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!

Loess is More for Grüner

josef-bauer-familyAs you might imagine of a fellow who named his pink wine “Joe’s Rosé,” Josef Bauer isn’t a pretentious guy. But the casual manner and friendly, welcoming, smile don’t mean that Joe is casual about his winemaking! Especially in the outstanding 2015 harvest, Joe turned out some truly outstanding wines.
Joe is part of the fourth generation of Bauer family members to grow grapes and make wine from the steeply sloped hills of Austria’s Wachau region in Danube valley between the towns of Melk and Krems.
bauer-vineyardThe river Danube created the valley beneath Wachau’s hills, but the soils are something unique. During the Ice Age, strong winds blew westward from Eastern Europe, bringing with them clay and chalk ground fine by ancient glaciers. This fine light gray sand stuck to the Danube Valley’s hills, gradually building up layers of “loess” anywhere from a few inches to a 10+ meters deep.
Water and Minerality
gruner-veltliner-grapesAnd, for Wagram Grüner Veltliner, “Loess is More”! Loess holds more water and has a higher mineral content than most other soil types, and Grüner needs both to ripen to perfection.
Where the soils are almost all Loess, the wines are richer, riper, and show more fat texture on the palate. Where ancient Danube river pebbles are mixed in, Grüner develops a more intense minerality and keeps a leaner, more vibrant, texture. Where loess is least and deeper alluvial soils prevail, red varietals thrive.
Joe and his family have had plenty of time to get to know the character of their steeply sloped hillside vineyards and to learn to make wines that let each site shine through beautifully. Farming is practical and reflects the site and vintage characteristics. In damp years, cover crop grows between rows to limit the vines’ water uptake – in dry years, the rows are plowed to get more water into the soil. Chemical use is kept to a bare minimum, and grapes are pruned, thinned, and harvested by hand.
It’s a small, family operation that lets Joe sell most of his wine in Austria without much effort. The small trickle that reaches the USA flies under the critics’ radar – and, to be honest, snuck in under ours as well.
It took a morning last year spent with Joe in his vineyards and Wagram tasting room to discover just how good his wines are especially in Austria’s brilliant 2015 harvest. Katharina was our favorite of all, and it’s a “do not miss” bottling while it lasts.

A Benchmark Storms Back – Burgundy’s Michelot

Writing in 2008, Burgundy expert Clive Coats said, “Nearly 40 years ago, when I was studying for the Master of Wine examination, one of my tutors recommended two estates which produced yardstick white Burgundy: Michelot in Meursault and Sauzet in Puligny-Montrachet.”

That “yardstick” status came from the hard work of Bernard Michelot, a fifth generation winegrower who modernized the winemaking, increased the use of new barrels, and tended his large set of vineyard holdings with meticulous care.

Inheritance Issues
In the 1990s and early 2000s, though, the estate failed to keep up with the ever-improving quality of its neighbors. As Bernard aged, he was forced to split up the estate between his children and sell off some vineyards to deal with France’s punitive inheritance taxes.

Daughter Genevieve Michelot took seven ha and founded Michelot Mere et Fil. Son-in-law Jean-Francois Mestre and his wife, Odile Michelot, kept Domaine Michelot but were forced to place some of the wine and vineyards in a separate cellar, Domaine Mestre-Michelot. The separate cellars and Bernard’s continued presence (he passed away earlier this year at age 99) perhaps served as barriers to further innovation.

Reuniting and Re-energizing

michelot-familyOver the past decade, though, Domaine Michelot has come roaring back. Jean-Francois has been allowed to merge the two separate cellars – so all the wine is Domaine Michelot now. He and his son Nicolas have converted all of their vineyards to organic farming. Grass is allowed to grow between the rows to stress the vines and then plowed under to enrich the soils. Most chemical treatments have been dropped and copper and sulfur use have been reduced substantially.

In the cellars, Mestre has slightly increased the amount of new oak used – around 33% for the 1er Cru wines – but also moved to larger barrels to prevent too much oak flavor in the wine. All of the wines – from Bourgogne Blanc up – spend 12 full months in barrel before wracking by gravity into tank. There they rest for an additional 4-6 months to harmonize and settle before bottling.

The result of all these changes: superb wines that are once again “textbook” (or “yardstick” if you prefer) Meursault. Rich, full of ripe fruit, creamy in texture with plenty of vibrancy, and laced with plenty of toasted buttered nut goodness. The 1er Crus are majestic and, if young, promise a decade-plus of drinking delight. The Meursault Narvaux is at once sleek and sexy; hard to imagine anything more delicious with lobster or morels. And the Bourgogne Blanc – made entirely from vines grown within the village of Meursault – is simply the most outstanding white Burgundy value we’ve seen in years.

