Category Archives: Wine Review Online

Terroir is Alive and Well on Mount Etna

One of things I adore about wine is how it expresses Mother Nature.  The same grape grown in adjacent vineyards and turned into wine by the same winemaking team can taste very different.  Winemakers attribute the differences to the composition of the soil (limestone, clay, or sand) exposure to the sun (do the grapes benefit from the gentler warming of the morning sun or the more intense afternoon sun?), or a host of other differences.  Even though the explanations for the differences make sense and sound reasonable, they may not truly be whole story.  To me, as a scientist, that’s part of wine’s allure.  We really don’t know why wine from one village tastes different from wine from another village.  Sure, it may be the soil or the exposure, but it could also be a multiplicity of other factors we haven’t even thought of.  The intriguing aspect is that the wines do indeed taste different!  To me, that’s almost magic, and speaks to the beauty and enigma of nature.

Burgundy is ground zero for this phenomenon that the French call terroir.  But the French do not have a monopoly on it.  The concept exists everywhere.  The trick to discovering terroir—and here is where it gets difficult—is to find a producer who makes wines from different sites.  To focus on terroir, examining wines from the same producer seems obvious but is frequently difficult or even impossible.  Traditionally, family-run wineries own vineyards close to home, especially those that have been in existence since the 19th and early 20th centuries, when transportation was more challenging.  When Maurice Drouhin purchased his parcel in the famed Clos des Mouches vineyard in Beaune in 1921, for example, he selected it because it was the best site that he could get to, tend the vines, and return home on a horse in a day.  So, it’s understandable why producers might not be making wines from disparate sites.

Chianti Classico offers a good example of how finding terroir, which clearly exists there, is difficult for the ordinary consumer or even experienced critic.  The Consorzio, the organization that represents the entire DOCG, will often arrange tastings to show the differences among the now newly recognized eleven subzones:  Castellina, Castelnuovo Berardenga, Gaiole, Greve, Lamole, Montefioralle, Panzano, Radda, San Casciano, San Donato in Poggio, and Vagliagli.  They will line up wines from each of the subzones.  Unfortunately, each will be made by a different producer because no producer makes wine in all the subzones, and few indeed even make wine in more than one.  When you taste, side-by-side, the same vintage of Cecchi’s Villa Cerna Chianti Classico, which hails from Castellina, and Fontodi’s Chianti Classico located in Panzano you immediately appreciate the vast and wonderful differences between these two wines.  But is that difference due to terroir or the producer’s style?  Hence, to really drill down on terroir, you need to find producers who make wines in the different areas, so that their individual style doesn’t obscure the differences.

This long introduction brings me to a fascinating lesson in terroir on Sicily’s Mount Etna taught to me by Valeria Agosta, the principal of Palmento Constanzo.  Valeria and her family (her daughter Serena just finished her viticulture and oenology studies in Montpelier) founded Palmento Constanzo in 2009, joining a host of producers flocking to that mountain.

There’s no question that Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, is hot, both literally and figuratively, and has been, especially over the last two decades.  Marc de Grazia, a former wine broker best known for his stellar portfolio, Marc de Grazia Selection, founded Tenuta delle Terre Nerre on Etna in 2001.  Tasca d’Almerita, one the island’s driving forces, founded Tascante on the volcano in 2007.  Planeta, a leading producer on Sicily with estates all over the island, expanded to Etna the following year.  What might have set rumbles through the area—if it weren’t so accustomed to them—was Angelo Gaja, whose name is synonymous with greatness in Italian wines, joining forces with Alberto Graci, a top Etna producer, in 2016.

The plantings on Etna encompass three sides of the volcano, a reverse C on the map, with distinct differences among the vineyards in the north, east, and south.  The western slope of the volcano is devoid of vineyards.  To say Etna’s terroir is varied is an understatement given the impact of the lava flows over the centuries.  Etna is, in fact, one of the few places where the terroir could change with each eruption.  The vineyard area on Etna is divided into contrada, currently 132 of them, which as Valeria explains, are determined by the flow of lava.  Think of the contrada as similar to the myriad appellations contained within Bordeaux though the wines, both red and white, are far more similar to Burgundies, conveying what I like to call, “flavor without weight.”  Just as no one, except the locals, perhaps, claims that Pauillac is superior to Margaux, Valeria emphasizes “that all contrada are different, but not in quality.”  Though there is no official stratification of the contrada, some, like Santo Spirito in the north, seem to have a loftier reputation.

