Aglianico – The Best Grilling Grape You Don’t Know (and a grilled ratatouille recipe)

AglianicoGrown in the steep hills of Italy’s Basilicata, inland from Naples, Aglianico is the best grape in the world that nobody knows (or, if you know it, don’t drink enough of). Wine writers try to get drinkers to pay attention to it by calling it “the Barolo of the South.” Because, like Piemonte’s Nebbiolo, it’s wonderfully aromatic, full of bracing acidity, laced with sharp, firm, tannins, and can live and gain complexity for decades.

But “Barolo” it ain’t. It’s much more fun than that, especially when grown on the old lava flows of the extinct volcano, Monte Vulture. For one thing, it’s darker, fleshier, and more powerful than Barolo, serving up fine concentration of black raspberry and blueberry fruit to Nebbiolo’s fine cherry and strawberry.

Mt VultureAnd it’s wilder than Barolo, with a direct, assertive, ready to party by the grill, boldness and layer upon layer of summer-friendly wild herb, black olive, violet and earth notes. And while Aglianico from more famous Taurasi needs years in bottle to be much fun, many Aglianico del Vulture (like this one!) are delicious and ready to rock out on the deck as soon as they arrive in the USA.

While this is fun to hang out with and drink, growing fine Aglianico is serious work – work no one has done better over the last 40+ years than d’Angelo. Lucio d’Angelo’s ancestors had grown Aglianico for centuries before he started his winery in 1971. And Lucio and his children, Rocco and Erminia, almost single-handedly created the DOCG and set the standards for what great Aglianico del Vulture is all about.

The hard work starts in the vineyards, where the Basilicata’s high altitudes and low latitudes mean days can be brutally hot and nights chilly to frigid. Aglianico can’t really be grown successfully under any other conditions because it buds very early – when frost is too likely in lower sites – and needs to hang for months and months to develop flavor and soften fierce tannins. By the time the d’Angelo family harvests their Aglianico in late-October/early November, essentially all of Italy’s Sangiovese, Nero d’Avola, Bordeaux varietals, and even Nebbiolo are already bubbling away in their fermenters.

Once the grapes are painstakingly picked by hand – as they must be on these mountain slopes – they are crushed and ferment warm and vigorously to extract color and flavor to match naturally high acids and tannins. Then comes the wait: 20 months in huge, old, oak casks to allow the tannins to soften and full, fleshy, flavors to emerge.

d'Angelo Aglianico del Vulture

And, when all that’s done…the wine still releases at just $25 vs the $50-$150 Barolo gets. Which makes this gloriously fruit-filled, complex, powerful red a steal all the time, but especially from $17.98 this week.

Come on by and try it – we’ll keep a bottle of d’Angelo Aglianico Del Vulture open to try this week through Friday’s free tasting. And if you want to taste Aglianico’s perfect match, check out my recipe for Grilled Ratatouille. We think you’ll enjoy them both!


Doug’s Grilled Ratatouille

Grilled RatatouilleSauternes and foie gras. Ribeye steak and Napa Cab. Meursault and lobster. Fine Bordeaux and roast lamb. Every wine has a perfect pairing, a match that elevates both the food and the wine. And for Aglianico, my perfect pairing is anything laced with salty/savory olives, roasted peppers, basil, and/or capers.

You and make that match happen with something as involved as a hearty southern Italian lamb stew or as simple as an antipasto platter of olives, peppers, cured meats and cheese. But with summer’s bounty starting to arrive at farmers’ markets all around town, my favorite pairing with southern Italy’s Aglianico is a riff on a classic from the South of France: Grilled Ratatouille.

This started off as a somewhat fussy recipe from Cooks Illustrated, but now it’s more of an approach than a recipe per se. Sometimes I have more eggplant, sometimes less. Sometimes I grill everything until it’s mushy, sometimes I leave things more crisp. And sometimes I leave it rich and dense and other times add a big jolt of lemon juice for freshness. It always seems to come out great, though, and as long as you make sure to have enough capers/olives and basil, I promise it will taste great with Aglianico!

Ingredients
Note: This makes about 6-8 servings as a side dish. I usually double it, but you can futz with the mix anyway you like and it will still come out great.

  • 1 red onion peeled and quartered, leaving enough stem to hold the quarters together
  • 2lb eggplant sliced about 1 inch thick
  • 1.5lb zucchini sliced in half or into thick planks (depending on how big your squash is!)
  • 2 bell peppers cored and quartered (yellow or red are fun)
  • 1lb tomatoes cut in half along the equator (more is good, too)
  • ¼ cup chopped basil (more is ok)
  • 1 tbsp chopped thyme
  • 1 tbsp capers or 2 tbl chopped black olives (or both – just watch the salt)
  • 3 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic grated or mashed into a paste
  • ¼ cup really good olive oil plus more for tossing/brushing
  • Salt & pepper
    Lemon juice

Directions

Brush both sides of the eggplant slices with a little oil and sprinkle with a little salt.

Put the other veggies in a large mixing bowl (in batches) and toss with oil to coat; lay out on baking sheets and salt lightly.

Get your grill hot; with charcoal, do a two-level fire; with gas, leave one row/side off

Get grill marks on the onion over direct heat and then move to other side of grill to cook until soft

Put the eggplant over the direct fire and grill, turning frequently, until they are softening (your choice of still a little toothsome or full on mushy)

Put the bell peppers, zucchini, and tomatoes (in batches) over the hot side of the grill, turning until both sides show grill marks; either continue turning over direct heat or move to other side until they are as soft as you want them.

When the veggies have cooled, rub the skins off the tomatoes and peppers (don’t worry if some stays on – no one will care).

Chop everything up to the size you like – I go pretty chunky, but it’s up to you – and put everything in a big bowl with the olives/capers, thyme and basil

Make a dressing of the sherry vinegar, ¼ cup olive oil and garlic (I use an immersion blender but you can go old school and whisk it together), and pour on the veggies and toss.

Taste and add more salt and pepper if you like and a squeeze of lemon juice if that’s your thing. Serve warm or room temperature with Aglianico!

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Why We Love Zeitgeist Cabernet

Zeitgeist WinemakersWe think that one taste of Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 is all you’ll need to fall in love with this lush, rich, luxurious Napa red. And, how great it tastes has a lot to do with why we love it, too. But it’s only part of the reason we became this small-production Napa Cabernet’s foremost champions in the Mid-Atlantic nearly five years ago.

We introduced the mid-Atlantic region to Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon four years ago with the un-rated 2011 bottling. Why did we pre-buy a substantial quantity of a not terribly inexpensive, utterly unknown, wine in what was easily Napa’s least popular vintage in 25 years – without even tasting the finished wine?

Because as soon as I met co-owner/winemaker Mark Porembski and tasted his 2010 Napa Cabernet, I could tell this was a person and a project we wanted to be a part of. Mark and his wife/partner, Jennifer Williams (formerly of Spottswoode), care about the things we care about. Hard work. Exhaustive selection. Careful craftspersonship. And, most of all: having fun with delicious, authentic, place-centered wine with no snobbery, attitude or fuss.

The Critics Pay Attention
ZeitgeistWith Mark and Jenn’s 2012 vintage, the Wine Advocate began paying attention and (under) rated it 91 points. The next year, Robert Parker upped the rating for the 2013 to 93 points. In 2014, the 10th bottling of Zeitgeist Cab, Parker’s Wine Advocate delivered Mark and Jen an “Outstanding” 94 points. And while Parker hasn’t tasted the 2015, his former associate, Jeb Dunnuck, popped the rating up to a fine 94+ points in 2015!

After tasting that succulent 2010, it took us a couple of years to persuade Mark to sell us any wine – after all, with only 330-450 cases made per year and “insider” fans up and down the West Coast, there wasn’t much to spare. But – as we said – Mark’s our kind of guy, and even as the praise and ratings roll in, he’s remained generous in giving us all the Zeitgeist Cab we ask for.

So, by all means, feel free to enjoy the 2015 Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon for its bold fruit, velvety texture, and powerful, cellar-worthy, finish. And it won’t bother us if you notice that this wine delivers the quality and intensity that you normally only find in $100+ (even $200+) bottlings.

But if you really want to “get” why this is so special, plan a trip to California and, before you go, give Mark a call at the winery to schedule a visit. An hour with Mark (or Jenn if she’s available) will remind you that there’s more to wine and winemaking than what’s in your glass. And that little bit extra is why wine can be so very, very, exciting and satisfying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Homecoming Story: Remelluri Rioja

Telmo RodriguezTelmo Rodriguez’s first time returning home did not go well.

He’d left to study at the University of Bordeaux, made wine at Cos d’Estournel, and then worked in Cornas, Hermitage, Châteauneuf and Provence. He returned to Remelluri to work with his father in 1989.

But after a few years of battling over farming methods, winemaking approach and more, Telmo left home for the second time to explore new regions and vineyards across Spain. Today he is one of Spain’s most important winemakers and a vocal champion for authentic grapes, vineyards and wines.

Coming Home Again … and Making Changes
In 2010, Telmo’s father retired and Telmo came home once again to lead the family estate. In his homecoming year, he made important changes – starting with telling the 30 or so farmers his father had been purchasing grapes from that Remelluri would now use only their own, estate-grown, grapes. (Not to worry – he also helped those farmers found their own label and both made and marketed their wine for them!) Since 2010, Remelluri has become one of Rioja’s only “Chateau Estates,” making wine only from grapes they grow themselves.

Telmo picked a great year to come home, because vintage 2010 is perhaps Rioja’s greatest modern harvest. In this nearly perfect year, he harvested low-yields of Tempranillo (about 90%) plus Garnacha, Graciano and white grapes Viura and Malvasía Riojana. All were grown organically, harvested by hand, and fermented with native yeast in stainless steel. A full 17 months in mostly used French oak casks of various sizes let the wines round out and gain spice. Time in bottle allowed the final blend to integrate and add complexity to the sweet, ripe fruit.

remelluri reserva rioja“Real Deal” Reserva Rioja
The result is what I can only call “the real deal” in Reserva-level Rioja. The aromas are fantastic, interleaving scents of crushed cherry and raspberry with fragrant warm spice, orange peel, and fresh earth aromas. The texture is deep and rich, but with a classic touch of Rioja lift, and generous flavors of ripe fruit, sweet and savory spice, cedar, and more. The firm, dusty, finish is the perfect complement to earthy lamb or pork dishes and promises plenty of life for years to come.

  • “Very pleasant and easy to drink. It grows on you,” says Wine Advocate in its 93 point review.
  • “Fresh and long. Great persistence,” says Jancis Robinson.
  • “A wine with beautiful finesse and depth,” says James Suckling with his 95 point rating.

“Yummy – may I have some more?” your family and friends will say as they come home for your holiday feast. “Come taste it now, while you can,” we add, while it is on sale for $37.98 or $34.98 on a six-pack.

Because this is the kind of delicious treat that will give folks one more reason to come home for Christmas dinner for years to come.

Terra Alta – “Baby Priorat”?

Clua VineyardTerra Alta is just southwest of the much more famous Priorat region, about 100 km west of Barcelona in Eastern Spain. This is arid, rocky, and mountainous territory that immediately begs the question – why would anyone try to make wine here?

But we know the Romans grew vines here and there is some suggestion winemaking started even earlier than that. The traditional Terra Alta wine was white and “rancio” (a nice way of saying oxidized and sour). Until the 1980s, though, this was mainly co-op country with growers focused mainly on quantity rather than quality.

Why Not Us?
In the 1980s, forward-looking growers in Terra Alta began to notice the critical acclaim (and high prices!) garnered by their neighbors to the aast in Priorat and asked themselves, “Why not us?” Growers had secured DO status in 1972, but revised the DO rule in 1995 to increase the region’s focus on red varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.

In many regions, we think the addition of Cabernet and other “international” varieties is a bad thing, often warping and undermining traditional wine styles in pursuit of big scores and “international style.” In Terra Alta, though, Cabernet has shown itself as an adept partner to Garnatxa Negre (“Grenache” in Catalan), adding structure and complexity without overwhelming the wine’s essential sense of place. In other words, the better wines of Terra Alta taste like they are from Spain, not Australia.

Xavier Clua Capturing the Essence of Terra Alta
xavier Clua familyIf Terra Alta is one of the most promising wine regions in Spain (and it is!), then Xavier Clua has to be one of the most promising winemakers.

The Clua family has been making wine for more than four generations, but Xavier is taking things to an entirely new level. Xavier worked in the family vineyards from his childhood, but left home and earned a degree in oenology in 1994. He then broadened his horizons further by working at several Chateaux in Bordeaux. He returned to Terra Alta with a new, somewhat paradoxical, conviction – that by modernizing his family’s vineyards and winery, he could produce honest, authentic, wine that married world-class quality with distinctive Terra Alta character.

So, he went to work. Blessed with 30-40 year-old Grenache vineyards, Xavier worked to improve his family’s plantings of Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah. The old-vine Grenache vineyards were converted from bush-vines to run along a trellis wire, allowing longer shoots and yielding smaller, more intense, berries. Xavier used temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation vats to allow longer, slower, alcoholic fermentation and ensure controlled malolactic fermentations. Finally, he began working with small French oak barrels, learning how to gain the maximum benefit from wood aging without overwhelming or masking his wine’s sense of place.

Clua Millennium bottle

Clua Millennium – Power, Purity, Place
Xavier Clua views Mil.lennium as his top wine, the apex expression of his ethic, work and vineyards. And the wine has been very, very, good since we first encountered the 2005 back in 2009. Those early (for us) vintages showcased the power of Terra Alta, emphasizing richness, deep fruit, oak spice and intense, gripping, finishes. They were big, bold, wines that delivered what we (then) thought of as the essence of Spanish wine.

