Wine Reviews: Brengman Brothers’ Michigan Wines

Michigan wines have fascinated me for a while, so I’m excited to be back this week tasting a bunch of wines from Brengman Brothers.

This family-run winery, now entering its 17th vintage, is based near Traverse City, Michigan, in the Leelanau Peninsula American Viticultural Area (AVA). The peninsula, which juts into Grand Traverse Bay, is home to more than 20 wineries. Cool climate grapes like Riesling thrive here, and the Bordeaux style blends from this region can show brisk, bright, Old World appeal, with lots of spicy and floral components.

The appellation, which was formed in 1982, is characterized by its proximity to Lake Michigan, creating an inland maritime climate which helps moderate temperature extremes. Lake effect snow can actually help protect vines against potentially devastating spring frosts. The climate allows for ice wine production in some vintages. Vineyards are planted on hills of

Brengman Bros. sources their grapes from three vineyards. In their Timberlee Vineyard (30 acres) Crain Hill Vineyard (25 acres) and Cedar Lake Vineyard (5 acres) they grow a wide range of grape varieties, from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc to Muscat Ottonel, Petit Verdot, even some Rotgipfler. (I had to revisit my textbooks for that last one.) The winery is 100% solar powered, and equipped to move barrels outside for cold stabilization in the Michigan winter.

While I thought a few of the wines really stood out, they were all interesting, and only one missed the mark (for me). I can struggle with hot, heavy wines (especially in summer), so I found these wines a delightful, refreshing experience. They’re certainly worth checking out if you’re in the area or buying direct.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2019 Brengman Brothers Chenin Blanc Timberlee Vineyard ­- USA, Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula
SRP: $30
Medium lemon color. Nose shows mint and verbena over chalk, talc, saline, lemons and tart apricots. On the palate this is racy, rushing and lip-smacking with a tart, live-wire feel that works really well with this green apple, lemon and apricot fruit. Crusty sea salt, honeysuckle and minerals abound. Some may find this too lean/tart, but I think it’s exciting and quite delicious. Begs for oysters. (88 points IJB)

2018 Brengman Brothers Dagüdscht USA, Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula
SRP: 25
Very pale copper color. Boisterous aromas of lemon, lychee, peach nectar, with orange blossom, dandelions, ginger and floral perfume. Light-bodied, dry and brisk, with a slightly creamy texture and precise acidity and balance. Chunks of pineapple, green apple, apricot and white peach, drizzled with lemon, topped in mint, white pepper, smashed seashells and honey. Dry and brisk but deep and complex. This is a fascinating and delicious take on a Gemischter Satz blend, and really delicious. A blend of Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Rotgipfler from Timberlee and Crain Hill Vineyards. (90 points IJB)

2019 Brengman Brothers Block 65 Blend Crain Hill Vineyards USA, Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula
SRP: $25
Medium yellow color. So floral on the nose with white peaches, lemons, honey, orange blossom, nettle and lemon verbena. Crisp and bright on the palate, brisk but balanced with a light, steely, feel, yet shows solid complexity. Tart lemon, orange peel, apricots, with notes of white flowers, crushed limestone, white tea. Cool, crunchy, interesting stuff. Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer. (88 points IJB)

2018 Brengman Brothers Chardonnay Barrel Aged Crain Hill Vineyards USA, Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula
SRP: $45
Deep yellow color. Nose of ripe apples, lemon curd, orange peel, with a cool mix of yellow flowers, chalk, oyster brine tones, some candle wax. Medium-bodied, crisp and bright with slightly waxy texture but a light and juicy appeal. Green apples and crunchy apricot, a bit thin on the midpalate but it also shows notes of toasted almond, hay, honeycomb. Stays bright and shellfish-friendly throughout. Aged 12 months in French oak. (87 points IJB)

2019 Brengman Brothers Chardonnay Concrete Crain Hill Vineyards USA, Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula
SRP: $30
Light yellow color. Bursting aromas of apricot, white peach, guava, along with white flowers, white pepper, crushed shells and smashed sweet tart candies. Vibrant and nervy on the palate with a mineral and mountain stream aesthetic, along with lemon, white peach and guava. Racy but juicy with chalk dust, stony minerals. A Chardonnay for Sauv Blanc lovers, but this offers a lot of dynamic and flavorful elements. (88 points IJB)

2019 Brengman Brothers Pinot Noir Rosé Block 7 Crain Hill Vineyard USA, Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula
SRP: $25
Bright pink color. Zesty aromas of red apple peel, watermelon rind, spiced tea, mint and rhubarb. Fleshy texture with zesty acidity meets red apple peel, white cherry fruit, along with elements of mint, dandelion. Delightful, crisp and fun, this shows some fun, floral and spicy complexity. (87 points IJB)

2017 Brengman Brothers Right Bank Cedar Lake Vineyard USA, Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula
SRP: $60
Bright ruby color. What a spicy nose with green herbs, tobacco and white pepper on top of sour cherry, red apple and wild raspberry. On the palate, this shows bright acid, a crisp and crunchy frame with light tannins and a spicy appeal. Wild raspberry and red currant mixes with bell pepper, tobacco, mint and earth. Crunchy, vibrant style. Cabernet Franc with 20% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Petit Verdot. (87 points IJB)

2017 Brengman Brothers Left Bank – USA, Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula
SRP: $65
Medium purple color. Aromas of tart black cherries and red and black currants, along with spiced black tea, anise, wild herbs and beef broth tones. Medium-bodied with a tart and zippy appeal, with tart currants, wild raspberry, red plums. Elements of earth, beef broth, anise, cocoa, leather. Already complex and integrated, this seems like one to pop now, but also shows significant complexity and balance. Interesting Cab Sauv-based blend with Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. (88 points IJB)

2016 Brengman Brothers Riesling Beerenauslese Crain Hill Vineyards USA, Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula
Wine Reviews: Brengman Brothers’ Michigan WinesSRP: $35
Light gold color. Impressive, complex aromas of baked apples and honey with lively, fresh tones of candied lemon, white flowers and chalk dust. On the palate, the richness and sweetness is woven in so well bright acidity. Fruit-wise, we have plump yellow apples meeting lime zest, with complex notes of chalk, minerals, nuanced graham cracker, honey glaze and toasted almond. This is vibrant, balanced and exciting American noble rot Riesling worth checking out! Gaining depth with age, I think this will continue to improve for years to come. (90 points IJB)

2016 Brengman Brothers Gewürztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles Crain Hill Vineyards USA, Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula
SRP: $30
Deep gold color. Rich and honeyed on the nose with glazed pear, baked apple, candied nuts, cinnamon, graham cracker and shaved ginger. On the palate, this is sweet and plum but balanced with crisp acidity, round but precise. Baked yellow apples and orange marmalade mix with cinnamon crumb cake, honeycomb and glazed pecans, but there’s also this underlying seashell, mineral and spiced tea aesthetic. Nuanced and delightful, should continue to age well. (89 points IJB)

2017 Brengman Brothers Riesling Ice Wine USA, Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula
SRP: $80
Deep yellow color. Aromas of gorgeous honey, apricot marmalade, with lychee, graham cracker, lamp oil – a really cool mix. The texture is waxy and plump but the acidity is really vibrant, balanced well with unctuous sweetness. Sweet, honeyed, orange and apricot marmalade fruit – juicy, ripe and plush. But there’s also notes of chalk, mineral, clover and white tea, with some floral perfume and oyster shell tones. Finishes with lovely freshness and sweetness – the balance and depth are really something. I’d love to see how this ages over the next 10 years or so. (91 points IJB)

<85 points

2019 Brengman Brothers Sauvignon Blanc Timberlee Vineyard USA, Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula
SRP: $25
Pale lemon color. The nose shows lots of floral perfume, sudsy, soapy notes and lime. High acidity on the palate, light and brisk with green apple peel, lime, and lots of floral perfume. A bit austere and heavily perfumed.

Experiencing Anaba Wines, Take Two

Judging from my repeats of certain wineries, you can see I don’t have nearly the network or name recognition of Isaac Baker. But I do enjoy flexing my wine reviewing muscles on occasion, when new books and films are in short supply, and producers are kind enough to reach out with samples.

