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+.

2018’s Most Memorable Wines – and Moment

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Public Service Announcement: Never hold the glass by the bulb! Picture credit: videoblocks.com

Dodie Smith wrote 101 Dalmatians, so she has game. However, she also said that “[contemplation] seems about the only luxury that costs nothing.” This contemplative piece, about luxury, is only possible because time and money was spent. But was it ever worth it. This is the third year in a row that Good Vitis offers a list of its top wines for a year-in-wine review, and there are some great wines on the list.

Last year’s post included the magic dozen wines that we believed would stick in our memory longer than any others tried in that year. While being remarkably memorable remains a requirement to make the 2018 list, we’re also keeping with the tradition of doing the annual retrospective a bit differently each time. This year, we’re adding categories. Fifteen wines have been spread out over seven categories. On an administrative note, if a wine is hyperlinked it will take you to the Good Vitis post in which it is featured. Let’s do this.

Vineyard of the Year

Zena Crown Vineyard in the Eola-Amity AVA in Oregon has consistently produced some of Oregon’s most impressive wine for the Good Vitis palate. The 115 acre vineyard, planted in the early 2000s, was more recently purchased by Jackson Family Wines who created a winery, called Zena Crown, to showcase its qualities. Additionally, some fruit from the vineyard is sold to several notable wineries, including Beaux Frères and Soter, not to mention the wineries listed below. The vineyard is planted on a southwest-facing slope of volcanic soil that begins at 300 feet of elevation and tops out at 650 feet. It is divided into 17 blocks, each of which has a unique combination of gradient, aspect and soil depths. Vines include a variety of pinot noir clones. All told, the vineyard is quite capable in producing a diversity of pinot noir wine.

In 2018, we were lucky enough to try a variety of wines made from Zena Crown Vineyard’s goods, including some tasted in the region. Not all were scored, but several were written about on Good Vitis, including:

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

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

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2015 Penner Ash Zena Crown vineyard pinot noir – Using fruit from [Lynn Penner-Ash’s] exclusive contract on block 8 of the esteemed Zena Crown vineyard, it’s a downright impressive and captivating wine: meaty on the nose, juicy on the palate and fun and serious at the same time. The diversity of flavors and aromas include graphite, salt and pepper, iron, baking spice, mint and a cornucopia of red and black fruit that are silky in their sweetness. It has a decadence to it, however the retained acid prevents it from actually becoming sappy or heavy. What a wine. Unscored, but worthy of mid-90s.

Try this Wine, Damnit!

In 2018 Good Vitis launched a new series of posts called “Try this Wine.” Each post in the series spotlights a single wine that we believe has one or two compelling reasons for people to try. We kicked the series off with one of our favorite white wines, Smith-Madrone’s riesling. For this 2018 retrospective, however, it’s the 2012 Palacios Bierzo Villa de Corullón that stood out among its Try this Wine peers because of its wow factor.

The Palacios wasn’t a sample nor the current release. We purchased it in 2014 and decided to sit on it for a bit to allow further development, and boy are we glad we did. It was one of 2018’s most delicious and pretty wines. While 2012 is one of the estate’s best vintages, we’re told that the 2014, which is more widely available today, could well be even better. Please, try this wine.

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2012 Descendientes de José Palacios Bierzo Villa de Corullón – Such a gorgeous, elegant wine at a great stage on its life. It’s identity just screams “pastel.” The nose and palate supremely balance florals and dark earthy notes: pink, purple and yellow flowers; wet top soil; graphite; and darkly tanned tobacco leaf. It also features mountain strawberry, blood orange, dark cherry and pomegranate seed. The fine grained tannins add pleasure to the mouthfeel, and the acid is in perfect balance. A truly impressive wine. Decant for an hour now, and consume over the next three years. 95 points.

Well-aged Wine is the Bee’s Knees

Most wine isn’t made to get better with age. Not serious age, at least. In our mind, though, the best examples of magical wine come by way of age-worthy wine that’s been allowed to mature for the right amount of time. While “the right amount of time” can legitimately vary based on preference, as we’ve experimented with older vintages, we’ve come to realize that, at least for our palate, the right amount of time is longer than 99% of people believe it is. We have several theories about why this might be, and the one we’re willing to bet on is that people don’t have the desire and patience to find out that they’ve been having some of their best wine too young.

That’s a real shame because it means people aren’t enjoying wine the way it is meant to be enjoyed. Not many winemakers will say so publicly, but it can be quite frustrating for them when their wines are consumed too early in their respective lives because they know their customers are not getting the best experience possible. We’re issuing a real challenge to our readers: find some seriously aged wine (10+ years old) and give it a try. For a particularly fun time, find a bottle from your birth year. Not all of you will love seriously old wine to the point of changing your habits, but some of you will. We promise. These are several of the older wines we had in 2018 that blew our minds.

The 2007 Full Pull & Friends chardonnay was a gamble. I bought it at the end of May, 2017 but didn’t receive it until late summer 2018. Full Pull is a virtual retailer out of Seattle that sells through email offers. Most of its wine comes from Washington State, and they’ve branched out into their own labels as well. Full Pull & Friends is effectively a shiner model (they purchase fully bottled wine and put their own label on it), which makes it rare within the shiner market as it’s actually good, serious wine (most shiners are inexpensive and underwhelming). It was a gamble purchase because of three factors that, in combination, raise some concern: Washington isn’t particularly known for its white wine, it was a decade old, and I couldn’t be guaranteed that it was stored properly for its entire life.

Lucky me, the gamble paid off as it turned out to be an amazing wine. It had an oxidative nose of marzipan, lemon curd, cardamom, orchid and pine nut. The full body was plush on the palate, but featured juicy acidity at the same time. It really was something else: cardamom, banana peel, vanilla custard, tangerine, Meyer lemon and a big dose of Marcona almond. In several ways it reminded me of a nicely aged Savennieres chenin blanc. Quite tasty and worth the time of whomever decided to hold this back. 93 points.

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The 2010 Copain chardonnay was also amazing

2006 Franz Hirtzberger Honivogl Smaragd gruner veltliner – We drank this with some good friends and didn’t take any notes. It was barely old enough to consider opening. We have a 2007 of this that is going to get another five-plus years of aging. High quality Smaragd gruner deserves a long rest because it rewards with amazing concentration, harmony and complexity. Hirtzberger is among our most favorite white wine producers from anywhere in the world, and when we find older vintages of it we rarely leave without making it ours.

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1995 Seven Hills Winery Merlot Klipsun Vineyard – Really fantastic tertiary development, this is Washington State history in a bottle that remains impressively fresh. It has an evergreen quality that caps off a highly developed merlot. The nose has sweet oak, vanilla, rich chocolate, spearmint and muddled maraschino cherry. It’s medium weight on the palate and is driven by a backbone of youthful acid, with a fully integrated tannin structure playing a support role. It offers sweet and toasted oak, hot chocolate, tart cherry, lavender and brioche. Something special. 93 points. Note: It’s been long enough that I don’t want to re-score it, but I’d put $20 on having underscored this wine by at least a point or two.

1986 Faustino Rioja I Gran Reserva – This is why good Rioja deserves aging. Nose and palate are full-on tertiary: the acid, oak and alcohol are perfectly integrated, mellowed and balanced. This is all about the essence of wine rather than the constituent parts. That said, here’s an attempt at the notes. Nose: cinnamon, lightly toasted oak, maraschino cherry, sweet peppermint and musty attic. Palate: sweet cherry, sweet leather, well-aged tobacco leaf, tangerine peel and peppermint. Stunning wine, drink now. 94 points.

1983 Chateau de Beaucastel Châteauneuf du Pape – No notes taken, this birth year wine was consumed on the author’s 35th birthday. While it was, like the author, about 10 years past its prime, it delivered complexity, fruit, earth and funk and was remarkable. It inspired one of Good Vitis’ most-read articles in 2018, When is Wine Conceived?, which is a must-read for anyone looking for a birth year wine.

Bringing Back Real Rosé

The oversaturated rosé market is heavy with bad wine. The amount of pale salmon-colored wine with little to no flavor and overly sharp acid is so high that finding a good rosé of any color, especially the Provençial style that inspired the seemingly endless supply of flavorless salmon stuff, is incredibly hard. So much so, actually, that we avoided it in 2018, which was disappointing because one of 2017’s most memorable wines was a rosé.

So why are we about to feature two – yes, twice the 2017 total – rosés? Because we have awesome friends who made us try them. Both offer real substance, flavor and color; put another way, they are real wines. And if we’re honest, they are among the wines in this article most likely to be remembered for the longest period of time.

2017 Enfield Wine Co. Pinot Noir Foot Tread Heron Lake Vineyard – The nose has a lees quality to it, something almost malo about it, that adds intrigue, though it’s still quite clean. Strawberry and boysenberry round it out. It’s medium bodied, but the exquisite acid helps it maintain a light balance. The fruit is gorgeous, really quite pure: strawberry, sweet huckleberry and sweet plum dominate the palate, but the finish offers a wonderful combination of watermelon, white peach and kiwi. This is among the most substantive, interesting and complex rosés I’ve ever had. It’s just killer. 93 points. Note: if this weren’t a wine club only release, it would’ve earned a Try this Wine feature.

Old Westminster Rose Rarity No. 3 – We never took any formal notes on the multiple bottles of this one that we consumed, but it is a highly unusual wine. Old Westminster managed to make a rosé that is fresh, deeply layered and audacious without being over the top. From the winery website: This bold & savory rosé is a blend of 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Syrah and 33% Malbec produced in the saignée method. Fermented with wild yeast in stainless steel and subsequently washed over Cabernet Franc skins to macerate for four days. Aged sur lie in neutral French oak barriques for 18 months.

Appreciating Value

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The best value we came across in 2018 was the 2016 Château Peybonhomme-les Tours Le Blanc Bonhomme, which received its own Try this Wine feature. It’s not the easiest to find, but for around $20 you’re getting a $30-40 bottle of delicious white wine. Here’s the tasting note from the Try this Wine post: Gave this half an hour decant, and the nose really blossomed. Loads of endearing honeysuckle, orchid, mashed pear, rich lemon curd and candied orange peel. Very lovely nose. It is medium-bodied and round. The edges are just ever so gritty, which provides enhancing texture. The acid is nicely cut. Flavors hit close to the nose: honeysuckle, a big hit of pear, apricot and orange peel plus some great slate minerality. A very impressive wine. 91 points.

Something Really Different 

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I cover Maryland and Virginia for The Cork Report, so the hyperlink below goes to the story I wrote for them that includes these wines. King Family Vineyards, located outside Charlottesville, is a standard bearer for the region, but was a revelation for me in 2018. Its winemaker, Matthieu Finot, is a wizard with Virginia fruit and deeply knowledgeable. He is measured in his approach, but also enjoys being playful. The highly limited Small Batch Series is his creative outlet. Each wine produced with the Small Batch label is an experiment, an excuse for Matthieu to test uncommon winemaking methods like skin contact and no sulfur additions on high quality grapes. I was able to taste the skin contact viognier, dry petit mensang and whole cluster 2016 King Family Estate Small Batch Series cabernet franc. They are excellent wines in unusually interesting and fun ways.

A Story of Wine and Love

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It’s official. Credit: Nikolaichik Photo

2018 was a particularly magical year because I met and got married to my amazing – AMAZING – wife, Kayce. Our first date was February 3rd. We were engaged on April 27th. And on October 4th, we eloped in Iceland. In order to introduce the wine for this category, you’re going to have to endure a love story.

The weekend after our first date, Kayce visited two friends in San Francisco. On the Tuesday before her Friday flight, she mentioned that they were interested in visiting Napa for a day while she was there. I offered to connect her with a few of my favorite wineries. The next day, as I sat down to email the wineries, I realized that I needed to be able to introduce her as more than just a friend to justify the ask. So, I shot her a quick text asking if, for this purpose, I could refer to her as my girlfriend. In my mind I knew that we were heading in that direction, so I didn’t feel bad about the temporary fib. She responded that yes, that would be fine, but also that we should talk about whether that moniker was appropriate outside this context. We had that discussion the very next day – five days after our first date – and decided that it fit. Wine had prompted the discussion.

