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.
Spring is coming. Winter doldrums are being beaten back into dark cupboards, attics, and basements to hibernate until next year, and vineyards around the northern hemisphere are waking up. Dry January is a distant but surprisingly clear memory, and we are all, hopefully, drinking wine again.
Now, I love a nice bottle of Champagne to celebrate a promotion or birthday, and I enjoy savoring a bottle of Barolo that’s older than I am. Unfortunately, I’m typically working with a Prosecco or Langhe Nebbiolo budget. Lucky for me, the shop always has a ton of fantastic budget options. So, join me in raising a glass to the Tuesday night wines, the workhorse wines, the “little wines”, the three-day weekend Friday afternoon wines, the pizza and burger wines. These are the wines that got us hooked on vino in the first place.
FUSO is one of our favorite recent discoveries in the land of budget bottles. They are a company that sources wine from a wide variety of excellent growers and winemakers throughout Italy, from north in Piedmont all the way south to the island of Sicily. While they lack a regional focus, all of their wines share a consistent approach to viticulture and winemaking. Their requirements, from their website:
These wines are light, quaffable, chillable, sustainably grown, and the price is just right. The whole range would be awesome with a charcuterie plate featuring dry-cured salumi, castelvetrano olives, and boquerones, or any number of fancy pasta dishes. Their approachability and natural acidity also make them fantastic for tacos, cheeseburgers, frozen pizza, hamburger helper, tater tots, Thai takeout, tuna casserole, or any number of easy-button Tuesday dinners. Because even Tuesday night deserves a well-made bottle of wine, don’t you think?
Whole cluster fermentation is in, destemmers are out (good riddance, as anyone who has cleaned one will agree), and Henri Jayer is rolling in his grave. We’ve discussed the fickle nature of the wine industry on this blog before. There is always a fresh flavor of funky newness coming over the horizon, or an as yet undiscovered wine region (the enological North Sentinel Island) to be both championed and gate-kept by Magellanic sommeliers. Everyone is drinking rosé again, Cru Beaujolais and the Jura have celebrated their time in the sun, and regenerative viticulture is just now entering the cool-wine zeitgeist.
Whole cluster, though, has managed to pervade both the edgy corners of wine nerd-dom and the pillared halls of wine orthodoxy. There are even large national brands advertising whole cluster fermentation on their labels! Unfortunately, the term is not very well understood, and winemakers have confused the issue further by using several different names for the same process (whole cluster/whole bunch/partially destemmed/etc). We want the truth, the whole cluster truth, and nothing but the truth!
What do you mean by whole cluster?
In a typical red wine fermentation, grape clusters are dropped into a destemmer, which removes the stems and spits out clean purple grapes that look like blueberries. Skip this step, and you are left with full clusters of grapes still attached to the stem. These are whole clusters.
Great, we’ve got whole clusters. Now...uh… how do we make them into wine?
Oftentimes these clusters will be crushed and piled into a fermentation vessel. This crushing can be done mechanically, or through the time-honored tradition of foot-stomping (“pigeage”). This releases juice, submerging the solids, preventing microbial spoilage (also known as vinegar).
That sounds easy! Why would anyone ever use a destemmer?
Well, some varieties are not as well suited to whole cluster fermentation as others. Pinot noir, Grenache, Syrah, Mencía, and Gamay are generally regarded as good fits for whole cluster fermentation, but pyrazine-heavy reds like Cabernet and Merlot can become green and vegetal. Stemmy fermentations also require careful tannin management to prevent hard, unyielding wines. Finally, the potassium in stems (as well as any incidental carbonic maceration) causes the pH of the finished wine to rise, which can lead to instability.
Hey, you tried to sneak in a word there! Think I wouldn’t notice?!? What’s carbonic maceration?
Yeesh. Ok. Carbonic maceration is an intracellular fermentation that takes place in an anaerobic environment, usually a CO2-filled tank. Fruity esters, reminiscent of strawberry and raspberry, are produced, and the malic acid of the grapes is degraded, raising the pH. Uncrushed whole clusters are very conducive to carbonic maceration, and almost all of the classic producers of Cru Beaujolais use whole clusters and at least semi-carbonic maceration. This leads to the fruity aromas and silky textures that the region is known for.
