What Does Vinho Verde Mean?

Vinho Verde RegionWhether you’ve tried dozens or never even sampled one, “Vinho Verde” is not a phrase that immediately gets your hopes up for a stellar wine experience. But the wine we’re featuring this week from Quinta da Raza is different, loaded with ripe stone fruit and peach blossom aromas, a big dose of orange citrus juice flavor, and a lightly prickly burst of CO2 that lifts the flavors and reinforces the salty stone finish. You’ll love sipping on this while dinner comes together tonight. And if seafood or salads are on the menu, you’ll keep on loving it until the dishes are done.

Young, Not Green
Vinho Verde can be a little confusing. First while the literal translation is “green wine,” the term really means “young wine” – specifically wine that’s bottled 3-4 months after the grapes are picked. Back in the old days, the unfiltered wine went into bottle a bit cloudy and then went through a secondary (“malolactic” is the technical term) fermentation in bottle, generating a bit of trapped gas. The result was fun and enlivening, if not very pretty – one reason why traditional Vinho Verde bottles are brown or very dark green so you couldn’t see the murky juice.

More importantly, Vinho Verde is also a place – specifically the very old vineyards located in Portugal between the rivers Douro and Minho that were praised in Roman times by both Pliny and Seneca the Younger. As is usual in Portugal, there are a bewildering variety of vines growing here including Loureiro (the main white grapes) but also Arinto, Avesso, Azal, Batoca, Branco-Escola, Cainho de Moreira, Cascal, Douradinha, Esganinho, Esganoso de Castelo de Paiva, Esganoso de Lima, Fernão Pires, Lameiro, Rabigato, S. Mamede and Semilão.

But the best grapes (in our opinion, anyway) are Alvarinho (called Albarino in Spain) and Trajadura (Treixadura). Alvarinho gives ripe fruit, zesty acidity and pretty perfume. Trajadura adds body, richness, and a dash of deliciously salty minerality. A tiny bit of CO2 added at bottling (to mimic the old malolactic fermentation lift) kicks the fun up to lightly frothy heights.

Try this One!
And “fun” is why in the world are we offering you Quinta da Raza Alvarinho Trajadura Vinho Verde 2016 on a cold, cloudy, damp March Tuesday when there’s more chance of snow in the next 10 days than of warm sunshine. This wine is simply delicious, will warm you up (as well as cool you off), and sings as sweetly with seafood and shellfish by the fire as it does under summer’s sun on the deck.
And for a wine that should sell for $17, it’s a steal at $11.98 by the bottle – the best price we can find in the USA – and at the $9.98/ea case price…well, it’s a stupid good deal.

We could go on, but really the best way to grasp how delicious, fun, and flat-out cheap (at least at our prices) this is will be to come by the store this week and try it yourself. It won’t make the sun come out and temperatures soar. It will make you mind the damp gloom a little bit less.

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Authentic Chablis from Louis Michel

Louis Michel ChablisThe Michel family has been growing and making Chablis since the 1600s and created Domaine Louis Michel in 1850. Over the past 40 years, winemaker Jean-Loup Michel has elevated Louis Michel to the upper echelons of Chablis producers and now his nephew, Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel, is working with Jean-Loup to push quality higher still.

For more than 40 years, Louis Michel has been known for its elimination of any oak-influence on its top quality Chardonnay. As Jean-Loup explains:

“Chablis is not Meursault. We stopped using barrels for our wine-making almost forty years ago. In the past, barrels were the only containers that could be used to make wine, they were never used with the intention of imparting a woody taste: that’s why old barrels were used in preference to younger ones. Today, stainless steel tanks are perfectly suited to our wine-making: aside from their total neutrality, they allow the complexity and pureness of the aromas to come through, respecting the authentic taste of true Chablis, without any artificial wood. The only expression in our bottles comes from pure, clean and precise terroir.”

While anyone can make clean, crisp Chablis in stainless steel, only elite growers and winemakers can balance Chablis classically bright acidity with mouthfilling richness without the help of oak. Louis Michel’s secret?

Great Sites – Over the decades, Louis Michel has acquired prime vineyards in some of Chablis’ best terroirs. The estate’s 25 hectares of vineyard all lie in the heart of Chablis’ ancient vineyards. No fruit travels more than 2km to the winery and the Domaine’s three Grand Cru sites are mere meters away.

Meticulous, Organic Vineyard Work – Each vineyard is managed individually, with its own regime of pruning, leaf pulling, green harvest, cover crops, and tilling designed to maximize vine health and help express the site.

