Before Chateauneuf: A Little History of Lirac

Lirac galetLirac’s 1,700 acres of vineyard are essentially the other half of Chateauneuf du Pape. Lirac sits on the West bank of the Rhone river, opposite Chateauneuf. The climate and subsoil are essentially identical to Chateauneuf, and – like Chateauneuf – most of the vineyards are covered in large, rounded, stones called “galet” left behind by the Rhone when it filled the entire valley in ancient times.

When the Papacy arrived in Avignon in the early 1300s and began searching out sources of wine for communion and celebration, Lirac was quickly identified as the source of the very finest wine in the region. We know that Pope Innocent IV paid a premium for the 20 casks of Lirac he purchased in 1357.

Lirac’s Fame
Even after the Pope’s returned to Rome, Lirac’s fame as the Rhone’s best wine continued to grow. Both King Henry IV (late 1500s) and Louis XIV (1600s-early 18th Century) regularly served Lirac at their courts. From Lirac’s river port of Roquemaure, the region’s red wine reached England and Holland by the late 1500s and by the end of the 1700s Lirac was, as the Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “a much more important wine center than Chateauneuf du Pape.”

With high demand came the temptation for fraud, and unscrupulous winemakers throughout the Rhone – including in Chateauneuf – often tried to pass their “inferior” wines off as Lirac. To help stamp out this fraud, in 1737 the king of France ordered that casks shipped from Roquemaure should be branded “CDR” – for Cotes du Rhone – as a sign that they were authentic and of the highest quality.

Lirac thrived as the Southern Rhone’s premier wine region right up until the 1860s. By the end of the 1870s, though, the vines were almost all gone and the economy in ruins. When Rhone wines began to return to fame and fortune after WWII, it was Chateauneuf that took the lead with Lirac only gradually recovering as a source of everyday rosé priced below the better known wines of neighboring Tavel.

The Accidental Introductin of Phylloxera
A large part of the blame falls to an unnamed winemaker at Lirac’s Chateau de Clary. In a well-meaning experiment with native American grape vines imported from California, he introduced the North American vine louse called phylloxera to Lirac’s vineyards in 1863. Own-rooted European grapes had no resistance to the pest, and soon vines across the region began to wither and die. Phylloxera eventually spread across all of Europe, cutting wine production by 50-80% as it expanded until growers discovered how to defeat it by grafting European vinifera vines onto American lambrusca root stock.

Lirac, like the rest of the Rhone Valley, began to replant and recover at the beginning of the 20th Century, only to be set back by economic crisis, WWI, and increased competition for everyday red wine from Algeria and the South of France. As in neighboring Chateauneuf, growers began banding together in the 1930s to establish quality standards and promote their region. But, while Chateauneuf was able to complete the process and achieve legal recognition for its rules and “brand” by 1937, Lirac moved more slowly and was unable to complete the process before WWII brought an end to wine region creation. “Lirac” didn’t receive its formal recognition until 1947.

With its head start, better marketing, and – perhaps – decision to ban rosé in the appellation, Chateauneuf steadily improved its reputation and demand throughout the mid-20th Century. With more demand came higher prices, and with higher prices came the ability to invest further in quality in the vineyard and winery. Lirac growers lagged and increasingly turned to less expensive rosé wines that could be made in large quantities and turned into cash immediately after the vintage. By the 1980s, Lirac was best known in the wine world as a source of everyday red Cotes du Rhone and as a good value alternative to the more expensive pink wines from neighboring Tavel.

Fortunately for us, several vigneron continued to understand Lirac’s potential and were willing to invest and take risks to return the region to fine wine status. Christophe Delorme at Domaine de la Mordoree, Henri de Lanzac of Chateau de Segries, and Alain Jaume of Grand Veneur led the charge and, today, these three remain benchmark producers who are helping to return Lirac to the fame it once held.

To Try: Dom Grand Veneur Clos de Sixte Lirac

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Old School Oregon

Jim Maresh in vineyardA great story here. As Jim Maresh explains, when his grandparents, Loie and Jim Maresh Sr., moved to the Willamette Valley in 1956 all they wanted was “A view lot in the country.” They quickly found a lovely 27-acre hilltop farm perched in the hills above Dundee, Oregon, and made an offer to buy a few acres. The owner refused to sell them just “a view lot,” so Loie and Jim courageously bought the whole farm.

Jim Sr. kept his day job at Dunn & Bradstreet while he and Loie started farming cherries, hazelnuts and prune plums, eventually expanding the farm to 140 acres. In 1966, they undoubtedly heard that David Lett had planted Pinot Noir in the Dundee Hills at what became Eyrie Vineyards. In 1969, Dick Erath – then in the process of planting his vineyard – told Jim that his land had pretty great grape potential. So in 1970, Jim and Loi began planting what would become Maresh Vineyard.

