A DELICIOUS, WELL-PRICED WHITE AND AN UNUSUAL STORY

The search for great wines and great wine deals is never ending, but the discovery is always more fun when there is a unique story.  Exciting wines certainly can come from anywhere, and the catalyst doesn’t necessarily have to be wine itself (though it often is).  This particular white value gem starts more like a Disney story, with two young men, a long journey, and a dog.

It started in 2014, when two foreign exchange students from the U.S., Walker Brown and Charles Brain, chose to embark on a 6 day, 100-mile trek through South Africa’s Wild Coast.  This part of the Cape is said to be the birthplace of Nelson Mandela.  On the second day of this backpacking expedition, the travelers were joined by a wandering dog that the locals called Lubanzi, who accompanied them until the night before the final morning of the trip when he disappeared.

The story of the wandering dog, the striking beauty of South Africa, and a deep appreciation of the culture of the South African people motivated the pair to return to South Africa two years later with the idea of bringing well-made, true South African wine into the U.S. market.  They met with over 40 small family farms and cooperatives in an effort to build a network from which they could source quality grapes on a consistent basis.  Their intent sounded idealistic, their missions statement was that they were trying to build “… a young, innovative, and socially responsible wine brand built on the concepts of collaboration & exploration, with a ‘locally run, globally minded’ mantra.”

A lot of lofty ideas to be sure, but they found the right people to work with and proceeded to do exactly that.  They made two wines that, in their minds, were the best choices to represent the unique terroirs of South Africa.  The red, a Rhone blend, was certainly solid if a bit undistinguished, but the Chenin Blanc rocked us, particularly for the price.

We have been selling South African wines since the early 90s and have learned that they can be a bit parochial.  Chenins in particular, on the plus side, show riveting fruit, driving acidity, and some intense stony minerality.  The good ones can rival the best Chenins from the Loire Vally from the likes of Huet, Foreau, or Chidane.  A lot of them, however, can cost substantially more than their accomplished French counterparts.  On the flip side, many of them a bit too searing with an in-your-face minerality that is off-putting for American palates.

These out-of-towners and their winemaker managed to strike a remarkable balance between the tender, dry, citrus, melon, and peach fruit and well woven in, subtle, stony minerality from the decomposed granite and shale in a bush-vine, unirrigated vineyard in Swartland.  Some 80% of this came from old vines.

This is a lovely foil for fish or fowl, and presents an excellent choice for aperitif (OK, porch pounder) scenarios.  Well meshed, pleasing and brightly fleshy from front to back, nothing sticks out.  ‘Nicely done’, we said, figuring that this sharply packaged bottle with a complex label and tee-top natural cork (we’d never seen one quite like it) was setting us up for something in the $25-30 price range.

While much of the press we read in our research in places like the Washington Post, Forbes, Eater, and the Mother Nature Network was commending their new age, socially conscious business model, we found some enthusiastic words from James Suckling about the wine itself, “Love the dried-peach and apple character with hints of cream and apricots. Medium to full body, sliced fruit and a flavorful finish. Drink now….91 points’.

As to the drink now part, we’ll be doing plenty of that!  The wine was delicious, the package was striking, and the review was compelling.  But the biggest surprise was the price, a mere $11.98!  The Lubanzi Chenin Blanc 2017 far over-delivers for the price point.  Clearly this is no ordinary story.

As to what all of the non-wine media attention was on about, well that’s almost over the top.  Brown and Brain noticed in their vineyard travels that the living conditions for South African small farmers were difficult, to say the least.  They wanted to give back to the community.  So half of the profits from sales go directly back to the Pebbles Project, which is an NGO that supports the families who live and work on the farms that produce the grapes.  Socially conscious, a superb value and a surprisingly engaging beverage, they have all the bases covered!

