What gives one the impetus to isolate yeasts, experiment with, say, cumbersome large barriques, and pursue crafting world-class Sangiovese in a region best known for bulk wine? Probably having regional winemaking in your blood.
That’s the sense that one might take away from a visit to Tenuta Casali, in Romagna’s Mercato Saraceno, where Silvia, Francesco and Daniele Casali now work with the previous Casali generation, Valerio and Paolo, who themselves took over in the late 1970s from grandfather Mario, who farmed their alluvial, stony, and white clay soils since the 1940s as a grower. So there are five family members now involved directly, doing all of the normal family-winery stuff while also attempting the aforementioned experimentation/fine-tuning, and yet I got the impression that things were running well enough, and personally did not notice anyone trying to kill one another while I was there…
Tenuta Casali sits astride the Savio Valley, which itself sits astride Italy’s Appenine hills in Romagna, with approximately twenty hectares of vines (all but twenty percent of which are devoted to Sangiovese) in effect bordered by Tuscany and the Adriatic.
Their vineyard placement – which also enjoys an elevation of between 500 and 800 feet – seems to work some mighty Romagna magic on their Sangio fruit; their reds were some of the best that I tasted during my media trip to the region last year. Not that their whites are slouching, as we’ll get into, well, immediately…
Casali’s Albana is a bit of an extreme, planted at 400 meters on tuffa soils, and it hits the sweet spot between round fullness and fresh minerality. Floral, honeyed, and chock full of ripe stone fruit and brioche action, with impressive balance between a sense of energy and astringency. In other words, much ass is kicked here.
Juicy, supple, and spicy, this is a red that’s easy to down. Black cherries and plum dominate, but it’s never overly or obnoxiously fruity; in fact, at turns this is fresh and structured in ways that should make many, many Italian wine lovers very, very happy.
The grosso clone is used here, from lower-yielding guyot vines in the white-clay Baruccia vineyard, planted in 1990, with the wine being aged in 20hl wooden vats. You might expect a thoroughly old school, sit-on-it-for-20-years Sangio red, and you’d be wrong. While undoubtedly young, this is gorgeous and perfumed now, with dried herb spiciness, black cherry, mint, and cooked orange peel notes, and a palate that mixes structural grit with a supple juiciness and ample freshness. So, yeah… wow.
When Fattoria Zerbina matriarch Cristina Geminiani talks about her Faenza area vineyards in Italy’s Romagna, she gives the distinct impressions that a) she knows what she is doing, and, b) isn’t prepared to take any sh*t about it.
At least, that’s the sense that I got when I got my feet into Zerbina’s 32 hectares of red clay and limestone soils during a recent press jaunt. Geminiani took over the reins of the family wine business (established in the `60s by her grandfather) in 1987, having studied at both the University of Milan and the University of Bordeaux.
Geminiani’s “puzzle” necessitates a pasticcio approach to crafting wine in this case, primarily from Romagna’s Sangiovese and Albana grapes) – combinations of alberello, gobelet, and trellised vine training, and often different pickings (sometimes within the same plots). Zerbina’s proximity to nearby rivers means that their Albana is prone to noble rot, which Geminiani understandably has totally run with for their passito wine, given her experience in Bordeaux.
Albana is Romagna’s other grape, the name being a Latin reference to the fruit’s whitish color. Interestingly, Albana from the region achieved DOCG status way back in 1987, which, this being Italy and all, I can only assume had deeply political origins. Zerbina didn’t get into Albana until 2008, but they have caught up quickly. An earlier harvest gives this a lifted, mineral, perky presentation, with a clean, crisp, clear, and linear mouthfeel. Tropcial fruits move on to stone fruit, fresh citrus, and then wet stone, all of it subtle and impeccably balanced.
Made from the grosso Sangio clone, this is all crowd-pleasing, early-drinking delight; bright, fresh, with plenty of the cherry fruit after which it’s named. Hints of herbs and tobacco add nuance to the friendly proceedings.
The vines that go into Zerbina’s flagship Sangio produce small berries with thick skins, a fact that permeates everything about this leathery, herbal, mineral red that aims for structure over overt opulence. Black cherries, juicy red plums, orange peel, and overarching freshness all combine to make you want to invent a time machine to be able to immediately see what this will become in several years time.
I don’t know exactly how much this little wonder would fetch in the states per bottle, but it won’t be cheap, of that I can assure you. Single berry selection is used here to pick the best of their noble rot-infected Albana grapes, resulting in a concentrated, potent 300 g/l of sugar. Sultana, biscuit, honey blossom, candied lemons… this is fresh, luxuriant, balanced, and stunning.
“Romagna had to fight a lot – and still has to fight a lot.”
So mentioned Alessandro Fiore – who, along with brother Claudio, oversee wine production of Castelluccio, one of their family’s three winery operations – recognizes the oddly ironic state of Romagna wine.
