$100,000 Wine Gamble Turned Into 100-Point Scores From Top Wine Critics

Lineup of TOR wines
Photo Credit: TOR Wines

Sitting on the back porch drinking a beautiful glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, the sunset painted the sky with colors of saffron and gold; there, a veteran wine producer in Napa Valley took in the recent catastrophe that destroyed so much of his community while he contemplated the luck of no loss of human life in the disaster, and less importantly, that five of his best barrels of wine survived. All of a sudden the song “That Old Black Magic” started to play in his head, and he knew “Black Magic” would be the perfect name for those special barrels of wine as it was a “black moment” for his winery as they lost a lot of wine yet at the same time those barrels have an “aura of real magic”.

That moment happened after the 2014 massive 6.0-magnitude Napa Valley earthquake that violently destroyed wineries, structures and catapulted people out of their beds around 3 am. The victims were randomly selected as “some wineries lost everything; some none,” according to the description that is laid out in Tor Kenward’s book Reflections of a Vintner. Tor, an iconic winemaker with almost 50 years of experience in Napa Valley, has witnessed Napa’s modern wine industry from its beginning with less than 50 wineries in the mid-1970s to the over 400 that exist today that are open for tastings and around 1,700 registered wineries according to the Alcoholic Beverage Control of California.

Reflections of a Vintner by Tor Kenward
Photo Credit Cathrine Todd

After the 2014 earthquake, Tor was on his porch, processing disturbing images of the horrible events of such a natural disaster mixed with the heartwarming feelings of seeing the Napa community come together when he was inspired to label those surviving barrels of great wine from the 2013 vintage at his TOR winery, “Black Magic”. Fate had undoubtedly been cruel as Tor lost 20% of his red wines during that vintage; that was compounded by the fact he didn’t have earthquake insurance at the time, less than 10% of Napa wineries had it, according to Tor. The “Black Magic” wine comes from plots located in the Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard, on the southern border of western Oakville in Napa. The wine would eventually garner four 100-point scores for the 2018 vintage, becoming known as their 400-point wine.

Black Magic

Tor, who loves blending wine from an “exceptional” single-vineyard, was able to work with the extraordinary Vine Hill Ranch because of a relationship that spanned several decades and is how he gets most of his stellar Napa fruit. This particular vineyard has displayed its greatness in the past in Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve bottlings made by the legendary André Tchelistcheff.

The 2013 TOR “Black Magic” blend is comprised of 99.5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 0.5% of Petit Verdot because Tor likes the sexy “mineral” note and aroma of “hot, wet granite” that comes out of the more “fruit-driven” Cabernet Sauvignon when a touch of Petit Verdot is added to the final blend.

Reflections of a Vintner by Tor Kenward
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

But for the 2016 vintage of Black Magic, Tor said that he and his longtime winemaker, Jeff Ames, decided to go into another unconventional direction with the wine, one that he labels as “a crime of the century”. 2016 is considered by most wine critics, as well as Tor, to be one of Napa Valley’s greatest. Serendipitously, the Cabernet and the Petit Verdot ideally ripened at the same time and so Jeff had the seemingly ludicrous idea to co-ferment together the Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot as it would fit perfectly into a four-ton tank and it might “be interesting”, resulting in a 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Petit Verdot blend. This gamble, which was highly unorthodox for a few reasons – co-fermentation and such a high percentage of Petit Verdot was unheard of in Napa – and it involved gambling with grapes that cost “north of $100,000”.  

Tor was afraid that it would be a Frankenstein sort of wine as he had never tasted another that tried such an unthinkable practice. Besides, being a small wine producer with no corporate money to cushion such a potentially expensive failure could be detrimental to his business. He also risked making a mess out of exceptional plots within a great vineyard, which could seem like a disrespectful act. Yet as other winemakers came to the defense of Jeff’s idea, Tor finally caved, and conversely, it made a perfect wine in Tor’s opinion and it changed the way they made wine at TOR winery.  

The 2016 “Black Magic” was scored highly with 98-point scores from top critics but the 2018 vintage, a vintage known for its superb expression of terroir, received four 100-point scores from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Antonio Galloni’s Vinous, Jeb Dunnuck and the International Wine Report; and many people have said to Tor that it is a fantastic way to end a journey although Tor feels like the journey is just beginning for TOR Wines.

Reflections of a Vintner

And one cannot help but marvel at Tor Kenward’s journey when it is experienced through his book Reflections of a Vintner. He was born to bohemian parents who always had creative people who weren’t afraid to dream coming in and out of their Los Angeles house as his dad was a writer and his mom a painter. At one point, his family lived with the actor James Cagney (known to Tor’s family as Jimmy) for a time after they lost their home “to fire and flood”. Tor’s name, as well as the names of his siblings, came from characters in a play that his parents loved and despite his father and mother doing little to shape their children’s lives as adults, Tor felt the foundation for him had already been built by the amazingly passionate people who surrounded him very early in life. In many ways, he and his siblings had lived more life before the age of 18 than most people get to experience in a lifetime.

Tor Kenward and Andy Beckstoffer having lunch at the French Laundry Photo Credit: TOR Wines

After Tor came back from the Vietnam War, working in hospitals, he founded a jazz club with a few other music fanatics that led to them hosting events at various locations throughout California with some of the greats and along the way, he was introduced to great French wine, which would have a lasting effect on his life, as well as the Napa new kids on the block. In 1976, one of the biggest upsets in the wine world, the Judgment of Paris where French judges in Paris picked Napa Valley wines over top French wines in a blind tasting, inspired Tor to follow his passion for wine. He could never imagine that 45 years later he would win the 2021 Judgment of Napa Tasting with his friend and iconic grape grower, Andy Beckstoffer, with their 2016 TOR Beckstoffer To Kalon.

Tor ended up working for Beringer for 25 years, and he relishes the time he spent with a “core group of dreamers” during those formative years there, and for the most part that group stayed intact. During that time, he took winemaking courses at U.C. Davis and he spent a lot of time with some of the best of the best in the wine and food world. Later in her life, Tor became the constant escort for Julia Child and he marveled at her continuous enthusiasm to continually learn as she was always picking the brains of passionate, younger people who had different viewpoints about food and wine. Like many other winemakers in Napa, he was greatly influenced by the all-inspiring Robert Mondavi who never shied away from exclaiming that Napa made wines that were just as great as some of the top wines of the world. Mondavi was a much-needed source of inspiration for Tor and many others as the Napa crew would get tons of negative pushback from European-centric wine-loving sommeliers in New York City when Napa was first trying to make a name for themselves.

One day in the late 1970s stands out in Tor’s mind as being extraordinary, when he was invited to a lunch that included Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini, André Tchelistcheff and a few other experienced winemakers, where Tor kept his mouth shut so he could take in the wisdom. A debate started about which qualities make a wine great and give it longevity. Tor remembers words such as tannins (in the red wines), acid (in the white wines), pH, terroir and balance as being presented as answers in this lively discussion. But then, finally, André Tchelistcheffknown as America’s most influential post-Prohibition winemaker, gently said with his Russian accent, “No, it is the flesh – it is the flesh in the great wines I have made that seems to give them grace with age.” Tor gives the 1947 Cheval Blanc and 1959 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and La Tâche (DRC) as classic examples of where he was able to experience wines that had “flesh” that assisted them in their graceful aging like André Tchelistcheff had said that day.

For decades, Tor had always admired how the greatest producers in Burgundy focused on particular blocks within a vineyard and he was lucky enough to drink a lot of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti to aid in his education. And so Burgundy was the model for his own winery, TOR Wines, which he started in 2000, and its focus has been on single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines with each bottling made in small quantities.  

Fifty Years of Napa Valley in Two Hours 

First flight of wines at Fifty Years of Napa Valley in Two Hours tasting Photo Credit: TOR Wines

Back in April, Tor led a tasting for a small group in New York City to showcase his almost 50 years of being involved in the Napa wine world but he could not help but bring a few Napa gems from his cellar that went back to 1945 – a fiercely concrete way to show that Napa wines can have a long life. It was a way to viscerally understand Napa’s wine history and a glimpse into Tor’s wine career with many of the wines associated with long relationships with winegrowers such as with the legendary Andy Beckstoffer.

Tor has known Andy Beckstoffer for four decades, and they share the mission of fighting the good fight of keeping agriculture at the center of Napa Valley. Andy has even set up his will so each of his historic vineyards can never be sold by family members and each vineyard can only be used for growing vines. Napa has changed dramatically since 1968, noted Tor, and he and Andy fight battles every year to keep shortsighted winery projects from taking away what is at the soul of great Napa wines – extraordinary vineyards.

Once everyone got to the 2018 TOR “Black Magic”, 400-point wine, at the tasting he held in NYC, Tor prefaced the wine by saying that people either loved it or hated it. That may seem like an odd statement about a wine that garnered 100 points from four top wine critics but perhaps that is just a testament to Tor’s gratitude for his life. Today, without significant financial backing, it would be impossible for someone to start any winery in Napa and have opportunities to buy some of the best fruit, let alone a winery focusing on small bottlings of single vineyards and with such financial backing comes limitations. The co-fermented “Black Magic” would have never happened if big corporate money had been involved because the board would have never allowed Tor to take such a gamble. 

Tor has always gotten to be the dreamer he was raised to be and that is all that matters, so if someone comes along and negatively shoots down his “Black Magic” wine, he has already won at living… or maybe he just knows that it is an outstanding wine.

***Link to original article published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2022/05/14/100000-wine-gamble-turned-into-100-point-scores-from-top-wine-critics/

First flight with Tor of wines at Fifty Years of Napa Valley in Two Hours tasting
Photo Credit: TOR Wines

Current Release of TOR Wines:

2019 TOR Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 TOR Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa Valley: Black cherry preserves balanced by pencil shavings and hot glowing wood embers that has tons of energy on the palate with layers of zingy red cranberry fruit combined with blackberry compote that has tannins with broad shoulders to support it. Only 375 cases made and suggested retail price of $110 per bottle.

2019 TOR Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 TOR Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard, Oakville, Napa Valley: A pretty, perfumed nose with mix of wildflowers and baking spices that has notes of crushed rocks and fresh raspberries in the background that finishes with finely pixelated tannins. Really elegant! Only 250 cases made and suggested retail price of $300 per bottle.

2019 TOR Pure Magic Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 TOR “Pure Magic” Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard, Oakville, Napa Valley: 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Petit Verdot from Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard like the original 2016 “Black Magic”. Broken earth and fresh tree bark immediately bring a strong sense of place to this wine with boysenberry fruit and dark chocolate notes coming after a few hours of decanting. The texture of these co-fermented wines are always a WOW factor as they have the right amount of flesh combined with elegantly structured tannins that give immediate hedonistic pleasure while also creating a drive and focus that refreshes the palate and makes it too easy to drink the whole bottle. Only 100 cases made and suggested retail price of $350 per bottle.

The Fifty Years of Napa Valley In Two Hours Tasting led by Tor Kenward in New York City on April 13th, 2022:

1945 Beringer Estate Red, St. Helena, Napa Valley: Tree bark, thyme and marked acidity – light and nimble. Notes by Tor Kenward: “This wine came from plantings around the Beringer St. Helena property. Based on old maps from the 1940s, it includes Cabernet Sauvignon and mixed black grape varieties popular at the time. It was stored in a corner of the original Beringer caves for 40 years. We worked hard to find the wine’s true identity – no one alive really knows. The Bordeaux bottle hints mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon.”

1958 Louis Martini “Mountain Cabernet” Monte Rosso, Napa Valley: A beautiful delicacy to this wine with floral and raspberry aromas – a heady wine. The famous Monte Rosso Vineyard is in Sonoma Valley but back in the 1950s it was labeled as Napa. Notes by Tor Kenward: “This is my last bottle. I’ve enjoyed sharing this gem over the years. Classic “Martini” style – soft, good core of fruit, beautiful perfume. Excellent vintage.”

1969 Heitz Cellar, Cabernet Sauvignon, Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley: Mixture of eucalyptus and fresh sage with crunchy cranberry on the long, vibrant finish. Notes by Tor Kenward: “I bought this wine in 1975 on a trip to Napa. Joe Heitz wouldn’t sell me the 1968. I never opened a bottle of Joe’s Martha’s bottling from the 1960s and 1970s that I have not loved. Martha May, owner, is a good friend.”

1977 Beringer, Cabernet Sauvignon “Private Reserve” Napa Valley: Really nice weight on the mid-palate with silky tannins and blackcurrant leaves and a touch of black cherry. Notes by Tor Kenward: “This was the first wine from the Lemmon/Chabot vineyard, and it was Beringer’s first Private Reserve wine. I was a judge at the Orange County Fair and I took shiners of the wine to see how it performed. My friend, Richard Arrowood, told me it was his favorite wine of the show. I went back to Beringer and encouraged the team to make this our first Private Reserve bottling. It was an easy sell.”

1988 Kenward, Cabernet Sauvignon “Home Cuvee” Napa Valley: Lots of juicy black fruit with structure giving it shape and fresh finish. #1 Red Wine Winner at California State Fair (Tor’s homemade). Notes by Tor Kenward: “From 1981 and for two decades, Beringer allowed me to make small lots of wine on the west side of the St. Helena property with equipment I bought and free labor – mostly friends, writers, trade, and dreamers. 1988 was a very good vintage, lost behind the legendary 1987, and with half the crop. I saved the California State Fair ribbon I received – a big ribbon saying, “Best Red Wine of Show.” Friend and Congressman, Mike Thompson, sent me a congratulatory letter which I also saved.”

