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.

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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 taste, 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!

Off the Beaten Path: High Value Old School Wine

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Picture Credit: Chris Yarzab/FlickrChris Yarzab/Flickr

When I look for high quality wines under $25, I find it hard to beat imported wine. The usual suspects that come to my mind include Cotes du Rhone, Rioja, Piedmont and Kamptal. Each of these offer many great options in that price range, whereas, while one can find great wines under $25 from nearly anywhere in the world, the wealth of options tend to be more limited elsewhere.

However, I’ve received a few samples of what I found to be high value wines that come from slightly off those beaten paths I mentioned above, yet still in the Old Word style, despite a set of them coming from New Zealand. So, I decided to wait until I had tried them all to run a piece on value old school wines from off the beaten path. Below are the reviews, and if you’re so inclined, each is hyperlinked to their wine-searcher.com page.

Of all of these, the two clear standouts include the 2012 Bodegas Godelia Mencia, which gives any wine in the world a possibly winning challenge for best value, and the 2013 Domaine Ostertag Pinot Gris Barriques, which just crushes the texture category. What’s more, finding wines that are six and five years, respectively, post-vintage at these prices is insane. They’ve clearly benefited from the aging, and frankly a gift that the wineries are offering them at these prices. If I were recommending a white and red for a big event like a wedding, I’d happily suggest these two as both are not only stellar values, but suggest wide adaptability in food pairing and seemingly universal appeal.

Bierzo, Spain:

2015 Bodegas Godelia Bierzo Blanco – Quite the aromatic nose, it offers high toned yellow and green citrus, honeysuckle and peach pit. The body is medium in weight, with a lushness entering early and a more streaky acidic finish coming out towards the end. There’s a undercurrent of bitter greens to go with Meyer lemon, stony minerality, white peach and vanilla. It’s a pretty easy drinking, easy enjoying wine. 88 points. Value: B

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2012 Bodegas Godelia Bierzo – Made from the Mencia grape. It begins to blossom from the first pour, but it does benefit from decanting. The nose is a cornucopia of berry aromas, featuring crushed blackberry, raspberry, dark cherry and brambleberry. The bouquet also offers hints of sweet tobacco, pastel Spring flowers and black pepper. It strikes a medium weight on the palate, and despite some age still offers thorough fine grained tannin to go along with juicy acidity. There is a similar berry flavors that is augmented by strong orange juice and black plum, darker tobacco, moist soil, slight mushroom and strong cocoa. This is a compelling, strong wine and that is drinking beautifully. The value is off the charts. 92 points. Value: A+

Wairau Valley, New Zealand:

2016 Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc – Classic modern sauvignon blanc nose: racy minerality, lemon-lime, cantaloupe, white smoke, white pepper and just a hint of mint. The body strikes a crisp and lean profile, with nice acid and some grit offering some texture. Flavors touch on bitter lemon, apricot, white peach, buttered white bread toast and gravel. 87 points. Value: C-

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2015 Wairau River Pinot Gris – The nose, moderate in strength, is stoney and mineral-driven with slate, smoky flint, under ripe white peach, sour lemon, parsley and marzipan. The body has nice weight and balances creaminess and acid with skill. It brings Meyer lemon, white pepper, apricot, lime zest, salty minerals and just a bit of honeysuckle. A nice, serviceable, lean and crisp pinot gris. 89 points. Value: B+

2015 Wairau River Pinot Noir – No mistaking this as anything other than a Marlborough pinot. The nose is very high toned with red plum, bitter cherry, orange rind and fungal underbrush. The palate is fairly slight but the flavors are deep enough. There’s slightly sour cherry, cherry pit, huckleberry, orange rind, dandelion green and a bit of rose. A nice, easy drinking pinot that is very food friendly with its bright acidity and slightly grippy texture. 88 points. Value: B+

Alsace, France:

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NV Domaine Allimant-Laugner Crémant d’Alsace Rosé – Fairly delicate bubbles for a cremant, it pours a very pale pink. The nose is clean, crisp and reticent. Bit of lees on the nose along with crushed raspberry, white pepper, dandelion greens and fresh Spring flowers. The palate is medium bodied with crisp and slightly bitter acid that harmonizes well with the slightly sweet fruit. Raspberry, huckleberry, cranberry and strawberry. There are hints of lavender and rose as well as a nice streak of limestone minerality. Overall a fun bubbler that is sure to be a crowd pleaser no matter the room. 89 points. Value A

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2013 Trimbach Gewurztraminer – An extremely aromatic wine, the tropics burst out of the glass: pineapple, mango, papaya, starfruit and guava. Vanilla custard, white florals and some slate. The body is medium in stature, the acid is lean but crisp and balances the modest residual sugar. Clean minerality forms the core of the straightforward profile, which is filled out with tart pineapple juice, bitter apples, bitter greens and white pepper. It starts out sweet and finishes bitter, though the variance isn’t entirely resolved. A fine and perfectly pleasant simple table gewurztraminer. 87 points. Value: C-