On the one hand, by most measures this hilly, picturesque northen-Italian area near Bolgna is synonymous with what we in the USA consider to be Italian food. Romagna is the birthplace of Parmigiano Reggiano, balsamic vinegar, lasagne, tagliatelle, tortellini, and prosciutto. On the other hand, Romagna is not synonymous with fine Italian wine, having spent decades churning out juice for the bulk market.
But there are several smaller Romagna wine producers who are engaged in fighting the good fight to elevate the region’s craft, including Modigliana’s Castelluccio, nestled in what the Fiore brothers call “ancient Tuscany” (where I visited on a press jaunt back in November). While they might look more like members of early Jethro Tull, the Fiore brothers know that the struggle for Romagna wine recognition is very, very real. Their father, Vittorio Fiore, acquired the majority of their fourteen Romagna hectares of land over several years, and has been focused on quality wine production from their marl and limestone soils since the 1970s. They made a splash early on by producing a regional Sauvignon Blanc (“which at first was not very good” remarked Alessandro) in an area better known for Sangiovese…
That Romagna could produce excellent wine shouldn’t be all that surprising (and with the Fiores, I tasted several, including their neighbor Torre San Martino’s stellar ‘Vigna 1922’ Sangiovese Riserva), given that the Adriatic is a mere 30 kilometers away (leading Alessandro to mention that “the hill is always kissed by the sea breeze,” which you’ll have to imagine spoken in a lyrical Italian accent). Fresh, cold air from the Alps also influences the growing area, and the result is, according to the Fiore bros., “more elegance, finesse, and more bouquet” in their Sangio than can be found in the African-climate-influenced grapes grown further south in Tuscany.
This pair of Castelluccio sippers are making an especially good case for Romagna’s Sangiovese good fight:
The Fiores have been making the all-stainless-steel Le More since the early 1990s. This is lovely, lively stuff, with juicy red plum flavors, bright berry aromas tinged with herbs, and enough vibrancy to light up a dark room. Having said that, it also has juuuuuust enough hint of structure to make you want to immediately start cooking burgers on the grill.
This is single-vineyard, 100% Sangiovese that’s aged in 350 liter French Oak tonneau for a year, then in bottle for nearly another year. Older vines are used, and it’s considered one of the first “Super Romagna” Sangios, having first been released in the 1980s. Fresh, juicy, spicy, and lifted, there are plums of nearly every stripe evoked here, along with wood spices, leather, graphite, orange peel, and finish that is both quite long and very, very elegant. If a wine like this doesn’t punch you in the head with the realization that the Romagna fine wine Sangiovese fight is worth fighting, then you probably ought to be literally punched in the head…
Despite the fact that I have content to write up that spans more than a year of travel (including my takes on the wine scene in Israel, the southern Rhone, and Romagna), the thing that’s been rattling around in my brain and not letting the hell go stems from a much more recent excursion, when I had a brief, impromptu visit taken during my latest jaunt to Monferrato.
Specifically, to the as-of-right-now 219-year-old building (established the same year – 1900 – as the planting of the sort-of-famous tree in their backyard in Nizza) of Scarpa. My short-term obsession has to do with the impression that this relatively small (22 hectares, yielding about 120,000 bottles/year) producer is fascinatingly, anachronistically refreshing within the context of modern Italian wine. Time passing seems to have little impact on how Scarpa approach crafting wine in Piedmont.
Scarpa works only with indigenous Italian grape varieties, and is one fo the few regional producers that have been grandfathered in to the zonal production laws of Barolo. The rest of this short tale is literally told almost exclusively in liquid form, in the hopes that my written words can transmit the sense of nonchalant, almost insouciant joy that Scarpa’s winemaking style presents…
Earthy, old school, and classically framed, this is a textbook definition of how traditional Asti and Piedmontese Barbera shoudl present itself. Juicy red fruits and vivacity are there, but so are hints of tenser structure, leather, and spices. Capable of elevating just about any meat pasta dish to more refined territory at a moment’s notice.
Only 3,000 bottles of this alternatively-styled Nebbiolo were made, using large-format Slavonian oak barrels for aging. If that sounds Old School, it’s intentionally so, but in the best ways imaginable: the ways with stewed plums, incense, cloves, earthiness, minerals, bacon fat, spices, lanolin, violets, licorice, and balsamic. This is intense in its aromatic punch and its vibrancy, but at no point feels overwhelming; in other words, it’s a joy.
Occasionally, you run into a wine that makes little sense without food; this was one of those times. Scarpa’s Freisa Secco is the kind of red that feels disjointed on its own, yet will gracefully, resplendently shine with just about anything at the dinner table. Pepper, wild raspberries, meat, and spices open things up, juicy red plums are next, followed by acidity that’s both intense and yet somehow soft around the edges. The tannins are a bit on the rougher side, but their feel is tempered by a clean, linear, just goddamned delicious finish.
