The “Insider” Family Champagne House

Ar Lenoble and glassChampagne is big business, and today most Champagne houses – producers who make their own sparkling wine from fruit they grow and purchase from neighbors – are either very large or owned by bigger houses, insurance companies or global luxury goods firms.

AR Lenoble is different. Although they are one of the smallest houses remaining in Champagne, they have remained independent and family owned and run for more than 100 years. The brother and sister team of Antoine and Anne Malssagne (grandchildren of the founder) head a team of just 11 employees that’s building, as JancisRobinson.com wrote, “probably the most admired boutique family house right now.”

A Clear Focus
Anne and Antoine of LenobleSince taking over the house in 2001, Antoine and Anne have focused not on making “consistent” Champagnes in a static “house style,” but instead on making better and better Champagne every year. They started with a clear focus on their most important vineyard holding, 10 hectares of pure, chalky soils planted to Chardonnay in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly. As they’ve written:

“The expression of Chouilly defines who we are and what we do at AR Lenoble. Chouilly is one of only 17 Grand Cru villages in Champagne and one of only 6 known for Chardonnay. AR Lenoble is one of few producers to use 100% Grand Cru Chardonnay from Chouilly in every single one of our wines.”

To strengthen the quality of their fruit in Chouilly and also in the 1er Cru village of Bisseuil (Pinot Noir) and their Marne holdings in Damery (Pinot Meunier), the Malssagne’s launched an intensive farming improvement program. Using strict pruning, green harvests (cutting off bunches before ripening begins), and allowing cover crops to grow in competition with the vines, AR Lenoble boasts some of the lowest yields in Champagne.

The quality commitment continues in the winery. AR Lenoble uses only juice from the first pressing of the grapes – the “Cuvee” – and never uses any of the permitted second pressing – the Taille. After fermentation, about 30% of each vintage’s wine is held back and added to a “perpetual reserve” that mixes wines from 2001/2002 onward. Some of the reserve ages in tank, but most spends time in either small (225 liter) or large (5,000 liter) neutral French oak for more complexity still.

Retaining Champagne Character in the Face of Global Warming
Over the past 10 years, Antoine and Anne have faced a new challenge – how to retain Champagne’s classic balance, purity and freshness in the face of a warming climate, higher grape ripeness levels, and earlier and earlier harvests.

In the vineyards, AR Lenoble became one of the early adopters of HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale) farming standards. HVE farming was pioneered by Ambonnay’s Eric Rodez and moves growing as close to organic standards as possible in Champagne’s difficult growing conditions. Using extensive cover crops, reducing sprays, and promoting greater biodiversity in the soil and vineyard forces the vines to work harder and dig deeper to ripen grapes. This lengthens the growing season (more flavor!) and brings grapes to harvest readiness at lower sugar levels and higher acidity (more freshness!).

More Radical Still
And, in the winery, Antoine and Anne did something more radical still. In 2010, they withdrew a portion of their perpetual reserve, bottled it in magnum bottles, added enough sugar and yeast to develop about 1.5 bars of pressure (vs 4 bars for finished Champagne) and then closed the magnums with natural cork.

By holding in magnum under light pressure, AR Lenoble has been able to add even more complexity (from aging on the light lees) while locking in even more vibrancy and freshness in their reserves. As Anne has explained,

“Climate change is a reality. The challenge for the future is to be able to bring as much freshness as possible to our reserve wines. At the end of each harvest, we observe that acidity levels are much lower than they used to be. Reserve wines now need to add complexity and richness but also freshness.”

Following the 2014 harvest, Antoine decided the reserves in magnum were ready to use. He began by blending 40% reserve wines into the 2014 vintage base wines destined for the Brut Intense and Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV bottlings. That blend then went into bottle for secondary fermentation and spent three full years resting on the lees to integrate and develop even more complexity.

When ready to ship, the wines were given their usual cuvee names plus a new, special, designation. “Mag 14” on the bottle tells you that the wines are based on vintage 2014 and include reserve wines aged in magnum. And one taste will tell you that all the extra work and time was worth it!

 

Advertisements

Surprise: The Wines of Basketball’s Yao Ming

Yao MingBasketball great Yao Ming having his second career in the wine business? It was news to us, and we admit, it’s a bit too easy to have fun with this new-to-us wine from Yao Family Vineyards. Words like towering, slam-dunk and a tall order come all to easily when it comes to a fine value Napa Red, on sale for under $40 by the case, having earned a 94 point rating.

How did Ming get into wine? It began with his introduction to Texas steakhouses by teammate Dikembe Mutombo and growing love of how smooth and rich Napa Cabernet enhanced those meals.

As he explains,

Yao-Ming21“A shared bottle of wine reminds me of Chinese meals at home, which are served on what Americans call a ‘Lazy Susan.’ The food is placed in the middle of the table and shared. In the US, each person chooses their own meal, so the wine is what brings people together. It is shared and brings a common element to the meal.”

“High Class Wines.”
Ming’s first effort in Napa – working with industry veteran Tom Hinde – were high-end Napa Cabs. When Robert Parker tasted these two 2010 efforts, he reported, “I am aware of all the arguments that major celebrities lending their names to wines is generally a formula for mediocrity, but that is not the case with Yao Ming. These are high class wines. The two Cabernets are actually brilliant, and the Reserve bottling ranks alongside just about anything made in Napa.”

Yao Family Napa Crest - Proprietary RedA few years later, Ming and Hinde introduced the Napa Crest label to offer stylish wines at solid (for Napa) value price points. The wine we’re offering this week is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (65%), Merlot (25%) and Petit Verdot from Yao Ming’s Estate vineyards in Oakville and St. Helena plus select plots further north and in the cooler southern part of the Valley. Long skin contact (19-34 days) and warm fermentations extracted plenty of color, richness and heft. About 16 months in 50% new/50% used French oak adds polish and spice.

This wine offers fabulous depth and texture, the delicious richness, and the smoothly tannic finish, all delivered without any apparent excess of effort or flash. Which is a perfect match for both Yao Ming’s basketball playing style … and his ambition in forming Yao Ming Family Wines back in 2011.

“America’ Grape” from Croatia

Zinfandel is often called “America’s Grape” because it formed the basis for our first true commercial wine industry and isn’t found (at least under this name) as an important wine grape anywhere else in the world. It’s of the family vitis vinifera (which all wine grapes belong to), so it had to have originated somewhere in Europe. But where?

bedrock zin old vinesIt’s taken years of research and some trips down blind alleys, but over the past three decades, Zinfandel’s story has finally been definitively unraveled. The grape arrived in the US in the late 1820s from the Imperial Nursery of Austria. By the 1830s, it was widely grown in greenhouses around Boston and New England as a popular table grape. When unsuccessful prospectors in California’s 1849 gold rush turned to farming instead, they quickly realized that wine would make a fine cash crop. And so they ordered a wide range of grapes from nurseries back East – and got Zinfandel in the mix.

Pushed Out, but Now Back Again
The vine’s hearty constitution, high yields, and quality wine – a visiting French winemaker compared it to “good French claret” – quickly established Zin as a favorite varietal. As more prestigious French varietals – we’re looking at you, Cabernet Sauvignon – arrived in the later 1800s, Zinfandel was increasingly seen as a “common” grape and was pushed out of prime vineyard sites in Napa and Sonoma.

But Zin’s hearty constitution and relegation to stony and sandy soiled sites where Cabernet doesn’t thrive saved it. The phylloxera mite doesn’t like these impoverished soils, so Zin avoided the plague that struck California in the 1890s and early 1900s. And when Prohibition devastated California’s grape growing and wine making industry, abandoned Zin vines just kept on growing even while left untended. Leaving them ready to be rediscovered and rehabilitated as attention returned to premium red Zinfandel in the 1990s.

’23 and Me’ – for Grapes!
But if the grape got to California from New England and to New England from Austria, where did it come from originally? UC Davis researcher Carol Meredith used DNA profiling to prove that an obscure southern Italian grape called Primitivo was genetically identical to Zinfandel, but that just raised the question: If Zinfandel originated in Puglia, how did it get to Austria?

A clue emerged when researchers discovered that Zinfandel was one of two parents of a Croatian vine called Plavac Mali. The other parent turned out to be an even more obscure Croatian grape, suggesting that Zin had been growing in Croatia long enough for a crossing to occur. Finally, Dr. Meredith discovered a very old, nearly extinct, vine on the island of Kastela called Crljenak Kaštelanski that looked promising. DNA testing proved that this vine was identical to Zin and that this slice of what had been the Austro-Hungarian empire was the original birthplace of Zin.

So an unsophisticated immigrant from an obscure Balkan backwater made its way to the USA, struggled in harsh conditions with limited attention and support, and emerged as an American classic. Inspiring, I think.

Try this Old Vines Zinfandel from Bedrock Wine Co.

AiAiAi! Garage Wines from Rugged Priorat

silvia puig in storeSilvia Puig was pretty much born into the wine business – her father, Joseph Puig, is a longtime restaurateur, export manager for Spain’s Miguel Torres and founder of Torres’s operation in Chile. Silvia followed Joseph into the trade, learning winemaking at school and while working at properties in Bordeaux and Spain (including Vega Sicilia’s Alion winery).

Eventually, she and Joseph founded their own estate called Vinedos de Ithaca in the rugged Gratallops region of Priorat, in the province of Tarragona southwest of Barcelona.

Priorat llicorella soils.pngRugged Priorat
Priorat is an unbelievably rugged wine region in Catalonia, a couple of hours inland an up-country from Barcelona. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot sunshine partially moderated by altitude and wind. The vines grow on steeply sloped hillsides of fractured slate – often you have to dig through a foot or more of broken rock just to get to the shallow soils where young vines are planted.

If the notion of soil hidden by stones brings to mind Chateauneuf du Pape, you’re on the right track. Except the rock if splintered granite instead of rounded off river stones. The main grapes overlap with Chateauneuf’s – Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan predominate – and ripen to the same big, bold, levels you find in the Southern Rhone.

But Carignan – or Careinyena as it’s called here – plays a much bigger role (about 40% of AiAiAi’s blend). So you can think of Priorat as CdP but with more blue/black fruit character. And a more firm and powerful spine. And with an utterly unique and captivating sense of dusty slate on the nose, palate and finish.

No, Really – It’s a Garage!
Silvia and Joseph’s Vinedos de Ithaca was successful from the start, but like so many talented winemakers, Silvia wanted to do something completely on her own. So, in 2008 she began the project now called En Numeros Vermells. The name, “Numbers in the Red” and clever label design by local graffiti artist Adria Batet, evoked the rain of bad news showing down on Spain and the world during the late 2000’s financial meltdown.

Silvia created ENV to let her intimately nurture small amounts of wine from grape to bottle on a barrel by barrel basis. The small scale let her largely ignore the normal time and financial pressures of winemaking – with a total production of just a few hundred cases, she was free to let each wine find its own way to maturity and use only the barrels that actually fit in her final blends.

We throw around the terms “garage wine” and “handcrafted” quite a bit, but that’s truly the best way to describe everything about these wines. The En Numerous Vermells “cellar” is the garage of Silvia’s house in the Priorat village of Poboleda, a building that also serves as Silvia’s home and her husband – Belgian chef Pieter Truyts – Brots Restaurant.

In this tiny space, Silvia is literally doing virtually everything by hand. She tends the small number of barrels stacked in the space carefully, tasting and re-tasting to learn how each is developing and gaining a deep understanding of each cask’s unique character, strengths, and weaknesses. Multiple blending trials allow Silvia to explore how her charges work together (or don’t), and create an ideal marriage that lets each site and varietal shine without fighting or overwhelming each other.

We’ve been blown away by Silvia’s top wines – the flagship Priorat Negre and the ultra-small production alternate blends – since importer Jonas Gustafsson brought us the first vintages to land in the USA last year. The quality has been nothing short of extraordinary and they’ve all flown off our shelves.

AiAiAi Indeed!
With increasing success with her ENV wines, more and more active children and her husband’s thriving restaurant, Silvia has now decided to focus 100% of her winemaking energies on En Numeros Vermells. The extra time allowed her to purchase a little more fruit and turn her attentions and talents to making a softer, more accessible, wine that we can enjoy now while letting the top bottlings develop in cellar.

The name comes from Silvia’s experience making wine while tending young children playing in the cellar. “AiAiAi, get off those barrels.” “AiAiAi, don’t fall in the vat!” But the name is as apt as a description of your reaction when you taste this stunning 2017.

AiAiAi! That’s delicious!”

Champagne, Cava, Cremant … What’s The Difference?

champagne glassesWe get lots of questions about the names and terms used for different sparkling wines, so here’s a quick primer for anyone who is feeling a touch confused.

The big name in the field is Champagne, a label that used to be applied to many different kinds of fizz. Today – after years of negotiation and some fairly aggressive litigation by the Champenoise – the “Champagne” name is restricted to wines that:

  • Come from the Champagne region of France
  • Are made from seven authorized grapes (but mainly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and the red Pinot Menieur)
    Get their bubbles from a secondary fermentation that takes place in bottle
  • Rest on the lees – dead yeast cells – from that secondary fermentation for at least 15 months for non-vintage or 30 months for vintage dated wines

The story of how Champagne was first created and popularized is long and winding and full of myth (no, Dom Perignon did not “invent” Champagne – he tried to stop it from fizzing!), but it’s ended up with Champagne holding the title of, arguably, the best sparkling wine in the world and certainly the most expensive.

Grower Champagne. This term refers to Champagne made from grapes that the estate also grew. Many Champagne houses make Champagne from fruit they purchase from growers. Veuve Cliquot and Moen & Chandon are two examples. These are certainly fine Champagnes, but over the last few decades there’s been a movement by more growers to make Champagne themselves. The price can be lower too!

R Dumont Solera Champagne.pngSolera Champagne. Most fine Champagnes get their complexity from aging of the base wines in oak barrels and/or extended aging “on the lees” in bottle after the secondary fermentation (where the bubbles come from!). But there’s a third approach called “solera.” This week’s featured R Dumont Solera Reserve Brut is a good example: After harvesting their 1991 vintage grapes, the Dumont family filled a single stainless steel cask with their remarkable Chardonnay. Each year, they took about a third of the wine out and used it in their NV Brut, replacing what they took with Chardonnay wine from that year’s vintage. After ten years, they released their first solera, and the release we’re featuring was pulled in early 2016, so it includes wines from 25 vintages!

So while drinking “real” Champagne is a treat – and something we all should do more often! – it’s not surprising that many other sparkling wines have emerged to try to slake our thirst for fine fizz at more reasonable prices.

France’s Cremant. The term was originally used to denote wines from Champagne that had a little less fizz than regular Champagne, but that style and usage have fallen away today. Now the French use “Cremant” to designate sparkling wines made outside of Champagne using the Champagne method of secondary fermentation in bottle. You’ll find Cremant wines from all across France, many – like Cremant d’Alsace – using very different grapes from Champagne (e.g. Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, or even Riesling).

Sparklers from Italy, Spain and the U.S. Many Americans start their sparkling wine adventure with crisp, fruity wines from Italy like Moscato di Asti or Prosecco. We love them both, but neither uses Champagne grapes or even the Champagne method to create fizz. These wines undergo secondary fermentation in a large tank and are then bottled with the fizz already in the wine. It’s a less expensive process that won’t give you the same texture or toasty flavors found in méthode champenoise wines.

The best of Spain’s sparkling Cava wines can deliver much more Champagne quality at a fraction of the price. These wines are made using the méthode champenoise (although they’re not allowed to use that term on the label – nothing to suggest competition with Champagne is allowed!), and can show some of the creaminess and yeasty, toasty notes we love in Champagne. But Cava is usually made with different grapes – macabeu, parellada and xarel·lo are most common – which give the wines different flavors and often a nuttier, more oxidative character.

Most top-notch American sparkling wines are made with Champagne’s fermentation methods and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, and in many cases, the companies and even the same winemakers who make the best wines in Champagne create these American wines. But most grow in warmer climates and in richer soils than you find in Champagne, so they tend to be a bit heartier and seldom quite as finely textured as true Champagne.

If you have questions, please feel free to ask more about the wonderful world of sparking wines.

 

 

Pier Luigi Tolaini’s Excellent Estate – and his 93 point Super-Tuscan!

Pier Luigi TolainiPier Luigi Tolaini left his home in Luca at age 19 to find work,  promising himself he’d return to Tuscany someday to show his family how to make really good wine.

It took him a while – he spent the next 40+ years in Canada, ultimately building a prosperous trucking business. But in 1998 he purchased a 119-acre Chianti Classico property and set out to make “really good” wine.

