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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.

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


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


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


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


Les Crays
La Maréchaude
Sur La Roche
En France

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

September 30, 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

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August 26, 2020

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

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.

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

July 22, 2020

Bichot is Back

If I needed any convincing—and I did not—that Bichot, the venerable Beaune-based Burgundy négoçiant, is back, it was after tasting a line-up of their 2018s.  That vintage was precarious for winegrowers because the weather provided the potential for both fabulous wines or over-ripe ones with high alcohol levels depending on harvest date, location of the vineyards, and viticulture practices.  Bichot avoided the potential pitfalls and hit the bullseye with both their reds and whites in 2018.

Matthieu Mangenot, formerly the estate manager at Bichot’s Chablis property, Domaine Long-Depaquit, and recently promoted to Assistant Technical Director to Alain Serveau, Bichot’s Technical Director, summed up the growing season succinctly, in four words: wet, drought, hot and sunny.  The winter was wet with twice as much water as usual, which turned out to be beneficial because it kept the vines from stress during the drought that occurred from April through September.  The summer was hot and sunny, with the thermometer breaking 100º some days in September.  The overall result was the potential for alcoholic wines with low acidity.  Mangenot echoed what I had heard from many other growers, namely, that the key to success was an early harvest.  Bichot started theirs about two weeks earlier than usual, at the end of August.  In the cellar, Bichot opted on shorter aging with less time in barrel to preserve the vibrant fruitiness of the wines.  Like many other growers to whom I spoke, they were anxious about the wines at harvest, but thrilled with how they turned out by the time of bottling.

Although I have tasted at Bichot many times over the years, I did not have the time to taste their wines during my annual trip to Burgundy in November, and due to COVID-19, the usual spring press tastings are not occurring.  That did not stop the Bichot team from showing me their 2018s.  They put together an inventive tasting by pouring small, two-ounce, samples of finished, ready-to-be bottled wines—not barrel samples—into small screw-top jars and then rapidly distributed them to tasters (and, indeed, right on schedule they appeared on my porch).  We could taste them simultaneously, via Zoom, with the Bichot team in France, who had assembled in the cellar of their famous Nuits-St.  Georges-based property, Domaine du Clos Frantin.  In addition to Mangenot, Christophe Chauvel, who is in charge of viticulture for all their domaines, and Albéric Bichot, who runs the family-owned business, guided us through the wines.

Before getting to the wines, some background about Albert Bichot is helpful.  Albert Bichot, the grandson of Bernard Bichot, who founded the company in Monthélie in 1831, expanded it and moved its headquarters to Beaune, where it remains, in 1912.  Since 1996, Albéric Bichot, representing the 6th generation of the family, has been running the company and has been responsible for its meteoric rise in joining the other top-tier Burgundy négoçiants.  Under his direction, Bichot has expanded, adding domaines to their portfolio and acquiring other négoçiants, such as Nuits St. Georges-based Lupé-Cholet.

The most critical change that Albéric instituted was a conversion from a “quantity” to a “quality” mentality.  A major part of that change occurred in the vineyard.  Enter Chauvel, a revered viticulturist.  (I’ve heard so much praise from many respected sources about Chauvel that I think “revered” is appropriate.)  Chauvel joined Bichot in 1999 after working for seven years with Pierre Morey, one of Burgundy’s top winemakers, who currently makes wine at his eponymous domaine and was winemaker at Domaine Leflaive for years.  Chauvel told me during a visit in 2008 that his toughest decision was when he and the Bichot team decided to decrease yields by 10 to 15 percent.  He noted it was far more important for the reds than the whites because Chardonnay can handle a higher yield better than Pinot Noir.  But the major hurdle was a mental one.  As a farmer, decreasing yields voluntarily—without a guarantee that the price will increase—is a big challenge and an even bigger risk.

Like the other well-regarded négoçiants, Bichot is an important grower, owning six individual domaines, comprising about 250 acres of vines, from Chablis in the north to Beaujolais in the south.  Unlike other négoçiants who own vineyards, and therefore are growers as well, the Bichot properties, Domaine Long-Depaquit in Chablis, Domaine du Clos Frantin and Château-Gris, both in Nuits St. Georges, Domaine du Pavillon in Pommard, Domaine Adélie in Mercurey, and Domaine de Rochegrès in Moulin-a-Vent, each have their own winery and dedicated team, all, of course, under the supervision of Chauvel and Serveau.  The advantage of this organization, according to Albéric, is that the grapes have only a short distance to travel from vineyard to winery and there is a certain amount of friendly—one hopes—competition among the domaines each year.

Bichot’s total annual production is about two million bottles, with 25 percent of that total sourced from their six domaines.  The remainder comes from their négoçiant business, which is, as Albéric describes it, non-traditional.  He explains that they buy grapes or must, not wines, from growers who control roughly 1,000 acres throughout Burgundy.

The Wines

Domaine Long-Depaquit, Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos” 2018 ($112):  With holdings totalling 150 acres of vines, almost half of which are located in Premier or Grand Cru vineyards, Long-Depaquit is one of the most notable estates in Chablis.  They own roughly ten percent of all Grand Cru acreage in Chablis, including the entirety of La Moutonne, an anomalous site of almost 6-acres spanning two Grand Cru vineyards, Vaudésir and Preuses.  In Les Clos alone, Long-Depaquit owns two parcels totaling almost 4 acres, which they blend together for this wine.  The full-bodied and mineral-y 2018 is forward and easy to appreciate now, but should develop beautifully over the next several years because of its impeccable balance.  The long and graceful finish makes it particularly attractive.  93

Domaine Adélie, Mercurey “Les Champs-Michaux” 2018 ($55):  Albéric purchased this almost 20-acre estate in Mercurey in 2003, the year of his first daughter’s birth.  Hence the name of the domaine.  Mercurey is known for its red wines, but with more whites like this one, the reputation of its whites might well outdistance the reds.  Chauvel explains that the soil at Les Champs-Michaux is better suited for Chardonnay than Pinot Noir and believes that the clay in the soil imparts roundness to the wine.  Punching far above its weight, this exceptional village Mercurey is sensational.  Floral, with hints of ripe stone fruits, it has extraordinary elegance for a white Mercurey.  Delicious now.  92

Domaine du Pavillon, Meursault 2018 ($100): This village Meursault, a blend of five plots from the northern end of the appellation, is vinified at the Domaine du Pavillon, just down the road in Pommard.  One taste shows the dramatic textural difference between this white from the Côte d’Or and the Les Champs-Michaux from the Côte Chalonnaise.  Creamy, as opposed to stone-y, this Meursault has good weight on the palate.  Fine acidity keeps it lively.  89

Domaine du Pavillon, Corton-Charlemagne 2018 ($260): Bichot owns about three acres in the Les Languettes lieu-dit, a sunny southeast facing part of the Corton-Charlemagne vineyard.  From it, they have made a glorious wine in 2018, showing nuances of spiced pineapple offset by a crispy edginess.  Its stature is not in overall weight or power, rather in its layered complexity and elegance.  Very tight at this stage, it starts to show is stature with air.  A Grand Cru white that will need years to show itself.  94

Domaine de Rochegrès, Moulin-a-Vent 2018 ($28):  Bichot purchased this 12.5-acre estate in the heart of Moulin-a-Vent, arguably the top Beaujolais cru, in 2014.  The grapes come from three lieux-dits within Moulin-a-Vent, La Rochelle, Au Mont, and the young vines from Rochegrès itself.  It is ripe, spice-y and suave, combining richness, minerality and bright acidity.  A triumph.  93

Domaine du Pavillon, Pommard “Clos des Ursulines” 2018 ($55):  Unlike Bordeaux, most Burgundy vineyards are divided among multiple owners, which explains why the consumer can see multiple bottlings of Pommard Epenots, for example.  By contrast, Clos des Ursulines, a nearly 10-acre vineyard located in the southeast part of the village, is owned entirely by the Domaine du Pavillon.  It’s what the Burgundians call a monopole.  The 2018 is muscular with remarkable suaveness for a wine from Pommard, which gives real elegance to its burly frame.  An excellent village wine—and bargain-priced for what it is.  90

Château Gris, Nuits-St. Georges 1er Cru “Château Gris” 2018 ($130):  The 1er cru vineyard, Château Gris, takes its name from the 19th century castle the Earl of Lupé-Cholet built on the site after phylloxera destroyed the vines.  Instead of the usual multi-colored tiles of Burgundian roofs, it had only slate tiles, giving arise to the nickname of Gris (grey).  This monopole, owned by Bichot since 1978, covers 8.5 acres and is planted with both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but only the red wine from the site is classified as 1er cru.  The 2018 is positively stunning.  Far more elegant than you’d expect from Nuits-St. Georges, it still conveys a touch of wildness for which the appellation is known.  Long and finesse-filled, it dances on the palate.  Chauvel believes that the terraced rows at different elevations in the vineyard allows for varying levels of ripeness of the grapes, imparting freshness to the wine.  That likely explains its bright finish, which amplifies the wine’s charms.  95

Domaine du Clos Frantin, Echézeaux 2018 ($360):  Bichot’s Domaine du Clos Frantin owns two and a third acres in the lieu-dit of Champs Traversin from which they make a consistently spectacular Echézeaux.  The 2018 is no exception.  It is explosive, yet not weighty.  It delivers a touch of spice along with a plethora of subtle fruit flavors.  Its understated power and suaveness are captivating.  It’s my definition of Burgundy—flavor without weight.  96

A word about the prices.  They all reflect the 25 percent tariff imposed on most European wines under 14 percent alcohol by the U.S. government in retaliation for subsidies European governments give to Airbus.  The tariff money goes to the U.S.  government, not the Burgundy producers, although that’s no consolation to the consumer who ultimately pays what is, in reality, a new tax.

In summary, Bichot’s 2018 whites reflect their sites.  The Meursault is creamy, while, in contrast, the Mercurey is stone-y.  Those who criticize négoçiants by claiming a “house style” obliterates site specificity are just plain wrong, at least in this case.  The whites are charming and forward with surprisingly good acidity.  While most of them, the Corton-Charlemagne aside, lack the verve for long aging, like the 2010 or 2014 whites, they are beautifully proportioned and, most importantly, delicious.

The reds, like the whites, speak of their origins.  They are all wonderfully balanced, showing no signs of the over-ripeness that one might have expected given the growing conditions.  They are stylish, balanced, and should evolve beautifully over the decade with proper cellaring.  These wines convey the charm of Burgundy, no easy feat with such heat during the growing season.  Clearly, careful and thoughtful minds were at work here, all the better for us who will drink and admire these fine wines in the years to come.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Burgundy in general or Bichot in particular at and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein.

Focusing on Terroir, Following Burgundy’s Lead

If terroir—that French concept that where the grapes grow determines the character of the wine—is so important, why haven’t American consumers embraced it?  Maybe wine appellations, which should define terroir, are just not all that important.  That could be, but I doubt it. Wine appellations should help the consumer know what to expect: Is the wine sweet or is it dry?  Full-bodied or more delicate?  I think Americans haven’t embraced terroir because our focus has always been—and still is—on the importance of grape varieties, brands and winemakers.  But that may be changing as evidenced by a recent release of a trio Pinot Noirs by Siduri Wines, one of the properties owned by Jackson Family Wines.

Wine appellations should allow a consumer to predict, more or less, what’s in the bottle.  Wines from particular areas should have unique characteristics that reflect the locale.  European laws governing the various appellations mandate what grapes are allowed within the defined geographic area, further narrowing the range from a particular appellation.  Consumers, especially those just learning about wine, can confuse the appellation of Pouilly Fumé with that of Pouilly Fuissé, but quickly discern the difference between the herbal bite of the former with the gentler minerality and fruitiness of the latter.  Certainly, there will be differences among the styles of Pouilly-Fuissé depending on the producer, just as different chefs prepare different tomato sauces.  But overall Pouilly-Fuissé should be identifiably different from Pouilly-Fumé just as a plain tomato sauce is different from a tomato-based meat sauce.

Some U.S. producers have focused on terroir with single-vineyard bottlings.  Merry Edwards, Siduri Wines, and Dutton-Goldfield with their single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Nickel and Nickel with their single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons are superb examples of terroir in California.  These producers have shown the importance of site and that where grapes grow make a difference.  Edwards’ Meredith Estate Pinot Noir is consistently different from her Klopp Ranch bottling despite both vineyards being in the Russian River Valley.  Similarly, Nickel and Nickel’s Cabernet Sauvignon from the Sullenger Vineyard in Oakville differs from their State Ranch bottling in neighboring Yountville.  Site matters.

By and large, the U.S. wine industry has focused on individual producers, less so on differences between regions.  But despite our focus on American wine brands and their winemakers, terroir does exist on these shores. It’s not some French philosophic fantasy.  It exists outside of France, but is difficult to isolate unless—and this is critical—a single producer bottles wines from different American Viticultural Area (AVAs), our equivalence of European appellations.  Consumers can taste Domaine Drouhin Oregon’s Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and compare it to Merry Edwards’ Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, but are the differences due to terroir or to winemaking style?  One just doesn’t know.

That’s where Burgundy has led the way.

UNESCO has inscribed Burgundy’s vineyards—its terroir—on their list of World Heritage Sites, recognizing its importance as ground zero for terroir.  Two reasons explain Burgundy’s unique status.  Firstly, for 800 years, monks who planted the vineyards, with little else on which to focus (among worldly matters, at least), were able to study which sites did best year after year, decade after decade, and century after century.  Equally critical, in my opinion, has been the unique marketing system of the wines—based on the centrality of négociants.

The fragmented ownership of vineyards in Burgundy with most farmers owning portions of vineyards scattered over several villages, meant it was impractical for individual growers to make, bottle and market their wines themselves.  The négociant, or wine merchant, system evolved in the 19th century from this patchwork of vineyards and growers.  Growers from throughout Burgundy would sell their grapes or newly pressed juice to larger merchant houses, such as Albert Bichot, Bouchard Père et Fils, Maison Joseph Drouhin, Maison Joseph Faiveley, Maison Louis Jadot, and Maison Louis Latour to name just a few.  In turn, these houses would make, bottle and market the wines under their name.  Although the system started for economic reasons, the unanticipated consequence was the introduction of the concept of terroir to the general consumer.

Customers could—thanks to the efforts of the négociants—taste wines from the various villages and vineyards made using the same winemaking techniques.  The differences between wines from the villages (soon-to-be appellations beginning in the 1930s) of Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny could be appreciated because winemaking practices were the same.  The only differences among the wines was where the grapes were grown. Unexpectedly, the uniqueness of terroir became easy for the entire world to see, understand and appreciate.  The négociants made the transparency of site apparent to everyday consumers.

Today, though the distinction between négociant and grower has blurred, the concept of terroir remains clear.  Négociants have purchased more and more vineyards.  Growers, seizing on their rock star-like reputations, are becoming “micro-négociants” by buying grapes from other farmers and expanding their range.  With the growth of more micro-négociant model, the practice of a single producer bottling wines from a plethora of individual appellations has expanded and is stronger than ever.   A mini-version of this fragmentation exists in Piedmont, but with the exception of the Produttori del Barbaresco, a co-operative that bottles up to nine site-specific wines, and Sordo in Barolo, which bottles eight single-vineyard wines, most producers bottle no more than two or three separate wines.  Burgundy is the only place in the world where a single producer bottles 50+ individual appellation wines made from the same grape.

Unsurprisingly, Oregon, with its focus on Pinot Noir, a variety that has the potential to express terroir beautifully, has taken a lead in focusing on AVA.  The Drouhin family led the way when they established Domaine Drouhin Oregon in 1987.  Now they produce two distinctive and different Pinot Noirs from two AVAs there, Dundee Hills and Eola-Amity Hills.  Jadot followed suit in 2013 when they established their Oregon outpost, Résonance, in the Yamhill Carlton AVA and within a few years expanded by making Pinot Noir from another AVA, the Dundee Hills.  As with Drouhin’s Oregon bottlings, Jadot’s reflect the different growing areas.  Árdíri, based in Oregon, and Siduri based in California, have taken it a step further by crossing state lines.  Árdíri makes a Pinot Noir from Chehalem Mountains AVA in Oregon and from the Carneros AVA in California. Siduri has expanded the idea by producing multi-vineyard blends of Pinot Noir from three of America’s best AVAs for Pinot Noir: Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the Russian River Valley and Santa Barbara County in California.  Paradoxically, by being less focused on specific vineyards, these wines allow consumers to see—taste, really—the broad differences among these three prime areas or appellations.

Siduri, named for the Babylonian goddess of wine, has always specialized in Pinot Noir, especially single vineyard bottlings.  According to their website they make single vineyard wines from a total of 20 vineyards throughout California and Oregon.  These multi-vineyard single AVA additions to their portfolio are a boon for consumers because each of the wines is easy to recommend and is reasonably priced—at least for Pinot Noir.  Plus, if you taste the three side-by-side, you can easily discern the differences among the AVAs.  Everything except the where the grapes are grown is the same: same vintage, same grape, same winemaking team.  So, the only difference is the origin of the grapes.

Siduri’s Willamette Valley bottling ($35) comes from grapes grown in three AVAs within that valley: Yamhill-Carlton, Chehalem Mountains, and Eola-Amity. Racy and juicy, it delivers far more that bright fruitiness.  Indeed, savory notes are clear and balance the red raspberry-like quality.  A welcome hint of bitterness in the finish adds to its appeal and shows the understated charm that Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley delivers.

Compared to the Willamette Valley bottling, their Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($40), which comes from several vineyards throughout the valley, is broader and riper, with dark fruit flavors.  There’s no bitterness in the finish in this plush, suavely textured wine.  The slight increase in stated-alcohol (14.5 vs 14.3%) is noticeable in the hint of heat in the finish.  Overall, the greater power reflects the warmer Russian River Valley sites compared to those in the Willamette.

The grapes for the Santa Barbara bottling ($30) come primarily from the Sta. Rita Valley, whose east-west orientation is rare in California, where most of the valleys run north-south.  Sta. Rita’s orientation allows cool Pacific Ocean influences to reduce temperatures, especially close to the coast, making it an ideal locale for growing Pinot Noir, a grape that prefers lower temperatures to higher ones.  Siduri’s Sta. Rita bottling is a fine contrast to their other two, falling somewhere in the middle. Slightly riper and more full-bodied that their Willamette offering, it is more restrained compared to the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, reflecting the cooler environment.

Finally, consumers can learn for themselves the wonderful differences between Pinot Noir from the Willamette, the Russian River Valley, and Sta. Rita Hills without wondering whether they are tasting terroir or the producer’s signature.  Thanks to Siduri for reminding us that France does not have a monopoly on terroir. It’s alive and well in the USA.

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Email me your thoughts about terroir at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

May 13, 2020

Case for Quarantine 2.0

Times like this remind us of the things that are really important in life.  In the big picture, wine, though it plays a significant part in my life, is not among them.  Compared to the death and disease around us and the prospect of a looming economic recession, and maybe a depression, writing about wine seems trivial.  Just a month ago, I was in Florence at the Antiprime di Toscana, the annual tasting of the new vintage of Tuscan wines, including Chianti Classico.  Based on those tastings, I had planned an update about Gran Selezione, the new category of Chianti Classico that sits at the top of the region’s quality pyramid.  There’s no doubt Gran Selezione is an exciting new classification within Chianti Classico.  Yes, there are problems with the classification, but what classification is problem-free?  At this point in time, however, Gran Selezione and its problems seems trivial at best.  So, that column will wait.

Although wine may pale in comparison in importance to the darkness around us and what’s likely to come, it still does provide enormous joy and relief, especially during the shelter-at-home period.  So, this column will be a continuation of previous advice, stimulated in large measure by the people—ok, a person—who wrote to me, suggesting I continue recommending wines for quarantine.

I started my last column on this subject by saying that—though I am an MD—I’ll  leave the medical advice concerning the need to quarantine to your personal physician and public health experts.  I’ve changed my mind.  Everyone should shelter-in-place, adhere to social distancing, wear a mask or face covering when outside, and wash hands every time you touch something outside of your house.

A word about drinking alone.  Your liver is really remarkable.  It makes a bunch of proteins important for health, it gets rid of cholesterol and removes toxic material, and it can regenerate itself.  But it doesn’t have eyes.  It doesn’t know whether you’re drinking alone or with friends.  It certainly can tell how much you drink, just not with whom.  So, if you’re sheltering-in-place by yourself, don’t feel guilty about drinking wine with your meal.  Importantly, don’t feel the need to finish the bottle because you don’t want to waste it.  As always, think of moderate consumption.  And remember that most wines are still fine after being opened for a day or two.  It is critical to keep them in the refrigerator, even the reds, after you’ve opened them because the lower the temperature, the slower the wine deteriorates.  Recorking is a good idea to keep the smells of your refrigerator out of the wine and to prevent spillage.  You could say that screwcap closures were seemingly made for quarantine.

Now, with that out of the way, here’s my advice for another case for the next two weeks of sheltering in place.  Of course, as I’ve said before, depending on how many other adults are with you in quarantine, you may need more than a case.

One thing I’ve learned since my last column of this subject is the diversity of wine that people drink during these times.  W. Blake Gray, who writes for Wine-Searcher among other publications, reported that he and his wife were drinking Cain Five, a hearty Bordeaux-style blend, with dim sum.  According to Blake’s report, it was a success.  The broad message is to think outside of the box.  Don’t be constrained by any preconceived ideas of what wines go with what food.

That said, I restate the obvious: Champagne or other sparkling wine is perfect both because the “pop” of the cork brightens any day and the wine itself goes well with a broad selection of food, from take-out Asian to pan-seared steaks.

And don’t forget the Champagne stopper, which allows you to enjoy a glass, re-stopper the bottle to conserve the bubbles, and have another glass the following night.  Charles Heidsieck’s NV Brut Réserve ($69) is both powerful and elegant.  Ok, it may not be what you want with a recession/depression in the future, so turn to Prosecco.  Though Prosecco lacks the glorious rich complexity and depth of Champagne, it is refreshing and has the ability to elevate one’s mood.  Mionetto makes of bevy of fine Prosecco bottlings that are widely available.  Their DOC Treviso Brut ($13) is friendly, well suited for an aperitif or with food, while their Extra-Dry ($15), made from organic grapes, is broader and, paradoxically, has a more edgy backbone.  Let me remind readers of Paul Chollet’s beautifully balanced rosé, Crémant de Bourgogne Brut “Oeil de Perdrix” ($16), one of the best French non-Champagne sparkling wine bargains.

I touted Riesling last month because of its ability to pair with a plethora of foods.  That’s why I would definitely put a bottle or two in this case.  Try Penner-Ash’s 2017 Hyland Vineyard Riesling ($31) from McMinnville, Oregon.  Riveting acidity balances its hint of sweetness.  Out of your budgetary range?  Turn to Hugel, one of Alsace’s venerable houses and grab a bottle of their 2017 Classic Riesling ($20), which is energetic and delicately fruity.

Almost all (95 percent) of Chinon is red, but there is some white, made from Chenin Blanc, which is, rather like Riesling, a versatile wine.  And like Riesling, Chenin Blanc is available in a range of sweetness levels.  Every year, Couly-Dutheil’s white Chinon is always among the best.  Couly-Dutheil gets the balance right with their 2017 Chinon “Les Chanteaux” ($24), marrying the fruitiness of the grape, a hint of sweetness, with uplifting vibrancy.  Speaking of Chenin Blanc, if you have access to Long Island wines, look for Paumanok’s 2018 racy Chenin Blanc ($26) and those who do not, pick up Dry Creek Vineyard’s harmonious 2018 Dry Chenin Blanc ($16) from Clarksburg, California.  These three Chenin Blanc will do double duty as a sipper while you’re making dinner or waiting for the Chinese take-out to arrive.

I’m a big fan of Soave because the good producers, such as Inama, consistently over-deliver for the price.  Mineral-y, bright and long, Inama’s single-vineyard 2017 Soave Classico, “Vigneti di Foscarino” Vecchie Vigne ($23) is a perfect example.  It has remarkable weight.

It’s hard not to include a Chardonnay and a rosé in the quarantine case.  A 2019 Chardonnay from Los Vacos ($10), a Domaines Barons de (Lafite) Rothschild property in Chile, fits the bill nicely.  Spicy and understated, it is nicely balanced and…has a screwcap.  At ten bucks you can’t beat it.

Regular readers know that I’m not swept away by rosé, but Minuty’s 2019 “Prestige” Côtes de Provence Rosé ($27) makes even the most skeptical sit up and take notice.  Very pale pink, you’d be forgiven to think it would turn out to be bland.  Not at all.  Lively wild strawberry-like flavors leap from the glass.  This dry and invigorating rosé can hold up to some serious sushi.

You could fill your entire quarantine case with Chianti Classico from the 2015 and 2016 vintages, two spectacular vintages that are currently widely available.  The 2015s are slightly riper compared to the sleeker and racier 2016s.  Here are a half dozen from each vintage that I can recommend enthusiastically:

2016 Chianti Classico: Castello della Paneretta ($20), Casaloste ($20), San Fabiano Calcinaia ($21), Pincipe Corsini “Le Corti” ($24), Isole e Olena ($26), and Querciabella ($32).

2015s: Chianti Classico: Badia a Coltibuono ($20), Castellare di Castellina ($22), Tenuta di Nozzole ($22), Castello di Volpaia ($23), Isole e Olena ($26), and Fèlsina ($27).

Watch your distance and wash your hands—that’s my version of “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

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E-mail me your choices for your case for quarantine at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

April 8, 2020

Case for Quarantine 2.0

Times like this remind us of the things that are really important in life.  In the big picture, wine, though it plays a significant part in my life, is not among them.  Compared to the death and disease around us and the prospect of a looming economic recession, and maybe a depression, writing about wine seems trivial.  Just a month ago, I was in Florence at the Antiprime di Toscana, the annual tasting of the new vintage of Tuscan wines, including Chianti Classico.  Based on those tastings, I had planned an update about Gran Selezione, the new category of Chianti Classico that sits at the top of the region’s quality pyramid.  There’s no doubt Gran Selezione is an exciting new classification within Chianti Classico.  Yes, there are problems with the classification, but what classification is problem-free?  At this point in time, however, Gran Selezione and its problems seems trivial at best.  So, that column will wait.

Although wine may pale in comparison in importance to the darkness around us and what’s likely to come, it still does provide enormous joy and relief, especially during the shelter-at-home period.  So, this column will be a continuation of previous advice, stimulated in large measure by the people—ok, a person—who wrote to me, suggesting I continue recommending wines for quarantine.

I started my last column on this subject by saying that—though I am an MD—I’ll  leave the medical advice concerning the need to quarantine to your personal physician and public health experts.  I’ve changed my mind.  Everyone should shelter-in-place, adhere to social distancing, wear a mask or face covering when outside, and wash hands every time you touch something outside of your house.

A word about drinking alone.  Your liver is really remarkable.  It makes a bunch of proteins important for health, it gets rid of cholesterol and removes toxic material, and it can regenerate itself.  But it doesn’t have eyes.  It doesn’t know whether you’re drinking alone or with friends.  It certainly can tell how much you drink, just not with whom.  So, if you’re sheltering-in-place by yourself, don’t feel guilty about drinking wine with your meal.  Importantly, don’t feel the need to finish the bottle because you don’t want to waste it.  As always, think of moderate consumption.  And remember that most wines are still fine after being opened for a day or two.  It is critical to keep them in the refrigerator, even the reds, after you’ve opened them because the lower the temperature, the slower the wine deteriorates.  Recorking is a good idea to keep the smells of your refrigerator out of the wine and to prevent spillage.  You could say that screwcap closures were seemingly made for quarantine.

Now, with that out of the way, here’s my advice for another case for the next two weeks of sheltering in place.  Of course, as I’ve said before, depending on how many other adults are with you in quarantine, you may need more than a case.

One thing I’ve learned since my last column of this subject is the diversity of wine that people drink during these times.  W. Blake Gray, who writes for Wine-Searcher among other publications, reported that he and his wife were drinking Cain Five, a hearty Bordeaux-style blend, with dim sum.  According to Blake’s report, it was a success.  The broad message is to think outside of the box.  Don’t be constrained by any preconceived ideas of what wines go with what food.

That said, I restate the obvious: Champagne or other sparkling wine is perfect both because the “pop” of the cork brightens any day and the wine itself goes well with a broad selection of food, from take-out Asian to pan-seared steaks.

And don’t forget the Champagne stopper, which allows you to enjoy a glass, re-stopper the bottle to conserve the bubbles, and have another glass the following night.  Charles Heidsieck’s NV Brut Réserve ($69) is both powerful and elegant.  Ok, it may not be what you want with a recession/depression in the future, so turn to Prosecco.  Though Prosecco lacks the glorious rich complexity and depth of Champagne, it is refreshing and has the ability to elevate one’s mood.  Mionetto makes of bevy of fine Prosecco bottlings that are widely available.  Their DOC Treviso Brut ($13) is friendly, well suited for an aperitif or with food, while their Extra-Dry ($15), made from organic grapes, is broader and, paradoxically, has a more edgy backbone.  Let me remind readers of Paul Chollet’s beautifully balanced rosé, Crémant de Bourgogne Brut “Oeil de Perdrix” ($16), one of the best French non-Champagne sparkling wine bargains.

