MAGIQUE: TARDIEU-LAURENT COTES DU RHONE VILLAGES BECS FIN 2016

It’s a bit of a mixed bag for us from the standpoint of history.  We were heavily involved with this dynamic duo of winemakers a decade ago, only to barely see them at all for a substantial stretch of time since then.  The story here makes for a great instructive tale on what a difference an importer can make in the marketplace by virtue of their ‘marketing’ regimen and pricing.  That, however, is a story for another day and we mainly want to make the point that we are glad to have this house as an option once again.

Even though this isn’t a new brand label (in fact it was one of the most talked about labels during the 90s and early ‘oughts’), we are going to treat it as if it is because we are pretty sure a lot of people new to Rhones, or to wine in general, have little awareness of who these guys are.  So we are going to do the quick ‘cliff notes’ version to get everyone caught up.  It’s a pretty interesting story that gives great insight into why this is a negociant house unlike any other.

It is the partnership of two important wine entities.  Dominique Laurent, who we met in the mid-90s, was one of the People Magazine stories of the time.  A producer of Burgundies, with a style that showed a modern flair and new school philosophy, gained a lot of notoriety during those formative years for his use of ‘200 % new oak’ on his top bottlings.  Simply stated, it was said that he would put certain wines in a new oak barrel and then, after a period of time, put the same wine in another new oak barrel.  Whether or not that was the literal goings on, that was the buzz.   But the result was a style of Burgundy that had a unique sheen of well-integrated vanillan oak tones.  When we asked Dominique how it was done, he said simply ‘magique.’  Magic.

Michel Tardieu was a Provencal local who knew his way around the vineyards of the Rhone and South of France.  He was a former state employee that had a passion for people, wine and a nose for sniffing out important vineyard sites with distinctive characteristics and old vines.  The mantra was always to use the oldest vines from the best parcels in the Rhône, work with organic and biodynamic farmers, and establish long-term relationships with the growers they work with.

Together Dominique and Michel established quite a reputation for meticulous winemaking, polished wines and a rather modern flair for the genre.  The reviews were consistently enthusiastic and we were huge fans as well, as their wines offered a unique choice stylistically for the genre.  In all honesty though, they didn’t fly off the shelf back then because the prices were at a bit of a premium for the category.  Subsequent ‘marketing arms’ sadly only added some additional tariff but little in the way of significant exposure in the market.

Since 2008, when Laurent decided to dial things back, the Tardieu family has been in control of the operation with Michel’s son, Bastien, at the helm of the winemaking.  While they have apparently backed off the wood elements, the wines still have that distinctive textural ‘polish’ no doubt in part as a result of more experience with this particular site and having worked so long with a ‘Burgundy guy’.  In other words, they still have the ‘magic’, and this is still a very sophisticated ‘Cotes du Rhone Village.’  Also note the price is about what it was ten years ago, which means that they have a more realistic approach to pricing and have found a new distribution scenario that doesn’t add excess to the fare.

The vineyard is comprised of 60-year-old Grenache and 30-year-old Syrah, with the Syrah the star of the show (it makes up 60% of the blend) while the Grenache wraps around and gives the wine a sexy mouth feel and an outgoing fruit component.  The Tardieu-Laurent Cotes du Rhone Villages Becs Fin 2016 is no ordinary ‘Cotes du Rhone. ’ It plays well above its ‘station’.  The fact that 2016 was a special vintage was not lost on these folks either.

As the esteemed MW Jancis Robinson summarizes, “Very ‘serious’, savoury, dense nose for a wine with this appellation. This tastes so much better than many a Châteauneuf I have had from less irreproachable sources! This is the first ambitious 2016 southern Rhône red I have tried and I am knocked out by the quality and concentration. No heat on the end. It would be a shame to drink this too young.”  Sorry Jancis, that ‘early drinking’ is likely to happen with this one.

