“Terroirist” Ken Wright and the 2016 Vintage

ken-wright

Ken pioneered single-vineyard Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley

Ken Wright is one of the most impressive – even formidable – winemakers I’ve ever met, and every time I talk with him, I come away astonished at how much he knows about Oregon vineyards and Pinot Noir. There’s a reason Wine Spectator put him the cover and called him “A Master of Pinot Noir in Oregon” last year.

Ken is one of the “old hands” of Oregon Pinot Noir. He founded Panther Creek winery in 1986 and made the wines there until selling the estate. He opened Ken Wright Cellars in 1993 in a converted glove factory in Carlton, Oregon, making the first two vintages of Domaine Serene’s wines in 1993 and 1994 while starting his own production. Within just a few years, Ken’s wines were the most sought-after in Oregon.

The Distinctive Characteristics of Site
Ken is quick to explain that, in his view, the whole purpose of Pinot Noir is to express the distinctive characteristics of each site it occupies. He was the first to start the push for creating distinct Willamette Valley AVAs and today makes a dozen different vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs. As Ken says, “Ken Wright Cellars is devoted to showcasing the inherent quality of selected vineyard sites. With a clarity and breadth that is unequaled by other varieties, we believe Pinot noir best expresses the character of these sites. Rather than stamping wine with a varietal trademark, we see Pinot noir as a vehicle for conveying the aroma, flavor and texture of the location in which it is grown.”

While showcasing “terroir” is important, the wines have to taste good, too. Again and again, Ken has demonstrated his ability to make highly rated Willamette Valley Pinot Noir even in the most difficult conditions. Writing about Ken’s work in the hot 2006 vintage, Wine Spectator said,

“In any Oregon vintage, you can count on Ken Wright making some of the most elegant and refined Pinot Noirs. His wines, all single-vineyard bottlings, always have finesse and tremendous polish, even in an extraripe vintage like 2006. Where others made big, heady wines, Wright managed to keep most of his cuvées bright and juicy.”

Talking about Ken’s wines from the challenging 2004 vintage, Robert Parker said,

“There are not many Pinot Noir winemakers who can make six separate cuvees, and have five of them nearly outstanding. In fact, this exceptional success rate puts Ken Wright in the company of such Burgundy luminaries as Laurent Ponsot, Lalou Bize-Leroy, Hubert Lignier, J. J. Confuron, and Claude Dugat.”
 
So, when Ken gets his hands on material like he had in 2016, watch out!

Vintage 2016: Abnormally Almost Normal
ken-wright-winesIn the past decade, Oregon’s Willamette Valley has seen only two “normal” vintages – which opens the question of what “normal” is for a region with this much season-to-season variability! The “normal” years were 2008 and 2012, generally regarded as the best Pinot Noir vintages in the Valley ever. I think 2016 will join those ranks.

With two exceptions, 2016 was a normal year. First, the growing season started unusually early, creating a significant risk of damage from late spring frost that, thankfully, never materialized. Second, temperatures spiked a bit while the vines were flowering. No damage done to quality, but it did lead to the smallest fruit set since 2013 and much smaller berries than were seen in 2014 or 2015.

After that the growing season was pure silk. None of the cold weather than challenged 2010 and 2011 or any of the severe heat and drought that made 2009, 2014 and 2015 such unusual adventures. And with late August and early September dry, sunny, and clement, growers had no reason to rush harvest ahead of big storms (2013) or worry about dehydration, excessive sugars or deficient acids (2014 and 2015). Everyone got to pick when they were ready, with all the grapes getting the 100 days of hang time so important to Pinot flavor development and some coming in healthy and fresh after up to 110 days.

What is Ken’s evaluation of vintage 2016? From his harvest letter:

“Small berries give us greater intensity of color, aroma and texture. It is a magnificent vintage that combines density with balance and immediate appeal. We are in love.”

