The Zinfandel History-Mystery

Zinfandel is often called “America’s Grape” because it formed the basis for our first true commercial wine industry and isn’t found (at least under this name) as an important wine grape anywhere else in the world. It’s of the family vitis vinifera (which all wine grapes belong to), so it had to have originated somewhere in Europe. But where?

bedrock zin old vines

It’s taken years of research and some trips down blind alleys, but over the past three decades, Zinfandel’s story has finally been definitively unraveled.

The grape arrived in the US in the late 1820s from the Imperial Nursery of Austria. By the 1830s, it was widely grown in greenhouses around Boston and New England as a popular table grape. When unsuccessful prospectors in California’s 1849 gold rush turned to farming instead, they quickly realized that wine would make a fine cash crop. And so they ordered a wide range of grapes from nurseries back East – and got Zinfandel in the mix.

Pushed Out, but Now Back Again
The vine’s hearty constitution, high yields, and quality wine – a visiting French winemaker compared it to “good French claret” – quickly established Zin as a favorite varietal. As more prestigious French varietals – we’re looking at you, Cabernet Sauvignon – arrived in the later 1800s, Zinfandel was increasingly seen as a “common” grape and was pushed out of prime vineyard sites in Napa and Sonoma.

But Zin’s hearty constitution and relegation to stony and sandy soiled sites where Cabernet doesn’t thrive saved it. The phylloxera mite doesn’t like these impoverished soils, so Zin avoided the plague that struck California in the 1890s and early 1900s. And when Prohibition devastated California’s grape growing and wine making industry, abandoned Zin vines just kept on growing even while left untended. Leaving them ready to be rediscovered and rehabilitated as attention returned to premium red Zinfandel in the 1990s.

’23 and Me’ – for Grapes!
But if the grape got to California from New England and to New England from Austria, where did it come from originally? UC Davis researcher Carole Meredith used DNA profiling to prove that an obscure southern Italian grape called Primitivo was genetically identical to Zinfandel, but that just raised the question: If Zinfandel originated in Puglia, how did it get to Austria?

A clue emerged when researchers discovered that Zinfandel was one of two parents of a Croatian vine called Plavac Mali. The other parent turned out to be an even more obscure Croatian grape, suggesting that Zin had been growing in Croatia long enough for a crossing to occur. Finally, Dr. Meredith discovered a very old, nearly extinct vine on the island of Kastela called Crljenak Kaštelanski that looked promising. DNA testing proved that this vine was identical to Zin and that this slice of what had been the Austro-Hungarian empire was the original birthplace of Zin.

So an unsophisticated immigrant from an obscure Balkan backwater made its way to the USA, struggled in harsh conditions with limited attention and support, and emerged as an American classic. Inspiring, I think.

How Beaujolais Introduced me to Turley Zin

Try this Old Vines Zinfandel from Bedrock Wine Co.

Distinctive and Delicious Malbecs from Mendoza

argentina-11-1-1

Mendoza winemakers are traveling a road to producing wines that reflect soil and place – and do so deliciously!

When Malbec burst on the American wine scene and pushed aside Aussie Shiraz as the best wine value in the USA 10-15 years ago, paying attention to the terroir of various subregions wasn’t on anyone’s mind.

As Uco Valley winemaker Matías Riccitelli told Wine Enthusiast in late 2018, “In the early days, meaning 15 to 20 years ago, the creativity came from outside,” he says. “You had Michel Rolland and his Bordeaux friends at Clos de los Siete, Paul Hobbs [from California] at Cobos, and Hans Vinding-Diers [a Dane] with Noemia down in Patagonia.”

Those outsiders brought with them an “International” understanding of what made for great red wine. And the wines they made – picked at very full ripeness, softened to smoothness, and given a sheen of spice in new oak – very much fit that international mold. And given the then very low land and farming costs in Argentina, they delivered that polished style at stunningly low prices.

A couple of years ago, we began noticing something new in the Malbecs we tried at our buying tastings.

A New Generation. As second and third generation Mendoza-born winery owners took the reins of their estates, they began looking past the international style to try to discover what was unique about their vines, soils, and locations. To be honest, most of those early attempts reminded us why Malbec traditionally plays a supporting role to Cabernet Sauvignon in most of the world.

Today, though, we’re finding more and more examples of Mendoza Malbec that is both distinctively “Mendoza” and utterly delicious. A wine class a few months ago with Sebastian Zuccardi of the Familia Zuccardi Estate provided a fine introduction to the varied terroirs of Mendoza. And, we are also featuring wines from Bodega Andeluna.