Jeb Dunnuck echoes Jancis, and us for that matter, in saying, “The 2016 Côtes du Rhône Les Becs Fins is slightly more forward and charming, with a modern style in its cassis, vanilla bean and blackberry jam aromas and flavors. Possessing both richness and elegance, it’s going to a delicious red that drinks well above its price point…90-92 points.  We’re glad to have Tardieu-Laurent back in the house!

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!

 

 

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?

HILLTOP STAR: Pavillon de Chavannes Cote de Brouilly Cuvee des Ambassades 2016

There is more than just a passing resemblance between the label on Paul Jambon’s lengthily titled Domaine du Pavillon de Chavannes Côte de Brouilly and one of our benchmark sources from the Cote de Brouilly, Domaine Thivin.  There is a whole lot of history as well as one of the more intriguing new (to us) discoveries in the world of Beaujolais.  Now none of the folks here are newcomers, nor are they another of the wave of vintners from the Cote d’Or that have taken a recent interest in these southern Burgundy vineyards.  This estate was acquired by the Jambon Chanrion family around the time of the American Civil War (1861).

The Thivin estate had already been around for quite a while, tracing its roots back to the 14th Century, and possibly the 12th.   Fast forward a little to shortly after the First World War when Pavillon de Chavannes’ history became intertwined with that of Château Thivin.  When Yvonne Chanrion married Claude Geoffray, he controlled Thivin, then a small estate, via inheritance. Yvonne brought with her one-third of her family’s highly regarded vineyards as an inheritance, and later she acquired her sister’s one-third as well.

Over the years, Yvonne and Claude added to Thivin’s holdings with other land purchases, but the couple never bore children. Yvonne outlived her husband.  Upon her death in 1987, the sisters’ original two-thirds inheritance reverted to Paul Jambon of the Jambon-Chanrion family, along with fifty percent of the land Yvonne and Claude had purchased subsequently over the course of their marriage.  Chavannes de Pavillon was now a new expanded entity.  The Art Deco wine label, created in the 1930s, was a product of Yvonne and Claude’s marriage. After Yvonne’s death and the restoration of the Chavannes’ vineyards, this label became joint property of both Thivin and Chavannes, and now it is used by both domains under their respective names.

Cool stuff, great story, but as you know we wouldn’t be telling it if there wasn’t some pretty serious wine as a part of the latest chapter.  Mont Brouilly is a unique spot, rising to a height of 1,587 feet all by its lonesome like  an old volcanic thumb sticking out of a plain.  The Romans cultivated vines on its flanks, and almost certainly vines to one degree or another have been raised on its steep sides ever since.  Paul Jambon grew up here and is now making some impressive wine in the ‘old way’.

Today Pavillon de Chavannes consists of 37 prime acres on Mont Brouilly and Paul and Betty Jambon make two cuvées from separate vineyards. The top wine is this one, Cuvee des Ambassades, which comes from 12 acres of Paul’s best parcels.  The name ‘cuvee Ambassades’ (ambassadors cuvee) is rather a literal one as this Cote de Brouilly is purchased by the Quai d’Orsay for use in French embassies around the world. It is the last wine to be bottled by the estate in a given vintage and it is the most age-worthy.

The Cote de Brouilly is all about the blue granite that is laced with volcanic porphyry, or crystallized mineral deposits.  The Cote de Brouilly appellation refers only to the higher, better-ripening parcels (the rest is simply labeled Brouilly) on the upper part of the hill.  Within those parameters, Paul’s holding are the highest and the steepest in this elevated appellation.  As we touched on earlier, this is a very old school Beaujolais stylistically in the best sense.

Traditional winemaking allows this concentrated wine to showcase pure, intense red-leaning-to-black fruits with hints of spice and plenty of the granite minerality for which this particular ‘rock’ is known.  There is plenty of gushing fruit here, almost like a 2015, but the fruit has a cooler profile, more lift to the fruit and brighter flavors.   A recent change in the cellar (circa the 2015 vintage) has been to rack this wine in stainless steel instead of old foudres which keeps the fruit all that much fresher.  The Pavillon de Chavannes Cote de Brouilly Cuvee des Ambassades 2016 is classic Beaujolais that wants to be Burgundy, and it delivers on that promise.  Mouth-filling and delicious, you can drink it now or, like most of the top wines from the ‘Cote’, it will age as well.  Yet at $19.98 it definitely won’t break the bank.  It’s an exceptional find and a lot of wine for the d’argent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great, well-priced, go-to Beaujolais…we got that

As a store that has been heavy into the Beaujolais game for more than a quarter century, it is interesting to note how much more interest the genre gets now than it did a couple decades ago.  The thing it that most of that attention is devoted to the ‘cru’ level wines and folks like Liger Belair and Desjourneys who are trying to shake the traditional foundations of Beaujolais.

If you are looking for the classic, juicy, versatile example of Beaujolais, there are plenty of them out there, particularly from special vintages like 2015 and 2016.  Unfortunately they are usually the entry level wine of some producer’s hierarchy and, because they are usually overshadowed by those ‘upper cuvees’, are less likely to get the kind of reviews that will inspire buyers.

Market mechanics are a big part of the equation to be sure.  But one of the producers that has been a part of our lineup by virtue of a consistent juiciness and engaging personality to their wines is Domaine de Colette.  These guys make that fruit driven, in-your face style that will make friends and influence people…in other words classic Beaujolais.  The 2016 shows pure, ripe Gamay with very specific flavors that sit atop beautifully measured tension that gives this wine an uncommon energy along with a pleasing core of fruit.

The comments from Vinous’ Josh Raynolds on the Domaine de Colette Beaujolais Villages Coteaux de Colette 2016 are very positive, “Vivid red. Spicy, mineral-accented red berry and floral scents, along with a hint of white pepper. Juicy and focused on the palate, offering tangy red currant and strawberry flavors and a touch of allspice. Unfolds slowly, picking up a subtle floral pastille quality on the gently tannic, focused finish.’   But perhaps on a more mundane level, if you are looking for a well made, fruit driven, really pleasing Beaujolais, Colette has been a good source for us for a long time and this is a particularly good example.  Great price for the performance!

OREGON CHARDONNAY 2.0: LINGUA FRANCA BUNKER HILL 2016

There’s a lot to digest here.  First of all, it would have been easy for us to dismiss this as another ‘somm label’.  You know, famous sommelier decides he can do it better and goes off to create some undernourished wine that ‘pairs well with food’.  Only in this case the sommelier in question is one of some repute, Larry Stone, and he partnered with a ‘hall-of-fame’ Burgundy producer, Dominique Lafon.    They then hired Thomas Savre, an accomplished young winemaker from Evening Land’s Seven Springs Vineyard and put him to work on the project.

Perhaps even a bigger challenge here is that we are going to talk about an Oregon Chardonnay that sells for around $50.  But the performance here was so remarkable that we are thinking about it not as an Oregon Chardonnay, but as a white Burgundy look-alike that, given the cost of ‘real’ white Burgundy these days, actually looks reasonably priced.  We know a lot of you are still like we used to be, thinking of Oregon Chardonnay a sea of lean, mediocre juice grown in the wrong location, planted to the wrong clone.  There is still a lot of that.  But the upswing in quality from those who have reoriented their Chardonnay programs and corrected some of the old mistakes is astounding.

Lingua Franca Chardonnay Bunker Hill 2016 is exclusively from Salem’s Bunker Hill in Eola-Amity, with 20-year-old CH76 vines on pure Nekia soils at an altitude of around 800 feet. It is a west-facing vineyard that is exposed directly to the cooling ocean winds of the Van Duzer corridor (yeah pretty geeky stuff). The name of the winery, Lingua Franca, which is defined as “a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different”, seems an appropriate tongue-in-cheek reference to this ‘Franco-American’ endeavor.

All we can figure is that these guys, who have tasted some of the world’s greatest wines, have figured out a way to make something in the image of a great white Burgundy.   No easy task but knowledge is power.  The wine has both substance and lift.  The aroma is complex with layers of mineral, smoke, herbs, caramel apples, and a faint hint of that hazelnut character we associate with Meursault (or is that power of suggestion?).  The wine is intense, long, racy and complex on the palate with a lasting finish of citrus, herbs, and white flowers.  There are flinty, mouth-watering mineral notes as well, which we don’t typically associate with Oregon Chardonnay.

All in all this is an impressive glassful and indicates this project is going to turn some heads (the inaugural 2015s got some nice ink from Vinous), and that Oregon is capable of bringing Chardonnay drama when the juice is in the right hands.  A good run of vintages probably hasn’t hurt the early success here but, clearly, there is some vision here as well.  Talking about $50 domestic Chardonnay typically isn’t our ‘jam’, but exceptions do come along.  We highly recommend this one as a breakout kind of effort as well as a darned tasty bottle of serious Chardonnay that deserves attention.  Also there’s that whole thing about ‘preconceived notions’…

Distinctive Corsican White: Clos Nicorsi

Vermentino has many manifestations.  There are crisp, high pitched versions that that come from Liguria and other parts of Sardinia that show a little hint of the sea  There are the somewhat riper, rounder versions that seems to be popping up from Tuscany, and the somewhat steely versions from southern France (where the grape is called Rolle).  We have tasted many versions of all of them, but we can’t say we ever had one like this.

This is from a unique spot, situated on Cap Corse, a finger-like peninsula on the northern coast of Corsica. that juts northward into the Tyrrhenian Sea.  This rugged area is a distinctive display of seascapes and vineyards.  Located on the coast near the village of Rogliano, Clos Nicrosi has been cared for by the same family since 1859.  The story goes that one Dominique Nicrosi left the island penniless, made his fortune in the southern U.S. (Alabama to be specific), and then left the U.S. because of the coming winds of the Civil War.

Upon returning to Corsica, he bought a mansion on the coast that had some vineyards which he renamed Clos Nicrosi.  His grandson, Toussaint Luigi, took over the estate a century later.  The wine was ‘discovered’ and presented to the world thanks to a ‘scouting’trip’ led by Jean-Marie Peynaud (son of Lucien Peyraud of Domaine Tempier) and Kermit Lynch.  It was this wine that proved to importer Lynch that all of Corsica wasn’t just a bunch of nice vineyards producing rustic ‘plonk’.

Apparently Luigi’s wines enjoyed great popularity on the island, but were virtually unknown anywhere else.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Clos Nicorsi is now farmed by the next generations, Jean-Noël Luigi, along with his daughter, Marine, and son, Sébastien.  They farm 20 hectares of vines, half of which is located on the Cap Corse itself.

The Clos Nicorsi Coteaux du Cap Corse Blanc 2016 is made with 100% Vermentino from 15-20 year-old vines planted in shale soils from the Cap itself.  They do all the right things in the vineyard and in the cellar including controlled yields, hand harvesting and direct pressing.  The fermentation happens in thermo-regulated steel tanks with only native yeasts.

The Clos Nicorsi has the brightness, lift, salinity and minerality that connects it with all of the other manifestations of Vermentino.  Where it differs is in size, mid-palate volume, and palate authority.  This one has a more substantial mouthfeel, more like a Chateauneuf Blanc, but with the lilting spice notes of Vermentino and a certain subtle nuttiness to the flavors that makes this an intriguing drink.

It sure caught us by surprise.  A unique and classy rendition of this varietal and a superb choice with fish in particular.  It is still well under the radar as evidenced by the fact  that we found zero reviews in any of the major publications for any vintage.  But this stylish white definitely deserves a wider play.

