Travels in Alsace Part 1: Perfectly Uncool

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-20-2016

What is the future of classic wine regions that are neither associated with the more insidious effects of Parkerization, nor with the rarefied wine auctions of aristocratic collectors, nor with, exactly, the recent trends embraced by hipsters? I’m talking about regions like Brunello, Rioja, and, the subject of this writing, Alsace. How do these regions gain a market over and above the idiosyncratic preferences of individual consumers? Can they ever become regions automatically identified with obvious collectability? Can they gain wine geek street cred?

In a recent issue of Tong, editor and publisher Filip Verheyden raves: “I love Alsace.” A recently published posthumous book by philosopher Jacques Derrida announces, essentially, the same thing. Now more than ever, after a recent, late-November trip, I know why.

IMG_2700In the wake of a difficult period marked both by Parkerization and by global warming, a period that was becoming difficult to defend as a collector of Alsatian wines, Alsace is once again demonstrating that it produces the world’s best Riesling. In my opinion, now that the region has moved beyond its slavish appeal to collectors by featuring rare and sweet wines, ironically, the wines of Alsace demand the attention of serious wine collectors.

 In the Tong piece, Verheyden speculates, “Alsace breathes the same deep history as Burgundy.” Not only this, but to my palate, it produces wines that are Burgundy’s equal. Riesling, of course, but also a handful of Pinot Noirs, such as the ones I tried at Albert Mann, that—it’s time to admit—are truly excellent and much stronger QPR wines than you’ll find in Burgundy.

Austria, don’t get me wrong, I respect you; I forgive the antifreeze incident and your wines get better all the time and your most important city is named after wine. But the beautiful villages of Alsace, characterized by the half-timbre mansions of wine merchants, speak to an even longer and even more profound history of experience with fine wine. For god’s sake, Hercules left his shield in the Rangen vineyard after over-imbibing on Alsatian wine!

Germany, you’ve got the stronger claim to my affection. But for all of your staggeringly steep slopes, even you can’t match Alsace for sheer terroir diversity (don’t be jealous, nobody else can either, except perhaps Burgundy, and maybe not even them). Plus, as much as I nod in agreement at just about everything Terry Theiss has to say, I just don’t find your pretty, delicate wines as versatile—or, I have to say, as easily likeable—as their heartier siblings from Alsace. I concede that I may be a philistine, an oaf.IMG_2715

 Yet, despite my affection, the region continues to be little more than an afterthought among American consumers, collectors (with the important exception of Trimbach and also some rare, sometimes silly, SGN wines), and the wine geek crowd. I already hinted at some of the reasons for this. Despite the celebrated innovations of thought leaders in organic wine making at wineries such as Zind Humbrecht, JosMeyer, and Marcel Diess, Alsatian wine in the oughts was often too big, too sweet, too blowsy—even among, and sometimes, perplexingly, especially among, the regions’ most innovative biodynamic producers. (One important exception: during this time, Trimbach, of course, never bowing to trends, remained a stalwart producer of predictably excellent, collectable wine.)

Indeed, even the bad times were marked by plenty of forward-thinking, cutting edge viniculture; Alsace was a, maybe the, thought leader in the organic wine movement. But great ideas weren’t enough. Blowsy, alcoholic wines were never going to win over the wine geek crowd, no matter how “honest” or terroir-driven. And, as I pointed out already, collectors—the market that likely drove the trend towards sweetness—liked the points those sweet wines got, but mostly shrugged.

For those of us that began collecting wine in the early oughts, we were already priced out of the Burgundy market and were about to be priced out of Bordeaux too. Worse, we also found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Parkerization movement. For these reason and others, the wine geek crowd, after much soul searching, began seeking out wines from less trammeled regions—Loire, Jura, even Sicily—where winemakers were producing “honest” wine from often obscure, indigenous grapes. We can say now that this movement, orchestrated New York and San Francisco sommeliers, gathering strength on “underground” wine boards like winetherapy, changed the industry.

