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

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What Makes Chateauneuf Chateauneuf?

Champauvin Vineyard

Champauvins, covered with the famous galet, sits across a three-meter-wide path from Cheateauneuf

Updated to reflect the latest 94 pt 2016 Champauvins from Alain Jaume

As you may know, the name and fame of the Rhone Valley wine region called Chateauneuf du Pape dates from the 1300s when the Papacy temporarily moved from Rome to the French city of Avignon. The Popes built a summer palace north of Avignon on the crest of a big hill overlooking the Rhone Valley. Locals called it “the Pope’s New Castle” – Chateauneuf du Pape. As the Church spurred growth in the Rhone’s vineyards to meet its ceremonial and social needs, the name came to be applied to the better vineyards surrounding the hill.

Once the Pope returned to Rome, the name dropped out of use and the wines came to be known simply as “vin d’Avignon” until the Chateauneuf name was resurrected in the mid-1800s. The wines gradually gained respect within France until phylloxera wiped out the vineyards in the late 1800s.

In the early 20th Century, growers in the area realized that they couldn’t compete with the rapidly developing Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south for pure bulk wine production. Seeking to improve quality, in the early 1930s they banded together to resurrect the brand of Chateauneuf du Pape and establish rules for what wines could or could not use that label. Their approach ultimately became the basis for all France’s designated wine regions – the Appelation Controlee system. The rules specified maximum yields, minimum alcoholic strength (12.5%), and determined which grapes were of acceptable quality (a hard debate settled on a list of 13 varieties).

Mapmaking Gone Wrong
Cdp and Champauvins MapAnd they drew a map specifying which lands were allowable for Chateauneuf du Pape and which would be left out (and ultimately be labeled Cotes du Rhone).
To the south and west of the town of Chateauneuf, setting boundaries was easy. As the land sloped down towards the Rhone River, it eventually became too wet to support vineyards.

The eastern side was also easy, if not really based on vineyard character. The drafters simply followed the main road running from Avignon to Orange (now the A7 Autoroute) from the village of le Coulaire in the south and up to the end of the vineyards belonging to Chateau Beaucastel in the north. This sliced one of Beaucastel’s vineyards – called Coudoulet – in two, leaving half of the vineyard in and half out of Chateauneuf. Not entirely fair, but at least easy to explain.

What happened next is a bit of a mystery. The Jaume family farmed a collection of vineyards pretty much due west of Beaucastel and just under the Orange road. The vineyards have the same sub-soils and top-soils as Beaucastel, were covered by the rounded “galet” stones that are Chateauneuf’s hallmarks, and were planted to the same grapes. The logical thing to do would have been to simply continue to follow the road as it curved around to the west a little further and then allow the line to curve back down to the south to the river as the soils changed from red, iron rich gravel to more sand and limestone after the Jaume’s vineyards ended.

Instead, the drafters elected to abandon the Orange road just above Beaucastel and draw the boundary line down a narrow gravel path that ran right through the middle of the Jaume vineyards. The very fine vineyards planted in 1905 and still used for Grand Veneur Chateauneuf du Pape Les Origines plus another medium-sized vineyard became Chateauneuf. The 35 hectare Champauvins vineyard, identical in every way to the vineyards across the 10 foot wide path would be Cotes du Rhone.

Outstanding Wine the Best Revenge!
champauvin and galetIt’s hard to imagine how frustrated and upset the Jaume family must have been when they saw the new region’s map, and we know they protested and demanded explanations for years (but never got one). And, when you visit the Jaume’s at their modest winery just outside Chateauneuf, you get the sense that they still are not entirely over the injustice of making Champauvins somehow “less” than vineyards a few feet away.

Fortunately, under the leadership first of Alain Jaume and today of his sons, Sebastien and Christophe, the family’s Domaine Grand Veneur has decided that quality is its own revenge. They farm Champauvins like the Chateauneuf vines across the path, working mainly by hand (necessary with bush vines and gravel-covered soils) and using certified organic viticultural techniques. Yields are similar to their Chateauneuf vineyards, meaning the Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes achieve fantastic ripeness without any excess of sugar or roasted, pruny flavors.

