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!

 

 

DOMAINE LA ROUBINE: ANOTHER RHONE ‘SLEEPER’

The southern Rhone is home to a number of small estates that do great work in relative obscurity.  We have made it our mission to look into as many as we can and that process has turned up a few hidden gems.  While we can tell stories about a number of domains that we have been working with for a long time, or discovered before they became famous, La Roubine isn’t one of them.  In fact we didn’t first see this house until the 2010 vintage.  We bought some Gigondas from that vintage based not on press, or fame, but because it was simply a delicious, soulful bottle of wine.  Crazy, huh?

Even though we have a small cache of that wine probably thanks to the media-centric world we live in (it did get a rather low-key 91 from Spectator in a vintage full of 95s), we are still going to sing the praise of this stylish small domaine.  The domaine itself isn’t all that old in a place where some families can trace their roots back centuries.  It was only 1990 when Eric Ughetto took over the family vineyards located in Gigondas.

he was joined by Sophie in the late 90s and the two of them decided to make wine with their own grapes. They defined the estate “La Roubine” in 2000 with the first bottled vintage of Gigondas. Today the company is still a family run business.  Eric works at the wine cellar, while Sophie manages both the cellar and the business. They both do vineyard work.   Though the estate has expanded via inheritance, purchase, and lease (which the couple farms), it is still relatively small with 15.5 hectares of vines (38 acres) spread over four appellations.

They bring it ‘new school’, which these days is actually ‘old school’.  They use no chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, are agriculture biologique (organic) certified, and, because of their modest size, can wait on harvesting individual parcels until they are optimally ripe.  The harvests are by hand, as is the first and second sorting, only natural yeasts are employed, fermentations takes place in concrete, and everything is bottled unfined and unfiltered.  These are reds that speak of their origins, but also provide plenty hedonistic pleasure via their open, round, ripe, tender fruit.

Our focus today is on Eric’s sub-$20 duo, Sablet and Seguret, both appellations located in the higher ground near the base of the Dentelles de Montmirail.  Both areas have enjoyed status as an appellated Cotes du Rhone Villages for over 40 years.  Their higher-ground locales provide cooler nights that allow the wines to retain a certain freshness, but there is plenty of charisma to these efforts.

The Domaine La Roubine Cotes du Rhone Villages Sablet 2015 comes from 30-year-old vines, this particular assemblage being 70% Grenache, 25% Syrah, and 5% Cinsault.  Plush kirsch and blackcurrant fruit is the center of attention, with underpinnings of spice and a subtle streak of stony minerality.  There are also some savory elements as the grapes are not destemmed.  The acids are tame in this vintage and the tannins are ripe, the wine itself layered and tasty, and very true to the region.

Domaine La Roubine Cotes du Rhone Villages Seguret 2015 has a somewhat cooler edge, no doubt thanks to the 30% Mourvedre (the rest is Grenache).  The kirsch tones here are front and center with the Mourvedre providing pepper, garrigue and some earthy cocoa that add dimension.  A little closer to the vest than the Sablet but there is plenty to like here too.

Some of you might wonder if we have any convincing scores that validate these wines.  In truth, we don’t.  La Roubine doesn’t get a lot of media attention in the first place, and what it does receive is on the Gigondas and Vacqueyras, not these.  That’s OK as these punch well above their weight class, delivering pretty serious yet engaging wine for rather modest fares.  We have been impressed the few times we have had Eric Ughetto’s wines.  Numbers are all well and good, but delicious matters, too.  You can’t brag about a producer most folks have never heard of from somewhat obscure appellations.  But you can sure enjoy the heck out of them, and that’s what matters most.   We even have a few bottles left of that 2010 La Roubine Gigondas if you want to see where these are headed or drink a mature bottle.

PINK UPDATE…

It’s time again to touch on the world of pink wine.  A few new things have come in that deserve mention.   We aren’t necessarily aggressively looking for additional roses but won’t hesitate if we run across something that truly rings our bell.  After all, here in Southern California, pink wine season can last well into October and, as we have often said, rose has a place year around.

Antinori Guado Al Tasso Bolgheri Scalabrone Rosato 2017– This rose is from one of the most prestigious properties in Tuscany (Guado al Tasso) owned by arguably Tuscany’s ‘first family’ of wine, Antinori.  The pedigree alone gives it a certain status except, of course, Tuscany doesn’t really have a significant tradition for pink wine.  Our first go round with this offering was back in the 2014 vintage if memory serves, and the wine made a significant impression on us.  In fact, it was one of the best pinks we tasted in that vintage.

