Alsace Challenges Our Ideas about Riesling

alsace-all-winesMany years ago, when I was first learning about Alsace (region in North East corner of France), I learned three things: there are lots of different soil types, various grape varieties and mainly produce single variety wines. And I learned, generally, that each variety was meant to be planted in a particular soil. As many of us find out through time (with any topic), it takes a long time to gain a true understanding of a subject. In the beginning, we learn the sort of “CliffsNotes” of a topic – an abridged version. But in reality, well, not every variety needs to be coupled to one particular type of land.

Riesling

It is great that Riesling has been getting some love lately, yet the love is still too little considering the pure awesomeness of this variety. It is a white grape variety, and so it is already fighting an uphill battle for prestige. Riesling can be many things, but it will never be a big, alcoholic wine – even though weight, body and type of acidity will certainly vary depending on vineyard, producer and vintage. Riesling typically makes racy, exhilarating wines that pair nicely with a diversity of cuisines. That is why Paul Grieco, former wine director/partner of Hearth restaurant in NYC, made 40% of the wine list there Riesling (even though it is an Italian restaurant) when he was still associated with it. He even started the now infamous “Summer of Riesling” campaign at his chain of Terroir wine bars. But he himself is still frustrated with the lack of popularity of this noble grape variety. Last year, at a wine seminar, he exclaimed, “Is this not the time for Riesling? Why is this still so g*ddamn hard?”

Alsace Riesling

But I have just as much frustration with not only the struggle to take Riesling more main stream, but also the still constant struggle for notoriety for Alsace Riesling wines even among Riesling enthusiasts. Of course, Germany and Austria are great classic Riesling producing countries, but somehow Alsace always gets tucked away in the corner, and in the end, it is the wine consumer, as well as the Riesling winelover, who ends up missing out. Well, to paraphrase Patrick Swayze, no one puts Alsace in the corner!

What makes Alsace Riesling special?

Even through Alsace is pretty far north, it receives a significant amount of sunshine as well as having the Vosges Mountains protect it from intense winds and rains – and so the wines get a lovely ripeness while keeping their zingy acidity. Also, going back to the idea of the assortment of soil types, another great point about Alsace is that they are not afraid to grow Riesling on what might be considered unorthodox soils in other areas. Alsace Rieslings are capable of expressing extraordinary notes that I would never associate with Riesling wines from other countries. Their wines keep me guessing and coming back for more.

Granite Soil

alsace-weinbachI was taught many, many years ago in wine class that the epitome of great Riesling wine was associated to slate soil. Now I love the Mosel as much as the next wine nerd, but there is not only one way to express greatness. I realized that the first time I had an Alsace Riesling from granite soil, such as the one I had recently, a 2013 Domaine Weinbach Riesling from the Grand Cru site “Schlossberg”. This site tends to have poor soils with low water retention which produces highly aromatic Rieslings. This was certainly true with this wine, with an intense floral nose, a touch of spice and exotic pineapple note.

Limestone Soil

alsace-agapeWell, even though granite and Riesling were always a well respected combination in the wine world, many may not know the magical combination of Riesling and limestone. Earlier this year, I went to a seminar led by John Winthrop Haeger, who wrote the book Riesling Rediscovered (a great reference book by the way), who not only told us why the combination is a fantastic one, but showed us through tasting us on sixteen Rieslings wines grown on predominately limestone soil. There have been studies that link high amounts of calcium, as present in limestone soil, to help retain acidity even late in the season; that means a producer can keep the grapes on the vine longer gaining more flavor. The 2011 Domaine Agapé Riesling from the limestone dominant Grand Cru site “Rosacker” had an incredible flinty minerality and crisp acidity while still having juicy lemon confit flavors on the palate and dried wild flowers on the finish.

Marl-Limestone-Sandstone Soil

alsace-kientzler2010 Domaine André Kientzler Riesling from the Grand Cru site “Osterberg”, which yes, has marl-limestone-sandstone soil, had an intense linear minerality – like a blade. This wine had a remarkable backbone of fierce acidity that made my mouth water and exhilarating flavors of lemon zest and wet stones on the finish. I did not want to look up the info on the particular vineyards until after I tasted it because I did not want to be influenced by what I read. Well, funny enough, in Riesling Rediscovered, Haeger said that the Osterberg site was, “powerful, with iron-fisted minerality”. Yeah, that definitely describes what I got from this Riesling that was grown in marl-limestone-sandstone soil.

Volcanic Soil 

alsace-zind-humbrechtI honestly have to admit that I have never thought of Riesling grown on volcanic soil, but it makes sense. The wines from the volcanic soil of Mount Etna, Sicily are hot! If you want to see a bunch of wine geeks in New York City lose it, just bring out some Mount Etna wines. But their recent popularity is well-deserved with their alluring aromatics that make one feel they could get lost for hours in those wines. Well, the same can be said for Riesling grown on volcanic soil. I was able to get that smoky, volcanic quality out of the 2014 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Clos St Urbain Grand Cru site “Rangen de Thann”. This wine had a great precision with pristine white peach fruit and again that incredible intoxicating smoky note. Wow! This should be the next wine that wine geeks lose their sh*t over.

Sometimes being Uncomfortable is Good

Riesling has an affinity for terroir, a specific type of place, and sometimes in our own dogma we forget that we cannot truly know it until we experience its transformation from a diversified selection of vineyards. The same can be said of Alsace – if you have had a couple of Alsace wines and you feel that they are not exciting, then I’m afraid that a couple of examples can never let you know how thrilling a wine region it can be.

All of us have our dogma to a certain degree, whether we like to admit it or not, and we do not want to be forced out of a certain mind set because it makes us uncomfortable. But if we are not willing to become uncomfortable then we became jaded, only mildly content with life. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to be that way. I want to shake up my life, question everything I know all the time, and feel like each day is an adventure. And so, I invite you to drink Riesling from various soils and taste them side by side. Go out and try a wine region that you have given up on in the past. Have someone blind taste you on a combination of your favorite and least favorite wines – the results may surprise you… make you feel silly at first… but ultimately it will ideally make you wake up the next day giggling at the fact that life still has a lot more fun surprises in store for you.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Wines of Valpolicella, Italy are a Family Affair

le-bignele-credit-to-consorzio-tutela-vini-valpolicella

Luigi Aldrighetti is sitting right across from me in the center of the table and his brother, Angelo, is at the end of the table. Photo Credit: Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella

 Sitting at a big wooden farmers table with Luigi Aldrighetti, the winemaker of Le Bignele in Valpolicella, and his family, I could not help but feel part of their clan. There we were, with Luigi’s daughter Silvia leading us through a wine lunch at their home (aka winery) that was adjacent to their vineyards. Silvia was fluent in English, unlike her father, so she was able to translate the conversation of her father to those of us on a press tour visiting the stunning area of Valipolicella in Verona, Italy.

After our tour of their winery’s appassimento room aka drying room, where the process of drying grapes for the area’s iconic wine Amarone takes place (Le Bignele uses the more traditional wood boxes), and a fun stroll in their vineyard, we sat down for a lovely luncheon prepared by Silvia’s mother. We had to quickly sit down once called since one of her dishes was risotto, and risotto waits for no one…but it was worth the rush as the texture of this risotto was the best I have ever experienced, and I have eaten a lot of risotto in my lifetime!

Silvia’s charming personality and beautifully spoken English made us feel right at home. I am still kicking myself that I did not take my own picture of this experience (I used a photo from someone else) , but I was living in the moment, enjoying my time with her family. Silvia’s uncle, Angelo, who was known to “live in the vineyards” made a last minute appearance. He was wearing a dirt covered tank top, with sweat on his brow, bowing his head as if he was embarrassed, and seeming as if he was asking if he could join the lunch in his work attire.  That was funny, because it was ideal for us to see that he looked like he actually did live in the vineyards. A quick banter began back and forth between the two brothers, Luigi – the winemaker, and Angelo – the vineyard manager, shortly after Angelo’s appearance mid-lunch. Luigi was frustrated that he had to put on a nice shirt for lunch while his brother was able to wear his work clothes. That banter turned into Luigi asking Angelo if they would be ready to harvest soon, with Angelo answering “two more weeks”. Luigi said it was always two weeks more than what he himself as the winemaker wanted. Of course this was all translated by Silvia, but even though I did not understand Luigi and Angelo’s words, I could see by their smiles and hear by their warm laughter that this was a conversation that they have had many times, and this is what they did – they were a true family winery.

This is one of the many reasons I love wine – many times it is a family affair. I feel grateful each time one of these families invites me into their home to be given a snapshot of their way of life. As some of you know, I never had a “real” family in the conventional sense of the word. I was never able to connect with my biological parents or any blood that I could find. In the end, finding the truth of why this connection was not possible made me realize that I was better off not having those relationships. But I have always yearned…needed to feel part of something. I have always taken great joy seeing others have such a close family relationship, albeit complicated and never perfect.

The family connection that is part of a winery’s past, present and future has always intoxicated me more than the beverage itself. My recent trip to Valpolicella was filled with this strong sense that many of the producers had such roots. Some producers had deeper roots than others, yet they were all gleaming examples of why wines from such classical areas become such quintessential symbols for a particular style – because of the support of their related predecessors and descendants.

Family Wineries Not Afraid of Change

There are many family wineries that are still using old traditional methods in their vineyards and wineries. Even when the younger generation wants to incorporate more modern practices, it can be a struggle to get the older generation to agree with such changes. This may be frustrating, but please don’t let me give you the impression that older practices are necessarily bad. For example, Valpolicella’s iconic wine, Amarone, which is a big, bold, yet high acid and fresh wine, whose grapes were placed into traditionally wooden crates to dry, such as the ones Le Bignele uses, after harvest. The wooden crates are a great way to dry the grapes but because of practical reasons such as ease of cleaning, plastic crates have become more popular. And believe it or not, at one time they would have dried the grapes by holding up each bunch on stings – a timely and nowadays, cost prohibitive process that is rarely seen practiced. But since the plastic crate issue is more of the norm in Valpolicella, there are other ways they are pushing the envelope. One of them is the use of anfora.

anfora

Anfora vessels at Albino Armani winery.

An anfora (amphora) is a jar of ancient design, with a narrow neck, typically used to hold oil or wine. Aging wine in anfora has been a time honored tradition in the country of Georgia, one of the oldest wine regions in the world. It has also been practiced by some great producers, such as Gravner, in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, another region in the North East of Italy. But as they like to say, what is old is new again, and some Valpolicella producers are breathing new life into this classic area.

Our first winery visit of this trip was to Albino Armani, which was a family that could date back their winemaking to 1607, which is why albino-armanithey place 1607 on their labels to commemorate such an impressive lineage. Their winery in Valpolicela is very modern with a breath taking tasting room that looked over the Marano commune of Valpolicella. They were using anfora, which I thought fitting considering its association with the ancient as well as cutting edge styles, and they were a winemaking family that had been around for over 400 years yet their facilities were state of the art. Their anfora wine was going to be used for a sparkling wine that would be considered outside the Valpolicella appellation but it was still a sign of their innovative mindset. That innovation expressed itself also through their DOC Valpolicella wines.

pietro-zardini-anfora

Pietro Zardini 2015 Amarone in anfora. Photo Credit: Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella

Later that same day it was perhaps serendipitous that we visited another winery that had a long family history yet was edgy with a youthful energy to play and experiment – Pietro Zardini. His lineage also went back to the early 17th Century with Leonardo Zardini, the founder of Pietro’s family, and he has sweet memories of spending most of his childhood with his grandfather Pietro, his namesake, in the vineyards and cellar. Those childhood recollections have shaped his winemaking to such a degree that he honors them by placing a picture of the Landini tractor that was passed down by his grandfather on a couple of his wine labels. He too was using anfora, but in this case for their 2015 Amarone which we were lucky enough to taste. It was wild, with notes and flavors that I can’t even describe. That same wild quality was found a little in the other wines that we tasted – Pietro Zardini, a wild man with a deep respect for those who have come before him.

monteci

The winemaker, Francesco Righetti, of the Monteci winery, talking to us with pure enthusiasm about their wines.

The next day we visited the Monteci winery which is owned by the Righetti family who started making wine in 1909. We spent our time with Francesco Righetti, family member and the winemaker. He was filled with enthusiasm to have us taste as much from tanks and barrels as from bottles, and showed variation in soils, vinification techniques and/or vintages. We tasted a 2015 Merlot wine in barrel that was made from grapes that were dried for four months. In 2011, Francesco interned at a winery in Saint-Émilion and is now determined to use traditional Valpolicella methods with the Merlot grape. It was absolutely delicious, rich and viscous yet with good structure and energy and extraordinary flavors that ranged from tar to tarragon. He was so excited to show us everything he could – I felt like a kid in a candy store running around with him and the group in the cellar, finding all the variant subtleties from the various vessels of wines. His wines expressed his enthusiasm and the nuance of subtlety that he seemed to be obsessed by.

