Palazzo for the People (Master’s Blend 2016)

Scott Palazzo is not your ordinary Napa vintner.  His boundless enthusiasm for his wines and the Napa Valley in general are not uncommon among winery owners, but his demeanor seems perhaps a bit more ‘Hollywood’ than ‘wine country’.

But, while the guy can definitely ‘talk the talk’, he also walks the walk.  His numbers speak for themselves.  Take for example his Wine Advocate reviews.  For 25 wines over the course of a decade (2003-2013), Palazzo never received a score below 91 and there were a number of ‘95s’, ‘96s’, and even some ‘98s’ sprinkled in the mix.

We have worked with Scott a few times over the years because his wines are quite good.  But being wine merchant types as we are, the ‘relationship’ has always been subject to price concerns.  While we appreciate the best of breed from Napa as much as the next guys, we are a little conservative when it comes to offering that $80-and-up category for sale.  It is a common problem for us with ‘the Valley’ these days.

We could go off (and have) on the present state of affairs in Napa Valley as it seems most wineries are only willing to do as much as they need to do to promote their own ‘direct to consumer’ sales.  But what is relevant in this case is that we are starting to see a few Napa-ites starting to take stock of serving a broader market with a wine or two that isn’t just some unembellished effort that just bears the winery’s name.

Not long ago we profiled a new effort from Conn Valley that really delivered quality for a much more modest fare than their usual ‘reserve level’ offerings.  Most important, the wine showcased the style of the house and gave the luxury feel of the winery’s top cuvees for substantially less of an outlay.  So many wineries are putting out uninspired bottlings for the ‘little people’ that are little more than token offerings.  They rarely reflect the house style.    The Conn Valley is a notable diversion from that format.

So is this new effort from Palazzo (the second of the series we are told).  Unlike a lot of ‘value’ (by Napa standards) wines, this tastes and stylistically presents a legitimate Palazzo experience.  The style of all of Palazzo’s wines have the plush elegance and balance of Bordeaux as their reference point.  It is Napa with an eye to Saint Julien.  The Palazzo Left Bank Red Cuvée Master Blend Series 2016, while the name is too long, represents more the rich Napa texture and presence with a Bordeaux elegance rather than, say, the pedal-to-the-medal trophy style typical of most vintners here.

The ‘Left Bank’ is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 25% each Cabernet Franc and Merlot.  It sees 20 months in oak, 50% new.  The result is a pleasing, layered effort with lush black-cherry and blackberry fruit on the nose and palate, along with hints of chocolate, coffee and cassis. Because some of the components come from top Carneros sites, there’s a cool, fresh underpinning of ‘savory’ to play against the lusher, sweeter  Cabernet core.  It’s about complex aromatics and harmony and it performs like wines costing a lot more while accurately conveying the style of the house, which is exactly the point!

 

‘BARGAIN’ CABERNET FROM ANDERSON’S CONN VALLEY NAPA VALLEY

They say necessity is the mother of invention.  This would seem to be a fine example of that saying.  No one has time to read the whole story of Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards.  Their website claims four generations have been here though the label only started with the 1987 vintage and their website states “Since 1983 we have been family owned and operated by the Anderson’s.” (this is a direct cut and paste showing the incorrect use of the possessive for all you English nigglers out there).   They got a lot of attention pretty soon in their history, rattling off a series of 92+ scores in successive vintages in Wine Advocate (and a Wine Spectator cover with their incredibel 1988) and the label was generating some buzz ahead of the emergence of a number of now iconic ‘trophy styled wines’ shortly thereafter.

Conn Valley is a little different from the heart of Napa.  Located roughly ten minutes up the hill east of St. Helena, sort of on the back side south of Howell Mountain, this 40 acre estate sits in a sort of elevated cleft known as Conn Valley.  It has a completely different and more serene vibe than the Valley below and this all-by-itself property has cave cellars, a sort of throwback facility, and what one might call its own ‘zen’.  We visited the Andersons there many years ago, met Todd and his father, and got a real feel for the wines.  We sold the many renditions from Conn Valley for many years but, as has happened so often in this part of the world, prices started to creep up beyond the point where they were slam dunks.

They made their bones on a series of ‘reserve level’ bottlings called Eloge, Reserve, Signature and Right Bank built from Bordeaux varietals.  It should also be mentioned that they have had some occasional enthusiastic kudos for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but their reputation was based on wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, and Merlot.  The style has always been of a luxury bent with broad, creamy fruit well-seasoned with top flight oak.  It seemed to be the perfect recipe for the market, and it had a pretty good run.

No one can say for sure what happened but production started to outpace sales.  One could suggest a gradual slowdown in the super-premium market and their signature wines ran from $80 to $150, though they got reviews commensurate with that level of pricing.  Maybe it was the move from just making a wine called Cabernet to making a number of different bottlings (until this wine, the last review we saw for something called simply Cabernet was 1995) that confused consumers.  Maybe it was the label, which they changed to something else rather distinctive (but also difficult to read) not long ago.