If you think Pinot Noir “that combines density with balance and immediate appeal” and that clearly speaks to each individual Willamette Valley vineyard sounds appealing, then Ken’s 2016s are for you.

Our pre-arrival offer is good until October 10, 2017.

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From Lake Kaltern: Unique Co-Op, Unique Wines

dolomitesNestled in the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains, Alto Adige is Italy’s northernmost wine growing region – although you could also call it Austria’s southernmost vineyard! Ceded to Italy after WWI, there’s still plenty of Austrian tradition here and you’ll notice road signs shifting from Italian with German subtitles to German with Italian annotations as your drive northward from the Veneto. While the names of producers and bottle shapes can look German, the style of the wines combines the ease and food-friendliness of Italian whites and reds with the precision and freshness of Italy’s northern neighbors.

The soaring mountains of the Dolomites and cool temperatures at higher altitudes limit grape growing to a series of valleys of the Adige and Isarco rivers which form a Y-shaped vineyard area that meets at Bolzano. The valley floors are rich, fertile, and quite hot – often Bolzano is one of Italy’s hottest cities in July and August. The combination of reliable warmth, fertile soils, and relatively flat terrain makes the valley floors perfect sites for mass produced wines – like typical grocery store Pinot Grigio.

Working the Slopes
But for growers willing to plant and work vineyards on the steep, rocky slopes looking down on Alto Adige’s lakes and rivers, grapes can ripen perfectly, gaining plenty of lush fruit flavor while retaining crackling, pure, acidity for balance.

Working the hillsides has been the philosophy of the growers who built Kellerei Kaltern from the first. Wine growing here has always been a small-scale operation. In the past, most vineyards were owned by locals who also farmed other crops on the flat lands below. Today, vineyards are just as likely to be owned by professionals who commute to Trento or simply summer in the mountains. But average vineyard sizes remain small (less than 3 acres), too small for growers to profitably make their own wine.

Banding Together
From the 19th century on, the small growers of Alto Adige began banding together to form mutually owned wineries – co-operatives – to turn their grapes into wine. And in 1906, a group of growers around Lake Kaltern, north of Bolzano, came together to create Kellerei Kaltern.
Kallerei Kaltern Lake

Today, about 440 growers jointly own and supply grapes to Kellerei Kaltern, with the winery providing both vineyard management advice and winemaking and marketing for the group. Usually when we think of co-op wine, we think of inexpensive jug wine where the focus is more on quantity than quality. But, because so many of the small growers that sell to this bright, modern cooperative winery grow grapes as a second source of income, it’s a source of pride more than anything for them to sell fruit that will make the best possible wine.

More importantly, they are paid on a profit sharing basis rather than by the ton, a key difference between this co-op and more traditional ones that keep the quality shockingly high considering the wines’ reasonable price.

Tasting at Kellerei KalternWe carry more wines from this brilliant group of grower/winemakers than from any other winery in the world. But during a morning visit to the winery last March, we discovered that our current selections just scratch the surface of all this talented group of growers and winemakers can do.

We picked the best of the best from our tasting and worked with our partners at Siema Imports to bring them into the USA just for you. Click here to read about our four featured selections – don’t miss them!

Kaltern Wines

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?

Super-Tuscan, Ferragamo Style

Il Borro

What happens when the head of Italy’s Ferragamo fashion house revives an historic estate in eastern Tuscany, converts it to organic/biodynamic farming, hires leading Tuscan consultant Stefano Chioccioli, and spares no expense in farming and winemaking?

In the case of Il Borro Toscana 2013, something pretty darn delicious – “stylish,” actually!

While you’ve probably heard of the Ferragamo family, Il Borro may be a new name to even dedicated Super-Tuscan fans. When Ferruccio Ferragamo purchased the estate in 1993, it was a slightly run-down castle and village perched high on a pass in eastern Tuscany. While wine had been made here since Roman times, the vineyards, cellar and buildings were in disrepair and still showing the impact of WWII shelling.

