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White Wow Wines from 2011
By Linda Murphy
Dec 6, 2011
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A mere six rows of Aligoté vines grow on Josh Jensen’s Mount Harlan vineyard in California’s San Benito County.  The location is so remote that visitors must really, really want to be there in order to find it.

The nearest city, Hollister, some six miles away, is the seismic epicenter of Northern California, and while some quake in their boots at the threat of temblors, Jensen has the eons-long grinding of tectonic plates to thank for exposing the limestone soils he so doggedly sought en route to founding Calera Wine Co. in 1974, for the production of mainly Pinot Noir.

I’m a big fan of Calera Pinot Noirs -- its site-specific bottlings from the de Villiers, Jensen, Mills, Reed, Ryan and Selleck blocks in particular -- yet Jensen’s Aligoté has me nearly doing back flips when I drink it.

Aligoté is the subservient white grape to Chardonnay in Burgundy, and very few in California produce it.  Calera’s Aligoté -- just 200 cases or so are produced each year -- has moderate richness, juicy Asian pear and stone fruit flavors, and a minerally, crisp finish.  It’s flat-out, hands-down, lip-smacking, whip-crackin’, paddy-whackin’ delicious, with a cool Vino Seal glass stopper and an easy-to-swallow $20 price.

It is wines such as the Calera Aligoté that provide pure, unadulterated, immediate -- and often underrated -- pleasure.  They’re my “wow” wines, and I use that word in the notes I scribble to myself in a notebook or type on a laptop when I taste them.  Expensive and/or famous wines come with high expectations, and my notes reflect whether they meet those expectations or not … whether the wines need cellaring before they show their true selves … whether there is something magical about them to justify the price/notoriety, or the patience to put them away for 10 years. 

Yet this class of wine isn’t eligible for my private “wow” status.  It is reserved for wines that are discoveries (to me); pleasant surprises; unusual varietals or blends; from emerging regions; offer amazing value; show that an under-achiever has just stepped up its game, etc.  Wow wines aren’t just good, they’re exciting, conversation-stimulating, instantly pleasurable and in most cases, worth purchasing by the case.

My tasting notes from 2011 reveal several wowsers, some of which are spotlighted here.  In keeping with the spirit of white Christmases and snowy Hanukkas and Kwanzaas, all the recommended wines are white or sparkling.  It’s not yet winter -- by the calendar anyway -- so there is plenty of time to cover the red-wine wows.  

Wine Review Online colleague W. Blake Gray wrote in September about the fine wines produced at the Gruet winery in New Mexico.  I’ve ordered Gruet sparkling wines by the glass and bottle in restaurants in recent years and found them to be every bit as good as California methode champenoise/traditionelle fizz from the likes of Domaine Chandon, Gloria Ferrer and Mumm Napa.  Yet my eyeballs nearly popped out of their sockets when I saw a local wine shop selling the $14 Gruet Brut, Blanc de Noirs and Brut Rosé this summer for $9.99.  Where they out of their minds?  This stuff is way too good for 10 bucks, but who was I to complain?  It was my Visa card, after all.

I purchased two bottles each of the three wines, and was charmed (another form of wow) in particular by the non-vintage Blanc de Noirs.  On first sip, it was pretty and crisp, with a juicy red berry character.  Yet with a few minutes of aeration in the glass (I use a Spiegelau white-wine glass for bubbly rather than a flute), the wine developed a bit more weight and richness, yet still closed with a vibrant, refreshing finish.  Cheers to that!

Fans of California Rhône-style wines know all about Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, established by wine importer Robert Haas and the Perrin family of the Rhône Valley’s iconic Chateau Beaucastel.  In Paso, general manager Jason Haas (Robert’s son) and winemaker Neil Collins produce serious, age-worthy white and red wines from estate-grown grapes including Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah.

Their top-of-the-line blended wines, Esprit de Beaucastel (white and red), are pricey (yet fairly priced), so when I tasted the winery’s newest wine, the 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (a mix of Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne grapes grown in neighbors’ vineyards) and saw its $20 price, I was (you guessed it) wowed.  It has pure, floral and white-fruit aromas and flavors, zero oak character, a flash of minerality and a modest 13.5% alcohol content.

Yannick Rousseau, a native of Gascony, has a cooperage business in Napa Valley and an understanding of the heights to which the French Colombard grape can climb when it’s turned into wine.  That’s right, Colombard, that second-class grape from which many California generic boxed wines are produced.

Rousseau discovered a 35-year-old Colombard vineyard in Sonoma County, contracted for the fruit, and has gained a following for the wine -- especially by other wine professionals who know a good thing when they taste it, and a great story when they hear it:  “French guy with a love of Colombard rescues vines in Russian River Valley from certain death caused by Pinot Noir replanting.”

Wine writer Dan Berger and PR/marketing guru Tim McDonald turned me on to the Y. Rousseau Old Vines Russian River Valley Colombard ($17) a few years ago, which led me to request a meeting with Rousseau.  The just-bottled 2010 he poured was so OMG good -- racy, pleasantly herbal and with beautifully ripened white peach and orange citrus flavors.  It’s a great aperitif, cheese partner and fine foil for seafood dishes. 

Michigan wines can be difficult to find in other states, due to low production volumes and interstate shipping issues.  Some might ask, “Why would anyone outside of Michigan want to purchase Michigan wine?”  It’s because they can be damn good, particularly the Rieslings, with cold-climate acidities and fruit characteristics that mimic the wines of the Rheingau region of Germany.  And they are increasingly becoming peers of the great Rieslings of New York’s Finger Lakes region.  Who wouldn’t want to taste such friendly competition?

The Old Mission Peninsula region near Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay is the state’s hot spot for cold-climate winegrowing, and the vintners there are aggressive in a most positive way in marketing their wines.

I have a preference for dry Rieslings over sweet, yet some off-dry styles deliver immense satisfaction when they have enough acidity to balance the residual sugar.  Old Mission Peninsula Rieslings from such producers as Chateau Grand Traverse, Bowers Harbor and Black Star Farm are typically successful in all styles; if you come across a bottle, grab it.     

Another superb white wine from Traverse City is the Left Foot Charley Pinot Blanc.  I have tasted this wine blind in competitions, and un-blind at home, and in all cases, it has delivered a mouth-filling texture, crisp apple, pear and green-melon fruitiness, and vibrant acidity.  This is not your typical (read: boring) American Pinot Blanc.

I could go on, about Virginia Petit Manseng, Texas Viognier, Colorado Gewurztraminer and others, but I will save those nuggets for later; too many wows at one time can stress the heart, palate and pocketbook.

Happy Holidays!