The Wines of the Flaming Fields

Without a doubt, there’s something special about volcanic wines. The fruit that grows on vines plunged into the remains of lava and ash has distinctly different qualities to it than fruit grown in other soils. My friend, Master Sommelier John Szabo assigns three key characteristics to volcanic wines in his seminal book Volcanic Wine: salt, grit, and power.

I definitely find those three characteristics in volcanic wines, along with the tendency towards higher acidity, deeper expressions of minerality, and, when you come right down to it, more than their fair share of deliciousness.

So, suffice it to say, I get excited about any opportunity to taste volcanic wines. When the association in charge of promoting the wines of Campania asked me if I wanted to come for a visit this past Autumn, I jumped at the chance.

Everyone’s Favorite Disaster Zone

Forty thousand years ago, the area surrounding what is today Naples, Italy was a mightily inhospitable place. A series of massive volcanic explosions tore the landscape apart, even as lava and pyroclastic flows created entirely new topographies, sometimes overnight.

The resulting caldera, 15 kilometers wide by 12 kilometers long, ejected enough material to cover most of what is today the province of Campania. And some hypothesize that the explosion itself (or really, the subsequent volcanic winter) hastened the demise of the Neanderthal.

Twenty-five thousand years later, two more eruptions covered the region in two additional layers of volcanic material, followed by nearly 70 smaller eruptions that have created the many small craters that characterize the region’s topography today.

Map of the Gulf of Pozzuoli, with a part of the Phlegrean Fields, drawn by Pietro and Francesco La Vega in 1778, printed by Perrier in 1780.

It’s tempting to say that things have quieted down over the millennia in the area known as the Phlegraean Fields (Campi Flegrei, or “burning fields” to locals), but the thriving city of Pompeii (destroyed in the year 79 CE) might still be around if things had truly become more placid.

Indeed, the last major volcanic eruptions in the area were in 1158, as the giant magma chamber that sits 2 miles below the surface roiled up to create the Solfatara Crater (a popular tourist attraction up until a child and his parents died there in 2017), and then most recently in 1538, when an eruption created (in the span of only 10 days) an entirely new volcanic mountain in the area, dubbed appropriately, Monte Nuovo.

The presence of the city of Naples within the midst of this extremely active volcanic field represents the equanimity that the region’s peoples have seemingly always possessed when it comes to living their lives on top of a ticking time bomb. Despite the devastation at Pompeii, the Phlegraean Fields have been settled, farmed, and enjoyed (think thermal baths) by locals since Roman times.

The Wines of the Flaming Fields
An engraving of life in the Campi Flegrei from Georg Braun & Frans Hogenberg’s “Atlas of the Cities of the World,” published in 1575.

Legends suggest winegrowing might have begun in the Campi Flegrei as far back as 730 BCE when the area was a Greek colony. At the time, the Greek methods of winegrowing kept the plants on or near the ground, but the Romans were able to improve quality by lifting the vines up on vertical wooden stakes and planting the grapes in orderly rows.

Legend has it that these poles resembled “falangae” or a group of spear-carrying warriors we might know by our modern version of the word, phalanx. The phalanxes of the Roman legions, in addition to being spear carriers, were also vine carriers, often taking cuttings with them to plant on their long military journeys of occupation and conquest.

The Wines of the Flaming Fields
The bowl-shaped vineyards of Le Cantine dell’Averno in the Lago di Averno crater.

Variety on the Volcano

The region’s primary native white grape, Falanghina, derives its name from this ancient formation of stakes and has been indelibly linked to the region for as long as records have been kept. Flanghina is widely regarded to be, along with Aglianico, the oldest native grape variety of Campania.

Falanghina is in the midst of a resurgence of popularity in Campania generally, after falling out of favor in the 70s and 80s. The renewed interest in native grape varieties and the grape’s deep history in the region has driven replantings and new plantings, as well as renewed interest in what many people see as its hallowed ground, the vineyards of the Campi Flegrei.

The Wines of the Flaming Fields
Campi Flegrei vineyards overlooking the city of Naples in the distance

Indeed, research has shown that there are in fact two (and some believe several more) distinct clones of Falanghina, one of which is known as Falanghina Flegrea after its homeland. The other, Falanghina Beneventana is derided by growers in the Campi Flegrei as both inauthentic for their region as well as genetically inferior when it comes to wine production.

Thick-skinned and resistant to many common grapevine diseases, Falanghina also retains acidity extremely well, making it quite forgiving when it comes to making palatable wine at various different ripeness levels.

Falanghina has a more finicky red partner named Piedirosso, a slightly rustic red that can nonetheless make wonderfully refined and expressive medium-bodied red wines if treated well. Piedirosso is one of Italy’s oldest known grape varieties and takes its name (“red foot”) from the bright red stalks of its clusters that are said to resemble the similarly colored claws of pigeons.

Its long history has led scientists and experts such as Ian D’Agata (author of the authoritative Native Wine Grapes of Italy) to speculate that there are probably many different biotypes or clones of Piedirosso around this part of Italy. It is the second most planted red grape in Campania after Aglianico and varies greatly in terms of its characteristics in different sites.

Both grapes do fairly well in the hot Mediterranean sun, which is modulated by the influence of the nearby ocean. Depending on the site, growers will sometimes use a spray of water mixed with kaolin clay as a sort of susncreen for the ripening clusters, the remains of which you can see in the Piedirosso photograph above.

As with many wine regions that overlap major population centers, winegrowing happens in the nooks and crannies, tucked in between residential neighborhoods, car dealerships, and low-density commercial buildings.

Indeed, this region can boast the second highest concentration of grapevines in any major world city, second only to Vienna, Austria. Partly, this is a holdover from Medieval times, when the noble families of Naples found it fashionable to have vineyard holdings close by, in addition to whatever lands they might own in the countryside.

Several of the craters in the area, including the most prominent, Astroni, have been designated nature reserves, providing some relief from the pressures of urban sprawl for growers whose vines are next to, or even inside the craters themselves.

The Wines of the Flaming Fields
Vineyards interspersed with homes and apartment blocks on the back side of the Astroni crater.

These craters and the rest of the jumbled topography of the Campi Flegrei offer a dizzying variety of exposures, altitudes, open plateaus, and sheltered nooks and crannies for vines.

The Campi Flegrei DOC was established in 1994, and currently contains a mere 250 acres or so of vineyards.

Brand New Soils

The soils of the Campi Flegrei are a common jumble of primary, pyroclastic volcanic material, ranging from ash and sand to broken-up pumice, along with a denser, compressed tephra rock that has enough strength and integrity to feature as a building material in many older structures in Naples.

Like most young volcanic soils (some merely a few thousand years old), these have relatively low organic content and high amounts of minerals such as potassium, magnesium, iron, and sulfur, though these minerals are generally not available to plants because they are in their primary mineral forms, not yet broken down by weather and water.

The pH of volcanic soils can vary considerably, depending on the nature of the material that has been deposited, with some being quite acidic, and others being quite alkaline. These conditions can make for particularly varied and challenging conditions for growers as changes in soil pH can affect both susceptibilities to disease as well as the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients.

While it can be difficult to generalize about volcanic soils given their variability, they often possess the ability to hold moisture far below the surface, giving plants access to water even during dry, hot summers.

One of the other significant benefits of primary volcanic soils is their unfriendliness towards the phylloxera louse, allowing many producers to plant vines on their own roots instead of grafting them to American rootstock. While the exact benefits of such an approach are difficult to precisely quantify, growers believe the vines to be better adapted to the local conditions, and to produce wines that are a purer expression of the grape variety and place.

Tiny, Dedicated Producers

The tricky, variegated sites for growing grapes thwart any attempt to develop larger vineyard holdings, not to mention making the overall proposition of winemaking in this area of dubious financial value. The amount of work required to produce what little wine the area makes has meant there are only a handful of small producers in the region.

One of the most dedicated and successful of Campi Flegrei’s small producers today is Cantine Astroni, currently run by the 4th generation of the Varchetta family, Gerardo Vernazzaro, and his wife Emanuela Russo.

The Wines of the Flaming Fields
Gerardo Vernazzaro of Cantine Astroni

Vernazzaro takes a low-input approach to his winemaking, operating for all intents and purposes as an organic producer, without bothering with the certification. He uses no commercial herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides in his vineyards, choosing to stick with a short list of natural products that he ticks off on his fingers quickly: “Kaolin, Xyolite, Algae, Bacillus, Sulfur, Copper, Propolis.” In the cellar, he foot treads his grapes and lets them ferment with native yeasts, often accelerated by a pied-de-cuve that he makes in the vineyard.

“Living here you have to think about two things: water and fire,” says Vernazzaro. “These two elements are reflected in our wines. We have the sea and we have the volcano.”

“This is not like Etna,” he continues. “Where you can look up and see the volcano in the distance. We live in fear daily. We live on the volcano. We also enjoy the sea breeze, which deeply influences viticulture. You can taste the salt.”

Unique Wines, Unique Flavors

The saline quality that Vernazzaro speaks about is one of the most compelling characteristics for me in the wines of the Campi Flegrei. Saltiness appears in both red and white wines for me, but especially the Falanghina, which combines flavors of apples and sea air and flowers with a crushed stone or wet chalkboard minerality that is hard to forget.

Interestingly, like a number of other sea-influenced, volcanically grown white wines such as Santorini Assyrtiko or Carricante from Etna, Falanghina puts on weight and saltiness as it ages. The wine darkens in color, and the flavors shift to dried citrus and yellow herbs, as a richness and concentration emerge that can be quite breathtaking.

While it seems hard to make a truly bad wine with Falanghina, Piedirosso seems much tougher to get right from a winemaking perspective. Without careful work in the vineyard, the wine can express rather rough tannins and green vegetal notes that some might call rustic, and others might simply call unpalatable.

For me, the most successful Piedirossos are on the lighter side of extraction, made by winemakers who don’t seem concerned with making a wine of power and have instead opted for finesse. At its finest, Piedirosso offers a wonderful floral and berry perfume mixed with a deeply stony quality that leaves you no doubt that it is a volcanic wine.

A careful student of geology might wander the streets of Naples or Pozzuoli with unease. The paranoid might do so with an even greater degree of anxiety. Occasional whiffs of brimstone on the breeze and an infrequent tremor underfoot leave no doubt that the volcanoes of the Campi Flegrei are still very active.

