GO FOR THE BOLD

It’s pretty common for sommeliers and even Masters of Wine to try their hand at winemaking.  The results have been, ahem, varied to say the least.  But if you try enough of them, you will eventually run across someone who ‘gets it’.  In this particular case, master Sommelier Chris Miller, and the winery he founded called Seabold Cellars, were sent our way by a sommelier friend here in the OC who thought we should check these out. 

Miller established Seabold in 2014 with the focus on producing small lot site-specific Burgundian and Rhône varietals from the Monterey Bay region. He believes that cooler is better for certain varietals and such vineyards produce balanced wines that showcase their origin more than their winemaking. Miller learned winemaking working with the folks at Gramercy Cellars, Brewer-Clifton and Melville.

The Seabold wines impressed as they were both tender and lifted, and each one showed a few nuances that were definitely site specific.  They were very pleasing examples of cool climate juice that showcased the style yet were tender enough and possessed enough flesh to be engaging in the glass rather than, as so many are, more ‘intellectually challenging’ then enjoyable.  Had we not already had quite a selection of serious wines in the $40-50 range, we certainly would have bit on these.  We still might.  But we couldn’t pass up the Bold wines which were superior stylistically and well priced given the juice.

The concept of Bold was rather unique.  First one must understand that, while a lot of people say the same thing, these guys really are about the dirt.  Part of their ‘mission statement’ is “…During the year, more time is spent in vineyards than the winery. Our winemaking is as hands-off as possible, respecting traditional techniques and practices without being beholden to them.”  It shows in the wines. 

Where Bold diverts from the typical ‘second line’ scenario is quite specific.  The Bold wines are not made from the leftovers of the Seabold wines, but rather are ‘first run’ efforts with vineyards the winery has not worked with before.  They like to get really comfortable with the vineyard before they slap a Seabold label on a wine with that designation,  and Bold is part of that “getting to know you” process. 

No one we know thinks of the Arroyo Seco area as a hotbed for Sauvignon Blanc.  But maybe that’s because they haven’t been looking in the right place.  Miller found Zabala Vineyards in one of the warmest subsections of this narrow west-facing valley shielded by the Santa Lucia Mountains.  Planted in 1972, it is one of Monterey County’s oldest vineyards with soils of sandy loam covered with round riverbed stones.  The vineyard is family-owned, impeccably cared-for, and certified organic.

The Bold Wine Co. Sauvignon Blanc Monterey 2018 itself is an intriguing expression of the varietal.  There is plenty of richness in the herb-laced grapefruit, melon and pear fruit, plenty of freshness while the acids are not overly aggressive, and a remarkable sense of harmony.  It lacks the edgy bite that a lot of California Sauvignons possess and rather presents a rounder yet still lifted presentation of the varietal.  For under $20, it is an excellent choice and given the production (a mere 268 cases of wine) we’d consider this pretty much ‘insider trading’.

The same holds true for the Bold Wine Co. Pinot Noir Monterey 2017The story here seems typical of this producer, and focuses on the Balestra Vineyard which lies just north of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, on a very cold climate benchland property owned and farmed by a multi-generational family of farmers. Because it is closer to the valley to the sea, the wines from the property always show a certain bright, fruit-forward character which is often balanced out by a judicious inclusion of whole clusters during fermentation.

There’s a lovely texture here and a dusty, musky presentation of dark cherry and ripe cranberry fruit kissed with a little bit of woodsiness and some elements of spice.  For a generally savory Pinot, the edges are rounded and engaging and the wine has both flesh and lift to create a very pleasing experience in the glasss.  The terroir nuances rise above anything you can typically buy at this kind ofrprcie.  We think the ‘Bold’ wines present a pretty exciting option in a price range like this and there is legitimate excitement as to whether Miller has do with these in the purchases moving forwards.  They are certainly off to an impressive start given what we see here.  With only a few hundred cases this isn’t going to be a game changer for the market as a whole.  But it will certainly prove shrewd value ‘harvest’ for those that move quickly.