One of the wineries that I contacted was Rombauer, which I’ve written about several times in Good Vitis, including a piece in January of 2018 about a visit to Napa in 2017 that included a stop at Rombauer. It was my first time tasting the winery’s top wines, which included the 2016 Proprietor Select chardonnay. Here’s what I said about it:

“The show-stopper, though, was the Proprietor Selection. Ultimately a selection of fruit from Green Acres, Buchli, Home Ranch and Brown Ranch vineyards, it includes only the barrels [winemaker] Richie [Allen] selected as the very best. The only note I wrote down was this: ‘Holy shit – more than the sum of its parts. The depth of flavor and concentration is flat-out off the charts.’ It’s one of those wines that in order to take it all in, you can’t really notice any particular element because the experience of the whole is too overwhelming.”

When I reserved the Rombauer visit for Kayce and her friends, I suggested that she read the post about my Napa trip so she had some background on Rombauer. I asked Rombauer to make sure that they poured the Proprietor Select chardonnay for Kayce and her friends. And, I asked Kayce to call me after she had tried it. When she did, I asked her if she remembered what I had written about the wine in the article, and she had. And then I told her that what I had said about the wine applied to my feelings towards her: that there is so much goodness in her that I cannot fully appreciate her in just one moment. To say she appreciated the remark is an understatement.

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Rombauer’s Proprietor Selection on the black sand beach of Vík, Iceland. Credit: Nikolaichik Photo

When we choose to elope in Iceland, we decided to bring a few bottles of wine with us just in case we couldn’t find wines we loved once we got there. After all, we were getting married and wine is a mutual love: we should drink our favorite stuff. We were able to fit three bottles into our check on, which included a bottle of Rombauer Proprietor Select to open after exchanging our vows at the black sand beach in Vík. Once the vows were done, and our photographer had taken the picture of the unopened bottle of wine that I had requested, we popped the cork and took a few pulls from the bottle. After returning to Reykjavik and doing the official ceremony, we enjoyed the remainder of the bottle, properly, in wine glasses. Some couples have a song, a restaurant, a whatever. We have some of that stuff, but we also have a wine: the Rombauer Proprietor Select chardonnay.

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Exchanging vows in Víc. Credit: Nikolaichik Photo

We’d like to thank all our readers and supporters for a successful 2018. We are already working on a number of pieces for 2019 and are excited for the year ahead. Please continue to follow our work and tell your family and friends about it. We’ll do our best not to let you down.

The Black Magic of Winemaking: Tannins

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Credit: Gerald Hoberman, Getty

Last December, I took a trip to Napa and visited a ton of wineries throughout the Valley. Though not the purpose of the trip, it became a study in tannins. The experience reminded me just how impactful vineyard and winemaking decisions can be on a wine’s profile. The largest differences in the wines came in the size, shape and structure of tannin, and I realized I should know more about why those differences exist because I clearly had preferences about them.

To learn more, I reached out to three winemakers whose wines I love in large part because of their tannins: Richie Allen of Rombauer in Napa, Shane Moore of Zena Crown and Gran Moraine in the Willamette Valley, and David Larson of Soos Creek in Washington State. Richie’s Napa cabernets are highly structured wines, but were also among the very small minority that do not overload the tannins. I found this remarkable because most of the Napa cabs I had, including many from esteemed wineries that receive (incorrectly, I believe) higher scores from the big reviewers than do Richie’s, hit you upside the head with dense, chewy and often times coarse tannins that prematurely dry the mouth and kill the flavor.

Shane’s pinots (and chardonnays) from Oregon are complex and rewarding at every price point they hit, and though one doesn’t talk about tannin in the same way with pinot as is done with other red varietals, I’ve found his pinots to achieve captivating textures.

For more information on Richie, Shane and their wines, you can read about my visit to Rombauer here, a profile of Richie here, and a profile of Shane here.

David’s Bordeaux-varietal wines from Washington, a state whose climate can develop ample tannin, go through a wonderful evolution as they age. He’ll tell you that he prefers at least five years on most of his reds, if not ten, largely because it takes time for the tannins to resolve. When his wines hit their target balance, they offer classic Washington flavors combinations and textures. I recently had an 8-year old Soos Creek and loved it.

The first thing to know about tannin is, well, what it is. Tannins are chemical compounds, and the term originates from leather tanning, as leather workers used them to preserve the leather. Tannins bind proteins together. The physical sensation we associate with tannins in our mouths when drinking a wine is the actual process of proteins being bound in real time.

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Phenolic tannin. Credit: WineLand Media

The next thing to know it is that the term “tannin” encompasses two components: anthocyanin and phenolics. Anthocyanin is the color in the wine, and it’s the main focus for Richie at Rombauer because “it’s a very good indication of quality: the higher the color, the higher the potential quality.” Color is finite; there is only so much color in fruit and only that amount available can be extracted. Phenolics, of which there is usually higher quantities than anthocyanin, are chemical compounds, of which there are potentially hundreds of varieties.

Richie aims for full extraction of color. If he can hit that, then he and his team can build the desired tannin structure because there’s usually more phenolics than they need. Put another way, if they have really high anthocyanin then they can push the tannin structure without throwing the wine out of balance. However, if the anthocyanin is moderate and they try to push the tannin structure by ramping up phenolic extraction, they end up with a highly tannic wine that has a hole in the mid palate, something Richie and his fellow Aussies refer to as “donut wine” (lots of tannin around the sides and nothing in the middle). Shane, too, is focused on color. He describes one of his priorities as achieving good “color stabilization,” which is another term for the same thing: the bounding or conjugating of anthocyanin and phenolics into “complexes.”

Tannins, as David explained, “are very specific to each batch of grapes. Like everything else in winemaking there’s a lot of variability between varieties, vineyards, and even blocks within vineyards.” David is looking for great mouthfeel. His ideal tannins are the kind “that caress the mouth. It’s one of the best attributes of a wine, but hard to achieve. I’m looking for abundant but fine grained tannins, which create elegant wines.” These, as will be explained below, are long-chain tannins formed by the binding of anthocyanin and phenolics.

When speaking to a pinot noir producer, you enter a different tannin realm. Pinot’s tannins are very different than any other varietal because physiologically, the tannins and structure are unique. “You have skin tannins, your anthocyanins, and then you have seed tannins, and not a whole lot of other phenolics involved like you do with cabernet or the Bordeaux varietals,” Shane said. “This makes both tannin extraction and the mouth feel very different.” The differences in tannin that we experience in drinking pinot noir are unique tannin experiences when compared to other reds.

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Credit: EnoViti

Anthocyanin is developed in the vineyard and lives in the skins of the berries (the term used to refer to the grapes). Richie looks at many things in trying to influence color accumulation in the skins. If the berries get too large, color gets diluted. Too many berries on the vine can lead to less color. Sun exposure is key: too much sun and the berries get sun burnt; not enough sun and they don’t develop much anthocyanin. “Think of anthocyanin as sun block,” Shane explained. “If you’re giving the berries less sun, they make less sun block.”

This makes canopy (the leaves) management critical. The act of picking leaves from the vines, called “leafing,” is part of this. In Shane’s vineyards, they begin leafing right after flowering and fruit set in most cases. This approach is suited for the cooler climate of Oregon where sufficiently warm sun, needed to develop anthocyanin, isn’t always plentiful. “More sun produces more and riper anthocaynins for us,” Shane noted.

Richie focuses on berry weight and size. Smaller berries tend to have higher anthocyanin levels. That said, Richie has his outliers. “I have a couple of vineyards that, on paper, should be terrible when you look at the numbers, but when you taste them, they’re really good and the numbers don’t match. I always say, you can graph it and draw your correlation line, but there are always outliers, and that’s why we taste.”

Shane expressed a strong desire to produced “balanced crops.” If there is too much fruit hanging, “you often get more green tannins, meaning seed, or short-chain, tannins.” Over the years the average crop of Willamette pinot noir has settled into the 2.5-3.5 tons per acre zone, “and when you hit that tonnage,” Shane says, “you’re ripening your seeds, and ripe seeds equal ripe tannins and you’re not extracting shorter tannins; you’re getting longer chain tannins and that’s your desired starting point” in achieving good texture and mouthfeel. “Balanced vines are going to give you ripe tannins and balanced wines.”

A common theme among these three winemakers is that they approach winemaking looking primarily at the structural elements of the wine, not flavors or aromas. Shane’s approach is to make wines “texturally” because texture shows through in the wine for a longer period of time than other elements and “is more of the wine itself then flavors or aromatics. Texture is the most stable part of the wine.” Therefore, when Shane extracts tannins, he’s doing it in the context of achieving that desirable texture.

Richie has been accused of making wine by numbers, and he admits that to a certain extent, he does. “All I’m doing is stacking the deck in my favor. It’s like counting cards – you’re working the probability to get a desired outcome. That’s all that we’re doing, and with fruit that’s $10,000 or more per ton, you want to make sure you nail it every time. In high end winemaking, you can’t screw it up one year and say, well, we’ll do it better next year. That doesn’t fly.”

Winemakers can’t rely on taste alone in the tannin context because of the presence of sugar during fermentation. “The reason we’re so interested in the numbers is when the wines are fermenting and you still have sugar, you can’t taste or feel tannin in your mouth. It’s all hidden by the sugar,” Richie told me. “So the only way to see if you’re heading in the right direction is to run analysis. You don’t know if you’ve gotten all the tannin out, you don’t know what the tannin level is when it’s at even three Brix. You can’t taste it. And if you keep pumping it over and you overshoot that mark, it’s too late. You can use strippers [like egg whites or gelatin] to lean the tannins, but you can’t just strip tannin without getting rid of stuff you want to keep. Fining agents are not as selective as they’re portrayed. The analysis is a good indicator of potential quality, though it doesn’t replace actually tasting either.”

David strives to balance alcohol, tannin, fruit, oak and acid. “This is largely a function of the grapes you get,” he says. In Washington, David believes the most impactful adjustment to make to find the sweet spot in the balance is tweaking sugar levels. “It matters a great deal because it determines the alcohol level, and I want a relatively low-alcohol wine.” For age worthy wines – read high(ish) tannin and high(ish) acid – alcohol is the sticking point because while tannins and acids soften with age, alcohol remains exactly the same its entire life. A wine with great tannin and acid at bottling will fall out of balance with time if the alcohol is too high.

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Credit: Wine Folly

Fermentation is a key phase for tannin development, even though, as noted above, you can’t detect the tannins by taste, because, as David explains, “the higher the temperature the more tannin extraction you get. The longer the juice stays on the skins, the more extraction of tannin (up to a point). The tannins will start to soften as they get longer.” He starts his fermentations off at usually around 65 degrees and allows them to creep up slowly to the mid to upper-80s. This translates into fermentations usually lasting around 20 days, though they’ve gone as long as 30. He added that the shape and size of the fermenter matters as well in that it determines the juice to solids ratio as well as the flow, or interaction, of the juice with the solids.

Shane approaches fermentation with temperatures that are considered on the lower side for pinot noir. Whereas most are toping top out at around 86-90 degrees, Shane doesn’t go above 78-80 degrees. Temperatures matter for tannin extraction – warmer temperatures help to extract heavier tannins. Therefore, if he’s getting a higher extraction than desired, he will lower the temperature, and vice versa.