Il borro wine cellarWith his son Salvatore taking the lead, the Ferragamo family poured money into the estate (it’s now a Relais & Chateaux luxury resort) and vineyards. With the guidance of legendary consultant Niccolò d’Afflitto, sites were selected, cleared, planted and the century-old cellar renovated. In 2003, they released their first wine – Il Borro Toscana 1999 – a $70 bottling Robert Parker rated 92 points and called “A dead-ringer for a top-class Medoc.”

After a string of up and down vintages, the Ferragamo family decided to up their game by starting to convert to organic farming in 2007. With the arrival in 2011 of superstar winemaker Stefano Chioccioli (a man with 100+ Gambero Rosso “Tre Biccheri” wines to his name), quality soared reaching its apex with this 2013, the winery’s highest rated and best wine to date.
Il Borro Toscana Rosso 1
It’s especially nice to see as the quality and ratings have climbed, Il Borro’s price tag has actually dropped a bit. We suspect the attention drawn by the ultra-enthusiastic Wine Advocate praise will put a little upward pressure on future releases. But for now, this is one of the most exciting Super-Tuscan red blends we’ve seen in years. Highly recommended for any fan of rich Super-Tuscans, powerful Napa Cabernet, or stylish Left Bank Bordeaux!

We love this beauty’s deep, dark, currant and black raspberry fruit, shadings of spice and tobacco, and juicy freshness already. As Wine Advocate reported in their 95 point review in May:

“The 2013 Il Borro is a delicious wine that I have tasted several times over the past few months. It presents seamless aromatic integration with luscious dark fruit, proportioned doses of spice, tobacco and sweet blackberry flavors. This wine offers velvety softness and plumpness over a richly extracted mouthfeel and sweet oak tannins. The slightly cooler 2013 vintage reveals very long persistence with pretty nuances of moist earth, rum cake and cherry liqueur. This is a landmark wine from the Il Borro estate in Tuscany. Drink 2017-2030.” 95 points

Patricia Green Cellars in 2015

Not surprisingly for someone who wants to make “wines from dirt to wine,” Patty Green has worked from the ground up.
Patty Green
After a stint doing reforestation work (which sounds better than “planting lots of trees,”  Patty began in the wine business by picking grapes at Hillcrest Vineyard in the mid-1980s. By 1987 she was assistant winemaker there, followed by some consulting work in the early 1990s.

In 1993 she became winemaker and sole employee of Torri Mor where Jim Anderson eventually signed on as employee number two. After a fine run there (including plenty of highly rated wines and a bunch of local and national acclaim), she and Jim left to form Patricia Green Cellars in 2000.
The 2015 Vintage in Willamette

With 25+ vintages under her belt, Patty’s had the chance to see pretty much everything the Willamette Valley has to offer. So I think her comments about vintage 2015 from a recent newsletter are worth quoting at length:

“There is a lot of wine. Fortunately most of it is very good, an amazing amount is stellar, a couple of sites are uniquely exceptional and then one fermenter is…we’ll get to that another time. Explaining it is not particularly easy. It was a hot summer. 29 days with 90+ temperatures. That’s unusual in Oregon to say the least. There was ripeness for sure and higher than average brix. The wines in general do not taste like they are from a warm vintage, they are not big wines for the most part, they are by and large graceful, aromatic, nuanced and deeply complex wines. They are in great condition and our feeling is that they are going to be long lived and very serious wines that will happen to provide early term pleasure and satisfy both the hard core Pinot Noir drinker and those that are more casual with their varietal allegiances.
“The above summary was our take on the 2014 vintage. Nearly word for word it applies to the 2015 vintage. Overall the wines may be better. Why? We had a practice run the year before. We learned. We got better. If you liked those wines, you will love these.”
As always, Jim (taking lead in the winery) and Patty (lead on vineyards) made their winemaking decisions on the fly as the fruit arrived. Where it made sense, some blocks went into the fermenter as whole clusters. Others were completely destemmed and still others a mix of on- and off-stem berries. Each fermenter was punched down for extraction and left to soak until Jim and Patty thought it was about right and then racked off into new, second, third or fourth-used barrels as they thought made sense.
The Three Constants

In other words, the recipe here is “no recipe”! Just three things are constant for every wine: native yeast fermentation; all barrels from France’s Cadus, a premier Pinot Noir barrel house; and tasting, tasting, and tasting some more as the wines evolve to pick the right time and best blend to bottle.

