Five Ways to Make Thanksgiving Wine Pairing Easy

Thanksgiving tableWe’ve been posting Doug’s tips for Thanksgiving on Facebook. Here are all five … from “lighten up” to “give up” to “sweet success!” Whatever you choose, here are some fool-proof strategies for picking great bottles to share with family and friends before, during, and after the big meal:

Lighten Up! – Well, that’s good general advice for a day that’s about being thankful for all the gifts of family, friends and the year. In wine terms, though, it means balancing the heaviness of traditional Thanksgiving feasts with lighter, refreshing wines. For whites try minerally Riesling (dry or lightly sweet), crisp Italian whites, or something more exotic like Txakoli. For reds, elegant Willamette Valley Pinot Noir will be a winner, as will good Beaujolais (NOT Nouveau), zingy Northern Italian reds or – a favorite of ours – Mencia from Spain’s Ribera Sacra.

Power Through – It’s a big meal, so match it with full and fleshy wines bursting with bold flavors. American Zinfandel and California Pinot Noirs are the classic suggestions here. But bold Rhone reds like Chateauneuf du Pape and Cotes du Rhone are just as much fun. You can find great value in Spain’s Tempranillo and Monestrell grapes or add a bit of luxury by going with powerful Priorat or even majestic Brunello di Montalcino.

Bring on the Bubbles! – It’s 11 am, the oven is cranked, pots are simmering on the stove, maybe you’ve just come in from setting up the turkey fryer – just imagine how good an ice-cold glass of fizz will taste! Sparkling wine is welcome at every table all year ‘round. Maybe start with some friendly Prosecco or Cava pre-dinner, then step up to rich, toasty Champagne to enhance stuffing and sweet potatoes. And nothing will make the dinner table look more elegant (or those way too heavy mashed potatoes go down easier) than pretty pink rosé fizz in every glass.

Give Up – Look, here’s what every wine professional knows: No wine is a really good match for the cacophonous spread of sweet, savory, tangy and salty foods on the traditional Thanksgiving table. While it’s not obvious how oaky California Chardonnay, rich Napa Cab, or savory matured Bordeaux will pair with your Thanksgiving dinner, who cares? It’s a feast. Eat as much as you like and drink whatever the heck you want to – just be thankful you can!

Finish with Sweet Success – The turkey has been demolished, dishes are piled up waiting to be washed, and only crumbs remain in the pumpkin pie plate. As you settle down to digest and savor the day, one last sip of something sweet is the perfect treat. Port, sweet Chenin, tangy Madeira, subtle Sauternes – any and all will bring an unexpectedly luxurious and delightful close to Thanksgiving Day!

Want to see some specific suggestions in each of these categories? Just visit our CBC Holiday Wine Selections page online and you’ll find our staff favorites for enjoying on Thanksgiving Day and beyond. Or just stop by our give us a call. We’ll be thankful we had the chance to make your Thanksgiving Day just a bit tastier.

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Terra Alta – “Baby Priorat”?

Clua VineyardTerra Alta is just southwest of the much more famous Priorat region, about 100 km west of Barcelona in Eastern Spain. This is arid, rocky, and mountainous territory that immediately begs the question – why would anyone try to make wine here?

But we know the Romans grew vines here and there is some suggestion winemaking started even earlier than that. The traditional Terra Alta wine was white and “rancio” (a nice way of saying oxidized and sour). Until the 1980s, though, this was mainly co-op country with growers focused mainly on quantity rather than quality.

Why Not Us?
In the 1980s, forward-looking growers in Terra Alta began to notice the critical acclaim (and high prices!) garnered by their neighbors to the aast in Priorat and asked themselves, “Why not us?” Growers had secured DO status in 1972, but revised the DO rule in 1995 to increase the region’s focus on red varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.

In many regions, we think the addition of Cabernet and other “international” varieties is a bad thing, often warping and undermining traditional wine styles in pursuit of big scores and “international style.” In Terra Alta, though, Cabernet has shown itself as an adept partner to Garnatxa Negre (“Grenache” in Catalan), adding structure and complexity without overwhelming the wine’s essential sense of place. In other words, the better wines of Terra Alta taste like they are from Spain, not Australia.

