When a Serious Consultant Lets Loose

Xavier VignonOften the phrase “winemaking consultant” generates a little eye rolling from us, because so often consultant winemakers, when they get successful enough to be famous, do little more than look at a few sheets of lab results and stamp their winemaking signatures, cookie-cutter style, onto dozens of different wines.

But this has never been Xavier Vignon’s style, and when he had a chance to make his own wines, he really started to show his individuality and unique approach to this famous terroir steeped in tradition.

As the brains behind big name estates like Chateau la Nerte, Grand Veneur, and Chateau la Gardine, Xavier Vignon has serious chops, but also likes to have fun, and his higher end blends show that irreverence – some are non-vintage, multi-vineyard blends, and they’ve gotten huge scores from major critics like Robert Parker.

But he also uses his access to world-class fruit (he takes some of his fee in the form of grapes) for his less expensive cuvees like his 2012 Cotes du Rhone, which was made from fruit selected from over 100 plots, including 65% Grenache from more than 80 year old vines, 25% Mourvedre from more than 60 year old vines, and 15% Syrah from more than 45 year old vines, mostly from the Vaucluse area. The Grenache plots come mostly from the northern part of Vaucluse near the Dentelles de Montmirail, the mountain range at the foot of Mont Ventoux, the highest peak in Provence, while the Syrah and Mourvedre come from more south-facing parcels.

xavier vignon cote du rhone bottlesEach grape variety is fermented and matured a little differently to bring out its unique character in various sizes of concrete tanks. This slightly more involved version of a traditional fermentation method gives this Cotes du Rhone a much finer, more sophisticated tannin structure than you often find from this region. It’s part of what distinguishes this Cotes du Rhone from the oceans of “just OK” wine this region pumps out, and what will make you regret all the times you settled for mediocre Cotes du Rhone.

You’d expect nothing less from such an experienced winemaker putting his own spin on a classic style.

What’s So “Super” About “Super-Tuscan” Reds?

SuperTuscanImage

With this week’s feature of two great wines from Castello dei Rampolla, including a sizzling great Chianti Classico and a very super “Super-Tuscan” Sammarco red, we know at least some of you have a couple of questions:

1) Who are these guys at Castello dei Rampolla?
2) What the heck is a “Super-Tuscan”?

Let’s take the second question first. Bear with us, because we’re going to need to cover some background and history before we actually answer the question.

The Power of Place Names

As you know, wine in Europe has a long, long, history. From Greek/Roman times through the mid-20th Century, neither consumers nor many wine growers knew much about how wine was made or what grapes it was made from. But they did know that wines from some places – say Burgundy, Rioja, or Chianti in Tuscany – tended to be better than most. So, wine lovers started searching out wines made from specific places with the expectation that a Bordeaux or Chianti would be better than other wines grown nearby.

Not surprisingly, wine growers in places not so famous soon started calling their wines by famous names (in America, think of Gallo “Chablis” and “Hearty Burgundy”.) And unscrupulous wine growers/makers in famous places began taking shortcuts, including planting high-yielding but lower quality vines, to take advantage of their famous names.

So, over the years, governments and local associations began making rules about what wines could have what place names on their labels. At a minimum, the grapes for the wine had to be grown in specified areas. Most regions also added rules about which grapes could be used, sometimes including how much/little of each. And, really picky regions included rules on maximum yields, minimum alcohol, and even requirements for minimum aging time in barrel and bottle before the wine could be sold.

Tuscan Rules Bent Out of Shape

In Italy, the rules for Tuscan reds took shape and became law in the 1930s-1950s. At that time, the only regions in Tuscany that made really good wine were Chianti, Montepulcianno, and Montalcino – so those were the only geographic names allowed. And Chianti was still made using the recipe created by Barone Ricasoli in the 1880s, so the rules required Chianti growers to add an assortment of local grapes, including white grapes, to their Sangiovese.

Two big problems emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. First, the very best Chianti growers discovered that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were better for Chianti than the traditional grapes and learned how to get their Sangiovese ripe enough to bottle without adding any other grapes at all.

