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Quinta dos Roques, Dão (Portugal) Reserva, Tinto 2011

($35):  The Dão region, located in north central Portugal, is among the first to receive official delineation, in 1908.  The quality of the wines suffered under the Salazar dictatorship, but quality and distinctiveness has improved notably over the last three decades.  Wine producers there often release the wines later than usual, opting to give them substantial bottle age to soften what could be otherwise ferocious tannins.  Take this beauty for example, ten years old and the current release.  The back label informs us that the Reserva always hails from a single site, the Pessegueiro (Peach Tree) vineyard.  It’s a blend of primarily Touriga Nacional with other autochthonous varieties, Jaen (also known as Mencía), Alfrocheiro, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Cão.  The wine delivers graceful power with a balanced mixture of dark fruitiness and smoky savory notes.  The tannins are fine, providing a suave texture.  Great acidity keeps it perky and lively.  It’s an excellent choice to match with whatever is coming off the grill this summer.
93 Michael Apstein Jul 27, 2021

Herdade do Rocim, Alentejo DOC (Portugal) “Amphora” 2019

($18, Shiverick Imports):  Portugal remains the source of beautifully priced reds and whites, as this mid-weight red shows.  It’s a blend of autochthonous grapes whose names are unfamiliar to most, Moreto, Tinta Grossa, Triccadeira and Aragonez, so unsurprisingly, the flavors that emerge from the glass are unique.  Fermentation and aged in terracotta amphorae with native yeast suggests that Herdade do Rocim is one of those producers that has embraced traditional winemaking techniques.  This mid-weight wine delivers a lovely combination of juicy black fruit and spicy notes wrapped in suave tannins.  The fresh and lively red could easily be chilled slightly for enjoyment this summer with, say, grilled bluefish.
90 Michael Apstein Jul 27, 2021

Herdade de São Miguel, Alentejo DOC (Portugal) Alicante Bouschet 2014

($20):  Unlike almost all other red grapes whose juice is clear and whose color comes exclusively from the skins, the juice from Alicante Bouschet is red.  That likely explains why that grape makes deeply colored wines, which predicts its flavor profile, as it does here.  This is a broad-shouldered, flamboyant wine that manages to hold it all together.  I suspect its seven years of age has helped settle it down.  It’s still a bit rough around the edges befitting its style.  Great acidity keeps it fresh and prevents heaviness.  Still, this is not a wine to sip while grilling, but rather to drink after the leg of lamb comes off the grill.
91 Michael Apstein Jul 27, 2021

Ferraris, Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) “Clàsic” 2020

($20):  Those looking for bold fruitiness should go elsewhere.  Here, the focus is on an alluring Middle Eastern spice box of aromas and flavors — cinnamon and cloves — and dried flowers.  Light on the palate, the flavors in this lively wine nonetheless persist.  You’d never realize it weighs in at 15% stated alcohol.  The potentially severe tannins of Ruché are nowhere to be found.  Ferraris has transformed them instead into fine ones that lend support, which makes it ideal for current consumption.  Try it even slightly chilled this summer.  Balanced and harmonious, this wine is for those who embrace the savory side of life.
91 Michael Apstein Jul 27, 2021

Ferraris, Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) “Opera Prima” Riserva 2017

($40):  Luca Ferraris bottled this wine in honor of his nonno, (grandfather) Martino, the founder of the winery. Altogether different from Ferraris’ other two renditions of Ruché, Opera Prima, with its chocolatey nuances, has an Amarone-like sensibility to it.  The fine tannins that are a hallmark of Ferraris’ wines together with a suave texture hold it all together.  You feel the 16% stated alcohol, yet it’s not hot or burning, just warm and enveloping.  In short, it’s balanced.  A subtle and attractive hint of bitterness in the finish adds to its appeal.  The Opera Prima has a black fruit component, but once again, the overall impression is not that of a “fruity” wine.  Unlike their Clàsic or even the Vigna del Parroco, both of which you could chill briefly and drink in the summer, the Opera Prima is clearly a wintertime wine for hearty fare.
92 Michael Apstein Jul 27, 2021

Ferraris, Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) “Vigna del Parroco” 2019

($23):  Ferraris acquired priest Don Giacomo Cauda’s Ruchè del Parroco in 2016 and renamed it “Vigna del Parroco.”  It remains the only officially recognized cru in the entire DOCG.  A gorgeous wine that still retains the savory focus, it is also more refined and complex than the Clàsic.  The spice box character is present, but toned down and, as a result, the wine is even more enchanting.  Its subtlety is captivating and makes you pay attention as the flavors change with each sip.  It has a “flavor without weight” sensibility that I find in Burgundy, or, for that matter, aged Barolo.  Though the tannins are fine, they provide plenty of support without astringency.  A zippy finish amplifies its charms.  Ferraris’ Vigna del Parroco, like their Clàsic, is not for those looking for a fruity wine.   Similar to the Clàsic, it’s beautifully balanced and carries the 15% stated alcohol effortlessly.
94 Michael Apstein Jul 27, 2021

What Am I Drinking Now? Ridge Vineyards 1994 Monte Bello

A word from the Editor-in-Chief

Please join me in giving a BIG welcome to Michael Apstein, one of the most passionate and nicest people in wine, not to mention erudite. I do not use the word “erudite” lightly: believe me, no other word could be more apt (in fact, in this case, you might even say “Apst” ): for Apstein, Michael, is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and one heck of a good doctor and teacher (trust me, I know); but one with over 300 wine columns under his belt for the Boston Globe daily. His first of what I hope will be an interminable of pieces at TerroirSense offers a glimpse into his writing style: clean, scientific, and to the point (there’s the doctor), very easy to understand and learn from (there’s the teacher) and just plain fun to read and enjoyable (there’s the good writer). I have always been fascinated by how well California wine ages, a trait that I do not believe goes recognized or gets appreciated as much as perhaps it should. Please do tell us what your thoughts are on the subject and Michael will be happy to respond, and I might chime in too, as after all all us wine geeks love a lively wine discussion. And make sure to also follow Michael if you like on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein. Welcome Michael!

– Ian D’Agata, TerroirSense Wine Review Editor-in-Chief

Ridge Vineyards 1994 Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains         96

Without question, Ridge Vineyards is among the best producers in California. Their Monte Bello, their single vineyard Bordeaux-blend first produced with the 1962 vintage, is one of California’s greatest wines. At twenty-six years of age, the 1994 Monte Bello demonstrates the stature of the wines from this vineyard.

The Monte Bello vineyard is comprised of four ranches, Perrone, Torre, Rousten, and Klein, lying between 510-820 meters above sea level (or 1700-2700 feet) in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco. Both its elevation and proximity—just twenty-four kilometers or fifteen miles—to the Pacific Ocean explains its cool microclimate, which at first glance might be less than ideal for red Bordeaux varieties. But there’s sufficient heat during the day to achieve ripeness and the cool temperatures at night preserve the grapes’—and hence, the wine’s—acidity. The clay atop limestone soil, which is very different from the soils of other sites well-known for Cabernet Sauvignon in California, such as Napa and Sonoma Valleys, contributes to the wine’s uniqueness.

Ridge produces two wines from this property, an Estate Cabernet, which is more approachable in its youth, and Monte Bello, which Paul Draper, Ridge’s longtime winemaker who retired in 2006, advises needs a decade of age to show its complexity.

In 1994, a cool wet spring delayed set and, as a result, harvest, which started with Merlot on October 1, was late by today’s standards. The remaining varieties were picked between October 18 and 28. For comparison, the grapes for the 2018 Monte Bello were harvested roughly a month earlier.

The winemaking is non-interventional or, as Draper refers to it, “pre-industrial.” They use native yeasts and allow malolactic fermentation to proceed naturally. The wine is aged in oak barrels, mostly French, but with a little American oak as well. The only intervention is a strict selection of grapes and wines that go into the final blend of Monte Bello.