In 2015, Jim and Patty bottled 20+ Pinot Noirs, each telling a unique story of site, vine variety and vintage. After a morning tasting with Jim at the winery in early March, we selected these four as our favorite expressions of Patricia Green Cellars’ unique sites and of this great, great vintage.
Patricia Green 2015s

Malandes Chablis: Quality Like the ‘Big Boys’ …

Malandes Chablis VineyardI’ve always wondered how Chablis as fine as Dom des Malandes could always remain so… well, to be blunt: cheap!

It’s not like the estate is new or unknown. Lyne and husband Jean-Bernard Marchive formed Malandes in 1986 with vines farmed by her father and grandfather making up the core of the estate. The wines have earned critical praise from the outset, with Master of Wine and Burgundy expert awarding Malandes a two star rating in his landmark book The Wines of Burgundy.

To put that in context, that’s the very top rating for any Chablis estate, the same awarded to William Fevre, Vincent Dauvissat, and Domaine Raveneau. And yet wines from those three estates sell for at least three times the prices of Malandes.

What’s more, the wines have gotten even better over the past decade under oenologist/winemaker Guenolé Breteaudeau. As the leading Burgundy critic working today, Allan Meadows (“Burghound”), said last year, the team at Chablis-based Domaine des Malandes

“continue to drive the quality of the Malandes wines to new heights. Readers who are not familiar with the wines owe it to themselves to try a few bottles; moreover the prices are reasonable and thus the wines offer excellent price/quality ratios.”

But why are the prices so reasonable – even before we slash them further with our direct import savings?

… Priced With Modesty and Practicality
Lyne Marchive, Dom des MalandesSpending an afternoon and evening with Lyne in Chablis two weeks ago helped me understand. Lyne’s family – the Tremblays well known in Chablis – have been living, farming and making wine here for a long time. They have always been practical business people – Lyne said her grandfather was one of the first growers in Chablis to stop selling to the co-op and bottle and sell all his own production starting in the early 1900s. Bottled wine was more of a risk, but turned a much better profit.

Entrepreneurial ambition has always been tempered by the realities of trying to make a living the cold, stony, soils of Chablis. Lyne explained that it was simply impossible for a small grower to make a living from grapes and wine in Chablis until the mid-1970s. Frost in the spring, vine-killing cold weather in winter, summer hail, and ill-timed rain near harvest conspired to wipe out nearly 100% of Chablis production in 2-3 years per decade. Lyne remembers the brutal stretch of 1952, ’52 and ’54 when her father had no grape (and not much grain) for three consecutive years. In 1954 he was forced to leave home and pick grapes in Beaujolais to make enough money to feed the family.

By the mid-1970s growers in Chablis had learned frost and winter cold management techniques from their neighbors in Champagne (Chablis is closer to Champagne than Burgundy’s Beaune), opening the doors to the potential to making a living from wine. So Lyne took over from her father and, with husband Jean-Bernard Marchive, created Domaine des Malandes.

Today Lyne’s wines are clearly world-class-good, because Lyne has continued her grandfather’s innovative streak by choosing to sell her wines mainly outside of France and around the world. And, to be sure those wines are snapped up, shipped out, and making fans globally, she and her family have elected to price them to move through a network of small, independent, distributors (and at least one local USA wine store!).

Innovation Continues

Lyne and Malandes Hail Nets

Lyne shows us her hail nets, now in field trial.