In the modern winery, the winemaking for Champauvins is “old school” all the way. Fermentations proceed slowly with gentle pump-overs to extract classic Rhone flavor and structure without adding any harsh tannins. Grenache (70% of the blend) ages in concrete tanks to help it retain color and fruit. Syrah and Mourvedre mellow in old oak casks, given them the tiny bit of air they need to round out without imparting any oak flavor.

The result is a wine chock-full of big, deep, aromas of kirsch, black cherry, crushed herb, wild lavender, black olive and dark chocolate flow from the glass. Those same notes flow across your palate in a rich, vibrant, wine that coats your mouth with flavor and leaves ripe, fine-grained, tannins lingering behind. If they wanted to, the Jaume family could give this the same heft and density that makes “true” Chateauneuf so cellar-worthy (if hard to enjoy young), but because it’s “only” Cotes du Rhone and cannot command Chateauneuf prices, they craft it to be open, supple, savory, and delicious right now.

 

A ‘Primer’ on Barolo

Our recent offering of Vietti’s latest vintage of Castiglione, a double 94 point blend of multiple Barolo vineyards (or “Crus” as they’re called there), got us thinking about Barolo’s history, how it grew to be more like Burgundy, along with questions about aging and the 2015 vintage, so it seemed like a good time to offer a little ‘primer’ on the subject!

What is Barolo?
Barolo the name of a town, of a small slice of a wine region, of the larger wine region, and of one of the world’s most profound and cellar-worthy red wines. The town is perched on a hilltop in Italy’s Piemonte region, south of Turin and not far from Alba – a pretty spot with lovely views of vineyards running up and down the steep hills surrounding it. The vineyards around the town of Barolo and those of nearby La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, and Monforte d’Alba make up the wine region named for the town.

Barolo and Map

While the vineyards across Barolo are planted to a variety of red grapes, the undisputed king of Piemonte grapes – and the only grape allowed in the wine “Barolo” – is Nebbiolo. And, like all royalty, Nebbiolo can be a bit of a prima donna.

Pampering the Royal Grape to Wine
Nebbiolo.jpgNebbiolo can’t stand wet feet, so it only thrives on loose-grained soils that drain water freely. It refuses to move quickly, taking up to 20% more days on the vine to ripen vs, say, Pinot Noir, so it needs to grow someplace where spring frosts are over early, summers are hot (but not too hot), and autumns are sunny, comfortable, and dry. And, as Jancis Robinson writes, “it is worth planting Nebbiolo only on south- or south-west-facing slopes at an altitude somewhere between 250 and 450 m (820 and 1500 ft) as there is no chance of making decent wine from this late-ripening variety if it is not exposed to maximum sunshine.”

So Barolo Nebbiolo buds early and hangs on the vine until late September, October, or even November. Then it has to be picked by hand – because the vineyards are too steep for machines – by workers who spend hours trudging up and down hills carrying buckets, baskets and bins of grapes to be hauled off to the winery.

Where more fun ensues. Because while Nebbiolo can make great wine, it insists that winemakers work for it. The grape is jam-packed with acidity, one of the reasons growers have to wait so long to pick so that the grapes will develop enough alcohol to balance the acidic tang. The skins are relatively low in color, so winemakers need to regularly pump over or “punch down” the fermenting rapes to get enough pigment in the wine to support aging and protect from oxidization.

But the skin and seeds are very high in tannin – the long-chain protein that makes your mouth pucker and feel dry when drinking young red wine or strong black tea. So all that work pulling out color also pulls out the firm, drying, tannins that make just-fermented Nebbiolo feel unbelievably, almost painfully, dry and astringent.

When exposed to oxygen, those tannins will “polymerize” – or stick to other tannins or wine pigment – and either become less aggressive or even get so big that they precipitate out of the wine. But exposing the wine to lots of oxygen can cause the fruit flavors to fade and make the wine turn brown. What to do?

Nebbiolo barrelsThe Barolo solution is to age the young wines for a long time – usually about 30 months – in wood casks that let just a trickle of air in through the barrels’ pores. The casks can be really big and old, so the process is slow and very little wood flavor enters the wine. Or they can be more “normal” size and new, which tends to lock in color (it’s a new wood thing) and soften the tannins faster – but adds noticeable oak flavor that can obscure Nebbiolo’s beauty.

