2016 ITALIAN WHITES: MAKING A POINT (plus three more winners)

The more we taste examples from the 2016 vintage in northern Italy, both red and white, the more wonder we experience.  Wine after wine shows a clarity of purpose, purity of fruit, and uniquely expressive nature unlike anything we can recall in recent times.  Are these wines really that good?  The more we experience, the more inclined we are to say ‘yes, they are!’

It wasn’t that long ago we were pretty gaga over the 2010 whites from this part of the world.  The fruit had substance and power, there was plenty of zip and verve and, in short, they were everything that you could expect n Italian white to be.  We remember the 2010s fondly, and were using them as the ‘benchmark’ for  everything that was special about Italian whites.  The 2016s are all of that and more, with everything that the 2010s had plus an undefinable ‘presence’ and harmony that sets the 2016s on another level.  That being said here are three more outstanding examples to make our point:

Filippo Gallino Arneis 2016The story here isn’t extensive, just a committed producer that consistently makes very good wine and doesn’t charge a lot for it.  With a ‘naked’ grape like Arneis you can’t really tweak it in the cellar with wood and have to be very careful with extended lees contact as both can negatively affect the desired freshness of the wine’s profile, you get what Nature gives you.  Wines like this really are made in the vineyard and those that farm meticulously are the successful ones.

Sure there are slightly more exotic aromatics with some of the big dogs labels that cost a lot more.  But this one presents all of the fresh floral nuances and apple-skin aromatics and the lively fruit driven palate that are the essence of this genre.  The 2016 simply has more energy and fruit weight than past versions, which makes this one a killer deal.

Inama Vin Soave Classico 2016– As we have remarked, even the little wines are noticeably better in 2016.  Somehow they have a little more punch, a little more lift, and a surprising degree of harmony that forces you to take notice.   Inama is a staple around here, and we buy it almost every year.  But there’s just ‘more’ to this wine than any that we have tasted in recent memory.

There’s no big story here.  This is just Garganega, the classic grape of Soave, done in 100% stainless steel.  Sure it sounds simple enough.  But again this is a ‘naked’ wine which they can’t really mess with in the cellar of everything doesn’t go right, so there is a bit more to it.  All of the words matter.  To carry the name ‘classico’ the grapes must come from the hillside vineyards around the municipalities of Soave and Monteforte d’Alpone in the original and oldest classic “zone” of Verona established back in 1927.

Forget those over produced, insipid Soaves that flooded the market 20-30 years ago.  This is nothing like those.  Advocate’s Monica Larner’s words are precise enough, “This entry-level Soave Classico delivers the elegant mineral definition and fruit sensation you should expect of the best Garganega grapes. The 2016 Soave Classico Vin Soave benefits from very favorable growing conditions in a classic vintage. The bouquet is refined and polished with stone fruit, citrus, dried sage and saffron.”  Driving and quite engaging for the fare.

Keber Collio Bianco 2016No place does this kind of thing like the northeast  of Italy.  Riveting, purposeful blends of a mixture of white varietals make for some uniquely compelling whites with lifted fruit, plenty of sizzle, but also unexpected palate presence.  In that realm, Keber has always been one of the stars.  Their Collio Bianco can stand with the best in the region, but is much more attractively priced.

Maybe it was just a good day, but the 2016 Keber Collio is the best version of this wine we can remember tasting, everything the past efforts have been but with seemingly another gear.  The blend is 70% Friulano , 15% Malvasia Istriana, and 15% Ribolla Gialla.  The concept is Friulano for structure, Malvasia Istriana for its aromatic qualities, and Ribolla Gialla for
acidity. These varietals do very well in the so-named “Ponka”soil composed of marl and sandstone that naturally stresses the vines.  The grapes are whole cluster, soft-pressed to minimise oxidation during crushing. The juice is fermented and matured on the yeasts for 6 months in
cement vats. Twenty per-cent of the Friulano is aged in older, large barrels.

This wine, from a 10-acre estate near the Slovenian border, always has remarkable weight, body and a distinctive, super-minerally aspect typical of the region.  The estate produces just this wine but it is a constant winner.  This time around, it’s just a notch or two better, which is pretty sensational.


A Dandy Andezon in 2016

The Cotes du Rhone from Andezon has been on our radar for a long time.  It was on the front cover of our old printed newsletter at least once (maybe even a rare second time come to think of it).  So given our experience thus far wit the ‘little’ 2016s in the southern Rhone thus far, we were quite anxious to see how this Eric Solomon staple for more than two decades fared.

The brief background story for those that don’t know this one by now is as follows.  Back in 1994, In 1994 Eric Solomon visited the Vignerons d’Estézargues and met a young, passionate director/winemaker named Jean-François Nicq.  By the end of the day, they had decided on a custom bottling of old vine Syrah (30-60 year old vines) from one of their best parcels, Andezon, that had been previously sold in bulk to a “very famous producer in the Rhone Valley”.  The rest, as they say, is history.

To repeat, unlike most Cotes du Rhones, the d’Andezon is predominantly  Syrah with a little Grenache (up to 10% depending on the vintage, though some will claim it’s all Syrah), unlike the typically Grenache-dominated cuvees from this part of the world.    It sees no oak, they use no cultured yeasts, no filtering, no fining and no enzymes during vinification or aging, and only add a small amount of SO2 at bottling. Les Vignerons d’Estézargues has begun to practice ‘natural winemaking’, for those interested in that sort of thing, and have to be one of the only co-ops in the world to do so.

