Oregon Wine Month Extravaganza

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Willamette Valley is my favorite American wine region to visit. It has a near-optimal balance of beauty, tranquility, quality wine, quality people and proximity to a decently-sized airport. Though not mountainous in the snow-capped sense, it is an obvious valley with beautiful slopes, rolling hills and a discernible floor. Though remote in feel, its northern tip is barely an hour from Portland. Though dominated by world class pinot noir and chardonnay, it offers fantastic examples of other varieties as well, notably gamay, syrah, pinot gris and riesling in my book. Though world class in quality and price and winery aesthetics, its wine professionals are accessible and friendly and the pretense low. The Willamette Valley is what comes to mind when I think of a trip to wine country.

For those who cannot make it in-person, May was Oregon Wine Month (or so says the industry) and an excuse to delve into the State’s wines. I’m lucky enough to be planning a trip to Willamette in late July, but that didn’t mean I was about to let May slip by without spending serious time with Oregon wine. Jackson Family Wines (I’ll refer to them as “KJ” for Kendall-Jackson, their main label) was kind enough to send me an array of wines from their Oregon portfolio, and I divvied them up into sets of three to explore over five evenings at the end of the month. I posted comments and partial reviews on our Instagram and Facebook accounts, and promised this full write-up in June. Here we are, barely over deadline.

Some words on KJ before I talk about Oregon. I think the content on this blog demonstrates that a large majority of my focus is on the little guy. This isn’t so much a conscious decision I make, something born out of a David and Goliath complex or a distaste for corporations, but rather one driven by the reality that smaller producers tend to push the limits and experiment in interesting ways that catch my attention while producing wines that are, on balance, more engaging and satisfying than the big guys. Yet this is my second piece that heavily features KJ wineries, and in this case it has an exclusive focus on them. So what gives?

I was introduced to KJ corporate through a winemaker dinner I attended in Washington, DC featuring Shane Moore, winemaker at Oregon’s Zena Crown and Gran Moraine wineries, both of which are KJ properties. I wrote a piece on that wine dinner making the case for attending winemaker dinners, and have included Shane in several additional Good Vitis pieces, including a solo profile, because I respect the guy so damn much as a winemaking talent and all-around good dude. This led to a relationship with several people at KJ headquarters, which led to help organizing an incredible Napa trip in December of last year and the upcoming Willamette trip this summer. Through my interactions with KJ corporate people and the wineries they own, I came to appreciate just how much Barbara Banke, the chairman and proprietor of KJ, and her staff respect the soul of the wineries they purchase and don’t impinge, as far as I can tell, much on the wineries. Instead, KJ spends time and money on promoting the wines and authentic stories of the wineries and personalities that originally put them on KJ’s radar while providing the resources to foster growth and quality improvement. I’m sure it’s not all sunshine and puppies, and I certainly don’t want to project a sense that I know more than I do, but I enjoy many of the wineries they own on the merits of the wine and approach taken to make them.

Oregon AVAs Oregon Wine Press

Source: Oregon Wine Press

Oregon has more than one wine region, though I imagine Willamette is the best known. Oregon boasts eighteen American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), which are spread among three main areas. One runs the length of the Interstate 5 corridor (generously conceived for this purpose) between the Washington and California borders,  another comprises a good chunk of the northern border with Washington along the Columbia River, and the other along the state’s Eastern border. This geography covers a number of different terroirs. My favorite Oregon syrah is made by Cowhorn, which is located about 15 miles north of the California border, while my favorite pinot producer, Cameron, is a six hour drive to the north. Some of the most famed syrah produced by Washington wineries is, in fact, grown just south of the Washington-Oregon border in Northeastern Oregon. The Columbia Gorge, which runs East-West across the top of the State, is a growing wine region with a burgeoning reputation on both sides of the border. The wines covered in this piece, though all come from Willamette Valley, represent the Yamhill-Carlton and Eola-Amity AVAs as well as a few that are blends from across the Valley.

Yamhill-Carlton was established as an AVA in 2004. It’s about 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, and gets some weather buffering from the Coast Range Mountains, which top out at 3,500 feet above sea level, that stand between it and the ocean. To the north, Chehalem Mountain adds some additional protection, as do the Dundee Hills to the east. The soils are mainly marine sedimentary that lies on top of sandstone and siltstone, a combination that tends to moderate acid development.

