AiAiAi! Garage Wines from Rugged Priorat

silvia puig in storeSilvia 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 called Vinedos de Ithaca in the rugged Gratallops region of Priorat, in the province of Tarragona southwest of Barcelona.

Priorat llicorella soils.pngRugged Priorat
Priorat is an unbelievably rugged wine region in Catalonia, a couple of hours inland an up-country from Barcelona. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot sunshine partially moderated by altitude and wind. The vines grow on steeply sloped hillsides of fractured slate – often you have to dig through a foot or more of broken rock just to get to the shallow soils where young vines are planted.

If the notion of soil hidden by stones brings to mind Chateauneuf du Pape, you’re on the right track. Except the rock if splintered granite instead of rounded off river stones. The main grapes overlap with Chateauneuf’s – Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan predominate – and ripen to the same big, bold, levels you find in the Southern Rhone.

But Carignan – or Careinyena as it’s called here – plays a much bigger role (about 40% of AiAiAi’s blend). So you can think of Priorat as CdP but with more blue/black fruit character. And a more firm and powerful spine. And with an utterly unique and captivating sense of dusty slate on the nose, palate and finish.

No, Really – It’s a Garage!
Silvia and Joseph’s Vinedos de Ithaca was successful from the start, but like so many talented winemakers, Silvia wanted to do something completely on her own. So, 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.

Silvia created ENV 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 throw 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 small number of 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.

We’ve been blown away by Silvia’s top wines – the flagship Priorat Negre and the ultra-small production alternate blends – since importer Jonas Gustafsson brought us the first vintages to land in the USA last year. The quality has been nothing short of extraordinary and they’ve all flown off our shelves.

AiAiAi Indeed!
With increasing success with her ENV wines, more and more active children and her husband’s thriving restaurant, Silvia has now decided to focus 100% of her winemaking energies on En Numeros Vermells. The extra time allowed her to purchase a little more fruit and turn her attentions and talents to making a softer, more accessible, wine that we can enjoy now while letting the top bottlings develop in cellar.

The name comes from Silvia’s experience making wine while tending young children playing in the cellar. “AiAiAi, get off those barrels.” “AiAiAi, don’t fall in the vat!” But the name is as apt as a description of your reaction when you taste this stunning 2017.

AiAiAi! That’s delicious!”

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Champagne, Cava, Cremant … What’s The Difference?

champagne glassesWe get lots of questions about the names and terms used for different sparkling wines, so here’s a quick primer for anyone who is feeling a touch confused.

The big name in the field is Champagne, a label that used to be applied to many different kinds of fizz. Today – after years of negotiation and some fairly aggressive litigation by the Champenoise – the “Champagne” name is restricted to wines that:

  • Come from the Champagne region of France
  • Are made from seven authorized grapes (but mainly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and the red Pinot Menieur)
    Get their bubbles from a secondary fermentation that takes place in bottle
  • Rest on the lees – dead yeast cells – from that secondary fermentation for at least 15 months for non-vintage or 30 months for vintage dated wines

The story of how Champagne was first created and popularized is long and winding and full of myth (no, Dom Perignon did not “invent” Champagne – he tried to stop it from fizzing!), but it’s ended up with Champagne holding the title of, arguably, the best sparkling wine in the world and certainly the most expensive.

Grower Champagne. This term refers to Champagne made from grapes that the estate also grew. Many Champagne houses make Champagne from fruit they purchase from growers. Veuve Cliquot and Moen & Chandon are two examples. These are certainly fine Champagnes, but over the last few decades there’s been a movement by more growers to make Champagne themselves. The price can be lower too!

R Dumont Solera Champagne.pngSolera Champagne. Most fine Champagnes get their complexity from aging of the base wines in oak barrels and/or extended aging “on the lees” in bottle after the secondary fermentation (where the bubbles come from!). But there’s a third approach called “solera.” This week’s featured R Dumont Solera Reserve Brut is a good example: After harvesting their 1991 vintage grapes, the Dumont family filled a single stainless steel cask with their remarkable Chardonnay. Each year, they took about a third of the wine out and used it in their NV Brut, replacing what they took with Chardonnay wine from that year’s vintage. After ten years, they released their first solera, and the release we’re featuring was pulled in early 2016, so it includes wines from 25 vintages!

So while drinking “real” Champagne is a treat – and something we all should do more often! – it’s not surprising that many other sparkling wines have emerged to try to slake our thirst for fine fizz at more reasonable prices.

France’s Cremant. The term was originally used to denote wines from Champagne that had a little less fizz than regular Champagne, but that style and usage have fallen away today. Now the French use “Cremant” to designate sparkling wines made outside of Champagne using the Champagne method of secondary fermentation in bottle. You’ll find Cremant wines from all across France, many – like Cremant d’Alsace – using very different grapes from Champagne (e.g. Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, or even Riesling).

