Wine Grape Growers Take Leap To Make Fine Wines In A Spanish Wine Region Dominated By Icons

Old Tempranillo Vine Budding Photo Credit: Bodegas Vilano

Crouched down near the ground, a sharp pain went up his knees and lower back as weathered hands reached out to old grape vines, around 50 years old, to harvest the few bunches of concentrated Tempranillo grape bunches that looked like they hung on a skeleton of a bush plant with its thick, gnarly trunk. The sun beating down on top of his head forced his eyes to squint to combat the glare and the dirt on his face and hands lessened the brutal effects of the sun as he picked his precious fruit. His wife and children were there to help; his ten-year-old son already a seasoned harvester with his skill and speed; his parents, who were advanced in age, would still stubbornly insist on helping out even though many times they would only be able to get through a few vines by the end of the day – each vine only producing a relatively small amount of fruit.

It is not so unbelievable to think that a wine grape grower and his family would place such a tremendous amount of backbreaking work into their own vineyard which produced incredibly concentrated and well-balanced Tempranillo grapes but the true shock is that, for decades, it went into making bulk wine.

Ribera del Duero

Today Ribera del Duero is a famous wine region in Spain with such wine producers as Vega Sicilia and Pesquera who both helped to associate that wine region with outstanding red fine wines made from their native Tempranillo (called Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero) grape and in Vega Sicilia’s case, a small amount of Bordeaux varieties blended in some bottlings. Bodegas Vega Sicilia has had a long history that goes back to 1864 which is quite impressive considering it survived the Spanish Civil War and 36 years of Franco’s dictatorship rule that, many times, targeted those Spanish people and citizens who were considered part of demonized elite class; serendipitously, Pesquera’s first vintage was 1975 – the year that Franco died. Francisco Franco was a man who didn’t drink much wine and he is said to have had no appreciation for it outside of it being an economic driver for Spain; this attitude led to the destruction of many vineyards, especially those producing white wines, and a demand for an enormous quantity for bulk red wine; he even outlawed artisanal cheese made by small cheesemakers.

And even though many of the old Tempranillo vines owned by generations of grape growers in Ribera del Duero were spared by staying under the radar during Franco’s rule, they were forced to sell the fruit off to bulk wine production; those precious grape bunches from those incredible old vines were thrown in with a mixed bag of grapes.

Row of old Tempranillo vines at Bodegas Vilano during fall
Photo Credit: Bodegas Vilano

Spain as a whole still grapples with its past that involved Franco as he is thought by some as the man who brought order to a chaotic Spain and eventually brought the Spanish Miracle that started in 1959 (tremendous growth in Spain’s economy) as opposed to others thinking of him as a ruthless dictator who was responsible for the death, torture and destruction of many Spanish families that still carry the scars from Franco’s time even today. The iconic Spanish wine producer Miguel Torres talked about how his own father, Miguel Torres senior, was thrown into one of Franco’s concentration camps and still today, due to an agreement after Franco’s death to look only to the future, the amount of people he killed and locked away is still not known as the full impact of his destructive reign has not been completely recognized by Spain’s government; such avoidance of trying to fully make amends for the past, unlike what Germany has done in regards to the crimes against humanity of the Nazi party, has kept Catalonia’s bid for independence still alive as no other region suffered as much as Catalonia under Franco’s rule. Miguel Torres said that people still lived in fear for decades after Franco’s death as it was never clear if his way of ruling had ever left – many thinking that behind closed doors “Francoism” could still exist and hence why many had stayed silent about the atrocities committed against their own families until recently.

Bodegas Vilano

Bodegas Vilano Winery
Photo Credit: Bodegas Vilano

And so it makes sense, considering the history of Spain, why family owners of such extraordinary old Tempranillo vines would just keep their heads down and give away such valuable fruit to make cheap bulk wine under the surveillance of the government. But in 1957 ten grape growers in Ribera del Duero, with vines that were half a century old, decided to form a cooperative that eventually took the name of Bodegas Viña Vilano so they could pool their resources to make and sell their wines themselves. Of course it was still risky at the time to do anything that way seen as the creation of a premium product and so they sold their wine as regular table wine which was only a few steps up from nationalized bulk wine.

But in 1999, with around 80 local grape growers becoming part of the cooperative, as well as witnessing how well-received other Ribera del Duero wine producers had become for making fine wine, they invested in state of the art winery equipment and quality barrels to raise the quality of their wines while also changing the name to simply Bodegas Vilano.

Today the grandchildren of those growers still farm their own small plots of vineyards while producing more premium offerings that range from Roble, Crianza and Reserva Tempranillo wines that are sold domestically but a couple of “Signature” bottlings of fine wine, that express the special qualities of their old vines, have made their way to the U.S. market: Terra Incognita and La Baraja.

Bodegas Vilano vineyards at night
Photo Credit: Bodegas Vilano

Terra Incognita is a selection of the oldest vines among the members, vines which range from 80 to over 100 years old – many of the original ten members’ vines were already 50 years old in the mid-1950s; and La Baraja, which is the only blended wine of Bodegas Vilano as all of their red wines are 100% Tempranillo like the Terra Incognita, is a blend of 75% Tempranillo from 70-year-old vines and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot that comes from 35 to 37 year-old vines – La Baraja is from a single vineyard called La Baraja and so it is only made in the best years for this vineyard.

Symbiotic Relationship in a Wine Region with Icons

The easiest thing for any leader to do is blame bad times on a particular group – a strategy that has been used many times throughout history with tragic consequences; contrasted with great leaders who take the difficult path of doing what is right for the country as a whole which involves taking full responsibility for the ups and downs of people’s livelihoods even when the reality of life is that many things, such as national economies, cannot be controlled by one person or even one government – some cycles in life are beyond direct human control.

Weathered hands of grape grower
Photo Credit: Bodegas Vilano

And through time, the benefits of these iconic producers in Ribera del Duero are being realized; as they have gambled with their own money and took on a stressful amount of overhead, they have made it possible for the old vines of these family farmers to be appreciated for the great wines that they are able to produce. Many of the current members of Bodegas Vilano know that their grandparents could have never imagined that their vines would be so greatly respected nationally, let alone globally.

And so when a grandson goes into the vineyards like his grandparents did, it is still the same sun that beats on his head, the same dirt that covers his face and hands and the same vines that have just gotten thicker, more gnarly trunks over time but there is one big difference – instead of it being soul-crushing work with no future, no hope and no value, it is now a fulfilling task of being a part owner of a company that is making your grandparents’ long cherished grapes into a thrilling fine wine that is appreciated as something rare and special around the world.

***This article was originally published on Forbes:

2019 Bodegas Vilano ‘Terra Incognita’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 Bodegas Vilano, ‘Terra Incognita’, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tempranillo (called Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero) ranging from vines 80 to over 100 years old. Rich, brooding dark fruit flavors and hints of cocoa powder that had a fleshy entrance that was accompanied by more fine tannic structure mid-palate and great precision on the finish with a lifted orange peel note.

2016 Bodegas Vilano ‘La Baraja’ La Baraja Vineyard
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2016 Bodegas Vilano, ‘La Baraja’, La Baraja Vineyard, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 75% Tempranillo (called Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero) from 70-year-old vines and 15% Cabernet and 10% Merlot from 35 to 37-year-old vines. A lovely mixture of blackberry and red cherry fruit with an added complexity of fresh leather and crushed rock aromas in the background with lace-like tannins that knitted together good concentration of fruit on the palate; an elegant and powerful wine all at once. Since La Baraja is from a single vineyard called La Baraja, it is only made in the best years for this vineyard and so the next vintage will not be until the 2019 is released after aging.

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Three Wine Regions In Chile That Excel At Great Value Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon And Carménère

How Carménère grape varieties got confused with Merlot grapes in Chile is a mystery to one of the most celebrated winemakers of that country, Marcelo Papa – who oversees Casillero del Diablo and Marques de Casa Concha lineup of wines for one of the largest wineries in Chile, Concha y Toro, established in 1883. “Around the 1870s people in Chile wanted to push the quality for wine and so naturally during that time they looked towards Bordeaux,” noted Marcelo. Carménère was one of the red grape varieties brought back from Bordeaux as well with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but throughout the 1900s vines that were labeled as Merlot were, in actuality, Carménère; so in 1994 when the world was starting to fall in love with Chilean Merlot, and the country was just beginning to make a name for itself in the wine world, it was discovered that much of the Merlot was Carménère. And so, initially, it was a blow for the wine industry in Chile as many around the world looked down at Carménère as it was an unknown grape; some questioned whether Bordeaux gave up on it as a grape variety because it has low quality potential but that would prove to be false as not only have winemakers such as Marcelo in Chile showed otherwise but wine producers in Bordeaux are starting to plant Carménère again.  

Marcelo Papa
Photo Credit: Marques de Casa Concha

Marcelo Papa, who has been with Concha y Toro for over 20 years, is known as the “seeker of noble roots” as well as the “terroir hunter” for his relentless mission to explore every pocket of the various wine areas within Chile, a country that spans 2,600 miles in length. This characteristic of Marcelo has made it possible for him to blend a multitude of vineyards across Chile to achieve impressive consistency for their Casillero del Diablo line that makes millions of bottles a year and retails $10 and below, as well as overseeing the much smaller production of Marques de Casa Concha that focuses on high quality vineyards in wine regions that are ideal for a specific variety, that only retails for around $20. One of the most famous wine regions is Maipo for Cabernet Sauvignon which sells like hot cakes around the world as well as garners acclaim from top wine critics but convincing people that Chile has an ideal wine region for Pinot Noir is a much more challenging feat.

But finding the ideal vineyards for Carménère has become just as important to Marcelo as it is to find the ideal homes for famous international varieties, and it is one of his favorite grapes – he has certainly been able to display its greatness even as it still sits in the shadow of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Peumo D.O. in Cachapoal Valley

Carménère Grape Bunch
Photo Credit: Marques de Casa Concha

Since Carménère originally came from Bordeaux, it is not surprising that it shares the same father with Cabernet Sauvignon – Cabernet Franc. But a key difference is that Carménère needs a longer growing season than Cabernet and so it is a very “demanding variety when it comes to soil and climate” according to Marcelo and hence why, in the past, with constant issues with frost in Bordeaux, it became a variety unpractical to grow in that area. Marcelo noted that Carménère is typically the last variety that they pick and it is harvested at least two weeks after Cabernet Sauvignon. But despite Carménère’s tendency to be difficult, Marcelo is taken by the variety as he says enthusiastically, “It is soft without the sweet impact that Merlot has and in that way I like it.” Although Carménère has thick skins, the qualities of the tannins are “beautiful” if it is grown in the right place.

The Peumo D.O. designated wine region in Cachapoal Valley, 93 miles south of Santiago, is one of the best places Marcelo has found for Carménère. He thinks there is a misconception that Carménère has to be in a warm climate as he believes the bigger issue is frost considering the long season and so the most important thing is to plant it in an area where there is no risk of frost during budding in the spring or harvest at the end of the season. Their Peumo Vineyard is well-suited for Carménère as it sits right in between the Pacific Ocean and Andes Mountains with the addition of having hills that surround it and so it is not greatly influenced by cold breezes from either side, hence avoiding frost and allowing a moderate climate so the grapes can hang on the vine longer; the porous soil which allows access to a water table in the Peumo Vineyard is also helpful with its mixture of clay, silt and sand – 1/3 of each – that contains a decent amount of nutrients, both the water and nutrients assist in sustaining the long life of Carménère grape bunches on the vine.

Originally Cabernet Sauvignon was the main grape planted in the Peumo area in the Cachapoal Valley due to its popularity but Marcelo notes that it was never that good and that the Carménère there was stunning and hence there are many wine producers nowadays with Carménère vineyards there. The richness of the soil that is so vital for Carménère is detrimental for high quality Cabernet Sauvignon wine.

