What to Expect from Northern Rhone Syrah

Cote Rotie vineyards

The steep vineyards of the Northern Rhone provide unique terroir for Syrah

The Syrah grapes Stephane Ogier grows on the steep hills North of Ampuis are, genetically at least, from the same Syrah vines planted along California’s North Coast, in the Southern Rhone, and even in Australia (where it’s called “Shiraz”). But where warm-climate Syrah explodes with lush (often jammy) blue/black fruit, delivers mouthfilling alcohols (14.5-16%), and can be swaddled in oaky vanilla and spice, Syrah from the Cote Rotie neighborhood is something else again.

Much like the Cornas and St. Joseph reds from Vincent Paris we introduced you to last year, Ogier’s L’Ame Soeur Syrah 2011 is Syrah with Burgundian elegance, freshness, and minerality. The fruit is pure, rather than lush, and features fresh, even tangy, red and blue berries and plum. While the aromas and flavors are decisively ripe and intense, the alcohol is a trim 12.5%. And the wine wears its year in French oak (20% new) with restraint, showing a hint of spice and the silky tannins that only a spell in barrel can bring. It’s delicious, food friendly, and sure to improve over the next decade or so.

Northern Rhone versus the Rest of the World. Why is Syrah from the Northern Rhone so different – many would argue more interesting and delicious – from Syrah grown anywhere else in the world? The key is that subtle and complex concept the French sum up by the word “terroir.”

Most of the land along the Rhone River between Lyon and Valence is too cool to ripen Grenache, the Southern Rhone’s top grape, and too warm for Burgundy’s Pinot Noir. It’s also mostly too cool for Syrah as well, except in places where very special conditions obtain. First, the soils need to be rocky, loose, and low in clay so that water drains quickly and the vines send their roots down deep for moisture and nutrients. Second, each Syrah vine needs to receive unobstructed access to the northerly sun’s light and warmth, which means vineyards need to run up and down steep hillsides so one vine doesn’t block the sun from others.

Tannic Structure Without Harshness. You’ll find sites that fit these conditions dotted along the hills that hug the Rhone River, most famously at the majestic hill of Hermitage in the south and along the super-steep slopes of Cote Rotie in the north. In these schist and stone-laced vineyards, Syrah vines develop ripe skins, seeds, and stems that give tannic structure without harshness. And, the grapes develop layers and layers of perfume and flavor at lower alcohol levels and with more vibrant, fresh, acidity than can be found anywhere else in the world.

Stephane Ogier’s L’Ame Soeur Syrah comes from vineyards like these on low but steep hills below Cote Rotie and just north of the town of Ampuis. And, as Robert Parker noted, the wine showcases all of the best attributes of the Northern Rhone’s best terroirs. Dark in color, beautifully perfumed, layered on the palate with ripe but tangy fresh fruit, and finishing long and fine, this beauty marries the character and power of Syrah with the elegance and grace of a great red Burgundy. And, while it lasts, it delivers all of that at a very attractive price!

Champagne, Cava, Cremant – What’s The Difference?

champagne glassesWe get lots of questions about the names and terms used for different sparkling wines, so here’s a quick primer for anyone who is feeling a touch confused.

The big name in the field is Champagne, a label that used to be applied to many different kinds of fizz. Today – after years of negotiation and some fairly aggressive litigation by the Champenoise – the “Champagne” name is restricted to wines that:

  • Come from the Champagne region of France
  • Are made from seven authorized grapes (but mainly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and the red Pinot Menieur)
    Get their bubbles from a secondary fermentation that takes place in bottle
  • Rest on the lees – dead yeast cells – from that secondary fermentation for at least 15 months for non-vintage or 30 months for vintage dated wines

The story of how Champagne was first created and popularized is long and winding and full of myth (no, Dom Perignon did not “invent” Champagne – he tried to stop it from fizzing!), but it’s ended up with Champagne holding the title of, arguably, the best sparkling wine in the world and certainly the most expensive. So while drinking “real” Champagne is a treat – and something we all should do more often! – it’s not surprising that many other sparkling wines have emerged to try to slake our thirst for fine fizz at more reasonable prices.

