If Formula 1 Drivers Were Wine…

Picture by pedrik on Flikr

Note: Although this post isn’t sponsored by F1 sponsor Heineken, we agree with the message: When you drive, never drink.

While I’ve been a wine fan for over twenty years, I’m very new to Formula 1. Like many American fans of the sport, my first exposure was the Netflix series Drive To Survive, which follows the behind the scenes of the sport. My wife and I quickly became hooked on the show in 2021, which served as a gateway to a Formula 1 TV subscription that we use to religiously watch every race, usually live. Since signing up, we’ve traveled to the Grand Prix in Mexico City and Baku (Azerbaijan), and will be attending the Abu Dhabi race this coming November.

If it wasn’t apparent, we were instant and full converts to what is a fairly genius conceived sport. Like other types of motorsport, I think many don’t take Formula 1 very serious because how is it, after all, that there can be much to a sport that involves basically no human input during the actual competition? The drivers just put the pedal to the floor to push the cars around a track, right? Nothing could be further from the truth.

What makes the sport so compelling for me are the countless variables purposefully and strategically included in the sport and organized to make it nearly impossible for the best driver and car combination to be the guaranteed victor race in and race out. The sport is also set up to create a lot of off-the-track drama that is at the same time reality television for fans and psychological warfare for drivers, team principals, and crews.

Us at the 2022 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

As a spectator there’s a lot going on both during and between race weekends, the latter including three practice sessions, a qualifying session, and the race itself (plus the occasional sprint race) over three days, all of which serve different purposes and therefore require a variety of strategies and variables that mean each time the cars go out on track there is something unique for fans to follow.

It takes a little bit of time and dedication to pick up and understand the sport enough to get the most out of being a fan. The rules are complex and create rigorous complications for the teams and drivers, and are even subject to change (within limits) during the season. Each race weekend is an opportunity for the regulators to make track-specific interpretations of certain rules (though there is less of that this year), which keeps the teams and drivers on their toes. Teams are always retooling their cars (again, within limits that sometimes carry penalties, which teams will strategically accept), and no car can be ideally suited for the myriad of track types out there (being faster on the straights necessarily means sacrificing speed in the corners, for example), so you never really know how a given car or driver is going to perform from race-to-race. And between the 20+ races each season spread across the globe over nine months, variables like weather and altitude often result in finishing orders quite different from the prior race.

All of this means that Formula 1 can be as just as daunting a hobby to pick up as wine. Most people who drink wine don’t put much thought into what they drink beyond the most important question: do they like it or not? Many see the exploration of wine as a bottomless pit of daunting technical terms and financial expense that can turn the wine hobbyist into an elitist snobby wino. Many surmise that those in and around Formula 1, a sport that does require some financial investment to take on as a serious interest, are essentially the same.

Not so, at least necessarily so, with wine as much as with F1. Yes, those kind of people exist in both worlds, and they give the rest very bad names. Thankfully, it feels like these terrible reputations for both are being replaced with more kind ones that reflect the growing and increasingly diverse fan bases of both motorsport and wine.

Us at the 2021 Mexico City Grand Prix

This parallel between Formula 1 and wine got me thinking about other parallels I could draw on the pages of Good Vitis, and I’ve settled on what to me is the most interesting: if someone wanted to pair their favorite Formula 1 driver with a bottle of wine, what wine would best reflect that driver’s personality and driving style?

I sat down to think through this incredibly subjective question, and put some effort into crafting what I hope are fair narratives about each driver that I could parallel with a type of wine. I then choose three versions of that wine representing a range of price points and styles with the purpose of helping Formula 1 fans pick a wine to drink whilst watching their favorite driver or celebrating that driver’s success (or perhaps drowning their sorrows after that driver’s next poor result).

One important note before we begin: Though I’ve been able to observe a few drivers up close whilst at races, I’ve never met a single one, and so I’ve had to base my notions here on what I see on television and social media, and on what I’ve read in interviews and the press. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of them.

Nicholas Latifi (Team: Williams) Lance Stroll and Nicholas Latifi are the two Canadians on this year’s grid, and unfortunately for both of them they’re on teams likely to finish in last and second-to-last in the constructor’s championship. Like Stroll, Latifi is what is often called a “pay” or “paid” driver, meaning they bring sponsorships to their teams that effectively pay for their place on the team. This notion carries a negative tinge because it suggests that money matters more than talent. But neither of these two are a slouches behind the wheel, and both followed successful junior and Formula 2 careers into Formula 1 where they’ve shown promise and achieved the occasional impressive result.

Whereas Stroll’s father is a very visible part of F1 and provides a constant reminder of his son’s paid status, Latifi’s father is not such a fixture on race weekends. The apple doesn’t far fall from the tree in the Latifi family; Nicholas is quiet and mild-mannered, and spends more time focusing on the details of the car than showing his face to the media or crowd. He’s realistic in his assessment of his own development and the prospective success of his team. Behind the wheel he’s at the helm of what I’d suggest is the least racy car in Formula 1, and Latifi’s main job is to push the car without over-driving it and forcing a did not finish, and is therefore patient, even hesitant at times, during races.

When it comes to a wine parallel, I’m going with pinot gris, an understated white grape that most of the time doesn’t stir up much excitement because it has a knack for delivering steady, reliable results within a narrow range of prototypical styles. Pinot gris, it should be noted, is the same grape as pinot grigio. The best regions for pinot gris aren’t the most famous or flashiest, which means the best pinot gris wines tend to fly under the radar. The best pinot gris, a precious small percentage of which gets produced, is intensely age-worthy, and like Latifi’s preference for snacks can be made in a very sweet style.

Wines: WillaKenzie Estate Pinot Gris, Vie di Romans Dessimis Pinot Grigio, Domaine Weinbach Pinot Gris Altenbourg Quintessence de Grains Nobles.

Alexander Albon (Team: Williams) Alex Albon is one of the most likeable drivers in this year’s Formula 1. Off the track he’s outgoing and self-deprecating with a cunning sense of humor. He’s completely comfortable giving retrospectives on qualifying and races, but he’s most enjoyable in those media moments when he’s talking about other drivers and things unrelated to motorsport. He’s very family-oriented, and clearly loves spending time with them.

This is his second stint in Formula 1. After having progressed rapidly as a junior driver into an F1 seat with Toro Rosso in 2019, then the junior sibling team to Red Bull, he was promoted to Red Bull, one of the two teams at the pinnacle of the sport at that time. However, by the end of the 2020 season in which he both impressed and disappointed, Red Bull decided to demote him to reserve and test driver, and he sat the 2021 F1 season out.

He’s back this year with Williams where he’s had a few impressive results mixed in with some bad luck and car troubles. The man is a hungry, brave, and persistent driver, and it will be interesting to see if he can help push the Williams program back into the midfield after signing a multi-year deal that takes him through the 2024 season.

Like Albon, rosé from the Bandol appellation in France’s Provence wine region is for real. Rosé is often relegated to summer porch pounding and seen as a light-hearted, fun wine for social events to lubricate interpersonal interactions rather than dazzle the palate. Bandol’s rosé does not exactly fit this mold because the region produces very hearty grapes and favors a winemaking style that produces hearty wines across the full range, including rosé.

But this doesn’t mean that Bandol rosé lacks those floral aromas and red berry flavors that are essential to what makes rosé so perfect for fun times. Still, local laws require that the hearty mourvèdre grape make up at least 20% of every bottle of rosé, which means you can expect at least a little hit of peppery spice and dark fruit with each sip that reminds you it has some real substance behind its jovial façade.

Wines: Domaine La Bastide Blanche Bandol Rosé, Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé, Domaines Ott Chateau Romassan Bandol Rosé.

Lance Stroll (Team: Aston Martin) Lance Stroll has three F1 podiums (all third places) and 35 top-10 finishes in six-and-a-half seasons, and yet people think the only reason he has a spot on the grid is because of his wealthy father who invests in the teams he’s on.

I get the logic of those who think of him negatively as a paid driver because technically he is – every team he’s been on has either been owned, at least in part, or heavily invested in by his father, and he’s never not raced for a team that his father hasn’t invested in. But his drives also suggest he earns the seat he fills, and he’s only 23 years-old.

In his private life he’s into adventurous sports like mountain biking and snowboarding, and in school he was apparently considered a “cheeky” guy by his teachers. In the car he goes hard and more often seems limited by the car he’s in than his own skills. Stroll seems like a fun, good natured guy who works quietly and away from the cameras to be the best that he can be.

In wine terms, Stroll is fully New World; he’s about that fun but serious life and doesn’t seem to care much about what other people are doing or have done – he’s there to do him and to do that quietly and respectfully, and that’s what the Washington State wine industry is all about. Like Stroll, Washington’s winemakers know they are underrated and are constantly striving to show people through their performance that they’re better than they’re given credit for.

Wines: Two Vintners White Zinfandel, Gramercy Cellars Lagniappe Syrah, Delille Harrison Hill red blend.

Zhou Guanyu (Team: Alfa Romeo) Zhou Guanyu, a rookie, is a seemingly reserved guy. He is focused and patient when it comes to his development, but also clearly very driven. In the car he’s tough and confident –  his quick recovery from the Silverstone GP crash was both miraculous and impressive. He strikes me as quite technically adept, too. On a recent appearance on F1 Behind The Grid, he spoke a lot to the technical aspects of the car with great intelligence, making it clear that he spends a lot of time with the team’s engineers and designers.

As a rookie, I suspect his demeanor is driven by what seems to be a great amount of respect for the sport and his elders, as well as gratitude for the journey required to obtain his F1 seat. Further, with only a single season guaranteed in his contract, he’s in constant proving-himself mode. And as Formula 1’s first Chinese driver, the man is paving a brand new path for the world’s most populous country, which means there is no shortage of pressure on the young driver’s shoulders.

In essence, Zhou Guanyu is a new version of an old wine. And his technical approach to being an F1 driver along with the multiple types of pressure he faces suggest his wine parallels should be on the more technically adept side of things. Whether it’s famed French Rhone Valley winemaker Louis Barroul making riesling in New York’s Finger Lakes region, California pinot noir master Adam Lee partnering with the late Châteauneuf-de-Pape legend Philippe Cambie to make California pinot like Cambie made French grenache, or Oregon producers making white wine from the red pinot noir grape, they’re all reflections of Zhou Guanyu’s ground-breaking presence in a sport for which he demonstrates reverence and respect.

Wines: Forge Cellars Classique Dry Riesling, Left Coast White Pinot Noir, Beau Marchais Close Pepe Est (or Ouest).

Yuki Tsunoda (Team: Alpha Tauri) It’s no secret that Yuki Tsunoda, in just his second Formula 1 season, is both very talented and a work-in-progress. His rookie season saw a lot of Yuki-caused vehicle carnage for both himself and anyone unlucky to be near him, yet when he kept the car on the track and away from others his talent was easy to see by the naked eye.

Suffering from a lack of focus from afar, his team moved him close to their factory and he began seeing a psychologist to improve his work ethic and mindset. Although he’s not featuring close to the podium in 2022, he seems to be about as competitive as the Alpha Tauri car will allow, and he’s making fewer mistakes. He remains, however, known for pushing the car as hard as it will go, and so does particularly well in fast corners where a full throttle won’t put the car into the safety barrier.

At 5 foot 3 inches, he packs a big punch. A similarly punchy wine to pair with Tsunoda is the small-sized petit syrah grape (also spelled petit sirah), which delivers big flavors and structures that are hard to confuse for anything else. Yuki’s toughness and audacious style is mirrored by petit syrah’s thick skin and large seeds that deliver a bold slap across the face. Further, petit syrah’s big hit of pepper knocks one out even when they know it’s coming, which is another apt comparison to the mighty Tsunoda.

Wine: Aaron Wines Petit Sirah, Carlisle Winery Napa Valley Palisades Vineyard Petit Sirah, Turley Cellars Hayne Vineyards Petit Syrah.

Mick Schumacher (Team: Haas) Mick Schumacher has had an interesting 2022 season. It started off quite poorly despite his Haas team fielding a very competitive car. Several unforced errors led to costly crashes and ultimately his team principal calling him out publicly for these mistakes, effectively demanding an end to them because of the crushing financial impact they would have by pushing the team over the annual cost cap.

To a surprisingly impressive extent, Schumacher responded and has featured as a competitor for points (top-10 finishes) in the last few races going into the summer break. With his surname (he is the son of Michael Schumacher, a 7-time world champion considered by many to be the best F1 driver of all time), the spotlight can mean a lot of pressure to a driver who at the beginning of his career raced under his mother’s maiden name out of a desire to be judged by his merits rather than his father’s.

The entire paddock seems to be delighted in his rise to form, and rumor has it that many competitors consider him one of the most talented drivers in the sport today. I cannot therefore think of any wine better to describe Mick Schumacher than Beaujolais.

Like Mick, Beaujolais lives in the shadow of greatness, located just south of Burgundy. The grape grown in Beaujolais is a red one called gamay, and it has many similar qualities to the main red grape of Burgundy, pinot noir, which has a more sterling reputation.

Many, in fact, refer to Beaujolais as the poor man’s Burgundy. This unfair moniker, because in fact the two regions produce decidedly different wines, is based on a style of Beaujolais called Noveau, which is a wine that must be sold in the same calendar year the grapes are harvested. Functionally this means a red wine that has no meaningful time to age before it’s sold. These are inexpensive, simple wines that should be consumed almost immediately to be enjoyed at their peak.

The celebratory nature of Beaujolais Noveau (the region has a huge blowout the day they are released, which is always the third Thursday of November) has given the rest of the region’s wines a reputation of being unserious. However, Beaujolais has a good number of serious wines that get more thoughtful treatment than Noveau, the best of which earn the categorization “Cru.” While some of Schumacher’s 2022 races finished early and spectacularly so, like Beaujolais Noveau, other performances have shown a seriousness and brilliance that resulted in meaningful finishes, like Cru Beaujolais.

Wines: Jean-Marc Burgaud Mogon Les Charmes, Daniel Bouland Morgon Vieilles Vignes Corcelle Sable, Domaine Marcel Lapierre Morgon ‘Cuvee Marcel Lapierre.’

Sebastian Vettel (Team: Aston Martin) It’s hard to call someone who won four championships with the same team (Red Bull) “inconsistent,” but Vettel was frequently called that during his subsequent years at Ferrari where he made many mistakes that mystified those who had witnessed his successes. And certainly in the last two seasons at back-of-the-grid Aston Martin, his results have been consistently underwhelming. But you know with Vettel that you’ve got a driver with immense skill and experience, and so if the car is on, he’s going to finish well. When behind the wheel and at his best, he is precise, calculated, and on-point fast.

Although Vettel had plenty of moments of hotheadedness in his younger and more successful years, he’s considered to be one of the most conscientious, generous, friendly, and principled drivers in the modern era of Formula 1 – especially in the last stage of his career when he has taken on a number of significant causes. There is depth and complexity to the man.

He’s also the kind of guy who will sign and send back something a fan sends him in the mail. He prefers hand written letters to emails, generally dislikes technology, stayed off social media until using his freshly opened Instagram account to make his retirement announcement last month, and spends more time reading than watching television. In short, Vettel seems to, in many ways, be an old soul.

In the wine world I’ll point to what is widely regarded as the pinnacle of the sangiovese grape, Brunello di Montalcino. Brunello makes a big splash out of the gate with serious brawn and guts, and then goes through years of evolution to eventually become a matured wine of stateliness, a wine that no one can scoff at even if it’s not the shiny object at the table anymore. Esteban Ocon has said that his teammate Fernando Alonso has matured like a fine wine, and George Russell has compared fellow Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton to “a fine wine,” but if anyone in the paddock embodies the notion of fine and mature wine, I’d argue it’s Seb.

Wines: Bartoli Guisti Brunello di Montalcino, Marchesi Antinori Pian delle Vigne, Fuligni Brunello di Montalcino Riserva DOCG.

Pierre Gasly (Team: Alpha Tauri) I find Pierre Gasly to be one of the more interesting and higher quality human beings on the grid this season. Of all the drivers, I’d be most interested to read an autobiography about Gasly. In researching this piece, I learned, to name just one thing, that when on his way to a Formula 2 race the car he was in with his family crashed badly enough that his mother was sent to the intensive care unit. Gasly would make his way to the track, qualify for pole position, and later win the race, only to find out that he had broken a vertebrae in the crash himself. He’s overcome a lot of adversity and personal loss to get this far, and it takes a certain quality of person to survive that type of path to become one of only twenty Formula 1 drivers.

His struggles with the brief move to Red Bull in 2019 have been heavily reported as has the impact of his close friend Antoine Hubert’s death in the F2 race in Spa in 2019. He’s spoken about the pressure that being an F1 driver puts on one’s mental health, and when he engages with the media he gives some of the most thoughtful commentary you’re going to hear from this paddock. At the same time, although obviously talented, it seems likely he’ll never win a championship or all that many individual races despite being a sedulous fighter behind the wheel because that just seems to be his luck.

This description of him reminds me of merlot, a grape with tremendous qualities that make it capable of being among the world’s best wines, yet rarely gets the treatment of other more popular grapes capable of similar results. As the sole or dominate grape in a bottle of wine (like those listed below), merlot can contend with any other. But like the impact Gasly has on the F1 world, many of the world’s best red wines wouldn’t achieve their height without a meaningful addition of merlot (the most famous example being Bordeaux’s Cheval Blanc).

Wines: Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot, La Jota WS Keyes Vineyard Merlot, San Guisto a Rentennano La Ricolma.

Daniel Ricciardo (Team: McLaren) I’m not going to do the easy thing and point to Ricciardo’s collaboration with the St. Hugo winery in the Barossa Valley, even though my description of Barossa shiraz in the (SPOILER ALERT) Kevin Magnussen section below might also seem to be a good fit for one of the most popular and beloved drivers in Formula 1 today.

Instead, I’m going to use a phrase my wife conjured for this article and the humorous, good natured, and affable Ricciardo to assign Arizona wine to Danny Ric: hard to take seriously, but seriously good.