Puente Alto D.O. in Maipo Valley

Puente Alto D.O. in Maipo Valley
Photo Credit: Marques de Casa Concha

Cabernet Sauvignon in the Maipo Valley, located right outside of Santiago, was key in showing the world that Chile could make fine wines that could stand up to the great wines of the world as well as show the ability to express place. The Puente Alto and Pirque vineyards in the Puente Alto D.O., that goes into their Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon, are in the coolest part of Maipo as there are no wind breaks, such as hills, hence leaving the vineyards open to the cold wind from the Humboldt Current traveling up from Antarctica; the Humboldt Current combined with the vineyards’ altitude at 2,100 feet both contribute to these plots being able to produce cool climate Cabernet Sauvignon. The diurnal swings in temperature that can range from 30 to 40 Fahrenheit is conducive to assisting the Cabernet grapes finding a balance of ripe fruit, soft tannins and good amount of acidity as well as allowing the retention of more aromatics; and on top of that, the poor nutrient alluvial soil – with a subsoil of gravel – makes Cabernet struggle which adds to its high quality potential.

But there is no need to convince wine drinkers today of the wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon wines that are coming out of Chile, especially Maipo Valley, as it has become a classic place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. Although convincing the wine world that Chile can make world class Pinot Noir wine is something entirely different as it is already a struggle to get some to consider anything outside of Burgundy as being worthy of consideration, and even when other wine regions are deemed to be worthy of making Pinot Noir it is due to their vineyards having similar qualities to Burgundy vineyards.

Limarí D.O. in Limarí Valley

Limarí DO
Photo Credit: Marques de Casa Concha

It is difficult to initially wrap one’s mind around Chile, a country that is generally placed in the category of having a Mediterranean climate, as being capable of growing high quality Pinot Noir grapes that make elegant wines. But the couple examples above already show the extreme diversity of terroir in Chile.

The Limarí Valley, 200 miles north of Santiago, offers a unique place for such a finicky grape as Pinot Noir as its desert-like landscape averages only four inches of rain a year and so the lack of moisture is a positive aspect for this thin-skinned grape variety that can be prone to mildew in wet conditions. Yet the designated wine region of Limarí D.O. in the Limarí Valley is on the 30th parallel south of the equator, which also passes through Egypt and northern Mexico, and so one would think it would be too hot. This is where becoming a terroir hunter like Marcelo comes in handy as he has found a plot called Quebrada Seca Vineyard that is only 13 miles from the Pacific Ocean and so the Humboldt Current can have a strong effect in this vineyard, which is also located 620 feet above sea level; the vineyard never gets much beyond 75 Fahrenheit, according to Marcelo, even during the hottest time of the year. There is still the danger of too much sunlight intensity as this area is significantly close to the equator but that is again when picking the right site comes in handy as a decent amount of the Limarí area has cloudy skies practically every morning and so the sun has a natural filter, and then the clouds disappear in the later afternoon only giving a few hours of unfiltered sun to the Pinot Noir grapes.

Limestone is found in the soils located in the Limarí Valley which is rare in Chile and hence it has made its name with the Chardonnay grape that loves the finesse that can come from limestone, and Marcelo also makes a Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay wine as well as a Pinot Noir from their Quebrada Seca Vineyard. But Marcelo notes that there is not just limestone but also a mixture of clay which produces Pinot Noir wines with good concentration combined with overall elegance and a sense of minerality.

Different Background but Same Result

Even with all the unique qualities that are part of the topography and climate of Limarí Valley, when comparing it to other Chilean wine regions, the idea of high quality Pinot Noir from Chile is still a concept that many refuse to accept. Actually, the Limarí Valley is known for Chardonnay and Syrah wines, with two different styles of Syrah grown – a cool climate style from the coast and a warm climate style from more inland vineyards. There is a kind of sanctity when it comes to really good Pinot Noir wine and one can understand it if she knows Burgundy wines well.

But just like a person’s success is typically mapped out by first starting with a respected pedigree, whether it be history of ancestors, a recognized education or both, and those in Burgundy have the history for great Pinot Noir and the education that has been passed down for several generations, through time people have realized that is not the only way. There are certainly those who don’t get the best start in life, they have no strong guidance early on and go against the traditional idea of what is necessary for success, and yet they change the world through determination and an unquenchable passion, and that was Chile in many ways when it first entered the wine industry. And as Chile has taken leaps and bounds raising the quality of their wines just over the past 30 years, Marcelo Papa, the terroir hunter, will not only rest with the success of Cabernet Sauvignon or even Carménère, as there are spots within the 600 miles of vineyards he works with throughout the year that are unimaginable when people think of Chile’s vineyard potential; and it may sometimes be a marketing nightmare when dealing with Pinot Noir but he is committed to matching the right grape to the right terroir even if that bring a whole slew of challenging misconceptions.

***This article was originally published on Forbes:

2018 Marques de Casa Concha, Quebrada Seca Vineyard Chardonnay
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2018 Marques de Casa Concha, Quebrada Seca Vineyard Chardonnay, Limarí D.O., Limarí Valley, Chile: 100% Chardonnay. A lovely salinity to this wine with hints of oyster shell and lemon blossom that had a subtle note of hazelnut and touch of juicy peach to balance out the bright acidity.

2018 Marques de Casa Concha, Peumo Vineyard Carménère Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 Marques de Casa Concha, Quebrada Seca Vineyard Pinot Noir, Limarí D.O., Limarí Valley, Chile: 100% Pinot Noir. Beautiful red and black cherry, purple flowers and intense minerality with crisp acidity, a really delicate and pretty Pinot Noir.

2018 Marques de Casa Concha, Peumo Vineyard Carménère, Peumo D.O., Cachapoal Valley, Chile: 94.67% Carménère, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 0.33% Cabernet Franc. A tasty savory herbal note of fresh bay leaf and oregano with wet earth and silky tannins with lots of juicy blackberry fruit and a spicy finish.

2018 Marques de Casa Concha, Cabernet Sauvignon from Puente Alto Vineyard and Pirque Vineyard Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2018 Marques de Casa Concha, Cabernet Sauvignon from Puente Alto Vineyard and Pirque Vineyard, Puente Alto D.O., Maipo Valley, Chile: 86.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 2.1% Syrah and 1.4% Petit Verdot. Cassis flavor with precision that had gravel and tobacco leaf notes adding complexity with well-managed tannins, round with only a touch of grip, and finished with a lifted fresh sage aroma.

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Premium Italian Sparkling Wine Producer Commits To Age-Worthy Wines

The endless festively decorated convention stands where various Italian wines were being poured had tons of laughter and boisterous conversations emanating from them bringing an electricity that created a new magical world for a five-year-old girl. It was 1974 and she was there with her brother and mother at a wine trade fair called Vinitaly in the romantic city of Verona, located in the region of Veneto in Italy; it was Vinitaly’s seventh year of showcasing the fantastical array of Italian wines to international wine buyers and journalists. Although this little girl came from her own magical world in the province of Brescia, which lies in the northwestern Italian region of Lombardy, she was not used to such liveliness as she lived tucked away in the countryside surrounded by her family’s vineyards and she had never experienced such frenetic energy; it seemed she lived the best of both worlds as she was transported to ancient times when she played in her family’s 16th century stone wine cellar, counter-balanced with the excitement of witnessing her mother introduce their traditional sparkling wines to the rest of Italy and eventually to the world.

Lucia Barzanò in the vineyards
Photo Credit: Mosnel

That young girl grew up to be Lucia Barzanò and she would end up working side by side with her brother Giulio, the winemaker of their family winery, to continue their mother’s mission when it comes to making some of the greatest traditional sparkling wines in the world that are meant for long-term aging from the high-quality designated appellation of the Franciacorta DOCG.

Mosnel Franciacorta Wines

Giulio e Lucia Barzanò in the cellar
Photo Credit: Mosnel

The name Franciacorta is known among many Italian wine drinkers as one of the best sparkling wines and Lucia says that, many times, when Italians want a top sparkling wine when they go to a nice restaurant in Milan or Rome they will specifically ask for Franciacorta by name. Lucia’s mother’s side of the family has been in what is now considered the Franciacorta wine area, one of the top sparkling Italian appellations, since 1836 and Lucia with her brother are 5th generation winemakers running their Mosnel family winery.

Lucia’s mother, Emanuela Barzanò Barboglio, was an important force in establishing what Franciacorta is today as she was one of the 11 producers to be part of being awarded DOC high-quality status for the wines of Franciacorta and then she became part of the lobbying process to receive the highest-quality status for only their sparkling wines with DOCG which was awarded in 1995. Today Lucia, with her brother Giulio, continue the few tenets that their mother established: decent percentage of Pinot Blanc (Pinot Bianco in Italian), low sugar dosage and longevity built into the wines. 

As Lucia likes to note, Franciacorta has a multitude of deep meaning for Italians as it is part of the culture of the area as sparkling wines have been made there since the 16th century and on a personal note, her mother’s family has been making these wines for almost 200 years, as well as Franciacorta being a designated place that has been recognized for top sparkling wine and finally it is a method of production as well – that deep meaning translates to today Italy representing 80% of Mosnel sales. The Franciacorta method is similar to the Champagne method as it goes through its second fermentation in bottle and then it spends many months in that same bottle aging on its lees (sediment left after fermentation that adds complexity) but for Champagne, the minimum for Non-Vintage is 15 months of lees aging where Franciacorta enforces a minimum of 18 months – Mosnel goes even further with a minimum of 24 months; both regions use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (Pinot Nero in Italian) for the majority of the blend but Franciacorta allows Pinot Blanc to be used. And Pinot Blanc is an important aspect to the Mosnel style as it gives a fuller body that assists with long-term aging as well as giving pretty floral aromatics when it is properly grown.

Today Mosnel has almost 100 acres of vineyards that are organically farmed and the composite of their estate vineyards break down to 70% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Noir and 15% Pinot Blanc with only their estate vineyards being used for their wines. They are one of the few wineries that use such a high percentage of Pinot Blanc and so that is one of the reasons it distinguishes Mosnel from many other Franciacorta producers. But as climate change makes the summers warmer, Lucia and her brother have been looking for other ways to keep the fierce acidity that is preferred for such premium sparkling wines and they have found the “ancient, local variety” called Erbamat as a possibility for the future as it has higher acidity levels.

Mosnel Estate
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Part of the incredible ageability for Mosnel Franciacorta sparkling wines is due to a part of the wines fermenting and aging in small French used oak barrels as well as the low sugar in the whole range of the Mosnel wines. Just like in Champagne, when the wines are disgorged to remove the sediment of the lees after a certain amount of time of aging, a small amount of wine needs to be added to take up what volume was removed with the sediment and at this time sugar (a.k.a. dosage) is also added. The sugar many times counter-balances the high acidity in Champagne wines as well as in Franciacorta wines but Mosnel will only have, for example, four grams of sugar per liter in their Brut which is less than half of what the average dosage is in Brut Champagne. Actually Mosnel currently has five different bottlings of Franciacorta that have no sugar added that range from a Brut Nature to a handful of different Vintage Franciacorta to a Riserva that ages ten years on the lees as the wines are already balanced without any sugar added.

According to Lucia, they believe that the low amount of dosage, or none at all, helps make their wines built better for age; the final thing that makes their wines age-worthy is the use of reserve wines added to the blend that average around ten years old, giving more depth and concentration to the final blend.

Built to Last

It was such a special upbringing for Lucia as, from a young age, she was able to see her mother change an industry by showing Italy that they were capable of making great sparkling wine. And Lucia couldn’t be prouder than to follow in her mother’s footsteps as well as working with her brother who she is always ready to brag about as being one of the most talented winemakers she knows; her pride runs even deeper with her two daughters working at Mosnel becoming the 6th generation. At one time, getting Italians at fine dining restaurants in Italy to drink any other bubble than Champagne was impossible but Lucia’s mother was able to make Franciacorta a household name. Of course there is still that bridge to overcome in the U.S. market as, for many Americans, even dining in Italian restaurants, the name Franciacorta means very little; so for now Mosnel is sold as a small family production, estate-grown, organic premium Italian sparkling wine and that seems to get a lot more attention. But just like her mother, Lucia is happy to take on the challenge and she will not give up on the idea that one day Franciacorta will have the same deep meaning as it does in her home country.

