2016 ITALIAN WHITES: MAKING A POINT (plus three more winners)

The more we taste examples from the 2016 vintage in northern Italy, both red and white, the more wonder we experience.  Wine after wine shows a clarity of purpose, purity of fruit, and uniquely expressive nature unlike anything we can recall in recent times.  Are these wines really that good?  The more we experience, the more inclined we are to say ‘yes, they are!’

It wasn’t that long ago we were pretty gaga over the 2010 whites from this part of the world.  The fruit had substance and power, there was plenty of zip and verve and, in short, they were everything that you could expect n Italian white to be.  We remember the 2010s fondly, and were using them as the ‘benchmark’ for  everything that was special about Italian whites.  The 2016s are all of that and more, with everything that the 2010s had plus an undefinable ‘presence’ and harmony that sets the 2016s on another level.  That being said here are three more outstanding examples to make our point:

Filippo Gallino Arneis 2016The story here isn’t extensive, just a committed producer that consistently makes very good wine and doesn’t charge a lot for it.  With a ‘naked’ grape like Arneis you can’t really tweak it in the cellar with wood and have to be very careful with extended lees contact as both can negatively affect the desired freshness of the wine’s profile, you get what Nature gives you.  Wines like this really are made in the vineyard and those that farm meticulously are the successful ones.

Sure there are slightly more exotic aromatics with some of the big dogs labels that cost a lot more.  But this one presents all of the fresh floral nuances and apple-skin aromatics and the lively fruit driven palate that are the essence of this genre.  The 2016 simply has more energy and fruit weight than past versions, which makes this one a killer deal.

Inama Vin Soave Classico 2016– As we have remarked, even the little wines are noticeably better in 2016.  Somehow they have a little more punch, a little more lift, and a surprising degree of harmony that forces you to take notice.   Inama is a staple around here, and we buy it almost every year.  But there’s just ‘more’ to this wine than any that we have tasted in recent memory.

There’s no big story here.  This is just Garganega, the classic grape of Soave, done in 100% stainless steel.  Sure it sounds simple enough.  But again this is a ‘naked’ wine which they can’t really mess with in the cellar of everything doesn’t go right, so there is a bit more to it.  All of the words matter.  To carry the name ‘classico’ the grapes must come from the hillside vineyards around the municipalities of Soave and Monteforte d’Alpone in the original and oldest classic “zone” of Verona established back in 1927.

Forget those over produced, insipid Soaves that flooded the market 20-30 years ago.  This is nothing like those.  Advocate’s Monica Larner’s words are precise enough, “This entry-level Soave Classico delivers the elegant mineral definition and fruit sensation you should expect of the best Garganega grapes. The 2016 Soave Classico Vin Soave benefits from very favorable growing conditions in a classic vintage. The bouquet is refined and polished with stone fruit, citrus, dried sage and saffron.”  Driving and quite engaging for the fare.

Keber Collio Bianco 2016No place does this kind of thing like the northeast  of Italy.  Riveting, purposeful blends of a mixture of white varietals make for some uniquely compelling whites with lifted fruit, plenty of sizzle, but also unexpected palate presence.  In that realm, Keber has always been one of the stars.  Their Collio Bianco can stand with the best in the region, but is much more attractively priced.

Maybe it was just a good day, but the 2016 Keber Collio is the best version of this wine we can remember tasting, everything the past efforts have been but with seemingly another gear.  The blend is 70% Friulano , 15% Malvasia Istriana, and 15% Ribolla Gialla.  The concept is Friulano for structure, Malvasia Istriana for its aromatic qualities, and Ribolla Gialla for
acidity. These varietals do very well in the so-named “Ponka”soil composed of marl and sandstone that naturally stresses the vines.  The grapes are whole cluster, soft-pressed to minimise oxidation during crushing. The juice is fermented and matured on the yeasts for 6 months in
cement vats. Twenty per-cent of the Friulano is aged in older, large barrels.

This wine, from a 10-acre estate near the Slovenian border, always has remarkable weight, body and a distinctive, super-minerally aspect typical of the region.  The estate produces just this wine but it is a constant winner.  This time around, it’s just a notch or two better, which is pretty sensational.


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

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

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

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

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

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


It’s always about the wine, but sometimes it is also about the connection.  Without going into detail about the cottage industry of wine brokerages that exists in a place like California, sometimes we don’t see certain labels for a period of time simply because the representative of some small entity simply can’t be bothered to make the trip down the freeway.  This is our life as it exists in the wine industry.  But we deal with all manner of folks because that is what you have to do to see all that is out there.

