Climb the Hill for Delicious Burgundy Values

Really good, stylish, delicious red and white Burgundy values are still out there – but you have to be willing to explore a bit to find them. So drive the road from Chassagne-Montrachet past St Aubin and climb the hill to the Haute-Cotes village of La Rochepot. That’s where you’ll find Jerome and Elisabeth Billard, sometimes their son Louis, and some of the most compelling white and red Burgundy values we’ve tasted in years!

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On our visit in March, Doug got to meet Jerome and Elisabeth … and Rafael the horse, an important part of Dom Billard’s vineyard care!

Jerome took over the family estate 20 years ago, in 1999, and promptly stopped selling to the local co-op and began bottling wine himself. He quickly converted his vineyards to organic farming and, while raising three children, gradually acquired small vineyard plots in select sites across the Cotes de Beaune.

Today his children are mostly grown and one son, Louis, is a budding winegrower working in the cellars at Domaine Romanee-Conti (on his days off, he helps Jerome work the family’s vineyards and is learning how to use Rafael the horse to reduce the use of tractors within the vines).

Dom Billard signElisabeth and Jerome of BillardBut the winegrowing philosophy has remained constant.

Low-Impact, Meticulous Farming: All of Billard’s vineyards are farmed organically with no chemical insecticides, fertilizers or herbicides. In four vineyards, plowing and mowing are done by horse, rather than tractor, to limit soil compactions. The vines are tightly pruned to limit fruit set and bunches are dropped while green to keep yields low.

Focus on Freshness: Jerome loves ripe fruit – but not over-ripe fruit. He picks each site to achieve fine balance of fruit flavors and acidity and then full destems and sorts grape by grape to ensure that only perfect berries make it into the wine.

Gently, Gently: Chardonnay is pressed slow and gently to extract pure juice with no bitterness from the skins or seeds. Pinot Noir goes into the fermenters as whole berries, and then are trod by foot to release the juice and extract color and structure with soft, supple, tannins. As much as possible, the young wine moves through the winery via gravity or air pressure to minimize harsh pumping.

Judicious Oak: Great Burgundy needs time in barrel and the finest, most concentrated, wines need at least a little new oak to achieve balance, finesse and complexity. But Jerome knows that too much wood flavor means that the unique signature of site and vintage can easily be overwhelmed. The whites all ferment and age in barrel, while the reds all see barrel for aging. But the quality of barrel is very high, the toast levels low, and the percentage of new oak kept down so each wine’s character and fruit can shine through.

Generosity, Drinkability, and Unmistakably Burgundy
In the open, attractive, delicious vintage 2017, this gave Billard a set of wines that have a lovely sense of generosity and drinkability but that remain unmistakably “Burgundy.” And in 2018, when ripeness levels are higher, his restraint produced cuvees of outstanding depth with no loss of finesse and freshness.

Folks, these are seriously good Burgundies that you don’t have to be “serious” to enjoy. Highly recommended. Get ’em.

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Falanghina and Aglianico: A New Appreciation for Campania’s Native Grapes

doug-in-italy-.jpgI’m just back from a week in Italy, mostly in Campania, and in addition to six pounds of extra girth, I’ve come back with a new and much deeper appreciation of two of Campania’s native grapes: Falanghina (white) and Aglianico (red).

And a very deep appreciation of the outstanding work done by brothers Giuseppe and Libero Rillo at Fontanavecchia!

Over 2000 Years of Vineyards
The estate’s vineyards have been the source of fine wine for more than two thousand years. First planted to grapes like Falanghina and Aglianico by Greek colonists, the hillside vineyards of Taburno were the source of ancient Rome’s most important wines including the famed Falernum.  Red Falernum was probably made from Aglianico; white from Falanghina (or, possibly, Greco – we’re not sure!).

Libero Rillo’s ancestors have grown grapes here for hundreds of years and started what would become Fontanavecchia in the late 19th Century.  His father began bottling and selling wine with that label some 30 years ago, but it was Giuseppe and Libero who took the estate to new heights over the past 15 years.

Quality in the Vineyards
As in all great wine, the quality starts in the vineyards.  The estate’s 18 hectares of vines grow on the slopes of rolling hills covered in argillaceous soils – fine, powdery, and very old marine sediments that become thick and a bit gooey with rain but shed water quickly before the vines can take up too much. The Rillo family keeps yields low by careful pruning and green harvesting as necessary, and the region’s warm, sunny days followed by surprisingly chilly nights delivers wonderful ripeness and generosity of fruit matched by crisp acids and, for red Aglianico, firm, chewy, tannins.

