FRANCOIS LECLERC GEVREY: ANOTHER DELICIOUS, WELL-PRICED 2015

Everybody enjoys a good tale about a wine, and, frankly, we like telling them.  But ultimately it is about the juice and sometimes there isn’t always riveting discourse to accompanying the offer.  We accept that sometimes, particularly with Burgundy houses which are often the toughest  to find info.  These are people tied to the land that make small bits of multiple wines, not the easiest fodder for their stories or ours.

But Burgundy in particular isn’t about glossy brochures and state-of-the-art websites.  Those things don’t actually fit in with the general vibe of the place.  There isn’t a lot of ‘technical’ discussion at most places either as most of the successful domaines these days are reaching back into the less-manipulative past as the game plan for the future.  Plowing by horses, harvesting by hand, using the minimal treatment in the vineyards and dialing back the oak are the current trends.

The story on Rene Leclerc is pretty straight-forward.  The current generation is the third to run the domain since its inception in 1976.  The reins have been quietly passed from father Rene to son Francois who still respects his father’s approach but has instituted a number of changes including lower yields, no new oak in the cellar, and an adherence to the current trend toward non-interventionist protocols.  Francois did some time in Oregon and has a clear vision of how he wants to play it here in the home estate.

We tell this rather typical story because we absolutely love this village Gevrey from the juicy 2015 vintage.  The Francois Leclerc Gevrey Chambertin 2015 is everything good about both this ripe, round harvest and the classic dark cherry fruit with some earth and mineral elements as dictated by this particular, special terroir.  The Rene Leclerc Gevrey Chambertin 2015 comes from 11 different parcels over 5.33 hectares including Pressonier, Croix des Champs, and Clos Prieur.  This is why people get hooked on Burgundy…tender edges, subtle, layered dark cherry fruit infused with notes of earth and darker mineral that support but don’t interfere with the fruit.  Complete, satisfying, and clearly sure about its origins.

We have had the good fortune to taste this wine on three different occasions, and it has been a consistent crowd-pleaser.  The price is at the lesser end of the quality ‘village’ Burgundy choices and the well expressed terroir and tender palate makes it our preference over similarly priced domestic versions.  The engaging 2015 vintage is in full array here.

PEDRO BARQUERO AMONTILLADO: CLASSIC STYLING, 95 POINTS AND UNDER $30!

One of the things that differentiate us from the majority of the wine sources out there is our breadth.  A long time ago we realized that just selling ‘mainstream’ stuff wasn’t quite stimulating enough to do all the time, so we expanded our search, and our product line, to include dozens of different genres in the world of wine.  Yeah we can sell Cabernet, Chardonnay, Bordeaux and Burgundy well enough, but feel remiss if we don’t try and introduce new options for consumers to consider.

We have long devoted space to more extensive selections in less ‘popular’ categories like Germans, Madeira, Austria, and Sherry.  These categories have some spectacular examples to consider. But most of the public isn’t familiar or comfortable with some of these genres, in part because the typical wine merchant devotes zero time to educating buyers to categories that might fall ‘outside the lines’.  We have never stopped trying to teach people about new wines and road-less-travelled categories, but are careful to pick our spots.  This very special wine from Montilla definitely needs to be shown to people and it impressed us with its performance.

They make what people refer to as ‘Sherry’ in both the better known Jerez and the lesser known Montilla regions.  Though Montilla isn’t as famous as Jerez, the area is definitely on par qualitatively with notables like Barquero and long time house favorite Alvear among the fold.  Pedro Barquero, founded in 1905 and still possessing soleras dating back to that time, makes the traditional styles of wine, Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, and Dulce PX, in the traditional manner, blending various aging barrels to establish a cuvee for bottling.

What makes them pretty unique among sherry producers is that they do not employ any of the predominant commercial grape variety, Palomino (which can make up a substantial or entire portion of most Sherries out there) in their cuvees.  They are all made 100% from the noble grape variety of the region, Pedro Jimenez.  Pedro Jimenez is the prized grape of the region from the standpoint of depth of flavor and quality, no question.

But over the last few decades the amount of Pedro Jimenez, a variety with low yields and a somewhat fussy demeanor, has been substantially replaced by the lesser but far more predictable and higher-yielding Palomino.  If you are a regular fan of Sherries, that information should be very exciting, and you should be all over this one.

