What gives one the impetus to isolate yeasts, experiment with, say, cumbersome large barriques, and pursue crafting world-class Sangiovese in a region best known for bulk wine? Probably having regional winemaking in your blood.
That’s the sense that one might take away from a visit to Tenuta Casali, in Romagna’s Mercato Saraceno, where Silvia, Francesco and Daniele Casali now work with the previous Casali generation, Valerio and Paolo, who themselves took over in the late 1970s from grandfather Mario, who farmed their alluvial, stony, and white clay soils since the 1940s as a grower. So there are five family members now involved directly, doing all of the normal family-winery stuff while also attempting the aforementioned experimentation/fine-tuning, and yet I got the impression that things were running well enough, and personally did not notice anyone trying to kill one another while I was there…
Tenuta Casali sits astride the Savio Valley, which itself sits astride Italy’s Appenine hills in Romagna, with approximately twenty hectares of vines (all but twenty percent of which are devoted to Sangiovese) in effect bordered by Tuscany and the Adriatic.
Their vineyard placement – which also enjoys an elevation of between 500 and 800 feet – seems to work some mighty Romagna magic on their Sangio fruit; their reds were some of the best that I tasted during my media trip to the region last year. Not that their whites are slouching, as we’ll get into, well, immediately…
Casali’s Albana is a bit of an extreme, planted at 400 meters on tuffa soils, and it hits the sweet spot between round fullness and fresh minerality. Floral, honeyed, and chock full of ripe stone fruit and brioche action, with impressive balance between a sense of energy and astringency. In other words, much ass is kicked here.
Juicy, supple, and spicy, this is a red that’s easy to down. Black cherries and plum dominate, but it’s never overly or obnoxiously fruity; in fact, at turns this is fresh and structured in ways that should make many, many Italian wine lovers very, very happy.
The grosso clone is used here, from lower-yielding guyot vines in the white-clay Baruccia vineyard, planted in 1990, with the wine being aged in 20hl wooden vats. You might expect a thoroughly old school, sit-on-it-for-20-years Sangio red, and you’d be wrong. While undoubtedly young, this is gorgeous and perfumed now, with dried herb spiciness, black cherry, mint, and cooked orange peel notes, and a palate that mixes structural grit with a supple juiciness and ample freshness. So, yeah… wow.
Over the Winter holiday break, I managed to catch up with talented Sonoma-area winemaker and Philly-boy transplant Kieran Robinson, who will soon be opening a tasting room for his wines in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it one-block section of downtown… Downingtown, PA.
Downingtown is basically my backyard, so I’m very much looking forward to the advent of Robinson’s new digs, and especially to trying to convince him to hire my band for live gigs once the tasting room opens (seriously… I have no shame when it comes to band gigs). But this little blogging vignette isn’t about Robinson’s wines, at least not directly.
Kieran brought along his friend and boss Scott MacFiggen, the main man behind Sosie Wines, and for whom Robinson consults as a winemaker. MacFiggen – who started the Sosie brand after falling in love with French wines in Nuits Saint Georges and falling out of love with the corporate world – has a sort of mutual love-affair with 1WD, and so I was happy to meet and get my grubby lips on more of their Napa-Sonoma-based products.
Sosie is a small outfit – they produce only about 800 cases, and so tend to hy away from the ‘major’ varieties” as MacFiggen puts it. As for Robinson’s decision to consult, he put it this way: “no distributor wants to pick up someone with just one wine; business-wise, that doesn’t work. And you get itches to make new stuff.”
Those itches make for some very satisfying scratches, some of which I’ll attempt to relay in the far less satisfying written word…
2016 Sosie Wines Roussane Vivio Vineyard (Bennet Valley, $38)
Clocking in at a modest under-14% abv, this is a bit of a rarity for Sonoma Roussane in its lithe, bright profile. “It was about to rain so we had to pick it,” MacFiggen remarked. He summed up the approach to this white as “No amendments – that’s really important to us. We don’t add anything. Sulfer dioxide, that’s it.” That hands-off approach works well here, with textural, toasty, and broad tropical fruit elements mixing in with the lemony acidity and white flower aromas. As is the case with all of Sosie’s wines, the back label is a well-designed (+1 on the font choice, bro!) treatise on the technical aspects of crafting the wine (which means it probably reads like Sanskrit for the average consumer…), as example of which I’ll post here (but will assume the curious are capable of checking out the website for the same details on the other selections).