Sparklers from Italy, Spain and the U.S. Many Americans start their sparkling wine adventure with crisp, fruity wines from Italy like Moscato di Asti or Prosecco. We love them both, but neither uses Champagne grapes or even the Champagne method to create fizz. These wines undergo secondary fermentation in a large tank and are then bottled with the fizz already in the wine. It’s a less expensive process that won’t give you the same texture or toasty flavors found in méthode champenoise wines.

The best of Spain’s sparkling Cava wines can deliver much more Champagne quality at a fraction of the price. These wines are made using the méthode champenoise (although they’re not allowed to use that term on the label – nothing to suggest competition with Champagne is allowed!), and can show some of the creaminess and yeasty, toasty notes we love in Champagne. But Cava is usually made with different grapes – macabeu, parellada and xarel·lo are most common – which give the wines different flavors and often a nuttier, more oxidative character.

Most top-notch American sparkling wines are made with Champagne’s fermentation methods and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, and in many cases, the companies and even the same winemakers who make the best wines in Champagne create these American wines. But most grow in warmer climates and in richer soils than you find in Champagne, so they tend to be a bit heartier and seldom quite as finely textured as true Champagne.

If you have questions, please feel free to ask more about the wonderful world of sparking wines.

 

 

Pier Luigi Tolaini’s Excellent Estate – and his 93 point Super-Tuscan!

Pier Luigi TolainiPier Luigi Tolaini left his home in Luca at age 19 to find work,  promising himself he’d return to Tuscany someday to show his family how to make really good wine.

It took him a while – he spent the next 40+ years in Canada, ultimately building a prosperous trucking business. But in 1998 he purchased a 119-acre Chianti Classico property and set out to make “really good” wine.

He’s done pretty darn well, earning accolades from the wine press:

“Tolaini is on a tear, making some of the best wines representing the warmer Castelnuovo Berardenga subzone of Chianti Classico.” – Wine Advocate, 2014

“An estate to watch.” – Wine Spectator’s Bruce Sanderson after visiting in 2016

“Passionate attention to the Bordeaux-style vineyards, and a very natural approach to the cellar benefitting from international consultants, make Pierluigi Tolaini’s estate one of the most important in the Chianti Classico area.” – Gambero Rosso, Italy’s most important wine guide

If you’d like to learn more about the Tolaini story and estate, join us on Thursday, January 24, when winemaker Francesco Rosi leads our Spotlight on Tolaini class (you can reserve your seats online at this link – pretty cool Christmas present!).

Want to taste a preview? Stop by anytime this week for a taste of  Pier Luigi’s San Giovanni Valdisanti Toscana 2014, a great gift or Christmas dinner wine on sale from 28% off.

“The wine wraps thickly over the palate with dense textual richness and generous flavors of blackberry, spice and cured tobacco. There is a pretty note of sweetness on the close that resembles candied fruit or cherry liqueur. Drink 2017-2027″ Wine Advocate 91 points.

And Wine Spectator’s 93 point review agrees: “”Ripe, packed with black cherry, blackberry, violet, iron and spice aromas and flavors, this red is muscular and sophisticated. Beefy tannins shore this up, along with fresh acidity and a detailed aftertaste.” Wine Spectator 93 points

Helen Keplinger and the Perfect Cab

helen-keplinger2Helen Keplinger is sometimes pigeonholed as one of America’s best “woman” winemakers. Actually, she’s one of America’s best, period. Learning from mentors like Heidi Peterson Barrett, Kathy Joseph, Claude Gros, David Abreu, and Michel Rolland, she’s mastered the art of working with big ripe California fruit and shaping it into wines of depth, complexity and finesse.

She was one of “Four to Watch” in Wine Spectator in 2013. In 2014, they called her a “Rising Star” and put her on the cover of the magazine. If you’ve been fortunate enough to drink her Keplinger wines – mostly Rhone-inspired blends – you know just how talented she is.

This week, we’re pleased to be able to offer a limited quantity of her Carte Blanche wines, the 98 point Proprietary Red and the 100 point Napa Cab. With this pair of benchmark Napa Cabs, I think it’s safe to say Helen is no longer “rising” – she’s at the top.

Nicholas AllenThe background. These wines come as Helen joins her winemaking skills with Nicolas Allen, whose dream is to create a “First Growth” estate in Napa.

Having grown up in New Jersey in a family with deep Bordeaux roots, in 2007 Nicholas Allen decided to act on his dream. Working with Peter Michael (and now Morlet Family Wines) winemaker Luc Morlet, he chose prime slices of some of Napa’s greatest vineyards to work with and decided to make two reds: one inspired by Bordeaux’s Right Bank and the other a Left Bank homage.