In the Groundhog Day days of COVID-19 home life, I’ve also been thinking about the experience of the everyday. Instagram isn’t reality, and I’m usually experiencing these wines in the course of everyday life. Picture me handing a glass of these wines to my wife as she’s coming downstairs from putting our seven-month-old to bed and asking her, “What d’you think of this?” On the other hand, taking a page from Henry James, an author I’ve read quite a bit, I do believe there is something to be found worth writing about in the common, the mundane, the routine. 

Anaba sent me their Spring releases recently, and here’s how I experienced them.

Anaba 2019 Rose of Grenache, Sonoma County (SRP $30)

Way past boredom, I’ve started unboxing old things from the attic and selling what I can on eBay, mostly trading cards from childhood. I’ve also been cooking up a storm, and pairing the few wines I’ve received in recent months. We drank this rose slightly chilled with soy marmalade salmon and curry roasted butternut squash and golden beets.

The first thing you’ll notice is this wine is far more orange than pink. It has a fresh, chalky nose, like wet stone after a summer shower. For some reason it brings me back to the North Fork of Long Island in summer, looking out over the water toward Connecticut. It hits me with bright acidity and the muddled chalkiness of freeze dried strawberries. My wife thought it was a bit too “alcoholy” at first, but after letting it breathe she said it got better. After an hour, in fact, it began to hit our noses with ripe peach and those candy peach rings! 

Nothing to complain about with this wine. It has more body than I’ve typically encountered in rose, so it probably pairs well with heavier summer fare.

Anaba 2017 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast (SRP $48)

I’d planned a special meal of seared scallops for our wedding anniversary, and picked this bottle to go with it. I poured it into two Riedels about thirty minutes beforehand. I used a portion of the bottle to deglaze the pan and make a reduction sauce, which tasted so wonderful mixed up in the roasted beets, carrots, onions, and blistered tomatoes on our plates.

Our glasses blossomed with tart strawberry, blackberry, handfuls of dirt, and star anise. This is an incredibly fragrant wine, and I was quite enthused about gulping it down.

The taste and mouthfeel were a letdown for me. The wine seemed to wash over my tongue and quickly disappear, without much in the way of discernible flavor. I expected more acidity too. I found it a bit thin, flat maybe, and lacking in that “calling me back for more” quality.

My wife, on the other hand, loved this wine. So there you go, the subjectivity of wine drinking at its finest.

Anaba 2017 Chardonnay, Carneros J McK Estate Vineyard (SRP $46)

Another night, another amazing meal prepared. This time with some local pork, and I again used the wine to make a pan sauce. This 2017 Chardonnay is golden/straw colored and full of wonderful lychee aromas, reminiscent of these Asian gummy candies I once had at Epcot. There’s also golden, super-ripe pineapple (indicating to me more sugar than tartness) and those Juicy Pear flavored Jelly Belly jelly beans.

Halfway through my meal prep, skillet in one hand and wine glass in the other, a thirty-foot limb fell off the tree in my front yard. I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of running my chainsaw after a couple glasses of wine, but fortunately I was saved by the police and emergency crew who showed up to clear the street. The tree would wait until the next day.

Returning to my wine an hour later, I enjoyed its slightly creamy mouthfeel, but would have liked a touch more acidity and staying power. Still, it had just enough of both to beckon me for another sip on this 92-degree day.

Vinography Unboxed: Week of 8/2/20

Hello, and welcome to my periodic dig through the samples pile. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.

This week is a bit of a continuation of last week’s Riesling fest, but with some other interesting things thrown in. I suppose I should admit that a couple of these wines this week were frankly lost in the cellar for a while. It is not uncommon for a bottle or three or five to continually get shifted to the bottom of the pile of samples just by happenstance, and therefore wait quite some time for a review.

That’s certainly true of the first wine this week, so with apologies to maestro Randall Grahm, I’m just now tasting his 2018 Picpoul bottling which is charming and quite fun to drink even with a little age on it.

I’ve also got a lovely Pinot Blanc from German producer Maximin Grünhaus in the Mosel river valley, which is definitely a great choice for anyone looking for a Chardonnay alternative with a bit more crispness.

Now for a brief slate of Rieslings. (See what I did there?).

The star of this week’s Riesling show is definitely the Maximin Grünhaus single vineyard “Herrenberg” Kabinett, which achieves what really great Riesling can do—transcending a little sweetness to be somehow ethereal, like the scent of white blossoms on the night air.

It’s a little hard, therefore to compare that producer’s more entry-level “Monopol” Riesling to it, but it’s a worthy entrant itself.

In addition, I’ve got the dry Fritz Haag Riesling, also from the Mosel valley which has a lovely balance that I think hits the perfect note for the fully dry “Trocken” style.

Moving into reds this week, another lost bottle was the 2017 Chateau Maris “La Touge” their entry-level, schist-planted Syrah, that has all the dark brooding savoriness and salinity that you would want in a biodynamically-farmed Syrah from southern France. It’s an interesting comparison to the flagship Syrah bottling from one of California’s masters of the form Qupé vineyards in Santa Barbara County. Perhaps not surprisingly, the California wine is more fruit-forward, but it has its own savory edge that keeps it from being too jammy.

Lastly, but certainly not least this week, I’ve got a couple of wines from the extremely popular and well-lauded Washington State producer Quilceda Creek. Their Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is bright and juicy as is the slightly more oak-influenced “Palengat” which features a touch of Cabernet Franc blended in for interest.

Enjoy!

Tasting Notes

2018 Bonny Doon Vineyard “Beeswax Vineyard” Picpoul, Arroyo Seco, Central Coast, California
Palest greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of grapefruit and white flowers. In the mouth, cheery grapefruit and star fruit flavors have a delicate acidity and a silky heft, like a touch of baby fat. Floral and pretty. 11% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $16. click to buy.

2018 Maximin Grünhaus Pinot Blanc, Mosel, Germany
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of star fruit, celery and unripe apples. In the mouth, green apple, chamomile, and pear skin flavors have a nice snap thanks to very good acidity. There’s a honeyed note in the finish. 13% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $24. click to buy.

2018 Fritz Haag Riesling Trocken, Mosel, Germany
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of mandarin orange oil and wet felt. In the mouth, juicy acidity enlivens flavors of unripe pear, green apple, and pomelo pith, even as a faint honeyed note steals across the palate. Bone dry, but beautifully balanced and not austere in the least. 12% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $19. click to buy.

2018 Maximin Grünhaus “Monopol” Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Light greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of unripe apples and citrus pith. In the mouth, tart and zingy citrus and crab apple flavors are mouthwatering thanks to excellent acidity that has a steely edge to it. Slightly austere, but seemingly quite dry and quite tasty. 12% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2018 Maximin Grünhaus “Herrenberg” Riesling Kabinett, Mosel, Germany
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and jasmine. In the mouth, crystalline flavors of mandarin orange and honeysuckle have a gorgeous bright acidity and deeply glassy minerality that is stunning and delicious. Clean, crisp, and lightly sweet, this is regal Riesling. 8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $32. click to buy.

2017 Chateau Maris “La Touge” Syrah, Minervois la Liviniere, Languedoc, France
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rusted metal, meat, and cassis. In the mouth, blackberry and cassis flavors have a nice stony underbelly to them, with excellent acidity and a nice savory herbal umami character in the finish. Excellent. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $16. click to buy.

2017 Qupé “Bien Nacido Hillside Estate” Syrah, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of white pepper, leather, and black cherry. In the mouth, savory herbal notes mix with black cherry and blackberry flavors under a leathery throw of tannins. Notes of lavender and blueberries linger in the finish. This is a wine just beginning its journey towards excellence. Very good acidity. 14% alcohol. 450 cases of (ahem) rather heavy bottles made Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2017 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Washington
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis with hints of floral notes. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and cassis mix with chopped herbs and leathery, muscular tannins. Notes of licorice and orange peel linger in the finish as excellent acidity makes the mouth water. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $160. click to buy.

2017 Quilceda Creek “Palengat” Red Blend, Horse Heaven Hills, Washington
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and oak. In the mouth, rich black cherry and cola flavors mix with the toasty vanilla of new oak. Fine-grained tannins buff the edges of the mouth, and good acidity keeps the rich, ripe fruit lively. Somewhat rich and woody for my taste, but an excellent wine. A blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $150. click to buy.

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Vinography Unboxed: Week of 7/26/20

Hello, and welcome to my periodic dig through the samples pile. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.