Eola-Amity came online as an AVA two years after Yamhil-Carlton. It’s home to Oregon’s longest continuously operating winery, Honeywood Winery, and is located to the south and east of Yamhill-Carlton. Though more inland, it still receives good air flow through a break in the Coastal Range called the Van Duzer Corridor. This keeps the summers and winters temperate, and luckily for producers the rain tends to fall mostly outside the growing season. The soils are a mix of volcanic basalt, marine sendimentary and alluvial deposits, a combination leading to shallow and well-drained soils that help build concentration.

For the first night of this Oregon Wine Month project, I chose Yamhill-Carlton designates from Siduri and Gran Moraine and a Willamette Valley blend from Penner-Ash. Regarding the first two, it’s always fun to see how producers in the same area compare to each other, and in these two I got the contrast I wanted.

Siduri is a California winery focused on pinot noir started by Adam Lee, who also makes the wine. Adam recently sold Siduri to KJ, but agreed to stay on as winemaker. I was fortunate enough to enjoy an incredible evening of wine and discussion with Adam when he visited my area earlier this year, and so was excited to try his Oregon pinot. We exchanged some emails subsequently, and I asked him how he made Oregon wine living in California. It’s an interesting explanation, so I’m going to quote him:

“I’ve been making wine from Oregon grapes since 1995 (the second year of Siduri). We made our first wine, in 1994, at Lambert Bridge Winery where we worked in the tasting room. The GM at Lambert Bridge owned some land in Oregon that he had planted with pinot noir and was impressed enough with what we did in 1994 to sell us grapes in 1995. That’s how we got into Oregon. Since that 1995 vintage we always shipped grapes back to California using a refrigerated truck. The shipping itself is pretty easy, and if the truck is set right around freezing the grapes arrive in fantastic shape. Beginning with the 2015 vintage, the sale to Jackson Family Wines, and the larger quantity of wine we were making, we started making more of the wine up in Oregon. So we trucked some of the stuff down but made more of it up in Oregon. I’d fly up every week on Monday, back on Wednesday. Ryan Zepaltas, our assistant winemaker, flew up on Wednesday and back on Friday. So we basically spent the entire week up there.”

I also asked Adam how he might make his Oregon wines differently than he does his Californian bottles. “There are many years where we do have to do things differently with Oregon fruit than California fruit….but in the last few vintages (2014-2016) there were more similarities in the grapes than in other vintages. Thus there wasn’t nearly as much to do differently,” he told me. “One thing we do always is take a look at malic percentages. Oregon can come in with higher malic levels – so although the grapes come in with great acidity, a lot of it falls out through malolactic fermentation. That really wasn’t an issue in 2015.  In fact, 2015 was just about as ideal of a harvest as you could imagine. Arguably the best year we’ve ever had in Oregon.”

The Siduri and Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carltons, like most of the wines in this article, come from the 2015 vintage. I asked Shane Moore, Gran Moraine’s winemaker, about the vintage, and he threw a serious of adjectives at me: “Expressive. Super heady. Great acidity. Transparency.” Capped off with “Pinot lovers rejoice!”

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Siduri’s Yamhill-Carlton is a blend of Gran Moraine Vineyard and the vineyard at Gran Moraine Winery (yes, these are two distinctly different vineyards). Adam explained that “the vineyard at the winery is entirely dry farmed and, even early in the growing season, I knew it was going to be the first grapes picked. You could tell by looking at the early yellowing leaves. That fruit did, indeed, arrive early. We destemmed it all. We let the fruit at the Gran Moraine hang longer (with careful irrigation), which allowed us to get riper stems and utilize more whole clusters in those ferments.”

I found the nose of the Siduri to be deep and hedonistic, offering sweet cherry, cola, ink, cassis, kirsch and rose. It’s full bodied with smooth and plush tannin and bright acidity, everything appearing in good balance that I think will improve even more with time. Flavors are tarter than the nose, delivering cherry, cranberry, huckleberry, wet pavement, pastel florals and a small dose of wet soil. 91 pts, value B+.

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The Gran Moraine, in my experience with this and previous vintages, delivers incredible value for pinot noir. The slightly restrained nose wafts boysenberry, dark earth, olive brine, lightly tanned leather and orange zest. Boarding on full bodied, it has velvety tannins and shiny acid that’s well integrated. The substantial depth of this one demands a good decant, and benefits from keeping it in your mouth for an extended period of time to experience its development. I think this has good medium-term aging potential. Flavors hit on pomegranate, acai, plum, black olive, currant, wet soil and juniper berry. 92 pts, value A-.

