Try this Wine: 2015 Hess Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon

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The 2015 Hess Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon is riding a strong commercial tailwind. It’s cabernet sauvignon, which is second in popularity only to chardonnay in America, and it’s from California, which dominates America’s wine production, store shelves (commercial demand) and exports. If one’s focus was on making wine that would sell easily and in large numbers, they’d make cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in California.

If there’s a headwind against this wine, it’s that at a suggested retail of $19 it is too expensive for the mainstream (though I wouldn’t be surprised to find it for $12-15 in many grocery stores nation-wide). Even at $12, it’s outside the 78% of total domestic wine sales that come in under $10 per bottle. However, the tide is turning. In 2017, purchases of bottles priced $15-19.99 saw double-digit growth. Things were never down for the Hess Select cabernet sauvignon, but they are nonetheless looking up.

With so many Americans buying California cabernet sauvignon, this instance of Try this Wine aims to be a twofer. First, for those who regularly buy grocery store cabernet sauvignon, I’m hopefully drawing attention to a particular wine that over delivers. And second, for those who normally eschew under $20 cabernet sauvignon, I’m hopefully drawing attention to a wine that demonstrates real quality can be had for a lower-than-expected price that is also available in serious wine stores.

I visited Hess last December during an epic five days in Napa, not knowing much about the producer and walking in with a critically wrong assumption about them. Here’s a line from the post that I wrote about Hess:

“I had sort of assumed that because of its size, its quality and personality were going to be, um, uninspiring. After trying the samples, I knew the only ass in that assumption was me.”

Hess was awesome. A medium-sized producer, which by California standards is pretty large, they poured me nearly their entire range, beginning with several Select wines. The Select series is the winery’s entry point, and accounts for 65% of total Hess production, making it the company’s financial backbone. The series begins with the $12.99 Select chardonnay, and tops out around the $20 mark. We slowly climbed the ladder until reaching the top: the $185 Lion cabernet sauvignon. There wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch, and I found several to be inspiring. More than anything, though, I was impressed with the Select chardonnay because I was shocked that anyone could make a chardonnay of that quality that could retail for $12.99 – I’ve had many $25-30 chardonnays that are on all accounts no better than the Select.

I vividly remember asking Hess’ winemaker how they made such a good thirteen dollar wine and learning that they have vineyards dedicated to the Select line that get the same attention as their more prestigious vineyards, and an assistant winemaker who focuses on the Select line, giving it as much attention as the head winemaker does for the more expensive wines. Since then, I’ve included the chardonnay in several tastings I’ve led and talked it up on many occasions.

This is why it was fun to revisit the Select line with this cabernet sauvignon, which I received as a sample. They produce 175,000 cases of the Select cabernet, which represents 35% of the total Select series production. That’s serious quantity, so achieving equally serious quality is no small order, and rare at this scale. This alone is reason enough to try this wine.

Tasting note: This fresh, ripe nose gives off aromas of cherry and blackberry compote, toasted oak, potting soil, graphite minerality and blood orange zest. The body is very polished and lush, balanced nicely by good acidity that keeps it from becoming cloying or heavy. Flavors are focused the dark and juicy cherry and boysenberry, though tobacco, wet dirt and lavender peak through. 88 points. Value: A.

Where to buy:

This is a widely distributed wine – available in all fifty states and twenty-three countries outside America – and is available at serious wine stores, grocery stores and online retailers, including wine.com. Below are a few places where it is available. As always, you can head over to wine-searcher.com and input your zip code and a radius to find nearby stores.

Chicago area: Sal’s Beverage World with locations in Addison, Elmhurst and Villa Park.

Denver: Argonaut Wine & Liquor, 760 E. Colfax Ave, Denver CO 80203. 303-831-7788.

Florida: Crown Wine & Spirits, nine locations on the Pacific Coast.

Los Angeles: Wally’s Wine & Spirits, three locations.

Memphis: Buster’s Liquors, 191 South Highland, Memphis TN 38111. 901-458-0929.

New York: Garnet Wines & Liquors, 929 Lexington Ave, New York NY 10065. 212-772-3211.

Try this Wine: Hacienda Lopez de Haro Reserva 2013

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Bodega Classico Hacienda Lopez de Haro. Credit: Tadeja Kuzma via winedering.com.

Rioja is always three things in my book: remarkable value, better with age, and not for everyone. To be clear: it’s a lot more than that, or at least it can be. Rioja can be super complex. A traditional Rioja is generally leathery, savory, red fruited and retrained, while a new-style Rioja is generally sweetly dark fruited, baking spiced, plush and bold. Regardless of its style, though, it is remarkably priced for its quality, better with at least some age, and divisive among its audience.

As the world’s general palate has shifted towards preferring bigger wine, traditional Rioja is being produced less and less. Therefore, by default more people are experiencing it less and less. This is especially true for those Americans who haven’t had the chance to explore the region’s styles – most Rioja available on US store shelves is of the new world variety because it has wider appeal to the general American palate. Unless one seeks out the traditional style they are increasingly unlikely to stumble upon it accidentally. I would imagine that most people would like at least one or two Riojas; it just depends on the style and producer. (If you want to read more on the subject of Rioja styles, check out the Good Vitis post on The Wines of CVNE).

2013 Hecienda Lopez de Haro Reserva

We suggest trying a traditional Rioja if you haven’t (or think you haven’t) had one. One of the better values is Bodega Classica Hacienda Lopez de Haro. For a suggested retail price of $15.99, you can now get their 2013 Reserva. It’s a lot of wine for the price. It gets macerated for two weeks, spends twenty months in French and American oak barrels, and gets racked every few months while in oak. The vineyards that provide the tempranillo and graciano that go into the wine are in the heart of Rioja, enjoying expansive views of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains and Ebro river from a terraced spot.

The 2013 vintage, of which this bottle is a member, wasn’t stellar in Rioja, unfortunately. An unusually wet Spring delayed budding and led to unequal maturation of the grapes. A mild summer followed by good weather in September and October helped wineries salvage the harvest, though the spring damage couldn’t be entirely undone in the winery.

The difficult vintage is evident, though the Lopez de Haro crew have done well to produce an enjoyable wine worth trying. I suggest giving it at least an hour decant, if not two or three.

Tasting note: Dark, hedonistic nose of cherry, sweet tobacco, graphite and blackberry. Medium-bodied with saturating polished tannin and bright acidity that leans the wine out in the finish, it has a slight alcoholic kick that extended air resolves. The fruit is a bit tart initially, coming in the form of red cherry, cranberry and plum. Cigarette tobacco and tar lead into pepper on the back end. This will improve with a few years in the cellar. 88 points, value A.

Where to Buy

For those in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area, like Good Vitis, you can find the 2013 vintage at Calvert Woodley, 4339 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008. Phone: 202-966-4400.

If you’re in or visiting Central New York, you can find it at the Saratoga Wine Exchange, 43 Round Lake Road Ste. 3, Ballston Lake, NY 12019. Phone: 518-899-9463.

It’s also available at Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, which has five locations in New Jersey (Wayne, Madison, Bernardsville, Hillsborough and Closter).

For more locations and vintages, visit this wine-searcher.com link.

A Viniculturalist’s Journey through Toro

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Trying to figure what vintae, a Spanish wine company, was by looking at their website was a bit challenging. They make wine in fifteen different Spanish regions and several in Chile, but it was hard to put a finger on the company as the website puts all its energy into being so on-trend that there’s little helpful information for the curious wine geek. Videos of attractive people pouring wine on their faces while frolicking through vineyards doesn’t exactly scream “real wine” or help me understand the winemaking process.

With a little more time spent investigating, I was able to figure out that vintae has a different brand for each region in which it produces, and that some have their own websites that provide specific information. One of them – Hacienda de Lopez de Haro in Rioja – will be featured later on Good Vitis, and is, to be fair, a serious wine. Today’s wines, which fall under the Matsu label (“wait” in Japanese), come from Spain’s Toro region and pay “homage to all the vinticulturalists that have been working in the vineyards for generations and devoted their effort, knowledge, respect and sacrifice.”

Much like the country itself, Spain’s wine industry is full of variety and unique personalities. This makes it a fascinating wine store section to visit. Toro is one of the secondary regions in terms of Spain’s international reputation, but the wines can be as interesting, rewarding and serious as any other bottle of Spanish wine, especially with age. Along with better-known regions like Rioja and Ribera del Duero, Toro is tempranillo country. Probably the most discernible difference with Toro tempranillo is the power it packs. Adjectives like “dense” and “hedonistic” are often used to describe the wines that come from Toro’s hot, arid climate and rocky soils. Toro isn’t wine for the faint of heart.

