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Rodney Strong Vineyards, Alexander Valley (Sonoma County, California) “Symmetry” Meritage 2016

($55):  Symmetry, according to Rodney Strong’s website, means balance.  And I must admit, this wine is aptly named.  It’s a suave complex Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant (70%) blend of five Bordeaux varieties.  Roughly equal amounts of Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot fill out the blend.  Juicy and succulent, it delivers a lovely mixture of savory and dark fruit flavors.  Polished tannins make it not only approachable, but drinkable now.  This bold and balanced wine would go well with a pan-sautéed steak.
92 Michael Apstein Jan 19, 2021

Fanetti – Tenuta S. Agnese, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) Riserva 2015

($33, Enotec Imports, Inc):  Fanetti, one of the great names for Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, has produced a fabulous 2015 Riserva from their Tenuta S. Agnese estate.  Traditionally framed, that is, not all gussied up with oak and over ripe fruit, the dark cherry-like fruit of Sangiovese shines.  Not an opulent wine, it is well-structured and penetrating.  Pleasingly firm tannins impart a good grip.  It has great vivacity, a characteristic often lacking in 2015 Tuscan wines, which amplifies its appeal.  A hint of gentle bitterness in the finish reinforces its stature.  It screams for food — grilled meat or game.  Engaging now, and certainly a joy to drink, bottle age will only add to its complexity, so there’s no rush.
93 Michael Apstein Jan 19, 2021

Buli, Toscana IGT (Tuscany, Italy) “Estate 44” 2016

($20, Dark Star Imports):  Estate 44 pays tribute to the Allied soldiers, including the owner’s father, who liberated Tuscany in the summer of 1944.  A blend of Sangiovese (60%) Cabernet Sauvignon (20%) and equal amounts of Syrah and Merlot, it is more muscular than Buli’s 515 bottling, but has the same grace, suaveness and structure.  This balanced and vibrant wine is a worthy tribute.  Another bargain!
92 Michael Apstein Jan 19, 2021

Buli, Toscana IGT (Tuscany, Italy) Sangiovese “515” 2016

($20, Dark Star Imports):  Robert Buly, an American who owns Buli, was drawn to Italy by heritage: his father married an Italian woman from Tuscany soon after WWII ended.  On their website, he jokes that his father met his mother while on the search for red wine to drink.  Decades later, Buly purchased land in Tuscany and is making red wine, very good red wine, I might add.  The 515 refers to the elevation of the vineyard, 515 m asl, which mitigates the daytime heat during the summer.  Paradoxically, the wine is restrained and austere, in the best way, yet is full of flavor.  The firmness of Sangiovese is a perfect foil for the dark bitter cherry-like flavors.  This sleek and racy wine is perfect with hearty pasta or grilled meats, as opposed to a stand-alone aperitif.  And moreover, it’s a bargain.
93 Michael Apstein Jan 19, 2021

Piper-Heidsieck, Champagne (France) Brut Cuvée NV

($45, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  Founded in 1785, this venerable Champagne firm passed into the hands of the Descours family about a decade ago.  Its non-vintage Brut has since taken a leap in quality.  I remember Piper-Heidsieck as an ordinary Champagne a decade ago, lean and angular.  Well, that’s changed.  A red-grape-predominant blend (about 50% Pinot Noir and 30% Pinot Meunier) explains its power.  The Chardonnay, that fills out the blend, and the use of 20% reserve wine, likely accounts for a striking elegance, which is all the more welcome considering the wine’s power.  It’s an excellent buy, considering how Champagne prices have taken off.
92 Michael Apstein Jan 19, 2021

Domaine Bart, Marsannay (Burgundy, France) Clos du Roy 2018

($58, Jeanne-Marie de Champs Selection):  Domaine Bart is an A-list producer.  Of course, their Grand Cru Bonnes Mares and Charmes-Chambertin are stunning.  But, if you are looking for something that does not require taking out a mortgage before purchasing, look to their array of wines from Marsannay, a sleepy village north of Gevrey-Chambertin.  Here, and especially at Domaine Bart, you will find authentic wines filled with the savory Côte de Nuits character.  The growers in Marsannay are applying for premier cru status for some of their vineyards.  Clos du Roy is likely to be on that list.  Bright and lively acidity balance Bart’s ripe and succulent 2018 Clos du Roy, keeping it fresh.  The tannins are supple and mild, though paradoxically, the wine is structured, not soft.  Dark cherry-like nuances marry nicely with earthy ones and finish on an attractive hint of bitterness.  Juicy and long, this Marsannay is hard to resist now.
93 Michael Apstein Jan 19, 2021

Domaine René Leclerc, Gevrey-Chambertin (Côte de Nuits, Burgundy, France) Clos Prieur 2018

($77, Jeanne-Marie de Champs Selection):  The Clos Prieur vineyard, which is just across the road from Mazi-Chambertin, a Grand Cru, covers two appellations.  The upper part is Premier Cru and lower part carries a village appellation.  But once again, producer can trump geography.  René Leclerc’s village Clos Prieur has more style and substance than many producers’ premier crus.  It is classic Gevrey, with a mixture of leather and dark fruit-like flavors.  Succulent, but not just fruity by any means, it offers plenty of intriguing savory flavor in a bright and balanced package.  Excellent acidity in the finish amplifies its appeal.  Open now and capture its charms or cellar for five plus years.
93 Michael Apstein Jan 19, 2021

Château de la Maltroye, Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Clos du Château de la Maltroye 2018

($80, Jeanne-Marie de Champs Selection):  This 2018 Clos du Château de la Maltroye, a monopole of the Château de la Maltroye, is one of the best red wines from Chassagne-Montrachet I’ve ever had.  It’s the epitome of power and grace.  Savory elements complement gorgeous dark fruity ones.  It has plenty of structure and vivacity, something not all wines have in 2018, but not a trace of aggressiveness in the tannins.  It has great finesse, not a character I often find in the reds of Chassagne.  It’s hard to resist its charms now, but its balance and my experience with the producer suggests that you will be amply rewarded by cellaring it for a decade.
96 Michael Apstein Jan 19, 2021

Gilles Lafouge, Auxey-Duresses 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Les Duresses Jeanne-Marie de Champs Selection 2018

($43):  With prices of Burgundy having gone through the roof, it’s a delight to find one that’s affordable, at least by Burgundy standards.  As I’ve long maintained, villages off the beaten path, such as Auxey-Duresses which sits behind Meursault, and talented producers who, for whatever reason, have never gotten the praise they deserve, like Gilles Lafouge, is the combination consumers should seek out.  Les Duresses is the village’s best vineyard, which is why its name has been appended to the village’s original name.  I tasted a barrel sample about 15 months ago in their cellars and loved it.  Now that it’s been bottled, it’s even better.  Its lovely firmness and bright cherry-like fruitiness show that Lafouge avoided the potential for over ripeness in 2018.   It’s glossy and long with minerals complementing its fruitiness.  Quintessential Burgundy, it’s filled with charm, is light as a feather, yet full of flavor.  Though you can safely buy any of Lafouge’s wines, this 1er cru from Auxey-Duresses is a star.
93 Michael Apstein Jan 19, 2021

A Guiltless Way to Enjoy Sauternes

I love Sauternes, but rarely drink that sweet wine.  One reason is that the classic combination of foie gras and Sauternes hardly ever comes up these days.  But the major reason is that a little goes a long way.  One glass as dessert is divine.  Two is overkill.  I relish Sauternes with cheese, most of which go far better with sweet wine than with red wine, but am reluctant to open and then potentially waste the remainder of a 750-ml bottle, or even a 375-ml half-bottle, just to have a glass.  But what if you needn’t discard the rest of the bottle?  What if you could indulge and have that small glass of Sauternes whenever you wanted without having to invest in a Coravin®?  What if just recorking the bottle and refrigerating it would allow you to have another glass a few days later?  There would be no guilt in opening—and not finishing—that half-bottle of 1990 Château Rieussec you’ve been cellaring.  The scientist in me said, “Let’s do an experiment to find out.”