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Punching down the cap. Credit: Willamettewines.com

Management of the cap, meaning all of the solid bits that float to the top during fermentation, also plays a big role because the cap is where the tannins – anthocyanin and phenolics alike – originate. The two most common ways to manage the cap are “pump overs,” which involves keeping the cap where it is while pumping the juice below it up and onto the cap, and “punch downs,” which refers to pushing the cap into the juice. The former adds more oxygen to the juice, which functions to elongate the chain of the tannins. As Shane describes it, short chain tannins are coarser drying tannins whereas longer chain tannins are “umami tannins and not as drying.” Shane uses pump overs early on to elongate the tannins as those are his preferred variety. Once fermentation is over, so too is grape-based tannin development.

Phenolics drive more of the textural element than anthocyanin. When there is an excess of phenolics, winemakers strive for high levels of bound anthocyanin and phenolics because it helps to reduce coarseness. I asked Richie if determining the chains by taste is as simple as, if the wine is coarse, it’s heavy on the short chain, and if it’s smooth, it’s heavy on the long chain. “More or less yes,” he said, adding that I was “basically correct, [but] when you start to look at the types of tannins and their interactions it becomes very complicated and our understanding is in its infancy. Thus is the art of winemaking.”

Untoasted wood chips can help in this department, as do additives like enological tannin. Richie has played around with these methods in trials, and while they’ve offered some interesting outcomes, he hasn’t felt like it’s boosted quality and hasn’t deployed it in production Rombauer. However, if using highly cropped, lower quality fruit, the use of chips or enological tannin can really help develop a wine of superior quality. “I’ve known people who do it really, really well,” Richie said. “And I’ve done it myself [at other wineries]. If you don’t understand how to use exogenous tannins correctly, you’re really limiting your ability to make quality wine. Especially in the cheaper bracket. At the higher end, you don’t need to do it.”

I asked him if it’s possible to pick up on the use of these tools in a wine by taste, and he questioned whether one could. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I don’t have the ability to do it and I don’t know of anyone who does. However, to make wines taste more palatable texturally and give them more palatable mouthfeels, especially in the lower price tier, their use is a sure way to improve your quality.” Dispelling any notion that it’s a New World thing, Richie explained that it’s very common in Europe, and referred to an unnamed friend in France who “is really well versed in how to use enological tannins and phenols to build wines to make them significantly better in that lower price bracket, and he’s really, really good at it. If I were making $10 wine, I’d be calling him to learn more.”

Measuring anthocyanin levels in the vineyard is challenging, and naturally Richie and his team have found that the most labor intensive way to measure gives them the best data. I promised not to spill the beans on this method, but after the explanation it’s understandable why those not using it are a step or two behind. These measurements, however, don’t necessarily mean anything because there is often a difference between the amount of anthocyanin in the vineyard and the amount that can be extracted in the winery. Determining the factors that drive that difference would be a holy grail in winemaking, and one that Richie is chasing in earnest. Richie does not believe that any of the theories about anthocyanin extraction hold up to scientific scrutiny, though he believes this is the direction high end red wine is going: “how you maximize color accumulation and color extraction drives wine quality.”

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Credit: Wine Folly

How one extracts anthocyanin from the berries depends on the varietal. “You always hear about cold soaks with pinot noir, and that’s not something you really hear about with many other red varieties. Syrah, maybe. Some winemakers working with Bordeaux and Rhone varietals are doing cold soaks. Nebbiolo, too. But when it comes to red varietals, when you hear cold soak you think pinot,” Shane said. David is one of those doing cold soaks with Bordeaux varietals. During that process, both make no qualm about using appropriate levels of sulfur, which they find critical to tannin development because it helps to stabilize the anthocyanin complexes in both stages.

The goal as Shane explains it is to build stable anthocyanin-phenolic complexes by bringing as many together as possible to form the longest chains they can “because these are the good tasting tannins.” Oxygen, as explained in the paragraph above on cap management, is critical for this to occur. Most red varietals require doses of oxygen exposure for these chains to form and grow longer. If you’ve ever had a reductive syrah, for example, chances are it was not racked (a method for adding oxygen to the wine post-fermentation) because syrah requires a relatively high amount of oxygen to avoid reduction. In a reductive wine the tannin complexes are scavenging for limited or non-existent oxygen in the wine, which reduces the vibrancy of the wine’s aromas and flavors. This is why, when one aerates a reductive wine, it can snap out of its reductive state.

Pinot is unique among red varietals in that it has a naturally high anthocyanin-phenol ratio. Therefore, if it’s exposed to sufficient oxygen, it does a great job on its own of building beautifully tasting tannins. “Somehow,” Shane noted, “they figured this out over 1,000 years ago in Burgundy. If you start with great pinot fruit and age it in French oak, which breathes perfectly for the varietal, and don’t mess too much with it, you get great wine.” He continued, “once it’s in barrel, all you need is once-a-month topping and the wines won’t go reductive.”

When Shane gets his pinot harvest into the winery and destems, he’s aiming to maintain whole berries (he destems roughly 80% of his clusters) to allow for a longer cold soak. “Crushed grapes tend to ferment faster because, I think, it releases more nutrients [for the yeast to feast on].” Whole berry fermentation allows for maximum anthocyanin extraction while protecting the seeds longer before their harsher and more abundant tannins begin to enter the juice. “Pinot noir is a low tannin wine in general. Almost all your tannins are in your seeds, and it’s also a relatively low anthocyanin grape.” With that in mind, Shane does long cold soaks (~5 days for Gran Moraine and ~8-10 days for Zena Crown) to maximize anthocyanin extraction before fermentation “so you can really control tannin [phenolics] extraction during fermentation using punch downs, pumpovers and temperature, the principle being that seed tannins are highly extractable in an aqueous alcohol environment (alcohol dissolved in water), whereas you don’t need alcohol to extract anthocaynins.” Since there is no alcohol in the cold soak, there’s no risk in extracting phenolics while anthocyanin is seeping into the juice.

Richie describes the profile they seek at Rombauer as an “iron fist in a velvet glove,” which is driven by the color and phenolic binding. Wines cannot achieve a high level of binding unless there’s a lot of color already in the wine, which makes it the limiting factor in driving quality if you follow Richie’s logic. When Rombauer does in-house trials, they look at the free anthocyanin, bound anthocyanin and phenolics [a.k.a. complexes], and they find that more often than not, the wines with the highest bound anthocyanin are the ones they score the highest in double blind tastings.

Quality wine evolves with age, and to many palates it improves over time. I asked Richie about older wines and why the color loss during aging didn’t necessarily lead to losses of flavor and structure. He explained that bound color, which tastes good, is stable and resists oxidation and changes in pH. Unbound color that exists in wine is unstable, and as wine ages it’s the unbound color that drops out while the bound color remains. Therefore, a wine with a higher level of bound color is going to keep its color, and its desirable flavors, longer in the bottle.

Referring back to his holy grail of winemaking, Richie noted that “tannin is kind of like the black magic of winemaking at the moment, and not everyone understands it. A lot of high end wineries run [the data], but they don’t actually do anything with it because they don’t understand it. They run it because it’s the latest cool thing to do in winemaking. ‘What tannins do you have?’ It’s like, ‘what does it matter? What are you going to do with them?’ If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, the data is useless.” Shane doubled down on the difficulty of understanding tannins. “I took a whole graduate level course on tannin chemistry. It’s incredibly complicated and possibly the most difficult college course I took. I think it was called “The Biochemistry and Physiology of Horticultural Products” or something, and we still have open questions about tannins.”

Where our understanding of tannins goes from here is up to people like Richie, Shane and David who make it a focus of their winemaking. I do think it’s important, though, too, for consumers to educate themselves and maybe even do a bit of purchasing based on their tannin preferences. I would sure love more winemakers to focus on developing those long chain complexes.

 

Good Vitis’ 2017 Tastemakers Part 1

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I did a lot of this in 2017, and really enjoyed it in large part due to the 2017 Tastemakers

I realize I’ve never fully explained on Good Vitis why I started the blog, but this post is evidence that it’s been working. In 2013 and 2014 I was able to intern at a Virginia winery and, between the two vintages, participate in every stage of the winemaking process at least once. Following that fantastic experience, I looked for ways to remain engaged with the industry to continue my education, and in the Fall of 2016 started Good Vitis with the hope that it would become successful enough to attract samples, industry connections and event invitations through which my education could continue.

Fast forward to the end of 2017 and there’s evidence that with building it, they’ve come. Samples, event invitations and winery visit invitations have rolled in at a decent pace and dramatically expanded the exposure I’ve had to new wine, new experiences and new knowledge. The most enjoyable benefit of the blog’s success, though, is the people it’s allowed me to meet. I’ve made some great friends, and, for the purposes of this post, met some people who have taught me a lot about wine and influenced my palate.

These are Good Vitis’ Top Tastemakers of 2017, meaning they are the people who most influenced how I think about and approach wine. They also happen to be pretty cool people, and all produce wine that I can’t recommend enough. Even more than that, they are people I suggest visiting if you’re in their neck of the woods. What follows, listed in no particular order, is Part 1: short profiles of three people, beginning with a personal introduction and then their responses to my questionnaire sent to each.

Erica Orr

EricaOrr

Having been a big fan of Baer Winery for a long time (her 2010 Arctos claimed the #8 spot on my Most Memorable Wines of 2017), I knew Erica through her wine before I ever met her. When I had the 2010 Arctos this Summer, I posted a review on social media and then featured it in a post. Erica reached out to thank me for the review, and we started a correspondence about Baer wine and, when I learned about her chenin blanc project, that wonderful white varietal as well.

In August, when I was home in Seattle, I visited her office where we talked shop and I learned about the full breadth of her endeavors, which include both winemaking and enology consulting. Her passion is obvious, knowledge expansive, zeal contagious, and wine incredible. The walls of her office are filled with maps of wine regions from around the world, places she’s explored on foot. If you follow her on social media, you see the self-exploration effort is pretty routine for her, actually, as she shares what she’s tasting. Erica never seems to rest, and she’s always learning. Like, always. She’s an inspiration for me in this sense, motivating me to make sure I’m not relying on what I think I already know. She puts a lot into her work, and it comes through in the bottle.

  1. Winery and role: Orr Wine Lab, enologist; winemaking consultant for Baer Winery, Guardian Cellars, Orr Wines.
  2. Number of years in the wine business: 19.
  3. Previous wineries/roles: enologist at Rudd Estate; harvest intern at Domaine Dujac, Cain Vineyard, Yering Station, Corison Winery.
  4. What got you into the wine business: I randomly met winemaker Aaron Pott at a bar in San Francisco in 1998 and he told me about his experiences working at wineries around the world and the winemaking program at Davis.
  5. Why you choose the route/role you did: Education and formal training are super important but so is learning by doing.
  6. One sentence description of your approach: “A classic style for the modern table” is my back-label text – I want to be literate in the great wines of the world while making authentically delicious wines that are true to the place they are grown.
  7. Accomplishments you’re most proud of: My chenin blanc poured by the glass at Walrus and the Carpenter in Seattle and Baer Ursa making Wine Spectator’s Top 100 twice.
  8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve):  I want to learn more about how wine changes over time especially in terms of determining when a bottling should be released.
  9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: I hope to be crafting and tasting delicious wines together with colleagues and friends I admire.
  10. Top-3 bucket list wines: These are wines that changed my life: 1995 Cain Five, 2010 Merriman Columbia Valley Chenin blanc and 2007 DRC Batard-Montrachet.

Rick Rainey

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When I first met Rick, it was late afternoon on a cool, windy and clear day at his winery up the hill from Lake Seneca. We rolled up in our car and there he was, a vision in shorts, a fleece and boots. #SoooFLX. My friend and I were in pants and sweaters, with jackets within arms’ length reach. #SoNotFLX. Over the following three hours, Rick dropped serious vineyard and winemaking knowledge, regaled us with numerous funny stories, and poured killer rieslings and pinots.

As I wrote in the post about the visit, Rick and crew have captured the Finger Lakes – and Central New York – in a bottle, somehow infusing the people and culture of the region into the juice. I only spent a year living in Syracuse, but I could recognize it, and it’s something special. I’ve lived in four states and five countries, and nowhere did I experience such a strong sense of camaraderie among communities.

