes.

McPherson Cellars occupies a building in Lubbock that was erected in the 1930s as the local Coca-Cola bottling facility. Though extensively remodeled, its wide-open spaces and high ceilings made it ideal for refurbishing into a winery. I visited McPherson Cellars three weeks ago and tasted through a range of the winery’s products, a line-up that illustrates the shift in High Plains from “classic” grapes such as chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon — the climate really isn’t suited — to more amenable varieties likes viognier, marsanne and roussanne for white and grenache, carignan, mourvèdre and tempranillo for red. In other words, grapes we associate with Spain, Italy and the south of France, the Mediterranean basin. Tempranillo, particularly, is looked on as the grape that will put High Plains on the vinous map.

The pricing for McPherson wines reflects its owner and winemaker’s comment that he is “the workingman’s friend,” to which he added, “I love screw-caps.” Neither expression should persuade tasters that his wines are down-market in quality, because they’re not; they are, mainly, delightful and charming, and they edge, in some cases, into serious structure.
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McPherson offered 504 cases of a sparkling wine — sold out at the winery — from 87 percent riesling and 13 percent vermentino grapes grown in High Plains, though the product was made by his brother Jon McPherson in Temecula via the Charmat process. Though pleasant enough, it felt a bit heavy and needed more cut and minerality. Good+. Price N/A.
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The next wine, however, I found exemplary. This was the McPherson Les Copains Rosé 2013, with a Texas rather than a High Plains designation, a blend of 55 percent cinsault, 30 percent mourvèdre and 15 percent viognier. A fount of delicacy and elegance, this rose was pungent with notes of strawberries and raspberries, lilac and lavender, and it displayed deft acidity and limestone minerality. 12.9 percent alcohol. Production was 480 cases. Excellent. About $11.
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The Tres Colore 2013 is a blend of carignan and mourvèdre with a touch of viognier. This is a lovely quaff, medium ruby color with a blush of magenta, fresh, briery and brambly, intensely raspberry-ish with some of the “rasp,” a hint of rose petal and good balance and acidity. 13.9 percent alcohol. 934 cases. Very Good. About $12 to $14.
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The white Les Copains 2012 is a blend of 45 percent viognier, 35 roussanne, 16 grenache blanc and 4 marsanne; I mean, we might as well be in the southern Rhone Valley. The color is medium gold, and the seductive aromas weave notes of jasmine and honeysuckle, peach, pear and papaya; very spicy stone fruit flavors are rent by pert acidity and limestone elements, while a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of dusty lilac and Evening in Paris cologne. Very charming. 13.9 percent alcohol. 616 cases. Very Good+. About $13.
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La Herencia Red Table Wine 2012 is a blend of 75 percent tempranillo, 9 percent syrah, 6 mourvèdre and 5 percent each grenache and carignan. This wine is characterized by pinpoint balance among a smooth and supple texture, graphite minerality, juicy red and black fruit flavors and bright acidity. A highly perfumed bouquet exudes hints of macerated red and black currants, orange rind and pomegranate. Another charming and drinkable wine, though with a steady spine of structure. It aged 14 months in new and neutral French oak barrels. 13.9 percent alcohol. 986 cases. Very Good+. About $14.
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McPherson also turns out 100 cases of Chansa Solera Reserve Single Cream Sherry that ages two years in American oak barrels. It’s made from chenin blanc and French colombard grapes. With its dark amber color, its notes of toffee and toasted coconut, cloves and allspice, bitter chocolate and roasted almonds, its sweet entry but bracing, saline finish, this is a pleasant way to end a meal. 16.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $28.
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Weekend Wine Sips has been devoted rather relentlessly to red wines from California, so for a complete change of mood and mode, we turn to white wines from France, one from Bordeaux, one from the Loire Valley, one from Burgundy, the remainder from the South. One is a sweet sparkling wine, three are dessert wines and the other five are dry and perfectly suited to the changes in weather and food that are inching upon us. These are quick reviews, taken often directly from my notes, designed to pique your interest and spark your palate. I keep technical, geographical and historical information and ruminative speculation to a minimum, so the emphasis is on the wines and my impressions of them. The “Little James,” the Sancerre, the Bourgogne and the Muscat Beaumes de Venise were my purchases; the rest were samples for review. Enjoy… and have a good rest of the weekend.
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Jaillance Cuvée Impériale Clairette de Die “Tradition”, nv. 7% alc. Muscat blanc à petits grains 90%, clairette blanc 10%. My previous experiences with Clairette de Die were dry sparklers, but they were 100% clairette; this jaunty example is definitely sweet. Pleasantly effervescent, a lovely mild straw-gold color; pears and peaches, softly ripe, notes of cloves, lime peel, spiced tea and limestone; hint of jasmine and some tropical fruit, lively acidity. A bit too douce for my palate, but should be pleasing as an aperitif or with desserts with fresh berries. Very Good+. About $16, a Good Value.
