About 98.7% of Wine Drinkers Don’t Do This

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About 98.7% of you don’t drink enough Riesling. At least that’s our unscientific estimate. And we think Austria’s dry but ripe and fruity Riesling is the wine to change that

Ask any Austrian winegrower, sommelier or critic and they’ll be quick to tell you that – as nice as Grüner Veltiner can be – Riesling is Austria’s finest white grape, hands down. And Austrian Riesling is the most delicious and best-value way to get to know the world’s most under-appreciated vine.

Riesling can vary dramatically between regions and countries. German Riesling is either sweet (delicious, but unnerving to American drinkers) or dry and searingly acidic (but in a good way). Alsace Riesling is usually dry, but can feel oily and rich despite the lack of residual sugar. But Austrian Riesling serves up the ripe and generous fruit flavors of the best wines of Germany with the attractive fleshiness of Alsace wines and the crisp, dry, finish of German Trocken bottlings.

Austria’s Wachau
And the best place in Alsace to find these “unicorn” Rieslings is in the Wachau. As Master of Wine Jancis Robinson writes,

“The Wachau in Austria rivals Alsace and the Mosel for the purity of its Rieslings, except that these wonderfully characterful, bone dry, sculpted wines tend to have more in the way of body and alcohol.”

Josef Bauer Riesling FeuersbrunnThat’s a fine description of Josef Bauer Riesling Feuersbrunn 2017, one of the very best wines (red or white!) I tasted during my last visit to Austria in early 2018.

Like all great Riesling, it smells great: aromas of tangerine, fresh peach, lime skin and peach blossom really jump from the glass. In the mouth its flavors of orange, lime, peach and wet stone minerality really drive across your palate, delivering bold flavors without excess weight (it’s just 12.2% alcohol). For all the fruit, there’s nothing “sweet” about this wine, including the long, dry, mouthwatering finish that leaves notes of fruit blossom and fresh lime lingering on and on.

In the hands of a more famous estate – think Prager or Pichler – this would be a $30 Riesling and worth every cent of that. But Joe Bauer is a much more humble guy, more interested in continuing his family’s winegrowing tradition and passing that along to his children than seeking fame and high prices. And our good friend, Klaus Wittauer, gets this to us with minimal mark-ups and add ons so it can sell for a song.

We’d love to get that 98.7% of under-Riesling-drinkers down to, say, 97.2%. So come by this Friday (3-7pm) and Saturday (noon-4pm) (March 15 and 16), and try Josef Bauer Riesling Feuersbrunn 2017 for yourself!

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Nerello Mascalese: Pinot Noir Meets Brunello and Nebbiolo

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Italy’s Mt Etna

Have no idea what Nerello Mascalese is? Or never had a wine from Mount Etna before? And think “Sicilian red wine” means “fat, flabby and jammy” and that “Marco De Grazia” means “oaky and internationally styled”? Let’s fix that, shall we?

We’ll start with the grape. Here’s how Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine and author of the world’s most comprehensive book on wine grapes describes Nerello Mascalese:

“Noble, late-ripening Sicilian variety that retains its acidity well and is responsible for some dense and haunting reds on the slopes of Mount Etna.”

Grown on the poor, fast-draining soils of active volcano Mount Etna and blended with softer Nerello Cappuccio, Nerello Mascalese tastes like a cross between mature Barolo, warm-vintage red Burgundy, and classic leather and fruit-laced Brunello. Think ripe strawberries, sweet cherries, expensive leather, and dark flower aromas and flavors in a texture that has Pinot Noir’s silkiness, Sangiovese’s power, and great Nebbiolo’s stunning blend of acidity, tannin and perfume.

An Italian Icon on Mt Etna
Terre Nere WinesNobody does a better job of pulling out all of Nerello’s delicious charm than Marco De Grazia. Best-known for introducing Americans to the joys of great Italian wines as an importer, Marco and his brother purchased a swath of old vine vineyards on the steep slopes of Mount Etna 30 years ago and have lovingly nurtured them as they used classic Burgundian winemaking techniques to make simply stunning wines.

Since moving to Sicily and founding Terre Nere, Marco has established himself as Mt Etna’s “benchmark” producer. The winery’s approach is straightforward. First, they have acquired old vineyards up and down the volcano’s slopes, giving them sites with a variety of exposures, slopes and soil types. Then they farm each site organically and to low yields. And make their wine simply and naturally, bottling each vineyard – or “contrada” – individually to showcase Mt Etna’s varieties of terroir.

