Bulgaria’s Vinous Battles

The Bulgarian wine industry has always shown immense promise, but history has not been kind, with disruptions ranging from invasions and world wars to communism and no-alcohol policies forcing the industry to rebuild … over and over again.

Bulgaria's Thracian Valley

From ancient times, the Thracian Valley region just north of Greece grew plenty of grapes and made plenty of wine, although periodic invasions by the Greeks, Macedonians and Romans disrupted trade. But when the Turks arrived in 1393, they outlawed winemaking and alcohol. Families continued making a little wine in their own cellars, but commercial winemaking was forbidden for nearly 500 years, until the Turks departed in 1878.

There wasn’t much time for the industry to get back on its feet before World Wars, communism, and nationalization of land once again knocked it down. Finally, by the 1950s, state-owned Vinprom began creating a series of modern wineries and encouraging the planting of “international” grapes like Cabernet and Chardonnay in place of native varietals. But the winemaking focused on quantity far more than quality.

PepsiCo Arrives
It was a soda company that provided Bulgarians with the connections to begin to make quality wine. As Master of Wine Dr. Caroline Gilby explains in the Oxford Companion to Wine, “Western expertise came with the men from PepsiCo, the giant American cola manufacturers. Eager to trade their soft drink concentrate for a saleable product, they provided links with California’s wine faculty at UC Davis … and other western wineries.”

Wine quality soared in the late 1960s, and by the 1970s, Bulgaria became the United Kingdom’s preferred source of great value, everyday wine. In the ’80s, even the US saw sharp increases in Bulgarian wine imports.

But once again, boom turned bust when Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership of the USSR and Eastern Block. Gorbachev launched a drive to reduce alcohol consumption and, under pressure, required Bulgaria to rip up huge tracks of vineyard (including some top sites) and set fixed grape prices regardless of quality. Not surprisingly, growers and wineries quickly exited the wine business in search of other, more profitable markets.

Following the fall of Bulgaria’s authoritarian government and a halting privatization program, the country entered the late 1990s with plenty of potential, but few resources.

Bulgarian Wine Re-Born (Again)
Fortunately, over the past 20 years, both money and expertise has been moving into the Bulgarian wine business in a slow and steady way, accelerating rapidly after Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007. Wineries face a huge challenge re-consolidating vineyards fragmented during privatization. Because ownership and boundary lines are hotly disputed, more than one Bulgarian winery pays multiple full-time staff just to manage vineyard purchases!

Wines from Bulgariana are a great example of the positive trends in Bulgarian wine. It starts with Jair Agopian, who purchased the Telish and Castra Rubra wineries in 1999 and began assembling quality vineyards. Agopian met super-consultant Michel Rolland during a trip to France and, in 2004, signed him on as the winery’s consulting winemaker. By all accounts, the wines started out pretty good and kept getting better!

The Next Chile?
We have two wines made by Bulgariana, which come to us due to the work of Robert Hayk, founder and principal of G&B Imports based here in the DC area. Having worked at the US Embassy in Bulgaria, Robert knew that there was fine wine in Bulgaria as well as outstanding value. This knowledge, combined with business experience with Merrill Lynch, meant he knew how to put together a business plan, find investors, and make great things happen.

Robert went looking for vineyards and winemaking partners in Bulgaria and connected with both Castra Rubra and Michel Rolland to help create Bulgariana. With older vineyards uncovered by Robert and winemaking support from Rolland, Hayk hopes someday to “turn Bulgaria into the next Chile.” Wines like these are a great start!

Vintage Differences in Barbaresco (and why the heck you should care)

Maybe it’s just us, but sometimes reading about the differences in temperature, rainfall, degree days, and all that jazz in different famous wine growing regions kind of makes my eyes glaze over. I don’t watch the Weather Channel for fun, either – I just want to know what the wine is like in the glass!

Well, in more northerly regions like Italy’s Piemonte, it pays to dig a little deeper. Because the historic towns of Barolo and Barbaresco are so close to each other and they grow the same grapes, you would think that what’s a good vintage for Barolo would be a good one for Barbaresco, and vice versa.

