All posts by admin

Firesteed, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Gris 2019

($16):  With roughly twice the acreage planted as Chardonnay, Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio, in Italian) is Oregon’s second most widely planted variety, after Pinot Noir.  As a wine, Pinot Gris’ spectrum is wide, ranging from light and innocuous to rich with stone fruit flavors and even some sweetness.  Firesteed’s falls into the latter category with subtle pear-like flavors had a hint of sweetness in the finish.  Bright acidity keeps this fleshy wine fresh.  It would be a good choice for highly spiced food and for those who like wasabi with their sushi.
90 Michael Apstein Oct 27, 2020

Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Chardonnay “Russian River Selection” 2018

($35):  Gary Farrell is well-known for producing excellent single-vineyard Pinot Noirs.  They also produce a bevy of single-vineyard Chardonnays.  This one, however, their Russian River Selection, is a blend of Chardonnay grown in five vineyards: Westside Farms, Bacigalupi Vineyard, Rochioli, Allen and Olivet Lane.  It is a wonderful expression of Russian River Valley Chardonnay with just the right amount of richness anchored by riveting citrus-like acidity.  In short, it’s easy to describe this Chardonnay in one word, yummy!  You’ve heard this from me before, but it needs to be repeated: Its 13.3 percent stated alcohol demonstrates that you don’t need super ripe grapes to make a super wine.
93 Michael Apstein Oct 27, 2020

Laetitia, Arroyo Grande Valley (Central Coast, California) Chardonnay Estate 2019

($22):  Let me jump to the bottom line: This is a great value Chardonnay.  Racy and clean, this vigorous Chardonnay has the barest hint of alluring creaminess as well.  Though not an opulent style of Chardonnay, it still has plenty of stuffing and terrific energy.  Its charm is amplified by a trace of grapefruit pith-like flavor in the finish.  Its 13.4 percent stated alcohol, once again, belies the idea that you need super-ripe grapes to make a super wine.
93 Michael Apstein Oct 27, 2020

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Meredith Estate 2017

($68):  Wow!  It’s worth repeating, Wow!  And I don’t mean that in terms of power, I mean that in terms of stature and finesse.  Merry Edwards has always been one of my favorite producers, especially for Pinot Noir, but she has outdone herself with their 2017 Meredith Estate.  Talk about a track record.  In the last decade, I’ve scored only one Meredith Estate less than 95 points—the 2011 received 94.  She purchased the 24-acre site in 1996 and planted to Pinot Noir a couple of years later.  They consider it their flagship wine.  I think the 2017 is their best ever, showing more finesse and sleekness than in previous years without sacrificing intensity.  Heidi von der Mehden, who is Merry Edwards new winemaker after serving as Edwards’ assistant since 2015, told me during The SOMM Journal’s Geographical Digest webinar, “Domestic Bliss,” that the 2017 vintage was cooler than usual, which she felt explained the slightly different profile of the wine.  It’s a gorgeous wine with what I think of as the hallmark of Pinot Noir — flavor without weight.  Without a trace of heaviness, it dances, seemingly forever, on the palate.  It’s both racy and voluptuous, but not overdone, with an emphasis on the savory side of Pinot Noir.  Its suaveness makes it a joy to drink now.  Its impeccable balance suggests it will evolve beautifully with age, so there’s no rush.
98 Michael Apstein Oct 27, 2020

Ridge Vineyards, Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma County, California) “Lytton Springs” 2018

($44):  Full disclosure: I am prejudiced against Zinfandel.  So, perhaps my enthusiasm for this wine is helped by the absence of a varietal name on the label, but I don’t think so because I tasted it in a line-up of Zinfandels at a SommCon Virtual Summit.  This is a captivating red blend, based primarily (72 percent) on Zinfandel.  Petite Syrah (18 percent), Carignane (8 percent) and Mataro, all grown in the same vineyard and vinified together, a so-called field blend, round out the wine.  The beauty of this wine is its balance  — lush dark fruit intermingled with spice cresting a brambly profile.  The tannins contribute balance by adding a welcome hint of bitterness, offsetting the apparent ripeness.  It’s actually restrained, at least for contemporary Zinfandel. (At “only” 14.5 percent stated alcohol, it could be considered low alcohol for Zinfandel.)  This is great choice as we head into colder weather and heartier food.  Ready now, but Ridge’s wines develop beautifully over time, so there’s no rush if you lay down a case.
95 Michael Apstein Oct 27, 2020

Col d’Orcia, Sant’Antimo DOC (Tuscany, Italy) “Rosso Col d’Orcia” 2014

($25, Taub Family Selections):  Col d’Orcia, best known for their stunning Brunello di Montalcino, makes other wines.  At first glance at the label, you might think this is their Rosso di Montalcino.  It’s not.  Also, don’t be put off by the 2014 vintage, which was, as the Italians themselves describe it, “difficult.”  Col d’Orcia, like other talented producers, still manages to do well in difficult years.  The Rosso Col d’Orcia is a blend of Sangiovese clones (60 percent), many of which were ancient and at risk of becoming extinct, with two other less common, but traditional, Tuscan grapes, Foglia Tonda (30 percent) and Bersaglina.  It’s a great mixture of fleshiness, minerality and herbal, savory elements supported by firm tannins.  It has the hallmark elegance of Col d’Orcia’s Brunello.
91 Michael Apstein Oct 27, 2020

Travaglino, Oltrepò Pavese DOC (Lombardy, Italy) Pinot Nero Poggio della Butinera Riserva 2015

($42):  Italy is not known for Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir) the way it is for Nebbiolo or Sangiovese.  In the relatively cool Oltrepò Pavese region, the grape does well, as Travaglino shows with this 2015 Riserva.  Nicely concentrated, but certainly nowhere near a New World style, it delivers both fruit flavors and savory character, the latter of which is immediately apparent in the nose and carries onto the palate.  Bright acidity (it is Italian, after all) amplifies its charms, while refined tannins provide structure. It even finishes with a delightful hint of bitterness, reinforcing its Old World origins.  Drink now with grilled salmon or even beef, rather than sipping it by itself.
92 Michael Apstein Oct 27, 2020

Champagne Devaux, Champagne (France) “Augusta” Brut NV

($40, Seaview Imports):  The Augusta refers to Augusta-Maria Herbin, Devaux’s wife, another widow of Champagne, who led the firm from 1879 to 1895.  Family ownership ended in 1987, when, according to their website, it passed to the Union Auboise, now Groupe Vinicole Champagne Devaux, a co-operative.  There are 22 coops in Champagne, accounting for over a third of all the wine pressed there, according to the Comité Champagne, the trade group that represents all of the growers and producers.  Coops, unfairly in my view, have a poor reputation.  Indeed, they often are the place to find value, since they have the ability to produce many wines of differing quality.  Take this one, for example.  Champagne Devaux is the coop’s flagship wine.  Most of the wine comes from the 2016 vintage with 20 percent reserve wine (older vintages) rounding out the blend.  A blend of Pinot Noir (80 percent) and Chardonnay, it delivers both power and elegance. Its engaging roundness allows you to enjoy it on its own before dinner, but its intensity and length means it’s fine at the table with, say, grilled swordfish.
92 Michael Apstein Oct 27, 2020

Bodegas Caro, Mendoza (Argentina) Malbec “Aruma” 2018

($15, Taub Family Selections):  This Malbec is an unusual wine for Bodegas Caro, a collaboration between Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) and Nicolas Catena, two stars in the wine world.  It is unusual because they pride themselves on combining two winemaking cultures, Bordeaux and Argentina, and their two respective grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, but there’s no Cab in this.  Ideas evolve and it’s perhaps not surprising that they would produce a 100 percent Malbec since that grape is emblematic of Argentina.  (As an aside, Lafite had Malbec planted in their vineyards in the 19th century.)  The 2018 Aruma focuses on ripe, dark fruit with soft tannins balanced by good acidity.  It may lack the wonderful complexity of Bodegas Caro’s Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec blend, but it’s hard to find stylish, ready-to-drink Malbec at this price.
88 Michael Apstein Oct 27, 2020

