On Cork Report: Top Wineries in Monticello AVA, Virginia

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Stinson Vineyards estate vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading here.

2017’s Most Memorable Wines

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Last December (okay, January 4th, 2017), I did a post on The Best Reds, Whites and Values of 2016 that I came across in my wine escapades that year. It was an enjoyable post to write because it let me indulge in some great nostalgia, and I was excited to do it again for this year. This post was just as rewarding to write, and as the title implies, I’m taking a slightly different approach. What follows are the dozen most memorable wines I tasted this year.

The two questions I used to guide the formation of this list were (1) what are the wines from 2017 that I stand the best chance of remembering until I go senile, and (2) what wines from 2017 will guide my 2018 purchasing? Only after assembling the list did I look at the metadata contained within, and there are some surprises. First, a rose made the list. While I enjoy rose, I drank much less of it in 2017 than I did in previous years. This wasn’t for any conscious reason; it just played out that way. Second, in Good Vitis Land, it was the year of the white wine. Half of the list, and the largest component of it, are whites. Third, it’s a geographically diverse list: five U.S. states and six countries. And forth, unusual varietals came in at the #4 and #1 spots: mtsvane and Pedro Ximenez that was made into a white wine. What a cool 2017.

Without further ado, here are my twelve most memorable wines from the past twelve months.

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#12: 2016 Ehlers Rose. I reviewed this wine back in July when I profiled the winery and winemaker and couldn’t stop raving about it. The wine itself is terrific, but it will always stand out in my mind for the vibrancy and beauty of its color. My God, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never fixated on the appearance of a wine before, so this one is special. I visited the winery earlier in this month and the rose was sold out. I was told I wasn’t the only one who can’t even with the color.

Tasting note: July 9, 2017 – I don’t normally comment on color but this is a gorgeous, watermelon-colored red with a pinkish hew. Nose: a bit reticent at first, it wafts lovely strawberry, watermelon, lime zest, white pepper, sea mist and parsley. The body is medium in stature and has a real presence on the palate, it’s entirely dry with nicely balanced biting acid. The fruit, all red with the exception of under ripe mango and lime pith, is bright and light and backed up by some really nice bitter greens, celery, thyme and rosemary. This brilliant effort is best served with food as the racy acidity needs to sink its teeth into something. I successfully paired it with Santa Maria-style grilled tri tip. I’d actually be curious to stuff a few of these away for a year or two and see how they develop over the following three years. 92 points. Value: B+

#11: 2014 Block Wines Chenin Blanc Block V10 Rothrock Vineyard. I love chenin. It competes with chardonnay for my favorite white varietal, and usually whichever is in my glass and singing is the one I choose. I’ve written about Eric Morgat’s chenins from Savennieres in the Loire Valley in France as my favorite example of the varietal, and while I enjoyed several of them in 2017, this year’s gold standard belonged to the Block Wines project in Seattle, Washington. Owned and sold exclusively by the retailer Full Pull, it sources exceptional grapes from exceptional blocks in exceptional vineyards across the state and hands them over to Morgan Lee to convert into wine. Morgan is one of my favorite winemakers anywhere, and what he did with these grapes was pure magic.

Tasting note: Friday, June 23, 2017 – Magical stuff, and only improving with aging and aeration. The nose is blossoming with honeysuckle, sweet lemon curd, parsley, big marzipan and just a wiff of ginger powder. The palate is medium bodied with cutting acidity and a well-framed structure. The fruit is sweet and comes in the form of lemon, peach, apricot and yellow plum. There’s a good dose of vanilla bean, a big streak of slate and just a bit of creaminess and some nice sorbet-tartness on the finish. The most compelling American chenin blanc I’ve tasted, this has at least three years of upward development ahead of it. Wish I had more than the one remaining bottle in my cellar. 93 points.

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#10: 2011 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre. Unlike the #12 and #11 wines, this bottle is a well-known commodity. Among the most respected sites in Chablis, Montée de Tonnerre is often considered quality-wise on par with the Grand Cru sites despite its Premier Cru designation, while William Fèvre is widely respected as anything but a slouch producer. Despite the modest reception of the 2011 vintage in Chablis, this out-performed several other vintages of the same wine I’ve had previously. It was downright spectacular.

Tasting note: Friday, July 14, 2017 – 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.

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#9: Forge Cellars Les Allies Riesling. I visited Forge in September and couldn’t help but gush about what they’re doing. Forge is Finger Lakes in a bottle in every aspect, and for me that means several things: absolute physical beauty and salt-of-the-Earth people with a total commitment to the land and community. Forge makes a lineup of rieslings (and pinot noirs) that, from top to bottom, are among the very best being made in America and worth making the trek to experience first-hand (read the hyperlink above about the unique and amazing tasting experience every visitor receives at Forge). My favorite is the Les Allies.

Tasting note: September 18, 2017 – Big on fennel and bitter greens, sharp citrus and Devil’s Club with sneaky slate and flint streaks adding depth. Though savory elements drive the wine, it’s balanced by big hits of fresh apricot and peach on the finish. This is going to go through some cool short-term evolution in the cellar, and was my favorite riesling of the day. 93 points.

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#8: 2010 Baer Winery Arctos. I put this wine up against several legendary vintages from the legendary Bordeaux producer Las Cases in a post that asked, “Does Bordeaux Deserve Its Reputation?” More specifically, I asked “are six of the best vintages of the last fifty years of a storied chateau some consider worthy of first growth status really so good that it’s worth $150 per bottle at release and then two-plus decades in my cellar?” In order to answer this question, I picked Baer’s 2010 Arctos as a baseline wine. To be clear, I pitted a seven-year old blend from Washington State that retails for $43 against wines that are now only available at auctions for many multiples of that price point. My answer, which I’m pretty sure upset a few people, was “no.” I’m a Bordeaux skeptic, but more than that, I’m a Baer lover.

Tasting note: Thursday, April 20, 2017 – Bountiful nose of juicy red, black and blue berries, very sweet tobacco, thyme and black pepper. The palate coats the mouth with lush, polished and sweet tannins. It’s fully integrated and gorgeous. Sweet raspberries, cherries and blackberries swirl around with undercurrents of tobacco, graphite, cassis, nutmeg, cocoa, black currant, and rhubarb. Absolutely fantastic and pleasurable profile, it’s in exactly the right place. 94 points.

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#7: 2014 Covenant Israel Syrah. It’s a long story of how I came to know Jeff Morgan, the brains and brawn behind Covenant, a endeavor producing wine in California and Israel that has, as its genesis, the goal of making the best kosher wine in the world. I interviewed Jeff and told the fascinating story here. The Israel Syrah is a great example of how good Israeli wine and kosher wine can be, and a damn enjoyable bottle that will improve with more time.

Tasting note: Saturday, February 4, 2017 – This needed several hours of decanting. Nose: Dark and smokey. Stewed blackberries and blueberries along with maraschino cherry and caramelized sugar. Wafty smoke, a good dose of minerality and just a bit of olive juice. Palate: full bodied with coarse tannins that with multiple hours of air begin to integrate. Medium acidity. The fruit is dark and brown sugar sweet. Lot of blackberries and blueberries. Just a bit of orange and graphite and a good dose of tar. There are also some pronounced barrel notes of vanilla and nutmeg. This is a promising young wine. Fruit forward in its early stages, after 4 hours of air definite savoriness really starts to emerge. This has the tannin and acid to age and it will improve with another 3-5 years. 93 points.

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#6: 2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge. Of course there’s a Cameron in this list. Cameron was my 2016 revelation and I spent a lot of time this year tracking down as much of it as I could find. It was a decent haul, but now I just have to be incredibly patient. The 2016 experience showed me that the older a bottle of Cameron pinot is, the better it is. In 2017 I had the 2005, 2010 and 2011 vintages of Abbey Ridge and the theme continued. This 2005 was AMAZING.

Tasting note: Saturday, July 1, 2017 – 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.

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#5: 2012 Cameron Blanc Clos Electrique. Of course there are two Camerons on this list. Nuff’ said.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – 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.

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#4: 2015 Togo Mtsvane. This is a challenging wine to write about for several reasons, beginning with the unusualness of it and ending with the situation in which it was consumed, for good and bad reasons. The good reasons are written about in detail in what is probably my favorite post from 2017. I’ll summarize this wine, and the country where it is made, this way: you’ve never had anything like it, you have to go to the Republic of Georgia to try it, and you’re making a mistake if you don’t.

Tasting note: May, 2017 – Gia’s 2015 Mtsvane was picked at 25.8 brix and finished at 14.8% ABV, which it wells extremely well. The word “mtsvane” means green (the color), and this particular source vine was found in a family plot that Gia is slowly bringing back. It is thin skinned and very difficult to grow because of its fragility in the region’s rainy climate. Nevertheless, the aromatics were gorgeous with mint, dulce de leche, sweet lemon and light tobacco. The palate was equally appealing and satisfying as it offered honeysuckle, apricot, ginger, vanilla, green apple and a big hit of mint.  Multiple bottles consumed over a long and drunken evening with the winemaker, his family and my friends. Unscored, but otherworldly.

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#3: 1998 Pian Delle Vigne (Antinori) Brunello di Montalcino. Aged Brunello, need I say more? The 1998 was considered a good but not great vintage when it was released, but I think people have realized over the following 19 years that it’s gone through a particularly impressive evolutionary arc. This wine certainly proves that. Well-aged Brunello has some wonderfully unique qualities, and again, this wine certainly proves that. Basically, this wine proves that all the good things about Brunello can be true in one bottle.

Tasting note: Saturday, October 28, 2017 – This is remarkably good. The nose is pure heaven, and very fragrant. Super sweet cherries, strawberries, Açaí, cinnamon, nutmeg, dried tarragon, a bit of sea mist and a small finish of olive juice. The palate is fully integrated: extremely fine grained and polished tannins have faded into the background while the acid is mellow but zips. The Alcohol is seamless. It’s the full, professional package. What a gorgeous mouthfeel. Flavors pop with cherries, strawberries, tobacco, thick dusty cocoa, Herbs de Provence, bright orange rind and a wiff of smoke at the end. This has a few more years of good drinking, but why wait? 95 points.

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#2: 2012 Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve. Stu Smith and his family are some of my favorite people in the wine industry, and among the most generous I’ve met. He’s also one of the best winemakers in a state known for attracting many of the best winemakers in the world. Cooks’ Flat is his reserve wine, which he makes during good vintages. It retails for $225. Given the region, that’s a steal for a wine of this quality and, in one of many manifestations, evidence of his generosity. I’m not a lover of most California wine, and I don’t get the California Cult Cab thing with its focus on fruit and tannin. Stu could care less whether his wines were considered “cult,” but it certainly tops the list of cabernets from the Sunshine State that I’ve had. The fact that any California cab made my most memorable wine list is personally surprising, but that it landed at #2? It’s just that good.

Tasting note: December 7, 2017 – This seems to me to be what Napa cab should be all about. It hits the palate with a velvety lushness, and is followed by waves of red, blue and black fruit that polish a core of dark minerals and Earth that broadens the mid palate and adds depth to the wine. The acid is towards the higher end of the Napa range, adding juiciness to the fruit and levity to the body. Unlike many California cabs, the tannins are well-kept and aren’t allowed to dry the palate and prematurely kill the finish. This is elegant and refined wine. Given the price of reserve wines from Napa, the Cook’s Flat is a downright steel. 95 points.

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#1: 2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ. A small amount of the small production En Numeros wine makes its way to a retailer near me in Virginia. The importer, a friend of Silvia Puig, the winemaker, pours the wines himself one afternoon a year and I look forward to the email announcing it. This is the first vintage of this white wine, which is made out of the Pedro Ximenez grape that is usually made into Port, and the first of its style I’ve ever had. The tasting note below is the first time I drank it. I revisited it in November and it had changed fairly dramatically. Some of the lushness was gone, and the acid was more pronounced. To be honest, it was a bit more complex the second time around. That said, it’s the first bottle that will leave the lasting impression, and so I’m using that note. It’s one of those wines that is “unique” in the sense of the word: one of a kind.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – 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.

And there we have it: the dozen most memorable wines of 2017. I already have some great stuff t’d up for 2018, and I hope the year will bring adventure and surprise. Wishing everyone a great end to 2017 from Good Vitis! Thanks for the readership.