While scientists suggest that an eruption is unlikely, the fact remains that were one to occur, it would be an utter disaster and likely one of the most deadly in history.

The locals have had centuries to get used to this reality, which may contribute to a certain “devil may care” attitude one finds among the Neopolitans. As long as we have vineyards instead of infernos, we might as well drink up.

Tasting Notes

I tasted all the following wines as part of a really excellent program known as Campania Stories, which brings in journalists and members of the trade for a few days of immersion into the wines of Campania.

Falanghina

2021 Cantine Farro “Terra Casata” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Pale straw in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and golden apples, and sea air with a hint of honey. In the mouth, a faint struck flint note is wrapped in golden apple and slightly spicy candied lemon peel, and buddha’s hand citron. There’s some warmth in the finish. Excellent acidity, nice saline notes. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2021 Cantine Federiciane Monteleone Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Palest straw in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith, white flowers, and Asian pears. In the mouth, lemon pith, golden apples, and yellow herbs mix with wet pavement and seawater. Nice saline notes with citrus pith linger in the finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $18.

The Wines of the Flaming Fields

2021 Salvatore MartuscielloSettevulcani” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, lemon pith, and a touch of winter melon. In the mouth, the wine is crisp and bright with winter melon and lemon pith mixing with grapefruit and a wet pavement minerality that is quite bracing when combined with the razor-sharp acidity. On the leaner, savory side, with a distinct saline note in the finish. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $40.

2021 Cantine Dell’Averno Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Pale yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of golden apples and yellow herbs. In the mouth, faintly bitter yellow herbs and golden apples mix with wet pavement and a touch of bee pollen. Notes of pollen and chamomile linger in the finish. Excellent acidity. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $??

2021 Cantine Astroni “Colle Imperatrice” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of apples and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, green apple, Asian pear, lime, and wet chalkboard flavors have a faint salinity and a hint of chalky texture. Excellent acidity. Sandy volcanic soils. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $18. click to buy.

2021 La Sibillia Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and golden apples. In the mouth, yellow herbs, wet chalkboard, and candied lemon peel taste of pink Himalayan salt and a hint of spice. Fantastic minerality, salinity, and acidity. Delicious. Score: around 9. Cost: $17. click to buy.

2020 Cantine Astroni “Tenuta Jossa” Bianco, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
A bright yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of struck flint, yellow herbs, and a touch of golden apple. In the mouth, deeply stony flavors of bee pollen, yellow apples, lemon pith, and wet pavement have a wonderful bright acidity. Notes of grapefruit and chamomile linger in the finish. Ferments with natural yeasts and ages for 6 months in clay amphorae, then ages in bottle for a year. 12.5% alcohol. 2500 bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $40.

The Wines of the Flaming Fields

2019 Cantine Carputo “Collina Viticella” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied orange peel and a touch of wet leaves. In the mouth, salty notes of orange peel, citrus pith, and cooked apples have a sneaky acidity and length. The wine gets saltier the longer the finish goes on. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2019 Vigne di Parthenope Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, honey, and dried citrus peel. In the mouth, salty notes of orange peel, wet chalkboard, and yellow flowers are crystalline and bright and wonderfully deep with minerality. Fantastic acidity and length. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $22.

2018 Cantine Astroni “Vigna Astroni” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
A bright yellow gold in color, this wine smells of honey, wax, and lemon curd. In the mouth, wonderful lemon curd flavors mix with honey and candied citrus peel. There’s a faint smoky paraffin note to the wine along with a deep wet pavement minerality. Great acidity and fantastic salinity. Only free-run juice ages for 6 months on the lees in steel tanks, and then for 2 years in the bottle before release. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $27. click to buy.

2018 Contrada Salandra Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of chestnut honey. In the mouth, wet chalkboard, citrus pith, and dried honey flavors are wonderfully salty with fantastic acidity and a nice herbal note that lingers with the salinity in the finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $22. click to buy.

2015 Cantine Del Mare Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
An intense medium yellow-gold in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of honeyed chamomile and bee pollen, and candied citrus. In the mouth, quite salty notes of candle wax, chamomile and pollen, yellow flowers, and a touch of vegemite have a beautiful stony minerality. Savory and saline and delicious. Score: around 9. Cost: $28.

2015 Cantine Astroni “Vigna Astroni” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light to medium yellow-gold in color, this wine smells of candied citrus rind, yellow melon, and a touch of papaya. In the mouth, fantastically bright acidity keeps lemon rind, chamomile, and a touch of papaya flavors lean and juicy. Salinity builds through the finish. Still tastes quite young. Score: around 9. Cost: $27. click to buy.

2015 Cantine Astroni “Colle Imperatrice” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light greenish yellow in the glass, this wine smells of yellow herbs and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, bright bee pollen and yellow herbs are welded to a liquid stone minerality that has a wonderful salty savoriness. Clean, crisp, salty, and fantastic. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $18. click to buy.

2012 Agnanum Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of gunpowder, sea air, and citrus pith. In the mouth, savory notes of citrus pith, dried yellow herbs, and pink Himalayan salt are bright and very tasty. Notes of bee pollen and a hint of sulfur linger in the finish. Excellent acidity and length. Score: around 9. Cost: $19. click to buy.

2012 Cantine dell’Averno “Vigna del Canneto” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
An amazing medium yellow with hints of chartreuse in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones, candied citrus peel, bee pollen, and yellow herbs. In the mouth, yellow flowers and herbs mix with dried citrus and a wonderful saline stony quality that lingers with dried buddha’s hand citrus in the finish. This wine spent 6 months in old barrique before bottling with weekly battonage. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??.

Piedirosso

2021 Le Cantine dell’Averno Piedirosso, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers and red berries and wet pavement, with just a hint of bruised fruit. In the mouth, juicy forest berry flavors mix with sour cherry as wispy, powdery tannins hang ghostlike in the corners of the mouth. Excellent acidity, and wonderful stony minerality that leaves a faintly saline note in the finish. Delicious. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

The Wines of the Flaming Fields

2021 Cantine Carputo “Per e Palummo” Piedirosso, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dark fruit with a hint of balsamic. In the mouth, dark cherry and huckleberry flavors have a wonderful dried floral, aromatic sweetness, with thick fleecy tannins that coat the mouth with the sensation of powdered rock. There’s a tangy acidophilus note that lingers in the finish. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $??

2021 Astroni “Colle Rotondella” Piedirosso, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dried flowers and berries. In the mouth, boysenberry and sour cherry fruit flavors are wrapped in a gauzy haze of tannins, as fantastic acidity keeps the fruit juicy, and a crushed stone texture and sensation pervades the palate. Very tasty. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2021 Martusciello Salvatore “Settevulcani” Piedirosso, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, with garnet highlights, this wine smells of berries, dried flowers, and a hint of soy sauce. In the mouth, hints of brown sugar, boysenberry, and sour cherry flavors are wrapped in fleecy tannins and are bright with juicy acidity. Deeply stony, with the texture of pulverized rock. This wine tastes a bit developed for being only the 2021 vintage. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $25.

2021 Agnanum “Per’ e’ Palummo” Piedirosso, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, dried flowers, and huckleberries. In the mouth, faintly smoky flavors of huckleberry, dried flowers, and dried herbs are shot through with pulverized rock, as chalk-dust tannins coat the mouth. Excellent acidity keeps things juicy and bright, as a hint of licorice and sour cherry linger in the finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.

2020 Farro Piedirosso, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dried herbs, flowers, and unripe blackberries. In the mouth, powdery tannins waft around flavors of unripe blackberries, sour cherry, and dried flowers all shot through with pulverized stone. Excellent acidity and length. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $18. click to buy.

2017 Cantine Astroni “Tenuta Camaldoli” Piedirosso, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and huckleberry and dried flowers with a hint of sulfur. In the mouth, slightly saline flavors of sour cherry, huckleberry, and dried flowers are wrapped in cotton-ball tannins that bring with them the sensation of pulverized rock. Nicely stony and tasty, though headed away from fruit and towards herbs at this point. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30.

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Wine Reviews: Valentine’s Selections

Six more weeks of winter is the call. And it seems the groundhog ritual came up right this time, as much of the country was hit with a solid burst of cold air. I’m looking forward to spending some time outdoors this weekend (I love the cold), slow-cooking some pork, and popping some Rioja or a red Burgundy while catching up with friends. I hope your weekend is full of some warmth and wintry deliciousness as well.

Credit: Catena Zapata

With Valentine’s Day on the way, some of you may be stocking up, buying gifts, or just looking for something fun or exciting to open. So, this week I have a round-up of recent samples for your consideration. From bubbles

I love Malbec from Argentina, but not as much as Laura Catena. Her family’s estate, Catena Zapata, has been producing thrilling Malbecs from high elevation sites for many years. Laura recently published a book, “Malbec Mon Amour,” with oenologist Alejandro Vigil, a love letter to wine and the Malbec grape that combines beautiful writing with maps, photos, history, geology, conversations, and travel writing. It’s enjoyable and easy to breeze through, but also packed with detailed information and insights, and contains such an awesome introduction from Laura Catena that I have to share: “To the land of Mendoza and its inhabitants. And to the bees, owls, skunks, insects, plants and microbes whose generosity allows us to grow vines year after year.” I just love that. This book would be a great gift for lovers of Malbec, Argentina, or wine in general.  And I’d highly suggest reading it while sipping some Catena Zapata wines, three of which are featured this week.

