AVIRON BEAUJOLAIS-BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

Given the remarkable abundance of great wines that are out in the marketplace these days, finding the right ones at the right prices is a monumental and never-ending tasking.  At the point where we actually do find something that gets us excited, particularly the ones where all of the boxes (quality, style, typicite, and price) get checked, we commit without a blink.  At that point it’s out of our hands until the wine arrives.  Often it is merely a process of the purveyor putting it on a truck and sending it.   Sometimes it becomes a lot more complicated.  This was one of those times, though we will save the particulars for another piece on the sometimes curious ways in which the industry works.

You have likely heard us jabber on about the fantastic 2015 Beaujolais.  Several months ago we had the opportunity to taste what might be some of the best values of this sensational vintage.  We started working with Stephane Aviron’s wines back with the also highly revered 2009 vintage.  At the time he was working with Nicolas Potel under the heading ‘Potel-Aviron’.  Delicious Beaujolais, fresh and fruit driven, and at remarkable prices for what they delivered, those were among the many exciting new faces we discovered with that breakout vintage in Beaujolais.

Aviron and Potel parted ways but we continued to follow Stephane because the guy could definitely make wine, and made it in the lifted, engaging, can’t-put-the-glass-down style that would win friends for the genre.  Oh yeah, and he still sold the stuff for 199os type prices.  In other words just about the best of all possible scenarios.  Needless to say when we knew we were going to have the opportunity to taste his 2015s, there was definitely interest.

The fact that the wines were compelling was no surprise.  Some of the wines that were particularly successful wasn’t necessarily what we might have predicted.  Running through the lineup, among the most impressive offerings were the Julienas and Chenas, not the appellations that usually rise above.  We picked the Stephane Aviron Chenas Vieilles Vignes 2015 between them because this appellation rarely merits this kind of attention.  Don’t get us wrong.  Good Chenas is exciting, but it is also something of a rarity as the region doesn’t necessarily have too many superstar labels (though that might be changing thanks to folks like Thillardon).

Made from pre-phylloxera vines that average over 100 years-old, from a 13.6 acre parcel that Stephan Aviron has been producing from since 1993. The soil is light and made up mostly of sand and small pebbles over a layer of clay and quartz which explains that brighter, more delicate and outgoing nature of the fruit in this engaging beverage.

While we think the Chenas is a crowd pleaser, we know the more serious Beaujolais types like to have something with a little more pedigree.  To that end, consider the Stephane Aviron Morgon Cote du Py Vieilles Vignes 2015Again the focus is on lip smacking fruit, as is the house style.  But there is more firmness, salinity, minerality, and maybe a little smoke by virtue of this respected hillside terroir.  His vineyard faces south on the slopes of this inactive volcano and the vines are a minimum of 40 years-of-age.  Like the Chenas, the well-under-$20 price is pretty enticing for a wine of this quality and this one might even benefit from some bottle age though it has that classic 2015 outgoing drinkability.

We tasted these wines way back in the early spring and they have just arrived (we have been getting deliveries of 2016s from a number of purveyors already).  Why did it take so long?  Let’s just say for some the ‘wheels of commerce’ turn more slowly.  But on the bright side, these are excellent performers at their modest fares and any opportunity to grab a few more of the flashy ’15s, especially at these kinds of prices, has to be considered a good thing.

 

VALUE BURGUNDY? MAURICE CHARLEUX SANTENAY 1ER CRU CLOS ROUSSEAU 2015

First a little basic wisdom.  We’ve explained in painful detail about how, in warm vintages, the best place to find good honest value in Burgundy is in the ‘second tier’ appellations.  The term second tier isn’t meant to be derogatory.  It is a simple fact that the hierarchy of Burgundy has been established over centuries based on performance.  Typically places like Marsannay, Santenay, Maranges and Givrey don’t perform at the same level as the heart of the Cotes d’Or.  But when things get a little warmer, as they did in 2015, the wines perform exponentially better and prices stay consistent with their normal place in the hierarchy.  That offers an opportunity for Burgundy buyers, and that has been a key element of our play on the juicy, but very much in-demand, and often expensive 2015 reds.

In vintages past, we have looked to purist sources like Maurice Charleux who work extensively with these ‘fringe’ areas.  A good bit of sunshine and things move to another level of quality.  That being said, we’ll get to the meat of it.  Santenay is one of those places that ‘outperformed’ in 2015 and we have had some positive experience with this house when the opportunity has presented itself.  This is definitely one of those times.