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2014 Louis Sipp Pinot Blanc Nature S – Pretty quiet nose, offering white peach, Granny Smith apple, lime zest, white flowers and loads of slate. The palate is very fresh with juicy acidity, offering Granny Smith apple, starfruit, grapefruit, sweet Meyer lemon, slate, white pepper and dill. Overall a very pleasant, enjoyable wine with an interesting, if not relatively simple, profile. 89 points. Value: B+

2013 Paul & Phillippe Zinck Riesling – No fooling anyone with the nose, this is all riesling. It kicks tennis ball can gas, straw, cut grass, pineapple, sweet lemon and honeysuckle. The body is medium and the acid very, very bright and sharp. There’s plenty of heft to the structure. It boasts flavors of Meyer lemon, white pepper, Evergreen, dandelion, peach and apricot. Overall a really nice, bright riesling with a sneaky personality – the more you engage it, the more it gives you. 89 points. Value: B+

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2013 Domaine Ostertag Pinot Gris Barriques – This has plenty of life ahead of it, it’s just coming into its own. Driven by minerality, the nose offers flinty crushed gravel, chalk, lemon zest, smokey white pepper and dandelion. The palate is full bodied with a lushness that belies the lean nose, though there’s a just a bit of chalky texture that adds depth. The texture takes center stage, and that’s a good thing. The juicy acid is nicely integrated and cuts any mount of residual sugar that might otherwise show it’s sweet face. The flavors boast big guava, mango, pineapple, Meyer lemon, creamy Granny Smith apple and honeysuckle. A very fun wine, this has the stuffing to evolve for a few additional years into a serious wine. It already has an immense friendliness with food. 91 points. Value: A-

The Wines of CVNE

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Rioja is not one of the easier wine regions to master, but it is well worth the effort if one takes time to explore it diligently. I’ve put attention towards Rioja on-and-off for years and have found it both frustrating and rewarding because of the evolution of the region. For centuries, Rioja was aged in American oak and coaxed into wine through long aging and very careful vinification. The approach produces significant complexity that centers around a core of Earth, leather, tobacco, cherries, oak, bright acidity and dense tannin., and creates a wine that benefits from decades of aging. While some producers still follow this method, the traditional approach is becoming rarer as many producers have reacted to the global phenomenon of the more approachable fruit-forward and ripe profile and changed how they make wine. This new style, dubbed “modern Rioja,” is treated differently in the vineyard and winery, and then aged in mellower and sweater French and Hungarian oak barrels, producing a softer, more round and fruity wine that requires significantly less aging to be approachable and rarely offers much of the Earthy characteristic famous to Rioja.

I’ve found myself roundly disappointed with modern Rioja. To be blunt, why go to Rioja for a style of wine that’s available from anywhere in the world? Traditional Rioja, now, that’s something unique to the region. If we want to drink Rioja, presumably it’s because we want its unique characteristics, so this modern thing seems disingenuous to me given Rioja’s centuries of winemaking history that focused, proudly, on the traditional profile until very recently. Though tempranillo remains the core ingredient of both styles, the whims of the vineyard manager and winemaker can churn out vastly different wines and, for consumers like me who prefer the traditional style, that means fewer options.

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CVNE HQ (Credit: Social Vignerons)

The differences between traditional and modern Rioja are not, however, binary; there is a range. I’ve had some very good Riojas that fall somewhere between the ends of the continuum. Though Rioja wineries typically don’t self-identify as traditional or modern, I’ve long identified CVNE (or CUNE) in that category of “tweeners” – wines bearing characteristics of both, and have enjoyed their wines. I was recently sent half a case of these wines to sample, and roped some fellow Rioja lovers into tasting them with me. The box included three wines from their CUNE line and three from the Viña Real line so that I could get a sense for what is the majority production of the CVNE portfolio. l’ve identified four important differences regarding the CUNE and Viña Real wines to cover before going into the reviews.

First, let’s tackled the name. CVNE..CUNE…what? For those uninitiated, CVNE produces CUNE wines, and the reason for the difference in spelling isn’t immediately apparent. This is the first question I asked when I had a chance to send questions off to the winery to provide some context for this review. I’m positive they’re tired of answering the question, but I didn’t know it, and why not take the opportunity when you’re speaking to the winery itself to get the real answer? The explanation is funny: though both are pronounced “coo-nay,” CVNE is an acronym that stands for Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España (The Northern Spanish Wine Company), which was established in 1879. The first wines were supposed to be labeled with the initials, but a clerical error turned the “v” into a “u” and since the first wines produced then were those with lesser aging, the name CUNE has been used henceforth for their line of wines meant for early consumption.

