Try this Wine: Killer $22 Pinot

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It took real persistence to get this piece written. Not by me, but by Jesse Inman, who is one half of the sibling pair behind Lucky Rock Wine Company. First, he sent me their sauvignon blanc in July 2019, then their pinot noir a few months later. Except, it didn’t arrive, so he had to send another bottle. Then he had to pester me for, like, three months to get the interview scheduled. Finally, nine months after making first contact, we spoke. And the thing is, it’s not like the wine sucked and I didn’t know how to say “no.” I wrote this because, as the title of the post suggests, I want people to try this wine. It’s really good.

I’m neither a true snob nor judgment-free when it comes to wine, but somewhere between depending on the day. I’ll admit to huffing and puffing every time I see someone on Bachelor hold their wine glass by the bulb, yelling “BY THE STEM” at the television while my wife, who for the record agrees, rolls her eyes. And I’m often guilty of talking more about a wine that we’re sharing with friends that they care to hear, sometimes going on diatribes laced with nitpicks of the obviously wrong decision to do malo or the overly-judicious use of new oak on such a delicate grape.

That said, I also get great joy out of making the case against top of the line Bordeaux because the value proposition is garbage. And for the life of me, I cannot wrap my head around the people who rave about some of the most lofted California cult wines, which from my experience offer underwhelming sophistication and are often wildly out of balance (which is okay because they’re built in a way that the balance only gets worse with time).

I’m skipping ahead a bit in the interview with Jesse, but he peppered it with a two lines that explain the above paragraphs:

“Take your ascot off and drink our wine.”

“We’re hoping that [our] quality is good enough that people [who usually pay more] are willing to drink down to it price-wise, but also [people who don’t normally pay our price] drink up to it because it’s so good that it justifies them spending a bit more than usual.”

If the suspense is killing you, here it is: Lucky Rock pinot noir retails for $22, but to my palate it’s better than a lot of $30 and $40 pinots I’ve had. More on the wine later.

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Lucky Rock is not trying to be your typical winery. Their Instagram profile describes themselves as “Wine, Tattoo, Food Truck,” and is filled with pictures of tattoos, their pick-axe (say it fast and it sounds like “kick ass”) logo and dudes in beards and trucker hats having fun. One post, featuring a (relatively) close up of the chest of a heavily tattooed woman wearing a Lucky Rock tank top, uses the line “Look! We’re a lifestyle brand that actually knows how to make wine?”

“Our whole model is no pretension and good wine at a good price,” Jesse told me. I’m in the middle of a book on the history of Ralph Lauren, the man and the company. Lauren has been very clear that he is not a fashion designer nor is he selling fashion. Rather, he explains, his clothes are about style within the context of a lifestyle that he wants the people who wear his clothes to experience. I had asked Jesse about their lifestyle approach because in the same way that Ralph Lauren ads are as much about the non-clothing elements of the visuals and language used, Lucky Rock seemed to be about a lifestyle package that includes wine as one of the many elements.

“You can’t just rely on brand [to make it in wine],” Jesse said. “Obviously we make wine, but the tattoo part [of the brand ID] is a parallel for modernizing the wine business. We cuss a lot, we’re covered in tattoos, we joke around, and that’s unusual for quality wine. My brother and I figured that if we’re going to put this amount of effort into it then we have to have fun and be authentic about who we are.”

“The food truck,” he continued, referencing the Instagram profile description, “is that great wine and food go together. But just because you’re eating great food doesn’t mean that you need a white table cloth. [There is a] correlation between food truck and Lucky Rock – French Laundry and Bond are synonymous the same way. We’re not trying to kid ourselves, we’re not Bond, not trying to be that, nor do you want to be. But we know that our wine goes with great food regardless of where the food comes from. There is really fantastic food coming out of trucks, just like we’re trying to make really fantastic wine that comes to you in an unpretentious way.”

I’ll be completely open about my own experience with Lucky Rock. I’d never heard of it until Jesse contacted me, and after looking at the website and Instagram I set myself up for disappointment. The sauvignon blanc was solid, maybe even good, but the pinot noir blew me away. The reality is that Lucky Rock is a legitimate winery that punches above its price point.

They’re able to do that because they take advantage of economies of scale built into their business model. They make a lot of wine for other brands, much of which comes from really good vineyards that are strategically chosen based on their ability to deliver high quality grapes at less than high-end Napa prices. Of the annual haul, a small amount is taken to produce Lucky Rock. By pooling the collective tonnage needs, they’re able to get grapes that a stand-alone winery could not afford to sell at $22 per bottle. Put another way, if they were buying these grapes just for Lucky Rock, the price point would be significantly higher.

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Starting from the goal of making a very reasonably priced wine, a few other elements of the business plan are critical to success. They are about 60% wholesale having made the conscious choice to prioritize that over being direct-to-consumer, which lowers overhead. They have to be high volume, as well, because they are low margin. “We want to be different,” Jesse explained, “if we ever opened a traditional tasting room we’d be letting ourselves down. If anything, we might open a tap room featuring different wines and beers to pour alongside our stuff.”

It is also critical to making a high quality $22 pinot that they actually know what they’re doing. Jesse cut his teeth making high quality, more expensive wine at August Briggs Winery, where he got his start thanks to a close family connection and where he continues to make the wine today. While the Lucky Rock lifestyle is more warehouse than Napa Valley, the winemaking is as advanced as those who sell the high society lifestyle. Jesse has been making pinot noir “for my entire winemaking life. We’re taking the high end mentality and finding vineyards where we can apply that approach without going as expensive.”

Jesse and I talked tannins for a solid ten minutes because one of the more impressive aspects of the 2018 pinot was the quality and elegance of the structure. Often times, pinot under $30 falls flat and thin, but not Lucky Rock. He takes tannin structure seriously and has been trying various trade craft over the last several vintages to build a consistent profile. Close relationships with fruit growers, careful use of highly selective tannin additives and lots of experimentation with various barrel cooperages and treatments has led to three consecutive vintages now of positive refinement of the tannin structure. It sounds like he’s getting to a place where achieving consistency will keep the wine at a great place.

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Here’s the thing: Lucky Rock’s lifestyle isn’t for everyone, though I do imagine that it is a major factor behind the label’s success thus far. What is for a wider audience, though, is the wine. Lucky Rock’s desire to capture customers based on the quality, whether it’s more or less expensive than you normally pay, delivers in the glass. Even if you aren’t into tattoos, food trucks or trucker hats, even if the label is a bit too aggressive for you, you need to try the wine because, and I feel confident saying this, you won’t find a better pinot noir for the price. And if you dig their vibe, all the better. Dive right in.

Here’s the tasting note on the 2018, which is currently for sale: The nose-filling aromas are dominated by bright cherry and raspberry, but also include subtle tar, rose petal and baking spice. The body is medium plus in weight with fine grained tannin and modest but well-integrated acid. This could age for another 1-2 years and do nicely, but it’s gulpable at the moment. Cherry and raspberry pop on the palate as well, and are bolstered by blood orange, lilac and something spicy. This punches well above its price point. 92 points. Value: A+.

Where to purchase:

Right now, help the brothers out and order direct. They’re offering a temporary COVID-inspired discount: 15% off 6 bottles with $6 shipping and 20% off 12 bottles with $12 shipping. Discount codes can be found here. They ship to a good chunk of the country.

If you’d rather find it locally, they have a retail finder here.

Really Good Brunello: Bartoli Giusti

Giusti agriturismo

Bartoli Giusti’s vineyards and agriturismo

During our honeymoon in Europe last summer, Kayce and I visited three wineries: Emidio Pepe in Abruzzo, Italy; Weingut Markus Hüls in the Mosel Valley in Germany; and Bartoli Guisti in Italy’s Montalcino. Emidio Pepe blew our minds, and I didn’t wait very long to write about it. Hüls revolutionized our mutual appreciation for rielsing. Finally, eight months later, I’m getting around to writing about Guisti. Don’t let the gap throw you, though, the wine is stellar and worth seeking out.

The city of Montalcino is the center of the small wine-producing region known as Brunello di Montalcino, often referred to simply as “Brunello.” Brunello di Montalcino has the Italian government’s highest wine classification, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or DOCG for short. Although there are some wines from Brunello not made from the red grape sangiovese, the most famous, creatively called “Brunello di Montlacino,” is entirely that grape. When people say “Brunello” it is sangiovese that they mean.

Montalcino city

Montalcino is a gorgeous city draped over the top of a mountain. The roads that wind up to the city center at the top of the hill are long and steep, and pass many wineries, vineyards, olive groves, and other agricultural businesses. The old(est) and (most) historic part of the city is mostly made of roads too narrow for car travel, so you feel the incline in every step. Shops, homes, restaurants, tasting rooms and bars alternate with each other and mingle with apartments and historic churches, making the small city a cohesive place to visit. It’s a truly lovely city, even if you don’t make it to a winery.

Of the 100% sangiovese wines, there are aging rules that dictate how the bottle is labeled. The youngest wine is called Rosso di Montalcino, and must be aged at least one year, in oak and/or in barrel, before release. Brunello di Montalcino Normale (it is rare to see the “Normale” distinction on the label, most just say “Brunello di Montalcino”) must be released no earlier than five years post vintage, and have spent at least two of those years in barrel and four months in bottle. Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, as you might expect, ages the longest: six years from vintage with a minimum of two years in barrel and six months in bottle.

Many Brunello aficionados believe that Brunello di Montalcino “Normale” and the Riserva demand at least ten years of aging post vintage before the might even begin to enter their prime. Sitting on the best Normale’s and even standard Riserva’s for fifteen to twenty years is not only common, but frequently recommended. The best examples are why Brunello is considered among Italy’s, and the world’s, very best wines.

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The Consorzio 2012 vintage tasting

My first real exposure to Brunello came through an invitation to a large tasting hosted in New York in January of 2017 by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, a consortium of wine producers from the region. The tasting was the industry’s first real access to the then-newly released 2012 vintage, which received the Consorzio’s full five star rating, marking it as one of the few in the last few decades to receive such praise and faith from the producers themselves. One of the reasons why people age Brunello for at least a decade is because of how tannic the wines are when first released. As someone with a low tolerance for high tannin, it was a struggle to taste through the fifty or so producers at the event. By the midpoint, it was hard to detect much beyond the tannin structure and acid.

Nevertheless, I walked away very intrigued and began exploring more from Montalcino. Eight months later, I attended the grand opening tasting of Zachy’s DC and fell for the 2012 Marchesi Antinori Pian Delle Vigne Brunello di Montalcino, which was being poured. Although built with a sturdy tannin structure, the flavors popped more than many of the 2012’s I had tasted in January and made me feel confident enough to bring home three bottles to lay down. Barely a month later, I came across a 1998 of the same wine, took it home and liked it so much that I placed it third on my most memorable wines I tasted in 2017.

I’ve slowly stockpiled more Brunello, but have come to really love the Rosso di Montalcino’s as well. With a less extractive winemaking process, most Rosso are much more accessible and flavorful upon release than Brunello. Compared to the ~$50 entry point for most Brunello di Montalcino (many go $100+), a high quality Rosso will set you back, at most, $30, with many great ones closer to $20, and is a real treat. This is my segway to Bartoli Guisti.

Old vintages

Guisti is imported by our friends at Weygandt-Metzler, who connected us with the winery as well as helped set up our visit with Markus Hüls. I had not tried Giusti prior to the visit, but had asked Peter Weygandt if he could connect us with one of his Brunello producers. I’m not sure why or how Guisti was the choice, but I’m grateful that it was.

The Guisti family isn’t sure how long they’ve been making wine, but based on documents found during the last winery renovation, they know their ancestors were active in the wine business in the early 1700s. Still run by the family today, their vineyards cover nearly 30 acres within Brunello di Montalcino, with an additional 74 acres of olive trees. The winery and cellar is located on the outskirts of Montalcino in an area called Osservanza.

The vineyards are tended to by hand, from pruning to harvesting and everything between. Production is a modest 20,000 bottles of Rosso, 50,000 bottles of Brunello and a small amount of Riserva made only in the best years. These are quantities that relative to vineyard size indicate high standards for the grapes that make it into the wine. Put another way, through cluster dropping or meticulous sorting, or both, production is lower than it could be. Nearly half of the vineyards are new plantings that went into the ground in 2017, 2018 and 2019 under an expansion plan meant to boost both quality and quantity of production. Grapes these vineyards are still coming online and for the most part haven’t entered production wine yet. Currently, 60 or so percent of their production is exported.

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Guisti’s production area

The wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks and made somewhat reductively using pump overs. Fermentation typically takes between 15 and 20 days. The wood aging vessels are made in Veneto, Italy, from oak sourced from Slovania, and hold more than 2100 gallons each. These large (and old) barrels mean that while the wine benefits from the structure and mellowing that the oak provides, there is little to no flavor added to the wine by the wood. These oak barrels are one of the reasons why I was drawn to Giusti’s wines: all the structural upsides with none of the oaky flavor downsides. Unfortunately, there is a sizable portion of Brunello made in a more New World style these days that feature oak-forward flavor profiles. Giusti stands apart from this newer trend, thankfully, and maintains a focus on nuanced elegance rather than tannic power.

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Giusti’s oak barrels

After making our way into the center of Montalcino and working through some logistical mix-ups, we met Anna Maria Focacci, who shares ownership, winemaking duties and management of Giusti with her brother, and proceeded to the winery for a tour through the cellar and a tasting in a nicely-appointed family room on the top floor of the “cantina” adjacent to the winery. Anna, whose first vintage was 1970, did not speak much English, but we did our best to learn the information I’ve conveyed in this post so far. What did not require translation, however, were her beautiful and elegant wines.