PENFOLDS KOONUNGA HILL: STILL ONE OF THE BEST VALUE REDS

Back when we first discovered Penfolds in the 80s, the wines represented some of the most compelling values in the marketplace.  A lot has changed since that time.  In fact it would take quite a bit of space to go over all the changes.  Perhaps the key points are that Penfolds is not the same entity we sold all those years ago.  A purchase by Southcorp some years ago, and subsequent ‘market factors’,  changed the brand forever.

Since that time there has been financial intrigue, an explosion of demand in Asia that shot prices of Penfolds Bin 389 and 407 to 2-3 times their norm, and a period where most of the moderately priced Penfolds wines bordered on undrinkable (they were ferociously over-acidified).  We won’t even get into some of the bizarre marketing moves that have recently come about.  It would be very easy to let this behemoth go the way of the dinosaurs except for one small thing…they still have the ability to make some pretty interesting wines.

The 2016 Penfolds Shiraz/Cabernet Koonunga Hill South Australia  is still one of the more compelling and straightforward value reds in the marketplace.  It is a blend of 65% Shiraz and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from a variety of locales (Padthaway, McLaren Vale, Wrattonbully, Barossa Valley and Coonawarra if you want to know) that sees 10 months in American oak.  Stylistically it is round, plump, surprising ample for the price but not overdone.  No self-respecting critic is going to give this more than an upper-80s type review simply because it is a ‘little wine’.  But it is a delicious, engaging little wine and that should always be the point.

The Syrah is the star here imparting a good bit of blackberry fruit and spice, with the Cabernet providing some redder fruit, a touch of olive and a hint of vanilla.  Is it a ‘fastball down the middle’?  Absolutely, and what’s wrong with that?  You would be hard pressed to find a more crowd-pleasing red for this kind of price.   Up-front, expressive fruit, straightforward flavors, just enough acidity and laid back tannins, it’s an outstanding, budget-friendly choice for  parties, grillin’, and everyday applications.  We don’t really need to sell commercial stuff like this, but when it’s this good, why not?

TROCKEN THIS, PART ONE: FRANKLAND ESTATE RIESLING

We know we have been a little harsh on the whole German trocken (dry Riesling) phenomenon.  Some might have said, “ these guys say they love Riesling, what’s their problem”.  Well, there are a couple of things.  One is execution.  Far too many are lean and skeletal as trocken wines.  The fruity examples with a little residual sugar to counterbalance blazing acidity is a true joy to us.  There’s nothing quite like a good traditional kabinett or spatlese anywhere in the wine world.

The other point is ‘why’?  Why muck with a good thing?  Plus, it has been done.  The Australians and Austrians have been making compelling dry Riesling for a long time.  There doesn’t seem to be a good reason to have another, less successful choice other than it’s German.  But we are not here to bag on the Geremans (they are probably cranky enough after the 2018 World Cup).  Rather we are here to praise some of the outstanding dry Rieslings that we do endorse.

We’ve been acquainted with the wines of Frankland estate for probably to decades.  The story is always a bit puzzling.  What possessed this family to head on out to one of the more remote parts of southwestern Australia to plant grapes is baffling.  To take a chance on a varietal like Riesling that doesn’t perform just anywhere  was a leap of faith.  But they have become one of the icon Riesling producers in Oz and have developed a unique and flattering style.  Delicate apple and pear, some pleasing citrus and floral notes, with a nice underpinning of a delicate earthy minerality, this is tender and fresh and lifted without being at all edgy.

The 2017 vintage in Australia is quite successful (a cracker!) and 2017 Frankland Estate Riesling is a beautifully composed expression of pristine fruit.  Made from various parcels from the estate including some of the original vines from 1988 and a 2006 planting on an ‘ironstone’ ridge, it is a subtle, layered, mouth-watering, ‘pretty’ example of the genre from a very special, if really isolated place.

We aren’t sure how much of a ‘Riesling guy’ Advocate’s Joe Czerwinski, but he seemed to like this one as well, “Scents of lime blossom and orange sherbet practically erupt from the glass. The exuberant 2017 Riesling is medium-bodied with slightly rounded edges and hints at red berries to go along with all of the expected citrus and green apple notes. It’s approachable now but should continue to drink well for a decade or more… 91 Points!”  This is how you trocken.