This turns out to not be true at all. Nebbiolo grown in Barbaresco generally doesn’t get quite as ripe as that grown in Barolo – this difference can account for a .5-1% difference in the final alcohol level in the wines. That’s enough that most of us can tell the difference in body and lushness.


Nebbiolo in Barbaresco
In Warm Vintages, a Barbaresco Advantage

You might think that this is a bad thing, and it sometimes is. If the weather is cool or there is too much rain at the wrong time, you can end up with thin wines that don’t taste ripe.

But in a growing region like the Piedmont that has experienced several very warm vintages in the last couple of decades, Barbaresco has a distinct advantage, and this became more evident than ever in the 2011 vintage, which was warmer than normal and blasted the vineyards with a heat wave in August. While in Barolo this kind of heat wave can take grapes from ripe to overripe, boozy and blowsy, in Barbaresco that little bump of heat is a good thing, and makes for wines that are fuller and more approachable when they’re young.

So while you won’t see a lot of crowing about 2011 as a vintage when it comes to the more famous Nebbiolo producers in Barolo, in Barbaresco it’s a vintage you shouldn’t miss. And at Produttori del Barbaresco, with their exacting standards and refusal to bottle single-vineyard wines unless the conditions are perfect, you won’t be able to buy single vineyard wines from them again until 2018!

Check out this line-up of Barbaresco, including three single-vineyard wines, with ratings ranging from 92 to 95 points from Produttori de Barbaresco, priced from $31.98 on a case. Now is the time to snap up a little piece of a beautiful vintage from one of Barbaresco’s best producers you may never have heard of.

Willamette 2014: The Juggernaut Vintage

willamettevalleyHere come the 2014 Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs, starting with two outstanding values from Patricia Green.

We sell a lot of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, probably more than just about anyone else in the area. In the 10 years I’ve worked here, we’ve journeyed together through vintages warm (2006, 2009), cool (2010, 2011), confusing (2007, 2013), and highly acclaimed (2008, 2012). But none of the past vintages prepared us for the gloriously ripe yet sublimely elegant Pinot Noirs coming from 2014. The wines are delicious now, will go longer than average in cellar, and – in a rare twist – are much more available than usual.

No New World wine region sees more year-to-year vintage variation than Oregon’s Willamette Valley. And, I’d argue that’s a good thing! It’s been well over a decade since the Willamette Valley had a “bad” year for Pinot Noir, and farming and winemaking keeps getting better and better – so the wines are always of very high quality.

But with very different weather from year to year, Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs are unique among New World wines in how they showcase differences in vineyard and vintage conditions. And the conditions of Oregon’s 2014 vintage were nothing if not unique!

A Couple of 2014 Puzzles
First puzzle: how could 2014 be Oregon’s warmest growing season ever even though it never got super hot? Yes, there were nearly 30 days of 90 degree or higher daytime temperatures, but nothing like the weeks of 100+ seen in 2009 or the hot drought of 2006. But, 2014’s nights were much warmer than usual. Normally, cool nights bring ripening to a halt and stretch out the time between fruit set in the spring and harvest in the fall. In 2014, the vines kept on chugging away all night long, meaning that growers spent all summer worried that berries would ripen too soon, before complex flavors could develop.

Second puzzle: how could having much bigger crop loads than usual be the key to high quality? Normally, Oregon growers try to limit their vines to about 2 tons of fruit per acre, cutting off excess grapes during the season to ensure that vines have enough energy to fully ripen the remaining fruit by harvest time.

In 2014, the season opened with a huge fruit set, giving some vineyards a potential crop of 4-5 tons per acre. As the warm season saw vines try to speed ripening along too fast, smart farmers decided that giving the vines more work to do than usual might help slow things down. So, instead of dropping half or more than half of the large fruit set, they kept 20-40% more grapes per vine hanging. Everyone assumed that ripening would slow as the weather cooled in September and that the extra fruit could be cut off then.

The good news: hanging more fruit did slow down ripening enough to let 2014 Pinot Noir develop plenty of flavor, generate silky sweet and ripe tannins, and avoid amassing too much alcohol. The better news: pretty much all of the fruit got all the way ripe, even the portion growers had planned to cut off!