Dry Creek Vineyard, Sonoma County (California) Sauvignon Blanc 2019

($20):  Founded in 1972 by David Stare and still family-run, Dry Creek Vineyard continues to excel.  Dry Creek Vineyard’s initial focus was on Sauvignon Blanc because Stare loved the wines of the Loire Valley.  So, it’s not surprising that Dry Creek Vineyard continues to make a consistently fine Sauvignon Blanc.  The 2109 follows in those footsteps.  It takes a balanced, middle-of-the road approach with a little bit of everything and not too much of anything.  Fleshiness offsets an invigorating citrus element.  Lively, but not aggressive, acidity stimulates the palate.  A delightful hint of grapefruit pith-like bitterness in the finish enhances the overall picture.  Although you can enjoy a glass by itself, it really shines next to a plate of grilled swordfish.
92 Michael Apstein Oct 20, 2020

Raeburn Winery, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir 2019

($22):  The focus of the 2019 Raeburn Pinot Noir is firmly on bright pure cherry-like fruit.  Suavely textured, it is easy to enjoy this mid-weight wine now.  A touch of heat and a hint of sweetness in the finish likely results from the 14.5 percent stated alcohol.  It’s rare to find a Pinot Noir that’s this enjoyable at this price.
88 Michael Apstein Oct 20, 2020

J. Lohr, Paso Robles (Central Coast, California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Signature” 2016

($90):  An over-sized bottle with the wine weighing in at 15.1 percent stated alcohol accurately predicts the nature of this Cabernet Sauvignon:  powerful.  Fruit-forward and dominant, it’s a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with small amounts of Merlot, Malbec, Carmenere and Saint-Macaire, an ancient grape from Bordeaux, which is no longer used there, but was included in the allowed mix for Meritage wines in California.  Ready now, it’s a soft, fleshy wine that imparts sweetness, then finishes nicely with an offsetting hint of bitterness.  Those looking for density and oomph in their Cabernet will embrace it.  It’s ironic that J. Lohr, who won the 2020 California Green Medal Sustainability Award and prides itself on a commitment to sustainability, opts to use a heavy bottle that most environmentalists criticize for adding unnecessarily to the wine’s carbon footprint.
90 Michael Apstein Oct 20, 2020

Black Stallion Estate Winery, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon Limited Release 2017

($60):  The packaging — over-sized bottle — and 15 percent stated alcohol suggests this Cabernet is from the “bigger is better” school.  And there is no question, it’s a big, ripe wine with plenty of power.  Yet, it’s not overblown or overdone.  The grapes come primarily from mountain vineyards throughout the Napa Valley, which accounts for its freshness, according to Black Stallion’s website.  It leads with lovely aromatics and then delivers a mix of deep black fruit-like flavors, spice and herbs.  The tannins provide structure, but are unobtrusive under the layers of fruit.  Good acidity keeps it fresh and in balance, except for a touch of heat in the finish, reflecting the high alcohol.  Though not my style of Cabernet, it is well-made and people who enjoy high octane “Napa Cab” will love it.  Its supple and velvety texture makes it ideal for drinking tonight with a grilled hunk of meat.
93 Michael Apstein Oct 20, 2020

 

Agricola Punica, Isola del Nuraghi IGT (Sardinia, Italy) “Barrua” 2015

($46):  Agricola Punica is a collaboration between Tenuta San Guido, the Bolgheri producer responsible for Sassicaia, and Sardinia’s Cantina di Santadi.  The late Giacomo Tachis, who was a genius at sensing the utility of the so-called Bordeaux varieties in selected Italian locales, suggested the blend of Carignano, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for their wine to be called “Barrua.”  It turned out to be an outstanding recommendation.  Despite the stated 15 percent alcohol, the 2015 Barrua does not come across as ripe or overdone.  Quite the contrary.  Lush fruitiness gives way to savory and herbal elements amplified by a lively freshness in the finish.  The tannins are present for support, but they are refined and supple, not aggressive.  Yum!
93 Michael Apstein Oct 20, 2020

Schloss Johannisberg, Rheingau (Germany) Riesling Silberlack Trocken GG 2018

($75):  Schloss Johannisberg, whose Riesling planting started in 1719, is thought to be the oldest Riesling producer in the world.  (The first documented wine harvest from the site itself was a roughly a thousand years earlier, in 817.)  The estate grows only Riesling, yet makes many different wines depending on where in the vineyard the grapes grow and when they are harvested.  Stefan Doktor, the estate director, explains that they make many different wines because of the diversity of soils and microclimates within the vineyard, which is located at the confluence of warmer air from the Rhine river and cooler air from the north.  He emphasizes that you need cold climate to make superb Riesling.  Cold nights especially — and the nights are cold at Schloss Johannisberg — slow ripening and allow flavors of the Riesling grape to develop.   The other advantage of this northern clime, according to Doktor, is long hours of daylight during the summer, from 5 AM until 10 PM, which helps the grapes achieve ripeness.  He adds that the quartz in the soil retains heat, which also aids ripening.  This wine, labeled Silberlack Trocken for the vineyard parcel, is bone dry with a measured residual sugar of 2.7 grams/liter.  To put that wine-geek number in perspective, tasters can typically start to detect sweetness at a level of about 5 grams/liter.  The GG stands for Grosses Gewachs, the equivalent of Grand Cru, indicating the stature of the growing site.  The grapes come from the coolest part of their vineyard, the southwest corner, which is always the last to be harvested.  The wine is positively gorgeous, racy, minerally and penetrating.  It’s all you could want.  The first sip makes you smile.  With impeccable balance, all the elements are in harmony and dance across the palate.  The tension between vibrant minerality and alluring peach-like fruitiness is splendid and seemingly never ending in the aftertaste of the wine.  Sip it by itself, or drink it with virtually anything.  You will be surprised how wonderful it is, even with a steak.
96 Michael Apstein Oct 20, 2020

Naumes Family Vineyards, Rouge Valley (Oregon) Viognier 2018

($30):  The Viognier grape is tough to translate properly into a wine.  Ripeness is necessary to release its inherent floral character, but over-ripeness results in a heavy wine.  Naumes strikes the balance. Lovely floral apricot aromas predict the stone fruit flavors that follow.  In a less well-crafted version, those stone fruit flavors would be heavy.  In this one, they’re bright, despite the 14.5% stated alcohol.
92 Michael Apstein Oct 13, 2020

Naumes Family Vineyards, Rouge Valley (Oregon) “Triolet” 2017

($40):  The blend, Barbera (60%) and Malbec, is unique.  I know of no other winery producing it.  The name, Triolet, which is a type of poem, according to the dictionary, is equally unique.  Corey Shultz, the winery director, says the name is to honor the Naumes Family’s triplets and that in subsequent vintages there will be third grape in the blend.  Initially this intriguing blend was flat, but within 30 minutes in the glass, the wine blossomed.  The more assertive Malbec adds muscle to Barbera’s charm, resulting in more power and less finesse.  But, very much in the Naumes style, the wine is balanced and not overblown.  It’s a trade-off.  Those who prefer heft in their wines will prefer the Triolet.  Consumers looking for a more nimble and spritely wine will embrace their straight Barbera.
92 Michael Apstein Oct 13, 2020

Naumes Family Vineyards, Rouge Valley (Oregon) Pinot Noir 2017

($40):  Captivating herbal notes are immediately apparent in the nose and later on the palate. A blend of several clones of Pinot Noir, this is a delicate and airy example of the varietal, displaying a wondrous mixture of savory and fruity flavors. Its focus is on elegance, not power or concentration. A perfect choice for grilled salmon.
92 Michael Apstein Oct 13, 2020

Naumes Family Vineyards, Rouge Valley (Oregon) Syrah 2017

($35):  This big, bold Syrah has beautiful balance and bright acidity that keeps it fresh and lively.  It conveys a splendid combination of savory, almost bacon fat-like nuances, spicy black pepper notes, and dark fruitiness. Though youthful and forceful, it is not overdone or boisterous.  Instead, there’s an appealing elegance to accompany all that muscle.
93 Michael Apstein Oct 13, 2020

Naumes Family Vineyards, Rouge Valley (Oregon) Tempranillo 2017

($30):  As much as I liked Naumes 2016 Tempranillo, their 2017 struck me as even better.  Its firmness and minerality presents a great contrast to the fleshy and fruitier Malbec.  It is structured without being aggressive or hard.  Its stature is apparent in the long and attractive hint of bitterness in the finish.  With air, its focus on minerality rather than fruitiness becomes more apparent. You could sip the Malbec by itself.   This serious Tempranillo needs a grilled steak.
94 Michael Apstein Oct 13, 2020

A Rogue in Oregon

One definition of rogue is “something out of the ordinary.”  It is fitting, then, that the Naumes Family Winery is located in Oregon’s Rogue Valley, because they certainly do something out of the ordinary.  Ordinary, in terms of Oregon wine, is pretty clear: superb Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and notable Pinot Gris.  While Naumes produces Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, they also produce out of the ordinary wines, both in varietal composition—Barbera, Grenache, Syrah, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Viognier, Tempranillo—and most importantly, in quality.