So most Barolo winemakers use a mixture of wood vessels to try to get the best of both worlds and then regularly “rack” the wine – gently pumping it from one barrel to another – to add a little extra oxygen and speed the process along. Then into bottle…where the wine usually rests for another year or so before release to let it soften a bit more.

What’s Barolo Like to Drink – and When?
Mature Barolo – wine that’s rested long enough in bottle to allow the tannins to soften and some new aromas and flavors to develop – is one of the wine world’s most beautiful and captivating treats.

When you pour a glass, you’ll notice that it’s much less dark and opaque than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, with an often translucent ruby red color and some orange highlights at the rim. If the light color makes you think you’re about to try a light wine…WRONG! Getting Nebbiolo ripe enough to balance its acidity means letting the alcohol rise to 14% and higher, so Barolo always has plenty of body. And when you put it in your mouth – even if it’s older – you’ll get a big punch of tangy cherry juice acids up front and grippy, dusty, at least lightly mouth-puckering, tannins on the end.

But before that first sip, take a moment to give it a sniff. You’ll be rewarded with big, beautiful, utterly captivating aromas (one of the reasons Barolo is so often compared to red Burgundy is it’s glorious perfume). On both the nose and palate, you’ll discover a beguiling blend of cherry, raspberry and strawberry fruit, hints of licorice, leather and chocolate, floral scents like violets, earthy notes like mushroom or white truffle, perhaps a dash of white pepper and cured tobacco. And, in the best wines, Barolo’s aromatic and flavor signature: tar and roses.

Traditionally, though, you couldn’t actually hope for all those flavor and aromatic fireworks until at least 10 years after the vintage (and often longer). Because old-style Barolo went into bottle with so much acidity and so very, very, much grippy, astringent, palate-closing, tannin that it wasn’t just yummy to drink young – it was often positively painful.

Something of a Revolution
Fortunately, Barolo has undergone something of a revolution over the past 20 years. As Antonio Galloni explained about the 2010s (a more structured, tannic vintage than the 2015s):

“These aren’t your father’s (or mother’s) Barolos. In other words, the wines won’t take decades to become approachable. Significant strides in viticulture and winemaking have made today’s young Barolos more approachable than they have ever been. For example, the 2008 Barolos, wines from another cool, late-maturing vintage, are surprisingly open today. Those wines may close down at some point in the future, but the days of needing to cellar Barolos for decades before they drink well is largely a thing of the past. The last vintage I can remember with truly forbidding youthful tannins is 1999.”

And the 2015s, benefitting from a lovely, warm, growing season and still more winegrower experience is more accessible still. As Wine Advocate reported, Barolo’s vintage 2015 offers “plenty of options for those seeking wines to drink early and to those who have room in their cellars to age a few bottles for longer periods.”

There are three keys to enjoying 2015 Barolo young:

  1. pick the right wine;
  2. decant the wine for the proper amount of time; and
  3. matching it up with the right food.

Vietti Castiglione.jpgNo question – Vietti’s Barolo Castiglione 2015 is “the right wine,” with a perfect blend of Barolo aging potential and immediate accessibility. The right amount of time? Answering that question requires a bit of experimentation. Which we’ve done for you!

How Long to Decant?
We poured a bottle of Vietti Barolo Castiglione 2015 into a decanter at 9:30 am in the morning and then tasted it right away and over the next four hours. At first pour it showed a nice perfume and good flavors, although the fruit aromas were a bit obscured by notes of spice and tobacco and the flavors cut a little short by the very firm, if silky and ripe, tannins.

At three hours, the tannins had turned more chalky and were sticking to our teeth a bit. The wine was starting to show some browning of color and flavors with the fruit taking on a deep, earthy, note, some truffle/underbrush character emerging, and the fruit showing as a dark bass note. But the aromas had fallen off sharply, turning very reticent and lacking much interest. The glass sampled at four hours was pretty much the same, but more so.

