Drinking Lessons from Harvest

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 12-18-2014

From Naked Mountain Winery.

From Naked Mountain Winery.

Note: This is a guest post from Aaron Menenberg, a wine enthusiast who has worked two vintages at Naked Mountain Winery in Markham, Virginia.

We were hosting a wine critic. So early in the morning, the winemaker and I met up to decide which wines to pour — and open the bottles that needed air. When we poured one of our top-selling whites, the nose seemed fine. On the palate, however, I noted a hint of sherry.

“You taste the sherry?” the winemaker asked me. “That’s unfortunate,” he said. “This bottle is oxidized.”

“Glad we opened it now,” I thought. I had smelled and tasted sherry on wines previously and thought little of it. Until that moment, though, I didn’t realize it was a flaw.

In another instance, the winemaker and I were in the crushpad tasting samples that had spent about a week in tank. On one wine, we detected sulfur. I was told that while this was unfortunate, it was both fixable and not uncommon. The winemaker then pulled out a shiny, clean penny and told me to drop it into my glass. After about 60 seconds, the sulfur had vanished.  News to me.

“This variety has a tendency to get contaminated with hydrogen sulfide in our state,” the winemaker explained. “It can happen for a number of reasons — too many sulfites, wrong nutrients, bacterial contamination, bad or wrong yeast.”

I knew it wasn’t contamination — the winemaker is meticulously clean. And he has a good track record of yeast selection and nutrient provision. I’m not sure how it was ultimately fixed — he ran the wine through a few tests on a day I wasn’t there before deciding how to fix it. But by process of elimination –and knowing the winemaker’s skill — I imagine it had to do with some purchased grapes that had probably received too much sulfur while on the vine. Now I keep a few sanitized pennies in my kitchen in case a wine smells like rotten eggs.

These are just two examples of how learning to make wine has impacted how I drink wine. I’ve appreciated wine since before I was allowed to buy it, and I’ve been filling an ever-expanding cellar since I was 25 (I’m now 31). It’s full mostly of wine from my home state of Washington, along with some offerings from Burgundy, Chablis, Rhone, Jumillia, Barossa, and Israel. There are usually a few bottles of Virginia wine hanging out, too.

I decided to learn how wine was made last summer. I had been to many wineries before — strolling vineyards and visiting winemakers — but that wasn’t enough. I needed to learn by doing. So I spent a few weekends traveling to wineries within an hour of my apartment in Arlington, Virginia, before deciding which to approach for a part-time internship. I couldn’t work more than one or two days a week, so I approached a small winery and offered to work for free.

Thankfully, the winery said yes. I’ve now worked two vintages at Naked Mountain Winery processing grapes, monitoring fermentation, doing punch downs, filling tanks and barrels, and racking. I’ve also poured in the tasting room and for two critics.

The experience has been amazing. It takes me out to the Blue Ridge Mountains, I get to work with my hands and make something, and I’ve formed great friendships with the winemaker and the winery staff. But it has also affected how I drink and buy wine, all for the better.

Apart from the two lessons described above, the experience has expanded my appreciation of a winemaker’s style. On one end, there are the winemakers who pay homage to Mother Nature by intervening as little as possible. On the other end are winemakers who use all sorts of additives –clay, gelatin, charcoal, eggs, casein (a milk protein), and even isinglass (fish bladder extract) — to construct their wines.

Unsurprisingly, larger producers tend to intervene more. Mother Nature will leave her mark on a wine no matter how much it’s doctored, but there is much a winemaker can do to alter what Mother Nature gives him.

Some observations to the wine enthusiast based on my experience. Here are three:

If a wine’s flavors are too exact — you take a sip and swear you have a mouthful of strawberries — it probably isn’t coincidental. The winemaker probably made adjustments to minimize some flavors and spotlight others.

Second, winemakers who take a less obtrusive route to making wine — the anti-interventionists– run the very real risk of making some terrible wine. Sometimes Mother Nature gives you a perfect growing season, beautiful and healthy fruit, and you do your best to do right by her and let the wine make itself — and you screw up and inadequately monitor the cleanliness of the fruit and the whole lot becomes tainted with Brettanomyces in the tank.

