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.
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.
During my recent travels in Piedmont, I was part of a (rather large) media group that took part in a “Barbera Revolution” masterclass, held in the small town of Nizza Monferrato, organized by the Consorzio Barbera d’Asti e vini del Monferrato. There was nothing about that tasting of 2016 vintage releases to make me personally think that Barbera was undergoing some sort of quality revolution; likely a result of the fact that, given my history with the region, I was already convinced that Barbera in Asti was experiencing a quality renaissance.
So, no arms were taken up during the sampling of these 2016, but we did take up several glasses of promising Asti reds. Now that my stint with the My Name is Barbera program has wrapped up (for now, anyway), I felt comfy in taking a more critical eye on some of the latest Barbera d’Asti releases (not that you can ever fully take the critical eye from the critical guy, but I’ve generally avoided talking about Piedmonte Barbera here on 1WD while I was cashing checks for the video and blog work over at mynameisbarbera.com).
Here are my personal highlights from the tasting, many of which I think have been given short shrift from other critics in the past, and others that might be looking for US representation (importers… I’m looking at you!)…
Dante Garrone farms his Barbera on clay soils in Montemagno, and his approach can probably be summed up as exuberance. Floral, spicy, and full of wild raspberry fruitiness, this is a supple, fresh, and juicy joy to drink. The dried herb and leather notes are a nice touch, but overall this is friendly to both people and food.
Just about everything from this little number, coming from sandy higher elevation soils, is lovely. Cloves, licorice, juicy red fruits, lithe acids, bouncy texture, great balance… all evoking elegance, and capped by a nose that’s spicy AF.
This is a family that has figured out its sweet spot, marrying modernity with a bit of tradition, and churning out excellent Barbera at prices that are probably too low. Black fruits, plums, earth, spices, violets, cloves, and perfume aromas abound, exuding classiness; jumping acidity in the mouth and a long finish make this gorgeous (and versatile) to drink. Ok, love letter’s over.
Calcareous soils, and a mix of old and new wood make for an interesting combo in this Superiore, which starts off with vanilla, cedar, and plums, then winds its way to licorice, more plums, tannic grip, supple dark fruitiness, and finally to a long exit of spices and herbs. On the fuller-throttle side, and will stand up to heartier fare normally in the Cabernet-or-die territory.
Boom. Savory, juicy, spicy, long, concentrated… but also composed and emphasizing Barbera’s red fruitiness (rather than the darker plums and black cherries that usually accompany a Superiore this ripe). If you dig power, but also dig poise, this is your sweet `16.
There’s refinement amid the power of this 15% abv beast, primarily in how the perfumed aromas of minerals, flowers, cloves, vanilla, and red berries jump out of the glass and into the lap of your nostrils. Sure, there’s some heat, but it’s a sexy kind of heat…
Masters of the new Nizza DOCG, Olim Bauda is primed in style to become a further darling of the wine cool-kid crowd, and I mean that in the most positive senses. Cedar, smoked meat, baking spices, dark red fruits… the entire aromatic package is enticing. In the mouth, this is taught, focused, elegant, and very, very, very serious. Structured, sporting a long finish, bold, powerful, and potent (with that acidity, you’ll barely realize it’s over 15% alcohol), it’s everything that modern Barbera is striving to hit right now.
Dial it all up to 11, Barbera style: ripe red fruits, juicy plums, and raging acids, this is a shy baby right now that’s built for a longer haul in the bottle. Mineral edges, woody spices, and powerful heft and structure (by Barbera standards) are all combined into a potentially future stunner. If you try this and think that Barbera still can’t hang with the big boys, then… well, you’re wrong…
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.
Acústic’s Albert Jané, who is *not* actually pretending to play bongos on an old barrel
If you want to quickly win over such a group of wine geeks and influencers, you would have had access to a minor clinic in such powers of persuasion had you tagged along during my recent media tour visit to Jané’s Acústic Cellar, in the Montsant town of Marçà.
The script went something like this:
Take them to your gorgeous vineyard, replete with panoramic views of the mountainous Catalan countryside; show off your small two hectare lot of 40- to 80-year-old bush-trained Garnatxa and Samsó (a.k.a. Carignan) vines; say things like “the best barrel is the one you don’t taste,” and “the best winemakers here are the vineyards;” and gleefully pour your vinous wares, which happen to be excellent. Oh, and also serve delicious Spanish cheese.