The early vintages were impressive, if sometimes retaining a touch of rusticity to the big, bold fruit that held them back from reaching the absolute first class level of Napa wines. In 2014, Helen took the winemaking reigns (her husband, DJ Warner, had been managing the estate from the beginning). And in her second full vintage at the helm, the wines have stepped up to the very peak of Napa power and perfection.

Carte Blanche winesThe Carte Blanche Proprietary Red 2015 (Wine Advocate 94/ Jeb Dunnuck 98 points) is a nod to Bordeaux’s Right Bank, blending significant amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc into rich Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s delicious already in a youthful, fleshy, mouthfilling way with layers of black fruit, chocolate, spice box, graphite and mint. The tannins are supple enough for this to show well with a steak today, but give it some time (through 2035 or longer) and you’ll be rewarded with more Bordeaux-like finesse and non-fruit depth.

The Carte Blanch Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Wine Advocate 97/ Jeb Dunnuck 100 points) is the Left Bank-inspired wine. With 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Andy Beckstoffer’s famed Missouri Hopper vineyard in Oakville, it’s bold, intense, and very firm right now. Already you can pick up wonderful complexity to the Crème de Cassis, blackberry, licorice, crushed herb and spice aromas and flavors. Give this 5 years (and drink – 2048) for the tannins to soften, and it will be one of the most impressive Napa wines in your cellar.

We have secured limited quantities of both wines, and we encourage you to enjoy the best, six-bottle savings on a mix/match basis.

Try the Prop Red for Christmas this year if you like, but get enough bottles to enjoy both wines for many, many, holiday seasons to come!

Girardin White Burgundy: Wines of Finesse and Style

Girardin SignWhile it still carries the founder’s name, by the mid-2000s, Vincent Girardin had largely turned over responsibility the Domaine to GM Marco Caschera and winemaker Eric Germain. Since Girardin retired in 2012, Caschera and Germain continue to push this once very good estate forward towards greatness.

Under Germain’s leadership, the Domaine has moved away from the fleshy, super-ripe, and heavily-oaked style of whites that first brought it fame in the 1990s. The focus now is first and foremost on farming. The Domaine itself owns and tends about 50 acres of vines across Burgundy and has access to additional vineyards owned by trusted growers.

Careful Farming
Girardin vineyardsVineyard work is as natural as possible, following organic and biodynamic principles as much as Burgundy’s fickle climate and weather allows. Yields are now modest due to careful pruning and thinning of the crop during the growing season. Grapes are harvested by hand and sorted twice – once in the vineyard by the pickers and then again in the winery by hand and – since 2016 – a modern optical sorting machine.

In contrast to the winery’s original style, Germain’s focus now is on getting his fruit to bottle with as little manipulation and handling as possible. For Chardonnay, that means no destemming before pressing – because knocking the berries off the stems opens the grape to the risk of oxidization before fermentation. Instead, whole clusters go directly to the press were the juice can be gently extracted and flow by gravity directly into tank for settling.

From tank, the thick, fresh, juice flows by gravity into French oak barrels for both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation. Oak is important to developing richness and depth to Chardonnay, but Germain does not like the flavor of wood, so most wines see 10-15% new oak (enough to replace aging barrels) and only the very top, most concentrated, wines get as much as 30%.

Waiting Until It’s Ready
Puligny-Montrachet and glassesOnce the wine is in barrel, Germain….waits. Other than keeping each barrel topped up to make up for evaporation, the wine simply sits on the fine lees of fermentation for 14-18 months of resting and maturation. When the wine is ready, the cellar team simply knocks the bottom bung out of the barrel and allows the clear wine to flow out, leaving the milky sediment behind. Bourgogne Blanc – because of the amount made – requires a little pumping, so it sees a light filtration before bottling. Everything else goes naturally from barrel to blending tank to bottle.

All that’s nice, of course, but what really matters is what you’ll find in the bottle when you get it home. And that’s deliciousness! Sure, these are super-sophisticated wines of terrior, complexity and minerality. But they are also flat out fun to drink right now and built to keep on improving more. Come, taste, and stock up while you can!

Rioja Modern and Traditional

vinsacro-grapesJuan Escudero began making Rioja wine in a small cave carved out of a hillside in 1852, well before the French invasion. The family continued winemaking and growing through the years, with Juan’s grandson, Benito, moving into Cava production in the 1950s. His children returned to Rioja and under the leadership of Bordeaux-trained brother Amador founded Bodegas Vinsacro around the turn of this century.