Fine Wines in the 1980s
A few years later, as Pinot Noir began taking off in Oregon, Jim Sr’s son-in-law Fred Arterberry got a winemaking degree from UC Davis and starting making wine from Maresh grapes. Arterberry Maresh was considered one of the Valley’s best wines in the early 1980s – Wine Advocate rated the 1985 a huge 98 points when tasting it in 2013!
Unfortunately, Fred passed away young, the Arterberry Maresh label was retired, and Jim Maresh Sr. sold his grapes to some of Oregon’s best winemakers. Until Fred’s son, Jim Arterberry Maresh, graduated from school and began making wine from his grandfather’s grapes again.

Today, Jim is still in his early 30s but his 10+ years of Willamette Valley winemaking make him one of the Valley’s most experienced – and certainly one of the most respected!

Benchmark Dundee Hills
Jim MareshArterberry Maresh wines start with the Dundee Hills’ unique Jory soils. Rich in iron, low in nutrients, and with a just-right ability to hold water, these decomposed volcanic soils give clearly different wine from sedimentary sites in nearby Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton. Fruit flavors run a bit more to the red end of the spectrum, but also pick up a uniquely savory, almost smoky, dark note from the ancient lava.

Both of this week’s featured wines come from Jim Maresh Sr.’s vines, including many planted in the 1970s and early 1980s. Both Jim’s have little use for the “modern” Dijon clones that arrived in Oregon in the mid-1980s. As Jim explained to Wine Advocate a few years ago:

“I don’t source one single Dijon clone and I wouldn’t buy one of ’em. If you’ve got Pommard or Wadenswil planted in the ’70s or ’80s – of some other old selections like the stuff Jon Paul [Cameron] has down the road at Cameron, where I used to work, you’re making the best wine. With my old vines in the Maresh home vineyard planted in 1970 and 1974, there’s bound to have been a lot of mutation over the years, and by now, probably what you have is Maresh selection.”

‘You Can’t Make Them This Good without Caring’
Arterberry Maresh bottlesWith a great site and great vines, Jim tries to do as little as possible to nurture ripe fruit from the vineyard to bottle. The crushed fruit starts fermentation when it’s ready to with the yeast that lives in the winery and came in from the vineyard. Today, it’s all destemmed to avoid adding too much structure or spice. It’s punched down twice daily during fermentation to extract color and the racked vigorously into barrel – Jim believes giving the wine some oxygen young makes it more resistant to air later.

And the barrels? While all are very good French oak, essentially none are new. In part that’s because Jim is trying to preserve purity and fruit flavors and his ripe fruit brings enough structure on its own. But, just as importantly – Jim hates wood tannins and wants to be sure they stay out of his wine!

It’s easy to come up with critical praise for Jim Maresh and his work, but I think this comment from Wine Advocate last year sums it up nicely:

“During my stay in Oregon I was explaining to a couple of people about winemakers with “the knack.” They just get it. They know how to make great Pinot Noir seemingly effortlessly, and practice small things that make a big difference. And Jim Maresh has the knack, because despite his laidback attitude towards life, I reckon he’s not that way at all when it comes to his wines. You can’t make them this good without caring.”

The Drunken Poet Grape

Abbazia di Novacella1

Abbazia di Novacella, the third oldest continuously operating winery in Europe

“How do you solve a problem like Maria?” the Austrian nuns sing at the beginning of The Sound of Music. Their denominational cousins, the monks at Abbazia di Novacella in what were Austria’s Dolomites until WWI, probably sang a similar song until the 1930s – “How do you solve a problem like well-exposed, high-altitude, mountain vineyards prone to frost?”

Admittedly, not as catchy and perhaps they’d have chanted it instead of sung. But still.

The answer to the monks’ prayers was born in Germany in 1929, when a grape researcher named August Herold made his first plantable cross of Riesling and Trollinger, the grape called Schiava in Alto Adige. Schiava gave the new grape strong resistance to late season frost, while Riesling promised fine acidity, the ability to express minerality, and plenty of perfume. August named his new grape “Kerner” after a local German poet who once penned that classic, “Wohlauf, noch getrunken” which translates as “Arise, still drunk.”

In post-WWII Germany, plantings of Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus and other “new breeds” spread rapidly at the expense of more finicky, lower yielding Riesling as the wine industry struggled to recover from war damage and devastation. At its peak, Kerner was actually Germany’s third-most planted grape! But it didn’t make very interesting wines at the relatively low altitudes where Germans planted it (and, especially, at the mind-bending yields they sought), so as the industry and Germany recovered in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond, Kerner plantings shrank fast.