Finally, you can and should at least try to appreciate each wine for what it is. Even if you prefer “natural wines,” it’s still quite a challenge to make a really good doctored wine.

I may never be a professional winemaker. But I intend to keep working at Naked Mountain Winery for as long as I can, because every day I spend there makes me a better wine drinker and smarter consumer.

White Rioja and Red Sancerre

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 11-12-2014

White Rioja on ice at an event 07/2013

White Rioja on ice at an event in NYC, 07/2013

The joy of discovery and the unexpected is one of the great delights in drinking wine.

Rioja typically conjures up images of luscious, oak-aged red wines made from Tempranillo. And, of course, Sancerre immediately brings to mind refreshing, lively, and mineral-driven white wines. Rightly so given that 85% of wines made in Rioja are red and 80% of the volume in Sancerre is white.

However, both Rioja and Sancerre have fun surprises in terms of their lesser known, respective white and red counterparts.

White Rioja

As the prevalence of Rioja wines grows in the U.S. (45% increase in Rioja exports over the last three years, according to Vibrant Rioja), consumers may see more and more white varietals on the market. Be prepared: there is a vast amount of diversity among the whites of the region – ranging from mellow and lightly herbal to powerful and smoky.

I attended a tasting of Riojas Blancos sponsored by Vibrant Rioja and discovered whites across the style spectrum. Some are great for lighter fare and some demand weightier and richer dishes of the fall’s cooler months. (Note: The whites of Rioja follow the same categories as the reds with Young, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva, but with slightly different aging requirements).

Tasting notes of the wines, including a couple white Tempranillos, are below:

  • Muriel Blanco, 2012 Bodegas Muriel, $11/bottle: 100% Viura. Pale colored; lightly herbal with notes of lemon-lime and white peach. Mellow and easy sipping.
  • Dinastia Vivanco Blanco 2012, Bodegas Dinastia Vivanco, $12/bottle: Blend of Viura, Malvasia, and Tempranillo Blanco. Green-tinged and pale; strongly herbaceous and grassy (like “grassy” grassy, if you know what I mean) on the nose. On the palate, apple, sweet herbs, and fresh-cut grass.
  • ‘Inspiracion Vademar” Tempranillo Blanco 2011, Bodegas Valdemar, $23/bottle: 100% Tempranillo. Intense yellow in color; tropical peach, pineapple, and honeysuckle. Papaya, sea salt, and peach cobbler finish.
  • Placet Valtomelloso Blanco 2008, Bodegas Palacio Remondo, $25/bottle: 100% Viura. Reminiscent of oak and smoke on the nose; vanilla cream on the palate held in tension with the grassy, limey characteristics typical of Viura; texturally thick and oily; long finish.
  • Marques de Murrieta Capellania Reserva Blanco 2007, Bodegas Marques de Murrieta, $23/bottle: 100% Viura. The nose gives the impression of a slightly oxidative wine; nutty and waxy on the palate with a salty finish. A little like a Fino Sherry in profile.

Red Sancerre

When there is no Beaujolais to be found, or I should say red Bojo, since the region does make a small amount of white wine (~1% of production), red Sancerre is a lovely alternative. Read the rest of this entry »

Something Special in the Swartland

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 10-21-2014

If you doubt the quality of South African wine, the Swartland will make you a believer. Thanks to terroir, winemaking philosophy, camaraderie, and personality, there is something special going on there.

Named after the indigenous rhino bush that turns the soil a dark color during certain times of the year, the Swartland – which translates as “black land” — is about one hour north of Cape Town. In appearance, the Swartland is reminiscent of the Texas wild west combined with a Mediterranean climate. It has a rugged terrain and an untamed, wild personality complete with gnarly bush vines, rocky soils, and seemingly unkempt planted rows. It’s also a very hot region, tempered by the altitude and by the neighboring Atlantic Ocean.


Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines describes the region and his decision to make wine there in this way: “Why the Swartland? There are no people there! It’s the biggest appellation in terms of size in South Africa. And we have some of the best soil — iron rich soil like the Douro and also brutal, pure granite.”

