History in a Glass: Campi Flegrei Falanghina

Cantine Farro - Phlegraean FieldsFalanghina is an old grape with a bright modern future. Greek settlers probably brought the grape to Italy when Rome was still a fortified village and soon discovered that it thrived on the rocky, volcanic soils of Campania north of modern-day Naples. As first the Republic and then Empire expanded, Romans continued to cultivate Falanghina along with the region’s other most successful grapes, Aglianico and Piedirosso.

The Romans soon discovered that Falanghina vines did best when trained to grow up wooden stakes, called in Latin “falangae,” the source of Falanghina’s name.

The Famed Falernian of Ancient Rome

Cantine Farro - Cup of Nestore

“I am the cup of Nestore from which it is pleasant to drink. He who drinks from this cup will immediately desire Aphrodite with the beautiful crown.”

While not certain, it seems likely that Falanghina was one component of Rome’s most famous and sought-after wine, Falernian. This seems to have been a late-harvest blend of grapes, made with considerable residual sugar, and aged for decades in clay amphorae. As it aged, the got more concentrated and exposure to heat and oxygen probably resulted in a sweet wine much like modern Madeira.

And, it packed a punch – Roman authors frequently commented that Falernian had so much alcohol that it was the only wine that could be set on fire with a match!

The same volcanic soils that allowed Falanghina to thrive spelled doom for much of the region’s vineyard when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, covering both the city of Pompeii and its surrounding farms in lava and ash. The disaster extended down to the vineyards northwest of Naples where Romans had planted grapes alongside the bubbling craters of a second volcanic area called “Campi Flegrei” or “the Phlegraean Fields.”

Replanting in a Moonscape

Camp Flegrei - Cantine Farro

The Campi Flegrei remain active

Over the years, first Roman and then Italian farmers replanted vineyards in the Campi Flegrei moonscape (although an eight-day eruption here in 1538 set things back a bit). The region remains active, with more than 100 identified pools of water and mud still bubbling up gas and steam.

But, the porous, well-drained soils remain excellent for growing top-quality grapes. And, the high levels of sulfur in the soil are toxic to the phylloxera louse, meaning this is one of the few areas of Italy where vinifera grapes can still grow ungrafted on their own roots.

The Farro family had lived in Naples and the surrounding countryside for years before Michele Farro’s grandfather first established a winery in the hills overlooking the Phlegraean Fields in 1926. As Michele assumed control of the estate, he became a champion of the region (he now heads the DOC’s board) and of its classical grapes: Piedirosso and Falanghina.

A Modern Classic
Michele Farro at Cantine FarroOver the years, Michele and his family have carved out vineyards right on the edge of active volcanic craters by the sea and running up to terraces hacked out of volcanic rock up to 1,800 feet above the Fields and also down vineyards covered in talc-like powdered pumice. Where possible, Michele vineyards grow on their own rootstocks, and some of the vines in the lower vineyards are probably 100 years old (or more!).

Throughout the vineyards, Michele farms as naturally as possible and uses modern winemaking techniques with care to preserve the very best features of his Falanghina grapes. His 2018 Campi Flegrei DOC Bianco is a fantastic introduction to both the region and the vine. From first sniff to last sip, it’s clearly a wine of both volcanic and seaside origins – you’ll find loads of rocky, saline, minerality throughout this wine. But it’s also a wine of fine purity and lovely fruit, with plenty of bright peach, apricot and tangy pineapple flavors and a bracing squirt of lemony acidity at the end.

It’s hard to find something better to drink at with a sizzling plate of shrimp scampi or just-fried baby calamari (as my experience on Michele’s porch this summer proved). And, it’s sure to will delight with pasta laced with fresh vegetables or even fennel-spiked Italian sausage.

But we also think it’s pretty darn delicious all by itself, offering a captivating blend of richness and fruit to go with bright, refreshing, acids and minerality. Fine wine, fine value. Get some today!

Tall Vines and Terroir: Jean-Marie Royer’s Chateauneufs

Vintage 2017 is yet another in a long string of fine Chateauneuf du Pape vintages, a growing season that matched the Rhone’s usual ripeness and power with a touch more restraint. It was a season that that lined up especially well with Jean-Marie’s Royer’s winegrowing style.