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Little James’ Basket Press 2011, Vin de Pays d’Oc. 13% alc. 33-year-old viognier from Minervois with sauvignon blanc and muscat of Alexandria. From Chateau de Saint Cosme, established in Gigondas in the Northern Rhone in 1570. Pale straw gold; pears, yellow plums and a touch of peach, some astringent little white flower nestled in a briery hedge; fig and thyme, hint of caramelized fennel; very dry, very crisp and taut, a bit of greengage and grass. Highly unusual, really appealing. Very Good+. About $14, making Great Value.
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Paul Mas Estate “Single Vineyard Collection” Picpoul de Pinet 2011, Coteaux du Languedoc. 13.5%. 100% picpoul grapes. Pale straw color; honeydew melon, yellow plums, orange blossom and zest; crisp acidity but with a lovely silken texture; bracing, savory and saline, a hint of salt-marsh with dried grasses, thyme and sage; sleek mineral-packed finish. Delightful. Very Good+. About $14, Buy by the Case.
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Paul Mas Estate “Single Vineyard Collection” Chardonnay 2011, Vin de Pays d’Aude. 13.5% alc. 100% chardonnay. Pale gold color; very dry, taut, crisp, vibrant; lemon and cloves, ginger and a hint of quince; lemon balm and a touch of grapefruit with its welcome astringency; attractive texture subtly balanced between moderately dense lushness and pert acidity; lots of limestone and flint. An attractive and slightly individual chardonnay. Very Good+. About $14.
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Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre 2011, Loire Valley. 11-14% alc. 100% sauvignon blanc. Scintillating purity and intensity; pale straw-gold color; gunflint and limestone, roasted lemon and lemon drop, lime peel and tangerine; bare hint of grass in the background; very dry, tense, lean, pent with energy; deeply earthy with a hint of sauteed mushrooms; long flinty, steely finish, a little austere. Feels archetypal. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $25.
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Capitain-Gagnerot Bourgogne “Les Gueulottes” 2009, Hautes Côtes de Beaune. 12.5% alc. 100% chardonnay. Medium straw-gold color; just freakin’ lovely chardonnay, minutely, gracefully sliding into maturity; roasted lemon and lemon curd, touch of grapefruit and mango; limestone under a soft haze of spicy oak; very dry, with plangent acidity and a lithe but generous texture; a wayward hint of orange blossom and lime peel, ginger and quince jam; long silken finish. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $27.
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Les Petits Grains 2011, Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois. (Les Vignerons de la Mediterranee) 15% alc. Pale gold color; orange blossom and candied orange peel, baked peaches, pears and quince; cloves and sandalwood; bananas Foster with buttered rum; dense and viscous without being heavy; lightly honeyed cinnamon toast; a long sweet finish balanced by vibrant acidity. Very Good+. About $14, for a 375-milliliter half-bottle, a Steal.
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Domaine des Bernardins 2009, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. 15% alc. Brassy gold-light amber color; softly ripe and macerated peaches and apricots; tremendous sweetness that turns dry mid-palate then austere on the finish, testifying to the immense powers of rigorous acidity; crème brùlée with a touch of the sweet ashy “burned” sugar; caramelized apricot with a hint of baked pineapple; that distinctive slightly funky muscat floral character; lip-smacking viscosity. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $25 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.
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Chateau de Cosse 2008, Sauternes. 13.5% alc. 85% semillon, 15% sauvignon blanc. The second label of Chateau Rieussec, owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). Medium gold color with a greenish tint; smoke, spiced peach and candied grapefruit, pungent with lime peel and mango and a touch of buttered pear; cloves, vanilla and toasted almonds; satiny smooth, clean, pure, dense yet elegant; exquisite balance and verve. Now through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $35 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.
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Well, O.K., make that 176, though the venerable firm in Jerez celebrated its dodransbicentennial last year with great fanfare. Founded, therefore, in 1835, Gonzales Byass is still family-owned, now in the fifth generation. The company owns 850 hectares (2,184.5 acres) of prime vineyards in Jerez Superior, where they grow mainly palomino, the chief grape for the production of sherry. Because of its low acidity and low sugar content, palomino does not make acceptable table wine — such wines tend to be flabby and bland — but it’s perfect for the unique process that results in sherry.

Sherry — the name is jealously guarded by international trade agreements — is made only in the arid region around the seacoast city of Cadiz in way far southern Spain, around on the Atlantic side, west of Gibraltar. The combination of grapes varieties, the chalky soil, proximity to the ocean, the close to drought-like climate — annual rainfall is 19 inches — and the unique solera process result in a wine that at its best rivals the great wines of Europe’s other famous winemaking regions. The corollary is that lots of anonymous, generic, mediocre sherry is also produced.