Bigger, Badder and Better than Ever: Old Westminster Winery

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Old Westminster Winery was full of energy when I showed up, having just completed bottling a 2017 Nouveau, their first attempt at that style of wine. Nouveau, made famous by the French region Beaujolais, is a light style wine that by French law (when it is produced there) must be sold within the same calendar year that the grapes are harvested. Traditionally made from red grapes, this means as much aging as to mean very little. The wine ends up being a very pure expression of a red wine, something we consumers almost never experience as the reds we drink usually spend a fair amount of time aging in oak barrels that alter everything about the wine. It’s extremely difficult to find Nouveau wines from anywhere other than Beaujolais, which is to say for someone like me, a frustration. The winery’s crew was running around, the bottling truck humming on the crush pad, but here came Drew Baker, the winery’s vineyard guru and my host, sauntering across the lawn towards me as I got out of my car, a big smile on his face delivering a warm welcome. What a way to arrive. And that’s Old Westminster in a nutshell: “what a (fill in the blank)” said with great esteem.

Jumping way ahead to right before I left, Drew took me to a tank in the winery and poured a sample of a wine called Farmer’s Fizz, which will be sold in a 375ml can (the equivalent of half a bottle). As we tasted it, Drew’s sister Ashli, who runs the wine club (and many other things), came over and showed me the video that would announce the canned wine project. Both beaming with pride, they talked about how they had long schemed the project and were still a bit nervous about how it would do. “Do you think it’ll cheapen our brand?” Drew asked.

What a stupid question (sorry Drew). Old Westminster is developing a reputation for being on the cutting edge of the industry, and not just in Maryland. What Drew, Ashli and their sister Lisa (who makes the wine) are doing has drawn praise from every serious wine person I know who has tasted their wine or spent time with them. I’m clearly a cheerleader, as is nationally known wine writer Dave McIntyre, who has written about them several times in The Washington Post. Despite being more than capable of selling their entire inventory through their wine club and out of their tasting room, their wines are being distributed around the tri-“state” area of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, as well as in Chicago and San Francisco. They may also be available further north up the Atlantic Coast in the near future. That’s what happens when distributors active in some of the very top markets in the country taste their wine.

Ring ring.

“Yes, hello?”

“Old Westminster Winery?”

“Yes.”

“Great, send me your wine.”

It’s not just the killer juice that sells people on the winery, it’s the fun and adventure they create for their customers by making things like a Nouveau and canned wine. And, oh, by the way, they now have a skin contact (a.k.a. “orange wine”) pinot gris available as well that is, of course, a complete joy to drink. Then there’s the expanding line of pet nat wines that sell out in no time. And, of course, there are the bottled still wines that are, as I’ve written before and will intimate again in this post, world class. Put all of this together and you have a winery doing a lot of things that a lot of people appreciate. I tasted Farmer’s Fizz, and no, Drew, your reputation won’t suffer. If anything, it will improve.

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Old Westminster has expanded; the second room is new.

How does all this magic happen? It’s hard to describe in one post how much thought these Baker kids put into each and every situation, each and every decision, they make. Here’s one example. The first wines we tasted were “two chardonnays done two ways” from the 2016 vintage. Hailing entirely from the home vineyard (their estate), roughly half the grapes were picked on the early side with the rest harvested five days later. Both were fermented with indigenous yeast. Although they had originally intended to make one blend, as the wines were coming to life in the winery, they realized they had two distinct wines, and so treated them differently and bottled them separately. One was almost entirely raised with stainless, the other a combination of 50% new French, 25% used French, and 25% stainless. The results were distinctively different wines that could be appreciated as coming from the same vines, and better than an amalgamation of the two would have been. Seems like an obvious choice, then, to do two different wines, right? Well, not necessarily. The amount of effort required by dividing the harvest into two separate wines is bigger in time and money than making a single wine. Most wineries would’ve stuck to the original plan. The Bakers made the choice to follow where the grapes were taking them.

Here’s a second example. The Baker family purchased serious acreage on a property called Burnt Hill a year or two ago where they will plant a large vineyard. They consulted with experts, did a ton of research, dug soil pits and tested the crap out of the land, and thought long and hard about what to plant there. The driving question wasn’t “what grape do we need to sell out every vintage?” It was, “what will grow best here?” And it wasn’t just the varietal, it was the clone. Or clones, because the plot is large enough with diverse soils and nutrients to benefit from a variety. Roots stocks are likely a question, too. Up until this visit, I had been told, it’s going to be all about cabernet franc, though different clones for different parcels. Fine, great, I love a good cabernet franc, especially if it’s grown where it should be. Their 2014 Antietam Creek cabernet franc is special, they know how to make the varietal.

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Not Burnt Hill, but Maryland is gorgeous, right?

But I love syrah more than cabernet franc, and Drew knows that, so when he told me that research on Burnt Hill had continued and that they now intend to plant parcels of syrah near the top of the hill, I got excited. I got excited because I can’t wait for an Old Westminster syrah – if anyone in Maryland is going to produce the best syrah, it’s going to be them (no offense to the current banner carrier of Maryland syrah). And it’s going to be them because, and this is really why I got excited, the amount of research and study that went into that decision is what produces the best wine. I’ve not known a single winery that puts this amount of time and effort into deciding what to plant, let alone what to produce, and does it seemingly purely from the perspective of ‘what can we do best?’ Most wineries, they’d buy the land, do some research, and lay down vines sooner rather than later; let’s get the revenue stream going. The diligence with which the Bakers are approaching Burnt Hill is going to yield amazing wine.

A final example: the canned wine project. To be fair to Drew, because I mocked him about this above, the consumer jury is still out on canned wine. The major projects already rolling in this category are decent but not serious wine. Old Westminster, for all the fun they have, only put out serious wine, even if it’s playful. When Ashli showed me the announcement video, it reminded me of the professionalism and thought they put into their marketing. The design of the can is beautiful, the production of the video as good as they come, and the themes of the video will resonate with consumers. Look at their Facebook page. Check out their regular Facebook Live #WineForDinner series and, I guarantee, you will learn something new about wine every time. Do yourself a favor, take the next two minutes to watch this video. It encapsulates what I think Old Westminster is namely about: an effort to make world class wine in Maryland in a way that people enjoying it understand why it’s so good and feel like they’re an integral part of it.

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Pet Nat capping

Drew and I talked a bit about how it is that Old Westminster gets to be so playful. The answer, he says, is their ability to “enjoy a unique position flexing experimental muscles” that is afforded to them by their direct-to-consumer sales model. Visit the tasting room and you may well be served by Drew or one of his sisters. This gives them the opportunity to explain why their wines are so cool, and why one should try a pet nat or an orange wine. It means they can convey to you why you shouldn’t be surprised that Maryland wine can taste this good. If Old Westminster was relying on other people to sell the wine, they’d have to convince “the trade” of these things, and then hope that their distributors and the retailers take the time to try the wines, let alone understand them and, and this is really a stretch, push them with customers. On the rare occasion a distributor wants to carry their wines, they know it’s because the distributor gets it precisely because selling Old Westminster in Illinois or California is going to take some perseverance. Distributors are about sales, and so will only take on something like Maryland wine if they’re true believers themselves and willing to hustle.

There has to be some wine geek elements to this post, and here they come. Since they were bottling the Nouveau, Drew and I spoke briefly about the 2017 harvest. He described it as a vintage he’d take again, but one that, while solid, will be forgotten in ten years. It began early and warm; Drew recalled pruning in March wearing a t-shirt. June and July were hot with sporadic thunderstorms, which is fairly common. August, however, took a turn for the worst, delivering unusually cold and wet conditions. At the end of the month, Drew felt very pessimistic knowing that there hadn’t been any growing degree days (meaning days warm enough to continue ripening the grapes). Thankfully, September was kind to the vintage and saved it. Temperatures warmed and no rain fell. Harvest came about a week earlier than normal, but the duration of it remained normal. We tasted a number of 2017 wines in tank, and of course, tasted the 2017 Nouveau from a bottle that had been filled and sealed no more than an hour earlier. I’m excited for the final products because the Bakers are making them and will give customers the best of the vintage can offer.

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On to the tasting, which I’m going to cover with formal notes below. I’ve now had probably twenty or more wines from this producer, and all have been good. More than a few have been great. As the family expands their projects, I have no concern that they can maintain the quality. The Bakers seem to learn and grow with every harvest, and I imagine the quality will only improve the more they experiment and experience.

When wines are provided to me for free because of this website, I note that. I wasn’t charged for the tasting or the visit. However, I did come home with eight wines that I purchased myself as part of my wine club membership. Old Westminster is a project of passion for the Baker family. I am all too happy to be a paying beneficiary of their work, and am honored to be allowed to spectate from time-to-time.

One note: some of these wines are yet to be released, and so retail price points are unknown. Wines that aren’t given a value rating fall into this category.

2016 Chardonnay – Aged in 85% stainless and 15% new French oak and harvested on the earlier side. The nose offers sparkling aromas of tropical fruit, florals, sweet cider apples and marzipan. The wine glides onto the palate with a glycerin sensation, but the acid doesn’t mess about and provides a wonderful balance creating a mid-weight wine. Flavors of green apple, lemon zest, starfruit and pineapple fill the mid palate as chalk kicks in on the finish and the acid turns twitchy. I really enjoyed this. 90 points. Value: B

2016 Premier Chardonnay – Aged in 50% new French oak, 25% once-used French oak and 25% stainless steel. The reticent nose is honeyed and slightly buttery but will fill out with some bottle age and oxygen in the glass. The body could be considered almost full, and delivers ripe apples, white pepper, honey drew and that wonderful, nervous, acid. 90 points.

2016 Greenstone – A blend of 58% viognier and 42% gruner vetliner fermented with native yeast, it was bottled unfined and unfiltered. Spicy and floral aromas jump out of the glass and are backfilled with big apples and banana leaf. The body is nicely in the mid weight category, offering baking spices, white pepper, stone fruit and a little bit of saline on the finish. The lovely acid and flavor profile suggests the viognier wasn’t allowed to hang on the vine for too long. This is a brilliant wine. 92 points. Value: A-

2016 Alius – Latin for “something a little different,” this is a semi-carbonic, skin fermented pinot gris with whole berries going into the tank that were allowed to ferment spontaneously. The nose requires air to bloom, but offers cider spice, apple and high-toned smoky pepper at the onset. The palate gives you honeysuckle, ripe strawberries, watermelon and huge amount of texture to ponder. I’ll take this wine in any setting. 90 points. Value: B+

2017 Nouveau – Predominantly cabernet franc, this wine was harvested five weeks before bottling and racked directly into the bottling line. The nose is unmistakably cabernet franc, offering huge doses of cherries, cranberries, baking spices, funk and smoke. The palate goes even further, delivering brilliant and thirst-quenching juicy acidity that makes the fruit shimmer while the masculine texture only briefly distracts from the svelte body. Tannins are light and finely grained. It bursts with cherries and strawberries, and delivers red currant, orange peel and black pepper as well. The question this wine poses is: do you really want to share it? 91 points. Value: B+

Tapestry Third Edition (non-vintage) – A blend of the 2013, 2014 and 2015 vintages and consisting of 42% cabernet franc, 21% merlot, 21% petit verdot, 11% cabernet franc and 5% syrah, this is the latest red wine release. The nose is a bit meaty, and air develops red berries, plums, crushed cherries, huckleberries and hickory smoke. The palate delivers olive brine, smoke, iodine, and black pepper, but the beautiful acid really elevates the fruit, which is dominated by crushed cherries and blackberries. This will age gracefully and with purpose for many years. 92 points. Value: A

2014 Black – Consisting of 38% Antietam Creek merlot, 25% South Mountain cabernet franc, 25% Antietam Creek Petit Verdot and 12% Pad’s View syrah, you might as well call this a reserve wine as it comes from premier vineyards and is a brand-new release having spent a year and a half in oak before resting for another year and a half in bottle. The nose delivers bruised cherries, Acai berries, cinnamon, scorched Earth, hickory smoke and black pepper, and is utterly captivating with extended decanting. The palate is mouth-coating with round but firm tannins that will require time to fully release. Bright acid delivers a medley of red, black and blue berries, cinnamon, nutmeg, subtle olive and smoke. It finishes with a kick of cracked black pepper. This is just a baby, it stands to improve with your patience. 93 points now, likely more in the future. This is up there with the 2014 Malbec and 2014 Antietam Creek cabernet franc as my favorite Old Westminster reds to date.

