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!

News from Willamette Valley: New Pinot and … Chardonnay

Meg and I are just back from a quick trip to Oregon and meetings with some of our favorite Willamette Valley winemakers. We’re lining up new shipments of some of your favorites from vintages 2014 and 2015, including some real stunners from John Grochau, Patricia Green Cellars, and Belle Pente. And watch for small quantities of some new Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs from the culty, hard-to-find Walter Scott.

A New Focus: Chardonnay. But the real story in the Willamette Valley right now is that – after 40 years of ups and downs – Chardonnay has finally arrived! At pretty much every stop, we found Chardonnay that showcases some of the energy, minerality and complexity you’d expect from top Meursault or Chassagne-Montrachet married to the juicy, ripe, fruit flavors found in the best of California’s cool Sonoma Coast sites.

During my very first visit to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the spring of 2009, Chardonnay was on the wane. More than one winemaker told me they’d not figured out Pinot Noir’s natural white grape partner and that they either had or were considering grafting over their Chardonnay vines to Pinot Gris or Noir.

Returning in the summer of 2013, I heard folks say that Chardonnay really should work in the Willamette Valley, but that the original plantings were in the wrong places or of the wrong clones. “We really ought to figure this out,” was a common comment. Coming back in mid-summer of 2015, we heard, “You know, maybe we can figure this out!” although compelling wines in bottle were few and far between.

Last week, Chardonnay was a focus of conversation and tasting everywhere we went. Patricia Green has made their first Chardonnay in years, John Grochau’s Chards were zesty and rich, and newcomer Walter Scott has committed to making Chardonnay a full 50% of their production. No question, Chardonnay is on its way back in the Willamette Valley!

oregon-chardonnaysA Trio of Tempting Willamette Valley Chardonnays. Chardonnays from Grochau and Walter Scott are definitely on our “buy” list for later this year, and Chardonnay has clearly “arrived” at Belle Pente’s Yamhill-Carleton estate vineyard and in the old-vines Dundee Hills vineyards of Arterberry Maresh and Oregon Pioneer Eyrie.

Not much of any of these is made and less still is available. But all are well worth checking out to get a feel for why Willamette Valley Chardonnay is the “next big thing” for the world’s most popular white wine grape! Stop by this weekend for a taste!

Amalie Robert: Who Planted a Cherry Orchard in My Vineyard?

amalie-robert-fallWhat happens with a pair of technology executives fall in love with Burgundy, decide to try their hands at making Burgundy-style Pinot in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and, one day, discover someone has planted a cherry orchard on their perfect vineyard site?

That’s where Ernie Pink and Dena Drews found themselves in 1999 as they surveyed a 35 acre cherry orchard perched just above the already famous Freedom Hill vineyard just west of Salem, Oregon. So, they did the only logical thing: purchased the orchard, harvested and sold the cherries, ripped out the trees, and started planting a vineyard.

Ernie and Dena are a fun (and funny) pair who definitely know when to be whimsical and how to have fun. But they’re dead serious about growing fantastic grapes and making great Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Viognier and even a bit of Syrah). The vineyard’s potential was immediately recognized by some of Oregon’s best, and for the first few years Steve Doerner at Cristom and Mike Etzel at Beaux Freres used Amalie Robert Pinot Noir in some of their highly rated wines. And Ernie extracted lots of education and advice as part of the price for the grapes!

Meticulous Elegance
amalie-robert-2010-6-packAt the end of the day, though, Ernie and Dena have learned to make wines that express their values and the character of this beautiful (if remote) site. Farming is done carefully with minimal chemical additions and lots of feeding and care for the soil and vines’ health. “The Great Cluster Pluck,” as Ernie likes to call it, is done by hand and in stages as each block and variety ripens. And if that means hanging fruit through rain and bird attacks and picking a week or two or three after everyone else…well, that’s what happens.

One of the things I love about Amalie Robert Pinots is that the extra hang time results is masses of great flavor, but not masses of alcohol. In warm vintages that means abv levels in the mid-13 to, at most, low 14% levels. In 2010 you’ll love the perfect ripeness and lush textures of each wine at elegant, very Burgundy-like, 12.4-12.9% abv.