I’ve also included some bubbles (of course) of the value-driven variety, and some German pinks because, well, it’s always a great time for rosé. And I have a few Italian reds to warm things up just right.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2019 Catena Zapata Malbec Catena Alta Historic Rows Argentina, Mendoza
SRP: $58
Deep purple with a suave, juicy nose showing blackberries, black cherry and currant jam, along with complex tones of tilled soil, mint, leather, black pepper and mocha – a lot going on. Suave feel on the palate with smooth tannins and crisp acidity. A nice mix of ripe blackberries and tangy blueberries and plum pie, along with cool elements of potting soil, anise, tobacco, mint and tar. Very pretty mouthfeel and the nuance in the earthy, rocky, spicy stuff is delightful. Drinking great now but will have a lot more to show in three to five. (93 points IJB)

Wine Reviews: Valentine’s Selections2019 Bodega Catena Zapata Malbec Nicasia Vineyard Argentina, Mendoza, Valle de Uco, Altamira
SRP $100
Dark purple color. Dark but inviting aromas of black currant jam, saucy dark plums, roasted figs, with all sorts of non-fruit goodness going on: rocky earth, potting soil, violets, mint, mocha, etc. Grippy but fresh on the palate, the acidity is so lively, and the wine gushes with lush but precise plums and cassis. The mineral, iron and earth tones are delicious, supported by tones of dried violets, chewing tobacco, nuanced oak and vanilla also accent the wine well. This wine does a great job expressing that deep, vibrant, stony Mendoza Malbec mystique. Keep this one buried for three or four years, or just go hedonistic and share with a friend and a really good cut of meat. (94 points IJB)

2020 Bodega Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino Argentina, Mendoza
SRP $100
Dark purple color. Deep, concentrated aromas, but there’s so much life in here as well, with tart blackberries, plum sauce, complexities of eucalyptus, spiced black tea, black pepper, violets, dark chocolate, iron and pencil shavings. The palate shows gorgeous focus and concentration, with fine-grained tannic structure and racy acidity. Tart currants, black cherries, laced with smoky earth, dried roses and violets, clove, eucalyptus, mint, even some soy and mushroom hints. The mouthfeel and complexity are just lovely. Lots of aging potential here, or give it air and sip over two days and I can’t imagine someone not loving this. (94 points IJB)

2020 Bertani Ripasso della Valpolicella Italy, Veneto, Valpolicella, Ripasso della Valpolicella
SRP: $32
Wine Reviews: Valentine’s SelectionsVibrant ruby color. Young but expressive on the nose with currants, dark plums, raspberry jam, with complex tones of rose petals, anise, bay leaf, paprika and leather – lots of cool, savory, inviting tones. Bright acidity and dusty tannins, it’s balanced well and accessible but solid. Tart red currants and fig paste fruit blend with mulling spices, pepper, clay, fallen leaves and anise. Fresh, forest-y, savory, and a ton of fun. This baby Amarone packs a lot of punch and depth for the price, and is a pleasant accompaniment to any cold evening or braised meat dishes. (90 points IJB)

2019 Agricola San Felice Chianti Classico Il Grigio Riserva Italy, Tuscany, Chianti, Chianti Classico DOCG
SRP: $26
Deep ruby color. The nose shows stewed plums and bright currant jam, along with spiced tea, charcoal, chewing tobacco and some floral potpourri. The palate sports dusty tannins and fresh acidity on a well-balanced frame with juicy black cherries and tangy red currants. The fruit is tossed nicely with violets, tar, library dust (in a good way) with light roast coffee and earthy vibes. Accessible but nice complexity, this is a delightful wine to open with your best homemade pasta dish. (89 points IJB)

2018 Reichsrat Von Buhl Rosé Sekt Brut Germany, Pfalz
SRP: $43
Deep salmon color. The nose is bright but deep with watermelon, white peaches and lemons, along with rose petals, white pepper, mint and basil tones, with chalky, biscuity goodness. The palate is crisp and taut but shows nice depth and texture. Watermelon, raspberries and lemons, with honey, biscuits, chalk dust, crushed limestone, with floral and flinty tones. Crunchy, vibrant and lively, offers a lot of complexity and it’s a ton of German Pinot sparkling fun. (90 points IJB)

2020 Meyer-Näkel Rosé Spätburgunder Ahr Rosé Germany, Ahr
SRP: $30
Medium salmon color. The aromas show juicy raspberries and tart white cherries, along with plenty of white flowers and chalk dust, some honeysuckle, crushed limestone and flinty elements. The palate is super racy, but the texture shows pleasant creaminess throughout, with raspberry, white cherry and watermelon fruit. Focused, bright, with complex tones of sea salt, chalk dust, limestone and dried white flowers. A delicious and versatile German rosé that would please most any palate. At the price, and considering this will age, I’d but a six pack in a minute. (91 points IJB)

N.V. Vilarnau Cava Brut Reserva Spain, Cava
SRP: $15
Rich yellow color. The nose sports yellow pears and apples, with white flowers, biscuits, chalk dust, some nougat and graham cracker crumbs, too. The palate shows a creamy texture with crisp acidity, and flavors of pears and yellow apples, drizzled with lime. The subtle notes of brioche, honey and almond add a pleasant depth, and the finish is chalky and salty. Really solid for the price. Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel.lo. (87 points IJB)

N.V. Vilarnau Cava Brut Reserva Rosé Spain, Cava
SRP: $15
Light salmon color. The nose shows crunchy McIntosh apples, watermelon, over some sugarcane, hay, honey and yellow flowers. Bright, tart and crunchy with red apples, watermelon and lemon, with some talk, floral perfume, white pepper, and honeysuckle. Fun, fresh, a solid value, crowd-pleasing Cava. Garnacha with 15% Pinot Noir. (87 points IJB)

Wine Reviews: Special Selections from California and Oregon

California’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been following these crazy winter storms from afar, and hoping for the best for you all. I’m also excited to visit soon, and very much looking forward to seeing family and friends in Sonoma, doing some surfing, going on climbing adventures, and visiting some of my favorite wine country.

In anticipation, I’ve had the pleasure of tasting through some lovely California wines recently, and I have some selections this week that keep my love for California wine thriving. There are some real Cabernet-based gems in here, from the likes Napa’s Kelly Fleming and Priest Ranch, and from Sonoma’s Chalk Hill and Hamel Family.

From Oregon, I have some new options from the always inventive, reliably delicious Troon Vineyard. This crew does a whole lot, from Vermentinos to skin contact whites, deep Tannats and spicy Syrahs. But this week I want to highlight their Druid’s Fluid blends, which are really tasty and do a good job representing a cross-section of their different estate grapes.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2019 Kelly Fleming Wines Cabernet Sauvignon USA, California, Napa Valley
SRP: $185
A deep, lively purple color. The nose shows a pretty core of plum, tart currant, suave black cherries, with a wrapped-up mix of violets, cocoa, cedar and eucalyptus. The palate has deep texture, structured tannins and vibrant acidity, all balanced very well. Tart black currant and juicy black cherry fruit blends well with stony, earthy, graphite, violets and anise. Time and air coaxes out so many nuances, and the mouthfeel is pristine throughout – very long finish. The crisp, tart appeal is gorgeous. This will age gracefully for many years, and a great example of the vintage. All estate vineyard Cabernet aged 20 months in 85% new French oak. (95 points IJB)

2011 Kelly Fleming Wines Cabernet Sauvignon USA, California, Napa Valley
Library release

A vibrant purple color. Gorgeous aromas of currants, black cherries, dark plums, a compote of deliciousness, mixed with mint, eucalyptus, clove, some coffee and black pepper. Still so alive, but those secondary nuances are really popping. The palate has structured but suave tannins and crisp acidity, and lots of juicy, tart currants and plum fruit. The accents of dusty earth, smoked meat, mint, some black olive, mushroom and spice rub – it all adds a fascinating and delicious display. The fruit is still so full, but has that tangy, edge from the age and vintage, but it’s holding up really well and has a lot more evolution to go. I’d love to re-taste this in five to seven years to see where the savory tones go and how the tannins and fruit integrate further. (94 points IJB)

2019 Priest Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon Snake Oil USA, California, Napa Valley
SRP: $110
Deep purple. Dark and saucy aromas, blueberries and wild blackberries, laced with gravelly, loamy, stony, earthy vibes, and a mix of eucalyptus, mint and white pepper – wow, really interesting. Deep but crunchy and lively on the palate, grippy tannins but refined edges. Tangy blackberry fruit, laced with a unique blend of these graphite, riverbed stones, tar, iron elements. There’s plenty of anise, clove and coffee in here as well, it’s a bold but nuanced and complex wine that will benefit from many years in the cellar, but it’s also great to drink young, with plenty of air and a big meal. Exceptional 2019 Napa Cab. (95 points IJB)

2018 Chalk Hill Estate Red USA, California, Sonoma County, Chalk Hill
SRP: $75
Deep purple color. The nose exudes gorgeous plum, fig, black cherries, along with complex tones of tobacco, mint, anise, violets, with leather and graphite and coffee. The palate is full but pretty and nuanced with suave tannins and fresh acidity, sporting tart black currant and juicy black cherry fruit. The nuances in the savory, spicy elements are great, with tobacco, earth, roasted red pepper and dried flowers. Complex and elegant, drinking great now but will have a lot more to show in the next few years. A blend of estate Cabernet Sauvignon (54%), Malbec (34%), Petit Verdot (10%) and Carmenere (2%) aged 21 months in 61% new French oak. Wow, what a stunner for the price. (94 points IJB)

2018 Hamel Family Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Nuns Canyon USA, California, Sonoma County, Moon Mountain District
SRP: $110
Dark purple color. The nose starts with earthy, smoky, spicy tones and then opens up into a deep, tangy core of mountain blueberries, black currants, with dark floral and coffee tones. The palate is full but really fresh, and the fruit is a juicy, cool mix of blueberries and black cherries, highly delicious. There’s a lot going on, with this mocha/toffee/charcoal vibe playing off the anise/pepper/paprika, and it’s a blast parsing everything out. Deep and dark, this needs some years in the cellar or a decanter and a grilled steak, and will age for so long. Gorgeous stuff. Cabernet Sauvignon with 26% Cab Franc, aged 20 months in 36% new French oak. (94 points IJB)

Wine Reviews: Special Selections from California and Oregon2021 Troon Vineyard Druid’s Fluid White USA, Oregon, Southern Oregon, Applegate Valley
SRP: $25
Rich yellow color. The nose pops with peaches, nectarines and lemon curd, tossed with yellow and white flowers, some sea salt, candlewax – a lot going on. The palate shows a creamy, rich texture but the acidity is so focused and pristine, and the balance is lovely. Lemons, pineapple and orange peel fruit blends well with tones of shaved ginger, crushed shells, honeycomb, and it finishes with this pretty, flinty, mineral and chalky vibe. Complex and beautiful, and a great value. Vermentino, Marsanne and Roussanne. (91 points IJB)

2021 Troon Vineyard Druid’s Fluid Red ­ USA, Oregon, Southern Oregon, Applegate Valley
SRP: $25
Vibrant purple color. The nose has a great mix of spices and seasonings over top of violets, charcoal and juicy red and black plums. The palate shows smooth tannins and a chewy but balanced feel, lively acidity. Juicy cherries, raspberries and plum fruit blends well with a complex mix of herbs and spices (pepper, paprika, oregano) and earthy, soil-y vibes as well. This is a lot of fun with an accessible appeal but the complexity and balance are on point. A delish blend of Tempranillo, Malbec, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cinsault and Carignan. (90 points IJB)

Vinography Unboxed: Week of 1/22/23

Hello and welcome to my weekly dig through the pile of wine samples that show up asking to be tasted. 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.