Arizona doesn’t make most wine radars (because who grows grapes in the desert?), and so people might not take it very seriously. Yet those who try the good stuff often can’t forget about it for a long, long time. And Daniel is a man of the desert and a lover of the American West, which makes this all the better of a fit.

As one of Formula 1’s more crafty drivers known for incredible passing talent  (that double Alpine overtake in Hungary this year!), we need a wine that not everyone can make, and that’s Arizona wine. Only crafty winemakers who know how to navigate the high elevation and weather event prone plains in Arizona’s south and the really wet valleys (yes, it’s true) in the state’s north can produce Ricciardo pass-worthy wine. Like Riccairdo’s joly personality and racy driving style, Arizona wine is really fun and seriously good. Hard to take seriously, but seriously good.

Wines: Rune Calibri Grenache, AZ Stronghold Lozen, Page Cellars Dos Padres Syrah.

Kevin Magnussen (Team: Haas) Kevin Magnussen is on his second stint with Haas, having been dropped by the team (and not picked up by anyone else) at the end of 2020. He therefore missed the 2021 season entirely. During that time he did a few motorsport races outside the Formula series and had his first child. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Haas ditched Russian driver Nikita Mazepin and sponsor Uralkali, which is owned by Mazepin’s father who is very close with Vladimir Putin. Magnussen was offered the seat, and he returned to the sport with a fresh and more humble attitude.

Magnussen has been welcomed back into F1 with great enthusiasm by both fans and those in the paddock, most of whom, like Magnussen himself, didn’t think he’d ever make a return to the highest level of motorsport. He’s taken advantage of this chance to match the Haas car’s good pace with skill and persistence, showing great form and putting together some impressive races.

This sequence of events has produced two versions of Kevin Magnussen the driver: First Stint and Second Stint Kevin. First Stint Kevin was aggressive, and often considered so myopically self-prioritizing that he gave little thought as to the safety of those around him. Second Stint Kevin, though still a daring and uncompromising fighter, hasn’t put other drivers into unnecessary danger this season any more than anyone else.

Because there are two Magnussens, there are two different types of wine. First Stint Kevin screams shiraz from the Barossa Valley in Australia, which has a reputation for producing big, takes-no-prisoner wines that are proudly and uniquely themselves. Second Stint Kevin is more Muscadet Serve et Maine Sur Lie, a very specific type of wine made from the melon de bourgogne grape from the Loire Valley in France that exudes subtle confidence stemming from comfort in its own skin.

Barossa wines: Torbreck The Steading Shiraz, Yangarra Estate Vineyard Ironheart, Penfolds Grange.

Muscadet wines: Domaine La Haute Févrie Muscadet Serve et Maine Sur Lie, Domaine Gadais Muscadet Les Perrieres Monopole, Domaine Claude et Sébastien Branger Cru Chateau-Thébaud.

Fernando Alonso (Team: Alpine) I doubt it’s controversial to say that Fernando Alonso is a bit enigmatic. Never one to hold back an opinion, either verbally or with body language, the veteran driver and two-time world champion remains remarkably difficult to understand because of the language he speaks: Alonsopeak.

According to the authoritative piece on Alonsospeak by ESPN’s Nate Saunders, Alonsospeak is both the what and how of Alonso’s communication style. It includes his status as a living legend, his penchant to distract from problems, his keen ability to change the narrative, and his confidence in being the smartest person in the room. Yet even Saunders’ explanations leave the reader confused, such is Alonso’s ability to keep the world guessing about his true meaning.

As a driver he leaves nothing on the track, and is crafty, risk-acceptant, and precise. His two world championships are often considered fewer than his talent alone should have delivered. Even today, at age 41, some consider him the best driver on the grid.

Eliminate the purposeful deception behind Alonsospeak and Alonso reminds of the wines from Jura, France. As a tiny region that’s been around for a long, long time, its wines are highly regarded among an odd combination of young hipster winos and retiree aficionados. Most of the region’s grapes, such as trousseau, poulsard, and savagnin, aren’t really grown anywhere else in the world, and some of the techniques used in the winemaking are routinely shunned almost everywhere else in the world because they alter wines in ways that most winemakers want to avoid. Yet when you try Jura wines, you know they’ve gotten away with all of it, and you can’t help but enjoy yourself in their devious presence.

Wines: Domaine de la Borde Arbois-Pupillin ‘Sous la Roche’ Trousseau, Domaine du Pelican Arbois ‘En Barbi’ Chardonnay, Anne et Jean-Francois Ganevat Cotes du Jura Vin Jaune

Valtteri Bottas (Team: Alfa Romeo) Despite Valtteri Bottas’ respect of Champagne, I can’t give it to him, and not just because George Russell might as well be a bottle of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle (more on that below). Instead, the Alfa Romeo driver is a high end cabernet-driven red wine from Napa Valley.

Bottas is not just an F1 driver. He owns a coffee shop and takes their bean sourcing very serious. He is a very good cyclist, though not as good as his girlfriend, Tiffany Cromwell, who races professionally. He started a duathlon that raises money for various charities. He’s a former member of the Finish military and was voted “Top Soldier” by his fellow servicemembers.

The man has layers, and he’s also a damn good driver. He’s surgical and steady, but is comfortable taking calculated risks. He may be the best teammate of all time, a driver without whom I’d argue Lewis Hamilton would not have the results to be in the running for best driver of all time. Bottas is known to be a great partner to his team’s engineers and strategists. In short, people want him on their team.

The wine parallel for me is high end Napa Valley red wine. If you know where to look, you’ll find winemakers in Napa who do what Bottas does with their grapes to make layered wines that get more out of the grapes than one thought possible. And, if that reason wasn’t enough, Bottas guided me here by outing himself as a Napa fan.

Wines: Rombauer Le Meilleur de Chai, Cardinale Estate Red, Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve.

Esteban Ocon (Team: Alpine) Esteban Ocon is one of my favorite drivers because he lets his driving do most of the talking. Unlike many Formula Series drivers of the modern age, he doesn’t come from means. His family made tremendous sacrifices for him as he made his way to F1, so it’s especially endearing when he finishes well.

He’s humble, relatively so, in a sport that is one of the world’s most popular. But if you allow that humility to bring your defenses down, he’ll expose your mistake with calculated and smooth driving. Lewis Hamilton called him a “shining star” after his first Formula 1 win, which occurred in Hungary in 2021. Although he hasn’t won a second race yet, he is consistently in the mid-field mix.

This combination of quiet humility and cunning skill makes for a challenging pairing, though I feel good in my call to go with his home nation’s Gigondas, a region in the Southern Rhone predominantly producing grenache and syrah.

Both Gigondas and Ocon are never going to be the most expensive options, nor the most famous or flashy. Nor will they have the largest cult followings or consistently score the highest points. Yet, both are fortitudinous and when you take a moment to think about either, you realize there’s something uniquely special about them. Within the very famous Rhone Valley region, Gigondas plays a number of fiddles behind other areas, but it is one of the regions that you can almost always count on to produce something that performs well. When Ocon wins his next race, I’m toasting him with a bottle of Gigondas.

Wines: Domaine Saint Damien Gigondas Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Les Pallieres Terrasse du Diable, Chateau de Saint Cosme Gigondas la Cleaux (or le Poste)

Lando Norris (Team: McLaren) Lando Norris is a joyful, direct, and forthright individual, so let’s all forgive him for insinuating that he doesn’t care about wine in an interview when comparing himself to teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who does. There’s more to life than wine, I suppose.

For me, Norris is Prosecco because you don’t have to like wine to add a splash of orange or cranberry juice to it to have the kind of pleasurable experience that is Lando Norris. And whether he’s doing an interview, goofing around on social media, or racing to the only 2022 podium appearance not filled by a driver from Red Bull, Ferrari, or Mercedes. When driving, Norris has serious game face and is exciting, calculated, and insatiable in pushing the car. If he’s ever handed a consistently and highly competitive car, he is capable of winning loads of races.

When it comes to Prosecco, like Norris, there is both simple and silly, and exciting and serious, styles. If made by really talented people with really good grapes in a purposeful way, Prosecco can deliver in similarly massive ways. Really good Prosecco is really good wine by any standard, and the thing I most respect about Norris isn’t his fun personality or straight talk (although both make him a compelling person and sports star), but his willingness to talk about the very serious topic of mental health. Norris parallels Prosecco’s range.

Wines: Pasqua Romeo and Juliet Prosecco, Andreola Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Más de Fer Rive Di Soligo, La Marca Cuvee Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore. BONUS (if you can find it): Celebrate a rewatch of the Ricciardo-Norris 1-2 finish at Monza with a bottle of Andreola Monza Prosecco.

Lewis Hamilton (Team: Mercedes) Lewis Hamilton is by far the most successful driver on the grid this season, a seven-time drivers’ champion (achieved in seven consecutive years) known for his ability to win under any combination of variables. He’s a master at tire management, does equally well in wet or dry and hot or cold conditions, can win from a starting position at the back of the grid, and rarely makes an unforced error. His success has made him one of the most popular drivers as well, with dedicated fans at any track in any country. He also attracts a lot of hate, some of which is sadly racially motivated as he is the only black driver in F1.

Those on the hate him side of the spectrum (who aren’t racist) point to largely personality-based complaints. His behavior when not in a media environment can be at odds with his on-camera performance, a persona that never forgets to thank the fans or his team despite the fact that he’s not known to spend a lot of time with fans when the media isn’t also there. Earlier this year in Baku, Azerbaijan, I witnessed him ignore two adorable British children wearing Hamilton gear who tried to get his attention from well within eye sight and ear shot at a moment when he was casually hanging out after hours in the paddock.

He’s also known for proactively making negative and unconstructive statements during the race about the performance of his car and/or complaining about other drivers who he believes have violated rules that he’s been given a penalty for breaking himself, all of which seem to imply that he wants to make sure that setbacks he faces in races aren’t attributable to anything he’s done. And this year, for the first time since before he was a world champion, he is being routinely outperformed by his teammate, George Russell, who hasn’t seemed to experience the same issues with his identical car that Hamilton claims are going on with his.

Yet Louis Hamilton has the results to rightfully compete for the title of best Formula 1 driver of all time, a feat that he’s proven capable of achieving despite all of the unreasonable and unfair hurdles he’s had to overcome due to the racism he’s faced since his first days in the sport while karting. He’s gone well beyond addressing his own experiences to initiate and lead the push in Formula 1 to improve its racial and social diversity while fighting racism on a global scale on behalf of billions of people.

I’m choosing malbec as Hamilton’s wine parallel because of the keenness with which it (1) balances its structure of tannin, acid, and alcohol (comparable to Hamilton’s consistency), and (2) shows the uniqueness of where it’s grown and how it’s made (which parallels Hamilton’s skill of adapting his approach to whatever the circumstances require).

Wines: Achaval-Ferrer Mendoza, Chateau du Cedre Cahors le Cedre (vegan, like Hamilton himself), Zuccardi Finca Piedra Infinita Altamira.

George Russell (Team: Mercedes) No driver on this year’s grid screams Champagne more than George Russell. The man slings the dapper clothing line, Kingsman. Need I say more?

Although by all accounts a modest human being, Russell’s style, accent, dashing good looks, and calm demeanor exude British luxury. Russell is affable, both confident and modest, a man for the every-person to see as a peer as well as someone to look up to. Because of this, he’s more of a Champagne House Champagne than a grower producer, a bottle of bubbles that almost everyone is going to enjoy.

As a sportsman, he is driven by obvious ambition, and his training and preparation demonstrate rigorous commitment. If we set aside some youthful indiscretions, behind the wheel and in front of fans and the press he is a consummate professional, delivering both drives and hot takes that can be provocative and respectful at the same time. His driving style includes a penchant for aggression, but only within the bounds of meticulous calculations.

Champagne doesn’t need to be braggadocious for people to know it’s serious. It very naturally exudes luxury, like Russell, without having to say a word; a simple look is all either needs to tell you exactly what they’re about. You know Champagne is serious, but like Russel it can be quite fun; it isn’t the world’s synonym for celebration for no reason. And like Champagne’s staying power as the world’s most popularly-known and loved wine, Russell has earned a reputation as a talent more likely to deliver than not. He overcame his poor-performing car while on the Williams team to earn the name “Mr. Saturday” for his consistency in getting the most out of his car in single-lap qualifying and has been the most consistent driver on the 2022 grid, finishing in the top-5 in all but one of the thirteen races so far this season.

Wines: Taittinger Brut Prestige Rosé, Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle (No. 24 if you can still find it, No. 25 if you can’t), Krug Grande Cuvée Edition Brut (currently the 170th edition).

Carlos Sainz Jr. (Team: Ferrari) With all due respect to Telmo Rodriguez, winemaker and business partner of Carlos Sainz Sr. in Pegaso, a winery outside of Madrid, Carlos Sainz Jr. is all Priorat. This wine region south of Barcelona is brutally hilly and rocky and known for powerful and complex red wines. If you like that kind of thing, it’s hard not to fall for the appeal of Priorat, just as it’s hard not to feel the appeal of Sainz if you like affable, thoughtful, and intelligent people who seem to have worked for the success they’ve had.

Due to its tiny production, limited distribution, and higher price points, Priorat never really features in discussions about the best red wine region even though its wines can hang with top wines from regions in contention for this distinction. The reality, however, is that if representative wines from these contending regions were to be put in a lineup and tasted blind, Priorat would likely feature in many a taster’s top wines. This sounds a bit like Carlos Sainz, does it not? Sainz is always capable of the win if all that matters are the merits of the driver.

Priorat’s topologically and climatically punishing spot on the globe means its winemakers must be diligent and laser focused, and leverage their experience to overcome difficult situations. The same could be said of Sainz, who often finds himself stuck between rocks and hard places, especially due to terrible team strategy and management decisions in this season. And like the red (and white) wines of Priorat, Sainz’s career has been one that’s continually improved as he’s matured.

Wines: Celler Celilio Black Slate Gratallops, En Numeros Vermells Classic Priorat Negre, Alvaro Palacios L’Ermita.

Sergio Perez (Team: Red Bull) Sergio Perez is known as the Mexican Minister of Defense after a heroic performance in last year’s season finale without which his teammate Max Verstappen may well have not won the race and taken home the 2021 driver’s championship. Those few laps in which he kept Hamilton behind him using a car with tires significantly more worn out than Hamilton’s are emblematic of much about Perez, from his commitment to his team to his mastery of tire management to his smooth and determined driving style and his ability to be as aggressive as the situation requires.

This well-respected driver lives a relatively private lifestyle. He’s generous with his charity and loves playing pranks. His interests vary widely, including active investing in financial markets. There’s more to Perez than what you see when he’s in the F1 press box, not unlike the right bottle of Sancerre, a small region within the Loire Valley in France known for its deceptively intricate sauvignon blanc.

You can chug a bottle of Sancerre with fresh oysters and not really think twice about it because it’s a classically good pairing. And you can also stick the right bottle in the cellar for five or twenty years because there are few wines that reveal as much complexity and depth. This makes Sancerre a stand-alone glass of wine that you can really delve into and appreciate for its own merits that stand up to the most impressive of Perez’s drives.

Wines: Domaine Vacheron, Francois Cotat Les Monts Damnes, Edmond Vatan Clos la Neore.

Charles Leclerc (Team: Ferrari) Charles Leclerc seems like a nice, genuine guy. He’s one of the quieter, more reserved drivers when not in the car. To the press he is friendly and respectful, and his social media is wholesome and almost exclusively reserved for boringly obvious reflections on his races and the occasional PSA related to things like safe driving. He routinely praises the crew of his Ferrari team, and rarely creates controversy in the paddock, though this last part seems to be slipping as the team strategy deployed throughout this season is ruining races for him. There is a wonderful picture of him passing the magnum of sparkling Ferrari Trento wine from the podium down to his team.

Yet things change a bit when he gets behind the wheel where, because of his persistence, precision, and unflappable mindset, he is more than comfortable taking tactical and strategic risks. As a result of this approach (and Ferrari’s play calls this season), he’s usually either on the podium or showered before the race finishes. In my research, I struggled to come across anything uniquely fun about him, though he seems to enjoy many friendships on and off the grid. In short, he’s a best-in-class German riesling: precise, pure, strongly-statured, well-balanced, and likely to improve with age. If you want the 2022 version of Leclerc, get yourself a 20+ year old Spatlese or Auslese and hope that its owner has done right by it in terms of storage as these can be boom or bust wines.

Wines: Markus Hüls Sonnenuhr, Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett, Ergon Muller ‘Le Gallais’ Wiltinger Braune Kupp Auslese.

Max Verstappen (Team: Red Bull) Like Kevin Magnussen, there are multiple profiles for Max Verstappen because of how differently he’s approached the 2022 season compared to 2021, when he won his first world driver’s championship, in terms of both his driving style (less aggressive and risk acceptant this year) and his comments to the press (more measured and vanilla this year). But I think more than anything, the stress of getting that first championship is gone now, and we’re seeing the real Max. So, just one wine.  

Since he’s said that he likes “fizzy” drinks, I’m going with a sparkling wine called Cremant de Bourgogne: from the world’s finest wine region, on par with Verstappen as the reigning world champion, but not the wine that drives that designation, on par with Verstappen’s reserved approach to the 2022 season.

These Cremants aren’t in the spotlight of the world’s most famous sparkling wines, just as Verstappen hasn’t caught Hamilton-level fame, yet in practice can be extremely well-made, mirroring his meticulous preparation. Cremants can come in a wide range of styles: you can happen on a version with gentle carbonation and a smooth mousse, like Verstappen’s personality when not racing, while you can also find one with an aggressive sparkle and energetic mousse, not unlike Verstappen’s driving style when he needs to push. Unlike the wine that Verstappen sarcastically hoped the race stewards bought with the large fine he was forced to pay after 2021 Brazil Grand Prix, Cremants de Bourgogne won’t cost anyone an arm or a leg.