The delicious sweet spot for the wine was from one hour after decanting until hour three. The perfume really peaked right around hour 1, showing stunning lift, intensity and complexity and a perfect mix of fruit, flowers and earth. Then, over the next hour (as the nose quieted a bit), the fruit got bigger, sweeter, and more prominent with plenty of complexity from notes of summer violets, perfumed roses, licorice root, and sweet spice.

Conclusion: decant this about an hour before you sit down at table so it shows maximum perfume from first pour and then enjoy over the next couple of hours as the fruit gains breadth, richness and volume before turning mellow, spicy and truffled towards the end of your last glass.

Pairing Barolo with Food
And what should be on your plate while drinking Vietti Barolo Castiglione? Something savory, perhaps even a little earthy, with a good balance of acidity, salt, fat, and protein (all of which help soften tannins). Some options:

  • Grilled beef, mushroom risotto, green beans braised with tomato
  • Any feathered game bird (partridge, squab, duck) with wild rice and mushroom stuffing and a touch of lemon zest
  • Beef carpaccio or cruda with truffle, olive oil, salt and lemon zest
  • Any rich red wine braised beef dish topped with a gremolata
  • Milder, salty, cheeses like Robiola, Grana Padano, or Toma

All of these pairing let young Barolo’s tannins and acidity work for you, offsetting the richness of the dish, while adding savory, earthy, flavors that bring out those aspects of the wine.

Conclusion
Barolo isn’t cheap. But in a world where the top wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy routinely cost $100-$300+, the Nebbiolos of Piemonte still offer the chance to cellar and drink great wines at a price that can fairly be called a “reasonable splurge.” Give ‘em a try!

An American in Burgundy

An American in Burgundy

Mark O'Connell Clos de la Chapelle

Kansas native Mark O’Connell

If you haven’t heard of Burgundy’s Domaine Clos de la Chapelle before, it’s because:  a) it’s a new name for a very old estate; and b) there’s very little wine! But it’s a name you should get to know and come to rely on for top-notch Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at decidedly affordable prices.

Kansas native Mark O’Connell fell in love with Burgundy years ago and, in 2005, purchased a barrel of wine at the famed Hospices de Beaune auction. As part of the deal, Mark came to Burgundy to work harvest – something he continued doing through 2010.

From Working Harvest to Owning Vineyards
Then, as the 2010 harvest wrapped up, Pierre Meurgey, then president of Beaune négociant Champy, asked Mark if he’d be interested in helping Champy purchase some new vineyards. Working with lawyer Philippe Remoissenet, they bought the historic Louis Boillot estate and its 3.1 acres of vines in Volnay and Pommard. They renamed the domaine for its most famous vineyard, the Volnay monopole of Clos de la Chapelle, and made their first vintage from vine to bottle in 2011.

Mark is now the managing partner and, from vintage 2017, the winemaker as well. He’s added to the Domaine’s vineyards, growing to a total of 10 acres of vines in Pommard, Volnay, Beaune and on the Grand Cru hill of Corton. All of the holdings are 1er or Grand Cru designated, and Mark farms them all like Grand Crus, pruning tightly to limit yields, working organically (certified), and transitioning to biodynamics.

Organic, Biodynamic, Meticulous.
And the farming and winemaking are meticulous. All of his vineyards are organic and biodynamic, with three annual plowings replacing herbicides and simple applications of copper, sulfur, and biodynamic homeopathic sprays replacing all other chemicals. The vines are pruned to only four shoots to limit yields and the fruit is handpicked and carefully sorted before fermentation with native yeasts. The reds see a little whole cluster for added spice and structure, and all the wines age in 20-35% new French oak to round off and gain more depth.

Brand New Winery, Old-Fashioned Work
Clos de la ChapelleFor vintage 2017, Mark moved the Domaine into a brand new, squeaky-clean winery but continued working in his restrained, oldfashioned way. While many of Mark’s vineyards naturally give fairly ripe, rich wines, the estate’s goal is to “obtain the purest wines possible.” The grapes are all picked and sorted by hand to ensure only prime, perfect, fruit goes into fermenters. The reds see 10-20% whole clusters depending on the vintage, and both reds and whites ferment with native yeasts and age in a modest 10-25% new oak (a touch higher in 2017 due to the need to purchase new barrels for the inaugural vintage of the new winery).

