Austrian Reds: Where the Action Is

Austrian Red Wine GlassIf you think about Austrian wine at all – and, after more than 10 years of flogging the stuff to you, we hope you think of it often! – you probably think of vibrant dry Riesling and peppery, refreshing, Grüner Veltliner. Nothing wrong with that, but the real action in Austria these days is with red wines. And while native grapes like Blaufrankisch, St. Laurent, and Zweigelt (a crossing of the first two) certainly remain in the forefront, the most promising red grape in Austria right now is Burgundy’s finest: Pinot Noir.

Not that Pinot Noir is new here. The Cistercian monks who helped plant Burgundy brought Pinot Noir to Austria in 1394. And the grape has always thrived in Wagram. Almost due west of Vienna, Wagram benefits from the intersection of two very different climates. To the east, across Hungary, is the hot Pannonian plain which blows warming winds across the Danube to promote grape ripeness. To the west lie the foothills of the Alps, bringing cool night air that slows ripening, aids in flavor development, and locks in refreshing acids.

Hitting His Stride With Pinot Noir
Anton BauerFourth-generation Wagram winegrower Anton (“Tony”) Bauer recognized the potential for Pinot Noir in his Grüner-dominated region early. He’s been growing and vinifying Pinot Noir for years, but over the past few vintages he’s clearly hit his stride – with very impressive results.

Tony’s “Reserve” Pinot Noir – from his finest plots and aged 20 months in 100% new French oak – has become one of Austria’s finest. Wine Enthusiast awarded it 92 points in 2011 followed by 96 points, 94 and 94 points in vintages 2012, 2013 and 2014. To earn this kind of acclaim is hard in any year. To show these astonishing ratings in years hot, warm, and wickedly wet (2014) is…well, astonishing!

Critical Accolades
While the Reserve Pinot has been garnering all kinds of accolades, Tony’s “regular” Wagram Pinot kept improving, too, but flew under the critical radar. That changed with vintage 2014, when Wine Enthusiast tasted it for the first time in a few years and scored it 93 points.

A 93 point rating for an under $25 Pinot Noir is always impressive. For one made in Austria’s most wet, cool, and challenging harvests of recent memory is nothing short of astonishing. But Tony rose to the challenge, making a wine Master of Wine Anne Krebiehl described like this:

“Pure notes of red fruits reach the nose: Morello cherry and mulberry harmonize beautifully. Their purity pervades a palate that has the lightest touch: there is something authentic, beautiful and unforced about this. There is a suggestion, too, of herb, moss or undergrowth. This unpretentious winemaking style lets this pure, glorious fruit speak for itself and brings with it a profound sense of honest depth, bountiful earth and full-fruited balance.” Wine Enthusiast 93 points

So, ponder this: if Tony made a 93 point Pinot Noir is what was, frankly, a pretty crummy growing season, what do you think he did in a great year like 2015?

‘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.”   

2014 Burgundy: For Drinkers and Collectors!

After years of crazy weather, short harvests, and very good quality, 2014 is a HUGE relief – if not especially easy for winegrowers. Yields returned to something closer to “normal” levels with no loss of quality, although the weather remained unpredictable.

The growing season started very early, with a warm spring getting the vines going about three weeks earlier than normal. The early growing season seemed promising, relaxed and abundant, at least until late June when a series of hail storms swept up and down the Cote d’Or, costing growers 10-30% of their fruit. Then, the weather turned cool and stayed that way through all of July and August.

The warm, dry spring followed by cool, wet summer, meant that the growing season lasted a bit longer than usual – instead of the typical 100 days from flowering to harvest, most growers ended up hanging their fruit for an extra week or event two. The fruit that came in during late September was ripe in terms of skins and seeds, but had a bit less juice and a touch less sugar than might have been expected.

Thick skins, ripe flesh, skins and seeds, plus moderate sugars came together in fermentation vats to create some of the most delicious, immediately tempting wines we’ve seen from the Cote d’Or since 2009.

As Allen Meadows (“Burghound”) said:

“I am avidly enthusiastic about the 2014 vintage in the Cote de Nuits…While it is true that the 2014 vintage is user-friendly in that in many cases the wines will be accessible young, I believe that it is also true that they are going to age extremely well. There is a beguiling freshness coupled with first-rate drinkability that makes the 2014s extremely pleasurable… Two of the aspects that I like best about the 2014s is their transparency to the underlying terrior coupled with their sheer drinkability. This transparency is enhanced by terrific vibrancy because the wines really do taste alive in the mouth…They’re ripe yet they are what the French call digest, or refreshing, where the first sip invites the next which is in fact what makes them so drinkable.”

Jean-Michel GuillonJean-Michel Guillon agrees with Burghound’s assessment, saying of his 2014s, “They’re generous and fleshy and easy-to-like though with good freshness and transparency. They’re the kind of burgundies that almost everyone likes because there’s really nothing not to like.”

One thing we especially “like” about Jean-Michel’s wines are the prices – unchanged from 2013! In a world where first-rate Cote de Nuit’s producers’ “regular” Bourgognes can often top $40, it’s refreshing to be able to enjoy the work of a true Burgundy master for comfortable prices like these.

JJ Confuron’s 2012 Burgundies

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Wines on tasting Saturday, Jan. 17, 12-4 pm

We’ve purchased JJ Confuron wines for the store in the past (the 2006s, especially, were lovely), but a tasting with the local importer, JAO Imports, last summer convinced us to go as big as we could with this fantastic set of 2012 reds.

As you’d expect from a small, very in-demand estate like this, we were only able to get limited supplies of what we thought were the best wines – and we were delighted to get a few bottles of the ultra-rare and utterly profound Grand Cru Romanee St. Vivant!

Extraordinary Vineyard Sites. The vineyard sites themselves are the story here. The Domaine’s 8.5 hectares of vines were part of the legendary Charles Noellat estate. Over the course of the 20th Century, the Noellat properties were divided in three – part going with Charles’s granddaughter to Hudelot-Noellat, part purchased by Lalou Bize-Leroy in 1988, and the remainder to Confuron through his wife, Andee Noellat. Today, these three famous Domaines farm their vines side-by-side – including in one of the best slices of the Grand Cru Romanee Saint Vivant – one using conventional farming (Hudelot-Noellat), one biodynamic (Leroy) and one organic (Confuron).

All of Confuron’s 2012s were hand harvested on a block-by-block basis as winemaker Alain Meunier (Confuron’s son-in-law and, with wife Sophie, the current owner of the estate) decided the fruit was ripe and ready. Grapes came into the winery at natural alcohol levels of 12-13%, which is exactly what Meunier strives for.

Fruit for the village wines was 100% destemmed while 20% whole clusters were used in the 1er and Grand Crus. Meunier believes that using a good proportion of top-quality barrels help his wines shed excess fat without masking the pure fruit or adding unattractive wood tannins. The village wines receive 30% new oak, the 1er Crus 40-50% and the Grand Crus about 60% new wood each year. The resulting wines are, as Clive Coates says, “classy, poised, and very fine.”

A Note about the Critics’ Notes … We tasted and selected our favorite wines from Confuron’s 2012s before we looked at any reviews, although for the most part, the critics’ opinions are similar to ours. We’ve included Burghound’s ratings here because of Allen Meadows’ long involvement with the region and estate. But take some of his critique about reduction with a grain of salt. Meadows tastes wines like these very early in their elevage (too early, I think). Because Meunier does minimal racking of the wines before assembling his final cuvee for bottling, the wines often show funky reductive notes when Meadows tastes them.

Neal Martin (Wine Advocate) and Steve Tanzer both taste later in the year, often after the racking to bottling tank. I usually find their assessments more useful. Last, the local folks at International Wine Review (i-Wine) tasted the wines the same day I did – theirs are the only reviews based on the finished, bottled wines.

Oregon 2012 – A (Limited) Vintage of a Lifetime

Evesham Wood vineyard

Evesham Wood in Willamette Valley

No major US wine growing region sees more variable vintage conditions than Oregon’s Willamette Valley. We think almost every Oregon vintage has its own unique charms, even if some, like 2007, are slow to reveal them. But fans of lush vintages like 2006 or 2009 are often surprised by the light, supple, elegant wines from years like 2010 or 2004.

The 2012 harvest joins 2008 as the rare vintage that will satisfy fans of almost every style of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Problems with flowering kept the crop small, but the weather remained wonderfully moderate throughout the growing season. Dry, sunny, days and cool, crisp nights in September and October let ripening complete while retaining vibrant acids and allowed winegrowers to harvest at whatever point and rate they preferred.

Weighing in on 2012. So – how good is the vintage? I’ve now heard a dozen or so winemakers echo Willamette Valley legend Ken Wright’s take on the harvest:

“After thirty-five years of winemaking experience in Oregon and California, I can count the truly great years on three fingers. 1979 in California’s Monterey County, 1990 in the Willamette Valley and, yes, 2012 in the Willamette Valley as well. … [T]here are years when we simply sit in awe as Mother Nature hands us remarkable fruit that only requires that we respect the gift we have received. 2012 is such a year. The intensity of color, aroma and flavor is inspiring…I may be dragged out of the winery by my Red Wing boots at eighty without seeing another year like this.”

