Try this Wine: Melville Estate Syrah

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Credit: winery-sage.com

Syrah may be one of the most misunderstood – or perhaps confusing – red wines out there. Unlike cabernet or merlot, there is very little syrah produced domestically outside two buckets: mass-produced, sub $15 wines, and small production, high end bottles starting around $40 and going into the hundreds. The quality and style of these two buckets differ dramatically, and so it can be challenging to feel like you “get” the grape.

This is somewhat less true in France, where the Rhone Valley is syrah’s global epicenter and quality is not hard to come by at any price, but French wine labels are challenging for Americans because they usually do not list the grape(s) included in the wine and so they contribute to America’s misunderstanding of syrah. It is also less true in Australia, where syrah is called “shiraz” and is the most widely produced wine. However, because it’s labeled shiraz even when sold in the United State, it’s easily confused as something different, either varietally or stylistically, from syrah produced elsewhere. And thus the misunderstanding continues.

Syrah is not the most popular grape in this country, but its popularity is growing. On the production side, there are 106,00 acres of chardonnay grown in the United States, making it the most widely-grown wine-making grape in the country. Cabernet sauvignon isn’t far behind at 101,300 acres. Syrah sits at just over 22,000, which makes it the sixth most grown wine-making grape in America.

Syrah can be grown in different climates, and wears its terroir on its sleeve. In warmer climates, it is often big, round and fruit-forward. Most of the lower-end syrah tends to fall into this style because it’s relatively easy to make on a large scale with a good price margin. In cooler climates, it is gamey and savory and often smells and tastes of smoked or cured meat, iron and olives. This style is found most commonly in the more expensive category as it is more sought-after and costlier to produce than the other style. These dynamics mean that, depending on what one is spending, they are getting dramatically different experiences in terms of flavor profile, not just quality.

Within the premium wine world, syrah has been a stalwart regarded as a macro-level under-performer in that it hasn’t sold well despite its appeal. Syrah is also a very difficult sell because either the less expensive forward-style often smacks of generic red wine and makes no unique appeal, or a person is unaccustomed to, and perhaps initially turned off by, the savory taste and higher price point of the better quality stuff.

The niche appeal of high end syrah tends to emanate from that uniquely savory profile I described as well as its ability to change dramatically with extended aging. This has motivated articles along the lines of “American Syrah: Can It Ever Rival Pinot Noir?” that discuss and attempt to prognosticate syrah’s future.

Part of the tailwind pushing syrah lovers’ desire to see the variety perform better may be that we believe syrah offers bang for the buck, even at the high end, and that while it’s easy to find an underwhelming expensive cabernet or pinot noir, it’s much harder to be disappointed by an expensive syrah. This is at least something I’ve discovered as I’ve talked with other syrah lovers.

To test this out, I went to Wine Enthusiast and pulled review data for syrah, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and merlot. I took this data and put together pie charts for each variety that show the breakdown of scores. Looking at the charts, for example, 2.83% of merlots reviewed by Wine Enthusiast received scores between 94 and 97 points (the orange slice on the graph).

To interpret these charts, it’s critical to know the sample size, so here they are:

Syrah: 11,991

Merlot: 15,992

Pinot noir: 24,332

Cabernet sauvignon: 27,682

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These graphs tell me two things, effectively. First, with the caveat that this is the perspective of just one journal, there isn’t a lot of great merlot on the market as measured by review scores. That’s a discussion for another time. Second, with the same caveat as the first, people have roughly the same chance of getting an enjoyable/satisfying bottle of syrah as they would cabernet or pinot if they were at a quality wine store that stocked roughly equal amounts of all three. This is to say, my friends and I may be wrong about there being a glut of high quality syrah relative to more popular reds.

All that said, it remains difficult to find a good syrah without dropping a good chunk of change, not unlike pinot noir, because wine stores stock much less of it than the more popular wines. Further, it remains difficult to find a savory syrah priced similar to the fruit-forward syrahs.

Melville

This edition of Try this Wine aims to shoot that gap as reasonably as possible with the 2014 Melville Estate Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara, California. After trying a bottle ourselves for the first time, we were motivated to write this piece because we believe everyone should experience the uniquely savory profile of quality syrah at least once, and now have a reasonably priced example to recommend.

Melville is legendary Santa Barbara, a wine region that deserves more attention and respect than it gets. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is eventually considered part of California’s top echelon of wine regions. Located a short drive north of the Los Angeles area, it sits just off the Pacific Ocean on plateaus and hill sides that jut up from the coast line. Direct access to ocean breezes keep the area cool, and much of the wine produced there skews more reserved and nuanced than the standard California reputation. Think producers like Au Bon Climat, Ojai, Donkey and Goat, Qupe and Jaffurs, none of whom are going to make inroads with the jammy wine crowd.