Sherry is a fortified wine made principally from the palomino fino grape (95 percent) with some estates still cultivating minuscule amounts of Muscat of Alexandria and Pedro Ximenez, the latter for dessert wines that can attain legendary qualities. After fermentation, the wines are fortified with grape spirit to 15 or 15.5 percent (for elegant fino sherry) up to 18 or 19 percent for richer oloroso style sherry. The lower alcohol content in fino sherry does not inhibit the growth of the flor, the natural yeast the grows across the surface of the wine in the barrel and contributes to fino sherry its typical and unforgettable light mossy-nutty character. The sherry houses are situated in three towns, Jerez de la Frontera — “sherry” is an English corruption of “jerez” — Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria; though geographically not too distant from each other, the three locations impart different qualities to the fino sherries that originate in them.

The solera system is essentially a method of blending in which some of the oldest wine is withdraw from its barrel and topped up with the next oldest and on down the line to the youngest wines that entered the solera after fermentation and fortifying. The constant process of topping off in this manner keeps refreshing the older wines and ensures a steady house style year by year. Some houses run complicated systems of as many as 20 different solera to satisfy the demands of the different types of sherry that they produce. Unfortunately, modern times have seen the adulteration of the method through shortcuts and the addition of sweetening agents, mainly used for cheap versions and for so-called “Cream Sherry.”

The types of sherry can be confusing, certainly as confusing as the many types of Port. Basically, the system goes like this: Fino is the most delicate and elegant of sherries and the best to be served with tapas and other light appetizers. A fino from Sanlucar is a Manzanilla. If a fino, either through natural process or induced, loses its flor, the increased exposure to air will result in a darker, more flavorful sherry; this is the famous Amontillado. The sherries called Oloroso, fortified after fermentation to around 18 percent alcohol, never develop flor, and so their character is far different, being darker in color and more intense and concentrated. All of these are dry wines. The rarest and best sweet sherries are made from sun-dried Pedro Ximenez grapes, though vast quantities of sweet sherries are turned out using other, cheaper processes.

This summation could be expanded into a book, but we’ll leave the matter in this brief, simplified form for our purpose today, and that’s to taste six of the most popular sherries from Gonzalez Byass.

Imported by The San Francisco Wine Exchange, San Francisco. These were samples for review. Image of one of the solera at Gonzalez Byass by Jim White for secretsherrysociety.com
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Tio Pepe — “Uncle Pepe” — is one of the best-known fino sherries in the world. This is made from 100 percent palomino grapes and spends an average of five years in solera in American oak barrels, under the layer of flor. The color is pale straw; subtle aromas of toasted almonds and coconut are enlivened with a hint of sea-salt. This sherry is very dry, almost achingly so, yet the total effect is of elegance and finely balanced delicacy and nuance, along with penetrating earthy nutty flavors. Always terrific with handfuls of almonds, cashews and green olives or, the classic match, sherried pea or sorrel soup. 15 percent alcohol. Serve quite chilled and return the recorked bottle to the fridge; don’t store on a shelf or sideboard. Very Good+. About $18.

Image, fairly cropped, from delongwine.com.
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It’s highly probable that more people have read Edgar Allen Poe’s story “A Cask of Amontillado” — or can mindlessly quote “For the love of god, Montressor!” — than have actually tasted Amontillado, which, I’ll say right here, is my favorite style of sherry. The Gonzales Byass Vina AB Amontillado is made from 100 percent palomino grapes; it enters the solera, where it develops a skin of flor, and then when the flor fades, the wine is transferred to a Vina AB solera where exposure to air allows it to oxidize; it stays in American oak barrels for an average of eight years. The color is an entrancing medium bronze-amber; the bouquet wreathes touches of toasted coconut, caramelized raisins, roasted hazelnuts and a hint of toffee, and while the aromas seem to imply sweetness, the wine is bone-dry, intense, concentrated, though smooth and supple; the dryness, the slight sense of rigor, lead to a limestone-laced, high-toned, fairly austere finish. 16.5 percent alcohol. Should be served at room temperature or slightly chilled. Try with white gazpacho or paper-thin slices of really good Iberian ham. Excellent. About $20.
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The color of the Alfonso Oloroso Seco — “seco” means dry — is a ruddy medium copper-amber hue, perhaps tending toward mahogany; smoke and cinnamon toast, roasted raisins, toffee, orange zest and a slightly resiny quality are woven in the bouquet. This is 100 percent palomino grapes; the wine spends an average of eight years in American oak in the solera. This is full-bodied, though not viscous, vibrant, earthy, permeated with the flavors but not the sweetness of maple syrup and brown sugar; it’s dry, like cloves and citrus peel, and hovers at the edge of woodiness. 18 percent alcohol. Serve chilled. Very Good+. About $20.
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The Cristina Oloroso Abocado — “semi-sweet” — is a blend of 87 percent palomino and 13 percent Pedro Ximenez grapes; it spends an average of seven years in solera in American oak barrels. The color is medium amber; this offers the typical toasted almonds-coconut-raisins bouquet and flavors with toffee, orange rind and bitter chocolate. The entry is sweet, but from mid-palate back through the finish, the wine is dry, and though the texture is seductively supple, Cristina feels a bit rough-edged, like the least balanced and integrated of these six sherries. 17.5 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $20.
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The “dulce” of the Solera 1847 Olorosa Dulce says it all; this is a sweet, robust, full-bodied sherry suitable for certain cheeses or savory pates and desserts that include fruit and nuts; it would be devastating with foie gras. It’s a blend of 75 percent palomino grapes and 25 percent Pedro Ximenez, and it spent an average of eight years in American oak in the solera. A dark amber color, slightly ruddy garnet around the rim, this sherry exudes notes of smoke, oolong tea, toffee and orange zest, figs, fruitcake and bitter chocolate, all consistent in flavor too. You feel the liveliness and resonance of firm acidity and the recognizable yet indefinable presence of a winning and winsome personality. A few moments in the glass bring in more aspects of woody spices — cloves, cinnamon, sandalwood — and a more intense impression of fruitcake woven with potpourri and pomander. The finish is dry, drawn-out and spicy. 18 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $20.