In terms of style, Amontillado is the top of the list of dry styles, with much more body, deeper color and more pronounced nuttiness.  The use of the more substantial Perdo Jimenez yields a wine that has more layers and complexity vis-à-vis most Amontillados out there (actually almost every one we have tasted over the years).  You’ll notice that depth right away with the Pedro Barquero Amontillado Gran Barquero, and see a lot more unfold as you settle in with a glass.  A great aperitif, a superb accompaniment to a variety of tapas (sardines, chorizos, manchego, and especially olives), soups and a surprising number of other lighter finger food type courses, this is no ‘one-trick’ sherry.

One of the additional benefits of sherry (and Madeira while we are at it) is that you can serve yourself a glass, put the cork back in and it will be the same tomorrow, next week or next month.  We actually poured a lost bottle of Amontillado that had been open for three years and it was remarkably engaging and virtually unchanged.  These wines have been intentionally oxidizing in barrels for years so they are pretty bullet proof and are one of only a handful of wines that can function in this way.

Our broad message, then, is to drink/explore the historic beverage known as sherry.  Our specific message is to drink this one, as exciting an ambassador for the genre as we have come across in a long time.  We could go the glamour route like the winery did and talk about a piece on the subject of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe or its part in the film Babette’s feast.  But that doesn’t say anything about this Amontillado.

This excerpt from Wine Advocate does, “The NV Amontillado Gran Barquero is an impressive 25-30 years old. It wears a dark amber robe and a subtle, elegant and focused nose. It’s an Amontillado of finesse, with biological, salty notes and roasted almonds, close to the Fino character. The palate shows a medium-bodied wine of a velvety texture, fine acidity and clean, focused flavors, It represents superb value for the quality it delivers….95 points.”  Serve with a slight chill, salud!

 

A DELICIOUS, WELL-PRICED WHITE AND AN UNUSUAL STORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A NEW PLAYER IN NAPA CABERNET ‘VALUE’

They say necessity is the mother of invention.  This would seem to be a fine example of that saying.  No one has time to read the whole story of Anderson’s Conn Valley.  Their website claims four generations have been here though the label only started with the 1987 vintage and their website states “Since 1983 we have been family owned and operated by the Anderson’s.” (this is a direct cut and paste showing the incorrect use of the possessive for all you English nigglers out there).   They got a lot of attention pretty soon in their history, rattling off a series of 92+ scores in successive vintages in Wine Advocate and the label was generating some buzz ahead of the emergence of a number of now iconic ‘trophy styled wines’ shortly thereafter.

Conn Valley is a little different from the heart of Napa.  Located roughly ten minutes up the hill east of St. Helena, sort of on the back side south of Howell Mountain, this 40 acre estate sits in a sort of elevated cleft.  It has a completely different and more serene vibe than the valley below and this all-by-itself property has cave cellars, a sort of throwback facility, and what one might call its own ‘zen’.  We visited the Andersons there many years ago, met Todd and his father, and got a real feel for the wines.  We sold the many renditions from Conn Valley for many years but, as has happened so often in this part of the world, prices started to creep up.

They made their bones on a series of ‘reserve level’ bottlings called Eloge, Reserve, Signature and Right Bank built from Bordeaux varietals.  It should also be mentioned that they have had some occasional enthusiastic kudos for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but their reputation was based on wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, and Merlot.  The style has always been of a luxury bent with broad, creamy fruit well-seasoned with top flight oak.  It seemed to be the perfect recipe for the market, and it had a pretty good run.

No one can say for sure what happened but production started to outpace sales.  One could suggest a gradual slowdown in the super-premium market and their signature wines ran from $80 to $150, though they got reviews commensurate with that level of pricing.  Maybe it was the move from just making a wine called Cabernet to making a number of different bottlings (until this wine the last review we saw for something called simply Cabernet was 1995) that confused consumers.  Maybe it was the label, which they changed to something else rather distinctive (but also difficult to read) not long ago.  Maybe it was Todd Anderson’s focus on his super-super-premium Ghost Horse project that took away from the attention devoted to Conn Valley.  There are many conjectures, and the story can get pretty complicated.  But the bottom line is that the winery decided it needed to produce a wine that got the attention of a whole new set of buyers.

To that end, the 2016 Anderson’s Conn Valley Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was born (or ‘reborn’ depending on how you interpret the history).  The blend is 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot & 5% Cabernet Franc, the Cabernet Franc the only part to come from another site (Reinke Family Vineyards, a hillside vineyard in west Carneros).  This wine still qualifies as estate bottled under the law.  It spends 18 months in French oak.