A ‘WILD’ BUY ON GREYWACKE’S 94 POINT SAUVIGNON ‘WILD’ 2016

We can recall nearly four decades ago when we started selling a then unheard of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand called Cloudy Bay.   It subsequently went on to establish quite a following for itself as well as spearhead the expansion of New Zealand wines in the U.S..  Some years later as we introduced a new Kiwi producer called Greywacke, named for the course-grained sandstone that made up the soils, we took great pains to make the connection between owner Kevin Judd and Cloudy Bay where he was winemaker for some two decades.

How times have changed.  We don’t think it would be unreasonable to suggest that, in serious wine circles, Greywacke currently enjoyed a stature equal to and probably greater than the iconic Cloudy Bay.  That’s what can happen when someone like Kevin can produce thrilling wines in a variety of varietals over the course of many vintages.  As usual, we have a variety of selections from this New Zealand superstar.  But today’s focus is on one wine in particular.

Greywacke produces two different Sauvignon Blancs.  Their ‘regular’ bottling is by no means ‘regular’, various versions of the Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc having enjoyed a consistent flow of media kudos.  There is also one that they refer to as Greywacke ‘Wild’ Sauvignon, which varies from the ‘regular’ by virtue of the fact that its fermentation is performed with entirely the natural yeasts that come on the grapes.   The fermentation typically happens a little slower and takes a little longer than with the industrial yeasts, but the results can be spectacular.

Such is the case with the Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc Wild Marlborough 2016. A rather complex, layered offering showing, it offers a whiff of the expected grapefruit and lime along with less ‘traditional’ flavors of dried stone fruits, pistachios, and a little fleck of honey.  The palate feel is a little more tactile that most Sauvignons and the wine itself impresses, though the little extra bottle age may certainly have been a contributor as well.

It was a critic’s choice as well, pulling down some rather impressive scores for the category.  The new ‘hard line’ Wine Spectator surprised with a 93 point score and notes, “Just gorgeous, this is vibrant, fragrant and generous, with honeysuckle, Key lime, lemongrass and fresh ginger notes that mingle with grapefruit and pear flavors. Impressive for the intensity, showing a smooth body, refreshing acidity and long, lingering finish.” It is clearly all of those things.

For us it was one of the most compelling Sauvignons we have tasted in quite a while.  James Suckling clearly liked it as much as we did with a 94 point score and comments, “his has all the complexity seen in great white wines with plenty of savory influence. Grilled nuts adorn biscuity and flinty lemon and grapefruit pith. The palate has punchy dried-peach and lemon flavors, as well as an appealing, very succulent and carefully layered texture. Drink now. Screw cap.”

What is perhaps a little bit of a surprise is that we picked this up as something of an end of vintage special and, as an added bonus, can whack a bit off the $32 list price as well…while it lasts.

Value Sauv. Blanc from a Budding Superstar Winemaker

We pretty much gushed when we first discovered the wines of Bibiana González Rave Pisoni.  We could repeat her saga of making wine on three continents before she finally settled in the Golden State.  She has many irons in the fire this days and we can say that have never had a wine from her, in whatever price range it was, that wasn’t top flight.

In a few words, ‘this girl is on fire’, making a style that is deeply expressive, full flavored, energetic and precise.  Now granted, that would seem to be expected of the many of her wines that are in the $70-80 price range, though they do excel in that arena vis-a-vis the competition.  But what we find most enticing, in line with our philosophy of seeking out the ‘little’ wines from the top talents, is her value-driven Alma de Cattleya line.  We have been particularly enamored  with the Sauvignon Blanc which, at $16.98, is arguably the best buy among California Sauv. Blancs.

Her just released Alma de Cattleya Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County 2018 is, once again, a well put together, vigorously expressive mouthful of lime, guava, pear, fig, and fresh herbs.  The fruit ‘pops’ up front and expands across the palate, but the tension and acidity keep it humming right through the finish.  It is an attention-getting and beautifully fresh example of the breed.

The only potential problem with the wine is that it is made to be the best Sauv. Blanc it can be and true to type.  That probably means it will likely not get its due when judged in some 100 example mega-tasting the media often conducts which favors blowsier and more idiosyncratic efforts because they stand out in a crowd.