Xavier Clua Capturing the Essence of Terra Alta
xavier Clua familyIf Terra Alta is one of the most promising wine regions in Spain (and it is!), then Xavier Clua has to be one of the most promising winemakers.

The Clua family has been making wine for more than four generations, but Xavier is taking things to an entirely new level. Xavier worked in the family vineyards from his childhood, but left home and earned a degree in oenology in 1994. He then broadened his horizons further by working at several Chateaux in Bordeaux. He returned to Terra Alta with a new, somewhat paradoxical, conviction – that by modernizing his family’s vineyards and winery, he could produce honest, authentic, wine that married world-class quality with distinctive Terra Alta character.

So, he went to work. Blessed with 30-40 year-old Grenache vineyards, Xavier worked to improve his family’s plantings of Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah. The old-vine Grenache vineyards were converted from bush-vines to run along a trellis wire, allowing longer shoots and yielding smaller, more intense, berries. Xavier used temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation vats to allow longer, slower, alcoholic fermentation and ensure controlled malolactic fermentations. Finally, he began working with small French oak barrels, learning how to gain the maximum benefit from wood aging without overwhelming or masking his wine’s sense of place.

Clua Millennium bottle

Clua Millennium – Power, Purity, Place
Xavier Clua views Mil.lennium as his top wine, the apex expression of his ethic, work and vineyards. And the wine has been very, very, good since we first encountered the 2005 back in 2009. Those early (for us) vintages showcased the power of Terra Alta, emphasizing richness, deep fruit, oak spice and intense, gripping, finishes. They were big, bold, wines that delivered what we (then) thought of as the essence of Spanish wine.

Over the past few years, winegrowers and makers across Spain have been exploring how to move beyond the pure power their old vines and hot, sunny, days easily give. More and more, we see fine Spanish wines that match ripeness of fruit and power of structure with something new: freshness.

Xavier, I think was a bit ahead of this curve: his wines have always matched ripeness with fresh, vibrant, structures. But the 2013 Mil.lennium seems to capture this balance better than ever. Yes, it’s a big wine with plenty of palate impact. But it’s also pure (not thick), clear (not muddy), spiced (not over-oaked), and fresh (not heavy or plodding). It certainly grabs your attention from first sniff and sip. But it will hold and deepen that attention as you move from one glass to the next. A delicious accomplishment you will not want to miss.

A Wonderful Valencia Surprise

Pago Gran with glassSo super-Spanish importer Jonas Gustafsson shows up at the tasting table one day and says, “I’ve got some really exciting wines from Valencia.” Now “exciting wine from Valencia” is a bit like “jumbo shrimp” or “military intelligence” – words that don’t seem to go together. After all, Valencia is baking hot, bone dry, and mainly turns out coarse, heavy, thick reds for the bulk trade.

I was skeptical.

But leave it to Jonas to discover Pago Casa Gran, an estate that does pretty much everything the exact opposite way from anyone else in the Levante. Founded by Spanish wine industry veterans in 2006, they farm their old vines organically – actually beyond organically as they have adopted the incredibly stringent Delinat guidelines for soil health and biodiversity.

The Grapes That Make Sense
Unlike international-style, consultant-driven, wineries in Jumilla and Alicante, they grow only the grapes that actually make sense for Valencia: Monastrell (Mouvedre), Syrah, and Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet) – no Cabernet Sauvignon to be seen. In a region where most everyone sprays herbicides to kill off “weeds” and ensure all of the limited rainfall goes to their grapes, they encourage extensive cover crops (year-round where possible) to protect the soil and naturally fix nitrogen (so no fertilizers needed).

In bulk wine production, growers here usually either do pretty much nothing to their vines – minimizing labor costs – or aggressively pull leaves from the vines so that groaning high yields of grapes can bake their way to ripeness.

Careful Vineyard Work; Gentle, Natural Fermentation
At Pago Casa Gran they work their vineyards all year long, thinning bunches and shoots and leaves so that balanced yields of grapes can ripen fully without developing cooked or dried fruit flavors.

