Lighter Side of Alentejo: White Wines Offer Quality, Value

Ask a group of wine geeks to free associate based on phrase “Alentejo wines” and I’m guessing you’ll get comments about big, bold, jammy red wines. And they wouldn’t be wrong. But, after spending five days tasting my way through this region of Southern Portugal, I was impressed with how many exciting white wines I found.

Susana Esteban’s white wines (field blends from higher elevation sites,old vines) were some of the most exciting wines of my trip.

Aside from the thrilling and ancient amphora wines of Alentejo (which I wrote about in detail in this post), the high quality of the white wine (branco in Portuguese) was one of my biggest takeaways from the trip. White wine grapes are seriously outnumbered, with about 27,000 acres planted to red grapes and less than 9,000 planted to whites, according to data from the Vine and Wine Commission of Alentejo. But that’s still a lot of white wine, and the quality can be quite high.

Antão Vaz came up again and again in the wines that I found exciting, usually as the dominant grape in a blend. This indigenous local variety is heralded especially in the subregions of Evora and Vidigueira. It survives well in heat and is quite drought-resistant, which comes in handy in a region that has suffered through several years of drought. (Although this year has been quite wet, and I certainly got rained on quite a bit during my visit in early June.) The grape is quite aromatic and provides lots of oomph to white blends, and can stand up to a good amount of new oak. However, the grape can lack focused acidity, especially if picked later.

Hence: Arinto. This grape which can produce crisp, vibrant wines with deep minerality and tropical fruits. This wine popped up again and again in the white blends I fell for. Gouveio fits into blends quite a bit as well, which used to be called Verdelho, and that was confusing (as grape names are always) because it’s genetically separate from the Verdelho of Madeira fame.

Roupeiro and Fernão Pires round out the grapes you’re most likely to encounter in Alentejo white blends. Portugal has tons of indigenous grape varieties, and I definitely encountered some hard-to-pronounce grapes I’d never heard of before. But I also found some white Rhone grapes that seem to do quite well in this hot region, and I even found an exciting Sauv Blanc from a cooler vineyard near the ocean.

Stylistically, the whites were all over the map. From lip-smacking, lighter-bodied versions to drink with Portuguese seafood, to rich, unctuous, barrel-fermented, lees-stirred creamsicles — there’s a bit of everything out there.

I gathered up a few interesting white wines I found on the trip to share. Most of these wines were tasted at the wineries or with the winemakers themselves, and all were tasted sighted. Most of these wines are available in the United States, and the prices based on either estimates from importers or wine-searcher results.

2017 Herdade Do Rocim Olho de Mocho Reserva Branco
$13
Nose boasts toasted nuts, lemon, mineral dust, notes of warm sand, really interesting. Crisp and brisk but the texture is rich, with lemon curd, orange peel, backed up by minerals, chalk dust, almond skin and roasted peanuts. Delicious stuff. All Antão Vaz. (90 points IJB)

2017 Herdade do Mouchão Dom Rafael Branco
$20
This was one of the most surprising wines of the trip for me, as I was expecting a basic entry-level white and found an exciting, complex, thrilling wine. So floral and bright on the nose with lemons, apricots, crust sea salt, cucumber slices, baby’s breath. Medium-bodied palate, rich texture but so crisp and lively, with a deep, underlying mineral presence. Lemon, lime, apricot, topped in lemon verbena, honeysuckle, baby’s breath. Chalky finish. Wow. Antão Vaz, Arinto, Perrum and Fernão Pires. (91 points IJB)

Lighter Side of Alentejo: White Wines Offer Quality, Value2017 Susana Esteban Aventura Branco
$19
Aromas are super peachy and bright but steely, too. Crisp, bright, brisk, mineral-driven on the palate with chalky notes, baby’s breath and green olive notes mixed with the juicy green apple and lemon fruit. Mineral dust note stand out, this shows lovely texture but such freshness. A co-fermented field blend from 30-year-old vineyards in Portalegre, which is at higher elevation, 700 meters. (89 points IJB)

2017 FitaPreta Branco
$25
Steely, bright, floral aromas with limes, lemon and apricot. So bright on the palate, broadly texture but zesty and focused. Lemon, lime, apricot, the fruit mixes with mineral dust, white tea, honeysuckle. Bright and complex. Arinto, Roupeiro and Antão Vaz fermented in stainless steel. Complex, vibrant, eye-opening, delicious. (91 points IJB)

2017 Susana Esteban Procura Branco
$37
Gorgeous aromatics of lemon curd, apricot, peaches, with yellow flowers and raw almonds. The textural depth is amazing, brisk acidity, lovely combo with peaches and lemon curd. Complex elements of sea salt, mineral, dusty chalk. Layered, vibrant, complex, deep, yet so refreshing. No lees-stirring, no maloactic fermentation, this is aged in old oak. Fascinating, excellent white field blend from 80-year-old vines. (93 points IJB)

2016 Adega Cooperativa de Borba Montes Claros Reserva Branco
$15
More tropical aromas here, with rich pineapple and lots of yellow flowers. Brisk but nice textural depth, with honeyed floral tones that mix well with apricot and lemon curd. Salty note on the finish, some richness from 30% of the wine seeing oak, but it’s nuanced and fresh and solid for the price. (88 points IJB)

2016 Cortes de Cima Sauvignon Blanc
$24
I get a nose of lemons, grapefruit, white pepper and lemongrass. Zesty and floral on the palate, with peaches, lemons, chalk, lemon verbena. Very bright and vibrant. From the family’s coastal vineyards, this boasts a bright and salty approach that I find very attractive. (88 points IJB)

2016 Cortes de Cima Branco
$22
Nougaty nose with pineapple and white peach. Plush texture on the palate but fresh, too, with apricot, white peach, honey, nougat, notes of talc and minerals. Alvarinho, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc fermented and aged in a mix of stainless steel and oak barrels. (89 points IJB)

2016 Herdade do Esporão Reserva Branco
$17
Big and buttery on the nose with plump pears and honey. Full-bodied but fresh with chunky pineapple and pears but fresh and floral, too. 30% barrel-fermented with lees stirring, a blend of Antão Vaz, Arinto, Roupeiro. (89 points IJB)

2015 Terras d’Alter Reserva Branco
$15
Honeysuckle, tart green and rich yellow apples, and buttercream on the nose. Crisp and lively, creamy texture but fresh, with dusty mineral and floral tones accenting the yellow apple and pineapple. Aged in old American oak with six months of battonage. (88 points IJB)

2015 Doña Maria Amantis Reserva
$24
Rich yellow color. Aromas of lemon curd, pineapple, rich yellow pear, hints of hay and nougat. Richer texture (14%), this is made with second-year oak and battonage, and that’s evident in nougat, creamy honey and butter notes, but there’s also some freshness and floral complexity. Bruised apple fruit is highly yummy. Fermented in French oak with six months of lees stirring, 14% alcohol. Made from Viognier. (88 points IJB)

Alentejo’s Amphora Wines: an Ancient Tradition in Renewal

With rolled eyes, several Alentejo winemakers joked with me about the reputation they think many American have about their wines: They’re red, they’re high in alcohol, and they’re doused with too much oak. While I did get my palate pleasantly pounded by a brutal 16.5% red aged in all new oak, for the most part, this reputation (if it was once somewhat accurate), is undeserved.

Case in point: the talha wines from this region of southern Portugal. Talha is the Portuguese term for clay fermentation pots, also known by their Greco-Roman name amphora. And in Altentejo the talha tradition runs deep — 2,000 years, to the days of the Roman Empire. Except for Georgia (where using open-topped clay pots is a much older custom), Alentejo is the only region in the world with such a long history of producing wines this way.

On a recent trip, sponsored by Wines of Alentejo, I dug deep into the Alentejo wine culture and found an exciting mix of ancient practices and modern innovation. A new generation of winemakers is keeping this history alive, while adding their own signature. Over the course of a week, I tasted tons of wines, and, far and away, I was most thrilled with the talha wines, or vinhas da talha.

In the glass, generally speaking, I get bright and floral aromas, which can be shocking complex, inviting, and pleasantly different. The flavor profile of the grapes (usually blends) shines through wonderfully, unhindered by any toast or oak influences. The alcohol levels are frequently around 12-13%. But the texture is what really gets me excited: smooth, fresh, sometimes slightly dusty, always unique and hard to describe (although I’ve tried in my tasting notes).

Authenticity and identity

When asked why continuing to produce wines this way is so important in the region, Joao Barroso, Wines of Alentejo’s sustainability manager, said, “It’s about the authenticity of the culture.” The more time I spent there, the more I felt, and fell in love with, this authentic wine culture.

