A DAY IN THE LIFE: THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY

For all the folks that stick their heads in the tasting area and say things to us like “I want your job” or “… must be nice” we like to offer up a little perspective every so often.  First off, don’t get us wrong, we love what we do.  We meet interesting, passionate people.  We get to try a lot of things most people won’t, and learn something every day.  Plus being in a wine shop is considerably safer than putting out oil rig fires, logging, or catching crab in the North Pacific.   We know that.

But for those that think all we sit around and do is taste First Growth Bordeaux, rare Grand Cru Burgundies, and limited production California Cabernets, it’s not the case.  In 40 years in the business, I don’t ever remember saying anything like ‘what ‘aia’ should we taste next…Sassicaia, Ornellaia, or Solaia.’  That simply isn’t our world.   But we do put our palates on the line every day to protect your table by finding the best wines and wine deals we can.

Fortunately there is very little bad wine in the world any more.  But there is an ocean of passable, insipid, or manipulated juice that someone is tasked with trying to sell us.  We could go on a rather extensive rant at this point about the appalling lack of professionalism that exists in the industry, but we will save that for another day.  Simply put, we love nothing better than finding that proverbial ‘needle in a haystack’.  But you have to sometimes go through a rather dreary haystack to find it.  Sometimes you go through that haystack and there isn’t a needle at all.   Sure, there are great days, but also a lot of not-so-great days.  But we have chosen the task of being a filter for our customers.

There are many ways to find wine, including traveling to large, far away comprehensive shows to see mass quantities of labels all together.  There are also brokers that work the ‘back side’ of the business, helping some producers who made some bad marketing decisions on the front side of the biz, to move out some juice.  This particular sample came from one of our more trusted ‘back door’ purveyors from whom we have gotten some pretty killer deals in the past.

All we are going to say about this wine in terms of identity is that it is a Paso Robles Zinfandel from a winery whose juice we have sold before.  As we always do, we didn’t look at any of the ‘stats’ before we tasted this wine.  We simply took a quick whiff and a sip to see if there was enough there to look deeper.  As it was, there was a curious combination of elevated acidity and volatile acidity, two aspects that are typically mutually exclusive.  So for curiosity’s sake, we did some light digging.

Wine chemistry can be pretty boring to most folks outside the cellar and it is not something we talk about in depth as a rule.  But in this case the chemistry was the story.  The label stated 16.9% alcohol by volume, which will be disturbing to some folks, especially considering there is a bit of leeway on that alcoholic statement by law (as much as 1.5%).  So now there is a possibility it could be pushing 18%! We have had wines with some pretty high alcohols that were balanced, but that is extreme.

Reading on, the stat sheet noted that there was still 1% residual sugar in the wine as well.  That means there could have been another .5% alcohol on top of the searing amount the was already there had it totally fermented (the yeasts that drive fermentation often die at these advanced levels of alcohol so they don’t finish the job).  These grapes must have been closer to raisins.

In cases of over-the-top ripeness there is a natural tendency for the acidity to drop precipitously.  A ballpark standard measurement for ph in red wines runs somewhere between 3.4 and 3.7.  At this level of ripeness, there could well have been a ‘4’ in that number naturally, presuming the wine didn’t collapse on itself altogether.  Odd enough at face value, this wine should have been goo, but curiously was not.   As we read further, we noted that the stated ph in this wine was closer to 3.1, more akin to a German Riesling than anything else.

This alcohol/acid balance does not occur naturally in nature, which suggests some mad science.  In most cases California winemakers would acidify the wine back to more appropriate levels by adding tartaric acid (yeah, they do that), maybe even add a little water.  It would take a pretty big tweak to get this wild thing back to normal levels, but given the finished ph the poor winemaker must have dropped the whole bag of tartaric into the vat.

There was still time to abort.  Sometimes the creativity in dealing with uncooperative fermentations can have remarkable consequences.  In effect, the whole ‘Prisoner’ saga started with an unfinished fermentation that was blended with other lots to create something unique that became a market sensation.  In this case, however, the winery chose instead to bottle this bizarre brew under their own label.

In the sell sheet we got, the claim was made that this wine had never been sold for under $38.  That is entirely possible as it isn’t far fetched to presume that this odd duck probably sold very little if at all!  There were places along the way where a different decision would have made this wine work in some manner.  But that didn’t happen.  Now, this scary ‘Frankenwine’ is on the selling block at a hugely reduced price.  Brokers will ultimately find a way to move this along.  Then it will be out there, somewhere, most likely in some sort of ‘wine club’ scenario where it all gets mailed out at once.  Be afraid.

THE NEXT CHABLIS SUPERSTAR: SEBASTIEN CHRISTOPHE

Chablis is an interesting place.  The yellow soils are unlike anything we have seen anywhere else in the wine world.  Yet for as uniform as the surface area appears, there is a great variation to the various elements of terroir and how it manifests in the hands of a broad array of producers.  While people speak of the flinty aspects imparted by the Kimmeridgian and Portlandian soils, great Chablis is more than ‘how do you like your rocks’.

Some examples lean more chalky, some more like seashell in this ancient marine area, and a lot of producers can be successful by simply playing that aspect of the terroir.  But the real differentiating factor is how the fruit plays.  It is remarkable how specific the profiles of the various Crus play out, with Les Clos having a more floral and peachy undercurrent to Grenouille with its extremely flinty, more savory profile.  We love quality Chablis in  virtually any form, but there is a particular profile that is perhaps our favorite.