They harvest by hand and plot and grape varietal, allowing them to get perfect ripeness and tailor each fermentation batch to the grape and soil type. Where others add cultured yeast and enzymes for consistency and extraction, at Pago Gran Casa they allow the yeast from the vineyards and winery to work on their own, developing complexity and sense of place. And, instead of large, bulk, fermenters that have to be pumped full of grape juice and then pumped out again to barrel, they use small tanks and a crane – lifting each fermenter up to allow the juice to flow out naturally and gently when it’s done.

Hard work, great vineyards and growing the right grapes all come together in these three fantastic wines from Pago Gran Casa. All have plenty of rich, ripe, fruit – we are in the south of Spain, after all! – but deliver it with remarkable freshness and complexity. If you think Spanish wines have to be heavy, thick, and overly oaked, these will change your mind.

And, if you love Spanish wines and appreciate Jonas’s other selections – well, then, Pago Gran Casa is about to become another in a long line of favorites. You can find out more about them on our website. Don’t miss them!

Pago Gran Wines

 

Serious Chianti Players Have a Little Fun

Il Bastardo LabelWe’re enjoying the crazy label on our Carryout Case Special This Week, and chuckling at the fact that this great Sangiovese deal with the silly label comes in … a wood case! Here’s the story behind the wine …

At their Fattoria di Basciano estate in Chianti Rufina, the Masi family has made authentic, juicy, fresh Chianti just east of Florence for three generations. Practice clearly makes perfect, because Wine Advocate lavished praise over their new, estate-grown, Chiantis, calling them “one of the rising stars of Rufina.”

Renzo Masi FamilyAbout a decade ago, the family started a second winery called Renzo Masi to purchase fruit from friends, neighbors with, as Wine Advocate explains, put an “emphasis on value wines with vibrant territorial personality.” We think they do a great job and are proud to have Renzo Masi Chianti Reserva 2011 on our shelves right now – a very nice Chianti value for $15.

Now, enter Robert Shack, founder, president, and chief wine guru of HB Wine Merchants. Shack has been an important importer for years, representing the likes of Michel Chapoutier’s Bila Haut, Peter Zemmer in Alto Adige, St. Urbans-Hof in Germany, and Fattoria di Basciano from Chianti. Plus, Bob has never been afraid to go out and look for values on his own – we’ve loved several vintages of Clos Robert (as in Robert Shack) Cabernet Sauvignon over the years.

So, when Bob was looking for an even more aggressively priced Chianti-like red from Italy, it was only natural that he’d approach young Paolo Masi, winemaker at Renzo Masi for help. Renzo spread his grape-buying net beyond Chianti to little villages and obscure vineyards across Tuscany – all the places that have the right soils and climate to create delicious Sangiovese, but lacked the winemaking skill or Chianti name to make it happen.

Then, he made a cheerful, all tank Sangiovese for Bob to bring to the American market at a bargain basement price.

What’s With the Fat Guy? And the Wood Case? Now, there’s a lot of low-priced Sangiovese on the market (although not very much that’s anywhere near as good as this one). So Bob decided that a bold label and memorable name would be in order. Where the idea for the plump guy with a thin mustache and slicked hair sitting on a stool came from, we can’t say. And, the less thought given to the colorful name, the better.

But the wine is really good, a big mouthful of juicy Sangiovese fruit with more than enough bright cherry acidity to cut through the red sauce and cheese on your pizza or plate of lasagna, but ripe and supple enough to simply sip while the pasta is still in the water. Add in the very attractive $9.99 price, and you’ll see why this has quickly become the most popular Italian red in the store.

So, here we have a popular, great priced, great value, Italian red that’s easy to get people to try, pulls in lots of repeat customers, and makes money for everyone involved for $10 bucks. So a few years ago, someone – the folks at Renzo Masi? Robert Shack? A marketing consultant? – for some reason decided something needed to change. Perhaps a wood case would work?

We had fun sharing the 2013 Il Bastardo in wood case with you back in 2015, although the fun was short-lived (we sold out in about 2 days).

When we found out they were offering it in wood again, we doubled our last order and piled it up high. It makes for a fine chance to lay in some sip- and gift-worthy Sangiovese at a screaming value $6.98/ea case price. Come by, give it a try, and we’ll roll the wood case out the door for you!