When I asked Herdade de Rocim’s winemaker Vania Guibarra the same question, she said, “It’s about our identity.” She produces a white and red wine fermented in amphorae, after being crushed by foot in marble vats (called lagares), which are common in a region with active marble quarries. Generally speaking, her amphorae hold between 900 and 1,000 liters of wine, although each individual clay pot is unique in size and shape. She also ages portions of the wine for longer in smaller pots (about 140 liters), a method I found utilized by several other wineries in Alentejo.

When I tasted Vania’s white, a field blend of co-fermented indigenous Portuguese varieties, I was floored and began ranting to her about the wine’s uniqueness, freshness, and downright deliciousness. It was the first stop on my trip, and I didn’t have much luggage space, but I had to buy a bottle to bring home. Her red also impressed me, and words like “breezy,” “airy,” and “vibrant!” litter my notebook — not terms I’m used to using with red wines.

Alentejo’s Amphora Wines: an Ancient Tradition in Renewal

Amphorae sleeping in Adega Jose de Sousa’s cellar.

Paulo Amaral, winemaker at Adega José de Sousa and total talha guru, has one of the most extensive programs in Alentejo. His cellar has a collection of 114 talhas, which were made in the 1870s, along with several broken ones which he hasn’t moved. On a visit to his winery, Paulo set up a ladder, climbed up, and opened the top of one of his clay pots. On top of the wine floated a half-inch layer of olive oil, which he uses to protect the wine underneath from too much oxygen. He invited me to stick my hand in and taste (which, of course, I did without hesitation). The oil was doing its job, as it was highly oxidized, and licking this oil and wine mixture off my fingers was an interesting aesthetic experience for sure.

Making the wines

Talha wines have many of the qualities of so-called natural wines, loved by so-called hipsters — minimalist intervention winemaking, wild yeast fermentation, no oak, lower alcohol, and they’re commonly made from indigenous grape varieties.

Regular people all over Alentejo ferment their own house wine in amphorae, and taverns sell it straight from the talha. Yes, this method results in some flawed wines — I tasted two tavern wines that were seriously troubled. I’m sure many people make wonderful house wine in amphorae, but I can only speak of the professional vintners whose wines I tasted, winemakers who take this process, and its regional history, seriously, while producing pristine, fascinating and unique wines.

The Talha DOC (created in 2012) is one of Europe’s strangest appellations, regulating different aspects of this clay pot fermentation process. For example, each vintage cannot be removed from the pots before November 11 (St. Martin’s Day, a traditional wine-fueled celebration), although many winemakers hold their wines for much longer.

Alentejo’s Amphora Wines: an Ancient Tradition in Renewal

David Baverstock shows off amphora punch-down technique

Amphora fermentation is a labor-intensive endeavor. Twice a day, winemakers use a wooden tool to punch down the grape cap that floats to the top of the pot, or else the carbon dioxide from fermentation will cause the clay to burst. A winemaker at one facility I visited told me, from her own experience, missing a punch-down can cause a dangerous and messy explosion.  Over time, the grape solids settle to the bottom, and when the talha is drained from a hole near the bottom, the wine gets something like a natural filtration.

The inside of the pots are usually lined with wax, which is applied by warming the interior of an upside-down talha, pouring in melted wax, and rolling the large pot around on its side until the wax hardens. This process is usually done once every 15 years or so, and can be repeated for the life of the pot. How long do they last? Several winemakers are still using 150- to 200-year-old pots, while Alentejo is home to some pots that are 500 years old.

Convention and experimentation

Cortes de Cima, a winery known for first planting Syrah against the appellation rules, is one of several well-known wineries that embraces the Alentejo tradition of amphora fermentation. The winery was founded by Hans Jorgensen (a Dane) and his wife Carrie (a Californian) in the late 80s. Anna, the couple’s young daughter and a vintner in her own right, takes pride in using the same method that local villagers have used for thousands of years. “These are our garagistes,” she said. Remarking on the increased attention amphora wines have received in recent years, she added, “It’s not hipster here. It’s how it’s always been done.”

For a winery known for surreptitiously producing Syrah, it’s perhaps not surprising that Cortes de Cima also does amphora wine a bit differently. The Jorgensens don’t line their vessels. Anna told me unlined vessels allow their wines to better engage with small amounts of oxygen through the porous clay. She said this helps lift the wine’s aromas and softens any rough edges.

In the cellar, she pointed to a small amphorae (about 150 liters), whose exterior is crusted and discolored with dried wine. A small puddle of wine had collected underneath the container. “This,” she said, “is the essence of what we do with these vessels.”

At first, I was skeptical, but the essence she spoke of is evident in the glass. Their 2015 Amphora was one of the most airy and elegant wines I tasted in Alentejo, with floral and red fruited aromas that pop. I wrote “textural freshness!” in my notebook and underlined it several times.

Paulo (of Adega José de Sousa) also riffs on the ancient method in his own way. In addition to bottling a white blend and a red blend, he uses portions of talha-fermented wines to blend in with other wine that have been fermented in concrete vats and aged in oak and old chestnut barrels. While not the clearest example of amphora-fermented wine, they’re both fascinating wines, and the amphora wine adds brighter notes to the more concentrated, barrel-aged wines.

Even the region’s powerhouse producer, Esporão, who produces 15 million bottles of wine a year, uses talhas. Winemaker David Baverstock said he produces about 3,000 liters of amphora wine annually, but hopes to increase production to 10,000 liters. It’s a drop in the bucket in terms of total output, but it sends a signal: talha production is important, and worth sustaining. “It’s a nice mix of old and new technology here,” David said.

Alentejo’s Amphora Wines: an Ancient Tradition in Renewal

Antonio Rocha’s brand new talhas

Keeping tradition alive

For almost 2,000 years winemakers sourced their amphorae from local craftspeople. Talk about sustainable — the region is rich in clay soils and the finished product can be used by local winemakers for hundreds of years, potentially. But, some 50 years ago, the last talha producer died off, and so did the local knowledge. And I was told there’s only one craftsman in the region who still professionally lines talhas with wax.

But Alentejo producers have kept the tradition going, trading talhas amongst themselves, purchasing them from other regions. I spoke with several winemakers who bought their talhas from Northern Italy, and one (in a shock to me) said he bought his from a potter in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Antonio Rocha is looking to change this dynamic. The 56-year-old built a career in construction, until the industry tanked, and he was forced to reinvent himself. In 2017, he formed Telheiro Artesenal, and he became the first person in Altentejo in a half-century to build new 1,000-liter talhas.

Alentejo’s Amphora Wines: an Ancient Tradition in Renewal

Talhas in production at Antonio Rocha’s Telheiro Artesenal

There was no one to teach him, so he learned by doing, using his hands and a small putty knife. It’s a one-man show, and Antonio produces ten talhas at a time, layer by layer. Each layer has to dry before the next is built on top, so the process takes four months. Then, he fires the clay in an underground kiln, which he built, of course, by hand. Antonio sold his first batch of talhas to a museum, but he said demand from wineries far surpasses supply. He said he hopes to get some cultural preservation funding from the European Union to help him keep this project going, and perhaps expand.

Many of the talha wines I tasted and enjoyed on my trip can be found in the United States, although most are made in small amounts. The price ranges are attractive considering the quality, and many of the wines I tasted cost about $20, while some range to $40 or so. They’re exciting, dynamic wines that I personally would love to see on more restaurant lists or by-the-glass lists at wine bars. Georgian amphora wines have seen exponentially large attention from U.S. consumers over the last decade. While Alentejo wines are a smaller category, the quality is there, and the wines scream of tradition, excitement, deliciousness, value. I think the next decade could be a very bright one for Alentejo amphora wines.

Below are some of the best talha wines I tasted on my trip, all of which were tasted sighted with the producers. I’ve included price estimates from U.S. importers when available.