Always a Cabernet Sauvignon-heavy blend, the 1994 Monte Bello was the first vintage in which it comprised less than 75% of the blend and another three grapes—Merlot (15%), Petit Verdot (9%) and Cabernet Franc—were included.  At 26 years of age, it remains youthful and fresh.  Flavors—initially plummy—evolve as it sits in the glass. A gorgeous olive-tinged savory aspect emerges. During the meal over a couple of hours, each sip brings new delight. This wine is not fading. For all its muscular power, there’s not a trace of heaviness. Indeed, its elegance is startling. The suave tannins impart a silky texture. Weighing in at a modest 12.7% stated-alcohol reminds us that you do not need super ripe grapes to make a super wine. Drinking window: now-2031.

Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato: An Overlooked Gem in Piedmont

Granted, Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato is not the first wine people think of when they think of Piedmont.  Well, Agricola Ferraris shows us why it’s time to broaden our horizons.

First, let’s untangle the nomenclature.  Ruché (spelled Ruchè in Italian and pronounced roo-kay) is an aromatic red grape with excellent levels of malic acid that accounts for the wines’ freshness and vivacity.  Though pale colored, the grapes have the capability to impart considerable tannic structure, similar to Nebbiolo.  Castagnole Monferrato, a picturesque Italian hill village from which the Alps are easily visible on clear days, is located about six miles northeast of Asti and gives its name to the DOCG.  The soils vary from white (rich in calcium carbonate) to brown (with more clay), which means there is potential for great variability in a particular wine’s style, from tightly structured examples to ones that are more approachable when young.

When I visited the area a few years ago, a representative of the consortium than represents Barbera, Asti and Monferrato explained that in 1964, Don Giacomo Cauda, a parish priest in Castagnole, discovered a couple of rows of Ruchè in the church’s vineyards and decided to make wine from them, which he labeled Ruchè del Parroco.  From these few rows, the vineyard area expanded to about 125 acres by 2000 and currently to 375 acres spread over seven municipalities.

The Italian wine authorities recognized the wine’s quality and distinctiveness, awarding the area DOC status in 1987 and elevating it to Italy’s highest level, DOCG, in 2010.  The grape’s popularity may be spreading to California, where Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm told me that he has planted three acres of it in San Juan Bautista and admits, “I went slightly Ruché mad.”  However, he is very happy with the 40 gallons (roughly 200 bottles) of it that he made.

Luca Ferraris, whose family-run firm is the largest vineyard owner in the DOCG, is the self-appointed ambassador for Ruché.  (Grahm refers to him as the “King of Ruché.”) Ferraris makes a range of excellent Ruché, including this trio that shows the extraordinary range of the DOCG:

Ferraris, Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG “Clàsic” 2020 ($20): Those looking for bold fruitiness should go elsewhere.  Here, the focus is on an alluring Middle Eastern spice box of aromas and flavors—cinnamon and cloves—and dried flowers.  Light on the palate, the flavors in this lively wine nonetheless persist.  You’d never realize it weighs in at 15% stated alcohol.  The potentially severe tannins of Ruché are nowhere to be found.  Ferraris has transformed them instead into fine ones that lend support, which makes it ideal for current consumption.  Try it even slightly chilled this summer.  Balanced and harmonious, this wine is for those who embrace the savory side of life.   91 Points

Ferraris, Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG “Vigna del Parroco” 2019 ($23):  Ferraris acquired priest Don Giacomo Cauda’s Ruchè del Parroco in 2016 and renamed it “Vigna del Parroco.”  It remains the only officially recognized cru in the entire DOCG.  A gorgeous wine that still retains the savory focus, it is also more refined and complex than the Clàsic.  The spice box character is present, but toned down and, as a result, the wine is even more enchanting.  Its subtlety is captivating and makes you pay attention as the flavors change with each sip.  It has a “flavor without weight” sensibility that I find in Burgundy, or, for that matter, aged Barolo.  Though the tannins are fine, they provide plenty of support without astringency.  A zippy finish amplifies its charms.  Ferraris’ Vigna del Parroco, like their Clàsic, is not for those looking for a fruity wine.   Similar to the Clàsic, it’s beautifully balanced and carries the 15% stated alcohol effortlessly.   94 Points

Ferraris, Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato Riserva “Opera Prima,” 2017 ($40):  Luca Ferraris bottled this wine in honor of his nonno, (grandfather) Martino, the founder of the winery. Altogether different from Ferraris’ other two renditions of Ruché, Opera Prima, with its chocolate-y nuances, has an Amarone-like sensibility to it.  The fine tannins that are a hallmark of Ferraris’ wines together with a suave texture hold it all together.  You feel the 16% stated alcohol, yet it’s not hot or burning, just warm and enveloping.  In short, it’s balanced.  A subtle and attractive hint of bitterness in the finish adds to its appeal.  The Opera Prima has a black fruit component, but once again, the overall impression is not that of a “fruity” wine.  Unlike their Clàsic or even the Vigna del Parroco, both of which you could chill briefly and drink in the summer, the Opera Prima is clearly a wintertime wine for hearty fare.   92 Points

 
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Sosie, Sonoma Valley (Sonoma County, California) Rossi Ranch Red Blend 2019

($43):  This mid-weight blend of Grenache (51%), Mourvèdre (34%) and Syrah brings together strawberry-like fruitiness, some spice and earthy notes.  Its angular acidity, likely secondary to a touch of added tartaric acid (gleaned from ingredient labeling) prevents it from being jammy or coming across as sweet.  The tannins are mild and refined, which means it’s fine for current consumption and for slight chilling this summer.  It would work well with grilled salmon.
89 Michael Apstein Jul 20, 2021

Bodegas Muriel, Rioja DOC Reserva (Spain) “Fincas de la Villa” 2016

($17, Quintessential Wines):  This mid-weight wine demonstrates clearly why Rioja is so popular.  This red brings a bit of everything, a bright savory combination of red fruits and spice, to the table.  Pleasantly drying tannins lend support without being intrusive.  Despite its mid-weight body, this energetic wine commands a serious presence and calls for red meats or hearty tapas.
90 Michael Apstein Jul 20, 2021

Bodegas Muriel, Rioja DOC Gran Reserva (Spain) Viñas Viejas 2011

($26, Quintessential Wines):  Rioja is one of the very few regions of the world where consumers can find well-aged wines at reasonable prices, and sometimes, like this one, ridiculously low ones.  Where else could you find a decade old red at this price?  So, if you’re curious about, or just adore the flavors of, aged wines, here’s the place to start.  Dried rather than fresh fruit flavors are predominant, accented by leathery and subtle earthy accents.  The savory side of wine is singing here.  Warm and enveloping, this mid-weight red cries for autumnal fare or even a winter stew.  Its freshness and lively character will cut through virtually anything on the table, so don’t get hung up on specific pairings.  Just try it with dinner.
93 Michael Apstein Jul 20, 2021

Viu Manent, Valle de Colchagua (Chile) Malbec “Secreto de Viu Manent” 2019

($14, Baystate Imports):  Though considered Argentina’s signature red, Malbec is grown all over the world.  This rendition, from neighboring Chile, is a lighter style of Malbec, weighing in at a modest 13.5 % stated-alcohol.  A hint of earthy nuances balances its fruitiness.  They’ve turned down the volume, which, to my mind, frequently increases the enjoyment from this variety that has a proclivity for producing robust reds.  The texture is suave, the tannins fine, so it can take a brief chill.  Think of this simple and satisfying Malbec with barbecued chicken this summer.
87 Michael Apstein Jul 20, 2021

Tablas Creek Vineyard, Adelaida District, Paso Robles (Central Coast, California) Vermentino 2020