Folks, do not miss the Michelot wines while they are available at these superbly discounted prices.

Why 2014 is the White Burgundy Vintage to Buy
michelot-mersautA reasonable question for any Burgundy lover to ask: Should I buy extensively from the currently offered vintage or save some room for harvests yet to come. For the 2014s, here’s the answer to that question given by Burgundy’s foremost dedicated reviewer, Burghound: “I would again urge you to strongly consider buying the 2014s.”

Why? First, the wines of the best producers in general, and Michelot specifically, are outstanding in a classic (if ripe) white Burgundy style. Burghound’s overall assessment of the vintage applies here in spades:

“They are classic middle weight white burgs that possess excellent freshness, solid but not high alcohols and acidities along with terrific transparency to the underlying terroir. They are also exceptionally refreshing and energetic which makes them fun to drink as one sip invites the next…The 2014s are quite finely balanced as they combine reasonably good levels of dry extract that generally does a fine job of buffering the moderately firm acidities. As such they should be approachable young but should reward mid-term cellaring.”

Price Increases to Come
Second, while the jury is still out on the quality of the 2015s (which I suspect will be much better than Meadows projects) and 2016s, we know one thing for sure: white Burgundy prices will skyrocket over the next 24 months. While growing demand in Asia is certainly part of this story, the bigger issue is simple: vintage 2016 was nothing short of a disaster in terms of quantity produced.

Over the past few months, I’ve spoken with multiple importers plus growers in Gevrey-Chambertin, Chablis, Pouilly-Fuisse, Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, and Meursault. All have said the same thing. The quality of fruit in 2016 is superb. The quantity is down 30-80% – and for white Burgundy, losses of 70-80% are common.

“Traditional” vs “Modern” in Rioja – Which is Which, Anyway?

rioja-mapThe rise, fall, and re-birth of Rioja is one of the wine world’s most fascinating stories, and it’s almost always told in terms of the French and oak. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but there’s also an interesting bit of history on the shelves here in the store right now in the form of a Rioja made from a traditional “Vidau” vineyard. But, is the wine itself “traditional” or “modern”? Let’s see.

As is the case in most of Spain, people have been growing grapes and making wine in Rioja for centuries. The Romans probably introduced winemaking here, the Moors tolerated it, and the monasteries that sprung up after the expulsion of the Moors certainly encouraged further growth. But Rioja remained physically isolated from the rest of Spain and Europe, so the wines here were simple, everyday reds to drink instead of water or use at Mass.

grape-leaf-phylloxeraAt First, an Escape from Phylloxera. In the 1860s, as powdery mildew spread across Bordeaux and even more in the 1870s as the great vineyards of France were falling to the American vine louse, phylloxera, Bordeaux winemakers headed south in search of grapes they could use to satisfy France’s exploding demand for barrel aged wines.

When they got off the train in the sleepy Rioja town of Haro, they knew they’d found their spot. No, there was no Cabernet, Merlot or other Bordeaux varietal vineyards here – too hot and dry. But the native Tempranillo grape was pretty pleasing, especially when blended with zesty Graciano and fruity Garnacha. Soon trainloads of oak casks full of Rioja wine were leaving the Haro station daily for Bordeaux and points north.

Then, Disaster. Phylloxera reached Rioja in 1901 just as the vineyards of France were in recovery, and the Bordelaise immigrants hopped on the last trains out of Haro with no plans to return. Rioja winemakers saw demand and prices fall, accelerating their switch from barrels made from tight-grained French oak (as was used in Bordeaux) to looser-grained, less sophisticated, and much less expensive American oak.

And as the vines recovered and demand remained soft, Rioja winemakers took to leaving their wine in barrel longer and longer – holding off on buying bottles (and paying taxes) until the wine was actually sold. And so the “traditional” model of Rioja emerged: Tempranillo-based blends aged for years in American oak casks, ending up with light orange-tinged color, plenty of acidity, modest fruit, and a noticeable dollop of vanilla and green herb (American oak’s signature).

The 1980s and 90s. Then, the economic and wine boom of the 1980s and 1990s re-introduced Rioja to the wine world and once again drew French (or at least French-trained) winemakers back to the region. With a new vision of “quality” based on Bordeaux and Napa standards in mind, wineries began limiting and even eliminating all grapes other than Tempranillo – the darkest, most powerful Rioja grape.