Welp, I’m sorry I asked. Ok, I think I’m getting it. If you’re lazy and you don’t want to use the destemmer, you can use whole grape bunches in your wines. That’s whole cluster.
Well, mostly. Remember, a winemaker doesn’t have to leave his entire harvest as whole bunches. Many winemakers will choose to either destem part of a crop or fill a fermenter with alternating lasagna layers of destemmed grapes and whole clusters or destem the whole crop and then add back in some of the de-graped stalks. Domaines in Burgundy will often vary the amount of whole clusters from vintage to vintage, with a poor or rainy vintage usually getting less while a warm solar vintage gets more. It’s just another wrench in the winemaker’s toolbox.
So, whole cluster usually means not de-stemming grapes, except when it doesn’t. Got it. Very clear cut. Thanks for all your help. What do these Schrodinger wines taste like? Both wine and not wine at the same time, until you drink them?
*Oblivious to sarcasm* You’re very welcome. They taste delicious! Yes, sometimes they can be a little...ahem…stalky, but in the hands of a sensitive winemaker, stems can add lift, spice, and resinous snap. The best way to understand the impact of stems is to try two different wines, one whole cluster and one destemmed, from the same producer or region. Maybe try a rustic, spicy, whole cluster Cornas next to a suave, fudgy, destemmed Hermitage. Ask your local wine purveyor to help you pick out a wine with whole clusters and see what all the cool wine kids are excited about.
Let’s see, what do we have here? *digs through cases of newly arrived wine* Ah, yeah, pretty standard stuff: a grape no one has heard of, grown on the side of a volcano off the coast of Africa, a zero-sulfur blend from the suburbs of Barcelona, a Rioja that tastes like it came from the Loire, a natural pet-nat from Mexico’s Marcel Lapierre, and a Chilean Pinot Noir fermented in a cowhide. Just another day at The Thief.
What do all of these wines have in common? They’re all imported by José Pastor Selections, a relatively new discovery that has been shaking the heck out of the Spanish speaking wine world’s Etch-A-Sketch. From fresh updates to classic regions like Rioja or Ribera del Duero, to undiscovered treasures in the Canary Islands and Mexico, Pastor’s wines share a commonality of sustainable viticulture, low-input winemaking, and vivaciousness, coupled with an uncommon (in the natural wine world) rigor of cleanliness, clarity, and typicity. The wines from four-way collaboration Envínate have received a fair bit of press already (and remain some of our favorites in the portfolio), but there are plenty of other fascinating producers. Let’s meet a few of our favorite new faces...
José Pastor is possibly best known for contributing to the popularity of wines from the Canary Islands. Tenerife, the largest and most populous island, lies 200 miles off the coast of Morocco. Here, Dolores Cabrera organically shepherds centenarian Listán Negro (a variety believed to grow nowhere else) vines trained in the local cordon trenzado braids. Her La Araucaria Tinto cuvee is dark, spicy, and smoky, a common thread for volcanic wines. It is also, at $24, one of the shop’s best values.
After stages in some of the most illustrious cellars in Rioja (La Rioja Alta and CVNE), Juan Peñagaricano Akutain began planting his own vineyards. He hoped to recreate the classic wines of the region with exacting micro-cuvees, rather than the domineering omnipresence of the larger bodegas. If his 2018 Consecha is any indication, he might be outstripping the larger houses. A crunchy, fragrant, funky joven (young) wine, this is a bistro buster that deserves a hot grill.
These might be the first wines from Mexico that the shop has carried! Bichi has only been around since 2014, but they are standing on the shoulders of hundreds of years of local wine production. The winery began as a collaboration between the Tellez family and Burgundian Louis-Antoine Luyt, who is best known for his work with the Mission grape in Chile. Bichi now farms 25 biodynamic acres of vineyards around Tecate, east of Tijuana, and collaborates with local growers on other organic vineyards, striving to produce “vinos sin maquillaje”, or wines without makeup. For the Listán cuvee, 100-year-old Listán Prieto (also known as Mission or País) vines produce tiny yields of concentrated grapes that are then fermented in locally made concrete tinajas. These are culty, hard to find natural wines, and they are going to go quickly.
