A Sweet History: Austria’s Burgenland

burgenlandImporter and Austria native Klaus Wittaur likes to call Ernst Steindorfer “my garage-ist winemaker” both because of his small scale and his skillful use of oak aging on powerful reds. The winery is in the small town of Apetlon in Austria’s Burgenland region, southwest of Vienna and not far from Austria’s southern border with Hungary.

Burgenland was, for years and years, the poorest, most economically isolated, region in all of Austria – electricity didn’t reach most homes until the last quarter of the 20th Century! It’s also one of the flattest areas of Austria – a bump 80 feet high is called a “hill” here – and one of the warmest as hot breezes flow westward from the Pannonian Plain to the east. And, while daytime temperatures can soar, the long, shallow (only 3 feet deep!) glacial lake called Neusiedler See both cools the region at night and pumps out autumn fogs that cover vineyards near the lake.

burgenland-mapSeeing the Potential
Alois Kracher was the first to see Burgunland’s potential for fine wine, taking advantage of the alternating warm sunshine and chilly fog in lakeside vineyards to make sweet wines based on botrytis – aka “noble rot.” Kracher’s unique and exotic bottlings of Chardonnay, Scheurebe, Welschriesling, and, eventually, even red grapes like Zweigelt and Pinot Noir earned huge ratings in Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, etc. and helped spur investment and attention for Burgenland’s vineyards.

Ernst Steindorfer was part of the Kracher revolution, both as Alois Kracher’s friend and his winemaker for many years. But he also made wine for himself, starting first with his mother’s vineyards and selling wine in bulk before gradually expanding the estate to about 22 acres of vines and bottling roughly 5,000 cases per year.

Like his good friend Kracher, Ernst and his family make some brilliant sweet wines – from botrytized Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay – and a killer Pinot Gris we are still trying to get our hands on. The real pride and joy of the cellar are Ernst’s red wines.

Reds of Great Distinction
Once vineyards move far enough from the lake to escape fog, the daytime warmth and nighttime cool makes this perfect red wine country. And growers like Ernst have risen to the opportunity, firmly establishing Burgenland as Austria’s best source of reds. So why haven’t you heard of these wines before?

One reason: Austrian’s drink them before they can escape the country! Austrian’s love their own wines, love to visit and buy directly from winemakers, and are proud to order Austrian wine in the countries top restaurants and bars. The country only makes about 1% of the world’s wine and drinks 70%+ of its production at home. So, not much makes it here.

The Grapes of Austria
Another reason: Austria’s unfamiliar grapes can intimidate American drinkers more accustomed to popular “international” varietals – grapes that find vineyard homes in many parts of the world. Austria’s best grapes, in contrast, have evolved (or were created) to suit the country’s unique Central European soils and climate. The three most important are:

Blaufränkisch: The “fräkisch” in this grape’s name comes from Medieval Austrian’s assumption that any grape making good wine must have come from Franconia in Germany. It’s probably native to the region, though, and migrated to Germany (where it’s called Lemberger) later. It gives dark colored, fruit filled, brightly juicy wines that are easygoing fun when made in tank and develop more complexity and sophistication when aged in oak. Austria’s second most planted red grape and arguably its best.

St. Laurent: Another old native Austrian grape whose name probably derives from St Laurentius, patron saint of chef’s, whose day is August 10, around the time this grape starts to ripen. It gives aromatic wines of velvety structure and sour cherry fruit. There’s a faint resemblance to Pinot Noir, if with more acidity and structure, but no genetic relationship.

Zweigelt: The most widely planted red grape in Austria is also the one most often seen in the USA. It’s a different kind of Austria native, created in 1922 by crossing Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. It’s exuberantly fruity – almost like a cross between Gamay and Zinfandel – but can be a little simple on it’s own. When yields are kept low, though, and barrel carefully used, it can deliver delicious, if a bit exotic, wine.