Domaine Maurice Charleux is located in Dezize-les-Maranges, about 4 kilometers southwest of Santenay. It was founded in 1894 by Ferdinand Charleux, who owned just a little over half a hectare (about 1.3 acres) of vines. By the time he died in 1924, he had expanded the property to 2 hectares A few years later, Ferdinand’s son, Joseph, began a 30-year span of growing the size of the property to 8 hectares. Maurice took over the domaine upon his father’s retirement in 1970 and began branding the wines under his name. Nearly 20 years later, his son Vincent began working with his father and, little by little, acquired more plots of vines.

When those warmer vintages come along, Maurice Charleux has been a particularly ‘fruitful’ source for pure, honest Burgundy at very attractive fares.  Today’s property encompasses about 10 acres, 85% of which is Pinot Noir in the appellations Santenay, Maranges and Bourgogne.  The soils typically have a lot of limestone and this .51 hectare plot consists of primarily 30-year-old vines.  The vineyard sits at the southern end of the appellation, and the wines see 15% new oak with the rest 2nd and 3rd use vessels. The Maurice Charleaux Santenay 1er Cru Clos Rousseau 2015 is the best example we can recall since the 2009.

This is ripe, pure, ‘old-school’ Burgundy in the sense that there is a rather deep core of black cherry fruit with a touch of earth, a little minerality, and a pleasing little bit of rustic chewiness to the finishing tannins.  This is Burgundy that excels here as being a fine, engaging, unpretentious example of this hidden away village at the southern end of the Cote du Beaune.  It is a well-priced, expressive example of ‘real Burgundy’, something we don’t get to say all that often any more.

 

 

 

 

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Talking ‘bout a revolution…

It has been almost a half century since a guy named Antinori decided that the ‘rules’ in Chianti were far too restrictive.  The rules were put into place to prevent people from cutting corners and, in so doing, protect the appellation.  In the case of this producer, they turned out to be counter-productive.  The Antinoris were looking to reach beyond the appellation with better grape blends and a more refined barrel regimen.  The ‘appellation police’ essentially said ‘no’, that Antinori had to conform to the rules of the DOC if he wanted to identify with Chianti.  He said no, and the rest is history.

To Antinori the existing narrow boundary for winemaking and requirement to use certain ‘second tier’ varietals in the wine, were a severe handicap.  Since he felt constrained by following the rules, he said ‘forget it!’, essentially causing the ‘super Tuscan’ category to emerge. But the wine industry thrives on tradition, and breaking out of the ‘beaten path’ is harder than it would appear.

Antinori was a rebel, and his challenge of the status quo was legendary. But the wine industry is not afraid to change in many ways.  There are constant discussions about various techniques of winemaking, viticulture…how to make better wine, how to grow better grapes, etc.  But as far as questioning the very ‘definitions’ and ‘guidelines’ by which appellations are defined…revolts such as Antinori’s have been historically rare.

That said, there is a significant uprising going on in Spain that not a lot of folks have heard much about.  True there are a lot of rumblings in Spain these days about a lot of things9.  In the area of Catalunia in the northeast, which was an independent kingdom for a couple of centuries, there have been definitely been aspirations to secede from Spain proper.  Heck, the Basques to the north act like an independent country to some extent.  There has long been ‘turbulence’ in Spain, but nothing thus far has actually gone beyond that.  But there are disturbances in Spain, specifically Rioja, that threaten to significantly alter the modus operandi of the region.

A long-simmering conflict in Rioja kind of erupted when Bodegas y Vinedos Artadi announced its “decision to leave the Consejo Regulador of the D.O.C Rioja,” the region’s governing organization.  Artadi was founded in 1985 by a group of vintners led by Juan Carlos López de Lacalle and is located in the village of Laguardia, part of the Rioja Alavesa subregion.   We have sold Artadi for a long time (since the early 2000s) and they have never really marketed under the ‘traditional’ banner.  But eschewing the regional banner is a new twist.

The bodega has focused more on origin (bottling a number of single-vineyard wines, including its flagship El Pison) than on the common Rioja designations of CrianzaReserva and Gran Reserva. Artadi isn’t the only winery to do that. Muga, for example, makes a couple of wines that don’t follow the specific guideline of the appellation.  They don’t use the ‘official’ nomenclature, however.  They simply give those less traditional bottlings other names like Torre Muga and Seleccion that don’t confuse themselves with the ‘traditional’ designations that Muga also produces, and they still call everything ‘Rioja’.

