Climb the Hill for Delicious Burgundy Values

Really good, stylish, delicious red and white Burgundy values are still out there – but you have to be willing to explore a bit to find them. So drive the road from Chassagne-Montrachet past St Aubin and climb the hill to the Haute-Cotes village of La Rochepot. That’s where you’ll find Jerome and Elisabeth Billard, sometimes their son Louis, and some of the most compelling white and red Burgundy values we’ve tasted in years!

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On our visit in March, Doug got to meet Jerome and Elisabeth … and Rafael the horse, an important part of Dom Billard’s vineyard care!

Jerome took over the family estate 20 years ago, in 1999, and promptly stopped selling to the local co-op and began bottling wine himself. He quickly converted his vineyards to organic farming and, while raising three children, gradually acquired small vineyard plots in select sites across the Cotes de Beaune.

Today his children are mostly grown and one son, Louis, is a budding winegrower working in the cellars at Domaine Romanee-Conti (on his days off, he helps Jerome work the family’s vineyards and is learning how to use Rafael the horse to reduce the use of tractors within the vines).

Dom Billard signElisabeth and Jerome of BillardBut the winegrowing philosophy has remained constant.

Low-Impact, Meticulous Farming: All of Billard’s vineyards are farmed organically with no chemical insecticides, fertilizers or herbicides. In four vineyards, plowing and mowing are done by horse, rather than tractor, to limit soil compactions. The vines are tightly pruned to limit fruit set and bunches are dropped while green to keep yields low.

Focus on Freshness: Jerome loves ripe fruit – but not over-ripe fruit. He picks each site to achieve fine balance of fruit flavors and acidity and then full destems and sorts grape by grape to ensure that only perfect berries make it into the wine.

Gently, Gently: Chardonnay is pressed slow and gently to extract pure juice with no bitterness from the skins or seeds. Pinot Noir goes into the fermenters as whole berries, and then are trod by foot to release the juice and extract color and structure with soft, supple, tannins. As much as possible, the young wine moves through the winery via gravity or air pressure to minimize harsh pumping.

Judicious Oak: Great Burgundy needs time in barrel and the finest, most concentrated, wines need at least a little new oak to achieve balance, finesse and complexity. But Jerome knows that too much wood flavor means that the unique signature of site and vintage can easily be overwhelmed. The whites all ferment and age in barrel, while the reds all see barrel for aging. But the quality of barrel is very high, the toast levels low, and the percentage of new oak kept down so each wine’s character and fruit can shine through.

Generosity, Drinkability, and Unmistakably Burgundy
In the open, attractive, delicious vintage 2017, this gave Billard a set of wines that have a lovely sense of generosity and drinkability but that remain unmistakably “Burgundy.” And in 2018, when ripeness levels are higher, his restraint produced cuvees of outstanding depth with no loss of finesse and freshness.

Folks, these are seriously good Burgundies that you don’t have to be “serious” to enjoy. Highly recommended. Get ’em.

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The Young Master of Verdicchio

riccardo baldi la staffa

Now 30 year-old Riccardo Baldi grew up in the hilltop town of Staffolo in Italy’s Marche region, not far from the Adriatic sea. It’s a town where, as he says, “everyone makes wine, because we have 2,000 people and about 20 wineries.”

His parents established a family winery in 1994, and Riccardo worked harvest and in the winery growing up but left Staffolo to study engineering after high school. He quickly realized that wine was in his blood.

Verdicchio: Worthy of Fine Wine Status
la staffa vineyard and signHe returned to Staffolo and apprenticed himself to Lucio Canestrari of Fattoria Corncino, the winemaker who was among the first to show that the Marche’s Verdicchio grape was worthy of fine wine status (and not just something to be served to tourists in fish-shaped bottles). Eventually, Riccardo asked his parents for 2 HA of vineyards to try his own approach to winegrowing – organic farming, picking just ripe enough, and making wine simply to emphasize Staffolo’s uniquely calcium-rich and very old soils.

He was successful, rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the Marche’s most exciting young winemakers. Today, he and his parents have expanded La Staffa to cover 10 hectares, all at around 1,500 feet elevation, exposed to breezes from the Adriatic Sea, and lying on Staffolo’s uniquely ancient soils.

Where Vines Struggle …
la staffa vineyardRiccardo farms about 10 HA of vines in the Marche’s Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi zone, not far inland from the Adriatic Sea at around 1500 feet elevation. Riccardo’s vines grow on uplifted marine sedimentary soils that are around four million years older than most of the region. With their high concentration of calcium carbonate – up to four times other nearby locations – Riccardo’s vines have to struggle extra hard and deliver a unique salty sea-shell minerality.

To capture that minerality, Riccardo farms his vines organically and by hand, picks on the early side, and ferments and ages this wine in cool stainless steel tanks. The result is a wine with lovely nectarine and stone fruit flavors and a good dose of Verdicchio’s classic lavender, fennel and bitter almond complexity, all supported by crisp acids and salty seashell minerality.

Overlooked by the Critics
Despite the growing reputation of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Riccardo’s own talent, these are wines that consistently get overlooked by the major wine critics – probably a good thing for us! But the last vintage of this wine did get a little attention from Ian d’Agata at Vinous who rated it 91 points and described it like this:

“Nectarine, dried orange peel, walnut and fresh white flowers are lifted by a minty topnote; a hint of volatile acidity blows off with aeration. Glyceral and fruit-driven on the palate, with flavors of stone fruit nectar and lime framed and lifted by harmonious acidity. Very long and refreshing on the aftertaste.” Vinous 91 points (for vintage 2016).

The 2017 edition is better still, with even more drive and intensity to match a richness and complexity that’s been building since it first arrived last July. The past year in bottle has seen the wine unwind a bit more with the fruit, fennel and sea shell aspects gaining breadth, the texture picking up weight, and the tangy lime zest acidity keep on going strong.

It will certainly shine with shellfish and seafood of all kinds and with ripe cheese and grilled vegetables as well.

And it’s also fun to drink solo as a refreshing break from a warm summer’s day. It’s open this week for tasting. Check it out on our website!

A Short History of Soave

(A story of the dangers of popularity)

soave vineyardThe wines of this small growing area near Verona were once America’s favorite Italian white, far outselling Pinot Grigio in the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s.

With soaring demand, the dominant Soave exporter – Bolla – succeeded in having the region’s boundaries expanded to include acre upon acre of fertile flatlands. And they also succeeded in convincing the world that “Soave” meant thin, tart, lemony wine based heavily on the inferior Trebbiano Toscano, wines to be drunk when something “fancier” than Gallo Chablis was called for.

Soave_Volcanic_SoilBack to Its Core: Volcanic Soils
When (slightly) riper, fatter Pinot Grigio came to the US market in the 1990s, Soave was sunk. But – quietly, methodically – a small band of dedicated growers like Gini, Inama, Pieropan and others have taken Soave back to its core. They refocused on the region’s best grape, Garganega, lowered yields, and retreated to the vineyard sites that made Soave famous in the first place.

What makes those sites special is their high content of decomposed volcanic material. As The New York Times explained a few years ago:

“The Soave growers attribute several benefits to this terroir. It stores heat, helping the grapes ripen. It wards off illnesses and pests. And it confers on the wines a salty, smoky, bitter quality that makes a nice complement to the almond and citrus flavors that are typically found in garganega.”

Sandro de Bruno Soave
Sandro Tesoriero’s uncles and his father, Bruno, have made quality Soave on the volcanic hills of Monte Calvarina since the 1930s, and as Sandro de Bruno (“Sandro, son of Bruno”) since 2000, have quietly made a name for themselves across Italy as leading “modern” (meaning “the real old school”) Soave winegrowers.

Sandro de Bruno bottle and glass

This week’s featured Sandro de Bruno Soave -Soave DC: your perfect spring to summer white on sale from $11.98

 

About 98.7% of Wine Drinkers Don’t Do This

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About 98.7% of you don’t drink enough Riesling. At least that’s our unscientific estimate. And we think Austria’s dry but ripe and fruity Riesling is the wine to change that

Ask any Austrian winegrower, sommelier or critic and they’ll be quick to tell you that – as nice as Grüner Veltiner can be – Riesling is Austria’s finest white grape, hands down. And Austrian Riesling is the most delicious and best-value way to get to know the world’s most under-appreciated vine.

Riesling can vary dramatically between regions and countries. German Riesling is either sweet (delicious, but unnerving to American drinkers) or dry and searingly acidic (but in a good way). Alsace Riesling is usually dry, but can feel oily and rich despite the lack of residual sugar. But Austrian Riesling serves up the ripe and generous fruit flavors of the best wines of Germany with the attractive fleshiness of Alsace wines and the crisp, dry, finish of German Trocken bottlings.

Austria’s Wachau
And the best place in Alsace to find these “unicorn” Rieslings is in the Wachau. As Master of Wine Jancis Robinson writes,

“The Wachau in Austria rivals Alsace and the Mosel for the purity of its Rieslings, except that these wonderfully characterful, bone dry, sculpted wines tend to have more in the way of body and alcohol.”

Josef Bauer Riesling FeuersbrunnThat’s a fine description of Josef Bauer Riesling Feuersbrunn 2017, one of the very best wines (red or white!) I tasted during my last visit to Austria in early 2018.

Like all great Riesling, it smells great: aromas of tangerine, fresh peach, lime skin and peach blossom really jump from the glass. In the mouth its flavors of orange, lime, peach and wet stone minerality really drive across your palate, delivering bold flavors without excess weight (it’s just 12.2% alcohol). For all the fruit, there’s nothing “sweet” about this wine, including the long, dry, mouthwatering finish that leaves notes of fruit blossom and fresh lime lingering on and on.

In the hands of a more famous estate – think Prager or Pichler – this would be a $30 Riesling and worth every cent of that. But Joe Bauer is a much more humble guy, more interested in continuing his family’s winegrowing tradition and passing that along to his children than seeking fame and high prices. And our good friend, Klaus Wittauer, gets this to us with minimal mark-ups and add ons so it can sell for a song.

We’d love to get that 98.7% of under-Riesling-drinkers down to, say, 97.2%. So come by this Friday (3-7pm) and Saturday (noon-4pm) (March 15 and 16), and try Josef Bauer Riesling Feuersbrunn 2017 for yourself!

Three Times Good, not Three Times the Price – Malandes Chablis

“What is important every year no matter what the weather or challenges is for us to make good, good, good Chablis.”

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Dom des Malandes Chablis Vineyards

That’s what Domaine des Malandes founder/owner Lyne Marchive told me two Februaries ago as we discussed the wet 2014, warm 2015, and super challenging 2016 vintages and prepared to taste barrel and tank samples. And, as Lynn said, these wines are at least “Good times three!”

In a Class with Fevre and Dauvissat
Lyne and husband Jean-Bernard Marchive formed Malandes in 1986 with vines farmed by her father and grandfather making up the core of the estate. Their wines earned critical praise from the outset, with Master of Wine and Burgundy expert Clive Coates awarding Malandes a two-star rating in his landmark book The Wines of Burgundy.

That’s the very top rating for any Chablis estate, the same awarded to William Fevre, Vincent Dauvissat, and Domaine Raveneau. And yet wines from those three estates sell for at least three-times the prices of Malandes.

Driving Quality to new Heights
What’s more, the wines have gotten even better over the past decade under oenologist/winemaker Guenolé Breteaudeau. As the leading Burgundy critic working today, Allan Meadows (Burghound), said last year, the team at Chablis-based Domaine des Malandes

“continue to drive the quality of the Malandes wines 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.”

Amandine Marchive

Lyne’s daughter, Amandine Marchive is now co-manager with her brother

Vintage 2017 marks a transition at Dom des Malandes, as Lyne retired and handed over management of the estate to her three children: Richard (who has his own winery in Beujolais), Amandine and Marion. Winemaker Guénolé Breteaudeau remains in charge of the cellar, though, and the style, quality and value continues to shine through!

Another Difficult Growing Season …
In February of 2017, as we stood in a village Chablis vineyard admiring the experimental hail netting Lyne had just installed, I asked her whether frost was a concern. “No, no, no,” said Lyne. “We learned how to deal with from the Champenoise in the 1970s.”

Lyne and Malandes Hail Nets

Lyne Marchive and her experimental hail netting.

But nothing could prepare anyone for the disaster of April 18-27. For 10 nights in a row, temperatures dropped below freezing, bottoming out at 19 degrees one night. With humidity levels fairly high, frost spread across the vineyards even as Malandes and others used fans and burned hay and smudge pots in a futile attempt to hold the ice at bay.

By the time the cold spell broke, Dom des Malandes had lost about 50% of their grapes – the same loses they experienced in 2016 from hail. Fortunately, the rest of the 2017 growing season was pretty much perfect, and while the grapes were ready early – Malandes began picking on Sept.r 4 – the fine weather allowed plenty of time to pick each site as it was ready.

… Yields Tiny Amounts of Brilliant Chablis
There is a strong critical consensus that vintage 2017 overall is the finest Chablis harvest since 2014, giving wines of attractive richness and early appeal with much better zip and zing than either 2015 or 2016. As winemaker Breteaudeau told Burghound, at Malandes, “We chose to begin picking on the 4th of September and brought in clean and ripe fruit that averaged between 12 and 13% in potential alcohols with good acidities and post-malo pHs of 3.2 to 3.3. As to the wines, our take is that they offer the purity of 2014 with the fleshiness and concentration of say 2012 or 2015.”

While many purists would disagree with me, I actually prefer Malandes’ 2017s to 2014 and every other vintage tasted since the 2011 vintage (the year we first tried these wines). Yes, the 2014s were a bit more vivid and pure and offered even greater transparency of site. But the extra dose of richness and lightly fleshy mouthfeel of the 2017s is simply delightful. The wines are delicious, fun to drink, and priced very, very well.

These Malandes’ 2017 releases come to us direct at simply unbeatable savings, especially if you mix/match your way to a case or more! Note that mix/match pricing will not display on your online order form or confirmation email but will be applied before your card is charged.

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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.

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!