‘Little’ Wine from a Top Dog, Northern Rhone Style

So years ago (2000 actually), we attended the first InterRhone exposition in the Rhone Valley, an event dedicated to presenting Rhone wines in groups during presentations within the various appellations.  One of the most memorable days was the ‘show’ in Hermitage, with a large number of who’s who producers.  It was in a bank building and the various growers were stationed behind teller’s windows presenting their wares.

The majority of the wines were from the outstanding 1999 vintage, there were three producers whose wines stood out even among the power lineup that was presenting that day.  One of the three was a house we had read about but had never yet seen in our part of the world, nor had the opportunity to taste.  That was Domaine Sorrel.  That event made a lasting impression and we spent the next few years trying to find a viable source for Sorrel’s wines.  We got a couple of scraps in the European market but were generally unsuccessful in our effort to solidify a steady source.

About a decade later, the Sorrel wines showed up at a local importer and it was a pretty happy day for us when we snagged the tail end of Sorrel’s 2010 Hermitage.  A  beautiful wine that encapsulated Sorrel’s distinctive style to a tee,  it showed depth and presence but also an uncommon elegance.  This wasn’t the biggest or jammiest example of the genre.  But it did not lack for stuffing and was impressive for its balance and polish.

Fast forward to today and the 2015 vintage.  We had never seen Sorrel’s Crozes Hermitage before but the house style was in full array.  The Marc Sorrel Crozes Hermitage 2015 showed plenty of dark fruits with insistent undercurrents of minerality, but the wine also had a harmony and presence that set it apart from the rank and file from this ripe, weighty but sometimes California-like vintage. Crozes can be a little curious from the standpoint of quality because the appellation extends from the hillside to flatter areas near the highway.  As we say here, hillside Crozes is better than ‘freeway’ Crozes.  In the hands of someone like Sorrel, the equation only gets better.

The reviews indirectly speak of the value in that the score was very close to the Hermitage but the Crozes costs about half as much.  Josh Reynolds of Vinous saw it this way, “Deep vivid ruby. Ripe blackberry and cherry scents are energized by cracked pepper and smoky mineral accents. Fleshy and open-knit, offering sweet dark berry and violet pastille flavors and a touch of salty olive paste. The peppery note recurs on a long, blue-fruit-inflected finish that’s given structure by mounting tannins…91 points.”  The wine definitely has an upscale feel to it, but at a touch over $30 its pretty wallet-friendly for what it delivers.

 

JUFFER SONNENUHR TWO WAYS

There are lots of ways to present a wine and we thought that, over all the time we have been doing this, we had probably done all of the possible permutations at one point or another…until today.  But then offer like this have never came along before.  We had the opportunity to purchase two different Rieslings at great discounts, from one of the greatest vintages in Germany in this century and from one of the most storied vineyards in the Mosel.  Same price, same pradikat levels, both knockout deals, but the wines are from two different producers.  You talk about wine being made in the vineyard? You will never have a better chance to see that it action, and get some pretty wicked spatlese in the bargain.

We’ll start with the vintage.  As we have said on multiple occasions, the 2015 vintage in Germany (OK, a lot of places in Europe for that matter) was special.  It stands alongside the 2001 as the icon vintage of the 21st Century (thus far anyway).  The wines have unique power and cohesiveness to the fruit and surprising palate length.  Wine after wine has exhibited the same vintage personality as we have tasted through probably 200+ examples.

The vineyard?  Maybe Brauneberger Juffer isn’t quite as well known to the broad market as Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Graacher Himmelreich, and Bernkasteler Doctor because producers like Prum and Thanisch have been here much longer promoting them.  But among those more tuned in to great Mosel vineyards, Brauneberger Juffer is one of the great ones.  We have come to appreciate the vineyard a lot over the last three decades as we have been presented several striking examples from the likes Fritz Haag and Schloss Lieser.  More specifically the Sonnenuhr part of the Brauneberger Juffer is the best part, the ‘sweet spot’ if you will.

Given those similarities, and the strong characteristics of both the site and the vintage, our ‘tale of two Juffers’ would seem to come down to the producers.  Or does it?  That is what makes this exercise so exciting.  Besides the fact that the producers are different, and presumably the grapes came from different plots in the vineyard, we don’t actually know the harvest must weights.  There is a range to qualify for spatlese designation, including declassified auslese.  The alcohols are .5% apart (8% vs 8.5%), but that is all we know.