Maybe it was Todd Anderson’s focus on his super-super-premium Ghost Horse project that took away from the attention devoted to Conn Valley.  There are many conjectures, and the story can get pretty complicated.  But the bottom line is that the winery decided it needed to produce a wine that got the attention of a whole new set of buyers and was within the price range of a larger audience.

To that end, the 2016 Anderson’s Conn Valley Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was born (or ‘reborn’ depending on how you interpret the history).  The blend is 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot & 5% Cabernet Franc, the Cabernet Franc the only part to come from another site (Reinke Family Vineyards, a hillside vineyard in west Carneros…the wine still qualifies as estate bottled under the law).

They really nailed this one.  This has a lot in common with their ‘reserve’ level wines (except the price)…creamy fruit, notes of chocolate, spice and vanilla, along with pretty ripe, melty tannins for a wine so young.   The winery’s story is this, “A new product for us is this first ever ‘non-reserve’ Cabernet. It is a fruit forward, friendly, easy to drink style of Cabernet produced from the barrels that don’t quite make the cut for the Reserve and Eloge bottlings. What you may enjoy though is knowing that this is an estate grown, estate bottled Conn Valley Cabernet for HALF what you’d normally have to pay…”

It certainly tastes like it had the luxury treatment and showed surprising presence and polish on both occasions that we tried it.  This definitely has a ‘wow’ quality to it, and the kind of plush refinement you simply don’t see for under $40.  If you are a fan of Cabernet, it would be hard not to like it.

We don’t think the media has seen this one yet as this just hit the market.   No doubt it will be tasted among the other, much more exotic (and more expensive) Conn Valley wines and probably not get its due with respect to numbers.  It’s our version of the ‘theory of relatively’ where, if there are ‘upper cuvees’, most writers will focus on those and work backward.  As to timing, you are definitely ahead of the game as the wine was literally just released.

Are we going to tell you it’s as good as their $150 reserve bottling?  We know human nature far too well to promise that.  Are we going to tell you that if you drop this in among what is out there for $35-60 it will likely steal the show? Absolutely!  It is one of the sexiest Cabernets we have had for this kind of fare but it’s all estate fruit from a place that has been making top notch reds for a long time.  They created this wine to make an impression.  That it does!

 

 

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (Champagne)

It’s not often you get to tell a story like this one and it’s also important to understand that this probably couldn’t happen here.  True, we don’t have Champagne vineyards close by, like the high school that is the center of this story does.  But, honestly, high school students being allowed to get involved with the production of alcoholic beverages simply wouldn’t play in America, period.  That being said, this unique co-operative source all came about by a series of events in this special locale in Champagne.

In 1919, the war and phylloxera had pretty much trashed many wine producing areas in France.  The Puisards, a successful merchant couple with no heirs, decided to donate their lands to the government on the condition that there would be a winemaking school created in Avize.   That school, Avize Viti Campus, was officially founded in 1927 and, in 1952, the students and teachers along with local cellarmasters and winemakers, collaborated to produce a Champagne at the school.

Champagne Sanger is that Champagne, and it is a nod to the success of the school and the collaborative process, as well as the passing of practical knowledge from one class to another.  Sanger is 100% Chardonnay, coming exclusively from the Grand Cru vineyards belonging to the school, from areas of Cramant, Oger and Avize, some owned by the school and some from local growers who are alumni.  It sees 60 months en tirage (the minimum is only 15 months for the appellation) and is finished to a dosage of 6g/l.

It is extra brut without being overly aggressive, comes off as bone dry yet shows plenty of fruit (so many low dosage efforts are painfully dry) and plays sensationally with both food and by itself.   This is truly Champagne made by Champenois and we recommend it highly for its price performance (all Grand Cru fruit for under $45!) and distinctive styling.  It also has some unique character points as, along with the typical brioche, citrus and apple elements one typically finds from the area, there is also and engaging spice nuance and notes that remind one of red berries.  Cool bubbles from a very unique source, and very little of it crosses the ‘Pond’.

RANDOM RAMBLING: THE PINK ‘TAX’

The prevailing wisdom is that there are two things in life that are inevitable, death and taxes.  While we are not seeking to disturb anyone’s comfort zone (one has Donald Trump and Elon Musk for that already), there are a few other things that come to mind in the discussions of ‘absolutes’.  The ocean is always salty for example.  The whole gravity thing works pretty consistently as well.  You drop an apple, it hits the ground.   And, rosé Champagnes always cost a lot more.  Unlike the oceans and gravity, which have perfectly sound explanations, that last one doesn’t necessarily.

It all started with a presentation of one of our favorite larger Champagne houses, Bollinger.  As usual, we loved the Bollinger Special Cuvee.  We always have, but haven’t always carried it because the price point doesn’t always hit a logical spot vis-à-vis all of the other Champagnes that we carry.  Still, no faulting the juice.

