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.


Decoy

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.

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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.

Rioja Alta

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

Grapes

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.

Maipu wineyards

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