Andeluna WineryAndeluna is a great example of an estate working in the Mendoza subregion of Gualtallary that’s made the transition to wines of delicious distinctiveness. Join us on Saturday from noon-4pm and you can taste through their full line-up of current releases with export manager Nicolás Cricco. Like us, we think you’ll be thrilled with the purity of their Chardonnay, the floral complexity of their Torrentes, and the satisfying richness of both their “everyday” Cabernet and the much more serious Malbec Altutud.

But Andeluna’s Malbec Raices is most likely the wine that will stop you cold. Especially when you look at the price – at $9.98 by the bottle, the best you’ll find in the USA. At $7.98/ea by the case?

This wine showcases the unique blend of alluvial, sandy, and limestone-rich soils of Gualtallary. These free-draining soils give bunches of small berries that achieve full ripeness of flavor and tannin at modest alcohols of 13.8%. And when treated with care, they deliver wines that match their fullness and fruit with amazing freshness and superb drinkability. A can’t miss winning four-season, all-purpose red that could be the finest value you’ll find in all of 2020 to come!

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
Folks, these are seriously good Burgundies that you don’t have to be “serious” to enjoy. Highly recommended. Get ’em.

Billard Justice and santenay les hates

Petra Toscana: ‘The Fascinating Story of a Feminine Trip’

Francesca MorettiFrancesca Moretti likes to say that the entire Petra project is “the fascinating story of a feminine trip.”

Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister and Grand Duchess of Tuscany, was the first to plant vines in this part of the Tuscan Coast. Her original five-hectare plot of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese is planted to those same varietals today and her herb and flower garden, now called the “Princess’s Garden,” has been restored using the 19th Century map prepared by historical botanist Paolo Tomei from the University of Siena.

The vineyards had been long abandoned with then 19-year-old Francesca Moretti took a break from her studies towards a veterinary degree to drive to Bordeaux with her father. Upon passing through the rolling hills and seaside vistas of the Suvereto district in Maremma, she fell in love. The rest, as they say, is history.

Matching Soil to Grapes
The vineyards were meticulously planted at the foot of Maremma’s Colline Metallifere hills, the “metal-bearing hills” mined from Etruscan times through the 19th Century. Francesca Moretti and her father, Vittorio, analyzed each plot of the 300 hectare estate for soil type, exposition, and exposure to the cooling breezes coming off the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea.

Where appropriate, the red, iron-rich soils were matched to both French grapes – Syrah, Cabernets, Merlot, Petit Verdot – and Tuscany’s own Sangiovese. The remaining two-thirds of the property was planted to olives or left wild to support the natural population of deer, boars, porcupines, hedgehogs, badgers, foxes, kestrels, buzzards and owls.

A few years ago, then Wine Advocate Italian critic Antonio Galloni wrote that

“Petra is one of my favorite properties for intense, flavorful wines from the Suvereto district in Maremma,” and he later added, “I rarely hear Petra mentioned in a discussion of the best wines and wineries from the Tuscan coast, but year after year the wines are reliably outstanding and fairly priced. … The house style is one of bold, exuberant wines.”

Many of you loved the 2015 Petra Toscana Zingari we featured last year, taking it home by the box-full when we first offered and then coming back for more and more while it lasted. When the huge ratings and Wine Spectator Top 100 award for the 2017 came out late last year, the 2017 was still awaiting release in Italy and demand soared (and the winery took a price increase, too). Last year, we brought you 52 cases of the 2015. And 52 cases is all we were allocated for this even more stunning 2017 vintage.

The 2017 edition of Petra Toscana Zingari is pretty much everything you’d hope for in a $50 prestige bottling. At $17.98 by the bottle or $16.98/ea by the case, this is an order all you can and then rush down to pick it up via our contactless curbside pick-up or enjoy our expanded free delivery service to addresses in Arlington, Falls Church, Vienna, Tysons, McLean and Great Falls.

Moving Toward the South Pole: Malbec from Patagonia

Today’s featured Malbecs from Bodega Noemia give us a chance to continue our exploration of Argentina, but from a new perspective, moving from Mendoza down to Patagonia.

Differently Delicious!
Bodegas Noemia A Lisa and EstateThese Malbecs are also delicious, but differently delicious from the traditional Mendoza Malbec you’ve come to know over the years. In part that’s about place, specifically the Rio Negre region of Patagonia, about 525 miles to the south of Mendoza.

As you’d expect, moving so much closer to the South Pole brings cooler temperatures here than you’d find in Mendoza, although the drop in altitude from 3,000+ feet to around 800 feet elevation and copious amounts of sunshine means that the grapes still get plenty ripe. But the cool days and limestone rich soils match Malbec’s ripe raspberry and cherry fruit with a brisk and freshening dose of acidity. At just 13.5% alcohol and with only 40% seeing barrel (all old), it’s vibrant, juicy, and supremely food friendly.

Bodega Noemi’s Hans Vinding Diers
Hans Vinding-DiersThe other secret here is a truly great winegrower. Hans Vinding-Diers learned his craft with his cousin, Peter Sisseck of Pingus fame and while making benchmark Brunello di Montalcino at Argiano. He and Argiano’s then owner, Contessa Noemi Marone Cinzano, fell in love with the Rio Negre’s climate, beauty and chalky limestone soils when Hans came to the region to consult for another winery in 1998.

In 2000, Hans found a small plot of Malbec planted in 1932 and jumped at the chance to purchase it and found Bodega Noemia.

Hans has expanded his vineyard holding beyond that tiny plot and purchases some fruit from organically farming local neighbors and uses that plus his younger vines of Malbec plus 9% Merlot and 1% Petit Verdot to make A Lisa.

And the original, pre- phylloxera, 88 year-old vines? Those go into the Estate Malbec. We have a little of that available, too, and it’s the most delicious and compelling Malbec I’ve ever tasted. Splurge a bit on a bottle or two (you can mix/match with A Lisa for best prices) and get ready to be thrilled.

Wines of a Pope: Clement siblings from Bernard Magrez

Pope's castle CdPAs you probably know, the history of the Southern Rhone’s Chateauneuf du Pape is tightly connected to the history of the Papacy. Or is it the other way around? Which drove some papal decisions: politics, religion, or just love of good wine?

“Chateauneuf du Pape” translates as “the Pope’s new castle” and refers to the summer home build by the second Avignon Pope, John XXII on the top of a hill about 30km south of Avignon. Today, after scavenging for building stones by the local villagers and a partially successful attempt by German soldiers to blow up the building in 1944, only one wall of the Chateau remains. But the name carries on and applies to what are clearly the greatest Grenache vineyards in the world.

Pope and Wine Lover Clement V
Pope ClementEven more important to our story than John XXII, though, was one Bertrand de Goth, a long-time wine lover as he moved up in his career in the Catholic Church. When de Goth was made Bishop of Bordeaux in 1297, he was presented with a vineyard that had been farmed since 1255. He improved this estate and built a winery in 1300, and winemaking as continued there non-stop until today, making what is now called Ch Pape-Clement the oldest Chateau in Bordeaux.

In 1305, de Goth was elevated to Pope and took the name Clement V. But he decided that life in Rome was too dangerous for his taste. Or was it that the wine there wasn’t tasty enough? So Clement and the Papacy moved to Avignon, in Provence. At first they drank Bordeaux, but Clement ordered the planting and improvement of vineyards on the rocky soils to the north of Avignon. And, by his death in 1314, the local wine was already called “Vin de Pape.”

A CdP Sister to Clement Bordeaux
This wine was created to honor the first “Pape” in the southern Rhone by today’s owner of Ch Pape Clement in Bordeaux – wine magnate and millionaire Bernard Magrez.

Although Margrez has owned top estates in Bordeaux, Provence, Argentina, Chile, even the USA for years, Pape Clement Bordeaux has always been the group’s most important wine. And Magrez has long dreamed of creating a sister wine to his Bordeaux, one that honored Bertrand de Goth’s second winemaking career in Avignon.

It’s taken many years, but with the first US release of La Destinee de Clement V, his dream is now a reality.

Clement V CdP and castle

Mt. Etna’s Terre Nere: Pinot Noir Meets Brunello and Nebbiolo

nerello-mascalese-1727-1-1Have no idea what Nerello Mascalese is? Or never had a wine from Mount Etna before? And think “Sicilian red wine” means “fat, flabby and jammy” and that “Marco De Grazia” means “oaky and international styled”?

Let’s fix that, shall we?

We’ll start with the grape. Here’s how Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine and author of the world’s most comprehensive book on wine grapes describes Nerello Mascalese: “Noble, late-ripening Sicilian variety that retains its acidity well and is responsible for some dense and haunting reds on the slopes of Mount Etna.”

Grown on the poor, fast-draining soils of active volcano Mount Etna and blended with softer Nerello Cappuccio, Nerello Mascalese tastes like a cross between mature Barolo, warm-vintage red Burgundy, and classic leather and fruit-laced Brunello. Think ripe strawberries, sweet cherries, expensive leather, and dark flower aromas and flavors in a texture that has Pinot Noir’s silkiness, Sangiovese’s power, and great Nebbiolo’s stunning blend of acidity, tannin and perfume.

An Italian Icon on Mt Etna
mount-etna-volcanoNobody does a better job of pulling out all of Nerello’s delicious charm than Marco De Grazia. Best-known for introducing Americans to the joys of great Italian wines as an importer, Marco and his brother purchased a swath of old vine vineyards on the steep slopes of Mount Etna 30 years ago and have lovingly nurtured them as they used classic Burgundian winemaking techniques to make simply stunning wines.

Since moving to Sicily and founding Terre Nere, Marco has established himself as Mt Etna’s “benchmark” producer. The winery’s approach is straightforward. First, they have acquired old vineyards up and down the volcano’s slopes, giving them sites with a variety of exposures, slopes and soil types. Then they farm each site organically and to low yields. And make their wine simply and naturally, bottling each vineyard – or “contrada” – individually to showcase Mt Etna’s varieties of terroir.

The results have been spectacular from the beginning. As Wine Advocate reports, “Marco de Grazia-s influence on the wines of Etna looms as large as the massive volcano that dominates the landscape in this very special corner of Sicily.” We have a selection of the best of this fabulous set of wines. All are very limited and all very much worth your attention and space in your cellar.

Terre nere Mt Etna

Argentina: Continuing our Exploration

After years of thinking of Mendoza Malbec as a fairly monolithic wine, we’ve been discovering what a new generation of winemakers is doing in this high-altitude region, as they move away from an “international” style of winemaking and uncover how unique site and varietal combine to make wine that is both distinctive and delicious.

This week, we turn to tiny production Laureano Gomez, and the 700 bottle production of his 2018 Malbec Mendoza.

Laureano Gomez learned his craft over two decades as winemaker at Mendoza powerhouses Salentein and Trapiche, creating Trapiche’s “Iscay” red, often called Mendoza’s first “cult wine.” In 2010, he struck out on his own, converting the garage of his small house in the village of town of Colonia Las Rosas into a micro-winery. Today he works in an actual winery, built by his son, who studied construction after both his sisters became winemakers because “three winemakers in one family are enough.”

Organic, Dry Farmed Grapes
In both the garage and winery, though, Gomez’s approach is the same. All fruit was purchased from small, local growers who farm organically and without irrigation (still rare in Mendoza). The grapes are harvested by hand in small wooden boxes, sorted carefully, and then crushed and allowed to ferment at their own pace when the winery’s native yeast gets around to doing the job.

The wine moves from fermenter to barrel and tank by gravity – there are no pumps anywhere in the winery. When ready, Gomez and his family bottle the wine by hand, label the bottles by hand, and pack and tape up the boxes for sale locally and, in small quantities, in the USA.

As Natural as Possible
From first to last, the goal is to let the vineyards, vintage and varietals speak for themselves. So the grapes are picked ripe vs. over-ripe and new oak is used judiciously – only half the wine sees barrel, mostly used, for only six months.

The wines are never fined (a process used to remove sediment and/or tannins) or filtered, and are finished with very limited additions of sulfur, just enough to keep the wine from spoiling during shipment. At 40 ppm, the sulfite level in this wine is low enough to qualify for many “natural wine” competitions!

Further exploration
A bottle of Laureano Gomez’ wine will be open all week, and this weekend, expand your Mendoza exploration with a taste of Las Compuertas Criolla Mendoza 2019 – This varietal, called Mission in California and Pais in Chile, is the first wine grape brought to the New World from Europe. This is from 1943 plantings, full of tart cherry/strawberry fruit, and sweet/tart on the mouthwatering finish. Yummy, rare, very limited and very much worth trying.)

Priorat: Spain’s Answer to Chateauneuf?

priorat llicorella soils

As in Chateauneuf, Priorat soils are hidden by a layer of stones.

Priorat is an unbelievably rugged wine region in Catalonia, a couple of hours inland an up-country from Barcelona. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot sunshine partially moderated by altitude and wind. The vines grow on steeply sloped hillsides of fractured slate – often you have to dig through a foot or more of broken rock to get to the shallow soils where young vines are planted.

If the notion of soil hidden by stones brings to mind Chateauneuf du Pape, you’re on the right track. Except the rock is splintered granite instead of rounded off river stones. The main grapes overlap with Chateauneuf’s – Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan predominate – and ripen to the same big, bold, levels you find in the Southern Rhone.

But Utterly Unique
But Carignan – or Carinyena as it’s called here – plays a much bigger role (about 40% of AiAiAi’s blend). So you can think of Priorat as CdP but with more blue/black fruit character. And a more firm and powerful spine. And with an utterly unique and captivating sense of dusty slate on the nose, palate and finish.

Silvia Puig has been planting vineyards, growing grapes and making wine in Priorat for her whole adult life, and for the past 10 years or so she’s been creating some of the region’s most exciting, handcrafted, wines under the En Numeros Vermells label. Until recently, she’s made her tiny lots of bold, rich reds and whites (from a few hundred to 3,000 or so bottles of each wine) in the cellar of her home in the heart of Priorat (starting this year, she’s got her own winery – more on that to come later this spring!).

silvia-puig-2019.jpgWith such tiny production levels and a loyal customer base (like us – we sell more of Silvia’s wines than anyone!), she doesn’t have to present her wines to critics for review. But somehow Josh Raynolds of Vinous got his hands on a bottle of her “entry level” AiAiAi 2014. He wrote:

“A heady, exotically perfumed bouquet evokes ripe red and dark berries, potpourri and Indian spices, along with suggestions of cola and smoky minerals. Concentrated yet lithe, showing strong energy and focus to its juicy black raspberry, lavender pastille and spicecake flavors. The floral quality gains strength with air, carrying through a very long, sweet and gently tannic finish that leaves sappy berry and mineral notes behind.” Vinous (Raynolds) 92 points

Sound good? We’re featuring the 2018 AiAiAi this week, and 2018 is a much better year and this is an even more exciting wine. In fact, even though this is Silvia’s “entry-level” red, it easily outshines most Priorat wineries’ top reds.

And the name? It comes from Silvia’s experience making wine in the basement of her house while tending young children playing in the cellar. “AiAiAi, get off those barrels.” “AiAiAi, don’t fall in the vat!” But the name is just as apt as a description of your reaction when you taste this stunning 2018.

“AiAiAi! That’s delicious!”

Dom La Barroche: Letting Nature Do It (with Lots of Hard Work)

Julien Barrot of Dom Barroche

The Barrot family owns 36 acres of some of Chateauneuf’s finest vineyard land, with 30 acres in production and six acres lying fallow in preparation for new planting.

Lying Fallow
Julien will leave more than five percent of his land out of production for seven full years – shocking given the value of CdP vineyard! – because, “When you think about it, a parcel could have been used for vinegrowing for 100 straight years or longer. There is no way the soil can recover in just a few years after that.”

The producing land is mainly sandy-soiled sites in some of the region’s best areas, including an important slice abutting Rayas. The average vine age is 65 years, with multiple plots comfortably over the century mark and all farmed with organic care.

Staying Fresh in a Warmer Season
In the third year of his new gravity flow winery, Julien Barrot continues to take major steps to increase the purity and finesse of his wines and moderate the extreme ripeness and power the region sometimes struggles to manage in an era of warmer growing seasons.

He now makes no green harvest to increase the workload of the vines and moderate sugar levels. All of the Grenache remained on the stems for fermentation, adding a touch of spice and extra layer of freshness. And all of the fruit fermented in unlined “raw” concrete egg-shaped tanks to gain very gentle extraction and tamp down fruitiness a tiny bit.

“A Lazy Culture?”
Meeting Julien at the Domaine this past March demonstrated that the exuberance and generosity of the Dom la Barroche wines is simply a reflection of this marvelous young winemaker. Describing his hands-off, low-intervention, style of farming and winemaking, Julien repeatedly said, “We are a lazy culture in Provence. We never do anything if nature will do it for us!”

Of course, his energy in hopping from tank to tank and barrel to barrel to show off samples of the 2018s and pride in showing off the iPhone app he uses to track and manage fermentation temperatures while in the vineyards picking grapes didn’t look or sound very “lazy” to me! But the blend of doing nothing but what is necessary, while doing that full-tilt and with no restraint, is exactly why Julien’s 2017s are so very, very exciting.

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