($27):  Tablas Creek Vineyard needs no introduction to wine lovers.  This property, founded in 1989 by the Perrin family of Château Beaucastel (an iconic Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer) in partnership with wine importer Robert Hass of Vineyard Brands, was a pioneer and leading force in what is now California’s success with Rhone-type varieties.  Vermentino, typically thought of as an Italian grape, is, in fact, the most commonly planted white grape in the southern Rhône Valley, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine.  Tablas Creek has done a wonderful job with it.  No surprise there, given their track record.  A delightfully floral aromas merge with a saline-tinged minerality to produce a vibrant and brilliantly refreshing wine.  It would be a great choice for any heat wave.
91 Michael Apstein Jul 13, 2021

Vila Nova, Douro DOC (Portugal) Red Blend 2018

($12, Quintessential Wines):  Portugal has always been the place to find value-packed reds and whites.  Here is another example of one that over delivers for the price.  This big red, made from a blend of traditional Portuguese grapes, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (40 percent each) and Touriga Franca, is a good choice for food coming off the grill this summer.  Mild, suave tannins envelope this juicy fresh wine, which makes it a good candidate for chilling.  A touch of spice adds complexity and prevents it from being a fruit bomb.  The price means it is especially useful when you are expecting a crowd.
88 Michael Apstein Jul 13, 2021

Quinta do Crasto, Douro DOC (Portugal) “Superior” 2016

($25, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  Lenor and Jorge Roquette represent the fourth generation of family ownership of Quinta do Crasto after assuming majority ownership in 1981.  They expanded from making Port to making dry red wine, which is more and more common now along the steep banks of the Douro River.  This dry robust red comes from the same grapes used for making Port, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, and Sousão.  A hefty red, displaying biting spice and angularity, this burly wine would be a good choice for hearty barbeque this summer or a braised lamb shank in the winter.
89 Michael Apstein Jul 13, 2021

Quinta do Crasto, Douro DOC (Portugal) Vinhas Velhas 2016

($42, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  Grapes from a mix of 25 to 30 varieties grown on vines averaging 70 years of age were the source for this hefty, well-structured wine.  There’s more complexity here than this producer’s refined Touriga Nacional, which I suspect comes from the blend and the age of the vines, but less elegance at this stage of its development.  The tannins need time to integrate, while the whole wine needs to come together, so I suggest putting this one in the cellar for years while you drink the Touriga Nacional.
91 Michael Apstein Jul 13, 2021

Quinta do Crasto, Douro DOC (Portugal) Touriga Nacional 2016

($78, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  Quinta do Crasto has produced this wine made exclusively from Touriga Nacional, the Douro’s most prestigious grape, only a dozen times this century.  Though bigger and bolder than their Douro Superior, it is far more elegant with suave, silky tannins.  Its array of dark fruit and spice changes as it sits in the glass, so every sip brings new delight.  It is weighty, but not heavy, tipping the scales at only 13.5 percent stated-alcohol.  This muscular wine is amazingly fresh and uplifting considering its power.  Think LeBron James.  Its refined texture and vivacity allow you to enjoy it now, but I suspect it will develop beautifully with bottle age because of its balance.
94 Michael Apstein Jul 13, 2021

Casa da Tapada, Vinho Verde DOC (Portugal) Loureiro “Grande Escolha” 2018

($25):   In the past, Vinho Verde, literally “green wine,” frequently delivered little more than enamel clearing acidity.  That has changed, as Casa da Tapada’s rendition shows.  It maintains the fresh and crisp signature for which the area is known, but adds an engaging floral and fruity component.  There’s a touch or salinity or even a touch of bitterness in the finish, which enhances its appeal.  A great choice for this summer’s sipping — or drinking.
92 Michael Apstein Jul 13, 2021

Firriato, Etna Bianco DOC (Sicily, Italy) “Le Sabbie Dell’Etna” 2019

($21):  The regulations for Etna Bianco require at least 60 percent Carricante in the blend.  Firriato opts to blend another autochthonous grape, Catarratto, with Carricante for this Etna Bianco.  The result is a fruitier, somewhat richer, Etna Bianco with less of the cutting saline-minerality for which Carricante is known.  It’s a softer, gentler style of Etna Bianco that will appeal to those who are put off by the edginess of an Etna Bianco made entirely from Carricante.
90 Michael Apstein Jul 13, 2021

Luca Bosio, Langhe DOC (Piedmont, Italy) Arneis 2020

($19, Quintessential Wines):  Arneis, a grape found nowhere in Italy except Piedmont, makes one of that country’s overlooked white wines.  The Oxford Companion to Wine informs us that is used to be blended with Nebbiolo to soften Barolo and gained the informal local tag of “Barolo Bianco.”  Fortunately, that name didn’t stick.  Luca Bosio’s 2020 has a haunting floral aroma, good weight, and a welcome touch of minerality.  Bright acidity keeps it fresh.  All in all, it’s an excellent choice for this summer’s seafood.
91 Michael Apstein Jul 13, 2021

Caves de Beblenheim, Crémant d’Alsace (France) Heimberger Blanc de Noirs NV

($18, Votto Vines Importing):  A Crémant d’Alsace Rosé is as safe a bet as you can get for a well-priced pink bubbly because regulations require it be made entirely from Pinot Noir.  Moreover, believe it or not, Pinot Noir does well in Alsace, especially now with the enhanced ripening due to climate change.  This wine also dispels the myth that co-ops don’t make good wine.  This Blanc de Noirs (literally, “white from blacks,” but rosé in color) from Caves de Beblenheim, a co-op founded in 1952 and now comprising 152 growers, displays finesse and depth, which makes it a fine choice either as an aperitif or to accompany hearty fare, such as a seafood stew, grilled bluefish, or, if you are matching colors, grilled salmon.  Its price makes it a fine choice for a large gathering.
92 Michael Apstein Jul 13, 2021

Concha y Toro, Marchigüe (Colchagua Valley, Chile) Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva “Serie Riberas” 2019

($17, Eagle Peak Estates):  The heart of Chile’s Colchagua Valley, one of the prime areas for growing red varieties, lies 30 miles or so inland, east of the Pacific Ocean.  Marchigüe, a lesser-known area with the Colchagua Valley, sits on the cooler coast.  At first glance, it may be odd that a winery would want to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, a variety that likes heat, in a cooler area.  After tasting this Cabernet, the conclusion was clear that Concha y Toro, one of Chile’s top producers, knows what it’s doing.  This bottling comes from their Serie Riberas line, which are wines made from grapes grown on riversides, in this case the Tinguiririca River.  Their 2019 Cabernet is exactly what you’d expect from a top producer, such as Concha y Toro.  Classically framed, it delivers both dark, cassis-like fruitiness, accented with wonderful savory, olive-like nuances.  It’s savory, not-just-fruit element is captivating.  Fresh and lively, it finishes with a welcoming hint of bitterness, which makes it perfect for grilled beef.  At a modest (by today’s standards) 13.5 percent stated alcohol shows, once again, that you don’t need super ripe grapes to make a super wine.
93 Michael Apstein Jul 13, 2021

Costières de Nîmes: Overlooked Southern Rhône Gem

Even those who know little about wine recognize the name Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Wine enthusiasts can name other important appellations in France’s southern Rhône Valley, such as Gigondas, maybe even Vacqueryas.  Really savvy consumers know that Vinsorbres, Rasteau and Cairanne, previously included under the Côtes du Rhône-Villages umbrella, have achieved their own appellations, and that Sablet and Seguret are two of the 21 named villages that remain under that umbrella.  But even the savviest consumer tends to overlook the Costières de Nîmes, the Rhône’s southernmost appellation.  And that’s a big mistake.  The wines are distinctive—Syrah rather than Grenache reigns here—and are now generally high-quality and well-priced.