We can start this week with a bang, which is sort of what your nose and tastebuds feel when you get your hands on the first of four wines I’ve got for you this week from a tiny, tiny family producer in the Tokaj region of Hungary. It’s impossible not to be charmed by these wines, from the arrestingly aromatic Muscat to the deeply ethereal and complex dry Furmint produced from one of the regions most famous vineyards.

Charming is among the first words that come to mind when speaking of Erzsébet Pince, a winery established by Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Prácser and her husband Miklós in 1989 when the fall of Communism meant such things were once again possible. From their magical 17th-century stone cellar, the Prácser family makes a mere 1000 cases of wine each year with a level of care and attention that is rare in a region where most of the wine is made by larger companies. The aging Prácsers continue to manage the vineyards, while their son, Miklós Jr., and daughter Hajnalka (or Hajni to her friends) handle winemaking and marketing/operations respectively. Hajni’s husband, American MW+MS Ronn Weigand pitches in with tasting, blending, and hospitality.

One of Erzsébet’s most unique products is their Betsek Dülö Kabar, an unbelievably rare grape (only a couple of acres planted in the world) from one of the most historically famous vineyards in the Tokaj region. If you’re like me and enjoy tasting new and different things, I highly recommend it. Of course, pretty much anything you can get your hands on from this little producer is worth your time, and if you ever find yourself in the town of Tokaj itself, make sure to stop by their coffee shop for one of the country’s best cups of coffee.

Closer to home, I’ve got a couple of newer releases to share with you from superstar winemaker Katy Wilson, who apprenticed with and then partnered with Ross Cobb before launching her own small label LaRue Wines in 2009. Katy’s primary day job is making wine for Anaba Wines, a Sonoma-based brand that began as a Rhône-focused winery but now produces some pretty stellar Pinot Noirs with Wilson at the wheel.

For her own label, Wilson sticks with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, making small batches of exquisite wines from some of the Sonoma Coast’s top vineyards, including Ross Cobb’s Coastlands and the Klopp Vineyard which Wilson helped plant. That’s the Chardonnay I have to share with you this week, along with her Sonoma Coast blend of Pinot Noir fruit from various sources. The Chardonnay is a knockout, easily one of the best I’ve tasted in many months, and the humble Sonoma Coast blend Pinot Noir is better than many people’s single vineyard efforts.

While we’re on the topic of talented lady winemakers, I’ve been watching (and tasting) with anticipation as Priyanka French settles into her position as head winemaker and winegrower at Signorello Estate (assisted by consulting winemaker Celia Welch). After tasting it in barrel with her last year, French sent along the recently released new wine they have decided to call Signori.

French has decided to make 2 flagship Cabernets from the property. Their Padrone wine has always been a “best barrel” blend off of the entire estate, but with Signori, French has decided to focus on their coolest vineyard parcels on the back side of the hill above the winery, as well as to pull back a little on the extraction and oak program to focus more on finesse. It’s early days for this wine, but I’d say she’s headed in the right direction.

Lastly, I’ve got an interesting Australian Shiraz to recommend from Mt. Yengo, a wine that has a nice freshness to it, with excellent acidity. Mt. Yengo bills itself as Australia’s “first indigenous wine company.” That’s something I greatly applaud, but I wish it sounded a little less like a corporate brand and that they told more of a personal story on their web site. As it is, all I can see is that they use artwork from an Aboriginal artist and give 50 cents from every bottle sold to indigenous causes, both of which are laudable, but don’t exactly make it feel like an indigenous winery. The wine, in any case, is tasty.

Notes on all these below.

Tasting Notes

2019 Erzsébet Pince “Lunée” Muscat Blanc, Tokaj, Hungary
Near colorless in the glass with a hint of a greenish tinge, this wine smells alluringly of white flowers and ripe honeydew. In the mouth, faintly sweet flavors of jasmine, honeydew, candied green apples, and a touch of lime juice are juicy and bright and quite refreshing. Despite the initial sweetness, by the time the wine finishes, it has lost that sweetness and leaves just a citrusy, melony tang on the palate. Fermented and aged in steek, with 11 g/l residual sugar. 11.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2019 Erzsébet Pince “Betsek Dülö – Histrical Grand Cru Barrel Selection” Kabar, Tokaj, Hungary
Palest gold in color, this wine smells of chamomile, toasted sesame, and bee pollen. In the mouth, citrus zest, bee pollen, and yellow herbs mix with a faint citrusy twang, as bright acidity and lovely minerality make for a crisp mouthwatering experience. There’s a faint waxy salinity in the finish that is quite tasty. An extremely rare grape, Kabar is a cross between the local Harslevelu grape and the Bouvier variety. It was created in the 1970s and is permitted for use in Tokaj, but almost never is, as there are only a handful of acres of the grape planted in the entire region. Contains 20% Furmint. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2018 Erzsébet Pince “Zafir Dülö – Historical Premier Cru Dry” Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of pears, white flowers, and ginger. In the mouth, pears and gorgeous white floral flavors are shot through with a crystalline minerality that is quite compelling. Silky and aromatically sweet, this wine is sensual, ethereal, and delicious. Contains 10% Harslevelu. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $28. click to buy.

2017 Erzsébet Pince “Tokaji Szamorodni” Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and ripe apricots. In the mouth, moderate to very sweet flavors of apricots, honey, and white flowers have a nice bright acidity that keeps the wine from being cloying, and instead leaves the saliva glands pumping. Very delicious. This style of sweet wine is made with whole bunches of grapes, some of which have been affected by the botrytis “noble” rot. It comes from one of the most famous vineyards in the region, Kiraly Dülö. Fermented in new Hungarian oak and then aged for 12 months in used oak. 149 g/l residual sugar, which more than three times the minimum and standard concentration of Szamorodoni. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $36. click to buy.

2019 LaRue “H. Klopp” Chardonnay, Sonoma, California
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and cold cream. In the mouth, fantastic flavors of stony white flowers, citrus pith (lemon and grapefruit), and just a touch of linalool swirl and shimmer. Fantastic acidity and a pithy zesty finish. Mouthwatering. Goes through malolactic conversion completely, but is picked at a ripeness that allows it to still have a bright laser-like edge even after the loss of some acidity in malolactic conversion. A stunner. 12.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

Vinography Unboxed: Week of 1/22/23

2019 LaRue Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma, California
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of dried flowers, raspberries, and sour cherry. In the mouth, gorgeous and bright raspberry and sour cherry flavors have an intense crystalline quality and hint of stoniness. Dried herbs and citrus peel flavors linger in the finish. Incredible acidity, brightness, and a sensual silky texture. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2020 Mt. Yengo Shiraz, Adelaide Hills, Mt. Lofty Ranges, South Australia
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and black pepper with a hint of green herbs. In the mouth, the wine has a minty freshness as cool flavors of blackberry and blackberry leaf mix with a touch of green herbs. Excellent acidity and the faintest wispy tannins that hang ghostlike at the edges of the palate. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $24. click to buy.

2019 Signorello Vineyard “Signori” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, camphor, and violets. In the mouth, beautifully fresh flavors of black cherry, violets, pipe tobacco, and blackcurrant have a juicy brightness thanks to excellent acidity. There’s only the whisper of sweet oak and a touch of bourbon that emerges in the finish. Very fine-grained, restrained tannins. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $TBD.

The post Vinography Unboxed: Week of 1/22/23 appeared first on Vinography.

What We Drank For The Big B-Day

YOWZA! What We Drank For The Big B-DayWhat We Drank For The Big B-Day

My partner Shannon recently celebrated a milestone birthday [ editor’s note: Shannon is quite a bit younger than the Dude ], and so we deemed it necessary to both celebrate a bit early (due to her demanding work schedule, since she is a consummate and dedicated professional) and to dip into the wine sample pool for something appropriately special.

The sample pool, as it usually does, performed admirably. And so I’d thought I should share some thoughts on what we decided to imbibe to celebrate a lovely lady who very much deserves to be celebrated! Incidentally, she has no idea that I am writing and posting this, so I expect to earn serious loverboy points here…

What We Drank For The Big B-Day

What We Drank For The Big B-Day2021 Bortolomiol Ius Naturae Millesimato Brut, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore, $23

Yeah, I decided to branch out from Champers for some reason, live with it. This 100% Organic Glera bubbly from Parco della Filandetta shows why Valdobbiadene Prosecco is totally killing it right now. I’m not saying it’s a mirror image of vintage Champagne—far from it. But that’s in part what makes it awesome in its own right: it’s still Prosecco’s super-friendly self, just more sophisticated. Vintage Valdobbiadene is now consistently hitting the quality of NV Champers for a bit less moolah (kind of like how Franciacorta is hot on Champagne’s heels in the $25-$30 range).

This one is a rambunctious, crowd-pleasing mix of blossom, red and green (and yellow) apples, and pear flavors, all floating on a slight creamy note and a fleshy texture. Great length for the money, too. Apparently, by their own admission, Bortolomiol decided to go Brut style on this to blatantly appeal to the international market. Mission accomplished, friends

What We Drank For The Big B-Day

What We Drank For The Big B-Day2015 Mira Winery Schweizer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District, $233

Coming in at roughly ten times the price of the bubbly is this milestone 2015 vintage of one of Mira’s flagship reds (marking ten years since founders Gustavo Gonzalez of Mondavi fame and entrepreneur Jim Dyke, Jr. formed the idea for Mira after a chance meeting at a DC-area hotel bar). This Cab’s source, the Schweizer Vineyard, is bordering on legendary status, having been planted to grapes in what would become Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District for more than a century (and under the care of the Schweizer family since the 1950s). At just over 40 acres, it’s relatively small, and production of this vintage only hit 500 cases. 