At the same time we were presented Bollinger Rosé.  Curiously, though the two of us tasting that day have nearly seventy years in the wine business between us, but neither of us could remember ever tasting this particular bottling.  Sure we taste a lot of stuff, and can forget things.  But we rarely do, and when something is this good, you don’t forget it.

Intrigued, we looked at the ‘stats’.   The Special Cuvee was  60% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay, and 15% Meunier from vineyards of which over 85% were Grands and Premiers crus sites.   The Rosé is 62% Pinot Noir, 24% Chardonnay, 14% also from vineyards that are over 85% Grands and Premiers crus.  A percent or two difference in the blend but, otherwise, not a lot of evident separation points between the two bubblies…except one.  The Rosé has 5 to 6% still red wine added to provide its color.

The kicker is that we were interested in the Rosé as well as the Special Cuvee and inquired as to the price.  The cost of the pink version was 60% more!  How does the addition of a little still red wine cause the price to vault so precipitously?  Was that ‘still red wine’ some unnamed Grand Cru Burgundy?  We’re not bagging on ‘Bolly’ mind you.  This seems to be common practice throughout Champagne.  Those of you who have seen the super elite certainly have noted that the cost of the pink versions of, say, Krug, Dom Perignon and Cristal are substantially higher than their already very costly ‘regular’ cuvees.  The practice is widespread.   The only question in our minds is ‘why?’

The first thing out of most vintners’ mouths is something about ‘rarity’.  But limited quantities don’t always justify extreme prices (see also Napa Valley).  I mean is still red wine that hard to come by that you couldn’t make more rosé?  Champagne is a big place.  So, then, is the rosé version of someone’s Champagne always better by comparison to that house’s go-to Brut?  Not in our experience.  In fact it is surprisingly close to a 50/50 proposition.

So what’s the deal?  It seems to be standard operating procedure in Champagne.  Is rosé Champagne worth so much more simply because it is ‘pink’?  Some aren’t even that pink!  The bottom line is that this is all baffling to us when we stop and think about it.  As a wine store, we spend a lot of time trying to educate folks on a wide variety of topics to try and explain why things look, taste or cost a certain way.  Here? We got nothing.

Maybe it’s just a case of a French region trying to pull ‘la lain’ over everyone’s ‘yeux’.  Hey, we love a good rosé Champagne as much as anyone.  We also understand the whole ‘perceived value’ thing.  We just aren’t ‘perceiving’ why we are expected to pay so much more for the genre.  Just sayin’…

GREAT WHITES

I FAVATI FIANO di AVELLINO PIETRAMARA 2017This house has been one of a small number of Fiano di Avellino sources we have worked with over the years, and probably the most consistent as far as quality goes.  This is a definitive Campanian white with plenty subtle white stone fruit and floral aromatics alongside a high-toned minerality.  The wine is fleshy and fairly unctuous, yet all is nicely defined by well-positioned, well-integrated acidity which gives a nice lift to everything.

The I Favati Fiano di Avellino Pietramara 2017 absolutely ‘blows up’ with lighter handed, herb based pasta or risotto dishes and whitefish and shellfish preparations.  There’s a certain density and relaxed acidity that are kind of a surprise if you are coming from other genres of Italian whites, but that is exactly the charm of wines like Fiano and Greco di Tufo which make up their own unique stylistic subset.  There are few frames of reference for these wines but this is one of the textbook examples of the breed and a consistent favorite around here.  It has been a tre-bicchieri choice of Gambero Rosso on multiple occasions (this one not yet rated) as well.

PHILIPPE RAVIER CHIGNIN BERGERON 2017First, for those that don’t know the genre, it’s probably not a bad idea to define our terms.   This term Chignin-Bergeron refers to the appellation here in the Savoie which is, in turn, named for its only permitted grape variety.  That grape variety is called Roussanne everywhere else.   But it is fair to say that the character of the varietal is quite a bit different  here in these pristine foothills in eastern France.

Sparkling streams, blue skies, this almost idyllic area yields wines of uncommon freshness with bright stone fruit and minerality taking the forefront and the typically heavy, soily, almost oxidative nature of Roussanne definitely not a major part of the profile here.  These crisper, cooler versions have the honeyed tones and the earth elements present  but dialed back.  Bergeron gives a whole different impression when lifted and paired with a higher toned minerality that is a signature of this region.

Philippe and Sylvain Ravier cultivate 7 hectares of Roussanne (called Bergeron here as we said).  The vines are between 10 and 30 years of age and are planted on very steep, due south-facing slopes of the Massif des Bauges at 1100-1500 feet altitude. The soil is rocky, decomposed white limestone which drains well while retaining heat to help ripen the grapes and the cool nights keep everything crisp.   The fruit is harvested by hand, carefully sorted and moved into the press by gravity. After a light pressing, the must is protected from oxidization by a blanket of CO2.

The Philippe Ravier Vin de Savoie Chignin Bergeron 2017 has a rather surprising density to the delicate fruit that sits atop firm but giving acidity.  Honey and  nut elements play against the white stone fruit and flower core with subtle minerality throughout.  Fresh and light on its feet, it’s a fine example of the category.