Focus on Farming: Domaine Girardin

Marco Caschera Dom Girardin

Dom Girardin’s Marco Caschera and Eric Germain have pushed this estate toward greatness.

While it still carries the founder’s name, by the mid-2000s, Vincent Girardin had largely turned over responsibility the Domaine to GM Marco Caschera and winemaker Eric Germain. Since Girardin retired in 2012, Caschera and Germain continue to push this once very good estate forward towards greatness.

Under Germain’s leadership, the Domaine has moved away from the fleshy, super-ripe, and heavily-oaked style of whites that first brought it fame in the 1990s. The focus now is first and foremost on farming. The Domaine itself owns and tends about 50 acres of vines across Burgundy and has access to additional vineyards owned by trusted growers. Vineyard work is as natural as possible, following organic and biodynamic principles as much as Burgundy’s fickle climate and weather allows.

Yields are now modest due to careful pruning and thinning of the crop during the growing season. Grapes are harvested by hand and sorted twice – once in the vineyard by the pickers and then again in the winery by hand and – since 2016 – a modern optical sorting machine.

Vincent Giradin signGetting the Fruit to Bottle. In contrast to the winery’s original style, Germain’s focus now is on getting his fruit to bottle with as little manipulation and handling as possible. For Chardonnay, that means no destemming before pressing – because knocking the berries off the stems opens the grape to the risk of oxidization before fermentation. Instead, whole clusters go directly to the press were the juice can be gently extracted and flow by gravity directly into tank for settling.

From tank, the thick, fresh, juice flows by gravity into French oak barrels for both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation. Oak is important to developing richness and depth to Chardonnay, but Germain does not like the flavor of wood, so most wines see 10-15% new oak (enough to replace aging barrels) and only the very top, most concentrated, wines get as much as 30%.

Once the wine is in barrel, Germain….waits. Other than keeping each barrel topped up to make up for evaporation, the wine simply sits on the fine lees of fermentation for 14-18 months of resting and maturation. When the wine is ready, the cellar team simply knocks the bottom bung out of the barrel and allows the clear wine to flow out, leaving the milky sediment behind. Bourgogne Blanc – because of the amount made – requires a little pumping, so it sees a light filtration before bottling. Everything else goes naturally from barrel to blending tank to bottle.

All that’s nice, of course, but what really matters is what you’ll find in the bottle when you get it home. And that’s DELICIOUSNESS! Sure, these are super-sophisticated wines of terrior, complexity and minerality. But they are also flat out fun to drink right now and built to keep on improving more. Come, taste, and stock up while you can!

2015 Burgundy from Guillon: Intense Wines from Intense Men

Last March, I found myself walking from Domaine Guillon’s chilly cellars to lunch with Alexis Guillon. We’d just finished tasting 2016 from barrel (looking great!) and the 2015s from bottle. “Just how special is vintage 2015?” I asked. Alexis told me he’d been talking to his father-in-law (also a winegrower) and other older growers in the village about the same question. “They told me that once in a lifetime you experience a vintage like this. 1959, 1947, 1929 – 2015 is like that, they told me. Perhaps the greatest vintage I’ll ever see.”

This is the eighth time I’ve written about the new vintage from Jean-Michel Guillon. By this point, most of you know that these are the hardest working, most talented, and least compromising winegrowers in all of Burgundy. Now 30 years since he stepped off a train in Burgundy with no vines and no winemaking experience, Jean-Michel farms

Jean Michelle and AlexisJean-Michel and his son Alexis work the vineyards themselves (especially in August, when other winemakers take vacation just as the vines reach their most critical stage). They demand nothing less that perfectly ripe fruit, which allows them to make long, slow, intense fermentations running 3-5 weeks – extracting tons of flavor and only the most suave, ripe, tannins.

Then they age their wines in the finest French oak money can buy. After Domaine Romanee-Conti and the Hospices de Beaune, Jean-Michel and Alexis are the single biggest buyers of new French oak in Burgundy ever year. Where growers who pick less ripe fruit and extract less during fermentation can find new oak overwhelm their wines, Guillon’s juice is so intense and deep that it needs the softening only new oak can give and absorbs the woody flavors with ease.