2016 Herdade do Rocim Amphora Branco
$20
Pretty deep yellow color. Wow, so breezy on the nose yet deep, with oranges, salted lime, almond, green olive. Brisk on the palate but rich texture, lovely smoothness, and flavors of oranges and apricot. Complex elements of almond, sea salt, olive, honeycomb. This is a field blend of white varieties from 50- to 60-year-old vines, and it is something to behold. A blend of Antão Vaz, Perrum, Rabo de Ovelha and Manteúd. (91 points)

2016 Herdade do Rocim Amphora Tinto
$20
Airy and bright on the nose, inviting, fresh, lively, with red fruits, roses and pepper. Brisk and fresh on the palate with medium tannins, combining for a tangy but smooth feel to this wine. Lovely red cherries, spiced tea and pepper. A co-fermented field lend of Aragonez, Trincadeira, Moreto and Tinta Grossa. (91 points)

2015 Herdade do Rocim Clay Aged
Deep color. Nose of blackberries, plums, blueberry, pepper, the fruit is dark but the wine smells so bright. Velvety on the palate, freshness reigns supreme, but tannins provide serious guts to the wine. Plums, blackberry, berry compote, a velvety and gorgeous mouthfeel supports the fruit. Smoke, pepper, earth, clove and tobacco. Beautiful stuff that will age for a long time. Crushed in marble lagares, aged in 140-liter amphorae. (92 points)

2015 Cortes de Cima Amphora
$45
Aromas of warm cherries, raspberries, plums, with lifted floral tones and spiced tea. So silky on the palate despite the tannic structure, this is also a fresh and bright wine. Plums, raspberries and black cherries, the fruit is laced with warm spices, earth. Texturally intriguing and so fresh and inviting. Aragonez, Syrah, Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira aged 14 months in amphora. (91 points)

2017 Susana Esteban Procura Amphora Branco
Clay sample. This unfinished wine is awesome. Brisk and floral aromas on the nose with apricot and lemon pith. The palate is bright and tangy but shows an earthy, waxy depth with flavors of almond and spiced white tea. Intriguing and delicious. (91 points)

2017 Adega Cooperativa de Borba Vinho de Talha Tinto
So floral and bright on the nose with red berries, roses and rhubarb. Fresh, silky, gorgeous on the palate, this is 13.5% alcohol with dusty tannins and refreshing acidity. Strawberries and raspberries, topped with dried roses, dusty earth and fresh rhubarb. Crisp, mineral-driven finish. (91 points)

2015 Adega José de Sousa Puro Talha Branco
A medium orange color. Smells of candle wax, candied orange and lemon pith. 11.5% alcohol on the palate, but the texture is deep and plush, hints of tannin (whole cluster fermentation here), with bright acidity that keeps the wine moving. Lemon pith, orange peel, apricot pit, the fruit is topped in seriously complex notes of mushroom broth, green tea leaves, honeyed tea, candle wax, and dusty minerals. Complex, nerdy but so, so delicious. Wow. (93 points)

2015 Adega José de Sousa Puro Talha Tinto
So floral on the nose, with complex roses, violets, black tea and incense sticks on top of raspberries and red apple peel. Crisp and lip-smacking on the palate, tannins provide structure but have rounded edges, and I get crunchy raspberries and red apple peel. Notes of leather, incense, earth and clay, warm spice, complex elements of mushroom and savory broth. Gorgeous, such precision and balance, I’d love to age this for five to ten years. Fascinating, special, delicious. (94 points)

Paso Robles’ Dynamic Wine Culture Offers a Standing Invitation to Travelers

The view from atop the vineyards of Kukkula Wines.

In early September, I spent several days digging into the Paso Robles wine scene, and I came back feeling refreshed and inspired about the future of this region. I’ve loved Paso Robles wines for many years, but it remained one of the few California wine regions still on my list to visit. So I was excited to go on a trip, sponsored by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, and it proved to be an exciting place.

It boasts a mix of geographical features, varied soils and microclimates, allowing many different grape varieties to flourish. I found a thriving wine culture marked both by experimentation and tradition, individualism and cooperation. It’s easy to see why more and more wine-lovers are visiting Paso Robles.

Paso wines have received large-scale attention, high praise, and high scores from major wine critics for a long time (Justin’s Isosceles and Saxum’s Syrahs come to mind). But another thing that’s great about Paso: there are so many intriguing wines flying well under the radar. With more than 200 wineries, and vineyards that grow more than 40 grape varieties, there’s a little bit of everything happening out here.

Geographically located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Paso winelands are intimately linked with the nearby Pacific Ocean. When I got off the plane at San Luis Obispo airport, the surfer in me grew stoked as I tasted cool, salty air streaming in from Morro Bay. In the morning it may be cool and foggy, but when the sun heats up, winds come whipping over the hills. As grapes here ripen, they get plenty of heat and sunshine, and they also receive plenty of cool, fresh air.

Onshore winds from the ocean get sucked into the Paso Robles appellation through the Templeton Gap, basically a crack in the coastal mountain range that separates Paso from the Pacific. This results in a day-night temperature swing of some 40-50 degrees during the growing season, one of the largest temperature swings in wine-growing California. While I was visiting, the mornings were crisp and foggy, the afternoons warm and windy, the evenings cool and long.

Paso Robles’ Dynamic Wine Culture Offers a Standing Invitation to Travelers

Fossilized whale bone found in Zenaida Vineyards.

Also: Soil. Paso Robles is an ancient sea bed, home to more calcareous and siliceous soils than any other appellation in the state. I picked up fossilized oyster shells and crumbly limestone chunks in vineyards, and I ended my days with white dust all over my shoes. One winemaker showed me a huge fossilized whale vertebrae he dug up while plowing his vineyard, and ancient whale bones and shark’s teeth have been found throughout Paso’s soils. (There are tons of great whites in the areas that I surfed, but I don’t want to talk about that, OK!) Anyway, wines grown in these soils have a trademark freshness and minerality that makes them pop. They feature juicy, ripe fruit, but I was surprised by the refreshing acidity, which made me want these wines on my table, with lots of food.

Yes, there are large producers who release mass-market branded wines, but the real heart of Paso lies in the “boutique” winery. About two-thirds of wineries here produce fewer than 5,000 cases per year, and several of the winemakers I visited release just 1,000 to 2,000 cases annually. The wineries I visited (almost unanimously) sold the vast majority of their wine directly to the consumer.

Bordeaux varieties, led by Cabernet Sauvignon, make up a little more than half of the grapevines planted in Paso Robles, and there are lots of Rhone grapes sprinkled around. I found elegant, age-worthy Bordeaux blends from RN Estate, which I think could fool some people in a blind Bordeaux tasting. Syrah, Grenache and blends from producers like Le Cuvier, Kukkula, and Nelle wowed me with their depth, gorgeous fruit, and complex non-fruit flavors. I found a few wines I felt were too hot or oaky, but those were only a few outliers. In my tasting notes, words like balance, freshness, and vibrancy pop up all over the place.

If you love gobs of rich fruit in your red wines, though, you sure have your choice of high-quality stuff. Russell From, of Herman Story Wines, told me, unabashedly, “All my wines are as big as I can get them.” His densely concentrated Grenache 440 backed up that statement. It’s a massive wave-to-the-face of fruit, but it’s also absolutely delicious and, kind of… balanced?

While Bordeaux and Rhone blends (mostly red) have been Paso’s calling card for some time, winemakers are trying all sorts of different grape varieties, crafting wines of varied styles. Chris and Adrienne Ferrara, the Italian grape gurus at Clesi Wines, produce spicy, tangy wines that could impress fans of wine from Central and Southern Italy. The Portuguese red blends from Passport Wine Co. are vibrant, spicy, and earthy examples of what is out there. And I found plenty of salty Grenache Blancs and crisp Albarinos that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best I’ve tasted from other California regions. And Zinfandel (Paso’s historically dominant grape) can be found throughout the region, made in all sorts of styles.

Paso Robles’ Dynamic Wine Culture Offers a Standing Invitation to Travelers

Steinbeck Vineyards

While visitors may need an appointment to visit many wineries, you’re much more likely to meet the winemaker or owners. You’ll be welcomed in by welcoming people. There must be some clueless tools who work at tasting rooms somewhere in Paso, but I couldn’t find them. I don’t think I saw a single person in a sports coat, and the drive across the region wasn’t as clogged up by gaudy buildings or corporate billboards. There’s a small town vibe, where the local fair is a huge deal, and it seems almost everyone knows almost everyone else.A lot of investment (domestic and foreign) has poured into Paso Robles in recent years, but the place still maintains a work boots and calloused hands appeal. It feels real.

Wine industry folks in Paso Robles told me they’ve seen steady growth in wine tourism, and the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance reports the Paso wine industry has an economic impact of nearly $1.5 billion. The word is definitely out, and Paso Robles seems primed for more attention in the coming years.

As I traveled, tasted and ate, one of the things that struck me most was the congenial, collaborative culture of this wine region. Many winemakers share winery space, vineyard sources, winemaking equipment, staff members, knowledge. I’ve heard winemakers in many wine regions discuss the “rising tide that lifts all boats” notion, but in Paso people seem to take that idea quite seriously.

Paso Robles’ Dynamic Wine Culture Offers a Standing Invitation to Travelers

Tyler Russel of Cordant and Nelle wineries.