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The small region of Toro is located between Portugal and the region of Rueda.         Picture credit: winegeography.com

To vintae’s credit, they have executed well this homage to a viniculturalist’s life through a series of three wines, each featuring on their label the face of a viticulturalist at a different stage in their life (young, middle-aged and elder), that reflect the wine inside the bottles. Collectively, they are supposed to take the drinker through the life of a wine professional. Tasting these blind, I was able to accurately line each glass up with its corresponding bottle. All made from 100% tinta de toro (the name of the clone of tempranillo grown in Toro), the young tasted simple and lively, the middle age more mature in stature and depth, and the elder the most substantive (and closed due to its youth, which does undermine the age progression).

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The young wine, El Picaro (2016), still comes from old vines, ranging from 50 to 70 years in age. It is fermented using native yeast, aged (on average for 3 months) in concrete and bottled unfiltered (though I suspect it goes through some clarification). It’s forward and unrepentantly primary and youthful. The nose wafts mountain strawberry, raspberry, cranberry, white pepper and leather. The body is medium weight, the most spry of the three. Tannins are integrated and minimal, though the wine isn’t flabby. Main flavors are raspberry, strawberry and cherry. Leather and thyme play in the background. As the name, which translates to “precocious,” might suggest, this is the easiest drinking of the three, and a great value with a retail of $13.99. 88 points, value A.

The middle-aged wine is called El Recio (2015), and I believe is the best of the bunch as it seems the most complete and harmonious. Quite a ripe nose, it boasts raspberry, cherry, boysenberry, dry soil and black peeper with a slight acetone kick. It’s medium-bodied with bright acidity and chewy, basic tannin. Just a touch bitter on the palate initially, it hits with dark blackberry, boysenberry, bitter cocoa and cigar tobacco and eventually swaps bitterness for a savory kick. Though it starts a bit thin and hollow on the mid palate, it broadens substantially with an hour decant and starts to resemble its name (meaning strong and resilient). It is a good value at $21.99 and also a nice representation of the variety. 89 points, value A.

The elder is named El Viejo (2015), and was very confusing for me. I tasted and scored it before looking at the price, and was mightily disappointed when I finally did. I found this to be the least enjoyable of the three, and was startled to find it retails for $46.99. It was made all the more frustrating by the fact that for a wine whose name implies that has made a life’s journey (“viejo” is often use to fondly describe an elderly father), it isn’t an older wine itself as it clearly needs several years of aging, if not five or ten, if it’s to come into its own as we would expect the gentlemen on the label to already be himself. It is a more substantive wine on the nose and palate than the others, but ultimately it leaves you wanting it to be better than it is as the substance isn’t met with depth, complexity or personality. Aromas hit on blackberry, boysenberry, graphite and black pepper. The tannins are lush, though retain levity and texture. Acid is bright, but not too sharp. The flavors offer a profile that ought to appeal more, but are reserved to a surprising level: charcoal, blackberry, boysenberry, raspberry, tobacco leaf and green pepper. This should be better than it is, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s five years away from starting to get good. 87 points, value F.

Toro is a region that can be rewarding to explore, and these three wines do provide three different examples of what the area produces. None, though, capture my favorite Toro profile, which is a core of brambly fruit marinated in balsamic, dense minerality and licorice spice that you find, for example, in Elias Moro’s Gran bottling. That said, while El Picaro gets the job done at its price point, I do think El Recio is a nice expression of the region that is worth a try, though not an exhaustive search, in part because it shows well without extended bottle age. Salúd!

Try this Wine: 2015 Smith-Madrone Riesling

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Note: This is the inaugural edition of Try this Wine, a series we hope to make regular on the website. You can’t know more than you taste, and knowledge is what builds a palate, so exploration is key to developing an appreciation for wine. Each edition will spotlight a wine that we believe has, whether we happen to like it or not, a compelling reason or two for people to try. Some of the wines will be harder to find and/or more expensive than others, but the one theme that will be constant is our belief that the wines we feature will improve your appreciation for wine. At the bottom of each Try this Wine post, you’ll find a list of places to purchase the wine.

Most wine drinkers aren’t going to like the Smith-Madrone riesling because they don’t like riesling, or so they think. “It’s too sweet” is the variety’s reputation, and the industry hasn’t done much to help itself in this regard. People see the grape and think ‘sweet’ and there’s nothing, except the occasional demi-sec or sec label (which doesn’t mean anything to most people anyways) to clue them in to the reality. Smith-Madrone’s 2015 riesling carries 0.68% residual sugar, which is for all intents and purposes a dry wine. But you wouldn’t know it from the label.

The other thing you wouldn’t know from the label, unless you knew the winery’s reputation already, is how good it is. The rieslings with the most widespread and greatest reputations aren’t grown in the United States, but I’d put money on a few domestics to place well in a Judgment of Paris styled event in Alsace or Wachau. Good Vitis hosted a blind tasting of thirty-two American rieslings with a couple of esteemed wine professionals about a year ago. All of us were more impressed than we expected with the overall quality, and super impressed with a handful of them, including Smith-Madrone. Stu Smith, a General Partner and winemaker at Smith-Madrone, dropped in and tasted with us, nervously hoping his wine would show well. It did.

There are a couple of things that combine to make riesling a special grape like no other. The versatility of the grape is, I would argue, without peers. It can be grown in so many different soils and climates, it’s remarkable. It also picks up terrior as well as any grape, and better than most. Multiply its ability to grow in so many different places by its ability to represent each unique location and you end up with a massive range of differences. With its racy acid, focus and complexity, riesling is also an incredibly versatile and nimble partner of food. On top of that, it ages gracefully and for decades (when grown and made to do so). In the collateral sent with the Smith-Madrone sample, Stu writes that “we think this will have a lifespan of 20-30 years” and there’s no doubt that he is right. The best-made riesling in Germany and Austria is known to gain complexity over decades and decades. Stu’s been making riesling long enough to know, when he says his will go twenty to thirty years, that it will do so while improving.

When you have a really good riesling, it’s impossible to objectively say there is better wine in the world. The kicker is, the best riesling is outrageously cheap by the standard of any other variety that can come close to riesling’s quality. You have to search far and wide to find a riesling that will cost you, off the shelf, over $100, or even $50. For a third of that ($32), you can get the 2015 Smith-Madrone, and it just might be the best $32 white wine you’ll find, and a wine that’s far better than many other varieties costing significantly more.

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Some of Smith-Madrone’s vineyards. Picture credit: Pull That Cork.

They ferment it in stainless, and keep it there through clarification, aging and filtration. It’s 100% riesling that is kept from going through malolactic fermentation and gets no lees stirring. This is all to say, it’s really well-grown estate riesling from a really great mountain site that showcases terrior and talent. Stu boasts of “a proud history with this varietal, from our very first vintage. That 1977 vintage won the Riesling Competition of the 1979 Wine Olympics, a tasting organized in Paris by the food and wine guide Gault & Millau.” Bring on The Germans and Austrians.

Tasting note: What a wonderful nose with elevated florals, dried apricot, tangerine, wet stones, chalk, margarita salt and white peach. Medium in weight, the acid is racy with a lush texture. The ripe flavors hit on tangerine, yellow peach, lime, rhubarb and tobiko. The finish goes for ages. Another brilliant vintage of this stuff, the 2015 should have a brilliant fifteen to twenty year lifespan, at least. 92 points, value A.

Where to Buy

The 2015 is still finding its way to shelves around the country. Smith-Madrone sells a lot of direct-to-consumer, and you can purchase this wine from them now. As this vintage gets distributed (there is often a lag time between winery release and completion of the distribution process), it should be available around the country in discerning wine stores. Right now, wine-searcher.com is listing only one store:

Truly Fine Wine, 4060 Morena Blvd., Ste K, San Diego, CA 92117. Phone: (858) 270-9463.

Direct from the producer: Smith-Madrone, 4022 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA 94574. Phone: 707.963.2283. (You can also call them to inquire about where you might find it locally).

You can find other locations for other vintages here.

