Cannonau di Sardegna RiservaAnd now for a brief post about one of my new favorite values in Italian red wine. More posts to come soon, fast and furious. Winter is coming – for those of you who read or watch Game of Thrones – and for me, that means red wine: red wine in rivers, in torrents… and in glasses on the table by my couch. If you’re in the mood for spaghetti and meatballs or some similar comfort food… and honestly, who isn’t… where better than Italy to find the perfect pairing?

The subject of this post is the 2009 Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva, a totally delicious Cannonau wine from the northwest corner of Sardinia. Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea after Sicily, and is home to roughly 4 million sheep, making this island one of the areas of the world with the highest density of sheep per capita; right up there with New Zealand, a truly exceptional wine region in its own right. But I digress.

Cannonau, otherwise known as Grenache, is also one of the most widely planted grape varietals in the world. It favors hot, dry climates, and generally creates wines with soft berry fruit, nice spicy notes, and a high alcohol content, making it good for blending – see Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône valley. Our wine of the hour, the 2009 Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva, seems like pure Grenache.

In the glass, a nice brick red color. Aromas of hung game, violets, and a touch of almost Burgundian funkiness hang above notes of dark red fruit. Very solid structure in the mouth, with a round feel, smooth tannins and delicious plummy fruit backed by earth and spice. $15 says you have a new favorite dinner wine for the cold months. Buy it by the case.

It may not have always felt like winter proper this year, but it will still be below freezing this weekend, and has been extremely cold the past few days. I’m well-prepared, however: I’ve got just the red wine to sip during a night spent reading. Something full of poise, big yet graceful fruit, racy herbals, mineral and loam: Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The southernmost appellation in the Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape became a noteworthy wine region in the 1970’s, when a number of producers went the quality route and began making wines that spoke of the region’s essential greatness: gamy, earthy flavors piercing your palate like the essence of le mistral, the wind that shivers down the slopes of the Alps. Even the name of the region, meaning “new castle of the Pope,” hints at its prestige. Pairs well with Northrop Frye and a side of Bakhtin.

But in all seriousness, let’s talk about why this wine is so damn delicious, and why it is still so magnificently in vogue everywhere in the United States. With just over 8000 acres of vineyards, Châteauneuf-du-Pape far outstrips other Rhône appellations in size. The region’s terroir features a quite distinctive characteristic: masses of smooth stones of all sizes, ranging from pebbles to small boulders. These stones help retain heat, a positive factor in the ripening process, and keep the ground from drying out, which is helpful in drier summers. Considering the fact that low yields are critical to creating high-end Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the geography is ideal for its production. Pain in the ass to till, though. This particular bottle also comes from the holdings of André Brunel, something of a celebrity in the region; his family has been making wines in the Rhône valley for more than 90 years.

Ninety percent of all wine made in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is red, and the wine is nearly always a blend, whether red or white. Just as there are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape there are thirteen (OK, fourteen) grapes permitted by law. To review, these include: grenache (red), syrah (red), mourvèdre (red), cinsaut (red), muscardin (red), counoise (red), vaccarèse (red), terret noir (red); grenache blanc (white), clairette (white), bourboulenc (white), roussanne (white), picpoul (white), and picardan (white). Vinification here tends to eschew small oak barriques that you’d see in Bordeaux – instead the wines are fermented in a mix of large cement vats (for grenache, which oxidizes easily) and foudres, large old barrels that don’t impart any vanilla toasty elements; these would impede the naked fruit and stony flavors that make a lot of Rhône reds so great.

So what is so great about the 2004 André Brunel “Les Cailloux” Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Well, the color, for one thing: a pale cherry red in the glass, which swirls out aromas of herbal garrigue (predominantly sage and lavender), ripe red berry fruit, cinnamon spice and notes of licorice. Finely balanced in the mouth, with that ripe fruit and licorice offset nicely by still-vibrant acidity and a deliciously deep earthy character. Finishes very well, lip-smacking and long. A fantastic value at $35. Ward off the winter with a bottle of this, your favorite book, and some warm, chewy brown bread with herb-infused oil and olive tapenade.