What makes the move by Artadi notable is that, moving forward, their wines will not say Rioja on them at all!   According to the article we read, Lopez de Lacale says he is not trying to be a revolutionary.  In fact, in his mind, he isn’t doing anything different at all!  He was quoted as saying, “We would like to highlight that there is no change in our project…We will keep betting on the land and the vineyard as the main sources of value for our wines.”

Senor Lopez de Lacale claims he isn’t trying to lead a secessionist movement.  But it is a pretty major move to buck a century plus of tradition without a clear end game.  His wines aren’t going to say Rioja on them.  So what are they? The Riojanos have put in more than a century of work to get their region’s identity established in the world market.  A number of large concerns are benefitting from that identity, and the region seems to have made some real progress over the last decade or so in raising awareness.

Now what?  Where does it go from here? Is Artadi a ‘lone wolf’ or will more bodegas follow the Artadi lead, and to what end?  There are a lot of issues swirling around, and it is unlikely that a solution that will garner widespread support can be cobbled soon given the range of diverse range of concerns that seem to be at the heart of the matter.  There don’t seem to be any easy answers.

Part of the problem is philosophical. Rioja’s classification system permits only one geographical indication… Rioja.  That works as long as everybody is on board and all of the ‘players’ conform at least to the task of solidarity in representing the region.  Rioja has done a lot to elevate itself in the international wine market.  That solidarity of image has been a key part of the program.  Sure there are some mavericks that experiment with more modernist approaches to winemaking, but all under the “Rioja’ banner.

But there are forces that are pushing for a more specific identity within the region as a whole.  Telmo Rodriguez, a highly visible winemaker who has projects all over Spain, has been advocating implementation of a “village” appellation system (a la Burgundy) in Rioja for years. In January, El Grupo Rioja, the largest association of wineries in the region, issued a proposal to move in this direction, including formalization of criteria for village and single-vineyard designations!  A ‘Grand Cu’ map for Rioja in other words.

Also, Rioja’s three sub-regions (Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja) have been looking towards an opportunity to express their own specific areas beyond the simple catch-all ‘Rioja’ appellation.  According to an article in Wine Spectator, the Alavesa region (located within the very independent Basque area) wants to put the Rioja Alaveza designation on bottles.  In June 2015, 120 bodegas in the Alavesa region requested permission to add this indication to their labels, and officials in the Basque government have indicated their support.

Finally, the folks in Rioja have worked long and hard to create an international image for themselves.  They seem to be finally getting to a good place and a number of their ‘native sons’ are doing better than ever.  Is it worth blowing the economics of a united thrust for the sake of individualism? The largest bodegas have also built worldwide brands based largely on multi-regional blends of vineyards from all over Rioja.  If Rioja becomes a subservient appellation to, say, Rioja Alavesa, where are they left in the consumers view?

If a bunch of bodegas, arguably some of the more prestigious ones among them, eschew the Rioja handle altogether for something like Rioja Alavesa or Rioja Alta, or even something more specific like Logronio or La Guardia, where does it end?  What does that do to Rioja’s larger marketing thrust?  Most important, how will consumers, many of whom are just recently coming to grips with Rioja and loving it, deal with the confusion this kind of ‘upheaval’ can create?

“Clarity” is important part of the wine experience.  A lot of people like to be comfortable with regions and varietals before they settle in with the genre.  If things happen that cloud the identity of the region in the consumers mind, or a lot of big names back out of using the appellation name, it could undo a lot of what Rioja has done to elevate itself in the wine market over the last decade.

By the same token, how do the secessionists garner any kind of attention for themselves?  We are reminded of one of our favorite Spanish producers, Mauro, who hail from the Ribera del Duero adjacent, nebulously defined (in consumers’ minds) Vinos de Tierra y Leon.  The Garcia family makes killer wines here, but they don’t necessarily fall into a category that gets reviewed by a majority of the pundits.  They are technically ‘other Spanish wines’. So their name doesn’t get in front of consumers as much the wine merits simply because they are effectively independents.

The same would happen with those Rioja guys that aren’t calling it Rioja.  There isn’t a ‘category’ for ‘folks in Rioja that aren’t calling themselves Rioja’.  The whole fuss causes would-be buyers to have a more muddled picture of what the region, and the wines, are about. That is usually not a positive from a marketing and imagery perspective.

It is possible that, ultimately, a terroir-centric orientation might play better with the wine cognoscenti.  But it would involve a bit of back-tracking in re-educating people to the new terminology and the more specific landscape in Rioja. They make a lot of wine in Rioja, and something that undermines the broad message of Rioja would seem to be something to avoid.