Three Clos de la Chapelle BurgudiesSmall Quantities, Restrained Pricing.
While Mark certainly doesn’t want to lose money – something that’s been hard to avoid in recent short-crop vintages! – he’s certainly been much more restrained on pricing than most of his neighbors. And that’s especially impressive given the tiny production levels here – only 1,500 cases total and down to as little as 75-375 cases each of the wines we’re featuring.

In vintage 2017 – a year that gave vivid, pure whites and wide-open and easy to love reds – Mark’s approach delivered a captivating set of white and red Burgundies you are sure to love.

At our special sale, six-bottle, and mix/match case pricing, all of these Dom Clos de la Chapelle wines represent outstanding value. And while all will develop nicely in cellar, each wine is a delight to taste and drink today. As you’ll see when you come by to try them this Friday (3-7pm) and Saturday (noon-4pm)!

Climb the Hill for Delicious Burgundy Values

Really good, stylish, delicious red and white Burgundy values are still out there – but you have to be willing to explore a bit to find them. So drive the road from Chassagne-Montrachet past St Aubin and climb the hill to the Haute-Cotes village of La Rochepot. That’s where you’ll find Jerome and Elisabeth Billard, sometimes their son Louis, and some of the most compelling white and red Burgundy values we’ve tasted in years!

billard-doug-and-horse.jpg

On our visit in March, Doug got to meet Jerome and Elisabeth … and Rafael the horse, an important part of Dom Billard’s vineyard care!

Jerome took over the family estate 20 years ago, in 1999, and promptly stopped selling to the local co-op and began bottling wine himself. He quickly converted his vineyards to organic farming and, while raising three children, gradually acquired small vineyard plots in select sites across the Cotes de Beaune.

Today his children are mostly grown and one son, Louis, is a budding winegrower working in the cellars at Domaine Romanee-Conti (on his days off, he helps Jerome work the family’s vineyards and is learning how to use Rafael the horse to reduce the use of tractors within the vines).

Dom Billard signElisabeth and Jerome of BillardBut the winegrowing philosophy has remained constant.

Low-Impact, Meticulous Farming: All of Billard’s vineyards are farmed organically with no chemical insecticides, fertilizers or herbicides. In four vineyards, plowing and mowing are done by horse, rather than tractor, to limit soil compactions. The vines are tightly pruned to limit fruit set and bunches are dropped while green to keep yields low.

Focus on Freshness: Jerome loves ripe fruit – but not over-ripe fruit. He picks each site to achieve fine balance of fruit flavors and acidity and then full destems and sorts grape by grape to ensure that only perfect berries make it into the wine.

Gently, Gently: Chardonnay is pressed slow and gently to extract pure juice with no bitterness from the skins or seeds. Pinot Noir goes into the fermenters as whole berries, and then are trod by foot to release the juice and extract color and structure with soft, supple, tannins. As much as possible, the young wine moves through the winery via gravity or air pressure to minimize harsh pumping.

Judicious Oak: Great Burgundy needs time in barrel and the finest, most concentrated, wines need at least a little new oak to achieve balance, finesse and complexity. But Jerome knows that too much wood flavor means that the unique signature of site and vintage can easily be overwhelmed. The whites all ferment and age in barrel, while the reds all see barrel for aging. But the quality of barrel is very high, the toast levels low, and the percentage of new oak kept down so each wine’s character and fruit can shine through.

Generosity, Drinkability, and Unmistakably Burgundy
In the open, attractive, delicious vintage 2017, this gave Billard a set of wines that have a lovely sense of generosity and drinkability but that remain unmistakably “Burgundy.” And in 2018, when ripeness levels are higher, his restraint produced cuvees of outstanding depth with no loss of finesse and freshness.

Folks, these are seriously good Burgundies that you don’t have to be “serious” to enjoy. Highly recommended. Get ’em.

