Chianti Tradition and Modern Innovation at Il Molino di Grace

Il Molino di GraceIl Molino di Grace’s 2015 Chianti Classico is just about the perfect marriage of Chianti tradition and modern innovation, much like the estate itself.

I visited the estate just a few weeks ago. Located right outside the village of Panzano, these vineyards in the heart of Chianti have given wine for more than 350 years. The name of the estate, “Il Molino,” gives tribute to the 19th Century windmill that remains perched on a hill (you can see the windmill in the background in this photograph).

The “modern” comes from Frank Grace and his family who purchased the site and began planting/replanting the vineyards in 1996. Grace was initially attracted to the site as a vacation home and place to indulge his passion for modern sculpture (there’s some amazing art dotted around the estate). Wine was not on the agenda – until son Tim and good friend Gerhard Hirmer pointed out that the vineyards were in one of Chianti’s great sites and that it was a shame to continue selling them to inferior winemakers.

For Frank, it was in for a penny, in for a pound. So he invested in building a modern, squeaky clean winery and hired one of the world’s foremost Sangiovese gurus, Franco Bernabei, to guide the operation. Vineyards were planted/replanted to modern trellising, yields lowered, and farming converted to organic status (with certification achieved in 2014). Bernabei’s winemaking style is simple – cool fermentations to retain fruit, gentle extraction to avoid harsh tannins, and skillful use of large Slavonian oak casks to smooth the wine without covering it in wood flavors.

In the truly outstanding 2015 Tuscan growing season, this blend of modernity and tradition brought forth a simply lovely Chianti Classico, one with enough fruit and silkiness that anyone can enjoy it but enough classic Chianti cured tobacco, leather and earth that it couldn’t possibly be from anywhere else.

We had a nice run with Il Molino di Grace Chiantis a few years ago before availability and pricing got spotty. Now our good friend John Grimsley of Le Storie Wines has partnered with the Grace family to bring Il Molino di Grace back to the market – and partnered with us to get it to you at very special prices.

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Why We Love Zeitgeist Cabernet

Zeitgeist WinemakersWe think that one taste of Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 is all you’ll need to fall in love with this lush, rich, luxurious Napa red. And, how great it tastes has a lot to do with why we love it, too. But it’s only part of the reason we became this small-production Napa Cabernet’s foremost champions in the Mid-Atlantic nearly five years ago.

We introduced the mid-Atlantic region to Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon four years ago with the un-rated 2011 bottling. Why did we pre-buy a substantial quantity of a not terribly inexpensive, utterly unknown, wine in what was easily Napa’s least popular vintage in 25 years – without even tasting the finished wine?

Because as soon as I met co-owner/winemaker Mark Porembski and tasted his 2010 Napa Cabernet, I could tell this was a person and a project we wanted to be a part of. Mark and his wife/partner, Jennifer Williams (formerly of Spottswoode), care about the things we care about. Hard work. Exhaustive selection. Careful craftspersonship. And, most of all: having fun with delicious, authentic, place-centered wine with no snobbery, attitude or fuss.

The Critics Pay Attention
ZeitgeistWith Mark and Jenn’s 2012 vintage, the Wine Advocate began paying attention and (under) rated it 91 points. The next year, Robert Parker upped the rating for the 2013 to 93 points. In 2014, the 10th bottling of Zeitgeist Cab, Parker’s Wine Advocate delivered Mark and Jen an “Outstanding” 94 points. And while Parker hasn’t tasted the 2015, his former associate, Jeb Dunnuck, popped the rating up to a fine 94+ points in 2015!

After tasting that succulent 2010, it took us a couple of years to persuade Mark to sell us any wine – after all, with only 330-450 cases made per year and “insider” fans up and down the West Coast, there wasn’t much to spare. But – as we said – Mark’s our kind of guy, and even as the praise and ratings roll in, he’s remained generous in giving us all the Zeitgeist Cab we ask for.

So, by all means, feel free to enjoy the 2015 Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon for its bold fruit, velvety texture, and powerful, cellar-worthy, finish. And it won’t bother us if you notice that this wine delivers the quality and intensity that you normally only find in $100+ (even $200+) bottlings.

But if you really want to “get” why this is so special, plan a trip to California and, before you go, give Mark a call at the winery to schedule a visit. An hour with Mark (or Jenn if she’s available) will remind you that there’s more to wine and winemaking than what’s in your glass. And that little bit extra is why wine can be so very, very, exciting and satisfying.

Unique Co-Op, Unique Wines from Northern Italy

Tasting at Kellerei Kaltern

Tasting at Kellerei Kaltern with Judith Unterholzner.

Nestled in the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains, Alto Adige is Italy’s northernmost wine growing region – although you could also call it Austria’s southernmost vineyard! Ceded to Italy after WWI, there’s still plenty of Austrian tradition here and you’ll notice road signs shifting from Italian with German subtitles to German with Italian annotations as your drive northward from the Veneto.

While the names of producers and bottle shapes can look German, the style of the wines combines the ease and food-friendliness of Italian whites and reds with the precision and freshness of Italy’s northern neighbors.

The soaring mountains of the Dolomites and cool temperatures at higher altitudes limit grape growing to a series of valleys of the Adige and Isarco rivers which form a Y-shaped vineyard area that meets at Bolzano. The valley floors are rich, fertile, and quite hot – often Bolzano is one of Italy’s hottest cities in July and August. The combination of reliable warmth, fertile soils, and relatively flat terrain makes the valley floors perfect sites for mass produced wines – like typical grocery store Pinot Grigio.

Working the Slopes
Kellerei Kaltern CaldaroBut for growers willing to plant and work vineyards on the steep, rocky, slopes looking down on Alto Adige’s lakes and rivers, grapes can ripen perfectly, gaining plenty of lush fruit flavor while retaining crackling, pure, acidity for balance.

Working the hillsides has been the philosophy of the growers who built Kellerei Kaltern from the first. Wine growing here has always been a small-scale operation. In the past, most vineyards were owned by locals who also farmed other crops on the flat lands below. Today, vineyards are just as likely to be owned by professionals who commute to Trento or simply summer in the mountains. But average vineyard sizes remain small (less than three acres), too small for growers to profitably make their own wine.

From the 19th century on, the small growers of Alto Adige began banding together to form mutually owned wineries – co-operatives – to turn their grapes into wine. And in 1906, a group of growers around Lake Kaltern, north of Bolzano, came together to create Kelleri Kaltern.

A Source of Pride
Today, about 440 growers jointly own and supply grapes to Kellerei Kaltern, with the winery providing both vineyard management advice and winemaking and marketing for the group. Usually when we think of co-op wine, we think of inexpensive jug wine where the focus is more on quantity than quality. But, because so many of the small growers that sell to this bright, modern cooperative winery grow grapes as a second source of income, it’s a source of pride more than anything for them to sell fruit that will make the best possible wine. More importantly, they are paid on a profit sharing basis rather than by the ton, a key difference between this co-op and more traditional ones that keep the quality shockingly high considering the wines’ reasonable price.

Come see for yourself this Saturday, May 5,  when Judith Unterholzner from the winery is here and pouring five terrific selections. You’ll be glad you did.

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.

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!