Chianti Tradition and Modern Innovation at Il Molino di Grace

Il Molino di GraceIl Molino di Grace’s 2015 Chianti Classico is just about the perfect marriage of Chianti tradition and modern innovation, much like the estate itself.

I visited the estate just a few weeks ago. Located right outside the village of Panzano, these vineyards in the heart of Chianti have given wine for more than 350 years. The name of the estate, “Il Molino,” gives tribute to the 19th Century windmill that remains perched on a hill (you can see the windmill in the background in this photograph).

The “modern” comes from Frank Grace and his family who purchased the site and began planting/replanting the vineyards in 1996. Grace was initially attracted to the site as a vacation home and place to indulge his passion for modern sculpture (there’s some amazing art dotted around the estate). Wine was not on the agenda – until son Tim and good friend Gerhard Hirmer pointed out that the vineyards were in one of Chianti’s great sites and that it was a shame to continue selling them to inferior winemakers.

For Frank, it was in for a penny, in for a pound. So he invested in building a modern, squeaky clean winery and hired one of the world’s foremost Sangiovese gurus, Franco Bernabei, to guide the operation. Vineyards were planted/replanted to modern trellising, yields lowered, and farming converted to organic status (with certification achieved in 2014). Bernabei’s winemaking style is simple – cool fermentations to retain fruit, gentle extraction to avoid harsh tannins, and skillful use of large Slavonian oak casks to smooth the wine without covering it in wood flavors.

In the truly outstanding 2015 Tuscan growing season, this blend of modernity and tradition brought forth a simply lovely Chianti Classico, one with enough fruit and silkiness that anyone can enjoy it but enough classic Chianti cured tobacco, leather and earth that it couldn’t possibly be from anywhere else.

We had a nice run with Il Molino di Grace Chiantis a few years ago before availability and pricing got spotty. Now our good friend John Grimsley of Le Storie Wines has partnered with the Grace family to bring Il Molino di Grace back to the market – and partnered with us to get it to you at very special prices.

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Chablis Quality Like the “Big Boys”…

Lyne Marchive, Dom des MalandesI’ve always wondered how Chablis as fine as Dom des Malandes could always remain so…well, to be blunt: cheap! It’s not like the estate is new or unknown. Lyne and husband Jean-Bernard Marchive formed Malandes in 1986 with vines farmed by her father and grandfather making up the core of the estate.

The wines have earned critical praise from the outset, with Master of Wine and Burgundy expert Clive Coates awarding Malandes a two-star rating in his landmark book The Wines of Burgundy. To put that in context, that’s the very top rating for any Chablis estate, the same awarded to William Fevre, Vincent Dauvissat, and Domaine Raveneau. And yet wines from those three estates sell for at least three-times the prices of Malandes.

What’s more, the wines have gotten even better over the past decade under oenologist/winemaker Guenolé Breteaudeau. As the leading Burgundy critic working today, Allan Meadows (“Burghound”), said last year, the team at Chablis-based Domaine des Malandes “continue to drive the quality of the Malandes wines to new heights. Readers who are not familiar with the wines owe it to themselves to try a few bottles; moreover the prices are reasonable and thus the wines offer excellent price/quality ratios.”

But why are the prices so reasonable – even before we slash them further with our direct import savings?

… Priced With Modesty and Practicality
Malandes Chablis VineyardSpending an afternoon and evening with Lyne in Chablis last February helped me understand. Lyne’s family – the Tremblays well known in Chablis – have been living, farming and making wine here for a long time. They have always been practical business people – Lyne said her grandfather was one of the first growers in Chablis to stop selling to the co-op and bottle and sell all his own production starting in the early 1900s. Bottled wine was more of a risk, but turned a much better profit.