Late Harvest of Fully Ripe Fruit – With no oak to hide flaws, the Jean-Loup and Guillaume are willing to wait until each vineyard achieves optimal ripeness before beginning harvest. And, having risked crop loss to late season rain or rot, they harvest quickly, often bringing in the entire crop in only 4-5 days.

Natural Winemaking with Minimal Intervention – Guillaume’s first major impact on the winery was to return to all natural fermentations. Both alcoholic and malolactic fermentations proceed with native yeasts and move through the process at their own pace. After fermentation, the wines rest on their fine lees (8 months for Village, up to 12 for 1er and Grand Cru sites) to attain a rich, creamy, texture that balances the detailed acidity of Chablis.

The result are wines that Robert Parker said “appear of a precision and of a purity absolutely extraordinary,” but that, as critic Sara Marsh said, are also “refined, glossily mineral wines, not in the nervy, edgy Chablis genre. The wines are composed, poised and smooth.”

Guillaume of Louis MichelThe 2016 Louis Michel Chablis
“Composed, poised and smooth” is a pretty good description of Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel’s 2016s. The wines are excellent – there’s just not very much of any of them. As critic Steven Tanzer says, “The 2016 growing season was a violent one, with frost, rain, hail, mildew and even grillure (i.e., grapes burned by sun) conspiring to cut Chablis production by 50% or more at many estates.”

The grapes that survived were pretty lovely though. As Guillaume says, “The good news is that the wines are good; the bad news is that there’s no wine.” He describes the 2016s as “fleshy and balanced,” with each wine showing the character of its site nicely (save, perhaps, the deliciously exotic Vaillons). All of the wines were picked at 12.2-12.3% potential alcohol, with some getting lightly chapitalized (i.e., having a little sugar added) to extend fermentations and draw out texture and flavor.

As always, Tanzer’s ratings are conservative and I expect others will award higher ratings as they publish their reports. But rather than worry about points, come and try the wines this weekend. You will be glad you did!

No Oak, No Fooling Around: Louis Michel Chablis

The Michel family has been growing and making Chablis since 1850 – six generations of family winemakers now led by young Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel with help from his uncle, fifth generation Louis Michel winemaker Jean-Loup Michel and his nephew, Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel. Always a respected Chablis house, the real revolution began here 40 years ago. As Jean-Loup explains:

“Chablis is not Meursault. We stopped using barrels for our wine-making almost forty years ago. In the past, barrels were the only containers that could be used to make wine, they were never used with the intention of imparting a woody taste: that’s why old barrels were used in preference to younger ones. Today, stainless steel tanks are perfectly suited to our wine-making: aside from their total neutrality, they allow the complexity and pureness of the aromas to come through, respecting the authentic taste of true Chablis, without any artificial wood. The only expression in our bottles comes from pure, clean and precise terroir.”

While anyone can make clean, crisp, Chablis in stainless steel, only elite growers and winemakers can balance Chablis classically bright acidity with mouthfilling richness without the help of oak. Louis Michel’s secret?

Great Sites – Over the decades, the Michel family has acquired prime vineyards in some of Chablis’ best terroirs. The estate’s 25 hectares of vineyard all lie in the heart of Chablis’ ancient vineyards. No fruit travels more than 2km to the winery and the Domaine’s three Grand Cru sites are mere meters away.

Meticulous, Organic, Vineyard Work – Each vineyard is managed individually, with its own regime of pruning, leaf pulling, green harvest, cover crops, and tilling designed to maximize vine health and help express the site.

Late Harvest of Fully Ripe Fruit – With no oak to hide flaws, Guillaume is willing to wait until each vineyard achieves optimal ripeness before beginning harvest. And, having risked crop loss to late season rain or rot, he harvests quickly – sometimes using multiple harvest teams to hand pick all of his 1er and Grand Cru grapes within a few days.

Natural Winemaking With Minimal Intervention – When he took the reins at Louis Michel, Guillaume took the bold step of ending use of cultured yeasts, allowing the wines to ferment only with wild yeast from the vineyards and winery. It’s a nerve wracking process, with some fermentations taking 2 months or longer to complete. But, by allowing the wines to proceed at their own pace, rest on their fine lees (8 months for Village, up to 12 for 1er and Grand Cru sites) without stirring, and never racking the wines until they are ready to bottle, Guillaume attains a rich, creamy, texture that balances the detailed acidity of Chablis.

Critical Praise for Quality and Value
Even though Domaine Louis Michel has flown “under the radar” in the US market, Burgundy insiders have lavished praise on the estate for years – and especially appreciate the no oak, all natural, philosophy. British Master of Wine Jancis Robinson says, “Those who favour stainless steel want the purest flavour of Chablis, with the firm streak of acidity and the mineral quality that the French describe as goût de pierre à fusil, or gunflint. Louis Michel’s is generally considered to be the epitome of this style.”