The Rogue Valley, located in southern Oregon, bordering California, is named for the river that runs through it.  (French fur traders supposedly named it La Rivière aux Coquin [rogue] because they regarded the native tribes located there as coquins.)  Although the Willamette Valley is currently Oregon’s best-known wine producing region, the Rogue Valley was home to Oregon’s first official winery, Valley View Winery, established in 1873 by Peter Britt, according to the Oregon Wine Board.

The east-west orientation of the river and the surrounding valleys could explain the diversity of plantings because cooling Pacific breezes in the western-most part of the appellation allow varieties that prefer cooler climates, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, to thrive.  The warmer and drier environment in the eastern areas are well-suited for varieties that need warmer conditions to achieve full ripeness.  But that broad generalization doesn’t explain the plethora of varieties of grapes Naumes Family Winery grows and wines it produces.   The varying elevations of the valleys’ hillsides also give growers flexibility for adopting plantings to local climatic conditions.

Corey Schultz, Naumes’ Winery Director, explains that it not as simple as the east-west orientation suggests.  They’ve been able to plant new varieties, Malbec, Barbera, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Viognier, Tempranillo, in addition to their existing ones, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Grenache and Pinot Gris, all within a 15-mile radius because of the variation of elevations, temperatures, and wind flow patterns, according to Schultz.  As an example, he told me that one day in August the temperature on the valley floor hit 106ºF while at the same time it was 64ºF in the vineyards on the slopes.

Naumes Family Winery Syrah 2017 ($35):  This big, bold Syrah has beautiful balance and bright acidity that keeps it fresh and lively.  It conveys a splendid combination of savory, almost bacon fat-like nuances, spicy black pepper notes, and dark fruitiness. Though youthful and forceful, it is not overdone or boisterous.  Instead, there’s an appealing elegance to accompany all that muscle.  93

Naumes Family Winery Malbec 2017 ($35):  Full disclosure: Malbec is not my favorite wine because too often it is just a big monotonic red wine.  So, I was shocked when I tasted this one.  There’s lots going on—fruit, to be sure, but smoke-y and earth-y nuances peek out as well.  Uplifting acidity keeps you coming back for more. Glossy tannins are especially appealing and allow you to enjoy it now.  93

Naumes Family Winery Tempranillo 2017 ($30):  As much as I liked their 2016 Tempranillo, their 2017 struck me as even better.  Its firmness and minerality presents a great contrast to the fleshy and fruitier Malbec.  It’s structured without being aggressive or hard.  Its stature is apparent in the long and attractive hint of bitterness in the finish.  With air, its focus on minerality rather than fruitiness becomes more apparent. You could sip the Malbec by itself.   This serious Tempranillo needs a grilled steak.  94

Naumes Family Winery, “Tanto Manta” 2017 ($40):  This fifty-fifty blend of Tempranillo and Grenache marries the two beautifully.  The Tempranillo provides structure and minerals while the Grenache contributes a floral fruitiness.  More approachable than the straight Tempranillo at this stage, it would be a good choice with a hearty pasta dish tonight.  92

Naumes Family Winery, Pinot Noir, 2017 ($40):  Captivating herbal notes are immediately apparent in the nose and later on the palate. A blend of several clones of Pinot Noir, this is a delicate and airy example of the varietal, displaying a wondrous mixture of savory and fruity flavors. Its focus is on elegance, not power or concentration. A perfect choice for grilled salmon.  92

Naumes Family Winery Pinot Noir “Clone 667” 2017 ($40):  I won’t get into the scientific definition of a clone as it relates to grape varieties.  Suffice it to say that in this case it’s a Pinot Noir with unique qualities.  The wine certainly is very different from their blended Pinot Noir, showing more fruit, more concentration and fewer earthy flavors.  In short, those who prefer more muscular Pinot Noir will embrace it.  90

Naumes Family Winery Pinot Noir “Pommard Clone” 2017 ($40):  If the Pinot Noir Clone 667 was the weight-lifter, this one is the ballerina.  Light in color and on the palate, it dances on the palate. It’s a captivating lighter style of Pinot Noir.  If you prefer the Clone 667, you won’t be enthralled by this one and vice-versa.  I’m enthralled by both because it shows that clones matter.  90

Naumes Family Winery Viognier 2018 ($30):  The Viognier grape is tough to translate properly into a wine.  Ripeness is necessary to release its inherent floral character, but over-ripeness results in a heavy wine.  Naumes strikes the balance. Lovely floral apricot aromas predict the stone fruit flavors that follow.  In a less well-crafter version, those stone fruit flavors would be heavy.  In this one, they’re bright, despite the 14.5% stated alcohol.  92
Posted by Michael Apstein at 6:25 PM

October 7, 2020

Pouilly-Fuissé Vineyards Finally Get Premier Cru Status

The Nazis were responsible for the lack of Premier Cru vineyards in Pouilly-Fuissé.  As Frédéric Burrier, the head of the Pouilly-Fuissé growers’ organization, explains: In the 1940s, in Occupied France, the Germans could requisition village wines, but had to pay for ones, at least theoretically, from a higher classification.  At that time the only higher classification was Grand Cru.  Premier Cru did not exist.  So, growers there formalized the generally accepted classification of the better sites into a Premier Cru category that ranked above the village level.  Pouilly-Fuissé sat in so-called “Free France” (or Vichy France), where the Germans had to pay for all wines, even those with only a village classification.  Hence, there was no impetus for the growers to create a Premier Cru category.  Contrast that with neighboring Montagny in the Côte Chalonnaise, just over the dividing line.  Seventy-five percent of the vineyards became—and still are—Premier Cru.

It’s not as though there were no better situated vineyards in Pouilly-Fuissé, which was, and still is, the most important appellation in the Mâconnais, in southern Burgundy.  Of course there were.  Everyone agrees that Pouilly-Fuissé has plenty of superior vineyards that long ago should have been classified as Premier Cru.  The problem, as is often the case in parochial Burgundy, was that growers could not agree on where to draw the lines.

Even a cursory look around the iconic cliffs, Roche de Solutré and Roche de Vergisson, reveals the plethora of exposures of the vineyards.  Some must be better locales than others in this broad amphitheater that spreads over four villages, Solutré-Pouilly, Fuissé, Chaintré and Vergisson.  Just as the topography changes abruptly, so does the soil in this part of Burgundy.  Just a mile away over the next ridge, in Beaujolais, schist predominates, which is far better suited to Gamay than Chardonnay.  But in Pouilly-Fuissé the soil, although variable, is primarily limestone and clay, similar to the Côte d’Or, and an ideal environment for Chardonnay, the only grape allowed in the appellation.

Now, 75-plus years later, that glaring mistake has been corrected.  The French wine authority, the French National Institute of Origin and Quality (INAO), has recognized 22 vineyards in Pouilly-Fuissé appellation that merit Premier Cru status.  The official timeline from submission to approval was lightning-fast by French bureaucratic standards: a decade.  Burrier, who also is the head of Château de Beauregard, one of Pouilly Fuissé’s leading domaines, noted that it took another decade of work prior to the submission to convince his fellow growers of the value of the endeavor.  The long process was necessary to allow the growers to become comfortable with the hierarchy of Premier Cru and to deal with the politics that inevitably arise when drawing boundaries.

The selection and delineation of the vineyards was stringent.  Officials relied on soil analysis and a history of the quality of the wines, including how they developed over time, from candidate sites.  Only about 25 percent of the total vineyard area of Pouilly-Fuissé is now designated as Premier Cru.  Compare this with Premier Cru designation in the Côte d’Or: roughly 33 percent of Chambolle-Musigny is Premier Cru.  Morey-St. Denis’ Premier Cru sites comprise about 40 percent of the vineyard area, and 75 percent of Beaune vineyards carry that designation.