They began lowering yields and picking later for more ripeness, aging the wine in smaller French oak casks, and getting it into bottle much earlier with darker color and much more intensely ripe and rich black fruit. Rioja’s breakthrough vintage was 1994, when Robert Parker bestowed extravagant ratings on big, rich, “modernist” wines from Artadi, Muga, Remelluri and more.

Of course, there was a backlash, starting with outcries against “anonymous, international-styled” wines and passionate defenses of more “traditional” producers like Lopez de Heredia and La Rioja Alta.   Lost in the shuffle was the notion that the “new” wines might have been more like late-1800s, Bordeaux-influenced Rioja than “traditional” tea and tart cherry American oak-aged wines were!

Rioja Today. As in much of the wine world where modern vs. traditional debates have raged, today Rioja is on the whole finding a sensible blend of winemaking styles and approaches. Want fat, concentrated, velvety and sleekly French-oaked points pigs? Plenty of those to choose from. Want tart and tangy almost orange-colored traditional wines? They’re there, too.

But most of Rioja’s wines fall somewhere in the middle, offering pretty, delicious, fruit framed with enough acidity and oak to remain clearly recognizable as “Rioja” vs. anything else.

rioja-vineyardTradition and Modernity in The Vineyard. One of the things we love about this week’s featured Bodegas Vinsacro Rioja Dioro 2010 is that it, and its winery, do a great job of capturing the essence of Rioja’s remarkable journey and highlight an often overlooked element – the role of vineyards and blends.

Juan Escudero began making Rioja wine in a small cave carved out of a hillside in 1852, well before the French invasion. The family continued winemaking and growing through the years, with Juan’s grandson, Benito, moving into Cava production in the 1950s. His children returned to Rioja and under the leadership of Bordeaux-trained brother Amador founded Bodegas Vinsacro around the turn of this century.

They planted about 30 acres of vines in Rioja Baja in 1996, but the key to the success of this very modern winery was a small, very old, and very, very, old-fashioned vineyard owned by the family for 120 years. It’s called Cuesta la Reina and it was planted around 1945 (70 years ago) on the stony southern slope of Mount Yerga between 450 and 800 meters elevation.

An Old-Fashioned Vineyard. As was customary at the time, the vineyard was planted by taking cuttings of another old vineyard and grafting the canes onto new rootstocks – a process called massal selection. And, as was customary in Rioja for centuries before the current modern revolution, that old vineyard was planted to a mixture of vine types including Temparnillo, Graciano, Monastrell and Bobal.

As in 17th and 18th Century Bordeaux, this blend of grapes was less about achieving the perfect blend in the finished wine than about insurance: if growing conditions caused problems with one varietal, there was at least a chance that the others would ripen. When it was time to harvest, the whole vineyard was picked at once and the wine’s final blend was whatever happened to come off the vines. In fact, the traditional name for this style vineyard, “Vidau,” means “ready to pick.”

vinsacro-grapesModern Quality and Care. Amador and his brothers cherished this old vineyard, but also began applying some modern farming ideas. First, they converted to completely organic farming to help the soil regain its health and keep the old vines thriving. Then, they began to pick each varietal separately as they ripened fully. Tempranillo gets picked first, usually in the first week of October. Then Garnacha (from a 20 year-old vineyard nearby) comes in late October before Graciano in early November and then, last, Mazuelo and Bobal.

As if four separate harvests weren’t expensive enough, the grapes are sorted twice, once in the vineyard and then on a vibrating table in the winery before they go into the vats. After fermenting seperately, each varietal ages for 12-14 months in 100% new French oak casks to both soften tannins and add a touch of spice without losing fruit or adding harsher American oak influence.

vinsacro-riojaFinally, Amador creates the decidedly old-fashioned Rioja blend that will become Dioro. About 50% of the final wine is Tempranillo – compared to 80-100% at most “modernist” estates. 20% is Garnacha (for hints of red raspberry) and 10% each Mazuelo and Graciano (for vivid acids and cherry fruit). Monastrell (earthy) and Bobal (licorice and plum) make up the rest of the blend. Only the very best barrels of wine from Cuesta la Reina go into Dioro, with the rest of the vineyard’s wine being blended into other bottlings.

From organic farming to multiple harvest passes, double sorting, new French oak aging, and strict selection of only the best lots, this is an expensive way to make wine. Which is why Wine Advocate gave the 2010 such high praise (92 points) at its $46 release price.

We’re selling it for a good deal less right now – like $14.98/ea by the case! Click here to see all the details and to drink a little Rioja history instead of just reading about it.

