A Closer Look at France’s Moselle

Marie-Geneviève and Norbert MolozayAs is often the case, this week’s featured white, Ch de Vaux Moselle Blanc Les Gryphées, extra delicious in the 2018 vintage, has us wanting to explore a relatively unknown wine region: Moselle.

Marie-Geneviève and Norbert Molozay discovered this tiny French region – 100 acres in total – and purchased and revitalized the best estate there in 1999.

Sparkling History. Moselle was an important wine region in the 1700 and 1800s, producing mainly Pinot Noir used to make Champagne in Reims, to the east, or sparkling Sekt in Germany (between the Franco-Prussian war and WWI). The creation of the Champagne AOC, which eliminated Moselle grapes, the arrival of phylloxera, and heavy industrialization together essentially wiped out vine growing and wine making here from the 1920s on.

Moselle MapDespite the collapse of its major French and German sparkling wine markets, an eccentric history teacher, one Jean-Marie Diligent, kept Ch de Vaux going through the mid-20th century with a new focus on making and bottling their own still wines.

Seeing Potential. Which is where things stood when Norbert Molozay – a native of Beaujolais and graduate of the wine school in Dijon – and Marie-Genevieve Molozay – from a wine merchant family in nearby Metz – discovered it in 1999.

They saw the potential and invested heavily to realize it. They expanded Ch de Vaux’s holding (they now own about one-third of the AOC’s vines) and converted to organic farming to improve quality. Since 2014, they have been Demeter certified biodynamic farmers and also certified vegan – meaning no animal products are used in any element of winemaking.

Ch de Vaux Moselle Blanc Les Gryphées labelCh de Vaux Moselle Blanc Les Gryphées 2018, their lead white, shows the results of all that hard work. It’s a blend of Alsace grapes – 30% Auxerrois, 30% Muller Thurgau (a crossing of Riesling and Chasselas), 30% Tokay Pinot Gris and 10% Gewurztraminer. The vines grow on rocky terraces covered with clay and limestone with a south/southeast exposure. Each grape variety is fermented separately to full dryness in temperature controlled stainless steel before bottling clear, fresh, and invigorating.

 

Ch de Vaux Moselle Blanc Les Gryphées

Beautiful Bierzo: Wines From Green Spain

We’re really loving discovering wines from “Green Spain,” the exciting and fast evolving slice of Spain due north of Portugal, including Galicia and the westernmost slice of Castilla y Leon. Last spring we introduced you to winemaker Pedro Rodriguez and his Guimaro wines – from the dizzyingly steep vineyards of Ribeira Sacra.

1200px-DO_Bierzo_location.svgThis week, we move inland to Bierzo, and the wines of one of Pedro Rodriguez’ mentors, Raul Perez.

Warmer than Ribeira Sacra, Bierzo blends the copious and warming sunshine of central Spain with the cold air and brisk breezes of the nearby Atlantic coast.

Remote and Wild
The best vines grow on sloped, often terraced vineyards like the ones first planted by the Romans when they came here to mine gold more than two thousand years ago. The  grapes here are probably the same the Romans farmed, too – wild field blends that, today, include everything from scattered plants of Bastardo (Trousseau), Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet), Doña Blanca and Palomino to the region’s most important vine: Mencia.

Bierzo is pretty remote and, once the Romans mined all the gold, the region was largely cut off from the rest of the world, except for the Catholic church and regular visits from pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.

Modern Times
The first modern fine wine from Bierzo dates from the arrival of Priorat’s Alvear Palacio in the late 1980s and his founding of Bierzo’s best-known winery today, Descendientes de J. Palacios. Palacio’s wines took advantage of sun, heat and ripeness and introduced new French oak to prove to the world that Mencia didn’t need to be thin, light, or wan.

If Alvear Palacio first brought the world’s attention to Bierzo, then Raul Perez revolutionized everyone’s understanding of what Bierzo (and the wines of Galicia in general) could become.

Raul Perez 2“The Best Winemaker in the World?
Perez made his first Bierzo at his family’s winery in 1994 at age 22, and when he set out on his own in 2005, he quickly became one of the world’s – not just Spain’s – most talked about, admired and inspirational winemakers.

He was named “Winemaker of the Year” by German publication Der Feinschmecker in 2014 and “Best Winemaker in the World” for 2015 by France’s Bettane+Desseauve. And when Decanter profiled him last year, they captioned his photograph, “Is this the best winemaker in the world?”