Granted those rebels in Tuscany ended up creating a whole new category (‘super Tuscans’) that has elevated the whole region.  But it is important to note that those wines are typically estate, rather than regionally focused.  It’s ‘Tignanello’ or ‘Orenellaia’ that most people know, not the dirt they sit on.  Yes, Burgundy is a terroir focused region.  But it has taken centuries to develop the vineyard framework and most people still don’t understand it.  So if you like confusion, you already have Burgundy for that.

Rioja has never outwardly been about site specifics.  We don’t deny the importance of the terroir with something very specific like Senorio de San Vincente.  But they still call themselves Rioja.   We can’t really contemplate all of the complications that might occur down the road, particularly for Artadi who is the one pushing the issue.

We understand the independent spirit of Artadi, Rioja Alavesa, and Basque country.  We get the idea that the winery feels site specificity is important to their program.  As independent types ourselves, we admire their courage.  But having pioneered a number of genres ourselves over the years and taught consumers about all kinds of things they were not familiar with.  We are well aware of how difficult the education process can be even when it is relatively straight forward.  There can be wine-speak, curious foreign words, maps, and all manner of ‘information’ that isn’t necessarily easily digestible.

We also know the more complicated the explanation, the smaller the audience will be at the end.  As students of business, we have to wonder what the long term benefit for this kind of ‘declaration of independence’ is, and what kind of marketing mess it will create if more people follow suit.

 

PURLIEU CABERNET 2014-SERIOUS DIRT YIELDS SERIOUS JUICE

This is a curious example of the ‘new math’, and certainly an anomaly in today’s Napa.  In world where legitimate $40-50 Cabernets are asking $150, this guy is offering a wine sourced from an iconic list of Napa vineyards, made by one of Napa’s ‘rock star’ winemakers, for less than $100.  This isn’t our first go-around with Purlieu Cabernets.  We’ve sold a couple of prior vintages just because we thought they were seriously good and offered value in a rarefied world of elite Napa Cabernets that seems to be philosophically averse to it.

The list of vineyards in the Purlieu Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014 is sick…Missouri Hopper, Beckstoffer To-Kalon, the Pritchard Hill vineyard next to Ovid (Martinez) and Teucer.  These make $150-300+ single vineyard wines for Purlieu and others.  Put them together and it’s…less?  The fruit in this wine is gorgeous…black cherry, plum, and blackcurrant with flecks of vanilla, toast, and dark chocolate (around 82% cocoa if you want specifics, chocolate geeks).    In line with the 2014 vintage, the wine is pretty seamless front-to-back, and the texture of plush and palate caressing.

The winemaker here is one Julien Fayard, one of Napa’s rising superstars with a resume that sounds like some one made it up.  He has worked as the director of winemaking for Phillipe Melka’s all-star team that took care of wineries like Hundred Acre, Vineyard 29, Lail, and Gemstone.

Robert Parker’s notes are pretty enthusiastic about the wine, “The real knock-out is the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa… this is a superb example of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Inky purple in color, with beautiful blackberry and cassis fruit, a touch of creosote, charcoal and some subtle background oak, the wine hits the palate with authority, serious extract and richness, but enough acidity to frame up its boisterous and exuberant parts. It is a big, rich, concentrated, mouth-filling Cabernet Sauvignon with relatively sweet tannin. It should drink well for 15-20 years, possibly longer…94 points”

We would’t be at all surprised if this sexy, layered Cabernet could kick some serious tail in a scrum of high-digit Napa stalwarts, yet at this price it’s actually a deal based on performance in our minds. Robert Parker went out of his way to say the wine ‘wasn’t a bargain’ at under $100.  Since ‘print’ has no nuance, we aren’t sure about the context of that comment, but we politely (though firmly) disagree.  We aren’t the type of folks that tell people to spend this kind of money lightly and are very measured in our praise. This one delivers.  It’s is also as crowd pleasing a high end Cabernet as we have had in a while.  It will only get better.  Not everyone can play at this level price-wise.  But if you can, this is a star.

 

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

Regis Bouvier Gevrey Chambertin 2015

One thing about the great vintages of Burgundy these days is that the level of commerce rarely is in line with the level of excitement.  The juicy 2015 vintage is a prime example of how it works, and perhaps something of a trifecta of things that can go wrong.  First, while very successful, the crop was small.  Second, because the crop was small and demand was high, the prices on some wines got to the point of silly.  Even with that, if you were a high-end collector and were willing to pay the substantial ‘ticket price’, you still might not get many opportunities to snag many cherries because the unattractive ‘bundles’ of various producers wines, and the risk associated with selling every level of those bundles kept a lot of usual purveyors from offering the wines at all.