Consistently, and damn, good wine: Napa’s Ehlers Estate

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I have to admit to having not known of Ehlers Estate prior to meeting their Wine Club and Social Media Manager, Elizabeth Smith, at Taste Camp Maryland earlier this year. We had a BYOB night during the Camp and Elizabeth brought Ehlers’ sauvignon blanc and flagship 1886 cabernet sauvignon. Having had a small glass of the sauvignon blanc and a glass of the 1886, insufficiently decanted, Elizabeth offered to send samples for Good Vitis and I accepted with the caveat of setting up an interview Ehler’s winemaker, Kevin Morrisey, to round out my profile of the winery. My interactions with Elizabeth and Kevin have been fantastic and so it wasn’t a surprise when the wine lived up to the reputation.

Ehlers has been around for a long, long time – the late 1800s, actually; pretty hard to speak about Napa’s pioneers without referencing Ehlers. The building that is Ehler’s winery today is a stone barn completed by Bernard Ehlers, who bought the property, in, yes, 1886. One hundred years later, the French couple Jean and Sylvaine Leducq bought the estate and are absolutely committed to producing Bordeaux varieties that can stand up to the best in the Valley. To that end they brought on Kevin Morrisey in 2009 to make their wine.

Kevin comes with some pretty good pedigree, having interned at Chateau Petrus (yes, that Chateau Petrus) before landing at Stags’ Leap Winery where he became assistant winemaker. He was eventually poached by Etude Winery to take up the head winemaker position there before going to Ehlers because of the opportunity it presented to focus on terroir-driven, site specific, estate wines.

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Spotlight: Ehlers rose

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A rose fanatic, Kevin proudly takes credit for starting the rose programs at both wineries, a tradition he continued at Ehlers. He loves rose. Loves it. When I poured his rose the color was so impressive I didn’t want to consume it because then I’d have nothing but the picture left. The picture above doesn’t do it justice. It was, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t much care about the visuals of wine, one of the most visually stunning things I’ve ever seen. It looked like artificial watermelon coloring, but it glistened and gleamed in the sunlight and it was just one of the most gorgeous things I’ve seen. I asked Kevin about the color and he beamed through the telephone as he explained some of the geeky science behind the color of wine.

There’s something that goes on in the color of wine that isn’t fully understood by science. If you dilute red wine, the color change is not linear, but no one is exactly sure why. Further, if there’s not enough color in a wine it ends up being an unstable wine. For example, some older red wines turn brownish-orange in a way that doesn’t look natural for grape juice and is a sign that the wine is declining. Kevin really does not want his wines to turn those colors, so he aims to ensure long-term stability. He prefers low alcohol, high acid wines (meaning a low pH). When you have lots of acid and a low pH you can get a redder hew in a rose because deeper red colors come out at higher levels of acidity. Ehlers’ rose is indeed very high in acid, more than any other rose I’ve had, which explains why I’ve never seen one with such a brilliant color.

Selling rose has become easier over the last decade as there has been enough consumer education for people to reach the point where they no longer expect a sweet wine when it is poured for them. However, good rose remains the hardest wine for Kevin to make: you want the fruit and aromatics of a red wine with the great acid you get on a crisp white; or, put another way, you need the tannin and color of a red wine in a wine that shouldn’t be red. It’s a very tricky line to find, but Kevin has nailed it.

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Ehlers is a small producer bottling only 100% estate wines off their 40 acres of vineyards. Kevin and I discussed how he approaches the Leducq’s vision of creating best-in-show Bordeaux varietal wines from Napa and he begins the story with their vineyards. They do not source fruit nor plan to source fruit, which sets Ehlers apart from many, many other Napa producers, even some very good ones. Kevin named several reasons for this, but the one that caught my attention, that I found most interesting, is that he isn’t interested in dealing with subpar fruit. At first read that sentence isn’t surprising. If anything it seems like a ‘well duh’ line. However, vineyards known for producing a top-notch varietal will often require clients who want access to that fruit to purchase their subpar fruit as well, and so if your goal, like it is at Ehlers, is to sell only your best effort, you can’t get roped into a situation like that, and so to ensure his wines are consistently good he sticks with the one source he can control: his own vines.

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Ehlers’ terroir is entirely their own, the only winery producing from those vineyards. Farmed organically, the vineyards’ location is critical to Ehlers’ success as well. Located on a bench in Napa Valley and planted on well-draining soils with a good deal of cobbled rock, the vineyards sit at the narrowest point of Napa Valley, which creates a venturi effect (if I can apply that reference to wind) that whips the wind through the vineyards with regularity, helping to moderate temperatures. This doesn’t necessarily make it easier to identify an Ehlers’ wine in a blind tasting, but it helps Kevin and his team nail their consistency from year-to-year, which in turns helps build and sustain a loyal consumer following.

That consumer following comes also from the winery experience they receive. Kevin is known for spending a lot of time in the tasting room himself, which on its own isn’t likely enough to drive sales, but it is indicative of the amount of effort the Estate puts into its consumer experience. I’d wager that generally speaking winemakers avoid the tasting room, so when you have someone like Kevin eagerly making time for it you know there’s a real commitment to the constomer. That commitment is clearly shared by the rest of team, and is certainly something I’ve experienced with Elizabeth.

As someone with limited cellar space, I wanted to know why someone would purchase an Ehlers wine over the competition, and Kevin began by explaining that it’s because of the wholistic, hands-on approach that goes into producing a bottle of Ehlers. From the vines to bottling, Ehlers is entirely hand made by a small group of hard working and nice people dedicated to delivering their best in every bottle (he used the term ‘farm-to-table’ more than once). One of the most satisfying parts of the job is when he can authentically attach the wine to the place and the people for a customer. When you buy a carton of Horizon organic milk (his example, not mine), with the cute and happy cows on the carton, you think there’s a dairy somewhere out there with endless rolling hills where these cows churn out the best milk, yet that’s not the reality of Horizon’s operations. Kevin and the Ehlers team, however, deliver the wine version of that and helping people see that is of critical importance to everyone at the winery. With this in-house approach becoming less common in Napa, Ehlers is able to leverage their farm-to-table reality to earn a lot of respect among fine wine consumers who remain loyal to the winery because they are treated as though they are family.

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I asked Kevin the same ‘why would someone want Ehlers’ question a second way: why would a sommelier pull a bottle of Ehlers over a competitor’s wine? The answer is consistency. A sommelier can go to Ehlers because they know the bottle is going to be what it should be: a pure expression of a special part of Napa.  When Kevin was told this by a somm, it was a great compliment because that’s exactly what Kevin is trying to do: be true to the craft, be true to the vines, and deliver good, site-specific wine at a consistently high level.

The wines do speak for themselves, I can attest to that now. They showed dramatically high levels of quality across the lineup and each delivered great pleasure. I found the reds to be approachable now, especially with a few hours in the decanter, but I can see all improving with at least a few years of aging, especially the 1886. The consistently well-executed balance and structure of each wine seems to be a hallmark of Kevin and his team at Ehlers, and is a dead give-away that they know what they’re doing.

Now that I’ve spoken to Kevin and Elizabeth and tried their wines, I’m looking forward to visiting on my next trip to Napa to get that final, and key, Ehlers experience. All the wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2016 Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc: The nose offers lemon curd, dandelion, Starfruit, limestone and chalk. The palate is medium in stature but well-structured with significant skin tannin and racy acidity. Big Meyer lemon, bitter spring greens, apricot, Granny Smith apple and a lot of white pepper spice. This is great stuff would be fun to follow over the next five years. 91 points. Value: B+

2016 Ehlers Estate Rose (of cabernet franc): I don’t normally comment on color but this is a gorgeous, watermelon-colored red with a pinkish hew. Nose: a bit reticent at first, it wafts lovely strawberry, watermelon, lime zest, white pepper, sea mist and parsley. The body is medium in stature and has a real presence on the palate, it’s entirely dry with nicely balanced biting acid. The fruit, all red with the exception of under ripe mango and lime pith, is bright and light and backed up by some really nice bitter greens, celery, thyme and rosemary. This brilliant effort is best served with food as the racy acidity needs to sink its teeth into something. I successfully paired it with Santa Maria-style grilled tri tip. I’d actually be curious to stuff a few of these away for a year or two and see how they develop over the following three years. 92 points. Value: B+

2014 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Franc: The nose is dark and brooding with black cherry, black plum, smoke, teriyaki sauce, wet soil, black pepper and potpourri. The palate is medium bodied with slightly grainy tannins and plenty of mid palate grip. The alcohol is neatly kept, and balanced by keen acidity and a bit of sweetness on the fruit. It delivers flavors, dark and brooding like the nose, of dark cherries, acai, tar, sweet tobacco, soy sauce, black tea and graphite. This is a fantastic wine all-around, and definitely a cabernet franc for those who don’t like the vegetal profile the grape can produce. It offers a very appealing profile on the nose and palate, and a structure that is good for both solo drinking and pairing with food. This is drinking nicely now, but it has the stature to age and evolve for many years to come. It’d be fascinating to follow it over a good ten, fifteen-year period. 92 points. Value: C+

2014 Ehlers Estate Merlot: Not your typical full throttle merlot. The nose is refined with chocolate covered cherries, high toned orange zest, light cigarette tobacco and cedar. The palate is medium-plus in stature with thick, dusty tannins and crisp acidity. Flavors hit on cherries, strawberries, raspberries, graphite, tobacco, soy, orange, cocoa and Herbs de Provence. The alcohol is a respectful 14.2% but there’s a bit of a bite on the finish, though I can see it integrating better with a few more years in bottle. 90 points. Value: C-

2014 Ehlers Estate 1886 Cabernet Sauvignon: The nose is a bit reticent at this point, but it offers a variety of aromas: cherries, acai, blackberries, blueberries, black currant, dusty dark cocoa and violets. In the mouth it is anything but heavy despite its full body. The tannins are tight but polished and balanced with good acidity. The structure is just gorgeous, giving it a real professional presence. The first hits on the palate are blackberries, cherries and dark chocolate, followed by a sweet orange zest burst, graphite, and thyme. It finishes with a big salty streak of minerality. It’s a clenched fist at the moment and while several hours of decanting does release a real fresh, juicy wine, I’d recommend giving this at least five to ten years in your cellar. 93 points now, but this will go up with time. Value: B

Taste Camp 2017: Maryland. Hits, misses and near misses.

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Taste Camp takes over Black Ankle

No one told me that what happens at Taste Camp stays at Taste Camp, but I can’t help but think that there are things that happen at Taste Camp that should stay at Taste Camp. It’s that kind of thing, essentially wine camp for fully grown adults where our basic needs are taken care of for us. We’re given the schedule, driven around in a bus, go where we’re told to go and taste what’s put in front of us. After dinner, people meet in the hotel to consume wine and stay up late. People who fall asleep on the bus get their picture taken and mocked (as I learned firsthand), inside jokes develop at supersonic speed, and practical jokes aren’t uncouth. So what happens at Taste Camp stays at Taste Camp seems like an appropriate rule.

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The author, asleep, on the Taste Camp bus

This was the eighth year of Taste Camp, but my first. Organized by Lenn Thompson of famed The Cork Report blog, each year focuses on a new state and its wine. This year’s locale was Maryland, which made life easy for me.  Informal activities began on a Thursday night while official programming kicked off Friday morning with the crew from Old Westminster. I was unable to join the group until Saturday, and so my coverage unfortunately does not include what I still believe is the best Maryland winery. If you’re curious to find out more about Old Westminster, you can read a prior post I wrote about the winery and the family behind it. As far as I’m concerned they remain the only “don’t miss” stop on the Maryland wine trail.

Throughout my Maryland wine adventures, not just Taste Camp, I’ve noticed a few things. First, Maryland can be the home to world class wine so long as, and only so long as, the wine industry embraces Maryland’s uniqueness. For example, Maryland does not get enough warm days to produce big wines. This means grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot turn out wine a lot less like California or Bordeaux than some wineries seem to desperately want. They end up more subtle, leaner and often with under ripe fruit flavors. To counter this they attempt to do things like age the wine in 100% new French oak and end up turning out wines dominated by the influence oak, which wipes out nuances and personality. Many of the Maryland reds I’ve had aged in French oak take on an overwhelming tannic structure that takes far longer to release than the underlying juice can survive without declining. I’ve tried a number of newly released and aged red blends from across the state that saw either full or close to full new oak aging that don’t have, and won’t have, any of the rich fruit characteristics inherent to the style they’re modeled after. That may be fine for the casual wine drinker, but they’re often priced well above the price point the casual consumer buys with any regularity.