We picked up on a certain aspect of fruit, for lack of a better description, sour apple, back when we were exploring a new label we were quite excited with back in the early 90s called Raveneau.  We saw a certain expression of that same apple and flint combination woven through the wines of Tomas Pico’s Pattes Loup.   We see that again as a backdrop to the wines of the still relatively unknown Sebastien Christophe.

This guy isn’t in town but on the outskirts.  His first property was a tiny parcel in Petit Chablis.  But it has been clear from the first taste that this vigneron has special skills.  His domain has expanded via rental and purchase, but if you make your bones with Petit Chablis and Chablis Villages, it may be a while before fame hits you.  This guy is destined to be a force, but we are more than happy to quietly enjoy his appley, stony, bright, precise and reasonably fleshy Chablis at normal prices while the rest of the world figures it out.

The Christophe et Fils Chablis Village 2017 is not only beautifully made but reflects the specifics of a singular spot.  The wine exhibits serious endowment of talented vineyards as most face the Grand Cru Blanchots and sit just behind the great 1er Cru Montee de Tonnerre.  The soils are almost purely Kimmeridgian stones that are unusually brittle and sharp.  It is a deeply savory and fully ripe wine that shows the greatest degree of what a Chablis “village” wine can accomplish.

In other words this does not show like an entry level Chablis, with a surprising density to the fruit that sits on top of perfectly proportioned acidity.  It is of an unexpected quality and purity for ‘villages’ level and can play with Premier Cru efforts from other producers.  We have been early to the table with a number of exceptional Chablis producers over the years, and we think this is one of those times.  For under $30, it’s a find and one that has found its way into our own drinking rotation.

‘House’ Barbera: Bosco Agostino Barbera d’Alba Volupta 2015

Barbera is one of Piedmont’s great go-to wines.  Steaming plate of pasta? Barbera.  Hearty lasagna?  Barbera.  A good, ripe Barbera can hit it with a burger and fries as well.  It’s about the juice.  Barbera can be fussy to grow.  The acids can be too high and, when the vintage isn’t cooperative, you can get the lifeless examples of 2013 and 2014.  The thing is, most top Piedmont estates grow some Barbera.  It’s what’s for dinner.  But so often it is an afterthought to the more famous Nebbiolo grown higher on the hill.   But there are a few guys that do take their little wines as seriously as their flagships and one of them we have been working with for a long time is Agostino Bosco.

Year in and year out Andrea Bosco seems to stuff more fruit into his Barbera than almost anyone we can think of.  That riper, somewhat plump palate has an almost New World feel to it, yet the personality of the fruit itself is unmistakably Italian.

As we mentioned, we have sold many vintages of this, but the Bosco Agostino Barbera d’Alba Volupta 2015 might be the juiciest yet.  Why don’t more people know about this producer?  Well, first off, this isn’t some fancy Piedmont estate trying to pass itself off as a ‘small family farm’.  This actually is a small family farm with good holdings and a good dose of passion.

Second, they are not with one of those large international import companies that make sure they have all of their wines in front of critics.  This hands-on operation doesn’t have the staff to do that.   So you see little in the way of press, though this did get a 91 from James Suckling and comments, “Plenty of blue fruit, slate and violets to this Barbera on the nose as well as hints of resin. Full body, fine acidity and a fruity finish. Drink now.”  But this wine delivers in the glass as a compelling, easy going, authentic mouth full, especially this year.

The estate itself consists of four hectares in the La Morra area divided among Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Dolcetto.  The family existed as growers for decades until they decided to make their own wines in 1979.  This Barbera is a blend of two different vineyards, one with 20-year-old vines in clay and limestone and a southwest exposition, the other 30-year-old vines in tufa and limestone with a southeast exposition.  The blend yields a wine with ripe dark red and black fruit, sufficient but never intrusive acidity, not a lot of evident tannin, and a minerality that adds an interesting textural underpinning.   In other words, perfectly tasty yet deceptively serious Barbera.

 

THE FUTURE OF GERMAN RIESLING: FEINHERB

The direction of German Riesling has changed dramatically over the last decade.  There are lots of reasons.  Part of it is market perception.  In general, anything that is perceived to have any residual sugar is frowned upon by the new populace.  Spätlese is viewed as ‘sweet’, even though the elevated acidity strikes an amazing balance with the complex hillside fruit of traditional German estate Riesling.  Chardonnay is ‘dry’.  Never mind that many of the Chardonnays the populace drinks have substantial sugars woven into their makeup, and much lower acidity.

The sommelier set, particularly those in Germany that have the ears of the vintners, claim that traditionally styled Rieslings don’t go with food.  We’d love to debate that but the point is that they have been demanding searingly dry, skeletal trocken Riesling as the solution.  Do they go better with food?  Well some food, as long as you don’t care what the wine tastes like.  The best examples of the genre are generally the ‘Grand Cru’ Trockens, designated as GG (großes gewächs).  But while they have the peripheral fruit flesh that makes the style viable, they are erratic as a genre and typically cost $50 and up.

As we have stated many times, grapes should be made into the type of wine that best serves the varietal and the site.  In this part of the world where it is colder, leaner structures and some sweetness are magic together.  That may change with global warming, but it hasn’t yet.  In the meantime some very talented German estates have figured out what we think is a way to please everyone.  Over the years we have seen better and better examples of what are referred to as halbtrockens (literally ‘half dry’) a.k.a. feinherb, and this effort will be a game changer for a lot of folks.