A CUT ABOVE: PADDY BORTHWICK SAUVIGNON BLANC 2017

It has been a very long time since we first started working with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, way back in the mid-80s with a brand called Cloudy Bay.  Yes that Cloudy Bay.  It was an impressive vanguard for a category that was at the time virtually non-existent, and certainly made an impression on anyone who tried it.  It didn’t seem all that long before Cloudy became the standard of a category that pretty much exploded.  These days Kiwi Sauvignons are a significant group of wines in the marketplace and there are certainly scores if not hundreds of brands to choose from.

It would be fair to say that not every example is compelling.  Some are a bit vegetal, others a bit sweetish, and there is a wide range of styles in between.  It is also fair to say that there are plenty of pleasing choices to be had, to the point where consumers have a bit of confidence in the genre and buy them regularly.  That is more than can be said for some categories (like South Africa) that consistently need a push.  As difficult as we can be, we still find a wide variety of Kiwi efforts that we can recommend.  You want a good to very good, tasty, brisk, lively New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc?  We usually have several.

However while “good to very good” is no problem, ‘great’ is another matter entirely.   The great ones are not that hard to remember because, frankly, we haven’t had many that have performed at the highest level.  Some of those first Cloudy Bays were memorable enough to create a category where none existed before.  There has been the occasional Villa Maria specialty bottling that has played above the crowd.  One of our favorite memories in the category was the first Mount Nelson from the esteemed Marchese Lodovico Antinori of Ornellaia. Considering we’ve been working with these wines for three decades, the list of superstars is pretty short.

Our first encounter with the Paddy Borthwick Sauvignon Blanc 2017 from the Gladstone area of Wairarapa (southern end of the north island near the east coast) was one of those rare magical moments.  Paddy Borthwick came from a ranching family and went looking for a place to diversify their farming interests by growing premium wine grapes.  He got a degree from Australia’s Roseworthy College in 1985 and then, as they describe it, “embarked on a career spanning five countries and three continents before settling back into the Wairarapa.”  He and his father planted this vineyard in 1996.

The vines, now 8-16 years old, sit in deep, stony alluvial soils in a place that is one of the warmest areas of New Zealand (though still pretty cool) with the least rainfall.  The grapes are harvested and quickly moved to tank where they are slowed fermented with about five months of lees stirring.  Sustainable practices and minimal intervention (as you would expect with Sauvignon Blanc) are the watchwords here.  It probably didn’t hurt that 2017 was a ‘cracker’ of a vintage.

The intensely flavored palate shows pink grapefruit, melon, tropical and ripe passion fruit with an underlying hint of gooseberry, guava and lychee.  This is a wine with great balance, structure and intensity, with the kind of balance and power rare for the breed.  There were some nice notes from Wine Advocate’s Joe Czerwinski (91 points… ‘Nicely done’), but we suspect 3-4 months in the bottle or more (the notes are from Feb, 2018 but we have no idea when it was tasted) probably allowed more nuance to poke out.   We’re not just praising this one vis-à-vis other New Zealand Sauvignons, but truly believe this one can play in any arena.  That is not something we say about Kiwi Sauvignons very often, but this one is very special. At under $17 it’s a pretty smoking deal as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE PERFECT CABERNET?

It has been our mission to fight the high cost of ‘North Coast Cabernet’ because the ones with that nebulous title are rarely very exciting, and the ones that say Napa Valley on them are typically too expensive.  One of our solutions to this issue is to put successful and well priced options from ‘other places’ in front of you for you consideration.  We have stated that Chile and Argentina have really been finding their mojo over the last few years and this effort from one of the pioneers of the modern era in Chile definitely scored a gooooaaaaaal with this one.

The star of this story, Lapostolle, has now had nearly a quarter century to perfect their craft, and they are certainly working on a high plane right now.  If you don’t know the story, it’s a classic tale of French people going to the New World to try and make magic.   Lapostolle Wines was founded by Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle and her husband Cyril de Bournet in 1994. Alexandra is a member of the renowned family that has been dedicated for several generations to the production of high-quality spirits and wines (like Grand Marnier).   After visiting Chile, Alexandra and Cyril not only fell in love with the Colchagua Valley, they also detected the enormous potential of the country to produce premium wines.

To that end they have been producing a number of different wines that showcase the region, none more interesting than their efforts with Bordeaux varietals, some of it brought here from Bordeaux in the 19th Century (pre-phylloxera).  They were one of the ‘true believers’ in Chile and when their super-premium Clos Apalta 1997, one of the first of its kind, there were plenty of nay-sayers.  But the wine has now established unquestioned credibility (the 2013 was a 97 from James Suckling, the 2014 a ‘100’, for example).  All the while the winery has benefited not only from the means and knowledge of its ownership, but an association with wine guru Michel Rolland.

The Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon Cuvee Alexandre Apalta 2013 definitely shows a ‘trickle down’ effect.  It is plush and polished like something twice the price, with a sexy core of black fruits and notes of cocoa and graphite.  The Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon Cuvee Alex Alexandre 2013 comes from the same Apalta vineyard as the ‘big dog’.  The process here is very natural with minimal intervention. The grapes are 100% hand harvested in small cases of 14 kilos, there is strict fruit selection by state-of-the-art optical sorting and 15% hand de-stemming of the grapes. Gentle extraction methods and a judicious use of oak are key to making a wine that is ample, pure, and supple.

Having tasted several vintages of Lapostolle, we can honestly say that this is one of the best.  Apparently we weren’t the only fans.  James Suckling had this to say, “Deep and dense yet agile and fine. Full body, blueberry and black currant character, and a seamless silky finish. Gorgeous pure cabernet sauvignon. Biodynamically grown grapes. Drink or hold….94 ponts.”  Note his comment on ‘purity’ alongside ours.  In a world where reds are tasting ever more formulaic, this tastes like a really good, balanced Cabernet.

The best part is that, with all of the laborious handling, this delightful, plush, engaging Cabernet, with an extra bonus of being five years old, can be had for under $20!  A delicious, honest, varietally true red at a great price, with a little bottle age and an impressive review, is this the ‘perfect Cabernet’ for ‘current applications’ or what?!

 

TASTY TO THE MAX

As soon as this one came out of the purveyor’s bag, we started to chuckle.  It was part of a new line from Penfolds, a winery that, through their armada of “bin” designated wines, would seem to already have every conceivable wine scenario covered with plenty left over.   Yet here was something dressed in an ‘artsy’ composite coating, the inaugural release it states, of a line dedicated to the memory of Max Schubert, Penfold’s historic winemaker who would have been 100 years old in 2015.

Even the most creative of corporate spin doctors would be challenged to generate a viable yarn about how a (literally) red bottle that sells for under $20 commemorates the guy that created Grange and put Penfolds on the map. But we have seen some pretty far-fetched approaches over the years for ‘stimulating’ interest in a new line of wines.  We were ready to bag on this one as yet another soulless corporate effort in a gimmicky package trying to push its way into the market…that is until we tasted it.

The Penfolds Max’s Shiraz Cabernet South Australia 2015 is legit juice, boysenberry and black cherry with flecks of spice, iron and vanilla, engaging supple texture, well tucked away acidity and ripe tannins.  It brought back memories of some of our early experience with their now coveted (and priced at nearly $60) Bin 389.  The blend on the ‘Max’ is 77% Shiraz and 23% Cabernet Sauvignon (there’s more Cab in the Bin 389) and mostly neutral oak in the process.  The fruit feels a little ‘redder’, but this is a delicious drink that offers quite the pleasing tipple both texturally and flavor-wise for its modest fare, serving much the same purpose as those early Bin 389s.

Sure there are a lot of questions, not the least of which is how will this wine play moving forward over future vintages (‘corporates’ are notorious for over-delivering on brand rollouts, and slacking off later).  As to this wine specifically, there are no concerns thus far.  This wine is one of the tasty surprises of the year thus far. It was good enough to overcome our doubts and then some, even bringing us to endorsing it.  Max Shiraz/Cabernet 2015 is a perfectly engaging and honest red. James Suckling seems to agree with a 92 point review and comments, “Perfumed and delicious with blackberry, blueberry and orange peel character. Medium to full body, firm and silky tannins and a flavorful finish. I like the acid energy to this that gives the wine clarity and tension…”   As to the next vintage, we’ll worry about that when the time comes.

LEGGO MY EGGO?

Every once in a while we have to smile when some seriously committed winery bottles something special and gives it a names that sounds like the ‘cease and desist’ order is just a matter of time.  It’s likely that very few in the great big world have experienced the sensational talents of the Michelini brothers through their various wine projects.  Zorzal wines have proven to be a revelation both in demonstrating the exciting ‘next wave’ of South American wines and providing surprising value.

We have had great response to their almost laughably inexpensive Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir Rosé, and what the brothers can do when they pull out all of the stops as they have with their Superuco Malbecs. Here they are doing serious work with what may ultimately prove to be the real ‘great grape’ of Argentina…Cabernet Franc.  With all due respect to Malbec, we have had some surprising experiences with Argentine Francs, though admittedly there haven’t been a ton of examples.  The best Francs have the richness to play with the big kids, but often achieve a certain elegance that Malbec rarely does.

We’d love to talk about how the brothers discovered some ancient and forgotten cache of Cabernet Franc vines but, in fact, this vineyard in Gualtallary, a subregion of the Uco Vally (at over 4200 feet elevation) was only planted in 2007.  The secret, if there is one other than the usual low-yields/hand harvesting mantra you here with so many great producers, is the vessel.

The current weapon of choice for this project, as well as a growing number of winemakers all over the world, is the concrete egg.  The grapes are harvested and fermented with their gross lees, which they stay in contact with for 3-5 months, in the concrete egg.  We aren’t going to get into the biodynamics or voodoo as to why the ‘egg’ works.  But it does seem to.  Concrete somehow causes the reds to be plusher and more integrated, to the point where, in this case, there is no oak used at all.

The 2015 Zorzal Wines Eggo Franco is remarkably complex and layered.  Harmonious texture, lots of stuff going on (earth, fresh tobacco, spice, mineral, and meat) in this mouthful of dark red and black fruits.  Advocate’s Luis Gutierrez gives this one a 93 and suggests ‘Eggo’ shows very much the wild character of Gualtallary.  It’s a lot of wine for the money and it both engages and challenges.

We hope the ‘powers that be’ leave the lads to their ‘eggo’ fun.  This is another creative, dynamic effort from the Michelinis and ‘new’ Argentina and no one is going to confuse this with a breakfast choice anyway.

 

PEGASUS BAY PINOT NOIR WAIPARA VALLEY 2012

PEGASUS BAY PINOT NOIR WAIPARA VALLEY 2012

It seems like only yesterday (it was actually the mid-90s) that we were invited to a very low-keyed tasting that a supplier was hosting. That supplier, who pioneered Oregon wines in the late 80s, long before they really took hold in the broad market, had just come back from a trip to New Zealand. He brought with him bottles of Pinot Noir from New Zealand, something we had been exposed to before. Apparently the wine industry there was just starting to get a feel for the varietal and our geeky Oregon vendor felt compelled to drag a few bottles back (a lot easier to do in those days given current airport security) to test the water. Guess we were curious, too , since we attended this small scale event just to check them out. This was so early in the game, we weren’t even aware that there was a game.

Since we had no expectations, we went simply to do our jobs and taste because, as we have said so often, you just never know. The lineup of eight wines, which included Ata Rangi and Te Kairanga we recall, showed rather well. We were prompted to order small quantities of these, at the time, completely unfamiliar labels from a completely untrested genre. Perhaps more important, our take-away from this little show was “hey, this could turn into something”. Are we saying we were ahead of the curve. Yeah, we often are because we actually take the time to look. But that isn’t the point. Are we saying we could have predicted where Kiwi Pinot would go over the next couple of decades? Not a chance.

As it turned out, that showing proved to be no fluke. Here we are roughly two decades later, and the Kiwis are accepted players on the world stage. Not only are New Zealand Pinot Noirs taken seriously in wine circles these days, their ‘top guns’ have been consistently producing lights-out juice that should be a part of any serious collection. Our subject here is one of those ‘players’, Pegasus Bay. We aren’t going to claim this is the most consistent of the top drawer estates, but they certainly hit ‘higher highs’ when they’re ‘on’. This is one of those times.

The Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir Waipara Valley 2012 also gets a little less visibility because they because of their location. The name Marlborough is certainly more ingrained in the wine buying public’s psyche and Central Otago is the more ‘glam’ locale. Now we aren’t going to mix words. Sometimes Kiwi Pinots in general can be a little too savory for their own good. But when it gets a little warmer, as it did in 2012, the riper fruit component fills in the middle and plays nicely off the cooler notes while there are none of the green edges that can sometimes get in the way. That leaves a pretty compelling drink when all is said and done.

We’re not the only fans. The added ripeness and flesh (think Burgundy not Santa Lucia Highlands) got multiple ‘thumbs up’ from the critics, including a 92 from Wine Advocate and 93 from Wine Enthusiast. The lead cheerleader in this case, besides us putting our money where our mouths (keyboards?) are, was James Suckling. He dropped a ‘96’ score on this one with the comments, “A sense of real depth, soothing dark cherry notes, some forest floor and deeply knitted oak. The palate has noble tannins and the sort of structural complexity and completeness that is the envy of most other NZ Pinot Noir makers”

As a matter of course, Kiwi Pinots can use a good splash in a decanter before serving. Who knew back in the day that New Zealand would become a world player in Pinot Noir?  It is examples like this that drive the point home. As wines with this kind of reviews goes, and compared to most reserve level California Pinots, it’s quite the bargain, too…$34.98

KALLESKE GSM CLARY’S 2015

KALLESKE GSM CLARY’S 2015

The ‘Land Down Under’ is still a ‘place of wonder’ when it comes to intriguing value reds. You just have to know where to look. Besides all of the widely distributed corporate beverages (Penfolds, Hardys, etc.), there are a number of small, passionate, under the radar producers with old vines and long histories that are doing some exceptional work for pretty easy-to-swallow prices. We sold some of the first Kalleske wines to come into the country back in the mid-00s and have been a fan of Troy Kalleske’s rich-but-sleek style ever since.

The Kalleske Clary’s GSM was a little later to the party but is the best we have tasted from them (though they weren’t in the market for a while). ‘Clarry’, for whom the cuvee is named, was Troy’s grandfather who tended these old vineyards (established in 1838…no that’s not a misprint). Clarry’s is a blend of Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro with old vine Grenache from the 1940s and 1960s. The wine is fermented in open-top fermenters and basket pressed. To preserve the superb fresh fruit flavors, it only sees one year in very old oak hogsheads (300 liter barrels) .

Who uses grapes from 40-60 year old vines for an under-$20 go-to red? Well, it’s a short list but that’s the deal here. A 91 from the sometimes stingy Lisa Perotti-Brown with commentary, “…redolent of baked raspberries, kirsch and red currant jelly (we’d add boysenberry, too, but we grew up SoCal… Knotts Berry Farm) with Indian spices, dried oregano and peppercorn hints. Full-bodied, ripe and opulent in the mouth, it coats the palate with plush, velvety tannins and spicy flavors, finishing long.” Does that sound like something that could be had for under a Jackson? We think not…$19.98