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The Penner-Ash Willamette Valley pinot noir is distributed nationally and shows up on a lot of restaurant wine lists around the country. It serves as Penner-Ash’s entry point pinot, and is one that tries to strike a widely appealing profile. I’ve had a number of vintages and it tends to show very little variation from year-to-year, making its consistency an appealing asset for consumers who like knowing what they’re getting each time. Nevertheless, it usually offers good depth for the price, and is one that I always wish I could have a few years of bottle age.

The 2015 has a saturated nose of plummy cherry, Dr. Pepper, graphite and lavender. It’s rocking a full body that enters thick. The tannin is restrained but mouth-filling and slightly grainy, and the acid strikes a good level. Flavors are a briar patch of blackberry, raspberry and boysenberry complimented nicely by baking spice and just a touch of saline. While it’s nice now, I’d love to try this one again in 2020 and expect it to do well for a few additional years. 91 points, value: B+.

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On night number two, I took a similar but more narrow approach in choosing two wines that come from the same vineyard, but then added a white into the mix. The latter, a pinot gris, was my first introduction to WillaZenzie Estate, a winery that quickly became a revelation. All of WillaKenzie’s wines come from their own vineyards, and many of their wines are vineyard-designates. I’ll get to a number of their pinots later, but the 2017 pinot gris has a voluminously perfumed nose of grapefruit, peach, gravel, slate lime zest and marzipan. Lean on entry, it gains body as it sits in the mouth. The acid is nicely balanced, neither subdued nor overbearing. Key Lime pie, starfruit and grapefruit dominate the fruit profile, though the stony minerality really drives the length of this linear, focused wine. Impressive effort. 90 points, Value A.

The two reds hark from the famed Zena Crown vineyard. I asked Shane what makes the vineyard so special. “It’s all about the terroir! Fantastic soils (both volcanic and sedimentary); Great SW facing aspects; cold evening wind at night during the summer; in the sweet spot for Oregon viticulture in terms of elevation at 200-800ft,” he said.

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

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

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Shout out to Zena Crown for the short foil. I’ve long wished wineries eschewed them altogether so customers could see the condition of the cork.

On the third night, I randomly selected three wines: two pinots and a chardonnay. Some Burgundian producers prefer to serve these varieties in what might otherwise be reverse order: red first, then white. Because pinot isn’t a heavy or cloying red, it can be followed by a white that brings sharper acidity and good body. I’ve always preferred this method and followed it again this time to great success.

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The 2015 Willakenzie Pierre Leon was the revelation of this entire Oregon Wine Month line up for me. It offers a very ripe and pretty nose wafting raspberry, cut cherry, perfumed rose and tangerine peel. It’d medium in weight with very juicy acidity, I just love how it coats the mouth. The tannins are subtle, but the wine is no wimp. The flavor profile is also ripe and pretty with raspberry, cherry, potpourri, tangerine, light tobacco, white pepper and Chervil. This is an elegant wine in structure, aroma and flavor. It reminds me of Musigny. I’d love to have it with another 5-8 years of age. 94 points, value A.

Next was the 2015 La Crema Willamette Valley pinot noir, which is another nationally distributed bottle that aims to find all sorts of middle ground and appeal to a wide audience. It has a fairly dark nose featuring cherry compote, raspberry chocolate cake and wet tar. The mouth is round and smooth, the acid bright and the tannins restrained. Flavors are fruit-forward with sweet cherry and strawberry, while subtle pepper and Herbs de Provence drive the finish. Not the most complex wine, but enjoyable. 89 points, value B+.

Finally came the white. The 2015 Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton chardonnay is benchmark Oregon chardonnay in my book and the twinkle in the Gran Moraine eye. Priced in the mid $40s, it’s not cheap, but routinely out performs many of the State’s more expensive chardonnays. This vintage is a stellar one. The nose gives off sweet oak, dried mango, honeysuckle, vanilla custard and a smidge of Earl Grey tea. It’s a plush medium weight on the palate with a bit of a glycerin sensation that I just love. The barrel influence is restrained but present in the structure and flavors as well as the nose, it’s managed just right for this profile. There’s oak vanillin, Meyer lemon, sweet cream, Thai basil, persimmon and dried apricot. 93 points, value A.

