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.
The staff of the Thief likes to eat nearly as much as we like to drink wine. Spicy Spanish red wines are a no-brainer when you’re grilling, but here are a few more ideas to get you through the summer.
(Click name in red to shop)
Emily - Argentine-style steak with chimichurri sauce paired with Laurel Priorat.
Karin - Chipotle marinated flank steak and grilled tomatillo salsa with Lapostolle Carmenere.
Matt (that’s Curly to you) - Peppered ribeye with Produttori del Barbaresco Montestefano 2013, or coconut grilled shrimp with Pichot Vouvray.
Devin - Honey-cider vinegar glazed pork chops with Château d’Orschwihr Riesling.
As for me (Allan), I recently wrote about a great experience with slow-grilled pork brisket and lightly chilled Beaujolais-Villages from Foillard, but I also love harissa grilled lamb with Hervé Souhaut Syrah. I’m kind of surprised no one called for steak and Champagne!
The oldest Grenache vines in the world, planted in 1848, McLaren Vale, Australia
Grenache is a warm hug in the sunshine from an old friend. It’s a joyful variety, filled with red fruit and spice draped in a soft, silky texture. Unlike Pinot Noir, another thin-skinned variety, it is precocious and generous, sometimes to a fault. In fact, one of the few criticisms of Grenache is that it often carries too heavy of a crop. Randall Grahm, Grenache innovator and enthusiast, says that it “really walks a fine line between elegance and rusticity.”
As a vine, it thrives in hot, dry, windy locales where less exuberant varieties would struggle. Grenache probably hails from the Spanish region of Aragon (also known as Strider, ranger of the North) between Madrid and Barcelona, though Sardinia also claims it as its own (known regionally as Cannonau). It swiftly spread throughout the world’s Mediterranean climates. In France, its pepper and raspberry intensity became the hallmark of southern Rhône blends like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. Grenache was also used to bolster prestigious wines from regions with more marginal climates: 19th and early 20th century negociants in Burgundy bought large quantities of Gigondas to stiffen and sweeten poor vintages of Pinot Noir (much like the relationship between the Bordelaise and the sturdy Syrahs of Hermitage).
Grenache was planted around the same time in Australia, especially in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, for fortified wine production. While the Australian government has occasionally subsidized vine-pulling, many old vineyards still endure, including the oldest commercial Grenache vineyard in the world. Taras Ochota, owner and winemaker of Ochota Barrels, started his company with a 70-year old Grenache vineyard he named Fugazi (after an 80s rock band formed by Ian MacKaye, a famous teetotaler). He discovered the vineyard during a heat spike. Younger surrounding vineyards were struggling with the heat, but the deep-rooted old vines were verdant and healthy, with small clusters of intensely flavored fruit.
Age seems to tame some of Grenache’s difficult tendencies throughout the world. Patrick Comiskey described early efforts in California as ”a large-pawed puppy that refused to settle down. While you might appreciate the exuberance, you may long for a little gravitas.” Age brings yields down, trading exuberance for efficiency (like it often does in us as well).
Grenache is one of the few varieties that everyone in the shop seems to love. As a thin skinned, low acid variety, the wines are unique in that much of their structure comes from their ripeness and alcohol. Some producers, especially old-school producers in the Rhône and the new kids on the block in Australia, use whole cluster fermentation to fortify the tannins of Grenache. Earlier picked examples often smell like fresh strawberries and white pepper, while riper examples can lean towards black cherry or currant with accents of licorice root. Regardless of the country of origin, ripeness, or vinification, a glass of Grenache should always be fun.
Sierra de Gredos, Spain
Chuy Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, Chardonnay
Puligny-Montrachet, Cote de Beaune, Chardonnay
Both of the above vineyards are planted to Chardonnay, though that is where their similarities end. Chuy Vineyard (RIP) was planted at very low density in a warm, Mediterranean climate with vigorous soils. The Puligny-Montrachet climat is planted at a very high density on meager limestone and clay soils in a cool, wet, continental climate. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir call Burgundy home, but they are perfectly happy in California, Oregon, or Patagonia. Grapes generally travel well (looking at you, Nebbiolo), and lucky for us they like to talk about where they are from. A tropical, full-bodied, lush Chardonnay probably comes from a warm climate, whereas a steely, lemony version most likely hails from a more marginal region.
Most winemakers will tell you that fine wines are made in the vineyard. They’ll also tell you, “If you want to make Chablis, you should probably move to Chablis.” Regional identity is not just about weather, soil, and aspect (what I think of as the where of a vineyard). Farming techniques, the how, can also have a huge impact on the finished wine. Just like the Cru system rigidly defines the geographical boundaries of individual Burgundian vineyards, the appellation system also sets limits on yields, styles of pruning, vineyard density, and other viticultural practices. The set-up and farming of a vineyard is the integration of people with a place. You have to answer both of the questions: the how as well as the where.
