Sassetti Pertimali Brunello – from Brunello legend Livio Sassetti

Doug and Sassetti

Livio Sassetti and Doug on our Spring 2018 visit to Italy

Livio Sassetti and his son, Lorenzo, make Brunello di Montalcino that tastes like Brunello di Montalcino – not super-Tuscan Chianti or red-berried Napa Cab. It’s a celebration of Sangiovese Grosso, modest in color and redolent of dark cherries, roasted strawberries, juicy wild berries, crushed flowers, fresh leather, and a kaleidoscope of sweet spices. There’s amplitude to spare (even at just 13.8% alcohol) balanced by juicy acid and firm tannin – perfect for pairing with steak tonight and cellaring for 20 years.

Sassetti Pertimali Vineyard

The Pertimali Vineyard on the famed Montosoli Hill in Montalcino

In short, it’s pretty much exactly the kind of wine Livio Sassetti has been making in Montalcino since he took over the family farm in the 1950s. In 1967, Livio and 10 other growers came together to create the Consorzio del Brunello di Montalcino, creating the first legal “Brunello di Montalcino” labels. And, in the late 1970s, he sold the family farm and purchased a 35 acre farm – Podere Pertimali – on the southern part of Montalcino’s great Montosoli Hill.

Montosoli is arguably the finest place to grow Sangiovese in the world, and Livio’s southeast facing marl, clay and sandy soils at 900 feet elevation are among the very finest slices of the hill. Since he arrived, very little has changed. The vineyards have always been farmed organically, the vines tended and harvested by hand, and fruit picked at the apex of ripeness – but while fantastic Sangiovese freshness and structure remained locked in.

Sassetti tonneauThe wines were made inside the tiny stone farmhouse already on the property when Livio arrived, a warren of corridors and small rooms now bursting with cement and steel tanks and giant casks. While Brunello’s rules have changed to allow shorter times in cask and small barrels have become popular, Livio’s Brunello still rests a full 36 months in large Slavonian oak tonneau.

For the past decade or so, Livio’s son, Lorenzo, has been the primary winemaker (and Lorenzo is moving production to a more modern facility a few miles away for the 2018 harvest), but Livio remains a constant presence in the vineyards, winery, and client visits. And, like his wines, even in his 80s, Livio remains a charming force that demands attention and embrace at table.

Whether or not you find the history compelling, I know you’ll love the wine. And at a time when Livio’s contemporaries and neighbors on Montosoli regularly charge $75-$100 plus for their single-vineyard wines, both the $64.98 bottle and $54.98/ea case price are compelling indeed.

sassetti brunello and glass

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Bodegas Borsao: Old Vines, Modern Quality

Bodegas BorsaoSpain’s Bodegas Borsao has been famous for delivering great values from the arid Campo de Borgia region for years. As Robert Parker explained a few years ago,

“This is a marvelous consumer resource for high quality wines selling at absurdly low prices. I often ask myself, if I had known wines like this existed when I began my career 33 years ago, would I have even considered trying to find great wines at low prices? This has been one of my “go-to” wineries for many years, given their relationship between quality and price. Once you taste these wines, you will probably ask the same question many people have – why do I need to spend more?”

The secret to Borsao’s success is a solid commitment by the 620 growers who own the co-op to grow and vinify the best Garnacha (called Grenache in France) in the world.

Small Crops, Intense Ripeness
Borsao windowTheir vineyards are all located on the chalky, stony soils of Campo de Borgia, where lack of rain and searingly hot summers force Garnacha to work hard to produce small crops of intensely ripe berries. Cool nights and old vines keep the ripe fruit balanced with fine acidity and a streak of refreshing minerality.

While the exact blend varies from year to year, the 2017 Borsao is mainly Garnacha – the grape the French named “Grenache” after it landed in the Rhone from Spain centuries ago. There’s usually a splash of Tempranillo and sometimes a dollop of Syrah, all coming from 15-25 year-old head-trained vines. The ripe fruit is fermented and aged entirely in temperature controlled stainless steel to capture the grape’s inherent freshness and vigor.