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Night number four introduced a rosé. I’m finding more and more that pinot has a pureness about it that other red varieties don’t deliver in rosé form. The 2017 WillaKenzie Estate Rosé delivers serious pureness on the nose, which I completely dug, though the palate seems a bit disjointed at this stage and may need a few months in bottle to merge. It has a nose of bright crushed strawberry, cantaloupe, crushed limestone and coriander. It’s on the fuller side of the rose spectrum, and quite lush. The acid is kicking. The fruit zeros in on strawberry, cranberry and salmon berry, while there are touches of nutmeg and parsley that seem out of place. 88 points, value C.

The 2015 Siduri Willamette Valley pinot noir seemed a little thin and hasn’t quite delineated itself yet on the palate to the point of flavors becoming individually discernible. It has, though, achieved an impressive balance that suggests it can fill out. I suspect it may just need a few more months in bottle to come together. The round, ripe nose is mostly about the strawberry, raspberry and cherry, though dark, wet soil adds some depth. It’s of medium weight on the palate, largely due to the juicy, bright acidity that brings levity. The tannins are quite refined, and the balance is impressive, though ultimately this feels a bit thin. The flavors are slightly muted at this stage. The fruit is a bit generically red, though there are some pretty florals – rose petals mostly – trying to peep through. I think three to six months in the bottle will bring this together, though longer aging is likely unnecessary. 88 points, and on the assumption that it will come together, it gets an A value.

The 2015 Penner-Ash Estate Vineyard pinot noir offers a boatload of potential for the patient. The nose boarders on hedonistic, and offers some killer aromas of iron, black strap molasses and bruised strawberry and blackberry, though it’s obvious that with some bottle age there will be more to come. The body is as full-throttled, and the tannin structure and acid suggest a minimum of 5-6 years is required for it to really come together, though I’d give it a decade to allow the full range of fruit and Earthy flavors to shine: Acai, pomegranate, raspberry, blackberry, tar, black tea and black pepper all duck and weave through a robust tannin structure and acid that will need to relax for this wine to show its best self. This will be an all-star if one can wait a solid decade. Penner-Ash’s Estate Vineyard has some cool stuff going on. 92 points, value A-.

For the fifth and final night I reserved all WillaKenzie pinots, though as it turns out, night three’s Pierre Leon was my favorite from the producer. Those four are all part of the estate’s single vineyard bottle program that draw from estate vineyards that are very close to each other, though each has its distinct personality and profile. For those unconvinced of terroir, pouring the Pierre Leon and these three blind, and then showing the vineyard map, ought to be enough to suspect the French were on to something.

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Of the three tasted together, the 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Aliette is the most delicate. It’s quite perfumed with a bouquet of Spring flowers and rose potpourri, cherry, strawberry, juniper, clove, and allspice on this high-toned nose. The palate is modest in weight, but round and smooth. Tannin is well integrated, while the acid is pleasantly juicy and slightly tart. The range of red fruit is impressive: strawberry, cranberry, huckleberry and raspberry, plus a not-so-minor role for plum. Tar, pepper and mulled spices feature on the back end. Pretty, but uninspiring at the moment, I suspect it will reach a higher elevation with three to five years of aging. 92 points, value A-.

The 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Kiana gives the impression of purple-ness. Its nose is reserved at the moment, though it offers promise with fruit punch aromas, uncured bacon and molasses. The tannin is fine grained and refined, the acid juicy and the overall weight modest. The flavors a bit more alive than the nose at this stage, with raspberry, boysenberry and pomegranate driving a profile supported by tobacco leaf and tar. Coming together nicely, I think it’ll continue to develop positively over the next five to ten years. 93 points, value: A.

While the 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Emery is a bit reticent on the nose at the moment, it delivers licorice, molasses, blackberry and pepper. The body is big and round, though the acid keeps it plucky and the tannins are integrated sufficiently to maintain the smooth profile. Slightly savory on the palate, it offers uncured bacon, red currant, red plum, Acai, black pepper and tarragon. This is a compelling package that I’d love to revisit in five plus years. 94 points, value A.

