Benovia Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015

If you look at our product listings, you will note that we post ‘third party’ reviews on the wines offered just like most everyone else.  What’s different about our approach is that you will also note we write a number of original pieces.  We taste a lot of wine over the course of the year and will make the point that context makes a huge difference in how a wine comes across.  So we give ourselves the opportunity to use our own voice to point out exceptional efforts that may not get that big score when judged in some sort of rapid fire tasting but sure hits the right notes for us ‘one-on-one’.  That is, incidentally how most of you will be consuming your wines.

If there was ever a prime example of how we see things quite a bit differently than the wine media, it is with Benovia winery.  We have been big fans of winemaker Mike Sullivan since back in his early Zin days with Deloach, and through an impressive group of Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels as he got the Hartford Court project going.  We have been quite pleased with his work since becoming the mind behind Benovia and have recommended a number of things from there over the years.

We’ll be the first to admit that the Benovia wines aren’t the kind of blowsy monsters that get easily noticed by the media.  They are, rather, succinct, pure and harmonious with well-woven flavors and nothing sticking out.  These are the kinds of wines to drink because they are outstanding examples of California classics of the type that were prevalent back in California’s more ‘formative’ years.  They are made to ‘seduce’ rather than ‘bludgeon’.

Not a lot of evident wood here, the style of this Chardonnay is an exploration of the terroir of the Russian River.  You’ve got finely meshed apple and citrus fruit with hints of almond and spice notes, the result of night harvesting, indigenous yeast and whole cluster fermentation and a sojourn of 12 months in oak.

The flavors are clean, persistent, and engaging while always fresh and vibrant.  The Benovia Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015 comes mainly from the winery’s Martaella estate and relies on a layered, nuanced, rather impressive demonstration of the vivid house style for its impression.  It will probably again get modest reviews from the press because it isn’t overtly big (though don’t get us wrong there is plenty of character).  But this one impresses where it counts, in the glass.  That is where this Chardonnay is made to perform, and we’d rather drink this than a lot of the other, higher- scoring (often oaky and flabby) options we have.

It would be easier for us to simply point to a Chardonnay that got a big review, and we have those, too. But this is one we believe in and the 2015 is a fine example to make new friends for what we feel is one of the more under-rated wineries around simply because the wines are balanced and made to drink rather than to go after ‘numbers’.

 

THESE PEOPLE LIVE AMONG YOU

At times I am sure we sound a little like malcontents complaining about how silly the mechanics and protocols of this unique industry might seem to the theoretical ‘rational man’.  I remember multiple attempts to try to explain the ‘nuances’ of the wine business to my father-in-law (who owned pharmacies) and getting understandable looks of utter bewilderment.  Most folks who read our stuff would probably prefer that we focus only on the positive aspects of the wine industry.  Hey, there are many, which is why we do what we do.  But there are ongoing issues, beliefs, and practices among wine ‘professionals’ that are silly enough when viewed from our perspective within the industry.  We suspect some of the things that are routine in the biz would be perceived as absolutely ludicrous by those who might casually look in from the ‘normal’ world outside.

Just for the heck of it, we thought we’d relay a situation that occurred not long ago that demonstrates what we are talking about.  In this case perhaps a little history might help in terms of helping you appreciate the kind of nonsense we have to deal with to be able to do what we love to do on an ongoing basis.  For a lot of folks, the fact that the theme centers on Australian wine makes it less relevant since OZ isn’t currently a particularly hot wine topic.   But trust us this kind of silliness is not confined to any particular genre or category.  It is simply how twisted things are.

It really starts back in the 1980s as Winex was expanding in all directions categorically with no restraints other than the wine had to be good and the price had to make sense (kind of the same as it is now).  As a result of open-minded experimentation, Winex was an early player with labels like Rosemount and Penfolds, showcasing them as viable value reds and worthy of consideration.  We even found opportunities to buy closeouts from a purveyor on Penfolds 389 and even higher end fare like Grange Hermitage.

A few years later, we decided to expand and become more involved in a number of different avenues with respect to Aussie wine.  It stemmed from Kyle’s inspiration from a book called Rhone Renaissance written by Remington Norman.  Besides detailing a “who’s who” list of producers in the Rhone Valley, Norman went on to talk about emerging producers here in America and spent a good bit of print talking about boutique producers in Australia, few of which were known here in the states.  On his way back from the London Wine Fair one year, Kyle spied a bottle of Charles Melton’s ‘Chateauneuf’ blend called Nine Popes in the duty-free store.  This was one of the legends that Norman had spoke of in the work, and Kyle grabbed a bottle to bring back to taste.

Think of the movie The Jerk when Navin Johnson heard the big band music on the radio and exclaimed “if this is out there, what else is out there!?”.   That’s how we dove into a program of pioneering ‘boutique’ Australian wines, being among the first in the U.S. to proffer such labels as Clarendon Hills, Torbreck, Rockford, and Three Rivers.  There were multiple trips to Australia over the next decade including to Penfolds. As a matter of fact, Kyle visited Penfolds again last year as a member of a small, select group of retailers and restaurants sponsored by Wine Australia.  Wine Exchange was recognized as a major catalyst in the development of Australian wines in the USA, and the purpose of the trip was to ascertain what the climate was for Australian wines at present in our domestic market.

Actually Kyle interviewed Peter Gago, Penfold’s esteemed head winemaker, for one of our ‘Extract’ videos as well.  Given the relationship of Winex with Australian wine in general, and the fact that Kyle had been with Peter Gago on more than one occasion, it made perfect sense from the importer’s point of view to put a familiar face in front of the visiting dignitary. Not to boast but we were on a very short list.

Without sounding too much like a native Angeleno, the Winex principals were one of two entities invited to slug it up the freeway on a weekday to have a special ‘sitdown’ with Mr. Gago during his visit (the 101 Freeway is lovely that time of day).  As an incentive for doing this, Winex was ‘promised’ the option to purchase Penfolds Grange by the ‘powers that be’, which would currently sell for over $750 per bottle at a very aggressive retail price.

Grange has been a bit of a scramble to obtain because the Penfolds label in general has caught fire in the Asian market, causing a healthy grey market.  Many of the serious Penfolds bottlings that come here actually go right out the back door of a receiving establishment and onto a container to the Far East.  This has pushed prices up several fold and changed the face of the brand in the marketplace, though none of the purveyors are particularly keen to admit that any of this is happening.  In the end, however, none of that is our problem.

Our only concern was to get the bottles we were promised so that we could offer them out to interested customers (which we have in part thanks to our long-standing history with the Penfolds wines dating back nearly three decades).

What happened next was sadly predictable.  Our sales rep for the company noted that some Penfolds Grange had arrived in inventory and asked us if we would like our order.  We said, “Sure.”  Two days later we asked the rep where the Penfolds Grange was as it had not arrived as yet and the company was literally just up the road.   We were summarily informed that someone in the ‘chain of command’ killed the order because that particular shipment was earmarked for restaurants.

So here we are, offering to buy the wine that we were promised, with the wine itself showing as available and in stock, and us blowing an afternoon in Hollywood complete with a two hour ‘tour’ home and they wouldn’t sell us the wine because…

…it was saved for restaurants? Which restaurants? Italian restaurants that usually feature Italian wines?  French restaurants that typically feature French wines?  Spanish? Asian? Mexican?  Maybe some kind of theme place…buy a hideously expensive bottle of Shiraz (probably at $2000 on a list) and get a free ‘bloomin’ onion’?

It is pretty hard to figure what kind of restaurant operation would be actively searching for a wine that would hit their list at that kind of pricing and from a genre that is currently not en vogue in American circles.  It was also made clear to us that the taco stand down the street with a restaurant license could order and receive said wine even though no one from that establishment had ever bought any Australian wine.  Ever.

We don’t blame Peter Gago.  He is a heck of a winemaker and we’re pretty sure it wasn’t his idea to schlep around the U.S. to have these meetings.  We suspect it was some ill-forged corporate marketing scheme, putting him on the road to press the flesh and then incentivizing us to make the drive so he got the impression the trip was worthwhile.  Ya gotta love corporate thinking.  But in the end, after all this has happened, why not just sell us the wine so everyone can get on with their lives?  Why go through this pointless dance of saying that pile of wine that is sitting there is for as yet to be determined ‘restaurant accounts’ and we have to wait for our wine that is coming in the next pile?

Is this an isolated incident?  Sadly, no.  As a matter of fact this kind of thing, particularly the whole ‘restaurants get first dibs thing’, happens with painful regularity.  Meanwhile, we see that the ‘saved inventories’ hardly deplete at all over time.  It is harder to get things done than it should be far too often in the wine business.  The people who perpetrate this kind of nonsense usually do so in anonymity or from a safe distance so they don’t have to explain the ‘logic’ of their actions to potentially hostile customers.  They send the reps in to face the music.

