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.”

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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!

Brunello 2012s – A Taste from Mastrojanni

Mastrojanni and glassThis week we’re featuring our first (but not last!) 2012 Brunello: the 2012 Brunello from Mastrojanni, a relatively new winery that’s on a roll (this Brunello earned 94 points from the Wine Advocate).

Some are saying that the 2012 Brunellos are a cross between 2006 (but with less tannin) and 2008 (but with more body and fruit). Others offer even higher praise, comparing their 2012s to the monumental 2004s (if, perhaps, with a tad less concentration).

A bit of history about Mastrojanni:

From Brunello Tradition…
Mastrojanni vineyardMastrojanni is a gem of an estate for wine lovers, both because the quality is outstanding and because the market hasn’t fully caught on to just how fine the wines have become. The estate was created in 1975 when Gabriele Mastrojanni purchased the San Pio and Loreto estates in the southeastern portion of Montalcino’s Brunello zone.

Gravel rich clay soils over limestone bedrock and a climate moderated by nearby mount Amiata, an extinguished volcano, made this perfect Sangiovese Grosso country. But Mastrojanni also planted a little Cabernet Sauvignon in the San Pio vineyards to see what it could do.

In 1992, Andrea Machetti joined as Managing Director, a position he continues to hold today. Under Machetti’s guidance the Mastrojanni wines improved substantially and by the 2007 and 2008 vintages was recognized as a fast-improving estate in the “traditional” (i.e., limited new oak) style.

…To “Glorious”
Andrea Machetti of MastrojanniIn 2008, following the death of the founders’ son, Mastrojanni was purchased by Francesco and Riccardo Illy of Italy’s leading coffee company.

What they did next was simply brilliant: very little. They essentially asked Andrea Machetti what he needed to make better wine and then did that and little else. The vineyards needed little work – the sites were excellent, they had been planted to high-density from the beginning, and were coming into full maturity.

The winery, however, had lagged behind. So the Illy’s invested in better sorting tables – all grapes at Mastrojanni are sorted twice to ensure only the best fruit makes it into the fermenters – built a winery that allowed more gentle handling of the fruit and wine, and allowed Machetti to swap out some tired old barrels for newer, large, casks.

The style of the Brunello remained unchanged – a “traditional” approach that emphasizes Montalcino’s ripe fruit and power without obvious oaky notes or over extraction. And, they allowed Machetti to further improve the San Pio Cabernet blend, first made in 1997.

“On a Roll”
As Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner says, today “Mastrojanni is on a roll. This extraordinary estate has been enjoying the spotlight lately and very much deserves the attention. I’m adding my name to a long list of their fans.” Commenting on last year’s releases, she adds:

“Mastrojanni is an estate that is living a true moment of glory. The new winery has been up and running for a number of years, the best vineyard sites are in their prime production years and a slew of interesting additions (such as a charming on-site country hotel) are about to go online. The Illy family (of the famed coffee house) bought the property in 2008 and made a series of important investments. The cellars were completely renewed. Managing Director Andrea Machetti stayed on during the many years of transition and his role has been crucial to the continuity and the improvements made at Mastrojanni since the Illy ownership commenced.”

This stunning 94 point Brunello di Montalcino shows how Mastrojanni’s progress plus a truly outstanding vintage combine to create a simply stunning Brunello. Don’t miss it!

 

A Good Zin is Hard (and Expensive) to Find

For the last few decades, Zinfandel has been sort of synonymous with inexpensive, easy drinking reds and really inexpensive (OK, cheap) pink plonk. And while these wines still exist (Sutter Home makes 4 million bottles of White Zinfandel a year!), high quality Zinfandel that’s made more like, shall we say, grownup wine, has crept steadily upward in price in the last few years, making it harder and harder to unearth wines like the Victor Vineyards, with balanced fruit and spice and a well under $20 price tag.

Sought-after, ‘cult’-y wines like Turley and Ridge are partially to blame for this price creep, but we can’t entirely pin this on the aspirations of ambitious winemakers. A big part of this is the vines themselves.

Old Zin Vines Lodi

Saving the Old Vines. Considered embarrassing wine with training wheels by many, White Zinfandel gave us one thing: growers had a reason to preserve the few old Zinfandel vines that date back to the 19th and early 20th century. And these gnarled old vines haven’t had an easy life.