Austrian Flavors

There were a couple of wineries with grand estates that hinted towards their Italian heritage being mixed with some Austrian ancestry from long ago.

tenute-ugolini-credit-to-consorzio-tutela-vini-valpolicella

Sorry I did not capture Maria Juditta, sitting at the far end, singing that enchanting Italian aria to us, but I was just swept away in the moment. Photo Credit: Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella

The Tenute Ugolini estate was certainly impressive in the scope and size of this antique colonial house. There were still Austrian touches of emblems here and there. Even though our guide, Maria Juditta (the niece of the eldest brother of three, Giambattista Ugolini, who took over the vineyards when his father died 20 years ago) pointed out the Austrian touches, she insisted that the family was as Italian as Italian could be. Their Italian-ness was certainly evident when she sang an Italian aria to us while we sat outside, drinking their lovely wines on their magnificent property. And for those who are into organic practices, it is nice to note that her uncle started to convert to organic back in 1996 and they have even started using less copper as a fungicide, which although allowed in organic farming is still toxic, using garlic instead. The passion for preserving nature was noted in the wines with Maria’s music bringing our tasting pleasure to the next level.

villa-mosconi

This is just one section of the magnificent Villa Mosconi property.

 Another grand estate we visited was Villa Mosconi which is where the Bertani family makes their Tenuta Santa Maria alla Pieve wines. Gaetano Bertani now runs the estate with his sons Giovanni and Guglielmo. It was Giovanni himself giving us the tour of the property, which was originally built in the 1500s. Through time it became a place for the arts and sciences. For example, in 1880, the winery became the subject of a report that documented their innovative vineyard and winery techniques. During the mid-1700 and 1800s, a well known Italian poet, Ippolito Pindemonte, described their vineyards as “dear to Bacchus” and that sentiment was enhanced by their main building being adorned with Olympian Gods. We passed one hall that had a piano that seemed out of the times of Mozart. The hint of Austrian flavor was there, with a touch of Greek gods and English gardening sensibilities of tranquil lakes, rolling lawns with classical temples and bridges.

A Timeless Family Style

andrea-sartori

Andrea Sartori talking us through a tasting of their wines.

Many in the US market probably know the Sartori producer. Their wines have good distribution throughout the US, and their label is one of the more recognizable Valpolicella labels. Andrea Sartori, President and great-grandson of the founder, talked us through an impressive tasting of their wines which showcased various projects that they were implementing to tailor their wines to express the individuality of the vineyard while respecting the wisdom passed down by centuries of Valpolicella producers. Their style is timeless and elegant, with the goal of bringing back those vineyard areas in Valpolicella that have been forgotten and neglected. Not only were the three Amarone wines we tasted that day (noted below) each uniquely superb in their own way while staying true to the classic style, their Valpolicella Classico Superiore “Montegradella”, selection of the best grapes coming from the Montegradella vineyard, had such a purity of fruit and gentle complexity that was astonishing for the lighter, and less seriously regarded, Valpolicella wines.

Feeling at Home

I have made peace with the idea that I will never know what it is like to have family that is blood, but I have realized through time that family is not always those that have a common gene pool. Even though it was not my lot in life to be part of a rich family tree, I love hearing about the history and lineage of others, and I certainly feel grateful when a family shares everything about their ancestry with me because for a brief moment, I feel I am part of something bigger than myself.  And I have to say, the Valpolicella family wineries, no matter the situation, made me feel that their home was my home and allowed me to share in the wealth of their glorious genealogy.

********************************************************

Tasting Notes from these winery visits:
Quick side note that Vapolicella wines are considered a lighter, more easy drinking wine, even though there are higher quality versions. Ripasso wines are more serious with it process including the adding of grape skins, from an Amarone or Recioto wine, to a Valpolicella wine allowing a second fermentation to create more body, alcohol, structure, aromatics and flavors. Both Amarone and Recioto wines are made from dried grapes yet Amarone is a seemingly dry wine and Recioto (less available on the market) is a sweet wine. Amarone is a big, bold wine typically ranging from 15-16% abv yet the blend of grapes it uses gives it high acidity, lots of structure and incredible intricacy – Recioto is more moderate in alcohol, sweet yet has just as many layers of flavors. These are generalizations that truly don’t represent the full range of the styles, so for those interested in more details about the Valpolicella DOC wines, please feel free to go to the Consortium for the Tutelage of Valpolicella DOC Wines website.

Le Bignele wines tasted on September 5th, 2016

2014 Le Bignele, Valpolicella Classico Superiore:  Good structure yet soft tannins with deep aromatics of black cherries.

-2013 Le Bignele, Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso:  Stewed cherries and plums with a touch of dusty earth.

-2012 Le Bignele, Amarone Classico della Valpolicella: A savory wine with complex tar notes and sweet cherry in the background.

 

Albino Armani wines tasted on September 5th, 2016

-2014 Albino Armani, Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Egle: Old vines of Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella. Cherry, spice, light and pretty.

-2013 Albino Armani, Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso: Old vines of Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella. Dried cherries, blackberry, dried oregano, lots of acidity and structure.

-2012 Albino Armani, Recioto della Valpolicella: Corvina 70% and Rondinella 30%. Cherry jam with lush body and cinnamon spice.

-2010 Albino Armani, Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG: Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella. A very textural wine with evident tannins and lovely floral note.

 

Pietro Zardini wines tasted on September 5th, 2016

-2014 Pietro Zardini, Valpolicella Classico Superiore: Corvina 65%, Rondinella 25%, Molinara 10%. Velvety texture with fresh red cherries and reminiscent of a meadow.

-2012 Pietro Zardini, Austero, Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso: Corvina 70%, Rondinella 20%, Molinara 5% and Croatina 5%. Smooth body with interesting hints of coffee and vanilla.

-2011 Pietro Zardini, Amarone della Valpolicella: Corvina 70%, Rondinella 20%, Molinara 5% and other 5%. Smoky espresso with exotic spice and a long finish.

-2009 Pietro Zardini, Amarone della Valpolicella, Riserva “Leone Zardini”: Corvina 70%, Rondinella 20%, Molinara 5% and Croatina 5%.  Lush with lots of flesh on the palate with cherry pie flavors and oak and spice giving it more depth and complexity. 2009 was a big, ripe vintage, while 2010 was more fresh and restained. This wine is named after Pietro Zardini’s father, Leone Zardini.

-2012 Pietro Zardini, Recioto della Valpolicella (sweet wine): Corvina 70%, Rondinella 20% and Molinara 10%. Residual sugar 130 g/l. Mulberry and raspberry preserves with a hint of underbrush which give it an interesting extra layer of complexity.

 

Monteci wines tasted on September 7th, 2016

-2015 Monteci, Valpolicella Classico: Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Nice balance and purity of fresh raspberry fruit with a fresh, clean finish.

 -2013 Monteci, Valpolicella Classico Superiore: Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. An exotic cardamom spice with sweet cherry fruit.

-2011 Monteci, Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso: Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Violet and sandalwood notes with dried cherry flavor.

 -2010 Monteci, Amarone della Valpolicella: Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Red apple peel, cured meats and tobacco. Very complex and intriguing.

 

Tenute Ugolini wines tasted on September 5th, 2016

All the wines come from specific designated areas: the grapes from Il Pozzetto (Fumane) are used for Valpolicella Classico, the grapes from Colle San Michele (Bure alto) are used for Valpolicella Classico Superiore, the grapes from Monte Solane (San Giorgio di Valpolicella) are used for Valpolicella Ripasso, the grapes from Valle Alta (Fumane) are used for Amarone Classico della Valpolicella and for Recioto della Valpolicella are used the grapes from Valle Lena.

-2015 Tenuta Ugolini, Valpolicella Classico, Il Pozzetto: Corvina Gentile, Corvina Grossa, Rondinella, Molinara, Croatina and Ancellotta. A wine that was as pretty as the voice of the niece, Maria Juditta, who sang to us during our visit. Rosebud aromas and light body on the palate of the wine. Maria’s uncle, Giambattista Ugolini, said this is the most difficult wine to make because you cannot use age or oak to correct it.

-2013 Tenuta Ugolini, Valpolicella Classico Superiore, San Michele: Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and the Oseleta. Refined notes with strawberry and pepper notes.

-2013 Tenuta Ugolini, Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso, Monte Solane: The only grape used in the production of this wine is the ‘Corvina Gentile’. Black peppercorns, cloves and stewed strawberries. Comes from a vineyard at the highest elevation that is allowed for this designation.

-2012 Tenuta Ugolini, Amarone della Valpolicella, Valle Alta: Corvina Gentile, Corvina Grossa, Rondinella and Oseleta. This is their flagship wine. Cherry liqueur with cinnamon and nutmeg and smoky notes that hint at old volcanic rock soil.

 -2012 Tenuta Ugolini, Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso, Monte Solane: The only grape used in the production of this wine is the ‘Corvina Gentile’, like its 2013 sibling. This 2012 was more herbaceous than 2013 with overall more earthy notes.

-2013 Tenuta Ugolini, Recioto della Valpolicella, Valle Lena (sweet wine): Corvina Gentile, Corvina Grossa, Rondinella and Oseleta. Silky texture, elegant with sweet chocolate cherry flavors…still tight and so needs more time or a few hours decanting.

 

Tenuta Santa Maria alla Pieve wines tasted on September 8th, 2016

-2014 Tenuta Santa Maria alla Pieve, Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso:. Corvina 75%, Rondinella 10% and Corvinone 15%. Blueberry muffin, licorice and spicy finish with a velvety texture and bright acidity.

-2010 Tenuta Santa Maria alla Pieve, Amarone della Valpolicella: Corvina 75%, Rondinella 10% and Corvinone 15%. Rose petal with black berry and a wonderful overall elegance to this Amarone.

 

Sartori di Verona wines tasted on September 6th, 2016

-2012 Sartori di Verona, Valpolicella Classico Superiore “Montegradella”: 45% Corvina, 30% Corvinone, 20% Rondinella, 5% Croatina. Selection of the best grape bunches coming from the “Montegradella” vineyard estate. Pure cassis notes with juicy flavors and touch of sage.

-2011 Sartori di Verona, Valpolicella Classico Superiore “I Saltari”: 60% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 10% Croatina, 10% Corvinone. “I Saltari winery” is a project by Colognola & Sartori wineries. The aim is to continue to improve viticulture, winemaking and production of fame in the province of Verona also including a revaluation and restructuring of small wine producing areas. Very savory with BBQ smoke with intense black cherry and round tannins with nice flesh on the palate.

-2010 Sartori di Verona, Amarone della Valpolicella “Reius”: 50% Corvina Veronese 30% Corvinone, 15% Rondinella and 5% Cabernet  Shimmering ruby. From clay, calcareous soils. Rich on the nose with raisins and lilacs yet bright and light on the palate.

-2009 Sartori di Verona, Amarone della Valpolicella “Corte Bra”: In a more Bordeaux type bottle 50% Corvina Veronese, 30% Corvinone, 15% Rondinella and 5% Oseleta. Only the best grapes are used for the production of the “Corte Bra” wine. Brambly berries with dried thyme on the nose yet lush, big, tannic with blackberry jam. This wine will be long lived. 2009 was a bigger, riper vintage.

 -2009 Sartori di Verona, Amarone della Valpolicella “I Saltari”: This does not have the richness or density of the Corte Bra but it does have a lovely refinement and structure that may be more appealing to those who want more subtlety in their Amarone.

 

Save

Save

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trusting my Wine Palate in Lodi, California

Lodi Pic 1Many can, and have, argued that you are able to truly know the wines of a certain place just by drinking them all the time. I think that is true to a certain extent, but there are places lacking a prestigious reputation, even though they make wines that are worthy of prestigious praise, and so, we may never experience the best, or at least, all that a particular place has to offer in the world of wine. And so, sometimes we make unfair generalizations of a wine producing area’s potential for quality, when in fact we are completely ignorant of their aptitude for great wine. That can even affect us trusting our own palate, causing us to give a wine the thumbs down with stereotypical snide comments for no reason.

Lodi

Lodi is a two hour drive from San Francisco, without traffic, but in reality it is probably a longer ride to get there. It is considered the “Zinfandel Capital of the World” but when I visited there a few weeks ago, it seemed that I had tasted more grape varieties than I have ever tasted from one American Viticultural Area  (AVA aka appellation). And so, how did such a diverse wine region that is so close to one of the most famous international cities in the world become known for only Zinfandel?  And not only that, but one particular style of Zinfandel, especially considering the plethora of styles of Zin that exist in Lodi.

Many of us may associate White Zinfandel, the popular craze that started in the 1970s,  in the US, to the general California area, with Lodi being, as well as California at one time, unfairly summed up with one broad paint stroke of making quaffable, entry level wines.

The Paris Wine Tasting in 1976, aka Judgment of Paris, changed the world’s perception of Napa wines. Bank loans that were once denied were enthusiastically given to the struggling wine producers in Napa after they won that competition, and eventually Sonoma benefited from not only a close proximity to Napa, but also a desire to have another AVA with a cooler climate that could make Pinot Noir and more linear Chardonnay wines.

Lodi had struggled for many more decades after Napa’s victory in 1976, and hence they did not have the funds or the reputation to help bring investment into the area until pretty recently. And even though they are making incredibly interesting wines, with some of them being straight out jaw dropping, still their wines are way under valued when you see the prices. I’m talking about having a Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon that is rich, complex, structured and still energetic until the last drop going for 15 bucks…. and if you buy two bottles the price goes down to 12 bucks a bottle. Say what?!

And by the way, I was talking about the Cab Sauv from Langetwins Winery, if you want to see if you can find it on wine-searcher.com.

Even though these are the cards that they were dealt, it doesn’t mean they have to be content with them.

History of Grape Growing and Wine Making in Lodi

Lodi Pic 2Our first seminar was an ideal one to kick off the Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi. The Mayor of Lodi, Mark Chandler, and former Executive Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission (1991-2011) was the moderator. It is telling to see that the Mayor was involved with wine in some way, shape or form; it is telling of how much grape growing and winemaking means to the Lodi community. On the panel there were three wineries represented: Michael-David Winery, Bokisch Vineyards and Langetwins Winery.