With Food, On its Own, or at Parties
borsao vineWhat does it taste like? Really, really good and with a touch more concentration, length and freshness than we’ve ever tasted here before. It’s a medium-bodied mouthful of dark cherries, raspberries, violets, and a touch of earthy licorice. There’s enough structure – mouthwatering acidity and fine-grained tannin – to make this a great “food wine” and allow it to blossom further for 2-3 more years.

But it’s round, rich, and just flat-out fun enough to open and enjoy anytime you want a guilt-free glass of red wine deliciousness.

And, if you’re looking for wine for a big party or a wedding, you’ll rest easy knowing that Borsao Garnacha is a crowd pleaser, bold enough for fans of “big reds” but finessed and easy enough for guests who want something lighter and softer. And, when you put it on the table with burgers, pork, lamb, or pretty much anything else, you’ll love how it opens up and complements most any food.

As critic Josh Raynolds said of the 2009 edition of Borsao Garnacha, at the $9 release price, “It sounds like a broken record, but this is another remarkable value from Borsao.” From $6.98/ea by the case, the value can’t be beat!

A Tale of Two Trade Wars: A Wine History in Cahors, France

The story of Cahors in the Southwest of France is a humdinger! If you’re interested in a bit of wine history – and how old stories can resonate with very current events – read on!

ch la caminade grapes

The Romans loved the dark black-fruited reds from Cahors.Enter a caption

Trade War – Roman Style
The Romans launched winemaking in Cahors in late Republic times, and by 70BCE or so, these dark, powerful black-fruited reds became fashionable in Rome itself. This upset growers on the Italian peninsula to no end, leading to complaints of unfair competition to the Emperor. In 92AD, Emperor Domitian responded in typical Roman fashion. No half-measures here: He simply ordered that all the vines of Cahors be uprooted and burned!

It wasn’t until year 276 that Emperor Probus – famed for his interest in agriculture and winegrowing – revoked the ban and encouraged replanting in Cahors. The Cahors wine business remained rocky during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but began improving in 630 when Saint Didier, Bishop of Cahors, took the lead in revitalizing winegrowing.

Cahors’ big break came in 1152 with the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henri Plantagenet, the future king of England. The wine known as “the black wine of Lot” was served at their wedding, and soon Cahors’ dark, strong wines became fashionable and highly desired in England. In the peak year of 1310, Cahors send 850,000 hectoliters of wine (about 9.5 million modern cases) to England through the port of Bordeaux, about half of all wine shipped there.

Cahors_Bridge

The Valentré Bridge of Cahors was completed in 1378, even as a trade war with Bordeaux continued.

And a Trade War with the Bordelaise
Which, of course, upset the merchants and growers of Bordeaux to no end! Because Cahors is warmer, sunnier, and less rainy than Bordeaux, the Bordelaise cried, “Unfair Competition!” and started looking for ways to disadvantage Cahors. Since all Cahors had to pass through Bordeaux’s port to reach England, they tried imposing a tax on “imported” wine – causing English King Henry III to issue a proclamation in 1225 ordering, “the authorities of Bordeaux not to stop nor to impose a tax whatsoever on the wines that the merchants from Cahors, under his protection, were bringing to Gironde.”

After Aquitaine reverted to France at the end of the Hundred Years War, the Bordelaise were freed to act, and in 1373 they imposed high taxes and other restrictions on all wines coming down-river from Cahors and the rest of the Southwest of France. Bordeaux’s lighter-colored “Claret” began taking market share from Cahors, and increasingly Cahors main export market was Bordeaux itself, where the “Black Wine of Lot” was used to give the lighter wines of the Medoc color and richness.

Climactic Tragedy, Pestilence and Persistence
Ch la caminade vineyard

From the 1400s to the late 1800s, a much diminished Cahors wine region soldiered on, selling blending wine to Bordeaux (although they soon planted their own Malbec), serving the Russian and Dutch markets (where dark, hearty wine was preferred), and – of course – drinking their wine at home.

In 1866, about 58,000 hectares of vines were still tended in Cahors. By the 1940s, there were fewer than 5,000 ha of vines remaining. Phyloxera’s arrival in the 1870s wiped out much of the Cahors vineyard, and the construction of railway links from Languedoc to Paris brought an ocean of equally dark (and less expensive) wine to Cahors’ traditional markets. An attempt to revitalize the region begun in the 1930s was stalled by WWII and then halted in its tracks by the brutal frost of 1956, which killed much of the remaining vineyard.