1990 Kenward, Cabernet Sauvignon, State Lane, Napa Valley: Round tannins with ripe strawberry flavors and some baking spice with a touch of gravelly earth in the background. Notes by Tor Kenward: “This is our homemade wine from a property that is now owned by the Kapsandy family. The two vineyards that battled it out for the early Beringer Private Reserves were Chabot/Lemmon and State Lane. We marveled why the latter, near the Napa river, performed so well every year until we dug with backhoes and found more rock than rich alluvial soil.”

1991 Kenward Cabernet Sauvignon “Chateau La Tor” Napa Valley: Savory rosemary with sweet stewed cherries balanced by upheaved earth. Notes by Tor Kenward: “David Abreu and I planted our property – a small vineyard with four different clones – next to his Madrone Vineyard. First vintage, great year for Napa. The vineyard taught me many lessons about grape growing in the Napa Valley: clones and plant material matter.”

Then transitioned into younger vintages, first starting with a couple of Chardonnay wines:

2020 TOR Chardonnay, “Cuvée Susan”, Hyde Vineyard, Carneros Napa Valley: An enchanting nose of saline minerality and acacia with white peach flavors and hints of blanched almonds on the finish. Notes by Tor Kenward: “Our Hyde Cuvée Susan is from two blocks, one planted to the very shy bearing, shot cluster Wente – the other to the fuller cluster but aromatic Calera clone.”

2020 TOR Chardonnay, Torchiana Beresini Vineyard, Carneros Napa Valley: Overall elegance with aromas of honeycomb and salty lemon confit with wet stones. Notes by Tor Kenward: “The Beresini vineyard is planted to another Hyde Wente selection that is planted in the mother blocks at Hyde and go into the excellent Hyde and Villaine Commandant Chardonnay. Steve Beresini’s old vines are a testament to his farming, keeping these 30 plus year old vines alive and still producing a small but distinctive wine that has built a great following within our TOR circle.”

2003 TOR, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cimarossa Vineyard, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley: Dominated by blueberry and plum fruit with hints of graphite and lilacs with a rich textured body. Notes by Tor Kenward: “Cimarossa means “red hilltop” in Italian and that aptly defines this special hillside vineyard. Elevation is 2,100 feet where the soils are predominately red volcanic rock and dust. This was our first vintage worked from three different blocks.”

2009 TOR Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer To Kalon “Old B” Oakville, Napa Valley: Full throttle on the entry with lush cassis flavors and savory spice with complex notes of tar and smoldering earth with fine tannins and a pretty floral finish that was all finesse at the end. Excellent wine! Notes by Tor Kenward: “A coveted block in Beckstoffer To Kalon which Andy made available IF I picked at 24 Brix. Everyone in the vineyard picked much riper that decade, and Andy loved the old BV Reserves picked closer to 24 Brix. An anomaly for To Kalon, the vintage was excellent.”

2016 TOR “Black Magic” Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard, Oakville, Napa Valley: First time Tor co-fermented a wine; 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Petit Verdot from Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard. Deep ruby color with multi-layered black and blue fruit and hints of turmeric and curry leaves on the nose as it expands on the palate with blackberry liqueur and espresso notes… and what a great texture! Full body that has the right amount of tension balanced by, dare I say, flesh. Fantastic wine! Notes by Tor Kenward: “This was the first year Jeff talked me into co-fermenting our small Block of Petit Verdot with Block 7 Cabernet Sauvignon from Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard. It’s unlike any wine we made up to that time and became a model for future Magics.”

2018 TOR “Black Magic” Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard, Oakville, Napa Valley: 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 16% Petit Verdot co–fermented and 4% Cabernet Franc blended. This wine got a lot of enthusiastic praise from everyone in the room as it is just a wine that blows one away. The wine seduces from the moment one smells it as it has lots of juicy and rich fruits singing and it is multifaceted in regards to complex flavors and textures; cigar box, exotic spice, stony minerality and hint of graphite with lots of energy, finely etched tannins and extraordinary length of flavor. Wow, wow, wow, wow! Feel lucky to experience it!! Notes by Tor Kenward: “A little bit of everything in our toolbox is in this wine. Co-ferments, best barrel selection, Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard, Beckstoffer To Kalon, and a dash of Pritchard Hill Cabernet. We worked on this wine to the very end when it “magically” came together. It garnered four 100-point scores from leading critics.”

2019 TOR Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyards, St. Helena, Napa Valley: A lovely floral quality to the nose intermixed with cumin seed and cocoa powder that has delicious cassis flavors laced with a minerality that was sustained across the long, expressive finish. Notes by Tor Kenward: “Our first ever from this iconic site was fermented in a single four-ton closed top tank for 20 days. We were offered blocks from this vineyard previously, but waited until a block next to the quarry nearby was offered. All Clone 6. Not a typical Crane, distinctive perfume, well worth the wait.”

Myron Nightingale’s Old Solera Sherry, St. Helena, Napa Valley: Golden apples and walnuts with touches of butterscotch and zing of ginger. Notes by Tor Kenward: “This was hand bottled by Myron Nightingale and given to friends in 1980 from one barrel saved in the old Beringer caves. Very old Solera Sherry whose “mother” might date back to the 1800s from a Palomino vineyard on Spring Mountain, St. Helena, planted by Charles and Olga Beringer.”

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White Wines From Native Grapes Emerge In Top Spanish Red Wine Region

Bodegas Comenge estate
Photo Credit: Bodegas Comenge

When the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, many areas in Spain were plunged into an economic depression where even highly skilled professionals such as doctors would barely make ends meet, such as the Comenge family. Despite the family struggling after the war, today, they own a gorgeous winery called Bodegas Comenge in the highly-respected wine region of Ribera del Duero that includes a lovely tasting room surrounded by their stunning vineyards. Still, none of that would be possible if it wasn’t for D. Miguel Comenge – the father of the founder of the winery

Álvaro Comenge, the sales director of Bodegas Comenge and the grandson of D. Miguel, has helped further the area’s innovation by funding a research and development department which is the foundation that their wines are built on. One such wine, which shows a new direction for Ribera del Duero, is the white wine made from a white native grape that in 2019 was allowed to qualify for Ribera del Duero D.O. status – a designation that indicates quality wine. 

D. Miguel Comenge’s Book
La Vid y Los Vinos Españoles
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

But none of Comenge efforts would exist if it wasn’t for D. Miguel, a doctor specializing in biochemistry, writing the first in-depth study of Spanish wine, which included scientific analyses of physical and chemical characteristics of 109 Spanish wines, written in 1932 and released in 1942. The book made it possible for the family to initially survive as it brought in money when times were tough, and the profits made it possible for D. Miguel’s son to establish a winery; his grandson Álvaro runs the winery today, and the book is still used at universities in Spain.

Albillo Mayor

It is an exciting time for Ribera del Duero as some winemakers can finally experiment with a white wine that is allowed to carry the quality designation of the region. It is called Albillo Mayor, many call it Albillo for short, but it is important to not confuse it with other Albillo grapes in Spain, such as Albillo Real, as they are different varieties. Albillo Mayor is a white grape variety that has typically been co-planted with Tempranillo and other red grape varieties – called field blends, and hence, the grapes were fermented together to make a light-colored red called Claret which was the everyday wine made over 50 years ago, according to Álvaro Comenge. The wine is still made today, but it is considered a darker-colored rosé for marketing purposes, and Comenge produces such a rosé made from a vineyard that is over 100 years old, planted with Albillo as well as native red grape varieties.

Albillo Mayor grape bunch
Photo Credit: Bodegas Valduero

But starting with the 2019 vintage, Bodegas Comenge is now able to make a 100% Albillo white wine from the same century-old vineyard that can be labeled Ribera del Duero D.O., and the region finally has its own white wine as Álvaro Comenge talked about how they were one of the very few, if not the only, high-quality wine region in Europe that did not allow a white wine to have high-quality status.

One cannot talk about the Albillo grape variety in Ribera del Duero without mentioning Bodegas Valduero. There are many great chefs, celebrities and wine connoisseurs who love the ultra-premium aged “Reserva” red wines of Valduero but it may not be widely known that they were the original protector of the Albillo grape, as they made the first 100% Albillo white wine in 1990. The winery is run by two sisters, one of whom, the winemaker, Yolanda Garcia Viadero, who, for decades, has been on a mission to show the world the great white wine that can be made from this grape and, hopefully, with more producers making it, as it is officially recognized as a quality wine from the region now, it will start to gain more notoriety around the world. While other producers were ripping out Albillo, Yolanda was protecting their plots of Albillo at Bodegas Valduero, and this producer is already well-known for being guardians of exceptional vineyards as they are the second-largest low bush vines estate at one of the highest altitudes in the region.

Other Local White Grape Varieties

Even though Ribera del Duero has officially recognized Albillo for white wine, conversely, other producers are making white wines out of other local grapes that have gained a following throughout the years, and the fact that these wines cannot be labeled as Ribera del Duero D.O. has not hurt their sales.

Old vine in Bodegas Viña Sastre vineyard
Photo Credit: Bodegas Viña Sastre

Known for their old vineyards that are either farmed organically and/or biodynamically, Bodegas Viña Sastre makes a white wine made from 100-year-old vines grown at 2,700 feet altitude from a white grape called Cayetana Blanca. This variety hasn’t gotten that much respect in Spain as it is usually a high-yielding grape that makes neutral wine, but this particular extremely low-yielding biodynamic vineyard produces a wine that has rich fruit flavors and floral aromatics. Jesús Sastre, owner, winemaker and vineyard manager, noted that his U.S. importer quickly sold out of this wine called “Flavus,” and it has gained a loyal following of wine drinkers who appreciate its beautiful qualities without needing the validation of being officially labeled as a higher-quality status wine.

Many Ribera del Duero wine producers have gone to their neighboring wine region Rueda to add a high-quality designated white wine to their portfolio by either buying a winery or having a wine made by another winery from the aromatic white grape variety Verdejo. The grape variety Verdejo is often referred to as the Spanish Sauvignon Blanc in the U.S. as they have a similar profile, and some of the wines will have a small amount of Sauvignon added to the final blend. Ribera del Duero and Rueda have had a great partnership as the latter has offered something desperately needed by the former, and they often join forces to market both of these wine regions in export markets.

One producer synonymous with ultra-premium Ribera del Duero wines, Bodegas Pago de Carraovejas, decided to make white wines from the Verdejo grape in a unique area of Rueda, in the town of Nieva within the Segovia province, which includes a small section of the Ribera del Duero region as well as part of Rueda. The winery they established in Rueda is called Ossian, and the wines have a cult following with their legendary “Capitel,” made from 200-year-old Verdejo vines, retailing around $125. Pago de Carraovejas was established by José María Ruiz, who represented Spain in the first-ever World Sommelier Contest in Milan, winning 5th place out of 60 participating countries. When he came back to Spain, he was energized by the world’s focus on gastronomy, and he was determined to be part of establishing great restaurants in Ribera del Duero, but he also wanted to make elevated wines ideal for the finest restaurants in the world.

Working the old vines on the Ossian estate in the province of Segovia Photo Credit: Ossian

The Ossian estate is made up of 22-acres of high-altitude (up to 3,000 feet), pre-phylloxera Verdejo vines that range between 100 to 200 years old, planted in sandy soil, hence why the vines were able to escape the insect pest that devastated many European vineyards as phylloxera can’t survive in sandy soil. The wines are complex, concentrated, terroir-driven and age-worthy Verdejo wines that sommeliers around Spain have cherished as a Spanish fine wine choice to match with food instead of a French white Burgundy.

These wines have proven that there are hidden pockets capable of producing outstanding white wines as well as red. A decision was made to label the wines under the broader Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León designation, which covers a more extensive region. This designation is one step below the Rueda D.O. designation, which the wines could use. But since the wines do not represent the average easy drinking Rueda D.O. Verdejo wines and are reflective of these specific 22-acres, it makes sense to place them in a category that isn’t known for a particular wine profile. And these wines show that there are pockets within the Castilla y León area, which includes Ribera del Duero as well, that have vineyards capable of making outstanding white wine.

New Journey for Ribera del Duero

When it comes to finding the ideal winery techniques or a typical profile for a 100% Albillo white wine, Álvaro Comenge says that the region of Ribera del Duero is still experimenting and trying to find its way. His winemaker for Bodegas Comenge takes the wine through a complicated process of having one section of Albillo grape bunches go through cold maceration. At the same time, he freezes the other section of grapes as the freezing helps to “break down the structure” to “liberate more aromas.” Furthermore, they use Saccharomyces yeasts (the most common species for winemaking) and non-Saccharomyces (not as common) on different sections. Albillo is a grape variety with a range of aromas and flavors, but those aromas and flavors can be challenging to release from the grapes.

It is not surprising to hear about Álvaro encouraging his winemaker to go to such lengths to unlock the potential of the Albillo grape as he not only comes from a grandfather who wrote the first in-depth Spanish wine textbook, but his grandmother was just as impressive. She was the first woman in the area to study medicine, and she was taught by Santiago Ramón y Caja, a Nobel Prize laureate for medicine. And so it is in Álvaro’s D.N.A. to refuse to settle for the easy road of accepting what the world gives him by normal means. Pulsating in his blood is the need to explore and go beyond anyone’s expectations, and Ribera del Duero’s new white wine journey will only benefit from his family’s innovative spirit.