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I love Oregon wine. This line up of 15 bottles reaffirmed that. The quality is there. The terroir is there. The talent is there. It’s just a fantastic place to produce high quality pinot and chardonnay that has distinction from the world’s other pinots and chardonnays, as well as, as mentioned above, a number of other varieties (for fans of savory syrah, old school riesling, and refined pinot gris, Oregon has stones worth turning over). It has a soul, which is not something that every wine region can legitimately claim. I think this is in part because the world seems to have left the State relatively alone long enough for it to find its identity and strengths and settle in on its own terms. It’s probably insulting to say that its wine is ready for the world, since it has been for a while now, but commercially it has a lot of unrealized potential and I’d like to see more wine drinkers across the world take note. Oregon Wine Month 2019 is another eleven months away, but don’t sit on Oregon wine until then.

On Cork Report: Defining a New Region Near the North Carolina Border

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Rosemont of Virginia Winery

Note: this piece was originally published on The Cork Report on June 6th.

Rosemont of Virginia is located just four miles north of the State’s border with North Carolina, and that puts it well off any of the Commonwealth’s wine trails. While there are a few small wineries in the area, Rosemont is producing 6,000 cases annually, putting it squarely into the state’s mid-sized tier of producers. Because of its location, it may be one of the least well-known Virginia wineries of its size. Most of its foot traffic comes from tourists visiting Lake Gaston and Roanoke Rapids Lake (two joined reservoirs), which allows it to produce at such a volume.

If you haven’t heard of Rosemont, though, you’re not alone. When a trio of samples showed up I had to turn to the Internet to make myself aware of the producer. Read more on The Cork Report.

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

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.

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.

When (and Why) You Should Attend a Winemaker Dinner

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A Gran Moraine vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton (Picture: oregonlive.com)

Winemaker dinners, usually advertised for $100-plus per person, are a thing of luxury and, unless you live in a decently sized wine market, a bit of a rarity. I’ve stayed away from them because they seem like a rip off. I imagined the wine pours, food portions, and the winemaker’s ability to give one-on-one attention are all limited, which means I’m likely to feel like I’m neither getting my money’s worth nor like I’m able to really familiarize myself with the wine. A recent experience, however, has shown me not to assume that this is the case.

The basic anatomy of a winemaker dinner is one in which people meet at a nice restaurant for a prix fixe menu paired with wines from a specific winemaker or winery (or wineries). The winemaker will introduce themselves, their winery and their approach, and then offer stories behind each wine as it is poured and share their own impressions of it. The dinners can vary in size and quality, but are generally scoped either to introduce wine to a market or, in some cases, to a targeted selection of people in the industry.

A few months back I interviewed Shane Moore, the winemaker a Zena Crown and Gran Moraine wineries, both in Oregon, about his prior experience making wine in Israel. Shane and I stayed in touch and when he was in town last week invited me to attend a small winemaker dinner. I had enjoyed my conversations with Shane and wanted to meet him in person; the chance to drink his wines, with him, was only going to be a bonus.

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Shane Moore (Picture: granmoraine.com)

The gathering was small, maybe fifteen people, most of whom were attached to the industry in one way or another. The atmosphere was collegial and anything but snobby. Our meal was three courses, though we had five wines (plus a bonus Champagne before we sat down). Shane regaled us with anecdotes about each wine and explained his approach and style. It became clear, immediately, that he has a passion for what he does that is matched by his knowledge, which is saying quite a bit. He dropped some Shaneism on the group when he told us that wine tasted best under at least one of three conditions: at the winery, when it’s labeled, and when drinking it with the winemaker. He proved the last one; drinking with the winemaker isn’t merely a bonus, as I had thought it would be, but the selling point for winemaker dinners.

As we placed our orders, Gran Moraine’s 2016 rose was poured. Shane told us his rose inspirations are Domaine Tempier in Bandol and Domaine Ott in Provence, and although his rose is made from a grape not found in either of those wines – pinot noir – the inspirations were demonstrated in the wine. The nose was especially boisterous, pretty and layered. I detected honeydew, kumquat, strawberries, and cherries along with nice florals. The palate was full but very crisp, a nice balance that comes from the use of breathable plastic bins for fermentation that allow extra oxygen to get into the fermenting wine to build up its body. It has nice astringency and just a bit of tannin, which isn’t surprising giving how it’s made: the grapes are picked early, most of it made into pinot blanc, and then blended with carbonic macerated pinot noir. It’s a grand slam at $29.

