Yuletide greetings from 1WD paternity leave, folks!
Despite the fact that I am woefully, epically, insanely behind on just about everything blog-related, I am still receiving a sh*tload of samples (likely in lieu of the pandemic pretty much still slamming the brakes on any wine-related travel… in fact, it’s had both feet pegged on those brakes and doesn’t seem at all interested in releasing them anytime soon). So as you might imagine, pickings for the 1WD homestead’s Yuletide gatherings (in which, fortunately, Baby Gianna’s grandparents on her mother’s side were able to grace us with a visit) were far from slim.
And so while, with a 3-month-old in the house, we might not be sleeping all that well, we are most certainly still drinking well…
Rosé bubbly is almost always at least a somewhat sexy choice, and this one is most definitely in that category. It more or les lets it all hang out, with impeccable structure and a fine mousse that are elegant dressings on a spirit that is absolutely ready to PAR-TAY down.
FF has never been afraid to go big (probably too big in the case of their Pinot, actually) and that formula pays off big-time here in a white that feels tropical, plush, and lushly generous—without also dragging down your mouth into flab territory. Pops of citrus zest and ginger come a bit unexpectedly and keep things intellectually interesting during the hedonistic romp.
Here’s how winemaker Joel Aiken described the long-standing magic of this top-shelf site in Napa: “The soil in the Morisoli vineyard is classic alluvial fan (bench-land) soil with lots of gravelly loam and great drainage. This soil moderates vigor and the location, just east of Mt. St. John provides some cooling shade late in the afternoon. Clone 7 performs beautifully on this well drained soil with the resulting wine more similar to wines from mountain vineyards than other valley floor vineyards. Blending the two vineyards highlights the best of both creating a wine that is complex and approachable early on but will also age beautifully for decades.” This red is SOOOO young and tight right now. Joel is a master with this vineyard, and it shows. Eventually, these gorgeously lush, spicy plums start to emerge. Elegant cedar notes appear, too, and there’s an amazing length to it all. Quite a decent amount of dustiness, grip, depth, and freshness all over. It’s jam-packed, expressive, textural, and BIG.
Impressive stuff for the relatively modest price here; this Port definitely brings a “baby brother VP” feel. Pure ripe blueberry, over-ripe blackberry, dried fig, and, appropriately in this case, tons of Christmas spice action. Lots of bang both in the palate, and for the buck, in this one.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Even I’m sick of hearing me talk about these guys. Having said that, I am growing increasingly convinced that there is no better crowd-pleasing, ageworthy, non-vintage Champers out there for the money at the moment. Again, fight me!
What this bold, berry-tinged rosé lacks in complexity it more than makes up for in food-friendliness and downright sexiness. It’s not subtle in its approach, but that mouthfeel is just pure seduction, and it helps that the quality level is up to par with Dutton-Goldfield’s normally astronomically high standards.
Popping open Blackbird’s flagship reds is starting to become a bit of a holiday tradition a the 1WD household, which would be an expensive proposition if I wasn’t in the fortunate position of getting these puppies as samples. The 2017 Paramour is an “embarrassment” of Oak Knoll riches. Being based on Cabernet Franc (a long- admitted personal favorite), the bramble and herbal spice notes that start peeking above the dark, plummy fruit horizon of this mouth-coater are a fantastic compliment to the complex graphite, oak, and tobacco action here. You could bypass all of that if you really wanted to (which I would decidedly recommend against doing) and just enjoy the sultry, smooth-as-silk mouthfeel, which is textbook high-end Napa and absolutely world-class.
Longtime 1WD readers are also likely sick of hearing me talk about this stellar Sicilian producer, and in particular this dessert label that helped put them on the fine wine map. Given that I attended the first retrospective tasting of Ben Ryé ever held by Donnafugata, I feel as though I’ve got a good handle on the vintage nuances of this gem. So I can tell you that 2017 is among the burliest and most potent-feeling Ben Ryé vintages in recent memory. The sultanas seem extra powerful, the marmalade a bit more pleasantly astringent (like it’s got extra bits of orange skin), the figs a bit more dried and concentrated. It’s a dessert wine for those who like their vinos big, bold, and offering no quarter.
First, the bad news: Like Greece’s Crete, Georgia is one of the great ironies of the wine world. Despite vying for status as the place where civilized winemaking began, and once being an important player on the world’s winemaking stage, a combination of historically suppressed production, and impossible (for Westerners) to pronounce and unfamiliar indigenous grape varieties, means that Georgia now has to somehow find its modern footing in a wine market that now scarcely pays it any mind.
It also has to deal with the fact that, dominated as it is by small, family-run wineries, it’s virtually impossible for Georgia to match supply if demand for its wine did happen to jump.
Every (re)emerging wine region needs at least two things: 1) The ability to hang with the currently very high minimum quality threshold of wines in an ultra-competitive market, and 2) a champion with authority and bonafides. Georgia now has both.
Importantly, we’re also seeing some boutique importers who are getting bitten by the Georgian wine bug, and are passionately repping the country’s wines. I was visited by just such a person: Jeff Brown, who owns Village Vines LLC (and is a 1WD local, no less!), and who specializes in bringing in products made by small family outfits in Georgia. Brown left me a couple of samples to wet my beak, and now I can crow about the quality of those to you and give you a sense of what Georgian wine has in store (figuratively, if not yet literally).