Spanish Immersion, Part Three: Jumilla Value ‘Home Run’

When we first started getting serious with Spanish wines in the mid-’90s, we learned a lot about the areas that previously had little presence in the U.S. market.  These places in the warm climes of southeastern Spain were new to us, and Casa Castillo was one of the definitive wines from the then-unknown (to us) region of Jumilla.  Their property looked a lot like the southern Rhône, with gnarly old vines sitting in a chalky soil, the vineyard covered in stones. Like most of the Jumilla producers we tasted back then and have come to know since, this bodega (what the Spaniards call a winery) had a gutsy, well-priced value wine that was impressive for its substance.  Casa Castillo has impressed ever since.  Even in Spain, it is hard to find something this compelling for this kind of price.

While their “Las Gravas” reserve offering gets plenty of media attention these days, it is the Casa Castillo Monastrell Jumilla 2016, essentially their everyday red, that moved us to write this piece.  There are two factors in play here.  Casa Castillo, the amazing little estate, is one of them.  They have been for a while.   But the 2016 vintage touched this part of the world in a way that made this wine even more impressive than usual (see also Piedmont, the Southern Rhone, etc.).

There is ample ripeness and a surprising poise to this wine that typifies the kind of work this producer does.  But as we have found with so many of the 2016s, there is a lift to the flavors and a tenderness and polish to the palate.  Simply put, we have been tasting Casa Castillo wines for a long time and this one just seems to have another gear over and above the long line of quality predecessors.  When you consider that this is an $11 wine, it was hard to believe what was in our glass.

The Casa Castillo Monastrell Jumilla 2016, not surprisingly, is predominantly Monastrell (the local name for Mourvedre), which performs in this region like nowhere else, along with an 8% blend of Garnacha and Syrah.  It is fermented with native yeasts and sees 8-9 months in neutral barrels.  The flavors run from dark berry and cassis with flecks of earth, stone, chocolate, wild herbs and a nicely proportioned ‘rotie’ character that is quite subtle in this version.

Luis Gutierrez of Wine Advocate was a fan as well, “…from a more continental, cooler and dry vintage. …Juicy, primary, incredibly fresh and with a vertical palate, longer than wider, like a hypothetical blend of 2013 and 2015, cool but dry. This is always a great value, even more so in 2016….91+ points”.

Amen to that.  Stylish and ample, even as consistently surprising as this little Monastrell has been for the money over the years, the 2016 stands alone.

 

Spanish Immersion, Part One: Alluring Albariño

Given how much enthusiasm we have shown for the white wines from this part of the world in 2016, it should not surprise anyone that it is a very good year for Spain’s West Coast and it’s classically styled Albariños.  Palacio de Fefiñanes has been one of the blue chips from the area, as well as a personal favorite, and the 2016 is quite the beauty.

We’ve been working with Albariños in general for probably two decades or more and have seen all kinds of incarnations…aged ones, barrel fermented ones, etc.  To us, Albariño is best served naked with all of the freshness, subtle tropical fruit, pear, tangerine and hint of honey flavor profile, great tension between the high-pitched fruit and the bright acidity, and that whiff of the sea and hint of salinity to the finish.  Any other aspect that man introduces gets in the way of that core personality.  Keeping it simple allows the wine to shine and deliver mouth-watering sip after sip that plays beautifully with seafood or merely as an eminently quaffable beverage on a warm afternoon.

Of course, as we have discussed many times, when a wine is served naked, you have to live with whatever Mother Nature gives you.  Albariño, in a way resembles Viognier, though it is a much crisper beverage.  If it is too ripe, it lacks the zing that makes it such a lively quaff.  Without enough ripeness you’ve basically got a lean, acidic wine.  Fefiñanes is usually one of the consistent stars of the region year in and year out.  But like everyone else, they can only work with what they were given, which is usually pretty good.

In 2016, Nature was very good to them.  The Palacio de Fefinanes Albarino Rias Baixas 2016 strikes the perfect balance with a certain tenderness to the expressive fruit, enough mouthfeel to engage the palate, and then the perfect cut of refined acidity.  Fefiñanes is usually a ‘go-to’ in good vintages but this effort is a cut above and  reminds us fondly of some of those brilliant efforts from this region in the last benchmark vintage, 2010.

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 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 minimize 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.