It seems to me that sometime around vintage 2011 or 2012, Jean-Michel and Alexis found the perfect match of forest, cooper, and toast level for each vineyard and cuvee they make. So with the breathtaking fruit of 2015 came into the winery, they were ready to produce the best wines they’ve ever made.

What Are The Wines Like?
Guillon WinesThe easy way to talk about a new vintage is to say, “It’s like xxxx” or, perhaps, “A cross between yyyy and zzzz.” I don’t think that approach really works in understanding the 2015 Guillon reds.

Yes, it’s definitely true that 2015 is a great vintage at Domaine Guillon and the quality of the wines certainly should be compared to 2002, 2005, 2009 and 2010 here. Both Wine Advocate and Burghound have this as the finest vintage in Burgundy since 2005. Tanzer says it reminds him of 1990 and that many growers think it’s a better, longer-lived, version of 1985. And, as I mentioned, Jean-Michel and Alexis think 1959 and 1947 are appropriate benchmarks.

At the end of the day, though, Guillon’s 2015s are not exactly like any recent vintage. They are every bit as ripe as in 2005 and 2009, but the fruit flavors are fresher, move vivid and vivacious. They match 2005 and 2010 in sheer quantity of tannins, but the 2015s are so much more silky smooth as they finish. In fact, the most common word I find in my tasting notes is “silk.” In some cases it’s silk flowing over a fine breeze of ripe, juicy, vivacious fruit. And in others it’s a silk glove adding finesse to the iron fist inside. But whatever else you may say about Guillon’s stunning 2015s, you’ll have to agree that they have amazingly silky textures.

They are also more detailed, precise and delineated than any young Guillon wines I recall tasting. Yes the Gevrey 1er Crus are dense, deep, and super-intense and need some time to open up and strut their stuff. But even at the high-end, there’s a fantastic purity and clarity to the flavors that run right on through the long and generous finishes.

Best of all, I think Tanzer’s comments about the early drinkability of 2015 red Burgundy overall applies here as well. Most of these wines are delicious right now (although some need an hour or two of air) and are easy to taste and enjoy at table. And the supple tannins and lovely balance of fruit, earth and spice means you’ll probably be able to check in on their development with pleasure anytime you’d like. Unlike the 2005s (and some 2010s) that have shut-down hard, these 2015s are likely to stay open and delicious across most of their development.

What to Buy?
The easy answer: “Buy all of them and as much as you can!” Unfortunately – and as we warned you last year – the 30% decline in yield in 2015 and disastrously short 2016 harvest coupled with exploding global demand for Jean-Michel’s wines means that these 2015s are more expensive than in the past. All remain substantially under-priced relative to the Guillons’ neighbors and our prices are more than competitive. But, still, we realize choices must be made.

Feel free to call us and we’ll be happy to develop recommendations to fit your personal tastes, cellar preferences, and budget. But if you’re only buying one Guillon 2015, make it:

  • Guillon Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Champonnets VV Cuvee Margaux 2015 – From 90 year-old vines, Jean-Michel only bottles the old vines separately in years so great that the rest of the Champonnets cuvee can stand the loss. Only the fourth time this has ever been made – the others were 2002, 2005 and 2009 – and only 75 cases bottled. Named for Jean-Michel’s mother, it’s dense, powerful, a bit chocolaty and very, very, long. I waited until Jean-Michel had consumed a bit of his own wine at our wine dinner before asking for 10 cases of this. You will not find it elsewhere.

Other wines to pay special attention to:

  • Guillon Fixin Hauts Crais 2015 – Less dark, dense, and structured than the other wines in this offer, the 2015 Fixin is a joy to drink right now and is just going to get better. It’s very vivid and fresh with ripe red berry fruit and a mouthwatering finish. This is fantastic value and there are a few magnums, too.
  • Guillon Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Les Champeaux 2015 – The other 1er Crus usually capture more attention, but Champeaux is a really, really, beautiful wine in 2015 with fine minerality an excellent length.
  • Guillon Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru La Riotte 2015 – Always one of the more sexy wines of this set, in 2015 it’s a bit more trim and shows the fantastic silky purity of the vintage but still has plenty of generous fruit. Not as firm or earthy as the Gevrey wines, but really fun.
  • Guillon Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Petit Chapelle 2015 – This normally a wine you really have to work at to taste. With Grand Cru-level concentration and structure, it can be hard to penetrate young. In 2015, Burghound says, “while it would be infanticide to open one early, this just makes one feel like drinking it.”