We started with the 2017 Rosso di Montalcino, a wine we’ve had several times since returning from the trip because we love (LOVE) it. It’s always an open question of how well a wine travels, and it’s always interesting to see how a wine ages, so for comparison’s sake I’m posting my tasting notes from the visit on July 1st, 2019 and a more recent tasting on January 25th of this year.

From the visit in Montalcino, Italy: The nose is very perfumed with high-toned aromas of red fruit, spice, leather and florals. It’s medium body is very juicy and spicy. It delivers good mineral earthiness and a range of sweet red fruit: cranberry, strawberry and huckleberry. The fine grain tannin is mouth filling and offers engaging grip that accentuates the flavors. It is very clean and crisp. Additional oxygen is exposing a chili flake and scorched earth finish. Very good, very complete with lots of depth of flavor and concentration. 92 points. Value: A+.

From a few weeks ago in Washington, DC: This elegant, pretty nose offers aromas of sweet and spiced plum sauce, rhubarb, muddled strawberry, red current, seasoned leather and cardamom. The medium body coats the mouth with juicy acid and sweet, fine tannin that develops a slightly grippy sensation the longer the wine remains in the mouth. Flavors include blackberry, mountain strawberry, sweet balsamic, blood orange, fresh leather and mild black pepper. This is absolutely singing at the moment and impressively accessible. 92 points. Value: A+.

We have accumulated a small stock of the 2017 Rosso and are going through at a rate of 1-2 per month. It is an absolutely great wine to enjoy on its own, and the modest but grippy tannin, bright and integrated acid, and combination of fruit and earthy flavors make it a versatile food pairing wine as well. At about $20 per bottle, it’s an incredible value.

Anna then poured the 2013 Brunello di Montalcino. The aromas wafted plum, cigar, boysenberry, raspberry, cracked black pepper, graphite, violet and a menthol-type aroma. Despite its youth, it was pulled together nicely on the palate by refined tannin and an elegant balance between acid and texture. Unlike many young Brunello, the core of tannin shows better construction and was not entirely separate and apart from the other structural components. The flavors are dark fruited and dark spiced, and bolstered by orange peel, green pepper, herbaceous undertones and scorched earth. While somewhat approachable, the density suggests it requires the usual ten-plus years of aging to get the full experience. 94 points. Value: A.

We have a few of these aging away, but haven’t opened any, and won’t until at least 2023. At about $40, this one continues the Giusti tradition of amazing value.

Riserva

The final wine opened was the 2012 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. The nose packed a huge punch and was marked by considerable depth and concentration. The longer one inhaled, the more they got: asphalt, sweet cherry, spearmint, leather, balsamic reduction, and more. The full body was well-rounded with velvety and gorgeously smooth tannin (especially for a young Riserva). The flavors will require time to fully delineate, but at that moment showed promise of red, purple and black fruit, as well as mint, spice and earth. It’s all there, but don’t dare open it until at least 2025. 96 points. Value: unknown.

Unfortunately, the Riserva is not imported to the United States at this time, though I’m working on Weygandt to bring some in. It is a truly spectacular wine and, I would imagine, another exceptional Brunello value.

Grappa

We finished with a taste of the estate’s grappa, which is a brandy made from the leftover bits (called “pomace”) of the wine production – stems, seeds and skins. I’m a grappa lover, but don’t drink much of it outside of Italy because of the ridiculous markup it receives in the United States. Like its wine, Giusti’s grappa is spectacular and I bought a 700ml bottle hoping to get a good way through it before we flew home. Quite strong, I put down about 60% of it before the end of the trip, making it an entirely worthwhile purchase. Here is the tasting note:

Fruity and spicy on the nose, I get cactus fruit, passion fruit, aloe vera, anise and strawberry. The flavor is almost Tequila-esque, but without the bite. This has more warmth and fruit – namely cactus, melon and papaya – to go with strong herbal flavors.

Like the Riserva, this is also not available in the US, but also like the Riserva, I’m working on Weygandt to change that. Fingers crossed.

Guisti will be a difficult find for most Americans as it is imported in small quantities and not widely distributed. That’s unfortunate because the quality and value are off the Brunello charts. Brunello is not an accessible wine no matter how you measure it, price or palate. The flavors are not for everyone, and few have the patience or cellar to age it into the version of itself that would be easier for a wider audience to appreciate. Guisti is anything but elitist, as are most Brunello producers, but the quality of the soils, the climate, the winemaking, everything about Giusti suggests that it is a rare winery that services everyone from the Brunello neophyte to expert.

The limited production is, I’m sure, part of why Giusti impresses to this extent. After all, it is usually more difficult to make world class wine at higher production numbers than lower ones, all things considered. However, as the new plantings come online and production is boosted a bit, it’s my hope that more people in the United States will be able to find it.

If you’re interested in visiting Montalcino, Giusti has an agriturismo that I imagine, if the effort put into the hospitality is anything like the effort put into wine, would be a great experience. The winery’s tasting room is conveniently located in the heart of Montalcino as well. In short: if you’re visiting, there is no excuse or justification for missing some aspect of Giusti.

Siduri Likely to Keep on Winning

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Siduri founding winemaker Adam Lee (L) and new head winemaker Matt Revelette (R)

Siduri was started in 1994 by the husband and wife team of Adam Lee and Dianna Novy. With an exclusive focus on pinot noir and an approach based on site-designate wines, Siduri became a leading name in the burgeoning California pinot noir scene where it remains a vanguard producer today. Like many of Adam’s endeavors, Siduri was on the leading edge of a consumer-driven revolution. A few years ago, Adam and Dianna sold their successful winery to Jackson Family Wines, and late last year it was announced that after a few vintages of tutelage under Adam, Matt Revelette was taking over as the full time head winemaker as Adam would step away completely to focus on other projects.

In terms of experience, talent, reputation and character, Adam’s are big shoes for Matt to fill. Yet, when I sat down for dinner in early January with Adam, he was glowing over both his new freedom and the excitement he has for where Matt can take Siduri. The basis for this confidence in Matt is rooted in Matt’s winemaking prowess, but also in the friendship they’ve developed since Matt came on as his heir apparent. Adam, and later Matt when I spoke with him, referenced the long, fun days spent driving up and down California as Matt was introduced to Siduri’s long and impressive list of vineyard sources, and the time they’ve spent together socially. I’ve long believed that winemaker personality and character is a part of a wine’s terroir, and I don’t feel the least bit worried about that aspect of Siduri’s future with Matt taking over.

It came as no shock to me when I learned that Matt was a philosophy major in college. Adam’s mind moves one hundred miles per minute, coming up with all sorts of new business ideas while simultaneously mulling over ways to improve wine quality. The most substantial project he’s launched since selling Siduri is the Clarice Wine Company, which leverages three incredibly good pinot noirs made by Adam to create the next evolution in wine business models. You can read the Clarice profile I wrote last year here. In order for someone to earn Adam’s exuberant endorsement as Matt has, I can’t not see that person being a purposefully thoughtful and continuously curious person.

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To go further with this parallel, because Siduri makes over twenty wines from eight California and one Oregon AVA, all from vineyards owned by other people, it takes the mind of a thinker and a voraciously intellectually curious person to manage such a portfolio so productively. When Matt and I talked about his plans for Siduri, his first answer was that it all boils down to maintaining relationships with the growers. “It’s hard to make this many vineyard-designates without maintaining a lot of friendships. A lot of the onboarding has been getting to know the families that own the vineyards.” As if to make my point for me, Matt noted that “Adam didn’t build Siduri to what it is today without being forward-thinking, and I’m going to maintain that mindset of always moving forward and making those qualitative and incremental improvements.”

All of Siduri’s wine is made in its warehouse winery in Santa Rosa, to the west of Napa Valley, yet the vineyards it sources from are as far north as the Willamette Valley in Oregon to as far south as Santa Barbara (just north of Los Angeles). “That means lots of road time,” Matt told me. A common routine of his and Adams, was to meet up at 2:30 in the morning, get coffee and eat a breakfast sandwich, and arrive in southern California by 7:30. “We’d visit the vineyards, then travel down to Santa Barbara and see the vineyards there, then head to the Santa Lucia Highlands and drive back. We’d stop for a steak at The Hitching Post for dinner and then go to sleep.”

Despite schedules like that, “there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing,” Matt said. “If given the opportunity to do this in my spare time, I would. It’s great to see the vineyards, make friends with growers, see the site differences that manifest themselves naturally at harvest. It’s just amazing.” If Matt can keep up with Adam, then he can run Siduri like a champ and continue the tradition of great site-specific pinot noirs. Siduri’s business model is premised on an indefatigable engine, and it appears they have that in Matt. I feel good in saying that Matt will both continue Siduri’s legacy of expressive, high quality pinot noir, and over time make incremental steps that will drive Siduri’s continued improvement and growth.

Although Matt’s first solo vintage isn’t commercially available yet, I recently tasted through four of Siduri’s entry level AVA blends from the 2017 vintage: Willamette Valley, Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands. Each of these range in price from $35-40, express their unique little corner of the world, and are accessible upon release.

For fun, I decided to taste them blind. I had decently high confidence that I’d be able to get them correct; after all, these are four distinctly different terroirs. I also wanted to eliminate any bias I might have. I’ve never been much of a fan of Russian River Valley pinots, love Willamette, have been tasting a lot of Anderson Valley recently for an upcoming profile of the AVA I’m working on, and tasted through a case of Morgan Winery Santa Lucia Highland wines a few months back. I wanted to eliminate whatever I thought I knew about these AVAs to give them a fare shake – and to test my tasting abilities.

In short: I failed miserably with my picks. I got the Anderson Valley correct, mixed up the Russian River with the Santa Lucia Highlands, and was totally off with the Willamette Valley. I told Matt this when we spoke, and though he may have just been polite, he told me that he didn’t think he’d get it 100% right with this particular line up and vintage. I’ve chosen to take him at his word.

The first lesson I learned, which I’ve learned in the past and clearly forgotten, is that I do actually like Russian River pinot. In fact, it was my favorite of these four wines. The second lesson was that Anderson Valley really does have a unique signature that cuts across producers in certain seemingly unassailable ways (Matt confirmed my thinking on this, which I’ll flush out in the forthcoming AVA profile). Finally, there’s something special still undiscovered by the masses in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and I’m barely a step into that room but very excited to explore it more.

I’d buy three of these four wines for future consumption, especially the Russian River bottling. I’ve never latched onto Siduri’s Willamette Valley pinot, and the 2017 hasn’t changed my mind despite me really wanting to have my mind changed. Nevertheless, they all represent good to great value, and one cannot complain about the quality of any.

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2017 Siduri Anderson Valley pinot noir: The slightly sweet nose wafts scorched earth, plum, currant, raspberry, blood orange juice, pencil shavings and top soil. The body is quite smooth and elevated with sturdy, precise tannins that take a minute to settle in. The well-appointed structure frames nicely flavors of semi-sweet raspberry, plum, cherry, roasted coffee bean, dark semi-sweet cocoa and tanned leather. Amazing value for a really good wine. 92 points. Value: A.

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2017 Siduri Russian River Valley pinot noir – The nose is just gorgeous, offering aromas of baking-spiced red and black fruit, including strawberry, blackberry and blueberry. There’s a moist earth note as well. The deeply layered body is full and round, but juicy acid adds levity, elevating the light and sweet tannin. Flavor-wise, it offers sweet and polished cherry, blueberry and strawberry, which are accompanied by black pepper and cigar tobacco. This is a very pure expression of Russian River pinot. 93 points. Value: A.

2017 Siduri Santa Lucia Highlands – The dark, almost hedonistic nose is laser-focused on a concentration of raspberry, black plum, black currant and black cherry. The full body is elevated by bright acid, and mellowed by smooth, long and well-integrated tannin. The structure is seamless. Flavors icnlude strawberry, plum, cherry, sweet rhubarb, graphite, black pepper and a bit of iron. It finishes with a spicy flourish. Great stuff. 92 points. Value: A.

2017 Siduri Willamette Valley pinot noir – The nose is blue-ish in tone, with blueberry, plum and rhubarb making immediate appearances. Below them rest a mild fungal element and a saline quality. The body is slightly over medium, and texturized by slightly gritty tannin that carries sweet and juicy acid. Structurally it’s a nice wine. Flavors include blueberry, Acai, general florals and top soil, while it finishes on a note that suggests menthol cigarette. 90 points. Value: C+.

Finding Structure and Balance in Morgan Wine

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We’re deep into the holiday season, which is a period when a lot of wine gets consumed. Between office parties, potlucks, family dinners, Friendsgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, New Years and everything else going on, the opportunities to pull corks are seemingly endless. Kayce and I hosted Thanksgiving this year, which meant having enough wine on hand for eight very thirsty people.

Back in the spring, Morgan Winery asked if I’d like to receive samples. Morgan is located in the Santa Lucia Highlands of California, one of California’s lesser known wine producing regions. My only prior exposure to Morgan was their Santa Lucia chardonnay, which is available by the glass at a place I frequent and performs strongly in that role. I figured sure, why not. Then, two full cases showed up. Twelve wines, two bottles of each. Perfect, I thought, one set for Good Vitis and one set for Thanksgiving.

The Menenberg-Seifert Thanksgiving p/b Morgan Winery went well. The food and the wine delivered. Morgan makes a wide range of wines, and we were lucky enough to receive the grenache blanc, sauvignon blanc, Metallico (un-oaked chardonnay), Santa Lucia Highlands chardonnay, rosé of grenache, dry Double L riesling, off dry Double L riesling, Cotes de Crow’s southern Rhone-style blend, tempranillo, Twelve Clones pinot noir, Double L pinot noir and G17 syrah. No matter the food you put on your plate, there was a Morgan for it.