IMG_2708Turning away from Parker and the point-driven collectible market not only opened up a world of good, affordable wines, but also made us feel like rebels. Only squares bought $300 bottles of Burgundy when you could get a $20 Arbois. We had disrobed the emperor, and, like good hipsters do, we could look down on those “pointy people” as pretentious, uninformed sheep. Sure some of the wine was good, even great, but that was hardly the point: obscure, organic producers were, above all, cool.

It’s too easy to write an article like this as a gentle rumination on Alsace’s fairy tale villages, warm people, and unparalleled history. But there’s a flipside to this. It’s true: there is nothing cool at all about Alsace. Sometimes, standing in its swirling cobblestone streets, I need to shake the image of twee Hummel figurines out of my head, images of puffy-faced white children fishing, holding umbrellas, bathing in wooden slat washtubs. I loathe those things. It’s not so much that I hate twee, exactly, as much as that I instinctively distrust it. It is too cozy, domestic and, frankly, bourgeoisie.

The type of people that like to dwell in an imagined long ago time when it made sense for white children to push carts with flowers in them without having other scary races there to steal them are no doubt the same people that want to “make America great again.” But I digress.

At its worst, Alsace seems like the kind of place meant to attract the lumbering schools of aging British and German tourists that, in fact, it does attract. And for us ever-cool, idiosyncratic, compulsively-individual wine geeks, working the oddball perimeters of wine consumption, deconstructing the industry’s dominate narrative and values, Alsace’s traditions can make it seem too stuffy, too on-the-nose, too boring.

Like so many fluted bottles precariously stacked in my cellar, waiting to leap out and crash atop my head, Alsatian wines just don’t seem to fit in. To many French, Alsace is not French enough. To many Americans, Alsace is not red enough. To wine geeks, Alsace is not cool enough. In all cases, Alsace doesn’t conform to the wine world’s vision of itself.

But I think that, among those of us that sought out alternatives to Parker’s vision of the wine world, regions like Alsace, written off as uncool, were too easily overlooked. This is because we valued cool even over quality.

But I’m ready for quality. And Alsace has what just about no other wine region does: ancient traditions that guide an unparalleled commitment to quality. In Alsace, the timeless value of quality makes our postmodern appeals to coolness seem shoal and insipid.

Indeed, I love Alsace because it frees us from the requirement of coolness, valuing excellence instead.

And the fact that its wines are both of impeccable quality, and considered uncool by many American consumers, makes me love it even more.

My most recent trip to Alsace included visits to wineries such as Leon Beyer, Albert Mann, and Trimbach. I highly recommend each. But in the next section, I’d like to take some time to celebrate my favorite winery in my favorite wine region and one of the best in world: Trimbach.

Sommakase, At Your Service

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 12-21-2015

Caleb Ganzer, Chef Sommelier at La Compagnie Vin Surnaturels

Caleb Ganzer, Chef Sommelier at La Compagnie Vin Surnaturels

o·ma·ka·se (ōməˈkäsā,ōˈmäkəsā/): (in a Japanese restaurant) a meal consisting of dishes selected by the chef.

“we had the five-course omakase”

In Japanese, omakase literally translates to “I leave it up to you.” It’s a way of turning control over to the chef, trusting that he/she will read you and orchestrate the ingredients and courses in the most sublime succession for your dining experience.

Borrowing from this concept, Caleb Ganzer, Head Sommelier of La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, has introduced a cleverly named, “Sommakase” option to his wine list. Guests sit back and let Caleb and his team do all the legwork of choosing wines for them – based on price points of $30 / $60 / $90. Caleb tells me there is no set formula or prescription to follow; the staff tailors a truly bespoke experience, pulling from the ~50 or so bottles they have open or can Coravin at any moment. More details and my interview with Caleb are below.

And with that, “I leave it up to you” to visit La Compagnie and enjoy this innovative and fun concept. I highly recommend.

Tell me how this idea all came together. All the details!

Caleb: This idea has been laying nascent in my sub-consciousness for many years during my experiences in the previous restaurants where I’ve worked. I’ve been simply waiting for the freedom in a program to bring this to the forefront and shine a light on it by putting it directly on the by-the-glass menu.

