Cantina Tramin: Soaring to Great Heights

Driving north from the Venice airport to the Italian region of Alto Adige, the scenery and topography abruptly shift as we arrive in the river valley. Greeted by snow-topped peaks, verdant mountains and Swiss chalet-style architecture, you would half expect Julie Andrews to suddenly appear and belt out songs from the Sound of Music. While there was no sign of Julie or the von Trapp family, this northern-most province borders both Austria and Switzerland and was under Austrian rule until 1919. And, to this day, both Italian and a dialect of German are the official languages.

Instead, the hills of South Tyrol (Südtirol) are alive with the sound of viticulture. When considered separate from Trentino, Alto Adige is the smallest of Italy’s 20 regions. Yet, despite its limited size, 98% of its production is at the Protected Designation of Origin level – the most of any Italian region – and the region is highly regarded for its white wines, which account for 60% of regional production.

With the Dolomites to the East and the Alps to the north, these mountain ranges shelter the area from the cold forces of the North and trap air from the lakes and limit the annual rainfall, resulting in 300 sunny days per year. Conversely, the strong Ora winds coming off nearby Lake Garda help to temper the summer heat. Given this duality of cooling and warming influences, Alto Adige is home to both Mediterranean and Alpine botany along with vineyards and apple orchards.

In fact, the steep slopes at the highest elevations (820 to 2800 feet) are given over to white varieties such as Pinot Bianco (aka Pinot Blanc), Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, while the lower, rolling hills are planted to reds (predominantly Schiava, Pinot Nero and Lagrein). The high-altitude vineyards benefit especially from the area’s wide diurnal shift, permitting the grapes to ripen fully, while retaining high levels of acidity. The region’s diverse soils include limestone, quartz and volcanic porphyry, which further retain acidity and add minerality to the wines.

Despite the region’s diminutive size, it is divided among seven different subregions, with the largest and southernmost being Bassa Atesina. Here, within the small town of Tramin is the home to Cantina Tramin.

With deep roots in the Tramin community, this cooperative was originally founded in 1898 at the suggestion of the local priest. It later merged with the coop of Neumarkt in 1971, growing in size. But, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that things got interesting. At that time, the members of the cooperative made the conscious decision to pursue a quality agenda and, as a result, made significant changes in the vineyard and in the winery. More recently, Cantina Tramin undertook an extensive remodel of its winery and offices, which were designed by a prestigious, local architect, Werner Tscholl.

Coincident with the shift toward quality, Willi Stürz has been Cantina Tramin’s guiding light for 25 years. The local native joined the cooperative in 1995 and serves as both winemaker and Technical Director. His efforts were rewarded with the title of “Winemaker of the Year” in 2004 by Italian wine guide, Gambero Rosso. The affable man is clearly passionate about the territory and winemaking. He is allied in his endeavors by a small team, permitting them to work collaboratively with their 300 member-growers in crafting well-made wines.

One of the unique aspects of Cantina Tramin as a cooperative is that they are relatively small, with only 260 hectares under vine, representing 35% of local vineyards. Many of Cantina Tramin’s members hold only one hectare each, earning the majority of their income from apples rather than grapes; only 5% of members sustain themselves entirely on their vineyards. Throughout the year, Willi and his colleagues advise members on various viticultural decisions such as which vines to replant, when to harvest and how best to combat disease. Quality is continually the watchword with yields set at 30% lower than that permitted by DOC law.

Once the grapes reach the winery, the emphasis is on longer pressings, coupled with softer pressure, to maintain the intense aromatics. Although the oldest tanks are made from concrete lined with stainless steel, more recent tank purchases favored stainless steel tanks that can be divided as needed to accommodate various sized fermentation lots. Meanwhile, red wines are fermented in large casks, with a preference for punch downs rather than pump-overs. The top reds – Pinot Noir and Lagrein – are aged in barriques, with all red wines now being matured for a minimum of two years, qualifying for Riserva level. Despite Schiava being the most widely planted red variety in the region, Cantina Tramin is less bullish on this grape. Today, the winery has become well regarded for its wines and, in particular, for its Gewürztraminer (see below). The wines are marketed in two ranges: Selection and Classic, with the best wines being those in the Selection range.

The Spice of Life
Viticulture in the region dates back as far as 500 BCE, thanks to the ingenuity of the indigenous Rhaetian people. Their precociousness shocked the Romans who arrived on the scene in 15 BCE finding evidence of wine stored in wooden vessels, while the Romans were still using amphorae. As a result of this Roman influence, the village of Tramin took its name from the Latin word for border and later gave its name to an indigenous variety grown in the area for centuries. With the German “er” suffix indicating origin from Tramin) the grape was first called Traminer, and later earned the prefix of gewürz, which is German for spice.

As the area’s most historic and important variety, Cantina Tramin is keen to preserve and promote Gewürztraminer. Along these lines, the winery manages 57 hectares of Gewürztraminer vines, representing 22% of the coop’s plantings, as compared to just under 11% for the region as a whole. In general, the Gewürztraminer grape is known for its powerful aromas of spice, floral and exotic notes such as jasmine and herbal tea, along with tropical fruit and lychee. Given its name, the variety is frequently associated with Germany, but it also grows well in Alsace. Yet, despite these more well-known links with the grape, the variety understandably performs well in its birthplace. Specifically, the extensive sunshine results in higher spice notes, while the volcanic porphyry subsoil and calcareous topsoil promote perfume aromas.

Not surprisingly, Cantina Tramin knows how to handle this variety and produces several different wines that feature it, from its Classic Gewürztraminer to its Terminum late harvest dessert wine. But, the jewel in Cantina Tramin’s crown is its Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer.

As evidence of the success and acclaim of this wine, it has received more awards for its Gewürztraminer than any other winery in Italy and was awarded Tre Bicchieri, not once or twice, but 23 times. And it was named by Gambero Rosso “as one of the 50 wines which have fundamentally changed the Italian wine scene.”