If you are looking to buy some legendary label at the current, astronomical market price, the going is tougher than ever. If you are looking for good wine to drink, that is doable. Incumbent in great, ripe vintages is the success from top to bottom, and the possibility of finding some pretty fine juice at whatever price range you are willing to pay. To that end, let us recommend the Regis Bouvier Gevrey Chambertin 2015.

This is a terroir filled example of this famed village with the additional benefit of a ripe fleshy vintage. There are Burgundies that need to be contemplated because they are not forthcoming with their statement. Here that juicy cherry-leaning-to-black currant fruit unfolds and engages pretty quickly. Classic spice for Gevrey, with savory flecks of earth and mineral, this is an ambassador for the genre. If you are a fan of Burgundy that doesn’t seek status of a famous label, only deliciousness, this is a fine choice. If you want to show someone what Burgundy is about who doesn’t necessarily have a lot of experience, this juicy 2015 will serve you well. For us, Regis Bouvier has been a regular source of truly likable, reasonably priced, honest Burgundy for a few years now.

The bulk of his holdings lie in Marsannay, a natural place to look for value in a warm vintage. But this .55 hectare parcel of 45 year-old-vines gave him some plump, ripe, fine juice in this vintage from a more ‘prestige’ address. This is the kind of Burgundy that makes friends, with the early drinkability that the 2009s had, but plenty structure underneath if you want to give it a few years. Folks in Oregon and California make comparisons to Burgundy, and there are a number of good Pinot Noirs that carry price tags a lot higher than this one. Our point is that, if you want something that tastes like really good Burgundy, how about actual Burgundy? Options like this where the typicité, profile, the accessibility and the sensible pricing all happen together aren’t easy to find even in the best of times. Here’s a tasty one…$49.98

Loire Young Guns

As we so often remind people, we have been doing this a long time, and our ‘wines tasted’ tally might look something like the old McDonald’s ‘burgers sold’ signs.  Yet, still, there are always new things to find.  In all of the time we have spent in introducing people to new wines, we don’t ever recall using the words Touraine Azay-le-Rideau in a sentence.  Yet, as lovers of Chenin Blanc at its best, we have recently come to know this obscure appellation in the Loire because one of the hottest new winemakers in the region happens to be working there.

First the appellation.  Located east of Samur and northeast of Chinon, Touraine Azay-le-Rideau is a small designation comprised of only 148 acres of land made up of flinty clay, clay limestone and Aeolian sand mixed with clay soils.  It isn’t a place even most wine-savvy folks are familiar with.  PLus, it‘s hard to get people’s attention in this part of the region if you are competing with the other main claim-to-fame beverage of the area, Grolleau Rose.  But if you are good enough, you will rise above (though probably not as quickly as in a more mainstream media haunt like Napa or Bordeaux).

As for history of the region, it has apparently been producing wine since Roman times, and currently has nine producers.  Domaine des Hauts Baigneux only dates back to 2013 when old friends (but not old guys) Nicolas Grosbois and Philippe Mesnier purchased 12 hectares of grapes.  They immediately began farming all the vines organically, and set about on an ambitious project to reintroduce the wines of Azay-le-Rideau to a thirsty world.  As you might expect with a varietal as transparent as Chenin Blanc, the fermentation is done with natural yeasts only and there is minimal intervention in the cellar including limited to no use of sulfites in bottling.

This is our first go-round with Hauts Baigneaux so we aren’t sure how much the 2015 vintage had to do with these fresh, pristine wines.  As such, we aren’t ready to declare these guys the second coming of Huet or Chidaine, but the wines impressed the heck out of us.

The Hauts Baigneux Touraine Azay-le-Rideau Blanc Chenin 2015 comes from two vineyards, one in Hauts Baigneaux and one in Sache, with vines  30 to 60 years of age.  The grapes were harvested by hand and fermented in demi-muids (600-liter barrels roughly 2.5 times the size of a ‘regular’ barrel, probably ‘neutral’ in this case).  The wine then spent 18 months in contact with the lies in a combination of demi-muids, concrete ‘eggs’ and regular barriques.

This shows classic Chenin flavors of peach, apricot and quince, hints of honey and vanilla, with a good bit of subtle but insistent minerality underlying everything.  There is a pleasing, slight waxiness to the texture approximating physical fruit, and a precise, restrained clean nip of acidity.   The style here we would describe as demi-demi-sec, which hits the perfect note.  Some bone dry Chenins can be bitter in the finish, and some demi-secs can be a touch sweet.  This one strikes the just the right chord and the acid gives it just the right tension.  This will age as well, too, only 300 cases made.

