“Nobody wants to miss the Van Gogh Boat.”
Potential is a compelling thing. It implies unrealized greatness. In terms of wine, whenever a vigneron/winemaker takes a stab at Pinot Noir, for example, they’re going up against the ghosts of giants. But then there are the grapes, the raw material, which have no legacy of achievement. The giants which might define their apogee still walk the Earth.
In today’s Barrique, we’ll look at three grapes which are making a name for themselves, quietly amassing a catalog of very good wine while pushing towards greatness.
Almost entirely centered around the Etna appellation in Sicily, Nerello Mascalese is already producing high-level wines with glimpses of transcendent excellence. This is an example of a varietal being perfectly matched to its terroir. One of Nerello’s most admirable qualities is its communication of the volcanic soil of its island home. This lends the tart red fruit and pitched acidity a black rock backbone which sets quality Etna Rosso a step above their Sicilian counterparts. The quality revolution in and around Etna is a relatively new phenomenon so the wines we’re currently seeing are only the tip of the iceberg. For instance, Marc de Grazia’s Terre Nere estate, which has been pioneering single vineyard Etna Rosso, only had their first vintage in 2004 and no one, including the producers themselves, know how good these wines can be with significant bottle age. In terms of collecting, quality Etna Rosso presents one of the best “low risk, high value, high reward” ratios in the world.
One of my long standing little missions has been the promotion of a grape from Galicia called Godello. Nearly extinct by the mid-seventies, Godello was saved by the efforts of Horacio Fernandez and Luis Hidalgos but it wasn’t until the mid-eighties when Fernandez’s Vina Godeval released Spain’s first single varietal Godello. It was Godeval I first tasted years ago and I was completely taken aback by what I viewed as the grape’s potential. As Spanish wine writer Gerry Dawes says, “Godello is Spain’s emerging hope as an equivalent to the great white Burgundies.” Whether you take Fernandez’s Godeval, which resembles in delivery and mineral expression a classic Chablis or the fine work Raphael Palacios is doing with his Louro label, which is closer to Puligny-Montrachet in style and substance, the sky is the limit for Godello and though, as with Nerello Mascalese, there isn’t a long track record of old Godello, everything seems to be in place for top-level wines to be able to change and evolve in very interesting ways.
In the rural northwest, on the pilgrim’s path to Santiago de Compostela, Bierzo, thanks to the Sierra de la Cabrera mountains, is that rarest of creatures; a cool climate wine region in Spain. The primary grape in Bierzo is a local; Mencia. Most is sold and consumed locally, with a long tradition of light, simple table wine. But in the last 20 years, a fire has been growing. Led by quality innovators like Raul Perez and Alvaro Palacios, Bierzo has begun to produce wines which mixes the flamboyant power of Spain with some of the grace of northern France. Whenever I’m asked to describe Mencia, I call it Spain’s Pinot Noir. Again, we see a Palacios leading the way as Alvaro Palacios, older brother to Rafael, is producing outstanding expressions from single vineyards up in the hills. There is a bright purity to these wines, especially from the cooler hillside vineyards, which is both immediately appealing and intriguingly suggestive. Not to be a broken record but the quality of Mencia from Bierzo has exploded upwards in a very short period of time. With a few more producers with Palacios’ passion, this could become a very important world wine region.
Nothing “Petit” about these Chateaux
At tomorrow’s Saturday tasting, we have a special guest. Audrey Bakx is the winemaker and label artist of Clos Monicord, a family run Bordeaux estate. It’s always a pleasure having winemakers into the shop but having Audrey here is especially cool because it brings to the fore the divide between perception and reality in today’s Bordeaux.
There can be no doubt Bordeaux has become a commodity. Go to Wine Spectator’s auction index and you can track the value of the classed growth Bordeaux like it was the Nasdaq. To many, these handful of highly regarded estates comprise the totality of Bordeaux and its environs. But the truth is there are over 8,000 producers making wine on both sides of the river. And despite the grand sounding names, usually beginning with Chateau, make no mistake these are mostly small estates run by farmers and families.
This is the world of the Petit Chateau, the Cru Bourgeois, and Bordeaux Superieur. They generally don’t get reviewed. They don’t have grand old castles or unbroken lineages dating back to the age of Napoleon. They won’t serve as your retirement fund or age for half a century.
What they WILL do is give pleasure. Lots of pleasure. These are Bordeaux made for drinking. But don’t mistake drinkable for simple. The improvements in vineyard management and winemaking techniques in Bordeaux over the last twenty years has raised all boats. While surely there are still the thin and cheap clarets of yesteryear floating around the world, the level of quality, at all price levels, has never been higher. I can’t tell you how often customers come in looking for a Bordeaux, feeling like they have to spend an arm and a leg, and when they’re able to walk out with a bottle under $35 and what’s more it’s absolutely delicious, they come back smiling.
We’re excited to host Audrey tomorrow (3:30-7:00) and we’re excited at what she represents. A whole world of Bordeaux made by quality conscious producers at prices which are accessible to everyone!
A Reaction to Eric Asimov’s Column, “What Becomes of the Lost Estate?”
If you haven’t read Eric Asimov’s latest column in the New York Times, take a chance to do so.
It talks about his experience with wine estates which no longer exist and it is an excellent and heartfelt piece of wine journalism. And it got me to thinking about how fleeting an art is wine. When a painter does their work, the painting exists and will continue to do so. Same with an author, sculptor, or composer. But for winemakers, their goal is to make art which will disappear.
I once had a winemaker say to me, “If I’m lucky, I’ll get 25 chances to make my life’s work”. 25 vintages, for the most fortunate, to put their art into the world. And then what happens? If they did it right, people will drink it! And then their life’s work is done. Mr. Asimov’s column had to do with producers gone but not yet forgotten. But, in the end, such is the fate of all wine. It is made, it shines, it is enjoyed, then all that is left are the memories.
When it comes to vintages in the world’s top wine regions, everyone’s looking for the pot of gold. A Very Good vintage just isn’t good enough. Partly, the mania for “Only the Best” can be laid at the feet of the drastic jump in prices we’ve seen for the top estates in the last two decades. A vintage which everyone wants is sold at very high prices and becomes extremely scarce thus more expensive, so on and so forth. Meanwhile, the vintages which don’t have the hype, heat, whatever you want to call it, the very good, end up sitting in warehouses, shop windows, and restaurant wine lists, until everyone from the importer to the retailer calls it a day and starts lowering prices.
And that’s where the fun starts. Suddenly, you’ve got good wines from good vintages at good prices. Maybe not great wines, maybe not a great vintage but great producers make quality wine in every vintage and there are worse things in life then being able to drink top-notch juice with 5+ years of bottle age at prices which won’t make your eye twitch.
With that in mind, I thought I’d put forth a few vintages from a few famous regions which offer, or will offer, a lot of bang for the buck.
There is a shadow effect when a great vintage comes along. The vintage right after, no matter how quality, never compares. Such was the case in Bordeaux with 2001 and such is the case with 2006. It is a year where there are plenty of gems to be found, now with just the right amount of bottle age to shed their muscular tannins, but the prices were driven up by the splendor of 2005 and just HAD to come back down to Earth eventually. If you like acidity, if you don’t want your Bordeaux too heavy or extracted, if you enjoy bright-tart red fruit, then I would truly tell you to check out 2006. There are an absolute TON of 2006 Bordeaux floating around the world and I’m not just talking about lesser estates. There are still First Growths on down ripe for the picking!
See Also: 2001 & 2008
This is a Primo example of the perfect getting in the way of the good. 2006 wasn’t a great Burgundy vintage. It was merely good. If we were to rank the vintages of the aughts, 2006 would hit smack dab in the center. It is a lighter, prettier vintage where the wines are already starting to show their true character. In other words, it’s a vintage for the medium-term, a vintage for the Burgundy drinker, rather than the auction house.
I’ll let Clive Coates explain how these things happen:
“At the outset no one was very enthusiastic about the 2006 reds. They appeared a little inconsequential. But they seemed to improve after the malos had completed and after the Autumn 2007 rackings. Once they had settled down after bottling it was clear that this was a vintage with no lack of merit.”
See Also: 2007, 2008
The other trick of less-than-exceptional vintages is top producers de-classifying their best fruit to fill out their entry level blends. In full disclosure, this tends to happen in middling to poor vintages, rather than the “merely good” we’ve been discussing thus far, but there can be some delicious wines (and values) to be had, if you know where to look.
For instance, 2011 was a tough year for Willamette Valley (that’s probably putting it lightly) but as a result many of the best producers who usually make a wide range of single vineyard Pinot Noir took their prime fruit and put it in their high production entry level. Take for example the Siduri Willamette Pinot Noir from 2011. They didn’t make any single vineyards. They put it all in the entry level Pinot and that hits our shelves at $24.99!
Or 2009 in Barolo, where Giacomo Conterno didn’t make a single bottle of his top cuvee, Monfortino, which usually retails around $500. Instead, he put all those grapes into his entry level wine, Cascina Francia, which hits the shelf at $150.00. While it’s hard to say with a straight face a hundred and fifty dollar bottle of wine is a “value”, compared to five-hundred it looks pretty good!
At the end of the day, I just want people to pay attention to the “merely good” vintages. In the mad scramble to snatch up the homeruns, the doubles and triples sometimes get lost. Whether we’re talking about the 2001 Bordeaux or the 2006 Burgundy, or snagging the great producers from challenging vintages, not every bottle needs to be great. There’s a whole lot to be said for very, very good.
The word out of California is 2012 is one of the most remarkable vintages in decades. After several years of rough going, the weather cooperated fully. No heat spikes, perfect flowering, rain when it was needed, none when it wasn’t. A Goldilocks vintage, as many a vigneron has stated.
There can be no doubt 2012 will go down as a historically great vintage but what is additionally exciting is the extreme range of choices the near perfect weather presented to vinegrowers and winemakers. Each winery could basically choose what kind of wine they wanted to make. Those who favor lower alcohol, higher acidity, and pronounced aromatics were able to pick earlier with no loss of ripeness. Those who tend towards a bigger, fleshier style were able to wait a bit longer and still retain freshness and zip. 2012 will be a vintage where house styles will be defined. I predict, across the state, this will be the vintage used as the benchmark. Winemakers will point to the 2012s and say, “That’s what our wine is meant to be”.
We’re just starting to see some whites and entry level reds coming down the pipe and it will be another 6 months to a year before all the single vineyards/top tier wines are released but this is a year to invest in Napa specifically. The weather allowed for the lush fruit we all know and love but the word on the street is one of ripeness matched with acidity (gasp!) and, here’s the important part, excellent soft tannins. These are going to be wines which are hard to resist young but many of the better expressions will easily glide to their 25th birthday. In Napa, the good wineries will make great wines and the great wineries will make legends.
I’d also pay close attention to the cool climate Pinot Noir, specifically on the Sonoma Coast. I remember talking with Andy Peay earlier this year and the look in his eyes when he was talking about their 2012s was of a man who’d just smashed his bat and hammered one over the left side wall. We’re hearing reports of low quantities of appellation wines because the single vineyards were of such profound quality. There are a lot of young producers on the Sonoma Coast and 2012 might represent their greatest achievement.
All in all, I’ve never seen winemakers so enthusiastic about a vintage in California. Usually, even in very good years, there’s a least one or two qualifiers. “It was great but…”. There’s none of that in 2012. Mark my word, this will go down as a vintage people are still talking about for decades to come.
2012 is a classic vintage and it will make those of us who absolutely adore German Riesling happy indeed. The summer was cool and damp and no one expected great results. But the weather turned in August and stayed dry and sunny for a remarkably long time, giving producers a chance to pick what they wanted, when they wanted. The grapes were very healthy at harvest time, with almost no botrytis in the vineyards. The resulting wines are amazingly dense and full with great underlying acidity.
Acidity is the watchword here. The acid structure of 2012 is focused and intense but the fruit concentration and extract levels are very high so unlike a vintage such as 2010 where the acidity was high but the wines occasionally lacked the stuffing to match, 2012 is both dense and bracing. Perhaps the best comparison is to 2005 but the big difference was almost the complete lack of boytritis in 2012. While Boytritis can be welcome in dessert wines, it also presents a very specific flavor profile on wines with lower levels of sweetness, sometimes imparting a heaviness which is not fully earned by the fruit concentration. There is no such issue in 2012. Every bit of weight and juiciness is earned honestly, keeping the wines remarkably fresh despite their density.
Mosel was very good in 2012, though savvy drinkers should check out some of the lesser known vineyards which lie off the Mosel proper or on the Saar/Ruhr river as there are many wines which absolutely shined in the vintage and won’t command the same prices as the more celebrated parcels. That being said, there is a consistent level of quality across the board.
The Pfalz had perhaps the rockiest path towards excellence in 2012, as a warm front caused many producers to harvest earlier than perhaps they should have, but those who waited were rewarded with some of the best wines of the vintage. While it is important to be specific in your choices from the Pfalz in 2012, there are more than a few transcendent wines.
The Nahe also excelled though a cold snap at blossoming made the already small amount of fruit even smaller. Still, the end quality is very high and the culture of excellence in this particular region has begun to rival the Mosel.
While there is definitely quality across all levels of sweetness, it is not a year for super-rich Spatlese and Auslese. The higher oechsle level Pradikat wines bear the same raciness as their Kabinett/Trocken cousins. And all these wines are indeed racy! 2012 isn’t a vintage I’d recommend for people transitioning from softer styles but rather a vintage for fans of sophisticated, precise German Riesling.
The Soul of a People
I’ve been thinking a lot about Friuli lately. Le Du’s is doing a really exciting dinner with the winemaker from Ronchi di Cialla (Quick Plug…it’s on September 24th at The Marrow so contact email@example.com if you’d like more details!). Ronchi di Cialla produces exclusively native varietals which are remarkable for their clarity, focus, and unusual longevity but the former two descriptors could be applied to the wines of the region as a whole.
Situated in Italy’s northeastern corner, sharing a border with Slovenia to the East and Austria to the North, it has long been the most direct route to the sea for merchants (and invaders) coming from the East. Flanked by the Alps with the Adriatic to the South, the last two thousand years has seen Friuli in the possession of the Castellieri, The Carnics, the Romans, The Huns, The Ostrogoth, The Byzantines, The Lombards, The Franks, The Venetians, and The Austrians with some Napoleon thrown in for good measure before finally unifying with Italy after World War I.
On one hand, it’s easy to say the cooler Alpine climates mixed with the marl and sandstone deposits left from when the larger part of Friuli was under the ocean explains, as Hugh Johnson would have it, the “perfumed, sharply etched, clean as a whistle” wines produced in the region. But I’m a romantic at heart and think the answer goes deeper. I tend to take terroir to its most mystical extreme to posit the very soul and nature of a people end up reflected in the wine they produce.
“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
How else would you explain the magic of, say, Burgundy, other than pointing to the centuries of Holy Men who farmed those hills and saying they must have left God in the soil? Or in the case of Friuli, does the collective psyche of a people who have passed through a dozen different conquerors and twice as many more languages and cultures help to explain the nature of their wine? It’s true they are utterly singular. It’s true their signature varietals (Fruilano, Refrosco, Schioppettino) are unique in the world. It’s true the style of the wines mix the taut focus of Austria with the urbane joy of the Veneto plus some French sophistication overlaid. They don’t draw attention to themselves; a very important trait for oft-conquered peoples, but beneath their quietude lays depth and sublimity.
On a more earthly level, the wines of Friuli, both white and red, are generally light in body, unoaked, tart, dry (except for the exceptional dessert wines), with refreshing acidity and a consistent femininity. They are not boisterous wines which demand your attention with their sensual largesse but rather possess a tension and nerviness which never seems to stress the palate. They are neither vapid nor intellectual. A nice glass of Refrosco or Fruilano won’t make you think too hard but it won’t make you dumber either. In terms of food pairing, the whites are ideal for oysters and clams while the reds pair well heavier fish and garden vegetables.
If terroir truly does mean more than just wind and rock and sun and rain then the wines of Friuli reflect a people who have grown used to the tension of living on the mountainous crossroad of Empires but learned to enjoy life despite it.
Passing the Torch
A Gallup poll came out today saying 18 to 29 year olds have drastically changed their preferred drinking habits from 20 years ago. In 1993, 71% said their drink of choice was beer. Now, that number has dropped 30 points with only 41% choosing beer. Instead, 24% say they prefer wine (up from 14%) and 28% prefer spirits (up from 13%). For those of us in the wine and spirits business, this is very good news. It means a generation is coming up who would rather drink a glass of wine or sip a snifter of spirits than pound a pint of beer.
So then the question becomes what kind of wine and spirits are they drinking? Obviously, there’s quite a big difference between an 18 year old sneaking shots in their parent’s basement and a 27 year old drinking Cognac at The Brandy Library but what should we expect from this generation as it grows up?
Being not too far removed from that particular age group, I can say my interest in fine wine and artisanal spirits bares a direct connection to sneaking cheap bottles of red into my dorm room and doing shots of tequila in my friend’s kitchen. In fact, I was 24 years old before I’d even had more than a taste of beer, let alone saying it was my preferred drink. At the same time, I’d watch my friends, cultivated people with specific opinions on most everything, buy and consume industrial brands of headache inducing wine. In other words, they were drinking wine like they would have drunk beer twenty years ago, cheaply and in large quantities. There can be no doubt the interest in wine as an everyday beverage is at an all-time high. Still, it’s important to remember that only 14% of the population consumes nearly all of the wine in the United States. That number looks to go up which is great news and I can speak from experience when I say the younger generation isn’t intimidated by wine. It’s not a drink for special occasions or an inaccessible luxury item. Still, should those of us with an interest in fine wine and premium spirits be expecting a new wave of enthusiasts who seamlessly transition from quantity into quality?
I think so.
Take premium Tequila as an example. Twenty years ago, there was no such thing. Jose Cuervo was both the alpha and the omega of the Tequila discussion. Enter Patron. Consumers were introduced and became used to a higher quality product. Now, we’re seeing a renaissance in premium Tequila and Mezcal. First there was quantity then there was quality. I predict we’ll see the same mass epiphany with wine. There is just too much good stuff available for a generation of young wine drinkers to keep drinking Two Buck Chuck.
I had a friend tell me recently she “just couldn’t drink cheap pinot grigio anymore”. When I asked her what she was drinking instead?
“Viognier mainly. I really like Condrieu!”
I smiled because I remembered going to a dinner party at her house when we were younger in Chicago. She made a beautiful roast chicken and served it with a bargain basement Australian wine.
Cheap Pinot Grigio to Condrieu in 7 years. Now that’s progress!