But first, a word or two about Sauternes, a region in Bordeaux that transforms Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon into a sweet yet vibrant wine.  Usually, the blend is about 80 percent Sémillon and the remainder Sauvignon with a few producers using small amounts of a third allowable grape, Muscadelle.  In this part of Bordeaux conditions are perfect for the grapes to be attacked by a fungus, Botrytis cinera, often referred to as the “noble rot.”  The fungus punches tiny holes in the grapes, dehydrating them, which in turn, concentrates the grapes’ sugar and, very importantly, their acids.  Unfortunately, the grapes are infected haphazardly, forcing harvesters to pass through the vineyards several times to collect only the fungus-affected bunches.

The prolonged harvest combined with reduced yields from dehydration increases the cost of producing these wines.  Yet, despite that, Sauternes remain under-priced for their quality, precisely because of lower demand.  The affected grapes are fermented normally.  There is no pre-fermentation drying of grapes as there is in some parts of the world where other sweet wines are made.  Fermentation stops before all of the sugar has been converted to alcohol, typically resulting in wines with around 14 percent alcohol, up to 100 grams/liter of residual sugar, and higher than usual acidity.  Indeed, it’s the acidity that’s key, balancing the wine and preventing it from being cloying.  In my mind, the grandeur of Sauternes rests with its vibrancy, not its sweetness.

Now, the experiment.  Several years ago, I purchased six half-bottles of 2005 Château Coutet, which have rested quietly in my cellar.  Every night for six nights, I opened a new half-bottle.  I poured a small glass for my wife and myself, dated the bottle, but obscured the date with masking tape, re-corked it and placed it in our very cold (34ºF) refrigerator.  On the sixth night my wife and I tasted all six bottles without knowing when each had been opened to see if we could discern any differences among the wines.

In normal times, a group of tasters would have joined us for this blind tasting, but with COVID-19 in full force in Massachusetts, that was not possible.  Instead, I brought the blinded bottles to Fred Ek, another experienced taster, and asked him to rank his preferences.  Fred has more than 50 years in the wine business as a retailer, importer, and broker, having introduced Americans to the wines of Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Domaines des Baumard, and Maison Guigal, to name just three.

After un-blinding the bottles, two results stood out.  First, all of the wines—remember these are 15-year old Sauternes in half-bottles—were enjoyable with lovely apricot-y notes and brilliant acidity, and that includes the one opened six days earlier.  I’d happily drink any of them with cheese or as dessert.  Secondly, none of our rankings correlated with how long the bottle had been open.  Though both Fred and I identified correctly the wine that had been opened most recently, it was neither his nor my first choice.

A venerable estate, Château Coutet is one of only 11 properties classified as a Premier Cru in 1855 Classification of Sauternes.  It is located in Barsac, one of the five communes entitled to the Sauternes appellation.  (The other four are Sauternes, Bommes, Fargues and Preignac.)  Barsac is the only one with its own appellation, which producers can use in place of Sauternes.  Wines from Barsac tend to be livelier than the wines from the other communes, so perhaps that gave Coutet an edge in holding up nicely after being opened and recorked.

Would the same result hold true for a Sauternes from a commune known for more opulent wines?  I purchased six half-bottles of 2010 Château Raymond-Lafon, a non-classified but highly respected property located in the commune of Sauternes itself and repeated the experiment.  This time, to test the limits further, I opened a bottle every two or three days and then, as with the Château Coutet, tasted all six blindly at the end of the two weeks.  Peter Holt, who was wine director for 30 years at the now-closed and much-missed Anthony’s Pier 4, the legendary restaurant that had one of Boston’s greatest wine lists, acted as another judge.  Peter, it hardly needs to be said, has a long and vast experience tasting and evaluating Sauternes.  The results of this tasting were similar to those of the Coutet tasting.  All the wines were uplifting and balanced, even the one that had been opened for twelve days.  They were all lush and fresh, though less racy than Coutet.  Again, each of our rankings—Peter’s, my wife’s and mine—bore no relation to the length of time the bottle had been opened.

There are many potential explanations for the longevity of Sauternes after the bottle has been opened.  An obvious one, for which I could find no evidence, is that sugar acts as an antioxidant.  Alternatively, since these 10- and 15-year-old wines in half-bottles had already undergone the usual and expected oxidation during normal aging, perhaps additional oxidation from being opened for a few days was, as they say, lost in the round-off.  The answer could simply lie with the noble rot.  It is reasonable to think that something the fungus imparts to the wine—or perhaps the fungus itself—acts as an antioxidant, much like lees act as an antioxidant during fermentation and aging of dry wines, and keeps the wine fresh even after the bottle has been opened for two weeks.

We in the scientific community would call the results of this experiment preliminary, meaning that they need to be verified by others.  I suggest that you, the consumer, start the process of verification by opening a bottle—or half-bottle—of Sauternes, having a glass, re-corking it, and discovering how long it remains vibrant in your refrigerator.  My guess is you’ll have finished the bottle long before you would have thrown it out.

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By Michael Apstein
Jan 12, 2021

E-mail me your thoughts about Sauternes or anything else at and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein

Changes and Consistency at Merry Edwards

Changes abound at Merry Edwards Winery, one of California’s leading Pinot Noir producers.  In 2019, Louis Roederer, the Champagne house, purchased the winery, adding it to their already impressive group of California properties.  With the 2018 vintage, Heidi von der Mehden took over from Merry Edwards herself as winemaker after working with her since 2015.  What hasn’t changed is the stunning quality of the wines.

Though responsible for the entire lineup of 2018s, Von der Mehden’s talents were clearly apparent earlier with the Bucher Pinot Noir.  She has been responsible for that wine since it was first added to the Merry Edward’s Pinot Noir portfolio with the 2016 vintage.  Though I didn’t taste that initial bottling, I reviewed the 2017 Bucher (93 pts) last year: “The 2017, a large-framed Pinot Noir, combines ripe black fruit notes with fabulous acidity that keeps it fresh and lively.  Not overdone, it carries the 14.5 percent stated-alcohol seamlessly.  Underneath the fruit lies an intriguing and balancing mineral-like tarriness.  A delightful hint of bitterness in the finish reinforces that this wine, as juicy as it is, is not solely about fruit.  Refined tannins made it hard to resist now.”

The 2018 Pinot Noirs are equally impressive.

The 2018 Sonoma Coast bottling displays bright and lively red fruit character with savory nuances and a welcome hint of bitterness in the finish.  It’s a “high-toned,” leaner style of Pinot Noir that superbly reflects the cool coastal influences (91; $54).  It makes a wonderful contrast with the riper and deeper 2018 Russian River Valley bottling, whose fruit comes from a variety of vineyards in that warmer AVA.  A weightier wine with black, rather than red, fruit, the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is juicy and well within bounds despite a 14.5 percent-stated alcohol.  It also has that alluring bitterness in the finish (92; $60).