Part of what made the Morgan line up well-suited for the diversity of a Thanksgiving meal is the style the winery produces, which is driven by the climate and terroir of the Santa Lucia Highlands – referred to as “the SLH” to those in the know – and the broader Monterey area from which they grow and source their grapes. The SLH has, probably among others, two elements going for it that helps winemakers produce elegance and refinement: natural warmth absent the wind, and routine wind patterns that bring in cool air. The result, if leveraged like Morgan does, is bright acid combined with sturdy but smooth tannin. That’s a recipe for good food-pairing wine.

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To understand how Morgan gets this profile, it helps to talk a bit about the SLH. The wine growing areas in the SLH are located on the inland slopes of the Salinas Mountains, which run north-south, paralleling California coast. Across the Salinas Valley from the vineyards lie the Gabilan Mountains. The warm air of the Salinas Valley pulls the cold air from cooler Monterey Bay located to the north down into the vineyards, which moderates temperatures.

I spoke with Sam Smith, Morgan’s winemaker, who told me that were it not for this wind phenomenon, SLH would be a warmer wine growing region that produced bigger wines. “The wind gives us a cool climate. We have foggy mornings that blow off by 11am, giving us generally a few hours of sun and low wind. But by 2pm, the wind starts ripping down the Valley off Monterey Bay and continues southward.”

“It has a big effect on ripening,” Sam explained. “It can close the stoma [little valves in the grape skins that regulate gas exchange] on the vines, which effectively helps develop acid and serious phenolic [tannin] structure” without a quick rate of sugar production. This explains why Morgan wines can exude a precise style consisting of both depth and restraint.

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Morgan’s own, and the SLH’s only certified organic vineyard, Double L Vineyard

Morgan’s premier vineyard is called Double L. The 48-acre vineyard is long and skinny, effectively divided into two halves. The entire vineyard has loam soil, though the “upper field” has more clay and a higher water-retaining capacity, giving it more fertility than the “lower field” and its more lose sandy soil. Double L is the only certified organic vineyard in the appellation, and Morgan reserves its fruit exclusively for its own wines. Most of the Double L fruit goes into Double L designated wines, though the non-vineyard designate SLH chardonnay and Twelve Clones pinot noir receive a small amount of Double L fruit. The vineyard produces pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah and riesling.

With prior experience in Santa Barbara and the Northern Rhone, Sam Smith brought some of the right kind of know-how to Morgan and the SLHF, where he has been the head winemaker for the last four years. “The amount of natural acidity [in the SLH] is incredible,” Sam said when asked to compare the new-ish digs to his old ones, adding that “it’s one of the things I love about growing and making wine here.”

Sam pointed out something about this natural acidity that hadn’t crossed my mind: “[The naturally high acid] can be tough to make wine [in the SLH] without it being over-ripe” because the naturally high acidity gives growers the ability to extend hang time for the fruit on the vine, which leads to higher sugar accumulation in the grapes that results in “big, rich and boozy” wines. “If you have the intention [of making more restrained, elegant wines] and you are on top of sampling, you can nail your pick [dates] and hit great balance while retaining fruit-driven profiles. The balance that we can get in most vintages is killer.”

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Speaking to this killer balance, we enjoyed the case of Morgan over a period of three days, and nearly every wine improved over the first 48 hours, if not the entire 72 hours, as we exposed it to more and more oxygen. This included some of the white wines as well, and is a sign of overall quality for a number of reasons. One important reason is that it indicates a hard-to-find quality in the balance of the structure of the wine, which is composed of acid, tannin, alcohol and fruit. Initial exposure to oxygen can help some wines fully express themselves, but extended exposure will degrade all wines and expose imbalances in the structure. 48-72 hours is a long period of exposure for a wine to survive, even with the bottles re-sealed, and Morgan gets two enthusiastic thumbs up for taking the oxygen and making the most of it.

I want to focus in on four wines that stood out to me. The first two are the Double L rieslings, the dry and off-dry versions. People don’t think of California in the discussion of riesling, and it’s to their detriment. I’ve been an advocate for several California rieslings, especially the bottle produced by Smith-Madrone off Spring Mountain in Napa. But in full disclosure, I haven’t looked to the SLH for the variety, so I was surprised when the Morgan shipment included two rieslings. After tasting them, I can add “pleasant” to “surprised.”

Sam treats the riesling similarly to the other grapes planted in Double L. He typically does not drop fruit, getting between 4 and 5 acres a ton while retaining sufficient acid and aromatics. Sam noted that part of the Double L riesling signature is an herbal, minty quality and white tea freshness, which struck me on the finish of both wines, especially the dry version. The balance of these wines is what really impressed. Riesling can be a controversial grape for some: if it has high acid and poor balance, the acid is accentuated in unfortunate ways. In America, where the prevailing palate is highly sensitive to acid, that balance better be spot-on. I put the Morgan rieslings in the category of those I’d pour for riesling skeptics.


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2018 Morgan Riesling Double L Vineyard Dry – The nose boasts a nice range of tropical fruits – think honeyed pineapple and guava – plus lemon-lime citrus, mint and dried green herbs. It’s a full-bodied wine with medium weight and lush acid that carries traditional varietal flavors of lime pith, banana leaf, herbal tea, crushed rock minerality and an unusual nice hit of spearmint. A very well-balanced riesling with immediate appeal and medium-range upside. 89 points. Value: A-.

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2018 Morgan Riesling Double L Vineyard Off Dry – The very pleasant nose offers guava, pineapple, honeysuckle, limeade, yellow peach and some stone minerality. It gets towards the heavier end of medium body with the residual sugar adding body and balance to the modest acid, the latter of which could be turned up just a bit. Flavors hit on honeyed tropical fruits, including guava, pineapple and banana, plus white tea leaf, sea mist and some slate minerality. In a welcomed turn of events, the acid comes on a bit more on the finish and leaves the mouth with a slightly gritty sensation and herbal flavor. 89 points. Value: A-.


Staying on the Double L train, I want to talk briefly about the Double L pinot noir, which was the strongest wine in the lineup. The depth and seamlessness of the tannins, especially after 48 hours of oxygen exposure, where what stood out as quite impressive. The grapes for this wine, and generally all of Morgan’s reds, are entirely destemmed. This means the tannin development comes primarily from the skins which accumulate high quantities of something called anthocyanin, which is the smoother type of tannin as compared to the corser phenolic tannins that come from seeds and stems.

We discussed how Sam gets these gorgeous tannins, and he walked me through his vineyard approach which revolves around opening the canopy (the leaves) while protecting the grape clusters from sun burn. On the side of the grapes that get morning sun, which presents a low risk of sun burn, Sam and his team completely clear the leaves. On the other side, which gets the more radiant afternoon sun, they do what is called “tunneling,” which means removing the leaves that are between the clusters and the vine, while leaving the leaves on the outside of the clusters.

Sam finds that this approach strikes the right level of tannin development and produces tannins that mature in the vineyard, which he points out are the easiest to extract when making the wine and require little else be done in the winemaking to achieve tannin development. The Double L pinot gets a relatively short amount of maceration, just one to one-and-a-half weeks on the skins. He limits fermentation temperatures to 85 degrees in order to avoid over-extraction and retain aromatics. Most agitation is push down, with just a bit of pump over at the beginning. Cold soak comes only in the “voluntary” form, meaning the time between crushing the grapes and when fermentation begins. The goal is to “nail the structure and aromatics. If you do, that’s the holy grail.” He seems to be on the right track with this one.


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2017 Morgan Pinot Noir Double L Vineyard – Smells like a cool climate pinot with crushed red berries and plums, baking spice, tangerine peel and dark cocoa. It’s medium bodied with dense, fine grain and balanced acid. I think another 2-3 years of cellaring will help this unwind a bit. I’d love to have it in five years. Right now it’s offering juicy strawberry and blackberry to go with baking spice, dark cocoa and scorched earth. The depth is there, the complexity is there, it just needs more time. 72 hours out from initial opening, it’s really singing a beautiful structure and aroma. This is promising stuff. 92 points. Value: A-.


If the Double L pinot noir was the strongest Morgan I tasted, the G17 Syrah may be the most promising. It also happens to be the wine with which Sam is doing some whole cluster experimentation because syrah “sucks up whole cluster” better than the other red varieties Morgan is producing. The goal with the experimentation is to add aromatics and flavors without adding woody or green notes. “Whole cluster is similar to new oak,” Sam explained, “you want new oak to help frame the wine, but if it tastes like oak then that sucks.”

While whole clusters are an interesting experiment, picking the grapes on time is the most important thing. “There’s a real risk of waiting too long to pick. To a large extent the earlier you pick it, the more savory and floral it’s going to be. You have to check the syrah’s ripeness pretty closely and that’s what helps retain the elegance.” I asked Sam about the future of syrah in the SLH, and he pointed out that the granite origin of the loam soil is “a natural for syrah; you pair them and it’s a no brainer.” His Rhone experience shows through in the quality and profile of this wine.


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2017 Morgan Syrah G17 – The nose is a bit meaty, offering bloody red meat and gamey aromas to go with dark cherry and strawberry. I get the sense the nose is a bit underdeveloped. It’s almost full bodied with clean, juicy acid and fine grained tannins that have reached an advanced stage of integration for the youth of this wine, though it seems to lack just a bit in depth. The overall structure finds good balance and a slightly grippy texture. Sweet cherry and strawberry, blackberry, saline, tar, black pepper and blood orange. Another great value from Morgan. 90 points. Value: A.


I’ll conclude by making a genuine pitch for trying Morgan’s wines. In addition to the four discussed above, I’d also recommend the SLH chardonnay as a great value American chardonnay (yes, it’s not buttery or heavy, don’t worry) and the grenache blanc as a great entry-level wine for experimenting with something a bit different. Regardless of which wines you ultimately pick up, they represent an honest effort to produce high quality wines from an area where elegance and balance are achievable in unique ways.

Other wines reviewed:

2017 Morgan Cotes du Crow’s (grenache, syrah and tempranillo) – The ripe nose offers ripe cherry, raspberry, spiced plum sauce, freshly tanned leather and purple florals. It’s medium bodied but coats the palate with vibrant acid and finely grained tannin that together form a good balance and pleasant mouthfeel. The fruit is mostly red and slightly sweet, featuring plum, raspberry and cherry. There are some earthy notes of wet dirt and chai spice that come in on the finish. 89 points. Value: A.

2017 Morgan Grenache Blanc – The mineral-driven nose wafts seashell, petrol, sharp lemon, Marcona almond and slate. Blind I might’ve called a 5 year-old dry riesling based on the aromas. It’s on the lighter side in terms of weight with clean, pure acid that leaves a juicy finish. The flavors include lemon, raw yellow corn (minus the sweetness), thyme, orange pith, sea water and a riesling-esque minerality. Blind I might’ve called it a young riesling based on the flavors. A very intriguing if simple wine that with extended air takes on additional complexity. 89 points. Value: A.

2018 Morgan Rosé of Grenache – The nose shows signs of watermelon, strawberry fresca, lime sorbet and white pepper. It’s barely medium bodied with juicy acid and a modest acid backbone. The balance and texture are both nice. Flavors include cherry Sprite, tart strawberry, tart cherry and white pepper. Overall a fresh rosé with flavors that pop off the acid. 89 points. Value: C-.

2017 Morgan Metallico Chardonnay – The nose offers classic chardonnay aromas of lanolin, creme brûlée, banana peel, white tea and buttered popcorn. Surprisingly heavy for an un-oaked wine, the acid is appropriately leveled and nicely integrated. Unencumbered by oak, Meyer lemon, grass, limesickle, firm peach, cantaloupe, white tea and a streak of salinity fill the palate. An expressive Chardonnay. 88 points. Value: A.

2017 Morgan Monterey County Sauvignon Blanc – A slightly soapy aroma blows off early, revealing white peach, starfruit, honeydew, lemongrass and just a hint of spearmint. The body is almost medium in weight with a slightly creamy finish and bright acid. This is a clean wine. Flavors include bitter herbs and greens, lemon, firm peach, honeysuckle and white flowers. An impressive wine for the price. 88 points. Value: A.

2017 Morgan Santa Lucia Highlands chardonnay – Classic chardonnay aromas of vanilla curd, lemon, creme brûlée, lime zest, preserved apricot and salted popcorn. It’s medium bodied with crisp acid that provides a bit of textural grip. There’s just a slight edge of creaminess. Lemon-lime, orange sorbet, green apple, vanilla curd and a sea spray kind of minerality that brightens the wine. This is tasty stuff. 90 points. Value: A.

2017 Morgan Tempranillo – Aromas include blackberry, black plum, prune, Maraschino cherry, sweet leather and tobacco. It’s a bright medium body with densely grained fine tannin and nice acidity. Flavors are a variety of cherry pie filling, raspberry, leather, tar, violet and a healthy dose of cracked black pepper. This is a fun chugger that offers a lot of food pairing coverage. 90 points. Value: B.

2017 Morgan Twelve Clones Pinot Noir – The nose wafts crushed red berries and plum, scorched earth, underbrush fungal aromas and baking spices – pretty much everything you would figure in a pinot noir. Very true to type. It’s a round, soft medium body with nice acid and fine tannin. I get the sense there’s some extra depth to this one that a few years will unwind. Right now, it offers strawberry, raspberry, huckleberry, rhubarb, cinnamon, bell pepper and moist earth. Excellent value. 90 points. Value: A+.

Merlot is Back

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Picture source: Pixabay

Up until I had that 21st birthday bottle of Delille Harrison Hill 1998, a gift from a family friend, merlot dominates my wine-associated memories. My mother kept a bottle of merlot – the winery, I don’t remember, but I imagine a rotating selection of places like Chateau St. Michelle, J. Lohr, Mondavi and Charles Shaw – in the refrigerator with some frequency. I never took much interest in its presence there. I wasn’t one of those kids who stole pulls from the liquor cabinet, adding a quick stream of facet water to the half-full bottle of vodka in a futile effort to deceive my parents. I didn’t keep a six pack of Busch Light in my closet.