CHRISTIAN MOREAU CHABLIS 2016:   Chablis has been a bit of a ‘sticky wicket’ of late thanks to the fact that quantities have been erratic over the last couple of vintages and the currently widespread 2015s are generally overtly ripe and not quite so Chablis-like in terms of lift and acidity.  A few producers got it done right in terms of delivering wines that are true to type but still possess that essential combination of  flesh and zip to pull it off.   The Christian Moreau Chablis 2016 fills an important role as something the Chablis lover can go to with confidence.

Yes there is some volume in the mid-palate, but also the kind of zip one expects from Chablis with plenty of evident apple/citrus fruit up front that fades into a pleasing minerality.  As Burghound puts it, this has ‘… enough Chablis character to be persuasive. The round, rich and more voluminous flavors possess good punch and concentration while delivering better depth and length on the somewhat drier finish.”  That’s fair enough as a comment.

We like this as a great choice by virtue of the engaging, ‘drink me’ style that still says ‘Chablis’ in the glass and sells for a reasonable tab at a time where successful executions in this are much more scarce.  This was not an easy vintage from a farming standpoint and quantities have been erratic thanks to quirks in the weather.  So it’s great to have delicious a go-to in this important category.  Few are this ‘on target’.

 

 

 

LA RIOJA ALTA’S BRILLIANT 2009 GRAN RESERVA 904

It doesn’t take a lot to convince us about the quality of wines from this producer. As you probably know, we’ve been fans for a long time.  It’s hard for us to even imagine why wines like La Rioja Alta aren’t the first choice of most wine drinkers.   We have worn our affection for Rioja on our sleeves for, what, a couple of decades?  La Rioja Alta has been a house favorite for a long time as well and is one of the bastions of quality juice in the ‘traditional’ style.  They perform well at all of the price levels at which they play, from their Reserva Viña Ardanza and Viña Alberdi to their super-premium Gran Reservas 904 and 890.   You’ve got high quality, very modest prices relative to similar examples in other genres, and those wacky Spaniards even throw in a bit of bottle age at no extra charge.  Where’s the down side?

Not long ago we wrote an offer for the sensational 2009 La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza Reserva.  The pitch was pretty straight forward.  How about a 96-point (from James Suckling) Rioja in a plush, ripe style (2009 was a warm vintage), with a few years of bottle age, for under $30?  Pretty compelling, no?  Correspondingly, we sold quite a bit of it.  No surprise there.  In the piece we wrote about the fact that we tasted two wines that day, the Vina Ardanza 2009 and  the Gran Reserva 904 2009.  It was one spectacular day of ‘research’.

It was also a little bit of a surprise.  Alongside the 2001, 2004, 2005 and 2010 vintages in Rioja, the 2009, while certainly no slouch, simply isn’t thought of as an elite vintage.  Apparently La Rioja Alta did not get that memo because both of these wines were among the most engaging out of the gate that we had ever had from these folks over great number of releases. Plush, packed with supple but substantial cassis, black cherry and spice character, ripe tannins and well tucked in supporting acidity,  If you were going to ‘design’ a super sexy Rioja, this pair of 2009s would be great models.

La Rioja Alta is one of Spain’s greatest and most beloved wineries.  It produces classically elegant and polished Rioja wines that are always released after quite some time aging in their cellars. They do all the work, you don’t pay the price.

The variety of vineyards La Rioja Alta has to work with allows them to maintain the vintage’s unique imprint on the wine while still maintaining a simply ridiculous level of quality for the money.  As far as hedonism goes, the bodega hit home runs with these two.  Hey, we’ll gladly admit that we would drink either one of them with relish.  We know that many of you out there prefer to buy at the top-level, in which case the 904 is the clear choice.

The 904 is a complete, engaging, stylish beverage with enormous food versatility yet a roundness and complexity that will reward those that just want to haul off and drink it.  The reviewers seem to share our excitement with this effort.   James Suckling wrote, “This is a driven and super tight Gran Reserva with dark berries and hints of spice and cedar. A spicy red-pepper undertone and some dried flowers. Full to medium body, integrated tannins and a superb finish. A great wine.- 97 Points!”

Wine Advocate’s Luis Gutierrez was, as usual, a bit more loquacious.  He offers, “Time flies, and the 904 for sale is already the 2009 Gran Reserva 904, as they didn’t bottle it in 2008. They are only going to bottle their top wines in very good and excellent vintages, so there will be a 2010 and 2011 but no 2012, 2013 or 2014. This super classical cuvée showcases the wines from Haro, silky and elegant after long aging in oak and a good future in bottle. 2009 was a powerful vintage, ripe but with good balance. The blend is approximately 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano, fermented in stainless steel with a 78-day natural malolactic. The aging was in four-year-old American oak barrels crafted by their own coopers; the wines aged from April 2010 until April 2014. During that time, the wine was racked every six months, to be finally bottled in November 2014. This is usually my favorite wine from the portfolio, where the balance between aging and youth reaches its highest point. It’s developed but it keeps some fruit character, plenty of spices and balsamic aromas. The palate is polished but has some clout, with clean, focused flavors and a long, spicy and tasty finish. This represents good value for the quality it delivers…95+ points.”