Try this Wine because: The Estate syrah from Melville clocks in around $30-35, which is a fair price for the quality. At this price you get great accessibility to the savory profile as well as good approachability – it won’t require aging to show itself off. While not as layered and complex as many more expensive syrahs, it represents one of the more modest price points for a wine of its profile and quality. We recommend that you try this wine if you want to access the savory syrah profile without spending a ton of money or waiting years for a bottle to develop into an enjoyable stage.

Tasting note for the 2014 Melville Estate syrah: Bright, shiny nose of Acai, raspberry, strawberry, wet soil, tanned tobacco leaf, bacon and cinnamon. It’s full bodied with pleasant, mellowed acidity and very plush tannin, striking a pleasing feel and structure. The flavors are predominantly savory and salty; the fruit is secondary. It offers doses of iron, saline, smoked beef jerky, black olive, pomegranate, raspberry and licorice. This is a nice, straight-forward New World syrah with some Old World stylings. There is a small amount of dusty tannin towards the finish suggesting good mid-term drinking. 90 points. Value: B+.

Where to buy:

The current release of the Estate syrah at the winery is 2016, which is available directly through the winery. Most of the vintages available in stores include the 2014 and 2015, which is nice because of the additional and complimentary age on them. Here are a few shops around the country that showed up on the wine-searcher.com search.

St. Louis, MO: Wine & Cheese Place, 7435 Forsyth Blvd, Clayton, MO 63105. Phone: 314-727-8788.

Los Angeles, CA: Woodland Hills Wine Company, 22622 Ventura Blvd, Woodland Hills, CA 91364. Phone: 800-678-9463.

Tampa, FL: Craft & Curd, 2908 W Gandy Blvd. Suite B, Tampa, FL 33611. Email: Tom@craftcurd.com.

St. Paul, MN: Sunfish Cellars, 981 Sibley Memorial Hwy, 55118 St Paul, MN. Phone: 651-600-5164.

San Francisco, CA: The Wine Club, 953 Harrison St, San Francisco, CA 94107. Phone: 800-966-7835.

Obsession in the Willamette Valley, Part One

Anthony Bourdain on a Washington State ferry. Picture credit: Facebook/@PartsUnknownCNN via Geekwire.com

In the introduction of the No Reservations episode filmed in Seattle and Portland, the late Anthony Bourdain searched for a line that captured the Pacific Northwest. He tried out a few before deciding on one word. They were:

“Under steel grey skies, sheltered from the rain by majestic Evergreens…nah, trite.”

“Jacked up on java the petri dish from which Starbucks..naaaaah, how clichéd is that?”

“To the pounding riffs of flannel-clad grungoids…ehhhh, that’s so totally over.”

“Screamingly fresh King Salmon flies…didn’t Bobby Flay do this scene?” [A reference to the showmen fish stand in Pike Place Market who throw fish and back and forth for the crowds’ enjoyment].

“Heavily inked chefs and cooks, culinary lone wolves, maniacal attention to detail: something’s happening here and I don’t know what it is….yet….”

He finally settles on:

“Okay, I know what the Pacific Northwest is about. It’s about obsession.”

I am a big Bourdain fan. I preferred No Reservations to Parts Unknown because it seemed like he checked out in the latter. It had a feel similar to what I think The Chapelle Show would’ve had had Chapelle not chosen to step away when he did. I appreciated Bourdain because he seemed to capture the essence of a place well, although there, too, I can knit pick. I’ve spent a lot of time in Israel, including a year living in Jerusalem, and his episode there was a disgrace. It was done by a guy who in this case didn’t know how to handle the politics of the area. He tried to find a middle ground, which is a straight, inevitable shot to absolute failure in that part of the world. You either go there, or you don’t. He did neither.

But episodes like the Pacific Northwest showcase Bourdain at his best. Having grown up there, I enjoy the PNW episode. I also think he got it reasonably right as a region of obsession. His disregarded caricatures aren’t inaccurate, though they are cliché: 300ish days per year without sunlight, beautifully lush and tall trees, an addiction to caffeine, grunge and flannel (the latter, however, the opposite of “totally over” – PNW hipsters, I see you), and salmon all were and remain quintessential PNW (though Amazon’s presence is significantly and unfortunately changing the cost, way and feel of life there). These elements, and many more, have combined to create a region of utmost quirkiness in which people tend to find one or two things and obsess over them to an extent that the people I’ve lived around in the Midwest and East Coast would find peculiar.