Many, like the ones on Victor Vineyards estate, were planted in the late 19th and early 20th century by immigrants who saw that the warm climate and sandy soil in Lodi would be perfect for orchards and vineyards. Victor Vineyards was the site of the first cold storage facility for holding fruit and grapes at the right temperature before shipping – established in 1920 – and their tasting room is still housed in one of these old storage warehouses.

The 1920s brought something else that threatened the life of the Zinfandel vines that would become historic American treasures: Prohibition. There was still a fairly brisk grape growing business during Prohibition, since home winemaking was still legal for the most part. But many Zinfandel vines were ripped out and replaced with Alicante Bouschet, because Zinfandel was very prone to rotting on journeys to the East Coast, where many grapes grown for home winemaking were shipped. Lastly, these vines survived the phylloxera crisis of the 1980s in California.

The Old Vine Advantage … Often Means Expensive. Old vines, while they grow complex, flavorful fruit, don’t grow very much of it, so making wine from these historic plants is much more expensive than it would be from younger, more vigorous vines. Old Zin vines are also almost always what we call ‘head trained’ or bush trained, which means that the vines aren’t neatly trellised on wires in a way that makes them easy to harvest by machine. More handwork means more expensive wine.

Though there is no legal definition for old vines, it is generally agreed upon that 40 is when vines become ‘old.’ We’ll leave the debate on what the definition for ‘old’ is in people for another email, but we think the dividing line might be whether or not you understand Snapchat…

All of this makes the fact that Victor Vineyards is able to craft an affordable, delicious, balanced Zinfandel aged in French oak (which is more expensive than American oak) from 100 year old vines all the more impressive!

– Diane McMartin

Victor Zin and glass

 

Barolo vs. Barbaresco – What’s the Difference?

NebbioloNebbiolo is the great red grape of Italy’s Piedmont region, and when grown in the small communes of Barolo and Barbaresco, it’s one of the great red grapes of the world.

The perfumed aromas of cherries, rose petal, tar, spice, truffle and more are unique, as is the balance of intense flavors, rich ripeness, and lifting acidity. There’s also a lot of tannin, making Nebbiolo a wine that’s best with rich foods, a long decant, and/or a few years of cellar time. When it’s made right, though, there are few wines more satisfying with hearty stews, rich risotto, or pretty much anything with truffles.

For a variety of reasons, Nebbiolo from the Barolo region was the first to find international fame in the late 1800s and the first to reclaim international attention after WWII – Barbaresco always seemed to lag behind. So there’s been a temptation to consider Barolo the “better” wine and Barbaresco the “little brother.” You’ll see that attitude reflected in prices, with Barbaresco selling for a 20-40% discount to comparable quality Barolo.

But, it’s exactly the wrong way to look at things – top Barbaresco is just as fine as excellent Barolo and, for the average consumer, it’s a much better choice to experience Nebbiolo’s magic.

Soil and Climate
Nebbiolo is the only grape allowed in any wine labeled Barbaresco or Barolo and the winegrowing and making are pretty much the same in both regions. The biggest differences are soil and climate. Barbaresco’s soils are a tiny bit richer in organic matter than Barolo’s, so the grapes ripen a little faster with more fruit flavor and a little bit less tannin. And, although Barbaresco is only 10 miles away from Barolo, it’s a tad cooler and gets more refreshing maritime breezes than Barolo.

The earlier ripening date – about 2 weeks ahead of Barolo – and cooling breezes gives Barbaresco a big advantage over Barolo in warm vintages like 2009 and 2012. Both are considered “difficult” years in Barolo, with the summer heat making it difficult to ripen tannins and giving many wines cooked/roasted profiles. But both are excellent in Barbaresco, where alcohols usually come in 0.5-1 percentage point under Barolo and the extra heat just added a touch of fleshy richness.

So, Barbaresco delivers all the Nebbiolo wonderfulness you’ll find in Barolo, but in a bit softer, more accessible style. The typical Barbaresco has a touch more fruit, a bit less tannin, and an earlier starting drinking date than Barolo. Barbaresco’s more tempting structure is reflected in the region’s rules – Barbaresco can be released after only 2 years aging while Barolo has to wait 3 years. But, don’t underestimate how well Barbaresco grows in cellar – it will still develop for 20 years with no problem. You just get to drink it a bit sooner!