This is partly because the community extends to include the land; there’s a real commitment to it in Central New York regardless of what one does or where in the region they live. Forge Cellars is trying to produce the best Finger Lakes wines they can, and they’re helping to strengthen the community – and its connection to the land – along the way.

  1. Winery and role: Forge Cellars, Partner and General Manager
  2. Number of years in the wine business: 23
  3. Previous wineries/roles: My day job is working for an importer distributor. In that role I have been a sales person, a brand manager (French buyer), Director of Sales Education and currently a Sales Manager. Previously I worked in the restaurant trade in Philadelphia and for Chat. Lafeyette Reneau in the Finger Lakes.
  4. What got you into the wine business: The challenge. History, science, culture, joy all wrapped up in one product.
  5. Why you choose the route/role you did: The route – because the wine business in the U.S. was so young 20 years ago nobody really knew what requirements you should have. It allowed anyone with passion in. The role – at Forge I am interested in all facets of the business. I enjoy what happens in the cellar, I like guiding the strategy in the vineyards and I even like looking at how we can be a better business. It makes sense that I am the “general” manager then.
  6. One sentence description of your approach: I will borrow it from Louis’ [Barruol] father “first you have discipline then you have artistry.” I feel like my job is to have an eye always towards the discipline so that we can all be as creative as possible.
  7. Accomplishment you’re most proud of: Starting a winery in an emerging region from nothing with little financial resources and making it to the WS Top 100 five vintages into this amazing journey. Believe it or not, I also enjoy when writers come to the winery, taste the wines and “get it.” That truly makes me happy.
  8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): Everywhere. The joy of this is that you can improve and must improve every day. For instance, I moved a hose hook this weekend down 12 inches because I noticed Alex (who works in the cellar) had to struggle to put the hose back. If she struggles then perhaps she doesn’t put it back, it doesn’t go back then maybe somebody trips and on and on. I enjoy the constant evolution.
  9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: Exactly what I am doing now. I hope we have a stable winery that challenges us but brings everyone joy that works there. We are very lucky to be in such a dynamic place to make wine.
  10. Top-3 bucket list wines: Raveneau Chablis (I have a six pack in my office…it is calling to me), St. Cosme Cote-Rotie or Hermitage and Chateau Yquem.

Lisa Hinton

Lisa Hinton

Lisa is the winemaker at Old Westminster Winery, which I’ve raved about twice on these pages (most recently here). I’ve had a lot of fun spending time at the winery where I’ve witnessed that Old Westminster really is a family effort focused on putting Maryland on the world wine map.

Maryland isn’t an easy place to make wine. The climate is highly varied, both in the sense of microclimates and weather from year-to-year. Drew does an impressive job of bringing quality fruit to Lisa, and Lisa turns it into great wine. When I tell people I could pour them a glass of Old Westminster wine blind and they’d recognize the superb quality without knowing where to point geographically, let’s just say most don’t believe me. For those with whom I’ve been able to do this, I haven’t been wrong once. With more consumer awareness, I know Old Westminster can go from producing world class wine, which they already do, to making a name for identifiable Maryland terroir as well.

A lot of this, obviously, is due to Lisa’s talents. When you witness Lisa running the winery, it’s clear why the wine comes out so good. I normally wonder around the crush pad with Drew, and I feel like we’re a little lost sometimes – “hey Lisa, um, where’s the franc?” Indulging us, she yells out a tank number, but doesn’t really break stride as she moves around with a purpose. She knows what she wants to do, what she’s doing and what she needs to do next, and she’s doing this while marshaling a crew of cellar hands, interns and groupies who, like me, flock to the winery. It’s sort of like watching Chris Paul run a basketball team: Lisa can do it all.

  1. Winery and Role: Winemaker & Owner of Old Westminster Winery
  2. Number of years in the wine business: 7
  3. Previous Wineries/Roles: My siblings and I founded Old Westminster fresh out of college in 2011, so most of my experience is there. I also had the honor of working as a cellar hand at Patz & Hall and Bedrock Wine Co. in Sonoma, CA.
  4. What got you into the wine business: In 2009, family discussions began on “how to preserve our farm and put the land to work.” We were captivated by the idea of planting a vineyard. We all agreed that growing and making wine that reflects our land was an exciting proposition. The ensuing year was full of homework: reading, traveling, listening, planning, and tasting. We sought out producers from around the world who were making noteworthy wines. We quickly identified what we believed to be the common threads of success: a good vineyard site, thoughtful farming practices, attention to detail in the cellar, and a ceaseless desire to improve. In the fall of 2010, our research prompted a trip to the west coast. One spectacular evening while sitting on a terrace overlooking the vineyards of Saint Helena, we decided to chase our collective dream wholeheartedly. Upon returning to Maryland, that dream quickly materialized into a mission and a plan: To craft distinctive wines with a sense of place.
  5. Why you chose this role: As a chemist by education, my role of winemaker developed out of my skill set – conducting experiments, being thoughtful, and working really hard. I get to use my education while pursuing my dream to produce world class wines in Maryland.
  6. One sentence description of your approach: My goal is to produce balanced wines that reflect vineyard, variety, and vintage while experimentally challenging “the norms” of winemaking.
  7. Accomplishment you’re most proud of: My favorite achievement to this point was having our Petillant Naturel Albarino featured in Punch. I also take a lot of pride in being a successful female in a competitive, male-dominated industry.
  8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): I tend to get so excited about a new innovation that I change too many variables at once. I need to learn patience in order to conduct more beneficial experiments.
  9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: I want to be a thought leader in wine production by creating Maryland wines that stand among the best in the world.
  10. Top-3 bucket list wines: Wow, this is a hard one – I just genuinely enjoy tasting any low manipulation wines from around the world.

Part 2 of Good Vitis’ 2017 Tastemakers will be posted the week between Christmas and New Years.

Living Legends of Washington Wine

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The term “first ballot hall of famer” is a sports term. I don’t know about professional sports leagues outside the United States, but in America each of the major sports leagues has their own hall of fame, and every year new members are selected by a group of electors. Many hall of famers don’t make the cut the first year they’re eligible, but those who do are called “first ballot hall of famers” and the phrase is often used to refer to active players who will undoubtedly be elected in their first year of eligibility. Last Friday I attended a Washington wine event outside Seattle and the room was stocked with first ballot hall of Washington wine famers. I fanboyed pretty hard.

The occasion was The Auction of Washington Wines. Spread out over several days and several events, it is christened by Wine Spectator as the fourth largest charity auction in the United States. This year was record-setting for the auction, raising over $4.1 million for the Seattle Children’s Hospital and Washington State University’s Viticulture and Enology Program. The event I attended, the Private Barrel Auction, was a trade-only event that a few media types were invited to attend as well.

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Twenty wineries each donated a barrel of wine to the auction, but the catch was that each barrel had to be a wine that was made specially for the auction and would not be made available to anyone other than the winning bidder, meaning these were unique barrels. We were treated to samples of each in the lead up to the auction, and clearly many of the winemakers had fun with the project. When an industry-leading winemaker gets to play with a barrel’s worth of world class fruit, the results can be good. When they know they’re putting their wine up against their friends and competitors in an auction where the participants are retailers and restauranteurs who are considering only the sellability of the wine, the motivation to perform skyrockets.

Real quick, because I know some readers are wondering, the following wineries participated: Force Majeure, Delille Cellars, Forgeron Cellars and The Walls (a collaboration), Mark Ryan, Va Piano, Col Solare, Long Shadows, L’Ecole No. 41, Fidelitas, Woodward Canyon, Sleight of Hand, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Quilceda Creek, Owen Roe, Januik, Pepper Bridge, Brian Carter, Leonetti, Dusted Valley and Betz. All of these, in one room at the same time, with the winemaker from each pouring their unique one-off projects. Holy crap, right? Exactly. Januik was our wonderful host for the tasting and lunch, which was prepared at their in-winery restaurant by their very impressive chefs using a range of local ingredients. We later transitioned to Chateau Ste. Michelle for the auction. Kudos to both for providing barrels and such generous hospitality.

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I made it through seventeen of the twenty wineries before lunch was served as I enjoyed talking to the winemakers not just about their barrels, but other topics as well, and couldn’t keep pace. The most magical moment came at Sleight of Hands when, after tasting my favorite wine of the day and catching up with one of wine’s most fun-loving personalities, Trey Busch, the legendary champion and producer of Washington wine Bob Betz stopped by to endorse Trey’s talents and have a sip of Busch’s wine with us. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity for a picture with the two of them.

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The author with Bob Betz (L) and Trey Busch (R)

The vast majority of the wines came from the 2016 vintage, which Owen Roe’s David O’Reilly told us began early. He has about 10 acres of cherries that he uses as his indicators of when the vitis will kick off, and in his 45 years he’s never seen it start so early. He braced for a really hot growing season, but by summer temperatures had regressed towards the mean. By the end of August, evening temperatures were in the 40s and harvest stalled. This gave the fruit extended hang time, preserving aromatics and flavors. The end result are wines lower in pH than normal with extremely deep colors (this was very evidence in the samples). He described the vintage as “unmistakably ripe, but every element sings at very high levels.” Rick Smalls of Woodward Canyon compared the vintage to those from the days of when he started his winery forty years ago, saying that now, across the industry, consumers are getting real senses of place in Washington wines as winemakers and vineyard managers learn more and more about their sites and fruit.

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L-R: Bob Betz, Ted Baseler, Rick Small, David O’Reilly

Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste Michelle Wine Estates, attributed this evolution in part to Washington State University’s (WSU) Viticulture and Enology Program, saying that when Michelle brought viticulturists onboard not that long ago, they needed five-plus years of training, whereas now, getting them out of WSU, “they’re turnkey.” Baseler, whose prescience of the Washington wine industry is well respected, predicted that in twenty to twenty-five years, the state would see an increase in planted acreage from the 60,000 it has today to 200,000 (nearing parity with today’s Napa). He also predicted a rise from today’s ~900 Washington wineries to 3,000. These are bold predictions, but given the state’s growth to this point, it’s not impossible if current consumer trends continue.

The vast majority of wines on offer were cabernet sauvignon-dominate, not surprising for Washington, which is best known for the varietal. The outliers included a 100% grenache dubbed “Duex Dames du Vin” produced in partnership by the female winemakers of Forgeron and The Walls, a very impressive 100% petit verdot from Mark Ryan, a Bordeaux blend featuring majority cabernet franc from Brian Carter, and 100% syrahs from Force Majeure, Sleight of Hand and Quilceda Creek.

All of the wines showed like barrel samples, which is to say far from complete integration and with dense, mouth-coating tannins. I’m continually impressed when I see highly descriptive notes from barrel samples as it’s a significant challenge to get into the complexities of young, brutish red wine. From a small but growing amount of first-hand experience, I still take barrel sample scores with a great deal of salt, but that said, there were some real standouts in this bunch.

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On the cabernet front, Long Shadow’s “Winemaker Selection” blend of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, malbec and merlot showed a lot of developing complexity and intrigue that, with ten-plus years, is going to be spectacular. Woodward Canyon’s 100% cabernet from 40-year old vines in Champoux Vineyard had a real presence with layers of savory flavors, cassis, blackberry, mocha and spice. Leonetti’s barrel was filled entirely with cabernet from block 7 in the Mill Creek Upland Vineyard. My first scribble is “oh my, good.” It’s dark, dark stuff with smoke, iodine and bacon that could be mistaken for a syrah at this stage, though it had the fruit, mocha, graphite and mineral core that one would expect from Walla Walla loam soils that I imagine will emerge more prominently and eventually dominate with time. Col Solare’s Estate Blend of 70% cabernet sauvignon clone 2 and 30% cabernet franc clone 214 offered refreshing herbaciousness and spice, and I imagine I’d enjoy this quite a bit in the future.