Over the past few years, winegrowers and makers across Spain have been exploring how to move beyond the pure power their old vines and hot, sunny, days easily give. More and more, we see fine Spanish wines that match ripeness of fruit and power of structure with something new: freshness.

Xavier, I think was a bit ahead of this curve: his wines have always matched ripeness with fresh, vibrant, structures. But the 2013 Mil.lennium seems to capture this balance better than ever. Yes, it’s a big wine with plenty of palate impact. But it’s also pure (not thick), clear (not muddy), spiced (not over-oaked), and fresh (not heavy or plodding). It certainly grabs your attention from first sniff and sip. But it will hold and deepen that attention as you move from one glass to the next. A delicious accomplishment you will not want to miss.

Old School Oregon

Jim Maresh in vineyardA great story here. As Jim Maresh explains, when his grandparents, Loie and Jim Maresh Sr., moved to the Willamette Valley in 1956 all they wanted was “A view lot in the country.” They quickly found a lovely 27-acre hilltop farm perched in the hills above Dundee, Oregon, and made an offer to buy a few acres. The owner refused to sell them just “a view lot,” so Loie and Jim courageously bought the whole farm.

Jim Sr. kept his day job at Dunn & Bradstreet while he and Loie started farming cherries, hazelnuts and prune plums, eventually expanding the farm to 140 acres. In 1966, they undoubtedly heard that David Lett had planted Pinot Noir in the Dundee Hills at what became Eyrie Vineyards. In 1969, Dick Erath – then in the process of planting his vineyard – told Jim that his land had pretty great grape potential. So in 1970, Jim and Loi began planting what would become Maresh Vineyard.

Fine Wines in the 1980s
A few years later, as Pinot Noir began taking off in Oregon, Jim Sr’s son-in-law Fred Arterberry got a winemaking degree from UC Davis and starting making wine from Maresh grapes. Arterberry Maresh was considered one of the Valley’s best wines in the early 1980s – Wine Advocate rated the 1985 a huge 98 points when tasting it in 2013!
Unfortunately, Fred passed away young, the Arterberry Maresh label was retired, and Jim Maresh Sr. sold his grapes to some of Oregon’s best winemakers. Until Fred’s son, Jim Arterberry Maresh, graduated from school and began making wine from his grandfather’s grapes again.

Today, Jim is still in his early 30s but his 10+ years of Willamette Valley winemaking make him one of the Valley’s most experienced – and certainly one of the most respected!

Benchmark Dundee Hills
Jim MareshArterberry Maresh wines start with the Dundee Hills’ unique Jory soils. Rich in iron, low in nutrients, and with a just-right ability to hold water, these decomposed volcanic soils give clearly different wine from sedimentary sites in nearby Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton. Fruit flavors run a bit more to the red end of the spectrum, but also pick up a uniquely savory, almost smoky, dark note from the ancient lava.

Both of this week’s featured wines come from Jim Maresh Sr.’s vines, including many planted in the 1970s and early 1980s. Both Jim’s have little use for the “modern” Dijon clones that arrived in Oregon in the mid-1980s. As Jim explained to Wine Advocate a few years ago:

“I don’t source one single Dijon clone and I wouldn’t buy one of ’em. If you’ve got Pommard or Wadenswil planted in the ’70s or ’80s – of some other old selections like the stuff Jon Paul [Cameron] has down the road at Cameron, where I used to work, you’re making the best wine. With my old vines in the Maresh home vineyard planted in 1970 and 1974, there’s bound to have been a lot of mutation over the years, and by now, probably what you have is Maresh selection.”

‘You Can’t Make Them This Good without Caring’
Arterberry Maresh bottlesWith a great site and great vines, Jim tries to do as little as possible to nurture ripe fruit from the vineyard to bottle. The crushed fruit starts fermentation when it’s ready to with the yeast that lives in the winery and came in from the vineyard. Today, it’s all destemmed to avoid adding too much structure or spice. It’s punched down twice daily during fermentation to extract color and the racked vigorously into barrel – Jim believes giving the wine some oxygen young makes it more resistant to air later.

And the barrels? While all are very good French oak, essentially none are new. In part that’s because Jim is trying to preserve purity and fruit flavors and his ripe fruit brings enough structure on its own. But, just as importantly – Jim hates wood tannins and wants to be sure they stay out of his wine!

It’s easy to come up with critical praise for Jim Maresh and his work, but I think this comment from Wine Advocate last year sums it up nicely:

“During my stay in Oregon I was explaining to a couple of people about winemakers with “the knack.” They just get it. They know how to make great Pinot Noir seemingly effortlessly, and practice small things that make a big difference. And Jim Maresh has the knack, because despite his laidback attitude towards life, I reckon he’s not that way at all when it comes to his wines. You can’t make them this good without caring.”

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.”