One of the more complex and complicated Brachetto d’Acqui incarnations that you’re likely to ever encounter – herbs, mint, roses, lanolin, juicy and brambly red berries, and savory game meats abound. It’s leathery, chewy, lovely, lively, and difficult to understand at first (don’t worry, it’s also so tasty that soon enough you won’t care).
This is Ruché, a Piedmontese grape with which longtime 1WD readers are already quite familiar, though it’s not labeled as such. Back in `74, Scarpa received a few Ruché plants as a gift, and planted them on sandy soils in a windy, elevated area of their vineyards. That turned out to be just about the perfect spot for Ruché, but at the time Scarpa weren’t permitted to put the grape name on the label. So, like just about all Italian producers do, they turned to their deep penchant for fantasy names. Roses, perfume, pepper, dried herbs, mint, and sour cherries kick things off with this excellent – and stainless steel only – version of one of Italy’s wilier red varieties. There’s a smooth palate entry, austere tannins, and a finish that’s long, tasty, chocolaty, and spicy.
Among Idaho’s state slogans and motto (which have included Esto perpetua, “Great Potatoes,” “What America Was,” and “Tasty Destinations,”) was the phrase “Not California.”
There’s a slight air of desperation and defiance in defining your identity in the negative; though in the case of Idaho’s budding wine production scene, it’s not entirely inappropriate: despite 150+ years of winemaking history, this is a state whose first AVA (Snake River Valley) was recognized less than fifteen years ago (and is probably more famous for Evel Knievel than it is for wine). Idaho’s other two AVAs – Eagle Foothills and Lewis-Clark Valley – are less than five years old, and one of those is a sub-AVA. Despite its visually stunning expanses, the state has a mere 1300 acres of grapes planted, almost all of it in the Snake River Valley, and is home to just over 50 wineries (for some perspective: California has about 4400).
We can forgive Idaho for having a bit of a petulant-attention-seeking-middle-child chip on its wine producing shoulder, because there’s little reason that the state can’t make very, very good wines. Formed from ancient volcanic and flooding activity, Idaho’s soils are sandy, sedimentary and well-draining, and its climate is dry with cold winters; all of which are good conditions for reducing pest and disease pressure for grape vines (and in some cases, allow the vines to be own-rooted).
Actually, there is one very good reason why Idaho wine doesn’t get the media luv right now: there simply isn’t enough of it. As Idaho Wine Commission Executive Director Moya Shatz Dolsby told me when I visited the state last year, “our biggest problem is that we don’t have enough grapes.”
Following is a (very) brief overview of the wines that stood out the most to me during my Idaho travels. There are, I think, three basic themes that, like Idaho’s famous rafting rivers, run throughout the best of their vinous experimentation: a sense of purity (possibly helped by the lack of a need to graft on to American rootstocks), a pioneering spirit (sometimes to a fault), and a diversity that few American wine regions can legitimately claim to be able to match…
Now, here’s an example of Idaho’s pioneering ways: in March of 2018, former ballet dancers Travis and Mallory Walker opened up Par Terre (“on the ground”) in Garden City, across the parking lot from a Big Smokes cigarette shop. Travis put it this way: “When we retired [from dancing], we knew that we couldn’t just sit behind a desk. I thought that I could make the most change here.” In terms of passion for wine, they lack little of it, to the point that they grow Gewürztraminer in their backyard as “practice” for when they can plant their own fruit. Their Merlot shows great promise – it’s lithe, silky, and full of black and blue plum action, without shying away from the grape’s penchant for pungent black olive notes.
Also in an urban setting in Garden City, Cinder Wines is the brainchild of Chateau Ste Michelle alumnus Melanie Krause and husband Joe Schnerr (a former chemist). Cinder has seen early success with their chic tasting room and even more chic, clean wines (now up to about 8,000 cases, though some fruit is from nearby WA state). Their Syrah is leathery, toasty, and jam packed with smoked meat aromas, a sense of minerality, and deep, dark fruit flavors.
Kentucky native and Telaya founder Earl Sullivan is a former Pharma COO, his wife Carrie was a veterinarian surgeon, and they run their second careers in wine with all of the gnat’s-ass precision that you’d expect from their backgrounds. That’s a good thing for their 5000 case wine production, which is determined and quality-driven. Earl is a font of information with respect to Idaho’s winemaking issues, from its nascent quality focus (“we used to deal with grape growers,” he told me, “now we deal with wine growers”) to its unique climatic challenges (“we lose a bottle per barrel per month due to the dryness of the climate”). Bright, light, and textural, their Mourvedre is delicious – pepper, red currants, violets, citrus peel, and a sense of tasty delight.