As for the wine itself, the Les Vignerons d’Estezargues Cotes du Rhone Andezon 2016 is certainly the best example of this cuvee we have tasted, and that is saying something.  The signature of the vintage is here…deep, riveting fruit, uncommon richness yet with energy and lift.  We could go on but the prose of Wine Advocate’s  Joe Czerwinski certainly makes the point, ” Long-time American readers should already know this wine, as it has been a staple in the Eric Solomon portfolio for more than a decade. The 2016 Cotes du Rhone Andezon is 100% Syrah, aged entirely in tank. It’s a lush, medium to full-bodied wine bursting with ripe blackberries and blueberries. No, it doesn’t have the peppery spice of Syrah from the northern Rhône, but it does have enough cola-like spicy complexity to warrant an outstanding rating…91 points

In closing, it is important to make another point we refer to as the ‘theory of relativity’.  When a vintage this spectacular comes along, there is a tendency for reviewers to calibrate reviews between wines, and not necessarily factor in the vintage itself.  That’s not necessarily a criticism, but it is a fact.  People don’t always account for the fact that the whole category is working far above the norm.

The salient point is that better wines in lesser vintages often get higher scores than they should and, in outstanding vintages, the wines don’t necessarily get their due within the broader historical perspective.  Pull out this ’91-pointer’ and put it up against similar ‘performers’ from other vintages down the road and this will dominate.  The 2016s are that good, and this one will outperform the ‘number’ in the glass.  Good times, 2016 continues to look like one of the best vintages we have ever sold .

Rhone 2016: ‘A Little Something’ from Burle

We have been preaching the gospel about the southern Rhones in 2016, a vintage that thus far has not ceased to surprise and amaze us from the big gun Chateauneufs (tasted recently in Europe) to the littlest Cotes du Rhone.  The ongoing problem, however, is that the wines are concentrated thanks to super low yield.  So you have very compelling wines, just much less of them.

Think of this knockout little Cotes du Rhone, from one of the Rhone’s grand old families, as something you would have seen an email offer on except for that one, small issue.  As we often do when we run across something this compelling, we try to corral as much of it as we possibly can.  Sadly this time there simply wasn’t much to be had.  Hence this modest, if no less enthusiastic piece.

Looking at the facts, you have an estate that isn’t very big in the first place (they only produces around 500 cases each of three different wines in a good year) and you have a vintage that was woefully short anyway thanks to Mother Nature.  The fact that it is brought in by a small, relatively new importer may have also come into play, but probably not.

As to the wine, the Domaine Burle Cotes du Rhone 2016 might be the most impressive thing we have yet had from the Burle domaine.  Like some of the other 2016 Cotes du Rhones we have featured, this wine has an uncommon power and grace.  The vintage was very successful overall, with the wines showing deep, almost glowing mulberry color and unprecedented power thanks in particular to the Grenache (the wine is 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah from 40-50  year-old vines).

What makes 2016 special is not only the size and concentration of the wines, but the harmony and fine tuning they show from top to bottom.  Enter Burle, an estate that typically makes muscular, if sometimes a little rustic wines, here showing like it is dressed in its Sunday best.  Organic farming, bottled unfiltered and unfined, we suspect in this case they aren’t just going with the current trend.  They have always done it this way.

Rich, lifted, uncommon verve and balance, you’ve likely had Chateauneufs that aren’t this compelling, and you certainly paid more than $15 for them.  A must while it lasts, the ‘little’ wines in the southern Rhone in 2016 are special, even if the label here looks like it is some sort of ‘sun’ vision from the 70’s.  The media hasn’t really picked up on it in a big way and the ‘buzz’ hasn’t started…yet.  Take advantage while you can, but with 2016s you’ll likely need to move a little faster.

Paul Aufranc: Beaujolais in its own World

This marks the third vintage we have carried from Pascal Aufranc, one of the most distinctive Beaujolais producers we have run across.  It all started with four acres of vines in the now emerging village of Chenas (the estate is now up to 10 ha.).  The old vines for this cuvee sit at the top of a granite hill called En Remont topped with sand at a little over 1000 feet elevation.

Besides the extreme vine age (yes, they were planted in 1939) and unique exposure (south and south-west on the hill-top), these particular vines have a rather different story.  They are surrounded by forest and, therefore, are removed from being influenced by any of the other farming concerns around them.  So these  old vines pretty much exist in a world of their own.  That does much to explain why the vintages we have sold are so distinct from each other.  Each year the vines develop in harmony with that year’s weather and not much else gets in the way. As such they seem really reflect the unique nuances of each vintage.

The results we have tasted from Aufranc have been spectacular for a variety of reasons, certainly not the least of which are the really old vines sitting in a place unlike any other.  Each effort has been a poster child for the best of what the particular vintage has to offer.  The 2014 was cool, elegant and pretty, the 2015 more packed with accessible, flashy fruit though in a way that panders to hedonists that might be considered atypical (however delicious) to Beaujolais purists.

The Pascal Aufranc Chenas Vignes de 1939 2016 displays the best elements of what might be called classic Beaujolais.  There is plenty of fruit, but the fruit has verve and a cooler edge.  Lovely notes of expressive dark cherry and plum act as the central theme to a purely rendered Chenas that also demonstrates smoke, mineral, fresh herbs and exotic spice.  Plenty of fruit here, but there’s a lifted, more polished, more aristocratic bent to the flavors.

There’s plenty to like here for the hedonists still, though it’s less overtly sweet and fleshy.  As for the traditionalist, we can’t imagine a more complete rendition of the genre than this although, sadly, this one’s focus and concentration has as much to do with the small vintage crop as anything.  Grab some while you can.

2016 Bordeaux: Tristen’s Overview

Marathon Negociant Tasting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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