Sparklers from Italy, Spain and the U.S. Many Americans start their sparkling wine adventure with crisp, fruity wines from Italy like Moscato di Asti or Prosecco. We love them both, but neither uses Champagne grapes or even the Champagne method to create fizz. These wines undergo secondary fermentation in a large tank and are then bottled with the fizz already in the wine. It’s a less expensive process that won’t give you the same texture or toasty flavors found in méthode champenoise wines.

The best of Spain’s sparkling Cava wines can deliver much more Champagne quality at a fraction of the price. These wines are made using the méthode champenoise (although they’re not allowed to use that term on the label – nothing to suggest competition with Champagne is allowed!), and can show some of the creaminess and yeasty, toasty notes we love in Champagne. But Cava is usually made with different grapes – macabeu, parellada and xarel·lo are most common – which give the wines different flavors and often a nuttier, more oxidative character.

Most top-notch American sparkling wines are made with Champagne’s fermentation methods and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, and in many cases, the companies and even the same winemakers who make the best wines in Champagne create these American wines. But most grow in warmer climates and in richer soils than you find in Champagne, so they tend to be a bit heartier and seldom quite as finely textured as true Champagne.

France’s Cremant. So, what about Cremant? The term was originally used to denote wines from Champagne that had a little less fizz than regular Champagne, but that style and usage have fallen away today. Now the French use “Cremant” to designate sparkling wines made outside of Champagne using the Champagne method of secondary fermentation in bottle. You’ll find Cremant wines from all across France, many – like Cremant d’Alsace – using very different grapes from Champagne (e.g. Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, or even Riesling).

Cremant de Bourgogne. Which brings us to the Cremant wines of Burgundy: Cremant de Bourgogne. Sparkling wine in Burgundy dates from the mid-1820s when the brothers Petiot, who owned vineyards in the Cote Chalonnaise (Burgundy’s southern regions), hired a bright young winemaker from Champagne to make their still wines. Recognizing the grapes he’d seen grown at home (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) and the same type of limestone-rich soils, he soon persuaded the Petiot brothers to let him try his hand at making fizzy Burgundy.

It was a hit, and over the next 150 years sparkling Burgundy became a popular wine with both consumers (who loved the fizz and savings) and winegrowers (who were able to make it using grapes that didn’t ripen well enough for still wines). Naturally, some Cremants were excellent wines made by meticulous winemakers, and some were utter plonk made by folks out to make a buck.

To control quality and help establish sparkling Burgundy’s brand, in 1975 the French government created the Cremant de Bourgogne appellation. To qualify as Cremant de Bourgogne, the wine must be made from legal Burgundy grapes (Beaujolais’ Gamay can be up to 20%) and undergo secondary fermentation in bottle. Critically, the rules require a minimum of one full year’s aging on the lees before release, ensuring that the wines have time to soften, gain depth, and add extra layers of flavors.

Cremant de Bourgogne used to be made from vineyards across Burgundy, including from grapes grown in what are now 1er and Grand Cru appelations in the Cote d’Or. With soaring demand and prices for grapes from these sites, today most Cremant comes from vineyards in the far north (Auxerre) or the far south (Cote Chalonnaise) of the region. As the Oxford Companion to Wine says, “Cremant made in the north is usually much lighter and crisper,” while “Cremant from southern Burgundy can be full and soft, a good-value alternative to bigger styles of Champagne.”

International Wine Review’s comment, “Good-value alternative to bigger styles of Champagne,” describes Cremant de Bourgogne, and especially Domaine Michel Sarrazin’s Cremant de Bourgogne to a “T’. Although at these special prices, “great-value” might be more accurate still!

