Category Archives: Publication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Site Trumps Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

96 Michael Apstein Jul 28, 2020

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

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

A Winery in…L.A.?

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

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

First, a little background.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s hoping She does.

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

July 22, 2020

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

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

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

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

96 Michael Apstein Jul 21, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poggioargentiera, Morellino di Scansano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) “Bellamarsilia” 2019

($16):  Morellino di Scansano is yet another Tuscan wine region that uses primarily Sangiovese for its red wines.  Located in the Maremma part of Tuscany on the region’s southeast coast, it received DOCG designation (Italy’s highest official wine classification) in 2006.  By Italian standards, Poggioargentiera is relatively new to the area, having been founded in 1997.  Nonetheless, their 2019 could be a poster child for the region.  This is a cheery mid-weight red brimming with bright cherry-like fruitiness.  A touch of herbal bitterness and mild tannins provide welcome balance.  With no rough edges, it easy to enjoy now with pizza or simple pasta dishes.  Its bargain price makes it especially attractive for drinking this summer.
90 Michael Apstein Jul 14, 2020

Capezzana, Carmignano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) “Villa di Capezzana” 2010

($56, Dalla Terra Winery Direct):  Carmignano, lying just northwest of Florence and Tuscany’s smallest DOCG, is really the original Super Tuscan.  Regulations there mandated the marriage of Cabernet, either Sauvignon or Franc, with Sangiovese long before that blend became popular elsewhere in Tuscany.  Capezzana, a top, if not THE top producer in the DOCG has always been an innovator as well.  Since 2006, they have introduced the practice of holding back a portion of their Villa di Capezzana Carmignano for release a decade later so that consumers can appreciate how beautifully this wine develops.  It’s a real treat to taste and yes, drink, a mature Tuscan wine without the expense and effort of cellaring it.  This 2010, a mid-weight wine, is warming and suave, yet still bright and lively.  With smoky and herbal nuances, it has plenty of that ethereal “not just fruit” character of mature wine, which adds another level of intrigue.
93 Michael Apstein Jul 14, 2020

Dry Creek Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma County, California) Old Vine Zinfandel 2017

($35):  Full disclosure, Zinfandel is one of my least favorite wines.  Petit Sirah runs a close second because both usually are impossibly overdone wines.  So, I shuddered when I read the blend:  Zinfandel (76%), Petit Sirah (22%) and Carignane.  But that’s why you taste.  Dry Creek Vineyard has a stunning track record with their Zinfandels, especially their Old Vine bottling, which they define as coming from vines of more than 50 years of age.  Their website proclaims that many of the vines are over a century old and some have been around for 130 years.  Old vines typically provide smaller yields of higher quality fruit, imparting complexity to the wine.  That’s the case with this Old Vine Zinfandel.  Briary and spicy, it handles the 14.9% stated alcohol effortlessly.  Balanced and neither over the top nor hot, it’s classic full-bodied Zinfandel, but with elegance.
92 Michael Apstein Jun 30, 2020

Rocca delle Macìe, Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) Pian della Casina “Sergioveto” 2016

($53, Palm Bay International):  Rocca delle Macìe changed the blend, vineyard site, and appellation for this wine starting with the 2015 vintage.  The wine was originally created in 1985 as a Super Tuscan by Italo Zingarelli, the company’s founder, and named for his son, Sergio, the current head of the company.  With the 2015 vintage, they eliminated the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and now use only Sangiovese from a single site, their Pian della Casina vineyard.  It’s now a Chianti Classico Riserva, not a “Super Tuscan,” but it is definitely still super.  The 2016 version is sensational.  Gently explosive, is combines both savory and dark cherry-like flavors into a seamless package.  It has wonderful density without being heavy.  Lovely discreet bitterness in the exceptionally long and uplifting finish adds appeal.  The bright Tuscan acidity amplifies its charms. Remarkably enjoyable now, its impeccable balance suggests you will be rewarded with cellaring the stellar wine.
95 Michael Apstein Jun 30, 2020

