Through Heat, Rain, Frost and Hail … Success in Chablis

Guillaume of Louis Michel

Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel

Writing about the vintage in Chablis the past five years has been…well, for those of us who have gotten to know the women and men who grow and make these classy, dry, and mineral-laced Chardonnays, perhaps “depressing” is the best word. Frost, scorching heat, ill-timed rain, and – again and again – severe hail have struck Chablis with mind-numbing regularity.

In the words of the late, much missed, Roseanne Roseannadanna, “It’s always something.”

A Rush to Harvest
Vintage 2015 started out so well! The growing season started in early April and flowering happened on schedule under clement skies in early June. Despite some very hot weather in late June (109 degrees on June 24!) and a very dry July and August, a touch of refreshing rain in mid-August got the vines going. As growers went to bed on the night of August 31, they were expecting a great harvest and Louis Michel expected to start picking on September 6.

At 1:30 am on September 1, the bottom fell out. Hail pelted almost all of Chablis for an hour or more, leaving leaves shredded and some of the fruit damaged. At Louis Michel, everything went on overdrive, with every available picker and harvesting machine (including some borrowed from growers less impacted by the hail) pressed into service to get the fruit off the vines and into the winery before rot set in. By September 4, all fruit impacted by hail was in the winery, pressed, and ready to ferment.

Then – the Magic of Doing Nothing
Louis Michel ChablisWhen you taste the Louis Michel 2015s, the question you’re going to ask is, “What magic did winemaker Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel work in the winery to make such great Chablis under such challenging conditions?” The answer: Nothing.

Because “nothing” is what Guillaume does. The pressed juice went into stainless steel tanks and then…sat there until the yeast living in the winery air decided to start bubbling away. The only two winemaking decision Guillaume made was a) to keep things cool (as always) and b) to rack the finished wine off the fine lees a bit earlier than usual.

Louis Michel Montee de Tonnerre BottleWas acid added? Nope – correctly grown grapes keep their acid even in hot seasons. Sugar added to increase alcohol? Nope – the fruit came in at a just-right 12-13%. Lees stirred to add richness? Nope – older vines and warm weather gave all the richness you’d want. Oak used to shape or intensify the wines? Nope again – the only oak barrels in this winery have been cut in half and have flowers growing in them!

As in the past few harvests, the hardest part of Guillaume job after the grapes came into the winery was calling customers around the world to tell them they couldn’t have all the cases they wanted, because the hail and heat reduced the crop by 20-30%. Next year, we’ll tell you how even more severe hail brought yields down 30-40%. The year after, we’ll have to talk about how 2017’s bitter spring frosts cost the Domaine half its fruit.

For now, though, we have once again secured an above average allocation of these very much above average wines. Enjoy them while you can!

‘Bloody Good:’ Introducing Willamette Valley’s Walter Scott Wines

Willamette Valley newcomer Walter Scott has wowed the critics, and the 2015s wowed us when we tasted them in Oregon in February. On sale now; on tasting this weekend.

Walter Scott WinesA good friend and customer introduced us to Walter Scott wines last year, long before they became available on the East Coast. She proclaimed them her very favorite wines in the Willamette Valley – high praise from a discerning taster.

The critics agree with her. Wine Advocate’s Neal Martin called Walter Scott a “great discovery” in the 2012 vintage, and called the 2014’s “just killer Pinot Noir with purity, intensity and personality … if you have not tried these wines yet, do yourself a favor.”

And then we got to visit and sample the 2015s – most not rated yet, but even better than 2014! And while these  would be great wines no matter what, great people and a great story adds to the delight!

A Labor of Love

Walter Scott Ken and Erica

Walter Scott is a labor of love from the husband/wife team of Ken Pahlow and Erica Landon. Ken caught the Oregon wine bug in the early 1990s and soon began showing up at Mark Vlossak’s St Innocent winery in the Eola Hills offering to do anything that needed doing. Eventually, in 1995, he wore Mark down and started helping out at harvest and in the winery on a regular basis, ultimately taking on sales responsibilities there too.