In hindsight, the 1956 frost – which wiped out many growers – was the salvation of Cahors. After phylloxera, much of Cahors had been replanted to higher-yielding, lower-quality varietals including French/American hybrids. Following the frosts, the hearty growers who remained dedicated themselves to replanting their vineyards entirely to Tannat, Merlot, and – overwhelmingly – the region’s own Malbec.

In recognition of Cahors’ long, distinguished history and rapidly improving wine quality, the region was awarded AOC status in 1973 and was poised to once again establish itself as a world-class wine region and the leading source of dark reds based on Malbec… Only to have the rich, plush Malbec wines of Argentina’s Mendoza Valley soar to fame! Leaving the wine growers of Cahors to once again hitch up their pants, put down their heads, and quietly get back to work.

The Wines of Ch La Caminade
Ch La Caminade winemakersThe vines and site of Ch La Caminade have been part of pretty much all of Cahors’ history. Until the early 19th Century, the property was part of a monastery of winegrowing monks. The name “La Caminade” means The Presbytery or curate’s house in local dialect and was given to the Domaine during these years. After the French Revolution, it passed into private hands until it was inherited by Antonin Ressès in 1895.

The Ressès family helped re-plant Cahors after phylloxera and following the 1956 frosts but sold their grapes to the co-op until 1973. When Cahors AOC was granted then, they decided to make and bottle their own wine for the first time. And 4th generation winegrowing brothers Dominique and Richard Ressès continue to run this 35ha estate today.

Still the “Young” Paul D

Paul DirederThis marks the 11th consecutive vintage we’ve encouraged you to try the wines of “young” Paul Direder – and the only reason we get to keep on using the “young” descriptor is that when we first met and tasted with Paul, he was only 17 years-old!

Paul grew up in a farming family in Austria’s Wagram region, watching his grandfather work the fields of grapes, grains and vegetables from infancy. As Paul likes to say, his first word wasn’t “mama” but “Dador” – “tractor” – something that fascinated him as his grandfather worked the farm and took him to equipment shows.

At the ripe old age of 16, Paul persuaded his mother to co-sign a lease with him and began taking over his grandfather’s vineyards. No one in the family had ever made wine commercially, so Paul persuaded his Wagram neighbor (and family friend) Anton Bauer to let him work in the Bauer cellars and learn. And, though Bauer, he met importer Klaus Wittauer just before he bottled his second vintage of Paul D Grüner Veltliner.

Lip-smacking, Mouthwatering Fun
Paul D Gruner LabelWe first tasted that wine, the 2008 Paul D Grüner, in the summer of 2009 and were immediately impressed with the big flavors, generous texture, and the stunning value – a very attractive $8.99 retail price for a full 1.0 liter of lip-smacking, mouthwatering fun! At the time, Paul spoke almost no English, so it took us a bit to understand why he wasn’t tasting the wine with us – at 17 years-old, he wasn’t legal! We’ve carried the wine ever since, though, and never been disappointed.

Over the course of a couple of visits with Paul at his tidy, pocket-sized Wagram winery, his continued growth in skill, confidence, and production were all immediately clear. Yes, he’s still a bit boyish looking (he’d certainly be carded at our store!), bursting with youthful enthusiasm, and lets his mother, wife, and charming baby act as hosts to a visiting group. But he also clearly knows what he wants to do and how to do it.

The common thread you’ll find in all Paul D wines is frank, fresh, fruitiness married to fine crispness and plenty of flavor and length. If you want to pay attention to them, there’s more than enough going on to hold you interest, especially if you care about texture and finish.

But, like Paul himself, all are really about enthusiasm, joyfulness, and fun. Which is a lot to get from $8.98!  (This is a Carryout Case Special for the weekend of July 27-29, 2018. No email, web or phone orders at this case price through the weekend.)

A New AOC for France, and for Plantevin ‘La Daurelle’!

While we love all of Philippe Plantevin’s wines, his special Cotes du Rhone Villages “La Daurelle” cuvee has always been our favorite. But a continuation of Philippe’s skillful winegrowing and winemaking – plus some changes triggered by the elevation of Philippe’s Village of Cairanne to AOC status – come together this year to create the best “La Daurelle” ever!

As you may know, France’s Southern Rhone region has four levels of classification:

  • Cotes du Rhone – a wine from anywhere in the Cotes du Rhone region
  • Cotes du Rhone Villages – a wine from one of the 95 or so hamlets judged to be a cut above the average CdR vineyard land; “La Daurelle” is in this category
  • Cotes du Rhone Villages with Village Name – Like Philippe’s Cotes du Rhone Villages Visan, from one of the 22 or so villages judged to be better still and to have a unique character or style
  • AOC/AOP – A village that stands on its own as one of France’s great terriors; think Lirac, Vacqueyras, Gigondas and – most famous of all – Chateauneuf du Pape.

Elevation from Villages to AOC Means New Name for La Daurelle
plantevin-sainte-cecile-bottle.jpgIn vintage 2016, after years of evaluation and regulatory approvals, the village where Philippe’s home, winery and main vineyards lie was elevated from Cotes du Rhone Villages Cairanne to AOC Cairanne. In celebration of this change, Philippe decided he wanted all of his wines to showcase their place of origin. So he’s decided to rename the wine we’ve always called La Daurelle – named for Philippe’s home in Cairanne – as cuvee Saint Cecile after the village of Sainte Cécile les Vignes where the vineyard is located.

With the name change comes a change in blend, as the lower-quality Carignan and sometimes difficult to ripen Mourvedre are dropped in favor of Grenache (40%) and a much bigger dollop of Syrah (60%). Everything else remains the same. The wine ferments in tank at warm temperatures and stay on the skins and seeds for up to 20 days to ensure generous extraction of color, flavor and tannin.

Then, to balance the big extraction, the wine ages in one to five year-old French oak casks, all about twice the size of a typical Burgundy barrel (500 liters). Larger, older, barrels don’t add any oaky flavor to the wine. Instead, they allow a slow, steady, exposure to oxygen bleeding into the wine through the wood to soften a bit while gaining rich, meaty, complexity.

Meet Philippe
philippe plantevinPhilippe may not be the flashiest winemaker in the Rhone, and his domaine north of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is easily overlooked. But, while Philippe is a pretty quiet, even modest, guy, there’s plenty of intensity and passion for making great wine here too. Philippe’s family grew grapes and made a little wine in the vineyards around the Southern Rhone village of Cairanne but sold all their fruit and wine to the local coop. In 1993, the young Philippe decided he could do better.

He and his wife bought an 18th century coach house (now lovingly restored) and built a very traditional Rhone winery there – a little stainless steel, but mainly concrete tanks for fermentation and aging. Over time, he acquired vineyards in Cairanne itself, in the surrounding town of Visan, and also to the south in Vaucluse, just outside the Cotes du Rhone AOC.

Philippe is a practical grape farmer, making minimal use of chemical sprays, training his vines low to the ground, and accepting the low yields needed for fine wine making in his rocky vineyards. Old-vine Grenache makes up the backbone for all of Philippe’s reds, with low-yielding, small-berried, Syrah adding color, meaty notes, and black fruits. In the winery, things are very traditional – long fermentations (10-30 days) in steel and concrete with regular pump overs to extract color and structure.

The resulting wines are very fine from top to bottom, but Philippe is too picky to bottle everything he makes. Instead, every year, he chooses his favorite tanks of wine to bottle with his label and sells the rest to top Rhone negotiants like Guigal. If it has his label on it, it’s because the wine is very, very good.

A Great Harvest – Southern Rhone Vintage 2016
Philippe’s are the first important Southern Rhone reds we’re bringing you from vintage 2016 – but they will not be the last. In a season of very sunny, warm, dry days and bitingly cool nights, 2016 in the Southern Rhone promises to be one of the great, great harvests. Some early comments from critics give you a taste of what to expect:

“These are wines that combine immense power (and sometimes alcohol levels) with elegance, perhaps most similar to the reds from 2010 or 1990. It will be a vintage to buy and cellar.” – Wine Advocate Issue 233

“The 2016s are on another level. The wines are beautifully concentrated and structured – on par with 2010 – yet have a more open, sexy, voluptuous style due to the larger yields. The tannin quality is beautiful, the wines have notable freshness and purity, their alcohol is integrated, and quality is incredibly high across all the regions. This is truly an extraordinary vintage.” Jeb Dunnuck (former Wine Advocate critic)

We’ll be showcasing top 2016 Rhone reds as they arrive. Many will be great wines. None will be more exciting or better value than this set of releases from Philippe Plantevin.