Wine: Louis Bouillot Cremant de Bourgogne Rose Perle d’Aurore Brut, Albert Bichot Cremant de Bourgogne Brut Reserve, JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset Caviar Sparkling Blanc de Blancs.

Enjoy the second half of the season, and get yourself some of the good wine to go with it. With that, it’s lights out and AWAY WE GO.

.

Togonidze’s Full Expression of Terroir

Five Very Successful Years
Gia Togonidze in his element

On my first visit to the Republic of Georgia, in 2017, luck put our group at a wine festival hosted at Mtatsinda Park in the country’s capital of Tblisi. We only had time to visit one winery when a few days later we would swing through Georgia’s best known wine region, Kakheti, and therefore decided that we would choose that winery based on the wines we liked most at the festival.

Ultimately we struck gold when several days later we found ourselves in the house of Gia and Lika Togonidze enjoying their wine over a traditional supra dinner that lasted well into the morning. Several years later, Peter Weygandt of Weygandt-Metzler Importing visited the Togonidzes. And now, Togonidze wines are available in the United States (more on this below).

Since then, I’ve witnessed the growth of Togonidze over social media. While remaining truly small and family (and friend) operated, the growth in foot traffic to Togonidze has been rapid and significant. Instagram after Facebook post show people from around the world having lunch and tasting the wine at the family’s house. Many also express admiration and appreciation for the artistic esthetic of the Togonidze property, which I describe in my original post, with pictures, at some length. It’s been a thrill to see the family and business flourish.

Back with Old Friends
Left to right: Me, Gia, and our friend Zaza

Just over five years after that late night at Togonidze, I again found myself in the company of Gia, Lika, and their uniquely and authentically charming property. Unlike the first visit, this one was planned well ahead of time and the copious amounts of familiar warmth and good food and wine came as no surprise, though neither were any less meaningful or enjoyable that the first time-around.

In fact, they were more significant the second time because I was sharing them with my wife, Kayce, on her first visit to Georgia. As I put it to her, I was in my favorite place in the world with my favorite person for the first time – enjoying, with her, one of my favorite families in the wine business.

Kayce’s first visit to Georgia

Gia doesn’t speak much English, but little gets lost in translation when you’re discussing wine or life with him, especially when the translator is Zaza Kvelidze of Experience Georgia Group. Lika, equally Gia’s partner in life and business, speaks more English, and although she spends less time focused on the wine, she adds just as much to both the experience of others and to the life they lead together through her presence, thoughtfulness, intelligence, cooking, and art. The beauty of their house and its décor is in large part due to her talent and eye.

When we arrived, Lika was busy at work in the kitchen as Gia greeted us, showing us to the room where we’d spend the night. After settling in and getting cleaned up, Gia showed me the latest updates to his winery, which were significant since my last time there. The dirt floors and walls had now been finished, several qvevri (the traditional clay pot for fermenting and aging wine) had been newly buried, and the entire cellar finished.

Georgia’s Resurgence
Wine aging in bottles in the cellar

Gia couldn’t wait to begin pouring wine (nor was I interested in waiting any longer), and sat me down at a table in the cellar already arranged with glasses and cheese. He poured a sample from a tank of unfinished wine, a blend of 60% kisi and 20% each of mtsvane and rkasiteli, probably the most famous three native white grapes. Early in its journey to finished wine, it was big and round with gritty acid and a noticeable alcoholic kick. It featured big hits of pineapple, white pepper, and banana leaf, showing immense promise if not a need for some time to get there.

While I was tasting the wine, Gia was busy searching the cellar and pulling bottles he wanted to open, while telling me about the considerable work that the wine industry in Georgia, the first wine producing country in the world, has left to do in its effort to catch up with the “first world” of winemaking countries.

Although archeology and science date Georgia’s original winemaking efforts to roughly 8,000 years ago, “the experience [of winemaking in Georgia] during Soviet times meant that Georgia missed out on the modernization of winemaking that occurred in non-Soviet areas around the world [during the mid-to-late 20th Century].”

Because the Soviets made winemaking illegal in Georgia, except for the few state-owned wineries that produced mainly for the Russian market that functioned more like mass production factories than places where the art of winemaking was performed, only since Georgia’s independence in 1989 has the country been able to resurrect its own wine industry.

This means that upon their exit from the Soviet Union, not only was there an indeterminate need for winemakers, but also that those winemakers have had to establish a new foundation of knowledge and experience as the country dramatically scaled the planting of quality vineyards while resurrecting many that were left to themselves during the Soviet production ban.

While this dynamic is an incredible challenge in an industry where its participants only get to practice their craft once per year (and thus cannot accumulate knowledge quickly), it is also a rare opportunity for Georgia to take this relatively blank slate and create products unlike any other available on the modern market.

Labels awaiting the bottle aging to finish

Simply offering wine from grapes not really grown anywhere else in the world, as Georgia does (kisi, mtsvane, rkasiteli, saperavi, etc.), is often enough to stand out, but add to that the “oldest winemaking country in the world” moniker and its unique approach to making wine in qveri and the product is definitionally unique.

What they are doing is working; Georgian wine is catching on. According to one report, exports nearly doubled between 2016 and 2019, going from 50 million bottles to 93 million in that four year span. Exports to America during that same period nearly tripled, and in 2021 the value of the country’s wine exports hit $250 million with 2022 on pace to beat that number. In fact, wine is Georgia’s fourth largest export by dollar amount.

Togonidze’s Hybrid Approach
One of the very first wines Gia ever produced: a multi-vintage “wein” nearly ten years old and drinking brilliantly under the no longer used Papa Togondizes moniker

Some producers, and count Togonidze among them, use an approach that combines Georgia’s unique grapes with a winemaking style that blends native and international methods. While much of Georgia’s wine gets the full qvevri treatment, many of Gia’s wines are a blend of wines made both in qveri and steel tank, and some entirely without qvevri. However, like the traditionalists, he believes that Georgia’s native grapes do not perform their best when aged in barrel, and thus avoids oak treatments.

The result, at least in my estimation, are wines that showcase the best of what Georgia’s native grapes can be; while I love Georgia’s amber wines (Georgia’s name for what we in the West call “orange” or “skin contact” wine), and Togo’s are ambers, I often find those made entirely in qveri to be so imbued by the native clay that they become over-saturated to the extent that the beautiful nuance of those native grapes get lost to the massive structure of the wine. Togonidze’s wines do not fall prey to this dynamic, which sets them apart from many of Georgian wines I’ve tried both in the country and in the United States.

A great example of why I prefer Gia’s approach is the 2014 rkasiteli that he poured us, which was made entirely in steel tank and thus showcases the grape rather than the aging vessel. Its extended skin contact produced beautifully pure acid and flavor. 2014 was a late harvest in the Kakheti region where Gia’s grapes are grown. Gia picked in late October, and those grapes required an unusually long fermentation period that produced a very golden wine despite the absence of qvevri aging.

The results, Gia told me, “are special” and produced one of his favorite wines to date. The acid is beautifully pure with bright and perfumed floral qualities that are nearly impossible to find in fully qvevried wines. The nuance is there in full force as well, showing preserved lemon, walnut, apricot, spearmint, and vanilla bean pod. This may be my favorite Togonidze tasted to date, and is among the most memorable wines I’ve tasted in quite some time.

Let the Wine Flow

From that we moved to the 2016 mtsvane, another wine that saw no qvevri. It spent time on its skins, however, producing a very dark amber. Plush and smooth, the grapes were harvested with a higher-than-normal level of sugar, and the steel tank aging has allowed the subtleties to show through. If I had to choose one word to describe this wine, that world would be “honeyed.” Though a dry wine, honey manages to feature in the structure, aromas, and flavors.

Next we tried the 2018 blend of rkasiteli and mtsvane. 2018 as a vintage produced “overwhelming” aromatics, Gia told me, so much so that he limited the amount of qvevri time this wine saw to keep those aromatics at bay. It’s another pure and honeyed wine and a slightly gritty acid. We’ve had a few at home in the US, and it’s a top notch wine (the full tasting note and score can be found here).

The development of the 2014 and 2016 wines, along with a 2013 we were sent home with and the NV Wein pictured above, shows what Gia’s wines can do with some age. The first vintage imported by Weygandt-Metlzer is the 2017, and although we’ve been drinking through the cases we’ve purchased of that vintage, we’re now going to pause on the remainder for a year or three to give them some extra time, as well as age the 2018s we have for another couple of years before consuming.

The 2019 Rkatisteli-Chardonnay featuring one of Gia’s own paintings on the label

One wine that Gia told me isn’t for aging is a one-off blend of chardonnay and rkasiteli that Gia made from the 2019 vintage for export. Calling it an “experiment,” it went through the shortest fermentation Gia has ever done. The result is a particularly light white wine by Georgian standards and is meant to be drunk now. I took no notes on it, but enjoyed its refreshing qualities and versatility with dinner, and am looking forward to revisiting it with the bottle we brought home.

As Gia poured this wine, he pointed out that it was filtered, something he said was for the export market for which the wine is intended. Wine made for domestic production, he said, is not filtered. No wine he produces is fined.

By the time the Rkasiteli-Chardonnay was in our glasses, Kayce had joined and we were all seated at the dinner table. Lika was putting food in front of us and Gia, myself, and Zaza were already three or four glasses into our evening. As this wasn’t a media visit, but rather friends getting together to enjoy each other’s company (and Kayce to meet everyone for the first time), I wasn’t spitting the wine. So having the refreshing 2019 blend was a productive way to start the long meal.

More and More Wine
The cork has held up very well as the wine has aged beautifully

As we finish off the bottles Gia opened before dinner, he went back into the cellar and pulled more out. On my first visit, he gifted me a 2015 Saperavi, the lone red wine he produces. I’ve been aging it, so this was a phenomenal opportunity to experience its current developmental status without having to open, to my knowledge, the one bottle of this vintage physically in the United States. It was really, really good. It was kind of perfect. We’re likely to drink our bottle at home before the end of the year. Though not every vintage of each wine is the same, let the record show that seven years for a Togondize saperavi seems just right, or at least right enough.

Lika’s food, once again, was amazing. In addition to the traditional Georgian salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and walnut paste, and a few others, there was a lamb dish that blew my mind. I’m hoping to get the recipe, though I’m sure it includes native Georgian herbs and/or spices that aren’t available in the US and are impossible to replicate. Georgia’s food continues to be among my very top favorite national cuisines, and meals like this are the reason why.

Several dishes from dinner, including the most delicious lamb I’ve ever had (top left)

Upon our leaving the next day, Gia gifted us a few wines, including two unlabeled wines that he wrote on with gold pen. One had its vintage noted, and we opened it, a 2013, just this last week. I didn’t take any notes on it, but like the 2014 rkatsiteli it showed the refinement these wines can achieve with age.

A 2018 Saperavi and a mystery bottle we took home, with Gia and Lika’s artwork in the background
Passion for Place

As Gia is describing the Georgian experience, he weaved in references to, and anecdotes about, the country’s long and tortured relationship with its neighbor, Russia. Two major areas of Georgia, Abkhazia and Ossetia, have been occupied by Russia since 2008 when Putin cooked up and planted false physical evidence of Georgia “human rights violations” in those regions, “forcing” his hand to invade and take control to restore the perverse version of democracy most of us call autocracy.

That the approach of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine follows the same playbook used against Georgia is no coincidence. As Russia was invading Georgia some fourteen years ago, the Georgians were warning the world – and did up until this year – that this was how Russia would do it to more countries if the West did not intervene. Well, we didn’t, and now look at Ukraine is.

As we discuss Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia, the emotion clearly runs deep in Gia, Lika, and Zaza. They oscillate between a range of emotions, from anger to frustration, bewilderment to familiarity, optimism to resignation, they alway end, however, on some version of love and kindness. Georgians have much to mourn and bemoan if they are willing to really dwell, but few do for very long.

But whether it was those at this dinner, a friend whom Zaza and I later had dinner with who was been one of the highest ranking government officials with a wealth of international diplomatic postings under his belt, or others with whom we struck up conversations on this trip, they tend to get around to love and kindness. It’s just the Georgian way, and it’s a phenomenal thing to experience.

At the same time as we were discussing geopolitics, Gia was talking about the wine. You could see, hear, and feel how humbling it is for him to make wine, like his family has done for many generations, in a country for which he has so much pride – pride in its history; its people, their culture, traditions, and heritage; and their food and wine. But you don’t need to experience with the wine with him to know this, it comes through in the bottle.

There’s Nothing like Togonidze

Few experiences have inspired me like the time I’ve spent with the Togonidze family. Their love for each other, their community, their culture, their country, their heritage, their food, and their wine is infectious and enviable. I’m a firm believer that terroir is more than the connection with the land and environment, that in the best of wines it includes those grapes’ relationships with the people who love to turn those grapes into wine, as well as the culture and heritage in which the wine is conceived and produced. While I’m marked by my intimate experiences with the Togonidzes, I’d like to believe that one who has never met them can at least taste some of these amazing qualities in the wine they produce. If I had to put one winery forward as evidence of this expanded view of terroir, it would be Togondize.

Where to Find Togondize in the States

Weygandt-Metzler has increased the range of Togonidze it’s importing. The brick and mortar shop in Washington, DC, which can ship, is stocking six bottles:

Togonidze’s Wine Mtsvane Kakhuri Dry White 2018 – $24

Togonidze’s Wine Kakhetian Mtsvane Amber Wine 2019 – $26

Togonidze’s Wine Saperavi Red 2019 – $25

Togonidze’s Wine Chardonnay Rkatsiteli Dry White 2019 – $25

Togonidze’s Wine Rkatsiteli Kisi Amber Wine 2019 – $26

Togonidze’s Wine Mtsvane Rkatsiteli Dry White 2018 – $24

All are worth trying, and I encourage readers to stock up on their favorites and enjoy them over a period of at least five years. These wines represent incredible value as well, not only from the perspective of quality-to-price, but also based on the amount of love and attention they get from the production side. If you’re interested in placing an order, I suggest dropping Weygandt an email.

Try This Wine: Colorado Sparkling Wine

“Colorado lacked good sparkling wine, that’s why we built this place,” Sauvage Spectrum Wines winemaker and partner, Patric Matysiewski, told me from behind the bar at their tasting room and winery in Palisade, Colorado. Having just tasted six sparkling wines, I can confirm the results from this very young effort are highly encouraging and we should all be excited for Colorado sparkling wine.

With Patric on the winemaking side, his partner Kaibab Sauvage handles the grape growing. Kaibab has been growing grapes in and around Palisade for over two decades, which means he knows how to keep up his end of the effort to produce the vision they share. Kaibab’s extensive experience really stacks the deck in Sauvage’s favor.

Patric helped me understand that “the latest Colorado wine iteration [which Sauvage is attempting to evolve] was led by people from the oil and gas world, and they wanted to push the varieties and style they were used to drinking,” namely Bordeaux varieties they were used to from the California wines they wanted to emulate in Colorado.

Rather than focus on what the generic consumer knows best because they know it the most, “[Sauvage] grow[s] 27 or 28 varieties on 70 acres of estate vineyards,” a mixture of vitis vinifera and hybrid varieties that is helping Patric and Kaibab develop new and terroir-specific knowledge. About 70-80% of the line-up is steadily produced every vintage, with the remainder filled by one-offs and experiments. The result is a wide range of wine types, varieties, and styles, all of quality and promise but to varying extents of refinement.

Sauvage’s particularly smart tasting set-up: cupcake tins

In addition to going outside the mainstream varieties, as previously mentioned Sauvage is doubling down on sparkling wine because to the extent sparkling wine has been produced in Colorado, “they did Méthode Champenois, which means they had to charge $60 for a bottle [and that’s ridiculous for this market].”

Sauvage’s focus is on simpler and less expensive ways to deliver high quality sparklers to the customer. They produce a range of péttilant naturel, or “pet-nat” for short, wines, which are bottled prior to full fermentation and therefore produce natural carbonation while in the bottle. The result is often less, and certainly less defined, carbonation that traditional Champagne or wines made in that method, but because they require significantly less human involvement and wine facilities to produce, they can to be sold at a fraction of the price and do not require the aging that benefits Champagne and Champagne-style wines.

Pet-nats are a fan favorite of the geeky wine world, but are reaching broader audiences as they feature in more local wine stores and on wine lists at prestigious and popular restaurants. My favorite of the lineup at Sauvage was the Pet-Nat White, a blend of 85% albarińo and 15% aromella. A hazy and yeasty unique wine, the nose wafted Meyer lemon, vanilla, honeysuckle, and cantaloupe. It has a mousse that is both thick and light that combines with bright and brisk acidity and a little residual sugar to build a substantive structure. The flavor profile includes sweet butter cream, pineapple, Opal apple, and orange rind. In making this wine, Patric keeps it on the skins for 10 days and actually foot treads the grapes. I gave it 90 points and, at $25, a value rating of A-.

My favorite wine from the lineup was the Sparklet Rose, a wine that Patric admitted he force carbonates. It’s the same theory as the pet-nats: produce a really tasty wine that’s accessible to a lot of people, especially those with discerning palates and an open mind. The nose offers strawberry, lime, nectarine, cherry, and green pepper corns. Medium in weight, the carbonation is robust, mingling with significant acid and modest skin tannin to produce a refreshing structure sure to stand up to summer meals. On the flavor side, it has watermelon, cherry skins, and raspberry. I give this one 91 points with a value rating of A.

My favorite still wine was the 2020 Roussane, which is barrel fermented and aged. The nose features guava, cactus fruit, curd, and apricot. Medium in stature, the acid and oak influence produce a thick and smooth texture with a nice grippy sensation. The lightly buttered flavor profile includes quince, persimmon, guava, and peach cobbler. It deserves (in my estimation) 91 points and an A value rating.

The red wines showed for me the greatest room for improvement. Malbec seems to be the most promising red variety, a notion that Patric confirmed in our post-tasting conversation. Like the rest of the Sauvage line up, I hope to be able to follow them over the coming years.

