Try this Wine: Killer $22 Pinot

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It took real persistence to get this piece written. Not by me, but by Jesse Inman, who is one half of the sibling pair behind Lucky Rock Wine Company. First, he sent me their sauvignon blanc in July 2019, then their pinot noir a few months later. Except, it didn’t arrive, so he had to send another bottle. Then he had to pester me for, like, three months to get the interview scheduled. Finally, nine months after making first contact, we spoke. And the thing is, it’s not like the wine sucked and I didn’t know how to say “no.” I wrote this because, as the title of the post suggests, I want people to try this wine. It’s really good.

I’m neither a true snob nor judgment-free when it comes to wine, but somewhere between depending on the day. I’ll admit to huffing and puffing every time I see someone on Bachelor hold their wine glass by the bulb, yelling “BY THE STEM” at the television while my wife, who for the record agrees, rolls her eyes. And I’m often guilty of talking more about a wine that we’re sharing with friends that they care to hear, sometimes going on diatribes laced with nitpicks of the obviously wrong decision to do malo or the overly-judicious use of new oak on such a delicate grape.

That said, I also get great joy out of making the case against top of the line Bordeaux because the value proposition is garbage. And for the life of me, I cannot wrap my head around the people who rave about some of the most lofted California cult wines, which from my experience offer underwhelming sophistication and are often wildly out of balance (which is okay because they’re built in a way that the balance only gets worse with time).

I’m skipping ahead a bit in the interview with Jesse, but he peppered it with a two lines that explain the above paragraphs:

“Take your ascot off and drink our wine.”

“We’re hoping that [our] quality is good enough that people [who usually pay more] are willing to drink down to it price-wise, but also [people who don’t normally pay our price] drink up to it because it’s so good that it justifies them spending a bit more than usual.”

If the suspense is killing you, here it is: Lucky Rock pinot noir retails for $22, but to my palate it’s better than a lot of $30 and $40 pinots I’ve had. More on the wine later.

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Lucky Rock is not trying to be your typical winery. Their Instagram profile describes themselves as “Wine, Tattoo, Food Truck,” and is filled with pictures of tattoos, their pick-axe (say it fast and it sounds like “kick ass”) logo and dudes in beards and trucker hats having fun. One post, featuring a (relatively) close up of the chest of a heavily tattooed woman wearing a Lucky Rock tank top, uses the line “Look! We’re a lifestyle brand that actually knows how to make wine?”

“Our whole model is no pretension and good wine at a good price,” Jesse told me. I’m in the middle of a book on the history of Ralph Lauren, the man and the company. Lauren has been very clear that he is not a fashion designer nor is he selling fashion. Rather, he explains, his clothes are about style within the context of a lifestyle that he wants the people who wear his clothes to experience. I had asked Jesse about their lifestyle approach because in the same way that Ralph Lauren ads are as much about the non-clothing elements of the visuals and language used, Lucky Rock seemed to be about a lifestyle package that includes wine as one of the many elements.

“You can’t just rely on brand [to make it in wine],” Jesse said. “Obviously we make wine, but the tattoo part [of the brand ID] is a parallel for modernizing the wine business. We cuss a lot, we’re covered in tattoos, we joke around, and that’s unusual for quality wine. My brother and I figured that if we’re going to put this amount of effort into it then we have to have fun and be authentic about who we are.”

“The food truck,” he continued, referencing the Instagram profile description, “is that great wine and food go together. But just because you’re eating great food doesn’t mean that you need a white table cloth. [There is a] correlation between food truck and Lucky Rock – French Laundry and Bond are synonymous the same way. We’re not trying to kid ourselves, we’re not Bond, not trying to be that, nor do you want to be. But we know that our wine goes with great food regardless of where the food comes from. There is really fantastic food coming out of trucks, just like we’re trying to make really fantastic wine that comes to you in an unpretentious way.”

I’ll be completely open about my own experience with Lucky Rock. I’d never heard of it until Jesse contacted me, and after looking at the website and Instagram I set myself up for disappointment. The sauvignon blanc was solid, maybe even good, but the pinot noir blew me away. The reality is that Lucky Rock is a legitimate winery that punches above its price point.

They’re able to do that because they take advantage of economies of scale built into their business model. They make a lot of wine for other brands, much of which comes from really good vineyards that are strategically chosen based on their ability to deliver high quality grapes at less than high-end Napa prices. Of the annual haul, a small amount is taken to produce Lucky Rock. By pooling the collective tonnage needs, they’re able to get grapes that a stand-alone winery could not afford to sell at $22 per bottle. Put another way, if they were buying these grapes just for Lucky Rock, the price point would be significantly higher.

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Starting from the goal of making a very reasonably priced wine, a few other elements of the business plan are critical to success. They are about 60% wholesale having made the conscious choice to prioritize that over being direct-to-consumer, which lowers overhead. They have to be high volume, as well, because they are low margin. “We want to be different,” Jesse explained, “if we ever opened a traditional tasting room we’d be letting ourselves down. If anything, we might open a tap room featuring different wines and beers to pour alongside our stuff.”

It is also critical to making a high quality $22 pinot that they actually know what they’re doing. Jesse cut his teeth making high quality, more expensive wine at August Briggs Winery, where he got his start thanks to a close family connection and where he continues to make the wine today. While the Lucky Rock lifestyle is more warehouse than Napa Valley, the winemaking is as advanced as those who sell the high society lifestyle. Jesse has been making pinot noir “for my entire winemaking life. We’re taking the high end mentality and finding vineyards where we can apply that approach without going as expensive.”

Jesse and I talked tannins for a solid ten minutes because one of the more impressive aspects of the 2018 pinot was the quality and elegance of the structure. Often times, pinot under $30 falls flat and thin, but not Lucky Rock. He takes tannin structure seriously and has been trying various trade craft over the last several vintages to build a consistent profile. Close relationships with fruit growers, careful use of highly selective tannin additives and lots of experimentation with various barrel cooperages and treatments has led to three consecutive vintages now of positive refinement of the tannin structure. It sounds like he’s getting to a place where achieving consistency will keep the wine at a great place.

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Here’s the thing: Lucky Rock’s lifestyle isn’t for everyone, though I do imagine that it is a major factor behind the label’s success thus far. What is for a wider audience, though, is the wine. Lucky Rock’s desire to capture customers based on the quality, whether it’s more or less expensive than you normally pay, delivers in the glass. Even if you aren’t into tattoos, food trucks or trucker hats, even if the label is a bit too aggressive for you, you need to try the wine because, and I feel confident saying this, you won’t find a better pinot noir for the price. And if you dig their vibe, all the better. Dive right in.