The thing is that these unidentified people, who routinely engage in some of the most indefensible and idiotic practices on the planet, eventually leave their cubicles and go home.  They walk among you.  They could be sitting next to you in a restaurant or at your kid’s soccer game.  You have to be concerned that such people might be forced to make some sort of decision in your proximity that might affect you in some way, though typically it is pointless corporate posturing.  If they can accept the kind of nonsense we just described, or maybe even buy into it, what else might they be capable of?

In the end, we (and you) can benefit from this kind of nonsense.  Much of the time these entities do such a good job of ‘protecting’ and ‘allocating’ the brand that they don’t actually sell anything.  Suddenly they realize they need to stop the nonsense and move things quickly and maybe even cut a deal. That’s where we come in.  We like deals. We eventually did get our 15 bottles of Grange.  But why did it have to be so difficult in the meantime? Especially since we helped them by showing our faces at their little soiree. That is the question.

Don’t Miss This $34 Pinot Noir (for $15)

If the following saga sounds a bit familiar, it’s because we had a couple of rounds of insane Pinot Noir closeouts from the Knez winery earlier this year. The ‘back story’ itself is one of the more unusual we have told in all of our years of doing this and this ‘Episode 3’ is quite the climax to the Knez trilogy of Pinot Noir tales.  We ‘ve already sold a ton but we took down a ton and a half and, really, there’s nothing out there this expensively made for this kind of price

For those of you who don’t recall that Knez story, here’s a refresher. It starts (and ends) with Peter Knez, a math genius who did quite well for himself designing things like algorithms used by Wall Street types. Apparently, around 2007, Peter and his wife decided to move to the Anderson Valley to live the ‘dream’ of a rural life in ‘wine country.’ These were intelligent, highly successful folks turning their attention to the wine business, though that part is not particularly unusual.

Here, these ‘city folk’ wasted no time in getting down to business. They acquired two of Mendocino’s prime Pinot Noir vineyards, Demuth and Cerise, in 2007 and 2008, and planted their own Knez Vineyard in 2009. Winemaker Anthony Filiberti, who was quite familiar with these sites from his work with the respected Anthill Farms, came on board here as winemaker/viticulturist (as well as partner we are told). It wasn’t long before the winery was attracting attention and praise from the media. They were making compelling wines and farming these outstanding vineyards biodynamically. Things went along swimmingly, or so it seemed, and this is where we are supposed to say, ‘and they lived happily ever after.’

As it turned out, we have to presume that these folks didn’t really find the ‘simple life’ to their liking. They have sold their vineyards, finding an enthusiastic buyer in Kosta Browne for their important Knez, Demuth and Cerise holdings. The only other thing to do was sell their supply of highly-reviewed Pinot Noirs. Some folks have money problems, others have family issues. But this just seems to be a case where the Knez folk simply wanted out. Because of the quality of the juice and the dirt, it didn’t appear that the process was going to take very long.

We, and you, have certainly done our parts in making a lot of great Knez Pinot go away.

As they say, success is in the eye of the beholder as well. Knez apparently did not think the sell-off was going fast enough for his tastes. So, he changed horses with respect to his representation and rolled out an even crazier price on his Knez Winery Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2013! From another epic vintage in California, this bottling is made from approximately 2/3 Cerise and 1/3 Demuth fruit and saw a fair bit of whole clusters in the fermentation.

Antonio Galloni of Vinous Media was succinct in his praise of the Knez Winery Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2013, “The 2013 Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley) is quite floral, lifted and delicate in style. Raspberry, crushed flowers and mint are some of the notes that grace this pretty, entry-level offering from Knez. Today (January, 2015), the 2013 comes across as a bit ethereal, with plenty of influence from the 50-60% whole clusters. The wine’s mid-weight personality leads me to think it is best enjoyed sooner rather than later…90 points.”

We’d make a couple of points here. The 2013s were much tighter out of the gate than the 2014s, and we think the nearly 3 years of bottle age has greatly benefited this cooler-climate Pinot noir allowing the fruit to expand and take on weight, and the nose to develop complexity. The bottle aging has already been done for you and, thanks to this rather unusual set of events, it’s like a Pinot Noir Black Friday all over again price-wise.

