Gino & Rhoda’s 10 memorable bottles

Merry Christmas to all! Friend of the vine and wine author Rhoda Stewart of Napa and I thought it timely to present notes on our 10 most memorable wines. We hope you find our findings interesting and enjoyable. Take it away Rhoda!

Memorable wines are rarely the most expensive ones you’ve ever drunk or the most famous. They are more often memorable because of the occasion they were served for and the company you were with for that occasion as well as the food they were served with. These wines are well made, balanced, interesting, and adequately aged. I’m not talking mediocrity here.

My most memorable wines come from California, the EU, and Canada. None of them costs more than about $60; the least expensive cost just under $10. Having spent several years of my life researching, tasting, and writing about Zinfandel from all regions of California as well as northern Baja, a Zinfandel has to rank among my most memorable. But which one??

The wine that ultimately comes to mind is Ridge Vineyards 1991 Pagani Vineyard Zinfandel. I had been attracted to the sheer beauty of this vineyard several years earlier while on a photography sojourn through Sonoma Valley.

When through happy coincidence Paul Draper, Ridge’s winemaker, invited me to join him for lunch with a new Sonoma Valley grower in spring of 1993, and taste a barrel sample of the 1991, I felt a thrill of excitement. I was sure this would be the owner of that magnificent vineyard that I had many photos of. And it was. We met at the Golden Bear Restaurant in Kenwood for lunch, and I had the exquisite pleasure of trying Ridge’s first Pagani Vineyard vintage with a menu designed to complement this Zinfandel.

My second memorable California wine is the 2003 Latcham/Granite Springs Amador country Barbera. On a guided tasting tour of El Dorado County wines with Les Russell, founder of Granite Springs Winery, we stopped in at Latcham Winery, who had bought Granite Springs when Russell was ready to give it up following the death of his wife. As partial as I am to the El Dorado Zinfandels, it was Latcham’s Amador County Barbera that stole the show for me that day.

With a deep garnet purple color, bewitching aromas of black currants, black berries, plums, and rich spices, followed by a succulent flavors and a velvety texture unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, it was a wine to set you dreaming.

So I bought a half-case and in January 2006, took one of the two remaining bottles with me to Victoria, Canada, to celebrate the New Year with a couple of my favorite cousins. When I opened the bottle and poured out the wine before dinner that quiet late afternoon in the seaside village where we all met, conversation stopped. It was a wine to savor in silence. And a wine I still dream of.

Although France is famous for its Bordeaux (Gino’s favorite red blends) and Burgundian wines, it is a Madiran from the French Basque region that I seek out each time I am in a French wine store or restaurant. Introduced to me in a French Basque caf during my first visit to Paris in 1999, I was smitten.

In 2006, I had opportunity to buy a 1995 Cuv e Prestige by Chateau Montus in a Paris wine store for 38 Euros. This wine I shared with my neighbors upon my return. Made primarily from the Tannat grape, Madirans definitely need a few years’ bottle age to soften the rather pronounced tannins and give the luscious dark berry fruit some time to blend in with the dominant tannin structure. But when it’s had that time, Ch teau Montus Cuv e Prestige Madiran is a wine to behold. With each bottle of Madiran, I relive my first visit to Paris.

At the low end of the price scale, but not the low end of enjoyableness, are the Sicilian Nero d’Avolas, a red wine grape of the region. I encountered these wines at a recent VinItaly Tasting in San Francisco. Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2007 is one label currently available at under $10.

Being a Canadian, I have followed the evolution of Canadian wines since the mid-1980s from rather awful slightly sweet wines of the 1960s and 1970s, which were made mostly from over-cropped vinifera hybrids, to exquisite world-class wines since the 1980s, thanks to the establishment of the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), a protocol for quality assurance of Canadian wines.

One of my most memorable Canadian wines is VQA Chardonnay from Hidden Bench, an artisan winery on the Beamsville Bench of the Niagara region. Hidden Bench wines made by its French-speaking Quebec-born winemaker are all estate grown, and are bottled under the Hidden Bench label only in the best years. It produces three tiers of Chardonnays, and at the end of my first visit to this lovely little winery, I chose the mid-tier for $40 (CDN) to take home with me. When I poured it for some friends with Canadian connections back here in Napa a few months later, they joined me in declaring it a Chardonnay to make a Canadian heart proud.

In an interview with Kermit Lynch, owner of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, Berkeley, he emphasized this point: “I think a lot of people, not in France, not in Italy, but in California and maybe the rest of the U.S. think that price is a score; that a $300 bottle of wine is better than a $100 a bottle,” Lynch said. “That’s completely false. Price is no reflection of quality. You can get such good wines for cheap.”

Gino’s favorites include:

Chateau Ausone 2005 is my all-time favorite. This is one of only two Bordeaux estates, along with Chateau Cheval Blanc to be ranked as Premier Grand Cru Classe in Saint- milion appellation. I toured Ch Ausone in 2006 for tasting evaluation of 2005 Bordeaux wines with California journalists and retailers. Thanks to my French winemaking friend Marc Lurton, I was introduced to winemaker Alain Vauthier. The Vauthier family is the owner of the estate which is located close to the town of Saint-Emilion.

Only three families have been the owners of the current prestigious estate of Ausone in St milion: The Lescours family from the 13th to the 16th centuries, Jacques de Lescure and his heirs in the 17th century, the Chatonnet-Cantenat family from the end of the 17th century and the Dubois-Challon-Vauthier family who are of the same descent.

With an anticipated maturity of 2030-2080, we tasted this Robert Parker 100 point-rated (Cabernet Franc / Merlot) Bordeaux in spring 2006 from the barrel. Definitely a highly sought after bottle today. Marc describes 2005 as “the vintage of the Century”, where the best of Bordeaux produced truly “great” wines.

Chateau Cheval Blanc, which dates back to the 1830s, is located on the right bank of the Gironde River. Although Saint- milion is mainly Merlot country, Cheval Blanc normally contains a high percentage of Cabernet Franc. Marc’s brother Pierre Lurton is the general manager of this estate and was our host and shared with us a few bottles including 1968, 1986, 1990 and 2000. The 2005 was from the barrel and my second most memorable. Experts claim that the 1947 Cheval Blanc was the greatest of all wines produced.

Marc’s brother also serves as general manager of Chateau d’Yquem. The Sauternes of Chateau d’Yquem are characterized by their complexity, concentration, sweetness and longevity. In a good vintage year, the wine will only begin to show its true qualities after a decade or two.

“The best d’Yquem is a 1920. The wine was brown and explosive on the nose. The taste was incredibly complex and good. My brother Pierre told me the 1845 is always excellent. I’d like to see that,” said Lurton. The 1997 was my favorite tasted.

My fourth favorite is from Chateau Reynier of Marc Lurton. Marc’s 2005 Heritage Cuvee – blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot offers excellent color with good acidity and incredible structure. All for under $20 retail.

I would be in error if I did not include the reds of Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District. The signature wine, Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon is one of California’s best. I was introduced to Shafer by Roger Jaska of Upland. Roger is a collector, consumer and enthusiastic friend of red wines. He shared his 1998, 1999 and 2002 with me and I was most grateful for the experience. He was also the inspiration for our winery to begin aging premium red wines in fine oak barrels. Do you have more Shafer bottles around the cellar, Rog?

Rhoda Stewart can be reached at rhodairis@prodigy.net Gino L. Filippi can be reached at ginoffvine@aol.com

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