Michael-David Winery

You may have never heard of Michael-David Winery, but I bet you have heard of some of their wines such as 7 Deadly Zins or their newest success Freakshow. Kevin Phillips, Vice President of Operations at Michael-David Winery, talked about his family’s business starting with his grandfather, a farmer, who grew produce and eventually with Kevin’s father, sold produce at farmers’ markets all over California, as well as neighboring states. They started the produce stands in the 1970s and making wine in the mid 1980s, and their wine was only initially sold directly through their market stand. Through time they would sell most of their grapes to other wineries, since they lacked the infrastructure to sell wine themselves beyond their little market stand in Lodi.

Well, as life has a tendency to direct one where they should be instead of where they think they should be, the Michael-David Winery, originally named Phillips Vineyards, was given a nice settlement from Phillips Wine & Spirits in Minnesota during a legal agreement that would have them change their name to something else, and so they used both the first names of Kevin’s dad and uncle, respectively Michael and David.

With that twist of fate, they decided to create brands that would be accessible to wine lovers around the world, and so their first, 7 Deadly Zins, was born. They went from producing 500 cases of this wine in 2000 jumping to 10,000 cases the next year in 2001.

The more fun brands they created using the delicious juice from Lodi, the more their sales grew. In 2015 they sold a total of 650,000 cases and they have 2016 sales projected anywhere from 700,000 to 775,000 cases. They work with many growers in Lodi to fulfill these orders, but what is funny is that even though people may enjoy these wines for their incredible value, as well as their memorable labels, they probably don’t know they are from Lodi. They may not even know about Lodi as a quality wine region.

Brands vs Boutique Wineries

I think many wine nerds like to criticize wine “brands”. Many times we think of them as being created by soulless companies that do not make distinctive wines with a sense of place. Actually, some huge corporations buy family properties, keep the family and original workers, but they update equipment and packaging to help them with consistency and sales. Some big wine companies certainly achieve this better than others. But what is interesting about the Michael-David Winery is that it was started by a family of farmers who were given an opportunity to expand, and through creativity, sweat, blood and tears they became a successful wine producer. It is rare to have such success, and now their wines can be found in every state in the union of the US, as well as 33 countries.

And so it was nice to hear about a family who had created successful brands while still owning the whole company as a family. The best brands are inclusive wines that reach out with a warm hello to everyone, no matter their status in life. Conversely, boutique wineries would love to reach out to a wide audience, yet they do not have the resources and so they depend on word of mouth.

Starstruck in Lodi Again

Lodi Pic 3I thought this contrast of brands vs boutique wineries in Lodi was vividly displayed in the new book about Lodi Wine Country called Starstruck in Lodi Again. It is an entertaining, and at times, raw look at this unique area. The author, Chris Kassel, conducted many interviews throughout the Lodi area and in his own words about the intent of the book, “It is a compendium of charismatics, a potpourri of personalities, a variety of viewpoints, and when it comes to success, nobody does it alone.”

Kassel talked to David Phillips, one of the owners of Michael-David Winery and uncle to the aforementioned Kevin Phillips, and describes him as “down-home cuddly in a salt-of-the-earth –farmer sort of way” and makes the point that he is not an imposing person himself even though his reputation and portfolio certainly seems imposing. Phillips’s exuberance to proclaim Lodi as the greatest place on earth was evident in the chapter devoted to his wine company. And so, even though they are big, they are still Lodi, part of a place, part of a community.

One chapter in the book, a couple of chapters preceding the one about Phillips, focused on a tiny, niche winery with a winemaker from Switzerland who did not get into wine until he was thirty. I actually sat at a table during the Wine Bloggers Conference gala dinner with this winemaker, Markus Niggli, who talked over dinner about the warm welcome he felt from Lodi as a foreigner.

Lodi Pic 4Well, I was curious to taste his wines, how “atypical” could they be for a region that makes such oddities as 100% Touriga Nacional, and so I thought he wouldn’t pour anything I hadn’t had before… well, Mr. Niggli served me up with a wine made from Kerner, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Bacchus grape varieties! It was their 2014 Markus Nimmo which I enjoyed eating with my crow that night. The wine was edgy, yet inviting, with flinty minerality, floral and spicy notes and acidity that made my mouth water yet it was not too fierce or sharp – and all for only 22 American dollars.

The wines that I tasted were perfect examples of why we need tiny little wineries like them. As much as the big boys can deliver the goods that most people want, it is the smaller guys (and girls) who can offer something different for those who are tired of the same old, same old. But since their marketing budgets are almost nonexistent, we have to do a little bit of homework to find them, or at least get lucky enough to have them cross our paths.

Bokisch Vineyards

Okay, so getting back to the panel of the seminar, there was another innovator in Lodi. Markus Bokisch, Owner/CEO/Vigneron at Bokisch Vineyards, whose love for Spain developed from not only ancestral connections, but also from his time there, spent making wine. Their Albariño and Tempranillo wines certainly made many of us take notice. Bokisch started his winery in 2000 and he was the first to bring in varieties from Spain, but keeping the Lodi spirit, they gifted these varieties to the University of California and Foundation of Plant Services to make them available to other producers free of charge.

Langetwins

Lodi Pic 5Our final panelist was Aaron Lange, Vineyard Manger of Langetwins Winery and Vice Chair California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG), who shared the great story about the owners of Langetwins (his father and uncle) being twins. Fate would have it that I would have the pleasure to meet each of the owners’ daughters when I had dinner there with other wine bloggers. It was funny that I ended up there because I picked the name The Clone Wars, since all the intimate winery dinners were a secret with only a code name to identify the groups, and the clones represented the twins. Many of you probably know I picked it because of my insane love for Star Wars. We had a great dinner at the Langetwins winery and discovered their fantastic 2014 Nero d’Avola, as well as their $12 Cabernet Sauvignon that I mentioned earlier.

But again, the love for Lodi, the diversity, the great quality and the commitment to stay together as a community was echoed by Aaron Lange. He spoke about the revolutionary Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing with passion. It is California’s first third party accredited program. He said that it made Lodi producers all “cousins” in the sense that they are all trying to make high quality wines with as few negative impacts as possible, all while increasing positive impacts.

Kevin Phillips, of Michael-David Winery, said that he believed so much in the Lodi Rules program that he not only converted all of his vineyards to be certified, but he made it mandatory for all the vineyards he sources from to be certified as well. He increased the price he paid for his suppliers’ grapes to compensate for the extra cost they had to incur to be eligible for certification.

Not Trusting Our Own Judgment

The eye opening trip to Lodi Wine Country made me think about the following questions: Why we do not trust our own judgment? Why do we not trust what is in our own backyard? It took the approval of French judges to convince us to believe in Napa, but while that was a great thing, there are still other great wine growing areas that are being ignored because a more well established wine making country has not yet given its approval.

I don’t think it is an American thing to not trust our own judgment, I think it is a human thing. Because even though France and Italy may be two of the most established wine producing countries, they themselves have their own wine critics and writers ignoring many of their own lesser known wine regions due to the lack of historical acclaim.

For someone like myself, who loves to travel the world, the trip to Lodi made me want to know more about America, more about every nook and cranny of my home country. It made me thing about what I have missed out on. Now I am committed to tasting my next Lodi Zinfandel in New York City, and instead of feeling peer pressure to say that it is not my kind of wine because it’s too big, I will stop and actually taste the damn wine, and if it is one of the better ones then I will say, “Wow, nice structure, subtle and perfectly balanced.” And I will take the jeers because I want to trust my own palate.

**********************************************

At the Wine Bloggers Conference there were a couple of sessions called Speed Tasting. We bloggers sit at tables while producers from the area rotate around and  taste us on one of their wines as they tell us about their winery. It is a great way to taste and tweet about wines that are not always so well known, as well as discover producers that we, as bloggers, may want to follow up with later. Here are a couple quick notes about the wines I tasted. All wines are from Lodi, California unless noted.

Speed Tasting of White & Rosé Wines:

Oak Ridge Winery OZV Rosé: (Blend of Zinfandel and Chardonnay) Oldest family winery in Lodi; notes of rosehips & strawberry – pretty in pink

-2014 Peirano Estate Chardonnay: Vineyards around since 1890s – touch of oak & golden apple for only 15 bucks

-2001 Lucas Chardonnay: 2001 Chardonnay from their library – nutty, smoky minerality with bright fruit

 -2015 Harney Lane, Lodi, Albariño: Juicy peach, spice, refreshing – summer in a bottle

 -2015 Bokisch Vineyards, Terra Alta Vineyard, Albariño: Lovin’ the Albariño in Lodi: fruit, saline and zingy finish

2015 Langetwins Sangiovese Rosé: Lilacs, sour cherry and crisp acidity!

2015 d’Art Hand Crafted Wines, White Barbera: Father and daughter wine team with Dad’s artwork on the label. My first white Barbera and won’t be my last – love the texture

-2015 Michael David Winery, Sauvignon Blanc: All about acidity and minerality with pure fruit expression – my mouth is watering

-2015 Trione Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County: Grass, bright and completely refreshing! Great when it is hot

-2015 Klinker Brick Rosé: (Carignane, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Grenache) Delicate, cherry blossoms with good energy

Speed Tasting of Red Wines:

-2014 The Federalist Zinfandel: Delicious wine with plum pie and sweet spice notes with overall brightness

-2013 Windburn’s Pinot Noir Sta Rita Hills: Earthy, more Burgundian-style, complex & elegant

-2013 Corner 103 Zinfandel, Sonoma County: Rich, decadent Zin with stawberry jam and lush texture

-2012 Brie Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel: Beautifully balanced with wild stawberry flavor and fresh acidity

-2012 Trione Winery Henry’s Blend, Alexander Valley: Bordeaux blend that has pristine fruit with lots of structure, best of Old and New World

-2013 Peirano Winery Old Vine Zinfandel “The Immortal Zin”: 100 year old vines with great Lodi pepper note

-2013 Klinker Brick Farrah Syrah: Grandaughter poured the wine that her grandpa named after her – stunning wine with pretty floral notes and black berry fruit – and only 20 bucks

-2013 Abundance Wine Carignane: (Blend 90% Carignane & 10% Petite Sirah fresh, savory & intoxicating)

-2014 Oak Ridge Winery OVZ Zinfandel: (Blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah) Lots of jammy notes yet the wine is still fresh with good acidity and energy on the palate

-2014 Oak Ridge Winery Lodi Estates Cabernet Sauvignon: Powerful with an explosion of blueberry and mocha notes yet it has a nice backbone of tannic structure to keep it exciting to the last drop

-2013 Harney Lane Lizzy James Old Vine Zinfandel: Beautiful restraint on this wine which is simply lovely

And we grab a Cabernet Franc at the last minute from Lodi!
-2013 Michael-David Winery Inkblot Cabernet Franc:
Who would think an area known for Zinfandel could ever make good Cabernet Franc.. but one thing I learned is that Lodi is a vast, diverse place that has more vines planted than Oregon and Washington State combined….. this Cabernet Franc has red cherry fruit with dried herbs and a touch of earth

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Truth in the Vineyards Tells Us about Our Own Truth

Ironstone post 1st pic

One of Ironstone Vineyards properties in the Sierra Foothills AVA in California

I am always amazed at how many things are connected to wine. How it not only inspires me but helps me on my quest to live a better, more fulfilling life. A specific instance of this happened during a post conference excursion from the recent Wine Bloggers Conference. As there were several choices, I took the one going to Ironstone Vineyards Winery, located in Murphys, which is located about an hour east of Lodi, California, this year’s location for the Conference itself.

Murphys, California, located in Calaveras county, is part of the Sierra Foothills AVA. It is referred to as the “Queen of the Sierra” and some have referred to it as “The next Napa (Valley).” Even though we only saw the Ironstone property and just a few of their vineyards, their property alone made an incredible impression with their remarkable amphitheatre, lake side park, museum and wine caverns. Quickly it became apparent why we were going to spend the whole day and evening there – there was so much to see and experience!

Ironstone post 2nd pic

Steve Millier (left), Director of Winemaking, and Craig Rous (right), the Director of Operations & Planning for Bear Creek Winery

But it was a small remark that was made when we were in the vineyards with Steve Millier, Director of Winemaking, and Craig Rous, the Director of Operations & Planning for Bear Creek Winery (which is also owned by the Kautz family who own Ironstone Vineyards) which got my attention. The remark had to do with their trellising system for their vineyards and they simply said that they preferred a quad lateral trellising system for their grape vines. Sometimes they would need to use a bi-lateral system (you may have heard its other name “California Sprawl”) but they did not like using the VSP system (Vertical Shoot Positioning).

The Truth about Viticulture

Ironstone post 3rd pic

Chris Storm (third from left), Vititculturist of Vino Farms, talking during The Truth about Viticulture session

Don’t worry, I won’t make this post all about the ins and outs of canopy management. But I found this comment interesting due to the fact that just a few days earlier, during The Truth about Viticulture session of the Wine Bloggers Conference, a local Lodi Viticulturist said in regards to VSP, “That’s the worst system in the world.”

Wow! I wish he would have told us how he really felt. Hehehehe…

But seriously, I appreciate that kind of passion, and he was certainly telling his truth which was formed by his experiences and personal opinions. This truth came from Chris Storm, Vititculturist of Vino Farms, which owns or manages many of the vineyards in Lodi.