They really nailed this one.  This has a lot in common with their ‘reserve’ level wines…creamy fruit, notes of chocolate, spice and vanilla, along with pretty ripe, melty tannins for a wine so young.   The winery’s story is this, “A new product for us is this first ever ‘non-reserve’ Cabernet. It is a fruit forward, friendly, easy to drink style of Cabernet produced from the barrels that don’t quite make the cut for the Reserve and Eloge bottlings. What you may enjoy though is knowing that this is an estate grown, estate bottled Conn Valley Cabernet for HALF what you’d normally have to pay…”

It certainly tastes like it had the luxury treatment and showed surprising presence and polish on both occasions that we tried it.  This definitely has a ‘wow’ quality to it, and the kind of plush refinement you simply don’t see for under $40.  If you are a fan of Cabernet, it would be hard not to like it.

We don’t think the media has seen this one yet as this just hit the market.   No doubt it will be tasted among the other, much more exotic (and more expensive) Conn Valley wines and probably not get its due with respect to numbers.  It’s our version of the ‘theory of relatively’ where, if there are ‘upper cuvees’, most writers will focus on those and work backward.  As to timing, you are definitely ahead of the game as the wine was literally just released.

Are we going to tell you it’s as good as their $150 reserve bottling?  We know human nature far too well to promise that.  Are we going to tell you that if you drop this in among what is out there for $35-60 it will likely steal the show? Absolutely!  It is one of the sexiest Cabernets we have had for this kind of fare but, then again, it’s all estate fruit from a place that has been making top notch reds for a long time.  They created this wine to make an impression.  That it does!

 

 

LUSH, ENGAGING BARBERA FOR A SONG: CA’VIOLA D’ALBA BRICHET 2015

Beppe Ca Viola is ‘one of the most important oenologists in Italy’ according to multiple sources that write about such things, yet unless you are pretty deep into Italian wine you have likely never heard of him.  He started under the wing of one of the superstars of Piedmont at the time, Elio Altare, who encouraged him to bottle his own efforts early on, and has gone on to be a consultant at a number of elite addresses.  He is working or has worked with the likes of Pecchenino, Albino Rocca, Vietti, Sette Ponti, Damilano, and Luigi Einaudi, something of a who’s who lineup  But, while his credentials are pretty impeccable as a consultant, it is his own efforts from his winery near Dogliani that really get us excited.

As much as we are and have been fans of Ca Viola for a decade or more, there have been precious few opportunities to taste his wines.  Production is small, distribution here has been a little inconsistent, and the wines, for as good and distinctive as they have been, haven’t been getting the media attention that they deserve.  We have a bit of a hard time deciding what to think about the general lack of coverage and enthusiasm on the part of the critics for a producer of this caliber who makes such an engaging style of wine.

His wines are consistently among the best of Italian producers, and there is a tenderness and perceived sweetness to the fruit component that sets them apart from most Italian efforts, yet the wines don’t lose their ‘Italian’ identity in the process.    The Ca Viola Barbera d’Alba Brichet 2015 is from a variety of vineyards with an average vine age of 20 years-old, farmed organically (though they haven’t concerned themselves with the ‘certification’ process) fermented with only native yeasts, and put in large barrels for 12 months.

The resulting wine, no doubt aided by the lush 2015 vintage, is loaded with evident plum/blackberry fruit that is tender and juicy but fresh and light on its feet.  The tannins are refined, the acidity is ripe and well integrated, and the whole experience is engaging.  This is a Barbera that drinks like a Pinot Noir and is fruit driven enough to drink on its own, though it sings with food as one would expect.

This particular rendition even go a little love from the  press, a 93 point tout and some compelling words from James Suckling, “There’s minerality on the nose of this Barbera, but also some smoky complexity, not to mention brambleberries and blackcurrants. A structured palate with firm tannins, refreshing acidity, and a succulent, chewy finish. Drink now.”  As to that ‘drink now”, absolutely.  This is a Barbera where it will be hard to put down the glass and a thrilling example of the kind of flashy, engaging, well priced wines we expect from Ca Viola’s own label.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Special Purchase’: Masterful Chateaunef, WS Top 100 #22 at Age 20

No wine region has had a better run than the southern Rhone over the last 20 years.  We have tasted copious examples of Chateauneuf over that time frame.  While there are numerous outstanding vintages (2015, 2010, 2007, 2005), in our minds  1998 still reigns supreme.  In every great vintage there have been great examples of the genre, but a few that were perhaps a little over the top.  One of the exceptions is 1998.  Virtually everything we have had the opportunity to taste from the vintage has been impressive for both richness and balance.  Sadly, we drank most of our 1998s a fair bit ago though we never stopped looking for that rare opportunity to grab another example of this wonderful vintage.  As they say, ‘seek and ye shall find’, and we found a gem.