NV 3100 Cellars Whitewater Sparkling (Snake River Valley, $35)
Telaya winemaker Hailey Minder’s side project is named after the number of miles of rivers in Idaho, and given her experience in crafting spumante in Italy, she decided to go with sparkling (though in this case, it’s methode traditionale). Made from Bitner Vineyards Chardonnay, this bubbly is floral, with green and yellow apple notes, and a nice undercurrent (ha ha!) of toastiness. A bit pricey, but also more than a bit tasty, and an open bottle won’t last long.
Situated near the town of Caldwell, Koenig has been in the business of Idaho wine for two decades (and in farming for almost 100 years), which qualifies it as a bit of an institution in these parts. Owner Greg Koenig is tall and mild-mannered, which might explain why some of his wines, among the best in the state, are under-priced. Case in point: this pithy, bright, and citrus-tinged Riesling, which offers aromas of bruised apple, white flowers, toast, and wet slate. The fact that it’s available for under $20 is head-shaking.
Simply put, this is probably the best red that Idaho currently has to offer. Silky, savory, structured, and gritty, there’s power here and a purity of fruit that provides a solid, unflinching backbone for its herb, pepper, and smoked meat aromas. I’m starting to believe in the future of Syrah in Idaho, though I suspect that, like Syrah just about everywhere else, it will continue to be a hand-sell.
First homesteaded in 1909, this family farm now produces almost twenty different labels of wine. Whenever I don’t loathe a domestic US Sangiovese, I consider it a success; even more so when I actually like it. You know immediately what you’re getting with this one, as it has Sangio’s telltale dried orange peel notes and textural combination of vibrancy and chewiness.
2015 Fujishin Reserve Petite Sirah (Snake River Valley, $26)
Martin Fujishin (former Vineyard Manager for Bitner) and Teresa Moy began the Fujishin brand in 2009, and seem to be really coming into their own at the decade mark. Or maybe they came into their own ten years ago and I’m just catching up… Anyway… Violets and vivacity mark the entrance of this big boy red, which lacks shyness but not power, meatiness, or deep, dark fruitiness.
Fujishin’s “second label” is an experimental playground of sorts, and it’s produced this crisp, clean, mineral-and-lime-driven delight. Long and fresh, with exotic fruit and toast notes, it’s yet another under-priced white from the state, who seem to think that the word “Riesling” is German for “offered at a 35% discount.
Named after the Rocky Mountain range that runs through the state, Sawtooth is Idaho’s largest vineyard owner, with 500 acres of vines, and thirty years of experience. In my experience, it’s their higher-end offerings that are worth the attention, in particular this peppery, floral, meaty, and juicy Grenache. Lovely on the nose, things get sultry on the palate, where raspberry, bing cherry, and red plum flavors dominate, along with a sense of both power and energy.
Scoria is one of the more curious success stories of Idaho wine. With a tiny production (expanding now to 2000 cases), the brand is getting press on the media-friendly story of Sydney Nederend, who seems impossibly young for the task of expanding on her family’s long-standing farming business (father Joe Weitz produces mint) by planting mostly Malbec and launching a wine brand. In fact, Nederend was too young to (legally) drink when she began researching the scoria rock and basalt channels that would become the brand’s sandy vineyard soils, and clearing the sage brush in order to plant about 800 vines. What defines this young vine Malbec is its savory texture and black and red cherry fruit flavor combo. It’s spicy, a tad oaky, but definitely promising.
The (3rd) Joe Ginet, of Plaisance Ranch, demonstrating the art of vine propagation
The third Joe Ginet is a bit of a torch-bearer.
He and wife Suzi preside over Plaisance Ranch, a former dairy farm, now turned organic beef cattle ranch, which also happens to be a twenty-acre vine nursery (now with over twenty varieties), and (since 1999) a vineyard as well, in keeping with the tradition of his father Joe and grandfather Joe. It’s grandad Joe who lived a the-kids-are-gonna-be-talking-about-this-one-for-generations portion of this little tale or Rogue Valley viticulture.
One hundred years before the third Joe Ginet planted vines at Plaisance, his grandfather Joe Ginet made his way from France’s Savoie to the USA, after having been discharged from the French military, and established Plaisance Orchard near Jacksonville. About six years later, he made his way back to France to pick up his fiancee. Instead of a bride, however, a jilted Joe G. returned to Oregon alone. Well, alone apart from some vine cuttings from his family vineyards.
Not to be deterred, ol’ Joe eventually did get hitched in 1912 – to a French Canadian bride that “he mail-ordered” according to Plaisance Ranch’s Joe G., who now makes about 2,000 cases of wine annually from 21 different grape varieties, derived from “about 42 different selections, if you count all of the clones involved” (apparently, the third Joe G. is into complexity). One of those varieties (a Savoy specialty), in particular, is so geekily and entertainingly interesting, that I felt compelled to write about Plaisance after my visit based on that varietal wine alone…
But before we get to that, it’s well worth taking a deeper look into some of the other 21-some-odd wines that Ginet now offers, many of which encapsulate both a sense of deep history and an undeniable charm (check the Plaisance website for availability).