Another example of the choice many Maryland winemakers make to produce grapes that aren’t the most comfortable in Maryland is creating white programs that don’t include vidal blanc. Many wineries produce a chardonnay, usually barrel fermented, and may focus on albarino, the grape many winemakers in the state feel can be its signature white varietal, or sauvignon blanc, and even gruner vetliner. The challenge in Maryland for any white production is again the lack of consistent patterns of sustained heat, and none of these varietals have a history of producing great wines under such a climate (although gruner gets the closest). This often shows in the glass with whites that fail to achieve a good concentration, which leads to simple wines. The grape actually made to work in such a climate is vidal blanc, and although it doesn’t carry the cache of these other white varietals or the ability to develop the complexity or depth of them (when grown where they thrive), when approached from day one as a meticulous winemaker would approach any other, it can be, and in several examples I’ve tasted, much better than the vast majority of these other varietals coming out of Maryland.

The final observation I’ll share is that the industry is incredibly young and has a ceiling it hasn’t come close to touching yet. It can get there, if my opinion matters, by embracing what the state can do well and then focusing on that. This means, in addition to taking a look in the mirror and questioning their varietal selection, going deeper into the ground and really, truly examining what their soils can offer and then align those with not only the best varietals, but the best clones. Maryland, especially like Virginia but really like every other wine producing region in America, has seen an influx of wineries that far outpace vineyard planting and production. This rush to produce wine means that the state isn’t yet producing enough fruit to satisfy its wineries, and in that rush wineries are purchasing out-of-state grapes, juice and shiners while planting vineyards without taking the requisite time – measured in years, not months – to do the necessary research and trials prior to committing to a crop.

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A Big Cork Vineyard

In winemaking there is often the unfortunate reality that there is a difference between what you want to produce, what you can produce, and what you should produce. I may be biased, but the winemakers behind many of my favorite wines from around the world usually begin with the belief that wine is made in the vineyard. From what I’ve seen in Maryland, I can count on one hand the amount of wineries taking that perspective. The best of these is Old Westminster, which Dave McIntyre of The Washington Post recently profiled as taking exactly this approach. I went into Taste Camp hoping to see more recognition of this, and while I got the impression from one or two wineries I hadn’t yet come across that they get this, it seems pretty clear to me that the industry as a whole has yet to acknowledge this reality.

I joined the group bright and early on Saturday morning as we boarded the bus to Black Ankle, one of the pioneers of the renaissance of the Maryland winery movement that began in the mid-2000s and since their first vintage considered among the state’s very best. They gave the Taste Camp crew a real treat: vertical tastings of their two signature red wines going back to the first vintage of each. We began with their Bordeaux-styled Crumbling Rock and tasted the 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2013 vintages. The 2006 did not seem old at all, with a discernable tannic structure still in place. The fruit had mellowed and was slightly burnt, but still enjoyable, while there were fantastic herbaceous notes and some orange zest. It was my second favorite of the lineup falling just behind the 2012, which is a baby still showing primary fruit. It was quite smooth, well integrated and balanced. The 2010 was also  nice, my third choice, and featured very juicy red fruit, nice florals and a dense, grainy tannic structure. It is no coincidence that these three vintages were the only ones to receive less than 100% new French oak. The second vertical featured Black Ankle’s Leaf-Stone 100% varietal syrah. The youngest, the 2007, was my favorite as it hit on the savory side of the syrah slope: leather, hickory smoke, and maple syrup bacon. It was fantastic and one my top-five wines of the weekend. The 2013 stood out as well, though is a few years too young at this point. The profile of smoke, mint, herbs, saline and florals crowds out the fruit at the moment, but I imagine this will develop into a top-flight syrah.

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The Black Ankle lineup

From Black Ankle we ventured to Big Cork, who put us through a tasting of current releases. We began with the 2016 sauvignon blanc that offered sweet tropical fruit, florals and musty aromas and was full bodied on the palate with peach, apricots and some creaminess. I found it to be too clean and watery, lacking in personality. Up next was the 2015 viognier, which was aged in 70% stainless and 30% oak (which was fermented in the barrel). The nose was a bit reticent but offered some soapiness, lean tropics, citrus and vanilla. The body offered very nice acidity, citrus and baking spices. I wouldn’t have necessarily picked this out of a blind tasting as a viognier, which is neither a good nor bad thing, although I found it lacking an identity.

We moved onto the 2016 rose of syrah, an excellent effort with a gorgeous nose and lush body full of red, black and blue berries and rose water. Next was the 2015 Meritage red blend, which offered a skunky nose that suggested Brett. There was also a fair amount of cedar and dark fruit. The body was medium in stature with grainy tannins and restrained fruit. The florals were pretty and played off a little petrol and cassis on the mid palate. I found this to be neither good nor bad. They then treated us to their 2013 Reserve Malbec, which had a lovely nose of potpourri, red berries and black pepper. The medium body gave flavors of acai, raspberry and dark plum, lavender, wet soil, and pepper. All of this was very appreciated but unfortunately the barrel influence weighted heavily on the wine and overshadowed everything else.

The next wine was the 2014 nebbiolo, which was fantastic. The nose offered licorice, tobacco, red berries and leather while the palate at this point is an acid bomb with good tannic structure, meaning this is going to age gracefully and develop over time. There is huckleberry, salmon berry, cranberry, spice, leather and balsamic flavors at the moment. It needs five-plus years before uncorking. We finished with their Black Cap, a port wine made from raspberries. While enjoyable, it was myopically raspberry on the nose and palate, although it came off a bit medicinal at moments.

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The tasting at Big Cork

After our tasting of Big Cork’s wine, their hospitality extended to allowing smaller wineries to use space in the winery to pour their wines for us. I will say that I am incredibly impressed by the camaraderie and gentility Maryland wineries share among themselves. There’s a recognition that a rising tide raises all boats that engenders an honest effort to rally around this principle. The bigger names seem to enthusiastically pull heavy loads in an effort to assist the collective effort to improve the state’s reputation for wine.

We tasted a number of wineries in the back of Big Cork, including Knob Hall, Mazzaroth Vineyard, Antietam Creek, Catoctin Breeze and Hidden Hills Farm and Vineyard. All of these, I believe, were new to me and were a welcomed shift in our itinerary to smaller producers. Knob Hall poured three wines including their 2015 cabernet franc rose, 2015 chambercin and 2014 Reserve cabernet franc. The rose stood out among the three as quite lovely, offering a little spice, florals and very pure but not over the top red fruit. Mazzaroth was only pouring one wine as it had sold out of everything else (a nice problem to have), a vidal blanc that offered a gorgeous nose of honeysuckle, cantaloupe and vanilla custard. The body was lush but leaned out a bit by crisp acidity that exposed honeydew, vanilla and some herbal elements. This is one of the vidal blancs I’d use to demonstrate that the varietal can be as good as, if not better than, any of the others.

Antietam Creek poured its 2015 chardonnay, which spent eight months in oak, half of it new, but was not put through malolactic. The result was a prototypical American chardonnay that offered notes like banana, vanilla, apricot and primary barrel flavors with a structure driven by oak aging. While not my flavor of chardonnay, it was a solid. The 2015 Antietam Reserve red is a clearly well-made wine that was medium in body and dominated by red and purple fruit, petrol, smoke and pepper. Their third offering was a varietally-labeled petit verdot that impressed. The nose was a bit reticent with its pepper and cherry, but the body was impressively smooth for a wine featuring 75% petit verdot (the remainder is merlot, which was the right choice to smooth out the edges and provide more body). It has nice cherry, hickory smoke and pepper.

The standout producer, not only at this stop in our itinerary but throughout the weekend, was Catoctin Breeze Vineyard. They presented three impressive wines that were all among my top-5 from the weekend. Their 2016 chardonnay was pitched as a Chablis-styled effort, and I was dumbstruck when it actually delivered a bit on that approach. Far too many domestic chardonnay producers boast about aiming for what is a particularly difficult style to emulate and utterly fail. Chardonnay from Chablis is racy, streaky, and nervous, not to mention layered with complexities. Catoctin Breeze ages some of its chardonnay in stainless and some in oak, 90% of which is second-year barrels. It turns out a ripe, round nose with classic tropical, vanilla and gravely aromas while the body achieves a very desirable balance with good acid and a deft leanness. It has nice minerality, limestone and lime notes and is just a touch creamy while it finishes with a Chablis-esque verve.

Their 2015 cabernet franc was equally great. The fantastic nose had high-toned cherries and huckleberries with petrol and pepper. The medium body featured elegant, polished tannin and penetrating red fruit including cherries, rhubarb and plums, plus that vegetal profile that most wineries unfortunately steer away from. Really awesome stuff. The last wine was their 2015 Oratorio barbera, which had a pretty nose featuring florals, orange zest and pepper while the body, quite full in stature, had wonderful leather, mint, cherry and rose. The tannic structure was substantial and will allow this to age for quite some time.

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Backroom Big Cork tasting

The next day we ventured to Boordy Vineyards and Winery, one of the biggest producers in the state. Again, we were graciously hosted as were several smaller wineries who were able to pour their wines for us. Boordy recently completed a winery makeover that is truly spectacular and would make any winemaker drool. The winery receives more than 80,000 visitors annually which as driven big growth in direct-to-consumer sales.

Boordy’s 2016 albarino showed why many believe it deserves to be Maryland’s signature white varietal. The Boordy rendition offered lime, peach, mango and flint on the nose while the medium-sized body offered sweet lemon, pineapple, green apple and marzipan. Their 2015 chardonnay, which saw 30% new oak and barrel fermentation, had a mineral-driven nose with a little chalk, lemon, lime and oak vanilla. The body is on the lighter end of the spectrum and featured bright acidity, good minerality, white pepper and reserved citrus, though the structure is clearly driven by its extensive relationship with oak. I found myself, however, wishing for greater concentration as the flavors were a little too lean.

We were then poured the 2016 cabernet franc rose, which was dominated by strawberry on the nose and palate, but also featured raspberries and huckleberries. The 2014 cabernet franc had a nice bloody nose along with cherries, smoke and pepper. The body was medium and had nicely polished tannins, but again the concentration was insufficient to establish a real presence and personality. We finished with their flagship Landmark Reserve, made in only exceptional years. This one was the 2013. The nose is quite young and hasn’t yet come together, but is promising. The medium body is very smooth and offers red and black fruits, iodine and saline, parsley, tobacco and dark cocoa. It is reticent and still too young, though the dense grainy tannic structure suggests it might improve with age. Again, however, I experienced low concentration in this one and a lack of distinction owing to the dominance of oak.

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Boordy’s new winery

Following Boordy, we tasted a number of smaller producers. The first was Chateau Bu-De whose consulting winemaker poured the wines. Bu-De sources grapes from Maryland, Pennsylvania and California and focused on vineyard-designates. Naturally we tasted their Maryland wines. The first was the 2015 Bohemian Manor Farm sauvignon blanc, which had a reticent nose giving off elements from malolactic fermentation. The body is full and round, crisp but not particularly acidic. The palate is soft and features lychee, lime, slate, spearmint and vanilla. It’s a very easy drinker, I’d say a porch pounder. We then tried the 2015 Bohemian Manor Farm gruner vetliner. A majority of the wine was fermented in barrel, which is an unusual approach to producing the variety and showed in the final product. It is full and lush with low acid, which is not how one would typically describe gruner. It offered lime, apricot and white pepper on top of a chalky sensation. The structure is good but it doesn’t offer a ton of varietal character, making me wonder why one would take such an approach. I’d only recommend it for people who don’t like traditional gruner.

Next was their 2015 barrel fermented chardonnay, which was fresh and bright on the nose but full and creamy on the palate and dominated by zesty lime rind. This was entirely dominated by oak and uninteresting. We finished with the Bohemian Manor Farm cabernet franc, whose reticent, sweet nose belied what is a full bodied wine with blue fruit that pops. It also offers wet dirt and a nice green pepper spice. The tannins are big and this wine will improve with time, I found it to be the most compelling of the lineup.

