The Hardest Working Team in Burgundy

Jean Michel and Alexis GuillonWe’ve spilled a lot of electronic ink and killed plenty of digital trees telling you about Jean-Michel Guillon over the years. By this point, most of you know that this is one of the hardest working, most talented, and least compromising winegrowers in all of Burgundy. He and his son Alexis work the vineyards themselves (especially in August, when other winemakers take vacation just as the vines reach their most critical stage).

Want to see what that work looks like? Take a look at this video on the recently updated Guillon website for a drone’s eye view of the vineyards and vintage 2016 harvest!

They demand nothing less that perfectly ripe fruit, which allows them to make long, slow, intense fermentations running three to five weeks – extracting tons of flavor and only the most suave, ripe tannins.

Then they age their wines in the finest French oak money can buy. After Domaine Romanee-Conti and the Hospices de Beaune, Jean-Michel and Alexis are the single biggest buyers of new French oak in Burgundy ever year. Where growers who pick less ripe fruit and extract less during fermentation can find new oak overwhelm their wines, Guillon’s juice is so intense and deep that it needs the softening only new oak can give and absorbs the woody flavors with ease.

A Frigid Tragedy
The extra time and effort Jean-Michel and Alexis put in tending their vines pays off every year, but never more than in 2016. Hours and hours working their vineyards allowed them to counter the intense mildew pressure running through the season, leave their grapes out on the vine until fully ripe, and then bring in a crop of impeccable cleanliness and purity.

But, no amount of farming work could counter the tragedy of April 26-27. The sun set on the 26h on what had been a pretty, if humid, day. Then a front moved through, temperatures plummeted, and cold air poured down valleys and combes and enveloped the vines. By dawn a thick frost lay on the vines across Burgundy. As the sun came up and clouds cleared, bright sunlight refracted through the ice, burning the partially frozen grapes. And even where the berries survived, leaves crumpled and ultimately dropped to the ground, depriving vines of the engine needed to ripen their fruit.

By the end of the day on April 27, Jean-Michel and Alexis had lost about half of their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir crop for the vintage. Despite constant attention to the vines, still more of the crop was lost to mildew during the humid days of May and June. But fine weather returned from July through harvest in September, meaning that the small crop of grapes that had survived the spring ripened to wonderful perfection. As you’ll see for yourself when you taste these two wines, the first 2016s from Domaine Guillon we’ll present this year.

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A Look at Willamette Valley Pinot Vintages

willamettevalleyThere are places in the world where vintage doesn’t matter – or at least, where most vintages are fairly similar and differences can be slight and hard to taste in your glass. Oregon’s Willamette Valley is not one of those places! No other top American wine region sees so much variation year-to-year in temperature, rainfall, crop loads, and timing. And, of course, no red grape more clearly reflects its place and growing season than the Willamette Valley’s signature vine, Pinot Noir.

I first got acquainted with Oregon Pinot Noir through the 2006s and I’ve had the pleasure to learn about every vintage since through extensive tasting and in-depth conversation with winemakers up and down the Willamette Valley. Here’s a quick summary of what to expect from harvests 2006 – 2016:

2006 – A hot, ripe, rich year that Wine Spectator rated 92 points overall and Wine Advocate 91 points. Many winemakers didn’t love the vintage, thinking the wines were too ripe, rich and lush. And there certainly are some wines that show dried, pruney flavors or under-ripe tannins that are sticking out now. I liked many 2006s on release and have been impressed by the dozen or so I’ve had over the past couple of years. Few are refined, but sites that usually deliver good structure and/or winemakers using whole clusters made wines that are holding up nicely in a fleshy, generous style.

2007 – A really challenging year that has turned out more good wines than anyone would have expected tasting right after the harvest. Cool, rainy weather early in the season set up disease pressure right away, especially given the large crop that set. A warm season had growers pretty excited, but waves of rain crossed the valley in September and October. Growers tried to pick between the bands of rain, but the wines they made felt light and even thin on release. Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate rated the vintage 84 points. But tasting the 2007s in the summer of 2013, it became obvious that the best wines are picking up weight and showing plenty of flavor. I’m skeptical many are going to get better, but there’s lots of pleasure to be had right now.

2008 – The first consensus “great vintage” of the past decade, a year Spectator rated 96 and Advocate 94. Spring was late and cool, summer was cool, but the sun came out in early September and stayed out until well after all the grapes were bubbling away. The critical praise and fleshy, even weighty, character of many wines made this a breakthrough vintage in terms of consumer awareness and demand for Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. I was impressed … but 10 years on, I’m less sure. Like Burgundy 2005 and Bordeaux 2000 and Barolo 2006, these wines are slow to open up and overall don’t show as much delineation and complexity as I wish they did. Perhaps it’s just too soon.

2009 – I can’t for the life of me understand why 2009 gets such a bum rap. It was warmer than 2008 and the wines were fleshier, full of riper flavors, and came in with a bit more alcohol. But the year is divisive, with the Spectator offering a tepid 90-point assessment (“Supple structures, bold flavors”) and the Advocate 86 points. True, if your ideal of Pinot Noir is a high acid, fresh, firmly structured wine that can live for years in cellar, then 2009 is not for you. But if you want a great tasting bottle of wine you can share with folks who aren’t Pinot-fiends, 2009 punches your ticket quite well. Some are at or even a bit past peak. But wineries that use whole-cluster fermentation to add spice and structure or wines from sites that give a lot of structure will keep on shining for a while yet.

2010 – The first in a pair of extremely cool vintages that produced extreme challenges for growers and winemakers. But both 2010 and 2011 delivered some absolutely amazing wines for fans of more elegant, nuanced, and perfumed Pinot. The combination of a warm winter (meaning an early start), hot mid-summer, and cool late-season meant that growers had to drop a lot of fruit to get ripeness. And, just as the fruit was getting really tasty, huge flocks of migratory birds flew through Oregon, noticed the sweet fruit, and decided to hang out for a while. Stories of growers sleeping in the vineyards so they could wake up and fire shotguns to scare off the birds abound. Still, this was the smallest harvest since 2005. The wines are stellar (WS rates the vintage 94 points while WA comes in at a head-scratching 88). Alcohols are low, fruit flavors well developed, and there’s plenty of acid and tannin to support aging. This is many winemakers’ and professionals’ favorite vintage of this sequence.

2011 – After a cloudy, cool (even cold) growing season when both sunshine and warmth were in short supply  and after dropping half (or more!) of the small crop that set in the spring, many Willamette Valley winegrowers stood in their vineyards in early September thinking, “Well, at least I won’t have to pay a harvest crew this year – because there’s not going to be anything ripe enough to pick!” Then the sun came out and, while it never got really warm, it also didn’t get cold right on through November. This is the lightest colored, lowest-alcohol, and highest acid vintage of this set. The wines were tart (or even sour) on release, but if you paid attention, you could see the brilliantly tangy fruit hiding down deep. I love this vintage, but the better wines are still not ready. At age 10, though, they are going to be simply stunning. An 85 point vintage per Wine Spectator; 90 from the Advocate (whose Oregon reviewer at the time also covers German Riesling – which should give you an idea about what this harvest is all about).

2012 – Easy to sum up 2012: the most perfect growing season ever in the Willamette Valley. The sun shone when it was supposed to, it got just hot enough and then just cool enough, and then it didn’t start to rain until long after all the plump and pleasing grapes were bubbling away in wineries. A Wine Spectator 97 point harvest, highest ever. (Only a 92 in the Advocate, whose then new reviewer seems to have been expecting Oregon Pinot to taste like Burgundy. It doesn’t.) The wines are rich, generous, and yet structured and vibrant enough to taste site and show some elegance. And they’ve stayed pretty open, so you can try them when you like. The only quibble – are the textures a touch too smooth and silky and the tannins a tad too soft?

2013 – Two words: Typhoon Pabuck. A year that was shaping up as another 2012 was drawing to a close. Grapes up and down the valley were plumping, ripening, and just about ready to pick. And then remnants of Asian Typhoon Pabuck surged ashore and dropped 7-12 inches of rain over three days. Some winemakers managed to pick right before the storm, while others waited for the vines and mud to dry and picked three or so weeks later. In general, the wines picked later are better, but all are light- to medium-weight wines with more red fruit than black and a bit of tang. And few have enough in the way of tannin to support long aging. A Spectator 88 and Advocate 87 point vintage, which is about right.

2014 – Why is the scorching hot 2014 vintage so much better than 2006, 2009 or 2003 before that? Learning! The vintage set a huge crop, so normally growers would have dropped 30-50% of the bunches in late summer. But growers realized that the hot, dry season was pushing the vines to develop sugars fast. So they let the extra crop hang – with more grapes, each vine had to split its sugar production up among more berries. At the end of the season, everything got ripe, so everything got picked – leaving Oregon with its largest Pinot crop ever and wineries scrambling for fermenters and barrels. Everyone treated the fruit gently (something of a necessity given the extraordinary quantity), and the wines turned out silky smooth, full of fruit, and easy to drink. Spectator loved the vintage (96 points) and Advocate liked it (92), and the wines are certainly delicious. I’m not sure most are profound, though, and some lack textural complexity and structure. Drink them young with joy.

2015 – Almost the exact same vintage as 2014 but this time wineries were ready for the bounty and had learned what gave them the most exciting barrels the previous year. So in 2015, they did more of what worked best in ’14 – which included more whole clusters, more extraction, and (in some cases) a bit more new wood. Wine Advocate hasn’t taken a position on the vintage and Spectator rates it 95 points, a hair behind 2014. That’s nuts. The 2015s we carry have fantastic textures with real grip and bite to balance the ripe, borderline opulent, fruit. It’s a great, great, vintage, one where you can try the wines whenever you like or hold them for years. My favorite vintage to date.

2016 – Plenty more wines to taste, but here’s what we know so far. After the 2015 harvest was in the winery, the weather stayed nice in November. And December. And January. It just never got cold! I remember being in the Valley in early February of 2016 – daffodils and other spring flowers popping everywhere! So the vines never went into hibernation and were raring to go when a bit of spring heat showed up. It was the earliest bud break, earliest flowering, earliest verasion (when the grapes turn color) and earliest pick (starting in August!) ever. But the harvest wasn’t rushed because the summer remained cool and the grapes ripened at a gentle pace. “Gentle,” in fact, is the word for the vintage overall. The wines are soft and supple, with fresh fruit flavors, smooth textures, good length, and inviting balance. Most will want drinking on the early side – say at 4-10 years from the vintage – and few are profound. But they are a tasty set of Pinots that add yet another chapter to the story of America’s greatest Pinot Noir region – the Willamette Valley

Authentic Chablis from Louis Michel

Louis Michel ChablisThe Michel family has been growing and making Chablis since the 1600s and created Domaine Louis Michel in 1850. Over the past 40 years, winemaker Jean-Loup Michel has elevated Louis Michel to the upper echelons of Chablis producers and now his nephew, Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel, is working with Jean-Loup to push quality higher still.

For more than 40 years, Louis Michel has been known for its elimination of any oak-influence on its top quality Chardonnay. As Jean-Loup explains:

“Chablis is not Meursault. We stopped using barrels for our wine-making almost forty years ago. In the past, barrels were the only containers that could be used to make wine, they were never used with the intention of imparting a woody taste: that’s why old barrels were used in preference to younger ones. Today, stainless steel tanks are perfectly suited to our wine-making: aside from their total neutrality, they allow the complexity and pureness of the aromas to come through, respecting the authentic taste of true Chablis, without any artificial wood. The only expression in our bottles comes from pure, clean and precise terroir.”

While anyone can make clean, crisp Chablis in stainless steel, only elite growers and winemakers can balance Chablis classically bright acidity with mouthfilling richness without the help of oak. Louis Michel’s secret?

Great Sites – Over the decades, Louis Michel has acquired prime vineyards in some of Chablis’ best terroirs. The estate’s 25 hectares of vineyard all lie in the heart of Chablis’ ancient vineyards. No fruit travels more than 2km to the winery and the Domaine’s three Grand Cru sites are mere meters away.

Meticulous, Organic Vineyard Work – Each vineyard is managed individually, with its own regime of pruning, leaf pulling, green harvest, cover crops, and tilling designed to maximize vine health and help express the site.

Late Harvest of Fully Ripe Fruit – With no oak to hide flaws, the Jean-Loup and Guillaume are willing to wait until each vineyard achieves optimal ripeness before beginning harvest. And, having risked crop loss to late season rain or rot, they harvest quickly, often bringing in the entire crop in only 4-5 days.

