Hello and welcome to my weekly dig through the pile of wine samples that show up asking to be tasted. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.
This week might easily have the sub-headine “The week of great values,” as the first few wines I’ve got here are all super delicious, and all under $25.
Where might one find such a font of vinous values, you ask? Why Italian white wine, of course. From north to south, Italy makes fabulous white wines that often trade at a tiny fraction of the price commanded by its famous red wines.
Take the La Valentina Pecorino, for instance, with its stony lemon brightness that you’d want to drink with practically anything you eat (including, of course, Pecorino cheese). It’s a mere $17. Then there’s the slightly more regal Arneis from storied producer Vietti, with a faintly saline apple and lemon complexion.
From the same neighborhood as the Arneis you’ll also find the Enrico Serafino Gavi di Gavi, the grape from the commune of the same name in Piedmont, singing its white floral and lemon cucumber song for a mere $16.
If you know me, you’d have predicted that one of these wines would certainly be a white wine from the slopes of Mount Etna. Yes, I’m volcano-obsessed, and this deeply mineral expression of Carricante from Tasca d’Almerita just lights me up, and for $19 it’s a steal.
Last but not least, Askos and you shall receive. As wine lovers we should always be in search of new experiences for the palate, so here’s one for you from Masseria Li Veli that will deliver far more than its mere $19 tariff: Verdeca. It’s an ancient and slightly mysterious grape indigenous (maybe) to the Puglia region of Italy. I say maybe because according to the world’s leading grape geneticist, it’s identical to a grape also found in Greece. Who had it first? We don’t know. But if you try it now, you’ll enjoy it so much, that won’t matter.
Closer to home, I have a set of new releases from a young brand called Marine Layer, not to be confused with the retro-styled clothing brand of the same name. This is yet another wine project from the peripatetic Baron Ziegler, who runs an import company as well as several wine brands up and down the West Coast. As far as I can tell, Marine Layer is the spinoff from a set of wines with the same name at one of Ziegler’s previous projects, Banshee Wines. The wines are well-made expressions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. In fact, they’re delicious. I have just one gripe with them, and that’s the fact that in the name of premium branding, they’re packaged in ridiculously heavy bottles with wax over the cork. I don’t mind the wax, as it’s relatively thin and easy to remove. The heavy bottles, though, are horrible for the environment and need to go away.
Merry Edwards’ wines have always found their highest expression in her single-vineyard bottlings, and this week I’ve got two of them, from the Bucher Vineyard and a site called Warren’s Hill, which I think is the better of the two (excellent) bottles, thanks to its positively electric acidity. Merry sold her winery in 2019 to the Champagne house Maison Louis Roederer, but it continues to make high-quality wines in the same style.
And now for something…. darker. Jonata is a well-known name in some circles by virtue of having the same owner as Screaming Eagle, billionaire Stan Kroenke. Located in Ballard Canyon down in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara, it produces a number of Rhone-style wines that lean towards richness and opulence. Winemaker Matt Dees tends to keep them lively, with good acidity, though, so they’re still drinkable in their richness. I’ve got two of their new releases this week, the Fenix, which is a Merlot-dominant Bordeaux blend, and Todos, which is a blend of all 10 grapes farmed on the estate.
Last but not least, I’ve got the latest release from a small estate in Saint Helena run by the energetic and enthusiastic Linda Neal, for whom her little vineyard, Tierra Roja, is the culmination of a life-long passion for farming. Neal fell in love with agriculture at an early age, and geared the rest of her life, including college and career around it. The second-to-last chapter of that career involved 20 years of vineyard management. Now she has only one vineyard to manage, and some help with that, which was particularly important for this 2018 vintage, because, for the first time, Neal wasn’t involved in the harvest. Instead, she was volunteering for the Peace Corps in Morocco. She clearly left things in good hands, as her 2018 Cabernet is brimming with energy and depth.
Notes on all these below!
2019 Fattoria La Valentina Pecorino, Colline Pescaresi, Abruzzo, Italy
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of dried lemon rind and a touch of sea air. In the mouth, faintly saline flavors of lemon zest, lemon pith, and pomelo have a bright zip thanks to fantastic acidity. There’s a wonderful mineral backbone to this wine, with a faint chalky grip to it. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $17. click to buy.
2020 Vietti Arneis, Roero, Alba, Italy
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, lemon and lemon pith mix with golden apple, wet chalkboard, and white floral notes for a crisp, faintly saline mouthful with fantastic acidity. Delicious. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.
2020 Enrico Serafino “Grifo del Quartaro” Gavi di Gavi, Piedmont, Italy
Palest straw in the color, this wine smells of lemon cucumber and white flowers. In the mouth, lovely floral notes mix with star fruit and green apple with a hint of candied guava. Lean and bright with excellent acidity and a chalky mineral backbone, this is a delight of a wine. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $16. click to buy.
