Arizona Continues its Evolution at Aridus

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Arizona’s wine scene remains a bit of a black hole for me. I’ve written about visits to AZ Stronghold and Fire Mountain, which began to clue me into the state’s potentially bright wine future, but beyond that and a few bottles of the state’s most famous winery, Caduceus, that had been it for me. When samples arrived from Aridus Wine Company, I was excited for the opportunity to try another producer.

In preparing to write this post, I wanted to see how much wine the state was producing, and it is paltry. In terms of bulk wine, Arizona produced less in 2017 than Arkansas. Florida produced five times more in the same year than did Arizona. Indiana nearly quintupled Arizona’s production. In total, the state produces 0.0000003% of the nation’s bulk wine. In terms of what goes into bottle, the percentage drops a bit to 0.00000026%. Though I don’t have numbers, I know a decent amount of the state’s wine comes from grapes sourced outside the state. Still, that Arizona has any national reputation for wine, and it does have a budding one, is staggering giving its contribution by volume.

Having had good wine from Arizona, when I spoke to Aridus’ winemaker, Lisa Strid, I asked her the same questions I’ve asked other winemakers from the state: is Arizona ready for the national stage, and what’s keeping it from mainstream conversation? She boiled it down to the state’s biggest limitation, water. Arizona has long had water issues, and it’s scarcity, especially where grapes grow best, limits volume and quality. Water availability hasn’t been an entirely solvable problem for the state in general, so marshaling more for the luxury that is wine production hasn’t been a winnable fight. Without sufficient water, they can only make so much wine. Full stop.

Working with what water they do have available, Aridus gets juice from its own vineyard and other sources both in and out of the state. Right now, only some of its whites are coming from estate fruit, while the reds haven’t come online yet, though Aridus is making a concerted effort to ramp up planting and production of more of its own vines. Their vineyard is in Pearce, located up against a stream-fed hillside where there is slightly less water pressure. The site is also at a higher elevation than the rest of the AVA, which helps to moderate the temperature a bit. All of this helps the site do a better job at retaining acid in the grapes, a constant challenge faced by Arizona wineries in achieving lower pH levels. As more of their estate fruit comes on-line, hopefully the wines will hit lower pH and achieve more brightness.

Aridus produces a wide range of wines, and the four I tried are best described as “big.” All of the reds get oak treatment, typically around 18 months in anywhere from 40% to 100% new oak, most of which is French. On the white side, they go for “a lot of expression of the grape – bold aromas and flavors.” They’re bold in structure, too.

Lisa is high on their Malvasia, which I tried along with the Rosé (of mourvedre), malbec and petit sirah. I was able to confirm that the house style described came through in the wines. The Malvasia was indeed expressive, and had an interesting texture that gave substance to its volume. The Rosé was a very nice full-bodied sipping wine, and one that I think is probably best had on its own due to its lower acid. Both the malbec and petit sirah are big bodied wines that show their extensive oak, which dominates at the moment. While alcohol levels on both are modest, I do wonder if the higher pH can facilitate better integration of oak and drive more expressiveness with age.

What I find most exciting and interesting about Aridus is the evolution it could take as more estate fruit is cultivated, which sounds like promising material from which to make wines of increasing quality. Lisa is working with a big variety of grapes, not all of them from Arizona, and so she’s having to deal with a plethora of evolving challenges and conditions. This is standard for experimental winemakers in emerging wine regions. Lisa recently returned from a harvest in Australia where she learned a few new tricks that she wants to try out at home. More vines will go into the ground at the Aridus vineyard. She’ll have another vintage under belt at the end of this year. Other Arizona winemakers will try and share new knowledge with each other. All of these are necessary to developing a wine region and house styles, and it’s fun to watch it happen.