The results have been spectacular from the beginning. As Wine Advocate reports, “Marco de Grazia-s influence on the wines of Etna looms as large as the massive volcano that dominates the landscape in this very special corner of Sicily.” And Marco’s 2016s are some of the finest ever here. As Wine Spectator sums up, “Today, de Grazia’s vineyards produce better and better results, with two whites and all seven of his 2016 reds rating 90 points or higher.”

Click here to find out more about this fabulous set of wines. All are very limited and all very much worth your attention and space in your cellar.

Drink Like (Frugal) Royalty: How this Wine Connects to Florence’s Medici Family

One thing we love about the world of wine is how a wine can connect us to little slices of history. This week’s 91 Tuscan red is a good example – we enjoyed its blend of fruity and savory and weren’t surprised at its 91 point Wine Spectator rating. What did surprise us was to learn that this is one of Tuscany’s oldest legally recognized wine growing areas and one of the first to include significant amounts of French varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon.

And for both, we have the Medici family to thank!

Italy’s First Wine Regions.
When they weren’t commissioning art works from Leonardo da Vinci or reading treatises on ruling from Niccolò Machiavelli, Florence’s ruling Medici family was eating and drinking well. And, being orderly and thoughtful (if a tad cruel), they soon realized that some of vineyards in their lands made better wines than others. So in 1716, Cosimo III dè Medici created Italy’s first legally defined wine regions: Chianti, Pomino, Val di Sopra, and Carmignano.

The Medici took special interest in Carmignano – the closest of the four top sites to Florence – and actively encouraged ongoing improvements in quality here. In fact, Catherine de’ Medici brought Cabernet back from France in the 1600s and had it planted in Carmignano. To this day, the grape is known as “Uva Francesca” – the “French grape.”

Today, Carmignano is an official DOCG – Italy’s highest quality designation – and makes a dark, rich, and very intense red from super-dark Sangiovese plus Cabernet and Merlot, a wine that needs long aging in barrel and bottle to shine. Today’s featured wine is designated “Barco Reale di Carmignano” – a fresh, easy-going red designed to be drunk young with pizza, pasta, and other casual fare.

The “Barco Real” in the name refers to a 4000-acre game park established by the Medici in the 17th Century. Perhaps this was the kind of wine they drank as the rabbit, stag and boar they’d run down during a long day’s hunting roasted in the fireplace?

Pratesi - Barco Reale di Carmignano Locorosso.jpegToday, you can certainly enjoy Pratesi Barco Reale di Carmignano Locorosso 2017 with the fruits of your hunt for good eats in the local grocery store. Like wines from nearby Chianti Classico – many of which today include Cabernet Sauvignon in their blends! – it’s got the heft and structure to stand up to Bistecca alla Fiorentina grilled over grape vine cuttings and finished with lemon and olive oil.

But it’s soft and fleshy enough to match up with burgers on the grill, pork tenderloin, pizza, even cheese and crackers. At $16.98 by the bottle and $14.98/ea by the case of 12 this week, this wine doesn’t require the Medici’s wealth for you to drink like a prince!

The Benchmark 2016 Vintage in Chateauneuf du Pape

Chateauneuf du PapeThis week’s Dom La Barroche Chateauneuf du Pape 2016s illustrate the 2016 vintage in Chateauneuf perfectly.

Across the Southern Rhone, and especially in Chateauneuf du Pape, 2016 is a great, great vintage. Now, to be honest, in the past 20 years, there have been only a couple of bad vintages (2002 and 1997) and not many “average” ones (perhaps 2008 and 2004?). But now that 2016 is in the bottle, Rhone lovers will be debating which of 1998, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2015 and 2016 are the “greatest” year of all!

How 2016 Has it All
I suspect 2016 will end up at the top of that exalted heap, possibly at the very top. Because it brings together the flamboyant richness and immediate appeal of a hot year like 1998 and 2007, the drought-driven intensity of years like 2005, and the purity, drive, and intensity of small crop years like 2001 and 2010. In short, 2016 has it all!