I also tasted through wines from Dodon, Royal Rabbit, Harford and Crow Vineyards (whose vidal blanc I called a standout at the Maryland Wineries Association’s 2017 Winter Wine Festival). I’m not going to go through all the wines, but I do want to call out Dodon’s 2015 Dungamon blend of merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot which is a wine to follow over the next 10 years, and Royal Rabbit’s Il Barone barbera which I found quite interesting with funky and fresh aromas and flavors and great concentration.

I owe some sizable and sincere gratitude for the weekend. Lenn Thompson, Taste Camp’s founder and organizer, is the man. Thanks dude. Visit Frederick, who helped facilitate much of the weekend, was a fantastic host, as was the city itself. It’s a great city to spend a long weekend, with or without the kids. If you live or are traveling through the Mid-Atlantic, I strongly urge you to give it some time. The Maryland Wineries Association, who helped organize many of the tastings, is doing a good job representing the state’s wines. And finally, a thanks to my fellow campers who made the weekend a lot of fun. And finally, a big thanks to those whose pictures I ripped off for this post.

Final thought: don’t skip Maryland wine, but as I’ve suggested to the state’s wineries, pay close attention to how you do it. Find those who are approaching wine production intelligently and you stand a good chance of being impressed.

Wine Adventure: 24 Wines from Ontario

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I grew up in Washington State, about 25 miles south of the US border with Canada. With our antenna, I lived through my formidable years on Canadian television. Though we admittedly watched little TV in my house growing up, the quirky (okay, cheesy) humor of the Red Green Show, brilliantly staged Just For Laughs’ gag segments and improv genius of Second City Television formed my sense of humor to a very large degree. When I was in high school and racing bicycles, I can’t tell you how many times we’d drive up to the Vancouver area for races. Vancouver, still my favorite city in North America and one I don’t get to visit nearly enough, is home to the best culinary scene I’ve experienced in any of my travels around the world, including my short stint living in Barcelona and my trip to Tokyo, two cities widely considered to be among the very best for food. And the people, so nice.

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Red Green and his nephew, Harold. Credit: tvtropes.org

I left the Pacific Northwest in 2005 and although I get back at least once a year I’ve still not made it to British Columbia’s wine country, which has an improving reputation. I’ve been trying to figure out how to experience some of their wines here in Washington, DC and have come up blank – BC wine industry folk, if you’re reading this, please help! However, I’ve also long been told that wine country in another province, Ontario, had something to say about making quality Canadian wine and I can say now, thankfully, that I’ve been able to experience some of what they produce.

It all started last November in the tasting room of Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara, California. I was in the area for work but was able to visit ABC and Jaffurs, two of my California favorites. While at ABC I met a woman who worked for a winery in Ontario. We got to talking, I told her about Good Vitis, my interest in trying Canadian wine and the difficulty I’ve had finding it where I live. We stayed in contact and she offered to put together a selection of wines from across Ontario and ship them to me as samples to review for Good Vitis.

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The reds

And boy, did she deliver. About two months ago two cases showed up at my office spread across ten wineries. There was pinot noir, chardonnay, gamay, riesling, cabernet franc and red and white blends. As I looked through the treasures, I wondered how I was going to try all this wine. First world problems, I know. Eventually I was able to cobble together some friends from the wine industry here in DC, including a fellow blogger and the manager of a retail outlet for a well-respected East Coast importer, to share in the experience.

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I had also emailed my Internet friend Peter Vetch, a proud Calgarian and author of Pop & Pour wine blog (by the way, his posts on the Finger Lakes Region are a must-read for anyone considering or planning a trip there), to get some information about Ontario wine and show him the lineup. Ontario has three appellations: the Niagara Peninsula (with ten sub-appellations and two regional appellations), Lake Erie North Shore (one sub-appellation) and Prince Edward County (no sub-appellations). The history and terroir of the three appellations are pretty diverse. Peter confirmed that the wines were almost entirely from the Niagara Peninsula (three came from Prince Edward County) and were a decently representative sample of that appellation. While all three appellations lie in climates that are on the cooler end of the global wine growing spectrum, they experience differing amounts of warming, cooling, wind and rainfall, and have different soil types. That being said, my eight favorite wines in the lineup came from six different sub-appellations of the Niagara Peninsula, so I’m a bit confused, if I’m honest, about the impact these differences have on the final product. The answer may be clear to someone with more Ontario wine experience than myself, I don’t know. Terroir, also, can be changed dramatically in a winery and I imagine there was a fair amount of this factor in play.

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The whites

In the same vein, there was a massive range of quality in these wines. I rated wines as low as 75 points and as high as 92, and the distribution of scores is spread across that range. There were also significant stylistic differences among wines made from the same varietals. This could be accounted for by the fact that they were made by different winemakers, though the differences were so significant that even differences in sub-appellation and winery don’t seem sufficient explanations. The others at the tasting had similar reactions.

I have positive and negative things to say about the wines. Let me get the negatives out of the way. While all significant, they are also all relatively easily addressed by the winemakers and vineyard managers. Given that we had a number of high quality wines that we enjoyed, the location of the vines is clearly not the issue in wines that demonstrated problems. A number of wines showed very artificial flavors (one I described as smelling and tasting like Yoplait strawberry banana yogurt), which are the result of winemaking, not terroir. Many were overly acidic, meaning that the body, alcohol and flavors were so out of balance with the acid that the best explanation seemed to be freewheeling acidulation. Several wines seemed watery, which in a couple instances was unfortunate because the diluted flavors were dynamic and could have been wonderful under greater concentration. This can be addressed either in the vineyard or the winery, or both, depending on the source of the phenomenon. Some wines clearly demonstrated poor yeast strain selections, while a few had obvious quality control issues in the winery, likely poor cleaning practices of the facilities. Finally, a few were over oaked, at least for my palate, but also in a way that didn’t allow me to confirm what I thought could have been some really delicious flavors that could have merited higher scores.

On the positive side, several wines offered truly interesting and unusual flavor profiles that captivated our attention. Many offered great complexity in their flavor profiles, though even the best, unfortunately, didn’t offer the concentration or depth needed to elongate the experience and transform it into something magical. I was sent three gamays, two of which blew us away (and this was an audience well acquainted with great gamay). As a varietal cohort in the lineup it was the most impressive, and we all agreed were wines we’d buy ourselves. The fruit notes were generally appealing, though some showed unusual and appealing combinations. The very best combined bright, focused fruit in harmony with savory and Earthy flavors.

The eight wines that stood out for me included Bachelder’s 2013 Lowery Vineyards pinot noir and 2013 Wingfield Block Wismer Vineyard chardonnay, which demonstrated a deft winemaker’s hand capable of spotlighting the best their fruit had to offer. Cave Spring delivered the best pinor noir in the lineup. 13th Street Winery gave us two world class gamays that offered some awesome gaminess to go with its ripe fruit. Stratus delivered a very good cabernet franc that stylistically straddled the new and old worlds. Tawse supplied the best chardonnay, if not the best wine, of the lineup, and Charles Baker gave us an intriguing riesling. Flat Rock Cellars and Norman Hardie had some solid efforts as well, and it isn’t hard to imagine even better wines coming out of their wineries in the not-too-distant future.

While ten wineries and two cases of wine is a pretty fantastic introduction, it is certainly not fully representative of a wine region as big as Ontario. Without trying a good deal more, and without speaking to a number of winemakers and vineyard managers, I wouldn’t want to pass any kind of declaratory judgment on Ontario wine other than to say this: there are clearly people in Ontario making good and interesting wine, and if more can sharpen their craft it’s a region that could well rise in status in the wine world.

A big thanks to all of the participating wineries and especially to Jennifer Hart of Flat Rock Cellars. All the wines were supplied as trade samples and tasted sighted. As many of these wines are not consistently distributed in the US, and because I could only find pricing in Canadian dollars for most of them, I’m going to avoid mis-valuing these wines by not assigning values to them as would normally be my standard procedure.

Wines

2015 13th Street Gamay Noir – Big cherry nose with beef smoked over hickory and some tangerine. It’s a little skunky, but not in a bad way. Funky and appealing aromas. The palate is slightly tannic and offers nice acidity in balance. Flavors offer ripe cherry, cranberry and quite a bit of raspberry to go with some game. Very interesting gamay offering flavors unusual in the varietal grown elsewhere. 89 points.

2014 13th Street Gamay Noir Reserve Sandstone – Wonderful nose of peppered salmon jerky, mushroom funk, cherries and black pepper. The palate offers fun flavors of acai, raspberry, blood orange, turkey jerky and iodine. Not a ton of depth but oh so enjoyable. Very intriguing terroir shows in this wine. 91 points.

2013 Bachelder Chardonnay Wingfield Block Wismer Vineyard – The nose is quite pretty with mango, pineapple and perfumed flowers. There’s also a bit of chalk. The palate is lush without being heavy, and the acid is well balanced with sweet starfruit, pineapple, lemon and peach. There’s a diversifying kick of white pepper. A solid, complete chardonnay. 90 points.

2013 Bachelder Pinot Noir Lowrey Vineyards – The nose offers macerated cherries, smoke, pepper, rose and dandelion. It offers a full, ripe and shiny mouth feel in a medium body that is nicely rounded with sweet cherries, black pepper and tangerine. There is also a bit of cocoa, pipe tobacco and tar. The flavor profile is a complex one, though it lacks significant depth. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive, classy effort. 90 points.

2015 Cave Spring Riesling Cave Spring Vineyard – The nose smells of tennis ball gas, straw, honey, pepper, guava and a lot of citrus zest. The palate is a tad bit effervescent and dry with nice limey acidity. There seems to be more flavor here that could be teased out with just a touch of residual sugar. 86 points.

2015 Cave Spring Pinot Noir – This offers a very pretty nose of dark cherries, plums, a variety of baking spices and some herbal qualities. The body is full with polished tannins. The flavors include chocolate covered cherries, celery, Herbs de Provence, black pepper, cinnamon and orange zest. It has the requisite depth and acidity to improve over the next few years if cellared properly. 91 points.

2013 Charles Baker Riesling Picone Vineyard – Big tennis ball gas on the nose, a little kerosene and a lot of chalk. The palate coats the mouth with seeming sweetness in what is a dry offering. There is honeyed kumquat, white pepper, slate and peach. The acid is kicking on the finish which dries the palate a bit too quickly. A good effort. 90 points.

2012 Flat Rock Cellars Chardonnay The Rusty Shed – A modest nose of citrus and mothballs. The palate is light, lush and a little soapy. There is a little sour citrus and green apples combined with sweet peach. Starfruit and white pepper round out the flavor profile. Lacks in weight – feels a bit watery – and complexity but is pleasant enough to sip. 87 points.

2014 Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir Twenty Mile Bench – The nose offers macerated cherries, rhubarb and pickle juice. The palate is heavy and offers dark fruits. There are significant barrel notes of cocoa and hazelnut, although a bit of greenness, tar and smoke emerge. A bit too judicious use of oak on this as it seems to be beating down more interesting flavors lurking beneath it. 88 points.

2012 Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir Gravity – The nose is smoky, offering cherries, herbs and charred barrel notes. The palate is light but offers good density and robust grainy tannins. There is pickle juice, tart red fruits, smoke and tar. However, all of this is unfortunately beaten down by heavy toasted barrel notes. Less oak would have produced a more nuanced and complex wine. 88 points.

2016 Malivoire Pinot Noir Rosé Moira Vineyard – Smells and tastes like Yoplait strawberry banana yogurt, likely the result of an unplanned rose in which leftover juice was hit with a random yeast strain. 75 points.

2012 Malivoire Pinot Noir Mottiar – Smells of a natural gas leak, burnt rubber and raspberries. Tastes of ground cherry pits and gasoline. 75 points.

2015 Malivoire Gamay Small Lot Beamsville Bench VQA – Pretty red fruit on the nose along with black pepper and orange peel. The palate is medium bodied with noticeable tannic structure. The raspberries and huckleberries are quite juicy, which give way quickly to a watery sensation with watermelon and orange juice flavors that suggest high levels of lactic acid brought on by inoculation through a foreign yeast strain or two. Detrimentally over-engineered. 85 points.