I touted Riesling last month because of its ability to pair with a plethora of foods.  That’s why I would definitely put a bottle or two in this case.  Try Penner-Ash’s 2017 Hyland Vineyard Riesling ($31) from McMinnville, Oregon.  Riveting acidity balances its hint of sweetness.  Out of your budgetary range?  Turn to Hugel, one of Alsace’s venerable houses and grab a bottle of their 2017 Classic Riesling ($20), which is energetic and delicately fruity.

Almost all (95 percent) of Chinon is red, but there is some white, made from Chenin Blanc, which is, rather like Riesling, a versatile wine.  And like Riesling, Chenin Blanc is available in a range of sweetness levels.  Every year, Couly-Dutheil’s white Chinon is always among the best.  Couly-Dutheil gets the balance right with their 2017 Chinon “Les Chanteaux” ($24), marrying the fruitiness of the grape, a hint of sweetness, with uplifting vibrancy.  Speaking of Chenin Blanc, if you have access to Long Island wines, look for Paumanok’s 2018 racy Chenin Blanc ($26) and those who do not, pick up Dry Creek Vineyard’s harmonious 2018 Dry Chenin Blanc ($16) from Clarksburg, California.  These three Chenin Blanc will do double duty as a sipper while you’re making dinner or waiting for the Chinese take-out to arrive.

I’m a big fan of Soave because the good producers, such as Inama, consistently over-deliver for the price.  Mineral-y, bright and long, Inama’s single-vineyard 2017 Soave Classico, “Vigneti di Foscarino” Vecchie Vigne ($23) is a perfect example.  It has remarkable weight.

It’s hard not to include a Chardonnay and a rosé in the quarantine case.  A 2019 Chardonnay from Los Vacos ($10), a Domaines Barons de (Lafite) Rothschild property in Chile, fits the bill nicely.  Spicy and understated, it is nicely balanced and…has a screwcap.  At ten bucks you can’t beat it.

Regular readers know that I’m not swept away by rosé, but Minuty’s 2019 “Prestige” Côtes de Provence Rosé ($27) makes even the most skeptical sit up and take notice.  Very pale pink, you’d be forgiven to think it would turn out to be bland.  Not at all.  Lively wild strawberry-like flavors leap from the glass.  This dry and invigorating rosé can hold up to some serious sushi.

You could fill your entire quarantine case with Chianti Classico from the 2015 and 2016 vintages, two spectacular vintages that are currently widely available.  The 2015s are slightly riper compared to the sleeker and racier 2016s.  Here are a half dozen from each vintage that I can recommend enthusiastically:

2016 Chianti Classico: Castello della Paneretta ($20), Casaloste ($20), San Fabiano Calcinaia ($21), Pincipe Corsini “Le Corti” ($24), Isole e Olena ($26), and Querciabella ($32).

2015s: Chianti Classico: Badia a Coltibuono ($20), Castellare di Castellina ($22), Tenuta di Nozzole ($22), Castello di Volpaia ($23), Isole e Olena ($26), and Fèlsina ($27).

Watch your distance and wash your hands—that’s my version of “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

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E-mail me your choices for your case for quarantine at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

April 8, 2020

Dr. Apstein’s Case for Quarantine

I’ll leave the medical advice concerning the need to quarantine to your personal physician and public health experts.  My advice is for a case of wine you’ll need for those two weeks.  Of course, depending on how many other adults are with you in quarantine, you may need more than a case.

For many, planning dinner two nights in advance is a task.  I know of no one who could plan meals two weeks in advance.  So, you need flexibility in the wine you select.  You’ll need reds and whites that go with a variety of dishes, since you may not know exactly what you’ll be eating each day.

Let’s start with the obvious: Champagne or other sparkling wine.  You’ve heard the statement about Champagne, attributed to Napoleon or Churchill, or maybe both, “In victory, you deserve it.  In defeat, you need it.”  At this stage of the pandemic it’s premature to declare victory, just as it’s not appropriate to throw in the towel.  Regardless, you still need Champagne.  And a Champagne stopper, which allows you to enjoy a glass, re-stopper the bottle to conserve the bubbles, and have another glass the following night.  I recommend the graceful Chardonnay-laden Laurent Perrier NV Brut ($47) or the more powerful and equally seductive Louis Roederer NV Brut ($55).  Champagne’s too pricey with economic disaster looming in the near future?  Try Roederer Estate Brut from California’s Anderson Valley ($25) or Ferrari’s Metodo Classico from Trento in Northern Italy ($24).  Less expensive still, but still worth putting in the case, is Bisol’s Prosecco, “Jeio” ($15).  One of the best French non-Champagne sparkling wine bargains is Paul Chollet’s beautifully balanced rosé, Crémant de Bourgogne Brut “Oeil de Perdrix” ($16).

Undoubtedly during a two-week spell you’ll have pasta, maybe linguine and clam sauce (using canned clams), macaroni and cheese, a robust spaghetti putanesca, or a subtler rigatoni and Bolognese ragú.  With all the time on your hands, this would be a good time to make risotto.  And chicken breasts, thighs or whole a roasted chicken will find their way to the menu, along with steaks or lamb chops that you’ve thought to freeze.  Hearty beef stews or lamb shanks always improve after a day or two.  With that array of flavors, you’ll need an equally diverse group of wines.

Let’s start with whites.  Riesling is always a favorite of mine because it really can go with most foods—even steak—because of its mouth-cleansing acidity.  Trimbach, one of the great names in Alsace, makes consistently excellent Riesling.  Their 2017 ($19) has enough body to offset the acidity and be a good match for that spaghetti putanesca.  I go off the beaten track and suggest William Fevre’s 2017 St. Bris ($24).  St. Bris is a tiny appellation near Chablis that requires the use of Sauvignon Blanc.  Fevre’s combines the bite of that variety with minerality imparted by the limestone of the region.

Moving to southern Burgundy, pick up a bottle of Louis Latour’s 2018 Viré-Clessé from a small appellation in the Mâconnais.  The backbone of acidity in Latour’s whites is well-suited to ripeness imparted by the warmth of the vintage.  This is a great introduction to white Burgundy.  Pieropan’s single vineyard Soaves are consistent winners, but so too is their regular one.  The 2018 ($23), which just won a double gold medal at 2020 Toast of Coast International Wine Competition, should certainly be in your case.  It has good stuffing and a piercing acidity that keeps it fresh.  Cerulli Spinozzi, a top producer in Abruzzo, makes a fabulous Pecorino (a wine, not the cheese).  Their 2016, with a pepper-like bite and saline stoniness, is lively, refreshing and a bargain to boot ($15).

Turning to the reds.  I’ll state the obvious.  You want wines that are ready to drink, so avoid those that would benefit from even a year of bottle age.  The 2016 Chianti Classicos are perfect for drinking now with those hearty pasta dishes.  Try Machiavelli’s savory and racy 2016 “Solatìo del Tani ($25),” or Fontodi’s ripe and racy 2016 ($45), or Frescobaldi’s graceful 2016 Tenuta Perano ($23).  Similarly, save your Brunello di Montalcino for another time and embrace the 2016 Rosso di Montalcino, such as the finesse-filled one from Col d’Orcia ($22).

In Beaujolais, Château Thivin’s Côte de Brouilly never fail to impress, so look for their mid-weight and savory 2016 or 2017 (each about $29).  For the steak that will likely be on the table once during the two-week period, try Jed Steele’s 2016 Stymie Vineyard Merlot ($38) from Lake County in California.  Though it’s a big wine, it’s not over the top and the fine tannins and suave texture allow immediate enjoyment.  For those of you, like myself, who could not stand the thought of being away from red Burgundy for two weeks, I suggest Jadot’s 2017 fleshy and charming Pernand-Vergelesses Clos de la Croix de Pierre ($49), a premier cru that the family has owned for decades, and delivers a balanced mix of fruity and savory notes.  This is a 2017 red Burgundy that’s enjoyable now.

Cheese won’t spoil over two weeks, so you can look forward to the occasional cheese course, which, means a sweet wine, in my opinion.  Sauternes will keep beautifully after being opened for a few days, so this is the time to find a bottle of it.  Château Coutet (from the famous Sauternes sub-section Barsac) is one of my favorites.  The beautifully balanced 2005 is still widely available ($68).  Equally good with cheese, is Port.  I favor a well-aged Tawny over a Vintage Port because there’s no need to decant and the wine will stay fresh after opening for at least two weeks.  Look for Taylor’s or Fonseca’s 20-year old Tawny (each $52).  Those wines might seem pricey, but remember, you’re drinking them over a week.

So, there’s Dr. Apstein’s recipe: a bottle of bubbles, a sweet wine, five whites and five reds.  Adjust as necessary.  Consider doubling the quantities just in case you get a recurrence and need to re-quarantine.

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E-mail me your choices for your case for quarantine at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

March 16, 2020

What is the new Bourgogne Côte d’Or ‘appellation’?


Why does the Bourgogne Côte d’Or appellation exist?

It is technically a new geographical denomination within the regional ‘Bourgogne’ appellation.

Its aim is to highlight the greater potential of the Côte d’Or, in the heart of Burgundy, to produce unique wines.

Therefore, regulations require the exclusive use of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown there.

Since it’s designed to be a cut above the regional Bourgogne appellation, the yields must be lower compared to wines labelled simply Bourgogne, which may contain grapes grown anywhere in the wider Burgundy area.

Anyone who has been disappointed by a thin Bourgogne Rouge, which turned out to be made entirely from grapes grown in the less prestigious parts of Burgundy, will appreciate the new appellation.

Where does it sit in the Burgundy hierarchy?

It is one of the 14 geographical denominations that sit within the regional Bourgogne appellation.

It sits above regional Bourgogne appellation wines and just below village-level wines, a spokesperson for Burgundy’s wine council, the BIVB, told Decanter in 2017.

The area covered includes Côte d’Or vineyards spread across 40 villages along a 65km stretch from Dijon to Maranges, spanning the Côte de Beaune in the south and Côte de Nuits in the north.

Who is using Bourgogne Côte d’Or on wine labels?

Some critics and producers have questioned whether a new appellation could confuse consumers, given the already-complex nature of Burgundy’s climats.

Yet, several winemakers and merchant houses have embraced the Burgundy Côte d’Or tag.

Around 1.6m bottles of Bourgogne Côte d’Or red wines were produced from the 2018 vintage, up by 20% on the inaugural 2017 crop, according to the BIVB.

Around 920,000 bottles of white wine were made from the 2018 harvest, up by 55% on 2017, it said.

Much of this volume comes from top négociants.

Maison Latour is now making both a red and white Bourgogne Côte d’Or, while Louis Jadot is making a red.

Bichot has changed the label of its Secret de Famille from Bourgogne Rouge to Bourgogne Côte d’Or, since the grapes traditionally have come from that part of Burgundy.

Some top growers are also on board. Pommard’s Domaine Parent has started using the new appellation for its Cuvée Pomone, and Meursault-based Michel Bouzereau has begun labelling its Clos du Moulin as Bourgogne Côte d’Or.

These wines were formerly labelled Bourgogne Rouge and Bourgogne Blanc respectively, but have always met the requirements of the new appellation.

Jean-Nicolas Méo, of Méo-Camuzet, has taken the concept a step further by bottling three different wines under the new appellation: Hémisphère Sud, using grapes from Côte de Beaune; Hémisphère Nord, using grapes from the Côte de Nuits; and Cuvée Etienne Camuzet, using grapes exclusively from the estate.

Will prices rise for Bourgogne Côte d’Or wines?

It’s still early days, but there has been an assumption that ‘Côte d’Or’ wines would generally cost more than those labelled simply as Bourgogne.

One trade figure told Decanter in 2017 that prices could be around 20% higher on average.

However, many factors affect price, from policies of individual growers and harvest size to currency swings and also international trading conditions; witness the recent 25% import tariffs placed on certain European still wines entering the US.

Additional copy by Chris Mercer

March 14, 2020

Brunello 2015: Less is More

The 2015 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino is being heralded as a 5-star vintage (the top rating) by the notoriously easy-grading Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, the trade group that represents producers in Montalcino.  Retailers around the country have jumped onto the bandwagon with enthusiastic praise for the 2015 vintage.  And though the wines are pricey—after all, Brunello is one of Italy’s grandest wines—they are not subject to the 25 percent tariff that has made many French wines even more expensive.  I tasted many great wines when the Consorzio showed the 2015 vintage in New York City last month, and again this month in Montalcino.  Nevertheless, and while I don’t want to rain on the parade, I would urge caution in selecting these wines.  Unlike the spectacular and consistent 2010 vintage, which also received 5 stars from the Consorzio, 2015 is not a point and shoot vintage.  The hot and dry growing season presented challenges.

First, a little background about Brunello di Montalcino.  The wine comes exclusively from Sangiovese grown in the hilly area around Montalcino, a tiny mountaintop Tuscan village about two hours by car south of Florence.  Regulations require a minimum of two years of barrel aging, followed by bottle aging to soften what can be aggressive tannins of Sangiovese grown in this area.  The wine cannot be released for sale until January 1 of the fifth year following the harvest.  Hence, the 2015 is the current vintage.

As grand wine areas go, Brunello is a “Johnny-come-lately,” being practically unknown even within Italy until the 1960s when there were only six families producing Brunello, according to Tom Maresca, a world authority on Italian wines.  (To be fair, Biondi-Santi, considered the pioneer of Brunello and still the region’s top producer, at least judging from the prices of their wines, released their first wine in the late 19th century.)  The uniqueness and quality of the wines became apparent quickly and the area received DOC recognition in 1968 and was among the first to receive DOCG recognition, Italy’s highest ranking, in 1980.  Even until the mid-1990s Brunello was a challenge to sell in the U.S., and was familiar to only a small percentage of connoisseurs, according to Lars Leicht, a veteran Brunello expert.  Leicht believes that the stellar 1990 vintage along with marketing efforts by large producers, such as Banfi, brought it into the mainstream.  Now the Consorzio lists 208 wineries that bottle Brunello.

In this small area of about 5,000 acres (one-tenth the size of Napa Valley) most producers are small, bottling fewer than 4,000 12-bottle cases of Brunello annually.  Indeed, I counted only 10 producers who made more than 12,000 cases in 2015 (e-mail me for a list).  For comparison, the first growth Bordeaux chateau bottle about 20,000 cases annually, on average.  As a result, many Brunello producers fail to have national distribution in the U.S., and consumers could have difficulty finding their wines.  Nonetheless, the best of the 2015 Brunello are worth the needed search.

The character of the 2015 Brunello can be explained by the weather during the growing season.  It was a hot and dry year.  As a result, the wines are ripe, powerful and in many cases, approachable now because of their plushness.  Although conventional wisdom would predict 2015 would produce flabby wines because of corresponding low acidity in very ripe grapes (as all fruit ripens, acidity falls), many of the 2015 Brunello are surprisingly fresh.  That’s because many producers could not perform the usual malolactic fermentation since there was so little malic acid in the grapes.  (In normal years, malolactic fermentation converts harsher malic acid to creamier lactic acid and softens the acidity.)  What little malic acid was left in the grapes at harvest remained in the wine, imparting a tang to them.  Though too much malic acid makes a wine undrinkable, the small amounts found in many of the 2015 Brunello actually helped impart liveliness to many wines.

Producers told me that the potential danger in 2015 was over-ripeness of the grapes resulting in high alcohol wines.  Though most of the 2015 Brunello weighed in with a 14 or 14.5 percent stated alcohol, which is about average for Brunello these days, more than a few tipped the scales at 15 percent and above.  Producers also cautioned that extraction during fermentation needed to be performed gently to prevent over the top wines.  Not all adhered to that advice.

Much like other great wine growing areas, Brunello di Montalcino is not homogeneous, but has geologic and climatic variation, which means a potential for wonderful diversity among the wines.  Gabriele Gorelli, a Master of Wine candidate from Montalcino and a spokesperson for the Consorzio, explains that the Montalcino DOCG is roughly a pyramid, with the village itself at its pinnacle of 1850 feet (564 meters) above sea level.  There are dramatic variations in climate, soil and exposure among these four major subzones.  And even within an individual slope, substantial differences in terroir exist.  The vineyards of two excellent producers, Col d’Orcia and Castello Banfi, are near each other in the same zone, but their wines differ dramatically—Col d’Orcia’s being lighter and more elegant while Banfi’s are riper and more robust—reflecting either producer style, terroir differences within a zone, or a little bit of both.

In a hot dry year like 2015, sites in the northern (cooler) segment of the DOCG and at higher elevations had a distinct advantage.  Sadly, it can be difficult to tell from the label the precise location of the vines.  Many producers have plots in different areas but opt to make one wine by blending grapes from different sites.  Even if consumers knew the location of the winery, there’s no assurance that all the grapes came from the same locale.

Many producers do produce site-specific bottlings.  Monty Waldin, another world expert on Italian wines, estimated in 2015 that about 15 percent of Brunello were labeled with specific sites.  Col d’Orcia’s spectacular Poggio al Vento (always one of my favorite wines, year in and year out) comes from a high-elevation single 17-acre vineyard.  Mastrojanni’s Vigna Loreta is also consistently a winner, as is Caparzo’s Vigna La Casa, located in the cooler northern Montosoli area.  And the practice is spreading.  Donatello Cinelli Colombini, who already produces top-notch Brunello, is adding a single vineyard Brunello, Adita, to their portfolio.

What’s really exciting to me is the practice by some producers to make single vineyard bottlings from the different sectors of the DOCG.  That way, consumers can see and taste the diversity of the site because the producers’ style and philosophy remain constant.  In contrast, if you taste the Brunello from Baricci, all of whose vines are located in Montosoli, side by side with, for example, the Brunello from Talenti, whose vineyards are located in the south, maybe you’re tasting the difference between the two zones but just as easily you could be tasting the difference between producers’ styles.  There’s no way to know.  That’s why I find the single vineyard bottlings from producers like Nardi and Val di Suga so enticing and appealing—the producer’s hand is constant and you are tasting the difference among the areas.

Andrea Lonardi, the director of Val di Suga, explains that even a cursory look at the landscape gives an insight into the differences in terroir.  In the north with its more continental climate, cypress trees reign, whereas in the southwest, olive trees and herbs like rosemary and thyme predominate in the more Mediterranean-like climate.  It should come as no surprise given these vast differences in vegetation that Val di Suga’s three single vineyard Brunellos, which lie in different parts of the DOCG, are different and distinctive.  Though all three show an elegance and persistence without being massive, reflecting the Val di Suga’s style, the wines are markedly different.  The difference between Nardi’s broad-shouldered Manichiara, from a vineyard in the northeastern sector, and their finely chiseled Poggio Doria bottling, coming from a vineyard in the southwestern part of the DOCG is similarly staggering.

Many produces bottle a selezione, or selection, not from a single vineyard, but rather from what they consider their best batches.  Donatello Cinelli Colombini has one called Prime Donne, which is selected by a group of experienced female tasters.  I Cipressi calls theirs Zebra.  Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish a selezione from a single vineyard bottling.  For example, Fanti and Banfi, have what sounds like vineyard names on the label, Valocchio, or Poggio alle Mure, respectively, but in fact, represent a selection of wines from various vineyards.  In reality, for the average consumer it probably makes less difference since the most important piece on the label is the name of the producer.

Still, I—for one—would like to see more specific bottles reflecting the locale of the vineyards, such as is the practice in Barolo or Burgundy.  One of the reasons acclaimed wine areas, like those two, are truly great is because of the uniqueness of the wines that comes from areas that revere site specificity.  Brunello would benefit from more focus on place and show consumers that Brunello di Montalcino is no different from Barolo or Burgundy in that regard.

Back to the specifics of the 2015s Brunello.  There’s a lot to like with this vintage, but consumers need to be selective because not all producers dealt equally well with the difficult conditions the climate produced.  Some handled the ripeness beautifully, but others did not, falling into the trap of too much extraction and too much oak aging especially for their selezione or even their single vineyard bottling.  For example, Talenti’s regular 2015 Brunello bottling was spectacular, one of my favorites.  In contrast, I found their Piero bottling to be overly extracted and out of balance with oaky flavors dominating.  To be fair, another critic (with whom I rarely agree) awarded Talenti’s 2015 Piero 100 points, showing there is variability among critics and well as among wines.  Similarly, I found the regular 2015 Brunello from I Cipressi to be better balanced than their 2015 Zebra.  Though there were exceptions, as you’ll see below, time and time again, producers’ special bottlings seemed out of balance at this stage and over the top with too much alcohol, ripeness and oak influences.  I believe that in 2015, less is more in Brunello.

My favorites are listed below.  Within each grouping, wines are listed alphabetically.  (All prices are taken from  NYA = price not yet available):

Gianni Brunelli 96 ($61)
Mastrojanni “Vigna Loreto” 96 points (NYA)
Silvio Nardi “Vigneto Poggio Doria” 96 ($110)

Barbi “Vigna del Fiore” 95 ($70)
Le Macioche 95 ($99)
Silvio Nardi “Vigneto Manachiara” 95 ($110)
Val di Suga “Vigna Spuntali” 95 (NYA)
Talenti 95 ($46)

Donatella Cinelli Colombini “Prime Donne” 94 (NYA)
Fulgini 94 ($99)
Val di Suga, “Poggio al Granchio” 94 ($74)

Castello Romitorio “Filo di Seta” 93    ($108)
Le Ragnaie, “Casanovina Montosoli” 93 (NYA)
San Polo “Podernovi” 93 (NYA)
Val di Suga, “Vigna del Lago” 93 (NYA)

Castelgiocando 92 ($68)
Col d’Orcia: 92 ($52)
Donatella Cinelli Colombini 92 (NYA)
Mastrojanni 92 ($52)
Silvio Nardi 92 ($55)
Sesta di Sopra 92 ($76)
Val di Suga 92 (NYA)

Barbi 91 ($50)
Carpineto 91 (NYA)
Casisano 91 (NYA)
Castello Romitorio 91 ($60)
I Cipressi 91 (NYA)
Il Poggione 91 ($84)
Le Potazzine 91 (NYA)

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E-mail me your thoughts about Brunello at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein and on Instagram.

March 4, 2020

Burgundy’s 2018 Vintage: The Importance of Harvest Date

During the annual press conference in November, 2018 at which various Burgundy luminaries discussed the recent vintage, Françoise Labet, President of the organization that represents Burgundy wine, proclaimed that the recently completed vintage was, “Close to 1947,” which was a legendary year.  He voiced no concerns about finesse or elegance of the reds, and was pleased with the quality, quantity and consistency of the harvest.  He noted that it was the second full crop in a row, a welcome relief after five years of reduced yields due to frost and hail.

Tasting the 2018 vintage a year later, the standing of the wines seems notably different.  A final verdict can’t yet be stated, since most of the wines are still in barrel.  However, an assessment at this point is in order, as the wines are now being offered for sale as “futures.”  After tasting wines from throughout Burgundy at négociant houses, such as Bouchard Père et Fils, Joseph Drouhin, and Louis Jadot, as well as many small growers, I found that some of the wines, especially the reds, are truly spectacular, but the consistency is variable.  Unlike 2010 or 2015, 2018 is not a “point and shoot” vintage for the reds, though there will be some outstanding and memorable wines.

To address the growing season concisely, suffice it to say that 2018 was hot and dry. Twice as much rain as normal during the previous winter provided adequate ground water, which saved the crop from what otherwise might have been desiccating summer weather, according to Frédéric Weber, winemaker at Bouchard Père et Fils.  Though not as blistering as 2003, the heat meant that sugars rose rapidly and sometimes unpredictably just prior to harvest.  Waiting even a day to harvest resulted in over-ripe grapes in many instances.  Every grower with whom I spoke emphasized that the timing of the harvest was the most critical element in making balanced wines in 2018.  But there is no one date after which grapes were too ripe. The optimal timing of harvest is distinct for each vineyard and to each plot within a vineyard.

Following Labet at the podium last November 18, Ludivine Griveau, the winemaker of the Hospices de Beaune, emphasized the importance of harvest date.  She explained that it was the first time in her nearly two decades of winemaking that she had to “wrack my brain to decide the harvest date.  One plot was ripe but, 100 meters away, the grapes were not quite ready.  It was a very complicated puzzle.  We had the pieces, but [it was] hard to put [them] together.”  In the end, she was satisfied that they succeeded in harvesting ripe grapes—not overripe ones¬—but it took 13 days instead of the usual eight days to complete the harvest of their 117 plots.

Overall, the reds are more exciting than the whites.  That said, the whites will provide great pleasure for early consumption, especially those from the Mâconnais, while some from more exalted sites in the Côte d’Or are truly stunning at this stage and will likely benefit from significant bottle age.  Barrel samples of Corton-Charlemagne from Bouchard Père et Fils, Drouhin, Jadot and Latour, for example, were all superb, leading me to believe that that appellation did exceptionally well in 2018.  Similarly, barrel samples of Drouhin’s Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot Marquis de Laguiche, Bouchard’s Chevalier-Montrachet, Jadot’s Chevalier-Montrachet “Les Demoiselles” and Alex Gambal’s were all exceptionally energetic, supporting the idea that the best sites produce great wines even under difficult circumstances.

(As an aside, I should note that I do not review individual wines tasted as barrel samples; see

Before harvest, growers were anxious about the quality of the whites, fearing the warmth of the vintage would produce flabby, low-acid wines. That turned out to be an unjustified fear.  Though lacking the energy of the 2014 or even the 2017 whites, the whites from 2018 that I tasted at Maison Bouchard Père et Fils, Maison Joseph Drouhin and Maison Louis Jadot were, across the board, charming—with surprisingly good acidity.  In general, wines from the better sites, premier and grand cru vineyards, held their acidity much better.  Though a tank sample of 2018 Bourgogne Blanc from Michel Bouzereau, a top grower in Meursault, that was just days away from bottling was riveting and could easily be mistaken for a village wine (92 pts, NYA; 2017 is $33).  In the same vein, Drouhin’s 2018 white Rully (already bottled) was stone-y, ripe and fresh and should be a good buy (91 pts, NYA; 2017 is $27).  The vast majority of village and regional whites are forward in flavor profile and should be excellent for immediate consumption as soon as they hit retailers’ shelves.

Consumers should keep an eye out for the 2018 Bourgogne Aligoté because the grape’s natural acidity buttressed the ripeness of the vintage.  For example, a soon-to-be-bottled tank sample of Bourgogne Aligoté from Domaine Lafouge, an outstanding grower in Auxey-Duresses who does not receive the recognition he deserves, was spice-y and concentrated, yet vibrant.  (91 pts, NYA; 2017 is $18.)

Consumers should also look for the whites from Pernot Belicard, a small grower based in Puligny-Montrachet.  Emphasizing the importance of harvest date, Philippe Pernot told me that, in addition to the usual analysis, he tasted the grapes at least every two days before harvest to help him decide when to pick.  It paid off.  Tank samples of his 2018 whites, just days away from bottling, captured the ripeness of the vintage without losing acidity.

Frédéric Barnier, the winemaker at Louis Jadot, described in his usual thoughtful way the dilemma unique to Pinot Noir of when to harvest.  He believes that climate change has disrupted the usual simultaneous ripening of the sugar and ripening of the tannins, the so-called physiologic ripeness.  The window between sugar and physiologic ripening has changed.  Now, grapes with sugar levels that would give a potential alcohol of 13 percent still have unripe green skins.  He emphasized that the trick is to find the right balance, which changes depending on the yield and the ratio of juice to skin.  Too early a harvest in 2018 gave wines with lower alcohol, better acidity, but greener tannins.  Too late a harvest gives alcoholic, heavy wines though with plusher tannins.  The potential problem with the reds of 2018 in his view is that the wines could be over-ripe, which obscures their sense of place.  “The biggest risk in 2018 was to lose the identity of each wine.”

Though Maison Jadot is a négociant, they also are a grower, farming over 300 acres of vineyards, which made the timing of the harvest difficult. Barnier explained that there was “no magic.  You needed to taste the grapes to be sure the skins were not green.”  Similar to the harvest at the Hospices de Beaune, Jadot’s picking was spread over an unusually long period.  Barnier is confident that they got it right.  He exclaims with a broad smile, “we have not made beasts.”  After tasting Jadot’s lineup, I agree.

Barnier explains that once a decade, the wines of the Côte de Beaune are more exciting than those from the Côte de Nuits… and that 2018 was such a year.  His enthusiasm was apparent:  “In 2018, the Côte de Beaune is really great, even better than the Côte de Nuits.  Compared to the usual year the Côte de Beaune is great, especially in under-rated appellations.”  An earlier harvest resulted in better balanced wines overall, in Barnier’s opinion.

Barnier emphasized what everyone to whom I spoke told me:  The trick for the reds in 2018 was to capture their finesse and not try to enhance their inherent richness and power with more extraction or oak aging.  After tasting a lineup of more than 30 of Jadot’s reds, it’s clear they hit a home run in 2018.  Without exception, Jadot’s 2018 reds have concentration, elegance and freshness.  And, indeed, looking back at my notes, I have more three-star wines (my top category) from the Côte de Beaune than from the Côte de Nuits, though there were plenty of outstanding ones from there as well.

Like the reds from Jadot, those from Bouchard Père et Fils were consistently outstanding, showing restraint, balance and what I consider the quintessential quality of Burgundy—flavor without weight.  Frédéric Weber attributed their unqualified success to the date of harvest and their attention to detail during the winemaking.  He explained, “We let things go gently.  We didn’t need a big extraction because colors came out immediately.  We needed to limit the extraction because the raw material had lots of power.”

Drouhin’s emblematic lacey, finesse-filled style suits this vintage very nicely.  I urge consumers to look for the lesser (and more affordable) appellations from Bouchard Père et Fils, Drouhin, and Jadot when the 2018s hit the market.

Domaine Bart in Marsannay is another grower, like Lafouge, whose wines fail to get the accolades they deserve.  The Domaine expanded in the mid 1980s, when the venerable Domaine Clair Daü broke apart because of family squabbles.  Bruno Clair wound up with half the estate.  Louis Jadot smartly purchased half of the remaining half.  The remaining quarter was added to Domaine Bart, where Pierre Bart, who runs the estate with his uncle, Martin Bart, are descended from another part of the Clair family. Though Bart owns parcels in Bonnes Mares and Chambertin Clos de Bèze, the estate is best known for its exemplary wines from Marsannay.  The Barts made eight lieux-dits in 2018, all of which were sublime and reflected their sites.  Pierre ascribed the suave texture and freshness of these wines to their caution against extracting too much during fermentation.  The Bart Marsannays usually represent fantastic value.  I strongly suspect that the ‘18s will as well.

Though generalizations are difficult, especially in Burgundy, here are my 2018 vintage take-aways at this stage of their evolution:

1) Though this is a big crop, the second in a row, prices will not fall because of world-wide demand.

2) The heat helped wines, both red and white, in areas where ripeness is sometimes a problem.

3) The whites from the Mâconnais and the regional or village wines from the Côte d’Or have an attractive fleshiness, which will make them a delight to drink upon release.

4) Many of the reds will be spectacular, but I would urge you to wait and taste them from the bottle before taking a plunge because a lot can happen between now and then, both in evolution of the wines and in politics—the tariffs.

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Email me your thoughts about Burgundy at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

January 1, 2020

Holiday Gifts for Wine Lovers

The obvious choice for gifts for your wine loving friends this holiday season is a bottle—or two—of wine.  Sadly, too many are intimidated to give wine to a so-called wine expert.  We’ve all heard the excuses: I don’t know anything about wine; I don’t want to embarrass myself by giving an ordinary wine; I don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a prestigious one.  Well, I have lots of non-wine suggestions that would make perfect gifts that I’ll get to in a minute.  But first, let me remind you:  You can safely give a bottle of wine.  Just give something that you’ve enjoyed and, if possible, is a little off the beaten track.  If you’ve liked it, then it’s a safe bet that your wine-loving friend will at least find it interesting.  After all, you’re friends for a reason.  But if that argument doesn’t convince you, here are other options.

There are a handful of books that every wine lover would love to have.

As a Harvard-trained molecular biologist and gastroenterologist, Ian D’Agata writes about wine with the same scholarly approach as he did when he was doing scientific research and practicing medicine.  His latest book, Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs, is a fabulous sequel to his first one, Native Wine Grapes of Italy (both, University of California Press, each $50).  Both now represent THE authoritative texts on Italian wine and should be on the shelves of anyone with even a passing interest in Italian wine. Despite his scientific background, which might make some think that the writing will be dense, it is not.  His prose is a pleasure to read.  He is wonderfully opinionated in both books, listing his favorite producers, benchmark wines and the best cru.  I cannot recommend these two books highly enough.

Hugh Johnson & Janis Robinson (are there two more luminous wine writers in the world?) have just released the 8th edition of their venerable The World Atlas of Wine (Mitchell Beazley/Octopus Publishing Group, $65).  Even if you have a previous edition of this Atlas, you need this one.  Here’s a summary of some of what’s new:  Maps for Israel and British Columbia, two important wine producing areas; expanded maps for Chile, Marlborough and China; a soil map of Beaujolais that shows how the crus differ. The writing, as in past editions, is refreshingly succinct but conveys a wealth of information.  In only about 50 words they described Morgon and Brouilly accurately: “Morgon, the birthplace of natural wine (see p. 35) is the second-largest cru associated with its famous, volcanic Côte du Py, whose wines are particularly strong, warm and spicy.  Les Charmes, Les Grands Cras, Corcellette, and Château Gaillard vineyards give lighter and rounder wines.  South of Morgon, the big cru of Brouilly is unpredictable.”

While The World Atlas of Wine and D’Agata’s books will certainly appeal to wine geeks, I recommend two books enthusiastically for those starting to learn about wine.  Both are so well-written and clear that even those who know a fair amount about wine will learn something from them.

Wine for Dummies ($25, Wiley Publishing, 7th edition) is the book to buy if you have a friend or a child interested in learning about wine.  In an easy to follow, but not patronizing tone, Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW demystify the seemingly complicated morass of wine.  (Full disclosure: the authors are friends and colleagues here at WRO, but even if I didn’t like them, I’d be forced to recommend their book very highly because it’s just so useful.)

The other so-called introductory book is Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly (Sterling Publishing, $28), who is a superb teacher, both in person and with the written word.  Again, although those relatively new to wine will learn an enormous amount quickly because of the format and Zraly’s style, even those more knowledgeable about wine will enjoy this book.

With much wine writing moving to the web, there are two particularly good sites I can recommend. Decanter Premium ( give you access to thousands of their tasting notes and articles otherwise unavailable.  ($100 for a yearly subscription.)

Every Burgundy lover should subscribe to Jasper Morris’s Inside (95£ a year).  Morris, an MW since 1985, was for many years the principal Burgundy buyer for the famed British merchant, Berry Brothers and Rudd.  He has forgotten more about Burgundy than most people know.  His recommendations and insight are essential for navigating the mine fields of Burgundy.

Though I’ve written about the Champagne stopper previously, it bears repeating, especially at this time of the year.  It makes a fabulous gift.  The Champagne stopper, which costs about ten bucks, will transform the way you think of Champagne.  No longer is Champagne a “special occasion” beverage.  With a Champagne stopper it can be a nightly pleasure.  The stopper looks like an oversized bottle cap with short wings that clamp under the rim of any bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine.  It allows you to have a glass of Champagne and stopper the bottle, maintaining the fizz, for another day.  Easy to use—both attaching and removing it from the bottle is a cinch—it keeps the Champagne or sparkling wine fresh and bubbly for up to five days.  Don’t forget that if, by chance, the fizz is gone on day five, the still wine that remains is still fresh and ideal for deglazing a pan in place of white wine.

It allows you to spread the cost of, for example, a bottle of Pol Roger NV Brut, which is widely available for about $40, over five nights, with a large, 5-ounce, glass a night.  Alternatively, you and your spouse or significant other can each enjoy a reasonable 4-ounce pour over three nights.  And, if you chose a less expensive sparkling wine, such as the fruity and lively Roederer Estate Brut from Anderson Valley or crisp and edgy Simonnet-Febvre Crémant de Bourgogne Rosé, each which can easily be found at about $20 a bottle, you can halve those expenses and still “celebrate” on a nightly basis.

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Comments, questions or other gift suggestions?  E-mail me at

December 4, 2019

Mixed Vintage News from Burgundy

BEAUNE, Burgundy, November 19, 2019:  First the good news.  The 2018 vintage produced large quantities of high-quality wines, both red and white.  It’s unusual to see good yields of high-quality wines in Burgundy, but that’s what happened in 2018.  Unlike the 2015 vintage, which I characterized as a “point and shot” vintage for the reds because the quality was so consistently high that you practically couldn’t miss picking a fine wine, there is considerable variability among the 2018s that I’ve tasted.  No surprise there because, after all, this is Burgundy.  Look for more detailed reporting in future after the wines are bottled.

The just completed 2019 vintage looks to be of high quality as well, though yields were down by 50%.  Indeed, at the just completed 159th Hospices de Beaune auction, known locally as Le Vente des Vins, prices were up by about 20% overall.  Enthusiasm for the vintage was high at this early stage among critics.  In the 50 wines shown in the pre-auction tasting, I found an incredible consistency and raciness that balanced their richness.

The bad news is the mixed economic picture.  Both Gilles de Larouzière (the head of the organization that represents the major négociants in Burgundy) and Louis Fabrice Latour (the President of the BIVB, the professional organization that represents all of Burgundy) explained that the current economic picture was mixed.  On the positive side, both the volume and value of exports of Burgundy so far in 2019 reached record numbers.  On the other hand, there is considerable economic uncertainty for producers stemming from multiple sources:  Unrest in Hong Kong that perturbs that important market; continuing confusion about Brexit and possible peril for the British market, and protests by the the Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) throughout France that have hurt the supermarket business (where much of regional Burgundy is sold) while also discouraging sales to restaurants and bars as customers avoid areas hit by violence.

For us Americans, the 25% tariff on French wine under 14% alcohol by volume will likely chill the otherwise hot Burgundy market.  Though the tariff is 25%, the final increase to the consumer will likely be more as those in the distribution chain take their mark ups on prices that now include the 25% tariff.  Gilles de Larouzière, CEO of Bouchard Pere et Fils, says they cannot afford to reduce their prices to offset the tariffs, because their margins are already very thin.  Louis Fabrice Latour, who also heads that eponymous producer, thinks shipping in bulk to avoid tariffs is a terrible idea because the wine could be adversely affected in transport or even adulterated before bottling, and risks losing the Burgundian identity.  That said, the prospect of tariffs did not impede U.S. buyers at the auction.  Jeanne-Marie de Champs, one the very best brokers in the regions, noted that she had a similar number of American clients for whom she was bidding this year as last.
Posted by Michael Apstein at 8:57 AM

Tuscany’s Maremma: Italy’s Wild West, in More Ways Than One

Despite being home to Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Grattamacco, and Masseto, some of Italy’s most expensive and sought-after wines, the Maremma remains obscure to most wine lovers. Though none of the above-mentioned wines carry the word Maremma on their labels, geographically their home is in that region.  Maremma is also home to Vermentino, which is a leading candidate to become Tuscany’s signature white wine.  In addition, with excellent wines being made from Alicante, Syrah, and Ciliegiolo, the Maremma is not likely to stay under the radar for long.

Where, you might ask, is the Maremma?  This stunning, off-the-beaten-track region is Tuscany’s southwestern corner on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, just an hour and a half north of Rome. Since most people identify Tuscan wine with the Sangiovese-based Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, you could be excused for not recognizing this vinously diverse Denominazione di Origine (Maremma Toscana DOC) as a wine growing area.  Judging from its history though, the area clearly has potential. Just look at Bolgheri, the DOC that is home to now famous Bordeaux blends, including those mentioned above.  Vermentino thrives in Bolgheri as well, at least in Grattamacco’s hands.

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Bolgheri was, and still is, in the Maremma geographically.  It split off vinously, gaining its own DOC in 1983, and was further subdivided in 2013 when the Italian wine authorities awarded Bolgheri Sassicaia its own DOC in 2013.  Maremma claims other DOCs, such as Bianco di Pitigliano or Sovana, to name just two and two DOCGs (Denominazione di Origine e Garantita), Morellino di Scansano and Montecucco Sangiovese.  Expect to see more parcelization of the Maremma Toscana DOC in the future as growers figure out what grapes do best in each of the area’s diverse locales.

The classic imagery of the Maremma is as different from the rest of Tuscany as its wines are.  You won’t see tourist posters sporting the tall Tuscan cypress trees, though those certainly do dot the landscape.  Rather, it’s cowboys riding atop horses outfitted with specially designed saddles and carrying frassinello (whips made from a local bush).  These cowboys, butteri as they are known in Italian, still herd long-horn cattle in the Maremma.

As recently as a hundred years ago, part of the Maremma was still malaria-infested marsh.  In the 18th century Leonardo Ximenes, an Italian of Spanish descent and a hydraulic engineer, figured out how to drain the vast marshland.  The work was continued in the 19th century under Leopold II, Duke of Tuscany, and finally finished in the 20th century under Mussolini.  Vestiges of the area’s history is still apparent with its perched villages, which were built, not for usual medieval defensive advantage of resisting attacks from neighboring regions, but rather to keep the residents safe from a different enemy—malaria lurking below.

Sangiovese, not surprisingly since Maremma is part of Tuscany, accounts for just under half of the plantings in the vineyards with Cabernet Sauvignon and Vermentino following and accounting for 10 and 9 percent, respectively, according to the Maremma Toscana Consorzio Tutela Vini.  But growers are experimenting with lots of different grapes.  The Consorzio reports 26 “main” varieties, including, for example, Alicante (known as Grenache or Garnacha elsewhere), Ciliegiolo and Pugnitello.  This being Italy, who knows how many other varieties are planted in the region, reflecting the enormous diversity of the area.  Sassotondo, one of the region’s best producers, for example, is experimenting with Nocchianello Nero, a variety that’s not yet registered with the authorities.

More telling is what’s happened in the last decade.  The plantings of Vermentino have increased more than 500 percent (from 350 to 1,900 acres) from 2006 until 2018, compared to plantings of Sangiovese, which increased only 10 percent over the same time period, according to data supplied by the Consorzio.  More striking, in 2018, the amount of Vermentino harvested nearly equaled that of Sangiovese for DOC Maremma Toscana.  Over a similar period, the plantings of all of the so-called “international varieties” (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay and Viognier) has also increased anywhere from 50 percent (Cabernet Sauvignon) to 300 percent (Chardonnay) to over 1,000 percent (Viognier, which, to be fair, started with only 25 acres and increased to still only 300 acres).  These statistics confirm that, over the last decade, growers have been investigating what works.

Luca Pollini, the manager of the Maremma Toscana Consorzio Tutela Vini, explains, “there is a vast range of properties with lots of small producers working hard to improve their wines.”  In addition, there has been enormous “outside” (of Maremma) investment in the region.  Leading Italian producers who have estates in other parts of Tuscany, such as Antinori, Castello di Volpaia, Cecchi, Frescobaldi, Mazzei, and Zonin, to name just a few, have purchased vineyards and established wineries in the area.  The Bordelais have seen the area’s potential, with Eric de Rothschild of Lafite-Rothschild collaborating with Paolo Panerai of Castellare di Castellina, another leading Chianti Classico estate, to form Rocca di Frassinello, an architectural gem of a winery whose wines are as impressive as the building.  They’re already try to challenge Masseto with their Merlot-based wine, Baffonero.  I, for one, can’t wait to see how that competition turns out.

Francesco Mazzei, President of the Consorzio, thinks the area’s potential is limitless.  He believes the white wines will be driven by Vermentino plus a few others, but the reds have no leading grape at this point.  Though there is focus on the international varieties, he believes that the lesser known indigenous varieties will not disappear because the area is vast, much larger than Montalcino or even Chianti, with many different microclimates.  Alison Jane Hodder, a transplanted Australian winemaker who married an Italian mining engineer and now runs De Vinosalvo, notes succinctly, “Maremma Toscana stands for openness.”  She compares the experimentation that is going on there to what happens in New World wine areas.  She and others say that with fewer rules they can see what works.  She envisions more DOCs to emerge, perhaps a coastal strip for Bordeaux varieties, mimicking Bolgheri.  Mazzei thinks it’s possible that there will be a future DOC focusing on Vermentino.

Small growers echo these sentiments.  Iacopo Becherini of La Chimera d’Albegna plans to pull out Sangiovese and replace it with Merlot or other varieties.  He explains, “there is already too much Sangiovese.  Why do I want to compete with Brunello or other Sangiovese-based wines?”

Pepi Lignana, owner of Fattoria Casalone, whose talents are apparent in his excellent Cabernet from the different 2014 vintage and an even better one from 2016, plans on expanding his 40-acre estate with another 7 acres of Vermentino and Cabernet Franc, two varieties he believes are well suited to his area.

Will Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or other international ones, either by themselves, or in a blend, be the way to go in the Maremma?  Maybe single varietal Ciliegiolo or Alicante.  How about Vermentino by itself or with a touch of Viognier in the blend?  The possibilities are nearly endless.  Likely, when the dust settles in another decade or two, it will turn out that one size does not fit all.

I’ll report on the individual producers, who are as varied as the grape varieties, in a future column.

So, the next time you drink a Vermentino, a Ciliegiolo or a Bordeaux-blend from the Maremma Toscana DOC, raise a glass and toast an Italian/Spanish engineer who is responsible for some of Italy’s most exciting wines.

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November 6, 2019

E-mail me your thoughts about Maremma at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

Age Matters

Winegrowers around the world speak lovingly of old vines. Though the definition is never official, nor even clear, many bottles still carry the moniker, Vieilles Vignes, Vecchie Viti or Viñas Viejas, depending on whether you’re talking about French, Italian or Spanish wines.  A tasting of Travaglini’s Gattinara in New York recently drove home the value of old vines.

Cinzia Travaglini and her daughter, Alessia, who represent the 4th and 5th generation of the Travaglini family, presented the wines, not intending to show the importance of old vines.  But, for me, the tasting did just that.

First, a little background about Gattinara, a small DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) in northern Piedmont, and the family.  Only 25 miles from the Alps, this part of Piedmont is also known as Alto (literally, high) Piemonte.  Though small, covering only about 250 acres, Gattinara has long been known for its high-quality wines.  In 1967, it was among the first to being awarded DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) status.  Then, in 1990, it became only the 6th area in Italy to receive coveted DOCG status, joining Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

The soil and climate are unique and accounts for Nebbiolo’s expression in their wines, according to Cinzia.  The soil is old volcanic, with lots of granite and minerals.  The proximity to the mountains means the area is cool and well-ventilated thanks to ever-present breezes.  Cinzia explains that the elevation accounts for the dramatic 30+ degree diurnal variation — from 77 to 79-degree daytime temperature to 43 to 45 degrees at night — and keeps the wines elegant and fresh.

As with Barolo and Barbaresco, its cousins further to the south, Gattinara relies primarily on the Nebbiolo grape (locally known as Spanna), but, unlike its cousins, allows small amounts of Bonarda and Vespolina to be included in the blend.  Bonarda is included in the blend by many producers (but not Travaglini) to soften what can be the rather angular Nebbiolo, according to Cinzia.  Vespolina adds color, but detracts from the aging potential in Cinzia’s mind, so Travaglini opts not to include it, either, preferring to use Nebbiolo exclusively for their Gattinara.

Cinzia explains that the grape growing and winemaking tradition of the Travaglini family date to the 19th century, but it was Giancarlo, her father, who transformed the business in 1958 by building a winery, modernizing the vineyards, and selling wine outside of the local area, even exporting it to the U.S. as early as 1960.  He was the first to use French barriques (small 225-liter barrel) for aging and to focus on quality instead of quantity. Other producers followed, upgrading the entire DOC, according to Cinzia.  Travaglini owns more than half of the vineyard acreage of the DOCG and accounts for roughly half of the production of the entire DOCG.  They buy no grapes or wine, using only their grapes, the vast majority of which are Nebbiolo, with a tiny amount of Vespolina and Bonarda for a locally consumed wine.

It’s impossible to speak of Travaglini’s wines without mentioning their unique, now trademarked bottle, which looks like someone sat on it while it was being made.  Giancarlo designed the flat-sided bottle in 1958 to catch the sediment, like a decanter.  As a marketing experiment, they bottled half of their 1982 production in normal bottles and half in their traditional bottle.  The half bottled in normal bottles remained unsold for some time, according to Cinzia.  The rest is history.

Travaglini bottles three DOCG Gattinara, a Nebbiolo Coste della Sesia DOC, which is the second appellation of Gattinara and made from young, seven to ten-year old, Nebbiolo vines, plus two unique and absolutely stunning wines, both from Nebbiolo: Nebolè, a metodo classico sparkling wine, and Il Sogno, a sweet one.  As much as I adored Nebolè (not yet available in the U.S.) and Il Sogno, I will focus on two of Travaglini’s Gattinara, one labeled Tre Vigne and the other, Riserva, both from the 2013 vintage, because they highlight the dramatic influence of old vines.

The grapes for their Gattinara Tre Vigne come from what Alessia describes as three historic vineyards.   Each vineyard brings a different component to the finished wine thanks to differing microclimates and soils.  One provides Nebbiolo that delivers better color, while another provides complexity, and the third imparts a perfume and freshness from its higher elevation.

The Riserva, in contrast, comes from their oldest vines, 45 to 78 years old, in the estate, none of which are located in the three vineyards that provide fruit for the Tre Vigne bottling.

The winemaking is slightly different, with about 20 percent of the Tre Vigne aging in a combination of new and old barriques, compared to about 10 percent for the Riserva.  The remainder of both wines ages in old large Slavonian oak casks.  The production levels are similar.  Of Travaglini’s average annual 250,000 bottles, the Tre Vigne represents about 10 or 11 percent, while the Riserva accounts for 13 to 14 percent.  Both are made only in what they consider excellent vintages.  The big difference in their character comes from the age of the vines.

Mind you, both of these wines are delicious.  They’re just very different.

The Travaglini 2013 Tre Vigne Gattinara transmits a lovely austerity, with a youthful Barolo-like sturdiness.  It grows in the glass, expressing a floral component and the barest hint of tarry minerality.  Its structure and acidity remind you that it is the product of Nebbiolo.  Firm, not aggressive, tannins appear in the finish and reinforce its austerity.  Judging from how the 2006 Tre Vigne showed at the same tasting, I suspect the 2103 will blossom after another 5 to 10 years of bottle age.  ($50, 92 points)

The still youthful Travaglini 2013 Riserva is expansive and deep with a seemingly never-ending finish.  It is the epitome of power and elegance.  While the Tre Vigne has an appealing firmness and austerity, the Riserva is firm, yet paradoxically, opulent with more minerality.  In brief, it’s better balanced at this stage because all of the components harmonize.  I bet that, if measured, the tannins and acidity of the two wines would be similar.  But on the palate, the Riserva feels more complete.  That’s old vines speaking.  ($60, 95 points)

OK, why?  Ask three winemakers why old vines deliver better wines and you get four answers.  They include, the roots go deeper and extract more from the earth.  The lower yields that aging vines can muster mean that the wines are more concentrated.  Old vines are better adapted to the environment.  Old vines are like, people, somehow, “wiser.”  Whenever there are multiple answers to a question, the odds are that no one of them is entirely correct.  I cannot explain why old vines produce better, more complex, wines, but they do.  And the lack of an explanation is one of the wonders of nature.

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October 9, 2019

E-mail me your thoughts about old vine wines in general or Gattinara in particular at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

A Star on Long Island

Recently, I happened to mention to my friend, Howard Goldberg, the longtime The New York Times wine writer, that I was writing a column about Loire wines made from Chenin Blanc.  Howard suggested that I visit Paumanok on Long Island’s North Fork because, he said, they made great Chenin Blanc.  So, I arranged a visit, insisting that I wouldn’t take more than 45 minutes of their time because I was just interested in their Chenin Blanc.  Well, not surprisingly, Goldberg was correct about their Chenin Blanc.  What was surprising was how a scheduled 45-minute visit morphed into a two and half hour tasting due to the discovery that Paumanok’s entire line-up is stellar.

Charles Massoud, Paumanok’s founder, clearly takes risks.  Charles’ son, Kareem, who now makes the wine at Paumanok, explains that his father, who was born in Lebanon and studied in Paris was, and is, a confirmed wine-loving Francophile.  When he, Charles, was stationed in Kuwait working for IBM, he found it impossible to buy wine since Kuwait was dry, due to its Islamic-focused government.   Since the country was dry climatically as well, growing grapes was out of the question.  So his father, always inventive, purchased table grapes and baker’s yeast in the supermarket, and voilà, according to Kareem, he made “wine.”  I can only imagine what would have happened to him had his winemaking been discovered by the Kuwaiti authorities.  I guess the risk of starting a winery on Long Island in the 1980s paled by comparison.

Back in the New York area with IBM, and having read about the Hargraves, who were the first to start a winery on Long Island, Charles took the plunge and purchased what was to become Paumanok Vineyards in 1983.   Already sensing potential xenophobia and potential for anti-Arab antipathy, Charles opted not to use the family name for the winery, instead choosing Paumanok, the Indian name for Long Island.  Kareem, who was in business school at the time, recounts his feelings about the name with his newly-minted business school knowledge: “Awful, three syllables, impossible to pronounce…a terrible brand name.”  Now, he admits that it has turned out just fine and, indeed, is appropriate because, as Kareem emphasizes, their wines are not a brand, but rather a reflection of place.

Paumanok remains an estate winery, that is, they buy no grapes.  All the wines they make come exclusively from their roughly 100 acres of vineyards.  About two years ago, they purchased neighboring Palmer Vineyards, adding another 49 acres.

Paumanok produces three levels of wine, giving them enormous flexibility in deciding what grapes go into which tier.  This stratification allows them to use only the best grapes for their top wines, maintaining quality.  In addition, in a tough vintage, such as 2018, they can make more rosé and less red wine.  Their white label is the most recognizable and the one under which most of their wine is bottled.  Next on the scale is the “Grand Vintage” line, which is mostly for reds, but has occasionally included a Chardonnay, and then, at the top, is the “Minimalist” range, which they bottle in only the best years.  Kareem describes the Minimalist wines as a “minimalist approach.”  He does not use commercial yeast for fermentation, relying on only those present on the grapes or in the ambient air in the winery.  He deliberately avoids the use of the term, natural, and says he is willing to interfere, if necessary, to avoid making flawed wine.  The grapes for the Minimalist line must be pristine and immaculate because he uses only a trace of sulfur during wine making and bottling.  His aversion to sulfur is both a matter of marketing–the public seems to think it’s bad–and also an issue of taste. He maintains that sulfites accentuate the tannins in red wines and account for an unpleasant burnt match-like aroma in whites.

Kareem insists that it is critically important to be selective in the vineyard, noting that sometimes you must “take a loss to preserve quality.”

Paumanok’s focus on Chenin Blanc–inexplicably, no other winery on Long Island makes one–was serendipitous.  Soon after buying Paumanok, the older Massoud purchased a nearby vineyard that had been planted with a variety of grapes, but abandoned.  They kept the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and uprooted the Zinfandel.  Kareem explains that Zinfandel is a late ripening, thin-skinned variety that will rot if the harvest, which coincides with hurricane season, is marred by rain.  They started to rip out the Chenin Blanc, but Uve Michelfelder, the then-vineyard manager who was on-site (the Massouds were living in Connecticut at the time), suggested retaining the last two acres.  Kareem implied that Charles’ response was the equivalent of today’s “whatever,” and the vines stayed.  They are the oldest Chenin Blanc vineyards on Long Island and the grapes from them go into Paumanok’s Minimalist bottling of that wine.

A quartet of Chenin Blanc releases shows why it’s Paumanok’s most popular wine.  The 2018 ($25, 92 pts), similar to its predecessors, is dry, crisp and clean with a hint of flintiness.  Beautiful acidity amplifies its charms.  The 2015, from a riper year, delivers more tropical and floral notes, imparting a richer, but not sweeter, impression.  Again, enlivening acidity in the finish enhances the pleasure.  The 2011, from what Kareem calls “a lousy vintage,” is a resounding success in his mind–and mine too.  Rain during harvest resulted in rot in the vineyard.  Selection of grapes had to be severe, reinforcing Massoud’s philosophy that sometimes you take a loss to preserve quality.  The 2011 Chenin Blanc may lack the verve and precision of the 2018, but it is remarkably good at seven years of age, especially considering the conditions under which the grapes were harvested.  I’d be happy to drink it with spicy Asian fare.

Kareem describes Paumanok’s 2015 Minimalist Chenin Blanc as “drinking a cloud.”  With a broader array of flavors than their regular bottling, it delivers an intriguing subtle nuttiness.  It expands in the glass and shows the heights this grape can achieve in the right hands.

Their Riesling dances on the palate and is stylistic similar to their Chenin Blanc, meaning, graceful.  The 2018 Dry Riesling ($22, 90 pts), from vines planted in 2005, is delicate with enlivening, almost tingling, flintiness.

As good as Paumanok’s whites are–and they are very good–the reds are even more astounding.  The quality is unexpected given their reputation for Chenin Blanc.  The mid-weight 2016 Cabernet Franc ($29, 92 pts), a perfect balance of red fruit and savory herbs, is a joy to drink now.  The 2014 Grand Vintage Cabernet Franc ($55, 95 pts) is simply sensational.  The vines are 20 years old, which explains, in part, the wine’s grandeur.  Kareem’s decision to select only the top barrels and only wine made from free-run juice, which avoids bitter tannins, clearly adds to the wine’s elegance.  It is weighty, but not heavy.  Paumanok’s 2013 Grand Vintage Merlot ($40, 95 pts) shows that Kareem knows how to handle that grape, the most widely planted one today on Long Island.  Kareem describes 2013 as an amazing vintage, breezy and cool.  I describe the wine as a marvelous Merlot, fresh, dense and silky, combining earthy savory notes with dark fruit elements.

My advice: Buy Paumanok’s Chenin Blanc whenever you can, but be sure to try their reds as well.  Oh, and don’t forget the Riesling, either.

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E-mail me your thoughts about the wines of New York in general or Long Island wines in specific at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

September 11, 2019

An Amber Standout from Georgia

Mosmieri (Kakheti, Georgia) “Kakhuri” 2017 ($20, Corus Imports):  Georgian wines seem to be the rage these days, and there are plenty of possible reasons for that.  Consumers are intrigued that archeologists have figured out that wine has been made in that Caucasus-region country for 8,000 years, putting it among the oldest wine producing areas in the world.  The country’s relatively recent liberation from Soviet domination has resulted in a new-found focus on quality wine production, and its re-emergence is likewise a source of interest.

Additionally, much of Georgian winemaking is closely aligned with the wine world’s current emphasis on minimal-intervention techniques, a point made persuasively by Christine Deussen (of Deussen Global Communications, which represents Georgian wines in the U.S.A.).  Few objects embody this emphasis as dramatically as Georgia’s widely used qvevri, large, egg-shaped earthenware pots sunk into the ground for the fermentation and storing of wine (a practice that has received placement on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists).  As Ms. Deussen also observes, the use of indigenous or autochthonous grapes rather than ubiquitous ones such as Chardonnay also makes Georgia’s white wines unique and fascinating.  (More on the reds in a future posting.)

Impediments to consumers’ enjoyment of Georgian wines include lack of familiarity with Georgian names and geography.  Many potential customers, myself included, experience difficulty distinguishing the name of the grape from the name of the place, and then distinguishing between the name of the wine and the name of the producer.  However, though traditionally produced Georgian wines won’t be to everyone’s liking, dedicated wine lovers need to try them anyway because some–like the one profiled here–can be superb with food.

Let’s start by trying to unravel the label.  Kakheti, a legally recognized and delimited area, is the major wine-producing region of Georgia, accounting for about 70 percent of the country’s vineyards.  Kakhuri, which means in the Kakhetian style and is the name of the wine, is confusing because other Georgian grapes use Kakhuri in their name–Kakhuri Mtsvani, for example, but usually called just Mtsvani.  (Mosmieri’s wine, however, is made entirely from Rkatsiteli, hence the potential for confusion.)  The label describes the wine as a “fine amber” wine.

The wine, though not made in a qvevri, is definitely a qvevri-style wine because the pressed grapes, skins and seeds are all fermented together for several months.  In typical white wine fermentation, the grapes are pressed, with the seeds and stems then being removed and discarded.  The juice undergoes fermentation for a week or two, not for months.  The grape, Rkatsiteli, indeed, should be less foreign to us than most Georgian grapes because Dr. Konstantin Frank makes a fabulous Rkatsiteli in upstate New York and labels it with the grape name.

True to its label, Mosmieri’s Kakhuri is amber colored and truly fine.  (Ms. Deussen says that many Georgians prefer “amber” as opposed to “orange” to describe the character of wine because of confusion with the fruit and the style of some orange wines.)  Mosmieri’s version is effectively a red wine masquerading as white because of the immediately apparent tannic impression on the palate.  Perfectly dry and clean, there’s not a hint of unpleasant oxidation despite the prolonged period of fermentation, which is what accounts for the subtle tannic feel and its amber color.

Its lack of annoying oxidative character differentiates it from many orange wines.  If you’ve been turned off by the orange wine category, here’s a good place to start again.  A substantial wine, Mosmieri’s Kakhuri cries for food.  This is not an aperitif-type sipper for use before dinner.  Powerful because the prolonged fermentation pulls flavors–and tannins and color–from the skins and seeds, it still weighs in only at a stated 13 percent alcohol.  Its acidity and concentration make it a great choice for–believe it or not–a hearty spiced lamb dish.  You’ve heard of red wine with fish.  Here’s white wine…or rather amber wine…with lamb.

90 Points

Posted by Michael Apstein on August 21, 2019 at 1:45 PM

Saumur: Home to Fabulous Dry Chenin Blanc

The Chenin Blanc grape can be transformed into fabulous wine.  It makes sensationally riveting dry wines and lusciously sweet ones.  In this column, I want to focus on the dry ones.  They are exceptionally versatile, equally well suited to stand-alone as an aperitif or with a meal, especially with those foods that can pose a challenge for matching with wine, such as sushi, spicy Asian fare or roast pork.  Flavorful, yet lightweight and refreshing, they are perfect in the summer.  In truth, they are wonderful regardless of the season.

Indeed, often when in doubt as to what to serve with a meal, choosing a dry Chenin Blanc is the answer.  (Remember this advice at Thanksgiving.)  So, if this is such a wonderful wine that has been embraced by wine geeks and sommeliers, why hasn’t it captured the attention of the usual, dare I say, normal, wine drinker?  Because, like Riesling, when you see the grape name on the label, you often can’t tell whether the wine will be one of those riveting dry ones or a sweet one.

All wines made from Riesling, even in France with its chauvinism regarding appellation, are labeled with the grape name.  (In Germany, it is assumed the wine is made from Riesling unless otherwise noted.)  In the U.S. and South Africa, the latter with more Chenin Blanc planted than anywhere else in the world, the wines are labeled with the grape name, so there is plenty of potential for confusion.  As a result, the consumer rarely knows from the label whether the Chenin Blanc will be dry or sweet.

Thankfully, not all Chenin Blanc-based wines are labeled by the grape name, so consumers can know in advance what they are getting.  In France, the appellation system focuses on geography, not the grape name and the appellation indicates which ones are the enlivening and dry Chenin Blanc-based wines and which ones are sweet.  In France’s Loire Valley, where the greatest amount of Chenin Blanc is grown, there can be clarity.  Wines from Savennières, Jasnières and the white wines from the Saumur and Chinon appellations will be dry.  Wines from Côteaux du Layon and its subzones will be sweet.  Vouvray, sadly, remains a conundrum because they can be either dry or sweet and often times without a clear indication on the label, although recently I’ve seen more and more of them labeled as “dry” or “doux” (sweet) to help the consumer.

In the past, Saumur Blanc was not a particularly noteworthy or memorable appellation.  Most Chenin Blanc planted there went into bubbly wines, which, by the way, can be very good.  There was hardly any focus on quality dry still white wines.  Over the last decade that has changed and now some positively thrilling dry whites come from the chalky limestone soil of the appellation.  Just from a brief drive through Saumur, a village on the southern border of the Loire about equidistance from Angers and Tours, you can predict the soil of the surrounding vineyards just by looking at the surrounding architecture.  All the structures, buildings, castles, and bridges, are made from white limestone, which was quarried locally.

Theirry Germain, the enthusiastic and passionate owner of Domaine Roche Neuves, makes whites that are both rich and mineral-y, with gorgeous acidity and penetrating length.  One, Clos Romans, comes from a walled vineyard that dates from the 11th century that had been neglected.  He resurrected it by using the modern high-density formula (4,000 vines per acre) for planting, which he and other growers tell me produces better fruit.  He farms it biodynamically and although the vines are only 15 years old, the wines are stunning and sought after.  (The current release, 2017, vintage sells for $88).  So far, he produces only about 600 bottles annually.  He told me when I visited him in 2015 that Jean-Claude Ramonet traded him one-for-one:  His 2014 Clos Romans for Ramonet’s Le Montrachet.

Germain is not the only one shinning a bright light on the potential of Saumur Blanc.  There’s also Philippe Porché’s Domaine de Rocheville, where they make two versions of Saumur Blanc that highlight the diversity even within the appellation.  Their Le Clos de la Thibaudière, from Brézé, the most renowned village in the appellation, makes your mouth water with its striking saline minerality and contrasts beautifully with the riper and rounder Saumur Blanc, La Dame, from Parnay, the home base of the domaine.  Though the oak treatment is slightly different, Porché attributes the dramatic difference between the wines to the differences in the soil between the villages. I predict that in another decade the names of seemingly obscure villages in Saumur will be familiar to wine lovers as the villages of the Côte de Beaune.

Other top-notch producers whose wines I can recommend are Domaine Guiberteau and Domaine Arnaud Lambert, both of whom bottle wines from Brézé, Domaine du Collier, Domaine Filliatreau, and Chateau Yvonne.

Domaine Guiberteau, another family domaine, has roughly half of their organically farmed 24 acres planted to Chenin Blanc, 70 percent of it in Brézé.   Clos des Carmes is their top Chenin Blanc cuvée, but my advice is to buy any of their wines–reds included.

With almost 100 acres, Domaine Arnaud Lambert is large by comparison.  They, too, like all the forward-thinking producers in this area, farm organically.  The domaine bottles three Chenin Blanc-based cuvées from Brézé, Clos David, Clos de la Rue, and Clos de Midi, but frankly all of the wines–white and red–are exceptional.

Antoine Foucault, son of legendary Loire producer, Charly Foucault of Clos Rougeard, almost certainly the most famous red wine Loire producer, started Domaine Collier with Caroline Boireau.  Breaking from his father’s tradition, two-thirds of their roughly 17-acre estate is planted to Chenin Blanc. They make two whites, one blended from their vineyards and one, called La Charpentrie, from the vineyard of the same name, many of whose vines are over 100 years old. Their whites are tight when young and, like great wines everywhere, need time in the bottle of evolve.

Though Domaine Filliatreau, a family domaine started in 1967 by Maurice Filliatreau, focuses on red wine, which, by the way, are consistently excellent, they make a small amount of superb white Saumur called L’Imago that can stand with the best of them.

Château Yvonne, with just over a quarter of their roughly 28 acres devoted to Chenin Blanc, farm using a biodynamic philosophy, the current trend among forward thinking vignerons. Their 2017 Saumur Blanc is tightly wound, but mineral-y and balanced with an underlying creaminess.

These are consistently superb producers who, unfortunately, make only small quantities of various cuvées, so, I suggest you snatch up whichever of their wines you find.

Saumur is an area where young producers see an opportunity to make unique wine, and a name for themselves, because the raw materials–the soil, the weather, and grape variety fit together perfectly here–so expect to see many new names.  And rush to try them before the wines command triple digit price tags.

Of course, you can find excellent dry Chenin Blanc closer to home.  Two I recommend heartily are from Dry Creek Vineyard in Sonoma and from Paumanok Vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island.  The crisp 2018 Paumanok Chenin Blanc ($25) delivers flinty hints.  It finishes dry and refreshing because of its vibrant acidity.

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Email me your thoughts about Chenin Blanc in general or ones from Saumur in particular at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

August 14, 2019

Beaujolais: A Versatile Wine

One of the many things I love about Beaujolais is its variety and versatility.  There’s Beaujolais Nouveau, a beverage that’s almost closer to alcoholic grape juice than to wine, and which many in the American wine press deride regularly.  Released on the third Thursday of November, it can be a refreshing, all-purpose wine for the Thanksgiving table.  In France, its arrival is celebrated in cafes and bars all over Paris and Beaune with signs and banners reading, “Beaujolais est arrivé!”  (Beaujolais has arrived.) Each establishment proudly offers one of two from their favorite producers.  I’ve often overheard animated discussions among customers regarding the quality of one over the other.

Then there’s juicy Beaujolais that are fresh and fruity wines perfect for chilling and drinking at this time of the year.  A step up is Beaujolais-Villages, wines coming from any of the 38 villages in this area just north of Lyon that have the potential for better wine.  They, too, provide mid-weight wines that are perfect for drinking chilled in the summer.  However, Beaujolais-Villages from top producers–Château du Basty springs to mind–can have a depth and complexity that makes you realize that this category, often relegated to lower shelves in the supermarket, can provide amazing value. Look out, in particular, for old vine–“vieilles vignes”–bottlings of Beaujolais-Villages.  Some of these plantings date back to pre-World War II and even pre-Great War.

Finally, there’s the serious side of Beaujolais.  The Gamay grape can reflect its origins or, in modern terminology, be transparent, just as the Pinot Noir in the Côte d’Or.  Locals have known this for decades, bottling special cuvées from prized sites separately.  But it has taken six centuries after Philippe the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, exiled the “vile and noxious” Gamay grape from Burgundy in favor of the “elegant” Pinot Noir for the rest of the world to notice.

This transparency is most apparent in the crus of Beaujolais, the ten villages in the northern part of the appellation whose soils are rich in granite and that are capable of producing such distinctive wines that only the name of the village in required on the label.  From north to south they are St. Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnié, Côte de Brouilly, and Brouilly.  Reference to Beaujolais on the label is optional.

Jeanne-Marie Deschamps, one of Burgundy’s smartest brokers and a woman who knows the area well, describes the region as a series of several “volcanic eggs” jutting from the countryside, with vines on all sides of these outcroppings.  The topography differs from that of the Côte d’Or, which primarily faces southeast, and is more like Italy’s Chianti Classico where vineyards seemingly spread in every direction, leading to very different exposures.

Audrey Charton, whose family owns Domaine du Clos des Garands, a superb estate in Fleurie, told me that one reason Beaujolais’ soil is unique is that the region was never hit by an ice age that brought soil and debris from elsewhere.  The topography and variation in soil explains why the wines from these villages are very different one from another.  Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon are considered the sturdiest, followed by Côte de Brouilly, while Chiroubles is the least structured.

One thing that is particularly exciting is how producers are focusing on the vineyards (what the Burgundians call climats) within these crus.  Though Maison Louis Jadot, one of Burgundy’s top producers, was not the first to bottle a Beaujolais cru with a vineyard name, I nonetheless credit them with popularizing the concept when they purchased the Château des Jacques estate in Moulin-à-Vent in 1996.  Depending on the vintage, Château des Jacques produces up to five distinct wines from individual climats within Moulin-à-Vent (Clos de Rochegrès, Clos du Grand Carquelin, Clos de Champ de Cour, Clos de la Roche and Clos des Thorins) in addition to their Moulin-à-Vent cru.

Jadot is not the only major Beaune-based négociant to expand the Burgundian philosophy to Beaujolais, meaning, each vineyard is intended to portray a unique terroir.  Bouchard Père et Fils owns Château de Poncié in Fleurie and makes wines from two individual climats, while Albert Bichot at Domaine de Rochegrès prominently labels their wine from their 5-acre plot in the Rochegrès climat as Rochegrès, subordinating even Moulin-à-Vent to small letters.

Maison Louis Latour, another top producer, acting as a négociant, has bottlings from the climats in five of the 10 crus.  And, of course, Beaujolais producers who concentrate solely on the crus, such as the excellent Chateau Moulin-à-Vent in Moulin-à-Vent and Mee Goddard’s superb domaine in Morgon bottle climat by climat.  With some of these vineyard bottlings, the name Beaujolais does not appear on the label.

Vineyard by vineyard bottling in Beaujolais is, to me, an exciting concept.  Here’s another area where wines using the same winemaking technique and made from the same grape grown in adjacent vineyards taste different.  It’s another marvel of Nature.  And fortunately, unlike in Côte d’Or, the epicenter of terroir, the wines from the climats of Beaujolais are affordable.

Tasting Jean Foillard’s 2017s wines from three different climats in Morgon–Corcelette, Côte de Py and Charmes–is instructive.  Since Foillard is emphatic that the winemaking and élévage (aging) are identical, tasting his wines side by side show that dramatic differences among the terroirs.  The same is true with Château Thivin’s wines from the Côte de Brouilly. Wines from three different parcels (Godefoy, which faces east, La Chapelle, a south facing site on a 55-degree slope near the top, and Les Griottes de Brulhié, south facing at mid-slope) are all gorgeous and suave but delightfully different. Claude Geoffroy, whose family owns Château Thivin, told me that it’s the terroir speaking because the winemaking is the same for each parcel.

Despite the point this approach makes, there is enormous potential for confusion.  The number of proposed climats is impressive and for non-wine geeks who might not even be familiar with the names of the 10 crus, adding scores of more seemingly obscure names is daunting.  In addition to the many–officials are still identifying sites–in Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie has 13 climats, and Morgon six, perhaps the best known of which is Côte de Py, basically a hill of schist. (For completeness, the other five are Grand Cras, Les Charmes, Corcelette, Les Micouds and Douby.)

But as Cyril Chirouze, the very talented winemaker at Château des Jacques, commented, “not all of the Côte de Py is not the same.”  Much like the famed Clos Vougeot in the Côte d’Or, where location in that vast vineyard is key, the location of the vines on the Côte de Py also matters.  Indeed, some producers are already identifying a subplot there, Jarvenières, towards its base, that produces slightly less firm wines and labeling them with that name.

To make matters worse, some producers use proprietary names in addition to, or instead of, place names.

Still, it’s an exciting time for Beaujolais.  Changes in grape-growing, winemaking, and site specificity are on the way.  Guillaume Striffling, another talented Beaujolais producer, says that he has specific plots in Regnié, which produce distinctive wine but cannot use their names because they are not recognized officially.  To be recognized, the climat must be approved by the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine), the French governing agency that regulates wine, which he notes is a long bureaucratic process. His Gallic philosophic streak is apparent when he remarked, “often in the wine business when you are planting a vine, you think to yourself ‘this is not for me, this is for my children because everything in the French (wine) industry takes a long time.’”

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Email me your thoughts about Beaujolais at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

July 17, 2019

Update from Burgundy: Hot, But Not 2003…At Least Not Yet

Record-breaking temperatures hit France and elsewhere in Europe recently with Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy, recording temperatures of over 100 degrees.  While those kinds of temperatures are common in California wine country, they are rare in Burgundy and immediately raise the question:  How the vines and grapes faring?

Burgundy has seen warm vintages recently; 2015 and 2009 spring to mind.  Both of those years produced sensational reds and very good, but perhaps early-drinking whites.  Still, the temperatures in those years were not close to what Burgundy experienced this June.  The heat in June reminded people to whom I spoke about the canicule (dog days of summer, or heat wave) that occurred in August of 2003.

The persistently high temperatures during the day–and even more importantly at night–in 2003 altered the character of the wines.  High nocturnal temperatures draw down malic acid levels in the grapes, resulting in lower-than-usual acidity, which, in turn, especially for the whites, translated into flabby wines.  Compounding the problem in 2003 was that the heat came toward the end of the growing season, when it was dry, accelerating ripening.  Sugar levels in the grapes jumped unexpectedly and caught vintners off guard while they were away on their traditional August vacation.  As a result, many grapes stayed on the vines too long and the many of the resulting wines tasted cooked or over-ripe.

Such outcomes were not uniformly the case, thankfully.  Showing how hard it is to predict how wines will develop, two 2003 red Burgundies that I tasted in 2016, both from Jadot–their Beaune Clos des Ursules and the Gevrey-Chambertin Clos St Jacques–I drank in 2016 were superb, fresh and still youthful.  There are exceptions to almost everything in the world of wine, but still…extreme heat certainly imperils the potential quality of fine wine.

The heat of 2019 is not that of 2003.  At least not yet.  Frédéric Barnier, Maison Louis Jadot’s very smart and talented winemaker, told me that he envisioned no damage so far, explaining that canicule is not a problem if the vines have water and leaves, which they do now because of lots of rain during the spring.  Indeed, he thought the extra heat helped, because the vines were behind schedule because of this year’s cool, rainy spring, and the heat allowed them to catch up.  However, he notes that more heat later in the growing season could be a big problem because now the ground is “dry, very dry.”  He felt bad for the growers who, unluckily, had performed rognage (leaf removal to expose the newly formed grapes to more sunshine and to help dry the bunches) just before the heatwave hit.

Megan McClune, the Managing Director at Domaine Jessiaume in Santenay, agreed that the dryness could be a problem because there has been little rain–and none is forecast for the next several weeks.

It’s impossible to assess a vintage until the grapes are in the winery and the wine has been made.  Even then, as those two 2003s from Jadot showed, early assessments of the wines can be faulty.  But at this point, Burgundy is on guard….

Posted by Michael Apstein on July 10 at 12:48 PM

A New Designation for an Established Star

Ruffino, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione (Tuscany, Italy) “Riserva Ducale Oro” 2014 ($41):  Gran Selezione is a new category of Chianti Classico that is supposed to represent the pinnacle of a producer’s bottling.  Whether it does is a matter of debate because some producers’ top wine from Chianti Classico region is not a Gran Selezione.

What’s not a debate is that the Gran Selezione designation means it is superb wine.  Indeed, Ruffino has been making Riserva Ducale Oro for decades, since 1947. It has always been a monumental achievement in Chianti Classico, a wine that ages and develops gracefully and beautifully over the decades.  Calling it Gran Selezione, which they started with the 2010 vintage, does not, in my mind, change its already exalted stature.

2014 Riserva Ducale Oro shows why it’s important not to be a slave to vintage charts.  The 2014 vintage in Tuscany was, to put it diplomatically, difficult.  Read:  Not so good.  But talented and conscientious producers, such as Ruffino make excellent wine in bad (excuse me, “difficult”) vintages.  They just make less of it–in this case, about 15 percent less than average–by performing a severe selection and selling off what’s not up to snuff.

Enough background.  The wine, a blend chiefly of Sangiovese (85%), Merlot (10%) and Colorino, is delicious with the classic melding of fruit, earth and acidity for which great Chianti Classico is known.  It’s a savory and ripe combination with lip-smacking Tuscan acidity, which is just what you want to keep it fresh during a meal.

The vintage speaks in the approachability of this wine.  It’s a fine choice for drinking now, but having had many Riserva Ducale Oro, even from “difficult” vintages, I know that they evolve beautifully, so there’s probably no rush with this one either.  I scored it at 93 Points, and recommend it enthusiastically.

Posted by Michael Apstein on July 7, 2019 at 5:04 PM

Surprising Whites for the Rosé Season

It’s well known that the red wines from the south of France can provide great pleasure, especially for the price.  The whites, in contrast, have received far less attention, in part, because they can be a touch heavy.  That may be changing, at least judging from my experience earlier this year.  I found that the 2017 whites from disparate areas in the south of French had an engaging vibrancy that make them an easy choice for the summer.  Surprisingly, the all-too-prevalent frosts may be responsible, at least in part.

The warmth of the region that accounts for some appealing, hearty, heady reds that are found in appellations along the southern Rhône River valley (such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Cairanne, or Rasteau, and further west in the Languedoc-Roussillon area) can, ironically, be a problem for the whites.  As temperatures rise (climate change hasn’t helped) and grapes ripen, sugar levels increase and sour acidity, the hallmark of unripe fruit, falls.  While that pattern might be good for producing apricots, peaches, and other fruits for eating, grapes with high sugar and low acidity result in wines that are alcoholic and flabby, lacking the invigorating energy so essential for consumption with a meal.  Although certainly a potential problem for red wines, it’s even more of a problem for white wines, which need to be refreshing and lively, especially in the summer.

I’ve always tried to embrace the whites of the south of France, especially while traveling there in the summer, because so many of the rosés, which seemingly would be an obvious choice, are insipid and flavorless.  Indeed, as the popularity of rosés soars and producers want a part of that gravy train, many of these wines have become more diluted and uninteresting.  That’s not to say that intriguing rosés don’t exist, but I estimate they represent less than ten percent of the category.  Tavel, an appellation in the southern Rhône that makes only rosé, can be excellent.  The rosés from Bandol, where the Mourvèdre grape imparts heft to the wine, can be particularly noteworthy, though in many cases I would characterize them as light red wines since they have a subtle and pleasant tannic bitterness in the finish.  Although I find that chilled lightweight reds, such as Beaujolais, light reds from Provence or from Bardolino, for example, are superb alternatives to rosés, it’s hard to find an alternative to a lively, invigorating white wine to help dissipate summer’s heat.

Megan McClune, Managing Director of the Burgundian Domaine Jessiaume in Santenay, notes that frost years seem to do something to the character of the fruit, reduced yields aside.  As was explained to me by a winemaker at Château Ragotière, a top producer in Muscadet, frost kills the primary buds, which results in a lower yield. Frequently, a secondary bud appears a week or two later, which produces a bunch of grapes.  Although these grapes mature more quickly than those from a primary bud, they still lag behind the primary grapes in their ripening cycle.  Winemakers can’t afford the luxury of separating grapes from secondary buds from those that originated from primary buds, so they all wind up being harvest at the same time.  The resulting harvest contains a small portion of less ripe grapes that are higher in acidity.  Hence, the wines from a frost year could be fresher and livelier because of their increased levels of acidity.  This less well-recognized result of a frost might explain the vibrancy I found in the 2017 whites from the south of France, where frost was a major problem. Indeed, it may seem surprising that frost should be a problem in what is viewed as the warm and sunny south of France.  Certainly, the risk of frost there is nowhere near the risk further north in Burgundy.  Still, in the Languedoc and neighboring regions, frost remains a threat through April.

In a very unscientific, random sampling of white wines while in the south of France last month, their vibrancy stood out.  It caught my attention because it was a characteristic that spanned appellations, from prestigious Châteauneuf-du-Pape to lowly IGPs (Indication Géographique Protégé).

At Château de Nalys, the property in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, recently acquired by Guigal, the star producer in the northern Rhône, their 2017 Saintes Pierres de Nalys, a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape was simply stunning in its brightness, spice, and verve. Somewhat paradoxically, the primary grape is Clairette (36%), generally described as a low-acid grape.  However, noted wine authority Jancis Robinson indicates that wines from Clairette “can hang on to their acidity quite impressively.”  Perhaps it’s the inclusion of a nearly equal amount of Bourboulenc (29%), a high acid grape that accounts for the wine’s lovely lift.  Maybe it’s just Guigal’s talents.

Just northeast of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, lies Vacqueyras, another well-known appellation for sturdy reds.  Unbeknownst to me, the appellation makes a small amount of white wine from the usual Mediterranean suspects for white wine, Viognier, Bourboulenc Roussanne and Marsanne.  The 2017 from Domaine Vallis Petra, “Ô Pré de Juliette” was a revelation, delivering an energetic bundle of stone fruit flavors.

Further north in Sablet, one of the name villages of the Côtes du Rhône, Château Cohola makes a fine trio of organic wines–including a stunning rosé–and a lively 2017 Côtes du Rhône Villages white that cleansed the palate despite the Provençal sun.

In the Les Baux de Provence appellation, near St. Remy, lies the Château Romanin, a biodynamically farmed domaine now owned by Anne-Marie and Jean-Louis Charmolue, former owners of Château Montrose.  Their 2017 white has verve that belies its southern origins and balances its suave texture.

Going west and crossing the Rhône River, Virgile Joly is a rising star in the Languedoc and a poster-boy for organic viticulture there.  His 2017 Joly Blanc, a blend of equal parts Grenache Blanc and Roussanne, delivers stone fruit nuances and a gorgeous texture amplified by a citrus zing.

An appellation whose wines don’t need frost or anything else to maintain acidity is Picpoul de Pinet.  (Curiously, the grape is spelled Picquepoul.)  With its 3,500 acres, it is the largest white wine appellation in the Languedoc.  Although late ripening, the grape has enormous inherent acidity, so the resulting wines are zesty, clean and refreshing.  The best of them have good body and are reminiscent of Muscadet because of their liveliness and affinity for seafood. An added boon–they’re inexpensive, rarely over $15 a bottle, with many under $10.

The frost doesn’t entirely explain the brightness in these wines since not all the areas were affected.  Perhaps winemakers are harvesting earlier, capturing acidity, perhaps they’re using higher acid grapes in the blend, or perhaps the organic and biodynamic practices so common in the Languedoc and southern Rhône allow the grapes to hold onto acidity.  Whatever the explanation, the verve is a welcome addition to these southern French whites.  Let’s hope it’s here to stay.

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June 19, 2019

Email me your thoughts about white wines from the south of France at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein


Terroir in Bordeaux

Part of my enthusiasm for wine, and I’m sure other’s as well, is that the character of the wine is, or at least should be, a reflection of where the grapes were grown.  For me, this is a fabulous expression of Nature and an almost magical one at that.  Wines made from the same grapes grown in adjacent vineyards, separated sometimes by only a narrow dirt path, can often taste very different.  This concept can be difficult to appreciate because the producer’s winemaking technique can overwhelm the influence of place.  When tasting two wines from different locales made by different producers, the question becomes, is it the producer’s hand or the locale that is speaking?  So, for consumers to appreciate and understand the potential of what is known as terroir, or what noted wine writer Matt Kramer called, “a sense of place,” it is essential to compare wines from different places made by the same producer.

The concept of terroir is universal, and not just for grapes.  The Europeans have hundreds of appellations for a variety of foods because they know that certain areas excel in growing certain products.  We in the U.S. have fewer legal, geographically-determined appellations for foods, but still recognize the concept, as with Florida oranges, Vidalia onions, or Washington State apples.  We all know that some people’s homegrown tomatoes taste better than those of others.  Maybe they were better “farmers,” but maybe their backyard was better suited, for some reason, for growing tomatoes.

For wine, Burgundy is ground zero for this phenomenon for historical reasons.  French inheritance laws stemming from the Napoleonic era mandated an equal distribution of land among the heirs, which meant that, over time, many people wound up owning small patches of vineyards.  For many of these farmers, it made little economic sense to make and market wines from such small holdings, so they sold their grapes or newly made wine to firms, known as négociants, that finished the winemaking process and marketed the wines.  As a result, these producers, such as Maison Louis Jadot, Maison Louis Latour or Maison Joseph Drouhin, wound up making and selling wines from many different sites within Burgundy.  Since the winemaking of each négociant is the same or at least similar for all their wines, one can easier discern the incredible differences between two wines whose grapes might have come from vineyards separated by that dirt path.

This phenomenon is not restricted to Burgundy.  Bruno Borie, President of Ducru-Beaucaillou and related properties, showed me during a recent trip to Boston that it is alive and well–and very important–in Bordeaux.

Of course, terroir is alive and well in Bordeaux.  Everyone knows that the wines from the commune of St. Éstephe are very different from those of neighboring Pauillac or from Margaux.  But how about within an individual commune?  I’ve heard many times from the Bordelais themselves and have read reliable authors who have said that the best wines in St. Julien come from those properties that can “see the estuary,” that is, those châteaux that are the furthest east, bordering the Gironde River.  And indeed, though there are exceptions, those properties closest to the water, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou and the Léovilles (Poyferré, Las Cases, and Barton), to name a few, make wines that are generally more elegant than ones located further to the west, the inland St. Julien, such as Château Gruaud Larose, Château Talbot, or Château Lagrange.  So, is it the winemaking or the location, i.e., “the hand or the land,” that is responsible?  With an exceptional and unique tasting, Bruno Borie gave us the answer by showing three wines from the 2015 vintage made by the same team.

A little history puts this tasting into perspective.  The Borie family, who have had a presence in the Médoc since 1870, have been making wine at Ducru-Beaucaillou since Bruno’s grandfather started leasing the vineyards in 1941–what a time to embark on a new project in France!  Bruno’s father, Jean-Eugène, eventually purchased the property in the 1960s and ran it until Bruno took the reins in 2003.  Bruno recounts how in 1970, his father lamented after church services to the patriarch of the Cendoya family, the owner of Château Lagrange at the time, that he (Borie) was surprised by the recent sale of a piece of Lagrange, hinting that he would have been interested in purchasing it.  Cendoya responded by saying that they had more to sell.  Bingo!  Quickly thereafter, Jean-Eugène had purchased what is now Château Lalande-Borie, located in the western part of the commune, quite a distance from the Gironde, relatively speaking.  Then in 1995, as part of his upgrading of Ducru, Jean-Eugène introduced a “second” wine, La Croix Beaucaillou, which since 2005 has been a separate wine made from a separate vineyard that lies half-way between Lalande-Borie and Ducru-Beaucaillou itself.  La Croix is still technically a second wine because some of the lesser lots from Ducru find their way into La Croix, but Bruno emphasizes that 90 percent of La Croix comes from its own discrete vineyard.

We had in front of us the three wines from three different areas of St. Julien.  Going from west to east–inland to the estuary–was Château Lalande-Borie, La Croix Beaucaillou, and Ducru-Beaucaillou from the 2015 vintage.  Although the blends of the three wines were slightly different, with more Merlot and less Cabernet Sauvignon in Château Lalande-Borie (60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon) compared to 60% Cabernet Sauvignon in La Croix and 90% in Ducru, the fundamental difference among the wines was elegance.  The texture of the wines became finer and finer moving from the west towards the river.  It was like the difference between wool, lambswool and cashmere.  Moreover, there was less apparent fruitiness and more savory and mineral-like flavors moving from west to east.

Borie explained that “the ecosystem”–he avoided the term, terroir–of each vineyard determined the character and finesse of the wine.  Near the estuary lies a collection of stones and gravel that came originally from both the center of France and the Pyrenees Mountains.  He insists it’s this mix of deposits combined with perfect exposure and drainage that provides the elegance and mineral-like component of Ducru.  He explains that in the middle of St. Julien, there are little streams that cut through the Médoc, which dictate the climate.  The soil contains a bit more clay which imparts more body–at the expense of elegance–to the wines.  In the inland or western part of the appellation, the soil is newer, geologically speaking, with more sand, which for him explains why the wines have less complexity.

The message was clear to me.  The conventional wisdom is true:  The finest wines from St. Julien come from vines that can see the estuary.  A large thank you to Bruno Borie for the chance to learn this for myself.

My advice for consumers is to buy as much of these 2015s as your budget will allow. The Ducru-Beaucaillou (97, $200) showed its Cru Classé stature with its extraordinary silky texture and a broad palate of flavors without a trace of heaviness. I’d leave this beauty in the cellar for another decade to let it develop as I know the wines of Ducru-Beaucaillou do.  The Lalande-Borie (91, $38) is enjoyable now, but I suspect it will continue to evolve over the next decade.  I’d give the La Croix Beaucaillou (93, $60), another five years before pulling the cork.

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Email me your thoughts about terroir or Ducru-Beaucaillou at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

May 22, 2019

Guigal: The Birth of a Star in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

It’s rare for a winery to go from nothing to the top in its category quickly.  Bordeaux’s premier châteaux, such as Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, and Château Haut-Brion, to name just three, were founded centuries ago.  Similarly, in Burgundy, leading producers such as Maison Louis Jadot, Maison Louis Latour, and Maison Joseph Drouhin, date back to the 19th century.  Compare that to the rocket-like trajectory of E. Guigal in Côte Rôtie, an appellation in France’s northern Rhône Valley, where they are the undisputed star of the entire appellation and beyond.

Etienne Guigal left Vidal-Fleury, where he had worked for many years, in 1946 to establish his own eponymous estate, E. Guigal.  He was either crazy or a visionary.  Starting a new winery anywhere in France immediately after World War II was a risky business.  It was especially so in the Côte Rôtie, whose steep slopes and terraced-vineyards made it a labor-intensive (read, expensive) place to grow grapes and make wine.  Moreover, Etienne’s goal was to make high-quality wines instead of the “quantity” wines Côte Rôtie was known for at that time.

Etienne’s reported abrupt blindness in 1961 brought Marcel, his son, home from university shortly after he had started, to assume control of the business when he was just 17 years old.  Even at his young age and long before “terroir” became a buzz-word in the wine world, Marcel Guigal knew that the vineyard site was critical and the single most important factor in determining the wine’s character and distinctiveness.  Five years later, in 1966, under Marcel’s leadership, Guigal released their first site-specific Côte Rôtie from their 2.5-acre vineyard, La Mouline, a field blend of Syrah (90%) and the white grape, Viognier.  Wines from the 5.8-acre La Landonne (100% Syrah) and 2.1-acre La Turque vineyards (a blend of 93% Syrah and Viognier) followed in 1978 and 1985, respectively.  Barely two decades later, in 2007, when the 2003 vintage of the “La La’s,” as they are now known, hit the retail market, they set the record for most expensive Rhône wines ever released, according to The Wine Spectator.  (La Mouline sold for $17 a bottle in the early 1970s.)

Guigal, both as grower and as a négociant, continues to expand his reach. In the mid-1980s, in what must have been an extremely self-satisfying acquisition, Marcel purchased Vidal-Fleury, his father’s former employer.  Then in 2001, Guigal expanded as a grower from his base in Côte Rôtie to other Northern Rhône appellations, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, and St. Joseph, when they purchased the two estates, Jean-Louis Grippat and de Vallouit. Unsurprisingly, they soon started producing site-specified wines in Hermitage called Ex-Voto, and in St. Joseph, Vignes de L’Hospice.

Although Guigal has had an enormous presence in the southern Rhône as a négociant, producing more than 500,000 cases annually of their value-packed Côtes du Rhône, red, white, and rosé, as well as Gigondas, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, they did not own vineyards there until 2017.  Philippe Guigal, Marcel’s son and current General Manager and winemaker, relates that they had been looking to buy in Châteauneuf-du-Pape for years.  He remarked that they had been making Châteauneuf-du-Pape and selling it via their négociant business since the 1940s.  As a result, they had a close relationship with scores of growers.  They knew the appellation well and knew what they wanted.  More importantly, he added, “We knew what we didn’t want.”  He added that it probably would have been easier to buy there if they did not have so much experience in the appellation, “if we were outsiders just looking to focus on the famous name, Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”  But, as in the northern Rhône, they were fixated on site.

Over the years, they had been offered many opportunities, but something was always wrong.  Philippe admitted that they were “fussy.” It was especially difficult to find a large enough property, 75+ acres, to support an independent team and winery.  The person in charge of the southern France division of Groupama, the insurance giant that insures 90 percent of France’s agricultural land, asked Marcel to be an independent appraiser for one of their properties, Château de Nalys in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, because he knew that Marcel was an expert on terroir and wineries.  Philippe relates that he was reluctant to visit, but his father urged him to accompany him because otherwise it would be rude.  They met the president of Groupama at Nalys, who, according to Philippe, immediately announced, “Nalys is not for sale.  It is the jewel in our crown.”  Philippe responded, “Good because we have no intention of buying it.”  It’s not hard to guess the rest. The appraisal complete, a little discussion back and forth, and, voilà, the deal was done. Château de Nalys was theirs.  Philippe exclaims with a broad smile, “It was a dream come true.”

Philippe described it with almost a child-like enthusiasm as a “top, top terroir.” What he couldn’t understand was how Château de Nalys had made such unremarkable wine from such well-endowed sites.  The property is comprised of historic cellars that date from the 17th century and about 125 acres of contiguous vineyards divided among three equally-sized blocks or lieux-dits in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, La Crau, Bois Senéchal, and Grand Pierre, also known as Nalys.  All 13 grape varieties permitted in the blend of red Châteauneuf-du-Pape are planted on all three plots. They vinify them separately.  Philippe insists that “none should be forgotten, especially with climate change.”

The piece of La Crau that is a part of Château de Nalys, in the northern section, was not favored 30 years ago.  But, as Philippe explains, with climate change, it has become preferable because grapes there now reach phenolic or physiologic ripeness (the tannins are ripe) at a sugar level that corresponds to 14.5% alcohol instead of 16%, resulting in more balanced wines.  Philippe explains that the grapes from La Crau contribute structure and power to the finished blend.  The mix of sand and clay in the Grand Pierre or Nalys lieu-dit, in contrast, provides grapes that lend elegance to the wine.  Philippe believes that big stones sitting atop clay subsoil in the Bois Senéchal lieu-dit acts as a great water reservoir, imparting freshness to the wines.

Guigal quickly made substantial changes to Chateau de Nalys’s cellar and vineyards.  In the cellar, they extended the time the wines spend in barrel and adjusted the size and age of the barrels. In essence, they fine-tuned barrel aging, adjusting it to the grape variety. Importantly, they made a severe selection creating a true second red wine.  In 2017 and 2018, both great vintages in Philippe’s experience, they plan on still using only about half of their production for the Grand Vin.  There’s lots of work still to be done in the vineyard.  Guigal started by increasing the vineyard crew from two to 12 workers and hiring a vineyard manager to work with the winemaker.

While Guigal vinified and had total control over the 2017s, the previous owners vinified the 2016s.  Luckily, Guigal finalized the purchase before the component wines had been blended, so they left their mark on the wines by blending and aging them.  There are no white grapes included in the 2016 reds, but Guigal did incorporate them in the blends of the 2017 and 2018 reds.

Château de Nalys currently produces four wines, two whites and two reds.  Both colors carry the same names and prices, Saintes Pierres de Nalys ($50) and Château de Nalys ($100).  Each, in its own way, is delicious, as you’d expect from this star producer.  Whether the market will support the prices remains to be seen.

Château de Nalys produces three times as much white wine as their neighbors–18 percent of their production versus an appellation-wide average of 6 percent. The 2017 Saintes Pierres de Nalys Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc (93 pts) is bright, floral and mineral-y with a hint of spice.  It’s freshness and bite may be out of character for a white Châteauneuf, but it’s a delight to drink now.  Philippe attributes its energy to hefty amount of Clairette in the blend. It’s hard to call this white a second wine because its character is so different from the Grand Vin.

The 2017 Château de Nalys, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc (92 pts) is entirely different–weightier, with a more viscous texture and more extract.  Indeed, it’s a more typical white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, showing power, depth and even a hint of bitterness in the finish.  The grapes come from all of the three lieux-dits, with Roussanne comprising the largest component (43%), followed by Grenache Blanc (33%), Clairette (15%), Bourboulenc (6%) and Picquepoul.

The 2016 Saintes Pierres de Nalys Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge (91 pts) conveys freshness and raciness, much like its white counterpart.  Fruity and forward, with a touch of minerality, it represents a more modern style of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Balanced, with suave tannins, it would be a good choice for current consumption.

The 2016 Château de Nalys, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge (94 pts) is dense and powerful, yet also elegant and fresh, without a trace of heaviness.  There’s an appealing, subtle tarry aspect.  Tightly wound, with substantial structure, it needs years to blossom.  If Guigal’s hand is evident only with the blending and aging of this wine, I can’t wait to try the 2017 and 2018, which they vinified.  Philippe believes that a parcel of Grenache planted at the beginning of the 20th century helps explain the wine’s power.

Whether Guigal will make single wines from the individual lieux-ditsat Château de Nalys remains to be seen.  My guess is that they won’t.  I suspect they will continue to blend the wines from the various parcels, emulating the approach they took with their Château d’Ampuis, a consistently superb Côte Rôtie that falls qualitatively and in price between the La La’s and their Côte Rôtie labeled “Brune et Blonde,” that they introduced with the 1995 vintage. Château d’Ampuis is made from grapes grown in what Guigal believes are six exceptionally well-suited vineyards, three each in the Côte Brune and Côte Blonde, the two subdivisions of Côte Rôtie.  If Château de Nalys turns out wines of the stature of Château d’Ampuis, it will be another shining star in the Guigal constellation.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Guigal, Châteauneuf-du-Pape or the Rhône in general at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

April 24, 2019

Chianti Classico: The Tale of Two Vintages

Consumers are lucky and should be thrilled that there are two stunning vintages, the 2015 and 2016, of Chianti Classico on retailers’ shelves now.  Although both vintages are outstanding, the character of the wines is very different.  In a word, so to speak, the 2015s are riper and fleshy while the 2016s are racier.  So, there’s something for everyone, whether you prefer the richer Chianti Classico, the 2015s, or the more traditionally framed ones, the 2016s.

The differences in the character of the wines can be explained easily by the weather.  At the risk of over simplification, but with the benefit of not getting too geeky, the weather in 2015 was generally warmer, which meant that the grapes were riper at harvest.  With riper grapes comes lower acidity–as all fruits ripen, sugar levels go up and tartness decreases–which translated into bolder wines with less acidity.  The 2016 growing season, by contrast, was cooler, which meant that grapes were slightly less ripe and the levels of acidity slightly higher, which translated into racier wines.

Consumers can find many well-priced examples from both vintages in the retail market.  Daniel Posner of The Grapes Wine Company, a major retailer in Westchester County, the northern suburbs of New York City, estimates that he carries 20 or so Chianti Classico bottlings, up from just two or three two decades ago.  He is enthusiastic about the category, “I’m happy to buy more, the quality is so high.  Compared to 15 years ago, it is hard to find a bad bottle of Chianti Classico in the $15 to $20 per bottle range.”

Bob Harkey of Harkey’s Fine Wines, a superb wine shop in Millis, Massachusetts just west of Boston, loves the 2016 vintage.  He, however, believes that many consumers will prefer the “more modern” 2015s.  He adds, “There’s nothing better than a well-aged Chianti Classico,” and thinks the 2016s will be better suited for the cellar than the 2015s.

Chianti Classico is the best known of the eight sub-regions of the greater Chianti area, which stretches from Pistoia, north of Florence to Montalcino, south of Siena, in central Tuscany.  Not only is it the best known, it also produces the best wines overall of the sub-regions and is the only one to have been awarded DOCG status, Italy’s highest wine classification.

The greater Chianti region itself is also a DOCG, but none of the other sub-regions, Chianti Colli Senesi (the hills around Siena), Chianti Colli Fiorentini (the hills of around Florence), Chianti Rufina (northeast of Florence), Chianti Montalbano (northwest of Florence), Chianti Montespertoli (southwest of Florence), Chianti Colli Aretini (hills around Arezzo), and Chianti Colline Pisane (around Pisa), have that distinction.  Although that’s not to say that excellent wines are not produced in those sub-regions, because they are.  One taste of Chianti Rufina from Selvapiana or Frescobaldi will convince you of that.  It’s just that the wines from Chianti Classico are more consistently noteworthy and reliable.

Although Chianti is usually a blend, with Sangiovese as the primary grape, regulations now allow a pure Sangiovese-based wine as well.  Regulations for Chianti Classico, as opposed to Chianti, prohibit the use the white grapes, which were included in the historical blend, and require a minimum of 80 percent Sangiovese and a maximum of 20 percent of the autochthonous grapes, Canaiolo and Colorino, and the so-called “international” ones, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah in any combination.

The geography, soil, elevation, and exposure of the vineyards in Chianti Classico is extremely varied.  Add to that mix, winemaking preferences–which blend of grapes, how much extraction, how much oak aging–and you get a multiplicity of wine styles. That said, there should be a common theme of fresh fruit flavors intermingled, to a greater or lesser extent, with herbal and earthy ones, buttressed by vigorous uplifting acidity.

There is a movement among some Chianti Classico producers to try to identify wine style according to the various villages within Chianti Classico, such as Greve, Gaiole, Panzano, Radda, and Castellina in Chianti, Castelnuovo Berardenga to name just six, as is common in Burgundy and Barolo.  No doubt, these villages with their different terroir produce wines identifiably unique to the particular locale.  Unfortunately for the consumer, identifying these unique characteristics is difficult because few producers make wines from the different villages.  Hence, separating terroir from the producer’s style is impossible.  Tasting Fontodi’s Chianti Classico from Panzano and Ricasoli’s Chianti Classico from Gaiole raises a legitimate question:  Are the differences between the two wines–and the wines are very different–due to the different terroir of Panzano and Gaiole…or due to the winemaking techniques of the individual producers?  Until the same producer makes wines from different villages, it will be impossible for the usual consumer to identify the unique influence of terroir in Chianti Classico.

The Chianti Classico Consorzio, the Galo Nero or iconic Black Rooster, has proposed a quality pyramid to guide the consumer.  At its base are the normale or annata, as the locals call them.  These wines are generally ready to be consumed upon release.  The next level up is Chianti Classico Riserva.  By regulation, Riservas must be aged an extra year in barrel as compared with the normale.   In practice, the Riserva should be a better wine, sufficiently concentrated and powerful to stand up to an extra year of barrel aging.  Chianti Classico Riservas are generally deeper, more complex wines with more tannic structure that need a few years of bottle age before pulling the cork.  At the pinnacle of the quality pyramid is the newly established category, Gran Selezione.  These wines must be aged for an additional six months compared to the Riservas–30 months overall–and are meant to be the estate’s best Chianti Classico.  Like the Riservas, Gran Selezione need more bottle age to show their grandeur.  In my experience, which echoes Harkey’s, one of the beauties of Chianti Classico Riservas, and presumably the Gran Selezione, though that category is still too young to know for sure, is how beautifully these wines develop with a decade or two of bottle age.

Are Riservas always “better” than the normale Chianti Classico, and do the Gran Selezione always out-distance everything else?  The answer is a resounding no.  The pyramid is broadly helpful, but in my opinion, the best guide to choosing Chianti Classico remains producer, producer, producer.  Find producers whose wines you like and stick with them. Importantly, if you want to drink the wine tonight, then reach for a 2015 or 2016 annata, rather than a Riserva from those years.

Here are a half-dozen Chianti Classico normale from 2015 and 2016 that I enthusiastically recommend:

San Fabiano Calcinaia, Chianti Classico 2016 ($25):  Mouth-cleansing acidity enlivens this long and layered beauty.  Beautifully balanced, nothing is out of place. It’s a delight to drink now.  95

Fontodi, Chianti Classico “Filetta di Lamole” 2016 ($44):  The Filetta vineyard, though only a few miles from Fontodi’s home base near Panzano, produces a very different Chianti Classico because of the extreme elevation of the vineyard.  Lacey and sleek compared to their usual Chianti Classico, the pair clearly demonstrates the importance of terroir because both wines are made entirely from Sangiovese by the same winemaking team.  You can’t go wrong with either.  95

Tenuta di Nozzole, Chianti Classico “Nozzole” 2015 ($22):  Reflecting the ripeness of the vintage, the Nozzole even delivers hints of olives and chocolate.  But its energy is unmistakable.  The tannins are suave, lending support, but not astringency.  A long and succulent wine, it would be a perfect choice for a grilled steak.  94

Fèlsina, Chianti Classico “Berardenga” 2015 ($25):  Castelnuovo Berardenga is the southern-most subzone of the Chianti Classico area and typically is home to the densest and ripest wines.  Even with their location and the character of the 2015 vintage, Fèlsina imbues its Chianti Classico with energy and life that balances its concentrated flavors.  Herbal notes add to its allure.  A robust rendition of Chianti Classico, it nonetheless is bright and lively.  94

Fontodi, Chianti Classico 2016 ($44):  Fontodi, one of the great names in Chianti Classico, is located in the heart of that region, in what’s known as the Conca d’Oro (golden shell) because of the amphitheater-like exposure.  The wine is ripe, yet racy, refreshing and bright.  Its floral component tantalizes, while the deep, dark, bitter cherry-like flavors satisfy.  Ready to enjoy now, this bold, but balanced, wine will develop additional complexity with bottle age, so there’s no rush.  94

Badia a Coltibuono, Chianti Classico 2015 ($20):  This 2015 Chianti Classico is a gracious mix of bright red cherry-like flavors accented by earthy notes.  Mild tannins lend support without intrusion.  Its complexity becomes apparent with successive sips.  This long and bright wine is ideal for current consumption.  93

Vignamaggio, Chianti Classico “Terre di Prenzano” 2016 ($21): Gorgeous aromatics draw you in and the panoply of red fruit and herbal flavors keep you returning for more.  Bright and balanced, this mid-weight wine is a fine accompaniment to a grilled veal chop.  93

Istine, Chianti Classico 2015 ($22): Though packed, Istine’s 2015 is racy and elegant, so there’s not a trace of heaviness.  Still a mid-weight wine, pure and bright cherry-like flavors sing. Its length is impressive.  93

Principe Corsini, Villa Le Corti Chianti Classico “Le Corti” 2016 $24):  Made from organically grown grapes, Principe Corsini’s Chianti Classic are consistently satisfying.  The 2016 is ripe, yet racy with hints of tart cherries and balancing savory nuances.  Classically structured, it’s a delight to drink now.  93 

Isole e Olena, Chianti Classico 2015 ($26):  The always inquisitive Paolo de Marchi consistently makes brilliant wines.  He refuses to make a Chianti Classico Reserva because he feels it would detract either from Cepparello, his spectacular Super Tuscan, or his annata, which probably explains why his Chianti Classico is so good.  His 2015 Chianti Classico, a mid-weight wine, delivers brightness and energy that balances the ripe red fruit notes.  93

Querciabella, Chianti Classico 2016 ($30):  Deep and concentrated, Querciabella’s 2016 is nonetheless, lively and invigorating.  Savory, “not just fruit,” nuances complement and balance the dark cherry-like flavors.  A hint of oak aging works well here.  93

Castello di Radda, Chianti Classico 2015 ($15): Though it shows the ripeness of the vintage, bright acidity lends a gracefulness and amplifies the mixture of cherry-like and savory flavors.  91

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Email me your thoughts about Chianti Classico at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

March 28, 2019

Brunello di Montalcino 2014: Not as Bad as it Sounds

Despite the sour mood in Montalcino caused by the “difficult” 2014 vintage for Brunello (vintages are never poor, they’re just difficult), it is definitely a vintage that consumers should investigate closely because some producers made very good wine.  To be sure, the talk is all gloom and doom regarding the 2014 vintage in Tuscany, including Montalcino.  Even the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino’s rating–self-serving and among the most lenient in the world–awarded the vintage just three out of five stars.  In the last 40 years, only four vintages received a lower rating from them.  Objective evidence of the producers’ unhappiness with the vintage is easy to find.  Biondi-Santi, the most exalted producer in the area, made no 2014 Brunello.  Other leading producers made no “Selezione,” single vineyard, or Riserva bottlings, opting to include those better grapes into the regular bottling.  For example, Col d’Orcia decided against producing Poggio Al Vento Riserva, their flagship Brunello, in 2014.  Similarly, Caparzo did not bottle a Riserva or their famed single-vineyard La Casa.  Donatello Cinelli Colombini, another leading producer, used all the grapes that would have gone into making their Selezione, called “Prime Donna,” or their Riserva, for their normal Brunello, which, by the way, could be the wine of the vintage.

The problem, as is always the case in determining the quality of the wine, is the weather during the growing season.  In short, the growing season in 2014 was cold and rainy.  The ensuing humidity wreaked havoc on the vines, causing widespread rot and disease.  The lack of sun meant that the Sangiovese, the only grape allowed in Brunello di Montalcino, struggled to ripen.

Despite the overall poor rating of the 2014 vintage for Brunello, consumers should be interested in at least some of the wines because, as is always the case with “difficult” vintages, talented producers defy the odds.  Indeed, it’s better to rely on and follow producers than it is to have a blind allegiance to a vintage.

Those who succeeded when many failed followed the standard procedures for rescuing a harvest:  A severe selection and hard work in the vineyard.  Violante Gardini, from Donatella Cinelli Colombini, noted that, “You needed to respect the nature of the vintage.”  She felt that those who failed to adjust the amount of oak aging in response to the lighter wines Mother Nature delivered produced ones that were out of balance.  Gardini stressed that their team of harvesters was careful to discard diseased bunches of grapes and leave them in the vineyard.  To further eliminate less than perfect fruit, the team used a sorting table at the winery to be sure only healthy grapes made it to the fermenting vats.  As a result, Donatella Cinelli Colombini produced only half of their usual production in 2014.

According to Lorenzo Barzanti, assistant export manager for Caparzo, their production was down by only about 15 percent, but they bottled no Riserva or Vigna La Casa, which helps explain why their 2014 Brunello was successful.  Barzanti observed that Caparzo has their 225 acres of vineyards spread over the entire region of Montalcino, the southern portion of which, always drier, escaped some of Mother Nature’s ravages.

Col d’Orcia, one the region’s best producers, made an easy-to-recommend Brunello in 2014 in part because of their location in the southwest sector of the region, where the weather was drier.  Still, they needed to do two passes through the vineyards during harvest, selecting only the healthiest bunches, avoiding ones harmed by the humidity, according to Santiago Marone, whose family owns the property.  Marone noted that many producers, including themselves, declassified what legally could have been bottled as Brunello to Rosso di Montalcino to maintain the quality of the Brunello.  Wine not fit for Rosso was further declassified to table wine or sold off in bulk.

Dottore Maurizio Saettini, who consults for a variety of Montalcino producers, explained that leaf removal and cutting away parts of grape bunches during the summer promoted air circulation among the vines.  He felt that these labor-intensive techniques in the vineyard limited disease and helped those producers who made excellent Brunello in 2014.

The 2014 vintage for Brunello is definitely not a “point and shoot” vintage, like 2010, in which it would be difficult for consumers to find a loser.  The 2014 vintage is what I call a “wine writer’s” vintage, because consumers need to read assessments of the wines from critics or retailers they trust before buying.

It’s a vintage that produced lighter Brunello.  W. Blake Gray, a serious critic from San Francisco, called the wines “dainty,” not an adjective normally associated with Brunello, but a good description of the vintage.  Still, the best wines have the firmness and mineral aspect characteristic of Brunello, just without the tannic structure.  They still convey the lovely austerity of Sangiovese planted in this unique area.  Although the best of the 2014 Brunello are easy to drink and approachable, they are not Rosso di Montalcino because they still have the Brunello core.  They simply lack the usual tannic underpinning.  Some of the wines actually already show a hint of evolution, with a transition from fresh to dried cherry-like flavors.

Although I have a prejudice against high alcohol wines because the elevated alcohol can be a marker for over ripeness and impart a hot finish, I always taste the wines and avoid judging by the numbers.  It may have just been coincidence, but I found that, after tasting the 2014 Brunello last month in Montalcino, my favorites, with rare exceptions, weighed in with a stated alcohol of 13.5 percent, which is low in the current context of climate change.

The recommended 2014 Brunello below are especially well-suited for restaurants because they are approachable and will provide enjoyment over the next several years.  Consumers new to Brunello or those curious about the category should embrace the recommended wines for the same reasons.  They lack the usual substantial tannins and are ready to drink, in most cases by the time these wines will hit retailers’ shelves over the coming year.

A major question is whether the wines will be priced to entice consumers and restaurant owners to give Brunello from an “off” vintage a try.  Of the recommended wines below, I could find only two available at the retail level in the U.S.  Both are priced at, or above prices for previous vintages, according to, which may present a problem in the marketplace.

Although your personal preferences may be for bigger wines from other vintages, I found wines from the year that I can recommend with strong enthusiasm based on my own critical criteria

Highly Recommended 2014 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG:

Donatella Cinelli Colombini:  Gorgeous, plush Brunello flavors without hard tannins.  Good introduction to the beauty of Brunello.  A candidate for wine of the vintage (94).

Gianni Brunelli:  A balance of fruit and minerals.  Firm, not hard, and fresh.  Charming and restrained ($65, 93).  They always succeed!

Mastrojanni:  Lovely balance, delicacy and elegance.  Forward yet firm, with a core that reminds you it’s Brunello (93).

Caparzo:  Floral, mineral-y and refined.  Firm, not hard tannins. Fresh, lively finish (93).

Col d’Orcia:  Delicate, restrained, but no question it’s Brunello–the core speaks.  Long, clean and refined (92).

Tenute Silvio Nardi:  Still restrained and balanced despite the 14 percent stated-alcohol. Brunello firmness and core, but floral and delicate.  Lovely (92).

Campogiovanni:  Good concentration and structure.  Engaging sweet/bitter finish.  Balanced! (92).

La Fornace:  Great floral, fruity engaging nose that sucks you in.  Ripe and clean with lovely balance and structure.  Nearly ready.  Brunello firmness and minerality without aggressive tannins (92).

Villa I Cipressi:  Minerals and fruit combined.  Firm structure, not hard or tannic.  Drink now.  Brunello without harsh tannin.  Long and fresh (92).

Franco Pacenti “Canalicchio:”  Long and fresh showing hints of maturity already.  Refined and approachable (91).

Castiglion del Bosco:  Evolution already in the nose.  Lovely purity and refinement.  Long.  Balanced (91).


Tenuta Le Potazzine Gorelli:  Delicate Brunello mineral nose; hint of dark cherries and minerals; lovely restraint; forward, eminently drinkable now.  Mild tannins.  Balanced; not overdone or overworked ($83, 90).

Tiezzi, “Poggio Cerrino:”  Gorgeous floral, mineral-infused nose; delicate, with firmness of Brunello, but approachable.  Sweet cherry-like fruit and firm minerals.  Drink now. long refreshing finish (90).

Argiano:  Light in concentration, but good character.  Delicate, firm and floral.  Drink now (90).

Bellaria:  Already slightly evolved.  Firm, not hard tannins.  Balanced (90).

Fanti:  Great combination of ripe fruit with firm structure.  Not hard.  Delicate.  Balanced (90).

Fulgini: Charming, but with the firmness of Brunello.  Fruity, minerals, and earth; nicely balanced (90).

Il Marroneto:  More fruit-focused than mineral-y, but still conveys enough dark Brunello quality.  Firm, not hard, tannins.  Lovely now.  Fresh, fruity, fine finish (90).

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E-mail me your thoughts about Brunello di Montalcino at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

February 27, 2019

A unique way to learn about sake

By Michael Apstein – Globe correspondent  | February 25, 2019

When I taught the introductory wine course at The Boston Center for Adult Education, I suggested, as “homework,” for the students that they drink one type of wine exclusively for a month. It made no difference which kind of wine — California Chardonnay, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux, or Muscadet — they just needed to immerse themselves in it to see the theme and variations. For extra credit they could read about the grapes, the region, critics thoughts about the category in general, or the individual producers. It was homework that the students enjoyed. I also employed that exercise during a recent 18-day visit to Japan with my wife and two adult daughters to learn about sake, a beverage I had always wanted to explore, but never had the in-depth opportunity until now.

Over the two-plus weeks, we drank a broad range of about 30 different sakes. Some were poured from what appeared to be a milk carton, while others came from small jars with pop-tops. Many were poured with great ceremony into cutting-edge designer ceramic ware. I even sampled sake from an open barrel positioned outside a sushi restaurant where patrons were enduring the two-hour wait, unsurprisingly, without complaint. I selected many of the sakes randomly, since the Japanese-only drink menu was incomprehensible to me. Others were recommended by a restaurant staff member, and some were selected because it was the only one offered. (At an upscale Tokyo steakhouse there was a choice among four beers, but only one sake.)

The most important take-away message for me was that the quality level of sake and expense didn’t always provide maximum enjoyment. Still, it is important to understand the broad categories of sake (premium versus regular) and the levels of quality within the premium range, if for no other reason than you can be sure that you will see these terms on labels and on restaurant sake lists in the United States. The more refined sake, made from more highly polished rice, will always be of higher quality and more expensive. But surprisingly, it may not be the one you prefer.

What you drink with ramen or udon noodles is not necessarily the same as with sushi or sashimi, both of which may call for a more delicate or refined sake. But frankly, sake is versatile, so I would not obsess with “food and sake pairing.” All types of sake turn out to be a surprisingly good match for a wide variety of food, from robust ramen dishes to velvety and meaty Wagyu beef. Get The Weekender in your inbox: The Globe’s top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.

Sake in restaurants will be served either from a large (1.8-liter) or standard-size (720-milliliter) bottle poured by the staff into either a fancy or utilitarian ceramic bowl or from a small decanter and then poured by one of the diners into a small glass. Sometimes the server will pour directly into a small glass, invariably filling it to the brim to demonstrate abundance and generosity, but also making it impossible to pick up without spilling it. Sometimes the small glass is seated in a small box which catches the overflow and prevents it from flooding the table. Alternatively, the sake might arrive at the table in a small (180-milliliter) bottle, to be poured directly into the small glass. Though the overall atmosphere of the restaurant — casual or highly refined — determines how the sake is served, one rule prevails regardless of the elegance of the meal. You never pour sake for yourself. When your glass is empty, an alert companion should refill it. So be observant regarding your companions’ glasses. When pouring for a guest, you do not need to fill it to the brim.

Many restaurants or izakaya (what we might call a gastropub) offer sake to be served either warm or chilled. Although warm sake helps take the chill out of the winter, I found it also removed subtle nuances and so preferred to drink it slightly chilled.

Sake and Japanese culture are intertwined and have been so for centuries. Indeed, the Japanese word for alcohol is sake. During important holidays, sake producers (known as brewers) send colorful and elaborately decorated barrels to major shrines and temples.

Sake is a unique alcoholic beverage made from rice. Though sake has some similarities to wine and is sometimes referred to, erroneously, as “rice wine,” it is not wine, even though fermentation generates the alcohol. It also bears no resemblance to vodka — even though rice, like potatoes, is a complex starch — because sake is not distilled. Sake’s alcoholic content varies between 15 percent and 17 percent (30 proof to 34 proof), comparable or only slightly higher than many New World wines.

Like wine, sake has many nuances, levels of quality, and differences based on the quality of the rice, the water, and the talent, dedication, and compulsiveness of the producer or brewer.

The top level, known as premium sake, is defined by the Japanese government and represents only about 25 percent of sake produced. It is the one most commonly found in the United States. Premium sake contains only rice, koji (the mold added to the rice that converts the rice’s starch to sugar so the latter can be fermented by yeast), and sometimes a small amount (less than 10 percent) of distilled alcohol. The remainder, or regular sake, can be made with additives and a large amount of added alcohol. Although I had many regular sakes in Japan — I’m certain the one sitting in the barrel outside that sushi restaurant was in that category — I suggest you stick to the premium category.

Premium sake can be stratified according to how much the rice is purified by “polishing.” The grains of sake rice, of which there are hundreds of different varieties, are typically larger than those of table (eating) rice with more starch in their centers. The outside part of the rice, containing impurities, is removed carefully by a process known as milling or polishing. The koji breaks down the inner kernel of starch, containing fewer impurities, into sugar that the yeast can then ferment to alcohol.

The amount of polishing is critical to the style, quality, and price of the sake. The more external portion of the grain that is removed, the purer and more precise will be the flavor of the sake. Rice that has been polished leaving 70 percent of the kernel can be labeled honjozo. A small amount of alcohol is always added to honjozo sake. Although it sounds like adding alcohol is “cheating” because it dilutes it, in reality, a little added alcohol can make sake more aromatic and drier. From a practical point of view, little honjozo sake is imported into the United States because the US government taxes it at a higher level since it is considered a fortified beverage. Rice that has been polished leaving 60 percent of the kernel is labeled ginjo. When only 50 percent is left, it is labeled daiginjo. The amount of polishing will always be on the label, even if everything else is in Japanese. The lower the number, the higher the quality — and the price — of the sake. But remember, trust your palate because drinking a daiginjo won’t necessarily give you more pleasure than drinking a ginjo. Brewers can opt to add a small amount of alcohol to ginjo and daiginjo sake for stylistic reasons. If brewers add no alcohol to the sake, it will also carry the word junmai on the label — junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo, for example. Most sake imported into the United States will be junmai because of the added tax burden when even a little alcohol is added.

Another term seen on labels of premium sake is tokubetsu, which literally means special, but has no legal definition. Brewers use it if they have polished the rice more highly — so only 40 percent is left, if they have used special brewing techniques or special rice.

Though I am not recommending particular sake in this article, I do recommend trying several made by the same producer to see and taste for yourself the difference in quality. For example, tasting a ginjo and a daiginjo made by the same brewer (i.e., the same brand) allows you to see the difference polishing the rice to a greater degree makes. In contrast, if you compare a ginjo and daiginjo from different producers, you’ll not know whether the differences you are tasting are related to the amount of polishing or the talent and style of the producer. Similarly, if you can find them, try a junmai ginjo or daiginjo and a non-junmai ginjo or daiginjo made by the same brewer to see how a little added alcohol alters the taste and texture of the sake.

All types of sake turn out to be a surprisingly good match for a wide variety of food, from robust ramen dishes to velvety and meaty Wagyu beef.

An impediment to learning about sake, in contrast to wine, is the obvious one. Most of us will have far fewer opportunities to taste or drink it. And while sake is the obvious beverage when eating at a Japanese restaurant, few Americans frequent them more than a couple of times a month. Sake is an especially fine choice for Japanese food because it complements and cuts through the plethora of flavors — from pickles to grilled fish — that are frequently on the table at the same time. It’s the clear choice for sushi since it goes equally well with robustly flavored uni (sea urchin) as with more delicately flavored hotate (scallop). But, in addition, it works well with Western fare. Glenn Tsunekawa, an American who has lived in Japan for decades, recommends sake as the perfect accompaniment for grilled salmon or grilled tuna as well as a mixture of sautéed vegetables. W. Blake Gray, a San Francisco-based wine writer and sake expert who lived in Japan for years and is married to a Japanese woman, finds it the perfect drink for the sashimi that he and his wife prepare at home. He realizes, of course, that not everyone has access to high-grade raw fish, and notes that they find that it also goes very well with take-out rotisserie chicken.

When first learning about sake, I suggest buying it in as small a bottle as possible so you can try many types. Often, you’ll find sake sold in a 180-milliliter bottle, about 6 ounces, the typical portion for one person, but the range of sake in that size bottle will be limited. You’ll have a broader choice buying the a 720-milliliter bottle — the standard size sold in the United States — which contains enough for a couple to enjoy over two nights. An open bottle of sake will keep its freshness and flavor for up to a week as long as you put the screw cap back on and keep it in the refrigerator.

So, if you want to learn about sake, try my one-wine-a-month exercise.Michael Apstein can be reached at

Léoville-Poyferré: Another Super Second?

A vertical tasting of 15 vintages of Château Léoville Poyferré paired with food at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. earlier this month was proof that this venerable St. Julien property is on the rise. And while Cru Classé Bordeaux is never inexpensive, recent vintages of Léoville Poyferré are well-priced, especially compared to neighboring Château Léoville Las Cases. This is a property whose wines are worth following, not only for their intrinsic worth, but because it is a “super second” selling for less than super seconds’ prices.

One virtue of a vertical tasting is that it allows you to see how the wines develop over time, which, in turn, helps us determine when they are ready to drink, though that also depends to a certain degree on individual taste. For me, the wines from Poyferré, like any of the top Cru Classé, need at least 10 to 15 years to show their glorious complexity and make the transformation from fruitiness to those magical non-fruit (leathery, cedar-y coffee-like, describe-them-as-you-like) flavors. A vertical tasting also allows you to discern changes in style, which, in this case, were easy to see, starting with the 2010 vintage. The disadvantage of a vertical tasting is that some delicious wines, such as the 2002 Poyferré, while delightful on their own, get overshadowed in comparison to others, such as the 2001, which was, itself, overshadowed by the simply glorious 2000 Poyferré.

The takeaway message for me from the tasting was how much more elegant the wines have become, beginning with the 2010. They seem less extracted and therefore convey more finesse. The 2010 Poyferré, which to me was one of the stars of the night, had an impressive elegance along with the opulence for which Poyferré has become known. Far more expressive and refined than the ripe and intense 2009, the 2010 had an exciting sleekness (97 pts; $212*). Several other participants told me they noticed the same change. And subsequently, a winemaker at another prominent property in St. Julien told me he had perceived the same stylistic enhancement after tasting recent vintages of Poyferré.

In the 17th century, the three current Léoville estates–Léoville Las Cases, Léoville Poyferré and Léoville Barton–were one property. Over the years, through revolution, inheritance, and sales, the original estate was divided into the properties as we know them today. Although all three estates were classified as Second Growths in the Médoc Classification of 1855, the market classification as measured by current retail price puts Léoville Las Cases significantly above the other two. According to, the average price for the 15 vintages we tasted for Léoville Las Cases was $257 compared to $155 for Léoville Poyferré and $134 for Léoville Barton.

That ranking wasn’t always the case. The 1929 Léoville Poyferré was considered the wine of the vintage, according to Clive Coates, M.W., in his book, Grands Vins: The Finest Château of Bordeaux and Their Wine (University of California Press, 1995). Coates goes on to note that Léoville Poyferré’s wines from the 1920s were superb. Coates is not alone is reporting this either. Fellow British M.W. David Peppercorn, in his classic study Bordeaux (Mitchell Beazley, 2003), writes that “It is interesting to find Morton Shand (a famous early 20th Century English wine writer), always a lover of old wines, still echoing the nineteenth-century view of Poyferré in 1920 in finding Poyferré the best of the Léovilles.” Stephen Brook, a Bordeaux expert, echoes that sentiment in The Complete Bordeaux: The Wines-The Châteaux-The People (Mitchell Beazley 2007), “Poyferré was hugely admired in the 19th century and made classic wines in . . .1928 and 1929.”

The Cuvelier family, who also run a successful wine-merchant business established in 1804, purchased Château Léoville Poyferré and a neighboring St. Julien property, Château Moulin Riche, in 1920. But the transformation of the estate started with the arrival of Didier Cuvelier to manage it and Moulin Riche in 1979. Sara Lecompte Cuvelier, the current General Manager who replaced her cousin, Didier, after he retired in August 2018, summarized Didier’s accomplishments succinctly by saying, “He did everything. He modernized the winery and upgraded the vineyards at both Léoville Poyferré and Moulin Riche.” Cuvelier hired Michel Rolland as a consultant in 1994, which was revolutionary because it represented the first time that Rolland, a renowned Right Bank consultant, would consult on the Left Bank. He continues to consult, visiting several times a year to help decide on the harvest dates and the blend.

Lecompte Cuvelier, who presided over the recent Washington tasting, described the changes Didier made in 2010 that, to me, explained the dramatic difference in style of the wines. They replaced ten 216-hectoliter (hl) vats with 22 smaller (30 to 160 hl) vats, which allows them to vinify the best plots separately. She emphasized that parcel-by-parcel vinification gives them far more control over creating the final blend, deciding which wines will make the cut for the grand vin, which comprises only about half of Léoville Poyferré’s production. These double walled-stainless steel vats also allow them to perform pre-fermentation cold maceration, which allows them to extract flavor without astringent tannins, as well as to control temperature perfectly during fermentation. I believe it’s this precision in vinification, which leads to fine-tuning the blend, that explains the leap in elegance in the wines staring with the 2010 vintage.

The other half of Léoville Poyferré’s production–those less elegant batches–goes into Moulin Riche or into Pavillon de Poyferré, which, starting in 2009, is the true second wine of both properties. Moulin Riche was the second wine of Léoville Poyferré until 2009, by which time the vines Didier had replanted in the 1980s were mature enough to produce fruit worthy of the property and reflective of its terroir. That’s when Didier decided that Moulin Riche could finally stand alone again. It had been classified as a Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel in 1932, but no longer carried that classification since it is vinified at Léoville Poyferré and the regulations for Cru Bourgeois require the wine be vinified at its own château.

Léoville Poyferré’s 145 acres of vineyards sit on gravely well-drained soil near the Gironde River and are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (65%), Merlot (25%), Petit Verdot (8%) and Cabernet Franc (2%). The blend of the grand vin changes every year depending on how the different varieties do during the growing season, but it is always Cabernet Sauvignon dominant (55 to 65%) with Merlot representing 25 to 35%. Poyferré has a relatively large amount of Petit Verdot, which they are replacing with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, according to Lecompte Cuvelier. She explains that Petit Verdot has a very short window for harvest–one day it’s under ripe and two days later it’s over ripe–which makes it a challenge to harvest all of theirs at precisely the right moment. She says they are not planting more Merlot because they find it is getting too ripe as climate change continues to have an impact.

In addition to the 2010 Léoville Poyferré, which Lecompte Cuvelier felt was a “baby wine, with great potential,” there were many other stars shining at the tasting.

The 2015 was opulent, yet precise, elegant, and structured. To me, it was like the 2009 only with better structure (96; $117). If I were buying young Bordeaux to cellar, this would be one of them, especially since Zachy’s in Scarsdale, NY is selling it for $85, according to

From a “forgotten vintage,” since it was eclipsed by the 2015, the 2014 was more delicate. Elegance and purity balanced its plumy profile. Although lighter in style, it still needs years for its complexity to show (90, $81).

Lecompte Cuvelier described the 2012 as a “pleasure vintage, easy to drink while you are waiting for the 2009, 2010, and 2011 to mature.” I found it ripe and forward, perhaps a touch simpler than the others, but only in comparison. It would have shown better by itself rather than in this company (90, $90).

The 2011 was another overlooked vintage, falling after 2009 and 2010, two highly acclaimed ones. The elegance and purity first apparent in the 2010 is equally apparent in the 2011, the first year they used an optical sorting device to select only the very best grapes for the grand vin. I think it will develop beautifully and surprise us all in another decade. (92, $87). This is another one I’d buy for the cellar.

The opulent, almost massive, 2009 (93, $296) will be embraced by those who love that style while the 2008 was more classically framed and still youthful (90, $107). The trio of 2006 (91, $100), 2005 (92, $148) and 2004 (90, $108) were all robust wines, with the 2005 showing the most sleekness. Similar to the 2009, those who look for power will gravitate to this wine. All three need a few more years to show more complexity and finesse.

With lovely acidity and verve to balance its ripeness, the 2003 (92, $182), from a very hot vintage, was a surprise of the night. As noted at the beginning of this article, the 2002 (92, $103), with subtle herbal notes and delicious by itself, was overshadowed in comparison to the superb 2001 (93, $99). Those looking for a mature Bordeaux for tonight, should run out and snap up any remaining 2001 they can find. The expansive-on-the-palate 2000 (96, $235), as marvelous as it is now, still needs a few more years to unfold.

The 1990 (96, $364) showed the importance of vintage. Made at a time when there was little or no parcel-by-parcel vinification and little temperature-control during fermentation, the 1990, from a highly acclaimed vintage, has turned out to be a great wine showing both power and elegance.

Though Lecompte Cuvelier is now fully in charge, she plans no substantial changes to the viticulture, the winemaking or the wine, opting to continue the work her cousin started, always trying to achieve the highest quality possible. This tasting tells me they’re on the right tract and well on their way to regaining their lost status.

*All prices are derived from

E-mail me your thoughts about Bordeaux wines in general or Léoville Poyferré in particular at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

January 30, 2019

It’s not a Gambal…It Works

The newly established Gambal-Work partnership in the Sta. Rita Hills of California has just released their first wines, a pair of exquisitely exciting Chardonnays–some of the best I’ve had from California.  The enterprise draws on Alex Gambal’s 25 years of experience in Burgundy, where he is still making wines under the Alex Gambal label and that of Peter Work, a Dane who has considerable experience with vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills.  They are joined by Jeff Newton, who has 30 years of experience with the viticulture of Santa Barbara County, and Michael Mayfield, who is in charge of the operation’s finances.

The wines are from two vineyards, Bentrock and Francesca, which lie on the western part of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation.  Although the vineyards are separated by approximately 7 miles, as the crow flies, the wines are far more different than the proximity of the vineyards suggests.  Since the winemaking and grape variety is the same, the differences can be explained only by the different locales of the vineyards.  It is a stunning example of how terroir–the French word for a sense of place–exists and is thriving in California.  Gambal explains that the soils and exposure of the vineyards are, indeed, very different.

The Gambal-Work Francesca Vineyard Chardonnay (95 points, $65) is breath-takingly alive and vibrant. A stone-y mineral quality dominates and enlivens the palate. Pure and linear, the focus is definitely on the mineral aspect, not on the fruitiness of the grape.  It’s a long and refined wine that tingles the palate with each sip.

A chalk-y mineral component in the Bentrock Vineyard Chardonnay (95 points, $65) grabs your attention and nicely offsets the wine’s restrained fruitiness. It’s a touch riper and rounder than their Francesca Vineyard bottling, but all the elements are beautifully integrated in this wine, whose charms explode in the finish.

If forced to make a comparison with Burgundy (and after all, that’s Gambal’s breeding ground), the Francesca bottling speaks of Puligny Montrachet while the Bentrock evokes Chassagne-Montrachet.

For Gambal-Work, vineyard designation is definitely not a marketing tool–it’s the real thing.  Invite friends over and try them side by side.  As of now, the wines are available only at winery or via shipment within California or to Colorado, North Carolina, Washington, D.C. and Wyoming.  They’re worth a search.

Full disclosure, I’m a friend of Gambal and am likely underscoring the wines.
Posted by Michael Apstein on January 11, 2019 at 10:51 AM

The Mother of All Wine Auctions

All hospitals have a Director.  But only one–Les Hospices de Beaune–has a Director of Winemaking.  (As a physician, I am especially interested in seeing that organizational chart.)  The hospital needs a director of winemaking because it owns vineyards–over 150 acres of them, 85 percent of which are classified as Premier and Grand Cru, making it one of the largest vineyard owners in Burgundy.  It, or rather Ludivine Griveau, the current winemaker and the first woman to hold that position, makes wine from these vineyards every year.  She supervises the 23 vignerons (wine growers) each of whom is responsible for about 6.5-acres of vines. This year she made, and the Hospices sold at auction, 50 different wines (cuvées), 33 reds and 17 whites.  

The auction is unlike any other wine auction, charity or otherwise.  There are no old vintages, no giant bottles, no cases for sale.  And unlike other charity auctions, there are no gourmet dinners with famous chefs, no winemaker dinners, no spectacular vacation retreats on the block.  At the Hospices de Beaune auction, wine from the current vintage, barely three months after harvest, is sold exclusively by the traditional Burgundian wine measure, une pièce, a 228-liter barrel, so it’s not even ready to be bottled, let alone consumed.  In addition to what will eventually be 300 bottles or 25 cases of wine, the winning bidder also gets the barrel.

Although the French government, through its medical system, covers the operating expenses of the Beaune hospital, all capital improvements, such as the just-complete ambulatory center, come from money raised at what the Burgundians themselves call simply “La vente des vins” (the sale of wine).  Most everybody else calls it Les Hospices de Beaune.  (The official name is La Vente des Vins des Hospices de Beaune.)  By whatever name it’s called, it remains the most important event on the Burgundy wine calendar.  

Thousands of visitors transform the usually sleepy town of Beaune into an overflowing in-the-streets weekend party whose penultimate event is the auction, which takes place on the third Sunday in November.  The final event of the weekend, held on Monday, is the Paulée de Meursault, sometimes referred to as the longest lunch in the world, where more than 1,000 Burgundy enthusiasts–including prominent producers–bring bottles of Burgundy to share generously and liberally with tablemates.

At the recently completed 158th annual auction, a total of 828 barrels (631 of red and 197 of white) were sold during the 7-hour event, raising $16.2 million, an all-time record.  Prices, unsurprisingly since it is Burgundy, were up compared to 2017 and 2016, 19 and 29 percent, respectively, and foretell retail prices when the 2018 wines final arrive on our shores in two years’ time.

The Hospices de Beaune, founded by Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor to Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Guigone de Salins, in 1443, has acquired its vineyards over the centuries, staring with its first bequest in 1457 by Guillemette Levenier.  Donors continue to add parcels.  In 2010, William Friedberg, formerly a Boston-based wine importer, donated just over 1.5-acres of a vineyard located in the village of Santenay in honor of his recently deceased wife, Christine.  That wine, like all the wines auctioned at the Hospices de Beaune, is sold as, and will be labeled with, both the appellation and name of the honoree, such as Beaune 1er Cru, Cuvée Nicolas Rolin or Santenay, Cuvée Christine Friedberg.

In the past, the only people allowed to bid at the auction were the important Burgundy wine producers or négociants, such as Maison Joseph Drouhin, Maison Louis Jadot, or Maison Louis Latour.  After acquiring the newly made wine, they would perform the élevage (literally, raising the wine) by completing the winemaking and offering it for sale via the usual commercial channels.  In 2005, to expand the reach of the auction, the Hospices de Beaune partnered with Christie’s, the prestigious London-based auction house.  Christie’s encourages ordinary consumers to bid by introducing Christie’s Live™, on-line real-time bidding by anyone via a computer, and now, a smartphone, anywhere in the world.  They also reduced the size of each lot to a single barrel to make it easier for consumers to buy.  

Christie’s involvement has clearly worked.  This year about 70 percent of the barrels went to traditional Beaune-based négociants, while the remained were snapped up by private buyers, with Asians accounting for 55 percent by value.  Private buyers from the U.S. accounted for only about 7 percent of the purchases, while Europeans accounted for the rest, according to Christie’s.

Although now open to the public, the auction still poses hurdles for the ordinary consumer.  Off-site bidders have no opportunity to taste the wines before the auction so are forced to bid solely on the reputation of the cuvée and the vintage.  The winning bidder must arrange for and pay a négociant to perform the élevage.  “Christie’s will be delighted to advise you if you are not already in contact with a local négociant,” according to the auction catalogue.  But it might be difficult to convince a négociant to raise a single barrel (those in the trade typically buy multiple barrels of the same wine), especially a wine they didn’t think enough of to bid on themselves.  After all, the name of the négociant still appears on the label along with the buyer.

The role of the négociant performing the élevage is critical.   Since the négociants buy the wine in barrel, which by tradition has always been made of new French oak, they must decide whether and when to transfer (rack) the wine into older oak barrels.  (Over the last several years, the Hospices has experimented by fermenting and selling several of the cuvées in one-year old oak barrels, but the practice remains selling the wine in new oak barrels).  Négociants must make other winemaking decisions to achieve the style of wine they want, including how long to age the wine in barrel, whether and how to control the malolactic transformation and whether to fine and filter the wine prior to bottling.  Indeed, the same wine, made by Ludivine Griveau, a barrel of which is sold to two different négociants, will taste entirely different once bottled, ultimately reflecting the style and talent of the négociant as well as the vintage.

Despite these hurdles, there are more and more individuals who want to see their name on the Hospices de Beaune label and will continue to drive up the prices.  Those interested in buying wines next year should contact Christie’s ( for details and instructions.

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Questions or comments? E-mail me your thoughts at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

January 2, 2019

The 2017 Burgundies

Everyone was smiling during my visit to Burgundy last month.  The cellars were, after all, chock full of wine after two good-sized vintages.  At Maison Louis Jadot, the barrel cellars were filled to the brim.  For the first time ever, barrels were stacked three high in a cellar designed for just two tiers.  They even had rows of barrels–3 and 4 high–in the winery. The 2017 vintage was normal in volume, but is considered large by comparison to the five short vintages that preceded it.  The 2018 vintage was copious as well, which explains why the cellars are so full.  Frédéric Drouhin put it succinctly: “Burgundy is back.  We have wine.”  The 2018 vintage, just finishing its alcoholic fermentation, is already being hailed–somewhat prematurely in my view–as exceptional.  François Labet, President of the BIVB (Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne), the organization that represents all Burgundy growers and producers, said–with barely contained enthusiasm–that “It’s shining in Burgundy just like our 2018 vintage, which is ideal . . . close to 1947.”   His enthusiasm was not isolated. Sales of the 2018 wines at the annual Hospices de Beaune auction set a record. 

Let’s start with the white wines from the 2017 vintage.  My assessment is based on recent tastings of hundreds of wines from growers and négociants from Chablis in the north to the Côte Chalonnaise in the south.  Many of the whites were already bottled or in tank awaiting bottling, whereas most of the reds were still in barrel.  As readers know, I do not review specific wines still in barrel because they still have a long way to go before they are finished.  Barrel samples do, however, give a good sense of the vintage in general. (see link below, which explains the drawbacks of barrel samples.)

The whites are consistent and excellent, delivering energy and a sense of place.  Not as tightly wound as the 2010s, the 2017s are more similar to the charming and thoroughly enjoyable 2014s. It’s hard to wrong with them, especially if you buy from producers whose wines you’ve liked in the past.  Just don’t expect the prices to come down because of the relatively large crop.  Producers are still trying to catch up from the short-falls of the previous five years.

But bargains still abound.  Look for well-priced examples from Maison Joseph Drouhin–their 2017 Mâcon-Lugny “Les Crays” (88, $16) and Saint-Véran (90, $18), both reviewed this week–as well as Paul Pernot’s lacy and flowery Bourgogne Blanc (91, $27).

Indeed, Pernot, one of the most consistent names in Puligny-Montrachet, made exceptional white wines in 2017 that are zesty, penetrating and powerful but retain Pernot’s hallmark of finesse. You could buy any of their wines from their Bourgogne Blanc up to their Bâtard-Montrachet, and be thrilled.  Of special note is their mineral-infused and lively village Puligny-Montrachet (94, $55), which gives more enjoyment and precision than many producers’ premier crus at a 40 percent lower price.

The 2017 Chablis from Drouhin’s Domaine Vaudon provide excellent value.  Véronique Drouhin raved about the “beautiful fruit at harvest.”  She explained that they left lots of lees (spent yeast) after pressing because the grapes were so clean.  She ascribes the brilliant acidity in the finished wines to very little conversion of malic to lactic acid during the malolactic fermentation.  A reduced crop in 2017 marred the otherwise excellent report from Chablis, the only region of Burgundy where crop size was smaller than usual because of two severe frosts on April 18 and 29.  Drouhin’s 2017 village Chablis from their own vineyards, bottled as Réserve de Vaudon, is flinty and long (91, $34).  It’s a stellar example of how invigorating village Chablis can be, in the right hands.  A step up are their citrus-tinged and mineral-y Chablis 1er Cru Sécher (93, not yet released, hereafter “NYR”) and their fuller, yet still flinty, 1er Cru Mont de Milieu (93, NYR).

I’ve always liked the wines from Domaine Lafouge, an under-the-radar producer based in Auxey-Duresses.  They vinified their 2017 whites in their recently completed winery in that village, which may explain why they are so stunning across the board.  Their whites from Auxey-Duresses and Meursault were impressive, all showing their clear origins and distinctiveness.  The Auxey-Duresses “Les Boutonnières,” a perfumed and snappy village wine, should be an especially attractive value (91, the 2017 is not yet priced, but the 2016 is about $36).  Lafouge’s 2017 village Meursault from the lieux-dits of Les Meix-Chavaux (94, NYR, the 2016 is $50) and Les Casse-Têtes (93, NYR, the 2016 is $60) are exciting, spicy and a delight to drink. 

Though Domaine Parent is known for their stellar red wines, they also produce note-worthy whites, especially their Monthélie Blanc, an unusual wine since 90 percent of the wine from that village is red.  I am a big fan of Parent’s Monthélie white, made from purchased grapes, and their 2017 confirms my enthusiasm.  Both creamy and zesty, this white Monthélie conveys both power and restraint (93, NYR, the 2016 is $60).  It’s quite an amazing village wine.

In the Côte Chalonnaise, Domaine Jobard consistently produces stunning, well-priced wines from Rully.  That streak continued in 2017 with her Rully “Montagne la Folie” (91, NYR, the 2015 is $22).  It’s clean and bright delivering the classic stony character of Rully enhanced with a hint of creaminess.  Claudie Jobard said that the key to making excellent wines in 2017 was to limit yield to avoid dilution.  Her wines showed that she did just that.

Michel Bouzereau, one of the very top producers in Meursault, made spectacular 2017s.  To emphasize the origin of the grapes, he opted to label his Bourgogne Blanc with the new appellation, Côte d’Or, indicating that all the wine came exclusively from that part of Burgundy.  In his case, he told me that the wine came from his 11 acres of vineyards, comprising almost one-third of his domaine, that lie just outside of the official confines of Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault.  After tasting it, you’d never know it’s a “simple” Bourgogne Blanc because of its depth and riveting acidity that amplifies its considerable character (94, NYR, the 2016 is $34).  His village Meursault from Le Grand Charrons (94, NTR, the 2016 is $58) and Les Tessons (95, NYR, the 2016 is $67), with their spicy notes, also punch well above their weight class.

The most eye-opening producer I visited this year was Pernot-Belicard.  The Pernot part is Philippe Pernot, the winemaker who learned at the side of his grandfather, the famed Paul Pernot, one of the leading producers in Puligny-Montrachet.  When Philippe married, his wife brought family vineyards with her, the grapes from which had been sold to négociants previously.  Though the Pernot-Belicard domaine was founded less than a decade ago, the vineyards had been in the Belicard family for generations so there are plenty of old vines.  The 2017 wines from Pernot-Belicard are spectacular.  Those who love white Burgundy should buy as much of them as their wallets allow, including their extraordinary and well-priced Bourgogne Blanc (93, $22, likely the best wine for the money I tasted this trip), their old-vine village Puligny-Montrachet (94, $55), and their racy and stony Meursault-Perrières (96, NYR, the 2015 is $85).

Let’s look at the reds.  I tasted far fewer bottled reds than whites, and will leave specific recommendations to another time.  However, extensive barrel tastings and discussions with producers did give me a sense of what I will call a bi-polar vintage. Make no mistake, the 2017s reds are very good.  The problem for consumers is that there are two distinct styles of wines–charming and forward or denser and more structured–depending, in large measure, on yields.  Both styles are very good, but consumers will need to realize that some of the wines are seductively charming for drinking over the next several years while others will reward extended cellaring.

Anne Parent, a top producer in Pommard, bursts with enthusiasm described the 2017 reds, “The fruit is really amazing.”  The vintage produced good quantities of healthy grapes, requiring producers to discard few grapes before putting them into fermenting vats.  She notes that the wines are “charming;” they lack the structure of the 2015s, 2016s or 2018s, but will be very enjoyable soon after release.

I found many wines that fit that description, but I also found wines with density and structure, often within the same cellar.  At Maison Louis Jadot, for example, their Santenay Maladière, newly acquired with their purchase of Domaine Prieur-Brunet and their Pernand-Vergelesses Croix de la Pierre, were charming and forward.  I could easily envision enjoying them in a few years’ time.  In contrast, Jadot’s Chambolle-Musigny Les Baudes and Les Fuées were dense and structured.  Similarly, their wines from Beaune showed good concentration and structure.  At Méo-Camuzet, their reds all had presence and power appropriate to the appellation.

Frédéric Barnier, Jadot’s talented winemaker, noted that many of their wines have taken on far more structure and density since they have completed what turned out to be a very early malolactic fermentation.  I wonder whether critics who tasted the wines earlier in the year, proclaiming them to be light, will be surprised by the weight they have put on recently.  

As always when speaking of Burgundy, it is dangerous to generalize.  That’s certainly the case with the 2017 vintage, especially the reds.  It’s what I’ll call a “wine writer’s” vintage because consumers will need advice, in contrast to selecting the 2015s reds when they could point with eyes closed and be happy with their selection.  So, stayed tuned.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Burgundy in general or the 2017s in specific at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

December 5, 2018

Chianti Classico: The Times They are A-Changing

With apologies to Bob Dylan, “The Times They are A-Changing” in Chianti Classico.  Three decades ago, producers were embracing the use of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other so-called “international varieties,” to bolster Sangiovese.  But now, with dramatic improvements in the vineyards, growers have shown the heights that Sangiovese can achieve in Chianti Classico.  It no longer needs support.  As Francesco Ricasoli, of Castello Brolio, an excellent producer in Gaiole, told me in February, “Sangiovese in Chianti Classico is unique.  We need to preserve it.”

For example, Fontodi’s Vigna del Sorbo, now labeled as a Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, started life in 1985 as a Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, but now is made entirely from Sangiovese.  (Gran Selezione, a relatively new category of Chianti Classico, sits above Chianti Classico Riserva, at the peak of the quality pyramid.)  The mere fact that the team at Castello di Meleto, in the heart of the Chianti Classico DOCG at Gaiole, eliminated Merlot from its blend in 2011 confirms the trend that producers are returning to Sangiovese exclusively.

To be fair, some producers, such as Paola de Marchi at Isola e Olena, one of the very best Chianti Classico producers, have always favored Sangiovese, using it exclusively for Cepparello, their best wine.  (Cepparello is still not labeled as Chianti Classico, though it could be, because it was created in 1980, prior to the regulations that allowed a 100-percent Sangiovese wine to be labeled as Chianti Classico.  At that time, all wines labeled Chianti Classico had to have been made from a blend.)

Castello di Meleto has also backed away from the use of new small French oak barrels (barriques), another technique winemakers have used to pump-up and round-out Sangiovese.  Instead, this house has reverted to the traditional aging in large old, frequently Slavonian, oak barrels, called botti.  For Meleto, the transition occurred during 2011/2012 time period.  Michele Contartese, Meleto’s current General Director, could not identify a seminal event that caused the team to revert to using botti and exclusive use of Sangiovese because he was not present during that time period.  However, based on his experience, he speculated that the change was simply the result of repeated tastings.

As an example, he pointed out that, under his direction, they tasted all the varieties separately to create the blend for their basic Chianti Classico.  The team was struck by the quality of the Malvesia Nera, another grape allowed in the Chianti Classico blend.  They did not want to lose any of its unique character by combining it with Sangiovese, so they opted to remove it from the blend and produce a wine made exclusively from Malvesia Nera. Contartese wondered whether a similar tasting exercise in 2011 led the team to conclude that omitting the international varieties and returning to large botti just made better wine.

Comparing Meleto’s 2000 Chianti Classico Riserva, “Vigneti Casi,” which contained Merlot (15%) in the blend and was aged in new oak barrels with their current vintages, the 2013 and 2015, showed what a dramatic difference the changes have made.  The 2000 came across as heavy, even muting the liveliness imparted by Gaiole’s elevation and reputation for producing fresh wines.  The 2013 and 2015, in contrast, were bright and showed the near-magical combination of fruitiness and earthiness that makes Chianti Classico so appealing.  Clearly, they are moving in the right direction.

But again, to be fair, there are lots of excellent examples of Chianti Classico that still use international varieties and age them in barrique.  Just look at Principe Corsini’s Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, “Don Tommaso,” which typically includes a small amount (10%) of Merlot in the blend with Sangiovese and is aged in French barriques for over a year.  At a vertical tasting in New York last year, wines back to the 1998 vintage showed extraordinary grace and complexity.  In the younger wines, you felt the use of oak aging without tasting it.  As Duccio Corsini put it, “I believe in graceful oxidation, not in oak.”  One of the wonderful things about wine in general, and certainly Chianti Classico, is that there’s no universal formula.  One size does not fit all.

David Posner, the owner of Grapes The Wine Company, an excellent retailer in White Plains, just north of New York City, sums up the changes he has experienced in Chianti Classico:  “Fifteen years ago I had maybe two (Chianti Classico) on the shelf.  Now there are 20 or so, and I’m happy to buy more, the quality is so high.  Compared to 15 years ago, it is hard to find a bad bottle of Chianti Classico in the $15 to $20 per bottle range.”

Along with changes in winemaking, is a movement towards producing Chianti Classico from single vineyards.  Winemakers and viticulturists want to show unique expression of Sangiovese depending on site.  Castello di Brolio already bottles two single-vineyard Chianti Classico with plans for two more on the way, according to Ricasoli, who notes with a pride-filled smile that, “We have been here for several centuries.  We can take our time regarding parcelization.”  Brolio, with its 600-acres under vine, the largest in Gaiole, has “all kinds of soil and even within the estate there are enormous differences,” according to Ricasoli.  He effuses that, “The richness of Chianti Classico is its diversity of Sangiovese.”

Giovanni Poggiali of Fèlsina, a top producer in Castelnuovo Berardenga, the most southern commune of Chianti Classico, has long produced a superb single-vineyard Chianti Classico, Rancia, and has started to produce a second such single-vineyard wine, Colonina, from a 6.5-acre parcel at the summit of Rancia.  Poggiali relates how he needed to use dynamite to plant the vineyard because the soil was so laden with rocks.  Curiously enough, the most difficult aspect of this effort was obtaining the dynamite…because of the ongoing threat of terrorism.  The first vintage of Colonina was 2006.  He bottled the 2007 Colonina as a Chianti Classico Riserva and the 2009 as a Chianti Classico Gran Riserva as the increased vine age allowed for higher quality wine.

Matteo Menicacci, the enthusiastic young winemaker at Castello Meleto, explained how they are considering bottling three more vineyard-designated Chianti Classico in addition to their Vigneti Casi, noting, “We want to express the differences of the various areas.”  Wholesalers and retailers to whom I spoke felt that more single-vineyard wines would be a marketing nightmare.  Contartese agreed that more single-vineyard bottlings might confuse consumers who prefer less information, but there are also those who prefer to know as much about the wine as possible.  He’s willing to run the experiment, saying somewhat philosophically, “If you don’t try, you’ll never know what you could have achieved.”

In my mind, it would be far more important for the Chianti Classico region as a whole to show the world the distinct differences among the nine subzones (Greve in Chianti, Barberino Val d’Elsa, San Casciano Val di Pesa, Tavarnelle Val di Pesa, Radda in Chianti, Gaiole in Chianti, Castellina in Chianti, Poggibonsi, and Castelnuovo Berardenga).  Currently, it is impossible to really taste the differences because few producers make wines from grapes grown in different subzones.  Although you can compare wines from the subzones, as was done at a tasting in Florence last year, you never really know whether the observed differences are the result of the uniqueness of the subzone or the producer’s style.

Chianti Classico would benefit from learning from Burgundy, another area with many subzones.  In Burgundy, a taster can easily discern the differences among the villages by tasting the wines made by a négociant because the winemaking is, in effect, a constant.  The differences among the wines truly reflect the terroir.  What Chianti Classico really needs is a large, well-respected producer, such as Antinori or Ruffino, to bottle wines from various subzones to show the world how site matters in Chianti Classico as much as it does in Burgundy or Barolo.


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Email me your thoughts about Chianti Classico at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

November 6, 2018

Meerlust’s Rubicon: A South African Icon

“He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” quipped Hannes Myburgh, the 8th generation of the family that owns Meerlust, in response to a potential conflict with Francis Ford Coppola over names.  Coppola and his wife own the legendary Napa Valley Winery, Inglenook, whose flagship red wine is also labeled Rubicon.  As if the allusion to Coppola’s Godfather wasn’t enough, he added with a chuckle, “Plus, I didn’t want to wake up with a horse’s head in my bed.”

Michael Franz, my friend and colleague here at WRO, convincingly explained in a recent column that, “South Africa has now clearly joined the ranks of the world’s very best wine producing countries.” While I agree with that assessment of South African wines in general, to be fair, Meerlust’s Rubicon has always been one of the world’s very best red wines.  And a fabulous value as well–the 2014, the current vintage, lists for a nationwide average of $33, according to  I base my assessment of Rubicon on an almost two-decade experience with the wine: A visit to Meerlust in 2000, a meeting and tasting with Myburgh in Boston in 2009, and a recent vertical tasting of Rubicon with him in New York.

Meerlust’s Rubicon, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based Bordeaux blend, combines the best of both worlds:  The elegance and breeding of the Old World and the fleshy fruitiness of the New.  What’s particularly impressive is how they have maintained their style over the decades and not been seduced into believing that bigger is better.  The newer vintages have remained graceful, delivering restrained black and red fruit flavors intertwined with savory, non-fruit elements.  This stylistic consistency is all the more distinctive because it has persisted despite the new winemaker, Chris Williams, who took over for Giorgio Dalla Cia, Rubicon’s co-founder along with Nico Myburgh, Hannes’s father, and stayed for 23 years.  Similar to other world-class Cabernet-based wines, Meerlust’s Rubicon takes at least a decade to blossom and then continues to evolve for another decade or so, in my experience.

Although the Myburgh family purchased the farm, as South Africans refer to their estates, from Meerlust’s founder, German immigrant Henning Huising, in 1756, the focus on grapes for wine dates to the 1960s when Nico planted Cabernet Sauvignon.   Located just south of Stellenbosch and only 3 miles from False Bay and the Antarctica-influenced currents of the Indian Ocean beyond, Hannes Myburgh notes that their vineyards are considerably cooler than those further inland.  He attributes the alluring bouquet of Rubicon to what he calls, “this natural air conditioning” because aromatics are not, as he puts it, “boiled off.”  Certainly, I find an underlying freshness and vivacity characteristic of all the vintages I’ve tasted over the years.

A trip to France in 1967 inspired Nico to make a Bordeaux blend because he was struck by the similarities in climate, maritime influences, and soil between that region and his own.  He had already planted Cabernet Sauvignon at Meerlust, and in the 1970s, added Merlot and Cabernet Franc in 1974, making him one of the first to introduce Bordeaux varieties to South Africa in a meaningful way, according to Hannes.  Dalla Cia, a talented winemaker, joined the team in 1978 and started working on the blend.  Though 1978 was a fine vintage, Nico and Giorgio felt it was not up to snuff for their first release. The 1979 vintage was ruined by rain, which meant the 1980, which they released in 1983 and started the tradition of holding the wine back in bottle, was Rubicon’s first. Hannes emphasizes that his father, Nico, and Giorgio made the perfect team–Nico was a great farmer and Giorgio a great winemaker.  The idea of a blended wine at that time in South Africa was unheard of–“a pioneering event”–and met with great skepticism, according to Hannes and gave rise to the name, Rubicon, or no turning back.

Working only with estate-grown grapes, Rubicon is usually a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (70%) and equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  The variation of soil types on the roughly 300 acres of vineyards is ideal for a Bordeaux blend.  Merlot and Cabernet Franc are well-suited to the clay from an alluvial deposit, while Cabernet Sauvignon likes the granite gravel washed down from the nearby mountains. Starting with the 2008 vintage, Rubicon contains a little Petit Verdot.  All the grapes are grown on the estate and hand-harvested separately.  Fermentation occurs in stainless steel vats using both indigenous and commercial yeast before aging in a combination of new and older French oak barrels.

Rubicon, Meerlust’s flagship, is their focus and comprises about half of their 33,000-case total annual production.  What grapes do not make the cut for Rubicon, will be bottled as Meerlust Merlot, which also contains a bit of Cabernet Franc, or Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon.  Rubicon is not produced every year.  In some vintages, such as 1985, 1990, 2002, and 2011, it is all declassified and sold, only in South Africa, as Meerlust Red.

My recent vertical tasting of Rubicon, the 1991, 2001, 2010, 2005, 2014 and 2015 vintage, with Myburgh tells the wine’s story succinctly.

The cedar-y 1991, made by Dalla Cia was, perhaps, just a touch past its prime.  Graceful and long, with plenty of vivacity, it was still a pleasure to drink (90 points).

The 2001, also made by Dalla Cia, was spectacular (96).   Though more full-bodied and powerful that its decade-older brother, it nonetheless retained elegance and balance.  The savory, “not just fruit” character shined and became more apparent as it sat in the glass.  It confirmed for me that 10 to 20-years of age was just right for Rubicon.

The 2005, made by Williams, who had worked with Dalla Cia for years and was his protégé, was the ripest of this line up and maybe just a touch over-ripe.  Perhaps this resulted from the new winemaker trying for more extraction and power.  Even the tannins were ever so slightly more coarse than usual.  Interestingly, I had the same impression of the wine when I tasted it in 2009.  Still, it’s an exercise in counting angels on the head of a pin.  I’d be delighted to drink it with a steak tonight (90).

Williams dialed it back with the 2010.  It had Beethoven-like gusto but all the notes were clear and precise, with impeccable balance between the savory and fruity elements.  The flavors exploded on the palate without a trace of heaviness.  The tannins were, characteristically, very fine, lending beautiful structure without even a hint of aggressiveness (95).

The 2014, currently on the market, is a wonderful youthful wine (93). Balanced and fresh, it has the Rubicon hallmark of gracefulness, which makes it accessible and enjoyable now.

Williams and his team will release the majestic 2015 shortly.  It’s just a slightly larger version of the 2014, still balanced and elegant, but with a bit more of everything–fruitiness, a savory leafiness, and engaging aromatics (95).

In summary, Rubicon has a Bordeaux-like complexity and refinement.  Even in the young versions, the tannins are very fine.  The balance of the young wines–the 2014 and 2015–means they, like all great wines, are a delight to drink now, even though they have not reached their peak.  These are not the “powerhouse” kind of New World Cabernet-based wines, yet they pack plenty of oomph.  They wow you with their grace and elegance.  Oh, and let me remind you of the price–$33 for the 2014!

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E-mail me your thoughts about South African wines in general or Meerlust in specific at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

October 10, 2018

The Conundrum of Assigning Points

Maison Louis Latour’s 2015 Domaine de Valmoissine Pinot Noir (IGP Var, $14) epitomizes the difficulty of assessing wines by assigning a number to them.  Do you judge them among their peers or on an absolute scale? And how does value–ratio of enjoyment to price–figure in the final number?

Maison Louis Latour, unquestionably one of Burgundy’s top producers, startled the traditionally-focused and conservative Burgundy establishment by expanding outside of Burgundy while still using a traditional Burgundy grape, Pinot Noir in this case. In 1989, they purchased land in the Var area of Provence in the south of France, betting that Pinot Noir, a grape with which they had vast experience and success, would do well there.

They were correct.  The 2015 Domaine de Valmoissine, a superb Pinot Noir, is likely their best ever.  It could be a perfect storm of vine age, 25-plus years of experience with the area, and a near-perfect growing season that explains the resounding success of this wine. More fruit-focused than a typical red Burgundy, but without the weight or sweetness that characterize many California Pinot Noirs, it still manages to capture the all-to-elusive savory quality often lacking in Pinot Noir-based wines from outside of Burgundy.  Although not a red Burgundy, despite being made from the grape of that region, it does have what I consider a hallmark of red Burgundy–flavor without weight.  The tannins are suave, which allows for immediate enjoyment.

So how to score it?  On an absolute scale where the fine Chambertins of the world would score in the high 90s, this one might muster somewhere in the low to mid-80s.  But, I’m not a fan of an absolute scale since I don’t think it’s fair to compare, for example, wines from Beaujolais with wines from Burgundy, or wines from Muscadet, which can be delightful, with Corton-Charlemagne.  I am an advocate for judging among peers, which of course requires the reader to have an idea of the composition of the group.  So, using the group of all non-Burgundy Pinot Noir, Louis Latour’s 2015 Domaine de Valmoissine would score in the high 80s or low 90s.

Now, once we consider price (and who among us does not?), we have an entirely different story.  Pinot Noir with real character less than $15 a bottle is rare.  At this price, this wine is a steal–the kind you buy by the case and drink slightly chilled in the summer with burgers or with grilled salmon, or in the winter, with roast chicken and mushrooms.  In the end, I think Robert Whitley, my colleague here at WRO, defines the numerical rating extremely succinctly and accurately–it’s an “applause meter.”  It’s how much I like the wine, everything, including price, considered.  Using that scale, Louis Latour’s 2015 Domaine de Valmoissine gets 95 Points (I can see my editor cringing, already).

Posted by Michael Apstein on September 19, 2018 at 10:18 AM

Marchesi Frescobaldi: ‘When you prune, you get to know the plants’

Lamberto Frescobaldi, tieless in a casual sports jacket, has a down-to-earth demeanor and a twinkle in his eye that belies his nobleman status.  He is the 30th generation of that famed winemaking family, which in the past traded wine for paintings with Renaissance artists.  Winemaking aside, the history of the Marchesi Frescobaldi family has been intertwined with Tuscany in general and Florence in particular since the 1300s.  Through their generosity, the family was responsible for municipal projects of a scale that’s incomprehensible today, such as the construction of the Santa Trinita bridge and the Basilica of Santo Spirito in Florence, to name just two.  Lamberto, a man who must be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and has a 700-year family legacy in winemaking, explains with a child-like enthusiasm, “When you prune you get to know the plants.”  Many wine producers with such a legacy would hunker down, counting on their past to sustain themselves.  Not Frescobaldi.  Under Lamberto, who now might qualify as the Master of Merlot, a handful of recent projects highlight the direction of Italian wine.

Three of Frescobaldi’s recent successful innovations, two of which involve Merlot, “Lamaione” and “Luce,” and a third, Brunello “Luce,” can be traced back to when they started managing the Castelgiocondo estate in Montalcino in 1976, purchasing it about a decade later.  And speaking of Merlot, Frescobaldi reminds the world that this “foreign” grape can achieve grandeur in Italy with Masseto, one of Italy’s and the world’s most sought-after wines, which is produced at another of the Frescobaldi estates, Ornellaia e Masseto (previously known as Tenuta dell’Ornellaia).

Frescobaldi purchased Castelgiocondo from a French group, who, being French, had planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc in addition to Sangiovese, which was the tradition in the region.  “We happily pulled out the Sauvignon Blanc” and also realized that the Cabernet was unsuited to the soil, so that came out too, Frescobaldi explains.  But they were quite surprised by the Merlot, which was planted in clay soil and was “quite appealing,” so they left it.

That Merlot formed the basis for Lamaione, which has turned out to be an under-the radar stellar wine and which eventually became the link between Mondavi and Frescobaldi from which Luce was born.  Frescobaldi recounts how Tim Mondavi tasted Lamaione in California, wondered who made it, and expressed an interest in meeting the producer.  That meeting eventually resulted in Luce della Vite (commonly and rather more simply, called just “Luce”), a joint venture between Mondavi and Frescobaldi and a widely successfully Super Tuscan composed of equal parts of Sangiovese and Merlot. Although the joint venture eventually dissolved after Constellation purchased Mondavi, Frescobaldi still speaks warmly of Tim Mondavi, who once noted, according to Frescobaldi, “It’s not about the dollars, we need to make something great.”  And they did, with Luce.

Luce, whose first vintage was 1993, has always been a roughly equal blend of Sangiovese and Merlot and labeled as an IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) wine since the blend does not conform to DOC regulations.  Both varieties come from Castelgiocondo estate and the wine was made there, at least up until the 2017 vintage.  Frescobaldi replaced Sangiovese planted in clay soil with Merlot because of their experience with Lamaione and incorporated it into Luce.

Merlot is harvested about three to four weeks earlier than the Sangiovese and adds weight to the wine, according to Frescobaldi.  With the 2017 vintage, Luce will be made at its own, newly constructed state-of-the art dedicated winery.  “After 27 vintages, Lamberto notes, “it has finally graduated.”  With honors, I might add, after tasting the 2015 Luce, the current vintage ($110, 96 points).  Certainly, one of their finest, it delivers a marvelous combination of tension and elegant power.  Despite an initial supple and fleshy impact, the wonderful edgy firmness and spice of Sangiovese shows.  No doubt about it, it’s truly Tuscan.  Although the 2015 Luce is a delight and easy to enjoy now, my experience from a vertical tasting of Luce in Boston in 2017 tells me that it takes a decade for the wine to hit its stride.  So, put some of the 2015 in the cellar, because it will evolve into something even grander.

Despite making their well-regarded Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Castelgiocondo, Frescobaldi purchased an additional 30-acres of land within the Brunello zone near the Castelgiocondo village when it became available.  About half of the land is on a steep southwest-facing slope in the southwest portion of the Brunello zone, which Lamberto describes as, “an amazing place for Sangiovese.”  In the mid-1990s, Frescobaldi uprooted olive trees–a painful exercise for a Tuscan–and planted Sangiovese.  The vineyard sits almost at the limit of where Sangiovese ripens, an elevation of about 1,400 feet, which explains the uplifting freshness in the wine.  Lamberto also believes that the forest that surrounds the vineyard helps explain its unique microclimate.  The first vintage of this single-vineyard wine, Luce Brunello, the 2003, was released in 2008. Frescobaldi explains that their two Brunellos (Brunelli is actually the better word choice) are very different, “You have less flexibility with a single vineyard site,” such as Luce, compared to Castelgiocondo with it multiple sites spread over more than 300-acres.  To my mind, the Luce Brunello is more powerful, without sacrificing elegance, and more focused than the Castelgiocondo Brunello, as one might expect, coming from a small, single vineyard.

In contrast to the wines from Castelgiocondo, says Frescobaldi, they make no Luce Brunello Riserva.  He notes that the vines are stressed to their limits just to make a regular Brunello.  They would not survive if they had to produce grapes for a Riserva.    Similarly, they make no Luce Rosso di Montalcino because the vineyard is small and the entire site is extremely well-suited for Sangiovese.  Indeed, as viticultural practices have improved over time, Frescobaldi is making less Rosso at Castelgiocondo. Lamberto explains that years ago it took 100 to 120-man hours to work 1 ha (2.5-acres) of land.  He says now it takes 550-man hours to work the same area.  He believes this helps explain why their wines are better, albeit at a much higher cost.  He attributes the 50 percent decrease in Rosso production at Castelgiocondo over the last decade to a combination of improved viticultural practices and older vines.  Since all of their Rosso production comes from Brunello-certified vineyards, the decrease in Rosso production has been translated into increased Castelgiocondo Brunello production, which helps offset the enormous increase in labor costs.  If the trend continues, as I suspect it will, they eventually will make no Rosso at Castelgiocondo.

One reason Lamberto is so enthusiastic about Brunello in general is that it was a remote abandoned area only widely planted relatively recently (at least in family terms–remember Frescobaldi has 700 years of family experience under his belt).  Montalcino never went through the turmoil of the Chianti Classico area (which emerged from World War II with a volume mentality that valued quantity over quality).  Given that most of the vineyards in Montalcino were planted only after the mid-1970s, growers were able to utilize the scientific information regarding root stocks, clones, soil mapping and other essential determinants of quality.

That said, Frescobaldi’s latest project shows enthusiasm for Chianti Classico.  In 2017, they purchased the San Denato in Perano estate in the Classico district, which they had been managing since 2014, and renamed it Tenuta Perano.  Now, the fact that someone has bought an estate in Chianti Classico is ordinarily not big news, unless, of course, it’s Frescobaldi, most of whose 700 years of winemaking has been focused on another–and rival–Chianti subzone, Chianti Rùfina.  Tenuta Perano seems ideally located between Radda and Gaiole with vineyards at about 1,500 feet elevation, which like the Luce Brunello vineyard, should imbue the wine with freshness since those grapes will be slightly less ripe and have higher acidity at harvest.  The 2015 Tenuta Perano Chianti Classico Riserva (not yet available, 92 points) initially showed a delightful restraint and firmness I associate with Chianti Rùfina.  It blossomed as it sat in the glass for hours revealing a wonderfully layered, complex and lively mid-weight wine that delivered both ripe fruit and earthy flavors.  Not surprisingly, the blend is Sangiovese (90%) and…Merlot.

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(For more about Chianti Rùfina and my take on the difference between the two zones see:

E-mail me your thoughts about Tuscan wines in general or Frescobaldi in particular at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

August 15, 2018

Alternatives to Rosé, Even in Provence

With apologies to Alfred Lord Tennyson, rosé to the left of us, rosé to the right of us, rosé in front of us, and there we were, drinking white wine in the heart of Provence.  The sommelier at La Presque’îe, a spectacularly situated restaurant–with food to match–on the outskirts of Cassis overlooking the Mediterranean coast, told me that they sell a lot of rosé, but that, like us, many diners order white wine.

After all, this is Cassis, a village and appellation just east of Marseille, where roughly three-fourths of the wine produced is white, unlike the rest of Provence where 85 percent of the wine produced is pink.  (Much to my surprise, the town and wine, is pronounced, “ca-see,” whereas the fruit and the liqueur made from it, neither of which have any connection to the town, is pronounced, “ca-cease.”) The terraced vineyards are squeezed between expensive residential real estate on steep hills–limestone calanques–that plunge into the Mediterranean.

The small, roughly 500-acre, Cassis appellation was one of the first created in France, in 1936, along with Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Only a dozen producers make wines here from the usual blend of Mediterranean white grapes, primarily Marsanne and Clairette, along with Ugni Blanc, Bourboulenc and Sauvignon Blanc to fill out the blend. In general, none of the wines see any oak either during fermentation or aging.  Producers opt to capture and highlight the freshness and fruity vibrancy of the wines by using stainless steel vats.  Despite such a small cadre of producers, there is a range of styles of Cassis, from steely and riveting to more tropical and lush, while still retaining vibrancy.  But there are constant characteristics despite the stylistic differences.  Citrus notes, especially in the finish, are a common thread as are alcohol levels that hover between 12 and 13 percent.

Two of my favorites actually fall at either end of the stylistic spectrum.  The 2017 Domaine du Bagnol ($26, 89 points), crisp with an almost steely edge and a citrus-tinged finish, is perfect for the brine-y seafood of the region.  The 2017 Clos Sainte Magdeleine ($25, 90 points), a more full-bodied wine, manages to combine a beguiling subtle tropical character with bracing acidity.  It could easily do double duty as an aperitif while watching the boats or to accompany grilled sardines.

Les Baux de Provence, like Cassis, is another small appellation in the heart of rosé country.  While producers there do make significant amounts of rosé, the real stars of the show are the reds and of course, the olive oil, which has its own appellation, Vallée des Baux de Provence.  (Be sure to try the oils from Moulin Cornille, the very fine co-operative in Mausanne-lès-Alpilles.)  As in Cassis, there are only a dozen wine producers in the AOC.  Another highly regarded producer in the delimited area, Domaine Trévallon, uses the IGP designation because they traditionally incorporate more Cabernet Sauvignon (50%) than prescribed by the regulations.

The 620 acres of this appellation extend around one of France’s most visited tourist sites, the 10th century ruined Château des Baux-de-Provence, just south of St. Rémy de Provence.  The entire appellation is farmed organically, a practice that is aided by the legendary mistral wine that descends, sometimes for days at a time, from the north.  The wind blows more than 100 days a year, helping to keep the vineyards free of disease.  The wind is so omnipresent and fierce that the north side of all the houses (mas, in the local dialect) have either no or very small windows.   The mistral has been blamed for causing insanity among the local inhabitants and, I have been told, but cannot verify, that it can be used as a mitigating defense in a murder trial in Provence.

The modern era of winemaking in the area began in the 1950s after a severe frost in 1956 destroyed over 80 percent of the olive trees and sent farmers scurrying to diversify.  Their focus was to distinguish themselves from Côte de Provence, the vast and often anonymous appellation that was associated with innocuous pink wine.  They finally succeeded with the French wine authorities granting their own appellation, Les Baux de Provence, in 1995.

Although the primary grapes allowed are the usual Mediterranean reds, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon can comprise up to 20 percent of the blend.  The inclusion of Cabernet is explained by its presence in the region prior to the phylloxera devastation of the 19th century.  Not surprisingly given the blend and its proximity to the southern Rhône–Châteauneuf-du-Pape is only about 30 miles to the north–the wines have a Rhône-like robustness coupled with the herbal and spiced flavors of Provence.  The tannins are usually fine, except when Cabernet’s thumb print is overly obvious, which means they can take a brief chill without gaining unpleasant astringency. Despite its southern location and potential for super-ripe grapes, the stated alcohol of these wines rarely exceeds 13.5%

Domaine Hauvette, founded only in 1988 and run by Dominique Hauvette, makes an extraordinary range of wines.  Their 2011 “Cornaline,” the current vintage, is a blend of Grenache (50%), Syrah (30%) and Cabernet Sauvignon.  It is stunning, delivering an engaging and balanced combination of bright red fruit flavors intermingled with herbal notes.  It has fine tannins that amplify its finesse, and a surprisingly light body given the power it packs.  It has that Burgundy-like sensibility of flavor without weight ($42, 94 points).  Their cuvée “Le Roucas,” has more Grenache (60%) in the blend and is meant for earlier consumption.  The 2015 “Le Roucas” is light in body, but not in enjoyment ($30, 90 points).

Domaine de la Vallongue also has multiple bottlings.  The 2015 “Garrigues,” true to its namesake, has a healthy dollop of herbal flavors that complement it bright fruitiness.  It, too, has captivating elegance ($20, 90 points).  Their “Pierres Cassés” screams “importance” with its heavy bottle engraved with a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-like crest.  A blend of Syrah and Grenache, it’s a hefty wine.  I’d suggest drinking the 2015 “Garrigues” now and leaving the 2014 “Pierres Cassés” in the cellar for a few more years to let it come together.

Two wines that are widely available in the U.S., Mas de Gourgonnier and Mas de la Dame are both good examples of what the appellation has to offer.   The 2015 Mas de Gourgonnier delivers an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable combination of light red fruit, earth and herbal notes.  Non-intrusive tannins make it easy to enjoy this summer when food calls for a lighter and lively red ($16, 90 points).  The 2015 Mas de la Dame has a similar profile with perhaps a touch more weight. ($17, 90 points).

So, who knew…wine from Provence that’s not pink, but that’s perfect for summer drinking!

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E-mail me your thoughts about Provence wines in general or Cassis and Les Baux de Provence in specific at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

July 18, 2018

An Interesting Rarity from Burgundy

Geantet-Pansiot, Bourgogne Rouge, “Pinot Fin,” 2015 ($30 – 45):

Pinot Fin is a clone of Pinot Noir that produces smaller berries and thicker skin, according to the internationally acclaimed wine expert, Jancis Robinson.  It’s rarely grown in Burgundy today, because it’s a finicky grape to grown, even more troublesome than Pinot Noir, susceptible to many diseases that result in lower yields–meaning, more expensive wine.  Nonetheless, Geantet-Pansiot, one the top producers in the Côte de Nuits (he makes spectacular Gevrey Chambertin and Chambolle Musigny that sell for triple digits) produces a small amount of Bourgogne Rouge from this clone of Pinot Noir.

While I remain a great fan of the top Burgundy négociants, such as Bichot, Bouchard Père et Fils, Drouhin, Jadot, and Latour, because of their depth of production and overall quality, I’ll be the first to admit that a Bourgogne Rouge (or Bourgogne Blanc) from a top grower usually beats one from a négociant.  These “minor” wines from the top growers often prove to be hidden gems in today’s stratospherically-priced Burgundy market.

It’s always a good bet that the grapes used to make these wines came from vineyards located near the estate’s base. In the case of Geantet-Pansiot, that means Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny or Marsannay, three renowned villages where he owns vineyards.  Now, don’t be fooled.  Geantet-Pansiot’s Bourgogne Rouge does not come from within the confines of those appellations.  The grapes likely come from nearby plots that lie outside the limits of those revered appellations.  Hey, it may not be Rockefeller Center, but it’s still New York City.

By comparison, négociant Bourgogne Rouge–or Blanc–can come from anywhere within Burgundy, perhaps comparable to New York state to pursue the analogy.  Grower Bourgogne Rouge or Blanc will not be cheap.  But you will get a glimmer of what the producers’ wines are like.  Even they may not be able to make, as the saying goes, “a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” but often they make wine, as in this case, that hits well above its appellation.

Geantet-Pansiot’s Bourgogne Rouge has power and concentration, delivering a healthy dose of dark fruit and earth, as befitting the superb 2015 vintage and the nature of the Pinot Fin grape.  Gangly when first tasted, the wine settled down by the next day, suggesting it still needs a year or two in the bottle.  What it lacks is elegance and finesse–a not so subtle reminder that the French appellation system is based on those attributes, and not just power and concentration.  In other words, bigger is not necessarily better.  (88 Points)

A word about the price. tells me that the wine is available in just two stores in the U.S., MacArthur Beverages in Washington, D.C. and Astor Wines in New York City, both superb outlets for fine Burgundy.  The dramatic discrepancy in price noted above highlights our Byzantine alcohol regulations.  It is my understanding that MacArthur can import the wine directly, whereas Astor must acquire it from a licensed New York distributor, thereby incurring another mark-up.  It pays to shop around.  But getting it shipped to your home is another matter….

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July 2, 2018

Will Chinese Wine be as Successful as Chinese Food?

At the end of the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, which was held this year in Beijing, I sat amazed at how extraordinarily efficient and smoothly run this wine competition was: A dedicated sommelier for each panel of judges, perfectly timed pouring, not a drop spilled or a glass broken, a bevy of technical support assistants for the tablets judges used to record their scores, even robots transporting bottled water to be delivered to the judges’ tables.  I commented about this to the Chinese judge sitting next to me.  His response:  “We have a strong central government.”  An understatement, to be sure, but it explains why I predict that within a decade China will be producing world class wines. When the Chinese government sets its mind to something, for better or for worse, it gets done.  And it appears as though the government is intent on seeing top-notch wine come from its shores.

Before embarking on what I learned about China and wine, a few words about the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles are in order.  This prestigious world-wide wine competition is held in a different city each year.  To mark its 25th anniversary, the organizers chose Beijing as the host.  Three hundred thirty judges representing 50 nationalities (12 from the U.S.) tasted just over 9,100 wines submitted by wineries from 48 countries, including China.

Wineries hold awards from the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in particularly high esteem for two reasons.  The percentage of wines that receive awards is low, with only 1% receiving a Grand Gold (equivalent to a point score of 91.1 and above), about 9% receiving a Gold (equivalent to a point score of between 86.6-91) and about 19% receiving a Silver (equivalent to a point score between 84.5 and 86.5).  Furthermore, the judges are judged.  The organizers assess the performance of the judges by including the same wine twice in a flight each day to see if their assessment of an individual wine is reproducible.

Though my panel did not judge any Chinese wine, I had an opportunity to taste many during the three days of the competition and during the remainder of my two-week trip and also observed the “wine culture”–or lack thereof–in China. Cutting to the chase, Chinese wines made from vinifera grapes, such as Dragon Seal’s Cabernet Sauvignon, are surprisingly good for such a young industry.  It helps that some of the leading French wine companies, such as Moët Hennessy, have signed on.  Indeed, at this year’s Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the Chinese walked off with a total of 131 medals, 5 Grand Gold, 46 Gold and 80 Silver medals, an increase of 68% over the previous year.  Not surprisingly, most of the award-winning Chinese wines were made from the so-called international grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Marselan, a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache found primarily in the Languedoc.

Viticulturally, China could be divided by a line that runs from the Shandong Peninsula in the northeast in a southwesterly direction to roughly Sichuan. North of this the vines must be buried during the winter to survive China’s continental climate.  Burying the vines is expensive even in this labor-abundant country, and tricky as well.  Workers must act swiftly to prune and bury them immediately after harvest before the ground freezes.  Even this technique is not fool-proof.  Estimates vary, but some–up to 5 percent–of the vines fail to survive each winter despite this effort.  Vines subjected to this treatment year after year also have a reduced lifespan.  Despite the need to bury the vines, the industry is flourishing in Ningxia, the area two hours northwest of Beijing that is already home to about 100 wineries and 100,000 acres of vines (roughly twice that of Napa Valley) and is thought by many to be a leading candidate to become the Napa Valley of Chinese wine production.

South of the dividing line, humidity wreaks havoc on the vines. Moët Hennessy may have solved the humidity problem at their property in the Yunnan province near the Himalayas by going up in elevation–planting at altitude of 7,800 feet.  The very steep slopes here make viticulture difficult and add extra expense to production.

Although records suggest that wine was made in China over two millennia ago, during the Han Dynasty, the modern industry is barely two decades old.  With the country’s vast expanse of land and diverse climates, it is not surprising that there are dozens of potential regions for fine wine production in China.  The industry is so young that, as of now, these regions have political, not geographic boundaries, reminiscent of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) as opposed to European appellations.  Like everything surrounding the Chinese wine industry, that could change quickly.  Producers in the Helan Mountain area of Ningxia are already starting to divide that zone according to geographic characteristics.

Again, not surprisingly, given the nascent stages of the industry, no one region reigns supreme.  Medal winning wines from this year’s Concours Modial de Bruxelles came from five different areas: Ningxia, Xinjiang, Hebei, Shandong, and the area surrounding Beijing.  Moët Hennessy’s AoYun, a stunning Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine that retails for $300 a bottle in China and in the U.S., shows that the Yunnan province also has great potential.

The wine culture in China, like the industry itself, is in its infancy.  Wine accounts for only about 2 percent of all alcoholic beverages produced in China–beer and rice wine remain the mainstays because they are much easier to produce, according to Professor Demie Li, an authority on Chinese wine from Beijing University of Agriculture.  Despite a tiny per capita consumption, its population of 1.4 billion puts China among the top ten countries consuming countries.  Li estimates that perhaps 20 million people are regular wine consumers and, like wine consumers in other countries that do not have a traditional culture for wine, most are based in large cities.  Since China has more than 20 cities with populations over 10 million, there is substantial room for growth within that subgroup.

Red wine remains the most popular, by far, according to Li, but not because of food and wine pairing, a concept that has yet to hit China (in part, no doubt because of the plethora of types of Chinese food, from fire-y hot in Sichuan and the west to sweeter in Shanghai and the eastern part of the country).  Rather, its popularity stems from the Chinese affinity for the color red, the perception that it has health benefits and its prestige because it is more expensive than white wine.  Since most wine in China is consumed outside of the house, often in a business setting, the red color stands out.   Li notes, however, that there has been a gradual shift towards consumption of white wine in China’s coastal areas.

The growing consumption of wine–one estimate puts China as the number two (behind the U.S.) consumer of wine, as measured by value, by 2021–explains the exploding interest by investors and the government in the industry.

Soon, you might be ordering a glass of Chinese Sauvignon Blanc with that kung pao shrimp you’ve likely come to love….

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Email me your thoughts about China and wine at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

June 20, 2018

Muscadet is Morphing

The cru system–as in Grand or Premier Cru Burgundy or the cru of Beaujolais–has reached Muscadet.  The growers there are doing what producers throughout the world are doing:  They are defining and identifying specific areas within the broader region that are capable of producing distinctive wines.  The French wine regulators have agreed that certain villages (crus) within the region have unique terroir and are capable of producing unique wines that are very different from traditional Muscadet. This new AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controllée) will carry the name of the village (cru) prominently displayed on the label along with the broader region, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine.  In some cases, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine is even relegated to the back label to emphasize the importance of the individual cru.

I think the system makes sense because, judging from the dozens I’ve tasted, these wines are entirely different from conventional Muscadet. Just as in Beaujolais, where Moulin-à-Vent bears no resemblance to Beaujolais or even Beaujolais-Villages, wines from the cru of Muscadet bear no resemblance to Muscadet or even Muscadet Sèvre et Maine–one of the best sub-regions.

The establishment of cru in Muscadet is a boon for consumers because the wines are thrilling and completely different from “classic Muscadet,” a term that growers are adopting to describe traditionally-framed wines to distinguish them from the cru wines.  Consumers need not worry that the refreshing zesty style of Muscadet they know and love is disappearing.  Far from it.  When the cru system is finally fully in place, the wines from those villages will represent a very small percentage of Muscadet.  Furthermore, from talks I’ve had with producers, the premium consumers will pay over and above classic or traditional Muscadet will still put the wines from the cru in the “exceptional value” category.

A potential impediment to the implementation and success of the cru system is, of course, the added–and sometimes confusing–information on the label.  When attending a comprehensive tasting of these wines last month in the Loire, it took a full twenty minutes for the growers to walk me through the labels.  Consumers will need time to learn more geography as well as the names of these seemingly obscure villages.  Rest assured, the cru wines are exciting and eye-opening–it’s like discovering a whole new category–and well worth the effort.

To put this new category in perspective, some background helps. Muscadet is a large region at the western-most end of the Loire where it empties into the Atlantic.  It makes only white wine and only from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, which has no relationship to Burgundy as we know it.  (The producers in Muscadet are encouraging everyone to refer to the grape simply as Melon to avoid confusion with the Burgundy region.)  Within Muscadet, there are two major sub-regions, each of which has its own appellation, Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine, and Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu, whose wines are considerably more interesting than ones simple labeled Muscadet.

Producers insist that the soil in Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, a combination of gneiss, granite and schist, but with no rocks or stones, accounts for the mineral-y, steely wines for which the sub-region is known.  Côtes de Grandlieu, a much smaller area–750 acres compared to about 22,000 acres for Sèvre et Maine–is warmer because, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the stones in the ground reflect the heat toward the vines during the day and retain it during the night.  Moreover, Côtes de Grandlieu lies between the Loire river and a big lake, both of which moderate the temperature.  The warmth means the grapes are a bit riper, which translates in richer wines that still maintain the Muscadet signature of minerality and vibrancy. (See Wayne Belding’s superb article from last week’s issue of WRO to learn more about the geology of this area:

To help balance the vigorous acidity for which the region is known and to create a smoother texture, growers frequently age Muscadet on the yeast that have died after completing fermentation (the lees) for up to nine months while still in stainless steel tanks.  Wines that have undergone this aging carry the words, Sur Lie on the label. Muscadet rarely undergoes aging in barrel because the influence of the wood mutes the engaging lively character for which the wine is prized.

Although most Muscadet is drunk young because its lively, flinty character pairs well with the local seafood (Muscadet and oysters is a classic combination), some growers keep a small amount of wine in tank on the lees for years before bottling, for “friends and family.”  No producer could explain the origin of this technique to me, but perhaps they borrowed the concept from Champagne, where prolonged lees-aging softens the acidity and is used to make super-premium Champagne known as late-disgorged Champagne. These prolonged lees-aged Muscadet are stunning and unique, delivering a Burgundian-like richness framed by firm acidity.

When I first tasted a wine from a Muscadet cru in New York in 2012, Nicolas Choblet, the owner of Domain du Haut Bourg exclaimed with a broad smile that this technique “proves Muscadet can be a great wine.” No argument here.  Choblet explained what was needed:  The structure that acidity provides and ripe grapes. “Then you don’t do anything, but watch it develop.  The work is really in the vineyard.”  Paradoxically, these wines, which receive prolonged–two to three years–of aging on the lees do not carry the sur lie designation because the lees-aging exceeds the nine-month period limited by the regulations. In addition to the required prolonged lees-aging, to ensure higher quality wine, the yield for the cru will be 25 percent lower than for classic Muscadet Sèvre et Maine (45 versus 60 hl/ha), according to François Robin from Vins de Nantes.

The authorities granted cru status to three villages, Clisson, Gorges and Le Pallet, in 2011.  Four more villages are scheduled to be included with the 2019 vintage: Monnières-Saint Fiacre, Château-Thébaud (a village name, not a producer), Mouzillon Tillères and Goulaine.

The soil and climate in each village is different, which accounts for the differences among the wines, according to Jérémie Huchet, a producer in Monnières-Saint Fiacre.  He explains that the prolonged lees-aging is needed to soften the even more prominent acidity in the wines from these villages.  He believes the acidity gives the spine to the wine while the creamy body comes from the lees-aging.  Robin believes that the wines from the cru have more in common with Burgundy than with classic Muscadet, making them more suitable for “serious” meals compared to Muscadet’s usual pairing with casual fare.

What struck me was the similarity of wines from an individual cru, despite being made by different producers, and the vast difference in character one cru to another.  It was a dramatic reminder that terroir is alive and well and not limited to Burgundy.  Here in Muscadet, wines made from the same grape but grown in neighboring villages tasted very different.

What’s happening in Muscadet is just part of an overall trend in wine–and in food–to tell consumers the origin of the product.  It’s more than just the parochial “my wine is different from yours so it deserves its own name” mentally of the French appellation system.  To be sure, drilling down to the exact plot may be overkill in some instances, but in general, the more the consumer knows about the origin, which truly does dictate the character and quality of the product, the better.

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Email me your thoughts about Muscadet at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

May 23, 2018

2015 White Burgundies: Marvelous for Current Drinking

Having tasted the 2015 Burgundies now that they have been bottled and are on retailers’ shelves, I can confirm my initial impression of the vintage –sensational for both reds and whites.  Importantly, though, the character of the wines is very different depending on the color.  I wrote about the reds last March (link below) so this column focuses on the whites.  But, before I delve into the wines, let me address an increasingly common complaint about Burgundy’s wines, namely, their prices.

The image of Burgundy is rapidly approaching that of Bordeaux–a luxury product for the “one percenters” as world-wide demand pushes prices into the stratosphere.  To be sure, the prices of many Burgundies put them out of reach for most people.  But, like so many stereotypes, the images are incorrect, especially for the 2015 Burgundies of both colors.  Just over half (52%) of all Burgundy is sold under regional appellations, those down-market, low prestige areas that do not carry even the name of a village on the label, such Bourgogne Blanc or Macon-Villages.  Here the lack of cachet–but no lack of pleasure–translates into affordability.

Moreover, there are wines from less renowned villages (such as Rully and Montagny in the Côte Chalonnaise, or Viré-Clessé and St. Véran, in the Mâconnais) that offer exceptional value, especially in a year like 2015. The extra warmth of the vintage had a bigger impact here in the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais than in the more revered appellations where grapes achieve adequate ripeness almost regardless of the weather. Thus, there are sometimes spectacular achievements in Rully, Montagny, Viré-Clessé and St. Véran in 2015–a year truly where the lesser stars shined.

The 2015 white Burgundies, in contrast to the whites from 2014, are great for drinking now and over the next couple of years.  By and large, they are not for laying down because, while they have adequate acidity, they lack the exhilarating tension of the 2014 whites.  This pair of vintages–2014/2015–in white is reminiscent of previous pairs, 2008/2009 and 2004/2005, with the former of each pair being more tightly wound while the latter being more opulent and forward.  The 2015 white Burgundies, then, have the added advantage of providing immediate satisfaction, while consumers wait for the their 2014s to develop.

The weather explains the character of the wines.  The 2015 growing season was warm, imparting slightly more ripeness to the grapes.  Typically, as grapes ripen, like all fruit, their levels of acidity fall.  This was especially true for Chardonnay, the major grape for all white Burgundy.  Hence, the 2015 white Burgundies are a touch richer than usual with slightly lower levels of acidity, but fortunately, not in the same blousy character of the 2003s, an extremely hot vintage.  The combination of succulence with off-setting, but not puckering, acidity equals enjoyment now.

Let’s start in the north of Burgundy, Chablis, where a little extra warmth is always welcome.  Though certainly not a regional appellation or an unknown village, Chablis remains woefully underpriced for what the wines deliver.  The highly-regarded Beaune-based house, Maison Joseph Drouhin, owns considerable acreage throughout Chablis and has a winery there, Domaine Vaudon, whose name on a bottle is a reliable indicator of quality.  Their 2015 Chablis “Réserve de Vaudon,” ($26, 89 points) made entirely from their vines in the Vauvillien Valley, which sits between two premier cru vineyards, Mont de Milieu and Montée de Tonnerre, delivers more complexity than many producers’ premier cru.  It’s a great value so grab it when you see it.  A step up, and also an excellent buy, is Drouhin’s Domaine Vaudon Chablis Premier Cru Montmains ($35, 92 points), which is more persistent and delivers alluring complexity.

Simonnet-Febvre is a name to remember for cutting, edgy Chablis.  Their laser-focused style harmonizes beautifully with the ripeness of the vintage.  Simonnet-Febvre’s 2015 Vaillons ($28, 92) has a captivating floral quality atop its usual flintiness, while their Mont de Milieu is zesty, stony and persistent ($30, 94). It’s hard to find the quality and distinctiveness these wines provide for the price anywhere else in the world.

Neighboring Chablis is a currently obscure–and hence, underpriced–appellation, Bourgogne Côte d’Auxerre, where, as in the rest of Burgundy, white wines are typically made from Chardonnay.  Here, Domaine Goisot consistently makes sensational wines.  Look for their invigorating and mineral-y 2015 Gueules de Loup ($34, 94) from this appellation.  Another nearby and rather obscure appellation, Saint Bris, features the same unique Kimmeridgian limestone as Chablis itself, and, indeed was once included in that appellation.  Today it has to strand on its own feet as its own appellation and is the only one in Burgundy where Sauvignon Blanc is the primary grape.  Goisot made a penetrating and exhilarating 2015 Sauvignon de Saint Bris “Exogyra Virgula” ($20, 92) whose pleasant bite and weight will deliver enormous pleasure when the weather turns warmer. It’s an extraordinary value.  These wines will astound you and imprint Goisot’s name and the appellations in your brain.

Jumping over the Côte d’Or for the moment, there are plenty of superb producers further south in the Mâconnais who turned out superb whites in 2015.  Names to remember here are Auvigue, Bret Brothers, Château de Pierreclos, Domaine Roger Lassarat, and La Soufrandière (the Bret Brothers’ personal domaine), and Domaine Saumaize to name just a few.  The Mâcon wines from any of these producers will re-define the appellation for you.  And most will set you back less than $25.

The most well-known name in the Mâconnais, of course, is Pouilly-Fuissé.  Consumers can expect prices of those wines to increase over the next couple of years because the appellation is poised, after more than a decade of negotiations, to have a substantial part re-classified as premier cru (more on that in a future column).  The neighboring appellation of St. Veran offers nearly the same quality as Pouilly-Fuissé at a lower price.  The creamy mineral-infused 2015 St. Véran “Cuvée Plaisir” from Domaine Roger Lassarat ($18, 92) or the edgy richness of Château de Pierreclos’ 2015 Saint-Véran ($17, 91) will make you a fan of this appellation.

Despite its deserved reputation for high prices, the Côte d’Or can provide well-priced white Burgundies.  The trick is to look for Bourgogne Blanc from well-regarded producers, such as Alex Gambal, Pierre Morey, or Paul Pernot, to name just a few.  Although the grapes for these wines come from vineyards that lie just outside the limits of prestigious villages, such as Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet, the top producers take as much care with these wines as they do with those carrying more up-scale labels.  Gambal wisely opted to harvest a bit earlier in 2015 to capture acidity in the grapes. His 2015 Bourgogne Blanc ($28, 90) is a sensational buy.

Another trick to finding value in the Côte d’Or is to explore less well-known villages.  Take the hard-to-pronounce village of Pernand-Vergelesses.  Although a substantial portion of the grand cru vineyard of Corton Charlemagne lies within its boundaries, many of its other vineyards are over-looked, which explains why you can find wines that deliver more than the price suggests.  A case in point is Maison Louis Latour’s 2015 Premier Cru “En Caradeaux” ($35, 93), which displays a lush sophistication coupled with good acidity that amplifies its finish.  It would be an excellent way to celebrate the arrival of summer.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Burgundy in general or the 2015 white Burgundies in particular at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

To see my overview of 2015 vintage red Burgundies, go to:

April 25, 2018