JJ Confuron’s 2012 Burgundies

jj confuron

Wines on tasting Saturday, Jan. 17, 12-4 pm

We’ve purchased JJ Confuron wines for the store in the past (the 2006s, especially, were lovely), but a tasting with the local importer, JAO Imports, last summer convinced us to go as big as we could with this fantastic set of 2012 reds.

As you’d expect from a small, very in-demand estate like this, we were only able to get limited supplies of what we thought were the best wines – and we were delighted to get a few bottles of the ultra-rare and utterly profound Grand Cru Romanee St. Vivant!

Extraordinary Vineyard Sites. The vineyard sites themselves are the story here. The Domaine’s 8.5 hectares of vines were part of the legendary Charles Noellat estate. Over the course of the 20th Century, the Noellat properties were divided in three – part going with Charles’s granddaughter to Hudelot-Noellat, part purchased by Lalou Bize-Leroy in 1988, and the remainder to Confuron through his wife, Andee Noellat. Today, these three famous Domaines farm their vines side-by-side – including in one of the best slices of the Grand Cru Romanee Saint Vivant – one using conventional farming (Hudelot-Noellat), one biodynamic (Leroy) and one organic (Confuron).

All of Confuron’s 2012s were hand harvested on a block-by-block basis as winemaker Alain Meunier (Confuron’s son-in-law and, with wife Sophie, the current owner of the estate) decided the fruit was ripe and ready. Grapes came into the winery at natural alcohol levels of 12-13%, which is exactly what Meunier strives for.

Fruit for the village wines was 100% destemmed while 20% whole clusters were used in the 1er and Grand Crus. Meunier believes that using a good proportion of top-quality barrels help his wines shed excess fat without masking the pure fruit or adding unattractive wood tannins. The village wines receive 30% new oak, the 1er Crus 40-50% and the Grand Crus about 60% new wood each year. The resulting wines are, as Clive Coates says, “classy, poised, and very fine.”

A Note about the Critics’ Notes … We tasted and selected our favorite wines from Confuron’s 2012s before we looked at any reviews, although for the most part, the critics’ opinions are similar to ours. We’ve included Burghound’s ratings here because of Allen Meadows’ long involvement with the region and estate. But take some of his critique about reduction with a grain of salt. Meadows tastes wines like these very early in their elevage (too early, I think). Because Meunier does minimal racking of the wines before assembling his final cuvee for bottling, the wines often show funky reductive notes when Meadows tastes them.

Neal Martin (Wine Advocate) and Steve Tanzer both taste later in the year, often after the racking to bottling tank. I usually find their assessments more useful. Last, the local folks at International Wine Review (i-Wine) tasted the wines the same day I did – theirs are the only reviews based on the finished, bottled wines.

Garage Wine Update

Silvia Puig ENVWe’ve written before about Priorat’s Silvia Puig and her garage wine project, En Numeros Vermells. Today, we’re introducing her new Priorat, which Silvia calls AiAiAi, big news for this ultra-small (it really is in a garage) project in the rugged hills of Priorat.

Not only is this wine Silvia’s first ENV Priorat built for drinking in its luscious youth, it’s the first to arrive since we’ve been able to announce that she’s left Vinedos de Ithaca to devote her full energies to this great new project.

With increasing success with her ENV wines, more and more active children and her husband’s thriving restaurant, Silvia has now decided to focus 100% of her winemaking energies on En Numeros Vermells. The extra time allowed her to purchase a little more fruit and turn her attentions and talents to making a softer, more accessible, wine that we can enjoy now while letting the top bottlings develop in cellar.

Our good friend and Silvia’s US importer, Jonas Gustafsson, has worked closely with Silvia since ENV’s inception, and he helped her create this exciting new wine, the 2013 AiAiAi Priorat. And, we’re very proud that Jonas invited us to be debut partners in Silvia’s exciting new venture, too!