2016 Aridus Malvasia Bianca: Ripe, tropics-drive nose of honey, melon-dew, cantaloupe and big pineapple. Rich vanilla curd swirls around the edges, while there’s just a wiff of green vegetalness. It’s medium weight on the palate. The acid is modest and well-integrated into a slightly sweet and round structure that has a bit of a grainy texture that’s diversifies things nicely. Flavors are bitter-sweet lemon, vanilla, Starfruit, green papaya, apricot, white flowers and dandelion flower. A pleasant sipper with an interesting texture. 88 points. Value C-

2016 Aridus Rosé (of mourvedre): Classic Mourved rose nose of crushed blackberry, cherry and bramble berry, pepper and a little vanilla. Towards the end of the full body rose spectrum, it’s round and lush and well-polished – a velvety mouth feel. The acid is light but enough to add needed mid-palate lift. The tannins get slightly grainy on the finish. Flavors are all sorts of crushed berries – red, blue and black – along with vanilla pudding, marzipan and a slight hit of saline. Downright lovely, it’s probably best on its own rather than with food. 88 points. Value: C-

2014 Aridus malbec: The reticent nose boasts a hedonistic compote of blackberry, blueberry and cherry that is lifted by heavy baking spices. This one is medium bodied with a bit of extraction, it wears its malolactic fermentation and oak influence on its sleeve: baking spice, oak vanillin and a buttery finish. Acid is modest. The fruit is modest cherry, red currant and Acai. With air it develops some very welcomed graphite minerality. Not quite sure what to make of this one, the oak influence is dominating at this point. It may have enough acid to survive some evolution, which hopefully would allow the oak to better integrate. 89 points. Value: B

2014 Aridus petit sirah: What an inky nose, it saps with wild berries, high-toned orange zest, cracked pepper and sea brine. Closer to full-bodied, the acid is bright and the tannins grainy and chewy, likely smoothed out a bit by the oak. The fruit is a bit darker on the palate, coming in the forms of blackberry, cherry, strawberry and blueberry. Oak baking spices are quite prevalent, while black tea, pepper and cocoa finish things off. As time goes this gets more savory. It develops mesquite and iodine. While this has under half new oak, it has a big impact. Not the truest to type, it is nonetheless well-done and enjoyable. 89 points. Value: B

A Study in Value: Argentina at $25 & Under

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

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

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

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Vineyards in Maipu. Picture Credit: Bodega Santa Julia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arizona makes world class wine, it’s true.

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Barrels hanging out in the Arizona desert

I didn’t set out to purposefully make Good Vitis about up-and-coming wine regions, but the phenomenal experiences that this blog has led to in Maryland and now Arizona are encouraging me to think more about that theme. Not as a focus of the blog, but more as a way of preventing myself from becoming a myopic wine consumer reliant on established reputation. To that end, this weekend myself and some friends will be tasting through two mixed cases of wine from Ontario, Canada, which will be written up for Good Vitis in the coming weeks. And, in May, Hannah (a.k.a. “The Photographer”) and I will be traveling to the Republic of Georgia with friends to, among other things, check out its 8,000 year-old wine scene. I’ve also covered wineries in California and Israel in these pages, and I’ve reviewed wines from Washington, Oregon, France, Spain and elsewhere, and will continue to cover any region where good wine is made. The newest region in which I’ve discovered good wine is the State of Arizona, where magic is fermenting.

Our trip to Arizona was purposed around visiting my father, who lives in Phoenix. I’m out there several times per year. During one visit he took me to Jerome, a old mining town built on the side of a mountain, where Arizona’s most famous winery, Caduceus, is located. I did a quick tasting at their tasting room and popped into Cellar 433. Between the two I found surprisingly good wine that was mostly priced above its global equivalents. Those were my first and last Arizona wine experiences until a year or so later when friends of ours brought over a bottle of Caduceus, which had six years of bottle age, that was spectacular. It reawakened my interest in Arizona wine and I knew that eventually I’d have to make a point of trying a few more.

That happened last month with visits to Arizona Stronghold and Fire Mountain Wines. Dustin Coressel, the marketing and sales guy at AZ Stronghold, and John Scarbrough, Stronghold’s cellar master, met us one morning at the winery, which is not open to the public, to show us around and pour a few barrel samples. AZ Stronghold is the largest winery in Arizona by production, producing around 20,000 cases annually distributed across twenty-five states. It’s also one of the oldest, and it’s role in the state’s industry is one of a grandfather with many a winery getting its start using Stronghold’s custom crush services, which include not only production but also in-house bottling and labeling capabilities.

