Superb Quality from the Heart of Provence

Dom d'eole wineryDomaine d’Eole is a unique, if young estate created in 1992 by German oenologist Matthias Wimmer, purchased and transformed to certified organic farming by his partner, estate-owner and French financier Christian Raimont, and introduced into the United States by importer Olivier Daubresse.

The Domaine sits in the heart of the Provence, south of Avignon and northwest of Aix-en-Provence, at the base of the low Chaîne des Alpilles mountain range. The Alpilles block some of the Mistrial wind’s intensity – the fan is set to “medium” here rather than “high” – but still allow for some cool air from the Mediterranean Sea – just 25 miles south – to reach the vineyards.

What doesn’t reach the vineyards is a lot of rain, and what rain that does fall drains quickly through the complex, very ancient, limestone soils. The vines drive their roots deep for nutrients and water, and the alternating hot and cool, but always dry, climate is perfect for farming without chemical additives, pesticides, or sprays.

D'Eole Matthias Wimmer and Christian RaimontThe estate’s first, and only winemaker – German-born Matthias Wimmer – pointed towards organic farming from the estate’s founding in 1992 and achieved Ecocert Organic Certification in 1996. That same year, French financier Christian Raimont purchased d’Eole and enabled Matthias to invest in a state of the art winery and maintain his commitment to organics and ultra-low yields.

Seriously Small Crop Farming
About those yields. The Coteaux d’Aix en Provence appellation is most famous for its rosé wines and the farming rules here are built on the assumption that fresh, fruity, and pink is about all that’s required for success. So, vineyards in this rugged, non-irrigated, region can go all the way up to 60 hectoliters per hectare, a level that’s normally achieved by letting the vines groan under the weight of berries and not worrying about getting everything ripe – after all, you’re just making pink wine, right?

Dom d'eole bottlesAt Domaine d’Eole, things are a bit more serious. For red, white and rosé wines, the goal is perfect ripeness with plenty of intensity and structure. In the winter, vines are pruned severely, limiting the number of fruit-bearing buds that can form in the spring. Then, the “second crop” that forms in late spring is removed and the main crop adjusted by “green harvesting” – cutting off grape bunches – to ensure that each vine is balanced and prepared to deliver ripe grapes. Last, during harvest, trained harvesters inspect each grape bunch, leaving any that aren’t fully ripe and perfect condition on the ground to rot and, eventually, feed next year’s crop.

Across the d’Eole vineyards, then, the maximum yield Wimmer and Raimont allow to ripen and reach the winery is only 30 hectoliters per hectare – half of the legal crop. Smaller crop levels make farming more expensive – it actually takes more work to grow 30hl/ha than it does to let 60hl/ha hang! – but it pays off in better ripeness, silkier texture, and much, much, more flavor and complexity.

Dom d'eole roseWe’re showcasing the unique benefits of organic farming and ultra-low yields in today’s featured wine, the Domaine d’Eole Rosé 2017. But you have to taste the red and white wines to understand the full story. Join us this Saturday as estate owner Christian Raimont pours great selections from new releases and wines aged to perfection, too!

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Does Rosé Age? A Case Study with Vignelaure

outside roseWe often get asked, “Does rosé age?” And our answer: “no and yes!”

“No” because very, very, few pink wines are better at age four or five than they were on release. But “yes!” because almost all of the pink wine we buy gets better as it recovers from the shock of early spring bottling and shipment. I find that most good rosés peak somewhere between August and Thanksgiving and then hold nicely into the following year.

And if a pink wine has enough tannin and acid to protect it, it can keep right on improving for 24 months and is actually at its best in its second summer. The 93 point 2015 Vignelaure rosé is a perfect example.

Despite our eye-popping $9.98/ea by the case price (more on why that’s true later), this is not your typical, just-bottled and rushed to market rosé. But, then, Chateau Vignelaure is not your typical Provence wine estate.

A Top Site for Cabernet. Georges Brunet, owner of Third Growth Ch La Lagune in Bordeaux, discovered the Vignelaure site in the early 1960s. With soils perfectly suited to Cabernet and 1,300 feet of elevation moderating Provence’s intense sunshine, he planted the vineyard to Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings taken from La Lagune. By the mid-1970s, Vignelaure – meaning “the vineyard of the sacred spring” – had gained fame as one of Provence’s best, agreeable, and distinctive reds.