“There are no Rules.” Silvia made about 1800 regular bottles and 60 magnums of the first-ever release of AiAiAi Priorat 2013, blending Garnacha (about half), Carignan (about 40%) plus dashes of Syrah and Merlot aged in an assortment of barrels and in tank. As with all her ENV wines, her only winemaking rule is simple: “There are no rules.” Instead, Silvia makes the best wine she can from vineyards farmed by good friends across Priorat and then tastes, tastes, and tastes some more until she discovers a blend that perfectly expresses the essence of the vineyards, growing season, and Priorat itself.

With AiAiAi, her focus is on showcasing the joy and wildness of her remote Priorat home and family. You’ll find plenty of classic Priorat aromas and flavors – blueberry, blackberry, crushed mint, damp slate, cocoa, licorice, and more – in a more festively styled wine that glides over your palate and finishes with supple tannins and mouthwatering, lingering flavors of black fruit, mint, and cocoa.

Ultra-Small, Focused Attention. Silvia designed En Numeros Vermells to let her intimately nurture small amounts of wine from grape to bottle on a barrel by barrel basis. The small scale let her largely ignore the normal time and financial pressures of winemaking – with a total production of only a few hundred cases, she was free to let each wine find its own way to maturity and use only the barrels that actually fit in her final blends.

We throw around the terms “garage wine” and “handcrafted” quite a bit, but that’s truly the best way to describe everything about these wines. The En Numerous Vermells “cellar” is the garage of Silvia’s house in the Priorat village of Poboleda, a building that also serves as Silvia’s home and her husband – Belgian chef Pieter Truyts – Brots Restaurant.

In this tiny space, Silvia is literally doing virtually everything by hand. She tends the small number of barrels stacked in the space carefully, tasting and re-tasting to learn how each is developing and gaining a deep understanding of each cask’s unique character, strengths, and weaknesses. Multiple blending trials allow Silvia to explore how her charges work together (or don’t), and create an ideal marriage that lets each site and varietal shine without fighting or overwhelming each other.

Disappearing Wineries & Private Label Wines – A Few Questions Answered

question-marks-pictureRecently, you’ve had some questions that remind us of how different it is to select what wines we carry at our store versus a mainstream retail store.

We don’t want to bring you mass-market wines, and that means our inventory changes constantly. Sometimes a distributor will stop carrying one of our favorites, or the importer will stop importing it. And with some of our value wines, an under $10 find in one vintage can become a cheap not-so-good wine the next. And … sometimes a winery just disappears.

Here are some of the questions we’ve heard lately … let us know if you have some others!

What happened to Owl House Red?  We know, we know, Owl House was the perfect house red! But it is no longer. Gallo bought the winery last year, and while it kept the vineyards for its own wines, it shut down the winery. If you’re looking for a new house red – try La Playa Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s a big mouthful of lush round fruit with the same kiss of toasty oak and soft finish that made Owl House so popular ($6.98/ea by the case). And a big source for crowd-pleasing, affordable reds these days is Spain … you might also try Bodegas Borsao Garnacha – $8.99 a bottle.

When’s Villa Jolanda Holiday Sparkler coming in?  Actually, this one’s easy. As always, it will arrive Thanksgiving week and be featured the following Saturday as part of our huge Small Business Saturday sale!

Where’s Riebeek Chardonnay?  After being out of stock at the distributor, it’s back in stock again! This South African winery has become synonymous with under $10 tasty wine values recently. And for those of you who love the Sauv Blanc – we have the 2014 in stock now at $7.98, $6.98 on a case.

I had a wine at a friend’s house/when traveling and loved it! Do you carry it?  We love this question. There are so many wines out there, and we are always learning about new ones. In fact, we have a few in inventory that came to us through a customer’s comments. And we are always happy to special order wines for you when we can.

But sometimes we can’t. State law requires we buy all our wines through a Virginia distributor, and some wines simply don’t come into Virginia.  Or sometimes the wines do come into Virginia, but they’ve been picked up by Safeway or Total. These stores slash their margins on certain wines to attract customers, planning to make up their profits other ways. It doesn’t make sense for us to carry them at a higher price – that wouldn’t help you.