The three single vineyard bottlings continue to show the importance of site: Same vintage, same grape, same winemaker, but three different wines, all of which are superb.

The floral 2018 Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir displays a gorgeous layered complexity, with minerality and dark fruitiness intertwined.  It conveys far more mineral-like nuances than the Russian River Valley, reflecting the focus of a single vineyard.  Heft and intensity without being over the top, coupled with suave tannins and an engaging bitterness in the finish, make it hard to resist now (94; $73).

The dark and brooding 2018 Olivet Lane is amazingly refined, especially considering its concentration.  Less floral and fragrant than the Klopp Ranch, it expands and explodes as it sits in the glass.  Initially, black fruit flavors predominate, but with air and time, savory notes appear and take over.  Merry Edwards’ signature suaveness amplifies its appeal.  Though plush and powerful, it is not heavy nor overdone (96; $72).

Unlike its two stablemates, the youthful 2018 Meredith Estate displays toasty oak flavors and little else initially.  But, befitting a youthful, tightly wound wine, its considerable charms emerge with time in a glass.  Denser and more concentrated than the other two, it remains balanced and within bounds.  Under the new team, Merry Edwards continues to avoid the overdone, “Pinot Syrah” style.  Similar to their other 2018s, its grandeur is apparent in an intriguing dark cherry-like hint of bitterness in the exceptionally long finish.  The 2018 Meredith Estate needs a few years to come together, as I’m sure it will, judging from previous vintages (96; $80).

Thankfully, it appears that there’s no change in style despite new ownership and a new winemaker at Merry Edwards.  Their Pinot Noirs remain bold, yet balanced, expressions of that grape, not Burgundy wannabes.
Posted by Michael Apstein on January 6, 2021 at 6:46 PM

Merry Edwards Winery, Sonoma Coast (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir 2018

($54):  Changes abound at Merry Edwards Winery, one of California’s leading Pinot Noir producers.  In 2019, Louis Roederer, the Champagne house, purchased the winery.  With the 2018 vintage, Heidi von der Mehden, who worked with Merry Edwards since 2015, took the reins as winemaker.  As these reviews show, the stunning quality of the wines remains the same.  The 2018 Sonoma Coast bottling displays bright and lively red fruit character with savory nuances and a welcome hint of bitterness in the finish.  It’s a “high-toned,” leaner style Pinot Noir that superbly reflects the cool coastal influences.
91 Michael Apstein Jan 5, 2021

Sullivan Rutherford Estate, Rutherford, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon Estate 2017

($110):   This is, in a word, a powerhouse.  But along with all the deep black fruit there’s an appealing tar-like mineral and earthy component.  Substantial but not intrusive tannins support the blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (87 percent) and Petit Verdot.  A youthful wine, it needs to sit in the glass to appreciate its complexity.  Initially, its power is awkward.  But with time in the glass it reveals itself.  Savory notes — black olives — emerge.  It’s a big, concentrated wine, focused on grabbing your attention, but, with time, plenty of complexity emerges, befitting a young wine.  It finishes with an appealing hint of bitterness that reinforces that it’s not just about fruit flavors, though there are plenty of those.  Its 14.8 percent stated-alcohol is noticeable by a touch of heat in the finish.  Those looking for subtle elegance in their Cabernet need to look elsewhere.  But if what you want is bold Cabernet to go with a grilled steak, here it is.
93 Michael Apstein Jan 5, 2021

Merry Edwards Winery, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir 2018

($60):  The riper and deeper Merry Edwards Russian River Valley bottling, whose fruit comes from a variety of vineyards in that warmer AVA, is a fascinating contrast to their Sonoma Coast bottling.  A weightier wine with black rather than red fruit tones, the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is juicy and well within bounds despite a 14.5 percent-stated alcohol.  It also has an alluring bitterness in the finish.
92 Michael Apstein Jan 5, 2021

Merry Edwards Winery, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Klopp Ranch 2018

($73):  The floral 2018 Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir displays a gorgeous, layered complexity, with minerality and dark fruitiness intertwined.  It conveys far more mineral-like nuances than the Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Pinot, reflecting the focus of a single vineyard.  Hefty intensity without being over the top coupled with suave tannins and an engaging bitterness in the finish make it hard to resist now.
94 Michael Apstein Jan 5, 2021

Merry Edwards Winery, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Meredith Estate 2018

($80):  Unlike the Merry Edwards Klopp Ranch and Olivet Lane Pinot Noirs, the youthful 2018 Meredith Estate displays toasty oak flavors but little else initially.  However, befitting a youthful, tightly wound wine, its considerable charms emerge over time.  Denser and more concentrated than the other two, it remains balanced and within bounds.  Under the new team, Merry Edwards continues to avoid the overdone, “Pinot Syrah” style.  Similar to their other 2018s, its grandeur is apparent in an intriguing dark cherry-like hint of bitterness in the exceptionally long finish.  The 2018 Meredith Estate Pinot needs a few years to come together, as I’m sure it will, judging from my experience with previous vintages.
96 Michael Apstein Jan 5, 2021

Merry Edwards Winery, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Olivet Lane 2018

($72):  The dark and brooding 2018 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir is amazingly refined, especially considering its concentration.  Less floral and fragrant than the Klopp Ranch, it expands and explodes as it sits in the glass.  Initially, black fruit flavors predominate, but with air and time, savory notes appear and take over.  Merry Edwards’ signature suaveness amplifies its appeal.   Though plush and powerful, it is not heavy or overdone.
96 Michael Apstein Jan 5, 2021

Jean Féray et Fils, Savigny-les-Beaune (Burgundy, France) “Sous La Cabotte” 2018

($40, Jeanne-Marie de Champs Selection):   The 2018 vintages produced some charming red Burgundies, some of which, such as this one, are delicious now.  Féray’s has wonderful depth for a village wine, reflecting the ripeness of the grapes due to the warmth of the vintage.  Good acidity keeps it fresh and balances its red fruit-like fruitiness.  It blossoms as it sits in the glass.  It has the requisite balance to develop with bottle age, but I suspect you won’t have the patience to wait, especially if there is a roast chicken about to emerge from the oven.
91 Michael Apstein Jan 5, 2021

Catena Zapata, Mendoza (Argentina) “Nicolás Catena Zapata” 2016

($99, Winebow):  There is no question that the Catena family is among the leading producers in Argentina — and perhaps the single leader of the pack.  Nicolás Catena brought Argentine wines into the modern area by discovering what is universally accepted now: planting vines at higher altitudes in warm climates reduces the likelihood of harvesting over ripe grapes and making jammy wines.  This wine, their flagship, ranks with the great wines of the world.  Both powerful and suave, it’s a joy to taste — and drink — even at its youthful age.  It is intense, yet not heavy or overdone.  Floral and fresh, a wonderful mix of mineral-like flavors intertwine with fruity ones.  Nothing stands out, yet the wine is outstanding.  Its glorious texture reveals the care that must have gone into selecting the grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon (61%), Malbec (31%) and Cabernet Franc, which come from three vineyards, the youngest of which was planted 25 years ago.  The modest 13.6 percent stated-alcohol shows just how right Catena’s decision to plant at higher elevations was.  And it reminds us that you don’t need super ripe grapes to make a super wine.  What is baffling is why they insist on the over-sized bottle, which empty weighs 50 percent more than an empty bottle of Lafite Rothschild.  Nicolás Catena Zapata speaks volumes by itself.  Like the Lafite, it needs no pretentious packaging.
97 Michael Apstein Jan 5, 2021