Entrepreneurial ambition has always been tempered by the realities of trying to make a living the cold, stony, soils of Chablis. Lyne explained that it was simply impossible for a small grower to make a living from grapes and wine in Chablis until the mid-1970s. Frost in the spring, vine-killing cold weather in winter, summer hail, and ill-timed rain near harvest conspired to wipe out nearly 100% of Chablis production in two to three years per decade. Lyne remembers the brutal stretch of 1952, ’52 and ’54 when her father had no grapes (and not much grain) for three consecutive years. In 1954 he was forced to leave home and pick grapes in Beaujolais to make enough money to feed the family.

By the mid-1970s growers in Chablis had learned frost and winter cold management techniques from their neighbors in Champagne (Chablis is closer to Champagne than Burgundy’s Beaune), opening the doors to the potential to making a living from wine. So Lyne took over from her father and, with husband Jean-Bernard Marchive, created Domaine des Malandes.

Lyne and Malandes Hail Nets

Lyne with Chablis’ First Ever Hail Nets

Innovation in Wine Growing … and Marketing
Even as she prepares to retire and hand over the estate to her son and youngest daughter, Lyne remains an innovator. Hail has been a problem in Chablis for years and seems to be intensifying with global climate change. Some of Lyne’s vines grow in what is basically a thunderstorm channel – a valley between two hills that captures storms and funnels their maximum impact right on the fragile vines.

After the disastrous 2016 storm season, Lyne decided she’d had enough. Although it took nine months of intensive studies, legal filings and lobbying, two months ago she received a permit to test Chablis first ever hail netting system. No other grower has been brave enough to step up to try it, so she’s rolling it out as a test with a mix of protected and unprotected rows. As she says, it’s very expensive – but then so is losing the entire harvest to hail.

“No one else was willing. So I decided I must go ahead by myself. I believe it’s what we must do to make good, good, good, Chablis.”

As Neal Martin of Wine Advocate said after a blind tasting of Lyne’s 2014 and 2015 Chablis last year, “I was very impressed by the consistency here. Proprietor Lyne Archive, with winemaker Guenolé Breteaudeau, crafted some really quite superb Premier Crus that shone out. It’s great to see this well-known name in Chablis doing so well – long may it continue.” We think it will.

The Extraordinary 2016 Chablis of Domaine des Malandes
Dom des MalandesAs Allan Meadows (“Burghound”), said last year, the team at Chablis-based Domaine des Malandes “continue to drive the quality of the Malandes wines to new heights. Readers who are not familiar with the wines owe it to themselves to try a few bottles; moreover the prices are reasonable and thus the wines offer excellent price/quality ratios.”

Once again, that’s true for Malandes’ 2016 releases, which are coming to us direct at simply unbeatable savings. The steep losses during the challenging growing season means we weren’t able to get any 2016 Grand Cru Les Clos, but we do have a tiny bit of 2015 available. The 2016 Villages cuvee is a fantastic “house white” for now and 3-4 years to come. And both 1er Crus are classic bottlings you won’t want to miss.

Below you’ll find our and critics’ notes on all four wines. Please note that Alan Meadows – aka Burghound – tasted the 2016s at a very awkward moment of their evolution, either right after pre-bottling sulfuring or, worse, right after bottling. The reduction he complains of has resolved and all of the wines are clearly even better than his reviews suggest. Happy hunting!

Why We Love Zeitgeist Cabernet

Zeitgeist WinemakersWe think that one taste of Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 is all you’ll need to fall in love with this lush, rich, luxurious Napa red. And, how great it tastes has a lot to do with why we love it, too. But it’s only part of the reason we became this small-production Napa Cabernet’s foremost champions in the Mid-Atlantic nearly five years ago.

We introduced the mid-Atlantic region to Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon four years ago with the un-rated 2011 bottling. Why did we pre-buy a substantial quantity of a not terribly inexpensive, utterly unknown, wine in what was easily Napa’s least popular vintage in 25 years – without even tasting the finished wine?