2014 Norman Hardie Chardonnay Unfiltered – The nose is zesty and features straw and assorted roasted nuts. It’s lean bodied and offers exceptionally bright acid with textured lemon and lime zest. That the high level of acid is so out of proportion to the lean body suggests over acidulation. 86 points.

2014 Norman Hardie Chardonnay County – The nose is dominated by malolactic influences and is supported by nutty aromas while the palate is extremely zesty and bright with almond and peanut flavors. It strikes me as being overly acidulated as the acid is far out of balance with what is a very light body. 85 points.

2015 Norman Hardie Pinot Noir Unfiltered – Fantastic nose of pretty red fruits and flowers with just the right amount of tar and smoke. The palate is quite juicy offering raspberry, huckleberry and cherry to go with a little cocoa and parsley. An easy and pleasant drinker. 89 points.

2014 Norman Hardie Pinot Noir County – The nose wreaks of Brett and manure while the palate is filled with plastic flavors and bright fruit. It is quite watery and has a hint of effervescence. Neither undrinkable nor desirable. 80 points.

2013 Southbrook Winery Chardonnay Poetica – Unfortunately corked, not rated.

2015 Southbrook Winery Vidal Orange Wine – Nose: Brett band aid, Styrofoam and big apple cider vinegar. Not particularly pleasant. The palate is light, lean and musty. Sweet and sour flavors, very reminiscent of a light mead. There were some issues in the winemaking with this one, likely some quality control lapses. 79 points.

2013 Stratus White – The nose offers abundant peach and plastic with a slight whiff of parsley. The palate is lush and smooth, but the low acid turns it flabby in a hurry. It tastes of peach, white pepper, honey and marzipan. This is potentially showing its age and should be consumed sooner rather than later. 88 points.

2013 Stratus Cabernet Franc – The nose is meaty, savory and dark in its bramble berry, blood and smoke notes. The palate is medium bodied with tannins that release with air. It offers flavors of asparagus, beef jerky, oranges, strawberries and cherries and shows discernible but constructive charred oak influence. A nice twist on cabernet franc, I quite enjoyed this despite its slight watery sensation. 90 points.

2012 Stratus Red – A reserved nose of dark fruit and smoked salmon jerky. The palate seemed nondescript, but still enjoyable. Dark fruit was in abundance as was a sense of loam and dark Earth, but it is all overshadowed by too eager a use of oak. It offers a bit of vegetal flavors and finishes with a big pepper kick. 87 points.

2013 Tawse Chardonnay Quarry Road Vineyard – Nose: very zesty Meyer lemon and lime, stone fruit and a lot of slate and chalk. There is also some smoke, petrol and a little lees must. The palate is lush, creamy and dense with nicely balanced acidy that keeps the wine from becoming heavy or cloying. The oak treatment and fermentation adds nice weight and structure to the palate without bringing any of the annoying butter, toast or oily peanut tagalongs. There is lemon curd, peach, dried apricot, parsley, celery, grass, a hint of spearmint and some nice limestone. This is good stuff. 92 points.

2013 Tawse Pinot Noir Cherry Ave Vineyard – The nose offers mint and stewed dark berries and plums. The palate is quite tannic – give this a good decant or a few more years in the cellar – and full bodied. There is a little bit of kerosene kick, but it’s in good balance with ripe cherries, white pepper, bitter herbs, dandelion. Intriguing but not terribly complex. 88 points.

 

 

 

 

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.

World Class Wine is Made in Maryland

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Wine in the Old Westminster Winery tasting room

Really good wine can be made from Maryland grapes, that much is clear from visiting Old Westminster Winery. And when the Baker family does it, it can also be really special. Boutique wineries like Old Westminster often strive for a signature or house style that can attract a loyal following to ensure financial stability and a place in wine’s royalty. What seems in vogue these days is a focus on creating wines that are “expressions” of their vineyards or climates and thus the signature is something a little less specific to the winemaker than it is to the grapes and their sources.

Old Westminster does this, sort of, but after you try the wine you get the feeling there’s a loftier goal. Maryland terrior isn’t particularly acclaimed, and while the Bakers passionately aim to change its reputation for the better through smart varietal choises and meticulous vineyard site selection and management, they also aim to make the best wine they can with those grapes using a wide variety of vineyard management and winemaking techniques carefully chosen to coax the best wine from the grapes. The end results are wines that, if tasted blind, would likely be assumed to be from elsewhere while standing out for their quality and unique profiles. If another dozen or two wineries join Old Westminster and the other vanguard Maryland winery Black Ankle then perhaps Maryland’s terrior would gain enough attention to be recognizable. Given the newness of serious Maryland wine and the climatic challenges of the mid-Atlantic, the Baker’s wines are, at least to me, especially impressive because of where they are raised.

Drew Baker, one of the three siblings behind Old Westminster, met me on a Tuesday afternoon at their beautiful one-year old tasting room and over a low key tasting of eight wines introduced me to the Baker family’s approach to producing top shelf wine, which begins with smart site selection. The Baker’s estate vineyard sits on the mid-Maryland ridge on the Piedmont Plateau at an elevation of about 800 feet while its others sources are along the ­­­­­­­western foothills of South Mountain and range in elevation between 750 and 1000 feet. The family is expanding their own  vineyards into other areas as they invest significantly in finding the best sites. The family recently purchased the 117-acre Burnt Hill Farm on Piedmont Plateau after a long search in partnership with a renowned geologist. Drew is utterly jazzed about this new project.

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One of Old Westminster’s new estate vineyards

The Bakers are also taking advantage of the land around the winery, where they harvest some of the fruit used in the wine they’re currently selling, to experiment with new varietals. For example, in the vineyard across from the tasting room is a small planting of chardonel, a late ripening hybrid of the vitis vinifera chardonnay and the hybrid seyval blanc created in New York that can develop decent brix along with good acidity while still weathering colder climates. Though Old Westminster hasn’t committed to selling any wine made from the grape, Drew is excited to experiment with it next year when he’s able to harvest it for the first time.

The Baker family’s influences are significant. Between the siblings the family worked multiple vintages in Argentina (Ashli at a Micheal Rouland winery), New Zealand (Drew with Morton Estate) and California (Lisa with Patz & Hall and Bredrock Wine Company) in preparation for starting their own winery. The experience has paid off not only for what they learned about making good wine, but for what they learned about the kind of wines they wanted to make as well. Their wines aren’t an effort to replicate those of any of the wineries where they worked.

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Old Westminster’s tasting room

In the winery the Bakers are quite specific as well. Drew talked at length about taking only whole berries to tank and their meticulous efforts to ensure broken skins get removed. They use gravity to move must and ferment with native yeasts, and often times blend different press cuts to assemble wines that bear the characteristics the family is looking for in each wine. If you’re reading between the lines, you’re realizing that they spend a lot of time making their wine as these are not insignificant efforts.

The result is truly a Old Westminster house style: it has a set of particularities that combine the vineyards’ terrior and the Old Westminster processes to produce something unique. The whites showed consistently highly levels of acid that melded with ripe, round fruits and skin tannins to produce medium bodied beauties. With the reds I found myself noting meatiness and dark cherries across the range, each with nice concentration and enough acid to make the wines shine with food. Perhaps Old Westminster’s most impressive wines are their pétillant-naturel sparklers. It’s hard to be more wine geek than that these days. Every wine shows precision and cleanliness without losing personality.

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Drew Baker (L) and the author

My tasting notes and scores are below. The pet-nats, cabernet franc and malbec were standouts. Old Westminster makes a large variety of wines, and if the pet-nat made from albarino is any indication then the still version, which I wasn’t able to try, is likely a shining example of why it may be a leading contender for Maryland’s best white varietal. I highly recommend a visit to Old Westminster and the customizable wine club, which I’ve joined since the visit. Their wines can be purchased at the winery and through their website.

2015 Pét-Nat Albariño: First of its kind made in mid-Atlantic. Picked early at 3.0 pH and 19 brix (highly acidic). Very bright and fresh. A bit reductive at first but with a few minutes it begins to sing. Honeyed citrus on the nose. Really fun cocktail fruit/tutti fruiti aromas along with celery. Wonderful straw flavor notes along with strawberries, celery and mandarin oranges. Bit of baking spice. Incredibly executed vision, I imagine it would be great after a 20-30 minute decant. 93 points. Value: A

2015 Pét-Nat Gruner Veltiner: Like the Pet- Nat Albariño this was picked early September (especially unusual for the later ripening grape) and, also like the Albariño bottled at a density of 2 atmospheres of pressure, a full two-thirds less than the average Champagne. Aromas of honeysuckle, orange zest and white pepper. The palate is bigger and rounder than the Albariño and more fleshy and oily. Underripe oranges, big acid zip. Grassy notes along with artichoke. Would benefit from a 30-60 minute decant. 91 points. Value: A-

NV Greenstone White Third Edition: a multivintage of 2014 and 2015 it hasn’t been released yet. Blend of two-thirds viognier and one-third sauvignon blanc. The nose is initially a little skunky but it burns off quickly; by the time it’s released it may disappear. There are big pineapple and honey notes that do, thankfully stick around. Also a bit flinty. The palate is bigger than expected but the sauvignon blanc’s acidity keeps it from putting on too much weight.  Tropical with fresh pasture flavors and a big dose of white pepper. 89 points. Value: TBD

2015 Cool Ridge Viognier: aged entirely in stainless and aged sur lie. The nose is tropical and has a big dose of vanilla that comes, impressively, entirely from the fruit. With a bit more air it takes on a marshmallow note. It’s medium bodied and driven by streaky acid that I really appreciate. There’s a nice chili flake kick along with pound cake and mango flavors. This is leaner and acidic viognier and I prefer that style to the bigger and buttery California and Condrieu profiles. 89 points. Value: B+

2014 Antietam Creek Vineyard Cabernet Franc: extremely aromatic, this slams itself into your nose with huge density. Smoked meat with peppered beef jerky kick things off and intense glass swirling brings out gorgeous boysenberries. It’s medium bodied in the mouth and comes off quite fresh and clean. The acid is robust and the fruit just a little sweet, but it is far from cloying. Big black pepper and cherries along with flavors of tar, smoke and iodine. There’s just a touch of greenness in the background that I imagine will integrate with another year or two of bottle age. This is an unusual cabernet franc, neither what you’d in Chinon or California, it’s a savory delight. 93 points. Value: A

2013 Channery Hill: a blend of 85% merlot and 15% cabernet sauvignon. The nose is driven by meatiness and cherries but also has whiffs of crushed bedrock stones and smoke. There’s just a hint of mocha. In the mouth it’s fairly lightweight but has a good dose of grainy tannins that establish its presence. Classic merlot flavors of cherries, smoke and coca while the cabernet sauvignon adds sweet mint and tar. A nice sipper that I can see evolving over a few hours. 88 points. Value: B

NV Revelry Second Edition: 32% cabernet franc, 32% blaufränkisch, 16% merlot, 14% syrah and 4% cabernet sauvignon. Includes some free run and bled juice. The nose is again meaty with bright cherries, it also features cranberries. The palate is a bit heavier but its bright acidity and skin tannins keep it dancing. The fruit is dark and includes blackberries, cherries and plus. There is also some nice vegetal and black pepper flavors. With some air it takes on a really nice hickory barbecue sauce note. I imagine this would be a very versatile food and cheese wine. 90 points. Value: A-

2014 South Mountain Malbec: more than any grape I’ve experienced malbec reflects its terrior and this one is no different. It wafts sweet smokiness, cherries, raspberries, thyme and tar in a gorgeous bouquet. The palate is medium bodied and offers a delightful duo of fruit and acidity that balance out nicely with the still-softening tannins. The texture is fantastic. Fruit is red and sweet and plays off the black pepper note nicely. As it takes on air pomegranate flavors and astringency show up. 93 points now but with another few years it’ll be even better. Value: A

 

Thirteen Israeli Wines That Will Change Your Worldview

This piece was originally published in The Tower Magazine.

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There’s so much more out there than Manischewitz. Our reviewer makes the case for buying a case of wine from the land of milk and honey.

Full disclosure: I have a love-hate relationship with Israeli wine. When it’s good, it’s world-class, and several of Israel’s wine-growing regions are among the most beautiful in the world to visit. But during my year in Israel from 2010 to 2011, I found myself disappointed by much of what I drank. That said, I’m told the country’s wine industry has improved since then. This article is my attempt to revisit Israeli wine. I want to share the experience because the story of Israeli wine is a fascinating one, and sampling Israel’s wine industry is one of the more enjoyable ways of supporting the Jewish state. Hopefully, I will entice you to take your own voyage into Israeli wine.