2020 Carmen by Comenge, Rosé
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd
2019 Comenge, Albillo Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

Bodegas Comenge

2019 Comenge, Albillo, Ribera del Duero DO, Spain: 100% Albillo from a 100-year-old vineyard. Nose of almonds and honeysuckle with lemon sorbet flavors along the rich, textural body.

2020 Carmen by Comenge, Rosé, Ribera del Duero DO, Spain: 50% Albillo and 50% local red varieties from a 100-year-old vineyard. This wine would have been called a Claret wine in the past, but today it is considered, for marketing purposes, a darker rosé. The white Albillo grape and the red varieties are fermented separately and then blended. Pretty violet notes on the nose and a mixture of wild blackberries and bright red cherries with a hint of crushed rocks in the background. 

2020 Valduero, Blanco Albillo
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Bodegas Valduero

2020 Valduero, Blanco Albillo, Ribera del Duero DO, Spain: 100% Albillo. A lifted citrus blossom note on the nose with lots of stony minerality on the palate with white peach flavors and lots of weight on the body balanced by fresh acidity.

2018 Bodegas Viña Sastre ‘Flavus’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Bodegas Viña Sastre

2018 Bodegas Viña Sastre ‘Flavus’ Vino de Mesa, Spain: 100% Cayetana Blanca (also known as Jaén) from 100-year-old vines grown at 2,700 feet altitude using organic and biodynamic practices. A varietal Cayetana Blanca wine can only technically qualify for the lower Vino de Mesa designation, so it is not allowed to place the vintage on the front of the bottle, but I did confirm that this was the 2018 vintage. An explosion of flavor with lemon curd, peach pie and dried wildflowers with bright acidity and juicy body.

Ossian Vides y Vinos (Bodegas Pago de Carraovejas)

2018 Ossian ‘Quintaluna’ Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León, Spain: 100% Verdejo from vines that average around 100 years old. Dried elderflower and orange zest dances on the nose with zingy quince paste flavors laced with minerality that finishes with mouthwatering acidity.

2018 Ossian ‘Capitel’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2018 Ossian ‘Ossian’ Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León, Spain: 100% Verdejo from vines that average around 150 years in age. Multi-layered stone fruits with hints of anise seed and jasmine that has zesty lemon confit flavors on the palate with a smoky minerality, lots of energy and a fierce drive along the sustained finish.

2018 Ossian ‘Capitel’ Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León, Spain: 100% Verdejo from 200-year-old vines. A smoky minerality is upfront with this beauty that evolves through time into spiced toast and fennel fronds that has irresistible flavors of pear tart with a knockout textural component that brings this wine to another level of elegance and complexity; an extraordinarily long finish.

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New Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Could Be The Next Iconic Wine Of Rutherford

2018 Stalworth
Photo Credit:
Mariana Calderon

Those wine drinkers who have enjoyed a wide range of fine wines worldwide may have only used the word “ethereal” when it has come to some of the most outstanding red Grand Cru of Burgundy such as Bonnes Mares or the even more elusive Romanée-Conti. And yes, the word ethereal may be defined as describing something so “light in a way” that it seems “too perfect for this world,” but with regards to wine, it takes on an even more remarkable meaning. It is a wine that is undoubtedly concentrated, complex and multifaceted, yet there is an overall quality of a stunning delicacy that takes one’s breath away. The great vineyards of Burgundy have seemed to have the original, unofficial rights to such a descriptor although there is a new wine from a vineyard in the Rutherford Bench, in Napa Valley, that inspires such a word.

It is shocking that such a word as “ethereal” would describe a Bordeaux let alone a Napa wine, and a Napa wine made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon nevertheless. But that is what the newly released 2018 Stalworth wine from the Rutherford Bench exquisitely displays when its acclaimed winemaker, Celia Welch, beams as she talks about the “weightlessness” of the wine that has a knockout combination of that celestial character balanced with a delicious juiciness on the finish.

From the first taste, it does give one the aromas and flavors that are known among Rutherford Bench wines such as ideally ripened fruit with a touch of spice notes such as anise or a floral characteristic, although it was the texture of this wine that took it to another level. 

The name the “Rutherford Bench” is enthusiastically talked about among Napa wine lovers and in a direct scientific way, one can read about the process of benches forming in soils that are caused by geological occurrences that can cause a diverse mixture of soil types, such as the alluvial fan in the Rutherford Bench, to logically understand why it is special. However, most wine drinkers want to experience the most outstanding examples of what makes this revered area stand out beyond other neighboring areas in Rutherford and the rest of Napa Valley. The 2018 Stalworth is an opportunity to taste such an exemplary example.

Tim Persson 

Sabrina and Tim Photo Credit: Dawn Heumann

The co-owner and the captain at the helm of the Stalworth project is Tim Persson who, with his wife, Sabrina, took over his father-in-law’s wine business, Hess Family Wine Estates, and today it is called Hess Persson Estates. Tim took over the running of their wine estates after spending a significant amount of time with his father-in-law, Donald Hess, as many challenges presented themselves during the post-financial crisis back in 2010 and 2011 that affected the wide-ranging Hess enterprises around the world, and so, in 2012 Tim and his wife moved to Napa Valley so they could directly oversee the estate and family wine business.

Even in the multi-cultural area of Napa Valley, Tim’s background stands out as he was raised in one of the smallest African countries, Eswatini – Africa’s last absolute monarchy, previously known as Swaziland. After attending university in Europe, he became a corporate lawyer who practiced in New York and London; then Tim met his wife Sabrina and his path took an adventurous turn.

Tim does most of the work overseeing and leading the wine business as Sabrina keeps her psychotherapy practice going. She is a licensed psychotherapist which has come in handy with their wine business having to “navigate the series of setbacks and natural disasters” prevalent since 2014. But she still finds time to help out at their winery “behind the scenes” while juggling her practice and being very “hands-on” with raising their two children.

Some of those setbacks and natural disasters include the 2014 earthquake that destroyed one of their main wine cellars, the landslides in 2016 that cut off power and access to the winery, in 2017 the winery only being able to make a small fraction of its high-end wines due to the wildfires and the smoke from the wildfires in 2020 forcing them to make no Napa wine at all.

Yet Tim’s initial mission to “reestablish” the credentials of Hess with regards to making high-end Cabernet Sauvignon wines was never deterred. As he thought about the 30th anniversary of Hess Family Wine Estates, celebrated in 2011, it was now his responsibility to make sure that the winery stayed relevant for the next 30 years and that is where Stalworth came into the picture.


Tim Persson and Celia Welch blending Stalworth Photo Credit: Kim Serveau

Tim searched for a great Napa winemaker who would oversee the project of creating an iconic wine from the Rutherford Bench, raising the bar when it came to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Despite there being a bunch of great winemakers in the area, he was determined to find someone who not only had a great understanding of what makes an outstanding vineyard in Napa but also had the lack of ego to allow that vineyard to speak for itself. And that is when Celia Welch’s name came up again and again as she was an expert when it came to making iconic Rutherford wines and so Tim and his wife sought out her various wines to taste, some easier to find than others, such as the hard to obtain Scarecrow. According to Tim, the lack of ego was evident in her wines, and he loved the “integrity, honesty and consistency of excellence” across all her different offerings. Tim and Sabrina’s connection to Celia was instant during their first meeting, and Tim noted that meeting Celia, unlike the rest of the Stalworth story, was smooth sailing from the first moment.

They found the ideal vineyard in the Rutherford Bench in 2015 but the back-to-back unfortunate events of extreme accumulation of drought from 2012 to 2015 as well as all the disasters suffered from 2014 to 2017, put off the first vintage of Stalworth until 2018 – considered a “spectacular year” that is “terroir-driven” according to Wine Spectator. Celia said that they had used that delayed time to truly understand that particular vineyard as well as have the time to experiment in the winery with the wines so they would be entirely prepared once they made the inaugural vintage. Also, the need to rebuild the winery, destroyed by an earthquake, helped to greenlight a tremendous amount of investment that would build a state-of-the-art winery giving them all the tools to reach greater heights.

Rebuilding the antique stone winery, originally built in 1903, took several years as there were many complications at every step of the process. When the new cellar opened with a celebratory dinner on August 14th, 2018, Tim googled the date right before he gave his opening speech at the dinner as he wanted to reference other historical events on that date, he realized that it happened to be the 4th anniversary to the date of when the winery was destroyed. 

Never Losing Sight of Being Fortunate

When it came time to name the wine, considering the very bumpy journey, Stalworth was ideal as it is a word that has evolved to describe someone who shows “determination, bravery and courage,” and Tim and his wife have certainly have had their dream, of evolving Hess Persson Estates to a higher standard of excellence, challenged in a multitude of ways.

The label features contemporary art that reminds Tim and Sabrina of their favorite poem called “The Journey” written by David Whyte. A section reads, “someone has written something new in the ashes of your life,” representing their chance to write something new in the ashes of the Hess winery.

Tim laughed when he thought about how unlucky his family viewed him as a child as he had almost broken every bone in his body during childhood and it seems that the barrage of unfortunate events with regards to the Stalworth project is just a continuation of his luckless tendencies, yet he has a very different perspective. “I cannot help but look at my life and think that I have been incredibly lucky,” he says with a strong sense of gratitude.

And the 2018 Stalworth certainly proves that he is indeed a very lucky man.

***Link to original article in Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2022/04/25/new-napa-valley-cabernet-sauvignon-could-be-the-next-iconic-wine-of-rutherford/

2018 Stalworth Photo Credit: Mariana Calderon
2018 Stalworth and 2019 Stalworth Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2018 Stalworth, Rutherford Bench, Napa Valley: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Celia modestly pointed out that this vineyard in 2018 produced a Cabernet Sauvignon that was balanced entirely on its own with an extraordinary texture that is at once concentrated as it is refined with an overall “weightlessness” that does give it that remarkable ethereal quality, yet it finishes just as incredible as it starts with a juiciness that begs for another sip. The purity of the red cherry and blackberry fruit is stunning with those characteristic notes of anise seed and floral notes with tannins that are so fine they are imperceptible, yet they are obviously there supporting the wine along the long, expressive finish. Only 167 cases were made and it retails for $250 a bottle.

2019 Stalworth, Rutherford Bench, NapaValley: Mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a minuscule amount of Malbec and Petit Verdot. Delicious cassis flavor to this wine that has lots of juiciness with blackberry preserves and baking spice with sweet tobacco leaf and crushed rocks all wrapped up in lush tannins and a superb length of flavor.

The 2019 is still in the preview stage and will not be released until most probably next year. But since it was showing so well, they are allowing media to try it. With regards to adding a slight amount of Malbec and Petit Verdot, Celia noted that it was more about “balancing the texture” as there might be either a dip in the mid-palate that needs to be filled in or maybe some rounding out as she always wants the last sip to be tasty as she wants to avoid any astringency. But she added less than a percent of each as she wants the wine to be a full expression of Cabernet Sauvignon and so the other varieties are just there to assist in bringing out the more complimentary elements of the Cab.

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Wine Grape Growers’ Old Vines In Chile Boosted After Devastating Earthquake

Waking from sleep with an increased heartbeat and overall sense of panic, the woman would often relive her typical nightmare of finding herself falling in various situations, although this time, the nightmare involved her riding a bus that fell off a cliff during an earthquake and that terrifying slow-motion moment of being in midair overwhelmed with frightening thoughts that at any second she would crash to the ground with shards of metal and glass flying everywhere. But she was able to set up a ritual of drinking warm water while sitting on her couch planting her feet firmly on the ground, saying to herself, “I am home, I am safe and the ground is stable,” and it instantly quelled her nerves.

Yet one night, at 3 am on February 27, 2010, she woke up in a cold sweat from one of the most intense falling dreams that she could remember, and so she got up quickly to get her glass of warm water and calm herself on her couch. But she could barely stand, many times falling to the ground as she tried to walk out of her bedroom and she felt she was still dreaming, still asleep, as she desperately tried to wake herself up. After three minutes, the ground ceased to move and after a few deep breaths, the woman realized that she had just experienced a severe earthquake in her home tucked away in the Maule region of Chile that she would later find out registered at an enormous magnitude of 8.8.

The earthquake caused a tsunami with 95-foot waves that killed more than 350 people staying in the coastal town of Constitución, in the Maule region. Since it happened in the middle of the night, many of the relatives and friends of those who died must have hoped that their loved ones were taken in their sleep as opposed to them being awakened by the earthquake and suffered a few minutes of terror before the gigantic wave crashed down. Even with Chile being well prepared for earthquakes and tsunami, in 2010 with earthquake building codes and extensive earthquake and tsunami training among first responders, schools and communities with drills and lessons that were learned from the magnitude-9.5 earthquake in 1960 – the largest earthquake recorded, there were still over 520 deaths, over 40 missing and presumed dead and USD $30 billion worth of damage.

Old Carignan vines Photo Credit: VIGNO – Vignadores de Carignan

Interestingly, these tragic earthquakes in Chile would greatly influence wine grape growing as a lesser-known red grape variety started its journey in Chile after the 1939 magnitude-8.3 earthquake that took place in the southern central part of Chile, leaving tens of thousands dead, and this grape would ultimately gain a cult following after the 2010 earthquake. That grape variety’s name is Carignan.