Kerner Climbs The Mountains
The monks of Abbazia di Novacella control the third oldest continuously operating winery in Europe – dating from the 12th Century – so they’re not exactly prone to jumping on fads. Over the centuries, they and their partner growers working in the craggy vineyards of Alto Adige’s Dolomite had done a pretty fine job of mapping grape to vineyard based on exposure, soil type, slope and altitude.

Red grapes like Lagrein, Schiava, and Pinot Nero claimed the lowest vineyards, those at around 1,000 feet altitude ringing Lake Kaltern near Bolzano (45 minutes south of the winery). Near the winery in Brixen (or Bressanone if you prefer the Italian), Pinot Grigio climbed up the slopes from 1,200 feet and Gewürztraminer and other whites claimed full-sun South and Southwest facing sites at up to 2,000 feet.

But at just short of a half-mile up, none of these grapes would consistently ripen – or at least succeed at economic yields in the face of bitter cold spring nights and regular frosts.

Kerner

Kerner: A cross between Reisling and Schiava

So, at some point in the 1970s, the monks and their winegrowing team decided to give frost-resistant Kerner a try. While the first wines may not have been very successful, soon the combination of steep vineyards, super-dense planting, plenty of daytime sunshine and crisp, cold, nights proved to be exactly what Kerner needed to shine. So much so that in 1993, Italy recognized high-altitude Alto Adige Kerner with its own DOC status.

Kerner vs. Praepositus Kerner
Today, the monks’ winemaking team produce two Kerners. The “Classic” Kerner is delicious and is, as the folks at the winery told us last March, a perfect aperitivo wine – ideal for sipping on during the hour after work and before dinner. Light, fresh, refreshing fun.

Then there’s the Praepositus Kerner. It’s made the exact same way as the Classic Kerner: harvested by hand, destemmed, crushed and fermented cool in tank and then bottled after six months on the fine lees. But it’s a completely different wine because it’s made from grapes from two of the world’s finest Kerner vineyards.

aromas-of-kernerThe vineyards sit at 2,100 – 2,300 feet altitude and the vines grow on hand-built terraces running down the 25-40% gradient mountain slopes. These super-steep slopes allow the densely-planted vines (about 2,500 plants per acre) to slowly ripen to perfection. Although both the Classic and Praepositus Kerners are harvested about the same time (in early October) the “regular” wine usually comes in at 13.5-13.7% alcohol. Praepositus reaches 14.3% in 2016.

The extra alcohol translates to better body and more flavor – because only when it’s fully ripe does Kerner really come into its own with explosive aromatics and wildly complex flavors. And the cold nights and deep minerality balance the richness of texture perfectly, giving the wine compelling lift, definition and refreshing crispness.

If you’ve had other Kerner wines before, then know that this one is better. And if you’ve never tried one, please, don’t miss this!

Abbazia Di Novacella Kerner Praepositus

Why We Love Zeitgeist Cabernet

Zeitgeist Winemakers

Owners/winemakers Mark Porembski and Jennifer Williams

We think that one taste of Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 is all you’ll need to fall in love with this lush, rich, luxurious Napa red. And, how great it tastes has a lot to do with why we love it, too. But it’s only part of the reason we became this small-production Napa Cabernet’s foremost champions in the Mid-Atlantic nearly five years ago.

We introduced the mid-Atlantic region to Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon four years ago with the un-rated 2011 bottling. Why did we pre-buy a substantial quantity of a not terribly inexpensive, utterly unknown, wine in what was easily Napa’s least popular vintage in 25 years – without even tasting the finished wine?

Because as soon as I met co-owner/winemaker Mark Porembski and tasted his 2010 Napa Cabernet, I could tell this was a person and a project we wanted to be a part of. Mark and his wife/partner, Jennifer Williams (formerly of Spottswoode), care about the things we care about. Hard work. Exhaustive selection. Careful craftspersonship.

And, most of all: having fun with delicious, authentic, place-centered wine with no snobbery, attitude or fuss.

The Critics Pay Attention
ZeitgeistWith Mark and Jenn’s 2012 vintage, the Wine Advocate began paying attention and (under) rated it 91 points. The next year, Robert Parker upped the rating for the 2013 to 93 points. And in 2014, the 10th bottling of Zeitgeist Cab, Parker’s Wine Advocate delivered Mark and Jen an “Outstanding” 94 points.