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Rioja Alta (Credit: Wine Folly)

Now that the difference has been explained, let’s go right into the second difference. If CUNE wines are for immediate enjoyment, what’s the deal with CVNE’s Viña Real line, the latter of which aren’t sold at much different prices? After all, there are crianza, reserva and gran reserva bottlings for each. It might be what you imagine: quality and approach. Cune’s grapes come from the Rioja Alta, are vinified in stainless steel, aged in American oak and are made in a fashion meant for early consumption. Viña Real is sourced from the more desirable Rioja Alavesa, and made stylistically to benefit from aging. Viña Real consumers are rewarded by giving these bottles 5+ years of aging (I tend to prefer this style of Rioja with 10+ years on it).

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CVNE’s Rioja Alavesa vineyards and Viña Real winery (Credit: CVNE)

Third: crianza v. reserva. v. gran reserva. These are government regulated categories that come down to aging: wines aged 1 year in barrel and 1 year in bottle prior to release cab be labeled “crianza,” wines aged 1 year in barrel and two years in bottle qualify as “reserva” while those aged 2 years in barrel and 3 years in bottle are “gran reserva.”

And finally, what is the difference between 2017 CVNE and 1879 CVNE? Given the opportunity, I had to ask: “If someone from 1879 tasted the current releases blind, would they recognize them as CVNE? Would they even recognize them as wines from Rioja? Describe the evolution of the region and the winery.” I loved the thorough response, which I’m going to post nearly verbatim (with some grammatical editing for clarity) and in its entirety :

“Wow hard to respond. First, I think someone from 140 years ago, if they saw the vinification they would go crazy: stainless steel tanks?(!). Concrete tanks ?(!). However, as they moved into the winery they would find comfort – oak barrel aging, bottle aging, stone cellars – the same now as then.

“Regarding the style of wines, the grapes are the same, though they probably didn’t use as strong quality controls in 1879 to put together the blends. It was probably more random. Also, until the 1970s, the vineyards were planted 40% tempranillo, 40% garnacha and 20% the rest. However, starting in the 1970s tempranillo became the favored grape and vineyard plantings started changing. Now, it’s 70% tempranillo, 11% garnacha and 7% viura [these are the main varietals planted].

“Barrel aging has also changed, though CVNE has always used American oak. In our case up to the 1970s, 1980s, wines were aged closer to 6 years. Now, it’s reduced to 2 or 3 years. This puts the wines into the market earlier, and it’s probably that the first years of the wines taste significantly different now than before. 140 years ago they were much oakier upon release than they are today. However, as time goes on they evolve to become very similar.

“As a conclusion, a person familiar with CVNE in 1879 would recognize our wines today as Rioja, and they would recognize that the grapes and soils have not changed because the terroir was and remains the essence of our wines.”

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Wine aging at CVNE (Credit: Winederlusting)

On to the wines. Traditional and tweener Rioja offer very food-friendly acid and balance, and we enjoyed these over a long dinner featuring classic Spanish dishes and flavors. Like many Rioja, CVNE’s wines represent great values and, especially with the Viña Real wines, great upside for the patient collector.

2014 CUNE Crianza – Though initially musty on the nose, time reveals a very ruby, ripe nose of cherries, huckleberries and general Earthiness. The body is medium in stature with precisely balanced acid. The strawberries, cherries and salmon berries are sweet, while smoke and fresh leather feature on the mid palate. The finish is a bit short, but overall it’s a very pleasant wine whose best feature is its seamless balance. 87 points. Value: B+

2013 Viña Real Crianza – The nose is deeper than the CUNE Crianza and dominated by oak at this early stage, offering toast, must, cocoa, cherries, moist Earth and Evergreen. The body features slightly grippy tannins and bright acid that comes through as slightly bitter orange peel and parsley notes. The slightly tart strawberries and cranberries are very bright, and supported by tanned leather. This has good depth and complexity and more regional typicity than the CUNE. It will begin to really emerge in two or three years. 89 points at the moment. Value: A

2013 CUNE Reserva – The nose boasts lovely huckleberries, crushed blackberries, cherries, hickory smoke and some hedonistic leather. It’s fuller bodied than either Crianza with bright, deep acidity. Though well-balanced, full integration of tannin, acid and alcohol will require some time. The fruits are strawberries and cherries, it offers black pepper, reserved leather and orange zest, the latter of which lifts the mid palate. It’s quite enjoyable now and drinking surprisingly well for its young age, I think this one ideally gets at least 3-5 years of cellaring. 90 points right now. Value: B