Old-Vine Carignan

According to South American wine expert Amanda Barnes, the red grape variety Carignan was planted in decent quantities after the 1939 earthquake in south-central Chile, as many of the wineries and vineyards were damaged and the grape would ideally help to bolster their industry. Chilean wine regions such as Maule and Bío-Bío in the south-central area of this long skinny country were known for growing the red variety País, planted in the U.S. centuries ago, known as the Mission grape, which had been considered an easy-drinking red with not much backbone that many locals would drink in Chile and so it needed a blending partner with the highly structured and weighty Carignan grape variety. Unfortunately, the government didn’t realize that Carignan was susceptible to mildew, so the project to plant more Carignan was abandoned. Amanda also noted that historically the North was given a lot more investment from the government in Chile than the South, and why today, in the South, there are many elderly men still farming small, dry-farmed old vines of Carignan in Maule, the most southern wine region in the Central Valley, as there was no investment or infrastructure built to help them either with replanting or selling to a big wine company.

Amanda Barnes in Chile
Photo Credit: Matt Wilson

But Amanda, who is an award-winning British wine and travel writer who has lived in South America since 2009, states in her highly regarded The South America Wine Guide (a book that has already won as well as was nominated for a couple of prestigious awards), “Maule is the grassroots of Chilean wine” and she continues by addressing that the region was erroneously seen as only having potential for cheap, bulk wine, as the “humble farming” families of Maule were no match for the “sexy new cool-coast regions”. Simply, this area didn’t have a chance to compete with the “wealthy investors that Maipo, Aconcagua and Colchagua” attracted. And hence, these families, producing wines from dry-farmed 50-year vines and older, some reaching over 100 years old, were forced to sell their grapes for almost nothing due to their lack of “market value and status”.

Amanda Barnes’ The South America Wine Guide
Photo Credit: Greg Funnell

But in the 1990s, a group of wine producers that included a wine journalist realized that low-yielding Carignan from these old vines could over-deliver more than anything they had tasted from the grape’s home in southern France or any place else. The stereotype of the overbearing bitterness and lack of charm that plagued Carignan was not common among these small family growers living in the “very dry and poor” Secano (translates to “rainfed”) area of Maule, and as they have learned better vineyard management, the wines have only increased in quality. These Carignan lovers formed a group that would regularly taste and discuss these wines, and since the market did not seem keen on trying them, they agreed the wines could only be appreciated by each other.


2019 Morandé VIGNO Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

That all changed with the 2010 earthquake that rocked the area, and the group of Carignan enthusiasts decided that the best way they could help the locals was to bring recognition to those remarkable vineyards and help raise the prices for these special vines. They formed an association called VIGNO (an acronym for Vignadores de Carignan) that would also become Chile’s first appellation in a way as it represents a designated area denoting the high quality, dry-farmed old vine Carignan vines in the Maule Secano area. 

VIGNO includes a group of 16 producers who have to abide by the following parameters to label it under the VIGNO name: sourcing grapes from dry-farmed, gobelet or bush trained vines that are at least 30 years or older located in the Maule Secano area, 70% or more of the blend must be Carignan and it must age for a minimum of two years in any vessel of the producer’s choosing. Also, the name VIGNO must be significantly bigger than the producer’s name on the label.  

Pablo Morandé is one of the producers who is part of the VIGNO group, and Amanda notes that he made his name as a “pioneer in Chile’s first cool-climate vineyard” in Casablanca back in the early ’80s. He has also made Carignan wines since the ’90s, but he said that no one was interested in the grape so he didn’t bother releasing it. Chile became known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and eventually Carménère -people realized in the mid-90s much of the Merlot they loved was actually Carménère, as all the vines came from Bordeaux and Carménère is the lesser-known of the red Bordeaux varieties- and so if any wine drinker was going to have a Chilean wine from an atypical variety it was going to be Carménère, and that still holds true for many wine drinkers today. 

Today, Morandé makes VIGNO Carignan from vines that are at least 65 years old from one of these families that has been dry-farming bush vines for generations – the bottle retails for only $32. 

Tilling the soil at a Miguel Torres Chile vineyard Photo Credit: Miguel Torres Chile

The iconic wine producer originating in Spain, Miguel Torres, started their winery in Chile in 1979, and is part of the VIGNO group as well. Not only are they committed to promoting the old vines of Carignan, but Torres has been a big advocate of País, the local red grape originally from the Canary Islands, that previously used to make most of Chile’s homemade wines. But it was underappreciated for so long as it was made in a simple fashion, so many locals didn’t think much of it, and it took outsiders like Miguel Torres as well as others to realize the unique potential of the grapes that have vines that go up to 200 years old. 

Today Torres is the largest producer of País in the world with his delicious sparkling Estelado Rosé made from 100% País that comes from vines that range from 60 to over 100 years old from the Secano Interior DO – a designated area spanning across Maule as well as more southern areas of Bio Bío and Itata. Again, the Secano Interior is known for extraordinarily old Carignan and País vines because it was an underserved area of Chile in the past. Shockingly these bubbles filled with so much history only retails for $20. But the Torres team is also making red wines out of these remarkable País vineyards.

Bouchon wild País vines
Photo Credit: Bouchon Family Wines

It is impossible to speak about VIGNO as well as País without mentioning the producer Julio Bouchon and his Bouchon wines. Not only is he currently the president of VIGNO, but Amanda Barnes spoke about his evangelizing ability to convert the wine trade and consumers around the world to love País as much as he does, and Amanda notes that his País wines are some of the “best” in Chile. One of the wines he makes called ‘País Salvaje’ – Salvaje translates into “wild” – is made from wild País vines outside of an old País vineyard near a river creek. It is believed that workers were eating País grapes, and they threw the seeds into the river and the vines just grew upwards on trees. 

The age of these vines is unknown, but there are País vines nearby that are around 200 years old. The Bouchon ‘País Salvaje’ made from these rare vines retails at a jaw-dropping $20, and it is a beautifully complex wine. 

Lessons of Catastrophic Events

Initially, it seems almost impossible for most to see the good that comes out of catastrophic events, but for those few visionaries, who are the innovators and passionate evangelists in their particular industries, the opportunities to create a better world among their communities, not letting just a tragedy happen in vain, is crystal clear. And that is precisely what each of these VIGNO members has done for the area of Maule, as well as extending other projects that reach further south.

But it was not about these wine producers giving a handout, as not only does that financially work only in the short-term, but it doesn’t do anything to help with the basic need of someone finding value in their work. And in a way, the wine industry in Chile needs these small family growers with their gnarly old vines as much as they need the industry. These growers have been a great way to appeal to some of the up-and-coming sommeliers as these wines are authentically rooted in a long tradition, they are environmentally friendly with no irrigation, based on social responsibility – as they bring more money to poor communities – and let one not forget these wines are delightfully unique and fun to drink.

Chile has been fighting the idea that their wines are just cheaper, lower-quality versions of French or California wines, because Chile introduced their wines into the global market at a low price point, and hence, the misnomer that the wines are inferior has stuck. And therefore it has been a struggle to convince serious wine drinkers that Chile has wines that are genuinely unique to them, outside the entry-level offerings or even the expensive, high-scoring Chilean wines made by top producers who benefit from a tremendous amount of financial backing.

And the answer has been tucked away in vineyards among some of the poorest of the poor – it just took an earthquake and tsunami to finally see it.

***Link to original article published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2022/04/21/wine-grape-growers-old-vines-in-chile-boosted-after-devastating-earthquake/

2018 Miguel Torres, ‘Estelado’ Traditional Method Sparkling Brut Rosé
Photo Credit: Miguel Torres Chile

The below wines were tasted during the masterclass held by Amanda Barnes in New York in February of 2022.

2019 Carmen DO ‘Quijada’ Semillón Photo Credit: Carmen

2018 Miguel Torres, ‘Estelado’ Traditional Method Sparkling Brut Rosé, Secano Interior, Chile: 100% País, vines ranging from 60 to over 100 years old. Aromas of stony minerality and red cherries with strawberry skins on the palate and fresh acidity with a floral finish. Miguel Torres was established in Chile in 1979, and they are considered the pioneer of the modern wine industry and have a focus on Fair Trade practices and the social impact of País.

2019 Carmen DO ‘Quijada’ Semillón, Apalta, Chile: 100% Semillón made from vines planted in 1958. These grapes may come from the more established Apalta designated wine area, but the wine is undoubtedly a special offering with old vine Semillón vines. Intoxicating nose of honeysuckle and citrus blossom with juicy peach flavors and vibrant acidity evident on the palate. Carmen is one of Chile’s oldest wineries, founded in 1850. Their DO range highlights growers and distinctive terroirs and is a winery that employs experimental winemaking techniques.

2020 Longaví’ Glup!’ Cinsault, 2020 Rogue Vine ‘Grand Itala Tinto’, 2020 J. Bouchon ‘País Salvaje’ and 2020 Viña González Bastias ‘País en Tinaja’ Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2020 Longaví’ Glup!’ Cinsault, Itala, Chile: 100% Cinsault from vines over 50 years old coming from the “heartland” of Cinsault in Chile – Itala. The 30% whole cluster fermentation certainly brings out the vivid bright black and red fruit yet there are also complex notes of broken earth with a lovely spiciness on the finish. Longaví was founded by Julio Bouchon and David Nieuwoudt in 2012 and started out focusing on Sauvignon Blanc, but today its focus is on old vines.

2020 Rogue Vine ‘Grand Itala Tinto’ Itata, Chile: 95% Cinsault and 5% País from vines planted in 1960. Herb-tinged red fruit that ranged from zingy cranberry to rich raspberries with a background of dried wildflowers with slightly firm tannins. Started in 2008 by Leo Erazo and Justin Decker, focusing on old bush vines in Itata that range from 70 to 150 years old with no irrigation, no rootstocks, planted in granitic rock, organic farming and low invention winemaking.

2020 J. Bouchon ‘País Salvaje’ Maule, Chile: 100% wild País vines with the age of vines unknown, although there are vines nearby that are around 200 years old. Lots of juicy, pure berry fruit with some hints of forest floor and pretty floral notes, and it is round and very inviting on the palate with tons of energy. Bouchon has been producing wines in the Maule since 1977 and has a focus on dry-farmed, old vines, a traditional family wine producer with an innovative outlook.

Destemming the grapes via zaranda
Photo Credit: Gonzalez Bastias

2020 Viña González Bastias ‘País en Tinaja’ Secano Interior, Chile: 100% País from vines over 200 years old. Before bottling, these grapes were destemmed via a zaranda, a traditional tool made of bamboo sticks, and matured in “tinaja”, 300-year-old terracotta amphorae. Notes of crushed flowers and pinecones with hints of dark chocolate orange peel and blueberry fruit on the palate with refreshing acidity. Viña González Bastias is a fifth-generation grower in Maule, run by Daniela and Jose Luis González Bastias, with old vines up to 200 years old. They are traditional farmers that make small production artisanal wines.

2019 De Martino ‘Old Vine Series Las Olvidadas’ Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 De Martino ‘Old Vine Series Las Olvidadas’ Mezcla Tinta, Itata, Chile: 80% País and 20% San Francisco from vines ranging from 100 to 300 years old. The grapes are put through a zaranda as well and fermented together. Sour red cherry with bay leaf and fresh blackberry with hints of rosebud and tree bark and just an overall wild character with a touch of grip but plenty of fleshy fruit to balance it out. De Martino was started in 1934, and it is now a fourth-generation producer that likes to explore exciting terroirs that focus on the Itata area and old vines.

2019 TerraNoble ‘Grand Reserva’ Carignan
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2019 TerraNoble ‘Grand Reserva’ Carignan, Maule, Chile: 100% Carignan from vines that were planted in 1958. Brooding fruit and lit cigar invites one into a deeply concentrated wine with blackberry liqueur flavor and layers of complexity such as potpourri and new leather with marked acidity and structured tannins that give the concentrated fruit lift. TerraNoble was established in 1993 with its main focus being in the Maule, but they are also exploring other territories and being certified sustainable and vegan.  

2019 Morandé VIGNO Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2019 Morandé VIGNO, Maule, Chile: Mostly Carignan with a small amount of Syrah and Chardonnay from a field blend over 65 years old. If one wants to experience the charm of Carignan, this is certainly a great wine to try with enchanting blueberry and blackberry fruit that expresses itself with ideal ripeness with soft acidity and hints of crushed granite and turmeric powder along the silky tannins with an overall elegance. Morandé was founded in 1996 by highly-respected winemaker Pablo Morandé. This wine is part of their ‘Aventuras’ line, representing their small production of experimental wines from their Aventuras winery that houses such fun vessels as cement eggs, ceramic tanks and amphorae, and much more.

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Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Wine Made From A Multi-Vintage Blend

Cabernet Sauvignon vine in one of Tom Gamble's vineyards  Photo Credit: Gamble Family Vineyards
Cabernet Sauvignon vine in Gamble’s vineyard
Photo Credit: Gamble Family Vineyards

As the glow from the sun lit up the vine leaves with a heavenly golden color, a constant soft sound of grape bunches hitting the soil could be heard. It was a few weeks before harvest time in Napa Valley, and the all-important process of “green harvesting” was taking place at the beginning of the grape ripening process – known as veraison to grape growers. It is a common practice among many top vineyards around the world that helps to concentrate the remaining grapes as it tricks the vines into thinking that they have a lot more grapes to ripen, hence, giving a big push of energy to significantly fewer grapes.