Hauts Baigneux Clos des Brancs Touraine Azay-le-Rideau 2015 comes from a single, one hectare plot in the Sache parcel, again with 30-60 year old vines surround by a wall (hence the clos thing).  It is the absolute best parcel according to the domain, near the top of the hill and with a distinctly rockier profile.  This wine is also done in neutral oak and concrete eggs, and the more specific terroir shows and even more insistent minerality than the Blanc Chenin with subtle whiffs of toast from the lees.

If you are a fan of great Chenin Blanc and the names we mentioned earlier, these wines are a find and they might well turn out to be the next big things with a couple more vintages under their belt.

FIRE AND ICE

Global warming and its effect are a concern worldwide.  Whether you choose to believe it is caused by greenhouse gasses, or is simply a part of some 10,000 year weather cycle, or choose to ignore it altogether, the effects are the same and the proof is there.  Yeah, polar ice caps melting and oceans rising is bad stuff.  But the problem isn’t right now, it is moving forward.  If the warming continues, the effects are serious.  But we aren’t scientists and can’t speak to the array of problems that will from temperatures continuing to edge up unabated.  We can relate it to wine, though.

If you go back in time, the greatest wine sites established themselves by virtue of quality.  But quality, while accepting terroir is a significant aspect of the process, doesn’t happen if the grapes don’t get ripe.  Incumbent in a site’s success is the ability to ripen grapes properly on a consistent basis.  The Piemontese, a generally practical people, figured out that the best sites for growing top grapes would be where the snow melted first.  We suspect the monks used similar wisdom way-back-when to figure out the whole Burgundy scheme.  The problem with global warming is that the successful sites, the ones with the greatest exposure, will get too much exposure.  They will be too warm.

But thus far that hasn’t been a serious issue.  How many times has a vintage like 2003 in Europe, with the extreme blazing temperatures, come along?  The rest of the time, the weather has been pretty friendly and we have experienced consistent strings of quality vintages in many important regions.  Sure there are inopportune rain storms and occasions where the grapes had a little difficulty getting fully ripe.  But the batting average has gone way up over the last 20 years.

Red Bordeaux perhaps provides the handiest example.  Let’s go back to the 20 year span from 1961 to 1981. During the period 1960, 1963, 1965, 1968, 1969, 1972, 1974, and 1977 were complete stinkers.  Beyond that 1964 was a half vintage (Right Bank, yes, Left Bank not so much), 1967 was nothing to write home about, and 1980 yielded a few forgettable early drinkers that were saved by emerging technology to an extent.  In other words, the sweeping generality was that more than half the vintages ranged from ‘not-very-good’ to ‘downright crummy’.

It got a little better over the next two decades, but there were still some serious misses (1984, 1987, 1991, 1992 and 1997) and a couple more (1993, 1994) in the ‘meh’ column.  Since 2000, how many truly bad vintages have there been?  Maybe two (2013 and 2007 though the Bordelais might argue 2013 is ‘useful’ and we’d add that the problem with 2007 was the prices more than the wines themselves)?  During that same period there have been 5-7 ‘vintages of the century’ (depending on how tough you want to be) and 4-5 others that would have caused dancing in the streets back in the ‘dark times’ of the 60s-70s.

Technology has had a hand in all of it, for sure.  But the point is that there hasn’t been as much need for the ‘magic’.  It has been a pretty good run thanks in part to global warming.  The batting average has been quite good in a number of prestige regions for a period of time.  So, tongue-in-cheek, we say ‘yeah’ to global warming.  It has been “berry, berry good” to the wine world thus far.  Ice has been a much more significant issue.  Frost and hail have had much more significant impact than heat in some key places.

There has been a lot of talk about frost this year in particular as one of the occurrences devastated vineyards in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Northern Italy, and Spain.  The Loire has been a particular ‘whipping boy’ of the inclement weather turns.  There have been ice issues (frost, hail) seemingly on a regular basis.  The Loire claimed 70% crop losses in 2016, and took a pretty good beating this again year.  To make a point, here’s a quote from Wine Spectator attributed to said Guillaume Lapaque, director of the Indre-et-Loire and Sarthe wine federation, which represents 600 vintners, “Montlouis has lost three of its last five crops”.