During his 14 years working at St. Innocent, Ken took a second job handling sales for a leading Oregon-based importer. In 2002, he first met Sommelier Erica Landon. Erica had started in the wine business in Portland and at a Mount Hood resort before becoming the sommelier and GM for the Ponzi family’s Dundee Bistro (that’s where Ken first met her in 2002). She went on to earn a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence at Ten 01 back in Portland (while beginning to date Ken in 2007) before becoming Wine Director for a Portland restaurant group and a wine instructor for the trade.

Learning at Patricia Green, Evening Land
Ken and Erica married and decided to give winemaking a try, emptying their retirement accounts to make 165 cases of wine in the great 2008 harvest. In 2009, Ken traded labor for enough space at Patricia Green Cellars to make 650 cases. In 2010, Ken took a new job heading up sales at Evening Land Vineyards in the Eola Hills that allowed him to make his next two vintages there.

Evening Land was a great place for Ken and Erica to take the next step. The Evening Land story is complex, but the key points are that an investor group acquired one of Oregon’s greatest vineyards, Seven Springs, in 2007 and brought in Burgundy’s Dominique Lafon to consult. Ken was able to soak up Lafon’s expertise and also get to know current owner/managers Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman.

In 2012, Ken and Erica signed up long-time fans Andy and Sue Steinman as partners and, with their help, leased and converted a cider house on the edge of Justice Vineyard in the Eola Hills. Then, in 2014, the biggest step yet – they welcomed a new partner (daughter Lucy) to the venture and left their day jobs to focus on Walter Scott full time.

As Neal Martin reported in The Wine Advocate, “their story is one of essentially risking everything to pursue their dream. If their wines are of this quality, then their sacrifices have been worthwhile.” With influences ranging from Mark Vlossak, Dominique Lafon, the Ponzi family, Sashi Moorman and more, it’s hardly surprising that their Walter Scott wines are good. It’s the way they’re good that’s so delightful.

The Essence of Great Oregon Pinot Noir
First, there’s a strong focus on great vineyards here, mainly in the southerly Willamette Valley appellation of the Eola Amity Hills and including one of America’s greatest Pinot Noir sites, Seven Springs. Their vineyards are all dry-farmed and feature predominantly marine sedimentary soils. This kind of dirt brings out the minerality and elegance of Pinot Noir paired with ripe cherry/raspberry/strawberry fruit – what I’d argue is the essence of great Oregon Pinot Noir.

Ken and Erica work with their farming partners to ensure that yields are appropriate to the vintage – lower in cool harvests like 2010 and 2011, higher as needed in warmer years like 2014 and 2015 – and that the fruit is allowed to ripen slowly, without excess sugar and with vibrant acids.

In the very warm 2015 vintage, that means Walter Scott’s Pinot Noirs are fully ripe and bursting with fresh (not cooked or dried) fruit flavors, deliver vibrant acids, and went into bottle at remarkably moderate alcohols ranging from 12.5 to 13.9% (vs 14% and higher at many fine estates).

walter-scotte-pinot-noir-freedom-hill.pngMinerality, Freshness, Precision … and Character
If minerality, freshness and precision are themes that cut across all of the Walter Scott wines, those attributes are always presented in terms of each vineyard’s unique character. Freedom Hill is dark, smoky and powerful. And Seven Springs is at once velvety and weightless, generous and full of tension.

Most of these 2015 releases have yet to be presented to the critics. If big scores matter to you, then buy these now and then brag how you scored some of the top wines of a great vintage while you still could. Because in 2015, I think most critics will echo Neal Martin’s summation of Walter Scott’s 2012s:

“Here were wines with great precision and poise, wines that embraced the opulence of the 2012 vintage but hammered any excesses down with a prudent approach in the winery. The modest acidification ensured that these wines feel natural and refined, the kind of wines that I would take home to drink following a hard day’s tasting. With two partners coming on board, and presumably steadying what can be a financially precarious venture when starting out, things look bright for Walter Scott Wines. Pick up the phone and try them yourself.”   

