MAYBE WE SHOULDN’T LET THE OLD WAYS DIE…

There seems to be a growing trend among some California winemakers to go back to the more balanced styles of California’s formative years in the ‘60s and ‘70’s.  During all this time Husch winery has been doing the same things and delivering clear stylistic examples that have been virtually unchanged the winery was founded in 1971. It claims to have been the first winery in the Anderson Valley.  In 1979 the Oswald family purchased the estate and the third generation to run the winery are currently at the helm.

We bring them up not to praise their Cabernet or Chardonnay, which are still well made, traditional styles of their respective genre.  But they are stars with two genres of wine that aren’t widely grown or even talked about in California.  They are delicious examples of their breed and ridiculously cheap by today’s overblown California standards.

Part of the juice for the Husch Dry Gewurztraminer Anderson Valley 2017 comes from vines planted in 1968 and the cool climate here suits the varietal like few places in the Golden State.  As such it is dry, crisp, delicate, spicy and ‘Gewurtzy’ without being overdone or clumsy.  Sometimes Gewurz can be a little ‘dumpy’ on the finish, but not this one.  Clean, bright, varietal with a subtle fruit and floral nose, delicate spice notes through the palate, and lift to the finish.  Fire this up with a holiday ham or any number of lighter preparations of fish or fowl, particularly with an Asian slant.

If you think talking about Gewurz is off the wall, their Husch Chenin Blanc Mendocino County 2018 is a marvelous throwback (though it’s not a throwback to them as they have always made it this way).  They started in 1984 and have been making one of the best in the state ever since.  Yeah, Chenin has a bad rap thanks to a lot of mass produced examples when the genre was widely popular in the ’70s.  But a well made Chenin still has a place at the table or on the porch.  We think a touch of sweetness is necessary to offset the blazing acidity in this varietal, and this is a super refreshing display of orange, peach and melon flavors with a hint of ‘stone’ and great cut to the finish.  It has the same kind of food versatility as their gewurz, and is, again, silly ‘cheap’.

Sure it’s ‘hipper’ to say you drink some semi-oxidized lab experiment under the banner of ‘natural wine’.  But we’d rather have something direct, precise, and that does exactly what it should.  There is precious little of these varietals made in California any more.  But even though they are ‘old school’ they are riveting examples of a time gone by.

 

 

A DELICIOUS, WELL-PRICED WHITE AND AN UNUSUAL STORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serious Saumur

We often make the joke that if a purveyor brings an average wine buyer three wines, he will buy one.  If they bring him 10, he will buy one.  We are geared a little differently.  We don’t believe in token buys.  If we taste 20 wines and aren’t thoroughly jazzed with any of them, we buy zero.  By the same token, if someone brings in three exceptional wines, we’ll buy all three.  That happened on the day we tasted the Haut Baigneux wines.  The purveyor also had in tow the Yvonne Saumur Blanc 2015, which thrilled even given the stiff competition.

There has been vineyards around this chateau in Parnay since the Middle-ages and the building itself dates back to the 1500s.  It was abandoned when Yvonne and Jean-François Lamunière took over here in 1997 with the intent of revitalizing the estate.  Matheiu Vallee took over in 2007 and kept their name on the property as an hommage to the work the Lamunières had done.  The property has been organic since 1997 and went biodynamic in 2012.

There are 3 hectares of Chenin Blanc in clay-over-tuffeau (the fine grained local limestone).  Perhaps a little more intentional gravitas here, the wine is fermented slowly over four months and malolactic occurs in oak, 30% new, and it is bottled unfiltered.  Oak doesn’t always play well with Chenin but it is clearly enlightened and perfectly integrated in this case.  There are a few more ‘bass’ notes to the quince and yellow pit fruit flavors, with a little more Chardonnay like feel in the mouth and a salty character that is somewhat Chablis like.  Serious stuff here.

Loire Young Guns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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