I spent an afternoon tasting wines and doing pump-overs in the winery with Tyler Russell, who produces wine under two labels, Cordant and Nelle. Tyler’s wines are pristine and his tasting room has an artsy, crisp vibe. He is also quite possibly the most relaxed and effortlessly chill winemaker I’ve ever met, so naturally we had a blast drinking and talking about music. His winery is located in Paso’s Tin City, a gathering of warehouses that’s home to a bunch of small winemakers, not to mention a brewery, cidery, distillery, art space, restaurant, etc. Tiny City has a walkable, hip atmosphere, and it allows small production winemakers to pool their resources in one area, work together and learn from each other.

“There’s definitely a winemaking culture that’s unique to this area,” Tyler said, as he rattled off names of Paso producers whose wines I should taste. Every winemaker in Paso will tell you about five other wines you absolutely have to taste, and maintaining strong relationships with other wineries seems built into the fabric of Paso’s wine ethos. A winemaker recommendation goes a long way here, because so many producers sell so much of their wines direct to the consumer.

This dynamic exists on some level in most wine regions, but in Paso it seems to happen organically. I looked for signs of outcast or scorned wineries, winemakers who hated each other, pockets of cantankerousness, but I came up with nothing. I found a friendly, warm environment, and it enveloped me quickly.

A lot of California wine regions have a special relationship with their local beer scene, and so does Paso. Firestone Walker has a large facility here, with a brewery, taproom, bottling facility, and store, and their beers have a large presence in the community. Their blonde ale called 805 (after the local area code), has become the de-facto San Luis Obispo brew — you’ll find it everywhere, and you’ll see the logo on t-shirts and bumper stickers around town.

Firestone Walker does something special with local winemakers, though. The brewery hosts a blending competition every year, where Paso winemakers form pairs and get access to Firestone Walker’s extensive barrel-aged beers. The winemakers prepare blends to be blind-tasted by the entire group, and the winner is released as a vintage-dated “Anniversary Ale.”

During a dinner at Epoch Estate Wines, I spoke with a team of former winners (Jordan Fiorentini of Epoch and Anthony Yount of Denner Vineyards). They talked about their beer blending trials with passion, intensity, and playful competitiveness — it’s clear they take beer blending just as seriously as they do wine blending trials. It was pleasant to see such a respected brewer so supportive of the local winemaking culture, and vice-versa. And I think collaborative efforts like this one have the potential to create a positive feedback loop for both industries.

Lastly, Paso’s food scene is working to keep up, because every wine region needs thriving restaurants. Thomas Hill Organics is a classic farm-to-table restaurant that should be a stop on any visitor’s trip to Paso Robles. Somm’s Kitchen is also excellent. It’s a small space with a semi-circle granite table, which allows Sommelier Ian Adamo to show off his wine, food and service chops to customers in an intimate setting. (My favorite dish of the trip was a wild boar and kale frittata, made by Paula Jussila of Kukkula — wow.) I wasn’t able to dig deep enough into the food available here, but I’m sure a conscientious wine tourist can find plenty of great local eats.

If you’re a California wine-lover looking for something different, Paso Robles is worth checking out. I know I look forward to going back in the near future to dig deeper, and to watch as this region continues to grow and evolve.

I’ll have more in terms of tasting notes and information about specific producers in the coming days and weeks, so check back if you’re interested.

Cheers!

Tulip Winery: Israel’s Altruists of the Vine

Kfar Tikva is a small community in northern Israel, home to some 200 individuals with special needs. It’s also home to what has to be the most admirable winemaking pursuit in the world—Tulip Winery.

I recently had the privilege of viewing a documentary about Tulip called WishMakers. While it’s well worth the 35 minutes of your time if you can find a screening (check the website), in lieu of a traditional review I feel compelled to tell you a bit of this amazing story.

As far as I know, Tulip is one of a kind. It’s owners, the Yitzhaki family, have made it their mission to bring dignity and purpose to the residents of Kfar Tikva, who are employed by the winery and involved at every stage of operation, from vineyard management and grape sorting, to winemaking and sales.

“Labels should be put on wine. Not on people,” says Ro’i Yitzhaki, who founded Tulip in 2003 and currently serves as CEO. As the film bears out, Ro’i is the true heart behind Tulip.

From its inception, Tulip has flown in the face of naysayers who questioned whether wine made (i.e., handled) by people with special needs would sell—if people would be turned off. Tulip has gone as far as to contractually bind itself (via founding documents created in accord with Kfar Tikva) to employee Kfar Tikva residents, pay them a set amount, and not work them more than a certain number of hours.

Kfar Tikva is a community that values work, and each resident (depending on his or her limitation[s]) has a job to do. For them, Tulip represents a sort of pinnacle of personal achievement. Positions at the winery are coveted, and the residents who attain a role there derive a tremendous sense of self worth and personal accomplishment. As do the residents who contribute to Kfar Tikva in other ways—including those who work in the ceramics shop or the elderly woman, featured in WishMakers, who makes papier mache giraffes for sale in the winery store.

“These are amazing people, who give and don’t ask for anything in return.”

Tulip’s charitable endeavors don’t end at Kfar Tikva. The winery has partnered with several local nonprofits. They’ve even teamed up with the Make a Wish Foundation, helping to make the dreams of sick children come true. One little girl, Neta, aspires to work in wine, so Ro’i invited her to Tulip where she toured the grounds, met the residents, and put her blending skills to the test with some Merlot, Cab Sauv, and Petit Verdot. These are some of the best scenes in WishMakers.

There’s a lot of love at Tulip. As for the wine—“wine that loves people,” as Tulip’s motto goes—I can only say that Ro’i and his team are dedicated to making the highest quality wine possible in Israel, at a good value, while remaining a constant contributor to the Kfar Tikva community. I trust that a winery as thoughtful and with as much intentionality as Tulip puts just as much care into the actual winemaking.

If you can, hunt down WishMakers, then head over to Tulip’s website, where you should be able to snag one of the 220,000 bottles they produce annually.

Wine in the Wilderness – Exploring Humboldt’s Lost Coast

No highways cut through here. Mountains drop precipitously into the Pacific Ocean. Everything is wet and the nights are long and cold. This mountainous coastal region of northern Mendocino and southern Humboldt Counties, called the Lost Coast, is the largest stretch of coastal wilderness in the lower 48 states.

I came here for the waves, the stoke, the mountains, the serene darkness of the forest. And, yes, the wine. They make damn good wine out here.

I visited Andrew Morris, the winemaker and proprietor of Briceland Vineyards, on a rare warm and sunny morning in November. The sun poked through after a terrible downpour that lasted all night (a local told me it rained four inches). My friend and I were forced to bail, soaked and frozen, from our flooded tent and sleep in our car. In the morning, we checked the surf, but the tide was dead high, making it impossible to reach our spot. So we grabbed some coffee and drove over the mountains to see Andrew. The drive east on Shelter Cove Road could be described using any or all of the following words: gorgeous, sketchy, stunning — holy shit, bro, you’re way too close to the edge! — mindboggling, etc.

When rainstorms come early, they can be a big threat to the grape harvest, but the grapes had been harvested more than a month ago. My brother, travelling buddies and I visited the Lost Coast in full-swing rainy season. But we lucked out, and only got one soaking wet night out of five. Even when it’s not actively raining, the Lost Coast is a wet place. The air tasted of mountain stream and I could watch individual droplets drift in the thick fog. Cold mountain streams cut through forests, waterfalls pour down rocks cliffs into the sea, dense fog packs narrow valleys, rich moss and ferns pad the ground while massive redwoods block out the sun. After a soaking wet October, mushrooms flourished in the woods. My brother is a mushroom foraging guru, so I just followed his lead and cooked the mushrooms he said were both safe and tasty. (Hand-foraged mushrooms sautéed over a campfire paired with Humboldt Pinot is an epic palate experience.)

This is an extreme place in every way, and that’s why we came. The weather swings can be extreme. Ditto for the waves, which ranged in size from pumping 10 feet to death-defying 30 feet. My brother and I, lifelong surfing buds, caught some incredible waves, but also spent too much time underwater, getting worked by the cold, chunky surf and currents. Here, the surf is sketchier, the waters sharkier, the roads hairier, and the marijuana smells much, much better.

In this environment (like all of the challenging regions home to great wine), growing wine grapes needs to be done with extreme care.

Wine in the Wilderness – Exploring Humboldt’s Lost CoastA “good vintage” in Humboldt, Andrew said, would start without a late spring frost, which can damage grapes during critical growing stages. A good vintage would have plenty of ripening days — a certain amount of days with proper sunlight, providing what is needed to fully ripen grapes. And while Humboldt gets fewer ripening days than California regions further south and inland, it’s still ahead of Burgundy. I hear they make some decent Pinot there. A good vintage would also end without an early appearance of autumn’s cold and rain. And, preferably, a good vintage would be free from forest fires, which break out during the dry season and threaten these small, rugged vineyards with smoke taint. Despite these pitfalls, when a finished Pinot Noir or Zinfandel from Humboldt makes it through, the result can be phenomenal.