Paitin FamilyPaitin’s Historic Legacy
The Paitin story starts in 1796 when Benedetto Elia purchased a pretty 30 acre or so property in Barbaresco from Luigi Pellissero (another famous Barbaresco name!). Over the next 100 years or so, the Elia family grew grapes and made wine here, including the lightly sweet, sometimes sparkling, Nebbiolo then common in the region. Once they and their neighbors finally figured out how to get Nebbiolo to ferment dry in Piemonte’s cool autumns, they launched their first Barbaresco in 1893. By 1898, Paitin’s wines were recognized as outstanding and the first exports to the rest of Europe began.

In the 1960s, Secondo Pasquero-Elia moved the estate forward by building a new cellar and – importantly – beginning to replant the estate’s vineyards by taking the best vines from each plot and matching them to the soils where they performed best. In the 1980s, Secondo and sons Silvano and Giovanni Pasquero-Elia began working with importer Marc De Grazia. De Grazia favored riper, more lush, Nebbiolo, and encouraged Paitin to adopt “modern” Barbaresco techniques: more ripeness in the vineyards, roto-fermenters to limit tannin extraction, and the use of new oak barriques to add polish and sweetness to the wines.

The results were fine: plenty of good ratings and ample consumer demand for ripe, fleshy, Barbaresco that drank well early and still aged nicely, too. But, as Antonio Galloni writes, “The Pasquero-Elia family has been producing wine for several centuries, making this small estate one of the historic properties of Piemonte. The wines have received critical acclaim for decades. Brothers Giovanni and Silvano Pasquero-Elia could easily have rested on their laurels. But they knew they could do even better.”

Moving Forward from “Modern”
Although Secondo still works in the winery, Silvano and Giovanni have been drivers in Paitin’s revitalization over the past 15 years or so. The brothers have moved Paitin back to what I like to call an “enlightened traditional” approach to winemaking. In the vineyard, they achieve perfect ripeness for loads of fruit flavor and supple tannins, but avoid over-ripe or roasted fruit flavors. In the winery, they have eliminated the use of new French oak and now age their wines entirely in larger, more traditional, Slovenian casks. And, roto-fermenters are on the way out as they have returned to more traditional, long, fermentations including gentle pump overs and submerging the grape cap for better extraction.

You’ll see some of these changes in the powerful 2009 Barbaresco Sori Paitin, but they are even more obvious in the just-released 2012s. Here, with help from long-time Bruno Giacossa associate Dante Scaglione, the wines show a new-found energy and precision to go with traditional power and ageability. They are as delicious as ever, but offer even more potential to improve with time.

As Galloni sums up:

“The Pasquero-Elia family has superb vineyards and already knew how to craft delicious wines, but the continued search for excellence and the willingness to invest in the future is what separates the true greats from the merely good and excellent producers. … The Pasquero-Elia family has made fabulous wines for years, but now they are in a position to challenge for one of the very top spots in Barbaresco. Personally, I couldn’t be happier for them, because they have made all the right choices and are therefore richly deserving of the success that now appears to be coming their way.”

Discovering Domaine Tix

Rhone Show at AvignonBack in March, Meg and I braved the gusty Mistrial winds to attend and taste several hundred wines at Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône, the bi-annual festival in Avignon featuring winemakers and wineries from across the Rhone Valley.

It was a delight to meet the energetic, slightly mischievous, Marie Pirsch and Philippe Danel of Domaine du Tix (Philippe will be at Chain Bridge Cellars on Saturday, Oct. 17!) – and tasting their wines one of the highlights of the show.

The level of style, polish, and sophisticated fun we found in each of their wines is unusual for Cotes du Ventoux, and that’s undoubtedly due to the estate’s charming owners. Marie and Philippe came to Domaine Tix in 2001 looking for a retirement home after successful careers in the fashion industry. They found about 10 acres of table grapes planted, a decrepit house, and soils and a microclimate so perfect for making authentic, delicious, Provençal wine that they couldn’t resist!

Dom Tix at Rhone Show

Philippe Danel will pour at Chain Bridge Cellars on Saturday, 12-4

After first grafting the table grapes over to wine varietals – all traditional grapes for the Ventoux area – Marie and Philippe gradually expanded their plantings, today farming about 20 acres in total. In 2006, they expanded their staff by one-third – hiring their nephew Vincent to take charge of the vineyards. When their brand-new, pocket-sized, winery opened in 2008, production reached today’s levels – a whopping 3,000 cases per year.