The second problem: the Tuscan coastal region of Bolgheri where no one was making wine in the 1930s or 1940s. It was in this remote, disease-riddled, rural region that Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon in 1948. And, it was here that the Marchese’s nephew, Piero Antinori, convinced him to offer his wine for sale to the world in 1971. Since Cabernet Sauvigonon wasn’t recognized in any Tuscan wine region, Rochhetta had to label Sassicaia as simple “Vino de Tavola,” the designation meant for cheap, everyday, plonk.SuperLabels

At the same time, the owner of Chianti Classico estate Le Pergole Torte, Sergio Manetti, revolted against the rules requiring him to dilute his magnificent Sangiovese with other grapes. So, he made a pure Sangiovese, dropped the Chianti Classico label, and also offered it for sale as Vino da Tavola.

By the late 1970s, wine critics and consumers around the world had fallen hard for Sassicaia, Pergole Torte, Tignanello, Solaia, Sammarco (launched in 1980) and a handful of other wines from Tuscany that carried the Vino da Tavola label. But what to call them? “Bolgheri Bordeaux Blend” didn’t really grab anyone, nor did “It Could Be Chianti Except for Stupid Rules,” or – in the case of Sammarco – “Cabernet Sauvignon from Chianti.”

“Super!”

Someone – probably Decanter Magazine – decided to lump all these Vino da Tavola wines together as “Super-Tuscans,” a name quickly embraced by the wine trade – because, well, “Super!”

As the Super-Tuscans began to attract more attention and capture much higher prices than Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulcianno, and even Brunello, the Italians became a little embarrassed – it didn’t look good to have Italy’s most famous wines come from entirely outside the legal naming system. So, over the years, Chianti’s rules have been changed to allow all Sangiovese and/or blending with Cabernet and Merlot. And a new Bolgheri region was created for those wines plus a “Toscana” designation for everything else.

But the “Super-Tuscan” moniker stuck because – again – “Super!” Today you’ll hear “Super” appended to lots of wines in Italy and even beyond that “break the rules” – whether rules legal or simply traditional. Lots of those wines really aren’t very Super at all. Sammarco 2011 most definitely is.

Historic Quality from Historic Tuscan Estate

Castello-dei-Rampolla

As Wine Advocate said a couple of years ago, “Rampolla is one of the most fascinating wineries in Tuscany, and Italy, for that matter. The relentless pursuit of excellence is evident in these spectacular wines.”

Castello dei Rampolla sits in the southern valley of Panzano, the Conca d’Oro, south of Greve in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone. The land has been owned by the Di Napoli Rampolla family since 1739, although serious viticulture didn’t begin until Alceo Di Napoli took over in 1964. In 1975, Alceo began working with his good friend enologist Giacomo Tachis (who led the creation of Tignanello and Solaia) and bottled his first wine.

The big change came in 1978, when Alceo began grafting some of his Sangiovese over to Cabernet Sauvignon and, later, a little Merlot and Petit Verdot. In 1980, he released his first Super-Tuscan blend, Sammarco, made from 95% Cabernet and 5% Sangiovese. Despite ups and downs in quality during the late 1980s (after Alceo retired and before his children took over the estate), by 1996 Wine Spectator reported, “Rampolla’s Sammarco remains the benchmark super Tuscan red in its region for its powerful concentration of fruit and tannins and unique character.”

Since the early 1990s, the estate has been run by Alceo’s children, Luca and Maurizia, and quality has never been higher. Luca converted the vineyards first to organic and then biodynamic viticulture, lowering yields and heightening already impressive ripeness and concentration. Harvest and winemaking are all done by hand according to the phases of the moon, and the di Napoli’s are now experimenting with fermentation in Roman-style clay amphora for optimal wine/air contact.

Staying True To The Core

Through all these changes, the di Napoli’s have never lost their intense focus on their two most important wines: Chianti Classico and Sammarco.

chiantiThe Chianti continues to draw its fruit from one of the region’s greatest vineyards. After harvest, Sangiovese (about 90%) plus Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are fermented and aged for 8 months in concrete tanks. Then, after blending, the wine spends a full year in large (12 hectoliter) French oak casks and a further 6 months in bottle before release.

Rampolla Chianti is always a bit intense at first, with pure blackberry and black cherry fruit and firm, fine, tannins. It shows well with grilled/roasted meats from release and softens, broadens, and gains still more finesse over a decade or more in cellar.

sammarcoOver the years, the di Napoli family has reduced and now eliminated Sangiovese as a blending partner to Cabernet Sauvignon in Sammarco, turning instead to Merlot. In the warm 2011 vintage, the Cabernet ripened so perfectly that only 4% Merlot was used. It’s very young, primary, and full of fruit right now and already delicious with an hour or so in decanter. It’s going to shine through at least 2030, although I suspect you’ll struggle to leave it alone that long!