The feinherbs have the firm backbone of great Riesling and, in concert with that acidity, have barely perceptible sweetness and finish dry.  Perhaps more important is that, with just a bit more ‘fat’ on the ‘bones’, the palate feel is much rounder and there is a place where the remarkable fruit and complexity of some of these historic vineyards have a platform to express those qualities.  To us, these are the answer to Riesling’s identity problem and a fantastic and versatile option for both food and non-food applications.  We wouldn’t think of making a pitch like this unless we had a  stellar example of the breed to make our case.  This A. J. Adam Feinherb is uncommonly good for the genre and pretty sensational juice by any standard.

While we have been big promoters of German wines since the 1980s, and have worked with some producers for that entire stretch, we only became acquainted with A.J. Adam with the 2010 vintage.  He has since become one of our favorite Häuser.  The A J Adam Riesling Mosel in der Sangerei Feinherb 2017 can be considered a ‘best of breed’.  Some folks might balk at a $40 fare for Riesling, but you can pay a lot more for wines that cannot touch this one.  To us, this should be the future of the trocken movement…back off the trocken a little and make something that’s both enjoyable and food friendly.

Importer Terry Theise’s comments on this one are, “A cadaster parcel within the Hofberg, this has often been a beloved wine for me. This ’17 is quite serious, in the vintage way, not as suave as usual but with a different kind of grip and length. Half was lost to frost, so there’s just one Fuder, of an earnest, dark-toned mineral wine, with a pointed acidity that sucks up every one of the 25g/l RS.”

While perhaps less cerebral, Stuart Piggott’s comments on James Suckling’s website are certainly more to the heart of the matter, “Super peachy with great brilliance and refinement. This is a great Spätlese that’s dry enough for the finest lobster dish, but it is also powerful enough to cope with the spiciest curry. The very long finish keeps pumping out fruit and minerals. Drink or hold…96 points.”

This is the type of effort that will please people on both sides of the Riesling debate.  By the way, if you are a fan of the more traditional Spätlese style, these guys make one of the best.

Sneaky Good Buy on Cali Chard from Santa Rita Hills

First of all, we must make the point that this Pence has nothing to do with politics that we know of.  Blair Pence owns a 200-acre working ranch in the western part of the Santa Rita hills with his vines situated on rocky soils .  By their own description, “Seen from above, it appears as an island on an elevated plateau, which has been slowly eroded over time on all sides and is thus fully exposed to merciless cold ocean winds, morning fog and other Pacific Ocean influences. It is this combination of stressful conditions that provides the character considered essential to making great wines from our location.”

Thing is it seems like everybody has some sort of angle to assert that their wine is better.  This one actually is.  The Pence Ranch Chardonnay Santa Rita Hills 2016 is one of the best under $20 Chardonnays we have tasted from California in quite some time.  To some people that means something that is ‘rich and round, mouth-filling and oaky’ (and probably pumped up with residual sugar and wood chips).  If you are looking for that kind of in-your-face style, this is not that.

This one surprised us because it had sufficient size, a great palate feel, nuanced flavors of pear, ‘butter’, and apple, and bright acidity.  In other words, it tasted like Chardonnay, with the kind of fruit, purity, balance and nuance that engages rather than overwhelms.   We’re going to go out on a limb and presume that the winemaking probably has a lot to do with this.

As soon as we tasted this one, we were pretty sure whoever made it knew what they were doing. The winemaker of record here is one Sashi Moorman, a talented fellow involved in a few side projects as well as his own PiedraSassi, Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte labels.  The stuff coming out of Sandhi now is quite impressive, and his touche seems to have worked beautifully with Pence’s ocean-influenced Chardonnay.

Yeah we can produce a review from Jeb Dunnuck, “92 Points!  The 2016 Chardonnay Estate has some caramelized notes as well as ripe orchard fruits and brioche, lip-smacking acidity, a rounded, beautifully textured feel, and a great finish. Aged 9 months in 25% new Ermitage barrels, drink it over the coming 3-5 years.”

But one on one, as opposed to some kind of multi-item blind review tasting, one will be able to sense a lot going on.

This is a beautiful option in today’s varied Chardonnay world.  But it wasn’t made to win a tasting with added bell and whistles.  It was instead made to be what it is supposed to be, a well-made, tasty, versatile, personality-filled ‘real’ Chardonnay made by a guy who is well acquainted with what great Chardonnay is supposed to taste like.  A sneaky value, we could try and make a big splash but, frankly, that’s not the format to sell a wine like this.  This Chardonnay speaks for itself without yelling and enough people should ‘get it’.

AN ALBARINO STORY

*This is a little unusual for us, but something we might start doing a little more often.  In the course of our ongoing research to support the emails and writeups we do, we try to include as much information as we can without every article looking like “War & Peace” or something ‘Micheneresque’.  Occasionally we do run a across a story done by somebody else that has great information or teaches a lot about some aspect of the world of wine.  We are of a mind to publish them for your consideration.

This article was written for the importer for Raul Perez’ new Albariño project (Atalier) by Andrew Mulligan, the Spanish portfolio manager for the company.  Naturally, it is a bit of a sales pitch but we thought the history aspects, etc. are pretty cool here.  Yeah, it’s geeky stuff, but pretty informative.    We’re going to do a more concise email offering on this outstanding new Albariño moving forward.  But we couldn’t possibly include this much detail and this is an article that few consumers would ever find, or even know to look for.

=========================AN ALBARINO STORY (Andrew Mulligan)

We are very pleased to announce the arrival of the 2017 vintage of ‘A Cruz das Ánimas’, the Albariño from Atalier by Raúl Pérez. While this is the second vintage produced under this label, it should be considered the first vintage in which the vision of the project has been fully realized. The 2016, while terrific, was cobbled together from myriad sources, whereas the 2017 comes from three dedicated coastal sites that were specifically chosen to carry the project into the future.

The Rías Baixas is an unusual appellation in that it is not geographically contiguous. In the north, around the town of Cambados, there is the Val do Salnés sub-zone. In the south, along the Miño River (which forms the natural border with Portugal), are O Rosal and Condado do Tea. Less well-known and more recently established are Soutomaior, located between Pontevedra and Vigo, and Ribeira de Ulla, which lies to the south of Santiago de Compostela.

In the past, there was a tremendous amount of varietal diversity in the region. Indeed, there are twelve authorized varieties in the appellation – a half dozen each of white and red. Since the establishment of the D.O. in 1988, however, Albariño has risen to near complete dominance, now accounting for 96% of the planted acreage.

The origins of Albariño are not universally agreed upon, either by ampelographers or winegrowers. Some believe that the variety is native to this corner of the Iberian Peninsula (insomuch as any grape can be considered truly “native” to Western Europe). Others believe that it was brought over by French monks in the 11th and 12th centuries via the Camino de Santiago. Still others believe its origins to be Germanic. “Alba” is a Latinate root for “white” and ”Rin” is the Rhine River, so it’s possible to interpret the name Albariño as “White of the Rhine”.

Wherever it came from originally, there is no dispute as to Albariño’s ancestral home in Spain: the Val do Salnés. The southern zones of the appellation were historically planted more to red varieties like Caiño Tinto, Loureiro Tinto and Espadeiro, and white varieties like Caiño Blanco, Treixadura and Loureiro Blanco (the latter two of which are still widely planted just over the border in Portugal), but the vast majority of those plantations were pulled up to make way for Albariño over the last three to four decades. With very few exceptions, Albariño vineyards that are referred to as “old” in Condado do Tea or O Rosal top out around 35-40 years of age. In Val do Salnés, however, it is still possible to find some very old parcels. Owing to the predominance of sandy soils in the coastal areas, there are even some plots that survived the phylloxera crisis of the late 19th century, thus making them some of the oldest un-grafted vitis vinifera plantings in the world. The 2017 Atalier comes from a trio of such vineyards, all within a kilometer of the coast in the village of Dena.

These 150-year-old Albariño vines are trained in the traditional pergola style.  Rodri Méndez, the unofficial conservationist-in-chief of the Salnés Valley, is the person responsible for scouting the vineyards and establishing the agreements with the owners, whom he has known all his life. Rodri’s bonafides are rock solid: he’s a member of the family that founded Do Ferreiro, one of the first commercial wine brands in the Rías Baixas. Its founding pre-dates the formal establishment of the D.O. by at least fifteen years, and it remains a reference point domaine, not just in the Rías Baixas, but in all of Galicia. Rodri has since split off to launch his own projects, but he remains almost religiously committed to seeking out, recuperating and preserving historic sites such as the ones that go into Atalier. You see, old vines are not very sought after in this new world of commodified Albariño. Most folks these days want to farm for kilos, and old vines are notoriously miserly with their yields. Almost every year, parcels of un-grafted, pre-phylloxera Albariño vines are either abandoned by people of advanced age or plowed under to make way for new plantations. My colleague Max and I got to visit the largest of the three sites this past month, and it was, without a doubt, one of the most moving vineyard visits of my career. I have certainly visited more visually arresting sites: Knights Valley in the shadow of Mt. St. Helena; the bleached and blasted moonscape of Santorini; the vertiginous slopes of Amandi in the Ribeira Sacra. But this visit was different. The vineyard lies exactly at sea level and is totally flat, so there’s no real drama to the landscape. It was what this site represents that was at once both inspiring and poignant.

Vicente has worked this plot his entire life.  We didn’t ask Vicente, the vineyard’s owner, his exact age, but I’m guessing he lands somewhere between 80 and 90 years old. He has looked after this vineyard for his entire life, like his father and grandfather before him. Though he’s not entirely sure, he surmises that the vineyard was planted before his grandfather was born. Rodri Méndez estimates that the Albariño vines are somewhere around 150-160 years old on average, based on the breadth of the trunks and the paucity of the yield. There is at least one vine on the property that is an order of magnitude older than that: a single Caiño Tinto vine with a trunk as wide as a dogwood’s and limbs that extend far and wide enough over its trellis to provide shade for a large patio. Vicente’s children chose other vocations, leaving him without any heirs to carry on the family tradition of cultivating the vine, so Rodri now takes responsibility for the vineyard management and pays him for the agreed-upon share of the grapes at harvest. Vicente keeps a small portion of the yield to make a wine for home consumption.

Rodri and Marcial Dorado, another scion of an old northwest Iberian vine-growing family, accompanied Max and I for the visit. Though it was immediately obvious to us Americans, they still took great pains to emphasize how special a site this was. “This is the real thing, Andrew! This is the way of our ancestors! Look at this! Look at it!” Their inarticulate exhortations were fitting for the moment. Anyone who works in this business long enough will eventually become at least slightly desensitized to the wonder that a visit to a vineyard can occasion. Some will become downright cynical. But while we’ll never get back to the state of mind we enjoyed on those early trips, when we were seeing everything for the first time, we are still occasionally privileged to feel that wonder break through again.

“When these vines were planted,” I thought to myself, “My mother’s ancestors were breeding horses for the Polish cavalry and my father’s ancestors were being greeted in America by NINA signs.” How much has changed for my family since then! And how little has changed for Vicente’s. These vines we were walking amongst – after all these years, with their famines and diseases and wars and scourges; their marriages and births and innovations and poems and songs – they would still produce fruit! And my friend Raúl would turn that fruit into wine, and my other friends and I would get to sell that wine to yet other friends, and those friends would sell it to friends and strangers alike…when you take the time to reflect on it, this is remarkable!

With raw material like this, there’s not really much to do but stay out of the way, and despite the abundance of accolades Raúl and his wines have received, staying out of the way is probably the thing he does best. There are two key decisions, however, that affected the way the wine came to show the character it does. The first concerns malic acid. There are certainly counterexamples, but the vast majority of Albariño on the market goes through at least partial malolactic conversion. The grapes have a very high level of naturally-occurring malic acid, so when picked at the usual time, they need a little bit of that conversion to avoid coming out shrill. Raúl, however, eschews malolactic in Albariño. In order to naturally lower the malic acid levels in the grapes and obviate the need for even partial conversion, he waits to harvest for as long as two or three weeks after most everyone in the zone has finished. This is not so much time that the grapes raisinate or arrive at unreasonable levels of potential alcohol (the finished wine is around 12.8% or 13%), but their malic acid levels do drop considerably. Raúl and Rodri like to say that they pick on the same day every year: “The day before it rains.”

The other decision is to elaborate the wine in oak, standard practice for all the wines – white and red – that Raúl produces. These days, oak fermentation and aging are often disparaged out of hand as “modern” techniques, representing what the great Robert Haas would call “some tragic falling off from a first world / of undivided light” – some ideal of purity that is almost entirely apocryphal. This is especially true for white varieties that are expected to be made in a fresh, reductive style. But as with any polarizing issue in the wine world – sulfur comes to mind – context is of paramount importance. Putting Albariño into a new French 225L HT and racking it after six months into another one is modern (and sounds gross). Putting Albariño into large, used foudres to stimulate oxygen exchange during élevage is something that’s been done for generations. The style we think of now when we think of Albariño – fresh, easy, fruity – is actually quite new. The first stainless steel tanks didn’t arrive to the region until the 1980s! The prevalence of reductively raised Albariños in the market these days is almost purely a function of economics: stainless steel élevages save time, money and labor – simple as that. And the commodification of Albariño wines over the last twenty or thirty years has led to a philosophy of “pick, crush, ferment, bottle, sell” that has all but relegated this noble variety to the “cheap and cheerful” bin along with Verdejo.

The 2017 ‘A Cruz das Ánimas’ from Atalier by Raúl Pérez is an example of the ecstatic heights that old-vine Albariño can reach when treated with the respect, care, and patience it deserves. It is also is something that is becoming vanishingly rare in the world of wine today. Sites like these represent an ever more endangered piece of the cultural patrimony of Galicia. When I speak of the poignancy of visiting a site like this, it’s not simply about un-grafted vines. Apart from the vines themselves, it’s the tradition of passing jealously guarded parcels of land from generation to generation that is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain in the new global economy. A wine like this provides us with an opportunity to partake of this legacy and play a part in keeping what’s left of it alive.

 

 

 

 

SANDHI PINOT NOIR 2016: SANTA RITA AS IT SHOULD BE

As the old saying goes, nothing is perfect.  Now all of that may have changed with the advent of the ‘100 point scale’ which occasionally has wines awarded 100 points.  Isn’t 100 points on a ‘100 point’ scale, well, perfection?  In theory it would seem so, but what defines perfection?  Simply it is the ability to fulfill all of the parameters in the best possible way.  But it is also relevant to understand that someone has to decide what those parameters are.  Obviously you can‘t judge Pinot Noir and Chardonnay by the same standard.

Even with the same varietal, there are stylistic preferences that some might judge more enthusiastically than others.  The origins also make a difference.  Willamette Pinots, those from Russian River, Santa Rita Hills or Santa Lucia Highlands each have their own charm, but they also have long-established traits that define their appellation.  All have very different profiles.

So that being said, within the very specific subset of Santa Rita Hills, it doesn’t get much better than the Sandhi Pinot Noir Santa Rita 2016Beautifully orchestrated throughout, this is a textbook example of the appellation like few we have ever seen.  The aromatics show the cool dark red fruits, rhubarb, and wild herbs.  In the mouth there is plenty of refined, well-meshed, ample cranberry and mulberry fruit, a tapestry of earth, anise, and touches of oak in the finish.

To quote Antonio Galloni of Vinous Media,“… the 2016 Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills) is positively stellar. Powerful and deep in the glass, with unusual depth, the 2016 has so much to offer. There is a level of sheer richness I have never seen in this bottling before. Blue and purplish berry fruit, lavender and spice flavors are all amped up. This is a very serious wine at the appellation level. Then again, the core of this wine is now composed of vineyards that belong to Domaine de la Côte. If there is one wine that over delivers big time in 2016, Sandhi’s Santa Rita Hills Pinot is it. Don’t miss it…93 Points! “

In any case, we haven’t experienced a better standard-bearer for the appellation than this one.  If you are a fan of the Santa Rita Hills, this wine hits all the right notes.  Does that mean perfection? Under a certain set of parameters, maybe so.  But at the very least, it’s seriously good, ‘Burgundy styled’ Pinot Noir crafted by guys (Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman) that have great experience with real Burgundy, and, at $29.98, delivers a lot of value on a wine that plays at a high level.  Like the man said, ‘don’t miss it!’

 

WELCOME BACK, POWELL

We have been at the Aussie game for nearly three decades now, and can honesty say that we were involved in the earliest days of the boutique influx.  We were among the very first customers for groundbreaking importers like the late John Larchet (Australian Premium Wine Collection) and Dan Philips (Grateful Palate).  We can still recall looking at a status report from an early shipment from Grateful Palate where a wine that we had never heard of called Torbreck RunRig (1994 vintage if memory serves) was on our manifest.  We asked Dan about it and he simply said, “you want it.”

Turned out it was sensational and the first step in a long and successful run for the Torbreck label. The mind behind it was one Dave Powell, clearly a man of enormous winemaking talents and great ambition.  Over the years he continued to amaze with one distinctive, deliciously well-conceived bottling after another.  His winemaking associate at the time was Dan Standish, who has spun off to create a sensational label of his own.

Torbreck is now in the capable hands of former Peter Lehmann winemaker Ian Hongell.  What happened to Dave?  Well the story of his personal life would probably make a pretty good cable series on one of the edgier channels.  But the key elements were that Dave got into a situation where he needed a serious infusion of capital to keep the label afloat and subsequently made his investment arm so distraught with some of his antics that he was essentially kicked out of the company he founded.

People have said all kinds of salty things about Powell.  But no one, even his detractors, could honestly say that he wasn’t a brilliant winemaker.  Well after the Torbreck debacle, the supremely confident Powell kind of disappeared from view.  Apparently he spent some time teaching his son, Callum, the ropes and, clearly, the guy hasn’t lost a step.  Whether or not this new duo will be able to equal the pinnacle of success that Torbreck enjoyed remains to be seen.  But if you are looking for great purity of fruit, expressive personality, and unique profiles, why not go with one of the best winemakers in all of Australia.

Dave believes most of the work happens in the vineyard and this is where Dave and Callum spend most of their time.  The resulting wines have the same kind of flair that those early Torbreck wines showed. The short story is that Dave is back, and doing what he does best in creating distinctive, hand-made wines.  It doesn’t hurt that these debut wines are from 2016 which was an exceptional vintage Down Under.

 Powell and Son Riverside Grenache Mataro Shiraz Barossa Valley 2016It starts here with The Powells’ entry-level red, the 2016 Riverside Grenache Mataro Shiraz, a 70% Grenache, 20% Mataro and 10% Shiraz  blend that spent 15 months in large foudres and concrete prior to bottling. A Wine Advocate 91, the comments are, “It’s full-bodied but floral and fine, with a silky texture, cherry fruit and a bit of earthy depth. It should drink well for 3-4 years, possibly more.”  It’s like the old Torbreck Woodcutters value bottling only more engaging and packed with fruit.  It’s kind of ‘old World’, as is Dave’s bent, but there’s an appealing lift and new World freshness.  At $17.98 it’s a buy.

Powell and Son Shiraz Barossa and Eden Valleys 2016The Barossa & Eden Valleys Shiraz “epitomises the philosophy of Powell & Son to marry the greatness of the Barossa and Eden Valleys”.  Barossa supplies the rich middle with the higher elevation, cooler Eden Valley giving the wine a lift and freshness that people don’t typically think is a part of Australian reds.   A 50/50 blend of Eden Valley Shiraz from 40+ year-old vines and Barossa Valley Shiraz from 60+ year-old vines, the fruit is fermented separately in concrete vats before spending 15 months in 4,500 liter French oak foudres.

The aroma of this wine shows kirsch, lavender, sage and charred meats. It has a dark, brooding character to add further complexity. The palate is dense and deep with ripe black fruits: plum, blackberry compote as well as a cured meats and black olive.

Wine Advocate was quite supportive with a 94 point score and notes, “Taking price into account, the GMS and this wine, the 2016 Barossa & Eden Valleys Shiraz, are my favorites in the Powells’ lineup. The blend is 50-50, as there was a single foudre from each region used in the blend. The nose is more floral and garrigue-like than the straight Barossa Shiraz, with mulberry and blueberry fruit mingling easily on the palate. It’s full-bodied, creamy-textured and rich, with a concentrated, velvety finish that’s a clear step up from the entry-level wines.”

Wine Spectator was equally enthusiastic with a 93 point score and comments, “Whiffs of eucalyptus and white pepper announce the massive, dense and concentrated blueberry and blackberry flavors, with Earl Grey tea— and clove-scented notes on the finish. There’s no denying the power here. A good candidate to evolve with mid-term cellaring.”  The $44.98 price is serious, but so is the wine.

Powell and Son Grenache Shiraz Mataro Barossa Valley 2016 The Barossa Valley GSM takes the various ‘parts’ and hones it into a complete new world Chateauneuf type wine.  The blend is about 2/3 Grenache  from mature Barossa Valley Grenache bush vines, with Shiraz and Mataro making up the balance.  Again the maturing in big foudres harmonizes everything while not allowing the wood to get in the way of the fruit.  Engaging, expressive, and intense, yet never overblown.

Again impressive words from Wine Advocate, “…One of the best values and flat-out sexiest wines in the lineup is the 2016 Grenache-Shiraz-Mataro. Driven by the 1901-planted Grenache from Seppeltsfield that makes up 60% of the blend, it’s richer, darker and deeper than the Riverside bottling. Sage and licorice notes add nuance to the black cherries on the nose and palate of this full-bodied, richly concentrated and layered offering. 94 Points!”

Dave is back and this line with his son is an important new (old?) face on the Aussie scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

STOLPMAN: TASTY VALUE-PRICED REDS FROM UNIQUE BLENDS

We have watched as Stolpman experimented with viticulture and winemaking ideas until they got it figured out.  The Stolpmans had the passion and they also had Sashi Moorman on the payroll and, through him, a connection to a larger group of vintners with a ‘higher calling’ wine-wise.  The common mindset here as they worked towards their goals was not visions of other domestic producers, but of some of France’s greatest Rhone producers (the Stolpmans named their child Augie, in deference to August Clape of Cornas, for example).

There’s a saying in sports about how one must ‘play the right way’.  Well these folks did that with wine.  They experimented, they learned, and they got better and better.  Yet they never lost sight of the fact that people will be drinking their wine and clearly, given their pricing, the Stolpmans left their egos at the door.  Now, with Syrah as their major focus, they make some of the most compelling and unique blends in California.  The care that goes into these wines in both the vineyards and the cellar is far above the prices charged.  To further enhance the individual wines’ identity, they give them individual labels and stories.

On top of it all, the Stolpmans produce these wines in partnership with the Solarzano family, who manage the viticultural duties for the entire estate, and permanent staff.  It’s kind of a ‘family’ affair where everyone cares a great deal about what’s in the bottle.  We can vividly recall a number of new labels from corporate type wineries where we asked about the source of the wine and were told, essentially, that the ‘story’ came first and they found some juice to fill the bottle.  These are well conceived, purely made wines where the story on the label is from the ‘heart’ and the juice is first rate and unfettered.

As we mentioned, great Syrah is the recurring theme through this lineup.  We’ll start with the newest edition, the Stolpman La Cuadrilla 2016.  When Tom Stolpman originally bought the property, he wanted his workers on site year-round, so the team members could have a steady job, a career, and raise their families with security.  To further that goal, Ruben Solarzano divvied up parcels among the workers for them to maintain and thus learn the growing cycle ‘hands on’.  This wine includes the crew’s plots (called Cuadras) in a unique and tasty blend of 72% Syrah, 16% Sangiovese and 12% Grenache.  Not to get too technical, but 80% of the grapes are destemmed and 20% are done whole cluster to give the fruit some ‘pop’.  Afterwards it sees time in neutral oak just to round out the edges.

This is a juicy and accessible wine with an uncanny purity to the fruit that reminds us of times long past, with lively dark cherry, blueberry and plum.  There’s a little spice and a pleasing savory streak to add interest to the blend, and all is integrated for current ‘applications’ and well-priced for what it delivers.  You rarely get this caliber of juice for this kind of price here in California.  Notes from Wine Advocate coincide with ours and demonstrate how far this sophisticated project has come, “…the unabashedly delicious 2016 La Cuadrilla is a beautiful wine, jumping from the glass with notes of roses, violets, wild berry fruits and pomegranate. On the palate, it’s medium to full-bodied with an ample core of juicy fruit, satiny tannins and a pure finish. This is an amazing value….92 Points”.

The name, the blend, and the winemaking are pretty daring on the Stolpman Para Maria de los Tecolotes 2017, but they are a key part of the reason why this wine is so unique.  The blend of 80% Syrah and 20% Petit Verdot is quirky enough.  But the ‘process’ takes it up a notch.  By their own description this wine is done with 40% of the Syrah done via whole cluster (carbonic maceration) in a sealed tank, 40% Syrah destemmed and done by a traditional open top fermentation.  The Petit Verdot also is destemmed and done open top.   It’s a bit of work for a wine in this price range, but the results are beyond impressive.

We liked it a lot for its texture, density of flavor, and the cool underpinning to the dark Syrah fruit provided by the Petit Verdot, which plays not unlike Mourvedre in this mix.  Again we are talking a unique, seriously complex wine from California for under $20, which we must again mention doesn’t happen every day.  But Antonio Galloni of Vinous took it up a couple of notches from there.  His words, “…another attractive wine from Stolpman.  Here, too, the fruit is bright, precise and articulate, which is to say quite a departure from the style of the 2016. Generous and pliant  on the palate, with no hard edges and striking aromatics…it is shaping up to be a real beauty…Don’t miss it….92-95 points

As long as we’re at it, we feel compelled to mention their Stolpman Vineyards Estate Syrah Ballard Canyon 2016, definitely a bottling they are well known for and one of California’s best bargains on serious Syrah year in and year out.  This wine gets plenty of love consistently and it did here again.  It’s a Wine Advocate 92 and, in their words  “keenly priced.”  Vinous offers up a 93 with comments, “The 2016 Syrah Estate is dense and powerful in the glass, with plenty of fruit intensity. Even so, the shift towards a more polished, subtle style that is so evident in the 2017s is already quite evident here. Today, the Estate is a bit shy, but all the elements are very nicely balanced. I especially admire the wine’s persistence.”

Their program with their employees is enlightened and productive, and each wine is special in its own way. But they all share the aspect of being intriguing juice that performs well above their modest prices.  Their hard work has paid off as has their thinking outside the cuadra.  Now you get to take advantage.

 

 

 

WHITE BURGUNDY’S ‘NEXT BIG THING’

As most of you who have been with us for a while know, we have been standard bearers for Beaujolais.  We have brought you amazing values like some of the single-vineyard bottlings from Dubouef, promoted the classics like Thevanet, Lapierre, and Burgaud and chronicled the Cote d’Or invasion from the likes Girardin and Liger-Belair.  For us, Beaujolais has always been important.  In doing our research for the wines we were going to promote, we kept running across the name Jules Desjourneys.  Often when we would be reading extensive critical notes on the genre, Desjourneys wines were on another level review-wise.

It is simply in our DNA to have a look at everything thing we could, but at the time there was no West Coast distribution for Desjourneys.  Some years later, we were finally presented with the wines from this esteemed producer.  They were, as advertised, spectacular and unique examples of the genre.  But the prices really put a clamp on what we could do with the wines, with some of the bottlings hitting $60-70 for Beaujolais.  There was clearly enough sizzle for us to keep on top of it to look for opportunities. But for something selling for nearly double names like Lapierre and Thevenin, we had to pick our battles carefully.

It long ago we were given the opportunity to review the newest lineup from Desjourneys, this time including a couple of white wines.  Before we go on, around here after years of tasting, we often use the terminology ‘white wine from a red wine guy’, or vice versa.  In our experience, there is a high probability that a producer that is best known for red wines, for example, simply doesn’t have quite the same touch with whites.  They are usually solid but lack that certain, special something that puts them on that top level.   It has been generally true from little producers all the way up to legends like Coche-Dury and Ramonet.  This was going through our minds as we looked down the lineup of Desjourneys, and we figured we would politely taste the whites and move on.

No one was more surprised than we were at how impressive these whites were!  As we worked through the reds, we kept thinking about how much we loved the whites.  Yes they were from southern Burgundy, and it’s hard to convince people that Pouilly Fuisse could perform at the level of something from the Cote d’Or given how many ordinary examples they had run across in their experience.  However there are notable exceptions that come along every once in a while.  You might recall several fabulous releases wee sold a while back from Robert-Denogent.  Well, ‘red wine guy’ or not, these Chardonnays from Dejourneys amazed.

First a little background.  Fabien Duperray was an agent for some of the Cote d’Or biggest stars and, presumably by association, had the mindset to create an estate that would be on the level of what he was accustomed to.  Starting in 2007, he found some small plots in Beaujolais and accumulated 7+ hectares of choice, steep hillside plots in Fleurie and Moulin-a-Vent, Morgan and Chénas with vines ranging from 65 to 140 years old.  He improved his own winemaking in leaps, and now farms in a way one writer called ‘beyond biodynamic’.  He runs the place like a Cote d’Or estate, right down to the best corks, and it shows in the wines.

There are stories about how miniscule his yields are, and how he employed as many as 50 people to harvest and hand sort this tiny estate so that everything was optimally ripe.  The result has been wines that David Schildknecht, then of Wine Advocate, called, “…some of the most remarkable Beaujolais wines of my experience, and perhaps ever rendered.”  He has become something of a rock star in Beaujolais.  Clearly the guy is destined to be a white wine superstar once people find out about it.  But there isn’t much wine out there and even less information (even on Desjournays own web site).

What we can say is that, from the first taste, that whole ‘red wine guy making white wine’ went out
la fenêtre.  There is clear viticulture/winemaking mastery going on here and these whites are profound beverages and unique in their expression.  For less than the price of an ordinary Chassagne you can have some of the most intriguing Chardonnays we’ve ever had out of the southern part of Burgundy…ever.  These are very special and more than fairly priced for what they are.

Jules Desjourneys Saint Veran 2014- Not only were we bowled over by these wines but were thrilled to find some from such a sensational vintage.  From 60 year-old vines in clay and limestone soils, it all starts in the nose with this floral apple and yellow fruit impression but soon complexing notes of spice, limestone minerality, hints of wild herbs and toast began to evolve.  On the palate it is at once mouth-filling and crisp with streaks of earth, spice, mineral and toast subtly interwoven with no single element sticking out of the core of yellow stone fruit and ripe apple.  You are left with a lingering impression of spice and just the right cut of saliva-tickling acidity.  Can’t say we have ever had a Saint Veran this serious or quite like this.

Jules Desjourneys Pouilly Vinzelles 2014-A notch up with perhaps a bit more incisive aromatics and a touch more of a toasty element evident, there’s a touch of citrus (oranges?) as well to the white and yellow peach fruit center.  Again we have richness without thickness and the palate is fully engaged with the spice, mineral, and a little grilled almond nuance.  It is seriously engaging again, maybe with a couple more ‘notes’ to the ‘music’ but that same presence on the palate and that almost lightly ‘pulpy’ texture.  The few notes we have say that this one is done in 100% stainless steel, and that Fabien is a minimalist almost to the extreme, yet all aspects are orchestrated precisely.  Delicious.

We also have bits of the Jules Desjourneys Pouilly Loche 2015 and Jules Desjourneys Pouilly Fuisse 2015.  While we have been less excited about the 2015 vintage for whites overall, our objection is usually that they are a little flaccid.  Not so here as these have a brightness that is definitely more identifiable structurally with 2014s, though they are slightly weightier.  We could go on but there really isn’t that much wine and we could find no reviews of the whites anywhere.  So for now they are our little secret.  Suffice it to say these need to be tasted and they provided us with the kind of Burgundy ‘aha’ moment we rarely have.

Like we said, there wasn’t anything written about this vintage.  But a look ahead suggests that this exciting new source is about to get some serious attention.