In his benchmark 1987 book on Rhone and Provence, Robert Parker called Vignelaure “one of the showpiece properties not only of Provence, but of France…Chateau Vignelaure specializes in red wine, capable of ageing 15-20 years, produced from a blend of two great wine grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Vignelaure’s wines are elegant expressions of Provencal wine-making at its best.”

ch Vignelaure bottleAdding a Rosé. Starting in 1993, Vignelaure added top-flight rosé to the portfolio, too. They blend 40% Grenache and 30% Syrah – the region’s classic rosé grapes – with 30% of their stunning Cabernet Sauvignon to create a wine with authentic Provençal character plus one extra notch of richness, power, and ability to age. The Grenache, Syrah, and most of the Cabernet ferment and age in tank while a little of the Cabernet rests in barrel.

The result is a rosé that was good when it landed here last summer but has only gotten better in the past 10 months or so. There’s been no dimming of the aromas and flavors of red berries, tangerine and crushed herb. But the texture is even better, round and plush and mouthfilling but still light and fresh. Delicious right now, but no rush: save a bottle or two for Thanksgiving!

A Note about the Price. This rosé released last year at a $20 price (we offered it at $16.98 last year). Why so much less this year? It’s a combination of factors. Start with Vignelaure’s fairly late arrival last year (we didn’t get any until late July) so that the importer didn’t sell all they had by the end of rosé season. Then add in America’s obsession with drinking only the youngest, just-released pink wines from the most recent harvest. Put those together with a wine that’s actually better than it was last year and you get one heck of a deal!

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.”

Roaming the Rhone With Philippe Plantevin

5.9.13 038As much fun as classes that feature ‘special,’ high-end wines are, ones like last Thursday’s evening with Philippe Plantevin can be even more fun.  Why?  Because they offer you a chance to stock up on the kind of wine you can pull out on a Wednesday night guilt-free, or open several bottles of at a dinner party without wincing.

Even better is the fact that Philippe’s wines offer so much character, flavor, and concentration despite their modest prices.  Many of those who attended last week took advantage of this special evening and stocked their cellars, and luckily we have enough of most of what we served to let you do the same.

We started the evening the way we think every evening from about April 15 through September should start: with rose!  Though Philppe Plantevin’s wines have been staples in the store for many years, the rose was new to everyone, and now it’s definitely being added to the ‘buy every year’ list.  Just slightly fuller than a Provencal rose, but  not quite as rich as a Tavel, it sits in a perfect, balanced middle ground.

Then it was onto the 2011 Cotes du Rhone Blanc, this year with even more Viognier character, but still plenty of snap on the finish.  This wine is remarkable not only for its delicious tropical fruit flavors now, but because it ages amazingly considering its modest price point.

We tried two vintages side by side of the juicy, entry-level Cotes-du-Rhone – first the 2009, then the 2010.  The 2009 had really benefitted from its time in bottle, but the 2010 showed plenty of concentration and potential – since there isn’t much of the 2009, it’s a good time to stock up on the 2010!

The 2009 Visan was a real surprise for its concentration and savory depth.  Visan is a part of the southern Rhone that we don’t often see bottled on its own in the US.  Because of its higher elevation, it usually goes into blends.  So, Philippe is especially proud of this bottling, and we could taste why!

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Next we tasted two older wines side by side.  First was the 2007 La Daurelle, the only wine from the estate that sees any time in barrel.  Reminiscent of a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but at a fraction of the cost, it’s a wonderful example of a mature southern Rhone blend.  The 2006 Cairanne, though it doesn’t see any oak at all, was extremely impressive for its briny, savory, mineral depth.

Thanks to Olivier Daubresse of Vinifrance Imports, and most of all to Philippe Plantevin for a wonderful, fun, educational evening of delicious wines.

Digging Deeper: Rosé

This weekend’s rosé festival got us thinking about the history of our favorite seasonal wine.  It’s such a fun style that it’s easy to just gulp away without much thought (not that we discourage this, by the way), but the story of rosé is actually pretty interesting!

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One of our favorite things about the beginning of rosé season is admiring its many different shades of pink.  Grape varietal accounts for some of this, but a lot of the color variation comes from the winemaking method used.  There are three main methods.  In the Skin contact method, the juice sits with the skins of the red grapes for 1-3 days before it’s pressed and the skins are removed, is usually used when the grapes are only being used for rosé.  In the saignée method (From the French “to bleed”), pale pink juice is ‘bled’ from the grapes before they go into tanks.  This method produces both rosé, and makes a more concentrated, darker red wine from the remaining juice.  The third method is blending, which is pretty self-explanatory: a small amount of red wine is blended into white wine to give it a pink color.  Most wine regions don’t allow this practice, but it is allowed in Champagne.  Here are a few other fun facts to help you think pink!

Ancient Roots.  Though rosé, especially dry rosé, is relatively new in terms of popularity here in the US, it’s actually one of the more ancient styles of wine.  Back before more powerful presses were created and grapes were stomped by foot (or hand), the resulting wines were pretty light, and looked more like what we think of as a rosé color.  Even after better presses were invented, in Ancient Greece and Rome, lighter wines were considered more desirable.  Bordeaux’s wines done in this style were especially prized, while darker, more robust wines were considered coarse and inferior.

A Happy Accident.  We all know about the White Zinfandel craze – but whose bright idea was it?  Like chocolate chip cookies, White Zin was invented by accident.  In 1975 Sutter Home’s Bob Trinchero had been making a White Zinfandel that really did look and taste almost like a white wine.  One year, while making this still “blanc de noirs,” if you will, he had a stuck fermentation that he just couldn’t fix.  He set the wine aside, and upon tasting it later, decided to sell it, even though it was sweeter and pinker than he intended.

This cellar disaster took off in a big way, and White Zinfandel and the various off-dry ‘blush’ styles it inspired are still popular, although not as popular as they once were.  As much as we like to roll our eyes at White Zinfandel, its popularity did get a lot of people drinking wine who might not have otherwise tried it, and at least some of those people probably ended up being wine lovers and graduating to more classic styles.  The White Zinfandel craze also preserved old, bush-trained Zinfandel vines that date back to the 19th century and would have otherwise been ripped up to plant Cabernet or Merlot.

The Classic.  Ah, Provence.  Just the name makes you want to hop on a plane and turn your life into a passage from a Peter Mayle novel in which the most strenuous part of your day is throwing on a linen blazer to head down to the local cafe on your scooter and enjoy a glass of pale pink, crisp, refreshing Provençal rosé.  These fantasies always involve linen and designer sunglasses in my mind…

Wine was first made in France in Provence, and today over 75 percent of its output is rosé.  Most is made under the Cotes de Provence AOC, and the approved grapes for making this classic style are Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, and a local variety called Tibouren.  Rosé can be made either in the saignée method or by merely pressing whole grapes to make an extremely light, salmon-colored wine.  Provençal roses tend to be very light pink compared to roses from other regions, and have a wonderful combination of fairly full body and crisp, refreshing acids.  Sometime it’s best not to mess with the classics!

What’s Your Style?  Whether you’re a fan of a classic Provençal style rose, a fuller, fruitier Spanish, or something in between, rosé goes with just about anything.  Lighter styles will taste almost like a white wine at first, but can be deceptively full-bodied, making them a great partner to a wide variety of foods.  Darker rosés, like the ones often made from Garnacha in Spain, will have more red fruit flavors, and can be very ripe, so that they almost taste sweet for a moment before they finish crisp and dry.  Wines like this are great with barbecue and other pork dishes.  Most importantly, rose is almost always good by itself on a sunny day, making it the perfect partner to spring and summer!

An Evening With Shane Finley

st. helena vineyards

“It takes a lot of beer to make great wine”

When I moved to Napa Valley in 2010 to learn about wine, I stumbled into a great part-time job at a St. Helena wine shop. Just as we do here at Chain Bridge Cellars, we gave free tastings Friday afternoons, but they were a little different. Because we had winemakers for neighbors, they poured for us, and as the newest and least experienced employee, I usually got the glassware and wine ready for the tasting.

Early on, a coworker asked me to run to the nearby Safeway to pick up beer. “For the winemaker – he likes Trumer or another nice, crisp Pilsner,” he said. Now, Jeff had a good sense of humor, so at first I thought he was having a little fun with me.  “Really?” I asked. “For the … winemaker?”

“Of course!” he said, looking at me as though I was even more clueless than he had originally thought. Turns out the saying “it takes a lot of beer to make great wine” exists for a reason, and I always kept the fridge stocked for tasting days. Every winemaker had their favorites, but they all wanted something crisp and unpretentious to sip while pouring and schmoozing, even (especially, actually) the ones making $100+ Cabernet.

Shane Finley is no different. When he almost sheepishly asked if he could have a beer as we were cleaning up from the tasting at the end of the night, it took me right back to those Friday night tastings in St. Helena.

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A name like Kosta Browne usually gets everyone’s attention, but there is more to Shane Finley than a few famous names on his resume (or his love of beer!). Like many of us in the wine industry, he is a refugee from a much more mainstream career – in his case as an insurance agent. In his mid-20s, having caught the wine bug, he quit his job in Manhattan to be a harvest intern and learn how to make wine. That he did, working harvests in California with Copain winery as well as at Domaine Pierre Gaillard in the Northern Rhone. When he agreed to come to our store to lead a tasting for the second year in a row, we were thrilled, and we were even more thrilled with how beautifully the wines showed.

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We started the evening with a splash of his Grenache Blanc, an unusual grape for California, but part of a growing movement we’re seeing there towards alternatives to the usual Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. From Vermentino to Trousseau Gris, we’re thrilled with all this variety, and are excited that wines like this are finally making it out of the state! Shane’s Grenache Blanc has the high-toned, lemony snap of a great Picpoul de Pinet, but with much more ripeness and sophistication.

Then it was on to the Ma Fille Rose, named for Shane’s daughter. Refreshing and fun to drink, this is the kind of wine that gets guzzled first at parties, no matter what other impressive bottles are available.

Though his current day job at Lynmar has him making lots of Pinot Noir, he only makes one, The Charm, under his own label. The name is a nod to his Irish heritage, and a charming, ripe, unctuous Pinot it is.

Dueling Syrahs ended our tasting, both showing a different side of Shane’s approach to this classic and sometimes unappreciated grape.  His time in the Rhone inspired him to work with it, and his “The Villain” and Jemrose Syrahs were remarkably different.

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The differences between the two inspired quite a bit of discussion! The Villain showed the dark-fruited side of Syrah, and the delicious, liquorice-like flavors it can develop when fully ripe. The Jemrose Syrah showed a much earthier, grippier profile, and for many was the wine of the night. Grown in a cool area of Sonoma County, this Syrah was made with 100% whole-cluster fermentation, while the Villain only saw a portion. The additional contact with stems gave the wine fine, mouthwatering tannins that cried out for a piece of grilled lamb or steak. The cheese and charcuterie we had was delicious as usual, but for this wine, it didn’t cut it!

Thanks to Shane and the folks at Nice Legs for a wonderful, relaxed evening. We hope he decides to come back next year!

–Diane

Picnic Season

In honor of our upcoming picnic festival this weekend, we thought we’d share a few tips on eating in the great outdoors.  While picnics always sound wonderful in theory, in practice they can end in disappointment, with soggy food and forgotten items.

Be prepared.  Even if you’re just eating outside in your own backyard, take the time to pack everything you need.  If the wine you’re bringing needs a corkscrew, be sure and bring one!  Things like dressing for salad and a place to put any trash are also things that are often forgotten.  If you’d like something a little nicer than plastic glasses and don’t want to risk breaking your nice stemware in the wild, try our GoVino glasses.  Plastic, stemless wine glasses that even have a convenient indentation for your thumb!  They come in flutes, too, and are perfect for picnics or evenings at Wolf Trap.

Govino 2

Think pink.  Rose is a natural for picnics, and this Saturday we’ll be featuring a big part of our lineup of roses for this season.  Refreshing, but with just a bit more oomph than a white, they are the ‘little black dress’ of the wine world, and will go with everything from roast beef to fried chicken to pasta salad.  Beaujolais is another great choice, and is even more wonderful with a light chill.  If you’d like a little fizz with your picnic, an Italian red sparkler like Lambrusco or a lightly sweet Brachetto is a great match with salty cheeses and charcuterie.

More tips.  We loved this handy list from Bon Appetit, and food52 has a great recipe for a pressed sandwich whose punchy flavors and portability make it perfect for a picnic.

What are your favorite ways to enjoy food and wine outside?