Fine Wine, Fine Vintages in Beaujolais

chateau-thivin-domaine-mont-brouillyThere’s going to be quite an argument about which of the past three vintages is the “greatest ever” in Beaujolais.

Vintage 2014 delivered classic, vibrant, elegant wines that capture the essence of Gamay’s juicy joy. Harvest 2015 added much deeper, riper, fruit and more density than usual, but with no loss of energy or minerality. And the 2016 harvest – while seriously reduced by hail and frost – may turn out to marry the best characteristics of 2015 and 2014 combined.

What will broach no argument is that Chateau Thivin made utterly brilliant wines in all three years, continuing to cement their place among the very best in all of Beaujolais – arguably, among the best in Burgundy as a whole.

Ancient Volcano, Modern Winery
Ch Thivin la_famille_geoffray The estate founded in 1383 and purchased by the Geoffray family in 1877. The chateau (yes, there really is one), winery and the estate’s best vineyards perch on the sides of an extinct volcano called Mont Brouilly.

The volcano’s very steep slope – around 40 degrees in the heart of the vineyard – provides excellent drainage, fantastic exposure to the sun, and the platform for the Geoffray family’s modern gravity-flow winery.

When others in Beaujolais chased quick and easy cash in the Beaujolais Nouveau boom of the 1970s and 1980s, the Geoffray family just kept on making fine wine. Vineyards are plowed to create healthier soils, no insecticides are used, and grapes are harvested and sorted by hands.

Whole bunches of ripe, juicy Gamay grapes roll by gravity into tanks were fermentation starts naturally with no additions of yeast or enzymes or anything else. After a day, rosé tanks are pressed gently and finish fermentation in stainless steel. Reds soak for a week or so before pressing and racking into large, old, wood casks and bottling six months later. And for these wines, that’s it.

Ch Thivin was long well-known as one of Beaujolais’s great estates within France, but pretty much unheard of in the US until the 1970s. That’s when importer Kermit Lynch first visited the Domaine and made it one his earliest imports to the USA. And I think his description of Ch Thivin today is still the best summing up we can offer. Thivin’s wines, he says, are “a country squire who is not afraid to get his boots muddy. Handsome, virile, earthy, and an aristocrat.”

‘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.”   

Not-So-Temperate Toro

Toro

Look down on the gentle hills, Roman bridge, and sprawling vineyards from the hilltop town of Toro and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Really? They can grow good grapes here?” This extreme western portion of the Spanish province of Castilla y Leon is hot, barren, and dry. With summer high temperatures reaching 100 degrees and only 14 inches of rain annually, it’s very nearly desert. And, the high altitude (most vineyards sit at 2,000-2,500 feet above sea level) means that even summer nights get cool and that winters are bitter with mid-winter lows in the teens.

And yet, wine grapes have been grown here for 1,000 years or so. With so little rainfall, early farmers adopted a strategy of planting their vines far apart – as much as 10 feet in all directions can separate vines in the stoniest soils. With these ultra-low densities, each grape vine can spread its roots broadly and deeply to capture the all too scarce rainfall.

Tempranillo for Toro. Over the centuries, a new mutation of Spain’s Tempranillo grape emerged, one that was best able to handle the extreme temperatures and dry conditions. The locals called it “Tinta de Toro,” and it remains the best red wine grape in the region today.

Ample sunshine and hot days Tinta de Toro to ripen to powerful levels, but the cool nights “fix” color and the bright acidity needed to balance massive fruit levels. By medieval times, Toro reds were some of Spain’s most famous, but the region faded from attention with the rise of Rioja (located closer to the all important rail line to Bordeaux) in the 1800s. By the mid-1990s, only 6 wineries remained in operation here, all producing ripe but rustic reds for bulk sales or local consumption.

A Toro Revival. Today there are more than 50 commercial wineries in Toro, and Finca Sobreño’s success is a big reason why. In the mid-1990s, current manager Roberto San Ildefonso and a group of Rioja winemakers created the Bodega to take advantage of the hundreds of acres of old-vine Tempranillo remaining in the region. They build one of the first modern wineries in the region, purchased 200 acres of prime vineyard and eventually locked up access to another 400 acres of old vines as well.

Over the past 20 years, Roberto San Ildefonso and his daughter, Paloma, have established Finca Sobreño as one of Toro’s most outstanding wineries. By the 2006 harvest, Wine Advocate already recognized Finca Sobreño as “an annual fixture in these pages for its superb value,” and wine writer Anthony Dias Blue was calling it “One of best new estates in Toro.”

I’ve admired Finca Sobreño for everyday value for years, but my visit to the winery two summers ago to taste the new releases was an eye-opener. Significant investments in farming and winemaking have taken quality here to new heights. The wines are as ripe, powerful, and explosive as ever, but there’s a new sophistication to the textures and better integration of oak. But – with a little help from importer Fran Kysela – the prices are the best they’ve been in years!

What Makes Chateauneuf Chateauneuf?

Lirac galet

Ten feel of pebbly path separate the Champauvin vineyard from Chateauneuf du Pape.

As you may know, the name and fame of the Rhone Valley wine region called Chateauneuf du Pape dates from the 1300s when the Papacy temporarily moved from Rome to the French city of Avignon. The Popes built a summer palace north of Avignon on the crest of a big hill overlooking the Rhone Valley. Locals called it “the Pope’s New Castle” – Chateauneuf du Pape. As the Church spurred growth in the Rhone’s vineyards to meet its ceremonial and social needs, the name came to be applied to the better vineyards surrounding the hill.

Once the Pope returned to Rome, the name dropped out of use and the wines came to be known simply as “vin d’Avignon” until the Chateauneuf name was resurrected in the mid-1800s. The wines gradually gained respect within France until phylloxera wiped out the vineyards in the late 1800s.

In the early 20th Century, growers in the area realized that they couldn’t compete with the rapidly developing Languedoc-Rousillon region in the south for pure bulk wine production. Seeking to improve quality, in the early 1930s they banded together to resurrect the brand of Chateauneuf du Pape and establish rules for what wines could or could not use that label. Their approach ultimately became the basis for all France’s designated wine regions – the Appelation Controlee system. The rules specified maximum yields, minimum alcoholic strength (12.5%), and determined which grapes were of acceptable quality (a hard debate settled on a list of 13 varieties).

Mapmaking Gone Wrong
And they drew a map specifying which lands were allowable for Chateauneuf du Pape and which would be left out (and ultimately be labeled Cotes du Rhone):

Cdp and Champauvins Map

To the south and west of the town of Chateauneuf, setting boundaries was easy. As the land sloped down towards the Rhone River, it eventually became too wet to support vineyards.

The eastern side was also easy, if not really based on vineyard character. The drafters simply followed the main road running from Avignon to Orange (now the A7 Autoroute) from the village of le Coulaire in the south and up to the end of the vineyards belonging to Chateau Beaucastel in the north. This sliced one of Beaucastel’s vineyards – called Coudoulet – in two, leaving half of the vineyard in and half out of Chateauneuf. Not entirely fair, but at least easy to explain.

What happened next is a bit of a mystery. The Jaume family farmed a collection of vineyards pretty much due west of Beaucastel and just under the Orange road. The vineyards have the same sub-soils and top-soils as Beaucastel, were covered by the rounded “galet” stones that are Chateauneuf’s hallmarks, and were planted to the same grapes. The logical thing to do would have been to simply continue to follow the road as it curved around to the west a little further and then allow the line to curve back down to the south to the river as the soils changed from red, iron rich gravel to more sand and limestone after the Jaume’s vineyards ended.

Instead, the drafters elected to abandon the Orange road just above Beaucastel and draw the boundary line down a narrow gravel path that ran right through the middle of the Jaume vineyards. The very fine vineyards planted in 1905 and still used for Grand Veneur Chateauneuf du Pape Les Origines plus another medium-sized vineyard became Chateauneuf. The 35 hectare Champauvins vineyard, identical in every way to the vineyards across the 10 foot wide path would be Cotes du Rhone.

Outstanding Wine the Best Revenge!
champauvin and galetIt’s hard to imagine how frustrated and upset the Jaume family must have been when they saw the new region’s map, and we know they protested and demanded explanations for years (but never got one). And, when you visit the Jaume’s at their modest winery just outside Chateauneuf, you get the sense that they still are not entirely over the injustice of making Champauvins somehow “less” than vineyards a few feet away.

Fortunately, under the leadership first of Alain Jaume and today of his sons, Sebastien and Christophe, the family’s Domaine Grand Veneur has decided that quality is its own revenge. They farm Champauvins like the Chateauneuf vines across the path, working mainly by hand (necessary with bush vines and gravel-covered soils) and using certified organic viticultural techniques. Yields are similar to their Chateauneuf vineyards, meaning the Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes achieve fantastic ripeness without any excess of sugar or roasted, pruny flavors.

In the modern winery, the winemaking for Champauvins is “old school” all the way. Fermentations proceed slowly with gentle pump-overs to extract classic Rhone flavor and structure without adding any harsh tannins. Grenache (70% of the blend) ages in concrete tanks to help it retain color and fruit. Syrah and Mourvedre mellow in old oak casks, given them the tiny bit of air they need to round out without imparting any oak flavor.

The result is a wine chock-full of big, deep, aromas of kirsch, black cherry, crushed herb, wild lavender, black olive and dark chocolate flow from the glass. Those same notes flow across your palate in a rich, vibrant, wine that coats your mouth with flavor and leaves ripe, fine-grained, tannins lingering behind. If they wanted to, the Jaume family could give this the same heft and density that makes “true” Chateauneuf so cellar-worthy (if hard to enjoy young), but because it’s “just” Cotes du Rhone and cannot command Chateauneuf prices, they craft it to be open, supple, savory, and delicious right now.

Dom Grand Veneur Les Champauvins Cotes du Rhone

Wine That’s (Much!) Better Than Asparagus – The Paring from California’s Jonata

Jonata Vineyard, Winery, 191.6, Ballard Canyon, California(MultiA few years ago, billionaires Gerald Levin, Arnon Milchan, and Charles Banks (then owner of Napa’s Screaming Eagle) brought France’s Michel Rolland to see a patch of land in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. “What should we plant here?” they asked.

“Asparagus. I think you’d be better off planting asparagus,” Rolland replied

Fortunately, they didn’t listen. The trio decided to plant an 80 acre plot with 10 different varietals from Bordeaux, the Rhone and beyond. And when Matt Dees joined as Jonata’s first winemaker in 2004, they discovered that pretty much everything they planted made terrific wine!

An Expensive and Successful Main Label
Jonata’s “main label” wines have racked up huge ratings since the first releases, with 95s, 96s, and 97s scattered across the range. Now that Screaming Eagle’s current owner, Stan Kronke, had taken the reins, there’s a no-expenses-spared approach to vineyard management, harvest, and winemaking. And while the Jonata wines hit pretty stratospheric heights for Central Coast bottlings – lots of $80-$140 offerings – Robert Parker says, “Fasten your seatbelts as these wines will give purchasers a serious ride for their money!”

The Jonata style is big, bold, and built for the cellar. As the Wine Advocate’s current Central Coast critic, Jeb Dunnuck says, “this is always one of my favorite tastings. However, due to the mouth-damaging levels of tannin and structure these wines show in their youth, this is one tasting I have to schedule at the end of day!”

And a Softer Second Wine
That’s where The Paring comes in. Every vintage, a few barrels of Jonata’s wine turned out to be too supple, soft, and ready to drink – not right for the main label’s vin de garde, have to be cellared for years, house style.

For the first few years, Jonata simply sold these barrels off to other wineries. But as the vineyards matured, the quality of these “off lots” just kept getting better and better. So much so that, starting in 2011, the winery decided they should bottle and sell these seconds themselves.

“Superb Values”

The first release of wines under The Paring label came in 2011 and the critics were very, very, impressed. As Wine Advocate’s Jeb Dunnuck said tasting the inaugural 2010s, “These value-priced efforts are made by Matt Dees and the Jonata team, and are primarily made from declassified grapes from both their The Hilt and Jonata labels. They represent superb values and are a great intro to the style of the more expensive releases.”

By 2012, The Paring had expanded to six wines and the quality kept getting better and better. As Dunnuck said after tasting the whole line-up, “Made by the team at Jonata, these wines are basically declassified lots that didn’t make the cut for the top Jonata releases. These 2012s are a step up from past vintages and are crazy values. Don’t miss a chance to grab some of these!”

The 2013s are clearly the best yet. As Antonio Galloni from Vinous wrote after tasting the 2013s, “The four wines in this range are all absolutely delicious.” And, even at the release prices, he declared them, “among the very finest values readers will find in California. A great choice for by the case purchases or glass pours, these new releases from The Paring deliver serious bang for the buck. It simply does not get better than this.”

Tall Vines: From Pure Power to Powerful Purity

jean-royer-rugby

Winemaker Jean-Marie played Rugby with top wine consultant Philippe Cambie.

Jean-Marie Royer reclaimed his family’s vineyards (leased out after his father’s early death) 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, completely typical Chateauneuf du Pape.

Seeking Elegance and Freshness. About 10 years ago, Jean-Marie realized that he wanted more elegance and freshness in his wines and less alcoholic heat and jamminess. With 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.
jean-royer-vines
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!).

Beautiful CdP – If You Can Find It! The critical praise for Jean-Marie Royer’s wines just keeps piling up, even as the wines get harder and harder to find here in the USA. After lauding Domain Jean Royer’s 2014 Chateauneufs for being “elegant, distinctly pure” and “filled with pure Grenache love,” both Wine Advocate and Vinous urged readers to try to find these wines – but warned they’re hard to come by in the USA.

“All of the 2014s from this estate are downright impressive and well worth seeking out.” – Jeb Dunnuck, Wine Advocate, October 2016.

“The Châteauneufs of Isabel and Jean-Marie Royer have consistently been among the appellation’s most graceful and Burgundy-like bottlings for the better part of the last two decades…Their wines enjoy a strong local following and a growing list of private customers from across Europe, and finding the wines outside the Continent is no easy task.” – Josh Raynolds, Vinous, April 2016

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’ve never had the ability to promote them widely. A visit with Jean-Marie last year seems to have fixed that, and our friends at Potomac Selections and broker Tom Calder have helped us get the wines to you at simply stunning prices. Snap ’em up!

A Good Zin is Hard (and Expensive) to Find

For the last few decades, Zinfandel has been sort of synonymous with inexpensive, easy drinking reds and really inexpensive (OK, cheap) pink plonk. And while these wines still exist (Sutter Home makes 4 million bottles of White Zinfandel a year!), high quality Zinfandel that’s made more like, shall we say, grownup wine, has crept steadily upward in price in the last few years, making it harder and harder to unearth wines like the Victor Vineyards, with balanced fruit and spice and a well under $20 price tag.

Sought-after, ‘cult’-y wines like Turley and Ridge are partially to blame for this price creep, but we can’t entirely pin this on the aspirations of ambitious winemakers. A big part of this is the vines themselves.

Old Zin Vines Lodi

Saving the Old Vines. Considered embarrassing wine with training wheels by many, White Zinfandel gave us one thing: growers had a reason to preserve the few old Zinfandel vines that date back to the 19th and early 20th century. And these gnarled old vines haven’t had an easy life.

Many, like the ones on Victor Vineyards estate, were planted in the late 19th and early 20th century by immigrants who saw that the warm climate and sandy soil in Lodi would be perfect for orchards and vineyards. Victor Vineyards was the site of the first cold storage facility for holding fruit and grapes at the right temperature before shipping – established in 1920 – and their tasting room is still housed in one of these old storage warehouses.

The 1920s brought something else that threatened the life of the Zinfandel vines that would become historic American treasures: Prohibition. There was still a fairly brisk grape growing business during Prohibition, since home winemaking was still legal for the most part. But many Zinfandel vines were ripped out and replaced with Alicante Bouschet, because Zinfandel was very prone to rotting on journeys to the East Coast, where many grapes grown for home winemaking were shipped. Lastly, these vines survived the phylloxera crisis of the 1980s in California.

The Old Vine Advantage … Often Means Expensive. Old vines, while they grow complex, flavorful fruit, don’t grow very much of it, so making wine from these historic plants is much more expensive than it would be from younger, more vigorous vines. Old Zin vines are also almost always what we call ‘head trained’ or bush trained, which means that the vines aren’t neatly trellised on wires in a way that makes them easy to harvest by machine. More handwork means more expensive wine.

Though there is no legal definition for old vines, it is generally agreed upon that 40 is when vines become ‘old.’ We’ll leave the debate on what the definition for ‘old’ is in people for another email, but we think the dividing line might be whether or not you understand Snapchat…

All of this makes the fact that Victor Vineyards is able to craft an affordable, delicious, balanced Zinfandel aged in French oak (which is more expensive than American oak) from 100 year old vines all the more impressive!

– Diane McMartin

Victor Zin and glass