The merlot sitting in the refrigerator never tempted me, either. I just wasn’t into drinking in my youth. I know I tasted it, once in a while, but with my mom’s approval. I remember that it was cold and a little bitter, and not to my liking. It had a mysterious bite that today I can recognize as the alcohol. That’s about it. To my young palate, it wasn’t anything to crave. It was red liquid that my mom liked.

I preferred orange juice. My mother didn’t drink juice, too much sugar. I had to cut mine with water or my mom wouldn’t allow it in the house. Unlike the wine, I cheated with the orange juice when I could get away with it. No watering it down for me. That’s where I went off the reservation. Not the easiest child, I know.

When I was in my middle teens, a couple moved into the neighborhood and began having us over for dinner. The husband was a wine collector and opened wine whenever we came over. My mom enjoyed drinking it, though my dad wasn’t a wine fan (he remains unimpressed). And even though the merlot in the fridge back home never captured me, our friend’s wine did. Over the following several years, I was introduced to what I would find out later was some of the best wine made in the world. Depending on how one looks at it, my palate was either spoiled rotten or ruined for life before I was old enough to purchase any of it from a store.

The bottle of 1998 Delille Harrison Hill was a gift from this neighbor, and it became the first great wine that I associated as my own. Delille is one of Washington’s most respected and awarded wineries known predominantly for Bordeaux-style wines. Harrison Hill is one of its flagship blends, and routinely includes 25% merlot. As one of my early introductions to great wine, it set a personal benchmark for blends that lasted at least a decade. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it helped me form the respect I have today for the role merlot plays as a blending grape.

Fast forward to 2013. I had been unemployed for about five months at this point, having lost a job I didn’t much like and taking my time, albeit stressfully, finding a job I would be excited to start. As money was tight, I made it through this period satiating my wine needs with a small wine collection I had been building for the previous five years (inspirational, I know). I decided that since I had the time, I would find a winery nearby my apartment in Virginia where I could intern and learn firsthand how wine was made.

After scouting a number of wineries, I approached one and made my offer: I would work for free in the cellar a few days a week if they schooled me in winemaking and paid me to work in the tasting room on the weekend. They accepted. I did this for two consecutive harvests, and learned a ton about wine. It remains one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

During my first harvest there, we unexpectedly received a few extra tons of merlot from one of the vineyards where we sourced the grapes we needed beyond what our estate vineyards produced. The truck showed up, the man got out and asked a stupid question: did we want this extra merlot? In a state with a growing wine industry where grape demand far surpasses supply, you say yes. Even if the grapes aren’t great, you make a bad blush out of it because it will sell out once the temperature is high enough for picnicking and stoop-sittin’.

Thankfully, this was good merlot, so our affirmative answer was delivered with extra enthusiasm. As I helped unload the bins off the truck, an idea struck. I asked the winemaker if I could take a small amount of the juice from the extra merlot and make a side batch of my own wine. After consulting with the owner, I was given the green light and three 6-gallon carboys (glass jugs) of merlot juice was mine.

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With the winemaker’s guidance, we made three different merlots. Each carboy was inoculated with a different strain of yeast and given a different wood chip treatment. We went low-ish sulfur (40ppm), only once, and after about 8 months of aging in a dark corner of the cellar with the carboys covered by boxes, I syphoned the contents directly into bottles and hand corked them. I made eight or nine different wines from the three carboys: a case of each carboy was bottled, and then I started blending. We ended up with eighty-something bottles if memory serves.

All but half a dozen bottles were drained within a year of bottling. I was down to just a single bottle remaining until this article; I used the occasion to open it with my wife and in-laws. It is my greatest wine achievement to date because I didn’t screw it up; it’s actually a decent wine. I know this because I threw it into several blind tastings with legitimate wine people and got a range of reviews, none of them bad.

Making my own merlot is the true source of my appreciation of merlot: in the hands of a first time and under-trained “winemaker,” it graciously allowed me to make it into wine. It did its very best with what I gave it, maybe more than its very best, and I am eternally grateful. This article is dedicated to that batch of wine.


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2014 Aaron Menenberg Merlot #6 – The nose offers a compelling combination of floral, funky and crunchy red fruit notes, including aromas of wet saw dust, moist fungal dirt, cherry, raspberry, dehydrated strawberry, baking spice, rose water and spring flowers. The body is barely medium in stature, and the structure is driven by keen acid and scattered fine-grained tannin. The balance is essentially there, but the acid pulls the wine a bit out of its comfort zone. The flavors are similar to the aromas, featuring floral, fruit and funk. Specifics include dry dirt, mirepoix, tart strawberry and raspberry, cinnamon, rose hips and sautéed portabello mushroom. 88 points. Value: N/A.


Beyond my own appreciation of merlot, and certainly in spite of it, the noble grape deserves a good deal more credit and appreciation than it receives for all the hard work it does in wineries across the world. A perpetual performer, it is prized by many winemakers and largely disregarded by consumers. It is a classic example of the consumer doesn’t know best.

I recently published a Try this Wine post on Rutherford Hill’s 2018 Rosé of Merlot, one of the best rosé’s I’ve ever had. A press person from Rutherford’s parent owner sent me this note a few weeks later:

“I was in the Rutherford Hill tasting room the other day and a customer was bragging to his friends that he doesn’t drink “wimpy pink wine” (referring to our rosé of merlot, of course).  Right then, our tasting room manager pulled up your story and had him read it.  Not only did he change his mind, he purchased a few bottles.  So AWESOME!!!!!!!!”


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Best Surprise: 2018 Rutherford Hill Rosé of Merlot

This has a wonderful nose that combines the richness of merlot with the spryness of a rosé. Aromas of strawberry, cherry concentrate, candied fennel, sweet vanilla and Sprite lemon-lime. It’s on the fuller side of the rosé spectrum in terms of body, but it’s balanced brilliantly with bright acid that adds welcomed tension to the mouthfeel. The flavors hit on strawberry nectar, lime mint sorbet, chalk minerality and celery seed. This is among the most complex and complete rosés I’ve had, it’s a stunner equipped to handle a heavy meal. I’d love this with mushroom risotto. 92 points. Value: A.


The case for merlot goes well beyond a great rosé, though that bottle does make a statement as one of the best rosé’s I’ve ever had. Well before the Rutherford rosé, though, I decided that I wanted to take a stab at exploring merlot after hearing an extemporaneous diatribe on merlot from one of the grape’s very best producers earlier this year.

When I decided on doing this profile, my mind naturally went to the movie Sideways, a popular Hollywood movie released in October of 2004 assumed by many to be the death nail of merlot’s profitability and popularity because of a well-acted and entertaining scene demonizing merlot and the timing of it its release coinciding with a period of steep decline in merlot sales. “I am not drinking any fucking merlot!” is the famous line. Miles, the main character played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, is on a trip to Napa with a friend, both of whom are escaping various aspects of their lives. In a pivotal scene, Miles screams this line.

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Part of what I wanted to get into with this piece was industry views of whether this Sideways correlation was also causation, and so my first element of research was to ask. Over the course of the last six or so months, I’ve had the privilege of speaking to some of America’s, and the world’s, very best merlot producers. The orator of the aforementioned merlot diatribe was Chris Carpenter of Lokoya, Cardinale, Mt. Brave and other great wineries fame.

“[Sideways] wasn’t a bad thing from the perspective of what it ended up doing to merlot in general,” Chris said when I spoke to him on the phone a few months post-diatribe. “Did I go through the history of merlot with you?” He asked, somewhat dauntingly. Merlot has been around for a while, so I wondered how far back he would go. Nevertheless, I opened the door. “No,” I said, and off we went.

Thankfully, his starting point was California: “At one point back in the mid-1990s, the wine industry was looking for the next silver bullet as far as a wine that would be the starter wine for another generation that was coming onto wine. They had had white zinfandel for a while – a lot of people started drinking wine because white zin was on fire and it was tasty and accessible and not too expensive – and it made the industry a lot of money. So, people were looking for what the next white zinfandel was going to be because its popularity was starting to decline and the industry needed something to fill that gap,” he explained.

The industry tried a number of things. “They started planting sangiovese,” one example he told me about, “but that didn’t go over well because they made it too much like cabernet [sauvignon] and sangiovese just doesn’t react that way. They went through a number of iterations like this and eventually hit on merlot.” It had a number of positives going for it: “it’s easy to pronounce, it’s fairly easy to grow from a tonnage perspective, it grows in places across a bandwidth of temperatures and sunlight that are different enough but allow it to get to a certain ripening point. And so you can grow a lot of it.”

The California wine industry ran with it. “They went out and planted merlot every in Napa, particularly in the Carneros region.”  Today, Carneros is dominated by pinot noir and chardonnay, so it’s hard to believe it was once the center of the California merlot scene. “Carneros is on the cooler side and doesn’t get a lot of sunlight,” Chris explained. “Merlot is an early ripener, and so they figured they’d put it down there. It doesn’t get a lot of sunlight, but they thought they could still get it ripe.” Problem was, they couldn’t.

“They forgot that merlot needs a certain amount of light to get past the green flavors. The change in flavor character from vegetative to fruit is driven by light energy, and there just isn’t light energy in Carneros. A lot of how grapes gain weight and develop depth is by heat reaction and it doesn’t get the heat down there.”


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Best In Show: 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot

What a killer, earthy and penetrating nose: sour cherry, strawberry, mesquite charcoal, bitter cocoa, sawdust and emulsified dandelion. It’s full bodied in a way that fills the palate, but the acid is juicy and alive and prevents the wine from settling and cloying. The tannins are fine and focused. The fruit is beautifully layered, with muddled cherry, mountain strawberry and boysenberry that go for ages, and are followed by ground espresso and cocoa beans and graphite. The tail end of the flavor profile features tanned leather, tobacco leaf and a small dose of menthol. This does very well with a couple of hours in the decanter, but I imagine it can go through tremendous evolution over a decade or so. 94 points. Value: A.


Renée Ary, winemaker for the esteemed merlot producer Duckhorn Vineyards, noted additional considerations for merlot when I spoke with her. “Merlot is susceptible to heat stress, so water is a big issue. Because of that, it likes to grow in soil with better moisture-holding capabilities. Clay works well, but if you have a good vineyard team that can stay on top of irrigation, you can do it with better draining soils. They wanted to grow merlot like cabernet, but it’s not the same.”

At this point, though, the industry had invested a lot of money in planting merlot vineyards. “So, they pumped out a lot of merlot and put it on the market, and a lot of people drank a lot of bad merlot.” Chris said, adding that “it was lean and green, and it wasn’t very interesting. It didn’t have weight, it didn’t have complexity, it was very unidirectional. And then the movie (Sideways) came out.”

But it wasn’t what you think. This is when Chris turned into a movie critic, and an astute one at that. “The movie wasn’t really speaking to the bad merlot out there. What Miles’ comment was reflecting on was the [troubled] relationship with his wife. His wife drank a lot of merlot. So, when he went into that tasting room and said he wasn’t drinking any merlot, it was because merlot is what his wife would’ve drank. It had nothing to do with the industry. But, it came at a time when people were starting to react to this wine that wasn’t that good.”

When Miles makes his comment, the industry had already spent a solid decade, or more, laying the groundwork for the merlot market to crumble. Chris noted that “when Sideways drops, merlot falls apart as far as a varietal people are taking seriously, and pinot noir rockets. Nobody was drinking pinot noir back then, but suddenly it just took off. And the good thing that happened was that a lot of that merlot that was planted in the wrong places went away, and they replanted it with pinot noir.”

Enter winemaker Adam Lee, a prolific California pinot noir wizard responsible for great wineries like Siduri and Clarice. “I don’t buy [the theory that Sideways ruined merlot]. It’s true that a lot of bad merlot was being made in the 90s, so when Sideways came out there was a lot to hate about merlot already,” he said.

As an aside, in a cruel twist of fate for lovers of traditional pinot noir, the timing of Sideways’ pinot praise was terrible. “When Sideways came out,” Adam pointed out, “the current pinot releases were 2003 and 2004, both bad vintages in my opinion. They were very warm and we had big, ripe wines that were out of character. People who were supposed to like merlot because it was being made big and ripe, and hadn’t had pinot before, went nuts for the 03’s and 04’s, and in the subsequent years many wineries mainstreamed that big, jammy style, and it’s still around.”


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High Performer: 2016 Rutherford Hill Atlas Peak

Poured this through a Venturi into a decanter, and it showed nicely right away. The dark nose offers saturated aromas of mocha, cherry preserve, dark chocolate bark, graphite, black plum and boysenberry that draw your nose deep into the glass. It’s full bodied with thick, polished tannin and bright acid that runs the full length of the wine, forming a really luxurious mouthfeel and structure. Flavor comes by way of plum, cherry, strawberry, dark cocoa, graphite, cassis and nutmeg. If this wine were a person, it’d be a soldier-scholar: broad statured and muscular with a high intellect and high society manners. With another three to five years it will develop some real grace. 93 points. Value: A.


As Carneros transformed in the wine region we know it to be today, those winemakers still in love with merlot had to turn to smaller pockets around Napa Valley. “These little gems of vineyards that were ideal for merlot” became the hot finds, Chris told me. “When I found gems, more often than not, they were high up in the mountains. There are some things about mountain viniculture that go well with merlot.”

Duckhorn’s Ary referenced these gems herself. “[Sideways] ended up being a positive for merlot. The unserious producers threw it to the wayside. It helped us get access to new vineyards [that were great for merlot] that we hadn’t had access to previously.”

One reason merlot does well in the mountains is because as you gain elevation, the volume of what’s called “radiant energy” increases. If you remember back to Chris’ point about Carneros not getting a lot of sunlight, we’re coming full circle here because one of the types of radiant energy is sunshine.