As you’ll possibly recall if you saw the last two offers, the single vineyard wines had original price tags approaching $50, and this one ‘listed’ at the winery for $34, not a bad price for the caliber of juice in this bottle. But thanks to this make-it-go-away offer, we are proffering this seriously intended, estate grown $34 Pinot for $14.98, about what you’d pay for some marginal commercial Pinot that probably isn’t even all Pinot!

Remember, Kosta Browne will be launching wines from these exact same vineyards starting in the 2016 vintage with, presumably, $90 price tags.  Needless to reiterate, this is a pretty fantastic, once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity and, based on the new owners of these vineyards, will not be happening again.

 

 

MO’ LAFAGE

The eye-popping values from Jean-Marc Lafage have been coming at a prolific rate.  If we did full emails on the every one of them, which would be easy to do given how good and how well priced they all are, we’d start looking like some sort of Lafage-of-the-Month Club.  So every now and again we’ll publish a little something on the ‘down low’, with the caveat that it could eventually be its own offer at some point.  Don’t confuse this smaller format with a lack of enthusiasm.  What Lafage has been doing of late is some sort of unprecedented run of ‘hits’ and this is simply one more.  Our task is to keep you informed.

There are so many different and exciting cuvees, it’s hard to keep them all straight.  We counted over 50 different wines reviewed by the Wine Advocate, some only with a single writeup.  The 2015 Domaine Lafage Cotes du Roussillon Villages Lieu Dit La Narassa is only the second in this particular series, an admirable followup to the 93-point 2014 and we think even a little more substantial.  Visually it is markedly different than the majority of the bottles in that it comes in a weapon-ready, super-heavy Bordeaux styled bottle with a black label (most others are Burgundy shaped and ‘dressed’ in white).  We aren’t sure what the message is, but the wine is definitely an attention-getter in the glass as well.

Grown in the typical black schist soils of the Roussillon, the 60 to 70-year-old vines of Syrah and Grenache are farmed organically, hand harvested, and brought up in 80% concrete and 20% large neutral barrels.  The harvest regimen is a little different for this bottling.  It is made in a semi-ripasso style by harvesting the Grenache in successive passes picking only the ripest clusters. Once at the cellars the fruit is destemmed and only the best berries are chosen for fermentation after a short pre-fermentation maceration.  The blend is 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah.

This one is bold, full, flavored and definitely expressive of this unique terroir near the village of Maury and will stand up to the heartiest of fare.  The Wine Advocate’s Jeb Dunnuck was glowing again in his ‘barrel’ review stating, “Notes of cassis, toasted spice, chocolate and licorice all emerge from the 2015 Cotes du Roussillon Villages Lieu Dit La Narassa…This hedonistic, downright sexy, ripe and layered beauty will drink nicely right out of the gate…91-93 Points.”

Barrels scores tend to be conservative and, in 2015, almost everything was outstanding so you don’t get as much ‘separation’.  So we suspect if it gets a final review, it will finish on the high end.   We think the 2015 Narassa has even a bit more muscle than the 2014, and definitely a riper profile.  Once again the magic is that this is an expansive, engaging wine that only costs $15 a bottle.  How does he keep doing it?

THREE GOOD AMERICAN ‘VALUE’ REDS

Not words you are likely to hear strung together very often from us .  First, our definition of value is perhaps a lot different than the majority of the marketplace.  First, a value doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘cheap’, it merely has to deliver far above its purchase price.  For the sake of argument today, however, this trio all sell for under $20.

Second, it has to taste like actual wine, as opposed to some of the current mass market items that taste formulaic as if someone put some juice, wood essence and sugar in a blender to approximate a desired flavor that isn’t necessarily wine-like.  Worse are the ones that are manipulated to the point of utter soullessness so as not to offend anyone.  Sadly, most of what is out there in the ‘value’ category falls into one of those categories.

Our struggle is to find fun things to drink that have character, some varietal identity where a varietal is stated, and possibly even notes of place.   In other words, things that taste like they were made from grapes instead of in the laboratory.  In America, such wines represent a fraction of what is available because most of the ‘price point’ bottlings are controlled to some extent by corporate-type entities or those trying to compete with them.