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Their winemaking style is decidedly old world, and this is obvious not only in technique but in what comes through in the glass as well: open top fermentation, (very) neutral oak for most of its wines (using a mix of French, American and Hungarian barrels), incomplete malolactic fermentation for whites and vineyard management aimed at limiting the amount of manipulation needed in the winery. The terroir also helps. Arizona’s vitis vinifera is grown in the southern most part of the state, not far from the border with Mexico, which features a decidedly Mediterranean climate of long, warm days moderated by robust breezes, and cool nights. This combines to keep sugar development in check. The soils ain’t bad either, I’m told. Most of Stronghold’s vineyards – owned and leased – are around 3,500 feet in elevation, with their Colibri site at 4,250 feet, making it the highest vineyard in America by mine and Scarbrough’s estimation. I imagine most people are like me in conjuring up images of a 110+ degree, dry and stale climate in Arizona but there is considerable acreage in Arizona primed for grape growing.

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They grow wine in Arizona. Picture credit: wine-searcher.com

For barrel samples we tried their Nachise and Bayshan Rhone-style blends, both promising wines of character and structure. We also had the “Dolla” cabernet sauvignon, a refreshing and light cab with gorgeous red fruit, cinnamon and cocoa that retails for a very competitive $20, a very pretty and bright sangiovese and a gamey syrah.

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While the wine may be old school, Stronghold’s business model incorporates some new school components, notably a significant keg production. I’ve long been smitten with the idea of putting drink-now wine in kegs for restaurant by-the-glass menu; it just makes so much sense in that it preserves the wine for a long time, making it not only more profitable for restaurants but better for the customer as well. Kegs are also much easier, safer, cheaper and more financially and environmentally efficient to transport that glass bottles packed by the dozen. The practice has become quite profitable for Stronghold, which has gone a step further than any keg program I’ve seen by using reusable and recyclable kegs made from plastic, which makes transportation and storage easier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly that the normal metal kegs.

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Scarbrough and I geeked out for a few minutes at the end of our visit over vineyard management. Dormancy usually ends around March with harvest coming in August or September. The biggest dangers are Spring frosts and monsoons, which threaten the vineyards usually in July. Asked about brix at harvest, Scarbrough said that they aim to pick reds in the 23-24.5 range and whites as close to 22 as possible to preserve aromatics. Add this to the climate and wine making style and the results, which are detailed below in reviews of the wines I tried at their tasting room in Cottonwood and in bottle at home, are unsurprising in the high levels of quality, flavor, and elegance they deliver.

As Dustin walked us out to our car he suggested that we visit Scarbrough’s side project, Fire Mountain Wines, whose tasting room was across the street from Stronghold’s. Why Joe didn’t mention it I don’t know, but the humility is a bit bizarre after tasting Fire Mountain’s stuff, which is fantastic. Fire Mountain is majority owned by a Native American business partner of Joe’s, making it the only Native American-owned winery in Arizona. I can’t recommend Arizona Stronghold and Fire Mountain Wines enough as great entries into the Arizona wine scene.

Going through my tasting notes there did emerge some themes. Among the whites, bodies were usually medium and lush, but moderated by zippy acidity that is very citrusy and pure flavors. The reds, which as a group showed more complexity, were medium to full bodied but well balanced. They offered juicy acidity and good Earthiness to go with pure red fruits. Standouts included Arizona Stronghold’s mourvedre, the exceptional Dragoon Vineyard merlot (best in tasting), and Lozen reds, along with Fire Mountain’s mostly Malbec “Ko” and “Skyfire,” which is a hopped sauvingnon blanc (you read that right, and believe me, it delivers). The award for exception value is Arizona Stronghold’s rose which way, way over-delivers for its $12 price tag. The wines of both wineries are enjoyable, some age worthy, and all of good value. I highly recommend a trip to Cottonwood, which has become a hub for winery tasting rooms, for a representative taste of what Arizona wine offers.

