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. Erik 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.

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

 

Washington Wine and the World

2016-11-01-11-09-20Bob Betz, MW of Betz Family Winery has been a fixture in Washington State wine for 40 years. He recalls a time when people would ask him where in the DC Metro area he made his Washington wine and is gratified that times have since changed. Yet, while Washington State has gained significant recognition for its wines, there is still much work to do in increasing awareness for them for both industry members and consumers alike.

With an aim toward positioning Washington wine within the global industry, Betz led a comparative seminar for members of the press and trade, which included a blind tasting along with participation from a panel of winemakers: Thomas Pastuszak (Empire Estate wines*), Michael Savage (Savage Grace) and Peter Devison (EFESTE).

Betz framed the conversation with the assertion that every global appellation is based on a cause and effect stemming from its respective growing conditions and physical reality that ultimately result in sensory consequences in the glass.

As Betz explained, Washington – or rather, more specifically – the Columbia Valley’s physical reality is impacted by the collision between the mountain ranges and Pacific air; poor soils that are deeply fractured with low fertility and a low moisture capacity; and a modified continental climate with hot, dry summers and very cold winters. Such existence at the margin of ripeness, combined with the ability to control water — thanks to deep aquifers and mountain snow pack — influences the resulting wines.

Looking at what he called the “chameleon-esque varieties” of Riesling, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, each flight within the tasting started with a known Washington wine example, followed by three or four other blind examples of the same grape. Collectively, the participants made guesses as to the origin of each blind wine (and were correct on a few occasions), but such guessing games were beside the point.

Rather, we began to see how Washington wines fit within the context of a given grape variety and how their sensory consequences compared and contrasted with their global peers. Thus, while one’s palate might prefer the Mosel Riesling to the Columbia Gorge Riesling (or the reverse), it was evident that the quality of the two were equivalent.

Furthermore, the tasting underscored the overarching characteristics of Washington wines: their purity of fruit and their structural integrity, this latter element translating into tension and freshness in the wines.

Admittedly, most consumers’ experience with Washington wines has been limited to large brands because 10% of the 900 wineries are responsible for producing 70% of the state’s volume. However, wines produced by the smaller wineries are available direct-to-consumer and may also be found at higher-end restaurants, if you look for them. Yes, finding them may pose a challenge, but, after tasting the range of wines presented during this seminar, I would highly recommend that you seek them out.

My favorite Washington Wines from this tasting were:

  • Savage Grace Riesling 2015, Columbia Gorge AVA $22
  • EFESTE Evergreen Riesling 2014, Ancient Lakes AVA  $20
  • Betz Family Winery La Serenne Syrah 2014, Yakima Valley AVA $57
  • EFESTE Big Papa Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Columbia Valley AVA $60

*NB: Mr. Pastuszak is also the sommelier at The NoMad and a big proponent of Washington wines, although his Empire Estate wines are made in New York State.

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Cave de Tain coming soon to a shelf or list near you

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The Rhône Valley is well known as a distinguished wine region, but perhaps less well known is the fact that the region actually lumps together the Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône. More importantly, there is a big distinction between the two, not exclusively, but especially, in terms of volume. The Northern Rhône represents only 5% of all Rhône Valley production, with all eight of its crus being equal in size to the production of the Southern Rhône’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape. But, in spite of its small size, it manages to produce big, bold, beautiful wines.

Within the Northern Rhône, leading producers, such as Jaboulet, Chapoutier, Chave and Delas Freres, have made their mark on the American market, but Cave de Tain is only now turning its full attention to external markets. Established in 1933, the Cave de Tain cooperative currently has 359 members and is ready to hit the ground running now that they have signed with the U.S.-based Hand Picked Selections.

The winery is situated within Tain Hermitage, capital of the Northern Rhone and home to only 6,000 people. They produce wines within five of the crus along with a small production of IGP wines. All of the vineyards are intentionally no more than 15 km from the winery since the winery is Certified Sustainable, which means that everything they do is based on observation rather than according to a set plan. In this regard, they can carefully monitor the vineyards and only do things, such as spraying for mildew, when necessary.

Here, in the birthplace of Syrah, all of the reds they produce are 100% Syrah. Similarly, they have a mono-varietal focus when it comes to whites, championing Marsanne as their signature white grape. Both grapes play respective starring roles in Cave de Tain’s IGP Colline Rhodaniennes wines, which they hope will serve as an introduction to the Northern Rhône varieties. The company’s further philosophy is to use older and larger barrels, which accounts for the subtler oak influence in the resulting wines.