Oregon Wine Month Extravaganza

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Willamette Valley is my favorite American wine region to visit. It has a near-optimal balance of beauty, tranquility, quality wine, quality people and proximity to a decently-sized airport. Though not mountainous in the snow-capped sense, it is an obvious valley with beautiful slopes, rolling hills and a discernible floor. Though remote in feel, its northern tip is barely an hour from Portland. Though dominated by world class pinot noir and chardonnay, it offers fantastic examples of other varieties as well, notably gamay, syrah, pinot gris and riesling in my book. Though world class in quality and price and winery aesthetics, its wine professionals are accessible and friendly and the pretense low. The Willamette Valley is what comes to mind when I think of a trip to wine country.

For those who cannot make it in-person, May was Oregon Wine Month (or so says the industry) and an excuse to delve into the State’s wines. I’m lucky enough to be planning a trip to Willamette in late July, but that didn’t mean I was about to let May slip by without spending serious time with Oregon wine. Jackson Family Wines (I’ll refer to them as “KJ” for Kendall-Jackson, their main label) was kind enough to send me an array of wines from their Oregon portfolio, and I divvied them up into sets of three to explore over five evenings at the end of the month. I posted comments and partial reviews on our Instagram and Facebook accounts, and promised this full write-up in June. Here we are, barely over deadline.

Some words on KJ before I talk about Oregon. I think the content on this blog demonstrates that a large majority of my focus is on the little guy. This isn’t so much a conscious decision I make, something born out of a David and Goliath complex or a distaste for corporations, but rather one driven by the reality that smaller producers tend to push the limits and experiment in interesting ways that catch my attention while producing wines that are, on balance, more engaging and satisfying than the big guys. Yet this is my second piece that heavily features KJ wineries, and in this case it has an exclusive focus on them. So what gives?

I was introduced to KJ corporate through a winemaker dinner I attended in Washington, DC featuring Shane Moore, winemaker at Oregon’s Zena Crown and Gran Moraine wineries, both of which are KJ properties. I wrote a piece on that wine dinner making the case for attending winemaker dinners, and have included Shane in several additional Good Vitis pieces, including a solo profile, because I respect the guy so damn much as a winemaking talent and all-around good dude. This led to a relationship with several people at KJ headquarters, which led to help organizing an incredible Napa trip in December of last year and the upcoming Willamette trip this summer. Through my interactions with KJ corporate people and the wineries they own, I came to appreciate just how much Barbara Banke, the chairman and proprietor of KJ, and her staff respect the soul of the wineries they purchase and don’t impinge, as far as I can tell, much on the wineries. Instead, KJ spends time and money on promoting the wines and authentic stories of the wineries and personalities that originally put them on KJ’s radar while providing the resources to foster growth and quality improvement. I’m sure it’s not all sunshine and puppies, and I certainly don’t want to project a sense that I know more than I do, but I enjoy many of the wineries they own on the merits of the wine and approach taken to make them.

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Source: Oregon Wine Press

Oregon has more than one wine region, though I imagine Willamette is the best known. Oregon boasts eighteen American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), which are spread among three main areas. One runs the length of the Interstate 5 corridor (generously conceived for this purpose) between the Washington and California borders,  another comprises a good chunk of the northern border with Washington along the Columbia River, and the other along the state’s Eastern border. This geography covers a number of different terroirs. My favorite Oregon syrah is made by Cowhorn, which is located about 15 miles north of the California border, while my favorite pinot producer, Cameron, is a six hour drive to the north. Some of the most famed syrah produced by Washington wineries is, in fact, grown just south of the Washington-Oregon border in Northeastern Oregon. The Columbia Gorge, which runs East-West across the top of the State, is a growing wine region with a burgeoning reputation on both sides of the border. The wines covered in this piece, though all come from Willamette Valley, represent the Yamhill-Carlton and Eola-Amity AVAs as well as a few that are blends from across the Valley.

Yamhill-Carlton was established as an AVA in 2004. It’s about 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, and gets some weather buffering from the Coast Range Mountains, which top out at 3,500 feet above sea level, that stand between it and the ocean. To the north, Chehalem Mountain adds some additional protection, as do the Dundee Hills to the east. The soils are mainly marine sedimentary that lies on top of sandstone and siltstone, a combination that tends to moderate acid development.

Eola-Amity came online as an AVA two years after Yamhil-Carlton. It’s home to Oregon’s longest continuously operating winery, Honeywood Winery, and is located to the south and east of Yamhill-Carlton. Though more inland, it still receives good air flow through a break in the Coastal Range called the Van Duzer Corridor. This keeps the summers and winters temperate, and luckily for producers the rain tends to fall mostly outside the growing season. The soils are a mix of volcanic basalt, marine sendimentary and alluvial deposits, a combination leading to shallow and well-drained soils that help build concentration.

For the first night of this Oregon Wine Month project, I chose Yamhill-Carlton designates from Siduri and Gran Moraine and a Willamette Valley blend from Penner-Ash. Regarding the first two, it’s always fun to see how producers in the same area compare to each other, and in these two I got the contrast I wanted.

Siduri is a California winery focused on pinot noir started by Adam Lee, who also makes the wine. Adam recently sold Siduri to KJ, but agreed to stay on as winemaker. I was fortunate enough to enjoy an incredible evening of wine and discussion with Adam when he visited my area earlier this year, and so was excited to try his Oregon pinot. We exchanged some emails subsequently, and I asked him how he made Oregon wine living in California. It’s an interesting explanation, so I’m going to quote him:

“I’ve been making wine from Oregon grapes since 1995 (the second year of Siduri). We made our first wine, in 1994, at Lambert Bridge Winery where we worked in the tasting room. The GM at Lambert Bridge owned some land in Oregon that he had planted with pinot noir and was impressed enough with what we did in 1994 to sell us grapes in 1995. That’s how we got into Oregon. Since that 1995 vintage we always shipped grapes back to California using a refrigerated truck. The shipping itself is pretty easy, and if the truck is set right around freezing the grapes arrive in fantastic shape. Beginning with the 2015 vintage, the sale to Jackson Family Wines, and the larger quantity of wine we were making, we started making more of the wine up in Oregon. So we trucked some of the stuff down but made more of it up in Oregon. I’d fly up every week on Monday, back on Wednesday. Ryan Zepaltas, our assistant winemaker, flew up on Wednesday and back on Friday. So we basically spent the entire week up there.”

I also asked Adam how he might make his Oregon wines differently than he does his Californian bottles. “There are many years where we do have to do things differently with Oregon fruit than California fruit….but in the last few vintages (2014-2016) there were more similarities in the grapes than in other vintages. Thus there wasn’t nearly as much to do differently,” he told me. “One thing we do always is take a look at malic percentages. Oregon can come in with higher malic levels – so although the grapes come in with great acidity, a lot of it falls out through malolactic fermentation. That really wasn’t an issue in 2015.  In fact, 2015 was just about as ideal of a harvest as you could imagine. Arguably the best year we’ve ever had in Oregon.”

The Siduri and Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carltons, like most of the wines in this article, come from the 2015 vintage. I asked Shane Moore, Gran Moraine’s winemaker, about the vintage, and he threw a serious of adjectives at me: “Expressive. Super heady. Great acidity. Transparency.” Capped off with “Pinot lovers rejoice!”

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Siduri’s Yamhill-Carlton is a blend of Gran Moraine Vineyard and the vineyard at Gran Moraine Winery (yes, these are two distinctly different vineyards). Adam explained that “the vineyard at the winery is entirely dry farmed and, even early in the growing season, I knew it was going to be the first grapes picked. You could tell by looking at the early yellowing leaves. That fruit did, indeed, arrive early. We destemmed it all. We let the fruit at the Gran Moraine hang longer (with careful irrigation), which allowed us to get riper stems and utilize more whole clusters in those ferments.”

I found the nose of the Siduri to be deep and hedonistic, offering sweet cherry, cola, ink, cassis, kirsch and rose. It’s full bodied with smooth and plush tannin and bright acidity, everything appearing in good balance that I think will improve even more with time. Flavors are tarter than the nose, delivering cherry, cranberry, huckleberry, wet pavement, pastel florals and a small dose of wet soil. 91 pts, value B+.

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The Gran Moraine, in my experience with this and previous vintages, delivers incredible value for pinot noir. The slightly restrained nose wafts boysenberry, dark earth, olive brine, lightly tanned leather and orange zest. Boarding on full bodied, it has velvety tannins and shiny acid that’s well integrated. The substantial depth of this one demands a good decant, and benefits from keeping it in your mouth for an extended period of time to experience its development. I think this has good medium-term aging potential. Flavors hit on pomegranate, acai, plum, black olive, currant, wet soil and juniper berry. 92 pts, value A-.