It’s Riesling week! Or mostly Riesling, as I dig into a big chunk of German samples that came my way recently. We’ve got several key German wine regions represented this week with a wide range of wines, from entry-level to top-tier single-vineyard bottlings.

Just as a reminder for those of you who aren’t used to the Prädikat, or ripeness designations for German wines that suggest the level of sweetness you might find in a wine: Trocken means dry, or with barely perceptible residual sugar, while Kabinett is a bit sweeter, and Spatlese, sweeter still. I don’t have any Auslese wines this week (which is the next notch up the ripeness scale), but I do have a nicely aged Beerenauslese-style wine, which is a step above Auslese, and is made from berries fully affected by the noble rot, botrytis cinerea.

With that, let’s move on to the wines.

Before we get into the Rieslings, I’ve got a pretty nice little Pinot Gris from Villa Wolf in the Pfalz region of Germany. The wine isn’t horribly complicated, but it does the trick for anyone looking for a crisp and tasty aperitif wine or something simple for a sunny day.

Also in the non-Riesling department, Villa Wolf has a pitch-perfect rosé of Pinot Noir that is a match for top pink wines everywhere, and will satisfy any rosé enthusiast. Chill it down, snap off that screw cap, and get busy enjoying summer.

For starters, I’ve got three entry-level Rieslings from Villa Wolf in the Pfalz and Fritz Haag and Maximin Grünhaus in the Mosel. Each of these wines has distinct character, with the Villa Wolf leaning towards the green apple side of the flavor spectrum, while the two Mosel wines have that characteristic petrol and citrus character that marks many Mosel rieslings. All are decent, affordable, and pleasant expressions of Riesling.

But let’s take it to the next level, shall we?

Some entries from Weingut Robert Weil add yet another German wine region to the list this week, the Rheingau. Robert Weil is a venerable, if somewhat newer producer in the region, the family having only made wine in the region since 1875!

I’ve got two Riesling Trockens from Weil, the Keidricher and the Keidrich Turmberg. The estate is located in the town of Keidrich, which lends its name to both of these wines. The first is a mix of different Keidrich vineyard sides, hence “Keidricher,” while the second is from the Turmberg vineyard in Keidrich. Both are excellent, but the Turmberg offers a particularly refined and delicate expression of Riesling.

Next we’ve got two wines made from the same vineyard, but simply picked at different ripeness levels. The Abstberg vineyard (which translates to “abbots hill”) in the Mosel is one of Germanys grand cru vineyards, designated by the Grosse Lage (literally “great site”) designation by the VDP organization whose job it is to decide such things. Maximin Grünhaus makes several Rieslings from this prominent, incredibly steep sloping hill of blue slate that has been planted with vines for more than 1000 years. Both their Kabinett and Spätlese bottlings are superb and wonderful studies in the role of ripeness in wine. Somehow, as can sometimes be the case, the wine with more sugar (the Spätlese) has a lightness and a lift to is that its slightly-less ripe sibling does not. Both are utterly delicious, however, so it’s hard to go wrong.

A few river bends away, in the town of Brauneberg, Weingut Fritz Haag, under the direction of Oliver and Wilhelm Haag, farms another well-known stretch of riverbank known as the Juffer Vineyard (shown in the image above, from my visit there in 2012). In the heart of the Juffer Vineyard, on one of its steepest slopes, sits a huge sundial, the Juffer Sonnenuhr. In an interesting comparison, I’ve got Spätlese wines from the two main sections of the vineyard — same riverbank, same grapes, same ripeness, but just a slightly different section of the vineyard. And the difference is clear. Both are excellent wines, but the section of vineyard surrounding the sundial has something special, which is why it has been picked separately for decades.

Lastly, let’s return briefly to the Rheingau for Hans Lang’s “Nobilis” bottling of Riesling. This wine is a dessert course in itself, moderately, but not cloyingly sweet, offering the many great flavors that botrytis can bring to Riesling with the mellowing effects of age. If you want a sip of liquid sunshine, see if you can find a bottle of this stuff.

That’s all for this week. Enjoy!

Tasting notes

2018 Villa Wolf Pinot Gris, Pfalz, Germany
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of freshly cut pear, wet chalkboard and pomelo pith. In the mouth, faintly sweet flavors of pear and Asian pear mix with a hint of woody, herbal tone. Grapefruit citrusy notes linger in the finish. Pleasant and tasty. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $12. click to buy.

2018 Villa Wolf Riesling, Pfalz, Germany
Light greenish gold in color, this wine smells of unripe apples, lime zest and white flowers. In the mouth, green apple and Asian pear flavors mix with white flowers and a crisp wet pavement minerality. Very faint sweetness, mostly aromatic, with the mouth left feeling slightly chalky and dry. 11% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5 . Cost: $15. click to buy.

2018 Fritz Haag Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Light greenish gold in color, this wine smells of ripe apples, citrus peel and a hint of kerosene. In the mouth, green apple, Asian pear, and mandarin orange flavors have a crisp snap to them thanks to excellent acidity. The wine has a faint aromatic sweetness but comes across as entirely dry, with a clean, floral finish. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $21. click to buy.

2018 Von Schubert Maximin Grünhaus “Maximin” Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of diesel and citrus zest. In the mouth, apple and tangerine flavors have a nice silky texture and a faint aromatic sweetness to them. Wet chalkboard minerality creeks into the finish, leaving the mouth somewhat parched and chalky. 12% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2018 Robert Weil “Keidricher” Riesling Trocken, Rheingau, Germany
Pale blonde in color, this wine smells of mandarin orange zest and a hint of paraffin. In the mouth, Asian pear, mandarin zest and grapefruit flavors have an angular sharpness to them thanks to aggressive acidity. Steely notes linger in the finish, along with citrus zest. Mouthwatering, and slightly austere, but excellent. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $38. click to buy.

2018 Robert Weil “Keidrich Turmberg” Riesling Trocken, Rheingau, Germany
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers, wet chalkboard, and star fruit. In the mouth, gorgeously filigreed flavors of lime zest, Asian pear, white flowers and citrus pith have fantastic balance and poise with beautiful acidity and length. Outstanding. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $54. click to buy.

2018 Maxmin Grünhaus “Abtsberg VDP Grosse Lage” Riesling Kabinett, Mosel, Germany
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of paraffin, honey and exotic citrus. In the mouth, faintly sweet flavors of honeysuckle, Asian pear and wet chalkboard are mouthwatering thanks to excellent acidity. Beautifully floral finish. 8.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2018 Maxmin Grünhaus “Abtsberg VDP Grosse Lage” Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany
Light yellow-gold in color, this wine smells of honeysuckle and candle wax. In the mouth, beautifully silky flavors of honey and rainwater mix with mandarin orange oil and Asian pear. Beautiful wet chalkboard minerality leaves the mouth feeling clean and refreshed with scents of white flowers and honey. Moderately sweet. 8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $44. click to buy.

2018 Fritz Haag “Brauneberger Juffer” Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of pink bubblegum and linalool. In the mouth, lightly sweeter flavors of green apple, Asian pear and tangerine have a gorgeous acidity and beautiful crystalline mineral quality to them. Floral notes linger in the finish. Excellent. 8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $31. click to buy.

2018 Fritz Haag “Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr” Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of paraffin and citrus zest. In the mouth, beautifully bright flavors of Asian pear, white flowers and rainwater have an ethereal lightness to them, an incredible delicacy that seems intricate and weightless. Lightly to moderately sweet, the wine’s finish is clean and crisp, with a distinct and pervasive minerality. Utterly compelling. 7.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $37. click to buy.

2011 Hans Lang “Hattenheimer Hassel – Nobilis” Riesling Beerenauslese, Rheingau, Germany
Light amber in the glass, this wine smells of orange marmalade and apricots. In the mouth, silky, slightly weighty flavors of honey, apricot, and canned peaches have enough acidity to keep from being cloying, but they’re still pretty sweet. The finish is clean and tastes of candied citrus peel. 9.5% alcohol. Tasted out of a 375ml bottle. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $149. click to buy.

2018 Villa Wolf Rosé of Pinot Noir, Pfalz, Germany
A pale peachy pink in the glass, this wine smells of strawberry and watermelon rind. In the mouth, crisp berry and watermelon flavors have a nice zing to them thanks to excellent acidity. Silky textured, but eminently snappy, this is a winner of a pink wine. 12% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $15. click to buy.