Both the Karp Schreiber and St Nikolaus Hospital labels boast long histories, the Karp Schreiber tracing its roots back to 1664 and the St. Nikolaus Hospital winery having existed for more than 500 years as the money-raising arm of the  foundation that runs  the actual hospital in Bernkastel-Kues, the hospital itself founded in 1458.  As we opened these two side by side, they started in different places.  The Karp Schreiber Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese 2015 shows a more delicate, filigreed profile, with whiffs of slatey minerality to the peach and pear fruit, a livelier, more active mid-palate and an airier finish of spice and slate.  It is a bit higher pitched on the palate with a more evident mineral element.

By contrast, the  St Nikolaus Hospital Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese 2015 is a more centered wine that shows a more direct, pronounced element of peach and pear, with a little hint of apricot possibly as a result of a greater must-weight (this is the one that is the .5% higher in alcohol), but not necessarily.  The sweetness level seems slightly more overt out of the gate and the palate is more concise.

As we sat there going back and forth and between the two, it was fascinating to watch them change in the glass, and certainly even more intriguing to watch as they began to show a much more familial streak that we have to presume is the vineyard talking.  The Karp got more mid-palate-focused as time passed while the St. Nikolas more high-pitched minerality and lift than it had presented early on.  In short, as they developed they became much closer to each other as the elements of one of the middle Mosel’s best terroirs took hold of the proceedings.

While there were still slight differences in line with their original profiles, it was Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr that won the day with the strongest voice.  As to our preference, it was not unanimous and way too close to call.  We highly recommend taking the opportunity to experience this unique comparison yourself.  As to predicting a winner, the winners would be those that take advantage of these two exciting spatlesen from a great vineyard  in an epic vintage for a good 40% less that you would typically find anything from this esteemed dirt.  These are steals for under $20, the educational/geeky opportunity merely a special bonus here!

Pinot Noir auf Deutsch?  Sehr gut!

Pinot Noir has been a hot topic for some time now.  And the usual discussion about whether the pricing and performance is currently more exciting in California’s Central Coast or Russian River, or in special vintages from the Motherland (France), is the norm.  But with global warming, there are new considerations to the Pinot discussion, particularly in a juicy vintage like 2015.  Like …Germany?

No, we are not talking about some leafy tasting, brownish Spätburgunder that garners little interest outside of Deutschland itself.  We are now talking about extremely appealing examples of German Pinot Noir these days, wines that are competitive on the world stage.  At the top of our list in that category is today’s selection from Meyer-Näkel.

This player is no surprise either to us any more, though we must admit our surprise from our first trip to the region more than a decade ago.  We have sold several vintages of the Meyer-Näkel wines  since that time and they only seem to be getting better.   Werner Näkel himself is credited with putting the Ahr on the map internationally back in the 1990s and nothing has changed, other than the Pinots have taken on a deeper fruit component and a more tender mouth feel,  while never losing the lift, clarity and purity that make them special.  The Ahr Valley has a long history with the varietal and is only elevated by the current weather trends.

Yes there are easier things to sell than German Pinot Noir, but the quality at Meyer-Näkel has earned them the right to be included in any serious discussion about the varietal.  As you might have guessed, the 2015 vintage that was a watershed for the Rieslings was also very kind to Pinot Noir.  So the Meyer Nakel Spätburgunder (aka Pinot Noir) Estate 2015 has a bit more flesh and sweetness on the palate, making it perhaps the most ideal ‘crossover’ Pinot they have made.  Yet it still speaks of the unique micro-climate in this river valley.

Lively cherry and red berry fruit is accented with some smoky tones, cinnamon, slatey minerality, and a whiff of damp forest.  The fruit takes hold on the palate but there is a perfect tension that keeps everything bright and expressive.   For under $30, it can hold its own in any arena, with the personality best pegged as somewhere between Oregon and the Cote de Beaune, but with its own spin.  A must for Pinot lovers.

