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Clos de los Siete Red BlendDecember has so far been a cold, bleak, windy affair. No snow as of yet, and very little to recommend in terms of scenery. In fact, I would much rather go somewhere else entirely at this time of year. Some far country where I could forget about the artificial urgency of the holidays, truly kick back, and relax. New York winter weather makes me crave wines with opposing qualities: warm, lush, and full of cheer. Big, hearty numbers that shout “it’s time for STEAK, b****!” – or perhaps they’d shout something more mature, yet equally bold. Wines with hot bluster and tannin to match. And because I’m feeling the wallet crunch of the coming Christmas, I also want to enjoy wines that I know cost the makers many millions of dollars. Wine is a form of wealth redistribution I can get behind.

So let’s combine these elements: wine from a far country that has been really, really expensive to realize, but reaches we happy consumers with minimal pocket pinch. “Clos de los Siete” is of the more expensive wine projects in recent history, fitting all of my winter-and-I’m-depressed-tell-me-a-wine-story criteria. Headed by the star oenologist Michel Rolland, this effort focuses on expressing Argentinian terroir while sparing no expense in sourcing and vinifying high-quality grapes. We’re talking over 2000 acres of vines at 1,200 meters above sea level, right at the doorstep of the Andes mountains, turned into wine at seven wineries designed with extravagant attention to detail by master architects. Truly the kind of place where you’d expect fine wine to be made.

And so it is. The 2008 “Clos de los Siete,” the signature wine from this project, is blended personally by Michel Rolland every year, from painstakingly handpicked Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Petit Verdot. It’s a big wine, to be sure: a dark ruby red in the glass, with ripe aromas of plum, cassis, and saddle leather. In the mouth, more dark cherry and cassis fruit rage around like Lindsay Lohan on a road trip in the countryside, stomping all over hints of cedar and loam. In a good way. Finishes long, with definite grainy tannins that cloak your tongue; it could well benefit from a year or two more of bottle aging. While expensive to produce, “Clos de los Siete” will cost you only $20: good for breaking winter doldrums without breaking the bank. Begs for roast meats of any kind or caliber.

Back to civilization! Back from the serene shores of Eagle Lake; back down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. And what a vacation. Fantastic fishing, long hikes on old trails, camping in the icy cold. Gulping down delicious wines paired with grilled meats and outlandish fireside stories told by family I hadn’t seen for far too long…

Over the course of this past week, we drank many wonderful Napa and Sonoma wines, lush with their fruit and sometimes finesse. Such a wild trip, though, merits a wine of equal depth. Something grizzly, and potent, and strange. Full moon wine; celebratory wine. This crazy vacation made me crave my unabashedly favorite grape: Shiraz.

The only choice was the 2010 “Raw Power” Shiraz, produced by Dominique Torzi and Tim Freeland in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia. Punk rockers to the core, these guys work with small growers to get choice fruit at value, and roll out wines that showcase the intensity and rich fruit displayed by all good Shiraz. And, like a lot of things in life, its appearance is deceiving. “Raw Power” is a cheap plonk lookalike with real flavor and depth. Ideal for camping.

When I poured this wine into a glass, the color was a nice deep purple. Aromas of baked cherry pie, mushrooms and loam – serious earthiness here, all soft and mossy. More round berry fruit in the mouth, again that almost sensual texture, with hints of truffle, tobacco and cocoa. Supple tannins and just enough acidity to keep this fruit bomb from being flabby. Ridiculously good with barbecue, especially if you’re grilling over a wood fire in the mountains with family or friends. $13. Just buy a few cases and throw ’em in your Land Rover.

Once in a while I just want a red wine that makes me happy. Not too much to ask, right? On a day as fantastic as today, when life explodes with good fortune after a poor week, the one thing I ask from my wine is: make me grin. The ideal red grape would, for times of celebration, reliably demonstrate a few key qualities: Delicious dark fruit, emphasizing blackberry or plum. Some notes of earth, black pepper, and mocha. From Australia – specifically, Barossa.

Fine, a variety of red grapes do this all the time: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Sangiovese… but only Shiraz has that special mix of ebullient fruit and depth of flavor that keep me coming back for another whiff, another sip. Another bottle. Another case. Etc.

Chief contender this week would be the Australian winery, Yalumba. Yalumba has been making wine in the Barossa Valley since 1849. The word in Aboriginal means “all the land around,” and these winemakers really take advantage of Australian terroir. Great value all around, with numerous blends to satisfy a variety of palates and situations, especially if those situations involve a party.

The 2010 Yalumba Shiraz/Viognier blend, 80% Shiraz and 20% Viognier, captures the essence of what I enjoy in Australia wine. Lush, fruit-forward and bright without being brassy, this juice just sways in front of you. A near-purple red in the glass, with aromas of lychee, lavender and blackberry that land like cats into velvety plum and mocha cushions. Deliciously round, showing fine tannins and a firm structure, this Shiraz maintains a silky mouthfeel leading to a medium finish, hinting at oak. Buy a bottle and drink from a mason jar; pair with T-bone or braised short ribs. $12.