Garnacha (otherwise known as Grenache or Grenache Noir in France, or Cannonau in Sardinia) is one of the more underrated red grapes. Sure, it figures heavily into Southern Rhone wines such as Côtes du Rhône, but not many people seem to automatically consider it a power player as a single grape varietal. Ask the average American male about red wine, and chances are, he’ll name Pinot Noir, Merlot, or maybe Cabernet Sauvignon. He might even say something like “Oh yeah! Sideways!” which doesn’t capture the spectrum of wine at all. Good movie, though, despite the plunge in Merlot sales.

But returning to the task at hand, Grenache/Garnacha is delicious. It is a ripe, juicy, playful grape that pummels you with fruit aromas, but has wonderful acidity to back up all that dark berry swagger. Let’s put it this way: while I wouldn’t want Grenache watching my back in a fight, I would want it providing the smack talk. It’s that kind of wine. And Spain is for me the spiritual home of this grape; I love the way it adapts to such a hot and dry climate. The concentration provided by the long ripening period is one of the main reasons Spanish reds often remain such a good value.

The 2008 Borsao “Tres Picos” Garnacha is a tremendous value; for the price, I can’t think of many other red wines that deliver so well, and so consistently. “Tres Picos” translates to “Three Peaks,”  presumably referring to the winery’s location in the Moncayo region, which is full of rolling hills ideal for growing grapes. This is an old vines Garnacha; all of the vines producing these grapes are at least 50 years old. Half a century has given them the capability to imbue the resulting wines with great depth of flavor.

And what flavors! An inky purple in the glass, this wine swirls into a nose abounding with dark dusty cherries, raspberry jam, and various herbal and spice notes, including allspice, lavender, and rosemary. There is also a definite hint of black pepper here, which I find really attractive in reds. Rhone valley, anyone? But quite different in style. Full-bodied, supple, and feeling really round in the mouth, the fruit is kept just in check by balanced acidity, finishing smooth and strong at medium length with more red berry and earthy notes. “Tres Picos” is very modern in style, but not clunky; the flavors are well-integrated for the quality level of the wine. Buy a case of this, and pair it with your favorite roast. $15.

The wine discussed in this post for me represents keeping the love of wine simple. Most of us, most of the time, want wines we don’t need to think too hard about to drink and enjoy. Perhaps too much condescension is leveled against pure enjoyment of a glass of fermented grape juice, whatever its actual quality. I am guilty of cuvée snobbery on occasion, thumbing my nose at perfectly decent wines because… they’re just decent. As if everything in this life needs to be spectacular to satisfy. Too much pretense remains in the wine world. It’s just juice, folks. And with that, I present to you a bottle of fun, fruity simplicity.

Located in California’s Central Coast, Clayhouse Vineyard produces a fine set of delicious reds, but the first wine of theirs I ever tried was the 2005 “Adobe Red.” I was hooked. Fruit-driven but not overly lush, with some tannic backbone giving it a firm feel, and a nice medium finish, my first sip of this blend reminded me why I keep going back to the U.S. and its AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) – the wines are straightforward and tasty. If you’re really cerebral about your wine, you’ll lay down some handsome dollars to get yours, but folksy wine lovers like myself get by just fine on buying mid-priced American. I like my wines the way I like my trucks: except I don’t like trucks. Simile fail. Anyway, I was hooked on Clayhouse Vineyard from the first sip. And nothing about that has changed from 2005 to 2007.

The 2007 Clayhouse Vineyard “Adobe Red” boasts fruit from their estate Red Cedar vineyard, near Paso Robles (a personal favorite for California AVA’s). As mentioned before, it is a blend of the following grape varietals: 41% Zinfandel, 32% Petit Sirah, 16% Syrah, 5% Malbec, 4% Grenache and 2% Mourvèdre. According to the winemaker, yields were a bit lower in 2007, with small berries, leading to excellent concentration of flavor. All varietals were fermented separately, 15% aged in French and American oak for just over a year, then were blended and bottled in 2009.

What results is a wine that appears vibrant red in the glass. On the nose, I found loads of ripe cherry and plum, a bit jammy but not overwhelmingly so, with some vanilla notes from the oak. The mouthfeel was supple, with good tannic structure, and enough acidity to keep it interesting, showing juicy cherry and blackberry flavors with more vanilla bean and spice. Medium finish; delicious. I would pair the “Adobe Red” with mushroom and cheddar cheeseburgers, strip steaks and scalloped potatoes, or possibly a slice of humble pie. $15.