Etna is home to seductive reds, made from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, and vibrant whites, made from Carricante, that make you pause and think when drinking them.  Valeria’s lesson on terroir focused on Carricante, a grape traditionally planted on the southern and eastern slopes, since the red grapes found better ripening on the northern slope.  Starting some 10 to 15 years ago, however, Valeria noted that more growers were planting Carricante on the northern slopes.  Palmento Constanzo joined that trend and now has 40 percent of their 30-acres in Santo Spirito contrada planted to Carricante.  She explained that some producers are currently replanting with Carricante in place of the reds in Santo Spirito, noting that, “it’s hard to keep track.”  Additionally, Palmento Constanzo planted Carricante in the Cavaliere contrada in the southwest, always popular for whites because of its elevation, sun, and the presence of sand in the lava.  The contrada is also generally warmed and receives less rain than Santo Spirito in the north or other areas in the south.  She can’t keep track of all the new producers there either.

Tasting Palmento Costanzo’s 2021 Etna Bianco DOC from Santo Spirito and from Cavaliere affords us the chance to see the stunning differences in terroir embedded on opposite sides of Etna.  The organic farming and winemaking are the same, native yeasts, 20 percent new oak aging, and no malolactic fermentation, so where the grapes grow determine the dramatic differences between the wines.

The 2021 Cavaliere shows a profound dark minerality—lava speaking—and a deep concentration without coming across as overripe.  Thankfully, not an opulent wine, a wonderful austerity balances its depth.  A hint of bitterness in the ample finish amplifies its appeal.  This tightly wound wine needs several years to reveal itself.  (95 points; $68 for the 2019).

In contrast—and what a beautiful contrast—the 2021 Santo Spirito Etna Bianco displays a more refined minerality that is not as lava-tinged.  Less concentrated than Cavaliere, the Santo Spirito displays more finesse and a lighter footprint.  A similar alluring bitterness in the finish reinforces its grandeur.  It, too, needs time to unfold.  (95 pts.; $68 for the 2019).

By the way, Palmento Costanzo makes a terrific array of Etna DOC reds and a splendid Etna Bianco DOC, Bianco di Sei, made from younger Carricante vines.  The riveting 2021 Bianco di Sei shows its charms immediately—minerality and citrus energy—and is perfect for current consumption.  (93 pts.; $42 for the 2020).

Echoing Valeria, I’m equally enthralled by these two wines, in part, because of their dramatically different profiles.  Are the differences due to the soil, the amount of rainfall, the exposure, a combination, or something else entirely?  Who knows, exactly?  That’s the magic that makes wine so fascinating.

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Email me your thoughts about terroir in general or about Etna in particular at and follow me on Twitter and Instagram@MichaelApstein

November 15, 2023

Tenuta Perano, Chianti Classico Riserva (Tuscany, Italy) 2018

($33):  Frescobaldi, the iconic Tuscan producer whose homebase is Chianti Rùfina, has recently expanded into Chianti Classico with their Perano estate.  Just as they make exceptional wine in Rùfina, they have done the same at Perano.  As expected from a Riserva, their 2018 has more weight and depth than their straight Chianti Classico.  That said, this blend of Sangiovese and Merlot maintains a perfect harmony of red, cherry-like fruit, spice, and other savory elements.  It has a bit of everything without going over-board.  Despite a 14.5 percent stated alcohol, the wine is neither heavy nor hot.  Bright Tuscan acidity keeps it fresh throughout a meal.  Lovely now with a hearty pasta dish, this beauty will improve over the years, so there’s no rush.
93 Michael Apstein Nov 14, 2023

Tenuta Perano, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione (Tuscany, Italy) Rialzi 2018