Mosnel Brut Nature, Brut and Rosé
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Mosnel, Brut Nature, Franciacorta DOCG, Lombardy, Italy: 70% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Blanc and 10% Pinot Noir. No dosage. Saline minerality, chamomile and lemon rind on the nose with fine bubbles and intense minerality with crisp acidity.

Mosnel, Brut, Franciacorta DOCG, Lombardy, Italy: 60% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Blanc and 10% Pinot Noir. 4 grams per liter dosage. The Brut has more weight, more flavors with juicy nectarine and more of a background note of minerality that isn’t as intense in the Nature with a lovely expressive finish of roasted almonds.

Mosnel, Brut Rosé, Franciacorta DOCG, Lombardy, Italy: 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Blanc. 5 grams per liter dosage. Fresh strawberries with warm raspberry and stony minerality, elegant with pristine fruit flavors and a fantastic freshness – takes you to the edge of giving good intensity of fruit but doesn’t go too far keeping lots of acidity and minerality in play.

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The U.S. Wine Region Attracting Wine Producers Seeking Challenges And A State Of Fluctuation

It takes a certain type of person to do really well in the Virginia wine industry – one who wants to be part of building the foundation of a wine region, where things are changing year in and year out; for some it is an overwhelmingly frustrating place to work yet for others it is extremely exciting. “Virginia is very selecting of its people in that way,” noted Ben Jordan, winemaker of Early Mountain Vineyards, a wine producer in the town of Madison, Virginia. Despite Ben being born and raised in Virginia, it is a place that still surprises him all the time and one doesn’t have to necessarily be born there to have such a spirit to survive it as the wine industry is finding momentum and bringing in people from all over the world as interns – as long as they are looking for a place with lots of challenges then Virginia is for them. Ben says that it certainly says something about someone who stays after spending a vintage in Virginia as it is not a place for the faint of heart – its continental climate can bring brutal winters as well as ill-timed rains right before harvest and for many in the wine industry, those aspects of it would seem like impossible hurdles to overcome. But for those who have made the firm commitment to be part of the Virginia wine industry, they realize that they can’t just follow the practices of wine producers in California or even France as what they have is not exactly like any other place. 

Ben Jordan in the winery
Photo Credit: Early Mountain Vineyards

Virginia is finding what makes them special in a very unique way – by trying grape varieties that are not that commonly known or pushing the envelope of those varieties that are known as well as understanding that Virginia producers are not placed into a box because of their climate; there are ways to match the ideal place to the ideal grape through trying what makes sense for their particular set of circumstances. Sometimes taking a shot in the dark when it comes to using unconventional techniques for classic grape varieties can pan out really well too.

Early Mountain Vineyards

Jean and Steve Case bought the Early Mountain Vineyards property in 2010 and although it was a dream, the dream wasn’t only personal as they envisioned making world class wines, backed with a good marketing and distribution infrastructure, that would bring national attention to Virginia as a wine region; becoming a robust industry that would help Virginia’s economy as a whole, especially considering that they themselves saw the significant increase in quality of Virginia wines over the years. Jean and Steve have been both extremely successful with their careers as Steve was one of the co-founders of AOL and Jean was an executive in the private sector that included marketing and branding for AOL. Together they started the Case Foundation which is a philanthropic organization that invests in people and ideas that change the world.

Since Early Mountain Vineyards is more widely marketed and distributed into small restaurants and retail stores that value unique, high quality wines, they have also been a part of helping other Virginia wineries who do not have the resources to do so. Early Mountain Vineyards has also garnered some widely publicized acclaim by winning USA Today’s Best American Tasting Room in 2016 and was one of the finalists for Wine Enthusiast’s American Winery of the Year – 2018. Yet their mission is to not just become a well-known name themselves, it is to bring more visibility to the quality wines of Virginia, and so they offer tastings in their popular tasting room under the title of the ‘Best of Virginia’ that showcases a range of established wineries in Virginia as well as young and cutting edge producers.  

Early Mountain Vineyards tasting room Photo Credit:
Early Mountain Vineyards

But the Cases’ mission would have no chance if they didn’t have the right winemaker and that is where Ben Jordan comes in. He is someone who found his way into wine when he left Virginia by working in wine sales in San Francisco; there he was able to taste wines from all over the world to develop his palate. But as time went on, he wanted to get a better understanding of the process of making wine, working his way through the process which started in the vineyards up to the final product and he found himself working at a winery in the Russian River Valley as well as having a few other shorter stints in other areas of Sonoma County. He came back to Virginia to make use of his knowledge by working at one of the next generation pioneers of Virginia, Michael Shaps Wineworks – a custom crush facility that works with fruit from all over Virginia. As a winemaker working with various vineyards, Ben really got a first hand education into the wide range of quality and characteristics of Virginia vineyards and that is when he discovered that the soil could be a stronger factor than climate in certain sites; it is also when he discovered his love for the Petit Manseng grape variety.

Unusual Grape Varieties and Unusual Practices

Quaker Run Vineyard
Photo Credit: Early Mountain Vineyards

Petit Manseng is a white grape variety that finds its original home in southwestern France in the area of Jurançon. It is many times either seen as a sweet or off-dry wine and when it is dry it is usually blended. It is barely seen in the U.S. market and so for most people it is a grape that they have never heard of and that within itself brings a big challenge. Yet according to Ben, it is a vinifera grape (vinifera is the species of grape varieties most known for high quality wine) that deals with mildew better than most as well as the “architecture of the grape cluster is such that it can really hang through rain and on top of that it has the ability to retain concentration of sugar.” Petit Manseng has thick skins and a tendency to develop rich fruit and higher alcohol levels while retaining acidity and if anything, a wine producer has to make sure the alcohol doesn’t get out of hand if allowing the grape to hang on the vines longer as well as the tendency to become too rich and overpowering. Hence, Ben will pick the Petit Manseng grapes destined for a dry varietal bottling in three different passes as to make sure to get grapes at different ripeness levels.

But for an area that has an issue with ripening certain grape varieties as well as an ill-timed rain before harvest, the rain can help to “tap down the power” of Petit Manseng and make it a more balanced wine.

Allowing natural fermentation to take place Photo Credit: Early Mountain Vineyards

When it came to Early Mountain trying their hand at making a Bordeaux blend from certain vineyards around the estate, they realized that those vines were better for lighter reds or rosé wines. And this goes back to their philosophy that nothing should be forced – if a high quality Bordeaux blend cannot be made, no matter how badly they want to make one, it is not going to be part of their portfolio of wines. Yet they were able to take over another vineyard called Quaker Run in 2014 that really showed the power of site in Virginia. Quaker Run Vineyard is only 20 minutes from Early Mountain Vineyards estate but it is on the side of the Blue Ridge Mountains which is rocky and steep and it is able to grow Merlot and Cabernet Franc in some sections that are concentrated with plenty of acidity and structure for ageability, balanced by beautiful aromatics and an overall elegance. They were also able to get a premium Chardonnay wine from Quaker Run as well that comes from 20 year-old vines. That may not be considered old by European standards, but Ben says that they act like mature vines showing a lovely balance of finesse and richness.

Another discovery for Ben has been how much Cabernet Franc shows an affinity to displaying terroir like Pinot Noir – a grape that he is familiar with from his Sonoma County days. And that has led Early Mountain to bottle five different kinds of Cabernet Franc, two regional and three vineyard designated sites. And even though Ben is happy that he got a chance to work in a wine region like Sonoma that has most things figured out, it is a different kind of thrill to work in a region where every step has to be discovered and that there is no other well-known wine region in the world that they can successfully copy as Virginia has a unique set of circumstances.

Site Outperforming the Weather

But there is no doubt that it takes a lot of courage and it takes a strong will that can get one past the many failures that will be faced in working in an area that has no handbook for success and actually working like another known wine region will only lead one down a path of mediocrity. There is nothing wrong with facing the fact that Virginia has a tough climate when it comes to comparing it to California or even France but that doesn’t mean there is not something special about Virginia as a wine region. Ben is starting to see, even to his own amazement, that sites will outperform the weather and that there are certain underappreciated grape varieties that can shine in Virginia, and as Ben likes to remind people, it is still a very young wine industry and is just the beginning of them discovering where they excel. 

***This article originally appeared on Forbes:

2020 Early Mountain Vineyards, Pétillant Natural, Virginia
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

All of the Early Mountain Vineyards wines use ambient yeasts for a spontaneous fermentation with the exception of their rosé wine.

Early Mountain Vineyards is part of the Monticello AVA (American Viticultural Area), which was the first established AVA in Virginia and the area encompasses the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is an historic area due to the fact that it was the home of Thomas Jefferson and that there are records dating back to the 1700s noting that Jefferson hired an Italian winemaker to make wine from native grapes in Monticello. Early Mountain Vineyards is located in the town of Madison and almost all of the below grapes are sourced from the Monticello AVA with the exception of the 2019 Early Mountain Vineyards, Shenandoah Springs Vineyard Cabernet Franc wine which is from Shenandoah Valley AVA in Virginia.

2020 Early Mountain Vineyards, Pétillant Natural, Virginia: 71% Malvasia Bianca and 29% Muscat Blanc. This sparkling white wine is a Pét-Nat, a natural wine where the bubbles are created by the fact that it is bottled during fermentation – an ancient technique for sparkling wines – this Pét-Nat is disgorged so there is some sediment but not as much as you would see in many other Pét-Nat wines. Floral notes with lemon confit and hints of blanched almonds with a mouthwatering acidity. Early Mountain Vineyards makes Pét-Nat and Champagne method sparkling wines as their associate winemaker and viticulturist Maya Hood White has a real passion for sparkling wines.

2020 Early Mountain Vineyards, Pétillant Natural, Virginia
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2020 Early Mountain Vineyards ‘Five Forks’, Virginia: 61% Petit Manseng, 32% Sauvignon Blanc, 4% Chardonnay and 3% Pinot Gris. At the heart of this blend is the Petit Manseng and sometimes Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are added depending on the vintage. The brightness and slight herbaceous quality of the Sauvignon Blanc balances the richness of the Petit Manseng. A mix of stone fruit, nectarines and minerality on the nose with green mango on the palate with a background of dried herbs that is overall a bright, very drinkable wine.

2019 Early Mountain Vineyards, Petit Manseng, Virginia: 100% Petit Manseng. They do three different passes when it comes to harvesting the Petit Manseng for this wine as Ben Jordan notes that the first pick gives more orchard fruits like apple, the second gives slightly riper, sweeter fruit qualities associated with peach and apricot and the final pick has more tropical fruit notes. Golden color because of the thick skins of the grapes with a delicious nose of honeysuckle, ripe pineapple and golden apple with a rich nuttiness from the long fermentation of this wine.

2019 Early Mountain Vineyards, Quaker Run Vineyard, Chardonnay, Virginia: 100% Chardonnay. Goes through full malolactic fermentation as it has high acidity but they don’t allow all of their Chardonnay wines to go through full malolactic fermentation as it depends on the site. The grapes from the Quaker Run Vineyard have the ability to ripen a week or two after the other grapes while retaining acidity and so the wines are concentrated yet still vibrant and fresh. Pretty nose with lime blossom and wet stones with richer juicy peach flavors on the palate with good weight and mineral-driven finish.