But one-on-one, this is a little value gem.  It’s in a straight up, juicy style with impressive purity, plus that insistent underlying hum that differentiates it from the rank and file of the genre. This is the ‘hot ticket’ among go-to Sauvignon Blancs.  Even though we can’t necessarily expect big ‘numbers’, knowledgeable insiders are snapping it up quickly.

TERLANO: SUPERSTAR HIDDEN IN THE MOUNTAINS

Sports teams like the New York Yankees, L.A. Lakers, Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Montreal Canadians are all hallowed franchises that are revered for their long-term success.  But part of the reverence is based on the reporting of their achievements via the media.  If you win a championship in the forest and nobody hears about it… well you get the drift.  There are long running, highly accomplished entities in the wine business as well.  Producers like Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux, Opus One in Napa Valley, and the like, are famous because they have histories of great work, but equally because people have been told they were good.

Today’s producer has been working on a very high level for a long time, but isn’t as appropriately famous because Alto Adige doesn’t get anywhere near the media attention that, say, Bordeaux and Napa Valley do.  But in their little world in northeastern Italy, Cantina Terlano is a serious performer who consistently makes spectacular wines.  We have been following Terlano for a long time.  Admittedly we have a soft spot for the region and the precise, well defined, racy, riveting wines from the region from the likes of Terlano, Valle Isarco, Nals Margreid, and Elena Walch.  These can be some of the most compelling whites in the world in exceptional vintages, and the fresh arrivals from 2017 offer a fantastic opportunity for us to talk about this ‘champion’ producer.

In the world of wine, the story of Cantina Terlano is definitely somewhat unique.  Terlano was founded as a co-operative in 1893. It is made up of 143 growers that work approximately 170 hectares of vineyards.   The winery’s homepage very modestly describes Terlano as one of the leading co-operatives in the Sud-Tyrol region.  We’d take that several steps forward and suggest it is one of the most successful cooperative wineries in the world, to be favorably compared with Produttori del Barbaresco in Piedmont and Domäne Wachau in Austria.  These folks are among the elite of their field.

We were wowed by their new arrivals from the 2017 vintage, a harvest with which we haven’t had a lot of experience yet.  If these are any indication, 2017 was another banner year in the region and also one that will speak to a broader range of palates.  The 2016s were quite special to be sure.  But the intense acidity, normally a part of their makeup in this cooler, elevated growing region, might have been a tad too powerful for some consumers.  The 2017s are just as impressive but also are dialed back just a touch which makes their vigorous fruit component more giving.  In short, the 2016s were a great but powerful vintage, and the 2017s look to be at the same level of quality, but a bit more user-friendly.  Good times.

We’ve picked out three offerings from what we like to refer to as one of the superstars of the ‘German’ part of Italy.  These are riveting, impactful whites and outstanding representatives of not only this house, but the region as a whole.  The winery makes a number of wines, some of which reach into the $50-60 range.  But we feel this trio is so good that it will make our point quite handily, and way over-deliver for their respective prices.  These are driving, ‘naked’ wines that express the pristine terroir from which they come.  If the farming isn’t right, there are no cellar tricks you can to fix them.  These folks have it down to a science in the vineyard and, while they have wines that offer the opportunity to spend more, there isn’t necessarily a reason to do so.  These play at a high level.

The Terlano Terlaner Classico Alto Adige 2017 is a great place to start, and this blended white dates back to the beginning in 1893.  This is a blend of 60% Pinot Bianco, 30% Chardonnay and 10% Sauvignon Blanc that sees 5-7 months on the lees, 80% in stainless steel and 20% in large, probably neutral oak.  The edges are polished and honed with nothing sticking out, and it shows plenty of deceptive power to the palate. You’ve got a variety of subtle flavors from white stone fruits to passion fruit to roasted grain with highlights of white pepper, wild herbs and a streak of minerality.  This lifts and brightens as it hits the palate, and delivers plenty of punch.  A 92 from Advocate in 2016, the 2017 is playing at the same level (we had them two days apart) as an authoritative quaff or versatile food choice.