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The three standout wines, however, had no cabernet in them. Mark Ryan’s 100% petit verdot was perhaps the most complex varietally bottled PV I’ve had (and it’s still young!). The nose was wild and briary, the tannins lush and already polished. The acid drove this pretty wine, delivering pepper, violets and loads of purple fruit. Quilceda Creek, known for its many 100-point single vineyard cabernet sauvignons, had fun with syrah in an effort that fetched the highest bid at the auction. They delivered what they described to me as “a cabernet lover’s syrah,” evident in its structure and mouth feel. Yet, it offered smoked meat and iron. It was very cool and quite delicious. The wine of the night, though, was Sleight of Hand’s 100% syrah from Lewis Vineyard that was raised entirely in concrete egg. Super funky stuff, it’s my kind of syrah. It’s level of polish and integration was the most impressive aspect of any wine of the day given its youth, and it will develop with time into something truly special.

As if this born-and-bred Washingtonian needed more evidence that Washington wine rocks, this event provided ample amounts. What it did expose me to, though, for the first time at such a high level, is the amount of camaraderie that exists at the pinnacle of the industry. No one in the room believed that Washington wine had reached peak quality, and they’re working together as much as anyone could reasonably expect in what is really a foolish effort to summit that mountain. The reality is that the mountain keeps getting higher.

Many thanks to The Auction of Washington Wines for allowing me to attend, to the wineries and winemakers for putting in great efforts to raise money for worthy causes, and to my friend Jesse for taking some great pictures.

 

 

 

For the Love of Wine

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Caught in the embrace of one of the Cameron Winery Abbey Ridge pinot noirs reviewed below

I’m far, far behind on uploading wine reviews so I’m doing Good Vitis’ first post focused exclusively on reviews to clear out the closet. What follows is an assortment of wines that have nothing other than cohabitation in my cellar as their commonality. These are not samples, but wines I’ve collected over the years, those I’ve shared with friends and a few that I received as gifts.

It is, I must admit, a bit exciting to share wines that I selected myself as opposed to most of the wines I write about on Good Vitis, which I receive as samples, drink at wineries and media/industry events. While I’ve many great wines through those means, I’m almost always happiest drinking wines I’ve collected myself because they are wines that are of particular interest to me. It isn’t surprising then that several of the wines below are likely to be among my top wines of 2017, notably the 2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge, 2012 Cameron Clos Eletrique blanc, 2011 Domaine Fevre Montee de Tonnerre and the incredibly cool and impressive 2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ, which is a white wine made from the Pedro Ximenez grape that is normally used to make Sherry.

2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge (Oregon) – Another data point that Cameron is at the very front edge of domestic pinot noir. The nose is absolutely gorgeous, very floral and bursting with a cornucopia of sweet fruit. The body is rich but extraordinarily balanced and dancing light on its feet. The acid is lively and the pepper is sharp, while the cherries and cranberries burst with juiciness and richness. There are slightly bitter flower petals and a lot of Rose water. Absolutely fantastic wine sitting in a great place in its evolution. I can’t stop drinking this. 95 points. Value: A.

Backstory: Cameron’s Abbey Ridge means a few things to me. First, right now it’s the best pinot noir I’ve ever had. Second,I’ve had the 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2010 vintages in the last year and they’ve been proof that high quality pinot benefits from extended aging. And third, they’re incredibly hard to find, so for a wine hunter/chaser like myself there’s an extra thrill earned by simply finding a bottle, especially older vintages. At the moment this is my favorite winery.

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2007 DeLille Cellars Harrison Hill (Washington) – Smelling beautifully these days, offering aromas of cow blood, high toned cherries, red plums, soy sauce, graphite, smoke and a not insignificant amount of heat. The body holds an upright stature, it’s full bodied but the acid is strong and keeps it from becoming cloying. The alcohol is a bit hot here as well, though the tannic structure is gorgeous. The flavors are Earthy with a lot of iodine, graphite, smoke, garrigue, lavender, black plums, crushed blackberries and a lot of slate-y minerality. This is still a gorgeous, complex wine, but it was better a few years ago. The heat, which wasn’t there three years ago, tells me it’s starting to decline. I’d say drink up remaining bottles soon.  93 points. Value: B

Backstory: Delille’s Harrison Hill is the first great wine I ever had. For many years I would buy two of each vintage, age them 5-8 years before opening the first, and have one per year on my birthday. I still do this, except I stopped buy them in 2011 when the price shot up to $90 and I found myself gravitating away from Bordeaux-style blends. It may not be my favorite wine anymore, but it’s no less special.

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2011 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre (France) – Right from the uncorking this thing bursts with energy. The nose is spectacular, offering incredibly pure limestone, lemon and lime zest, chalkiness, parsley, mushroom funk, daisies and dandelions, and sea mist. The body is lush but offers great cut with impeccably balanced acid that zigs and zags with nervous energy and verve. This is why you drink Chablis, it makes life come to life. The abundant citrus is all sorts of zest and pithy goodness. The sea is very prevalent as are the bitter greens. It finishes with a really nice, modest sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the nervous acid. An amazing achievement considering the vintage, it’s drinking exceptionally well right now. 94 points. Value: A

Backstory: My favorite white wine, pound-for-pound, is Montee de Tonnerre chardonnay from Chablis. My favorite Montee de Tonnerre is made by William Fevre. I’ve finally figured out that extended aging of Chablis tends to lesson the nervous edge and wily verve that draws me to Chablis, and now I know how to maximize my Fevre investments. This 2011 was the final data point in that research project.

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2010 Soos Creek Ciel du Cheval Vineyard (Washington) – Classic Red Mountain wine. The expressive nose offers scorched Earth, loads of graphite, a little cola, orange rind, cocoa and high toned cherries. The full body offers fine, dusty tannins that are developing some polish as they get close to full integration. The acidity is bright and plays off the barely sweet red and black fruit, which is led by cherries, plums and pomegranate. There’s a lot of graphite, some saline and just a bit of smoke and mushroom. This is drinking nicely right now, I get the feeling it’s just starting to emerge of a long slumber. It has the tannic backbone and acid to go for at least a few more years, though I’m not sure the concentration will hold pace. An impressive 2010 that winemaker David Larson told me “was a challenging vintage and required all of my skills to make.” 92 points. Value: A

Backstory: Soos Creek is one of the very best values in America wine, especially for someone with a cellar and some patience. Many of their wines are sourced from  the upper pantheon Washington vineyards, yet none go for more than $45. Comparable, bigger name wineries that source from the same vineyards are often priced at least $15 if $20 higher, if not double the price. They’re also built to benefit from short to medium term cellaring, a solid 3-8 years post-release from my experience, and so if patience is exercised, not only is the wine spectacular, but for people like me who appreciate value there is an added bonus.

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2009 Waters Syrah Forgotten Hills (Washington) – Opulent unami nose of bacon fat, venison jerky, saline, hickory smoke and green pepper. No real fruit to speak of and it’s nothing worse for the wear. The palate is medium plus in stature with fully integrated and polished tannins and well balanced, but quite prevalent, acid. Again, there’s little fruit here with really just hints of cherries, crushed blackberries and boysenberries. It’s the savory notes that speak the loudest: pork belly, venison blood, general iodine, saline, hickory smoke, thyme and soy sauce. What a masterclass in New World syrah. 94 points. Value: A

Backstory: the 2007 vintage of this wine was my gateway to savory syrahs. I know for most that gateway is the Rhone Valley, but growing up in Seattle I owe Waters for that lesson. This 2009 was the first time I was able to revisit Waters’ wine and it brought back memories of that epiphany many years ago.

2011 Avennia Gravura (Washington) – This is in an interesting stage in its evolution. From the get-go, the tannins seem advanced in their textual integration. However, on the palate they are still binding some flavors up tight. The nose is a bit quiet, but has nice cherry, raspberry, wet dirt, black pepper, and orange zest aromas. The body is medium in weight with dense but polished tannins, juicy acidity and nearly integrated alcohol (just a slight bite). The palate offers cherries, blueberries and black plums along with a lot of graphite, some iodine and smoke. Overall a nicely-executed and satisfying wine, but fairly straightforward and uninspiring. This has a liveliness now that will fade with time, and I’m not convinced that it’ll be replaced by anything more compelling, so I’m drinking my stash in the next year or two. 91 points. Value: C-

Backstory: When Avennia came onto the seen I got excited because its winemaker came from Delille Cellars. I immediately started buying half a case a year to lay down and recently I’ve begun to test them out. Their syrahs are very, very good. This Gravura, a Bordeaux Blend, was a little underwhelming, but given the rough vintage it was enough to satiate my Avennia craving for another few months until the syrahs in my cellar start emerging from their developmental stage.

2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ (Spain) – Coolest. Nose. Ever. Sophisticated as shit movie theater buttered popcorn, honeyed hay, flannel/linen and balsamic reduction. The palate is lush, oh-so-smooth and super glycerin-y without being heavy at all. There is no waxiness to this whatsoever. It has definite sherry qualities, but is entirely dry. There is sweet cream, Jelly Belly buttered popcorn flavor and lemon curd, along with sweet grapefruit and a ton of pear nectar. This is a weirdly bold wine with a ton of subtly, it’s wholly captivating. 94 points. Value: A

Backstory: A local retailer near me, Chain Bridge Cellars, introduced me to Silvia Puig’s En Numeros Vermells side project (executed in her garage) a few years back, and I’ve been a dedicated fan ever since. Each year the importer pours the wines and I enjoy tasting with him. This year he introduced a new white made from the Pedro Ximinez grape, which is used to make Sherry, and I was instantly captivated. It’s a wild experience and I took several bottles home. I’m not sure it’s going to benefit from any aging, but I don’t care because it’s that good right now.

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2012 Cameron Blanc Clos Electrique (Oregon) – Just, and entirely, gorgeous wine. The nose has high toned honeysuckle, bruised apples and pears, dried apricots, Starfruit, vanilla and petrol. The body is in perfect balance. It is medium bodied with super bright, but not hurtful, acid. It offers reams of slate, mint, lime and funky goodness. There is a good dose of Mandarin orange that offers nice sweetness, and from the oak influence there emerges a nice amount of cantaloupe, Golden Raisin and yellow plum, while parsley and saline provide stabilizing undercurrents. This is all good, all the time, now and over the next five to ten years. 95 points. Value: A

Backstory: Back to Cameron. I said above their Abbey Ridge is my favorite pinot noir. Their Clos Eletrique blanc is giving Montee de Tonnerre a run for it’s status as my favorite chardonnay. I’ve many debates with winemakers about whether it’s worthwhile to age chardonnay, and as I find my footing with aging Chablis I’m going through the same process with Cameron’s various chardonnays, which I’ve been stocking up on. This 2012 was really great when I had it last month, and I’m at odds with myself over how long to hold my remaining stash of the vintage. I’ll end up metering it out just to see, but that means exercising serious restraint.

2014 Drouhin Oregon Roserock Chardonnay (Oregon) – A generally pleasant and agreeable chardonnay, but a bit forgettable. It has evidence of oak on the nose and palate, and in the structure, but it doesn’t hide nice tropical and citrus fruits and standard chardonnay field notes. Solid and well made, but it won’t knock any socks off. Drinking nicely right now, the acid is solid but isn’t sufficient to suggest longer-term cellaring. 90 points. Value: C

Backstory: when this wine came out there was a rash of positive reviews in the professional wine media and blogosphere. I didn’t exactly rush out to find a bottle, but I kept my eyes open. While a solid wine, it just didn’t speak to me like it apparently did to many others. A good reminder that you shouldn’t put too much credence in others’ opinions when the topic is something as subjective as wine.