Arizona Stronghold

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Chardonnay Dala – Neutral oak and partial malolactic fermentation. Nose: prototypical chardonnay nose. Bit of toast, bit of butter, bit of lemon, bit of peach pit. There is a hint of parsley and some slate to add some variety. Palate: medium body, nice bright acidity but balanced out by a welcomed dose of buttery fat offering a glycerin sensation to fill out the mouthfeel. Meyer lemon, grapefruit and lime sorbet provide a nice variety of citrus. Definitely stone minerality as well and a brief hit of honeysuckle. Overall a really enjoyable mid-weight table chardonnay offering generous amounts of simple pleasure. 88 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Diya – 50/50 blend of viognier and chardonnay. The nose is muted, offering lemon, banana, pineapple and dandelion. It’s full bodied offering moderate acidity and evidence of partial malolactic fermentation. Barrel notes are significant on the body, which is offers a slight sweetness and good balance. There is underripe banana, lemon curd and white pepper. This is built to age and clearly it has more to offer than it’s letting on right now. With 2-3 years of cellaring it likely become more lively and complex. 90 points. Value: C+

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Tazi – Very aromatic and tropical nose with big honeysuckle, pineapple and vanilla. The body has medium weight but is quite lush with, limey acidity. There are zippy streaks of saline and chili flake spice along with a dollop of lime sorbet. This is a porch pounder wine if there ever were one. 88 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Malvasia Bianca Bonita Springs – The nose is quite floral and offers baking spice notes as well. On the palate, honeysuckle is the major theme but it has a Starfruit burs along with lime and dandelion. Quite lean and acidity, it’s a lip smacker. 87 points. Value: C+

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Gewürztraminer Bonita Springs – The nose offers apricot, white pepper, (inoffensive) kerosene and gorgeous florals. The palate is lean and mean with modest acidity. Flavors are dominated by apricots and peaches, though there is some cinnamon and a touch of green as well. A very unusual gewurtztraminer, it’s quite racy. 88 points. Value: B

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Dayden Rose – The nose is dominated by burnt sugar and augmented by cherry, orange and rose hips. The palate is medium-plus in weight and quite lush, but the bright acidity helps it sing. The flavors are wonderful, with strawberries, charcoal, and lime at the forefront. Straw and white pepper sit subtly in the background. At $12 this is among the very best values for rose. 88 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Malbec Arizona Stronghold Site Archive Deep Sky – Strong, ripe aromatics of red beet, macerated cherries, smoke, and dried cranberries. The palate is medium bodied with precise acid and thin, grainy tannins. The structure and weight balance nicely to produce a nimble wine with a slight bit of astringency that dries the palate. It offers flavors of black pepper, acai, raspberry, red beet juice and smoke. There’s a bit of celery seed, damp soil and mushrooms as well. Very enjoyable, it goes down easy and smooth. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Grenache Buhl Memorial Vineyard – Red fruit on the nose, strawberry and raspberry, joined with cinnamon and cocoa. It is medium bodied with well-integrated tannin and acid. The red fruit – strawberry, raspberry and huckleberry – is nicely augmented by cinnamon and almond pound cake. 90 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Mourvedre – The nose features smokey and red fruits, and is relatively mild compared to the bigger palate. It is full bodied, but the bright acidity and fine grained tannins keep it nimble. Nice black pepper spice along with big hits of cherries and rhubarb. There’s also burnt blood orange and a touch of parsley. A very cool wine. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Merlot Dragoon Vineyard – This has a really twisted nose that is bloody and brooding, featuring cherries, blackberries, smoke, cocoa iodine and Herbs de Provence. The palate is mouth coating and gorgeous with dark fruits, black pepper, saline and juicy acidity. The limited use of oak on this allows the Dragoon terroir to really shine. This may benefit from a year or two in the cellar and has a solid five years of prime drinking ahead of it. 93 points. Value: A

2012 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Nachise – The nose is quite savory, very meaty, dark and spicy. It’s full bodied with its fine grained tannins hitting the palate immediately. The initial hit on the tongue is savory with iodine, smoke and celery. This is followed up with a nice blend of cherries, blackberries and blueberries. Black pepper comes in at the end. Drinking nicely with five years of age, it has a couple more years to go before it declines. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Syrah Norte Block Buhl Memorial Vineyard – From 20-year old vines. The nose offers big fruit and is a bit one-dimensional at the moment, though a few years should help it develop complexity. The palate is big, round and balanced. It offers cherries, strawberries, black pepper, green herbs, and blood orange. Quite juicy, the fruit is very fleshy. This will benefit from two years in the cellar and then can be fully enjoyed over the following five years. 90 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Lozen – The nose is quite meaty and savory, with iodine, smoke, cherry, orange and pipe tobacco. It’s full bodied with grainy tannins but is nicely balanced by a touch of sweetness and bright acidity. It shows its portion of new oak in the flavors as well. There is cocoa, dark plums and cherries, tobacco and oregano. This is a baby, and with three-plus years of aging will emerge. Give it five or six years and the complexities will likely blow you away. 92 points. Value: B