Before I go any further, I must admit that I am a wine snob. I’ve been drinking expensive wine for half my life and began collecting fine wine about eight years ago. Three years ago, I began making wine professionally. I routinely join other wine snobs to share special bottles. So, my standards have only risen since my introduction to Israeli wine five years ago.

Still, I am transfixed by the story of Israel’s wine industry. Part of what makes it so compelling for those who fall under its spell are the paradoxes surrounding its success. Nearly half desert, the land of milk and honey made the desert bloom, allowing Israel to become an agricultural exporter, and Israel’s wine is part of this history. Israel’s wine industry is both old, with roots going back 6,000 years, and new, with the industry only beginning to adopt the art’s best practices in the 1970s and still struggling to find a unique style. Part of the Israeli wine world remains behind the times; another is on the cutting edge. Some producers have, through skill, technique, and, most critically, natural talent, made wines that can compete with some of the best the world has to offer. Yet much of the industry is still underperforming in quality and taste. Nonetheless, my voyage demonstrated that this may be changing.

So how does one begin to explore Israeli wine? To begin to answer this question, a bit of history helps. The story of Jewish wine goes back at least to biblical times. The Torah is full of references to grapes, vines, and wine. After the flood, Noah “became a husbandman and planted a vineyard,” which would make him the Torah’s first recorded viniculturalist. In the book of Genesis, he also becomes the first person in the Torah to get drunk. In Numbers, Moses sends spies into the Promised Land who return with a cluster of grapes so big it has to be carried on a poll by two men. Later, the Talmud goes so far as to describe 60 types of wine.

Jews loved wine in those days. King David’s wine collection was so big that he had an official dedicated to managing it. As Israeli wine critic Adam Montefiore has noted, referring to the role of a certified professional wine expert, “This may have been Israel’s first sommelier!” And Noah wasn’t the only biblical viniculturalist: The book of Isaiah includes impressively cogent instructions on how to plant and care for a vineyard.

The evidence of ancient winemaking in what is now the State of Israel is ample. Ancient wine presses and storage vessels have been found from the Negev in the south to Jerusalem to the central coast all the way up to Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights. Winemaking in ancient Israel peaked during the Second Temple period, when it was a major export. After the Temple was destroyed and the Jews forced into exile, however, winemaking ground to a halt. With the Arab conquest in 600 C.E. came the Muslim ban on alcohol and the uprooting of all vineyards. After a brief resurrection of winemaking during the Crusades, the industry was again destroyed by the Ottoman Empire, which ushered in a time of such economic despair and population decline that wine became a luxury none could afford to make or purchase.

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Vineyards in Kibbutz Ortal in the Golan Heights, affiliated with the Golan Heights Winery. Photo: Serge Attal / Flash90

It took a long time for winemaking to return to the area. The first recorded winery was opened in 1848 by a rabbi named Yitzhak Shor. Shor’s first successful wines were made from a vineyard established using vine cuttings from the Mikveh agricultural school in Jaffa, whose grapes were used by Orthodox Jews to make wine for religious purposes. Shor’s family is still part of the Israeli wine industry today through their ownership of several wineries. These include the Zion winery, which considers itself the continuation of Shor’s original, calling itself “the oldest winery in Israel” on its website. In 1870, Rabbi Avrom Teperberg opened Efrat winery, now known as Teperberg, in the Old City of Jerusalem.

But it was not until French Jew Baron Edmond de Rothschild got involved in 1882 that the foundation for today’s Israeli wine industry was first laid. Rothschild, the owner of the famous Chateau Lafite winery in Bordeaux, France, commissioned a study on the agricultural possibilities of the land of Israel, and in 1884 vine plantings began. In 1890, a winery was built in Rishon LeZion, and in 1892 Zichron Ya’akov Wine Cellars opened. The Carmel Wine Company was formed in 1895 to market the wines from these two producers, establishing Carmel as the father of modern day Israeli wine. Carmel continues producing widely known wine today, and has the distinction of having employed three Israeli prime ministers: David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, and Ehud Olmert.

For the Carmel wineries to produce wine, someone had to grow the grapes. Vineries were established in Rishon LeZion, Zichron Ya’akov, Petach Tikvah, Ekron (now Mazkeret Batya), Rehovot, Ness Ziona, Shefaya, Bat Shlomo, and Ein Zeitim. Many of them were funded by donations from Rothschild, and grew the grapes his commission suggested: A species called vitis vinifera, used to make cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, and others. These varieties were well-known to Rothschild’s costumers in Europe. Clearly, the baron’s interest in Palestinian wine was not only based on his Zionism, but also a desire to boost his market share. Not coincidentally, much of the wine produced in Palestine during this time was sent to Europe to be sold by Rothschild.

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Many top Israeli wines are kosher, including Domaine du Castel’s award-winning vintages. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

The first part of the 20th century was not good for Israel’s budding wine industry. Global economic upheaval meant that quality wine was selling at prices that were too discounted to justify production. So Israel’s vitis vinifera was replaced. The period between the uprooting of vitis vinifera in 1905-1906 and the late 1970s, when they were replanted, was a dark period for Israeli wine.

Israeli wine began to reemerge when Israel gained control of the Golan Heights in 1967, which many—including myself—believe has the best potential of any of Israel’s wine regions. Between the late 1960s and the late 1970s, Israeli and some American winemakers undertook, for the first time since Rothschild’s commission, a methodical and scientific look at which varieties of grape would work best in Israel’s climate and soils, which vineyard planting and management techniques would produce the best grapes, and which winemaking techniques would yield the best results. The first modern winery to emerge was Golan Heights Winery in 1983, today Israel’s most well-known. Later in the decade, and increasingly so into the 1990s, the number of Israel’s boutique wineries grew exponentially. Today, Israel may have as many as 300 wineries.

So which bottle should you open? When I’m faced with this question, the first thing I do is consult a map, because where the grapes are grown can say a lot about the kind of wine it will turn into in the hands of a thoughtful winemaker. Good wine is like real estate: location, location, location. For wine, location should be analyzed based on two broad categories: weather and geography. Broadly speaking, the important weather factors are the temperatures, winds, hours of sunlight, and precipitation. The most important geographic features include altitude, degree of slope in the vineyard, and soil composition.

Since location matters so much, let’s tackle Israel’s wine regions, beginning with northwest, because that’s where Rothschild chose to heavily invest. The heart of winemaking in this area is Zichron Ya’akov, which sits beneath hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea north of Caesarea. It gets cool breezes off the Mediterranean that temper the warmth in the vineyards, helping winemakers avoid overly sweet and alcoholic wines. It is home to the Carmel Winery’s Zichron Winery, Binyamina, Tishbi, and others; including one of my absolute favorites, Smadar, which only sells directly out of their front doors.

To the east is the Galilee, which is made of two growing regions—the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights. Both are high in altitude and the coolest of Israel’s wine regions. The region is mountainous and relatively rocky, producing heavy but well-drained soil. The results, when not altered too much by the winemaker, are relatively high levels of acidity and low levels of sugar. While still offering plenty of fruitiness, Galilee wines offer the best potential for “earthiness,” meaning vegetal and elemental flavors like green bell pepper, smoke, and limestone. Wine snobs like myself refer to this style as “complex” because of their wide range of fruity and earthy flavors. Galilee wineries include Golan Heights, Galil, Dalton, Adir, and the Carmel Winery’s Kayoumi Winery.

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The Jerusalem Kosher Wine Exhibition. Photo: Hadas Parush / Flash90

Heading south towards Jerusalem are the Judean Hills, where interesting things are happening. This region offers altitude comparable to most of the Galilee—roughly 1,500-3,000 feet—but the climate is warmer. Rainfall there is lower, which is an important factor in the kind of wine it can produce. Vines that struggle have the best chance of producing the most interesting wine. One way vines struggle is obtaining sufficient water, and if they is not aided by irrigation, they do so by growing deep roots. As they grow deeper, they interact with a wider range of elements and soil types, which ultimately imparts a wider range of flavors and qualities to the grapes. Several of Israel’s most acclaimed wineries are located in these hills, including Domaine du Castel, Clos de Gat, and Psagot.

About an hour east, one arrives at Samson. This was another location of interest for Rothschild. It is a hot and humid area with little elevation or rainfall. The soils tend to be lighter and looser. Known mainly for producing grapes for mass-production wine, the region is home to well-known wineries like Rishon Le Zion Wine Cellars and the Barkan winery at Hulda. Higher up in the Judean foothills is one of the faster-growing wine areas in Israel. Elevation ranges from roughly 150 to 650 feet and the slopes allow for good water drainage during heavy rain, keeping the vines from oversaturation. The area boasts some of Israel’s highest regarded wineries in Clos de Gat and Flam, along with well-known Ella Valley and Teperberg.

Finally, we find ourselves in the Negev desert. Despite the arid climate, grapes are grown and wine produced at higher elevations. Its desert climate allows for especially cool nights, which helps limit sugar and tannin production in the grapes and allows for the winemaker to highlight certain desirable qualities. Israel’s highly respected Yatir winery can be found in this area, along with others like Midbar and Kadesh.

So, it’s time to move on to the wine. Wine reviewing and scoring is a much maligned and controversial practice. My own view is that critics’ scores matter much less than their taste preferences. Wine is an entirely subjective product, so my recommendation is to find a wine critic whose scores you consistently agree with, and then follow their reviews when looking for recommendations. I tend to prefer low alcohol levels, high acidity, low sweetness, firm structure, and generous amounts of earthy and elemental flavors to balance out ripe fruit.

I chose 13 wines to review, with the aim of covering 13 different wineries and 13 different varieties. I went for a price range that would ensure a minimum level of quality without undue expense. This means having to leave out certain wineries known as Israel’s very best. The selection below represents wines that are readily available in American cities with large Jewish populations, as well as online stores that can ship overseas.

However, I ultimately doubled up on one winery—Galil. In my experience, Israel’s best chance for competing with international wines is in its viognier, a white grape that offers tropical aromas and flavors with moderate acidity and medium body. In my estimation, Dalton Winery makes Israel’s best viognier: Reserve Wild Yeast Viognier. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate a bottle and went with what I consider to be Israel’s second-best viognier: Galil Winery’s. When considering which red blend wine to pick out, I was inclined to go with Galil’s Yiron blend because of its superb quality and value. The combination of producing a high value viognier and a high value red blend is one of the reasons I returned to Galil Winery.

I score the wines using the 100-point scale, which is the most commonly used metric. Wines falling in the 96-100 range are exceptional. The 93-95 range is outstanding. 90-92 is very good, with 87-89 being good. 83-86 is acceptable, 80-82 disappointing, and anything scored at 79 or lower is either flawed or poorly made. In addition, I give a value rating of A through F. This reflects how I perceive the wine based on comparing its quality to its price. I go in order of white wines, rose wines, red wines, and a sparkling wine.

2015 Recanati Sauvignon Blanc. Galilee. $15. Very pale and translucent. Beautiful nose of citrus, vanilla, and stone fruits. Extended air produced some sulfur, but not to the point of being offensive. The palate is medium-bodied with extraordinarily bright acidity that suggests acidulation (raising the acid level by additive). There is a touch of sweetness, and the flavors hit on lemon, pear, tart star fruit, and rotten salad greens. The finish ends very quickly. This is an unimpressive wine and not recommended. 80 points. Value: D.

2014 Galil Viognier. Galilee. $20. Nose: Very ripe and expressive, with honeysuckle, vanilla and tropical aromas of pineapple and mango along with white peach. The palate is medium-plus in weight along with good acidity. The structure is well balanced and pleasing. There are gorgeous tropical fruits of mango and pineapple, which benefit from the live acidity and weighty structure. Peach is present along with vanilla pudding and white pepper. The wine finishes nicely with moderate length. Every year, Galil produces one of Israel’s top viogniers, and 2014 is no exception. Strongly recommended and sure to be a crowd pleaser, it is also a very food-friendly wine. 91 points. Value: A.