2019 Early Mountain Vineyards, Shenandoah Springs Vineyard Cabernet Franc
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 Early Mountain Vineyards, Shenandoah Springs Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Virginia: 100% Cabernet Franc. The Shenandoah Springs Vineyards is in the Shenandoah Valley which is a big AVA so it is around 150 miles from the south to the north so hard to generalize but two things do stand out about this area: less rain and higher elevations. Ben believes that Cabernet Franc has an affinity for showing terroir just like Pinot Noir and this was one of the sites that convinced him of it – hence they make five Cabernet Franc wines, two regional and three vineyard designated sites. Enchanting note of violets with ripe blueberry jam (2019 was a hotter and drier vintage and so this is an expression of the vintage) with big, round tannins and hints of broken earth on the finish.

 2019 Early Mountain Vineyards ‘Eluvium’ Virginia: 80% Merlot, 19% Petit Verdot and 1% Cabernet Franc. Ben says he employs whole cluster fermentation in this wine that averages around 10%-25% mainly on the Merlot grapes as it comes from the Quaker Run site and that Merlot does really well with whole cluster as it gives it more aromatics with a tannic backbone without any greenness as the stems of the grapes are fully ripe. They also source from other vineyards, one called Capstone Mountain and another called Russ Mountain; Russ is riper and it has more base notes and Capestone is higher elevation so it has more linear, aromatic, high-tone notes and when they are blended together they will get the same result from Quaker Run which produces wines that are ripe and deep as well as linear and aromatic. Multilayered fruit with blackcurrant preserves (again 2019 was a hotter vintage), blueberry pie and fresh black cherries that had finely etched tannins with gravelly earth and a stony minerality undertone with a long, aromatic finish of floral and spicy notes.

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Wines From Tuscany Made Possible By A Man Who Lived Beyond The Wheelchair That Confined Him

Gian Annibale Rossi di Medelana seemed to have everything in life – a noble Italian family line dating back to the 1200s, one of the biggest estates in Tuscany, Italy, which he inherited from his family and having the reputation as a true gentleman – a Renaissance painting come to life in how he carried himself and his various interests in art and culture. But one day, as a young man with his whole life ahead of him, his love for riding horses took a bad turn as an accident left him without use of his legs. That could have been the end of his zest for life but, rather, he was able to find a level of joy that was beyond his comprehension by becoming part of the Super Tuscan movement, showing the world that Bordeaux grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon had a home in the village of Bolgheri, near the coastline of Tuscany, as well.

Castello del Terriccio

Castello del Terriccio
Photo Credit: Castello del Terriccio

Gian Annibale’s family estate, Castello del Terriccio, is around 3,700 acres with 160 acres of vineyards and almost 100 acres of olive groves and although it was always an estate devoted to agriculture with over 50 sharecropper families living there up until the mid-70s, and even today around 15 families still live on the estate, Gian Annibale was the first to get serious about wine. Once he took over, in 1975, he made Castello del Terriccio a place dedicated to researching the vineyards as well as finding the ideal clones of grape varieties in Bordeaux to bring back to his estate. His first wine – a white wine – was released in 1985 called Con Vento, and today it still exists with Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc in the blend, but he knew that if he wanted to make wines at the same level of Château Latour he would need to find the right consultant to help him.

Castello del Terriccio Vineyards
Photo Credit: Castello del Terriccio

That is when Gian Annibale met a young Carlo Ferrini, who eventually became one of the most iconic winemaking consultants in Italy, yet at the time, although impressive as a winemaker working with the Consorzio of Chianti Classico producers, some might have thought that picking someone older, more well-experienced and perhaps from Bordeaux would have been a better choice. But Gian Annibale not only was a great student of art and culture, he had a great understanding of human nature and how to study the character of a person. Carlo Ferrini immediately gave him the impression of someone who was about the land, the terroir, and that his commitment to excellence of expressing sense of place was as great as Gian Annibale’s own; today Castello del Terriccio remains one of Carlo Ferrini’s longest clients.

Gian Annibale Rossi di Medelana Photo Credit: Castello del Terriccio

The Castello del Terriccio is located right outside of the famous Super Tuscan winemaking area of Bolgheri – both being the same distance from the sea – and it actually covers two provinces in Tuscany: Pisa and Livorno. In general, Castello del Terriccio is more hilly and windy than the valley of Bolgheri, not counting the smaller amount of plantings on the hill, and so generally they enjoy a more moderate climate with good conditions for low disease pressure that is more conducive for healthy grapes. Gian Annibale was friends with many of the leading wine producers of Super Tuscan wines and his top selection Bordeaux blend ‘Lupicaia’ would be considered a more affordable alternative to a friend’s top selection: Tenuta San Guido ‘Sassicaia’, as both wines are based on Bordeaux varieties as well as having vineyards planted on hillsides. Gian Annibale wines became very well-respected among his colleagues as he was meticulous in finding the ideal clones of grape varieties for each plot among his vineyards with the help of Carlo Ferrini – both being men of the land first and foremost.

Vittorio and Gian Annibale
Photo Credit: Castello del Terriccio

A little over two years ago, Gian Annibale passed away at 78 years old and despite not having a wife or children, he did have a nephew, Vittorio, who he treated as his own who inherited Castello del Terriccio. Some of the best parts of Vittorio’s childhood were spent with Gian Annibale on the estate as his uncle was a hero of epic proportions allowing nothing to stand in his way of living his dream; and Castello del Terriccio was a dream to Vittorio as a boy with the massive gates to the property opening up to a tree-lined road that seemed to go on forever, finally opening up to those extraordinary vineyards that meant so much to his uncle – a man who taught him the meaning of life just by his very being. It took Vittorio no time after learning of his uncle’s death to decide to leave the finance world in Rome and move to the property so he could make sure to continue his uncle’s dream that was rooted in his own childhood.  

A Roadblock Leading to a Fulfilling Journey

Gian Annibale was known as a man with many interests who enjoyed parties and going out on a regular basis and it was thought that perhaps his accident gave him a chance to focus on a bigger project – to become part of the Super Tuscan movement which seemed like an impossible task in the beginning. It is a similar story to the celebrated theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking who spent much of his time at university going to parties and hanging out with friends until he was struck down by a neurodegenerative disease that gradually paralyzed him over decades and it forced him to go more inward and hence he was able to unlock a few of the great mysteries of the universe. Both of these men did not decide to focus on what they lost in life but instead looked for the gifts and opportunities such roadblocks brought and the worlds they lived in are both richer for them finding deeper fulfillment within a seemingly tragic circumstance.  

Vertical of Castello del Terriccio ‘Lupicaia’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Below are selections of Castello del Terriccio wines with ‘Con Vento’ being their white blend, ‘Tassinaia’ being the second wine to their top selection Super Tuscan red ‘Lupicaia’ and ‘Castello del Terriccio’ displaying Gian Annibale love for Syrah with its first release in 2000. Petit Verdot started making it in the blend more consistently in recent vintages as it was known to be Gian Annibale’s last passion.

2020 Castello del Terriccio ‘Con Vento’ Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2020 Castello del Terriccio ‘Con Vento’ Bianco Toscana IGT, Tuscany, Italy: Blend of Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. Nose of saline minerality and lemon zest with peach peel on the palate with good texture and bright acidity.

2017 Castello del Terriccio ‘Tassinaia’ Rosso Toscana IGT, Tuscany, Italy: Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Earthy nose with gravelly notes with a hint of dried purple flowers in the background and subtle black cherry intermixed with fresh leather – lots of finesse with this wine.

2016 Castello del Terriccio ‘Castello del Terriccio’ Rosso Toscana IGT, Tuscany, Italy: Blend of Syrah and Petit Verdot. Cracked black pepper and multi-layered black fruit that had a mix of wild flowers and fresh thyme that had a chewy texture with plenty of fleshy fruit to balance it out and a lifted, bright finish.

2006 Castello del Terriccio ‘Lupicaia’
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2016 Castello del Terriccio ‘Lupicaia’ Rosso di Toscana IGT, Tuscany, Italy: Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Graphite and blackcurrant with rich cassis flavor that brings more overall weight than the 2011 and 2006 but it is still elegant in its delivery.

2011 Castello del Terriccio ‘Lupicaia’ Rosso di Toscana IGT, Tuscany, Italy: Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Savory nose with fresh sage and dried oregano that had pretty red cherry flavor and fine tannins that had a long, expressive finish. 

2006 Castello del Terriccio ‘Lupicaia’ Rosso di Toscana IGT, Tuscany, Italy: Blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot. Fresh mint notes with more of a dried red cherry quality when it comes to fruit and extremely complex with truffle and tar notes that evolved to dusty earth on the silky finish.

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Fate Has Midwestern Woman Lead Sonoma Winery To Next Evolution

As a little girl smelled intriguing aromas of grapes and leaves wafting in the air, her face beamed with a joyful curiosity as her parents drove her around Sonoma County and Napa Valley during harvest time for wine producers. Although her father worked for the Miller Brewery Company back in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the 70s and early 80s, he had a deep love for wine as well as the San Francisco Bay Area and his daughter not only grew up witnessing her parents’ love for wine at home but enjoyed the stories about the recent California graduates of University of California- Davis (U.C. Davis), which today has one of the top winemaking programs in the world; these graduates would come out to Miller to intern during those times – but would quickly run back to California once they experienced their first Midwestern winter. Although the Midwest is not known as a great winemaking area, it would end up being the home of the next winemaker at the helm of Jordan Vineyard & Winery, a producer in Alexander Valley in Sonoma County which is famous for their elegant, old-world style of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines.

Father and Top University Points Towards Wine

Maggie Kruse 
Photo Credit: Jordan Vineyard & Winery
Maggie Kruse
Photo Credit: Jordan Vineyard & Winery

That little girl, Maggie Kruse, would end up excelling in science in high school and falling in love with hands-on work in the lab and so her dad suggested that she should go to the winemaking program at U.C. Davis. But she wanted to keep her options open and so she visited other well-respected universities but while she was checking out other schools, such as the prestigious school Barnard College, she talked about her interest in winemaking and going to U.C. Davis and she was instantly told she should definitely go for it since the winemaking path seemed so much more interesting than any other path she was considering – and this was from people trying to woo her to attend their schools.

Maggie was only 17 years old when she graduated from high school and so she did a year at Napa Valley College before going into U.C. Davis allowing her to have the amazing experience of living in Napa Valley at only 17 years old. “I would spend a lot of weekends driving around and getting a feel for things,” noted Maggie and she remembers driving to neighboring Sonoma County and loving how it could be quaint and have a small town vibe during the winter yet become energetic and vibrant during the summer and harvest time with people traveling there from all over the world. After graduating from U.C. Davis she became an intern at J Vineyards & Winery which so happened to be owned at the time by Judy Jordan, the sister of John Jordan – owner of Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Sonoma County as well. After spending a year with J Vineyards she ended up getting an assistant winemaking job at Jordan in 2006 and studying under longtime winemaker Rob Davis until he retired in 2019 giving way for Maggie to become the head winemaker.

Next Evolution of Jordan Vineyard & Winery

Jordan Petit Verdot Vineyards   Photo Credit Brian Baer
Jordan Petit Verdot Vineyards
Photo Credit: Brian Baer

When John Jordan took over Jordan Vineyard & Winery from his parents in October in 2005 he went to head winemaker at the time Rob Davis and asked how they could make subtle changes over time to make the wine better as he wanted to make the best wine possible. Rob knew that it would be better to only use the best blocks from their estate vineyards as well as purchase fruit from long-time multi-generational family growers in the area instead of just using all the fruit from the estate. And so this would give them a chance to spend the next 15 years to analyze all of the different plots on their property to study the soil and various aspects of each section of vines and determine if the site could make great fruit by being replanted and reworked, or if it was going to be fruit that they would always sell off. Maggie said that through time they have really been able to get excellent fruit out of blocks that previously were not performing the way they wanted but even today John Jordan would never make her use a block that she thought was not worthy of the Jordan name; so she is grateful that she only places top lots of wine into the final blend making it possible to produce their elegant premium Cabernet Sauvignon every year.