Johann Donabaum’s Austrian wines were an immediate favorite when we started working with them about a decade ago.  We liked his stuff for a couple of reasons.  Clearly the guy had good vineyards, and clearly a unique touch where his Gruners and Rieslings were very typical of the personality one expected from vineyards like Spitzer Point and Setzberg in the Wachau.  These wines had all the terroir and minerality one could expect, but still a certain accessibility that offered some hedonistic appeal as opposed to just “rocks and acidity’.  Second, for as good as the wines were, there was a certain rational sense to the pricing.

The Johann Donabaum Gruner Veltliner Spitzer Point Federspiel 2015, the first Donabaum we have seen in a while was a perfect example of what we mean.  Clean and beautifully executed as always, it is particularly gratifying to have the stuff come back in one of the best vintages we can ever recall for Austrian wines.  This Federspiel (the Austrian equivalent of a kabinett in must weight) has the weight and roundness of a lot of Smaragd, with the well infused minerality one expects with a yellow stone fruit character that this particular vintage brings.

From classic gneiss (typically coarse-grained earth consisting mainly of feldspar, quartz, and mica) soils, these 30-year-old vines sit in an east facing vineyard sitting at 1000 ft. elevation.  This wine sees nothing but exposure to its own lees in the cellar in an effort to express the site in its purest form.  Plumper yet still crisp, this is an appealing Gruner in a great vintage from a talented source for under $20.  That’s the meat of it.


Because of what we do, it is not unusual for us to be asked what our favorite wines are.  There are a couple of recurring scenarios that occur as we try and answer the question honestly and not sound like we’re too above it all.  If you have only tasted two wines in your life, the answer to the question is quite simple.  But when you have tasted literally hundreds of thousands, it’s hard to narrow favorites down even to a couple hundred wines, let alone one or two.

The categories that get our attention can be pretty esoteric as well.  For example one of our favorite places for white wines is northeastern Italy.  Here in the hills that elevate into the Alps there are high valleys with crystal clean air, bright sunshine and cool nights that create wines like nowhere else in the world.  Pure, insistent, remarkably expressive and lively on the palate, perfect foils to a wide variety of foods, the wines from this part of the world have a special character and vigor.

People ask us to name some of our favorites from the region and then have puzzled looks on their faces when we point to wines like Val Isarco, Abbazia di Novacella, Schiopetto, and Cantina Terlano.  None of them are exactly household words even among a lot of serious wine cognoscenti.    One of our absolute favorites is the subject of today’s offer, a brilliant white wine house in Friuli called Vie di Romans.

We identified these folks as one of the best-of-the-best in the region a very long time ago, and have always jumped at the chance to taste their newest wares.  Unfortunately, such chances have come far less often than we would have liked.  For one, the wines have not had consistent distribution over the years.  Most suppliers don’t have a lot of patience to try and develop higher priced Italian whites.   Also, because the wines cost quite a bit more than your run-of-the-mill Friulanos, Pinot Grigios, and Sauvignons, suppliers are more reluctant to show them.  The perfectly valid opinion is that most restaurant/retail buyers would find them too pricey to work into standard scenarios.

We’d have to admit ourselves that we have shied away from some pretty stupendous efforts from Vie di Romans simply because we presumed people would be hesitant to spend the additional coin even though these soar above the crowd.   People figure they can get ‘good’ Pinot Grigio for $15-16 while Vie di Romans version is closer to $30.  Yet there is no comparison.  The VdR is richer, more driving and more complex, simply a wine unto itself with dazzling acidity and palate length that bears little resemblance to most of the vapid Pinot Grigios on the marketplace.

We know such wines are not the  easiest sell. Sometimes, even against our better ‘marketing’ judgment, we buy them anyway.   The very best simply cost more, and these wines deserve the spotlight.  So it was with this riveting Sauvignon Blanc duet from Vie di Romans… driving fruit, insistent palate length and mouth- watering acidity.

The single-vineyard Vie di Romans Sauvignon Blanc Piere Friuli Isonzo 2015 simply smells and tastes like something from another strata.  There’s power, finesse, and complex flavors of grapefruit, stones, and apple, along with the classically Italian note of tomato leaves.  Oak would damage the wine’s purity, so ‘Piere’ is done entirely in stainless steel with an eight month sojourn on the lies and  no malo-lactic.  The result is a sleek, vividly flavored effort that can play with Sauvignon s costing a lot more.  James Suckling’s take, “Plenty of sliced apple, grass and fennel seed character. Medium body, tangy acidity and a smoky, slate aftertaste. Always excellent. Drink now… 93 Points!”  You can drink it now, but this meticulously crafted Sauvignon can age as well.