We’re offering Raul Perez’s Bierzo Ultreia 2016 this week: It’s proof in a bottle that the accolades are deserved. If you like red Burgundy from Cote de Beaune vineyards, Oregon Pinot with plenty of earth to go with the fruit, great Cru Beaujolais, crisp and herbal Cabernet Franc, old-school Rioja – in short any wine that’s all about the combination of perfume, complexity, vibrancy, freshness and amazing flexibility to pair with any kind of food at all…well, this is the wine for you!

But, no need to take our word for it. The Wine Advocate 93 point Raul Perez Tinto Ultreia 2016 will be open to taste for yourself all week long. The wine is fantastic, the pricing the best in the country, and the opportunity all too fleeting. Because only 500 cases or so were bottled and Spain keeps most for itself.

Amarone: A Short History of an Intense Wine

Amarone wine glassAmarone is one of the biggest, most intense wines made in Europe, commonly coming in at 15% abv and often reaching 16% and beyond. It comes from Italy’s Valpolicella region, situated between Verona to the west and Venice to the east, and its history goes back to ancient times.

The Greeks made wine in Valpolicella even before the Romans arrived – and the name itself is thought to be a mash up of Latin and Greek meaning “Valley of Cellars.” The region has always enjoyed strong local demand for its light, aromatic red wines made from native grapes Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella. And, today, the overwhelming bulk of wine made here is still in a light, easy-drinking style for drinking casually and young.

Strong and Sweet to Please the Ancients

amarone grapes

Grapes for Amarone are air dried to concentrate the juice.

A couple of thousand years ago, though, the Greeks and Romans liked their wines strong and sweet – in part because they are better able to withstand storage in porous containers like clay amphora – so they invented a style of winemaking today called appassimento.

Ripe grapes were harvested in autumn and then laid out on straw mats (today more hygienic plastic mats or slatted wooden bins are used) under the roof of a shed. As the cool breezes blew over the grapes, they gradually lost water, leaving sweeter and sweeter juice behind. When the dried grapes were made into wine, they had more alcohol than regular wine and, usually, a big slug of residual sugar as well.

Going Dry: That’s “Amaro!” for Today
Winemakers in the Veneto continued making this strong, sweet wine – called “Recioto della Valpolicella” in modern times – right through the mid-1950s. Then, something strange happened, although no one really knows how. We’ll go with the most popular legend: A winemaker left his fermenting batch of Recioto in the vat for several weeks longer than usual. The yeast in that vat somehow found the strength and muscle to keep working through the heavy sugar load past 12% alcohol, through 13% and all the way to 14% or so. At that point, there was no residual sugar remaining, and when the winemaker tasted it, he declared it “Amaro” – or “bitter” – compared to his normal sweet red Recioto.

This dryer style of wine – called “Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone” at first and today simply as “Amarone della Valpolicella” – found fans and soon became Valpolicella’s most famous and important wine. Usually, it’s so jam-packed with the flavors of dried fruit, balsamic, earth, leather, crushed flowers and more, that it needs to be paired with big, rich, foods (Osso Bucco is a classic match). Or, as is often done in Italy, enjoyed after the main course with strong cheeses and dried fruit.

Roccolo Grassi’s Amarone
Marco at Roccolo GrassiIf you love great Amarone and don’t know the name “Roccolo Grassi” yet, then you’re in for a real treat.

When Wine Advocate first tasted winemaker Marco Sartori’s 2003 Amarone, they called him “one of Veneto’s most promising young producers.” And since then, the praise keeps coming. Now, his 2013 Amarone joins Marco’s 2006 as his second Wine Advocate 95 point red and showcases a distinctive, thoughtful, and utterly delicious approach to crafting this unique Italian powerhouse red.

Like all Amarone estates, the Corvione, Rondinella and Croatina grapes used here are allowed to air dry after being picked, but with an important difference. Traditionally, grapes destined for Amarone are not picked terribly ripe so the drying process is responsible for both most of the wine’s body and much of its flavor. Marco takes a different approach, allowing his grapes to hang on the vines longer to achieve more natural ripeness and flavor and then air drying for a shorter time than most – 90 days vs 120. This means his Amarone has plenty of classic dried fruit and chocolate character, but also an uncommon level of freshness and amazing complexity and finesse.

Roccolo Grassi Amarone della Valpolicella 2013 is going to age beautifully and take on even more savory tobacco/herb and meaty notes over the next 15 or so years. But it’s so delicious now for the ripe fruit that there’s no reason to wait to start digging into it right now – or at least on the first combination of cold night and warm fire you encounter this year. Especially at our best in the USA prices on six-bottles or more while this special offer lasts.

roccolo-grassi-amarone-della-valpolicella_1

History in a Glass: Campi Flegrei Falanghina

Cantine Farro - Phlegraean FieldsFalanghina is an old grape with a bright modern future. Greek settlers probably brought the grape to Italy when Rome was still a fortified village and soon discovered that it thrived on the rocky, volcanic soils of Campania north of modern-day Naples. As first the Republic and then Empire expanded, Romans continued to cultivate Falanghina along with the region’s other most successful grapes, Aglianico and Piedirosso.

The Romans soon discovered that Falanghina vines did best when trained to grow up wooden stakes, called in Latin “falangae,” the source of Falanghina’s name.

The Famed Falernian of Ancient Rome

Cantine Farro - Cup of Nestore

“I am the cup of Nestore from which it is pleasant to drink. He who drinks from this cup will immediately desire Aphrodite with the beautiful crown.”

While not certain, it seems likely that Falanghina was one component of Rome’s most famous and sought-after wine, Falernian. This seems to have been a late-harvest blend of grapes, made with considerable residual sugar, and aged for decades in clay amphorae. As it aged, the got more concentrated and exposure to heat and oxygen probably resulted in a sweet wine much like modern Madeira.

And, it packed a punch – Roman authors frequently commented that Falernian had so much alcohol that it was the only wine that could be set on fire with a match!

The same volcanic soils that allowed Falanghina to thrive spelled doom for much of the region’s vineyard when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, covering both the city of Pompeii and its surrounding farms in lava and ash. The disaster extended down to the vineyards northwest of Naples where Romans had planted grapes alongside the bubbling craters of a second volcanic area called “Campi Flegrei” or “the Phlegraean Fields.”

Replanting in a Moonscape

Camp Flegrei - Cantine Farro

The Campi Flegrei remain active

Over the years, first Roman and then Italian farmers replanted vineyards in the Campi Flegrei moonscape (although an eight-day eruption here in 1538 set things back a bit). The region remains active, with more than 100 identified pools of water and mud still bubbling up gas and steam.

But, the porous, well-drained soils remain excellent for growing top-quality grapes. And, the high levels of sulfur in the soil are toxic to the phylloxera louse, meaning this is one of the few areas of Italy where vinifera grapes can still grow ungrafted on their own roots.

The Farro family had lived in Naples and the surrounding countryside for years before Michele Farro’s grandfather first established a winery in the hills overlooking the Phlegraean Fields in 1926. As Michele assumed control of the estate, he became a champion of the region (he now heads the DOC’s board) and of its classical grapes: Piedirosso and Falanghina.

A Modern Classic
Michele Farro at Cantine FarroOver the years, Michele and his family have carved out vineyards right on the edge of active volcanic craters by the sea and running up to terraces hacked out of volcanic rock up to 1,800 feet above the Fields and also down vineyards covered in talc-like powdered pumice. Where possible, Michele vineyards grow on their own rootstocks, and some of the vines in the lower vineyards are probably 100 years old (or more!).

Throughout the vineyards, Michele farms as naturally as possible and uses modern winemaking techniques with care to preserve the very best features of his Falanghina grapes. His 2018 Campi Flegrei DOC Bianco is a fantastic introduction to both the region and the vine. From first sniff to last sip, it’s clearly a wine of both volcanic and seaside origins – you’ll find loads of rocky, saline, minerality throughout this wine. But it’s also a wine of fine purity and lovely fruit, with plenty of bright peach, apricot and tangy pineapple flavors and a bracing squirt of lemony acidity at the end.

It’s hard to find something better to drink at with a sizzling plate of shrimp scampi or just-fried baby calamari (as my experience on Michele’s porch this summer proved). And, it’s sure to will delight with pasta laced with fresh vegetables or even fennel-spiked Italian sausage.

But we also think it’s pretty darn delicious all by itself, offering a captivating blend of richness and fruit to go with bright, refreshing, acids and minerality. Fine wine, fine value. Get some today!

Clones and Suitcases: Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley

Pinot clonesToday’s offer on rare “Heritage Pinots” from Patricia Green Cellars includes two made from Pinot Noir’s Wadensvil and Coury Clones, clones that arrived early in the Willamette Valley’s history. So, you might ask, what’s all the fuss about Pinot Noir “clones”? So glad you asked!

A Primer on Grape Vine Propagation
Grape vines intentionally produce seeds that are genetically different from their parent plant. It’s a defense mechanism – when a bird or bear eats a grape, wanders around, and then “deposits” the undigested seed with plenty of fertilizer so it can start a new plant, the new plant will have different characteristics than its parent. Which means it can thrive in different soils and climates and not be susceptible to the same diseases.

But it also means the grapes taste different and make different wine. So, for centuries, grape growers have planted new vineyards not by seed, but instead by taking cuttings from vines and vineyards that already produce good wine. Over the centuries, some “flavors” of each varietal – e.g. Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. – were identified as being especially good for wine growing. So those flavors of vine – or “clones” – were preferred for taking cuttings and planting new vineyards.

Whether it’s because Pinot Noir is more susceptible to genetic mutation than other grape varietals or because it’s older than almost grape varietals, there are more identified clones of Pinot Noir in production around the world than almost any other grape. And, since the 1960s, these clones have been identified, given numbers and names, and offered for sale by nurseries to folks who want to plant a vineyard.

However, a vine from a “good” clone is not necessarily a great scion from which to plant a vineyard. Individual grape vines can catch viruses that impact vigor, yield, and ripening. If you use a virused grape vine as the source of your cuttings for planting your vineyard, then you’re going to have virus in all the vines.

David-Lett-with-cuttings-from-UC-Davis-2x

David Lett

From Burgundy to Willamette
When David Lett decided to plant the first modern Pinot Noir vineyard in the Willamette Valley back in 1965, he turned to the nursery at California’s UC Davis. At the time, Davis had the one and only stock of non-virused Pinot Noir available for propagation in the entire USA. It was a Burgundian Pinot Noir clone that had been isolated and cleared of virus at nursery in Wädenswil, Switzerland. They called it UCD 1A, but it soon became commonly known as the Wadensvil clone.

Lett loaded up his car with Wadensvil, drove south, and planted what would become Eyrie Vineyards. A few years later, Dick Erath and Charles Coury acquired the newly de-virused UCD 4 clone at Davis, a selection of Pinot Noir that originated in Burgundy’s Pommard vineyards. Erath, Lett, and others soon found that Wadensvil and Pommard were highly complementary, with Wadensvil giving floral aromatics and bright red fruit to match Pommard’s dark, earthy, character and higher levels of tannins.

So, through the 1980s, the vast majority of new Willamette Valley vineyards were planted to mixtures of Wadensvil and Pommard.

Charles Coury

Charles Coury

Coury Clone: A “Suitcase Selection?”
At the same time, growers were also planting what came to be known as “Coury Clone.” Charles Coury liked to claim that planting Pinot in the Willamette Valley was his idea. It wasn’t, but he did come to the Valley with Dick Erath in the late 1960s after completing his Masters at UC Davis and spending a year at the Colmar Research Station in Alsace, France.

First with Erath and then on his own, he ran a nursery that sold vines to many early Oregon grape farmers. One batch of vines he sold produced uncommonly dark, powerful Pinot Noir. Coury refused to say where he’d gotten the clone, and over the years, growers began to refer to it as Coury Clone.

For years, the assumption was the Coury Clone was a so-called “suitcase selection” that Coury had carried back from Alsace. As the only non-virused Pinot Noir clone in Colmar at the time was Clone 538, most assumed that it was the real Coury Clone. But Coury was a terrible record-keeper, and he frequently sold growers a wild mix of vines including various Pommard clones, Wadensvil, and more. So some plantings of “Coury Clone” in the early days were really mixes.

Dijon … and a Wadensvil Renaissance
When a new assortment of virus-free Pinot Noir clones arrived in Oregon from Burgundy’s Dijon Research Station in the mid-1980s, growers rushed to use them to add variety and character to their vines. And, while Pommard remained popular, the new Dijon Clones began crowding out Wadensvil Clone in vineyards both new and old.

Today, more and more growers have returned to appreciating Wadensvil’s perfume and elegance, especially when it’s grown on marine sedimentary soils as are found in Ribbon Ridge (where Patricia Green Wine Cellars’ estate vineyard sits). And now Coury clone is seeing a slight renaissance as well. The two most important plantings of Coury Clone are at Hyland Vineyard – where the current own-rooted vines were planted in 1989 – and at Freedom Hill – which used cuttings from Hyland to start its own Coury plot.

For the most part, Willamette Valley winegrowers continue to make their best wines from a mixture of clones – Pommard, Wadensvil, the Dijon clones, etc. – but occasionally a single-clonal plot is so interesting and compelling that it’s worth bottling on its own. Which is what we think you’ll find in these wines here.

Tall Vines and Terroir: Jean-Marie Royer’s Chateauneufs

Vintage 2017 is yet another in a long string of fine Chateauneuf du Pape vintages, a growing season that matched the Rhone’s usual ripeness and power with a touch more restraint. It was a season that that lined up especially well with Jean-Marie’s Royer’s winegrowing style.

Jean-Marie Royer reclaimed his family’s vineyards and began making wine in the mid-1980s. With help from a former Rugby pal (now one of France’s top-tier consultants), Philippe Cambie, Jean-Marie made rich, bold flamboyant wines – in other words, at first he was making completely typical Chateauneuf du Pape. But about 10 years ago, Jean-Marie realized that he wanted more elegance and freshness in his wines.

An Unusual Farming Approach
jean-royer-vinesWith help from Cambie, he adopted an unusual farming approach, allowing the vines to grow very tall – most growers “hedge” the vine tops to force the vines to put more energy into ripening fruit.

Royer lets the vine keep growing on top while pulling leaves from around the bunches and then aggressively thinning the crop over the summer. He’s now able to hang his fruit longer (developing more flavor and supple tannins) while still retaining more acid and developing less sugar than his neighbors.

In the winery, fermentation temperatures were lowered substantially, allowing for slow, gentle, extraction of color and structure and flavor without blowing off the young wines’ perfume. Each varietal now ages in a mixture of old barrels and concrete tank before Royer and Cambie meet to taste and develop trial blends (and talk a LOT of rugby!).

And Attention to Terroir
Doug and Jean Marie Royer in Le CrauLast winter we toured Royer’s Chateauneuf vineyards as Jean-Marie helped us understand how each of his wines reflects a very specific terroir. The Chateauneuf Tradition comes from mainly sandy soils to the north of the town, giving Tradition uncommon levels of silky smoothness, floral accents, and a touch of sweet spice.

Doug and Jean Royer in Prestige vineyardIn contrast, the 80-100+ year-old vines for Chateauneuf Prestige grow on gentle slopes completely covered with the rounded stones and pebbles known as galets. As much as a foot deep in some spots, these smooth stones heat up during the day and then radiate heat up onto the grapes, pushing development of intense ripeness and thick skins. Even in a more elegant year like 2017, Prestige reflects the power, depth, and grip of this rocky site.

A Special Site in La Crau

And then there’s the Chateauneuf Les Sables de la Crau. La Crau is Chateauneuf’s most famous vineyard, a plateau rising about 100 meters above the otherwise flat plain. All of La Crau’s vines are fully exposed to the beating summer sun, drain the regions meager rainfall very quickly, and are regularly pounded by the whipping Mistral winds. And most is covered in galets and gives a deeply earthy, powerful, grippy style of wine made famous at Vieux Telegraphe.

Dom Jean Royer Chateauneuf Du Pape Sables De La CauJean-Marie’s very old Grenache vines experience all the brutal exposure of the rest of La Crau’s vines, but grow on the plateau’s one sandy-soiled corner – the “Sables” in the name – with no galets in sight. Which gives his red all the bold richness, ripeness and depth of a great La Crau wine but also a remarkable sense of silkiness, finesses, and more floral perfume.

Beautiful CdP – If You Can Find It!
The results are impressive – in fact, in some ways these are the most impressive wines I know of. As Vinous wrote last year, Royer’s wines “always lean towards the more elegant, finesse-driven end of the spectrum, yet have tons of fruit, sweet tannin and sensational Provençal characters.”

They are complex and worth of cellaring and paying attention to. But they’re also utterly delicious and flat-out fun to drink. And while they are distinctively “Chateauneuf,” loaded with the ripe fruit, black olive and savory herb that defines this great Southern Rhone region, they are also open and accessible enough that even folks who normally only drink California wines love them too.

We first encountered Jean-Marie’s wines back in 2013 as the 2010s reached our market – and we were blown away. But, with very little wine allocated to our area (and with me taking home significant chunks of our annual allotment), we weren’t able to widely promote them.

For the past five years, we’ve used a couple of visits with Jean-Marie and some heavy lobbying to acquire one of the biggest allocations of Dom Jean Royer wines you’ll find anywhere in the USA. And to bring them to you at the best prices you’ll find in the USA, too.

 

Great Vintages, Brilliant Wines at Beaujolais’ Ch Thivin

Ch Thivin's claude geoffray

Claude Geoffray of Ch Thivin in Burgundy’s Beaujolais

There’s going to be quite an argument about which of the past five 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. Vintage 2016 brought things back to a more elegant style while 2017 showed more flesh and breadth. And 2018 delivered flesh and body with no loss of vivacity and style.

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

From 1383 to Today
chateau-thivin-domaine-mont-brouillyThe 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.

Ch Thivin photo of vineyards.jpgThe estate’s best vineyards perch on the sides of an extinct volcano called Mont Brouilly. 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 where 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.

A Kermit Lynch Discovery
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 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.” – Kermit Lynch