Tall Vines: From Pure Power to Powerful Purity

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Winemaker Jean-Marie played Rugby with top wine consultant Philippe Cambie.

Jean-Marie Royer reclaimed his family’s vineyards (leased out after his father’s early death) and began making wine in the mid-1980s.

With help from a former Rugby pal (now one of France’s top-tier consultants), Philippe Cambie, Jean-Marie made rich, bold, flamboyant wines – in other words, completely typical Chateauneuf du Pape.

Seeking Elegance and Freshness. About 10 years ago, Jean-Marie realized that he wanted more elegance and freshness in his wines and less alcoholic heat and jamminess. With help from Cambie, he adopted an unusual farming approach, allowing the vines to grow very tall – most growers “hedge” the vine tops to force the vines to put more energy into ripening fruit.
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In the winery, fermentation temperatures were lowered substantially, allowing for slow, gentle extraction of color and structure and flavor without blowing off the young wines’ perfume. Each varietal now ages in a mixture of old barrels and concrete tank before Royer and Cambie meet to taste and develop trial blends (and talk a LOT of rugby!).

Beautiful CdP – If You Can Find It! The critical praise for Jean-Marie Royer’s wines just keeps piling up, even as the wines get harder and harder to find here in the USA. After lauding Domain Jean Royer’s 2014 Chateauneufs for being “elegant, distinctly pure” and “filled with pure Grenache love,” both Wine Advocate and Vinous urged readers to try to find these wines – but warned they’re hard to come by in the USA.

“All of the 2014s from this estate are downright impressive and well worth seeking out.” – Jeb Dunnuck, Wine Advocate, October 2016.

“The Châteauneufs of Isabel and Jean-Marie Royer have consistently been among the appellation’s most graceful and Burgundy-like bottlings for the better part of the last two decades…Their wines enjoy a strong local following and a growing list of private customers from across Europe, and finding the wines outside the Continent is no easy task.” – Josh Raynolds, Vinous, April 2016

We first encountered Jean-Marie’s wines back in 2013 as the 2010s reached our market – and we were blown away. But with very little wine allocated to our area (and with me taking home significant chunks of our annual allotment), we’ve never had the ability to promote them widely. A visit with Jean-Marie last year seems to have fixed that, and our friends at Potomac Selections and broker Tom Calder have helped us get the wines to you at simply stunning prices. Snap ’em up!

Grand Grüner from Austria’s Beautiful Wachau Region

You probably already know that Grüner Veltliner is Austria’s signature white grape, and you may well have tried some of the very popular wines we feature every year like Anton Bauer Grüner Veltliner Gmörk, Steininger Grüner Kamptal DAC, and the always popular Paul D Grüner in the liter bottle. All of those are crisp, refreshing wines with pretty orchard fruit, a touch of minerality, a bit of citrus, and classic Grüner notes of sweet pea and white pepper.
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The very best of Austria’s Grüner Veltliners get a bit more serious. When the wine comes from older vines growing on the windblown glacial soils called loess soils on steep vineyards with great exposures to the sun, Grüner gets richer, deeper, and much more intensely delicious.

And, when those old-vine, steeply sloped sites are in the region called the Wachau, well you get some of Austria’s greatest Grüner of all.

A Grant from the Holy Roman Emperor
Martin Mittlebach’s family arrived in the Wachau village of Dürnstein from their home in Bavaria nearly 100 years ago. There they took on the mantle of one of Austria’s oldest winegrowing communities.   Holy Roman emperor Henry II granted the Benedictine monastery of Tegernsee land in the steeply sloped Wachau valley. In 1176, the monks built their winery and christened it Tegernseerhof, and the Mittlebachs continue that heritage today.

Martin and his family farm sites across the Wachau, but their pride and joy are six profound vineyards rising up over the Danube river plain, including one – Zwerithaler – where the vines are 100 years old. They bottle some profound Riesling and Grüner Veltliner from these sites, wines that year-after-year earn some of the highest accolades in Austria.

High Altitude, High-end Grüner
tegernseerhoff-bottleBergdistel is Martin’s introduction to the joys of high-altitude, high-end Grüner, designed to showcase the quality of the vintage, the Wachau, and the Tegernseerhof house style. Martin selects lots from each of his best Grüner vineyards, some at lower altitudes for tropical fruit and richness, others from higher, steeply sloped, sites for cut and minerally depth.

Just like Martin’s top wines, Bergdistel carries the Wachau’s highest quality designation: Smaragd. To borrow an old American advertising slogan, “With a name like ‘Smaragd,’ it has to be good.”   In the 1980s, the growers of the Wachau came together to create some of the world’s toughest rule for quality in grape growing and winemaking. Only the region’s very best wines – those of superior ripeness and acidity – get the extra-long corks, the emerald lizard emblem on the bottle neck, and the (unpronounceable to non-German speakers) “Smaragd” designation on the label.

Many Smaragd-level Wachau Grüner Veltliners of this quality and character come with $40, $70, even $100 price tags. At his regular $30 price, Martin’s Bergdistel is already a fantastic value. At our $21.98 bottle and $19.98/ea six-pack price…well, you’d be “Smaragd” not to miss it!