The only bad news: with yields 20-40% higher than normal and almost no grapes eliminated during sorting, winemakers went crazy trying to figure out where to put everything!

2014 Power, Elegance, and Charm
So, after all of that, what should you expect from 2014 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir? In a word, “Yumminess.” As Oregon’s Ken Wright said in describing the vintage:

“2014 provided an abundance of perfectly ripe Pinot Noir. The wine exhibits great depth of color, intense and complex aroma and flavor. The textural profile is lush and balanced. Very beautiful … very fun!”

And, Oregon winemaker Patty Green’s partner, Jim Anderson, summed things up nicely as well:

“The wines in general do not taste like they are from a warm vintage, they are not big wines for the most part, they are by and large graceful, aromatic, nuanced and deeply complex wines. They are in great condition and our feeling is that they are going to be long lived and very serious wines that will happen to provide early term pleasure and satisfy both the hard core Pinot Noir drinker and those that are more casual with their varietal allegiances.”

I’ve tasted about 40 of the 2014s so far including finished wines and pre-bottling samples in Oregon last month, and my conclusions are similar. There is an immediate deliciousness to almost all the 2014s that captures your attention right out of the gate and can all too easily lead to uncritical glugging. You should try to avoid that, however, as there is more going on in these generous wines than you first realize. By all means, drink ’em young anytime you’d like a delicious, silky smooth, mouthfilling Pinot Noir by itself or with any Pinot-friendly food. But do try to give a few bottles some cellar time and watch how they get more complex and layered, even as they stay friendly and, well, yummy!

I’m not sure whether any Oregon winemakers would agree with me, but I find the 2014s to be a lovely cross between 2012’s ripeness and depth and 2010’s purity and elegance. If you want to have to work to enjoy a wine, then 2014 Willamette Pinot is probably not for you. Fine – that leaves more for the rest of us!

2014 Burgundy: For Drinkers and Collectors!

After years of crazy weather, short harvests, and very good quality, 2014 is a HUGE relief – if not especially easy for winegrowers. Yields returned to something closer to “normal” levels with no loss of quality, although the weather remained unpredictable.

The growing season started very early, with a warm spring getting the vines going about three weeks earlier than normal. The early growing season seemed promising, relaxed and abundant, at least until late June when a series of hail storms swept up and down the Cote d’Or, costing growers 10-30% of their fruit. Then, the weather turned cool and stayed that way through all of July and August.

The warm, dry spring followed by cool, wet summer, meant that the growing season lasted a bit longer than usual – instead of the typical 100 days from flowering to harvest, most growers ended up hanging their fruit for an extra week or event two. The fruit that came in during late September was ripe in terms of skins and seeds, but had a bit less juice and a touch less sugar than might have been expected.

Thick skins, ripe flesh, skins and seeds, plus moderate sugars came together in fermentation vats to create some of the most delicious, immediately tempting wines we’ve seen from the Cote d’Or since 2009.

As Allen Meadows (“Burghound”) said:

“I am avidly enthusiastic about the 2014 vintage in the Cote de Nuits…While it is true that the 2014 vintage is user-friendly in that in many cases the wines will be accessible young, I believe that it is also true that they are going to age extremely well. There is a beguiling freshness coupled with first-rate drinkability that makes the 2014s extremely pleasurable… Two of the aspects that I like best about the 2014s is their transparency to the underlying terrior coupled with their sheer drinkability. This transparency is enhanced by terrific vibrancy because the wines really do taste alive in the mouth…They’re ripe yet they are what the French call digest, or refreshing, where the first sip invites the next which is in fact what makes them so drinkable.”

Jean-Michel GuillonJean-Michel Guillon agrees with Burghound’s assessment, saying of his 2014s, “They’re generous and fleshy and easy-to-like though with good freshness and transparency. They’re the kind of burgundies that almost everyone likes because there’s really nothing not to like.”

One thing we especially “like” about Jean-Michel’s wines are the prices – unchanged from 2013! In a world where first-rate Cote de Nuit’s producers’ “regular” Bourgognes can often top $40, it’s refreshing to be able to enjoy the work of a true Burgundy master for comfortable prices like these.