For whatever reason, the next couple didn’t light it up but the 2017 is back in the saddle again.  In a place known for Bordeaux varietals, the blend here is a predictable 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 30% Syrah.  This is on the more savory end of the rose spectrum, with a firm backbone to the berry and cherry fruit and a subtle infusion of wild herbs.  This one begs for food as you would expect for something from Italy, but it is pitched to play with a wide range of dishes and has enough muscle to stand up to grilled meats.  This is not a little quaffer for that sidewalk table at the beach.  This is a pink wine with more serious intentions.

While they have been making this wine since 1990, it hasn’t been a big player in this market until recently.  The grapes were picked and fermented separately, destemmed, and saw a brief low temperature skin contact of only a few hours.  Afterward the wine was assembled from the various selected lots, and it was bottled in January.  The name (Scalabrone) comes from a local Robin Hood-esque bandit that preyed on ships here in the early 19th Century.  Given the prestige of this real estate, the price is attractive as well ($14.98).

Claude Riffault Sancerre Rose 2017Some of you might recall that last year on these pages, we extolled the virtues of the Alphonse Mellot Sancerre Moussiere 2016, pretty much conceding it was among our top performers in the glass as far as pink wine was concerned.  Thus far that importer has not presented us with the 2017 model of that wine, but another striking Loire pink has really gotten our attention.  We don’t necessarily have an agenda with respect to this genre of pink, it’s just that for the second year in a row the region gave us one of the big winners.  There will be plenty of enthusiasm for this bright, expressive, fruit-driven rose by virtue of its unabashed style.

Like the Moussiere last year, expect it to be everything you might be looking for in a pink wine.  Made from 100% Pinot Noir, the nose gives bright red melon notes and there is plenty of expressive fruit on the palate, surprising weight given the varietal and more authoritative flavors to set it apart from the rank & file pink (which there certainly are a lot of out there).  Loads of style here.  From 10-60 year old vines grown in Kimmeridgeon limestone soils in a single 2.5 hectare site called La Noue, harvested by hand and then assembled from part saignee and part direct press juice, this shows the purity and clarity that redefines the genre.

Delicacy and insistence, there is plenty of strawberry, raspberry, and other red fruits on display here, with deceptive vigor, unexpected depth, and plenty of palate authority.  This is one of those pinks that performs at a higher level and, while it can be lustily consumed as a casual beverage, the wine has the kind of panache that will get your attention on a more intimate level.  One of the best we have tasted this year.

Le Cengle Cotes de Provence Rose Vieilles Vignes 2017Given our penchant for estate bottled pinks with a long and clear history in the region, this one is a little hard to explain.  We have seen a lot of folks proffering ‘Provencal’ roses where they went to some co-op in the region, bought some juice, put it in an attractive bottle, and proceed to try and ‘brand’ it.  Most of these are adequate, but lack the depth and flair of the best examples.

Because of our extensive network of sources, we rarely have interest in this sort of wine.  This one, which follows a more specific if rather similar path, has made the cut for a number of seasons in succession.  That is saying a lot.

The L’Cengle importer gives the impression that the winery makes this wine to his specifications.  We have no way of knowing but if you can produce something this true to appellation, tasty and well priced, let’s just say whatever the ‘story’ is, keep it coming.  We don’t even need all of our fingers to count the pinks that have been recurring players on our team over the last several years, but this one has.  It’s exactly what you want of a Provencal pink.

Delicate, pale salmon color, nose of currants and berries, plus maybe a little touch of lime and white stone fruits, a fresh, lifted, engaging palate of mixed red fruits with a lick of citrus on the back-end, this hits all the buttons exactly as it should.  A blend of 50% Grenache, 25%, Cinsault, and 25% Syrah, it’s crisp and crunchy, refreshing and super friendly with all manner of lighter foods.  We buy this one every year because it delivers, and does so at a remarkably attractive price.

 

RANDOM RAMBLINGS: SUMMER, 2018

**We have complained about many writers penchant to spend an inordinate amount of ink on wines that few people can afford and even fewer can get their hands on.  This does no service to the majority of their readers and effectively serves as a de facto sales arm of the wineries they praise.  The consumers actually suffer because the prose gives certain wineries the impetus to charge more because of the attention and other wineries to raise their prices because ‘if they can charge that much, so can we.’

**Not that we have to remind people around here that it is hot outside, but there are a few things that bear repeating with respect to wine practices.   People chill their white wines so the only issue is how they keep them cool.  Ice bucket is one solution, there are a number ‘keep cold’ devices on the market, and, if necessary, you can simply use a plastic ice pack in a bowl or a towel.  Sometimes whites here start too cold, but it is better than the alternative of being to warm where the wines definitely suffer from an enjoyment standpoint.