Ernst Steindorfer grows and vinifies all three of these traditional Austrian red grapes and bottles each of them in two cuvees. One with limited/no oak offers up pure fruit, juicy textures, and easy-drinking value. The other version, the Reserve cuvees, gains extra structure and complexity from time in barrel. All are excellent – we especially loved the Blaufränkisch Reserve – but I’m not sure any are better than the ripe and supple cookout-friendly blend of all three – Steindorfer Apetlon Rouge.

steindorfer-apetlon-bottle-flag

Romanee Conti Style, Turley Zest

adrien-roustanThe first part of Adrien Roustan’s story is traditional enough. Adrien’s grandfather planted vines on 12 hecatres of steeply sloped vineyard in rocky Gigondas and the richer soils of Vacqueyras down the hill below. Both he and his son, Adrien’s father, just wanted to farm, so they sold their grapes to other winemakers. When Adrien was preparing to take over the family business, he decided to make wine.

But…no one in the Roustan family had ever made wine, so Adrien needed to learn. He started by enrolling at the winegrowing/making program in Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy. His 3 years there culminated with a stage, or apprenticeship, at the world’s most famous Pinot Noir house, Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanee Conti.

Adrien knew his rich, powerful, Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault vines made very different wine from Romanee Conti’s elegant Pinot Noir, so he next traveled to California to learn from America’s most experienced powerhouse winemakers, Larry Turley and the team at Turley Cellars.

Making Changes Back Home
Returning from California in 2009, Adrien had learned a lot about making wines both big and elegant. But what really impressed him was Romanee Conti’s and Turley’s commitment to organic and biodynamic farming – making great wine by nurturing healthy vineyards. So, Adrien converted his family vineyards to biodynamic farming in 2009 before making his own first vintage in 2010.

Production at Dom d’Ourea is still very small – even after growing to 20 hectares, Adrian bottles only 2,500 cases or so per year – but European praise was immediate. France’s prestigious Revue du Vin de France lauded Adrian as a “talented vigneron … full of promise.” Jancis Robinson described his 2011 Vacqueyras as, “Big – very big for its boots.” And, French merchant Terre de Vins listed the domaine as one of its “Coup de Coeurs” (“Most Favorite”) at Découvertes en Vallée du Rhone 2013, calling it “dynamique … an Eveready battery” and described the Vaqueyras as “fresh, fruity and structured … a great future for the domaine.”

With his fifth release of Vacqueyras, the 2014 vintage ($26.98/$24.98ea on a case) Adrien has clearly arrived. For the AOC Vacqueyras and Gigondas, his winemaking approach is simple: grow great grapes and then do as little to them as possible. Whole clusters are snipped from the vine during the cool of the morning, taken carefully to the winery and then layered into the fermentation tank. Once the natural yeast from the vineyard and winery starts the mass bubbling, the rising cap is punched down and broken up, releasing more juice and gently extracting color and ripe, silky tannins. 18 months rest in concrete tanks allows enough oxygen exposure to soften the wine without diminishing any of the luscious, ripe, fruit.

Just for Friends and Fun
dom-dourea-tire-bouchon-vin-de-franceTire Bouchon (12.98/$10.98ea on a case) is a bit different. Adrien’s grandfather’s plantings included not only the noble grapes of Vacqueyras – Grenache and Syrah – but also higher-yielding Carignan and two grapes not legally permitted in Vacqueyras wine: Aramon and Oeillade Noire. Both of these had gained popularity as high-yielding, “mass production” grapes following the phylloxera crisis of the late 19th Century, but neither makes serious wine and both are now on their way to extinction.

If Carignan, Aramon and Oeillade Noire weren’t good for “serious” wine, Adrien decided they could still make something fun. So he combined them with select lots of Grenache and Syrah, fermented them using the Beaujolais carbonic maceration technique to maximize fruit, and bottled the wine as a simple Vin de France.

What to call this fruit-filled, festive, red? Well, Adrien could tell right away that this was going to be the kind of wine that would be lined up for a party and have one cork after another pulled out to please the crowd. So, he called it Tire Bouchon – the “cork puller.”

He could have called it the “slurper” or “gulper” because that’s how we’re drinking it – a wine to pour heavy into a tumbler and knock back as the perfect companion to everything from burgers to fried chicken. A few of the (translated) comments from French wine site Les Grappes captures the essence:

  • “An accessible wine, typically welcome during an aperitif with friends.”
  • “Good wine for a picnic at the park in summer. Very generous in fruit, easy to drink.”
  • “Nose candy, easy and flexible, is drunk alone on grilled lamb or pork.”