We seek the small, the talented, the maybe even a little bit quirky and are thrilled when we find something we are excited enough to talk about.  Can’t remember the last time we had three such American wines at the same time.  Usually we have to ‘outsource’ for quality in this price range

Lola Pinot Noir North Coast 2016

Though they have been around since 2008, this is only our second encounter with LOLA.  Winemaker/owner Seth Cripe got bit by the wine bug at 17 while working as a busboy near his home in Anna Maria Island, Florida.  You’ve heard the story before many times about the person who works at various wine locales around the world to learn  ropes and then finds his niche.  Seth’s niche turned out to be making wine from important  appellations, but selling them at reasonable prices.  What a concept.  The LOLA Pinot Noir tastes like, um, Pinot Noir.  Good Pinot Noir and we aren’t trying to be wiseacres because you know so many of them out there only bear a vague resemblance to the real deal after they have been manipulated in the cellar and pumped up with some other varietal.

The winery is located in Napa, but the juice for the Lola Pinot Noir North Coast 2016 comes from Pinot-legit places like Mendocino, Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast AVAs.  Tender, fruit driven core, red fruits that lean a little blue, a touch of spice and violet, it is a surprisingly engaging quaff.  Since LOLA costs about the same as a mass-marketed Pinot whose name is five letters starting with ‘M’ and ending in ‘I’, we can’t imagine why anyone would buy that when they could buy this!  The only reason we can fathom is that people don’t know about LOLA yet.  The whole winery produces 12,000 cases total of several varietals, and there are hundreds of thousands of cases of our mass-market Pinot.   Clearly LOLA is still kind of an insiders’ find, but now you know.

We’ll leave here with the words of Jeb Dunnuck, who apparently also found this Pinot rather charming,

“…An excellent value …It saw a touch of whole cluster and 6 months in used barrels. It offers a sweetly fruited, pretty, elegant, classic Pinot Noir style (which isn’t a given at this price point) to go with notes of cherries, toast and spice. Drink it over the coming 3-5 years…90 points.”

Ryan Patrick Redhead Red Columbia Valley 2016

 Washington is still something of a sleeping giant when it comes to making value reds.  But we have certainly had our eyes opened by the likes of Alder Ridge and Powers, and little blends from folks like Bookwalter.  Behold our newest surprise, the Ryan Patrick Redhead Red Columbia Valley 2016.  An unpretentious blend of 56% Cabernet, 22% Merlot, 17% Syrah, 5% Petit Verdot, it has the size and polish to excel as a casual quaff, but if you pay a little attention you can also see that there is some serious fruit in here in top-flight grapes sourced from the Wahluke Slope.

The winery prides itself on its flexibility.  In their own words, “Many wineries use static recipes for their wines. Instead, the (Partick Ryan) winemaking team, headed by Kendall Mix, does daily fermentations with different yeast or temperatures to achieve a specific effect.  Batch-tinkering approaches have resulted in varietals and blends that have justifiably become famous for how they out-perform their price point. Ryan Patrick is known for its Naked Chardonnay, Redhead Red and Rock Island Red labels, and for its Reserve wines.

Only 15% of this charming, juicy, not-so-‘little’ red from Ryan Patrick saw any oak.  The focus here is on generous berry, black cherry, and cassis flavors.  At under $10 this is quite the bargain and the wine’s weight is more akin to a riper Bordeaux than something jammy from, say, Paso Robles.  As such it is more versatile with food and doesn’t get tiresome in the glass.

 Ultraviolet Cabernet Sauvignon California 2016

Samantha Sheehan had the good fortune to taste a lot of the world’s great wines at a fairly young age.  She knows what exceptional wine is supposed to taste like.  To satisfy her own artistic needs, she founded Poe Winery with the intent of showcasing specific California vineyard terroirs made in a transparent, minimalist way.  There’s also apparently a little whimsy as Poe also produces a nouveau Pinot, Vermouths and, of course, a Rose.  Apparently the winery is involved in a charitable endeavor or two, but there is still an awareness that not everybody can plunk down serious money for wine.

To that end, Sheehan has been making a wine called Ultraviolet Cabernet since 2010 in a price range that can appeal to a much broader audience.  Why ‘ultraviolet’?  Apparently it is a nod to ‘fruit ripened in the California sun’.  The wine also bears the banner “Bottled in the Napa Valley” with the wine’s appellation not immediately evident.  On the back label it says California Cabernet in a way that doesn’t really give the impression that it is an appellation reference.

What is evident is that, while this fruit may not be all from Napa, it also doesn’t taste like it is sporting the kind of Central California ‘filler’ that most ‘value’ Cabs seem to feel they need to have for cost reasons.  If it isn’t all North Coast fruit, it certainly tastes like it is.  What is particularly relevant here, besides the supple (particularly for a young Cabernet) cassis fruit component, is the texture.  There’s a suppleness to the midpalate you don’t typically see in wines of this price range, with rounder edges and laid back tannins.