Champagne Devaux, Champagne (France) “Augusta” Brut NV

($40, Seaview Imports):  The Augusta refers to Augusta-Maria Herbin, Devaux’s wife, another widow of Champagne, who led the firm from 1879 to 1895.  Family ownership ended in 1987, when, according to their website, it passed to the Union Auboise, now Groupe Vinicole Champagne Devaux, a co-operative.  There are 22 coops in Champagne, accounting for over a third of all the wine pressed there, according to the Comité Champagne, the trade group that represents all of the growers and producers.  Coops, unfairly in my view, have a poor reputation.  Indeed, they often are the place to find value, since they have the ability to produce many wines of differing quality.  Take this one, for example.  Champagne Devaux is the coop’s flagship wine.  Most of the wine comes from the 2016 vintage with 20 percent reserve wine (older vintages) rounding out the blend.  A blend of Pinot Noir (80 percent) and Chardonnay, it delivers both power and elegance. Its engaging roundness allows you to enjoy it on its own before dinner, but its intensity and length means it’s fine at the table with, say, grilled swordfish.
92 Michael Apstein Dec 29, 2020

Charles Heidsieck, Champagne (France) “Réserve” Brut NV

($69, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  This is a fabulously complex and elegant Champagne. Yes, it’s pricey for a non-vintage Champagne, but I think it’s worth it.  The website says that their non-vintage wine is an equal blend of all three varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, that has been aged on the lees for three years.  The back label explains that reserve wines, the average age of which is 10 years, comprise 40 percent of the blend.  That fact alone helps explain why it is so grand a Champagne.  And, believe me, it is grand.  Both suave and powerful, it has an almost never-ending finish.  For all its intensity, it’s incredibly elegant.
95 Michael Apstein Dec 29, 2020

Naumes Family Vineyards, Rouge Valley (Oregon) Pinot Noir Estate, “Pommard Clone” 2017

($40):  If the Naumes Pinot Noir Clone 667 was the weight-lifter, this one is the ballerina.  Light in color and on the palate, it dances on the palate.  It’s a captivating lighter style of Pinot Noir.  If you prefer the Clone 667, you won’t be enthralled by this one and vice-versa.  I’m enthralled by both because it shows that clones matter.
90 Michael Apstein Dec 22, 2020

Naumes Family Vineyards, Rouge Valley (Oregon) Pinot Noir Estate, “Clone 667” 2017

($40):  I won’t get into the scientific definition of a clone as it relates to grape varieties.  Suffice it to say that in this case it’s a Pinot Noir with unique qualities.  The wine certainly is very different from their blended Pinot Noir, showing more fruit, more concentration and fewer earthy flavors.  In short, those who prefer more muscular Pinot Noir will embrace it.
90 Michael Apstein Dec 22, 2020

Naumes Family Vineyards, Rouge Valley (Oregon) Malbec 2017

($35):   Full disclosure: Malbec is not my favorite wine because too often it is just a big monotonic red wine.  So, I was shocked when I tasted this one.  There’s lots going on — fruit, to be sure, but smokey and earthy nuances peek out as well.  Uplifting acidity keeps you coming back for more.  Glossy tannins are especially appealing and allow you to enjoy it now.
93 Michael Apstein Dec 22, 2020

Château des Jacques, Moulin-à-Vent (Beaujolais, France) 2017

($26, Kobrand Wine & Spirits):  Beaujolais is still trying to remind people it produces real, top-notch wine, not just “nouveau.”  Well, Jadot’s Château des Jacques is a convincing exhibit.  For over 20 years, Château des Jacques has been instrumental in showing the diversity of wines from within the crus of Beaujolais, those ten named villages, such as Moulin-à-Vent, whose wines are so distinctive that they may not even carry the name Beaujolais on the label.  Château des Jacques makes up to six single-vineyard Moulin-à-Vent depending on the vintage as well as this one, a blend from their eight vineyards.  (Two of those eight are not bottled separately.)  The 2017 Château des Jacques is a terrific example of the heights Beaujolais can reach when the producer takes the area seriously.  Though the first impression an appealing floral character, its focus is on minerals, not fruit, though dark fruit flavors are present.  Firm, yet suavely textured, it is a fresh and lively wine.  It finishes with an attractive hint of bitterness, making it perfect for current consumption with a mushroom laded roast chicken.  It’s quite the bargain.
93 Michael Apstein Dec 22, 2020

Gallina de Piel, Ribeiro (Galicia, Spain) “Manar dos Seixas” 2018

($37, Bluest Sky Group):  Two sommeliers, one of whom, David Seijas, worked at El Bulli, named the best restaurant in the world five times by Restaurant magazine, founded Gallina de Piel (which transliterates as “chicken skin” from Spanish, the equivalent of “goose bumps” in colloquial English). They travel around Spain finding unique wines to bottle under that label.  It’s aptly named.  Their wines, especially this one, could induce that reaction.  Manar dos Seixas, an enlivening blend of typical Ribeiro grapes, Treixadura, Godello, Albariño, and Loureiro Blanco, is refreshing and startling—in a nice way.  It could give you goose bumps.  Saline and taut, it is piercing, yet not aggressive because it has wonderful concentration.  It finishes with a delightful and invigorating subtle bitterness.  This chiseled, angular wine screams for shellfish, but I wouldn’t be fussy.  Any fish, even a tomato-based fish stew, would do.
93 Michael Apstein Dec 15, 2020

Bodega del Abad, Bierzo DO (Castilla y León, Spain) Mencia “Abad Dom Bueno” 2016

($16):  Beirzo, located in the northwest corner of Castilla y León bordering Galicia and Asturias, is home to the Mencía grape, from which this wine is made.  With is weight and concentration, it’s a well-priced example of what that variety is capable of delivering.  A touch of oak still shows at this stage, but it is not intrusive nor overdone.  Tannins are noticeable, but not intrusive in this hearty wine, which is an easy choice for robust winter fare.
89 Michael Apstein Dec 15, 2020

Cecchi, Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) “Riserva di Famiglia” 2016

($48, Terlato):  Cecchi is one of the great names for Tuscan wines, especially Chianti Classico.  Combine their talents with a great vintage, like 2016, and, unsurprisingly, you have a truly fine wine.  It conveys both the charm and power of a Chianti Classico Riserva reinforced and amplified by great acidity, a characteristic of the vintage.  It reverberates in the finish.  Apparent, but not intrusive, tannins suggest it’s best left for a couple of years before uncorking it, though decanting it a couple of hours before serving is a reasonable alternative.
92 Michael Apstein Dec 15, 2020

Cecchi, Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione (Tuscany, Italy) “Valore di Famiglia” 2016

($65):  Gran Selezione is a relatively new category of Chianti Classico.  It sits at the pinnacle of the quality pyramid, above Riserva.  Regulations require, among other things, that the grapes come entirely from the producers’ vineyards — no purchased fruit is allowed — and that the wine must be aged for 30 months before release, compared to 24 months for Riserva.  Regulations aside, Gran Selezione should represent the producer’s best Chianti Classico.  In this case it does.  As much as I liked Cecchi’s Riserva di Famiglia, this Gran Selezione is just, in a word, better.  Not more powerful, it impresses with its elegance and glossy texture.  The tannins are very fine, almost inapparent, yet provide great structure. Its freshness and energy make it a joy to drink throughout the meal.  Just as Cecchi’s Riserva delivers charm and power, their Gran Selezione does so with suaveness and poise.
95 Michael Apstein Dec 15, 2020