And sometimes that bottle you enjoyed was actually private label wine! Both Total and Trader Joe’s buy surplus juice and have wineries make wines under a special label developed by those stores. This way, these stores control both the costs and the profit margin (one way they make up for the steep discounts on those other wines). These can be good wines (even though the names are made up), but we certainly can’t get them!

So we choose to introduce you to the wines the big stores won’t carry –  wines that are as good (or better), from wineries that don’t spend a lot of money on marketing – these are the wines we look to bring to you.

Have another question? Keep asking! We’re here to answer them.

Napa’s Grand Cru

Chappellet Vineyards on Pritchard Hill

Chappellet Vineyards on Pritchard Hill

Way back in 2002, Wine Spectator labeled Prichard Hill, the mountain vineyard site east of St. Helena, “Napa’s Grand Cru.”

Ten years later, the magazine noted that while “this wild and rocky terrain produces profound Cabernets,” the proliferation of high-end wineries and homes make it feel a little bit more like “Napa Valley’s Rodeo Drive.” Who is up on Prichard Hill? Try Bryant Family, Colgin, David Arthur, and Tim Mondavi’s Continuum project.

Discovery of a Great Site. But the first winery on the hill, the estate that showed and realized the promise of this steep, rocky hillside was Donn and Molly Chappellet’s winery, started in 1967. After an initial flirtation with off-dry Chenin Blanc and Riesling, Chappellet discovered its true calling: intense, structured, and incredibly cellar-worthy mountainside Cabernet Sauvignon.

Donn & Molly Chappellet

Donn & Molly Chappellet

The 1969 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon Pritchard Hill put the winery on the map and that wine has now achieved legendary status as one of Napa’s greatest. As Robert Parker said back in 2009, “Brilliant wines have emerged from this showcase estate high on Pritchard Hill, which is producing some of the most exciting Cabernets coming out of Napa. As for my estimated aging curves, readers should keep in mind that the 1969 Chappellet made by Philip Togni, at age 40, remains a remarkably young, vibrant wine!”

A Supple Second Wine. Over the years, Chappellet has turned out one majestic Pritchard Hill Cabernet after another and added the equally outstanding, if slightly less forbidding, Signature Cabernet. Great wines, expensive growing conditions (Pritchard Hill is steep), and lots of demand quickly pushed both these wines out of the everyday price category. And so, Donn, Molly, and the family introduced the Mountain Cuvee, a wine using younger vines and selected barrels from the Estate vineyard, plus fruit from lower elevations by trusted growers.

One of the secrets to Chappellet’s success in its top wines has been the skillful use of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot to complement the often very intense structure of high-elevation Cabernet Sauvignon. They bring that same blending approach to the Mountain Cuvee 2012. Cabernet Sauvignon makes up about 40% of the blend, providing ripe currant fruit flavors, a touch of tobacco, and sleek tannic structure. About 35% Merlot rounds out the mid-palate with plump plum, black cherry notes, and softer tannins.

Like many Napa Cabernet winemakers, Chappellet uses smaller doses of Petite Verdot (8%) and Cabernet Franc (3%) to bolster the wine’s aromatics, add some lifting acidity, and contribute notes of fresh crushed herb and flowers. But the surprise – and what just might make the wine – is a whopping 12% Malbec, Bordeaux’s forgotten blending grape. I suspect the Malbec is the key to Mountain Cuvee 2012’s ability to stay so fresh despite all the rich, creamy fruit.

I’m guessing about Malbec’s influence here, but you don’t need to guess whether it’s a great value (it is) or whether you’ll love it, because we have it open in the store right now and through Friday. We think Chappellet Mountain Cuvee 2012 will quickly become your go-to Cab for solo sipping, entertaining, and – especially – for enjoying with grilled beef or lamb. A winner.

What Makes a Truly Handcrafted Wine?