Roberts road vineyard’s fertile soils produce wines that end up being “a bit too rich” for MacFiggen’s tastes, so they’re dropping it for future releases. Which is a pity, because this all native, 20 percent stem, 50 percent new oak Pinot is a minor wonder. Black tea, deep blackberry like fruit, well developed, spicy tannins with sweet edges… It’s a sexy combination that’s not easy to get when utilizing stem inclusion. “That’s the benefit of the cooler area,” MacFiggen added, “you get longer hang times and riper stems.” Four barrels made, so you hedonists out to grab it while you can.
2016 Sosie Wines Spring Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast, $43)
MacFiggen describes Spring Hill, on the western side of Petaluma, as “right in the edge of being functional. It’s super windy, super wet; I’ve shown up at 11 and couldn’t see the end of the vineyard, it was so foggy. The berries are just minuscule. I call this my Steak Pinot. It’s intense.” Added Robinson: “the soils are non existent, it’s on the brink of being un-growable.” Spicy, earthy, peppery, red and black berries, intense structure, long finish… there’s little (if anything) not to like here. Hints of exotic and citrus fruit, caraway seed, tons of character going on, it’s everything to love about the sort of ‘new California’ Pinot movement.
2016 Sosie Wines Syrah Vivio Vineyard (Bennet Valley, $38)
Earlier picking, a bit of whole cluster, and 7 percent Roussane co-fermented all come together to make this red the most clearly French-inspired of Sosie’s lineup. There’s excellent floral lift, a bevy of red plums, dark berry compote, wild herbs, mint, bramble, and baking spices. The palate is at once large, smooth, meaty, and long, without losing a sense of composure.
Dying breed… :-(
2016 Sosie Wines Cabernet Franc Stagecoach Vineyard Block K5 (Napa Valley, $80)
I loved – looooooved– the 2015 vintage of this wine. The 2016 is just as excellent. Unfortunately, the vines just got pulled due to virus pressure, a tragedy that I might not get over any time too soon. Black cherry and fantastic herbal spice introduce this tight, taught, young blockbuster, giving way to some grit and grip and lovely graphite notes. Characterful throughout, with dark fruit and even darker mineral notes. “Get it now, because it can never be replicated,” Kieran wisely advised… and I was crying on the inside when I heard it…
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…
One could be forgiven for expecting an overdose of “yes, I did in fact write those checks” bullsh*t when visiting Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, based solely on the facts that
a) it takes its name from the most infamous preparation (#500, which involves burying a cow’s horn full of manure) in wine’s most infamous set of farming practices (Biodynamics), and
b) founders Barbara and Bill Steele are former CFO/CFA financial types who, after leaving Wall Street and before establishing Cowhorn (despite not having a single lick of winegrowing experience) lived what they call a “homeopathic lifestyle in Marin County.”
Cowhorn co-fouder Barbara Steele
One’s skepticism about the Steele’s seriousness regarding their 25-or-so acres of vines and 4,000-or-so case production could be forgiven, but one’s skepticism would also be quite wrong. I mean, you’ll want to be skeptical about, for example, the earnestness of Bill Steele’s long hair, but then you’ll find out that he makes his own sulfites. And that the Steele’s spent two years researching the right place to plant vines before breaking ground on Cowhorn in 2002, planning on Biodynamics viticulture from the get-go (with Alan York consulting), and despite its under-the-radar status and various environmental challenges (ripening is actually the main challenge there, as they are farming Rhône varieties, and the cold air from the surrounding hills makes this a cooler spot by Applegate standards) chose Southern Oregon anyway.
And then there’s the farming mentality employed at Cowhorn, which feels downright legit when the Steele’s are waxing philosophic about it; as Barbara put it, “It’s the people behind it that makes this kind of viticulture possible for the Applegate Valley.” Even their yeast situation is kind of endearing; Bill mentioned that that six unique strains were identified there, primarily due to the 100+ acres of property having been left isolated so long before the Steele’s bought it.