Because as soon as I met co-owner/winemaker Mark Porembski and tasted his 2010 Napa Cabernet, I could tell this was a person and a project we wanted to be a part of. Mark and his wife/partner, Jennifer Williams (formerly of Spottswoode), care about the things we care about. Hard work. Exhaustive selection. Careful craftspersonship. And, most of all: having fun with delicious, authentic, place-centered wine with no snobbery, attitude or fuss.

The Critics Pay Attention
ZeitgeistWith Mark and Jenn’s 2012 vintage, the Wine Advocate began paying attention and (under) rated it 91 points. The next year, Robert Parker upped the rating for the 2013 to 93 points. In 2014, the 10th bottling of Zeitgeist Cab, Parker’s Wine Advocate delivered Mark and Jen an “Outstanding” 94 points. And while Parker hasn’t tasted the 2015, his former associate, Jeb Dunnuck, popped the rating up to a fine 94+ points in 2015!

After tasting that succulent 2010, it took us a couple of years to persuade Mark to sell us any wine – after all, with only 330-450 cases made per year and “insider” fans up and down the West Coast, there wasn’t much to spare. But – as we said – Mark’s our kind of guy, and even as the praise and ratings roll in, he’s remained generous in giving us all the Zeitgeist Cab we ask for.

So, by all means, feel free to enjoy the 2015 Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon for its bold fruit, velvety texture, and powerful, cellar-worthy, finish. And it won’t bother us if you notice that this wine delivers the quality and intensity that you normally only find in $100+ (even $200+) bottlings.

But if you really want to “get” why this is so special, plan a trip to California and, before you go, give Mark a call at the winery to schedule a visit. An hour with Mark (or Jenn if she’s available) will remind you that there’s more to wine and winemaking than what’s in your glass. And that little bit extra is why wine can be so very, very, exciting and satisfying.

Unique Co-Op, Unique Wines from Northern Italy

Tasting at Kellerei Kaltern

Tasting at Kellerei Kaltern with Judith Unterholzner.

Nestled in the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains, Alto Adige is Italy’s northernmost wine growing region – although you could also call it Austria’s southernmost vineyard! Ceded to Italy after WWI, there’s still plenty of Austrian tradition here and you’ll notice road signs shifting from Italian with German subtitles to German with Italian annotations as your drive northward from the Veneto.

While the names of producers and bottle shapes can look German, the style of the wines combines the ease and food-friendliness of Italian whites and reds with the precision and freshness of Italy’s northern neighbors.

The soaring mountains of the Dolomites and cool temperatures at higher altitudes limit grape growing to a series of valleys of the Adige and Isarco rivers which form a Y-shaped vineyard area that meets at Bolzano. The valley floors are rich, fertile, and quite hot – often Bolzano is one of Italy’s hottest cities in July and August. The combination of reliable warmth, fertile soils, and relatively flat terrain makes the valley floors perfect sites for mass produced wines – like typical grocery store Pinot Grigio.

Working the Slopes
Kellerei Kaltern CaldaroBut for growers willing to plant and work vineyards on the steep, rocky, slopes looking down on Alto Adige’s lakes and rivers, grapes can ripen perfectly, gaining plenty of lush fruit flavor while retaining crackling, pure, acidity for balance.

Working the hillsides has been the philosophy of the growers who built Kellerei Kaltern from the first. Wine growing here has always been a small-scale operation. In the past, most vineyards were owned by locals who also farmed other crops on the flat lands below. Today, vineyards are just as likely to be owned by professionals who commute to Trento or simply summer in the mountains. But average vineyard sizes remain small (less than three acres), too small for growers to profitably make their own wine.

From the 19th century on, the small growers of Alto Adige began banding together to form mutually owned wineries – co-operatives – to turn their grapes into wine. And in 1906, a group of growers around Lake Kaltern, north of Bolzano, came together to create Kelleri Kaltern.