($52):  Grapes for a Gran Selezione bottling, which sits above Riserva at the pinnacle of the Chianti Classico quality pyramid, must come the estate’s own property — no purchased grapes allowed.  Perano’s comes from a single vineyard, Rialzi, located at about 500 meters above sea level, which is a real advantage in these days of climate change.  Made entirely from Sangiovese, the robust and youthful 2018 Rialzi conveys the expected dark cherry notes of Sangiovese and engaging sweet oakiness from aging in new small oak barrels (barriques) for 24 months.  This impressive young wine unfolds in the glass as initially reticent aromatics break forth.  Plenty of spice and a delectable hint of bitterness in the finish keep the fruity aspects in balance.  If you opt to drink this now and enjoy its youthful vigor, then decant it, let it sit in the glass, and don’t rush it.  Alternatively, cellar it for a few years to let the components come together.
94 Michael Apstein Nov 14, 2023

Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, Toscana IGT (Tuscany, Italy) “Le Volte dell’Ornellaia” 2021

($33, Vintus):  Sometimes described as the “third” wine of Ornellaia, Le Volte is and it isn’t because it addition to estate wine that did not make it into either Ornellaia or Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia, Le Volte contains grapes that have been purchased from other sources.  Nonetheless, the fleshy Le Volte displays the succulence Merlot brings to a blend while supported by fine tannins and engaging acidity.  Call it what you like — it’s delicious now and is an excellent introduction to the talents of the Ornellaia winemaking team.
90 Michael Apstein Oct 24, 2023

Tenuta Perano, Chianti Classico Riserva (Tuscany, Italy) 2018

($33):  Frescobaldi, the iconic Tuscan producer whose homebase is Chianti Rùfina, has recently expanded into Chianti Classico with their Perano estate.  Just as they make exceptional wine in Rùfina, they have done the same at Perano.  As expected from a Riserva, their 2018 has more weight and depth than their straight Chianti Classico.  That said, this blend of Sangiovese and Merlot maintains a perfect harmony of red, cherry-like fruit, spice, and other savory elements.  It has a bit of everything without going over-board.  Despite a 14.5 percent stated alcohol, the wine is neither heavy nor hot.  Bright Tuscan acidity keeps it fresh throughout a meal.  Lovely now with a hearty pasta dish, this beauty will improve over the years, so there’s no rush.
93 Michael Apstein Oct 24, 2023

Tenuta Perano, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione (Tuscany, Italy) Rialzi 2018

($52):  Grapes for a Gran Selezione bottling, which sits above Riserva at the pinnacle of the Chianti Classico quality pyramid, must come the estate’s own property — no purchased grapes allowed.  Perano’s comes from a single vineyard, Rialzi, located at about 500 meters above sea level, which is a real advantage in these days of climate change.  Made entirely from Sangiovese, the robust and youthful 2018 Rialzi conveys the expected dark cherry notes of Sangiovese and engaging sweet oakiness from aging in new small oak barrels (barriques) for 24 months.  This impressive young wine unfolds in the glass as initially reticent aromatics break forth.  Plenty of spice and a delectable hint of bitterness in the finish keep the fruity aspects in balance.  If you opt to drink this now and enjoy its youthful vigor, then decant it, let it sit in the glass, and don’t rush it.  Alternatively, cellar it for a few years to let the components come together.
94 Michael Apstein Oct 24, 2023

Maison Guillot-Broux, Mâcon Rouge (Burgundy, France) 2019

($23, Vintus):  Domaine Guillot-Broux makes exceptional red wines from what most people consider an unexceptional place for them, the Mâconnais.  Sure, the Mâconnais is home to a slew of terrific, and well-priced, whites.  But reds?  It’s not the first, or even the fourth, place people think of for reds.  That is, if they haven’t tasted those from Domaine Guillot-Broux, which was founded by Jean-Gérard Guillot and his wife in 1978.  The estate is now run by their children, Emmanuel and Patrice.  They have always farmed organically and have been certified as such for more than three decades, since 1991.  The 2019 minerally Mâcon Rouge, made entirely from Gamay, is a revelation.  The soil here is limestone, not granite like it is in Beaujolais, and the resulting wine is entirely different from Beaujolais.  Bright and stone-y, not grapey, this light to mid-weight red displays a pleasant firmness that accents its minerality.  Ready to drink now, it is an ideal choice for a take-out roast chicken.
90 Michael Apstein Oct 24, 2023