The Terlano Sauvignon Blanc Winkl Alto Adige 2017 is a favorite around here as well.  A 100% Sauvignon Blanc that dates back to 1956 is made the same way as the Terlaner.  It is gentle and supple on the palate but sits nicely atop well-integrated, ripe acidity.  Again stone fruits with faint suggestions of honey play against ripe grapefruit, sage, and mineral tones.  Monica Larner, Wine Advocate’s Italian specialist, calls it one of her absolute favorite Italian whites. We definitely get that.   This has texture and suppleness, but finishes with a dash of mouth-watering zing.

The Terlano Pinot Grigio Alto Adige 2017 is no ordinary Pinot Grigio.  While the genre in general gets bagged on because there are so many banal, uninspired versions out there, this one has the kind of size, fruit and ‘pop’ that will get your attention and possibly frighten those who are patrons of those typical commercial examples.  This one is clean, insistent, and deceptively powerful for what it is.  The flavors have elements of stone fruit, grain, white peach and passion fruit with a fleck of wild herb.  This is a Pinot Grigio with substance and one heck of a value.

These riveting whites belong in everyone’s conscience as well as everyone’s cellar.  Fans of the genre know these for what they are, one of the best of the genre and world-class whites by any measure.  If you don’t know Terlano, it’s high time you did!

 

 

A CUT ABOVE: PADDY BORTHWICK SAUVIGNON BLANC 2017

It has been a very long time since we first started working with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, way back in the mid-80s with a brand called Cloudy Bay.  Yes that Cloudy Bay.  It was an impressive vanguard for a category that was at the time virtually non-existent, and certainly made an impression on anyone who tried it.  It didn’t seem all that long before Cloudy became the standard of a category that pretty much exploded.  These days Kiwi Sauvignons are a significant group of wines in the marketplace and there are certainly scores if not hundreds of brands to choose from.

It would be fair to say that not every example is compelling.  Some are a bit vegetal, others a bit sweetish, and there is a wide range of styles in between.  It is also fair to say that there are plenty of pleasing choices to be had, to the point where consumers have a bit of confidence in the genre and buy them regularly.  That is more than can be said for some categories (like South Africa) that consistently need a push.  As difficult as we can be, we still find a wide variety of Kiwi efforts that we can recommend.  You want a good to very good, tasty, brisk, lively New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc?  We usually have several.

However while “good to very good” is no problem, ‘great’ is another matter entirely.   The great ones are not that hard to remember because, frankly, we haven’t had many that have performed at the highest level.  Some of those first Cloudy Bays were memorable enough to create a category where none existed before.  There has been the occasional Villa Maria specialty bottling that has played above the crowd.  One of our favorite memories in the category was the first Mount Nelson from the esteemed Marchese Lodovico Antinori of Ornellaia. Considering we’ve been working with these wines for three decades, the list of superstars is pretty short.

Our first encounter with the Paddy Borthwick Sauvignon Blanc 2017 from the Gladstone area of Wairarapa (southern end of the north island near the east coast) was one of those rare magical moments.  Paddy Borthwick came from a ranching family and went looking for a place to diversify their farming interests by growing premium wine grapes.  He got a degree from Australia’s Roseworthy College in 1985 and then, as they describe it, “embarked on a career spanning five countries and three continents before settling back into the Wairarapa.”  He and his father planted this vineyard in 1996.

The vines, now 8-16 years old, sit in deep, stony alluvial soils in a place that is one of the warmest areas of New Zealand (though still pretty cool) with the least rainfall.  The grapes are harvested and quickly moved to tank where they are slowed fermented with about five months of lees stirring.  Sustainable practices and minimal intervention (as you would expect with Sauvignon Blanc) are the watchwords here.  It probably didn’t hurt that 2017 was a ‘cracker’ of a vintage.

The intensely flavored palate shows pink grapefruit, melon, tropical and ripe passion fruit with an underlying hint of gooseberry, guava and lychee.  This is a wine with great balance, structure and intensity, with the kind of balance and power rare for the breed.  There were some nice notes from Wine Advocate’s Joe Czerwinski (91 points… ‘Nicely done’), but we suspect 3-4 months in the bottle or more (the notes are from Feb, 2018 but we have no idea when it was tasted) probably allowed more nuance to poke out.   We’re not just praising this one vis-à-vis other New Zealand Sauvignons, but truly believe this one can play in any arena.  That is not something we say about Kiwi Sauvignons very often, but this one is very special. At under $17 it’s a pretty smoking deal as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VIE DI ROMANS: FRIULI SUPERSTAR

Because of what we do, it is not unusual for us to be asked what our favorite wines are.  There are a couple of recurring scenarios that occur as we try and answer the question honestly and not sound like we’re too above it all.  If you have only tasted two wines in your life, the answer to the question is quite simple.  But when you have tasted literally hundreds of thousands, it’s hard to narrow favorites down even to a couple hundred wines, let alone one or two.

The categories that get our attention can be pretty esoteric as well.  For example one of our favorite places for white wines is northeastern Italy.  Here in the hills that elevate into the Alps there are high valleys with crystal clean air, bright sunshine and cool nights that create wines like nowhere else in the world.  Pure, insistent, remarkably expressive and lively on the palate, perfect foils to a wide variety of foods, the wines from this part of the world have a special character and vigor.

People ask us to name some of our favorites from the region and then have puzzled looks on their faces when we point to wines like Val Isarco, Abbazia di Novacella, Schiopetto, and Cantina Terlano.  None of them are exactly household words even among a lot of serious wine cognoscenti.    One of our absolute favorites is the subject of today’s offer, a brilliant white wine house in Friuli called Vie di Romans.

We identified these folks as one of the best-of-the-best in the region a very long time ago, and have always jumped at the chance to taste their newest wares.  Unfortunately, such chances have come far less often than we would have liked.  For one, the wines have not had consistent distribution over the years.  Most suppliers don’t have a lot of patience to try and develop higher priced Italian whites.   Also, because the wines cost quite a bit more than your run-of-the-mill Friulanos, Pinot Grigios, and Sauvignons, suppliers are more reluctant to show them.  The perfectly valid opinion is that most restaurant/retail buyers would find them too pricey to work into standard scenarios.

We’d have to admit ourselves that we have shied away from some pretty stupendous efforts from Vie di Romans simply because we presumed people would be hesitant to spend the additional coin even though these soar above the crowd.   People figure they can get ‘good’ Pinot Grigio for $15-16 while Vie di Romans version is closer to $30.  Yet there is no comparison.  The VdR is richer, more driving and more complex, simply a wine unto itself with dazzling acidity and palate length that bears little resemblance to most of the vapid Pinot Grigios on the marketplace.

We know such wines are not the  easiest sell. Sometimes, even against our better ‘marketing’ judgment, we buy them anyway.   The very best simply cost more, and these wines deserve the spotlight.  So it was with this riveting Sauvignon Blanc duet from Vie di Romans… driving fruit, insistent palate length and mouth- watering acidity.

The single-vineyard Vie di Romans Sauvignon Blanc Piere Friuli Isonzo 2015 simply smells and tastes like something from another strata.  There’s power, finesse, and complex flavors of grapefruit, stones, and apple, along with the classically Italian note of tomato leaves.  Oak would damage the wine’s purity, so ‘Piere’ is done entirely in stainless steel with an eight month sojourn on the lies and  no malo-lactic.  The result is a sleek, vividly flavored effort that can play with Sauvignon s costing a lot more.  James Suckling’s take, “Plenty of sliced apple, grass and fennel seed character. Medium body, tangy acidity and a smoky, slate aftertaste. Always excellent. Drink now… 93 Points!”  You can drink it now, but this meticulously crafted Sauvignon can age as well.