Not-So-Temperate Toro

ToroLook down on the gentle hills, Roman bridge, and sprawling vineyards from the hilltop town of Toro and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Really? They can grow good grapes here?”

This extreme western portion of the Spanish province of Castilla y Leon is hot, barren, and dry. With summer high temperatures reaching 100 degrees and only 14 inches of rain annually, it’s very nearly desert. And, the high altitude (most vineyards sit at 2,000-2,500 feet above sea level) means that even summer nights get cool and that winters are bitter with mid-winter lows in the teens.

And yet, wine grapes have been grown here for 1000 years or so. With so little rainfall, early farmers adopted a strategy of planting their vines far apart – as much as 10 feet in all directions can separate vines in the stoniest soils. With these ultra-low densities, each grape vine can spread its roots broadly and deeply to capture the all too scarce rainfall.

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

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

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

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

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

From Just above Lucca, Tracing Roots to Napoleon

Lucca Hills - TenutaFrom one of the most interesting, even important, estates in Tuscany that you’ve probably never heard of, Tenuta di Vagliano Palistorti Rosso is simply a captivating wine for enjoying right now and for years to come.

Lucca native Moreno Petrini and his wife, Laura di Collobiano, purchased this 15th Century wine estate in 1991 with the intention of making enough wine and olive oil to pay the bills. With help from oenologist Saverio Petrilli, they quickly learned that their unique vineyard had too much potential to be a hobby.

The vineyard looks down at the walled city of Lucca and backs up to a large hill of the Apennine mountain range. The dead south exposure gives plenty of warm sunshine balanced by cool breezes blowing inland from the sea and cool air sliding down the hills from the mountains. The mountain and a river that runs through the heart of the property give Palistorti di Valgiano remarkably varied and unique soils. As in the rest of Tuscany, there’s clay here, but the chalk found in Chianti and Montalcino is replaced by rounded river pebbles and sandstone eroded from the hill behind the property.

Unique soils and weather demanded unique farming practices, and Petrini began converting his vineyards first to organic (1995) and then more exotic and demanding biodynamic practices in 2001. Petrini explains the change as part of a transition from passively “watching” the vineyards to actively “seeing” them. By all accounts, the change in vine health and fruit quality has been astonishing here. Even in extremely challenging vintages (like 2010) where neighbors lose 20-30% or more of their crop to rot and disease, Palistorti Di Valgiano’s vines thrive and ripen fruit beautifully.


Napoleon caused French varietals Merlot and Syrah to be planted here.

The French Invasion of 1802. Even with better farming, Sangiovese alone struggles to make a balanced wine, as the cool air sliding down the nearby mountains slows ripening compared to the sunny hills of Chianti.

Fortunately, Laura di Collobiano (who runs the estate today) has two complementary grapes to work with. Syrah thrives on the portions of the vineyard where soils come from fractured mountain rock and old river pebbles. Merlot loves the rich clay soils that dot the vineyard, while Sangiovese does best in the majority of the vineyard where river stones keep the clay from becoming too hard packed.

Planting these French varietals to help soften Sangiovese’s hard edges became popular in Chianti in the 1990s, but these “invaders” have a longer history in Lucca. When Napoleon invaded France and established the Republic of Italy (soon the Kingdom of Italy) in 1802, he and his court despaired of finding good wine to drink – or at least familiar wine. Most of the Napoleonic zone of control was too cool for French grapes, but the hills and plain near Lucca – on the southern edge of the zone – seemed promising.

So, Napoleon and his step-son, the titular “King”, required growers in the Lucca area to plan French grapes and soon discovered that both Merlot and Syrah showed promise. When the Kingdom ended in 1814, the French grapes remained, gradually occupying niches warm enough for red wine vines but not quite right for Sangiovese.

Thanksgiving Wine Strategies

Thanksgiving tableIf you are trying to find the very best wines to pair perfectly with your traditional Thanksgiving dinner, we have one piece of advice: Give up. If your family puts turkey, stuffing, sweat potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce on the table all at once and just lets everyone dig in, then you simply cannot pick one wine that will “pair” – meaning enhance and be enhanced by – the huge range of flavors and textures on everyone’s plate.