With orange/natural wines still flirting with toast-of-the-town status among wine geeks, Georgia is a natural fit for the hipster wine-loving crowd. Based on my experiences so far, the best amphora-aged whites from Georgia are among the best and most enjoyable amphora-aged whites, period. This 2019 Qvevri is a treat—freaky in all of the best ways. It’s honeyed and structured, has a tiny amount of funk that doesn’t even border on distracting, and delivers so much tasty apricot, pear skin, and bruised apple action that subsequent sips are pure pleasure.
Thankfully, this Aleqsandrouli is so delicious, you won’t care a whit about how to pronounce it. Brambly red berries abound on the nose and the palate, along with ample notes of white and black pepper that remain enticing and never once get obtrusive. The perky lift/vibrancy in the mouth makes this extremely food-friendly, but the breadth to the mouthfeel adds weight and enough seriousness to just sip it on its own, too.
It’s actually been fifty… FIFTY!… of these not-in-person Zoom tastings since the global pandemic started? I’m getting twitchy for lack of travel, but my samples coffers remain more than full enough to supply with me with enough alcohol to dull the pain.
For this 50th incarnation of SiP (Sort-of-Shelter-in-Place) sipping, we catch up with longtime friends of 1WD, Portugal’s Esporão, who made their name as one of the most famous, well, names in Alentejo. Esporão has, since my time working them several years ago, branched out to acquire Quinta dos Murças—a Douro property that was just being on-boarded when I first visited them—and Quinta do Ameal, an historic property in Vinho Verde.
If you’re thinking “well, those two are about as far apart stylistically as you can get,” you’re on the right track, as that was more-or-less the theme underpinning the tasting of recent releases by both estates that I attended, led by Ameal winemaker José Luis Moreira da Silva and Esporão’s Frank Paredes. “Our main goal,” emphasized José Luis “is to produce wines that represent each region, and show the differences with both.”
And different they most certainly are, though once could , with enough quick driving, see both of them in the same day.
The lusher, much wetter, and much greener Vinho Verde is still technically the #1 selling Portuguese wine region in the USA, and the largest DOC in Portugal by vineyard area. Rainy, lush, cool, and continental, with influence from the Atlantic ocean, the region’s vines grow mainly on sandy loam and granitic soils (“that reinforce the acidity” according to José Luis). By contrast, the Douro is, of course, noted for its steep viticulture, Schist/slate soils, arid climate, fortified wine production, and potentially scorching Summertime temperatures.
Such a juxtaposition of regions yielded what you’d expect: vibrant white wines, and the deep, plummy reds to match them as opposite sides of the Portuguese vinous coin. There’s a bit more to the story, of course, and that’s where our tasting kicks off…
Ameal is the more recent Esporão acquisition, but the more historic, dating back to 1710. The property runs 2600+ feet along the Lima River, with rolling hills and changes in elevation providing variation in growing conditions. The previous owner bet big-time on the Loureiro grape variety here, running with it since about 1990. Loureiro means “laurel” (and the grapes do smell like it). “It’s incredible how these wines resist aging,” noted José Luis. “For me it resembles Riesling. It’s all about the acidity and the freshness. The idea here was to produce a different wine” than the region had been known for previously, “more valuable, more premium.”
Here, Loureiro, Alvarinho, and Avesso are blended from three different subregions, in an attempt to “look for the harmony” between these grapes “in a natural way” (i.e., no gas, no sugar added, etc.). The vineyards are about 25 years old. This is floral and mineral, with lovely citrus notes (think limes, lemons, grapefruit…). Vivacious and fresh in the nose, with tropical hints, there’s plenty of acidity to go around, of course, but there’s also nice roundness on the palates’ edges. Light, fresh, and finishing with green apple and lime pith. This one delivers intellectual payoffs as well as refreshment—for a price that kind of defies belief.
This 100% Loureiro is “a blend of all the plots we have on the estate” explained José Luis, (those near the river giving acidity, and those on the hills bringing depth), and sees 6 months of batonnage. Talk about fresh aromas… Flowers, limes, and lemon rind – not overtly complex, but the nose feels elegantly refined. Juicy and refreshing, with mineral and bay leaf hints, the palate is absolutely electric, but never looses its cool or its composure. The finish is, indeed, reminiscent of Riesling, with its stone fruits and hint of spice. Elegant and excellent, and sporting a WAY long for the price!
While Ameal was already a well-established and well-regarded brand before Esporão picked it up, Murças still remains a bit of “a blank slate” for Esporão, even 12+ years after they acquired it. Its 48 hectares of vines (across 155 total ha) sport lots of biodiversity, and a bit of historical significance—in 1947, Quinta dos Murças had the first vertical plantings in the Douro (82% of the estate is planted in vertical rows today). The plantings favored more concentration and quality but lower yields (and in some cases, deeper roots), while also promoting more aeration in the vines, helping against disease pressure. “It’s really an important part,” noted Paredes, “the elegance is linked to these conditions” in their Cima Corgo location (the somewhat cooler area of Douro). The estate is now 100% Organic, benefiting from a 2015 a soil survey that afforded them deeper understanding of the plots and terroirs.
This blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Tinta Roriz hails from vines that are now nearly 40 years old. The name (meaning “Whistle”) is derived from the sound the wind makes when it whips through the vineyards. Balsamic, blackberry, black plums, and ample spices mark the nose of this very friendly red. With nice freshness, its acidity balances its ripe red fruit palate and its tannins, which arequite well managed. Hints of wood spices round things out on the finish. This will make friends.
This red comes from al-estate fruit, with vine plantings dating from 1987-2011. Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Tinta Roriz are here joined up with bits of Tinta Cao and Tinta Francisca. The QUinta’s traditional lagares are still used for foot treading the grapes. Intense and ripe, this one is spicy, spicy SPICY! The fruits are quite black, and they are powerful. Leather, dark dried herbal spices, wood spices, dried violets, and smoke all show up, too. The palate is fresh, exciting, and also deep with tangy red fruit, big and spicy black plums, and balsamic notes. This feels young right now, and will likely get even more robust given a few years in bottle.
“We probably have the most expensive viticulture in the world.”
So claimed Charles Symington, CEO of 5th generation Port and Douro powerhouse Symington Family Estates, during a recent ZOOM live tasting in which he was joined by fellow family member and Head Winemaker Charles Symington. And he has a point—and he has perspective, with Symington farming about 1,000+ hectares of vines in the Douro, with 26 estates and 8 wineries currently in operation. The staid but somewhat droll demeanor of both men belied the excitement that awaits anyone lucky enough to nab the wines we tasted, but we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here.
“As you go from west to east [in the Douro], it becomes dry and hotter,” Charles explained, as we (impatiently, in my case) readied to taste through selections of still reds and vintage Ports from both Quinta de Roriz (in the Cima Corgo) and Quinta do Vesuvio (a much larger property in the Douro Superior, established in 1827 and acquired by Symington in 1989). “The rain we get in the Douro is mainly coming off the Atlantic. Temperatures in the Douro will often go below 0C in the Winter; in the Summer it’s not unusual to see 50C.” Combine those conditions with “the geography following the mountainside, the extremes in temperature, the lack of rainfall” as well as naturally low yields, hand-harvesting, and local regulations that would charitably be described as difficult, and you have a formula for viticulture that is anything but cheap. “The effort’s definitely worth it,” he insisted, though “there’s always an element of risk management.”
As for what makes the Douro such a special place worthy of said effort, Rupert Symington chalked it up to the region’s unique soil system. The soil has “a quite porous and well-drained” schist layer “all over the main Douro valley,” he advised. Rainfall filters through all of that schist, forcing vine roots to go deep into granite to find water (especially important during the hot, dry Summer months). Low yields of concentrated, intensely flavored grapes are basically the natural byproduct.
Here’s a disclaimer: I have history with a few of these wines, and so jumped at this tasting opportunity. They happen to be among some of my personal faves, so I’m not making any promises that I’m in fully objective territory from here on out… you have been warned!
2018 P+S Prats & Symington Post Scriptum de Chryseia (Douro, $28) According to Charles Symington, “2018 was really a very good year. It was very balanced, allowing for sugars and acidity to develop side by side.” This melding of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca (with some Tinta Roriz) puts a crowd-pleasing exclamation mark on that statement. A spicy nose, with hints of vanilla, cedar, lots of plum; lovable palate suppleness, combined with juicy red and black fruit flavors, and just enough spice and acidity all keep things jaunty. it gets funky, meaty, and yet still even spicier on the powerful finish.
Speaking of keeping a crowd happy, there’s this other blend of Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Amarela. Herbal notes, with spice, dried violets, black and blue plums, cassis, licorice, and dark chocolate… not much to dislike here. It has softness, but also depth and concentration (and deceptively high amounts of structure). Delicious stuff.
Touriga Nacional (75%) and Touriga Franca… again… For Rupert Symington, this release is “a huge personal favorite of mine,” as he feels the 2017s are “absolute classics.” After tasting this, it’s not easy to find reason to disagree with him. Stewed red and blue fruits, ample spices, several types of licorice, and dried herbs all mark the entry. Dusty tannins, red plum and redcurrant juiciness grace the palate. There’s a fantastic finish, with plum flavors and vivacity throughout, along with meatiness, earth, and fantastic length. This is one of the most elegant TN-based reds you’ll likely ever find.
Touriga Franca (56%), with Touriga Nacional (41%), and Tinta Amarela (3%). Garrigue/dried herbs, pine needle, cedar plank, dried blueberry, ripe black and blue plums…. there’s a gorgeously sexy nose that extends right into a gorgeously sexy and round mouthfeel. This is but a mere pup at the moment, based on the killer combo of structure and acidity happening in it at the moment. While this is powerful and ripe, there is nothing that doesn’t feel luscious and luxurious in this—especially in that irresistible, lengthy ending.