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The Penner-Ash Willamette Valley pinot noir is distributed nationally and shows up on a lot of restaurant wine lists around the country. It serves as Penner-Ash’s entry point pinot, and is one that tries to strike a widely appealing profile. I’ve had a number of vintages and it tends to show very little variation from year-to-year, making its consistency an appealing asset for consumers who like knowing what they’re getting each time. Nevertheless, it usually offers good depth for the price, and is one that I always wish I could have a few years of bottle age.

The 2015 has a saturated nose of plummy cherry, Dr. Pepper, graphite and lavender. It’s rocking a full body that enters thick. The tannin is restrained but mouth-filling and slightly grainy, and the acid strikes a good level. Flavors are a briar patch of blackberry, raspberry and boysenberry complimented nicely by baking spice and just a touch of saline. While it’s nice now, I’d love to try this one again in 2020 and expect it to do well for a few additional years. 91 points, value: B+.

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On night number two, I took a similar but more narrow approach in choosing two wines that come from the same vineyard, but then added a white into the mix. The latter, a pinot gris, was my first introduction to WillaZenzie Estate, a winery that quickly became a revelation. All of WillaKenzie’s wines come from their own vineyards, and many of their wines are vineyard-designates. I’ll get to a number of their pinots later, but the 2017 pinot gris has a voluminously perfumed nose of grapefruit, peach, gravel, slate lime zest and marzipan. Lean on entry, it gains body as it sits in the mouth. The acid is nicely balanced, neither subdued nor overbearing. Key Lime pie, starfruit and grapefruit dominate the fruit profile, though the stony minerality really drives the length of this linear, focused wine. Impressive effort. 90 points, Value A.

The two reds hark from the famed Zena Crown vineyard. I asked Shane what makes the vineyard so special. “It’s all about the terroir! Fantastic soils (both volcanic and sedimentary); Great SW facing aspects; cold evening wind at night during the summer; in the sweet spot for Oregon viticulture in terms of elevation at 200-800ft,” he said.

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The first of the two reds was the 2015 Hartford Family Winery Warrior Princess Block Zena Crown Vineyard pinot noir, which has a deep, serious nose boasting aromas of briar berry compote, dark dusty cocoa, graphite, lavender, tar and candied red apple. It’s nimble on the palate, exhibiting youthful finesse. The gorgeous tannins provide a sturdy frame, but don’t overpower while the acid is spot-on. Though I wouldn’t call the structure elegant, it has skillfully found a balance between power and finesse that’s intriguing. In the flavor department you get black and boysenberry, very dark chocolate, rose petals, lavender, Herbs de Provence, and wet soil. Though it’s good now, it will be better in five years. 92 points, value: C.

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The 2015 Zena Crown Slope has a youthful nose that is still growing into itself, though it promises to be a thing of beauty. Detecting ripe cherry, raspberry, plum and multiple florals. The texture on this one is stunning; talk about velvety tannins, there’s no end to them or their silkiness. The acid is on-point as well. Simply stunning. The flavors will require a bit more time to match the texture, but they don’t disappoint at this stage with sweet plum sauce, dark cherries, chocolate mousse, graphite, cinnamon, nutmeg and just a hint of green onion spice. Not for the faint of heart, and worthy of ten years in the cellar. 94 points, value B.

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Shout out to Zena Crown for the short foil. I’ve long wished wineries eschewed them altogether so customers could see the condition of the cork.

On the third night, I randomly selected three wines: two pinots and a chardonnay. Some Burgundian producers prefer to serve these varieties in what might otherwise be reverse order: red first, then white. Because pinot isn’t a heavy or cloying red, it can be followed by a white that brings sharper acidity and good body. I’ve always preferred this method and followed it again this time to great success.

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The 2015 Willakenzie Pierre Leon was the revelation of this entire Oregon Wine Month line up for me. It offers a very ripe and pretty nose wafting raspberry, cut cherry, perfumed rose and tangerine peel. It’d medium in weight with very juicy acidity, I just love how it coats the mouth. The tannins are subtle, but the wine is no wimp. The flavor profile is also ripe and pretty with raspberry, cherry, potpourri, tangerine, light tobacco, white pepper and Chervil. This is an elegant wine in structure, aroma and flavor. It reminds me of Musigny. I’d love to have it with another 5-8 years of age. 94 points, value A.

Next was the 2015 La Crema Willamette Valley pinot noir, which is another nationally distributed bottle that aims to find all sorts of middle ground and appeal to a wide audience. It has a fairly dark nose featuring cherry compote, raspberry chocolate cake and wet tar. The mouth is round and smooth, the acid bright and the tannins restrained. Flavors are fruit-forward with sweet cherry and strawberry, while subtle pepper and Herbs de Provence drive the finish. Not the most complex wine, but enjoyable. 89 points, value B+.

Finally came the white. The 2015 Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton chardonnay is benchmark Oregon chardonnay in my book and the twinkle in the Gran Moraine eye. Priced in the mid $40s, it’s not cheap, but routinely out performs many of the State’s more expensive chardonnays. This vintage is a stellar one. The nose gives off sweet oak, dried mango, honeysuckle, vanilla custard and a smidge of Earl Grey tea. It’s a plush medium weight on the palate with a bit of a glycerin sensation that I just love. The barrel influence is restrained but present in the structure and flavors as well as the nose, it’s managed just right for this profile. There’s oak vanillin, Meyer lemon, sweet cream, Thai basil, persimmon and dried apricot. 93 points, value A.

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Night number four introduced a rosé. I’m finding more and more that pinot has a pureness about it that other red varieties don’t deliver in rosé form. The 2017 WillaKenzie Estate Rosé delivers serious pureness on the nose, which I completely dug, though the palate seems a bit disjointed at this stage and may need a few months in bottle to merge. It has a nose of bright crushed strawberry, cantaloupe, crushed limestone and coriander. It’s on the fuller side of the rose spectrum, and quite lush. The acid is kicking. The fruit zeros in on strawberry, cranberry and salmon berry, while there are touches of nutmeg and parsley that seem out of place. 88 points, value C.

The 2015 Siduri Willamette Valley pinot noir seemed a little thin and hasn’t quite delineated itself yet on the palate to the point of flavors becoming individually discernible. It has, though, achieved an impressive balance that suggests it can fill out. I suspect it may just need a few more months in bottle to come together. The round, ripe nose is mostly about the strawberry, raspberry and cherry, though dark, wet soil adds some depth. It’s of medium weight on the palate, largely due to the juicy, bright acidity that brings levity. The tannins are quite refined, and the balance is impressive, though ultimately this feels a bit thin. The flavors are slightly muted at this stage. The fruit is a bit generically red, though there are some pretty florals – rose petals mostly – trying to peep through. I think three to six months in the bottle will bring this together, though longer aging is likely unnecessary. 88 points, and on the assumption that it will come together, it gets an A value.

The 2015 Penner-Ash Estate Vineyard pinot noir offers a boatload of potential for the patient. The nose boarders on hedonistic, and offers some killer aromas of iron, black strap molasses and bruised strawberry and blackberry, though it’s obvious that with some bottle age there will be more to come. The body is as full-throttled, and the tannin structure and acid suggest a minimum of 5-6 years is required for it to really come together, though I’d give it a decade to allow the full range of fruit and Earthy flavors to shine: Acai, pomegranate, raspberry, blackberry, tar, black tea and black pepper all duck and weave through a robust tannin structure and acid that will need to relax for this wine to show its best self. This will be an all-star if one can wait a solid decade. Penner-Ash’s Estate Vineyard has some cool stuff going on. 92 points, value A-.

For the fifth and final night I reserved all WillaKenzie pinots, though as it turns out, night three’s Pierre Leon was my favorite from the producer. Those four are all part of the estate’s single vineyard bottle program that draw from estate vineyards that are very close to each other, though each has its distinct personality and profile. For those unconvinced of terroir, pouring the Pierre Leon and these three blind, and then showing the vineyard map, ought to be enough to suspect the French were on to something.