The effect of frost and hail are devastating not only for the short-term but possibly beyond.  When a frost comes, it freezes whatever has grown on the vines, be that new buds in early April or established flower/fruit growth in June or July.  It disrupts the ripening cycle, sets back the plant, and, if it is severe enough, will even kill the vine.  The afflicted areas certainly will not recover for this harvest and possibly not the next.

The effect of hail is different, but no less devastating.  Essentially hail hitting a vine can knock off all the growth and even shred the leaves and canes in severe cases.   It’s like getting pummeled by thousands of little rocks, which isn’t a positive at any time during the growing cycle.  It damagges by virtue of knocking off the flowers or nascent fruit in the early stages of the plant cycle or damaging the fruit later on which, if it doesn’t destroy it outright, will open the path to all kinds of diseases.

A hailstorm, in August mind you, decimated 50,000 hectares in Burgundy and Bordeaux in 2013.  Guys in the Languedoc were cruising along just fine until a freak hailstorm wiped out 2500 acres in about a half hour.  Chablis got hit hard last year.  There are countless more stories, but the point is heat so far has not been the enemy.  Overall it seems vintages have improved some or at least become more consistent.  It’s the cold snaps that cause the serious problems and it seems we hear more reports of such things over the last few years.  This year in Europe has been something of a freak show for all kinds of ‘cold’ blights.

It is possible there is a connection to global warming and altered weather patterns, but we certainly don’t know enough to make that point if we wanted to.  The thing is that, unless you read the wine magazines pretty religiously, you wouldn’t necessarily know any of this was going on.  The vintage charts don’t tell you this.  In fact, an area that was hit hard early on in the harvest cycle can still produce a high quality crop and the vintage chart may look rosy because what little wine was made was quite good because of the Nature induced reduction of yields.  But there can be a lot less wine. Significant crop loss can leave the grower with devastating financial shortfalls.  Also, it is more likely to hit the smaller, artisan type producers we like to work with than some large corporate wine concern with economies of scale.

Global warming hasn’t destroyed grape-growers livelihoods that we know of as yet.  In fact the consistency of vintages over the last couple of decades might suggest that, thus far, it has been a plus for growers.  But there are some vintners in serious financial straits thanks to these little icy ‘surprises’ that seem to be happening with a bit more regularity.  It is hard not to feel for people whose anticipated income was ripped away without warning, and losing big chunks of quality juice does cause a ripple in the industry supply chain and can affect prices in an unwelcome way.

Yeah, global warming is a problem for a lot of reasons, particularly moving forward (though we did read about a company claiming to have the technology to mitigate greenhouse gasses the other day).  But as far as wine goes, we are presently much more concerned about the viticultural and economic effects of the ‘ice’ than the ‘fire’.

Keeping it real with $20 Pinot Noirs

There have been more than a few statements on these pages about how California wineries (read that Napa in particular) have gotten a little out of touch with real people.  There are lots of folks coming in from outside the industry that are here to be the next Harlan.  We have had a few choice words as well about producers making 5 or six different Pinot Noirs to ‘showcase the vineyards’ with $40-60 (or more) price tags.  All too often the nuances of the various sites are lost in the oak treatment and heavy-handed winemaking.  Other times there are well crafted Pinots done with minimal handling and oxygen exposure that take days to unwind.  Art for art’s sake? Oh yeah, and most people can’t or don’t want to spend that kind of money on a regular basis.

It seems all is not lost though.  Interestingly enough, we have recently been presented with a number of California Pinot Noirs we can sell for under $20 that are not only good, but stylistically distinctive.  While we can’t necessarily call it a ‘movement’ yet, it is comforting to know that there are vintners out there that care about giving the consumer something pleasing and affordable, but also with a little flair.

Each of these Pinot Noirs has its own story, is loaded with personality, and produced in pretty modest quantities.   In each case there are people involved that are industry veterans, and these are all a far cry from the neutered, corporate, lowest-common-denominator Pinots that occupy this price point in the broad market.  Any or all of these may appear in a larger offer down the road, though they don’t fit the profile of the usual whiz-bang, this-score-at-this-price format.  These are still under the radar (heck, we just found them!), but they are soulful, tasty, purposeful Pinots made by folks who are bent on ‘keeping it real’.  Bravo…

Raised on a small family farm in Wisconsin, Francis Joyce came to Monterey in the early 1970s to pursue a career in auto racing.  As the story goes, in the 80s he acquired several ‘pirated’ cuttings from European vineyards and set of shop to grow grapes and continued farming as he pursued a new career in dentistry.  Son and current winemaker Russell grew up in the vineyards and developed a passion for winemaking as he started to take more of the reigns at the property.

