I've been thinking a lot in recent weeks about a growing trend in California winemaking -- a return to more modest and elegant wines that still have great fruit concentration but with lower levels of alcohol. Some of this has to do with weather conditions, some with vineyard location and some with a winemaker's decision on when to harvest grapes (the longer they hang the higher the sugar and resulting alcohol levels).
You may have read about an excellent Dry Creek Valley zinfandel from Dashe Cellars that I reviewed in my column on NBCNews.com. Its alcohol is a modest 13.7 percent. Another superb wine in this more modest style comes from Donelan Family Wines in Sonoma, which produces a line of vineyard designated wines, mostly syrahs, but also a pinot noir, a chardonnay and a rousanne-viognier blend.
One of Donelan's syrahs, the 2010 Kobler Family Vineyard Syrah from the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, is among the most beautiful California syrahs I have tasted, a wine of retrained elegance, wonderful balance and gorgeous fruit. And here's the kicker: the alcohol level is a mere 12.8 percent, a function, to some extent, of the cool 2010 vintage.
What does this mean in terms of what you'll experience in the glass? This is a wine that is at once complex and effortless to drink, a wine that easily invites you to take another sip, to pour the next small glass. Sip again and repeat. Aged for two years in French oak, none of it new, the wine is plummy with raspberry and blackberry notes. There's some spice here as well, along with cinnamon and touches of licorice and white pepper.
The wine reminds me more of the northern Rhone than California, but is, hopefully, another sign of a broadening return to leaner times in California winemaking. The suggested price is $45. Recieved as a press sample.
These days, making wine is often about creating a concept, for better or worse. The store shelves are loaded with bottles depicting everything from animals to cars and trucks to those that donate part of their sales to research on various diseases. And now, a new concept -- a wine billed by its promoters as "the first wine created in support of equality for gay Americans."
It's called Égalité, and it comes to us from Biagio Cru & Estate Wines, an importer based in Rosyln, N.Y., that says it will donate part of the proceeds to organizations that promote quality for gay Americans.
Égalité is a sparkling wine, a Crémant de Bourgogne from France with a suggested price of $24. A press release says that it's the product of "exhaustive research by Biago Cru as well as input from the gay community." A focus group helped develop the name and label.
Part of the strategy, not surprisingly, is to capitalize on moves by an increasing number of states to legalize same-sex marriage, and Biagio Cru calls its wine "the perfect touch for weddings, engagements, anniversaries, galas, and all celebrations." And it hopes, of course, that the wine will have broad appeal beyond the gay community.
Beyond Bordeaux, California became synonymous long ago with great cabernet sauvignon. That said, it’s also true that memorable California cabs don’t come inexpensively -- unlike Bordeaux, where it’s still possible to find notable cabernet and merlot blends for $20 or under.
Fortunately, that wasn't the case with Hanna Winery's 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. This superb $39 wine made from 100 percent cabernet has beautiful complexity and balance with a delicious blackberry and black cherry core and undertones of fennel seed and even fresh fennel, giving it a nice licorice note. Ripe tannins round out the picture in a wine that, despite its youth, is drinking very well now. It's a natural for steak and lamb, and as a serious wine for a holiday gift that won't completely break the bank. Available on Hanna's website and elsewhere. Received as a press sample.
Spoon the olive oil into a large, heavy-bottomed sauce pan, preferably cast iron. Add sausage (if sausage is in casings squeeze the meat out). Over low to medium heat, break sausage into small pieces with a wooden spatula and cook for 10 minutes or so, tossing frequently, until nicely browned but not burned. Add onion and cook until translucent. Add garlic and stir with onions and sausage until golden. Add tomatoes and mix thoroughly with other ingredients. Use the spatula to break the tomatoes apart. Cook over a low flame, partially covered, for 15-20 minutes until the tomatoes have softened. Remove cover. Break tomatoes apart more with spatula if needed. Simmer 10-15 minutes more until tomatoes have cooked down and sauce has thickened. Stir in parsley. Toss with penne, fusilli or your favorite pasta and top with grated Parmesan. Serves 4.
Finding good, inexpensive pinot noir is one of the bigger challenges in the wine world. But one that passes the test is the 2010 Rainstorm Oregon Pinot Noir, which sells for $15 or so. The fruit comes from two distinct Oregon regions, the cooler Willamette Valley in the north and the warmer and drier Umpqua Valley in the south. The 50-50 blend results in a wine that is fruit-forward and accessible and ready to drink now.
That said, it did take a little while for it to open up when I sampled it the other night with a main course of chicken sautéed with mushrooms and white wine that my wife had made. It was enclosed at first with not much dimension. But then, after a half hour or so, a deliciously fruity, balanced and refreshing wine emerged that was perfect with the dish. Beyond its spicy cherry, raspberry and subtle blueberry tastes, just enough tannic structure and a subtle oak treatment give it nice complexity. Alcohol is just 12.5 percent, which makes it easy to drink, served preferably after it is slightly chilled. Wine received as a press sample.
As I’ve said before, I prefer leaner-style chardonnays with moderate levels of alcohol and subtle oak treatment. There’s nothing wrong with those brawny, buttery wines, but in general they’re not my cup of tea. Gainey Vineyard in California’s Santa Barbara County makes chardonnay in this leaner style. It is consistently good, and the 2010 Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay is no exception.
As always, the wine is beautifully balanced, and in this vintage it presents a delicious combination of Bartlett pear, butterscotch, citrus and a touch of cinnamon. Try it with all kinds of fish, chicken and pork dishes or enjoy it on its own. Alcohol is 13.9 percent and the suggested price of $22 makes it a very good value worth seeking out. Gainey’s website says it’s sold out at the winery, but I imagine it’s around in any number of stores. Received as a press sample.