“You’re higher up [in the mountains] so your volume of radiant energy is much greater and you’re going to have, theoretically, more of the light reactions happening,” Chris explained. “You get a very different expression of merlot than what they were getting in the Carneros, which in some days never sees the sun. Heat drives sugar, it drives acid, it drives tannins. It does not affect flavor to the extent that radiant energy does. Radiant energy drives the change in the flavor compounds.”

The portfolio of wineries that Chris covers with his winemaking is focused on mountain fruit. “We have vineyards on Howell, Spring and Veeder [mountains] that have exceptional merlot and I was, for a while, blending it into cabernets because it adds interesting things,” he said. Explaining the evolution to varietally-labeled merlots, he continued, “but I like underdogs, and merlot is an underdog, and I realized I had some outstanding wines that were 100% merlot and I wondered why we were blending them away. Why do the French and the Italians have a monopoly on really expensive bottles of merlot at the quality level that really can carry that price point? Here in the States [we couldn’t do that]. And so a lot of what I’ve tried to do is to reintroduce merlot at that same level as we think about brands like Petrus or Masseto or Cheval Blanc to a certain degree, because we have those kinds of vineyards. If you’re growing it and making it right, you have the kind of quality here [in Napa] that we do with cabernet.”


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Case Buy: 2014 Freemark Abbey Merlot

This really benefited from a 3 hour decant, which allowed the tannins to smooth and integrate nicely. The modest nose features cocoa dusted cherry, light roast ground espresso bean, graphite, blood orange and faint camp fire. This is full bodied on the palate with juicy acidity and tannins that are initially broad and densely grainy, but which smooth around the edges with air. The structure has achieved a uniform feel. The flavors ride the boisterous acid with evident joy as they hit on red currant, plum, cherry, strawberry, graphite and dry dirt, finishing with a small floral flourish. 91 points. Value: A.


Pahlmeyer, a member of this pantheon of benchmark merlot producers in California, is like Carpenter keen on producing merlot that competes with the quality of the great merlots of the world. Cleo Pahlmeyer told me she believes that Sideways wasn’t the catalyst for the merlot market’s collapse, but rather just well-timed with a saturation of bad merlot in the marketplace. Cleo is now the general manager of the winery, which was started by her father.

“Our first vintage at the winery was 1986, and my father’s dream was to make a Bordeaux-style red wine. Back then, Napa wasn’t known as place for cabernet, so this was a relatively novel goal,” she said. “We made our first merlot in 1988 or 1989 after a barrel tasting with our then-winemaker Randy Dunn. He and my father came across a barrel of merlot [that was going to be blended] that blew them away. It was a complete wine.”

“There’s one merlot descriptor that I hate,” Cleo said. “It’s my snobby wine self saying this, but it’s “smooth” and I hate it.” She hates it because “smooth” implies a level of simplicity that merlot can surpass. Benchmark bottles offer more complexity and texture than the simplistic profile that merlot used to carry when “smooth” first became a widespread attribute of the grape.

Pahlmeyer grows their merlot at the higher elevation points in their vineyards, just like Chris’ wineries. “We grow our merlot on the upper part of our estate vineyard,” Cleo explained. “It’s at about 2000 feet of elevation and sits on top of the mountain. You can see it from vantage points along Highway 29. It gets a lot more sunlight and it stays above the fog. The soil has relatively poor natural nutrients and we keep the yields low by dropping fruit. The clusters are small, the berries are small, and so it develops great tannin and body and quality.”

In Washington State, north of California, merlot has held a special place since the early founding of the industry there dating back to the 1800s. “In Washington, they stayed the course on making quality merlot. They didn’t rip out vines, just kept growing and going. What goes into varietally labeled [Washington] merlot is the best of the best.” This is what Constance Savage of Washington’s historic L’Ecole No. 41 told me.

“Washington State is a great producer of Bordeaux varieties. We are actually a more consistent supplier of those wines at better prices than California. We have no coastal weather issues and because we get no rain, we can control the vines’ water intake [through irrigation]. We have great wind, our soil is well-draining. We’re further north so we get more light and our grapes ripen every year. It’s the perfect place for merlot. As merlot comes back, Washington is going to be the leader in quality.”


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High Value: 2016 L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot Columbia Valley

The reticent nose offers an array of red and blue fruit, baking spice, vanilla and hot cocoa. It’s full bodied on the palate as the tannins are fine grained, dense and mouth coating. The acid is bright and juicy. It boasts an engaging texture. The flavors include blueberry, strawberry, plum, boysenberry, cinnamon, cassis, black currant and graphite. The more serious of the two L’Ecole merlots, it offers some upside with three to five years of aging. 92 points. Value: A.


Those are fighting words, but Washington State has been producing high quality merlot for decades, and L’Ecole as long been recognized as being at the tip of that spear. Washington wine industry people have long praised L’Ecole’s role in the industry but they’ve long been recognized well outside the state as well. Wine & Spirits Magazine put L’Ecole on its list of the top-100 wineries of 2019, the 15th time that L’Ecole has been placed on that list, making it one of 15 wineries to be included in it that many times.

“We’ve been in merlot since 1983 [at L’Ecole]. That was the first vintage at the winery, and we led with merlot and semillon.” Located in the southeast corner of the state in Walla Walla, L’Ecole remains one of the most consistent produces of high quality and reasonably priced wines in the state.

Coming from over two decades in the importing business, Savage feels that “Sideways obliterated the market for merlot. It was really tough until four or five years ago. But it improved the quality of merlot everywhere.” Five years after the movie, she began to realize it was time to start re-ordering merlot again because wineries “were really putting their best wines forward.”

“When I worked with the producers, we would talk about what to do with their merlot vines. [A common discussion was whether they] should they rename their bottles with proprietary names rather than varietally? Yet every year, when I would get my sales team of over 100 people together and get their feedback, in the early 2010s, there was noticeable turn-around for merlot.”

Ary from Duckhorn also noted the five year mark as an important one. “The last couple of years, merlot sales are way up – they are starting to plateau, I think, but the last five years, the number really rose, especially in the luxury merlot tier. Super premium merlot is selling better and better.” In 2017, Wine Spectator made Duckhorn’s 2014 Three Palms merlot it’s wine of the year. “The number one award helped push [sales] along, but it had been trending that way previously. It gave a nice boost.”


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Worthy Cellar Buy: 2015 La Jota Vineyards Merlot W.S. Keyes Vineyard

A nose more reminiscent of Saint-Julien than most of Napa Valley, the fruit is just spectacular. It’s as if an entire farmer’s market fruit section comprised of perfectly ripe fruit has been bottled in this wine. This vision is augmented by kirsch liqueur, cassis, cardamom, pencil lead and light roast coffee. It is full bodied with dense and well-tuned fine-grained tannin. The acid is similarly precise, and the balance stands up to some of the finest of the Old World. The flavors pop in an unusually juicy manner with blackberry, boysenberry, licorice, cherry jam and charcoal. This has two decades of positive evolution ahead of it. I’d wait at least six years to crack this one open. 94 points. Value: C.


An important element of L’Ecole’s business model, especially with merlot, is to “keep the price point low” and the quality high, Constance told me. “We produce 45,000 cases per year, which is pretty big for Washington in terms of family-owned, mid-sized wineries. We want to be able to move and sell our wines so we know the quality-to-price ratio needs to be great.”

Another top tier merlot house is Rutherford Hill, located in Napa Valley, where the grape comprises 75% of wine production. I spoke with their winemaker, Marisa Taylor, who started at Rutherford “right around the time of Sideways” and had come from making pinot noir. “Like pinot drinkers, merlot drinkers are very loyal,” she explained. “They seek you out, they hold you to a standard, and they’re rarely disappointed.”

“Merlot used to be a generic word for red wine, especially in a tasting room, like “Burgundy” or “Bordeaux,”” Taylor observed, noting that it’s still important to dispel this myth. “We try to show the diversity that merlot can develop by farming it in different locations and bottling single vineyard designates. For example, our Atlas Peak is very different from our Oakville. Our tasting room pourers do a lot of education – they actually approach it like a bartender by asking about preferences and choosing wines to pour.”

Cleo Pahlmeyer and I discussed the Napa price points and bang for the buck, and she offered a point of view I consider very on-point. “If you’re looking for a good wine with a budget around $75 and you want to buy a Napa cabernet, don’t buy it. Buy merlot because at that price point you’re going to get so much more quality and better wine with a merlot at the price point.”

Duckhorn’s Ary made a similar argument when I spoke with her. “Merlot has become really polarizing out there [because] there is not good mid-[price] range quality merlot. There is either really good, well-made merlot, or the flip side of that. Sideways was good in a sense that it helped weed out the less serious producers.”

On the topic of sales, Palhmeyer note that “we’ve never had a problem selling out merlot. It has a following that’s remained steady of the years in part because it is regarded as a classic Napa Valley wine.” Giving a nod to the role Duckhorn has played in promoting merlot, she said that because of what Duckhorn has done for the varietal, “Palhmeyer doesn’t have to do much.”

With merlot having rebounded significantly over the last five or so years, I wanted to ask the people I spoke to for this article about the grape’s prospects for the future. It has been well documented that Millennials, now the largest purchasers of wine in the United States, have very different buying habits from their predecessors: they spend less, are more experimental, care less about winery and vineyard prestige, want unusual grapes and seek out wines made using unusual techniques or technology. Merlot is expensive, traditional, found among prestigious producers and anything but unusual. It seemed to me that there is reason for merlot producers to be concerned about the long-term commercial prospects of the grape.


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Classic Example: 2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot

A slight reticence on the nose tells me this needs at least another two to three years in bottle to come out of its shell. So far, it’s giving muddled cherry and blackberry, clove, nutmeg and scorched earth. An elegant medium-plus body, the tannins are nicely refined and line up well with the smooth and integrated acid. This has a serious structure that demands some patience. Serious loam and dry earth mineralilty goes well with cherry, blueberry, blackberry, dried seaweed, tobacco and blood orange zest. Already very tasty, this offers great promise with short to medium-term aging. If drinking in the next two years, decant this for an hour or two if you can. 92 points. Value: A.


Ary was the first to admit that Millennials are “a different market. They are looking for different things.” She explained that Duckhorn is more traditional than trendy, and that is in part because “wines tend to represent their winemakers. I’m more traditional of a person,” even though she knows traditional wine “doesn’t always appeal to Millennials.”

Nevertheless, Ary and Duckhorn are not planning to change the way they make wine in any big ways. “If our tastes didn’t evolve,” Ary noted, “then we would still be drinking sweet wine,” a reference to America’s preference for sweet wine for the better part of its history. “[Tastes] may ebb and flow, but ultimately if it’s a classic wine then it’ll stick around.”

Carpenter had similar thoughts. “Millennials are drinking different, more esoteric wines,” he said, which certainly seems true if you read the wine blogs and visit the hipster somm wine stores and bars popping up across America. “But there are not a lot of people producing these esoteric wines [relative to the size of the industry], and those that are don’t do it in big volumes. You can speculate as to what variety is going to go where and how Millennials will jump on it, but the fact of the matter is there isn’t any one variety or style that has started to dominate the Millennial demographic.”

Chris made an important point about not just what grapes go into these “esoteric” wines, but also how the winemakers approach them. “The wines I produce focus first and foremost on the land. These new wines that appeal to Millennials, however, are more about techniques than terroir. If you start to involve techniques or technology [that go beyond basic winemaking] , what you’re doing is you’re changing that understanding of the land. A lot of natural wines I’ve tasted, they don’t taste like the vineyard; they taste like the winemaker. Some of them are good, but my style is to highlight the land [rather than myself].”

This fundamental difference is key to understanding where merlot is going as a commercial product. If we look at France, where wine has been around much longer as a mainstream consumer product than in the United States, Chris noted that “traditional grapes and winemaking have done well for a couple hundred years. That’s because Bordeaux is the right place to grow cabernet and merlot, and Burgundy is the right place to grow pinot noir and chardonnay.” His larger point: long-term success in wine is about finding the right match of varieties with locations.

Every winemaker consulted for this article shared an appreciation for merlot as a blending grape as well. Carpenter blends it into several hugely successful blends and cabernet sauvignon-designates under various labels. “I use merlot to add complexity and another layer of experience [for the consumer].” One way it’s useful is in the tannin department as a way to smooth out, or “mitigate” to use Chris’ term, the heavy and sometimes grippy sensation of cabernet tannin. “It helps make it a little more texturally silky.”

Ary stated boldly that “it takes a good merlot to make a good cabernet. Merlot is good for midpalate, weight and plushness. It is the go-to for filling out a holey cabernet.”

Carpenter explained that “merlot has different phenolics, and by blending it you’re layering those in. That’s what I use all my blenders for [regardless of grape]. I don’t blend just for fun – though blending is kind of fun – I’m doing it because each one of those [five Bordeaux grapes he uses across his portfolio] adds something unique to the base blend of cabernet. It’s like a spice component in cooking.”

Many cooks have their go-to spices that they are always sure to keep on hand. For producers of Bordeaux (and Bordeaux-style) wines, merlot is certainly one of them. If you start taking a look at how much merlot is in the wines you already drink – especially if you drink varietally-labeled cabernet sauvignon – you may feel a bit remorseful about the last bad thing you said about merlot. It is one of the most important red grapes grown today.


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Crowd Pleaser: 2017 Decoy Sonoma County

A very fruit and oak-forward nose, giving cherry, black currant, plum, and toasted oak. It’s full-bodied with a smooth combination of tannin and acid, it delivers in the structure department and with just a bit of grip is made for a burger. Flavors hew close to the nose: cherry, black and red currant, black plum, baking spice, black pepper spice and a small hint of sweet mint on the back end. Enjoy this over the next two to three years with some simple red meat or barbecue. 89 points. Value: A.