Despite the growing tally of terrible things happening in the world every day, there’s a lot of good wine being made, perhaps more than at any point in history. This is a thing to celebrate. Wine is not only an expression of what the Earth can do, but what we as humans can do as well, especially when we pay attention to the Earth and work well with others. Wine brings people together, is capable of engendering pure joy, and elevates everything around it, from the food it accompanies to the conversations we have while enjoying it and connections we make when talking with others who love it as we do. Try Colorado sparkling wine, and Sauvage Spectrum in particular, because we could all use another positive surprise in our glass that only good wine from off the beaten path can deliver.

The Power and Elegance of Chianti Classico

The author and the Black Rooster
A Bit About Terroir

Few wine regions, and their wines, combine power and elegance as well as Tuscany. The land best known for sangiovese is remarkably hilly, the roads featuring few straights or flats of consequence. It experiences the kind of challenging weather one might expect from such topography that rises, at various points, over 1,000 feet above sea level. While this makes traveling the region by car both exhilarating and stressful, it also helps explain the meat and starch dominate local diet that demands the area’s naturally powerful wines. The region’s rich history of both nourishing its inhabits and challenging their existence is an added plot line.

Tuscany’s picturesque vistas bely the challenges of living among them, challenges that might not seem so obvious if we focus on our Hollywood association of Tuscany with self and romantic discovery. It’s a land populated for millennia and plagued, until relatively recently, by frequent bloody fighting among neighboring villages. Yet in more recent times, Tuscany has benefited as much from modernity as anywhere else in the world, becoming a tourism haven based on its natural beauty, incredible history, unique traditions, amazing food and wine, and welcoming people. Enter the elegance.

In Tuscany terroir is more than the connection between land and grape; it permeates the elements of daily life. This is especially evident in the region of Chianti Classico where I spent the week of Thanksgiving last year. I am a newcomer to Chianti Classico, a sub-region of Chianti within Tuscany defined essentially as a portion of the land between Siena and Florence. It has a history of second class wine world citizenship behind its Tuscan neighbor, Montalcino, comparable in many ways but almost always overshadowed by it due, in part, to centuries of decidedly second class quality.

Chianti’s Path To(wards) the Top

Before the first Chianti was bottled and labeled as such (in 1398 – a white wine, in fact), the Tuscan power centers of Florence and Siena, at war since the Middle ages, decided in the 13th Century to settle their territorial dispute in an unusual way: Each city would chose a rooster and a knight, and on the same day each knight would set off towards the other city on horseback when their respective rooster crowed. Wherever the two knights met would become the border.

To gain an advantage, the Florentines put their rooster in a box with no food for the few days leading up to the event so that it would crow earlier than usual out of hunger when the day came. It worked, giving their knight a head start and allowing him to get to within just 20 kilometers of Siena before encountering the Sienese rider. Four centuries later, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III, formalized Chianti as a wine region with its southern tip located where the riders met.

In 1565, an artist named Giorgio Vasari chose the Florentine black rooster that had given the city’s knight a head start to depict the region in a painting that eventually served as the inspiration for Chianti’s winemakers who formed Italy’s first consortium of winemakers in 1924 and adopted the rooster as their logo.

In 1932 the Italian government expanded Chianti beyond the Cosimo III-defined area, and in 1984 gave that original Cosimo III Chianti the designation of Chianti Classico to reflect its origins. At this time both Chianti and Chianti Classico received the Italian government’s highest certification of quality, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG).

By the time the DOCG designation was made, Chianti Classico had not yet fully recovered from the reputation the region had developed over centuries of producing mediocre wine, especially when compared to their southern neighbors in Montalcino. Although the wines were improving, the region was still suffering from this second class reputation.

The requirements on what could be bottled and labeled as Chianti Classico underwent several rounds of refinement with the goal of improving quality and credibility. For the vast majority of the region’s existence, white grapes made up considerable portions of red blends; in the 1950s, trebbiano was often a third of a red wine’s contents, for example.

It wasn’t until 1996 that the production of 100% red wine was even authorized – limited to sangiovese. In 2005, the region’s consortium set a requirement that all Chianti Classico wines must include at least 80% sangiovese, with the following year becoming the first that producers began leaving white grapes out of their red wines.

As part of its efforts to improve quality and reputation, the consortium established designations for wine sbased on a variety of factors, including maximum vineyard yields, alcohol levels, extraction rates, duration of aging before the wines are both bottled and released. In 2014, the latest designation was made: Gran Selezione, which sits above Chianti Classico Riserva and Chianti Classico.

The oldest Chianti Classico I’ve tried is 2007, so I cannot speak to the evolution of quality from first hand experience. This limited exposure, however, was enough to pique my interest, and so when I decided to take a solo trip it last November wasn’t terribly difficult to settle on Chianti Classico.

Landing in Panzano
One of Panzano’s many breathtaking views

My first destination after landing in Rome was the small hilltop town of Panzano, a sort-of mid-point between Siena and Florence. I had heard about a butcher there, Dario Cecchini, who has become famous in part due to a visit by Anthony Bourdain. The Cecchini family has leveraged that fame to launch several restaurants and a bed and breakfast in Panzano, and I figured there might be no better entry point to November in Tuscany than a hearty and traditional local meal.

Upon arrival in Panzano, I checked into the Cecchini’s Rosso del Chianti and made my way by foot down the hill and into town where I stopped by a wine, cheese, and meat store called Wine Gourmet la Ripa to kill some time before dinner. The proprietor put together a small plate of delicious local meat and cheese, and paired with it a glass of 2019 Monte Bernardi Retromarcia Chianti Classico. I’d never heard of Monte Bernardi before, but liked it so much that I decided to fit a quick visit into my itinerary. More on that later. La Ripa was a wonderful find.

Wine Gourmet la Ripa in Panzano

My dinner was at Officina della Bistecca, the Checchini’s restaurant located the floor above their butcher shop, which offers a 50 euro set menu that includes four different beef courses plus a few quintessential Tuscan side dishes, bread, dessert, and a metal plant pot full of raw vegetables to gnaw on.

The open kitchen, where diners sit at rustic tables, features an open grill where your main courses are prepared in real time. I wound up seated next to a family that lives in a town close to where I grew up, and thoroughly enjoyed the friendly conversation. The drink menu is BYO, so I brought a bottle of Chianti Classico Riserva from their store downstairs. The meal was exceptional, and I particularly enjoyed the traditional Tuscan tartar.

The combination of Rosso del Chianti, la Ripa, Officina, and the beautiful views from the small town were a fun way to start the trip, and the next day I made my way to Siena, which would be my home base for the remainder of the trip.

Officina della Bistecca

My time in Siena lasted five nights, and the plan was to sleep in each day, enjoy the hotel’s extensive breakfast, leisurely make my way to one winery where I would spend several hours, return to nap, and then walk to the historic old city for exploration and dinner. The only changes to this itinerary ended up being the addition of two wineries, both of which I’m very glad to have visited.

One note before proceeding: In lieu of scoring each wine I tasted, I’ve adopted a formatting meant to draw attention to the wines I found particularly compelling. Those in bold are wines that left a mark, and ones that I hope to encounter again. Bolded and italicized wines are those that I plan to seek out. Bolded, italicized, and underlined are those that I prioritized adding to our collection, purchasing them at the wineries at the time of tasting.

Cecchi

My first winery visit was Cecchi, one of the largest conglomerates in Chianti featuring a range of wines produced by a number of properties. The gorgeous property of Cecchi itself (spoiler alert: every property I visited is gorgeous (it’s Tuscany!)) has been planted with vines since 1081, and features facilities both modern and traditional. I was given a nice tour and then an extensive seated tasting with the chance to taste through a range of wines, from entry level to the highest end.

The Cecchi line-up

We started with the 2019 Cecchi Sangiovese di Toscana, a sangiovese from Chianti Classico not produced according to the region’s specifications and therefore unable to be labeled as such. It sees no oak, and is designed to be an easy-drinking wine for any occasion. The nose was fruit-forward, plum-driven, and featured rhubarb. The palate was smooth, low on tannin, and its red fruit and easy spice made it refreshing.

Next up was the 2020 Cecchi Chianti, a blend of grapes mainly from the Siena province that also see no oak. The nose was a bit more saturated than the Toscana and featured dried herb and juniper along with the tradition red and black fruits of the region. The palate was quite smooth, bordering on lush, but elevated by its bright acid. The tannins were long and lean, featuring tobacco along with the fruit.

Chianti Classico wines are known for significant tannins, and their arrival with the 2019 Cecchi Storia di Familglia Chianti Classico signaled things were getting local. The plum-led nose featured more depth and complexity than the prior two wines, featuring prune and star anise aromas that kept my nose going back for more. Those substantive tannins were balanced by good acid, and the wine poured quite dark. Flavors included blackberry, licorice, black strap molasses, violet, and dark fruits. Roughly 1 million bottles of this, a homage to the Cecchi family’s history, get produced each year. The grapes come entirely within the Castellina sub-region, and the blend is at least 90% sangiovese each vintage.

From there we ventured to the 2017 Cecchi Chianti Classico Riserva di Fagmilia. This one is a blend of 90% sangiovese and 10% cabernet sauvignon that is produced entirely off the estate vineyard and aged 12 months in oak. The earthy nose offered some fungal notes along with plum, cassis, currant, and violet. The sturdy and broad tannins framed a highly structured wine, thankfully elevated by juicy acid. The profile included lots of similarly earth-forward flavors along with a nice note of blood orange. This really shined on the palate, and is one I’d like to enjoy over a long evening in 2027.

By this point my mouth was filling up with tannin, but I was eager to soldier on when the 2016 Cecchi Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Valore di Famiglia was poured. It comes from older and higher elevation vines, and although the oldest wine of the lineup, it will require the most aging. The reticent and floral note is similar to the Riserva di Fagmilia, though time will likely expose more complexity. The most substantive and layered of the Cecchi Chianti Classicos, the graceful palate layers blood orange, raspberry, cherry, tobacco, violet, pepper, and tomato leaf. I wouldn’t touch this one for at least ten years.

The penultimate wine was the 2015 Coevo, the pinnacle wine of the Cecchi brand. Always a blend, this vintage is 50% sangiovese, 20% each cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and 10% petit Verdot. The sangiovese qualities are apparent on the nose, though the cherry is turned up, and augmented by fresh herb, sweet flower, and a variety of marmalades. The smooth, substantive, and elegant palate shows the sangiovese DNA at its core, which is surrounded by strawberry, cocoa, sweet leather, and black pepper. This is a very elevated wine; the tannins do serious work as they mix with oxygen, but the acid keeps the wine lively and juicy. There should be no rush to drain these bottles.

We finished on a very different note with a pour of the 2014 Tenuta Alzatura Montefalco Sagratino. From the Montefalco Sangratino area of Umbria (way outside Chianti), this sturdy variety reminded me of several wine tastings I’ve done in Virginia that feature mostly Bordeaux varieties but end with tannat, a grape historically from Uruguay that is dark, tannin-rich, and peppery.

The Sagratino, of which roughly 13,000 bottles are produced each year, has a dark set of aromas that include tar, licorice, plum, blackberry, fungus, and blueberry; effectively a more complex version of tannat. On the palate it’s very structured and incredibly tannic, but surprisingly balanced because of the bright acid – something rarely achieved by tannat. Similar to petit verdot, it’s very peppery, and also carries loads of tar, mulled blackberry compote, licorice, and dark moist earth. I was told that it pairs well with boar dishes.

The Cecchi range represents a number of characteristics: High quality, differentiation between each bottling, varietal (and location) signatures, and value. Emphasis on the value. Cecchi’s three Chianti Classicos, for example, showed the characteristics you would expect for high quality examples of the region’s quintessential wines, but at price tags you’d expect to find on lesser wines. And bonus: With the exception of the Sagratino, these are widely distributed within the United States.

Villa di Geggiano (Geggiano pronounced “jay-ja-no”)

Villa di Geggiano was my introduction to Chianti Classico. I took a flyer on their 2007 Riserva when I came across it a few years ago on Winebid, and it was one of the most memorable wines I drank in 2020 – and still counts as one my favorite red wines. That bottle led to more exploration of the region that ultimately inspired the trip, so after I booked my flights and accommodations, they were the first winery I reached out to schedule.

Though the winery and estate came into the Bianchi Bandinelli family in the 1500s as a dowry, its history as a winery goes back further – its cellar, for example, dates back the 1300s. The property itself has several gardens, both ornamental and functional, and is a declared National Heritage site. When I arrived, Andrea Bianchi Bandinelli gave me a tour of the area immediately surrounding the unbelievably gorgeous villa, which is a functioning guesthouse. We walked through several gardens, Andrea telling me about the history of the property and some of their future plans for it.

One of the estate’s highlights is an outdoor raised theater, the Teatro di Vezura, that was built in the 18th Century and is surrounded by incredibly tall Cyprus trees and hedges. Playwright and poet, Vittorio Alfieri, the founder of Italian tragedy, was a frequent guest of the property in the 18th Century and even performed one of his tragedies there. Live concerts and other performances are still held at the Teatro year-round.

The Geggiano Villa

While I’m glad the place I stayed at in Siena was within walking proximity to historic Siena, in hindsight I should have spent at least a night or two at Geggiano. The family puts its heart and soul into not just its wine but its entire property, committing the long hours – and money – to maintain everything, including the villa’s flour-to-ceiling (and ceiling-covering) frescos, intricate flooring, and everything else in and around the building. My favorite mural, among many, in the villa was done in 1780 by a traveling Austrian painter depicting the four seasons.

Although Geggiano began exporting its wines to the United Kingdom in 1795, exportation lagged during the winery’s more recent history until Andrea and his brother took over in 1989. Chianti Classico producers of its size – around 40,000 bottles per year – typically sell locally and have just a few big clients, but Andrea, who speaks great English and is well-traveled, saw exporting as an important diversification strategy and took it on. The effort has been so successful in England that the family opened an outpost in London in the form of a restaurant in 2014.

The Grounds

One of Andrea’s early connections was to Kermit Lynch, who liked what he tasted so much that Geggiano became Lynch’s second Italian client. “Kermit tasted the wines and told us to stop filtering, and we did,” Andrea told me. “Before that we only filtered half our wines, but after trying it we agreed with Kermit that it was better to not filter any of our wine.”

One winemaking technique used at Geggiano that stood out to me is the addition they make of dry ice to their three-day cold soak, putting the dry ice in the destemmer so it comes out with the berries. “When the dry ice melts it releases carbon dioxide, which acts as a natural preservative and means we don’t have to use as much sulfites,” Andrea said, explaining that this allows the fermentation to extract “more flavor and aromas in more delicate ways.” There is a sense of uniqueness to Geggiano wines, a more precise window into the wine’s terroir than I’m used to experiencing with most wine, and perhaps this dry ice technique is a reason why.

A large cistern helps provide for the estate’s water needs

After spending considerable time walking and talking, we sat down at a table in one of the side rooms of the villa to taste. The first wine poured was the 2019 Bandinello Toscano, a blend of 60% sangiovese and 20% each of syrah and ciliegolo. This blend of younger vine fruit is intended to be an early drinking wine with great freshness, and delivers a textural footprint framed by deceptively light tannin and elevated acid, byproducts of a three month stay in “very old” barrels before bottling. Andrea told me that he likes to serve it slightly chilled in the summer. I found its combination of fruit and earthly aromas and flavors, which produce a nice spicy plum undercurrent, very enjoyable. I usually default to Rosso di Montalcino when I am in need of a light red, but as I tasted it I couldn’t help but think how great it would go with marinara dishes and grilled meat.

From there we sent to the 2017 Villa di Geggiano Chianti Classico, a bottling of 100% sangiovese from the mid-age range of their vineyards. This wine poured quite dark, and the immediate seriousness of what I had experienced with that 2007 Riserva struck me. “2017 is not considered an easy vintage,” Andrea warned me, as I smelled the wine. “However, it didn’t produce enough Riserva-level fruit so we put all those grapes into this wine.” No wonder it reminded me of the Riserva!

It is a full, round, and flavorful wine with a beautifully perfumed nose (a signature of Geggianio Riserva). The surprisingly mature structure seemingly belied the immaturity of the prototypical Chianti Classico flavors, which remained buried under the tannin that, although substantive, avoided most of the astringency one might find in young Chianti Classicos from even the top producers. This will have a long and interesting evolution.

Wine aging in the Geggiano cellar built in the 1300s

Next was the 2016 Villa di Geggiano Chianti Classico Riserva. When I tasted it, it had been in bottle for only three months and Andrea cautioned me against making too many conclusions about it. The grapes for the Riserva come from the oldest at the estate. The blackish-red wine was bigger, rounder, and juicier than the Classico, and showed the Geggiano team’s effort to produce “a more elegant and aromatic” wine.

Unlike the Classico, a small percentage of the winery’s 40-year old cabernet sauvignon vines, 5% of the blend in this vintage, is added “to give more breadth to the bouquet.” Florals showed through in both the aromas and flavors, while the tannins showed elegance and refinement rarely found in Classico and balanced well with the beautifully deft acid. This one struck me as particularly age worthy – I wouldn’t touch it before 2030.

We finished with a 2008 Classico, a treat from the cellar that I was thrilled to have the opportunity to experience. The then-13-year old wine showed a beautifully mature bouquet and a level of freshness worthy of a much younger wine. In fact, the palate remained tight after an hour of aeration in both structure and flavor, but also showed some mid-life qualities of baking spice and sweet balsamic reduction. I got the feeling it would continue to mature and improve at least through its 20th birthday. Like every Geggiano I’ve tasted, there’s less blood orange than I typically experience in Chianti Classico wines, and I found myself noting but not missing it with this or any of the other Geggiano wines tasted.

One topic of discussion throughout my time with Andrea was the impact of climate change on their vineyards and winemaking, which Andrea said he and his brother have experienced, in often wild waves, ever since taking over the estate.

“The previous generation would harvest in October, but now we typically do that September 10th-15th or so. There’s been a lot of draught, heat waves, and big rains,” he told me. They have employed a variety of techniques to account for these dramatic weather events, for example pruning later so that flowering isn’t killed by the increasingly frequent spring frosts, and leaving clippings on the soil to slow evaporation (“our clayish soil helps us with this as well” as it retains moisture very well).