The topic of dispelling myths about Lodi came up and he associated myths with pet peeves. His major pet peeve in his own words was, “perception is driving too many decisions and not objective reasoning.”

Perception vs Objective Reasoning

That is when he said that VSP was the worst system possible, especially for Lodi’s Mediterranean climate. But I got the feeling that he was not happy about VSP being in any vineyard in the world. He said that he has struggled dealing with winemakers who taste with their eyes and not with their mouths. He was referring to some winemakers wanting to see a vineyard look a certain way: high and tight – Vertical Shoot Positioning is very clean in appearance. The aforementioned things, though, do not always translate into quality grapes, which ultimately are needed for quality wines.

VSP

He made the point that VSP takes an open canopy and “smashes” it all together. He related the leaves of the vines to solar panels, and that we would never point the panels vertically to the sun, but rather lay them flat to get the most sun exposure possible. He further made his point by saying that in this situation, the leaves would form many layers, and in the third and innermost layer there would be leaves that were no longer photosynthesizing because they were not getting proper light, which means they are not helping out the plant and they are instead just sucking out nutrients and becoming a parasite of sorts – take but does not give in return.

And let’s not get into lack of aeration. Have you ever grown a tomato plant in your apartment and allowed the stems and leaves to get really bushy? Did you then stick your hand in the plant to try to find a tomato? Well, I did, and all I found was mildew and rotten tomatoes! Obviously, we were not doing such a great job with canopy management with our tomato plant….

Ironstone Vineyards

Ironstone post 4th pic

Craig Rous showing us one of Ironstone Vineyards bi-lateral trellised Verdelho vines and comparing it to VSP, as well as the mainly quad lateral trellised vines in this vineyard

While touring one of Ironstone’s vineyards in the Sierra Foothills, I told Craig Rous what was said about VSP during the Conference.  He got a kick out of the whole rant -personally, he did agree with many of Storm’s points, but he also made a point to say that he has seen some other vineyard growers make it work in Lodi. He said that they had to do more work with canopy management, such as plucking leaves, and of course its success depends on variety type, vigor of soil and how much breeze and sunlight is available in any given plot. And there are many other variables for each situation that I could not cover in this one post.

Rous did think it was interesting that someone from Vino Farms was now saying they were against VSP, when at one time, they were an advocate for this trellising system. Chris Storm did mention that VSP was once said to be the ideal management choice for Lodi, as well as most of California. They were following what their more established Bordeaux brothers and sisters were doing in their own region (although their VSP systems are typically lower to the ground) thinking it would be ideal for Lodi as well. It has just taken time for California, and more specifically Lodi and the Sierra Foothills, to find their own way.

The Courage for Truth

Steve Millier and Craig Rous both agreed that while they did not use VSP in their vineyards, they could understand why many other vineyards still did. A commercial vineyard has a lifespan of around 30 years, and replanting a vineyard sooner than that would cost a fortune – money that many struggling vineyard owners do not have the luxury of spending.

I’m sure it was a big deal when Vino Farms (and many others) started to question a trellising system that was a huge part of how many locals grew their grapes. It is like when you are faced with certain unpleasant confrontational truths in your life, and you say to yourself, “Do I up-heave my whole existence for a chance at a better life or do I keep the status quo and not rock the boat?” We can only try to realize our own truths, not knowing if others will find it beneficial or helpful, and be satisfied simply with the fact that we are being true to our own selves.

Ironstone post 5th pic

One of the many lakeside views on the Ironstone Vineyards property

The sentiment of being true to oneself was most evident when John Kautz, Chairman of Kautz Family Vineyards and owner of Ironstone Vineyards, was leading our tour of his magnificent property of Ironstone.  At one point, a few people, who were seemingly repeat visitors and had seen Kautz on multiple occasions while enjoying tastings and the beautiful lakes and scenery, approached him and asked if he was with a group of friends that day. He told them he was leading a tour. They were surprised and asked him if he worked at Ironstone Vineyards, to which he humbly said that he owned the place and was walking with a bunch of wine bloggers. I could hear them squeal with joy, “We never knew you were the owner!” It made me smile, because he seemed like he just loved seeing people enjoy the place and he would happily talk to them as just another wine lover, never bringing much attention to the fact that he actually was the owner.

It made me think – Mr. Kautz has figured out the truth of who he was a long time ago. He was someone who wanted to create things and places that brought joy to people and he was happy enough to sit back and watch people have the time of their lives.

**************************************************************

Vertical Tasting of Ironestone Vineyards Wines on August 14th, 2016

Reserve Rous Old Vine Zinfandel

Ironstone post 6th pic

Their Zinfandel grapes come from the 10 acre (4 hectares), 105 year old Rous Vineyard, owned and managed by Craig Rous. His vineyard is found in the heart of the east side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA. The tasting showed me that Lodi Zinfandel was not as ripe or lush as Paso Robles and tended to have more structure, which is not better or worse, just noticeably different. It is mind-boggling that the current vintage is only USD$35. Wow! That is what happens when perception does not fit reality, and in this case, this wine is highly undervalued.

-2010: Rich blackberry fruit, violets, spice, dried herbs, lots of flesh on the palate yet still fresh and bright

-2012: Chocolate covered cherries mixed with earthy and savory notes

-2013: Bright notes of plums and strawberries with a more noticeable acidity

-2014: Dried herbs with blueberry pie and firmer tannins than the other wines

Reserve Cabernet Franc

Ironstone post 7th pic

They wanted to show us how they could not only grow Cabernet Franc, but how their version ages as well.

Their Cabernet Franc vineyard is 2400 ft. (732 meters) above sea level.  The grapes are estate-grown at their Hay Station Ranch vineyard, in the Sierra Foothills, with warm days and cool evenings. Soil is granite mixed with volcanic sediment and red clay. Grapes have been grown in the Sierra Foothills for 150 years.

Steve Millier, Director of Winemaking, said that Cabernet Franc was always the last grape to be picked, even after Cabernet Sauvignon. He said, “Cabernet Franc wants to be out there watching everyone get done first, and when they’re all done it may decide to come in. No matter what kind of season you had it is always a battle right at the very end.”

-2000: Tomato leaf, blackcurrant with pretty floral notes; nice energy to this wine, a refined and elegant finish

-2005: Wet forest floor, lilacs and fresh raspberry with a linear shape

-2008: Riper flavors of raspberry jam and richer body

-2010: A lot more tannins than previously tasted vintages with dark cherry notes, seems like this has a long way to go

-2013: A full body with sweet red fruit and cocoa powder laced throughout

Again, price is always a factor, and it is unbelievable that they sell the current 2013 vintage for only USD$28

Symphony

Ironstone post 8th pic

Our evening concluded with an incredible meal by OuterAisleRestaurant.com, prepared by Chef Jimmy Sadegi, using local produce and pairing it with various Ironstone wines. I do have to note one interesting wine made with a grape called Symphony, which is a Californian crossing of Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris, developed in 1948 (but not commercially released until 1982) by the late Harold Olmo, professor of viticulture at the University of California, Davis. Symphony is a white grape that is actually harvested later than many of the reds to get the aromatics just right.

2014 Obsession Symphony: Moderately perfumed nose with juicy peach flavors and for only USD$12 it is a uniquely fun white wine to have any day during the week

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Wine Lessons from China

Outside of Forbidden City

Entrance to the Forbidden City

Recently, my partner in crime and I traveled to Beijing, China for holiday (or as we say in the US, ‘for vacation’). You may have seen a couple of the over 500 pictures I placed on the internet. We are always looking to expand our minds and hearts with different experiences. And the biggest wine lesson that I walked away with is, in the quest to gain as much information and taste as much wine as possible, that I should always make time for those long conversations… not only with people in the wine business, but also locals. I was able to have some in-depth conversations with both trade and non-trade and I walked away having a deeper respect and understanding of the Chinese market.

Generalizations

It seems generalizations are a necessary evil. I cannot out right blame someone for making generalizations since I have used them myself. Whether it is a style of wine or wine consumers from a certain area of the world, it seems to be the most assured way to get people to walk away with any bit of information, as a long and thorough explanation always ends up being too much information to digest. But it becomes dangerous when we use quick sound bites that are more for the purpose of making ourselves look clever instead of passing on valuable information. I always have to remind myself to qualify a statement when talking about a particular market. Most of my experiences are seen through the lens of the New York City market; my trips to other places are relatively brief, and so it is always a good reminder that it is impossible to completely know another place unless one has lived there for several years.

China

China makes no bones about it not having the same long wine drinking culture as European countries. As an American, I appreciate many of the missteps a country can make when it is a neophyte to wine, as we were primarily a whiskey and beer drinking country not that long ago. But saying generalizations such as a “whole country does not have taste”, “can only appreciate brands” or “does not have the potential to become a well-respected wine making country” is simply unfair to make as dogma.

Taste

I think it is absurd to say any area of the world, let alone a large, vast and diverse country such as China, does not have taste. I have had the privilege of talking to people from various backgrounds in China, some in the wine business and some not, some who have lived and traveled the world and some who have never been beyond China’s borders. Whether I was tasting wine or tea, or eating food, there was always a discussion of the various subtle nuances of what we were drinking and eating, even to the point where my own senses were elevated. We are all limited by our own environment and need to expand our horizons.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

There has been a movement within the wine trade in Asia to use descriptors that correlate to the common flavors that a particular Asian country finds to be in the staple diet of their people. Young Chinese people in the wine trade seem to be well traveled, well educated and able to know the needs of their local markets better than foreigners who sometimes try to force their own terminology and culture onto a people, who not only have a rich culture of their own, but who may help to revolutionize the future of the wine world.

 

 

Brands

Does any country have the right to criticize another country for being attracted to brands?

Wine brands are important everywhere. The wine consuming public does not have the time to get a PhD in wine so they are dependent on those things they trust – it may be a salesperson at a store, a recommendation from a friend or most often a trusted brand. Names like Kendal Jackson and Gallo are trusted names within the American market. The majority of wine sales in the UK are through the large supermarket chains that mainly carry large brands since they require volume and consistency. French wine brand JP Chenet saw a significant increase in sales when they placed an image of their famously shaped bottle on their bag-in-box in Sweden.

And yes, there are the much covered, highly expensive fine wines that have been bought by Chinese consumers. But in the fine wine world, and I used to work for one of the top fine wine retailers in Manhattan, there is a market segment in many international cities around the world that are willing to pay large amounts of money for an assurance of “saving face”. I have met Americans who bought wines for large amounts of money because they did not want to embarrass themselves around wealthy friends and/or colleagues.

I understand, as being a middle class person myself, the frustration of certain wines that were once affordable are now price prohibitive – with the fortunate exception of being able to taste them for free as a wine writer. But to blame price increases on one country seems unfair. Some of my colleagues who work in the well-established London market say the need for fine wine “brands” to help one give the impression of being cultured is prevalent there as well.

China as a Wine Making Country

I cannot speak too much to this idea and it seems even the Chinese themselves are not 100% sure of the potential of China. Because the wine consumption in China has drastically increased in such a short amount of time practices such as using bulk wine from Australia, France and Chile to help blend with Chinese wine has created a perception that China is incapable of making quality wines.

But this is an issue for any up and coming wine making country. California was not always seen as a premium wine making area and through time, with a little luck that helped to bring investment and international acclaim to the state, it has become a world class wine making region. Before that time there was a prejudice of the area as being a place with a bunch of hicks who knew nothing about wine and were toiling simply to make subpar juice.

During one of my nights out with some very wine knowledgeable locals in the biz, I had the opportunity to taste a wine blind. I guess I should have guessed it was from China, but since these particular people I was having dinner with seemed to like European wines, I went a different route with my guessing. The wine was rich and ripe with various layers of earthy notes that suggested an Old World country that had a warm climate. The tannins were evident yet well integrated and so I thought it was a high quality Portuguese, non-fortified, red table wine that had moderate alcohol, beautiful fruit and contrasting textural qualities.

Did I overthink it? Yeah, I think so. Should I have just looked at the situation and said it was a Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon? Yep, you are right again.

2012 Zhen Ge Cabernet SauvignonIt was a 2012 Zhen Ge Cabernet Sauvignon, and the first time I had a Chinese wine that was within the low to mid premium price range (188 RMB equivalent USD$28) as I had only experience with entry level and fine wine (Grace Vineyard). It was made with grapes that 100% came from China in the Ningxia province which has a continental climate ranging 80F (27C) to an annual average minimum of 7F (−14C). Cooler climate than I would have guessed.

But was it an unusually warm vintage? Who knows their Ningxia vintages?

Some at the table said they did not care for the green character in the wine. I have to admit I personally got very little green character, and the small hint I did get I very much enjoyed and thought it helped balanced a strong fruit character in the wine. But that is one of the greatest things about wine – we all have our own personal tastes.

Local Chinese wine experts do debate whether Ningxia is the best province for the government to place its hopes. Other provinces could be more promising such as the southwest province of Yunnan. But what Ningxia shows us is that quality wine can be made in China and perhaps, with further experimentation with other varieties and techniques in the vineyards and wineries, it could become a top region. Also, China is just starting to place a focus on making quality wine and so it is only the beginning

The Ultimate Lesson

I think the ultimate lesson is that while we may have our generalizations, we have to also, at the same time, admit our limited knowledge and experience of areas outside of our residences. There are many things, even to its own highly educated wine experts, that are unknown about China. Maybe that is what scares us; we do not know what is going to happen.