Burgundy expert (and MW) Clive Coates agrees: “This is a brilliant consistent estate, where there is no use of wood. The magnificently austere and steely wines keep much longer than most Chablis.” And, as Wine Advocate has reported, even though “Michel is notorious for his adherence to a stainless steel regimen of elevage, I do not find his wines lacking for depth and richness, although though they tend to be marked by refreshing, forward fruit, as well as scrupulous cleanliness. They also offer outstanding value.”

Food-friendly, honest, and very delicious wines that are also great value: that sums up why you’ve made Louis Michel our best-selling Chablis ever. The 2016 is another winner that you will not want to miss!

The Drunken Poet Grape

Abbazia di Novacella1

Abbazia di Novacella, the third oldest continuously operating winery in Europe

“How do you solve a problem like Maria?” the Austrian nuns sing at the beginning of The Sound of Music. Their denominational cousins, the monks at Abbazia di Novacella in what were Austria’s Dolomites until WWI, probably sang a similar song until the 1930s – “How do you solve a problem like well-exposed, high-altitude, mountain vineyards prone to frost?”

Admittedly, not as catchy and perhaps they’d have chanted it instead of sung. But still.

The answer to the monks’ prayers was born in Germany in 1929, when a grape researcher named August Herold made his first plantable cross of Riesling and Trollinger, the grape called Schiava in Alto Adige. Schiava gave the new grape strong resistance to late season frost, while Riesling promised fine acidity, the ability to express minerality, and plenty of perfume. August named his new grape “Kerner” after a local German poet who once penned that classic, “Wohlauf, noch getrunken” which translates as “Arise, still drunk.”

In post-WWII Germany, plantings of Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus and other “new breeds” spread rapidly at the expense of more finicky, lower yielding Riesling as the wine industry struggled to recover from war damage and devastation. At its peak, Kerner was actually Germany’s third-most planted grape! But it didn’t make very interesting wines at the relatively low altitudes where Germans planted it (and, especially, at the mind-bending yields they sought), so as the industry and Germany recovered in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond, Kerner plantings shrank fast.

Kerner Climbs The Mountains
The monks of Abbazia di Novacella control the third oldest continuously operating winery in Europe – dating from the 12th Century – so they’re not exactly prone to jumping on fads. Over the centuries, they and their partner growers working in the craggy vineyards of Alto Adige’s Dolomite had done a pretty fine job of mapping grape to vineyard based on exposure, soil type, slope and altitude.

Red grapes like Lagrein, Schiava, and Pinot Nero claimed the lowest vineyards, those at around 1,000 feet altitude ringing Lake Kaltern near Bolzano (45 minutes south of the winery). Near the winery in Brixen (or Bressanone if you prefer the Italian), Pinot Grigio climbed up the slopes from 1,200 feet and Gewürztraminer and other whites claimed full-sun South and Southwest facing sites at up to 2,000 feet.

But at just short of a half-mile up, none of these grapes would consistently ripen – or at least succeed at economic yields in the face of bitter cold spring nights and regular frosts.

Kerner

Kerner: A cross between Reisling and Schiava

So, at some point in the 1970s, the monks and their winegrowing team decided to give frost-resistant Kerner a try. While the first wines may not have been very successful, soon the combination of steep vineyards, super-dense planting, plenty of daytime sunshine and crisp, cold, nights proved to be exactly what Kerner needed to shine. So much so that in 1993, Italy recognized high-altitude Alto Adige Kerner with its own DOC status.

Kerner vs. Praepositus Kerner
Today, the monks’ winemaking team produce two Kerners. The “Classic” Kerner is delicious and is, as the folks at the winery told us last March, a perfect aperitivo wine – ideal for sipping on during the hour after work and before dinner. Light, fresh, refreshing fun.

Then there’s the Praepositus Kerner. It’s made the exact same way as the Classic Kerner: harvested by hand, destemmed, crushed and fermented cool in tank and then bottled after six months on the fine lees. But it’s a completely different wine because it’s made from grapes from two of the world’s finest Kerner vineyards.

aromas-of-kernerThe vineyards sit at 2,100 – 2,300 feet altitude and the vines grow on hand-built terraces running down the 25-40% gradient mountain slopes. These super-steep slopes allow the densely-planted vines (about 2,500 plants per acre) to slowly ripen to perfection. Although both the Classic and Praepositus Kerners are harvested about the same time (in early October) the “regular” wine usually comes in at 13.5-13.7% alcohol. Praepositus reaches 14.3% in 2016.

