NEAR PERFECT (98 Points) DESSERT FROM HUET

“…2015 is an exceptional and historic vintage again at Huet (perhaps the best since 1997). I can only recommend to buy cases of all styles.” – Stephen Reinhardt, Wine Advocate #227, October 2016

It doesn’t take a lot to get us to talk about one of our favorite estates in the Loire, Domaine Huet.  What with the historic aspects, including Gaston’s story as a prisoner of war in Germany, the long success of the estate upon his return, the takeover by the Hwang family, and the eventual retirement fixture Noel Pinguet (he had been there since 1971) and the eventual taking of the reins by his former assistant Jean-Bernard Berthomé, there was never a lack of material to write about.

Of course, without the wine, there is no story.  Of course, we’ll be the first to admit that the timing of the winemaking transition over the course of a couple of difficult vintages did give us cause for concern.  Was Huet, one of our favorite estates, going to become ‘just another Loire producer?’  The thought was depressing.  But Berthomé hit back-to-back home runs in 2014 and 2015 and restored our faith.

As we said in an earlier piece on the 2015s, the 2015 Huet lineup serves as an exclamation point on what will be viewed as an important harvest for the Loire.   The recent Wine Spectator article on the Loire Valley in 2015 was glowing and the ‘Top Picks’ section looked like an advertisement for Huet with the top eight wines listed, and nine of the first 11, bearing the Huet label.  At the top of the list were Huet’s dessert (moelleux) offerings, destined to become modern day legends.  We wouldn’t be at all surprised to see one pop up in the Top 100, though quantities would barely justify that (not that such things concern the press).

A great Loire sweet is in a league by itself.  The complexity of late harvest Chenin Blanc and the pristine, precise acidity will enable these wines to age decades.  Great examples like this are rare because the conditions that must exist for this ripening process to occur in the place only happen once or twice a decade.  We fondly remember the historic 1996 and 1997 vintages and recently managed to scrape up a few bottles of Huet direct from their cellars from the great 1989 vintage (we still may have a few bottles).

What we’re getting at is that, for wines like this, and Huet in particular, this is a special moment.  These are best of breed, and, while they aren’t cheap, they are bargains compared to the elite Sauternes and Beerenauslese from Germany with whom they easily can stand.  The ‘Trie’ wines in particular are super labor-intensive, the result of multiple passes (or tries) through the vineyard.

This wine, however, is a little different, as the workers go through the vineyards and pick the heavily botrytized and/or raisined grapes first, berry by berry. This is why the 1ere Trie is called 1ere Trie – it is the “first pick.”

Let us reiterate…THIS WINE IS SPECIAL.

The wines from Huet’s Le Mont vineyard, from rockier soils, have a more pronounced streak of minerality and a firmer backbone that provides the structure for aging. The Wine Advocate’s Stephan Reinhardt had the Huet Vouvray Le Mont Moelleux Première Trie 2015 pegged as his favorite, noting, “This is super clear, ripe and aromatic on the nose, highly elegant and with lovely flinty flavors. Intense and concentrated, with great finesse and vitality, this is a highly elegant and perfectly balanced wine with a persistent grip and salinity. Great balance and harmony. 98 points.”

It is the Wine Advocate’s highest-scoring Loire Valley white wine for the outstanding 2015 vintage. It literally gets no better. And at $64.98 for a full bottle, it’s certainly one of the great values in world-class dessert wine that, incidentally, could potentially find itself cozying up to some spicier Asian preparations after a decade in the cellar.

Get this world-class gem while you can, historically wines like this come long once a decade.

LITTLE ITALY, PART ONE: DOLCETTO

Dolcetto days are here again.  It has been tough couple of years for Piedmont.  While Nebbiolo is king, the everyday wines like Dolcetto and Barbera are the mainstays of the vintners as well as fantastic food choices for us Americani.  The problem for both was back to back ‘stinker’ vintages.  Yes, thanks to some late sunshine, the 2013 Nebbiolos have been juicy, complex and dazzling.  Everybody is looking forward to the Barolos and Barbarescos.  But the Dolcetto and Barbera, often planted in the lesser sections of some of the top vineyards, got hit with untimely rain and couldn’t hang on until the sun shined.  As to 2014, it was all kinds of difficult across the board.

For those reasons, there simply hasn’t been very many choices for the category …that is until the 2015s started showing up.  It’s a brand new day, with ripe, plump and engaging examples of both started to show up on supplier lists.  The success of 2015 hit Piedmont as well, and the Dolcettos are no exception.  We dare say that the turnabout seems even greater here than most other European regions.  Whereas in Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhone were also pretty good in 2014, in this part of the world it was not.  So the difference between the 2014s and 2015s borders on staggering, the salient point being we have some seriously good Dolcetto at hand now.

The Piemontese love Dolcetto for its outgoing fruit, food versatility, and attractive pricing (the Piemontese are notoriously frugal).  You can even put a slight chill on it for service on warmer days, and it will play with virtually anything from a hearty Italian stew to a plate of salume.   It’s one of Italy’s best ‘little’ reds,  and we’re  pleased to have not only good stuff to sell, but really engaging juice to drink thanks to 2015.  To that end we have three fine, fresh examples from some of our favorite sources.

The story of Olek Bondonio is a little unusual.  Olek, who has eastern European roots as well as Italian, visited the estate he currently operates in summer as a child.  He then made his name as a competitive snowboarder before becoming a winemaker.  His family has been involved here for some 200 years but Olek only started making wine here in 2005.  His Barbaresco comes from the Roncagliette, perhaps better known by the name used by his neighbor, Sori Tildin.  He is very ‘hands on’ when it comes to working the vineyard but he is all about letting the vineyard shine through.