Four factors work together to make 2016 so special – and so unlike any other growing season in recent memory:

  • Generous, Even, Fruit Set – Fairly benign conditions during flowering let the vines set healthy – not excessive – loads of grapes (unlike 2010, say, when the small crop intensified the structure within each berry).
  • Very Hot, Sunny, Days – Rhone grapes need sunshine and heat to ripen, and 2016 delivered that in spades with multiple days exceeding 95°F, even in September.
  • Cool, Brisk, Nights – While days resembled hot years like 2007, low humidity and limited cloud cover meant that nighttime temperatures dropped quickly. As Dunnuck says, “This is what separates 2016 from other hot years like 2015, 2011, 2009, and 2003. This diurnal temperature swing is generally thought to preserve freshness in the grapes as well as contribute to more purity and freshness in the aromatics.”
  • Drought With Perfectly Timed Rain – After fruit set, the weather turned dry with extremely low rainfall until the arrival of light showers in mid-September. The drought kept berries small and intense and drove wonderfully dark colors. The refreshing late season rain gave the vines energy to finish ripening just in time for a traditional early October harvest.

What does all that mean in the bottle? Well, Josh Raynolds at Vinous says:

“If exuberant ripe fruit, harmonious tannins and an overall impression of generosity and lushness are what you’re after in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, then 2016 has plenty to offer. But the best wines also display real energy, making this a standout vintage. References to other great years such as 2010 and 2001 abounded during my visits with producers in mid-April, and while I concur with the comparison to 2001, the ‘16s show more flesh, more abundant fruitiness and rounder tannins than the 2010s did at a similar stage. At the same time, I believe that the wines will often be superior to those from recent hot years like 2009, 2007 and 2003 because of their greater freshness.”

And Jeb Dunnuck – formerly of Wine Advocate and now on his own, agrees:

“The 2016 vintage was truly extraordinary for the Southern Rhône and is a vintage that readers should buy with abandon. This is the greatest young vintage from the Southern Rhône Valley I’ve ever tasted, both in terms of quality as well as consistency. While these are ripe, concentrated, and exuberant wines, they also show an incredible purity of fruit as well as weightless, sensationally balanced profiles on the palate. They are complex, powerful wines that satisfy both the intellectual and the hedonistic parts of the brain. Rhône lovers will be comparing the 2016s, 2010s, and 2007s long into the future, and you will want these wines in your cellar.”

2016 at Dom La Barroche
Julien Barrot of Dom BarrocheThe work Julien Barrot has done at this Domaine comes to full fruition in 2016. And the results show in the critical acclaim (95 points for their Signature label and 100 points for their “Pure”).

The Barrot family owns 36 acres of some of Chateauneuf’s finest vineyard land, with 30 acres in production and six lying fallow in preparation for new planting. Julien will leave more than 5% of his land out of production for seven full years – shocking given the value of CdP vineyard! – because, “When you think about it, a parcel could have been used for vinegrowing for 100 straight years or longer. There is no way the soil can recover in just a few years after that.”

The producing land is mainly sandy-soiled sites in some of the region’s best areas, including an important slice abutting Rayas. The average vine age is 65 years, with multiple plots comfortably over the century mark and all farmed with organic care.

In the second year of his new gravity flow winery, Julien has taken major steps to increase the purity and finesse of his wines and moderate the extreme ripeness and power the region sometimes struggles to manage in an era of warmer growing seasons. For the first time ever, in 2016 he made no green harvest to increase the workload of the vines and moderate sugar levels. All of the Grenache remained on the stems for fermentation, adding a touch of spice and extra layer of freshness. And all of the fruit fermented in unlined “raw” concrete egg-shaped tanks to gain very gentle extraction and tamp down fruitiness a tiny bit.

The results are among the most exciting young Chateauneuf du Pape reds we’ve ever tasted, full of classic richness, ripeness and power but balanced by simply brilliant purity, finesse and length. The 2016 Signature shows astonishing freshness and vibrancy to go with the dark red fruit and full-bodied feel. And the 2016 Pure is…well, yes, Wine Advocate was “being too conservative at 99 points.”

The “Insider” Family Champagne House

Ar Lenoble and glassChampagne is big business, and today most Champagne houses – producers who make their own sparkling wine from fruit they grow and purchase from neighbors – are either very large or owned by bigger houses, insurance companies or global luxury goods firms.