We saw the 1998 Chateau La Gardine on a European suppliers list and could not wait to explore the possibilities further.  Of course given that the wine was twenty years old, we wanted to make sure the juice was in great shape.  We requested a sample from the European purveyor and they sent one.  Ignoring our own rules of letting bottles settle down for a few days after being shipped, we pretty much opened the bottle as soon as we could get it out of the box.  The wine showed beautifully literally right off the truck, which caused to scramble to secure every last bottle we could.

Chateau La Gardine was one of our house favorites early on in our formative years with Chateauneuf, and we fondly remember this from when we sold it the first time around.    The wine was round, and well proportioned (still is), with a definite leaning to darker red fruits in its profilewith a surprising elegance that few Chateauneuf vintages that were this ripe possessed.  The distinctive bottle also made the wine memorable, or a least immediately recognizable.  The story goes that when Gaston Brunel first wanted to expand his cellar, while he was digging in the ground, he found a mouth-blown bottle. He loved its distinctive look and decided to use a similar shape for all his wine. At the beginning, he had to go all the way to Italy to find a glass supplier that was able to make it. Since 1964, all of their wines have come in the unique ‘La Gardine’shaped-bottle.

The Chateau La Gardine Chateauneuf 1998 itself shows a lovely mulberry color with a pure nose of black raspberry, spice and hints of pepper.  In the mouth there are additional streaks of earth, meat, and chocolate along with the insistent, polished fruit.  The finish shows a bit of minerality as well as coffee/chocolate component.  The weight and impression lean more towards a riper Pinot Noir as opposed to the almost oppressive jamminess that occurs in some wines in warmer vintages.  It is a captivating experience and an example of a Chateauneuf that has aged beautifully and can still go a bit longer (though it is in a lovely place right now).

There’s pedigree here, too, as well as a flurry of scores including 92 points from Wine Advocate’s Jeb Dunnuck  (also listed on his own website) from a tasting done in 2015.  He suggests the wine still has 5-7 years of life ahead.  The original Wine Spectator review from 2000 was most enthusiastic and the wine not only got a 94 point review and a Spectator Selection nod, but was #22 in that year’s Top 100.  The review said, “A wonderful, masterful wine. Both firm and opulent, it displays a nice dig into the Rhône terroir as it brings out wet earth, mineral and an interesting, chewy tannin structure. A high-voltage drinking experience, with lots of fruit, spice and mocha. Best from 2003 through 2020.”

It’s all of that.  As to the wine lasting 5-7 more years, it certainly can.  The question is whether one can leave it alone for that long.  It is a rather spectacular drinking experience at its peak, with some 20 years of age already done for you.  This is a rare opportunity for Chateauneuf lovers, a refined and beautifully poised example from a notable producer from one of the best vintages ever.  As you probably guessed, quantities are finite.  Good hunting.

 

THE WINE CRITIC: WILL THERE BE ANOTHER ‘ORACLE’?

When we started in this business, the impact of the media was much different.  There wasn’t a ‘guiding light’ kind of reviewer.  Mostly folks relied on scribes in the newspapers who wrote weekly columns, awards from various wine competitions, and there was a following among elite buyers in a small way for a couple of subscription writers.  Does anyone remember Robert Finigan?  Probably not anymore.  He was arguably the first one to get national attention for wine reviews, but the field was still pretty new at the time.

Back when the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux was being reviewed, Finigan was in a position to make some waves as there was unusual consumer interest in the vintage.  Finigan, a traditionalist, was pretty convinced that the very ripe, somewhat atypical 1982s were an anomaly and would not stand the test of time.  By contrast, an emerging writer from Monkton, Maryland named Robert Parker went full gung ho on the 1982s and the market responded.