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Wine Reviews: International Grab Bag

Happy Saturday, folks. I’m back this week with a mix of wines from around the world, a lot of which are great options for summertime.

One of my favorite German producers, Peter Lauer, makes an appearance with a serious value of a Riesling. Domaine Wachau comes out swinging with a fun and inexpensive Gruner that is definitely worth checking out. And a smattering of different Rioja offers up a lot of quality and value that would be great with summer grill-outs.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2019 Domäne Wachau Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Austria, Niederösterreich, Wachau
SRP: $15
Medium yellow color. Nose of crushed shells and sea salt on top of lime and green melon, topped in lemon verbena. Pretty, spicy and fresh on the palate, with limes, lemon and ruby red grapefruit. Focused acidity, racy and bright, but the texture shows plumpness and depth. Elements of chalky minerals, saline, with sliced celery and cool mint notes. Really delicious and showing tremendous value. (90 points IJB)

2018 Peter Lauer Ayler Riesling Faß 4 Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
SRP: $20
Light yellow color. Aromas of lively lime, apricot, white peach, with tennis balls, honey, stony minerals. Plump texture on the palate is met with racy, vibrant acidity, and a complex host of stony, chalky, mineral elements. Limes, peaches, sliced green apples, topped in honey, white tea, clover and candle wax notes. Such precision, the sweetness is balanced wonderfully, this feinherb has a lot of depth and punches way above its weight. (92 points IJB)

2019 White Cliff Sauvignon Blanc Winemaker’s Selection New Zealand, South Island, Marlborough
SRP: $16
Pale lemon color. A strong burst of lemon, grapefruit, green apple on the nose, with mint, and sliced cucumbers and jalapeno. Crisp and bright on the palate, with crunchy green apples and limes, topped in mint, white pepper, and oyster shell notes. Classic, bright, spicy Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. (86 points)

2019 White Cliff Pinot Noir Winemaker’s Selection New Zealand, South Island, Marlborough
SRP: $20
Medium ruby color. Aromas of bright raspberries, red cherries and pomegranate, with menthol, spiced tea, mint and white pepper. Crisp and vibrant on the palate with dusty-light tannins and fresh acidity. Tangy cranberries and sour cherries mix with mulling spices, subtle earth, white pepper and rose petals. Brisk but juicy, crushable but a lot of complexity, especially for a wine at this price point. (88 points IJB)

N.V. Graham Porto 20-Year-Old Tawny Portugal, Douro, Porto
SRP: $65
Warm, inviting nose of roasted pecans, caramel, yellow raisins, apple cider, ginger, lemon peel, almond cake. Plush texture on the palate, medium acidity keeps it fresh on the palate against the richness and sweetness, but it’s balanced very well. Yellow raisins and glazed pear fruit mixes with delicious notes of candied nuts, honey, ginger snap, and there’s this underlying salty aspect that I love. Balanced, lovely Tawny. (92 points IJB)

2019 Bodegas Beronia Rioja Rosado Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
SRP: $13
Pale watermelon color. Bright and fresh on the nose with chalk, talc, celery seed and honeysuckle, over red apple peels and white cherries. Plush texture but zesty acidity on the palate, a creamy texture supports watermelon rind, red apple. Notes of lime zest, cucumber, celery seed, with some chalk and mineral tones. Lots of character and verve, great value. Tempranillo and Garnacha. (88 points IJB)

2016 Bodegas Palacio Rioja Glorioso Crianza ­- Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
SRP: $N/A
Bright purple color. Nose shows juicy raspberries and red plums, with smoky earth, sweet red flowers and mint. Velvety tannins, fresh acidity, a deeply fruity but lively wine with black cherry and ripe plum fruit. Notes of earth, dried rose petals, cocoa and vanilla. Smooth, fresh, fun, accessible but sporting some solid complexity for a Crianza. (87 points IJB)

2015 Bodegas Beronia Rioja Reserva Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
SRP: $20
Light purple color. Fresh nose of cherries and red currants, mixed with spicy herbs, tobacco, red pepper, paprika, with smoky earth. Super fresh and crisp on the palate with dusty tannins, very accessible feel with a tangy vibe. Notes of pine needle, chewing tobacco, rhubarb, light roast coffee and earth accent the tangy red cherry and spicy cranberry fruit. Fun now, but will drink well over the next few years. Good, bargain-priced stuff that would be great with grilled veg and roast chicken. (87 points IJB)

2012 Bodegas LAN Rioja Reserva Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
SRP: $18
Medium purple color. Aromas of red and black cherries, currants and plums, with violets, charcoal, fallen leaves, tobacco and vanilla. Medium-bodied with silky tannins and medium acidity, vibrant and refined but structured, still. Red and black cherries, currants, mulled fruits mixed with tobacco, leather, leaves, cocoa and vanilla. Refined and pretty, this seems to be entering a good drinking phase, but no rush. (89 points IJB)

Vinography Unboxed: Week of 7/19/20

Hello, and welcome to my periodic dig through the samples pile. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.

This week included a bunch of white wines, and in particular, a bunch of Rieslings.

But before we get to the Rieslings, let’s not overlook the “Naissance” Sauvignon Blanc from Galerie, Gianna Kelly’s project. This isn’t the current release, as the 2019s have come out, but it’s likely still in the market and worth picking up.

I’ve got Riesling three ways this week. Two from Germany’s Nahe region, both with a couple of years of age on them. The Dönnhoff Tonschiefer is predictably delicious, with wonderful dry and crisp citrus and stone fruit flavors. The Kruger Rumpf has its share of citrus along with the wonderful paraffin notes that can add another layer of dimension to aging Riesling.

And then finally I’ve got a Clare Valley Riesling from Wakefield, which is bright ahd fresh and surprisingly young for a 2017 vintage.

All three of these wines are worthy of seeking out and none will set you back very much.

I discovered several Wakefield bottles in the samples pile this week in addition to their Riesling that had been overlooked for some time, including a Chardonnay, a Cabernet and two vintages of their reserve Shiraz. The Shiraz wines were slightly tired, though still tasty, but the Chardonnay and Cabernet both offered excellent flavors and proved to be aging well.

Before we move on to red wines, I’ve got two well-known names in Napa Chardonnay this week, the Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch and the Frank Family Vineyards Chardonnay. Both delivered rich “California” style, but with slightly more restrained use of oak than they might have in past years, which was a good thing from my palate’s perspective.

Finally, in addition to the reds from Wakefield I described above, I also discovered a Yalumba Bush Vine Grenache in the stack this week. This was pleasant but perhaps more subdued than I expected, given only a year in the bottle since release.

Enjoy.

Tasting Notes

2018 Galerie “Naissance” Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, California
Pale blonde in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and green apples. In the mouth, bright green apple and crabapple flavors have a faint sourness that is positively mouthwatering, as lime juice and lime zest notes emerge in the finish. Very tasty. 13.8% alcohol. 1600 cases made. Closed with a screwcap Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2016 Dönnhoff “Tonschiefer” Riesling Trocken, Nahe, Germany
Pale yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet pavement, lemon pith and mandarin orange oil. In the mouth, zippy Asian pear, mandarin orange and rainwater flavors have a wonderful crispness to them and fantastic acidity that makes the mouth water. Notes of mandarin zest linger in the finish. Delicious. 12% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.

2017 Wakefield “St. Andrews” Riesling, Clare Valley, South Australia
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of paraffin, green apples and white flowers. In the mouth, juicy citrus pith, grapefruit and candied green apple flavors have a remarkable wet chalkboard minerality to them, as well as an ethereal weightlessness in the mouth. Excellent acidity. 12.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $35.

2016 Kruger Rumpf Riesling Trocken, Nahe, Germany
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of paraffin and mandarin orange zest. In the mouth, tangerine and Asian pear flavors have a creamy texture even as they are crisp and light with a nice crystalline quality to them. Good acidity and pretty, wet chalkboard minerality in the finish. 12% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $33.