You’ll see all the wines listed on our website with further descriptions and pricing. Mix/match among these bottling for best six- and twelve-bottle savings.

Before Chateauneuf: A Little History of Lirac

Lirac galetLirac’s 1,700 acres of vineyard are essentially the other half of Chateauneuf du Pape. Lirac sits on the West bank of the Rhone river, opposite Chateauneuf. The climate and subsoil are essentially identical to Chateauneuf, and – like Chateauneuf – most of the vineyards are covered in large, rounded, stones called “galet” left behind by the Rhone when it filled the entire valley in ancient times.

When the Papacy arrived in Avignon in the early 1300s and began searching out sources of wine for communion and celebration, Lirac was quickly identified as the source of the very finest wine in the region. We know that Pope Innocent IV paid a premium for the 20 casks of Lirac he purchased in 1357.

Lirac’s Fame
Even after the Pope’s returned to Rome, Lirac’s fame as the Rhone’s best wine continued to grow. Both King Henry IV (late 1500s) and Louis XIV (1600s-early 18th Century) regularly served Lirac at their courts. From Lirac’s river port of Roquemaure, the region’s red wine reached England and Holland by the late 1500s and by the end of the 1700s Lirac was, as the Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “a much more important wine center than Chateauneuf du Pape.”

With high demand came the temptation for fraud, and unscrupulous winemakers throughout the Rhone – including in Chateauneuf – often tried to pass their “inferior” wines off as Lirac. To help stamp out this fraud, in 1737 the king of France ordered that casks shipped from Roquemaure should be branded “CDR” – for Cotes du Rhone – as a sign that they were authentic and of the highest quality.

Lirac thrived as the Southern Rhone’s premier wine region right up until the 1860s. By the end of the 1870s, though, the vines were almost all gone and the economy in ruins. When Rhone wines began to return to fame and fortune after WWII, it was Chateauneuf that took the lead with Lirac only gradually recovering as a source of everyday rosé priced below the better known wines of neighboring Tavel.

The Accidental Introductin of Phylloxera
A large part of the blame falls to an unnamed winemaker at Lirac’s Chateau de Clary. In a well-meaning experiment with native American grape vines imported from California, he introduced the North American vine louse called phylloxera to Lirac’s vineyards in 1863. Own-rooted European grapes had no resistance to the pest, and soon vines across the region began to wither and die. Phylloxera eventually spread across all of Europe, cutting wine production by 50-80% as it expanded until growers discovered how to defeat it by grafting European vinifera vines onto American lambrusca root stock.

Lirac, like the rest of the Rhone Valley, began to replant and recover at the beginning of the 20th Century, only to be set back by economic crisis, WWI, and increased competition for everyday red wine from Algeria and the South of France. As in neighboring Chateauneuf, growers began banding together in the 1930s to establish quality standards and promote their region. But, while Chateauneuf was able to complete the process and achieve legal recognition for its rules and “brand” by 1937, Lirac moved more slowly and was unable to complete the process before WWII brought an end to wine region creation. “Lirac” didn’t receive its formal recognition until 1947.

With its head start, better marketing, and – perhaps – decision to ban rosé in the appellation, Chateauneuf steadily improved its reputation and demand throughout the mid-20th Century. With more demand came higher prices, and with higher prices came the ability to invest further in quality in the vineyard and winery. Lirac growers lagged and increasingly turned to less expensive rosé wines that could be made in large quantities and turned into cash immediately after the vintage. By the 1980s, Lirac was best known in the wine world as a source of everyday red Cotes du Rhone and as a good value alternative to the more expensive pink wines from neighboring Tavel.

Fortunately for us, several vigneron continued to understand Lirac’s potential and were willing to invest and take risks to return the region to fine wine status. Christophe Delorme at Domaine de la Mordoree, Henri de Lanzac of Chateau de Segries, and Alain Jaume of Grand Veneur led the charge and, today, these three remain benchmark producers who are helping to return Lirac to the fame it once held.

To Try: Dom Grand Veneur Clos de Sixte Lirac