Charles Symington described 2007 as “a rather unusual year… probably one of the coolest years” for the region, one that promoted “better acidity, and fantastic aromas; it’s one of the best years of the century so far” for Port. This release (as well as the Quinta do Vesuvio below) are foot-trodden in lagares, “a very simple method [that] can produce the most extraordinary wines.” And extraordinary this is. There’s. So. Much. SPICE. Think innamon, cigar, sweet tobacco, vanilla extract… along with raisin, dried fig, blackberry syrup, hints of rum, and black licorice. Immensely long in the finish, the balance throughout the palate on this Port is downright exceptional. And this is still youthful! (“Going through its teenage phase” according to Charles).
Garrigue and dried herbs, blackberry syrup, dried flowers, eucalyptus, cola, dried black cherry, and they are all wrapped up in a sense of almost regal power. This is HUGE right now: dark, flamboyant and showy. The fruit flavors have this interesting combo of stewey plum action, with rich and velvety sweetness that all feels seamless. Quite long, and structurally still young. If you like them dark and sweet, there are few better.
This edition of sipping while we SiP (shelter-in-place) due to the Covid pandemic has us enjoying highly-regarded and highly-priced selections from Bolgheri’s Argentiera. While named after the silver mines that once dotted their home turf in Maremma, this Tuscan producer is pretty much all gold-standard, with 95+ point scores from the conventional critics is being kind of the norm for their reds.
During said virtual tasting, we were joined by three of Argentiera’s staff: Sales & Marketing Director Massimo Basile, Winemaker Nicolò Carrara, and General Manager/COO Leonardo Raspini (who is a dead ringer for an Untouchables-era Sean Connery, by the way). Basile emphasized the relative youth of Bolgheri as a formal winemaking region: “It was given for the first time to a style of wine, using international varietals [sic] in a unique Mediterranean climate. It was not an area known for big reds. The first DOC given here was for rosé wine – the area was known for a light rosé wine. Argentiera arrived here in the late `90s.”
Bolgheri, of course, has made up for its late start in premium reds with a relatively rapid ascent to cult-like heights. Form Argentiera, their success comes down to their four different vineyard sources, each with slightly different proximites to the sea, according to Raspini. “Argentiera is the selection from different soils, from different little plots.” he noted, calling their vineyards’ soil variation “our richness. This richness is the base for Argentiera wines. It’s a little nightmare for our oenologist [in terms of vinification of separate plots, etc.].” With their vines now hitting an average of 20 years of age, “this moment is the right moment to produce, year by year, very important wines.”
Winemaker Carrara joined in 2009, and endured good-natured ribbing about being the youngster in both age and tenure in the Argentiera group. “Argentiera has this mirror effect from sea breezes, combined with typical soil for the coast, characterized by sandy soil,” he added. “All this richness that we have in our property let us make a wine with a certain ‘soul’. We like to reinforce the development of each terroir that we have in our fields” by matching plantings, pruning, etc. to each soil type. “We feel very lucky in Argentiera. We don’t want to do extra work. We try to be gentle as possible. We want to be precise in the vineyard [and] in the cellar.”
The soils from this source vineyard for this Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend are older, and rich in clay. “In May we suffered some disease in the vineyards,” Nicolò Carrara recalled. “In the beginning I felt scared. But we had a very beautiful Summer.” The fruits are quite dark here, with some prune, black cherry, and black plums. There’s earth and funk, deep red plum, and enticing spices and dried rose petal notes on the nose. As good as al of that is, the mouthfeel is the main event – superb and elegant, there’s energy, breadth, depth, leathery grip, structure, and minerality, all stately and austere and just pitch-perfect. Despite the austerity in its personality, it’s all presented in a delicious, drinkable package that finishes incredibly long. It’s already showing a gorgeous sense of harmony, while still feeling young and full of life. Just stellar.
For Carrara, “2019 represents for us the best vintage of Argentiera. Every plot didn’t suffer anything – any stress, any diseases, whatever. The weather was normal, I have to say, with an unusual cold May.” Another Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend, with a small amount of Petit Verdot as well, this has a classic Bordeaux blend nose (dried violets, cassis, black plums, and dried herbs). But it adds that Tuscan dustiness, too, with a wonderful sense of salinity. The palate shows depth and power and suppleness on entry, then transforms to a more vivacious, structured, and dark-fruited little wonder. Leather and dark spice notes, cigar, pencil lead, and more dried herbs abound. This is quite serious, and shows impressive aging potential for the price point. It is really showing off the vintage in a fabulous way, and is over-achieving even at this price-point; I would have pegged it for a $90+ Bolgheri if tasted blind.