And then… then you’ll taste their wines, which all have a consistent and defining element of being well-crafted and yet still characterful; not overly polished, showing their edginess and angularity while still retaining a sense of elegance. In other words, the only thing full of bullsh*t will be your own silly preconceived notions about their outfit…
Yes, the “spiral” in the name is (predictably) an homage to the notion of the vortex in Biodynamic preparations (and including the vineyard block numbers of the fruit sources). A blend of primarily Marsanne, with Viognier and Roussane rounding it out, mostly co-fermented, with twenty percent new oak, this is a white that elegantly straddles the line between easy sipping and complex contemplation. It’s mineral, peachy, floral, and has length that outpaces its sub-$30 price-point.
This barrel selection release is sold out, so you’ll likely have to wait for subsequent vintages, which kind of sucks, because as Brian Steele put it, this white hails from “that magical barrel” and while I didn’t see any witchcraft performed during my visit, after tasting this I’m not ruling out the barrel actually having some magical powers. The wine seems younger than its still-youthful two years; it’s taught, herbal, floral and, despite not having undergone malolactic fermentation, has ample body and broadness to its textural mouthfeel and ripe pear flavors.
When it comes to Grenache, Bill Steele warned that “too light, too fruity, and you’re into Kool-Aid land.” Thankfully, no one will be jumping through brick walls screaming “Ohhhh YEAH!” when tasting this one… or will they? Anyway, it avoids the Kool-Aid trap entirely, though it absolutely is peppery, lithe, spritely, and spicy, with clean and bright berry fruitiness without ignoring its earthy, stemmy, structured side.
About 800 cases of this Syrah were made, and each one is probably on the verge of bursting from its muscular, sinewy seriousness. Mineral-driven, with dark berries and even darker dried herb and spice aromas, things get earthy here very quickly, but maintain a sense of aromatic lift.
At this point, I was getting sick of the numbers, too, but it was nice to get a feel for what a slightly older vintage of Cowhorn’s reds could do after some repose in the bottle (and for this release, the 21 refers to the number of frost days they encountered during the season). Interestingly, this red saw 40% new oak and 40% whole cluster, which lends more peppery and cedar spice action to the mix, on top of earth, and berries galore. It’s funky, meaty, fresh, and vibrant Syrah, with nice textural grip; a great one for the Foodie set and the just-gimmie-a-good-red set alike.
This one is billed as Cowhorn’s “winemaker’s blend,” with 35% whole cluster and 35% new oak. It’s the silky, rich, round, sexy cousin of their Syrah-based lineup, and while it retains some of the muscular structure of the 8 and 21, there is no denying all of that “bedroom eyes” fruitiness here.
Blackberries and a lithe, peppery, spicy profile are the hallmarks of this characterful, brambly stunner. The acids are jumping, the meatiness is present, the structure is at turns burly and refined. Basically, 200 cases of balanced presentation, in which there is plenty of edginess but not at the expense of a clean, clear, and powerful approach. In case you’re wondering, the 2013 is even better; it’s superb, with the plummy, meaty, and spicy/sage/pepper/cedar expressions opening up a bit more with age and fronting a finish that is minutes long.
You know that your brand is in trouble when, instead of talking about your forty-plus-year history in a nascent wine region, or your long hours of sun, 1300-foot vineyard elevation, diurnal temperature shifts of over fifty degrees Fahrenheit, or any of the other factors that make your terroir an ideal place for ripening interesting grape varieties, all anyone can mention is how your family business heir apparent allegedly got blowies during a commercial airplane flight.
When Napa-area veteran Camp came on board at Troon to help get the entity into more attractive sale shape, he told me that he was immediately impressed with the potential, given how good the wines already were. He focused first on ensuring that the operational and marketing basics were on solid footing – “block and tackle, man, block and tackle.” The additions of foot-treading and Biodynamics to the mix helped to put the finishing touches on the approach, and Troon was, in a very real sense, thus reborn as a brand.
What hasn’t changed is that Troon’s small vineyard location is capable of some excellent winegrowing magic when the right varieties are planted. Troon is more or less surrounded by the Siskiyou Mountains, near a wider section of the Applegate River, with river bench soils that consist of pieces of ancient seabed, granite, and sediment. “We have a mostly Northern California climate here,” Craig noted, “with a shorter growing season. So we can produce wines with European ‘weights.'”