2013 Viña Real Reserva – Very deep aromas of toast and wet underbrush centered around concentrated brambleberry and blackberry. The body indicates just how young this wine is. Medium-plus in stature, the tannins are thick grained and very layered. The typicity is readily apparent here: tanned leather, bitter espresso, tart cherries, dried parsley and cumin. This one is quite nice, but with another 5-7 years of aging it will really reward, though it has the stuffing to improve over 10+ years. 92 points, but higher in the future. Value: B+

2011 CUNE Gran Reserva – Secondary aromas come through on the nose. There is coconut, smoke, blueberry and strawberries, though there is also clearly more awaiting their birth. The body is gorgeous in texture, ripe and round, though the harmonious acid and tannin are very much present. The balance of this wine is expert. The flavors include plum, strawberry, coconut, leather, tobacco leaf and Blood Orange juice. Very appealing now, with 5-10 years it’s going to be spectacular. 92 points with room for improvement. Value: B+

2010 Viña Real Gran Reserva – Dark, brooding and lush nose of crushed black and blue fruit, with big sea mist, hickory smoke, tanned tobacco and a nice spearmint kick. The full body offers dense tannins and bright acid. There are big hits of saline, leather and tobacco that lead delivery of red plum, huckleberry, strawberry, salmon berry and raspberry. When the finish rolls around, it’s bitter greens and salmon jerky. Very, very layered wine that evolves in the glass by the hour, it deserves 10-plus years of aging. 94 points with a ton of upside. Value: A

RINGER ALERT Our host for the dinner opened a bottle of 2010 Imperial Reserva from his cellar. Imperial is CVNE’s finest wine, situated above Viña Real in the portfolio. Undeterred by the infanticide being committed, I plunged into this wonderful wine. The nose is mostly savory at the moment with florals, smoke and red berries. The body was lush and well-integrated, and the layers went on seemingly indefinitely. Flavors delivered included Acai, sweet strawberry, sweet tobacco, pomegranate, Balsamic reduction and seaweed. This really deserves another ten years of aging, minimum, and will improve for at least another twenty.

I thoroughly enjoyed this study of the two lines of CVNE, which I recommend for the Rioja neophyte and well-studied alike because typicity, if slightly reserved, isn’t lost. Further, the values on each of these are good, and great for some, especially when cellar-worthiness is considered. If it’s time in your life for a Rioja exploration, you would do well to grab these six bottles from CUNE and Viña Real, a group of friends and some northern Spanish food. Arriba, abajo, el centro y pa dentro!

Two Great Wines from the Famous Land of Tomatoes

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So it turns out wine from the heel of Italy is pretty good. Specifically, San Marzano wine. I’ll admit to knowing next to nothing about wine from this part of Italy, this part being Puglia. When I hear Puglia, my mind goes back to Mario Batali’s old (and best) Food Network show, Molto Mario. My first culinary love was Italian food, and in my formidable teenage years I learned through the show the concept of what I can call “regionality,” which effectively means that how and what people cook varies by where it’s done. If this sounds a bit like terroir, that’s not far off, although it encompasses a bit more: in addition to how differences in land and climate affect the taste of the ingredients, it also includes methodology traditions, ingredient combinations, religious influences, past conqueror(s) influence, and more. One could make a case that terroir can encompass all of this as well, but I think that goes beyond the spirit of terroir’s focus on non-human elements.

Regardless, when I think of Pulgia and San Marzano, I think about food and the latter’s renowned tomatoes (though don’t let the grocery store packaging fool you). Until now, until these Talo wines. I tasted them over two nights, and had a neighbor over to try them on the second. Not a wino, he asked me to tell him about the wines and I found myself going down the rabbit hole of trying to explain the terroir of certain wines from Southern Italy and Greece, which I flippantly referred to as “Med wines,” a terrible term that doesn’t actually exist outside this world of one because it also applies to wines from, say, Israel, that offer little in similarity. In my mind, Med wines are driven by a peppery spice and loam-driven minerality that I can pick out of any assembly of wines from around the globe. Not having tasted San Marzano wine before, I could’ve called Med wine in a blind tasting but in a million years would never have placed them in the land of the world’s most famous tomatoes.

And what a pleasant surprise, because these are uniquely expressive and approachable wines that bring that “Med wine” edge that I’ve always loved and have never spent enough time getting to know. I’ll be reviewing a trio of whites from Greece in an upcoming post, and these two wines have made me a little more excited to do that. I had a lot of fun with these, reviewing them separately and then going back and forth identifying differences and themes.