Carrara described 2016 as “a tough vintage, but the quality of the soil helped us to maintain a good balance of vigor to achieve a very high quality of ripeness.” This red hails from a tiny vineyard on a small hill that connects two of Argentiera ‘s other vineyards. Surrounded by woods, and planted to Cabernet Franc in a sort of sun-dial formation, “it’s a very particular place to grow vines, it’s a spectacular vineyard” noted Carrara (it’s actually named after the fan-like plantings that circle a large tree near the center of the hilltop). This is the first vintage of ‘Ventaglio’ that’s comprised of 100% Cab Franc. Wooden tanks were used during fermentation, with aging in 25% new oak, with some aging in tonneau. Red fruits on the nose – cherries, plums, cranberry, currants… all incredibly pure and very deep and rich. Small hints of saline, slate, and graphite, too. Nicolò Carrara cited the strength and elegance combination in this wine as a “favorite” and I’ve got to agree. As much as I love the variety, I have to begrudgingly admit that it’s rare to find a standalone Cabernet Franc that offers this much potency and concentration while also remaining so meticulous and finely appointed in its textural touches of energetic acidity, structure, and complexity. Leather, dried herbs, and chewy tannins. mark a forever finish. F*ck, this is sooooo good. The real deal in many ways.
Like this author, Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards was born in 1972, predating the official indoctrination of the Chalk Hill AVA. And thus forevermore Chalk Hill wines will slightly confuse would-be wine buyers who, upon picking up a bottle, wonder why the name Chalk Hill is listed twice on the label. You know, the way that MTV videos (back when they actually showed music videos) would put the name of the song, album, and artist in the bottom corner, which was always funny when they were all the same… like “Big Country” from the album “Big Country” by the band “Big Country”… Sh*t, I am feeling really old right now.
During a recent Zoom tasting with Chalk Hill’s Winemaker Michael Beaulac and Vineyard Manager Brian Malone, I was able to temporarily forget about how old I feel and take a deep dive into their bread-and-butter variety: Chardonnay. Bread-and-butter is actually a pretty good catch phrase for their white wines, which hailing from the relatively warm Chalk Hill AVA tend to be ripe and powerfully built (though also balanced, thanks to the influence of rolling fog even despite its distance from the Petaluma Gap). And Chardonnay is absolutely their bread-and-butter in the figurative sense: about 120 acres (or just under half) of their 295 acres of plantings are devoted to Chardonnay, with 20+ clones planted (which demonstrates just how important the variety is to their production, history, and identity).
It’s not all bread-and-butter, of course – there’s quite a bit more to the big, bold, and beautiful Chardonnays that Chalk Hill Estate, from the Chalk Hill AVA, can muster from the vines grown on (you knew this was coming) Chalk Hill…
This white is the bread-and-butter release from Chalk Hill’s bread-and-butter variety, meant to showcase how Chardonnay performs across the entire estate. As Malone described it, “There’s a wide variety of slopes, aspects, soil types… there’s like 13 different soil series on the vineyard. Chalk Hill is very unique, because it lies within this region that’s warmer than the interior, yet cooler than Alexander Valley. The fog rolls right up to our ranch, then it actually will retract right out to the coast, so we get a lot of solar exposure.” Some work is required, therefore, to ensure that the Chardonnay grapes don’t bake in all of that sunlight and heat. “The main thing with Chardonnay,” Malone added “is keeping the integrity of the fruit… We actually will manicure the vines in a way to allow sunlight to penetrate the canopy, it’s more of a dappled light.”
This estate blend sees 100% native yeast, 100% malolactic, and 100% French oak (44% new) for 11 months. Winemaker Beaulac was all smiles when reminiscing about the vintage. “2018 was a fantastic year, because it wasn’t 2017 again. Nice, even growing season. It was one of the most ‘carefree’ harvests I recall in a while. These three wines are all made essentially in the same way. It has to do with clonal selection, it has to do with where the grapes are grown. They turn out differently because of where they’re grown.”
Peaches, cream, ripe apricot and pear, white flower, citrus, brioche, vanilla… this Chardonnay is complex and immediately shows that it means business. To be fair with all of the bread and butter talk, this is more creamy and rich, rather than buttery. Layered in its opulent, sensual fruit are sweet orange tinges, with a metric ton of textural complexity. Powerful, full-bodied, toasty, and incredibly long with fresh baked bread (there it is!), grilled lemon peel and peaches, and smoke accents on the finish.
Part of their soil-focused releases that are mainly available via their tasting room and wine club, this white sees 14 months in 67% new French oak. Just 310 cases were made, bottled unfined and unfiltered. Moore described the well-drained, volcanic soils that house this Chardonnay’s source vines as “an ideal location within an ideal location. The Felta series is just about as ideal as you can get. It’s cool to be a part of.” Beaulac added “This wine comes down to three different blocks. Almost half of the wine is the Chalk Hill clone. The coolest thing about this wine is the minerality and the mouthfeel that you get. It still has that creaminess, it still has that weight, but there’s this minerality that comes through in the wine.”
While this white is indeed very big, it is also quite elegantly restrained with a noise full of grilled lemon peel, ripe pear and white peaches, floral action, and bits of tangerine. While rich, it shows more vibrancy, brightness, minerality, and lemony acidity, and a piquant texture at the edges of the palate. Maybe a tad hot, but the liveliness really entices. The finish is very toasty, with grilled fruits and dried herbs on a long send-off.
Another soil-focused release, this one gets 13 months in 75% new French oak. Again, the quantities are quite limited (just 310 cases, also bottled unfined/unfiltered). This Chardonnay’s vines hail from Arbuckle soils. As Malone explained, “It’s usually formed from alluvial deposits that come from rolling hillsides, usually at lower elevation. It’s normally a sandy loam.”