Jané describes his wines as “unplugged” (hence the yeah-yeah-I-get-it cleverness of his company moniker), and it’s a fitting term for a winemaking style that seeks to showcase the concentrated, small clusters/berries of the organic fruit that Acústic’s old vines produce. Jané’s approach is relatively old school, favoring hand-harvesting and minimal oak treatment; which seems fitting, considering that his grandfather was a winemaker, his cellar is an old textile factory, and much of the exclusively indigenous vines in his vineyard were planted in the 1930s. Here’s a look at the latest quartet playing the Acústic Cellars tune…
Mostly Garnatxa Blanca, with Macabeo and a few others thrown in there in small amounts, this white is floral, rich, tropical, and heady, with a substantial and silky palate. What really blew my away was how textural the palate was for such a hefty wine, and how well the mineral tones showed through. Lest you be concerned with how well it ages, we tasted back to the `11 and it showed some lovely, honeyed goodness. And for a sub-$20 white, it’s overachieving in a big way if it can give you that much pleasurable drinking after even a couple of years or repose in the bottle.
Mostly Carignan, with 30% Garnacha, all from vines that are between 25 and 60 years of age. There’s a bit of French oak spice on the nose here, though the barrels are clearly not new, and the wine is powerful, fruity, plummy, deep, juicy, and big. I’d go so far as to say that it’s flashing a come-hither look at you, so keep this one in mind for date night dining. There’s future promise here, too, by the way; tasting back to the 2007, the plummy profile remains, but that older offering still seems fresh and young (though it did take on more floral components).
All Garnacha, from some of the oldest vines on the Acústic estate, this is so dense and plummy that it’s almost jammy; it’s also floral, spicy, savory, and sporting serious licorice tones. While undoubtedly powerful, Auditori is also fresh, delicious, and fruity enough to leave you with a lasting, impressive, well, impression.
Guess what? Old vines, again, these averaging about 40 years (with some in the 60 to 95 year old range), with the emphasis (80%) on Carignan, and the remainder filled out with Garnacha. The yields are, understandably, quite low with bush vines in this age range. The result is warm, buxom, dense, ripe, and delicious. It’s also complex: violets, licorice, baking spices, plums, and even some graphite. Probably my fave out of this quartet, especially considering how the 2007 turned out (inky/extracted/dense, of course, but also savory, floral, and still sexy). The moniker is supposed to evoke strength and courage in Catalan, and, well, yeah, that.
If it feels like forever since I’ve actually highlighted something from the wine sample pool in a feature here, that’s because in Internet terms, it more or less has actually been forever since I’ve actually highlighted something from the wine sample pool in a feature here.
This is, I like to think, a function of having so many worthy travel-related wine experiences to impart to you (as well as having to drum up at least some money in doing writing and video work for other outlets). But it’s probably more a function of devoted single-fatherhood, the holidays, and allowing myself the gift of not feeling as though I have to hustle all of the f-cking time.
But as the temperature has dipped into obscenely low levels in the Mid-Atlantic U.S. region that I call home at the tail-end of the Winter holiday season, I’ve been raiding the home sample pool in between media jaunts. Two things were bound to happen in that scenario (in order of decreasing statistical likelihood): 1) hangovers, and 2) finding at least a couple of gems to recommend to you.
And so, I’m happy to report that I did find some sample pool princesses to highlight, after kissing a fair amount of frogs…
So, Blanc de Blancs from (Pinot) Blanc; not exactly Earth-shattering novelty, but it hails from an area of the world that is not exactly a household name with respect to the modern sparkling wine market. Only about 900 cases of this 2011 bubbly were made, but presumably every one of them was crafted with the kind of care that should make wine lovers’ mouths water a little bit.
To wit: this is a sparkler that is clearly designed to impress: using yeast developed in Champagne’s Epernay, and seeing four years of tirage. The mousse is delicate, the nose floral (with lovely little apple and brioche action), and the palate almost downright rich (by bubbly standards) with pear, toast, and a touch of honey (the wild, local kind, and not the store-bought, overly-processed kind). Thanks to some raging acidity, your mouth will only barely register the 12 g/l of sugar (though my mind is definitely wondering if a racier, more linear version of this with a smaller dosage would taste just as elegant as this current mix does).
How. The. HELL. I don’t understand how this wine isn’t $35 a bottle. Well, I do understand it, because it has the word Beaujolais on the label and, well, marketing and all of that. But still… Aviron has been getting Gamay grapes from the Chenas 13-some-odd acre vineyard parcel that sources this wine since the early 1990s, but the vines themselves actually qualify as old even by jaded wine nerd standards; they’re average age is 100 years, and most are pre-phylloxera. The site sits on pebbly, clay-and-quartz soil that, presumably, was deemed too shitty to grow anything other than grapes many, many years ago.