2017 Plaisance Ranch Viognier (Applegate Valley, $20)
My notes indicate that this lovely, lively, and peach-and-pear-filled white is “floral AF!” NOt my most eloquent descriptor, but if you like your Viognier less on the overripe-melons-in-yo-face side, and more on the zesty, white flower-laden side, this one is your jam (without the jam).
2015 Plaisance Ranch Mourvèdre (Applegate Valley, $30)
Joe G. digs on Bandol, and so this red ended up being one of his passion projects. “I don’t get to make a red wine out of this every year,” he told me, due primarily to the difficulties in getting it properly ripe in the Southern Oregon clime. In the case of 2015, however, this is on-point: inky, with notes of green tobacco and herbs, dark berries, black pepper, and a lithe, beguiling mouthfeel.
2015 Plaisance Ranch Cabernet Franc (Applegate Valley, $25)
In my not-so-humble opinion, it’s a rare thing to find a Cab Franc in the USA that nails a sense of balance on the palate, but this one does just that. The mainstream critics will likely hate on the green herbal notes here, but I love that this red manages to keep those while also flaunting some of CF’s darker, plummy fruit flavors. There’s ample jump to the palate, and the end result is just a fresh, tasty, honest homage to European expressions of the grape.
2013 Plaisance Ranch Mondeuse Noire (Applegate Valley, $30)
Now we get to the main event, an ancient grape known primarily from granddad Joe Ginet’s native Savoie, and a labor of love for the modern incarnation of Joe Ginet, who has been making a varietal labeling of Mondeuse since 2013, but began his journey in bringing this grape (once nearly wiped out by phylloxera in France) about fifteen years before that vintagee.
Naturally, the vines are from his family’s vineyard in Savoie, and had to spend a few years in quarantine, after which began what seems like a simple, 97-step process of vine cuts and plant propagation, taking roughly five years to get enough vines to actually make up an entire row in the vineyard. Apparently, the TTB also had some issues understanding that Mondeuse noire was an actual fine wine grape variety, and so (today’s) Joe G. also found himself having to make a case to convince a government agency that his Mondeuse vines were, well, actually for wine grapes and all that.
Generally, only a few barrels of this get made, so coming by it will not be easy. It’s worth seeking out, particularly if you find yourself in the Applegate area, because it’s got uniqueness to spare. Minerals, cranberry, cola, earth… the nose is characterful, rustic, and fun, with notes of meat, violets, and red plums, and it wears its age with aplomb. This one is deceptively versatile, and I found myself wanting to grill up some of the Plaisance Ranch burgers after getting a mouthful of this stuff…
One could be forgiven for expecting an overdose of “yes, I did in fact write those checks” bullsh*t when visiting Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, based solely on the facts that
a) it takes its name from the most infamous preparation (#500, which involves burying a cow’s horn full of manure) in wine’s most infamous set of farming practices (Biodynamics), and
b) founders Barbara and Bill Steele are former CFO/CFA financial types who, after leaving Wall Street and before establishing Cowhorn (despite not having a single lick of winegrowing experience) lived what they call a “homeopathic lifestyle in Marin County.”
Cowhorn co-fouder Barbara Steele
One’s skepticism about the Steele’s seriousness regarding their 25-or-so acres of vines and 4,000-or-so case production could be forgiven, but one’s skepticism would also be quite wrong. I mean, you’ll want to be skeptical about, for example, the earnestness of Bill Steele’s long hair, but then you’ll find out that he makes his own sulfites. And that the Steele’s spent two years researching the right place to plant vines before breaking ground on Cowhorn in 2002, planning on Biodynamics viticulture from the get-go (with Alan York consulting), and despite its under-the-radar status and various environmental challenges (ripening is actually the main challenge there, as they are farming Rhône varieties, and the cold air from the surrounding hills makes this a cooler spot by Applegate standards) chose Southern Oregon anyway.
And then there’s the farming mentality employed at Cowhorn, which feels downright legit when the Steele’s are waxing philosophic about it; as Barbara put it, “It’s the people behind it that makes this kind of viticulture possible for the Applegate Valley.” Even their yeast situation is kind of endearing; Bill mentioned that that six unique strains were identified there, primarily due to the 100+ acres of property having been left isolated so long before the Steele’s bought it.