We tasted through a selection of seven wines beautifully paired with a family-style lunch at Rotisserie Georgette. Many of the wines hailed from 2015, which was a great vintage, one with balanced maturity and acidity, which is relatively rare to have high levels of both. The 2010 vintage was similar in nature, but 2015 is felt to be the better year. Today, the 2015s are drinking well now, but have sufficient fruit, acidity and tannins for aging. Of note, 2015 was a good vintage for both reds and whites. Admittedly, due to climate change, the last truly difficult vintage was 2008.

The IGP wines were very nice expressions of their respective grapes, displaying good fruit character and balance. The Marsanne 2015 (~$12.00) showed some complexity, with salty and nutty notes, along with pear and almond, while the Syrah 2015 (~$12.00) offered up blackberries, bright acidity and soft tannins.

Moving up the range to the Grand Classique wines from Crozes-Hermitage, the increased quality was immediately evident, while the price point remained reasonable. Presenting more noticeable fruit than its IGP counterpart, the Crozes-Hermitage Blanc 2015 was beautifully rich, with aromas of peach and apricot, along with elegance and long length. Similarly, the Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2015 had lush black fruit notes, with medium+ acidity and only a hint of oak influence.

The Grand Classique Hermitage wines are much pricier, which is to be expected given Hermitage’s reputation for long-lived wines of character and strength, but they deliver for the money and are worth the occasional splurge. The Grand Classique Hermitage Blanc 2010 was stunning! Rich and complex, it displayed a pronounced nuttiness, along with baking spices and dried stone fruit. Interestingly, we were advised that Marsanne takes only a few years to develop in bottle, but then will hold that development for some time. The Grand Classique Hermitage Rouge 2011 (~$76.00) is a gorgeous wine with spice, blackberry and dried herbs, silky tannins and lovely richness on the palate.

At the top of the range, the Gambert de Loche Hermitage Rouge 2011 – a plot selection named for the founder of the cooperative – offered more body and power than the straight Hermitage Rouge.

 

NB: Retail prices are noted when the wine appeared available in the U.S. market as per Wine Searcher. Since these wines are just hitting the U.S. trade now, it will take some time before they become widely available. We were advised that the wines were being priced fairly, yet assertively, so they will represent great value for the quality.

 

The Land of Limoux: It’s Not Just for Sparklers Anymore

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The Languedoc-based Limoux region claims the distinction of being the first to produce a sparkling wine back in 1531. In fact, famed monk Dom Perignon is credited with visiting the area and bringing back the knowledge to Champagne. Unfortunately for Limoux, the Champenoise have been more assertive in their public relations campaign over the past several centuries, which is why Méthode Champenoise is much more familiar to the average consumer than Limoux’s Méthode Ancestrale.

However, despite Champagne’s better brand recognition, Limoux is now dialing up the volume on its message to market its wines. In this regard, a rooftop tasting held this month provided an opportunity to renew old acquaintances and make new friends.

The event kicked off with Limoux’s bubbles. For centuries, it was the Blanquette de Limoux and its Blanquette de Limoux Méthode Ancestrale that dominated local production. These two wines earned appellation status in 1938 and harness the Mauzac grape’s floral and apple aromas. The Méthode Ancestrale wines undergo only partial fermentation and thus retain some sweetness on the palate.

Much more recently (1990s), the region added a Crémant de Limoux to its sparkling line up, which favors Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc over the indigenous Mauzac and requires a minimum of nine months of lees aging. In spite of its late arrival to the scene, this newer sparkler accounts for 40% of sparkling wine production in Limoux.

Priced below $20.00, the Limoux sparklers offer up great value for every day drinking with several different styles from which to choose, including drier, sweeter and rosé options.

Even more au courant, Limoux has diversified its portfolio with still whites and reds. While the whites focus on oaked versions of the same varieties as those employed for sparkling wines, the reds (which must include at least three different grapes) bring together an unusual mix of Bordeaux (Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and/or Cabernet Sauvignon) and the Rhone Valley (Syrah and Grenache). The still wines are a relatively small percentage of total production and are priced accordingly.

TASTING NOTES

Delmas Blanquette de Limoux Cuvée Memoire Brut Nature 2010, $16.00
This wine is vinified in old oak barrels and sees 8 months of aging on the lees, with fresh citrus and apple aromas and flavors.

Saint Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux Brut 2014, $13.00
Thanks to a chance discovery many years ago, St. Hilaire was our house sparkler for a long time, providing us with affordable bubbles on a regular basis. Notes of Apple and apple peel greet the nose; fresh and lively with medium+ length on the palate.