2018 Shafer Vineyards “Red Shoulder Ranch” Chardonnay, Carneros, Napa, California
Bright gold in the glass, this wine smells of pineapple and buttered popcorn. In the mouth, silky, weighty flavors of pineapple, lemon curd, and lemon zest have the creamy vanilla of oak mixed in very well. Decent but not fantastic acidity. For those who like their California Chardonnays rich, this will definitely satisfy. 14.9% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2018 Frank Family Vineyards Chardonnay, Carneros, Napa, California
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of cold cream and lemon curd. In the mouth, flavors of lemon curd, cold cream, and grapefruit have reasonably well-integrated oak influence and very good acidity. 14.4% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2016 Wakefield “St. Andrews” Chardonnay, Clare Valley, South Australia
Pale yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of butterscotch and white flowers. In the mouth, lemon curd and butterscotch flavors have a wonderful lightness to them, with hints of pomelo pith emerging as the wine finishes. Lacey, delicate acidity runs throughout. 12% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25.

2018 Yalumba “Bush Vine” Grenache, Barossa, South Australia
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of strawberry jam and dried herbs. In the mouth, somewhat bitter strawberry, cherry and cedar flavors are oddly subdued. Decent acidity, very faint tannins. 14.1% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $15. click to buy.

2014 Wakefield “The Pioneer – Exceptional Parcel Release” Shiraz, Clare Valley, South Australia
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry, blackberry and chopped herbs. In the mouth, prunes and blackberry flavors are gathered up in a tight fist of muscular tannins that squeeze a bit as the wine finishes with notes of leather and black cherry. 14.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $100.

2013 Wakefield “The Pioneer – Exceptional Parcel Release” Shiraz, Clare Valley, South Australia
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cola nut and prunes. In the mouth, rich flavors of mulling spices and black cherry, leather and cola nut have a beautiful woody and saddle leather backdrop to them. Faint tannins and decent acidity. Notes of caramelized brown sugar linger in the finish. 14.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $100.

2016 Wakefield “St. Andrews” Cabernet Sauvignon, Clare Valley, South Australia
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, mint and dark chocolate. In the mouth, cherry and green herbs have a fine, powdery tannic texture and excellent acidity. Very pretty green herbal notes linger in the finish with the cherry and a touch of leather. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.

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Vinography Unboxed: Week of 7/12/20

Hello, and welcome to my periodic dig through the samples pile. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.

This week included some really excellent Pinot Noirs among other things, but let’s start on the lighter side, shall we?

Last time I posted on social media about a really lousy California Sauvignon Blanc sample I received, all manner of people chimed in to poo-poo the entire category, which I think is unfair. There is some excellent California Sauvignon Blanc out there, as our first entry this week proves. The Sutro Wine Co. version from Alexander Valley is crisp and bright and quite delicious.

If you’re looking for something a bit more austere and mineral, you might consider the 2019 Perocorino Colline Pescaresi, which is just as fun to drink as it is to say. With its citrus pith and wet pavement crispness it’s a delightful wine to accompany many foods.

Let’s be honest. There aren’t many good rosés made in Napa. Or one might say that good Napa rosé is the exception rather than the rule. If so, then one of those exceptions is the Sullivan rosé of Malbec, which, while perhaps slightly less zippy than I would like, is nonetheless an excellent example of the form.

But, this week’s focus must certainly be Pinot Noir, the superstars of which are the two DuMOL bottling I’ve got notes for below. The Joy Road Single Vineyard Pinot Noir was the absolute star of the week and is a spectacular example of what that bit of the Sonoma Coast is capable of producing. It’s not cheap, and not easy to get your hands on, but if you’re in the habit of buying top tier California Pinot Noir, you can’t go wrong with this bottle.

In addition to Pinot, I’ve got a Tannat from Troon Vineyard in Oregon, which has a distinctive personality that can liven up anyone’s evening, especially if you’re tired of the same old red wine you’ve been drinking.

Scattered Peaks is a project put together by two wine industry veterans Derek Benham and Joel Aiken. Joel, who made wine at BV for many years, crafts the Scattered Peaks wines, which I’ve had several times, but this Small Lots bottling that I tasted this week is the best I’ve had from this project.

Finally, if you’re in the habit of supporting small producers, you might give a look at the Trotter 1/16 winery, run by another industry veteran Stephanie Trotter Zacharia, who is the only one of her 16 brothers and sisters who makes wine, hence the name of the winery. Zacharia has worked in the Napa wine industry for a long time, and finally saved up enough money to start her own little project and she’s getting good fruit from Coombsville to make her wines. Check them out.

Notes on all these and more below.

Tasting Notes:

2019 Sutro Wine Co. “Warnecke Ranch” Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, California
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of apples and lemon pith. In the mouth, grapefruit and lemon and green apple flavors have a nice tart sweetness to them, beautifully balanced and tasty. Excellent acidity and decent length, this is what I think of when I think of good California Sauvignon Blanc. 13.2% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2019 La Valentina Pecorino Colline Pescaresi, Abruzzi, Italy
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells strongly of wet chalkboard and petrichor layered on top of lemon and lemon pith. In the mouth, lemon rind, citrus pith, and white flowers sit on top of a wonderfully chalky wet-pavement minerality that is quite compelling. Delicious. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $18. click to buy.

2019 Sullivan Rosé of Malbec, Rutherford, Napa, California
Palest baby pink in color, this wine smells of sweet red berries. In the mouth, wonderfully bright flavors of cherry and redcurrant have a nice citrus kick to them. Silky textured despite not having quite as much acidity as it should, this is one of the better rosés I’ve had from Napa in recent memory. A breath of fresh air. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2018 Alma de Cattleya Pinot Noir, Sonoma County, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry fruit. In the mouth, bright cherry fruit has a faint sweetness to it. Notes of herbs and raspberry jam linger in the finish. Faintest tannins whisper in the background. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $28. click to buy.

2018 DuMOL “Joy Road Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mountain raspberries and dried herbs and flowers. In the mouth, the wine has a crystalline brightness like raspberry icicles tinkling off a roof on a sunny day. Juicy with fantastic acidity, raspberry, raspberry leaf and herbal flavors soar through a long finish above the whisps of faintly billowing tannins. Killer. 14.1% alcohol. 420 cases produced. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $120. click to buy.

2018 DuMOL “Wester Reach” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, bright cherry and raspberry fruit have a hint of cedar and brown sugar to it along with a dried herbal quality that emerges in the finish. Excellent acidity leaves citrusy notes lingering along with the faintest whisper of tannins. 14.1% alcohol. 4043 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2018 Beacon Hill Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and pomegranate with hints of dried herbs. In the mouth, juicy cherry and raspberry fruit have a nice herbal note to them even as the bright core takes on an almost candied aspect. Quite pretty, with well-integrated oak that peeks out from the finish. Excellent acidity and faint dusty tannins. 13.8% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $28.

2017 Troon Vineyard Tannat, Applegate Valley, Southern Oregon
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor, smoky leather and cherry. In the mouth, dark cherry and peaty or smoky notes give the wine both an earthy as well as a spicy, exotic wood quality. Chances are you’ve never had a wine that tastes like this. Quite distinctive. Very fine, powdery tannins hang at the edges of the mouth. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2017 Sutro Wine Co. “Warnecke Ranch” Merlot, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, plum and cola. In the mouth, flavors of black cherry and espresso also have a faint hint of gunflint to them. Leathery tannins grip the palate with moderate intensity as the juicy, plummy fruit lingers through a long finish. Excellent acidity. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2017 Scattered Peaks “Small Lot” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Napa, California
Very dark garnet, even purple, in the glass, this wine smells of sweet black cherry fruit and kirsch. In the mouth, intense black cherry fruit has a wonderful minty cola quality that makes the wine quite expansive in the mouth, but also slightly high-toned and high-octane. Beautifully integrated wood and really powdery refined tannins. Excellent acidity. Give this wine a couple of years and it will really be singing. 14.8% alcohol. 450 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.

2016 Trotter 1/16 Winery “Oak Canyon Ranch” Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and tobacco. In the mouth, juicy and bright cherry and tobacco notes mix with green herbs that lean towards almost minty in quality. There’s a touch of sweet oak that’s beautifully integrated into the wine. Medium-bodied and very nicely balanced with excellent acidity. Faint tannins. There’s a touch of heat from the 14.7% alcohol, but that doesn’t keep this from being damn tasty. 47 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $90. click to buy.

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Wine Reviews: Argentina & Chile

I’m excited to be back this week with some offerings from Argentina and Chile.