Jean-Marie Royer reclaimed his family’s vineyards and began making wine in the mid-1980s. With help from a former Rugby pal (now one of France’s top-tier consultants), Philippe Cambie, Jean-Marie made rich, bold flamboyant wines – in other words, at first he was making completely typical Chateauneuf du Pape. But about 10 years ago, Jean-Marie realized that he wanted more elegance and freshness in his wines.

An Unusual Farming Approach
jean-royer-vinesWith help from Cambie, he adopted an unusual farming approach, allowing the vines to grow very tall – most growers “hedge” the vine tops to force the vines to put more energy into ripening fruit.

Royer lets the vine keep growing on top while pulling leaves from around the bunches and then aggressively thinning the crop over the summer. He’s now able to hang his fruit longer (developing more flavor and supple tannins) while still retaining more acid and developing less sugar than his neighbors.

In the winery, fermentation temperatures were lowered substantially, allowing for slow, gentle, extraction of color and structure and flavor without blowing off the young wines’ perfume. Each varietal now ages in a mixture of old barrels and concrete tank before Royer and Cambie meet to taste and develop trial blends (and talk a LOT of rugby!).

And Attention to Terroir
Doug and Jean Marie Royer in Le CrauLast winter we toured Royer’s Chateauneuf vineyards as Jean-Marie helped us understand how each of his wines reflects a very specific terroir. The Chateauneuf Tradition comes from mainly sandy soils to the north of the town, giving Tradition uncommon levels of silky smoothness, floral accents, and a touch of sweet spice.

Doug and Jean Royer in Prestige vineyardIn contrast, the 80-100+ year-old vines for Chateauneuf Prestige grow on gentle slopes completely covered with the rounded stones and pebbles known as galets. As much as a foot deep in some spots, these smooth stones heat up during the day and then radiate heat up onto the grapes, pushing development of intense ripeness and thick skins. Even in a more elegant year like 2017, Prestige reflects the power, depth, and grip of this rocky site.

A Special Site in La Crau

And then there’s the Chateauneuf Les Sables de la Crau. La Crau is Chateauneuf’s most famous vineyard, a plateau rising about 100 meters above the otherwise flat plain. All of La Crau’s vines are fully exposed to the beating summer sun, drain the regions meager rainfall very quickly, and are regularly pounded by the whipping Mistral winds. And most is covered in galets and gives a deeply earthy, powerful, grippy style of wine made famous at Vieux Telegraphe.

Dom Jean Royer Chateauneuf Du Pape Sables De La CauJean-Marie’s very old Grenache vines experience all the brutal exposure of the rest of La Crau’s vines, but grow on the plateau’s one sandy-soiled corner – the “Sables” in the name – with no galets in sight. Which gives his red all the bold richness, ripeness and depth of a great La Crau wine but also a remarkable sense of silkiness, finesses, and more floral perfume.

Beautiful CdP – If You Can Find It!
The results are impressive – in fact, in some ways these are the most impressive wines I know of. As Vinous wrote last year, Royer’s wines “always lean towards the more elegant, finesse-driven end of the spectrum, yet have tons of fruit, sweet tannin and sensational Provençal characters.”

They are complex and worth of cellaring and paying attention to. But they’re also utterly delicious and flat-out fun to drink. And while they are distinctively “Chateauneuf,” loaded with the ripe fruit, black olive and savory herb that defines this great Southern Rhone region, they are also open and accessible enough that even folks who normally only drink California wines love them too.

We first encountered Jean-Marie’s wines back in 2013 as the 2010s reached our market – and we were blown away. But, with very little wine allocated to our area (and with me taking home significant chunks of our annual allotment), we weren’t able to widely promote them.

For the past five years, we’ve used a couple of visits with Jean-Marie and some heavy lobbying to acquire one of the biggest allocations of Dom Jean Royer wines you’ll find anywhere in the USA. And to bring them to you at the best prices you’ll find in the USA, too.

 

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!

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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!

The Highs of Mencía – Exploring Spain’s Ribeira Sacra

Mencía, a varietal unique to Portugal’s Dao and Spain’s Bierzo and Galicia regions, reaches its most exciting heights on the steep riverside vineyards of Ribeira Sacra in the center of Spain’s Galicia region.

MenciaMencía is high in anthocyanins (red pigment), so its wines typically show a deep red color even when grown in cooler vineyards. And it’s high in terpenoids, aroma compounds that deliver bold scents of fresh flowers, raspberry, strawberry, pomegranate and sweet cherry. A bold dose of cracked peppery spice, a touch of something leafy green (think Cab Franc), and a dollop of crushed gravel minerality round out the fascinating aromatic and flavor profile.

What does Mencía taste like? Well – if you like the aromas and silkiness of Pinot Noir, the herbal snap of cool-climate Cabernet, and the plump, direct, fruit of Cru Beaujolais, these wines are sure to thrill.

As Neal Martin wrote in Wine Advocate a few years ago:

“I found the wines of Ribeira Sacra immediately attractive, not because they are powerful, ineffably complex or built for the long-term. No, I enjoyed their sense of purity and their complete lack of pretention. I enjoyed these wines because they spoke of their place, harnessing the Mencía grape variety to conjure crisp, fresh, vivacious wines that are born to marry with the local cuisine. The finest wines are those whereby I could envisage one finishing a bottle and yearning for another drop – a virtue all too often forgotten in this day and age.”

From Romans, to Monks, to Today
First planted by the Romans to provide wine to overseers and slaves working the goldmines of Bierzo to the east, Ribeira Sacra’s vineyards tumble down hills sloped 50 to 85 degrees (remember – 90 degrees is straight down!), often running along terraces first carved by the Romans. Replanted by monks in the Middle Ages to serve the 18 monasteries and hermitages that dot the region’s hills and valleys, the vineyards were once again largely abandoned in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Today, the region’s most visionary, committed, hard working and talented wine grower, Pedro Rodriguez Perez, comes from a family that kept up the struggle during these times, making wine selling it in garrafones – 20 liter glass containers – to local bars and families.

In 1991, when Pedro was still a teenager, he and his parents decided to bottle their own wine and named their estate Guímaro – dialect for “rebel,” the family nickname for his grandfather.

steep vineyards of ribera sacra

Doug and winemaker Pedro Rodriguez in the steep Ribeira Sacra vineyards.

Pedro and his parents (still in the vineyards daily!) work their vineyards organically and by hand (because machines are impossible here). The whole bunches are sorted and then go into tank where they are trod by foot to release some juice and then allowed to ferment with native yeast. Then into a mixture of large oak tanks and barrels of various sizes (all used) to smooth out before blending and bottling with minimal sulfur.

We spent a day with Pedro in March at the winery, tasting his 2017s and 2018s to come. Pedro took time out of his day not only for the tasting, but to hike the vineyards with us (don’t look down!) and then treated us to a Galician lunch of squid, octopus and rare local beef.

Tasting his wines today recaptures that amazing experience. We have two on sale this week. Like Pedro himself, these are wines of fantastic joy, intense focus, and – importantly – serious fun.

Guimaro wines

  • The 2016 Camino Real (93 points Wine Advocate; 95 points Suckling) is at once rich and light. Aromas of fresh red berries, cracked pepper, leafy herb and sweet spice carry through to a palate that combines a velvety mouthfeel with energetic verve and sublime grace. Every sip reveals a new combination of flavors that flow beautifully into the silky, kaleidoscopic, finish. From a best in the USA $22.98/ea, this is fabulous now through 2026.
  • The 2015 A Ponte (95 points from both Wine Advocate and Suckling) is stunning at multiple levels. From a very young vineyard, it somehow delivers old-vine intensity in a wine almost translucent in color and weightless on the palate. As Suckling writes, “Detail is the key. Great length and depth. Toasty, plush finish.” We have only five cases available (the region’s allocation) of this rare (165 cases) gem from $49.98.

These are some of the very finest wines produced to date in Ribeira Sacra, made by the region’s leading winegrower from amazing vineyards old and young. We cannot recommend them to you highly enough.

Drink Like (Frugal) Royalty: How this Wine Connects to Florence’s Medici Family

One thing we love about the world of wine is how a wine can connect us to little slices of history. This week’s 91 Tuscan red is a good example – we enjoyed its blend of fruity and savory and weren’t surprised at its 91 point Wine Spectator rating. What did surprise us was to learn that this is one of Tuscany’s oldest legally recognized wine growing areas and one of the first to include significant amounts of French varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon.

And for both, we have the Medici family to thank!

Italy’s First Wine Regions.
When they weren’t commissioning art works from Leonardo da Vinci or reading treatises on ruling from Niccolò Machiavelli, Florence’s ruling Medici family was eating and drinking well. And, being orderly and thoughtful (if a tad cruel), they soon realized that some of vineyards in their lands made better wines than others. So in 1716, Cosimo III dè Medici created Italy’s first legally defined wine regions: Chianti, Pomino, Val di Sopra, and Carmignano.

The Medici took special interest in Carmignano – the closest of the four top sites to Florence – and actively encouraged ongoing improvements in quality here. In fact, Catherine de’ Medici brought Cabernet back from France in the 1600s and had it planted in Carmignano. To this day, the grape is known as “Uva Francesca” – the “French grape.”

Today, Carmignano is an official DOCG – Italy’s highest quality designation – and makes a dark, rich, and very intense red from super-dark Sangiovese plus Cabernet and Merlot, a wine that needs long aging in barrel and bottle to shine. Today’s featured wine is designated “Barco Reale di Carmignano” – a fresh, easy-going red designed to be drunk young with pizza, pasta, and other casual fare.

The “Barco Real” in the name refers to a 4000-acre game park established by the Medici in the 17th Century. Perhaps this was the kind of wine they drank as the rabbit, stag and boar they’d run down during a long day’s hunting roasted in the fireplace?

Pratesi - Barco Reale di Carmignano Locorosso.jpegToday, you can certainly enjoy Pratesi Barco Reale di Carmignano Locorosso 2017 with the fruits of your hunt for good eats in the local grocery store. Like wines from nearby Chianti Classico – many of which today include Cabernet Sauvignon in their blends! – it’s got the heft and structure to stand up to Bistecca alla Fiorentina grilled over grape vine cuttings and finished with lemon and olive oil.

But it’s soft and fleshy enough to match up with burgers on the grill, pork tenderloin, pizza, even cheese and crackers. At $16.98 by the bottle and $14.98/ea by the case of 12 this week, this wine doesn’t require the Medici’s wealth for you to drink like a prince!

Inside Tuscany’s Poggio ai Chiara

IMG_20180426_142523Poggio ai Chiara is a true “Tuscan insider’s” wine, made in tiny quantities and rarely leaving central Italy. To be honest, I’d never heard of it at all until I met Fabbio last March at his modest-looking home and vineyard not far from Cortona in eastern Tuscany.

Any winery where you start your visit by ducking into a half-buried Etruscan tomb and then navigate past mold-covered casks of all sizes before reaching a newer cellar filled with used French oak in every size imaginable … well, you can tell something interesting is going on. And whatever else you can say about the passionate, intense, dedicated Fabbio Cenni, you certainly have to agree he and his wines are interesting!


Fabbio’s vineyard is in an overlooked slice of eastern Tuscany near Cortona and Lago di Trasimeno. Fabbio planted his vineyard with more than 19 different Sangiovese clones at a crazy high density of 10,000 plants per hectare. He farms organically and makes wine “naturally” – if extremely.

After crushing, the Sangiovese barrels rest in their fermentation vats until native yeasts begin to work. Fermentation is low and slow, with most wines getting a full 30 days on the skins (pretty much unheard of for tannic Sangiovese). Then into a dizzying array of old barrels, some small, some medium-sized and some very large. Over the next 5-6 years, the wine stays in barrel, with Fabio racking it from one cask to another to give the wine air and keep it healthy. After bottling around the 6-year mark, the wine rests for another two years before release.
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While the 2009 was the most impressive of the Poggio ai Chiara vintages I tasted, I loved the 2008 and 2006 as well and was delighted to be able to grab a little of each for you. If you can, come by the store this Sunday from 2-4pm and try a mini-vertical of all three. Importer John Grimsley will be here to present the wines and we’ll have good sized pours, time, and some snacks that will allow you plenty of time to get to know these wonderful wines.

But whether you can come or not, reserve some of the 2009 Poggio ai Chiara right away. It will become one of your favorite Tuscan rarities and a wine you love drinking and sharing over the next decade.