They planted about 30 acres of vines in Rioja Baja in 1996, but the key to the success of this very modern winery was a small, very old, and very, very old-fashioned vineyard owned by the family for 120 years. It’s called Cuesta la Reina and it was planted around 1945 (70 years ago) on the stony southern slope of Mount Yerga between 450 and 800 meters elevation.

An Old-Fashioned Vineyard
Vinsacro harvestAs was customary at the time, the vineyard was planted by taking cuttings of another old vineyard and grafting the canes onto new rootstocks – a process called massal selection. And, as was customary in Rioja for centuries before the current modern revolution, that old vineyard was planted to a mixture of vine types including Garnacha (perhaps half the vineyard) plus Tempranillo, Graciano, Monastrell and Bobal.

As in 17th and 18th Century Bordeaux, this blend of grapes was less about achieving the perfect blend in the finished wine than about insurance: if growing conditions caused problems with one varietal, there was at least a chance that the others would ripen. When it was time to harvest, the whole vineyard was picked at once and the wine’s final blend was whatever happened to come off the vines. In fact, the traditional name for this style vineyard, “Vidau,” means “ready to pick.”

Modern Quality and Care
Amador and his brothers cherished this old vineyard, but also began applying some modern farming ideas. First, they converted to completely organic farming to help the soil regain its health and keep the old vines thriving. Then, they began to pick each varietal separately as they ripened fully. Tempranillo gets picked first, usually in the first week of October. Then Garnacha comes in late October before Graciano in early November and then, last, Mazuelo and Bobal.

As if four separate harvests weren’t expensive enough, the grapes are sorted twice, once in the vineyard and then on a vibrating table in the winery before they go into the vats. After fermenting separately, each varietal ages for 12-14 months in a mixture of new 70% French oak casks – for modern polish and American oak barrels – for that classic Rioja style.

Finally, Amador creates the decidedly old-fashioned Rioja blend that will become Dioro. About 50% of the final wine is Tempranillo – compared to 80-100% at most “modernist” estates. About 20% is Garnacha (for hints of red raspberry) and 10% each Mazuelo and Graciano (for vivid acids and cherry fruit). Monastrell (earthy) and Bobal (licorice and plum) make up the rest of the blend. Only the very best barrels of wine from Cuesta la Reina go into Dioro, with the rest of the vineyard’s wine being blended into other bottlings.

From organic farming to multiple harvest passes, double sorting, new French oak aging, and strict selection of only the best lots, this is an expensive way to make wine. Which is why Wine Advocate gave the 2015 such high praise (92 points) even at a curiously high reported $65 release price.

At the $27 charged by the big box store down the street, Vinsacro Rioja Dioro 2015 is solid value in rich, ripe, powerful Rioja. At our $14.98 best price, the quality/price ratio is simply silly good!

vinsacro-rioja

Inside Tuscany’s Poggio ai Chiara

IMG_20180426_142523Poggio ai Chiara is a true “Tuscan insider’s” wine, made in tiny quantities and rarely leaving central Italy. To be honest, I’d never heard of it at all until I met Fabbio last March at his modest-looking home and vineyard not far from Cortona in eastern Tuscany.

Any winery where you start your visit by ducking into a half-buried Etruscan tomb and then navigate past mold-covered casks of all sizes before reaching a newer cellar filled with used French oak in every size imaginable … well, you can tell something interesting is going on. And whatever else you can say about the passionate, intense, dedicated Fabbio Cenni, you certainly have to agree he and his wines are interesting!


Fabbio’s vineyard is in an overlooked slice of eastern Tuscany near Cortona and Lago di Trasimeno. Fabbio planted his vineyard with more than 19 different Sangiovese clones at a crazy high density of 10,000 plants per hectare. He farms organically and makes wine “naturally” – if extremely.

After crushing, the Sangiovese barrels rest in their fermentation vats until native yeasts begin to work. Fermentation is low and slow, with most wines getting a full 30 days on the skins (pretty much unheard of for tannic Sangiovese). Then into a dizzying array of old barrels, some small, some medium-sized and some very large. Over the next 5-6 years, the wine stays in barrel, with Fabio racking it from one cask to another to give the wine air and keep it healthy. After bottling around the 6-year mark, the wine rests for another two years before release.
Mustiola vertical.png
While the 2009 was the most impressive of the Poggio ai Chiara vintages I tasted, I loved the 2008 and 2006 as well and was delighted to be able to grab a little of each for you. If you can, come by the store this Sunday from 2-4pm and try a mini-vertical of all three. Importer John Grimsley will be here to present the wines and we’ll have good sized pours, time, and some snacks that will allow you plenty of time to get to know these wonderful wines.

But whether you can come or not, reserve some of the 2009 Poggio ai Chiara right away. It will become one of your favorite Tuscan rarities and a wine you love drinking and sharing over the next decade.