The Exit to the Forbidden City

Exit to the Forbidden City

Fear is everywhere these days as globalization starts to change the daily lives of many people around the world. There are those who want to fight it. Blame it for all our problems. Try to hold on to the past because we are afraid that there will be a power shift that will not be in our favor.

The world is changing. No one can stop that and either we move together with grace, acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses each of us possess, or we fight tooth and nail with a bitter heart and a closed mind as the world changes around us.

 

I am happy to move with grace together.

 

Save

Save

Save

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Assyrtiko: The RoboCop of Grape Varieties

Domaine Porto Carras Pic 3Greek Master of Wine Yiannis Karakasis said with complete confidence:Assyrtiko for me is like a RoboCop – it is a very powerful variety.” This was one of the many interesting, as well as entertaining, talks given by Karakasis at a Greek wine dinner in New York City to showcase the wines of Domaine Porto Carras. Why call Assyrtiko RoboCop? It has high alcohol and high acidity which is not common. Assyrtiko has high alcohol for a white wine, averaging around 13.5-14% abv, and yet one can always count on it for crisp acidity even when it reaches full ripeness.

And what is RoboCop? A US movie from the 1980s (remade in 2014) that showed a good hearted police officer turned into a crime-eradicating cyborg. RoboCop had the super strength to be the protector that everyone needed – and Assyrtiko has the full body and refreshing finish to be the white wine of choice for various wine lovers.

Yiannis Karakasis MW (Master of Wine)

Domaine Porto Carras Pic 2I rarely go out to wine dinners. I make exceptions, here and there, for either an opportunity to taste wines I normally don’t get a chance to taste, such as Viognier from Cahors, or more often than not, it is at the request of someone who I find to be a very kind, good person.  Of course, I do, sometimes, have to turn down those who are kind and good also, since the major reason I do not go to dinners is so I can spend time with my husband. And so if I have been away on a work trip recently, I even have to say no to those people who I value as wonderful human beings. But the timing worked out this time.

There were two people I had familiarity with who were involved in this wine dinner, Yiannis Karakasis and Keith Edwards. Keith Edwards is part of a group called #winelover-s, of which I am a major part of as well, and a great guy that has a brilliant, well researched wine blog. And the other is Karakasis, who was in the Master of Wine program at the same time as me. As many of you know I am no longer in the program – I was happy I did it, and do not regret it, but I’m very happy to get back to my life and those that I love. So I was more than happy to see both of these special human beings. Since the wine dinner was led by Karakasis, I’m going to focus on him.

Karakasis was on the fast track to becoming an MW. He is an extremely disciplined individual who undoubtedly worked extremely hard for many years to achieve the title. But I have to say that even though he was on the fast track, he always had time to share a smile, a laugh and words of encouragement with anyone who crossed his path.

“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” — Malcolm S. Forbes

I have met many people who wanted to be my friend because they liked me as a person; others had no interest, blowing me off instead to hang out with others until they hear I have gained any sort of success… then those same people come after me aggressively, trying to, all of a sudden, befriend me. I’m sure all of us have experienced this and it is something that you just need to grapple with in regards to living life. Yiannis Karakasis was always the type of guy to talk to anyone who was nice. It was evident when I met him he had a strong sense of character.

Karakasis graduated from the Hellenic Navy Academy as an Ensign and thereafter served on various warships, having flown 2,000 flying hours as a pilot, instructor and test-pilot with AB-212 navy helicopters, retiring as a Commander in 2011. So maybe his character has to do with the discipline he gained so early in life; or maybe he has always had a strong character.

RoboCop

It was not only very symbolic to compare Assyrtiko to RoboCop, not only because of the combination of high alcohol and high acidity, but it was also symbolic for someone like Yiannis Karakasis to use the term because to me he is RoboCop. Under extreme circumstances (the MW program is a long and extremely stressful program) he was able to greet everyone with down to earth warmth. In the movie, RoboCop’s character is tested, and ultimately he places his life on the line to do the right thing. His strength of character is never broken.

Domaine Porto Carras

Domaine Porto Carras Pic 1The theme of strength of character, of being a RoboCop, was carried throughout the evening as we tasted the wines of Domaine Porto Carras. Yiannis Carras aka John C. Carras, founder of Domaine Porto Carras, had a grand vision for the winery. He built it to the highest standard in the 1970s and hired the father of modern winemaking, Professor Émile Peynaud, to elevate their wines to the highest standards.

In 1999, the Stengou family bought the winery as well as the entire property including two hotels, a marina and vineyards. Yliana Stengou now manages the winery. She has a background in civil engineering and has taken the esteemed WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) classes. She proved to her father through hard work and strength of character that she could not only survive in a man’s world but she could thrive – and ultimately he knew she was the right person to run this iconic Greek winery. Today Domaine Porto Carras is the largest unified vineyard in Greece and one of the largest organic vineyards, 356 hectares (880 acres), in Europe and the Balkans.

The Legacy We Leave

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the outside layers of things that we forget that a great legacy is not necessarily made from titles, money or accomplishments (even though people should certainly be proud of hard earned rewards). A great legacy is how we treated those around us even during our toughest times. Strength of character is not something one achieves and then doesn’t need to ever worry about again. Strength of character needs to be worked on everyday – it is a practice – it is a discipline – it is a way of life. RoboCop was not a hero solely due to him being part robot and having abilities beyond other humans; he was a hero because even though he typically was the one with the power, he never lost the best side of being human.

*******************************************

Tasting of Domaine Porto Carras Wines at Molyvos Restaurant on May 19th, 2016

-2015 Melissanthi: A blend of Assyrtiko, Athiri and Roditis. Delicate flavors with citrus and a touch of mint. Refreshing and nice as an aperitif.

-2015 Malagouzia: 100% Malagouzia. This ancient white Greek grape variety was virtually extinct until Domaine Porto Carras brought it back. Tropical fruit flavors with accents of dried flowers and a full body.

-2015 Assyrtiko: 100% Assyrtiko. Skin contact, lees aging and time in neutral French oak for six months. At first I thought I was not going to like this version of Assyrtiko, with seasoned oak influence instead of typical stainless steel. But I have to say this was my favorite wine of the night. Even though I like the fresh versions from Santorini, I really thought this richer style of Assyrtiko, which comes from the Meliton Slopes, was complemented by the oak. I never thought such a young Assyrtiko could be so complex with nuts, honeysuckle, peach cobbler and a textural intricacy that really made this a world class wine.

-2015 Chateau White: Blend of majority Assyrtiko and Malagouzia, with nine months in oak. A big wine with lots of fruit, body and spicy notes. It would be interesting to see this evolve with time.

-2012 Magnus Baccata: Blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Black currant liqueur with pepper and tobacco leaf giving it depth of flavor. It had intensity on the palate with bright acidity and firm tannins.

Domaine Porto Carras Pic 5-2006 Chateau Red: Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Limnio and Merlot. A rousing, smoky nose that reminded me of cigar box and grilled figs. Silky tannins that melt in the wine created a smooth finish. Certainly one of the best Greek red wines I have had and it showed the great potential for reds in this area.

-2013 Limnio Ruby Heart: 100% Limnio. A Greek red grape variety indigenous to the Greek island of Lemnos. Some wine historians believe it was the grape variety, Lemnia, that was described by Aristotle. A pretty nose with brambly berries, vanilla and new leather. It had very light tannins with a gentle finish that left notes of cinnamon in my head.

Save

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Wild Ferments: Believing That A Wine Can Be So Much More

Artesa Pic 1It is not always necessary to meet the winemaker and/or owner of a winery to get a sense of what they are trying to do with their wines. But it does allow the opportunity to learn something about that person that one could never have the chance to learn by only reading up on them and tasting their wines. At a lunch almost a month ago, I learned something right off the bat when I met Ana Diogo-Draper, Director of Winemaking at Artesa Winery in Napa Valley – she has passion. You can see it in her eyes, hear it in her voice, and feel the energy that pulsates from her very being. Before I learned anything about her or her philosophy, I knew this to be true of her.

Passion

It is obvious when someone is driven by passion. For some, the need to fulfill one’s passion is so great it’s worth the risk of personal humiliation. Maybe that is, in part, what makes a person an artist. Artists take great personal risks because there is something greater then themselves driving them.

I admit that I enjoy watching America’s Got Talent (AGT). It is a guilty pleasure of mine. I love all the crazy acts and the various talents people want to show. But what I am waiting for – as I think all of us are waiting for – is that one person who has so much passion he or she is able to light up the stage and take us out of our own lives and transport us to another world, a better world.

A couple of nights ago, that is just what 12 year old Grace VanderWaal did. She sang a song that she wrote, only her on the stage with a little guitar, and she wowed everyone in the audience. Yes, she was talented, yes, she had a nice voice, yes, she was charming with such sweet humility, but most importantly, she was passionate. Passionate about being really seen and heard for the first time – as she said, most of her friends didn’t even know she sang – and this was a chance for her to finally share with the outside world who she is.

Artesa Pic 2Ana DiogoDraper

Originally from Lisbon, Portugal, Ana Diogo-Draper found herself in California in 2005 with a winery internship at Rutherford Hill Winery. She was pleasantly surprised how open California was at that time to potential female winemakers and she was able to find female mentors to give her advice. A few years ago, she found her way to Artesa, a boutique winery founded by the Spanish winemaking family Codorníu Raventós, in the Carneros area of Napa Valley, and she was promoted to Director of Winemaking in 2015.

Experimentation

One may say that Diogo-Draper has already achieved the ultimate success by becoming the Director of Winemaking at Artesa, but she still is striving to make better, more interesting wines. Whether it is skin contact Chardonnay, Pinot Noir fermenting in 500 liter Puncheon barrels or using an igloo in the middle of their Barrel Room, she is always pushing the envelope. But the experiment that got my attention was wild ferments – mainly because her eyes lit up when she talked about it. I could see this was something that truly excited her – this is what she was most passionate about, right here and now.

“Terroir to me is a wild ferment.” –Ana DiogoDraper

It is not the first time that I have heard a winemaker talk about wild ferments; and it is not the first time that I have heard a winemaker relating wild ferments to terroir. But it is interesting that a winery that has been using cultivated (inoculated) yeasts for around 30 years has decided, after all that time, to start experimenting with wild yeasts for some of their wines. Since Artesa is already successful, with one of the largest wine clubs in Napa (around 6500 people), one would wonder why they would try to alter an already working formula.

Diogo-Draper said that part of Artesa’s success is that they are constantly experimenting with different varieties and wines to such a point that they can have anywhere from 28 different wines offered at one time. Even though we will only see a couple of their wines out on the market, they do offer many of these wines for direct sale at their winery.

Despite the fact that they are currently making interesting wines from Tempranillo and Albariño grape varieties, paying tribute to their Spanish heritage, Diogo-Draper thought it was time that they started experimenting more with how they make their wines. She also wanted their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to show more of a sense of place.

Cultivated (Inoculated) Yeasts vs Wild (Indigenous) Yeasts

Here’s a quick, and I mean quick, overview of yeasts and why this is such a hot topic for some wine lovers. The yeasts that naturally live in the vineyards and in the winery are called wild (indigenous); the ones a producer can buy from a lab are called cultivated (inoculated). Now it would make sense that the ones living around the producer are the ones that are going to show the most sense of place – “terroir”. Right? That may not always be the case.

When a producer buys cultured yeasts, they know what they are getting – how well they will perform (important when wanting to avoid stuck ferments), and what esters will be created by the yeasts in relationship to the variety (which determine smell/flavor characteristics). Some yeasts (wild, not cultured) can create disgusting aromas that can be associated with manure; others can create more pleasing savory aromas associated with meaty notes. Bacon anyone? Yes please!

So a wine’s terroir could be overshadowed by these “faults” created by the wild yeasts – but maybe one could argue that those “faults” are part of the terroir. Well, we could go back and forth all day; there were people at that lunch who brought up this topic and Diogo-Draper nodded her head knowingly because, obviously, someone who has been working at modern wineries since 2005 already knows all the potential problems.

When Passion Drives You

She explained that when you have a winery that has been using cultured yeasts for a long time some of those cultured yeasts become part of the environment, just like how Diogo-Draper herself has become part of the Napa Valley wine industry. She did not grow up there but it doesn’t mean she is not just as important a part as someone who did.

So now the “indigenous” yeasts are probably a combination of long existing cultivated and wild. They are planning to have UC Davis come in to take samples to see exactly which yeasts are living in their winery but even though she is interested in the results, it seems she already sees the proof in the pudding.

Artesa Pic 3Her tasting trials with her team not only proved that the Pinot Noir significantly benefited from the wild yeast ferments, but the Chardonnay, which she had initial doubts about, became so much more wonderfully aromatic that she said she it completely convinced her to use indigenous yeasts with that variety as well. Her eyes lit up with excitement and joy as she talked about smelling and tasting these wild yeast ferment trials for the first time. She had never tasted such complexity and vibrancy in these wines and she knew that wild ferments were the only way to express their true potential.

I could not stop thinking about the passion in Ana Diogo-Draper’s eyes and voice when she talked about wild ferments. Hearing her speak about her personal experience with wild ferments, as well as tasting the wines, made me question my own belief about only using cultured yeasts as a means to make high quality wine. In some cases it does pay to take the risk.

And then I think back to that little 12 year old girl, Grace VanderWaal, on America’s Got Talent and the risk that she took. She was extremely fearful and overwhelmed but she had to take the chance of truly being heard, truly being known for the first time. She started out by singing, “I don’t know my name” and finished with “I now know my name”.