Domaine Guillot-Broux, Bourgogne Rouge (Burgundy, France) “Les Genièvrières” 2020

($46, Vintus):  This stunning Bourgogne Rouge will change your mind about the quality of red wines coming from the Mâconnais.  Firstly, Domaine Guillot-Broux is clearly a talented and detail-oriented producer.  They waited 18 years before making a wine from Les Genièvrières, a vineyard in Cruzille, a village not far from the Abbaye de Cluny, because they didn’t think the vines were old enough to produce high-quality wine!  (Some wineries would label 18-year-old vines as “old vines”.)  They have three plots in the vineyard, all of which are planted with Pinot Noir.  The grapes from two plots with shallow soil bring structure to the wine, while the Pinot Noir planted on the third plot with thicker soil deliver fruitiness.  The resulting mid-weight 2020 is a brilliant combination of firm minerality and haunting red fruitiness.  I suspect it will develop even more complexity because of its balance, but it’s hard not to pop the cork now to enjoy with grilled salmon.
92 Michael Apstein Oct 24, 2023

Château Boutisse, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru (Bordeaux, France) 2019

($41, Vintus):  Usually when you see “Grand Cru” on a label it represents a higher level in a classification or stratification of a region.  Not so in Saint-Émilion where it is an appellation, not an indicator of quality.  The appellations of Saint-Émilion and Saint-Émilion Grand Cru are identical geographically.  The difference between the two is in winemaking/viticulture.  Rules for Saint-Émilion Grand Cru require higher minimum alcohol levels (i.e., higher ripeness) and lower yields, among other things.  That said, the youthful Château Boutisse is a high-quality wine.  It is run by Élodie and Marc Milhade, part of a well-known Right Bank family that’s been making wine since 1938.  Both fleshy, high percentage of Merlot speaking, and refined, the talented team speaking, it is fine for current drinking.  My preference would be to cellar it for a few years to let the tannins, spice, and black fruit to integrate.
92 Michael Apstein Oct 24, 2023

Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, Toscana IGT (Tuscany, Italy) “Poggio alle Gazze” 2021

($73, Vintus):  Sauvignon Blanc was among the initial plantings at Ornellaia and initially they made a wine exclusively from that variety.  Over time, Viognier, Vermentino, and Verdicchio have been added and now the current blend includes those four in proportions that vary from year to year depending on the weather.  The minerally 2021 displays a hint of pungency of Sauvignon Blanc varietal character, but by no means is this just a fruity wine.  Piercing and refreshing acidity supports mid-weight body and depth.  Good length and an alluring hint of bitterness in the finish add to its appeal.  A serious wine, Poggio alle Gazze’s stature holds up to Ornellaia’s reputation.  It is lovely now with grilled swordfish.
94 Michael Apstein Oct 17, 2023

E. Guigal, Saint-Joseph (Rhône Valley, France) 2019

($38, Vintus):  Guigal now owns prized vineyards in Saint Joseph and makes highly acclaimed wines from them, much as they do in Côte Rôtie.  The grapes for this juicy bottling come from their own vineyards plus ones they buy from other growers.  Although regulations allow for ten percent white grapes (Roussanne and Marsanne) in red St. Joseph, Guigal’s makes theirs entirely from Syrah.  This punchy, robust red delivers succulent fruit balanced by savory meatiness.  It’s a fine choice for hearty roasts and stews this fall and winter.
91 Michael Apstein Oct 17, 2023

E. Guigal, Côtes du Rhône (Rhône Valley, France) 2020

($18, Vintus):  Guigal’s single vineyard wines from the Côte Rôtie, La Mouline, La Landonne, and La Turque, which sell for hundreds of dollars upon release and are highly allocated, bring fame to that firm.  In my mind, what makes Guigal a famed producer is this wine, their consistently excellent and well-priced Côtes du Rhône.   Guigal produces roughly four million bottles of it annually, compared to four thousand bottles of La Mouline.  It’s a real challenge to make four million bottles of high-quality wine.  Guigal does it every year.  The 2020 version of this “go-to” mid-weight red, a blend of Syrah (50%), Grenache (40%), and Mourvèdre, delivers spice, dark fruit, and a touch of meatiness, all wrapped in mild tannins.  It’s a fine choice for hearty fall and winter fare.  That said, I’ve had many of Guigal’s “simple” Côtes du Rhône with a few years of bottle age that have developed surprising complexity, so there’s no problem if you buy a case and forget about a few bottles in your cellar or storage space.
90 Michael Apstein Oct 17, 2023