2014 Tulip Winery White Tulip. Galilee. $24. Gewurtztraimer and sauvignon blanc blend. Nose: Very aromatic and pretty. Burst of orange blossom, honeysuckle, and star fruit. Well-pollinated flowers and fresh cut grass. Palate: Medium-plus body with a high glycerin texture. With medium acid and just a touch of sweetness, this is a beautifully structured wine with a silky mouth feel. Orange blossom and honeysuckle on the palate too. Orange zest and rose water. Slight petrol overtone and a hint of smoke. There’s dried thyme as well. Finish: The acid turns it up a bit on the finish, and the honey and orange remain for a long time. An unusual blend, this is a beautiful and well-made wine. It begs for roasted vegetables and fish. 91 points. Value: A.

2014 Flam Blanc. Judean Hills. $30-40. 60 percent chardonnay, 40 percent sauvignon blanc. This blend is aged in stainless steel. Very pale and clear in appearance, surprisingly more similar to sauvignon blanc than chardonnay given the blend. Nose: A ton of honeydew melon, honeysuckle, and vanilla. Lemonade. Mascarpone. Strong, late note of limestone. Palate: Full-bodied, high viscosity. Medium acidity, just a touch of sweetness. Coherently structured and well-balanced, and unusually weighty for a wine that saw no oak. Big white pepper, Meyer lemon. Juicy cantaloupe, pineapple, mango, and white peach. Finish: The acid and tropical fruits stay strong as the stone quality strengthens and chalkiness enters. The austerity turns up on the finish and suggests this wine is better served with food than consumed alone, preferably with seafood. 91 points. Value: C.

2014 Segal’s Special Reserve Chardonnay. Galilee. $20. Nose: Reserved but pretty, with under-ripe banana peel, lemon, vanilla, and butter. It suggests full malolactic fermentation and oak barrel aging. The palate is full and round with mouth-coating high viscosity. There is sweet mango sorbet and vanilla custard, along with unexpected but pleasant cucumber and zucchini. The finish is persistent and lush. This is a no-brainer for lovers of full-bodied, oaked chardonnay and can compete with most California chardonnays of this kind at this price. 90 points. Value: A.

2013 Or Haganuz Amuka Rose. Galilee. $20. Blend of cabernet franc, merlot, shiraz, and mourvedre. Made in a semi-sweet style, this has noticeable residual sugar. Nose: Definite sherry, strawberry. Cocktail cherries. Honey. Palate: Full bodied rose, quite sweet. No tannin, medium acidity balances the sweetness. High viscosity, mouth-coating. Strawberries, raspberries, and cocktail cherries. Honeysuckle and maple syrup. Cigar tobacco. Finish: Surprisingly, it’s the cocktail cherries that ride it out. This may be slightly over the hill, but the high sugar and acidity of this semi-dry rose keeps it pleasant despite its age. This can be enjoyed chilled on the porch with or without barbeque. 84 points. Value: D.

2014 Domaine Netofa Rose. Galilee. $25. Blend of mourvedre and syrah. Nose: Very aromatic and dominated by mustiness (very unusual) and big honey. Very ripe peach. Palate: Medium bodied, low acidity. Strong evidence of sulfuric acid, the sulfur was improperly managed during the winemaking process. Undrinkable, unrated.

2010 Carmel Winery Kayoumi Vineyard Shiraz. Galilee. $32-$43. This requires some air—pour it out into glasses or a decanter and let sit for at least an hour or two. Nose: Dominant burnt cherries and plums. Orange. Black pepper. Smoke. Palate: Medium-plus body and juicy acidity, mouth-coating fine grainy tannins. Slightly sour, but not unpleasantly so. Blackberries and black plums with a strong dose of orange zest. Hints of mint and dried thyme. Earthy flavors of tar and tobacco leaf. Finish: The tannins smooth out and the wine coats the mouth, and as the acid and fruit die out the tar and tobacco are joined by smoke. Overall a decent but underwhelming wine that lacks an attractive personality. 88 points. Value: D.

2010 1848 Merlot Judean Hills. $20. Gorgeous nose of toasted oak, dark cherry, mocha and tobacco. Bit of smoke. Palate: Though not flawed, it all goes wrong here based on unfortunate winemaking decisions. Far too much tannin extraction during crush and fermentation, the tannins are coarse and harsh, especially for a wine that is already six years old. The fruits are stewed and burnt, and there are strong prune flavors that are a bit bitter (another sign of over extraction). The finish is especially unpalatable as the tannins leave the mouth feeling dirty. 79 points. Value: F.

2012 Psagot Cabernet Sauvignon. Judean Hills. $35. The star of the lineup, this blew me away. Fruit compote of blackberries, plums, and cherries on the nose, along with black pepper and tobacco. There’s some wildness to it along the lines of a northern Rhone syrah and wet soil. Over time, spearmint emerges. The palate is medium-plus in body with dense, grainy tannin. Medium acidity helps cut the tannin and helps define a dense structure that achieves a lightness that the nose does not suggest. Flavors include dark cherries, blackberries, smoke, cocoa, espresso, and peppermint. It’s a dark and brooding flavor profile. The finish is long and pleasant. This is still a young wine and requires at least two to three hours of decanting before consuming. It will be even better in another two or three years. For the price, this is better than most cabernet sauvignons from any part of the globe. 93 points. Value: A.

2012 Galil Yiron. Galilee. $30. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah. The nose is restrained, with bright cherry and raspberry, along with white pepper and orange zest. There’s a whiff of smoke, lavender, and thyme as well. One of the most herbal noses of any Israeli wine I’ve had. The palate is full-bodied and quite tannic. Medium-plus acidity, the structure is decently balanced despite the robust tannins. The fruit is dark and brooking, and there is black pepper spice and smoke. Eventually, the herbaciousness of the nose develops on the palate with classic bouquet garni-dried green herbs. The finish is a bit short but pleasant. Overall this is one of my favorite Israeli red blends, though it requires five to ten years of aging from vintage and is a bit immature at this point. The restrained nose, heavy tannins, and short finish are all indicative of the need to let this age for another one to two years at least, at which point it will start to become something special. Right now, this is a 90-point wine. With age, it will creep up a few points. It is also very price competitive with similar blends from around the world. Value: B+.

2010 Yatir Petit Verdot. Negev. $55. Nose: Interesting combination of light, ripe raspberries, blackberries, and cherries with dark scents of licorice, black pepper, and tar. Palate: Medium-plus body with very chewy tannin and bright, juicy acidity. The fruit—raspberries, red and black plums, cranberries, strawberries and blood orange—is a nice contrast to the seductive dark flavors of licorice, dried prunes, smoke, cigar tobacco, and graphite. Finish: The thick tannins dry the mouth quickly, but the big acidity keeps the fruit alive. A bit disjointed at the moment, this is an intriguing wine that will come together with another three or more years of ageing to become greater than its parts. It’s just a baby requiring several hours of decanting to become approachable. While it is unfortunately not very price competitive on the global market, it suggests the most skillful winemaking reviewed here as it is very difficult to tame petit verdot’s dominating tannins and spice and allow more flavors to emerge, as the makers have done here. 91 points now with the potential to shoot up to 93 with more age. Value: C-.

Non-Vintage Tishbi Brut bottle fermented sparkling wine. Multi-region. $40. The bottle reports 11 percent alcohol by volume, which I doubt. It is surely higher. Nose: Very round and ripe with sweet lemon and caramel notes. There is also some mustiness and vegetal aromas. The palate is unusually ripe for a sparkling wine with a small but surprising amount of sweetness. The bubbles are small and initially aggressive in the mouth. There is a big dollop of Granny Smith apple that grows increasingly sour and is supported by bitter greens. It finishes with medium length. This is an unusual sparkler and not particularly pleasing, although I did enjoy the combination of tart apple and bitter greens. At $40, however, there are much better sparkling options from other parts of the world. 88 points. Value: D.

As the scores suggest, these wines were a mixed bag. Among the whites, those that stood out were the Galil Viognier, Segal’s Reserve Chardonnay, and the Tulip White blend, with the Galil offering a world-class example of viognier, the Segal’s competing on price with the far more popular classic California chardonnay profile, and the Tulip offering a unique and very appealing blend.

The Flam blend was very good, but is of poor value. Flam is known as one of the more outstanding Israeli wineries, and from their other wines I’ve had I would concur with that categorization, though they are priced quite high. On the rose front, unfortunately, neither were very good, which disappointed me as I’ve had several good roses from Israel.

Do not let these two dissuade you from trying others. The reds offered the greatest distribution of quality and value. The Carmel Kayoumi shiraz and 1848 merlot were supremely disappointing, and I cannot in good faith recommend them on either quality or value. The Galil Yiron, which is very price competitive, and Yatir petit verdot, which is not, were both good, but with proper storage could turn into blockbusters in a few years.

The wine of the tasting for me was the Psagot cabernet sauvignon. I not only highly recommend it to those looking for quality Israeli wine, but to all cabernet sauvignon lovers.

There are a number of Israeli wines that I wish I could have tasted for this article, some of which I was unable to acquire because they are unavailable in the United States, and likely unavailable anywhere outside of Israel. To try these, one must go to Israel. But a trip to Israel to taste its wine is a very worthwhile experience. For those interested in taking a few days during their next trip to Israel to sample its wines, I’d like to offer a suggested route. It takes two nights and is biased against my preference for the northern wines of Israel, as well as my love of Israel’s north in general. This route is equal parts great wine, geography, and people, and can be done either in the order presented here or in reverse.

On the first day, begin with a visit to Clos de Gat in the Judean Hills, a contender for best winery in Israel, featuring big, well-structured wines. The winery requires an appointment made ahead of time. From there, drive to Zichron Ya’akov and plan to spend the night. Check into the boutique Smadar Inn and Winery, which offers some of the best Israeli wines I’ve had as well as a romantic, rustic bed and breakfast with pool. And, if your timing is good, you’ll be able to try the limoncello they make from lemons they grow on the property. You can also visit the Tishbi, Carmel, and Binyamina wineries in Zichron. Eat dinner at one of the many restaurants on Zichron’s famous HaNadiv and HaMeyasdim pedestrian-only streets in the center of the city.

After breakfast the next morning, make your way to the city of Dalton, where Dalton Winery and Adir Winery and Dairy are across the street from each other. Dalton offers a large number of wines that offer an impressive range of styles while maintaining consistent quality. Adir is not to be missed either, offering a decidedly New World, fruit-forward line up of high quality wines. Absolutely do not miss the incredible lunch available in the adjacent Adir Dairy that consists of multiple types of goat cheeses, salads, and breads.

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A young woman sips from her glass of wine at the Psagot winery in the West Bank. Photo: Garrett Mills / Flash90

Next, make the 15-minute drive to Kibbutz Yiron and visit Galil Winery. Galil’s facility is very modern and attractive, so make sure to take their tour, which ends with a tasting of a wide range of their wines in a room with windows exposing a beautiful view of vineyards and mountains. My favorite options for lodging in this area are located nearby in Kerem Ben Zimra where many of the grapes that went into the wines you just tasted are grown. In the morning, travel down to Haifa and finish up with one of my favorite boutique producers not available in America: Vortman. Vortman’s tasting room offers spectacular views of the Carmel and the Mediterranean, and their wine is wonderful.

From there, the rest is up to you. On your way out of Israel, make sure to check out the James Richardson Duty Free store in Ben-Gurion airport, which offers a large selection of Israeli wine and provides the most convenient way to bring back your favorites.

Many supporters of Israel feel inclined to love everything that is Israel, so I felt that admitting my relationship with Israeli wine was love-hate might alienate readers. But did my exploration of Israeli wine push me closer to the love end of the spectrum? The answer is, thankfully, yes. No place in the world produces great wine across the board, but this voyage into Israeli wine has made me want to carve out more space in my cellar for it. It has also made me more critical of Israeli wine, because I’ve been able to taste wines that clearly indicate some producers in Israeli have raised their game. I only hope that more will follow, and that you will drink their work.

Thirteen Israeli Wines That Will Change Your Worldview / Aaron Menenberg

Banner Photo: Sophie Gordon / Flash90

Vineyards in Kibbutz Ortal in the Golan Heights, affiliated with the Golan Heights Winery. Photo: Serge Attal / Flash90

Many top Israeli wines are kosher, including Domaine du Castel’s award-winning vintages. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

The Jerusalem Kosher Wine Exhibition. Photo: Hadas Parush / Flash90

A young woman sips from her glass of wine at the Psagot winery in the West Bank. Photo: Garrett Mills / Flash90