Geggiano has not yet produced a Gran Selezione, making its Riserva the highest end of its range. Taking the designation seriously, that a Gran Selezione should be notably and noticably better than a Riserva, the family has taken its time determining where it might develop fruit that qualifies. “We’ve wanted to have an established new normal [of weather] before putting the time and investment into a Gran Selezione,” Andrea told me.

The time for one, though, appears to have come. They are now working on what Andrea described as a “cru” 1-hectre vineyard on a southeast-facing slope right up against the villa, with the intent to eventually produce such a wine. The Geggiano Riserva is such a good wine, I’m hard-pressed to imagine a better version, though I am quite keen on tasting it what they put together.

I went into my Geggiano visit excited and left even more so. Too often I come across a single bottle of wine I love, and then as I explore the producer come to realize that whether founded in reality or perception, no other wine from that producer will top my initial experience. With Geggiano that is not the case. As a note from for those in or visiting New York, Andrea told me their wines can be found now at 11 Madison Park.

San Guisto a Rentennano (Guisto pronounced “jew-stow”)
San Guisto a Rentennano’s concrete tanks

As I was leaving Villa di Geggiano, Andrea and I discussed my remaining plans for the trip including both winery visits and restaurant reservations. The one winery he really pushed me to add to my itinerary was the renowned San Giusto a Rentennano. Close friends of his, he called one of the family members and set the visit up for me the very next day. There was zero way I was saying no.

As one leaves the main road to drive the private road up to the estate, taking in the sweeping landscape, vineyards, and olive tree groves, it is impossible to not feel the history and tension of Tuscany. San Giusto’s property was originally a monastery for nuns called San Giusto a Monache that opened in the late 900’s. Later, in 1204, after signing a border treaty with the Sienese, the Florentines fortified it and used it as a defensive post. It was later destroyed and rebuilt in the 1600s. Although most of the Florentine fortifications have fallen prey to time, some remain, and a portion of those along with other old foundations were used to create the 800+ year-old cellar still used today, which I was able to visit in total awe.

A corner of the cellar

Later, when I sat down to taste, I was able to see oyster shells, frequently unearthed on the property, that date back toa period roughly 60 million years ago (yes, you read that right) when this part of Tuscany was under the sea. The shells make the cellar seem modern.

The current family of owners, the Martini di Cigalas, took the property over when it came to them through marriage in 1914. In 1957 it was inherited by Enrico Martini di Cigala and his nine children. Today, six family members form the owner partnership including Anna, who showed me around the property and its facilities and gave me a tasting I’ll never forget.

The family tree

The property is 160 hectares with an average elevation of 270 meters, or just shy of 900 feet above sea level, of which 31 are planted to vine, 11 to olive trees, 40 to woods, and 78 reserved for grazing and “cultivated” purposes. Like much of Tuscany, the property experiences dramatic differences between day time and night time temperatures, and because of its geographic aspects gets a lot of wind.

The oldest vines on the property are now about 50 years old. Beginning in 1989, the family began replanting one hectare of vineyard per year using land that had undergone five to six years of revitalization prior to replanting. The vine density is between 5,000 and 7,000 vines per hectare, which is high, to drive competition by forcing the roots to grow deep into the ground to find sustenance. This tactic shines through in the wines, which demonstrate incredible depth of flavor.

Producing wine is clearly a labor of love for the di Cigala family. During the summer months, for example, the vines are thinned by as much as 50% in a practice known as “green harvesting” to limit resource dissemination in the vines and boost the quality of those grapes that ultimately end up in the wines. Each row is eventually harvested three times as the team looks for different selections to serve their range of wine: The larger bunches of sangiovese go into the Chianti Classico, the medium sized into the Riserva, and the smallest into the flagship Percarlo. 

The Vin Santo drying and barrel room

Perhaps the most inspiring example of the care put into San Giusto’s winemaking is their Vin Santo, a traditional sweet Chianti wine made of sangiovese that has been air dried before it is pressed to concentrate the flavors and sugars. In this winery’s case, the grapes are dried for three months and then pressed into small barrels, many of which are over 100 years old and none of which are ever cleaned.

The fermentation is jumpstarted with an addition from the “mother” barrel, something similar to a sour dough starter, that is a family product dating back multiple generations. Filtration takes a month-and-a-half to two months to complete and requires a canvas-like filter that needs multiple cleanings during the process.

Producing vin santo “is more [about] passion, not economics,” Anna told me as we stood in the drying room in the top floor of the winery. It’s a process in which San Giusto “ends up with a wine measuring 10-12% of what could have been produced using the same grapes to make a dry wine.”

~60 million, give or take, year-old oyster shells

Anna and I sat down to taste in a room with wonderful views of the property and display cases of oyster shells and other paraphernalia from the property. We started with the 2019 Chianti Classico, a blend of 95% sangiovese and 5% canaiolo that spends 10 months in oak. Considered a good vintage, the structure, as with all of the San Giusto wines I tasted, was absolutely seamless, melding its tannin and acid to produce serious grip and lifted floral notes that included lavender, violet, and rose. The flavor profile also included warm leather and blood orange to go with sweet cherry. This was better than many of the Riservas and Gran Seleziones I’ve had from other Chianti Classico producers, and was (and remains) the most serious-smelling Classico I’ve put my nose over to date.

Next came the 2018 Riserva le Baròncole, which is 97% sangiovese and 3% canaiola. While production is similar to the Classico, it receives an additional six to ten months of French barrel and cask aging. Once bottled, San Giusto lets it rest for six months before moving it out the door. The berries used for it are smaller in size than those that go into the Classico, and this choice shines in the concentration and depth of the wine. The nose seems infinitely layered, showing promise in its youth of a variety of sweet and leathery aromas. The mouthfeel and structure is otherworldly, allowing the wine to be both thicker than the Classico and somehow more delicate at the same time. Similarly seamless, the amazingly pure fruit – a cornucopia of red and black types – plays well with the sweet earthy aromas. It hits that magical point that few wines do of being more than the sum of its parts. While the Classico might go from really good to great in the next five years, this Riserva will need twice as long to achieve its best, if not more.

The 2017 Percarlo, meaning “For Carlo” and named after a family friend who died one year before the first vintage of this wine, is 100% sangiovese and befitting of a wine named after a special person. It spends 23 months in oak and then one year in bottle before becoming available to the public, and is a cuvée of the smallest berries from the best parts of the vineyards.

My first written note is “this is quite something – incredibly substantive in every direction; the vista is incredible.” The nose was more reticent than the palate at this stage, with a focus on delicate violet florals and that crushed Sweetart thing. The acid was bright, maybe brighter than the Classico or Riserva, but remained perfectly balanced. On the tannin side it was the most refined of the three sagiovese wines (quite a feat); “pure perfection on that front,” I jotted down.

I never found a rhythm going back and forth between the Percarlo, the Classico, and the Riserva, because all were so good that I couldn’t stay focused on one for very long before grabbing the next glass to check in. Thankfully, the next two wines were the 100% merlot 2018 and 2015 La Ricolma, which pulled me out of my sangiovese circuit.

These two wines were the most pleasant surprise of the trip and examples of a wine I’d put up against any other merlot in the world with great confidence that they’d stand up to, if not defeat, their challengers. The Ricolma is the result of a decision to plant merlot for the purpose of blending into the Chianti Classico. “We never did produce a Classico with any merlot because [when we tried it] we didn’t like it. Instead, we turned it into a unique project that we call “a Chianti merlot,” Anna explained.

It was fascinating to taste a traditionally smooth variety like merlot that was grown in a region known for robust tannin. Rentennano are able to build a very smooth mouth feel into this regional peculiarity by developing just enough of the right acid to smooth out a classically Chianti tannic profile. This is a merlot like no other.

The 2018 has some of the sweetness of the Rentennano Chiantis as well as some of their florals, but there remains sufficient quintessential merlot typicity that while one might be confused about its physical origin, they would be unlikely to confuse the variety. Despite age being on its side, the cooler vintage 2015 struck me as more austere and angular, more grippy and earthy, and less sweet than the younger 2018. Both are going to benefit with time, but are already quite special.

We finished with the 2013 Vin Santo, a sweet wine unlike any I’d had before – Vin Santos included. Vin Santos have a an almost gelatinous mouth feel that is not for everyone; I tend to describe them, and especially San Guisto’s, as slimy wine, for better or worst.

San Guisto purposefully fills their Vin Santo barrels only two-thirds of the way full to oxidate the wine. By the time it gets bottled, the sugar is around 400 grams per liter. By way of comparison, that’s roughly four times the sugar of a typical Port; the far end of Wine Folly’s chart of sugar in wine notes that “very sweet” wine falls within the 120-220 grams per liter range. Thankfully this one has brilliant acid, which appropriately redirects the high sugar with depth and crispness; you “feel the structure of the sugar more than you taste the sweetness,” I wrote.

Since returning from Tuscany, I’ve spent more time thinking about and purchasing San Giusto a Rentennano wines than any other wine I tasted on the trip. The time spent there was one of those life-changing events, up there with the likes of our visits to Emidio Pepe and Markus Hüls a few years ago. I went to Chianti knowing I loved Villa di Geggiano, and I came back knowing that I’d never get board of Chianti Classico again because now I have San Giusto as well.

Monte Bernardi

As mentioned earlier, I enjoyed a single glass of Bernardi Chianti Classico my first night in Tuscany, when I was staying in Panzano and visited a small wine and charcuterie shop. I asked the proprietor to pick the wine for me, and as he told me about his selection I could see a couple at the table next to me listening and chuckling. After the proprietor left, they leaned over and told me how hilarious they found it that even though I had traveled to Italy, I had been given a wine made by a winery owned by a fellow American. The wine was good, so I didn’t care.

As I sat there, I did a 30 seconds of Googling and noticed two things: Monte Bernardi was less than five minutes down the hill from where I was sitting, and it seemed to be popular among the natural wine crowd. I wasn’t really looking to add another winery visit, but I figured that if I found myself out and about and interested in another tasting, I could pop in for a quick tasting. Towards the end of the trip I indeed did find myself in that position, and made the stop.

Monte Bernardi’s name as an estate goes back to 1085, though the first wines produced under that name were made with the 1992 vintage. Prior to that, grapes grown on the property were sold to wineries. Perched on their own mini hilltop, the tasting room has direct line of vision to some of the winery’s estate vineyards. Monte Bernardi only produces wines from its own vineyards and does so biodynamically. The 53-hectare estate has 9.5 of them planted to vines, which average 40 years in age. The estate was indeed purchased by an American family, the Schmelzers, in 2003, and remains under their ownership.

I didn’t get into many details with the person in the tasting room, but a few things stuck out that are in keeping with a biodynamic approach to winemaking: minimal human intervention, very neutral oak, concrete tanks, and low sulfur dioxide. One thing that did surprise me was the duration of wood aging, which is significantly longer than the legally required amounts. For example, the portion of the Retromarcia Chianti Classico that gets oak aging spends 18 months in large casks. The Sa’Etta, my favorite of the lineup and a riserva, can spend as long as 30 months in wood.

On a future trip I plan to reach out to the winery to see if I can spend more time on the property as my brief encounter with the wines left me wanting more. They are not the hardest niché Chianti Classicos to find in the US, and for those looking to try something a little different I highly recommend them.

Sorelli and Felsina

I also made visits to Cantina Sorelli and Felsina, though my notes from those visits have somehow vanished. I spent time at Sorelli with Matteo Sorelli, one of the younger generation of the Sorelli family who is undertaking considerable efforts to modernize and refine the long-time operation that produces a range of wines of wide quality and type, mostly in the lower tier of price points, across a range of brands. A conglomerate, they own (among many others) Castello di Uzzano, makers of serious Chianti Classico. I really enjoyed my time with Matteo, and left very impressed with his business, and wine, acumen. I’ll be curious to see where he steers the company has he seems to take a minority view among the company by prioritizing quality over quantity.

Just one portion of the sprawling cellar of Felsina

Felsina is an industry standard of Chianti Classico. Their wines are widely available in the United States, and are held up as a standard bearer of the region. I had a nice tour of the cellar, and then a guided tasting of three Chianti Classicos, their Tuscana red blend called Fontalloro, their chardonnay, and their non-vintage spumante. I will admit to both a subpar experience with previous bottles of their Rancia Riserva, and an extremely good prior experience with their spumante. I hoped that this visit would give me a more rounded experience with their wines. While I wasn’t able to taste many of their wines that would have been new to me, I took to the 2018 Fontalloro and 2016 Spumante Brut, both of which are now aging in our cellar.

I’ll Be Back

In the last two years, the quantity of sangiovese in our collection has multiplied by a factor of six. Much of that growth has happened since this Tuscan trip. I brought back some Geggiano, Monte Bernardi, and Felsina, and have gone on a mini Rentenanno buying spree as I continue to look for more Geggiano domestically.

Two of the many beautiful things about Chianti Classico are its affordability and its long lifespan. It’s financially feasible to stock up on Chianti Classicos relative to, say, Brunello, and the affordability allows you purchase more wine and experience them at more stages of their development. This is true of even the highest end Chianti Classicos, and it permits you to get to know the wines, their winemakers, and terroir more intimately, connecting you more deeply with the varietal and a region of the world that is enticing, inviting, beautiful, and challenging. Chianti Classico is a gift that keeps on giving in this regard.

My favorite city in Europe is Florence, and I was very tempted to make that my home base for this trip. But I knew that with my daily trips to the wineries, I would have to battle the traffic of whatever city I stayed in. My terrible experience with Florence’s traffic is what pushed me to Siena, a city I had never been before. I’ll just say that I am quite pleased with how it worked out.

Siena is smaller than Florence, but offers its own brand of charm and history. The old city is quite beautiful, and I really enjoyed getting to know it by foot as I ate and drank my way through it. Geggiano’s Andrea Bianchi Bandinelli, in addition to connecting me with Rentennano, sent me to a restaurant in old Siena called Osteria Le Logge, owned by a friend of his. It was one of my last dinners of the trip, and definitely the best; those traveling through Siena should not miss it. Le Logge has its own multi-floor underground cellar, located a few minutes’ walk from the restaurant, and I was treated to a tour of it by its master. I ultimately selected and enjoyed a Faccoli Franciacorta Riserva Extra Brut 2005, yet another example of how underrated Italian sparkling wine can be.

Italian sparkling wine is vastly underrated

While I was able to cover a lot of ground in Chianti Classico, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. My first trip won’t be my last, and I look forward to visiting the friends I made on this trip while making new ones as I eat and drink my way through a region that deserves every bit of the legend it has.

Try This Wine: St. Helena Royalty

A disappointingly brief afternoon with Kathy Corison in St. Helena

A couple of years ago, a friend of Good Vitis organized a shipment of wines from the St. Helena appellation in Napa Valley that we shared with a few friends. St. Helena is in southern-most tip of what might be considered the upper third of Napa Valley, bordered by Rutherford to the south, Spring Mountain to the west, Diamond Creek and Calistoga to the north, and Howell Mountain to the east. It’s always been my base of operations when I’ve visited Napa, offering proximity to a number of my favorite restaurants in the area and great views no matter which direction one looks. It is where my mind goes when it imagines “Napa.”

I haven’t written about the wines that we tasted, nor posted the tasting notes to Cellartracker, as I never got around to interviews with the various winemakers. However, a subsequent visit to one of the producers and additional samples from them have motivated me to put something together and get it out because the wines and the appellation are more than deserving of it.

Corison’s rosé and gewürztraimer are bottled under the Corazón label
Corison Winery

The entire sample line up included wines of quality, a number of them quite tasty, and one winery in particular of notability: Corison Winery. Founded by Cathy Corison, one of the most widely respected winemakers in America, Corison produced its first vintage in 1987. Corison is among the southern most wineries in St. Helena and uses both estate and non-estate vineyards. The entire Corison line up includes three cabernet sauvignons, a cabernet franc, a rosé of cabernet sauvignon, and a gewürztraminer with grapes sourced from Anderson Valley. There’s not a winemaker in Napa who I’ve spoken to about Cathy and Corison who haven’t had anything but the upmost respect for her and the wines.

On a trip to Napa last year, my wife Kayce and I spent an hour touring and tasting with Cathy. It was an hour masterclass in the complexity that cabernet sauvignon can achieve when grown appropriately and produced by a scion of winemaking. The notes from that experience are unfortunately long gone, but the sense of wonder and respect that both of us experience remain vivid.

Kronos Vineyard cabernet sauvignon

The most ingrained memory of the September visit was the brief walk into the estate Kronos vineyard with Cathy and the size of the clusters hanging from the original 1971 vine plantings that were the size you’d expect to see in early-middle summer. A single bottle of the current Kronos release will set you back around $200, which makes a lot more sense when you hold one of its tiny clusters in your hand and appreciate how a production of 1.25 tones of fruit per acre of vines translates into the bottle. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how big my hand looked while holding a Kronos cabernet cluster.

I also remember us talking about what it was like for Cathy to arrive at Freemark Abbey in 1978 for a harvest internship. She also spent time at Yverdon, Chappellet, and Staglin. Beginning in 1987, she began buying fruit and making her own wine under the Corison label on the side. In 1995 she bought Kronos and in 1999 built an adjacent winery, allowing her to focus for on her own project. Twenty years after the Kronos purchase, she and her long-time partner William Martin bought the esteemed Sunbasket vineyard after purchasing its fruit for the prior two-and-a-half decades. These two vineyards represent the estate portfolio.

Cathy guiding us through the tasting in the crush pad

One item that came through clearly in our conversation about these experiences was just how much of a force she is – a force of winemaking, force of business acumen, and force of creative vision. I understood then, as we tasted a good half dozen of her wines, why everyone who I know that has commented about her or Corison in my presence has professed their utmost respect and admiration.