It’s the kind of thing that sommeliers have been wanting for years. Essentially it’s the opportunity for (a) the guest to be given an experience at a comfortable, preordained price point and (b) the sommelier to be given the trust and control to bring the guest wines he or she will enjoy.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you can’t have a stronger ally in a food & wine establishment than a sommelier. A sommelier is always & forever on the guest’s side. That’s not to say that any other position in a restaurant isn’t on his or her side, but we have a lot of face time with the guest and we have a vested interest in sharing our food & wine knowledge in such a way to ensure the guest can have as an amazing of a time as possible in our establishment.

The Sommakase opportunity helps initiate a conversation between the guest and the sommelier and immediately creates an even stronger bond of hospitality whereby the sommelier wants to go above and beyond to show the guest a truly remarkable time.

What has the reception been? Do people understand what it is?

Bar at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels

Bar at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels

Caleb: Despite the field of wine becoming ever more democratic and inclusive, there is still a lot of stress in making wine decisions for most people. We mostly just have to reassure guests that the Sommakase offering is what they think it is. They are usually pretty stoked in asking us about it and when they are finally told that, indeed, “we just bring you some wines that we know you will love based on your tastes, preferences and mood,” it’s amazing to watch the joy enter their faces and the relief they experience. To be able to relinquish control in the sommelier’s hands at a preordained price-point…it’s kind of a win-win for both parties.

Can you give me a couple examples of what you’ve served people and why?

Caleb: The beauty of Sommakase is that it’s completely bespoke. We don’t have “scripts” that we pour from.

Sometimes people want to see only the geeky stuff that we’re jazzed about at the current moment. I once brought exclusively Chardonnay to one guest who asked for this style of tasting experience. But not the typical oak-influenced Chardonnay one might expect. I started with super sharp Grongnet Blanc de Blancs Champagne from the Côte des Blancs and one of the raciest producers I’ve tasted in a long time. Then I brought Ganevat’s 100% Rien Que du Fruit, a surprisingly clean, albeit unfiltered, “glou-glou” style of white from the iconic Jura producer. Finally I brought Domaine de Montbourgeau L’Etoile — this is a very sherry-like wine from the Jura region as well. One foot in flor-aged aromatics and another foot in Burgundian texture. Three completely unique examples from one well-known, but often misunderstood grape.

Other times people leave it up to our sommeliers to put together a “full-bodied discovery red flight.” I’m happy to have a team who has the knowledge – and a list that has the flexibility – to please almost any palate. For this we started with a mineral, yet ripe Carignan blend from Domaine des Enfants, l’Enfant Perdu 2012 from Côtes Catalanes. Then we did Franck Balthazar’s Côtes du Rhône 2014, a unique Grenache-heavy blend from fruit Franck gets from Seguret in the Southern Rhône. Finally we introduced them to a Biodynamic Bordeaux by Alain Moueix at Château Mazèyres 2011 — uber-polished Merlot from Pomerol with a weight associated with this iconic appellation and a vivacity typical of the viticulture practice.



Tasting by Shape and Feel

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 02-05-2015

While attending a New Zealand wine seminar last year, I tweeted:

Nick describes his Rippon 2009 Pinot, “It has layered, linear feel & phenolic drive forward.” #nzwine Tasting by ‘shape & energy’ is #hard.

Nick Mills, owner & winemaker at Rippon in New Zealand, was discussing how he likes to think about his wines beyond descriptions of flavors, but rather consider the shape, feel, and energy of the wine. Throughout the rest of the tasting, I made a concerted effort to observe and think about the texture and energy of the wines I tried. I struggled. Finding the vocabulary to express the “life” of a wine in that specific way really is hard.

Like many curious drinkers, I first learned to taste by attempting to copy the flavor and aroma profiles detailed in the oft obscure language of wine reviews and publications. E.g., “Toast and brown sugar notes frame crisp black cherry and plum flavors…” is a description used to review one of Rippon’s wines in the Wine Enthusiast.