Winemaking is simple and clean.  The whites are gently pressed and fermented cool in tank with some later harvested whites seeing a short stay in used cask.  The red Aglianico is allowed to ferment warmer with gently pump-overs to extract color and flavor and then given several years in barrel to soften and mature.

Ready to Drink … and to Age
Libero believes in releasing wines when they are ready to drink, which means fairly early for the white Falanghina del Sannio but years after harvest for his Aglianico.  But, make no mistake: these wines age wonderfully well.  At the generous (and 3 hour long!) “light” dinner and tasting we had at the winery, Libero showed us whites back to vintage 2001 that were mature but still vibrant, full of freshness, and utterly delicious.  And the 2001 Aglianico we discovered on a restaurant wine list (for just 30 Euro!) the day before was gloriously complex and delicious and still had plenty of time to go.

While Fontanavecchia makes more “important” wines, the “base” Aglianico del Taburno and Falanghina del Sannio were the bottlings I found most satisfying and exciting.  The Aglianico outperforms its 90 point rating (and crazy low price) by a good bit.  And the white may be the best they’ve ever made – which is saying something about a wine that has already earned more Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri awards than any other Campania Falanghina!

As the summer goes on, we’ll be bringing you several more of my favorite wines of this delicious trip.  But none will have better quality-price-ratios (QPR) than these.  Grab them while you can!

Grand Cru Quality from the Heart of Provence

Dom d'eole wineryThe superb quality of Provence’s 2015 and 2016 vintages demands serious attention, perhaps more serious than any of us have given it in the past.

Our guide to the great wines of France, importer Olivier Daubresse introduced many of you to the wines of Domaine d’Eole over 15 years ago. Since then, we’ve featured them in emails, stacked them on the floor, put them on the shelves, and taken special joy in using older vintages in special tastings and dinners to show off how well they age. And, because Olivier purchased huge amounts of outstanding vintages like 1999, 2001, and 2003, (all of which have continued to improve with time) we haven’t needed to work with new vintages over the past 3-4 years.

But the combination of great vintages plus big ratings from Wine Advocate encourages us to jump on these relatively young wines before the rest of the world catches on.

You may have tried Dom d’Eole wines in the past; perhaps the pretty, fruity pink, the fresh and earthy red, or even – in past vintages – the lightly exotic white. But you have never tasted d’Eole wines – heck, any Provençal wines –  like Dom D-Eole’s Cuvee Lea and Cuvee “S.”

Ecocert Organic Certified
eco-cert.jpgSome background. Domaine d’Eole 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 Mistral wind’s intensity – the fan is set to “medium” here rather than “high” – but still allow for some cool air from the Mediterranean Sea – 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.

The 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
Dom Eole vineyard

And 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?

At Domaine d’Eole, things are more serious. For both red and white 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 30 hectoliters per hectare – half of the legal crop. And, for these wines, yields are lower still, as low as 20 hectoliters per hectare for Cuvee Lea.

Grand Cru-Level Winemaking
Having grown, harvested, and brought to the winery perfect (and expensive!) grapes, winemaker Wimmer treats this, the best of his harvest, with the kind of care normally found in only much more expensive wines from much more famous regions.

The luxurious Grenache and Syrah used for Dom d’Eole’s Cuvee Lea are crushed and go into large cement vats. Temperature control units allow the must to reach a moderate 78-80 degrees – perfect for extracting color and tannin without bitterness or damage to fruit flavors – and then hold that temperature for 18 days. Two or three times daily during the time in vat, Wimmer uses gentle pumps to pull fermenting wine up from the bottom of the tank and pour it over the cap, extracting still more color and intensity.

After fermentation, Cuvee Lea is a bit of a beast, so Wimmer racks the wine into expensive French oak barriques and lets it rest there for a year to soften, round out, gain richness, and prepare for final blending. After blending, the wine gets a six-month rest in cement tanks to integrate and soften a touch more before bottling. It then rests again in bottle in the cellar.

The Newest Direction
Concrete eggDom d-Eole’s Cuvee S Syrah is part of the estate’s newest direction, working to match their all-natural, organic farming with more natural and minimal intervention winemaking. After fermentation, some of the vineyard’s finest Syrah goes into a unique, egg-shaped tank made of untreated concrete.

The egg-shape encourages a natural circulation, mixing the fine lees (dead yeast cells) left after fermentation with the wine to provide a creamier, more complex, texture. And slightly porous concrete allows in a touch of oxygen – like barrels do – to soften the wine’s firm tannins but not add any oaky spice or vanilla flavors.