And then… then you’ll taste their wines, which all have a consistent and defining element of being well-crafted and yet still characterful; not overly polished, showing their edginess and angularity while still retaining a sense of elegance. In other words, the only thing full of bullsh*t will be your own silly preconceived notions about their outfit…
Yes, the “spiral” in the name is (predictably) an homage to the notion of the vortex in Biodynamic preparations (and including the vineyard block numbers of the fruit sources). A blend of primarily Marsanne, with Viognier and Roussane rounding it out, mostly co-fermented, with twenty percent new oak, this is a white that elegantly straddles the line between easy sipping and complex contemplation. It’s mineral, peachy, floral, and has length that outpaces its sub-$30 price-point.
This barrel selection release is sold out, so you’ll likely have to wait for subsequent vintages, which kind of sucks, because as Brian Steele put it, this white hails from “that magical barrel” and while I didn’t see any witchcraft performed during my visit, after tasting this I’m not ruling out the barrel actually having some magical powers. The wine seems younger than its still-youthful two years; it’s taught, herbal, floral and, despite not having undergone malolactic fermentation, has ample body and broadness to its textural mouthfeel and ripe pear flavors.
When it comes to Grenache, Bill Steele warned that “too light, too fruity, and you’re into Kool-Aid land.” Thankfully, no one will be jumping through brick walls screaming “Ohhhh YEAH!” when tasting this one… or will they? Anyway, it avoids the Kool-Aid trap entirely, though it absolutely is peppery, lithe, spritely, and spicy, with clean and bright berry fruitiness without ignoring its earthy, stemmy, structured side.
About 800 cases of this Syrah were made, and each one is probably on the verge of bursting from its muscular, sinewy seriousness. Mineral-driven, with dark berries and even darker dried herb and spice aromas, things get earthy here very quickly, but maintain a sense of aromatic lift.
At this point, I was getting sick of the numbers, too, but it was nice to get a feel for what a slightly older vintage of Cowhorn’s reds could do after some repose in the bottle (and for this release, the 21 refers to the number of frost days they encountered during the season). Interestingly, this red saw 40% new oak and 40% whole cluster, which lends more peppery and cedar spice action to the mix, on top of earth, and berries galore. It’s funky, meaty, fresh, and vibrant Syrah, with nice textural grip; a great one for the Foodie set and the just-gimmie-a-good-red set alike.
This one is billed as Cowhorn’s “winemaker’s blend,” with 35% whole cluster and 35% new oak. It’s the silky, rich, round, sexy cousin of their Syrah-based lineup, and while it retains some of the muscular structure of the 8 and 21, there is no denying all of that “bedroom eyes” fruitiness here.
Blackberries and a lithe, peppery, spicy profile are the hallmarks of this characterful, brambly stunner. The acids are jumping, the meatiness is present, the structure is at turns burly and refined. Basically, 200 cases of balanced presentation, in which there is plenty of edginess but not at the expense of a clean, clear, and powerful approach. In case you’re wondering, the 2013 is even better; it’s superb, with the plummy, meaty, and spicy/sage/pepper/cedar expressions opening up a bit more with age and fronting a finish that is minutes long.
You know that your brand is in trouble when, instead of talking about your forty-plus-year history in a nascent wine region, or your long hours of sun, 1300-foot vineyard elevation, diurnal temperature shifts of over fifty degrees Fahrenheit, or any of the other factors that make your terroir an ideal place for ripening interesting grape varieties, all anyone can mention is how your family business heir apparent allegedly got blowies during a commercial airplane flight.
When Napa-area veteran Camp came on board at Troon to help get the entity into more attractive sale shape, he told me that he was immediately impressed with the potential, given how good the wines already were. He focused first on ensuring that the operational and marketing basics were on solid footing – “block and tackle, man, block and tackle.” The additions of foot-treading and Biodynamics to the mix helped to put the finishing touches on the approach, and Troon was, in a very real sense, thus reborn as a brand.
What hasn’t changed is that Troon’s small vineyard location is capable of some excellent winegrowing magic when the right varieties are planted. Troon is more or less surrounded by the Siskiyou Mountains, near a wider section of the Applegate River, with river bench soils that consist of pieces of ancient seabed, granite, and sediment. “We have a mostly Northern California climate here,” Craig noted, “with a shorter growing season. So we can produce wines with European ‘weights.'”
Put another way, as winemaker Steve Hall noted when summarizing Troon’s current approach, “you do what can to make something… beautiful…”
Speaking of beautiful… or, at the very least, substantially pretty… Southern OR seems an unlikely spot for what Steve Hall called “a kind of dangerous animal all-around,” but Vermentino shines here. This example is bright, citric, focused, and lovely, with lees notes rounding out a mineral, nutty backbone.
Ten percent Marsanne (picked the same day) is added to this slightly more substantial Vermentino take; it’s less nutty, more floral, and a lot more tropical than its more modest little sister label. It’s also broader, richer, and more textural, which means that you can swap it on unsuspecting Chardonnay lovers.