From that moment on Parker’s star rose dramatically among hardcore wine collectors and tastemakers.  He achieved a status that perhaps no reviewer in any other field ever had and likely ever will.  About the same time, a more lifestyle centric magazine called Wine Spectator, with reviews, articles, and pretty pictures, captured an even larger, if perhaps somewhat less zealous audience.  Suddenly these publications, aided by an industry that was all too willing to cut and paste reviews rather than do original work, became the defining voices in the wine industry.

While Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar captured a modest audience, it was Advocate and Spectator that had the majority of the attention for a couple of decades.   We always joked about what kind of panic would ensue if anything ever happened to Parker, and knowing that if all went well, he would eventually retire.  In the early days, Wine Spectator had only a handful of regular critics and Advocate was just Bob.  But as demand grew for wider coverage of more wines, both publications added reviewers to cover the workload.

But with many additional voices, there was perhaps a little bit of dilution in the power of the message.  There were a few folks that came and went because they didn’t fit in with their Wine Advocate roles, a couple were even a little controversial.  The turnover of writers had to affect some aspects of the readership loyalty, though the presence of Parker as the anchor kept a lot of that from becoming too problematic with Wine Advocate at the time.

As to Wine Spectator, things went pretty well for a long time.  Then lead writer for European wines James Suckling parted company with the magazine.  Their domestic specialist, known here as ‘Angry’ James Laube, started toughening up on scores.  Dishing out 91 point scores to $200 Napa Cabernets definitely made him less ‘quotable’ in the broad market.  It seems Spectator’s impact in the marketplace has abated a little.

That brings us to today.  Spectator still has wide distribution, but we’d suggest less impact than the glory days.  Their ex-patriot Suckling set up shop on his own.  Parker isn’t doing much for Advocate these days, and former reviewers Antonio Galloni and Jeb Dunnuck left to set up their own programs.  Galloni’s Vinous absorbed the Tanzer team and recently hired former Advocate Bordeaux and Burgundy reviewer Neal Martin.  With such a dramatic reshuffling of the scribes, and the changing faces of the former ‘powers’, one has to wonder where it goes from here.   That isn’t even taking into account the various other ‘wannabes’ that are vying for relevance.

Our point is that today’s field is crowded and it is hard to predict who, if anyone, will become the next ‘oracle’.  There are a half dozen review platforms that have some amount of clout, and a number of others who could emerge down the road (though we have our doubts).  The quirk of today’s market is that purveyors are trying to prolong the sell-by-reviews format that has been the widely practiced norm for at least the last quarter century.

Within that context, it is a proven fact that ’89s don’t sell wine’.  These days the same can be said for a lot of scores relative to certain price points.  A 91 might move a $12 wine, but won’t even register a blip for a $30 wine.  Therein lies the problem.  The purveyors know they need bigger ‘numbers’ to excite buyers and consumers, and have taken it upon themselves to present the best score possible without regard to the source.  People present us the reviews of 2nd and 3rd tier critics all the time (and all-too-often not accurately).

We know the difference and who is who.  But the average consumer seeing it on a sign in a store doesn’t necessarily have knowledge of the hierarchy (if you can call it that) and many take the number at face value.  All too often wines are presented with floating reviews, which say a wine received a 95 point score but doesn’t cite where it came from.

Given all of this, the industry is concerned about how to reach the next generation of wine buyers.  The ‘score’ thing has worked well for a lot of people for a long time.  But will that continue?  Are reviewers going to have the same impact with millennials they did with baby boomers?  Our first guess is probably not.   Who knows what kind of dynamic will be the basis for information moving forward.  A hybrid of some current market trend-setter?  Some self-proclaimed hipster critic?  Yelp?

Then again, with hand held devices connected to world-wide internet 24/7, it would be easy to get information on a potential wine purchase from some review site in seconds.  So it is difficult to fathom the possibility that all of the critics websites will disappear.  These days, convenience matters, particularly for the most impatient of generations.  But whose reviews are they going to follow?  That is the question.  Who best speaks to the market in the post-Parker era?  What exactly is the wine market as defined today?

One might ask who we follow.  In truth, we don’t really follow anyone.  We’ll look into things based on reading articles because not everything comes to our door.  Then we’ll use whatever reviews we think will get people to try a wine we already liked and bought, provided those reviews come from sources we feel are legit.  It is important for us to associate with proven and reasonably well-followed review sources.  We aren’t inclined to quote the ‘scribe of the week’ simply because he/she gave the highest, most quotable number.  ‘Steve’s mom gave this 94 points’ isn’t going to resonate with anyone.   There may be critics out there that will be widely quoted down the road, once they have established themselves.   But for now we’ll focus on the half dozen or so that seem to be the most followed.