I then moved on to the more structured, deductive language of WSET tasting notes – dry with medium acidity, medium tannin, light body, and flavor characteristics of [insert WSET approved floral/fruits, spice/vegetable, and oak/other notes here].

These methods are both useful in that they provide a familiar and somewhat common language for people to use when describing wine. They also require a degree of mindfulness, which Laura Mowrey recently notes, is a beautiful and valuable thing when tasting wine.

Another important way of tasting and remembering wine is, of course, through experience. For example, when I smell a Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc, I’m brought back to my sister visiting me at my first apartment in New York. Or as David heard a participant express in a seminar, wines can be likened to people or art…or to characters, music, or places. This way of talking about wine adds a memorable and personal dimension to what we taste.

However, Nick’s concept of tasting by the actual shape or energy of a wine was something foreign to me, especially when I tried to do it while removing all the other ways I’d previously learned to taste wine. And upon further thought & conversation with Nick, I realized this exercise was silly anyway. It’s about the whole, and about expanding the way we taste, vs. one prescriptive formula. So, let’s get a little geeky and expand. See my interview with Nick below the fold.
Read the rest of this entry »

The Question of Terroir: On the Mezcal Trail in Oaxaca (Part 2/2)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-28-2015

IMG_1276Before reading, please check out the first part of this piece.

Many of the agave distilleries, which are essentially farms (known as palenques), function as they have for generations. Simple, rustic structures, each unique but similar, shield the distillery operations while remaining party exposed to the elements. Here, nothing goes to waste: the bricks of the scant distillery structures are made from byproducts from the distillation.

Depending on the work happening that day, you’ll end up with very different photographs: a strangely simmering pile of dirt topped by a cross to ward off devils, under which the agave piñas bake and take on their characteristically smoky flavor; a donkey walking in languorous circles, turning a large stone (the tahona) wheel over a cement well to mash the agave, recently broken down by hand with a machete.

Getting to know the product itself involves wrapping one’s head around endless contingencies. There are at least eight species of agave used to produce mezcal in Oaxaca. Blending is common. While it used to be the case that the only single variety mezcals on the market were espadina and tobala, it’s increasingly common to see successful producers offering examples of the entire range, in addition to their blends, so that you can discover the pleasures of each through comparison. And while some plants are cultivated in rows, others grow wild; many producers celebrate this fact with bottlings of only the wild agave.

In addition to the complexity of the crop itself, there are a few different production methods, such as the common copper pot distillation and the more traditional, and rare, clay pot distillation. Add to this all of those variables familiar to wine production—differences in soil, elevation, and ripeness, as well as the vicissitudes of the native yeasts used in fermentation and, of course, age—and the potential differences increase exponentially.

IMG_1247These differences are readily available to taste, too, offering intellectual interest to the appreciation of mezcal. To really experience mezcal, just about everybody agrees that you need to drink the purer, un-oaked (blanco) varietals. And indeed, Mezcal has brilliance and the impression of a transparency familiar to wine drinkers that favor the expression of terroir. Unlike tequila, which I believe is at its best and most expressive with at least some oak regimen, oak tends to undermine mezcal. While great tequila is fruity, often oaky, and smoothly polished, great mezcal is transparent, pure, essential.

As a whole, the mezcal is complex on the nose and palate, with subtle fruit, smoke, vegetal, and spice notes. As opposed to those other spirits privileged enough to be called refined, such as scotch and brandy, mezcal, equally complex, is brazenly elemental. It’s rugged earth and explosive sunshine captured in liquid form.

My favorite example was a blend from the one traditional clay pot distillery we visited. I don’t know that this resulted from the clay pot itself, but as with wine makers that favor traditional methods, reflecting a certain sensitivity to their work, I wonder if this rare approach reflects a sensibility conducive to increased care and attention. Brightly fruity, minerally, and only slightly smoky, with a pleasing vegetal edge, this example stood out because of its transparency. It tasted just as good when I tried it back home. The worst examples had overtones of sherry—perhaps partly oxidized. In the lesser examples, I also tended to find a cheesy, lactic flavor.