The winemaking style is most loudly all about dry farming, old bush vines, and minimal intervention. Appropriately summarized by a South African Tourism article, “This minimalist, some might say old-fashioned, philosophy is at the center of a winemaking revolution, spearheaded by a new generation of boutique, family-run, and garagiste producers.”

Old bush vines in the Swartland

Old bush vines in the Swartland

The people of this “revolution” are mostly making Rhone-style whites and reds, along with some Chenin Blanc.

Originally, I was struck by the exceptional whites of the Swartland. Of all the wines I tasted over a week-plus stay in South Africa, the only one I brought home was a Swartland white — more specifically, Palladius from Sadie Family Wines. The blend of 10 grapes has layers of textures and flavors that hit all over the palate — a lush mouthfeel turns to a touch of smoke and then a refreshing zip of fresh apple and chalky stone, followed by lemon and white flowers, and a long, satisfying finish. Yum.

Terroir-driven "recipe" for Palladius

Terroir-driven “recipe” for Palladius

More recently, I had a chance to experience a more in-depth tasting of the reds from the Swartland during a vertical tasting with Eben (see our previous interview with him here). We tasted through his Columella line (a blend of Rhone grapes, mostly Syrah), from his very first vintage in 2000 through his current release, the 2012. There wasn’t a dud in the line-up.

That said, Eben’s maturity and viewpoints as a winemaker punctuated various vintages throughout the tasting. For example: Read the rest of this entry »

The Kings of Charlottesville (Part 2 of 2)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 09-22-2014

Claude Thibaut. (Photo credit: Jordan Rongers.)

Claude Thibaut. (Photo credit: Jordan Rongers.)

This is the second post in a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.

On a recent trip made with a group of friends to Virginia’s idyllic Monticello Wine Trail outside Charlottesville, we arranged to visit a gauntlet of the areas best wineries and to meet with some of the areas most interesting, important, and innovative winemakers.

We quickly discovered that King Family Vineyards’ talented winemaker, Matthieu Finot was a common thread between these wineries, placing him, I suppose, right at the heart the quality revolution. Born in Crozes Hermitage in the Rhone Valley and well travelled thereafter, Matthieu typifies the ambitious, worldly, tuned-in and connected culture of the new Virginia.

But if Finot represents the future, this is in part thanks to the fact that Virginia began to attract winemakers looking for a challenge and interested in making a difference, like Claude Thibaut from Thibaut-Janneson. Thibaut, a vastly experienced winemaker who makes sparklers with the traditional methode champenoise, has succeeded in Virginia in part because of his empirical and practical approach to traditional winemaking.

Listening to Thibaut speak about the intricacies of grape growing in Virginia, from pest regulation to the advantages and disadvantages of different biodynamic methods, is to receive a master class in marginal climate grape growing. Having made massive batches of champagne for years at champagne powerhouse Nikolas Foullette, Thibaut now produces only small batches.  Thibaut-Jannesen wines are difficult to find, and even harder to come by now that the White House is snatching it up by the case, serving Thibaut-Janssen to everybody from the President of France to the Queen of England. If you get your hands on a bottle, be happy.

I’m thrilled by these wines. I can’t believe that Virginia makes sparklers of such intensity and sophistication, and in an Old World style that I’d gladly take over many vaunted California sparklers. Enjoy the look on your friends’ faces when you blind taste them on a bottle and then tell them they’re from Virginia.

If the wines of Thibaut-Janssen are worldly but traditional, the wines of King Family Vineyards have one foot in both the Old and the New World. The region’s culture fosters collaboration, and Thibaut and Finot at King Family are more than just neighbors — Thibaut makes the champagne for King Family. While Finot was away during our visit, we were very lucky to have the knowledgeable James King to tell the story of his family’s wines and explain the connections. But judging from the wines, it would seem that some of Thibaut’s practicality and precision has rubbed off over the years on Finot. Read the rest of this entry »

The Kings of Charlottesville (Part 1 of 2)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 09-18-2014

Ankida Ridge Vineyards. (Photo credit: Jordan Rongers.)

Ankida Ridge Vineyards. (Photo credit: Jordan Rongers.)