Aviron uses precisely zero carbonic maceration in the creation of this Chenas, ostensibly because this is a serious vineyard and therefore deserves a more serious approach, but I’m guessing that the true reason is that Gamay grapes with red berry and plummy fruitiness this deep and lively simply don’t require it. The wine sees a year of aging in oak aged between one and four years, and the result is spicy, peppery, brambly, herbal, and, if I may be so bold (hey, we’re talking about Gamay, here), layered. It’s a minor triumph of a wine; the kind of thing you pull out for pizza night, and then realize with rapid, holy-shit-dude! certainty that your pie is in no way worthy of what you just poured.
If you’re kind of scratching your head on the uncharacteristically quick turnaround time in recapitulating the experience here on 1WD, it’s because the whole online-video-Carménère thing is nostalgic for me, as it was one of the first such tastings that I ever did under the 1WD umbrella (back when the writing here could charitably be described as fledgling…).
Having said that, the much more ubiquitous Carménère from Chile is still an incredible bargain, and arguably has never been better (or easier to enjoy even at modest price points). In Carménère, Chile is leveraging its ever-increasing winemaking knowledge levels to the full, combining modern know-how with more hand-crafted approaches; the results in some cases are single vineyard wines from older vines that provide an intellectually captivating experience at prices that still kind of defy credulity. At least, that’s how I’m increasingly seeing that landscape, particularly based on what we tasted during our video meetup…
I’ve had a lot of fun visiting this quintessentially Chilean spot before, with my main takeaway having been that they like to present Carménère in its more unadulterated, unapologetic forms. “Don’t like green herb notes? F–k you, drink me. Don’t like reeeeeeally dark fruits? F–k you, drink me.” You get the idea. This wine is a perennially excellent introduction to the main pillars of Chilean Carm: dark fruit flavors, strong minty notes, and plenty of tobacco and spice aromas that are delivered from the grape and not from wood.
The Single Block Grey series is another consistent offering, and in this case, comes from relatively atypical sandy-clay soils of the Trinidad Vineyard. The Grey is similar to Casa Silva’s Cuvee, in that you get full-on Carm, but with more oak aging (a third of it in new French barrels). It’s dark, minty, intense, and evolves on the palate with stewed black fruits, pepper notes, and a meaty, chewy texture.
This is Carménère in one of its most supple, gulpable forms. The fruit is characteristically dark and smoky, the wood tones are sweet and caramelized (thanks to some time in American oak barrels), and the whole package exudes an easy, sultry sexiness that makes it hard to stop drinking (you’ll probably pay for that later).
Interestingly, this is one of those instances where Chile’s long, thin geography is less important than its West/East climatic influences; Peumo, in Cachapoal, is relatively warm and dry, being buffeted from ocean influence by coastal mountains. Now, longtime 1WD readers already know that Valdivieso is full of interesting (and high quality) surprises, and this Carm is no exception to that streak: think earthy, spicy, herbal, and silky, a red that is jsut fine with strutting its stuff.
Those who want a more contemplative Carm would do well to give this Los Lingues vineyard red a long look. With only eight months of oak aging, it’s far from being integrated, and it’s going to need some time to ensure that some bottle aging will meld all that woodiness with the dark black cherry fruitiness. BUT… if it does, then you’ll have a textural palate that matches the intriguing nose of this thing. Dark and green herb notes abound, and they are not shy.
Another example of the cooling ocean influence being tempered by the coastal range, this Carm and Cabernet Sauvignon blend is complex, supple, and mouth-watering achievement. What’s interesting is how the addition of 45% Cab doesn’t mute the essential Carménère-ness of this wine; the textbook herbal spices and deep, dark cherry fruits are right there, with the Cab supplying tannic scaffolding and additional, tarter fruitiness.
I am still trying to figure out how they managed this. Technically, there’s 7% Carignan and 3% Petite Verdot in this Apalta-area blend, from the “Los Peñascos” Vineyard in the foothills, one of the regions highest elevation zones. It’s all hand-tended, French oak aged for ten months, then given another two months in bottle. I just don’t understand how they can pull this off for under twenty bucks per bottle. This is vibrant, structured, herbal, spicy, fruity, and just impeccably balanced stuff. You won’t notice the 2+ grams of RS, unless you’re really, really looking for them (in which case, please just get a life already).
It could be said that Domaines Schlumberger‘s Thomas Schlumberger doesn’t fully understand the negative connotations of the word “cheap” in the English language. I write that because, as he told me the above quote during a media visit to the Guebwiller property that has been in his family for about 200 years, he phrased it in a tone that was at once proud and matter-of-fact.
