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.

A Harvest Celebration: It’s Never Too Early

2015-11-26 11.50.46The third Thursday of November is Beaujolais Day – the day on which the new vintage of Beaujolais Nouveau is released. Georges Duboeuf, the largest producer, generally hosts a festive affair heralding the wine’s arrival on America’s shores with a bang; from chefs on motorcycles to trapeze artists to graffiti artists. This year, there wasn’t even a whimper. Instead, I received only a single email from retailer, Sherry-Lehmann to mark the occasion. I thought perhaps I had fallen off that invite list, but, in speaking with a colleague, learned that there was no party this year.

While many decry the quality (or rather the lack thereof) of Beaujolais Nouveau, I have always enjoyed the quasi-holiday and, if not the wine itself (which, in fact, I generally do), then what it stood for: a celebration of the arrival and completion of yet another harvest. Another year of toil in the soil and effort in the winery.

We can easily see the bounty of the year’s harvest in the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables in the farmer’s market. But, unlike fresh grapes (and other produce), which provide immediate gratification from vine to vendor, wine takes time to make.

Wines like Beaujolais Nouveau are the exception, going from grape to glass in just a few weeks. It may not be complex and age-worthy, nor is it meant to, rather, it is fresh and fruity and a reminder of what is to come with more time and effort… other wines from this vintage. A time to celebrate the season and give thanks for what Mother Nature has once again provided.

Without the usual Beaujolais Day hoopla, something seemed missing. But, the arrival of Macari’s Early Wine 2015 gave me my much-needed fix. The grapes for this Chardonnay wine were harvested in early September, making their way to bottle by the end of October and released during the first week of November.

On the evening before Thanksgiving, I took a moment to open up this wine and pause and reflect on my deep gratitude in anticipation of the following day’s holiday. I also took time to reflect on what was in the glass – white floral and peach aromas; slightly off-dry palate with vibrant acidity; citrus, peach and floral flavors; and a long finish.

And, more importantly, I took time to notice what the wine reflected back: the remembrance of the freshness of summer as we head into winter; the long days of toil and effort in the vineyard; the gentle care taken by Kelly Urbanik in the winery; and the promise of what is to come from the other fruits of 2015’s labor.

Island Wines: Santorini Edition

There is something special about visiting an island. The discrete borders, the intimate setting and the separation from the mainland all conspire to conjure images of serene beauty. It’s why “Island Getaway” makes a much better headline than “Landlocked Getwaway”!

This summer, I had the pleasure of visiting several different islands, either in body (Long Island) or in spirit (Sicilia and Santorini), succumbing to their charms through the lovely wines that capture their essence.

Admittedly, Greece has been the talk of the town lately – what with a collapsing economy and all that. But, the good news coming out of Greece is the quality and diversity its wines. I presented a session on Greek wines for IWAGY back in the spring, which was a great opportunity to refresh my memory on Greece’s regions and indigenous varieties. Then, in June, I was (virtually) off to the island of Santorini with a tasting featuring the wines of this volcanic island.

The volcanic island of Santorini is exactly what one would expect from a Greek island. Vivid photographs of blindingly white stone buildings juxtaposed against the brilliance of the azure sea, central casting couldn’t have done a better job in creating the perfect setting.

Viticulture on the island dates to 3500 BCE, but the island owes its true viticultural heritage to the volcanic eruptions that took place in 1600 BCE. The resulting caldera, volcanic soils coupled with the climatic winds and limited rainfall, require vines to be grown in a unique, basket-shaped trellis (known as kouloura) nestled close to the ground for protection.

Here, producers rely on a mixture of indigenous varieties, most notably the white grape Assyrtiko, which creates crisp, dry refreshing whites that are mineral driven. Other local grapes include Athiri, Aidani and the reds: Mavrotragano and Mandelaria.

There are three appellations assigned to the small island: Santorini (dry whites, which must include a minimum of 75% Assyrtiko, rounded out with Athiri and Aidani), Vinsanto (sweet wines producead from at least 51% Assyrtiko and made from late harvested grapes, which are dried in the sun for about 2 weeks prior to fermentetaion) and Nykteri (originally named for the now-defunct restriction that the grapes be harvested at night (nikta), these dry whites are also produced with a minimum of 75% Assyrtiko, but with the additional requirement that the wines be aged for at least 3 months in oak barrels). Additionally, the luscious dessert wine, vinsanto, is also produced on the island.

ESTATE ARGYROS
This winery, originally established in 1903 by George Argyros, is now under the leadership of the fourth generation in the guise of Matthew Argyros. With 30 hectares of vineyards, the company’s holdings are among the largest on the island.

Argyros Aidani 2014, PGI Cyclades
This wine has bright fruit aromas with flavors of floral and peach.

Argyros Assyrtiko 2014, PDO Santorini
This wine displays distinct minerality and salinity on both the nose and palate, with good acidity and texture.

Estate Argyros 2014, PDO Santorini
This wine was fuller-bodied and more structured due to the barrel influence than the Assyrtiko.

Estate Argyros Vinsanto 1998, PDO Santorini
Aromas of caramel, honey, with a mineral characteristic. On the palate, it is rich, but not heavy or cloying; bright and fresh with a long finish.

Estate Argyros Vinsanto 1990, PDO Santorini
Darker in color than 1998, this wine offered up an intense nose of dried fruits, with a sweet, viscous palate with caramel, honey and fig, balanced by sufficient acidity.


GAIA

Gaia was established by Leon Karatsalos and Yiannis Paraskevopoulos in 1994 and is considered to be a boutique winery. As an internationally trained winemaker, Yiannis is at the forefront of Santorini’s rebirth.

Gaia Thalassitis 2014, PDO Santorini
This unoaked version is pithy and fresh, with chalk and mineral notes throughout.

Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2014, PDO Santorini
A yeasty character pervades the nose and palate most likely a result of the use of natural yeast.

Gaia Thalassitis Oak Fermented 2013, PDO Santorini
This oak-treated wine displays both a fuller body and notes of oak due to the winemaking.


GAVALAS

A true family business, the Gavalas Winery is presently headed by George Gavalas, who fuses his family’s traditions with a modern sensibility in the creation of his wines. In this regard, he has been instrumental in reviving some of the more obscure varieties on the island.

Gavalas Katsano 2014, PGI Cyclades
Floral and almond aromas on the nose give way to floral and pear flavors on the soft palate.

Gavalas Santorini 2014, PDO Santorini
Fresh with citrus and chalk, this is a lovely example of Assyrtiko.

Gavalas Santorini Natural Ferment 2014, PDO Santorini
Yeasty notes are joined by citrus and minerality. Very special.

Gavalas Vinsanto 2006, PDO Santorini
Intense nose with caramel and honey.

 

HATZIDAKIS
Forced to abandon the family vineyards in the wake of the 1956 earthquake, Haridimos and Konstatina Hadzidakis returned to the island forty years later to rebuild, replant and restore their family’s winemaking legacy.

Hatzidakis Aidani 2014, PGI Cyclades
With floral and peach aromas and flavors, this wine is lively on the palate with good acidity.

Hatzidakis Nykteri 2013, PDO Santorini
Fresh, with just a hint of sweetness on the attack. This wine is big and bold with good acidity.

Hatzidakis Mavrotragano 2013, PGI Cyclades
This wine has a deceptively soft start, giving way to its tannic grip and bright plum fruit.

Hatzidakis Vinsanto 2003, PDO Santorini
This wine is extremely fresh despite its sweetness level. It offers notes of honey, fig and quince.


KOUTSOYANNOPOULOS
The Koutsoyannopoulos family has been making wine since Grigoris and Dimitris Koutsoyannopoulos established Volcan Wines in 1880. Today, the fourth generation continues this tradition, under the family name, while still retaining the old logo.

Koutsoyannopoulos Santorini 2013, PDO Santorini
A bit weightier on the palate compared to some of the other examples, this wine still provides lively acidity and lots of minerality.

Koutsoyannopoulos Santorini 2012, PDO Santorini
With a decidedly mineral nose, the palate is more redolent of fresh fruit, namely pear and citrus. One of my favorites of the event.

Koutsoyannopoulos Nykteri 2012, PDO Santorini
Very floral on the nose, this wine offers up citrus, pith and mineral flavors on its complex palate.

 

SANTO WINES
Established in 1947, the SantoWines cooperative presently has 2500 members that support its activities in growing grapes and making wine.

Santo Wines Sparkling 2014
Quite lovely and fresh with a creamy mousse and floral notes.

Santo Wines Nykteri 2014, PDO Santorini
Floral and fruit aromas greet the nose and persist on the palate through the long length.

 

Then, in late June, just as the crisis was really heating up, an unusual event heralded the launch of Agrino.  Promoting the Mediterranean diet, these packaged rice dishes offer flavor and convenience and will, of course, pair well with Greek and other wines. Coming soon to a grocery shelf near you!

A Re-introduction to Roussillon

I first visited Roussillon in 2001, but it wasn’t until I started studying wine in 2005 that I truly became acquainted with the wines of this region. Several recent tastings re-introduced these wines to me, reminding me that their diversity, quality and appealing price points make them worthy of renewed interest.

Admittedly, a large portion of production is handled by large co-operatives, but co-op is no longer a four letter word around here. In fact, today, many of the cooperatives function more like custom-crush facilities than the typical co-op of yesteryear. Plus, many small family wineries also exist, such as the Nadal family of Château Nadal Hainaut, whom I met at the Wines of Roussillon’s Roussillon Day in New York.

I also had the pleasure of meeting husband and wife team, Dominque and Claude Ortal, at the same walk-around tasting and took an instant liking to the friendly couple who have guided Clos Saint Georges and its related brands (Château de Canterrane, Collections Emotion d’Oc and others) since 1970. Their property is scattered among seven towns within the Aspres area of Languedoc-Roussillon. I also took an instant liking to their wines.

Another immediate “crush” at the tasting was Jean Boucabeille, winemaker for Domaine Boucabeille, a 28-hectare estate, situated due east of Perpignan.  Unfortunately, at the time of the tasting, my new “boyfriend” didn’t have U.S. representation, but I really enjoyed his wines and hope he made a successful match in finding someone to bring them in soon.

While I didn’t get the chance to meet all of the producers whose wines I tasted, I was generally impressed with the region’s refreshing rosés; its eager embrace of indigenous varieties; and its rich and decadent dessert wines. There were also some very interesting dry whites and reds, which were a welcome change. I also had the opportunity to taste a number of these wines with a colleague who works for an importer heavy with this region.

If you are not already familiar with these wines, I urge you to become acquainted. Your palate will thank me!

WHITE WINES
Emotion d’Oc, Cuvée de Paul-Muscat Sec 2012, IGP d’Oc, France, $NA
Made from Muscat grapes usually reserved for the production of fortified whites, this wine offered up exotic fruit aromas yet was dry, with ripe fruit character on the palate. Very pleasing.

Terrassous, Muscat Sec 2014, IGP Cotes Catalanes, France, $14.00
Another dry Muscat, this wine was nice with more limited fruit expression and an interesting waxy texture on the palate.

Domaine Treloar, One Block Muscat 2013, IGP Pays d’Oc, France, $10.00
Rounding out the discussion of dry Muscats, this selection was richly layered with lots of depth and a similar waxy texture.

La Noble Chardonnay 2013, IGP Pays d’Oc, France, $12.00
This brand works with small producers and local co-ops to source fruit from Limoux. The wine is an unoaked version of the ubiquitous grape, which I was hesitant to try, but was duly rewarded with fresh citrus and melon fruit aromas and flavors, medium+ acidity, medium+ body and long length.

Le Cirque Grenache Gris 2012, IGP Cotes Catalanes, France, $18.00
This 100% Grenache Gris is produced solely in stainless steel by a modern cooperative, Les Vignerons de Tautavel Vingrau, which serves more as a custom crush facility than as an old-fashioned co-op. Nicely textural with waxy notes and aromas of pear and melon, the wine is dry on the palate with ripe pear, slight apple and melon, medium acid and medium body.

Chateau de Lancyre, Roussanne 2012, IGP Monferrand, France, $22.00
This wine was one of my favorite discoveries. The Durand and Valentin families purchased the estate in 1970, taking on a 16th century chateau situated on the ruins of a 12th century fortress, with winemaking records that date to 1550. Today, they own 135 acres of vineyards planted to local varieties close to the Pic St. Loup area. The wine is made with 90% Roussanne spiked with some Viognier and Marsanne and displays aromas of flowers and marzipan, which persist on the dry, medium- to full-bodied palate. Just beginning to show some development, this wine can age well, becoming more complex and weighty with time.

Domaine Boucabeille, Terrasses 2014, Cotes du Roussillon, France, €NA
A blend of Grenache Blanc and Macabeo, this wine was fresh, fruity and complex on both the nose and palate, culminating in long length.

Domaine Boucabeille, Les Orris Blanc 2013 Cotes du Roussillon, France, €27.00
Bringing together 60% Grenache Blanc and 40% Rousanne, this wine was distinctly floral and mineral, with some spice and pear notes lingering in the finish.

Mas de Lavail, Terre d’Ardoise Old Vine Carignan Blanc 2014, IGP Cotes Catalanes, France, $14.00
A unique wine given its white color and production from a deeply pigmented red variety. Fresh and clean with white flowers, this is a very food friendly wine.

Domaine Cazes Le Canon du Marechal Blanc 2014, IGP Cotes Catalanes, France, $11.00
Not surprising given the 60% Muscat-40% Viognier blend, this wine is extremely aromatic with floral and exotic fruit aromas. Its dry palate, medium+ body, offered up depth and complexity with floral, melon and mineral flavors and long length.

Domaine Vacquer, Esquisse 2014, IGP Cotes Catalanes, France, $14.00
This blend of 40% Roussane, 40% Macabeo and 20% Grenache Blanc was fresh and clean with melon, pear and spice notes.
ROSÉ WINES
Le Pot du Clos, Rosé 2014, IGP Pays d’Oc, France, $NA
This was very fresh with good acidity, medium body and flavors of melon and berry fruit; really lovely.

Domaine Cazes, Le Canon Rosé 2014, IGP Cotes Catalanes, France, $11.00
Produced from a blend of Syrah and Mourvèdre, this rosé was more Provençal in style than the others I tasted, with slight berry fruit on the nose and palate.

Domaine Vacquer, L’Ephémère Rosé 2014, Cotes du Roussillon, France, $14.00
Produced from a blend of 1/3 each: Carignan, Grenache Noir and Syrah, this wine was subdued, but elegant, with mineral, melon and long length.

Penya, Rosé 2014, IGP Cotes Catalanes, France $11.00
Cooperative Penya is located in the French Catalan area, just north of Spain. The 96% Grenache Noir and 4% Syrah blend, produced from vines with an average age of 25-35 years displays aromas of under-ripe strawberry and slight herbs on the nose. It is dry, but with a hint of sweetness on the attack, with crisp acidity and a clean finish.

RED WINES
Penya, Rouge 2013, IGP Cotes Catalanes, France $10.00
An unoaked blend of 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 15% Carignan and 5% Mourvèdre, this wine offers up intense berry aromas on the nose with herbs; dry rich, concentrated berries, dried herbs, good acidy, really nice.

Domaine Vaquer, Cuvée Bernard 2012, IGP Cotes Catalanes, France $20.00
Another one of my top picks! The Vaquer family has owned the property for more than 100 years. Bernard Vaquer, for whom this wine is named, passed away in 2001; the 25-hectare, high altitude property is currently managed by his wife, Frederique, who was born and raised in Burgundy. Bringing together 33% each of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan, aromas of red fruit and herbs greet the nose. On the palate, it is quite elegant, with medium+ body; medium tannins; cherry, berry and herbal flavors; and long length.

Domaine Cabirau Serge & Nicolas 2012, Maury Sec, France $22.00
From one of the newer Roussillon appellations, this wine is a blend of 60% Grenache, 28C% Syrah and 12% Carignan. The 13.5-acre property was purchased by Hand Picked Selections President, Dan Kraitz, with this wine named for the vineyard manager – Serge Soulatge – and winemaker – Nicolas Burger – who are responsible for assisting Dan in crafting this wine. The wine was aged for 5 months in large oak vats yielding intense and concentrated fruit, with notes of smoke and herbs. It is dry with a sweet attack of red fruit, with medium acidity, medium+ body and lovely freshness that pervades the palate.

Domaine de l’Edre, L’Edre 2011, Cotes du Roussillon Villages, France $30.00
A blend of 46% Syrah, 26% Grenache, 19% Carignan and 9% Mourvèdre, this wine is produced at the extremely low yield of only 1.27 tons/acre from a sustainably grown vineyard in Vingrau, jointly farmed by friends Jacques Castany and Pascal Dienunidou. This wine is produced in two versions – unoaked and oaked. Aromas of berries and pomegranate dominate the nose and palate, it is very polished and focused. The dry palate offers medium+ acidity with bramble fruit and juicy berries and ripe, rich tannins.

Domaine de l’Edre, L’Edre 2010, Cotes du Roussillon Villages, France $30.00
A nearly identical production to the wine above, but this time aged in oak (12 months in 2nd use French oak barrels), this wine displays a slight aroma of oak on nose, joined by blackberry and leather. The full-bodied palate shows well-integrated oak, rich black fruit and long length; really beautiful.

FORTIFIED WINES
Clos Saint Georges Muscat de Rivesaltes Cuvée Eva 2014, Rivesaltes, France, $15.00
Offering lovely, floral aromas, this wine is nicely balanced, with slight licorice and anise notes in the finish.

Domaine Treloar Muscat de Rivesaltes 2013, Rivesaltes, France, $14.00
This wine is so beautifully balanced that its sweetness is almost imperceptible at first. Mineral and anise notes linger in the long length.

Domaine Boucabeille Rivesaltes Ambré Hors d’Age, Rivesaltes, France, €27.00
A vin doux rancio wine, it is showing some initial development, with lots of spice on the nose and palate.

Domaine Cazes Rivesaltes Ambré 1997, Rivesaltes, France $30.00
Produced from Grenache Blanc, this wine spent considerable time in cask before being bottled in 2013. It is complex and rich with dried fruit and spice and would pair beautifully with pumpkin pie.

Terrassous Rivesaltes Ambré 1992, Rivesaltes, France, $50.00
This wine was almost Cognac-like in its aromas and flavors, displaying complex and developing notes on both the nose and palate.

Terrassous Rivesaltes Ambré 1981, Rivesaltes, France, $66.00
Spicy, stunning and simply amazing; my favorite of the three Terrassous Rivesaltes Ambré selections listed here.

Terrassous Rivesaltes Ambré 1974, Rivesaltes, France, $83.00
Intense aromas and flavors; quite lovely, with lots of life still remaining.

A Time and a Place for Hungarian Wines

2015-05-13 13.34.49It’s easy to get lost on the shelf. Depending upon the wine shop, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of wines all eagerly vying for attention and hoping to catch the consumer’s eye.

It’s challenging enough to stand out in the sea of Merlots or Cabs or Chardonnays. But how does a Hungarian wine make its mark, especially when – at least in one sad, but true story – it is relegated to the sake section?

Admittedly, the number of imports from Hungary is relatively small compared to those from other countries and consumer recognition is even smaller, so it can be complicated to know where to merchandise these wines. But, that shouldn’t stand in the way of getting great wines into the glasses of obliging consumers.

Although some consumers might be familiar with Hungary’s Tokaji Aszu dessert style wines, more recently, a new wave of Hungarian wines are being brought to the U.S. market. One campaign seeks to promote dry Furmint wines, the same grape responsible for Tokaji, but equally capable of producing food-friendly, crisp whites.

Another project in this regard comes from a collaboration between Hungarian producer Bognar-Vin and Monika Elling of Foundations Marketing Group (FMG). In addition to pulling from her Hungarian background, Monika has the experience and savvy to understand the U.S. wine market as well as what does and doesn’t work, and has parlayed her intelligence into this new crop of wines.

Her partner, Bognar-Vin, is among the largest family-owned wineries in Hungary, with several different brands under the corporate umbrella. They also produce cordials. After achieving success in other export markets, Bognar-Vin’s BGV brand is its first American launch.

The pair debuted the new collection in New York in May. The wines are well made, market friendly and represent a perfect combination of pleasing the palate at an appealing price point. The eye catching labels delight rather than dumb down 2015-05-13 13.12.45or insult the wine drinker, while the wines themselves are full of fresh fruit and are well balanced.

While I enjoyed all of the wines I tasted at the lunch, the real standouts for me were the Jazmin 2014 sparkling wine, BGV Kekfrankos Rose 2014 and the BGV Cabernet Franc 2013.

Unfortunately, word on the street is that this partnership has since dissolved. Perhaps it isn’t quite the time for Hungarian wines (or at least not these Hungarian wines). But, if these examples were anything to go by, there is certainly a place in the market for them when the time comes…

Buena Vista Winery unveils new Wine Tool Museum

2015-02-16 17.03.39Sharp edges glisten in the spotlight, looking more like an executioner’s axe than something wielded by an enologist. But, these blades actually belong to a collection of pomace cutters, used for removing grape skins from the press.

Indeed, getting from grape to glass takes a series of labor-intensive, time-consuming tasks. Just as diverse and varied are the specialized tools used in each step along the way. From planting vines and harvesting grapes to crafting oak barrels, each instrument has a distinct purpose, propelling the process forward.

Though technology has evolved with time, these implements still hold interest and fascination as well as provide a glimpse back into the past. A unique look at these historic devices will be made public at the equally historic Buena Vista Winery in Somona, CA when it unveils its Wine Tool Museum on March 24, 2015.

Established in 1857 by Agoston Haraszthy, Buena Vista Winery is among the oldest wineries in the U.S. Haraszthy was a true pioneer in the wine industry, leading the way for the use of European varieties and (then) modern methods in the vineyard and winery. After much exploration throughout California (including a stint as San Diego’s first elected sheriff), he was among the first to recognize the potential of Carneros (the southern sub-AVA that spans both Napa and Sonoma), where he chose to locate his Buena Vista Vinicultural Society.

Unfortunately, Haraszthy’s legacy languished first under Prohibition and then under a revolving door of ownership. However, in 2011, the estate was purchased by Jean-Charles Boisset, whose Boisset Collection of wineries also spans Napa and Sonoma as well as Europe.

Boisset was intent on restoring glory to the storied winery and has since invested 2015-02-16 15.38.18heavily in the infrastructure. Most notably, the original land-marked cellar building received a full renovation, including a state-of-the-art reinforcement of its walls to protect against earthquakes. While certainly not planned, the seismic retrofit passed its August 2014 test with flying colors; the building didn’t sustain any damage at all!

With the interior renovations now completed, the ground floor serves as home to Jean Charles’ Bubble Lounge, a place to enjoy a range of sparkling wines produced by Buena Vista and several other Boisset properties.

Display cases line the walls of the stairwell and show off a beautiful collection of decanters, setting the stage for the exhibit to come. Upon arrival on the third floor, visitors will be greeted by a 20 minute video presentation guiding them through exhibit and introducing them to the tools, their respective functions and the history of Buena Vista.

The unique opportunity to visually experience the tools of the trade will provide tasters with a deeper understanding of how wine is made and perhaps a greater appreciation for those who toil to make it.

Rose Revolution: Better Dead than Red

World winemakers unite! Admittedly I have Communism and Leon Trotsky on the brain thanks to having just finished Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Lacuna. However, the notion that winemakers are globally uniting to produce rosé wines is not that far-fetched, at least not in terms of the depth and breadth of these wines now being produced.

While drinking pink wine (at least publically) was previously relegated to newbies quaffing White Zinfandel and other sweet blush wines, today’s rosés run the gamut in hue and are primarily dry in style. With a decade of growth in the U.S. market, rosé continues to be one of the U.S.’s fastest growing wine categories in retail sales; the message is clear: Rosé is here to stay. Tweet that!

A recent “Pink Party” hosted by Winebow showcased the importer’s vast portfolio of rosés, which not only ranged in style (from still to sparkling and pale salmons to deep pinks), but also in origin of production.

As the number one producer of rosé worldwide, it is not surprising that the line-up was heavy in French samples, with appellations that specialize in the pink stuff such as Provence and Tavel well represented. Italian specimens were similarly prevalent, most of which hailed from the southern portion of the boot: Sicily, Sardinia, Campania and Calabria.

But, Winebow’s rosé collection is much more widespread than the wine world’s two top producers. In addition to a reasonable showing of wines from the U.S.’ east and west coasts, more unique appearances came from Croatia, Greece, Lebanon and the Republic of Macedonia.

Adding to the diversity, the sparklers were not only comprised of the usual suspects such as Rosé Champagne and a beautiful rose Cava, but also on hand were lovely bubbles from Austria and Tasmania.

And, vying for most unusual wine of the day was a “100% pure rosé sake” produced from heirloom purple rice.

With such a plethora of rosé wines in the market, it can be quite confusing to the consumer to make sense of it all. But, the easiest way to understand rosé is to think about something with which most people are familiar – tie-dyeing. Tweet this!

Such childhood arts-and-crafts projects provide a simple, but effective tool, for learning about rosé production. Armed with white t-shirts, rubber bands and RIT dye, we saw that leaving the t-shirt in the dye bath for just a few minutes resulted in a pale hue, while soaking it for the full hour delivered the deepest color. Moreover, the instructions advised that higher temperatures and agitation further added to the color saturation.

Apply these same principles to winemaking, substituting grape skins for RIT dye and grape juice/must for t-shirts (no rubber bands required) and, by George, you’ve got it. Now you are ready to join the revolution!

Looking for some rosés to sip this summer (yes, I promise it will be summer one of these days)? Here are some of my favorites from the Pink Party tasting:

SPARKLING WINES
Jansz Sparkling Rose NV, Tasmania, Australia
A blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier with just a hint of color. Citrus, mineral and peach notes.

Juvé y Camps Rosé Brut Pinot Noir NV, Cava, Spain
100% Pinot Noir and medium-deep pink in color. Floral and fruit on the nose with red fruit and herbs on the palate.

Lanson Brut Rosé Champagne NV, Champagne, France
A blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Rich and intense with typical yeasty character along with citrus and a hint of red fruit.

STILL WINES
Adelsheim Rosé 2013, Willamette Valley (OR), USA, $25.00
100% Pinot Noir. Herbs with some depth and slight grip on the palate. Fresh strawberries and melon.

Chateau Mercouri Lampadias Rosé 2013, Ilia, Greece
A 50-50 blend of Avgoustiatis and Agiorgitiko. Simply lovely with good fruit and acidity.

Les Vignobles Gueissard Côtes de Provence Rosé “Les Papilles” 2013, Provence, France
Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rolle. Berries and cherries with body and good length.

Zenato Bardolino Chiaretto 2013, Veneto, Italy
Corvina, Rondinella and Merlot. Very fruity with strawberry, raspberry and dried herb aromas and flavors.

It’s Complicated… but does it have to be?

Each year, dozens of high school and college teams gather together to compete in building complex machinery to complete simple tasks. This national competition, held in celebration of cartoonist Rube Goldberg, encourages the creation of far-fetched contraptions to accomplish straight-forward tasks such as hammering a nail or turning a page.

See the Rube Goldberg website for this and other images.

These machines take a circuitous route to getting things done, instead of simply moving from Point A to Point B, there are quite a few stops along the way.

In the context of the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, such round-about, comical approaches can be a lot of fun, but why do we seem to take a similar tack when explaining simple concepts about wine to our students?

As a refreshing antidote to encyclopedic tomes, Tom Stevenson has written “a [wine] book for people who don’t want to read about wine.” Stevenson’s newest book, Buy the Right Wine Every Time, The No-Fuss, No-Vintage Wine Guide, offers a simple, straightforward approach and focuses on wines that are generally inexpensive, widely available and consistent from year to year.

This is a distinct departure for Stevenson, who is well known for writing the (encyclopedia tome and) go-to-guide, World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparking Wine. Presumably much more at home drinking the likes of Bollinger and Taittenger, for this project, Stevenson found himself tasting Barefoot and Turning Leaf and seems to be impressed with these and several other big brands.

The first part of the book emphasizes wine by style, while in the latter section (referred to as the “A-Z of wines”), individual wines are listed alphabetically (naturally) with a few key elements included:

  • What is it?
  • What does it taste like?
  • If you like this, then try with confidence…

The very first entry in this section is the Adami Prosecco Bosco del Gica, which Stevenson rates as Recommended. (His other ratings are To Die For and Highly Recommended). As a consumer-oriented wine book, I would say it is Highly Recommended.

Interestingly, or at least of interest to me as a wine educator, while the label clearly indicates that the wine is Prosecco Superiore DOCG (and not just Prosecco DOC), Stevenson makes absolutely no mention of this fact in his text.

And, in the wine style section, none of the wines listed include the appellation or even country of origin. Truly a case of less is more.

Truthfully, having worked with the Prosecco Superiore consortium, I feel a duty to explain and clarify the differences between the two, but in all honestly, does the average consumer really care as long as the wine tastes good (to them) and fits within their budget? As much as I hate to admit it, the answer is no.

Yet, I do not advocate for a full abdication of complex principles; merely, for the use of clear explanations when they are necessary and appropriate. In this regard, detailed dissertations on appellation laws might be best left for trade training, but significant concepts that link wine and place should be explored, keeping context and audience in mind when guiding such conversations.

Similarly, at a recent seminar on “Why Terroir Matters,” author and educator Marnie Old questioned whether we should be using the term terroir with consumers, noting that discussions of “dirt” tend to turn people off.

In response, Bordeaux merchant and estate owner, Edouard Moueix suggested that, “[Terroir] is a term that was invented to describe something that can’t be easily defined,” but was adamant that terroir is indeed vital to the dialogue on wine. Instead, he proposed that we need to do a better job illuminating this term for consumers to help them understand how terroir distinguishes one wine from another in its identity as well as to clarify that it does not, in fact, mean “dirt.”

Admittedly, a tall order, but as a wine educator I am up for the challenge. What do you think?