Fire Mountain Wines

2016 Fire Mountain Wines Sauvignon Blanc Skyfire – Only 17 cases made, this wine included the addition of Cascade and Azacca hops, which show their intriguing presence on the nose where they dance with zesty citrus and minerality. The body features less hop influence, it’s medium bodied with sweet fruit, lime zest and little bit of lushness. They experimented here and hit a home run. 92 points. Value: B

2015 Fire Mountain ya’a’ (Sky) – Nose of starfruit, pear, melon and vanilla curd. The palate is full bodied with peach and apricot nectars, chili flake spice, and celery. The acid is nicely balanced and keeps it from becoming too lush. 90 points. Value: B

2016 Fire Mountain Wines Cicada rose – Made with sangiovese. The fruit was cold soaked for 48 hours. The nose smells of lees and strawberries while the palate is quite restrained with good acidity. It offers strawberries, herbs and general green flavors. 89 points. Value: B+

2015 Fire Mountain Wines Fire “Ko” – over 80% malbec. The nose is a bit oaky, but offers blackberries, plums, black pepper and pipe tobacco as well. A bit one-dimensional now, this will change with time. It’s full bodied, but balanced and juicy. The fruit includes cherries, strawberries and this wonderful note of guava. It also offers cocoa, smoke, black pepper and iodine. It’s a bit shadowed at the moment by oak, but this is built to age. This is only going to get better. I’d say sit on this for at least two or three years, but I’d be very curious to try it in ten. 92 points. Value: B+

2015 Fire Mountain Wines Earth – A very elegant and perfumed nose of cranberries, huckleberries and a little toastiness. The palate is more toasted and very deep, offering raspberries, cranberries, rhubarb, and cigar tobacco. The tannins are fined grained, and the acidity is lively. Best with one or two years of aging, drink this over the next five. 91 points. Value: B

Jeff Morgan: California and Israeli winemaker on why he makes wine in both places

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This is the second in a series of interviews with winemakers who have experience making wine in Israel. The first interview featured Shane Moore of Zena Crown Vineyards in Oregon. This time around I spoke with Jeff Morgan, co-owner and vintner of Covenant Wines in California. While both have vineyard and winemaking experience in Israel, their stories are quite different, set off by a pivotal distinction: Jeff’s Judaism.

Fourteen years ago Jeff and his partner Leslie Rudd drank a red wine from Domaine du Castel, one of Israel’s premier wineries. “It was really good wine,” Jeff told me, much better than either expected it would be. What really blew them away was that it was made according to kashrut (the laws of keeping kosher), which back then was a category of wine that didn’t have a reputation of being very good at all. Ironically, the wine wasn’t actually kosher, but that false assumption would prove fateful. They had already been making wine in California for more than a decade, but the bottle of Castel motivated them to see if they couldn’t make a better kosher wine in California. The challenge wasn’t connected to Jeff’s Judaism at the time – he was a secular and largely disengaged Jew – but really just a focus on improving the quality of kosher wine.

They deemed cabernet sauvignon the greatest expression of California’s terrior and climate, and decided to use it to achieve that goal. Leslie had access to the grapes and capital and Jeff had the winemaking experience and so they created Covenant Wines. Quickly the goal of the project changed into making the best kosher wine in the world. Fourteen years ago that bar wasn’t very high; today it’s far more challenging.

*****

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2014 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon Blend. From California, Covenant’s flagship wine. Nose of cocoa, espresso and toffee barrel notes along with dark cherries and blackberries. There’s graphite and scorched Earth and some heat on it as well. The full body has smooth, subtle but developed tannins. Strong saline and iodine streaks help the wine overcome lean acidity. As the wine takes on air, the nose turns savory as olive juices start wafting. Orange zest develops on the palate along with toffeed barrel char, sweet strawberries and rich boysenberries, creating a densely layered wine. It has great balance but is tightly wound and will improve over 5-8 years. 92 points. Global value: C-. Kosher value: B.