Bourdain was no wine lover, a fact he mentioned frequently in his shows, so it came as no surprise that his PNW episode made no substantive mention of either state’s world class wine scenes. It’s a shame, because there’s no better example of obsession in the PNW than it’s winemakers. And just like that, I’m stealing the concept of obsession to frame this article on a recent trip I took to Willamette Valley (it’s like you hardly noticed).

I landed in Portland on a Monday with enough time to meet up with Jesse Skiles, the owner and winemaker at Fausse Piste, a Portland-based winery that sources grapes from Oregon and Washington. Along with Seattle friends of mine who drove to Portland to join us for the trip, we met at Ok Omens, a self-described “naturally focused wine bar” and favorite among the wine-making crowd. This was my first time meeting Jesse, and over what turned out to be a multi-bottle dinner and, afterwards, an impromptu cocktail session with a group of winemakers who happened to be hanging out at the restaurant, I enjoyed getting to know him.

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Commiserating at Ok Omens

Jesse sells his wine in my area (Washington, DC) through Weygandt Wines, which makes perfect sense given his wine proclivities. While Weygandt sells a good deal of wine from classic Old World regions like Burgundy and Alsace and the Wachau Valley, it also brings in small, niche domestic producers like Fausse Piste, Arnot-Roberts, Cameron, Ceritas and others. These are small producers with, as Bourdain would say, a maniacal obsession of unique personality for whom winemaking is a cause. Attention to details – all of them – is rarely sufficient. Exploration and experimentation are constant, a total and humble fixation on trying to understand and do their craft better.

Take, for example, Jesse’s Duck Sauce, an insane skin contact viognier. The current vintage is 2013, which should raise eyebrows: it is fermented on the stems and skins for thirty days, basket pressed into 2 older French barrels where it sat on the lees for 3.5 years before enjoying a final six months in barrel without the lees, and is finally bottled unfined and unfiltered. Talk about an effort-riddled and unusual wine.

Our group closed Ok Omens down after many rounds of wine and cocktails, an unanticipated effort for a Monday night. The camaraderie among the Oregon wine scene is pretty extraordinary, as this night intimated and the following couple of days confirmed. On this evening, everyone knew each other, also a sign of the relative size of the state’s industry. Portland is roughly an hour from the northern area of the Willamette Valley, and many from the industry live in Portland. Fausse Piste isn’t the only winery to go one step further and set up shop in the city, though Portland remains a relatively small incubator of wine production.

The following Tuesday morning, after my fiancé arrived, we made our way down into the Valley for three winery visits before checking into our Airbnb. The remainder of this post will discuss our first stop, Martin Woods Winery. Part two will fill out Tuesday’s stops at Tendril Wine Cellars and Belle Pente Vineyard and Winery. Part three will cover Wednesday: Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, Trisaetum Winery and an introduction to Shane Moore. The final and forth part will cover WillaKenzie Estate, Zena Crown and Gran Moraine, the latter two labels that Shane produces.

The owner and winemaker at Martin Woods Winery is Evan Martin. I couldn’t keep the respective names straight leading up to the trip, but once I arrived there it became clear: Evan Martin owns a nice plot of forty acres, much of which is hillside covered by trees at high elevation, and so it’s Evan Martin’s woods: Martin Woods Winery. Set high up on one of the Valley’s mountains, by the time we got to the top of the steep, winding gravel road, we were without phone reception.

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Evan Martin and his woods

Evan doesn’t produce vitis off his land yet, though it is in his future. He intends to plant at 500-600 feet, which he thinks is the ideal elevation for his property. At that level, the land is Ritner soil series and exposed to cooling breezes that come from the Pacific Ocean via the Van Duzer Gap, a break in the Oregon Coastal Mount Range (and the heart of a proposed new AVA) that allows vineyards access to Ocean winds that cool the vines. This exposure helps keep the vineyards cooler and builds thicker grape skins, which is desirable for the kind of wine Evan wants to produce.

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Staves are stacked outside and left to season for roughly three years

Evan does, however, produce barrels from trees on his land. How many wineries do you know that do that? The idea is to make a truly Oregonian wine. Obsession. The theory is that wine leaches terroir when something foreign is introduced to it. Oregon grapes in French oak, which is the standard in the Willamette Valley, makes for wonderful wine, but it’s less Oregonian than Oregon grapes in Oregon oak. Evan chose the Quercus garryana tree for its particularly tight grain, which does not allow as much oxygen to pass through to the wine as French or standard American oak. This creates an oxygen poor environment that produces more reductive wines.