Domaine Saint Gayan, Côtes du Rhône (Rhône Valley, France) “Trescartes” 2016

($15, Europvin USA):  Domaine Saint Gayan, known for their Gigondas, also makes a notable Côtes du Rhône from grapes grown in the neighboring villages of Seguret and Sablet, two of the named villages of the more prestigious Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation, according to their website.  In keeping with the source of the grapes, the wine is a cut above the usual Côtes du Rhône, exhibiting more character than many.  Though from the usual Mediterranean blend of Grenache (75%), Syrah (20%) and Mourvèdre, it is not a usual wine.  Fresh and juicy, it has a spice that gives it a charming edginess.  It’s another great choice for the grilling season.
90 Michael Apstein Jun 30, 2020

Domaine du Pavillon (Bichot), Meursault (Burgundy, France) 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 Michael Apstein Jun 23, 2020

Domaine Adélie (Bichot), Mercurey (Burgundy, France) “Les Champs-Michaux” 2018

($55):  Albéric Bichot 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.  Christophe Chauvel (who is in charge of viticulture for all the domaines owned by Bichot) 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 Michael Apstein Jun 23, 2020

Domaine du Pavillon (Bichot), Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) 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 Michael Apstein Jun 23, 2020

Domaine Long-Depaquit (Bichot), Chablis Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) “Les Clos” 2018

($112):  With holdings totaling 150 acres of vines, almost half of which are located in Premier or Grand Cru vineyards, Bichot’s 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 Michael Apstein Jun 23, 2020

Domaine du Pavillon (Bichot), Pommard (Burgundy, France) “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 Michael Apstein Jun 23, 2020

Château Gris (Bichot), Nuits-Saint Georges 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) 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-Saint 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 Michael Apstein Jun 23, 2020

Domaine du Clos Frantin (Bichot), Echézeaux Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) 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 Michael Apstein Jun 23, 2020

Domaine de Rochegrès (Bichot), Domaine de Rochegrès (Bichot) (Beaujolais, Burgundy, France) 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, spicy and suave, combining richness, minerality and bright acidity.  A triumph.
93 Michael Apstein Jun 23, 2020

Terre del Palio, Rosso di Montalcino DOC (Tuscany, Italy) 2017

($32, Seaview Imports):  Rosso di Montalcino is a great introduction to Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s greatest wines.  Similar to Brunello, Rosso must be made entirely from Sangiovese — no blending with Cabernet, Merlot, or anything allowed.  This mid-weight wine delivers sour cherry-like fruitiness — the Sangiovese speaking — and a hint of tarry minerality, which is emblematic of the area.  Good length, a welcome whiff of bitterness in the finish, and classic uplifting Tuscan acidity makes it a joy to drink now.
92 Michael Apstein Jun 16, 2020

I Magredi, Friuli Grave DOC (Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy) Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

($17, Seaview Imports):  Most people don’t think of northeastern Italy for Cabernet Sauvignon.  Indeed, Friuli Venezia Giulia is home to some of Italy’s best white wines.  But, some Cabernet — both Sauvignon and Franc — are grown on the well-drained gravelly soil, which gives its name to the DOC (Friuli Grave).  With a combination of delicate red fruit-like flavors and lovely earthy notes, this mid-weight wine is decidedly enjoyable now.  Mild tannins allow it to take a chill without unmasking astringency.  Bright acidity and herbal nuances add to its appeal.   Those looking for the power and oomph of California Cabernet will not embrace this restrained style of wine.
88 Michael Apstein Jun 16, 2020

Finca Mangato, Tupungato (Mendoza, Argentina) “Estela Perinetti” 2016

($55, Seaview Imports):  The name of the wine, Estela Perinetti, is also the name of the owner and winemaker at Finca Mangato.  She is one of Argentina’s first female winemakers and viticulturists, according to the Finca Mangato website.  She should know a thing or two about making wine in Argentina since, according to her biographical sketch, she worked with the Catena family, one of, if not the country’s leading wine family, for two decades.  This, their flagship wine, is a big, bold blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (60%) and Malbec wrapped with silky supple tannins.  Powerful and concentrated, it thankfully avoids going over the top.  Suave structure and bright acidity make it perfect to accompany hearty meat from the grill this summer.
90 Michael Apstein Jun 16, 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 Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein.

Frog’s Leap Winery, Rutherford, Napa Valley (California) Merlot 2017

($40):  This Merlot shows why it’s such a popular kind of wine.  Silky tannins enrobe plummy-like fruitiness and make this wine a delight to drink now.  In the Frog’s Leap style, it shows restraint, impressing you with elegance and suaveness rather than weight and power.  An attractive hint of bitterness in the finish reinforces its breeding.
92 Michael Apstein Jun 9, 2020

Frog’s Leap Winery, Rutherford, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Grown 2017

($65):  John Williams, owner and winemaker at Frog’s Leap, has a knack for whimsy.  It’s apparent from his website, from his tagline, “time’s fun when you’re having flies,” to the fine print at the very end of the back label —”open other end.”  But there’s no whimsy in this bottle.  It’s serious.  And gorgeous.  Beautifully proportioned, it combines savory, olive-like nuances with lush dark fruit.  It’s a wonderfully deep, yet restrained Cabernet, the kind that gave Napa Valley its well-deserved reputation.  Its structure is suave, showing no astringency or harshness.  I just wish he’d ditch the oversized bottle — it detracts from the restraint and elegance of the wine.
93 Michael Apstein Jun 9, 2020

Frog’s Leap Winery, Napa Valley (California) Zinfandel 2018

($35):  Here’s a Zinfandel for those of us who generally avoid that wine.  Frog’s Leap signature style of restraint highlights the charms of the varietal.  Briary and spicy notes complement its dark fruitiness.  Bursting with flavor, yet not overdone, it’s balanced.  Those looking for a brawny powerhouse Zinfandel will be disappointed.   But those who want a wine you can actually drink throughout a meal of barbequed chicken with adore it.
91 Michael Apstein Jun 9, 2020

Dry Creek Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma County, California) “The Mariner” 2017

($50):  Dry Creek Vineyard, founded by David Stare in 1972, has been a leader in the Dry Creek Valley wine renaissance.  Stare started by focusing on Sauvignon Blanc because of his love of Loire Valley wines, but quickly expanded the portfolio.  The Mariner, a typical Bordeaux-blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (69%) Merlot (15%), Cabernet Franc (6%) and equal parts Malbec and Petit Verdot, is powerful yet elegant.  Suavely textured, it has plenty of structure without being astringent or aggressive.  Savory, olive-like notes intermingle beautifully with dark fruitiness.  Long and graceful, it’s a delight to drink with a grilled steak.
93 Michael Apstein Jun 9, 2020

Rocca delle Macìe, Toscana IGP (Tuscany, Italy) Cabernet Sauvignon “Roccato” 2016

($58, Palm Bay International):  Rocca delle Macìe created Roccato, their Super Tuscan 50/50 Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend, in 1988.  Starting with the 2015 vintage, it is now entirely Cabernet Sauvignon, which is grown on their Poggio alle Pecchie vineyard on the Le Macìe estate located in Castellina in Chianti.  Its lovely green olive-like nuances act as a perfect foil for its dark fruitiness. Finely textured, it has good weight.  Classic Tuscan acidity enlivens it and amplifies its charms.  This excellent wine shows that distinctive Tuscan Cabernet Sauvignon is not limited to Bolgheri.
93 Michael Apstein Jun 9, 2020

Rocca delle Macìe, Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) “Famiglia Zingarelli” 2017

($27, Palm Bay International):  This is great success for the difficult and hot 2017 vintage in Chianti Classico.  One producer was so despondent he actually told me that you could forget about the vintage entirely.  This wine clearly shows that assessment to be inaccurate.  The grapes from Rocca delle Macìe’s “Famiglia Zingarelli” Chianti Classico Riserva come from their four estates and is a blend of Sangiovese (90%) with equal proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Riper and less energetic than their 2016s, it reflects the warmth of the vintage. Still, it has remarkable acidity for the vintage, which gives it life, and good weight without being overdone.  I suggest drinking it with hearty pasta while you keep their 2016s in the cellar.
89 Michael Apstein Jun 9, 2020