On quality and approachability, they are comparable. Both benefit from an hour or so of decanting. Their textures suggest the same warm, dry climate, and they both deliver that peppery-loam energy I noted earlier. Beyond that, we’re talking about distinctly different wines that can still be thoroughly enjoyed by anyone liking either. That is to say, if you get to try one and like it, definitely seek out the other. Or better yet, just get both and drink them together.

The 2015 San Marzano Talo Malvasia Nera, made from the Malvasia grape, is the more fruit forward of the two. It’s dark, brutish nose bursts with bruised cherries, crushed blackberries, blood orange, tar, violet and crushed rocks. The palate is full bodied with saturated grainy tannin that never seem to settle in one place. The juicy, bright acidity keeps the wine from developing a cloying sensation, which is an important counter balance to the sweet fruit that comes in waves of boysenberry, strawberry, blueberry, Acai and bewildering big dose of grapefruit that I could never get over, or stop appreciating. There are streaks of loam, saline and sweet tobacco leaf as well. Overall, it’s a brilliantly unusual package of aromas, flavors and textures. I’m giving it 89 points with a value rating of A.

The 2015 San Marzano Talo Negroamaro, made from the Negroamaro grape which I’m not sure I’ve had previously, is also a real treat and my preference of the two if I’m forced to pick. The fruit is a bit more reserved than the Malvasia Nera, which allows more savoriness to come through. The nose is all about minerality and Earthiness, offering seasoned leather, tar, wet Earth, granite, Evergreen, saline and sour cherry. On the palate, it’s full bodied with lush, juicy acidity that really carries the flavors and round, fine grained tannin that keep things well-framed. The flavors strike an almost-elegant tone. The fruit is sweeter on the palate than the nose, boasting cherry concentrate and huge hits of black and red currants. Dusty mocha, loam, graphite and bright, sweet orange juice come through as well. I suspect this one might improve with a year of aging, but decant it for an hour and it won’t matter. This one deserves 90 points and an A value rating.

Since we’re less than a week out from Thanksgiving, I’ll answer the question: yes, these would work well for your feast. They also work well on their own, and I can imagine them pairing nicely with a big range of foods, even including heartier seafood. At roughly $15 each, they are some of the more interesting and unusual wines you’ll find in that price range. I’ll put it succinctly: there’s good reason to find and try these wines.

A Study in Value: Argentina at $25 & Under

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Grapes of Bodega Santa Julia. Picture Credit: Bodega Santa Julia

America has pretty strong knee-jerk associations between countries and wines. New Zealand is sauvignon blanc. Australia is shiraz. German is riesling. And Argentina is malbec. The converse is sort of true as well, as people associate what the grape is supposed to taste like by where it’s from: sauvignon blanc is limey and tropical and lean, shiraz is big and fruity, riesling is sweet and malbec is dark and spicy. Sample a smattering of what’s available in a grocery store wine isle and these stereotypes hold pretty solidly. Pour a Safeway customer a Sancerre sauvignon blanc, Cote Rotie syrah, New York riesling or Cahors malbec and they’re likely to get lost based on their geographic associations with those grapes. It’s enough to drive a wine snob mad because terroir does matter, especially in the four examples I used above. Then add in price point associations and we’re now far off from what could be someone’s wine reality with a little adventure and knowledge.

I’ve fallen pray to some of these shortcut assumptions myself, and because I’ve never loved the standard NZ sauvignon blancs I haven’t looked into what the good ones might be, except for Greywacke’s Wild sauvignon blanc. I’ve spent a little more time on Australian shiraz and found gold with well-aged Kaesler and Kilikanoon. I still haven’t invested substantial time into German riesling, but certainly more than Argentinian wine which I don’t think I’d had for several years prior to the wines tasted for this article.

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Vineyards in Maipu. Picture Credit: Bodega Santa Julia

With this in mind, I tasted through ten different Argentinian wines sent as samples to Good Vitis. Two whites, eight reds, with suggested retail prices ranging from $10 to $25. The idea was to assess some of the wines available to the entry level wine shopper to see if there might be some diversity beyond the simple association people have of Argentina wine. I was hoping to find some variety.

There were three wineries represented among the ten wines: Santa Julia, Colomé and Amalaya. My favorites from the group included Santa Julia’s 2016 Organic Cabernet Sauvignon (90 points, Value: A), 2014 Valle Uca Cabernet Sauvignon (91 points, Value: B+), Colomé’s Torrontes (88 points, Value: A) and Malbec (91 points, Value: A) Estate bottles, and Amalaya’s 2016 Malbec (89 points, Value: A). Honorable mention goes to the 2016 Santa Julia Tintillo (88 points, Value: B+), a 50/50 blend of malbec and bonarda that would go well with red food (see pairing suggestions in the review below). These wines represent some decent variety, with some showing flavors beyond big, juicy fruit, and I would be happy to spend an evening with any of those mentioned in this paragraph. All were provided as trade samples and tasted sighted.