Benovia Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015

If you look at our product listings, you will note that we post ‘third party’ reviews on the wines offered just like most everyone else.  What’s different about our approach is that you will also note we write a number of original pieces.  We taste a lot of wine over the course of the year and will make the point that context makes a huge difference in how a wine comes across.  So we give ourselves the opportunity to use our own voice to point out exceptional efforts that may not get that big score when judged in some sort of rapid fire tasting but sure hits the right notes for us ‘one-on-one’.  That is, incidentally how most of you will be consuming your wines.

If there was ever a prime example of how we see things quite a bit differently than the wine media, it is with Benovia winery.  We have been big fans of winemaker Mike Sullivan since back in his early Zin days with Deloach, and through an impressive group of Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels as he got the Hartford Court project going.  We have been quite pleased with his work since becoming the mind behind Benovia and have recommended a number of things from there over the years.

We’ll be the first to admit that the Benovia wines aren’t the kind of blowsy monsters that get easily noticed by the media.  They are, rather, succinct, pure and harmonious with well-woven flavors and nothing sticking out.  These are the kinds of wines to drink because they are outstanding examples of California classics of the type that were prevalent back in California’s more ‘formative’ years.  They are made to ‘seduce’ rather than ‘bludgeon’.

Not a lot of evident wood here, the style of this Chardonnay is an exploration of the terroir of the Russian River.  You’ve got finely meshed apple and citrus fruit with hints of almond and spice notes, the result of night harvesting, indigenous yeast and whole cluster fermentation and a sojourn of 12 months in oak.

The flavors are clean, persistent, and engaging while always fresh and vibrant.  The Benovia Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015 comes mainly from the winery’s Martaella estate and relies on a layered, nuanced, rather impressive demonstration of the vivid house style for its impression.  It will probably again get modest reviews from the press because it isn’t overtly big (though don’t get us wrong there is plenty of character).  But this one impresses where it counts, in the glass.  That is where this Chardonnay is made to perform, and we’d rather drink this than a lot of the other, higher- scoring (often oaky and flabby) options we have.

It would be easier for us to simply point to a Chardonnay that got a big review, and we have those, too. But this is one we believe in and the 2015 is a fine example to make new friends for what we feel is one of the more under-rated wineries around simply because the wines are balanced and made to drink rather than to go after ‘numbers’.

 

MO’ LAFAGE

The eye-popping values from Jean-Marc Lafage have been coming at a prolific rate.  If we did full emails on the every one of them, which would be easy to do given how good and how well priced they all are, we’d start looking like some sort of Lafage-of-the-Month Club.  So every now and again we’ll publish a little something on the ‘down low’, with the caveat that it could eventually be its own offer at some point.  Don’t confuse this smaller format with a lack of enthusiasm.  What Lafage has been doing of late is some sort of unprecedented run of ‘hits’ and this is simply one more.  Our task is to keep you informed.

There are so many different and exciting cuvees, it’s hard to keep them all straight.  We counted over 50 different wines reviewed by the Wine Advocate, some only with a single writeup.  The 2015 Domaine Lafage Cotes du Roussillon Villages Lieu Dit La Narassa is only the second in this particular series, an admirable followup to the 93-point 2014 and we think even a little more substantial.  Visually it is markedly different than the majority of the bottles in that it comes in a weapon-ready, super-heavy Bordeaux styled bottle with a black label (most others are Burgundy shaped and ‘dressed’ in white).  We aren’t sure what the message is, but the wine is definitely an attention-getter in the glass as well.

Grown in the typical black schist soils of the Roussillon, the 60 to 70-year-old vines of Syrah and Grenache are farmed organically, hand harvested, and brought up in 80% concrete and 20% large neutral barrels.  The harvest regimen is a little different for this bottling.  It is made in a semi-ripasso style by harvesting the Grenache in successive passes picking only the ripest clusters. Once at the cellars the fruit is destemmed and only the best berries are chosen for fermentation after a short pre-fermentation maceration.  The blend is 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah.

This one is bold, full, flavored and definitely expressive of this unique terroir near the village of Maury and will stand up to the heartiest of fare.  The Wine Advocate’s Jeb Dunnuck was glowing again in his ‘barrel’ review stating, “Notes of cassis, toasted spice, chocolate and licorice all emerge from the 2015 Cotes du Roussillon Villages Lieu Dit La Narassa…This hedonistic, downright sexy, ripe and layered beauty will drink nicely right out of the gate…91-93 Points.”