Côté Mas Crémant de Limoux Rosé NV, $15.00
This wine spends 12 months on the lees, showing aromas of berries and herbs. It is dry, yet slightly fruity and slightly yeasty on the palate with long length.

Antech Crémant de Limoux ‘Heritage 1860’ 2013, $19.00
A more serious sparkler, this wine is dry with citrus and yeast aromas and flavors; fresh and clean on the palate.

Sieur d’Arques Toques et Clochers Limoux Blanc Terroir Autan 2014, $17.00
This 100% Chardonnay offers up floral aromas with a rich palate of pear, apple and a balanced use of oak; long length.

Château-Rives Blanques Dédicace Limoux Blanc 2012, $21.00
Produced from 100% Chenin Blanc, this wine displays yeast and floral notes on the nose with a lovely richness and roundness on the palate.

Domaine de Baron’arques Limoux Rouge 2012, $39.00
Barrel aged in a combination of 50% new barrels and 50% first and second use, this Merlot-dominant wine blend provides berries, black fruit and herbal notes joined by earthy and oaky flavors on the palate.

Michel Capdepon Limoux Méthode Ancestrale Fruité NV, $16.00
Even though the wine’s residual sugar level is at 95 g/l, this wine is beautifully balanced with floral and apple notes on the off-dry palate and finishes cleanly.

Velenosi: Wines of Poise and Passion

VelenosiWhen I was first invited to meet with Angela Velenosi, owner of Velenosi Winery in Le Marche, I was intrigued by her name. Having studied Italian, the word velenosi struck an immediate cord; we had read stories in class about a character named Valentino Valentini who had first gone on a walk through the forest collecting mushrooms and making a tasty risotto with them. Unfortunately, as the tale went, “Ma…spesso i funghi sono velenosi” – but…often mushrooms are poisonous – so Valentino was brought to the Emergency Room. After leaving the hospital a few days later, our dear friend Valentino was treated to a dinner of oysters, but, as was pointed out: “Ma…spesso le ostriche sono velenose” (but…often oysters are poisonous), so Valentino was again rushed off for emergency care.

After meeting Angela Velenosi in person, I am pleased to note that, while Valentino Valentini was quite unlucky, Angela has had a much better track record with her life. This poised and passionate Italian woman has been the driving force behind her family’s wine label, which she founded in 1984 with then husband, Ercole, when she was only 20 years old. The two saw the opportunity, had a good relationship with the local wine community and, perhaps most importantly, a passion for wine. Angela admits that she had very limited knowledge and experience, but clearly had an abundance of conviction, confidence and courage.

Thirty-plus years later, it is evident that her gamble and dedication has paid off. An award winning winery (listed among Wine Spectator’s top 100 wineries in both 2012 and 2013), Velenosi is firmly established in the region today and is the second largest, family-owned estate, with 100 hectares planted in the south of the region and another 48 hectares located closer to the sea in the province of Ancona.

This same fearlessness seems to pervade everything she does. During dinner she revealed that she has run a total of 11 marathons – three of them in New York. Unfortunately, her knees have kept her from continuing this particular passion, but while, marathons are not a part of her life anymore she is still extremely active.

In addition to being a staunch supporter for her own brand, Angela is equally heartfelt about the region and currently serves as President of the Consorzio di Tutela Vini Piceni, a post she has held since 2014.

Admittedly, among Italian wines, at least in the U.S., Le Marche is much less well known, but this region, situated along Italy’s Eastern coast along the Adriatic Sea, has a lengthy history. The only plural among Italy’s 20 regions, Le Marche got its name in 1105 when three border regions were joined by the Roman Emperor Henry IV. (And, perhaps it’s a bit like New York City’s The Bronx in that it is the only region to possess an article.) Within Le Marche, the town of Ascoli dates back to 1000 BCE and was established by the Piceni tribe of warriors. It pre-dates the Romans’ rise to prominence and was known for its iron works and jewels.

Today, Le Marche is home to 5 DOCGs and 16 DOCs, featuring a diverse range of climates, depending upon topography and distance from the coast. The area features various hills and mountains; there are no flat lands to be found. The relatively small region is primarily known for its crisp, refreshing whites and its Montepulciano-based reds. Although Sangiovese features heavily in many of Le Marche’s wines, the Sangiovese in the Le Marche is a different clone than that found in Tuscany. Consequently, these wines share more similarity to those produced in Abruzzo than in Tuscany.

