Thibault Liger-Belair: Resurrecting a Great Name

Thibault Liger-Belair

Meet and Taste with Burgundy’s Thibault Liger-Belair on Saturday, April 18, 12-4 pm.

Thibault Liger-Belair’s ancestors tended vineyards and made wine in Burgundy’s Nuits Saint Georges from 1720 on, but in the early 20th century, the best vineyards were leased out to other winemakers.

Thibault studied winemaking before starting his career at a Parisian communications firm and then trying his hand at a dot-com start-up. In 2001 – at the age of 26 – he realized that he needed to return to Burgundy and resurrect the family Domaine.

From his first vintage in 2002, Thibault’s work attracted notice. Over the years, he’s gradually expanded the Domaine by taking back family vineyards as leases ended, purchasing additional vineyards, and adding a small negotiant business as well.

No Rules, Just Great Wine
As he explained during our visit in February 2014, his goal is to make wines that represent and reflect their vintage and terroir while avoiding harsh tannins and delivering pleasure to the drinker. He has converted the Domaine vineyards to biodynamics to build vine health and achieve ripeness, and is willing to take yields as low as he has to in order to get ripe fruit. In most of his vineyards, Thibault is allowed to harvest 30-40 hectoliters of juice per hectare of land. In practice, he rarely keeps 30HL, often drops fruit down to 20, and – as with the 2012 Nuits Saint Georges Charmot – can go as low as 10 hectoliters per hectare. Whatever it takes to get ripe, healthy fruit.

Once in the winery, his recipe is…no recipe! In general, Thibault prefers to avoid the flavor of oak in his wines, and most see 20-30% new oak (50% is his maximum). His oak barrels are custom-made for each vineyard, always using staves dried at least 36 months but mixing wood from forests grown on sand, clay, and stone – often in the same barrel! – to take advantage of each type’s different characteristics.

Fruit is always sorted twice – in the vineyard and on a sorting table at the winery – and given a pre-fermentation cold soak to begin gentle extraction. Whole clusters are usually mixed with destemmed fruit, although the exact ratio varies by vineyard and vintage. Gentle pumpovers during fermentation are supplemented by more vigorous punchdowns – sometimes only 2 or 3 in total, other times daily. Then, the wines go into their designated barrels and stay there until he feels they are ready to bottle.

The 2012s are an outstanding set of Burgundies, and a fine introduction to the work of what has become a Nuits Saint George benchmark. Thibault described them as “like 2010 but with more flesh,” and all are showing their fine quality and outstanding potential right now.

Alto Adige, Biodyamics, and a Count!

What exactly does “biodynamic” mean? And where is Alto Adige, anyway? A class next Tuesday (May 13) – “The Brilliant Biodynamic Wines of Manincor” – takes on both topics.

This stunning underground winery opened in 2004. Since then, quality has soared at Manincor.

This stunning underground winery opened in 2004. Since then, quality has soared at Manincor.

If you haven’t heard of Manincor before now, it’s hardly surprising. The vineyard estate was founded in 1606 and has been in current owner Michael Count Goëss-Enzenberg’s family since 1662. But for virtually all of its 400+ year history, grapes from Manincor’s vineyards went to co-op wineries in nearby Kaltern and Terlan where they formed the backbone of both producers’ top wines.

The modern story of Manincor begins in 1991 when Count Michael took over from his uncle. He soon began what would be a 20-year journey of converting the entire property – orchards, woodlands, meadows and vineyards – first to certified organic farming and ultimately, to Demeter-certified biodynamic viticulture. As the conversion proceeded, Manincor began keeping more and more grapes for itself and bottling wine under its own label.

Then, in 2004, Manincor opened a stunning underground winery beneath a key vineyard, immediately adjacent to the historic Manincor manor house. The winery blends into the vineyard perfectly, uses geothermal heat pumps for heating and cooling, and allows wine to be moved mainly by gravity. Count Michael installed labor-intensive unlined concrete tanks for fermentation and aging (allowing more gentle air exchange than stainless steel) and even added a cooperage – Manincor harvests oak for some barrels in its own forests and dries the wood and builds barrels on the property!

Since the new winery, the quality of the wines here has soared. Over the past few vintages, Manincor has earned four Tre Bicchieri awards from Gambero Rosso (Italy’s most prestigious wine guide) as well as ten Due Bicchieri citations. And while none of the current releases have been reviewed yet, we’re certain all will be raking in the critical praise, too!