While the grapes bound for the Selida Gewürztraminer hail from steep slopes and honor the small-holdings nature of Cantina Tramin’s members, grapes for the Nussbaumer provide an opportunity for an elegant expression from individual vineyard. Of note, Willi advised us that as a young wine, the Gewürztraminer grape is charming, but its elegance increases with age as it loses some of its spice, yet gains freshness.

Accordingly, a vertical tasting of the Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer provided a fascinating look at both vintage variation as well as aging potential of this wine. My favorites were the 2015, 2009 and 2003, but all of the wines were consistently good, with dry palates, nice acidity levels and beautiful fruit. Moreover, they all favorably lacked the soapiness that some Gewürztraminers have for me.

How Sweet It Is
In pursuit of its passion for Gewürztraminer, Cantina Tramin has recently expanded its Gewürztraminer range with Epokale. From the root of epoch – a period – the intent was to create a wine similar in style to those produced in the past, but have been lost with time. This traditional, semi-sweet wine was made from grapes from the same vineyard of Nussbaumer and is a late harvest wine, but deliberately harvested without any botrytis.

First produced in 2009, this wine made its debut during our visit, after having spent seven years aging in an abandoned silver mine, which provided perfect conditions: correct and consistent temperature and humidity, which ensured that no tartrates were formed. With only 1200 bottles made, this wine is available for 50 Euros per bottle.

To launch the release of the Epokale, we were provided with an opportunity to blind taste a selection of Gewürztraminer s from around the world. We were told only the vintage of each wine and that the wines were being presented in order of residual sugar, from driest to sweetest. Upon reveal, the wines were predominantly from Alsace, but with a German Spatlese thrown in for good measure. The Cantina Tramin wines were in good company with the likes of Zind Humbrecht Hengst Grand Cru and Trimbach. Four of the wines were the winery’s own: Nussbaumer Gew, Terminum

Although I didn’t know the identity of the wines, I was immediately impressed with the 2009 Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer, which displayed brighter acidity than the 2015 Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer tasted immediately prior to it. Similarly, during the blind portion of the tasting, I really enjoyed the Epokale 2009. Another blind favorite was the Zind Humbrecht Hengst Grand Cru Late Harvest Gewürztraminer 2006, with its amber color, slight oxidative note, along with intense aromas and flavors of honey, burnt orange and orange marmalade.

TASTING NOTES

WHITES
Moriz Pinot Bianco 2016, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $12.00
The Pinot Bianco grape variety has grown in the area for over 150 years. Aromas of pear and flowers. Slightly off-dry, bright and fresh, nice texture, long length.

Pepi Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $13.00
This wine takes its name from the two different micro-zones of the valley from which the grapes are sourced: Pezone and Pinon. Vinified for six to seven months entirely in large oak casks, this wine has a pronounced nose of herbs, citrus and smoke. The dry palate has high acidity, an oily texture and long length.

Stoan 2012, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $30.00
First produced in 2002, this white blend brings together a minimum of 60% Chardonnay, with Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Bianco as supporting players. At five years of age, this wine displayed some development, with a deeper gold color, honeyed, spice and tree fruit aromas. Dry, with high acidity, medium+ body, gorgeous and rich, complex, slight woodiness in finish, long length

Since 2014, white wines are given more time in large casks. Stoan is matured for a minimum of fifteen months, with additional time in bottle. This change was challenging at first since the winery didn’t have the wines available in the market, but now that the 2014s are ready, they are back on track.

Stoan 2015, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $28.00
According to Willi, this is one of the best vintages of this wine and also notes that this is a wine that best interprets the vintage. With the lengthier aging protocol now in place, this wine was on the lees until August. It is woodier on the nose than the 2012, but the oak is not overpowering. Notes of floral, citrus peel, orange greet the nose with a dry, full-bodied palate that shows floral, apple, citrus and minerality, with medium+ acidity and long length. Can age for 10-15 years.

Selida Gewürztraminer 2016, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $16.00
From an ancient, local word for barn, the Selida Gewürztraminer offers up pronounced floral and exotic musk aromas. It is dry, with medium acidity, and flavors of floral, tropical fruit, lychee and spice.

Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $36.00
*2015: Rich and complex with spice, tropical fruit and lychee, this was one of the best vintages in the past ten years, with very dry conditions during the ripening season.

*2012: Showing smoky notes with depth and spice, this was a less sunny year, but provided good freshness to the wines as a result.

*2011: Aromas and flavors of honey, wax, spice and roses with long length from what was a very hot year.

*2009: Pronounced nose of honey, perfume and lychee, with vibrant acidity and intensity on the palate; considered to be a balanced vintage.

*2005: With floral, tropical fruit and honey aromas, this wine was a bit light on the palate.

*2003: As the oldest, this wine was the deepest in color, with an intense and concentrated nose of spice, perfume and honey all of which linger in long finish; it was a hot vintage, yet the wine is still quite fresh.

ROSÉ
Lagrein Rosé 2016, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $8.00
We kicked off the trip with a light lunch in Verona, paired with the winery’s rosé which was perfect with a range of dishes. This medium-deep pink offers up cherry and slight herbal notes. On the palate, it is dry, with a fruity attack, medium+ body and long length. A nice, food-friendly rosé.

REDS
Pinot Noir 2014, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $17.00
This wine is very earthy and herbaceous on the nose. On the palate, it is dry, with high acidity, flavors of cherries and herbs, culminating in long length.

Maglen Pinot Noir 2012, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $23.00
Showing slight development, with pronounced earthy notes, this wine offers up earth, ripe cherry and spice, along with medium acidity and long length.

Urban Lagrein 2011, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $22.00
A nose of dark red fruits, almost brooding in nature, with some vanilla and oak aromas. Dry, with medium acidity and firm tannins, the full-bodied palate displays dark red fruit and wet leaves, reminiscent of Cabernet Franc.

SWEET
Epokale 2009, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, 50.00 €
Beautiful aromas of honey, spice and lemon peel persist on the viscous, medium-sweet palate, with balanced acidity and very long length.

Terminum, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $80.00 (half bottle)
Another late harvest Gewürztraminer, this wine was among the winery’s first forays into high quality wines. Admittedly, I neglected to take formal tasting notes on this wine, but I assure you that it was lovely!