Put another way, as winemaker Steve Hall noted when summarizing Troon’s current approach, “you do what can to make something… beautiful…”
Speaking of beautiful… or, at the very least, substantially pretty… Southern OR seems an unlikely spot for what Steve Hall called “a kind of dangerous animal all-around,” but Vermentino shines here. This example is bright, citric, focused, and lovely, with lees notes rounding out a mineral, nutty backbone.
Ten percent Marsanne (picked the same day) is added to this slightly more substantial Vermentino take; it’s less nutty, more floral, and a lot more tropical than its more modest little sister label. It’s also broader, richer, and more textural, which means that you can swap it on unsuspecting Chardonnay lovers.
Unique and characterful, you’ll need to bring your penchant for a pleasing astringent “bite” when drinking this white. It’s worth it, too, for the tropical fruit and white flower aromas, hints of saline and herbs, and its smooth, broad oiliness.
A blend of Marsanne and Viognier, this might be the most excellent “sleeper” wine in Troon’s white lineup. Flowers, citrus, stone fruits, and perfume kick things off, followed by a beguiling, fleshy/flinty/mineral entry that moves to a broad, sexy, silky palate. The finish is long, structured, and demands attention.
I love this little oddball. Technically, this is an orange wine, and while it’s not quite cloudy, you do get the rosé-not-quite feel from the amber color and visual density. There’s ample skin astringency, of course, but it’s in the form of lime and citrus pith, the way that orange peels make their way into a good plate of orange chicken at your favorite Chinese food joint. The bottom line is that this is an orange wine of which you can actually enjoy an entire glass, which puts it into somewhat rarefied territory.
The words “elegant” and “Malbec” aren’t often used in close proximity of one another, but in this case the use case is justified. Remember what Camp said about “European weights?” I think he had this red in mind at the time. Spices, herbs, green tobacco, plums, earth, leather, and tart red berry fruits, it’s hard not conjure up images of good Cahors when sipping this homage to the European patrimony of the grape.
2015 Troon Vineyard Tannat(Applegate Valley, $35)
Even in its best forms, Tannat is a grape that’s a hard sell outside of a steakhouse. Having said that, there’s something about the Troon site that tames this grape’s burly tannins and makes for a pleasant experience without having to wait eight years for things to soften up first. The textbook stuff is all there: tobacco, leather, deep and dark sour cherry fruit, cocoa, and a crap-ton of acidity and structure. But you can get away with pouring this one even if you’re not within chomping distance of a slab of meat.
Troon’s flagship red is a mix of Malbec and Tannat, and that mix is a complex beast. First, there are more delicate aspects: violets, herbs, spices, plums, and silkiness. Then, there are the rough-and-ready compliments: tobacco, smoke, dark red fruits, and leather. Its penchant for being demanding doesn’t stop once it’s in your mouth, either – that’s where you have to come to terms with the tensions between the wine’s grip/power and its lithe, almost electric finish. I wish more wines like this were being made out West.
In the lower-ish (we’re still talking about 400-or-so meters of elevation) valley of Spain’s sunny Montsant region sits a small town (ok, village) of El Masroig.
El Masroig is quaint enough to be named (in Catalan, of course) “red country house” (most likely from the red clay soils that dominate this area of Priorat country), and small enough to sport a population of about 500 people, the vast majority of whose families live off of the farming of grapevines and olive trees.
In even quainter non-ironic fashion, El Masroig is home to CellerMasroig, a winery founded in 1917 as a co-op that’s now run by just over 25 employees, and – somewhat ironically given all of the above – is easily one of the largest producers in the area at five hundred thousand bottles per year, farming from about 500 hectares of vines.
