An Evening of Relic With Mike Hirby

Even though it’s a world-famous wine region, the pace in the Napa Valley is just a little more relaxed than it is here on the East Coast.  When Mike Hirby called Doug this past Thursday to tell him he’d just gotten into a cab in Georgetown, and thought he’d be at our store in 15 minutes during the height of rush hour, we just looked at each other and laughed.  Though Highway 29 can get a little backed up during crush, it’s still nothing compared to the gridlock we experience in the DC area on a daily basis.  Add to that the fact that many of the best cult projects in Napa barely make it out of the state, much less to the East Coast, and you’re left wondering why the heck people want to live anywhere else.

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Well, we may not all be able to move to wine country, but we at least have access to one such hard-to-get cult project, Relic wines.  This past Thursday, Mike Hirby was kind enough to stop by to walk us through the current vintage of Relic releases and give us his perspective on winemaking in the Napa Valley.

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However, while Mike’s cab was fighting traffic, we started with an offbeat sparkler.  We thought it would just be a bit of fun to get everyone’s palate going before the main event, but people liked it so much they wrote it onto the order forms.  Mas de Daumas is known as the “Lafitte of the Languedoc,” and we featured their rose sparkler, mostly because it’s made almost entirely from Cabernet, and we thought it would be fun to have a sparkler made from the same grape as the biggest wine of the evening.  Just barely off-dry, pink, and loads of fun to drink, it’s the perfect ‘porch and picnic’ wine for this summer.

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The reds started with the Kashaya Pinot Noir, an elegant, honest take on Sonoma Coast Pinot whose texture has gotten even more elegant since we first got the wine.  The Scarpa Syrah was the perfect balance between ripe California fruit and that whiff of earthy meatiness you expect in Syrah.  Delicious, and crying out for some red meat on the grill!

Relic’s Ritual is so named because it’s the kind of wine Mike Hirby and his partner Schatzi like to drink on a daily basis, and it’s a personal favorite at Doug’s house, too.  Like the perfect Cotes-du-Rhone, but much more sophisticated and shot through with California sunshine, it can go the distance in the cellar thanks to its hefty dose of Mourvedre, but it’s pretty tough to resist now.  In that same category was the 2009 Artefact Cabernet Sauvignon, this year blended with 19% Cabernet Franc.

Thanks to Mike Hirby for coming all the way from California to taste us through his wonderful wines!

Common Questions About Port

glass of tawny port.jpgHow is Port Made?  Briefly, all Port starts out the same. Ripe grapes are harvested (mainly by hand), brought to the winery, crushed, and given a fast, hot fermentation to extract as much color and tannin as possible over three days or less. Then the young wine is decanted into a large vessel filled about half full with grape brandy to fortify the wine and stop fermentation. After that, the wine goes through different types of aging and blending depending on the style being made. Taylor Fladgate offers a great, in-depth description of Port production on their website.

How is Vintage Port Different from Other Ports?  Taylor Fladgate offers a great, in-depth, discussion of this topic here.  Briefly, though, Port can be broken down into two basic styles – bottle-aged and wood-aged. Wood-aged wines become Tawny Ports and can be bottled young and fresh or given 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years in barrel. They are typically orangey/tawny in color and have aromas and flavors of caramel, toasted nuts, and burnt sugar.

Bottle-aged Ports receive, at most, a short stay in barrel before going into bottle – sometimes this style is called “Vintage Style” Port. The wines are deeply colored purple or red, have lots of fruit, and feature firm tannins that deliver what the English call “grip.” “Ruby” Ports are the bottom of the quality pyramid here, followed by “Reserve” Ports – Graham’s Five Grapes is a famous example. Both Ruby and Reserve Ports are usually blends of wines from different vintages.

In good, not great, years, Port houses often make a wine called Late Bottled Vintage. This is usually a wine that has much of the concentration needed to make vintage Port, but has angular or hard tannins and/or lacks the stuffing needed in a top quality wines. LBV Ports are from a single vintage, but age in barrel for two to four years to soften and open before bottling. They are ready to drink on release, but can improve for a few years in cellar.

Vintage Port is the apex of Port quality, made only in the best years from the very best grapes a winery can get – usually it is less than two percent of an estate’s harvest. Unlike LBV, it spends only a few months in barrel and is bottled no more than 18 months from the vintage.