The barrels create a unique tannin structure in the wine that Evan is still figuring out. He has yet to fill his barrel room entirely with his own barrels, in part because it takes at least three years to season (dry) the wood before it is ready to go to the cooperage, and Evan hasn’t been doing it long enough to make enough barrels to replace his French ones. The other reason that he isn’t fully Oregonian oak is that he hasn’t had enough experience with them yet to gamble his entire production on going 100% Oregon oak. But time is on his side, and it seems inevitable that he’ll get there if he wants to.

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Evan is a meticulous, thoughtful guy and we had high expectations when we got to the tasting portion of the visit. The juice did not let us down. We started with the 2017 Hyland Vineyard riesling, which is made with Coury clones from Alsace that were planted in 1973. The vast majority of Willamette Valley riesling is from German clones, so the Alsatian roots of his helps to differentiate the wine. Bracingly young, it’s texturally driven by the acid backbone. The skins were macerated at 50-55 degrees for four days and the juice fermented in flex (plastic) tanks that, unlike stainless steel, allows breathing so that the wine can develop, but without the impact of oak, which Evan believes overwhelms the variety. Flex tanks also prevent evaporation and the release of carbon dioxide, which helps keep the wine fresh and capture more of its nuances than stainless tanks. Though Evan isn’t sure flex tanks are the best vessel, they’re the best he’s found so far. The resulting wine is a serious one that will develop over time into a classic expression of the variety with a lot of depth, something that I don’t believe can or should be said about most American riesling.

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The next wine was the 2017 Eola-Amity Hills chardonnay, which came from a single vineyard of fifteen year old Dijon 76 clones. Due to the contract, he can’t designate it. This one was aged half in Oregon oak and half in French puncheons. I found it to be substantive, delicate and quietly elegant, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that a bit of lees were left in for the aging but not stirred as it settles into a very reasonable spot between lean and fat in the mouth. The layer of lees creates a reductive zone in the barrel that creates a flintiness that really set the wine apart.

We followed this with a 2016 chardonnay from the Yamhill Valley Vineyard. Perched on a very steep slope with a lot of sun exposure from a sparse canopy, it’s a particularly stressed vineyard. The berries are small, and develop thick skins. They appear burnt, but are actually bursting with acid. He ages the wine in third to sixth fill oak, all of it Oregonian. It’s a texturally tense wine that begs for twenty to thirty years of evolution. Restrained at this stage, it does already exhibit a mean streak of twitchy, nervous and zesty acid that tantalizes. Evan told us that in its youth it’s best enjoyed over a week of being open as the extended oxygen exposure fattens it out. I’d be thrilled to rediscover one of these, lost in the back of my cellar, after a couple of decades.

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From there we moved on to the reds, beginning with the 2017 Gamay noir. This is a blend of four vineyards, though in 2018 he will forgo this wine to create two vineyard designates. Evan goes full carbonic and full cluster, which initially produces a “tannic monster” that over ten months it barrel softens dramatically. It’s ripe and acidic with loads of bright red fruit and florals creating a pretty and ethereal wine.

And then it was time for pinot. The 2016 Yamhill Springs is made from Vadersville clones planted thirty years ago that tend to go through rather slow phenolic ripening on that site. Evan shies away from using whole cluster because he wants to keep the juicy acidity that this vineyard tends to produce. It has a lot of baking spice and dark fruit on the nose, which comes off chocolaty in nature. The wonderful texture sets up seriously layered flavors that are presented well on the back of sharply focused acid.

The final wine was the 2016 Jesse James vineyard pinot noir, which Evan describes as his “power and grace” wine. This one is almost entirely Oregon oak (7/8ths). It has a rich, full mouthfeel but maintains an elegant tension established by bright acid and dense, fine tannin. “Power” and “grace” are appropriate adjectives for it.

As we discussed the Jesse James, Evan gave me one of my favorite quotes from the trip: “acid is like salt in winemaking,” a statement that pairs well with another favorite quote about acid, given to me by a coffee roaster in Syracuse, New York: “acid is flavor.” There is serious substance to these wines, and it seems to come largely by way of the acid, which I believe contributes to the structure, flavor and feel more than the oak, which is delicate and refined. I think. After all, this was my first run-in with wines with Oregonian oak, and perhaps at least some of what I’m giving credit to the acid for ought to be fondly ascribed to the native wood.