These folks are all about ‘transparency’ of the vineyard, though with them it isn’t just lip service.  They harvest a little on the earlier side so that the grapes are at a stage where the ripeness level does not require them to get manipulative in the cellar while showcasing the crisp lines of the cooler parts of Monterey.  The wine has an extended stay on the lees but is done in entire neutral oak.  The resulting wine in this case is a blend that show the lifted fresh fruit and crunchy flavors they feel is the region’s best expression.  Joyce Pinot Noir Submarine Canyon Monterey County 2016is a blend of clones and vineyards and named for the Monterrey Bay Submarine Canyon which is the deepest such ‘trench’ on the West Coast.  High-toned flavors of dried strawberry, cranberry, rhubarb, and a crisp edge of saline minerality are highlights of this ‘cool customer’ of a wine that still has plenty of flesh and packs 14% alcohol.

The Pence Ranch Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 2016 is not associated with the current Vice-President.  It is instead something much more interesting to wine drinkers as an exciting new Pinot star from the team of winemaker Sashi Moorman (Sandhi, Evening Land, Domaine de la Cote, Piedrasassi) and grower Blair Pence.  From the warmer east side of the Santa Rita Hills, near John Sebastiano’s vineyard, this wine delivers a refined, spicy blast of darker cherry fruit and deliciousness that reminds us of the Bonaccorsi Pinot.  In other words, it aims to please with a plush texture, sweet-but-lifted flavors and tender edges even at this young age.  ‘Terroir’ is all well and good, but it helps to have a winemaker that takes the time to understand the vineyard in context rather than ‘one-recipe-fits-all’. Pretty engaging stuff.

Fortunately long time industry veteran Marcel van Stuijvenberg chose not to use his own name on the label, and he got the wine part figured as well.  This wine is something of an enlightened throwback. The 45 year-old vines in the McIntyre vineyard are the oldest in the region and were planted with Pommard and Swan clones rather than some of the new, hipper ‘numbered’ clones (114, 115, 667, 777, etc.) that are widely popular today.  Perhaps it is the old vines, maybe it’s those old-time clones (or maybe a combination of the two!) that give this wine a fab ‘Old-World’ feel with layered depth but with New World punch to the fruit behind it. Complex and surprisingly refined and subtle, with flavors that lean on the darker red side of the spectrum but with a Pinot purity that shines and none of the Syrah-esque aspects that many SLH Pinots bear, the White Hart Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands 2015 is a terrific value.

 

 

 

 

Faustino Chronicles, Part Dos: The VII for $10

Over the years we have worked with a variety of wines from Faustino, mostly more than a dozen vintages of the Faustino I Rioja Gran Reserva dating back to 1964 and library finds of older bottles of the Faustino V Rioja Reserva. For whatever reason we have had little exposure to their ‘popularly priced’ wines and haven’t been ‘grabbed’ in the few experiences that we have had with them…until now.  It is always dangerous to talk up an inexpensive wine too much because you don’t want to create unreasonable expectations so consider this the appropriate level of enthusiasm.

We aren’t going to tell you that the Faustino VII Rioja Tempranillo 2014 tastes like a $50 wine.  We aren’t going to bury you in superlatives like some sort of cheesy retailer’s email.  But we are going to make what we feel is the honest and salient point, this is darned good juice for what it costs.  If you want something polished, elegant, and appealing for under $10, this wine should be on your radar.

Our philosophy has always been that we wouldn’t recommend something to you we wouldn’t drink ourselves, and we actually have taken bottles of this home to do just that.  We appreciate a deal as much as you do and this wine delivers a lot for its modest tab.

Made from 100% Tempranillo, with a six month sojourn in American oak, it has all of the classic Rioja trappings of spice, damp earth and subtle toast notes wrapped around a plummy core of fruit.  It’s about the weight of a Pinot Noir but with more Old World fruit.  It showcases the surprising versatility of Rioja to not only compliment heartier fish, any fowl, or the ‘other white meat’, but can stand up to steak and lamb as well.  It’s a great house go-to at a ‘go-to’ kind of price.

Wine Spectator had some nice notes, “Cherry, licorice and fresh herb flavors mingle in this polished red. Light tannins and fresh acidity lend focus. Lively, modest and balanced. Drink now through 2019.”  Their ‘score’ was ‘modest’, too, but this isn’t the kind of wine that would stick out in a ‘taste-athon’ nor are numbers the point with a wine like this.  Rather it is something you can get comfortable with for its direct, honest, unmanipulated flavors, and angst-free fare.