Velenosi produces 20 different wines, from a combination of indigenous varieties (such as Pecorino, Passerina, Verdicchio, Montepulciano, Sangiovese and Lacrima) and international grapes. In general, Angela likes wines that are both ready to drink, but also have good aging potential, a philosophy she applies to all of the wines she produces. With this mind, many of her wines are bottled in dark, heavy glass to keep the light out during the lengthy aging process. Additionally, Angela looks for clarity and purity in all of her wines. As a result, Angela’s wines are anything but poisonous. – they are elegant, well made expressions of the Le Marche terroir.

Eight of the Velenosi wines are exported to the U.S., covering a range of styles and providing an excellent introduction to the wines of Le Marche!

TASTING NOTES
Passerina Brut NV, Marche, Italy
A Charmat Method sparkling wine produced from 100% Passerina grapes, this slightly off-dry sparkler presents light aromas of peach and pear on the nose and palate. It has nice acidity, with a lovely mousse, finishing cleanly and pairing well with food.

Pecorino Villa Angela Falerio DOC Pecorino 2014, Marche, Italy
Named for the tradition of grazing sheep in the mountains, this variety stems from the Italian word pecora, which translates as sheep. The wine has notes of anise, citrus and apple on the nose. The light to medium-bodied palate offers up savory, herbal and vegetal flavors with high acidity and a slight, textural grip.

Verdicchio Querciantica Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC Classico 2014, Marche, Italy
This wine has fresh fruit aromas of peach and almond and is more fruit-forward than the Pecorino, although it is still dry and balanced. There is bright acidity on the medium to full-bodied palate, with flavors of pear, peach and almond.

Lacrima Querciantica Lacrima di Morro d’Alba DOC 2014, Marche, Italy
An aromatic red variety, Lacrima has thins skins, resulting in a lighter-bodied red, with little to no tannins. The grape’s freshness is deliberately preserved through the use of stainless steel and no wood contact. This wine expresses its fresh raspberry, cherry and plum fruit so vibrantly with bright acidity and beautiful balance.

Brecciarolo Rosso Piceno DOC Superiore 2013, Marche, Italy
Falling within the Rosso Piceno DOC rules, the specific blend is up to the producer, with this wine being a blend of 70% Montepulciano/ 30% Sangiovese, aged in older oak for 10-12 months. The heavy reliance on Montepulciano produces a stronger, darker wine than other Rosso Piceno wines.

Ludi, Offida DOCG Rosso 2011, Marche, Italy
One of Angela’s top wines, Ludi was first produced in 1998, named for the Latin root for play – ludo – a reminder that wine is meant to be enjoyed. It is a blend of 50% Montepulciano, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot, which is aged in new French oak for 24 months. This wine offers up ripe, yet elegant, black fruit with cedar, vanilla and a hint of anise, with finely grained tannins and long length.

Roggio del Filare 2010, Rosso Piceno DOC Superiore, Marche, Italy
Velenosi’s flagship is the Roggio del Filare, literally “fire in the vineyard,” whose name stems from a poem by the Italian poet Carducci, recalling the way that the sun looks on the vines as it sets in the vineyards. This 70% Montepulciano – 30% Sangiovese blend is produced from 50+ year old vines with a long maceration on the skins and then aged in new French oak for 18 months. It is intense, powerful and structured, with beautiful, concentrated black fruit, wood and minerality on the full-bodied palate with very long length.

Visciole Selezione Cherry Wine NV, Marche, Italy
This fresh and delicate dessert wine is produced from a combination of fully-fermented Lacrima grapes to which a wild cherry syrup, known as visciole, is added, causing a second fermentation and ultimately resulting in a wine with remaining sweetness. Redolent of ripe cherries on the nose and palate, the wine is nicely balanced, with enough sugar to marry well with dessert without being cloying.

Marche

The DOCGs and DOCs of Le Marche

Miner Family Winery: The Cool Miners’ Water

Miner
With their name proudly displayed on every bottle of wine they produce, the Miner family has made a name for themselves in Napa Valley wine. Founder Dave Miner initially launched his career in the software industry, following in the footsteps of his uncle, Robert Miner, who was among the co-founders of Oracle Corporation.

Dave continued to pursue his uncle’s passions when he took over as President of Oakville Ranch Vineyards, which Robert had established in 1989. While Oakville Ranch continues to remain in the hands of Robert’s widow, Mary Miner, Dave went on to found his own winery, Miner Family Winery in 1996, after meeting his future wife, Emily, who served as Tasting Room Manager at Oakville.

Ten years later, Dave and Emily’s efforts were duly rewarded when Miner Family Winery was honored as a Top 100 “Winery of the Year” by Wine & Spirits Magazine.