The wine that stands out most clearly from that tasting is the Helios cabernet franc. While I’m fond of the variety, I’ve never been drawn to it as I’ve yet to find my personal sweet spot between the uber-funky Chinon-style and the so-ripe-it-might-as-well-be-cabernet-sauvignon New World style. The Helios is probably the varietal example I’ve most liked.

As we were leaving, Kayce and I signed up for the wine club and looked over the library wines available, seeing my wife’s birth year on the list. As we were in Napa for her birthday, it was an easy purchase that we drank later that evening. I didn’t want to disrupt from the celebration by taking tasting notes, but I remember it being pure, infinitely layered with complexity, and regal.

Cathy’s Wines

The cabernets are challenging to review when young because they reveal a small fraction of their eventual quality, intrigue, and appeal. To be frank, it seems impossible to me to spend this kind of money on a bottle of Corison if I were to drink it before its tenth birthday because there are less expensive Napa cabs that are more enjoyable in their youth. The experience with a 2006 we tasted with Cathy and the birth year wine, which I would guess was at its best around age twenty, really cemented this sentiment. Please take this into account when digesting the reviews below; the reflect where the wines were when I tasted them as well as some amount of aspirational hope about what they will become when adequately aged.

We’ve since received a few club releases of the Kronos and Napa Valley cabernets, which have stowed in the deepest depths of the cellar where they will remain for at least ten years, as well as the rosé and gewürztraminer that we opted into when signing up after really enjoying both during the tasting. Friends of ours have subsequently visited at our behest and decided to splurge on a few bottles because it was just too damn good to ignore. Try Corison’s wines for their quality, history, reverence, and humility.

2016 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – Very purple for a Napa cab, and a wine that takes on weight and depth the longer it is exposed to air. The nose is big and savory with tomato leaf, cigar tobacco, well-seasoned leather, blackberry, stewed blueberry, and plum. Medium plus in body with really sooth and fine tannin. The acid is well-tuned and integrated. Quite dense, but laser focused and silky. Mulled cherry/blackberry pie and a bit savory, it offers mountain strawberry, saline, tomato vine, and dried basil. Super tasty right now, but the layers need time to unravel. Incredibly only 13.1 ABV. I’d sit on this for five to seven years and then drink over the following ten. 94 points. Value: B+.

2018 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – Decanted for three hours. The young nose wafts cherry, blackberry, boysenberry, black currant, sweet leather, and black plum. Boarding on full bodied, the black tea tannins are broad and thick while the acid is formidable but integrated. The fruit flavors are dark and have a dehydrated quality to them, while the earthy notes include tobacco, baking spice, and black pepper. The depth is evident in the mouthfeel, suggesting a good five to seven years will usher in some unveiling of complexity. Give it ten to fifteen years to enjoy it at its best. 94 points. Value: B+.

2018 Corison Sunbasket Vineyard – Decanted for about three hours. The elegant nose emits dark cherry compote, black plum, delicate sweet chocolate, violet, rose hip, cassis, and modest sweet and toasty oak. Seemingly medium bodied, it adds weight as it sits in the palate, while the sweet, slightly dense tannins fill out and surround a core of dense and juicy acid. Precious little cabernet from anywhere in the world hits this combination of elegance and depth, especially considering the complimentary lifespan it achieves. The flavor profile includes semi-tart cherry, raspberry, mountain strawberry, cigar tobacco leaf, tanned leather, lavender, graphite, and moist soil. This is an impressive wine right now in its built, but if you can sit on it for at least a decade there likely won’t be anything about it that won’t blow you away. 96 points. Value: B+.

2019 Corison Corazón Gewürztraimer – The boisterous nose wafts guava, banana peel, orange blossom, daisy, and white pepper. Medium bodied with bright, tincil acid that keeps the structure sharp. The flavor profile includes guava, Opal apples, starfruit, slate minerality, and lychee. This is a technically sharp, vibrant wine with great depth and shine that I’d be happy to drink several times a week. 93 points. Value: A-.

More from St. Helena

The other samples that we tasted from the St. Helena sample shipment are listed below. The stylistic range is impressive. One on end, the Calafia is a big wine that is tasting well from sip one and probably won’t improve much with time (but will certainly evolve a bit). On the other end is Corison. The range shows what this tiny area is capable of producing, and signals that there’s something for all but the snobby Bordeaux-only cab lover in the appellation. Writing this up and revisiting these tasting notes makes me want to hop a plan there tomorrow.

2016 Calafia La Reina red wine (70% cabernet sauvignon, 20% malbec, 10% petit verdot) – The slightly salty nose reveals stewed blackberry, savory-smoke, and loads of plum. Full bodied, big, dense, sweet, and very ripe. The acid is barely enough to balance the size, but it gets the job done. The chewy mouthfeel and flavor profile demonstrates the significant oak that’s put on this: coconut, condensed milk, cherry and blueberry pies, and toasted oak. Finishes with big pepper, menthol and alcohol. A Hedonistic wine, I’d drink over the next 5-7 years. 91 points. Value: C-.

2018 Ehlers Estate sauvignon blanc – Aromatically true to type: lime zest, slate, flint, banana peel, juniper, and tangerine waft from the glass. Medium plus in body with integrated and smooth acid. Nice smooth profile and structure. There’s a driving saline note that delivers seaweed, Meyer lemon, clementine, white pepper, slate minerality, under ripe banana peel, and bitter greens. 90 points. Value: B-.

2016 MC4 Martin and Croshaw Vineyard cabernet sauvignon. The nose offers dark cherry, strawberry, dark plum, and cassis. Full-ish body, the substantial tannins are elegant. It is very round and smooth with a pleasing structure. The fruit is saturated and semi-sweet, very professionally done: cherry, blackberry, strawberry, clove. Pure and clean, this is very tasty. I would love this in a decade. 93 points. Value: B+.

2017 Pellet Estate Henry’s Reserve Pellet Vineyard Napa Valley – The nose is monolithically cherry-forward with big plum and mocha. This seems to need time. Big bodied, but bright with juicy acid and refined, fine-grained and dense tannin. Beautiful structure, but very oaky. Very purple in flavor profile: blueberry, plum, violet to go with coconut and vanilla pudding. Give this at least five years. 91 points. Value: C-.

2014 Pellet Estate Napa Pellet Vineyard Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon – The nose balances fruit and savory aromas, offering blackberry, cherry juice, dark roast coffee, blood orange, and scorched earth. Full bodied, it is ripe with small-grained grippy tannin, mid-line acid and sharp, but integrated alcohol. Very elegant profile with a structure built for 10+ years. Flavors include plum, blackberry, cassis, blueberry, Chinese 5 spice, mocha, violet with a dried seaweed and Thai basil finish. Keep this ten years and then drink over the following ten years. 93 points. Value: B+.

Clarice is Three for Three

A few months ago Kayce and I got to enjoy an evening with Adam Lee here in Chicago. He was in town for a few days and his last night overlapped with my first night back from a work trip. Work had and continues to be hectic, hence the dearth of Good Vitis posts in 2021. Towards the end of dinner, Adam suggested I try the 2019 vintage of his Clarice label and do a quick write up. While I’ve said ‘no thank you’ to several sample offers this year, I wasn’t about to decline one of my favorite domestic pinot noir producers, nor a producer who I’ve been able to follow since their first vintage. You can find coverage on the 2017 and 2018 vintages here and here.

These are wines that consistently show the promise of at least three to five years of positive evolution, if not more. However, with Clarice only three vintages deep, we just don’t know whether and how that promise is fulfilled. One way to test a wine’s aging mettle is to taste it over multiple days, and I put the 2019s through the battery of five days. A few weeks later, Adam and I caught up by phone to talk them through. I’ll start with the conversation, and end with the wines.

The 2019 Vintage

As a growing season, 2019 split the difference weather-wise between the inaugural 2017 vintage and subsequent 2018 in the Santa Lucia Highlands, where Clarice sources its fruit. “It wasn’t as hot as 2017 or as cold as 2018, but [we] got three to four more inches of rain. So there was ample water available for the vines,” Adam told me.

Adam farmed similar to 2017, which meant leaving more fruit on the vine and thinning at veraison, which is later than usual. “The vines had enough energy [due to the ample water], so if I had taken the fruit off earlier, I was afraid the vines would have directed the [water-driven] energy into growing more shoots and leaves, and not [maturing] the fruit.” So he left the fruit on the vine longer, and later in the season took thinning down to the normal level. And because the heat ran the gap between 2017 and 2018, he split the whole cluster difference between the two as well.

To help with concentration and structure, Adam did a small bleed off, leading to wines that he calls more structured than either the 2017s or 2018s were at this stage in their development. “I talked to another winemaker, who said it took a lot longer than usual to extract the color [from the skins]. It didn’t come until the very end of the maceration cycle [for me]. I don’t know why, but it’s weird.” Adam wasn’t bothered by it, though, because he had already started to get away from pushing color extraction. “It’s not the end-all-be-all [for pinot],” he noted.

He did, however, leave the juice on the skins “for a little longer [than usual], a couple of additional days” compared to the two previous vintages of Clarice. Beyond that, he “didn’t do much of anything to drive extraction” other than the bleed off. “It’s not an unusual method,” Adam said, about this approach vis-à-vis the nature of a growing season like 2019.

The Barrel Evolution

When Adam and I first connected in 2019 on the inaugural 2017 vintage, we discussed the challenge of making a winery’s first vintage using a significant portion of used barrels. When starting a new winery and wanting to use a mix of new and used barrels, one is faced with the challenge of sourcing used barrels and ensuring they are properly clean and free of bacteria, which is not the easiest thing to independently verify. With three vintages under Clarice’s belt, I wondered if Adam had safely gotten beyond the threat of unclean barrels. In short, he has. Adam had sourced those used barrels from a winery and winemaker he trusted (and had trained himself), and as Clarice entered its third year Adam has avoided the risks associated with purchased used barrels. As Clarice evolves, though, so too does its use of barrels.

“For the [2019] Santa Lucia Highlands [designate], [the barrel regime] was 27.5% new oak. That’s not out of the range of where it’s been before, and was kind of the plan all along. The SLH has never been a declassified wine, but rather its own wine that happens to be a blend [of multiple vineyards].” The Rosella’s Vineyard is about 50% new oak, “which is a lot less than it’s been [before]. Gary’s is 90% new oak, which is more than it’s been.”

Adam continues to experiment with cooperages. The breakthrough in 2019 was Marsannay. “A few years ago, I tried a 3-year air-dried Marsannay, playing with it with some Santa Lucia Highlands fruit at Siduri Winery [and I liked it]. With Clarice, the first couple of years, I did two Marsannay barrels each and didn’t love them. I was about to give up in 2019, and then the ultimate Rosella’s blend turned out to include a significant amount of Marsannay barrels. Something happened, something clicked, and the Marsannay went back and produced the way it had with Sirduri.” Marsannay, it should be noted, does not feature in either the SLH or Gary’s bottlings.

Total production is down in 2019 because Adam decided to steer five barrels he felt were subpar away from the released wines; these barrels are going to charity. SLH production was only eight barrels, while Rosella’s and Gary’s were ten apiece. “I spent a lot of time on the blends,” Adam explained, adding that “it always takes a lot of time, but some years the blends come together more easily.” 2019 was not one of those years. “I actually took a few weeks off between blending efforts because I needed to reset the brain and taste buds.”

The 2019 Wines

The resulting wines demonstrate consistency in the Clarice progression, meaning the development of deeply complex wines that reflect their terroirs as made by a winemaker with a sixth sense of how to read and react to the growing season to make something better than what other winemakers could achieve with the same fruit. While Adam called the 2019s the most structured of the label’s three vintages, I found them to be the most accessible. While “structured” and “accessible” don’t have to be antonyms, it’s hard not to treat them that way. Accessible does not mean a lack of structure, but by my palate I project a quicker evolutionary arc for the current release than the previous two. I always hesitate to disagree with a winemaker, an actual professional, when it comes to things like this, but I’m going to hold firm on this one and die on the sword if necessary.

On this point, I looked back at my notes from the 2017 and 2018 vintages, and made a few notes about projected evolution and longevity. For the Gary’s Vineyard, I projected the 2017 would take the most time to reach peak drinking, followed by the 2018 and then the 2019. Rosella’s was similar, with the 2017 and 2018 seeming to require more time than the 2019. Only with the SLH did I find the opposite to be true, projecting the 2019 in need of a year or two more than the earlier vintages. Take that for what it’s worth.

Santa Lucia Highland vineyard soil

While the SLH hasn’t consistently been the wine of every vintage for me, by year three I’m comfortable saying that it is my personal favorite of the lineup, and shines its best in the current release.  The dark nose features blackberry, boysenberry, cherry concentrate, Earl Gray, and cassis. It developed a secondary cocoa overtone on day two. Medium bodied, its thick tannin offers Earl Gray tea and star anise notes. By day two the tannins had disarmed a bit, smoothing and elongating nicely while picking up a peppery note on the back end. The juicy acid core delivers stewed plum, cherry, baking spice, and salmon berry. Day two added mountain strawberry. The balance and structure is impeccably built, this one should be set aside for at least three or four years and followed over the following five years, at least. 96 points, value A.

Like Adam, the 2019 is the first vintage in which I’ve preferred the Gary’s Vineyard to the Rosella’s Vineyard. The nose is a moving target at the moment with extended air exposure adding and subtracting in waves. The most consistent aromas include Bing cherry, mountain strawberry, lavender, black plum, weathered leather, and black currant. It is medium bodied with smooth, lush, and long tannin that parallels juicy, bright acid. The elegant and weightless structure dazzles right now. The flavor profile includes Bing cherry, blood orange, cranberry sauce, cardamom, and black pepper. It feels like the tannins are elevated at the moment, waiting to drop and broaden with some age. Very accessible for such a substantial wine at the moment, I can see this entering a dumb phase within the year that might last two or three years before emerging a weightier, more layered version of itself. 95 points, value A-.

Finally we have the Rosella’s Vineyard. More reticent on the nose than previous vintages at this stage, I was able to coax a briar patch of dark crushed cherry, blackberry, and plum sauce, with star anise and clove putting a toe in the pool. The fruit holds on the second day, while the spice is replaced with potpourri. Nearly full bodied, the tannins are dense and slightly grainy, taking their time to reveal a core of pleasant acid. Flavors include cherry, plum, blackberry, tobacco leaf, wet soil, and just a touch of graphite minerality, all with a slightly savory twinge. The density of this suggests this has an upward trajectory that, if you can sit on this for a solid three or four years, promises reward. 94 points, value B+.

What’s Next

Unfortunately there will be no 2020 vintage of Clarice due to the fires the swept through California. Combined with the slightly reduced 2019 production, that means availability of Clarice will be highly limited, especially outside the company’s club, until the 2021 vintage is released. As to any desire to expand the line up in the future, Clarice is “truly going to be these three wines, it’s never going to get any bigger,” Adam told me.

While we customers impatiently wait for the 2021 Clarice release, Adam continues to experiment and grow his list of special projects. His newest side project is called ENOW, which is a grenache and mourvèdre blend from Paso Robles that rolls out with the 2020 vintage. “Enow” means “enough” and is a homage, if you will, to the rough year of 2020. The label explains:

You can find Adam’s various projects online by heading to Clarice’s website, and the best way to track the wines down is to buy direct from the producer. I can’t recommend Clarice enough for those who like serious pinot noir, and his side projects like Beau Marchais offer opportunities to try serious if experimental wines and winemaking approaches for those palates looking to expand themselves.

The Wines & Words of Greg Brewer

Late last year, Wine Enthusiast named Greg Brewer its Winemaker of the Year. The nominees he beat out included South Africa’s first black lead winemaker, Ntsiki Biyela; Gary Farrell Vineyard winemaker Theresia Heredia; David Ramey (of Ramey Wine Cellars and formerly of Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus and Rudd); and Patria Tóth, the Hungarian-born winemaker at Planeta who is driving significant quality improvements in Sicily, one of the wine world’s hottest things these days. So, it’s not like he beat a bunch of chumps. If that weren’t enough of a reason to care, there’s this: he effectively re-gifted the award to the Sta. Rita Hills wine region, and that’s a bit unusual. We ought to take notice.

It’s Not About Greg Brewer

Brewer launched Brewer-Clifton in 1995 with Steve Clifton and $12,000 in the (then and, to a certain extent, now) little-known Sta. Rita Hills, a small wine growing region about an hour and half north of Los Angeles. His response to the award has been to give credit to Sta. Rita Hills, going so far as to say the award is actually for the region, not Greg Brewer. It’s a gracious response to be sure, but isn’t grace how a winner is supposed to respond? Is he actually serious?

Yes, he is. “I was born there, professionally,” Greg told me when spoke not long after the award was announced. “I started in the tasting room at Santa Barbara Winery, by chance, when I was 21. I fell in love with it on my first day and new it would be my profession. And I’ve loved it every day since.”

Specifically, he’s loved Sta. Rita Hills winemaking. “I’ve been working a four mile stretch of road for 30 years. It’s kind of like breathing: very straight forward. I don’t know it all, but I’ve been able to focus. I’ve only worked in Santa Barbara [the hub of Sta. Rita Hills], and only will.”

Greg has had opportunities to branch out geographically, but has always passed. “I’ve been tempted with fruit from other places, but it feels like a one night stand to me: the fruit should remain where it is with someone who lives among those vines. It’s just not me.” Feeling that Sta. Rita has everything a wine region could hope to offer, and being in love with its fruit, wines, and people, he’s remained steadfastly focused on showcasing what it does all on its own by removing himself from the equation to the greatest extent possible.

At Brewer-Clifton, “the core ethos and energy is steeped in a Japanese mindset; I don’t see myself as that important, more as a steward of a place. I’m like the 80-year-old Japanese sushi chef with an apartment in the outskirts of Tokyo and a bike I ride to the fish market where I drink tea, buy fish, and then spend the day doing everything I can to present all of the fish’s inherent beauty. That’s Brewer-Clifton’s engine.”

