‘Sparkling Wine, Anytime’ – and Bereche Champagne for Special Times

“Sparkling wine, anytime.” Dave McIntyre’s column in the Washington Post’s food section yesterday has us saying “absolutely!” And we certainly agree that the classy Bohigas Cava Brut Reserva is great “affordable pizzazz” from $14.98, perfect for the celebratory neighborhood get-together or to accompany you as you gather informally with family and friends.

Bereche et fils cote 3 bottlesStill, sparkling wine makes us think of Champagne, and the excellent values we’ve brought in for you from Bereche, cellar selections from two of the most talented, exciting and impressive talents working in Champagne today: Vincent and Raphael Bereche.

The brothers Bereche farm 9 hectares of vines in some of Champagne’s most fascinating terroirs, including around Ludes and Craon de Ludes, the gravelly terroir of Ormes in the Petite Montagne, and the area around Mareuil-le-Port, on the left bank of the Vallee de la Marne.

Raphael and Vincent Bereche

They farm organically, make wine meticulously, and create Champagnes of uncommon grace, verve, and deliciousness. As Antonio Galloni says in Vinous,

“These artisan, handcrafted Champagnes remain some of the most personal, unique wines being made in the region today. I rarely miss an opportunity to drink them, and, for what it’s worth, neither should you.”

The three wines featured here come from Bereche’s Crus Sélectionnés program. To increase the range of Champagne terroirs they represent – and deal with truly crushing global demand for their small production wines – Vincent and Raphael have begun visiting the best of the best tiny Champagne estates and sampling through their wines aging on the lees. When they find a winner, they buy it, bring it to their own cellar, and continue aging until it’s ready. Then they disgorge and finish the wine with an appropriate dosage.

Tasting through the Crus Sélectionnés from the Cotes de Blancs quickly proves that Bereche is as adept at picking great Champagne as they are at making it! All three of these wines were disgorged in January of 2016 and finished “Extra Brut” with only four grams per liter of sugar added to bring the wines into balance. The combination of 8-10 years on the lees and two years cellar time after disgorgement has brought all three bottlings into their perfect drinking windows (although, as you’ll see in the Wine Spectator reviews, all still have years to go).

Frankly, all three of this rich, layered 100% Chardonnay Champagnes are outstanding values at their $110 release prices. Just compare them to vintage 2005, 2006 and 2007 Champagnes earning higher scores in Wine Spectator – names like Cristal, Krug, Dom Perignon are what you’ll see.

At comfortably under $100 by the bottle and only $85/ea in the vertical three-packs, they are brilliant value whether buying for gifts, putting in the fridge for Christmas and New Year’s, or adding to the cellar to enjoy for years to come.

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California’s Morlet Family Vineyard

morlet-family-vineyardsMorlet Family Vineyards recent releases have earned 96 and 97 points from Wine Advocate. The Advocate uses words like ‘electric’ and ‘triumphant’ to describe the two Chardonnays and Cabernet we are offering in our 2018 Small Business Saturday tasting, Nov. 24, 12-4 pm.

What makes these wines so special? On the surface, it’s that all are so very, very, very delicious. But it’s also pedigree. Luc Morlet learned wine growing up in Champagne and then honed his craft at Newton (he trained with John Kongsgaard before becoming winemaker) before becoming head winemaker at Peter Michael in 2001. There he followed in the footsteps of Helen Turley and Mark Aubert before leaving to start his own estate in 2006. Sir Peter Michael so valued Luc’s expertise and skill that he kept him on as his first and only consulting winemaker (helping his brother, Nick, who makes the wines today).

Luc morletLet’s just pause a moment and notice the names Luc is associated with:

Newton
Kongsgaard
Helen Turley (now at Marcassin)
Mark Aubert
Peter Michael

Can you find a more important list of California Chardonnay makers? Folks, this is one of California superstar winemakers. And his wines – as highly rated as they are – are actually even more impressive in your glass. These are not inexpensive wines by any definition, and our allocations are tiny, but this is a ‘do not miss’ chance to sample some of the most exciting New World wines we’ve tried in years.

 

Il Civettaio: More than Agriturismo

Gregorio Dell_Adami de Tarczal

Gregorio Dell’Adami de Tarczal kind of backed into the wine business. Italian born, but descended from generations of Hungarian Tokaji producers, Gregorio purchased the charming Il Civettaio property in 1988 to open an agriturismo vacation property and make a little wine on the side.

But, as you’d expect from someone who had a successful career as a business executive in multi-national marketing firms, Gregorio soon got carried away. He immediately converted all three of his small vineyards to organic farming, eliminating herbicides and other chemical sprays. He added solar panels to the property, taking both the winery and the farm house “off the grid.” He even searched for new well sites using a diving rod!
Today he makes five wines plus grappa and olive oil and sells most of his production at the property and to local restaurants and wine lovers.

A Lucky Allocation
Il Civettaio Poggio al Commissario Toscana IGT labelWe were lucky to get to know his work when another producer in Campania invited Gregorio to join us for dinner after tasting her wines. And luckier still to get a nice allocation of a delicious Super-Tuscan value – Il Civettaio Poggio al Commissario Toscana IGT 2014 – to share with you!

 

Can you drink Il Civettaio Poggio al Commissario Toscana IGT 2014 with Thanksgiving dinner? Sure, why not! The ripe fruit will handle all the big flavors of a traditional turkey day feast, the herbal accents will echo the flavors and aromas of stuffing, and and the squirt of finishing acidity will refresh your palate for yet another helping of seconds. You’ll also enjoy this with classic Italian dishes like pizza, pasta, and – of course – Bistecca alla Fiorentina. Or tonight with any light nibbles as you wait for the election returns to come in.

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.

 

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!