Even more ironically, given their size, at the time of this writing Masroig has yet to gain a sales foothold in the States. That’s a shame, and is a scenario that needs quick correction, because they’re making the excellent crafting of one of the wine world’s most underrated red grapes – Carignan – look downright easy…
Historical cellar graffiti, Masroig style
It’s the clay-based soils here that are probably the key to the local Carignan (and, to some extent as we’ll see below, to Grenache Blanc) magic; clay retains moisture, and rainfall in this sunny little Priorat spot is pretty low. Not only that, but the clay acts reflectively, bouncing back sunlight onto grapes on the vine. The Mestral and Garbí winds that blow in also help to keep things even drier than they already are, so the circus trick here is keeping the overall grape ripeness tamed. As I discovered on a media jaunt to the region, Masroig has pretty much mastered that trick:
Generally, they try to pick Garnacha Blanca early in these parts, to help keep it from getting too boozy. It’s a thin line on which Masroig has executed an enviable balancing act with their Les Sorts label; it’s a heady, tropical, toasty white that also manages to show off stone/mineral and citrus notes. There’s no denying its ample sense of power, mind you, and I wouldn’t call this one a thirst-quencher, but the combination of deft winemaking and viticulture, along with 40-60 year-old vines and touches of battonage make this a serious – and seriously good – sipper. You’ll want crustaceans. Trust me.
The red Les Sorts is a deep, mineral, brambly, and thoroughly juicy mix of mostly Carignan, with fifteen percent of Garnacha thrown in for good measure. Much of the fruit comes from vines that are up to 110 years old, which I think explains the wine’s concentrated core. The dark color suggests what you’ll get in the glass, but it’s important to note that the chewiness, spicy licorice, and powerful, plummy palate are balanced by notes of violets, herbs, and a vibrancy that lasts into a long finish. Don’t worry; you’ll know your near Priorat when the power behind this hits you. Hard.
This little package of ass-kicking red is crafted from Carignan taken from two vineyard sites, and aged in 2000-liter foudres. No one has any business drinking this young, wild, and free wine right now; it’ll need a few years in repose to calm its butt down. There’s a depth of plummy fruit here that’s almost frightening, with more amiable notes of licorice, brambly herbs, sweet plums, dark cherries, and spices on top. The palate is predictably juicy, but has surprisingly delicate edges to its texture. This is what old-vine Spanish Carignan really ought to be, and requires an adventurous drinking spirit.
Joan Ignasi Domènech, talking sh*t in Vinyes Domènech
If you visit Montsant’s Vinyes Domènech, located in the southern portion of the winemaking district that nearly encircles Spain’s famous Priorat area like a talon, be forewarned that owner Joan Ignasi Domènech is likely to talk sh*t.
As in, literally speak about sh*t. Like, fertilizer. Along with solar energy, water collection, and all things botanical. Long enough to really, really, really make you want to move away from the intensely pungent nearby piles of the stuff…
Domènech, who heads up this family-owned and operated vineyard area surrounded by the natural park beauty of the Llaberia and Montalt mountains at roughly 400 meters elevation, is a stickler for all-things natural, biodynamic, and conservatory.
Since 2002, this former tech-guy has overseen some of the oldest vines in Capçanes, in a spot that previously had no real supporting infrastructure of any kind. That Domènech didn’t have any previous experience in wine (aside from drinking it, and living near Priorat in Falset) or in reconstituting rugged landscapes didn’t deter his enthusiasm for transforming a previously nearly-inaccessible 15 hectares of land into what is now the handsome hamlet of Vinyes Domènech.
Domènech was, as he tells it, wooed by the natural beauty of the area after visiting it with his family on holidays, and luckily for us wine geeks, he happens to have access to Garnaxta perluga vines that are well into their elderly stage (60-80 years and counting)…
Priorat-area fans are justifiably ga-ga over old Garnacha vine fruit, but its blanca equivalent can be equally as compelling in its later years, as evidenced by Vinyes Domènech’s wares. Their Bancal is creamy, generous, harmonious, textured, and lovely. It’s also complex, with varying degrees of blossom, honey, peach, citrus, pear, lemon, herbs, and toast. Overall, it’s a beguiling white, provided that you’re grown-up and daring enough to venture into the more exotic territory to which it’s inviting you.
There’s Lovely Rita, and there’s this, which is more like Sexy Rita. 60+ year-old vines provide the fruit for this Garnaxta Blanca, and only about one thousand bottles were made of the `16. Some of the vinification takes place in barrel, resulting in a silky, tropical, rich, and floral presentation with emphasis on the lemon cream action. Having said that, it’s not without its charm, by way of little tinges of herbs, minerals, and saline.
100% Carignan, with maybe 500 bottles produced in the vintage, from 80+ year-old vines. Domènech remarked, I think in equal parts joke, exacerbation, and pride, that it takes “five vines per bottle” to craft this smooth, elegant, spicy, and vibrant red. The plummy fruitiness is quite deep, the structure (this is still a baby-child) and power are ample, and the purity is enviable.