We then moved on to the 2014 Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton chardonnay, which might have been the wine of the night for me. Everything about it is classic Yamhill-Carlton chardonnay, which means it could double as a Montrachet in a blind tasting if it weren’t for its zing and salinity. This one had a gorgeous nose of white pepper, toasted hazelnuts and sesame, starfruit, apricot, green apples and some coconut barrel notes. The body is silky and full, evidence of battonage. It had a nice dose of chalk, sweet lemon, salty pretzel, stone fruits, a mint/basil note along with nice saline and great flintiness. The pH is quite basic at around 3.1, and the grapes were picked in the 21-22 brix range. Primary fermentation was all native and took “forever.” “One of the most stressful wines I’ve ever made,” Shane said. “It spent a lot of time without sulfur…” he said as his voice trailed off and his eyes rolled in the back of his head, remembering those nerve-racking times. Malolactic fermentation was partial. It’s an automatic selection at $45.

As the main course arrived we moved to the 2013 Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton pinot noir. Shane called Yamhill-Carlton pinot an ephemeral style that he compared to Burgundy’s Volnay. Around 30% used on this was French, and the barrel aging went for approximately 9 months. This treatment gives the wine good structure but doesn’t overwhelm the more delicate elements of the profile. The nose offers really nice fruit and not an unnoticeable amount of funk reminiscent of wet soil, underbrush and fungus. It finishes with some nice pepper. The fruit on the palate is dark and just a little tart, showing Acai, huckleberries and cherries. Shane said they picked at just the right time to keep any greenness from working its way into the profile. Bravo. It also offers a classy amount of Asian Five Spice. There’s a good tannic backbone to this one but it’s balanced and smooth. Among the best $45 Oregon pinot noir I’ve had, and certainly the most developed of the 2013s at this price point that I’ve had to date.

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Zena Crown Vineyard (Picture: zenacrown.com)

We then transitioned to the Zena Crown label as they poured the 2013 Sum from Eola-Amity. I think it was around this time that Shane, Isaac Baker of terroirist.com and I discussed the 2013 Oregon vintage. The press raved about the 2012s, a warm vintage that produced very approachable and sweet pinots throughout Oregon’s AVAs while the cooler 2013 received a more tepid reception. I made the comment that I bought very few 2012s and was much happier, and more invested in, 2013 because the cooler vintage produced less hedonism on the body and structure of the wines and kept the brix in check so the acid could highlight the secondary and tertiary flavors. Shane wasn’t a fan of 2012 either, dismissing the wines from that vintage as “singular.”

The Sum’s nose was incredibly deep. Acai gave way to rhubarb, and then to chocolate covered raspberries and macerated cherries. There is also smoke, sweet tobacco, cinnamon and nutmeg. It took me a while before I was ready to remove my nose from the glass. The body is led by polished tannins, but is well balanced with good acidity. This one was 40% whole cluster using grapes grown in (volcanic) Basalt soils. The name “Sum” is meant to convey that every little thing, from cradle to grave, matters. The palate was as deep and complex as the body, and it’s $75 price tag is reasonable for the quality and complexity it offers. I’ve had a good amount of expensive Oregon pinot noir that isn’t nearly as good as this one.

We finished with Zena Crown’s top-shelf wine, the 2013 Slope, which retails for $100. Shane called this one his “winter wine” for it’s serious presence (each of the four Zena Crown wines represents a different season for Shane), and because it has no “elbows.” The nose is heavy and serious; I wrote down “serious flowers, serious species and serious fruit” when smelling it. It had some nice graphite, Herbs de Provence, and smoked meat as well. The palate? Also “serious.” Cherries, green herbs, graphite, iodine, saline, rose and lavender. I mentioned that I noted cola as well, though Shane kind of shook his head “no.” I’m sticking with it. Mark it cola, Dude. This one will be long lived, and is among the two or three most complete and complex 2013s I’ve had from Oregon. If stocking up on Zena Crown, I’d buy the Sum to have over the next five years, and the Slope for the following ten.

Shane was right – drinking with the winemaker makes the wine better. If this post hasn’t made it clear, he’s a very engaging guy, and loves talking about his craft. The banter was as fun as the wine, and the combination made the night. It seems to me this is why you go to winemaker dinners. I imagine the more engaging and fun the winemaker, the more engaging and fun the dinner. So long as the wine can keep up, you’re going to have a good time. If you come across one of these dinners and are wondering whether to go, my suggestion is do some research into the winemaker and decide based on what you find.

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.

psagot

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