Masciarelli, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva DOC (Italy) “Marina Cvetic” 2016

($27, Vintus):  Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has nothing to do with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.  The former is a grape, the latter a village whose wines, curiously enough, are made from Sangiovese.   The quality and price of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is vast, from thin swill to monumental wine, which makes it a mine field when selecting wines.  Masciarelli, one of the top producers, is a name you can trust.  This one, named after the founder’s wife, has a charming rusticity and good weight.  Not aggressive, this mid-weight wine combines black cherry nuances and spice, which makes it perfect for a sausage-based tomato sauce over pasta.
91 Michael Apstein Dec 15, 2020

Masciarelli, Colline Teramane DOCG (Abruzzo, Italy) “Marina Cvetic Iskra” 2015

($35, Vintus):  Colline Teramane is the sole DOCG (Italy’s highest wine category) in Abruzzo, and shows the heights the Montepulciano grape can achieve when planted in the right place by the right people.  This one, unsurprisingly, since it comes from Mascareilli, one of the region’s top producers, is stunning.  Its suave texture distinguishes it from wines labeled DOC Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, confirming the stature of the DOCG.  It has good power, but its suaveness is what holds your attention.  Great acidity keeps it fresh.  Lovely to drink now, this refined wine is best for a more refined meal.
93 Michael Apstein Dec 15, 2020

Claudie Jobard, Rully (Côte Chalonnaise, Burgundy, France) Montagne La Folie 2018

($27, Jeanne-Marie de Champs Selection): No doubt about it, this is a great wine.  People, my editor included, will be startled by my awarding 95 points to a village Rully, which just exemplifies the problem of numerical rating.  On an absolute scale, is this a 95 Point wine, comparable to a Grand Cru from the Côte d’Or?  Of course not.  But it is likely the best, or certainly among the best, village Rully I’ve ever tasted.  My friend and colleague, Robert Whitley, has the best definition of the point scale — it’s an applause meter, a way to describe how much you like a wine.  Well, using that definition, Jobard’s 2018 Rully “Montagne La Folie” is definitely a 95-point wine.  It has the quintessential stoney character of Rully with a touch extra ripeness (that’s the vintage speaking) and exceptional acidity, which gives it a sturdy backbone and a riveting and laser-like focus.  It’s wonderfully balanced, with a tension between a subtle creamy minerality and invigorating finish.  Lovely to drink now, it was even more expressive the next night after sitting open in the fridge, which bodes well for development and even more complexity as it ages over the next few years.  But, my bet is that it will not last that long in your cellar.  Oh, and by the way, did you note the price?  With current pricing and tariffs taken into account, this is an exceptional bargain.
95 Michael Apstein Dec 15, 2020

Domaine Bart, Marsannay (Côte de Nuits, Burgundy, France) Chardonnay Musqué Les Favières 2018

($35, Jeanne-Marie de Champs Selection):  Domaine Bart, one of my favorite producers, flies under the radar.  Even their stunning Bonnes Mares fails to get the accolades it deserves.  They are best known for their array of reds from Marsannay, a village whose wines may lack cachet, but in the right hands deliver spectacular quality at an easy-on-the wallet price.  And Bart is certainly one of the “right hands.”  They also make a little Marsannay white, from, in this case, a strain of Chardonnay called Musqué, which has an attractive, subtle Muscat-like perfume.  Bart’s 2018 has that floral quality that enhances its hint of fruity creaminess.  It has lovely almost pineapple-like chunky quality to it.  Good acidity amplifies its charms.  This white wine, a rarity from the red-predominant Côte de Nuits is perfect for drinking now.
91 Michael Apstein Dec 15, 2020

Gifts for Wine Lovers…or for Those Who Want to be Wine Lovers

At this time of the year, people can be understandably fearful of giving wine to their wine-loving or worse, wine-geek, friends.  So, here are some fail-safe suggestions, both vinous and educational.  Plus, an essential but inexpensive gift item that would be a perfect as a stocking stuffer.

Let’s start with the vinous.

Cognac and Sherry are, perhaps, the two categories that wine lovers know least well.  Even those who consume wine every night with dinner rarely drink Sherry or Cognac regularly.  So, you don’t need to worry about embarrassing yourself by giving a bottle of either.

Cognac is a distillate made from grapes grown in the Cognac region of France.  The three critical pieces of information on a Cognac label are the area from which the grapes came, the amount of aging, and, perhaps, most importantly, the producer.  Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne (no relation to the bubbly wine region) are the top two areas within the greater Cognac region.  On many labels, you’ll see the term Fine Champagne, which means the grapes came from a combination of the two areas, with Grande Champagne contributing more than half the blend.  I find Cognac from a lesser-known area, Borderies, that ranks just below Grande and Petite Champagne in prestige, particularly attractive because the best have a wonderful floral component.  They can be hard to find, but are worth the search.

The longer a Cognac has been aged, the smoother and more complex it is.  Those labeled VS (Very Special) and VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) have been aged for a minimum of two and four years, respectively.  The best for gifts are those labeled Napoléon and XO (Extra Old), which have been aged for a minimum of six and ten years, respectively because there are more refined than the younger Cognacs.  Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $200 a bottle.  Some prestige Cognacs, XXO (Extra Extra Old), Ancestral, and Hors d’âge (Beyond Aging) receive even greater aging, but are best left to the “one percenters.”

There are many great Cognac producers.  Courvoisier, Hennessey, Martell and Remy-Martin are the four largest and account for 90 percent of the market, by some estimates, which means they are widely available.  All of them make excellent Napoléon and XO Cognac that are easy to recommend.  Camus, a family-owned producer, makes an exceptional Borderies.  Other small producers whose Cognacs I enthusiastically recommend are Delamain, A. E. Dor, Ferraud, Frapin, Geffard, Paul Giraud, Hine, Peyrat, and Voyer.

Even Sherry aficionados have a difficult time explaining Palo Cortado, which makes a bottle from that category an easy choice.  The most useful definition for me comes from Javier Hidalgo, of the eponymous bodega that produces a stellar line of Sherry.   According to him, a Palo Cortado represents the “best barrels in the cellar.”  Originally, the story goes, these were barrels of fino that didn’t develop as anticipated, but were, nonetheless, delicious, unique and reserved for the family.  Think of them as an elegant and complex Amontillado.  After it became apparent that the family could drink only so much, these barrels were bottled and sold as Palo Cortado.  They will run $50 to $100, but, unlike table wine, a Palo Cortado does not need to be consumed in one sitting.  It can last open for weeks.  In addition to Hildago, look for one from Lustau or Williams and Humbert.

The choice of a wine book this year for your wine loving friend is, as the saying goes, a no-brainer.  Jane Anson’s Inside Bordeaux is simply spectacular.  She has the perfect credentials for writing this book: British by birth, Anson has lived in Bordeaux for close to two decades.  She has been the long-time Bordeaux correspondent for Decanter, the world’s more important wine magazine. Plus, she writes beautifully and, most importantly, is unequivocal in her assessments.

There have been plenty of great books about Bordeaux.  Look no further than Stephen Brook’s The Complete Bordeaux: The Wines, The Château, The People.  But Anson’s is different and unique.  In addition to the vast details of the individual properties, she focuses on the terroir of the appellations and on that of each of the château, so the reader has an insight into what makes them unique.  Of course, you learn lots about the now-out-of-my-price-range Classified Growths (who knew Lafite formerly made a white wine?).  But you also get jewels of recommendations of lesser known and affordable properties.