Another exciting evolution for Jordan over the past 15 years has been to implement a cork sourcing program that would make sure they were getting the top performing corks in the world. From day one, Maggie was placed in charge of corks and so she would go through many of the batches of corks to see if there was any issues with TCA (a compound that has a moldy smell like wet cardboard) or any other off-aroma that would taint the wine and she would find too many instances of tainting off-aromas. Since screw caps just wouldn’t work for them, she decided that the Diam cork was the best type of cork to use. The process of Diam is fascinating as it is a cork that has been broken down into tiny pieces that goes through a “super critical process” that is similar to decaffeinated coffee and it takes out all of the off-aromas, not only TCA but Maggie says she has smelled “pine and ash tray characteristics” taken out and then microsphere adhesives are used to bind it all back together. One is not only left with a cork that has no taint of any kind but it is perfectly uniform and hence will have the same oxygen transmission rate for each cork – this translates into each bottle aging at the same rate as compared to regular corks which have imperfections that will have the same case of wine, for example, containing bottles which age at different rates.

Jordan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon grapevines Alexander Valley sunset Andy Katz
Jordan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon grapevines Alexander Valley sunset
Photo Credit: Andy Katz

Another step in their cork program involves their recently released 40th Anniversary of their Chardonnay and represents Maggie’s first vintage as head winemaker, 2019 Jordan Chardonnay, under the Origine closure by Diam which uses beeswax as a binder for the Diam cork making it a more natural product overall. Maggie has been trialing the Origine herself in their cellars for four years and she is impressed by the results and hence why she feels confident releasing the 2019 Chardonnay with it; the Cabernet Sauvignon does not have the Origine closure yet as she knows their customers age their Cabernet for many years so it may take ten, 15, maybe even 20 years before they decide to release their Cabernet under the Origine closure.

Jordan’s Chardonnay is sourced from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County and Maggie has been part of the evolution of that wine as well as they have been sourcing more fruit from western parts of the Russian River with cooler temperatures which produces wines with more finesse. Also they have been recently experimenting with a concrete egg fermenter that they believe will bring more texture, as well as retain the distinctive minerality for their Chardonnay wine.

Timing Advantageous For Both

Dana Grande and Maggie Kruse
Photo Credit: Jordan Vineyard & Winery

Maggie is so thankful that the timing worked out in her favor as not only did she get to have Rob Davis, the first winemaker for Jordan since 1976, as her mentor as well as take over for him in 2019 but she came at a time when John Jordan took over for his parents and he was open to change. Because of the timing she notes, “I was able to appreciate the way Jordan was doing things in the past as well as be really excited and enthusiastic about where our future was heading.” And although many of her wine colleagues used to joke about how long she stayed at Jordan since her arrival in 2006, as it is very unusual especially nowadays for winemakers to stay anywhere for a significant length of time, she couldn’t feel more fortunate that she found a place very early on that ideally suits her; she is challenged, constantly learning yet she is fully respected for the choices she makes and given the freedom to do what is best for the wines.

And by the same token, the timing worked out for Jordan Vineyard & Winery as after having their first winemaker for so long it would seem they wouldn’t be so lucky twice to find someone else who was such an ideal candidate to take Rob’s place and yes, it is more than understandable that many times it doesn’t work out and someone needs to go another way… but when it does work out with a passionate, hardworking and ever curious winemaker, it is a great sign that no matter how wonderful the wines are now, there is so much more to come.

***This article originally appeared in Forbes:

2019 Jordan Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd
2017 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley, California  Photo Credit Cathrine Todd
2017 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley, California
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2019 Jordan Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California: 100% Chardonnay. A lovely balance of richness and brightness with notes of lemon custard and citrus blossom that has fresh acidity on the finish with a lasting note of wet stones.

2017 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley, California: 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec. Deep, rich blackberry flavors with added complexity of broken rocks and fresh sage with round tannins and long length of flavor with a wonderful balance that included plenty of fruit, freshness and overall elegance.

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Wines Made On Spanish Islands With Erupting Volcano And Tsunami Warning

Just like there is no other color on Earth like the electric saffron hue of an erupting volcano, there are no other sounds exactly like the rumbling, hissing and roaring that accompany an explosion of molten rock and the streams of lava that follow. Since the 19th of September, the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma, one of the main Spanish Canary Islands, has been erupting with several streams of lava flows that have covered over 3,000 acres, destroyed around 2,900 buildings and forced thousands of people to abandon their homes. The tens of thousands of people still living on La Palma, as well as holiday visitors who want to witness the volcano, are attentively waiting to see if there are indeed big cracks beginning to show in the volcano that could possibly indicate its future collapse. Over 20 years ago, an academic paper suggested that such a collapse could cause a mega-tsunami that would be so powerful that it would affect the Eastern coastline of North and South America. But there are many experts that question if that would even be possible as there is no geological evidence to such a theory and that not only does a tsunami seem unlikely but that a collapsed volcano on the Canary Islands seemed just as unlikely. But a tsunami is still a slight possibility for La Palma and although the theory of a mega-tsunami has no merit, the idea that any tsunami would be devastating to La Palma as well as the other main Canary Islands is a very real potential risk that is being closely examined.

Some people on the island may look at the erupting volcano as a thrilling adventure, some as a tragic force of Mother Nature that has decimated their homes and others as a trigger for their anxiety of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sometimes that fear will make people imagine sounds that are indicating the cracking of the volcano and make them wonder if it is worth it to abandon their homes as a gigantic tsunami wave can arrive quickly and wipe out every living thing in its path. The Canary Islands, which are technically part of Spain but physically much closer to Africa, are unique as a wine region for so many reasons and this latest challenge of the potential ramifications of an erupting volcano that has been going for almost three months as well as a stream of lava pouring into the Atlantic ocean is the latest in the immense challenges they face as a wine region known to very few who haven’t visited them.

Seven of the Canary Islands make commercial wine with the island of Fuerteventura having their first legally instated winery starting just a few years ago yet there are two islands whose wines are most seen in exports markets: Lanzarote island and Tenerife island.

Lanzarote Island

Vines planted in La Geria on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands
Photo Credit: Bodega Los Bermejos

The Lanzarote island is under one wine appellation designation called Lanzarote DO as the island of Tenerife is the only one with more than one sub-appellation designation. A volcanic eruption that lasted several years, almost 300 years ago, made Lanzarote a place that even today seems like a visit to another planet. Black lava covers a quarter of the island including what was once some of the most fertile soil making it today inhabitable for most vegetation yet in the sections where there is a thinner layer of lava, vines can be planted as their roots are able to reach the soil underneath the black ash to take in the necessary nutrients to survive. It is interesting to think of the current erupting volcano on the La Palma island and the idea that a significant amount of its landscape may end up mirroring that of the black ash covered section on Lanzarote. Right now most quality producers on La Palma make wines in quantities that are too small to be exported but hopefully that will change in the future although this year has been one of the most challenging according to wine expert Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein; not only have many of the vineyards been damaged by “lava flow or ash” but a heatwave in August “destroyed between 80 to 90% Malvasia grapes” as Evan drew attention to the reporting in Decanter which noted such facts.

Lanzarote has a unique training system called hoyos which includes digging sloping holes into the black lava so not only can the roots easily reach the soil underneath the black lava but that it also provides protection from fierce winds; Lanzarote’s subtropical-desert climate is slightly cooler during the summers compared to the other islands although it is the windiest and driest. A rock wall that is built around each hoyo also assists in combating the intense winds. Newer vineyards are planted where there is a shallow layer of black lava and so vines can be planted in trenches with rock walls lining them and although the newer vineyards can producer slightly higher yields than those in the hoyos, it is still low in comparison to the rest of the world’s average yields.

Ferran Centelles and Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein
Photo Credit: Mikhail Lipyanskiy

Ferran Centelles, who was a sommelier at the world-renowned El Bulli for 13 years until it closed (El Bulli was the Adrià brothers’ legendary restaurant in Catalonia, Spain that was voted the world’s best restaurant for many years in a row), noted that “some of the most expensive land for vineyards in Spain” was in the Canary islands due to the complications of the place as well as luxury hotels willing to pay a high price for land. But despite having such a high overhead and an overall unique quality, the wines of the Canary Islands have been generally under-priced. For example, the most commonly found wine from the Lanzarote island is from Bodegas Los Bermejos and it is called Malvasía Volcánica Secco which retails around $20. But as time goes on, a few producers are commanding higher prices for special bottlings as they know that it is the only way for quality wine to survive in the Canary Islands.

Tenerife Island

Ferran explained that the Canary Islands have a climate that is more similar to the country of “Columbia than any place in Spain” yet the tropical climate is moderated by intense winds and vineyards planted at higher altitudes; actually the island of Tenerife has some of the highest vineyards in Europe that go up to 5,250 feet compared to the highest in Switzerland, often noted as having the highest vineyards in Europe, which only reach 3,800 feet. Tenerife is much more of a tropical paradise compared to the otherworldliness of Lanzarote but since it is the largest island among the Canary Islands it has different micro-climates, hence five different sub-regions are designated for wine, and its climate can generally be broken up into a major difference from the north to the south. Actually Tenerife is the home to the fourth-highest volcano in the world, called Mount Teide, and it is so massive that it does affect weather patterns as the clouds get trapped by Mount Teide making the northern wine sub-regions wetter and cooler and the southern sub-regions drier and hotter.

Vines planted on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands
Photo Credit: Bodegas Tajinaste

But Tenerife is also the home of a quality wine revolution with wine producer Juan Jesus, a native of Tenerife and a fourth generation grower, leading the way. Juan juggles teaching classes as a professor of viticulture and enology who is also assisting the Rovira and Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain to study, catalog and preserve the indigenous varieties of the Canary Islands with being a grape grower and winemaker. “Juan Jesus was the first to propose single varietal wines in the Canary Islands,” explained Ferran Centelles. Placing a stronger focus on understanding each variety by bottling 100% of that grape was important in understanding the best way to grow and vinify each grape variety, hence making even the wines that were made out of a blend of varieties that much better. Native grape varieties such as the Vijariego Blanco are only known today because of the work of Juan Jesus and his winery Bodegas Viñátigo.

The Greatest Fear Dominates

Everyone around the globe is living during unprecedented times as a pandemic still rages on with new mutations and a seemingly endless amount of new challenges yet such an event that could never have been foreseen by most is making many people question their choices in life. As the Great Resignation of people leaving their jobs in droves is making employers offer better pay and flexibility to retain talent, it makes one think how many people stayed in jobs that made them miserable or even were detrimental to their mental health simply because they were afraid; afraid of an unknown future of being able to support themselves, afraid of having no sense of purpose according to society’s standards if they were to push back against an unhealthy work culture. Yet the pandemic turned everything on its head as those who did everything right in life lost their job, their business, some even lost their lives when Covid first ambushed the world. And those that survived with their lives, health, jobs or business intact witnessing the immense tragedy of it all decided that they were tired of their lives being driven by minuscule fears when they didn’t even think to fear one of the worst things that actually ended coming true… a global pandemic.

And the Canary Islands wine regions find themselves looking at the slight risk of a tsunami that seems just as unlikely as a global pandemic and certainly the odds are with them that it will not happen. But instead of waiting for one of the worst disasters imaginable to happen so one can realize what is important in life, there are some producers who are already taking a stand; they will not allow luxury hotels to wipe out all the vineyards and native grape varieties. There are some wine producers who will put it all on the line to invest in Canary Islands’ quality wines and find a place for their beloved vineyards and varieties among the hearts of wine drinkers around the world. Because the fear of failure, or fear of great financial loss or even the fear of a natural disaster of epic proportions are all nothing compared to their greatest fear of having the potential of their vineyards and varieties never known.

***This article was originally published in Forbes:

***The photo below as well as the second from the top are credited to Mikhail Lipyanskiy. Please checkout his photography via his website or Instagram page.