The only question left to answer is for the ‘numbers’ set who would say that, since the Ardanza got 96 from James Suckling and 93+ from Advocate, as opposed to the 97 and 95+ respectively for the 904, why would one spend the additional funds for a point or two?  We could unleash a lengthy argument on several fronts but, for time’s sake, because it’s better.  It is from a different vineyard, with older vines (60 years as opposed to 30).  It’s also a different blend (90% Tempranillo/10% Mazuelo in 904 compared to 80% Tempranillo/20% Garnacha in Ardanza).

There’s more complexity, structure, and a different profile in the 904, plus it is a different expression of Rioja.  It is simply not, in our minds, an either/or proposition.  Ardanza is one of the best $30 wines in the world, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything in 2009 La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Reserva 904’s price category that was better for the fare.  You need both! It’s a wonderful ‘problem’ to have.

 

 

 

FANTASTIC ‘DESIGNER’ FRANC DEAL

The connection between fine wine and fashion is a successful and recurring one in the wine industry. Of course, the most visible is LVMH with Louis Vuitton partnering with Moet Hennessey and also owning Cheval Blanc, Chateau d’Yquem, and Clos des Lambrays among other things. Salvatore Ferragamo makes some distinctive, if less famous reds on his Il Borro estate in Tuscany. Chanel owns Napa Valley’s St. Supery winery as well as Chateaux Canon and Rauzan-Segla in Bordeaux. Roberto Cavalli owns vineyards in South Africa and Tuscany. The common thread? Creativity and the opportunity to take the proverbial blank canvas and turn it into something special.

Podernuovo a Palazzone is one of those stories. The family involved is the Bulgari family (yes that Bulgari family). The same kind of passion and creative energy that goes into successful fashion companies is dangerously close to the kind of spirit it takes to succeed in the world of wine. The ‘best’ are the best because of passion, energy, uncompromising effort and attention to detail among other things. Just like we make the point that it is best to buy little wines from top of line wine producers because they simply work on a different standard than anyone else, so it is with fashion folk. Success is expected. Cutting corners is out of the question if the goal is to achieve the best result. So, in this case, fine watches, jewelry, hand bags…wine? Why not?

The story of the estate goes like this. From jewelry to grapes, Giovanni Bulgari’s venture into winemaking has to be seen as another form of creative outlet. After years of traveling the world to seek out the best gems for his family’s jewelry company, Bulgari is now living his dream of working outdoors on the land, with products that reflect the territory he loves located near Siena in Tuscany. In 2004, Bulgari, together with his father Paolo Bulgari, longtime chairman of the Rome-based jeweler, bought the abandoned Podernuovo estate and transformed it into a full-fledged international agricultural firm and award-winning vineyard.

The 42 acres of vineyards at PoderNuovo were planted in 2007. Their terrain is rich with clay, sand and chalk in differing proportions, a good match for different varieties of grapes. To that end they have planted several grape varieties on this estate in the southern tip of Tuscany near Siena and make three different reds on the property. The Argirio is their stylistic nod to Bolgheri, the blend being predominantly Cabernet Franc with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the mix. The name is a derivative of the term argile which refers to its clay-based soils.

Lovely, very polished, this one boasts a sleek core of black fruits with savory notes of smoke and grilled herbs alongside dark chocolate, leather, and spice. This shows the best side of Franc with a ‘slippery’, elegant, medium weight palate and deceptive length, with none of the detracting evergreen notes. Like a fine Bordeaux or Bolgheri wine the breeding of the Podernuovo A Palazzone Toscana Argirio 2014 is evident from first whiff with the balance precise and the edges supple. This one really sings with meats though we see a wide range of applications and a very enticing drinkability that make it a wine for all seasons.

The wine is definitely liked by the media as well as us. James Suckling offers “An extremely pretty 2014 with blackcurrant, spice, hints of rose petal and vanilla. Medium to full body, firm and velvety tannins and a flavorful finish. Drink in 2018 but already beautiful. 93 Points!”

Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner had these comments, “… Those Cabernet aromas reign supreme. Inky dark fruit is followed by grilled herb, rosemary twig and cured leather. This is a full-bodied red wine with luscious dark fruit and savory spice. Those spicy flavors follow through with persistence and power on the finish…92 points”

As the Bulgari’s admit, they can’t expect the aura of their other brand to shine on this one and that wine is an entirely different arena than fashion even if the passion, quality and attention to detail are the same. While their $35 list price isn’t crazy for a wine this good, the market did not react to the Argirio 2014 enthusiastically enough and fast enough. As always, we were there to help out. That’s why we are able to sell this flashy, polished, fashionable red for half of the ‘list’ price ($17.98). Bellisimo!