Barrels scores tend to be conservative and, in 2015, almost everything was outstanding so you don’t get as much ‘separation’.  So we suspect if it gets a final review, it will finish on the high end.   We think the 2015 Narassa has even a bit more muscle than the 2014, and definitely a riper profile.  Once again the magic is that this is an expansive, engaging wine that only costs $15 a bottle.  How does he keep doing it?

THE ‘SUD’ ALSO RISES

Back in the early-to-mid-90s there was something of a ‘modest’ period for potentially great vintages of red Rhone wines. Perhaps coincidentally, we started seeing a ‘new breed’ of wine emerging from the South of France. About that time a number of vignerons came to the realization that, with the warm climate, Mediterranean breezes and old vines, they had a shot at making some pretty serious juice if they employed more meticulous viticultural and winemaking practices. In our minds, that was when the ‘Sud’ as we affectionately call it (the south of France) was born.

In the latter part of the 90s, the Rhone went on an unprecedented run of vintages and people didn’t pay as much attention to the ‘new wave’ of producers emerging down south. It was tough getting the spotlight away from the more established appellations like Chateauneuf and Gigondas. Still, certain estates in the south persisted and grabbed a piece of the marketplace by virtue of a number of distinctive, full flavored wines that delivered remarkable value. The labels you have become accustomed to for both great value like Bila Haut and Lafage and elite performance like Gilles Troullier simply weren’t visible or didn’t exist yet back in those early days. But they are pretty darned important now.

Domaine des Aires Hautes was one of the early players we saw back in those ‘pioneer’ days. We remember selling a breakthrough bottling called Clos l’Escandil from them over two decades ago. But we really hadn’t seen much of them since until one day this little jewel rolled into the office.

Meet the new Aires Hautes, same as the old Aires Hautes, only better. For those who aren’t familiar with the region, Minervois is a sub-region of the Languedoc, and La Liviniere is a more specific ‘sweet spot’ of the Minervois, sitting on a chalky plateau facing the Mediterranean and protected from the Atlantic weather influences by the Massif Central. The Chabbert family owns 28 hectares in this lovely spot and Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre are the components in this wine, pretty much in that order. Hand-harvesting, destemming, concrete tanks and used oak are the practices, and the vineyards are farmed at a low 28 hl/ha.

While our memories are still fond of those breakout efforts so long ago, the Domane des Air Hautes Minervois la Liviniere 2015 is clearly a serious step up and a fantastic beverage for its sub-$20 tab. While it has the classic pepper, garrigue, lavender and floral notes one associates with this very distinctive village, they play a complex but subtle role in support of a big rush of glossy blackberry fruit that is rich and polished but never ponderous. It can play to a much wider audience than most Languedocs you have likely tasted. The 2015 vintage clearly dealt the family Chabbert a winning hand and they brought it home in style.

While the tasting notes from Jeb Dunnuck, writing for the Wine Advocate at the time, were based on the barrel tasting, it is clear to us this wine got into the bottle exactly as it should have. His prose was enthusiastic, “It’s a textbook, perfumed, full-bodied and incredibly sexy 2015 that offers notes of blueberries, flowers, lavender and jammy blackberries. It could be a true superstar and is loaded with potential…92-94 points.”

From our perspective, as you may have guessed, ‘potential’ achieved and this truly is one of the best efforts from the ‘south’ we have tasted this year. We’d dare say if Jeb went back to score the finished wine another time, it would rate at the higher end of the range. It is a ‘beaut’ and we bought every last box. Sadly, it was only 50 cases.

ROUSSET CROZES HERMITAGE PICAUDIERES 2015

As hard-core Rhonies know, the 2015 vintage in the northern Rhone was something special…a vintage to be placed along with the icon vintages of the last quarter-century (1989, 1990, 1999, 2003, 2009, 2010).  Some might make an argument that this could be the best given the fleshy ripeness, bright lift and freshness, and the fact that winemaking has come a long way in the last 25 years.