The extra alcohol translates to better body and more flavor – because only when it’s fully ripe does Kerner really come into its own with explosive aromatics and wildly complex flavors. And the cold nights and deep minerality balance the richness of texture perfectly, giving the wine compelling lift, definition and refreshing crispness.

If you’ve had other Kerner wines before, then know that this one is better. And if you’ve never tried one, please, don’t miss this!

Abbazia Di Novacella Kerner Praepositus

Through Heat, Rain, Frost and Hail … Success in Chablis

Guillaume of Louis Michel

Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel

Writing about the vintage in Chablis the past five years has been…well, for those of us who have gotten to know the women and men who grow and make these classy, dry, and mineral-laced Chardonnays, perhaps “depressing” is the best word. Frost, scorching heat, ill-timed rain, and – again and again – severe hail have struck Chablis with mind-numbing regularity.

In the words of the late, much missed, Roseanne Roseannadanna, “It’s always something.”

A Rush to Harvest
Vintage 2015 started out so well! The growing season started in early April and flowering happened on schedule under clement skies in early June. Despite some very hot weather in late June (109 degrees on June 24!) and a very dry July and August, a touch of refreshing rain in mid-August got the vines going. As growers went to bed on the night of August 31, they were expecting a great harvest and Louis Michel expected to start picking on September 6.

At 1:30 am on September 1, the bottom fell out. Hail pelted almost all of Chablis for an hour or more, leaving leaves shredded and some of the fruit damaged. At Louis Michel, everything went on overdrive, with every available picker and harvesting machine (including some borrowed from growers less impacted by the hail) pressed into service to get the fruit off the vines and into the winery before rot set in. By September 4, all fruit impacted by hail was in the winery, pressed, and ready to ferment.

Then – the Magic of Doing Nothing
Louis Michel ChablisWhen you taste the Louis Michel 2015s, the question you’re going to ask is, “What magic did winemaker Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel work in the winery to make such great Chablis under such challenging conditions?” The answer: Nothing.

Because “nothing” is what Guillaume does. The pressed juice went into stainless steel tanks and then…sat there until the yeast living in the winery air decided to start bubbling away. The only two winemaking decision Guillaume made was a) to keep things cool (as always) and b) to rack the finished wine off the fine lees a bit earlier than usual.

Louis Michel Montee de Tonnerre BottleWas acid added? Nope – correctly grown grapes keep their acid even in hot seasons. Sugar added to increase alcohol? Nope – the fruit came in at a just-right 12-13%. Lees stirred to add richness? Nope – older vines and warm weather gave all the richness you’d want. Oak used to shape or intensify the wines? Nope again – the only oak barrels in this winery have been cut in half and have flowers growing in them!

As in the past few harvests, the hardest part of Guillaume job after the grapes came into the winery was calling customers around the world to tell them they couldn’t have all the cases they wanted, because the hail and heat reduced the crop by 20-30%. Next year, we’ll tell you how even more severe hail brought yields down 30-40%. The year after, we’ll have to talk about how 2017’s bitter spring frosts cost the Domaine half its fruit.

For now, though, we have once again secured an above average allocation of these very much above average wines. Enjoy them while you can!

Chablis: The Home of Fine White Wine Values

Dom des Malandes“Values” probably isn’t quite the right word here. What we really mean is “QPR” – Quality to Price Ratio. But either way, the region of Chablis is currently the best source we know for white wines that give complexity, richness, and refreshment, not only for lovers of White Burgundy, but also for fans of white wines from anywhere in the world.

And this week, we are offering four great 2014 Chablis from Dom des Malandes an excellent “QPR” prices.

Changes in Chablis. The wines from the chalk and Kimmeridgian clay (found also in Sancerre) in this northernmost outpost of Burgundy (only Champagne and Alsace are farther North) have historically been thought of as “steely,” “flinty,” and “saline” – brisk, high-acid wines built for shellfish and lacking the richness, depth, and power found further south.

Chablis_Grand_Cru_vineyardsBut the combination of climate change (warmer weather) and rapid improvement in viticulture (lower yields and waiting for ripeness) mean that modern Chablis has elevated its quality to new heights even as its style has changed. And Chablis continues to mature earlier than wines of the regions further south in Burgundy – no bad thing for folks who don’t want to cellar wines for decades or who worry about premature oxidization. In fact, more and more, experienced Burgundy lovers are heading north for great white Burgundy at surprising value prices.

Lyne Marchive, Dom des MalandesMalandes: Wines You Need to Try. Domaine des Malandes has been in the Tremblay family for generations and has been run by Lyne Marchive since 1972. The wines have always been “solid,” but as winemaker Guénolé Breteaudeau has asserted himself since joining the Domaine in 2006, the wines have moved up the scale to “outstanding”! As Allen Meadows, who writes as Burghound, said after tasting the Domaine’s 2014s:

“I have said this before but it’s worth repeating that [these winemakers] continue to drive the quality … to new heights. Readers who are not familiar with the wines owe it to themselves to try a few bottles; moreover the prices are reasonable and thus the wines offer excellent price/quality ratios.” – Allen Meadows, Burghound

But, your window is closing. As Decanter magazine reported last week, “Chablis prices to rise as weather hits 2016 vintage.” Overall production will be off 50% and Malandes lost its entire crop.

Malandes’ 2014 releases are coming to us direct at simply unbeatable savings. From a Village Chablis to drink as a “house white” to two different majestic 1er Crus and the profound Grand Cru Les Clos, all of Malandes’ 2014s are compelling, captivating, and available to you while they last at substantial savings.

Bulgaria’s Vinous Battles

The Bulgarian wine industry has always shown immense promise, but history has not been kind, with disruptions ranging from invasions and world wars to communism and no-alcohol policies forcing the industry to rebuild … over and over again.

Bulgaria's Thracian Valley

From ancient times, the Thracian Valley region just north of Greece grew plenty of grapes and made plenty of wine, although periodic invasions by the Greeks, Macedonians and Romans disrupted trade. But when the Turks arrived in 1393, they outlawed winemaking and alcohol. Families continued making a little wine in their own cellars, but commercial winemaking was forbidden for nearly 500 years, until the Turks departed in 1878.

There wasn’t much time for the industry to get back on its feet before World Wars, communism, and nationalization of land once again knocked it down. Finally, by the 1950s, state-owned Vinprom began creating a series of modern wineries and encouraging the planting of “international” grapes like Cabernet and Chardonnay in place of native varietals. But the winemaking focused on quantity far more than quality.

PepsiCo Arrives
It was a soda company that provided Bulgarians with the connections to begin to make quality wine. As Master of Wine Dr. Caroline Gilby explains in the Oxford Companion to Wine, “Western expertise came with the men from PepsiCo, the giant American cola manufacturers. Eager to trade their soft drink concentrate for a saleable product, they provided links with California’s wine faculty at UC Davis … and other western wineries.”

Wine quality soared in the late 1960s, and by the 1970s, Bulgaria became the United Kingdom’s preferred source of great value, everyday wine. In the ’80s, even the US saw sharp increases in Bulgarian wine imports.

But once again, boom turned bust when Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership of the USSR and Eastern Block. Gorbachev launched a drive to reduce alcohol consumption and, under pressure, required Bulgaria to rip up huge tracks of vineyard (including some top sites) and set fixed grape prices regardless of quality. Not surprisingly, growers and wineries quickly exited the wine business in search of other, more profitable markets.

Following the fall of Bulgaria’s authoritarian government and a halting privatization program, the country entered the late 1990s with plenty of potential, but few resources.

Bulgarian Wine Re-Born (Again)
Fortunately, over the past 20 years, both money and expertise has been moving into the Bulgarian wine business in a slow and steady way, accelerating rapidly after Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007. Wineries face a huge challenge re-consolidating vineyards fragmented during privatization. Because ownership and boundary lines are hotly disputed, more than one Bulgarian winery pays multiple full-time staff just to manage vineyard purchases!

Wines from Bulgariana are a great example of the positive trends in Bulgarian wine. It starts with Jair Agopian, who purchased the Telish and Castra Rubra wineries in 1999 and began assembling quality vineyards. Agopian met super-consultant Michel Rolland during a trip to France and, in 2004, signed him on as the winery’s consulting winemaker. By all accounts, the wines started out pretty good and kept getting better!

The Next Chile?
We have two wines made by Bulgariana, which come to us due to the work of Robert Hayk, founder and principal of G&B Imports based here in the DC area. Having worked at the US Embassy in Bulgaria, Robert knew that there was fine wine in Bulgaria as well as outstanding value. This knowledge, combined with business experience with Merrill Lynch, meant he knew how to put together a business plan, find investors, and make great things happen.

Robert went looking for vineyards and winemaking partners in Bulgaria and connected with both Castra Rubra and Michel Rolland to help create Bulgariana. With older vineyards uncovered by Robert and winemaking support from Rolland, Hayk hopes someday to “turn Bulgaria into the next Chile.” Wines like these are a great start!