E. Guigal, Côte Rôtie (Rhône Valley, France) “Brune et Blonde de Guigal” 2019

($91, Vintus):  Côte Rôtie, or “roasted slope” transliterated into English, is composed of two major subdivisions, the Côte Brune and the Côte Blonde.  Typically, the former imparts more power to the Syrah grown there because of the iron rich soil, while the latter is home to Syrah with more finesse, reflecting its limestone soil.  Guigal, the largest owner and producer of Côte Rôtie — and in my estimation, the best — uses grapes from both slopes for this bottling.  They also include a small amount — less than five percent — of Viognier with the Syrah which adds perfume and elegance.  To me, Brune et Blonde de Guigal, rather than La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque, their single vineyard ones, is their flagship bottling and their best value.  And you can find it because they make about 250,000 bottles of it annually.  The gorgeous and youthful 2019 displays both the meaty smoky power and the refinement of Syrah.  Despite its intensity, it is not overdone, but rather beautifully balanced with suave tannins and energy.  Enjoy it now for its robust energy and black pepper-like spice or cellar it and watch it morph into a more gracious stage.
94 Michael Apstein Oct 17, 2023

Château Tour Bayard, Montagne-Saint-Émillion (Bordeaux, France) 2019

($24, Vintus):  Consumers often overlook Bordeaux because of an image that the wines are rarified, expensive, and need considerable aging.  That criticism may apply to the top few properties, but trust me, there are scores of estates that make well-priced wines that are ready to drink now, like this one.  This succulent red comes from a Saint-Émillion “satellite” appellation, Montagne-Saint-Émillion, that borders the more famous locale.  Like other right bank wines, the Château Tour Bayard is a Merlot-dominate (80 percent) and Cabernet Sauvignon, which helps explain its fleshy dark-fruited profile.  Mild tannins lend needed structure without astringency and make it a joy to drink tonight.
90 Michael Apstein Oct 17, 2023

Château Recougne, Bordeaux Supérieur (France) 2019

($17, Vintus):  Château Recougne consistently displays the quintessential Bordeaux profile of fruit and what I like to call, “not just fruit” character.  This refined mid-weight wine entices with a subtle combination of red fruits, a dash of riper black fruit, and spice, not sheer power.  Mild tannins give support without being intrusive and allow for immediate enjoyment.  But don’t be fooled, I’ve had a bottle of the 1952 Château Recougne at the turn of the century when it was 48 years old, and it was still thrilling.  Château Recougne is a wine for the dinner table, not a sipping aperitif.
89 Michael Apstein Oct 17, 2023

Object Lesson in Excellence: E. Guigal’s Côte-Rôtie “Château d’Ampuis” 2019

The Guigal family, the elder Marcel and his wife Bernadette, and their son Philippe and his wife Eve, have always focused on site specificity in the great Northern Rhône appellation of Côte-Rôtie. It started in 1966 when they bottled wine separately from La Mouline, a 2.5-acre vineyard planted with both Syrah and Viognier, in an amphitheater on the Côte Blonde slope of the appellation.  A few years later, in 1978, they began bottling wine from La Landonne, a single 5.7-acre vineyard on the Côte Brune also planted to both Syrah and Viognier. Finally, in 1985, they began bottling La Turque, from another 2.5-acre vineyard, planted entirely to Syrah, on the Côte Brune.