Unique and characterful, you’ll need to bring your penchant for a pleasing astringent “bite” when drinking this white. It’s worth it, too, for the tropical fruit and white flower aromas, hints of saline and herbs, and its smooth, broad oiliness.
A blend of Marsanne and Viognier, this might be the most excellent “sleeper” wine in Troon’s white lineup. Flowers, citrus, stone fruits, and perfume kick things off, followed by a beguiling, fleshy/flinty/mineral entry that moves to a broad, sexy, silky palate. The finish is long, structured, and demands attention.
I love this little oddball. Technically, this is an orange wine, and while it’s not quite cloudy, you do get the rosé-not-quite feel from the amber color and visual density. There’s ample skin astringency, of course, but it’s in the form of lime and citrus pith, the way that orange peels make their way into a good plate of orange chicken at your favorite Chinese food joint. The bottom line is that this is an orange wine of which you can actually enjoy an entire glass, which puts it into somewhat rarefied territory.
The words “elegant” and “Malbec” aren’t often used in close proximity of one another, but in this case the use case is justified. Remember what Camp said about “European weights?” I think he had this red in mind at the time. Spices, herbs, green tobacco, plums, earth, leather, and tart red berry fruits, it’s hard not conjure up images of good Cahors when sipping this homage to the European patrimony of the grape.
2015 Troon Vineyard Tannat(Applegate Valley, $35)
Even in its best forms, Tannat is a grape that’s a hard sell outside of a steakhouse. Having said that, there’s something about the Troon site that tames this grape’s burly tannins and makes for a pleasant experience without having to wait eight years for things to soften up first. The textbook stuff is all there: tobacco, leather, deep and dark sour cherry fruit, cocoa, and a crap-ton of acidity and structure. But you can get away with pouring this one even if you’re not within chomping distance of a slab of meat.
Troon’s flagship red is a mix of Malbec and Tannat, and that mix is a complex beast. First, there are more delicate aspects: violets, herbs, spices, plums, and silkiness. Then, there are the rough-and-ready compliments: tobacco, smoke, dark red fruits, and leather. Its penchant for being demanding doesn’t stop once it’s in your mouth, either – that’s where you have to come to terms with the tensions between the wine’s grip/power and its lithe, almost electric finish. I wish more wines like this were being made out West.
Lucien Albrecht’s Jérôme Keller surveys the Oysterhouse Philly bounty
Not too long ago – ok, well, actually, several months ago, but I’m just getting back around to the topic now because I’ve been busy being all self-employed and day-drinking and what-not – I was invited to lunch with the dry-humored Jérôme Keller, Technical Director/Oenologist for Alsace stalwart produce Lucien Albrecht. Now, it hasn’t been all that long (especially by my warped standards) since I devoted quite a bit of the virtual page space here on 1WD to Alsace, but when you’re a wine-geek-turned-critic-type you don’t turn down an opportunity to a) get reacquainted with one of the first three Alsatian firms to have helped launched the Crémant d’Alsace AOC (which, like me, dates back to the early 1970s), which now comprises about 70% of their total production; and b) eat at Phlly’s Oyster House restaurant.
So, yeah, I did those. And while it’s taken me a few months to get around to writing it up, if you consider that we’re talking about a producer whose Alsatian roots can be traced back to 1698 (when Balthazar Albrecht settled in Orschwihr) and whose winemaking roots date back to 1425 (when the impossibly-impressively-named Romanus Albrecht started the winery), then I think I can be forgiven for some tardiness, especially from that timeline perspective.
Anyway, Keller has done some work in the USofA, having participated in harvest at Sonoma Cutrer, so he understands (or at least is adept at faking to understand) what passes for American humor, so we got along swimmingly, popping shellfish and tasting through some of the more recent Albrecht wares (and yes, the food/wine match went as lovably, gluttonously well as you’d expect)…
Almost no one has been doing Cremant in Alsace as long as Lucien Albrecht, and that long-standing experience is evident in this lovely, 100% full-bunch-pressed Pinot Noir bubbly, which spends about 14 months in the bottle. “Our style,” noted Keller, “is to have bright red fruits.” Mission accomplished; you get lots of red berries here, an admirably rich palate, and a finish that’s longer than you’re paying for at this price point.
A new release, meant to showcase the “linerality” of their Chardonnay, according to Keller. Barrel aged and fermented, with malo and lees action for three years in the bottle, this sparkler is made form grapes that are selected from primarily limestone-soil vineyards. The result is intensely floral and toasty on the nose, and yeasty, peachy, perky,and textural in the mouth. It’s the kind of bubbly that makes it very, very difficult to not drink half the bottle embarrassingly quickly.
