Fine Wine, Fine Vintages in Beaujolais

chateau-thivin-domaine-mont-brouillyThere’s going to be quite an argument about which of the past three vintages is the “greatest ever” in Beaujolais.

Vintage 2014 delivered classic, vibrant, elegant wines that capture the essence of Gamay’s juicy joy. Harvest 2015 added much deeper, riper, fruit and more density than usual, but with no loss of energy or minerality. And the 2016 harvest – while seriously reduced by hail and frost – may turn out to marry the best characteristics of 2015 and 2014 combined.

What will broach no argument is that Chateau Thivin made utterly brilliant wines in all three years, continuing to cement their place among the very best in all of Beaujolais – arguably, among the best in Burgundy as a whole.

Ancient Volcano, Modern Winery
Ch Thivin la_famille_geoffray The estate founded in 1383 and purchased by the Geoffray family in 1877. The chateau (yes, there really is one), winery and the estate’s best vineyards perch on the sides of an extinct volcano called Mont Brouilly.

The volcano’s very steep slope – around 40 degrees in the heart of the vineyard – provides excellent drainage, fantastic exposure to the sun, and the platform for the Geoffray family’s modern gravity-flow winery.

When others in Beaujolais chased quick and easy cash in the Beaujolais Nouveau boom of the 1970s and 1980s, the Geoffray family just kept on making fine wine. Vineyards are plowed to create healthier soils, no insecticides are used, and grapes are harvested and sorted by hands.

Whole bunches of ripe, juicy Gamay grapes roll by gravity into tanks were fermentation starts naturally with no additions of yeast or enzymes or anything else. After a day, rosé tanks are pressed gently and finish fermentation in stainless steel. Reds soak for a week or so before pressing and racking into large, old, wood casks and bottling six months later. And for these wines, that’s it.

Ch Thivin was long well-known as one of Beaujolais’s great estates within France, but pretty much unheard of in the US until the 1970s. That’s when importer Kermit Lynch first visited the Domaine and made it one his earliest imports to the USA. And I think his description of Ch Thivin today is still the best summing up we can offer. Thivin’s wines, he says, are “a country squire who is not afraid to get his boots muddy. Handsome, virile, earthy, and an aristocrat.”

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Amarone – A Modern Classic

We recently ran across an Amarone (typically a wine we think of for winter foods) with a classical styling that means you can enjoy it with summer foods like grilled pork tenderloin or baby back ribs. It got us thinking about Amarone’s story …

The ancient Romans pioneered the art of intensifying their wines by drying the Amarone fruit.

The ancient Romans pioneered the art of intensifying their wines by drying the Amarone fruit.

Along with Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone is often called one of Italy’s “Three Kings” – the greatest of the peninsula’s top red wines. But this Italian classic is actually a latecomer to the Italian wine scene – and may only exist due to a fortunate accident in the 1930s.

Some background. Roman winemakers pioneered the art of creating darker, stronger, and – importantly to Roman wine lovers – sweeter wines by drying ripe grapes on straw mats before fermentation. The loss of moisture during four to six months of air-drying meant that the grapes had too much sugar to easily ferment into alcohol before winter chills brought fermentation to a stop. The wine made this way in the hills around Verona was called “Recioto” by the Romans.

A Lucky Accident
As time passed, winemakers in what is now called the Valpolicella region turned their attention to the light, dry wines based on the Corvina grape that the region is known for today. However, many wineries (and even more families) continued making Recioto for home consumption with sweets or after a meal. Although no one knows for certain, at some point around 1935, it appears that one of these small lots of sweet Recioto was forgotten over the winter. When the weather warmed again in spring, the fermentation re-started and ran along until the sugar was gone – leaving the winemaker with a big, bold, and unexpectedly dry wine surprise.

No one is sure who discovered this new style of wine, but multiple wineries began experimenting with it, making what came to be called Amarone. By the mid-1950s, commercial quantities were available from several sources and over the 1960s and 1970s, the wines became famous for their heft, power, and distinctive dried fruit aromas and flavors.

Accordini’s Amarone 
As the first Amarone experiments were underway in the 1930s, the Accordini family was already in their 110th year farming and making wine from what would become the Amarone cru of Le Bessole. As Valpolicella became more and more popular in the 1960s, the family replanted Le Bessole and added more land to their holdings. During the mid-1970s, they launched their commercial winery – featuring the Amarone from their home vineyard of Le Bessole.

The 2007 Amarone Le Bessole is a great example of pure, intense, and perfectly balanced Amarone made in a traditional style. It’s a blend of classic Amarone grapes – 70% Corvina, 20% Rondinella and 10% Rossignola. The ripe grapes are left to dry for about 3.5 months on racks in a temperature and humidity controlled room to gain plenty of concentration but avoid undesirable botrytis rot or volatile acidity bacteria. After a slow fermentation, the wine is aged in neutral wood and then in bottle until it’s ready to enjoy.

Come by Saturday, 12-4, (July 19, 2014) for a taste – or to talk about Italy’s three kings with importer Maurizio Farro.

What We’re Tasting: How Sweet It Is

Wine-and-Chocolate

Maybe we were all picked last for dodgeball in gym class as kids, but we’re suckers for wines that have a bad reputation.  We just want to rescue them from obscurity and show everyone how fantastic they can be!

Hawley Late Harvest Zin – This was a real discovery for us.  Often, dry red Zinfandel can be a little heavy and jammy.  This late-harvest version, harvested at 32 brix, too high to really be fermented into dry table wine, avoids many of the pitfalls of regular red Zinfandel.  Mouthwatering acidity balances the sweetness, and it’s surprisingly light on the palate for a dessert wine made from Zinfandel.  Perfect for a ‘little something’ after dinner, or with any dessert involving berries or chocolate.

Dow’s 2011 – Port can be an intimidating category, with so much history, a high price point, and all the different types (LBV?  Tawny?).  Well, there’s no need to break out the Oxford Companion here.  2011 is considered to be an absolute monster of a Port vintage, with the structure to age, but ripe, luscious tannins that make the wines enjoyable today, too.  The only thing you need to decide is whether you want it in half or full bottles.  A few dark chocolates on a fancy platter, and dessert for your next dinner party is all set.

Perucchi Vermouth Gran Reserva Red – We know what you’re thinking: Isn’t Vermouth that stuff you try to avoid in martinis?  The stuff moldering in the rail at your local bar?  We thought so, too, until we tried some of the better Vermouths out there, like this handmade red Vermouth from Italian producer Perucchi.  Its aromas are so complex, you’ll just want to dive into the glass.  It elevates a Manhattan for sure, but its spicy aromas are perfect for this cooler time of year, and can be enjoyed solo or with a twist of orange peel and a splash of club soda or sparkling mineral water.

It may not be cool to admit you have a sweet tooth, but we won’t tell anyone.  Take a break from Thanksgiving menu planning and gift shopping to indulge in a little something sweet!

What We’re Tasting: A Surprising Re-Visit

5.7.13 013When we’ve had a wine in the store for awhile, we try to check in on it every once in awhile, and see where it is in its evolution.  When Olivier Daubresse was here this past Saturday with Philippe Plantevin, towards the end of the afternoon we decided to revisit another of his Southern Rhone producers, Chateau Husson.  We opened the 2009 Les Saumades, an almost all-Grenache bottling.  When it first arrived in the store, it was a delicious, but very fruit-forward style of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Pretty and accessible, but maybe not as complex as some of the other Chateauneuf-du-Papes we carry.

Now, it is all grown-up!  Les Saumades is much grippier, earthier, with much more savory, black olive-scented depth.  That gorgeous fruit is still there, but there is so much more going on – we couldn’t believe it!  As Doug and I swirled and sipped and our eyes widened, Olivier just looked at us with a knowing smirk, as though he knew this would happen all along, and he was just waiting for us to figure it out.  Spending decades tasting through France will do that for you!

This is why buying a half-case or case of the same wine is a great way to learn about how wine ages, and at what stage you personally like to drink it.  Every year or so you can revisit it, and see how it’s doing.  It may be better or worse than the last time you had it, but you’ll always learn something.

And sometimes, you’ll get a wonderful surprise, just like we did!

Our Latest Obsession

Pinot Blanc is having a bit of a moment at our tasting table.  It seems like every time we turn around we’re oohing and ahing over another pale member of the Pinot family.

pinot blanc lineup

It started last year with Kellerei Kaltern Pinot Grigio’s slightly more sophisticated older sister.  At just a few dollars more than the crowd-pleasing Pinot Grigio, it became a go-to   suggestion for us to put in your hands for special seafood dishes or a classy aperitif.

Then we flipped for the richer, more unctuous and toasty Pinot Gris/Pinot Blanc blend from Au Bon Climat.  Move over, Chardonnay, and bring on the scallops or lobster!

Yesterday, yet another tall, skinny bottle stole our hearts, this one from Alsace and the young winemaking family at Domaine Leon Boesch.  This might just be our favorite one yet!

So, what is it about Pinot Blanc?  While tasting our latest favorite yesterday, we decided that it’s the texture that’s really making us flip.  Pinot Blanc manages to combine that little bit of that mouthfilling quality that riper Pinot Grigio/Gris has, but with brighter fruit flavors and racier acidity.  This combination makes it appealing both as a standalone glass and for pairing with a wide variety of foods – pretty irresistible!

dom leon boesch pinot blanc 2011

A teacher of mine once told us that one of the best ways to study wine was to harness our natural tendency to go on ‘kicks’ for a certain grape or region.  Just go down the rabbit hole completely, he advised, and plan a trip to wherever your latest favorite hails from.  Read about restaurants and look at their lists, research hotels, look at maps and decide what vineyards you’d want to visit.  Google Earth is a great tool to use for this purpose – I spent a good hour last week ‘visiting’ Puligny-Montrachet.  It was a gray, cloudy day when Google’s photographers were there, but it brought me back just the same.  Filling your brain with ‘fun’ facts about a wine region like where the best restaurants and hotels are makes it easier to remember the more serious stuff.

So, what’s your latest obsession?  Daydreaming about visiting Priorat?  Stuck on Sauvignon Blanc?  Let us know!

–Diane

What We’re Tasting: A Day of Surprises

Though we like to think of ourselves as seasoned, unbiased wine professionals, we do have a few prejudices.  Doug, for example, loves Carignan so irrationally that he can’t be trusted to taste it without a chaperone.  Diane and Randy love sparkling wine and Gamay so much that, left to their own devices, the store would consist of little else.

We’ve also got our dislikes, and can be a little dismissive of wines we’re sure we won’t like.  Today, two wines in our usual Tuesday onslaught of staff tastings stood out, not just because they were delicious wines, but because they were so surprising.  The first was a red Rhone-style blend from Grochau Cellars’ Washington State property that was an absolute dead ringer for something you’d find in the South of France.  We’ll be bringing it in soon, and it will surely find its way onto our tables at home as well.

The second really blew our minds, because we’ve all convinced ourselves that we just don’t like Pinotage.  This was not just Pinotage, but a Pinotage rose.  We were sure, looking at the price point and utilitarian label, that this was going to be a clunker.  We could not have been more wrong.  Keep an eye on your inboxes for news about this incredible South African rose.  It’s earned the use of that well-worn cliche: it’s a bargain at twice the price.

What We’re Tasting – New Old-Fashioned Favorites

Last week Doug and I made the journey over state lines to attend a tasting at Potomac Selection’s warehouse in Maryland.  Rather than the hours-long dog and pony show these tastings usually entail, Eric and Ryne opened about 25 interesting bottles, set them on a table, and let us all go to town.  They made themselves available to answer questions and set some bread and cheese on a pile of boxes in the corner, and that was about it.

Other than the cold toes I always get in a warehouse that’s kept at the right temperature, this couldn’t have been a  more perfect way to revisit what’s currently on our shelves from the portfolio and taste new things.  Usually industry tastings are either in a stuffy banquet hall/convention center and you have to elbow people out of the way to get to a spit bucket, or they’re sit-down affairs that end up being about an hour longer than you wanted to spend, with no way to make a tactful escape.

There were many highlights of this tasting – I finally got to taste a Freisa after having been cruelly denied in the Piedmont (none of the producers brought one out – it’s almost as if they know it’s a weird grape no one cares about…) and we were reminded just how much we love Domaine Labbe’s Savoie.

Two discoveries made it onto our shelves immediately after we tasted them.  One was Moutard’s 6 Cepages 2005, a blend of all six allowed Champagne varietals: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Arlane, and Pinot Meslier.  Just to further up the geek factor, it undergoes its secondary fermentation under a traditional cork reinforced by metal brackets rather than the crown cap that’s used in most Champagne production.  Thought provoking and deeply savory, but not lacking in fun, its $54.99 price tag is positively cheap when compared to other vintage Champagnes of this caliber.

3.11.13 016

We also got acquainted with Dom Jean Royer’s Chateauneuf-du-Papes.  These are not made in the big, glossy style that makes the cover of Wine Spectator.  These are traditional, food-friendly, and not so tannic and extracted they need years in bottle to unwind.  Doug enjoyed a bottle of the Tradition at home this past Friday and was so enthusiastic his description used language too colorful to post here.  If that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is!

-Diane