Warm, vibrant Merlot from Lodi in the north-central California delta

DaDaDa… 2011 Lodi Merlot, by Robin Langton for Naked Wines

“Naked Wines” is an arresting name, I guess, but misleading. I’m guessing that Judy may have thought we’re supposed to consume it, well, au naturel?

Fact is that it’s a great discovery — by the Naked folks, who actually vinted, bottled and sold it, and by us. Though the label tells us virtually nothing, as does their nakedwines.com website, still, a mixed case from them makes for great exploration and enjoyment.

I can do my part, telling you that the Lodi appellation means this soft Bordeaux has a great climate to grow in, and Robin Langton certainly demonstrates affinity with the varietal, which can be more approachable than the more popular red Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon. Alas, too often at modest prices Merlot turns out to be just sort of bland.

This isn’t bland. It can be a great alternative to a lot of meals where Pinot Noir might be chosen —  especially if some Pinots might be just a tad too assertive. The DaDaDa… presents as clear dark-red cherry; and the aroma is, yes, cherries — yet I think it’s rather like a candy sensation. (The wine, by the way, held its aroma and taste very well for a couple of days with just one serving left in the bottle.) Both the initial and the delayed experiences had me somehow sensing prime rib — not as a go-with, which could be wonderful — but in the smell of the wine.

As for taste, there indeed were cherry lollipops there! That’s not bad; it turns out to be appealing. The wine is totally dry, though it’s certainly not “sour” as oenocatechumens are tempted to complain. So — it’s not sweet, not sour, but just right. Goldilocks acids, too, are well balanced. The aftertaste reminded me of a good Pinot Noir but with lighter tannins. The alcohol level is a nice 13.6 percent.

We had the wine with grill-roasted clamcake portions in the shell, ready to bake from the grocery store freezer. Of course our grill was used to make baked potatoes, too, and we had a simple mixed green salad.

I had dithered over a choice of wine for this meal: red? white? rose? I’m glad I had this Merlot to try. Bob Cramer, The Fearless Taster.

I sure hope to see another bottling of ‘mbf’ Primitivo from the House of Mutt Lynch; you can’t get these fabulous very first 158 cases

Mutt Lynch 2009 Speedy Creek Vineyard Knights Valley Sonoma County Primitivo, $25

For my recent 80th birthday celebration I received several great wines from friends, one of which was a hand made Port which I’ll write about later.

Another was an impossible-to-obtain close relative of Zinfandel, which I’ll describe now. The grapes produced six French barrels of wine — half of them new, half used before. One hundred fifty-eight 750 milliliter bottles resulted after 18 months of loving care. (I don’t usually write about wines that really aren’t available to the general public, but at least you’ll know to jump for it if you see this label sometime.)

Judy’s sister Barbara served us, her husband Don, and their daughter Nancy a wonderful roast flank steak stuffed with spinach, bell peppers and feta, roasted buttery potatoes, and sauteed mixed vegetables — and this wine, wonderful by itself, was a perfect complement, just as any very nice wine should enhance, and be enhanced itself by, very nice food.

A deep, dark red cherry color, clear and bright, and quick-forming, long-lasting “legs” were well worth lingering over. But their promise quickly drew all of us into exploring the taste — or more properly, tastes (plural). The wine is still young enough so that various elements remain identifiable; but I think if the winery caches a few bottles they’ll find a rich Cabernet Sauvignon experience six or seven years from now. Its acid balance surely will support some aging to a single rich, robust sensation. Meanwhile, an initial delicate impression of mild hot chocolate, or maybe mocha, emerges from a swirl-and-sniff routine.

For now, in mouth what we got was dark berries and cherries, a luscious fruit compote with very light herbal/bramble undertones. The elusive chocolate/mocha edge developed into a Starbucks frappe (no sugar, though), followed by a mild red-licorice string aftertaste. A sudden epiphany grabbed Don: “Elderberry!” he said. And yes, it could indeed be there. We both recall elderberries from our youth (which was a long time ago, and you know what happens to the acuity of memory).

One reason I believe the wine would age well is the jump-in-the-mouth character of its acids, although the tannin is softening already. The acids brighten the flavors so well that I just know some wine neophytes will say it’s sour; but it is not. Drink and learn.

[Thank you for such a wonderful gift, Evelyn!] — Bob Cramer, The Fearless Taster.

Rhone wines with hard to sell names already have a New World home thanks to the Rhone Rangers of California

Bonny Doone Vineyard 2009 Central Coast Contra Old Vine Field Blend is a great example.

I wrote yesterday a paen to a French wine blend, Domaine Aime 2010 Minervois, which I believe could be equaled in Sonoma County. But I said I thought it would be a really tough sell, offering two or three (overcomeable)  reasons.

This morning’s The New York Times, reviewing a dozen “great” American wines under $20, gives welcome space to wines and regions pretty much new to average folks in America.