Take these in the section on the Haut-Médoc, “another best bet is the 17ha Ch. Meyre . . . the vines are in two areas with 13ha around the château on limestone with clay and sand, and another section closer to the Gironde river on a gravel outcrop” and further along “In the category of Great Unknown Bordeaux Wines is Ch. les Vimières. . .”

In the chapter on St-Estèphe, she advises that Ch Laffitte-Carcasset is a “good-value Cru Bourgeois.”  Only someone with Anson’s experience can give this kind of valuable and detailed advice about these less well-known estates.  The maps and illustrations are superb.  Turning the pages is a joy.  If you have even a passing interest in Bordeaux, you’re making a mistake by not owning this book. (Published by Berry Bros and Rudd Press and sold by Sotheby’s Wine in the USA, $80.)

I give similar high praise for Ian D’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy and his sequel, Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs.  You’d never know from his exquisite prose that D’Agata is a physician and molecular biologist by training.  With these books, he has produced two scholarly texts that are a great pleasure to read.  In Native Wine Grapes of Italy, he tells you where specific grapes are grown and, importantly, who are the top producers.  He’s not afraid to give his opinion either, as an excerpt from the section on Lambrusco shows: “After all that [people trashing Lambrusco], you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that Lambruscos were best forgotten, but there are thrilling Lambrusco wines to be had too; and not just lip-smacking delicious dry Lambrusco rosso and rosato, but great sweet ones too.  Wine snobs will sneer at the latter wines, but I don’t see the problem: if some fetishists prize fruitiness and sweetness in their wines above all else, who am I to argue?  And besides, I like those sweet wines too.”

In Native Wine Grape Terroirs, you learn about the differences among Barbera d’Alba, Barbera d’Asti and Barbera del Monferrato in a succinctly and clearly written single paragraph.  They are essential reference books for anyone interested in Italian wines.  Which book to buy? Frankly, I’d suggest both since they complement each other. (University of California Press, 2014 and 2019, respectively; each about $45).

The above-mentioned books are for the established wine lover.  For the wannabe or those just starting out, the 7th edition of Wine for Dummies by Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW and Ed McCarthy is a good place to start (Wiley Publishing, about $22).  In clear prose without a patronizing tone, the authors unravel what for many is an intimidating subject.  The reader gets an essential understanding of wine—what to expect from a given bottle—which gives them the framework and confidence to expand their knowledge on their own.  The book’s layout allows readers to return to learn more as they explore new categories of wine.  Full disclosure:  the authors are friends and colleagues here at Wine Review Online.  With that acknowledged, it’s a terrific book for anyone with a yearning to learn about wine.

There is no better beginners’ book about wine than Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course.  On its 35th edition and with over four million copies sold, it is the world’s best-selling wine book.  And with good reason—it’s fabulous.  Zraly is a superb teacher and his easy going, slightly irreverent at times, style is evident in his writing.  I guess my enthusiasm for his book is summarized best by the fact that I gave a copy to each of my daughters.  A perfect gift for students of finance or law who, sooner or later, will be handed a restaurant wine list when entertaining clients.

After the September 11th tragedy, Zraly moved his widely successful Windows on the World Wine Course to other locales.  With Covid-19, he’s adapted again and gone on-line with Zoom® format.  Regardless of the setting, his teaching is brilliant and entertaining.  In these one-hour classes, he explores a topic with four wines that are delivered in advance so during the class you taste along with him.  I took his one-hour Spanish class, found it entertaining and educational.  He has the rare ability to teach something to everyone, from novice to expert, during the same class, regardless of their level of experience.  The class fee is $50 with the four bottles adding between $100 and $150.  A gift certificate would make a great present. For more information go to

And now for the essential stocking stuffer:  A Champagne stopper.

It will transform the way you think of Champagne.  No longer it is a “special occasion” beverage, but rather a nightly aperitif.  You can spread the $50 cost of a bottle of Roederer NV Brut Premier over five nights, with a large, 5-ounce, glass a night.  Alternatively, you and companion can each enjoy a reasonable, 4-ounce, pour over three nights.

A Champagne stopper looks like an oversized bottle cap with short wings that clamp under the rim of any bottle of any kind of bubbly.  It allows you to re-stopper the bottle, maintaining the fizz, for another day.  It’s easy to use—both attaching and removing it from the bottle is a cinch.  It keeps the Champagne or sparkling wine fresh and bubbly for four or five days.   Don’t forget that if, by chance, the fizz is gone on day five, the still wine that remains is still fresh and ideal for deglazing a pan in place of white wine.  (About $10.)

*         *         *

E-mail me your thoughts about what you’re giving your wine friends this year at and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein

December 9, 2020

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Flax Vineyard 2017

($63):  One of the many attributes of Merry Edwards’ Pinot Noirs, is how different they taste.  Her range of vineyard-designated wines show the importance of site.  The 2017 Flax Vineyard Pinot Noir is almost at the opposite pole compared to the Bucher Vineyard.  Brooding and tightly wound, the 2017 Flax shows, when things finally emerge, more minerals and far less juicy fruit at this stage.  A more prominent, yet still engaging, bitterness appears in the finish reinforces the wine’s savory component.  Fine tannins and reflect the care and talent of the winemaking.  Reticent at this stage, it’s a delicious young wine.  Its impeccable balance predicts that it will evolve and blossom beautifully.  As an aside, it receives the same numerical score as the Bucher despite being entirely different, showing the inadequacy of numbers.
93 Michael Apstein Dec 8, 2020

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Bucher Vineyard 2017

($63):  The Bucher Vineyard Pinot Noir, a new addition to the Merry Edwards portfolio, could be considered Heidi von der Mehden’s “baby.”  Heidi, who took over as winemaker with the 2018 vintage, had been working with Merry Edwards since 2015 and was given the responsibility for making the 2016 Bucher Pinot Noir, their first.  The 2017, a large-framed Pinot Noir, combines ripe black fruit notes with fabulous acidity that keeps it fresh and lively.  Not overdone, it carries its 14.5 percent stated-alcohol seamlessly.  Underneath the fruit lies an intriguing and balancing mineral-like tarriness.   A delightful hint of bitterness in the finish reinforces that this wine, as juicy as it is, is not solely about fruit. Refined tannins made it hard to resist now.  This wine bodes well for von der Mehden’s talents.
93 Michael Apstein Dec 8, 2020

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Olivet Lane Vineyard 2017

($68):  First planted in 1973 by the Pellegrini family, the Olivet Lane Vineyard was one of the first in the Russian River Valley devoted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Merry Edwards has used Pinot Noir from Olivet Lane for a single-vineyard bottling since the founding of her winery in 1997.  Though I’ve always been a great fan of her Olivet Lane bottling, I think the 2017 is likely their best ever.  The 2017 Olivet Lane, like other Merry Edwards wines from that vintage, has vibrant acidity, which harmonizes perfectly with the wine’s power.  This energetic wine is like a combination of the Flax Vineyard and Bucher Vineyard, with the structure and minerality of the former and the charming fruitiness of the latter.  Plus, it has a wonderfully plush, velvet-like texture. Its long finish with an enticing hint of bitterness just adds to its appeal.  This is a riveting Pinot Noir — powerful, yet bright and energetic.
97 Michael Apstein Dec 8, 2020