Wines from the Canary Islands tasted at the 27th Annual Spain’s Great Match in NYC
Photo Credit: Mikhail Lipyanskiy

2020 Bodegas Los Bermejos, Malvasia Volcanica Secco, Lanzarote DO, Lanzarote Island, Canary Island: 100% tank-aged Malvasía Volcánica. Malvasía Volcánica is considered a native variety that is a cross of Malvasia di Lipari and Marmajuelo. This white wine has a nose of saline minerality with hints of lemon confit and fresh acidity on the palate with wet stones and citrus blossom on the finish.  

2019 Bodegas Viñátigo, Vijariego Blanco, Ycoden Daute Isora DO, Tenerife Island, Canary Islands: 100% Vijariego Blanco. Ferran Centelles notes that Bodegas Viñátigo wines, even a white wine like this one, have great aging potential. An excellent backbone of mouthwatering acidity with complex notes of fresh sage, chalky minerality and lemon blossom that had a linear energetic body with a lemon zest lift on the finish. 

2020 Suertes del Marqués ‘Trenzado’ Valle de la Orotava DO, Tenerife Island, Canary Islands: White blend of Listán Blanc, Pedro Ximénez, Vidueño and other grape varieties. Another favorite producer by Ferran Centelles who stated that this wine producer “touches the wines like no one else in the Canary Islands.” Smoky minerality with roasted almonds and crisp acidity that had juicy peach flavors.

2018 Bodegas Frontón de Oro, Tintilla, Gran Canaria DO, Gran Canaria Island, Canary Islands: 100% Tintilla which is believed to be related to Trousseau which is an old variety that originates from eastern France. The Gran Canaria island is one of the other main islands where wine is made. Black pepper and fresh rosemary on the nose that creates a very aromatic red that is accompanied by a nimble body with flavors of blackcurrants.

2020 Bodegas Monje, Tinto Hollera Carbónic, Tacoronte-Acentejo DO, Tenerife Island, Canary Islands: 100% Listán Negro is a red native grape variety of the Canary Islands and it is a cross between Listán Blanco and Negramoll. Hollera is the name of the vineyard from which the fruit for this wine comes; 40-60 year old Listán Negro vines, fermented with semi-carbonic maceration technique. Bright candied red fruit that is balanced by broken earth and savory spices with round tannins and good mid-palate weight.

2019 Bodegas Tajinaste, Valle De La Orotava Tinto Tradicional, Valle de la Orotava DO, Tenerife Island, Canary Islands: 100% Listán Negro. Agustín García Farrais is the third generation running this island winery and one-fifth of the fruit undergoes carbonic maceration. Black cherries and graphite make this wine really intriguing right off the bat with juicy fruit and some structure to the tannins that give it a beautiful elegance.

2018 Sortevera, Tinto, Tenerife Island, Canary Islands: Red blend of Vijariego Negro, Listán Negro, Listán Gacho, Mulata, Moscatel Negra and Tintilla. A wine that has gained favorable attention by international wine critics as it is a collection of different vineyards that contain ancient field blends in Taganana located in the northeast of Tenerife. Smoldering earth with ripe blackberries and crushed rocks that has an enticing floral note in the background with finely etched tannins. This is one of the fine wines that is emerging from the Tenerife Island and it is a new joint venture between Suertes del Marqués (the third wine producer listed in the tasting notes above) and grape grower Alonso Ramos from Taganana in the northeast of Tenerife, who had started working with Envínate which is one of the most outstanding producers in Spain right now let alone the Canary Islands.

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Two Great Wine Estates That Are Part Of Portugal’s Wine History

2007 Quinta de Roriz Vintage Port
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

In 1882, when Andrew James Symington first traveled from Scotland to Porto, the second largest city in Portugal, it would not only become a new adventurous chapter in his life but it would be the beginning of the legacy of one of the greatest Port wine families in Portugal. Andrew initially joined the Port house Graham’s which was owned by a Scottish family before going off on his own. It would be a lesson in perseverance because although sweet fortified Port wines would have bouts of extreme popularity with the British, as England had on and off economic wars with the French – their main supplier of wine, the steep slopes of the Douro Valley in northern Portugal, where the vineyards for Port are located, were treacherous to work as well as treacherous to travel to and from as there was no infrastructure built and so getting the barrels of wine to the main port cities such as Porto, so they could be shipped to England, became a momentous achievement each time the barrels made it unscathed.

It speaks to the adventurous spirit of Andrew that he stayed and luckily for the world of Port that remarkable attribute was passed on to four future generations of Symingtons that would not only carry-on his legacy but expand upon it to produce some of the most sought after fortified Port wines, as well as excellent non-fortified red wines from the Douro Valley.

2007 Quinta do Vesúvio Vintage Port
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

Andrew James Symington eventually bought the Port house Warre’s; the next generation of Symingtons acquired Dow’s and then the next bought Graham’s and finally the current generation in charge acquired Cockburn’s and so each generation has helped to add to what is considered today a Port family dynasty where one out of three bottles of “really good Port sold worldwide” belongs to the Symington family, according to the current CEO of Symington Family Estates, Rupert Symington.  

Part of the Symington portfolio includes the cherished estates of Quinta do Vesúvio and Quinta de Roriz with the former still using the centuries-old method of treading the grapes in granite stone tanks called lagares and the latter bought in partnership with Bruno Prats, former owner of the legendary Château Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux. These estates are not only revered for their Port wine but for their outstanding non-fortified red wines as well as each of these estates express a special sense of place and a multitude of complexity which has helped build the reputation of the Douro as a great red winemaking region.

Quinta do Vesúvio and Quinta de Roriz

The Douro Valley has come a long way since the Symington’s legacy was first established as roads were constructed and dams were built which allowed much more activity on the river in regards to getting wine barrels to port cities as previously only the rabelo flat-bottomed boats were able to handle the shallow waters of the Upper Douro. But Rupert Symington remembers his father James talking about making Port as recent as the 1960s and even at that time the remote farms in the Douro did not have electricity as the places outside the main towns only just received electricity in the 1970s and so the Symington Port wines were made by using candlelight and gaslight as well as all the wines having their grapes crushed by an old traditional practice of locals stepping on the grapes in sync with music while it fermented into wine; the foot trodden practice for the most part is no longer practiced with an exception of a few special bottlings of Port or at a couple of wineries such as Quinta do Vesúvio. But as time has gone on more modern equipment has made it possible to raise the overall quality as well as make top quality non-fortified red wines possible that was also assisted by understanding the native grape varieties and various types of soils, aspects and micro-climates of the various vineyards in the Douro. Yet the painstaking process of building and maintaining dry stone wall terraces carved into the foothills of the mountain ranges are still a vital and costly part of grape growing in the Douro Valley.

Charles and Rupert Symington
Photo Credit: Symington Family Estates

Rupert’s cousin Charles Symington, who is head winemaker at Symington Family Estates, argued that they have the “most expensive grapes in the world” to grow considering the extremes of temperatures, which can go from freezing in winter to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer, low rainfall, low yields and large amount of manual work, as it is nearly impossible to mechanize any aspect in their vineyards, all add up to a huge overhead just for the viticulture work alone. The Symington family has even gone as far as using drones that carry infrared thermal cameras that can assess the vigor of their vineyards which helps them to improve the way they plant their vines, as there are several native red varieties that vary in their preference in altitude and direction as west, north and east facing vines can be achieved in the curved terraced vineyards of the Douro, and it can also inform them of when plots will ripen. Although many of the different grape varieties play an important role there are no two more important varieties in the Douro, according to Charles, than Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca and he further noted that the Quinta do Vesúvio and Quinta de Roriz estate wines beautifully illustrated how well these two varieties complemented each other.

Touriga Nacional has good freshness, acidity and structure with spicy notes; alternatively, Touriga Franca does not have as much acidity yet has softer tannins and a lovely floral note. Simply put, “Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca are the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot of the Douro,” explained Charles.

2017 Prats & Symington ‘Chryseia’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Quinta do Vesúvio and Quinta de Roriz blends rely heavily on these two varieties but interestingly, these estates are located in two different sub-regions of the Douro Valley. The Douro has three sub-regions but two of them are best known for quality wine: Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. The Quinta de Roriz estate is located in a sub-region of Cima Corgo, in the central area of the Douro Valley, where most premium Port originates within the classic schist soils yet in the Roriz estate there is a presence of tin and gold tailings from the old mines that give a “distinctive minerality”. The Quinta do Vesúvio estate is located in the Douro Superior sub-region, which is the most eastern area that actually shares a border with Spain and it also has porous schist soils over granite bedrock yet it is the driest and hottest of the sub-regions and although proximity to the Douro River, plantings at high altitudes and orientation of the vines helps to bring balance to the grapes, Vesúvio will many times display more power in its wines.

Heart Belongs to Adopted Home

These two estates are precious to the Symington family as they really represent their evolution from merchants to wine producers to finally vineyard growers as well as their generational commitment to the Douro Valley that includes investing in two historical estates that could have fallen by the wayside and been lost forever. The Symington family and their wine businesses in the Douro Valley have survived the Great Depression, two World Wars and a long stretch of economic and political instability in Portugal, and although at some moments in time it was as if they could barely keep their heads above water while holding these great Port houses over their heads figuratively, they made the sacrifices they had to make as the Douro is in their blood and it is vital that they keep the beautiful aspects of the Douro Valley alive while building a better future for everyone, whether be it their own family or the families of their workers, which is noted by their certified B Corporation status that commits to such intentions.

And the challenges of Covid have certainly thrown a great amount of uncertainty that has had intense ups and downs and no real end in sight but the Symington family seems to be made for such times as Rupert spoke about how difficult the times were after World War II and that his family had to sell off assets just to stay afloat. During that time, his grandfather didn’t take a salary for many years but they made it through and kept their roles as guardians of these vineyards – some of the most fiercely challenging vineyards in the world. But one of the most gripping challenges for Rupert in particular has been the loss of his father last year yet it only reinforces the importance to find ways to weather through this storm as he needs to do so for the next generation like his father did for him, especially considering his son Hugh just joined the family business a few years ago.

The hardships over these several decades have been balanced by the enormous amount of wonderful memories made as despite many of the Symingtons receiving their formal education in England, their hearts are in the Douro where their kids spend time with their grandparents during the summers and where there is a sense of community that is intrinsically part of their family; many of them admitting that although they feel privileged to be given the numerous opportunities to travel around the world, there is nothing like it when they can spend significant time in the vineyards and the cellars of the Douro Valley… that is home. A home where they have been a part of keeping a way of life, traditions and a viable economy going for over 100 years and hopefully for many more decades to come.

***This article was originally published on Forbes:

2007 Quinta de Roriz Vintage Port
2007 Quinta de Roriz Vintage Port
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd
2007 Quinta do Vesúvio Vintage Port
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

The following are Port fortified wines from the 2007 vintage which was considered one of the coolest in recent history according to Rupert and Charles Symington.

2007 Quinta de Roriz, Vintage Port, Douro Valley, Portugal: Bright red fruit with sweet tobacco leaf and spice cake intermixed with fresh mint and candied cherry on the palate that finished with cigar and gravelly notes.

2007 Quinta do Vesúvio, Vintage Port, Douro Valley, Portugal: More wild herbs, forest floor on the nose and sweet fruit flavors on the palate with flavors of black forest cake lifted by eucalyptus notes.

2018 Symington Family Estates
Pombal do Vesúvio
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

Non-fortified premium red wines sourced from the above estates:

2017 Prats & Symington ‘Chryseia’, Douro Valley, Portugal: This wine is a blend of 75% Touriga Nacional and 25% Touriga Franca from the Quinta de Roriz and Quinta da Perdiz estates which are both located in the central Cima Corgo sub-region. A hint of that mint character alludes to that same quality found in the 2007 Port with dried flowers in the background and fleshy red fruit with round tannins that finishes with a smoky minerality – elegant and fresh.