Old vines from select plots supply the fruit for this spicy, savory, silky, sinewy, loud and long red. Red and black plums and cherries, violets, dried herbs, along with almost-but-not-really-overripe flavors make for a big, bold, steak-ready sipper. The long finish is a bonus, and might help to clear your retro-nasal passages of any lingering smells from all of that natural fertilizer, should you be lucky enough to visit…
Lucien Albrecht’s Jérôme Keller surveys the Oysterhouse Philly bounty
Not too long ago – ok, well, actually, several months ago, but I’m just getting back around to the topic now because I’ve been busy being all self-employed and day-drinking and what-not – I was invited to lunch with the dry-humored Jérôme Keller, Technical Director/Oenologist for Alsace stalwart produce Lucien Albrecht. Now, it hasn’t been all that long (especially by my warped standards) since I devoted quite a bit of the virtual page space here on 1WD to Alsace, but when you’re a wine-geek-turned-critic-type you don’t turn down an opportunity to a) get reacquainted with one of the first three Alsatian firms to have helped launched the Crémant d’Alsace AOC (which, like me, dates back to the early 1970s), which now comprises about 70% of their total production; and b) eat at Phlly’s Oyster House restaurant.
So, yeah, I did those. And while it’s taken me a few months to get around to writing it up, if you consider that we’re talking about a producer whose Alsatian roots can be traced back to 1698 (when Balthazar Albrecht settled in Orschwihr) and whose winemaking roots date back to 1425 (when the impossibly-impressively-named Romanus Albrecht started the winery), then I think I can be forgiven for some tardiness, especially from that timeline perspective.
Anyway, Keller has done some work in the USofA, having participated in harvest at Sonoma Cutrer, so he understands (or at least is adept at faking to understand) what passes for American humor, so we got along swimmingly, popping shellfish and tasting through some of the more recent Albrecht wares (and yes, the food/wine match went as lovably, gluttonously well as you’d expect)…
Almost no one has been doing Cremant in Alsace as long as Lucien Albrecht, and that long-standing experience is evident in this lovely, 100% full-bunch-pressed Pinot Noir bubbly, which spends about 14 months in the bottle. “Our style,” noted Keller, “is to have bright red fruits.” Mission accomplished; you get lots of red berries here, an admirably rich palate, and a finish that’s longer than you’re paying for at this price point.
A new release, meant to showcase the “linerality” of their Chardonnay, according to Keller. Barrel aged and fermented, with malo and lees action for three years in the bottle, this sparkler is made form grapes that are selected from primarily limestone-soil vineyards. The result is intensely floral and toasty on the nose, and yeasty, peachy, perky,and textural in the mouth. It’s the kind of bubbly that makes it very, very difficult to not drink half the bottle embarrassingly quickly.
Albrecht wisely (ha-ha!) grow their PB in a warmer area of their Alsatian vineyards, and add a bit Auxerrois to the final blend; what you end up with are the tropical and melon aromas you’d expect, a pleasantly plump and sexy mouthfeel, and an underpinning of astringency and lift. Think white fish recipes for dinner.
Melons, stone fruits, citrus pith, astringent “bite,” great acidity, and a touch of mesquite honey… I kind of fell in love with this PG, which will wistfully make you lament as to why so many domestic US PGs taste like flat melon soda compared to stuff like this. Bear in mind that the Roman could use a couple more years of rest, to help all of that complexity meld with its ripe fruits flavors.
Damn… this is good. The Pfingstberg Grand Cru vineyard has been renowned since at least 1299; ranging in elevation from 270 to 370 meters, the soils are chalk and micaceous sandstone (depending on the aspect). The key thing to remember about Pfingstberg, in this author’s experience, is florals: a plethora of perfumed blossom aromas await, including lime, along with a host of other things for which Riesling is so (justifiably) lauded by nerds like me (saline, mineral, stone fruits, pith, toast, pear, spices…). The finish is long, salty, and flinty, and even breaking thirty clams (ha-ha!) this GC is kind of a bargain.