And one of them is Randall Grahm’s Contra blend of largely Rhone grapes which he prices at $16. I’d forgotten about his decades-long dedication to those varieties with the “strange” names I listed in my note on the Minervois, yesterday. Grahm and some friends call their special marketing venture the mission of The Rhone Rangers. Grahm is especially noted for his Cigare Volente — the name a send-up of the name of a famous Rhone blend. Bonny Doone is located in the Santa Cruz mountains, by the way. Most of the Rhone Rangers, I think, are working on the North Coast.

“Old vine field blends” are enjoying something of a surge of interest among some winemakers and “oenoscenti.” In coastal Central California, as in coastal Northern California, early vineyards were established by Italians and other European immigrants who planted intermixed vines. They consciously distributed vines to make it possible to grow and harvest, in special spots, the varieties that live harmoniously in finished bottles like the Rhone blends I’m writing about.

The fruit thus is blended in the field. It can be less costly — and somehow more spiritually harmonious — than the modern practice of making a separate batch of each varietal, testing the developing blend for taste and balance, then putting this “cellar blend” into bottles.

The Times says Grahm’s Contra blend is built upon 55 percent Carignane (contra the practice of the French, who limit the Minervois to 40 percent Carignan). The 2009 field blend turns out also to have Grenache, Mourvedre, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Syrah in the bottle, as in the vineyard. (Remember, Petite Sirah and Syrah are two entirely different varietals.)

Contra “is dry, fruity and harmonious” (just like the Minervois from France, I’d say) “with a streak of licorice,” writes Eric Asimov. If there’s licorice, it’s probably from the Zinfandel — or at least it would be if the Zin had come from the North Coast, where anise roots vie for  below-ground root space with our typical Zinfandel. I didn’t find licorice in the Minervois, but I  did find something a bit unexpected like, perhaps, cassis.

So: the new, also not-new, American Languedoc, American Rhone — California’s North and Central Coasts? Bob Cramer, The Fearless Taster.

A bright, delicious red wine blend from Languedoc makes me wish we’d produce it here in Sonoma County’s Russian River appellation

Domaine Aime 2010 Minervois

One of the wines Naked Wines included in the mixed case Judy recently bought was totally new to me. But the grapes that are permitted — even mandated by the French — to be blended into any wine labelled Minervois — thrive in parts of California’s North Coast. Unfortunately, they’re almost always (with one exception — Syrah) hidden in blended wines. That’s because customers have little idea what they’d be getting.

Well, what we’d be getting is fabulous! The nose is fruity, the flavor is an intense, concentrated fruit bowl, and the structure and balance of elements are wonderful. A sip leads to a gulp, Miss Manners be darned. The acids are as fearless as I am — though not as frightening. This wine will go with anything — although I’m writing right now before having it with any food. I couldn’t wait to tell the world!

In Languedoc, the Minervois appellation is permitted to have as much as 40 percent Carignan (here we bone-gnawing hairshirts call it Carignane). That variety sometimes is bottled all by itself; much more often, it’s found in lots of red blends. The vines produce huge quantities of fruit. Pure Carignane goes great with all kinds of peasant food.

Minervois can include Syrah, another variety that grows, and is bottled, prolifically here in northern California. Other varieties can be Grenache, Mourvedre, and Liedoner Pelut. Wikipedia informs me that in Languedoc any of those wines — or a blend including more than 40 percent Carignan — would be sold as Vin de Pays. I’m sure you’ll find it hard to wait to see if you can find anyone who cares about anything in this paragraph. I do, so you’re reading it. Power of the pen.

What I have in mind to drink this with includes kielbasa, grilled with a southern barbecue sauce and a horseradish-infused grainy mustard. I’m reheating a creamy risotto left over from last night, adding a strong dose of blue cheese and . . . yeah, I’m fearless . . . a glob of red-chili prepared nacho sauce. To continue the fearless nature of the meal, the salad is small broccoli florets, small canned black beans, and corn cooked on the cob, then stripped into kernels. Light mayonnaise, some rice and balsamic vinegars and several fresh basil leaves finish the salad.

We’ll see how this goes. If it’s as I expect, this is all you’ll learn about it. If it doesn’t please us, I’ll let you know. Okay? Bob Cramer, The Fearless Taster.

Prime Sauvignon Blanc appellations are moving north in California

Credence 2011 Lake County Sauvignon Blanc, by Jason Moore

Something about the Sonoma County climate creeping northward — part of global warming, which winegrowers recognize is happening — is signalling us to look not only to Mendocino County but Lake County appellations for fine, versatile wines to accompany a broad variety of foods.

We just had one of the wines that Napa’s Naked Wines has marked as deserving of more attention, and it indeed is versatile. We had a layered casserole of sliced potatoes, sweet onions, broccoli and two cheeses (pepper jack and pecorino romano) roasted in a covered cast-iron skillet in a covered barbecue grill. It was perfect.

Versatility means we also had a simple grilled london broil along with it. Such a simple supper! Such a satisfying trio of foods: steak, potatoes and onions, and Sauvignon Blanc! We also had an inexpensive Shiraz, and both went well with what we were eating — but my point is that a fine Sauvignon Blanc is just as compatible with simple grilled steak as it is with a potato-onion dish. Inquire about this wine at www.nakedwiines.com . Bob Cramer, The Fearless Taster.