Such a practice, even for the world’s most iconic wine regions, would be unthinkable just two generations ago but over the past two decades it has become mandatory if one is selling ultra-premium wine as it helps to concentrate the grapes resulting in a wine with incredible aromas, flavors and overall density. But it had always bothered the farmer’s spirit that lives within Tom Gamble, as it looks like an abundance of waste.

Gamble Family Vineyards 

Tom Gamble  Photo Credit Gamble Family Vineyards
Tom Gamble
Photo Credit:
Gamble Family Vineyards

Tom is a third-generation Napa farmer, and it is remarkable to think that his grandfather at one time owned 20,000 acres in the valley. If Tom owned that amount today, it would be the equivalent of winning the lottery but back then his grandfather was considered land poor as much of the land that his grandfather bought in the 1920s and 1930s wasn’t worth much at the time. Tom is the first grape grower and wine producer of his family as his grandfather grew various grains, walnuts and tomatoes as opposed to wine grapes and through time found himself on the brink of ruin a few times when he had a bad crop, or when a particular product he grew didn’t sell well.

Unfortunately, Tom’s grandfather did not think of estate planning and so when Tom’s father and uncle dropped out of school to try to save the property when his grandfather went blind, they were shocked to find out a decade later when he passed away, in the 1970s, that they owed an enormous amount of tax money that was far beyond the income of their farm. And so some property had to be sold off, yet they were smart enough to lease out the land they continued to own to a large and successful wine producer who still, to this day, leases that land and it puts a “financial underpinning” under the family. As one can imagine, neither Tom’s father nor uncle wanted anything to do with farming, and that included wine; they just wanted to bring in enough money so each could follow his own dream and avoid the potential of tearing the family apart by choosing to not go into the wine business together. Tom noted that many wine families have been “messed up” because of silly arguments such as not agreeing on the grape variety to plant.

Tom chuckled as he talked about “receiving the recessive gene trait” of wanting to be a farmer yet he was crazy enough to take it to the next level of planting and managing vineyards. But perhaps that is not so shocking considering that there was some curiosity by his grandfather who planted two acres of Petite Sirah during World War II – although Prohibition squashed any wine dreams he might have had at the time. And so he went to the renowned U.C. Davis to study agronomy, winemaking and take an array of other classes such as studying ancient civilizations as he is a man who likes to philosophize about life as much as making jokes at his own expense. But he gained a reputation for high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards and sells his grapes for a premium as he goes to great lengths to grow outstanding fruit. Before “regenerative agriculture” became such a hot topic, Tom employed such practices that reverse climate change by rebuilding soil’s organic matter and restoring soil biodiversity.

And even though Tom has carved out a name for his ultra-premium Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, he also has had a deep love for Sauvignon Blanc and he has collected seven different clones of this variety, keeping the biodiversity of plant material alive and well, going to great lengths to obtain such clones. The Preston clone of Sauvignon Blanc is a suitcase clone brought back from Bordeaux sometime in the late 50s to early 60s by a “true bohemian” named Lou Preston, who allowed others to take cuttings from his vineyard in Dry Creek Valley. The Preston clone found its way into Peter Michael’s L’Après-Midi, which Tom was a fan of from its inception, but unfortunately, Lou’s vineyard was ravaged by virus and so Tom couldn’t get cuttings from the source. Yet when he heard about a vineyard in Oakville, Napa, planted with Lou Preston’s clone, that was going to be ripped out due to a new owner wanting to plant Cabernet Sauvignon instead, Tom showed up to the site days before the bulldozers came and took cuttings to grow in his own vineyard in Yountville, Napa, in 1998.

Today, Tom says that universities such as U.C. Davis and Cornell can grow plants from tissue that is smaller than a virus, and hence, they can grow healthy vines from virus clones as the virus cannot affect the new plant.

Gamble Family Vineyards winery
Photo Credit: Gamble Family Vineyards

But eventually, Tom was drawn to make wine himself and he established Gamble Family Vineyards, releasing his own bottling with the 2005 vintage only having one winemaker since that time. It is not the most “practical” approach, especially when someone doesn’t own another business in a much more profitable industry that can support a Napa winery, but Tom joked that he has only been practical a couple of times in his life as his passion supersedes logic at times. Although known for his Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards, he charges more than the average price for his Sauvignon Blanc grapes which are ultra-premium grapes in their own right and he has had longtime relationships with wineries who were happy to pay the price even if others balked at the cost in the past as it was not a valued grape variety at one time. Ironically, Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc has become very popular in recent times and he now finds a lot more wine producers trying to purchase his grapes.

Tom still sells most of his grapes from his 175-acre estate, spread across such lauded Napa sub-regions as Oakville, Mt. Veeder, Rutherford and Yountville and he keeps his own wine production small. Yet that farmer in him could not help but want to take his winemaking ventures to a new and challenging direction, a multi-vintage Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley wine.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Multi-Vintage

The Mill Keeper, Cabernet Sauvignon MV
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

Tom Gamble has always been very forward-looking as over a decade ago, he was a part of drafting important California sustainable programs such as Fish Friendly Farming and Napa Green programs and he is currently going through the process of becoming Regenerative Organic certified. But when he sees the waste that green harvesting causes, all those grapes bunches lopped off and thrown away, he feels that there has to be a better way, especially considering if he wants to make wines that appeal to the next generation of wine drinkers who he deems as being “passionate” about their values and incredibly “thoughtful” about saving the planet. 

And so, in 2021, Tom founded The Mill Keeper, and as France has inspired him for much of the wines he makes as well as where he plants each variety, Tom is now inspired by Champagne, where they blend vintages to create consistency from grapes that are picked at lower ripeness levels, and hence, the creation of the Multi-Vintage (MV) Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, as he prefers MV over Non-Vintage (NV) as NV doesn’t bring focus to each story of the different vintages. The name is a tribute to Napa’s first mill keepers who were able to transform nature’s raw material with “work, determination, and skill” into a “dependable, approachable finished product.” 

Photo of Tom Gamble on label
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

He takes those grape bunches that are cut off during green harvest, at lower ripeness levels than average, and he found a large commercial winery that can separate the juice and good stuff from the seeds and green skins immediately, so it is then brought back to his winery where they ferment the wine without using any oak barrels, and it ends up being a fresh, delicious and lively wine made from top Napa Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, that would have just been thrown out, that retails at $35; blending vintages helps to bring more consistency to these grapes as some vintages are hotter than others. It is a great way to get young people into drinking Napa but most importantly, it is about Tom taking the next step at taking a hard look at his own life, even if he has lived an environmentally conscious life, and finding where he can do more in preventing catastrophe for the future.

“We are coming to the practical limits and the political limits of developing new vineyards in Napa, and no one wants to see a forest cut down for another vanity project,” exclaimed Tom. 

And it becomes clear that even in a world like Napa, where a grape grower’s and wine producer’s costs are through the roof with excessive taxes, as well as being an employer who pays living wages in an area where living has become extremely expensive, a farmer can find another way to stop the madness of destroying Mother Nature. And not just any farmer but one who, as a small child, would run out every morning and talk to the trees, giving them each their own name. “I have been a tree-hugger for a long time,” Tom said as he explained why he placed a photo of himself as a child with a tree in the background on his Gamble Family Vineyards wine label. 

And the wine world could certainly use more innovators who still have that little child alive in him, still seeing the wonderment all around him each time he walks the vineyards.

***This article was originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2022/04/07/napa-cabernet-sauvignon-wine-made-from-a-multi-vintage-blend/

The Mill Keeper, Cabernet Sauvignon MV Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

The Gamble Family Vineyards wines use native yeasts and Tom says he has never had an issue with weird ferments as he has a wide range of native yeasts that flourish in his vineyards since he has consistently implemented sustainable practices that encourage biodiversity.

The Mill Keeper

The Mill Keeper by Gamble Family Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon MV (Multi-Vintage), Yountville, Napa Valley: Cabernet Sauvignon from 2018 and 2019 vintages. A lovely juiciness to this wine with hints of ripe plums, cinnamon stick and crushed rocks with silky tannins and bright acidity with no indication of any green notes.

Tom Gamble didn’t make any red wine in 2020 because of the fires, so there are only 2018 and 2019 vintages in the MV wine. It has been a lot of trial and error for him to try to figure out how to make delicious wine from grapes with low ripeness levels, so he only has two vintages for now. If this project is successful, he would love to eventually blend around five vintages into The Mill Keeper, bringing more complexity to the wines. They also make The Mill Keeper Multi-Vintage Chardonnay.

2020 Gamble Family Vineyards, Sauvignon Blanc Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Gamble Family Vineyards

2020 Gamble Family Vineyards, Sauvignon Blanc, Yountville, Napa Valley: 100% Sauvignon Blanc made from four different clones. Mixture of exotic fruit like mango and stone fruits such as nectarine with hints of stony minerality and zingy lemon confit on the finish.

2017 Gamble Family Vineyards Heart Block Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2017 Gamble Family Vineyards “Heart Block” Yountville, Napa Valley: 100% Sauvignon Blanc from two clones in the heart of the vineyard that Tom thought was like those Sauvignon Blanc vineyards in Bordeaux which he loves so much. Honeycomb and toasted spices on the nose with complex layers of quince paste, grapefruit rind, dried chamomile and wet stones with a touch of creaminess mid-palate, a wine with multifaceted flavors and textures. Tom wanted to show how well great Sauvignon Blanc can age and says that he finds that this wine is in its ideal place around eight years old.

2018 Gamble Family Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley: 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot, 5% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 3% Malbec. Dusty earth notes balanced by rich cassis flavors with hints of fresh tobacco and espresso taking it to the next level of deliciousness that has finely structured tannins with some grip along the focused finish.

2016 Gamble Family Vineyards Paramount Photo Credit Cathrine Todd
2016 Gamble Family Vineyards “Paramount”
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2016 Gamble Family Vineyards “Paramount” Napa Valley: 31% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Cabernet Franc, 30% Merlot and 8% Petit Verdot. All the varieties in this wine are balanced so well with multi-layered fruit characters that range from freshly picked blueberries to raspberry liqueur that is further highlighted by fresh coffee grounds, cocoa powder and dried herbs with silky tannins and sweet spice on the finish.

2016 Gamble Family Vineyards Family Home Photo Credit Cathrine Todd
2016 Gamble Family Vineyards “Family Home”
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2016 Gamble Family Vineyards “Family Home” Napa Valley: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from a single vineyard in Oakville on a rocky knoll-top that creates a high-stress environment for the vines producing more concentrated fruit. Enticing smoky black tea aromas such as Lapsang Souchong with ripe red cherries and hints of wildflowers with lush flavors on the palate and blackcurrant preserves intermixed with complex notes of cigar box and gravelly earth.

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French Wine Producer And Explorer Of Antarctica Studying Terroir Of The Ocean

Twisted and squeezed by the force of the rapids in the river, the hand crafted canoe took on a banana shape as food and a rifle fell out into the swiftly moving river as the two 18-year-old young men paddling the vessel were grabbed by the current that carried them against their will 1,000 feet away to shore. Still fiercely determined to continue their seemingly crazy journey along the desolate trail beginning from the indigenous village of Schefferville in the North East section of the Canadian province of Quebec to the even further north indigenous area of Kangiqsualujjuaq to meet the Inuit people, the young men went back upstream, jumping in the freezing cold water to find their supplies. Nothing could be found and hence they were left with a big decision to make that would forever shape their lives.

This mission involved a total of four French young men who had the opportunity to meet a French explorer named Alain Rastoin in the early 1980s, who they saw on the TV show Les Carnets de L’Aventure; they were fascinated with his attempted journey to reach Kangiqsualujjuaq, known as Port Nouveau Québec in French. The last part of the trip that would take two months of travel time had a tragic turn for Alain Rastoin as a rapid with huge waves flipped their canoe, and his photographer, who was accompanying him, died. He never finished the trip and these young men told him they would finish the journey for him. “You are all mad,” exclaimed Alain to the young men and he warned them that they had no idea of the treacherous terrain that awaited them.

A few years later, these young men attempted the unsuccessful final segment of Alain’s journey and the accident among the rapids left them only one tent, half the amount of intended food, no rifle to hunt with and only one canoe but they decided to continue and hike the rest of the way instead of going back to safety. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find the fishing camp drawn on a map for them by Alain Rastoin himself, and so eventually stranded with no food, they climbed up a hill where hopefully they could signal one of the aircrafts that passed monthly along the path to supply the Kangiqsualujjuaq village. They could have just missed the monthly aircraft, or maybe they were located where they were still not visible but that didn’t stop them from making fires day and night that might be noticed from the sky.

An overwhelming wave of guilt washed over one of the young men, Albéric Bichot, as he regretted all the decisions that led him to possibly die of starvation or hypothermia while his parents were back in France with no idea of his fate. Why didn’t he heed Alain’s warning? Why didn’t he at least turn back when the canoe accident happened? Over and over again, he replayed these moments in his mind wishing that he could relive them. As he imagined the tremendous amount of lifelong pain his unexpected death would cause his parents, he begged the universe at that moment for a miracle, and if the miracle came, he swore he would never come back to that part of the world again.