Red, White and Rose for Memorial Day

Images courtesy of K Vintners/Charles Smith Wines

Although it doesn’t quite feel like summer just yet, the arrival of Memorial Day weekend heralds the unofficial start of the summer season as well as the remembrance of those who died in service to our country. While it is admittedly not a proper recognition of these fallen heroes, we might start by raising a glass in their memory, with wines made right here in the USA.

Given the American flag-inspired graphic that adorns the Charles & Charles Rose label, this is as good a place to start as any and has always been a go-to rosé for me. This Columbia Valley (WA) wine frequently finds its way to the top of the Best Value lists (SRP $14.00) and offers great taste as well!

With his market-savvy, well-monikered wines, Charles Smith (one of the Charles of Charles & Charles) truly knows how to pack a punch in a glass. The self-taught winemaker has made a name for himself and his wines, earning recognition such as “Winery of the Year” (Wine & Spirits magazine) and “Winemaker of the Year” (Food & Wine magazine).

Smith makes his home in Walla Walla, Washington and showcases the varied terroirs of the state through a variety of wine ventures. His K Vintners range, launched in late 2001, focuses on single vineyard Syrahs and other small lot wines, while his other projects are aimed at a broader audience. Specifically, in 2006, he debuted his Charles Smith Wines brand with the goal of crafting ready to drink wines that still retain the typicity of the respective grape variety.

Similarly, the aforementioned Charles & Charles wine, a collaboration with Charles Bieler, whom I first met in association with his Bieler Père et Fils Provencal rosé, arrived on the wine scene in 2008, bringing dry rosé to the masses. But, high production hasn’t meant low quality; these are well-made wines that are decidedly uncomplicated; not a surprising coming from the man who says, “It’s wine, just drink it.”

If you are looking for a white or red instead this weekend, check out these other options from Charles Smith Wines:

Kung Fu Girl Riesling 2015, Ancient Lakes (WA), USA, $13.00
With floral, peach and citrus aromas, this wine is slightly off-dry, but with bright acidity that balances the sweetness. Notes of lime, lemon and grapefruit persist on the palate with good length. A lean and fresh wine perfect for pairing or simply sipping on its own.

Boom Boom Syrah 2014, Columbia Valley (WA), USA, $18.00
This deeply colored red offers up notes of black fruit, earth and dried herbs on the nose, with ripe, robust and juicy black fruit flavors dominating the palate. Good acidity and low tannins round out the wine, with its undercurrent of earth and herbs that linger in the medium+ length.

Rediscovering botanical libations for Spring

Spring has finally sprung in the northeast, bringing the season’s first flowers – cherry blossoms and tulips – and reminding me of our connection to the earth and its bounty. While regular wines are certainly among this bounty, aromatized wines might be an even better reflection of this bond, with their unique blend of botanicals. Fortified wines like Vermouth and Chinato, which are infused with local plants, both of which originated in Italy’s Piedmont region, were initially used for medicinal purposes before becoming an aperitif and digestif, respectively.

Although such wines had fallen out of fashion, they are re-emerging as hand-crafted products, bringing a fresh perspective to an old beverage category. On Long Island, Channing Daughters now produces six, different seasonally-centered Vermouth variations with herbs foraged from area farms. And, closer to their point of origin, these wines are being rediscovered as well, as evidenced by the duo launched in New York by Pio Cesare this week.

As one of the older producers in Alba, Pio Cesare has been making Barolos and Barbarescos since 1881. Today, the winery is in the capable hands of Pio Boffa, a member of the fourth generation, who is also joined by his nephew, Cesare Benvenuto, and daughter, Federica Boffa.

Like many traditional producers, the founders of Pio Cesare used to produce their own Vermouth and Chinato. However, by the 1950s, the market was flooded with poor quality Vermouth and Chinato making it a challenge for the Pio Cesare products to succeed, given their artisanal quality and thus, higher price. Not willing to compromise the quality of their product, Cesare’s great grandfather chose to stop production of them altogether.

But, now, as a demonstration of the winery’s flexibility and talent, Cesare and his cousin, Federica, have decided to relaunch these two classic wines. They have returned to their grandmother’s original recipe, faithfully following her directions in crafting them. They worked closely with a nearby grower friend to find the necessary ingredients. The Vermouth has Chardonnay as its base, sourced from their Piodilei vineyard. The wine is then flavored with 26 varieties of herbs, including Vermouth’s hallmark, wormwood, all of which have been macerated in alcohol for 15 days.

Similarly, the Chinato is based on Barolo from the 2012 vintage and is also made from grandma’s recipe. While it, too, is flavored with aromatic herbs, it’s primary flavor component is chinchona bark, from which quinine is derived, giving it its digestive properties.

These limited production (1,000 bottles each) wines hit the New York market this week, with the arrival of Cesare and Federica and their bottles, which sport updated versions of the historic labels.

The Vermouth, naturally colored with burnt sugar (as is traditional), is amber in hue, with a pronounced nose of orange, anise, dried herbs and spices. The medium-sweet palate is beautifully balanced by the lively acidity, resulting in a complex wine with good depth and long length. As an aperitif, it is a lovely alternative to a pre-dinner cocktail or one’s usual glass of wine given the bright acidity, which wakes up your palate. Moreover, the complexity of aromas and flavors presents a wonderful reminder to slow down and savor what’s in the glass, as you prepare yourself for the meal to come.

As a bookend to the same meal, the Chinato is a perfect after-dinner-drink and would pair well with chocolate desserts, but, of course, can be enjoyed on its own. With aromas and flavors of cocoa, berries, blood orange and dried spices, the Chinato is also medium sweet on the palate, with good acidity and long length.

Should you be in need of a good wine to drink with the meal, the Pio Cesare Barolo 2012, with grapes sourced from five single vineyards, is an excellent choice, given the vintage’s approachability and the wine’s beautiful cherry, mushroom and floral notes.

With its association as a key ingredient in Martinis and Manhattans, there is a tendency to want to use the Vermouth (and the Chinato) as a mixer, but I think that is a bit of a mistake. We had the opportunity to taste two cocktails using the newly launched wines, but their complexity and elegance got lost in translation as they competed against the other ingredients in the glass.

Yes, for many, the pleasures of Vermouth and Chinato are unknown and untried, but they are worthy of discovery (or rediscovery) as we welcome the warmer weather and its promise of abundance in the months ahead.

 

Fullerton Wines, from Scandinavia to Portlandia

Admittedly, when I first received the invitation, I was hesitant. I had never heard of the winery before and the idea of schlepping out to Brooklyn on a cold winter’s night was not very appealing…until I Googled the restaurant. With its two Michelin stars and stellar reviews, Aska was very intriguing and seemed well worth the trip to the outer borough.

As we would discover, this Scandinavian restaurant is run by Swedish chef Fredrik Berselius, who truly redefined our notions of a Swedish chef (especially if the Muppet Show is firmly ensconced in one’s brains) and instilled a wonderful appreciation for this cuisine in us.

Getting off the M train at Marcy Street, we walked toward Manhattan, in the shadows of the Williamsburg bridge. After several blocks, we wondered if we were indeed walking all the way back to Manhattan, but finally we arrived at our destination and were ushered to a private room, which was immaculately set for our group.

Once we were all seated, our winery hosts immediately poured us a glass of their rosé and then provided us with an introduction to themselves: The Fullerton’s. It turned out that there was a method to the madness; the Fullerton’s have a direct connection to Scandinavia, which was why they had chosen this vaunted restaurant for the event, coincident with the winery’s debut in the New York and New Jersey markets.

Patriarch of the family, Eric Fullerton was raised in a Danish family and married a Swedish woman. The couple lived in Scandinavia with son, Alex, born in Denmark. A few years later, the Fullerton’s returned to the U.S. and settled in Oregon. Eric held C-level positions within the communications and security industries, but always had a passion for quality wine.

As a young child, Alex watched his parents enjoying wine at home and carried these observations to school – swirling and spitting out his milk, much to the chagrin of his kindergarten teacher – eventually developing his own vinous interest, which was cemented on a father-son trip to Champagne and Burgundy when Alex graduated high school.

In 2010, Alex was graduating from college with a degree in economics, but with no specific plan for a career or his future. He and dad visited Penner-Ash Wine Cellars together and discussed the idea of Alex entering the wine industry. Alex was keen on the idea and before the day was out, he had secured a harvest intern position at Penner-Ash. Dad sweetened the deal, offering to back Alex’s personal wine venture, if he pursued a degree in viticulture and enology, to which he readily agreed.

Alex followed his time at Penner-Ash with a harvest in New Zealand, before returning to the Willamette Valley and Penner-Ash and, later, a position at Bergstrom Wines. During this time, the two Fullerton men began making wine in the garage and scouting for vineyard blocks throughout the Valley. They also planted 400 vines in their backyard.

In 2012, Fullerton Wines was launched as a commercial venture with two separate lines: Three Otters and Fullerton. The Three Otters brand owes its origins to the three otters depicted in the Fullerton family coat of arms and a portion of the proceeds from each bottle helps to support the return of sea otters to the Oregon coast. The Fullerton brand includes its Five FACES line, named for all members of the Fullerton family: Filip, Alex, Caroline, Eric and Suzanne, as well as several single vineyard Pinot Noirs. To date, the winery produces 4,500 cases annually, but the goal is to reach 20,000 cases in the future.

Alex currently sources Pinot Noir fruit from several vineyards in the Willamette Valley. Both the Three Otters and Five FACES Pinots are the products of blending grapes from various vineyards (and appellations) to craft a consistent wine that marries the favorable characteristics from throughout the region. However, he has also identified a number of distinct vineyards that appeal to him as single vineyard wines. These wines are more expressive of an individual terroir and provide nice diversity within the Fullerton portfolio. As the family seeks to expand its production, they will need to identify other vineyards. Looking ahead, Alex noted that he hopes to focus on Eola-Amity Hills in sourcing additional fruit as he is particularly enamored with this micro-climate and the quality of grapes it produces.

As the meal progressed, we got to know Eric and Alex better, both their histories and their philosophies. There was a genuine warmth to this father and son’s relationship as they bantered back and forth, making jokes and good-naturedly teasing one another. In the end, it was clear that Eric has made a huge investment in his son, not just for their mutual love of wine, but because he is extremely proud of him.

While the wine was understandably the focal point of the evening, the 10-course meal was not to be overlooked. Each course was a stunning presentation of food, plate and flatware. Despite the lengthy evening, the food was engaging and not too heavy; only one course included meat and many were vegetarian. Among the more unique offerings were a crunchy snack of bladderwrack seaweed with a blue mussel emulsion; an earthy bowl of lichen served with chanterelles and a mushroom broth; and an intense pig’s blood pancake with rose petals and rosehip jam.

With the wonderful selection of Willamette Valley wines and the expertise of Aska’s kitchen, it was the perfect way to spend a New York night and definitely merited the journey to Brooklyn. It was certainly much easier to get to than Noma!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NB: Food images courtesy of Jared Skolnick.

TASTING NOTES

Three Otters Rosé 2015, Willamette Valley, OR, $18.00
First conceived in 2012, the Three Otters rosé began as a friendly competition between dad and son over which method to use to produce the wine. Afterward, they decided that a blend of the two methods was best and they have continued to follow this format ever since. The wine is refreshing and dry with bright strawberry aromas and flavors along with a hint of fresh herbs, culminating in long length.

Three Otters Chardonnay 2014, Willamette Valley, OR, $20.00
An all stainless-steel Chard, this wine lets the fruit shine through unimpeded by oak. The wine is high in acidity, with citrus and yellow apple notes, as well as a nice richness on the palate due to extended lees contact.

Fullerton Five FACES Chardonnay 2015, Willamette Valley, OR, $33.00
This barrel-fermented wine has only a small (9%) percentage of oak and thus the oak is very integrated, resulting in an elegant and beautiful Chardonnay with good acidity and long length.