Rampolla’s local importer, Downey Selections, has worked with us to create a very compelling buying opportunity on Rampolla’s 2011 Sammarco and 2013 Chianti Classico. Don’t miss this chance for huge savings on some of Italy’s most compelling reds!  You can see more information on both wines here.

What Makes Chateauneuf Chateauneuf? 

Champauvin Vineyard

This vineyard, covered with the famous galet, sits across a 10-foot path from Cheateauneuf.

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,  they banded together in the early 1930s 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!
It’s hard to imagine how frustrated and upset the Jaume family must have been when they saw the new region’s map; we know they protested and demanded explanations for years (but never got one). When you visit the Jaume’s at their modest winery 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.

champauvin and galetFortunately, 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.

A Good Zin is Hard (and Expensive) to Find

For the last few decades, Zinfandel has been sort of synonymous with inexpensive, easy drinking reds and really inexpensive (OK, cheap) pink plonk. And while these wines still exist (Sutter Home makes 4 million bottles of White Zinfandel a year!), high quality Zinfandel that’s made more like, shall we say, grownup wine, has crept steadily upward in price in the last few years, making it harder and harder to unearth wines like the Victor Vineyards, with balanced fruit and spice and a well under $20 price tag.

Sought-after, ‘cult’-y wines like Turley and Ridge are partially to blame for this price creep, but we can’t entirely pin this on the aspirations of ambitious winemakers. A big part of this is the vines themselves.

Old Zin Vines Lodi

Saving the Old Vines. Considered embarrassing wine with training wheels by many, White Zinfandel gave us one thing: growers had a reason to preserve the few old Zinfandel vines that date back to the 19th and early 20th century. And these gnarled old vines haven’t had an easy life.

Many, like the ones on Victor Vineyards estate, were planted in the late 19th and early 20th century by immigrants who saw that the warm climate and sandy soil in Lodi would be perfect for orchards and vineyards. Victor Vineyards was the site of the first cold storage facility for holding fruit and grapes at the right temperature before shipping – established in 1920 – and their tasting room is still housed in one of these old storage warehouses.

The 1920s brought something else that threatened the life of the Zinfandel vines that would become historic American treasures: Prohibition. There was still a fairly brisk grape growing business during Prohibition, since home winemaking was still legal for the most part. But many Zinfandel vines were ripped out and replaced with Alicante Bouschet, because Zinfandel was very prone to rotting on journeys to the East Coast, where many grapes grown for home winemaking were shipped. Lastly, these vines survived the phylloxera crisis of the 1980s in California.

The Old Vine Advantage … Often Means Expensive. Old vines, while they grow complex, flavorful fruit, don’t grow very much of it, so making wine from these historic plants is much more expensive than it would be from younger, more vigorous vines. Old Zin vines are also almost always what we call ‘head trained’ or bush trained, which means that the vines aren’t neatly trellised on wires in a way that makes them easy to harvest by machine. More handwork means more expensive wine.

Though there is no legal definition for old vines, it is generally agreed upon that 40 is when vines become ‘old.’ We’ll leave the debate on what the definition for ‘old’ is in people for another email, but we think the dividing line might be whether or not you understand Snapchat…

All of this makes the fact that Victor Vineyards is able to craft an affordable, delicious, balanced Zinfandel aged in French oak (which is more expensive than American oak) from 100 year old vines all the more impressive!

– Diane McMartin

Victor Zin and glass

 

Rosé History: From Ancient Rome to Today’s French Trends

Looking at Philippe Plantevin’s darkly colored 2015 Cotes du Rhone Rosé – a wine that’s closer to light red than pink – got us thinking about rosé history. When did rosé start and how did it become a “thing”? Why do so many people prefer pale pink rosé to darker ones? And, as pink wine continues to grow faster than any other wine category, where does rosé go from here?

For that last question, check out this short video, “The French Do WHAT to Rosé?” about the hottest trend in France for making pink wine even cooler than it already is. But, for a bit more on rosé in general, read on!

 

Who Made The First Rosé? Probably the first person to make wine from dark-skinned grapes! Before modern growing and winemaking techniques developed, black grapes were seldom fully ripe at harvest, and so they were loaded with harsh, bitter, tannin. The longer the fermenting wine stayed in contact with the grapes’ skins and seeds, the more bitter the wine got.