In 1990, Guigal felt the wine from another single Côte Brune vineyard, Pommière, was distinctive enough to be bottled separately. This time, however, Guigal bottled it in magnum only and, curiously, without the vineyard name on the label.  Then in 1995, they decided there were six sites (a seventh was added in 2005), both on the Côte Blonde (La Clos, La Garde, and La Grande Plantée) Côte Brune (La Pommière, Le Pavillon Rouge, Le Moulin, and La Viria, the one added in 2005) that were sufficiently distinctive to produce a high-end representation of Côte Rôtie.  And thus, Château d’Ampuis was born.

The name of the wine comes from the 12th century château, a national historic monument that Guigal purchased in 1995, then painstakingly restored, and ultimately made the headquarters of this great House.  Château d’Ampuis is meant as a wine to lie—in stature, production and price—between Guigal’s classic Côte-Rôtie, dubbed Brune et Blonde de Guigal (200,000 bottles annually at about $90 a bottle), and the three single vineyard bottlings, collectively known as the LaLa’s (about 5,000 bottles each annually of La Mouline and La Turque and double that for La Landonne. Each cost about $500 a bottle upon release).

The youthful 2019 Château d’Ampuis is simply stunning. The influence of long aging in new oak (38 months) is still apparent at this stage, yet not overwhelming.  Based on my experience with older vintages of Château d’Ampuis as well as Guigal’s single vineyard bottlings, all of which receive similarly long oak-aging, the oak eventually marries seamlessly with the plethora of fruit, pepper, smoke, and other savory nuances found in these wines.  Elegance is lent to the wine by a touch (seven percent) of Viognier in the blend, with these grapes from the Côte Blonde being co-fermented with the meaty and powerful Syrah fruit.

Unevolved at this stage, the wonderful 2019 Château d’Ampuis needs at least a decade to fully unfurl and show its splendor. (95 pts., $135, imported by Vintus).

Posted by Michael Apstein at 9:09 PM

G. B. Burlotto, Langhe DOC (Piedmont, Italy) Freisa 2020

($30, Vineyard Road, Inc):  Freisa, a grape related to Nebbiolo, typically has a significant tannin structure, much like Nebbiolo.  Just as there are many examples of Langhe Nebbiolo that are approachable when young, here is a seductive Friesa Langhe DOC that is delightful to drink now.  It should come as no surprise since G. B. Burlotto, one of the region’s top producers, can always be counted on to make great wine.  This mid-weight nuanced Friesa has a captivating perfume followed by lots of non-fruit — think leafy and spicy — notes.  The tannins are fine and provide perfect support.  This elegant expression of Freisa is ideal now with a hearty pasta or grilled veal chop.
93 Michael Apstein Oct 10, 2023

Lunae, Liguria di Levante IGT (Italy) Vermentino “Labianca” 2022

($20):  There is no better producer of Vermentino than Lunae.  And this light — 12.5 percent stated alcohol — and fresh IGT Vermentino, their so-called “entry level” wine, shows Lunae’s talents.  A hint of minerals buttressed by saline-acidity gives this bright and zesty wine a bit of depth.  Even though it is less prestigious than Lunae’s superb DOC Vermentino, it still grows in the glass.  It’s a fine introduction to a top producer.  Open some clams!
90 Michael Apstein Oct 10, 2023

Lunae, Colli di Luni DOC (Liguria, Italy) Vermentino “Etichetta Gris” 2022

($24):  Anyone who wants to see the potential of Vermentino just needs to uncork one from Lunae.  This one, which translates as Grey Label, is stunning, even though it is not their top-of-line bottling (that would be the Black Label, or Etichetta Nera.  Weighing in at a modest 12.5 percent stated alcohol, it nonetheless astounds the palate with its persistence.  This minerally white has a saline-like acidity that emphasizes its freshness and depth.  A delicate hint of bitterness in the finish reinforces its zesty sleek profile.  As lovely as Lunae’s IGT Vermentino is, this DOC bottling reminds us that site matters.
93 Michael Apstein Oct 10, 2023