It isn’t big or jammy.  It is a crowd pleaser certainly with enough volume and fruit that tastes like it is supposed to taste, genuine and rather elegant.  The stats are interesting in that the wine is 95% Cabernet and 5% Franc, and it sees 50% new French oak but the wood is definitely integrated.  The point is that it definitely shows a certain breeding and delivers a lot for it’s more than modest fare.

 

 

TASTY, WELL-PRICED and (shhh) KOSHER RED

Every time we are presented something from a Kosher winery here in the states, or from Israel, the first thing out of the vender’s mouth is, ‘but don’t make a point of it being kosher’.  First off, what’s wrong with it being Kosher?  Does that pidgeonhole it for buyers, the practicing kosher ones thinking it is only for holidays and everyone else presuming it tastes like the mass produced, sweet reds whose names you all know.

We have a hard time believing it is that cut and dried for most people. But maybe it is.  Still it is our belief that if you have a wine that plays on the ‘celebratory’ table, that will afford it a built-in audience from which you move forward.  If it happens to be a well made, dry red, the potential followers pool should be even larger because it should make an interesting proposition for folks who are merely looking for something red and tasty without concern for any holiday/holy day applications.  If it happens to sell for a really good price as well, that would appear to be some sort of trifecta.  In other words, this is first a candidate for a versatile everyday drinking red.  Everything else is a bonus.  The Golan Heights Winery Mount Hermon Red Galilee 2016 is such a wine.

Golan Heights Winery/Yarden makes a lot of different bottlings under its various labels.  It is easy to get lost in the shuffle.  But in a recent tasting we zeroed in on this one simply because it was dark, tasty, and engaging and sold for a song.  The 2016 Mount Hermon Red exhibits notes of berries and cherries, along with nuances of Mediterranean herbs, chocolate, earth and a little minerality. Made from all five Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec), with Cabernet as the lead player, the grapes come mainly from  the Golan Heights, a raised volcanic plateau going from 1300 to 3900 feet in elevation that is the coolest wine region in Israel.  A small portion comes from vineyards in Galilee.

We have tasted examples of this before but this one made an impression.  We didn’t have our Israel vintage chart handy but apparently 2016 was a superior vintage in the region (a warm spring and the earliest harvest in nearly a quarter century).   Wine Enthusiast noted, “A  nose of cassis and vanilla sets the scene for flavors of black cherry, blackberry, butterscotch, juniper and violet. It’s easy on entry, offering smooth tannins that slowly reveal themselves, culminating in a floral and cranberry finish. ..92 points.”  Tasty, well-priced and, yes, kosher, but you don’t reason need a ‘reason’ to open this.  In the end it’s simply a tasty red.

THE NEXT RIOJA ‘LEGEND’

How do you follow up a legend?  The Faustino I Gran Reserva 2001 was one of the highest volume wines in our 35-year history, it got a 97-point score from Decanter Magazine as well as being named their Wine-of-the-Year for 2013.   What the press did was create a scenario where exponentially more people tried the wine and, subsequently, bought It on a regular basis.  On top of that, we had been selling Faustino’s Gran Reserva consistently since the 1994 vintage, pretty much when no one heard of it.  The 2001 vintage was an outstanding one in Rioja, and the wine already had more than a decade of bottle age on it when we started to sell it.  It was the perfect storm.

The funny thing is that it almost seemed like we were the only ones buying it (as well as a cadre of older library vintages) as we were able to continually restock the wine for nearly four years!  Given the accolades, bottle age, price, etc., how were there not others involved?  In any case, as happens with wine, all good things come to an end.  We are well aware that any time a current wine has to compete for attention with a ‘memory’, it is at a disadvantage.  Still, knowing that, we’re going to tell all of the folks that have been buying Faustino over the years from us, and all of you who just discovered this stylish Rioja with the 2001, the new release 2005 Faustino I Rioja Gran Reserva is the next up in this series.

