Let me introduce you to the wines of the Balletto Vineyards
Whenever I read a column titled "Best Wine Values Under $35," I imagine three things about the author: 1. They make more money than I do. 2. They drink less than I do. 3. They don't pay for the wine they drink.
As an industry veteran, I've avoided paying for wine for 40 years. If I did foot the bill, by the calculus above, my annual "best value" wine tab would be over $6,000! When I must shop for wine, I search for quality/values under $15 and find them in Chicagoland's dynamic market. So dear reader, when I recommend that you spend your hard-earned cash on wine priced $20 and up, I mean it.
I really mean it with the wines from Balletto Vineyards.
A little "ooh!" of delight escapes me when Balletto samples arrive. I know I can look forward to the pure flavor of each variety, with succulent fruit balanced by bright acidity and no fussy techniques trying to make the wine be anything but an expression of the family's Russian River Valley (RRV) estate vineyards. Ask your merchant for Ross's Choice and the wines below (in theory available in Chicagoland, distributed by Breakthru Beverage), or visit Balletto's online shop or wine.com.
Rosé of Pinot Noir: Balletto's stated mission is a joyful rosé and mission accomplished. Its 100% estate-grown Pinot Noir is harvested early in the season to retain vibrant acidity. During Balletto's red Pinot fermentation, a portion of the juice is removed from the tank early (in wine speak deemed 'saignèe,' to bleed) with just a blush of color, and vinified separately to total dryness. It's a lot of work for a seemingly effortless wine, with plump entry, juicy strawberry-peach flavor and long finish, with just enough tannin to pair with a wide range of dishes, from appetizers to light red meats. John Balletto recommends figs with blue cheese, prosciutto with melon or endive with walnuts and Gorgonzola. (About $20)
Pinot Gris: Balletto treats the grey-skinned Pinot as equal to their Pinot Noir, planting their gris in prime hillside vineyards just 10 miles from the Pacific for perfect ripeness balanced by firm acidity. Fermentation in neutral oak adds a satiny texture to pear and stone fruit flavor. Richer and with more texture than Italian pinot grigio, this gris makes an elegant mealtime companion to seafood, poultry, light meats and cream sauces, including a Balletto family favorite: cheese ravioli with lemon sauce. (About $20)
Balletto gives me everything I want in California Pinot Noir: Silk-satin texture, lush aroma of spiced cherries, flavors of red fruit, beetroot, exotic spices and a dash of vanilla. The family sells 90% of their fruit to neighboring wineries, vinifying their preferred grapes with indigenous yeast in small open-top fermenters, maturing judiciously in French oak barrels. Single-vineyard Pinots -- such as the Sexton Hill available in Chicagoland -- are rich and complex, suitable for fine steak or rich game birds. (Under-$50) For summer sipping, my choice is Balletto's Russian River Valley Pinot Noir with elegant drinkability, perfect for a rich cocktail (slightly chilled) and complement to summer fare including sandwiches, Asian takeout, rich salads and just about anything you might throw on a grill, including veggies like beets and mushrooms. It's reasonably priced at under $30.
Balletto and fellow wineries unite modern sensibility and science with the Old World philosophy of wine growing in the Russian River Valley Neighborhoods project. (Note, the French word for winemaker is 'vigneron,' a person who tends grapevines.) To explore the unique flavors of RRV's six regions and the unique soil and climate ('terroir' in French) that elicit these flavors, visit Neighborhoods | Russian River Valley. Then, for a look at the groundbreaking study authenticating terroir, visit my Good Wine column, "What all the ins and outs of a terroir study mean," initially published by the Daily Herald on October 28, 2020.
• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Write to her at food@daily herald.com.
Ross' choiceWine: Teresa's Unoaked Chardonnay
Region: Russian River Valley, CA
Availability: Balletto Shop 2020 Teresa's Unoaked Chardonnay $20
Distributed by: Breakthru Beverage, Cicero
Tasting notes: Shimmering like early Spring sunshine, the wine invites with a rush of yellow apple aroma. The entry is focused, evolving to moderate weight in the palate, then opening to a full finish, a transition not common to domestic winemaking. It's an example of Balletto's hands-off winemaking style: whole clusters of estate-grown fruit are gently-pressed, with a low, slow fermentation to maintain fresh fruit; no oak, no lees stirring, no malolactic. I long for Vermont Cheddar (Extra Sharp) or a Turkey sandwich slathered in mayo and mustard on toast. John Balletto recommends Halibut steamed with rosemary, capers, butter and a splash of Teresa's Chardonnay. Also available at Chicago seafood havens The Palm and GT Fish & Oyster. Please note a label change since 2019 vintage. Once the role of French Chablis, Teresa's Unoaked reminds us why Chardonnay makes the world's finest and favorite white wine quaff. ($20)