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In a similar vein, the other theme that contributes to Martin Woods’ signature is the reduction that seems common among many of the wines. Not only does this enhance the balance and elegance of the wines, but when combined with the acid (and/or oak?) it builds wines that are set up for a long and mesmerizing aging curve.

My hope is that I have more run-ins with Martin Woods wine. With additional experience, I would hope to discern better what I’m tasting in Evan’s wines. Between the acid, fine tannin and reduction, these are wines that stand out as unique among the crowd. I’m just not sure now, yet, what each of these three factors are bringing to the party. Regardless, they’re doing well together, and Evan’s obsession with improving each element promises even better wines in the future.

In my mind, the ideal customer for Martin Woods wines is one that has copious amounts of two things: patience and cellar space. These are seriously underpriced wines given their impressive quality, ranging from $27 to $37 per bottle. This makes them no-brainer case purchases if you have the room. They will go through a fascinating evolution with long-term aging and therefore benefit from extended cellar time. True wine obsession embraces the living nature of wine and an appreciation that it thrives when given its best chance to live out its fullest and best life. Martin Woods is made for those obsessed with wine.

The visit to Martin Woods was a great way to kick off three days in the Willamette Valley. Look for part two, a completion of this first day of the trip, soon.

On Cork Report: Top Wineries in Monticello AVA, Virginia

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Stinson Vineyards estate vineyard

Note: This article was originally published on The Cork Report.

There is a debate among Virginia winemakers and wine lovers about where the best wine in Virginia comes from, but those are some rough seas for a wine writer to navigate (many have told me that there is no debate, yet they don’t all say the same thing).

Certainly among the most cited is the Monticello American Viticultural Area (AVA), Virginia’s first established AVA. Referencing Thomas Jefferson’s historic home, its name pays homage to that most famous and early proponent of Virginia grown and made wine. The AVA covers some really beautiful country. Dotted with several small to medium-sized urban areas, themselves quite lovely, most of the land is taken with large, upscale horse ranches, farms, and estates. This atmosphere certainly boosts the AVA’s pedigree.

Although I’ve lived in Arlington, Virginia for most of the last twelve years, I haven’t spent much time at Monticello’s wineries. Earlier this summer, I set out to begin rectifying that and chose five to visit. During the long weekend trip, I also held a winemaker roundtable to discuss how Virginia tannin is built, which will I’ll report on in a future The Cork Report post.

For now, I’d like to talk about each of these wineries, some of the wines of each that stood out, and why each is worth getting to know as they all speak, in their own way, to what it means to make and drink Virginia wine.

Continue reading here.

Try this Wine: Palacios Corullón Bierzo mencía

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Alavaro Palacios in one of his vineyards. Picture credit: Rare Wine Company.

A number of years ago, I read an article about a “new old” wine region in Spain called Bierzo, located north of Portugal along the route of El Camino de Santiago, Christianity’s most famous pilgrimage. I wish I could remember which article it was, though the general essence has remained deeply ingrained in my mind. First, the signature red grape there is called mencía. Second, the vines, most of which grow on very steep hillsides, can be a century old. Third, Bierzo as a region and mencía as a grape had both been forgotten by the wine world for decades until the 1990s. And forth, this was a shame because both had a lot to offer wine lovers.

That was enough to motivate me to seek out Bierzo mencía. I found my way to a bottle by a producer named Descendientes de José Palacios called Pétalos, which is a field blend from the western part of the region that costs around $25. I recognized the name Palacios as one widely credited for helping Priorat rise to its current status as a unique wine region of high quality. Further, its winemaker, Alvaro Palacios, comes from Rioja’s esteemed Bodegas Palacios Remondo family. The Pétalos seemed like a good entry to Bierzo.

Man, was it good. While not particularly heavy, it had daunting depth at its pricepoint and a combination of flavors and aromas I had not experienced: spicy red fruit, loads of purply florals, wet underbrush, licorice and a mild pepper finish. Further, the structure was mesmerizing. It had significant tannin, but that tannin was so finely grained and consistent that it didn’t obstruct any other element of the wine, including the precise acid. Most Spanish wine is known, among other things, for its boldness. With perhaps the exception of Rioja, Bierzo offers an elegant, feminine alternative to the country’s more famous regions.

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The winery. Picture credit: Rubén Bescos.