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2013 Bodegas El Nido Jumilla Clio (Spain) – Big briary nose: tons of black and blue fruit and barrel notes on this one. Crushed blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, sweet vanilla, toasted oak, baking spice and licorice. The full, lush body has nicely integrated chewy tannin and sufficient acid to balance the sweet fruit. There’s big alcohol on this one that is evidenced not in bite, but body, so it doesn’t detract. The palate offers a ton of black plum, blackberry, licorice, black pepper, graphite and cinnamon. I enjoyed this straight out of the bottle and over time, it’s ready to go now. Too big a wine for me on most days, but when I want a big, bold and beautiful wine this is near the top of my list. 93 points. Value: B

Backstory: the review has the critical piece: when I want a big, bold and beautiful wine the Clio is near the top of my list. I had a 2006 El Nido (non-Clio) a few years back, which is their ~$125 flagship wine, and found it incredibly disappointing. It’s made by a very famous and respect Australian winemaker and it tasted like an Australian wine made from Spanish grapes, which to me was a real sin. The Clio doesn’t make this mistake, it’s entirely a big Spanish wine, and I love it for its authenticity. The Clio usually benefits from a few years of bottle aging, but more than that and it loses it’s most appealing asset: it’s outlandish youthful vigor.

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2012 Descendientes de José Palacios Bierzo Villa de Corullon (Spain) – Holy florals, Batman! The nose is a flower store, a bit of everything, with crushed strawberries, cranberries, Sweet Tarts and tar. The body is medium in weight with juicy acidity. The fruit is a bit darker here, with overripe strawberries, cherries and boysenberries. There’s lovely violets and rose, along with creamsicle, although over time the flowers fade as cola and chocolate emerge. I really like this, and will be very interested to follow it over the next five-ish years. 93 points. Value: B

Backstory: I was really taken with the comeback of the mencia grape in Spain when I was introduced to it through Palacio’s entry-level bottle, the Petalos. The Corullon is the next step up in that winery’s line of mencia bottlings and for $20 bucks more than the Petalos you get something really very special with many pretty notes.

2010 DeLille Cellars Syrah Doyenne Grand Ciel Vineyard (Washington) – Decanted for two hours, seems like a good first move at this stage with the wine. The nose is dominated by French oak, and offers macerated blackberries, black plums, iodine and lightly tanned tobacco leaf as secondary notes. The body is full and the acid is juicy. The tannin structure offers really well formed and grippy tannins that integrate seamlessly and avoid locking up the wine. The texture reminds me of a Cote Rotie in a very good way, it’s the highlight of the wine. Concentration is a bit lacking, though that’s a vintage liability. This is fruit forward with raspberries, strawberries and cherries, but offers substantial baking spices as well. Beautifully crafted wine from a tough vintage, this is enjoyable stuff. Modest depth and concentration hold it back from greatness. 92 points. Value: C

Backstory: I acquired this as part of a wine club shipment from a number of years back. The most appropriate thing I can say about it is that it’s an excellent example of the fruit-forward stylistic type of Washington syrah. Unlike the Waters mentioned above, it doesn’t offer savoriness as it’s focus is on the fruit and baking spice.

2012 Crowley Pinot Noir Entre Nous (Oregon) – Nose: quite reticent, even after two hours in the decanter. Dark cherry, plum, cola wet soil and graphite. The body is full with fully integrated polished, lush tannins that is evidence of the warm vintage. The acid finds a nice stride but is secondary. Concentration is a big lacking here, but the flavors include slightly tart cherries, blood orange, sassafras bark, and mild black pepper. It finishes a bit tart. Nice profile but the thin concentration really holds it back. A bit disappointing. 89 points. Value: C-

Backstory: essentially the same as the Drouhin chardonnay mentioned above. A few people in the blogosphere freaked out about this and I found it disappointing in that in a vintage known for full flavor and density it lacked concentration.

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2010 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge (Oregon) – Really benefits from a 2+ hour decant. The nose is classic Cameron Abbey Ridge: brooding red fruits, blood orange, wet dirt, underbrush, highly perfumed rose and petrol. The body is medium in weight and stature, offering bright acidity and light, chewy tannin. The fruit is just slightly sweet, but offers nice tartness: raspberry, cranberry, cherry, huckleberry and plum. There’s thyme-infused rose water, sweet rosemary, smoke and a big spike of orange zest in the mid palate. Not my favorite vintage, but still an upper pantheon pinot noir. This may have a bit more to unpack with another five-ten years, but it’s drinking nicely right now. 92 points. Value: C-

Backstory: I’ve said enough about Cameron already, but I’ll just point out that I drank this too young. It’s a very important piece of data in my research on how long to age Abbey Ridge pinot.

2013 J. Bookwalter Conflict Conner Lee Vineyard (Washington) – Better with some serious decanting. The lovely nose offers crushed cherries and blackberries, loads of dark plum, cassis, black currants and cracked pepper. The body is full with thick, lush tannin and good grip. The acid is bright while the alcohol is still integrating. There’s a solid amount of graphite to go with loads of plum and cherries and strong undercurrents of black tea, cocoa and cinnamon and a saline finish. A solidly enjoyable wine now, it stands to improve over the next five years. 90 points. Value: D

Backstory: this was a gift from a family member. Bookwalter is know for big wines, and when I want that, as noted above, I go for something more like the Clio. That said, the Conflict was very enjoyable with some decanting and it didn’t last long. Ideally, I think, this is consumed between 2019 and 2022.

2013 Abeja Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley (Washington) – A bit muted at the moment, the deliciously dark nose offers jammy blackberries, bark, stewed plums, licorice, spearmint and smoke. The body is full with dense, slightly grainy tannins and good acid frame a dense core of black and blue fruits, licorice, wet soil, pencil lead, burnt orange rind and mocha. The alcohol is well integrated, this has great balance. Very pleasing now, give it five years to unwind and it will be fantastic. 92 points. Value: B

Background: another family gift, it had been years since I’d had an Abeja cabernet. I was taken by Abeja years ago but as I developed a taste for wines typically more restrained that Washington cabernets I strayed. While this 2013 doesn’t have me begging to get back into Abeja’s good graces, I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t start buying a few in the years ahead. It’s very, very tasty stuff with really nice complexity and depth.

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Sun setting over Mutiny Bay, Washington (I’m enjoying my summer vacation)

A GRAND American Riesling Tasting

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Just some of the bottles we sampled. No oranges were harmed in this tasting.

Major reasons for the miserable commercial demand for riesling in the United States include, but are not limited to, the following myths:

  1. Riesling is too sweet. Sorry, but this is just a lazy myth. Yes, many Rieslings, especially those under the $10 price point, are stupid sweet. However, most riesling isn’t too sweet; you just have to try more of it.
  2. Riesling is sweet: Also a big myth, though slightly less lazy. Yes, much of the riesling on America’s shelves are sweet, but not all. It’s not a lazy myth because the labeling on many rieslings doesn’t indicate the sweetness of the wine, which is an industry fault. Still, shop at a dedicated wine store and the staff will be able to guide you to your desired level of residual sugar. Also, think you don’t like sweet riesling? Try it with foods that are rich, savory and salty to experience the brilliance of a little residual sugar in your wine; there’s hardly a better food-wine pairing.
  3. Riesling only pairs with vegetables and white protein. Ha, don’t even. Riesling is the most versatile food pairing grape alive and goes well with other colors of protein. Don’t believe me? Well-aged dry riesling hits gets rich and intensely nutty, and is a great pairing with red meat. Further, unless you’re eating a naked steak, it’s the sauce on the meat that should be the target of the wine pairing, and there’s a riesling for any sauce likely to be poured over red meat.

If you believe one of these myths, it’s time to prove yourself wrong. Keep reading. If you love riesling, keep reading. If you love wine, yeah, keep reading.

“Epic” is an appropriate way to describe our grand American riesling tasting. It all started when my friend and Terroirist blogger Isaac Baker submitted over Twitter that Smith-Madrone Winery in California makes the best American riesling. It’s a legitimate candidate for the title. I’ve reviewed the wine (and the winery) myself and I couldn’t think of a better suggestion, which got us thinking: how well do we really know domestic riesling? The answer was something like ‘not well enough to make that judgment,’ so we decided to become better informed. What followed was a month-long effort to collect samples from around the country that netted thirty-four bottles from eighteen of the best riesling producers we knew. Last weekend, we tried them all.

Before I get to the wine and the tasting, let’s discuss the status of riesling in America for a moment. The major headline is that demand for riesling is weak. According to the 2017 State of the Wine Industry report from Silicon Valley Bank (an important annual industry study), “demand for premium wine has been healthy, especially for cabernet, red blends, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and pinot noir. Merlot, syrah, riesling and zinfandel haven’t seen the same degree of consumer demand, and the varietals have struggled.” A 2015 Nielson report showed that riesling was the only grape varietal with negative growth in the US market in terms of volume sold. Early this year, Wine Folly predicted that riesling “will tank,” arguing that while it “has had its chances [with] several waves of interest between 2011 – 2015 [and has] plateaued,” “you only get so many chances. It’s not you Riesling, it’s us.” I could list more statistics, but they all tell the same basic story: Americans don’t buy much riesling.

The ‘it’s not you, it’s us’ line sums up my diagnoses of America’s perception of riesling. Riesling is a wine geek’s wine. It’ reflects terroir like no other, and since it does well in many, many climates and is therefore grown all around the world, we can experience a lot of different terroir through the lens of one grape. Further, it ranges from bone dry to very sweet, which makes it even more diverse a grape to explore, especially with food (wine pairing: one of the most passionate interests of a wine geek). These factors combine to make riesling exponentially interesting to people who like to pay close attention to their wine, which makes riesling’s commercial struggles all the more frustrating because it puts an artificial ceiling the amount of production by providing a lot of financial disincentive for wineries to produce the grape, let alone put a lot of effort into it.

It is fitting that Smith-Madrone was the inspiration of the tasting as its owner and winemaker, Stu Smith, is an outspoken proponent of the grape who makes it despite the difficulty he has selling it because he believes so fundamentally in its importance and worth as a varietal that speaks to the very best of what wine can be. In addition to myself and Isaac, our tasting panel included other riesling lovers who we felt would understand why we were doing the tasting and enjoy the experience: Washington Post wine writer Dave McIntrye, wine consultant Alison Smith Marriot, and two serious oenophiles/drinking buddies of mine. And then we had a special guest…Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Winery!

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The man, the myth, the legend. Stu Smith.

Stu and his wife, Julie Ann, were in town for their daughter Charlotte’s high school graduation (congratulations Charlotte!) and were able to swing by about fifteen wines into the tasting, though Stu was able to catch up to the group by the end. It was a real pleasure to have Stu and Julie Ann join us in an effort to further appreciation of the grape Stu seems to feel the most passionate about. The wines were tasted blind in a randomized order and, knowing that his wine was the impetus for the tasting, the unveiling of his wine as a consensus top-3 pick came as what I would imagine was at least a little relief, though who were any of us, really, to pass judgment on the wine of a Napa icon? More than anything, I (and I imagine the rest of the group) am just thankful Stu continues to prioritize a high quality riesling given the lowly demand for it.

The thirty-four wineries represented were scattered across California, New York, Oregon and Washington State, America’s four largest wine producing states, and came from many of the most respected riesling producers in the country. The largest contingent came from New York, the region whose reputation is probably most dominated by riesling. Though Washington used be known as the riesling state and still produces more of the grape than New York, it’s far less a signature grape for Washington than it is for New York at this point. The New York passion for riesling is evident in the wine we sampled, and here I need to make a special shout out to Peter Vetsch of pop & pour wine blog and Dan Mitchell of Fox Run Vineyards for hooking us up with so many good Upstate wines.

The wines ranged from syrupy sweet to bone dry, and, despite the reputable producers on-hand, we were surprised to find no dud among the cohort (though each of the tasters found at least one wine they didn’t care for), which spoke to the effort the wineries put into the commercially struggling varietal. If you’re a riesling lover, and/or want to ensure America keeps making high quality riesling, and/or want to become a riesling lover, buy from those on the list below.