The working theory moving forward, as we have stated, is that the guys with the highest reviews will get quoted because the market responds to higher numbers, and therefore will receive more ‘reinforcement’ in the public eye.  Though these all represent relatively new independent voices, James Suckling, Jeb Dunnuck, and some of the Vinous crew, have historic connections with top sources.  So they have historic credibility as long as they don’t overdo it and give everything 100 points.  They will typically run somewhat higher scores (a point or two, say) because they are still trying to expand their audience, or maybe they really are that much more excited.  Enthusiasm sells.  Just saying everything is ‘pretty good’ or ‘just OK’ won’t motivate anyone to act, or more importantly acquire.

For that reason we see the current Spectator ‘tough guy’ approach as being counter-productive in the broad sense with respect to wine reviews, though there will be an audience for their travel, food, and “People Magazine” portions of the publication.  Page after page of middling scores (by today’s standards) will cause consumer’s eyes to glaze over.

The Advocate has been something of a revolving door having lost two top reviewers who created their own sites, and another that went to work for one of the competition.  Will the new crew catch on?  Hard to say at this point.  It is probably still their game to lose, but we can’t see where a bunch of folks that the public doesn’t know as well, talking up mainly wines that no one can find or afford, as a recipe for long term success.

When we mine some positive prose from those publications, there is interest in the individual wines.  But we used to know when a new edition of those publications came out because the phones rang off the hook.  That has not been the case in recent years.  The point is that, when we present a wine with a review from one of those sources we mentioned, there is usually some response.  But we aren’t sure how many people are reading these publications on their own and reacting from that research any more.

There is more great wine out there now than at any time we can remember.  With so many things to evaluate one has to wonder why folks aren’t flocking to critics’ sites and publications to sort it all out.  Maybe they are.  But the impact of the reviewer has certainly changed over the past dozen years.  Is it because there are too many critics, reducing the impact of each one?  Whose reviews will reign supreme?  Is it because the industry has gone overboard in presenting reviews to sell wine so that most consumers feel they are getting all the info they need?  Or is this format going the way of the VCR and experiencing a decline in popularity with the next generation?  After all, how many of the younger crowd cares about 20-year drinking windows?  Most of it gets consumed in a week.

This aspect of the wine business, which has driven the market over the last couple of decades, is in flux right now.  Honestly, it could go any number of ways.  Among critics, sadly, we feel the high scorers will win as long as the ‘number’ takes precedent over the meat of the write-up.   The ‘number’ is the quick answer in a world where faster is better. We have lived largely in the world of review-driven sales.  While the ‘players’ may change,  we believe the role of the critic will remain significant at least until a better way comes along.  We can’t envision what that would be.  The 100-point system didn’t dominate wine marketing, until it did.  Arguably the success can be tied loosely to the system of education most people grew up and are familiar with.  But the fact remains that it is an easy, quick format for people to digest.

Possibly the industry could take charge of their own business and try to educate consumers through their own articles, tastings and one-on-one dialogue.  Maybe there are unicorns, too.  We have always presented our own ideas, sometimes without any reference to third party opinions. But the number system has created a life all its own for the time being.   As to more of the industry taking the ‘bull by the horns’, we aren’t going to hold our breath.  Telling someone they should buy a wine because ‘so-and-so gave it 95 points’ is still so… much… easier.  We’ll wait and see whose ‘95’ moves the needle the most as time passes.

 

 

 

 

 

OREGON UPDATE: KEEPING UP WITH THE DROUHINS

When Veronique Drouhin came to Oregon in 1986, she had just completed her masters in enology.  In what was probably conceived as a scouting mission, Veronique worked the harvest with three of Oregon’s early pioneers, the Letts of Eyrie, the Casteels of Bethel Heights, and the Adelsheims.  The lasting impression was that something important was happening in the Willamette Valley.  A year later, Robert Drouhin was invited to participate in the International Pinot Noir Celebration.  It was on that trip that this scion of a century-old Burgundy producer decided to buy land in the Dundee Hills.  In 1988, the first edition of the Domaine Drouhin Oregon project was made.  As they say, the rest is history.