Bodegas Pinea del Duero, Ribera del Duero (Spain) Tempranillo “Pinea” 2017

($150, WineSmith Company):  The packaging and verbiage, 14.9 percent stated alcohol, the over-sized 2.6-pound (empty) bottle and the back label informing that the wine was aged in” very special French oak” for two years, put me off.  But I remember how impressive their second wine, simply labeled “17” was.  And once again, just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a wine by its packaging.  This is a fabulous young wine from the Ribera del Duero, one of Spain’s greatest wine regions.  Dark, powerful and plush, the wine is not flamboyant or overdone.  Indeed, it’s wonderfully balanced, carrying the alcohol and the “very special French oak” effortlessly and without a trace of heat or woodiness.  Tightly wound, it gradually reveals its mineral-infused glory over time in the glass.  It’s more savory than fruity, though there’s plenty of the latter.  The tannins are barely noticeable because they are so fine and well-integrated.  Paradoxically, it’s powerful, yet reticent, and finishes with a delightful hint of bitterness, which, to me, is a hallmark of a great wine.  It’s one for the cellar, to be sure.  But it you can’t wait and your budget allows you to buy multiple bottles, open and decant one hours before you drink it with garlic-infused roasted leg of lamb this winter.
97 Michael Apstein Dec 8, 2020

Pazos de Rey, Monterrei DO (Galicia, Spain) Godello “Pazo de Monterrey” 2019

($15, Aviva Vino):    Do.  Not.  Miss.  This.  Wine.  Made from an obscure grape (but not for long), from an obscure region (also not for long), this wine is a bargain.  The small, relatively unknown Monterrei DO (pronounced—Mon-ter-rey) is located in the southern part of Galicia near the Portuguese border.  Think of the Godello grape as Chardonnay with an edge.  Pazos de Rey’s 2019 is racy and bright, more mineral-y than fruity, with a delightful hint of lush creaminess.
92 Michael Apstein Dec 8, 2020

Bodegas Caro, Mendoza (Argentina) “CARO” 2017

($60, Taub Family Selections):  The name of the bodega and its flagship wine comes from the first two letters of the last names of the principals involved in this collaborative effort: Nicolas Catena and Barons de (Lafite) Rothschild.  With those two wineries involved how could their flagship wine not be consistently sensational?  Of course, it is.  The 2017, a blend of roughly three-quarters Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, practically the reverse of the 2016 blend, is equally splendid, just in a different way.  Philippe Rolet, the Managing Director at Bodegas Caro, told me in an email that in warm dry vintages, such as 2017, the blend favors Malbec, whereas in cold humid years, which are far less common, such as 2016, Cabernet predominates.  In the 2017, waves of black fruit-like flavors caress the palate.  Hints of minerals emerge from underneath.  Its texture is suave, yet not soft.  The plushness, which I assume comes from Malbec, is supported nicely by a bit of firmness imparted by Cabernet.  It’s powerful, but balanced and not overdone.  Indeed, there’s a gracefulness to the wine.  Delicious now, its balance suggests it will develop nicely over time.
94 Michael Apstein Dec 8, 2020

Résonance, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Noir 2018

($35):  In 2013, the venerable Beaune-based négociant, Maison Louis Jadot, made their first acquisition outside of Burgundy when they purchased the 20-acre Resonance vineyard located in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA.  It was a unique site since it had been planted almost exclusively to Pinot Noir, and had always been farmed organically and without irrigation, according to Pierre-Henri Gagey, the President of Maison Louis Jadot.  They used name of the vineyard for the project, adding the accent over the first “e,” which has the potential for some confusion among consumers since now they make more than one wine.  They’ve gradually expanded by buying other vineyards and building a winery.  Their focus remains on Pinot Noir, with three separate bottlings, two single vineyard ones, one from the Résonance Vineyard and one from a more recently acquired site, Découverte Vineyard in nearby Dundee Hills AVA, and this one, a blend of their grapes and purchased ones from other sites in the Willamette Valley.  Think of this one as a négociant bottling as opposed to the other two, which are estate wines.  A more delicate style of Pinot Noir compared to ones from California, Résonance’s Willamette Valley bottling is fruit-focused at this stage.  A hint of savory notes — enticing herbal ones — emerge as it sits in the glass.  Fine tannins make it perfect for current consumption.
90 Michael Apstein Dec 1, 2020

Talbott Vineyards, Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County, California) Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Estate Grown 2017

($42):  David Coventry, the head winemaker at Talbott explained during a webinar in the excellent SommCon Geographical Digest Series (a collaboration between The Somm Journal and National Geographic), that the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is truly a cool climate area because of its proximity to the ocean.  The cooling influences are especially apparent at the northern end where the 565-acre Sleepy Hollow Vineyard is located.  This enormous vineyard, basically the size of all of Volnay in Burgundy, is an ideal local for Chardonnay because the cool climate allows the grapes to ripen slowly, accumulating flavor, and to maintain acidity, which translates into refreshing vivacity in the wine.  Talbott acquired the vineyard, which was originally planted in 1972, in 1994, after having made wine from its fruit for years. Their 2017 version displays a graceful creaminess mixed with lovely stone-y elements. Balanced, bright and not overwrought, it carries the 14.6 percent stated-alcohol beautifully, without a trace of heat in the finish.  The fine texture suggests oak aging, but there’s not a trace of oakiness in the wine.  This is a finesse-filled Chardonnay that demonstrates the importance of site.
93 Michael Apstein Dec 1, 2020

Charles Heidsieck, Champagne (France) Blanc de Blancs, Brut NV

($96, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  Charles Heidsieck is really on their game with their current releases.  The back label informs that the grapes came mainly from the Grand and Premier Cru villages, respectively, of Oger and Vertus in the Côte des Blancs, the region’s premier locale for Chardonnay.  This bottling contains 25 percent reserve wines, that is, wines from previous vintages that allow the winemaker to maintain quality and consistency of the blend.  The remainder of the blend came from the 2012 vintage.  It spent four years aging on the lees, which increases its complexity.  All of that explains why this non-vintage Blanc de Blancs is so riveting.  Steely, yet expansive, it blossoms on the palate and in the finish.  It demonstrates the elegance of Chardonnay.
94 Michael Apstein Dec 1, 2020

Charles Heidsieck, Champagne (France) Rosé Réserve NV

($87, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  Charles Heidsieck is a name to remember when buying Champagne.  For some bizarre reason, it seems to receive less buzz than many of the other major houses.  But that is changing under the Descours family ownership since 2011.  Four years on the lees (the back label notes it was laid down in 2013 and disgorged in 2017) and inclusion of 20 percent reserve wine that averages a decade of age helps explain the wow factor this rosé presents.  Both powerful and elegant, it displays wild strawberry-like flavors buttressed by a strong spine.  The long and graceful wine is perfect as an aperitif.  But it is also a show-stopper with the meal.
95 Michael Apstein Dec 1, 2020

Castello di Fonterutoli, Leading the Way

With the release of a trio of 2017 Gran Selezione wines, Castello di Fonterutoli is leading the way, showing the importance of terroir—site specificity—in Chianti Classico.  Chianti Classico producers have long proclaimed that there are major differences among the wines produced in the region’s nine subzones.  And it’s true that a Chianti Classico from Radda tastes different from a Chianti Classico from neighboring Castellina in Chianti.  But heretofore it’s been almost impossible to know whether the differences were really due to the subzone or to the producer’s style.  After all, when you taste a Chianti Classico made by Cecchi, whose base is in Castellina in Chianti, side-by-side with one made by Castello di Radda, whose vineyards lie in the Radda subzone, are you tasting the difference between producers or subzones?