If the Pétalos was Palacios’s entry point, I figured their more pricy bottles could be downright magical, and decided to purchase two bottles of the 2012 Descendientes de José Palacios Bierzo Villa de Corullón, the next step up in the Palacios line that costs around $45. Corullón is the village that Palacios chose as the epicenter of their effort in Bierzo. The most desirable vineyards and parcels go into more expensive single vineyard bottles, whereas the Villa de Corullón is a blend of three vineyards (with vines ranging from 60 to 100 years old). From what I had read, the Villa de Corullón was built for short to mid-term aging, and so I decided to open my first bottle five years after its vintage.

One of the reasons I like to purchase multiples of a wine I intend to age is to see how it develops over time. I consumed the first bottle in July of 2017, and had the second just last week (August 29, 2018). If I had any doubt of my approach, the difference that just a year made with this wine affirmed the rationale. While there were consistencies, there were also dramatic differences.

From July 2017: Holy florals, Batman! The nose is a flower store, a bit of everything, with crushed strawberries, cranberries, Sweet Tarts and tar. The body is medium in weight with juicy acidity. The fruit is a bit darker here, with overripe strawberries, cherries and boysenberries. There’s lovely violets and rose, along with creamsicle, although over time the flowers fade as cola and chocolate emerge. I really like this, and will be very interested to follow it over the next five-ish years.

And from August 2018: Such a gorgeous, elegant wine at a great stage on its life. The balance is impeccable. It’s identity just screams “pastel.” The nose and palate supremely balance florals and dark earthy notes: pink, purple and yellow flowers; wet top soil; graphite; and darkly tanned tobacco leaf. It also features mountain strawberry, blood orange, dark cherry and pomegranate seed. The fine grained tannins add pleasure to the mouthfeel, and the acid is in perfect balance. A truly impressive wine. Decent for an hour now, and consume over the next three years.

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The Villa de Corullón label. Picture credit: Wine.com.

Both were beautiful wines, though my preference went to the longer-aged bottle (I gave the younger bottle 93 points, and the older 95). I’ve spent considerable time thinking about what a comparable wine from elsewhere might be, and continue to come up empty. I’ve rarely found a wine like the Corullón that excels on all fronts: aroma, structure, balance, mouthfeel and flavor. It achieves the rare quality that is the benchmark I have for my favorite wines: the sum of the parts surpasses the quality their individual qualities.

Try this wine because: (1) it’s profile is highly unusual, if not definitionally unique (one of a kind), (2) it’s very reasonably priced for its quality, and (3) there is good availability of past vintages, which makes drinking it in its prime now a real possibility.

Where to buy:

Thankfully, this is not the hardest wine to find. The current release is 2015, but wine-searcher.com has store listings for eleven vintages. Two stores – Pluckemin Inn Wines in Bedminster, New Jersey and Wine & Liquor Warehouse in Canton, Connecticut – still have the 2012, which I profiled in this piece, available at great prices. The stores below, which represent a greater geographic dispersion, have the 2015 vintage. And, as always, you go to wine-searcher.com and enter your zip code and a radius to find the closest store. Click on this link to do that.

Central/Upstate New York: Saratoga Wine Exchange, 43 Round Lake Road Ste. 3, Ballston Lake NY 12019. 1 (518)-899-9463.

Mountain View, California: Artisan Wine Depot, 2482 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View California 94040. 1 (650) 917-8080.

Arlington, Virginia: Total Wine, 800 N. Glebe Rd, Arlington VA  22203. 1 (703) 516-2810

San Francisco, California: Flatiron Wine & Spirits, 2 New Montgomery St, San Francisco. California 94105. 415-780-1405.

Orlando, Florida: Total Wine, 4625 Millenia Plaza Way, Orlando Florida, 32839. (407) 352-6330.

Chicago area, Illinois: Vin Chicago, three locations (Highland Park, Chicago and Barrington)

When is Wine Conceived?

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Credit: sayingimages.com

On July 11th, I celebrated my 35th birthday with a birthyear 1983 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf de Pape, one of my favorite French estates. Though it drank well and was special because of its vintage, it would have probably shown its best, not unlike myself, ten or so years ago. As an unreasonable comparison, the 1995 Seven Hills Klipsun merlot from Washington State we drank later that evening was more prime-like. Over the wine and grilled lamb chops, my fiancé and I debated what was actually older: myself or the birthyear wine? My birthdate is July 11th, 1983, but what was the actual birthdate of the Beaucastel?

The question can be put another way: when does wine become wine? I certainly had my theories, as did Kayce. One potential answer is the day fermentation begins because wine is alcoholic, and we couldn’t consider pressed grape juice to be wine, right? I’ve never heard someone make the argument Welch’s grape juice is wine.