We’ve been hearing rumors about Manincor wines for the past few years, but they only recently arrived in our market. Local importer Maurizio Farro represents the estate now, and on Tuesday, he will be joined by winery representative Michael Jaeger to address all questions Alto Adige and Biodynamic. (Sorry, the Count wasn’t available …)

Our Favorite Class of the Year – Champagne!

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As much as we love all the classes on our calendar, we have a soft spot for our annual Champagne class.  Our customers seem to as well, because we’ve had to start doing two sessions to satisfy the demand!  Two evenings of bubbly?  Well, twist our arms…

Every year we try to present a mix of big-name classic Champagnes and more unusual, under-the-radar producers to give you a balanced perspective on this most celebratory of beverages.  Champagne can be an intimidating subject, so we try to take the mystery out of it by showing a wide range of styles and explaining some of the lingo attached to Champagne – that way, when you are in a restaurant or shop and want to splurge on that special bottle, you’ll know what you’re looking for.

We usually get about 50% toward that goal before the evening devolves into a big party.  Bottles get just a smidge too warm and start festively frothing when opened, Doug gives up on making us all study maps of the Cote des Blancs, and we give into the holiday spirit and have a few more sips of our favorites.

At our first session, the crisp, edgy Gatinois rose Champagne stole the show. Unfortunately, any kind of pink wine makes folks suspicious – people see that color and think the wine is going to be sweet and boring.  Not so with this beauty!  With its notes of cranberry and rhubarb and smoky, mineral notes, this is a Champagne that can stand up to serious food.

Another new addition to our Champagne lineup was Coessens, a unique blanc de noir that wowed everyone with its complexity.  Technically in Champagne, a blanc de noir can be made from either of the two red grapes commonly used in Champagne, Pinot Noir or the less-favored Pinot Meunier.  Coessens, made by a small grower producer in Aube, is made from all Pinot Noir, and has the richer mouthfeel to prove it.

In our second session shortly after Christmas, we were reminded of how much we love the Guy Larmandier Blanc de Blancs.  Blanc de Blancs are generally made with all Chardonnay grapes, as this sparkler is, and are considered to be the lighter, more elegant counterpart to the fuller, more brooding blanc de noirs.  A perfect wine for crispy appetizers – or popcorn with truffle oil!


Another Champagne that surprised us was the Egly-Ouriet Les Vignes de Vrigny.  This is an unusual wine in that Pinot Meunier, usually considered a lesser blending grape in Champagne, is the star of this wine.  It’s made from all Pinot Meunier, and we were all shocked by its depth and complexity.  In addition to those intriguing blood orange notes mentioned in the review, we thought the mouthfeel was exceptionally round and almost buttery.  A very impressive surprise from this small producer!

We hope those of you who attended had as much fun as we did, and that those of you who didn’t are inspired to keep the bubbly fun going this year!  Who says it has to be New Years Eve or your anniversary to pop something special?

champagne class customers 2

champagne class customers 1

“Happy” Wines – An Evening in Alto Adige

Dave McIntyre described a wine in one of his reviews once as one that would “fuel conversation, not dominate it,” and if we had to sum up the delicious, joyful wines of Kellerei Kaltern in one phrase, that would be it.  Though they are made with great care, the grapes handpicked by a collection of hundreds of small growers all dedicated to quality, they do not knock you over the head with their importance.

Instead, they are the kinds of wines that insinuate themselves into your daily life, or, in our case, into your wine shop.  No other single winery dominates as many spots as Kellerei Kaltern does, and they deserve every bit of shelf space.  This is why we were so excited to have Tobias Zingerle join us this past Thursday for a relaxed evening of delicious, food-friendly wines.

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In the foothills of the Alps, Alto Adige is a unique, high-quality wine region that combines the kind of racy, cool-climate varieties you find in Germany and Austria with a food-friendly Italian sensibility.  In Bolzano, the  main city in the region, the signs are in German first, and then Italian – the region really is at the intersection of two cultures, and the wines reflect this as well.

kaltern grower

We tasted nine wines in all, each one more delicious than the last.  Standouts included the refreshing, crisp Pinot Bianco, perfect for crab or any kind of shellfish, and the quintessential aperitif wine.  The light-bodied red Schiava was a revelation for many as well, although it’s been the ‘house red’ for many of us on staff for months  now.  A red this light can at first seem too thin and light if you’re used to drinking full-bodied, New World reds.  It’s the kind of wine that grows on you over time rather than bowling you over at first sip, so it’s easy to overlook.  But put a few bottles in your wine rack, and you’ll be surprised at how often you reach for it.