2015 is known as a fruit-driven, high-quality, low-yield (read: power-packed) red vintage in Napa, and this Cab demonstrates all of that to an extreme beauty that’s almost too potent to fully experience. Almost. Everything is dialed up here to the point that it’s 15.5% abv feels impeccably, funambulist-ically balanced. You’ll sense graphite, warming oak spice, cranberry, ripe blackberry, dried sage, cinnamon, black raspberry… there’s just a metric sh*t-ton going on here. With the impressive concentration of the vintage, this one is still really fruity, and very structured despite its silky profile—it’s got time to go if you’re patient. An appropriately gorgeous, sexy wine (for celebrating an incomparably gorgeous, sexy lady).

Cheers (to Shannon)!

Upscale your palate! My new books are now available from Rockridge Press!

Copyright © 2022. Originally at What We Drank For The Big B-Day from 1WineDude.com - for personal, non-commercial use only. Cheers!

Vinography Unboxed: Week of 1/15/23

Hello and welcome to my weekly dig through the pile of wine samples that show up asking to be tasted. 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 past week included a few of the latest releases from long-time sparkling wine producer Argyle Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Their long history producing bubbly has allowed them to offer some special wines that have been aging for quite a long time in the bottle, the latest of which is their 2012 Extended Tirage Brut, which spent 10 years on the lees in the bottle. It’s my favorite of the three wines I tasted this week, with its salty, bready goodness.

La Folette Wines, a winery started by but no longer associated with its namesake, winemaker Greg La Folette, sent along a few of its latest wines for me to try: an entry-level Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (both excellent values at $25 a bottle) and one of their slightly more complex single vineyard Chardonnays. It’s quite odd and confusing to me that the winery continues to bear La Folette’s name, but maybe its owners are banking on that confusion.

Sticking with Sonoma Pinot Noir for the moment, I also received a bottle of the latest from Kathleen Inman, of Inman Family Wines, who has been making Russian River Pinot Noir for nearly two decades now in her Olivet Grange Vineyard. This latest effort is lush and bright.

I discovered another bottle from Terrazas de los Andes that I hadn’t managed to taste a couple of weeks ago, and lo-and-behold it was one of their flagship single site Malbecs from a high-elevation vineyard. All stony blueberry and earth, this is a worthy wine if you can find it, though my initial online searches didn’t turn up anywhere to buy it.

Finally, I tasted through a few of the latest releases from Linne Calodo, a stylish, boutique winery in Paso Robles. Of the three wines, all of which are brawny and rich, my favorite was the ‘SGM’ blend called The Problem Child, which had great acidity and carried its alcohol level very well.

Notes on all these below.

Tasting Notes

2018 Argyle “Brut” Champagne Blend, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light gold in the glass with medium bubbles, this wine smells of apple and white flowers and just a whiff of toasted sourdough. In the mouth, a moderately coarse mousse delivers flavors of apple and pear flavors mix with a hint of berries that linger in the finish with a bit of citrus peel and a nice wet chalkboard minerality. A blend of 52% Chardonnay, 43% Pinot Noir, and 5% Pinot Meunier. 3 g/l dosage. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2019 Argyle “Blanc de Blancs” Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest gold in the glass with medium-fine bubbles, this wine smells of lemon pith and unripe apples. In the mouth, a soft mousse delivers bright lemon pith and lemon peel flavors, which have a stony, savory quality. Just a hint of salinity lingers with the orange peel, apple, and pomelo pith in the finish. 1.5 g/l dosage. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2012 Argyle “Extended Tirage Brut” Champagne Blend, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Pale gold in the glass with medium-fine bubbles, this wine smells of warm bread and lemon pith. In the mouth, salty, mouthwatering flavors of lemon pith and dashi are delivered on a soft mousse. There’s a wonderful saline lemon flavor that lingers for a long time in the finish with just the barest hint of acerola. A blend of 40% Pinot Noir and 60% Chardonnay. 2.5 g/l dosage. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $85. click to buy.

2021 La Folette “Los Primeros” Chardonnay, Sonoma County, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and lemon pith. In the mouth, nicely lean flavors of lemon and honeysuckle mix with a touch of golden apple and wet chalkboard. Excellent acidity. 13.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2020 La Folette “Zephyr Farms” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of vanilla and lemon pith, lemon curd, and a hint of toasted oak. In the mouth, bright lemon curd flavors are scented with a touch of toasted oak, vanilla, and hazelnuts. Excellent acidity, and nice underlying minerality. 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $60.

2020 La Folette “Los Primeros” Pinot Noir, Sonoma County, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and raspberry, with raspberry leaf and dried herbs. In the mouth, flavors of raspberry, raspberry leaf, and cranberry mix with a hint of toasted sesame. There’s a touch of woody, stemmy quality to the wine, though I believe it was 100% destemmed. 13.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2019 Inman Family “OGV Estate” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cranberry and cherry compote. In the mouth, ripe cherry compote has a faint blueberry note to it, along with bright citrus peel acidity. Faint tannins. On the richer, riper side of Pinot, but tasty. 14.1% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $75. click to buy.

2018 Terrazas de los Andes “Parcel No. 1E – El Espinillo – Parcel Collection” Malbec, Gualtallary, Mendoza, Argentina
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of faintly smoky blueberry pie and earth. In the mouth, stony flavors of blueberry, struck match, and potting soil have a nice black cherry aroma that lingers through the finish along with hints of toasted oak. Very fine tannins sit gauzily on the edges of the palate, letting the stony fruit take center stage. Having said that, the oak somewhat upstages the fruit at a certain point in the finish. Grown at 5413 feet of elevation. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $99.

Vinography Unboxed: Week of 1/15/23

2020 Linne Calodo “Problem Child” Red Blend, Willow Creek District, Paso Robles, Central Coast, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and licorice. In the mouth, rich blackberry, licorice, and black cherry flavors are wrapped in a muscular blanket of tannins that stiffens as the wine heads to the finish. Notes of black pepper linger in the finish, along with some distinctly alcoholic heat. Just a bit too ripe for my tastes, but the flavors are good. A blend of 79% Zinfandel, 14% Syrah, and 7% Carignan. 15.7% alcohol. Comes in an unnecessarily heavy bottle, weighing 1.59kg when full. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $105. click to buy.

2020 Linne Calodo “Sticks and Stones” Red Blend, Willow Creek District, Paso Robles, Central Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of strawberry jam and flowers. In the mouth, surprisingly muscular tannins wrap around a core of sweet strawberry jam, boysenberry, and floral scents. Big, brawny, and with some distinct heat in the finish. The flavors are nice but it just feels a bit too ripe for my taste. A blend of 77% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 3% Mourvedre. 15.7% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $105. click to buy.

2019 Linne Calodo “Overthinker” Red Blend, Willow Creek District, Paso Robles, Central Coast, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich blackberry and cherry aromas. In the mouth, muscular blackberry, cherry, and strawberry jam flavors are rich and ripe, and faintly sweet. Good acidity, though, and surprisingly little hint of the 15.4% alcohol. A blend of 51% Syrah, 39% Grenache, and 10% Mourvedre. Score: around 9. Cost: $150. click to buy.

The post Vinography Unboxed: Week of 1/15/23 appeared first on Vinography.

Wine Reviews: International Values

I’m looking forward to exploring more diverse wines and regions in 2023, so I’m starting off this week with a few such selections. In the coming weeks, I’ll be diving deeper into a bunch of South American wines, but this week I’ve got a nice round-up from all over. And they’re all in the $15-$35 range.

Winemaker power couple Bob Lindquist and Louisa Sawyer Lindquist have a really cool project called Vara. Based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, they source grapes from spots in Spain and California. Louisa’s experience with Spanish varieties brings them grapes from selected estates in regions like Ribera del Duero and Montsant, while Bob’s California experience brings in the good stuff from Central Coast vineyards like Santa Maria Valley and Paso Robles. It’s a bit different, of course, tasting a wine sourced from different regions and countries, but I think these experiments work out really well. The wines are delicious and different, and worth seeking out if you’re looking to try new things in 2023.

When it comes to vibrant, inexpensive Sauvignon Blancs, South Africa and Chile are my go-to countries. And this week I have some Chilean options from Leyda Valley, a region that sits just a handful of miles from the Pacific coast. Here, Viña Leyda’s winemaker Viviana Navarrette focuses on producing coastal-influenced, taut, vibrant Sauvignon Blanc from mostly granitic soils. They offer up crunchy, spicy, sea salty deliciousness with a lot of value and serve as a great introduction to this region’s Sauvignon Blanc goodness.