Notably absent from Ken’s recitation of “truly great years” is the benchmark 2008 harvest. The farther we get from 2008, the more it’s clear that this year’s greatness is taking its own sweet time to emerge. More than a few critics have joined David Schildknecht in his Wine Advocate assessment:

“The obvious point of comparison for growers has been 2008. But having tasted many of the young [2008s] in barrel, I’m not entirely surprised that they have – thus far, at least – remained rather simply fruity; whereas the young 2012s – while lusciously ripe – display more energy, vivacity and interest than the 2008s did at a comparable juncture. The sole drawback looks likely to be 2012’s relatively small crop, conditioned not only by reticent flowering but by the vine’s natural reaction to the abundant set of 2011.”

When I first started encountering 2012 Pinots from Oregon, I was a bit on the fence. The nervy, high-acid 2011s really sung for me and the early-release 2012s seemed a bit too ripe and even heavy next to the tangy 2011s. But the more ‘12s I taste, the more impressed I get. And, the more impressed I get, the more frustrated I become.

Lower Yields, Higher Prices. With yields down 20-40 percent in 2012, there was always going to be a bit of competition for the top wines. But, strong demand for 2012s, lagging sell-through of 2011s, and a challenging set of 2013s waiting in the wings have all led wineries to both limit access to the 2012s and drive price a bit. In virtually every case, “front line” prices are up 5-15 percent over 2010/2011. And the multi-case deals that help us bring you big value bargains by buying in quantity are few and far between.

So, it’s a great vintage that every Oregon Pinot Noir lover is going to want to own and drink, but one that will require you to move quickly and be prepared to spend a bit more than in the past. We’re working hard to find you more opportunities like Evesham Wood Pinot Noir La Grive Bleue 2012, and we’re optimistic that at least a few fine deals will emerge this fall. When you see them, don’t delay!

If you’re a collector or fan who wants to be sure you don’t miss your favorites, just ask to be added to our Oregon 2012 Collectors List. You’ll learn about the best 2012 Pinots as they arrive – and before they’re all gone! To join, call 703.356.6500, email us at wineteam@chainbridgecellars.com, or stop by the store.

“Happy” Wines – An Evening in Alto Adige

Dave McIntyre described a wine in one of his reviews once as one that would “fuel conversation, not dominate it,” and if we had to sum up the delicious, joyful wines of Kellerei Kaltern in one phrase, that would be it.  Though they are made with great care, the grapes handpicked by a collection of hundreds of small growers all dedicated to quality, they do not knock you over the head with their importance.

Instead, they are the kinds of wines that insinuate themselves into your daily life, or, in our case, into your wine shop.  No other single winery dominates as many spots as Kellerei Kaltern does, and they deserve every bit of shelf space.  This is why we were so excited to have Tobias Zingerle join us this past Thursday for a relaxed evening of delicious, food-friendly wines.

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In the foothills of the Alps, Alto Adige is a unique, high-quality wine region that combines the kind of racy, cool-climate varieties you find in Germany and Austria with a food-friendly Italian sensibility.  In Bolzano, the  main city in the region, the signs are in German first, and then Italian – the region really is at the intersection of two cultures, and the wines reflect this as well.

kaltern grower

We tasted nine wines in all, each one more delicious than the last.  Standouts included the refreshing, crisp Pinot Bianco, perfect for crab or any kind of shellfish, and the quintessential aperitif wine.  The light-bodied red Schiava was a revelation for many as well, although it’s been the ‘house red’ for many of us on staff for months  now.  A red this light can at first seem too thin and light if you’re used to drinking full-bodied, New World reds.  It’s the kind of wine that grows on you over time rather than bowling you over at first sip, so it’s easy to overlook.  But put a few bottles in your wine rack, and you’ll be surprised at how often you reach for it.

The Moscato Rosa was another surprise.  Made from a rare pink mutation of the Muscat grape, it’s an off-dry rose with a little bit of tannin, and a whole lot of flavor and fun.  It’s the perfect wine for brunch or a lazy Sunday afternoon spent with the paper or a great book, and maybe a little cheese.  The thought of sweet rose is shudder-inducing for many, calling to mind those not-so-great ‘blush’ wines that come in a box or jug, but this is real wine, and very well made – it just happens to be loads of fun, too!

Many thanks so Sandy Dickerson of Siema Imports and Tobias Zingerle of Kellerei Kaltern for a fun and educational evening.  Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a date with a bottle of Schiava and some pizza…

Be sure to peruse the links below for more information on these delicious wines!

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Pinot Bianco Vial 2011

Kellerei Kaltern Chardonnay Wadleith 2011

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Pinot Grigio 2012

Kellerei Kaltern Muller Thurgau 2012

Kellerei Kaltern Gewurztraminer Alto Adige 2011

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Schiava 2012

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Pinot Nero 2012

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Lagrein 2011

Kellerei Kaltern Rosenmuskateller Moscato Rosa 2012

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!