Here’s the tasting note on the 2018, which is currently for sale: The nose-filling aromas are dominated by bright cherry and raspberry, but also include subtle tar, rose petal and baking spice. The body is medium plus in weight with fine grained tannin and modest but well-integrated acid. This could age for another 1-2 years and do nicely, but it’s gulpable at the moment. Cherry and raspberry pop on the palate as well, and are bolstered by blood orange, lilac and something spicy. This punches well above its price point. 92 points. Value: A+.

Where to purchase:

Right now, help the brothers out and order direct. They’re offering a temporary COVID-inspired discount: 15% off 6 bottles with $6 shipping and 20% off 12 bottles with $12 shipping. Discount codes can be found here. They ship to a good chunk of the country.

If you’d rather find it locally, they have a retail finder here.

Try this Wine: Cava from Vilarnau

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The corks and closures of two very nice bottles of Cava from Vilarnau

When I was 22 years old, I went to Barcelona for 3 months to study Spanish. I had recently graduate college and worked on a political campaign that exhausted me, and the idea of going somewhere new for a while was exciting. While I was already into wine at that age, it wasn’t a passion or fixation like it has become. And so unfortunately, I didn’t take advantage of my close proximity while in Barcelona to the various nearby wine regions, the most well-known of which are Catalunya, Priorat and Montsant, to visit them.

That didn’t stop me, however, from drinking wine while I was there. My favorite bar, which unfortunately no longer exists, was called El Bigoté (the mustache). The bar, just one big, open room, had no tables or chairs, though it had a 6-inch-wide bar that wrapped around roughly half of the walls. For a small number of euros, you were able to purchase a big plate of a single type of fried tapa and a bottle of Cava, white or rosé, your choice. Cava is a sparkling wine made in Penedès, a wine region to Barcelona’s south. They didn’t sell the tapas or Cava separately, you had to get an order of each together.

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Penedés. Credit: winetraveler.com

We spent many a night at El Bigoté, and that is where my head still often goes when I think of sparkling wine even though I drink remarkably little Cava these days. Though I will always be drawn to Champagne, my go-to has become crémant, which is a term now used generally for sparkling wine that comes from places in France that aren’t Champagne. The Burgundy and Loire regions are where my favorite crémant is made.

Part of the reason I drink so little Cava is that it is hard to find good Cava on the shelves of grocery stores and most wine merchants. This is why I was excited when I was offered the two wines I’m about to introduce as samples. I’ll never turn down an opportunity to try Cava in the hopes of it stirring some great memories from El Bigoté. That said, when they arrived and I saw how they are labeled, I got a pit in my stomach and thought, ‘another two bottles of Cava that play to the party crowd aren’t likely to be very good.’

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The Gaudí-inspired labels. Credit: aboutmygeneration.com

I’ve since tried the wine. I still don’t like the labels because they suggest that the wine is made for parties (even though they are inspired by Barcelona’s own Antoni Gaudí), for passively chugging alcohol while dancing in the club on New Year’s Eve, music thumping away. But I like the wine. It’s serious, it’s seriously good, and I think it’s great wine to recommend for someone who wants to try good Cava, or any type of sparkling wine, without spending a lot of money.

Vilarnau describes itself as “a small, artisan and cutting-edge cava winery [near] Barcelona.” The Vilarnau family was Spanish nobility in the 12th Century, and settled in Penedés. While Cava was made long before 1949 on the property, that’s when it was first labeled and marketed. In 1982 the González Bypass family of wines bought the label, and a new winery was built in 2005. Such a long history in the region does help explain why they are a producer of serious and thoughtful Cava. If you can get by the packaging (which didn’t photograph well enough to be featured in this post), or can find the regularly labeled bottle, the wine is worth trying.

The non-vintage Vilarnau Brut Reserva retails for $14.99 and is comprised of 50% macebeo, 35% parallada and 15% xarel.lo grapes. The nose is quite a lovely tropical and floral show featuring honeyed papaya, honeysuckle, straw, yellow peach and sweet lees. It is full bodied and very spritzy, which shows off well a tasteful amount of sweetness. Meyer lemon curd, marzipan and green apple are accentuated by a peppery spice. 90 points, value A.

The non-vintage Vilarnau Brut Reserva Rosé has an engaging nose that is quite ripe and mineral driven with raspberry, lavender, cider and lees. Also full bodied, the palate has a nice balance between creaminess, slight sweetness and crisp, round acid. Flavors are a wild mix of kiwi, watermelon, strawberry, lime, slate minerality and white pepper. 91 points, value A.

Where to buy:

The Gaudí edition may no longer be on shelves (if you’re lucky), but these places are listing availability of the standard labeled bottles.

Brut Reserva:

Sacramento, CA: The Wine Consultant

Colorado Springs, CO: Downtown Fine Spirits & Wine

Springfield, IL: The Corkscrew

New York, NY: Sherry-Lehmann

Harrisburg, PA: PA Liquor Control Board

Dallas, TX: Pogo’s Wine

 

Brut Reserva Rosé:

Westport, CT: International Wine Shop

Newton, MA: Marty’s

Hopkins, MN: Ace Wine, Spirits & Beer

New York, NY: 67 Wine & Spirits

Hilton Head, SC: Rollers Spirits, Wine & Cheese

A Taste of Alto Adige/Südtirol

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The cellar at Castel Sallegg

I have to admit, my knowledge of Alto Adige/Südtirol, a wine region in Northern Italy, was very limited prior to the research I did before writing this. That research began with the Wikipedia page of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, which does a decent job of running the reader through its history, which is not that easy to follow because of its location that put it in the middle of many power battles.

In short, previous rulers included the Romans; a combination of Germanic tribes, Alamannic Vinschgua and Bavairians; Charlemagne/Kingdom of Italy; Holy Roman Emperors’ “prince-bishops”; House of Habsburg; Austria; France under Napoleon quasi on behalf of the Austrians and Italians; Austro-Hungary; Nazis; Italy; and now semi-autonomous rule under Italy that the native Germans and Austrians don’t entirely like.

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An illustration of the current sensitivity can be seen on the region’s wine industry website, which labels itself with both the German and Italian languages in the same logo (Südtirol Wein/Vini Alto Adige – the respective names of the region and spellings of “wine”). To quote directly from vinepair.com’s page on the region:

“Most residents speak both Italian and German and two-thirds are native German speakers, hence the reason why the region is Alto Adige – Südtirol. Many wineries have names in both languages for the Cantina (Italian) or Kellerei (German), and wine labels could include a grape variety’s name in either language, such as Pinot Grigio or Grauburgunder. But despite its history of change, archaeological evidence places Alto Adige – Südtirol among the oldest winegrowing regions in Europe, dating back to the 5th century B.C.”

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Picture credit: Merles’ World

The region is quite mountainous as it plays home to sections of the Alps and Dolomites, which protect the vines from cold winds and rains, giving them roughly 300 days per year of sun. The warms days and cool nights (vines are planted at considerable elevation) help the grapes reach full maturity while preserving acid levels, a phenomenon well-evidenced in the wine reviewed for this post. Its fertile valleys make for great agricultural production and logging, while its lakes and rivers are harnessed to produce a good deal of electricity. Recently, tourism has become a major driver of the local economy as well.

Wine-wise, Alto Adige-Südtirol is best known for pinot grigio. There are six common varieties in addition to PG. For this post, I was able to taste three of them: gewürztraminer, langerin and schiava, the latter two reds. While PG is the most grown white (gewürzt is third on that list), schiava and lagerin are the two most planted reds.

Traditionally, gewürztraminer from the region is produced with a touch of residual sugar. Schiava and lagerin make very different wines. Gamay lovers may gravitate towards the former, while zinfandel lovers are more likely to appreciate the latter. All, I would argue, are good food wines due to their high acid. The three wines below were received as samples and tasted sighted. It was a delight to give them a try, and if you’re looking for a taste of the region, all offer good values.

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The 2017 gewurztraminer from Nals Margreid offers very honeyed and tropical aromas of honeysuckle, cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple, vanilla custard and just a hint of chili flake kick. It’s full bodied and lush, though the mineral-driven acid provides nice cut. The flavors are quite saturated, and feature a profile similar, if not drier, to the nose: mint, cantaloupe, pineapple, Granny Smith apple, vanilla custard and slightly bitter greens. This wells its 5.2 grams/liter of residual sugar with class. I’m a fan. 89 points. Value: B+.

The 2017 Castel Sallegg Lagrein Südtirol Alto Adige has a very saturated nose featuring crushed cherry, blackberry and boysenberry at the forefront. Underneath this hedonistic trio is sweet tobacco leaf and vanilla. Full bodied, the tannin and acid are each lean and mean. This one is driven by a rustic texture reminiscent of tannat. A bit dominated by under ripe red and black fruit (think plum, cassis, strawberry and cherry), it has nice touches of underbrush, baking spice and cigar. A wine to chew on, and one that benefits from several hours in a decanter. 88 points. Value: C+.

Finally, the 2017 St. Pauls Missianer Schiava Südtriol Alto Adige has a stewed cherry-rich nose with additional aromas of macerated strawberry, lavender, flower petal, cinnamon and toasted marshmallow. It’s medium bodied with bright, juicy acidity that’s well-integrated with a fine tannin profile to create a very smooth and easy mouth feel. The flavors are more powerful than the feel suggests, however, and begin with pretty florals and rose water and transitions to red-tinged fruit and slightly dirty soil and smoke. A seriously tasty that offers a lot for such an accessible wine. 90 points. Value: A.

Try this Wine: Hacienda Lopez de Haro Reserva 2013

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Bodega Classico Hacienda Lopez de Haro. Credit: Tadeja Kuzma via winedering.com.

Rioja is always three things in my book: remarkable value, better with age, and not for everyone. To be clear: it’s a lot more than that, or at least it can be. Rioja can be super complex. A traditional Rioja is generally leathery, savory, red fruited and retrained, while a new-style Rioja is generally sweetly dark fruited, baking spiced, plush and bold. Regardless of its style, though, it is remarkably priced for its quality, better with at least some age, and divisive among its audience.

As the world’s general palate has shifted towards preferring bigger wine, traditional Rioja is being produced less and less. Therefore, by default more people are experiencing it less and less. This is especially true for those Americans who haven’t had the chance to explore the region’s styles – most Rioja available on US store shelves is of the new world variety because it has wider appeal to the general American palate. Unless one seeks out the traditional style they are increasingly unlikely to stumble upon it accidentally. I would imagine that most people would like at least one or two Riojas; it just depends on the style and producer. (If you want to read more on the subject of Rioja styles, check out the Good Vitis post on The Wines of CVNE).

2013 Hecienda Lopez de Haro Reserva

We suggest trying a traditional Rioja if you haven’t (or think you haven’t) had one. One of the better values is Bodega Classica Hacienda Lopez de Haro. For a suggested retail price of $15.99, you can now get their 2013 Reserva. It’s a lot of wine for the price. It gets macerated for two weeks, spends twenty months in French and American oak barrels, and gets racked every few months while in oak. The vineyards that provide the tempranillo and graciano that go into the wine are in the heart of Rioja, enjoying expansive views of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains and Ebro river from a terraced spot.

The 2013 vintage, of which this bottle is a member, wasn’t stellar in Rioja, unfortunately. An unusually wet Spring delayed budding and led to unequal maturation of the grapes. A mild summer followed by good weather in September and October helped wineries salvage the harvest, though the spring damage couldn’t be entirely undone in the winery.

The difficult vintage is evident, though the Lopez de Haro crew have done well to produce an enjoyable wine worth trying. I suggest giving it at least an hour decant, if not two or three.

Tasting note: Dark, hedonistic nose of cherry, sweet tobacco, graphite and blackberry. Medium-bodied with saturating polished tannin and bright acidity that leans the wine out in the finish, it has a slight alcoholic kick that extended air resolves. The fruit is a bit tart initially, coming in the form of red cherry, cranberry and plum. Cigarette tobacco and tar lead into pepper on the back end. This will improve with a few years in the cellar. 88 points, value A.

Where to Buy

For those in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area, like Good Vitis, you can find the 2013 vintage at Calvert Woodley, 4339 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008. Phone: 202-966-4400.

If you’re in or visiting Central New York, you can find it at the Saratoga Wine Exchange, 43 Round Lake Road Ste. 3, Ballston Lake, NY 12019. Phone: 518-899-9463.

It’s also available at Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, which has five locations in New Jersey (Wayne, Madison, Bernardsville, Hillsborough and Closter).

For more locations and vintages, visit this wine-searcher.com link.

Off the Beaten Path: High Value Old School Wine

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Picture Credit: Chris Yarzab/FlickrChris Yarzab/Flickr

When I look for high quality wines under $25, I find it hard to beat imported wine. The usual suspects that come to my mind include Cotes du Rhone, Rioja, Piedmont and Kamptal. Each of these offer many great options in that price range, whereas, while one can find great wines under $25 from nearly anywhere in the world, the wealth of options tend to be more limited elsewhere.

However, I’ve received a few samples of what I found to be high value wines that come from slightly off those beaten paths I mentioned above, yet still in the Old Word style, despite a set of them coming from New Zealand. So, I decided to wait until I had tried them all to run a piece on value old school wines from off the beaten path. Below are the reviews, and if you’re so inclined, each is hyperlinked to their wine-searcher.com page.

Of all of these, the two clear standouts include the 2012 Bodegas Godelia Mencia, which gives any wine in the world a possibly winning challenge for best value, and the 2013 Domaine Ostertag Pinot Gris Barriques, which just crushes the texture category. What’s more, finding wines that are six and five years, respectively, post-vintage at these prices is insane. They’ve clearly benefited from the aging, and frankly a gift that the wineries are offering them at these prices. If I were recommending a white and red for a big event like a wedding, I’d happily suggest these two as both are not only stellar values, but suggest wide adaptability in food pairing and seemingly universal appeal.

Bierzo, Spain:

2015 Bodegas Godelia Bierzo Blanco – Quite the aromatic nose, it offers high toned yellow and green citrus, honeysuckle and peach pit. The body is medium in weight, with a lushness entering early and a more streaky acidic finish coming out towards the end. There’s a undercurrent of bitter greens to go with Meyer lemon, stony minerality, white peach and vanilla. It’s a pretty easy drinking, easy enjoying wine. 88 points. Value: B

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2012 Bodegas Godelia Bierzo – Made from the Mencia grape. It begins to blossom from the first pour, but it does benefit from decanting. The nose is a cornucopia of berry aromas, featuring crushed blackberry, raspberry, dark cherry and brambleberry. The bouquet also offers hints of sweet tobacco, pastel Spring flowers and black pepper. It strikes a medium weight on the palate, and despite some age still offers thorough fine grained tannin to go along with juicy acidity. There is a similar berry flavors that is augmented by strong orange juice and black plum, darker tobacco, moist soil, slight mushroom and strong cocoa. This is a compelling, strong wine and that is drinking beautifully. The value is off the charts. 92 points. Value: A+

Wairau Valley, New Zealand:

2016 Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc – Classic modern sauvignon blanc nose: racy minerality, lemon-lime, cantaloupe, white smoke, white pepper and just a hint of mint. The body strikes a crisp and lean profile, with nice acid and some grit offering some texture. Flavors touch on bitter lemon, apricot, white peach, buttered white bread toast and gravel. 87 points. Value: C-

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2015 Wairau River Pinot Gris – The nose, moderate in strength, is stoney and mineral-driven with slate, smoky flint, under ripe white peach, sour lemon, parsley and marzipan. The body has nice weight and balances creaminess and acid with skill. It brings Meyer lemon, white pepper, apricot, lime zest, salty minerals and just a bit of honeysuckle. A nice, serviceable, lean and crisp pinot gris. 89 points. Value: B+

2015 Wairau River Pinot Noir – No mistaking this as anything other than a Marlborough pinot. The nose is very high toned with red plum, bitter cherry, orange rind and fungal underbrush. The palate is fairly slight but the flavors are deep enough. There’s slightly sour cherry, cherry pit, huckleberry, orange rind, dandelion green and a bit of rose. A nice, easy drinking pinot that is very food friendly with its bright acidity and slightly grippy texture. 88 points. Value: B+

Alsace, France:

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NV Domaine Allimant-Laugner Crémant d’Alsace Rosé – Fairly delicate bubbles for a cremant, it pours a very pale pink. The nose is clean, crisp and reticent. Bit of lees on the nose along with crushed raspberry, white pepper, dandelion greens and fresh Spring flowers. The palate is medium bodied with crisp and slightly bitter acid that harmonizes well with the slightly sweet fruit. Raspberry, huckleberry, cranberry and strawberry. There are hints of lavender and rose as well as a nice streak of limestone minerality. Overall a fun bubbler that is sure to be a crowd pleaser no matter the room. 89 points. Value A

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2013 Trimbach Gewurztraminer – An extremely aromatic wine, the tropics burst out of the glass: pineapple, mango, papaya, starfruit and guava. Vanilla custard, white florals and some slate. The body is medium in stature, the acid is lean but crisp and balances the modest residual sugar. Clean minerality forms the core of the straightforward profile, which is filled out with tart pineapple juice, bitter apples, bitter greens and white pepper. It starts out sweet and finishes bitter, though the variance isn’t entirely resolved. A fine and perfectly pleasant simple table gewurztraminer. 87 points. Value: C-

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2014 Louis Sipp Pinot Blanc Nature S – Pretty quiet nose, offering white peach, Granny Smith apple, lime zest, white flowers and loads of slate. The palate is very fresh with juicy acidity, offering Granny Smith apple, starfruit, grapefruit, sweet Meyer lemon, slate, white pepper and dill. Overall a very pleasant, enjoyable wine with an interesting, if not relatively simple, profile. 89 points. Value: B+

2013 Paul & Phillippe Zinck Riesling – No fooling anyone with the nose, this is all riesling. It kicks tennis ball can gas, straw, cut grass, pineapple, sweet lemon and honeysuckle. The body is medium and the acid very, very bright and sharp. There’s plenty of heft to the structure. It boasts flavors of Meyer lemon, white pepper, Evergreen, dandelion, peach and apricot. Overall a really nice, bright riesling with a sneaky personality – the more you engage it, the more it gives you. 89 points. Value: B+

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2013 Domaine Ostertag Pinot Gris Barriques – This has plenty of life ahead of it, it’s just coming into its own. Driven by minerality, the nose offers flinty crushed gravel, chalk, lemon zest, smokey white pepper and dandelion. The palate is full bodied with a lushness that belies the lean nose, though there’s a just a bit of chalky texture that adds depth. The texture takes center stage, and that’s a good thing. The juicy acid is nicely integrated and cuts any mount of residual sugar that might otherwise show it’s sweet face. The flavors boast big guava, mango, pineapple, Meyer lemon, creamy Granny Smith apple and honeysuckle. A very fun wine, this has the stuffing to evolve for a few additional years into a serious wine. It already has an immense friendliness with food. 91 points. Value: A-

The Wines of CVNE

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Rioja is not one of the easier wine regions to master, but it is well worth the effort if one takes time to explore it diligently. I’ve put attention towards Rioja on-and-off for years and have found it both frustrating and rewarding because of the evolution of the region. For centuries, Rioja was aged in American oak and coaxed into wine through long aging and very careful vinification. The approach produces significant complexity that centers around a core of Earth, leather, tobacco, cherries, oak, bright acidity and dense tannin., and creates a wine that benefits from decades of aging. While some producers still follow this method, the traditional approach is becoming rarer as many producers have reacted to the global phenomenon of the more approachable fruit-forward and ripe profile and changed how they make wine. This new style, dubbed “modern Rioja,” is treated differently in the vineyard and winery, and then aged in mellower and sweater French and Hungarian oak barrels, producing a softer, more round and fruity wine that requires significantly less aging to be approachable and rarely offers much of the Earthy characteristic famous to Rioja.

I’ve found myself roundly disappointed with modern Rioja. To be blunt, why go to Rioja for a style of wine that’s available from anywhere in the world? Traditional Rioja, now, that’s something unique to the region. If we want to drink Rioja, presumably it’s because we want its unique characteristics, so this modern thing seems disingenuous to me given Rioja’s centuries of winemaking history that focused, proudly, on the traditional profile until very recently. Though tempranillo remains the core ingredient of both styles, the whims of the vineyard manager and winemaker can churn out vastly different wines and, for consumers like me who prefer the traditional style, that means fewer options.

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CVNE HQ (Credit: Social Vignerons)

The differences between traditional and modern Rioja are not, however, binary; there is a range. I’ve had some very good Riojas that fall somewhere between the ends of the continuum. Though Rioja wineries typically don’t self-identify as traditional or modern, I’ve long identified CVNE (or CUNE) in that category of “tweeners” – wines bearing characteristics of both, and have enjoyed their wines. I was recently sent half a case of these wines to sample, and roped some fellow Rioja lovers into tasting them with me. The box included three wines from their CUNE line and three from the Viña Real line so that I could get a sense for what is the majority production of the CVNE portfolio. l’ve identified four important differences regarding the CUNE and Viña Real wines to cover before going into the reviews.

First, let’s tackled the name. CVNE..CUNE…what? For those uninitiated, CVNE produces CUNE wines, and the reason for the difference in spelling isn’t immediately apparent. This is the first question I asked when I had a chance to send questions off to the winery to provide some context for this review. I’m positive they’re tired of answering the question, but I didn’t know it, and why not take the opportunity when you’re speaking to the winery itself to get the real answer? The explanation is funny: though both are pronounced “coo-nay,” CVNE is an acronym that stands for Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España (The Northern Spanish Wine Company), which was established in 1879. The first wines were supposed to be labeled with the initials, but a clerical error turned the “v” into a “u” and since the first wines produced then were those with lesser aging, the name CUNE has been used henceforth for their line of wines meant for early consumption.

Rioja Alta

Rioja Alta (Credit: Wine Folly)

Now that the difference has been explained, let’s go right into the second difference. If CUNE wines are for immediate enjoyment, what’s the deal with CVNE’s Viña Real line, the latter of which aren’t sold at much different prices? After all, there are crianza, reserva and gran reserva bottlings for each. It might be what you imagine: quality and approach. Cune’s grapes come from the Rioja Alta, are vinified in stainless steel, aged in American oak and are made in a fashion meant for early consumption. Viña Real is sourced from the more desirable Rioja Alavesa, and made stylistically to benefit from aging. Viña Real consumers are rewarded by giving these bottles 5+ years of aging (I tend to prefer this style of Rioja with 10+ years on it).

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CVNE’s Rioja Alavesa vineyards and Viña Real winery (Credit: CVNE)

Third: crianza v. reserva. v. gran reserva. These are government regulated categories that come down to aging: wines aged 1 year in barrel and 1 year in bottle prior to release cab be labeled “crianza,” wines aged 1 year in barrel and two years in bottle qualify as “reserva” while those aged 2 years in barrel and 3 years in bottle are “gran reserva.”

And finally, what is the difference between 2017 CVNE and 1879 CVNE? Given the opportunity, I had to ask: “If someone from 1879 tasted the current releases blind, would they recognize them as CVNE? Would they even recognize them as wines from Rioja? Describe the evolution of the region and the winery.” I loved the thorough response, which I’m going to post nearly verbatim (with some grammatical editing for clarity) and in its entirety :

“Wow hard to respond. First, I think someone from 140 years ago, if they saw the vinification they would go crazy: stainless steel tanks?(!). Concrete tanks ?(!). However, as they moved into the winery they would find comfort – oak barrel aging, bottle aging, stone cellars – the same now as then.

“Regarding the style of wines, the grapes are the same, though they probably didn’t use as strong quality controls in 1879 to put together the blends. It was probably more random. Also, until the 1970s, the vineyards were planted 40% tempranillo, 40% garnacha and 20% the rest. However, starting in the 1970s tempranillo became the favored grape and vineyard plantings started changing. Now, it’s 70% tempranillo, 11% garnacha and 7% viura [these are the main varietals planted].

“Barrel aging has also changed, though CVNE has always used American oak. In our case up to the 1970s, 1980s, wines were aged closer to 6 years. Now, it’s reduced to 2 or 3 years. This puts the wines into the market earlier, and it’s probably that the first years of the wines taste significantly different now than before. 140 years ago they were much oakier upon release than they are today. However, as time goes on they evolve to become very similar.

“As a conclusion, a person familiar with CVNE in 1879 would recognize our wines today as Rioja, and they would recognize that the grapes and soils have not changed because the terroir was and remains the essence of our wines.”

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Wine aging at CVNE (Credit: Winederlusting)

On to the wines. Traditional and tweener Rioja offer very food-friendly acid and balance, and we enjoyed these over a long dinner featuring classic Spanish dishes and flavors. Like many Rioja, CVNE’s wines represent great values and, especially with the Viña Real wines, great upside for the patient collector.

2014 CUNE Crianza – Though initially musty on the nose, time reveals a very ruby, ripe nose of cherries, huckleberries and general Earthiness. The body is medium in stature with precisely balanced acid. The strawberries, cherries and salmon berries are sweet, while smoke and fresh leather feature on the mid palate. The finish is a bit short, but overall it’s a very pleasant wine whose best feature is its seamless balance. 87 points. Value: B+

2013 Viña Real Crianza – The nose is deeper than the CUNE Crianza and dominated by oak at this early stage, offering toast, must, cocoa, cherries, moist Earth and Evergreen. The body features slightly grippy tannins and bright acid that comes through as slightly bitter orange peel and parsley notes. The slightly tart strawberries and cranberries are very bright, and supported by tanned leather. This has good depth and complexity and more regional typicity than the CUNE. It will begin to really emerge in two or three years. 89 points at the moment. Value: A

2013 CUNE Reserva – The nose boasts lovely huckleberries, crushed blackberries, cherries, hickory smoke and some hedonistic leather. It’s fuller bodied than either Crianza with bright, deep acidity. Though well-balanced, full integration of tannin, acid and alcohol will require some time. The fruits are strawberries and cherries, it offers black pepper, reserved leather and orange zest, the latter of which lifts the mid palate. It’s quite enjoyable now and drinking surprisingly well for its young age, I think this one ideally gets at least 3-5 years of cellaring. 90 points right now. Value: B

2013 Viña Real Reserva – Very deep aromas of toast and wet underbrush centered around concentrated brambleberry and blackberry. The body indicates just how young this wine is. Medium-plus in stature, the tannins are thick grained and very layered. The typicity is readily apparent here: tanned leather, bitter espresso, tart cherries, dried parsley and cumin. This one is quite nice, but with another 5-7 years of aging it will really reward, though it has the stuffing to improve over 10+ years. 92 points, but higher in the future. Value: B+

2011 CUNE Gran Reserva – Secondary aromas come through on the nose. There is coconut, smoke, blueberry and strawberries, though there is also clearly more awaiting their birth. The body is gorgeous in texture, ripe and round, though the harmonious acid and tannin are very much present. The balance of this wine is expert. The flavors include plum, strawberry, coconut, leather, tobacco leaf and Blood Orange juice. Very appealing now, with 5-10 years it’s going to be spectacular. 92 points with room for improvement. Value: B+

2010 Viña Real Gran Reserva – Dark, brooding and lush nose of crushed black and blue fruit, with big sea mist, hickory smoke, tanned tobacco and a nice spearmint kick. The full body offers dense tannins and bright acid. There are big hits of saline, leather and tobacco that lead delivery of red plum, huckleberry, strawberry, salmon berry and raspberry. When the finish rolls around, it’s bitter greens and salmon jerky. Very, very layered wine that evolves in the glass by the hour, it deserves 10-plus years of aging. 94 points with a ton of upside. Value: A

RINGER ALERT Our host for the dinner opened a bottle of 2010 Imperial Reserva from his cellar. Imperial is CVNE’s finest wine, situated above Viña Real in the portfolio. Undeterred by the infanticide being committed, I plunged into this wonderful wine. The nose is mostly savory at the moment with florals, smoke and red berries. The body was lush and well-integrated, and the layers went on seemingly indefinitely. Flavors delivered included Acai, sweet strawberry, sweet tobacco, pomegranate, Balsamic reduction and seaweed. This really deserves another ten years of aging, minimum, and will improve for at least another twenty.

I thoroughly enjoyed this study of the two lines of CVNE, which I recommend for the Rioja neophyte and well-studied alike because typicity, if slightly reserved, isn’t lost. Further, the values on each of these are good, and great for some, especially when cellar-worthiness is considered. If it’s time in your life for a Rioja exploration, you would do well to grab these six bottles from CUNE and Viña Real, a group of friends and some northern Spanish food. Arriba, abajo, el centro y pa dentro!

Two Great Wines from the Famous Land of Tomatoes

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So it turns out wine from the heel of Italy is pretty good. Specifically, San Marzano wine. I’ll admit to knowing next to nothing about wine from this part of Italy, this part being Puglia. When I hear Puglia, my mind goes back to Mario Batali’s old (and best) Food Network show, Molto Mario. My first culinary love was Italian food, and in my formidable teenage years I learned through the show the concept of what I can call “regionality,” which effectively means that how and what people cook varies by where it’s done. If this sounds a bit like terroir, that’s not far off, although it encompasses a bit more: in addition to how differences in land and climate affect the taste of the ingredients, it also includes methodology traditions, ingredient combinations, religious influences, past conqueror(s) influence, and more. One could make a case that terroir can encompass all of this as well, but I think that goes beyond the spirit of terroir’s focus on non-human elements.

Regardless, when I think of Pulgia and San Marzano, I think about food and the latter’s renowned tomatoes (though don’t let the grocery store packaging fool you). Until now, until these Talo wines. I tasted them over two nights, and had a neighbor over to try them on the second. Not a wino, he asked me to tell him about the wines and I found myself going down the rabbit hole of trying to explain the terroir of certain wines from Southern Italy and Greece, which I flippantly referred to as “Med wines,” a terrible term that doesn’t actually exist outside this world of one because it also applies to wines from, say, Israel, that offer little in similarity. In my mind, Med wines are driven by a peppery spice and loam-driven minerality that I can pick out of any assembly of wines from around the globe. Not having tasted San Marzano wine before, I could’ve called Med wine in a blind tasting but in a million years would never have placed them in the land of the world’s most famous tomatoes.

And what a pleasant surprise, because these are uniquely expressive and approachable wines that bring that “Med wine” edge that I’ve always loved and have never spent enough time getting to know. I’ll be reviewing a trio of whites from Greece in an upcoming post, and these two wines have made me a little more excited to do that. I had a lot of fun with these, reviewing them separately and then going back and forth identifying differences and themes.

On quality and approachability, they are comparable. Both benefit from an hour or so of decanting. Their textures suggest the same warm, dry climate, and they both deliver that peppery-loam energy I noted earlier. Beyond that, we’re talking about distinctly different wines that can still be thoroughly enjoyed by anyone liking either. That is to say, if you get to try one and like it, definitely seek out the other. Or better yet, just get both and drink them together.

The 2015 San Marzano Talo Malvasia Nera, made from the Malvasia grape, is the more fruit forward of the two. It’s dark, brutish nose bursts with bruised cherries, crushed blackberries, blood orange, tar, violet and crushed rocks. The palate is full bodied with saturated grainy tannin that never seem to settle in one place. The juicy, bright acidity keeps the wine from developing a cloying sensation, which is an important counter balance to the sweet fruit that comes in waves of boysenberry, strawberry, blueberry, Acai and bewildering big dose of grapefruit that I could never get over, or stop appreciating. There are streaks of loam, saline and sweet tobacco leaf as well. Overall, it’s a brilliantly unusual package of aromas, flavors and textures. I’m giving it 89 points with a value rating of A.

The 2015 San Marzano Talo Negroamaro, made from the Negroamaro grape which I’m not sure I’ve had previously, is also a real treat and my preference of the two if I’m forced to pick. The fruit is a bit more reserved than the Malvasia Nera, which allows more savoriness to come through. The nose is all about minerality and Earthiness, offering seasoned leather, tar, wet Earth, granite, Evergreen, saline and sour cherry. On the palate, it’s full bodied with lush, juicy acidity that really carries the flavors and round, fine grained tannin that keep things well-framed. The flavors strike an almost-elegant tone. The fruit is sweeter on the palate than the nose, boasting cherry concentrate and huge hits of black and red currants. Dusty mocha, loam, graphite and bright, sweet orange juice come through as well. I suspect this one might improve with a year of aging, but decant it for an hour and it won’t matter. This one deserves 90 points and an A value rating.

Since we’re less than a week out from Thanksgiving, I’ll answer the question: yes, these would work well for your feast. They also work well on their own, and I can imagine them pairing nicely with a big range of foods, even including heartier seafood. At roughly $15 each, they are some of the more interesting and unusual wines you’ll find in that price range. I’ll put it succinctly: there’s good reason to find and try these wines.

Gateway Duero: Abadia Retuerta Seleccion Especial

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Abadia Retuerta (Picture credit: ledomaine.es)

We like a good weeknight wine at Good Vitis. Something thirst-quenching, something fun, something that brings grace after a long, hard day. We also like a versatile food wine. Something with enough complexity to pair with a variety of food, something a bit acidic and juicy, something fun. A little bit of weight, real physical substance.

The wine at hand makes a compelling case for an elevated weeknight wine, a complex food wine, and, I think a good Thanksgiving wine. And, at ~$25, it’s well priced as a gateway to a prestigious wine region. The Abadia Retuerta Seleccion Especial from Spain’s Sardon de Duero region, which is part of the Duero valley located just west of the more well-known Ribera del Duero, provides more than a hint of the Duero profile and plenty of intrigue.

The Selectcon Especial is essentially Abadia’s field blend sourced from across the estate’s more than 500 acres and 54 unique plots that begin at the Douro river and cascade up the valley to altitudes as high as 2,800 feet. With such a variety of soil types, slopes and elevations from which to source fruit, Abadia is able to put together a blend each year that represents the best of what the winery believes it has to offer.

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The 2013, which I tasted, is three-quarters tempranillo, and is filled out with 15% cabernet sauvignon and 10% syrah. I sampled it over the course of several hours to see how it evolved, and enjoyed it at every stage. Upon initial uncorking, it was a big wine that showed mostly saline, fruit and tobacco. As it took on air, relaxed, and released itself, it developed a wider variety of flavors and aromas, showing a strong note of tomato that I found quite enjoyable. Not especially tannic at any point, it retained nice structured and good acid throughout, leading me to believe that it will stand up to hefty meals like a steak, pasta or barbecue.

The wine was provided as a trade sample and tasted sighted. Here is my formal note:

The nose offers hyper aromatics of tobacco leaf, crushed cherries, tomato leaf, scorched Earth and black plums. The full-bodied palate offers nice acidic cut while the alcohol is tamed and integrated. Tannins are nicely polished and round. Savory notes of iodine, saline and tomato juice kick things off and stick through the finish. The fruit department is stocked with strawberries, huckleberries and blueberries. Cigar tobacco, espresso beans and dusty cocoa play supporting roles. 90 points. Value: B.

While you can find the Selecion Especial at retailers around the country, Abadia is selling it on its website as well, offering vintages going back to 1995. With the structure of this wine likely giving it the ability to stand up to time, I imagine tasting through a range of vintages of this wine would be a fascinating experience. Whatever the vintage, though, it’s a wine worth trying.

A Study in Value: Argentina at $25 & Under

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

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

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

Maipu wineyards

Vineyards in Maipu. Picture Credit: Bodega Santa Julia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Bordeaux Deserve its Reputation?

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Picture: Gateway to La Cases. Credit: Le Figaro

How does one begin to write about drinking the 1975, 1982, 1986, 1989, 1990 and 1996 vintages of Gran Vin de Chateau Leoville du Marquis de Las Casas with the Chateau’s managing director, a small group of serious collectors and industry professionals? Apparently by stating he really isn’t sure, and that’s probably because he’s never been as impressed by Bordeaux as its reputation suggests he ought to be, especially when factoring in price, and so he doesn’t have a wealth of experience in which to contextualize the experience.

That’s actually not bad to start, but let’s tweak it just a bit and go with the following question as an introduction of sorts to how I approached my analysis of the experience: 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?

Two items of background before we start evaluating whether I’ve erred in marginalizing Bordeaux in my wine adventures thus far. First, Las Cases has a reputation for needing at least ten, if not twenty, years of age to begin revealing its best side, which means that these great vintages are well-suited for the experiment at hand. And second, Las Cases is made with the attention to detail and from similarly qualified terroir as first growths, so we’re dealing with sufficient quality in our test subject.

Let’s also establish a benchmark wine with which to compare the Las Cases. The week before the Leoville tasting I enjoyed a bottle of Baer Winery’s Actos cabernet sauvignon-dominant Bordeaux-style blend from Washington State. The vintage, 2010, was relatively unheralded but one of my favorites. Known for cooler temperatures and a little more rain than most desire, the vintage provided the raw ingredients for talented winemakers to produce a more refined style than Washington’s general reputation. When properly aged, like this particular bottle was, 2010 can offer quite a bit. While it may be an underdog, I rated the wine 94 points and because it retails for under $50 gave it a value rating of “A.” Here’s what I wrote about the Baer:

“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.”

While Washington doesn’t carry the same pedigree and panache as Bordeaux, I do think it’s reasonably accurate to say that Baer has a status in Washington comparable to what Las Cases has in Bordeaux. Not many would thrust Baer into the category of the state’s “first growth” wineries but many a Washington winemaker has called Baer a winemaker’s wine: deft winemaking that results in a product offerings many of the best elements a winemaker would want to detect. No frills and everything in balance, the wine speaks for itself and its terroir.

This further refines the central question: did I get sufficiently more satisfaction and enjoyment out of 20+ year old $150 Leoville Las Cases than I did a 7-year old $43 Baer to justify swapping a future Baer purchase or two for Las Cases?

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Credit: JW Wines

The evolution good Bordeaux like Las Cases goes through is described by its admirers as though it is a mystical creature itself, surrendering itself over the years to the simple confines of acid, tannin and alcohol to obtain total unity as it achieves a state of being that cannot be appreciated in its entirety by the vulgar human consciousness. I’ve heard people describe Bordeaux in effectively these terms, and I always smiled and wondered what, exactly, they were experiencing that made them describe it that way. To be fair no one at the Las Cases tasting promised such an experience nor talked their way through it in those words. But I went into the tasting, if I’m honest, hoping for some similarly-transcendental experience.

Such a moment was probably too much to expect, let alone hope for. The reality was something less than rendering my words unworthy of their subject, but something more than the simple dismissal that I’d rather have three Baer than one Las Cases every time. It was clear from first sip that there aren’t many places in the world where terroir could produce something as complex as these wines. Winemaking is an art and a science, but the central component – the grape – is agriculture. Winemakers, even if they don’t manage their vineyards, are farmers (and also soil nerds, amateur meteorologists, janitors, and a wealth of other profession quasi-professionals). You can do things to the ground to shift something in one direction or the other, but the base starting point is what nature gives you and if you want to retain character in your wine you cannot overwhelm it. The combinations of flavors in the Las Cases, as well as its ability to retain acidity and tannin over twenty, or even thirty, years, suggest that Bordeaux has earned its reputation for complex wines on the back of its soil. As much as I loved the Baer, and as special as its profile is, it simply does not offer as much diversity or depth of flavor, and I have a hard time believing it would dominate the test of such a long period of time as the Las Cases has. This in itself was the biggest takeaway for me.

