The Insider Family Champagne House: AR Lenoble

Ar Lenoble and glassChampagne is big business, and today most Champagne houses – producers who make their own sparkling wine from fruit they grow and purchase from neighbors – are either very large or owned by bigger houses, insurance companies or global luxury goods firms.

AR Lenoble is different. Although they are one of the smallest houses remaining in Champagne, they have remained independent and family owned and run for more than 100 years. The brother and sister team of Antoine and Anne Malssagne (grandchildren of the founder) head a team of just 11 employees that’s building, as wrote, “probably the most admired boutique family house right now.”

A Clear Focus
Anne and Antoine of LenobleSince taking over the house in 2001, Antoine and Anne have focused not on making “consistent” Champagnes in a static “house style,” but instead on making better and better Champagne every year. They started with a clear focus on their most important vineyard holding, 10 hectares of pure, chalky soils planted to Chardonnay in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly. As they’ve written:

“The expression of Chouilly defines who we are and what we do at AR Lenoble. Chouilly is one of only 17 Grand Cru villages in Champagne and one of only 6 known for Chardonnay. AR Lenoble is one of few producers to use 100% Grand Cru Chardonnay from Chouilly in every single one of our wines.”

To strengthen the quality of their fruit in Chouilly and also in the 1er Cru village of Bisseuil (Pinot Noir) and their Marne holdings in Damery (Pinot Meunier), the Malssagne’s launched an intensive farming improvement program. Using strict pruning, green harvests (cutting off bunches before ripening begins), and allowing cover crops to grow in competition with the vines, AR Lenoble boasts some of the lowest yields in Champagne.

The quality commitment continues in the winery. AR Lenoble uses only juice from the first pressing of the grapes – the “Cuvee” – and never uses any of the permitted second pressing – the Taille. After fermentation, about 30% of each vintage’s wine is held back and added to a “perpetual reserve” that mixes wines from 2001/2002 onward. Some of the reserve ages in tank, but most spends time in either small (225 liter) or large (5,000 liter) neutral French oak for more complexity still.

Retaining Champagne Character in the Face of Global Warming
Over the past 10 years, Antoine and Anne have faced a new challenge – how to retain Champagne’s classic balance, purity and freshness in the face of a warming climate, higher grape ripeness levels, and earlier and earlier harvests.

In the vineyards, AR Lenoble became one of the early adopters of HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale) farming standards. HVE farming was pioneered by Ambonnay’s Eric Rodez and moves growing as close to organic standards as possible in Champagne’s difficult growing conditions. Using extensive cover crops, reducing sprays, and promoting greater biodiversity in the soil and vineyard forces the vines to work harder and dig deeper to ripen grapes. This lengthens the growing season (more flavor!) and brings grapes to harvest readiness at lower sugar levels and higher acidity (more freshness!).

More Radical Still
And, in the winery, Antoine and Anne did something more radical still. In 2010, they withdrew a portion of their perpetual reserve, bottled it in magnum bottles, added enough sugar and yeast to develop about 1.5 bars of pressure (vs 4 bars for finished Champagne) and then closed the magnums with natural cork.

By holding in magnum under light pressure, AR Lenoble has been able to add even more complexity (from aging on the light lees) while locking in even more vibrancy and freshness in their reserves. As Anne has explained,

“Climate change is a reality. The challenge for the future is to be able to bring as much freshness as possible to our reserve wines. At the end of each harvest, we observe that acidity levels are much lower than they used to be. Reserve wines now need to add complexity and richness but also freshness.”

Following the 2014 harvest, Antoine decided the reserves in magnum were ready to use. He began by blending 40% reserve wines into the 2014 vintage base wines destined for the Brut Intense and Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV bottlings. That blend then went into bottle for secondary fermentation and spent three full years resting on the lees to integrate and develop even more complexity.

When ready to ship, the wines were given their usual cuvee names plus a new, special, designation. “Mag 14” on the bottle tells you that the wines are based on vintage 2014 and include reserve wines aged in magnum. And one taste will tell you that all the extra work and time was worth it!


What’s Ramato? A Short Primer on … Pinot Grigio!

Palazzone Ramato labelIf it looks like rosé, why is the wine we’re featuring this week called “Ramato?” The Italian means “copper,” and that’s a great description for the slightly orange, onion-skin coppery color you’ll find here.

Most modern rosé wine is made from black grapes – Grenache, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, etc. – that are allowed to bleed some of their purple color into fermenting juice. Those purple-skinned grapes would turn the wine what we call “red” if left in the juice, but leave behind the various shades of pure pink we’ve come to love in rosé when removed after a few hours.

Not Black or White
Ramato is made from a grape that’s not really “black,” but isn’t really “white” either. It’s “Gris” in French or “Grigio” in Italian – a grape showing a dusky light purple color when ripe on the vine but that has much less pigment trapped in its skin than most black grapes.

Pinot Grigio Grapes
Pinot Gris (in France) or Grigio (in Italy) is the most famous of these gray grapes, and for centuries wineries in northeastern Italy made an orangey/pink wine from them – but not because that’s what winemakers were after! Until modern white wine production methods, including artificial chilling and use of stainless steel, were introduced in the 1950s, there was no way to keep the color out of wine made from Pinot Grigio.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when Santa Margherita began shipping pure white Pinot Grigio to the US and started doing a land-office business that most Italian wineries ditched Ramato and began making the white Pinot Grigio we know today.
And then it wasn’t until about 5-10 years ago that they realized pink wine could sell and returned to the old Ramato style.
While most Pinot Grigio Ramato comes from the low hills of Italy’s Friuli, this is from a touch further south and the cellars of the outstanding Orvieto producer Palazzone. We’ve been enjoying their Umbrian white Vignarco Orvieto for years and featuring their great value Sangiovese/Cabernet/Merlot Umbria Rosso Ross for a few months now. But we’re especially excited by this new addition to the line and – especially given the great introductory price – we think you will be, too!
Palazzone Ramato bottle

Patricia Green Cellars 2018 Pinots

Jim Anderson2Jim and winery co-founder, the late Patricia Green, have always had a knack for connecting with great grapes and identifying vineyard blocks, bunches of clones, and individual barrels of bubbling juice that have something special to say.

Jim – with partner Patty Green and on his own since her untimely death – has been exploring the nuances of Oregon’s Pinot Noir Vineyards, the impact on those grapes of destemming vs whole cluster fermentation, new versus used wood, different coopers, even some kooky sounding stuff like adding lees back into barrels (don’t knock it – it’s how he make Notorious!).

For the past four to five vintages, it’s become abundantly clear to me that Jim is now 100% dialed in to what Willamette Valley Pinot Noir wants to be, and especially what it wants to be in each of the 30+ bottlings he makes. As Jim will freely admit, it’s probably not smart to make 30+ bottlings of Pinot Noir in one winery. But when each has something deliciously wonderful to say, what are you going to do?

Patricia Green 2018sThe 2018 Pinots from Jim and the team at PGC are pretty breathtaking. They show the character of the vintage, the unique elements of each plot of dirt where the grapes grow we call terroir, and the light imprint of impeccable, precise, and low-intervention winemaking.

But here’s the thing you really need to know: Jim Anderson’s 2018 Pinot Noirs are stupid delicious, vividly exciting, and deeply satisfying to drink right this very minute and will (hard as it is to believe) get better over the next 10-15 years (even the Reserve!).

For this, which we hope is only our first offering of Patricia Green Cellars Pinots, we’ve selected four wines that highlight something unique about Jim’s work in the winery and vineyards.

You can mix/match your way to best prices on all:

  • Patricia Green Pinot Noir Reserve 2018 (from $24.98)– The most ridiculous Pinot Noir value in the world? Perhaps. From fruit grown on the Estate, in Durant, Freedom Hill, and other vineyards (including one too famous to name). Raspberry, pomegranate, citrus blossoms, spice and smoke and a stellar finish. 92 points Wine Spectator; 91 points Wine Enthusiast
  • Patricia Green Pinot Noir Estate 2018 (from $29.98)– Ribbon Ridge Pinot is all about full-throttle fruit, bold tannins, and the salty minerality given by marine sedimentary soils. Expressive, full of tart and sweet fruits, and lovely cinnamon and orange peel complexity. 93 points Wine Spectator; 91 points Wine Enthusiast
  • Patricia Green Pinot Noir Balcombe Vyd 2018 (from $36.98)– A classic volcanic soil, Dundee Hills, Pinot Noir with blueberry and black raspberry fruit, deep concentration, and a firm, smoke-and-spice inflected, finish. 92 points Wine Spectator; 94 points Wine Enthusiast.
  • Patricia Green Pinot Noir Lia’s Vyd 2018 (from $31.98)– From a unique site that blends both volcanic and marine sedimentary soils and a range of clones, this is one of the prettiest, most floral, and delightful wines in the PGC portfolio. Consistently one of my personal three favorite wines here and both approachable and hauntingly beautiful in 2018.

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Distinctive and Delicious Malbecs from Mendoza


Mendoza winemakers are traveling a road to producing wines that reflect soil and place – and do so deliciously!

When Malbec burst on the American wine scene and pushed aside Aussie Shiraz as the best wine value in the USA 10-15 years ago, paying attention to the terroir of various subregions wasn’t on anyone’s mind.

As Uco Valley winemaker Matías Riccitelli told Wine Enthusiast in late 2018, “In the early days, meaning 15 to 20 years ago, the creativity came from outside,” he says. “You had Michel Rolland and his Bordeaux friends at Clos de los Siete, Paul Hobbs [from California] at Cobos, and Hans Vinding-Diers [a Dane] with Noemia down in Patagonia.”

Those outsiders brought with them an “International” understanding of what made for great red wine. And the wines they made – picked at very full ripeness, softened to smoothness, and given a sheen of spice in new oak – very much fit that international mold. And given the then very low land and farming costs in Argentina, they delivered that polished style at stunningly low prices.

A couple of years ago, we began noticing something new in the Malbecs we tried at our buying tastings.

A New Generation. As second and third generation Mendoza-born winery owners took the reins of their estates, they began looking past the international style to try to discover what was unique about their vines, soils, and locations. To be honest, most of those early attempts reminded us why Malbec traditionally plays a supporting role to Cabernet Sauvignon in most of the world.

Today, though, we’re finding more and more examples of Mendoza Malbec that is both distinctively “Mendoza” and utterly delicious. A wine class a few months ago with Sebastian Zuccardi of the Familia Zuccardi Estate provided a fine introduction to the varied terroirs of Mendoza. And, we are also featuring wines from Bodega Andeluna.

Andeluna WineryAndeluna is a great example of an estate working in the Mendoza subregion of Gualtallary that’s made the transition to wines of delicious distinctiveness. Join us on Saturday from noon-4pm and you can taste through their full line-up of current releases with export manager Nicolás Cricco. Like us, we think you’ll be thrilled with the purity of their Chardonnay, the floral complexity of their Torrentes, and the satisfying richness of both their “everyday” Cabernet and the much more serious Malbec Altutud.

But Andeluna’s Malbec Raices is most likely the wine that will stop you cold. Especially when you look at the price – at $9.98 by the bottle, the best you’ll find in the USA. At $7.98/ea by the case?

This wine showcases the unique blend of alluvial, sandy, and limestone-rich soils of Gualtallary. These free-draining soils give bunches of small berries that achieve full ripeness of flavor and tannin at modest alcohols of 13.8%. And when treated with care, they deliver wines that match their fullness and fruit with amazing freshness and superb drinkability. A can’t miss winning four-season, all-purpose red that could be the finest value you’ll find in all of 2020 to come!

Climb the Hill for Delicious Burgundy Values

Really good, stylish, delicious red and white Burgundy values are still out there – but you have to be willing to explore a bit to find them. So drive the road from Chassagne-Montrachet past St Aubin and climb the hill to the Haute-Cotes village of La Rochepot. That’s where you’ll find Jerome and Elisabeth Billard, sometimes their son Louis, and some of the most compelling white and red Burgundy values we’ve tasted in years!


On our visit in March, Doug got to meet Jerome and Elisabeth … and Rafael the horse, an important part of Dom Billard’s vineyard care!

Jerome took over the family estate 20 years ago, in 1999, and promptly stopped selling to the local co-op and began bottling wine himself. He quickly converted his vineyards to organic farming and, while raising three children, gradually acquired small vineyard plots in select sites across the Cotes de Beaune.

Today his children are mostly grown and one son, Louis, is a budding winegrower working in the cellars at Domaine Romanee-Conti (on his days off, he helps Jerome work the family’s vineyards and is learning how to use Rafael the horse to reduce the use of tractors within the vines).

Dom Billard signElisabeth and Jerome of BillardBut the winegrowing philosophy has remained constant.

Low-Impact, Meticulous Farming: All of Billard’s vineyards are farmed organically with no chemical insecticides, fertilizers or herbicides. In four vineyards, plowing and mowing are done by horse, rather than tractor, to limit soil compactions. The vines are tightly pruned to limit fruit set and bunches are dropped while green to keep yields low.

Focus on Freshness: Jerome loves ripe fruit – but not over-ripe fruit. He picks each site to achieve fine balance of fruit flavors and acidity and then full destems and sorts grape by grape to ensure that only perfect berries make it into the wine.

Gently, Gently: Chardonnay is pressed slow and gently to extract pure juice with no bitterness from the skins or seeds. Pinot Noir goes into the fermenters as whole berries, and then are trod by foot to release the juice and extract color and structure with soft, supple, tannins. As much as possible, the young wine moves through the winery via gravity or air pressure to minimize harsh pumping.

Judicious Oak: Great Burgundy needs time in barrel and the finest, most concentrated, wines need at least a little new oak to achieve balance, finesse and complexity. But Jerome knows that too much wood flavor means that the unique signature of site and vintage can easily be overwhelmed. The whites all ferment and age in barrel, while the reds all see barrel for aging. But the quality of barrel is very high, the toast levels low, and the percentage of new oak kept down so each wine’s character and fruit can shine through.

Generosity, Drinkability, and Unmistakably Burgundy
Folks, these are seriously good Burgundies that you don’t have to be “serious” to enjoy. Highly recommended. Get ’em.