*****

The making of kosher wine had a slow but cumulative effect on Jeff and Leslie’s connections with Judaism, and in 2011 they took a trip to Israel to explore their Jewish roots. While there they visited vineyards and wineries and noticed that the topography was very similar to that of California, as was the climate, soils, hillsides and valleys. Shortly after returning to California they decided that making Californian kosher wine was insufficient and moved to open a second line of Covenant wines made in Israel using Israeli grapes – the appeal of making wine in California and in the region where wine was created was too strong to resist.

In 2013 they started with three barrels working with an American-Israeli winemaker friend. They increased to seven barrels in 2014 and by 2016 were up to fifty (roughly 2000 cases’ worth of wine). In that year they crushed 35 tons of fruit, roughly one-third the tonnage of their California production. They began with one vineyard in the Golan Heights, but are now sourcing from seven vineyards across the Golan and the Galilee. Jeff loves the markedly different terriors of the two regions, although he noted that there are many stylistic similarities between the wines of California and Israel, more so than, say, between California and Oregon. So far they’ve used Jezreel Winery’s facilities to produce their wines, though because Jeff travels to Israel five or so times per year and he and his own team do the production themselves, he has become intent on opening his own winery there someday. He gives credit to his California team and cloud-based computing for allowing him to spend the time needed in Israel to oversee the production there without sacrificing attention of the California production. In 2017 he feels confident enough that he plans to leave California in the middle of harvest to monitor fermentation in Israel.

*****

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2014 Covenant Wine Israel Syrah. 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. Global value: C+. Kosher value: B+.

*****

Everything Jeff has learned about winemaking he picked up in California and New York State, and he’s applied those lessons to Israel where the biggest difference from the United States is mentality in the wine industry. Jeff noted that one difference is in vinicultural where Israel, despite closing the gap, is still behind. The California scene is more “dialed in” to the detail and knowledge of how individual vines respond to terrior while the workforce is more experienced in large part due to California’s immigrant labor that has worked the vineyards for generations (“and are great to say the least”). Conversely, in Israel “you have a ragtag crew of Thai and Arab workers along with some Jewish ones who are still figuring out what the essence of grape viniculture is and how it relates to great wine.” Further, Jeff noted that the Thai and Arab cultures don’t feature wine consumption as a tradition, and this makes it harder for vineyard workers to appreciate why vinicultural techniques affect the final product: “If you don’t drink wine you can’t really see the end result. That doesn’t mean you can’t do great work, but it’s a difference.”

Despite these differences, Jeff is high on the Israeli wine scene because every year the overall quality is markedly improving. The culture of wine in Israel, the making and consuming of it, is still decades behind the U.S., however. The level of “religious conviction” in California to their way of wine life remains higher than that in Israel. “Israelis still refer to wineries as ‘plants,’” Jeff told me, adding that Israelis don’t drink nearly as much wine as Americans. The winemaking community, therefore, “needs to raise the consciousness in Israel about the product. Israel is where Napa was thirty years ago in that sense, but Israel is more advanced in the winemaking than Napa was at that point.”

We shifted in conversation to the wines Jeff produces at Covenant. In both locations he starts with the same general protocols because “you can’t erase terrior, it’s stronger than the protocols. The idea is to make wine in a gentle, non-interventionist manner to allow the freest and truest expression of terrior to be seen in the wine.”  All of his wines are native yeast fermented, something he notes that is common in California but very unusual in Israel “because they’re afraid of it.” He prefers native yeast fermentations “because native yeast is a key component in harvesting terrior from the vineyard, [which also produce] slower fermentations which yield more complex wines.”

*****

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2014 Covenant Wines Lavan Chardonnay. From California. Nose: big varietal characteristics of high strung lemon, grass, white pepper and vanilla bean. There’s also a little big of spearmint and a lot of slate and honey along with a mild petrol note. Palate: full bodied and although lush, the acidity is sharp and zips enough to keep the mouthfeel light and lively. Meyer lemon curd, lemon sorbet, Granny Smith apple and vanilla pudding dominate on the onset, but really nice red pepper flake spice and dried tarragon kick in on the mid palate. The ML and oak manifest themselves in a macadamia nut flavor and texture. Very pleasing and drinkable, there’s no reason to sit on it. 92 points. Global value: B. Kosher value: A.