MAGIQUE: TARDIEU-LAURENT COTES DU RHONE VILLAGES BECS FIN 2016

It’s a bit of a mixed bag for us from the standpoint of history.  We were heavily involved with this dynamic duo of winemakers a decade ago, only to barely see them at all for a substantial stretch of time since then.  The story here makes for a great instructive tale on what a difference an importer can make in the marketplace by virtue of their ‘marketing’ regimen and pricing.  That, however, is a story for another day and we mainly want to make the point that we are glad to have this house as an option once again.

Even though this isn’t a new brand label (in fact it was one of the most talked about labels during the 90s and early ‘oughts’), we are going to treat it as if it is because we are pretty sure a lot of people new to Rhones, or to wine in general, have little awareness of who these guys are.  So we are going to do the quick ‘cliff notes’ version to get everyone caught up.  It’s a pretty interesting story that gives great insight into why this is a negociant house unlike any other.

It is the partnership of two important wine entities.  Dominique Laurent, who we met in the mid-90s, was one of the People Magazine stories of the time.  A producer of Burgundies, with a style that showed a modern flair and new school philosophy, gained a lot of notoriety during those formative years for his use of ‘200 % new oak’ on his top bottlings.  Simply stated, it was said that he would put certain wines in a new oak barrel and then, after a period of time, put the same wine in another new oak barrel.  Whether or not that was the literal goings on, that was the buzz.   But the result was a style of Burgundy that had a unique sheen of well-integrated vanillan oak tones.  When we asked Dominique how it was done, he said simply ‘magique.’  Magic.

Michel Tardieu was a Provencal local who knew his way around the vineyards of the Rhone and South of France.  He was a former state employee that had a passion for people, wine and a nose for sniffing out important vineyard sites with distinctive characteristics and old vines.  The mantra was always to use the oldest vines from the best parcels in the Rhône, work with organic and biodynamic farmers, and establish long-term relationships with the growers they work with.

Together Dominique and Michel established quite a reputation for meticulous winemaking, polished wines and a rather modern flair for the genre.  The reviews were consistently enthusiastic and we were huge fans as well, as their wines offered a unique choice stylistically for the genre.  In all honesty though, they didn’t fly off the shelf back then because the prices were at a bit of a premium for the category.  Subsequent ‘marketing arms’ sadly only added some additional tariff but little in the way of significant exposure in the market.

Since 2008, when Laurent decided to dial things back, the Tardieu family has been in control of the operation with Michel’s son, Bastien, at the helm of the winemaking.  While they have apparently backed off the wood elements, the wines still have that distinctive textural ‘polish’ no doubt in part as a result of more experience with this particular site and having worked so long with a ‘Burgundy guy’.  In other words, they still have the ‘magic’, and this is still a very sophisticated ‘Cotes du Rhone Village.’  Also note the price is about what it was ten years ago, which means that they have a more realistic approach to pricing and have found a new distribution scenario that doesn’t add excess to the fare.

The vineyard is comprised of 60-year-old Grenache and 30-year-old Syrah, with the Syrah the star of the show (it makes up 60% of the blend) while the Grenache wraps around and gives the wine a sexy mouth feel and an outgoing fruit component.  The Tardieu-Laurent Cotes du Rhone Villages Becs Fin 2016 is no ordinary ‘Cotes du Rhone. ’ It plays well above its ‘station’.  The fact that 2016 was a special vintage was not lost on these folks either.

As the esteemed MW Jancis Robinson summarizes, “Very ‘serious’, savoury, dense nose for a wine with this appellation. This tastes so much better than many a Châteauneuf I have had from less irreproachable sources! This is the first ambitious 2016 southern Rhône red I have tried and I am knocked out by the quality and concentration. No heat on the end. It would be a shame to drink this too young.”  Sorry Jancis, that ‘early drinking’ is likely to happen with this one.

Jeb Dunnuck echoes Jancis, and us for that matter, in saying, “The 2016 Côtes du Rhône Les Becs Fins is slightly more forward and charming, with a modern style in its cassis, vanilla bean and blackberry jam aromas and flavors. Possessing both richness and elegance, it’s going to a delicious red that drinks well above its price point…90-92 points.  We’re glad to have Tardieu-Laurent back in the house!

‘BRANDING’: FRIEND OR FOE OF WINE

There have been similar rants on these pages in the past about the current trend toward ‘branding’.  But it seems that every time a situation arises that demonstrates exactly what we object to, we feel the need to speak out.  Maybe no one is listening.  We do realize that a lot of fermented grape juice of marginal quality is sold out in the world and we are but a microscopic (if vocal) speck on the landscape.  Maybe our rants are some sort of therapeutic exercise we need to go through, but we are becoming somewhat concerned about things that are happening in the wine industry that we feel are completely counter to what we find to be in its best long term interest.