On the Slopes of Mount Ventoux
Domaine Tix’s vineyards are about 18 miles due east from Chateauneuf du Pape about 300 meters up on the western slopes of Mount Ventoux, the tallest mountain in this part of France (reaching nearly 2,000 meters at its peak). As in the rest of the Southern Rhone, there’s plenty of sunshine, which should make ripening Rhone grapes like Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Carignan a snap.

Dom Du Tix Ventoux GarrigueBut ripeness in the shadow of Mount Ventoux is anything but certain. The elevation brings down temperatures a bit, but the real challenge is the cold air that flows down the mountainsides every night. The alternating warm days and cool nights help wine grapes retain bright acids and firm structures, but mean they need to be farmed carefully at low yields and with plenty of vineyard work in order to get ripe fruit flavors and supple tannins.

Marie, Philippe, and nephew Vincent clearly take the time to do the hard work needed to get fine grapes into the winery and then allow them to transform themselves into excellent wines. Even better, each wine is clearly infused with both classic southern Rhone character and a touch of playful style. These are wines that impress on first meeting and improve with longer acquaintance. All are very nicely priced, too, as they were brought to the USA just for us. I recommend them very, very highly!

Garage Wine Update

Silvia Puig ENVWe’ve written before about Priorat’s Silvia Puig and her garage wine project, En Numeros Vermells. Today, we’re introducing her new Priorat, which Silvia calls AiAiAi, big news for this ultra-small (it really is in a garage) project in the rugged hills of Priorat.

Not only is this wine Silvia’s first ENV Priorat built for drinking in its luscious youth, it’s the first to arrive since we’ve been able to announce that she’s left Vinedos de Ithaca to devote her full energies to this great new project.

With increasing success with her ENV wines, more and more active children and her husband’s thriving restaurant, Silvia has now decided to focus 100% of her winemaking energies on En Numeros Vermells. The extra time allowed her to purchase a little more fruit and turn her attentions and talents to making a softer, more accessible, wine that we can enjoy now while letting the top bottlings develop in cellar.

Our good friend and Silvia’s US importer, Jonas Gustafsson, has worked closely with Silvia since ENV’s inception, and he helped her create this exciting new wine, the 2013 AiAiAi Priorat. And, we’re very proud that Jonas invited us to be debut partners in Silvia’s exciting new venture, too!

“There are no Rules.” Silvia made about 1800 regular bottles and 60 magnums of the first-ever release of AiAiAi Priorat 2013, blending Garnacha (about half), Carignan (about 40%) plus dashes of Syrah and Merlot aged in an assortment of barrels and in tank. As with all her ENV wines, her only winemaking rule is simple: “There are no rules.” Instead, Silvia makes the best wine she can from vineyards farmed by good friends across Priorat and then tastes, tastes, and tastes some more until she discovers a blend that perfectly expresses the essence of the vineyards, growing season, and Priorat itself.

With AiAiAi, her focus is on showcasing the joy and wildness of her remote Priorat home and family. You’ll find plenty of classic Priorat aromas and flavors – blueberry, blackberry, crushed mint, damp slate, cocoa, licorice, and more – in a more festively styled wine that glides over your palate and finishes with supple tannins and mouthwatering, lingering flavors of black fruit, mint, and cocoa.

Ultra-Small, Focused Attention. Silvia designed En Numeros Vermells to let her intimately nurture small amounts of wine from grape to bottle on a barrel by barrel basis. The small scale let her largely ignore the normal time and financial pressures of winemaking – with a total production of only a few hundred cases, she was free to let each wine find its own way to maturity and use only the barrels that actually fit in her final blends.

We throw around the terms “garage wine” and “handcrafted” quite a bit, but that’s truly the best way to describe everything about these wines. The En Numerous Vermells “cellar” is the garage of Silvia’s house in the Priorat village of Poboleda, a building that also serves as Silvia’s home and her husband – Belgian chef Pieter Truyts – Brots Restaurant.

In this tiny space, Silvia is literally doing virtually everything by hand. She tends the small number of barrels stacked in the space carefully, tasting and re-tasting to learn how each is developing and gaining a deep understanding of each cask’s unique character, strengths, and weaknesses. Multiple blending trials allow Silvia to explore how her charges work together (or don’t), and create an ideal marriage that lets each site and varietal shine without fighting or overwhelming each other.