And if you haven’t had a high quality merlot recently, you might be surprised. The wines I tasted for this article demonstrated compelling varietal typicity, senses of place, layers and complexity, refinement, elegance and, yes, intrigue. Some of them are better than many, if not most, similarly priced cabernet sauvignons. I make this last point because when it comes to food pairings, the Venn Diagram of merlot and cabernet shows a lot of overlap. If you placed the wines reviewed in this article in a blind tasting with cabernets of equal quality, the merlots would do better than many would expect.

So, heading into the winter when temperatures drop and we start reaching for heavier reds, it is the perfect time to give merlot another try. Let go of your previous notions of the grape, open your mind and head for the merlot isle (or section on the website). Take a deep breath, put a few in your cart and share them with your family and friends. And, pay attention to the role merlot places in the red wines you drink; it’s not by accident that talented winemakers everywhere use it in their best wines. Let the final few months of 2019 be the time you reacquaint yourself with merlot.

Other merlot reviews:

2014 Alcance Merlot Gran Reserva (Chile) – The dark nose boasts penetratingly deep sweet oak, maraschino cherry, smoke, black plum, black currant and cassis. It’s full bodied and lush on the palate with fully integrated tannin and surprisingly tart acid, which throws the balance a bit on what is otherwise a nice structure. Flavors are a combination of raspberry, strawberry, tar, tobacco leaf and ground slightly bitter espresso bean. It finishes with a slightly floral note. Were it for less sharp and better integrated acid, this would be a really enjoyable wine. 88 points. Value: C.

2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Three Palms Vineyard – The exquisite nose offers aromas of lilac, rose petal, crushed Sweetarts, dehydrated strawberry, boysenberry, loam, pink peppercorn and graphite. It has a plush full body with sweet, fine grained Earl Grey tannin that blankets the palate and fine, precise acid that establishes needed tension. The structure is elegant and refined. The flavors are deeply layered and more confrontational than the nose, offering sweet plum, strawberry, tar, bitter cocoa, loam, black pepper and cassis. This is an expertly crafted with great potential to elevate itself over the next 10-20 years. 93 points. Value: C-.

2015 Freemark Abbey Merlot Bosché Vineyard – The aromas carry a sensual air about it, offering sweet cherry, mountain strawberry, crushed gravel, smashed flower petals and potting soil. On the palate, it has a full and svelte body with tightly-woven tannin and well-balanced acid. The structure holds a lot of promise with more age. The flavors check in with bruised cherry and blackberry, mocha, clove and pipe tobacco. While enjoyable now with a few hours in the decanter, I think this will improve demonstrably with at least five more years of bottle age. 92 points. Value: B.

2016 Hickinbotham Merlot The Revivalist (Australia) – A boisterous nose, it wafts sweet hickory smoke, eucalyptus, chewing tobacco, boysenberry, cherry preserves and orange zest. It hits a medium plus stature, the tannins are long, dense and restrained while the acid is slightly elevated. The structure and balance are professional and suggest the making of a wonderful steakhouse wine. The flavors balance nicely between cherry, strawberry, plum, iron, wet dark soil, toasted oak and unsweetened peppermint that collectively produce a deep, penetrating wine. This needs a few hours in the decanter, or better yet, at least five years in the cellar as there’s more there to develop. 92 points. Value: C.

2014 Kendall-Jackson Merlot Grand Reserve – The nose boasts toasted oak, wet gravely soil, strawberry and cherry. Its medium bodied with bright acid and weighty, but fairly imperceptible, tannin. The structure is solid and mouthfeel smooth. The flavors mostly ride the juicy acid and come in slightly sweet: fruit punch, finely ground dark roast coffee bean and cocoa powder. The finish adds sweet orange zest. Easy drinking. 89 points. Value: B.

2016 L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot Estate Walla Walla Valley – The deeply saturated nose wafts dark cherry sauce, black plum, cassis, beef jerky, graphite minerality and smokey black pepper. It’s not quite full-bodied, featuring round and broad tannins that are well integrated and nicely balanced with modest acid. The structure is classic high quality merlot. Flavors are as much savory as sweet due to strong doses of saline and dried tarragon. On the fruit side there’s cherry pit, strawberry, Acai, red plum and dried goji berry. Structurally this wine is ready to go, I say drink over the next five years. 90 points. Value: B.

2015 La Jota Vineyards Merlot – The nose offers really bright red and black currants and plums, red beat juice, graphite and mocha. Just short of full-bodied, this is a flirty wine on the palate due to lip-smackingly juicy acid that feels a few years shy of full integration. The tannins are just slightly chewy and sneak up on you with time in the mouth. The components and stuffing are there to build a top-shelf structure with another 5-10 years of aging. Flavors hit on cherry, plum, currant, bitter cocoa, graphite and wet, dense soil. The finish brings a tangy and incense-driven twist. 93 points. Value: B.

2015 Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot – A very plummy nose that also offers graphite, black tea bag and muddled cherry. Medium bodied with modest, smooth tannin. The acid, unfortunately, is bracingly sharp and seemingly volatile. It’s just off. Fruit flavors are on the darker and purpler sides with blueberry, plum and firm blackberry, while strong doses of cigar tobacco and graphite provide variety. The acid being off doesn’t make for a pleasant experience. 84 points. Value: F.

2014 Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot Jackson Park Bennett Valley – The nose has a nice combination of black plum, boysenberry, muddled and mulberry-spiced blueberry and violet, though it has a slightly alcoholic kick at the very end that I imagine will fade with time. Its medium bodied with slightly thin acid and diffuse, fine-grained tannin. The structure has everything it needs to be complete but isn’t actually cohesive or substantive. Similar to the nose, The fruit flavors are blue, though the blueberry far out plays the boysenberry here. Mocha swirls around the fruit, as does pencil shavings and purple florals. There are attractive elements to this, but it’s hard to get past what feels like a missed opportunity to build a more substantive structure. 90 points. Value: D.

2016 Pahlmeyer Merlot – This is a stiff, tight wine. I ended up decanting it for 24 hours and it’s still very closed. This needs years. At the moment, it has a subdued nose of muddled cherry, loam, graphite, tar, turkey jerky and mountain strawberry. On the palate, it’s full bodied with dense and fine-grained oak tannin that coats the mouth and finishes slightly bitter, all the while overpowering the juicy acid. This has the structure of a wine that can evolve over two decades. Flavors hit on cherry, espresso, black pepper, cinnamon and dark chocolate. I wouldn’t touch this for another seven years (at least). It has tremendous upside. 91 points. Value: D.

2016 Rutherford Hill Merlot Cask Reserve – A potent nose delivers hedonistic aromas maraschino cherry, fruit leather, sweet dark cocoa, wet soil and graphite minerality, black pepper and sweat leather. It’s full bodied with significant fine grained tannin and juicy, sharp acid. The fruit is quite pure, dominated at the moment by red varieties of plum, strawberry, tart cherry and rhubarb. There are shadows of blood orange, cigarette tobacco and espresso grounds. This is showing a lot of promise, it will grow into something really impressive in another five plus years. 92 points. C-.

2015 Rutherford Hill Merlot Napa Valley – The nose features sweet aromas of spiced cherry and blackberry compotes, leather, cola and vanilla. The full body offers refined grainy tannin that is well integrated with modest acid that combine to produce a seamless and velvety mouthfeel. Raspberry, cherry, orange zest, spicy black pepper and bitter cinnamon. It’s a complete if singular merlot. 91 points. A.

2014 Rutherford Hill Oakville Merlot – This does benefit from decanting. The nose is perfumed and elevated, quite beautiful and delicate. It offers red currant, red plum, holiday fruit cake, loam, well-worm leather and violet. The full body is built on a dense and cocoa powder-dusty tannin structure and moderate acid. The flavors include raspberry, strawberry, under ripe boysenberry, dark cocoa, graphite minerality and a blood orange kick on the finish. This is tasty, but it needs 3-5 years to unwind and really express itself, and will then evolve nicely for another 5-10 years. 92 points. Value C.

2013 Rutherford Hill Merlot Atlas Peak – The reserved but elegant nose offers cassis, pipe tobacco, dark chocolate cocoa powder, cherry compote, violet and high toned blood orange. The medium-weighted body offers densely packed fine grain tannin that oozes class. It balances beautifully with broad acid. The flavors are only starting to delineate: ripe strawberry, red plum, red currant, moist dark earth, graphite, unsweetened baking chocolate and a tomato leaf burst on the finish. This needs a few more years to fully unwind. 93 points. B+.

Mosel’s Exciting Steep Slope Producer: Markus Hüls

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Markus Hüls of Mosel’s Weingut Markus Hüls

When it comes to the Mosel, I feel like seeing is believing. Not that Mosel’s reputation as the riesling mecca requires an eyewitness experience to confirm – tasting alone can make someone a true believer. But reaching an inherent understanding of what makes so special does necessitate a physical experience beyond the wine itself. I draw this distinction from my own recent experience. We spent a few days there earlier this summer, and though I have no brilliant idea of how I’m going to adequately convey my own Mosel journey in writing, I’m going to try because now I get it.

Riesling itself can be a hard grape to get, which complicates things for Mosel (or any other riesling region). I, like many people I think, didn’t immediately get its appeal. It can be made in so many different styles that it’s hard to think about how to think about it. That it’s made in sweet, semi-sweet and dry styles, and aren’t labeled clearly as to which level of sweetness is in the bottle, is the first obstacle, and a major one.

Flavors and aromas can throw one off as well. Some smell like petrol – which is a hard thing to grasp in wine – while some don’t. How am I supposed to know how lanolin tastes? What bizarre descriptors those two are. The acid can be bracingly strong, which isn’t always managed well and doesn’t always appeal. This can lead to dominating and biting citrus flavors, which aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. And the stuff from Germany, man, good luck reading the label, let alone understanding what you’re getting (this can be true even with American riesling). Is it more accurate to classify Alsace as German or French given its history and the people who live there? The questions abound.

By comparison, understanding more popular white grapes like chardonnay can be done in your sleep. Because riesling doesn’t easily fall into simple dichotomies or straightforward categories, it can be intimidating to approach. No wonder riesling has a hard time selling.

Going to Mosel doesn’t make riesling more approachable so much as it organizes the learning process in a way that makes it more manageable. Being able to match a word from a label with the place you’re standing in helps a great deal, and being able to compare where you are to the vineyards across the river (while putting a name and image on those vineyards as well) helps ground you – and the label – in reality. It’s like finding an anchor word or two for an otherwise empty Friday New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s like finally putting a face to that name you’ve emailed with many times over, only the face isn’t what you expected and that 60 second interaction EXPLAINS SO MUCH (amiriiiiiight?).

Even still, Mosel is itself a complicated place, and it begins with the name. The region was referred to as Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, the names of the three rivers in the region, prior to 2007, when wines were categorized that way regardless of which river valley they came from. However, in a pyrrhic victory for consumer education, wines from any of the three river valleys are now all called Mosel.

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A map of the Mosel river from 1897

In any given wine region, terroir within that region can differ enough from locale to locale to impart differences, small and large, among the region’s wines. When it comes to Mosel, there are significant differences across the region; we’re dealing with one of the more diverse regions out there. The geography is as physically striking as it is challenging to understand from a wine perspective. The rivers form incredibly curvy spines that leave little flat land available for planting grapes, and it’s downright crazy that people prefer to use what limited flat land there is to build, you know, towns, instead of plant vineyards. So up the incredibly steep slopes the vines go.

Many of the vineyards are planted on these slopes. Over 40% of Mosel’s vineyards are planted on slopes at least 30 degrees in pitch. That’s ridiculous, and also breathtaking. The northern Mosel is home to the Bremmer Calmont vineyard, which leans upwards of 65 degrees in slope, making it Europe’s steepest vineyard (which makes me very curious as to which vineyard outside of Europe goes steeper). Further, many vineyards are broken up by small cliffs, a nice little complicating factor for vineyard work. Spoiler alert: there will be a follow up post about Bremmer Calmont because we hiked through it and tried several wines from it.

Mosel_vineyard_in_Tittenheim

As the vineyards track the curvature of the rivers, they are planted on all aspects of orientation with the sun. Further, the soils change as one travels from one end of the Mosel to the other. Here’s how the industry group describes Mosel’s soils:

“Clayish slate and greywacke in the lower Mosel Valley (northern section); Devonian slate in the steep sites and sandy, gravelly soil in the flatlands of the middle Mosel Valley; primarily shell-limestone (chalky soils) in the upper Mosel Valley (southern section, parallel with the border of Luxembourg).”

That’s some serious range. When combined with slope, orientation and other factors, it’s no wonder Mosel produces such diverse rieslings.

These vineyards appear unbelievably difficult to harvest. Incredibly, it’s done by hand – though perhaps it’d be more incredible if machinery could be configured to work on such steep and narrowly-planted rows of vineyards (the spacing I saw on the steeper slopes was around two to three feet, which is objectively narrow). Both seem impossible.

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For thousands of years, Mosel has been and continues to be one of the most human-intensive places to grow and harvest wine grapes. Despite the intimating geography, winemaking in Mosel dates back to the Roman times and some of the cities that dot it date back even further to the Stone Age. Wine is a significant part of Mosel’s history and identity.

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Notice the monorail running straight up the middle of the vineyard

Many wineries have installed “monorails” in their vineyards to make harvesting grapes easier, safer and more efficient. These are long metal tracks that wind their way up and down the vineyards with small “cars” that carry 1-2 people and several baskets of grapes. Though picking the grapes requires getting off the monorail to walk the rows (the monorails bisect the rows rather than run parallel with them), the monorail allows workers to get from one area of the vineyard to another with greater ease, and makes transporting the grapes easier as well. This video from Wine Enthusiast’s Anne Krebiehl and this one on Youtube give POV perspectives of riding these monorails. Both are must-watches, so go ahead and click them. Just promise to come back, pretty please.