Taking Risk and Time
Those great textures and smoky/spicy accents? That’s from risk taking and time. The risk-taking is in the form of whole-cluster fermentation (putting whole clusters vs. destemmed berries in the tank). It’s a technique Ernie and Dena admired at Burgundy houses like Dujac and mastered with trial, error, and some help from Oregon’s whole cluster guru, Steve Doerner at Cristom. Get it wrong and you have wines with too little acidity, not much color, and lots of green, stemmy tannin. Get it right and you achieve amazing velvet and mineral textures and loads of sweet spice perfume.

Learn more about whole cluster fermentation in this quick video:

 

The time comes twice, first in barrel – most of these wines spend 18 months in mostly used French oak vs. the 10 or so months more common in the Willamette Valley – and then in bottle. And that time pays huge dividends to us. Where most top Willamette Valley Pinot houses are showing 2014s and getting ready to release 2015s this fall, Ernie and Dena are just now showing the 2011 vintage of their top wines to mailing list customers. And 2010 is the current vintage for the few retailers, like us, who are able to get allocations of these amazing wines.

Featured Amalie Robert 2010 Pinot Noirs
As critic Josh Raynolds said last year, the Amalie Robert vineyard “is painstakingly farmed and yields are kept low so production of these wines is limited.” Now that Amalie Robert has settled in with a new local distributor, we should be able to get our share of these beauties in future vintages – the 2011s and 2012s I tasted with Ernie and Dena last year are certainly worth waiting for!

Meanwhile, since the last vintage we carried was 2009, we really wanted to show you their deliciously elegant 2010s and Ernie and Dena were willing to give us what they could of both, nearly sold-out vintages. So quantities here are even more limited than usual, and we’d strongly advise you to order a selection now and then come by and taste and get Dena to sign bottles on Saturday!

If you can’t decide, check out the 2010 Amalie Robert Pinot Six-Pack. It’s a great way to try some of each and save an extra 5%, too!

Discovering Domaine Tix

Rhone Show at AvignonBack in March, Meg and I braved the gusty Mistrial winds to attend and taste several hundred wines at Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône, the bi-annual festival in Avignon featuring winemakers and wineries from across the Rhone Valley.

It was a delight to meet the energetic, slightly mischievous, Marie Pirsch and Philippe Danel of Domaine du Tix (Philippe will be at Chain Bridge Cellars on Saturday, Oct. 17!) – and tasting their wines one of the highlights of the show.

The level of style, polish, and sophisticated fun we found in each of their wines is unusual for Cotes du Ventoux, and that’s undoubtedly due to the estate’s charming owners. Marie and Philippe came to Domaine Tix in 2001 looking for a retirement home after successful careers in the fashion industry. They found about 10 acres of table grapes planted, a decrepit house, and soils and a microclimate so perfect for making authentic, delicious, Provençal wine that they couldn’t resist!

Dom Tix at Rhone Show

Philippe Danel will pour at Chain Bridge Cellars on Saturday, 12-4

After first grafting the table grapes over to wine varietals – all traditional grapes for the Ventoux area – Marie and Philippe gradually expanded their plantings, today farming about 20 acres in total. In 2006, they expanded their staff by one-third – hiring their nephew Vincent to take charge of the vineyards. When their brand-new, pocket-sized, winery opened in 2008, production reached today’s levels – a whopping 3,000 cases per year.

On the Slopes of Mount Ventoux
Domaine Tix’s vineyards are about 18 miles due east from Chateauneuf du Pape about 300 meters up on the western slopes of Mount Ventoux, the tallest mountain in this part of France (reaching nearly 2,000 meters at its peak). As in the rest of the Southern Rhone, there’s plenty of sunshine, which should make ripening Rhone grapes like Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Carignan a snap.

Dom Du Tix Ventoux GarrigueBut ripeness in the shadow of Mount Ventoux is anything but certain. The elevation brings down temperatures a bit, but the real challenge is the cold air that flows down the mountainsides every night. The alternating warm days and cool nights help wine grapes retain bright acids and firm structures, but mean they need to be farmed carefully at low yields and with plenty of vineyard work in order to get ripe fruit flavors and supple tannins.

Marie, Philippe, and nephew Vincent clearly take the time to do the hard work needed to get fine grapes into the winery and then allow them to transform themselves into excellent wines. Even better, each wine is clearly infused with both classic southern Rhone character and a touch of playful style. These are wines that impress on first meeting and improve with longer acquaintance. All are very nicely priced, too, as they were brought to the USA just for us. I recommend them very, very highly!