It was like tasting the Artesa wines. The 2014 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines were very nice, some having a small portion of the wine going through wild ferment, but the 2015 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir 100% wild ferment barrel samples, which were only components to a future wine, were singing. And singing with pristine, beautiful notes like that young lady did on that stage.

Many wild ferments can go wrong, but what happens if it is the one thing that will unlock the great potential of a wine, and without trying, a winemaker would never know. It is better to have failed a hundred times, never giving up trying to know who we are and what we have to offer, so we may finally know our name – like the revelation that young Grace was able to sing to the world.

*********************************************************

Wines Tasted at Winemaker Lunch with Ana DiogoDraper on May 19th, 2016

-2015 Artesa Carneros Albariño:

This wine had lovely aromatics and high acidity with peach and lime notes.

95% tank and 5% barrel. No MLF. Cold temperature ferment.

-2014 Artesa Estate Reserve Carneros, Napa Valley Chardonnay:

Good flesh on the body of this wine balanced with fresh acidity. Honeysuckle and juicy white nectarine makes this wine simply delicious.

A blend of different sites and clones. All barrel fermented in 100% French oak with 50% being new oak. She believes in component winemaking for these wines. She picks different vineyard blocks separately and she will use different winemaking techniques on various blocks depending on each fruit expression.

-2014 Artesa Single Vineyard Carneros, Napa Valley Chardonnay:

A very elegant wine with linear shape; incredibly floral nose of orange blossoms with an intense minerality note at the finish.

They harvest this vineyard at four different times, and fermented them differently. Some were wild ferments, some were pressed in basket press. She felt the plots within this single vineyard were very different from each other. And only three of the plots made it into this final blend.

-2014 Artesa Estate Reserve Carneros, Napa Valley Pinot Noir, Block92:

A spicy wine with cinnamon and cardamom aromatics and a touch of tarragon that has lots of black cherry on the palate. Body is soft yet texturally interesting.

25% wild ferment. In 2015, 100% of their Estate Reserve and their Single Vineyard Block 91D will be wild ferment and in 2016 all of their Single Vineyards and Estate Reserves will be 100% wild ferment. Another interesting point with the Pinot Noir is that she is fermenting some of the wine in 500 liter Puncheon barrels for 4 days. She seasons the oak first so it adds a textural element instead of flavor. She does not do all her Pinot Noir in Puncheon, some are fermented in stainless steel, because she thinks it is better done to some of the wines that will be components and not to all the wines that are going into the same blend.

-2014 Artesa Single Vineyard Carneros, Napa Valley Pinot Noir, Block 91D:

Much more terroir driven with an intense stony quality and tantalizing scent of wild strawberries. Silky tannins and overall vibrancy to this wine makes it addictively drinkable.

25% wild ferment as well.

-2012 Artesa Single Vineyard Rutherford, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Morisoli-Borges Vineyard:                                                                                            

This wine had lots of dusty earth and sweet blueberry and blackberry jam to balance it out. Plenty of structure to give it shape and drive. Even though it had a great, lush generosity about it, the layers of complexity and slight firmness in the tannins played with me and kept me guessing.

10% wild ferment. 86% Cabernet Sauvignon & 14% Petit Verdot. 100% new French oak. This is one of their two single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon wines they produce. They make several, small lot wines exclusively for their club members and one member favorite is the Morisoli-Borges Cabernet Sauvignon. Mike Morisoli, third generation grape grower, farms his vineyard in the heart of Rutherford. He picks the grapes with his team and delivers them himself. Ana Diogo-Draper always takes him out for lunch the day he delivers the grapes to thank him. He is an engineer by trade yet he has this little vineyard that he crafts with his heart. Also, they get a little bit of Petit Verdot from him that they sometimes blend into this wine and sometimes they don’t – it depends on the quality of the Petit Verdot.

Also, they brought two barrel samples, one Chardonnay and one Pinot Noir, that would each be used as a component for other wines. I will not issue a tasting note since they were only components, and unfiltered barrel samples to boot, yet I wanted to speak briefly about the quality of the components since they were 100% wild ferment.

The 2015 Block 92 Chardonnay component and Block 91D Pinot Noir component samples were not only complex and interesting, they were also clean – I would never guess that they were 100% wild ferment. Also, the skin maceration for the Chardonnay seems like a real success. The wines were delicious with their intoxicating aromatics – hope I get a chance to try the finish product.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Riesling & Limestone: Finding a Way to Connect

There are some things in the wine world we can never talk too much about – alcohol levels, wine scores, and terroir. I always like to quote from The Oxford Companion to Wine when defining the term terroir: “Terroir — much-discussed term for the total natural environment of any viticultural site.” The idea of terroir makes a particular wine unique to a particular place. Sometimes terroir can refer to a tiny vineyard and sometimes it can refer to a large region. The factors that influence terroir can be lumped into two broad categories: Land and Climate. Of course within those two general categories there are many more sub-categories that range from soil (color and type of soil), sunlight, macroclimate to microclimate, and so on and so on. But this post will focus on soil.

The color of soil can affect ripening because darker colors absorb more heat and then radiate it back to the grapes. And while we are talking about color let’s talk about the color “wavelength” of light itself – even that has been shown recently by Geisenheim University to have an influence on the development of the grapes during the growing season.

Why do we want to connect aromas and flavors in wine to a specific place?

We want to be connected to a place when we are spending a significant amount of money on wine. That is one of the top reasons to spend more for wine (even though, probably, the number one reason is an assurance of higher quality). But we are looking for something special, something that will transport us to another world. And it doesn’t always have to be another world, sometimes we need to reconnect to our sense of place locally – rediscover the magic of the place we inhabit.

If we just wanted to get intoxicated, not that there is anything wrong with that, then we could simply buy the cheapest alcohol we could get – translating into cheap spirits.

Yet wine, and artisanal spirits even, have become more significant to the American population. People want stories; they want to taste and smell the vineyards in their glass, to feel connected.

Connecting

 We are living in interesting times. Some fear, rightly so, that people are connecting less because they are distracting themselves with social media. I’m sure many of you know, just as I do, that when you give yourself ways to not confront issues in relationships it creates distance so that, through time, people who were once close start to feel like strangers.

Okay, so that’s the bad.

The good is that social media gives people a chance to be themselves without feeling like they are directly weird-ing anyone out; yes sometimes social media can be weird, but you know what I mean…. You can talk about your feelings, politics, hobbies or deeply personal stories and not feel like you are the person who mentioned something highly inappropriate at a dinner party. No surprise, I have been that person. But you can place it on your Facebook page and people can decide if they want to see it, if they want to engage with it and/or if they want to continue to have you on their feed.

It is not like talking to someone face to face and saying, “I like to dress up as a Jedi once in a while.” The other person gets an intense look of panic in their eyes and they wonder for a brief moment, “Either this person is crazy or the most awesome person on earth.” And so we tend to skip all of the fun and sometimes deeply relevant information about ourselves when we talk to people in person.

But just like social media is an indirect connection, so is wine from a specific place an indirect connection to that place. It gives us a chance to connect to either a land far away or nearby without us having to risk rejection.

How Riesling & Limestone help me to connect

Riesling Pic 1Almost a month ago, I was invited to a seminar about Riesling grown in limestone soils, led by John Winthrop Haeger. Haeger is a sinologist (a specialist in Chinese language, literature and civilization), an historian and an academic administrator who has written about the science of wine. His specialties are Riesling and Pinot Noir, and he currently has a book out called Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright, and Dry which is an in-depth look at this variety that is adored by wine geeks but still relatively unknown amongst many wine drinkers.

Many times in the past I have gotten excited at the notion that I would learn something about a certain type of soil that would help me to feel a stronger connection to the idea of terroir. I’m afraid to say that often times I have been disappointed because really no correlations would be made between aromas and flavors in the grapes and to what was in the dirt.

I can happily say that was not the case this time.

Limestone Soil

Limestone is a sedimentary soil that is high in calcium carbonate.

If you have ever been to France, you have probably seen limestone even if you have never been to a vineyard – many of the old buildings are made from it. Limestone can be so solid and hard that it can be used for building material, it can also be not as solid, sometimes it is ground up (as lime) or added into concrete materials, and finally it can play only a small part in another soil, such as a dominant clay soil.

Limestone soil is alkaline – which basically means it is low in acidity and has a high pH. pH imbalances can affect which nutrients are taken up by the vine in different concentrations, potentially leading to some unwanted conditions such as chlorosis (caused by various mineral deficiencies). But recent research has been linking limestone to a distinctive aroma in Riesling.

TDN

TDN is a shortened name of the chemical 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene, which is that petrol/kerosene flavor one sometimes smells in Riesling wines. Some of us love it, some hate it, and some are fine with it as long as it doesn’t dominate the wine. Well, what is so cool is that they are starting to see a trend between more acidic soils (which have lower pH) and the development of the TDN compound. Haeger said that classic Riesling from the Mosel is predominantly grown in slate soils that are high in acid, hence why many of us associate that kerosene note with classic Riesling.

And so limestone, which is a low acid soil, should produce Riesling grapes that are less likely to have that TDN, petrol note. I have a high tolerance for that aroma and so most of the time I find it pleasant. Alternatively, Riesling is a pretty variety and so it is nice to have versions that express the beauty of the fruit.

As a side note, they are also finding that richer soils with higher nitrogen concentration are less likely to produce TDN, as a lack of nitrogen possibly encourages its production. And so if the limestone soil is drastically lacking in nitrogen, it could end up producing TDN anyway. Of course this can be rectified over time through working the soil but that takes a very dedicated producer.

This piece of information, Riesling + Limestone = Less TDN is exciting to me. Not because I love or hate TDN but it is connecting something in the soil to something in the glass. They have a long way to go to prove exactly why they are seeing this, but it seems like this is a very new way to look at the old concept of terroir.

Battenfeld-Spanier

Riesling Pic 3During the seminar, we tasted though 16 Rieslings, in sets of 4, to showcase vineyards that had limestone, to some degree, in the soil (with a fun Ravines sparkling Riesling from a predominantly limestone vineyard to get us warmed up so to speak). But the producer that really screams out with intense, extreme limestone sites is Battenfeld-Spanier. Carolin Spanier and Hans Oliver Spanier are the co-owners, husband and wife team of Battenfeld-Spanier winery. Their wines made my heart speed up with pure giddy joy.

The wines were from Rheinhessen, Germany, in an area that has been known for extreme rocky limestone vineyards that were abandoned due to the expense of working such land – as many of us know there is not much money in growing wine grapes, especially quality wine grapes. Hans Oliver Spanier, winemaker as well as co-owner, made it his mission to find every plot of limestone, rocky soil in this area and rework the land by moving rocks, top soil and planting vines in a way that would make world class wines. The story is impressive and the wines (listed below with the other tasting notes) expressed such a pristine fruit and high acidity that gave these wines lots of life and a high concentration of flavor that was delivered in a linear, provocative way.

Limestone: Acidity & Flavor

Not to get too much into the science, but it was also discussed briefly that research at the University of Bordeaux linked soils rich in calcium, such as limestone, with maintaining acidity in grapes late into the growing season. This may not only point to giving the wines more acidity overall, but the opportunity to allow the grapes to hang longer, potentially developing more complexity and flavor concentration in the grapes without sacrificing acidity.

And one more piece of info (I promise this is it!) water stress turns out to increase terpenes, which are compounds that are the building blocks in grapes that help to create aromas and flavors. Limestone typically has great drainage so is conducive to water stress in dry areas.  BUT…. and this is a big but…  flavor enhancers such as norisoprenoids (another class of compounds) are less available in water stressed areas and so that could lessen aromas and flavors.

So what does this tell us?

No two sites are the same because there are so many factors. But we can say that Riesling grown in predominant limestone, for instance, can have a tendency toward particular traits.

Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright, and Dry 

Riesling Pic 2I have just started to read, or I should say skip around, John Winthrop Haeger’s new book. Even though he focuses on dry Riesling across the Northern Hemisphere, it is an incredible book that goes into a comprehensive examination of this variety which I think can be appreciated by those who love dry and sweet Rieslings. I will report on it in more depth when I have time to read the whole book… but I already see it as a top reference book for Riesling.

The Need to Connect

The need to connect has always fascinated me. I guess because it was something that did not come easily to me in my formative years. Sometimes, I think many of our major world problems come from feeling disconnected to our fellow humans. That is why generalizations can be unintentionally divisive statements that pin people against each other. Great Riesling doesn’t only come from slate, it comes from limestone too, and they can both be great and yet different – one not taking away any glory from the other. But it not only takes time to learn about the true details behind generalizations, it also takes the discipline that we are not going to jump to completely one side or the other.

Some may feel that the idea that limestone soils can make spectacular Riesling wines will be a threat to those historically great sites in slate vineyards; conversely others will feel it will help all Riesling growing regions as a whole. But the issue is not so black and white… just like the explanations of how limestone soils can affect Riesling are not so black and white.

John Winthrop Haeger said at the beginning of the seminar, “… most of these soil stereotypes…have very little basis in science but quite a lot of basis in history and habit.”

And history and habit always need to be challenged if we are going to make the world a smaller place while increasing the diversity of our connections.

In the end my hope is that learning more information will increase opportunities for Riesling growers around the world, give even more pleasure to Riesling lovers and that all of us can connect in the pure joy which is Riesling.

