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!

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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

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