The story is relatively straightforward.  After selling so many of the prior vintages, and silly amounts of the 2001, we were presented with the option of buying either the 2004 or 2005 (both outstanding vintages) as the follow-up to the 2001 campaign.  We’ll tell you up front that the 2004 got a 94 from James Suckling and a 90 from Luis Gutierrez, and the 2005 got 93s from both Wine Spectator and Decanter Magazine.  Side by side it was an easy call for us.  The Faustino I Rioja Gran Reserva 2005 had more structure and power, plenty of palate authority as 10+-year-old reds go, and a classic Rioja profile of cassis, red fruits, spice, earth, vanilla and some fresh herb undercurrents.

The Spectator verbiage paints a pretty clear picture as well, “Fresh and lively, this red shows bright fruit and spice flavors, with cherry, berry, vanilla and anise notes that mingle over light tannins and orange peel acidity. Harmonious and graceful, expressive and alluring…93 points.”

That whole ‘graceful, expressive, and alluring’ thing is what Rioja is about, and has been a big part of our love affair with Faustino over the years.  We aren’t going to tell you that this wine is just like the 2001.  The vintages are different, the profiles accordingly different, but the 2005 is the next delicious episode of a Faustino saga that has had more versions here than there have been Star Wars films.  Some of you will like the 2005 better, some of you equally as much and a few of you less so, but it is indeed at the same incredible level of quality as that legend 2001.

An aged, polished, complex, pop-and-serve-or-hold Rioja for under $30 never goes out of style and this lovely 2005 is simply the next up in a series that has provided a lot of pleasure over the last two decades.  Thanks to that 2001, a lot more folks have ‘seen the light’.  But for those of us that have had more than a dozen vintages, this classy 2005 simply steps into the program without a ripple.  It’s another example of what Faustino does on a regular basis.  Simply put, a wine with this kind of quality, bottle age, and at this kind of price, would seem an imperative for any cellar.  Great Rioja ages, but it never ‘gets old’.  You need some of this.

 

THE ‘SUD’ ALSO RISES

Back in the early-to-mid-90s there was something of a ‘modest’ period for potentially great vintages of red Rhone wines. Perhaps coincidentally, we started seeing a ‘new breed’ of wine emerging from the South of France. About that time a number of vignerons came to the realization that, with the warm climate, Mediterranean breezes and old vines, they had a shot at making some pretty serious juice if they employed more meticulous viticultural and winemaking practices. In our minds, that was when the ‘Sud’ as we affectionately call it (the south of France) was born.

In the latter part of the 90s, the Rhone went on an unprecedented run of vintages and people didn’t pay as much attention to the ‘new wave’ of producers emerging down south. It was tough getting the spotlight away from the more established appellations like Chateauneuf and Gigondas. Still, certain estates in the south persisted and grabbed a piece of the marketplace by virtue of a number of distinctive, full flavored wines that delivered remarkable value. The labels you have become accustomed to for both great value like Bila Haut and Lafage and elite performance like Gilles Troullier simply weren’t visible or didn’t exist yet back in those early days. But they are pretty darned important now.

Domaine des Aires Hautes was one of the early players we saw back in those ‘pioneer’ days. We remember selling a breakthrough bottling called Clos l’Escandil from them over two decades ago. But we really hadn’t seen much of them since until one day this little jewel rolled into the office.

Meet the new Aires Hautes, same as the old Aires Hautes, only better. For those who aren’t familiar with the region, Minervois is a sub-region of the Languedoc, and La Liviniere is a more specific ‘sweet spot’ of the Minervois, sitting on a chalky plateau facing the Mediterranean and protected from the Atlantic weather influences by the Massif Central. The Chabbert family owns 28 hectares in this lovely spot and Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre are the components in this wine, pretty much in that order. Hand-harvesting, destemming, concrete tanks and used oak are the practices, and the vineyards are farmed at a low 28 hl/ha.

While our memories are still fond of those breakout efforts so long ago, the Domane des Air Hautes Minervois la Liviniere 2015 is clearly a serious step up and a fantastic beverage for its sub-$20 tab. While it has the classic pepper, garrigue, lavender and floral notes one associates with this very distinctive village, they play a complex but subtle role in support of a big rush of glossy blackberry fruit that is rich and polished but never ponderous. It can play to a much wider audience than most Languedocs you have likely tasted. The 2015 vintage clearly dealt the family Chabbert a winning hand and they brought it home in style.

While the tasting notes from Jeb Dunnuck, writing for the Wine Advocate at the time, were based on the barrel tasting, it is clear to us this wine got into the bottle exactly as it should have. His prose was enthusiastic, “It’s a textbook, perfumed, full-bodied and incredibly sexy 2015 that offers notes of blueberries, flowers, lavender and jammy blackberries. It could be a true superstar and is loaded with potential…92-94 points.”