***********************************************************

Tasting Notes: Riesling from Limestone Seminar on April 27th, 2016

Riesling Pic 4

Sparkling Riesling poured before start of seminar:

-2013 Ravines Wine Cellars, Finger Lakes AVA, Argetsinger Vineyard: Flinty, smoky minerality with peach flavors and light body. I decided to taste it an hour later – while it was flat, it was still really lovely and so says a lot about the quality of the fruit.

2013 was a very cold vintage so they decided to make a sparkling Riesling wine from this predominately limestone vineyard Argetsinger for the first time.

We had the rest of the 16 wines in the seminar in sets of 4.

1st Set: DEIDESHEIM (PFALZ) and ALSACE

-2013 Weingut Von Winning, [Deidesheimer] Kalkofen GG, Pfalz, Germany: Bright acidity but not too fierce with juicy peach flavors and a relatively rich body for Riesling.

Deidesheim Pfalz is right above the Alsace border.

The Kalkofen vineyard or “chalk kiln” was an area that was mined for lime to be used as building material.

-2012 Domaine Pfister, Alsace Grand Cru Engelberg, Alsace, France: More stony and spicy quality than fruit with a bit of lemon zest on the finish.

Alsace in 2012 had flowering problems, millerandage (mixture of small and big berries in the same bunch) and rot. Bad vintage for botrytis sweet wines and just sweet wines in general.

They are picking on average 30 days sooner than they did 30 years ago in Alsace, and so some decisions in the vineyard have changed, such as when to harvest, but also they are choosing later ripening clones as to avoid high alcohol levels.

-2010 Domaine Pfister, Alsace Grand Cru Engelberg, Alsace, France: More flesh on the palate, especially compared to 2012, yet still had that small white stone intensity of aromas on the nose. Also, fierce acidity which was nice with the fleshy body.

Many of you may remember that 2010 brought extremely high levels of acidity and some winemakers panicked and inoculated the wines to assure MLF (which defeats the whole purpose of using an aromatic grape like Riesling) and in the worse cases deacidified the wines. But producers such as Domaine Pfister, who did not mess with the acidity, were eventually rewarded once the acidity started to settle into the wine and turn into energetic beauties such as the above.

-2012 Domaine Mittnacht- Frères, Alsace Grand Cru Rosacker, Alsace, France: A little bit more weight in the mid palate with extract, and intensely aromatic floral notes.

Rosacker is a great Grand Cru vineyard in the “sweet spot” of Alsace. The famous walled plot Clos Ste. Hune (which makes one of the most icon wines: Trimbach’s Clos Ste. Hune) is a piece of land within the Rosacker vineyard. This is a less extreme site compared to Engelberg (a much steeper site).

2nd Set: TRAISENTAL (AUSTRIA) and KONIGSBACH (PFALZ)

 -2014 Weingut Huber, Traisental “Terrassen”, Austria: Restrained and linear with minerality dominating.

There is not much limestone in Austria except Traisental vineyard (only 2 producers known to make good Riesling in limestone and Weingut Huber is one).

-2010 Weingut Huber, Traisental Berg Erste Lag, Austria: A great example of a 2010 that was singing and really found a nice balance with that laser acidity. The marked acidity helps to lift the pristine stone and citrus fruit along the long finish.

-2014 Weingut A. Christmann, [KONIGSBACH] Idig GG, Pfalz, Germany: More ripe apricot flavors than peach and lots of weight. A delicious wine that could hold up to richer dishes.

Idig is almost a monopole and it is a vineyard that has consistently stayed in one piece for centuries, which is rare considering the German Wine Law of 1971 reassigned various vineyards to be linked to other vineyards. Idig was lucky enough to have survived being chopped up and redistributed.

Idig is a good example of a high clay, high water retention site with very fine particulate matter and a relatively gentle slope.

-2010 Weingut A. Christmann, [KONIGSBACH] Idig GG, Pfalz, Germany: This had more fruit than the 2014, or perhaps it was more generous because it has had some time in bottle. Lively acidity balanced the richness of the fruit and it had a long, flavorful finish.

3rd Set: FINGER LAKES AND FRAUENBERG (RHEINHESSEN)

 -2012 Ravines Wine Cellars, Finger Lakes AVA, Argetsinger Vineyard, Finger Lakes, New York, USA: Apricot pie with crisp acidity and creamy body due to long lees aging. They decided to make the lees aging longer due to the intensity of the fruit.

2012 was one of the ripest years that the producers had experienced in the Finger Lakes. I had previously tasted several other Finger Lakes wines from 2012 and they are decadently ripe.

The Argetsinger vineyard is glacier carved, near the east side of Seneca Lake in the town of Hector. It is predominately limestone, which is atypical for the Finger Lakes, and usually produces generous fruit even in cooler vintages. Half of Ravines’ vineyards are limestone dominant; they also use grapes from Geneva, which is part of the Niagara limestone escarpment that extends from the US side of Niagara Falls to the Canadian side in Ontario. And a neat fact is that Niagara Falls actually fall on limestone….yes, those rocks are limestone!

Also, Ravines is atypical in the Finger Lakes as they like to produce Riesling wines on the dry side which is partly due to the generous fruit they get from their limestone sites (half of the vineyards where they source their fruit is limestone dominant) but also lees aging helps to balance the marked acidity which is prevalent in the region.

The owners of Ravines Wine Cellars, Morten & Lisa Hallgren, were present at the seminar to give us a presentation.

-2008 Ravines Wine Cellars, Finger Lakes AVA, Argetsinger Vineyard, Finger Lakes, New York, USA: Intensively aromatic with tension on the palate.

2008 was a much more difficult vintage than 2012 in the Finger Lakes, where constant temperature swings between excessively cold and heat created a lot of work in the vineyards. But what is interesting is that even though they usually have problems with drought stress, they did not have that issue in 2008.

-2014 Weingut Battenfeld-Spanier, [Nieder-Flörsheimer] Frauenberg GG, Pfalz, Germany: Dried flowers, lemon confit and off the charts minerality with a tight body that was very exciting and a stunning, long length.

I spoke about this producer and their sites in the post above these tasting notes. The wines express the extreme nature of the sites.

Both of these vineyards from Battenfeld-Spanier are on the same geological formation, with the Frauenberg being on the north east corner and the Herrgott being on the south west corner.

-2014 Weingut Battenfeld-Spanier, Zellerweg am Schwarzen Herrgott GG, Pfalz, Germany: This wine is more generous and open than the Frauenberg, which is not better or worse but just different. An explosion of stone fruit flavors at first that then coil up into an intense expression of stoniness. This wine tingles on the palate with surprisingly brambly red fruit flavors on the finish. How is that possible?! I have no idea. These wines elevate one’s heart rate. If you can find them buy them!

4th Set: WESTHOFEN (RHEINHESSEN)

Two of the same vineyards from different producers and vintages.

 -2013 Weingut Dreissigacker, [Westhofener] Kirchspiel GG, Rheinhessen, Germany: Nectarine jumps out and hugs you on first taste with zingy sustained finish.

Kirchspiel is lower on the slope and typically friendlier in its youth than Morstein.

-2013 Weingut Dreissigacker, [Westhofener] Morstein GG, Rheinhessen, Germany: There are so many layers hiding you can feel it but not quite decipher it this early in its life. Marked acidity that made my mouth water and it made me want to go back and retaste several times – a tease of a wine that plays with you but I have a feeling it will be a knock out in time. Bone dry.

-2014 Weingut Wittmann, [Westhofener] Kirchspiel GG, Rheinhessen, Germany: And this is what makes wine so interesting because this Kirchspiel was more reserved from this producer (and also note another vintage) with notes of thyme and white flowers with citrus undertones all the while with chalky notes dominating.

 -2014 Weingut Wittmann, [Westhofener] Morstein GG, Rheinhessen, Germany: This Morstein was generous with lots of flavors of honeysuckle and peach with racy acidity.

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Deconstructing the Terroir (Sense of Place) of Rias Baixas, Spain with a Memorable Couple

Albarino Pic of CoupleI have to admit I often drink wine without thinking of what I am pairing it with. I am not super sensitive to wine affecting food or food affecting wine. I have a great respect for a person who has such a gift but that is not one of my superpowers. I often just drink what I want to drink, but I have to say sometimes I do feel wine and food pairings illustrate a point.  In this case, that Rias Baixas has very different sub-zones and hence make very different white wines.

 

Albarino Food and WineIt was a lunch/seminar that would be led by a dynamic wife/husband team, Chef Katie Button and Wine Director Felix Meana. They are co-founders of Heirloom Hospitality, including Cúrate bar de tapas and Nightbell in Asheville, North Carolina. Button is already a rising star Chef and her husband, Meana, was a great guide for our vinous journey, immersing us into Rias Baixas, Spain, as well as Albariño by explaining how he shows their restaurant guests the differences in terroir by matching certain tapas to specific sub-zones.

Spain is known as a red wine country. And for great reason! Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat are just some of the world class red wine making regions in Spain. At one time many US wine drinkers wouldn’t even consider drinking a white from Spain. But that has started to change with the introduction of Albariño from Rias Baixas, which is located in the northwestern Galicia region in Spain. Galicia is vastly different from the rest of Spain, with higher rainfall, giving a greener look hence why it is referred to as Green Spain.

Rias Baixas

For those of you who have discovered Albariño white wines you may have already heard about the area of Rias Baixas. If you are hearing about it for the first time, don’t worry, you are probably in the majority. I must admit that I just thought of Rias Baixas as one place and thought all of the differences in style had to do with winemaking only. Yes, what a producer does in the winery makes a difference but there are sub-zones within this area which influence the grapes differently, and hence may help to inform the various winemaking choices a producer may make.

One of the most distinctive features of the soils from Rias Baixas is that they are granite dominant. Granite soils have great drainage, which is necessary for the higher rainfall in Rias Baixas, but also have low fertility which helps to keep yields low, helping to grow grapes with more concentration for higher quality wines.

The granite is such a huge part of Rias Baixas that the Albariño vines are trained on a wire trellis anchored by granite posts. Some of these wires are raised as much as seven feet high, allowing breezes to flow between the vines helping to prevent disease. Some vineyards are replacing this traditional “parra” canopy system with a double cordon system that will help to continue to restrict yields and encourage aeration but will be more manageable for vineyard workers.

Albariño

In my previous studies, Albariño is one of the grapes that mystified me. It can be so different that sometimes I would get it in a blind tasting and sometimes I would not. Even though Albariño is a white grape variety capable of higher alcohol, the fact that it is grown in the cooler area of Rias Baixas keeps it between 12-12.5% abv – which nowadays that would be considered a lower alcohol wine. And so it is a wine that I have lumped into the moderate alcohol, semi-aromatic (this term drives some people I know up the wall) wine category with high acidity and an exotic spicy note. What is interesting, though, is that sometimes Albariño can be intensely aromatic and sometimes it can lack any aromas or flavors, such as one would find in Vinho Verde wines in Portugal (it makes up the blend under its Portuguese name Alvarinho).

Some people have thought I was mad because I would mix up Grüner Veltliner from Austria with Albariño from Rias Baixas. Okay, that is not the only reason for people to think I am mad, but in my defense, one time, I was blind tasting with a Sommelier originally from Spain and he said that he mixed up Grüner Veltliner and Albariño all the time. They are both moderate alcohol and Grüner has that white pepper note that we both confused with that exotic spice note sometimes present in Albariño.

But I digress, as usual, and so lets talk about Albariño. It sounds like a delicious white wine right? Well, like everything else they are not all created equal and this is where we get into sub-zones.

Sub-zones

There are 5 wine sub-zones of Rias Baixas: Ribeira do Ulla, Val do Salnés, Soutomaior, Condado do Tea and O Rosal. I will only focus on Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea and O Rosal since these are the areas we focused on and tasted.

Albarino Oyster, Asparagus & Pulled PorkVal do Salnés

Val do Salnés is a sub-zone known for being the birthplace for Albariño and it the area where most Albariño is grown. It is in purple in the map below. It is also the coolest and wettest, averaging around 55F (13C). Felix Meana drew our attention to the seaweed and salinity qualities of these wines, which paired perfectly with an Blue Point oyster (another wine writer next to me was allergic to oysters and she was kind enough to give me hers.. so I had two!) and one can imagine other shellfish and certain fin fish pairing well too. Also, when thinking about having Albariño as an aperitif, the Salnés is the way to go.

Albarino MapCondado do Tea

Condado do Tea is more inland, as you can see it in orange in the map on the right, and more southerly located, by the border of Portugal. It is warmer than Val do Salnés with an average temperature around 59C (15C) and can rise as high as 104F (40C). The wines have richer, more ripe fruit flavors and paired very nicely with white asparagus (that were preserved in a can and shipped from Spain) in “light as air” mayonnaise enhanced with tarragon and lemon vinaigrette. Also, these wines were fantastic with braised pork in an apricot Albariño sauce (a wink to Button and Meana’s current home in North Carolina).

O Rosal

O Rosal sits in the southerly area of Rias Baixas as well, but is near the Atlantic so their weather is warmer than Val do Salnés but cooler than Condado Tea, so the wines are relatively moderate in body with that touch of a saline quality. In is illustrated in yellow in the map above. The O Rosal wines could easily have been paired with the oyster, as well as the heavier dishes such as the pulled pork, so if you want to have only one bottle of wine throughout a meal, O Rosal may be the best choice. Also, they have a distinctive peach note almost like biting into a peach so ripe that it drizzles down your chin. The peach note may also come from the fact that other local varieties such as Loureira, Godello, Treixadura and/or Caíño Blanco are typically added.