I’m a big fan of everything Portugal, and the amount of consistent and quality wines I find. And the value is always appreciated. This week’s selections from Douro’s Casa Ferreirinha deliver just what I look for.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2022 Leyda Sauvignon Blanc Reserva Chile, San Antonio Valley, Leyda Valley
SRP: $15

Pale straw color. The nose pops with lemons and limes, white peach, guava, topped in hay, sea salt, lots of floral tones and some white pepper as well. The palate is racy but creamy, light and fresh but nice depth of texture and flavors. The lemons, kiwi and crunchy green apple fruit are delicious, and they mix well with white flowers, sea salt, dandelions, along with some spicy green herbs and sliced jalapeno. Lively, spritely, and solid complexity for the price. (88 points IJB) 

Wine Reviews: International Values2021 Leyda Sauvignon Blanc Coastal Vineyards Garuma Chile, San Antonio Valley, Leyda Valley
SRP: $20

Light yellow color. So fresh and bright on the nose with gooseberry, ruby red grapefruit and kiwi, dusted in white pepper, chalk dust, white flowers and some sliced green onion and mint. Crisp and racy on the palate with lively acidity and a nice fruit salad composed of white peach slices, pineapple chunks, drizzled with ruby red grapefruit juice. I love the herbal tones (like ramp leaves and sliced bell pepper) along with white flowers, chalk dust and a distinct saline and mineral infusion that lingers long on the finish. A lot of personality and class, especially for the price. (90 points IJB)

2019 Casa Ferreirinha Douro Branco Papa Figos Portugal, Douro
SRP: $17

Light yellow color. A lemony nose with papaya and green apples, white flowers, hay, mint, some sea salt and pleasant new tennis ball. Lovely depth and a creamy feel mix with crisp acidity and a chalky sense, too. Racy and vibrant with some minerals and talc tones to accent the creamier vibes, and there’s a nice blend of white and yellow flowers. Precise, clean, seafood-friendly stuff and an excellent value and a delightful Douro Branco. (89 points IJB)

2018 Casa Ferreirinha Douro Tinto Vinha Grande Portugal, Douro
SRP: $22

Light purple color. The nose pops with deep plums, dark currants and jammy black cherries, along with a lovely smoky earthy vibe, gravelly, dusty tones, with violets and clove accents. The palate shows vibrant acidity and moderate tannins, nice grip but fresh and balanced throughout. The currant and plum fruit is deep and tangy, and backed up with delightful earth, graphite, gravel and tar elements. And some violets, mushroom and menthol tones are already coming out, so this will do nicely over the next few years. Serious value! A blend of Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barroca. (89 points IJB)

2020 Vara Tempranillo Vino Tinto Español Spain
SRP: $30

Medium ruby color. Aromas of jammy raspberry and black cherries, along with spicy red pepper, tobacco, sweet coffee and warm clay – really interesting. Ripe tannins, medium acidity, a fresh and chewy feel but plenty of depth and freshness, too. The raspberry and cherry fruit is ripe but tangy, and the non-fruit complexities are great: anise, violets, spicy herbs, earthy tones, gingerbread and coffee – a lot to enjoy, and it’s balanced and blended together well. A mix of Tempranillo and Garnacha with some Mencía, Cariñena, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. From Spain, 45% of the fruit comes from Campo de Borja and 30% from Monstant, while the remaining 25% of the fruit is sourced from the Central Valley of California. (90 points IJB)

2020 Vara Garnacha Vino Tinto Español Spain
SRP: $28

Bright ruby color. The nose gushes with red and black cherries, ripe but nicely chilled, with rose petals, cola, pepper, dusty earth and tobacco leaf. The palate has a ripe and accessible feel, but buttressed by lively and surprising acidity. Cherries, red plums and raspberries, the fruit is juicy and bright and mixed with notes of pepper, dried rose petals, pine and tobacco. Delightful mouthfeel, fun and invigorating. This is an interesting mix of Garnacha with some Cariñena, Monastrell, Mencía, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. 77% of the blend comes from Monstant in Spain and the remainder is from California’s Central Coast. A kitchen sink of goodness. (90 points IJB)

2021 Vara Albariño USA, California, Central Coast, Edna Valley
SRP: $32
Light yellow color. The aromas show a fresh mix of green and yellow pears, white peach, lime, with all sorts of wildflowers, honeysuckle, breezy meadow and mint – delightful. The palate has such a pleasant creaminess, which balances well with this bright acidity and flinty, mineral-laden component. Yellow apples, kiwi and lime fruit plays well with these white tea and honeyed tones. There are chalky and mineral vibes that linger long on the finish. Lovely depth of flavor and texture for this grape as well. All Albariño from the Sawyer-Lindquist Vineyard in Edna Valley. Delightful stuff from Louisa, an Albariño evangelist and specialist. (92 points IJB)

Wine Reviews: Italian Value Reds

If you’re doing a dry January – congratulations! You’re halfway through. Whether you’re imbibing this month or not, the post-holiday season is a nice time to take stock of things, and to stock up on some options for the cellar.

Late last year, I tasted through a half-dozen Italian reds that got me thinking: “Wow, I’d be happy with six apiece of these in my cellar.” From Marche to Puglia, these wines come from well-known, family-owned producers and offer a lot of diversity. They’re all imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, which has amassed an impressive portfolio and imports directly from the producers themselves. So, if you’re resolving to save money in 2023, I bet at least a few of these delicious reds would fit the bill perfectly.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted single-blind.

2021 Garofoli Rosso Piceno “Farnio” Italy, Marche, Rosso Piceno
SRP: $13
Bright purple color. Saucy nose with a cool mix of jammy blueberries, juicy raspberries and blackberries, along with some dried rose petals and pepper, and an almost Beaujolais-esque blend of bubblegum and violets – lots of fun. Juicy, dark and ripe on the palate, this has smooth tannins and vibrant acidity, supporting juicy blackberry and blueberry fruit. I like the graphite, mint, smoke and earthy nuances. Chewy but lively, this is a lot of fun. And, after all, fun is a good thing. A blend of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Sangiovese. (88 points IJB)

2021 Masseria Li Veli “Orion” Salento IGT Italy, Puglia, Salento IGT
SRP: $15
Deep ruby color. The aromas pop with red cherries, juicy plums and jammy raspberries, along with spicy, smoky, tar and barbecue sauce elements, which are a lot of fun. Ripe tannins and medium acidity, this wine sports a ripe and juicy appeal with black cherries and raspberry jam. The mix of spice and earth tones offers a lot to enjoy and ponder, including notes of pepperoni, mesquite, mocha and some toasted oak. Fun and fan-friendly, but it shows a lot of complexity, too. (89 points IJB)

2020 Casanova di Neri “IrRosso di Casanova di Neri” Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
SRP: $25
Vibrant purple color. Lovely aromas of bright red currants, jammy raspberries, laced with an enticing mix of spicy tobacco, sweet rose petals, clove, bay leaf and cracked pepper. The palate is ripe and juicy but balanced and nuanced, with dusty tannins and tangy acidity. The fruit shows tangy raspberries and deep currant fruit, and it has a sense of vibrancy and balance. The notes of clay, tilled soil, leather, clove, dried roses and pepper add a lot to enjoy and contemplate. Complex yet accessible, this is a great intro to this house’s wines, and could be a great option for a case buy/house wine of your own if you’re a fan of this style. Sangiovese with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. (91 points IJB)

2019 Aia Vecchia “Lagone”Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
SRP: $17
Deep purple color. Spicy nose showing earth, tobacco and mint, with deep elements of blackberries and currants, some chocolate and coffee tones as well. Full on the palate, a chewy feel balanced by lively acidity. Saucy currant and roasted plum fruit blends well with cocoa, coffee grounds, tobacco, mint. The earthy, spicy and mushroom tones come out with time. Fun, fresh, but shows a solid amount of complexity. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. (89 points IJB)

2018 Tenuta di Capezzana “Villa di Capezzana di Carmignano” Italy, Tuscany, Carmignano
SRP: $32
Wine Reviews: Italian Value RedsVibrant purple color. Lovely nose of currants and black cherries, mixed with mulling spices, leather, violets, spiced black tea, and it’s all warm, deep, inviting and savory. The palate shows nice grip but the tannins have rounded edges, buttressed by medium acidity. Deep currants and black cherry fruit, tossed with fallen leaves, clay, loamy earth and plenty of spice and savory nuance. Nice concentration but opens up well, and I love the complexities of stones, mineral, campfire and grilled meat. This is cold weather and braised meat sort of wine that will age well, too. Love it! A blend of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. (91 points IJB)

2020 Inama Carménère “Più”  Italy, Veneto, Veneto IGT
SRP: $21
Light purple color. The nose shows lovely smoky, beefy, black pepper-crusted notes, over raspberries, red plums, earth and tar elements. The palate shows suave tannins and medium acidity with a plush, chewy, but vibrant feel – all nicely balanced. The plum and black cherry fruit is ripe and deep, and mixes well with notes of sage, black pepper, smoky earth, even some sauteed mushrooms and anise tones. Delicious and fun, but sports a lot of complexity as well, and this will improve in the cellar for at least five years. I’m thankful this wine exists, and that Inama has kept the interesting and delicious history of Italian Carmenère alive. And the value here is something else. (91 points IJB)

Vinography Unboxed: Week of 12/25/22

Hello and welcome to my weekly dig through the pile of wine samples that show up asking to be tasted. I’m pleased to bring you the latest (and last for 2022) installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.

This past week included a couple of cheerful, fresh, and greenish tangy Sauvignon Blancs from Viña Leyda, in Chile. I had a hard time deciding which one I preferred, but I think in the end, the wine from the new single-vineyard coastal project won out by a hair.

Next, I’ve got a few more wines to recommend from the new (to me) producer Newfound Wines. I reviewed a couple of their bottles last week and the ones I tasted this week were just as excellent. In particular, they’re Semillon, which is a grape that gets much less attention here in California than it should. It’s usually blended into Sauvignon Blanc (often with excellent results) but really it can, and should, stand on its own more. Don’t miss their Grenache, either.

Limited Addition Wines is also receiving a second week of coverage for their tiny-production, quirky wines from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Thanks to them I have now tasted my first domestically produced rendition of the Mencia grape, which I usually enjoy from producers in northern Spain. It was tasty, though not quite as delicious as their Gamay, Jura-inspired red blend, or their Cabernet Franc. Fans of crunchy red wines will enjoy all these wines.

On the richer red front, I’ve got a nice red blend from the heel of Italy’s boot to offer below, as well as a tasty Shiraz from Australia’s McLaren Vale.

But the star of the red wine show this past week was undeniably the latest (not quite, but just about ready to be released) flagship wine from Cathy Corison: her always spectacular Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Displaying its usual restraint and elegance, along with the near-perfect balance that came with many 2019 wines in Napa, this is a stellar, old-school expression of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, from an old vineyard in St. Helena that yields precious little fruit. As usual, it is built for the long haul, and will evolve and improve for two or three decades.

OK, notes on all these and more below.