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Of the three tasted together, the 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Aliette is the most delicate. It’s quite perfumed with a bouquet of Spring flowers and rose potpourri, cherry, strawberry, juniper, clove, and allspice on this high-toned nose. The palate is modest in weight, but round and smooth. Tannin is well integrated, while the acid is pleasantly juicy and slightly tart. The range of red fruit is impressive: strawberry, cranberry, huckleberry and raspberry, plus a not-so-minor role for plum. Tar, pepper and mulled spices feature on the back end. Pretty, but uninspiring at the moment, I suspect it will reach a higher elevation with three to five years of aging. 92 points, value A-.

The 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Kiana gives the impression of purple-ness. Its nose is reserved at the moment, though it offers promise with fruit punch aromas, uncured bacon and molasses. The tannin is fine grained and refined, the acid juicy and the overall weight modest. The flavors a bit more alive than the nose at this stage, with raspberry, boysenberry and pomegranate driving a profile supported by tobacco leaf and tar. Coming together nicely, I think it’ll continue to develop positively over the next five to ten years. 93 points, value: A.

While the 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Emery is a bit reticent on the nose at the moment, it delivers licorice, molasses, blackberry and pepper. The body is big and round, though the acid keeps it plucky and the tannins are integrated sufficiently to maintain the smooth profile. Slightly savory on the palate, it offers uncured bacon, red currant, red plum, Acai, black pepper and tarragon. This is a compelling package that I’d love to revisit in five plus years. 94 points, value A.

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I love Oregon wine. This line up of 15 bottles reaffirmed that. The quality is there. The terroir is there. The talent is there. It’s just a fantastic place to produce high quality pinot and chardonnay that has distinction from the world’s other pinots and chardonnays, as well as, as mentioned above, a number of other varieties (for fans of savory syrah, old school riesling, and refined pinot gris, Oregon has stones worth turning over). It has a soul, which is not something that every wine region can legitimately claim. I think this is in part because the world seems to have left the State relatively alone long enough for it to find its identity and strengths and settle in on its own terms. It’s probably insulting to say that its wine is ready for the world, since it has been for a while now, but commercially it has a lot of unrealized potential and I’d like to see more wine drinkers across the world take note. Oregon Wine Month 2019 is another eleven months away, but don’t sit on Oregon wine until then.

On Cork Report: Defining a New Region Near the North Carolina Border

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Rosemont of Virginia Winery

Note: this piece was originally published on The Cork Report on June 6th.

Rosemont of Virginia is located just four miles north of the State’s border with North Carolina, and that puts it well off any of the Commonwealth’s wine trails. While there are a few small wineries in the area, Rosemont is producing 6,000 cases annually, putting it squarely into the state’s mid-sized tier of producers. Because of its location, it may be one of the least well-known Virginia wineries of its size. Most of its foot traffic comes from tourists visiting Lake Gaston and Roanoke Rapids Lake (two joined reservoirs), which allows it to produce at such a volume.

If you haven’t heard of Rosemont, though, you’re not alone. When a trio of samples showed up I had to turn to the Internet to make myself aware of the producer. Read more on The Cork Report.

Arizona Continues its Evolution at Aridus

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Arizona’s wine scene remains a bit of a black hole for me. I’ve written about visits to AZ Stronghold and Fire Mountain, which began to clue me into the state’s potentially bright wine future, but beyond that and a few bottles of the state’s most famous winery, Caduceus, that had been it for me. When samples arrived from Aridus Wine Company, I was excited for the opportunity to try another producer.

In preparing to write this post, I wanted to see how much wine the state was producing, and it is paltry. In terms of bulk wine, Arizona produced less in 2017 than Arkansas. Florida produced five times more in the same year than did Arizona. Indiana nearly quintupled Arizona’s production. In total, the state produces 0.0000003% of the nation’s bulk wine. In terms of what goes into bottle, the percentage drops a bit to 0.00000026%. Though I don’t have numbers, I know a decent amount of the state’s wine comes from grapes sourced outside the state. Still, that Arizona has any national reputation for wine, and it does have a budding one, is staggering giving its contribution by volume.

Having had good wine from Arizona, when I spoke to Aridus’ winemaker, Lisa Strid, I asked her the same questions I’ve asked other winemakers from the state: is Arizona ready for the national stage, and what’s keeping it from mainstream conversation? She boiled it down to the state’s biggest limitation, water. Arizona has long had water issues, and it’s scarcity, especially where grapes grow best, limits volume and quality. Water availability hasn’t been an entirely solvable problem for the state in general, so marshaling more for the luxury that is wine production hasn’t been a winnable fight. Without sufficient water, they can only make so much wine. Full stop.

Working with what water they do have available, Aridus gets juice from its own vineyard and other sources both in and out of the state. Right now, only some of its whites are coming from estate fruit, while the reds haven’t come online yet, though Aridus is making a concerted effort to ramp up planting and production of more of its own vines. Their vineyard is in Pearce, located up against a stream-fed hillside where there is slightly less water pressure. The site is also at a higher elevation than the rest of the AVA, which helps to moderate the temperature a bit. All of this helps the site do a better job at retaining acid in the grapes, a constant challenge faced by Arizona wineries in achieving lower pH levels. As more of their estate fruit comes on-line, hopefully the wines will hit lower pH and achieve more brightness.

Aridus produces a wide range of wines, and the four I tried are best described as “big.” All of the reds get oak treatment, typically around 18 months in anywhere from 40% to 100% new oak, most of which is French. On the white side, they go for “a lot of expression of the grape – bold aromas and flavors.” They’re bold in structure, too.

Lisa is high on their Malvasia, which I tried along with the Rosé (of mourvedre), malbec and petit sirah. I was able to confirm that the house style described came through in the wines. The Malvasia was indeed expressive, and had an interesting texture that gave substance to its volume. The Rosé was a very nice full-bodied sipping wine, and one that I think is probably best had on its own due to its lower acid. Both the malbec and petit sirah are big bodied wines that show their extensive oak, which dominates at the moment. While alcohol levels on both are modest, I do wonder if the higher pH can facilitate better integration of oak and drive more expressiveness with age.

What I find most exciting and interesting about Aridus is the evolution it could take as more estate fruit is cultivated, which sounds like promising material from which to make wines of increasing quality. Lisa is working with a big variety of grapes, not all of them from Arizona, and so she’s having to deal with a plethora of evolving challenges and conditions. This is standard for experimental winemakers in emerging wine regions. Lisa recently returned from a harvest in Australia where she learned a few new tricks that she wants to try out at home. More vines will go into the ground at the Aridus vineyard. She’ll have another vintage under belt at the end of this year. Other Arizona winemakers will try and share new knowledge with each other. All of these are necessary to developing a wine region and house styles, and it’s fun to watch it happen.

2016 Aridus Malvasia Bianca: Ripe, tropics-drive nose of honey, melon-dew, cantaloupe and big pineapple. Rich vanilla curd swirls around the edges, while there’s just a wiff of green vegetalness. It’s medium weight on the palate. The acid is modest and well-integrated into a slightly sweet and round structure that has a bit of a grainy texture that’s diversifies things nicely. Flavors are bitter-sweet lemon, vanilla, Starfruit, green papaya, apricot, white flowers and dandelion flower. A pleasant sipper with an interesting texture. 88 points. Value C-

2016 Aridus Rosé (of mourvedre): Classic Mourved rose nose of crushed blackberry, cherry and bramble berry, pepper and a little vanilla. Towards the end of the full body rose spectrum, it’s round and lush and well-polished – a velvety mouth feel. The acid is light but enough to add needed mid-palate lift. The tannins get slightly grainy on the finish. Flavors are all sorts of crushed berries – red, blue and black – along with vanilla pudding, marzipan and a slight hit of saline. Downright lovely, it’s probably best on its own rather than with food. 88 points. Value: C-

2014 Aridus malbec: The reticent nose boasts a hedonistic compote of blackberry, blueberry and cherry that is lifted by heavy baking spices. This one is medium bodied with a bit of extraction, it wears its malolactic fermentation and oak influence on its sleeve: baking spice, oak vanillin and a buttery finish. Acid is modest. The fruit is modest cherry, red currant and Acai. With air it develops some very welcomed graphite minerality. Not quite sure what to make of this one, the oak influence is dominating at this point. It may have enough acid to survive some evolution, which hopefully would allow the oak to better integrate. 89 points. Value: B

2014 Aridus petit sirah: What an inky nose, it saps with wild berries, high-toned orange zest, cracked pepper and sea brine. Closer to full-bodied, the acid is bright and the tannins grainy and chewy, likely smoothed out a bit by the oak. The fruit is a bit darker on the palate, coming in the forms of blackberry, cherry, strawberry and blueberry. Oak baking spices are quite prevalent, while black tea, pepper and cocoa finish things off. As time goes this gets more savory. It develops mesquite and iodine. While this has under half new oak, it has a big impact. Not the truest to type, it is nonetheless well-done and enjoyable. 89 points. Value: B

Life and Wine Done Right

Koerner Rombauer

Readers of Good Vitis know that I’m a fan of Rombauer Vineyards in Napa Valley. I’ve written glowing things about the wine and the winemaker, yet I’ve not written about the man, the visionary, behind the business: Koerner Rombauer. I never had a chance to meet him prior to his death earlier this month at the age of 83, which comes as a great disappointment knowing what I know about him through the grapevine. The major publications have written stories about him in the last week, and I have nothing to add to those other than my appreciation for the winery he created, the way he enabled his talented staff to make great wine, and the philanthropic penchant that ran through his veins.

