Pier Luigi Tolaini’s Excellent Estate – and his 93 point Super-Tuscan!

Pier Luigi TolainiPier Luigi Tolaini left his home in Luca at age 19 to find work,  promising himself he’d return to Tuscany someday to show his family how to make really good wine.

It took him a while – he spent the next 40+ years in Canada, ultimately building a prosperous trucking business. But in 1998 he purchased a 119-acre Chianti Classico property and set out to make “really good” wine.

He’s done pretty darn well, earning accolades from the wine press:

“Tolaini is on a tear, making some of the best wines representing the warmer Castelnuovo Berardenga subzone of Chianti Classico.” – Wine Advocate, 2014

“An estate to watch.” – Wine Spectator’s Bruce Sanderson after visiting in 2016

“Passionate attention to the Bordeaux-style vineyards, and a very natural approach to the cellar benefitting from international consultants, make Pierluigi Tolaini’s estate one of the most important in the Chianti Classico area.” – Gambero Rosso, Italy’s most important wine guide

If you’d like to learn more about the Tolaini story and estate, join us on Thursday, January 24, when winemaker Francesco Rosi leads our Spotlight on Tolaini class (you can reserve your seats online at this link – pretty cool Christmas present!).

Want to taste a preview? Stop by anytime this week for a taste of  Pier Luigi’s San Giovanni Valdisanti Toscana 2014, a great gift or Christmas dinner wine on sale from 28% off.

“The wine wraps thickly over the palate with dense textual richness and generous flavors of blackberry, spice and cured tobacco. There is a pretty note of sweetness on the close that resembles candied fruit or cherry liqueur. Drink 2017-2027″ Wine Advocate 91 points.

And Wine Spectator’s 93 point review agrees: “”Ripe, packed with black cherry, blackberry, violet, iron and spice aromas and flavors, this red is muscular and sophisticated. Beefy tannins shore this up, along with fresh acidity and a detailed aftertaste.” Wine Spectator 93 points

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.

Introducing California’s Union Sacré … and an under $30 Cabernet!

Union Sacre Philip Muzzy and Xavier ArnaudinUnion Sacré is a fairly new venture of Michigan-born Philip Muzzy and France’s Xavier Arnaudin. They met and became friends a few years ago while working in Santa Barbara. Philip designed labels and did marketing for Herman Story, Sans Liege, and Desparada while Xavier made wine at culty wineries like Barrel 27, Herman Story, Arcadian and (today) Sans Liege. Together they are making some of the most exciting California wines we’ve tasted in years, including a snappy fresh Riesling, an exotic (and dry) Gewürztraminer, a lush, plush, Syrah blend, … and a fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon from Happy Canyon.

And I’ve liked – loved, actually – every wine I’ve tasted so far from this still young venture of an American wine marketer and supremely talented French winemaker. All have been ridiculously good and silly bargains for hand crafted, artisanal, and compellingly delicious California wines.

Union sacre cab and glassBut the 2016 Le Confident Cabernet Sauvignon is by far the best of this very compelling bunch. Muzzy and Arnaudin sourced the 100% Cabernet Sauvignon fruit for this wine from Santa Barbara’s Happy Canyon Vineyard. This is the easternmost AVA in Santa Barbara, warm, sunny and remote. It got the name during Prohibition – “Let’s head out to the canyon and get happy!” – when its remote location escaped the notice of police and revenuers.

Warm days, cool nights, and poor, mineral-laced soils make this a perfect place to grow Bordeaux grapes that achieve plenty of ripeness but avoid thick, heavy textures. The 2016 Le Confident showcases the region and the lovely 2016 harvest – warm and sunny at first with a remarkably cool August that stretched out the growing season and let flavor accumulate and tannins ripen to perfection.

The wine is a dreamboat. The fruit flavors are brilliantly ripe – juicy red and black raspberry, dark currant, blackberry – with no loss of Cabernet’s magnificent accents of crushed herb and cured tobacco. Gentle extraction gives the wine enough tannin for shape, success at table and potential in cellar, but leaves your mouth refreshed and watering, not dry and dusty. There’s just enough new oak here to provide roundness and a touch of vanilla spice, but you’d never call this “oaky” or “over oaked.”

Having tasted Union Sacré’s other wines (including the 2015 Le Confident that was sold out before we could get it) and read the effusively positive profile of Xavier Arnaudin in the Wine Advocate’s Loam Baby blog, there’s no doubt in my mind: these guys will be famous soon and their wines significantly more expensive.

Get ahead of the crowd here and lock up some of what could be Happy Canyon’s first ever “Cult Cab.” Drink some this year with any holiday season meal, and hold onto more to enjoy for years to come. It’s a can’t-miss winner.