For Valentine’s Day, I’ve a short review of a red wine I haven’t been able to shake from my mind. A wine from Oregon, a region I briefly lived in as a youth. Only bought one bottle, and ever since I had it, I’ve wanted more. Love is so often like that, right? Those little things that stick with you – faint essences in the air, scents, hints of a special something, a special someone. As W.S. Merwin put it:

“Your absence has gone through me

Like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.”

But far from being melancholy about this longing, I rejoice daily in the inspiration that wine still gives me. I’ve always felt, in fact, that wine has been my only lasting love affair. Each glass makes me more enamored. The way to make this nagging stop is write it out, so…

Back when I lived in Oregon, I’d spend my summer days dashing around the hills, looking at the landscape in constant astonishment. Far different from anything else I’d known, and so wild… the wines reflect this wildness, I’ve found, across regions and across varietals. Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley – Oregon’s dominant red grape from its premier region – often shows a lovely mix of earthiness, gamy animal musk and floral delicacy… but the blackberry fruit beneath is so vibrant and fresh that you can’t stop coming back for another sip. I find this wildness to be the most compelling thing about Oregonian wine. But in wine, as in relationships, I also tend to look to the unusual. So, this post concerns a strange bird: the 2009 Rock Point River Rock Red, a Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Del Rio Vineyards, located just south of Walla Walla, the other important winemaking region in Oregon.

The River Rock vineyard itself rests in an ancient riverbed, and the blend is 63% Syrah, 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, both hand-harvested in mid-October. Separate primary fermentation, delicate handling, and malolactic fermentation (the least romantic word for the most sensual transformation in wine), followed by aging in French oak for one year. Like love, winemaking is often complicated.

But what results!  Bright berry red in the glass, and a nose bursting with ripe cherry aromas, forest floor, mushrooms, and vanilla spice as well as faint notes of sage and eucalyptus. The body is full and round, with more red fruits as well as plums and black olives in the mouth. This is paired with a deliciously silky texture and snappy acidity to keep the lush tannins upright. Beautiful finish, dry and long. Enjoy this with your sweetheart for just $12.

It may not have always felt like winter proper this year, but it will still be below freezing this weekend, and has been extremely cold the past few days. I’m well-prepared, however: I’ve got just the red wine to sip during a night spent reading. Something full of poise, big yet graceful fruit, racy herbals, mineral and loam: Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The southernmost appellation in the Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape became a noteworthy wine region in the 1970’s, when a number of producers went the quality route and began making wines that spoke of the region’s essential greatness: gamy, earthy flavors piercing your palate like the essence of le mistral, the wind that shivers down the slopes of the Alps. Even the name of the region, meaning “new castle of the Pope,” hints at its prestige. Pairs well with Northrop Frye and a side of Bakhtin.

But in all seriousness, let’s talk about why this wine is so damn delicious, and why it is still so magnificently in vogue everywhere in the United States. With just over 8000 acres of vineyards, Châteauneuf-du-Pape far outstrips other Rhône appellations in size. The region’s terroir features a quite distinctive characteristic: masses of smooth stones of all sizes, ranging from pebbles to small boulders. These stones help retain heat, a positive factor in the ripening process, and keep the ground from drying out, which is helpful in drier summers. Considering the fact that low yields are critical to creating high-end Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the geography is ideal for its production. Pain in the ass to till, though. This particular bottle also comes from the holdings of André Brunel, something of a celebrity in the region; his family has been making wines in the Rhône valley for more than 90 years.

Ninety percent of all wine made in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is red, and the wine is nearly always a blend, whether red or white. Just as there are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape there are thirteen (OK, fourteen) grapes permitted by law. To review, these include: grenache (red), syrah (red), mourvèdre (red), cinsaut (red), muscardin (red), counoise (red), vaccarèse (red), terret noir (red); grenache blanc (white), clairette (white), bourboulenc (white), roussanne (white), picpoul (white), and picardan (white). Vinification here tends to eschew small oak barriques that you’d see in Bordeaux – instead the wines are fermented in a mix of large cement vats (for grenache, which oxidizes easily) and foudres, large old barrels that don’t impart any vanilla toasty elements; these would impede the naked fruit and stony flavors that make a lot of Rhône reds so great.

So what is so great about the 2004 André Brunel “Les Cailloux” Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Well, the color, for one thing: a pale cherry red in the glass, which swirls out aromas of herbal garrigue (predominantly sage and lavender), ripe red berry fruit, cinnamon spice and notes of licorice. Finely balanced in the mouth, with that ripe fruit and licorice offset nicely by still-vibrant acidity and a deliciously deep earthy character. Finishes very well, lip-smacking and long. A fantastic value at $35. Ward off the winter with a bottle of this, your favorite book, and some warm, chewy brown bread with herb-infused oil and olive tapenade.

