Even in the midst of summer, I prefer red wine with main courses. The big, full-bodied Cabs, Shiraz, Zinfandel and most Pinot Noirs, are excellent companions to meat dishes that come sizzling off the grill; the ones with bigger body are a fine complement to barbecue. Some of the lighter wines are surprisingly delicious with a grilled halibut or swordfish. At our house, Pinot Noir is the favorite when a chunk of salmon, skin crisping properly, is on the backyard cooker.
And don’t forget to chill the red wine a little. Between 30 and 60 minutes in the refrigerator will improve its flavor and eliminate the mustiness that clings to some wines when they get too warm. The old rule about "room temperature" for reds should be put aside when temperatures soar. Besides, it depends on what room we’re talking about. A kitchen or pantry closet, for example, is too warm. A basement may have proper coolness, as long as the wine and the water heater are not next to one another.
When it comes to big red wines, I recently found a winner when Kelly McElearney came to town with an elegant bottle of 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Ehlers Estate in St. Helena. As the daughter of Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, she’s been involved with dirt, vines and grapes all her life, and she’s the general manager at Ehlers, owned by the Leduc Foundation. The foundation, now 12 years old, funds research in treatment of cardiovascular disease, and all proceeds from the sale of Ehlers wines go in that direction.
A non-profit winery? Well, there are worse ideas, and it salves the moment of pocketbook panic at the wine’s price of $95.
The Ehlers Cab is big and rich. The color is extremely dark, with an aroma of stone fruit and currants; the first taste also shows the fruit and superior balance. The finish is long and lovely. Winemaker Rudy Zuidema selects fruit from various blocks in the vineyard, and the wine spends 20 months in French oak, two-thirds of it new. It’s a perfect wine for a well-charred but medium rare steak or roast.
As a Zinfandel fan, I’ve always had a soft spot for the wines of Rosenblum, an Oakland-based winery that buys grapes from throughout northern California and produces many individual-vineyard Zins.
I recently sampled a pair of 2005s from Rosenblum, one from the Harris Kratka vineyard in Alexander Valley, one from the Snows Lake vineyard in Lake County (east of Napa County). Each is $35, and while they’re both Zinfandels, with the classic brambly aroma, they’re very different. The Kratka wine is a field blend, predominantly Zinfandel, but it also includes other grapes from the same vineyard, Carignane and Petit Sirah in this case. It’s a little lighter in body when compared to the Lake County wine, a dominatrix in any wine affair.
At the lower end of the price spectrum, there are some superior bargains in red wines to go with hamburgers from the grill or pasta from the kitchen. . . .
Veramonte, from Chile, offers a 2006 Pinot Noir (about $15) that has a light berry aroma and notes of cherry on the palate. It’s pleasant, with the brightness of Pinot Noir quite prominent, and has a smooth finish.
Delicato Family Vineyards, making Italian-influenced wine under a variety of labels, is one of the Napa pioneers, and many of the wines are superior bargains, well-made and with good flavor at low prices. For example, the Joe Blow ‘05 California Red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, Syrah and Merlot, and at $8, makes for good drinking while the burgers grill and while they’re being eaten. This also is a splendid wine to go with a spicy pizza, maybe with garlic and anchovies, or double pepperoni.
Bogle Winery, in Clarksburg, is another long-time maker of wines that are excellent values. They’re extremely straightforward, fairly simple and with good flavor. An ‘04
Phantom, one of their more expensive wines at $17, is a delicious blend of Petit Sirah (54 percent), Zinfandel (43 percent) and Mourvedre (3 percent). A blueberry overtone sets it apart, and it’s a fine accompaniment to grilled meat. Other worthy wines from Bogle are an ‘05 Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley ($13), an ‘05 Petit Sirah ($11) and an ‘05 Merlot ($9) that is a rich, supple wine with mouth-filling flavor.
High in the ranks of California’s finest winemakers, year in and year out, is Craig Williams at Joseph Phelps, and while the wines are extremely expensive, they’re worth it for the experience and, more important, for their excellence. Many of the value wines in this column are good, and certainly good companions for dinner, but the 2004 Joseph Phelps Insignia, even at $200, is a wine of a different caliber. The blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (72 percent), Merlot (14), PetiteVerdot (12) and Malbec (2), from estate-owned vineyards in St. Stag’s Leap, Yountville, Rutherford and Oakville is a remarkable wine, slightly spicy, with blackberry and blueberry notes and a finish that is smooth as velvet. This is a wine that can be drunk now, but in 6-8 years it will be a classic.
Joseph Phelps wines can be sampled for less, too. The 2005 Napa Valley Syrah ($45) is less than half the price, but a superb bottle; all the grapes are from the valley, and the wine spent 20 months in French oak, almost evenly divided between new and year-old barrels. The aroma is peppery, and the spice carries over into the flavor of plums and blackberries and the typical smooth finish of Williams’ wines. They epitomize elegance.