From Lake Kaltern: Unique Co-Op, Unique Wines

dolomitesNestled 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
But 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 3 acres), too small for growers to profitably make their own wine.

Banding Together
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 Kellerei Kaltern.
Kallerei Kaltern Lake

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.

Tasting at Kellerei KalternWe carry more wines from this brilliant group of grower/winemakers than from any other winery in the world. But during a morning visit to the winery last March, we discovered that our current selections just scratch the surface of all this talented group of growers and winemakers can do.

We picked the best of the best from our tasting and worked with our partners at Siema Imports to bring them into the USA just for you. Click here to read about our four featured selections – don’t miss them!

Kaltern Wines

Austrian Reds: Where the Action Is

Austrian Red Wine GlassIf you think about Austrian wine at all – and, after more than 10 years of flogging the stuff to you, we hope you think of it often! – you probably think of vibrant dry Riesling and peppery, refreshing, Grüner Veltliner. Nothing wrong with that, but the real action in Austria these days is with red wines. And while native grapes like Blaufrankisch, St. Laurent, and Zweigelt (a crossing of the first two) certainly remain in the forefront, the most promising red grape in Austria right now is Burgundy’s finest: Pinot Noir.

Not that Pinot Noir is new here. The Cistercian monks who helped plant Burgundy brought Pinot Noir to Austria in 1394. And the grape has always thrived in Wagram. Almost due west of Vienna, Wagram benefits from the intersection of two very different climates. To the east, across Hungary, is the hot Pannonian plain which blows warming winds across the Danube to promote grape ripeness. To the west lie the foothills of the Alps, bringing cool night air that slows ripening, aids in flavor development, and locks in refreshing acids.

Hitting His Stride With Pinot Noir
Anton BauerFourth-generation Wagram winegrower Anton (“Tony”) Bauer recognized the potential for Pinot Noir in his Grüner-dominated region early. He’s been growing and vinifying Pinot Noir for years, but over the past few vintages he’s clearly hit his stride – with very impressive results.

Tony’s “Reserve” Pinot Noir – from his finest plots and aged 20 months in 100% new French oak – has become one of Austria’s finest. Wine Enthusiast awarded it 92 points in 2011 followed by 96 points, 94 and 94 points in vintages 2012, 2013 and 2014. To earn this kind of acclaim is hard in any year. To show these astonishing ratings in years hot, warm, and wickedly wet (2014) is…well, astonishing!

Critical Accolades
While the Reserve Pinot has been garnering all kinds of accolades, Tony’s “regular” Wagram Pinot kept improving, too, but flew under the critical radar. That changed with vintage 2014, when Wine Enthusiast tasted it for the first time in a few years and scored it 93 points.

A 93 point rating for an under $25 Pinot Noir is always impressive. For one made in Austria’s most wet, cool, and challenging harvests of recent memory is nothing short of astonishing. But Tony rose to the challenge, making a wine Master of Wine Anne Krebiehl described like this:

“Pure notes of red fruits reach the nose: Morello cherry and mulberry harmonize beautifully. Their purity pervades a palate that has the lightest touch: there is something authentic, beautiful and unforced about this. There is a suggestion, too, of herb, moss or undergrowth. This unpretentious winemaking style lets this pure, glorious fruit speak for itself and brings with it a profound sense of honest depth, bountiful earth and full-fruited balance.” Wine Enthusiast 93 points

So, ponder this: if Tony made a 93 point Pinot Noir is what was, frankly, a pretty crummy growing season, what do you think he did in a great year like 2015?

Super-Tuscan, Ferragamo Style

Il Borro

What happens when the head of Italy’s Ferragamo fashion house revives an historic estate in eastern Tuscany, converts it to organic/biodynamic farming, hires leading Tuscan consultant Stefano Chioccioli, and spares no expense in farming and winemaking?

In the case of Il Borro Toscana 2013, something pretty darn delicious – “stylish,” actually!

While you’ve probably heard of the Ferragamo family, Il Borro may be a new name to even dedicated Super-Tuscan fans. When Ferruccio Ferragamo purchased the estate in 1993, it was a slightly run-down castle and village perched high on a pass in eastern Tuscany. While wine had been made here since Roman times, the vineyards, cellar and buildings were in disrepair and still showing the impact of WWII shelling.