The largest contingent came from Bodega Santa Julia, a winery in Mendoza founded less than thirty years ago.

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2016 Santa Julia Tintillo Malbec-Bonarda (50/50 blend) – Whole cluster fermented and designed to be consumed chilled, it pours with some translucence. I couldn’t confirm with a website search but I imagine there’s some carbonic maceration involved in the process. The aromas hit on macerated strawberries and huckleberries with whiffs of tar, tobacco leaf and white pepper in the background. The body is round and polished with little tannin and medium acidity. The fruit is a general consensus red variety, though strawberries and huckleberries do peak through. It has a really pleasant pluminess to it, along with some lavender and rose. This is a lovely, easy-drinking wine probably best alone or with something like margarita pizza, a simple red pasta or simple grilled meats. I’ve seen this one at DC-area Whole Foods stores. 88 points. Value: B+

2016 Santa Julia Malbec – The nose is a bit reticent at the moment, but suggests development of strawberries, blackberries and tar with extended air exposure. The body is quite round with fine grained tannins. The acidity is spot-on, making this red or white meat-friendly. The fruit is generally red and black, although cherries and plums dominate. There’s a bit of pepper and nice little dose of minerality. Solid if unspectacular. 87 points. Value: B

2015 Santa Julia Valle de Uca Reserva Malbec – Sourced from vineyards ranging from 3,130 to 4,600 feet above sea level. A lot of fruit on the nose, almost macerated or crushed strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. Loam and graphite as well. The palate is medium in body and polished with moderate acid. The fruit is just a bit sweet, offering boysenberries, huckleberries, strawberries and cherries. There’s great minerality on this along with tar, tobacco and smoke. The profile is really nice but it lacks the concentration I’d expect on a reserve. 90 points. Value: C

2015 Santa Julia Cabernet Sauvignon – The nose is more Malbec than classic cabernet sauvignon: macerated red berries and plums, not much else. The body is medium in stature, with a light dusting of grainy tannin. There’s also some serious acid on the back end. The fruit is similar to the nose, with the additions of loam and pepper. 86 points. Value: C

2016 Santa Julia Organic Cabernet Sauvignon – Nice Earth on the nose: wonderful mushroom funk, loam and wet soil goes along nicely with dark cocoa powder, overripe strawberries and cherries. Full bodied with bright acidity, this is a pleasantly juicy and floral wine with strawberries, raspberries, rose and Spring flowers. There’s some Sweet Tart going on as well. Fun, funky stuff. 90 points. Value: A

2014 Santa Julia Valley Uca Cabernet Sauvignon – A complex and funky nose with dark cherries, pork fat, smoke, chalk and brambleberry. The palate is pleasingly tannic, it has real structure and presence delivered with quality acid. Cherry crushes over limestone with lavender and thyme. It’s smokey and delivers nice saline as well. 91 points. Value: B+

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Colomé and Amalaya are part of the Hess Family collection of wineries. Colomé is the result of a three year “quest to find the source of an exceptional Malbec that [Donald Hess] had at a dinner in a small bodega in Salta.” The winery was founded in 1831 and grows its grapes at elevations ranging from 6,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level using biodynamic practices. Some of the vines are 160 years old. Amalaya is an attempt to highlight the weather and soil conditions unique to the Northern Calchaqui Valley, which is part of the foothills of the Andes Mountain range. Make no mistake, though, elevation is still significant: it ranges from 5,250 to 5,580 feet above sea level. The vineyards are sustainably farmed as well.

2016 Colomé Torrontes Estate – Lovely nose of honeydew, lime zest, pear, dandelion and a lot of chalk. This full-bodied wine offers crisp acidity on an otherwise soft palate. The fruit – lime sorbet, Granny Smith apple and cantaloupe – is bright and sweet, though the wine is dry. There’s also just a bit of hay, limestone minerality and white pepper. The finish is just a bit hot but is otherwise a very pleasant wine offering a lot of refreshment. 88 points. Value: A

2016 Colomé Malbec Estate – A blend of four estate vineyards ranging from 3,740 to 5,940 feet above the sea. Pouring a beautiful deep crimson, it offers up a high octane nose with strawberries, cherries, plums, smoke, loam, mushroom funk and an amount of blood that would bring all the vampires to the yard. The structure is set by polished tannins with real grip and well-placed acidity. It achieves a juicy full body while serving up juicy strawberries, cherries, blackberries and blueberries, along with aggressive cracked pepper, saline, graphite and just a hint of iodine. I’m a fan. 91 points. Value: A