The most direct knowledge I have of Rombauer comes from his winemaker, Richie Allen. I’ve spoken with Richie a number of times over the last year, and several times he referred to his gratitude for the enormous support Rombauer gave Richie and his team to make better wine year after year. I tried to capture this support in a post from last summer called “Doing big things quietly: Rombauer delivers” in which I wrote that “I’ve come to understand that (nearly) no cost is too much to improve quality for the Rombauer family.” Richie is obsessed with improving quality in the vineyards and winery, and the zeal with which he offers evidence of that obsession, and the magnitude of evidence, are unmatched by any other winemaker I’ve met. It takes an owner of at least equal enthusiasm, and not a small amount of trust and vision, to enable Richie to do all that he’s done, and I got the feeling that more than a few times Rombauer said yes to a Richie hunch when other owners would’ve said no. We, the consumers, are the beneficiaries.

The other aspect of Rombauer that I’ve always admired is his philanthropy. It’s one thing to give to charity, and Americans do that in globally high numbers. But Koerner was a real philanthropist, not just giving to charity but starting his own as well. As someone who deals a good bit with philanthropy, the magnitude and breadth of Rombauer’s work is impressive. I joke with people that “you don’t get into winemaking to make money,” but some end up making a good amount, and Rombauer was one of them. Yet, to turn around and give a good chunk of it away, while relying on the low margin and inconsistent revenue source that is wine, is admirable. That he was able to give millions of dollars made in the wine production away suggests he was a very good businessman as well.

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Wine has a way of finding great people and then captivating them for the remainder of their life. We’ve lost one of those in Rombauer, and his passing was sad news for me. Thankfully, his spirit and passion live on through his winery. It’s that love of life that Kayce and I toast tonight with a bottle of Rombauer Proprietor Selection chardonnay, which has a special place in our relationship as a wine that early on paralleled the spirit and passion we share for each other and the life we’re making together.

From the Rombauer website:

KOERNER ROMBAUER, FOUNDER OF ROMBAUER VINEYARDS, PASSES AWAY AT 83

Napa Valley, California, May 17, 2018 —- Koerner Rombauer, the founder of Rombauer Vineyards and a beloved figure in the Napa Valley over the last four decades, died on May 10. He was 83.

Koerner is survived by his wife, Sandy, children Sheana Rombauer and K.R. Rombauer III, grandchildren Reagan, Drew, Seth, Lane, Ransome and sister Kay Thornton.

Koerner was born and raised in Escondido, California where he married Joan Ransome, his wife of 43 years. He served in the California Air National Guard as a pilot from 1956 to 1965, beginning his lifelong love of flying. Koerner and Joan had two children, Sheana and KR, who were born in Escondido and then later moved to Texas where Koerner began his commercial airline pilot career flying for Braniff International Airways in 1965.

The family relocated to the Napa Valley in 1972 where they settled in a hilltop property north of St. Helena on the Silverado Trail. In between his commitments with Braniff, Koerner began spending time learning about winemaking at Conn Creek Winery. In 1980 they founded Rombauer Vineyards. They harvested their first grapes—-Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stags Leap District—-in 1980 followed by their first vintage of Chardonnay in 1982. Joan died of pancreatic cancer after a three-year battle in 2002.

Rombauer wines, especially the Chardonnay, are beloved around the world. Such uncommon affection from the public grew partly out of Koerner’s outgoing personality, his contagious sense of pleasure for wine and gusto. Koerner was the kind of person you could recognize from a mile away. There would be no mistaking his optimistic and sunny personality, and the confidence and pride with which he wore his signature stars and stripes jacket. He was red, white and blue, through and through. From the time he first came to Napa as a commercial pilot, he would always share his personal love of life in everything he did. His habit of including everyone around him in his enjoyment carried through into a passion for the Napa Valley, and became one of the cornerstones of Rombauer Vineyards.

The connection with the legacy of his great-aunt, Irma Rombauer, and her American classic, The Joy of Cooking, often provided Koerner with an introduction to his customers and accounts. He explains that Joy, as the book is affectionately known around Rombauer Vineyards, helped him be perceived as someone with whom people were already familiar; he wasn’t a stranger, he was Irma’s grand-nephew. This emphasis on helping people feel at ease and like family is no small detail. It sums up the way he lived his life. The sense of graciousness and hospitality infused his decisions and his vision and became synonymous with the Rombauer Vineyards style—distinctive and inviting.

Koerner was known as an extremely generous philanthropist. Before Joan passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2002, they started the Rombauer Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund at University of California, San Francisco. The Rombauer Family has continued to be involved in fighting cancer and in 2010 established a $4 million endowment, the Joan Rombauer UCSF Endowed Fellowship. Other causes he supported included V Foundation for Cancer Research, Collabria Care (formerly known as Napa Valley Hospice and Adult Day Services), Napa Valley Land Trust and the St. Helena Montessori School.

Koerner’s community involvement has included serving on the boards of Napa Airport Advisory Board Committee and Tower Road Co-Op as well as being the 2011 Auction Napa Valley Chair. He was a long-time supporter of the St. Helena High School FFA and Agriculture Program and a recurring purchaser of livestock at the Napa Town and Country Fair.  For many years, Koerner was a familiar face at the Calistoga Fourth of July parade driving Congressman Mike Thompson.

His love for flying took him many places, allowing him to share his passion for life and generous spirit with countless people.  When Koerner was once asked to explain why both flying airplanes and making wine were so important to him, he answered that “Flying and winemaking are both mystical, magical things. The magic of flying is that it allows you to leave behind all that binds you to the earth. The magic of winemaking is that you create something with your own hands, from your own piece of earth, that lasts for years. If you turn out a wine that can score the highest points, or highest bid, it’s like breaking out at minimums, right over the runway numbers, knowing you’ve nailed the approach.”

Memorial church services will be held at 11:00 a.m. on June 5 at Grace Church in St. Helena, followed by a public Celebration of Life from 12:00 until 4:00 p.m. at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. Interment will be private.

The family suggests donations can be made in Koerner’s honor to Rombauer Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund at the University of California, San Francisco, V Foundation for Cancer Research or Collabria Care. Details: https://www.rombauer.com/memorial-donations/.

What Role Should Vidal Blanc Play in the Future of Maryland Wine?

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Note: this article appears in full on The Cork Report

There is a tension in the Maryland wine market. On one hand, consumers want the wines they know – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and the Vitis vinifera like – while on the other hand, Maryland doesn’t necessarily produce versions of these varieties that meet consumer expectation.

The Mid-Atlantic shares very little in common climatically with the more popular areas producing the baseline vinifera for these consumers – places like the American West Coast and Europe – and that makes it quite difficult to hit the structure and notes that people expect (unless a winery is willing to manufacture it with special winemaking techniques and additives, or source the grapes or juice from out of state and bottle it as “American wine” as some do).

The fantastic Maryland wines made with state-grown Bordeaux varieties that do exist are fantastic because they embrace the state’s terroir, not because they’re exceptional renditions of more popular styles, which makes them distinctly different from those other places. I’ve found these differences are particularly acute in red wines because warmer weather is especially beneficial in developing the fruit flavors and structure that are so directly associated with red wine. I’ll get more into this in an upcoming article on East Coast tannins.

On the white grape side, however, Maryland wineries are showing a slightly more pioneering attitude and venturing further afield to discover grapes might help them hit their own goals of quality while offering appeal to customers. Keep reading here.