The bottom line is that no one really offers a smoother glide path into the vinous world of Alsatian Grand Cru that Schlumberger. First, they have the typical history portion covered: Domaines Schlumberger is still a family business (7th generation export manager Thomas lives across the street from the winery, “where I grew up,” having come back to the family business after a stint in the perfume industry at the behest of his uncle), and still operates out of the area in which the family settled from Germany (choosing the site because of its access to water, needed for their textiles business). From a desire to make wine for their own consumption, they gradually expanded and replanted their plantings in the area to about 70 hectares (this took the purchase of 2500 plots in a single decade, along with ten years of replanting, much of it on terraced slopes so steep that a special breed of horses that don’t experience vertigo were needed to work the vineyards).
obligatory winery dog photo…
From a Grand Cru perspective, Domaines Schlumberger has the raw material to offer inexpensive Grand Cru action: about ten percent of all Alsace Grand Cru wines are sold by them, and they are the largest independent winery in the area, exporting 2/3 of their production to 50 countries (so chances are good that you can find some of their wares).
Maybe most importantly for an ultra-competitive, information-saturated wine market, they have what might be the simplest Alsatian SKU category formula: you can try “classic” versions of Alsace’s principal grape varieties in their Les Princes Abbés line, or the Grand Cru single-site versions, and that’s basically it…
You know me, so it will come as no surprise that we’ll kick off with a wine that contradicts most of what I just mentioned above. You’ll have a harder time finding this little gem of Alsace’s lesser-known red production, which according to Thomas has benefited in quality improvements driven by the Chinese market’s thirst for all things French Pinot-related. Aside from maceration, vinification for this Pinot is performed in exactly the same way as their whites. The result is spicy, lithe, and transparent in the prettiness and expression of its fruit.
This range is named after the Benedictine Murbach Abbey, who were so dominant in the Guebwiller area that at one time they had their own currency. Today, it’s Riesling that dominates, and it’s tough to find a more solid example of quality Alsatian Riesling at this price. Limes, flowers, petrol, citrus, flint… it’s all here, presented in a super-clean, crisp package that benefits from having about 40% of its fruit come from Grand Cru vineyards.
Floral, expressive, broad, and textural, this is a Gewurz that is insanely, dangerously difficult to stop drinking. Lychee, stone and tropical fruits, spice… textbook stuff, along with being delicious. You need know next to nothing about the grape to get behind this.
2014 Domaines Schlumberger Riesling Saering (Alsace Grand Cru, $30)
This is more than a fair price for a GC in Alsace, but more importantly it’s a fair price for a Riesling this pithy, mineral, and crystalline in its presentation. That it is also fascinating in its texture and pure in citrus fruitiness are bonuses. The most interesting thing, however, is that DS’s Rieslings from this limestone-rich GC site do so well in bottle repose. We tasted back to the 2002 (a cooler year), and it was focused, lemony, long, fresh, and still above all else maintaining its purity. Movie stars don’t age this well.
What you (well, what I) typically want most from a PG is for it not to be boring. So when it’s actually sexy, that’s got to make you stop and take notice. This PG is downright spry, full of melon and apple flavors and wet stone aromas. You also get hints of white flowers and spices, topped off with generous richness and almost voluptuous roundness. I might need a cold shower now.
2014 Domaines Schlumberger Gewurztraminer Kessler (Alsace Grand Cru, $46)
Ok, so this one isn’t “cheap;” but it is spectacular. Kessler has sandstone soils, and DS own 75% of the site, which is formed by a small valley about 300 meters high in between hills that protect it from the cooler drafts of the area’s north winds. This equates to pretty good ripening potential for Gewurz, and if anything the DS Kessler version is expressive. The nose is, in a word, great: lychee, pear, roses, honey, spices, and marmalade. The palate is rich, with about one ton of lemon drop, but is buoyed by a freshness that is rare for more pedestrian renditions of this grape.
This sweet wine takes its name from Schlumberger’s great-grandmother (as Thomas explained, “we never name the wines after the kids; what if one of them ends up in jail?”). The original Christine managed DS for about twenty years with ” talent and firmness.” This Christine, also made from Kessler grapes, has a sweet-tooth; baking spices, marmalade, mandarin orange, lemon drop candy, dried roses, and honey all mix in the nose, along with a pleasant flinty note. The palate delivers in spades; it’s spicy, rich, full of sultana, lemon candy, and tea flavors. While it doesn’t lack viscosity or richness, there is good balance here with vibrancy. Queue up the Roquefort.
What do you do when your identity, your story, and even your best efforts are only seen through the contextual lens of your more famous cousins?