The winery is celebrating their 30th Anniversary this year.  It seems a good time to look back on what had to have been viewed as one of the defining moments in the history of Oregon viticulture.  When someone of Drouhin’s stature establishes roots in Oregon, it had to have the effect of validating the entire region.  We have been fans of this project since day one and some of those early releases were kind of groundbreaking in terms of shining light on what was possible in the Willamette Valley.

We aren’t going to say that the road was without any bumps.  There was a period where we wondered where the mojo of this house had gone.  There were a few vintages that simply weren’t all that special.  We have no explanation as to why.   As inexplicable as that little dip in quality was, the winery seems to have snapped back and is now doing some of their best work ever.  Veronique is definitely rolling now as this trio of their traditional releases indicates.

Not surprisingly given the vintage, the Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Dundee Hills 2015 is a riveting, pure example of proper Oregon Pinot with the intense dark red fruits, palate-tingling interplay of high-toned spice and savory notes, and bright flavors right through to the end.  This reminds us of some of those earliest offers, but with more harmony and finesse.  Oregon vintners have definitely raised their game and Drouhin has, too.

It caught the attention of James Suckling, who offered, “A great pinot noir that shows dried flowers, violets and orchids. Cherry and raspberry undertones, too. Medium to full body with an incredible polished texture. Ripe and round tannins and a fresh and vibrant finish. Delicious now but better in 2020…95 points.”

Josh Reynolds expands, “Brilliant red. Fresh cherry and raspberry on the nose, complicated by candied rose, licorice and musky earth flourishes. Juicy, finely etched red berry and bitter cherry flavors show very good energy, and a deeper, sweeter suggestion of cola emerges with aeration. Closes on a bright, spicy note, with sneaky tannins lending framework and grip.”  Also ’91’ from both Wine Advocate and Vinous, the wine clearly shows ripe Oregon fruit but a Burgundian sensibility and harmony.

Also from a great vintage, the even more expressive reserve bottling Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Laurene Dundee Hills 2014 takes It up another level.  Named for Veronique’s daughter, Laurene is their flagship bottling assembled in the cellar from selected ‘best barrels’.  From Vinous, “Vivid red. A sexy, highly perfumed bouquet evokes ripe red berries, cola and rose oil, and a smoky flourish builds in the glass. Fleshy, expansive black raspberry, bitter cherry and floral pastille flavors show impressive depth as well as energy, picking up a hint of star anise with air. Finishes juicy, supple and very long, offering lingering spiciness and pliant, even tannins that fold effortlessly into the lush fruit… 93.”

Advocate’s Lisa Perotti-Brown, MW, has this take, “Pale to medium ruby-purple, the 2014 Pinot Noir Laurene offers a very fragrant nose of exotic spices—anise, cardamom and fenugreek—over a core of pomegranate, rhubarb, Bing cherries, fertile loam and truffles. Medium-bodied with a taut, fine structure of fine tannins and refreshing acid, the fruit has plenty of earth and red berry layers that linger with great persistence. ..92+ points.”

One of the most significant developments across Oregon over the last few vintages is that they have finally figured out Chardonnay.  The wrong clones planted in the wrong places definitely made Chardoannay the ‘also-ran’ varietal in this part of the world.  But the times, they are a changin’.  Meanwhile Drouhin did it right in the first place, some of these vines dating back to 1990.  The Domaine Drouhin Arthur Chardonnay Dundee Hills 2015 definitely follows the French model with crisp underpinnings and streaks of perceived minerality.

Josh Raynolds of Vinous offered, “(raised in a 50/50 combination of stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels, 20 percent of the oak new) Light gold. Intense, mineral-accented citrus and orchard fruits on the nose, complicated by hints of buttered toast and honeysuckle. Lush and creamy but focused as well, offering concentrated dried pear and peach flavors and a touch of bitter lemon pith. Turns firmer on the incisive finish, which repeats the citrus and mineral notes and leaves a hint of chamomile behind…92 points.”

James Suckling was more succinct, but even more enthusiastic, ” A layered and pretty wine with dried apples and fresh fruit. Linear and spicy, showing plenty of salty undertones. Full-bodied, solid and fresh. Lovely intensity. Drink now…94 Points.”

It is fair to say these wines were more than 100 years in the making, and the knowledge the Drouhins brought to the New World has been good for Oregon as a whole.  There are plenty of ‘young guns’ grabbing media attention these days.  But Drouhin is doing fine work and definitely is still a standard-bearer for the region.   These subtle, proportioned wines belong in everyone’s cellar.