The Black Magic of Winemaking: Tannins

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Credit: Gerald Hoberman, Getty

Last December, I took a trip to Napa and visited a ton of wineries throughout the Valley. Though not the purpose of the trip, it became a study in tannins. The experience reminded me just how impactful vineyard and winemaking decisions can be on a wine’s profile. The largest differences in the wines came in the size, shape and structure of tannin, and I realized I should know more about why those differences exist because I clearly had preferences about them.

To learn more, I reached out to three winemakers whose wines I love in large part because of their tannins: Richie Allen of Rombauer in Napa, Shane Moore of Zena Crown and Gran Moraine in the Willamette Valley, and David Larson of Soos Creek in Washington State. Richie’s Napa cabernets are highly structured wines, but were also among the very small minority that do not overload the tannins. I found this remarkable because most of the Napa cabs I had, including many from esteemed wineries that receive (incorrectly, I believe) higher scores from the big reviewers than do Richie’s, hit you upside the head with dense, chewy and often times coarse tannins that prematurely dry the mouth and kill the flavor.

Shane’s pinots (and chardonnays) from Oregon are complex and rewarding at every price point they hit, and though one doesn’t talk about tannin in the same way with pinot as is done with other red varietals, I’ve found his pinots to achieve captivating textures.

For more information on Richie, Shane and their wines, you can read about my visit to Rombauer here, a profile of Richie here, and a profile of Shane here.

David’s Bordeaux-varietal wines from Washington, a state whose climate can develop ample tannin, go through a wonderful evolution as they age. He’ll tell you that he prefers at least five years on most of his reds, if not ten, largely because it takes time for the tannins to resolve. When his wines hit their target balance, they offer classic Washington flavors combinations and textures. I recently had an 8-year old Soos Creek and loved it.

The first thing to know about tannin is, well, what it is. Tannins are chemical compounds, and the term originates from leather tanning, as leather workers used them to preserve the leather. Tannins bind proteins together. The physical sensation we associate with tannins in our mouths when drinking a wine is the actual process of proteins being bound in real time.

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Phenolic tannin. Credit: WineLand Media

The next thing to know it is that the term “tannin” encompasses two components: anthocyanin and phenolics. Anthocyanin is the color in the wine, and it’s the main focus for Richie at Rombauer because “it’s a very good indication of quality: the higher the color, the higher the potential quality.” Color is finite; there is only so much color in fruit and only that amount available can be extracted. Phenolics, of which there is usually higher quantities than anthocyanin, are chemical compounds, of which there are potentially hundreds of varieties.

Richie aims for full extraction of color. If he can hit that, then he and his team can build the desired tannin structure because there’s usually more phenolics than they need. Put another way, if they have really high anthocyanin then they can push the tannin structure without throwing the wine out of balance. However, if the anthocyanin is moderate and they try to push the tannin structure by ramping up phenolic extraction, they end up with a highly tannic wine that has a hole in the mid palate, something Richie and his fellow Aussies refer to as “donut wine” (lots of tannin around the sides and nothing in the middle). Shane, too, is focused on color. He describes one of his priorities as achieving good “color stabilization,” which is another term for the same thing: the bounding or conjugating of anthocyanin and phenolics into “complexes.”

Tannins, as David explained, “are very specific to each batch of grapes. Like everything else in winemaking there’s a lot of variability between varieties, vineyards, and even blocks within vineyards.” David is looking for great mouthfeel. His ideal tannins are the kind “that caress the mouth. It’s one of the best attributes of a wine, but hard to achieve. I’m looking for abundant but fine grained tannins, which create elegant wines.” These, as will be explained below, are long-chain tannins formed by the binding of anthocyanin and phenolics.

When speaking to a pinot noir producer, you enter a different tannin realm. Pinot’s tannins are very different than any other varietal because physiologically, the tannins and structure are unique. “You have skin tannins, your anthocyanins, and then you have seed tannins, and not a whole lot of other phenolics involved like you do with cabernet or the Bordeaux varietals,” Shane said. “This makes both tannin extraction and the mouth feel very different.” The differences in tannin that we experience in drinking pinot noir are unique tannin experiences when compared to other reds.

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Credit: EnoViti

Anthocyanin is developed in the vineyard and lives in the skins of the berries (the term used to refer to the grapes). Richie looks at many things in trying to influence color accumulation in the skins. If the berries get too large, color gets diluted. Too many berries on the vine can lead to less color. Sun exposure is key: too much sun and the berries get sun burnt; not enough sun and they don’t develop much anthocyanin. “Think of anthocyanin as sun block,” Shane explained. “If you’re giving the berries less sun, they make less sun block.”

This makes canopy (the leaves) management critical. The act of picking leaves from the vines, called “leafing,” is part of this. In Shane’s vineyards, they begin leafing right after flowering and fruit set in most cases. This approach is suited for the cooler climate of Oregon where sufficiently warm sun, needed to develop anthocyanin, isn’t in always plentiful. “More sun produces more and riper anthocaynins for us,” Shane noted.

Richie focuses on berry weight and size. Smaller berries tend to have higher anthocyanin levels. That said, Richie has his outliers. “I have a couple of vineyards that, on paper, should be terrible when you look at the numbers, but when you taste them, they’re really good and the numbers don’t match. I always say, you can graph it and draw your correlation line, but there are always outliers, and that’s why we taste.”

Shane expressed a strong desire to produced “balanced crops.” If there is too much fruit hanging, “you often get more green tannins, meaning seed, or short-chain, tannins.” Over the years the average crop of Willamette pinot noir has settled into the 2.5-3.5 tons per acre zone, “and when you hit that tonnage,” Shane says, “you’re ripening your seeds, and ripe seeds equal ripe tannins and you’re not extracting shorter tannins; you’re getting longer chain tannins and that’s your desired starting point” in achieving good texture and mouthfeel. “Balanced vines are going to give you ripe tannins and balanced wines.”

A common theme among these three winemakers is that they approach winemaking looking primarily at the structural elements of the wine, not flavors or aromas. Shane’s approach is to make wines “texturally” because texture shows through in the wine for a longer period of time than other elements and “is more of the wine itself then flavors or aromatics. Texture is the most stable part of the wine.” Therefore, when Shane extracts tannins, he’s doing it in the context of achieving that desirable texture.

Richie has been accused of making wine by numbers, and he admits that to a certain extent, he does. “All I’m doing is stacking the deck in my favor. It’s like counting cards – you’re working the probability to get a desired outcome. That’s all that we’re doing, and with fruit that’s $10,000 or more per ton, you want to make sure you nail it every time. In high end winemaking, you can’t screw it up one year and say, well, we’ll do it better next year. That doesn’t fly.”

Winemakers can’t rely on taste alone in the tannin context because of the presence of sugar during fermentation. “The reason we’re so interested in the numbers is when the wines are fermenting and you still have sugar, you can’t taste or feel tannin in your mouth. It’s all hidden by the sugar,” Richie told me. “So the only way to see if you’re heading in the right direction is to run analysis. You don’t know if you’ve gotten all the tannin out, you don’t know what the tannin level is when it’s at even three Brix. You can’t taste it. And if you keep pumping it over and you overshoot that mark, it’s too late. You can use strippers [like egg whites or gelatin] to lean the tannins, but you can’t just strip tannin without getting rid of stuff you want to keep. Fining agents are not as selective as they’re portrayed. The analysis is a good indicator of potential quality, though it doesn’t replace actually tasting either.”

David strives to balance alcohol, tannin, fruit, oak and acid. “This is largely a function of the grapes you get,” he says. In Washington, David believes the most impactful adjustment to make to find the sweet spot in the balance is tweaking sugar levels. “It matters a great deal because it determines the alcohol level, and I want a relatively low-alcohol wine.” For age worthy wines – read high(ish) tannin and high(ish) acid – alcohol is can be the sticking point because while tannins and acids soften with age, alcohol remains exactly the same its entire life. A wine with great tannin and acid at bottling will fall out of balance with time if the alcohol is too high.

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Credit: Wine Folly

Fermentation is a key phase for tannin development, even though, as noted above, you can’t detect the tannins by taste, because, as David explains, “the higher the temperature the more tannin extraction you get. The longer the juice stays on the skins, the more extraction of tannin (up to a point). The tannins will start to soften as they get longer.” He starts his fermentations off at usually around 65 degrees and allows them to creep up slowly to the mid to upper-80s. This translates into fermentations usually lasting around 20 days, though they’ve gone as long as 30. He added that the shape and size of the fermenter matters as well in that it determines the juice to solids ratio as well as the flow, or interaction, of the juice with the solids.