Falanghina and Aglianico: A New Appreciation for Campania’s Native Grapes

doug-in-italy-.jpgI’m just back from a week in Italy, mostly in Campania, and in addition to six pounds of extra girth, I’ve come back with a new and much deeper appreciation of two of Campania’s native grapes: Falanghina (white) and Aglianico (red).

And a very deep appreciation of the outstanding work done by brothers Giuseppe and Libero Rillo at Fontanavecchia!

Over 2000 Years of Vineyards
The estate’s vineyards have been the source of fine wine for more than two thousand years. First planted to grapes like Falanghina and Aglianico by Greek colonists, the hillside vineyards of Taburno were the source of ancient Rome’s most important wines including the famed Falernum.  Red Falernum was probably made from Aglianico; white from Falanghina (or, possibly, Greco – we’re not sure!).

Libero Rillo’s ancestors have grown grapes here for hundreds of years and started what would become Fontanavecchia in the late 19th Century.  His father began bottling and selling wine with that label some 30 years ago, but it was Giuseppe and Libero who took the estate to new heights over the past 15 years.

Quality in the Vineyards
As in all great wine, the quality starts in the vineyards.  The estate’s 18 hectares of vines grow on the slopes of rolling hills covered in argillaceous soils – fine, powdery, and very old marine sediments that become thick and a bit gooey with rain but shed water quickly before the vines can take up too much. The Rillo family keeps yields low by careful pruning and green harvesting as necessary, and the region’s warm, sunny days followed by surprisingly chilly nights delivers wonderful ripeness and generosity of fruit matched by crisp acids and, for red Aglianico, firm, chewy, tannins.

Winemaking is simple and clean.  The whites are gently pressed and fermented cool in tank with some later harvested whites seeing a short stay in used cask.  The red Aglianico is allowed to ferment warmer with gently pump-overs to extract color and flavor and then given several years in barrel to soften and mature.

Ready to Drink … and to Age
Libero believes in releasing wines when they are ready to drink, which means fairly early for the white Falanghina del Sannio but years after harvest for his Aglianico.  But, make no mistake: these wines age wonderfully well.  At the generous (and 3 hour long!) “light” dinner and tasting we had at the winery, Libero showed us whites back to vintage 2001 that were mature but still vibrant, full of freshness, and utterly delicious.  And the 2001 Aglianico we discovered on a restaurant wine list (for just 30 Euro!) the day before was gloriously complex and delicious and still had plenty of time to go.

While Fontanavecchia makes more “important” wines, the “base” Aglianico del Taburno and Falanghina del Sannio were the bottlings I found most satisfying and exciting.  The Aglianico outperforms its 90 point rating (and crazy low price) by a good bit.  And the white may be the best they’ve ever made – which is saying something about a wine that has already earned more Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri awards than any other Campania Falanghina!

As the summer goes on, we’ll be bringing you several more of my favorite wines of this delicious trip.  But none will have better quality-price-ratios (QPR) than these.  Grab them while you can!

Grand Cru Quality from the Heart of Provence

Dom d'eole wineryThe superb quality of Provence’s 2015 and 2016 vintages demands serious attention, perhaps more serious than any of us have given it in the past.

Our guide to the great wines of France, importer Olivier Daubresse introduced many of you to the wines of Domaine d’Eole over 15 years ago. Since then, we’ve featured them in emails, stacked them on the floor, put them on the shelves, and taken special joy in using older vintages in special tastings and dinners to show off how well they age. And, because Olivier purchased huge amounts of outstanding vintages like 1999, 2001, and 2003, (all of which have continued to improve with time) we haven’t needed to work with new vintages over the past 3-4 years.

But the combination of great vintages plus big ratings from Wine Advocate encourages us to jump on these relatively young wines before the rest of the world catches on.

You may have tried Dom d’Eole wines in the past; perhaps the pretty, fruity pink, the fresh and earthy red, or even – in past vintages – the lightly exotic white. But you have never tasted d’Eole wines – heck, any Provençal wines –  like Dom D-Eole’s Cuvee Lea and Cuvee “S.”