Wine That’s (Much!) Better Than Asparagus – The Paring from California’s Jonata

Jonata Vineyard, Winery, 191.6, Ballard Canyon, California(MultiA few years ago, billionaires Gerald Levin, Arnon Milchan, and Charles Banks (then owner of Napa’s Screaming Eagle) brought France’s Michel Rolland to see a patch of land in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. “What should we plant here?” they asked.

“Asparagus. I think you’d be better off planting asparagus,” Rolland replied

Fortunately, they didn’t listen. The trio decided to plant an 80 acre plot with 10 different varietals from Bordeaux, the Rhone and beyond. And when Matt Dees joined as Jonata’s first winemaker in 2004, they discovered that pretty much everything they planted made terrific wine!

An Expensive and Successful Main Label
Jonata’s “main label” wines have racked up huge ratings since the first releases, with 95s, 96s, and 97s scattered across the range. Now that Screaming Eagle’s current owner, Stan Kronke, had taken the reins, there’s a no-expenses-spared approach to vineyard management, harvest, and winemaking. And while the Jonata wines hit pretty stratospheric heights for Central Coast bottlings – lots of $80-$140 offerings – Robert Parker says, “Fasten your seatbelts as these wines will give purchasers a serious ride for their money!”

The Jonata style is big, bold, and built for the cellar. As the Wine Advocate’s current Central Coast critic, Jeb Dunnuck says, “this is always one of my favorite tastings. However, due to the mouth-damaging levels of tannin and structure these wines show in their youth, this is one tasting I have to schedule at the end of day!”

And a Softer Second Wine
That’s where The Paring comes in. Every vintage, a few barrels of Jonata’s wine turned out to be too supple, soft, and ready to drink – not right for the main label’s vin de garde, have to be cellared for years, house style.

For the first few years, Jonata simply sold these barrels off to other wineries. But as the vineyards matured, the quality of these “off lots” just kept getting better and better. So much so that, starting in 2011, the winery decided they should bottle and sell these seconds themselves.

“Superb Values”

The first release of wines under The Paring label came in 2011 and the critics were very, very, impressed. As Wine Advocate’s Jeb Dunnuck said tasting the inaugural 2010s, “These value-priced efforts are made by Matt Dees and the Jonata team, and are primarily made from declassified grapes from both their The Hilt and Jonata labels. They represent superb values and are a great intro to the style of the more expensive releases.”

By 2012, The Paring had expanded to six wines and the quality kept getting better and better. As Dunnuck said after tasting the whole line-up, “Made by the team at Jonata, these wines are basically declassified lots that didn’t make the cut for the top Jonata releases. These 2012s are a step up from past vintages and are crazy values. Don’t miss a chance to grab some of these!”

The 2013s are clearly the best yet. As Antonio Galloni from Vinous wrote after tasting the 2013s, “The four wines in this range are all absolutely delicious.” And, even at the release prices, he declared them, “among the very finest values readers will find in California. A great choice for by the case purchases or glass pours, these new releases from The Paring deliver serious bang for the buck. It simply does not get better than this.”

From “Rat’s Jump” to Sublime – Getting to Know Meursault

meursaultNo one knows for sure where the name “Meursault” comes from, but in the village here’s the story they tell.

The Romans had a fort up on the Meursault hill and near it was a stream. The soldiers observed mice coming up to the stream and then jumping over the cold water to get from one side to the other. They soon began calling the stream “Muris Saltus” – or the “rat jump” – and the name eventually stuck to the small village growing beneath the fort.

Whatever the source of the name, the three communes of Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault make up the finest collection of Chardonnay vineyards in the world. But with no “Montrachet” to add caché, Meursault has spent much of its history playing second fiddle to Puligny and Chassagne.

Comparing Puligny and Meursault
In fact, Meursault’s wines are no less outstanding than Puligny to the south, but the wines are a bit different. Fine Puligny is peachy, citrusy, floral, and sports a deep, pervasive, wet rock minerality with a strong citric drive.