Image from vendomestore.com.
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The Gonzales Byass Apostoles Palo Cortado Viejo is a blend of 87 percent palomino and 13 percent Pedro Ximenez; this sherry spends an average of 30 years in the solera in American oak barrels. Palo Cortado is a rare sherry that started out to be Amontillado but did not, by happenstance, develop the covering of flor, so it ages, instead, as a dry oloroso of unusual complexity. The color is medium amber with an inner radiance of golden embers; fruitcake, baking spices, roasted hazelnuts, toffee, smoky maple syrup; dense and viscous in the mouth but stays just shy of sweetness and on the inside of dryness in risky but empathetic poise. The finish is dry, earthy, spicy. Not really a dessert wine but demanding intensely flavored pates, terrines and cured meats. 20 percent alcohol. Drink now or cellar through 2020. Excellent. About $49 for a 375 milliliter half-bottle.

Image, slightly cropped, from thisislondon.co.uk.
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Sometimes it’s the regional oddities of the world of wine and spirits that offer the most interest, the most appeal. Thousands of people produce cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay wines, but how many make the anything-but-natural vin doux naturel or the “forbidden” fragolino? The category of intensely, almost jealously regional applies to Pineau des Charentes, a fortified aperitif or dessert wine made in the Cognac region, where the départements — like states in France — are Charente and Charente-Maritime. Pineau des Charentes, simply put, is a combination of young Cognac (it must be at least a year old) and lightly fermented or just about to ferment grape must; with fermentation stopped, the spirit retains the sweetness of the grape juice. By law, the result must age in wooden casks until July of the following year; “Vieux Pineau” classification is awarded Pineau des Charentes that aged at least five years.

What do we make, then, of Pineau des Charentes that matured in cask for 25 years?

Nicolas Palazzi has done it again. The young Frenchman (with an Italian name), based now in New York, haunts ancient cellars in Cognac and exercises his talent for sniffing out old and forgotten barrels, bottling the contents and hand-selling the limited edition products to high-class restaurants, bars and retail shops around the world. Late last year I mentioned his Paul-Marie et Fils “devant la porte” Grand Champagne Cognac, distilled in 1951; Palazzi produced 257 bottles and sold it for $600 a bottle. Now it’s the turn of the Paul-Marie et Fils Pineau des Charentes Tres Vieux Fut #3; about 1,280 bottles are available, and it’s much cheaper than the Cognac.

Paul-Marie et Fils Pineau des Charentes Tres Vieux Fut #3 — “very old barrel, third bottling” — is a beautiful medium amber color; aromas of orange rind and cloves, candied and crushed almonds, toffee and grapefruit marmalade with its peel slowly unfold to reveal hints of chestnut honey, dark chocolate and crystallized ginger. It smells like Scotch, but slightly lighter and more exotic; it feels historic, deeply imbued with an immutable sense of a particular time and place. This Pineau des Charentes is very smooth, very supple, dense and chewy, almost viscous in its combination of sweetness, body and alcohol, and yet there’s an elevating quality about it, an element of lacy transparency to the structure. Marvelous stuff, unique, heady, yet calm and stately. Pineau des Charentes is usually described as a dessert wine, but this was superb, we found, with a piece of a dry Piave Nuda Stravecchio cheese and some of the hazelnut-fig crackers we like. Serve Pineau des Charentes chilled; once open, it will keep in the fridge for a week or so. 17.5 percent alcohol. Exceptional. About $90.

A (very small) sample for review.