Even as she prepares to retire and hand over the estate to her son and youngest daughter, Lyne remains an innovator. Hail has been a problem in Chablis for years and seems to be intensifying with global climate change. Some of Lyne’s vines grow in what is basically a thunderstorm channel – a valley between two hills that captures storms and funnels their maximum impact right on the fragile vines.

After the disastrous 2016 storm season, Lyne decided she’d had enough. Although it took none months of intensive studies, legal filings and lobbying, two months ago she received a permit to test Chablis first ever hail netting system. No other grower has been brave enough to step up to try it, so she’s rolling it out as a test with a mix of protected and unprotected rows. As she says, it’s very expensive – but then so is losing the entire harvest to hail.

“No one else was willing. So I decided I must go ahead by myself. I believe it’s what we must do to make good, good, good, Chablis.”

As Neal Martin of Wine Advocate said after a blind tasting of Lyne’s 2014 and 2015 Chablis recently, “I was very impressed by the consistency here. Proprietor Lyne Archive, with winemaker Guenolé Breteaudeau, crafted some really quite superb Premier Crus that shone out. It’s great to see this well-known name in Chablis doing so well – long may it continue.” We think it will.

The Extraordinary 2015 Chablis of Domaine des Malandes
Dom des MalandesMalandes’ 2015 releases come to us direct at simply unbeatable savings. From a Village Chablis to drink as a “house white” to two different majestic 1er Crus and the profound Grand Cru Les Clos, all of Malandes’ 2015s are compelling, captivating, and available to you while they last at substantial savings. Chardonnay at its very best for right now and years to come. Don’t miss these staggering values.

Loess is More for Grüner

josef-bauer-familyAs you might imagine of a fellow who named his pink wine “Joe’s Rosé,” Josef Bauer isn’t a pretentious guy. But the casual manner and friendly, welcoming, smile don’t mean that Joe is casual about his winemaking! Especially in the outstanding 2015 harvest, Joe turned out some truly outstanding wines.
Joe is part of the fourth generation of Bauer family members to grow grapes and make wine from the steeply sloped hills of Austria’s Wachau region in Danube valley between the towns of Melk and Krems.
bauer-vineyardThe river Danube created the valley beneath Wachau’s hills, but the soils are something unique. During the Ice Age, strong winds blew westward from Eastern Europe, bringing with them clay and chalk ground fine by ancient glaciers. This fine light gray sand stuck to the Danube Valley’s hills, gradually building up layers of “loess” anywhere from a few inches to a 10+ meters deep.
Water and Minerality
gruner-veltliner-grapesAnd, for Wagram Grüner Veltliner, “Loess is More”! Loess holds more water and has a higher mineral content than most other soil types, and Grüner needs both to ripen to perfection.
Where the soils are almost all Loess, the wines are richer, riper, and show more fat texture on the palate. Where ancient Danube river pebbles are mixed in, Grüner develops a more intense minerality and keeps a leaner, more vibrant, texture. Where loess is least and deeper alluvial soils prevail, red varietals thrive.
Joe and his family have had plenty of time to get to know the character of their steeply sloped hillside vineyards and to learn to make wines that let each site shine through beautifully. Farming is practical and reflects the site and vintage characteristics. In damp years, cover crop grows between rows to limit the vines’ water uptake – in dry years, the rows are plowed to get more water into the soil. Chemical use is kept to a bare minimum, and grapes are pruned, thinned, and harvested by hand.
 josef-bauer-gruner-katharina
It’s a small, family operation that lets Joe sell most of his wine in Austria without much effort. The small trickle that reaches the USA flies under the critics’ radar – and, to be honest, snuck in under ours as well.
It took a morning last year spent with Joe in his vineyards and Wagram tasting room to discover just how good his wines are especially in Austria’s brilliant 2015 harvest. Katharina was our favorite of all, and it’s a “do not miss” bottling while it lasts.