“We don’t see ourselves as making anything. We’re deliberate in the location of our vineyards, their clones, spacing, farming, but at the winery it’s about removal of self, maintaining a quiet voice. Everything is raised in neutrality. Barrels are 15-20 years old. Everything is raised the same each year, so no prejudice from vineyard to vineyard, block to block. We don’t blend [among parcels]. Who am I to be the judge [of which sections should and shouldn’t go together]?”

To be clear, though, Greg does “understand that mindset [of blending]. It actually makes more sense than what I do. Adam [Lee, a mutual friend] is a great example. He’s seeking the best in things, and he’s done it beautifully at a whole host of wineries and appellations because he can see those beautiful attributes that can be separated or combined. But I’m not comfortable with [doing] that [myself because] it makes me a bigger part of the process than I’m comfortable with. That’s why the [Winemaker of the Year] award is about this place, not me. All I’m doing is displaying Sta. Rita in a very vulnerable, naked, barbaric kind of elementary way.”

Greg’s approach “might be restrictive” to some, but he finds it liberating. “When you truly espouse yourself to a person or vocation, you have confidence in that thing. Then you put a ring on it. That’s what I’ve done in Sta. Rita. I find it liberating, giving into it and being vulnerable, [because] you make decisions based on benefit of doubt, flexibility, and trust.”

Although Greg hasn’t been in the Sta. Rita Hills since they began growing wine there, he’s been “pretty embedded in a lot of the evolution over time. Seeing it go from four or five vineyards in the early 1990s…[I’ll put it this way:] in terms of the wine world it’s the opposite of dog years, no time at all. To see that, the awareness [of the region] globally swell up this quickly is really exciting. It’s a testament to the place, the people, the diversity of the people there, the kind of unanimous qualitative goals that people there have. That’s really it, that’s what this award is about.” Put another way, if the “place wasn’t so special,” he “wouldn’t have won the award.”

It’s About the Sta. Rita Hills

When Brewer-Clifton launched, they “never blended vineyards. We only did designates. However, starting in 2007 we began doing the appellation blends of pinot noir and chardonnay, but those wines have never been built using wine pulled out of designates. They’re made using the best stuff we have because they have to be smoking good ambassadors [for the region]. They’re the most important wines we make.”

Putting the region’s best foot forward has been so critically important because “wines have never been better, and there’s never been more of them. People’s attention span is generally become more abridged; access to information, the media, people check in on something and move on quickly because there’s more of everything and it’s easier to access.” For Brewer-Clifton, putting out wines that showcase the specialness of Sta. Rita Hills is their secret sauce for success. Greg’s “main emphasis is making very singular things” that stand out in this challenging market.

Part of Brewer-Clifton’s approach to showcasing the Sta. Rita Hills is to keep it affordable for people. “I don’t come from money or industry, I’ve always been a scrapper. I’ve been able to do wine and make it work financially with very little. Our [viniculture and winemaking] systems have never been better, and our pricing is lower than ever. That really excites me because ten years ago [the wines] were more expensive, and not as good.”

Brewer-Clifton’s appellation pinot and chardonnay sell for $40 and $36, respectively, on the winery’s website, and are competitive in quality with other appellation wines from pinot and chardonnay regions like Sonoma, Willamette Valley, and Burgundy. “I love picturing a couple in their 20s or 30s: one is an accountant, another an engineer, and they’re into wine,” Greg told me. “I love to see these people go into a store and connect with Sta. Rita Hills because the quality is high and price point is reachable; it’s not nothing, but it’s not $80, either. That part of the market is exciting because I can still give the full Brewer-Clifton experience and encourage people to trial us and hopefully generate some repeat customers if people like it, like a special occasion wine.”

In 2005, Greg launched a separate brand himself called Diatom, a reference to a fossil common in the soils of Sta. Rita Hills. Diatom is an exclusively chardonnay project aimed at producing “a more stark exploration of Sta. Rita Hills chardonnay. Old vines, raised in a pent-up fashion – picked ripe, steel aged, blocked malolactic [fermentation], etc.” It’s an attempt “to capture a wave before it breaks.” Diatom’s line up starts at $32 and doesn’t go north more than $10 from that, offering a different style of Sta. Rita Hills chardonnay still financially feasible for that lovely couple he envisages (pre-COVID) meeting at the store after a hard day’s work on their way home to make dinner.

Won’t you try it?

When we were setting up the interview and samples for this article, I requested that Greg pick the two to three wines that he felt would give people the best introduction to his wines so that if I liked them, I could say “and if you’d like to get to know Greg and his wines, these are the ones he suggests trying first.” (By the way, if you’d like to get to know Greg and his wines, these are the ones he suggests trying first).

I didn’t have the backstory outlined above before I received the samples, so I didn’t know what to make of the selected wines when they arrived. Knowing what I know now, it makes perfect sense that he would choose his Brewer-Clifton appellation blends and a Diatom as those that give a good representation of what he does in the wine world: he dispatched his ambassadors.

Greg with the author’s favorite wine writer, Jay McInerney

I’ve spent just a single day in Santa Barbara, which is also the entirety of my physical experience in the Sta. Rita Hills. I visited the tasting rooms of Au Bon Climate and Jaffurs Wine Cellar, finding wines at each that I really enjoyed, especially the former (whose nebbiolo, made under the Clendenen Family name label, is an undercover gem). I’ve also had the incredible pleasure of tasting the wines of, and with, Michael Benedict (Sanford), wrote recently on the new Beau Marchais project, and tried a four-bottle suite of The Hilt wines (look for an upcoming profile). All told, I’ve probably tried no more than two cases’ worth of Sta. Rita wine. This means I was an open slate for these wines, no preconceived notions or biases.

After trying them, I can say that I’m eager to try more. While I’m not in love with either chardonnay, I do want more experience with body of chardonnay work of Greg Brewer. As far as $40 pinot noirs go, I’m not sure it gets better than the Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills appellation blend. Where I felt the appellation chardonnay’s quality outshined its depth (the structure is quite good, building desire for an extra layer of depth that ultimately didn’t show up), such a description would be unfair for the pinot.

My favorite element of the pinot noir was while it gave a very inviting and salivating illusion of fruit-forwardness, the actual amount of (gorgeous) fruit was restrained in a way that framed the terroir-specific elements that Greg is so focused on delivering in his wines. I just didn’t get the same sensation from the chardonnay, though I would not be surprised if that’s a function of the wine’s relative youth; perhaps another year or two would be enough time for that hinted-at depth to emerge.

Meanwhile, the 2019 Diatom Bar-M presented as a challenging wine. Meant to be a stark representation of Sta. Rita chardonnay, it is certainly a stark wine: prolific acid, bitter flavor overtones, and damp earth. It is certainly not for everyone. I do wonder if youth is a factor in my mixed reaction to it: I couldn’t bring my attention away from the acid that I felt hadn’t integrated, an unfortunate circumstance given the appealing bouquet and flavor profile of the wine. I would be very curious to try it again in three years.

Both Brewer-Clifton and Diatom make a range of wines, and certainly what I tried for this article has piqued my interest in both labels. They also continue the streak, albeit limited, of great wine I’ve had from the Sta. Rita Hills. Greg Brewer is certainly a leading figure in the region, and his Winemaker of the Year title lofts him to perhaps the very top of his peer group, a position he seems unlikely to enjoy. Rather than celebrate his own achievement, he’s made the effort to leverage it to boost the region’s notoriety. It helps that his own wines show he’s worthy of being an ambassador himself.

Wine Reviews

2016 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir – This pours beautifully ruby and translucent. The bright nose includes aromas of plum, cherry, mulling spice, white pepper, and scorched earth. Medium-bodied with smooth, velvety tannins that envelope the mouth with smoothness pair well with a nice core of restrained but bright acid. The structure is spot on. The flavor profile leads with brilliant strawberry, blueberry, and red and black plums, but the wine doesn’t give the sensation of fruit-forwardness. There’s a touch of black pepper and licorice as well, and kiwi skin on the finish. Drinking really well now with a short bottle decant. 93 points. Value: A.

2018 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay – The nose wafts a dessert table of caramel apple, lemon meringue, and graham cracker crumble. Medium bodied with slightly crisp acid nestled nicely in the center of a lush palate. Flavors include green and Opal apples, lime sorbet, gravel minerality, and white pepper. It finishes on orange marmalade. A nicely profiled and structured chardonnay, the quality outshines the depth. 91 points. Value: B.

2019 Diatom Bar-M Chardonnay – The high-toned nose features of honeysuckle, caramel, chamomile, and lime pith. Medium bodied with lightweight, juicy acid that flutters about, refusing to integrate with the structure; even on the finish it remains apart. May be a sign of youth. Flavors include slightly bitter green apple, lemon verbena, damp earth, and white pepper minerality. It finishes on a sweet orange note. I’d love to revisit this in two or three years because if that acid integrates, this improves dramatically. 90 points. Value: C+.

Try this Wine: Value Holiday Sparkler

Vines with a view at Domaine Bousquet

This is the time of year we talk about wines for entertaining large groups of family, friends, and co-workers. Crowd-friendly, fun, and bright wines usually dominate that category, and sparkling is usually near or at the top of many of the recommended lists for such purposes. In 2020, the group celebrations are likely to be smaller, with a higher percentage of virtual settings. Nevertheless, we still gather and enjoy wine, and we still look for crowd-friendly, fun, and bright wines for these occasions. In that spirit, we present the Non-Vintage Domaine Bousquet Brut Rosé from Argentina.

Domaine Bousquet was on the forefront of the modern Argentinian wine movement. It was founded by Frenchman Jean Bousquet who, while on vacation in Argentina in 1990, determined that the high altitude Gualtallary Valley in Mendoza would be an exceptional location for growing organic wine grapes. Now run by Bousquet’s daughter, Anne, and her husband (Labid Al Ameri), it is the largest exporter of Argentinian wine at 5.6 million cases annually. With that kind of volume, the NV Brut Rosé is able to achieve a stunning price point, somewhere between $10 and $15 depending on where you look, for the quality.

It is a Charmat-method sparker, which means that the carbonation is formed when still wine is put into stainless steel tank with additional sugar and yeast to start secondary fermentation. The production of carbon dioxide caused by secondary fermentation is then trapped in the form of carbonation in the wine while in tank. The wine is then sent straight to bottle. Because it is bottled without aging, it comes out quite fresh tasting, making it refreshing and something zingy and bright that is capable of catching peoples’ attention even as they socialize, though not enough to distract them from what’s happening in the room.

The result is a wine whose price may suggest it’s not meant to be taken seriously, but whose quality argues otherwise, representing a rare addition to a small group of similarly serious bargain sparkling rosés that include Gruet and La Marca. It’s no wonder that the Bousquet landed on Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Best Buys of 2020.

The wine is a blend of 75% pinot noir and 25% chardonnay, both organically grown, from estate vineyards that sit at 4,000 feet of elevation in the Uco Valley near the border with Chile. It drinks nicely on its own, and will go well with light charcuterie, vegetables and dip, fried finger food, and the like. Try this wine if you’re looking for an exceptional value at a low price point that can appease a wide range of people and vie for just the right amount of their attention among a boisterous social gathering, in-person or otherwise.

Tasting Note

A spritzy nose offers aromas of strawberry, Key Lime pie, and cranberry. The medium body features a medium mousse with fine bubbles and brisk but integrated acid that builds texture on the finish. The flavor profile is quite similar to the nose, featuring strawberry, lime, and cranberry with the addition of white pepper and sharp peach. This is quite enjoyable, albeit straightforward. Very drinkable. 89 points. Value: A+.

Where to Buy

Bousquet’s website offers a search feature for its products. Check it out here.

2020 In Review: To Next Year

We’re nearing the end of 2020 and that means Good Vitis’ annual year-in-review piece. Every year I sit down to write one of these and I think, ‘how self-indulgent can you be?’ This hesitation has been particularly acute in 2020 because of COVID, the summer of social unrest, and the election that won’t end. My wife and I got a second dog this year, moved from DC to Chicago during COVID so my wife could start a new job, and some of my work touches on the social issues most hotly debated this year, as well as the election itself, so we’ve been in the thick of things. Thankfully we haven’t lost anyone to the pandemic or suffered in any direct way, even as we take our personal responsibility to public health seriously and diligently. Life remains good to us, knock on wood, and we feel deeply for those who haven’t fared as well. So…wine highlights? I’ll tell you why the answer is yes.

During these dark days, wine has been an important part of life because it has contributed some normalcy, and offered opportunities to connect with people and experience other parts of the world while quarantining. I spent considerable time on Zoom and the phone talking to winemakers across the country, helping me stay connected to the outside world as I meet new people who share my passion. Exploring new wineries through samples has been a rare source of adventure. Opening wine from our cellar that has been aging for five or ten or twenty years has given us the opportunity to have something special to look forward to, marvel over, and reminisce about how it was acquired and what was happening that year. And, even though we haven’t seen most of our wine-drinking friends since pre-COVID days, it hasn’t stopped us from making future plans to share our favorite wines together, which gives us hope for the future. None of this is unique to COVID, but all of it has taken on added significance because of it. We all need something to keep us attached to good memories and help us generate new ones, and wine has been there for me this year in that department.

That said, 2020 was not a particularly noteworthy year in wine for us because of COVID. Sure, we drank great wine, but our inability to travel and share bottles with special people meant few exceptional wine experiences. This matters because while wine hits our taste, smell, and sight senses, it’s a story in a bottle that connects us to – and with – place, people, and history. A complete experience incorporates some of those elements in addition to the cork pop and pour that so many of us do frequently at home. Unfortunately, this became collateral damage to COVID.

Nevertheless, on balance wine was an important contribution to the good things that occurred this year. As has become the tradition, every year-in-review piece is done a bit differently from previous years. 2019 was the most revelatory moments, 2018 and 2017 the most memorable wine, and 2016 the best reds, whites, and values. 2020’s theme: The Year Of. I put a lot of thought into whether to include the incredible fires of 2020 that affected wine country, but decided to punt on that until the full impact on the vintage is known.

2020: The Year of Pinot Noir

Pinot noir has a reputation as a wine that can take people a fair amount of time to warm up to. It’s a hard variety to put your finger on: its versatility can be made into many styles and its ability to reflect terroir can produce a multitude of profiles. With infinite style and profile combinations, there are bound to be pinots that pinot lovers dislike, and pinots that pinot haters can tolerate, if not enjoy. It’s also a variety that can be quite transformational with extended aging, meaning the same wine can evolve into multiple versions of itself. And it’s prolific, made nearly everywhere in the world.

With all its permutations, it’s easy to have a few bottles you don’t enjoy and decide that’s enough pinot for you. Plus, if you’re not ready for the more traditional pinot and that’s what you get, it can be a huge turnoff. I’ve lost count of the number of stories I hear that go something like ‘a friend poured me a glass of (insert wine here) and all I could taste was dirt and mushrooms and it was the last pinot I’ll have because it was gross.’

It certainly took me a few years to warm up to pinot (I took a flyer on a Volnay early in my wine days, which I’d probably love now, that didn’t go over well then). Because of the blog, the number and quality of pinot I tasted jumped significantly in 2019, and again in 2020 because of the number of Good Vitis articles that centered on pinot. This year’s pinot posts included a profile on California’s Anderson Valley (a pinot haven); research for a forthcoming profile on California’s Santa Lucia Highlands (another pinot mecca); and profiles of pinot specialists Clarice, Beau Marchais, Siduri, Peake Ranch, Merry Edwards, and a forthcoming profile of The Hilt. Those articles alone “required” tasting over 5 dozen pinots. We put in the hard work so you don’t have to; you’re welcome. And this doesn’t even include the exceptional pinot we drank from our private stash, including Oregon favorites Belle Pente, Cameron, Domaine Serene, Penner-Ash, and Zena Crown, plus some old Burgundy.

Beau Marchais barrel samples

One of the most surprising moments of 2020 involved pinot as well. Normally an expensive wine, the best value I came across in 2020 was actually a pinot noir. Made by Lucky Rock, this killer wine costs just $22 and is a purposeful thorn in the side of upper hoity toity wine society that turns both butt cheeks at such plonk.  

This year’s exploration further confirmed pinot noir’s bona fides as one of wine’s noble varieties for me. Pinot can give one an experience that doesn’t entirely make sense, which makes it quite hard to describe in a medium like this. Pinot flourishes as an a posteriori wine, giving us a lot to experience and learn from. But it’s real value is the a priori experience it can provide, going beyond what we can identify by giving us aromas, flavors, structures, and textures that are without comparison and require some theoretical deduction to wrap our heads around.

This seemingly illogical description is quite reflective of the experience one can have with pinot, able to pinpoint flavors, aromas, textures, and structures while feeling incomplete in one’s ability to describe the experience at hand. The more pinot I experience, the less I know about the variety.

2020: The Year of Zoom

You might have notice that Zoom is a thing. Many of us have spent countless hours on video conference as we work, socialize, or attend school and events from home. The same is true of the wine industry. With the limitation/inability of doing in-person tastings, wineries and public relations firms embraced Zoom tastings. I certainly did my fair share of them with wine glass in hand. I don’t have a ton of poignancy to add on this front other than two interesting anecdotes to share as data points.

Lot of time spent in front of this thing

First, when I profiled brick and mortar-less Clarice Wine Company and its inaugural release (2017 vintage) in 2019, I outlined the unusual business model that owner and winemaker Adam Lee designed to offer multiple touchpoints for customers. This included an online forum for Clarice members to connect with each other, which in its first year turned out to be less used that Adam expected. However, with COVID the forum lit up, and Adam combined that serge of community with another element of his unusual business plan, offering discounts to his members on other wineries owned by friends of his, to schedule an incredible amount of Zoom tastings with other winemakers to discuss their wines and experience. This effort helped his followers and customers expand their palates and knowledge while driving additional business to these partner wineries.

Second, in a very recent discussion with Wine Enthusiast’s Winemaker of the Year Greg Brewer, Greg told me that while he badly misses the in-person interactions with customers and clients, the ability to pop in on an event via Zoom for five or ten minutes and provide some additional value for the participants is something he’s come to really appreciate, and imagines will continue to be something he does even when he’s Zoomed in on in-person events.