2020 Tasca d’Almerita “Tascante Buonora” Etna Bianco, Sicily, Italy
Palest straw to the point of being nearly colorless in the glass, this wine smells of wet pavement, pomelo pith, and unripe apples. In the mouth, deeply stony flavors of lemon and lime pith mix with grapefruit juice and wet chalkboard. Fantastic acidity makes for a crisp, zingy expression of the volcano. 12% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $19. click to buy.
2020 Masseria Li Veli “Askos” Verdeca, Salento, Puglia, Italy
Palest gold in color, this wine smells of white flowers and sweet pastry cream. In the mouth, delicate flavors of lemon pith, grapefruit zest, white flowers, and oyster shell have a fabulous brightness thanks to excellent acidity. Very refreshing. Verdeca is a rare Puglian grape variety that is apparently also found in Greece by the name Lagorthi. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $19. click to buy.
2018 Marine Layer “Aries” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Light yellow-gold in color, this wine smells of lemons and pastry cream. In the mouth, lemon curd and pastry cream flavors have a nice edge to them thanks to very good acidity, as well as a nice silky texture. Hints of vanilla in the finish. 13.6% alcohol. Comes in an absurdly heavy bottle, weighing 1.68 kg full. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $36. click to buy.
2018 Marine Layer “Gap’s Crown Vineyard” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Light greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of lemon pith and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, lemon and grapefruit flavors have a faint toasty note to them, and decent, but not fantastic acidity. Good flavors but missing some dynamism. 13.2% alcohol. Comes in an absurdly heavy bottle, weighing 1.68 kg when full. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.
2018 Marine Layer “Lyra” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherries and a hint of chocolate. In the mouth, bright cherry and raspberry fruit flavors are silky and smooth, with excellent acidity that keeps things quite juicy across the palate. Hints of citrus peel enter the finish with barely perceptible tannins. 13.8% alcohol. Comes in an absurdly heavy bottle, weighing 1.68 kg when full. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2018 Marine Layer “Gravenstein Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberries and raspberry leaf. In the mouth, silky flavors of raspberry and sour cherry are zippy and juicy thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a faint kumquat and dried floral note in the finish with just a touch of the herbal quality that comes from some stem inclusion in the fermentation. Quite pretty. 13.2% alcohol. 125 cases made of absurdly heavy bottles, weighing 1.68 kg when full. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2019 Merry Edwards “Bucher Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of slightly smoky raspberry and cherry fruit. In the mouth, raspberry and cherry notes mix with herbs and powdery tannins that lightly coat the mouth. There’s a faint smokiness in the finish, with a hint of alcoholic heat. Excellent acidity. 14.3% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $63. click to buy.
2019 Merry Edwards “Warren’s Hill” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of bright cherry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, fantastic acidity makes flavors of cherry and raspberry come alive and bounce across the palate. Faint, gauzy tannins coat the mouth, and flavors of citrus peel linger in the finish along with bright cherry. Excellent. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $66. click to buy.
2018 Jonata “Fenix” Red Blend, Ballard Canyon, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara, California
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry, tobacco, and earth. In the mouth, rich black cherry and licorice notes are wrapped in a suede-like blanket of tannins. Faintly bitter licorice root notes linger in the finish along with cola nut. Thankfully there’s enough acidity here to keep things fresh and balance out all that plush richness. A blend of 66% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $90. click to buy.
2018 Jonata “Todos” Red Blend, Ballard Canyon, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara, California
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of faintly smoky blackberry and black cherry fruit with some chopped herbs. In the mouth, a rich, velvety melange of blackberry, black cherry, licorice, and cola swirls under its soft blanket of tannins. Decent acidity. Definitely on the rich side, with the faintest hint of heat on the finish. A blend of all 10 grape varieties grown by the estate: 45% Syrah, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Petit Verdot, 9% Petite Sirah, 5% Merlot, and 6% of five other varieties. 14.4% alcohol. 2640 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $54. click to buy.
2018 Tierra Roja Cabernet Sauvignon, Saint Helena, Napa, California
Inky opaque garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, iodine, and cassis. In the mouth, intense and juicy black cherry, blackcurrant, and cola flavors are tinged with vanilla and a hint of toasted oak. Supple, muscular tannins wrap around the core of the wine but don’t put too much of a squeeze on the palate, letting long notes of blackcurrant and black cherry linger in the finish with a hint of licorice. Powerful and intense, but pretty well balanced, with excellent acidity. 14.8% alcohol. 250 cases of bottles too heavy for their own good, weighing 1.65 kg when full. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $170. click to buy.