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As we hiked through the 65 degree slopes of Bremmer Calmont, I had to fight to keep my fear of heights in check and my vertigo in hibernation. Walking by (and under) these monorails made the thought of riding them damn near mind-blowing. I just can’t imagine riding these metal slides, built for small people, on such steep slopes while handling containers of such delicate and prized contents. How there aren’t deaths every year during harvest is beyond me, and helps the case of those who argue for the existence of an omnipotent and merciful creator.

We tasted a number of wines while in Mosel, but it was the experience we had with Markus Hüls of Weingut Markus Hüls that connected the visuals with the grapes and the winemaking in a way that made sense (“weingut” means “winery” in German). Hüls is a Weygandt-Metzler Importing discovery, which is a good indication that the wine carries a unique and precise personality.

The slogan on Hül’s website is “A 100% passion for steep slope wines,” which is more or less how Markus began describing the genesis of his winery during our tasting. Markus isn’t the first generation winemaker in his family; his dad makes wine as well. After interning for the highly esteemed Weingut Markus Molitor and working for his dad, Markus struck out on his own with the 2012 vintage. Part of his decision to start his own label came from disagreement with his father about where to plant vineyards: he wanted to find the steepest slopes he could while his father preferred the (relative) ease of flatter vineyards. Hence the slogan. Markus’ three vineyards – Kirchlay, Letterlay and Steffenberg, respectfully – are on steep slopes.

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The author with Markus

Hüls is set up in the village of Kröv, with the winery and tasting room in town by the river and the vineyards on the hills that rise up from it. Markus does everything organically, and puts an immense amount of attention into maintaining healthy vineyards. He made the decision to go organic because it “produces the best wine – nature does the best winemaking by itself. It needs time, not intervention, to do this.” To this end, Markus does native fermentation and allows it to kick off on its own. While most big Mosel producers go from harvest to bottling in around three weeks’ time, Markus’ fermentations alone take 2-4 weeks just to start. Low and slow. While the majority of his production is riesling, he has 0.7 hectares of spätburgunder, the German name for pinot noir. In total, Markus produces 40,000 bottles (about 3300 cases) of wine.

Riesling lovers tend to have at least one thing in common: they like acidic wines. Acid is integral to good riesling, so let’s discuss it for a moment because the most impressive theme of Markus Hüls’ wines are the acid they carry, and despite the region being known for acidic wines, Markus’ deliver a particularly engaging and twitchy version that adds really cool texture and structure. As the coffee roaster in Syracuse who I bought beans from every week while I was in graduate school there once told me, acid means flavor, and this as true in coffee as it is in wine. Though far from chemically accurate, the comparison of acid to salt in this context helps. Salt not only brings its own complex flavors, but also elevates other flavors that it comes into contact with and adds brightness to the situation.

Note: If you ever find yourself in Syracuse and in need of a good cup of coffee or coffee beans, The Kind Coffee Company delivers more than anyone else in town.

Acid is also part of the physical structure of a wine, which means you can feel the acid as well as taste it. Since white wine doesn’t carry tannins like red wine does, it means acid is the most important component of the physical structure. Good acid levels and integration lead to a complete wine that dazzles the taste buds while poor acid levels or integration can put one off riesling for life.

Riesling is naturally high in acid, which means every winery making riesling has to deal with it. The ideal situation is that the grapes are grown such that they get to the winery with desirable levels of acid and the winemaker doesn’t have to intervene by either acidulating (adding acid), deacidifying (removing acid) or moderating (e.g. doing at least some oak aging, which adds tannin and therefore reduces the percentage of the structure that is acid). I harped on the role of good farming in winemaking in the Emidio Pepe post a few weeks ago and in my Cork Report profile of Virginia’s Barboursville Winery recently, and Hüls is another case-in-point: as Markus said, if you grow good grapes then you don’t need to intervene. The evidence of this theory can be found in the wines of Hüls, Pepe and Barboursville.

I’ve also said in multiple Good Vitis posts that when it comes to tasting wine, it’s often times best to start with the lower acid wines and move to the higher ones, even if that means going from red to white (e.g. pinot noir before chardonnay in Burgundy or Oregon). The same holds true for Mosel, and I was thankful when Markus pulled his pinot noir first.

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Enjoy8ing Hül’s Spätburgunder

We started with the single vineyard Spätburgunder 2016 from the Letterlay vineyard, which comes from French vines planted at fairly high density (over 3,200 per acre) with the aim of building greater complexity and concentration. These vines, like all those that Markus cultivates, receive zero irrigation. The earthy nose has a lot of crispy red fruit on it – think strawberry, rhubarb, plum and cranberry – and funky soil and fungus aromas. The palate is very fresh and spry with a variety of crushed red berries that suggest they will get sweeter with age, and modest bell pepper. I’m rarely a fan of German or Austrian pinot noir largely because they seem to lack depth or complexity, but I could crush a bottle of this now while letting a case age for another five to ten years because it has enough guts to develop into something more.

We also tried the 2017 Spätburgunder, which I found very special. It offered a nose that reminded me of my favorite Oregon pinot producer, Cameron, who is known for beautiful combinations of spiced fruit and funk. The nose offered ripe and spiced red and black fruit that comes off beautifully sweet to go with a variety of damp and dry soils and rose hip. The light body has spry acid that is slightly tart at this stage, which carries the mineral-driven profile that balances red and purple fruit with scorched earth and a taste I couldn’t pinpoint, but called “almost peppermint.” These are the first grapes harvested in any of Hüls’ vineyards.

As we tasted the Spätburgunder, Markus prepped the rieslings, explaining the differences between the 2017 and 2018 vintages as we were going to try wines from both. The earlier vintage produced more acid and resulted in wines made for the long haul. By comparison, 2018 was a riper year (read: less acid, more sugar, bigger wines) and led to wines better for immediate drinking.

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We began with a side-by-side of Markus’ entry-level rieslings that illustrated the vintage difference. The 2018 Riesling has a very fruit-forward, very ripe nose. The high alcohol (12%, so high is relative to region) really boosts the ripe cantaloupe, tropical fruits and baked pear. It’s full-bodied and round with soft streaks of acid that carry banana, pineapple and green and red apples. It’s a pure, very clean and enjoyable wine. The 2017, though, is more complex (remember, higher acid vintage, and acid means flavor). The nose is higher-toned with a profile that has a distinct lees character. Sharper citrus aromas, less tropics and more stone minerality (flint stands out) than its younger sibling. The acid carries some wonderfully sweet citrus and perfumed (think potpourri) flavors. Starfruit, mandarin and green papaya feature as well. The somewhat chalky texture speaks to the elegance of the acid and build of the wine. This one has good a good ten+ year life span. At around $20, this is an unbelievable value.

We moved on to the 2017 Schieferspiel, a blend of the Letterlay and Steffensberg vineyards. The nose is very concentrated and wrapped up tightly, indicating the wine’s youth. Stone fruit, grapefruit, white flowers and flint are just starting to emerge. The palate, which is exceptional, balances banana, young coconut, perfume, white pepper and green apple. It carries an acidic tension that pulls the wine along the sides of the mouth, a sensation that captivates the mind as the finish carries on for ages.

From there we went into the single vineyard wines – which he refers to has his cru wines –  starting with the 2017 Steffensberg. Markus said this vineyard, he believes, has the best promise of his holdings. The nose offers a basket of stone fruit aromatics, dominated by apricot and nectarine, dusted in nutmeg. The palate is dominated right now by a big variety of citrus – lemon, lime, under ripe orange and Buddha’s Hand – that is kept in tantalizing tension by the bright, juicy and tense acid with starfruit and green apple. This one offers a strong promise of developing that profound nuttiness that the best rieslings take on with significant age. Among the best of the tasting.

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Next came the 2017 riesling from the Letterlay vineyard and vines around 45 years of age. In the summer, Markus drops around half the fruit in these blocks, and at harvest takes the grapes closest to the vine where the flavors are the most concentrated. Then, during sorting, he takes the best 10% of the clusters, destems them, and does whole berry fermentation. This process results in a compelling profile of citrus, sweet and tangy apricot and pear, and bit of skin tannin that adds weight and another dimension to the structure while slightly reducing the acid’s prominence, which remains taught and long. It also has a small amount of residual sugar, but it’s barely perceptible. Though the grapes for this wine are grown only 300 meters from Steffensburg, it is distinctive from the other site in more ways than just the procedural differences.

At this juncture, Markus introduced the 2017 Alte Reben, which at 30 grams of sugar per liter that registers a four out of ten on Markus’ sweetness scale (each Hüls wine is labeled with a number on this scale in an effort to educate the consumer, a labeling feature I believe every winery should adopt with riesling). The aromas are mouthwatering and dominated by a variety of peach and peach dishes: fresh peach, preserved peach, peach pie, peach stewed with vanilla, the list goes on. The palate is very tropical with juicy mango, pear and lychee that are highlighted by honey and vanilla. It finishes with juicy peach and pear sprinkled with baking spice. This was my favorite wine of the lineup.

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We then moved on to the 2018 Kabinett, a classification of wine under a designation called Pradikatswein that refers to the ripeness of the grapes when they are harvested, and is applied to wines typically with some residual sugar. Kabinett is the least sweet of the six Pradikatswein classified wines. Hüls’ opens with a nose dominated by Asian pear, candied lime peel, vanilla and sweet cantaloupe. The fruit on the palate is honeyed in nature, featuring banana, limesickle and carmel-vanilla flavors. At 9% alcohol and 48 grams of sugar per liter, Markus pointed out that this is very “true to the type for Kabinett from Mosel.” It’s a killer wine, and was my wife’s favorite.

We finished with the 2017 Auslese bottle, Auslese being third of six levels of harvest brix (a measurement of sugar content) in the Pradikatswein classification. High quality Auslese wines famously age well for decade after decade after decade. One of my notes on this wine is that I would love to come back to it thirty years from now. Depending on the vintage, it carries between 100 and 115 grams of sugar per liter, which limits the alcohol to around 8%. The acid is remarkably sharp given these other figures, which only adds to its complexity and ability to improve with time. The nose smells tantalizingly wonderful with an array of dry and sweet notes that suggest botrytis, though I did not ask for confirmation. Markus selected the grapes for this specifically with making this wine in mind. At first it seems a bit unsettled – it needs time in bottle to become one with itself – but the juicy acidity does wonders for the honey and sweet fruit and vanilla. This will eventually be a real stunner.

Our time in Mosel was a very fun learning experience for us. Riesling continues to wow me. As I try more versions of it, I’m internalizing how it’s one of the most diverse wine grapes in existence. Its ability to be produced in so many different styles and its natural tendency to take on terroir-specific characteristics combined with the ability of higher quality riesling to develop wildly cool characteristics with age make it one of the most exciting and surprising wines in the world today (despite the fact it’s been around for centuries). Within this context, Markus Hüls is a revelation in steep slope Mosel wine that delivers an acid profile defining something both unique and exceptional. Whether you have a chance to visit or purchase the wines closer to home, it’s all worthwhile when it comes to Hüls.

Loveblock Is New New Zealand Wine

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A Loveblock sauvignon blanc vineyard. Credit: loveblock.com

Though I would be surprised if Erica and Kim Crawford were not sick of hearing about their old winery, Kim Crawford Wines, I need to mention it in this discussion. Kim Crawford the wine label put New Zealand on the world wine map with its lean and green sauvignon blanc in a way that has transformed an entire country’s industry like no other wine has transformed a country’s industry in the world (source: me).

That’s a bold statement, I know, but consider these two facts: 86% of New Zealand’s global wine exports are sauvignon blanc, while 95% of what they send to the United States is sauvignon blanc. When people think “wine” and “New Zealand,” they think sauvignon blanc. And then almost immediately they probably think Kim Crawford, which, as the largest selling New Zealand sauvignon blanc in America, is the country’s the most ubiquitous.

Erica and Kim no longer own Kim Crawford, nor do they have any role in its operations, so it’s understandable if they’ve grown tired of talking or hearing about it. But the success of the label is their own doing, so I imagine they’ve learned to deal, if for no other reason than it gave them the resources necessary to start a new winery called Loveblock, which, while an endeavor to make money, is at its soul a passion project.

“Loveblock is completely different [from Kim Crawford], it’s a philosophical thing,” Erica explained to me over breakfast in Washington, DC. Reflecting back on their Kim Crawford experience, it was clear that Erica and Kim wanted to do things differently with Loveblock. The first main difference: they now follow organic farming practices and treat the land with much greater care and deference.

“New Zealand grows things. We grow grass to feed the cows to make milk for the world. It’s an agrarian economy, but I firmly believe that what we do to the soil is not good, it is not right. I did a deep dive into what we do with the soil, and it was actually devastating.”

With viniculture more attuned to nature, it is then “about doing what we want to do, drinking the wine while we’re making it, and making wine in the style we want to drink.” What is that style? When it comes to sauvignon blanc, it is “moving away from the bell pepper and getting to the peach and passion fruit.” Meaning, they’re moving on from Kim Crawford Wines sauvignon blanc.

Erica noted that “the world has been drinking New Zealand sauvignon blanc now for twenty years and there are people who want something different from the big lean style. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea.” Though “both styles are still growing” from a market perspective, “there’s lots of room for an evolution of style, that’s for sure.” That said, “at some point people will tire of [the lean style], which is why it’s really important that we work on an evolution of style.”

Loveblock and Kim Crawford are indeed dramatically different wines. My wife, Kayce, who does a spectacular job with the pictures on this website and Good Vitis’ social media, is not a sauvignon blanc lover. In general, it’s too bitter for her. But when we tried the Loveblock sauvignon blanc, not only did she finish a full glass, but she asked for a second.