Castello di Fonterutoli has eliminated that dilemma.  Though situated in the south eastern corner of Castellina in Chianti, Castello di Fonterutoli has vineyards in Radda and Castelnuovo Berardenga in addition to their home base.  They produced three wines in 2017, each of which comes from one of those subzones: Badiòla, a single-vineyard wine from Radda; Vicoregio 36, a single-vineyard bottling from Castelnuovo Berardenga; and Castello Fonterutoli, their flagship, a multi-vineyard blend, from Castellina in Chianti.  Thanks to Zoom® and their importer, Taub Family Selections, Giovanni Mazzei, Fonterutoli’s export manager, commented on the wines as a group of us tasted them side-by-side.

Before getting to the wines, here’s a little background.  Chianti Classico is the heart and most important subregion of the greater Chianti area, which extends from Florence to Siena in Tuscany.  “Gran Selezione” is a recently created category that sits at the pinnacle of the Chianti Classico quality pyramid, above Riserva.  It represents about six percent of Chianti Classico’s total production.  To put that into perspective, Burgundy’s Grand and Premier Cru wines account for 11 percent of that region’s production.  No stranger to Chianti Classico, the Mazzei family has owned Castello di Fonterutoli since 1435, which means that Giovanni represents the 25th generation.

Castello di Fonterutoli, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, “Badiòla” 2017 ($99, 93 pts):  Mazzei believes that the vineyard’s southern exposure and high elevation (almost 1900 feet above sea level) combines great sunlight with large diurnal temperature variation, the combination of which results in ripeness and freshness.  This finesse-filled wine delivers bright fresh red cherry-like notes mingled with mineral nuances.  It has the racy energy of Chianti Classico combined with great elegance supported by suave tannins.  Mazzei calls it a “vertical” wine.

Castello di Fonterutoli, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione “Castello Fonterutoli” 2017 ($74, 94 pts):  The grapes for Castello, as Mazzei calls it, come from 11 different plots around the hamlet of Fonterutoli.  Each plot is vinified separately, allowing precision in constructing the blend.  The 2017 is the first year the wine was made entirely from Sangiovese.  In the past, they included small amounts of Colorino and Malvasia Nera, but Mazzei noted that after 25 years of research with Sangiovese, they finally decided that was the way forward.  It’s slightly higher alcohol, 13.8% compared to 13.57% for the Badiòla, reflects just a touch more ripeness.  Indeed, the flavor profile tends toward darker cherry notes in this slightly weightier wine.  Suave tannins, a hallmark of all of wines from Castello di Fonterutoli, lend support.  It’s another racy and elegant wine.

Castello di Fonterutoli, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione “Vicoregio 36” 2017 ($99, 93 pts):  The Mazzei family planted 36 biotypes of Sangiovese in their Vicoregio vineyard in Castelnuovo Berardenga. Hence the name of the wine.  This one, the deepest of the trio, conveys black cherry-like flavors, bordering on plumy ones, reflecting the warmth of Castelnuovo Berardenga. Still, it retains incredible freshness and vibrancy.  Mazzei characterizes it as a “wider” wine compared to the “vertical” Badiòla.

Though the winemaking is not identical for the three wines, with oak aging varying slightly, and the age of the vines differing in the three subzones, the wines are all made entirely from Sangiovese and at the same winery.  Most critically, the winemaking philosophy is the same.  So, the differences among the wines reflect their respective subzones of Chianti Classico.

The wines can be purchased as a set of three.  This allows consumers to hold a tasting with a small group of friends, complying, of course, with local regulations regarding size of gatherings, to see for themselves how the wines from Chianti Classico, similar to Burgundy or Barolo, differ according to where the grapes grow.

Michael Apstein
November 26, 2020

Tamarack Cellars, Columbia Valley (Washington) “Firehouse Red” 2017

($20):  Given the blend, Syrah (33%), Cabernet Sauvignon (27%), Merlot (18%), Cabernet Franc (11%), Mourvèdre (3%), and 2% each of Grenache, Counoise, Sangiovese and Petit Verdot, they could have called it “Kitchen Sink Red.”  But it works.  Fruit flavors mix with savory ones.  Fine tannins make it lovely for current drinking and bright acidity keeps it interesting throughout a meal.  Thankfully, it does not finish sweet.  The world needs more $20 wines that deliver this kind of pleasure.
88 Michael Apstein Nov 24, 2020

Mullan Road Cellars, Columbia Valley (Washington) Red Wine Blend 2016

($45):  Unsurprisingly, wine webinars in the era of Covid-19 are hit or miss.  One that I highly recommend is the SommCon Geographical Digest Series, a collaboration between The Somm Journal and National Geographic, during which I tasted this wine, which was previously unknown to me.  Founded in 2012 by Dennis Cakebread of the family that started Cakebread Cellars in Napa Valley almost 50 years ago, Mullan Road Cellars makes one wine, a Bordeaux blend.  The precise components of the blend change year to year, as they do in Bordeaux, depending on how each variety fares during the growing season.  The 2016, a seamless blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (51%), Merlot (29%) and Cabernet Franc, delivers enchanting savory aromas — olives and herbs — which follow on the palate.  Fruit flavors emerge, but do not predominate.  Waves of flavor cascade on the palate as the wine opens. Simultaneously refined and powerful, it is not overdone.  There’s a delightful hint of bitterness in the finish that reminds you this is a serious wine.  It would be twice the price if it carried a Napa Valley appellation, but since wines from Washington lack Napa’s cachet, it’s a bargain for what it delivers.  Don’t miss it.
95 Michael Apstein Nov 24, 2020

Domaine du Château de Messey, Mâcon Cruzille (Mâconnais, Burgundy, France) Clos des Avoueries 2017

($39, Seaview Imports):  The Mâconnais is becoming to “go-to” place for affordable white Burgundy.  The region has three tiers, which, in ascending order of prestige, are Macon, Macon-Villages, and, at the top, Macon with the name of a village, such as Cruzille, appended to it.  The area has seen an influx of top Burgundy producers and the quality of the white wines has sky rocketed, especially those coming from the 27 villages allowed to attach their name.  This is an area to know for straight forward Chardonnay-based white wines, such as this one, that remain under-valued.  This single-vineyard bottling from the Domaine du Château de Messey is both creamy and stoney.  Paradoxically, it both subtle and penetrating with a hint of smokiness in the finish.  Not an opulent New World-style of Chardonnay, this one is cutting, invigorating and refined.
92 Michael Apstein Nov 24, 2020

Domaine Antonin Guyon, Gevrey-Chambertin (Burgundy, France) “La Justice” 2017

($85, Taub Family Selections):  Domaine Antonin Guyon is a name you can trust.  They make incredibly consistent wines from Grand Cru to their village wines, such as this one, that lies on the wrong side of the road.  La Justice is one of the rare vineyards that lies on the eastern side of the RN974, the main north-south road in Burgundy, to be awarded a village designation instead of just a regional appellation.  Its breeding is immediately apparent with its finesse and persistence.  Not a boisterous wine, it conveys a delicate savory character and a long, explosive finish.  It’s one of the 2017s that’s approachable — really charming — now.
92 Michael Apstein Nov 24, 2020