From our perspective, as you may have guessed, ‘potential’ achieved and this truly is one of the best efforts from the ‘south’ we have tasted this year. We’d dare say if Jeb went back to score the finished wine another time, it would rate at the higher end of the range. It is a ‘beaut’ and we bought every last box. Sadly, it was only 50 cases.

Big Little Bordeaux

As you know, we spend a fair bit of time looking for value Bordeaux.  There has been ample proof over the years that such things do exist, and we are tickled when we can find enough quantity to do an email.  Sometimes there are only ‘bits’ that can’t be emailed because there isn’t enough juice, so we’ll occasionally drop some notes in this space.

As we have mentioned on many occasions, one of the beauties of a great vintage is the quality ‘trickle down’ to the less famous estates.  Chateau de Macard 2009 defines the kind of sleeper that exemplified the vintage.  On a plateau overlooking the Dordogne River, this Bordeaux Superior sits on a south facing plot comprised of clay and limestone.  The vineyard is planted to Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet with the vines averaging 45 years of age (one plot of Franc vines is a century old).

Hand harvested, aged entirely in tank, this is the antithesis of Bordeaux’s broad image.  It is an honest, fruit-driven, delightful and unpretentious wine at what is certainly an easy to swallow price ($13.99).  It’s a ’90’ from Wine Spectator with comments, “Ripe and dense, but fresh, with silky-textured plum, blackberry and blueberry fruit carried by sweet spice and maduro tobacco notes. The fleshy finish shows nice drive. Should open up more with brief cellaring. Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.”

Fronsac is one of Bordeaux’s most historic terroirs and the usually solid Chateau Rousselle turned in an exceptional performance in 2009.  Robert Parker’s notes tell the story well enough, “An absolutely stunning sleeper of the vintage, this blend of 65% Merlot and 35% Cabernet Franc has produced an uncommonly rich, concentrated wine that is one of the very best wines of Fronsac. Opaque ruby/purple in color, the aromatics offer up notes of blueberry liqueur intermixed with kirsch, blackberries, licorice and crushed rock. The wine hits the palate with some serious thunder and lightning (14.5% natural alcohol) and lots of depth, richness and mouth-filling intensity. Consultant Stephane Derenoncourt has made the best wine I have ever tasted from La Rousselle, and it should continue to drink well for at least a decade…92 points.”

 

The Return of Grey Stack: Sauvignon Blanc like no other…

If you go through and read enough winery websites, you will see a similar thread where the producer is selling the proposition that there is no place like their site for whatever it is that they make.  In the absolute sense that is true, but in the reality of tasting as many wines as we do, the differences are generally not all that dramatic.  But the Bennett Valley in Sonoma is one of those places where the claim has exceptional merit.  We recall some of the early examples of Sauvignon Blanc from Matanzas Creek when it was still run by the original owners.  The fruit component was distinctive, unique and quite delicious.

As we have tasted through California Sauvignon Blancs through the years, there have been many fine examples, but only a handful that have set the bar.  The most memorable was one called Grey Stack Sauvignon Blanc Rosemary’s Block that pretty much set us on our collective ear and got more attention from the media at that point than any Sauvignon of its time.

This was a dynamic mouthful, notably rich and palate stimulating, with a brilliant beam of acidity and tight focus, but at the same time juicily textured flavors of fig, apricot, grapefruit, and honeydew melon along with some floral notes and Loire-like notes of flint. Long, pure, and remarkably expressive, tasting this 2016, which is apparently the first release by a newly formed partnership, we were immediately transported back to those remarkable efforts that were pulling down 92-94 point reviews back around 2010.

We hadn’t seen the label for a while, nor had there been any reviews save some pretty tepid ones from Wine Spectator in the interim, but we are thrilled to have something back that is truly definitive for a genre.  Where does the magic come from?  Well we have, as we said, always noticed the uniqueness of the Bennet Valley going back a long ways.  There are those that point to the particular clone used here, said to come from Collio in northeastern Italy near the Slavonian border.  The winery website says it’s ‘the people’.

Our guess is some combination of ‘all of the above’.  But whatever the reason, this Sauvignon is special in the way the Eric Kent we sold a while back was (half of the grapes for that wine came from this vineyard, incidentally).  Special juice here, Spectator’s 90-point tout does not do this wine justice.