Meursault, in contrast, is richer, even fatter, with more golden fruit – pear, apple, apricot – and classically shows a wonderful layer of buttery richness – “buttered and toasted nut” is a common tasting note here. In part the differences are a reflection of terrior.

Meursault and Puligny’s vineyards are both rich in limestone, but the types are different (Pierre de Chassagne in Puligny vs. Comblachien for Meursault). More importantly, Puligny’s best vineyards are higher and more exposed while Meursault’s are lower and more sheltered.

Digging Cellars
But a fluke in the terrior of the villages themselves – vs. the vineyards – plays a role, too. The water table in the village of Puligny is high, so digging deep cellars is difficult and rare. Limited cellar space means most Puligny-Montrachet needs to be in and out of barrel before the next harvest comes in. Or, as is often the case, taken by negotiants to more spacious cellars in Beaune for elevage.

michelot-cellarIn Meursault, the soils are dry and soft, making cellars fairly easy to dig. And over the past 50 years, negotiants have been willing to pay much more for wine from Puligny than Meursault, leading more Meursault growers to make and sell their own finished wine. Winemaker Francois Mikulski tells the story of bringing in his first crop and then trying to sell his wine in barrel to the negotiants. The prices he was offered were so low that he went to the bank and borrowed enough to buy bottles and corks and sell the wine himself!

With cellar space ample and negotiant prices low, more Meursault growers not only made their own wine – they could afford to allow it to spend more than 10 months in barrel to gain richness, complexity, and notes of nutty deliciousness. So today’s Meursault reflects both the unique character of its vineyards and a funny quirk of Burgundy economics!

A Benchmark Storms Back
Writing in 2008, Burgundy expert Clive Coats said, “Nearly 40 years ago, when I was studying for the Master of Wine examination, one of my tutors recommended two estates which produced yardstick white Burgundy: Michelot in Meursault and Sauzet in Puligny-Montrachet.”

That “yardstick” status came from the hard work of Bernard Michelot, a fifth generation winegrower who modernized the winemaking, increased the use of new barrels, and tended his large set of vineyard holdings with meticulous care.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, though, the estate failed to keep up with the ever improving quality of its neighbors. As Bernard aged, he was forced to split up the estate between his children and sell off some vineyards to deal with France’s punitive inheritance taxes. Daughter Genevieve Michelot took 7ha and founded Michelot Mere et Fil. Son-in-law Jean-François Mestre and his wife, Odile Michelot, kept Domaine Michelot but were forced to place some of the wine and vineyards in a separate cellar, Domaine Mestre-Michelot. The separate cellars and Bernard’s continued presence (he passed away earlier this year at age 99) perhaps served as barriers to further innovation.

michelot-familyOver the past decade, though, Domaine Michelot has come roaring back. Jean-François has been allowed to merge the two separate cellars – so all the wine is Domaine Michelot now. He and his son Nicolas have converted all of their vineyards to organic farming. Grass is allowed to grow between the rows to stress the vines and then plowed under to enrich the soils. Most chemical treatments have been dropped and copper and sulfur use have been reduced substantially.

michelot-mersautIn the cellars, Mestre has slightly increased the amount of new oak used – around 33% for the 1er Cru wines – but also moved to larger barrels to prevent too much oak flavor in the wine. All of the wines – from Bourgogne Blanc up – spend 12 full months in barrel before wracking by gravity into tank. There they rest for an additional 4-6 months to harmonize and settle before bottling.

The result of all these changes: superb wines that are once again “textbook” (or “yardstick” if you prefer) Meursault. Rich, full of ripe fruit, creamy in texture with plenty of vibrancy, and laced with plenty of toasted buttered nut goodness. Do not miss them!