Il borro wine cellarWith his son Salvatore taking the lead, the Ferragamo family poured money into the estate (it’s now a Relais & Chateaux luxury resort) and vineyards. With the guidance of legendary consultant Niccolò d’Afflitto, sites were selected, cleared, planted and the century-old cellar renovated. In 2003, they released their first wine – Il Borro Toscana 1999 – a $70 bottling Robert Parker rated 92 points and called “A dead-ringer for a top-class Medoc.”

After a string of up and down vintages, the Ferragamo family decided to up their game by starting to convert to organic farming in 2007. With the arrival in 2011 of superstar winemaker Stefano Chioccioli (a man with 100+ Gambero Rosso “Tre Biccheri” wines to his name), quality soared reaching its apex with this 2013, the winery’s highest rated and best wine to date.
Il Borro Toscana Rosso 1
It’s especially nice to see as the quality and ratings have climbed, Il Borro’s price tag has actually dropped a bit. We suspect the attention drawn by the ultra-enthusiastic Wine Advocate praise will put a little upward pressure on future releases. But for now, this is one of the most exciting Super-Tuscan red blends we’ve seen in years. Highly recommended for any fan of rich Super-Tuscans, powerful Napa Cabernet, or stylish Left Bank Bordeaux!

We love this beauty’s deep, dark, currant and black raspberry fruit, shadings of spice and tobacco, and juicy freshness already. As Wine Advocate reported in their 95 point review in May:

“The 2013 Il Borro is a delicious wine that I have tasted several times over the past few months. It presents seamless aromatic integration with luscious dark fruit, proportioned doses of spice, tobacco and sweet blackberry flavors. This wine offers velvety softness and plumpness over a richly extracted mouthfeel and sweet oak tannins. The slightly cooler 2013 vintage reveals very long persistence with pretty nuances of moist earth, rum cake and cherry liqueur. This is a landmark wine from the Il Borro estate in Tuscany. Drink 2017-2030.” 95 points

Does Rosé Age? A Case Study with Vignelaure

outside roseWe often get asked, “Does rosé age?” And our answer: “no and yes!”

“No” because very, very, few pink wines are better at age four or five than they were on release. But “yes!” because almost all of the pink wine we buy gets better as it recovers from the shock of early spring bottling and shipment. I find that most good rosés peak somewhere between August and Thanksgiving and then hold nicely into the following year.

And if a pink wine has enough tannin and acid to protect it, it can keep right on improving for 24 months and is actually at its best in its second summer. The 93 point 2015 Vignelaure rosé is a perfect example.

Despite our eye-popping $9.98/ea by the case price (more on why that’s true later), this is not your typical, just-bottled and rushed to market rosé. But, then, Chateau Vignelaure is not your typical Provence wine estate.

A Top Site for Cabernet. Georges Brunet, owner of Third Growth Ch La Lagune in Bordeaux, discovered the Vignelaure site in the early 1960s. With soils perfectly suited to Cabernet and 1,300 feet of elevation moderating Provence’s intense sunshine, he planted the vineyard to Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings taken from La Lagune. By the mid-1970s, Vignelaure – meaning “the vineyard of the sacred spring” – had gained fame as one of Provence’s best, agreeable, and distinctive reds.

In his benchmark 1987 book on Rhone and Provence, Robert Parker called Vignelaure “one of the showpiece properties not only of Provence, but of France…Chateau Vignelaure specializes in red wine, capable of ageing 15-20 years, produced from a blend of two great wine grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Vignelaure’s wines are elegant expressions of Provencal wine-making at its best.”

ch Vignelaure bottleAdding a Rosé. Starting in 1993, Vignelaure added top-flight rosé to the portfolio, too. They blend 40% Grenache and 30% Syrah – the region’s classic rosé grapes – with 30% of their stunning Cabernet Sauvignon to create a wine with authentic Provençal character plus one extra notch of richness, power, and ability to age. The Grenache, Syrah, and most of the Cabernet ferment and age in tank while a little of the Cabernet rests in barrel.