AR Lenoble is different. Although they are one of the smallest houses remaining in Champagne, they have remained independent and family owned and run for more than 100 years. The brother and sister team of Antoine and Anne Malssagne (grandchildren of the founder) head a team of just 11 employees that’s building, as JancisRobinson.com wrote, “probably the most admired boutique family house right now.”

A Clear Focus
Anne and Antoine of LenobleSince taking over the house in 2001, Antoine and Anne have focused not on making “consistent” Champagnes in a static “house style,” but instead on making better and better Champagne every year. They started with a clear focus on their most important vineyard holding, 10 hectares of pure, chalky soils planted to Chardonnay in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly. As they’ve written:

“The expression of Chouilly defines who we are and what we do at AR Lenoble. Chouilly is one of only 17 Grand Cru villages in Champagne and one of only 6 known for Chardonnay. AR Lenoble is one of few producers to use 100% Grand Cru Chardonnay from Chouilly in every single one of our wines.”

To strengthen the quality of their fruit in Chouilly and also in the 1er Cru village of Bisseuil (Pinot Noir) and their Marne holdings in Damery (Pinot Meunier), the Malssagne’s launched an intensive farming improvement program. Using strict pruning, green harvests (cutting off bunches before ripening begins), and allowing cover crops to grow in competition with the vines, AR Lenoble boasts some of the lowest yields in Champagne.

The quality commitment continues in the winery. AR Lenoble uses only juice from the first pressing of the grapes – the “Cuvee” – and never uses any of the permitted second pressing – the Taille. After fermentation, about 30% of each vintage’s wine is held back and added to a “perpetual reserve” that mixes wines from 2001/2002 onward. Some of the reserve ages in tank, but most spends time in either small (225 liter) or large (5,000 liter) neutral French oak for more complexity still.

Retaining Champagne Character in the Face of Global Warming
Over the past 10 years, Antoine and Anne have faced a new challenge – how to retain Champagne’s classic balance, purity and freshness in the face of a warming climate, higher grape ripeness levels, and earlier and earlier harvests.

In the vineyards, AR Lenoble became one of the early adopters of HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale) farming standards. HVE farming was pioneered by Ambonnay’s Eric Rodez and moves growing as close to organic standards as possible in Champagne’s difficult growing conditions. Using extensive cover crops, reducing sprays, and promoting greater biodiversity in the soil and vineyard forces the vines to work harder and dig deeper to ripen grapes. This lengthens the growing season (more flavor!) and brings grapes to harvest readiness at lower sugar levels and higher acidity (more freshness!).

More Radical Still
And, in the winery, Antoine and Anne did something more radical still. In 2010, they withdrew a portion of their perpetual reserve, bottled it in magnum bottles, added enough sugar and yeast to develop about 1.5 bars of pressure (vs 4 bars for finished Champagne) and then closed the magnums with natural cork.

By holding in magnum under light pressure, AR Lenoble has been able to add even more complexity (from aging on the light lees) while locking in even more vibrancy and freshness in their reserves. As Anne has explained,

“Climate change is a reality. The challenge for the future is to be able to bring as much freshness as possible to our reserve wines. At the end of each harvest, we observe that acidity levels are much lower than they used to be. Reserve wines now need to add complexity and richness but also freshness.”

Following the 2014 harvest, Antoine decided the reserves in magnum were ready to use. He began by blending 40% reserve wines into the 2014 vintage base wines destined for the Brut Intense and Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV bottlings. That blend then went into bottle for secondary fermentation and spent three full years resting on the lees to integrate and develop even more complexity.

When ready to ship, the wines were given their usual cuvee names plus a new, special, designation. “Mag 14” on the bottle tells you that the wines are based on vintage 2014 and include reserve wines aged in magnum. And one taste will tell you that all the extra work and time was worth it!

 

Surprise: The Wines of Basketball’s Yao Ming

Yao MingBasketball great Yao Ming having his second career in the wine business? It was news to us, and we admit, it’s a bit too easy to have fun with this new-to-us wine from Yao Family Vineyards. Words like towering, slam-dunk and a tall order come all to easily when it comes to a fine value Napa Red, on sale for under $40 by the case, having earned a 94 point rating.

How did Ming get into wine? It began with his introduction to Texas steakhouses by teammate Dikembe Mutombo and growing love of how smooth and rich Napa Cabernet enhanced those meals.