Take Andrew’s Pinot Noirs, sourced from several single vineyards in southern Humboldt County. These wines are lower in alcohol (usually in the low 13% range) and packed with lip-smacking acidity. They’re incredibly fresh and food-friendly and lack any brazen new oak influences or baked, extracted flavors. The tannins are present and provide structure (combined with the acidity, this makes for great aging potential), but they’re very accessible in their youth. No dark roast coffee or caramel-cola stuff going on here. These are anti-Kosta-Brownes, and I’m stoked they exist.

Wine in the Wilderness – Exploring Humboldt’s Lost Coast

Andrew and his wife Rosie of Briceland Vineyards

Andrew studied winemaking at the UC Davis extension and apprenticed with his father-in-law, Joe Collins, Briceland’s founder and winemaker. Gradually, Andrew took the reins. With consummate attention to detail and high technical knowledge, Andrew wanted to keep the reputation of Briceland’s wines going strong.

In the 1970s, Joe Collins began experimental plantings in Humboldt, which was considered by many in the growing California wine industry to be too cold and wet to grow proper wine grapes. But small growers scoped out the right spots, the right grape varieties, and they made it happen. Briceland quickly developed several sources of high quality fruit, most of which are small parcels carved into the forest on steep slopes. By 1985, Joe Collins and Maggie Carey launched Briceland Vineyards.

Like most commercial outfits in Humboldt, this is a boutique operation. Andrew releases only 1,500 cases of wine per year, and about 75% of that never leaves the area. Briceland sells a lot of its wines in restaurants (of which there are few) and local shops. (If you’re headed to Shelter Cove, the General Store has an awesome selection of Briceland’s wines and a bunch of local brews — highly recommended). About 75% of Briceland wines come from Humboldt, while Andrew also works with some really good Mendocino fruit.

I’ve been a huge fan of Mendocino wines for years (and a big fan of the few Humboldt wines I’d tasted), so it was fascinating to taste Andrew’s Syrahs and Zinfandels back to back, one of each from Humboldt and Mendocino. The Mendocino stuff has a bit more richness and darker, sunshiny fruit, while the elegance and tart freshness of the Humboldt fruit really shines through.

There are two ways to get your hands on these wines. You could travel to the area, which will be epic, I guarantee it. Or maybe you could contact Briceland directly. But if you love the adventure of wine, and you’re open to this style, you’ll be thrilled. These wines range in price from about $21 for the white wines to $35 for some of the single-vineyard Pinots — all absurdly reasonable for the high quality of the juice.

Below are my notes on the wines I tasted with Andrew.

2015 Briceland Vineyards Gewürztraminer Ishi Pishi Ranch – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
An exciting, zesty, bone-dry version with tropical fruit and floral spice on the nose. Crisp acidity, medium-bodied with a slightly creamy mouthfeel and flavors of peaches, guava and honey to mix with minerals and white pepper. Delicious, lip-smacking, endless food pairing options. (89 points)

2015 Briceland Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Humboldt County – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
A vibrant and zesty Sauvignon Blanc with white pepper, lemon and peach aromas. Crisp and very bright with complex elements of salty spice to accent the lemon and green melon fruit. (88 points)

2014 Briceland Vineyards Arneis Spirit Canyon Vineyard – California, North Coast, Mendocino County
Smells of peaches, white flowers, lemon oil and a hint of pepper. So bright and clean on the palate with a salty appeal on top of lemon, orange peel and kiwi fruit. Delicious, nervy and intriguing. Not much Arneis in California, but Mendocino is home to some very good stuff. (90 points)

2014 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Very pretty aromas of tart and spicy cherries, mint and earth. Bright acidity and moderately structured tannins, the cherries are crunchy and delicious and laced with notes of sweet flowers, strawberry greens, clove and an underlying mineral freshness. An eye-opening wine. (90 points)

2013 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir Ronda’s Vineyard – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Aromas of gushing cherries and raspberries, lots of rose petal and eucalyptus, too. Lush palate with soft tannins and bright, crisp acidity. Waves of tar black cherries and strawberries, the fruit is laced with notes of spicy clove, wet leaves and mossy earth. Complex, vibrant, straight-up delicious. A uniquely Humboldt Pinot that hails from a 1,600 foot, South-facing slope planted in 1983. (92 points)

2013 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir Phelps Vineyard – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Aromas of juicier, darker cherries with some raspberries and fresh herbal notes. Juicy and fleshy but structured tannins and crisp acidity. Flavors of cola, rhubarb and raspberry leaf tea accent the cherry and strawberry fruit. Lovely spicy complexity. (91 points)

2013 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir Alderpoint Vineyard – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
These Pinots keep on firing. This one shows more smoky earth, violets, savory spices on top of juicy cherries. Smooth, fresh and juicy with complex spice, leather and earth accents on top of tart strawberries and cherries, hints of cola and eucalyptus. (92 points)

2014 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir Alderpoint Vineyard – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Sweeter cherry fruit than the 2013, with that same spicy/savory quality and smoky earth. Silky, smooth but tart acidity, the tart red fruit is complex and so bright. Notes of earth, clove, savory mushrooms. Wow, such a pretty wine. It opened up a lot (as friends and I drank the rest of the bottle with dinner). Huge hit. (92 points)

2014 Briceland Vineyards Zinfandel Ishi Pishi Ranch – CWine in the Wilderness – Exploring Humboldt’s Lost Coastalifornia, North Coast, Humboldt County
Love the aromas of tart red fruit and spice. Silky, fresh and spicy with rose petals, earth and spice. Wow. If tasted blind, I could see mistaking this for a Pinot but, when sipped after Briceland Pinots, this shows more sweet flowers and earth. Lovely stuff. (91 points)

2014 Briceland Vineyards Zinfandel Dark Horse Vineyard- California, North Coast, Mendocino County
This vineyard shows aromas of darker cherries and clove. The fruit is (relatively) darker than the Ishi Pishi, showing more black cherry and blackberry, but still so fresh with medium/light tannins. I get notes of clove, tobacco and cola. A vibrant Zinfandel, very interesting to taste back-to-back with the Ishi Pishi Ranch. (90 points)

2014 Briceland Vineyards Syrah Ishi Pishi Ranch- California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Gorgeous aromas of red and black currants topped in black pepper, roasted red pepper and charred herbs. Juicy and so darn fresh on the palate with moderate/light tannic structure. Red cherries, a touch of black cherry, topped in scorched earth, violets, black pepper, beef broth and cured meat. Delicious flavors, this is an intriguing and complex Syrah. (91 points)

2014 Briceland Vineyards Syrah Dark Horse Vineyard- California, North Coast, Mendocino County
Smells like juicy black cherries, leather and spicy pepper. Chewier texture than the Ishi Pishi Ranch, this shows bright acid and medium/light tannins. Red and black cherries topped with pepper, violets and baking spices. So fun and juicy but surprisingly complex. (90 points)

2012 Briceland Vineyards Noir D’Orleans Ishi Pishi Ranch- California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Smells of dark plums and currants topped in loam and spicy clove. Rich but fresh, tart and vibrant, structured nicely with firm tannins. Bright black currant and crunchy plums and notes of peppercorns, roasted red pepper, loamy earth and spiced coffee. Seems like a good one to bury for a few years. Dominated by Petit Verdot, with some other Bordeaux varieties. For those tired of heavy, oak-slathered California Bordeaux reds, try this zesty number. (90 points)

Barbeito: Tradition Done Differently

During a trip to Madeira earlier this month, I visited six of the eight producers on this volcanic Portuguese island. During each stop, I tried to conceptualize the producer’s individual aesthetic within the context of the larger Madeira puzzle.

D’Oliveiras was the wise elder of the group. H.H. Borges was the precise, focused practitioner. Barbeito was the skillful fighter, full of excitement.

Barbeito has been around since 1946, but in a land so rich with winemaking history, that actually makes it the youngest producer on the island of Madeira. (A new producer is in the works, but hasn’t yet brought any wines to market.) Barbeito is also the most innovative producer on the island, and the firm is offering up a host of options that should entice the next generation of wine-drinkers. Their wines (which total about a quarter-million liters per year) have a common racy appeal and attractive freshness. These wines scream “I’m fortified, but I’m so food friendly!” The colors are lighter, ranging from lemon rind to medium orange, and the labels are playful and bright.

The winery is located way up in the precarious hills above Funchal, a stark contrast from downtown street headquarters of Blandy’s, D’Oliveiras and Borges. This facility, opened in 2008, is steely and modern, boasting top-notch equipment like a robotic lugar (a machine that replicates the old tradition of stomping grapes by foot).