Grand Grüner from Austria’s Beautiful Wachau Region

You probably already know that Grüner Veltliner is Austria’s signature white grape, and you may well have tried some of the very popular wines we feature every year like Anton Bauer Grüner Veltliner Gmörk, Steininger Grüner Kamptal DAC, and the always popular Paul D Grüner in the liter bottle. All of those are crisp, refreshing wines with pretty orchard fruit, a touch of minerality, a bit of citrus, and classic Grüner notes of sweet pea and white pepper.
tegernseerhof-vineyard2
The very best of Austria’s Grüner Veltliners get a bit more serious. When the wine comes from older vines growing on the windblown glacial soils called loess soils on steep vineyards with great exposures to the sun, Grüner gets richer, deeper, and much more intensely delicious.

And, when those old-vine, steeply sloped sites are in the region called the Wachau, well you get some of Austria’s greatest Grüner of all.

A Grant from the Holy Roman Emperor
Martin Mittlebach’s family arrived in the Wachau village of Dürnstein from their home in Bavaria nearly 100 years ago. There they took on the mantle of one of Austria’s oldest winegrowing communities.   Holy Roman emperor Henry II granted the Benedictine monastery of Tegernsee land in the steeply sloped Wachau valley. In 1176, the monks built their winery and christened it Tegernseerhof, and the Mittlebachs continue that heritage today.

Martin and his family farm sites across the Wachau, but their pride and joy are six profound vineyards rising up over the Danube river plain, including one – Zwerithaler – where the vines are 100 years old. They bottle some profound Riesling and Grüner Veltliner from these sites, wines that year-after-year earn some of the highest accolades in Austria.

High Altitude, High-end Grüner
tegernseerhoff-bottleBergdistel is Martin’s introduction to the joys of high-altitude, high-end Grüner, designed to showcase the quality of the vintage, the Wachau, and the Tegernseerhof house style. Martin selects lots from each of his best Grüner vineyards, some at lower altitudes for tropical fruit and richness, others from higher, steeply sloped, sites for cut and minerally depth.

Just like Martin’s top wines, Bergdistel carries the Wachau’s highest quality designation: Smaragd. To borrow an old American advertising slogan, “With a name like ‘Smaragd,’ it has to be good.”   In the 1980s, the growers of the Wachau came together to create some of the world’s toughest rule for quality in grape growing and winemaking. Only the region’s very best wines – those of superior ripeness and acidity – get the extra-long corks, the emerald lizard emblem on the bottle neck, and the (unpronounceable to non-German speakers) “Smaragd” designation on the label.

Many Smaragd-level Wachau Grüner Veltliners of this quality and character come with $40, $70, even $100 price tags. At his regular $30 price, Martin’s Bergdistel is already a fantastic value. At our $21.98 bottle and $19.98/ea six-pack price…well, you’d be “Smaragd” not to miss it!

2014 Burgundy: For Drinkers and Collectors!

After years of crazy weather, short harvests, and very good quality, 2014 is a HUGE relief – if not especially easy for winegrowers. Yields returned to something closer to “normal” levels with no loss of quality, although the weather remained unpredictable.

The growing season started very early, with a warm spring getting the vines going about three weeks earlier than normal. The early growing season seemed promising, relaxed and abundant, at least until late June when a series of hail storms swept up and down the Cote d’Or, costing growers 10-30% of their fruit. Then, the weather turned cool and stayed that way through all of July and August.

The warm, dry spring followed by cool, wet summer, meant that the growing season lasted a bit longer than usual – instead of the typical 100 days from flowering to harvest, most growers ended up hanging their fruit for an extra week or event two. The fruit that came in during late September was ripe in terms of skins and seeds, but had a bit less juice and a touch less sugar than might have been expected.

Thick skins, ripe flesh, skins and seeds, plus moderate sugars came together in fermentation vats to create some of the most delicious, immediately tempting wines we’ve seen from the Cote d’Or since 2009.

As Allen Meadows (“Burghound”) said:

“I am avidly enthusiastic about the 2014 vintage in the Cote de Nuits…While it is true that the 2014 vintage is user-friendly in that in many cases the wines will be accessible young, I believe that it is also true that they are going to age extremely well. There is a beguiling freshness coupled with first-rate drinkability that makes the 2014s extremely pleasurable… Two of the aspects that I like best about the 2014s is their transparency to the underlying terrior coupled with their sheer drinkability. This transparency is enhanced by terrific vibrancy because the wines really do taste alive in the mouth…They’re ripe yet they are what the French call digest, or refreshing, where the first sip invites the next which is in fact what makes them so drinkable.”