The Best of Provence?
With Provençal rosé so successful these days, it’s hardly surprising that most estates and growers can’t be bothered to make the investment, do the work, and take the time to make wines like these. Unless you’ve had previous vintages of Domaine d’Eole’s Cuvee Lea, then it’s very unlikely you’ve ever had Provençal wine of this quality and style.

You can find Dom d-Eole’s wines on our website here.

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A Labor of Love: Willamette’s Walter Scott Wines

A good friend and customer introduced us to Walter Scott wines a few years ago, long before they became available on the East Coast. She proclaimed them her very favorite wines in the Willamette Valley – high praise from a discerning taster. That led us to see what others were saying.

Here’s what Wine Advocate said after tasting Walter Scott’s 2012 releases:

“When I am asked if there were any “great discoveries” in Oregon, I would mention “Walter Scott Wines” without hesitation. This is a small bijou operation run by Ken Pahlow and Erica Landon and their story is one of essentially risking everything to pursue their dream. If their wines are of this quality, then their sacrifices have been worthwhile.” Neal Martin, Wine Advocate, March 2015

Two years later, after visiting with Ken and Erica again and trying their 2014s, Martin was even more impressed:

“And bloody good they are as well. I just like how Ken and Erica roll – nothing fancy, no blockbuster or pretentiousness – just killer Pinot Noir with purity, intensity and personality…That leaves me to say if you have not tried these wines yet, do yourself a favor.” Neal Martin, Wine Advocate, June 2016

And the wines keep getting better and better!

Deep Experience in the Willamette
Walter Scott Ken and EricaWalter Scott is a labor of love from the husband/wife team of Ken Pahlow and Erica Landon. Ken caught the Oregon wine bug in the early 1990s and soon began showing up at Mark Vlossak’s St Innocent winery in the Eola Hills offering to do anything that needed doing. Eventually, in 1995, he wore Mark down and started helping out at harvest and in the winery on a regular basis, ultimately taking on sales responsibilities there too.

During his 14 years working at St. Innocent, Ken took a second job handling sales for a leading Oregon-based importer. In 2002, he first met Sommelier Erica Landon. Erica had started in the wine business in Portland and at a Mount Hood resort before becoming the sommelier and GM for the Ponzi family’s Dundee Bistro (that’s where Ken first met her in 2002). She went on to earn a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence at Ten 01 back in Portland (while beginning to date Ken in 2007) before becoming Wine Director for a Portland restaurant group and becoming a wine instructor for the trade.

Ken and Erica married and decided to give winemaking a try, emptying their retirement accounts to make 165 cases of wine in the great 2008 harvest. In 2009, Ken traded labor for enough space at Patricia Green Cellars to make 650 cases. In 2010, Ken took a new job heading up sales at Evening Land Vineyards in the Eola Hills that allowed him to make his next two vintages there.

Evening Land was a great place for Ken and Erica to take the next step. The Evening Land story is complex, but the key points are that an investor group acquired one of Oregon’s greatest vineyards, Seven Springs, in 2007 and brought in Burgundy’s Dominique Lafon to consult. Ken was able to soak up Lafon’s expertise and also get to know current owner/managers Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman.

In 2012, Ken and Erica signed up long-time fans Andy and Sue Steinman as partners and, with their help, leased and converted a cider house on the edge of Justice Vineyard in the Eola Hills. Then, in 2014, the biggest step yet – they welcomed a new partner (daughter Lucy) to the venture and left their day jobs to focus on Walter Scott full time.

As Neal Martin reported in The Wine Advocate, “their story is one of essentially risking everything to pursue their dream. If their wines are of this quality, then their sacrifices have been worthwhile.” With influences ranging from Mark Vlossak, Dominique Lafon, the Ponzi family, Sashi Moorman and more, it’s hardly surprising that their Walter Scott wines are good. It’s the way they’re good that’s so delightful.

Vineyard Focus
willamettevalleyFirst, there’s a strong focus on great vineyards here, mainly in the southerly Willamette Valley appellation of the Eola Amity Hills and including one of America’s greatest Pinot Noir sites, Seven Springs. Their vineyards are all dry-farmed and feature predominantly marine sedimentary soils. This kind of dirt brings out the minerality and elegance of Pinot Noir paired with ripe cherry/raspberry/strawberry fruit – what I’d argue is the essence of great Oregon Pinot Noir.

Ken and Erica work with their farming partners to ensure that yields are appropriate to the vintage – lower in cool harvests like 2010 and 2011, higher as needed in warmer years like 2014 and 2015 – and that the fruit is allowed to ripen slowly, without excess sugar and with vibrant acids.

