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On a High Valley high

The world's best wines -- regardless of price tag -- almost universally come from regions of sympathetic soils, correct temperature ranges and just the right amount of rainfall and sunlight.

That loosely defines the word "terroir," the magical elements that make vinifera grapes do what they do best -- create great wines.

In America, these areas earn Agriculture Viticultural Area (AVA) designations. Some are immediately recognizable and long-standing, like Napa Valley, Chalk Hill, Russian River Valley. There are nearly 200 AVAs in the United States.
One of the newest, High Valley AVA, perches on the northeast shore of Clear Lake in Lake County, Calif.

At just three miles wide and nine miles long, running east to west unlike other coastal valleys, High Valley's unique combination of volcanic and alluvial soils, combined with myriad microclimates, makes it perfect to grow premium-quality grapes. The rapidly changing elevations, soil mixes and temperature ranges allow success with a large number of varieties -- in many cases, more so than other AVAs in California.

I recently tasted wines from one of High Valley's leading producers, Brassfield Estate Winery. The 2,500-acre former cattle ranch is now home to native wildlife -- and more than 19 grape varieties planted on some 350 acres. All fruit is estate grown -- meaning all grapes for Brassfield wines come from their own vineyards. With a case full of awards, the wines have caught the attention of leading wine publications.

But reaching ever higher, in August esteemed winemaker David Ramey was named consulting winemaker at Brassfield.
Ramey, who was in Savannah last year for a wine dinner, is considered by many to be a pioneer and trendsetter in the California wine industry. His red wines are known for being lush, ripe and extremely well balanced. His white wines are loved for being fresh, bright and elegant.

His winemaking career at the esteemed ChÂteau Pétrus was followed by stints at Chalk Hill, Matanzas Creek, Dominus and most recently at Rudd Estate. David owns his own winery, Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg, Calif., and consults with some of the state's leading producers.

Of the wines I sampled, two were standouts:

The 2007 Serenity pops out of the glass with honeydew melon aromas and hints of mint. The blend combines perfect percentages of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Gewurztraminer and Semillon grapes for a wine that offers great flexibility with food and a clean, refreshing finish. A touch of sweetness is perfectly balanced with acidity -- which makes this wine a perfect quaffer or an equal partner for Asian cuisine or spicy Thai.

The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon High Serenity Ranch has already racked up more than a dozen awards. One sip tells the story. This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec is smooth and satisfying; the blending is masterful and insures nicely balanced complexity that I would normally expect in a Cab carrying a much higher price tag.

Expect rich, ripe fruit, with aromas of sweet currants. The 18 months this wine spent slumbering in French and American oak was a beauty rest -- subtle oak tannins come across on the elegant finish but don't overwhelm this wonderfully enjoyable Cab.