Albéric Bichot in Antarctica
Photo Credit: ©Marin LE ROUX
– Tara Ocean Foundation

Luckily, a helicopter noticed them as it was part of a mining exploration that had been in the area for four months. Albéric Bichot went back home completely traumatized from the experience while one of his friends, Nicolas Vanier, stayed and Nicolas would become a famous French explorer, writer and film director.

But despite the fear, something was awakened in Albéric during that journey and a few years later he found himself taking on the same journey and successfully accomplishing the mission the second time around as well as traveling to remote areas of Polynesia and finally making a trip from Quebec to Ushuaïa, the southernmost tip of Argentina, with only the equivalent of $1,000 in his pocket.

Burgundy Wine Estates 

Horse ploughing at Albert Bichot’s Château Gris Photo Credit: Flore Deronzier

To his family’s relief, Albéric joined his family’s business in 1996, Domaines Albert Bichot, which today owns six estates, a.k.a. domaines, ranging from Burgundy’s north, Chablis, down to Beaujolais just south of Burgundy – five in Burgundy and one in Beaujolais. The Bichot family traces their roots in Burgundy as far back as the mid-1300s and Albéric certainly takes the idea of devotion to sense of place to the next level as he believes that each area of vineyards should have its own dedicated team that lives and breathes those vineyards every day.

Having “small passionate and fully dedicated teams” at each location is critical in preserving the “typicity of each vineyard,” Albéric explained.

Domaines Albert Bichot and Tara Ocean Partnership 

Recently, Albéric has taken on a major project that combines his love for the exploration of the ocean, as well as the land, with the Tara Ocean Foundation. The foundation had a sailing ship (schooner) leave for a 43,000-mile journey in December 2020 that is currently studying the invisible marine microorganisms in the ocean. Since there is a partnership between Domaines Albert Bichot and the Tara Ocean Foundation, Albéric was able to join the crew for ten days in December of 2021 that included the section from the South Atlantic to Antarctica.

Tara Ocean Foundation sailing ship (schooner) in Antarctica
Photo Credit: ©Marin LE ROUX
– Tara Ocean Foundation

Albéric, who has been committed to organic viticulture since the early 2000s, has taken a serious interest in how climate change is melting icebergs that will not only change entire ecosystems but could potentially release a significant amount of CO2 trapped within the soils underneath their several layers of packed ice. He notes that Burgundy has evident climate change, with more erratic climatic events increasing every year.

One of the studies that Domaines Albert Bichot is conducting with the foundation directly links to their wines as 12 magnums of wine, representing six ideal expressions of their top vineyard from each estate, is currently evolving among the powerful influences of such a journey while other magnums of the same wine rest peacefully in their historical wine cellar in Beaune, Burgundy in France. When the ship returns in October of 2022, a unique comparative tasting will occur.

As Albéric looks back at that moment when he thought that he would die a brutal, slow death in a desolate place all those years ago, he knows that it forever changed him. At first, he thought the trauma would force him to live a life of fear, never seeking out adventure again, but he could not immediately comprehend that it unlocked something deep inside that gave him the strength to overcome such a terrifying event.

The gift of experiencing how fragile life can be, at only 18 years old, has made him determined to make his life matter. Bringing attention to the concerning changes in Antarctica, by using resources from Domaines Albert Bichot, will hopefully open more eyes to the worrying distress signals Mother Nature is giving in the most remote areas of the world.

Even when all hope should have been lost all those years ago, Albéric and his friends found a way to go on, and he is taking that same fierce perseverance to find a way to save the planet even when others are saying all is lost.

***This article was originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2022/03/26/french-wine-producer-and-explorer-of-the-antarctica-studying-terroir-of-the-ocean/

2020 Horizon de Bichot Pinot Noir
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

As of the 2018 vintage, Domaines Albert Bichot wines from the Côte d’Or (Domaine du Clos Frantin, Château Gris and Domaine du Pavillon) as well as their Côte Chalonnaise property (Domaine Adélie) are all certified organic. The name Adélie comes from the territory Adélie Land (Adélie Terre) on the continent of Antarctica. Albéric not only named his property in Chalonnaise after it when he purchased it in 2005 but he also named his oldest daughter Adélie.

NV Albert Bichot, Crémant de Bourgogne Brut Réserve Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

NV Albert Bichot, Crémant de Bourgogne Brut Réserve, Burgundy, France: 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. A traditional sparkling wine with notes of croissants and white flowers that has tiny bubbles on the palate with a stony minerality on the sustained finish.

NV Albert Bichot, Crémant de Bourgogne Brut Rosé, Burgundy, France: 80% Pinot Noir and the rest made-up of Chardonnay and Gamay. This traditional sparkling rosé has a spicy white pepper note with freshly picked strawberries and bright acidity.

2020 Horizon de Bichot Pinot Noir
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2020 Albert Bichot, Horizon de Bichot Pinot Noir, Burgundy, France: 100% Pinot Noir. Enchanting nose with floral notes mixed with ripe raspberries that has juicy fruit on the palate and baking spices in the background.

2019 Albert Bichot, Chassagne-Montrachet, Côte de Beaune, Burgundy, France: 100% Chardonnay. Zingy on the nose with lemon zest and fierce limestone minerality that has good energy on the palate with lots of vitality.

2018 Domaine du Pavillon, Pommard 1er Cru ‘Les Rugiens’
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2018 Domaine du Pavillon, Pommard 1er Cru ‘Les Rugiens’, Côte de Beaune, Burgundy, France: 100% Pinot Noir. Black cherries with hints of upheaved earth and tree bark that had an electric body with notes of rhubarb finishing with lingering forest floor.

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Top Wine Region In Spain Using Old Technique Of ‘Layering’ Century-Old Vines

The shoot from the old mother vine being buried in the earth to grow a daughter vine Photo Credit: Abadía San Quirce
The shoot from the old mother vine being buried in the earth to grow a daughter vine
Photo Credit: Abadía San Quirce

José Antolín grew up in a small village in Spain, home of only a few hundred people during the 1930s to 1950s; even today, only around 250 people still reside there. Like many of their neighbors, his family was dirt poor as there was very little work and just simply putting food on the table was a constant weekly challenge. Almost an hour away, in the historical city of Burgos, there was an opportunity for the Antolín family to open a garage to repair cars and tractors as many wheat farmers surrounded the town as well as a booming industrial economy existed where many inhabitants were making a good living. In 1950, José and his brother invented the rubber-metal steering joints in automobiles helping to prolong the life of this component; fast-forward to today, the family’s company, Antolín Group, a Spanish multinational company that designs and manufactures parts for the interiors of cars, has sales that are in the billions of dollars as well as has their components in nine of the ten best-selling vehicles in the world.

But through time, the rural way of life that was being threatened started to concern José Antolín. He was afraid that many small villages, such as the one he grew up in, may vanish and industrial agriculture would take over the land. And so his deep love for the century-old Tempranillo bush vines that existed in the Ribera del Duero wine region, which surrounds the enchanting city of Burgos – extending out west and east – would lead him with three other business partners to start the wine company Bodegas Imperiales in 1998.

José named the winery Abadía San Quirce after the 12th-century abbey that he bought in the area and the name of the winery is a symbol of his fierce commitment to protecting the history of his homeland. Through time, José bought out the other owners so he could solely run Abadía San Quirce as he was fiercely passionate about keeping the old ways of farming the vines, which didn’t make financial sense, and he is keeping alive a technique called ‘layering‘ that allows the century-old vines to live on, in some sense, indefinitely.

Abadía San Quirce in Ribera del Duero 

Abadía San Quirce sources fruit from vineyards they own themselves as well as working with multi-generational growers, and almost 20% of the vines they work with are over 100 years old pre-phylloxera vines. Pre-phylloxera vines are rare, precious gems nowadays as many vines worldwide have to be grafted on American rootstock to combat the phylloxera louse that devastated the vineyards of Europe in the mid-19th century; hence working with some of the oldest vines in Ribera del Duero, Spain.

Mother and daughter vines side by side from the technique of layering Photo Credit: Abadía San Quirce
The shoot from the old mother vine being buried in the earth to grow a daughter vine
Photo Credit: Abadía San Quirce

But the old technique of layering will allow these century-old vines to live on past their own lifespan. Grapevines can asexually reproduce, and so if one buries a shoot coming off of an existing century-old vine right next to it, the buried shoot will be able to grow roots from the buds dormant in that shoot. Through time, a vine, which will be trellised as a bush vine, will grow and be an extension of that century-old vine. The mother (original 100-year-old vine) and the new daughter vine (produced from the mother’s shoot) will stay connected as long as needed, according to Abadía San Quirce winemaker Diana Moreno Grávalos. But sometimes, the shoot is cut if the daughter vine has reached enough maturity to have deep roots, yet it will always be as close as a vine can get to that mother vine when it comes to its DNA. Diana notes that their old vines are part of the expression of their terroir (sense of place) and so going to these great lengths to keep some part of these century-old vines alive, even in another century, is essential to Abadía San Quirce.

Diana said that the old vines produce significantly lower yields and the grapes are much more concentrated and complex – expressing more sense of place than the younger vines – yet there is an added benefit of their high drought and disease tolerance. She even experiences these qualities in their other vines that range between 50 to 65 years old and says the wine produced from these older vines is more “balanced” than what is made from younger vines. Abadía San Quirce likes to bottle their “youngest vines” in their own bottling as the grapes have much more fruit expression that can be enjoyed younger, however, the youngest vines they use are at a good maturity of being between 15 to 25 years old, which is remarkable considering many other wine producers around the world view vines to be at the end of their life at 25 years old instead of the beginning.

Winter in the vineyards of Abadía San Quirce Photo Credit: Abadía San Quirce
Winter in the Abadía San Quirce vineyards
Photo Credit: Abadía San Quirce

Whether owned by Abadía San Quirce or sourced by family growers, all of the vineyards are only managed by hand without any mechanical assistance, as it is the best way to avoid harming the old vines. All of their vines are bush vines that are buried directly into the ground without using any foreign rootstocks, as they do not fear the louse phylloxera destroying the roots or base of the plants since they have sandy soils in their vineyards which phylloxera doesn’t like. “Every vine we plant has the intention of it becoming a century-old vine one day”, explained Diana.

Living on in the Vines 

The far-off past becomes more vivid as one gets older, and the immediate present starts to fade into the background. Maybe it is because when one no longer has to work long hours to build and sustain something of significance for his family, he can rest and reflect on the values passed on to him as a child.

There were many tough times for José Antolín growing up poor in a sparsely populated rural village but there were also beautiful moments of a community coming together to maintain those precious aspects of their village such as the sweat and blood that were given in the care of these bush vines, so those same plants could be passed on to their great-great grandchildren and beyond.

And so, even though José Antolín, has given back to his larger community in his province a thousand times over by building an automobile component business that has created jobs, resources and opportunities, he has never forgotten about the tiny farming villages that represent the heart and soul of his family. And so he is doing everything in his power to make sure that the people of these rural towns have a reason to stay and can pass down the old vines for centuries to come… making sure that the sacrifices of past generations don’t die so quickly but instead are always there to remind the future locals who they are, where they came from and the pride that comes from being rooted in such a place.

***This article was originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2022/03/10/top-wine-region-in-spain-using-old-technique-of-layering-century-old-vines/

2020 Abadía San Quirce ‘6 Meses’ Ribera del Duero Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd
2020 Abadía San Quirce ‘6 Meses’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

All of the Abadía San Quirce wines are made from bush vine Tempranillo – known at Tinta del País in the villages where their vineyards are located in Ribera del Duero. They only use their estate vineyards, or family vineyards that they have helped manage for decades, they will never buy grapes from any other vineyards even if yields are meager due to frost. Most of the vineyards are around 2,600 feet (800 meters) in elevation and mainly made up of sandy soils that bring an “elegance” to their wines, according to winemaker Diana Moreno Grávalos.

2020 Abadía San Quirce ‘6 Meses’ Ribera del Duero: 100% bush vine Tempranillo that range between 20 to 25 years old – some of their youngest vines. A deliciously generous wine with notes of dried blueberries and red currant preserves with hints of cinnamon bark and a round body with a juicy finish. It is only aged six months in oak and hence the name.

2018 Abadía San Quirce, Crianza
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2018 Abadía San Quirce, Crianza, Ribera del Duero: 100% bush vine Tempranillo that average around 40 years old. Dusty rock with pretty red strawberry fruit and good mid-palate weight with an intriguing note of sandalwood incense with a fine texture.

2016 Abadía San Quirce, Reserva, Ribera del Duero: 100% bush vine Tempranillo that average around 50 years old. The Reserva is not released yet and so this is a preview bottling. Complex nose of fresh leather, black olive and rich cassis with tighter tannins and deeper concentration – built to age.

2019 Abadía San Quirce ‘M9’ Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd
2019 Abadía San Quirce ‘M9’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 Abadía San Quirce ‘M9’ Ribera del Duero: 100% bush vine Tempranillo that are 65 years old. This is a single vineyard site made in small quantities, and the vineyard is located 920 meters (over 3,000 feet) in elevation, hence why it is called ‘M9’. This wine has more of a Continental quality since the temperatures are a lot cooler in this vineyard, and so it has an intense minerality and marked acidity with notes of granite and blackcurrant leaf and a long aromatic, expressive finish.