Free Run Juice

“Free Run” juice comes out pink. Pressing the grapes produces darker color, among other things.

So, by ancient Greek times, wine was drained off the skins and seeds as soon as it started bubbling away. Because all of red wine’s color comes from the skins, ancient wine always started out as pink – at least before it started turning tawny/brown from contact with air (remember – no bottles and no sulfur dioxide to protect it).

 

Pink for the Rich, Dark for the Poor. Eventually, someone figured out that if you pressed the skins remaining after this “free run” juice was drained, you’d get more wine out of each harvest. This wine was darker (pressing pushed some pigment out) and much more harsh. Being all about efficiency (and making a buck), the Romans favored this darker wine – perhaps they thought tough wine made for tough soldiers?

The fad for dark wine fell with Rome, and through the centuries pale wine was viewed as the superior sort to be drunk by counts and kings while the darker press wine was for the common folk (with the harshness often masked by sweeteners and spices).

When the English began drinking wine in serious quantities in the 1600s, they favored the lightly red colored wines of Bordeaux over the darker, more tannic produce of Cahors and the Rhone valley. The ideal was vin d’une nuit or “wine of one night,” meaning the grapes spent less than 24 hours on their skins before the free run juice was drained to finish fermentation.   They called these pink/orange Bordeaux wines clairet – an old French term for a dark rosé. By the 18th century, claret was the British wine of choice.

Wait, Dark for the Rich, Pink for the Poor? As the 18th century went on, the English began to notice that while darker wines were more harsh and tannic at first, a long stay in a cool, dark castle cellar allowed them to soften and develop greater complexity. Since buying and holding wine for a decade or two was something only the wealthy could do, it quickly became a way for the rich to separate themselves from the growing merchant class who were now drinking claret by the bucketful.

Once the rich folks started drinking darker wine, the middle-class wanted it too. By the mid-19th century, “everyone” agreed that “dark wine was best,” much to the chagrin of Bordeaux and Burgundy growers, who had to start sneaking Northern Rhone Syrah into their cellars to make their naturally lighter wines dark enough for fashion.

When France’s 19th century economic boom and growing railroad network made wine affordable for all (before then most Frenchmen drank beer), acres and acres of grapes were planted across the under-developed fields of Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon to serve growing demand. The customer wanted cheap wine, though, and so growers planted high yielding grapes and let the vines groan under huge crop loads. Lots of bunches per vine means not much color per grape, so most low-end French wine ended up somewhere between dark pink and light red. Pink for the poor!

But, even the poor wanted dark red wine, so growers in the Rhone and Sud developed a trick. They’d crush their large-berried, over-cropped, fruit and let fermentation start. Then, they’d bleed off 10-30% of the juice. That left a higher ratio of color-containing skins to juice and let them make a darker and more commercially attractive wine.

What to do with the bled off, lightly pink juice? They simply fermented it dry and made it their everyday summer sipper. Not because it was good, but because it was cheap.

rose outsideRosé’s Big Comeback. Rosé’s big comeback is “driven” by the automobile. Specifically, by the development of highways from Paris to Provence and Languedoc after WWII and the subsequent flood of Parisians driving south in search of the sun.

When they got to the Riviera, French tourists were thirsty – but what to drink? Local wineries made almost no white wine – too warm for most white grapes – and the southern sun was too hot for drinking big, gutsy reds. But there was all that pink wine, and it was light, refreshing, and still cheap. Let the guzzling begin!

And, perhaps sipping that same pink wine at a Parisian café would remind you of those lovely warm days on the Riviera – or let you at least pretend you were there. Plus, more and more Parisians had refrigerators to keep the stuff nice and cool. So, what began as a trickle of pink wine in Paris and the rest of France soon became a steady flow that grew to a flood in the early 2000s. In 2008, for the first time ever, the French drank more rosé wine than white.

With growing demand came competition on quality across Provence and growth in rosé production in other regions of France and across all of Europe. Today you’ll find pink wine being made in every corner of the European wine world, and even top Bordeaux and Barolo estates are starting to get into the game in an effort to catch the pale pink wave.

sutter home

Remember these?