Billard Justice and santenay les hates

Petra Toscana: ‘The Fascinating Story of a Feminine Trip’

Francesca MorettiFrancesca Moretti likes to say that the entire Petra project is “the fascinating story of a feminine trip.”

Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister and Grand Duchess of Tuscany, was the first to plant vines in this part of the Tuscan Coast. Her original five-hectare plot of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese is planted to those same varietals today and her herb and flower garden, now called the “Princess’s Garden,” has been restored using the 19th Century map prepared by historical botanist Paolo Tomei from the University of Siena.

The vineyards had been long abandoned with then 19-year-old Francesca Moretti took a break from her studies towards a veterinary degree to drive to Bordeaux with her father. Upon passing through the rolling hills and seaside vistas of the Suvereto district in Maremma, she fell in love. The rest, as they say, is history.

Matching Soil to Grapes
The vineyards were meticulously planted at the foot of Maremma’s Colline Metallifere hills, the “metal-bearing hills” mined from Etruscan times through the 19th Century. Francesca Moretti and her father, Vittorio, analyzed each plot of the 300 hectare estate for soil type, exposition, and exposure to the cooling breezes coming off the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea.

Where appropriate, the red, iron-rich soils were matched to both French grapes – Syrah, Cabernets, Merlot, Petit Verdot – and Tuscany’s own Sangiovese. The remaining two-thirds of the property was planted to olives or left wild to support the natural population of deer, boars, porcupines, hedgehogs, badgers, foxes, kestrels, buzzards and owls.

A few years ago, then Wine Advocate Italian critic Antonio Galloni wrote that

“Petra is one of my favorite properties for intense, flavorful wines from the Suvereto district in Maremma,” and he later added, “I rarely hear Petra mentioned in a discussion of the best wines and wineries from the Tuscan coast, but year after year the wines are reliably outstanding and fairly priced. … The house style is one of bold, exuberant wines.”

Many of you loved the 2015 Petra Toscana Zingari we featured last year, taking it home by the box-full when we first offered and then coming back for more and more while it lasted. When the huge ratings and Wine Spectator Top 100 award for the 2017 came out late last year, the 2017 was still awaiting release in Italy and demand soared (and the winery took a price increase, too). Last year, we brought you 52 cases of the 2015. And 52 cases is all we were allocated for this even more stunning 2017 vintage.

The 2017 edition of Petra Toscana Zingari is pretty much everything you’d hope for in a $50 prestige bottling. At $17.98 by the bottle or $16.98/ea by the case, this is an order all you can and then rush down to pick it up via our contactless curbside pick-up or enjoy our expanded free delivery service to addresses in Arlington, Falls Church, Vienna, Tysons, McLean and Great Falls.

Moving Toward the South Pole: Malbec from Patagonia

Today’s featured Malbecs from Bodega Noemia give us a chance to continue our exploration of Argentina, but from a new perspective, moving from Mendoza down to Patagonia.

Differently Delicious!
Bodegas Noemia A Lisa and EstateThese Malbecs are also delicious, but differently delicious from the traditional Mendoza Malbec you’ve come to know over the years. In part that’s about place, specifically the Rio Negre region of Patagonia, about 525 miles to the south of Mendoza.

As you’d expect, moving so much closer to the South Pole brings cooler temperatures here than you’d find in Mendoza, although the drop in altitude from 3,000+ feet to around 800 feet elevation and copious amounts of sunshine means that the grapes still get plenty ripe. But the cool days and limestone rich soils match Malbec’s ripe raspberry and cherry fruit with a brisk and freshening dose of acidity. At just 13.5% alcohol and with only 40% seeing barrel (all old), it’s vibrant, juicy, and supremely food friendly.

Bodega Noemi’s Hans Vinding Diers
Hans Vinding-DiersThe other secret here is a truly great winegrower. Hans Vinding-Diers learned his craft with his cousin, Peter Sisseck of Pingus fame and while making benchmark Brunello di Montalcino at Argiano. He and Argiano’s then owner, Contessa Noemi Marone Cinzano, fell in love with the Rio Negre’s climate, beauty and chalky limestone soils when Hans came to the region to consult for another winery in 1998.

In 2000, Hans found a small plot of Malbec planted in 1932 and jumped at the chance to purchase it and found Bodega Noemia.

Hans has expanded his vineyard holding beyond that tiny plot and purchases some fruit from organically farming local neighbors and uses that plus his younger vines of Malbec plus 9% Merlot and 1% Petit Verdot to make A Lisa.

And the original, pre- phylloxera, 88 year-old vines? Those go into the Estate Malbec. We have a little of that available, too, and it’s the most delicious and compelling Malbec I’ve ever tasted. Splurge a bit on a bottle or two (you can mix/match with A Lisa for best prices) and get ready to be thrilled.