The time has come to reassess the wines of Virginia. Gone are the days of weedy, green, foxy, thin and charmless wines of little consequence. In their place have emerged wines of character in a panoply of styles, many of which speak convincingly to Virginia’s terroir.

For a while now I’ve been excited by Virginia whites, and especially Virginia’s Chardonnays that, to my palate, are frequently vastly superior to those over-ripe and oaky versions from California and generally have more in common with Chablis. And I’ll take the Chards over the vast majority of “Virginia’s signature grape,” Viognier, which are too often (although not always) sweet, flabby, and cloying.

But as a rule, historically, I’ve never been a big fan of Virginia reds — with so many great red wine regions to chose from, whatever cache or advantage that was conferred by “buying local” was simply overwhelmed by the massive price-quality gap.

Sure, I’ve sometimes enjoyed Linden reds well enough (although unlike the winemaker, I’ve always preferred his whites), but I’ve never thought of Virginia reds as much more than a novelty. You might come across a drinkable one and say: “Isn’t that adorable! Virginia made a red!” You might then open it for your friends to prove that such a thing can be done, but never because you thought in earnest that the wine could compete with the world’s best.

I’m happy to have been proven wrong.

Much to my surprise, it’s clear that Virginia’s red wines now have a place at the table with the big boys. Indeed, there is now enough good red wine in Virginia that a tipping point has been reached. And some of these are downright world class and well worth of collecting.

In short, learn from my ignorance: if you gave up on Virginian wines earlier than, say, about five years ago, you are missing a quality revolution. Read the rest of this entry »

Photos from Domaine Jacques Selosse

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 08-20-2014

My recent trip to Champagne ended with a tour of Domaine Jacques Selosse, led by the legendary vintner himself, Anselme. Much has been written about Selosse, of course. And I added to that yesterday with my latest piece for Grape Collective.

One thing I didn’t mention? The 10-room hotel and restaurant he runs with his wife, Corinne. The hotel was beautiful, the food was exquisite, and the entire staff was charming.

Below are some photos from my visit to the winery.

An assortment of wines brought by visitors to the Domaine. Note the bottles from Arnot-Robert and Sandhi!

An assortment of wines brought by visitors to the Domaine.

Ham, slowly curing. (Check out my recent Grape Collective column for details.)

Ham, slowly curing. (Check out my recent Grape Collective column for details.)



Barrel samples!

Labeling the bottles we selected to taste.

Labeling the bottles we selected to taste.

We opened the Version Originale, the 2002, and the Ambonnay Le Bout du Clos.

We opened the Version Originale, the 2002, and the Ambonnay Le Bout du Clos.

Discovering Greece’s Splendors

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 08-18-2014

Photo credit: Ed Comstock.

Photo credit: Ed Comstock.

When I told people I was going to Greece this summer, I received my share of odd looks. Didn’t I know that there was a financial crisis going on there? But I was going to Greek islands, well trodden on the tourist route, not even mainland Greece where, perhaps, maybe, I’d be more likely to experience problems.

Still, my interlocutors imagined mass strikes, poverty, violent protests, and worse. They seemed sure that — given their essentially “flawed” society, given that the chickens of European socialism had come home to roost — everybody in Greece must be miserable.

I saw none of that, nor, frankly, any sign at all of the economic downturn.

This is not to say, by any means, that there aren’t real problems that have befell the wonderful people of Greece, nor that many are not suffering from some very real difficulties. Rather, I’m saying that to imagine an economic collapse, or localized violence, as somehow essential to the fabric of such a great society — as indiscriminately and totally crashing across every place and every institution like a tsunami — is akin to imagining that Manhattan or Seattle are dangerous places to visit because there is violence in Flint, Michigan.

So here’s the point: if you have wanted to go to Greece, go. There is no better time. Don’t let anything stop you. Its land is still as eternal, its blue skies are still holy, and its people are still as authentically kind, unpretentious, and generous as when Henry Miller was there.

But when you do go, I suggest you be very careful in selecting your wines. For the most part, they are not good.

In fact, I’ve never experienced more science-project wines in my life. Read the rest of this entry »

Photos from Champagne Savart

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 08-14-2014

If there’s one grower whose popularity has exploded over the last year, it’s Frédéric Savart.