Coca Cola Wine in the USA. To tell the story of pink wine in the USA, we have to take a detour to 1940s Portugal. The story is a bit muddy, but essentially two Portuguese producers – Mateus and Lancers – realized at about the same time that once WWII ended, folks in the New World would be ready to drink wine. But, lacking a broad wine heritage, North and South Americans were unlikely to enjoy the dry, high acid wines common in Europe. The solution? Coca Cola was pretty popular everywhere, so…

Enter lightly fizzy, sweet, pink wine. Mateus targeted mainly Brazil and Latin America while Lancers focused intently on the USA from 1947 on. The wines’ blend of sweetness, fizz, and just a touch of citric bite were easy to understand in a nation weaned on Coca Cola. And clever packaging and national advertising very quickly made Lancers and Mateus the USA’s bestselling wines (not just rosé) period.

White Wine Boom Makes Pink Wine Soar. As the 1960s and 1970s went on, Americans’ palates expanded a bit and turned their attention to dry wines, increasingly from California, and the Lancers/Mateus phase began to wane. Then, in the early 1970s, Americans suddenly embraced white wine as their cocktail, poolside, and fern bar beverage of choice – and, bizarrely, that brought off-dry rosé back with a bang.

The problem was that California vineyards were planted mainly to red wine grapes – the choice of the Italian and Eastern European immigrants who started the Golden State’s wine business. As demand for red wine plummeted, growers struggled to sell all of their red wine grapes. Gradually, vineyard owners began to pull up their gnarly old Zinfandel vines – the staple of California’s popularly priced reds – replanting with Chardonnay.

Replanting was expensive and took time, though, and some growers asked themselves, “Isn’t there a way we can make white wine from our red grapes? After all, they make white Champagne from black grapes!” The owners of Sutter Home in Sonoma decided to give it a try with a Zinfandel vineyard. They called it “White Zinfandel,” but Zin’s ample pigment meant that even the barest crushing put some color in the wine. Plus, Zinfandel develops a lot of sugar during ripening, and turning that all into alcohol left the wine feeling big, bloated, and not yummy.

In 1974, a little accidental magic saved the day. A Sutter Home White Zinfandel fermentation “stuck” – the yeast died off before all the sugar was converted to alcohol. Winemaker Bob Trinchero tasted it and realized that the lower alcohol, somewhat sweeter, wine was actually more balanced than the dry version.   So, he bottled it, shipped it off to market, and started American’s white Zinfandel boom.

Like Mateus and Lancers before it, White Zinfandel was many Americans introduction to the world of wine. But, just like the rich of England decided that dark wine was “better” than pink, Americans soon decided that dry was better than sweet – and by the 1990s the “blush” was off White Zinfandel.

From Bust to Boom in (Pale) Pink. When I got into the wine business a decade ago, we carried 3-4 rosé wines each summer and sold 30 cases in a good year. Last year, we sold comfortably more than 10 times that amount and offered more than 20 different selections. That’s right in line with the rest of the country – rosé sales were up 30% last year, the 5th or 6th year of double-digit growth, and are booming again this year.

Driving this amazing growth are the pale pink rosé wines of Provence, so much so that selling darker colored wines from Tavel, Bandol, Spain or Italy is still a bit of a challenge. Why the supremacy of pale? Simple – Mateus, Lancers and White Zinfandel were all darker red, so many Americans (consciously or not) assume “dark = sweet” and “light = dry.”

Of course, that’s not really true. We’ve rejected several light pink rosé wines because they had a distracting level of sweetness and can show you darker ones that are bone dry. What darker color does usually mean is more body and texture, and most darker colored rosés stand up to hearty food better than their more lightly-colored relatives. But that doesn’t mean they will be heavy or even that they’re not fun to drink on their own.

Plantevin Rose and Glass (1)To end where we started, Philippe Plantevin’s 2015 Cotes du Rhone Rosé is a great example of where rosé started – as a light, fresh, smooth wine from red grapes – and where it’s going – as a wine you’ll want to drink with food and in any kind of weather. It’s open all week this week (through July 23), so come by and give it a try!

Chablis: The Home of Fine White Wine Values

Dom des Malandes“Values” probably isn’t quite the right word here. What we really mean is “QPR” – Quality to Price Ratio. But either way, the region of Chablis is currently the best source we know for white wines that give complexity, richness, and refreshment, not only for lovers of White Burgundy, but also for fans of white wines from anywhere in the world.

And this week, we are offering four great 2014 Chablis from Dom des Malandes an excellent “QPR” prices.