A Handy Guide to Festive Fizz

champagne glassesThough we’re fans of bubbles all year long, there’s something special about ringing in the new year with a glass of something festive and fizzy.

Unfortunately, because sparkling is usually reserved for celebrations, it’s a misunderstood category – what the heck does Grand Cru mean?  Is vintage better than non-vintage?  And how do you open the stuff without putting someone’s eye out?

Firstly, true Champagne can only come from the tiny region of Champagne in Northern France, and must be made in the traditional method and meet certain quality specifications.  Everything else is sparkling wine.  But being Champagne doesn’t automatically make a wine good, and being a mere ‘sparkling wine,’ doesn’t make a wine substandard.   It’s New Years, though, so let’s concentrate on Champagne.

Vintage or NV? The first distinction to make with Champagne is between vintage and non-vintage.  Non-vintage is the most common style, and usually the least expensive and most consistent.  That ubiquitous yellow bottle is an example of a non-vintage bottling.  Usually labeled with an ‘NV,’ non-vintage Champagne is a blend of a selection of base wines (still wine that hasn’t become fizzy yet) from several vintages.  The master blender at a given Champagne house uses his judgement and palate to create a consistent style from year to year, and this blending method helps him do this.

Vintage Champagne is Champagne made from a specific years’ harvest, just like most of the still wine we’re used to.  In Champagne, it’s usually made only in exceptional years and meant to showcase differences in vintage character, as opposed to the style-of-the-house like non-vintage bottlings.

“Grand Cru.” When you see a designation like “Grand Cru” on a bottle, like you would with some of these delicious grower Champagnes, that means that all of the grapes that went into the wine come from villages in Champagne with the highest quality ranking.  In Champagne, the villages are ranked, as opposed to, say, Bordeaux, where the producers are ranked, or Burgundy, where the vineyards are ranked.

And what do we mean by “grower?” Historically, grape growers in Champagne sold their grapes to big Champagne houses, usually under long-term contracts. These Champagne houses then made the Champagne, blending cuvees to produce their unique style of Champagne, year after year (and spending money marketing  that brand). Over the years, more and more growers are making their own Champagnes. These can be better deals, because this eliminates a level in the production chain, and often, the grower doesn’t spend as much on marketing and packaging.

How to Open a Bottle. Many people shy away from Champagne not only because of the expense, but because of stage fright when it comes to opening the bottle.  There are a few different methods to opening sparkling wine, but the two most important things to remember are to always point the wine away from people (and anything breakable!), and to make sure the wine is nice and cold.

And remember, the object is to keep as much of the fizz in the bottle as possible, so you want a quiet hiss as opposed to a loud pop.  Here’s a video on how to properly open sparkling wine. Wishing you wonderful celebrations for the New Year!

Finding the Good Stuff: The Big Business of Red Blends

grape-harvestRed Blends are one of the fastest growing categories in the wine world, but David Jeffrey’s Cab-Merlot blend from Sonoma’s cool Chalk Hill AVA shows how much diversity exists in this category and how misunderstood it is.

Nielsen called red blends one of the fastest growing segments in the wine business, reporting $900 million in sales. But the kinds of red blends that account for this dramatic growth are a far cry from a handmade, structured red blend from a traditional array of grape varieties.

Avoiding the Dumping Ground 
Because this style has become so popular, ‘red blends’ have become a dumping ground for jammy, cynically made, kitchen-sink blends of whatever wineries can get a good deal on, pump full of Super Purple, and dump into a bottle with a cute label.

At a big-box store looking to grab something for a potluck or gift exchange? (we forgive you) Do yourself a favor and stay away from anything that calls itself something like “Handsome Stranger” and features a list of grapes as long as your arm that you’ve never heard of going together before.

A History of Growing Together 

So how do you know that you’re getting an elegant, traditionally made wine and not a gimmicky critter bottle? Look for grape varieties that have a history of growing together. Calluna winemaker David Jeffrey trained with superstar winemaker and consultant Alain Raynaud at Ch Quinault l’Enclos in Bordeaux.

When he planted his Chalk Hill estate in 2005, he decided to plant all five traditional Bordeaux varieties because his experiences in Bordeaux showed him how well these grapes work together.

Wines that come from a specific place are another hallmark of real wine. Jeffrey maintains that his red blends are simply wines that reflect their site, rather than being specifically Left or Right Bank Bordeaux style. Chalk Hill’s white volcanic ash soil and cooler temperatures in his hands give wines of quiet, elegant power that promise years of pleasure ahead.