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Mouthing Off

By the Editors of Food & Wine Magazine

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Wines $20 to $40

A Great Old Wine

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As I seem now to do every year, I stopped last week in Boulder before heading up to the F&W Classic in Aspen for the annual pre-Aspen wine dinner that Travel & Leisure's contributing wine editor Bruce Schoenfeld throws. As usual, it was a crazy grab-bag of wines (and people), many of them extraordinary (both the wines and the people).

Among the standouts? First, a 1982 Associated Vintners Dionysus Vineyard Riesling, notable partly because it was the first single-vinyard Riesling bottled in Washington State—or so I was told—and partly because it was actually still quite alive, with appealing lemon and stone notes. Later, a 2000 Contino Graciano had aromas of earth, leather and ripe black raspberries and was lush and inviting; an interesting development from a wine that's always quite tart, tannic and palate-zapping on release. I loved the 1982 Giacosa Barolo Falletto that came my way—hazy red in color, smelling of licorice, roses and caramel, with flavors that recalled dried spices like cardamom and cinnamon—though for some reason not everybody did. (Go figure. Lunatics, the lot of 'em.) And a 1999 Yarra Yering Dry Red #1—from a winery that made news lately by getting sold—had aromas of tea leaves and kirsch, then luscious berry fruit poised on the edge of age but not quite there. A very pretty wine.

The wine of the night, though, by general acclaim, was a 1991 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon, which was just fantastic. Aromas of forest floor, spiced currants and graphite led into layers of soft cherry-currant fruit, silky tannins, and more lingering graphite notes. It had aged gorgeously and was in perfect condition, and isn't even Ridge's top Cabernet (Monte Bello is). The current vintage will set you back $40. Not bad. And I like the fact that Paul Draper, on the back label of the wine, suggested that it would age only five to ten years. As it turns out, a very modest prediction.

Wines Under $20

Amazingly Long-Lived Riojas

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I had the good fortune yesterday to attend a substantial retrospective of gran reserva Riojas from some of the top producers in the region. I've long been a Rioja fan, and have for just about as long been convinced that traditionally styled Riojas are some of the best wines to cellar if you're interested in drinking older wines—they age wonderfully, especially from great years, and, relative to similarly long-lived reds, are distinctly underpriced. 

First, though, I should give a shout-out to my fave affordable Rioja from the big tasting that followed the retrospective, which was the 2004 Bodegas Luis Canas Crianza, a juicy, cherry-filled, appealingly streamlined red that sells for under $15. Good juice.

Of the older wines, the winner of the day for me was the 1982 Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904, pale red in hue, utterly classic with its aromas of dried cherries, leather, black tea leaf, and resinous spices. On the palate it added a coffee note to that mix of characteristics, and a silky texture and presence that was just gorgeous—drinking it was like a psychic transportation to Rioja. Which is pretty impressive, for fermented grape juice in a bottle...

The two oldest wines in the lineup were fascinating as well. The 1964 Marqués de Riscal Gran Reserva (a blend of 75% Tempranillo with 25% Cabernet) was intensely luscious and deep to start with, full of sweet rich cherry and mocha notes, lush tannins, and a lightly resinous funky note—which, unfortunately, intensified as the wine opened and eventually left it pretty odd and stinky. Such are the risks of old bottles. On the other hand, the 1964 Faustino I Gran Reserva, which started out somewhat nondescript and a bit thin, opened up into a beautiful old Rioja, elegant in a noble way, with cool sweet berry notes, layers of herbal nuances, a hint of dark chocolate, and a really graceful structure. So, such are the benefits of old bottles...

None of those wines is really findable except, possibly, at auction (or in Spain). The 2001 Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial ($54), though, should be around and about, and was the star of the younger wines in the retrospective—cherry fruit with notes of licorice and forest floor, ripe and dense but not heavy, and a leathery-gamey hint on the end. All the richness of the '01 vintage in a classically styled wine, in a sense. I wish I had a case so I could see how it will be, forty years down the line. —R.I.

Wines Above $40

Masseto Wine Dinner at Bouley

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Last week, I attended a dinner at Bouley, where winemaker Axel Heinz presented four vintages of Tenuta dell’Ornellaia’s Masseto (the highly acclaimed Merlot-based Super Tuscan), including the not-yet-released 2006 as well as the 2005, 2001 and 1997. Heinz invited everyone who attended to bring a bottle—one they felt was iconic in some way, from a producer who had “stood the test of time.” Unfortunately, I have no cellar to pull such a wine from, so instead I opted for the 1998 López de Heredia Viña Gravonia ($28, find this wine), a white Rioja from a traditional producer who holds wines at the estate for years—even decades, for its top wines—before releasing them. (1998 is the current vintage of this wine.)

As the sommelier poured me some 1988 Dom Pérignon, he set my bottle down next to a 1970 Château Margaux and a 1990 Ridge Geyersville, which made me feel more than a little sheepish. Thankfully, my humble bottle—one that at eleven years old tastes fresh and, in some ways, even too young to drink—provoked a great discussion about López de Heredia’s iconic status. I said I chose the wine because I admired the producer for sticking to its traditional-winemaking guns. In Rioja, many producers have embraced a more international style of wine: The whites are aged in stainless steel (instead of old oak barrels) and are often crisp but unmemorable. The reds are highly extracted and aged in new oak barrels for a richer, more polished style. Everyone agreed that López—with its elegant reds that age wonderfully and its extraordinary whites that often last even longer—has become an icon, but some people at the table wondered if it's simply because the López is the "last man standing" in a sea of producers who have modernized. Whatever the answer, I was happy it that it paired beautifully with Bouley’s porcini “flan,” an egg white–thickened dashi broth studded with meaty chunks of Dungeness crab. Better than the '06 Masseto, I must say.

And what about the Massetos? I found it fascinating to taste how all of the vintages had a distinctive (and wonderful) combination of mouth-filling fruit, terrific structure and a luxuriously long finish. The 2006 was much more opulent than the 2005, which was a tougher year in Tuscany; the ’05 seemed a bit closed. The sexy 2001 and 1997 were both noticeably silkier, thanks to their softening tannins, but had little in terms of secondary notes; I imagine more will start to develop as they continue to age. These wines have a lot of extraction, yes, but their balance across the board was impressive. In summary, the wines were correct—impeccable, even. It was hard to find a flaw. But does being flawless make something inspiring? Does flawlessness make a wine an icon? Perhaps. But is it worth paying upwards of $250 for that?

I'm not so sure. But I'm grateful to have tried them, and if you ever get the chance to taste Masseto, I would say definitely do. —Kristin Donnelly

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