Concerning the question of terroir transparency, I confess I’m of two minds. The purity of mezcal is real. But does it speak to a specific place?

On the one hand, at least painting with a broad brush, it’s clear that it does. I doubt that any spirit better reflects whether or not, for instance, the crop was grown in a more or less cool place. Therefore, there are clearly large-scale regional differences to attend to, as well as more subtle differences that result from, for instance, elevation—it’s not hard to believe that wild plants growing high up on the side of a Oaxacan mountain will taste altogether different than plants that see direct sunlight on the valley floor.

IMG_1240On the other hand, I have it on good authority that the implication made by Certain Famous Artisanal Mezcal Producers that label the bottles like wineries do, with the name of the region, village, or farm, have a lot of latitude in that labeling. In fact, those labels reflect mostly only where the mezcal is made—not where the agave is grown. Experientially this rings true. Trucks with loads filled with agave piñas were common; not that I think this settles the issue.

But it’s not just this. Again, experientially, even though I concede that, just as with mezcal, there are endless variables that eternally muddy the issue of terroir in wine, I’ve discovered in my life more than a few obvious examples of transparency to soil between varietals in a winemaker’s line that I’m left with no doubt.

In some limited sense, just about everything reflects terroir. In the end though, my belief is that the grape is a privileged vessel, almost uniquely suited to conveying subtle differences in environment.

In my experience only the oyster, which so perfectly reflects its place of origin, is comparable to the grape. And this is why both are, as we all know, favored by the gods themselves.

With the agave plant, I have so many doubts. I have doubts related to the violence of the distillation process; I have doubts related to the sheer mass of the plant. Also, there remains questions about the extent to which there is even the kind of soil variation in Oaxaca that would make it interesting to map in the first place—is there reason to think that Oaxaca has the soil complexity of Burgundy, Alsace, or even Virginia? In any event, the point is moot: as far as I know nobody has made even a basic overture towards tracing mezcal flavor to soil type.

So what do we mean when we speak of terroir in mezcal? Perhaps we mean it only in the limited sense. Yet, there seems to be more to it.

Questions remain. I suggest travelling to Oaxaca to answer them for your self.

The Question of Terroir: On the Mezcal Trail in Oaxaca (Part 1/2)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-27-2015

IMG_1279Mezcal is commonly called the “next big thing” in the spirit world, largely because of its supposed ability to transmit terroir.

But because it’s produced in small batches through traditional, even ancient, farming practices — and scarce here in the States — it’s expensive. In Oaxaca Mexico, however, even great examples are dirt cheap and readily available. This is why you need to go to the source, where you’ll discover a world of cultural, environmental, and gastronomic interest that rivals even even the best wine regions.

Terroir is an imprecise word used too freely in the wine world. Of course, it wasn’t long ago that the term was actually underused here, and it’s no doubt a good, enlightened thing that the concept serves as the philosophical center of the post-Parker wine world. But as is always the case with philosophical centers, at the point they become centers, which is a kind of blind spot, there is a cost. Terroir is now omnipresent in wine marketing — now used to signify the relation of wine to soil and climate where that relation is essentially uninteresting, now used to obfuscate the hard reality of overt flaws like Brett infection.

Indeed, the vast majority of claims made about terroir in the wine world are, frankly, bogus. This does not in any way mean, however, that terroir is not an ideal worth pursuing.

Successful marketing campaigns work across industries. The rebellion you purchase when drinking a fun, young Pepsi product is the same rebellion you purchase when you “express your individuality” by choosing a Mac over a PC.

So it was only a matter of time before terroir would be used to describe beverages other than wine. And of course, beverage experts, like Michael Jackson in his Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, have long made the argument that great spirits, opposed in his formulation to those that are merely corporate products, reflect their place of origin.

They have a point. But as a wizened wine geek, it is with some good healthy skepticism that I approach the claims by the spirit industry about terroir expression. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »