More “Sip Tips” From Your Wine Sleuth

Several months ago I offered a series of “Sip Tips,” in a single column. These are the tips I share about wines I find outside our usual corridors that are worthy enough to stand up to some of our own local best, but priced to give you a bang for the buck. I received quite a number of emails and comments from readers at events here in town, so I am happy to comply with the consumer demand for more.

Our sip tasting starts in Northern California and then over both oceans to Australia and Portugal. Buena Vista Carneros just celebrated its 150th year as California’s first premium winery. The wines I sampled came from its 800-acre Ramal Vineyard Estate in the heart of Carneros. The company has a new emphasis on estate fruit, limited production, and cool-climate varietals, says winemaker Jeff Stewart.

To that end, millions of dollars have been invested in Ramal Vineyard planting new clone and rootstock combinations, higher vine density, and site-specific matching for the variety of soil types on the estate. The differentiation is impressive with 13 Pinot Noir clones and 23 unique Chardonnay clones alone, dividing the vineyard into more than 160 separate “blocks,” based upon soil and exposure.

My top picks are the 2005 Ramal Vineyard Pinot ($37) with aromas of blueberry and clove and a rich raspberry, cassis flavor. Silky bright tannins give a long finish so this Pinot works with even the heartiest steak. For your seafood dinners of our local fresh catch, I suggest the 2005 Chardonnay Ramal Vineyard ($32).

Also from Carneros, Clos Du Val, a pioneer winery in Napa Valley since 1972, is another 2005 hit. Its 2005 Pinot Noir, Carneros ($28) pairs excellently with everything from crab to lamb and even chocolate soufflé. Winemaker John Clews clearly used his extensive culinary knowledge to craft this wine to complement each dish without overwhelming it.

2005 was also a great year for the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast, where Willowbrook Cellars is making hot ticket Pinots and Chards. Since last writing about two of their wines, I’ve scored a few more and they are worth seeking out. Because their reputation is just beginning to spread, the wines are still available and affordable, but I wouldn’t count on that lasting much longer. Willowbrook Pinots garnered Gold and “Best of Class” in quite a few competitions with their 2004 Pinots and the 2005’s are even better!

The 2005 Pinot Noir Estate Grown Russian River Valley ($34) comes from a tiny three-acre hilltop vineyard; the 180-degree sun and cool breezes wafting up the Russian River from the ocean help the fruit to develop its fullest complex flavors.

Worth the extra investment to drink now and well into the future is the Willowbrook 2005 Pinot-Kastania Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($48) with bold character derived from the Dijon clones. Against that strong backbone, Joe blended grapes from the more elegant Pommard clone.

A year or so into their partnership, John revealed his passion for Cabernet Sauvignon, and the hunt for a few very special Cabernet vineyards was on. After securing fruit from the Brigden Vineyard at the northern end of the Sonoma Valley, and the Passalacqua Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley, they began making Cabernet Sauvignon under the Owl Ridge label in 2002.

Most notable of the ones I sampled was the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon - Brigden Vineyard ($55), from a vineyard nestled in the Mayacamas Mountains. Vineyard owner Mick Brigden has managed the musical careers of the likes of Van Morrison and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He grows Cabernet for Owl Ridge on his vineyard’s rocky soil at an elevation of 800 feet, where the vines struggle mightily. Grapes produced from this challenging terrain are better for it, producing wine of intense color and concentrated flavors. This 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wine resembles an elegant Bordeaux blend with a great balance of forward fruit and aromas and a backbone of structure. This wine will also cellar well for many years and to promote the long aging potential Brigden’s winemakers selected a heavy bottle and sealed it with an extremely long cork.

Across Either Pond

A Chardonnay bang-for-the-buck from Marlborough, New Zealand is the 2006 Kim Crawford Marlborough Unoaked Chardonnay ($17). Like the famed Sauvignon Blancs of the region, this Chardonnay is bright with tropical and citrus fruit zest. It is both crisp and lean and the screw cap makes it a perfect picnic wine.

With a ‘Cajun style dinner featuring ribs, jerk chicken, and Andouille sausage, I tasted a terrific dry red wine from Portugal by Dow (of Port wine acclaim). This 2005 Vale Do Bomfim was a Douro Reserve and cost a surprisingly low $12. The Douro Valley has been a DOC (demarcated region) for wine grapes since 1756 and has produced wines there since then. This was my first, but won’t be my last.

I’ll leave you with a decadent ending to any relaxing dinner – a bottle of Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve ($20) named for the fact that Graham’s is the only Port house that uses grapes from exclusively A-rated vineyards for its proprietary blend. The flavors of plum and dark cherry are the perfect complement to dark chocolate, walnuts, or the pears of the season.