These Assyrtiko basket vines in Santorini are shaped by the black volcanic soils, the whipping winds, and the beating sun of the island. They are also literally shaped by human hands to compensate for these environmental pressures. The basket pruning protects the clusters from the wind, and the sparse planting density allows the vines to survive with very little rain. Let’s explore some of the regional farming choices that create the wines we love.
Bethel Heights Vineyard, Willamette Valley, Pinot Noir
Romanee Conti, Cote de Nuits, Pinot Noir
Density is the number of vines in a given area, usually calculated by acre or hectare. The Pinot Noir vineyards above show two different regional approaches. Bethel Heights, one of the oldest vineyards in the Willamette Valley, was planted at fairly low density, with wide vineyard rows and lots of space between the vines. Romanee Conti, like most of the vineyards in Burgundy or Bordeaux, is planted much more densely, with 4,000 vines per acre. This becomes consequential when we look at yield on a per plant basis. In order to produce 2 tons/acre (which is close to the maximum allowed yield for Grand Cru vineyards), each of the Burgundian vines will only have to produce 1 pound of Pinot noir grapes, whereas the vines in Oregon need to crank out 5 times as much fruit per vine!
Gobelet-trained vine in Châteauneuf du Pape
Vines come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny single-guyot vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux to hulking head-trained, spur pruned vines in Lodi or Mendocino, some of which have to be picked using a ladder. Each vine is touched every dormant season, usually by human hands, blending, sculpting, and farming. Oftentimes a region will have its own signature style, as in Châteauneuf du Pape’s gobelet vines (Syrah is the only variety that is allowed to be trellised there, as its sprawling growth makes it difficult to head train).
Before the advent of certified clones, vines were propagated more like loaned books. Exceptional vines would be replicated, traded, and passed around. Many vignerons still refuse to plant certified clones, preferring to propagate massale selections from distinctive vines within their own vineyards. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are both known for their diverse selections. There are hundreds of clones of each, some sanctioned, some illicit (suitcase clones). Oregon’s early wine industry was built on the backs of just two Pinot selections: Pommard and Wadenswil. California has many heritage selections, often named after famous vineyards and winemakers (Swan, Calera, Mt. Eden, etc).
For whites, it’s hard to imagine what the California Chardonnay landscape would look like without Wente clone, often called shot Wente because of its propensity for “shot” berries (millerandage). This old selection has become highly sought after because of its distinctive aromas and ability to retain acidity in California’s sun.
There are many, many other cultural and regional vineyard choices that impact the way the vines grow and how a finished wine tastes, such as vineyard floor management, canopy management, or irrigation. The next time you’re drinking a bottle of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, whether it be from Burgundy, Oregon, or California, remember that you’re not just tasting the grape, you’re not just tasting the dirt – you are tasting the choices made at every step by the people involved.
There will come a point this summer when someone you care about will offer you a garbage bag full of ripe tomatoes. You will take the bag, thank them, and promptly make yourself a BLT, or an A(vocado)LT if you don’t eat meat, or a T(urkey)BLAT if you like attempting to eat sandwiches that are too tall to eat. In the following days, maybe you’ll enjoy your tomatoes plain, just sliced with a little olive oil, flaky salt, and black pepper. Perhaps there is a Caprese salad or two in your future. Somehow, you’ll whittle your way through the giant pile of lovingly-grown tomatoes, thanking your friend with every ruby slurp. How did you make it through the previous 3 seasons without a real, ripe tomato?
There will also come a point this summer when that same loved one will show up on your doorstep with an even larger “put the money in the bag” bank robbery-style duffel filled to the brim with tomatoes that are approximately 27-minutes from overripe. There will probably be a cloud of fruit flies, and your friend will have a wild, desperate look in their eyes. Today is the day - you’ll think - break out the confetti. We have reached Peak Tomato.
It happens every year. Driven mad by 6+ consecutive months without a decent tomato, amateur gardeners throughout town will plant an array of heirloom varieties, filling their yards/garden boxes/highway medians to the brim. “Look how tiny those seeds/starts are,” they’ll think, forgetting the tomato leaf jungles of the previous summer, “I should put in a few more.” The tomatoes will grow tall and heavy in the Walla Walla sun, propped and cradled by cages like deliciously swaying suspension bridges.