Ecocert Organic Certified
eco-cert.jpgSome background. Domaine d’Eole sits in the heart of the Provence, south of Avignon and northwest of Aix-en-Provence, at the base of the low Chaîne des Alpilles mountain range. The Alpilles block some of the Mistral wind’s intensity – the fan is set to “medium” here rather than “high” – but still allow for some cool air from the Mediterranean Sea – 25 miles south – to reach the vineyards.

What doesn’t reach the vineyards is a lot of rain, and what rain that does fall drains quickly through the complex, very ancient limestone soils. The vines drive their roots deep for nutrients and water, and the alternating hot and cool, but always dry climate is perfect for farming without chemical additives, pesticides, or sprays.

The estate’s first and only winemaker – German-born Matthias Wimmer – pointed towards organic farming from the estate’s founding in 1992 and achieved Ecocert Organic Certification in 1996. That same year, French financier Christian Raimont purchased d’Eole and enabled Matthias to invest in a state-of-the-art winery and maintain his commitment to organics and ultra-low yields.

Seriously Small Crop Farming
Dom Eole vineyard

And about those yields. The Coteaux d’Aix en Provence appellation is most famous for its rosé wines and the farming rules here are built on the assumption that fresh, fruity, and pink is about all that’s required for success. So, vineyards in this rugged, non-irrigated region can go all the way up to 60 hectoliters per hectare, a level that’s normally achieved by letting the vines groan under the weight of berries and not worrying about getting everything ripe – after all, you’re just making pink wine, right?

At Domaine d’Eole, things are more serious. For both red and white wines, the goal is perfect ripeness with plenty of intensity and structure. In the winter, vines are pruned severely, limiting the number of fruit-bearing buds that can form in the spring. Then, the “second crop” that forms in late spring is removed and the main crop adjusted by “green harvesting” – cutting off grape bunches – to ensure that each vine is balanced and prepared to deliver ripe grapes. Last, during harvest, trained harvesters inspect each grape bunch, leaving any that aren’t fully ripe and perfect condition on the ground to rot and, eventually, feed next year’s crop.

Across the d’Eole vineyards, then, the maximum yield Wimmer and Raimont allow to ripen and reach the winery is 30 hectoliters per hectare – half of the legal crop. And, for these wines, yields are lower still, as low as 20 hectoliters per hectare for Cuvee Lea.

Grand Cru-Level Winemaking
Having grown, harvested, and brought to the winery perfect (and expensive!) grapes, winemaker Wimmer treats this, the best of his harvest, with the kind of care normally found in only much more expensive wines from much more famous regions.

The luxurious Grenache and Syrah used for Dom d’Eole’s Cuvee Lea are crushed and go into large cement vats. Temperature control units allow the must to reach a moderate 78-80 degrees – perfect for extracting color and tannin without bitterness or damage to fruit flavors – and then hold that temperature for 18 days. Two or three times daily during the time in vat, Wimmer uses gentle pumps to pull fermenting wine up from the bottom of the tank and pour it over the cap, extracting still more color and intensity.

After fermentation, Cuvee Lea is a bit of a beast, so Wimmer racks the wine into expensive French oak barriques and lets it rest there for a year to soften, round out, gain richness, and prepare for final blending. After blending, the wine gets a six-month rest in cement tanks to integrate and soften a touch more before bottling. It then rests again in bottle in the cellar.

The Newest Direction
Concrete eggDom d-Eole’s Cuvee S Syrah is part of the estate’s newest direction, working to match their all-natural, organic farming with more natural and minimal intervention winemaking. After fermentation, some of the vineyard’s finest Syrah goes into a unique, egg-shaped tank made of untreated concrete.

The egg-shape encourages a natural circulation, mixing the fine lees (dead yeast cells) left after fermentation with the wine to provide a creamier, more complex, texture. And slightly porous concrete allows in a touch of oxygen – like barrels do – to soften the wine’s firm tannins but not add any oaky spice or vanilla flavors.

The Best of Provence?
With Provençal rosé so successful these days, it’s hardly surprising that most estates and growers can’t be bothered to make the investment, do the work, and take the time to make wines like these. Unless you’ve had previous vintages of Domaine d’Eole’s Cuvee Lea, then it’s very unlikely you’ve ever had Provençal wine of this quality and style.

You can find Dom d-Eole’s wines on our website here.

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