If one grants that fermentation is birth, there remains an important question: is the beginning of fermentation the point of wine’s conception, or when fermentation completes or somewhere between? If I can reference the abortion debate for this discussion (CONTROVERSY ALERT), some people argue that conception is the beginning of life, while others say life doesn’t begin until birth. If we want to use those respective logics, life at conception means wine is born at the beginning of fermentation, whereas life at birth results in wine being born at the completion of fermentation.

My fiancé hypothesized that a wine’s birthday is the day no more additives or methods are introduced because that is the point at which it receives no more human nurturing and stands, if you will, on its own legs (get it?). Prior to that, the required human support means it is not matured yet into wine. For a wine that goes into barrel and then bottle without any additions or further manipulation (even racking), its birthday is the day it is put into barrel. If a wine receives a hit of sulfur prior to bottling, then bottling is its birthday.

Neither of us was able to convince the other, and it became clear Kayce and I weren’t going to settle the debate. So, I decided to put the question to a few winemakers. The breadth of responses were akin to a joke we Jews make about ourselves: two Jews, three opinions. That is to say, no consensus (so thanks, winemakers, for your “help”). Below are the responses, which I found very entertaining to read. I hope you do too.

If readers have their own opinions, I’m on board with doing a subsequent piece featuring thoughtful reader responses if a sufficient number are received. Please email them to goodvitis (at) gmail (dot) com.

Charlie Smith of Smith-Madrone Winery on Spring Mountain in Napa wrote, effectively, that wine is born when fermentation ends:

“The  consensus opinion, of course, is that the year the grapes are picked is the year that the wine is born. It’s always seemed to me, though, that within that year the day that the last yeast cell stops converting sugar to alcohol [is the birthdate]. Or, to put it another way, the day the primary fermentation ceases, is the first day in the life of the wine. It is the first day grape juice is fully, finally converted to wine and day-one in the life of the wine. It becomes ‘finished’ wine on the day it is bottled, but as wine, it was born days, weeks, even years, before.”

Adam Lee of Siduri Wines and Clarice Wine Company in California had, as is wonderfully typical of Adam, a philosopher’s answer:

“I’ve been on a Julian Barnes kick lately, re-reading many of his works, and I came across this quote in The Sense of an Ending: ‘Someone once said that his favorite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant something new was being born.’ I thought of this quote when you described a somewhat too old birth-year wine and asked when is a wine actually born.

“A wine dies most often when the cork is popped, or the cap is unscrewed and the wine drunk. I have participated in a wine’s death in joy with friends, and killed an entire bottle myself in sadness and depression. The occasions change, and I interact differently with them each time and with every bottle. And yet every time, wine remains a constant for me in all of life’s moments. As someone who makes wine, the death of those bottles inspires me every year to take what nature provides and birth that into wine. For me, the wine is born in my mind and in my memory’s museums (thanks Kanye) before a new season’s grape is ever grown.”

Mattieu Finot of King Family Vineyards in Virginia not only answered the birthday question, but outlined a wine’s lifespan:

“The period of bud break to harvest this is the pregnancy stage. The process of birth, which is fermentation, takes a little bit longer than it is for humans. Once alcoholic fermentation is complete, then it becomes wine. When alcoholic fermentation is complete, that is the wine’s birthday.

“Malolactic fermentation is like losing your baby teeth in that it doesn’t really change who you are because you’re human already.  Receiving an ‘addition’ [e.g. sulfur] is like having braces because it is optional and doesn’t say anything about whether you’re human (or wine) or not; not everybody needs them and at the end this is just esthetic.

“Once the wine is bottled this is when the wine is an adult and it can take care of itself. Wisdom comes with age…. not when you are 20…. still crazy, strong and all over the place! But, when you get too old, you are losing your muscle and sometimes forget things… a little less substance, even if you were a strong brilliant person!”

Fellow Jew, Garry Cohen of Maryland’s Mazzaroth Vineyard, called it a “nice question” and included a bit of spirituality in his answer:

“I maintain that it’s wine once the fermentation has finished. From then on, it will always be changing. Whether through the use of oak, ml, additives, aging, etc. But at the risk of being a bit spiritual, once it’s finished fermenting and you can do a blessing over it, then it is born.”

Amen.

Barboursville’s Luca Paschina in Virginia answered, mostly, with a story and a wicked curveball:

“When is a wine birthed? What an interesting question it is. Well, let me tell you what happened earlier this year. The daughter of very dear friends, which we have not seen in a while, came to our house for dinner. Since her parents have hosted us at their home several times with great food and wines, I decide to serve her a wine from her birth year, 1990.