“Here we try to combine tradition with innovation,” Leandro Gouveia, Barbeito’s wine shop manager, told me during my visit.

Barbeito was the first Madeira house to use the grape variety Tinta Negra on the label. Tinta Negra, a red grape variety, is the most common grape on the island, but until recently the name was not permitted to be listed on the label. This stems from an old (but odd) perception that Tinta Negra is not a noble grape, like the heralded white varieties Sercial, Verdelho, Boal, Malvasia and Terrantez. Tinta Negra is handled just like a white grape, and despite its humble stature, the grape is behind some absolutely stunning wines, as Barbeito demonstrates.

Speaking of red grapes, Barbeito is also reintroducing Bastardo to the market. Yes, this awesomely named grape is a historical treasure in Madeira, but unless it’s a bottle from decades (or even centuries) past, you’re not likely to come across Bastardo on a label. Barbeito plans to release small amounts of Bastardo to see if it gains traction.

While I applaud Barbeito for trying some different things, the producer’s innovation and experimentation is completely relative. Barbetio’s efforts must been seen within the context of a tightly regulated wine industry that cherishes tradition above all else. This ain’t California. You can’t plant any grape anywhere, make a quirky wine and see if people will buy it. To bottle Madeira, one must follow a series of very specific rules over the course of many years. Every bottle of Madeira that goes to market has jumped through lots of hoops.

The Madeira Wine Institute, which regulates Madeira wine’s denomination of origin, certifies seemingly every aspect of the grape-growing, winemaking and aging processes. Finished wines are analyzed in a lab to ensure their sugar and acidity levels fall within the approved framework, and a tasting panel approves every wine before it is sold. Sercial is dry and Malvasia is richly sweet — period. You can’t bottle a dry Malvasia or a sweet Sercial. This sounds heavy-handed, but Madeira is a uniquely historic wine that is made with unique methods. And the MWI aims to keep it that way.

Rubina Viera, who heads up the Madeira Wine Institute’s tasting panel, told me that respecting the special heritage and history of Madeira is crucial to the survival of this wine. “If we sacrifice our history,” she said, “we will die.”

Barbeito isn’t sacrificing anything, but their efforts add a bit more texture to the overall canvas of Madeira wine.

Unfortunately, winemaker Ricardo Freitas wasn’t around when I visited. (Levi Dalton recently interviewed Barbeito winemaker Ricardo Freitas on his podcast, I’ll Drink to That. If you’re interested in Madeira and want a ton of in-depth information on Barbeito, this is an awesome resource.) Leandro Gouveia was an excellent host, however. He poured me a long lineup of Madeira wine to taste and answered my many questions.

First, we tasted some young wines, with the goal of analyzing the primary aromas and flavors. These wines had already been fortified to around 17% alcohol, two degrees below the usual bottling point of 19%. I was stoked to try these young wines because of the light they shine on the varietal characteristics of the grapes and the effect of Madeira’s unique aging process.

2015 Sercial (sample)
This is a skin-fermented wine in an “extra dry” style already fortified to about 17% alcohol. Smells salty and steely with bright citrus juice and pith. So bright and insanely salty on the palate (I love it!) along with flavors of green apple, orange peel, raw almond and sea salt. Tart, lively, this gets the whole palate firing.

2015 Tinta Negra (sample)
Very interesting to taste a young example of Tinta Negra, before it fully develops into classic Madeira. It’s a ruby color in the glass. Smells of ruby red grapefruit, juicy raspberries, dusty earth and violets. Tastes strong, powerful, with tart red fruits and sweet floral notes. Reminds me of a sample from a fermenting vat, but stronger. This wine was fortified to 17% once it reached 10% alcohol from natural fermentation.

2010 Tinta Negra (sample)
Interesting contrast to the 2015 Tinta Negra with its golden orange color. After five years of oxidation, this smells of honey, wildflowers, orange peels and almonds. Tart, almost searing, acidity, this is a powerful and demanding wine. All sorts of nuts and dried floral components along with some dried apricot and pineapple elements. Really interesting.

2015 Malvasia (sample)
Awesome to taste a young Malvasia. Smells of so many apples and green flowers. Juicy fruit on the palate, so much tropical and floral elements. A vibrant, juicy wine with lots of sweet complexities. I can see why this is made into a dessert wine.

Below are my notes on the finished wines I tasted with Leandro.

2004 Barbeito Madeira Tinta Negra Single Harvest Colheita – Portugal, Madeira
Light gold color. Smells of orange peel, sea spray and honey. Rushing acidity on the palate, this tangy wine shows lots of richness as well. Interesting flavor profile of yellow and green apples, oranges, bright lemon, along with notes of pecans and sea salt. A vibrant, punchy style but it’s also quite elegant. (92 points)

2001 Barbeito Madeira Malvasia Single Cask – Portugal, Madeira
Lovely gold color. Smells of tropical fruits, honey and sweet flowers. Rich and sweet but more tropical (less of the brown sugar and caramel). I get apricot jam, honey, date and lingering salted almond flavors. (88 points)

1998 Barbeito Madeira Ribeiro Real Tinta Negra Colheita – Portugal, Madeira
Orange colored. Smells of honey, orange marmalade and almonds. Bright acid on a richly-textured wine. Honey, almond, zesty orange, a distinctive note of red apple peel. So polished and fresh with a long finish. Complex and very enjoyable. (91 points)

N.V. Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series Mr. Madison’s Malmsey – Portugal, Madeira
Sweet and floral on the nose with brown sugar and orange marmalade. Full, juicy and sweet but stays restrained and vibrant. Oranges, quince paste, honeys and almond amount to a moderately complex wine. (87 points)

N.V. Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series Thomas Jefferson Special Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Smells of orange peels, clovers and a crazily complex blend of nuts. High on the acid, this is a kicking wine, but it’s also really rich and nutty. The complexity of the mixed nut flavors is really impressive. Awesome stuff. A blend of different varieties in a medium-dry style. (91 points)

N.V. Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series Charleston Sercial Special Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Smells of dried nuts, honey and sea salt. Fresh, clean, nutty, well done with a spicy tangerine kick. (89 points)

N.V. Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series Baltimore Rainwater – Portugal, Madeira
Fresh, lively aromas with spiced tea and flowers. Full but a fresher approach (18% alcohol). Smooth and easy to drink, but this is also surprisingly complex for this style. (88 points)

N.V. Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series Savannah Verdelho Special Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Orange and golden brown colored. Smooth honey and apricot jam aromas. Full and smooth on the palate, a lovely rich style but fresh acid keeps it together. Apricot, quince paste, honey, mixed nuts, this is seriously good stuff. (90 points)

N.V. Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series Boston Bual Special Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Rich aromatics of sweet brown sugar and pumpkin pie. Full, rich, yet lively and complex. This is one of the zestiest Bual’s I’ve tasted. Flavors of clove, brown sugar, figs and dates mix with bright citrus peel and salty notes. My favorite non-vintage Bual of the trip. (92 points)

1992 Barbeito Madeira Sercial Frasqueira – Portugal, Madeira
Salty aromas with dried orange and lemon pith. Tart and salty on the palate but smooth as well. Full of rocky, mineral notes along with dried nuts and caramel. Dry, tart, complex, very long finish. (93 points)

1992 Barbeito Madeira Boal Frasqueira – Portugal, Madeira
Whoa, holy volatile acidity! Smells of some crazy varnished wood, white tea, and orange marmalade. Spicy and tangy, this wine holds the VA well. Very fresh, almost tastes dry for a Bual. I get nutty and coffee notes followed by polished wood, baked pear, cinnamon spice. The finish is long and complex. Amazing how Madeira can turn make volatile acidity seem so damn attractive. (92 points)

N.V. Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series New York Malmsey Special Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Smells of polished wood and tart orange, some baked pear and sweet squash with cinnamon. Full of brown sugar and sweetness on the palate but this is still very balanced and maintains a salty tang on the finish. (90 points)

Barbeito: Tradition Done DifferentlyNote: The Ribeiro Reals are blended with 15% Tinta Negra from the 19th Century.