Does Specific Geographic Labeling benefit the wine drinker?

It seems lately that many regions around the world have taken to getting a lot more specific with their geographic labeling. Some are against this because they are afraid it will confuse wine drinkers even more in a world that is already too fractionated… but I tend to be on the other side of the fence. At the end of the day, you will still be able to present the wines as only Albariño, or a white wine from Spain, or heck one time I heard a Sommelier sell it as “Spain’s Sauvignon Blanc” and he sold cases of it. Yes, I know, it does not have the herbaceous quality, generally, that Sauvignon has but it is all about serving the customer and speaking in terms that connect to them.

But for those who want to know more, who are able to invest their time looking up information on the internet, or at least walk away from a restaurant knowing that one region goes more with seafood and one goes more with pulled pork (I need to really stop thinking about pulled pork!!!) then at least there are informed people to give them that information. And in this information age we are living in it really can’t hurt.

So yes, it does benefit the wine drinker if they are interested in taking the time to benefit from it. And if not, then nothing lost.

Chef Kati Button & Wine Director Felix Meana

I have to say that I was really impressed by Button and Meana… not just because they knew a lot, or they were obviously talented (if you look them up on the internet you will see they have impressive resumes) but I was most impressed because they represented why some of the best get into the food and wine business: to serve the customer. They had graciousness and enthusiasm that was infectious and you knew they were most alive when they were serving people.

Briefly they told us about a cookbook that would be coming out in October… they barely touched on it because they were there to make the Rias Baixas wines the stars of the show. After the formal tasting, we were served many of the dishes that would be in the book and they were undoubtedly delicious… but if their cookbook is able to transmit the feeling they give you when you are in their presence, then it will also undoubtedly be a memorable cookbook and I thank them for making the sense of place in the distinct areas in Rias Baixas, Spain memorable as well.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” –Maya Angelou

***************************************************************

Tasting of Albariño wines from Rias Baixas on 18th of April:

In the formal seminar tasting:

-2014 Fillaboa from sub-zone Condado do Tea: 100% Albariño. Tropical fruit and spice on the finish. SRP: $20

-2014 La Val from sub-zone Condado do Tea: 100% Albariño. Ripe apple and creamy texture. SRP: $17

-2013 Baladiña from sub-zone Val do Salnés: 100% Albariño. White flowers with citrus with ample body most probably due to extended lees aging. SRP: $14.95

2014 Santiago Roma from sub-zone Val do Salnés: 100% Albariño. This is a great value wine with plenty of fruit and hint of oyster shell on the finish. SRP: $10.99

-2014 Terras Gauda O Rosal from sub-zone O Rosal: 70% Albariño, 15% Caíño Blanco and 15% Loureira. This is a well known winery for Albariño lovers. They were on the forefront of discovering different clones and using indigenous yeasts. Incredible nose of orange blossom and honeysuckle with, yes, a touch of minerality and opulent body. A wine that holds nothing back, but you never doubt its class. SRP: $23.99

-2014 Viñabade from sub-zone Val do Salnés: 100% Albariño. A lighter wine that has bright flavors of apples dipped in honey. SRP: $15

-2015 Robaliño from sub-zone Condado do Tea: 100% Albariño.  Intense herbaceous notes with white peach. Almost makes you think it is Sauvignon Blanc but Meana said it reminded him of Rueda’s Verdejo, which can have a likeness to Sauvignon and sometimes Sauvignon is used as a blending partner. SRP: $18

After the formal seminar in the walk around tasting and snacking:

-2014 Albariño de Fefiñanes from sub-zone Val do Salnés: 100% Albariño. Main note of minerality, sea salt, lemon peel and yes, I got the touch of seaweed. SRP: $17.99

-2015 Santiago Ruiz from sub-zone O Rosal: 76% Albariño, 10% Loureira, 6% Godello, 4% Treixadura and 4% Caíño Blanco. Very cool wine with rockin’ label (yes, that does add to my experience) pear and perfume note with good tension and light body. SRP: $20

-2014 Condes de Albarei from sub-zone Val do Salnés: 100% Albariño. More fruit forward pear than other Val do Salnés with a citrus finish. SRP: $15

 -2014 Martín Códax from sub-zone Val do Salnés: 100% Albariño. This has the spicy, exotic notes that I often look for with mouthwatering acidity. SRP: $16.99

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Piedmont, Italy: Not all the Wines are Well Known Superstars

Sometimes I have a plan to write about a particular wine subject that has been weighing on my mind, but sometimes I am led in a direction that I was not planning. This was the case with me wanting to write about Piedmont after attending Vinitaly (Vinitaly is an international wine competition and exposition that is held annually in April in the Italian city of Verona). Originally, I had thought I would seek out a lesser known region to write about…. perhaps varieties that most wine nerds haven’t experienced…  I did not think I would have such a need to talk about the well known Piedmont (called Piemonte in Italy) which includes some of the biggest wine superstars such as Barolo and Barbaresco.

Women Who Love Wine & Yoga

The first day of Vinitaly I was invited to go to a seminar led by Michaela Morris, who is one of only three Italian Wine Experts in the world. We had become acquainted through a mutual friend, Cathy Huyghe, on Twitter. Cathy is a yogi, like Michaela and myself, and she expresses that yogic view by examining the world of wine in her book Hungry for Wine.

Alto PiemonteNorthern Piedmont Nebbiolo (Alto Piemonte)

The seminar was co-led by Michaela and “whiz kid” winemaker, Cristiano Garella, who is from the northern Piedmont area. The northern Piedmont Nebbiolo wines were certainly different animals than those found in the more southern Piedmont areas of Barolo and Barbaresco. Some of the areas may be familiar to wine drinkers in their market, such as Gattinara DOCG and Ghemme DOCG.

During the seminar I noticed firmer tannins and more black fruit in the Gattinara wine than the Ghemme – the Ghemme being lighter and having a distinctive mineral note. But there were other areas that honestly I have never heard of until that seminar: Boca DOC, Bramaterra DOC, Colline Novaresi DOC, Colline Novaresi DOC, Coste della Sesia DOC, Fara DOC, Lessona DOC, Sizzano DOC and Valli Ossolane DOC.

Did that long list of a bunch of different “cru” sites in Italian confuse you enough? Well, like anything, it is always overwhelming when you hear a list of names that are completely unfamiliar so I picked three wines, that I re-tasted after the seminars, that I recommend at the end of this post.

Generally, as compared with their southern cousins, northern Piedmont Nebbiolo wines are lighter, more aromatic, have softer tannins, and sometimes they are blended with local varieties. They are typically a few degrees lower in alcohol – when they are picking at a potential alcohol of 15% abv in Barolo, the north will be picking at around 11.5% abv. The acidity seemed more evident giving the wines great tension and energy that hinted towards the ability to age.

Of course, generalizations do not scratch the surface of the specifics of these “cru” sites and I hope to do that at a later time. For now, they are worth seeking out, and I have found many of them in the New York and California areas on www.wine-searcher.com

RoeroRoero in Piedmont

Later that day I got an email from a colleague in New York City, who knew I was at Vinitaly, and she asked if I had wanted to meet the President of the Roero Consorzio. Well, I simply thought it was fate – if there is such a thing. Another special area in Piedmont that I always wanted to delve deeper into… my first introduction was over five years ago when I worked in distribution. My company had just added the wines of Bruno Giacosa to their portfolio and so we had a whole afternoon of tasting their Barolo and Barbaresco wines. The wine that blew everyone away was their Roero Arneis. It was the first time I had tasted Arneis – it was generous yet elegant.

Roero Arneis DOCG

I was excited to try another Arneis (white grape) and to learn more about the Roero Consorzio (an association of wine producers that represent a specific wine growing area).  And so I had my meeting with the gracious Francesco Monchiero, who had become the President since the start of the Consorzio in 2013.

He explained that Roero was a special place within itself but had always been lumped in with the rest of the Langhe area with better known names such as Barolo, Barbaresco, Alba, etc. It was important for them to form their own Consorzio to help educate and promote the terroir of Roero with Arneis being their shining star as it had been given the high quality classification of DOC in 1989 and the highest qualification of DOCG in 2005.

Sand + Heat = Great Arneis

Monchiero talked about how the dominance of sand in Roero soils and exposure to heat helped to produce a more aromatic Arneis wine with classic white flower and white peach aromas while still retaining a mineral quality. He also noted that it was interesting because we typically associate cooler weather with greater aromatics. As I tasted his wines, listed below, with a selection of his Arneis, I realized how sensitive it was to terroir – expressing different qualities from a site that had significant amounts of clay and sand compared to one that had mostly sand in the soil. Also, I was treated to Roero Arneis wines with age, being given one that was from 2001, to show the positive evolution of these wines.

Reputation of Arneis

My first experience with Arneis was with a high end example. But it was an eye opener to learn that there were many Arneis on the Italian market that were made in a mass production way – producing bland wines. And so, those who have had those wines may think Arneis is not a high quality grape. My perspective, even before my meeting with Monchiero, was that it was high quality but I just had problems finding more Roero Arneis.

This reminds me of how I met someone from another market recently who thought is was rare to have Lambrusco slightly sparkling (frizzante), and I found that odd because I have only known Lambrusco to be slightly sparkling. It was a great lesson that we all live within our own bubble of our individual market. I would have never thought to try a non-sparkling Lambrusco and now I’m seeking one out.

Roero Consorzio

This brings me back to the importance of Roero having their own Consorzio, bringing attention to the group of winemakers who are living in Roero and devoting themselves to the expression of that place and especially to the striving for excellence with the Arneis grape variety. Monchiero even tasted me on his Barbera D’Alba DOC which was made from grapes completely coming from Roero. It was intensely aromatic with floral notes and spice. What is funny is that he said a wine made in the Langhe, with is clay dominant, can use the same Barbera D’Alba DOC but it will be completely different, again demonstrating the need to bring focus to Roero as a distinct place on its own.

I had spent a week before Vinitaly learning from the great Ian D’Agata at the Vinitaly International Academy who is the author of the award winning book Native Wine Grapes of Italy. It was an incredible learning experience that I am still continuing. But the main epiphany that I had during that course is that we have a lot more diversity surrounding us than we realize. Many lovers of wine are afraid that the wine world is becoming too homogeneous with a broad brush of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon painting the globe. But the diversity is still there… different terroirs that show the myriad styles of Italian varieties that exist, such as Nebbiolo, and those lesser known superstar varieties that have been neglected but are still there and in some cases, thankfully, local producers are placing their time and energy in bringing them back.

At the time of the writing of D’Agata’s book, he noted that there were 461 official Italian grape varieties registered. According to him, because of misidentification, and weaknesses in past identification of varieties, there are probably around 1000.

The problem is not lack of diversity, or local superstars; the problem seems to be that we are focusing so much on what we don’t have, we are missing out on the plenitude of diversity that still exists.

*I look forward to learning more about Roero at a seminar they are conducting in New York City in a couple of weeks.

****************************************************

A few of the northern Piedmont (Alto Piemonte) wines I re-tasted on the 10th of April:

-2011 Le Pianelle, Bramaterra DOC, Alto Piemonte, Northern Piedmont, Italy: Nebbiolo with Vespolina and Croatina added to the blend. Bramaterra is also noted as being the 2nd placed in Italy to bottle wine with Marsala being the 1st place. This wine was very elegant with whimsical notes of purple flowers and intense minerality on the nose yet it gave great flesh on the palate.

-2011 Castaldi Francesca, Fara DOC, Alto Piemonte, Northern Piedmont Italy: Nebbiolo with only a small amount of Vespolina and Croatina. This appellation only has three producers and so it is not prevalent on the market, even though I did find this producer in one wine store in New York City. Lots of generous red fruit with a savory dried herb quality and a saline finish. Love experiencing a salty quality with a red wine.

-2011 Casa Vinicola Garrone, Valli Ossolane DOC Nebbiolo Superiore – Prünent, Alto Piemonte, Northern Piedmont, Italy: 100% Prünent, a Nebbiolo synonym used in this area since 1309. Firm structure with notes of tobacco leaf and vanilla.

Tasting of Monchiero Carbone Roero Wines on the 11th of April:

-2015 Recit Roero Arneis DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: Coming from a soil mix of clay and sand. More ‘traditional’ nose of white peach and white flower with crisp finish.

-2015 Cecu d’la Biunda Roero Arneis DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: Coming from a soil with majority sand. Strong minerality with tropical fruits and creamy texture. Fascinating wine because you would expect more lean fruit and linear palate with a sense of minerality but this wine shows that you can have lots of ripeness with strong sense of place.

-2009 Cecu d’la Biunda Roero Arneis DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: Same wine as above but with 6 more years of age. An ethereal smoky aroma with juicy peach flavors.

-2013 MonBirone Barbera d’Alba DOC, Piedmont, Italy: 100% from Roero, so a Barbera from soil that is dominant sand. Very aromatic Barbera with purple flowers and spice on the nose with black cherry flavor.

-2013 Roero Arneis Srü DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: Dominant sand soil. Lovely aromatics like the other Arneis but more energy and shape with bright pristine fruit notes.

-2012 Printi Riserva Roero Arneis DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: Soil is a mixture of clay and sand. Richer wine and noticeable extraction giving textural complexity.

-2001 Printi Riserva Roero Arneis DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: Same wine as above but with 11 more years of age on it. Luscious body with dried thyme notes and Asian spices and stewed apricots with lively acidity that finish with fresh, concentrated notes of lemon confit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments