Brunello 2012s – A Taste from Mastrojanni

Mastrojanni and glassThis week we’re featuring our first (but not last!) 2012 Brunello: the 2012 Brunello from Mastrojanni, a relatively new winery that’s on a roll (this Brunello earned 94 points from the Wine Advocate).

Some are saying that the 2012 Brunellos are a cross between 2006 (but with less tannin) and 2008 (but with more body and fruit). Others offer even higher praise, comparing their 2012s to the monumental 2004s (if, perhaps, with a tad less concentration).

A bit of history about Mastrojanni:

From Brunello Tradition…
Mastrojanni vineyardMastrojanni is a gem of an estate for wine lovers, both because the quality is outstanding and because the market hasn’t fully caught on to just how fine the wines have become. The estate was created in 1975 when Gabriele Mastrojanni purchased the San Pio and Loreto estates in the southeastern portion of Montalcino’s Brunello zone.

Gravel rich clay soils over limestone bedrock and a climate moderated by nearby mount Amiata, an extinguished volcano, made this perfect Sangiovese Grosso country. But Mastrojanni also planted a little Cabernet Sauvignon in the San Pio vineyards to see what it could do.

In 1992, Andrea Machetti joined as Managing Director, a position he continues to hold today. Under Machetti’s guidance the Mastrojanni wines improved substantially and by the 2007 and 2008 vintages was recognized as a fast-improving estate in the “traditional” (i.e., limited new oak) style.

…To “Glorious”
Andrea Machetti of MastrojanniIn 2008, following the death of the founders’ son, Mastrojanni was purchased by Francesco and Riccardo Illy of Italy’s leading coffee company.

What they did next was simply brilliant: very little. They essentially asked Andrea Machetti what he needed to make better wine and then did that and little else. The vineyards needed little work – the sites were excellent, they had been planted to high-density from the beginning, and were coming into full maturity.

The winery, however, had lagged behind. So the Illy’s invested in better sorting tables – all grapes at Mastrojanni are sorted twice to ensure only the best fruit makes it into the fermenters – built a winery that allowed more gentle handling of the fruit and wine, and allowed Machetti to swap out some tired old barrels for newer, large, casks.

The style of the Brunello remained unchanged – a “traditional” approach that emphasizes Montalcino’s ripe fruit and power without obvious oaky notes or over extraction. And, they allowed Machetti to further improve the San Pio Cabernet blend, first made in 1997.

“On a Roll”
As Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner says, today “Mastrojanni is on a roll. This extraordinary estate has been enjoying the spotlight lately and very much deserves the attention. I’m adding my name to a long list of their fans.” Commenting on last year’s releases, she adds:

“Mastrojanni is an estate that is living a true moment of glory. The new winery has been up and running for a number of years, the best vineyard sites are in their prime production years and a slew of interesting additions (such as a charming on-site country hotel) are about to go online. The Illy family (of the famed coffee house) bought the property in 2008 and made a series of important investments. The cellars were completely renewed. Managing Director Andrea Machetti stayed on during the many years of transition and his role has been crucial to the continuity and the improvements made at Mastrojanni since the Illy ownership commenced.”

This stunning 94 point Brunello di Montalcino shows how Mastrojanni’s progress plus a truly outstanding vintage combine to create a simply stunning Brunello. Don’t miss it!

 

Malandes Chablis: Quality Like the ‘Big Boys’ …

Malandes Chablis VineyardI’ve always wondered how Chablis as fine as Dom des Malandes could always remain so… well, to be blunt: cheap!

It’s not like the estate is new or unknown. Lyne and husband Jean-Bernard Marchive formed Malandes in 1986 with vines farmed by her father and grandfather making up the core of the estate. The wines have earned critical praise from the outset, with Master of Wine and Burgundy expert awarding Malandes a two star rating in his landmark book The Wines of Burgundy.

To put that in context, that’s the very top rating for any Chablis estate, the same awarded to William Fevre, Vincent Dauvissat, and Domaine Raveneau. And yet wines from those three estates sell for at least three times the prices of Malandes.

What’s more, the wines have gotten even better over the past decade under oenologist/winemaker Guenolé Breteaudeau. As the leading Burgundy critic working today, Allan Meadows (“Burghound”), said last year, the team at Chablis-based Domaine des Malandes

“continue to drive the quality of the Malandes wines to new heights. Readers who are not familiar with the wines owe it to themselves to try a few bottles; moreover the prices are reasonable and thus the wines offer excellent price/quality ratios.”

But why are the prices so reasonable – even before we slash them further with our direct import savings?

… Priced With Modesty and Practicality
Lyne Marchive, Dom des MalandesSpending an afternoon and evening with Lyne in Chablis two weeks ago helped me understand. Lyne’s family – the Tremblays well known in Chablis – have been living, farming and making wine here for a long time. They have always been practical business people – Lyne said her grandfather was one of the first growers in Chablis to stop selling to the co-op and bottle and sell all his own production starting in the early 1900s. Bottled wine was more of a risk, but turned a much better profit.

Entrepreneurial ambition has always been tempered by the realities of trying to make a living the cold, stony, soils of Chablis. Lyne explained that it was simply impossible for a small grower to make a living from grapes and wine in Chablis until the mid-1970s. Frost in the spring, vine-killing cold weather in winter, summer hail, and ill-timed rain near harvest conspired to wipe out nearly 100% of Chablis production in 2-3 years per decade. Lyne remembers the brutal stretch of 1952, ’52 and ’54 when her father had no grape (and not much grain) for three consecutive years. In 1954 he was forced to leave home and pick grapes in Beaujolais to make enough money to feed the family.

By the mid-1970s growers in Chablis had learned frost and winter cold management techniques from their neighbors in Champagne (Chablis is closer to Champagne than Burgundy’s Beaune), opening the doors to the potential to making a living from wine. So Lyne took over from her father and, with husband Jean-Bernard Marchive, created Domaine des Malandes.

Today Lyne’s wines are clearly world-class-good, because Lyne has continued her grandfather’s innovative streak by choosing to sell her wines mainly outside of France and around the world. And, to be sure those wines are snapped up, shipped out, and making fans globally, she and her family have elected to price them to move through a network of small, independent, distributors (and at least one local USA wine store!).

Innovation Continues

Lyne and Malandes Hail Nets

Lyne shows us her hail nets, now in field trial.

Even as she prepares to retire and hand over the estate to her son and youngest daughter, Lyne remains an innovator. Hail has been a problem in Chablis for years and seems to be intensifying with global climate change. Some of Lyne’s vines grow in what is basically a thunderstorm channel – a valley between two hills that captures storms and funnels their maximum impact right on the fragile vines.

After the disastrous 2016 storm season, Lyne decided she’d had enough. Although it took none months of intensive studies, legal filings and lobbying, two months ago she received a permit to test Chablis first ever hail netting system. No other grower has been brave enough to step up to try it, so she’s rolling it out as a test with a mix of protected and unprotected rows. As she says, it’s very expensive – but then so is losing the entire harvest to hail.

“No one else was willing. So I decided I must go ahead by myself. I believe it’s what we must do to make good, good, good, Chablis.”

As Neal Martin of Wine Advocate said after a blind tasting of Lyne’s 2014 and 2015 Chablis recently, “I was very impressed by the consistency here. Proprietor Lyne Archive, with winemaker Guenolé Breteaudeau, crafted some really quite superb Premier Crus that shone out. It’s great to see this well-known name in Chablis doing so well – long may it continue.” We think it will.

The Extraordinary 2015 Chablis of Domaine des Malandes
Dom des MalandesMalandes’ 2015 releases come to us direct at simply unbeatable savings. From a Village Chablis to drink as a “house white” to two different majestic 1er Crus and the profound Grand Cru Les Clos, all of Malandes’ 2015s are compelling, captivating, and available to you while they last at substantial savings. Chardonnay at its very best for right now and years to come. Don’t miss these staggering values.

Not-So-Temperate Toro

Toro

Look down on the gentle hills, Roman bridge, and sprawling vineyards from the hilltop town of Toro and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Really? They can grow good grapes here?” This extreme western portion of the Spanish province of Castilla y Leon is hot, barren, and dry. With summer high temperatures reaching 100 degrees and only 14 inches of rain annually, it’s very nearly desert. And, the high altitude (most vineyards sit at 2,000-2,500 feet above sea level) means that even summer nights get cool and that winters are bitter with mid-winter lows in the teens.

And yet, wine grapes have been grown here for 1,000 years or so. With so little rainfall, early farmers adopted a strategy of planting their vines far apart – as much as 10 feet in all directions can separate vines in the stoniest soils. With these ultra-low densities, each grape vine can spread its roots broadly and deeply to capture the all too scarce rainfall.

Tempranillo for Toro. Over the centuries, a new mutation of Spain’s Tempranillo grape emerged, one that was best able to handle the extreme temperatures and dry conditions. The locals called it “Tinta de Toro,” and it remains the best red wine grape in the region today.

Ample sunshine and hot days Tinta de Toro to ripen to powerful levels, but the cool nights “fix” color and the bright acidity needed to balance massive fruit levels. By medieval times, Toro reds were some of Spain’s most famous, but the region faded from attention with the rise of Rioja (located closer to the all important rail line to Bordeaux) in the 1800s. By the mid-1990s, only 6 wineries remained in operation here, all producing ripe but rustic reds for bulk sales or local consumption.

A Toro Revival. Today there are more than 50 commercial wineries in Toro, and Finca Sobreño’s success is a big reason why. In the mid-1990s, current manager Roberto San Ildefonso and a group of Rioja winemakers created the Bodega to take advantage of the hundreds of acres of old-vine Tempranillo remaining in the region. They build one of the first modern wineries in the region, purchased 200 acres of prime vineyard and eventually locked up access to another 400 acres of old vines as well.

Over the past 20 years, Roberto San Ildefonso and his daughter, Paloma, have established Finca Sobreño as one of Toro’s most outstanding wineries. By the 2006 harvest, Wine Advocate already recognized Finca Sobreño as “an annual fixture in these pages for its superb value,” and wine writer Anthony Dias Blue was calling it “One of best new estates in Toro.”

I’ve admired Finca Sobreño for everyday value for years, but my visit to the winery two summers ago to taste the new releases was an eye-opener. Significant investments in farming and winemaking have taken quality here to new heights. The wines are as ripe, powerful, and explosive as ever, but there’s a new sophistication to the textures and better integration of oak. But – with a little help from importer Fran Kysela – the prices are the best they’ve been in years!

Albariño – Cool Wine from Green Spain

galiciaFor a place that grows a quintessential summer and seafood wine, Galicia, the area in Northwest Spain most known for Albariño, is actually rather gray and gloomy, with weather that always feels damp and gray even when it’s not raining. Called Green Spain for its lusher and cooler climate than the rest of Spain’s hotter, drier, more red wine-focused wine country, the Rias Baixas DO specializes in this fruity white grape.

Albariño’s tendency toward flamboyant aromatics, and the same potential for slight bitterness as grapes like Gewurztraminer has let to rumors that Albarino is a Riesling clone brought to Spain by monks in the middle ages, but modern DNA testing doesn’t support this. Many people don’t realize that Albariño grows in Portugal as well, where they call it Alvarinho.

Different Paths in Portugal and Spain
Minho, the area of Portugal that produces Vinho Verde, has a very similar wet, rainy, maritime climate to Spain’s Rias Baixas region, and grows Albariño as well. In Portugal, it’s often used to make Vinho Verde. Because it’s almost always blended with other grapes and doesn’t appear on the label, it’s flown under the radar in Portugal and become more famous in Spain, where it’s more often made as a single varietal wine. Alvarinho also tends to be grown on high trellises called pergolas in Portugal, in an effort to mitigate the rot that grape vines are prone to in this moist climate. Unfortunately, this also encourages the vines to overproduce, resulting in grapes with a little less varietal character than their Spanish cousins.
valminor-albarino-case
Spain took this same grape in a different direction than Portugal. Until the 1980s, Spain produced blended white wines similar to what you still find in Portugal – blends of Albarino, Treixadura, Avesso, and Pederna. But when the Rias Baixas DO was established in 1985, Spain started farming this grape a bit more carefully and producing more concentrated wines that reflected Albariño’s true potential, like the delicious Valminor.

What Makes Chateauneuf Chateauneuf?

Lirac galet

Ten feel of pebbly path separate the Champauvin vineyard from Chateauneuf du Pape.

As you may know, the name and fame of the Rhone Valley wine region called Chateauneuf du Pape dates from the 1300s when the Papacy temporarily moved from Rome to the French city of Avignon. The Popes built a summer palace north of Avignon on the crest of a big hill overlooking the Rhone Valley. Locals called it “the Pope’s New Castle” – Chateauneuf du Pape. As the Church spurred growth in the Rhone’s vineyards to meet its ceremonial and social needs, the name came to be applied to the better vineyards surrounding the hill.

Once the Pope returned to Rome, the name dropped out of use and the wines came to be known simply as “vin d’Avignon” until the Chateauneuf name was resurrected in the mid-1800s. The wines gradually gained respect within France until phylloxera wiped out the vineyards in the late 1800s.

In the early 20th Century, growers in the area realized that they couldn’t compete with the rapidly developing Languedoc-Rousillon region in the south for pure bulk wine production. Seeking to improve quality, in the early 1930s they banded together to resurrect the brand of Chateauneuf du Pape and establish rules for what wines could or could not use that label. Their approach ultimately became the basis for all France’s designated wine regions – the Appelation Controlee system. The rules specified maximum yields, minimum alcoholic strength (12.5%), and determined which grapes were of acceptable quality (a hard debate settled on a list of 13 varieties).

Mapmaking Gone Wrong
And they drew a map specifying which lands were allowable for Chateauneuf du Pape and which would be left out (and ultimately be labeled Cotes du Rhone):

Cdp and Champauvins Map

To the south and west of the town of Chateauneuf, setting boundaries was easy. As the land sloped down towards the Rhone River, it eventually became too wet to support vineyards.

The eastern side was also easy, if not really based on vineyard character. The drafters simply followed the main road running from Avignon to Orange (now the A7 Autoroute) from the village of le Coulaire in the south and up to the end of the vineyards belonging to Chateau Beaucastel in the north. This sliced one of Beaucastel’s vineyards – called Coudoulet – in two, leaving half of the vineyard in and half out of Chateauneuf. Not entirely fair, but at least easy to explain.

What happened next is a bit of a mystery. The Jaume family farmed a collection of vineyards pretty much due west of Beaucastel and just under the Orange road. The vineyards have the same sub-soils and top-soils as Beaucastel, were covered by the rounded “galet” stones that are Chateauneuf’s hallmarks, and were planted to the same grapes. The logical thing to do would have been to simply continue to follow the road as it curved around to the west a little further and then allow the line to curve back down to the south to the river as the soils changed from red, iron rich gravel to more sand and limestone after the Jaume’s vineyards ended.

Instead, the drafters elected to abandon the Orange road just above Beaucastel and draw the boundary line down a narrow gravel path that ran right through the middle of the Jaume vineyards. The very fine vineyards planted in 1905 and still used for Grand Veneur Chateauneuf du Pape Les Origines plus another medium-sized vineyard became Chateauneuf. The 35 hectare Champauvins vineyard, identical in every way to the vineyards across the 10 foot wide path would be Cotes du Rhone.

Outstanding Wine the Best Revenge!
champauvin and galetIt’s hard to imagine how frustrated and upset the Jaume family must have been when they saw the new region’s map, and we know they protested and demanded explanations for years (but never got one). And, when you visit the Jaume’s at their modest winery just outside Chateauneuf, you get the sense that they still are not entirely over the injustice of making Champauvins somehow “less” than vineyards a few feet away.

Fortunately, under the leadership first of Alain Jaume and today of his sons, Sebastien and Christophe, the family’s Domaine Grand Veneur has decided that quality is its own revenge. They farm Champauvins like the Chateauneuf vines across the path, working mainly by hand (necessary with bush vines and gravel-covered soils) and using certified organic viticultural techniques. Yields are similar to their Chateauneuf vineyards, meaning the Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes achieve fantastic ripeness without any excess of sugar or roasted, pruny flavors.

In the modern winery, the winemaking for Champauvins is “old school” all the way. Fermentations proceed slowly with gentle pump-overs to extract classic Rhone flavor and structure without adding any harsh tannins. Grenache (70% of the blend) ages in concrete tanks to help it retain color and fruit. Syrah and Mourvedre mellow in old oak casks, given them the tiny bit of air they need to round out without imparting any oak flavor.

The result is a wine chock-full of big, deep, aromas of kirsch, black cherry, crushed herb, wild lavender, black olive and dark chocolate flow from the glass. Those same notes flow across your palate in a rich, vibrant, wine that coats your mouth with flavor and leaves ripe, fine-grained, tannins lingering behind. If they wanted to, the Jaume family could give this the same heft and density that makes “true” Chateauneuf so cellar-worthy (if hard to enjoy young), but because it’s “just” Cotes du Rhone and cannot command Chateauneuf prices, they craft it to be open, supple, savory, and delicious right now.

Dom Grand Veneur Les Champauvins Cotes du Rhone

Wine That’s (Much!) Better Than Asparagus – The Paring from California’s Jonata

Jonata Vineyard, Winery, 191.6, Ballard Canyon, California(MultiA few years ago, billionaires Gerald Levin, Arnon Milchan, and Charles Banks (then owner of Napa’s Screaming Eagle) brought France’s Michel Rolland to see a patch of land in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. “What should we plant here?” they asked.

“Asparagus. I think you’d be better off planting asparagus,” Rolland replied

Fortunately, they didn’t listen. The trio decided to plant an 80 acre plot with 10 different varietals from Bordeaux, the Rhone and beyond. And when Matt Dees joined as Jonata’s first winemaker in 2004, they discovered that pretty much everything they planted made terrific wine!

An Expensive and Successful Main Label
Jonata’s “main label” wines have racked up huge ratings since the first releases, with 95s, 96s, and 97s scattered across the range. Now that Screaming Eagle’s current owner, Stan Kronke, had taken the reins, there’s a no-expenses-spared approach to vineyard management, harvest, and winemaking. And while the Jonata wines hit pretty stratospheric heights for Central Coast bottlings – lots of $80-$140 offerings – Robert Parker says, “Fasten your seatbelts as these wines will give purchasers a serious ride for their money!”

The Jonata style is big, bold, and built for the cellar. As the Wine Advocate’s current Central Coast critic, Jeb Dunnuck says, “this is always one of my favorite tastings. However, due to the mouth-damaging levels of tannin and structure these wines show in their youth, this is one tasting I have to schedule at the end of day!”

And a Softer Second Wine
That’s where The Paring comes in. Every vintage, a few barrels of Jonata’s wine turned out to be too supple, soft, and ready to drink – not right for the main label’s vin de garde, have to be cellared for years, house style.

For the first few years, Jonata simply sold these barrels off to other wineries. But as the vineyards matured, the quality of these “off lots” just kept getting better and better. So much so that, starting in 2011, the winery decided they should bottle and sell these seconds themselves.

“Superb Values”

The first release of wines under The Paring label came in 2011 and the critics were very, very, impressed. As Wine Advocate’s Jeb Dunnuck said tasting the inaugural 2010s, “These value-priced efforts are made by Matt Dees and the Jonata team, and are primarily made from declassified grapes from both their The Hilt and Jonata labels. They represent superb values and are a great intro to the style of the more expensive releases.”

By 2012, The Paring had expanded to six wines and the quality kept getting better and better. As Dunnuck said after tasting the whole line-up, “Made by the team at Jonata, these wines are basically declassified lots that didn’t make the cut for the top Jonata releases. These 2012s are a step up from past vintages and are crazy values. Don’t miss a chance to grab some of these!”

The 2013s are clearly the best yet. As Antonio Galloni from Vinous wrote after tasting the 2013s, “The four wines in this range are all absolutely delicious.” And, even at the release prices, he declared them, “among the very finest values readers will find in California. A great choice for by the case purchases or glass pours, these new releases from The Paring deliver serious bang for the buck. It simply does not get better than this.”

News from Willamette Valley: New Pinot and … Chardonnay

Meg and I are just back from a quick trip to Oregon and meetings with some of our favorite Willamette Valley winemakers. We’re lining up new shipments of some of your favorites from vintages 2014 and 2015, including some real stunners from John Grochau, Patricia Green Cellars, and Belle Pente. And watch for small quantities of some new Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs from the culty, hard-to-find Walter Scott.

A New Focus: Chardonnay. But the real story in the Willamette Valley right now is that – after 40 years of ups and downs – Chardonnay has finally arrived! At pretty much every stop, we found Chardonnay that showcases some of the energy, minerality and complexity you’d expect from top Meursault or Chassagne-Montrachet married to the juicy, ripe, fruit flavors found in the best of California’s cool Sonoma Coast sites.

During my very first visit to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the spring of 2009, Chardonnay was on the wane. More than one winemaker told me they’d not figured out Pinot Noir’s natural white grape partner and that they either had or were considering grafting over their Chardonnay vines to Pinot Gris or Noir.

Returning in the summer of 2013, I heard folks say that Chardonnay really should work in the Willamette Valley, but that the original plantings were in the wrong places or of the wrong clones. “We really ought to figure this out,” was a common comment. Coming back in mid-summer of 2015, we heard, “You know, maybe we can figure this out!” although compelling wines in bottle were few and far between.

Last week, Chardonnay was a focus of conversation and tasting everywhere we went. Patricia Green has made their first Chardonnay in years, John Grochau’s Chards were zesty and rich, and newcomer Walter Scott has committed to making Chardonnay a full 50% of their production. No question, Chardonnay is on its way back in the Willamette Valley!

oregon-chardonnaysA Trio of Tempting Willamette Valley Chardonnays. Chardonnays from Grochau and Walter Scott are definitely on our “buy” list for later this year, and Chardonnay has clearly “arrived” at Belle Pente’s Yamhill-Carleton estate vineyard and in the old-vines Dundee Hills vineyards of Arterberry Maresh and Oregon Pioneer Eyrie.

Not much of any of these is made and less still is available. But all are well worth checking out to get a feel for why Willamette Valley Chardonnay is the “next big thing” for the world’s most popular white wine grape! Stop by this weekend for a taste!