Meet Philippe … and his 2015 Cotes du Rhones

philippe plantevinPhilippe Plantevin isn’t the flashiest winemaker in the Rhone, and hunkered down against the force of the Mistrial down near the town of Cairanne Nnrth of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, his domaine is easily overlooked.  But, while Philippe is a pretty quiet, even modest, guy, there’s plenty of intensity and passion for making great wine here too.  Philippe’s family grew grapes and made a little wine in the vineyards around the Southern Rhone village of Cairanne but sold all their fruit and wine to the local coop.  In 1993, the young Philippe decided he could do better.

He and his wife bought an 18th century coach house (now lovingly restored) and built a very traditional Rhone winery there – a little stainless steel, but mainly concrete tanks for fermentation and aging.  Over time, he acquired vineyards in Cairanne itself, in the surrounding town of Visan, and also to the south in Vaucluse, just outside the Cotes du Rhone AOC.

Philippe is a practical grape farmer, making minimal use of chemical sprays, training his vines low to the ground, and accepting the low yields needed for fine wine making in his rocky vineyards.  Old-vine Grenache makes up the backbone for all of Philippe’s reds, with low-yielding, small-berried, Syrah adding color, meaty notes, and black fruits.  In the winery, things are very traditional – long fermentations (10-30 days) in steel and concrete with regular pump overs to extract color and structure.

The resulting wines are very fine from top to bottom, but Philippe is too picky to just bottle everything he makes.  Instead, every year, he chooses his favorite tanks of wine to bottle with his label and sells the rest to top Rhone negotiants like Guigal.  If it has his label on it, it’s because the wine is very, very, good.

An Extraordinary CdR Villages
Phillippe Plantevin CDR La DaurelleWhile we love all of Philippe’s wines, his special Cotes du Rhone Villages La Daurelle cuvee is our favorite.  It’s a blend of 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Carignan and 10% Mourvedre grown on 8 hectares of clay/limestone scrubland in and around the village of Cairanne.  Like all of Philippe’s reds, the grapes are harvested and co-fermented in tank (steel and concrete), and most of the blend ages in tank as well.

But, with encouragement and support from his US importer, Olivier Daubresse, Philippe also ages one-third of the blend in small French oak cask.  The barrels are 1-5 years old, so they don’t add any oaky flavor to the wine.  Instead, they allow a slow, steady, exposure to oxygen bleeding into the wine through the wood to soften a bit while gaining rich, meaty, complexity.

Recent vintages of La Daurelle have been deep, chocolaty and intensely earthy – so you’d expect the 2015 (from a warm, rich, year) to be like that, right?

Nope!  As many Rhone winemakers discovered too late, down beneath all of 2015’s super ripe fruit they lay a core of pretty intense and not always fun grippy tannins.  Philippe clearly spotted them early, so for this wine – so rich in structured Carignan and Mourvedre – he worked with a bit lighter hand than usual.

I’ll be honest – when this wine arrived a few months ago, I was worried that his hand had been too light!  But 2015 La Daurelle is taking on more and more richness as it rests in bottle and is now showing like a really good (if $40-$50 cost) Chateauneuf du Pape.  The tannins are silky, the fruit explosive, and the future bright for this – once again, the best value in Rhone red you’ll find in the store.

See Philippe’s 2015 Rhones Here.

Advertisements

Kerner: The Drunken Poet Grape

Abbazia di Novacella1“How do you solve a problem like Maria?” the Austrian nuns sing at the beginning of The Sound of Music. Their denominational cousins, the monks at Abbazia di Novacella in what were Austria’s Dolomites until WWI, probably sang a similar song until the 1930s – “How do you solve a problem like well-exposed, high-altitude mountain vineyards prone to frost?”

Admittedly, not as catchy and perhaps they’d have chanted it instead of sung. But still.

The answer to the monks’ prayers was born in Germany in 1929, when a grape researcher named August Herold made his first plantable cross of Riesling and Trollinger, the grape called Schiava in Alto Adige. Schiava gave the new grape strong resistance to late season frost, while Riesling promised fine acidity, the ability to express minerality, and plenty of perfume. August named his new grape “Kerner” after a local German poet who once penned that classic, “Wohlauf, noch getrunken” which translates as “Arise, still drunk.”

In post-WWII Germany, plantings of Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus and other “new breeds” spread rapidly at the expense of more finicky, lower yielding, Riesling as the wine industry struggled to recover from war damage and devastation. At its peak, Kerner was actually Germany’s third-most planted grape! But it didn’t make very interesting wines at the relatively low altitudes where Germans planted it (and, especially, at the mind-bending yields they sought), so as the industry and Germany recovered in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond, Kerner plantings shrank fast.

Kerner Climbs the Mountains
The monks of Abbazia di Novacella control the third oldest continuously operating winery in Europe – dating from the 12th Century – so they’re not exactly prone to jumping on fads. Over the centuries, they and their partner growers working in the craggy vineyards of Alto Adige’s Dolomite had done a pretty fine job of mapping grape to vineyard based on exposure, soil type, slope and altitude.

Red grapes like Lagrein, Schiava, and Pinot Nero claimed the lowest vineyards, those at around 1,000 feet altitude ringing Lake Kaltern near Bolzano (45 minutes south of the winery). Near the winery in Brixen (or Bressanone if you prefer the Italian), Pinot Grigio climbed up the slopes from 1,200 feet and Gewurtztraminer and other whites claimed full-sun South and Southwest facing sites at up to 2,000 feet.

But at just short of a half-mile up, none of these grapes would consistently ripen – or at least succeed at economic yields in the face of bitter cold spring nights and regular frosts.

So, at some point in the 1970s, the monks and their winegrowing team decided to give frost-resistant Kerner a try. While the first wines may not have been very successful, soon the combination of steep vineyards, super-dense planting, plenty of daytime sunshine and crisp, cold, nights proved to be exactly what Kerner needed to shine. So much so that in 1993, Italy recognized high-altitude Alto Adige Kerner with its own DOC status.

Kerner vs. Praepositus Kerner
Abbazia Di Novacella Kerner PraepositusToday, the monks’ winemaking team produce two Kerners. The “Classic” Kerner is delicious and is, as the folks at the winery told us last March, a perfect aperitivo wine – ideal for sipping on during the hour after work and before dinner. Light, fresh, refreshing fun.

Then there’s the Praepositus Kerner. It’s made the exact same way as the Classic Kerner: harvested by hand, destemmed, crushed and fermented cool in tank and then bottled after six months on the fine lees. But it’s a completely different wine because it’s made from grapes from two of the world’s finest Kerner vineyards.

The vineyards sit at 2,100 – 2,300 feet altitude and the vines grow on hand-built terraces running down the 25-40% gradient mountain slopes. These super-steep slopes allow the densely-planted vines (about 2,500 plants per acre) to slowly ripen to perfection. Although both the Classic and Praepositus Kerners are harvested about the same time (in early October) the “regular” wine usually comes in at 13.5-13.7% alcohol. Praepositus reaches 14.3% in 2016.

The extra alcohol translates to better body and more flavor – because only when it’s fully ripe does Kerner really come into its own with explosive aromatics and wildly complex flavors. And the cold nights and deep minerality balance the richness of texture perfectly, giving the wine compelling lift, definition and refreshing crispness.

If you’ve had other Kerner wines before, then know that this one is better. And if you’ve never tried one, please, don’t miss this!

No Oak, No Fooling Around: Louis Michel Chablis

The Michel family has been growing and making Chablis since 1850 – six generations of family winemakers now led by young Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel with help from his uncle, fifth generation Louis Michel winemaker Jean-Loup Michel and his nephew, Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel. Always a respected Chablis house, the real revolution began here 40 years ago. As Jean-Loup explains:

“Chablis is not Meursault. We stopped using barrels for our wine-making almost forty years ago. In the past, barrels were the only containers that could be used to make wine, they were never used with the intention of imparting a woody taste: that’s why old barrels were used in preference to younger ones. Today, stainless steel tanks are perfectly suited to our wine-making: aside from their total neutrality, they allow the complexity and pureness of the aromas to come through, respecting the authentic taste of true Chablis, without any artificial wood. The only expression in our bottles comes from pure, clean and precise terroir.”

While anyone can make clean, crisp, Chablis in stainless steel, only elite growers and winemakers can balance Chablis classically bright acidity with mouthfilling richness without the help of oak. Louis Michel’s secret?

Great Sites – Over the decades, the Michel family has acquired prime vineyards in some of Chablis’ best terroirs. The estate’s 25 hectares of vineyard all lie in the heart of Chablis’ ancient vineyards. No fruit travels more than 2km to the winery and the Domaine’s three Grand Cru sites are mere meters away.

Meticulous, Organic, Vineyard Work – Each vineyard is managed individually, with its own regime of pruning, leaf pulling, green harvest, cover crops, and tilling designed to maximize vine health and help express the site.

Late Harvest of Fully Ripe Fruit – With no oak to hide flaws, Guillaume is willing to wait until each vineyard achieves optimal ripeness before beginning harvest. And, having risked crop loss to late season rain or rot, he harvests quickly – sometimes using multiple harvest teams to hand pick all of his 1er and Grand Cru grapes within a few days.

Natural Winemaking With Minimal Intervention – When he took the reins at Louis Michel, Guillaume took the bold step of ending use of cultured yeasts, allowing the wines to ferment only with wild yeast from the vineyards and winery. It’s a nerve wracking process, with some fermentations taking 2 months or longer to complete. But, by allowing the wines to proceed at their own pace, rest on their fine lees (8 months for Village, up to 12 for 1er and Grand Cru sites) without stirring, and never racking the wines until they are ready to bottle, Guillaume attains a rich, creamy, texture that balances the detailed acidity of Chablis.

Critical Praise for Quality and Value
Even though Domaine Louis Michel has flown “under the radar” in the US market, Burgundy insiders have lavished praise on the estate for years – and especially appreciate the no oak, all natural, philosophy. British Master of Wine Jancis Robinson says, “Those who favour stainless steel want the purest flavour of Chablis, with the firm streak of acidity and the mineral quality that the French describe as goût de pierre à fusil, or gunflint. Louis Michel’s is generally considered to be the epitome of this style.”

Burgundy expert (and MW) Clive Coates agrees: “This is a brilliant consistent estate, where there is no use of wood. The magnificently austere and steely wines keep much longer than most Chablis.” And, as Wine Advocate has reported, even though “Michel is notorious for his adherence to a stainless steel regimen of elevage, I do not find his wines lacking for depth and richness, although though they tend to be marked by refreshing, forward fruit, as well as scrupulous cleanliness. They also offer outstanding value.”

Food-friendly, honest, and very delicious wines that are also great value: that sums up why you’ve made Louis Michel our best-selling Chablis ever. The 2016 is another winner that you will not want to miss!

Discovering Burgundy’s Viré-Clessé

Vire-Clesse.pngEven a lot of diehard white Burgundy fans don’t recognize the small AOC of Viré-Clessé

But insiders know this chalky, limestone-rich slice of Burgundy’s Macon region delivers some of the region’s most exciting, minerally and dry Chardonnays.

Kind of a Mini-Cote d’Or
Amid the topsy-turvy hills of the Macon, the long, southeast-facing limestone ridge running between the villages of Viré and Clessé stands out as kind of a mini-Cote d’Or. It’s a region of long-standing fame within Burgundy, but one that did not gain an AOC title when those were being handed out in the late 1930s.

Importer Ed Addiss of Wine Traditions brings us today’s featured wines, and his brief summary of Vire-Clesse history captures the story nicely:

In 1937 the wines of Viré sold for the same price as those of Pouilly-Fuisse and when the Appellation D’Origine Controlée was offered to the wine producers of Viré in that year, they refused because they didn’t want to pay the extra tax that came along with the upgraded status. The thinking was that they already sold all the wine they produced at a good price, so why pay the government more money just to have official recognition. In 1963, having regretted their earlier decision they applied to the INAO for recognition and were denied, a decision based primarily on the small size of Viré’s vineyards which totaled 120 hectares. Finally, after many years of pressing their case with the INAO the growers of Viré decided to join forces with the growers in the neighboring village of Clessé to create a joined appellation. In 1997 the INAO voted to accept their proposal and the appellation of Viré-Clessé was born.

Recognizing the superior soils and exposure, the growers of Vire and Clesse elected to adopt some of the Macon’s strictest rules to ensure all Vire-Clesse would be of high quality. Most importantly, the region permits the lowest residual sugar levels – meaning the driest wines – in all of Burgundy! With no more than 3 g/l of sugar in the wines, there’s no way to hide under-ripe fruit or sloppy winegrowing. Which is one reason that wines labeled Vire-Clesse have some of the highest average quality levels of any region in the Macon!

We have a limited amount of two new 2015 Viré Clessé from winemaker Alexis Duchet. Give them a try!

Introducing California’s Union Sacré … and an under $30 Cabernet!

Union Sacre Philip Muzzy and Xavier ArnaudinUnion Sacré is a fairly new venture of Michigan-born Philip Muzzy and France’s Xavier Arnaudin. They met and became friends a few years ago while working in Santa Barbara. Philip designed labels and did marketing for Herman Story, Sans Liege, and Desparada while Xavier made wine at culty wineries like Barrel 27, Herman Story, Arcadian and (today) Sans Liege. Together they are making some of the most exciting California wines we’ve tasted in years, including a snappy fresh Riesling, an exotic (and dry) Gewürztraminer, a lush, plush, Syrah blend, … and a fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon from Happy Canyon.

And I’ve liked – loved, actually – every wine I’ve tasted so far from this still young venture of an American wine marketer and supremely talented French winemaker. All have been ridiculously good and silly bargains for hand crafted, artisanal, and compellingly delicious California wines.

Union sacre cab and glassBut the 2016 Le Confident Cabernet Sauvignon is by far the best of this very compelling bunch. Muzzy and Arnaudin sourced the 100% Cabernet Sauvignon fruit for this wine from Santa Barbara’s Happy Canyon Vineyard. This is the easternmost AVA in Santa Barbara, warm, sunny and remote. It got the name during Prohibition – “Let’s head out to the canyon and get happy!” – when its remote location escaped the notice of police and revenuers.

Warm days, cool nights, and poor, mineral-laced soils make this a perfect place to grow Bordeaux grapes that achieve plenty of ripeness but avoid thick, heavy textures. The 2016 Le Confident showcases the region and the lovely 2016 harvest – warm and sunny at first with a remarkably cool August that stretched out the growing season and let flavor accumulate and tannins ripen to perfection.

The wine is a dreamboat. The fruit flavors are brilliantly ripe – juicy red and black raspberry, dark currant, blackberry – with no loss of Cabernet’s magnificent accents of crushed herb and cured tobacco. Gentle extraction gives the wine enough tannin for shape, success at table and potential in cellar, but leaves your mouth refreshed and watering, not dry and dusty. There’s just enough new oak here to provide roundness and a touch of vanilla spice, but you’d never call this “oaky” or “over oaked.”

Having tasted Union Sacré’s other wines (including the 2015 Le Confident that was sold out before we could get it) and read the effusively positive profile of Xavier Arnaudin in the Wine Advocate’s Loam Baby blog, there’s no doubt in my mind: these guys will be famous soon and their wines significantly more expensive.

Get ahead of the crowd here and lock up some of what could be Happy Canyon’s first ever “Cult Cab.” Drink some this year with any holiday season meal, and hold onto more to enjoy for years to come. It’s a can’t-miss winner.

We’ll have Union Sacré Cabernet Le Confident 2016 out on the tasting table on Friday from 3-7 and Saturday from noon-4pm. On Saturday, John Grimsley – industry veteran, proud papa of new start-up Le Storie Wines, and the guy who introduced us to Union Sacre – will be pouring. John’s portfolio is small, but we keep finding one winner after another here, and he’ll be sharing some other treats from his book, including the most expensive Volpolicella you’ve ever talked yourself into buying.

With only 400 cases made, though; we were lucky to get 20 cases and they may not last long. Don’t miss this one.

 

A Homecoming Story: Remelluri Rioja

Telmo RodriguezTelmo Rodriguez’s first time returning home did not go well.

He’d left to study at the University of Bordeaux, made wine at Cos d’Estournel, and then worked in Cornas, Hermitage, Châteauneuf and Provence. He returned to Remelluri to work with his father in 1989.

But after a few years of battling over farming methods, winemaking approach and more, Telmo left home for the second time to explore new regions and vineyards across Spain. Today he is one of Spain’s most important winemakers and a vocal champion for authentic grapes, vineyards and wines.

Coming Home Again … and Making Changes
In 2010, Telmo’s father retired and Telmo came home once again to lead the family estate. In his homecoming year, he made important changes – starting with telling the 30 or so farmers his father had been purchasing grapes from that Remelluri would now use only their own, estate-grown, grapes. (Not to worry – he also helped those farmers found their own label and both made and marketed their wine for them!) Since 2010, Remelluri has become one of Rioja’s only “Chateau Estates,” making wine only from grapes they grow themselves.

Telmo picked a great year to come home, because vintage 2010 is perhaps Rioja’s greatest modern harvest. In this nearly perfect year, he harvested low-yields of Tempranillo (about 90%) plus Garnacha, Graciano and white grapes Viura and Malvasía Riojana. All were grown organically, harvested by hand, and fermented with native yeast in stainless steel. A full 17 months in mostly used French oak casks of various sizes let the wines round out and gain spice. Time in bottle allowed the final blend to integrate and add complexity to the sweet, ripe fruit.

remelluri reserva rioja“Real Deal” Reserva Rioja
The result is what I can only call “the real deal” in Reserva-level Rioja. The aromas are fantastic, interleaving scents of crushed cherry and raspberry with fragrant warm spice, orange peel, and fresh earth aromas. The texture is deep and rich, but with a classic touch of Rioja lift, and generous flavors of ripe fruit, sweet and savory spice, cedar, and more. The firm, dusty, finish is the perfect complement to earthy lamb or pork dishes and promises plenty of life for years to come.

  • “Very pleasant and easy to drink. It grows on you,” says Wine Advocate in its 93 point review.
  • “Fresh and long. Great persistence,” says Jancis Robinson.
  • “A wine with beautiful finesse and depth,” says James Suckling with his 95 point rating.

“Yummy – may I have some more?” your family and friends will say as they come home for your holiday feast. “Come taste it now, while you can,” we add, while it is on sale for $37.98 or $34.98 on a six-pack.

Because this is the kind of delicious treat that will give folks one more reason to come home for Christmas dinner for years to come.

The ENV Adventure: Limited, Under-the-Radar Wines from Priorat

It’s a story many of you already know well. For those new to the ENV adventure:

silviaSilvia Puig was pretty much born into the wine business – her father, Joseph Puig, is a longtime restaurateur, export manager for Spain’s Miguel Torres and founder of Torres’s operation in Chile. Silvia followed Joseph into the trade, learning winemaking at school and while working at properties in Bordeaux and Spain (including Vega Sicilia’s Alion winery). Eventually, she and Joseph founded their own estate in the Gratallops region of Priorat, in the province of Tarragona southwest of Barcelona.

Silvia and Joseph named their new venture Vinedos de Ithaca, a nod to the Greek settlers who first planted vines in this rugged corner of Spain, and carved an estate vineyard out of the steep hills around the winery. Fairly early on, Jonas met Silvia on a Spanish wine buying trip with importer Olivier Daubresse and began offering her wines here around 2005. Working with their own vines and grapes Silvia purchased from old-time farmers and families across the region, the wines quickly found success in both Spain and in the international wine press both for the traditional reds and, unusually, for Silvia’s striking whites (a rarity in Priorate).

Like so many successful winemakers, Silvia wanted to do something completely on her own, and in 2008 she began the project now called En Numeros Vermells. The name, “Numbers in the Red” and clever label design by local graffiti artist Adria Batet, evoked the rain of bad news showing down on Spain and the world during the late 2000’s financial meltdown.

True “Garage Wines”

ENV 2016s (1)In contrast to the larger production volumes of Vinedos de Ithaca, Silvia designed this project to let her intimately nurture small amounts of wine from grape to bottle on a barrel by barrel basis. The small scale let her largely ignore the normal time and financial pressures of winemaking – with a total production of just a few hundred cases, she was free to let each wine find its own way to maturity and use only the barrels that actually fit in her final blends.

We through around the terms “garage wine” and “handcrafted” quite a bit, but that’s truly the best way to describe everything about these wines. The En Numerous Vermells “cellar” is the garage of Silvia’s house in the Priorat village of Poboleda, a building that also serves as Silvia’s home and her husband – Belgian chef Pieter Truyts – Brots Restaurant.

In this tiny space, Silvia is literally doing virtually everything by hand. She tends the 30 or so barrels stacked in the space carefully, tasting and re-tasting to learn how each is developing and gaining a deep understanding of each cask’s unique character, strengths, and weaknesses. Multiple blending trials allow Silvia to explore how her charges work together (or don’t), and create an ideal marriage that lets each site and varietal shine without fighting or overwhelming each other.

Even the packaging is by hand! Silvia dips each bottle in wax by hand and decorates each cardboard six-pack with a unique, often whimsical, drawing in pencil, pen, and marker. You won’t often hear us get all enthusiastic about the box a wine comes in, but this year’s artwork – each box unique – is the most charming yet, echoing some of the exuberance and down to earth elegance you’ll find in the wines.

ENV 2015 Releases

Silvia doesn’t make much of any of her ENV wines, and has no trouble selling all she has at the restaurant in Priorat and to discerning European customers. We owe our generous – in terms of how much Silvia makes – allocations to the passion and persuasion of importer Jonas Gustafsson. Jonas has followed and supported the ENV project since its inception, often tasting and debating the wines with Silvia as she decides on her final blends.

Although the wines just get better and better, Silvia and Jonas have agreed to hold prices steady again this year. No, they are not inexpensive. But I’d argue that they represent extraordinary value – especially at the mix/match case prices – for a region where even mediocre bottlings achieve $70+ price tags. Come on Saturday and taste; that’s really all the justification the wines need.