Changes in Chablis. The wines from the chalk and Kimmeridgian clay (found also in Sancerre) in this northernmost outpost of Burgundy (only Champagne and Alsace are farther North) have historically been thought of as “steely,” “flinty,” and “saline” – brisk, high-acid wines built for shellfish and lacking the richness, depth, and power found further south.

Chablis_Grand_Cru_vineyardsBut the combination of climate change (warmer weather) and rapid improvement in viticulture (lower yields and waiting for ripeness) mean that modern Chablis has elevated its quality to new heights even as its style has changed. And Chablis continues to mature earlier than wines of the regions further south in Burgundy – no bad thing for folks who don’t want to cellar wines for decades or who worry about premature oxidization. In fact, more and more, experienced Burgundy lovers are heading north for great white Burgundy at surprising value prices.

Lyne Marchive, Dom des MalandesMalandes: Wines You Need to Try. Domaine des Malandes has been in the Tremblay family for generations and has been run by Lyne Marchive since 1972. The wines have always been “solid,” but as winemaker Guénolé Breteaudeau has asserted himself since joining the Domaine in 2006, the wines have moved up the scale to “outstanding”! As Allen Meadows, who writes as Burghound, said after tasting the Domaine’s 2014s:

“I have said this before but it’s worth repeating that [these winemakers] continue to drive the quality … 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.” – Allen Meadows, Burghound

But, your window is closing. As Decanter magazine reported last week, “Chablis prices to rise as weather hits 2016 vintage.” Overall production will be off 50% and Malandes lost its entire crop.

Malandes’ 2014 releases are coming 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’ 2014s are compelling, captivating, and available to you while they last at substantial savings.

The (Deliciously) Bitter Truth about Vermouth

33933542 - red and white vermouth in a bar.

We’ve gotten more and more interested in vermouth over the past few years. But tasting the stunning Miro Vermut De Reus Extra Seco and Rojo from Catalonia, Spain, made us out and out vermouth fans. You can hear more about Miro Vermut in the video below and see all the options we have now – including the very handy 187 ml quarter bottles – by clicking here.

 

You may be asking yourself, What the heck is vermouth? Where did it come? When do you drink it? How do you drink it? How long can you keep vermouth? And, most important, what is the classic food match for vermouth?

Read on for answers to all these pressing questions!

What is vermouth? It’s a white or red wine that’s been fortified with neutral brandy to 15-20% abv and then flavored with an infusion of herbs, seeds, spices, berries, flowers and barks and then, almost always, sweetened a bit. The base wines are usually pretty terrible, having little flavor, harsh acids, and pretty low alcohol. The brandy is added to give the thin wine body and also help preserve it. And, the alcohol helps pull out the flavors and aromas of the infusion ingredients.

wormwood

The herb wormwood, often added to vermouth. The German word for this shrub,”Wermut,” gave us the name Vermouth.

Every vermouth maker has their own secret list of ingredients, but almost all vermouth gets a big dose of wormwood – specifically the shrub Artemisia Pontica that grows across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Wormwood is loaded with exotic flavors and aromas, but most importantly, it’s super bitter. While “bitter” doesn’t sound like something you want to have in your drink, it’s the magic that lets vermouth enhance higher alcohol spirits and makes vermouth on the rocks so refreshing.

Where did vermouth come from? The Greeks and Romans hit on the idea of adding botanicals to wine, including wormwood, back in ancient times. Doctors in China’s Shang dynasty (1250-1000BC) and in ancient India seem to have begun the practice of soaking herbs and roots in wine to create medicines. And, the Greeks started using wormwood in sweetened wine around 400BC because they thought the shrub would help upset stomachs (and it was too bitter to drink on its own).

But the practice of making “wormwood wine” to drink for pleasure emerged in Europe in the 1600s and was common in England by mid-century. The first sweetened vermouths came out of Turin, Italy, in 1786 and gained popularity in early 19th century France – where the German “Wermut” (for wormwood) evolved to “vermouth.” Once cocktail culture emerged in the mid-1800s, vermouth was soon made and drunk across Europe and in the USA.

19th Century Americans LOVED the flavor of vermouth and the typical pre-Prohibition cocktail often included two or three parts vermouth to one part of whiskey or gin. But gradually vermouth fell by the wayside here and abroad as more dry – i.e., less sweet – cocktails gained favor. Eventually, Winston Churchill defined the ultimate dry Martini: three parts gin plus a nod towards France.

Today’s fad for “craft cocktails” – which, as near as I can figure, means any cocktail that costs more than $4 per ounce – is bringing vermouth back into fashion. But, in Spain, it’s never been anything other than a daily treat.

When do you drink vermouth? Anytime you’d like a flavorful, refreshing sip of something tasty with a bit more kick than wine but low enough alcohol to keep you sharp! In Spain – the world’s largest consumer of vermouth today – “vermouth hour” is the time before 2pm lunch or anytime Sunday afternoons.

The Spanish didn’t invent vermouth, but they caught onto the concept pretty quickly once it arrived in the mid-1800s (and today grow most of the wormwood used in vermouth no matter where it’s made). The Catalan city of Reus quickly became the epicenter of Spain’s vermouth (or “vermut” in Catalan) production – in the late 1800s, the city’s largest producer actually laid pipes to the local train station to pump the stuff into tanker cars for shipment across the country.

Under Franco, the tradition of fer vermut – literally “to have vermouth” – fell by the wayside as wine and beer gained popularity, but vermut remained the pre-lunch aperitif of choice in rural villages and among factory workers. In every working class and small town bar, you’d find not a bottle of vermut, but a set of kegs and taps ready to dispense what was then the least expensive alcohol in Spain.

Then, about 15 years ago, Spain’s young adults re-discovered the pleasures of vermut/vermouth. Today, as Saveur magazine reports, fer vermut “is to Spain what grabbing an espresso is to Italy. It’s a social activity undertaken pretty much whenever over the course of daylight hours, preferably with a friend or three. The beverage is less an intoxicant than a way to pass the time. It accelerates your afternoon rather than ending it, unlike New York City’s excessive bottomless mimosas. In Spain, excess is not the point; enjoyment is.”

How do you drink vermouth? In a glass of some kind is always best (although those little 187ml Miro Vermut bottles do tempt one to just take a little nip). Otherwise, there’s not much to it. Vermut Rojo is made from a red wine base, is lightly sweet, and pumps out fun flavors of sweet red and black cherry, ginger, spice, and a hint of cola. To steal the slogan of a not-very-nice vermouth, “Vermut Rojo on ice is nice!” But, if it’s especially hot outside or you’d like to have more than one, there’s no harm in adding a splash of soda water and a squeeze of lime or lemon!

Most white vermouth is at least a little bit sweet and can be treated the same way. But Miro’s Vermut Extra Seco is a special treat that deserves special treatment. Because Miro uses only top-quality white wine for its base, this is the rare vermouth that needs zero added sweetener for balance. In fact, Miro Extra Seco is the only commercial vermouth in the world bottled bone dry.

Take it out of the refrigerator and pour it into a wine glass and you’ve got something like a more complex and biting Fino Sherry – loaded with savory notes of olive, bitter almond, and sea shell and delicious with just an olive dropped in the glass. But our favorite Extra Seco sip is to add equal parts tonic water – giving yet another dimension of bitterness and a hint of sweetness – and a twist or wheel of orange. It drinks like a very sexy, complex cocktail you had to go to bartender school to learn how to make. And, an 8oz drink has about as much alcohol as a beer – have two!

How long can you keep vermouth? Feel free to stock up and keep unopened bottles of any good vermouth – like Miro – in a cool, dark place for six months or a year. It’s pretty stable. Once you’ve opened it, vermouth’s life is somewhere between wine and whiskey. In a kitchen cabinet, opened vermouth begins losing some charm after six-eight weeks. In the refrigerator or your wine cellar, enjoy over the next 3-6 months.

What’s the best food match for vermouth? Pretty much anything savory or salty pairs very nicely with dry vermouth and slightly sweeter, richer Rojo is even pretty tasty with a burger. In Spain, you’ll find friends and family passing the Vermut Hour with classic nibbles like salted almonds, olives, and pickled or smoked clams, oysters, or anchovies.

But – and this is the very final reason we’ve come to love vermouth – the very most classic, delicious, perfect match for vermouth on the rocks or with a twist is: potato chips. Yum.

Feeling thirsty yet? If you’re in McLean on Saturday, July 9, come by the store between noon and 4pm and try Miro Vermut for yourself. You’ll have the chance to taste both the Extra Seco and Rojo straight up and with an added pour of tonic and twist of orange. We’ll even have some olives and potato chips to enjoy with the wine.

And, if you’re can’t come taste, check out our current selection of Miro Vermut right here. Let us know what you think!