Côte Rôtie is, to put it mildly, an evocative appellation. Along with Hermitage, this region produces some of the world’s most stunning and compelling Syrah wines. Drinking Côte Rôtie is like listening to a private live performance of Rihanna while sprawled on a leather couch with the lights dimmed. Really. It’s that soft, yet as intense as distant thunder, or something equally intense, like a whole night of watching The Tudors. Less melodrama, but just as rambunctious and sensual.

To my delight, this month I stumbled upon an unexpected steal – and it came in the form of Côte Rôtie. Bumbling around the East Village earlier this month with my friend Nolan, I wandered into a wine shop looking for nothing in particular. Browsing the bins, I found something shocking: a bottle of the 2002 Domaine de Bonserine “La Sarrasine” Côte Rôtie, selling for $16. That’s right: $16. I walked up to one of the floor staff.

“Is something wrong with this?” I asked. “Tough year? Frost? Hail?”

“Nope: closeout sale to move product. Drinking beautifully now.”

So that was that. Nolan bought us a bottle and we scrambled. I recall back-slapping. High-fiving. I recall other gyrations and hoots of victory. I recall being asked to stop by an NYU security guard. We fled the scene, and saved the bottle in my wine storage unit, waiting for the perfect time to try it. That time was last night. I’d baked some European peasant bread, and Nolan brought along generous wedges of Gouda and Parmesan Reggiano cheese. We chose a martial arts movie (“Ip Man”) and, awash in the hokey sounds of cinematic battle, proceeded to carefully analyze the wine.

My simplest run down can be summed up in two words: holy shit. A 2002 vintage means nine years of bottle aging for a wine generally meant to age a decade; additionally, 2002 was an off year, and Côte Rôtie is lighter than its companion Syrah-based Rhône wine, Hermitage. Everything pointed to ideal timing, and right away we could see it. In the glass, “La Sarrasine” showed a crystal-clear ruby red, with a garnet hue at the rim. The nose opened up after 20 minutes in the glass, revealing amazing meaty notes (think cured bacon), other secondary aromas such as cedar and green olives, and a core of blackberry and plum fruit. It kept evolving, and evolving. Excellent complexity, and very well-integrated; nothing stood out except quality. This harmonious presentation continued in the mouth, with a silky-soft texture, exhibiting more dark fruit on a medium body. We also detected an herbal garrigue of thyme and lavender, and a nice minerality towards that beautiful, long finish. Holy shit.

I am sorry to say you are unlikely to find this vintage anywhere; it can be bought, though, and you should do so if you can. Once again, I’ll emphasize the price: $16. You won’t get many better wine experiences at less cost. So turn down the lights, turn on your favorite episode of Skins, or Tudors, or Mad Men, and enjoy this phenomenal value in wine with your favorite gamy meat: herb-encrusted leg of lamb, venison, or roasted hare.

The wine discussed in this post for me represents keeping the love of wine simple. Most of us, most of the time, want wines we don’t need to think too hard about to drink and enjoy. Perhaps too much condescension is leveled against pure enjoyment of a glass of fermented grape juice, whatever its actual quality. I am guilty of cuvée snobbery on occasion, thumbing my nose at perfectly decent wines because… they’re just decent. As if everything in this life needs to be spectacular to satisfy. Too much pretense remains in the wine world. It’s just juice, folks. And with that, I present to you a bottle of fun, fruity simplicity.

Located in California’s Central Coast, Clayhouse Vineyard produces a fine set of delicious reds, but the first wine of theirs I ever tried was the 2005 “Adobe Red.” I was hooked. Fruit-driven but not overly lush, with some tannic backbone giving it a firm feel, and a nice medium finish, my first sip of this blend reminded me why I keep going back to the U.S. and its AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) – the wines are straightforward and tasty. If you’re really cerebral about your wine, you’ll lay down some handsome dollars to get yours, but folksy wine lovers like myself get by just fine on buying mid-priced American. I like my wines the way I like my trucks: except I don’t like trucks. Simile fail. Anyway, I was hooked on Clayhouse Vineyard from the first sip. And nothing about that has changed from 2005 to 2007.

The 2007 Clayhouse Vineyard “Adobe Red” boasts fruit from their estate Red Cedar vineyard, near Paso Robles (a personal favorite for California AVA’s). As mentioned before, it is a blend of the following grape varietals: 41% Zinfandel, 32% Petit Sirah, 16% Syrah, 5% Malbec, 4% Grenache and 2% Mourvèdre. According to the winemaker, yields were a bit lower in 2007, with small berries, leading to excellent concentration of flavor. All varietals were fermented separately, 15% aged in French and American oak for just over a year, then were blended and bottled in 2009.

What results is a wine that appears vibrant red in the glass. On the nose, I found loads of ripe cherry and plum, a bit jammy but not overwhelmingly so, with some vanilla notes from the oak. The mouthfeel was supple, with good tannic structure, and enough acidity to keep it interesting, showing juicy cherry and blackberry flavors with more vanilla bean and spice. Medium finish; delicious. I would pair the “Adobe Red” with mushroom and cheddar cheeseburgers, strip steaks and scalloped potatoes, or possibly a slice of humble pie. $15.