The Miner Family wines were initially crafted at a custom crush facility, but, by 1997, the pair had hired Gary Brookman on as winemaker and spent the following two years buying a building, excavating caves and releasing their first wine. In 2008, the winery was able to become energy-independent, running exclusively on self-generated solar power.

Interestingly, while they have spent considerable time and effort focused on their facility, the fruit for their wines is generally sourced from other people’s vineyards, some of which, like Hyde, Stagecoach and Garys’ Vineyard, have become extremely well known.

A wide range of wines are produced, including those from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone varieties. In a fitting tribute to uncle Robert, the winery’s flagship Bordeaux-style blend, Oracle, was launched in 2004. Today, Miner Family Winery wines continue to earn critical acclaim and have been served at several White House dinners. Yet, the wines remain reasonably priced and accessible.

Miner Family Winery Chardonnay 2013, Napa Valley (CA), US, $30.00
As a high quality, well-made wine, this is an oaked Chardonnay for the haters out there. Aromas of apples, spice and pear greet the nose and persist on the dry palate; overall, it is really enjoyable with complexity and elegance.

Miner Family Winery Wild Yeast Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley (CA), US, $50.00 Produced with only indigenous yeast cultures, this wine offers up yeasty, nutty characteristics on both the nose and palate. Despite spending 16 months in 70% new French barrels, it is well balanced with integrated oak, showing slight development and culminating in long length.

Miner Family Winery Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands (CA), US, $60.00
Beautiful aromas of floral, cherries and a hint of herbs are displayed on the nose while rich, concentrated, ripe cherry flavors are joined by wet leaves and a kiss of oak on the palate.

Miner Family Winery Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley (CA), US, $75.00
From the Krupp Family’s famed Stagecoach Vineyard, this wine is redolent of red and black fruits, coupled with spice notes.  The full-bodied palate delivers firm tannins, with rich blackberry and spice along with long length.

Sangiovese Spoken Here: Tuscany’s Montecucco

DSC_0513It could be the start of a bad joke: six journalists walk into a Consorzio office… wondering what in the world is Montecucco? But, instead, it was a pleasant journey that revealed another side of Sangiovese, a coterie of winemakers dedicated to their land and people passionate about wine.

Situated within Italy’s Tuscany region, just south of Sienna, Montecucco abuts Morellino di Scansano and looks across the river to Brunello di Montalcino. Here, seven towns sheltered by Mt. Amiata, an extinct volcano, are making wine under the Montecucco designation.

While wine has historically been produced in the region, the denomination is quite young, having obtained recognition in 1998, thanks to the enterprising efforts of six producers. Previously, the area was known more for its polycultural approach to agriculture, with farmers growing not only grapes, but also olive groves and cereals and raising livestock, a practice which continues to this day.

But, despite its relatively recent arrival on the wine scene, Montecucco has seen significant growth in both numbers and quality and has been rewarded for its efforts. Since 2011, the denomination also sports a DOCG level wine and can boast that its yields are among the lowest in Italy at 7 tons per hectare for these top wines.

The DOC rules account for white, rosato and red wines. White wines are produced DSC_0600predominantly from Vermentino, with a minimum of 40% required for Montecucco Bianco DOC[1] and at least 85% of this variety for Montecucco Vermentino DOC.

As elsewhere in Tuscany, Sangiovese is the grape of choice for reds. The Montecucco Rosso DOC requires a minimum of 60% Sangiovese, while the Montecucco Sangiovese DOCG must be produced with at least 90% Sangiovese. This latter wine and the Riserva also require 12 months and 24 months in wood, respectively, plus several months in bottle before release.

Given the area’s proximity to Morellino and Brunello, the wines almost beg to be compared and contrasted, in their description — more tannic than Morellino; less intense than Brunello. But, in reality, such an approach is much too limited and doesn’t provide the full picture.

Rather, the wines are truly capable of standing on their own merit and have their own distinct voice. This point was abundantly clear after we tasted through a selection of 24 wines at the consorzio office – our introduction to Montecucco. The wines were robust expressions of Sangiovese with firm tannins, notes of dried red fruit, spice and cherries with structure, complexity and power.

Moreover, as we quickly learned, as a region made up of many small producers (there are presently 70), the stories behind these wines were equally revealing. While there were differences in individual wine styles from producer to producer, a unifying declaration of a fierce devotion to quality and love for the territory was evident during our visits. To wit, 55% of the producers subscribe to organic farming.

Colle Massari: A Gentle Giant
2015-09-25 22.24.52Perhaps the leading voice of the region is that of Claudio Tipa, President of the Montecucco Consorzio and owner of Colle Massari. Named for the hill on which it stands, Colle Massari is by far the largest producer in the region at 500,000 bottles per annum (of the region’s total annual production of 1.8 million bottles).

Tipa, a Tunisian-born Swiss who entered the wine industry after a successful career in telecommunications has built a portfolio of wine properties with his sister, Maria Iris, beginning with the purchase of Colle Massari in 1998.

Now also the owner of Grattamarco (in Bolgheri) and Poggio di Sotto (in Montalcino), Claudio admits that he entered the industry in a backwards manner by starting with a wine that was unknown in the market. Yet, despite this obstacle, and the allure of his other properties, his heart seems wedded to Montecucco.

Further, his commitment to Montecucco appears motivated by passion and not profit; Claudio proclaimed that, “We want to do something else – something smaller; something real. [Montecucco] is little and hidden. If you have Brunello, you can sell it. Montecucco is much harder [to sell].” In spite of Colle Massari’s relatively large size, his maintains a philosophy of staying small while keeping the quality high. His hard work and dedication have paid off, with Colle Massari earning Gambero Rosso’s Winery of the Year distinction in 2014.

Not surprisingly given his tenure and stature in the region, Claudio has served as president of the consorzio three times, but says that he won’t serve in that position again. Instead, he prefers to get the younger generation involved. In fact, he mentioned that he plans to retire at DSC_0607age 70. While I enjoyed the full collection of Colle Massari wines, I was particularly impressed with the Montecucco Riserva 2012, which displayed an impressive array of spice, cinnamon, black cherry, wet leaves, earth and olive notes.


Perazzeta: Preserving the Past DSC_0541
Another of the region’s early pioneers is Perazzeta.  One of the founding members of the DOC, this small family business operates from a building that dates to 1400. The historic cellar was bombed during WWII because the Allies through the Germans were hiding there (they weren’t, but others were).

Similarly, the vineyard had been in the family for generations, providing wines for daily use. But, in 1994, the family was asked to bottle their wine by a Livorno restaurant, encouraging them to pursue a more commercial course for their wines. Today, their annual production runs 60-70,000 bottles.

In another nod to the past, the Bocci family has been working with a professor from Padua to research and identify old vines that have survived. As a result of this work, the winery’s Emma is produced from an extinct Sangiovese clone.DSC_0565

We were greeted at Perazzeta by Rita Bocci, wife of winemaker, Alessandro, who welcomed us dressed in denim overalls, underscoring the hands-on, down-to-earth nature of the people we met. More recently, they have been joined by their daughter, Sara, in the family business. Their Rita Riserva 2009 – named for both Alessandro’s wife and mother – was stunning with its beautiful development of spice, oak and cherry.

 

Prato al Pozzo: Yielding a Dream
DSC_0630At Prato al Pozzo, we met Francesca Quiriconi, who owns the small estate with her husband, Fabio. The duo purchased the property in 2003 and have been slowly growing the estate. Fabio has served as director of two Antinori estates for many years and has always had a dream to produce his own wine.

After ten years of waiting, they are finally building a real cellar, with construction appearing almost completed during the time of our visit. But, this dream has not come without its costs. Francesca manages the property in Fabio’s absence (he is only home on weekends) and is also responsible for taking care of their two daughters on her own.

2015-09-26 10.40.21Named for a Molière character who was reluctant to spend money, their flagship wine is sourced from the initial Arpagone vineyard (1.5 hectares), which doesn’t yield very much. Although Francesca referred to this wine as a “poor cousin of Brunello,” it was really quite lovely with fresh cherries, earth, olive and mineral character. As they continue to establish themselves, they plan to grow to a maximum of 2.5 hectares and are in the process of converting to biodynamics.

Poggio Mandorlo: Bringing Friends Together
Another realization of a dream, Poggio Mandorlo brought together four friends – Roberto, Felice, Giuseppe and Fabio – who wished to make their own wine. Accordingly, they came to the region in 2001, planting 30 acres of land under the direction of Consultant viticulturist, Maurizio Saettini, and initially hiring Brunello producer, Roberto Cipresso (of La Fiorita), as their consultant winemaker.