Domaine Bousquet’s organic “Virgen” reds dole out plenty of freshness and complexity for a crazy low price. I also have some crisp and deep Malbecs from some of the highest elevation vineyards in the world, Bodega Colomé. And Los Vascos continues to put out reliable, value-driven Chilean wines.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2019 Domaine Bousquet Malbec “Virgen” Argentina, Mendoza, Valle de Uco, Tupungato
SRP: $13
Deep purple color. Jammy and ripe on the nose (black cherries, dark plums) with roasted chestnut, coffee, violets and charred herbs. Silky tannins on the palate, fresh acidity, a medium-bodied frame, this wine spots black cherries, plums and blueberries, fun but fresh fruit. Notes of violets, cedar, coffee, with charcoal and anise. A lot of personality and “realness” for a wine with this low a price point. (87 points IJB)

2019 Domaine Bousquet Red Blend “Virgen” Argentina, Mendoza, Valle de Uco, Tupungato
SRP: $13
Medium purple color. Nose shows smoky, beefy, peppery spice with tart currants, red plums, menthol. Zippy acidity, light tannins, a tangy but slightly chewy feel with tart currants and plums. Lots off smoky earth, beef cubes, pepper. Fresh and fun, this is a grill and veggie-friendly wine that offers some solid value. 35% Malbec, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc. (86 points IJB)

2019 Domaine Bousquet Cabernet Sauvignon “Virgen” Argentina, Mendoza, Valle de Uco, Tupungato
SRP: $13
Light purple color. Aromas of plums, black cherries, with mesquite, cocoa, violets, tilled dark soil. Medium/full-bodied with fresh acidity and light tannins. Red and black plums and currants, tangy and bright fruit, mixed in with earth, clay, mesquite, violet petals, some cocoa and light roast coffee tones. Wow, there’s quite a lot going on here in terms of depth and freshness for the price. Accessible yet sports complexity, too. (88 points IJB)

2018 Bodega Amalaya Malbec Argentina, Salta, Calchaqui
SRP: $16
Bright purple color. Plummy nose with black cherries and prunes, mixed with coffee, anise, charcoal and dusty earth. On the palate, this is full-bodied with suave tannins, a velvety texture, and vibrant acidity. Blackberries, black currants and tangy plums mix well with elements of smoky earth, graphite, soy, bell pepper. Underlying mineral tones. Delightfully delicious but also showing serious complexity and vibrancy. Serious value alert! (90 points IJB)

2017 Bodega Colomé Malbec EstateArgentina, Salta, Calchaqui
SRP: $25
Deep purple color. Aromas of plum cake, rich black cherry, with dark chocolate, smoky earth, roasted chestnut, mesquite, vanilla bean. Vibrant acidity frames this wine perfectly, suave tannins with some moderate grip, balanced and clean mouthfeel. Black cherry and currant compote fruit blends well with anise, black tea, grilled herbs. Notes of vanilla and cedar wove in well. Complex, vibrant, delicious Malbec. (90 points IJB)

2018 Bodega Colomé Malbec Auténtico Argentina, Salta, Calchaqui
SRP: $30
Inky purple color. Dark and deep aromas of blackberry, roasted fig, with charcoal, loamy earth, graphite, iron, and violet petal notes. Full-bodied and built well with structured tannins, met with vibrant acidity. Blackberry, black currant and roasted fig fruit, deep but tangy fruit with complex notes of graphite, smashed rocks, charcoal, dark chocolate shavings, mint. Sporting a lot of complexity, balance and aging potential. (91 points IJB)

2019 Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) Sauvignon Blanc Los Vascos Chile, Casablanca Valley
SRP: $10
Light yellow color. Aromas of lemon verbena, sliced cucumbers and jalapeno, with lemon, grapefruit, dried white flowers. Zippy and bright on the palate with juicy white peaches and bright lemon and ruby red grapefruit. Notes of honey, clover, basil and lemongrass add complexity, and I get notes of sea salt and floral perfume. Pleasant, crisp, crowd-pleasing stuff that offers a lot of personality and value. All stainless steel. (87 points IJB)

2019 Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) Chardonnay Los Vascos Chile, Central Valley
SRP: $10
Light yellow color. Aromas of white peach, yellow apples, whipped honey, lots of white and yellow wildflowers. Plump but really fresh on the palate, medium-bodied, bright acidity, it has a light, salad-friendly feel. Lemon, white peach and green apple fruit mix with notes of honey, hay, almond. Fun, summery stuff. Stainless steel with some of the wine aged on its lees. (86 points IJB)

2019 Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) Rosé Los Vascos Chile, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
SRP: $10
Bright pink color. Nose pops with spicy verbena, mint, with lemon, green apple, rose tea – spicy! Zippy, crisp, crunchy with lemon and tart apple, and notes of mint, white pepper and sea salt add some complexity. This is fun, fresh, salad-friendly stuff. A blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre. (86 points IJB)

2016 Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) Le Dix de Los Vascos Chile, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
SRP: $55
Light purple color. On the nose, I get waves of deep but vibrant fruit (black cherries, blackberry, plums) with tobacco leaf, charcoal, loamy earth, coffee grounds, accented with vanilla and cocoa powder. Plush and full texture with structured but velvety tannins and crisp acidity – it is all balanced really well. Smooth black currants with deep cherry and fresh wild blackberry. Complex notes of earth, roasted chestnut, pencil shavings with vanilla and coffee. Gorgeous depth and freshness, this is drinking well now, but 2-5 years in the cellar would help this integrate and allow more complex secondary elements to come out. Really impressive stuff. Cabernet Sauvignon with 10% Carmenere and 5% Syrah, aged 18 months in 50% new French oak. (92 points IJB)

The Doyenne of California Sparkling Wine Steps Down

After 42 vintages, 30 of which were as the founding winemaker and CEO of Domaine Carneros, Eileen Crane (seen above in an image from early in her career) is stepping away from the wine cellar and the board room into retirement. A pioneer in every sense of the word, Crane helped to establish the legitimacy of California sparkling wine, advocated for and won the establishment of the Carneros AVA, and served as both winemaker and Chief Executive in an industry that even 30 years later has very few women with even one of those titles.

Crane has an Enology degree from UC Davis, and graduated in one of California’s most storied cohorts of winemakers, with classmates such as Randall Grahm, Celia Welch, Heidi Barrett, Bo Barrett, Rosemary Cakebread, Bruce Cakebread, Gil Nickel and more. She earned her degree even as she was moving up from part-time tour guide at Domaine Chandon to pastry chef, then wine tech, and eventually assistant winemaker.

When Claude Taittinger, head of the Champagne house of the same name, invested in building a California brand of sparkling wine, he asked those he knew and respected in the industry for the name of someone who knew how to run a sparkling wine operation. He was given many names, but the only person he thought actually had the experience he required was a young woman who had just spent three years launching the Gloria Ferrer sparkling operations from scratch for parent company Friexenet.

A contemporary image of Domaine Carneros Winemaker and CEO, Eileen Crane

So in 1987, before the ground was broken on a new winery, Crane was appointed winemaker for a project named Domaine Carneros. Her first tasks weren’t overseeing harvest, they were supervising the construction of the winery itself. Since the laying of the first stone in the foundation, Crane has been directing the course of Domaine Carneros, both in the cellar and in the board room, achieving an extremely rare feat not often attempted by others: personally crafting world-class wine while at the same time managing a significant P&L, and an organization with more than 60 employees.

With the search for a new CEO underway, I sat down with Crane (over Zoom in the time of the pandemic) to reflect on her more than 30 vintages of winemaking and leadership for Domaine Carneros, as well as to taste some of her top wine, La Reve.

Excerpts from our interview appear below, mildly edited for flow.

Alder Yarrow (AY): Most people know what a head winemaker does. What does a President and Head Winemaker do that an ordinary chef du cave might not?

Eileen Crane (EC): When the Taittingers were interested in building a winery in ’85 and ’86, they advertised for a winemaking student out of Davis. They asked Jim Allen of Sequoia Grove to do the preliminary work. It was too much for him, and he knew me slightly and knew that I had just built Gloria Ferrer from scratch, and reached out to me about the position. I told him, “They’re looking for someone out of school,” and I didn’t think it the position was for me and told him so. “That’s what they think they need,” he said, “but they really need someone with experience.” Claude eventually came to believe that to be true.

