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!

Italian Whites Make a Comeback

You might not know it yet, but Italian whites are making a serious comeback.  No longer limited to bland Pinot Grigio and insipid Soave made from overcropped grapes, the landscape of Italian white wine is now peppered with fascinating indigenous varietals and unique takes on classic grapes, all for very reasonable prices.  Since it’s seafood, salad, and al fresco dining season, what better time to take advantage?

20 years ago, most white wine imported from Italy to this country was inexpensive and not very interesting.  The Italians themselves seemed to feel the job of white and sparkling wines was to be clean, crisp and refreshing, but merely a prelude to the ‘real’ (read: red) wines to follow.  This has all changed, thanks to better vineyard practices and an increased interest in native grape varietals.  This article does a fantastic job of analyzing the cause of white wine’s comeback in Italy.

Vineyards in the stunning wine region of Alto Adige

Vineyards in the stunning wine region of Alto Adige

Inspired by their pairing feature at the end using Italian whites and some rather ambitious-sounding dishes, here are a few ideas for some of our favorite Italian whites and some more realistic suggestions for what to serve with them:

With De Angelis’ Falerio from the Marche region, something with shrimp or other shellfish and a healthy dose of garlic and herbs is in order.  This pasta recipe looks perfect for a weeknight meal, since shrimp and pasta are both quick and easy to cook.  This mid-weight white also makes a perfect aperitif.

Throw out everything you know about Soave before trying La Formica’s!  This healthy and delicious farro and zucchini recipe would be the perfect, earthy foil to this sophisticated white.

Rich, delicious crab is an ideal foil for this Pinot Bianco from Alto Adige’s Kellerei Kaltern, and this recipe with plenty of fresh herbs and a garlicky aioli looks especially wonderful.  Scallops would be great with this wine as well.

You may never have heard of Erbaluce, but once you taste this unique white from Piemonte, you’ll wonder where it’s been all your life.  Move over, Arneis, now we have a new grape no one’s quite sure how to pronounce!  A bit richer than Pinot Grigio, with intriguing herbaceous notes that call to mind chammomile tea, it’s refreshing, but has the weight to stand up to flavorful food.  Serve it with something like these polenta cakes with goat cheese, caramelized onions and honey for an innovative first course or light lunch.

Now you’re armed and ready for Italian white wines to make their big comeback – Salute!

Our First One Sip At A Time Class!

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We were thrilled to see so many new faces at our very first One Sip At A time class this past Thursday.  This first class, “Tasting and Talking About Whites,” focused on, you guessed it, white wines.  When learning to taste wine, whites are a great place to start, because of their lighter body and greater transparency.  The difference in aroma and flavor between a more neutral Pinot Grigio and a pungent, aromatic Sauvignon Blanc are very apparent when there’s no tannin or dark color to get in the way.

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By the end of the class, everyone was swirling and slurping with gusto, something that is usually tough to get new tasters to do.  People are generally too polite when tasting wine – you’ve really got to slurp to get all those flavors!

We tasted all the wines in pairs, starting with a white blend from one of our favorite Rhone producers, Philippe Plantevin, and an off-dry Riesling from Klemens Weber.  Then we moved on to our new favorite Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc from Henri Bourgeois.  This pair provided a great contrast between one of the so-called ‘neutral’ varietals, Pinot Grigio, and one of the ‘aromatic’ varietals, Sauvignon Blanc.  When you smell these side by side, there is no mistaking which is which!

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We ended with a pair of dueling Chardonnays, showing how different one of America’s most popular grapes can taste depending on whether it’s aged in oak barrels or not, and we learned where that ‘buttery’ flavor really comes from.  Thankfully, it’s not from that frightening stuff that comes out of a  metal canister at the movie theater (anyone else secretly love that stuff?), but it is the same aroma compound!

Thanks to everyone, new customers and loyal regulars, who made the evening such a success!  Your questions and comments are what make these classes so fun and informative.  Our next OSAAT (hey, we live in the land of alphabet soup titles, why should we be left out of the fun?) class will be on Valentine’s Day, and, fittingly, will focus on red wine basics.  It should be a fun and informative evening, whether you’re single or bringing your significant other for some romantic sipping.  We promise not to make you fill in those paper Valentines for everyone in the class…or will we?

Peruse the links below to see what you missed:

Dom Philippe Plantevin Cotes Du Rhone Blanc 2010

Klemens Weber Burrweiler Altenforst Riesling Halb 2011 (1.0l)

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Pinot Grigio 2011

Henri Bourgeois Sauvignon Petit Bourgeois 2011

Dom Thibert Macon Fuisse Bois De La Croix 2010

Girard Chardonnay Russian River 2011