Do I Have to Age Vintage Port for Decades?  You certainly can age wines like these from a vintage like 2011 for many, many years. Warre’s 1970, Graham’s 1966, and Cockburn 1955 were all absolutely delicious when sampled last week! But changes in how grapes are being farmed and how the wine is made mean that you have a much wider window of enjoyment now than ever before.

Until about 20 years ago, you faced two main challenges in drinking Vintage Port young. First, the wine had a lot of brandy in it and that brandy often needed years to fully integrate into the finished wine. Opening a young Port meant getting a heady whiff of alcohol and a bit of searing heat as the wine went down your throat.

While your throat was burning, your mouth was puckering – because Port is always a deeply tannic wine and the young wine’s tannins were typically pretty fierce, rough, and drying. After a decade or so in cellar, the alcohol integrates and the tannins start to soften, giving you a more supple, elegant wine to enjoy after a fine meal.

Over the past 20 years, though, Port has gotten better in two key ways. First, Port makers have invested serious money and effort in understanding how brandy integrates with Port and how to buy brandies that fortify without sticking out and burning. Even as barrel samples, the young 2011 Ports tasted last week already showed fantastic integration of their alcohol, a process that will be largely complete by the time the wines arrive in the USA.

And Port houses have invested even more money in their vineyards, learning how to tend their vines to achieve full phenolic ripeness and softer, silkier, just plain more pleasing tannins than in the past. Yes, all of these young Ports have a LOT of tannin – but it’s so ripe and well developed that it coats your mouth like wet velvet or slides across your palate like fine silk, leaving the right grippy bite behind.

It would be a shame to drink all of your Vintage Port in the first few years of its life in bottle – but perhaps as much a shame to not enjoy a bottle or two at every stage of its long life!

How Long Can I Keep an Open Bottle of Vintage Port?  Longer than you think – certainly longer than I used to think! Young Vintage Port is a very robust wine, and while exposure to oxygen will start it on the road to oxidation and fading, the process can take quite a while. Left on a counter at room temperature, an open bottle of young Vintage Port will slowly open and evolve, losing some if its primary fruit but often releasing other interesting flavors in its place. You’ll probably notice some change on the second and third days and then accelerating changes through day five. At some point, the wine will start to taste a little flat – but a full week of good drinking isn’t out of the question.

If you refrigerate the wine between servings, the time frame gets longer. Open a bottle, enjoy some on night one and then put it in the fridge at the end of the evening. Come back to it in a week – it will have evolved some, but still be full of fruit and vigor. The following week, less fruit but maybe some really interesting tar and earthiness. And, in week three, probably less compelling than at first … but still very tasty and fun!

Of course, the older the wine, the faster it will evolve with air, but in general, wines aged 20 years or less will hold up well even after they’ve been open a while.


Have more questions? Send us an email at or give us a call at 703.356.6500 and we’ll do our best to help you out!

One Sip At A Time – Old World vs. New World Reds

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This month, our One Sip At A Time class focused on red wines, but with an added twist.  You have probably heard sommeliers and retailers like us go on and on about ‘Old World’ character or something being from the ‘New World,’ but what the heck does that actually mean?  Last Thursday, we spent the evening answering that question.

France, Italy, Spain, and the rest of Western Europe make up the Old World, according to most people, while the New World is basically everywhere else: the United States, Argentina, New Zealand, and, more recently, countries whose wine industries are still in their infancy like India and Canada.

To understand the influence climate and winemaking styles have on red wines, we tasted the same varietals or similar blends side by side, with the Old World example first and the New World second.

We started with Jean Michel Guillon’s 2011 Bourgogne Rouge, a classic example of Old World Pinot Noir, with its higher acidity and longer maceration with the grape skins, giving the wine a bit more tannin.  The Calera Pinot Noir that came after was much more lush and fruit forward, and a bit lighter in color and tannin.  Both delicious, balanced wines, but clearly very different!

Next we moved on to Bordeaux varietals.  The 2010 Ch Ducasse Graves Rouge served as a much more mineral, austere counterpoint to the smooth, lavishly oaked The Teacher from Thurston Wolfe in Washington State.  While the Graves would shine with food, The Teacher was pretty darn delicious all by itself!