Being a CEO was never a goal of mine, but I have to say I’ve really enjoyed it. In the beginning at both Gloria Ferrer and Domaine Carneros my time was split pretty evenly. 50% of the time was winemaking, 50% of the time was managing people. At this point 20% of my job is winemaking, and most of it is managing and running the winery, and public relations.

For the last 12 years we’ve been practicing something called Open Book Management. It builds esprit du corps among the team and I think that’s one of the big achievements that I’ve accomplished over the last 12 years.

Open Book Management is engaging the team in the winery as a whole. We show every employee all our financials. At the winery, employees would would think, “Hey, I sold this much wine today and I’m only getting paid this much.” They though the owners were getting all the money. When we show them the financials they understand what it takes to produce a bottle of sparkling wine.

One of the vineyard workers once asked, “Hey, you have all this money left over, why don’t you give it to us?” And then we explained that we have to buy glass, that’s about $800,000. We have to pay for the utilities. We have to pay for this and that. I enumerate all these things and people begin to really understand.

We have two levels of training for the employees on how to understand financials. And once they do, they get to have input on what we do. We make some decisions from the bottom up, based on employee ideas, which we make sure they know we are looking for. And people ask for things. Sometimes it takes a few months or even a year, but often those ideas get put into place because they’re really good.

I’ll give you an example. About 10 years ago we were trying to re-do our employee benefits. I said, “Why don’t we just ask the employees what they want?” So we did. It turns out, they didn’t want life insurance, they wanted a gym membership. So we put in a gym membership program. The vineyard workers didn’t believe we were really asking them what they wanted, but eventually they stepped up and asked for a Taco Truck lunch twice per month. We said yes. A bit later the employees said, “We really like the wines, but we can’t afford them. Could we have some more wines?” That was easy to fix. Now people get a couple bottles every month. People are always coming forward now with questions and suggestions. It’s fantastic.

AY: Tell me about how the relationship with Taittinger has evolved over time?

EC: In the beginning, the relationship between Taittinger and I was less than Ideal. I like to say that the janitor in the home office always knows more than the PhD in the field. When we first started, I was a long way away, and I was this California woman (they would have been horrified if they knew I was from New Jersey) and I don’t think that everyone trusted that things would come out quite right. The French and California cultures were different enough that there was some friction at the start, but that went away in the first three or four years. They sent an enologist over for the first few years, but it quickly became obvious to them that he was learning from us, rather than the other way around, which was a good thing.

For the first few years, the folks from Taittinger and we would get together and taste each other’s cuvées, but after about four years, they simply accepted that I was head winemaker and they let me be. Over the next three to five years we took over every aspect of the operations and began to extend our line of wines. We began with the Brut, then launched La Reve, then our Rosé. That was our choice and we were given the autonomy to do it. We have always shared information and worked closely together with the folks at Taittinger. We’ve learned from each other.

When I was hired, the first few weeks I was on the job, Claude Taittinger called me up. At the time I was in the construction trailer with the dirt mover and the electric contractor. It was hard to hear him on the phone over the noise. But I eventually understood that he was saying to me, “We have the best Blanc de Blancs in France, and we’ve decided we want you to make California’s greatest Blanc de Blancs.”

At this point I had no equipment other than the trailer I was standing in, and I told him as much. “We think in terms of decades, in terms of generations, so just keep that in mind,” he said.

The Doyenne of California Sparkling Wine Steps Down
Eileen Crane and members of the Taittinger Family at the Domaine Carneros opening gala in 1987

AY: That’s a pretty good segue to La Reve. Relatively quickly you began making a Blanc de Blancs Tête du Cuvée. How did that come about?

EC: I started making experiments in 1988 for a Blanc de Blancs. It was just a trial and we sold it at the winery as a Blanc de Blancs, and it was a very nice wine. From then on I continued to make it every year, and I would send over the cuvees to Taittinger to taste.

In 1991, when they tasted the Blanc de Blancs cuvee they called me up again, and said, “The 1991 is lovely. If the 1992 is just as good, you should do your first specialty cuvée. We will order the specialty bottle for you from France.” The 1992 was even better and so we had our first special cuvée, which were intending to bottle without a vintage.

From then on, we’ve produced it every year. In France, they don’t produce super cuvées every year. The weather doesn’t allow it. We’re lucky here in CA. When we first got going, one of Claude Taittinger’s questions to me was, “What do you do with bad years?”

“We don’t have them,” I said.

“In that case,” he said, “Why don’t you vintage date it?” And so we did.

AY: So you’re now retiring. How do you pass on 40 years of knowledge? Is true continuity even possible?

EC: Of course there will be changes. My palate has certainly changed over the years. Very few things are static. Zak [Miller, who will be taking over as head sparkling winemaker] has worked with me closely for 10 years. I will still be the lead on the sparkling harvest in 2020. I may continue in that role, but we’ll see what the new CEO thinks of that. Most of the people we’re interviewing have asked, “Would you be willing to come back?” I have to be honest that I would be delighted. It’s my baby.

I think Zach will to a great job. He knows he can always reach out to me. As you know, when you make wine you do it only once per year. I’ve done this 42 times. It’s a long learning curve.

Making wine and taking care of the wine is something that takes time to learn, but it is learnable. There are some things you don’t learn in the first 10 years. The cuvee blending is intuitive, for instance. Your palate directs you. It’s an art but the artist changes over time and artists may have protégées that follow in their footsteps. The wines I make here year after year are not identical. When we retire as winemakers we turn the grapes over to someone else. Someone else will take those wines in different ways. But they won’t be dramatically different if we’ve done things right.

AY: Do you have any regrets?

EC: Not really. I do regret I didn’t put more library wines aside. In the early years, right off the bat we started putting some things aside. But now if I could go back and change one thing I have done I would have kept two or three times as much of each vintage. Now we’re keeping twice as much as we were in the early years. You start out in one place and you don’t know everything. People think that Madiera and Port are the longest aging wines, but I don’t agree with that. Fine Methode Champenois ages for a long time. They keep finding these ancient bottles aroud the world, and every once in a while, if a cork has held you have an utterly stunning bottle of Champagne.

AY: Beyond the wines which are themselves a testament to your work for the last few decades, how do you think about your legacy, both as a winemaker and a leader?

EC: The legacy I leave behind is first and foremost the style and commitment to quality that people have come to know from Domaine Carneros. I’ve designed a style and identity that is Domaine Carneros. When I was first hired, Claude asked me to start looking for vineyards. Only with estate vineyards can you truly control the quality. I’m proud to say that 2020 will be the first harvest where everything we make will be 100% estate grown. I leave Domaine Carneros as a fully estate-grown program. I also have to say that moving to Open Book Management has changed the whole sense of community at the winery, I’m so delighted that I found that and proud of how we developed a process around that. People who work here enjoy working here far better now.

I should also say that we’ve been the leader in green practices in the wine industry. In 2003 we put in the first really large solar array of any winery in the world. We have people from around the world coming to see what we were doing and how we were doing it. We’ve won awards for recycling. We were 100% organic for a while. The fish in the reservoir were dying due to the algae. CCOF told us to use copper, but it would kill the fish, so we decided to use something else [and gave up our certification].

AY: So you’re not taking another job. When you’re not answering questions for your successors, what are you going to be doing?

EC: I’m definitely not taking another job. In this time of COVID I’ve been sitting on my back deck for the last month. Where am I going to go? I enjoy it quite a bit. My partner cooks and cleans up the dishes. As you can imagine, with my job I’ve traveled extensively. I’ve been 120 countries. But I’ve always traveled fast. When it’s safe again, I want to travel slow. I want to go to Provence for lavender season for a month. I’m going to hang out in Lisbon for 3 weeks. I’m going to take trips to places I’ve wanted to go in the US. I’ve wanted to go on Canadian rail trip during Autumn. I want to go back to Japan. I’m also involved in two non-profits. I’ve got some stacks of books I want to read. And I’m going to get involved in historical societies in Napa. I also think that there’s too much contention between the County of Napa and wineries and there could be a much better relationship and we could get better results all the way around if we move to carrot rather stick approach. I’d like to see if I can do something about that.

*    *    *

About “La Reve” by Domaine Carneros

La Reve is pretty unique in the landscape of California’s top sparkling wines in that it sees no oak treatment whatsoever.