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The Loveblock style of sauvignon blanc is rounder, more tropical and complex. My tasting note on the wine describes an expressive, jovial and entertaining wine with more intrigue than the typical New Zealand profile tends to inspire in me:

The aromas leap from the glass, wafting notes of bright lemon and lime citrus, slate and chalk minerality, pear peel, white pepper and faint tarragon. Relatively full-bodied for the variety, it bucks NZ sauv blanc stereotypes with its mouth-filling lushness and juicy, rather than lean, acid that balances nicely with just the lightest touch of sweetness. The texture and structure are gorgeous. The flavors offer substantial depth, featuring lemon, lime, peach and mandarin citrus to go with subtle vanilla, hay, pepper, crushed gravel and mango. An impressive effort. 91 points, value: A.

Beyond the differences in farming practice, in order to achieve this profile, the Crawfords do two things differently from their former approach. First, they manage the canopy quite differently. Canopy refers to the leaves of the vine, and is important for a number of reasons. Notably, they help regulate grape temperature and sun exposure and use up some of the nutrients extracted by the vines from the soil in order to grow themselves. Removing leaves, a process called “leafing,” increases the sun exposure and temperature of the grapes and allows more of the nutrients to flow into the grapes. Most notably in the Loveblock case, they leaf because following organic protocol means feeding the vines less nitrogen, and the grapes therefore need a higher level of sun exposure in order to stave off high levels of something called pyrazine, which is an acidic organic compound that develops in the skins. Pyrazines give wine a bitter taste, and whereas they are purposefully developed to create that famous New Zealand lean style, they are something Loveblock looks to avoid at high levels.

The second difference in approach has to do with oxygen exposure in the winery. By exposing the wine to more oxygen, it develops the tropical fruit flavors that the Crawfords are seeking in the Loveblock profile that they avoided with Kim Crawford. They also use a small amount in oak (around 10%) and let the wine go through full malolactic fermentation, techniques not used at Kim Crawford either.

“I don’t see Loveblock competing against Kim Crawford,” Erica said. “They’re completely different styles and price points, and they are sold in different places. Loveblock is within the trade, at smaller speciality stores. Kim Crawford is at the big chains and groceries.” The differences are night and day.

Sauvignon blanc isn’t the Crawford’s only passion, nor is it the only wine they make. Their initial offerings send to the US include a pinot gris and pinot noir, both of which are on par with the quality and innovative style of the sauvignon blanc. A theme consistent among the three is just how expressive the wines are. From the moment the cap is unscrewed, the wine leaps out of the glass aromatically and dances on the palate.

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The pinot gris has a very expressive, fresh nose featuring beautiful flower petals, various melons, stone fruits and just a bit of soap. On the palate it’s a crispy medium weight with bright acid and serious structure. The flavors are almost a direct match of the nose, but differ a bit of toasted marshmallow and custard that add depth. It finishes with big hits of white pepper and stone minerality, the latter of which adds some palate grip. 88 points, value B+.

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The pinot noir may actually be my favorite of the three because of just how good a value it is, and how well it balances new and old world styles. The nose is an interesting juxtaposition of fruit and funk, offering ripe cherry, cranberry and tutti fruiti on one hand, and wet asphalt, fungal underbrush and barnyard on the other (unlikely to be Brett-induced). It smells more strongly of funk than it tastes, but there is a slight indication of it on the palate as well. I happen to like how this wine wears that profile. In the mouth, it is medium bodied with bright acidity and fine, densely grained tannin. Flavors touch on a cornucopia of fresh and bright red plum, muddled red cherry, cranberry sauce, mild baking spice, wet fungal dirt and moist cedar. The finish remains very juicy. A nice, earthy pinot noir with an interesting profile and great value. 91 points, value A+.

Much more varieties of wine are listed on their website, including some like an orange sauvignon blanc that suggest future experimentation over the years. When I say “over the years,” Erica stressed that Loveblock “is an intergenerational project. We’re playing the long game.” Their son, who is 25, is a qualified winemaker and currently “doing his vintages around the world,” after which he intends to land at Loveblock.

The project is also going to be entirely estate for the foreseeable future, and beyond. “Present plantings produce about 65,000 cases,” Erica told me, adding that “there’s a long way to go in terms of expanding because there’s a lot of space left to plant. This will allow us to remain estate as our production increases.” Further, “estate is important because it allows us to control the viniculture and winemaking from end to end.”

The sense I get from talking with Erica and trying the initial Loveblock lineup of wine is that we should plan to see Loveblock around for a long time, to expect the already good wine to get better, and, most excitingly, to view Loveblock as it evolves as an early indicator of where the New Zealand wine industry is going.

Erica and Kim have established their credibility in that latter regard with their trend-setting Kim Crawford Wines, and though they have to build the reputation of a new label from scratch, their skills, experience, vision and global connections will surely allow them to scale Loveblock a bit quicker than most could with a new label. These initial three wines are all good, with the sauvignon blanc and pinot noir particularly compelling wines. I’m excited for future vintages and the new varieties as they arrive in America. More than that, though, it’s a compelling project in terms of its goal to get ahead of the curve, find a new style for New Zealand and continue the evolution of one of the world’s great and under-appreciated wine regions. Loveblock will be an interesting winery to follow.

Try this Wine: Cava from Vilarnau

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The corks and closures of two very nice bottles of Cava from Vilarnau

When I was 22 years old, I went to Barcelona for 3 months to study Spanish. I had recently graduate college and worked on a political campaign that exhausted me, and the idea of going somewhere new for a while was exciting. While I was already into wine at that age, it wasn’t a passion or fixation like it has become. And so unfortunately, I didn’t take advantage of my close proximity while in Barcelona to the various nearby wine regions, the most well-known of which are Catalunya, Priorat and Montsant, to visit them.

That didn’t stop me, however, from drinking wine while I was there. My favorite bar, which unfortunately no longer exists, was called El Bigoté (the mustache). The bar, just one big, open room, had no tables or chairs, though it had a 6-inch-wide bar that wrapped around roughly half of the walls. For a small number of euros, you were able to purchase a big plate of a single type of fried tapa and a bottle of Cava, white or rosé, your choice. Cava is a sparkling wine made in Penedès, a wine region to Barcelona’s south. They didn’t sell the tapas or Cava separately, you had to get an order of each together.

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Penedés. Credit: winetraveler.com

We spent many a night at El Bigoté, and that is where my head still often goes when I think of sparkling wine even though I drink remarkably little Cava these days. Though I will always be drawn to Champagne, my go-to has become crémant, which is a term now used generally for sparkling wine that comes from places in France that aren’t Champagne. The Burgundy and Loire regions are where my favorite crémant is made.

Part of the reason I drink so little Cava is that it is hard to find good Cava on the shelves of grocery stores and most wine merchants. This is why I was excited when I was offered the two wines I’m about to introduce as samples. I’ll never turn down an opportunity to try Cava in the hopes of it stirring some great memories from El Bigoté. That said, when they arrived and I saw how they are labeled, I got a pit in my stomach and thought, ‘another two bottles of Cava that play to the party crowd aren’t likely to be very good.’

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The Gaudí-inspired labels. Credit: aboutmygeneration.com

I’ve since tried the wine. I still don’t like the labels because they suggest that the wine is made for parties (even though they are inspired by Barcelona’s own Antoni Gaudí), for passively chugging alcohol while dancing in the club on New Year’s Eve, music thumping away. But I like the wine. It’s serious, it’s seriously good, and I think it’s great wine to recommend for someone who wants to try good Cava, or any type of sparkling wine, without spending a lot of money.

Vilarnau describes itself as “a small, artisan and cutting-edge cava winery [near] Barcelona.” The Vilarnau family was Spanish nobility in the 12th Century, and settled in Penedés. While Cava was made long before 1949 on the property, that’s when it was first labeled and marketed. In 1982 the González Bypass family of wines bought the label, and a new winery was built in 2005. Such a long history in the region does help explain why they are a producer of serious and thoughtful Cava. If you can get by the packaging (which didn’t photograph well enough to be featured in this post), or can find the regularly labeled bottle, the wine is worth trying.

The non-vintage Vilarnau Brut Reserva retails for $14.99 and is comprised of 50% macebeo, 35% parallada and 15% xarel.lo grapes. The nose is quite a lovely tropical and floral show featuring honeyed papaya, honeysuckle, straw, yellow peach and sweet lees. It is full bodied and very spritzy, which shows off well a tasteful amount of sweetness. Meyer lemon curd, marzipan and green apple are accentuated by a peppery spice. 90 points, value A.

The non-vintage Vilarnau Brut Reserva Rosé has an engaging nose that is quite ripe and mineral driven with raspberry, lavender, cider and lees. Also full bodied, the palate has a nice balance between creaminess, slight sweetness and crisp, round acid. Flavors are a wild mix of kiwi, watermelon, strawberry, lime, slate minerality and white pepper. 91 points, value A.

Where to buy:

The Gaudí edition may no longer be on shelves (if you’re lucky), but these places are listing availability of the standard labeled bottles.

Brut Reserva:

Sacramento, CA: The Wine Consultant

Colorado Springs, CO: Downtown Fine Spirits & Wine

Springfield, IL: The Corkscrew

New York, NY: Sherry-Lehmann

Harrisburg, PA: PA Liquor Control Board

Dallas, TX: Pogo’s Wine

 

Brut Reserva Rosé:

Westport, CT: International Wine Shop

Newton, MA: Marty’s

Hopkins, MN: Ace Wine, Spirits & Beer

New York, NY: 67 Wine & Spirits

Hilton Head, SC: Rollers Spirits, Wine & Cheese

A Taste of Alto Adige/Südtirol

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The cellar at Castel Sallegg

I have to admit, my knowledge of Alto Adige/Südtirol, a wine region in Northern Italy, was very limited prior to the research I did before writing this. That research began with the Wikipedia page of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, which does a decent job of running the reader through its history, which is not that easy to follow because of its location that put it in the middle of many power battles.

In short, previous rulers included the Romans; a combination of Germanic tribes, Alamannic Vinschgua and Bavairians; Charlemagne/Kingdom of Italy; Holy Roman Emperors’ “prince-bishops”; House of Habsburg; Austria; France under Napoleon quasi on behalf of the Austrians and Italians; Austro-Hungary; Nazis; Italy; and now semi-autonomous rule under Italy that the native Germans and Austrians don’t entirely like.

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An illustration of the current sensitivity can be seen on the region’s wine industry website, which labels itself with both the German and Italian languages in the same logo (Südtirol Wein/Vini Alto Adige – the respective names of the region and spellings of “wine”). To quote directly from vinepair.com’s page on the region:

“Most residents speak both Italian and German and two-thirds are native German speakers, hence the reason why the region is Alto Adige – Südtirol. Many wineries have names in both languages for the Cantina (Italian) or Kellerei (German), and wine labels could include a grape variety’s name in either language, such as Pinot Grigio or Grauburgunder. But despite its history of change, archaeological evidence places Alto Adige – Südtirol among the oldest winegrowing regions in Europe, dating back to the 5th century B.C.”

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Picture credit: Merles’ World

The region is quite mountainous as it plays home to sections of the Alps and Dolomites, which protect the vines from cold winds and rains, giving them roughly 300 days per year of sun. The warms days and cool nights (vines are planted at considerable elevation) help the grapes reach full maturity while preserving acid levels, a phenomenon well-evidenced in the wine reviewed for this post. Its fertile valleys make for great agricultural production and logging, while its lakes and rivers are harnessed to produce a good deal of electricity. Recently, tourism has become a major driver of the local economy as well.

Wine-wise, Alto Adige-Südtirol is best known for pinot grigio. There are six common varieties in addition to PG. For this post, I was able to taste three of them: gewürztraminer, langerin and schiava, the latter two reds. While PG is the most grown white (gewürzt is third on that list), schiava and lagerin are the two most planted reds.

Traditionally, gewürztraminer from the region is produced with a touch of residual sugar. Schiava and lagerin make very different wines. Gamay lovers may gravitate towards the former, while zinfandel lovers are more likely to appreciate the latter. All, I would argue, are good food wines due to their high acid. The three wines below were received as samples and tasted sighted. It was a delight to give them a try, and if you’re looking for a taste of the region, all offer good values.

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The 2017 gewurztraminer from Nals Margreid offers very honeyed and tropical aromas of honeysuckle, cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple, vanilla custard and just a hint of chili flake kick. It’s full bodied and lush, though the mineral-driven acid provides nice cut. The flavors are quite saturated, and feature a profile similar, if not drier, to the nose: mint, cantaloupe, pineapple, Granny Smith apple, vanilla custard and slightly bitter greens. This wells its 5.2 grams/liter of residual sugar with class. I’m a fan. 89 points. Value: B+.

The 2017 Castel Sallegg Lagrein Südtirol Alto Adige has a very saturated nose featuring crushed cherry, blackberry and boysenberry at the forefront. Underneath this hedonistic trio is sweet tobacco leaf and vanilla. Full bodied, the tannin and acid are each lean and mean. This one is driven by a rustic texture reminiscent of tannat. A bit dominated by under ripe red and black fruit (think plum, cassis, strawberry and cherry), it has nice touches of underbrush, baking spice and cigar. A wine to chew on, and one that benefits from several hours in a decanter. 88 points. Value: C+.

Finally, the 2017 St. Pauls Missianer Schiava Südtriol Alto Adige has a stewed cherry-rich nose with additional aromas of macerated strawberry, lavender, flower petal, cinnamon and toasted marshmallow. It’s medium bodied with bright, juicy acidity that’s well-integrated with a fine tannin profile to create a very smooth and easy mouth feel. The flavors are more powerful than the feel suggests, however, and begin with pretty florals and rose water and transitions to red-tinged fruit and slightly dirty soil and smoke. A seriously tasty that offers a lot for such an accessible wine. 90 points. Value: A.

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!