The Olek Bondonio Dolcetto d’Alba 2015 reflects that attention to detail with a great purity to the fruit and inviting scents of blue fruits, violet, and a little almond skin.  Sleek and polished, the expressive fruit of the vintage is perfectly punctuated by fresh acidity and the kind of lift that makes this an easy quaff.   It’s what Dolcetto is all about, with the extra added attraction of coming from storied dirt.  The vines are 30-50 years old, all is done with native yeasts and gravity flow, and it’s bottled unfiltered.

Andrea Bosco is the passionate young owner of Bosco Agosatino, named for his father and founded by his grandfather in 1904.  Again here all of the juice is state grown, all within the confines of La Morra, and the surface area of the estate is around 10 acres.  The hillside faces south west and it composed of clay and limestone, and 70% of the Dolcetto vines are over a half-century in age.   The fermentation is controlled and done entirely in stainless steel to both preserve the gregarious fruit and prevent the extraction of unwanted tannins.  As you may have expected, Andrea’s single-vineyard Agostino Bosco Dolcetto d’Alba Vantrin 2015 is something of a fruit bomb with effusive blackberry and mulberry character, a streak of minerality and earth, and just enough cleansing freshness to keep things on point.

Finally, it’s hard to talk about things like Dolcetto and Barbera without mentioning perennial all-star Luca Currado who seems to do everything well all the time.  Granted the young vignerons above have established themselves as players but no one is more passionate than the folks at Vietti.  While Luca’s Vietti Dolcetto d’Alba Tre Vigne 2015 isn’t necessarily as ‘aristocratic’ as Olek’s (serious dirt for Dolcetto) or as ‘big’ as Andrea’s, it is plump, engaging and very likely to disappear while whatever the discussion is continues.  Friendly and harmonious.

It’s great to have Dolcetto back on the shelves, and this time around we have some great Dolcetto thanks to our network of proven producers and the gloriously decadent 2015 vintage.

 

 

The Price is Right?

Being in business today is challenging.  We could go into a lot of detail about costs of doing business, fierce competition, and the constant exposure in a world where everyone has an opinion and posts it on Yelp without fear of recourse no matter how outlandish, incorrect or vindictive.   Are we bitter?  No, we’re doing fine in these turbulent waters. That’s just the way it is, and everyone has to deal with it.

The world is a different place than it was a few decades ago, and technology has sped up the cycles of change and empowered the everyman to speak his mind whether they know what they’re talking about or not.  Again, that’s just the way it is. Back in college (about 100 years ago) we recall being in some pretty heated discussions in business school about the coming age of consumerism.  It just seemed like the children of the 60s questioned everything, including whether or not companies could run roughshod over the public with impunity any more.

What followed were drastic changes in consumer laws, Ralph Nader, and having to sign a mountain of paperwork just to have your teeth cleaned.   It’s a better world, right? Company practices are much more consumer friendly and fair (United Airlines not withstanding) and things like the ‘cooling off period’ and liberal ‘return policies’ are all there to protect consumers against themselves.  Even so, there still seems to be an itchy trigger finger when it comes to decrying someone’s business practices.

“you should always assume stupidity and ignorance before maliciousness”

It’s as if there is some sort of mass paranoia that all businesses are out to deceive the public.  These days it only takes a couple of chat-room threads to turn something into a full blown brouhaha.  Yet in this day and age, when the consumer is allowed every opportunity to back out of a purchase, retailers are vilified for things that could have just been mistakes by employees.  We jumped to the defense of a competitor for being slammed on the news for ‘deceptive practices’ because some shelf talkers on wines were misplaced or were for a prior vintage.   If it were intentional, to what end?  Ticking off consumers is not good policy.  Likely errors or lack of diligence by employee were the cause. Our creative director Patrick has a good saying that “you should always assume stupidity and ignorance before maliciousness”. Seems like a pretty useful mantra for life in general, no?

This particular rant came about because we recently read Amazon was being chastised for misstating the ‘regular prices’ on items to make their ‘sale’ price look more attractive.  We can’t imagine why a company that visible and that clearly in a position of power would do that.  The accusation apparently stemmed from them quoting ‘regular prices’ that were not actually out there.  Apparently some conspiracy theorist found a price that was a couple of bucks lower somewhere (without noting if there were special discounts from the manufacturer, coupons, club membership allowances or any one of a thousand other tactics used to make people think they are getting a deal) from the other source.  Suddenly Amazon was a bad guy.  Really?  Frankly, in the end, all that really matters is the final price, and whether it is 38.9% off or 41.6% really isn’t the issue.

Clearly Amazon doesn’t need our help.  They surely have a phalanx of lawyers for this sort of thing, and maybe they didn’t actually, or intentionally, do anything wrong.  But there seems to always be someone willing to rattle a saber and defend the common man, and some news agency looking for a headline.  That is the world we live in.  Hey, a lot of folks offer deals in the wine business, too, and use ‘regular price’ as a barometer to demonstrate the magnitude of the discount.  No doubt there are people that are ready to pounce there, too, on some perceived misrepresentation of price.

