A ‘Primer’ on Barolo

Our recent offering of Vietti’s latest vintage of Castiglione, a double 94 point blend of multiple Barolo vineyards (or “Crus” as they’re called there), got us thinking about Barolo’s history, how it grew to be more like Burgundy, along with questions about aging and the 2015 vintage, so it seemed like a good time to offer a little ‘primer’ on the subject!

What is Barolo?
Barolo the name of a town, of a small slice of a wine region, of the larger wine region, and of one of the world’s most profound and cellar-worthy red wines. The town is perched on a hilltop in Italy’s Piemonte region, south of Turin and not far from Alba – a pretty spot with lovely views of vineyards running up and down the steep hills surrounding it. The vineyards around the town of Barolo and those of nearby La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, and Monforte d’Alba make up the wine region named for the town.

Barolo and Map

While the vineyards across Barolo are planted to a variety of red grapes, the undisputed king of Piemonte grapes – and the only grape allowed in the wine “Barolo” – is Nebbiolo. And, like all royalty, Nebbiolo can be a bit of a prima donna.

Pampering the Royal Grape to Wine
Nebbiolo.jpgNebbiolo can’t stand wet feet, so it only thrives on loose-grained soils that drain water freely. It refuses to move quickly, taking up to 20% more days on the vine to ripen vs, say, Pinot Noir, so it needs to grow someplace where spring frosts are over early, summers are hot (but not too hot), and autumns are sunny, comfortable, and dry. And, as Jancis Robinson writes, “it is worth planting Nebbiolo only on south- or south-west-facing slopes at an altitude somewhere between 250 and 450 m (820 and 1500 ft) as there is no chance of making decent wine from this late-ripening variety if it is not exposed to maximum sunshine.”

So Barolo Nebbiolo buds early and hangs on the vine until late September, October, or even November. Then it has to be picked by hand – because the vineyards are too steep for machines – by workers who spend hours trudging up and down hills carrying buckets, baskets and bins of grapes to be hauled off to the winery.

Where more fun ensues. Because while Nebbiolo can make great wine, it insists that winemakers work for it. The grape is jam-packed with acidity, one of the reasons growers have to wait so long to pick so that the grapes will develop enough alcohol to balance the acidic tang. The skins are relatively low in color, so winemakers need to regularly pump over or “punch down” the fermenting rapes to get enough pigment in the wine to support aging and protect from oxidization.

But the skin and seeds are very high in tannin – the long-chain protein that makes your mouth pucker and feel dry when drinking young red wine or strong black tea. So all that work pulling out color also pulls out the firm, drying, tannins that make just-fermented Nebbiolo feel unbelievably, almost painfully, dry and astringent.

When exposed to oxygen, those tannins will “polymerize” – or stick to other tannins or wine pigment – and either become less aggressive or even get so big that they precipitate out of the wine. But exposing the wine to lots of oxygen can cause the fruit flavors to fade and make the wine turn brown. What to do?

Nebbiolo barrelsThe Barolo solution is to age the young wines for a long time – usually about 30 months – in wood casks that let just a trickle of air in through the barrels’ pores. The casks can be really big and old, so the process is slow and very little wood flavor enters the wine. Or they can be more “normal” size and new, which tends to lock in color (it’s a new wood thing) and soften the tannins faster – but adds noticeable oak flavor that can obscure Nebbiolo’s beauty.

So most Barolo winemakers use a mixture of wood vessels to try to get the best of both worlds and then regularly “rack” the wine – gently pumping it from one barrel to another – to add a little extra oxygen and speed the process along. Then into bottle…where the wine usually rests for another year or so before release to let it soften a bit more.

What’s Barolo Like to Drink – and When?
Mature Barolo – wine that’s rested long enough in bottle to allow the tannins to soften and some new aromas and flavors to develop – is one of the wine world’s most beautiful and captivating treats.

When you pour a glass, you’ll notice that it’s much less dark and opaque than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, with an often translucent ruby red color and some orange highlights at the rim. If the light color makes you think you’re about to try a light wine…WRONG! Getting Nebbiolo ripe enough to balance its acidity means letting the alcohol rise to 14% and higher, so Barolo always has plenty of body. And when you put it in your mouth – even if it’s older – you’ll get a big punch of tangy cherry juice acids up front and grippy, dusty, at least lightly mouth-puckering, tannins on the end.

