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!”

Distinctive and Delicious Malbecs from Mendoza

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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 this Saturday (Jan. 11, 2020), we are 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!

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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Beautiful Bierzo: Wines From Green Spain

We’re really loving discovering wines from “Green Spain,” the exciting and fast evolving slice of Spain due north of Portugal, including Galicia and the westernmost slice of Castilla y Leon. Last spring we introduced you to winemaker Pedro Rodriguez and his Guimaro wines – from the dizzyingly steep vineyards of Ribeira Sacra.

1200px-DO_Bierzo_location.svgThis week, we move inland to Bierzo, and the wines of one of Pedro Rodriguez’ mentors, Raul Perez.

Warmer than Ribeira Sacra, Bierzo blends the copious and warming sunshine of central Spain with the cold air and brisk breezes of the nearby Atlantic coast.

Remote and Wild
The best vines grow on sloped, often terraced vineyards like the ones first planted by the Romans when they came here to mine gold more than two thousand years ago. The  grapes here are probably the same the Romans farmed, too – wild field blends that, today, include everything from scattered plants of Bastardo (Trousseau), Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet), Doña Blanca and Palomino to the region’s most important vine: Mencia.

Bierzo is pretty remote and, once the Romans mined all the gold, the region was largely cut off from the rest of the world, except for the Catholic church and regular visits from pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.

Modern Times
The first modern fine wine from Bierzo dates from the arrival of Priorat’s Alvear Palacio in the late 1980s and his founding of Bierzo’s best-known winery today, Descendientes de J. Palacios. Palacio’s wines took advantage of sun, heat and ripeness and introduced new French oak to prove to the world that Mencia didn’t need to be thin, light, or wan.

If Alvear Palacio first brought the world’s attention to Bierzo, then Raul Perez revolutionized everyone’s understanding of what Bierzo (and the wines of Galicia in general) could become.

Raul Perez 2“The Best Winemaker in the World?
Perez made his first Bierzo at his family’s winery in 1994 at age 22, and when he set out on his own in 2005, he quickly became one of the world’s – not just Spain’s – most talked about, admired and inspirational winemakers.

He was named “Winemaker of the Year” by German publication Der Feinschmecker in 2014 and “Best Winemaker in the World” for 2015 by France’s Bettane+Desseauve. And when Decanter profiled him last year, they captioned his photograph, “Is this the best winemaker in the world?”

We’re offering Raul Perez’s Bierzo Ultreia 2016 this week: It’s proof in a bottle that the accolades are deserved. If you like red Burgundy from Cote de Beaune vineyards, Oregon Pinot with plenty of earth to go with the fruit, great Cru Beaujolais, crisp and herbal Cabernet Franc, old-school Rioja – in short any wine that’s all about the combination of perfume, complexity, vibrancy, freshness and amazing flexibility to pair with any kind of food at all…well, this is the wine for you!

But, no need to take our word for it. The Wine Advocate 93 point Raul Perez Tinto Ultreia 2016 will be open to taste for yourself all week long. The wine is fantastic, the pricing the best in the country, and the opportunity all too fleeting. Because only 500 cases or so were bottled and Spain keeps most for itself.

Amarone: A Short History of an Intense Wine

Amarone wine glassAmarone is one of the biggest, most intense wines made in Europe, commonly coming in at 15% abv and often reaching 16% and beyond. It comes from Italy’s Valpolicella region, situated between Verona to the west and Venice to the east, and its history goes back to ancient times.

The Greeks made wine in Valpolicella even before the Romans arrived – and the name itself is thought to be a mash up of Latin and Greek meaning “Valley of Cellars.” The region has always enjoyed strong local demand for its light, aromatic red wines made from native grapes Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella. And, today, the overwhelming bulk of wine made here is still in a light, easy-drinking style for drinking casually and young.

Strong and Sweet to Please the Ancients

amarone grapes

Grapes for Amarone are air dried to concentrate the juice.

A couple of thousand years ago, though, the Greeks and Romans liked their wines strong and sweet – in part because they are better able to withstand storage in porous containers like clay amphora – so they invented a style of winemaking today called appassimento.

Ripe grapes were harvested in autumn and then laid out on straw mats (today more hygienic plastic mats or slatted wooden bins are used) under the roof of a shed. As the cool breezes blew over the grapes, they gradually lost water, leaving sweeter and sweeter juice behind. When the dried grapes were made into wine, they had more alcohol than regular wine and, usually, a big slug of residual sugar as well.

Going Dry: That’s “Amaro!” for Today
Winemakers in the Veneto continued making this strong, sweet wine – called “Recioto della Valpolicella” in modern times – right through the mid-1950s. Then, something strange happened, although no one really knows how. We’ll go with the most popular legend: A winemaker left his fermenting batch of Recioto in the vat for several weeks longer than usual. The yeast in that vat somehow found the strength and muscle to keep working through the heavy sugar load past 12% alcohol, through 13% and all the way to 14% or so. At that point, there was no residual sugar remaining, and when the winemaker tasted it, he declared it “Amaro” – or “bitter” – compared to his normal sweet red Recioto.

This dryer style of wine – called “Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone” at first and today simply as “Amarone della Valpolicella” – found fans and soon became Valpolicella’s most famous and important wine. Usually, it’s so jam-packed with the flavors of dried fruit, balsamic, earth, leather, crushed flowers and more, that it needs to be paired with big, rich, foods (Osso Bucco is a classic match). Or, as is often done in Italy, enjoyed after the main course with strong cheeses and dried fruit.

Roccolo Grassi’s Amarone
Marco at Roccolo GrassiIf you love great Amarone and don’t know the name “Roccolo Grassi” yet, then you’re in for a real treat.

When Wine Advocate first tasted winemaker Marco Sartori’s 2003 Amarone, they called him “one of Veneto’s most promising young producers.” And since then, the praise keeps coming. Now, his 2013 Amarone joins Marco’s 2006 as his second Wine Advocate 95 point red and showcases a distinctive, thoughtful, and utterly delicious approach to crafting this unique Italian powerhouse red.

Like all Amarone estates, the Corvione, Rondinella and Croatina grapes used here are allowed to air dry after being picked, but with an important difference. Traditionally, grapes destined for Amarone are not picked terribly ripe so the drying process is responsible for both most of the wine’s body and much of its flavor. Marco takes a different approach, allowing his grapes to hang on the vines longer to achieve more natural ripeness and flavor and then air drying for a shorter time than most – 90 days vs 120. This means his Amarone has plenty of classic dried fruit and chocolate character, but also an uncommon level of freshness and amazing complexity and finesse.

Roccolo Grassi Amarone della Valpolicella 2013 is going to age beautifully and take on even more savory tobacco/herb and meaty notes over the next 15 or so years. But it’s so delicious now for the ripe fruit that there’s no reason to wait to start digging into it right now – or at least on the first combination of cold night and warm fire you encounter this year. Especially at our best in the USA prices on six-bottles or more while this special offer lasts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Special Site in La Crau

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Great Vintages, Brilliant Wines at Beaujolais’ Ch Thivin

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Claude Geoffray of Ch Thivin in Burgundy’s Beaujolais

There’s going to be quite an argument about which of the past five 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. Vintage 2016 brought things back to a more elegant style while 2017 showed more flesh and breadth. And 2018 delivered flesh and body with no loss of vivacity and style.

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

From 1383 to Today
chateau-thivin-domaine-mont-brouillyThe 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.

Ch Thivin photo of vineyards.jpgThe estate’s best vineyards perch on the sides of an extinct volcano called Mont Brouilly. 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 where 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.

A Kermit Lynch Discovery
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 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.” – Kermit Lynch