En Numeros Vermells Priorat We throw around the words ‘handcrafted,’ ‘small production,’ and ‘garage wine’ frequently, whenever we are trying to communicate how hands-on a winemaker is and/or the limited availability of certain artisanal wines.

But the wines of Priorat’s Silvia Puig definitely qualify. We feel privileged to be able to carry these wines and to support this winemaker. These are truly small production (she made only 323 bottles of one), truly made in her garage, and as for handcrafted – her hands-on attention even includes her one-of-a-kind sketches on each cardboard case.

Silvia’s Story 
silviaSilvia Puig was born into the wine business – her father, Joseph Puig, is a longtime restaurateur, export manager for Spain’s Miguel Torres and founder of Torres’s operation in Chile. Silvia followed Joseph into the trade, learning winemaking at school and while working at properties in Bordeaux and Spain (including Vega Sicilia’s Alion winery). Eventually, she and Joseph founded their own estate in the Gratallops region of Priorat, in the province of Tarragona southwest of Barcelona.

Silvia and Joseph named their new venture Vinedos de Ithaca, a nod to the Greek settlers who first planted vines in this rugged corner of Spain, and carved an estate vineyard out of the steep hills around the winery.

Fairly early on, local importer Jonas Gustaffson met Silvia on a Spanish wine-buying trip with importer Olivier Daubresse and began offering her wines here around 2005. Working with their own vines and grapes and fruit Silvia purchased from old-time farmers and families across the region, the wines quickly found success in both Spain and in the international wine press both for the traditional reds and for Silvia’s striking whites (a rarity in Priorat).

The steep slopes of Priorat

The steep slopes of Priorat

Striking Out on Her Own
Like so many successful winemakers, Silvia wanted to do something completely on her own, and in 2008 she began the project now called En Numeros Vermells. The name, “Numbers in the Red” and clever label design by local graffiti artist Adria Batet evoked the rain of bad news showering down on Spain and the world during the late 2000’s financial meltdown.

In contrast to the larger production volumes of Vinedos de Ithaca, Silvia designed this project to let her intimately nurture small amounts of wine from grape to bottle on a barrel-by-barrel basis. The organic/biodynamically grown fruit comes from Priorat’s best sites – high altitude, steeply sloped, and covered in the cracked “Llicorella” (slate) that gives Priorat its distinctive mineral cut.

And her small scale let her largely ignore the normal time and financial pressures of winemaking – with a total production of only a few hundred cases, she was free to let each wine find its own way to maturity and use only the barrels that actually fit in her final blends.

Made in a Garage … Truly!
The En Numerous Vermells “cellar” is the garage of Silvia’s house in the Priorat village of Poboleda, a building that also serves as Silvia’s home and her husband’s (Belgian chef Pieter Truyt) restaurant – Brots Restaurant.

In this tiny space, Silvia does everything by hand. She tends the 10 or so barrels stacked in the space carefully, tasting and re-tasting to learn how each is developing and gaining a deep understanding of each cask’s unique character, strengths, and weaknesses. Multiple blending trials allow Silvia to explore how her charges work together (or don’t), and create an ideal marriage that lets each site and varietal shine without fighting or overwhelming each other.

Even the packaging is by hand! Silvia dips each bottle in wax by hand and decorates each cardboard six-pack with a unique, often whimsical, drawing in pencil, pen, and marker.

New Blends for 2012
For the 2012 harvest, importers Jonas Gustafsson and Olivier Daubresse were visiting Silvia as she began her blending, and it was with their encouragement that she explored blending her best Garnacha and Cariñena into a new cuvee, one with no Syrah. The results were fantastic, but a few barrels seemed to too powerful, distinctive, and intense to be hidden in a “larger” (if you can call 700 bottles large) blend. And so Silvia produced two cuvees, each with its own Priorat story to tell.

All of this is pretty cool, but what really matters is what’s in the bottle. And our experience is that Silvia’s garage wine is really, really, good. Join us to try them with Jonas on Saturday, with these very, very, limited quantities, you’ll want to secure your allocation as quickly as you can.