These wines form a great shopping list for another reason as well: a major takeaway from the tasting was that while the riesling market isn’t doing well in America, America’s rieslings are in very good shape quality-wise. We threw a few imported ringers into the blind tasting from highly respected German, Australian and French producers, and while they tended to show up among many of the tasters’ favorites, none stood out as clearly better than the American wines nor did any of them dominate the discussion of consensus favorites. This truly was a Tour de Force showing from the red, white and blue.

With so many wines to taste, I didn’t score them beyond rating each one on a 1 to 5 star (asterisk) scale. I’m including my tasting notes below, but want to call out seven wines that really captured my attention. Washington’s Rasa Vineyards gave me the only five-star wine of the evening with their 2013 The Composer. This gorgeous wine has enough bottle age on it to have developed some secondary notes, but it has the legs to develop tertiary ones as well. Their 2011 The Lyricist was also fantastic, receiving 4.5 stars (the equivalent of “****(*)” as you’ll find below). Close behind Rasa was Stu Smith’s 2014 Smith-Madrone, the inspiration for this event. Fellow Californian Chateau Montelena’s 2015 Potter Valley is a real achievement as well. Chehalem’s 2014 Corral Creek Vineyard offered the best schnoz of the lineup and some very diverse flavors, and was my favorite of the offerings from Oregon. Fox Run’s 2012 Lake Dana, with its perfect play between fruit, Earth and Spice, and Hermann J. Wiemer 2014’s HJW, with its awesome profile of spice, sweet fruit and bitter banana, demonstrated that New York is producing exceptional riesling.

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A major, major thanks to the wineries who supplied the samples, not only for making this event possible but for taking a risk by producing them in the first place. There isn’t a riesling in this lineup that I would discourage anyone from trying. We were quite lucky to have had this experience, and I hope it lights a fire under a few butts to dive deep into American riesling. For more coverage of the tasting, and likely some differing thoughts on the wines, head over to Terroirist and check out what Isaac Baker has to say.

2015 Penner-Ash Hyland Vineyard Old Vine (OR) – a little soapy and reticent on the nose, with grass and lime zest emerging. The body is lean with cutting acidity. Quitely limey with good minerality, it gets a little creamy with air and adds marzipan and dried fruit. ***

2015 Charles & Charles Den Hoed Vineyard (WA) – the nose is still a bit musty and tropical, quite pleasant. It offers a voluptuous structure with big lime, stone fruits, tropics and hay. ***

2015 Anthony Road Dry Riesling (NY) – class riesling nose with a leaner, crisp body that delivers peach, apricot, Meyer lemon, white pepper and parsnips with a mouth-drying acid streak. ****

2015 Sleight of Hand The Magician (WA) – rich, tropical nose with a very interesting palate offering savory saline, stone fruits, banana and a little effervescence. ***

2015 Chehalem Three Vineyard (OR) – very mild, young nose waiting to offer more with age. The palate is round and ripe with white pepper, lemon curd, petroleum, apricots and a lot of grass. This one offers real depth and a lot to consider. ****

2015 Red Newt Cellars Knoll (NY) – gorgeous nose dominated by grass cuttings and honeyed fruit. The palate is driven by big acid and is quite dry. The flavors are dominated by lemon pith, celery seed, cilantro, lemon and strong pepper. One of the more unusual profiles, it really spoke to me. ****

2013 Rasa The Composer (WA) – classic tennis ball canister gas on the nose with an amazing palate offering sweet fruit, almond paste, petrol, vanilla and honey. Tastes like a sunset. ******

2013 Red Newt Cellars Tango Oaks (NY) – a truly biting nose that tingles the nostrils with high toned citrus and pepper. The palate is lean and quite crisp, balanced by vegetal flavors. ***

2014 Chehelam Wind Ridge Block (OR) – clean nose with little to write home about, but the palate really delivers with parsley, lime, root vegetables and under ripe stone fruit. It’s a very strange profile that simply works. ****

2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling (CA) – reticent nose but a compelling palate with streaky flint and slate, dandelion and orange zest held together by perfectly balanced acid and weight. It just needs more time in the cellar to bring that nose to bear and fully develop. ****(*)

2014 Lauren Ashton Riesling (WA) – the nose is dominated by peaches, but also offers marzipan and papaya and, if you close your eyes real tight, a little smoky. The palate is almost overwhelmed by guava and papaya, but thankfully has some white pepper kick and really nicely balanced acid. ****

2014 Fox Run/Anthony Road/Red Newt Tierce (NY) – the nose is all about fresh asphalt as the palate offers nice florals, bitter greens and under ripe stone fruit. The acid is nice but it seems just a little watery, which holds back the concentration. ***

2016 Trisaetum Wichmann Dundee semi-dry (OR) – very honeyed nose with stewed peaches and apricots, parsley, and vanilla bean custard building out the  palate. Very cool ****

2012 Fox Run Lake Dana (NY) – a lot of pine and baking spice on the nose, which made me suspect Washington. The body is full, ripe and delivers perfect acid. Flavors include sweet pineapple, mango and arugula. My favorite wine of the day from New York ****(*)

2014 Boundary Breaks Lot 239 (NY) – not a lot on the nose at the moment but time will rectify that. The palate has lime sorbet, green pepper, apricot and petrol. A solid ****.

2016 Trisaetum Wichmann Dundee Dry (OR) – young nose with a bit of lemon zest and pine, the palate is a little watery but has nice lime zest, red pepper flake spice and apricot. I think it needs some time. ***(*)

2015 Eroica (Chateau Ste. Michelle) (WA) – the nose has honeyed citrus fruit and Evergreen, while the body has a lot of pine, apricot nectar, quince and coriander. ****

2014 Hermann J. Wiemer Magdalena (NY) – this big nose is dominated by almods, while the palate delivers big quantities pineapple, banana and pine. The acid is on-point here, but I think this would benefit from a few more years of rest. ***(*)

2015 Anthony Road Semi Dry Riesling (NY) – not much on the nose, but the palate is round and lush with vanilla, banana cream pie and lemon-lime soda. ***

2011 Rasa The Lyracist (WA) – the nose offers quintessential NW pine, tennis ball canister gas and starfruit. The palate has no hard edges but maintains great acidity, and delivers honeyed starfruit, crystalized lime zest, slate and just a little bit of fat. ****(*)

2014 Red Newt Cellars The Big H (NY) – the nose is a little fungal, in a good way, musty and tropical. The palate offers lime, vanilla and under ripe peach. ***

2014 Hermann J. Wiemer HJW (NY) – the young nose is still reticent, while the palate delights with Asian 5 Spice, restrained stone fruits and banana leaves. The acid is in great balance and this clearly has a long and prosperous life ahead of itself. ****(*)

2014 Chehalem Corral Creek Vineyard (OR) – The nose is almost plummy, offering honeysuckle and a jasmine tea aroma. Might be my favorite nose of the lineup. The palate is also floral and honeyed, offering additional pepperiness and lychee. Really cool stuff. ****(*)

2014 Fox Run Vineyards Dry Riesling (NY) – a funky and engaging nose, the palate is all about lime sorbet but gets a little diversification with pepper. ***

2016 Trisaeutum Coast Range (OR) – a must nose with an earthy palate that is zesty and creamy. I love the complementary play between acid-driven zest and creaminess, as well as the real sense of place this one has. It’s not a typical riesling. ****

2016 Tirsaeutum Ribbon Ridge (OR) – the nose gave off what I can only describe as a fenugreek aroma, whle the palate was round and full with barely enough acid to keep it on keel. The dominate flavor was Sprite. **

2014 Boundary Breaks Lot 198 (NY) – Unfortunately not much to write home about with this one, the main element I wrote down here was “sweet.” *

2015 Chateau Montelena Potter Valley (CA) – the nose is still in hiding, but the palate is zesty, spicy and high toned with big limestone and even some mint. Very good. ****(*)

2015 Galerie Terracea Spring Mountain District (CA) – a honeyed and flora nose, quite pleasant, with a big but well integrated palate featuring banana cream and big zestiness. ***

2015 Penner-Ash Willamette Valley (OR) – a lot of sweet cream on the nose with Meyer lemon and Key lime. The palate offers lovely honeyed orange blossom, ginger, graham cracker and a lot of texture. Enjoyable but not particularly layered. ***(*)

2016 Long Shadows Nine Hats (WA) – not a lot on the nose yet (clearly young), but the palate had exceptional acidity with a little saline, sweet citrus, flowers and spice. If the nose is awoken, this will be lovely. ***

2015 Long Shadows Poet’s Leap (WA) – pine and lime on the nose, with big lime zest, orange, petrol and banana on the palate. ***

 

The Best Reds, Whites & Values of 2016

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Picture credit: Punjabigraphics.com

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

The Ten Best Red Wines

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

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Abbey Ridge Vineyard (picture credit: cameronwines.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Best White Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Best Values of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Loving Wine Means Not Drinking It

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Pictured: VinTemp Corkscrew and Infrared Wine Thermometer

If this is a hard post to get excited about reading, then trust me, it is an unexciting post to write. People like me, we read about wine because we love it, we make it because we love it, we enjoy buying it because we love it. But there aren’t many people, I would imagine, who read about wine but don’t drink it, or make it but don’t drink it, or, and probably especially, buy it but don’t drink it (unless it’s a gift for someone else). But there is at least one situation in which someone who loves wine knows not to drink it: when they’re sick.

I’ve been sick this week and that’s meant having to pass up one opportunity to drink wine and postpone another. First world problems, I know, but nevertheless unfortunate ones. I have a standard cold, and thankfully it’s remained contained in my head. Just the typical sore throat and congestion. Putting aside the imprudence of drinking alcohol while sick, since I cannot smell, really at all, or taste much of anything, I know better than to drink wine.

On Thursday I oversaw a work dinner with 26 people and choose wine off a limited but tasty wine list at an upscale French bistro. Though the restaurant is different each time, I have the pleasure (and blessing) of doing this monthly and it’s something I look forward to each time. This week, however, was the worst, knowing that I should refrain from consuming for both the sake of my recovery and for the sake of the wine – good wine deserves being consumed by those who can appreciate and enjoy it.

I’ll admit, I still had a small glass of each just to see what I could pick out of each and I did have a revelation worth sharing: if you’re sick and you must have wine, a Pouilly Fuisse is much better than a Right Bank Bordeaux. The acidity and lighter body of the chardonnay was able to peak through the cold-induced smell and taste fog, and I was able to pick up on some of the pleasurable elements of the wine. Meanwhile, the subtler merlot-dominated blend remained dull and nothing more than a means to consume more calories.

I was also supposed to conduct my first winery visit this week for Good Vitis, but had to postpone the visit to a later date when my senses will be capable of giving the wine a fair shake. Something to look forward to, at least.

While I’m on the subject of when not to drink wine, I’ll make an attempt at being comprehensive. The following are five additional conditions in which loving wine means not drinking it:

Number one: when a wine is too young. This happened recently at a group tasting among wine collecting friends. A generous couple brought a magnum of a 2012 Cayuse Walla Walla Special #4 syrah. This wine is limited to wine list members (and auctions), and it was a real treat. Everyone had brought special bottles that afternoon, and I got excited when I saw this one for two reasons: first, I love Cayuse syrahs, and second, ‘why would you open a magnum of Cayuse syrah with less than 7 years, minimum, of bottle age?’ I’d have gone 10+ years myself. The wine was, indeed, quite good already, but as I drank it I knew it would be so much better if it were properly aged, and that was a disappointing thought to have while being afforded the opportunity to try it at any stage. Properly aged wine is ten times better than immature wine for me, even wine this good.