Both d’Ourea Tire Bouchon 2015 and Vacqueras 2014 will be open to sample today and through Saturday. Come give them a try!

Amalie Robert: Who Planted a Cherry Orchard in My Vineyard?

amalie-robert-fallWhat happens with a pair of technology executives fall in love with Burgundy, decide to try their hands at making Burgundy-style Pinot in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and, one day, discover someone has planted a cherry orchard on their perfect vineyard site?

That’s where Ernie Pink and Dena Drews found themselves in 1999 as they surveyed a 35 acre cherry orchard perched just above the already famous Freedom Hill vineyard just west of Salem, Oregon. So, they did the only logical thing: purchased the orchard, harvested and sold the cherries, ripped out the trees, and started planting a vineyard.

Ernie and Dena are a fun (and funny) pair who definitely know when to be whimsical and how to have fun. But they’re dead serious about growing fantastic grapes and making great Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Viognier and even a bit of Syrah). The vineyard’s potential was immediately recognized by some of Oregon’s best, and for the first few years Steve Doerner at Cristom and Mike Etzel at Beaux Freres used Amalie Robert Pinot Noir in some of their highly rated wines. And Ernie extracted lots of education and advice as part of the price for the grapes!

Meticulous Elegance
amalie-robert-2010-6-packAt the end of the day, though, Ernie and Dena have learned to make wines that express their values and the character of this beautiful (if remote) site. Farming is done carefully with minimal chemical additions and lots of feeding and care for the soil and vines’ health. “The Great Cluster Pluck,” as Ernie likes to call it, is done by hand and in stages as each block and variety ripens. And if that means hanging fruit through rain and bird attacks and picking a week or two or three after everyone else…well, that’s what happens.

One of the things I love about Amalie Robert Pinots is that the extra hang time results is masses of great flavor, but not masses of alcohol. In warm vintages that means abv levels in the mid-13 to, at most, low 14% levels. In 2010 you’ll love the perfect ripeness and lush textures of each wine at elegant, very Burgundy-like, 12.4-12.9% abv.

Taking Risk and Time
Those great textures and smoky/spicy accents? That’s from risk taking and time. The risk-taking is in the form of whole-cluster fermentation (putting whole clusters vs. destemmed berries in the tank). It’s a technique Ernie and Dena admired at Burgundy houses like Dujac and mastered with trial, error, and some help from Oregon’s whole cluster guru, Steve Doerner at Cristom. Get it wrong and you have wines with too little acidity, not much color, and lots of green, stemmy tannin. Get it right and you achieve amazing velvet and mineral textures and loads of sweet spice perfume.

Learn more about whole cluster fermentation in this quick video:

 

The time comes twice, first in barrel – most of these wines spend 18 months in mostly used French oak vs. the 10 or so months more common in the Willamette Valley – and then in bottle. And that time pays huge dividends to us. Where most top Willamette Valley Pinot houses are showing 2014s and getting ready to release 2015s this fall, Ernie and Dena are just now showing the 2011 vintage of their top wines to mailing list customers. And 2010 is the current vintage for the few retailers, like us, who are able to get allocations of these amazing wines.

Featured Amalie Robert 2010 Pinot Noirs
As critic Josh Raynolds said last year, the Amalie Robert vineyard “is painstakingly farmed and yields are kept low so production of these wines is limited.” Now that Amalie Robert has settled in with a new local distributor, we should be able to get our share of these beauties in future vintages – the 2011s and 2012s I tasted with Ernie and Dena last year are certainly worth waiting for!

Meanwhile, since the last vintage we carried was 2009, we really wanted to show you their deliciously elegant 2010s and Ernie and Dena were willing to give us what they could of both, nearly sold-out vintages. So quantities here are even more limited than usual, and we’d strongly advise you to order a selection now and then come by and taste and get Dena to sign bottles on Saturday!

If you can’t decide, check out the 2010 Amalie Robert Pinot Six-Pack. It’s a great way to try some of each and save an extra 5%, too!

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