Yes we are very passionate about what we do here and get excited to come to work and see what the day will bring. Sadly there are burgeoning trends we feel are encroaching on the true beauty of the business.  One supposes it would be a good time to state what that ideal is.  Well, for us, it is about the diversity and personality of wine.  As importer Eric Solomon so eloquently stated on his philosophy of selecting wines, ‘place over process’.  We want Bordeaux to taste like Bordeaux, Napa Cab to taste like Napa Cab, Rhones to taste like their place of origin and so on and so on.  To us the joy of wine is in the diversity of expression that aspect is an inherent part of quality.

We still believe vintage matters because in each year the variables of weather have an impact on the finished wine, for better or worse.  That is the essence of what the wine experience is all about.  If you want something to taste the same every time, drink whiskey or one of those canned cocktails.  Wine has never been about that to us.  But now there are large forces in the world that are trying to make it that way.

We first noticed It with the distribution companies and wholesalers.  We would order a particular wine and, if the distributor was out of it, he would just ship the next vintage as if that was perfectly OK.  Same label, right?  Doesn’t vintage kind of matter with wine?   We, in our archaic mind sets, still think it does.

More recently we have noticed a couple of disturbing trends.  First is the homogenization of wine.  More and more we have noticed a certain artificial twang and overt primary grapeyness in a number of red wines.  We have very specific ideas about who perpetrated this attempt to mediate ‘vintage’ with excessive manipulation in the cellar.  For a number of reasons we will not name names.  But these successful market brands, even though they don’t necessarily taste like their stated varietal because of additions of various winemaking ‘ingredients’, have spawned a whole series of imitators.  Pretty soon everything will be made to formula and will all taste the same, or at least that is the fear

If, say, a 2011, 2012, and 2013 version of a Napa Cabernet, from vintages that are about as different from one another as it gets in California, are virtually indistinguishable from each other, what does that tell you?  It tells you that there is ‘winemaking’ happening, and we don’t mean that in a nice way.  Sadly, instead of being spurned by the marketplace, some of these companies are selling for ungodly sums of money because of ‘branding’.  Big conglomerates don’t seem to care about quality at all, only having a name that has a certain public appeal so they can ramp up production even more.  Is it good business?  There are those that think so.  Is it still wine?  Technically and chemically, we suppose it is.  But such beverages do not inspire a lot of passion in us.

We have been pretty vocal about ‘natural’ wines, too.  We are all for organic farming and minimal handling in the cellar as long as it provides exciting juice.  But we aren’t interested in buying something based on how it is made, only how good it is.  If there is a compelling story about the wines process, great, but only if we like it in the first place.  Sadly, the term ‘natural wine’ has become an excuse for shoddy winemaking as well as a philosophy.  If something is oxidized, tawny, lifeless or full of mercaptans, that is perfectly fine if it is ‘natural wine’ and we must not ‘understand it’.   To us it is simply flawed wine.  Natural doesn’t mean ‘bad’ per se, but it has become an explanation for a lot of flaws when the process isn’t executed perfectly.

The other day really got us going on the branding thing again.  Some new purveyors who were pretty full of themselves because they had been a part of another grocery store brand, were in to present their newest project.  They proceeded to lay out a few wines that were essentially brand new labels and we tasted through.  Frankly only one of them was even noteworthy and it had the strangest name and label from the standpoint of marketing a ‘food product’.

The rest were unremarkable in every way but that didn’t seem to matter.  These guys were intent on making them part of the ‘Nielson 300’ (the list of top selling commercial wines that is the bible for grocery stores).  Based on what was not so clear.  Here you were marketing a name and, presumably, some sort of story that might cause people to pick up a bottle.  Clearly these folks had a pretty low opinion of the people who they were marketing to in terms of sophistication.

They continued to represent these wines as competitive in the marketplace (not sure it was our marketplace, nor what kind of stuff these guys were used to drinking), even going so far as to say their Oregon rose was ‘the best in America’.  Huh? Based on what?

Not sure what kind of conversations these people have with grocery store buyers but clearly they weren’t used to people like us that asked them about sourcing and how the wines were put together and had certain expectations about a wine’s viability based on how it tasted.  Essentially these wines, we found out, were predominantly blended to achieve specific market flavor profiles, or as we like to call them ‘control group cuvee’.  Is this the kind of thing people are  drinking these days?

 

What we came away with was that there wasn’t any particular thought to giving people tasty, character-filled alternatives to the current spate of innocuous mass marketed wine, just the same old stuff in a different package.  We’d venture to say little thought was given to the wine at all.  This was a classic case of the ‘branding’ being the central issue.   The concept of ‘branding’ is fine for Pepsi, Green Giant Nibletts, and Tide laundry soap, all of which can be manufactured to be the same every time.  The concept plays a little differently in a product that can vary in quality and expression based on vintage.

Step one, dumb down character.  Step two, sell the ‘brand’ because that is the key to success. Sadly more and more folks in this industry are acting as if the label and image are more important than what is inside the bottle.  Maybe that is the real world.  For us, wine doesn’t work that way…at least it didn’t used to.