Albrecht wisely (ha-ha!) grow their PB in a warmer area of their Alsatian vineyards, and add a bit Auxerrois to the final blend; what you end up with are the tropical and melon aromas you’d expect, a pleasantly plump and sexy mouthfeel, and an underpinning of astringency and lift. Think white fish recipes for dinner.
Melons, stone fruits, citrus pith, astringent “bite,” great acidity, and a touch of mesquite honey… I kind of fell in love with this PG, which will wistfully make you lament as to why so many domestic US PGs taste like flat melon soda compared to stuff like this. Bear in mind that the Roman could use a couple more years of rest, to help all of that complexity meld with its ripe fruits flavors.
Damn… this is good. The Pfingstberg Grand Cru vineyard has been renowned since at least 1299; ranging in elevation from 270 to 370 meters, the soils are chalk and micaceous sandstone (depending on the aspect). The key thing to remember about Pfingstberg, in this author’s experience, is florals: a plethora of perfumed blossom aromas await, including lime, along with a host of other things for which Riesling is so (justifiably) lauded by nerds like me (saline, mineral, stone fruits, pith, toast, pear, spices…). The finish is long, salty, and flinty, and even breaking thirty clams (ha-ha!) this GC is kind of a bargain.
Keller describes the southern-facing vineyards that source this Reserve wine as allowing for “aromatic ripeness” from which the resulting fresh-bouquet-of-roses floral characters derive. That, and almost maddening levels of winemaking patience (“we press, we wait; we press again, we wait…”). Like trying to avoid hyphenated phrases in this article, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more tried-and-true example of Alsatian Gewürztraminer; rose petal, lychee, toast, all moving to mineral, silkiness, and tell-tale mixture of pleasing astringency, structure, and a juuuust enough lift. The whole experience is harmonious, too, right through to the (not short) finish.
“When minds are dripping color, And there’s liquid on the brain
They laugh to one another, And politely go insane”
– Primus, The Dream
Last month, I had the pleasure of (once again) checking out the funky, entertaining, and technically dazzling band Primus, as they rolled through Philly on their Ambushing the Storm tour. Primus are currently playing with fellow prog-influenced band Mastodon in support of The Desaturating Seven, an at turns raucous, pretty, trippy, and virtuosic concept album based on Ul de Rico’s also trippy, gorgeous, and all-too-allegorically-topical-and-relevant-today (hey, one of the goblins is Orange… just sayin’…) children’s book The Rainbow Goblins. The album is played in its entirety during the show, with vibrant and also trippily-fantastic visual accompaniment that, I can tell you from personal experience, goes down even better with a wine-altered state of consciousness.
As was the case last year, I got to tag along with the VIP Package ticket-holders as a guest of Chaney Claypool, wife of Primus front-man Les Claypool and (along with Les), proprietor of Sonoma-based Claypool Cellars, who have been mentioned on these virtual pages for over eight years (holy crap!) at this point. The current tour VIP package offers a Q&A session with the band, and a tasting of some of the more recent Claypool Cellars releases; given my penchant for awesome prog-y type tunes, and my pinch-me wine-thing day job, and my music-thing side-gig, you can probably guess that I was pretty pumped to spend an early-summer-ish evening watching my various worlds collide…
Goofing around with Claypool Cellars’ Chaney Claypool (far right)
Only 200 cases of this delightfully zesty little beauty were produced, with fruit sourced from the Russian River Valley’s Moore Vineyard, which in my experience has produced varietal Pinots on the cranberry/pomegranate/lithe side. That profile is all played to excellent effect here, with a red-berry-and-stone-fruit-infused flavor emphasis that retains a buoyant mouthfeel and should have rock music fans and rose lovers wantonly flocking to chilled bottles of this well-balanced stuff. That it’s holding up so well after getting a year+ in under its belt is, I suspect, a testament to the Claypools’ now relatively long-standing penchant for finding excellent vineyard source material in their hometown Sonoma vicinity.
The tall one makes wine. Also, Team Iron Man forever!!!
It’s rare that I get to taste the same wine on three separate occasions, as I have with the Claypool Thorn Ridge vineyard Pinot. You’d think that I’d be sick of it by now, and you’d be very, very wrong. Planted in the 1990s, Thorn Ridge sits on relatively steep hills outside of Sebastopol, and sees little water. What you end up with (and what’s also the case here) are Pinot wines that kind of dance between acidic structure and floral notes on the one hand, and a bit of tannic grip and depth of red fruit on the other. When I tasted this vintage last year, here’s what I wrote: “Despite its lithe profile, there’s good structure here, and I’d recommend waiting for a couple of years (or at least through the listening of an entire Primus album) before yanking the cork out of it.” That’s even more the case now, as the density of fruit and oak aging notes are still roiling around together like young, inexperienced lovers gettin’ busy, and haven’t yet really come together to make refined, tender, sweet-sweet luuuuuv. But make tender, sweet-sweet luuuuuv they eventually will.