“These two blocks are separated by 16 feet,” Beaulac added, “with a dirt road between them, but they create completely different wines. To me, that’s fascinating. There’s a textural feel to this wine. It’s about ‘weight’ without it being ‘heavy’.”
This is a Chardonnay that immediately hits you with about ten different varieties of peaches in the nose. Hints of wild herbs, white tea, cinnamon, vanilla, wood spice, orange blossom, pears, and even lime soda show up here. On the palate, it seems to sway slightly between power and heat, with a generous roundness and flavors of poached peach and apricot fruit, and a toasty/creamy texture. It’s a fine balancing act that’s fascinating to experience as it plays out across the palate and the finish, which dwarfs the other two wines in this tasting with its impressive length (despite both of them having pretty long finishes!).
One thing that the Covid pandemic has done to us wine media types is essentially shut down the whole “visit a producer in person and break bread over wine and dinner” thing that the wine business loves to do. That’s especially true of the Napa Valley wine business. And they must be jonesin’ for media connection rigtht now, if the flurry of Zoom sample tasting invites that I receive is any indication.
In that vein, I admired the gumption and ingenuity of Napa’s Black Stallion, who have been going all-out in organizing tastings, even to the point of doing public ones that involve their customers. A case in point of that ingenuity: their invite to me to have them send me dinner from a local restaurant, along with samples of their current releases, to have a virtual sort of dinner meeting with head winemaker Ralf Holdenried.
Now, I’ve got currently a pregnant girlfriend at 1WD HQ, and while she has to taste-and-spit rather than drink these days, there was NO WAY I was going to turn down the opportunity to get her dinner from one of our favorite local bistro joints. And so I agreed (rather quickly, I might add) to the virtual meetup/eatup.
Black Stallion’s Holdenried is an interesting case study of a winemaker journey, even in a region full of such case studies. Raised in Germany’s Rheinhessen winegrowing region, Holdenried calls himself “the exchange student that never went back. I grew up pruning Sylvaner and Müller-Thurgau” in his family vineyards in Germany, before studying winemaking and viticulture at the University of Geisenheim. A stint at UC Davis to study fermentation science, viticulture, and enology introduced him to California, and that was effectively that. He developed his Cali wine chops at William Hill Estate and Louis M. Martini’s small-lot program before joining Black Stallion in 2014. Stylistically, the Germany-to-Napa thing might seem like a whiplash-inducing transition, but Holdenried doesn’t really see it that way. In terms of a house style, his German roots influence how he approaches Black Stallion’s goal of “making modern wines with a long – but not large – finish.”
While the Black Stallion winery itself (owned by the Delicato family, who Holdenried describes as “very involved”) has only been active for just over a decade, its history dates back much further, to when the spot just south of Stag’s Leap used to house one of California’s largest equestrian centers, and an indoor riding area (that is now the spot where their Cabernet vines are planted). My conclusion after our tasting – it was a good decision to move from horses to vino…
A unique choice for a Napa Valley planting decision, but as Holdenried mentioned, “it’s a very unique vineyard,” planted on a ridge overlooking the bay. Lemons, minerals, dried herbs, dried blossom petals – it’s hard not to like that nose. Lithe, bright, and lemony in the mouth, there are nice round edges to the palate that give this breadth. No barrels or malolactic action required – “just straightforward,” Holdenried mentioned, “eight rows of one block, 300 cases later, we’re done.” It gets right to the point, but it does it elegantly.
Black Stallion sources this Pinot from growers on both the Napa and Sonoma sides of Los Carneros. Holdenried describes this red as a response to becoming disenfranchised by the bigger styles of California Pinot he’d encountered. And while he described Pinot as “very tricky, very finicky,” this crowd-pleasing red seems worth the effort. And it offers up more than the typical overblown Napa Pinot, for sure – smoked meat, mint, tea leaf, cedar, leather, and black cherry, all atop a spicy, soft, but balanced palate with great length.
This one is Black Stallion’s bread-and-butter red, and it offers a lot of bang for the buck as far as Napa Cabs go in this price-range. Green herbs, oak, vanilla, spices, lots of black fruits – it’s the whole Napa picture, in a big, well-crafted, nicely structured form. Kudos to Holdenried and the team for making this so affordable, drinkable, and accessible.
Pound-for-pound, this single-vineyard red has always been my favorite of the Black Stallion lineup. Huge amounts of graphite, with ripe/concentrated and delicious black fruits (plum, blackcurrant), tar, leather, dark chocolate, dried lavender, dried herbs, jammy blue fruits, cloves – and that’s pretty much every vintage. This 2018 happens to be VERY long, with nice energy and tension throughout. It starts firm and big, but opens after several minutes into something more vibrant and energetic in its undertones. Powerful, and (very) grippy, this is a deliciously full-bore Cab.
Holdenried described this as “our showcase, our flagship,” which comes with the requisite bicep-worthy workout-style heavy bottle. From a style perspective, he said that this icon release is an effort that’s “trying to snap out of the `80s” penchant for overblown Napa reds. Sourced primarily from hillside fruit in Atlas Peak and Diamond Mountain, however Holdenried told me “I don’t commit to making the blend from any one” of the specific source vineyards. “We just try to select the 20 best barrels from 5 different vineyards.” “While the vineyards may change year to year, the goal that I have in mind for this wine is really the same: to try to combine concentration and elegance in the bottle. It’s a stylistic question, really trying to find the sweet spot” between mountain fruit structure and Napa Valley opulence. “I think we’re in for a treat, if we’re patient enough.”
The operative word here is Deeeeeeeeep! And those black fruits (plums, cherries, currants) are canyon-level deep. Dried violets, graphite, cocoa, sage, smoke, fine leather, cocoa, tar; there’s a lot going on here just in the aromatics alone. The pPalate entry is quite silky, almost velvety; then, dense/dark fruit flavors, grip, and substantive power start to come through. The finish isn’t overt, but it’s long and persistent, and adds elegance to an otherwise powerhouse showing. Texturally, there is clearly some effort expended here – silky, moving to a sense of substance, energy, and then “scaffolding.” Large and in charge.
When you’re talking about Italy’s Collio region, you’re talking about hills. And I mean, meta-levels of hills.
That point was emphasized more than a few (dozen) times during my recent Zoom+samples tasting organized by the Consorzio Tutela Vini Collio, during which wine writer Matteo Bellotto gave us the lay of the land (more or less literally) with respect to this standout hilltop white wine region between the Julian Alps and the Adriatic Sea. Here are the key takeaways:
Collio sits on the 45th Parallel (so, right in line with Bordeaux), and is the 3rd DOC in Italy (founded in 1968)
Collio means hillside – and “everything that you can see [there] is made on the hillside”
Out of the region’s total area of 7000 hectares, only 1500 are planted to vine (because… hillsides!)
Collio is “an area close to different borders, with different identities, different languages being spoken, and different stereotypes [from the rest of Italy]”
While Italy is justifiably crazy about its indigenous grapes, international varieties have been planted here for 150+ years; so there is extensive experience with those in the region
By the numbers, Collio supports 350 wineries, 166 growing partners, and 130 bottlers making 6.5 million bottles per year from 17 permitted varieties (plus Collio Bianco and Collio Rosso); it’s “like an orchestra; we have to think about this territory as a symphony”
87% of the vineyard holdings measure less than 2.5 hectares each (so, lots of small winegrowers)
85.6% of the production is white wines (14.4% is red), due primarily to the cooler, wetter climate (moderated by drying winds from the south, and – you guessed it – hillside plantings that promote deep vine roots systems).
Collio is famous in Italy for its “Ponca” sandstone soils, comprised from ancient seabed material that’s over 50 million years old. There are Marl and sandstone sedimentary layers, fragile on top, that promote excellent drainage, so the roots can penetrate these soils quite deeply in search of water.
Regarding the 2019 vintage that’s in the market now, producer Denis Sturm described it as a relatively dry and warm year. The critical period of August through October “was perfect, perfect,” with little pressure on picking times (thus promoting more ripeness). “No stress,” Sturm emphasized, “we could plan the harvest in a perfect way. It’s a perfect vintage to understand the different areas and how indigenous and international varieties [perform] in our terroir.”
So let’s take a look (taste?) at some of those 2019s (and their predecessor vintage in a few cases, for good measure)…
Our tasting was led by sommelier Mitja Sirk, who I’ll be quoting liberally through the rest of these reviews, because he absolutely knew his hillside Collio stuff!
Ribolla “Has a very thick skin,” Sirk noted, adding “it’s the white wine that’s the easiest to drink.” Producer Matteo Bellotto was a bit more cautious about Ribolla’s success warning that “Ribolla needs the highest hills to be grown [properly].” This example hails from the southern border of the appellation, so the vines are a bit lower in elevation. Crisp apple and citrus notes, blossom, and great purity in this one, with lemon, green apple, and white pear flavors in abundance. The intensity of acidity is notable, but there’s also suppleness despite all of the focus. Very long, with an almost herbal note with almond skin tinges. Gorgeous stuff.
A great example of what pure ponca soils can deliver. Tropical notes, with grapefruit, starfruit, some “exotic” (to me, anyway) elements, and white flowers on the nose, followed by dried herbal notes and hint of smoke, too. This is mineral all the way. “One of its best terroirs” noted Sirk (from a southern section of the region, the “grand cru of Friulano”). The peach and mineral action is fresher than a daisy, and it’s got an astringent element (in a good way), along with finesse and depth to its lemon flavors. Excellent, and a lovely food wine.
This high hillside site is in the cooler area near the mountains, and is harvested manually with the best clusters reserved for this bottling. On the proliferation of Pinot Grigio in Collio, Bellotto had another musical comparison for us: “”It’s like pop music – you can have Shakira, or you can have The Beatles… and if you’re on the hillsides, you have The Beatles!” This white is absolutely banging with white flowers, lime, white melon, and citrus pulp aromas. It has an almost sweet edge to the citrus and tropical fruit flavors, tempered by hints of astringency and minerality. The finish has long toasty notes, with grilled lemon. This is a fresh, textural elevation above the norm for PG that will still be instantly accessible to most drinkers.