 

 

 

 

TERLANO: SUPERSTAR HIDDEN IN THE MOUNTAINS

Sports teams like the New York Yankees, L.A. Lakers, Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Montreal Canadians are all hallowed franchises that are revered for their long-term success.  But part of the reverence is based on the reporting of their achievements via the media.  If you win a championship in the forest and nobody hears about it… well you get the drift.  There are long running, highly accomplished entities in the wine business as well.  Producers like Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux, Opus One in Napa Valley, and the like, are famous because they have histories of great work, but equally because people have been told they were good.

Today’s producer has been working on a very high level for a long time, but isn’t as appropriately famous because Alto Adige doesn’t get anywhere near the media attention that, say, Bordeaux and Napa Valley do.  But in their little world in northeastern Italy, Cantina Terlano is a serious performer who consistently makes spectacular wines.  We have been following Terlano for a long time.  Admittedly we have a soft spot for the region and the precise, well defined, racy, riveting wines from the region from the likes of Terlano, Valle Isarco, Nals Margreid, and Elena Walch.  These can be some of the most compelling whites in the world in exceptional vintages, and the fresh arrivals from 2017 offer a fantastic opportunity for us to talk about this ‘champion’ producer.

In the world of wine, the story of Cantina Terlano is definitely somewhat unique.  Terlano was founded as a co-operative in 1893. It is made up of 143 growers that work approximately 170 hectares of vineyards.   The winery’s homepage very modestly describes Terlano as one of the leading co-operatives in the Sud-Tyrol region.  We’d take that several steps forward and suggest it is one of the most successful cooperative wineries in the world, to be favorably compared with Produttori del Barbaresco in Piedmont and Domäne Wachau in Austria.  These folks are among the elite of their field.

We were wowed by their new arrivals from the 2017 vintage, a harvest with which we haven’t had a lot of experience yet.  If these are any indication, 2017 was another banner year in the region and also one that will speak to a broader range of palates.  The 2016s were quite special to be sure.  But the intense acidity, normally a part of their makeup in this cooler, elevated growing region, might have been a tad too powerful for some consumers.  The 2017s are just as impressive but also are dialed back just a touch which makes their vigorous fruit component more giving.  In short, the 2016s were a great but powerful vintage, and the 2017s look to be at the same level of quality, but a bit more user-friendly.  Good times.

We’ve picked out three offerings from what we like to refer to as one of the superstars of the ‘German’ part of Italy.  These are riveting, impactful whites and outstanding representatives of not only this house, but the region as a whole.  The winery makes a number of wines, some of which reach into the $50-60 range.  But we feel this trio is so good that it will make our point quite handily, and way over-deliver for their respective prices.  These are driving, ‘naked’ wines that express the pristine terroir from which they come.  If the farming isn’t right, there are no cellar tricks you can to fix them.  These folks have it down to a science in the vineyard and, while they have wines that offer the opportunity to spend more, there isn’t necessarily a reason to do so.  These play at a high level.

The Terlano Terlaner Classico Alto Adige 2017 is a great place to start, and this blended white dates back to the beginning in 1893.  This is a blend of 60% Pinot Bianco, 30% Chardonnay and 10% Sauvignon Blanc that sees 5-7 months on the lees, 80% in stainless steel and 20% in large, probably neutral oak.  The edges are polished and honed with nothing sticking out, and it shows plenty of deceptive power to the palate. You’ve got a variety of subtle flavors from white stone fruits to passion fruit to roasted grain with highlights of white pepper, wild herbs and a streak of minerality.  This lifts and brightens as it hits the palate, and delivers plenty of punch.  A 92 from Advocate in 2016, the 2017 is playing at the same level (we had them two days apart) as an authoritative quaff or versatile food choice.

The Terlano Sauvignon Blanc Winkl Alto Adige 2017 is a favorite around here as well.  A 100% Sauvignon Blanc that dates back to 1956 is made the same way as the Terlaner.  It is gentle and supple on the palate but sits nicely atop well-integrated, ripe acidity.  Again stone fruits with faint suggestions of honey play against ripe grapefruit, sage, and mineral tones.  Monica Larner, Wine Advocate’s Italian specialist, calls it one of her absolute favorite Italian whites. We definitely get that.   This has texture and suppleness, but finishes with a dash of mouth-watering zing.

The Terlano Pinot Grigio Alto Adige 2017 is no ordinary Pinot Grigio.  While the genre in general gets bagged on because there are so many banal, uninspired versions out there, this one has the kind of size, fruit and ‘pop’ that will get your attention and possibly frighten those who are patrons of those typical commercial examples.  This one is clean, insistent, and deceptively powerful for what it is.  The flavors have elements of stone fruit, grain, white peach and passion fruit with a fleck of wild herb.  This is a Pinot Grigio with substance and one heck of a value.

These riveting whites belong in everyone’s conscience as well as everyone’s cellar.  Fans of the genre know these for what they are, one of the best of the genre and world-class whites by any measure.  If you don’t know Terlano, it’s high time you did!