2016 Amalaya Torrontes-Riesling blend – sourced from vineyards at 5,900 feet above sea level. The nose is a bit reticent at first but with air offers up a pleasantly sweet profile filled out by pear, big honeysuckle, mandarin orange, papaya and hay. The body is svelte, integrating classy acidity driven by the riesling with a bit of lushness. The palate offers Key Lime, a bit of petrol, bitter greens, underride orange, vanilla and coriander. Finishing a bit zesty, this isn’t a porch pounder as much as it’s a wine that will benefit from a conscious food pairing. 86 points. Value: B

2016 Amalaya Malbec – sourced from vineyards at 5,900 feet above sea level. Includes 10% tannat and 5% petit verdot. After aggressive swirling to blow off some barnyard (Bret?), it opens up with dark cherries, Spring flowers, blood, orange zest and a fair amount of black pepper. The body is full with nicely structured grainy tannin and juicy acidity that gives the wine a substantive presence not always found at this price point. It offers a cornucopia of sweet fruit: cherries, strawberries and loads of plums. Hints of smoke, tar, and black pepper augment the appealing flavor profile. Nicely done. 89 points. Value: A

The Best Reds, Whites & Values of 2016

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Picture credit: Punjabigraphics.com

It’s January 3rd, 2017 and as a wine blogger it is my formulaic obligation to put together a list of the best wines I consumed in 2016. This isn’t a top-100 list compiled by an established wine blogger. Rather, it is a relatively short list and the pool from which they came is limited to the wines I sought out myself. Hence, I feel confident recommending them seeing as I put my own money into them. Click on the wines to see where they’re available.

The Ten Best Red Wines

1. 2000 Cameron Abbey Ridge pinot noir. I’ve written already in these pages that this is the most memorable wine I’ve ever had, and probably the best as well. I’m probably cheating Cameron by not also including the 2003 Abbey Ridge, which was barely one notch below the 2000, in the list but I don’t want to be redundant, especially since neither is likely to be available outside private cellar purchases and auctions. Full tasting note.

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Abbey Ridge Vineyard (picture credit: cameronwines.com)

2. 2007 Arns Melanson Vineyard syrah. The 2007 Arns Melanson syrah from California fleeced a group of wine collectors all in a blind tasting I participated in. We had a good number of syrahs from around the world lined up and paper bagged and the only unanimous guess was that this was Northern Rhone. It was also perfectly aged. Pure bliss, a top-5 all time wine for me. I didn’t take notes but it would’ve received at least a 95, and I just found another one to stash away for an important occasion in 2017.

3. 2009 Reynvaan The Contender syrah. Savory goodness, and this vintage is still around to be gobbled up if you look hard enough for it. A few Washington wineries are producing syrahs that balance classic Northern Rhone notes with Washington State’s dark fruit, iodine and graphite added it, and Reynvaan is as good as any. Full tasting note.

4. 1998 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateanuneuf-du-Pape. Proof that good CdP improves with extended cellaring, this delivered the best of what you find across the full range of CdPs all in one profile as smooth as a baby’s bottom. I’ve seen this up for auction and suggest you track one down. Full tasting note.

5. 2010 Clendenen Family Vineyards Nebbiolo Bricco Buon Natale. I’m not an avid drinker of nebbiolo but this one has me wanting to try more. Impressively complex profile that hits on flavors and aromas from quince to Allspice to watermelon (seriously). Changing with each passing hour, it is an adventure that becomes increasingly engaging and enjoyable with each sip. The value on this one is out of this world, too.

6. 2001 E. Guigal Cote-Rotie Chateau d’Ampuis. I’ve listed two American savory syrahs above this one, but there’s no getting around the fact that older Guigal like this, the stuff done before the winery embraced the Parker profile, is as good a savory profile comes. Old World brilliance. Full tasting note.

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The Chateau d’Ampuis (picture credit: guigal.com)

7. 2013 Gramercy Cellars Cabernet Franc (wine club only). This was unbelievably good. It isn’t Chinon-styled funky cabernet franc, but it isn’t big fruit and no Earth California cabernet franc, either. It’s a nice tweener that was one of the more satisfying wines I had in 2016. Full tasting note.

8. 2012 Psagot Winery Cabernet Sauvignon. As many Israeli wine as I’ve had, and I’ve had more than a few, this wine was a revelation for me. I’ve found a lot of good and a lot of bad Israeli wines, and my complaint throughout is that the country’s wine industry still hasn’t developed a signature style that people want to seek out. This bottle from Psagot doesn’t solve this problem for me, but it provided the best counter argument yet that I should just shut up and enjoy what’s in the glass. This is world class cabernet and it won’t set you back much. Full tasting note.

9. 2011 Lauren Ashton Cabernet Sauvignon. From a difficult vintage this one far surpassed many Washington cabernets from better years. I ended my tasting note with “exactly what I hope for when I open a cabernet sauvignon from Washington.” This producer consistently turns out fantastic wines but this may be the best executed yet. Full tasting note.

