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Fall into wine dinner season

The long, afternoon shadows of fall began stretching across the Lowcountry last week. The waning sun paints everything with with a coating of warm light.

It's one of my favorite times of year -- and certainly one of my favorite times to visit vineyards. Some wine makers have begun harvest; others mark the days until the plump, hanging berries are just right. The soon dormant vines are beginning to show colors other than green -- it's a sight to behold!

Fall also marks the beginning of wine dinner season, and the pilgrimage of wine makers who are visiting Savannah to introduce new vintages from grapes picked in autumns past.

I missed Gary Eberle, whose own label I tasted through while Eberle himself languished in North Carolina waiting for his personal plane to be repaired. Of note: An atypical Syrah Rose that's porky on the nose and uniquely complex enough to match up with fall foods like savory roasted root vegetables, salmon and braised pork.

I dined Wednesday at Local 11 Ten, whose Chef Jeffrey Rodgers prepared dishes from guest author Virginia Willis' cookbook. The courses were paired with wines from another guest, visiting winery owner W. Clarke Swanson.
Swanson's own biography notes that he's flamboyant. Maybe a guy in seersucker is a standout in Napa Valley, but the gracious and genteel Swanson fit into Savannah as comfortably as a stately oak tree.

We sampled his Pinot Grigio and a very limited production Chardonnay that was one of the finest examples of balanced, oak-aged Chard I've ever experienced. Don't look for it on shelves, but call the winery -- it's shipping season! A late harvest Chard, 2005 Tardiff, was plush and luxurious with blackberry cobbler and ice cream.

His 2005 Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend is drinkable now but I preferred the more luxurious 2001 bottling that the Butch brothers of Elizabeth on 37th graciously opened during a tasting that morning. The '01 is more complex -- and possesses a splash of Syrah. Give the 2007 Alexis time in the bottle, I think, and I bet it grows into an elegant lady.

Currently, it's the pure expression of the grape, juicy, rich with red fruit and with a striking mid-palate presence.
But I'm gravitating to the winery's flagship, its Merlot. Never mind that Swanson sits in the heart of Napa Valley Cabernet country -- between Opus One and Silver Oak no less -- this Merlot, with a splash of Cabernet is a powerhouse wine.
This, I heard said more than once Wednesday, is Merlot for Cabernet drinkers.

Its boldness gives away its Napa heritage at first sip, then yields in homage to Boardeaux with deep, rich, blackberry flavors, a hint of licorice and, again, that beautiful oak balance that belies its 20 months in barrel.

It lingers on the finish, tempting yet another drink, but be patient. The wine continues to evolve in the glass until spice notes develop. The current vintage is a drinker today, but can lay down for 6-8 years.