Three Otters Pinot Noir 2014, Willamette Valley, OR, $20.00
A really nice entry-level Pinot Noir, this has no new oak, with the wine spending time in tanks and neutral barrels. Sourced and blended from eight different area vineyards, this wine offers up cherry and berry aromas and flavors with a slightly earthy undercurrent. Overall, it is light-bodied, fresh and approachable.

Fullerton Five FACES Pinot Noir 2014, Willamette Valley, OR, $33.00
This is the winery’s flagship wine with fruit sourced from several key vineyards. A beautiful wine with an intense and concentrated fruit nose of dark cherry, which persists on the palate and is joined by a hint of herbaceousness. It is rich, yet elegant with long length. Among the diners at our table, this seemed to be a fan favorite given the complexity of the wine and its reasonable price point.

Fullerton Croft Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Willamette Valley, OR, $45.00
The organically certified Croft Vineyard generates less of a diurnal shift yielding ripe grapes, with slightly less acidity than cooler sites. The result is a plushy, sensual Pinot with good black cherry and spice notes as well as some wet leaves in the long finish.

Fullerton Croft Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Willamette Valley, OR, $45.00
While sourced from the same grapes as the 2014 wine, 2013 was a more challenging vintage, marked with rains during harvest. Consequently, this wine has higher acidity than usual and more herbal character than the 2014.

Fullerton Momtazi Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Willamette Valley, OR, $60.00
The Momtazi Vineyard is situated within the McMinnville AVA. With its bright acidity, ripe red cherry fruit, lush herbs and spice, and lovely long length, this was my favorite single vineyard wine of the evening.

Fullerton Fir Crest Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Yamhill-Carlton, OR, $75.00
Hailing from the old vines in the Fir Crest Vineyard, this wine possesses an extremely intense, heavy and concentrated nose and palate. It displayed some volatile acidity, along with dark red fruit and firm tannins; a steak-eater’s Pinot Noir. This wine provoked an interesting discussion among Alex and Eric since it is a style that Alex doesn’t enjoy, but that Eric would like to replicate for market purposes.

A Dark Knight on a Dark Night: Castello di Gabbiano

It might sound ominous, but meeting Tuscan winemaker, Federico Cerelli of Castelli di Gabbiano, on a cold winter’s night to taste his new wine was actually quite a warm and welcoming experience.

Its vinous heritage spreads back as far as the Etruscans, but Castello di Gabbiano’s physical history dates to 1124 when its castle was built in San Casciano Val de Pesa. This medieval fortress was among many that were established to fortify the area between Siena and Florence as the two kingdoms fought for control of a region widely known for its wine and olive oil.

With its castle still standing tall nearly 900 centuries later, it is not surprising that the winery takes such pride in its noble estate and has adopted Il Cavaliere – the knight who protected the castle from invaders – as its mascot.

Firmly ensconced within the Chianti Classico wine region, the estate boasts 360 acres of vineyard, planted predominantly to Sangiovese, supplemented with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and several local varieties such as Colorino and Canaiolo. The castle itself has now been converted into a beautiful hotel with 11 traditional guest rooms and five apartments. Adding to the estate’s hospitality, an upscale restaurant featuring local cuisine opened a few years ago.

Although Castello di Gabbiano is presently managed by Treasury Wine Estates, the winery’s previous owner was responsible for making Gabbiano’s American debut in the early 1980s with its Chianti wine.

The winery’s current winemaker, Federico Cerelli, joined Castello di Gabbiano in early 2011. Prior to coming on board, the Tuscan native served as a consultant winemaker to numerous local wineries building a decade of experience. Federico maintains a distinct philosophy when approaching his wines, placing an emphasis on elegance, drinkability and the ability to pair with food over power and polyphenols. Accordingly, the wines spend less time aging in wood and more time in the bottle before release, with the conviction that wines in the past were overly rustic with their tannins and over-extracted.

Moreover, Federico enjoys experimenting with wood and uses a mix of French and Hungarian oak to season his wines. More recently, he conducted some trials with local oak from forests near Florence and has been pleased with the results: more pepper and floral notes. Consequently, he hopes to increase its use in the future.

As the second largest winery in the Chianti Clssico region, Castello di Gabbiano has significant resources to invest in the latest technology and apply it to producing great wines. For example, Federico notes that it is better to pick by machine on time (thanks to sophisticated mechanical harvesters) than to wait and harvest manually, especially with Sangiovese, which could develop rot or mold during a delay. Additionally, he relies on a vibration sorting system to maintain more whole berries and has adopted a more gentle approach to winemaking.

Among its portfolio, Castello di Gabbiano produces a Pinot Grigio with grapes sourced from northeastern Italy. The Promessa Pinot Grigio 2015, IGT delle Venezie (SRP $10.00) sprinkles in a small percentage of Chardonnay to overcome some of the bitterness associated with Pinot Grigio and also adds body and weight to the palate. Yet, it is still fresh with citrus and apple notes, culminating in medium+ length.

The Chianti Classico line-up includes a basic Chianti Classico and a Riserva-level wine as well as the latest addition to the Chianti Classico pyramid – Gran Selezione – with a wine called Bellezza, which was my favorite of the three. Moving up the hierarchy, the wines are aged for longer periods of time, generally with more time in oak, but also time in bottle.

From a cool vintage, the Chianti Classico 2014 (SRP $10.00) was bright and fresh with light tannins, along with an undercurrent of wet leaves and a slight hint of oak. The flagship Riserva 2013 (SRP $25.00) hailed from a warm and dry vintage and displayed darker cherry fruit, firmer tannins as well as woody and leafy notes with long length. The second Gran Selezione vintage is the Bellezza 2012 (SRP $40.00), so called for the beautiful view afforded by the small (less than 20 acres), high elevation vineyard block from which the grapes are sourced. The resulting wine is fuller bodied, with more concentrated fruit and more structure, but is still fresh and lively even though it is five years old.

And, of course, there is the “hero” of our story. The winery’s newest offering is its Dark Knight 2015, IGT Toscana (SRP $17.00), featuring its beloved Il Cavaliere on horseback on the striking label. With the belief that traditional Sangiovese is a difficult wine for nascent drinkers, this red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese was crafted as an introductory wine for these newer consumers. Taking a modern approach and style, the wine is partially produced with some carbonic maceration with the aim of creating a soft and easy-drinking wine that can be enjoyed with food or on its own.

While it is clearly targeted at a less experienced wine drinker, it is not a fruit bomb or overly high in residual sugar. Rather, it was still elegant and offered up black fruit, vanilla and a hint of floral on the nose, with light tannins, slight vanilla and spice on the medium+-bodied palate.

We concluded with the Alleanza 2010, another IGT Toscana (SRP $35.00), this time a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Of all the wines tasted, this had the most noticeable oak, along with lush red and black fruit, intensity and power.

Channeling Jimmy Buffet with Montes and Kaiken Wines

As Jimmy Buffet crooned, “It’s those changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes [when] nothing remains quite the same.” While he was singing about life in general, Buffet might have been speaking about the differences between Chilean and Argentine wine. OK, not really, but the emphases on latitude and altitude were apparent at a recent tasting of Montes and Kaiken wines. Presided over by Aurelio Montes, Sr. and Aurelio, Montes, Jr., the father and son team shared the fruits of their respective labors as we tasted a collection of their wines from these two countries.

A pioneer in wine, Aurelio Montes, Sr. earned his degree in agronomy and went on to co-found Viña Montes in 1988. This Chilean winery set the bar for Chilean wines and helped introduce them to the world at time when people had never heard of Chile, let alone knew the country produced wine.

This father of five was eager to have his son, Aurelio, Jr., follow in his footsteps and was loathe to leave it to chance. Thus, the two traveled to the Napa Valley when Jr. was only 15 years old. During the trip, he visited UC Davis and met Robert Mondavi and other key figures in the Napa industry, which cemented his interest in wine. Moreover, he encouraged his father to focus exclusively on top quality wines.

Upon their return, Sr. looked to new territories in Chile, finding land in Apalta on which to plant his vineyards and launch the Alpha line of high end wines. Here, he embraced the maritime climate, planting Bordeaux varieties, and concentrating on growing premium grapes and crafting premium wines. This shift proved to be quite successful and the Montes name became well respected in the industry.

However, not content to rest on his laurels, Aurelio, Sr. was lured by the stark contrast of Argentina’s vineyards beckoning just over the steep Andes peaks. Its continental climate, unique soils and elevations were equally well suited to grape growing, but with distinctly different challenges than those he faced at home in Chile. Thus, he eventually established Kaiken in 2001, giving him two wonderful worlds in which to produce wine.

Meanwhile, thanks to the success of that first Napa trip, Aurelio, Jr. completed his agronomy studies in 1999 and began building his resumé with stints at Rosemount, Cape Mentelle and Franciscan Estate, before returning to Chile. But, he had to earn his place in the family business, honing his skills at Viña Ventisquero before joining Montes in 2007. He first worked in Apalta and then led the winemaking team at Kaiken from 2011 to 2015. Not surprisingly, Jr. acknowledges that, “Making wine is hard work; we are not magicians.”

More simply, he suggested that, “The job of a winemaker is twofold: half of the job is to make wine and the other half is to understand what the consumer wants.” In this regard, he has worked in five different countries, understanding what is good, learning from other areas and taking that experience and expertise home with him to make better wine.

In illustration of their combined knowledge and expertise, we tasted two Chardonnays from the two different “neighborhoods.” Introducing his cool climate wine, Aurelio, Sr. spoke about playing with proximity to the Pacific Ocean, thereby moving along the same latitude to change the character of the resulting grapes. His Chardonnay was very fresh with bright acidity and predominantly citrus notes.

Similarly, Aurelio, Jr. described his manipulation with the height of his vineyards above sea level to slow down ripening and retain acidity, ultimately producing high altitude Chardonnay. While still quite balanced, his Chardonnay was lower in acidity and displayed riper fruit and slightly more oak.

We then focused our attention on Cabernet Sauvignon with the Chilean version being leaner and more elegant whereas the Argentine Cab was fruitier with a richer, rounder style that was more muscular with riper tannins. While Cabernet Sauvignon is not usually associated with Argentina, Aurelio, Jr. argues that the grape can do well there; it simply hasn’t been planted in the right places. He suggested that as an industry, Argentine producers need to do a better job of identifying the best terroirs and planting vines, but also acknowledged that Argentina’s emphasis on quality wine only came about in the past 15 years.

Turning the tables, we next tasted Malbec, which is much more linked to Argentina than to Chile. Aurelio, Sr. jokingly explained that he was jealous of the success that Argentina has had with this grape and decided to produce his own version at home. His Malbec was fresh and lean, with less spice and intensity than the Argentine version. Yet, the Kaiken Ultra Malbec was still an elegant wine with ripe black and blue fruit and herbal notes, thanks to the extreme terroir of his 1500 m vineyard that Jr. calls “wild black horse of the mountain.”

With their long tenure in wine, the two winemakers are not without their desire to experiment. For Sr., it was a Rhone-style blend of Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre (Outer Limits CGM); for Jr., a varietal Cabernet Franc, which he described as being more feminine compared to the “macho wines” Argentina is known for.

Their aspirational wines include the Montes Alpha M, which was Sr.’s attempt to craft a Bordeaux blend as good as one from Bordeaux. By the accolades given in the room, it was clear that he has succeeded with this sophisticated and complex blend. Likewise, the Kaiken Mai is a beautiful Malbec sourced from a heritage vineyard planted in 1910 that has been saved from the encroaching condo development in the Mendoza area. Although 97% of this vineyard is planted to Malbec, a handful of other grapes such as Semillon, Criolla, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are still mixed in among the vines.

Finally, we closed with a mini-vertical of Taita, a visionary wine named for a term of endearment used for a beloved father, denoting respect and devotion. Dry-farmed on a vineyard with calcium-rich soil (thanks to the detritus from a previous glacier), the wine is primarily made up of Cabernet Sauvignon and is aged for a long period of time before release. My favorite was the 2007, which was still quite structured, but displaying some development on its tenth anniversary.

But, in the end, despite discussions of latitude and altitude, it is all about the wines you like. A common note made during the tasting was how each wine was beautifully made in its own right, but would have greater or lesser appeal depending upon one’s palate preferences. Such thoughts underscore Sr.’s statement that, “You get more human than technical about wine as you get older.”

Plus, as Jimmy Buffet also reminded us in his tune, “With all of our running and all of our cunning, If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.”

Thankfully, both gentlemen readily laugh. Aurelio, Sr. shared an anecdote about that fateful trip to Napa during which Aurelio, Jr. proudly purchased an inexpensive pair of shorts that he proceeded to wear throughout the week, only to discover at the end that they were actually a pair of underwear. Apparently, Chileans only wear briefs; it must be a longitudinal thing.

List of Wines Tasted

  • Montes Alpha Chardonnay 2014, Aconcagua Costa, Chile, $20.00
  • Kaiken Ultra Chardonnay 2014, Mendoza, Argentina, $20.00
  • Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $20.00
  • Kaiken Ultra Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Mendoza, Argentina, $20.00
  • Montes Alpha Malbec 2014, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $20.00
  • Kaiken Ultra Malbec 2014, Mendoza, Argentina, $20.00
  • Montes Outer Limits CGM 2015, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $25.00
  • Kaiken Obertura Cabernet Franc 2014, Mendoza, Argentina, $35.00
  • Montes Alpha M 2012, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $98.00
  • Kaiken Mai Malbec 2013, Mendoza, Argentina, $70.00
  • Montes Taita Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $249.00
  • Montes Taita Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $249.00
  • Montes Taita Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $249.00

 

Two Tuscan Gems

Synonymous with quality, both Il Poggione and Brunello di Montalcino are well known names in wine, the first a highly-regarded producer of the second, a wine often cited as Italy’s best expressions of the Sangiovese grape.

Hailing from the region of Tuscany, production of these long-lived wines center near the hilltop (monte) town of Montalcino, which takes its name from the oak trees (leccio) found growing there. Brunello’s roots date back to 1869 when Clemente Santi defined the wine as being one produced from 100% Sangiovese and aged for a long period of time in oak. His grandson, Ferruccio Biondi Santi, built upon Clemente’s initial work, establishing strict production standards and isolating a particular clone of Sangiovese, known locally as Brunello.

Initially established in 1966 (and promoted to DOCG status in 1980), today, the Brunello denomination is home to 250 producers and, while the delimited area itself comprises 60,000 acres, only about 5,200 acres are planted to Brunello vineyards. Other wines produced within this same delimited area, but from younger vines and without the lengthy aging requirements, are made under the appellation of Rosso di Montalcino, often referred to as a “Baby Brunello.”

With an even lengthier history, Il Poggione predates Brunello and was founded by the Francesci family in the 1800s, when Lavinio Francesci, a wealthy Florentine landowner, purchased property near Montalcino after hearing of the land’s potential from a local shepherd. Today, the fifth generation of the Francesci family is currently at the company’s helm.

In an unusual symbiotic relationship, the Bindocci family has been instrumental in the winery’s recent history. Fabrizio Bindocci took over as winemaker at Il Poggione in the late 1970s and was later joined in his endeavors by his son, Alessandro. The duo presently work side by side in crafting Il Poggione’s wines.

I first became acquainted with Il Poggione when I visited Montalcino in 2011. More recently, I had the opportunity to taste a selection of current Il Poggione wines with Alessandro at L’Amico in New York. We kicked off the tasting with the Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino.

Such wines offer a win-win scenario since their shorter production process (there is no aging requirement) permits the wineries to get these wines into the market earlier than their Brunellos and at a much lower cost. In contrast, Brunellos are required to have five years of aging by law (two of which must be in oak) and, while this time and effort results in more complex wines, such complexity and elegance come at a price.

During lunch, Alesandro called his Rosso, a younger brother and was quick to point out that it is a wine with its own identity and not a poor cousin. Produced from vineyards that are less than 15 years in age, the hallmark of Rosso di Montalcinos is their bright red fruit.

“Rosso’s are always about the fruit and the freshness. We make them very clean,” he said. Alessandro added that such wines are still capable of bottle aging 15 years resulting in leather and floral notes with time and occasionally sneaks in an older vintage Rosso wine in vertical tastings with the more vaunted Brunellos to illustrate their quality and aging potential.

Despite the lack of aging requirement, Il Poggione’s Rosso di Montalcino 2014 (SRP $29.99) spent 12 months in oak barrels and barriques, along with an additional 8 months in bottle, before its release. This beautiful wine showed good depth of cherry fruit, with bright, vibrant acidity and a slight woody undercurrent, with long length.

The Rosso wines are also a barometer of the vintage. In 2014, climatic conditions forced producers to cut their Brunello production since it was an okay, not great, vintage. Accordingly, many Brunello grapes were declassified and found their way into Rosso production instead, thereby improving the quality of such wines.

Il Poggione also exceeds the aging requirements for its Brunellos. Their current vintage Brunello 2011 was produced from vines 25 years of age or older and spent three years in oak. However, this longer aging period does not result in an overly oaked wine because their use of oak is actually quite limited given their reliance on larger oak vessels (5000 L in size).

Aged in French oak barrels for 36 months, the Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2011 (SRP $84.99) displayed dark cherry notes, with some dried fruit character and spiciness. In spite of the wine’s full body, it still offered an elegance and finesse along with long length.

At the top of the pyramid, Brunello Riserva wines must be aged for a total of six years. The single-vineyard Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Vigna Paganelli 2010 (SRP $125.00) comes from the oldest vineyard on the Il Poggione estate (planted in 1964) and spent four years aging in large oak vessels, resulting in a powerful wine with cherry, leather and woodiness on the nose and palate, culminating in long length.

The winery’s careful oak management extends to its decision to season its own oak and then assemble the barrels themselves, rather than sourcing them directly from a cooper. Further, in an effort in be sustainable, the barrels are kept for 20 years and shaved every five years. After that, the wood is recycled into floor boards and other non-wine uses. Moreover, the winery has been fully solar-powered for the past three years.

Green efforts also apply outside the winery as Il Poggione propagates its own vines with its own unique clones of Sangiovese and practices sustainable agriculture. Beyond its 300 acres of vineyards, Il Poggione’s 1300-acre property also boasts extensive olive groves, grain fields and livestock, all of which are tended to by hand.

Such attention to detail is labor-intensive and costly, but certainly befitting a jewel in Brunello’s crown.


Taking Solace in the Solstice

Astrologically, as we drift into winter, the period from late December to early February is a time for stillness and contemplation; a time to both relax and uplift your spirit.

As the old year draws to a close and the new one lingers on the horizon, the arrival of the Winter Solstice (on or about December 21) brings with it the shortest day – and longest night – of the year. From its Latin roots, we are reminded that on this day, the sun stands still; we can take a breath and look up at the stars.

Gazing upward, Orion greets us from his perch in this sky. Home to three of the 25 brightest stars, Orion’s gleaming placement among the stars permits him to be seen all over the world, regardless of hemisphere. This winter constellation, named for the myth of Orion, and seen so well amidst the darkness, poetically alludes to the regenerative powers of the sun as Orion’s own eyesight was restored by its healing rays. And, just south of his brilliant belt, Orion’s faithful companion, Sirius, also known as the Dog Star, literally sparkles as brightest star in the sky.

In olden days, this moment in the calendar marked the end of harvest (and all of the hard work it entailed) and signaled instead a time to celebrate. The festival of Saturnalia celebrated in Rome took place from December 17 to 25 – those Romans knew how to party!

So it was with a festive spirit that we took our cue from these ancient holidays and headed out on New Year’s Eve in our finest and toasted to the dawn of a new year with Louis Roederer Champagne at the Metropolitan Opera‘s Black Tie Gala (we know how to party, too!).

Now that New Year’s has come and gone and 2017 has recently arrived, the days are fresh with promise; the sparkle of a brand new year. Just around the corner, Imbolc awaits with its portent of lighter days and lighter hearts as the sun slowly returns.

But for now, it is the perfect time to pause, reflect, raise a glass and count our blessings. May they be as numerous as the bubbles in your glass of Champagne or other sparkling wine.

Navarra Wines, A Confluence of Cultures

dsc_1696Situated in northern Spain, Navarra’s history stretches back to the Romans and includes close links to France, both in terms of its proximity to the country and the fact that the Count of Champagne, Theobald I, also held the title of King of Navarra. The region maintained its independence as a separate kingdom until it finally succumbed to the Castilian empire in 1512.

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Dolias at Villa Romana de Arellano

Coupled with this lengthy history is evidence (vinous vessels, called dolias, unearthed at Villa Romana de Arellano) that Navarran wine has been an important product from the very beginning.

Moreover, given Navarra’s place along the Camino de Santiago, it has been at the crossroads of many cultures for centuries. From the earliest days, pilgrims came from England, France, Germany and elsewhere throughout Europe, bringing their customs and cuttings as they passed through.

dsc_1487This heritage has infused Navarra and its wines with an international outlook and openness to trying new things, while still retaining its traditions. During a visit to the region in 2011, we saw an innovation with new winemaking techniques and experiments with novel grape varieties joined with an equally strong commitment to indigenous varieties.

Navarra’s also wines speak to the lifestyle of the region. The town of Puente la Reina is bustling with activity as people sit outside at cafes and bars on a hot summer’s afternoon, perfect for ordering pinchos (tapas) and a bottle of rosé, which make up 25% of Navarra’s total production. The fresh and fruity wine is the perfect accompaniment to the heat of the day and the diversity of food on the table. Whites play a smaller role, but Chardonnay, Viura and, as of 2008, Sauvignon Blanc, can be found.

dsc_1553Bridging this duality of old and new, the well-worn and well-signed Pilgrim’s Path snakes its way past the medieval castle at Castillo Monjardin. With its eponymous winery, this family estate dates to the 12th century and is currently presided over by Sonia De La Lama and her husband, Victor. Planted to French as well as Spanish grape varieties, their vineyards underscore Navarra’s historical link to France, even though French varieties have only been permitted since the 1980s. dsc_1550

The region’s primary Spanish grapes include Tempranillo and Garnacha, the latter of which are often old vines, averaging 60 to 70 years old. The resulting wines are typically fresher and lighter than their Rhone Valley counterparts due to the area’s elevation and mountains, yet they have great concentration due to the vines’ age.

Another winery with deep roots in the region is Bodegas Nekeas, which traces its vineyards to the 17th century. However, the current configuration of the company dates to 1989 when the descendants of these original grape growers pooled their lands and replanted them, eventually building a winery in 1993.

With a much shorter tenure, Bodegas Príncipe de Viana was created in 1983, taking its cue from an historic Navarran title of Spanish royal succession dating to 1423. Despite its regal name, the winery was actually developed as a way to provide financial assistance to Navarra’s farming industry.

Overall, Navarran wines are easy to drink, food-friendly varietal wines with an emphasis on fruit character. Yet, what is most striking about these wines is their quality. In tasting one wine after another, there is concentration, complexity and beautiful balance in the glass. Even more amazing, most are priced under $20.00 and quite a few are under $15.00, with aged wines – those labeled as Crianza and Reserva – generally topping out at $30.00.

TASTING NOTES


Principe de Viana Chardonnay 2015, Navarra, Spain, $12.00

Although the label proudly acknowledges that the wine was barrel fermented, it is actually quite clean and fresh with only light oak/toothpick notes. Otherwise, it primarily displays aromas of melon, citrus and tropical fruit.

Principe de Viana Edicion Rosa 2015, Navarra, Spain, $15.00
This 100% Garnacha wine is refreshing with bright melon and peach fruit aromas and flavors, good acidity and long length.

Castillo de Monjardin La Cantera Garnacha 2015, Navarra, Spain, $11.00
A really lovely, light-bodied, fresh red with bright red fruits and long length.

Bodegas Nekeas Vega Sindoa Tempranillo 2015, Navarra, Spain, $10.00
Tart strawberry fruit aromas are joined by a slight woody note on the bright, medium-to-full bodied palate.