Jean-Michel GuillonJean-Michel Guillon agrees with Burghound’s assessment, saying of his 2014s, “They’re generous and fleshy and easy-to-like though with good freshness and transparency. They’re the kind of burgundies that almost everyone likes because there’s really nothing not to like.”

One thing we especially “like” about Jean-Michel’s wines are the prices – unchanged from 2013! In a world where first-rate Cote de Nuit’s producers’ “regular” Bourgognes can often top $40, it’s refreshing to be able to enjoy the work of a true Burgundy master for comfortable prices like these.

Garage Wine Update

Silvia Puig ENVWe’ve written before about Priorat’s Silvia Puig and her garage wine project, En Numeros Vermells. Today, we’re introducing her new Priorat, which Silvia calls AiAiAi, big news for this ultra-small (it really is in a garage) project in the rugged hills of Priorat.

Not only is this wine Silvia’s first ENV Priorat built for drinking in its luscious youth, it’s the first to arrive since we’ve been able to announce that she’s left Vinedos de Ithaca to devote her full energies to this great new project.

With increasing success with her ENV wines, more and more active children and her husband’s thriving restaurant, Silvia has now decided to focus 100% of her winemaking energies on En Numeros Vermells. The extra time allowed her to purchase a little more fruit and turn her attentions and talents to making a softer, more accessible, wine that we can enjoy now while letting the top bottlings develop in cellar.

Our good friend and Silvia’s US importer, Jonas Gustafsson, has worked closely with Silvia since ENV’s inception, and he helped her create this exciting new wine, the 2013 AiAiAi Priorat. And, we’re very proud that Jonas invited us to be debut partners in Silvia’s exciting new venture, too!

“There are no Rules.” Silvia made about 1800 regular bottles and 60 magnums of the first-ever release of AiAiAi Priorat 2013, blending Garnacha (about half), Carignan (about 40%) plus dashes of Syrah and Merlot aged in an assortment of barrels and in tank. As with all her ENV wines, her only winemaking rule is simple: “There are no rules.” Instead, Silvia makes the best wine she can from vineyards farmed by good friends across Priorat and then tastes, tastes, and tastes some more until she discovers a blend that perfectly expresses the essence of the vineyards, growing season, and Priorat itself.

With AiAiAi, her focus is on showcasing the joy and wildness of her remote Priorat home and family. You’ll find plenty of classic Priorat aromas and flavors – blueberry, blackberry, crushed mint, damp slate, cocoa, licorice, and more – in a more festively styled wine that glides over your palate and finishes with supple tannins and mouthwatering, lingering flavors of black fruit, mint, and cocoa.

Ultra-Small, Focused Attention. Silvia designed En Numeros Vermells to let her intimately nurture small amounts of wine from grape to bottle on a barrel by barrel basis. The small scale let her largely ignore the normal time and financial pressures of winemaking – with a total production of only a few hundred cases, she was free to let each wine find its own way to maturity and use only the barrels that actually fit in her final blends.

We throw around the terms “garage wine” and “handcrafted” quite a bit, but that’s truly the best way to describe everything about these wines. The En Numerous Vermells “cellar” is the garage of Silvia’s house in the Priorat village of Poboleda, a building that also serves as Silvia’s home and her husband – Belgian chef Pieter Truyts – Brots Restaurant.

In this tiny space, Silvia is literally doing virtually everything by hand. She tends the small number of barrels stacked in the space carefully, tasting and re-tasting to learn how each is developing and gaining a deep understanding of each cask’s unique character, strengths, and weaknesses. Multiple blending trials allow Silvia to explore how her charges work together (or don’t), and create an ideal marriage that lets each site and varietal shine without fighting or overwhelming each other.