 

 

PENFOLDS KOONUNGA HILL: STILL ONE OF THE BEST VALUE REDS

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

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

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

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

THE BEST LAUREL EVER?

Sometimes it is interesting to go back to the beginning.  In 1988 Daphne Glorian, at the time employed by an English Master of Wine in his Paris office, decided to spend her life’s savings on 17 terraces of hillside vines just outside the village of Gratallops.  Newly minted friends René Barbier and Alvaro Palacios encouraged her and together with Carles Pastrana and Jose Luis Perez, they pooled their talents and resources to make a new style of wine in a region rich in history but that had only really produced sturdy wine for the local markets.  In 1989 the modern Priorat was born.

Fast forward to today, and Clos Erasmus is considered one of the elite producers of the Priorat.   Their body of work is impressive and includes 98 (twice), 99 (three times) and 100 (twice) point efforts as reviewed by Robert Parker. The problem with Clos Erasmus through the years has definitely not been quality, but quantity.  There has been precious little to go around. Old vine Grenache, Carignane and a little Cabernet fruit make magic in Priorat in the right hands, and Daphne, along with her current super-star winemaker, the diminutive, dreadlocked Ester Nin are at the top of their game.

These rustic hillsides produce wines of great power and character, yet in Ester’s hands also retain a surprising elegance.  Bordeaux had something like a three century head start and one has to appreciate how far Priorat has come in a mere three decades.  Like Bordeaux, one of the best values in exceptional wine comes from the second wine of Clos Erasmus called Laurel. From the younger vines on the property, plus some declassified Clos Erasmus, this is the Catalan equivalent of Chateau Margaux’s Pavillion Rouge or Lafite’s Carruades. It is also another poster child for our mantra of buying little wines from the very best producers.  Typically Laurel is a pretty sensational drink, but Ester and the gang have outdone themselves this year.

Flavors of currant, black cherry, coffee, cocoa and an insistent minerality from the llicorella (yic-o-raya) black slate soils makes Priorat a very special place for grapes.  The 2015 Clos I Terrases Priorat Laurel screams of its class and breeding. In fact this version is the best we have tasted.  It is aromatic, inviting, layered and remarkably engaging.  It delivers plenty even if you aren’t feeling cerebral and just want to relate to it on a purely hedonistic (sensual) level.   If you need some numbers, this second wine has received 93 points or better in every vintage since 2004 save one (2010, curiously enough the only vintage reviewed by Neal Martin during a very short stint as Advocate’s Spanish reviewer).   The wine in question, this lovely 2015 Laurel, registers at 95 points with Advocate.

Clos Erasmus and Laurel are not vineyard designations, but they do begin to take shape in the vineyard. Meticulous farming and observation take place throughout the year so by the time fruit starts to reach the cellar in autumn, most of the blends have already been mapped out by Daphne. When the primary fermentations are winding down these decisions begin to coalesce and wines intended for Laurel are racked into a combination of 20hl wooden tanks, second- and third-fill 228L French oak barrels and clay amphorae. It rests for 16-18 months before final blending and bottling.

At this point we’ll defer to Luis Gutierrez, whose review supplies most of the relevant technical information as well as well as a rousing endorsement, “The 2015 Laurel is the second wine here, and it has evolved with time. It’s a transparent and bright blend of Garnacha with 20% Syrah and some 5% Cabernet Sauvignon from vines between 11 and 22 years of age. The blend is different each year, as the vines are becoming older and wiser. It shows extremely aromatic and expressive, open and elegant. It really does not show any heat; on the contrary, it feels quite fresh. It’s not a muscular wine—it’s very elegant. Part of the wine matured in amphora, and there’s no more pigéage (since 2012), only very soft pump overs just to keep the cap wet. The extraction is a lot lower than in earlier years. This is nothing short of spectacular. ..”

Jeb Dunnuck provided an early revieew on this one as well, “ … it boasts a deep purple color as well as perfumed notes of resinous herbs, blackberries, liquid violets and pepper. It’s rich, concentrated, and voluptuous, yet pure and elegant on the palate. It’s undoubtedly the finest vintage of this cuvée I’ve tasted …95 points…”.  Amen to that.  This is a release we have looked forward to every year since we first ran across the 2005 some years ago (we’ve been following Erasmus since the late 90s), and this one is special.  Do not miss it!