Now we aren’t saying all wine merchants are saints.  Quite the contrary, some shoot prices for merchandise they don’t actually have and some, yes, state an inflated price to make their deal look juicier.  For our part, we make every effort to find a real price before we bring it up.  With wine, there are industry wide standards for pricing, although even those are becoming more ‘fluid’ as wineries trying to sell direct to consumers undercut their own retail prices with gimmicks like club member prices etc.    So if the ‘retail’ price per bottle is $200, but anyone can call up on the phone and ‘join’ a ‘club’ for no cost and get the same bottle for the ‘membership price’ of $175, what then is the real price?

For the record, the standard markup for the wine industry is as follows, and we aren’t going to confuse the issue by calling the result a ‘markup’, ‘mark on’ or ‘margin’.  If a wine costs $10 wholesale (before any discounts or allowances), the ‘list’ price is $15, whatever you choose to call it.  Other businesses (jewelry, clothing, luxury accessories, etc) are substantially higher.  When a retailer buys direct from the winery, on a wholesale basis, that structure is traditionally the assumption. Now once there are other parties involved (like a distributor or broker), the numbers can play out a little differently because there are more fingers in the pie and different parameters.  The ‘base’ price can change and that might cause the presumed ‘retail’ to be a little different.

Thus if a distributor took a little extra bump, say $11 wholesale, and there was no winery price guidance, then the ‘stated’ retail price would be more like $16.50.  A very common occurrence is on out of state shipments, where the f.o.b. (freight on board) price of wine from California to say Texas, or Washington to California, is slightly higher than the direct ship price within the state.  Given a higher cost, a retailer might state the ‘retail price’ based on a higher cost.  Re they inflating the price?  Not necessarily.  Imports are even dicier because of the varied shipping cost not only from the point of origin to the U.S., but to whichever coast or parts in between the wine eventually goes within the U.S.  So what’s the real price?  It’s not always that easy to determine.

We get it.  There is a lot of skepticism about how businesses operate.  There are a few bad apples, this is true.  But sometimes actually determining the ‘retail’ price isn’t that easy.  Are we defending Amazon?  Not exactly. More to the point, while we aren’t naïve, we don’t think everyone is out to get you.  People are far too inclined to point to a couple of minor mistakes over thousands of products and suggest there is institutional deception happening.  Yeah, we have a few people that do that in our business, too, but only a few.

In the end if you are getting a superior product for a better price, isn’t that the issue?  But what about those price search engines like wine-searcher?  Well even those aren’t definitive for establishing a true ‘list’ price because the range can sometimes be 40-50% between the top and the bottom of the range of a wine’s price, and that’s without even knowing if all of the prices are backed by actual physical inventory or what the provenance of the particular wine is.

We try our best to be accurate.  Usually a winery will have a posted price on their website and that’s our first choice to represent as ‘original retail’.  If we can’t find the winery pricing, or in the case of imports where there isn’t a relevant price listing, we’ll consult the reviews which usually list a suggested or ‘full markup’ retail price.  We also try to say where we got the price whenever possible if it is the context of an article.  If we are making the point that something we are selling is a ‘percent off’ of an original price, we do the research to find an appropriate price comparison that we are comfortable with.  Wines come and go, but integrity and trust are long term plays.

Finally we’d like to make the point.  Yes we have been doing marketing for a long time.  We understand how it works.  Back when we started the ‘one price’ system, offering our best price ‘bottle one’ (which was pretty novel three decades ago), it took some consumer education.  Many consumers had gotten used to the fact that, under regulated ‘fair trade’ pricing in California (which ended in 1979), they got a discount for buying twelve bottles or more.  They would point out that ‘store XYZ’ gave them a 10% discount when they bought a case.  After calculating their ‘discount’ at XYZ, our price was still lower.  What really matters in the end is what you actually pay, not the real (or imagined) percentage discount you received to get there.  Happy Weekend.

CABERNET QUARTERLY

It has truly been quite busy in Q1, what with all the hot releases rolling in from Europe (2015s from France and Italy for the most part and 2014 Bordeaux) after a couple of relatively quiet years on that front.  Here at home we are also experiencing an unparalleled string of successful vintages (at least in our memory) from 2012 through 2016.  Given all that is happening, with things coming at us ‘hot and heavy’, including some eyebrow-raising deals on all sorts of things, there simply haven’t been enough hours to talk about everything.

This has been, as you might have surmised given our comments on the domestic front, a wonderful time for Cabernet fans.  Wines that would have easily ‘made the cut’ a couple of years ago, qualitatively are middle of the current pack, and the stuff we do purchase is excelling in a much tougher field.  So, we deemed it time to take a breath and talk about a few gems that we loved, grabbed, but haven’t had time to get around to.  It’s a lovely list that Cab drinkers can truly sink their teeth into.

Martin Ray, the wine brand operating under the name of one of California’s early pioneer winery owners, has built itself a serious business with meticulous winemaking and careful sourcing of fruit.  They do well on a number of different fronts from Cabernet to Chardonnay to even, dare we say it, Rosé.  They have access to a lot of different fruit and certain lots will be set aside to create something special when the opportunity presents itself.   The Martin Ray Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain 2013 is one of those wines.  Made from 100% Cabernet from two well-known estates, this displays full throttle, almost chewy Diamond Mountain fruit honed to a perfectly civilized yet still rich Cabernet.

Very engaging stuff, as well it should be for an $80 list price, this one not only got our attention but tickled the fancy of James Suckling who typically doesn’t spend as much time on California wine.  His enthusiasm was evident here, “Breathtaking aromas of wet stones, blackberry and black currant follow through full body with seamless tannins that fill your mouth and last for minutes. Gorgeous wine. Why (wait)? But will age incredibly well….95 Points!”  Given the extreme prices of Napa Cabs these days, a lot of which is pretty ordinary, we didn’t blink at the $59.98 fare for this classy red.  Actually, based on performance, it actually represents something of a deal.