2016 Abadía San Quirce ‘Finca Helena’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2016 Abadía San Quirce ‘Finca Helena’ Ribera del Duero: 100% bush vine Tempranillo from vines that are over 100 years old. This is another single vineyard made in small quantities that has been isolated and has a unique expression. The winemaker Diana Moreno Grávalos said that there might be other sites that they start to separate to do more single-vineyard bottlings in the future. This wine is much deeper and darker than the ‘M9’ with brooding blackberry fruit and hints of blueberry scones with a mineral edge that has hints of broken limestone notes with a big body that has brawny tannins with a lovely silky quality, so although it is a wine with a lot of structure, it has a fine quality that caresses the palate.

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Native Italian Wine Grapes Succeeding Under Women’s Guidance In Sicily

Photo Credit: Wines of Sicilia DOC

Strapped in tightly into the cramped cockpit, Barbara felt a jolt of exhilaration as the jet started to climb over 6,000 feet per minute and since this Aermacchi MB-339 jet was only going up to around 3,000 feet it took only half a minute to level off. Every bit of turbulence was felt due to the lack of cushioning on Barbara’s seat but this lack of cushion would ideally protect her spine if she needed to eject out with the parachute. As the aerobatics began – turning upside down, turning on a dime, dipping down swiftly to come closer to the ground, she was at once feeling forces against her body at an intensity that she could never fathom while at the same time feeling that she was in a dream as she and the jet were one – very little between her and the open sky – and so she knew what it was like to be an eagle and to see through its eyes. 

A childhood dream came true that day when Barbara Tamburini became part of only a handful of women who have flown on the legendary Aermacchi MB-339 jet with the National Aerobatic Patrol in the region of Friuli in Italy. Barbara, who is already a legend among winemakers in Italy winning many awards since she started in 1996 – such as Best Winemaker in Italy – was able to use her Italian wine celebrity to get a chance to fly with the National Aerobatic Patrol. 

Although she has worked in some of the most significant wine regions in the world, such as Piedmont and Tuscany – receiving one of the most prestigious Tuscan wine awards called the Golden Pegasus – she now finds her main wine home in Sicily as she became the winemaker of Duca di Salaparuta in the summer of 2020. 

Wine Women in Sicily 

Barbara Tamburini
Photo Credit: Romeo Gaetano

Barbara was drawn to Sicily for many reasons as she expressed that it is like its own continent in regards to a large amount of diversity of soils, climate and native grape varieties – over 70 native varieties are already being used for wine while many more are being researched. Duca di Salaparuta, a winery that has been around for almost 200 years, has an important link to the most popular native red grape in Sicily, Nero d’Avola. The winery’s ‘Duca Enrico’ wine, first made in 1984, was the first single varietal bottling of Nero d’Avola, and Barbara’s philosophy which includes “respect of the grapes” combined with “expression of the land”, enhanced by her reputation for making great Italian red wines in particular, all point to exciting Nero d’Avola wines coming out in the future from Duca di Salaparuta

One cannot even mention wine women in Sicily without talking about José Rallo, one of the family owners of the world-famous Donnafugata winery, who, with her mother, have been trailblazers in Sicily.

Sicily’s old-world charm is what makes many around the world flock to it as other areas in Europe start to become too overtly modernized for some travelers’ tastes. It is not only steeped in Italian Sicilian culture but a mixture of African and Middle East influences as well as other cultures can be found in the art, food and overall feeling of belonging for the various types of people who come from all walks of life to Sicily; but certainly those traditional ways did hold back women in the past as they were expected to fulfill roles of being a wife and mother and nothing else.

Gabriella Rallo and her daughter José Rallo
Photo Credit: Gambina

José Rallo’s mother was the first viticulturist in Sicily, and many thought her father, Giacomo Rallo, was crazy for allowing a woman to oversee the vineyards. As his daughter José showed the same gift for storytelling that Giacomo had, he decided to send her off into the wider world, working for big companies, so she could come back and tell the family how they should market their wines as Sicilian wines on export markets were non-existent at the time.

Since women played an essential part in their wines, José decided to focus on the female journey calling the wines “woman who fled” which is the English translation for ‘Donnafugata’ as it represents the woman who learns to fly on her own so she can come back to empower everyone else; and that is undoubtedly the story of José as Donnafugata has helped establish Sicilian wines all over the world. Donnafugata has introduced the names of many Sicilian native grape varieties to wine drinkers globally, and two such native red grape varieties are known because of her, Nero d’Avola and Frappato.

There is only one DOCG, the highest designation quality level for Italian wines, in Sicily although some wine experts would dispute that there should be more, and it is in the area called Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG which must be a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato – two Sicilian grapes that represent two different sides of Sicilian wine. Donnafugata makes this prestigious wine under the name ‘Floramundi’, and the label shows a woman giving the gift of flowers and fruits as it is a wine that showcases the dialogue of the two different souls of these grapes. Nero d’Avola brings a depth of fruit flavor and structure as opposed to Frappato’s brightness and floral aromatics.

Nero d’Avola and Frappato

These two grapes illustrate the two different sides of Sicilian wine and the many facets of the women in Sicily who make them, market them and sell them. The wines of Nero d’Avola can range from youthful and easy to big, bold and complex – deserving of cellaring. Nero d’Avola is a grape that can represent the strength and toughness of the women who are bringing these wines to the forefront, and it balances so well with the vitality and available pretty notes of Frappato because that is another side of these women – as sometimes it takes more strength to give solely to uplift others instead of only demanding individual respect.

Patricia Tóth
Photo Credit: Planeta Winery

Another famous wine producer, Planeta, makes a 100% Frappato (Vittoria DOC) wine not that far from Donnafugata’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG vineyard. Planeta’s winemaker, Patricia Tóth, who has been winemaker there for over 13 years – a Hungarian who has made Sicily her adopted home, talked about the importance of this Frappato vineyard displaying the serious potential of this grape. The soil in Vittoria is its key feature with a red soil called terra rossa associated with other quality wine-growing areas of the world but this particular terra rossa has a sandy texture, and it lacks nutrients with a limestone base underneath the top layer. This soil assists in smaller yields which Patricia says makes a big difference in producing a high-quality, single varietal Frappato wine. She also spoke about the intriguing “smoky” minerality coming from this Frappato, highlighted by the site.

Anna Alessandro with her family
Photo Credit: Alessandro di Camporeale

And a daughter, Anna Alessandro, leads the way by bringing attention to her lesser-known family winery called Alessandro di Camporeale. Only in the last 20 years have they started to make their own wines as before they were growers who sold their grapes for many generations. But after working hard with her father and two brothers in the vineyards replanting for quality and implementing organic practices, they finally feel they can showcase the potential of their land. Their single vineyard ‘Donnatà’, which is 25 miles southwest of Palermo, the capital of Sicily, shows the beautiful balance of the refreshing acidity and rich black cherry flavors that Nero d’Avola can produce in ideal conditions – the vineyard benefits from intense breezes in this vineyard which is vital as Anna said that Nero d’Avola can suffer from mildew if the grapes do not have good airflow.

A Place of Contradictions 

One of the most amazing things about Sicily is how they can keep much of the old world charm but be innovators in other ways. The local government has been a leader in investing funding into agricultural research initiatives and no other region has a better handle on understanding the multitude of their native grapes, hence, Sicily has set the standard for native grape research for other Italian wine regions. In a way, innovation and preservation of the old ways seem like a counterintuitive partnership but what appears impossible elsewhere is possible in Sicily.

The landscape where the vineyards of Alessandro di Camporeale are located
Photo Credit: Alessandro di Camporeale

The same can be said about how women are viewed in Sicily as one of the most influential wine women in Italy, José Rallo, is Sicilian through and through, and there are incredibly talented women winemakers from other places drawn to making wine in Sicily yet there is still that wonderfully warm, traditional Sicilian grandmother who is always ready with a big hug and a hearty meal for anyone who shows up on her doorstep. It is impossible to place wine women in Sicily in a box, just like getting a complete understanding of everything about Sicily itself would take several lifetimes; once one thinks he knows it, something else comes along to contradict his first conclusion.

And knowing that about Sicily explains how it could attract a woman like Barbara Tamburini, who has already achieved great success in other wine regions in Italy. She may be brilliant, hardworking and extremely brave but she is also at the same time humble, warm and often times gives credit to her longtime mentor. She mainly exudes the feeling of gratitude and never-ending enthusiasm for taking on the next challenge.

In a way, Sicily seems to be the ideal place for her as it combines all of her qualities as this Mediterranean island is still on its quest to show the world that great Italian wine can be friendly as well as profound; a wine drinker doesn’t have to compromise on one to receive the other. 

***Cover photo credit: Wines of Sicilia DOC

***This article was originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2022/03/04/native-italian-wine-grapes-succeeding-under-womens-guidance-in-sicily/

2019 Donnafugata ‘Floramundi’ Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd
2018 Planeta, Frappato, Vittoria DOC Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 Donnafugata ‘Floramundi’ Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG: 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Frappato. Beautiful floral and red fruit notes with lilacs and red currant preserves with a good amount of weight that has dried black cherries and fresh thyme and crushed rocks on the long finish.

2018 Planeta, Frappato, Vittoria DOC: 100% Frappato. Pretty pale ruby color and smoky minerality on the nose with rose petal, fresh red cherries and strawberries with an intriguing note of singed herbs with a round body and aromatically expressive finish.  

2018 Alessandro di Camporeale, Nero d’Avola ‘Donnatà’, Sicilia DOC
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2018 Alessandro di Camporeale, Nero d’Avola ‘Donnatà’, Sicilia DOC: 100% Nero d’Avola. Dark berries yet really bright with fresh sage and rich black cherry flavors with hints of anise seed and refreshing acidity.

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From Artificial Intelligence To Prison Reform: Tuscan Wine Producer Revolutionizing The World

2019 Frescobaldi Gorgona Bianco
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

When it comes to wine from Tuscany, no other family holds more importance than the Frescobaldi family, now in their 30th generation of Frescobaldi Toscana that includes eight estates throughout Tuscany, only placing their wine focus on this much-beloved wine region of Italy. Undoubtedly, the family is still deeply connected to their remarkable history as a 1,000-year-old noble Florentine family as still many in the Frescobaldi family live in their Renaissance-style palazzo (palace) in the center of Florence in Tuscany. And although they are fiercely committed to guarding the land and culture of their home, they have been leading the way in revolutionizing wine communication as well as surprisingly advancing prison reform.

Lamberto Frescobaldi, the President of Frescobaldi Toscana, talked about not only the significant differences between various wine regions within Italy but that Tuscany as a region itself has a tremendous amount of diversity and that someone could spend the rest of his life trying to understand all the various wine areas of Tuscany, which is precisely what he has done throughout his life; he grew up in the vineyards of their Nipozzano estate which is a well-respected subzone of Chianti DOCG, Chianti Rùfina, known for its high-altitude sites.

But through time, Lamberto has not only helped his family to acquire more impressive estates, such as another Chianti estate Perano that produces highly-concentrated Sangiovese balanced by an overall finesse, but now he is leading the way for Frescobaldi to be part of a project of artificial intelligence (AI), assisting wine drinkers at home and bringing another dimension to Italian prison reform.

Artificial Intelligence and Wine

Frescobaldi has entered into a partnership with Amazon in Italy that will help give wine drinkers pairing suggestions through the AI-powered digital assistant Alexa based on food, event or mood of a person, that will lead the wine drinker to the ideal wine made by Frescobaldi; through time Lamberto is hoping that they will be able to make this program available in the U.S. market. For wine drinkers to receive this advice, they only need to ask Alexa to open “Vino Perfetto ” which translates into English as “Perfect Wine”. Such complex questions as finding a perfect wine for a romantic evening that is within a specific price point will be quickly answered by Alexa, as well as pairing a wine to a particular meal.

Frescobaldi unveiling their virtual reality experience in Rome
Photo Credit: Frescobaldi Toscana

But their embracing of technology to find new ways to connect with their customers does not end there as they have been testing a Frescobaldi Wine Tasting & Virtual Reality Tour that allows wine enthusiasts to travel to their many grand estates without having to leave the comfort of their home. Nothing can completely substitute visiting a fantastic wine estate in Tuscany, but it is not possible for everyone, and the Covid pandemic has shown the world that there needs to be an infrastructure built for other ways to connect for not only the health of businesses but also for people’s mental health.

Prison Reform and Wine

Back in the summer of 2012, Lamberto, among other Tuscan wine producers, received an email from the Gorgona Penal Institute, which ran the only still functioning penal island still left in Italy. He was the only one to answer the email, and quickly he found himself investing the time and resources in making wine from the vines on this prison island that houses around 100 inmates. His Gorgona wine is only made in small quantities and graces the lists of some of Tuscany’s top restaurants, but it is mainly an inspirational program that helps long-time prisoners to reenter the world with a bank account with money, skills, self-respect and a greater sense of the fulfillment of having a job that one can be proud of. And besides the benefit of inmates earning a salary, there is also the benefit of the profits of the wine going back into the penal island – giving more resources to improve living conditions and potentially accommodate more inmates in the future.

