Our blog was created to help make the world of wine and beer easier to understand and fun to navigate. There are a million things to know in this industry, we just want to help you understand the latest news and trends from around the globe. So sit back with your favorite sip and let's go on an adventure.
Every time Mount Etna erupts, a new terroir is born. When the dust settles and the vignerons return to the slopes, they discover a viticultural landscape remade by ash and molten rock. How fricking metal is that (eat your heart of Blood of Gods)?
From the dizzyingly braided trenzado vines of Tenerife in the Canary Islands to the Gamay-covered extinct volcanos of Auvergne and Beaujolais, from the bell rung Chardonnays of the Willamette Valley’s Jory soils to the fractured basalt crackling beneath Cabernet vines in our own Valley, volcanic wines make up a disproportionate percentage of the wines of the moment (apologies to Kermit Lynch, I know he’s been trying to make Corsica a thing for like decades). What self respecting wine nerd wouldn’t want to try a light bodied red wine growing out of the side of an exploding mountain?
When I think about volcanoes and their wines, I think about tension. Tension is the difference between the slow, consistent eruptions of Hawaiian shield volcanoes versus the abrupt explosion of stratovolcanoes like Mount St. Helens. Tension is the difference between a wine that makes you go “meh” and a wine that has you pouring a second glass before you’ve finished your first. Volcanic wines (Usually. Generally. Typically. Blah blah blah...) are wines of tension. Wiry without being bony or lean, dense but not lumbering, volcanic wines are popular because they are exciting. They come from exciting locations, are grown in unusual ways with unique grape varieties, and continue to intrigue when they make it into your glass.
The relative isolation of these volcanic wine regions (many of them are islands, after all) means that they are often very distinctive viticulturally. In Santorini, own-rooted Assyrtiko vines have been slowly woven into tightly wound baskets over the course of centuries. The baskets form a dainty protective layer, shielding the grape bunches from the crushing Mediterranean heat and blowing winds.
Similarly, the vineyards of Tenerife have historically been trained into long, creeping, xenomorphic cords. Like in Santorini, these vines are very, very old (up to 200-250 years old) and own-rooted, predating the introduction of phylloxera to Europe. Phylloxera seems to struggle in volcanic soil, and many of the vines in these regions are planted on their own roots (their isolation doesn’t hurt either). The grape varieties follow a familiar Spanish colonial pattern, with Palomino and Mission (known here as Listan Bianco and Listan Prieto, respectively) taking center stage alongside the autochthonous red variety Listan Nego. The whites are sea spray and almond, the reds are smoky forest berries, and you should devour them both with as many salty foods as you can handle.
The aforementioned vines of Mount Etna are trained in the traditional alberello style, similar to a Rhone valley goblet but taller. Apologies in advance for the broken record: black volcanic soils, own-rooted vines planted to unique varieties, transparency, ageability, smoke, tension. The reds, typically Nerello Mascalese with a dollop of Nerello Cappuccio, drink like Aphrodite mixed all the leftover bottles after one of Hephaestus’s famous “Burgundy and Barolo Bashes”. The Carricante-based whites are citrus laden, saline, taut, and crisp (you ever make preserved lemons? Did you lick your fingers?), and they age spectacularly. We love these wines so much that we made an entire section for them. The entry level wines represent some of the most consistent values in Italy, and the high end stands toe to toe with the grandest cellar selections in the world.
Volcanic wines are not restricted to far flung islands with twisted vineyards and difficult to pronounce grapes. The wines of Walla Walla are also volcanic! Our basalt bedrock, from the rolled cobblestones of the Rocks Distict to the fractured basalt of Sevein and the North Fork, is part of the Columbia River Basalt Group, the result of millions of years of lava flows. You’ve been drinking volcanic wines this whole time, whether you knew it or not. I’m pretty sure that makes you a wine nerd. Welcome in! Take a seat. Pour yourself a glass or two. You look tense.
Winemaker Veronica Santiago is one of the most well-respected winemakers in the valley and her palate has shown itself in blind tastings to be one of the best. The wines she and Nathaniel are making are at once elegant, informed, and remarkably old-world in style. These wines follow closely the natural wine-making style championed in the Loire and Saone valleys and emulate closely the body compositions and flavor profiles of the wines made in this area with minimal intervention. All wines are made from organically grown estate vineyards tucked into a tight fold on the valley wall of Valle de Guadalupe.
