What Makes Chateauneuf Chateauneuf?

Champauvin Vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Meet Philippe … and his 2015 Cotes du Rhones

philippe plantevinPhilippe Plantevin isn’t the flashiest winemaker in the Rhone, and hunkered down against the force of the Mistrial down near the town of Cairanne Nnrth of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, his domaine is easily overlooked.  But, while Philippe is a pretty quiet, even modest, guy, there’s plenty of intensity and passion for making great wine here too.  Philippe’s family grew grapes and made a little wine in the vineyards around the Southern Rhone village of Cairanne but sold all their fruit and wine to the local coop.  In 1993, the young Philippe decided he could do better.

He and his wife bought an 18th century coach house (now lovingly restored) and built a very traditional Rhone winery there – a little stainless steel, but mainly concrete tanks for fermentation and aging.  Over time, he acquired vineyards in Cairanne itself, in the surrounding town of Visan, and also to the south in Vaucluse, just outside the Cotes du Rhone AOC.

Philippe is a practical grape farmer, making minimal use of chemical sprays, training his vines low to the ground, and accepting the low yields needed for fine wine making in his rocky vineyards.  Old-vine Grenache makes up the backbone for all of Philippe’s reds, with low-yielding, small-berried, Syrah adding color, meaty notes, and black fruits.  In the winery, things are very traditional – long fermentations (10-30 days) in steel and concrete with regular pump overs to extract color and structure.

The resulting wines are very fine from top to bottom, but Philippe is too picky to just bottle everything he makes.  Instead, every year, he chooses his favorite tanks of wine to bottle with his label and sells the rest to top Rhone negotiants like Guigal.  If it has his label on it, it’s because the wine is very, very, good.

An Extraordinary CdR Villages
Phillippe Plantevin CDR La DaurelleWhile we love all of Philippe’s wines, his special Cotes du Rhone Villages La Daurelle cuvee is our favorite.  It’s a blend of 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Carignan and 10% Mourvedre grown on 8 hectares of clay/limestone scrubland in and around the village of Cairanne.  Like all of Philippe’s reds, the grapes are harvested and co-fermented in tank (steel and concrete), and most of the blend ages in tank as well.

But, with encouragement and support from his US importer, Olivier Daubresse, Philippe also ages one-third of the blend in small French oak cask.  The barrels are 1-5 years old, so they don’t add any oaky flavor to the wine.  Instead, they allow a slow, steady, exposure to oxygen bleeding into the wine through the wood to soften a bit while gaining rich, meaty, complexity.

Recent vintages of La Daurelle have been deep, chocolaty and intensely earthy – so you’d expect the 2015 (from a warm, rich, year) to be like that, right?

Nope!  As many Rhone winemakers discovered too late, down beneath all of 2015’s super ripe fruit they lay a core of pretty intense and not always fun grippy tannins.  Philippe clearly spotted them early, so for this wine – so rich in structured Carignan and Mourvedre – he worked with a bit lighter hand than usual.

I’ll be honest – when this wine arrived a few months ago, I was worried that his hand had been too light!  But 2015 La Daurelle is taking on more and more richness as it rests in bottle and is now showing like a really good (if $40-$50 cost) Chateauneuf du Pape.  The tannins are silky, the fruit explosive, and the future bright for this – once again, the best value in Rhone red you’ll find in the store.

See Philippe’s 2015 Rhones Here.

Kerner: The Drunken Poet Grape

Abbazia di Novacella1“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 Gewurtztraminer 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.

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
Abbazia Di Novacella Kerner PraepositusToday, 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.

The 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!

Serious Chianti Players Have a Little Fun

Il Bastardo LabelWe’re enjoying the crazy label on our Carryout Case Special This Week, and chuckling at the fact that this great Sangiovese deal with the silly label comes in … a wood case! Here’s the story behind the wine …

At their Fattoria di Basciano estate in Chianti Rufina, the Masi family has made authentic, juicy, fresh Chianti just east of Florence for three generations. Practice clearly makes perfect, because Wine Advocate lavished praise over their new, estate-grown, Chiantis, calling them “one of the rising stars of Rufina.”

Renzo Masi FamilyAbout a decade ago, the family started a second winery called Renzo Masi to purchase fruit from friends, neighbors with, as Wine Advocate explains, put an “emphasis on value wines with vibrant territorial personality.” We think they do a great job and are proud to have Renzo Masi Chianti Reserva 2011 on our shelves right now – a very nice Chianti value for $15.