“I searched in my cellar, which is predominantly occupied by Barboursville Vineyards wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, but could not find any good ones from 1990. After initial disappointment, suddenly I realized that since she was born in March of 1990, she was conceived/born in summer of 1989 and happily I reached for a 1989 Barolo which, by the way, was one of the most fantastic growing season of the past 40 years in Piedmont. The wine was beautiful, meaningful  and truly appreciated by all of us.

“Therefore, when is a wine born? Perhaps the Beaucastel was born at bud break on April 8th 1983.”

Not far up the road from Barboursville, Ben Jordan of Early Mountain, began with an analogy:

“For me the best analogue is when the fruit is cut from the vine. Before that the flowers are fertilized, the fruit is formed and develops with a connection to the plant, and the time on the vine is basically gestation. Like birth, harvest is a dramatic change, because the fruit will never be connected to the vine again, and it begins the (hopefully slow) march through life to death. If the vineyard is well cared for, then the point that the grapes hit the picking container marks the point when the microbiome can begin to transform the fruit into wine. This is its birthday.

“Like a newborn, the wine grapes are most fragile right when picked and the winemaker/parents must work attentively, focus on little else, and spend every day (and night) with the newly forming wine. It is the decisions and approach during this short but critical time, along with the fruit’s genetic makeup, that will determine the personality of the wine.

“Fermentation is the childhood. Early on it is almost unbearably charming as the wine is rapidly changing into something more recognizable, becoming more stable, yet still vulnerable and needing of constant attention. The wines emerges from fermentation as the awkward teenager. No one really loves them, except their winemakers, and some days even they are not so sure.

“After that, the wine must grow up, and there is less and less the winemaker/parent can do. They can intervene, yes, but it becomes harder and harder to effect change in a positive way. Once the wine is bottled, it leaves the house, there is not much else winemakers can do other than hope that it will go out into the world and make them proud.

“As a note: If we are trying to make this analogy only with the plant and fruit (and not wine), I would still say that birth begins when the fruit falls or is plucked from the vine. At that point the offspring is no longer connected to the parent, and the question of whether it survives no longer depends on this connection. At this point the fruit and seed have the ability to grow up into a plant. Apologies to biologists.”

Drew Baker of Old Westminster in Maryland went the fermentation route:

“Wine is alcohol made from fermented grape juice. When looking at the tense of the verbiage, you notice that ‘fermented’ is in the past-tense – meaning that the fermentation of the juice has been completed. With that being said, I believe a wine is born when the fermentation is complete – aging in oak, concrete, stainless steel, bottle, etc. does impact a wines flavor profile, but to my mind the wine is already born.”

Finally, Forge Cellars’ Rick Rainey in the Finger Lakes weighed in:

“I will give you the short version.  The wine is ‘birthed’ once we put it into bottle.  Then it is finished and can be enjoyed as we exactly intended it.  Yes, it may not be ‘optimum’ and need aging to give the full pleasure but ideally it is ready, give or take a few weeks to recover from bottling.”

Late addition: Brent Kroll, Sommelier and Founder of Maxwell Park, one of DC’s most respected wine bars, and one of Food & Wine’s 2018 Sommeliers of the Year:

“I believe a wine is birthed when the grapes are harvested from the vine.  Wine can always be manipulated or adjusted past that. Often what happens past that is beneficial to protect the wine but sometimes they are over enhanced and that year of the harvest can be hidden. Those grapes are what speaks for that year in my opinion and lines get too blurred if you open the door past that. On the other hand, the only exception I might grant, even though I wouldn’t, is sparkling wine. I can see how something being 10 years old past disgorgement or being disgorged 10 years after the harvest are completely different. It’s hard then to judge the age by the vintage but I still stick to my initial thought. If you have to put a vintage on mixed vintages I would take the average based on the quantity of each vintage in the wine.”

And there you have it: no consensus on a wine’s birthday. Like the abortion debate, it rages on.

Try this Wine: 2015 Hess Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to buy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try this Wine: Hacienda Lopez de Haro Reserva 2013

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

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

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

2013 Hecienda Lopez de Haro Reserva

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

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

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

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

Where to Buy

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

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

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

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

A Viniculturalist’s Journey through Toro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try this Wine: 2015 Smith-Madrone Riesling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to Buy

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

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

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

You can find other locations for other vintages here.

Oregon Wine Month Extravaganza

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

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

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

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

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Source: Oregon Wine Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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