Willamette Valley’s Ken Wright: ‘Terroirist’ (the 2015 vintage)

ken-wrightKen is one of the most impressive – even formidable – winemakers I’ve ever met, and every time I talk with him, I come away astonished at how much he knows about Oregon vineyards and Pinot Noir. There’s a reason Wine Spectator put him the cover and called him “A Master of Pinot Noir in Oregon” last year.

Ken is one of the “old hands” of Oregon Pinot Noir. He founded Panther Creek winery in 1986 and made the wines there until selling the estate. He opened Ken Wright Cellars in 1993 in a converted glove factory in Carlton, Oregon, making the first two vintages of Domaine Serene’s wines in 1993 and 1994 while starting his own production. Within just a few years, Ken’s wines were the most sought-after in Oregon.

Expressing Each Site. Ken is quick to explain that, in his view, the whole purpose of Pinot Noir is to express the distinctive characteristics of each site it occupies. He was the first to start the push for creating distinct Willamette Valley AVAs and today makes a dozen different vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs. As Ken says, “Ken Wright Cellars is devoted to showcasing the inherent quality of selected vineyard sites. With a clarity and breadth that is unequaled by other varieties, we believe Pinot noir best expresses the character of these sites. Rather than stamping wine with a varietal trademark, we see Pinot noir as a vehicle for conveying the aroma, flavor and texture of the location in which it is grown.”

While showcasing “terroir” is important, the wines have to taste good, too. Again and again, Ken has demonstrated his ability to make highly rated Willamette Valley Pinot Noir even in the most difficult conditions. Writing about Ken’s work in the hot 2006 vintage, Wine Spectator said, “In any Oregon vintage, you can count on Ken Wright making some of the most elegant and refined Pinot Noirs. His wines, all single-vineyard bottlings, always have finesse and tremendous polish, even in an extra ripe vintage like 2006. Where others made big, heady wines, Wright managed to keep most of his cuvées bright and juicy.”

And, talking about Ken’s wines from the challenging 2004 vintage, Robert Parker said, “There are not many Pinot Noir winemakers who can make six separate cuvees, and have five of them nearly outstanding. In fact, this exceptional success rate puts Ken Wright in the company of such Burgundy luminaries as Laurent Ponsot, Lalou Bize-Leroy, Hubert Lignier, J. J. Confuron, and Claude Dugat.”

So, when Ken gets his hands on material like he had in 2015, watch out!

Another Hot, Fine Harvest. 2015 marked the second straight year of intense heat and limited rainfall all across the Willamette Valley. Just like in 2014, the growing season started early and growers quickly became concerned that ripening would move faster than flavor development. So, once again, they left a heavy load of gapes on the vine to force sugar accumulation to be spread across more berries and did minimal hedging, leaf pulling, and trimming.

I remember walking Abbott Claim with Ken Wright in late July of 2015 and looking at his normally neat and trim vines with their shaggy, un-hedged, tops and remarkable number of bunches per vine. “Will you drop fruit before harvest?” he was asked. “If all the grapes on these vines ripen fully, I think it would be wrong, almost criminal, to leave some on the ground. And, I think they’re all going to make it all the way this year.”

Ken, of course, was right. It was a very early harvest and Ken and others brought in the largest Pinot Noir crop in Oregon history. As in 2014, the fruit was in perfect condition with virtually no disease and little in the way of sunburn or desiccation. One key difference: after the shockingly huge harvest of 2014, wineries were ready to deal with 2015’s record-setting yields by having plenty of staff, fermenters, and barrels cleaned, set up, and ready to go.

ken-wright-winesVintage ’15: 2014 Ripeness with More Freshness and Spine. How do the 2015s compare to the 2014s? I tasted ’15s from barrel and ’14s from barrel and bottle last February at a half-dozen of our favorite wineries. Both vintages are yummy, but the ’14s clearly are more about their ripe, cheerful, fruit and are most exciting for their immediate to near-term deliciousness. As Ken said about the 2014s last year, “They’re rich, lush, lower in acidity, super agreeable already. This may not be the longest-lived vintage, but the wines are pleasurable.”

In contrast, the 2015s seem to have a touch less alcohol, a touch more acidity, and significantly more texture (whether the winemaker works with whole clusters or not). You’ll love tasting the 2015s when they arrive, especially wines’ like Ken’s where the lush fruit tends to cover and cloak the tannins. But where the 2014s will be at their best over the next 5 years or so, you’ll be pulling out and delighting in the 2015s for a decade-plus.

How good is 2015 overall? As Josh Raynolds of Vinous reported last year, “Conditions throughout 2015 were just as warm and dry as in the previous vintage and, according to growers that I’ve spoken to in recent weeks, musts are dark, aromatics are explosive, flavors are concentrated and tannins are strong.”

When Neal Martin of The Wine Advocate was in Oregon tasting 2013s, he wrote:

“There were a couple of very well-established Oregon winemakers who discretely opined that … 2015 is destined to be crowned the benchmark Oregon vintage.”

The Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steadman agrees, writing in late 2015:

 “A significant percentage of the 2015s had completed fermentation by the time I visited Willamette Valley in early October. Their freshness and deftness will invite comparisons to top-tier vintages such as 2012 and 2008, once they complete their cellaring.”

Is 2015 the “best ever” vintage here? Could be – but it’s certainly a very fine vintage indeed that’s well worth your attention!

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.

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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.