It is reds that are of greater concern.  The old adage of serving reds at room temperature envisions cold castles in English, not the back patio in southern California or Arizona in the summer.  Simply put, if red wine gets too warm, it doesn’t taste very good.  If you are pulling it out of a cellar, it will be the right temperature…for a while.  You need to think ahead and maybe set the red in a bucket of some kind with some plastic ice.  If it is too cold (it should be somewhere between 58 and 65 degrees ideally), it will warm up soon enough.  If it gets too warm, you can put it in the fridge, an ice bucket or in a wine sleeve.  But the idea is to prevent it from getting too warm in the first place.  Keep it cool.

If the red is stored in some non-temperature controlled scenario, don’t be afraid to cool it down by whatever means you have.  A half hour to 45 minutes in the fridge will work, or any of the other means we have mentioned (ice bucket, wine sleeve, etc.).  You pay good money for your wine but extreme temperatures might require a little extra effort to let that wine show at its best.

**Speaking of useless prose, it has been interesting to watch Advocate ex-patriot Neal Martin as he sets up shop at his new home at Vinous Media.   Now to be upfront, we have a pretty clear notion that ‘pay-for’ wine services should be devoted to looking at the scads of new releases on the marketplace and give the consumers who buy the service the kind of information that will help them sort it all out.

We have been hyper critical about most writers penchant for going out of their way to review wines that few consumers will ever see, let alone have the chance to buy.  That being said, Mr. Martin has taken that process to a new level.  Here is a sample of some of his ‘pearls of wisdom’ articles currently on the Vinous site.

In Excelsis: Château Latour 1887 – 2010

Looking Back To Go Forward: Lafite-Rothschild 1868 – 2015

1918 Bordeaux – 100 Years On

Cellar Favorite: 1961 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

Mugneret-Gibourg: Ruchottes-Chambertin 1945 – 2014

Cellar Favorite: 1961 Latour-à-Pomerol

Bordeaux In Excelsis (featuring historic vintages of d’Yquem, Haut-Brion, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Mouton Rothschild)

Bear in mind that we hold no ill will for Mr. Martin.  We’d love to get paid to crank out such ‘topical, timely’ pieces.  We just wonder what is the purpose of these articles?  Going into detail about such rare, eclectic, and expensive wines is intended to do…what exactly?  Give working data to a couple dozen collectors who might stumble across something at auction?  Deliver the message that he has tasted such wines and you likely haven’t?   This is a glowing example of the kind of high-handed stuff that turns people away from wine.

Thousands of people pay good money to get relevant information in a timely manner about wines on the market that they might try and enjoy.  Many are in it to learn more. If you asked them how much they cared about reading the guy’s notes on his three-star Michelin  dinner with a variety of one-of-a-kind bottles, we suspect the response would be pretty unenthusiastic.

This individual has even deemed himself a music critic and put his notes on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino by Arctic Monkeys and Heaven And Earth by Kamasi Washington on your wine website at no extra charge.  Is this supposed to be some kind of ‘bonus content’?  Thanks a bunch.

**You are going to hear this repeatedly within the context of a number of articles we are and will be doing over the next 2-3 years on individual wines…in certain areas of Europe, the 2016 vintage is one of the most remarkable we have tasted in our decades in the business, in some places possibly the greatest.

There have been many exceptional vintages over time to be sure, but we can’t remember one with this unique profile.  Yes the fruit is ripe and well meshed, the flavors true to their terroirs.  But the wines are rich and full of character yet light on their feet. There is a unique texture, one the Aussies call ‘slippery’, and perfectly proportioned acidity.

In many wine circles, a ‘great’ vintage is associated with size and density.  These wines have the requisite size and density, but it is wrapped in a sleek package with bright acidity so they are not heavy or ponderous. Perhaps more important, there is almost another ‘gear’ evident in the finish of the best examples that suggests that they have more to give, yet they are perfectly drinkable now thanks to their striking balance.

While there are fine examples from a variety of locales in Europe, we have found that most compelling and consistent areas are Bordeaux, the southern Rhone, and northern Italy (Piedmont and Tuscany).  We have had wines from these areas in this vintage that are at another level, so good that they border on ethereal and even approach transcending  their appellation.

We realize this prose is a little hard to grasp.  It’s hard for us, too, seeing as we have never encountered a vintage quite like this one to convey the message properly.  If there is an easy takeaway, it is that if you have any space in your cellar, or closet, or under your bed, you need to keep your eyes open over the next few months as the 2016s roll in and be ready to grab some of them.