The Vie di Romans Sauvignon Blanc Vieris Friuli Isonzo 2015 kicks it up a notch.  It has everything that the Piere has, but more, and with a little different twist to the flavor profile!  More palate authority, intensity, and high-toned fruit, plus this one reaches a little into the realm of exotic fruit tones.  The main difference between the two is that Piere consists of a higher percentage of Italian clones, whereas the Vieris favors French clones.  The vines are a little older here, and Vieris spends nine months on the lies.  Again, what a wine…surprising punch yet with an uncommon refinement.  Suckling went a little cheerleader on this one, “This is really exotic with peaches, mangoes and grapefruits as well as a steely undertone. Full body, plenty of fruit and a powerful finish. One of the great whites of Italy. Drink now… 96 Points!”

One of the great whites of Italy?  Indeed, they both are.  Considering they are legitimate best-of-breed, the prices actually don’t seem out of line.  You get what you pay for, and these are the works of masters.  Treat yourself.

Thomas Pico Chardonnay…No Ordinary ‘Vin de France’

What, another new Chardonnay?  Well, yes, on the surface it would appear that way.  But there is much more to the story than that, starting with the name.  Not many folks will know the name Thomas Pico off the top of their heads, but he is a Chardonnay producer of some repute.  But he is known for the wines of his own estate, Pattes Loup.  We started selling Pattes Loup a few years ago and hailed Thomas as one of the most impressive new talents on the scene.  The reputation of Pattes Loup only expanded as he had additional vintages under his belt, received significant attention from the media, and established a fiercely loyal following among Chablis ‘dorks’ in particular.  It is a label of importance even if the guy’s name isn’t a household word.

If you saw the ‘Fire and Ice’ piece we posted in the ‘Stock Report’ on Sept 3, we talked a lot about how, with all the concern about global warming, ‘ice’ has been a much more devastating enemy of the grape than heat in certain parts of the wine world.  There have been numerous incidents of frost and hail that have wreaked havoc on a number of vineyards in Europe.  The Loire has been ‘abused’ on multiple occasions and 2017 in particular has created an extensive ‘casualty list’ in France, Spain and northern Italy.

As you may know, 2016 was a particularly brutal year for Thomas Pico and many other growers in Chablis. Frost in April adversely effected bud break and vine health and then hail in May came in and devastated much of what was left of the he crop. What little did survive was assaulted by mildew following the heavy rains of May and June.  Joys of farming? Not so much this time.

Yields at Pattes Loup are uncommonly low to begin with and the Pattes Loup wines have been a success thanks to talented winemaking but also because Pico keeps his yields down as a practice.  In 2016, thanks to all of the various weather malaise, Thomas was now expecting only 20% of his normal harvest, which is well below the norm under normal circumstances.  What was left would not generate enough income to keep Pattes Loups full time employees.

Fortunately, some friends who grow organic Chardonnay in high altitude vineyards of the Limoux region came to the rescue and offered Thomas a small quantity of wine to supplement his own harvest. Thomas was able to pick the grapes with his friends in Limoux to the south (it is southwest of Carcassone in the Languedoc, and then truck the juice back to Chablis in time to harvest his own grapes.

Thomas apparently bottled what little Chablis he had as Chablis.  But from the Limoux Chardonnay, Thomas made a Vin de France, aged in steel tanks. The Vin de France label thing has to do with not bottling the wine in Limoux or some other technicality under French wine law, as opposed to something to do with sketchy grape sourcing.

Meanwhile, Pico has put a lot of work and energy into developing his name among the wine cognoscenti, he wasn’t going to put his name on something substandard now.  There is a brightness and energy to the Thomas Pico Chardonnay  Vin de France 2016 that is reminiscent of Chablis, with all of the verve that Pico’s wines are known for.  But the flavors are naturally a little different than the citrus and salinity of his usual produce, these high elevation, organic grapes flavors leaning to floral scents, stone fruits, honeyed notes, and a different mineral undercurrent.  Clarity, purity and lift, the guy’s talents show through and it’s pretty compelling juice for the tab.  It is certainly the best Limoux Chardonnay we have ever had!….$19.98


We have followed Portuguese whites for some time.  Frankly for much of that period, they were little more than utilitarian.  They weren’t necessarily intended for great heights, so comparing them to ‘grand vin’ is kind of pointless.  They were, for the most part, simply ‘white and wet’.