The Premier Cru designation will appear on Pouilly-Fuissé labels starting with the 2020 vintage.  Paradoxically, despite adding 22 names to the lexicon, the new designation eliminates confusion.  Heretofore, a consumer would not know whether the name on the label was from a revered vineyard site, an ordinary piece of land, or a fantasy or brand name.  Now they will—because all of the top sites will carry the Premier Cru moniker.  A complete listing of new Premier Cru vineyards appears at the end of this article.

The new designation adds prestige to Pouilly-Fuissé in general because now, after all these years, it will share the same hierarchy as the rest of Burgundy.  The upgrade, the first addition of Premier Cru vineyards in Burgundy since 1943, marks the beginning of a new era for the entire Mâconnais region, according to Burrier.  Growers in neighboring St-Véran, for example, have already started the process of applying for Premier Cru status for some of that village’s vineyards.  Super-star producers from the Côte d’Or, such as Dominique Lafon, Domaine Leflaive and Maison Louis Jadot, have invested heavily in the Mâconnais.  More are sure to follow, especially as prices for vineyard land in the Côte d’Or remain in the stratosphere.

Audrey Braccini, winemaker and director at Domaine J. A. Ferret, another top domaine, believes that the new classification recognizes the quality of the wines from Pouilly-Fuissé and puts them on the same rank as other white wine appellations in Burgundy.  At Ferret, they are deciding how their labeling will evolve.  Traditionally, Domaine Ferret has always focused on individual climats (vineyards) using a time-honored, but somewhat confusing hierarchical ladder of “hors classé” and “tête de cuvée.”  Those terms may disappear and their Tournant de Pouilly bottling, for example, currently an “hors classé,” could be labeled a Premier Cru, Les Reisses, because the grapes come from that vineyard.

Beaune-based négociants, who are responsible for roughly 70 percent of the wine produced in Pouilly-Fuissé, will also need to adjust to the new classification.  Bernard Retournaz, head of Louis Latour, USA, told me that Maison Louis Latour, a top négociant, has contracts with two growers, each of whom has holdings in one of the newly designated Premier Cru vineyards, and will likely bottle those wines separately.  Conversely, Frédéric Barnier, winemaker at Maison Louis Jadot, which also owns Domaine Ferret, will not bottle any Premier Cru Pouilly-Fuissé under the Jadot label, at least at this time, though he held out the possibility that they may do so in the future.

How exactly the new classification will change the quality and price of village Pouilly-Fuissé in the future remains to be determined because there are so many factors affecting the market today.  Certainly, Pouilly-Fuissé Premier Crus will be more expensive than the village wines.  Though prices have not yet been set, consumers should expect to pay at least 20 percent more for Premier Cru Pouilly-Fuissé from top growers or négociants.  In many cases, though, consumers may see little or no increase because Pouilly-Fuissé from top sites, such as Le Clos or Les Perrières, already cost more, even without the official Premier Cru designation.

Theoretically, the quality of village Pouilly-Fuissé could fall as wine from Premier Cru vineyards that previously went into the village bottling is now bottled separately.  Retournaz thinks that’s unlikely because climate change has helped previously marginal sites in Pouilly-Fuissé, so that overall quality is up.  Both Burrier and Braccini are adamant that they would still include Premier Cru wines in their village cuvées to maintain the quality of their village Pouilly-Fuissé.  They think their village wines could outshine some Premier Crus made by some of their neighbors.  Barnier insists that Jadot will maintain the quality of what he describes as their “premium” Pouilly-Fuissé.

Pricing of village Pouilly-Fuissé will be a different matter and impossible to predict.  Estimates indicate that about 70 percent of the overall production of Pouilly-Fuissé goes to the United States, and as such, it is almost a brand.  The large importers and distributors exert enormous pressure to keep the price constant and reasonable.  The 25 percent Trump tariff and the closure of restaurants due to Covid-19 have reduced demand, at least temporarily.  As a result, the prices négociants are paying growers for bulk wine is down, according to Burrier.  However, upward pressure on prices may be on the horizon if growers decide to bottle more Premier Cru, removing it from the bulk market.  As the French would say, on verra (we’ll see).

The new Premier Cru stratification is a splendid opportunity for consumers to experience the magic of Burgundian terroir at reasonable prices.  Burgundy so fascinates me because wines made using the same winemaking techniques from the same grape variety grown in adjacent vineyards taste different.  It’s the magic of nature.  That discovery has become impossibly expensive using wines from the Côte d’Or.  However, the same magic exists in Pouilly-Fuissé.  So, I urge consumers to taste two or three Pouilly-Fuissé Premier Crus from the same producer to discover for yourself the stunning effect of nature.

Despite the plethora of new vineyard names to learn, my advice for Pouilly-Fuissé remains that for Burgundy in general: producer, producer, producer.  Here’s my short list of favorite domaines: Château de Beauregard, Château de Fuissé, Domaine Auvigue, Domaine Ferret, Domaine Jacques Saumaize, Domaine La Soufrandière, Domaine Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon, and Domaine Roger Lassarat.  If the domaine wines are not available in your market, do not overlook those from the following négociants, whose wines are consistently good, well-priced and widely available: Maison Bouchard Père et Fils, Bret Brothers, Maison Joseph Drouhin, Maison Louis Jadot, Maison Louis Latour, and J. J. Vincent.

Under Vichy, and for the past 75 years, you couldn’t tell which were the best sites in Pouilly-Fuissé.  Now you can.

*         *         *

The new Pouilly-Fuissé Premier Cru Vineyards, by village:

Chaintré:

Le Clos de Monsieur Noly
Les Chevrières
Aux Quarts
Le Clos Reyssier

Fuissé:

Le Clos
Les Brulés
Les Ménétrières
Les Reisses
Les Vignes Blanches
Les Perrières
Vers Cras

Solutré-Pouilly:

La Frérie
Le Clos de Solutré
Au Vignerais
En Sevry
Aux Bouthières
Aux Chailloux
Pouilly
Vers Cras (the vineyard spans Solutré-Pouilly and Fuissé)

Vergisson:

Les Crays
La Maréchaude
Sur La Roche
En France

*         *         *

E-mail me your thoughts about Pouilly-Fuissé at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein and on Instagram.

September 30, 2020

Miolo, Vale dos Vinhedos (Brazil) Brut “Cuvée Tradition” NV

($14, CapCity Beverage):  There’s probably no greater statement regarding the potential of the sparkling wine industry in Brazil than the investment by Moët & Chandon there in the 1970s.  Miolo has been producing sparkling wines from there vineyards in Vale dos Vinhedos, the first Brazilian area to receive DO status, long before Moët invested in the country.  This one, their Cuvée Tradition, is made, as the name implies, by the traditional Champagne method with the secondary fermentation occurring in the bottle.  A blend of equal parts Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, it was disgorged in 2017.  It has a lovely austerity.  Its charms blossom after being opened (and re-stoppered) for a day.  A fine stream of bubbles enlivens the palate.
88 Michael Apstein Sep 29, 2020

Casa Perini, Farroupilha (Serra Gaúcha, Brazil) Moscatel NV

($20, Aiko Imports):  Brazil ranks third in wine production in South America after Argentina and Chile, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine.  And almost a quarter of the country’s production is sparkling wine.  Most of the fine wine production is located in the Serra Gaúcha area, where Italian and German immigrants settled, in the southern (cooler — away from the equator) part of the country near the border with Uruguay.  Made with the Moscato grape, this sparkler is stylistically reminiscent of Asti Spumante — floral and slightly sweet.  It’s the type of bubbly you might sip while sitting by the pool in the afternoon since it weighs in at a mere 7.5 percent stated alcohol.
86 Michael Apstein Sep 29, 2020

Cascina Castlet, Barbera d’Asti DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) “Vespa” 2019

($35, Artisan Selections by Romano Brands):  Barbera is a terrific wine for a meal because the grape has inherently high acidity, which makes it lively and perfect for food.  Its problem is image.  When consumers see many on retailers’ shelves selling for less than $10 a bottle, the question is, why spend more?  Well, let me tell you.  With Barbera, you get what you pay for.  Ten bucks gets you thin acidic swill.  Paying a bit more does wonders.  Take the Barberas from Cascina Caslet, a top producer.  This one, with a Vespa on the label, is juicy with ripe black fruitiness and fabulous balancing acidity that keeps it in balance.  Mild tannins lend structure without being aggressive.  Indeed, you could chill the wine for thirty minutes in the frig when it’s hot outside.  Try it with a hearty pasta dish.  You’ll fall in love with Barbera.
90 Michael Apstein Sep 8, 2020

Cascina Castlet, Barbera d’Asti DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) “Litina” 2016

($40, Artisan Selections by Romano Brands):  The label sports CCC in bold letters on the bottle, the abbreviation of the winery, Cascina Caslet, plus the village, Costigliole, where it’s located. The important information can be found on the neck label. Similar to their Vespa bottling, the Litinia, named after a family member, is a robust wine that delivers black fruitiness buttressed by zippy acidity.  In addition, there’s an intriguing savory component and a delightful hint of bitterness in the finish.  The biggest difference, however, is textural. It’s suave and displays an unusual sophistication for a Barbera.  This is serious wine that shows the potential of Barbera in the right hands.  It would be a great choice to accompany a grilled steak.
93 Michael Apstein Sep 8, 2020

Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, Sonoma Coast (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Gap’s Crown Vineyard 2016

($80):  Site matters.  A skeptic of that statement just needs to taste this Pinot Noir made from grapes grown in a vineyard located in the windy Petaluma Gap of Sonoma next to the Gary Farrell Pinot Noirs from the Russian River Valley.  This one has the power and robust nature of the Toboni and Martaella, but with layers of savory nuances that add complexity.  Though it displays a muscular style, it is not overdone.  Bright acidity keeps it from falling into the “Pinot-Syrah” category.  More tightly wound than Farrell’s other Pinot Noir, this wine could use further bottle age.  It should develop beautifully because of its wonderful balance.  If you can’t wait — and that’s understandable — open it a couple of hours before dinner.
94 Michael Apstein Sep 1, 2020

Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, Santa Maria Valley (Central Coast, California) Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard 2016

($70):  Santa Maria Valley’s east-west orientation is unusual in California where most of the valleys run north-south.  Its orientation, which allows cooling Pacific Ocean breezes, explains its cooler climate despite its southern California location.  The bright red fruit-like profile reflects the coolness of the site.  Though this Pinot Noir has fewer savory notes, touches of spice season it nicely and add complexity. Its raspberry-like flavors dance on the palate.  It’s a lighter and brighter Pinot Noir, which Theresa Heredia, the winemaker, calls, “sexy and spicy.”
92 Michael Apstein Sep 1, 2020

Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Toboni Vineyard 2016

($55):  The warmth of the Russian River Valley compared to the Sonoma Coast or Santa Maria Valley accounts for riper raw material for this Pinot Noir, which is translated into a more robust wine.  Similar to the one from Martaella Vineyard, it delivers power at the expense of subtlety.  But, showing that site is critical, its fruit and spice profile differs from the Martaella even though the vineyards are a stone’s throw apart. It’s not the style of Pinot Noir I personally look for, but it is well made and certainly will have an audience.  The glossy tannins, a hallmark of Farrell’s Pinot Noir, make it a good choice now with grilled beef.
90 Michael Apstein Sep 1, 2020

Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Martaella Vineyard 2016

($65):  Those who love a more robust style of Pinot Noir will embrace the Martaella Vineyard bottling from Gary Farrell, in relation to the rest of this producer’s lineup.  The focus here is on the ripe, plum-like fruitiness.  As with all of Farrell’s Pinot Noirs, the tannins are fine and the textured refined, which makes it easy to enjoy now.  The sunny Santa Rosa plain where the vineyard is located helps explain the opulence in the wine.
91 Michael Apstein Sep 1, 2020

Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Hallberg Vineyard 2016

($55):  This wine presents a fascinating comparison with the Farrell’s Dijon Clones Pinot Noir from the same vineyard.  The winemaker says it’s a blend of five clones of Pinot Noir instead of two Dijon clones.  It has the same power as the Dijon Clones bottling, but reveals less complexity at this stage.  In my mind, it suffers by comparison to its stablemate.  As a stand-alone wine, I’d be thrilled to drink it with grilled salmon.  The lesson for me is that clones matter, but that subject is far too geek-y for this review, so I’ll leave it at that.
92 Michael Apstein Sep 1, 2020

Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Hallberg Vineyard Dijon Clones 2016

($60):  The warmer Russian River Valley compared to Farrell’s Fort Ross bottling explains the riper style of this Pinot Noir.  Black fruit flavors mingle with savory earthy components in this juicy, bright, and long wine.  Though slightly bigger and bolder than their Fort Ross Pinot Noir, it remains impeccably balanced.  Again, a modest -– by today’s standards — 13.7 percent stated-alcohol reinforces the notion that riper grapes don’t necessarily make better wine, especially when dealing with Pinot Noir.
95 Michael Apstein Sep 1, 2020

Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, Fort Ross – Seaview (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Fort Ross Vineyard 2016

($75):  The Fort Ross Vineyard is a cold site, lying less than a mile from the Pacific Ocean and roughly 1,500 feet above sea level.  The temperature rarely exceeds 85º, all of which explains the wine’s profile: a fabulous combination of beguiling fruitiness and smokey savory nuances.  Lively acidity gives it brightness and amplifies its charms.  Beautifully balanced, it’s long and refined, with suave tannins.  It conveys what I think of as a Burgundian sensibility, namely, one of flavor without weight.  All of 13.2 percent stated-alcohol shows you don’t need super ripe grapes to make a super wine.
96 Michael Apstein Sep 1, 2020

Site Trumps Everything

Tasting a line-up of the 2016 Gary Farrell Pinot Noirs shows why Theresa Heredia, the winemaker for wines, is adamant about the importance of site.  Same grape variety, same vintage, same winemaking, so how else to explain the wonderful difference between the Pinot Noir she made from grapes grown in the Fort Ross Vineyard in the Fort Ross—Seaview AVA and the one made from those in the Toboni Vineyard, located in the Russian River Valley?  These wines reinforce the idea that site (a.k.a. terroir) is alive and well in California.  American wine consumers are finally starting to come around to the idea of terroir, a concept vehemently articulated by the French.  Perhaps if we just talked about the importance of site instead of using a French word, Americans would embrace the concept.

Terroir, or place of origin, is important whether we speak of wine or any other food product.  Though we Americans do not have the legalized appellation system the Europeans have for food and wine, there’s no question that the character of the product varies depending on its place of origin.  Idaho potatoes, Copper River Salmon, Washington State apples all command premium prices because of their origins.  Door County (Wisconsin) cherries are prized above those grown elsewhere.  In the broadest concept, briny East Coast oysters are vastly different from their creamier West Coast cousins.  Yes, they are different species, so maybe it’s not just locale, but even the same species of oysters harvested in adjoining towns on Cape Cod taste different.

It’s no different when it comes to wine.  Place is critical.  Two impediments have led to our reluctance to accept the concept of terroir when it comes to wine.  First, in the 1970s, the early days of the modern American winemaking industry, the winemaker was all important.  When the 1973 Montelena Chardonnay bested prestigious white Burgundies at Steven Spurrier’s now famous 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting, no one asked the origin of the grapes.  It was Mike Grgich, the winemaker, who received the acclaim.

Secondly, California wineries rarely focused on specific vineyard sites.  In the past, and in large measure today, wineries would obtain their grapes from various parts of Napa or Sonoma, to use those two areas as examples, and blend them to make a finished wine.  Winemakers rightly would speak about the differences between Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, or within sub-regions of Napa, but consumers rarely had opportunities to taste the differences between the wines because very few producers bottled them separately.  So, if a consumer tasted a Jordan Cabernet made from Sonoma grapes side-by-side with one from Beaulieu Vineyards whose grapes came from Napa Valley, were you tasting the difference between origin of the grapes or producers’ style?  In the past, Robert Mondavi made separate bottlings of wines that highlighted the vast differences between the Oakville and Stags Leap districts of Napa Valley, but few other producers did so.  My point is that unless you taste wines made by the same producer, the average consumer will never be able to separate the impact of site from the impact of producer.

Compare this practice to the tradition in Burgundy, recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage status because of the patchwork of vineyards that makes Burgundy the classic case in point for the concept of terroir.  There, traditional and current marketing was and is done via négociants.  In Burgundy, the individual estates are small and fragmented, with farmers owning portions of vineyards scattered over several villages.  Production from each plot is small, which means it is impractical for individual growers to make, bottle and market their wines themselves.

The négociant, or wine merchant, system evolved in the 19th century to solve this problem.  Growers from throughout Burgundy would sell their grapes or newly pressed juice to large merchant houses, such as Maison Louis Jadot or Maison Louis Latour to name two of the best.  In turn, these houses would blend the grapes or juice purchased from several growers, each of whom owned plots in the same vineyard or village.  The négociant would then make, bottle and market the wines under his name.  Although the system started for economic reasons, a consequence was that it allowed the general consumer to taste wines from different villages made using the same winemaking techniques.  Since the winemaking was the same, the only differences among the wines were where the grapes were grown.  The uniqueness of terroir—the importance of site—became easy for the entire world to see, understand and appreciate.

Which brings me back to Gary Farrell’s array of 2016 Pinot Noirs.  It certainly helps that Theresa Heredia is an excellent winemaker and avoids the temptation to put her imprint on the wines at the expense of individual sites.  I’m certain that winemaking techniques, including oak aging, could have made all seven of the Pinot Noirs that I sampled recently taste the same.  But, because she let the various sites speak, the wines did, in fact, speak clearly—and differently.  The range of Pinot Noirs provides something for everyone, from more delicate and savory wines to those that are robust and powerful.

Gary Farrell was a pioneer in single-vineyard Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley.  Though I sampled seven of Gary Farrell’s 2016 Pinot Noir recently via a Zoom® tasting along with several colleagues, Heredia told us that they make between 12 and 14 different ones depending on the year.  In addition to buying grapes from well-respected growers throughout the Russians River Valley, they buy grapes from the famed Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley and from vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA.

The wines were all very good, although dramatically different stylistically, reflecting their origins.  They are all easy to recommend.  Those who prefer bolder Pinot Noirs that focuses on fruitier flavors will gravitate towards the Russian River bottlings because the warmer climate there—compared to Bien Nacido and Fort Ross—produces riper grapes.  The Bien Nacido and Fort Ross bottlings, in contrast, will be more appealing to those who prefer a lighter expression of Pinot Noir with an emphasis on its savory aspect.  The flavors dance across the palate.  The Gap’s Crown Vineyard bottling, from Sonoma Coast, delivered a nicely balanced combination.  It also taught two lessons: first, it weighed in at the same 14.1 percent stated alcohol as two from the Russian River Valley, the Toboni and Martaella Vineyard, yet handled it far better, showing you cannot judge a wine by the numbers.  And, second, the Gap’s Crown and the Fort Ross couldn’t be more different, yet both reside in the Sonoma Coast AVA.  I guess the Sonoma Coast AVA could use more sub-divisions.

Gary Farrell (Fort Ross Seaview, Sonoma Coast) Fort Ross Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($75):  Review copy:  The Fort Ross Vineyard is a cold site, lying less than a mile from the Pacific Ocean and roughly 1,500 feet above sea level.  The temperature rarely exceeds 85º, all of which explains the wine’s profile: a fabulous combination of beguiling fruitiness and smoke-y savory nuances.  Lively acidity gives it brightness and amplifies its charms.  Beautifully balanced, it’s long and refined, with suave tannins.  It conveys what I think of as a Burgundian sensibility, namely, one of flavor without weight.  All of 13.2 percent stated-alcohol shows you don’t need super ripe grapes to make a super wine.  96

Gary Farrell (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir Dijon Clones 2016 ($60):  Review copy: The warmer Russian River Valley compared to Farrell’s Fort Ross bottling explains the riper style of this Pinot Noir.  Black fruit flavors mingle with savory earthy components in this juicy, bright, and long wine.  Though slightly bigger and bolder than their Fort Ross Pinot Noir, it remains impeccably balanced.  Again, a modest-–by today’s standards—13.7 percent stated-alcohol reinforces the notion that riper grapes don’t necessarily make better wine, especially when dealing with Pinot Noir.  95

Gary Farrell (Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County) Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($80):  Site matters.  A skeptic of that statement just needs to taste this Pinot Noir made from grapes grown in a vineyard located in the windy Petaluma Gap of Sonoma next to the Gary Farrell Pinot Noirs from the Russian River Valley.  This one has the power and robust nature of the Toboni and Martaella, but with layers of savory nuances that add complexity.  Though it displays a muscular style, it is not overdone.  Bright acidity keeps it from falling into the “Pinot-Syrah” category.  More tightly wound than Farrell’s other Pinot Noir, this wine could use further bottle age.  It should develop beautifully because of its wonderful balance.  If you can’t wait—and that’s understandable—open it a couple of hours before dinner.  94

Gary Farrell (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($55):  This wine presents a fascinating comparison with the Farrell’s Dijon Clones Pinot Noir from the same vineyard.  The winemaker says it’s a blend of five clones of Pinot Noir instead of two Dijon clones.  It has the same power as the Dijon Clones bottling, but reveals less complexity at this stage.  In my mind, it suffers by comparison to its stablemate.  As a stand-alone wine, I’d be thrilled to drink it with grilled salmon.  The lesson for me is that clones matter, but that subject is far too geek-y for this review, so I’ll leave it at that.  92

Gary Farrell (Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County) Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($70):   Santa Maria Valley’s east-west orientation is unusual in California where most of the valleys run north-south.  Its orientation, which allows cooling Pacific Ocean breezes, explains its cooler climate despite its southern California location.  The bright red fruit-like profile reflects the coolness of the site.  Though this Pinot Noir has fewer savory notes, touches of spice season it nicely and add complexity. Its raspberry-like flavors dance on the palate.  It’s a lighter and brighter Pinot Noir, which Theresa Heredia, the winemaker, calls, “sexy and spicy.”  92

Gary Farrell (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Martaella Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($65):  Those who love a more robust style of Pinot Noir will embrace the Martaella Vineyard bottling from Gary Farrell, in relation to the rest of this producer’s lineup.  The focus here is on the ripe, plum-like fruitiness.  As with all of Farrell’s Pinot Noirs, the tannins are fine and the textured refined, which makes it easy to enjoy now.  The sunny Santa Rosa plain where the vineyard is located helps explain the opulence in the wine.  91

Gary Farrell (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Toboni Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($55):  The warmth of the Russian River Valley compared to the Sonoma Coast or Santa Maria Valley accounts for riper raw material for this Pinot Noir, which is translated into a more robust wine.  Similar to the one from Martaella Vineyard, it delivers power at the expense of subtlety.  But, showing that site is critical, its fruit and spice profile differs from the Martaella even though the vineyards are a stone’s throw apart. It’s not the style of Pinot Noir I personally look for, but it is well made and certainly will have an audience.  The glossy tannins, a hallmark of Farrell’s Pinot Noir, make it a good choice now with grilled beef.  90

*         *         *

August 26, 2020

E-mail me your thoughts about the importance of site in general or Gary Farrell’s wines in particular at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein.

Sosie Wines, Sonoma County (California) Brut Nature “First Things First” 2018

($30):  To borrow Sosie’s phrase, first things first: people will either love or hate this well-made sparkling wine because it’s different.  Composed entirely of Roussanne, a white grape indigenous to France’s Rhône Valley, it conveys stone fruit — think nectarine-like — flavors.  It’s made by the traditional Champagne method of performing the secondary fermentation in the bottle.  The resulting fizz keeps it fresh and balanced, so it’s not heavy, but it doesn’t exactly dance on the palate as would a more traditional sparkler made entirely from Chardonnay.  Fine as a stand-alone aperitif, it works even better with food, such as grilled swordfish with a caper butter sauce.
90 Michael Apstein Aug 18, 2020

Gianni Gagliardo, Barolo DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) Castelletto 2013

($100, Enotec Imports / Blair Taylor Selection Denver):  The village of Monforte d’Alba, where the Castelletto vineyard is located, is a Barolo zone that typically produces weighty and muscular wines, similar to those from Serralunga d’Alba.  So, I was surprised by lovely fragrance and elegance that emanated from Gagliardo’s bottling.  Make no mistake, there was plenty of power.  The sublime fruitiness and a patina of oak made the tannins fade into the background.  This Barolo, at seven years of age, a joy to drink now, but those who prefer more savory nuances in their wines need to give it more time to develop.
92 Michael Apstein Aug 18, 2020

Palladino, Barolo DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) S. Bernardo Riserva 2013

($88, Enotec Imports / Blair Taylor Selection Denver):  Though the 2016 vintage in Barolo has been receiving great critical acclaim — rightfully so — other vintages from that DOCG are not far behind.  Case in point, this 2013 from Palladino, based in Serralunga d’Alba, a Barolo zone known for tannic and tough wines.  This one is terrific, muscular, but not tough at all.  In fact, it’s surprisingly glossy, especially for a wine from Serralunga.  A traditionally framed Barolo, it exudes a wonderful mixture of savory notes (especially, meaty ones) and dark fruit flavors.  It’s chewy but tender.  Engaging now, this wine is for the cellar to allow more development.  Palladino has less than two acres in the small San Bernardo vineyard, so production is limited.  It is worth the search.
95 Michael Apstein Aug 18, 2020

Barone Sergio, Eloro DOC (Sicily, Italy) Nero d’Avola “Sergio” 2018

($21, Artisanal Cellars):  “Eloro is a grand cru for Nero d’Avola,” according to Ian d’Agata, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Italian wines.  Barone Sergio has 75 acres of vineyards, two-thirds of which are devoted to that grape, one of Sicily’s most important varieties.  Sergio, a robust wine, delivers bright plummy fruit-like flavors accompanied by mild tannins.  The focus is on its fruitiness, while bright acidity keeps it fresh.  It would be a good choice for grilled foods this summer.
89 Michael Apstein Aug 4, 2020

Tenuta Carretta, Roero DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) “Bric Paradiso” Riserva 2015

($55, Blicker Pierce Wagner Wine Merchants):  Roero, located on the left bank of the Tanaro River, across from the Langhe, produces lighter Nebbiolo-based wines compared to those from across the river due to a generally lighter soil.  This, a fragrant beauty, has the Burgundian sensibility I call, “flavor without weight.”  It’s like a baby Barolo with hints of tar, floral character and firm, yet not astringent or annoying, tannins.  In short, a delight!
92 Michael Apstein Aug 4, 2020

Tenuta Carretta, Barbaresco DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) “Garassino” 2016

($50, Consortium Wine & Spirits Imports):  Tenuta Carretta is the sole owner of 11.5-acre Garassino vineyard, a recognized MGA (Menzione Geografica Aggiuntiva) or “cru” in the Treiso part of the Barbaresco zone.  It’s what the French would call a monopole.  Their well-price 2016 is elegant and understated.  Like many great wines, its grandeur sneaks up on you.  Only after it has been on the palate awhile do you really sit up and take notice.  Its floral notes and hint of tarriness are reinforced by a long, fine and explosive finish.  Not a powerhouse, this is a very pretty wine with fine tannins that, unsurprisingly, needs several years to open up.  I’d find room in the cellar.
94 Michael Apstein Aug 4, 2020

Boscarelli, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) Il Nocio 2016

($159, Empson USA): The 2016 Il Nocio is an extraordinary wine. Boscarelli is one of the top producers — some would say THE top producer — of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.  Il Nocio, from the vineyard of the same name, is their top wine.  The 2016 is exceptional, but I repeat myself. Crystalline and pure, it delivers hints of cherries and plenty of minerality.  Though not a fruity wine, it is plush, but not soft. Indeed, there’s a beauty in its austerity.  Then, all of a sudden, it’s no longer austere, but mouth-filling.  A long and elegant wine, the 2016 Il Nocio reveals more with each sip after time in the glass.  Its super suave texture is deceptive because it’s lovely to drink now, but the 2016 Il Nocio is a wine to age. Their website notes, “The aging potential of our Nocio is measured in decades. . .”   From my experience, the 2004 Il Nocio was just starting to show maturity in 2013, at a decade of age, and the 1996 was magnificent at 17 years of age at that same 2013 tasting.  So, I’d put the 2016 in a deep corner of your cellar.

96 Michael Apstein Jul 28, 2020

Colle Santa Mustiola di Fabio Cenni, Toscana IGT (Tuscany, Italy) Sangiovese Poggio ai Chiari 2011

($80, Selezioni Varietali):  This is my first encounter with this producer, but it certainly will not be my last given the quality of this wine.  Their importer tells me Cenni’s focus is Sangiovese, with their 12 acres planted entirely with 28 clones of that variety.  Poggio ai Chiari, their flagship wine, is impressive from the first fragrant whiff.  Stylish and refined, it transmits a lovely austerity without being hard. Paradoxically, it is both delicate and powerful, but not heavy.  Hints of cherries come through and mingle with mineral-like flavors.  Uplifting acidity keeps it fresh and lively and balances its chiseled profile.  An engaging hint of bitterness in the finish increases its appeal.  Cenni clearly knows something about Sangiovese.
94 Michael Apstein Jul 28, 2020

A Winery in…L.A.?

California red wine selling for $150+ a bottle is not a rarity anymore.  But who’s heard of a Los Angeles winery selling one for that price?  For that matter, who’s heard of Los Angeles wineries at all?  If you haven’t, you’re not alone.  I asked two well-respected California-based wine writers if they had ever heard of this winery and was met with a deafening silence.

So, let me introduce you to Moraga Winery, located in the tony Bel Air section of Los Angeles.  Visible from Interstate 405 and a quick 15 minutes from LAX, Moraga Bel Air sits in an upscale—to say the least—residential neighborhood overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

First, a little background.

Though California “Wine Country” today is centered north of San Francisco in Napa and Sonoma Counties, the original Wine Country was actually centered in Los Angeles.  In 1836, a couple decades before Hungarian Agoston Haraszthy imported European vines to Sonoma County, Frenchman Jean-Louis Vignes (what an appropriate name) brought French vines and planted them on the east bank of the Los Angeles River, in what is now downtown Los Angeles.  There were over 100 wineries in Los Angeles County in the early 19th century, sending wine to the thirsty 49ers mining for gold up north.  Los Angeles-based wineries never survived following prohibition, but Vine Street reminds us of the city’s wine legacy.

Fast forward to 1959, when Tom Jones, CEO of Northrup Aviation, and his wife, Ruth, purchased this jewel of a property located on the edge of the Santa Monica Mountains that had been owned by famed film director Victor Fleming, who won an Oscar for Gone with the Wind.  In 1980, Jones started planting vines and after several experiments, finally settled on Bordeaux varieties.  Though their first commercial vintage was 1989, it wasn’t until 2005 when they built a winery that they established themselves as an estate winery—meaning they use only their own grapes and vinify them on-site.  Prior to 2005, the wine was made entirely from their grapes, but in a Napa Valley winery.

In 2013, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp owns, among others, Fox News and Dow Jones Company, which publishes The Wall Street Journal, purchased the 14-acre estate, which includes an 8,000 square foot house, gardens, winery and vineyards, for $28.8 million.

Currently, Moraga Bel Air has just under 7 acres of vines, planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (4.3 acres), Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc (each 1.2 acres), Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot (each 0.1 acre).  They make two wines, a red and a white, simply labeled as such with a California appellation.  Scott Rich, the winemaker who has been with them since the mid-1990s, explains that the composition of the red wine usually contains more than 75 percent of Cabernet Sauvignon and could be labeled as such, but since the blend varies each year depending on how each of the individual varieties do, they don’t want to constrain themselves with varietal labeling.  Though the white is always 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc, they still label it simply as white wine, to keep the labeling consistent.  Rich explains that since Moraga Bel Air does not sit within a recognized AVA, they had the option of either using the county or state appellation.  They opted for California over Los Angeles County, since consumers might not take a wine from Los Angeles seriously.  Hint, they should.

Rich emphasizes that their site is unique.  Just five miles from the ocean, the soil and bedrock of this section of the mountains is uplifted seabed and marine in composition, specifically known as Santa Monica shale.  He notes it is not limestone, but rather a limestone precursor.  Additionally, situated on a fault line, the vineyard is very well drained.  Located at the mouth of a canyon that faces Santa Monica Bay, the vines benefit from consistent afternoon sea breezes that keep the vineyards much cooler compared to the surrounding area.  Rich remarks that prior to 2018, a very hot year, temperatures rarely exceeded 100ºF at their vineyard whereas just a few miles away triple digit temperatures were common during each the summer.

It took a lot of work and experimentation—and money—to get Moraga where it is today.  Early on, Rich recounts how they opted to declassify and not bottle half of the wine because it failed to meet their standards.  The learning-curve was steep.  They wound up replanting extensively as they learned what grew best where.  They discovered that the conventional wisdom of planting Cabernet Sauvignon in south-facing vineyards, which should be warmer and better suited for that variety, didn’t work because that slope was too cold as a result of the cooling Pacific breezes.  North-facing sites made horrible Sauvignon Blanc, according to Rich, because they were too hot for that grape.  So, they converted those vineyards to Cabernet Sauvignon, which thrived in the warmer site.  They even had to remove areas that had been carefully terraced previously when it turned out that that was not the best system for vines.

Rich describes the winemaking of the white as “super simple.”  The juice settles over-night.  He racks it off the gross lees and adds a little sulfur and then, using only native yeast, ferments twenty percent of the juice in new small French oak barrels where it remains for only a few weeks.  He ferments and ages the remainder in stainless steel tanks and blends the two batches before bottling.  They produce roughly 300 cases a year.  The wine retails for $115 a bottle.

Rich’s decision to age the red wine entirely in new, small, French oak barrels was serendipitous.  Reluctant to age the wine in used barrels for fear of introducing organisms not indigenous to their estate, Rich opted to age the initial vintage entirely in new French oak barrels.  The wine turned out just fine, according to him, and he has continued the practice ever since.  The variable, depending on the vintage, is the length of time the wine spends in barrel, anywhere from 18 to 22 months.

Moraga’s 2016 Red Wine (91 pts, $175), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (78 percent), Merlot (21 percent), with the remaining one percent split between Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, is, like the Bel Air neighborhood, plush and suave.  Nicely balanced, it delivers both spice and a plethora of fruit flavors enrobed in silky tannins.  Most importantly, the wine is not overdone.  You feel the effect of oak aging without it intruding.  Its 14.7 percent stated alcohol is noticeable only by a hint of heat in the finish.  Bright acidity keeps this refined wine lively.

Moraga’s production of red wine has been variable, between 200 and 700 cases, because of yields and overall quality.  Rich relates how he thinks they should be producing between 600 and 700 cases of the red a year, “as long as Mother Nature cooperates.”

Here’s hoping She does.

*         *         *


E-mail me at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com if you’ve ever heard of Moraga and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein and on Instagram.

July 22, 2020

Bocale di Valentini, Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG (Umbria, Italy) “Bocale” 2015

($47, Tradizione Imports):  The Sagrantino grape does not make wimpy wines.  So, there’s no surprise that this one is big and bold, weighing in at 15.5 percent stated-alcohol.  And, as expected from wines from this DOCG, its tannic youthfulness is in evidence.  The surprise, however, is the balance. Despite its size, it’s not heavy. It carries the alcohol, the tannins, and the flavor beautifully.  Great acidity keeps it fresh.  A hint of bitterness in the finish shows it’s not made from over-ripe grapes.  Its profile demands hefty meat, such as grilled lamb studded with garlic, or wild game.
92 Michael Apstein Jul 21, 2020

Boscarelli, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) Il Nocio 2016

  ($159, Empson USA): The 2016 Il Nocio is an extraordinary wine. Boscarelli is one of the top producers — some would say THE top producer — of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.  Il Nocio, from the vineyard of the same name, is their top wine.  The 2016 is exceptional, but I repeat myself. Crystalline and pure, it delivers hints of cherries and plenty of minerality.  Though not a fruity wine, it is plush, but not soft. Indeed, there’s a beauty in its austerity.  Then, all of a sudden, it’s no longer austere, but mouth-filling.  A long and elegant wine, the 2016 Il Nocio reveals more with each sip after time in the glass.  Its super suave texture is deceptive because it’s lovely to drink now, but the 2016 Il Nocio is a wine to age. Their website notes, “The aging potential of our Nocio is measured in decades. . .”   From my experience, the 2004 Il Nocio was just starting to show maturity in 2013, at a decade of age, and the 1996 was magnificent at 17 years of age at that same 2013 tasting.  So, I’d put the 2016 in a deep corner of your cellar.

96 Michael Apstein Jul 21, 2020

Pietro Beconcini, Toscana IGT (Tuscany, Italy) “Reciso” 2015

($35, Beivuma Wines):  Beconcini, located in San Miniato, a small town halfway between Pisa and Florence, makes range of wines from a Chianti to this one, his top of the line.  Made entirely from organically-grown Sangiovese, it’s a beauty, probably, in part at least, because of the age of the vines.  According to their website, about one-third of the vines for this wine are 45 years old while the rest are 25 years of age.  A ying and yang of savory and cherry-like flavors dance on the palate.  Though it has good density and ripeness — the 2015 vintage speaking — it’s not heavy.  Classic Tuscan acidity keeps it lively and fresh.  A charming rusticity and a hint of bitterness in the finish speaks to its authenticity.  It would be an ideal choice tonight for grilled steak.
92 Michael Apstein Jul 21, 2020

Colle Santa Mustiola di Fabio Cenni, Toscana IGT (Tuscany, Italy) Sangiovese Poggio ai Chiari 2011

($80, Selezioni Varietali):  This is my first encounter with this producer, but it certainly will not be my last given the quality of this wine.  Their importer tells me Cenni’s focus is Sangiovese, with their 12 acres planted entirely with 28 clones of that variety.  Poggio ai Chiari, their flagship wine, is impressive from the first fragrant whiff.  Stylish and refined, it transmits a lovely austerity without being hard. Paradoxically, it is both delicate and powerful, but not heavy.  Hints of cherries come through and mingle with mineral-like flavors.  Uplifting acidity keeps it fresh and lively and balances its chiseled profile.  An engaging hint of bitterness in the finish increases its appeal.  Cenni clearly knows something about Sangiovese.
94 Michael Apstein Jul 21, 2020

Usiglian del Vescovo, Terre di Pisa DOC (Tuscany, Italy) “Il Barbiglione” 2015

($32, Wine Worldwide Inc): The Terre di Pisa DOC is not even a decade old, having been founded only in 2011.  It’s a tiny area (less than 150 acres) with only a handful of producers, surrounding the Tuscan town of Pisa on Italy’s west coast, north of Bolgheri.  Unsurprisingly given its locale, the red grapes allowed include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese and Syrah.  Judging from this wine, consumers can expect to hear more about the region.  The 2015 Il Barbiglione displays good weight and power without being overdone.  Sufficient structure that avoids astringency balances the dark cherry-like flavors.  A delightful hint of bitterness in the finish makes it ideal for grilled meat this summer.
91 Michael Apstein Jul 21, 2020

Castello La Leccia, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione (Tuscany, Italy) “Bruciagna” 2015

($40, Ideal Wine):  Gran Selezione, a category introduced a decade ago, sits at the pinnacle of the Chianti Classico quality pyramid, above Riserva.  To qualify for this distinction, the wine must come from the producer’s estate — no purchased grapes allowed — be aged for a minimum of 30 months, and receive approval from a tasting panel.  It’s meant to be a producer’s flagship Chianti Classico.  Castello La Leccia, a consistent producer, makes a wonderful array of Chianti Classico wines.  Their 2015 Bruciagna, reflecting the ripeness of the vintage, is powerful, youthful and, importantly, balanced. In short, nothing is out of place.  Savory and fruity elements act as a foil for one another.  Good acidity keeps it bright, no small feat in 2015.  I would give it a few years in the cellar while you drink La Leccia’s regular Chianti Classico.
93 Michael Apstein Jul 21, 2020

Tua Rita, Toscana IGT (Tuscany, Italy) “Rosso dei Notri” 2019

($22, Winebow):  One of the things I admire about producers, such as Tua Rita, who can make a high-end wine (in Tua Rita’s case, their Redigaffi a $300+ per bottle Merlot) is that they can also produce a perfectly delightful $25 wine, such as this Rosso dei Notri.  I was enthusiastic about the 2017 recently, giving it 91 points, and am pleased to see their consistency with this 2019.  Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah fill out the Sangiovese and provide added richness, compared to, for example, a Morellino di Scansano.  A welcome touch of bitterness in the finish balances and enhances the wine’s fleshy character.  They’ve achieved excellent weight without heaviness or astringency.  This slightly more than mid-weight wine is a great value for current consumption.
92 Michael Apstein Jul 14, 2020