What some people tend to forget is that, in such vintages, a whole lot of producers have uncommon success.  The wine media will go out of their way to fawn over the acknowledged great ones like Chave, Ogier, and Chapoutier.  Those folks have earned their stripes, no question there.  But demand for these limited production gems will be fierce, quantities will be low, and prices, if you can find the stuff to buy, will be scary.   Our take on the 2015 northern Rhones is much like the 2015 Burgundies…find the hidden gems that you can drink and enjoy without the severe prices.  In such vintages, you can find some very cool stuff if you know where to look.

The story goes that the importer found Rousset by asking the locals, including already famous Jean and Pierre Gonon.  This was one of the names that kept coming up and, even though this family had been in these parts some eleven generations, they were still under the radar.  The press we found only went back a couple of vintages prior to 2015, including some nice notes on the 2014s from Vinous’ Josh Raynolds.  We haven’t seen any reviews on this one yet, but we didn’t need them in this case (though we’re sure they will come).

We tasted three wines from Stephane and Robert Rousset, all possessing pure, bright, succulent fruit, and those layered, nuanced, full throttle yet refined flavors that exemplify the best vintages from this part of the Rhone.  Since they were all relatively similar in price, we settled on our favorite, the Rousset Crozes Hermitage Picaudieres 2015 This is a single vineyard that is located on the hillside of Crozes with terraced, granite rows of vines facing south.  Some notes made comparisons to Hermitage with respect to the soils and exposure.

To be sure this is certainly no ordinary Crozes.  The Roussets own about a half-hectare here (about an acre and a quarter) of densely planted vines, many of which are quite old and date back to the 1930s.  It is said to be one of the best parcels of the appellation.  They plow by horse where they can, make the wine in the traditional way with only the wild yeasts and this particular bottlings sees a touch of new oak.

The result is a pretty thrilling bottle of Syrah with plenty of well-woven-in minerality and polished notes of the classic meat/smoke element that defines the region, all in a supporting role to a pure, juicy blast of perfectly ripened blackberries and black cherries.  This is Crozes that reaches to a higher plane and, with apologies to all of the Rhone Rangers everywhere else, is the kind of wine that can only happen here, when conditions are exceptional, and when the winemaker doesn’t get in the way.

The problem with Crozes is that the appellation has so many variables, with killer vineyards high on the hill and more ordinary stuff along the autoroute.  Picaudieres is top dirt and the wine costs way less than anything that says Cote Rotie or Hermitage on it, but it plays at that level.  A dark, expressive beauty.  These folks are still pretty ‘under the radar’, but we see that changing real soon. Beat the crowds.

 

 

FABULOUS FAURY

Everyone pretty much accepts that axiom that wine is subjective.  Not everybody has the same palate memory, tasting experience, or even the same physical ability to taste wine (or anything for that matter).  Even among ‘experts’ there are a widely varied opinions as to what defines a ‘great’ wine.  We could write pages (and have) on all of the things that determine and effect how a wine is perceived beyond the wine itself.  But our purpose today is merely to define our terms for this specific case.

The definition of ‘great’ depends on the format.  The winner of a mass tasting is often the wine that overpowers, or might be the most expressive on that day. Does that mean its great?  To some people maybe so.  But our enthusiasm for this pair from Faury, the Cote Rotie 2015 and Condrieu 2015, stems from their achievement of an ideal.  We’ll explain.

Yeah, we have been fans of Faury, an estate in the Northern Rhone, for a long time.  The wines have always been round, engaging, and well priced.  Philippe Faury founded the estate in 1979 and his son joined him in 2006, and it seems like they have been doing their best work of late.  The 2015s, not surprisingly, have been uniformly exciting from top to bottom.   But the pair we mentioned earlier kind of took us aback.

They are not the ‘biggest’, most aggressive wines we have had, nor would we guarantee they would win some knock down tasting event.  But without trying to sound presumptuous, the appeal with this particular pair was the proximity to what some might call ‘perfection’.  We are defining that as the wines performing beautifully to the ‘benchmark’ of their particular genre.  Simply put, they are sensational examples that you would describe exactly as how they might be described in a textbook.

We have gone into detail about how difficult it is to get Viognier right.  It is a capricious grape that can go from lean and undernourished to dumpy and flabby in short order.  If you were to describe the perfect Condrieu, it would be a wine with richness in midpalate, but not too much, supported by enough acidity for lift, but not too much, with just the right amount of tension between all of the components to sit perfectly centered on the palate.  The flavors would range from pear to peach to apple, with a slightly honeyed note and layers of spice tones.