 

Sangiovese from Montecucco – A wine to savor, share, enjoy!

Sassetti Petimali estate

As I sat sipping the 2015 Sassetti Montecucco with patriarch Livio Sassetti at his famed Petimali Brunello estate back in May, I knew how much you’d love this supple Sangiovese this summer. Just like Washington, DC, today, it was a hot, slightly muggy day that made the prospect of tasting even great Brunello (and Livio’s 2013 Brunello is great indeed – as you’ll see this fall!) a bit daunting.

Before the first Montalcino wine, though, the Montecucco La Querciolina sloshed into our glasses – and, suddenly, the whole group was revived. Aromas of dark strawberry, cherry, violets, leather and cinnamon spice wafted from each glass. And those captivating scents turned into brilliantly fresh and refreshing flavors on the palate. The wine was at once juicy-fresh and deeply flavored, and the fine, silky tannins pushed the finish to fantastic length.

Being lunchtime in Italy, everyone immediately reached out and started gobbling still more of antipasti in front of us. (A mixed blessing, as we thought we were having a light lunch and weren’t aware that a glorious rice dish and Tuscan T-Bone steak were still to come!). No professional spitting here – this was a wine to be savored, shared, enjoyed.

sassetti montecucco bottle and glass summerAnd “savor, share, enjoy” is what Livio Sassetti’s son, Lorenzo, intends his Montecucco to be all about. Lorenzo is principal winemaker at the family’s famed Pertimali Brunello estate (although Livio remains very much involved!) where he makes some of Montalcino’s most exciting, classically-styled Sangiovese Grosso. But he and Livio purchased land in nearby Montecucco in 1999 to make a wine that was all about this fast emerging region’s unique character – and unique style of Sangiovese.

The Sassetti winemaking family is famous, with deep roots in Montalcino as co-founders of the Consorzio del Brunello di Montalcino, and one of the early producers of Brunello. Montecucco – a region that’s fun to say if still a bit obscure –  sits just west of Montalcino in a region.  The vines here are the same as in Montalcino, the large-berried clone known as Sangiovese Grosso. But in Montecucco, there’s more clay and mineral content in the soil than in Montalcino (courtesy of the nearby extinct volcano Monte Amiata). The minerality and larger day/night temperature swings bring out Sangiovese’s bright cherry fruit and floral notes while allowing tannins to ripen to silky smoothness.

Lorenzo gives this just six months in large Slavonian oak casks and then a bit of bottle age before release. Which locks in the super juicy, fresh fruit and allows the fresh violet, savory leather, and cinnamon spice notes to shine through.

With a light chill now, Sassetti Montecucco La Querciolina 2015 delivers a gloriously refreshing jolt of fresh cherry and cranberry juice fruit that will refresh and revive you on a warm summer’s day. By this winter, it will have taken on weight and power (without losing the smooth finish) and be ready for steaks and stews. At these special savings prices, you’ll want to stock up on enough to enjoy all year long.

Come by Friday and Saturday, July 14 and 15,  and taste for yourself. Then pick up some antipasti on the way home and get ready for a festive feast.

Rioja Modern and Traditional

Juan escudero VinsacroJuan 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
Vinsacro harvestAs 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 Garnacha (perhaps half the vineyard) plus Tempranillo, 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.”

Modern Quality and Care
vinsacro-grapesAmador 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 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 separately, 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.

Finally, 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. About 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.

vinsacro-riojaFrom 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 2015 such high praise (92 points) even at a curiously high reported $65 release price.

At the $24.99 regular price, Vinsacro Rioja Dioro 2015 is outstanding value in rich, ripe, powerful Rioja. At our $14.98 best price this week, it’s a better deal still. And when you take an extra $10 off just for signing up for our new website and ordering online? Well, that’s a superb stock-up opportunity on a classy, delicious, red you’ll enjoy for years.