While at a small dinner party in Napa in February, two different guests arrived with bottles of Savart. When a New York attendee inquired about the producer, the Bay Area folks were shocked — “he’s the hot new grower,” they explained.

On Instagram, it sometimes seems as if Bryan Garcia (aka @corkhoarder) drinks Savart on a daily basis. Superlatives are used by Raj Parr whenever he pops open a bottle — which he seems to do quite regularly. Mike Madrigale is a fan. These are great allies for any wine brand.

It helps, of course, that Grand Cru Selections imports Savart’s wines. (Garcia works as a rep for Grand Cru.) And Fred, as he’s known, is quite active on Twitter and Instagram.

But his wines are the real deal.

Producing about 3,000 cases annually, it’s obvious that Savart’s goal is to make high-quality wine. He just happens to be in Champagne. That’s why some of his wines see malolactic fermentation and others don’t. Some see large oak barrels, some see small oak barrels, and others don’t see any oak at all. Dosage varies. It’s also why his vin clair was mind-blowingly delicious.

Hanging out with Fred on my visit to Champagne was a blast. Get your hands on these wines, because they’re only going to get even more popular. Below are some photos from my visit.

The three vin clairs tasted.

Three of the many wines tasted.

An oak barrel. I'd never seen one before.

An oak barrel. I’d never seen one before.

Frédéric is extremely photogenic.

Frédéric is extremely photogenic.

Explaining the different wines.

Explaining the different wines.



Photos from Champagne Krug

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 08-13-2014

There’s never been a better time to explore Champagne.

Since the dawn of global wine consumption, large producers like Moet & Chandon and Louis Roederer have dominated the Champagne market. That all changed in the late 1990s, when Terry Thiese began importing “farmer fizz.”

Wine geeks quickly became obsessed with growers in Thiese’s portfolio like Chartogne-Taillet, Vilmart, Pierre Peters, and Gimonnet. Today, it seems like there’s a hot new producer every month. Ulysse Collin! Vouette et Sorbée! Jérôme Prévost! Frédéric Savart! Sometimes, it’s hard to keep up.

But there’s still something special — heck, beautiful — about certain big-house Champagnes. One of my favorites is Krug. The NV offering (ahem, “multi vintage”) is without comparison. And all Krug’s wines effortlessly combine power with finesse.

Visiting Krug was certainly one of the highlights of my recent visit to France. Below are some photos from my visit.

Joseph Krug and a journal of his that was discovered just three years ago.

Joseph Krug and a journal of his that was discovered just three years ago.

One hallway (of many) in the cellar at Krug.

One hallway (of many) in the cellar at Krug.

Riddling racks.

Riddling racks.

The library. Sadly, it was behind a locked gate.

The library. Sadly, it was behind a locked gate.

The wines we tasted.

The wines we tasted.

Photos from Jean Foillard

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 08-12-2014

Earlier this month, I spent 10 days eating and drinking my way through France. (See here for details on my July 4th tour of Paris’ natural wine bars and retailers; Click on the winery names for photos of my July 9 visits to Chateau Thivin, Domaine Chignard, and Domaine Diochon.)

On the morning of July 10, I headed to Domaine Jean Foillard.

Together with his wife Agnès, Jean Foillard took over his father’s 35-acre domaine in 1980. Kermit Lynch had just started importing wines from the region, and it didn’t take long for him to fall in love with Foillard’s wines. Together with a handful of other producers in Morgon, Foillard was rejecting the temptation to churn out industrialized, oak-soaked wines designed for mass appeal. Lynch dubbed Jean Foillard, Marcel Lapierre, Jean-Paul Thévenet, and Guy Breton the “gang of four” — and praised them for holding onto Beaujolais’ ancient practices of viticulture and vinification.

The moniker stuck, and the four men helped save Beaujolais from itself.

I’ve been a huge fan of Foillard for years, and tasting the wines at the domaine was a spectacular experience. Below are some photos from my visit.


A rainy morning in Morgon.

Waxing the bottles.

Waxing the bottles.


The wines we tasted.