From a warmer part of Collio, this white is salty, savory, and mineral, with a fefined and reserved nose full of lemon pith and wild herbs. Fressssssh! Prepare for a lemony zing, with plenty of pink grapefruit, citrus peel/pith, and almost electric acidity. Don’t let the acidity fool you, though, this one has roundness and richness (and 14.5% abv). A bit of an acquired taste, especially in its youth.
From a south-facing vineyard in front of a large hill, surrounded by woodland. “This particular vineyard is not a very old vineyard,” noted Sirk, “but is already talking about its place.” Heady, perfumed, and sporting lemon blossom, honey, honeydew, and lemon drop candy notes. Fresh in the mouth, with sweet lemon and citrus fruit flavors, and a juicy texture like fresh lemons that are also slightly sweet. Some wood notes are there, but they work wonderfully. It almost feels Alsatian. I loved it.
Speaking of love… I love geeky items like this. From vines aged up to 100 years (and averaging about 60) this is a field blend of mostly Friulano, with Malvasia and a bit of Ribolla Gialla. Herbs, dried flowers, perfume, lemon peel, grilled citrus… none too overt, and all a bit reserved (in a pleasant way) on the nose. Wow – the palate is all kinds of fresh and textural; pithy, structured, vibrant, and toasty. The citrus flavors are all fresh off the grill, with salinity and savory/herbal edges. Authentic in its presentation, and long in its tasty, toasty finish, this is unique and difficult to forget.
Virginie Saverys is fighting against what she calls the “viticulture of death.”
Born in Ghent, Belgium, Saverys graduated in law from the University of Paris, and moved to Tuscany in 2007. After taking the helm at Avignonesi two years later, she was, as she told me during a recent Zoom tasting of her wines, “a bit horrified” at seeing staff having to wear “hazmat suits” to farm the vineyards. Vineyards that, to her, “looked more like a lunar landscape” than a vibrant slice of Tuscan winemaking country.
Saverys’ personal focus on living an organic lifestyle kicked in, and over eight years she led a transformation in Avignonesi’s practices, achieving Biodynamic certification that, as she views it, is “putting more advantages on your side” when it comes to crafting authentic wine. As a testament to how seriously she takes this sort of thing: she shipped my samples to me packed in popcorn; not packing popcorn, but actual (inedible) popcorn. And with 175 hectares of land across nine estates… “it’s definitely not small” in terms of the effort required, “especially for a Biodynamic producer.”
No, I’ve had great and mediocre wines made conventionally, and I’ve had great and mediocre wines made Biodynamically. But all things considered, pretty much anyone and everyone in wine will tell you that to make excellent wine, you’re better off with both Mother Nature on your side, and making as few touches as possible along the way from grape to glass. With Saverys’ quietly fierce determination, lawyerly attention to detail, and passionately organic focus behind them, Avignonesi seems to have stacked the winegrowing decks in their favor…
Made in 800L Tuscan terracotta jars, this 100% Sangiovese red is vibrant, bright, and alive with red fruits, earth, orange peel, and spices. Saverys was aiming for “lively, fresh, fruity” with this one, and hits the mark squarely in the bullseye. Once opened, a bottle of this is bound to empty quickly.
Saverys recalls 2018 as “a really good vintage” for Sangiovese, and the lovely cherry, tobacco leaf, and citrus peel nose of this red makes a good case to back up her assessment. Juicy, round, and fresh, Sangio doesn’t really come a whole lot more delicious than this. For those who want herbal spiciness and plenty of POP! in their Tuscan reds.
This take on Sangiovese comes from older vineyards (upwards of 37 years), which Saverys credited with having “more sophisticated soils.” You’ll find stewed red plums, dark cherries, earth, cedar, wonderful spice notes, currants, cassis, and a gorgeously fresh, textured mouthfeel. And, yes, some extra sophistication, as well.
A single vineyard Sangiovese release from 1978 plantings, with only about 2,000 bottle produced per year, this is reserved, elegant, and earthy stuff. Tobacco, mineral, leather, and baked plum action gives way to cherries, juicy freshness, and dried violets in an awesomely elegant presentation. Saverys’ likened this release as “Jesus in short pants… it’s too young.” I am still not entirely sure what she meant by that, but I’ll just keep drinking this and pretend that I understood it!
A Super Tuscan blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese, this red’s name comes from the fact that both of the cities form which the grapes are sourced sport griffons on their crests and flags. Black currant, wood spice, tobacco leaf, leather, cherries, mint… this is a fantastic marriage of its two main varietal components. Silky, structured, and full of those chewable, “dusty” Super Tuscan tannins, this is almost impossible to put down right now, but has a few years of softening and development ahead of it for the patient among you.
While this Merlot is named after a bull that lived on the estate that reportedly weighed over a ton, there’s no “bull” detectable in this authentic red, and nothing overly bullish about its elegant style. Black olive, plums, soil, cloves, iodine, minerals, wood spice… you could spend many minutes contemplating the nose. Plump and round in the mouth, the balance comes by way of ample freshness and focused grip, with a long and plum-laden finish that won’t quit.