Tasting Notes

2021 Viña Leyda “Coastal Vineyards – Garuma” Sauvignon Blanc, Leyda Valley, Chile
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of lime zest, cut grass, and green apple skin. In the mouth, tangy green apple and lime zest flavors mix with cut grass and a hint of gooseberries. Excellent acidity. Faint salinity. 13% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2022 Viña Leyda “Reserva” Sauvignon Blanc, Leyda Valley, Chile
Palest greenish gold in color, this wine smells of cut grass, lime zest, and gooseberries. In the mouth, tart green apple, gooseberries and lime pith flavors mix with lime juice and a touch of grapefruit. Bright and juicy with excellent acidity. 13% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $15

2020 Newfound Wines Semillon, Napa Valley, California
Pale gold with a hint of hazy green in the glass, this wine smells of lemon and white flowers. In the mouth, lemon pastry cream and white floral flavors have a nice zip to them thanks to excellent acidity and a nice silky texture. Hints of citrus zest linger in the finish. Subtle, but delicious. This wine will get richer with age. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2019 Newfound Wines “Scaggs Vineyard” Grenache, Mt. Veeder, Napa, California
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of candied strawberries. In the mouth, gorgeous crunchy flavors of strawberry and flowers have fantastic acidity and a surprisingly muscular grip for a wine this pale in color. Hints of redwood bark and red licorice linger in the finish. Excellent. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $53. click to buy.

2020 Newfound Wines “Gravels” Red Blend, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of boysenberry and blueberry. In the mouth, powdery muscular tannins coat the mouth, as the wine offers boisterous berry and herb notes tinged with blood orange. Tastes like some or all the wine was carbonically macerated, and the tannins make the 100% whole cluster fermentation somewhat obvious. Excellent acidity. A blend of 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah aged in 500 to 600-liter barrels. 14% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $29. click to buy.

2021 Limited Addition Gamay, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of blood orange and boysenberry. In the mouth, crunchy, bright boysenberry and blood orange flavors are shot through with a touch of earth and dried herbs. Herbal notes get almost minty in the finish, while light grippy tannins buff the edges of the palate. Dry-farmed grapes. 12.6% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2021 Limited Addition Mencia, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium purple in color, this wine smells of struck match and dried flowers. In the mouth, vaguely saline flavors of smoky meaty blackberry and cassis mix with stony pavement and crushed dried herbs. There’s a faint hint of black pepper in the finish. Dry-farmed grapes. 12.2% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2021 Limited Addition Red Blend, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light to medium garnet in hue, this wine smells of forest berries, flowers, and green herbs. In the mouth, crunchy berry and herb flavors are shot through with a hint of earth and dried flowers. There’s a light salinity to this wine as well that makes it quite gulpable. A blend of 33% Trousseau, 33% Gamay, and 24% Pinot Noir, all dry-farmed. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $27. click to buy.

2021 Limited Addition “Field Blend” Cabernet Franc, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black plum, sweaty socks, and green herbs. In the mouth, very silky flavors of black plum, black cherry and a hint of green herbs are gorgeous and stony, with fine, powdery tannins that coat the mouth. Floral notes linger in the finish. Very pretty, and likely to blossom more with time. The “field blend” referenced in the name is a wide variety of different Cabernet Franc clones planted in high density together. 12.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $32. click to buy.

Vinography Unboxed: Week of 12/25/22

2019 Terre et Sang “The Patriarch – Larner Vineyard” Syrah, Ballard Canyon, Santa Barbara, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and sweet oak. In the mouth, blackberry and oak flavors compete for attention with the mocha sweetness of wood finally tipping the scales. Fine, powdery tannins and good acidity. Just slightly too polished for my taste. 14.9% alcohol. Comes in a bottle that is heavier than it needs to be, weighing 1.58 kg when full. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $75.

2017 Tenute Rubino “Jaddico – Rosso Risserva” Red Blend, Brindisi, Puglia, Italy
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of prunes and black cherry with an unusual hint of camphor. In the mouth, rich black cherry and blackberry flavors have a hint of sweet raisin to them, along with a lovely dark earthiness that turns to licorice in the finish. Excellent acidity and putty-like tannins. A blend of 80% Negroamaro and 20% Susumaniello. 14% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $??.

2015 Koomilya “DC Block” Shiraz, McLaren Vale, South Australia
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberry and a hint of struck match. In the mouth, lush blackberry and black pepper flavors mix with a hint of minty green herbs that expand into the finish with a touch of menthol heat. Excellent acidity and faint tannins.14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2019 Corison Wines “Kronos Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St.Helena, Napa, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackcurrant, black cherry, and dried flowers. In the mouth, black cherry, cola, and cassis flavors are wrapped in wispy tannins and stony with excellent acidity. With a gorgeous texture and fantastically well-balanced, this wine is showing just a touch of its oak barrels at the moment, and needs a couple of years for the fruit to eclipse the wood. In 5 to 10 years, this wine will be stunning, but it’s pretty damn delicious right now. 13.7% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $250. click to buy.

The post Vinography Unboxed: Week of 12/25/22 appeared first on Vinography.

Ridge Vineyards: An American Wine Icon at 60

In 1968, a young Paul Draper was just beginning his career as a winemaker. After a brief stint making some wine in Chile, Draper returned to the San Francisco Bay Area and was introduced to some Stanford University scientists who had recently purchased an old vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“They gave me a bottle of their 1962 and their 1964 vintage to try, and they were two of the best California wines I’d ever had,” recalls Draper. “I thought to myself, ‘these guys aren’t even home winemakers, and here are two wines that are so incredible at a young age, they clearly have a climate and a soil that is going to allow me to be involved in making some really fine wines.’ That’s what pushed me over the line.”

Draper took the job in early 1969, and by the mid-1970s he had become a full partner in Ridge Vineyards, and the rest, as they say, is history.

For more than 5 decades since, Draper and his business partners have produced some of California’s best and most iconic wines, including what many consider to be the state’s single finest example of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Monte Bello Vineyard looking southeast down the Santa Cruz Mountains

A Diamond Jubilee for Wine

Ridge Vineyards was incorporated and re-bonded by its founders, David Bennion, Charles Rosen, Hewitt Crane, and Howard Zeidler in 1962. The winery they purchased had been built in 1892, and the Monte Rosso vineyard that came along with it had originally been planted in 1886.

On the one hand, a lot has happened in the 60 years since its founding, but on the other, surprisingly little has changed at a winery that prides itself on what Draper calls “pre-industrial” winemaking.

Here are a few highlights from the last 60 years.

The winery’s 1971 California Cabernet Sauvignon came in 5th at the famed Judgment of Paris Tasting, beating Château Leoville Las Cases and all but one other California Cabernet. In a re-tasting of all the same wines in 2006, the Ridge wine took first place.

That original 1976 tasting put Ridge on the map, so to speak, ensuring consumer and critical attention from that point forward.

Ridge Vineyards: An American Wine Icon at 60
Ridge Vineyards on the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains

Ridge would expand slowly over the years, purchasing fruit from various vineyards around the state, and eventually buying two old-vine Zinfandel vineyards and a winery near Geyserville in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley in 1991. There it would establish its Lytton Springs tasting room and production facility, and preserve what Draper believed to be two of the finest old-vine field-blend vineyards in the state.

In 1987, Ridge was purchased by the Japanese Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co Ltd (parent company of Nature Made Vitamins and Crystal Geyser Water, among many others), which takes a largely hands-off approach to ownership, leaving Draper and his colleagues to manage the winery largely as they see fit.

That has meant producing a broad portfolio of varietal-specific and blended wines from around the state, crowned with three iconic wines: the Zinfandel-dominant blends of Lytton Springs and Geyserville, and the incomparable Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon.

In 2016 Draper stepped down as CEO and head winemaker. The CEO position was taken over by Mark Vernon, who joined in 1998 as General Manager and eventually became President and COO. Eric Baugher (who had been working alongside Draper since 1994) took over winemaking at Monte Bello. John Olney (who has been working at Ridge since 1996) took over winemaking at Lytton Springs.

In 2021, Olney was promoted to Head Winemaker, making way for the hiring in 2022 of Trester Goetting as lead winemaker for Monte Bello, and Shauna Rosenblum as lead winemaker for Lytton Springs. In a company where tenures are usually measured in decades, Goetting and Rosenblum represent dramatically youthful additions to the team.

Ridge Vineyards: An American Wine Icon at 60
Shauna Rosenblum and Trester Goetting

Despite the changes in the winemaking staff over the past 6 years, very little appears to have changed in the cellars. Indeed, if Draper and colleagues have done nothing else, they seem to have built an incredible culture of dedication to Draper’s particular style of winemaking—a style that languished in obscurity for decades before stepping into the spotlight under the newly trendy moniker of “non-interventionalist winemaking.”

Faith-Based Winemaking

“Paul calls it ‘pre-industrial’ winemaking,” says John Olney with a chuckle, “but I prefer the term ‘faith-based.’ Sometimes you stand there and you have to just keep telling yourself that it’s going to work out OK.”

Early on in his tenure at Ridge, Draper settled on an approach to winemaking that has fundamentally remained unchanged for nearly six decades.

Grapes are farmed sustainably, and organically if at all possible. They are hand-harvested and processed gently. They ferment with native yeasts, sometimes in steel, sometimes in wood, almost entirely without the addition of enzymes, yeast nutrients, or any of the many such additives commonly used in the winemaking process. The wines are blended and aged according to the palates of the winemaking team, who carefully and regularly taste the wines throughout their development in the cellar. If fining is ever done, it is done with egg whites, but most wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered.

Ridge has also become known for a devotion to aging its wines in primarily American oak (as opposed to the much more common French barrels) as well as for its insistence on transparency in the form of ingredient labeling. Since 2011, the winery has been including text on its labels in some variation of the following: Hand-harvested, sustainably grown estate grapes; indigenous yeasts; naturally occurring malolactic bacteria; 2.4% water addition; calcium carbonate; oak from barrel aging; minimum effective SO2.

In a state where the addition of tartaric acid to red wines has become extremely common, the limestone soils of the Monte Bello vineyard often yield wines with such low pH that the winery sometimes needs to add calcium carbonate to reduce acidity.

Ridge Vineyards: An American Wine Icon at 60
The 19th-century redwood cellar at Ridge Vineyards

Draper says he tried to convince the authorities to allow him to include ingredients on his labels as early as the 1990s, but received a significant amount of pushback, and gave up. In 2007, fellow Santa Cruz Mountains winemaker Randall Grahm persuaded the government to allow him to list ingredients on his labels and paved the way for Ridge to begin doing so a few years later.

Lousy Chemistry

Draper says knew he wanted to be a winemaker at age 16. “I was thinking that after Stanford I would go on to study winemaking at UC Davis,” says Draper, “but I was abysmal at Chemistry and knew I couldn’t do it.”