Natural Winemaking with Minimal Intervention – Guillaume’s first major impact on the winery was to return to all natural fermentations. Both alcoholic and malolactic fermentations proceed with native yeasts and move through the process at their own pace. After fermentation, the wines rest on their fine lees (8 months for Village, up to 12 for 1er and Grand Cru sites) to attain a rich, creamy, texture that balances the detailed acidity of Chablis.

The result are wines that Robert Parker said “appear of a precision and of a purity absolutely extraordinary,” but that, as critic Sara Marsh said, are also “refined, glossily mineral wines, not in the nervy, edgy Chablis genre. The wines are composed, poised and smooth.”

Guillaume of Louis MichelThe 2016 Louis Michel Chablis
“Composed, poised and smooth” is a pretty good description of Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel’s 2016s. The wines are excellent – there’s just not very much of any of them. As critic Steven Tanzer says, “The 2016 growing season was a violent one, with frost, rain, hail, mildew and even grillure (i.e., grapes burned by sun) conspiring to cut Chablis production by 50% or more at many estates.”

The grapes that survived were pretty lovely though. As Guillaume says, “The good news is that the wines are good; the bad news is that there’s no wine.” He describes the 2016s as “fleshy and balanced,” with each wine showing the character of its site nicely (save, perhaps, the deliciously exotic Vaillons). All of the wines were picked at 12.2-12.3% potential alcohol, with some getting lightly chapitalized (i.e., having a little sugar added) to extend fermentations and draw out texture and flavor.

As always, Tanzer’s ratings are conservative and I expect others will award higher ratings as they publish their reports. But rather than worry about points, come and try the wines this weekend. You will be glad you did!

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!

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.”

‘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.”   

Not-So-Temperate Toro

Toro

Look down on the gentle hills, Roman bridge, and sprawling vineyards from the hilltop town of Toro and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Really? They can grow good grapes here?” This extreme western portion of the Spanish province of Castilla y Leon is hot, barren, and dry. With summer high temperatures reaching 100 degrees and only 14 inches of rain annually, it’s very nearly desert. And, the high altitude (most vineyards sit at 2,000-2,500 feet above sea level) means that even summer nights get cool and that winters are bitter with mid-winter lows in the teens.

And yet, wine grapes have been grown here for 1,000 years or so. With so little rainfall, early farmers adopted a strategy of planting their vines far apart – as much as 10 feet in all directions can separate vines in the stoniest soils. With these ultra-low densities, each grape vine can spread its roots broadly and deeply to capture the all too scarce rainfall.

Tempranillo for Toro. Over the centuries, a new mutation of Spain’s Tempranillo grape emerged, one that was best able to handle the extreme temperatures and dry conditions. The locals called it “Tinta de Toro,” and it remains the best red wine grape in the region today.

Ample sunshine and hot days Tinta de Toro to ripen to powerful levels, but the cool nights “fix” color and the bright acidity needed to balance massive fruit levels. By medieval times, Toro reds were some of Spain’s most famous, but the region faded from attention with the rise of Rioja (located closer to the all important rail line to Bordeaux) in the 1800s. By the mid-1990s, only 6 wineries remained in operation here, all producing ripe but rustic reds for bulk sales or local consumption.

A Toro Revival. Today there are more than 50 commercial wineries in Toro, and Finca Sobreño’s success is a big reason why. In the mid-1990s, current manager Roberto San Ildefonso and a group of Rioja winemakers created the Bodega to take advantage of the hundreds of acres of old-vine Tempranillo remaining in the region. They build one of the first modern wineries in the region, purchased 200 acres of prime vineyard and eventually locked up access to another 400 acres of old vines as well.

Over the past 20 years, Roberto San Ildefonso and his daughter, Paloma, have established Finca Sobreño as one of Toro’s most outstanding wineries. By the 2006 harvest, Wine Advocate already recognized Finca Sobreño as “an annual fixture in these pages for its superb value,” and wine writer Anthony Dias Blue was calling it “One of best new estates in Toro.”

I’ve admired Finca Sobreño for everyday value for years, but my visit to the winery two summers ago to taste the new releases was an eye-opener. Significant investments in farming and winemaking have taken quality here to new heights. The wines are as ripe, powerful, and explosive as ever, but there’s a new sophistication to the textures and better integration of oak. But – with a little help from importer Fran Kysela – the prices are the best they’ve been in years!