He’s done pretty darn well, earning accolades from the wine press:

“Tolaini is on a tear, making some of the best wines representing the warmer Castelnuovo Berardenga subzone of Chianti Classico.” – Wine Advocate, 2014

“An estate to watch.” – Wine Spectator’s Bruce Sanderson after visiting in 2016

“Passionate attention to the Bordeaux-style vineyards, and a very natural approach to the cellar benefitting from international consultants, make Pierluigi Tolaini’s estate one of the most important in the Chianti Classico area.” – Gambero Rosso, Italy’s most important wine guide

If you’d like to learn more about the Tolaini story and estate, join us on Thursday, January 24, when winemaker Francesco Rosi leads our Spotlight on Tolaini class (you can reserve your seats online at this link – pretty cool Christmas present!).

Want to taste a preview? Stop by anytime this week for a taste of  Pier Luigi’s San Giovanni Valdisanti Toscana 2014, a great gift or Christmas dinner wine on sale from 28% off.

“The wine wraps thickly over the palate with dense textual richness and generous flavors of blackberry, spice and cured tobacco. There is a pretty note of sweetness on the close that resembles candied fruit or cherry liqueur. Drink 2017-2027″ Wine Advocate 91 points.

And Wine Spectator’s 93 point review agrees: “”Ripe, packed with black cherry, blackberry, violet, iron and spice aromas and flavors, this red is muscular and sophisticated. Beefy tannins shore this up, along with fresh acidity and a detailed aftertaste.” Wine Spectator 93 points

Helen Keplinger and the Perfect Cab

helen-keplinger2Helen Keplinger is sometimes pigeonholed as one of America’s best “woman” winemakers. Actually, she’s one of America’s best, period. Learning from mentors like Heidi Peterson Barrett, Kathy Joseph, Claude Gros, David Abreu, and Michel Rolland, she’s mastered the art of working with big ripe California fruit and shaping it into wines of depth, complexity and finesse.

She was one of “Four to Watch” in Wine Spectator in 2013. In 2014, they called her a “Rising Star” and put her on the cover of the magazine. If you’ve been fortunate enough to drink her Keplinger wines – mostly Rhone-inspired blends – you know just how talented she is.

This week, we’re pleased to be able to offer a limited quantity of her Carte Blanche wines, the 98 point Proprietary Red and the 100 point Napa Cab. With this pair of benchmark Napa Cabs, I think it’s safe to say Helen is no longer “rising” – she’s at the top.

Nicholas AllenThe background. These wines come as Helen joins her winemaking skills with Nicolas Allen, whose dream is to create a “First Growth” estate in Napa.

Having grown up in New Jersey in a family with deep Bordeaux roots, in 2007 Nicholas Allen decided to act on his dream. Working with Peter Michael (and now Morlet Family Wines) winemaker Luc Morlet, he chose prime slices of some of Napa’s greatest vineyards to work with and decided to make two reds: one inspired by Bordeaux’s Right Bank and the other a Left Bank homage.

The early vintages were impressive, if sometimes retaining a touch of rusticity to the big, bold fruit that held them back from reaching the absolute first class level of Napa wines. In 2014, Helen took the winemaking reigns (her husband, DJ Warner, had been managing the estate from the beginning). And in her second full vintage at the helm, the wines have stepped up to the very peak of Napa power and perfection.

Carte Blanche winesThe Carte Blanche Proprietary Red 2015 (Wine Advocate 94/ Jeb Dunnuck 98 points) is a nod to Bordeaux’s Right Bank, blending significant amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc into rich Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s delicious already in a youthful, fleshy, mouthfilling way with layers of black fruit, chocolate, spice box, graphite and mint. The tannins are supple enough for this to show well with a steak today, but give it some time (through 2035 or longer) and you’ll be rewarded with more Bordeaux-like finesse and non-fruit depth.

The Carte Blanch Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Wine Advocate 97/ Jeb Dunnuck 100 points) is the Left Bank-inspired wine. With 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Andy Beckstoffer’s famed Missouri Hopper vineyard in Oakville, it’s bold, intense, and very firm right now. Already you can pick up wonderful complexity to the Crème de Cassis, blackberry, licorice, crushed herb and spice aromas and flavors. Give this 5 years (and drink – 2048) for the tannins to soften, and it will be one of the most impressive Napa wines in your cellar.

We have secured limited quantities of both wines, and we encourage you to enjoy the best, six-bottle savings on a mix/match basis.

Try the Prop Red for Christmas this year if you like, but get enough bottles to enjoy both wines for many, many, holiday seasons to come!