For Rhone blends, we chose two benchmark producers.  For our Old World example, we had Guigal’s 2009 Cotes du Rhone blend, a meatier, more Syrah-heavy style.  Then it was on to Paso Robles, for Tablas Creek’s Patelin du Tablas Rouge.  Owned by the Perrin family of Ch de Beaucastel fame, the Tablas Rouge shows just how much influence climate and terroir has over the finished wine, since the winemaking method and even the cuttings used to plant the vineyards, are all from the Rhone Valley in France.

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Our final pair we tasted blind, and it was a very surprising set of wines indeed.  Almost everyone was fooled by the Guild 6 Rhone-style blend, assuming that because of its lighter body and higher acidity it was from the Old World, rather than Washington State, where it’s from.  And If You See Kay, a full-throttle fruit-bomb from Lazio in Italy, was a dead-ringer for a California red blend.

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So while terroir and tradition usually have a big influence over the style of a wine, where there’s a will, there’s a way!  Thanks to everyone who attended our One Sip At A Time class for May – your participation and questions are what make these classes so much fun.

Roaming the Rhone With Philippe Plantevin

5.9.13 038As much fun as classes that feature ‘special,’ high-end wines are, ones like last Thursday’s evening with Philippe Plantevin can be even more fun.  Why?  Because they offer you a chance to stock up on the kind of wine you can pull out on a Wednesday night guilt-free, or open several bottles of at a dinner party without wincing.

Even better is the fact that Philippe’s wines offer so much character, flavor, and concentration despite their modest prices.  Many of those who attended last week took advantage of this special evening and stocked their cellars, and luckily we have enough of most of what we served to let you do the same.

We started the evening the way we think every evening from about April 15 through September should start: with rose!  Though Philppe Plantevin’s wines have been staples in the store for many years, the rose was new to everyone, and now it’s definitely being added to the ‘buy every year’ list.  Just slightly fuller than a Provencal rose, but  not quite as rich as a Tavel, it sits in a perfect, balanced middle ground.

Then it was onto the 2011 Cotes du Rhone Blanc, this year with even more Viognier character, but still plenty of snap on the finish.  This wine is remarkable not only for its delicious tropical fruit flavors now, but because it ages amazingly considering its modest price point.

We tried two vintages side by side of the juicy, entry-level Cotes-du-Rhone – first the 2009, then the 2010.  The 2009 had really benefitted from its time in bottle, but the 2010 showed plenty of concentration and potential – since there isn’t much of the 2009, it’s a good time to stock up on the 2010!

The 2009 Visan was a real surprise for its concentration and savory depth.  Visan is a part of the southern Rhone that we don’t often see bottled on its own in the US.  Because of its higher elevation, it usually goes into blends.  So, Philippe is especially proud of this bottling, and we could taste why!

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Next we tasted two older wines side by side.  First was the 2007 La Daurelle, the only wine from the estate that sees any time in barrel.  Reminiscent of a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but at a fraction of the cost, it’s a wonderful example of a mature southern Rhone blend.  The 2006 Cairanne, though it doesn’t see any oak at all, was extremely impressive for its briny, savory, mineral depth.

Thanks to Olivier Daubresse of Vinifrance Imports, and most of all to Philippe Plantevin for a wonderful, fun, educational evening of delicious wines.

What We’re Tasting: A Surprising Re-Visit

5.7.13 013When we’ve had a wine in the store for awhile, we try to check in on it every once in awhile, and see where it is in its evolution.  When Olivier Daubresse was here this past Saturday with Philippe Plantevin, towards the end of the afternoon we decided to revisit another of his Southern Rhone producers, Chateau Husson.  We opened the 2009 Les Saumades, an almost all-Grenache bottling.  When it first arrived in the store, it was a delicious, but very fruit-forward style of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Pretty and accessible, but maybe not as complex as some of the other Chateauneuf-du-Papes we carry.

Now, it is all grown-up!  Les Saumades is much grippier, earthier, with much more savory, black olive-scented depth.  That gorgeous fruit is still there, but there is so much more going on – we couldn’t believe it!  As Doug and I swirled and sipped and our eyes widened, Olivier just looked at us with a knowing smirk, as though he knew this would happen all along, and he was just waiting for us to figure it out.  Spending decades tasting through France will do that for you!

This is why buying a half-case or case of the same wine is a great way to learn about how wine ages, and at what stage you personally like to drink it.  Every year or so you can revisit it, and see how it’s doing.  It may be better or worse than the last time you had it, but you’ll always learn something.

And sometimes, you’ll get a wonderful surprise, just like we did!