“In the early days when Claude would come over to taste with me we were doing trials with barrels for cuvée aging and aging in barrel for dosage wine as well,” says Crane. “After a number of attempts Claude looked at me and said ‘When you have Beluga caviar, you don’t cover it in chopped eggs and onions,’ and that was that. We don’t need wood.

The Doyenne of California Sparkling Wine Steps Down

For the first 12 years or so of its existence, it was mostly Chardonnay with a bit of Pinot Blanc blended in.

“Little by little we found that the Chardonnay didn’t need the Pinot Blanc,” says Crane. So it was phased out in favor of a 100% Chardonnay cuvee. The grapes used for the wine are not true clones, but various cuttings from vineyards that Crane has liked over the years. Most of them are farmed organically, but without formal certification.

“When we go into harvest, we tend to know which blocks are likely to end up in La Reve, but virtually every year we get a surprise when one of our favorites doesn’t show well and something we weren’t thinking about gets used.”

The grapes come into the winery and are pressed immediately with a membrane press. The juice goes into steel tanks and is fermented with a proprietary yeast that Crane has selected over the years.

After primary fermentation, the wines go back into the bottle, again with the proprietary yeast and. La Reve ages for a minumum of five and a half years, sometimes up to six years, on the lees before disgorgement. At that time it receives a dosage of about 8 grams per liter of sugar for balance.

Tasting Notes:

2012 Domaine Carneros “La Reve Blanc de Blancs” Chardonnay, Carneros, Sonoma, California
Light gold in the glass with medium fine bubbles, this wine smells of buttered brioche, sea air, and citrus pith. In the mouth, a moderately coarse mousse delivers flavors of nut skin, butterscotch, toasted sourdough and a mix of salinity and citrus pith that makes the mouth water. Nicely balanced. Just a touch of marzipan on the finish. 11.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $115. click to buy.

Crane has this to say about the 2012: “It was a cooler summer, and these grapes had a longer hang time than other cuvées, perhaps by 2 or 3 days. This is perhaps much more fruit forward than other recent vintages.”

2004 Domaine Carneros “La Reve Blanc de Blancs – Late Disgorged” Chardonnay, Carneros, Sonoma, California
Light yellow gold in the glass with very fine bubbles this wine smells of lemon pith, sea air, and apples. In the mouth, a soft mousse delivers wonderfully bright lemon pith and lemon curd flavors mix with buttery biscuit and are shot through with oyster shell and seawater notes tinged by white flowers. Beautifully pure and expressive, with a minutes-long finish. Outstanding. 12.5% alcohol. Score: about 9.5. Cost: $100. click to buy.

Crane has this to say about the 2004: “I have tasted this wine a lot of the years, and it is more elegant and understated in for, but it’s really coming into its own now. This is one of the last vintages that included Pinot Blanc in the blend. This bottle was disgorged about two and a half years ago.”

1998 Domaine Carneros “La Reve Blanc de Blancs – Late Disgorged” Chardonnay, Carneros, Sonoma, California
Medium gold in color with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of marzipan and butterscotch with hints of sea air. In the mouth, dried lemon rind, pineapple, and toasted sourdough have a wonderful kelpy, saline quality that along with still-bright acidity keeps the mouth-watering for a long while. Lovely balance, soft mousse, and rich complexity. 12.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $n/a.

Crane has this to say about the 1998: “As you know it was a very cool season and a very small harvest. It has taken a lot longer to age and to show its stuff. This bottle was disgorged about two and a half years ago.”

The Doyenne of California Sparkling Wine Steps Down

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Vinography Unboxed: Week of 7/5/20

Hello, and welcome to my periodic dig through the samples pile. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.

This week included a couple of wines from an organic and biodynamic producer outside of Barcelona in the Penedes region of Spain. Better known for the Spanish sparkling wine Cava, Penedes has long produced some still wines, but is seeing something of a renaissance in the use of the traditional Cava grapes to make terroir-driven, very interesting white wines. These two from Pares Balta, a family operation with dual sinter-in-law winemakers, are perfect examples of why there is more to Penedes than Cava. Made from Xarel-lo, they sing a beautiful stony song.

Closer to home, the Beacon Hill Riesling from Oregon shows that variety continues to hold promise in the region, while the Wester Reach Chardonnay from DuMOL delivers pretty, lemony goodness for those who enjoy California Chardonnay on the leaner side.

I’ve got two pink wines to share this week, and my favorite of the two was the shockingly pale Raeburn rosé from the Russian River Valley. California winemakers are rarely brave enough to make rosés this pale, but when they do, it pays off, as it does with this wine and its tangy strawberry and watermelon flavors.

Beacon Hill sent along a couple of their single vineyard Pinots this week, both of which were excellent, but even the incredibly tasty Beacon Hill Vineyard bottling didn’t match the spectacular zing of their La Sierra Vineyard Pinot, which was a crystalline wonder of red fruit that would set any Pinot Lover’s heart aflutter.

Last, but not least, I’ve got one more wine from Fattoria Valentina in Abruzzi. Named “Spelt” this entry-level Montepulciano comes with a screwcap closure and perhaps a slight surfeit of wood, but if you like your wines smoky, then this might be for you.

Tasting Notes:

2019 Pares Balta “Calcari” Xarel-lo, Penedes, Spain
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of star fruit and white flowers backed by wet pavement. In the mouth, delicious white flowers and wet chalkboard minerality take on a citrus pith and faint unripe apple quality as the wine cuts a linear path across the palate. There is some weight here, silky textured and slightly voluminous, leaving the impression of a beautiful mineral fog moving across the palate. Excellent. 12.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $24. click to buy.

2019 Pares Balta “Cosmic” Xarel-lo, Penedes, Spain
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of melting snow, white flowers and green apple. In the mouth, green apple and white floral flavors are welded to a deeply mineral, wet chalkboard quality that extends to a faint drying, tannic texture as the wine finishes with hints of pomelo pith and chamomile. Gorgeous. Includes 15% Sauvignon Blanc. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2019 Beacon Hill “Beacon Hill Vineyard” Riesling, Yamhill-Carlton District, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of Asian pears and citrus zest. In the mouth, ever-so-faintly-sweet flavors of Asian pear and mandarin orange have a nice snap thanks to excellent acidity. Beautifully balanced and delicious with notes of orange pith lingering in the finish. 12.9% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $26.

2018 DuMOL “Wester Reach” Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of cold cream and Meyer lemon curd. In the mouth, floral notes of cold cream, lemon curd and white flowers have a wonderful silky texture and a nice acidity to them, with the oak making itself felt solely in the texture of the wine. Supple and delicious. 14.1% alcohol. 3352 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $57. click to buy.

2019 Raeburn Rosé, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
One of the palest rosés I’ve ever seen from California, this wine is almost colorless with just a whisper of pink to it. It smells of bubblegum and strawberries. In the mouth, juicy strawberry and watermelon flavors mix with a nice citrus twang. There’s not quite as much acidity as I would like, but with a good chill on it this one will be a helluva porch pounder. A blend of 66% Zinfandel, 26% Pinot Noir, 8% Grenache. 13.5% alcohol. 13,000 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2019 Balverne “Forever Wild” Rosé of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Pale salmon pink in the glass, this wine smells of citrus peel and berries. In the mouth, citrus and unripe strawberry flavors have a bright edge to them thanks to excellent acidity. A touch of bitterness lingers in the finish with citrus and crab apple tartness. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $24. click to buy.

2018 Beacon Hill “Beacon Hill Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Yamhill-Carlton District, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and wet earth. In the mouth, wonderfully earthy notes of cherry and cranberry turn zingy and sour with raspberry brightness in the finish touched by a hint of brown sugar. Excellent acidity and nice herbal notes round out a very pretty wine. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2018 Beacon Hill “La Sierra Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of beautiful fresh raspberries and some floral notes. In the mouth, lovely crystalline flavors of raspberry, sour cherry and redcurrant have a fantastic clarity and mineral backbone to them with hints of herbs and cedar backing up the stony fruit. Gorgeous acidity and texture, with faint, gauzy tannins. Outstanding. 12.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2016 Fattoria Valentina “Spelt” Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Abruzzi, Italy
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and leather and a touch of woodsmoke. In the mouth, doused campfire flavors are shot through with black cherry and closed in a fist of woody tannins that somewhat dry the mouth. The wine gives the impression of having too much burnt wood influence from the barrel. Good acidity, but a bit too toasty for my taste. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.

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