N.V. Barbeito Madeira Sercial Ribeiro Real 20 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Light orange color. Smells like sea spray, cut floral stems and raw almonds. Tart, crunchy and crusty on the palate, yet so complex. Tingling mineral notes mix with sliced orange, sweet tea, oyster shell and sea salt. A gorgeous Sercial. (94 points)

N.V. Barbeito Madeira Verdelho Ribeiro Real 20 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
So floral and spicy on the nose, with clove, potpourri and sea spray. Sweet floral palate with rocking acidity, so pure and elegant but gorgeous richness. This is such a balanced wine with a pure beam of oceanic goodness that crashes over the yellow plum and mixed nut flavors. (94 points)

N.V. Barbeito Madeira Boal Ribeiro Real 20 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Smells like wood varnish and tart oranges. Rich and full but stays quite bright, too. I get yellow plums, baked apples and sweet floral tea. This doesn’t strike my palate as much as the Sercial and Verdelho Ribeiro Reals, but it’s still an impressive effort. (90 points)

N.V. Barbeito Madeira Malvasia Ribeiro Real 20 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Interesting golden color for a Malvasia (this golden color is a theme with Barbeito, it seems). I get cigar smoke, baked apple and wood varnish on the nose. Tastes like sweet candied tropical fruits but it’s refreshing. I also get cognac-like elements and some polished wood. Lovely freshness for a Malvasia. (91 points)

N.V. Barbeito Madeira Malvazia 20 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Sweet aromas but pleasantly bitter as well with complex spice and orange rind. Stays fresh despite the richness. Dried apricot, candied orange, pine sap, layered spice and anise cookie flavors. Complex and layered with lots of intrigue. Whoa. (94 points)

N.V. Barbeito Madeira Malvazia “Mãe Manuela” – Portugal, Madeira
What an absolutely gorgeous wine. Props to Ricardo Freitas for putting this wine together to honor his mother – it’s an amazing tribute. Smells of sweet clove, complex almond and pecan, baked squash, dried apricot, polished wood and anise. On the palate this is waxy and sweet but the balance is pristine. The complexity of flavors nears the absurd: nuts, dried fruits, minerals, sea salt, rooibos tea. Smooth, sweet, tangy, precise. This is phenomenal stuff. Includes wine dating back to 1880. (97 points)

Unfortified: The Still Wines of Madeira

Vineyard views from the north side of Madeira.

Like few other wines in the world, the wines from the island of Madeira are synonymous with their distinctive method of production. For centuries, producers here have fortified their wines with neutral spirits, then aged the wines in cask for long periods of time, oxidizing them and exposing them to heat. The result is one of the world’s winemaking gems — a seemingly indestructible wine that can age for centuries and retain its exotic characteristics for long after the bottle is opened.

After a week-long trip this Portuguese island, I have a whole lot to write about these magnificent wines and the island and people responsible for them. But, first, I wanted to explore the state of the island’s still wines. Yes, they make unfortified, dry, white and red table wines on Madeira. The wines ranged from the eccentric and odd to the refreshing and impressive.

The entire island is home to less than 500 hectares of vines, which cling to unreasonably steep hillsides in tiny, terraced vineyards. And still wine production counts for a mere 4-5% of the island’s total production. So there are not a lot of bottles to go around. The still Madeira wines (which fall under the appellation “DOP Madeirense”) are made in very small quantities, and the majority of the wine stays on the island. But the evolution of the still wine movement in Madeira signifies a desire to adapt and innovate. And that’s notable for a tremendously regulated wine industry on an island typified by a stick-to-your-guns respect for tradition and history.

As a collective group, DOP Madeirense white wines are fresh, vibrant, low in alcohol, high in acidity, and laced with citrus peel and floral flavors. Like seemingly everything produced on the island, the wines exude a sense of sea salt and oceanic vibrancy. As a surfer and lover of all things of the sea, these wines excite me. And they’re perfectly matched to local cuisine like lapas and scabbard fish. The red wines (frequently blends of two to five varieties) tend to have lighter tannic structure, high acidity, crunchy red fruit and plenty of earth and spice elements to go around.

While these wine are quirky, tasty and fit well on the table, it makes little sense for producers of still Madeira wine to export them. Portugal (which everyone here calls the Mainland) produces plenty of Verdelho, for example. And the Mainland has plenty of not-so-treacherous places to grow grapes. Like any major wine category, Mainland Verdelho can be very good, but there are many serviceable wines with large production and moderate price tags, something Madeira producers simply cannot match. A wine competition between the Mainland and Madeira is like pitting a heavyweight against a bantamweight. Madeira winemakers aren’t eager to step into that ring.

On the other hand, it makes little sense to import brisk, fresh white wines that pair wonderfully with local seafood when producers have access to at least some amount of quality white grapes on the island. More than one million people visit Madeira every year, and those people want to eat and drink everything the island has to offer. Madeira already imports a large amount of the food that appears on the restaurant table. Some producers figure they can make still wines for consumption right here on the island. And I’m glad these wines exist.

Before coming to the island, I had only heard vague rumors about Madeira’s still wine (mostly dismissive comments from people who had not tasted them). The roots of the still wine movement date back to the late 1970s. The Madeira Wine Institute (the governing body that regulates and certifies nearly every aspect of grape growing and wine production on the island) began experimenting with more than 50 different varieties to see which would be best suited for the production of unfortified Madeira. The answer, says the Institute’s President, Paula Cabaço, was clear: “Verdelho was the best.”

This certainly seems to be the case. Verdelho shows real promise as a still wine on Madeira. Several producers have bottled crisp, dry, bright examples of this grape, while others have blended it with an interesting mix of grapes (like Arnsburger) not used for the production of Madeira.

No one makes a commercially available still Malvasia, although I’m intrigued about the concept. However, there’s not a ton of the grape planted on the island, and the juice goes on to produce one of the most and long-lived wines on the world as a fortified sweet wine, Malvasia or Malmsey. So producers aren’t rushing to bottle, crisp, still wines for pounding on the patio. Same goes for Sercial and Boal (the other white grapes used for fortified wines).

Considering the rigid rules for Madeira production, it’s exciting to see producers experimenting with still wines: blending traditional white grapes with less traditional ones; using grapes like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon; trying out blends of traditional Portuguese red grapes like Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz. I tasted one Verdelho and Arnsburger blend that was aged in some new oak. I thought the oak totally overwhelmed the brisk, salty elements of the wine (ultimately I didn’t enjoy the wine), but still wine producers are trying new things. And I like that. The total production is small, but the passion is evident.

While Madeira producers are obviously well equipped with the casks and space needed for the canteiro process (cask aging with exposure to heat and oxygen), many do not have the equipment needed to produce still wine. That’s where the MWI comes in. In 2002, the MWI set up their own winery with all the presses, tanks, etc., capable of producing still wine. And they allow producers to use that equipment to make their own still wine. However, producers have to cover the cost by paying the Institute for this service. Considering producers already have what they need to make fortified wine, this added cost is yet another barrier to the large-scale production of still Madeira wine.

Despite these hurdles, Barbara Spinola of the Institute’s Promotion Department, said there is strong support for the still wine project among Madeira producers. Today, she said, there are now more than 10 different still wine brands.

While the production of still white and red DOP Madeirense wines may has grown, there doesn’t seem to be much long-term prospect for significant growth in this area. To fully invest in making still wines on the island, growers and producers would have to make a sharp turn away from their deeply-held tradition of producing of the world’s best fortified wines. And there’s simply no impetus for making such a dramatic shift.

But a large fortified wine industry and a small still wine industry can both exist in the same place and time. And I hope there continues to be at least some demand for these still Madeira wines. When eating a piping hot plate of lapas, or some steamed scabbard fish, sipping on a brisk local wine is a tremendous experience. And for those looking to expand their palates and try new things, don’t hesitate if you see a rare bottle of DOP Madeirense. It won’t be the best still wine you’ve had all year, but it will certainly offer up a unique island experience. And if you visit Madeira and sit down at a restaurant, don’t think twice: order a DOP Madeirense.

Below are my tasting notes on a few of the still Madeira wines I tasted on a recent trip. All the wines were tasted sighted.