Lamberto Frescobaldi (second from right) on the island of Gorgona
Photo Credit: Frescobaldi Toscana

Lamberto doesn’t hesitate to say that many of the prisoners have been given life sentences because they had committed violent crimes such as murder, but Italy has realized through the years that they cannot afford to keep many of these prisoners in jail for life and so, the prisoners who have demonstrated exemplary behavior, over 20 years or so in prison, will be allowed to apply to go to the Gorgona island which is off the coast of Tuscany. The inmates on the island can freely move around as they spend most of their time working outside, tending to the organically-farmed vines. “100% of the prisoners released from the island have not returned to jail,” Lamberto proudly noted as he explained that around 85% of people released from Italian prisons for serious crimes end up going back to prison and spending the rest of their lives in jail.

When he describes the Gorgona wine, made from a white blend of native Italian varieties Vermentino and Ansonica, he said the wine has a unique taste of “hope”. It may seem incomprehensible how someone could murder someone, but some of the inmates that Lamberto has gotten to know have had stories of a dysfunctional childhood with no sense of structure or someone who felt desperate and no longer a part of society. These men have never been given a chance to find their potential and a sense of where they fit into the world around them. He has hired some workers for his wineries and provided recommendations for others to receive work at other wineries.

Island of Gorgona
Photo Credit: Frescobaldi Toscana

“They want to learn everything that is possible,” said Lamberto, and he has been extremely impressed with how highly skilled some inmates have become in the vineyards and winery under the supervision of the Frescobaldi’s team, and they have even added planting new vineyards to their skill set. In many cases, he hasn’t seen such devotion to the extreme precision of tending to the vineyards and winery that some of these inmates display on their own.

Importance of Connection

The Frescobaldi family has spent several centuries protecting the precious land of Tuscany that would one day become one of the most popular places that fill people’s dreams. But although he would love for every wine drinker to visit his estates, he knows that many will never have the opportunity to travel to Tuscany, and that is why it is essential to use technology to connect to everyone. Whether it is the young person on a budget who wants to be able to “travel” by using her phone or the shy person who can ask Alexa for recommendations in private or the elderly person who finds that Amazon has become a necessity, especially in times like Covid, there are many segments of the population who have seen themselves outside of the wine world to whom Frescobaldi now wants to connect.

Yet Lamberto is still driven to do more every day, which is most represented by his passion project – Gorgona. He wants to give another chance, show respect to those thrown away by society, and the men are thriving in ways that have even surprised him. Wine is about connecting people with other people, connecting them to the unique qualities of a place and keeping the best parts of traditions while improving the worst parts, and no one else is pursuing such lofty goals to the extent as the Frescobaldi family.

***Originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2022/02/28/from-artificial-intelligence-to-prison-reform-tuscan-wine-producer-evolving-the-world/

2019 Frescobaldi Gorgona Bianco
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2019 Frescobaldi, Gorgona Bianco, Costa Toscana IGT, Island of Gorgona,Tuscany: White blend of Vermentino and Ansonica. Saline minerality and zingy lemon zest with good weight on the palate with lovely white peach flavors.

2017 Nipozzano, Chianti Rùfina Riserva DOCG
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2017 Nipozzano, Chianti Rùfina Riserva DOCG, Tuscany: Majority Sangiovese with a small amount of native varieties as well as allowed international varieties. This is Frescobaldi’s most well-known wine and Lamberto says it is like an outgoing person who is easy to get to know. Delicious black and red cherry fruit with baking spices and round tannins along the juicy finish.

2015 Perano ‘Rialzi’ Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione  Photo Credit Cathrine Todd
2015 Perano ‘Rialzi’ Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2015 Perano ‘Rialzi’ Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione, Tuscany: 100% Sangiovese from the single vineyard site ‘Rialzi’. Because of the high altitude of this site, over 1,500 feet, and the well-draining soil, it produces small-berried Sangiovese grapes, which produce very concentrated wine that “makes a statement” yet has an overall finesse. Lamberto likes to compare this wine to a person that seems challenging at first but eventually becomes a close friend. This is a wine with big tannins and intriguing dark, brooding fruit balanced by a stunning mineral note that is simply beautiful.

2016 CastelGiocondo, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG  Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd
2016 CastelGiocondo, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2016 CastelGiocondo, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany: 100% Sangiovese. The 2016 vintage is considered one of the greatest in Brunello’s recent history, and they will make great old bones. Pristine red cherry flavors with hints of plum intermixed with dried rose petals and crushed rocks with silky tannins and marked acidity.

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50-Year Wine Relationship Between Wine Importer And Great Italian Producer

Tidal waves of panic tempered by excitement keep hitting a married couple as they drive their elegantly constructed Italian car from Milan, Italy, down to the town of Montalcino in Tuscany. “What could be the emergency?” wondered the wife as they were called down to Montalcino with an urgent message. “Maybe… no, it couldn’t be possible… could it be possible?” the husband said. They had already been living an incredibly adventurous life, gambling everything on their passions and love for each other, but they could potentially be given an offer, one that they could never refuse, that would give them more responsibility than they could have imagined. Would it end up ruining the wonderful life they have already created? Or would it bring more joy and excitement into the fantastical journey they were already taking together?

Costanti’s famous Casottino Vineyard
Photo Credit: Costanti

They were a mixed couple in regards to their origins of birth as Maria Gemma was an Italian-American raised in the U.S. and Neil Empson was a New Zealander who had a passion for classic cars, yet their souls were cut from the same cloth as after their first marriages didn’t work out, they found each other and within 11 days of their first date they were married. Maria had spent a lot of time in Italy and wanted to live there and that suited Neil as he figured he could restore the classic cars, a long-time passion, and sell them to buyers around Europe. As they happily struggled, living in a tiny closet of an apartment in Milan, dribs and drabs of money would come in when Neil could sell a car. Eventually, they ended up importing wines into the U.S. as their love for food, wine and the Italian people would place them on that path.

In 1972, it was a considerable gamble back when they started in the wine import business, let alone the Italian wine import business, yet it didn’t matter if it would end in financial ruin for them as the close friendships they made with Italian wine producers was all that mattered – and hence Empson Selections was born. There wasn’t yet an established wine drinking culture in the U.S., and many parts of Italy were still recovering from the deep economic depression mainly caused by WWI and WWII. As ludicrous as it sounds today, some owners of Tuscan wine estates were giving them away for practically nothing during the 1970s and the early 1980s.

Andrea Costanti as a young man Photo Credit: Andrea Costanti

And so this couple, filled with the vibrant energy of being given a second chance at life, after being in business for almost a decade, had received a fax from the owner of Costanti, Brunello di Montalcino wine producer whom they had been working with since nearly the very beginning, saying that it was vital that they both come down to Costanti as soon as possible.

The next morning, they drove through fields of sunflowers as the sun started to rise and the famous Montalcino fog started to slowly encompass their car making the whole experience seem like a dream; they finally found themselves driving up to the Costanti estate where they found the owner, Emilio Costanti, an older man who was a medical doctor by trade who never had any children, standing by a young man. Soon they would find out the urgent news – Emilio was leaving his estate to his grand-nephew Andrea, and he would take charge after he finished college in a couple of years.

Costanti and Fuligni Wine Estates

Maria and Neil Empson initially established their import company bringing Italian wines into the U.S. and eventually Canada with long dinners, shared holidays and sipping wines until the wee hours of the morning with wine producers who came from multi-generational families. It was not a good living at the time in terms of making a lot of money, but it was a good life. It is pretty unusual for any wine producer to stay that long with the same importer as these days it is common to jump from importer to importer as there are always other companies out there that promise the moon and stars. Maria and Neil’s daughter Tara currently runs the company as they had decided to retire in their 80s a few years ago, although it is a much more competitive and unstable wine world – where loyal wine drinkers have become a rare breed, Tara still cherishes those childhood memories of falling asleep at those long dinners where her parents made relationships for life, and that will always be at the core of Empson, no matter how much the world changes around them.

Through many decades, as Empson Selections celebrates their 50th anniversary this year, they have been able to assemble one of the greatest portfolios of outstanding, small Italian wine producers. Costanti is undoubtedly known among Brunello di Montalcino wine lovers as one of the great producers that always makes wines that illustrate the elegance, finesse and power of Sangiovese from the heart of Montalcino.

Along with Costanti, Empson imports Fuligni, which is not that far from Costanti, and they are both located where historically there has been a concentration of fantastic estates. Costanti and Fuligni are situated in the center of the Montalcino designated wine-growing area where the “most complete, most refined and truly the most excellent Brunello” wines are made, according to leading Italian wine expert and award-winning wine writer Ian D’Agata. Ian also spoke about the two estates having great sites and that both are “blessed with the best winemaking teams in all of Montalcino”.

Fuligni's famous San Giovanni Vineyard  Photo Credit Fuligni
Fuligni’s famous San Giovanni Vineyard
Photo Credit: Fuligni

Fuligni’s cellar master, Daniele Zeffirini, noted that the Fuligni and Costanti wines were “special” because of where they are located in Montalcino; they have high elevations, ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 feet, so that they sit above the fog, avoiding frost and disease as well as enjoy a mild climate, having the famous Tuscan galestro (friable rock from their marl-like soil) in their vineyards combined with plenty of limestone that gives a “minerality, elegance and ability to age” to the wines, according to Daniele.

Both estates have had a long history; Fuligni going back to the 1920s and cellar master Daniele has known the Fuligni family since he was a child, and Costanti is part of the birth of Brunello di Montalcino with documents proving that they were making it in the 1800s, but Andrea Costanti said that his family was making wine in Montalcino as far back as the 1600s.

Surpassing the Dream 

As Tara Empson reflected on the fact that next year would be the 50th anniversary of Empson and Costanti working together, she mentioned how her father always says to look out for Andrea Costanti and make sure he flourishes. “My father is so proud of you,” said Tara, with Andrea responding, “Your parents have always been friends, but they were very important to me in making what Costanti is today,” as he talked about how they introduced him to his winemaker, Vittorio Fiore, all those years ago. Vittorio, who is 80 years old now, taught Andrea not only about making wine but a more profound “philosophy” of the world of wine.

Even though on that fateful day, the Empsons did not end up inheriting a winery, they knew that they did inherit the responsibility of making sure that a young man succeeded, and Andrea has surpassed what they ever thought was possible.

***This article was originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2022/02/25/50-year-wine-relationship-between-wine-importer-and-great-italian-producer/

Costanti Lineup  Photo Credit Cathrine Todd
Costanti Lineup Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd


2019 Costanti, Rosso di Montalcino DOC, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. Andrea Costanti doesn’t like to think about his Rosso as a second wine to Brunello di Montalcino as it is more about classifying the Sangiovese, during any given vintage, as being better for a more youthful wine that is meant to be consumed sooner. This 2019 has a stony minerality on the nose with red cherry and plum fruit and a touch of cardamom spice with complex notes of upheaved earth that had a good weight on the palate with juicy black and red fruit.  

2017 Costanti, Rosso di Montalcino “Vermiglio” DOC, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. “Vermiglio” is Costanti’s unofficial “Riserva” Rosso di Montalcino and so it is aged two years longer. An elegant Rosso with hints of crushed rocks and a touch of oak with tension on the palate with marked acidity, bright cherry with hints of leather and savory spices on the finish.

2017 Costanti, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. 2017 was a very warm vintage and so it is ready to drink now and Andrea says that they have learned how to find balance during warmer vintages since 2003. They made no Riserva in 2017 since they only make it when they know the wine will age for many years. The nose has hints of forest floor with dark black cherry fruit and a round, lush body with cherry pie and blackberry preserve flavors with enough freshness to balance it out.  

2016 Costanti, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva DOCG, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. 2016 is considered to be one of the best vintages for Brunello di Montalcino as there has never been a greater balance of elegance and structure for all producers across the board. Aromatic nose with baking spice and truffles with remarkable harmony between the ripe fruit and vibrant acidity with a long expressive finish of orange blossoms and lavender grounded with earthy notes along the breathtakingly long finish.

Fuligni Lineup Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd


2019 Fuligni “S.J.” Toscana IGT, Tuscany, Italy: A blend of Sangiovese and Merlot that was first made in 1977 and it is only made in small volumes, 1,500 to 2,000 bottles a year, but it is a lovely blend that shows the beautiful partnership between Sangiovese and Merlot. This 2019 vintage has 70% Sangiovese and 30% Merlot and the nose gives delicious aromas of blueberry jam with dried bay leaf and cherry liqueur on the palate with an underlying graphite note.

2017 Fuligni, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. Crumbly rock on the nose with bright red and black fruit that had silky tannins and intoxicating mixture of rosemary, dried rose petals and hints of limestone among the fleshy fruit.  

2016 Fuligni, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva DOCG, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. The Riserva is made from Fuligni’s best vines and cellar master Daniele Zeffirini stated that 2016 is one of the greatest vintages as well. The enthralling aromas of rose oil, fresh tree bark and an intense minerality from just the nose already make this an impressive wine with finely etched tannins that caress the palate along the stunningly lengthy finish.

2013 Fuligni, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva DOCG, Tuscany Italy: 100% Sangiovese. 2013 is considered a “classic” vintage as it has lots of acidity with plenty of structure and fresh fruit flavors. This 2013 Riserva has an intriguing smoldering earth quality that opens with wildflowers and black cherries that has mouthwatering acidity and slightly firm tannins that give a good framework that lifts the wine.

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