After tasting that succulent 2010, it took us a couple of years to persuade Mark to sell us any wine – after all, with just 330-450 cases made per year and “insider” fans up and down the West Coast, there wasn’t much to spare. But – as we said – Mark’s our kind of guy, and even as the praise and ratings roll in, he’s remained generous in giving us all the Zeitgeist Cab we ask for.

So, by all means, feel free to enjoy the 2014 Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon for its bold fruit, velvety texture, and powerful, cellar-worthy, finish. And it won’t bother us if you notice that this wine delivers the quality and intensity that you normally only find in $100+ (even $200+) bottlings.

But if you really want to “get” why this is so special, plan a trip to California and, before you go, give Mark a call at the winery to schedule a visit.   An hour with Mark (or Jenn if she’s available) will remind you that there’s more to wine and winemaking than just what’s in your glass. And that little bit extra is why wine can be so very, very, exciting and satisfying.

Austrian Reds: Where the Action Is

Austrian Red Wine GlassIf you think about Austrian wine at all – and, after more than 10 years of flogging the stuff to you, we hope you think of it often! – you probably think of vibrant dry Riesling and peppery, refreshing, Grüner Veltliner. Nothing wrong with that, but the real action in Austria these days is with red wines. And while native grapes like Blaufrankisch, St. Laurent, and Zweigelt (a crossing of the first two) certainly remain in the forefront, the most promising red grape in Austria right now is Burgundy’s finest: Pinot Noir.

Not that Pinot Noir is new here. The Cistercian monks who helped plant Burgundy brought Pinot Noir to Austria in 1394. And the grape has always thrived in Wagram. Almost due west of Vienna, Wagram benefits from the intersection of two very different climates. To the east, across Hungary, is the hot Pannonian plain which blows warming winds across the Danube to promote grape ripeness. To the west lie the foothills of the Alps, bringing cool night air that slows ripening, aids in flavor development, and locks in refreshing acids.

Hitting His Stride With Pinot Noir
Anton BauerFourth-generation Wagram winegrower Anton (“Tony”) Bauer recognized the potential for Pinot Noir in his Grüner-dominated region early. He’s been growing and vinifying Pinot Noir for years, but over the past few vintages he’s clearly hit his stride – with very impressive results.

Tony’s “Reserve” Pinot Noir – from his finest plots and aged 20 months in 100% new French oak – has become one of Austria’s finest. Wine Enthusiast awarded it 92 points in 2011 followed by 96 points, 94 and 94 points in vintages 2012, 2013 and 2014. To earn this kind of acclaim is hard in any year. To show these astonishing ratings in years hot, warm, and wickedly wet (2014) is…well, astonishing!

Critical Accolades
While the Reserve Pinot has been garnering all kinds of accolades, Tony’s “regular” Wagram Pinot kept improving, too, but flew under the critical radar. That changed with vintage 2014, when Wine Enthusiast tasted it for the first time in a few years and scored it 93 points.

A 93 point rating for an under $25 Pinot Noir is always impressive. For one made in Austria’s most wet, cool, and challenging harvests of recent memory is nothing short of astonishing. But Tony rose to the challenge, making a wine Master of Wine Anne Krebiehl described like this:

“Pure notes of red fruits reach the nose: Morello cherry and mulberry harmonize beautifully. Their purity pervades a palate that has the lightest touch: there is something authentic, beautiful and unforced about this. There is a suggestion, too, of herb, moss or undergrowth. This unpretentious winemaking style lets this pure, glorious fruit speak for itself and brings with it a profound sense of honest depth, bountiful earth and full-fruited balance.” Wine Enthusiast 93 points

So, ponder this: if Tony made a 93 point Pinot Noir is what was, frankly, a pretty crummy growing season, what do you think he did in a great year like 2015?

Does Rosé Age? A Case Study with Vignelaure

outside roseWe often get asked, “Does rosé age?” And our answer: “no and yes!”

“No” because very, very, few pink wines are better at age four or five than they were on release. But “yes!” because almost all of the pink wine we buy gets better as it recovers from the shock of early spring bottling and shipment. I find that most good rosés peak somewhere between August and Thanksgiving and then hold nicely into the following year.

And if a pink wine has enough tannin and acid to protect it, it can keep right on improving for 24 months and is actually at its best in its second summer. The 93 point 2015 Vignelaure rosé is a perfect example.

Despite our eye-popping $9.98/ea by the case price (more on why that’s true later), this is not your typical, just-bottled and rushed to market rosé. But, then, Chateau Vignelaure is not your typical Provence wine estate.