That said, I’m not entirely sold. The tasting notes of the wines are below so you can read for yourself. Several of the wines were among the most complex and intriguing I’ve had, but none captured my imagination. None transported me to a forth dimension. It’s interesting that my generation has not latched on to Bordeaux the way previous generations have because it comes at a time where a number of other regions from the around the world are, or already have, caught up to Bordeaux’s general level of quality without demanding the same prices. I wonder if the rise of the rest that my youth has allowed me experience has had an impact on my openness to other regions and wines, and so the cost of Bordeaux has tainted my view of it despite its reputation.

Generational-Differences

Credit: Initiative One

At the same time, those who have been captured by Bordeaux and pay for and age wines like Las Cases seem to shun or discount many of these upstart regions. Washington State and our benchmark wine from Baer is a good example. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations with those around me at the Las Cases dinner, and my old soul tends to identify with the perspective, more or less found at this dinner, that it takes more than a few generations for a winemaking region to earn its stripes. Washington State is again a good example of this, as many of its wineries subsist on the naiveté and simplicity of their clients. But I found myself wondering during the dinner, if I snuck the Baer in as a blind ringer, how would those around the table react to it? Objectively different than the Las Cases it would have stuck out, but it’s more than just hope that leads me to believe it would have been treated as a wine worthy of enjoying. And that’s what still gets me about Bordeaux: pedigree aside, is it necessary to prefer Bordeaux in order to be a real wine aficionado? If anything, this experience taught me that appreciation, rather than preference, is sufficient.

So, to the central question of did I get sufficiently more satisfaction and enjoyment out of 20+ year old $150 Leoville Las Cases than I did a 7-year old $43 Baer to justify swapping a future Baer purchase or two for Leoville? The answer is no, though I’m more open to it than I was before.

One final note. All of the wines we tried – the six Las Cases plus a bottle each from Domaines Delon’s other four estates and a “vin surprise” – came before the year that Pierre Graffeuille, Las Cases’ managing director, said climate change clearly began affecting the estate: 2009. Since then, the estate has seen a noticeable and impactful warming in the vineyards. As temperature has such a profound impact on the grapes, it would be a very interesting experiment in another twenty or thirty years to taste the before and after of appropriately aged Las Cases.

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Credit: Domaines Delon

I did not score the wines. My scribbles that evening included a range of plus signs, from one to five, with five being the best, to track how each compared to the others. I’ve carried that “scoring” over here. Many thanks to Panos Kakaviatos and Pierre Graffeuille for this phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime experience…hopefully we’ll do it again!

2009 Petit Lion du Marquis de las Cases: God that’s a gorgeous nose. Big, dark fruit (blueberries, blackberries), cassis, black current. Smoke and sweet tobacco. Cedar. The palate is full and rigid. Flavors of sweet tobacco, black pepper. Cherries and pomegranate seeds. Celery seed. Subtle, nice acidity. It’s a firm and fleshy wine with some structure left to release. ++

2005 Clos du Marquis: Modest aromatics of black currant, orange zest, mushrooms and raspberries. The body is medium in structure with juicy acidity and perfectly integrated thin grained tannin. Flavors of cranberry, raspberry, and huckleberry. Also undergrowth, oak vanillin and green vegetables. A nice and complete wine. +++

2003 Chateau Pontesac: A nose reminiscent of Red Mountain with graphite, iodine, dark cherries and Herbs de Provence. A huge hit of red fruit punch. Full bodied with bright acidity and unfocused, fleshy tannin. Dark smoke, graphite, juicy raspberry and blood orange provide the foundation with licorice dominating the mid-palate. Complete and well balanced, it becomes lost in the mid-palate. I wanted to like this more. ++

2001 Chateau Nenin: A sharp nose of black and blue fruit, very nice pluminess to go with a delicate amount of game and smoked red meat. It is full bodied and quite juicy with red fruit and green vegetables. It’s extraordinarily clean, actually so much so that it has very little personality. I wrote down “clearly well-made but…?” It is demonstrably better with food. +

1996 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: The nose is still quite reticent and eventually produces some rubber. The body is medium in stature with the dominant element of structure being the acidity. The tannins are in good balance and provide a solid frame. The palate is quite herbal and vegetal with crisp red berries. It’s very elegant but still tight. The entire package is let down by the nose at this point. When the nose does bloom and the palate releases this will be a true gem. +++/+

1990 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: A very woodsy nose with a lot of cedar. Smells like a musty log cabin. The palate is full, big and thick but kept light by a hit of acid. Cherries, cedar and a nice menthol kick to go with smoke and saline. Voluptuous in shape, it takes over the dance floor with big moves and doesn’t give space. I prefer more a little more finesse. +++

1989 Grand Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: The nose has tertiary aromas all over the place along with tobacco, saline and big cherry. The body is full. I wrote down “magical.” It is still tannic but spreads and coats the mouth. Rich, sweet raspberries, huckleberries and salmon berries. (Incidentally, these are three berries we had in copious amounts on the property where I grew up, so this was memory lane of an afternoon of berry picking). White and black pepper. Smooth, bright acidity. Tobacco and cocoa. An elegant and masculine wine, it still has plenty of life ahead of it. ++++/+

1986 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: Perfumed flowers on the nose along with spiced tobacco, cassis, cedar and peppermint. It’s a nuanced and special bouquet. The palate is extraordinarily pretty with rose water, lavender, cherry, white pepper, orange ride, sweet tobacco, smoked meat and cedar. All of this is integrated seamlessly in a dynamic profile. Wine of the night. +++++

1986 “Vin Surprise” Las Cases 100% petit verdot: Not yet released for public sale. Thirty years old but still hasn’t fully released its profile. A burley wine one diner aptly described as the “unshaved wrestler in the room.” Lot of pepper and game, not much else. An excellent demonstration of why petit verdot is an important, but small, component in the Gran Vin blend. +/+

1982 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: The nose captures one’s attention. Dark fruit, rhubarb, cured red meat and minty tobacco. It leaves a ruby impression. The palate still appears young but is very complete. Frankly, too many adjectives come to mind to write down. This is an old soul’s wine. Close second to the 1986 for wine of the night. +++++

1975 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: Aromas of freshly tanned tobacco leave, mint and chili pepper spice. Damp cardboard and just a bit of acetone. The palate has crisp acidity from which blackberries, strawberries and Acai spawn. The tannins are still present but in the background. It’s slightly minty as well. It’s quite round, but has a sturdy body and real depth. ++++