Shane approaches fermentation with temperatures that are considered on the lower side for pinot noir. Whereas most are toping top out at around 86-90 degrees, Shane doesn’t go above 78-80 degrees. Temperatures matter for tannin extraction – warmer temperatures help to extract heavier tannins. Therefore, if he’s getting a higher extraction than desired, he will lower the temperature, and vice versa.

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Punching down the cap. Credit: Willamettewines.com

Management of the cap, meaning all of the solid bits that float to the top during fermentation, also plays a big role because the cap is where the tannins – anthocyanin and phenolics alike – originate. The two most common ways to manage the cap are “pump overs,” which involves keeping the cap where it is while pumping the juice below it up and onto the cap, and “punch downs,” which refers to pushing the cap into the juice. The former adds more oxygen to the juice, which functions to elongate the chain of the tannins. As Shane describes it, short chain tannins are coarser drying tannins whereas longer chain tannins are “umami tannins and not as drying.” Shane uses pump overs early on to elongate the tannins as those are his preferred variety. Once fermentation is over, so too is grape-based tannin development.

Phenolics drive more of the textural element than anthocyanin. When there is an excess of phenolics, winemakers strive for high levels of bound anthocyanin and phenolics because it helps to reduce coarseness. I asked Richie if determining the chains by taste is as simple as, if the wine is coarse, it’s heavy on the short chain, and if it’s smooth, it’s heavy on the long chain. “More or less yes,” he said, adding that I was “basically correct, when you start to look at the types of tannins and their interactions it becomes very complicated and our understanding is in its infancy. Thus is the art of winemaking .”

Untoasted wood chips can help in this department, as do additives like enological tannin. Richie has played around with these methods in trials, and while they’ve offered some interesting outcomes, he hasn’t felt like it’s boosted quality and hasn’t deployed it in production Rombauer. However, if using highly cropped, lower quality fruit, the use of chips or enological tannin can really help develop a wine of superior quality. “I’ve known people who do it really, really well,” Richie said. “And I’ve done it myself [at other wineries]. If you don’t understand how to use exogenous tannins correctly, you’re really limiting your ability to make quality wine. Especially in the cheaper bracket. At the higher end, you don’t need to do it.”

I asked him if it’s possible to pick up on the use of these tools in a wine by taste, and he questioned whether one could. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I don’t have the ability to do it and I don’t know of anyone who does. However, to make wines taste more palatable texturally and give them more palatable mouthfeels, especially in the lower price tier, their use is a sure way to improve your quality.” Dispelling any notion that it’s a New World thing, Richie explained that it’s very common in Europe, and referred to an unnamed friend in France who “is really well versed in how to use enological tannins and phenols to build wines to make them significantly better in that lower price bracket, and he’s really, really good at it. If I were making $10 wine, I’d be calling him to learn more.”

Measuring anthocyanin levels in the vineyard is challenging, and naturally Richie and his team have found that the most labor intensive way to measure gives them the best data. I promised not to spill the beans on this method, but after the explanation it’s understandable why those not using it are a step or two behind. These measurements, however, don’t necessarily mean anything because there is often a difference between the amount of anthocyanin in the vineyard and the amount that can be extracted in the winery. Determining the factors that drive that difference would be a holy grail in winemaking, and one that Richie is chasing in earnest. Richie does not believe that any of the theories about anthocyanin extraction hold up to scientific scrutiny, though he believes this is the direction high end red wine is going: “how you maximize color accumulation and color extraction drives wine quality.”

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Credit: Wine Folly

How one extracts anthocyanin from the berries depends on the varietal. “You always hear about cold soaks with pinot noir, and that’s not something you really hear about with many other red varieties. Syrah, maybe. Some winemakers working with Bordeaux and Rhone varietals are doing cold soaks. Nebbiolo, too. But when it comes to red varietals, when you hear cold soak you think pinot.” David is one of those doing cold soaks with Bordeaux varietals. During that process, both make no qualm about using appropriate levels of sulfur, which they find critical to tannin development because it helps to stabilize the anthocyanin complexes in both stages.

The goal as Shane explains it is to build stable anthocyanin-phenolic complexes by bringing as many together as possible to form the longest chains they can “because these are the good tasting tannins.” Oxygen, as explained in the paragraph above on cap management, is critical for this to occur. Most red varietals require doses of oxygen exposure for these chains to form and grow longer. If you’ve ever had a reductive syrah, for example, chances are it was not racked (a method for adding oxygen to the wine post-fermentation) because syrah requires a relatively high amount of oxygen to avoid reduction. In a reductive wine the tannin complexes are scavenging for limited or non-existent oxygen in the wine, which reduces the vibrancy of the wine’s aromas and flavors. This is why, when one aerates a reductive wine, it can snap out of its reductive state.

Pinot is unique among red varietals in that it has a naturally high anthocyanin-phenol ratio. Therefore, if it’s exposed to sufficient oxygen, it does a great job on its own of building beautifully tasting tannins. “Somehow,” Shane noted, “they figured this out over 1,000 years ago in Burgundy. If you start with great pinot fruit and age it in French oak, which breathes perfectly for the varietal, and don’t mess too much with it, you get great wine.” He continued, “once it’s in barrel, all you need is once-a-month topping and the wines won’t go reductive.”

When Shane gets his pinot harvest into the winery and destems, he’s aiming to maintain whole berries (he destems roughly 80% of his clusters) to allow for a longer cold soak. “Crushed grapes tend to ferment faster because, I think, it releases more nutrients [for the yeast to feast on].” Whole berry fermentation allows for maximum anthocyanin extraction while protecting the seeds longer before their harsher and more abundant tannins begin to enter the juice. “Pinot noir is a low tannin wine in general. Almost all your tannins are in your seeds, and it’s also a relatively low anthocyanin grape.” With that in mind, Shane does long cold soaks (~5 days for Gran Moraine and ~8-10 days for Zena Crown) to maximize anthocyanin extraction before fermentation “so you can really control tannin [phenolics] extraction during fermentation using punch downs, pumpovers and temperature, the principle being that seed tannins are highly extractable in an aqueous alcohol environment (alcohol dissolved in water), whereas you don’t need alcohol to extract anthocaynins.” Since there is no alcohol in the cold soak, there’s no risk in extracting phenolics while anthocyanin is seeping into the juice.

Richie describes the profile they seek at Rombauer as an “iron fist in a velvet glove,” which is driven by the color and phenolic binding. Wines cannot achieve a high level of binding unless there’s a lot of color already in the wine, which makes it the limiting factor in driving quality if you follow Richie’s logic. When Rombauer does in-house trials, they look at the free anthocyanin, bound anthocyanin and phenolics [a.k.a. complexes], and they find that more often than not, the wines with the highest bound anthocyanin are the ones they score the highest in double blind tastings.

Quality wine evolves with age, and to many palates it improves over time. I asked Richie about older wines and how the color loss during aging didn’t necessarily lead to losses of flavor and structure. He explained that bound color, which tastes good, is stable and resists oxidation and changes in pH. Unbound color that exists in wine is unstable, and as wine ages it’s the unbound color that drops out while the bound color remains. Therefore, a wine with a higher level of bound color is going to keep its color, and its desirable flavors, longer in the bottle.

Referring back to his holy grail of winemaking, Richie noted that “tannin is kind of like the black magic of winemaking at the moment, and not everyone understands it. A lot of high end wineries run [the data], but they don’t actually do anything with it because they don’t understand it. They run it because it’s the latest cool thing to do in winemaking. ‘What tannins do you have?’ It’s like, ‘what does it matter? What are you going to do with them?’ If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, the data is useless.” Shane doubled down on the difficulty of understanding tannins. “I took a whole graduate level course on tannin chemistry. It’s incredibly complicated and possibly the most difficult college course I took. I think it was called “The Biochemistry and Physiology of Horticultural Products” or something, and we still have open questions about tannins.”

Where our understanding of tannins goes from here is up to people like Richie, Shane and David who make it a focus of their winemaking. I do think it’s important, though, too for consumers to educate themselves and maybe even do a bit of purchasing based on their tannin preferences. I would sure love more winemakers to focus on developing those long chain complexes.