The Moscato Rosa was another surprise.  Made from a rare pink mutation of the Muscat grape, it’s an off-dry rose with a little bit of tannin, and a whole lot of flavor and fun.  It’s the perfect wine for brunch or a lazy Sunday afternoon spent with the paper or a great book, and maybe a little cheese.  The thought of sweet rose is shudder-inducing for many, calling to mind those not-so-great ‘blush’ wines that come in a box or jug, but this is real wine, and very well made – it just happens to be loads of fun, too!

Many thanks so Sandy Dickerson of Siema Imports and Tobias Zingerle of Kellerei Kaltern for a fun and educational evening.  Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a date with a bottle of Schiava and some pizza…

Be sure to peruse the links below for more information on these delicious wines!

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Pinot Bianco Vial 2011

Kellerei Kaltern Chardonnay Wadleith 2011

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Pinot Grigio 2012

Kellerei Kaltern Muller Thurgau 2012

Kellerei Kaltern Gewurztraminer Alto Adige 2011

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Schiava 2012

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Pinot Nero 2012

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Lagrein 2011

Kellerei Kaltern Rosenmuskateller Moscato Rosa 2012

Trotting the Globe with Bartholomew Broadbent

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This past Thursday we had the chance to spend an evening with importer and wine expert Bartholomew Broadbent.  As the son of wine writer and MW Michael Broadbent, Bartholomew has truly grown up in the wine industry.  He’s watched it change over the past few decades and has a unique perspective on the world of wine.

We were thrilled to have  him here to walk us through some of the highlights of his truly international portfolio.  While many importers specialize in one specific country or even region, Bartholomew cherry picks what he thinks are the best, and best value, wines from all over the world.

We started with the A.A. Badenhorst Chenin Blanc from South Africa.  While many South African Chenin Blancs are wan and characterless, this was full of Chenin character while remaining crisp and refreshing.  Next we traveled all the way to the Russian River Valley in California for a sip of Chardonnay from Inman.  In his usual dryly humorous way, Mr. Broadbent quipped that he doesn’t usually like Chardonnay, but this is one he’ll gladly drink.  We would, too – at under 13% alcohol (very unusual for sunny California!), it had the ripe fruit and kiss of oak you’d expect from a California Chardonnay, but stayed light on its feet.

We tasted two great value reds from Portugal, and discussed why consumers are so reluctant to embrace the delicious, inexpensive  non-port wines from this region.  But despite the confusion over this category – the grapes are hard to pronounce, and there is such a strong association between Portugal and sweet wine that it’s hard to break – everyone had to admit how delicious the Casa Ferreirinha Esteva was once it was in the glass.  Portuguese reds always have a delicious, primary fruit quality to them.  Though this is often seen as a detriment, it shouldn’t be!  Fresh fruit flavors are enormously appealing, and there’s no reason why we can’t have room for both the noble, more vinous wines of Bordeaux and Rioja along with fresh, juicy reds from places like Portugal.

An evening of wines from Broadbent Selections wouldn’t be complete without talking about Chateau Musar, a famous winery from an unusual place for wine: Lebanon.  Ch Musar’s earthy, unique wines have gained a cult following, and the 2007 Hochar shows why.  Though its made from familiar Mediterranean varietals like Cinsault and Grenache, it expresses them in a way that is unique to the winery and the climate of the Bekaa Valley.  Ch Musar survived decades of civil war in Lebanon, and its fascinating history adds to the wines’ appeal.

Bartholomew told us that the fact that his portfolio doesn’t concentrate on any one region has made it challenging to gain a foothold in the marketplace.  Retailers and restaurants are used to having a ‘go to’ portfolio to turn to for specific categories like Italian wines or Burgundy or organic wines.  We certainly think like that when we’re putting together our orders, but several of these wines have earned spots on our shelves anyway, a testament to their excellent quality and value.  Many thanks to Bartholomew Broadbent for taking the time to walk us through his portfolio, and most of all for the humor he provided along the way as well.


An Evening of Relic With Mike Hirby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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