10. 2009 Delille Cellars Harrison Hill. Always one of my very favorite wines, though this vintage didn’t blow me away (is still too young). Nevertheless, it still delivered on the best aspect of the Harrison Hill blend: it’s a master blending job by winemaker Chris Upchurch in the sense that the profile is always somehow so much more than combination of the parts. Full tasting note.

The Five Best White Wines

1. 2010 Eric Morgat L’Enclos Savennieres. I didn’t take tasting notes, but my memories of it remain stronger than many wines for which I do have tasting notes, which is why it’s #1. Aged chenin blanc from Savennieres in the Loire Valley has been one of the more profound wine revelations I’ve had because of its deep complexity, it’s ability to improve with age, the evolution it goes through in the glass and the way it balances richness with streaky acidity. Morgat consistently makes complete wines Savennieres and shouldn’t be missed.

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Monsieur Morgat’s vines (picture credit: Le Figaro)

2. 2013 Cameron Winery Abbey Ridge chardonnay. This was my first introduction to Cameron’s whites and it led to a frantic effort to buy up as many as I could find. It’s revelation was how it brought everything good about chardonnay into one glass, including, most impressively, the richness and depth of fruit and nutty flavors of Cote de Beaune with the nervous, tense streaks of a Chablis. I keep adding Oregon chardonnay to my cellar. Full tasting note.

3. 2013 Latta Roussanne. Often times 100% roussanne is singularly dense, rich and sweet. Andrew Latta, formerly of Washington legends Dunham Cellars and K Vintners, avoids all that in this bottle of what roussanne can and should be: a wine that fills your mouth with lush flavors but slowly surprises you with flurries of zesty citrus and stone flavors that liven up the malo-like hangover of this full bodied varietal. Full tasting note.

4. 2015 Penner-Ash Viognier. Your eyes are seeing (nearly) double: often times 100% viognier is singulrarly dense, rich and sweet. Penner-Ash avoids all that in this bottle of what viognier can and should be: a wine that fills your mouth with lush flavors but slowly surprises you with flurries of zesty acidity and streaky tension that livens up the prototypical “tropicallity” of viognier. Give this another 1-2 years and it’ll be even better. Full tasting note.

5. 2008 Francois Chidaine Montlouis-sur-Loire Clos du Breuil. Between this wine and the Morgat my next trip to France will include a few days in the Loire. What made this one stand out is the incredible promise it still holds at age eight for the ability to evolve into something even better. Full tasting note.

The Five Best Values of 2016

1. 2014 Barkan Pinot Noir Classic. If I had tasted this blind I would’ve called expensive California pinot. Instead it’s from Israel and it’s roughly $12. Check out these tasting notes: “Nose: very expressive. Blueberries, blackberries and boysenberries. Big rose petals and Spring pollen. Smoke, iodine. Fruit punch. White pepper. Freshly tanned leather and young tobacco leaf. Licorice root. Beautiful bouquet. Palate: medium body, medium acidity. Integrated, modest tannin. Fruit is tart blueberries, huckleberries and red plums. Blood orange. Tar, hickory smoke. Herbs de Provence. Celery.” All that for $12; buy this for big events. Full tasting note.

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A Barkan vineyard in the Negev desert where the grapes for its 2014 Classic pinot noir are grown (picture credit: Barkan Winery)

2. 2010 Fausse Piste Garde Manger syrah. Sadly this vintage isn’t available anymore, but that won’t stop me from trying the current release in 2017. For ~$20 it’s hard to find a syrah with this much complexity. What’s more, 2010 wasn’t an easy year, making this all the more impressive. Full tasting note.

3. 2013 Two Vintners Make Haste (unavailable). This 100% Washington cinsault elicited the biggest smile induced by a single gulp of wine in 2016, it was just so much fun; I can’t even stop smiling when I just think about this wine (it is literally impossible to can stop smiling). Full tasting note.

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Two Vintners and the sun makin’ haste over Washington, D.C.

4. 2012 Bergstrom Old Stones chardonnay. It’s $22 Oregon chardonnay and I didn’t want to share it with my girlfriend’s family, which I was supposed to do, after I had m first sip. All this for twenty three bucks: limestone, saline, Meyer lemon, vanilla custard, Starfruit and Granny Smith apple tucked into finely balanced medium bodied wine. Full tasting note.

5. 2014 Galil Mountain Viognier. Another impressive value from Israel, this is a go-to medium bodied viognier for $15 that has enough acidity to please the refined palate and enough sweet tropical flavors to please the Millennial drinker. Huge recommendation as a wedding wine. Full tasting note.