After a cold and aggravating winter, we have made it to my favorite time of year – the transition from spring to summer. Sure, the weather doesn’t know it yet, and nobody seems to want true heat yet, but the air has the right flavor. The flavor, my friends, of smoky barbecue. Time for all that moos or bleats to stampede in retreat – the pits are fired, the charcoal piled hillock-high. And what do the textbooks say to pair with grilled steaks? Zinfandel, of course, or a nice Bordeaux, or a Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, or maybe even a Brunello di Montalcino. But if you aren’t grilling steaks, if your focus is instead on the humble rib, on sauces full of cilantro and tomato paste, Worcestershire and garlic, what wine holds up? None of the above, not consistently.

But rosé does. And a rosé is the focus of today’s post. The 2009 Château d’Oupia Minervois Rosé, from the Minervois AOC in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, was a great find, perfect on its own but definitely possessed of the weight needed to stand up to goods from the grill. It is blended from my favorite Rhone grapes: Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault, and shows deep salmon pink in the glass; excellent clarity. On the nose I found an overwhelming abundance of fresh, ripe strawberries, with a buzzing zip to back them up. Good weight, and the wine is bone dry. More bright berry fruits in the mouth, quenched by delicious acidity in a lingering finish hinting at cherries and orange zest. You can find this wine for under $15 a bottle. Try it with grilled tuna, hummus platters, salmon slathered in aioli, or babyback ribs.

Spring. No other time of year is as confusing as spring. First the air warms up, flowers bud, birds get territorial, jeans become shorts, jackets are flung into closets… and then it all gets rewound by the somehow-always-freezing Sundays of April and May. This past weekend was like that, beautiful Friday, cold Sunday. Everybody became confused and hostile, in need of something reliably comforting, something to pair with grilled Italian sausages or drink on its own.

Enter the 2007 “Tai Rosso,” an Italian Grenache from the Veneto region, produced by Rezzadore and imported by a small company out of New Jersey (great guys, met them at a local tasting last spring, when it was too cold to be outside… interesting). A wine with gusto. A wine with spark. A wine with a nice red ruby color in the glass, hinting at tangerine, and then a veritable A-Team of aromas: tart cherries, cranberries, fresh-picked strawberries, hints of orange peel, loam… each time I open a bottle, I get a different set. These wonderfully rich aromas are followed by a bright mouthfeel, with acidity doing its two-step on the tongue while the fruit lingers with some soft tannins at the medium finish. $12. That is right, friends. $12. Buy a case.

Not much to say about this wine, but not because it lacks in anything. The 2007 Sablet “Les Deux Anges” Côtes du Rhône Villages is an excellent example of this appellation and vintage, especially considering what a terrific year it was in the Rhône, with consistent high quality across the board. Wines from this vintage tend towards chewy tannic structure, highly aromatic liveliness in the glass, and great robustness. This wine proved no exception.

A disclaimer: I love Syrah. I might love Syrah even more than Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s the most heady wine I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking, with such intensity, such profound wildness, that I can’t helped but love it. This wine is predominantly Grenache, and as such presents a wonderful ruby color in the glass, with a nose of generous dark fruits, mostly briar-patch blackberries and plums, lightly tinged with spice. In the mouth, more black fruits are balanced to great silky tannins – courtesy of Syrah – with hints of pepper and integrated oak. Good complexity, tasty finish. Great with herbed roast lamb, beef stew, or pepper-crusted pork loin. $15.

The 2001 Domaine de la Cote de l’Ange is a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, an appellation located in the southern Rhône Valley. Like all wines of this sort, it is a blend of many varieties, in this case Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Syrah. In all, thirteen grape varieties are permitted for use in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This particular specimen had intense red fruits with smoky notes and mineral on the nose. The palate featured earthy black fruit balanced with nice tannins and a long finish hinting at coffee. An awesome wine, overall. $24. Drink it with lamb, prepared however you like; I’d prefer a roast.

A Spanish triumph equal to any Rioja Riserva, the 2005 Montsant Falset is just great. Full-bodied, with lingering red fruits and firm tannin. A blend of Tempranillo, Grenache, Carignan, and Syrah, the Falset is just loaded with with lots of berries, leather, and cherries, with stony minerals and spice on the nose and palate. Some nice acidity balances the fruit. I think decanting it would soften it nicely, since it’s a little tight. This Spanish wine speaks to me as a Cabernet drinker, and overall is just worth buying. $10. Pairs well with herb-encrusted lamb, tapas, or more robust venison dishes.