Now, enter Robert Shack, founder, president, and chief wine guru of HB Wine Merchants. Shack has been an important importer for years, representing the likes of Michel Chapoutier’s Bila Haut, Peter Zemmer in Alto Adige, St. Urbans-Hof in Germany, and Fattoria di Basciano from Chianti. Plus, Bob has never been afraid to go out and look for values on his own – we’ve loved several vintages of Clos Robert (as in Robert Shack) Cabernet Sauvignon over the years.

So, when Bob was looking for an even more aggressively priced Chianti-like red from Italy, it was only natural that he’d approach young Paolo Masi, winemaker at Renzo Masi for help. Renzo spread his grape-buying net beyond Chianti to little villages and obscure vineyards across Tuscany – all the places that have the right soils and climate to create delicious Sangiovese, but lacked the winemaking skill or Chianti name to make it happen.

Then, he made a cheerful, all tank Sangiovese for Bob to bring to the American market at a bargain basement price.

What’s With the Fat Guy? And the Wood Case? Now, there’s a lot of low-priced Sangiovese on the market (although not very much that’s anywhere near as good as this one). So Bob decided that a bold label and memorable name would be in order. Where the idea for the plump guy with a thin mustache and slicked hair sitting on a stool came from, we can’t say. And, the less thought given to the colorful name, the better.

But the wine is really good, a big mouthful of juicy Sangiovese fruit with more than enough bright cherry acidity to cut through the red sauce and cheese on your pizza or plate of lasagna, but ripe and supple enough to simply sip while the pasta is still in the water. Add in the very attractive $9.99 price, and you’ll see why this has quickly become the most popular Italian red in the store.

So, here we have a popular, great priced, great value, Italian red that’s easy to get people to try, pulls in lots of repeat customers, and makes money for everyone involved for $10 bucks. So a few years ago, someone – the folks at Renzo Masi? Robert Shack? A marketing consultant? – for some reason decided something needed to change. Perhaps a wood case would work?

We had fun sharing the 2013 Il Bastardo in wood case with you back in 2015, although the fun was short-lived (we sold out in about 2 days).

When we found out they were offering it in wood again, we doubled our last order and piled it up high. It makes for a fine chance to lay in some sip- and gift-worthy Sangiovese at a screaming value $6.98/ea case price. Come by, give it a try, and we’ll roll the wood case out the door for you!

Focus on Farming: Domaine Girardin

Marco Caschera Dom Girardin

Dom Girardin’s Marco Caschera and Eric Germain have pushed this estate toward greatness.

While it still carries the founder’s name, by the mid-2000s, Vincent Girardin had largely turned over responsibility the Domaine to GM Marco Caschera and winemaker Eric Germain. Since Girardin retired in 2012, Caschera and Germain continue to push this once very good estate forward towards greatness.

Under Germain’s leadership, the Domaine has moved away from the fleshy, super-ripe, and heavily-oaked style of whites that first brought it fame in the 1990s. The focus now is first and foremost on farming. The Domaine itself owns and tends about 50 acres of vines across Burgundy and has access to additional vineyards owned by trusted growers. Vineyard work is as natural as possible, following organic and biodynamic principles as much as Burgundy’s fickle climate and weather allows.

Yields are now modest due to careful pruning and thinning of the crop during the growing season. Grapes are harvested by hand and sorted twice – once in the vineyard by the pickers and then again in the winery by hand and – since 2016 – a modern optical sorting machine.

Vincent Giradin signGetting the Fruit to Bottle. In contrast to the winery’s original style, Germain’s focus now is on getting his fruit to bottle with as little manipulation and handling as possible. For Chardonnay, that means no destemming before pressing – because knocking the berries off the stems opens the grape to the risk of oxidization before fermentation. Instead, whole clusters go directly to the press were the juice can be gently extracted and flow by gravity directly into tank for settling.

From tank, the thick, fresh, juice flows by gravity into French oak barrels for both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation. Oak is important to developing richness and depth to Chardonnay, but Germain does not like the flavor of wood, so most wines see 10-15% new oak (enough to replace aging barrels) and only the very top, most concentrated, wines get as much as 30%.

Once the wine is in barrel, Germain….waits. Other than keeping each barrel topped up to make up for evaporation, the wine simply sits on the fine lees of fermentation for 14-18 months of resting and maturation. When the wine is ready, the cellar team simply knocks the bottom bung out of the barrel and allows the clear wine to flow out, leaving the milky sediment behind. Bourgogne Blanc – because of the amount made – requires a little pumping, so it sees a light filtration before bottling. Everything else goes naturally from barrel to blending tank to bottle.

All that’s nice, of course, but what really matters is what you’ll find in the bottle when you get it home. And that’s DELICIOUSNESS! Sure, these are super-sophisticated wines of terrior, complexity and minerality. But they are also flat out fun to drink right now and built to keep on improving more. Come, taste, and stock up while you can!

“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.

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