When he finally got the opportunity to make wine, Draper was entirely self-educated about the process.

“In 1958, all the great wines of the world could be had for almost nothing,” recalls Draper. “The 1945 First Growths were selling for about $20 a bottle. It was a dream. Those wines became my teachers in lieu of Davis.”

Draper was also drinking the earliest post-prohibition wines from Napa and Sonoma. “Inglenook, BV—those were the best examples at the time—but I realized that they were not as complex and didn’t age as well as the Bordeaux. They just weren’t as interesting. And so I realized that something was going on here, and I got to looking back at the techniques that had made these [Bordeaux] wines.”

Draper had access to two 19th-century texts on winemaking, one of which had been translated to English by the official viticultural organization in California around the turn of the century.

“For me, those two books were the heart of the matter,” says Draper. “We looked at what they were doing between 1850 and 1890 and said, ‘Let’s do this.'”

Ridge Vineyards: An American Wine Icon at 60
The core of the Ridge Vineyards team (L to R): Dave Gates, Shauna Rosenblum, Trester Goetting, Paul Draper, John Olney, Kyle Theriot, and Mark Vernon.

The Next 60 Years

Like many fine wine producers, Ridge continues to grapple with the increasingly chaotic climate in its most extreme forms. In 2020 fires in Napa, Sonoma, and the Santa Cruz Mountains resulted in some crop losses from smoke, but more prominently, changed maturation schedules as high-altitude smoke hampered photosynthesis. In 2021, a severe lack of moisture led to more than a 30% reduction in the crop at the Monte Bello vineyard, yielding the earliest and fastest harvest in the winery’s history. The 2022 vintage was marked by a massive autumn heat wave that shriveled grapes on the vines.

Unsurprisingly, as we sat together tasting back through six decades of the winery’s history, the discussion turned towards the future.

“In many ways, I think my challenge [as a new winemaker] is how to keep the wines true to their style in the face of climate change,” says Goetting. “How do we make a Monte Bello at 13.2% alcohol that is ripe and balanced, when you have 111˚ temperatures for three days in a row? They definitely didn’t have to deal with that in the 70s and 80s. I worry that our techniques are harder to pull off with what we’re given now.”

“We’re all dealing with climate change,” says Draper. “Having learned the lessons of ’21 and ’22, we’re asking ourselves can we do even better in ’23 whatever it gives us? We carry that forward and continue to learn.”

Draper’s legacy as one of California’s greatest winemakers remains unassailable, and the culture of excellence that he and the rest of the team at Ridge have built continues to result in world-class wines, even in the face of considerable adversity.

A sixty-year track record of extraordinary wines made with integrity and vision suggests that if any winery might continue to triumph in the face of whatever the future brings, it might be Ridge.

The answer will come, vintage by vintage. For now, at least, we can look back on 6 decades and marvel at what is in the bottle.

Ridge Vineyards: An American Wine Icon at 60
One hell of a lineup

Tasting Notes

Most of the notes below were made a few weeks ago at a tasting held for a number of journalists at the Monte Bello winery. A couple of others come from a personal visit to Ridge I made in 2020.

The Chardonnays

2012 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Light greenish gold in color, this wine smells of lemon curd, pineapple, and a hint of toasted hazelnut. In the mouth, bright lemon curd and lemon peel flavors mix with cold cream and a touch of pineapple. Excellent acidity and a nice silky texture. Most vines range from 25-30 years of age, with some younger replanted vines mixed in. 14.3% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2007 Ridge Vineyards Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Medium to dark gold in the glass, this wine smells of butterscotch and lemon candy. In the mouth, butterscotch and lemon candy, acacia, and candied orange flavors are persistent and long in the mouth with a crystalline character. 14.4% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $150.

2006 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
A light, bright, sunny yellow in the glass, this wine smells of honey, lemon curd, and butterscotch. In the mouth, bright lemon curd and butterscotch flavors mix with lemon peel and white flowers. Wonderfully salty and tasty, with excellent acidity. 14.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $??

1997 Ridge Vineyards “Santa Cruz Mountains” Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Dark gold in the glass, this wine smells of dried citrus peel, acacia honey, and candied lemon. In the mouth, candied lemon, acacia honey, and chamomile flavors lean towards the yellow flowers and dried herbs. Excellent acidity and length. 14.4% alcohol. Storms blowing through delayed Chardonnay picking until October during this vintage. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

The Zinfandel Field Blends

2009 Ridge Vineyards “Geyserville” Red Blend, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, California
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells of dusty roads, cedar, and dried cherries. In the mouth, gorgeous acidity makes dried cherries, forest floor, licorice, and other dried berries quite juicy. Billowy, powdery tannins have an ethereal texture. A blend of 74% Zinfandel, 7% Carignane, 6% Petite Sirah, 2% Alicante Bouschet, and 1% Mataro. 14.3% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.

2009 Ridge Vineyards “Lytton Springs” Red Blend, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, California
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells of licorice, cedar, and forest floor. In the mouth, licorice flavors lounge under a billowy silky parachute cloth of tannins, with juicy blackberry, black plum, and cocoa powder flavors lingering in the finish. Smooth and delicious. A blend of 71% Zinfandel, 23% Petite Sirah, 6% Carignane. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $75. click to buy.

1999 Ridge Vineyards “Geyserville” Red Blend, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, California
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor and a bit of bacon fat. In the mouth, luscious cherry, blackberry, cedar, and meaty flavors have so much gorgeous foresty herbal-floral saline goodness it makes you nearly want to cry. Cocoa powder and rhubarb swirl through the finish. Bloody gorgeous. A blend of 68% Zinfandel, 16% Carignane, and 16% Petite Sirah. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $140. click to buy.

1999 Ridge Vineyards “Lytton Springs” Red Blend, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, California
Dark ruby in color with a hint of orange at the rim, this wine smells of licorice, forest floor, and wet redwood bark. In the mouth, juicy dried cherries, chocolate-chocolate-chocolate, roasted figs, licorice, and forest floor notes are backed by licorice root and notes of candied fennel seeds in the finish. Spectacular. 70% Zinfandel and mixed blacks, 10% Carignane and 3% Mataro. 17% Petite Sirah. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $100.

Ridge Vineyards: An American Wine Icon at 60
A vine in the Monte Bello vineyard accompanied by the 1971 label of the wine that went to the Paris Tasting.
The Incomparable Monte Bello

2010 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Red Blend, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dusty road, cherry, sweet cedar, and hibiscus with just the barest hint of that coconut aroma of American oak. In the mouth, bright cherry and cedar flavors mix with forest floor earthiness and this bright singing sour cherry rhubarb brightness that just vibrates with gloriousness. This is in incredible shape. Incredibly long, supple, pliable tannins. Utterly majestic. A blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 4% Petite Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $325. click to buy.

1997 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Very dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of green herbs, cherry, and bright fruit. In the mouth, bright cherry and plum fruit mix with chopped green herbs, a touch of red apple and plum skin, gorgeous soaring aromatics, and incredibly fine tannins. Hints of citrus peel in the finish, dried flowers, and herbs. Elegant, juicy, mouthwatering, and positively riveting. If this were my bottle you’d have to pry it from my cold dead fingers. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 10. Cost: $500. click to buy.

1995 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Very dark garnet in the glass but headed towards ruby, this wine smells of pine duff and chopped herbs. In the mouth, chopped green herbs, forest floor, beautiful velvety tannins, cocoa powder, dried cherries, licorice root, and earth flavors all swirl about the palate. The wine finishes with dusty incense and herbal gorgeousness. Excellent acidity. Outstanding. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $420. click to buy.

1993 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Very dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and chopped green herbs. In the mouth, the wine is tight, and a little compressed, with fine-grained muscular tannins, with cherry and dried herbs. There’s a stony note here, with the tannins still tight. Excellent. This was a particularly challenging vintage, in which Draper likes to note that Dominus Estate in Napa opted not to make wine for lack of natural acidity in its fruit. Interestingly, Draper recalls this vintage having the highest acidity of any vintage at Monte Bello. 12.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $350. click to buy.

1984 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells alluringly of bacon fat and forest floor with intense, deep aromas of garrigue and pencil lead or shaved graphite. In the mouth, beautifully variegated dried herbs, forest floor, dried cherry, and cedar flavors swirl across the palate in a savory, ethereal stream. Fantastic acidity, along with a faint saline quality, kicks the saliva glands into overdrive as billowing velvety tannins cushion the whole sumptuous feast of flavor in a warm embrace. Simply stunning. 93% Cabernet, 7% Merlot. 12.9% alcohol. Score: around 10. Cost: $??. click to search

1977 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Medium to dark brick in color with a light haze, this wine smells of red apple skin, cherry, cedar, and potpourri. In the mouth, gorgeously bright acidity accompanies flavors of redwood bark, dried cherry, and dried herbs, with muscular, grippy tannins that flex their strength through the finish. Dried herbs and some wet pavement emerge in the finish as well. Beautiful, elegant, and poised. A remarkable 11.7% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $?? . click to search.

1972 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Dark ruby in the glass with brick at the rim, this wine smells of slightly funky barnyard aromas mixed with cherry, cedar, and dried herbs. In the mouth, powdery tannins mix with flavors of river mud, cocoa powder, dried herbs, and a touch of dried citrus peel and wet steel. There’s something slightly off about this bottle, but three opened bottles all shared the same character. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

1964 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Medium crimson in the glass, this wine smells of dried berries, cedar, raspberry, and dried herbs. With time a gorgeous mushroomy forest floor emerges from the glass. In the mouth, gorgeously bright berry, cedar, dried herbs, and dried citrus peel flavors swirl in a technicolor melange of incredible flavor. Amazing acidity and faint tannins still with some grip. Fantastically fresh, bright, with a soaring herbal briskness. This wine predates Paul Draper, and was in fact the wine that convinced him to take the job at Ridge. He figured if a bunch of guys in their garage who knew nothing about winemaking could make a wine like this, he ought to be able to really do something with it. Current Head Winemaker John Olney confided to me, sotto voce, that this is the best bottle of this specific wine he has ever, or likely will ever experience. It’s in unbelievable shape. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.

Ridge Vineyards: An American Wine Icon at 60
The man, the myth, the legend:winemaker Paul Draper, still sharp at 86 years old.

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