The Vie di Romans Sauvignon Blanc Vieris Friuli Isonzo 2015 kicks it up a notch.  It has everything that the Piere has, but more, and with a little different twist to the flavor profile!  More palate authority, intensity, and high-toned fruit, plus this one reaches a little into the realm of exotic fruit tones.  The main difference between the two is that Piere consists of a higher percentage of Italian clones, whereas the Vieris favors French clones.  The vines are a little older here, and Vieris spends nine months on the lies.  Again, what a wine…surprising punch yet with an uncommon refinement.  Suckling went a little cheerleader on this one, “This is really exotic with peaches, mangoes and grapefruits as well as a steely undertone. Full body, plenty of fruit and a powerful finish. One of the great whites of Italy. Drink now… 96 Points!”

One of the great whites of Italy?  Indeed, they both are.  Considering they are legitimate best-of-breed, the prices actually don’t seem out of line.  You get what you pay for, and these are the works of masters.  Treat yourself.

SANCERRE’S ‘NEXT BIG THING’

Actually, the title may not be entirely ‘on point’.  In all fairness, Claude Riffault is already a big deal to fans of Sancerre.  The estate has been a consistent player producing captivating, true to type examples of the genre and getting big reviews.  What he hasn’t quite done yet is get to the upper tier price levels that it currently takes to buy labels like Vatan, Alphonse Mellot, and Paul Cotat.  However, there is little doubt that he can get there.  It wasn’t that long ago that Mellot’s wines sold for these kinds of prices (mid-$20 as opposed to around twice that now).   For now, these are still some of the best deals on elite quality Sancerre.

Riffault’s style focuses on purity, intense flavors, balance, and vineyard expression.  His last 2013s and 2015s pulled down tremendous reviews from Wine Advocate (among others) and, having tasted those two vintages ourselves, we can say without hesitation that the 2016s are right at that upper performance level.  Young Stephane Riffault has kicked up the quality here since taking the helm and has focused on more organic farming, an important point with regard to a genre like Sancerre where the wines rely on transparency.

The family owns 33 different (and quite small) plots on steep hillsides in four
different villages. Some are limestone while others are classic flint.  Everything is hand harvested and vinified by plot.  The results speak for themselves.  The Claude Riffault Sancerre Les Boucauds 2016 comes from steep slopes of Terres Blanches soils – marls and clays over Kimmeridgian limestone. Half Steel-aged, half neutral barrels, this one is broad in the mouth with a rounded profile of ripe grapefruit, yellow stone fruits, bright flavors and a tantalizing zing of acidity to the long finish.  The Boucauds has size and power on the attack but everything is perfectly proportioned. The last one (2015) was an Advocate 92, and this one is every bit of that.

The Claude Riffault Sancerre Les Chasseignes 2016 is a subtly-but-distinctively different take on the subject.  From shallow limestone soil and subsoil containing overlapping stones, also done in half steel and half neutral oak, this one is very Sancerre but more layered and nuanced with the flavors leaning more mineral.  A little less ‘pop’, a little more complexity, sort of the white wine version of the ‘iron fist in the velvet glove’.  Last year’s effort was a glowing 93 from Advocate and this little gem is a bit better in our minds.

To us this estate is importer John David Headrick’s ‘greatest hit and this young man is putting out some serious juice.  It’s only a matter of time before these command more serious d’argent (money).  If you love Sancerre (we do!), these are a must.

Bailly-Reverdy Sancerre Chavignol 2015

We have loved the flashy Sancerres and Pouilly Fumes from the 2015 vintage, and the Bailly-Reverdy Sancerre Chavignol 2015 is a fine example of why.  The best examples have a certain density and weight on the palate with both grapefruit and kiwi fruit notes vying for attention underscored by a persistent streak of minerality and a clean, well tucked-in slice of mouth watering acidity.  The Bailly-Reverdy Sancerre Chavignol 2015 is all of that and more.  Bailly-Reverdy has been a fairly recent discovery for us but their pure, clear expression of some of Sancerre’s best dirt (in Chavignol) definitely gets us going.  A combination of different chalk-clay soils (2/3 Marly soils and 1/3 Pebbly limestone). The vines are planted on steep slopes and that makes the work to be done in the vineyards very difficult.  But the results are special.