But before that first sip, take a moment to give it a sniff. You’ll be rewarded with big, beautiful, utterly captivating aromas (one of the reasons Barolo is so often compared to red Burgundy is it’s glorious perfume). On both the nose and palate, you’ll discover a beguiling blend of cherry, raspberry and strawberry fruit, hints of licorice, leather and chocolate, floral scents like violets, earthy notes like mushroom or white truffle, perhaps a dash of white pepper and cured tobacco. And, in the best wines, Barolo’s aromatic and flavor signature: tar and roses.

Traditionally, though, you couldn’t actually hope for all those flavor and aromatic fireworks until at least 10 years after the vintage (and often longer). Because old-style Barolo went into bottle with so much acidity and so very, very, much grippy, astringent, palate-closing, tannin that it wasn’t just yummy to drink young – it was often positively painful.

Something of a Revolution
Fortunately, Barolo has undergone something of a revolution over the past 20 years. As Antonio Galloni explained about the 2010s (a more structured, tannic vintage than the 2015s):

“These aren’t your father’s (or mother’s) Barolos. In other words, the wines won’t take decades to become approachable. Significant strides in viticulture and winemaking have made today’s young Barolos more approachable than they have ever been. For example, the 2008 Barolos, wines from another cool, late-maturing vintage, are surprisingly open today. Those wines may close down at some point in the future, but the days of needing to cellar Barolos for decades before they drink well is largely a thing of the past. The last vintage I can remember with truly forbidding youthful tannins is 1999.”

And the 2015s, benefitting from a lovely, warm, growing season and still more winegrower experience is more accessible still. As Wine Advocate reported, Barolo’s vintage 2015 offers “plenty of options for those seeking wines to drink early and to those who have room in their cellars to age a few bottles for longer periods.”

There are three keys to enjoying 2015 Barolo young:

  1. pick the right wine;
  2. decant the wine for the proper amount of time; and
  3. matching it up with the right food.

Vietti Castiglione.jpgNo question – Vietti’s Barolo Castiglione 2015 is “the right wine,” with a perfect blend of Barolo aging potential and immediate accessibility. The right amount of time? Answering that question requires a bit of experimentation. Which we’ve done for you!

How Long to Decant?
We poured a bottle of Vietti Barolo Castiglione 2015 into a decanter at 9:30 am in the morning and then tasted it right away and over the next four hours. At first pour it showed a nice perfume and good flavors, although the fruit aromas were a bit obscured by notes of spice and tobacco and the flavors cut a little short by the very firm, if silky and ripe, tannins.

At three hours, the tannins had turned more chalky and were sticking to our teeth a bit. The wine was starting to show some browning of color and flavors with the fruit taking on a deep, earthy, note, some truffle/underbrush character emerging, and the fruit showing as a dark bass note. But the aromas had fallen off sharply, turning very reticent and lacking much interest. The glass sampled at four hours was pretty much the same, but more so.

The delicious sweet spot for the wine was from one hour after decanting until hour three. The perfume really peaked right around hour 1, showing stunning lift, intensity and complexity and a perfect mix of fruit, flowers and earth. Then, over the next hour (as the nose quieted a bit), the fruit got bigger, sweeter, and more prominent with plenty of complexity from notes of summer violets, perfumed roses, licorice root, and sweet spice.

Conclusion: decant this about an hour before you sit down at table so it shows maximum perfume from first pour and then enjoy over the next couple of hours as the fruit gains breadth, richness and volume before turning mellow, spicy and truffled towards the end of your last glass.

Pairing Barolo with Food
And what should be on your plate while drinking Vietti Barolo Castiglione? Something savory, perhaps even a little earthy, with a good balance of acidity, salt, fat, and protein (all of which help soften tannins). Some options:

  • Grilled beef, mushroom risotto, green beans braised with tomato
  • Any feathered game bird (partridge, squab, duck) with wild rice and mushroom stuffing and a touch of lemon zest
  • Beef carpaccio or cruda with truffle, olive oil, salt and lemon zest
  • Any rich red wine braised beef dish topped with a gremolata
  • Milder, salty, cheeses like Robiola, Grana Padano, or Toma

All of these pairing let young Barolo’s tannins and acidity work for you, offsetting the richness of the dish, while adding savory, earthy, flavors that bring out those aspects of the wine.

Conclusion
Barolo isn’t cheap. But in a world where the top wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy routinely cost $100-$300+, the Nebbiolos of Piemonte still offer the chance to cellar and drink great wines at a price that can fairly be called a “reasonable splurge.” Give ‘em a try!

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An American in Burgundy

An American in Burgundy

Mark O'Connell Clos de la Chapelle

Kansas native Mark O’Connell

If you haven’t heard of Burgundy’s Domaine Clos de la Chapelle before, it’s because:  a) it’s a new name for a very old estate; and b) there’s very little wine! But it’s a name you should get to know and come to rely on for top-notch Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at decidedly affordable prices.

Kansas native Mark O’Connell fell in love with Burgundy years ago and, in 2005, purchased a barrel of wine at the famed Hospices de Beaune auction. As part of the deal, Mark came to Burgundy to work harvest – something he continued doing through 2010.

From Working Harvest to Owning Vineyards
Then, as the 2010 harvest wrapped up, Pierre Meurgey, then president of Beaune négociant Champy, asked Mark if he’d be interested in helping Champy purchase some new vineyards. Working with lawyer Philippe Remoissenet, they bought the historic Louis Boillot estate and its 3.1 acres of vines in Volnay and Pommard. They renamed the domaine for its most famous vineyard, the Volnay monopole of Clos de la Chapelle, and made their first vintage from vine to bottle in 2011.

Mark is now the managing partner and, from vintage 2017, the winemaker as well. He’s added to the Domaine’s vineyards, growing to a total of 10 acres of vines in Pommard, Volnay, Beaune and on the Grand Cru hill of Corton. All of the holdings are 1er or Grand Cru designated, and Mark farms them all like Grand Crus, pruning tightly to limit yields, working organically (certified), and transitioning to biodynamics.

Organic, Biodynamic, Meticulous.
And the farming and winemaking are meticulous. All of his vineyards are organic and biodynamic, with three annual plowings replacing herbicides and simple applications of copper, sulfur, and biodynamic homeopathic sprays replacing all other chemicals. The vines are pruned to only four shoots to limit yields and the fruit is handpicked and carefully sorted before fermentation with native yeasts. The reds see a little whole cluster for added spice and structure, and all the wines age in 20-35% new French oak to round off and gain more depth.

Brand New Winery, Old-Fashioned Work
Clos de la ChapelleFor vintage 2017, Mark moved the Domaine into a brand new, squeaky-clean winery but continued working in his restrained, oldfashioned way. While many of Mark’s vineyards naturally give fairly ripe, rich wines, the estate’s goal is to “obtain the purest wines possible.” The grapes are all picked and sorted by hand to ensure only prime, perfect, fruit goes into fermenters. The reds see 10-20% whole clusters depending on the vintage, and both reds and whites ferment with native yeasts and age in a modest 10-25% new oak (a touch higher in 2017 due to the need to purchase new barrels for the inaugural vintage of the new winery).

Three Clos de la Chapelle BurgudiesSmall Quantities, Restrained Pricing.
While Mark certainly doesn’t want to lose money – something that’s been hard to avoid in recent short-crop vintages! – he’s certainly been much more restrained on pricing than most of his neighbors. And that’s especially impressive given the tiny production levels here – only 1,500 cases total and down to as little as 75-375 cases each of the wines we’re featuring.

In vintage 2017 – a year that gave vivid, pure whites and wide-open and easy to love reds – Mark’s approach delivered a captivating set of white and red Burgundies you are sure to love.

At our special sale, six-bottle, and mix/match case pricing, all of these Dom Clos de la Chapelle wines represent outstanding value. And while all will develop nicely in cellar, each wine is a delight to taste and drink today. As you’ll see when you come by to try them this Friday (3-7pm) and Saturday (noon-4pm)!

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!

billard-doug-and-horse.jpg

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
In the open, attractive, delicious vintage 2017, this gave Billard a set of wines that have a lovely sense of generosity and drinkability but that remain unmistakably “Burgundy.” And in 2018, when ripeness levels are higher, his restraint produced cuvees of outstanding depth with no loss of finesse and freshness.

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

Falanghina and Aglianico: A New Appreciation for Campania’s Native Grapes

doug-in-italy-.jpgI’m just back from a week in Italy, mostly in Campania, and in addition to six pounds of extra girth, I’ve come back with a new and much deeper appreciation of two of Campania’s native grapes: Falanghina (white) and Aglianico (red).

And a very deep appreciation of the outstanding work done by brothers Giuseppe and Libero Rillo at Fontanavecchia!

Over 2000 Years of Vineyards
The estate’s vineyards have been the source of fine wine for more than two thousand years. First planted to grapes like Falanghina and Aglianico by Greek colonists, the hillside vineyards of Taburno were the source of ancient Rome’s most important wines including the famed Falernum.  Red Falernum was probably made from Aglianico; white from Falanghina (or, possibly, Greco – we’re not sure!).

Libero Rillo’s ancestors have grown grapes here for hundreds of years and started what would become Fontanavecchia in the late 19th Century.  His father began bottling and selling wine with that label some 30 years ago, but it was Giuseppe and Libero who took the estate to new heights over the past 15 years.

Quality in the Vineyards
As in all great wine, the quality starts in the vineyards.  The estate’s 18 hectares of vines grow on the slopes of rolling hills covered in argillaceous soils – fine, powdery, and very old marine sediments that become thick and a bit gooey with rain but shed water quickly before the vines can take up too much. The Rillo family keeps yields low by careful pruning and green harvesting as necessary, and the region’s warm, sunny days followed by surprisingly chilly nights delivers wonderful ripeness and generosity of fruit matched by crisp acids and, for red Aglianico, firm, chewy, tannins.

Winemaking is simple and clean.  The whites are gently pressed and fermented cool in tank with some later harvested whites seeing a short stay in used cask.  The red Aglianico is allowed to ferment warmer with gently pump-overs to extract color and flavor and then given several years in barrel to soften and mature.

Ready to Drink … and to Age
Libero believes in releasing wines when they are ready to drink, which means fairly early for the white Falanghina del Sannio but years after harvest for his Aglianico.  But, make no mistake: these wines age wonderfully well.  At the generous (and 3 hour long!) “light” dinner and tasting we had at the winery, Libero showed us whites back to vintage 2001 that were mature but still vibrant, full of freshness, and utterly delicious.  And the 2001 Aglianico we discovered on a restaurant wine list (for just 30 Euro!) the day before was gloriously complex and delicious and still had plenty of time to go.

While Fontanavecchia makes more “important” wines, the “base” Aglianico del Taburno and Falanghina del Sannio were the bottlings I found most satisfying and exciting.  The Aglianico outperforms its 90 point rating (and crazy low price) by a good bit.  And the white may be the best they’ve ever made – which is saying something about a wine that has already earned more Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri awards than any other Campania Falanghina!

As the summer goes on, we’ll be bringing you several more of my favorite wines of this delicious trip.  But none will have better quality-price-ratios (QPR) than these.  Grab them while you can!

Grand Cru Quality from the Heart of Provence

Dom d'eole wineryThe superb quality of Provence’s 2015 and 2016 vintages demands serious attention, perhaps more serious than any of us have given it in the past.

Our guide to the great wines of France, importer Olivier Daubresse introduced many of you to the wines of Domaine d’Eole over 15 years ago. Since then, we’ve featured them in emails, stacked them on the floor, put them on the shelves, and taken special joy in using older vintages in special tastings and dinners to show off how well they age. And, because Olivier purchased huge amounts of outstanding vintages like 1999, 2001, and 2003, (all of which have continued to improve with time) we haven’t needed to work with new vintages over the past 3-4 years.

But the combination of great vintages plus big ratings from Wine Advocate encourages us to jump on these relatively young wines before the rest of the world catches on.

You may have tried Dom d’Eole wines in the past; perhaps the pretty, fruity pink, the fresh and earthy red, or even – in past vintages – the lightly exotic white. But you have never tasted d’Eole wines – heck, any Provençal wines –  like Dom D-Eole’s Cuvee Lea and Cuvee “S.”

Ecocert Organic Certified
eco-cert.jpgSome background. Domaine d’Eole sits in the heart of the Provence, south of Avignon and northwest of Aix-en-Provence, at the base of the low Chaîne des Alpilles mountain range. The Alpilles block some of the Mistral wind’s intensity – the fan is set to “medium” here rather than “high” – but still allow for some cool air from the Mediterranean Sea – 25 miles south – to reach the vineyards.

What doesn’t reach the vineyards is a lot of rain, and what rain that does fall drains quickly through the complex, very ancient limestone soils. The vines drive their roots deep for nutrients and water, and the alternating hot and cool, but always dry climate is perfect for farming without chemical additives, pesticides, or sprays.

The estate’s first and only winemaker – German-born Matthias Wimmer – pointed towards organic farming from the estate’s founding in 1992 and achieved Ecocert Organic Certification in 1996. That same year, French financier Christian Raimont purchased d’Eole and enabled Matthias to invest in a state-of-the-art winery and maintain his commitment to organics and ultra-low yields.

Seriously Small Crop Farming
Dom Eole vineyard

And about those yields. The Coteaux d’Aix en Provence appellation is most famous for its rosé wines and the farming rules here are built on the assumption that fresh, fruity, and pink is about all that’s required for success. So, vineyards in this rugged, non-irrigated region can go all the way up to 60 hectoliters per hectare, a level that’s normally achieved by letting the vines groan under the weight of berries and not worrying about getting everything ripe – after all, you’re just making pink wine, right?

At Domaine d’Eole, things are more serious. For both red and white wines, the goal is perfect ripeness with plenty of intensity and structure. In the winter, vines are pruned severely, limiting the number of fruit-bearing buds that can form in the spring. Then, the “second crop” that forms in late spring is removed and the main crop adjusted by “green harvesting” – cutting off grape bunches – to ensure that each vine is balanced and prepared to deliver ripe grapes. Last, during harvest, trained harvesters inspect each grape bunch, leaving any that aren’t fully ripe and perfect condition on the ground to rot and, eventually, feed next year’s crop.

Across the d’Eole vineyards, then, the maximum yield Wimmer and Raimont allow to ripen and reach the winery is 30 hectoliters per hectare – half of the legal crop. And, for these wines, yields are lower still, as low as 20 hectoliters per hectare for Cuvee Lea.

Grand Cru-Level Winemaking
Having grown, harvested, and brought to the winery perfect (and expensive!) grapes, winemaker Wimmer treats this, the best of his harvest, with the kind of care normally found in only much more expensive wines from much more famous regions.

The luxurious Grenache and Syrah used for Dom d’Eole’s Cuvee Lea are crushed and go into large cement vats. Temperature control units allow the must to reach a moderate 78-80 degrees – perfect for extracting color and tannin without bitterness or damage to fruit flavors – and then hold that temperature for 18 days. Two or three times daily during the time in vat, Wimmer uses gentle pumps to pull fermenting wine up from the bottom of the tank and pour it over the cap, extracting still more color and intensity.

After fermentation, Cuvee Lea is a bit of a beast, so Wimmer racks the wine into expensive French oak barriques and lets it rest there for a year to soften, round out, gain richness, and prepare for final blending. After blending, the wine gets a six-month rest in cement tanks to integrate and soften a touch more before bottling. It then rests again in bottle in the cellar.

The Newest Direction
Concrete eggDom d-Eole’s Cuvee S Syrah is part of the estate’s newest direction, working to match their all-natural, organic farming with more natural and minimal intervention winemaking. After fermentation, some of the vineyard’s finest Syrah goes into a unique, egg-shaped tank made of untreated concrete.

The egg-shape encourages a natural circulation, mixing the fine lees (dead yeast cells) left after fermentation with the wine to provide a creamier, more complex, texture. And slightly porous concrete allows in a touch of oxygen – like barrels do – to soften the wine’s firm tannins but not add any oaky spice or vanilla flavors.

The Best of Provence?
With Provençal rosé so successful these days, it’s hardly surprising that most estates and growers can’t be bothered to make the investment, do the work, and take the time to make wines like these. Unless you’ve had previous vintages of Domaine d’Eole’s Cuvee Lea, then it’s very unlikely you’ve ever had Provençal wine of this quality and style.

You can find Dom d-Eole’s wines on our website here.

d-eole label collage1

A Labor of Love: Willamette’s Walter Scott Wines

A good friend and customer introduced us to Walter Scott wines a few years ago, 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. That led us to see what others were saying.

Here’s what Wine Advocate said after tasting Walter Scott’s 2012 releases:

“When I am asked if there were any “great discoveries” in Oregon, I would mention “Walter Scott Wines” without hesitation. This is a small bijou operation run by Ken Pahlow and Erica Landon and 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.” Neal Martin, Wine Advocate, March 2015

Two years later, after visiting with Ken and Erica again and trying their 2014s, Martin was even more impressed:

“And bloody good they are as well. I just like how Ken and Erica roll – nothing fancy, no blockbuster or pretentiousness – just killer Pinot Noir with purity, intensity and personality…That leaves me to say if you have not tried these wines yet, do yourself a favor.” Neal Martin, Wine Advocate, June 2016

And the wines keep getting better and better!

Deep Experience in the Willamette
Walter Scott Ken and EricaWalter 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 becoming a wine instructor for the trade.

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.

Vineyard Focus
willamettevalleyFirst, 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.

Complexity from an Old-Fashioned Harvest
Second, in these climate change days, ripeness is pretty easy to achieve – but complexity can be harder. So Ken monitors all of his vineyards as a single unit, tasting and testing the grapes until he’s confident that all his blocks and clones are about 95% “there.” And then he picks. The mixture of some under ripe, some over ripe, and mostly perfectly ripe grapes of all different clones gives Walter Scott wines an extra layer of complexity and integration and phenomenal depth and freshness.

I remember tasting these wines from barrel in February 2018 and hearing Ken call them “Perfectly pleasant wines.” Which proves that winemakers are as inept at evaluating the quality of young wine in barrel as are critics (and retailers) – because the bottled 2017s from Walter Scott are simply stupid good.

Last year, Willamette Valley legend Ken Wright wrote that vintage 2017 produced “Wines that are quickly agreeable. 2017 was a throwback to the classic vintages we have experienced over 30 plus years in the Willamette Valley. … This is a year that reminds me of 1988, which aged so effortlessly (and is still amazing), though this year has more power and concentration.”

That’s my – and now Ken and Erica’s! – assessment of the 2017 vintage as well. These are delicious wines you’ll be able to drink right away for their purity, fresh fruit, and food-friendly structures. But don’t drink them all right away! Because – like the 1988s that are still going strong nearly 30 years after harvest – these beautiful 2017 Walter Scott wines have plenty left to give after time in a cool cellar.

The Young Master of Verdicchio

riccardo baldi la staffa

Now 30 year-old Riccardo Baldi grew up in the hilltop town of Staffolo in Italy’s Marche region, not far from the Adriatic sea. It’s a town where, as he says, “everyone makes wine, because we have 2,000 people and about 20 wineries.”

His parents established a family winery in 1994, and Riccardo worked harvest and in the winery growing up but left Staffolo to study engineering after high school. He quickly realized that wine was in his blood.

Verdicchio: Worthy of Fine Wine Status
la staffa vineyard and signHe returned to Staffolo and apprenticed himself to Lucio Canestrari of Fattoria Corncino, the winemaker who was among the first to show that the Marche’s Verdicchio grape was worthy of fine wine status (and not just something to be served to tourists in fish-shaped bottles). Eventually, Riccardo asked his parents for 2 HA of vineyards to try his own approach to winegrowing – organic farming, picking just ripe enough, and making wine simply to emphasize Staffolo’s uniquely calcium-rich and very old soils.

He was successful, rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the Marche’s most exciting young winemakers. Today, he and his parents have expanded La Staffa to cover 10 hectares, all at around 1,500 feet elevation, exposed to breezes from the Adriatic Sea, and lying on Staffolo’s uniquely ancient soils.

Where Vines Struggle …
la staffa vineyardRiccardo farms about 10 HA of vines in the Marche’s Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi zone, not far inland from the Adriatic Sea at around 1500 feet elevation. Riccardo’s vines grow on uplifted marine sedimentary soils that are around four million years older than most of the region. With their high concentration of calcium carbonate – up to four times other nearby locations – Riccardo’s vines have to struggle extra hard and deliver a unique salty sea-shell minerality.

To capture that minerality, Riccardo farms his vines organically and by hand, picks on the early side, and ferments and ages this wine in cool stainless steel tanks. The result is a wine with lovely nectarine and stone fruit flavors and a good dose of Verdicchio’s classic lavender, fennel and bitter almond complexity, all supported by crisp acids and salty seashell minerality.

Overlooked by the Critics
Despite the growing reputation of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Riccardo’s own talent, these are wines that consistently get overlooked by the major wine critics – probably a good thing for us! But the last vintage of this wine did get a little attention from Ian d’Agata at Vinous who rated it 91 points and described it like this:

“Nectarine, dried orange peel, walnut and fresh white flowers are lifted by a minty topnote; a hint of volatile acidity blows off with aeration. Glyceral and fruit-driven on the palate, with flavors of stone fruit nectar and lime framed and lifted by harmonious acidity. Very long and refreshing on the aftertaste.” Vinous 91 points (for vintage 2016).

The 2017 edition is better still, with even more drive and intensity to match a richness and complexity that’s been building since it first arrived last July. The past year in bottle has seen the wine unwind a bit more with the fruit, fennel and sea shell aspects gaining breadth, the texture picking up weight, and the tangy lime zest acidity keep on going strong.

It will certainly shine with shellfish and seafood of all kinds and with ripe cheese and grilled vegetables as well.

And it’s also fun to drink solo as a refreshing break from a warm summer’s day. It’s open this week for tasting. Check it out on our website!