There’s a certain freedom in knowing you’ve already “failed” to pick the perfect pairing wines for Thanksgiving: instead, you get to pick out what you want to drink! The only caution: traditional turkey day foods can make some wines taste bad, or at least a lot less good than they should. For the most part red Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec) and oaky wines in general (including Chardonnay) get a little beat up by cranberry sauce and sweet winter vegetable casseroles.

We’re here and ready to help you pick out wines that will make your Thanksgiving as tasty and fun as can be, so don’t hesitate to ask us for help. And, if you’re looking for a little general guidance, here are a few different wine strategies along with selections for each.

Light and Refreshing
If you feel Thanksgiving dinner is almost too much of a good thing, lighter, more zippy wines can help keep you refreshed and going strong through all the big flavors. Wines with good fruit but a bit less alcohol and a bit more acidity do the trick here. For whites consider a zippy Pinot Grigio or Riesling, perhaps with a little touch of sweetness from Germany or dry examples from Austria. For reds, cool-climate Pinot Noir will certainly shine, whether from France, Oregon, or even high-elevation coastal California sites. And, of course, Gamay from Beaujolais is a classic. See our Light and Refreshing Recommendations here.

Thanksgiving redGo Big or Go Home
You’ve got a lot of big flavors on the table, so why not put equally big flavors in your wine glass? While it’s best to avoid a lot of oak – trust me: oak and cranberry are not a happy match! – you can still find plenty of heavyweight choices that will go toe-to-toe with the food. For whites, Alsace or Oregon Pinot Gris are classic Thanksgiving choices, but we’ve had just as much fun with big, later-harvested Grüner Veltliner and even buttery Chardonnay. And rich, creamy, spicy Gewürztraminer is always fun.

For reds, Bordeaux varietals – Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, etc. – don’t usually shine, but richer California Pinot Noirs will do well, as will Zinfandel, Spanish Priorat, and even Brunello di Montalcino. We’ve drunk all of those over the years, but Chateauneuf du Pape remains our favorite big wine for the big bird. See our Big and Bold Recommendations here.

Champagne Pink PourBring on the Bubbles
When in doubt, drink fizz! Especially sparkling wines that have a bit of richness or even nuttiness to complement the fine fruit and refreshing bubbles. Top-notch Cava and even sparkling Grüner Veltliner work great here, as do Champagnes with a little toasty oak or a bit of pink color. There are plenty of great choices here, but none better than Jean Vesselle Brut Oeil De Perdrix NV! See our Best Bubbly Recommendations here.

American Classics for the Classic American Meal
It’s an American holiday, so drinking American wines makes a lot of sense! For reds, Pinot Noir from California or warmer vintages/sites in Oregon is always a great choice, and Zinfandel is a classic Thanksgiving match. And, don’t forget “Rhone Ranger” blends featuring Syrah, Grenache and more! For whites, Oregon Pinot Gris certainly works, as does spicy Gewürztraminer and low or no-oak Chardonnay. And, don’t forget the bubbles! See our All-American Recommendations here.

Make Aunt Martha Happy
Most families have at least one person at the Thanksgiving table who is an infrequent wine drinker who can be challenged by some traditional Thanksgiving wine selections. Given them a glass of something soft, fruity, and possibly even a tad bit sweet and watch them smile! If you think they’d like something on the drier side, try a good value, no-oak, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Gamay or Pinot Noir. On the slightly sweeter side, German Riesling is often recommended, and it can work but can also be a tad too acidic for some. A richer Gewürztraminer is great, as are white blends that include a touch of viognier and/or muscat. And, it’s hard to go wrong with fizzy Moscato or the utterly addictive semi-sweet, semi-sparking, red Fracchia Voulet. See our Easygoing Recommendations here.

Save Your Money for Black Friday!
Maybe you’ve got quite a crowd for turkey day or perhaps you’re saving up for a bit of Black Friday binge shopping. Sometimes you need a bunch of delicious Thanksgiving-friendly bottles at a budget price. We’ve got you covered with everything from crisp Pinot Grigio to gutsy Cotes du Rhone and beyond. See our Best Value Thanksgiving Recommendations here.