It’s easy to understand why this area has been overlooked.  It’s located on the “wrong” or west side of Rhône River, whereas the most famous of the southern Rhône’s appellations lie on the river’s eastern side.  It’s so far south and west, people assume its wines are included in the “lake of the Languedoc” and not a Rhône Valley appellation.  (It’s administratively part of the Languedoc, but vinously it hangs its hat on the Rhône Valley’s coat rack).  Up until three decades ago, the wines weren’t all that good because the post-phylloxera replanting and philosophy in the early 20th century was oriented to quantity, not quality.  However, that has changed dramatically since the Costières de Nîmes received AOC status in 1986.

Having spent many summers renting a house near Uzès, just outside of the Costières di Nîmes appellation, I have a broad familiarity with its wines and have watched their transformation from rough-and-tumble reds and heavy whites to polished and energetic ones.  So, I was thrilled to attend, via Zoom®, an in-depth tasting hosted by Evan Goldstein, MS and Michel Gassier, one of the appellation’s top producers, to update my familiarity with the appellation.

Gassier explains that the Rhône River is responsible for the rolled-rock soil of Costières de Nîmes just as in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  The conventional wisdom holds that the rocks (galets in French) store the day’s heat, radiating it back during the night to enhance ripeness.  Gassier thinks that might have been their chief attribute 50 years ago, but now, with climate change, he believes the grapes need no heat boost to ripen.  He views the rocks’ asset both in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Costières de Nîmes as a water management tool.  As he explains it, the rocks prevent the soil from being compacted, leaving space for water accumulation.  Plus, water trapped in the rocks evaporates more slowly during windy conditions.

The soil coupled with the Mediterranean climate puts the region squarely within the Rhône Valley appellations.  What makes it different is its micro-climate, according to Gassier.  The Costières de Nîmes is the coolest among Rhône appellations despite its southern locale because of the cooling influences of the Mediterranean and the marshlands of the Camargue, home to France’s famous wild horses.  As the sun heats inland locations during the morning, the overlying air rises, which draws in cool moist air from the Mediterranean and marshes, keeping daytime temperatures below 90ºF for much of the summer.  Photosynthesis, the process that creates energy for the vines, occurs best at moderate temperatures (54 to 90ºF).  The longer the vine remains within that temperature range, the more energy it has to promote phenolic ripeness, explains Gassier.

The combination of rolled-rock soil and the cooler growing conditions explains the predominance of Syrah, rather than Grenache, in the vineyards and in the red blends.

On a map, the Costières de Nîmes straddles the Languedoc and Provence and is, as Gassier puts it, the “balcony of the Camargue.”  The culture of the area is unique with a landscape populated by rice fields, roaming cattle and horses.  The bullfights here, sometimes advertised as “toro in piscine,” (literally bull in a swimming pool) are a game to see who can induce the bull to jump into a child’s swimming pool.  Placing rings on the bull’s horns is another form of “bull fighting.”  No capes, picadors, or gore here.

The area itself has quintessential Provençal charm and has arguably the best-preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy.  Indeed, the Pont du Gard, a tri-level Roman aqueduct whose remarkable slope of one inch per mile, remains my favorite architectural landmark in all of France.  Also, in Nîmes itself is the magnificent Maison Carrée, a Greek-style Roman temple, and an equally impressive arena that looks like a mini-Colosseum.

Everywhere you turn in Nîmes, you come upon a crocodile.  A brass one, that is.  It’s the city’s mascot, the origin of which dates from Roman times.  The story goes that the Roman Emperors were constantly fearful that returning victorious generals could unseat them.  So, they bribed them not to return by bequeathing them new colonies to rule.  Nîmes was given to the general whose legion was victorious over Egypt.  That legion chose the image of a crocodile chained to palm tree as their logo.  The message was plain for all to see:  Here was the general and the legion that had subjugated the Egyptians.  The Romans have long since departed, but the mascot remains throughout the city.  The AOC Costières de Nîmes has adopted it as well.

The Costières de Nîmes appellation is a small area, containing about eight percent of the Rhône’s vineyards area.  An astounding twenty-five percent of its vineyards are certified as organic today, the highest in the Rhône Valley.  The ever-present winds help keep the vineyards free of disease.  The 71 producers and nine co-operatives produce roughly equal amounts (45%) of reds and rosés.

The red wines in general are less weighty and fresher than those from other southern Rhône appellations.  Though Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre predominate, Marselan, Carignan, and Cinsault are also allowed.  Most blends are Syrah-heavy because growers prefer the lighter skinned Grenache for rosé.

The same grapes, just in different proportions, comprise the rosés.

The remaining ten percent of production consists of whites, chiefly from Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Marsanne.  The white wines must include two of those three grapes, but Bourboulenc, Clairette, Rolle (a.k.a. Vermentino) and Viognier are also allowed.

The two white wines tasted during the webinar showed the wonderful range the category can achieve from this appellation.  At one end of the spectrum was the floral and lively 2020 Mas des Bressades “Cuvée Tradition” ($12, 89 pts).  Lacey and peachy with excellent acidity, it was like a refreshing summer breeze.  At the other end was Domaine Gassier’s 2018 “Nostre Païs” ($14, 92 pts).  More substantial, yet not heavy, its saline minerality and creamy texture cried for a place at the dinner table rather than the patio.  Both refute the notion that Rhône whites are heavy and flabby.

The rosés showed an equally broad spectrum.  The delicate, dry, and light 2020 Château Saint-Louis La Perdrix ($13, 86 pts) would go nicely with a summer salad or to chase away the heat of the afternoon, while the more powerful 2020 “Fleur d’Eglantine” from Château Mourgues du Grès ($26, 86 pts) displayed considerably more muscle under its pink hue.  It, too, had a cleansing, dry finish.

My experience over the years is that the red wines from Costières de Nîmes shine and should cement the appellation’s reputation as a source for fine wines.  The two reds shown during the webinar, unbeknownst to me previously, confirmed that impression.

The story of the label of the 2018 “Denim by Beaubois,” by Château Beaubois is as fascinating as the wine is delicious.  The label first.  Though the denim that Levi Strauss purchased, and turned his company into a household name, came from Genoa (Gênes in French, which seamlessly morphed into jeans), it originated in Nîmes, which was a major fabric center at the time.  (The word denim is a contraction of French phrase, de Nîmes, meaning “from Nîmes”).  A ying/yang of spice and black fruit succulence makes the 2018 Denim by Beaubois ($30, 92 pts) a joy to drink with grilled meats this summer.  Mild tannins allow it to take a chill.  It shows that powerful wines need not be heavy or overbearing.

With its more structured framework, the 2018 Château de Valcombe ($20; 90 pts) is more suited to the cellar than the table at this stage.  This blend of Syrah (70%) and Grenache effortlessly conveys the marvelous combination of savory and dark fruit flavors so often found in Costières de Nîmes reds.  Those who can’t wait (which would be understandable) should open and decant it a couple of hours before serving.

Over the years I’ve had many wines from Mas des Bressades, so any of their wines is likely to be a safe bet.  The 2018 “Nostre Païs” from Domaine Gassier, also unbeknownst to me prior to the webinar, was so impressive that I would jump at the chance to buy any of their other wines.  Same for the wines from Château Beaubois and Château de Valcombe.  In my experience, the reds from Château Mourgues du Grès are stunning and should be grabbed whenever you see them.  In alphabetical order, here’s a list of other producers who I heartily recommend based on past experience with their wines: Domaine Cabanis, Château de Campuget, Château Grande Cassagne, Domaine au Moulin Piot, Domaine de La Patience, and Domaine Terre des Chardons.

A final word about pricing.  Of the 275 Costières de Nîmes currently listed on wine-searcher.com, 235 (85%) are less than $20 a bottle.  Time to find a crocodile.

*          *          *

June 30, 2021

 

E-mail me your thoughts about Rhône Valley wines in general or the Costières de Nîmes in particular at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein

Photo Credits:  Pont du Gard by Dee McMeekan; all others by Michael Apstein

Look to Collio for White Wines for Summer

Regardless of what you’re eating this summer, a white wine from Collio will fit the bill.  This small region with fewer than 4,000 acres makes a broad range of white white wines extending from lively and fresh examples to ones substantial enough to stand up to a steak.  The Italians have known the quality of wines from Collio for decades; it was among the first areas to be awarded DOC status in 1968.

Collio, sometimes called Collio Gorizia, is tucked away in Friuli Venezia Giulia, a region in the northeast of Italy, bordering Slovenia.  It’s an apt name for the DOC—Collio comes from the Latin, collis, for hill—because almost all of the vineyards here are on hillsides.  Eighty-five percent of Collio’s production is white, with Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc accounting for half the plantings.  A variety of other grapes, including Pinot Bianco, and two, Friulano and Ribolla Gialla, capable of making heftier wines, also make noteworthy bottlings here.

Ribolla Gialla, a late ripening variety, is typically the last white grape harvested, sometimes even after the first of the reds are ripe.  Despite that, it holds its acidity exceptionally well.  Collio is an ideal locale for this grape because it must be planted on hillsides to achieve its potential.  It’s a misunderstood variety because it can be transformed into two very different styles of wine.  The so-called crisp and lively “classic” style accounts for about 80 percent production.  The remaining 20 percent is so-called “orange” wine, which is white wine made in the red wine tradition with extended skin contact, usually by small estates.  And though Collio doesn’t produce a lot of sparkling wine, almost every producer that does make one uses Ribolla Gialla for that purpose.

Collio’s soil, a mix of marl and sandstone, resulting from the area being underwater millions of year ago, is called ponca locally.  Growers attribute a distinct minerality in the wines to this unique soil.  It is a little surprising to walk through hillside vineyards and find fossilized shells.

Nestled between the Mediterranean and the Alps, the climate is cool, rainy and windy, which prevents grapes from becoming over ripe and helps explain the wonderful brightness in the wines.

Here are a trio of wines that show the incredible range of Collio DOC whites.

Livon, Pinot Bianco “Cavezzo” 2018:
Pinot Bianco often makes light, innocuous wines.  Not this one.  Livon’s 2018 Cavezzo has weight and an alluring texture.  A hint of grapefruit-rind bitterness in a lively finish enhances its appeal.  This stylish Pinot Bianco has surprising complexity and could redefine the category for you.  It would be great as a stand-alone aperitivo, but would also be a good choice for simple grilled fish.
($40, 92 Points)

Russiz Superiore, Friulano 2019:
Marco Felluga, the man in charge at Russiz Superiore, is a good name to remember for top-notch wines.  In addition to a seductive texture, this 2019 Friulano has good power without a trace of heaviness.  Nuances of orange-rind poke through and complement its fruitiness and spice.  A small portion (about 15%) of the wine was fermented in oak barrels, which adds complexity without a trace of oakiness.  Lively acidity keeps his weighty white fresh.  This Friulano would be a fine complement to the meatiness of grilled red snapper.  

($27, 93 Points).


Colmello di Grotta, Ribolla Gialla 2018:
This is a spritely, classically framed Ribolla Gialla that was fermented and aged in stainless steel and amphorae without skin contact.  It captures your attention with a gorgeous array of white flowers and honeysuckle-like fruitiness, but without sweetness.  This beguiling wine has good density and a hint of saline-like bitterness in the finish.  It would be a good choice for linguine in a clam sauce or other hearty seafood.
($17, 93 Points).

Russiz Superiore, Collio DOC (Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy) Friulano 2019

($27, Dalla Terra Winery Direct):  Marco Felluga, the man in charge at Russiz Superiore, is a good name to remember for top-notch wines.  In addition to a seductive texture, this 2019 Friulano has good power without a trace of heaviness.  Nuances of orange-rind poke through and complement its fruitiness and spice.  A small portion (about 15%) of the wine was fermented in oak barrels, which adds complexity without a trace of oakiness.  Lively acidity keeps his weighty white fresh.  This Friulano would be a fine complement to the meatiness of grilled red snapper.
93 Michael Apstein Jun 15, 2021

Colmello di Grotta, Collio DOC (Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy) Ribolla Gialla 2018

($17):  Ribolla Gialla, a late ripening variety, is typically the last white grape harvested, sometimes even after the first of the reds are ripe.  Despite that, it holds its acidity exceptionally well.  It’s a misunderstood variety because it can be transformed into two very different styles of wine.  The crisp and lively “classic” style accounts for about 80 percent production.  The remaining 20 percent is so-called “orange” wine, which is white wine made in the red wine tradition with extended skin contact, usually by small estates.  This is a spritely, classic style Ribolla Gialla that was fermented and aged in stainless steel and amphora without skin contact.  It captures your attention with a gorgeous array of white flowers and honeysuckle-like fruitiness, but without sweetness.  This beguiling wine has good density and a hint of saline-like bitterness in the finish.  It would be a good choice for linguine in a clam sauce or other hearty seafood.
93 Michael Apstein Jun 15, 2021

Look to Collio for White Wines for Summer

Regardless of what you’re eating this summer, a white wine from Collio will fit the bill.  This small region with fewer than 4,000 acres makes a broad range of white white wines extending from lively and fresh examples to ones substantial enough to stand up to a steak.  The Italians have known the quality of wines from Collio for decades; it was among the first areas to be awarded DOC status in 1968.

Collio, sometimes called Collio Gorizia, is tucked away in Friuli Venezia Giulia, a region in the northeast of Italy, bordering Slovenia.  It’s an apt name for the DOC—Collio comes from the Latin, collis, for hill—because almost all of the vineyards here are on hillsides.  Eighty-five percent of Collio’s production is white, with Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc accounting for half the plantings.  A variety of other grapes, including Pinot Bianco, and two, Friulano and Ribolla Gialla, capable of making heftier wines, also make noteworthy bottlings here.

Ribolla Gialla, a late ripening variety, is typically the last white grape harvested, sometimes even after the first of the reds are ripe.  Despite that, it holds its acidity exceptionally well.  Collio is an ideal locale for this grape because it must be planted on hillsides to achieve its potential.  It’s a misunderstood variety because it can be transformed into two very different styles of wine.  The so-called crisp and lively “classic” style accounts for about 80 percent production.  The remaining 20 percent is so-called “orange” wine, which is white wine made in the red wine tradition with extended skin contact, usually by small estates.  And though Collio doesn’t produce a lot of sparkling wine, almost every producer that does make one uses Ribolla Gialla for that purpose.

Collio’s soil, a mix of marl and sandstone, resulting from the area being underwater millions of year ago, is called ponca locally.  Growers attribute a distinct minerality in the wines to this unique soil.  It is a little surprising to walk through hillside vineyards and find fossilized shells.

Nestled between the Mediterranean and the Alps, the climate is cool, rainy and windy, which prevents grapes from becoming over ripe and helps explain the wonderful brightness in the wines.

Here are a trio of wines that show the incredible range of Collio DOC whites.

Livon, Pinot Bianco “Cavezzo” 2018:  Pinot Bianco often makes light, innocuous wines.  Not this one.  Livon’s 2018 Cavezzo has weight and an alluring texture.  A hint of grapefruit-rind bitterness in a lively finish enhances its appeal.  This stylish Pinot Bianco has surprising complexity and could redefine the category for you ($40, 92 Points).  It would be great as a stand-alone aperitivo, but would also be a good choice for simple grilled fish.

Russiz Superiore, Friulano 2019: Marco Felluga, the man in charge at Russiz Superiore, is a good name to remember for top-notch wines.  In addition to a seductive texture, this 2019 Friulano has good power without a trace of heaviness.  Nuances of orange-rind poke through and complement its fruitiness and spice.  A small portion (about 15%) of the wine was fermented in oak barrels, which adds complexity without a trace of oakiness.  Lively acidity keeps his weighty white fresh.  ($27, 93).  This Friulano would be a fine complement to the meatiness of grilled red snapper.

Colmello di Grotta, Ribolla Gialla 2018:  This is a spritely, classically framed Ribolla Gialla that was fermented and aged in stainless steel and amphorae without skin contact.  It captures your attention with a gorgeous array of white flowers and honeysuckle-like fruitiness, but without sweetness.  This beguiling wine has good density and a hint of saline-like bitterness in the finish.  It would be a good choice for linguine in a clam sauce or other hearty seafood.  ($17, 93).

June 15, 2021

Dry Creek Vineyard, Clarksburg (California) Dry Chenin Blanc 2018

($16):   Dry Creek Vineyard has been making a dry Chenin Blanc for since their founding, almost 50 years ago because David Stare, Dry Creek’s founder, fell in love with wines from the Loire Valley — where Chenin Blanc is king.  Dry Creek’s 2018 continues its streak as a consistently delightful wine.  And it remains a bargain.  The 2018 is fruity with the barest hint of sweetness, which is balanced by riveting acidity, so that the overall impression is one of energy and vivacity, not sweetness.  Drink it this summer by itself, with spicy dishes, or BBQ.
91 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Livon, Collio DOC (Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy) Pinot Bianco “Cavezzo” 2018

($40):  Pinot Bianco often makes light, innocuous wines.  Not this one.  Livon’s 2018 Cavezzo has weight and an alluring texture.  A hint of grapefruit-rind bitterness in a lively finish enhances its appeal.  This stylish Pinot Bianco has surprising complexity and could redefine the category for you.  It would be great as a stand-alone aperitivo, but would also be a good choice for simple grilled fish.
92 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Russiz Superiore, Collio DOC (Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy) Friulano 2019

($27, Dalla Terra Winery Direct):  Marco Felluga, the man in charge at Russiz Superiore, is a good name to remember for top-notch wines.  In addition to a seductive texture, this 2019 Friulano has good power without a trace of heaviness.  Nuances of orange-rind poke through and complement its fruitiness and spice.  A small portion (about 15%) of the wine was fermented in oak barrels, which adds complexity without a trace of oakiness.  Lively acidity keeps his weighty white fresh.  This Friulano would be a fine complement to the meatiness of grilled red snapper.
93 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Colmello di Grotta, Collio DOC (Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy) Ribolla Gialla 2018

($17):  Ribolla Gialla, a late ripening variety, is typically the last white grape harvested, sometimes even after the first of the reds are ripe.  Despite that, it holds its acidity exceptionally well.  It’s a misunderstood variety because it can be transformed into two very different styles of wine.  The crisp and lively “classic” style accounts for about 80 percent production.  The remaining 20 percent is so-called “orange” wine, which is white wine made in the red wine tradition with extended skin contact, usually by small estates.  This is a spritely, classic style Ribolla Gialla that was fermented and aged in stainless steel and amphora without skin contact.  It captures your attention with a gorgeous array of white flowers and honeysuckle-like fruitiness, but without sweetness.  This beguiling wine has good density and a hint of saline-like bitterness in the finish.  It would be a good choice for linguine in a clam sauce or other hearty seafood.
93 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Geografico, Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) “Borgo alla Terra” 2020

($12):  This is a great example of the straightforward — fruity and fragrant — style of Vernaccia di San Gimignano.  Its youthful crispness is emphasized by a delightful salty rather than lemony acidity, which keeps it fresh and lively.  Daniele Cernilli, one of Italy’s top wine authorities explains that the salty acidity comes from an abundance of tartaric rather than malic acid characteristic of Mediterranean wines.  This steel-aged white would be a perfect complement to spaghetti carbonara.
88 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Teruzzi, Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) “Isola Bianca” 2020

($16, Taub Family Selections):  The name of the wine, which transliterates into English as “white island” refers to Vernaccia di San Gimignano’s situation as the sole white DOCG in a sea of Tuscany red wine.  Teruzzi, formerly named Teruzzi & Puthod, remains one of the region’s top producers despite the name change.  Their 2020 has more body and weight compared to Geografico’s version (also reviewed this week), but still maintains gorgeous freshness.  Its riper notes make it a more expansive wine, yet still is vivacious.  Cernilli aptly described it as a “sunny wine” during a Webinar.  I think this steel-aged wine is a perfect choice as an antidote for sunny summer weather.
91 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Il Colombaio di Santa Chiara, Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) “Campo della Pieve” 2018

($28):  Campo della Pieve is one of Il Colombaio di Santa Chiara’s top cuvées of Vernaccia di San Gimignano.  It is distinguished from their easy-to-recommend regular bottling, labeled Selvabianca, by extended lees aging, which occurs for about 18 months in concrete tanks.  The lees-aging, even in the absence of barrel-aging, adds a captivating nutty complexity that balances and enhances its subtle fruitiness.  The interplay of savory and fruity notes is impressive and gives the wine a real presence.  An alluring bitter almond nuance comes through in the finish.
95 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Gustave Lorentz, Crémant d’Alsace (France) Brut NV

($30, Quintessential Wines):  Founded in 1836, Gustave Lorentz’s roots go back to the mid 17th century when the family was involved in barrel making and brokering wine.  Today, they are recognized as one of Alsace’s top producers.  Their Riesling from the Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim vineyard — they own a third of the vineyard — is always a sensational wine.  They are also justifiably well-known for their late-harvest wines, which are always worth buying.  Well, it turns out that Lorentz makes fine Crémant, as evidenced by this one and their Rosé.  This one is a blend of about three-quarters Pinot Blanc, some Chardonnay and just a touch, 5 percent, of Riesling.  It’s a blend that works, balancing good body and depth with a spice of acidity that keeps it fresh and lively.  It has remarkable concentration in contrast to many Crémant that can come across and thin and acidic.  It works well as a stand-alone aperitif, but has enough oomph to make it a fine choice with a meal, even spiced Asian fare.
92 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Gustave Lorentz, Crémant d’Alsace (France) Brut Rosé NV

($30, Quintessential Wines):  All Crémant d’Alsace is made by the traditional Champagne method, that is, the secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle.  What’s unique about Crémant d’Alsace Rosé, unlike other Crémant Rosé, such as Crémant de Bourgogne, for example, is that it must be made entirely from Pinot Noir.  That regulation explains why Crémant d’Alsace Rosé in general is so good.  Lorentz, not surprisingly since they are one of Alsace’s great names, makes an outstanding one.  Nicely balanced, this sparkling Rosé is both refined and substantial.  It holds up nicely to smoked salmon.  It would also be a fine choice with summer salads.
93 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Dry Creek Vineyard, Clarksburg (California) Dry Chenin Blanc 2018

($16):   Dry Creek Vineyard has been making a dry Chenin Blanc for since their founding, almost 50 years ago because David Stare, Dry Creek’s founder, fell in love with wines from the Loire Valley — where Chenin Blanc is king.  Dry Creek’s 2018 continues its streak as a consistently delightful wine.  And it remains a bargain.  The 2018 is fruity with the barest hint of sweetness, which is balanced by riveting acidity, so that the overall impression is one of energy and vivacity, not sweetness.  Drink it this summer by itself, with spicy dishes, or BBQ.
91 Michael Apstein Jun 1, 2021

Saracina, Redwood Valley (Mendocino County, California) “Winter’s Edge” 2018

($30):  Why is this wine so captivating?  Maybe it’s because the grapes came from dry-farmed organic vineyards.  Or maybe because they came from old vines.  Or maybe it’s the unique field blend of Carignan and French Colombard, which is then blended with Grenache.  Whatever the reason, it’s a great combination of fresh, crunchy red fruit and spice.  Weighing in at 14.5 percent stated alcohol, it is not overdone or over ripe.  Indeed, it’s a light- to mid-weight energetic red that really is captivating.  Try with anything — chicken, beef, burgers — grilled this summer.  It’s their first vintage.  I hope it’s not their last.
93 Michael Apstein Jun 1, 2021

Donnafugata, Etna Bianco DOC (Sicily, Italy) “Sul Vulcano” 2018

($40, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  Made entirely from Carricante, Donnafugata’s Etna Bianco displays an immediately engaging floral component.  A crisp and chiseled wine, it captures the best elements of that grape.  This paradoxically vibrant, yet restrained, wine starts to blossom after 30 minutes in the glass.  Its refreshing, saline-tinged acidity keeps it fresh, and you coming back for more, throughout the meal.  This mid-weight, mineral-laden white is just what you want for the hot and humid months ahead.
95 Michael Apstein Jun 1, 2021

Donnafugata, Etna Rosso DOC (Sicily, Italy) “Sul Vulcano” 2017

($35, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  Donnafugata’s Etna Rosso, a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Cappuccio, is a seductive mid-weight red that marries red fruit flavors with a distinct lava-like minerality.  Not an opulent wine, it has a lovely austerity without being hard or astringent.  Indeed, it is clean and elegant with an exceptionally long and refreshing finish which makes it perfect for current consumption this summer with grilled meats or seafood in a tomato sauce.
92 Michael Apstein Jun 1, 2021

Donnafugata, Etna Rosso DOC (Sicily, Italy) “Fragore” 2017

($85, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  The grapes for Donnafugata’s Fragore hail from the Contrada Montelaguardia.  Made entirely from Nerello Mascalese, it is denser than Sul Vulcano Rosso, but paradoxically, still displays a wonderful austerity.  This is no fruit bomb.  Indeed, the power and concentration have a lava-tinged savory character.  As expected from a monovarietal Nerello Mascalese, the tannins are more apparent, but are finely honed, not astringent or green.  Good acidity keeps this muscular wine fresh and invigorating.  The name fragore, which means the sound or the roar of the eruption, is appropriate because of the wine’s energy.  This Fragore just needs time, maybe five years, to blow off steam and settle down.
95 Michael Apstein Jun 1, 2021

Gustave Lorentz, Crémant d’Alsace (France) Brut NV

($30, Quintessential Wines):  Founded in 1836, Gustave Lorentz’s roots go back to the mid 17th century when the family was involved in barrel making and brokering wine.  Today, they are recognized as one of Alsace’s top producers.  Their Riesling from the Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim vineyard — they own a third of the vineyard — is always a sensational wine.  They are also justifiably well-known for their late-harvest wines, which are always worth buying.  Well, it turns out that Lorentz makes fine Crémant, as evidenced by this one and their Rosé.  This one is a blend of about three-quarters Pinot Blanc, some Chardonnay and just a touch, 5 percent, of Riesling.  It’s a blend that works, balancing good body and depth with a spice of acidity that keeps it fresh and lively.  It has remarkable concentration in contrast to many Crémant that can come across and thin and acidic.  It works well as a stand-alone aperitif, but has enough oomph to make it a fine choice with a meal, even spiced Asian fare.
92 Michael Apstein Jun 1, 2021

Gustave Lorentz, Crémant d’Alsace (France) Brut Rosé NV

($30, Quintessential Wines):  All Crémant d’Alsace is made by the traditional Champagne method, that is, the secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle.  What’s unique about Crémant d’Alsace Rosé, unlike other Crémant Rosé, such as Crémant de Bourgogne, for example, is that it must be made entirely from Pinot Noir.  That regulation explains why Crémant d’Alsace Rosé in general is so good.  Lorentz, not surprisingly since they are one of Alsace’s great names, makes an outstanding one.  Nicely balanced, this sparkling Rosé is both refined and substantial.  It holds up nicely to smoked salmon.  It would also be a fine choice with summer salads.
93 Michael Apstein Jun 1, 2021

Etna Erupts

One of the great things about Italian wines is that so many notable ones, both white and red, fly under the radar.  Everyone’s familiar with the great wines of Tuscany, Chianti Classico and Brunello, to name just two, and from Piedmont, home to Barolo and Barbaresco, but these wines often command triple digit prices, commensurate with their reputations.  My advice is to explore other regions, such as Sicily, and especially Mount Etna.  Though Etna received that island’s first Denominazione Origine Controllata (DOC) in 1968, it still accounts for only about one percent of the island’s wine production.  And it’s only been in the last couple of decades that more than a few producers have explored and embraced its unique and challenging terroir.  (Most winemakers worry that rain at harvest could ruin a year’s work.  On Etna they worry that an eruption could wipe out a decade or two of work.)  In 2017, none other than Angelo Gaja, arguably Italy’s most well-known producer, purchased about 50 acres on the slopes of the volcano.  To quote Daniele Cernilli (a.k.a. Doctor Wine®), one of Italy’s top wine experts and critics, “The attention from a producer of such great and recognized prestige has confirmed the undisputed value of the volcano’s terroir, strengthening its image and consolidating its position among the most interesting areas in the world for wine production.”  Now, as you’ll see below, Etna’s wines are not inexpensive, but they are amazing for what they deliver.

One of Sicily’s top producers, Donnafugata, has been exploring the different lava-influenced terroirs on Etna.  If you haven’t tried their wines from Etna, or any wines from Etna for that matter, you’re in for a real treat; they’re the kind of wines that make you wonder—why haven’t I heard about these before now?

Donnafugata, still family-owned and one of Sicily’s top producers, has finally made it to Mount Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano.  They had their sights on viticulture on Etna about 20 years ago, but got side-tracked to Pantelleria, an island off Sicily’s southwest coast.  Fortunately, that detour resulted in the birth of Ben Ryé, a wonderful sweet wine (DOC Passito di Pantelleria) made from the Zibibbo (a.k.a. Muscat of Alexandria) grape that has savory undertones and bracing acidity, making it a perfect accompaniment to a cheese course or to act as dessert by itself.  I, for one, am glad they finally made it up the mountain because they are making stellar wines there that erupt with flavor.

Though Donnafugata’s first vintage on Etna was the 2016, they do have old vines because they purchased and rehabilitated vineyards, some of which are 80 years old.  While no one can say for certain why old vines produce better grapes, and hence, better wines, every winemaker I’ve ever spoken to agrees that they do.

Etna’s a hot area, both literally and figuratively, for stellar white and red wines made from the autochthonous grapes, Carricante, Nerello Mascalese, and Nerello Cappuccio.  Though Donnafugata’s historic home is in Marsala on the opposite, western, side of the island from Etna, they’ve established estates all over the island since 1983 when Giacomo Rallo founded the company.  With about 50 acres, their Etna property is the smallest of their four estates.  (For completeness, Donnafugata has just over 700 acres in Contessa Entellina, 90 acres in Vittoria, and about 170 acres on Pantelleria.)

The Etna DOC encompasses about 2,700 acres in a reverse C arc around the volcano’s northern, eastern and southern sides.  The same three basic components that explain the distinctive quality of great wines around the world are present on Etna: a unique climate, a unique soil, and unique grapes.  Despite being in the middle of the Mediterranean, Etna’s elevation gives it a continental climate, characterized by cold winters, wet springs, and hot summers.  Snowy winters and rainy springs provide ground water for the vines during the hot dry summers, while the large day-night temperature changes during July, August, and September maintain acidity in the grapes and hence, the wines.  The volcanic soil from successive lava flows, known locally as sciare (literally, to ski), imparts a distinctive mineral component to the wines.  The grapes, Carricante for the whites, and Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, for the reds, are unique and grown practically nowhere else.

Carricante, an aromatic white grape, typically displays fabulous acidity and a distinct sapidity or saline touch.  Donnafugata’s 2018 Etna Bianco DOC “Sul Vulcano,” made entirely from Carricante, displays an immediately engaging floral component.  A crisp and chiseled wine, it captures the best elements of that grape.  This paradoxically vibrant yet restrained wine starts to blossom after 30 minutes in the glass.  Its refreshing, saline-tinged acidity keeps it fresh, and you coming back for more, throughout the meal.  This mid-weight mineral-laden white is just what you want for the hot and humid months ahead.  (95, $40).

Nerello Mascalese, like Nebbiolo, often lacks color despite substantial tannins.  A high-acid grape, it delivers both fruity and savory elements.  Nerello Cappuccio, in contrast, has great color, soften tannins, and a larger fruit profile, which makes it an excellent choice to blend with Nerello Mascalese.

Donnafugata’s 2017 DOC Etna Rosso “Sul Vulcano,”
 a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Cappuccio, is a seductive mid-weight red that marries red fruit flavors with a distinct lava-like minerality.  Not an opulent wine, it has a lovely austerity without being hard or astringent.  Indeed, it’s clean and elegant with an exceptionally long and refreshing finish which makes it perfect for current consumption this summer with grilled meats or seafood in a tomato sauce.  (92, $35)

Donnafugata is exploring how wines differ depending on where the grapes grow.  During a Zoom tasting earlier this month, José Rallo and Antonio Rallo, the sister and brother team running the company now, explained that there are over 100 distinct areas, locally called contradas, which are determined by lava flows.  The contradas, which vary in size from 5 to 10 to over 100 acres, have a distinct and unique microclimate despite their often close proximity, according to Antonio.  He explains that the contrada Montelaguardia, whose soil is a result of a 1614 to 1624 eruption, and the cooler contrada Marquesa, whose soil date from a different eruption, are only a couple of miles apart, but produce different wines.

Donnafugata’s 2017 Etna Rosso “Fragore” from the Contrada Montelaguardia, made entirely from Nerello Mascalese, is denser than Sul Vulcano Rosso, but paradoxically, still displays a wonderful austerity.  This is no fruit bomb.  Indeed, the power and concentration have a lava-tinged savory character.  As expected from a monovarietal Nerello Mascalese, the tannins are more apparent, but are finely honed, not astringent or green.  Good acidity keeps this muscular wine fresh and invigorating.  The name, fragore, which means the sound or the roar of the eruption, is appropriate because of the wine’s energy.  This Fragore just needs time, maybe five years, to blow off steam and settle down.  (95, $85).

Time will tell whether the wine world will know the contrada of Etna as well as the villages of Barolo or the vineyards of Burgundy.

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Email me your thoughts about Sicilian wines in general or those from Etna in particular at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein 

Hugues Beaulieu / Kysela Père et Fils, Picpoul de Pine (Languedoc, France) 2019

($9, Kysela Père et Fils): It’s tough to figure out who is the producer of this wine.  The importer’s name, Kysela Père et Fils, figures prominently on the front label above the letters HB.  It turns out that the HB stands for Hugues Beaulieu, a co-operative which also carries the name Les Costières de Pomérols.  Whether this bottling is a special selection by Kysela Père et Fils is unclear to me.  What’s important is to remember the HB or the name of the co-op because, judging from this wine, they do an excellent job.  The name of the grape, actually Picquepoul, which literally means “lip-stinger,” has morphed to Picpoul, and is one of the few AOC wines of France outside of Alsace to carry varietal labeling.  Crisp and clean, with a distinct saline-infused character, you can almost sense the proximity of the ocean.  This lightweight white, sometimes called the Muscadet of the south, is perfect for seafood — steamed or fried clams, seafood stew, sautéed scallops.  You get the idea.  Plus it is a great bargain.
90 Michael Apstein May 25, 2021

Tormaresca, Salento IGT (Puglia, Italy) Primitivo “Torcicoda” 2017

($20, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates):  You know there must be potential for excellent wine in Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, when Antinori establishes an outpost, Tormaresca, there.  The region is known for big reds, like this one, made from the Primitivo grape, which genetically is identical to Zinfandel.  Weighing in at 14.5 percent stated-alcohol, Tormaresca’s Primitivo certainly qualifies as a “big red.”  But it’s more than just muscle, delivering savory qualities, as well as a touch of sweetness in the finish.  Its suave texture makes it perfect for current consumption.  Try it with BBQ this summer.
89 Michael Apstein May 18, 2021

Hugues Beaulieu / Kysela Père et Fils, Picpoul de Pine (Languedoc, France) 2019

($9, Kysela Père et Fils): It’s tough to figure out who is the producer of this wine.  The importer’s name, Kysela Père et Fils, figures prominently on the front label above the letters HB.  It turns out that the HB stands for Hugues Beaulieu, a co-operative which also carries the name Les Costières de Pomérols.  Whether this bottling is a special selection by Kysela Père et Fils is unclear to me.  What’s important is to remember the HB or the name of the co-op because, judging from this wine, they do an excellent job.  The name of the grape, actually Picquepoul, which literally means “lip-stinger,” has morphed to Picpoul, and is one of the few AOC wines of France outside of Alsace to carry varietal labeling.  Crisp and clean, with a distinct saline-infused character, you can almost sense the proximity of the ocean.  This lightweight white, sometimes called the Muscadet of the south, is perfect for seafood — steamed or fried clams, seafood stew, sautéed scallops.  You get the idea.  Plus it is a great bargain.
90 Michael Apstein May 18, 2021

Palmer & Co, Champagne (France) Brut Réserve NV

($60, Quintessential Wines):  I was unaware of this Champagne house until recently.  After tasting this beautiful bubbly, I’m glad I’ve been introduced.  At the outset, it’s important to note, its name notwithstanding, it has no connection to either Château Palmer in Margaux or Palmer Vineyards on Long Island.  This Palmer, founded in 1947, is a relatively new (at least by local standards) Champagne house that focuses on vineyards in the Montagne de Reims, where all of their grapes come from villages classified as either Grand or Premier Cru.  Though the Montagne de Reims is best known for Pinot Noir, roughly half of Palmer’s non-vintage blend comes from Chardonnay.  Pinot Noir accounts for about a third, with Pinot Meunier filling out the rest.  An amazing third of the blend comes from reserve wines, which helps explain the grandeur of this, their calling card bottling.  It combines elegance with just the right amount of intensity, giving the wine a real presence without being boisterous.  A terrific stand-alone sipper, it’s elegance and depth make it an easy choice at the table with grilled fish.  Although the suggested retail price is $60, I have seen it widely available for about $45, which would make it an excellent buy.
93 Michael Apstein May 18, 2021

Palmer & Co, Champagne (France) Blanc de Blancs, Brut NV

($90, Quintessential Wines): The grapes for this 100 percent Chardonnay come from Villers-Marmery and Trepail, two 1er Cru villages in the Montagne de Reims, a region otherwise known for Pinot Noir, and the Côte de Sézanne, a sub-region of Champagne just south of the Côte des Blancs.  The soil of the Côte de Sézanne is less chalky than that of the Côte des Blancs, which accounts for the relative fullness in the wines from this area.  Penetrating acidity balances and supports the extra oomph, which likely comes from the origin of the grapes, this Blanc de Blancs displays.  Five years of lees-aging also helps explain its complexity.  A fuller style of Blanc de Blancs, Palmer’s is wonderfully engaging and another example of a Champagne equally well-suited for the dinner table.
94 Michael Apstein May 18, 2021

Georges DuBoeuf, Moulin-à-Vent (Beaujolais, France) “Domaine des Rosiers” 2019

($27, Quintessential Wines):  Wines from Moulin-à-Vent tend to be the sturdiest of all Beaujolais crus because of the granitic soil in that area.  And there’s no doubt that you can taste and feel its presence in this wine.  This Moulin-à-Vent, the most mineral-y of this trio of DuBoeuf Beaujolais crus, finishes with a balancing and welcome hint of bitterness.  Its uplifting acidity amplifies its appeal.  A sturdy wine with elegance, it will help bury the outdated view that Beaujolais is a simple wine of little consequence.
92 Michael Apstein May 18, 2021