This year’s quarantining has led to an explosion of gardening. Everyone has been trapped at home with images of empty supermarket shelves. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but I’m predicting a Peak Tomato season the likes of which this county has not seen in decades. Luckily, many folks have also been experimenting with bread baking. Tomatoes + Homemade Bread + a few odds and ends = Panzanella! Panzanella is a Tuscan bread and tomato salad that is delicious, easy to make, and infinitely customizable. Toss in some cheese, omit the olives, trade the basil for some other leafy herb, add some arugula, etc. As long as you’ve got tomatoes, a country loaf, and good olive oil, you’re set. It’s never too early to prepare for Peak Tomato!
Pair your Panzanella with a medium-bodied, Sangiovese-based wine from Tuscany, like the ones found in our Italian six-pack. Sangiovese’s combination of red fruit flavors (especially cherry), fresh acidity, and savory balance of leather, clove, and yes, even tomato leaf, make it a fantastic pairing with homegrown tomatoes. As always, the original rule of wine pairing applies - drink what they drink in the region that the food is from.
1 loaf of homemade bread, regardless of how successful, cut into 1” cubes
15-20 basil leaves, torn or chiffonaded
Some amount of homegrown tomatoes, up to and including 1 metric garbage bag full. (or, ya know, 2 of them), cut into bite sized chunks
½ red onion or 1 large shallot, thinly sliced
½ cup olives, halved and pitted (squish them with the back of your knife or a plate)
2 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar
At least 8 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1-2 cloves garlic, grated or otherwise smooshed
- Preheat your oven to 350F.
- Place your chunked tomatoes into a colander in the sink. Season with 1-2 teaspoons kosher salt, tossing to coat. Drain for at least 30 minutes. I found this technique on Serious Eats, and it really makes the difference between a crunchy Panzanella and a squishy one.
- Toss your bread chunks with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then toast for 10 minutes on a baking sheet, or until crunchy and lightly browned. Set aside to cool.
- Cut your cucumber in half. Scoop out the seeds, then chop into bite sized chunks.
- In a bowl, whisk together your garlic, shallot, and wine vinegar. Drizzle in your remaining olive oil, whisking constantly, to form a dressing. Season with salt and pepper.
- Toss together your dressing, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, basil, and bread. Adjust seasoning accordingly.
- Open your bottle of Sangiovese. You should know what to do next.
Our local wineries have lost out on more than two months of prime tourism due to COVID-19. Tasting rooms that often serve as a winery’s first introduction to new customers have been shuttered, and the restaurants that normally fly through local wines by the glass or bottle have been limited to takeout service. Luckily, working in the wine industry has always demanded creative solutions to unforeseen problems. “How am I going to fit five tons of fruit into that 3-ton press?” “What do I do with this Zinfandel rosé from a stuck fermentation?” “How do I make this steel container smaller?” (the answer to the last one was a big hammer). Most importantly, “How do I get my wine to consumers safely and efficiently in a time of social distancing?” Here are some inventive solutions from the wineries featured in our rosé six-packs. Please support our local wine community. These are all local business owners, but they’re also our neighbors and our friends.
The Walls is offering personal private tastings from home featuring 3-4 bottle flights (at a substantial discount), tasting notes, and a virtually led tasting. They are also offering $10 flat rate shipping on 6 bottle purchases.
El Corazon’s tasting room will be open beginning June 5th. They have offered free shipping on 3+ bottle shipments to the Pacific Northwest, as well as curbside pickup and local delivery.
Aluvé is offering tastings at the winery with a scheduled appointment. They are adhering to the guidelines of Phase 2 with indoor or outdoor seating (weather permitting) for up to 4 groups of up to 5 guests. Appointments include a 45-minute tasting and zero contact checkout, with a 15-minute buffer for sanitizing before the next reservation.
Gramercy has posted a Cayuse Weekend live tasting YouTube video to their website featuring co-winemakers Greg Harrington MS and Brandon Moss. Their tasting room will reopen for tastings June 5th with appointment, and there will be slots available Tuesday-Saturday.
College Cellars is offering a 20% case discount, as well at $10 flat rate shipping on packages of 6 bottles or more. They have not reopened their tasting room yet, but they are offering delivery to the Walla Walla area. Also, Sabrina Lueck has been posting some fantastically informative wine videos to her YouTube channel, and there is also a video of her sabering the sparkling Grenache using a roofing hammer floating around the interwebs.
Robert Gomez, winemaker for Hoquetus, has hosted several blind tastings on Instagram, including head to head battles with Time & Direction winemaker Steve Wells. Hoquetus is offering $20 flat rate shipping on 6+ bottle orders.
SMAK is offering free local delivery in Walla Walla, Dayton, Waitsburg, and Milton-Freewater, as well as curbside pickup. Their tasting room will reopen on June 5th under the guidelines of Phase 2.
Itä’s new tasting room at the airport is now open to the public on Thursday-Sunday. Reservations are encouraged, but walk-ins will be accepted on a first-come basis. Folks can reserve a tasting on the website or by phone. They are offering $15 flat rate shipping on 6+ bottle purchases and free local delivery.
Prospice is rolling out two different options for scheduled tasting appointments. They will offer a 45-minute seated tasting for groups up to 5, or a 75-minute cellar tasting hosted by one of the winemakers. They are also offering curbside pickup or Walla Walla area delivery for folks who would like to purchase without a tasting. They are waiving shipping on orders of more than $400.
Grosgrain has gotten the message out with its first live-streamed interview and an assortment of options for consumers including curbside pickup, free local delivery, and $10 flat rate shipping. They are now open for scheduled appointments in their tasting room.
Lagana is offering $10 shipping on 3 bottle purchases and free shipping on 6+ bottle orders. They are giving back to the community with a 5% donation to the BMAC food bank on all 6+ bottle purchases. Their tasting room is now open for walk-ins or scheduled appointments, and they will continue to offer curbside pickups and local delivery.
The highest elevation commercial vineyard in Washington state (that I know of) sits at 2,900 feet, or about 2,000 feet higher than my Walla Walla apartment. That seems really high! The highest elevation vineyards of the world, however, rise to more than 10,000 feet.1 They perch on the sides of mountain ranges from the Alps to Himalayas, battered by wind and hail, so high that even the sun is a hazard.
Every wine region has its own definition of “high elevation”. Here in Walla Walla, any vineyard about 1,200 or 1,300 feet is pretty high, and the AVA stops at 2,000 feet. This is also true throughout Europe, where very few vineyards sit above 1,500 feet.2 In Argentina, where many vineyards have been planted above 3,000 feet, elevation is a symbol of quality, a feather in the cap for winemakers that is often printed on the wine’s label.
High elevation vineyards face many challenges. Growing seasons are often truncated, starting later and ending sooner than valley floors. As you climb, temperatures drop, especially at night, making ripening a constant struggle. Catastrophic weather events, especially frost and hail, can eliminate whole crops in a matter of minutes. Some producers in Argentina have even invested in giant, very expensive nets to repel hail.
The benefits, though, are well worth the struggle. Colder nights may slow ripening, but they also maintain acidity in the grapes, a valuable attribute in an otherwise warm region like Mendoza. Mountain soils tend to be very (sometimes excessively) well-drained, driving roots deep in their search for water and nutrients. Then there is the sun: for every 1,000ft increase in elevation, there is a 10% increase in ultraviolet intensity. This extra UV causes the grapes to grow thick skins with increased polyphenols and tannins, sort of like natural sunscreen. This also leads to more intense wines.
Laura Catena, Managing Director of Bodega Catena, knows a thing or two about high elevation vineyards. Her father pioneered extremely high elevation planting in Argentina with Adrianna Vineyard at 5,000+ feet. Her new project, Domaine Nico, takes inspiration from her father’s pioneering work with Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon and applies it to Pinot Noir. While Malbec and Cabernet are naturally thick-skinned varieties, Pinot Noir has famously thin skins. The increased UV from Domaine Nico’s 3,500-4,000+ elevation vineyards lends intensity and grip to Pinot’s traditional suave perfume. These tightly wound mountain wines impressed the heck out of us at a recent tasting, so we are currently featuring three different bottlings in the shop. Bring a bottle home, give it a long decant, and try not to get vertigo.
 11,000 feet for the aptly named “Pure Land & Super High Altitude Vineyard” in Tibet.
 Vineyards in the Valle d’Aosta and Canary Islands extend as high as 4,000-5,500 feet.
It’s starting to feel like summer. The temperature is going up, the days are getting longer, and the neighborhood streets of Walla Walla all smell like grilling. I love grilling vegetables, but this time of year screams “MEAT” to most folks.
Let’s set the scene. Our recent isolation has given us a lot of time for culinary innovation. “This marinade has 21 different ingredients, 37 steps, and takes 4 days. Perfect.” The day has been hot, into the 90s, so it is still pretty warm when you fire up your grill. You’ve got some steaks, pork chops, whole goose, or bison flanks from your local butcher shop, and you’ve lovingly brined, marinated, dry-rubbed, or sauced them for days on end, until your family members/pets have grown jealous and hungry in equal measures. You flash sear your steaks, or you use indirect heat for your pork, or you cook your bison flanks on a giant Frankenstein grill that you made out of the parts of old broken grills you had sitting in your yard because, COVID DIY. When the time comes, you pull your meat to let it rest (you’re going to let it rest, right? It’s how you show the meat that you’re not an animal, right before you devour it with your bare hands), and you look around for a beverage. A cold beer would be nice, and a frozen margarita would be just fine, but you want something that is going to slake your thirst AND complement the meal that you’ve been working on for the last week. So instead, you reach into the cooler and pull out a chilled bottle of red wine, the perfect pairing for your meaty grill-stravaganza!
What makes a red wine chillable?
Fruitiness, acidity, low tannins, and low new oak. These are wines of refreshment, wines for drinking (vin de soif) rather than pondering or aging (vin de garde). Pinot Noir, Gamay, Austrian reds like Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt, Loire Valley Cabernet Franc, Côt (the local name for Malbec), Grolleau, or Pineau d’Aunis, Frappato from Sicily, Tibouren from Provence, etc. Any light to medium-bodied red will do in a pinch, and almost anything made using carbonic maceration or other less extractive winemaking techniques is perfect.
How cold should I go?
Shoot for 50-55 degrees. Any colder than that and the wines will become muted and inexpressive. I usually do 30 minutes in the fridge or 10-15 minutes in an ice bath. If you overshoot your mark, don’t sweat it. Wine warms up fastest in your glass!
Which wines should I avoid chilling?
Anything heavy, high in alcohol or tannin, or aged with lots of new oak. Chilling makes tannic wine appear more tannic, even metallic. Cabernet Sauvignon (though there are some examples from Saumur, and even Willamette Valley, that would work), Argentinian Malbec and Nebbiolo are examples of wines that show best at a slightly higher temperature.
I slow-cooked some pork on the grill last weekend, and I served it with a lightly chilled Beaujolais-Villages. It turned out great, so I thought I’d pass along the recipe. Remember to keep calm, stay safe, chill down, and grill on.
Pork Brisket with Miso-Marinated Walla Walla Spring Onions
Combine salt and spices. Rub down pork, refrigerate for at least 3 but up to 24 hours.
Combine marinade ingredients, whisking until smooth. If the marinade seems thick, thin it out with some water and more mirin/wine. Remove the stems from your onions (these can be used in soups, salads, or as garnish) and quarter lengthwise, maintaining the basal plate by the roots so that the quarters will stay together on the grill. Combine your onions and marinade in a plastic bag or dish. Marinate for at least 3 but as many as 24 hours, occasionally recoating the onions with the marinade.
On the day:
Heat your grill or oven to 250-300 degrees using whatever mastery of fire you prefer (propane, indirect charcoal, electricity, frankenstein bison hibachi, etc). Wrap your brisket tightly in aluminum foil so that no juices can escape (you need the juices later!!!). Grill or roast your brisket at 250-300 for between 2 and 3 hours, until an internal temperature of 200-205. Remove your brisket from the grill, cut a hole in the aluminum foil, and drain out the precious juices. Mix the juices with an equal measure of store-bought sauce, whatever you prefer. This will become the mop sauce for your pork.
While your brisket is resting, grill your onions. Mine took about 10 minutes, but every grill is different. I recommend a bit of color.
When your onions have finished, crank the heat and remove your pork from its aluminum foil. When the grill is up in the 400-500 range, throw the pork back on the grill, along with a thorough basting with your mop sauce. Give it about 5 minutes on this side, saucing occasionally, before very carefully (because it is going to be very tender at this point) flipping it over and basting the heck out of the other side. When it has picked up some color and looks saucy and delicious, pull it off the grill. It is time to eat. Pop a bottle of chilled red wine, grab a hunk of tender pork brisket and some grilled miso onions, and dig in. Also, maybe a salad?
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 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 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, 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 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
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
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
“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.
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?
 Rotundone accumulation, the black pepper aroma, is directly related to temperature in the fruit zone.
Maxime and Alain Graillot, Domaine Equis
Delas Freres Vineyard in Hermitage
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.
 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).
 Just don’t call them Champagne if they’re not from Champagne. The Champenoise have been fighting that particular fight since at least 1891.
 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.
 Known in Champagne as the “chef de cave”, which is kind of how I’ve felt during social distancing.
 The tasting/blending of which is supposed to be a palate-crushing experience
 Which can be very, very messy if you don’t know what you’re doing.
 They produce more than half of all Cremants.
 South Africa also makes delicious traditional method wines under the name “cap classique”
 There’s a famous channel between them, but Champagne is darn close to Sussex
 Many people think that Lambrusco is always sweet, but that is mostly down to a few industrial producers making crappy wines
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).
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
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
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
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