As he explains,

Yao-Ming21“A shared bottle of wine reminds me of Chinese meals at home, which are served on what Americans call a ‘Lazy Susan.’ The food is placed in the middle of the table and shared. In the US, each person chooses their own meal, so the wine is what brings people together. It is shared and brings a common element to the meal.”

“High Class Wines.”
Ming’s first effort in Napa – working with industry veteran Tom Hinde – were high-end Napa Cabs. When Robert Parker tasted these two 2010 efforts, he reported, “I am aware of all the arguments that major celebrities lending their names to wines is generally a formula for mediocrity, but that is not the case with Yao Ming. These are high class wines. The two Cabernets are actually brilliant, and the Reserve bottling ranks alongside just about anything made in Napa.”

Yao Family Napa Crest - Proprietary RedA few years later, Ming and Hinde introduced the Napa Crest label to offer stylish wines at solid (for Napa) value price points. The wine we’re offering this week is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (65%), Merlot (25%) and Petit Verdot from Yao Ming’s Estate vineyards in Oakville and St. Helena plus select plots further north and in the cooler southern part of the Valley. Long skin contact (19-34 days) and warm fermentations extracted plenty of color, richness and heft. About 16 months in 50% new/50% used French oak adds polish and spice.

This wine offers fabulous depth and texture, the delicious richness, and the smoothly tannic finish, all delivered without any apparent excess of effort or flash. Which is a perfect match for both Yao Ming’s basketball playing style … and his ambition in forming Yao Ming Family Wines back in 2011.

“America’ Grape” from Croatia

Zinfandel is often called “America’s Grape” because it formed the basis for our first true commercial wine industry and isn’t found (at least under this name) as an important wine grape anywhere else in the world. It’s of the family vitis vinifera (which all wine grapes belong to), so it had to have originated somewhere in Europe. But where?

bedrock zin old vinesIt’s taken years of research and some trips down blind alleys, but over the past three decades, Zinfandel’s story has finally been definitively unraveled. The grape arrived in the US in the late 1820s from the Imperial Nursery of Austria. By the 1830s, it was widely grown in greenhouses around Boston and New England as a popular table grape. When unsuccessful prospectors in California’s 1849 gold rush turned to farming instead, they quickly realized that wine would make a fine cash crop. And so they ordered a wide range of grapes from nurseries back East – and got Zinfandel in the mix.

Pushed Out, but Now Back Again
The vine’s hearty constitution, high yields, and quality wine – a visiting French winemaker compared it to “good French claret” – quickly established Zin as a favorite varietal. As more prestigious French varietals – we’re looking at you, Cabernet Sauvignon – arrived in the later 1800s, Zinfandel was increasingly seen as a “common” grape and was pushed out of prime vineyard sites in Napa and Sonoma.

But Zin’s hearty constitution and relegation to stony and sandy soiled sites where Cabernet doesn’t thrive saved it. The phylloxera mite doesn’t like these impoverished soils, so Zin avoided the plague that struck California in the 1890s and early 1900s. And when Prohibition devastated California’s grape growing and wine making industry, abandoned Zin vines just kept on growing even while left untended. Leaving them ready to be rediscovered and rehabilitated as attention returned to premium red Zinfandel in the 1990s.

’23 and Me’ – for Grapes!
But if the grape got to California from New England and to New England from Austria, where did it come from originally? UC Davis researcher Carol Meredith used DNA profiling to prove that an obscure southern Italian grape called Primitivo was genetically identical to Zinfandel, but that just raised the question: If Zinfandel originated in Puglia, how did it get to Austria?

A clue emerged when researchers discovered that Zinfandel was one of two parents of a Croatian vine called Plavac Mali. The other parent turned out to be an even more obscure Croatian grape, suggesting that Zin had been growing in Croatia long enough for a crossing to occur. Finally, Dr. Meredith discovered a very old, nearly extinct, vine on the island of Kastela called Crljenak Kaštelanski that looked promising. DNA testing proved that this vine was identical to Zin and that this slice of what had been the Austro-Hungarian empire was the original birthplace of Zin.

So an unsophisticated immigrant from an obscure Balkan backwater made its way to the USA, struggled in harsh conditions with limited attention and support, and emerged as an American classic. Inspiring, I think.

Try this Old Vines Zinfandel from Bedrock Wine Co.