2017 Symington Family Estates, Quinta do Vesúvio Tinto, Douro Valley, Portugal: 56% Touriga Franca , 41% of Touriga Nacional and 3% of Tinta Amarela. This is an estate red that comes only from the Quinta do Vesúvio property in the Douro Superior sub-region. Darker fruit right off the bat with black cherry preserves and a denser, deeper body with lots of concentration and a powerful structure that had hints of crushed rocks and lilacs on the finish.

2018 Prats & Symington ‘Post Scriptum de Chryseia’

The below wines are second wines to the above bottlings and they are real bargains retailing around $30 compared to the above wines which average around $90.

2018 Prats & Symington, ‘Post Scriptum de Chryseia’, Douro Valley, Portugal: 58% Touriga Nacional, 39% Touriga Franca and 3% Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo). A second selection of the Chryseia bottling. So much finesse and elegance with this wine and quite impressive considering the price; savory spice with cumin and earthy chili peppers that had hints of more uplifting anise seed notes with bright red cherries and hints of gravel undertones that had finely laced tannins.

2018 Symington Family Estates, Pombal do Vesúvio, Douro Valley, Portugal: 58% Touriga Nacional, 39% Touriga Franca and 3% Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo). This is the second wine of the Quinta do Vesúvio estate. This is a much bigger wine yet the silky tannins give a soft texture that is immediately pleasing with lush cassis and licorice flavors with lots of upfront fruit balanced by grounded notes such as wild mushrooms that then lift on the finish with hints of cloves and black pepper.

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An Italian Wine Known For Its Style Brings Focus To Single Vineyard Sense Of Place

‘Famiglia Pasqua’ Amarone della Valpolicella Photo Credit: Pasqua Vigneti e Cantine Spa

The finest red wine grape bunches of the season were carefully harvested by hand by an elderly couple and their adult children as their small grandchildren watched the work that one day would be at the core of their existence. For this particular wine producing family, they took pride in hanging the grape bunches, one by one, on ropes that hung from the rafters of their barn as they believed that this was a much higher quality practice than laying the grapes out on straw mats which was the other way to induce the drying process (appassimento) to take place for the grapes that were destined for their much beloved Amarone della Valpolicella wine; at first it was a great way to achieve ripeness in the North East area of Italy, in the Valpolicella winemaking area outside of Verona, as full ripeness of grapes eluded many winemakers in that area in the past.

The dry Amarone red wine made from passito (dried) grape bunches is unique in the wide world of wine and the style of wine, which became a powerful brand for a time, gained notoriety in the early 2000s as some producers received high scores from well-known wine critics as the combination of silky texture, complex aromatics and generous flavors in the best vintages were a dynamic trio that won over many Italian wine connoisseurs. Yet the popularity of this style over-shadowed the idea of the diversity of terroirs (sense of place) in the area of Valpolicella as there are not only three different macroclimates that exists in Valpolicella but there are also many valleys running north to south that have their own sense of place and many multi-generational grape growers would even be able to speak about a greater specificity of single vineyard expression.

Through time, the process of drying the grapes has become more practical and efficient by using short plastic crates where the grape bunches are positioned in a single layer and placed into a room that has fans that create a constant circulation of air. Yet it is still extremely time consuming and demands devoted growers as the grapes need to be constantly turned and checked upon as some will have faster evaporation of water than others – some producers will actually move the crates around the rooms periodically to even out the evaporation process as some areas of the room are closer to the fans.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the grower and producer knowledge of the diversity of sense of place throughout the Valpolicella winegrowing area yet it was never a focus of marketing as the people of Valpolicella were just happy that the style of Amarone was being appreciated. But as time has gone on, the outside world largely has had no idea of where exactly Amarone wines are made and the varying qualities of its home that bestows a particular terroir or mixtures of terroirs to each wine. But today the famous family producer Pasqua (a.k.a. Pasqua Vigneti e Cantine Spa) has taken on the mission to bring to consumers a sense of place from their beloved Valpantena section of Valpolicella, where they founded their winery almost a century ago, with a release of single vineyards in the style of Amarone as well as its sibling style Ripasso.  

Organically Grown Single Vineyard

Alessandro, Umberto and Riccardo Pasqua
Photo Credit:
Pasqua Vigneti e Cantine Spa

Riccardo Pasqua, family member and CEO of Pasqua Vigneti e Cantine Spa, announced that his family had not only decided to release a single vineyard in the Amarone and Ripasso style of wine but to source from a vineyard that has been organically farmed for the whole lifespan of the vines. The Amarone style is made by the crushing and fermenting of dried grapes and its sibling Ripasso (meaning “repassed”) is produced by using the lighter red Valpolicella wine, made from the same native grapes but it is made from fresh grapes, as a base to then add to the Amarone marc (the skins left over from the pressing of the Amarone dried grapes) and that Valpolicella base wine which is of “Superiore” quality continues to ferment with the marc to a richer, more complex wine called Ripasso yet not as rich or complex as the original Amarone.

The single vineyard that the Pasqua has chosen is called Cascina San Vincenzo which is located high up on a hill in the Valpantena section of the Valpolicella wine region, 985 feet high, and it is run by friends of the family that have kept it organic for 20 years – the whole lifespan of the vines. For the past 12 years the Pasqua family has worked with this plot observing over time if it was expressing a favorable distinctive sense of place that would be worth single vineyards status and Carlo Olivari, oenologist for Pasqua Vigneti e Cantine Spa, noted that there was a consistent “elegance” and “lightness” as well as “not too much muscle” that characterized this plot.

Carlo compared the 2017 Cascina San Vincenzo single vineyard Amarone with the 2017 ‘Famiglia Pasqua’ Amarone that includes a blend of a handful of vineyards from the Valpantena area, as well as comparing the two 2019 Ripasso equivalents. The Cascina San Vincenzo single vineyard Amarone and Ripasso wines had brighter aromatics with red fruit and minerality opposed to the ‘Famiglia Pasqua’ darker and earthier flavors that had a broader shoulder structure. Cascina San Vincenzo is higher in altitude than any of the vineyards used in the ‘Famiglia Pasqua’ blend as well as having a dominant component of limestone in the soil.

It is a comparison of the “soloist” versus “the orchestra” as Riccardo Pasqua explained as the multi-vineyard blend of ‘Famiglia Pasqua’ certainly benefits from the Pasqua family getting to choose the best from each plot depending on the vintage but that an excellent “soloist” such as the Cascina San Vincenzo vineyard needs to be given its own spotlight as well as bringing a stronger attention to the idea of terroir from Valpolicella vineyards.

Style Enhancing Sense of Place

Vineyards in Valpolicella
Photo Credit: Pasqua Vigneti e Cantine Spa

As gaining a decent amount of ripeness is no longer the biggest issue in Valpolicella, although they will still be challenged by cooler vintages here and there, there has been more of a focus to shorten the drying period for the grapes of Amarone to make sure the wines are not too heavy as well as using more native grapes that bring acidity and freshness to the blend. And there has even been discussions whether the traditional practices for Amarone, which are still extremely labor intensive, make sense in modern times.

The Council for Agricultural Research and Economics (CREA), a research center that studies vineyards and winemaking as well as other agro-food chain products, has discovered evidence that suggest drying the Amarone grapes enhances a stronger sense of place. It was discovered by various tests that the main native red grape variety used in the wine, Corvina, goes through various genetic alterations during the drying process and when comparing different vineyards to each other it was the wines that came from dried grapes that had more distinct qualities linked to the sites when single vineyard wines were tasted side by side as opposed to fresh Corvina grapes that weren’t dried.

The Amarone wines in this research suggests that the drying process brings a complexity that is associated with the site that cannot be achieved without such a process and so this wine is the ultimate expression of sense of place for Valpolicella producers.

When Amarone was first gaining popularity it was during the time when wine producers were told that to find success in export markets one had to develop a brand, as brands were immediately recognizable and assured wine consumers that they were buying a trusted product and in a way just the word Amarone became a brand. Yet as information has become more accessible, there is a movement to know more about the people, the place and the culture behind the wines and to have that wine express all those elements. Whereas at one time producers, especially those in Valpolicella, were told that the outside world didn’t care so much about the terroir of their vineyards, unlike Burgundy producers in France, it was the branding of the style that mattered, but today Pasqua understands that there is an opportunity to talk about their special vineyards in Valpolicella and how their styles of wine, such as Amarone and Ripasso, enhance their precious land.

If only those grandparents who passed on their vineyards in the 1980s and 1990s could see how things have drastically changed as gaining international fans is no longer solely based on a corporate idea of a brand that was disconnected from their multi-generational vineyards as well as the stories of their sweat, blood and fierce tenacity that went into creating such wines. Today Valpolicella producers can finally talk with pride to a willing international crowd of the people, place and yes the styles of wines too; but the styles no longer take center stage but instead they are there to highlight the extraordinary vineyards and people that make these wines, Amarone and Ripasso, like no other.

***This article was originally published on Forbes:

The below wines were tasted during a master class at the 2021 Milano Wine Week in New York City.

Ripasso Wine Comparison

2019 Pasqua, Valpolicella Ripasso DOC,
Single Vineyard
Cascina San Vincenzo Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2019 Pasqua, Valpolicella Ripasso DOC, Single Vineyard Cascina San Vincenzo, Valpolicella, Veneto, Italy: 60% Corvina, 30% Corvinone and 10% Rondinella from the organic vineyard Cascina San Vincenzo in the Valpantena area of Valpolicella. This wine was singing with lifted bright red cherry aromas that were laced with minerality that had beautiful red fruit and baking spices on the palate combined with fresh acidity along the expressive finish.

2019 Pasqua, Valpolicella Ripasso DOC Superiore ‘Famiglia Pasqua’, Valpolicella, Veneto, Italy: 60% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 10% Corvinone and 10% Negrara from the Valpantena area of Valpolicella. Dark fruit immediately on the nose that was more reserved with added notes of wet clay and dried herbs that had a lot more structure.

Amarone Wine Comparison

2017 Pasqua, Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG, Single Vineyard
Cascina San Vincenzo Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2017 Pasqua, Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG, Single Vineyard Cascina San Vincenzo, Valpolicella, Veneto, Italy: 60% Corvina, 30% Corvinone and 10% Rondinella from the organic vineyard Cascina San Vincenzo in the Valpantena area of Valpolicella. Fresh sage note with blackberry and ripe red strawberry on the expressive nose that had zingy cranberry notes on the palate with complex notes of forest floor and river stones that had a fine texture with a long aromatic finish.

2017 Pasqua, Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG ‘Famiglia Pasqua’, Valpolicella, Veneto, Italy: 65% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, 5% Corvinone and 5% Negrara from the Valpantena area of Valpolicella. Brooding nose with black plum and blueberry preserves with dusty earth and muscular tannins with tobacco and cigar box.

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The Iconic Wines From Spain Produced By Embracing The Failures That Lead To The Path To Perfection

A young Spanish man from a family with an extremely successful business tried to define his life during his college years. His keen mind, filled with a strong curiosity for a wide range of subjects, at first put him on the path to becoming a doctor yet it is the law and law school that would ultimately take over his studies. During this time his family purchased a historically famous winery called Bodegas Vega Sicilia in the region of Ribera del Duero, in Spain, and so after law school this young man’s father asked him to run the winery. It could have easily become an impossible assignment as although Vega Sicilia was already an iconic estate founded in 1864, through time the vineyards became neglected and the neighboring wine region Rioja garnered more fame globally as a region as a whole over the years; the railroad built in the 1800s that connected Rioja to two important port cities gave it an advantage over other Spanish wine regions. Most other young men put in that position would have just kept the status quo – resting on the laurels of the fame of the estate while pursuing other interests on the side but instead he ended up devoting his life to the continual journey of finding perfection, if it does exist, becoming one of the greatest visionaries in the world of wine.