The Roberts + Rogers Cabernet Sauvignon Louer Family Napa Valley 2013 maybe one of the most impressive Cabernets you’ve never heard of.  Though they have been around since 2004, they only got noticed by Robert Parker with their 2012s.  Even if you sort by scores, by the time you get past all of the $150-and-up micro-boutiques that you can’t buy (even if you have the money) that he reviews these days, you would be several pages in before you got to this classy 95-point, $60 gem.

‘The Bob’ certainly wasn’t lost for words here, saying The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Louer Family is a blockbuster of power and elegance. Young, exuberant and youthful, with a dense purple color, notes of charcoal and smoke from the barrels interwoven with copious quantities of blackberry and blackcurrant fruit. This lavishly rich, full-bodied, multi-dimensional wine is still youthful and coiled tight, but has enormous upside and promise. Give it several more years of cellaring and drink it over the following 20-25 years.”  It has unwound a bit since that review (Dec. 2015), but it is a definitely ‘home run’ on the uber-quality scale whether you drink or hold.

Given the current run of vintages, most folks have forgotten that Antonio Galloni called 2010 Cabernets “…magnificent, viscerally thrilling wines loaded with character and personality.”  Here we have a later release from the vintage, now with some bottle age, that shines brightly in the Palazzo Proprietary Red Right Bank Napa Valley 2010Yes, it’s a ‘red table wine’ made of 72% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon, but it will please Cabernet drinkers as well as anyone else that’s a fan of serious Napa reds.  Oh, yeah, there’s that 96+ from Robert Parker with comments, “The 2010 is another wine of great intensity but coiled, very tight, with high levels of tannin. Sensational in extraction and richness…it shows fabulous density, richness, and intensity. Perhaps it will evolve somewhat like the brilliant 2005…”   We also have some of the Advocate 97-point Palazzo Cabernet Franc Napa Valley 2013

One doesn’t necessarily think of reds wine when the name Chalk Hill comes up, but their red program has made a quantum leap in recent vintages under the ownership of William Foley (yeah, the Chalone, Sebastiani, Las Vegas Golden Knights guy).  Behold the Chalk Hill Estate Proprietary Red 2013This has more Cabernet than the Palazzo (45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Malbec, 12% Petit Verdot and the rest Carignane, Syrah and Merlot), but, again, its Cabernet-ness isn’t the point.  It’s about great juice.

Parker’s words are pretty compelling, “This is another titanic effort from proprietor Foley. A spectacular dense-purple color and sweet toasty oak intermixed with licorice, blackberry, cassis and graphite are all present in this profound first-growth quality blend that should age effortlessly for 25-30 or more years. This is a stunner and a revelation. 95 points.”  “First-growth quality”? “A stunner and a revelation”? Ever the cheerleader for great wine, those are still rare words and high praise from Parker.  The juice is in the bottle, but the descriptors definitely got our attention.

And we still wonder what Mount Eden has to do to get the Cabernet respect it deserves.  They made one of California’s greatest Chardonnay for decades before people really caught on.  But they also make some pretty fine Cabernet from the Santa Cruz Mountains.  The Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon Estate 2012 is a dual 94 (from Wine Advocate and Antonio Galloni) and made up of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and the rest Petit Verdot that also boasts moderate alcohol as Cabs go (13%).   Jeb Dunnuck calls it, “…beautiful. Giving up lots of black and blue fruits, tobacco leaf, sweet oak and graphite… nicely concentrated and focused, with fine tannin and impeccable balance. It shows its class on the lengthy finish as well.”

Finally, this Pritchard Hill pioneer has had no problem keeping up with all newcomers to the Napa Valley, and the Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon Signature 2014 is another in what has been an impressive string for this winery.   The 2014, from another outstanding vintage, was given one of Robert Parker’s highest scores thus far for a series that has long finished in the money.  A 94+ from Parker (as well as a 93 from Vinous), Parker’s review also made the point that this is a “…profound Cabernet Sauvignon that actually sells at a bargain price for what is in the bottle”.

When these are the types of things that we haven’t had time to get to, it is truly a special time.  Good hunting.

2016 Bordeaux: Tristen’s Overview

Marathon Negociant Tasting

For the past two weeks, I was in France spending four days in Burgundy (I’ll get to that part of the trip later) and the rest of the time in Bordeaux hunting for deals as well as tasting the 2016’s which is the topic of this article…

Over the years, I’ve been traveling to Bordeaux for the annual En-Primeurs tasting and have experienced some of the greatest vintages ever produced in the region. As much as many will try and deny it, Bordeaux is the undisputed King of wine with a rich history going back to Roman times. There is nowhere in the world that can produce a wine that tastes quite like it. While we here at the Exchange love wines from the many regions of the world, Bordeaux has been and continues to be at or near our top selling category over our 35+ years in business.

No matter how long I’ve been going to En-Primeur, it’s always exciting to taste the wines at this early stage of their evolution.  Over the years, the bar for Bordeaux keeps getting higher and higher as investment continues to pour into the region.  Today, Bordeaux lovers are blessed. There are so many great wines being produced at all price points that there is something special for everyone willing to look. The problem is that there is so much happening, it’s getting harder to keep a finger on the pulse and on top of who’s the new up-and-coming estate.

For Bordeaux 2016… what can I say that you haven’t heard from previous great vintages… “It’s a vintage of a lifetime”!   As much as I hate to admit, I must say it surely is one of the greatest vintages I’ve ever tasted at this stage of the game.  When it comes to having your cake and eating it too, 2016 has it all.  The wines are striking with rich, intense fruit, incredible structure, silky texture, great freshness and acidity and big but velvety tannins that are sweet and seamless and finish on an up-note.  There was no specific regional winner.  From Right Bank to Left, there were estates that made some of the best wines they have ever produced.  In fact, they’re so good and so balanced, you can drink many of them now!

The 2015s are also great and I can’t’ say at this point which one I prefer as a vintage.  That’s a good problem to have.  I can say that the wines from the Northern Medoc in 2016 are uniformly sublime which was not the case in the more erratic 2015 vintage. But for the Right Bank, Pessac Leognan and Margaux, 2015 is great!  It’s the Cabernets, both Sauvignon and Franc, that make this vintage special. That in combination with great Merlot and Petit Verdot made for some spectacular wines.

So, for now, with two outstanding vintages in the chai (not to mention the very good 2014s coming to market), the city of Bordeaux is bustling and every major chateau owner has a big grin on their face.  But what does this all mean for prices in the coming months?  We’ll see.

As a retailer, we of course are excited and will participate in this campaign.  But it’s going to be tricky.   For the moment, we can’t emphasize enough that, again, Bordeaux has a chance to win the hearts of Americans.  We have a strong U.S. Dollar versus most of the world currencies, including Great Britain, one of Bordeaux’s most important markets.  However, the old saying “sound as the Pound” has a little resonance thanks to Brexit (United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union).

Given that, imagine if the chateaux raise their prices 15%.  That would translate to the Brits, given the currency, as receiving nearly a 30-40% rise in the costs over the 2015s.  So the Bordelaise have to be extremely careful.  Europe, America and Great Britain are the biggest buyers of En-Primeur (China still isn’t into buying ‘paper’).  Who knows… that may change in 2016 but nobody in Bordeaux is counting on it as far as I’ve heard …we all know what happened with the 2010 vintage.

C’mon Bordeaux! Let’s make En-Primeur fun and interesting again, both to the trade and consumers.  We say that knowing that a lot of folks in the Bordeaux trade pay attention to what we say (if not always heed it).  En-Premieur may never be what it was in the mid-2000s, but it sure wouldn’t hurt to try and give people a reason to play.  Okay, maybe that’s wishful thinking.  But the opportunity is there to potentially make Bordeaux as relevant in the marketplace as it used to be prior to 2010.  It just matters how bad the chateaux owners want it.   Time will tell…

In the coming weeks, we will dissect the vintage by appellation starting with the Satellites as they’re most likely the first to release.

So in typical Wine Exchange fashion… Let the Games Begin!

-Tristen

VIDAL Y VIDAL VERDEJO 2015

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

TENUTA TRINORO: ‘The Best or Nothing’

As many of you will recall, one of our mantras is to always be aware of the ‘little’ wines from elite producers.

The idea is that the best winemakers are considered the best because they continuously succeed.  That success is largely due to their attention to detail and commitment to excellence.  Such producers don’t even have the capacity to ‘coast’ or ‘phone it in’.  It’s not in their DNA.  Their expectations as to what is acceptable are simply on another plane.  Imagine Thomas Keller or Joel Robuchon cooking your breakfast eggs.  Sure, they’re just eggs, but those guys have standards for eggs, and they will be cooked and seasoned perfectly.  It’s like that.

We know a lot of such meticulous folks in the wine industry and these are the folks that make the great wines.  We know of no one that is more passionate or more of a quality fanatic than Andrea Franchetti.  He is also not afraid to go where few have gone before.  Tenuta di Trinoro’s location in southeast Tuscany is a far cry from the traditional wine road (heck it’s almost Umbria).  But Andrea liked the soil composition for the Bordeaux varietals he was intent on growing so in the vines went.

He ‘runs with the big dogs’ counting as close friends Jean-Luc Thunevin of Valandraud in St. Emilion and Peter Sisseck of Pingus in the Ribera del Duero.  Imagine what ‘show and tell’ is in that crowd.  Though Franchetti operates on the same level both here in Tuscany as well as at his Etna property, Passopisciaro, he is probably less ‘famous’ than he should be because of this off-the-beaten-path location.

Now, no matter how good you are, you still have to deal with Mother Nature, and the 2014 vintage was a formidable foe for even some of Tuscany’s top addresses.  But Franchetti was not going to allow Nature to beat him.  Andrea hired more people to work the vineyards and drop one-third of the crop.  Because of the extra vineyard work and the overall health of the vineyard, the grapes ripened slowly if a little unevenly.  No problem, there were 36 separate pickings from 29 September until 28 October for this wine, making sure all the blocks were at their best when harvested.  You can expect that kind of commitment from an estate charging $80, $100, or more for all of their wines.  But to push this hard for something selling for under $30?  For Tenuta di Trinoro there is no other way.

The Tenuta di Trinoro Rosso Toscana IGT Le Cupole 2014 is a sensational success.  This Bordeaux-inspired blend of mostly equal parts Cabernet Franc and Merlot with a dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon got glowing reviews from Wine Spectator’s Bruce Sanderson, with a 93-point score and comments, “Alluring scents of ripe cherry, mulberry and fresh herbs complement concentrated flavors of cherry and sweet spice in this red. Offers a backbone of mouthcoating tannins and remains integrated as the finish lingers.”

It also placed #29 in the Wine Spectator Top 100 2016. That’s a pretty big deal, especially for the price.

Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner was no less impressed, offering Andrea Franchetti is a perfectionist when it comes to fruit selection. This Bordeaux-inspired Tuscan blend opens to dark concentration and a full bouquet that is redolent of dark fruit, spice and tobacco. The aromas are delivered in seamless fashion and with noteworthy intensity. Those are the qualities that ultimately distinguish this wine among the many choices you have from Tuscany today. One thing Tenuta di Trinoro always delivers is distinct personality…”.

This is an exciting example of one man’s plain sheer will, and that’s the kind of story one can tell about Andrea Franchetti and those like him.  That’s why we tell people to look at everything producers like Andrea craft.  Delicious wine for the money?  Distinctive and character-filled?  Yes, and yes.

By the way, we have a smidgen remaining of some of Trinoro’s ‘partners’ from the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, including last call on the Maurodos San Roman Toro and Felsina Chianti Classico 2013.

 

 

RONCHI DI CIALLA-“…FASCINATING, INSPIRING WINES”

“These are fascinating, inspiring wines”-Monica Larner, Wine Advocate


Sometimes we wish our ‘geek’ side didn’t get in the way of our business ‘side’. But when you truly love wine for it’s diversity of expression, it can be tough to pass up something like Ronchi di Cialla. It would be smarter to politely decline wines like this and look for the next high-scoring Cabernet that we could sell pallets of. But that’s not who we are, and wines this brilliant and unique deserve an audience. As Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner correctly states above, these truly are ‘fascinating and inspiring wines’.

Ronchi Di Cialla, meaning “hills of Cialla”, is located in a small valley surrounded by chestnut, oak and wild cherry woods in the DOC Friuli Colli Orientali in the foothills of the mountains near the Slovenian border. Founded in 1970 by Paolo and Dina Rapuzzi, Ronchi di Cialla has played an important role in reaffirming the territorial identity of this part of the world by reviving centuries-old grape varieties and featuring only ‘local’ grapes. They are credited with the rebirth of the Schioppettino (also known as Ribolla Nera for you uber geeks out there) from less than 100 vines, and their Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso (the superior clone of Refosco, named for its distinctive red stem) is considered one of Italy’s finest.

These are soulful, impactful, terroir-riddled wines. So much so that they have their own sottozona, or sub-zone, within Friuli Colli Orientali. The Cialla sub-zone is the only one in Friuli we know of geared towards the particular place, as opposed to the other four sub-zones in the region which are geared to a particular grape in a particular place.

What does that mean? Even the Italian wine bureaucrats, who can’t agree on anything, can all agree that Cialla is a special place, and Ronchi di Cialla certainly one of the most unique producers working in Italy today.

The estate follows natural and organic winemaking functions with ambient yeasts and slow, steady macerations. They do the same for both whites and reds. Their whites achieve a unique textural density while still having lift and freshness. You’d almost describe them as Burgundian in a sense, with a riveting mid-palate crescendo. The reds are pure and expressive, with a natural generosity, surprising color and soft, plush tannin.

Frankly, we look at these wines the same way we do wines like Quintarelli, Paolo Bea, Miani, Paolo Caciorgna’s Etna Rosso N’Anticchia 2012, the Mascarello’s and few other Italian artisans working at this level.

At the heart of today’s offer, the Ronchi Di Cialla Ciallabianco 2013 is one of Italy’s special white wines. It’s 60% Ribolla Gialla, 30% Verduzzo Friulano, 10% Picolit, fermented in oak barrels then aged in French oak (25% new) for up to a year before bottling. Weird thing? The wine’s not the least bit oaky. Instead, the wood generates a richly-appointed framework for all the citrus, mineral, flower, honey and toast flavors to do their thing. Oily yet vibrant, shimmering yet dense, this gorgeous white has it all, and can age a decade…easy. Trust us, we know. The recently consumed, youthful 1997 and 2001 vintages providing us two wonderful cases in point.

The Ronchi Di Cialla Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso di Cialla 2009 spends a whopping four years in the cellars, including 14-18 months’ maturation in French oak (50% new) and 30-36 months’ ageing in bottles, prior to release. Notes of licorice, stones, black cherry, and fresh earth all wrapped up in super-suave tannins, give this wine a gravitas not usually associated with this grape. Drinking perfectly now, the wine will also continue to improve with another decade of careful cellaring. Have your Refosco and drink it too!

Same goes for Ronchi Di Cialla’s Schioppettino di Cialla 2011, sourced from a tiny (though large for this once-forgotten grape) two-acre patch. Same techniques here in the cellar, resulting in a deep, dark, brooding wine that is all blackberry, white pepper, sweet herb, along with a cocoa-y rush. The wine is easily capable of 15-20 years’ ageing in the cellar with ‘special’ vintages reaching that “crescendo” after two decades in the cellar.

Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner referred to this as an ‘under-the-radar’ estate. No kidding! Although, throughout Europe they enjoy a fanatical cult following who treasure grabbing a bottle or two from their extensive library of older vintages.

Fabulous, unique, distinctive, just plain flat-out cool, these wines are why we do this.

THE BURGUNDY PARADOX (Steve’s Burgundy rant)

‘You are SO going to want these’
-Stephan Tanzer on the 2015 red Burgundies


It’s that time again, the bane of all wine merchants…a great vintage in Burgundy.

Why is that a problem? Why would an outstanding vintage in one of one of the world’s most revered wine areas be an issue at all? Wouldn’t that just make for more exciting wines for us to sell? Well, on the surface, yes it would be, if you only consider the positive sales aspect of having more good things to offer. The problem is the nature of Burgundy itself. From the production side, other than a few large negociants, the majority of the landscape is small producers making limited bits of variety of different wines based on small holdings in the region. Production of each individual wine is limited because the holdings are small. All-too-often these various little wines are offered as a ‘package’ (the operative word is parcel) in not particularly advantageous (from a sales perspective) assortments. For that reason, they are rather difficult to market profitably (or succeed in breaking even for that matter).

So why does anybody do it? Sadly, if you ask most long time wine folks what their most memorable vinous experience was, there would be a disproportionate large percentage who would count Burgundy experiences as their most treasured memories. As those who have been around wine for a long time will also tell you, Burgundy is the cruelest of mistresses. It can provide ethereal moments. But you can spend a lot of time and money trying to recreate the experience again, usually being disappointed most of the time because the wine is in a funny place developmentally or simply doesn’t live up to lofty expectations. That is simply taking it from the ‘drinking’ perspective.

The problem is, when you ‘hit’ one, all of the past travails are forgotten. All those disappointments fade from view and you are lost in the moment. Thus the process starts again. It is almost narcotic in how those experiences can haunt you, and we understand how someone can get swept up in the pursuit of Burgundy because the good times are so good. It drives rational people to consider things they would not otherwise. There are those who will tell you can get some of the greatest Burgundies in existence for $300-400 dollars a bottle even now with world wide demand at an all-time high, whereas top vintages of Bordeaux (Lafite, Petrus, La Pin) cost a lot more.

Point taken, but we’d rebut that you won’t likely get the actual wine for those prices as quantities are small, demand is well beyond supply, and there is usually a requirement to perform something else to secure those gems. The actual importer will only dribble out the ‘cherries’ to their very top customers, usually as a reward for exceptional past support, and even then there is usually a hitch. You can find things on the open market in Europe, but usually bundled in such a way with other wines from a producer’s portfolio (either lesser wines from the same vintage or remnants of past vintages) that even with the most creative math don’t make business sense.

So is this a new problem? Not at all. It is merely a worse manifestation of something that has existed for a very long time, exacerbated by that increasing world-wide demand for Burgundy and the physical limitations of the region. You cannot make Burgundy bigger. If you did, it wouldn’t be the same. Therefore a greater pool of folks clamoring for a piece of a fixed production asset only drives the price up and the creativity of those who broker these wines increasing the cost of making that mistake.

The whole growing demand for a limited production wine is not the end of the problem either. The typical affirmed Burgundy buyer is the most finicky in all of the wine world. He usually has the money to buy the best, and the temerity to expect restrained pricing as he moves in on the crème-de-la-crème. On the other side, most Burgundy producers expect their importers to buy everything they are offered, every year, regardless of proportions. As an estate’s popularity rises, so do their prices because the estate can always seem to find another buyer somewhere in the world. The ‘parcel’, as we called it previously, is typically a mix of a fair bit of the entry level (Bourgogne) and ‘Village’ wine, a few crumbs of the tippy-top Grand Cru cuvees, with a disproportionate chunk more-than-you-would-ever-buy-on-your-own Premier Cru bottlings at or near prices that the Grand Crus were just a few years ago.

In the olden times, Burgundy was sold the same way, in parcels. However, back then, the pricing was conducive to selling the different prestige levels to different tiers of the marketplace. The prices were moderate enough that buyers for the ‘entry’ and ‘village level’ wine that you could market the wine to people as an alternative to domestic Pinot Noir. You would have to wait a bit on the Premier Crus until their time had come, but they still went head-to-head with top Caifornia bottlings price-wise so their would eventually be an opportunity. Their top-notch Grand Crus eventually found a buyers. But as prices escalated on Burgundy overall, the prices went up on the higher end things to where even the most affluent Burgundy fans had to think about it, if in fact they could even find the wine for sale.

At that point, most collectors were still ‘ in’ for the top 2-3% at the higher prices for the top tier. But they had no interest in anything else. One could develop interest in moderately priced Bourgogne and ‘village’ level juice in a great vintage vis-à-vis Pinot alternatives. But with the rising prices overall, it was the ‘middle’ that killed the market, or at least the sanity of playing at all. In a world where lieu dits (village vineyards marketed under the vineyard name…typically a cut above the ‘standard’ bottlings) are now in the $50-60 range and Premier Crus from top guys had three figure prices, value was out the window. The pricees left them out of the reach of most buyers, and, since they were not the top, of considerable less interest to those elite buyers who could pay the freight.

At the low end, there were folks that were interested in the value Burgundy section provided the prices weren’t scary high. You could find buyers that were interested in Bourgognes and village ‘Vosne Romanee, though they have been a much tougher sell for those that have escalated price-wise. Usually Bourgognes that were in or near the price of domestic Pinot value versions ($15-30) still found buyers as long as the tabs didn’t stray too far away from the price ‘comfort zone’.

In summary, you could find buyers for the top tier as long as you didn’t charge too much.  You’d have a tough time selling those entry level wines at fair prices from bigger named domaines.  And there was n0 one to buy those Premier Crus, which often made up 30% of the dollar value of a parcel, except at a sometimes substantial loss though you could simply think of them as ornaments. Does that make any sense from a business perspective in a great vintage? Of course not, and that is without even considering having to buy other, less economically feasible vintages previously (and having them as ornaments, too) to establish your place in the pecking order. Even then, some Swiss guy could drive to the domaine with cash and likely get a portion of ‘your’ prime allocation cellar door (see also Napa Valley). Are we conflicted? Burgundy does that because, in the end, when it is right, it is magic.  Otherwise no one would bother.