A Source of Pride
Today, about 440 growers jointly own and supply grapes to Kellerei Kaltern, with the winery providing both vineyard management advice and winemaking and marketing for the group. Usually when we think of co-op wine, we think of inexpensive jug wine where the focus is more on quantity than quality. But, because so many of the small growers that sell to this bright, modern cooperative winery grow grapes as a second source of income, it’s a source of pride more than anything for them to sell fruit that will make the best possible wine. More importantly, they are paid on a profit sharing basis rather than by the ton, a key difference between this co-op and more traditional ones that keep the quality shockingly high considering the wines’ reasonable price.

Come see for yourself this Saturday, May 5,  when Judith Unterholzner from the winery is here and pouring five terrific selections. You’ll be glad you did.

Superb Quality from the Heart of Provence

Dom d'eole wineryDomaine d’Eole is a unique, if young estate created in 1992 by German oenologist Matthias Wimmer, purchased and transformed to certified organic farming by his partner, estate-owner and French financier Christian Raimont, and introduced into the United States by importer Olivier Daubresse.

The Domaine sits in the heart of the Provence, south of Avignon and northwest of Aix-en-Provence, at the base of the low Chaîne des Alpilles mountain range. The Alpilles block some of the Mistrial wind’s intensity – the fan is set to “medium” here rather than “high” – but still allow for some cool air from the Mediterranean Sea – just 25 miles south – to reach the vineyards.

What doesn’t reach the vineyards is a lot of rain, and what rain that does fall drains quickly through the complex, very ancient, limestone soils. The vines drive their roots deep for nutrients and water, and the alternating hot and cool, but always dry, climate is perfect for farming without chemical additives, pesticides, or sprays.

D'Eole Matthias Wimmer and Christian RaimontThe estate’s first, and only winemaker – German-born Matthias Wimmer – pointed towards organic farming from the estate’s founding in 1992 and achieved Ecocert Organic Certification in 1996. That same year, French financier Christian Raimont purchased d’Eole and enabled Matthias to invest in a state of the art winery and maintain his commitment to organics and ultra-low yields.

Seriously Small Crop Farming
About those yields. The Coteaux d’Aix en Provence appellation is most famous for its rosé wines and the farming rules here are built on the assumption that fresh, fruity, and pink is about all that’s required for success. So, vineyards in this rugged, non-irrigated, region can go all the way up to 60 hectoliters per hectare, a level that’s normally achieved by letting the vines groan under the weight of berries and not worrying about getting everything ripe – after all, you’re just making pink wine, right?

Dom d'eole bottlesAt Domaine d’Eole, things are a bit more serious. For red, white and rosé wines, the goal is perfect ripeness with plenty of intensity and structure. In the winter, vines are pruned severely, limiting the number of fruit-bearing buds that can form in the spring. Then, the “second crop” that forms in late spring is removed and the main crop adjusted by “green harvesting” – cutting off grape bunches – to ensure that each vine is balanced and prepared to deliver ripe grapes. Last, during harvest, trained harvesters inspect each grape bunch, leaving any that aren’t fully ripe and perfect condition on the ground to rot and, eventually, feed next year’s crop.

Across the d’Eole vineyards, then, the maximum yield Wimmer and Raimont allow to ripen and reach the winery is only 30 hectoliters per hectare – half of the legal crop. Smaller crop levels make farming more expensive – it actually takes more work to grow 30hl/ha than it does to let 60hl/ha hang! – but it pays off in better ripeness, silkier texture, and much, much, more flavor and complexity.

Dom d'eole roseWe’re showcasing the unique benefits of organic farming and ultra-low yields in today’s featured wine, the Domaine d’Eole Rosé 2017. But you have to taste the red and white wines to understand the full story. Join us this Saturday as estate owner Christian Raimont pours great selections from new releases and wines aged to perfection, too!

Ribbon Ridge AVA: Old Vines, Old Soils, Great Wine!

Ribbon Ridge AVA.png

Willamette Valley’s Ribbon Ridge AVA

Our Patricia Green offer this week focused us on Willamette Valley’s Ribbon Ridge and why it produces such great wines.