Made in an ancient winemaking style where white grapes were fermented with the skins to extract color, flavor, aromatics, and structure, this wine is made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc grapes that are left to ferment on the skins for 11 days. From this brief moment of contact comes almost everything that makes this wine sing. Apricot, peach, and other stone fruits on the nose dominate the first act that leads without intermission to a palate, unlike any wine you have ever tried before, again repeating the stone fruit show but adding to it notes of honeysuckle blossoms, fresh herbs, honeycomb, beeswax, and ocean breeze. If you get some, share it. It's the right thing to do. Only 55 cases made.
La Santa comes from centenarian, own-rooted Rosa del Peru (Moscatel Negro) vines grown at 2,400 ft elevation on sandy loam and granite soils in Tecate. The grapes were hand-harvested, de-stemmed, and fermented without temperature control in 450-liter concrete tinajas with 45 days of maceration. The wine was then raised for 3 months in ½ stainless steel vats and ½ older barrels. A lively vin de soif, La Santa is almost rosé colored in the glass, delicately floral, with red and dark fruits and juicy acidity. A lovely red wine to serve chilled with charcuterie and cheeses.
While Valle de Guadalupe has overall adopted a more technological and modern approach, Bichi adheres to traditional methods and minimal intervention. Bichi farms 10 hectares of their own Tecate vineyards biodynamically and collaborates with a growing family of organic farmers working vineyard land in Tecate and around San Antonio de las Minas (Valle de Guadalupe). Their work with Misión is notable, but you will also find Rosa del Peru (Moscatel Negro), Tempranillo, and in the case of the No Sapiens vineyard a mysterious grape variety that remains unidentified (possibly Carignan from Spain, or possibly Dolcetto from plantings brought over from Italy in the 1940s). In the winery, grapes are destemmed by hand and gently trodden by foot, and fermentations are carried out by wild yeast in locally made concrete amphorae. The wines are raised in a mix of neutral barrels and steel vats, with a minuscule 10 ppm of sulfur added at bottling to preserve the wine for travel, if needed.
La Casa Vieja is iconic viticulture of Baja California, which has an overlooked but equally important vitis history to Mexico’s better-known neighbors to the North. 18th Spanish Missionaries in Baja had a recipe to slake the thirst of their religious congregants: build a mission, plant a vineyard. They began in Las Californias Altas of New Spain (present-day California) before heading south and branching throughout Baja California’s rugged landscape.
This nearly forgotten vignette is one that winemaker Humberto ‘Tito’ Toscano was content sharing only with those lucky enough to stumble upon his 1800’s adobe ranch in San Antonio de las Minas, a sub-valley of the Valle de Guadalupe. Humberto was born on the property and returned in 2003. He nursed it back to health and has nurtured it ever since. Honoring history and taking a cue from the padres—his father, the missionaries, and local farmhands—Toscano tends his 120+-year-old, dry-farmed, original-rootstock-vineyards, including Mission and Palomino, naturally. When asked if he ever sprays his vineyards, Humberto responds, “With love and wisdom.”
The Mission vines are 120+ years old (some have speculated older), while there is a 150+-year-old ‘Mother Vine’ that anchors the property. The vineyard goes up a gentle slope on the back of the estate. Harvest usually starts in mid-September but can last over a month. Grapes are destemmed by hand, massaged in bunches over a kind of wooden zaranda. The grapes are then crushed by foot and transferred to plastic drums and one 450-liter concrete egg for fermentation and maceration. After native yeast fermentation, which takes about 2 – 3 weeks, the grapes are pressed off with a small, wooden, 55L, hand crank basket press and racked into to neutral, 225 L oak for 6-8 months. Before bottling, the wine is transferred to glass carboys. Everything is racked and nothing is filtered or fined. The entire bottling process, down to labeling, is done by hand. No sulfur is added at any time.
Family owned and operated, Delmas is the realization of the Robertsons’ dream, 35+ years strong, to honor a distinctive place; a distinctive taste. Born of unique geology found within The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, as well as the climatic eccentricities of the Walla Walla Valley, Delmas is dedicated to producing exceptional wines of enduring value. Elegance is preferred to power and exoticism at Delmas; restraint, nuance, and those impossible-to-define, (pleasurable), qualities that elevate all great wines.
Owen Bargreen, 97 pts: A true heavyhitter, the 2017 Delmas Syrah is entirely sourced from their estate SJR Vineyard in the Walla Walla Rocks AVA, deftly managed by Brooke Robertson. Crafted by superstar winemaker Billo Naravane, MW, the wine is a stunning blend of 91.5% Syrah with the reminder Viognier. Aged for 14 months in 60% new French oak (Troncais) prior to bottling, this needs about an hour of air exposure in order to evolve to its full unveiling. The nose is nothing short of intoxicating, yielding some insanely good range. Potpourri, Umami, pipe tobacco, cedar, and shades of cran-orange aromas all create an amazing effect in the glass. The heady aromas push you back to the glass for more. The texture its astoundingly good, giving off a sexy, silky edge. Red cherry candy, Umami, Hoisin sauce, Asian spice and guava with citrus rind accents as well as shades of black truffle with minerals and stony accents all complete this scintillating new wine. While remarkable in its youth, this will evolve well over the next decade. Drink 2019-2029
Vinous 95 Points: “Full dark red. Pungent spicy lift to the aromas of raspberry, boysenberry, smoked meat, grilled herbs, rose petal and red licorice complicated by white pepper and black olive; coffee and mocha notes emerged with extended aeration. Really remarkably aromatic Syrah: supple, savory and concentrated, conveying strong Rocks salinity to its flavors of raspberry, plum, cured meats, spices and flowers. Shows a strong resemblance to the 2017 but that’s hardly a surprise as Steve Robertson’s wine comes entirely from the parcels of Syrah that he originally planted in 2007. Enticing sweetness and broad, ripe tannins give this seamless wine early accessibility but it has the energy and stuffing for mid-term aging. Really spreads out to saturate the palate on the long finish. This quintessential Rocks Syrah was even silkier with extended aeration. Incidentally, Robertson will make his first varietal Grenache from the 2020 harvest, from a one-acre parcel that he also planted in 2007 (i.e., its 14th leaf).”
Spring is coming. Winter doldrums are being beaten back into dark cupboards, attics, and basements to hibernate until next year, and vineyards around the northern hemisphere are waking up. Dry January is a distant but surprisingly clear memory, and we are all, hopefully, drinking wine again.
Now, I love a nice bottle of Champagne to celebrate a promotion or birthday, and I enjoy savoring a bottle of Barolo that’s older than I am. Unfortunately, I’m typically working with a Prosecco or Langhe Nebbiolo budget. Lucky for me, the shop always has a ton of fantastic budget options. So, join me in raising a glass to the Tuesday night wines, the workhorse wines, the “little wines”, the three-day weekend Friday afternoon wines, the pizza and burger wines. These are the wines that got us hooked on vino in the first place.
FUSO is one of our favorite recent discoveries in the land of budget bottles. They are a company that sources wine from a wide variety of excellent growers and winemakers throughout Italy, from north in Piedmont all the way south to the island of Sicily. While they lack a regional focus, all of their wines share a consistent approach to viticulture and winemaking. Their requirements, from their website:
These wines are light, quaffable, chillable, sustainably grown, and the price is just right. The whole range would be awesome with a charcuterie plate featuring dry-cured salumi, castelvetrano olives, and boquerones, or any number of fancy pasta dishes. Their approachability and natural acidity also make them fantastic for tacos, cheeseburgers, frozen pizza, hamburger helper, tater tots, Thai takeout, tuna casserole, or any number of easy-button Tuesday dinners. Because even Tuesday night deserves a well-made bottle of wine, don’t you think?
Tim Doyle is a true iconoclast of the Walla Walla wine scene. I have yet to come across another winemaker in the valley who thinks about and makes wine with his heady, scientific attention to detail and form while maintaining such a modest and quiet demeanor. His youthful project, Marginalia Winery, produces only a handful of bottlings that upend the norm of what is produced in our area and we are incredibly proud to represent them here at The Thief. Perfect for pairing with a variety of dishes, we welcome you to get adventurous this week with Walla Walla wines and put Marginalia on the table!
Tim splits his time between his winemaking passion and his job as a professor at Whitman College(ancient philosophy and foundations of mathematics), as well as being a husband and father. His commitment to minimal intervention, brainy, somewhat natural wine is a beautiful thing to witness – and it may get you into an epically detailed conversation on the world of wine if that’s what you come looking for. Most of all, however, his wines are delicious, incredibly fun, and worth exploring. We hope you will think so too!
In Tim’s own words: “Lighter red wines and amber wines are not accidental points of focus for Marginalia. I work primarily with these styles of wine because I think they taste good with the foods I tend to eat: rustic breads, strongly flavored vegetables, salty cheeses, olives, lots of herbs and garlic, umbellifer spices, and glugs of olive oil. The wines taste good on their own too, but the real test of a wine is whether it makes a simple meal into a memorable one”.
From Kermit Lynch:
While viticulture on the slopes of Mount Etna dates back thousands of years, only in the last decade or two have the wines produced on Sicily’s mythical volcano entered the global spotlight. Eager to exploit the terroir riches of this stunning natural wonder, waves of newcomers from around Italy and abroad have settled, relying on both traditional methods and modern enology to search for Etna’s truest expression.
The fascination with Etna in the eyes of growers and consumers alike stems not only from its fertile soils of sandy, decomposed volcanic rock but also from the elevation that allows its wines to retain an uncommon freshness and delicacy at such a southerly latitude. Reaching over 1,000 meters above sea level, Etna’s vineyards are some of Europe’s highest, and the cool nights late in the growing season favor slow ripening and the development of extremely complex aromas at relatively low alcohol levels. Harnessing this potential to create wines of nuance and finesse, however, is another story altogether: it requires vision, dedication, and careful execution. It is with tremendous excitement, then, that we announce our collaboration with Vigneti Vecchio, a small family-run estate on Etna’s northern face.
Carmelo Vecchio and his wife, Rosa La Guzza, did not come from afar to make wine on Etna: they are true locals, raised in the heart of the vineyards. Carmelo began working at the nearby Passopisciaro winery at a young age, and after fifteen years of hands-on experience, the time came to strike out on his own. From barely one hectare of vines up to 130 years old inherited from Rosa’s family, the couple took matters into their own hands: sustainable farming by hand, with the goal of achieving an elegant balance in the grapes; micro-vinifications in the tiny cellar beneath their home, with respect for tradition and terroir; and aging the wines in used barrels before bottling without fining or filtration.
Armed with excellent raw materials along with Carmelo's years of experience and an appreciation for ancient local practices such as skin maceration for whites and blending white grapes into the reds, Rosa and Carmelo succeeded in crafting delicate, pure, and highly refined wines from their inaugural 2016 harvest. While Etna still searches for its identity, Vigneti Vecchio demonstrates that this towering volcano rising from the Mediterranean can in fact produce wines as beautifully nuanced as anywhere else in Italy.
Whole cluster fermentation is in, destemmers are out (good riddance, as anyone who has cleaned one will agree), and Henri Jayer is rolling in his grave. We’ve discussed the fickle nature of the wine industry on this blog before. There is always a fresh flavor of funky newness coming over the horizon, or an as yet undiscovered wine region (the enological North Sentinel Island) to be both championed and gate-kept by Magellanic sommeliers. Everyone is drinking rosé again, Cru Beaujolais and the Jura have celebrated their time in the sun, and regenerative viticulture is just now entering the cool-wine zeitgeist.
Whole cluster, though, has managed to pervade both the edgy corners of wine nerd-dom and the pillared halls of wine orthodoxy. There are even large national brands advertising whole cluster fermentation on their labels! Unfortunately, the term is not very well understood, and winemakers have confused the issue further by using several different names for the same process (whole cluster/whole bunch/partially destemmed/etc). We want the truth, the whole cluster truth, and nothing but the truth!
What do you mean by whole cluster?
In a typical red wine fermentation, grape clusters are dropped into a destemmer, which removes the stems and spits out clean purple grapes that look like blueberries. Skip this step, and you are left with full clusters of grapes still attached to the stem. These are whole clusters.
Great, we’ve got whole clusters. Now...uh… how do we make them into wine?
Oftentimes these clusters will be crushed and piled into a fermentation vessel. This crushing can be done mechanically, or through the time-honored tradition of foot-stomping (“pigeage”). This releases juice, submerging the solids, preventing microbial spoilage (also known as vinegar).
That sounds easy! Why would anyone ever use a destemmer?
Well, some varieties are not as well suited to whole cluster fermentation as others. Pinot noir, Grenache, Syrah, Mencía, and Gamay are generally regarded as good fits for whole cluster fermentation, but pyrazine-heavy reds like Cabernet and Merlot can become green and vegetal. Stemmy fermentations also require careful tannin management to prevent hard, unyielding wines. Finally, the potassium in stems (as well as any incidental carbonic maceration) causes the pH of the finished wine to rise, which can lead to instability.
Hey, you tried to sneak in a word there! Think I wouldn’t notice?!? What’s carbonic maceration?
Yeesh. Ok. Carbonic maceration is an intracellular fermentation that takes place in an anaerobic environment, usually a CO2-filled tank. Fruity esters, reminiscent of strawberry and raspberry, are produced, and the malic acid of the grapes is degraded, raising the pH. Uncrushed whole clusters are very conducive to carbonic maceration, and almost all of the classic producers of Cru Beaujolais use whole clusters and at least semi-carbonic maceration. This leads to the fruity aromas and silky textures that the region is known for.
Welp, I’m sorry I asked. Ok, I think I’m getting it. If you’re lazy and you don’t want to use the destemmer, you can use whole grape bunches in your wines. That’s whole cluster.
Well, mostly. Remember, a winemaker doesn’t have to leave his entire harvest as whole bunches. Many winemakers will choose to either destem part of a crop or fill a fermenter with alternating lasagna layers of destemmed grapes and whole clusters or destem the whole crop and then add back in some of the de-graped stalks. Domaines in Burgundy will often vary the amount of whole clusters from vintage to vintage, with a poor or rainy vintage usually getting less while a warm solar vintage gets more. It’s just another wrench in the winemaker’s toolbox.
So, whole cluster usually means not de-stemming grapes, except when it doesn’t. Got it. Very clear cut. Thanks for all your help. What do these Schrodinger wines taste like? Both wine and not wine at the same time, until you drink them?
*Oblivious to sarcasm* You’re very welcome. They taste delicious! Yes, sometimes they can be a little...ahem…stalky, but in the hands of a sensitive winemaker, stems can add lift, spice, and resinous snap. The best way to understand the impact of stems is to try two different wines, one whole cluster and one destemmed, from the same producer or region. Maybe try a rustic, spicy, whole cluster Cornas next to a suave, fudgy, destemmed Hermitage. Ask your local wine purveyor to help you pick out a wine with whole clusters and see what all the cool wine kids are excited about.
Let’s see, what do we have here? *digs through cases of newly arrived wine* Ah, yeah, pretty standard stuff: a grape no one has heard of, grown on the side of a volcano off the coast of Africa, a zero-sulfur blend from the suburbs of Barcelona, a Rioja that tastes like it came from the Loire, a natural pet-nat from Mexico’s Marcel Lapierre, and a Chilean Pinot Noir fermented in a cowhide. Just another day at The Thief.
What do all of these wines have in common? They’re all imported by José Pastor Selections, a relatively new discovery that has been shaking the heck out of the Spanish speaking wine world’s Etch-A-Sketch. From fresh updates to classic regions like Rioja or Ribera del Duero, to undiscovered treasures in the Canary Islands and Mexico, Pastor’s wines share a commonality of sustainable viticulture, low-input winemaking, and vivaciousness, coupled with an uncommon (in the natural wine world) rigor of cleanliness, clarity, and typicity. The wines from four-way collaboration Envínate have received a fair bit of press already (and remain some of our favorites in the portfolio), but there are plenty of other fascinating producers. Let’s meet a few of our favorite new faces...
José Pastor is possibly best known for contributing to the popularity of wines from the Canary Islands. Tenerife, the largest and most populous island, lies 200 miles off the coast of Morocco. Here, Dolores Cabrera organically shepherds centenarian Listán Negro (a variety believed to grow nowhere else) vines trained in the local cordon trenzado braids. Her La Araucaria Tinto cuvee is dark, spicy, and smoky, a common thread for volcanic wines. It is also, at $24, one of the shop’s best values.
After stages in some of the most illustrious cellars in Rioja (La Rioja Alta and CVNE), Juan Peñagaricano Akutain began planting his own vineyards. He hoped to recreate the classic wines of the region with exacting micro-cuvees, rather than the domineering omnipresence of the larger bodegas. If his 2018 Consecha is any indication, he might be outstripping the larger houses. A crunchy, fragrant, funky joven (young) wine, this is a bistro buster that deserves a hot grill.
These might be the first wines from Mexico that the shop has carried! Bichi has only been around since 2014, but they are standing on the shoulders of hundreds of years of local wine production. The winery began as a collaboration between the Tellez family and Burgundian Louis-Antoine Luyt, who is best known for his work with the Mission grape in Chile. Bichi now farms 25 biodynamic acres of vineyards around Tecate, east of Tijuana, and collaborates with local growers on other organic vineyards, striving to produce “vinos sin maquillaje”, or wines without makeup. For the Listán cuvee, 100-year-old Listán Prieto (also known as Mission or País) vines produce tiny yields of concentrated grapes that are then fermented in locally made concrete tinajas. These are culty, hard to find natural wines, and they are going to go quickly.
Carolina Alvarado and Arturo Herrera built their adobe winery by hand, and 15 years later they still do not have electricity. Instead, they rely on traditional enological techniques, including incorporating cowhides in the fermentation of their red wines. This is a cooler part of Chile just north of the Casablanca Valley, where Sauvignon blanc and Pinot Noir reign supreme. Their La Zaranda Sauvignon blanc, named after the local manual destemmer, is macerated for a couple of days before fermenting and aging 17 months in concrete. Bottled without SO2, this is a salty lime and candied jalapeno zinger that has me dreaming of a hot porch and bottomless fish tacos.
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