The result is a rosé that was good when it landed here last summer but has only gotten better in the past 10 months or so. There’s been no dimming of the aromas and flavors of red berries, tangerine and crushed herb. But the texture is even better, round and plush and mouthfilling but still light and fresh. Delicious right now, but no rush: save a bottle or two for Thanksgiving!

A Note about the Price. This rosé released last year at a $20 price (we offered it at $16.98 last year). Why so much less this year? It’s a combination of factors. Start with Vignelaure’s fairly late arrival last year (we didn’t get any until late July) so that the importer didn’t sell all they had by the end of rosé season. Then add in America’s obsession with drinking only the youngest, just-released pink wines from the most recent harvest. Put those together with a wine that’s actually better than it was last year and you get one heck of a deal!

Through Heat, Rain, Frost and Hail … Success in Chablis

Guillaume of Louis Michel

Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel

Writing about the vintage in Chablis the past five years has been…well, for those of us who have gotten to know the women and men who grow and make these classy, dry, and mineral-laced Chardonnays, perhaps “depressing” is the best word. Frost, scorching heat, ill-timed rain, and – again and again – severe hail have struck Chablis with mind-numbing regularity.

In the words of the late, much missed, Roseanne Roseannadanna, “It’s always something.”

A Rush to Harvest
Vintage 2015 started out so well! The growing season started in early April and flowering happened on schedule under clement skies in early June. Despite some very hot weather in late June (109 degrees on June 24!) and a very dry July and August, a touch of refreshing rain in mid-August got the vines going. As growers went to bed on the night of August 31, they were expecting a great harvest and Louis Michel expected to start picking on September 6.

At 1:30 am on September 1, the bottom fell out. Hail pelted almost all of Chablis for an hour or more, leaving leaves shredded and some of the fruit damaged. At Louis Michel, everything went on overdrive, with every available picker and harvesting machine (including some borrowed from growers less impacted by the hail) pressed into service to get the fruit off the vines and into the winery before rot set in. By September 4, all fruit impacted by hail was in the winery, pressed, and ready to ferment.

Then – the Magic of Doing Nothing
Louis Michel ChablisWhen you taste the Louis Michel 2015s, the question you’re going to ask is, “What magic did winemaker Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel work in the winery to make such great Chablis under such challenging conditions?” The answer: Nothing.

Because “nothing” is what Guillaume does. The pressed juice went into stainless steel tanks and then…sat there until the yeast living in the winery air decided to start bubbling away. The only two winemaking decision Guillaume made was a) to keep things cool (as always) and b) to rack the finished wine off the fine lees a bit earlier than usual.

Louis Michel Montee de Tonnerre BottleWas acid added? Nope – correctly grown grapes keep their acid even in hot seasons. Sugar added to increase alcohol? Nope – the fruit came in at a just-right 12-13%. Lees stirred to add richness? Nope – older vines and warm weather gave all the richness you’d want. Oak used to shape or intensify the wines? Nope again – the only oak barrels in this winery have been cut in half and have flowers growing in them!

As in the past few harvests, the hardest part of Guillaume job after the grapes came into the winery was calling customers around the world to tell them they couldn’t have all the cases they wanted, because the hail and heat reduced the crop by 20-30%. Next year, we’ll tell you how even more severe hail brought yields down 30-40%. The year after, we’ll have to talk about how 2017’s bitter spring frosts cost the Domaine half its fruit.

For now, though, we have once again secured an above average allocation of these very much above average wines. Enjoy them while you can!

Fine Wine, Fine Vintages in Beaujolais

chateau-thivin-domaine-mont-brouillyThere’s going to be quite an argument about which of the past three vintages is the “greatest ever” in Beaujolais.

Vintage 2014 delivered classic, vibrant, elegant wines that capture the essence of Gamay’s juicy joy. Harvest 2015 added much deeper, riper, fruit and more density than usual, but with no loss of energy or minerality. And the 2016 harvest – while seriously reduced by hail and frost – may turn out to marry the best characteristics of 2015 and 2014 combined.

What will broach no argument is that Chateau Thivin made utterly brilliant wines in all three years, continuing to cement their place among the very best in all of Beaujolais – arguably, among the best in Burgundy as a whole.

Ancient Volcano, Modern Winery
Ch Thivin la_famille_geoffray The estate founded in 1383 and purchased by the Geoffray family in 1877. The chateau (yes, there really is one), winery and the estate’s best vineyards perch on the sides of an extinct volcano called Mont Brouilly.

The volcano’s very steep slope – around 40 degrees in the heart of the vineyard – provides excellent drainage, fantastic exposure to the sun, and the platform for the Geoffray family’s modern gravity-flow winery.

When others in Beaujolais chased quick and easy cash in the Beaujolais Nouveau boom of the 1970s and 1980s, the Geoffray family just kept on making fine wine. Vineyards are plowed to create healthier soils, no insecticides are used, and grapes are harvested and sorted by hands.

Whole bunches of ripe, juicy Gamay grapes roll by gravity into tanks were fermentation starts naturally with no additions of yeast or enzymes or anything else. After a day, rosé tanks are pressed gently and finish fermentation in stainless steel. Reds soak for a week or so before pressing and racking into large, old, wood casks and bottling six months later. And for these wines, that’s it.

Ch Thivin was long well-known as one of Beaujolais’s great estates within France, but pretty much unheard of in the US until the 1970s. That’s when importer Kermit Lynch first visited the Domaine and made it one his earliest imports to the USA. And I think his description of Ch Thivin today is still the best summing up we can offer. Thivin’s wines, he says, are “a country squire who is not afraid to get his boots muddy. Handsome, virile, earthy, and an aristocrat.”

Patricia Green Cellars in 2015

Not surprisingly for someone who wants to make “wines from dirt to wine,” Patty Green has worked from the ground up.
Patty Green
After a stint doing reforestation work (which sounds better than “planting lots of trees,”  Patty began in the wine business by picking grapes at Hillcrest Vineyard in the mid-1980s. By 1987 she was assistant winemaker there, followed by some consulting work in the early 1990s.

In 1993 she became winemaker and sole employee of Torri Mor where Jim Anderson eventually signed on as employee number two. After a fine run there (including plenty of highly rated wines and a bunch of local and national acclaim), she and Jim left to form Patricia Green Cellars in 2000.
The 2015 Vintage in Willamette

With 25+ vintages under her belt, Patty’s had the chance to see pretty much everything the Willamette Valley has to offer. So I think her comments about vintage 2015 from a recent newsletter are worth quoting at length:

“There is a lot of wine. Fortunately most of it is very good, an amazing amount is stellar, a couple of sites are uniquely exceptional and then one fermenter is…we’ll get to that another time. Explaining it is not particularly easy. It was a hot summer. 29 days with 90+ temperatures. That’s unusual in Oregon to say the least. There was ripeness for sure and higher than average brix. The wines in general do not taste like they are from a warm vintage, they are not big wines for the most part, they are by and large graceful, aromatic, nuanced and deeply complex wines. They are in great condition and our feeling is that they are going to be long lived and very serious wines that will happen to provide early term pleasure and satisfy both the hard core Pinot Noir drinker and those that are more casual with their varietal allegiances.
“The above summary was our take on the 2014 vintage. Nearly word for word it applies to the 2015 vintage. Overall the wines may be better. Why? We had a practice run the year before. We learned. We got better. If you liked those wines, you will love these.”
As always, Jim (taking lead in the winery) and Patty (lead on vineyards) made their winemaking decisions on the fly as the fruit arrived. Where it made sense, some blocks went into the fermenter as whole clusters. Others were completely destemmed and still others a mix of on- and off-stem berries. Each fermenter was punched down for extraction and left to soak until Jim and Patty thought it was about right and then racked off into new, second, third or fourth-used barrels as they thought made sense.
The Three Constants

In other words, the recipe here is “no recipe”! Just three things are constant for every wine: native yeast fermentation; all barrels from France’s Cadus, a premier Pinot Noir barrel house; and tasting, tasting, and tasting some more as the wines evolve to pick the right time and best blend to bottle.

In 2015, Jim and Patty bottled 20+ Pinot Noirs, each telling a unique story of site, vine variety and vintage. After a morning tasting with Jim at the winery in early March, we selected these four as our favorite expressions of Patricia Green Cellars’ unique sites and of this great, great vintage.
Patricia Green 2015s