We’ll have Union Sacré Cabernet Le Confident 2016 out on the tasting table on Friday from 3-7 and Saturday from noon-4pm. On Saturday, John Grimsley – industry veteran, proud papa of new start-up Le Storie Wines, and the guy who introduced us to Union Sacre – will be pouring. John’s portfolio is small, but we keep finding one winner after another here, and he’ll be sharing some other treats from his book, including the most expensive Volpolicella you’ve ever talked yourself into buying.

With only 400 cases made, though; we were lucky to get 20 cases and they may not last long. Don’t miss this one.

 

Why We Love Zeitgeist Cabernet

Zeitgeist Winemakers

Owners/winemakers Mark Porembski and Jennifer Williams

We think that one taste of Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 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. And in 2014, the 10th bottling of Zeitgeist Cab, Parker’s Wine Advocate delivered Mark and Jen an “Outstanding” 94 points.

After tasting that succulent 2010, it took us a couple of years to persuade Mark to sell us any wine – after all, with just 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 2014 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 just what’s in your glass. And that little bit extra is why wine can be so very, very, exciting and satisfying.

Bulgaria’s Vinous Battles

The Bulgarian wine industry has always shown immense promise, but history has not been kind, with disruptions ranging from invasions and world wars to communism and no-alcohol policies forcing the industry to rebuild … over and over again.

Bulgaria's Thracian Valley

From ancient times, the Thracian Valley region just north of Greece grew plenty of grapes and made plenty of wine, although periodic invasions by the Greeks, Macedonians and Romans disrupted trade. But when the Turks arrived in 1393, they outlawed winemaking and alcohol. Families continued making a little wine in their own cellars, but commercial winemaking was forbidden for nearly 500 years, until the Turks departed in 1878.

There wasn’t much time for the industry to get back on its feet before World Wars, communism, and nationalization of land once again knocked it down. Finally, by the 1950s, state-owned Vinprom began creating a series of modern wineries and encouraging the planting of “international” grapes like Cabernet and Chardonnay in place of native varietals. But the winemaking focused on quantity far more than quality.

PepsiCo Arrives
It was a soda company that provided Bulgarians with the connections to begin to make quality wine. As Master of Wine Dr. Caroline Gilby explains in the Oxford Companion to Wine, “Western expertise came with the men from PepsiCo, the giant American cola manufacturers. Eager to trade their soft drink concentrate for a saleable product, they provided links with California’s wine faculty at UC Davis … and other western wineries.”

Wine quality soared in the late 1960s, and by the 1970s, Bulgaria became the United Kingdom’s preferred source of great value, everyday wine. In the ’80s, even the US saw sharp increases in Bulgarian wine imports.

But once again, boom turned bust when Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership of the USSR and Eastern Block. Gorbachev launched a drive to reduce alcohol consumption and, under pressure, required Bulgaria to rip up huge tracks of vineyard (including some top sites) and set fixed grape prices regardless of quality. Not surprisingly, growers and wineries quickly exited the wine business in search of other, more profitable markets.

Following the fall of Bulgaria’s authoritarian government and a halting privatization program, the country entered the late 1990s with plenty of potential, but few resources.

Bulgarian Wine Re-Born (Again)
Fortunately, over the past 20 years, both money and expertise has been moving into the Bulgarian wine business in a slow and steady way, accelerating rapidly after Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007. Wineries face a huge challenge re-consolidating vineyards fragmented during privatization. Because ownership and boundary lines are hotly disputed, more than one Bulgarian winery pays multiple full-time staff just to manage vineyard purchases!

Wines from Bulgariana are a great example of the positive trends in Bulgarian wine. It starts with Jair Agopian, who purchased the Telish and Castra Rubra wineries in 1999 and began assembling quality vineyards. Agopian met super-consultant Michel Rolland during a trip to France and, in 2004, signed him on as the winery’s consulting winemaker. By all accounts, the wines started out pretty good and kept getting better!

The Next Chile?
We have two wines made by Bulgariana, which come to us due to the work of Robert Hayk, founder and principal of G&B Imports based here in the DC area. Having worked at the US Embassy in Bulgaria, Robert knew that there was fine wine in Bulgaria as well as outstanding value. This knowledge, combined with business experience with Merrill Lynch, meant he knew how to put together a business plan, find investors, and make great things happen.

Robert went looking for vineyards and winemaking partners in Bulgaria and connected with both Castra Rubra and Michel Rolland to help create Bulgariana. With older vineyards uncovered by Robert and winemaking support from Rolland, Hayk hopes someday to “turn Bulgaria into the next Chile.” Wines like these are a great start!

Napa’s Grand Cru

Chappellet Vineyards on Pritchard Hill

Chappellet Vineyards on Pritchard Hill

Way back in 2002, Wine Spectator labeled Prichard Hill, the mountain vineyard site east of St. Helena, “Napa’s Grand Cru.”

Ten years later, the magazine noted that while “this wild and rocky terrain produces profound Cabernets,” the proliferation of high-end wineries and homes make it feel a little bit more like “Napa Valley’s Rodeo Drive.” Who is up on Prichard Hill? Try Bryant Family, Colgin, David Arthur, and Tim Mondavi’s Continuum project.

Discovery of a Great Site. But the first winery on the hill, the estate that showed and realized the promise of this steep, rocky hillside was Donn and Molly Chappellet’s winery, started in 1967. After an initial flirtation with off-dry Chenin Blanc and Riesling, Chappellet discovered its true calling: intense, structured, and incredibly cellar-worthy mountainside Cabernet Sauvignon.

Donn & Molly Chappellet

Donn & Molly Chappellet

The 1969 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon Pritchard Hill put the winery on the map and that wine has now achieved legendary status as one of Napa’s greatest. As Robert Parker said back in 2009, “Brilliant wines have emerged from this showcase estate high on Pritchard Hill, which is producing some of the most exciting Cabernets coming out of Napa. As for my estimated aging curves, readers should keep in mind that the 1969 Chappellet made by Philip Togni, at age 40, remains a remarkably young, vibrant wine!”

A Supple Second Wine. Over the years, Chappellet has turned out one majestic Pritchard Hill Cabernet after another and added the equally outstanding, if slightly less forbidding, Signature Cabernet. Great wines, expensive growing conditions (Pritchard Hill is steep), and lots of demand quickly pushed both these wines out of the everyday price category. And so, Donn, Molly, and the family introduced the Mountain Cuvee, a wine using younger vines and selected barrels from the Estate vineyard, plus fruit from lower elevations by trusted growers.

One of the secrets to Chappellet’s success in its top wines has been the skillful use of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot to complement the often very intense structure of high-elevation Cabernet Sauvignon. They bring that same blending approach to the Mountain Cuvee 2012. Cabernet Sauvignon makes up about 40% of the blend, providing ripe currant fruit flavors, a touch of tobacco, and sleek tannic structure. About 35% Merlot rounds out the mid-palate with plump plum, black cherry notes, and softer tannins.

Like many Napa Cabernet winemakers, Chappellet uses smaller doses of Petite Verdot (8%) and Cabernet Franc (3%) to bolster the wine’s aromatics, add some lifting acidity, and contribute notes of fresh crushed herb and flowers. But the surprise – and what just might make the wine – is a whopping 12% Malbec, Bordeaux’s forgotten blending grape. I suspect the Malbec is the key to Mountain Cuvee 2012’s ability to stay so fresh despite all the rich, creamy fruit.

I’m guessing about Malbec’s influence here, but you don’t need to guess whether it’s a great value (it is) or whether you’ll love it, because we have it open in the store right now and through Friday. We think Chappellet Mountain Cuvee 2012 will quickly become your go-to Cab for solo sipping, entertaining, and – especially – for enjoying with grilled beef or lamb. A winner.

An Evening of Relic With Mike Hirby

Even though it’s a world-famous wine region, the pace in the Napa Valley is just a little more relaxed than it is here on the East Coast.  When Mike Hirby called Doug this past Thursday to tell him he’d just gotten into a cab in Georgetown, and thought he’d be at our store in 15 minutes during the height of rush hour, we just looked at each other and laughed.  Though Highway 29 can get a little backed up during crush, it’s still nothing compared to the gridlock we experience in the DC area on a daily basis.  Add to that the fact that many of the best cult projects in Napa barely make it out of the state, much less to the East Coast, and you’re left wondering why the heck people want to live anywhere else.

5.20.13 005

Well, we may not all be able to move to wine country, but we at least have access to one such hard-to-get cult project, Relic wines.  This past Thursday, Mike Hirby was kind enough to stop by to walk us through the current vintage of Relic releases and give us his perspective on winemaking in the Napa Valley.

5.20.13 008

However, while Mike’s cab was fighting traffic, we started with an offbeat sparkler.  We thought it would just be a bit of fun to get everyone’s palate going before the main event, but people liked it so much they wrote it onto the order forms.  Mas de Daumas is known as the “Lafitte of the Languedoc,” and we featured their rose sparkler, mostly because it’s made almost entirely from Cabernet, and we thought it would be fun to have a sparkler made from the same grape as the biggest wine of the evening.  Just barely off-dry, pink, and loads of fun to drink, it’s the perfect ‘porch and picnic’ wine for this summer.

5.20.13 001

The reds started with the Kashaya Pinot Noir, an elegant, honest take on Sonoma Coast Pinot whose texture has gotten even more elegant since we first got the wine.  The Scarpa Syrah was the perfect balance between ripe California fruit and that whiff of earthy meatiness you expect in Syrah.  Delicious, and crying out for some red meat on the grill!

Relic’s Ritual is so named because it’s the kind of wine Mike Hirby and his partner Schatzi like to drink on a daily basis, and it’s a personal favorite at Doug’s house, too.  Like the perfect Cotes-du-Rhone, but much more sophisticated and shot through with California sunshine, it can go the distance in the cellar thanks to its hefty dose of Mourvedre, but it’s pretty tough to resist now.  In that same category was the 2009 Artefact Cabernet Sauvignon, this year blended with 19% Cabernet Franc.

Thanks to Mike Hirby for coming all the way from California to taste us through his wonderful wines!

One Sip At A Time – Old World vs. New World Reds

5.12.13 006

This month, our One Sip At A Time class focused on red wines, but with an added twist.  You have probably heard sommeliers and retailers like us go on and on about ‘Old World’ character or something being from the ‘New World,’ but what the heck does that actually mean?  Last Thursday, we spent the evening answering that question.

France, Italy, Spain, and the rest of Western Europe make up the Old World, according to most people, while the New World is basically everywhere else: the United States, Argentina, New Zealand, and, more recently, countries whose wine industries are still in their infancy like India and Canada.

To understand the influence climate and winemaking styles have on red wines, we tasted the same varietals or similar blends side by side, with the Old World example first and the New World second.

We started with Jean Michel Guillon’s 2011 Bourgogne Rouge, a classic example of Old World Pinot Noir, with its higher acidity and longer maceration with the grape skins, giving the wine a bit more tannin.  The Calera Pinot Noir that came after was much more lush and fruit forward, and a bit lighter in color and tannin.  Both delicious, balanced wines, but clearly very different!

Next we moved on to Bordeaux varietals.  The 2010 Ch Ducasse Graves Rouge served as a much more mineral, austere counterpoint to the smooth, lavishly oaked The Teacher from Thurston Wolfe in Washington State.  While the Graves would shine with food, The Teacher was pretty darn delicious all by itself!

For Rhone blends, we chose two benchmark producers.  For our Old World example, we had Guigal’s 2009 Cotes du Rhone blend, a meatier, more Syrah-heavy style.  Then it was on to Paso Robles, for Tablas Creek’s Patelin du Tablas Rouge.  Owned by the Perrin family of Ch de Beaucastel fame, the Tablas Rouge shows just how much influence climate and terroir has over the finished wine, since the winemaking method and even the cuttings used to plant the vineyards, are all from the Rhone Valley in France.

5.12.13 001

Our final pair we tasted blind, and it was a very surprising set of wines indeed.  Almost everyone was fooled by the Guild 6 Rhone-style blend, assuming that because of its lighter body and higher acidity it was from the Old World, rather than Washington State, where it’s from.  And If You See Kay, a full-throttle fruit-bomb from Lazio in Italy, was a dead-ringer for a California red blend.

5.12.13 002

So while terroir and tradition usually have a big influence over the style of a wine, where there’s a will, there’s a way!  Thanks to everyone who attended our One Sip At A Time class for May – your participation and questions are what make these classes so much fun.

What Really Goes With Chocolate?

I had a great teacher who, when teaching a food and wine pairing class, said that chocolate and Cabernet are one of those terrible combinations that seem like they should be great, but really aren’t.  They’re both dark and rich and sexy – what could go wrong?  Quite a bit, as it turns out.  Chocolate’s sweetness clashes with a dry wine like Cabernet, making it taste bitter and sour.  Many food and wine pairing rules are meant to be broken, but I have a lot of eating and drinking under my belt, not to mention quite the sweet tooth, and I’ve only seen this work once, with a very talented chef.  I’ve learned the hard way that I am many things, but a future contestant on Top Chef is not one of them.

So, what does go with chocolate?

Port is a classic choice, and ruby Port is especially nice with dark chocolate.  So, break out a nice half bottle of vintage Port with, say, a dark chocolate bar from Double Premium Confections (we’ve got special ones this week decorated with hearts that are 20% off their regular price!), and be very happy.

DPC V Day Pic Web

Who is that pretty lady, and why is she playing badminton?  We’re not sure, but with a lighter or creamier dessert like that Valentine’s Day classic chocolate mousse, you can’t go wrong with Fracchia Voulet.  This sweet, fizzy, low-alcohol wine is fun and festive, and its delightful pink froth is just so romantic.

The most hands-down romantic, decadent choice, though, especially if you’ve got some chocolate covered strawberries (hey, some cliches exist for a reason!), is this gorgeous off-dry rose Champagne from Jean Vesselle.  This beauty is full of gorgeous Pinot fruit and just happens to be a bit sweet.  It proves that Champagne doesn’t have to be dry to be sophisticated.

Have any slam-dunk chocolate pairings or romantic Valentine’s Day plans?  Let us know!

–Diane