DSC_0528The estate sits 250 meters above sea level. Here, the mountains protect the vineyard from the Sirocco winds and stop the rain, while the good wind from the sea is able to penetrate and benefits the vines. With Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the vineyard was carefully planted based on soil and exposure. Unlike Montalcino, which has no calcium in its soils, the Poggio Mandorlo estate is home to calcareous Albezza soils, similar to those found in Chianti Ruffina. The first vintage was in 2004. 2015-09-25 14.34.26

Their top wine, bearing the same name as the estate, is a blend of 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc, taking its cue from St. Emilion, despite its IGT Maremma Toscana designation. Given their north-facing exposure, the Cabernet Franc vines maintain good acidity and provide elegance to this wine, with its ripe fruit of red and black berries along with wet leaves and spice. Il Guardiano, their entry-level wine, previously qualified for Montecucco Sangiovese status, but with its 85% Sangiovese/15% Merlot blend, as of 2011 (the year of the new DOCG regulations), this wine is now labeled as IGT Toscana.

Poggio al Gello: A Labor of Love
With four hectares of grapes and five hectares of olives, Poggio al Gello DSC_0672is a labor of love for a retired teacher (Alda) and engineer (Giorgio) who claim that they are continuing to work, but without the stress. The two are happy with their small size of 20,000 bottles annually and are proponents of organic agriculture.

Recognizing that they needed schooling in the ways of wine, the couple hired the director of Col d’Orcia as their “teacher.” They note that he never tells them to do this or do that, but rather, is careful to explain to them why they should or shouldn’t do something. “He is our doctor of wine,” Alda says. Their Rosso del Gello Riserva 2011 spent two years in large oak, resulting in depth and complexity in the balanced and elegant wine.

DSC_0670In addition to producing Montecucco wines, the estate makes two wines from ancient varieties – Pugnitello and Fogliatonda  —  as much as to preserve these nearly extinct varieties as because they don’t wish to be boring. Beyond wine, they also make their own olive oil. In fact, Alda seems to come alive in the olive grove, as she stops to admire the budding olives on the tree. In their spare time, he is writing a novel, while she plays the piano and recently wrote a song for their grandson.

 

 

Tenuta l’Impostino: A Place to Stop and Rest
On a larger scale, Tenuta l’Impostino takes its name from the impostini — places where couriers would stop and change horses before heading on to their next destination during Medieval times. But, instead of moving on to the next location, the current owners fell in love with the area and decided to stay.

DSC_0696The 52 hectare property has 25 planted to vines, where a natural amphitheater provides excellent exposure. The old homestead’s restored farmhouse and stable presently serve as a restaurant and inn, respectively, providing a wonderful place for tourists to relax and recharge, while enjoying the estate’s wines. DSC_0725

The first harvest was in 2006 and, in spite of the property’s size, the grapes continue to be hand harvested. Tenuta I’Impostino’s Vermentino, Ballo Angelico, was one of my favorite whites, with freshness, minerality and a touch of salinity. Their Montecucco Rosso 2011 was also really lovely, with cherries, earth and spice.

Parmoleto: The Family that Farms Together
As Leonardo Sodi meets us in his parking lot, he glances wistfully across the valley at Castello Banfi and Brunello territory, seemingly only a whisper away. Yet, he is resigned to his Montecucco fate and in keeping the family farm in the family.

DSC_0766The 72 hectare estate consists of five hectares of vineyards, three hectares of olive groves and 65 hectares of cereals, along with 300 pigs and a bed-and-breakfast. The vines were mostly planted in 2000 and include just over 1 acre of Riesling.

The Sodi family’s historic cellar is 100 years old, but his parents only starting bottling wine in 1990 and were among the six founders of the DOC. Today, they produce seven different wines, with a total annual production of 23,000 bottles. The intention is to maintain the current size of production because Leonardo is determined to keep it a family farm. If it becomes too large, it will not be a family farm.DSC_0745

A sparkling wine and full-bodied white round out the predominantly red portfolio, but a rosato is noticeably absent because as Leonardo explains, he doesn’t like rosé. Although it needed more time to resolve its tannins, the Montecucco Sangiovese Riserva 2010 was balanced and elegant with tart cherry, spice and wood. His Sormonno, a blend of 75% Sangiovese and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, displayed power and structure along with minerality and spice and was fondly dubbed a “Super Cucco” by fellow journalist, Dave Eckert.

Campo Nuovi: Breathing New Life into New Lands
2015-10-27 21.39.13I first met Daniele Rosellini when I visited Chianti Classico in 2011; the agronomist had been instrumental in the Chianti Classico 2000 research in which the best grape varieties, clones and rootstocks were identified as part of Chianti Classico’s commitment to improving quality. During this time, Daniele and his wife, Nadia Riguccini, wished to craft their own wines, but they needed to stay outside the Chianti Classico territory to avoid a conflict of interest with his job.

After much consideration, they purchased property 2015-09-25 22.37.55within the budding Montecucco denomination in 2000 with the goal of creating their own venture. Their land was previously referred to in historic documents as “Campi Nuovi” (New Fields), a name they kept as they thought is fitting to begin their “new life.” Today, their property is Certified organic and they are also practicing biodynamics. I didn’t have the opportunity to visit his estate during this trip, but it was a lovely surprise and pleasure to become reacquainted with him and to taste his wonderful wine. His Montecucco Rosso 2012 was powerful, concentrated and full of intense, dark red fruit, with slight notes of spice and vanilla.

In Montecucco, Sangiovese speaks loudly and proudly; those tasting these wines will be rewarded with beautifully balanced, well-made wines. But, it is the voices of the people I met that linger with me still.

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[1] Alternately, the Montecucco Bianco can contain a minimum of 40% Trebbiano Toscano.

Pieces of the Puzzle: Putting Together a Glass of Champagne

2015-11-05 15.04.50Once upon a time (also known as several years ago), we found a scrap of plastic film that read, “Assembly of Dust. Some Assembly Required.”

Not knowing what it was or what is meant, it was one of the strangest and most confusing things we ever found on our kitchen counter. After much scratching of our collective heads, we finally identified the scrap as having come from the wrapper of a music CD that a houseguest had opened earlier that day. (It turns out that Assembly of Dust is the name of a band).

The creation of Champagne is truly like that moment – perplexing and puzzling – with lots of assembly required. In fact, lots is an understatement as evidenced by a recent visit from winemaker Régis Camus of Champagne House, Piper-Heidsieck.

During his trip to New York, Camus offered up a unique glimpse into this creation process, known as assemblage, with a tutored vin clairs tasting. A vin clair is a still wine (not sparkling) that has been produced in anticipation of making the blend that will ultimately be bottled for the secondary fermentation; in essence, each vin clair is the equivalent of a single puzzle piece.

Within the Champagne region, there are hundreds of puzzle pieces to be considered. First, there is grape variety; the permitted grapes include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Then, there are the approximately 100 different crus (top vineyards) from which the grapes are sourced. Third is a Champagne House’s Reserve wines – wines saved from previous vintages (and kept distinctly by individual vintage). And finally, there is the time that the wine is aged on its lees as the last piece of the puzzle, which is dictated in part by law (a minimum of 15 months for non-vintage and three years for vintage) and by house style, which typically exceed the minimums.

After each harvest, the winemaker and his team start with a blank canvas as the grapes are brought to the winery. Each parcel is fermented separately into wine, becoming the multitude of puzzle pieces – or vin clairs – available to the team. Their mission, which they choose to accept each year, is to taste through the individual wines and build the puzzle based upon the given vintage.

There is no printed box to follow, instead, the “picture” for these puzzle pieces comes in the shape of a bottle – the bottle of the wine produced the year before (and the year before that…). More specifically, the goal is to replicate the house style for each of the House’s wines. By achieving this goal, consumers can be sure that each and every time they buy a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV, it will taste precisely the same.

At Camus’ tasting, we were given five different samples that had been part of the 2014 assemblage for the Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV: Chardonnay Avize Cru 2014, Pinot Noir 2015 Verzy Cru, Pinot Meunier 2014 Ecueil Cru, Chardonnay 2009 Avize Cru and Pinot Noir 2008 Verzy Cru.

As in working to piece together a visual puzzle, each vin clair provides a sought-after characteristic that helps to shape the resulting wine; each piece adding something that would be missing without it. For instance, the Chardonnay 2014 Avize Cru was particularly prized for its structure and tension as well as its freshness, fruit and minerality. Meanwhile, the older Chardonnay provided more pronounced minerality and was richer, giving some needed depth to the final blend.

In all, the 2014 assemblage contained 55% Pinot Noir, 15% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Meunier, representing approximately 110 different puzzle pieces, inclusive of 10% Reserve wines. It’s enough to make one dizzy (and that’s not accounting for the alcohol). However, the vin clair tasting did offer some insight into this complex process and gave me a renewed respect for these master tasters.

I prefer to leave the assembly to the Chef du Cave and drink the finished product; perhaps it will sustain me as I pour over my next 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

NB: At the conclusion of the formal tasting, we had the opportunity to enjoy several of Piper-Heidsieck’s Champagnes along with passed canapés. Given the informal format, I didn’t take tasting notes, but I was especially fond of the Rosé Sauvage and the prestige cuvée, Rare Millésime 2002. I may even have been willing to pose with the latter bottle’s laser cut label worn as a tiara.