Keller describes the southern-facing vineyards that source this Reserve wine as allowing for “aromatic ripeness” from which the resulting fresh-bouquet-of-roses floral characters derive. That, and almost maddening levels of winemaking patience (“we press, we wait; we press again, we wait…”). Like trying to avoid hyphenated phrases in this article, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more tried-and-true example of Alsatian Gewürztraminer; rose petal, lychee, toast, all moving to mineral, silkiness, and tell-tale mixture of pleasing astringency, structure, and a juuuust enough lift. The whole experience is harmonious, too, right through to the (not short) finish.
Recently, I was invited for a media-lunch-tasting-type-thingy in Philly with the affably hippie-ish-appearing Greg Morthole, who has been making wines for the Davis Bynum label since 2010. Davis Bynum wa purchased by Rodney Strong in 2007, and before that was a bit of a Sonoma-area legend, based on its eponymous founder.
That Davis Bynum (who passed away in 2017) is literally the daddy of Russian River Valley single-vineyard Pinot Noir, having harvested the first ever such varietal wine in 1973. Bynum got his start as a home winemaker in the 1950s, went pro in the 1960s, and at times had vineyard land in Napa and handshake grape deals with the Rochioli clan. And those last two sentences are a gross oversimplification of why Bynum’s name is well-regarded in the vinous world; I mean, this is also the former San Francisco Chronicle reporter who famously bought a box of grapes from Robert Mondavi for less than $2, once employed the about-as-legendary winemaker Gary Farrell, and used to haul grapes to his Albany winery in a 1946 Studebaker flatbed.
Morthole speaks fondly of Bynum, and if he’s suffering from any pressure-related performance anxiety related to making wines under Bynum’s name, he doesn’t betray an iota of it in his laid-back, California dude demeanor. Here’s what we tasted together over bites of Zama Sushi in Philly (and, yeah, Pinot works with sushi, depending on how earthy a cut you order, and how reserved your application of wasabi is…)…
“This is my favorite vintage [of the Sauvignon Blanc],” Morthole mentioned to me, “and I’m not just bullsh*tting you!” And there is definintely something special about this release, which hails from a mere five acres of sandy-clay loam soils, and sees twenty percent acacia and older oak barrel action. Sporting melon, lemongrass, spice, blossoms, and tropical fruit aromas/flavors, this holds its palate weight deftly; I mean, it’s curvy, but it’s also firm.
A change of label accompanied this vintage, along with a change in the oak regimen (less was used, as you’d probably already guessed mid-sentence). The result is a zesty Chardonnay that showcases lemon, blossom, and flint action along with its peaches-and-cream profile. “I like where this is at now,” Morthole mentioned, and I am inclined to agree with him.
Broad, toasty, tropical, and dead-sexy, this is alive and kicking. Ripe peaches, cream, crème brûlée… you know you’re in California, for sure, and in this case there’s balance along with the opulence and you don’t mind it even one little bit.
A vintage built for some aging, this Santa Rosa plain vineyard Pinot hails from low-vigor soils, and in the `16 incarnation has a tight, earthy, spicy, and dark-fruited profile. It’s big, it’s structured, but it’s also floral, with lovely herbal overtones and great balance between its riper and tarter berry and plum fruit flavors. And yeah, it worked with raw tuna (like, big-time).
This is a richer, toastier vintage of the Jane’s, with ample spice and black tea leaf aromas. There are sexy black fruits, lithe red fruits, and lots of berry fruits in general. The finish is what really works well here; it’s long, toasty, and not taking No for an answer.
This is the kind of wine that should dispel doubts about whether or not the Bynum wine legacy is in good hands. Aromas of wood, tea, and pepper spices mingle with big, juicy, red and black berry fruits. As long and toasty of a finish as we’ve come to expect, and basically just kick ass the entire time during the drinking experience.
2015 Davis Bynum Pommard Clone Jane’s Vineyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley, $55)
A new venture for the Davis Bynum label (hey, you heard it here first, kiddos!), from Huichica soils that, along with the clone and rootstock choices, provide some water stress to the Pinot vines from whence this wine came. It’s big, earthy, toasty, spicy, and dark; bring your penchant for black tea, citrus peel, and plummy fruits. Underneath it all, there’s tannic and acidic structure that provides both scaffolding and liveliness. 17% new oak, 14.49% abv, and basically 99% Kick-Ass.