Carolina Alvarado and Arturo Herrera built their adobe winery by hand, and 15 years later they still do not have electricity. Instead, they rely on traditional enological techniques, including incorporating cowhides in the fermentation of their red wines. This is a cooler part of Chile just north of the Casablanca Valley, where Sauvignon blanc and Pinot Noir reign supreme. Their La Zaranda Sauvignon blanc, named after the local manual destemmer, is macerated for a couple of days before fermenting and aging 17 months in concrete. Bottled without SO2, this is a salty lime and candied jalapeno zinger that has me dreaming of a hot porch and bottomless fish tacos.
South Africa is in the midst of a wine renaissance. Gone are the days of tarry Pinotage and insipid, over-cropped Chenin Blanc. The new South Africa has tension, verve, and style to spare as young producers chip fresh regional identities from unforgiving sandstone, granite, and shale. Ent-like old vines are finding contemporary homes, while acres of young vines are planted in wine regions that hardly existed 15 years ago. The shop just received a baboon-load of very exciting South African wines, so let’s take a tour of the wheres-its and wines of the Western Cape.
Just a few miles east of Capetown, Stellenbosch is the most planted wine region in South Africa, with almost 20% of the country’s vineyards. The weather is hot and dry, allowing local vintners to ripen a wide range of varieties with low disease pressure. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted variety, followed by the aforementioned, much-maligned Pinotage. The blistering heat is moderated by proximity to the ocean, and some vineyard owners are expanding their plantings of white varieties close to the ocean. Mick and Jeanine Craven source their skin contact Pinot Gris from an eastern facing site in Stellenbosch, fermenting it like a red wine in open bins with pump-overs and punch-downs. Pale red in the glass, with hints of cherry and watermelon, this will upend your preconceptions about both South Africa and Pinot Gris.
The Swartland, northwest of Stellenbosch on the western edge of the Cape, was traditionally a wheat-growing country rather than a source for fine wines. The vineyards of the region were rustic and overcropped, with many of the grapes going to co-ops or fortified wine production. Eben Sadie, of Sadie Family Wines, was one of the first winemakers to see the region’s potential, moving there in 1997, and now the Swartland is one of the most important wine regions in South Africa. Sadie’s spicy Rhone reds and complex, old vine whites (check out the Palladius, a blend of almost a dozen different varieties) have become benchmarks for the Swartland, as well as for South Africa as a whole. Old bush vine Chenin blanc is also one of the region’s signatures. Check out the Storm Point Chenin Blanc for a firm, lemony expression, or try the A.A. Badenhorst Secateurs for a richer straw and lanolin bottling that recalls Vouvray.
As South Africa’s warmer regions began to receive acclaim, producers have pushed towards the coast, seeking more marginal maritime climates that extend the growing season and allowing them to focus on cooler climate varieties like Pinot noir and Chardonnay. Hamilton Russel’s founders were among the first to plant the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (which means heaven and earth) back in the mid-’70s. Today many other producers have followed them to the southern end of the Cape. Pop a bottle of Lelie van Saron Syrah from Natasha Williams for an iron-flecked, darkly fruited spice bomb.
Just north of the Hemel-en-Aarde (to be fair, almost everything is north of there) is the new, hard to pronounce region of Songdagskloof. The soils here have more clay, which slows ripening further. The region has become known for its lean, aromatic Sauvignon Blanc. Trizanne Barnard ferments half of her Songdagskloof Sauvignon blanc on the skins, creating texture and pithiness, while she whole cluster presses the other half for a more traditional white expression. The result has all the citrus lift and phenolic bite of a half-peeled white grapefruit.
Johan “Stompie” Meyer battles elevation, baboon raids, and unforgiving shale soils to craft crunchy, whole cluster, low sulfur Pinot noirs in one of South Africa’s most exciting new regions. His new plantings are cooler and higher than almost any other vineyards in the country, and a snappy acidity and arcing energy pervade his cuvees. His Palmiet is red-fruited and chewy, with black cherry skin and anise seed, while his experimental No SO2 and Carbonic cuvees push the limits of zero-gravity raspberry weightlessness. Elsewhere in the Cape South Coast, Thorne and Daughters Copper Pot Pinot Noir offers one of the finest values we carry, with wild strawberry, black loam, whole bunch sap, and real Pinot typicity for only $26.
Finally, the Bot River is known for minerally white wines that continue to flip the traditional narrative of heavy, ponderous South African wines. The local scrubland known as ‘fynbos’ provides a resinous thyme and pine herbaceousness, not unlike the garrigue of southern France. The Anysbos Disdit White, a blend of 60% Chenin blanc with Roussane and Marsanne, makes the Rhone comparison explicit, with mouthwatering lemon curd, marzipan, orange zest, raw almond, dry honey, and fresh sage. Can’t wait to try some of their goat cheese!
We have been very impressed by the diversity and ingenuity of South Africa’s winemakers. Much like recent revolutions in well-established new world wine regions like Australia and California, The South Africans are willing to stick to orthodoxy and a safe bet. Let’s raise a glass to the whole cluster stompers, the skin contact-ers, and the terroir pioneers. Cheers!
Not-so-hot take alert - Thanksgiving is all about the sides! Every single one of us has a relative who would commit avian war crimes every holiday season, conducting thermonuclear weapons testing on white meat turkey until it shattered in your mouth. These well-intentioned relatives would sacrifice frivolous, decadent concepts like “flavor” and “texture” in favor of a desiccated Norman Rockwell shell that deflated as soon as Uncle Rob got out the electric carving knife. You and your cousins would duel with salad tongs to see who got the only edible bites of dark meat, while the rest of the family choked down slivers of breast meat. The horror…
Luckily, there were side dishes. Casseroles, mashes, stuffing, and dressing (the difference escapes me, but I haven’t brought it up since Aunt Jacky and Uncle Kevin’s tense ceasefire of ‘97), roasted veggies, and gggggrrrraaaaavvvvvvyyyyyy! Nectar of the gods, culinary panacea, restorer of succulence, keeper of the peace, and defender of the realm of Thanksgiving with the family.
There is only one hitch in a wine lover’s buffet of Thanksgiving side beneficence - pairing wine with turkey is a snap (just follow the general rules for roast chicken), but what about the sides? What, besides marshmallows, goes with sweet potatoes? “(“Drowsy” uncle voice) What even is a brussel sprout, really?” Fear not, Thanksgiving drinker, The Thief is here to help! These are some of our favorite side dish pairings with wines that are also all perfect for that roasted bird centerpiece.
Anne-Sophie Dubois Fleurie Les Cocottes 2019
Anne-Sophie Dubois is one of our favorite producers in Beaujolais. Her bright, floral Fleurie, all clean lines and pillowy carbonic texture, with oodles of raspberry and strawberry, is perfect for the ubiquitous side of mashed sweet potatoes or roasted squash. Blend up some roasted squash with coconut milk and red curry paste for a delicious, spicy curried soup that makes a great starter.
Francois Chidaine Touraine Gamay 2019
Chidaine, one of the most inspiring farmers in all of France, produces biodynamic Chenin blanc, Sauvignon blanc, and this Gamay from his no-till, carbon-sequestering vineyards in the Loire. This Gamay is spicier and denser than Dubois’s, with darker fruit and a touch of leafiness that reminds me of a Cabernet Franc from the region. Sausage and Gamay is a classic pairing, so pour this when the sausage and sage stuffing makes it to your plate.
Domaine Sebastien David Hurluberlu Cabernet Franc 2019
Sebastien David’s funky, Coke bottle Cabernet Franc is perfect for anyone who enjoys stuffing version 2.0 - cornbread stuffing. The red and green capsicum notes of Loire Cabernet Franc pair beautifully with the southwest flavors of cornbread stuffing with roasted poblano chiles. The earthy spice and herbaceous tang will also elevate butter-roasted mushrooms with thyme and garlic.
Poderi Cellario E Rosso! NV
Barbera is incredibly versatile on the table, and this bright, natural wine comes in a one Liter bottle, so you’ll have plenty to go around. Barbera’s friendly fruitiness and acidity are perfect for difficult pairings like bitter vegetables. I like to brighten the umami-laden Thanksgiving table with a bright, punchy, raw Tuscan kale salad. Just dress thinly chiffonade-ed kale with lemon juice and olive oil, leave it to marinate and tenderize for a few minutes, then toss with sharp pecorino or parmesan. Serve with pine nuts if you like, or just a second glass of Poderi Cellario Barbera. Extra credit - this wine is perfect if you’re one of those folks who has abandoned turkey altogether in favor of a standing rib roast.
Weninger Blaufrankisch Kirchholz Alte Reben 2015
When in doubt, follow the number one rule of wine and food pairing - if it grows together, serve it together. This biodynamic Blaufrankisch (also known as Lemberger) from far eastern Austria is perfect with bacon-roasted brussels sprouts, roasted beets tossed with cumin seeds, and other eastern European flavors. It is dark and spicy, with cracked black pepper and blackberry coulis that make me think pork or game (maybe wild boar?), if you’re avoiding turkey.
Francois Labet Bourgogne Rouge Vieilles Vignes 2016
Labet’s old vine bottling is an absolute steal, with pretty red fruit and classic Burgundian polish framed by sappy whole cluster tannins and turned earth, like someone in a fancy ball gown or tuxedo who also has calluses on their hands and dirt under their fingernails. The slight stemminess, combined with Burgundy’s affinity for mushrooms, makes this wine ideal for classic green bean casserole. I usually like to make my own mushroom gravy, but I will never sneer at mushroom soup or mix.
As mentioned, all of these wines are awesome with simple salt and pepper roasted turkey (consider spatchcocking it to help the white meat and dark meat cook at the same rate), or deep-fried turkey, or smoked turkey, or flamethrower scorched goose, or confit-ed wild grouse, or whatever fowl you are planning to serve. If you are still thirsty when pie is served, feel free to switch to one of our sticky dessert wines. Port or Banyuls are perfect for pumpkin pie, while Tokaij, sweet German Riesling, or Sauternes are great with orchard fruit desserts like apple pie or Bosc pears poached in white wine. Eat well, drink well, and please be safe this Thanksgiving season. Cheers!
We in the wine industry have a tendency to idolize reclusive winemakers, to lionize the hermit-artists who just want to be left alone with their barrels and bottles. Jacques Reynaud, the former owner of Chateau Rayas in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, was famous for hiding when journalists and importers would come calling, going so far as to crouch into a ditch to avoid an appointment with a famous wine writer. The cellars of Coche-Dury and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (makers of arguably the greatest white and red Burgundies, respectively) are notoriously difficult to visit. The most famous hill in the Rhone was literally a medieval knight’s hermitage!
Jean-Louis Dutraive, on the other hand, is no shrinking violet. His domaine in the Beaujolais Cru of Fleurie has become a crossroads for visiting wine professionals, winemakers both local and imported and a rotating cast of interns from around the world. His devotion to casse-croute is famous (specially locally made sausages), and any visit to Dutraive’s cellar is bound to include a meal, along with enough Fleurie to float you to Lyon.
Dutraive’s family has been farming the Domaine de la Grand Cour since the early ’70s. The heart of their holding is the Clos de la Grand Cour, a walled vineyard whose vines are now more than 50 years old on average. Jean-Louis took control of the domaine in 1989, slowly fortifying his holdings to the current ~25-acre expanse. All of his estate vineyards have been farmed organically for decades (though they were only certified in 2009), and he incorporates herbal teas as well as plowing with donkeys to further lessen his environmental impact.
Domaine de la Grand Cour’s winemaking is similar to the famous Gang of Four. All of the grapes are hand-picked into small bins before they are refrigerated overnight. The cold grapes are loaded into small cement cuves the following day, covered with CO2, and left to carbonically macerate for 15-30 days. As with other natural Beaujolais producers, there is no addition of sulfur before or during fermentation, and the macerations are rarely touched at all, except for analysis. Dutraive describes his winemaking as “low intervention, high surveillance”, which is similar to other natural producers like Lapierre or Foillard.
Jean-Louis’s wines are as open and friendly as his cellar. Cool carbonic maceration leads to intensely aromatic wines with delicate, filigreed tannins that drink well on release, while also aging remarkably well. Fleurie is known as a lighter, more floral Cru than the more structured wines of Morgon or Moulin-a-Vent (some even believe, wrongly, that this florality is where the village got its name. It is actually named for a Roman general, Floriacum), and Dutraive’s wines take this luminosity to a different level. His Fleuries are often among the appellation’s lightest in color, but they are also some of the most intense, with flower-shop aromas of wet rose petal, violet, and agua de jamaica, and a palate that bursts with fresh red fruits like pomegranate, sour cherry, and wild strawberry. If I had one critique, it would be that they are almost too friendly, too easy to drink. Just what you would expect from one of the wine world’s most gracious hosts.
100% Grape Juice
“Our ideal is to make wine from 100% grape juice.” - Marcel Lapierre
It’s a simple idea: glossy, fragrant wines made from old, low-yielding, organically farmed Gamay vines. Unfined, unchaptalised, unfiltered, with only a sprinkling of sulphur at bottling, if at all. Wine produced solely from grape juice should not be a controversial idea. When you learn the full range of enological powders, potions, and poultices, though, you realize that we take for granted the industrial processes and additives that bring us the majority of the world’s wines.
The systemic use of chemical herbicides and pesticides in the vineyard and additives in the winery began after World War II and accelerated during the ’70s and ’80s. This is the wine world that Marcel Lapierre entered when he took over his familial domaine in the 1970’s. The recipe for Beaujolais was simple then: push yields as high as the Appellation allowed, pick before full ripeness to avoid inclement weather, chaptalise heavily, ferment quickly using selected yeasts, and shovel as much Nouveau into the market as it would take. Lapierre worked this way for several years, growing more and more frustrated with his results. It was not until 1981, when Marcel met Jules Chauvet, that Lapierre Morgon was truly born.
Look at the back of a wine label. There will be a warning about alcohol and sulfites, and very little else. Unlike other food products, wine labels are not required to list ingredients. Chauvet, a chemist, and brilliant taster, convinced Lapierre to set aside his herbicides, yeasts, and table sugar, relying instead on the plow and the microscope. This style of winemaking is sometimes called a la ancienne, or ‘the old way”, and it was said that Lapierre rediscovered the old taste of Morgon. His neighbors took note, and soon producers like Jean Foillard, Guy Breton, and Jean Paul Thévenet (sometimes known as the Gang of Four) began to work in a similar fashion. It was decades before Cru Beaujolais would receive international recognition, but the foundation was laid in Marcel Lapierre’s cellar. To this day, the domaine’s back labels still indicate whether the cuvee was sulfured (“S”) or unsulfured (the highly sought after, infrequently imported “N” bottles).
As I mentioned, it starts with intense, meticulously farmed grapes from some of Morgon’s finest climats (such as Cote du Py). Whole grape clusters are transported to the heavily-muraled winery, where they may chill overnight in a refrigerated truck. They’re then loaded into large wooden fermenters for a long, unsulfured carbonic maceration. Carbonic maceration is a complicated anaerobic enzymatic process; all you really need to know is that this is what gives Cru Beaujolais its beautiful aromatics and silky texture. After 2-4 weeks, the grape clusters are raked out and pressed, producing a low alcohol (~4%) juice called “paradis”. This juice is transferred to barrel or foudre, where it completes alcoholic and secondary fermentation under constant microscopic observation.
These days, it is Marcel Lapierre’s children forking grape clusters and running the microscope. Marcel passed away during the harvest of 2010. His children continue to produce Morgons in the house style that he debuted 40 years ago, and the Gang of Four continues to inspire natural winemakers the world over. Lapierre Morgon is a melange of bright berry intensity, allspice bite, and granitic nervosity, like skipping a wet stone across a raspberry juice pond in mid-fall; a true benchmark in the world of grape juice.
“Nobody’s wines taste like Marcel Lapierre’s. He is the source of a whole new school of winemaking, turning the hands of time back to wine the way Mother Nature envisioned it. Tasting it can change the way you taste wine.”
- Kermit Lynch, American importer for Marcel Lapierre and the Gang of Four
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