Patricia Green’s 30 acre estate vineyard lies within the heart of the Willamette Valley’s Ribbon Ridge AVA – perhaps the single most exciting slice of this great Pinot Noir region and home to famed estates like Beaux Freres, Brick House, Penner-Ash, and more.

Ribbon Ridge is a spur of uplifted marine sediments off the northwest end of the Chehalem Mountains. The soils here are very fine, almost powder like, and rest on top of a porous sandstone base. With little surface water available along the ridge, dry farming is more or less required. But, the sandy soils drain freely and quickly, forcing vines to drive their roots down 20-30 feet or more in search of water from the deeply buried aquifer below.

Deeply Rooted Plants Offer Up a Special Wine
Old vines with well-developed root systems have a big advantage here, which is one of the reason’s Patty’s Old Vines Estate cuvee always shines. It’s from several blocks of mainly Pommard clone planted from 1984-1990. As Patty’s partner, Jim Anderson, explains, these 25-30 year-old vines deliver a wine that always “shows the red fruit profile, minerality and refined texture that the deeper rooted plants are able to offer up.”

If you enjoy Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, I simply cannot image how you won’t love this. And, if you’re just starting to explore Oregon Pinot, you will not find a better introduction or a stronger argument to get to know these marvelous, food- and sipping-friendly wines.

And, to make stocking up on great Patricia Green wines as easy as possible, you can mix-match the 2015 Estate Old Vine Pinot with the great value 2016 Pinot Noir Reserve and rich and darkly-fruited 2016 Pinot Noir Freedom Hill as well. Enjoy!

(See also our vintage-by-vintage assessment of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.)

The Hardest Working Team in Burgundy

Jean Michel and Alexis GuillonWe’ve spilled a lot of electronic ink and killed plenty of digital trees telling you about Jean-Michel Guillon over the years. By this point, most of you know that this is one of the hardest working, most talented, and least compromising winegrowers in all of Burgundy. He and his son Alexis work the vineyards themselves (especially in August, when other winemakers take vacation just as the vines reach their most critical stage).

Want to see what that work looks like? Take a look at this video on the recently updated Guillon website for a drone’s eye view of the vineyards and vintage 2016 harvest!

They demand nothing less that perfectly ripe fruit, which allows them to make long, slow, intense fermentations running three to five weeks – extracting tons of flavor and only the most suave, ripe tannins.

Then they age their wines in the finest French oak money can buy. After Domaine Romanee-Conti and the Hospices de Beaune, Jean-Michel and Alexis are the single biggest buyers of new French oak in Burgundy ever year. Where growers who pick less ripe fruit and extract less during fermentation can find new oak overwhelm their wines, Guillon’s juice is so intense and deep that it needs the softening only new oak can give and absorbs the woody flavors with ease.

A Frigid Tragedy
The extra time and effort Jean-Michel and Alexis put in tending their vines pays off every year, but never more than in 2016. Hours and hours working their vineyards allowed them to counter the intense mildew pressure running through the season, leave their grapes out on the vine until fully ripe, and then bring in a crop of impeccable cleanliness and purity.

But, no amount of farming work could counter the tragedy of April 26-27. The sun set on the 26h on what had been a pretty, if humid, day. Then a front moved through, temperatures plummeted, and cold air poured down valleys and combes and enveloped the vines. By dawn a thick frost lay on the vines across Burgundy. As the sun came up and clouds cleared, bright sunlight refracted through the ice, burning the partially frozen grapes. And even where the berries survived, leaves crumpled and ultimately dropped to the ground, depriving vines of the engine needed to ripen their fruit.

By the end of the day on April 27, Jean-Michel and Alexis had lost about half of their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir crop for the vintage. Despite constant attention to the vines, still more of the crop was lost to mildew during the humid days of May and June. But fine weather returned from July through harvest in September, meaning that the small crop of grapes that had survived the spring ripened to wonderful perfection. As you’ll see for yourself when you taste these two wines, the first 2016s from Domaine Guillon we’ll present this year.