Number two: when it hasn’t properly been decanted. Few wine-related things get me more upset at seeing fantastic wine on restaurant wine lists that require more decanting time than the time I have between placing my order and my food arriving. A fine wine has optimum conditions under which to consume it, and by definition sub-optimum conditions as well. If I’m going to order a good wine – and pay a 200-300% premium for it – I want it showing its best possible face. Sadly, most restaurants aren’t bothered by this consideration and I end up ordering from the much more limited (and often lower quality) wines by the glass menu.

Number three: when the company isn’t right. For me, the enjoyment I get from good wine is always boosted if I drink it with the right person or people. With certain bottles that I buy  – Washington Rhone varietals and Chablis especially – I know who I’m drinking it with before I even have the bottle in-hand. Bill shares my love of Washington syrah, and Hannah my love of Chablis, and when I pair the wine with the person it’s more impactful as the good food pairing we also line up for the occasion. When I do drink a savory Washington syrah without Bill, I always wonder what he’d think of it, and the same with respect to Chablis and Hannah. Their mutual love of these wines boosts my own.

Number four: when it’s under (or over) the weather. As the picture above suggests, wine is better when served at certain temperatures. This goes beyond whites around 50 and reds around 60 – each varietal has its own range that is inevitably influenced by the particularities of each bottle – but generally speaking, wine served at the wrong temperature underperforms.

Number five: when it’s unsettled. Much of the wine I buy is shipped to me direct from the winery or a specific wine retailer, and I always allow the wines a full month in the cellar to settle. Bottle Shock is more than just the name of an entertaining (and important) movie about wine.

So don’t drink wine if you’re sick (or if you do, make it a bright and lean bottle), or if it’s too young, or if you can’t decant it properly, or if you should have it with that certain special person, or if it’s too warm or cold, or if it’s unsettled. Beyond that, toast away.

My Most Memorable Whites

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I opened Good Vitis with a post about my ten most memorable red wines. Then, I followed up with a post a few days later about the Wine Curmudgeon’s “winestream media” analysis that suggested the major American wine publications favored reds over whites by giving the former more 90+ point reviews than the latter. And now, I’m about to go through my most memorable white wines and there are, count em’, eight. My memorable red post originally had 16 reds but due to space I narrowed the list to 10. With the whites, I couldn’t even get to ten. Do I have a red wine bias?

Couple of things for consideration:

  1. I’ve long drank more reds than whites
  2. I’ve long appreciated reds more than whites
  3. I bought my first white wine for aging within the last year

My experiences with the eight whites below have convinced me that my red wine bias is stupid. As someone who likes good wine, I’d been keeping myself away from a category of wine that offers experiences equally but also uniquely rewarding as the red one. These eight whites have collectively triggered a shift in my thinking about how to consider and approach white wine, with the key change being simply exposure to the levels of complexity and depth whites can achieve when done well. My cellar has shifted from 100% red to 85% red/15% white over the last year as I stock up on chardonnays and chenin blancs, and the trend will likely continue as I expand my chardonnay sourcing while also branching into age-worthy gruner veltliner. On to the wines!

Category: so there is good white wine!

Winners: Buty Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc/Muscadelle blend and Delille Cellars Chaleaur Estate Blanc

For a very long time I was obsessed with Washington wine. While I still am to a very real extent, I’ve narrowed the Washington wineries I purchase down to around half a dozen as I become (1) more discerning about specific vineyards and winemakers and (2) more interested in other areas of the world. This initial focus on Washington limited my exposure to whites because the state’s wineries tend to focus their higher end products on the red end of the spectrum. Top wineries like Buty and Delille, for example, produce a range of fantastic wines that are light on the whites, and within the overall collection of fine Washington wines the red/white mix is heavy on the red. Part of this is I’m sure demand trends, but I’m quite curious to understand how much of this is the state’s ability to produce world class whites. That’s a story for another post.

These two wines certainly do show, however, that Washington can do world class whites. I first had Buty’s Bordeaux-esque blend in 2009 at a tasting at one of Seattle’s preeminent wine stores, McCarthy & Schiering, and it’s a vivid memory in which my entire attention was consumed by a “wow, so there is good white wine after all!” epiphany. I’ve had every vintage of this wine since and it’s among the top 5 wines I’ve consumed by volume. It’s a solid $25 purchase every time.

Delille’s Chaleur Estate Blanc is a more accurate version of a Bordeaux blend as it skips the Muscadelle, which makes the Buty a bit lighter and more approachable. While the Delille is certainly great at release (93-95 points annually since 2007 from Stephen Tanzer, Robert Parker and Wine Advocate) it really shines with a few years in the bottle. It’s a dense, concentrated and complex wine with a mouthfeel as comforting and satisfying as green tea with honey on a cold day. And at $38 SRP it’s not cheap, but it is very competitive at that price in terms of quality and ageworthiness. Drink the Buty in the first year or two after release, and the Delille 2-4 years after release. They’re both gorgeous.

Category: hey, it turns out I like chardonnay!

Winner: 2012 Lauren Ashton Cellars Chardonnay Reserve

This is the bottle of chardonnay that made me a chardonnay fan. My notes when I drank the first (of several) of these:

Nose: Very Bordeaux-like with straw and honey, this is a trip. Some of that vanilla, peach, and oak start to come through. Partial malolactic is apparent. So is the green apple, which is strong. Good limestone minerality, too. Very aromatic wine. Palate: Hard to discern between a Bordeaux and Chardonnay, really trippy. Very clean and crisp with some oak backbone and light toast, but not heavy or oaky or dominated by vanilla. Good acidity and fruit, predominantly apple and pineapple; maybe a little starfruit/lime acidity. Really appreciate the balance of acidity/crispiness and body, speaking to only partial malolactic treatment and great judgement in oak selection, barrel timing, and re-racking (it’s nicely settled and clearly has a defined personality). With additional air the lime sorbet gets stronger. Finish: it’s the acidity and citrus that ride it out. The body fades smoothly. This is a very good wine. 94 points

“Hard to discern between a Bordeaux and Chardonnay?” After the Buty and Delille blends, seems like a good gateway chardonnay for me, right? What made this one stand out was the lift it received from a solid streak of acidity that I hadn’t found paired with real complexity and good structure in any previous chardonnay I’d had. Lauren Ashton sadly hasn’t made a reserve since 2012.

Category: I don’t know what “it” is, but this has it

Winner: Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc 2012

Listen, I hate the generic New Zealand sauv blanc that’s flooded American wine stores, restaurants and bars as much as anyone; it’s become an epidemic. But this one is truly wild. My Cellartracker notes:

Spoiler alert: this is an exceptionally cool wine. The wild yeast makes this a truly unique wine with flavors and scents I’ve never tasted or smelled on any other wine, some of them unidentifiable. Nose: Savage. White peach, lemon curd. Unripe Starfruit tanginess. Dandelion. Wet stone. And stuff we can only identify as having to come from the wild yeast. Palate: very smooth with just a touch of graininess. Palate coating flavors that burst. Lots of sweet peace and rosemary up front, but it transfers into a light pucker in the back of the mouth with lemongrass flavors on a wave of bright acidity. And then of course some undefinable wild yeast flavors. Finish: very long lasting finish for a white. The acidity and peach carries on for a long, long time. As acid and peach fade, the lemon curd and grass emerge with an endearing sweetness. Overall this is a fantastic wine, a thinking drinker’s wine. It’s also fantastic with food, which brings out an extra layer of complexity. I need to find more of this. 94 points.

Incredibly complex just in the notes I could identify, and if those were all it offered then it would still be a fantastic bottle. But the wild elements that I couldn’t identify, they were smells and flavors I’d never experienced before, they put it over-the-top cool. Let me try to explain this a different way. Seven months prior to drinking this bottle, I went to Japan for the first time. Tokyo’s airport is a 45 minute drive outside the city, and the route takes you through mile after mile of rice patties. I’d never seen rice patties before in person, and they mesmerized me. All I wanted to do was walk through them and harvest rice; it just seemed like the most unadulterated way of engaging with nature. And then it hit me: I couldn’t remember the last time that I saw something for the first time. Think about it, when was the last truly unique experience you’ve had where even the context was totally new? My answer is the 2012 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc.

Category: intriguing as hell

Winner: 2010 Eric Morgat L’Enclos Savennieres (also available from Weygandt Wines in Washington, D.C.)

This was a serious “wow” wine. The 2009 is 99% as good, too, and the 2011 could well be better with a few more years (#vertical). I’d never had serious chenin blanc before this bottle, and I’m a true believer now. When done like this it has an incredibly full mouthfeel without developing any cloying sensation or residual sugar. Rather, it offers bright acidity and an incredible array of flavors. The result is a blend of the best traits of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, Sauternes and viognier. Sadly, I took no notes when drinking this, but I have several of his wines aging now and will at some point review them, and I continue to build out my Morgat collection.

Category: craziest sensation

Winner: every nervous, tense Chablis I’ve had

Chablis falls into two categories for me: overly acidic and boring (bad Chablis), and so nervous you can’t turn your attention away (interesting and potentially great Chablis).  I have my favorite producers (William Fevre, Francois Raveneu, Domaine Servin) and my favorite sites (Montee de Tonnere, Montee de Tonnere and Montee de Tonnere), but every Chablis that can’t seem to accept its awesomeness is the one for me. If you’ve experienced this, you know what I’m talking about it. If you haven’t, I can promise you that it will be the subject of a future post.

Category: you stole my heart

2013 Birgit Eichenger Gruner Veltliner Weshselberg (also available from Weygandt in DC)

This wine, and each of the vintages of it that I’ve had, has stolen my heart. I haven’t had enough gruner yet to put my finger on exactly why it speaks to me, but if I had to guess it’s that when Birgit Eichenger makes this offering from Kamptal she blends awesome Chablis with remarkable petit mensang and viognier. That’s the best way I’ve developed to describe this wine. Here’s what I wrote about it:

Pale straw yellow. This is a magical wine. Nose: beautiful banana peel, stone fruit, straw, pine needles, Meyer lemon. Palate: very smooth viscosity, weighty palate. Banana, peach, cantaloupe, pineapple. Vanilla bean. Honey. High tones of limestone. Graphite. Orange sherbet. Bright acidity. Finish: acidity carries the whole palate, and as it fades we get a bit of petrol and wet asphalt. Pear is quite strong as well. Birgit Eichinger, you’ve stolen my heart. Will you marry me? 93 points

This bottle is just a whole lot of great stuff packed into a very pretty profile. I go through several of these each year.

Category: evolving with the best of em’

2014 Domaine de le Borde Abrois Pupillin Cote de Caillot

This is a very young wine, to be clear. It’s great now but I wish I could have a bottle every six months for the next 10 years. Here’s what it’s like now:

Nose: banana, honeysuckle. Chalk, dandelion and a fungal/forest floor thing. Slightly yeasty. With air, Asian five spice comes out and it starts to remind me of mead. Palate: medium plus body and acidity. Slight sweetness. Skin tannin. Very structured, pleasing smooth medium viscosity. Meyer lemon, honey. Lime sorbet, cantaloupe. Cinnamon and nutmeg. Cascade hops and flinty minerality. Finish: persistent and rich. Overall a gorgeous wine with the skin tannins providing a platform for a lot of different flavors to dance on. This one evolved over time as it sat in the glass, it has a long life ahead of it over which I’d be surprised if it didn’t go through several changes. Very interesting and expressive. 92 points.

I’m pretty new to Jura and while every bottle I’ve had hasn’t spoken to me, they’ve all been very interesting in their unique expressions. Jura is a place unto itself and not for the timid palate.

As my interest in whites grow, I’m putting more time and money into them. The red wine bias I had is over, and my next area of exploration is age-worthy Oregon chardonnays. Since August I’ve put away multiple bottles each from Adelsheim, Domaine Serene and Domaine Drouhin (plus viognier from Penner-Ash) that I’ll start exploring in the next few years, and when we hit the early 2020’s I’ll start opening the bottles from Cameron that I’ve laid down. In the meantime, I see plenty of white wine on my horizon.