With the Faury Condrieu 2015, you get exactly that.  Round enough to deliver and luxurious mouth feel and yet it sits high on the palate, perfectly proportioned, delicious but not overbearing Condrieu from vines planted between 1976 and 2007 in granite soils, this is exactly what it should be.

Perfect Cote Rotie?  Great Cote Rotie has a lovely core of blackberry fruit with streaks of mineral, smoke and bacon, ripe tannins, refined acidity, but also the best examples sport an almost Burgundian elegance.  Here we have a winner, lovely fruit, nicely proportioned with everything in harmony, plenty of style but not heavy or ponderous.  From schist and clay soils, the vines on this 1.7 hectare parcel were planted between 1976 and 2007, this one excels by virtue of its stylish execution of  typicite.

If you are looking to be bowled over with overt power, that’s not what these are about.  Nor should they be.  Here we are talking about a couple of truly delightful wines that excel because they are refined, well executed, captivating examples of exactly what they are supposed to be.  Brilliance without excess, it doesn’t hurt that they are attractively priced for their categories to boot.

 

THE 2015 VINTAGE IN BURGUNDY REVISITED

This is partly a reminder.   We and others have gone on at length about 2015, particularly with respect to the flattering reds, one of the juiciest and most engaging vintages we can recall.  For Burgundy veterans, think back to the expressive, fleshy 2009s, but lighter on their feet like the 2002s, with a nice verve to the acidity that calls 2005 to mind.  It will surely be considered in the pantheon of great vintages.

We have also (and often) discussed the difficulty in finding value in Burgundy a number of times over the years.  High demand, small production, not to mention the ups and downs of marginal viticulture in general, have an upward effect on the price tag.  Even at the lower end, prices aren’t necessarily all that low.  It’s not impossible to find a deal.  It’s just really hard.  The best results usually come in concert with the blessing of Mother Nature because Pinot is a delicate grape that needs all the help it can get, a little extra sun raising the level of all vineyards great and small.

Untimely rain, thin skins, under-ripeness, too much heat, not enough heat, there are many things that can cause Pinot to underperform.  But the reason that some appellations consistently sell for much higher prices than others is history, plain and simple.  Chambertin has hefty price tags because it consistently performs at a high level.  The places that don’t carry big tickets do not by virtue of the fact that they don’t perform at the highest level consistently.  Maybe that lack of consistent success is due to exposure, or perhaps the fact that, year-in and year-out ripeness levels might not be as high as other locations.  But it is because they are on the more marginal side of ‘marginal viticulture’ that they sell for less.

However, when the sun shines, those areas perform at their very best.  But, because of history, the vignerons can’t charge substantially more money when they are successful because of the ‘hierarchy’.  When that happens, it is the consistent recipe for a deal, and that’s how to play Burgundy in 2015 unless you own oil wells or invented an app.  Places like Marsannay, Savigny-Les-Beaune, and Mercurey had sensational seasons in 2015 and we have spent a good amount of time going through the less famous locales to find the honest gems.  That we did, though we had to, as they say, ‘kiss a lot of frogs’ and work through some disappointments to get it done.  Hey, that’s Burgundy.

The hardest part isn’t the work, though.  The hardest part is bucking the system.  When we first referred to the ‘hierarchy’ in that last paragraph.  That is a very specific phenomenon in our view.  While there is an ‘official’ classification to Burgundy that determines Grand Crus and Premier Crus from ‘village level’ vineyards, there is also an unspoken but immutable pecking order to the vineyards as reported by the press.  It’s hard to explain even to Burgundy ‘hardcores’, many of whom accept the hierarchy as law.  But if you read enough stuff, you realize that a most of the ‘conclusions’ are forgone and/or political.

By ‘foregone’, we mean that there is a certain ‘weight’ assigned to certain climats and producers.  The most brilliant Maranges ever made has an upper limit to its scoring potential because it’s Maranges.  Most of the time it will dwell in the upper 80s score-wise, perhaps creep into the low 90s on occasion, almost always in cases where that domaine doesn’t have significant upper cuvees in their lineup.  But that’s it.  If it is tasted in the same cellar next to a wine from a better appellation, the odds of it besting that wine isn’t ‘zero’.  It’s just nearly zero.

Sure there are always exceptions, just not many of them.  When a reviewer tastes at a Burgundy domaine, he is presented the wines in the ‘order of importance’ of the bottlings…Bourgognes et. al, villages wines, Premier Crus and Grand Crus. Reviewers will taste them relative to their pecking order, and the reviews stick to that script a preponderance of the time.  Is that the most logical result?  Probably, but our point is that it almost never varies to the contrary.

On top of that, the 100-point scale that everybody uses these days has an upper limit…100.   A wine cannot score greater than 100, so everything is scaled back from whatever the top effort is.  If the best wine in the cellar, using the numbers analogy, scores a 94, the next best has to be less.  By the time you get 2-3 wines down the ladder, you are in a place where most consumers are lukewarm about most things, particularly something that has a $50-60 price tag.  Those potentially delicious ‘little wines,’ in these hierarchy lineups, have a remote chance of getting a review that will motivate buyers even though the quality warrants it.

We refer to this as the ‘theory of relativity’, as in reviewers tend not to always be able to figure out where one group of wines fits in to the broader array of all wines.  The best and most extreme illustration is Romaine Conti.  Always presented ‘in order’ (and remember nothing can be scored above 100), by the time you get ‘down’ to the Echezeaux, you are at 91-92 point scores, the same as a modestly-priced Rioja or Argentine Malbec.  Silly.  Take that Echezeaux and put it in a different lineup, and it crushes.  So what is the takeaway from this small and very slanted sampling?  Nothing clear.

Also, from one year to the next, reviewers are either clueless or afraid.  Let’s take the 2013 vintage in Burgundy versus the 2015.  While the vintages were substantially different qualitatively, the majority of the scores on the individual wines were within a couple of points between the vintages, hardly a reasonable representation of the difference between those two vintages.  Also, we don’t recall anyone coming out on the 2013s and saying that these wines weren’t worth the prices and don’t buy them.  With 2012 still on shelves, and the very good 2014s and flashy 2015s coming down the road, did anyone say not to spend your hard-earned dollars on the 2013s.

That would have been honest advice from these reviewers who represent themselves as working for you, the consumer.  But we don’t remember seeing anything of the sort in print.  We can point to Robert Parker’s brutal honesty with respect to the 1983 red Burgundies a long time ago.  He said the reds were overly tannic and had issues with rot.   Was he right?  Doesn’t matter, he was simply giving his honest opinion to the folks that pay him to give them his opinion.  The Burgundians didn’t like it very much and, if memory serves, there weren’t many subsequent reviews on Burgundy from Parker.

Are we saying reviewers go easy on the Burgundy producers so they get to come back (and you can infer the same for a lot of top addresses in other areas as well)?  Are we suggesting that Burgundy gets treated with ‘kid gloves’ by the press for fear of reprisal?    You can read the pages and pages of predictable reviews and judge for yourself.  The same wines finish at the top, the general rankings of the individual wines relative to each other within a portfolio are virtually unvaried year-to-year.  Sure there will be the occasional ‘up and comer’, but the inter-relationship between producers and vineyards is virtually unchanged from house to house and year to year.

Maybe we are jealous.  Would we like to get paid to hang out in Burgundy and tell people to buy Dujac and Roumier? Heck yeah! But we have a hard time wondering why anyone would do that.  That leaves us, the poor schmuck merchants who are trying give consumers some viable, reasonably priced and enjoyable options thanks to the quirk of fate of an exceptional vintage in a prestige (and typically expensive, sometimes laughably so) region, in a tough place.

There are a lot of delicious wines in Burgundy that won’t break the bank.  But the ‘system’ does not lend itself to promoting them in a meaningful way.   Human nature being what it is, we certainly can’t expect people to easily shell out say $50-60 for something ( say a village Vosne Romanee) that the ‘system’ allowed no more than 90-91 points within the ‘hierarchy’.   Better to spend it on an Oregon Pinot that got a ‘94’, though that score came in a completely different category and mix.

We’re going to continue to do our best because it’s the right thing to do.  We love finding that delicious Bourgogne or Marsannay for a song.    They are out there, particularly in vintages like 2015.  Just don’t expect there to be lofty reviews because of the way Burgundy is handled by the media. The hierarchy of vineyard and producer, the top-heavy score bias, and the ‘old boy’ review network, make us feel like salmon swimming against the very predictable current in the sense of creating sales.  You  will get sweeping (though calculated) comments regarding a vintage overall.  But when you actually dig into the individual reviews, the information is predictable and not particularly enlightening.

Still, we have found things that we are truly exciting from this vintage because they are compelling, engaging bottles of Pinot Noir to drink (or hold) from the place where Pinot was born.  That is ultimately the point.  Given all of the things we have mentioned, you can clearly understand that there are a lot easier things for us to sell than Burgundy.   But finding a $20-30 Monthelie that you can pull out in a few years that puts a smile on your face is a labor of love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOT JUST ANY OLD BEAUNE

Ah, Burgundy.  No appellation is more frustrating or confusing, yet the joy of finding the ‘good one’ always seems to provide the impetus to continue the hunt.  Finding a deal is a bonus. The 2015 vintage has been a fun exercise because the vintage’s engaging ripeness definitely allows for a higher success rate.  Of course the trick, from our point of view, is to find the juicy little numbers that don’t have triple (or quadruple) digit prices.

Sometimes the quest is easy; sometimes there are riddles to be solved as there was with this sleeper from Joseph Drouhin.  We have been pleased with Drouhin’s 2015 red Burgundy efforts at a number of levels.  But when we first came across this one, it was a bit of a curiosity.  Labeled Joseph Drouhin Cote de Beaune 2015 but bearing a fancier label (with a resemblance to Drouhin’s Clos des Mouches label…sans mouches of course), it was priced $10 higher than their more plainly labeled Cote de Beaune Villages.

It brought about questions on our part since the labeling didn’t necessarily sync with our impressions of the workings of the Burgundy hierarchy.  As one might have expected there was a perfectly Burgundian explanation.  Drouhin is a big house and produces a lot of negocient wine as well as bottlings from their own estate properties.  The ‘Villages’ with the regular label can come from any one of 16 different individual villages (Aloxe Corton, Volnay, etc) and isn’t necessarily all estate fruit.

The Cote de Beaune, according to the folks at Drouhin, “comes from the vines of the Joseph Drouhin estate (total vineyard area around 3 hectares – 7.5 acres) as well as from the younger vines of Clos des Mouches and other Premier Crus of Beaune that have been declassified (a Beaune wine can be declassified into Côte de Beaune).”  The story here is that there is much better (and more specific) stuff used in this one than the ‘villages’.  However you wouldn’t necessarily know that from looking at the label.

Fun folks, those Burgundians.  But once you get the ‘lay of the land’ and consider the possibilities is in a top vintage, things like this can become your own precious little secret.  Pour it out and you’ll really get a feel for where this one can go, and behold its deep ruby color.  The wine is a little reticent at first, with a touch cooler edge that most of the ultra tender 2015s, but Burgundy fans would consider the touch more lift and freshness a good thing.

As the nose opens, the breeding of the grapes here start to unfold.  There are dark cherries and currants, of course, but also a penetrating florality and high notes of mineral and clove in the nose.  As it sits in the glass few minutes, the Cote de Beaune unwinds to reveal spicy layers of fruit and plenty of flesh, nicely juxtaposed with clean acidity.  The highlights, or maybe it’s the power of suggestion, suggest this one flashes a bit of its ‘Mouches-y’ pedigree, but in any case there is no doubt that this one merits serious attention in this expensive vintage.

James Suckling had some nice words for this one as well, offering, “Very floral and fresh with crushed raspberries and flowers. Medium-to full-bodied, dense and silky. Beautiful and layered. Lovely texture. Drink now. ..92 Points!”  Still young and very lively, it is certainly a fine choice for current applications.  By all means, ‘drink now’ after giving this one a few minutes to stretch.   But we also think shows the definition and class to allow one to ponder putting away a few bottles for 5-10 years.  Either way, you win.

Also, and perhaps as important, there’s the value.  Clos des Mouches itself sells for over $100, this one costs about 66% less.  Good well priced Burgundy isn’t easy to find.  But it’s out there if you are willing to dig.