A Homecoming Story: Remelluri Rioja

Telmo RodriguezTelmo Rodriguez first time returning home did not go well.

He’d left to study at the University of Bordeaux, made wine at Cos d’Estournel, and then worked in Cornas, Hermitage, Châteauneuf and Provence. He returned to Remelluri to work with his father in 1989.

But after a few years of battling over farming methods, winemaking approach and more, Telmo left home for the second time to explore new regions and vineyards across Spain. Today he is one of Spain’s most important winemakers and a vocal champion for authentic grapes, vineyards and wines.

Coming Home Again … and Making Changes
In 2010, Telmo’s father retired and Telmo came home once again to lead the family estate. In his homecoming year, he made important changes – starting with telling the 30 or so farmers his father had been purchasing grapes from that Remelluri would now use only their own, estate-grown, grapes. (Not to worry – he also helped those farmers found their own label and both made and marketed their wine for them!) Since 2010, Remelluri has become one of Rioja’s only “Chateau Estates,” making wine only from grapes they grow themselves.

Telmo picked a great year to come home, because vintage 2010 is perhaps Rioja’s greatest modern harvest. In this nearly perfect year, he harvested low-yields of Tempranillo (about 90%) plus Garnacha, Graciano and white grapes Viura and Malvasía Riojana. All were grown organically, harvested by hand, and fermented with native yeast in stainless steel. A full 17 months in mostly used French oak casks of various sizes let the wines round out and gain spice. Time in bottle allowed the final blend to integrate and add complexity to the sweet, ripe fruit.

remelluri reserva rioja“Real Deal” Reserva Rioja
The result is what I can only call “the real deal” in Reserva-level Rioja. The aromas are fantastic, interleaving scents of crushed cherry and raspberry with fragrant warm spice, orange peel, and fresh earth aromas. The texture is deep and rich, but with a classic touch of Rioja lift, and generous flavors of ripe fruit, sweet and savory spice, cedar, and more. The firm, dusty, finish is the perfect complement to earthy lamb or pork dishes and promises plenty of life for years to come.

  • “Very pleasant and easy to drink. It grows on you,” says Wine Advocate in its 93 point review.
  • “Fresh and long. Great persistence,” says Jancis Robinson.
  • “A wine with beautiful finesse and depth,” says James Suckling with his 95 point rating.

“Yummy – may I have some more?” your family and friends will say as they come home for your holiday feast. “Come taste it now, while you can,” we add, while it is on sale for $37.98 or $34.98 on a six-pack.

Because this is the kind of delicious treat that will give folks one more reason to come home for Christmas dinner for years to come.

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The ENV Adventure: Limited, Under-the-Radar Wines from Priorat

It’s a story many of you already know well. For those new to the ENV adventure:

silviaSilvia 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 in the Gratallops region of Priorat, in the province of Tarragona southwest of Barcelona.

Silvia and Joseph named their new venture Vinedos de Ithaca, a nod to the Greek settlers who first planted vines in this rugged corner of Spain, and carved an estate vineyard out of the steep hills around the winery. Fairly early on, Jonas met Silvia on a Spanish wine buying trip with importer Olivier Daubresse and began offering her wines here around 2005. Working with their own vines and grapes Silvia purchased from old-time farmers and families across the region, the wines quickly found success in both Spain and in the international wine press both for the traditional reds and, unusually, for Silvia’s striking whites (a rarity in Priorate).

Like so many successful winemakers, Silvia wanted to do something completely on her own, and 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.

True “Garage Wines”

ENV 2016s (1)In contrast to the larger production volumes of Vinedos de Ithaca, Silvia designed this project 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 through 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 30 or so 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.

Even the packaging is by hand! Silvia dips each bottle in wax by hand and decorates each cardboard six-pack with a unique, often whimsical, drawing in pencil, pen, and marker. You won’t often hear us get all enthusiastic about the box a wine comes in, but this year’s artwork – each box unique – is the most charming yet, echoing some of the exuberance and down to earth elegance you’ll find in the wines.

ENV 2015 Releases

Silvia doesn’t make much of any of her ENV wines, and has no trouble selling all she has at the restaurant in Priorat and to discerning European customers. We owe our generous – in terms of how much Silvia makes – allocations to the passion and persuasion of importer Jonas Gustafsson. Jonas has followed and supported the ENV project since its inception, often tasting and debating the wines with Silvia as she decides on her final blends.

Although the wines just get better and better, Silvia and Jonas have agreed to hold prices steady again this year. No, they are not inexpensive. But I’d argue that they represent extraordinary value – especially at the mix/match case prices – for a region where even mediocre bottlings achieve $70+ price tags. Come on Saturday and taste; that’s really all the justification the wines need.

Terra Alta – “Baby Priorat”?

Clua VineyardTerra Alta is just southwest of the much more famous Priorat region, about 100 km west of Barcelona in Eastern Spain. This is arid, rocky, and mountainous territory that immediately begs the question – why would anyone try to make wine here?

But we know the Romans grew vines here and there is some suggestion winemaking started even earlier than that. The traditional Terra Alta wine was white and “rancio” (a nice way of saying oxidized and sour). Until the 1980s, though, this was mainly co-op country with growers focused mainly on quantity rather than quality.

Why Not Us?
In the 1980s, forward-looking growers in Terra Alta began to notice the critical acclaim (and high prices!) garnered by their neighbors to the aast in Priorat and asked themselves, “Why not us?” Growers had secured DO status in 1972, but revised the DO rule in 1995 to increase the region’s focus on red varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.