2014 Barbusano Verdelho – Portugal, Madeira, Madeirense
Bright orange and lemon aromas mixed with salt and white flowers. Tart acid on the palate, this is a brisk and salty wine, verging on intense, with flavors of orange and lemon peels, cheese rind and crusty sea salt. This is going to have a lot of haters, but when served with some sautéed lapas, this was an absolutely stellar pairing, and the unique and, honestly a bit strange, elements of the wine really hit it for my palate. (87 points IJB)

2013 Justino’s “Colombo” – Portugal, Madeira, Madeirense
A peachy and floral nose with lemon curd and saline notes as well. Bright and zesty on the palate with a streak of salty, briny flavors throughout. Lime and peaches topped with chalk and honeysuckle. Paired very nicely with a traditional Madeira lunch of lapas (limpets). A blend of Verdelho and Arnsburger. (85 points IJB)

2014 Justino’s Arnsburger “Colombo” – Portugal, Madeira, Madeirense
Bright and floral on the nose with crisp lemon and lime peel. Bright acid, a rocking verve of minerality makes this wine exciting. Flavors of green apple peel, lime, green pears, topped with chalk dust and quinine. Really fun stuff that fits perfectly on the lunch patio table. Exciting to see what some growers and producers are doing with this rare grape, Arnsburger (a cross between two clones of Riesling). (88 points IJB)

2014 Madeira Wine Company Rosé “Atlantis” – Portugal, Madeira, Madeirense
Really unique aromas of salt, cheese rind and white tea, some funky-peppery elements as well. Creamy texture with tart acid. Flavors of white cherries and lemon peel mix blended with sea salt and brine. It paired well with a rich scabbard fish soup, which brought out the acid even more. A Blandy’s still wine project made from Tinta Negra. (85 points IJB)

2014 Terras do Avô Verdelho – Portugal, Madeira, MadeirenseUnfortified: The Still Wines of Madeira
Light gold color. White peach, limes and airy notes of sea spray on the nose. Crisp, crunchy and briny on the palate, this tastes like straight-up salted lemons, crushed shells and big waves crashing on rocks. An absurdly oceanic wine, which makes sense because the grapes were grown 100 meters from the ocean. Considering my love for all things oceanic, yes, I enjoy this wine. But it’s a unique style for sure. (87 points IJB)

2012 Terras do Avô Tinto – Portugal, Madeira, Madeirense
Bright ruby color (no purple here). Smells spicy and peppery with notes of tobacco accenting the bright red currant fruit. Zippy acid, light tannic structure, a great wine to serve slightly chilled. Juicy red fruits but they are tart throughout, topped with notes of dusty earth and spices. A very refreshing red wine that paired nicely with pretty much everything on the table. A mid-Atlantic kitchen sink blend of Syrah, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. (86 points IJB)

2013 Beijo Madeirense – Portugal, Madeira, Madeirense
Juicy ruby color. Smells of smoky plums and currant compote, along with some roasted red pepper and cracked black pepper. Fleshy with dusty tannins but so tart and fresh. Vibrant, crunchy red berries mixed with anise, pepper and earthy tones. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Touriga Franca and Tinta Barroca. (87 points IJB)

Travels in Alsace Part 2: Trimbach

For a winery that has been around since 1626, even minor changes feel like a big deal. But for those of us that know and love Trimbach—undoubtedly one of France’s most important wineries, the “first growth” of Alsace—some recent changes don’t feel so small.

And yet, when I met with Jean Trimbach at the Trimbach estate in Ribeauville shortly before Thanksgiving, everything felt like business as usual. Classy and cool, Jean made these relatively big changes feel seamless and natural. Above all, of course, the family remains dedicated to continuing to make the world’s best riesling. Jean quipped, “After riesling, there is nothing. And after that, there is chardonnay.” He then paused before adding, as if making a difficult concession, “or Sauvignon Blanc.”

So true!

Everything about Trimbach, from its charming estate to its sleek wines to the family that makes them, is elegant, understated, and classic. Like Vermeer’s paintings, the wines’ colors shine brightly through sometimes stern, always elemental, backgrounds. The domain itself, directly under hills laced with vines and capped by a crumbling medieval castle, feels invitingly simple, bespeaking a sense of taste and proportion that make the monstrosities in, say, Napa, appear as shamelessly tacky as a suburban McMansion.

When my wife and I visited the domain for the first time on our honeymoon, a stork took flight from its massive nest across the ancient grain silo across the street. The nest was, of course, still there on our return some twelve years later.

Trimbach is history that never feels old; while some other classists in the region can feel outmoded or musty, Trimbach reflects the timelessness of perfection. Over the years they’ve resisted trends, such as the biodynamicism that swept through the region, for all the right reasons; why make changes when you got it right at the outset?

Instead, Trimbach has made gradual, precise changes to its vinification—changes that sometimes belie trends and conventional wisdom about quality, such as increasing yields to lower alcohol percentage in the face of climatic warming—drawing on the uniquely profound experience with vineyards and wines by a family that has studied them for generations. Seemingly old-school and decidedly untrendy practices—like refusing to hand sort grape bunches, choosing instead to pay professionals to hand select on the vine—define Trimbach’s thoughtful, pragmatic approach.

The Trimbach’s are not renegades, mavericks, gurus, earth dogs, or demagogues—they’re wine intellectuals.Travels in Alsace Part 2: Trimbach

But of course, the world around them changes. In Alsace, it seems to get warmer by the year. And there have been long standing debates about the Grand Cru system first established in 1975. Trimbach, an important thought leader both in Alsace and France in general, has long been known for opting out of the system. The problem? Not all Crus are made the same.

When the politically motivated bureaucrats first drew up the Cru boundaries, they painted with broad brushes; many Grand Crus, such as the popular Hengst and Schlossberg, include parcels that are both undeniably world-class and parcels that are totally mundane. Why, Travels in Alsace Part 2: Trimbachthen, would Trimbach want to participate in a system that has failed to recognize the specialness of their unique holdings—especially, of course, the famed 3-acre Clos Ste. Hune in a privileged part of the Rosaker Grand Cru? The Clos Ste. Hune, reflecting the incompoerably complex terroir of Alsace, has the areas’ highest percentage of limestone, the same degraded seashell, ocean-bed character that distinguishes the finest vineyards in Chablis.

So what has changed? First of all, Trimbach has, against all odds in an area where nobody wants to sell, procured important new vineyards: the recent first bottlings from Grand Cru Geisberg will soon be joined by wine made from a 1.6ha parcel in the mighty Grand Cru Schlossberg. In addition, as of ten days before my arrival, they significantly increased their Ribeauville holdings by purchasing a fully biodynamic vineyard. They’re going to keep it that way—so be prepared for Trimbach’s first truly biodynamic wines. And new family members, now in the 12th generation, are taking on expanded roles, from designing labels to making the wines. After 36 of his own, Pierre Trimbach’s son has now participated in his second vintage.

Travels in Alsace Part 2: TrimbachWhile Trimbach exudes class and restraint, the tasting, lead by Jean Trimbach, was downright opulent. We tasted through much of their large range of wines, beginning with the “classic” bottlings ranging from the 2015 Pinot Blanc to the 2013 Riesling—Jean corrected me when I called them “entry level,” and given their quality, I take his point. All were good or better, and many ridiculous values. If you are a wine purveyor appealing to a value-driven consumer base, why are you not selling these wines?

Overall, unsurprisingly, what stood out at the tasting were the dry wines. To make great dry white wines is no easy feat, and given their successes it’s not hard to see why Trimbach is the darling of France’s Michelin-starred restaurants. More than just dry—after all, Trimbach makes excellent, restrained sweet wines too—Trimbach’s wines are full of character, class, and, above all, balance.

The 2012 Riesling Reserve, produced from an area next to the grand cru Osterberg that will soon itself be classified, was a standout for its purity, expressiveness, and undeniable value. This is the kind of wine that I like to cellar—I’m recently drinking the 2002, which I thought would never come around. It did.

As I gushed over the 2008 Clos St. Hune, Trimbach’s flagship wine, Jean stated in his dry, understated way, that Trimbach has a “solid image for riesling.” True. The 2008 is an early bloomer, drinking perfectly well already. I doubt that this will be the one to go 50 years, but I don’t mean this as a slight to its obvious quality.

Between the excellent 2008 and 2009 Fredric Emiles, I don’t know which I preferred. The 2008 needs age to round out its sharp acidity, and was relatively closed. The 2009, on the other hand, considered by some the best wine made in Alsace that year, was far more open and can be drunk now or later. Of the two, I’d put my money on the 2008 aging longer, collectors.

In a tasting like this, the non-blockbusters can get lost in the mix. But why not point out that the inexpensive 2014 Pinot Blanc—the 2nd vintage under screw cap, another change for Trimbach—was fruity, clean, a lovely aperitif. The 2012 Riesling Selection de Vieilles Vignes, a new wine for me, juicy with blood orange and tangerine, is another worthy mention.

Of the late harvest and dessert wines, the 2008 Gewurztraminer Cuvee des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre was stunning, with excellent acidity and purity—a reminder that Trimbach is far more than a one trick pony. And as for the 2007 Gewurztraminer Hors Choix SGN… my god.

After the tasting, I was in need of a nap. But why not go wander around Strasbourg instead? First, I’d have to over-pack my cumbersome luggage with some Trimbach bottles, including an awesome Frederic Emile magnum, that I could then haul all over creation for the next week.

Already looking forward to my next visit, I’m excited to see what Trimbach does—and doesn’t do—next.

Travels in Alsace Part 1: Perfectly Uncool

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.

In 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.Travels in Alsace Part 1: Perfectly Uncool

 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.

Travels in Alsace Part 1: Perfectly UncoolTurning 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

Sommakase, At Your Service

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?

Sommakase, At Your Service

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.