Besides developing an inferiority complex, I mean? After all, major characters in Greek tragedies were written with this stuff in mind; and it happens to be the defining lucha of Northern Spain’s Somontano wine region. That’s not the entire Somontano story, of course; as it happens, the region just might be the home of your next favorite Garnacha or Cabernet. While the DO is probably more familiar to WSET students than to American consumers, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot have been grown in Somontano for over one hundred and twenty years.
Viñas del Vero’s old hillside vines
Somontano is a place that’s relatively high on quality fine wine and winemaking prowess, but low on the ohhhhh-producing items (think indigenous grapes, or trendy stylistic techniques) that make for easy feature article material in the wine trade. The area largely produces wines from international varieties, in some cases from vines with significant age on them, done up in styles that are clean, fresh, and modern enough to all but dilute any defining sense of place.
But a sense of place does exist in Somontano, albeit courtesy of more famous wine regions. When the phylloxera epidemic spread throughout France, Somontano’s proximity and favorable climate made it an attractive spot for planting French vitis vinifera; which was later followed by declining demand and the abandonment of vineyard sites that were promising but difficult to farm. Sites like Viñas del Vero‘s “rediscovered” high-elevation plantings.
Situated at the northeastern slopes of the Somontano DO, along the edges of the European plate, these vineyards had dwindled down to 5 hectares by the time that Viñas del Vero rescued them (they’re now up to about 55 hectares). The oldest of the field-blended vines along those 800-meter-high, calcareous hills are in excess of 100 years in age. As Viñas del Vero’s vineyard manager José María Ayuso put it (during a media tour of the region), “you can get maybe one bottle per vine” from those old souls…
Blecua Estate’s chai (the caves are courtesy of ancient Benedictine monks on pilgrimage)
The modern-to-vintage and influenced-by-famous-neighbors vibes are strong throughout Somontano, but that mojo is especially fuerte in the DNA of Viñas del Vero’s ultra-premium Blecua Estate line. The boutique winery functions in a formerly dilapidated and abandoned house that was owned by Santiago Gomez, a homeopathic doctor who studied in Florence and brought back the region’s Italian architectural flair when the building was established in the late 1800s. Now, Blecua is named after the last inheritor of the building.
Blecua Estate winemaker José Ferrer has been at the helm for some time, and was coming up on his twenty-fifth harvest when I met him. Blecua isn’t an easy wine to make, accodring to Ferrer. There’s effectively three selection process: from eight vineyards (vinified separately), grapes (no surprises there), and barrels. The barrel selections are the most arduous, as several lots, coopers, and toasting levels are used. The blend ends up being different with each vintage, but Ferrer has no issue with that. “Nature is more intelligent than man,” he told me, “and we want confidence in the quality of the wine [rather than a totally consistent taste profile].”
Four vineyard sources are used in this red, which is technically a blend of Garnacha, Syrah and Parraleta. Some of the vines might be very old, but the take is thoroughly sexy and modern, with darkly seductive red & blue fruits, notes of minerals, flowers, and meat, and hefty, spicy, appealing sense of confidence. It’s long, deep, and concentrated.
“We found our stride with this wine,” Ferrer noted, and I’m inclined to agree with him. Heady, floral, honeyed, and ripe, here’s a white that’s punching above the weight class of its price. Stone, apple, and tropical fruits all make appearances here, as does a bit of slate and saline. The mouthfeel is round but structured, and it finishes with pith, power, white flowers, lemon curd, and anise. That is a lot of complexity for under $25.
The brother to the Blanca, and also a Garnacha/Syrah/Parraleta blend, the first thing I noticed about this red was that it combined bramble and pepper with more refined notes of violets. There are plenty of fruits to go around, including blackberry, blueberry, and red plums (courtesy of relatively young vines, about seventeen years old). It’s spicy, fleshy, and fresh, finishing with a little bit of grip so that you make sure not to think it’s messing around.
Currently, this premium line isn’t available in the USA (importers, I am looking at you). Which is a shame, because it’s worth the rather large price tag with which it would be saddled after it got stateside. The nose alone is incredible complex; cassis, spices, graphite, balsamic, tobacco. Woody now, it will almost certainly integrate well (if the slightly older but also excellent 2005 vintage that we tasted alongside it is any indication of its aging curve). In this vintage, the blend is almost equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Syrah, and Garnacha. It probably shouldn’t work as well as it does, but when you encounter something this elegant, delicious, vibrant, and inventive (the interplay between the tannic structure and acidic vivacity alone almost steals the show), it doesn’t do you much good to question (what conceivably shouldn’t work on paper certainly works in the glass).