In many regions, we think the addition of Cabernet and other “international” varieties is a bad thing, often warping and undermining traditional wine styles in pursuit of big scores and “international style.” In Terra Alta, though, Cabernet has shown itself as an adept partner to Garnatxa Negre (“Grenache” in Catalan), adding structure and complexity without overwhelming the wine’s essential sense of place. In other words, the better wines of Terra Alta taste like they are from Spain, not Australia.

Xavier Clua Capturing the Essence of Terra Alta
xavier Clua familyIf Terra Alta is one of the most promising wine regions in Spain (and it is!), then Xavier Clua has to be one of the most promising winemakers.

The Clua family has been making wine for more than four generations, but Xavier is taking things to an entirely new level. Xavier worked in the family vineyards from his childhood, but left home and earned a degree in oenology in 1994. He then broadened his horizons further by working at several Chateaux in Bordeaux. He returned to Terra Alta with a new, somewhat paradoxical, conviction – that by modernizing his family’s vineyards and winery, he could produce honest, authentic, wine that married world-class quality with distinctive Terra Alta character.

So, he went to work. Blessed with 30-40 year-old Grenache vineyards, Xavier worked to improve his family’s plantings of Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah. The old-vine Grenache vineyards were converted from bush-vines to run along a trellis wire, allowing longer shoots and yielding smaller, more intense, berries. Xavier used temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation vats to allow longer, slower, alcoholic fermentation and ensure controlled malolactic fermentations. Finally, he began working with small French oak barrels, learning how to gain the maximum benefit from wood aging without overwhelming or masking his wine’s sense of place.

Clua Millennium bottle

Clua Millennium – Power, Purity, Place
Xavier Clua views Mil.lennium as his top wine, the apex expression of his ethic, work and vineyards. And the wine has been very, very, good since we first encountered the 2005 back in 2009. Those early (for us) vintages showcased the power of Terra Alta, emphasizing richness, deep fruit, oak spice and intense, gripping, finishes. They were big, bold, wines that delivered what we (then) thought of as the essence of Spanish wine.

Over the past few years, winegrowers and makers across Spain have been exploring how to move beyond the pure power their old vines and hot, sunny, days easily give. More and more, we see fine Spanish wines that match ripeness of fruit and power of structure with something new: freshness.

Xavier, I think was a bit ahead of this curve: his wines have always matched ripeness with fresh, vibrant, structures. But the 2013 Mil.lennium seems to capture this balance better than ever. Yes, it’s a big wine with plenty of palate impact. But it’s also pure (not thick), clear (not muddy), spiced (not over-oaked), and fresh (not heavy or plodding). It certainly grabs your attention from first sniff and sip. But it will hold and deepen that attention as you move from one glass to the next. A delicious accomplishment you will not want to miss.

A Wonderful Valencia Surprise

Pago Gran with glassSo super-Spanish importer Jonas Gustafsson shows up at the tasting table one day and says, “I’ve got some really exciting wines from Valencia.” Now “exciting wine from Valencia” is a bit like “jumbo shrimp” or “military intelligence” – words that don’t seem to go together. After all, Valencia is baking hot, bone dry, and mainly turns out coarse, heavy, thick reds for the bulk trade.

I was skeptical.

But leave it to Jonas to discover Pago Casa Gran, an estate that does pretty much everything the exact opposite way from anyone else in the Levante. Founded by Spanish wine industry veterans in 2006, they farm their old vines organically – actually beyond organically as they have adopted the incredibly stringent Delinat guidelines for soil health and biodiversity.

The Grapes That Make Sense
Unlike international-style, consultant-driven, wineries in Jumilla and Alicante, they grow only the grapes that actually make sense for Valencia: Monastrell (Mouvedre), Syrah, and Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet) – no Cabernet Sauvignon to be seen. In a region where most everyone sprays herbicides to kill off “weeds” and ensure all of the limited rainfall goes to their grapes, they encourage extensive cover crops (year-round where possible) to protect the soil and naturally fix nitrogen (so no fertilizers needed).

In bulk wine production, growers here usually either do pretty much nothing to their vines – minimizing labor costs – or aggressively pull leaves from the vines so that groaning high yields of grapes can bake their way to ripeness.

Careful Vineyard Work; Gentle, Natural Fermentation
At Pago Casa Gran they work their vineyards all year long, thinning bunches and shoots and leaves so that balanced yields of grapes can ripen fully without developing cooked or dried fruit flavors.

They harvest by hand and plot and grape varietal, allowing them to get perfect ripeness and tailor each fermentation batch to the grape and soil type. Where others add cultured yeast and enzymes for consistency and extraction, at Pago Gran Casa they allow the yeast from the vineyards and winery to work on their own, developing complexity and sense of place. And, instead of large, bulk, fermenters that have to be pumped full of grape juice and then pumped out again to barrel, they use small tanks and a crane – lifting each fermenter up to allow the juice to flow out naturally and gently when it’s done.

Hard work, great vineyards and growing the right grapes all come together in these three fantastic wines from Pago Gran Casa. All have plenty of rich, ripe, fruit – we are in the south of Spain, after all! – but deliver it with remarkable freshness and complexity. If you think Spanish wines have to be heavy, thick, and overly oaked, these will change your mind.

And, if you love Spanish wines and appreciate Jonas’s other selections – well, then, Pago Gran Casa is about to become another in a long line of favorites. You can find out more about them on our website. Don’t miss them!

Pago Gran Wines

 

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

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