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The Thief

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.

 

Allan Crum
 
May 15, 2020 | Allan Crum

Loess is More: The Vineyards of F.X. Pichler

 Loess Is More: The Vineyards of F.X. Pichler

Epic F.X. Pichler Duo on sale HERE.

 

F.X. Pichler is one of the greatest producers of Austrian wine. They have extensive holdings in some of the Wachau’s most prestigious vineyards, vineyards that have been planted for more than 800 years in some cases. These steep, terraced hillside vineyards absorb a ton of sunlight, allowing Pichler to pick Gruner Veltliner, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc at maximum ripeness. Wines from the Wachau have a three-tiered system that organizes wines based on finished alcohol levels:

Steinfeder: Named after the wispy grass that grows in the vineyards. These are the lightest wines, topping out at 11.5%

Federspiel: Means “falconry”, these are the mid-weight wines, between 11.5% and 12.5%.

Smaragd: Named after sunbathing lizards, these are the most powerful Wachau wines. Must be over 12.5% alcohol, though many reach into the 14% range.

Lucas Pichler vinifies 70% of his crop as Smaragd every year, harvesting his vineyards in multiple passes. Smaragd wines are phenolically dense and weighty, the vinous opposite of the weightless, crown-capped liter bottles of Gruner that we know and love. The Pichler domaine maintains purity in these monumental wines with a dangerous balancing act. They harvest late, but their brilliant manual vineyard work carefully controls the influence of botrytis, capturing a dusting of ginger and pollen without collapsing into heaviness or rot. This viticultural balancing act is akin to walking a tightrope with an unruly toddler on your back. In the cellar, Lucas allows fermentation to progress until the wines are (functionally) dry, but arrests it before they begin malolactic fermentation, further preserving freshness and vivacity.

These Man on Wire wines are made possible by the incredible vineyards of the Wachau. Here are three of F.X. Pichler’s best.

Loibenberg

Loibenberg is large, at 76 acres, and warm, though its assorted aspects and pitches make it more climatically varied than many single vineyards. The first mention of Loibenberg dates back to 1371, and it has been cultivated ever since. This vertiginous slope averages a 40% incline, though some pitches can be as steep as 80%. These terraces require 300 man-hours bruising, fatiguing labor per acre. The soil consists of a thin layer of glacial loess over decomposed gneiss. Yes, the same loess that makes up most of the soils in the Walla Walla Valley. The vineyards of the Wachau are defined by their proportion of loess to gneiss. The thicker, more generous loess soils are ideal for Gruner Veltliner, whereas the rockier soils where the gneiss substrate is closer to the surface favors Riesling. This rocky, sandy ground provides excellent drainage, whisking away water so the vines can continue to hang their crop late into the season without risking rot. F.X. Pichler sources most of the grapes for their “M” (for “monumental”) cuvee from this historic vineyard.

Steinertal

Steinertal means “stony trench”, an appropriate name for this curving, amphitheatre-like vineyard on the eastern end of the Wachau. It is one of the coolest vineyards in the Wachau, as well as one of the rockiest. Here again you will find thin sandy loess over gneiss, though the gneiss is especially decomposed in Steinertal, allowing the roots of 70 year old Gruner Veltliner to burrow deeply into the bedrock. Pichler’s Steinertal Gruner has all of the Smaragd power that characterizes their bottlings, but the cooler climate finesse of the site shines through in its graceful midpalate and refreshing finish.

Kellerberg

Kellerberg, or “cellar mountain”, falls somewhere between Loibenberg and Steinertal in warmth. It faces the south and southeast, and its finest aspects look directly out over the Danube. The south eastern exposure has limited erosion from wind, preserving more loess in the soils. The lower slopes have more humus and loam, and as you climb you find more stones. F.X. Pichler sources their Kellerberg Riesling from a parcel high up on the hill, where the soils are thin and less vigorous. The struggling vines produce fruit with great intensity and savor, and the wines are exceptionally long lived. Expect your Pichler Rieslings to keep for at least 20 years.

 

The Wachau has some of the finest white wine vineyards in the world, and F.X. Pichler has many of the finest parcels within the Wachau. So, take a cue from the wines of the Wachau and sunbathe like a lizard while you savor an F.X. Pichler Gruner Veltliner or Riesling.

 

Shop HERE for Epic F.X. Pichler Duo

ADD 'M' Monumental Smaragd Gruner Veltliner 2016          

Time Posted: May 15, 2020 at 11:55 AM
Allan Crum
 
May 9, 2020 | Allan Crum

Northern Rhône

Roasted Slopes, Burnt Earth, and BBQ

Shop the Battle Rhône: North vs. South 4-Pack -- bottles detailed below

Syrah has rapidly established itself as a signature varietal in Walla Walla, recently supplanting Merlot as the second most planted variety in the AVA. The best Walla Walla Syrahs exhibit a feral, savory edge that reminds me of wines from Syrah’s birthplace in the Northern Rhone valley. While many people are familiar with Rhône blends, the classic Grenache-Syrah-Mourvédre-etc. combination is styled after traditional Southern Rhône blends from Mediterranean appellations like Gigondas or Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The Southern Rhône produces 95% of all Rhône wine, so finding good examples of northern Rhône wines can be challenging. Luckily, the shop is always stocked to the gills with archetypal examples of Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, and Cornas, as well as everyday drinkers from Crozes-Hermitage, Saint Joseph, and the broad Collines Rhodaniennes designation.

Northern Rhône Syrah is my desert island, death row final meal, death bed wine. I’ve been reading the 700 page “The Wines of the Northern Rhône” by John Livingstone-Learmouth for fun. So, indulge me if you will, while I rant about French fruit into the consensual hallucination we call the interwebs.

Jean Luc Colombo, Cornas

Weather

As I mentioned above, when we picture the Rhône, we generally think of the south of France. Warm Mediterranean winds, maybe an olive tree or two, scrubby garrigue wafting scents of thyme and rosemary as vigneron pick bunches of Grenache off of gobelet-trained bush vines: the kind of place a medieval Pope would go on vacation.

The Northern Rhône is a different animal (probably a furry one). It is continental, with cold winters and warm, but not hot, summers. “But wait,” the few francophones among you say, “doesn’t Côte Rôtie translate to “roasted slopes”?” “Yeah,” the even fewer celtophones among you say, thrilled that their college minor is finally paying off (take that, Dad!), “Cornas means “burnt earth” in old Celtic!” That’s true, but it’s an example of the difference between a warm climate vs a warm spot in an otherwise cool climate. Failla winemaker Ehren Jordan worked several years for Jean-Luc Columbo in Cornas, and he recalled arriving on a warm (by no means hot) 80-degree summer day to find the locals complaining about a heatwave. Côte Rôtie is closer to the Beaujolais than Avignon, and it represents the northernmost plantings of Syrah in France.

The relatively cool weather draws out a unique expression of Syrah. The delicate violet and spicy aromas that typify cool-climate Syrah burn off in high heat,1 giving way to black plum, chocolate, and coffee. You see this difference within the Northern Rhône itself. Côte Rôtie in the north is generally the lightest and most ethereal of the appellations, more red-fruited driven than the warmer vineyards of Hermitage and Cornas, which produce a rich, more robust wine with darker fruit.

La Grande Colline, Cornas

Vineyards

Syrah is the only red grape allowed in wines of the Northern Rhône, though Viognier is allowed for co-fermenting in Côte Rôtie, and Marsanne and Roussanne serve the same role in Hermitage. The best vineyards are on very steep south-facing hills that allow greater heat accumulation and ripeness. The vines are traditionally trained up a stake in a style called “echalas”, much like the Mosel or Mt. Etna. These stakes allow the Syrah shoots maximum sun exposure, while allowing vineyard workers useful climbing aids while they work in the vineyards. Planting is high density, from 3-4k plants per acre, and the work required is enormous. Mechanization of the steepest, grandest slopes is impossible, and one vigneron estimated that it took 400 man-hours per acre to care for the vines. Some of the wealthiest landowners hire helicopters to spray sulphur and other vineyard treatments. Yields are low (often less than 2 tons per acre), and given the backbreaking work required, it is no mystery why many vineyards were abandoned in the lean years between phylloxera and the gradually increasing prices of the 1980s and 90s.

Rene Rostaing, Côte Rôtie

Winemaking - To Stem or Not To Stem

“One aspect here, admittedly less severe than at St. Joseph, is that of young growers coming on stream and turning out technobabble wines. The previous generation was involved with what to plant, following decrees, mastering white wine vinification, tidying up their cellar work. This current generation is feeding off a high price regime and lending their ears to advisers and image dabblers, the theory merchants who dispense advice without responsibility. Suddenly a father-to-son Domaine switches from the serenade to punk rock: a world of injected oxygen, lees stirring, high-temperature fermentation, max extract, and wines that fall apart after just 20 minutes of air.” John Livingstone-Learmouth, on Crozes-Hermitage.

As with Barolo, the Northern Rhône has had a stylistic divide between traditionalists and modernists. Traditional vinifications were done whole cluster, with the fruit crushed by foot and fermented in concrete tanks, before aging in concrete, foudre, or old 600l demi-muid barrels. Modern techniques rely on destemming, extended macerations, new 225l oak barrels, and a range of enological products. More recently, a middle way has formed, utilizing both modern and traditional approaches. The traditional wines have gained purity from softer tannins and more rigorous barrel selection, and the modern wines show less new oak and dry extract.

The choice of whether to destem or not remains crucial. Classic producers like Clape in Cornas or Jamet in Côte Rôtie continue to utilize 100% (or nearly) whole cluster, while Lionel Faury in Saint Joseph is less prescriptive, incorporating various levels of whole cluster depending on the cuvee and vintage. Even Guigal, as modern a producer as they come, uses large amounts of whole cluster in ripe vintages. Whole cluster fermentation brings sappy, floral spice to a wine, emphasizing the lighter and more delicate elements of cool-climate Syrah. Some vintners like Thierry Allemand, Jean Michel Stephan, and Herve Souhaut utilize carbonic maceration, leaving their whole bunches uncrushed. This produces a silky mouthfeel and explosive fruitiness that, when combined with Syrah’s more animalistic side, creates a very complete expression of the grape.

The Wines

I recently described wines from the Rocks District as “a bear in a blanket, waiting for Goldilocks”. Syrahs from the Northern Rhône, their stylistic parents, are a bear in a meadow. Sure, they could tear your face off, but they’d rather eat blackberries and play with wildflowers. They can be feral and smoky, like wild boar bacon with freshly cracked black pepper and mixed olive tapenade. All of this ursine ferocity is wedded to pure violet and bramble, with huckleberry and blackberry running down your chin. The monumental structure of bristly whole cluster traditionalists holds up well to cellaring, as do densely extracted modernist wines, with good examples showing well after 10-15 years. Young wines, especially from more affordable appellations like Saint Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, drink very well in the meantime, with snappy red or blue fruit amidst tufts of savor. I love these wines with anything from the grill. Lamb and beef are classic pairings, especially for the darker wines of Cornas or Hermitage. The lighter wines pair well with hearty pork, dark meat chicken, or game birds. Who could say no to some medium-rare grilled duck breasts and a glass of Côte Rôtie?


[1] Rotundone accumulation, the black pepper aroma, is directly related to temperature in the fruit zone.


Battle Rhône: North vs. South 4-Pack

Click to Shop

North:

   

Maxime and Alain Graillot, Domaine Equis

Equis Equinoxe Crozes Hermitage

  • 100% Syrah
  • Practicing organic
  • commune of Beaumont Monteux
  • Native yeast ferment in concrete tank and large wooden tronconique vats
  • 80% destemmed
  • Aged in used DRC barrels for 9 months
  • 3,300 cases

 

    

Domaine Faury

Faury Collines Rhodaniennes Syrah

  • Granite soil
  • Partially destemmed
  • 10 day maceration
  • Aged 6 months in 600l demi-muids

South:

    

 

Delas Freres Vineyard in Hermitage

Delas Cotes du Rhône St. Esprit 2017

  • 60% Syrah/40% Grenache, grown in the Ardeche
  • 88 Points WS
  • 41k cases
  • All destemmed, 15-day maceration, aged in stainless for 8 months

   

Gigondas

Domaine du Cayron Gigondas

  • Low yields 30hl/ha (less than 2 tons per acre)
  • 40-70-year-old vines
  • 78% Grenache, 14% Syrah, 6% Cinsault, 2% Mourvèdre
  • 21-day maceration
  • Aged in foudre for 12 months
  • Unfined, unfiltered
Time Posted: May 9, 2020 at 1:18 AM
Allan Crum
 
May 3, 2020 | Allan Crum

Tiny Bubbles...The World of Sparkling Wine

A well-riddled bottle in the cellars of Gaston Chiquet, from Skurnik

 

One of the hardest things about working in the wine industry is that you wind up with a taste for Champagne, even if you’re on more of a “Champagne of beers” budget. The economics of Champagne1 means that it can be difficult to drink it as often as we’d like. Despair not, though, because delicious sparkling wines2 are made the world over. Saber open a bottle of local pet-nat with your trusty cavalry sword, pour yourself a bubble bath, and dive in. It’s time to talk fizz!

Traditional - France

For many folks, sparkling wine is Champagne, so let’s start there. Champagne lies very far north in France, just to the east of Paris near the city of Reims. It has a very cool, rainy climate, so even though the Champenoise grow grapes that ripen early (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier3), in many vintages they struggle to achieve sufficient ripeness to produce still wines. These grapes, because of their high acidity and low potential alcohols, are perfect for sparkling wine.

The process for making Champagne is known as the traditional method (methode traditionnelle). First, the grapes are picked and pressed, just like regular white wine. The juice is then fermented, usually in stainless steel tanks or oak barrels depending on the winemaker’s4 preference. The highly acidic still wines that are produced are called the vin clairs.5 These are blended with reserve wine from previous vintages (unless the producer wants to make a single vintage wine) before being bottled with a small amount of yeast and sugar. As the yeast ferments the sugar, it produces carbon dioxide. This trapped CO2 from the second fermentation stays in the bottles…And Blammo! - we’ve got bubbles.

As the yeasts die, they drop out of the wine and form sediment in the bottle known as lees. The amount of time a sparkling wine spends on the lees has a huge impact on its aroma and flavor, contributing notes of baking bread or roasted nuts which round out and soften the wine. A non-vintage Champagne must spend at least 15 months on its lees.

After the lees are removed through a process known as disgorgement6, the wine is dry and still very tart, so a small amount of sugar is added to balance the wine. This is the dosage, and it determines the finished sweetness of the Champagne. Brut is the most common level (~12g sugar), but drier styles have become more popular recently, with some producers choosing to forgo this step altogether in favor of Brut Nature or zero dosage wines.

Sparkling wines from other regions of France that are made in the traditional method are known as Cremant. These are some of the best deals in sparkling wine, checking most of the stylistic boxes of Champagne without the steep price tag. Alsace has a particularly rich history of sparkling wine production,7 and their Cremants are simply delicious. Check out the Cremants d’Alsace from our shop favorites Kuentz-Bas or Pierre Sparr.

Traditional - Spain, Italy, England8

There are many classic examples of traditional method sparkling wine made across the world. In Spain, the Catalonian varieties Xarel-lo, Macabeau, and Parellada are used to make rich, zesty Cava, many of which can be found for less than $20. We’re currently featuring the CVNE Brut for $13 and the Mas Fi Brut for $12. Spain is often the place to go for wine bargains, but their sparklers take this to another level.

Italy and England produce some of the classiest bubbles outside of Champagne. The sparkling wine producers of England are blessed with the same chalky limestone soils and cool climate as Champagne,9 producing wines of similar pedigree. Try a bottle of Digby Fine English Leander Pink Brut NV the next time you’re in the mood for some fancy pink bubbles. For an Italian take, the DOCG of Franciacorta in Lombardy is home to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc that sees a traditional secondary fermentation in bottle and extensive lees aging. Sound familiar?

Non-Traditional - Italy

From “is it actually sparkling wine or did I just shake it?”, Frizzante to vigorously frothy Spumante, Italy has got it all. Prosecco, the most famous Italian fizz, is made using the Charmat Method, which is kind of like traditional method on a larger scale. Here, the secondary fermentation takes place in a pressurized tank rather than in each bottle, streamlining the process and allowing Prosecco producers to charge less for their delicious wine. Look for Prosecco Superiore DOCG and leave the orange juice in the fridge.

While I love Prosecco before dinner as an aperitif, Lambrusco really shines on the table. This frizzante from Emilia Romagna or Lombardy can range from bone dry to slightly sweet10 and from dark pink to almost black. We love Lambrusco for its pitted cherry and wild strawberry aromas balanced by savory spice and lovely acidity. Pair the shop favorite Cleto Chiarli Vecchia Modena Premium Lambrusco di Sorbara 2018 with a large cheese and charcuterie plate and you might just forget to serve the main course. Don’t forget to pour a pearly glass of Moscato d’Asti from a conscientious producer like De Forville for dessert.


[1] Difficult farming in a marginal climate, a labor-intensive vinification process, expensive packaging, and long cellaring requirements before release (3 years for vintage champagne, though many houses go much longer).

[2] Just don’t call them Champagne if they’re not from Champagne. The Champenoise have been fighting that particular fight since at least 1891.

[3] There are select growers like Laherte Freres with plots of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane, and Petit Meslier, but Champagne is most often the big three mentioned above.

[4] Known in Champagne as the “chef de cave”, which is kind of how I’ve felt during social distancing.

[5] The tasting/blending of which is supposed to be a palate-crushing experience

[6] Which can be very, very messy if you don’t know what you’re doing.

[7] They produce more than half of all Cremants.

[8] South Africa also makes delicious traditional method wines under the name “cap classique”

[9] There’s a famous channel between them, but Champagne is darn close to Sussex

[10] Many people think that Lambrusco is always sweet, but that is mostly down to a few industrial producers making crappy wines

 

About the wines in this offer…

 

La Vielle Ferme Reserve Brut

The Perrin family of Chateau Beaucastel harvest Chardonnay and Ugni Blanc from limestone soils that preserve natural acidity, then perform regular batonnage to add savory richness. Apples, oranges, and lemons abound, like a still life painting in a glass. This dry, toasty French bubbly is best when deciding which of your family members you trust to cut your hair (answer: you love them all, but absolutely none of them).

Perrin family

Acinum Prosecco

These Glera vines are trained in a Veronese pergola, which is pretty much a lawn chair for vines. The winemakers took their time, harvesting the grapes by hand, gently pressing, and slowly fermenting the wine with native yeasts. Take a leisurely tip from the pergola and enjoy the soft, inviting nose of honeysuckle and candied citrus palate in a backyard kiddie-pool folding chair.

Acinum’s vines in the Prosecco area of Treviso

Domaine Xavier & Agnès Amirault  Les Quarterons Cremant de Loire Brut

Chenin Blanc’s natural acidity makes it perfect for sparkling wines. The fruit for this traditional method sparkler comes from Anjou, and it ages at least 18 months on fine lees, gaining weight and complexity. White grapefruit and a streak of chalky minerality make this refreshing Cremant the ideal accompaniment for breakfast (or brunch, or breakfast for dinner) in bed.

Les Clos de Quarterons

Juve Y Camps Reserva de la Familia Gran Reserva Brut Nature 2016

This blend of 40% Xarel-lo, 30% Macabeo, 20% Parellada, and 10% Chardonnay spends 36 months aging sur lie. Aromas of stone fruit and baked bread combine like a peach cobbler, though the ripping Brut Nature finish is long and totally dry. Drink this vintage cava while watching YouTube videos about sourdough starters.

Juve Y Camps

Click to Shop!

 

Time Posted: May 3, 2020 at 4:02 AM
Allan Crum
 
May 1, 2020 | Allan Crum

Etna...Taste the Volcano

             Map of Mt. Etna

 

Taste the Volcano

The next time you hear a local vineyard manager complaining about mildew pressure, drought, or frost, remind them that the vineyards of Mount Etna in Sicily face those same challenges, as well as the constant threat of burning ash and MOLTEN LAVA! Some years, the mountain is quiet. Other years, as in 1981, houses and vineyards are destroyed. Most terroir, from the Jurassic limestones of the, uh, Jura, to the fractured basalt of Eastern Washington, has been in place for millions of years. Etna, on the other hand, is continually remaking itself, adding layers of ash and rock with each new eruption. After each discharge, vignerons scramble to plant on the new surface. These are vineyards forged from fire and ash.

The vines of Mt. Doom, I mean Etna, cling to the side of the active volcano at elevations as high as 4,300 feet, making them some of the highest commercial vineyards in the world.1 Traditional vineyards are planted “albarello” style (little tree), meaning each vine is trained up a post.2 These old vineyards are often densely planted polycultures with olive trees, fruit trees, and other crops scattered among vines that can be as much as 240 years old. Phylloxera seems to avoid black volcanic soil,3 and the oldest vineyards remain ungrafted. Etna has produced wine since Roman times, but most of its vineyards sat abandoned until its resurgence of the last 30 years. The Benanti family founded their winery in 1988, marking the first modern investment in the region.

Etna is home to many indigenous varieties, but there are really only a couple that you need to remember. The reds are made from Nerello Mascalese (sometimes with a little Nerello Cappuccio or Alicante Bouschet thrown in for color), while the whites are typically Carricante based. Nerello Mascalese is a late ripener, often hanging well into November. Its wines are perfumed and earthy with a waft of volcanic ash, recalling blood oranges, and lapsang souchong tea. They are often compared to Nebbiolo or Pinot Noir, wines that show sous bois (undergrowth or forest floor) aromas. If good red Burgundy smells like walking through a damp forest, then Etna Rosso smells like walking through that forest a year after a fire.

Carricante, like its translucent red counterpart, couldn’t hide its volcanic origins if it tried. This neutral, savory white often grows on the eastern side of Etna in vineyards where Nerello Mascalese would struggle to ripen. The Etna Bianco DOC requires that a wine be at least 60% Carricante, and Superiore wines must be 80%. It’s a high acid grape, presenting citrus fruits of lemon or orange, but we’re here for the rocks. The best examples scream volcano with pyroclastic minerality4 like a sprinkling of smoked sea salt, which stretches the finish and leaves you looking forward to your next sip. Carricante means “loaded”, and it must be short pruned to tame its tendency to overbear. With careful viticulture, Carricante can produce profound wines that rival Italian classics like Soave, Fiano, and Verdicchio in ageability and intensity, cellaring for 10 years or more. What do the next 10 years hold for these vineyards? Only Mt. Etna knows.


[1] Check out the Valle d'Aosta for an alpine take on high elevation Italian wines.

[2] Much like echalas training in the Northern Rhone or Mosel.

[3] As in Tenerife and Santorini.

[4] Put your pitchforks away. I vote that we retire minerality except in cases where the rocks are actively trying to kill you.

“Alberello”-trained vines, photo courtesy of Louis Dressner

More “Alberello”-trained vines (and some sort of mammalian tractor), courtesy of Louis Dressner

 

Vincenzo Bonaccorsi of ValCerasa tending his vines              A vineyard shot from Tenuta Masseria Setteporte

 

 

 

Time Posted: May 1, 2020 at 9:02 AM
Allan Crum
 
April 26, 2020 | Allan Crum

Peeking into Basque Country: Cider, Txakoli and a Meal

Peeking into Basque Country: Cider, Txakoli and a Meal

You walk into a building of stone and heavy, old timber, and are greeted by the smell of grilled beef fat, sheep’s milk, and apples. These are not perfect grocery store Honeycrisps. These apples are tart, bitter, and hard. These are apples with a past. You find an open spot at a table, probably standing, and as you settle in, you notice your neighbors. Everyone seems to be eating, drinking, and speaking all at once, and the low, hard ceilings bathe you in a language that has no western analogues. Your ears quickly decide that there are far too many x’s and z’s.

A server delivers a plate of chorizo and an empty glass. Someone shouts, “Txotx!” (which sounds to you like “Choach!”), and a queue of empty cider glasses with people attached to them forms in front of a giant barrel that you somehow missed when you came in. You join the line, and when you reach the front, a kind stranger taps the barrel, spraying a thin stream of cloudy, frothing cider into your glass. As you return to your table, you sniff. A little sour, a little funk, maybe a touch of cider vinegar. An omelet flecked with pungent salt cod has joined your chorizo. You fork yourself a bite of omelet and wash it down with a swallow of cider. The richness of the egg and the saltiness of the cod shake hands with the tannic brightness of the cider, becoming business partners in your mouth. Your server delivers a steaming heap of rare, bone-in beef to your neighbors, and tells you to finish your omelet, your steak is on its way. The call of “Txotx!” comes again, and you realize that your glass has mysteriously emptied itself. The meal has just begun.

Photo courtesy of Chandler Briggs

Basque cider houses, or sagardotegi, have become an improbable tourist attraction in northeastern Spanish towns like Astigarraga and Hernani. Basque Country has a long history of cider production. Its fisherman and whalers were renowned in the 16th and 17th century, ranging far afield in ships fitted with internal cider casks. The crew members would drink up to three liters per day, staving off scurvy with the tart cider.

Basque cider, unlike other European ciders from England or Normandy, is generally still, though some show a light effervescence like Txakoli. They are dry, with little to no residual sugar, and can be quite tannic, like red wine or heavily steeped tea. They are the wild ales of the cider realm, unapologetically unfiltered and funky. The traditional Basque high pour (again, also used on Txakoli) acts like a splash decant for wine, blowing off some of the funk to reveal the fruit within. Basque ciders are delicious by themselves as an aperitif, but they really shine on the dinner table. Everyone has plenty of time to cook these days, so let’s make a Basque cider house dinner!

Photo Courtesy of Chandler Briggs

The traditional, protein-heavy sagardotegi menu begins with a plate of hard, spicy chorizo, followed by the salt cod omelet. Salt cod, or bacalao, is common throughout Portugal and Spain, and can be purchased online. It is a great pantry item, as the salt cure keeps it fresh for years. Remember to soak your salt cod for a day before preparing it, rinsing it several times in fresh water.

The second course is roasted white fish with grilled peppers. I prefer halibut, but you could also use (fresh, uncured) cod. Any small, green pepper will do, though I like shishito peppers for their sweet flavor and thin, quickly grilled skin.

The fourth and main course is the Txuleta steak, a bone-in rib steak grilled over coals. The steaks are sourced from cattle that are much older than the beef that Americans eat, usually 8-18 years old (most American cattle are slaughtered before 30 months). You can stick with a rib-eye for authenticity or branch out with an alternative cut. Erick Turner, owner of Butcher Butcher Walla Walla, recommends sirloin cap or hanger.

The final course is a cheese plate. Most Basque cheeses are made from sheep’s milk, reflecting their strong shepherding culture. The clean brightness of aged sheep cheeses like Abbaye de Belloc, Idiazabal, or Petit Basque helps to tame the wildness of the ciders. Manchego, Pecorino, or local Monteillet Fromagerie make fine, locally available substitutes. Traditional accompaniments include walnuts and quince paste, though sliced apple or pear will serve. 

This menu is a little meat-heavy, so feel free to serve some veggie pinxtos (Basque tapas) to round out the meal. Asparagus is in season here in Walla Walla and in Basque country, so grill up some spears next to your peppers and steak. Spring onions will be coming on strong too. Serve them halved or quartered and grilled, ideally with a swipe of Catalan romesco (jarred peppers, tomato paste, nuts, stale bread, and vinegar makes this the ultimate quarantine friendly pantry sauce). Finally, no tapas menu would be complete without fried patatas bravas and lemony, garlicky aioli. Double fry the potatoes and use an immersion blender to take the broken-emulsion fuss out of the aioli. Txotx!

“We ate at long trestle-tables out of permanently greasy tin pannikins, and drank out of a dreadful thing called a porron. A porron is a sort of glass bottle with a pointed spout from which a thin jet of wine spurts out whenever you tip it up; you can thus drink from a distance, without touching it with your lips, and it can be passed from hand to hand. I went on strike and demanded a drinking-cup as soon as I saw a porron in use.” George Orwell, genius and apparent fuddy-duddy, in “Homage to Catalonia”

About the Porron

If a porron looks like a cross between a watering can and a decanter, that’s because it is! The porron is a hand-held glass pitcher that pours a thin stream of wine, ideally from a great height. You can drink anything out of a porron, but traditionally they are used for Txakoli, cider, or Cava. The porron is probably descended from conical Roman drinking cones named rhyton, and the Catalonians have perfected its use. To drink from a porron, place the spout close to your mouth and tip the pitcher. Catch the stream in your mouth, then slowly pull the container further away from your body, until it is at arm's length. The further the distance between the porron and your mouth, the more points you get. A porron is a crazy straw for grown-up drinks, and it makes your drinks taste better too. This stylish variation on the Basque high pour aerates your wine or cider, opening up the beverage just like a decanter. Grab your new porron and a bottle of Txakoli - or three - and pour on!

Photo courtesy of De Maison Selections

 

Let us not forget Txakoli!

Basque country straddles the Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain. Likewise, its most famous wine straddles the border between sparkling and still. Txakoli is a frisky, lightly effervescent wine, similar in style to an Italian frizzante. Originally, the wines were fermented in large wooden foudre, like the aforementioned ciders, though nowadays you are more likely to find stainless steel tanks. Stainless is a valuable tool because it allows the winemaker to control the temperature of the vessel. When fermentation has completed, the tanks are cooled to just above freezing, capturing and preserving the carbon dioxide that the yeasts have produced.

This kiss of CO2, when combined with low alcohol1 and whiplash acidity, make Txakoli one of the most energetically gulpable wines out there. These are the session beers of the wine world, wines that you can drink for hours without feeling weighed down or groggy. Before dinner, entertain yourself by learning the Basque high pour!

During dinner, Txakoli pairs well with darn near everything. These wines are literally zesty, exhibiting a touch of citrus pith that fans of Albariño or Pinot Grigio will be familiar with. This phenolic bitterness allows for pairings with classically difficult vegetable courses like baby peas or spicy salad greens. Follow the vegetables with clams in a parsley sauce, or crispy pork belly, or a fava bean and spring onion stew. Finally, finish your meal in true Basque-style with your cheese plate from earlier. You did remember to make your cheese plate, didn’t you?


[1] Single digit abv’s are not rare

Time Posted: Apr 26, 2020 at 10:43 AM
Allan Crum
 
April 24, 2020 | Allan Crum

Hospice du Rhône, Rhône Grapes in America & The Rocks District

La Terre Parle (The earth speaks)

Hospice du Rhône, the annual celebration of Rhône grape varieties and producers, was scheduled for April 22-24 before it was cancelled due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Two of the cancelled seminars would have highlighted vineyards in the newly established (2015) Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA,1 a geologically distinct sub-AVA within the larger Walla Walla Valley AVA. Let’s celebrate local terroir from the comfort of our homes by learning about Rhône grapes in America and the people that have championed them!

Cornas, Rhône

Hospice du Rhône

It started with a bottle of Viognier and a joke.2 Mat Garretson, one of the founders of Hospice du Rhône, was a red wine drinker until he popped a bottle of Domaine Georges Vernay Condrieu. He was cooking something that called for white wine, and he was about to deglaze the pan when the aroma of honeyed apricot stopped him in his tracks. This bottle of Viognier from the northern Rhône inspired him to create an appreciation society focused on the grape. He met John Alban, one of the Rhône Rangers (more on them later) and an early proponent of Viognier.3 Together, they would expand the society into a non-profit business league and international vintners’ association that meets yearly in Paso Robles. They promote producers around the country that grow and vinify Rhône varieties like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvédre, and Viognier. The Hospice du Rhône tastings and seminars are the place to rub elbows and exchange ideas with American and international Rhône royalty. Their director, Vicki Carroll, was recently named Wine Enthusiast’s Person of the Year.

Rhône Grapes in America4

Rhône varieties have been planted in the US since at least the mid-1800s. Old-vine mixed black plantings in California are usually Zinfandel-based, but they often include smaller amounts of Grenache, Mourvédre (Mataro), Carignan, Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise, and others. These grapes were typically picked together as a field blend, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that producers, inspired by the Rhône heavy imports of Kermit Lynch, began searching for single-varietal Rhône plantings.

Joseph Phelps released the first varietally labeled Syrah in 1977, and although everyone agrees that it was horrendous,5 Phelps remained committed to the variety. Gary Eberle, another Rhône fanatic, planted the first modern Syrah vineyard shortly thereafter, establishing Estrella River with vine material from Chapoutier in Hermitage by way of UC Davis.6 In the decade that followed, young winemakers like Randall Grahm, Steve Edmunds, Adam Tolmach, Bob Lindquist, and (the aforementioned) John Alban would all focus their production on Rhône grapes. By the time Grahm appeared as the “Rhône Ranger” on the April 1989 cover of Wine Spectator, the American Rhône movement was in full swing.7

   

Brooke Roberston, Harvest at SJR Vineyards 2019

Rotie Rocks Estate Vineyard

Rhône Grapes in Washington

While California’s historic Rhône plantings predate the commercial Washington wine industry,8 there was varietally labeled Rhône wine made in the state as early as 1969 (Grenache rosé). While cold-tender Mediterannean varieties (especially Grenache and Mourvédre) can struggle with winter damage, Syrah’s home in the Northern Rhône is more continental,9 making it ideal for Washington vineyards. Mike Sauer, owner of Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima, planted the first Washington Syrah in 1986 using budwood that originated at Joseph Phelps.10 Eight years later, the Phelps (or Espiguette) Syrah made its way to Walla Walla, migrating south to Milton-Freewater shortly thereafter. There are many beautiful local expressions of Grenache, Mourvédre, Viognier, and other Rhône grapes, but this is the story of one grape and one place.

  

Rocks District                                                       Chateauneuf du Pape

The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater

The title of this piece comes from the cellar of Edmunds St. John. A member of the Peyraud family from Bandol, Mourvédre royalty, was tasting wine with Steve Edmunds. He came to a glass of Mourvédre, his eyes rolled back in his head, and all he could say was, “la terre parle.” Great terroir speaks, and the wines of the Rocks District speak loudly. The rocks that give it its name are alluvial cobblestones deposited by the Walla Walla river ages and ages ago. It was these cobblestones that drew a young Christophe Baron to plant Syrah in Milton-Freewater in 1997. He was reminded of the rocky terroir of famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards like La Crau. The AVA was established in 2015, covering a petite five square miles of rocky valley floor.

These free-draining, poor soils tame the inherent vigor and verve of Syrah, although the wines are anything but domesticated. The French have a term, sauvage (wild), that is frequently applied to the furry, sanguineous Syrahs of Cornas or St. Joseph. Wines from the Rocks District have sauvage in spades. They can smell like iron, or dry-aged beef, or creosote, like venison roasted on a campfire. Their texture, often buoyed by a high ph, is as soft and layered as a well-made bed, leading to a ferrous, saline[11] finish. Rocks District Syrah is a bear in a blanket, waiting for Goldilocks. The best examples can age for a decade or more, but they drink surprisingly well on release. Wine Spectator has called the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater “the most distinctive AVA in the United States.” I look forward to hearing what it has to say in the coming years.


[1] American Viticultural Area

[2] The Hospice du Beaune is arguably the most important annual wine auction in France.

[3] And other Rhone grapes. Alban’s selections of Syrah, Grenache, and others collected during his travels in France remain highly sought after.

[4] Anyone interested in a more detailed history of these grapes should find Patrick Comiskey’s American Rhone

[5] Waterlogged, virused vines struggled to ripen and the wine finished below 12% abv. 

[6] The Estrella River selection remains one of the most planted Syrah clones in California.

[7] Not everyone in the Rhone Ranger camp was pleased with the French comparison. Sean Thackrey, who appears in Merriam Webster under “iconoclast”, famously complained that copying the French would stifle creativity and their Californian identity, to which Randall Grahm replied, “Sort of a coat-tails du Rhone?” See Randall’s blog for more wine geek witticism.

[8] Though many of the early home winemakers planted Cinsault (called Black Prince), one of the varieties allowed in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. There is still a planting of Cinsault in the Rocks District from 1930!!!

[9]When asked when he likes to pick, Gerard Chave answered, “Ideally before it snows.”

[10]I like to think of this wine synchronicity as an ouro-pour-os, or a wine glass drinking itself.

[11] Unbuffered potassium is a possible culprit.

Time Posted: Apr 24, 2020 at 8:00 AM
Allan Crum
 
April 17, 2020 | Allan Crum

Riesling Rocks!

“Sometimes I think that every mouthful of wine that is not Riesling is wasted.”  - Joseph Jamek, to his importer.

My favorite piece of wine-based media is an old grainy video from the mid 90s.1 In it, Jancis Robinson MW sits at a restaurant, drinking a bottle of Riesling. She says that, for her, Riesling produces the greatest white wines in the world. The camera pans out, and you see that she is drinking a bottle of JJ Prum Wehlener Sonnenhur Auslese from 1949. It pans out again, and a helicopter shot reveals that Jancis is drinking her nearly 50 year old bottle of wine on the top of a castle overlooking the Mosel river. A dramatic guitar solo plays, I swoon, and the Mosel flows on.

My favorite quote about Riesling also comes from Jancis. She says, in a wonderfully snide attempt to explain this noble grape’s doldrums, that, “The problem with Riesling is that, unlike Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, it has a very powerful flavor.” Great Riesling has heft and lift in equal measure, a lithe Fantasia hippopotamus dancing ballet on your tongue. Between Paul Grieco’s Summer of Riesling and Jancis Robinson’s tireless evangelism, you probably don’t need another wine geek haranguing you to drink more Riesling. Instead, let’s take a tour of some of Riesling’s haunts. It’s nice to get out of the house.


[1]Jancis Robinson's Wine Course (1995) Episode 6: Riesling https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtj9haNM9XY

 

German Vineyards                                                               "Burgundian" Riesling at Von Winning

Germany

Germany is Riesling’s home, and it produces many of the variety’s best wines. German Rieslings have been classified using the pradikat system since the 1970’s, which organizes wines based on the ripeness of the grapes during harvest.2 Germany, especially the Mosel, is at the northern edge of Riesling’s ability to ripen fully, so it is no surprise that its finest vineyards are steep, southern facing slopes that bask in the sun. Before the advent of temperature control and selected yeasts, fermentations would continue until they stopped naturally, leaving a modicum of sweetness balanced by the region’s brilliant acidity. These halbtrocken (or feinherb) wines were the style that popularized German wines throughout the world in the 18th and 19th century, though they have been supplanted in recent history by the late-harvest wines of the pradikat system, and more recently by the powerful, dry Grosse Gewachs.3

Riesling is an incredible conveyor of terroir, so its flavors and aromas vary greatly depending on the vineyard or region it is grown in. Earlier harvested Kabinett or Feinherb wines are often floral, with swaths of honeysuckle and lemon curd. Riper regions like the Pfalz provide more tropical fruits like pineapple, and the botrytized late harvest wines often smell of candied ginger or saffron.


[2] Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, in ascending order of ripeness

[3] “Great growths”

  

Alsatian Vineyards                                                      Samuel Tottoli in the Kuentz-Bas vineyards

Alsace

Just across the French border lies Alsace. While it currently resides within France, Alsace has changed hands several times in the last century or so, swapping back and forth between the Germans and French. As such, Alsace grows Germanic varieties like Riesling and Gewurztraminer, while also growing classically French varieties like Pinot Blanc. The incredibly diverse vineyards of Alsace4 have been organized into a series of crus much like Burgundy, though the Grand Cru wines must be made from either Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, or Muscat.5

Alsace is warmer than most of Germany, and their Rieslings are sunny. They carry phenolic heft and dry extract that pairs well with the rich, often pork-based dishes of the region. Alsatian Riesling will have notes of ripe, golden citrus paired with a deep, mouthwatering minerality and a spicy finish.


[4] It has been said that Alsace has as much geologic diversity as the rest of France combined.

[5] With one exception: Sylvaner may be labeled Grand Cru if it comes from the Zotzenberg vineyard.

Clare Valley Vineyards

Clare Valley

Until recently, Australia was the second largest producer of Riesling in the world after Germany. The grape has been down under since the mid 1800s, and it quickly found a welcoming home in the Clare Valley of South Australia. The Clare Valley is north of the warm Barossa Valley of Shiraz fame, and it has a more temperate climate. Cold nights allow Riesling to maintain its signature acidity during long hang times, and marginal slate soils (much like the Mosel) elicit stone rampart structure in wines built for the long haul.

Clare Valley Rieslings are as breezy and refreshing as a fresh squeezed lime. They often exhibit aromas of granny smith apple and fresh cut flowers6 with a citrus zest finish. These wines also have a fantastic reputation for aging, packing some honeyed density onto their stony frame as the years flash by.


[6] And fresh tennis balls, if Ian Cauble MS of SOMM fame is to be believed.

And Beyond

These are just a few of the wine regions that produce fantastic Riesling. Washington has a long history with the grape, and there are more than 6,000 acres planted here today. Riesling’s cold hardiness (and general deliciousness) has made it the grape of choice for emerging and marginal regions, whether in Michigan, Vermont, or Poland. For myself, I know that as the days get longer and the sun hangs around, I’m going to be reaching for a bottle of Riesling. The saying goes that we talk dry but drink sweet. I think that now especially is the time to talk sweetly...and drink it dry.

 

 

 

 

Time Posted: Apr 17, 2020 at 10:28 AM
Allan Crum
 
April 15, 2020 | Allan Crum

Pink Bubbles

Pink Bubbles – Always a Party

 

Everyone loves pink bubbles. Full stop. It could be the illustrious Rosé Champagne Billecart-Salmon, or it might be sparkling rosé from an aluminum can - you know everyone’s having a good time when the pink bubbles come out. We could all use a little sparkle right now, so here are three of our favorite sparkling rosés from Italy and France.

A view of Plouzeau’s estate

The Marc Plouzeau Perles Fines is one of our most popular wines in the shop. We always have one cold, at least when we can keep it in stock. This Cabernet Franc from the Loire simply does everything right. It’s crisp and clean without being angular, smelling like a cherry orchard and tasting of tangerine slices on a grassy picnic. The Plouzeau’s farm their 75 acres organically, including the replanted vineyards of Chateau Bonnelerie, and their attention to detail shows in this bottle.

Chateau Bonnelerie Marc Plouzeau Perles Fines Sparkling Brut Rosé

●      Touraine, France

●      Organic Vineyard with biodynamic principles

●      “The bouquet shows lovely Cabernet Franc character in its mix of white cherries, a touch of tangerine, currant leaf, lovely soil tones and a bit of smokiness in the upper register.”

●      Translates to “tiny pearls”

●      Chateau Bonnelerie replanted its vineyards in 1976

●      100% Cabernet Franc

●      30 ha

●      Traditional method sparkler


A view from Vielle Ferme

Further south, the Perrins of Chateau de Beaucastel also know a thing or two about growing tasty grapes. They source the grapes for La Vielle Ferme (“the old farm”) from limestone soils in Ventoux and Luberon. Both of these appellations on the border of the southern Rhone and Provence are known for their high quality/price ratio. Grenache, Cinsault, and Pinot Noir are direct pressed (rather than bled off via the saignee method) to stainless steel, producing an airy, citrusy sparkler that won’t weigh you down.

La Vielle Ferme Sparkling Rosé

●      VdF, France

●      Perrin family, 1970 started importing

●      Grenache, Cinsault, some Pinot, direct press

●      Limestone

●      Stainless steel

●      A nose of fresh red fruit (raspberry, wild strawberry) gives way to a palate of citrus(pomelo) and white flowers. [A field with a mountain in the background Description automatically generated]


A view from Tenuta Maccan

Rounding out the parade of pink is the Le Monde Pinot Nero. First of all, Pinot Nero is a way cooler name than Pinot Noir (even if the Nero emperor sucked). This Friulian wine continues the theme by punching way above its weight. It is harvested early to preserve freshness, fermented dry, then refermented in tank using the Charmat method. It stays on the lees for 60 days, picking up a little extra breadth via autolysis, before it is bottled at spumante pressure with less sugar than most brut Champagne. It has round raspberry fruit and a soft, ticklish texture that demands sunshine and a yard.

Le Monde Pinot Nero Rosé Sparkling, Tenuta Maccan

●      Friuli Grave, Italy

●      100% Pinot Nero

●      Estate owned by Tenuta Maccan

●      Charmat method, 60 days on lees

●      Vine age 39 years

●      8 gram residual sugar/liter

●      Gravel, clay, and calcareous soils

●      Founded in 1970

 

 

Time Posted: Apr 15, 2020 at 4:52 PM
Allan Crum
 
April 13, 2020 | Allan Crum

Limestone

Talking dirty about limestone…

Vineyard planted on limestone, Celler de Capcanes

Limestone, Celler de Capcanes

Limestone, Calera Winery

Winemakers can be a dirty lot. Sticky hands, purple feet, muddy vineyard trucks, the whole romantic shebang. A winemaker once told me a story of falling fully clothed into a one-ton fermenter, hosing himself off, driving home to change clothes, then coming back to the winery to finish punchdowns. Winemakers also love to talk dirt. To make wine is to be an amateur geologist, to know your water holding capacity, your soil temperature, your proportion of silt to sand or clay. The residents of the Mosel are very proud of their slate, 1 and the folks in Sonoma love Goldridge loam, but there’s one kind of dirt that fascinates the winemaking world above all others: limestone.

Limestone is made of dead dinosaurs. Ok, not really dinosaurs, 2 but that got your attention better than, “limestone is made of ancient dead pond scum,” even if that’s much closer to the truth. Limestone forms when tiny little creatures (corals, mollusks, etc) living in warm, shallow seas precipitate calcium out of seawater. Often, they use this calcium to build themselves a home (also known as a shell). When this calcium becomes a rock, it is called limestone. 3 The clay-rich limestone marls of Chablis and Sancerre, the Kimmeridgian soils, have visible prehistoric oyster shells in them. Limestone is also found in the Aube, in Piedmont, Alsace, Montsant, Saint-Emilion, and sections of California’s Central Coast. 4 There are many technical ways that limestone affects a vineyard, 5 several of which are still debated today, 1000 years after monks began classifying Burgundy’s many limestone-rich crus.

While the superiority of limestone terroir is far from a settled subject, it is indisputable that winemakers continue to seek it out. The draw of limestone has led successive generations of Californian winemakers to strike out for previously unexplored regions. In the late 1970’s, after several internships in Burgundy, 6 Josh Jensen spent years searching California for limestone soils. He found his slice of golden pond scum on Mt. Harlan, 7 where he would plant his estate vineyards and establish Calera winery. A decade later, the Perrin family of Chateau Beaucastel in Châteauneuf du Pape partnered with the Haas family to found Tablas Creek on a chalky series of hills in Paso Robles. 8 A decade after that, the Stolpmans would establish Stolpman Vineyard on a different piece of calcareous rangeland, this time in Ballard Canyon.

New World winemakers chase limestone because so many of the great vineyards in Europe are planted on limestone soils. What would the wines of the Cote d’Or be without limestone? 9 The cooperative Celler de Capcanes in Montsant has tried to quantify the differences between soil types by vinifying Grenache grown on four very different soils (slate, sand, clay, and limestone) in exactly the same way, then bottling each example separately in their Terroir Workshop line. They claim that their limestone bottling is fresher and more floral than their other wines. 10 Grab a bottle with our new Spanish bundle and see if you can taste the difference.


[1] Be it red or blue.

[2] Though the Jurassic period was named after the limestones of the Jura, where it was first identified.

[3] I am also a rank amateur geologist, so if this is offensively simplified, I apologize.

[4] There is even a deep calcareous layer in Walla Walla silt loam.

[5] Calcium availability, water retention, and grape ph, just to name three.

[6] Romanee-Conti and Dujac. Not a bad resume for pinot noir.

[7] Right next door to the appropriately named Lime Kiln Valley AVA, home of old vine Mourvedre from 1922.

[8] Calera and Tablas Creek have something else in common - they both have clones or vineyard selections named after them. Tablas Creek, unhappy with the available budwood at the time, imported selections of all 13 Chateauneuf varieties. The Calera “clone” of Pinot Noir was either smuggled into the country from the vineyards of DRC or selected by Jensen from heritage cuttings at Chalone.

[9] Or clay, for that matter.

[10] Which mirrors the results of a Decanter tasting of Languedoc wines grown on limestone vs schist.

Time Posted: Apr 13, 2020 at 9:42 AM
Allan Crum
 
April 6, 2020 | Allan Crum

Mencía

On zombie vines, wine wizards, and fresh ground pepper…

 

Mencía in Ribeira Sacra, from Jose Pastor Selections  

 

Descendientes de J. Palacios, from Rare Wine Co

 

Descendientes de J. Palacios, from Rare Wine Co

 

Raul Perez, from Skurnik

 

Mencía’s story will sound familiar to anyone who has navigated the wine industry’s constant, churning search for “The Next Big Thing!!!” 1 Old vines in a forgotten region: formerly overcropped, but returned to balance through the reticence of many decades, rediscovered and transformed by (often young) trained vintners searching for value outside of more established 2 regions. In the last 20 or so years, Mencía has been brought back to life by these wine wizards, some of whom3 famously sport preposterously mage-like facial hair. What is old is always new again, and what is considered unknown is still very familiar.

Mencía grows throughout northern Portugal4 and northwestern Spain. This region (the part of it that is in Spain at least) is sometimes known as Green Spain. It’s not the brutal (though still beautiful) Martian landscape of Priorat, nor the continental plains of Rioja. It is oceanic and verdant (In a word - wet). Red grapes grown in cool, wet climates at the margins of their ability to ripen, like Cabernet Franc from the Loire and Syrah from the far Northern Rhone, often exhibit more savory spice than those grown in more comfortable conditions. Fans of these reds will find their first glass of Bierzo or Ribeira Sacra5 hauntingly familiar, because Mencía has more spice than Paul Atreides.6 In fact, the aroma and taste of Mencía is often compared to a hypothetical cross between Cabernet Franc and Syrah, with a bit of Pinot Noir thrown in for good measure. It combines the fresh ground black pepper of cool climate Syrah with the autumnal cassia and herby bark spice of ripe Loire Franc. There are flowers too, and summer raspberries, but it’s that spice that lights me up every time.

Mencía first came to the greater wine world’s attention in the late 1990’s, when Priorat savant Alvaro Palacios and his nephew Ricardo established Descendientes de J. Palacio in western Bierzo. Alvaro had already helped to resurrect another Spanish region, Priorat, in the previous decade, and he saw many of the same building blocks in Bierzo. Their Petalos bottling, 95% Mencía, remains one of our favorite budget friendly reds from anywhere in the world, and their smaller production wines such as Corullon showcase Mencía’s impressive ability to age.7

If the Palacios family brought the world’s spotlight to the wines of Green Spain, then Raul Perez brought the mystery. Did he really age his Albariño at the bottom of the ocean? Did he really macerate his reds for months on end in his cave bear cellars?8 And, most importantly, what was he hiding in his Gandalf meets Dumbledore by way of Rasputin beard!?!9 If his Mencía is any indication, my guess is a pepper mill.


[1] See also - Etna, Tenerife, Mendocino County, Contra Costa, Chilean Pais, Muscadet, Mondeuse from the Savoie, Priorat, Beaujolais, the Rousillon, Sierra de Gredos Garnacha, etcx1000

[2] expensive

[3] Well, one in particular, but more on him later.

[4] Where it is known as Jaen

[5] There are also excellent versions being made in the new world, particularly in the Columbia Gorge by shop favorite Analemma.

[6] I’ll save my sandworm jokes for the next time we feature Chateau Rayas.

[7] I’ve had 10 year old examples that still needed hours in the decanter to fully open.

[8] With no sulphur additions to boot

[9] His nickname in Spain is “mago de los vinos”, or wine magician

Time Posted: Apr 6, 2020 at 9:39 AM

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