A $30 Bourgogne from a top producer in a great vintage? Just think of it as top flight Pinot and it is competitive. A $200-300 Grand Cru? Hey, if you have the funds, they are the best of the best. But who buys the ‘middle’? The guy buying at the top wants the ‘top’. The prices of the middle are 2-3 times (or more) greater than the entry level stuff, and beyond the financial reach of most folks. So those expensive Premier Crus have no market these days, and will essentially collect dust long after the others are gone.

We are pretty creative, but the Burgundians are in the driver’s seat in a vintage like 2015. Someone will buy these wines somewhere at whatever price the market will bear, but at that point it is far beyond what makes sense as a ‘business proposition’. We have seen a number of stores and distributors get crushed from within by the Burgundy mistress. We feel particularly sorry for them. Like we said, they have to play the game or get kicked out of the queue in a vintage like this, no matter how bad the proportion is within the offer. Even worse, they would have to have bought the prior two vintages, one that was kind of crummy (2013) and one that was quite good but no one cared (2014) because the ‘good’ vintage was on the horizon. So two vintages that weren’t going to sell to anyone for the right to buy a third that was only 40-60% viable? Do the math. Even the government can’t make that make sense, yet people still do it.

Is it sour grapes (no pun intended) on our parts? Nope, just reality. This is the most difficult region for consumers (and most of the wine trade) to understand, and easily the most difficult financially from a return-on-investment (or even rational?) perspective. We have spent a number of seasons on the sidelines over the years, simply not buying anything of note because the cost is too much. We do it with our eyes open with the understanding that it might hurt our chance to get the kind of crummy, overpriced ‘bundles’ that will be the ‘main course’ of the high demand vintage that 2015 promises to be. Hey, if we don’t buy 20 cases of wine we will probably have to sell at cost or below to move through to get three bottle of some kitchy Grand Cru that we could never charge enough for, the upside is that we have a much better chance of being here when the next ‘vintage of the century’ comes along.

So if you want to know where the waiting list for the 2015 Roumier Musigny is, it’s right next to the unicorn registry.
We have tasted enough of the 2015s to tell you that these wines are epic. They bring back memories of our favorite vintages of all time like 1985 and 1990 in that they have great stuffing, sufficient structure, and are at the same time oh so sexy. These are the kinds of wine that can make smart people do dumb things (we could make the appropriate comparison to romance but we won’t).

For our part, we’re going to fight to get everything we can, but don’t feel like we have to sell our souls. In a juicy vintage like 2015, where areas that don’t usually get as warm had unparalleled success, a few new faces will appear on the scene, and a few new importers will try their hand at selling Burgundy, we will (and already have) found some delicious things to sell without mortgaging the farm. We have tasted great vintages of Romanee Conti, for which we are thankful. But we have also seen an angel or two in a Marsannay from a right vintage at the perfect point in its development. For us, Burgundy is our desert island wine. There are a number of pain-averse ways to approach the subject in 2015 if the goal is simply to find great wine to drink. We wish it was easier. But that’s Burgundy.

CHATEAU DES TOURS BROUILLY 2015

CHATEAU DES TOURS BROUILLY 2015

It’s probably reasonable for us to go easy on the prologue here.  After all, we (and everybody else it seems) has generated a ton of prose about just how good the 2015s in Beaujolais are, how top flight producers are reaching back to 1947 for a reasonable comparison, and how Beaujolais is still one of the most underpriced regions in the wine world.  Based on those strong ‘bullet points’ those of you that ‘get’ Beaujolais and/or appreciate a great value will take a good look at this one.

First off, we know it gets a little confusing when it comes to names.  Aren’t there a lot of different properties containing the name ‘Tours’, which is simply French for ‘towers’?  You bet, but there are a heck of a lot of towers out in the French countryside, from little one man-lookouts to the more expected turret on a large fortified castle.  This is the only Brouilly we know of with that moniker, and it is also the first time we have brought in this small and, in this case, enormously successful effort.

The vineyards themselves consisted of an average of 45-year-old vines situated in a natural amphitheatre around the Château.  The vines are planted in sandy soils resulting from the
disintegration of the granite bedrock. In other words, nutrient poor, thin, acidic soils where are still projections of the underlying rock.  While this certainly wouldn’t be a happy place for most crops, the Gamay grape thrives here and these soils help keep the yields down.

We have been buying Beaujolais like maniacs of late because they have been everything they were reported to be…full flavored, round, packed with fruit and straight up delicious.  We took a hard look at this one because we had already put together a lineup that was formidable.  But when we tasted it, it was one of the most tawdry, shamelessly pandering examples we have had this year of any kind of red. When we heard the price, we would have been ashamed of ourselves if we didn’t buy it.

Sure there are bigger examples, more structured efforts, and certainly more famous names.  But on the hedonist scale, this was a huge scorer.  The black and red fruit component showed near perfect ripeness, it was lush and still light of its feet, and the texture was absolutely charming.  You will have a hard time finding something sexier for this kind of fare.

Josh Raynolds of Vinous took a shine to it as well, writing “Bright violet. Spicy and sharply focused on the nose, displaying vibrant red berry, cherry and spicecake aromas and a hint of blood orange. Taut, juicy and energetic in style, offering zesty raspberry and bitter cherry flavors that flesh out slowly and turn sweeter with air. Closes long and juicy, featuring resonating spiciness and a late jolt of smoky minerality. ”  Simply a lovely drink, and that is the point…$15.98