A Top Site for Cabernet. Georges Brunet, owner of Third Growth Ch La Lagune in Bordeaux, discovered the Vignelaure site in the early 1960s. With soils perfectly suited to Cabernet and 1,300 feet of elevation moderating Provence’s intense sunshine, he planted the vineyard to Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings taken from La Lagune. By the mid-1970s, Vignelaure – meaning “the vineyard of the sacred spring” – had gained fame as one of Provence’s best, agreeable, and distinctive reds.

In his benchmark 1987 book on Rhone and Provence, Robert Parker called Vignelaure “one of the showpiece properties not only of Provence, but of France…Chateau Vignelaure specializes in red wine, capable of ageing 15-20 years, produced from a blend of two great wine grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Vignelaure’s wines are elegant expressions of Provencal wine-making at its best.”

ch Vignelaure bottleAdding a Rosé. Starting in 1993, Vignelaure added top-flight rosé to the portfolio, too. They blend 40% Grenache and 30% Syrah – the region’s classic rosé grapes – with 30% of their stunning Cabernet Sauvignon to create a wine with authentic Provençal character plus one extra notch of richness, power, and ability to age. The Grenache, Syrah, and most of the Cabernet ferment and age in tank while a little of the Cabernet rests in barrel.

The result is a rosé that was good when it landed here last summer but has only gotten better in the past 10 months or so. There’s been no dimming of the aromas and flavors of red berries, tangerine and crushed herb. But the texture is even better, round and plush and mouthfilling but still light and fresh. Delicious right now, but no rush: save a bottle or two for Thanksgiving!

A Note about the Price. This rosé released last year at a $20 price (we offered it at $16.98 last year). Why so much less this year? It’s a combination of factors. Start with Vignelaure’s fairly late arrival last year (we didn’t get any until late July) so that the importer didn’t sell all they had by the end of rosé season. Then add in America’s obsession with drinking only the youngest, just-released pink wines from the most recent harvest. Put those together with a wine that’s actually better than it was last year and you get one heck of a deal!

Through Heat, Rain, Frost and Hail … Success in Chablis

Guillaume of Louis Michel

Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel

Writing about the vintage in Chablis the past five years has been…well, for those of us who have gotten to know the women and men who grow and make these classy, dry, and mineral-laced Chardonnays, perhaps “depressing” is the best word. Frost, scorching heat, ill-timed rain, and – again and again – severe hail have struck Chablis with mind-numbing regularity.

In the words of the late, much missed, Roseanne Roseannadanna, “It’s always something.”

A Rush to Harvest
Vintage 2015 started out so well! The growing season started in early April and flowering happened on schedule under clement skies in early June. Despite some very hot weather in late June (109 degrees on June 24!) and a very dry July and August, a touch of refreshing rain in mid-August got the vines going. As growers went to bed on the night of August 31, they were expecting a great harvest and Louis Michel expected to start picking on September 6.

At 1:30 am on September 1, the bottom fell out. Hail pelted almost all of Chablis for an hour or more, leaving leaves shredded and some of the fruit damaged. At Louis Michel, everything went on overdrive, with every available picker and harvesting machine (including some borrowed from growers less impacted by the hail) pressed into service to get the fruit off the vines and into the winery before rot set in. By September 4, all fruit impacted by hail was in the winery, pressed, and ready to ferment.

Then – the Magic of Doing Nothing
Louis Michel ChablisWhen you taste the Louis Michel 2015s, the question you’re going to ask is, “What magic did winemaker Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel work in the winery to make such great Chablis under such challenging conditions?” The answer: Nothing.

Because “nothing” is what Guillaume does. The pressed juice went into stainless steel tanks and then…sat there until the yeast living in the winery air decided to start bubbling away. The only two winemaking decision Guillaume made was a) to keep things cool (as always) and b) to rack the finished wine off the fine lees a bit earlier than usual.

Louis Michel Montee de Tonnerre BottleWas acid added? Nope – correctly grown grapes keep their acid even in hot seasons. Sugar added to increase alcohol? Nope – the fruit came in at a just-right 12-13%. Lees stirred to add richness? Nope – older vines and warm weather gave all the richness you’d want. Oak used to shape or intensify the wines? Nope again – the only oak barrels in this winery have been cut in half and have flowers growing in them!

As in the past few harvests, the hardest part of Guillaume job after the grapes came into the winery was calling customers around the world to tell them they couldn’t have all the cases they wanted, because the hail and heat reduced the crop by 20-30%. Next year, we’ll tell you how even more severe hail brought yields down 30-40%. The year after, we’ll have to talk about how 2017’s bitter spring frosts cost the Domaine half its fruit.

For now, though, we have once again secured an above average allocation of these very much above average wines. Enjoy them while you can!