Over the last half-dozen years or so, however, we have started to see some new faces that take their business more seriously.  They keep the wines clean and fresh.  They don’t over crop.  And the wines have fruit along with their brisk acidity.  Lately we find ourselves reaching for these a lot more often, and the newest versions of two of our favorites have hit the floor just in time.

The ‘official’ drink me by-the-sea wine of Portugal is called Vinho Verde, which translates into ‘green wine’.  These are intended to be consumed young and bright, but for the most part are not necessarily compelling.  A couple of years ago we discovered this producer, and have looked for this bottling every year since.  The Arca Nova Vinho Verde 2016  is a compelling go-to again, all of that crisp quaffability but also corresponding fruit and flavor interest that you don’t find in too many Vinho Verdes.

Dubbed one of the official Winex ‘house whites’, there’s texture to the lime/apple fruit and a feeling of substance to go along with the expected zing and delicate mineral notes.   Fermentation occurs at low temperatures in stainless steel vats, preserving the wine’s jump-out-of-the-glass verve and keeping a little CO2 in the mix to give it a little hint of spritz taking the whole experience up a couple of notches!  It’s a steal at this price so ‘don’t fear the deal’ and it zips nicely with the lighter fare of summer.  You may not know the grapes (Loureiro 50%, Arinto 40%, and Treixadura 10%), but this one performs in the glass where it matters.

Another of our old favorites, and arguably a wine whose earlier versions sent us the message that there was something going on in Portugal, is the Soalheiro Alvarinho Vinho Verde 2016The grape here is a bit more familiar (Alvarinho is what the Portuguese call Albariño), and Soalheiro can compete with Spain’s best versions. Yellow melon, lime, kiwi, a wisp of salinity, this is another superb performer with a bit more power and substance and, of course, plenty of sizzle.

A Wine Advocate 92 for Soalheiro (not bad for a ‘little’ Portuguese white), the descriptive notes ring true, “This shows all the hallmarks of Soalheiro, fresh, clean and lively. It is a pointed wine that seems a bit on the lean side, but it is very tightly wound, utterly gripping on the juicy finish and perfectly focused…Don’t drink it too cold—if you do, the power just takes over. If you like them crisp and dry, with that laser-like burst of acidity, this is an easy choice at a nice price.”

The Iberian Peninsula is rocking this summer with whites…


The Vidal y Vidal Verdejo 2015 is a unique situation that presents this rather ubiquitous (in Spain) and often undistinguished varietal as a legitimate contender for your house white.  There are a lot of examples that are just plain and one-dimensional and others that, while they have fruit, can take on a rather ‘sweaty’ character.  Then there’s this one, which has fruit, complexity and vigor, a prototype Spanish white perfectly poised to sip along with a variety of foods.

What’s their secret?  How do they make something that stands above the crowd?  Well we’re going to take a wild guess that location has something to do with it.  The property is located in the area of Rueda in northern Spain called La Seca, outside the village of the same name.  ‘La Seca’, as a lot of Southern California natives who live among a lot of things with Spanish names, means ‘the dry’, an apt description for this high, arid plain next to Toro.

This particular spot is an old river bed strewn with the round stones similar to the gallet of the southern Rhone.  The underlying soils are sand and this 21-acre Finca El Alto sits at 2300 feet elevation.  The continental climate provides warm days and chilly nights, which helps maintain the brisk acidity that makes this wine ‘hum’.   So you’ve got the weather which proved long agoas uniquely suitable for this varietal and a very special, rocky spot within that micro-climate.  But then so do a lot of other bodegas.

It is our guess that what gives the Vidal y Vidal a couple of ‘extra gears’ over the rank and file, and kind of puts it in a class by itself relative to the genre, are the vines themselves.  These thick-trunked bush vines are over 80 years old and the yields are about 2-3 kilos per vine (that’s really low).  They are farmed sustainably and harvested by hand  in the early morning so the bunches get into the winery while they are still cool.  This provides the the opportunity for freshest flavors possible, brought forward by fermenting in small stainless steel tanks using only native yeasts.  The whole idea is to present a wine with soul and plenty of verve, and that they do like few others.