Zoom has been a Godsend for many people for many reasons, including the wine industry. And, it may be the gift that keeps on giving even when COVID is fully in our rearview mirror.

2020: The Year of Champagne

It became clear to my wife and I this year that when there’s something to celebrate, it should be celebrated. We shouldn’t be too picky about it. And when we think celebration, we think Champagne. It’s unfair to limit the use of Champagne to celebrations, although that’s the stereotype the industry has perpetuated in the name of sales and brand ID. It’s also a bit stupid because Champagne is one of the best food-pairing wines out there, full stop. But that’s another discussion.

At some point in 2020 we decided we wanted bubbles to be more of a fixture in our routine, and so I set out to assemble a dozen or so bottles for us to try. I went to social media, getting great recommendations from a number of people. Although we experimented with a number of non-Champagne bubbles, we always came back to three wines that have become our core sparkling wines, all of them from the region of Reims:

NV Taittinger Brut Prestige Rosé: We tried a number of rosé’s, including Billecart-Salmon, considered by many to be the industry standard basic quality rosé, and didn’t find anything we liked nearly as much as Taittinger’s Brut Prestige Rosé. A combination of pinot noir and pinot meunier, it strikes a great balance between lean acidic cut and creamy body; has the kind of lush, fine mousse we love; and drinks equally well alone as it does with food. We rarely drink more than two or three bottles of any vintage of any wine because we prize variety, but we blew through more than a case of this in 2020.

NV Egly-Ouriet Premeir Cru Vignes de Vrigny: This cat’s-out-of-the-bag grower Champagne house was a no-brainer to try, and we fell hard for this rare Premier Cru-level 100% pinot meunier Champagne. It’s 38 months on lees is, according to the winemaker, a modern regional record. The result is a savory, substantive, and succulent Champagne with great minerality and depth that drinks well now, though I’m trying to exercise patience and keep a few in the cellar to open in five or seven years because it has that kind of promise for evolution.

NV Bérêche et Fils Brut Réserve: This one came via an Instagram recommendation, and was my favorite new discovery. It’s a full-bodied, dense, cider-y, creamy, yeasty, and brioche-y Champagne that stands out very distinctively – and elegantly – from the far more common profile of what seems to be one of today’s dominant wine trends of strip-your-enamel acid. This is my favorite Champagne to drink on its own for that reason in particular.

2020: The Year of Residual Sugar

We are dedicated lovers of old sweet chenin blanc from Loire Valley, especially Domaine Huet Moelleux (the sweetest Vouvray designation). We fell in love with riesling after spending time in Mosel in 2019 while on our honeymoon, which also served as our introduction to Kabinett. This year, our official love affair with Kabinett and Spätlese rieslings began.

Kabinett and Spätlese are German designations for the amount of sugar content in the grape when it is harvested (note: neither distinction reflects how much residual sugar is left in the wine post-fermentation, meaning there are such things as dry Kabinett and Spätlese wines, which are given the additional distinction of “trocken,” “Grosses Gewächs,” or “Erstes Gewächs”).

The foundations for this love affair were laid by a 2007 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett, a 2003 Selbach-Oster Zelting Schlossberg Auslese, and a magnum of Peter Lauer Barrel X riesling that paired well as a BYO bottle with a meal at a Laotian restaurant known for exceptionally authentic and authentically spicy food. Now, about a third of what we’re buying for ourselves are residual sugar wines, especially riesling and chenin blanc. A 1996 Schaefer Kabinett really sealed the deal.

One aspect of the beauty of varieties like riesling and chenin is that, whether dry or sweet, when aged for ten-plus years they take on qualities that make them exceptionally diverse in the food pairing department, an improvement, if possible, upon their distinction as great food wines even when young. Really great, old riesling or chenin goes equally and extraordinarily well with steak au poivre as it does Thai, and are also exceptional to drink on their own. There are no other varieties, I’d argue, that you can say that about. And that’s especially frustrating because the modern trend is dry riesling, even in the most famed areas for residual sugar. This means supply of residual sugar bottlings, both old and new, is shrinking.

The other frustrating thing with these wines is that, at least for us, they are so much better when they reach ten or twenty (or sometimes more) years of age and are worth the wait. This means we have to buy them at auction to support our addiction since we didn’t order cases of them when we were in high school. Our approach is to go mostly to auction, while slowly building a stock of new(ish) releases that we’ll drink when we’re (much) older.

2020: The Year of “Next year”

We were supposed to go to Japan and Belgium in 2020. We were supposed visit family, and celebrate birthdays with friends and good wine. We were supposed to volunteer. We were supposed to…supposed to…supposed to… “Next year” has become a common idea expressed towards the end of many conversations. The yearning for a better and more meaningful next year is a common theme for Jews like myself, which made it a bit easier to swallow each time I said it, though no less consequential.

At the end of the Passover Seder and the Yom Kippur Ne’ila service (two of the most important events in the Jewish year), diaspora Jews sing “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim,” which translates to “Next year in Jerusalem.” An inherent, in-our-DNA connection to Jerusalem, the heart and soul of Israel, is a core part of many Jew’s identities, mine included.

Jerusalem means “the city of peace” and uniquely occupies the intersection of body, soul, heaven, earth, ideal, and reality. Although also biblical, the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel has been around for a lot longer than the Jewish religion. It comes from a time of Jewish nationhood, which preceded the Jewish religion by many generations. This is why there are numerous secular Jews for whom Jerusalem and Israel hold a special place in their hearts and souls, and why attacks on the Jewish connection to Israel, and Jewish self-determination in the Land of Israel, are attacks on Jewish identity.

A common description of Jerusalem’s Jewish significance is that you can be miles away from it even while living there, yet be on the other side of the world and be only a step away. When Jews left Egypt for the Land of Israel, they were escaping slavery and seeking the freedom of the Promised Land out of a yearning for the ancestral place where they could be free. In Egypt their bodies were owned and controlled by others, imprisoning their souls rather than being a vehicle for their expression. In Israel, and especially Jerusalem, their souls were free to pursue service to humanity, which is a core tenant of Jewish life. This sentiment remains a core value that Jews cherish today. Whether one actually lives there or not, Jerusalem is, in place and spirit, the best opportunity for Jews to live our best lives (in the parlance of our times).

In 2020, the secular “next year” took on a weightier significance then it had previously, at least in its common use. So much of what many of us have given up this year are things we do with and for other people – the things we do in service to humanity.

I’ve been working from home since 2017, so I’d been training for COVID for a few years on the work front. However, that didn’t cover things like having to keep physical distance from family, friends, friends’ COVID babies and dogs, seriously sick friends, and close colleagues. Even Next Year in Jerusalem, always a communal exclamation, became something we said in the solitude of our own homes while watching services on our television. It’s been a hard year to maintain relationships, though the shared experience of COVID at least provides for a universally understood reason (and excuse). It’s been a year where selfishness can be selflessness if done right and for the right reasons, but also a year where selfishness can be masked as selflessness or unmasked for what it is. It’s been an entirely mixed bag.

I’m really hoping that “next year” is prophetic and what we’ve had to postpone in 2020 can happen in 2021. Like you, I have a long list of people and places I want to visit, and things I want to do. I’m eager for a return to normalcy, though I anticipate it will be a new normal, with tweaks to the old normal based on what we’ve learned this year. As the year winds down, we’ll be raising our wine glasses to everyone in our family and yours, and channeling our strong desire and hope for a better 2021 for all, including a renewed focus on how we can serve each other. To next year.

Try this Wine: Fall Release from Merry Edwards

Earlier this year, I profiled legendary California pinot noir producer Merry Edwards and reviewed a number of their wines, including the spring release allocation. To conclude the article, I wrote that:

“It is hard to compare Merry Edwards’ wines to those of other wineries, even her neighbors, because the combination of Merry Edwards herself, the quality of the terroirs of the vineyards, and the meticulous and purposeful viniculture and winemaking of Heidi [von der Mehden] is unique, and uniquely effective. There are lots of reasons to choose one wine over another, but it is hard to be in the mood for Merry Edwards and settle for something else.”

This follow-up article reviews their six fall release wines. Merry Edwards was a pioneer in the California pinot noir movement, focusing on single vineyard designates. Over time, she added chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and a few other small production wines. For a long period of time, the winery was a pretty stable place in terms of ownership, management, winemaking, and general marketing and public relations. Merry put a lot of work and thought into building and strengthening the winery’s product, brand, and reputation, and like her vineyard approach kept the long game in mind. It worked.

Five Years of Important Transitions

Towards the end of her time in the business, Merry positioned the business for successful transitions to new leadership. In 2015, Merry hired Heidi to be her assistant winemaker, and it went well enough that in 2018 Heidi was made head winemaker when Merry decided to retire from those duties. In early 2019, she and her husband sold the winery, estate vineyards, and vineyard leases to Louis Roederer Champagne House. When Roederer purchased Merry Edwards, they kept Heidi, who is profiled in my earlier Merry Edwards piece, as head winemaker, and brought Nicole Carter in as President.

Merry Edwards President Nicole Carter

Nicole has been a long-time leader in the wine industry, previously serving as Chief Marketing Officer and Director of Winemaking at Hess Family Wine Estates after spending 18 years in global marketing and public relations for Treasury Wine Estates. Before her move to California, Nicole was a public affairs professional in Washington, DC, the same line of work that pays my bills.

Between the spring and fall releases, I had a chance to join Nicole on a Zoom tasting and later connect directly with her by phone. I have found her to be professional, insightful, and thoughtful: a combination of vinicultural, enological, marketing, management, and business skill rarely found in one person. Notably, Nicole is dual-hatting as President of the venerable Diamond Creek Vineyards as well. Merry Edwards is in great hands with her and Heidi at the helm. One exciting thing to watch for, in addition to future wine releases, is a label redesign in the next six to eight months that will bring some modernization while retaining the classic labels’ iconicism.

The 2020 Fall Release Wines
A map of Merry Edwards’ vineyards. The fall release vineyard designates include Bucher, Warren’s Hill, Meredith Estate, and Flax.

Getting down to the new wines, the release includes five pinots and a late harvest sauvignon blanc. I tasted the four vineyard designate pinots over a period of four days, which facilitated great evolution in all four, and gave me a good feeling about the promise they hold. These are seriously dense wines that are going to need time in the cellar to fully express themselves. Nevertheless, they spirit the fall season with some funkiness and earthiness, showing a nice dichotomy from the more fruit and spice-oriented spring release wines. For those who prefer more earthy wines, these fall release pinots are great New World picks. The fifth pinot which I reviewed in the spring, is the Sonoma Coast blend, but was included in this fall release.

While my preference would be to stick these in the cellar and forget about them until at least the 2025 Presidential Inauguration, if you want some seasonally appropriate wines that you can enjoy over a number of days this holiday season, look no further. These wines remain consistent with my previous claim that while there are many pinot noirs out there, there remain no others like Merry Edwards.

Let’s begin with the 2018 Bucher Vineyard Pinot Noir, a tiny parcel of a vineyard (just 2.13 acres) in the Russian River Valley. 2016 was the first vintage of this leased vineyard designate for Merry Edwards, making it one of the few vineyards as new to Merry Edwards as head winemaker Heidi von der Mehden, who was challenged by Merry to make the first rendition of it. Among this fall release, it was the most accessible vineyard designate, though that’s not saying much. Tasting note:

Day 1: The nose features raspberry, blackberry, tar, and black pepper. On the palate, it’s medium bodied with a nice core of juicy acid. The flavors are equal parts fruit, earth, and salt with plum and raspberry, graphite and pepper, and saline. Accessible now with a decant, I see this improving over the next three or four years.

3 Day Update: Left corked in the kitchen for three days. Original tasting note is solid, including the drinking window, though there’s a slightly fungal note on the backside of the palate that adds something interesting to the mix.

92 points. Value: B-.

Next is the 2018 Meredith Estate Pinot Noir, a vineyard at the center of the winery’s identity. Merry purchased 24 acres in the Russian River Valley in 1996 and planted 20 acres of vines on its eight to 12 degree slopes. In the spring article, I reviewed the 2017 vintage of this wine, calling it “full-throttle” wine that would benefit from three to five years of aging. While I awarded it and the 2018 93 points each, I found the 2018 to be even denser and  in need of more cellar time. Tasting note:

Day 1: The nose features sweet plum, red currant, blood orange, dried cherry, and dried herb. Full bodied with spread out, densely grained tannin and significant acid, this is quite primary in structure and flavor, which includes salty plum, tar, rhubarb, raspberry and fungal forest floor. A bit backwards at the moment, this needs at least five to seven years of cellaring.

Day 3 Update: Corked and stored for three days in the kitchen. The nose remains sweet and decadent, as does the palate. Aromas and flavors remain consistent, but it has reversed its backwardness. Aging window seems spot on as it should help the structure resolve and the flavors deepen. Adding a point (from 92 to 93) because it deserves it.

93 points. Value: B.

Warren’s Hill Vineyard

As the funkiest of the bunch, the 2018 Warren’s Hill Pinot Noir was my favorite. The vineyard had been used for nearly two decades to produce top notch pinot, and was replanted in 2012 using vine cuttings from the original planting that were propagated in nursery before being planted. At the same time, the vineyard was renamed in tribute to Merry’s late son, who was named himself after two respective Warrens whom Merry was close with herself. Tasting note:

Day 1: The funkiest nose affixed to a Merry Edwards wine that I’ve come across, it’s as if the grapes have absorbed the mushroom mulch used to treat the vineyard’s soil. Aromas include black tea, burnt cherry, forest floor, marjoram, and dried oregano. Medium bodied, it coats the mouth in fine, grippy tannin and sparkling acid that delivers flavors of strong black tea, licorice, dried sage, blackberry and salty dark plum. There is a uniqueness to the wine that sets it apart among Merry Edwards pinots, and indeed apart from other American pinot noirs. I think its best days will come roughly five years from now.

Day 4 Update: Left corked in the kitchen and revisiting today. It’s softened a bit, but is still pretty tight. The funkiness, which remains noteworthy and tasty, is more integrated with the fruit, making it a more interesting and pleasant wine to drink. While it’ll be better in five years, I’m revising my drinking window to say that its best days are probably eight to ten years from now.

94 points. Value: B.

The final vineyard designate is the 2018 Flax Vineyard Pinot Noir, a site well known to followers of Williams-Selyem who have enjoyed its old block Flax designate for some time now. This year’s Merry Edwards is a great example of the wondrous wines that can be produced off vineyards where land, climate, viniculture, rootstock, and clone (Pommard 4 in this case) are well matched for each other. Vines themselves, the combination of rootstock and clone, get shortchanged in discussions on Good Vitis and in 99% of wine journalism and blogging, mostly due to the boring nature of the discussion that neither writer nor reader can easily appreciate. If you want to drink the discussion rather than read it, look no further than this wine. Tasting note:

Day 1: The nose is quintessential Russian River Valley Pommard, dropping seemingly endless dark cherry, plum, and mild cigar tobacco aromas. Extended air reveals wiffs of wet pavement minerality and clove. On the leaner side of pinot, the palate is tight at the moment with fine tannins that build grip with time, and lean and long acid. The flavor profile includes beautifully balanced blackberry, blueberry, tar, licorice and spiced plum. A bit light in the middle at the moment, a few years in the cellar will help the tannins move inwards from the outer edges to fill in the palate. Give this three to five years if you can.

Day 4 Update: Left this corked in the kitchen for four days. The nose is surprisingly muted, more so than when initially tasted. The mid palate has filled out a bit, thankfully, as the tannins have released a bit and moved inwards. It’s picked up a tasty cinnamon note. I think this is going need at least five, if not six or seven, years to hit a solid place. It’s got a ten year lifespan, easy.

93 points. Value: B-.

The 2018 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir represents a compelling high quality representation of the appellation. Tasting note:

A deeply-rooted nose offers aromas of concentrated cherry juice, mountain strawberry, baking cinnamon, cigar tobacco, scorched earth and prune. Surprisingly light and tangy, it offers long, finely grained tannin and sharp, juicy acid. The good bits are all there, but need time to come together. Flavors include bright Bing cherry, strawberry, black plum, blood orange and tar. Not as welcoming as the 2017, but needing just as much time, this will be a very good wine. 92 points. Value: B-.

Finally, we come to the super delicious 2018 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, which achieves a level of depth and complexity that belies its existence as just a third leaf wine, and the first (production) harvest, from the Maefield Vineyard that Merry Edwards planted in 2015. Given its youthful source, the promise of this vineyard for late harvest wines is incredible, as is the amount of effort that goes into producing a late harvest wine in Sonoma.

Merry planting Maefield Vineyard

Normally, late harvest grapes are left to hang as long as possible to achieve high sugar accumulation in the grapes, and picked just early enough to preserve some acidity. In Sonoma, however, with the tapering of the hot weather (needed to develop sugar) in the fall and the concomitant fog development, it gets complicated to let grapes hang past the harvest dates used to make dry wine. To balance the need for extended hang time to achieve concentration with the need to harvest earlier in the grape’s development than would be ideal for a late harvest wine to safeguard against fog-induced disease, Heidi and her team reduce the crop by half and remove the canes (young branches that suck up nutrients but aren’t yet producing production-worthy grapes) to coax the vine into pulling less water into the plant, thereby dehydrating the remaining grapes and allowing them to concentrate more rapidly. They were also lucky to find that Noble Rot, a beneficial fungus that shrivels the grapes (thereby inducing concentration), was quick to develop in the young vineyard. I wasn’t able to let this one last more than one night. Tasting note:

The sweet, tropical nose offers boisterous peach, candied mango, orange creamsicle, white tea, and Sprite. Full bodied with gorgeously smooth and thick acid that envelops the mouth in silkiness before piercing the finish with crispness. The very sweet palate includes flavors of yellow peach, orange marmalade, Angel Food cake, guava, and salmon berry. This is downright delicious, but I imagine will do cool things in ten to twenty years. 94 points. Value: B+.