*****

Jeff’s style tends to favor softer, suppler tannins in his reds and bright, fresh acidity in his whites and roses, leveraging the heat of California and Israel to achieve those profiles. His California and Israeli flagship wines, a cabernet sauvignon blend and a syrah, respectively, reflect his belief that the terrior of California favors Bordeaux varietals while Rhones best suit Israel. The sales figures speak to the appeal of Jeff’s wine: he sells both wines in both countries, and he sells out.

I asked Jeff about my favorite Israeli wine topic: does Israel have a signature style and, if not, should it? If Israel were as monochromatic as Napa, Bordeaux or Burgundy, Jeff responded, it would be easier to wish for, or define, a signature style. But Israel has so many microclimates and so many different kinds of grapes in production that it’s “wishful thinking and would make Israeli wine boring.” Syrah in the Galillee “is very different from in the Golan, viognier is very different from anywhere else in the world – ours came in at 11.5% alcohol by volume [an unusually low figure for the grape].” Signature styles “need to come from the winemakers themselves and while it’s true wine is made in the vineyard, that’s only true until it comes to the winery and the winemaker does their thing with it. What’s exciting for the consumer is that in Israel it’s all about the producers and their own styles, if they have one.” When he looks at the wine list in Israel he looks at the producers names, not the region, because “that’s where the signature is for me in Israeli wine.”

When asked about his hope for the Israeli wine industry’s future, he said his greatest hope “is that Israel is synonymous with high quality wine. Varietally they’ll see which deliver best long-term. Syrah is likely king but cabernet could be a close second or overtake it depending on where it’s grown and who is making it. We need 10-20 years of developments before we’ll have a real answer.”

*****

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2014 Covenant Wine Neshama. From California, a blend of petit verdot, malbec and syrah. Nose: Very cool profile of big grapiness, blackberries, strawberries, asphalt, wet forest floor and Herbs de Provence. Just a hint of rubbing alcohol. The profile is dark and brooding but somewhat muddled, an issue a few years of aging will clear up. Palate: full bodied with big, coarse palate-drying tannins. Moderate acidity and tamed alcohol keeps it in good balance. The fruits are black, red, big and juicy: acai, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. There’s wet smoke and black pepper as well with graphite and iodine. This is hedonistic stuff, but it’s impressively managed. It’ll only get better over the following 10 years, but I’d sit on remaining bottles for at least five. At minimum give this a 2+ hour decant. 93 points. Global value: C+. Kosher value: B+.

*****

Beyond aiming to make better Israeli wine from one vintage to the next, Jeff is pitching in to help the industry. He has been working with Israel’s government, importers and distributors to raise consciousness outside Israel for its wines and develop more export markets. Israeli wine “won’t be an overnight sensation but the status quo has shifted dramatically in a short amount of time, for wine.” Israel wasn’t on the wine map when Jeff got started thirty years ago, whereas it graced the cover of Wine Spectator in 2016. “It’s going to happen,” Jeff said, “but nothing happens fast in the wine world.”

I received four of Jeff’s wines to review for this piece. All were exceptional in quality but the challenge I had in reviewing them was assigning a value grade. My normal approach is to put the wine in the context of the body of wine I’ve consumed to rate it based on its price competitiveness with that “global” market. However, in this case the wines are certified kosher, which means the wine requires a process that is different from the rest of the global market and therefore it could be argued that the value should be based on the category of kosher wine. The thing is, Jeff’s wines are not only among the best kosher wines I’ve had, but also great wines in the global context, so I wouldn’t want to suggest to the reader that they should try Covenant only if they focus on the kosher category. Therefore, I’m going to give value ratings for both the global market and the kosher category.

Jeff is building a very cool project and the wines are quite good.  One of the more interesting practices of Covenant is their wine club, which includes a version that supplies the member with kosher wine for every Shabbat of the year. It’s a fantastic concept. I’m excited to follow the winery, especially as he expands his Israeli production where the syrah I tried is especially distinctive.

 

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