Complexity from an Old-Fashioned Harvest
Second, in these climate change days, ripeness is pretty easy to achieve – but complexity can be harder. So Ken monitors all of his vineyards as a single unit, tasting and testing the grapes until he’s confident that all his blocks and clones are about 95% “there.” And then he picks. The mixture of some under ripe, some over ripe, and mostly perfectly ripe grapes of all different clones gives Walter Scott wines an extra layer of complexity and integration and phenomenal depth and freshness.

I remember tasting these wines from barrel in February 2018 and hearing Ken call them “Perfectly pleasant wines.” Which proves that winemakers are as inept at evaluating the quality of young wine in barrel as are critics (and retailers) – because the bottled 2017s from Walter Scott are simply stupid good.

Last year, Willamette Valley legend Ken Wright wrote that vintage 2017 produced “Wines that are quickly agreeable. 2017 was a throwback to the classic vintages we have experienced over 30 plus years in the Willamette Valley. … This is a year that reminds me of 1988, which aged so effortlessly (and is still amazing), though this year has more power and concentration.”

That’s my – and now Ken and Erica’s! – assessment of the 2017 vintage as well. These are delicious wines you’ll be able to drink right away for their purity, fresh fruit, and food-friendly structures. But don’t drink them all right away! Because – like the 1988s that are still going strong nearly 30 years after harvest – these beautiful 2017 Walter Scott wines have plenty left to give after time in a cool cellar.

The Young Master of Verdicchio

riccardo baldi la staffa

Now 30 year-old Riccardo Baldi grew up in the hilltop town of Staffolo in Italy’s Marche region, not far from the Adriatic sea. It’s a town where, as he says, “everyone makes wine, because we have 2,000 people and about 20 wineries.”

His parents established a family winery in 1994, and Riccardo worked harvest and in the winery growing up but left Staffolo to study engineering after high school. He quickly realized that wine was in his blood.

Verdicchio: Worthy of Fine Wine Status
la staffa vineyard and signHe returned to Staffolo and apprenticed himself to Lucio Canestrari of Fattoria Corncino, the winemaker who was among the first to show that the Marche’s Verdicchio grape was worthy of fine wine status (and not just something to be served to tourists in fish-shaped bottles). Eventually, Riccardo asked his parents for 2 HA of vineyards to try his own approach to winegrowing – organic farming, picking just ripe enough, and making wine simply to emphasize Staffolo’s uniquely calcium-rich and very old soils.

He was successful, rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the Marche’s most exciting young winemakers. Today, he and his parents have expanded La Staffa to cover 10 hectares, all at around 1,500 feet elevation, exposed to breezes from the Adriatic Sea, and lying on Staffolo’s uniquely ancient soils.

Where Vines Struggle …
la staffa vineyardRiccardo farms about 10 HA of vines in the Marche’s Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi zone, not far inland from the Adriatic Sea at around 1500 feet elevation. Riccardo’s vines grow on uplifted marine sedimentary soils that are around four million years older than most of the region. With their high concentration of calcium carbonate – up to four times other nearby locations – Riccardo’s vines have to struggle extra hard and deliver a unique salty sea-shell minerality.

To capture that minerality, Riccardo farms his vines organically and by hand, picks on the early side, and ferments and ages this wine in cool stainless steel tanks. The result is a wine with lovely nectarine and stone fruit flavors and a good dose of Verdicchio’s classic lavender, fennel and bitter almond complexity, all supported by crisp acids and salty seashell minerality.

Overlooked by the Critics
Despite the growing reputation of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Riccardo’s own talent, these are wines that consistently get overlooked by the major wine critics – probably a good thing for us! But the last vintage of this wine did get a little attention from Ian d’Agata at Vinous who rated it 91 points and described it like this:

“Nectarine, dried orange peel, walnut and fresh white flowers are lifted by a minty topnote; a hint of volatile acidity blows off with aeration. Glyceral and fruit-driven on the palate, with flavors of stone fruit nectar and lime framed and lifted by harmonious acidity. Very long and refreshing on the aftertaste.” Vinous 91 points (for vintage 2016).

The 2017 edition is better still, with even more drive and intensity to match a richness and complexity that’s been building since it first arrived last July. The past year in bottle has seen the wine unwind a bit more with the fruit, fennel and sea shell aspects gaining breadth, the texture picking up weight, and the tangy lime zest acidity keep on going strong.

It will certainly shine with shellfish and seafood of all kinds and with ripe cheese and grilled vegetables as well.

And it’s also fun to drink solo as a refreshing break from a warm summer’s day. It’s open this week for tasting. Check it out on our website!