Pablo Álvarez

Pablo Álvarez
Photo Credit: Tempos Vega Sicilia

That young man who ended up taking over Vega Sicilia in 1985 was Pablo Álvarez who admits that despite liking wine he was “unfamiliar with the wine world” and so at the time, the winery’s long-time director, Jesús Anadón, helped him to understand the workings of the winery and most importantly, the vineyards. It was a “big responsibility” for Pablo especially considering he had just graduated from law school but he says that he was lucky enough to “fall in love” with the wine world and through all the intense ups and downs it was that love that has always grounded him when tough decisions had to be made; high quality standards would be maintained at all cost even seeming a little extreme to outsiders at times.      

Vega Sicilia Estate Vineyard
Photo Credit: Tempos Vega Sicilia

From the very beginning it just made sense to Pablo to start to work organically in the vineyards, discontinuing the use of herbicides and chemical fertilizers starting in 1985 which was certainly shocking to his neighbors back in the ‘80s. Another thing that was surprising was how much effort and money he put into the vineyards considering that Vega Sicilia already had a loyal following but he saw that the vineyards could be so much more and so he replanted where it was needed, choosing the best Tempranillo clones within Vega Sicilia to replant – there are 24 different Tempranillo (aka Tinto Fino) clones on the Vega Sicilia estate. Also he brought in experts to study all aspects of each plot and began the slow process of understanding the best way to manage and cultivate the vines in any given vintage. “Today, after many years of effort, I am proud of our vineyard” notes Pablo as he has seen great progress through the decades and he is most proud of the people who manage it.  


Working in the Vega Sicilia Estate
Photo Credit: Tempos Vega Sicilia

Pablo respects the fact that Bordeaux varieties are part of Bodegas Vega Sicilia history, and so there are still old Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines on the Vega Sicilia estate that make up only a tiny portion of the blend in Unico and Valbuena 5 respectively, yet it is his deep passion for Tempranillo that drives him as he considers it to be “the finest and most elegant variety” and when it has reached an ideal maturation in bottle he says it is “the best variety in the world.” But also it is its affinity for expressing a sense of place (terroir) that also intrigues Pablo as he has not only delved into understanding each plot on the Vega Sicilia estate, as well as the rest of Ribera del Duero, but he has invested in the Spanish wine regions of Toro and Rioja and so he has taken an in-depth examination into the plots in those regions as well.

Tempranillo Grape Bunch in Ribera del Duero Photo Credit: Tempos Vega Sicilia

Pablo speaks about the different expressions of Tempranillo in different wine regions in Spain as being expressed directly in the different names it takes in the varying regions; it is Tempranillo in Rioja, Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero and Tinta de Toro in Toro. He speaks about the “expressiveness” of Toro, the “subtle” qualities and “elegance” of Rioja and the “complexity” and overall fine excellence of Ribera del Duero.

Vega Sicilia and its captain, Pablo Álvarez, has helped to bring a broader audience of fine wine collectors to Ribera del Duero appreciating the excellence that is coming out of the region as a whole as Vega Sicilia’s wine Alión reflects the diversity of Ribera del Duero as opposed to their Unico and Valbuena 5 being focused on the expression of the estate of Vega Sicilia.

Inside the Alion Winery
Photo Credit: Tempos Vega Sicilia

Striving for perfection at all costs is a legendary aspect of Vega Sicilia under Pablo’s leadership and even though he admits that he doesn’t know if perfection exists yet, that hasn’t stopped him from trying to reach it. He did not produce Unico 1992, 1993, 1997 and 2001 because it did not live up to the standard and in other years, the amount of bottles produced depends on how much of the estate fruit lives up to the quality as the production can range between 40,000 bottles to 110,000 bottles and the fruit he doesn’t use is sold off to other wineries. The same applies to Valbuena 5, which comes from the middle and lower areas of the Vega Sicilia estate slopes, and Alión, which is a selection of vineyards throughout Ribera del Duero. Alión has its own dedicated winery and each winery (Vega Sicilia – Unico and Valbuena 5, Alión, Pintia in Toro and Macán in Rioja) follow their own winery and cellaring practices depending on what helps to unlock the terroir of each wine. Pablo has even planted 50,000 cork oak trees that one day will allow them to make their own corks as well as have their own barrel cooperage at Vega Sicilia that makes 30% of their oak barrels in Spain as they can then control proper aging for the oak staves before the barrels are assembled.

Avoiding Mistakes May Stunt Evolution

One cannot help, especially after going through a tough couple of years such as dealing with the Covid pandemic, to reflect on one’s life and it becomes even more profound when there is a loss such as Pablo losing a business partner, Benjamin de Rothschild, who passed away in January of this year from a heart attack at the young age of 57. As Benjamin and Pablo joined forces to buy vineyards and build a winery in Rioja with leaving the overall management to Pablo and his team since he has the most amount of experience in Spain. But such a loss makes one think about their legacy and what they would want for the future when they are no longer able to lead. Pablo hopes that future generations in charge of Vega Sicilia and the other properties will do better than he did and that they will never lose their drive as they will have a deep love for the wine world such as he does.

And when asked if he had the chance to tell his younger self anything, what would it be, he said, “I would say to that young man now, ‘Life must be lived with all its ups and downs.’” But he would not necessarily save himself from the “failures” as he always felt the failures meant he was moving; he knows he doesn’t have all the answers and that one has to try various avenues to ultimately get on the right track. But he does admit that he would have liked to have done things faster, as to a man who is always striving for perfection it still doesn’t seem he has gotten close enough to that goal… although to the outside fine wine world, his achievements are awe-inspiring and they have no equal.

***This article was originally published on Forbes:

Bottle of Vega Sicilia Unico
Photo Credit: Tempos Vega Sicilia

Tasting Notes for Tempos Vega Sicilia Wines in Spain:

2017 Alión,
Ribera del Duero, Spain
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2016 Macán, Rioja, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. 2016 had a hot summer yet it was cooled off by September rains. There is a slight amount of grip that gives it a bit more power than the 2017 Macán with good mid-body weight that had black cherry flavors and some dusty earth with a hint of spice.  

2017 Alión , Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tinto Fino  (the name for Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero). In Ribera del Duero the 2017 vintage was cooler but had a warm, dry end to the growing season. An enchanting balance between being juicy with plenty of dark fruit and a touch of licorice yet still lots of vitality and lifted spices and pretty floral finish.

2016 Valbuena 5,
Ribera del Duero, Spain
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2016 Valbuena 5, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 94 % Tinto Fino (the name for Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero) and 6 % Merlot. The 5 in the name of the wine represents the fact that this wine is always aged five years in the cellar before being released onto the market. An inviting Valbuena that has plenty of lush fruit to make it immediately gratifying yet there is a lovely textural component to this wine that gives an overall elegance that is breathtaking. 

2011 Unico,
Ribera del Duero, Spain
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2011 Unico, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 95 % Tinto Fino (the name for Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero) and 5 % Cabernet Sauvignon. The ideal balance of sweet and savory with blackcurrant preserves that is taken to another level of complexity with fresh leather and bacon fat that has a wonderful textural balance as well with a good amount of fleshy fruit that is given a combination of finesse and power by finely etched tannins.

Preview Tasting Of Tempos Vega Sicilia Wines That Are Not Released Yet:

2017 Pintia, Toro, Spain: 100% Tinta de Toro (the name for Tempranillo in Toro). 2017 was a cooler vintage and so this Pintia had a lot of freshness yet it was balanced with ripe raspberry notes and layers of complexity expressed in bay leaf, tobacco and dried thyme notes that had fine tannins and a long finish with lots of finesse.

2018 Macán Clásico, Rioja, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. Pablo Álvarez and Benjamin de Rothschild decided to create a first and second wine just like the great Grand Cru Classé wines in Bordeaux. This ‘Clásico’ is the second wine of Macán and the 2018 vintage was warmer than 2017 and the wines are more expressive. A mix of black and red fruit with hints of cinnamon that had supple tannins and rich black raspberry flavors on the palate with underlying notes of broken earth.

2017 Macán, Rioja, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. The first wine of Macán and from the cooler 2017 vintage. A wine with a beautiful vibrancy and purity of blackberry fruit that had hints of desert scrub with lots of focus and drive on the fresh finish.

2018 Alión, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tinto Fino (the name for Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero). The 2018 is even juicier than the 2017 with cassis flavors and a generosity right off the bat with baking spices and sweet tobacco with firmer tannins.

Unico Reserva Especial Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2017 Valbuena 5, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 94 % Tinto Fino (the name for Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero). and 6 % Merlot. Pretty violet notes from the first nosing of the wine with plum and blueberry fruit with a more mineral intensity than the 2016.

2012 Unico, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 95 % Tinto Fino (the name for Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero) and 5 % Cabernet Sauvignon. More weight and broader tannins than the 2011 with a smoky minerality and forest floor quality that makes it extremely intriguing with a long expressive finish.

Unico, Reserva Especial, Ribera del Duero, Spain: Blend of 2008, 2010 and 2011 vintages of Unico; release date will be 2022. This wine had intense concentration and power but at the same time extremely well-integrated tannins and a delicate beauty that would seem to be qualities that would contradict each other but somehow exist in harmony within this Unico Reserva bottling. No set of aromas and flavors could do it justice as it is best described as a profound experience to have such power and delicacy all in one.

2019 Oremus ‘Mandolás’ and 2018 Oremus Single Vineyard ‘Petracs’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Oremus Wines from Hungary:

Tempos Vega Sicilia produces two dry white wines with their Oremus winery called Mandolás and the single vineyard Petracs as well as a late harvest sweet wine and varying levels of sweetness of the famous Tokaji aszú sweet wines. Pablo Álvarez is a great lover of white wines and he has tried for many years to produce a white Vega Sicilia wine in Ribera del Duero but it has not lived up to his standards and so he took the opportunity to invest in a Tokaj estate in 1993 as he loves their legendary sweet wines as well as improving dry white wines from the area. Their Oremus vineyards were classified as a “Primae Classis” in 1772 which can be equated to a first growth property (in Bordeaux).

2018 Oremus, ‘Mandolás’, Tokaji Furmint Dry, Tokaj, Hungary: 100% Furmint Dry Wine. Intriguing nose with a unique note that I can only describe as walnuts sautéing in sugar, salt and butter that had hints of anise seeds and honeysuckle with a combination of lemon custard and pineapple flavors on the palate that had a cutting acidity laced with a saline minerality.

2019 Oremus, ‘Mandolás’, Tokaji Furmint Dry, Tokaj, Hungary: 100% Furmint Dry Wine. Dried flowers with apricots and white pepper that was crisp and energetic with citrus peel on the finish. 

2018 Oremus, Single Vineyard ‘Petracs’, Tokaji Furmint Dry, Tokaj, Hungary: 100% Furmint Dry Wine from Single Vineyard. The first vintage of this wine was 2017. More nuanced flavors with fennel fronds and cumin seed with zingy green mango notes that danced along the palate like a graceful ballerina.

2017 Oremus, Late Harvest, Tokaj, Hungary Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2017 Oremus, Late Harvest, Tokaj, Hungary: Blend of Furmint, Hárslevelü, Zéta and Sárgamuskotály. Orange marmalade with citrus blossom, peach pie and spicy finish and couple pair with so many different kinds of food as the acidity really off-sets the sugar.  

2020 Oremus, Late Harvest, Tokaj, Hungary: Blend of Furmint, Hárslevelü, Zéta and Sárgamuskotály. Citrus blossom, tangy lemon curd with candied orange peels with mouth watering acidity.

2014 Oremus, Tokaji Aszú, 5 Puttonyos,
Tokaj, Hungary
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2010 Oremus, Tokaji Aszú, 5 Puttonyos, Tokaj, Hungary: Blend of Furmint, Hárslevelü, Zéta and Sárgamuskotály. Caramel, burnt sugar, spicy, coconut and rich with high acidity and extraordinarily long length of flavor.  

2014 Oremus, Tokaji Aszú, 5 Puttonyos, Tokaj, Hungary: Blend of Furmint, Hárslevelü, Zéta and Sárgamuskotály. Baklava with honey syrup balanced by fierce acidity and refreshing notes of lemon sorbet and quince paste with a very, very long finish.

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