We liked last year’s version, a success given the general difficulty of the 2014 vintage.  But this 2015, from a ripe, very successful consecha for Spanish whites, has more flesh and evident fruit on top of its insistent verve.  Quince, apricot, maybe a little whiff of toasted grain, sleekly infused minerality and a brisk finish, this one can play alone but really comes alive with food.  A great warm weather choice and a deceptively attention-getting effort for this usually utilitarian genre….$16.98



Savoie is still one of France’s great undiscovered treasures.  These alpine valleys, pristine landscape, sleepy hamlets, and unique history make for a one of a kind wine growing region.  Add to that, in this particular case, Jean-Claude Masson, described as one of the best winemakers in the region and but also a guy who might ‘party’ at the drop of a hat (or race cars, take out his jet ski or play rock and roll music).  There is apparently a body of evidence to support the latter rumor but there is no doubt about generally jovial Jean Claude being as serious as a surgeon when it comes to his vineyards and winemaking.

The description of Masson’s art is intensely focused wine from impeccable organic vineyards.  He is the fourth generation to run this 9 hectare estate and one who loves to explore his terroirs (he makes 10 different cuvees from his various parcels to showcase the subtle differences in character that emerge from plot to plot).   The soils here are classic limestone which makes for great white wine.

For those that aren’t familiar with the tragic but remarkable story of this appellation, it’s worth a quick read.  As it was succinctly described in an internet piece from ‘Down to Earth Wines,’

“The only sound to be heard is the nocturnal chorus of the wind and insects, playing their timeless tune.  Out of this familiar calm and quiet explodes an unearthly rumbling. Quite literally, the heavens are falling!! Massive limestone boulders tumble and squash the majority of the homes; a panicked and bewildered crush of humanity and livestock scurry to seek shelter, helpless in the face of such elemental force.  After only a few minutes of apocolyptic horror, the rumbling is done.  Several thousand souls are killed beneath a 3 mile long flow of stone and earth……

This unimaginable nightmare is exactly what happened one fateful evening in 1248 in Apremont, France of the Savoie region of the Alps.  The iconic limestone Mount Granier had collapsed, crushing everything in its path.  The traumatic event was of such deeply scarring suffering to the valley’s inhabitants that the area forever more takes its name from this tragedy: “bitter mountain” or Apremont….As a direct result of this geological shift, the limestone debris radically changed the landscape and its agricultural usefulness.”

Tough story, but the layer of limestone that spread itself across the valley paved very special turf for growing wine, particularly the kind of zingy whites that are the hallmark of this part of France.  Jacquere,  Roussanne and Altesse are the stars of the region.  There are similarities to Muscadet in the respect that these wines can sometimes be on the leaner side.  But they always have bright acidity, plenty of verve and insistent streaks of minerality. They will usually work very nicely to quaff some lake fish or other local delicacy.

However, in the right hands, in riper vintages, Savoie whites can have a lovely core of yellow stone fruits, delicate florality to the nose, and a little richer texture, which along with the usual components makes for some pretty delicious drinking.   Not big but precise, clean, fresh and persistent flavors of white peach, stones, floral notes, and white tea.  This little gem is from 100% Jacquere, farmed organically, from old vines.


Jamek Riesling Ried Klaus Federspiel 2015


We’ve became big fans of Jamek a few years back. The best efforts were packed with character and also had sufficient flesh to go along with the traditional zing. The we lost sight of them for a number of years as they left their old importer and hadn’t found a new arrangement as yet. Finally they were back and not a moment to soon. It would have been a shame to miss their efforts from the best Austrian vintage we have tasted.

Here in Wachau, as most know, they take the step of identifying the ripeness levels of their wines ala Germany, with Federspiel being more or less the equivalent of kabinett, with the measure referring to the ripeness levels of the grapes. It means the same in fact, that the grapes were harvested at a certain sugar. But the key element is that in Germany the presumption is that the wine is fruity (it can be dry, or half-dry, but it will state that on the label). In Austria, Riesling are dry unless they say otherwise, which in the case of federspiels, they never do.

On the palate, this one flirts with Smaragd richness, with a lovely textural presentation of yellow stone fruit and pear supporting the presentation of floral, citrus, and mineral tones. As always, the wine has lift and layers, and sits higher on the palate. But the fruit and deceptive density of the vintages give this Riesling an extra dimension.

Stephan Reinhardt notes are enticing, “The 2015 Riesling Federspiel Ried Klaus offers a precise bouquet of white fruits intertwined with herbal and flinty stone aromas. Round and intense on the palate, with beautiful concentration and a persistent, lovely salty finish, this is a highly elegant and complex, tightly structured Riesling from one of the most spectacular single-vineyard sites of the Wachau. The finish is full of tension, purity, salt and finally pretty long as well.”

His accompanying 90 point score didn’t jive with the review, and we think it’s on the low side. This is an unabashed, pristine beauty that sports a uniquely ripe, tender fruit component along with all of the classic lines of the genre that are unique to this special vintage. Sehr gut!