Lunae, Colli di Luni DOC (Liguria, Italy) Vermentino “Etichetta Nera” 2022

($42):  Ok, forty plus bucks for a Vermentino is a big ask.  Trust me, this is likely the best Vermentino you will ever taste.  This tightly wound wonder (identified as “Etichetta Nera” or Black Label) has great power coupled with extraordinary grace.  Not a heavy wine, weighing in at a modest 13.5 percent stated alcohol, it still has an imposing presence.  Long and finesse-filled, it delivers a mouth-watering salinity that magnifies its chiseled minerality.  A hint of bitterness in the finish makes it a perfect choice for whatever comes from the sea.  Think of it as a great forty-dollar white wine.
95 Michael Apstein Oct 10, 2023

Alessandro di Camporeale, Monreale DOC (Italy) Catarratto Vigna di Mandranova 2020

($19):  New discoveries, interesting wines from place you’ve — or at least I’ve — never heard of, is one of the things I love about Italian wines.  Here is yet another DOC I am unfamiliar with.  You too could be excused if you are unfamiliar with Monreale, a tiny DOC comprising about 70 acres just west of Palermo.  That will change now that I’ve been introduced to this wine.  Catarratto, often described as a workhorse of Sicilian wine because it is the most widely planted grape on that island, does not have a grand reputation.  Alessandro di Camporeale’s is an exception to the rule. Both floral and crisp, with stone fruit nuances, it is reminiscent of a white wine from the Rhône with bracing acidity. With good weight, it has plenty of fruit without being heavy or ponderous because of its abundant energy.  A delectable bit of bitterness in the finish adds to its appeal.
92 Michael Apstein Oct 10, 2023

Château Talbot, Saint-Julien (Bordeaux, France) “Connétable” 2018

($50):  Château Talbot has consistently been a good value for top-end Bordeaux.  Though classified as a 4th Growth in the 1855 Médoc Classification, its recent vintages effectively rank higher.  Talbot’s 2nd wine, the 2018 Connétable, is especially noteworthy because of its luxurious texture and enjoyment it brings now.  Second wines typically come from young vines or certain plots on the estate that traditionally don’t perform as well as others.  They usually are less complex with less fine tannins, which gives them a coarser texture.  The suaveness of the 2018 Connétable is remarkable.  It has the finesse you’d expect from Saint-Julien, with a healthy dollop of black fruit and spice.  Its silky texture allows immediate enjoyment.  So, if you want to see why people swoon over Bordeaux, grab a bottle of the 2018 Connétable and uncork it with a steak.  It’s a bargain for what it delivers.
92 Michael Apstein Oct 10, 2023

Xanadu, Margaret River (Western Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon “Circa 77” 2020

($18, RWG USA):  This charming and restrained Cabernet is exactly the opposite of the heavy weight Cabernets coming from Australia or California.  This mid-weight wine delivers a seamless and balanced combination of spice, black, and red fruit notes.  The small (six percent) amount of Cabernet Franc in the blend announces itself by subtle and alluring leafy and herbal nuances and amplifies the wine’s charms.  Mild tannins and a taste profile that changes with each sip makes it a delight to drink now.  Those looking for California power will be disappointed.  Everyone else will embrace it.
91 Michael Apstein Oct 10, 2023

Xanadu, Margaret River (Western Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon “Vinework” 2020

($27, RWG USA):  Glenn Goodall, Xanadu’s winemaker, explains that producers in the Margaret River they like to focus on what they do best — Cabernet Sauvignon.  He notes with great pride that Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon wins, on average, 75 percent of all trophies in Australian wine competition, despite accounting for only three percent of the Cabernet Sauvignon that is crushed.  They certainly did well with this Cabernet Sauvignon.  Denser and riper than their Circa 77 Cabernet, the more robust Vinework bottling is still balanced, retaining grace and restraint.  It does not stray into the over-the-top category.  Goodall notes that half of the fruit comes from their vineyards.  The other half comes from growers with whom they have established long term relationships.  The silky texture makes this plush wine easy to enjoy now.
93 Michael Apstein Oct 10, 2023

Eleven Eleven Wines, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Chardonnay Dutton Ranch 2021

($60):  With a 14.1 percent stated alcohol, the lavish Eleven Eleven Russian River Valley Chardonnay is opulent, but not flamboyant.  Balancing acidity keeps it all together.  People who embrace the rich style of California Chardonnay will love this well-made, clean, and powerful wine.  Those who want more subtlety should look elsewhere.
92 Michael Apstein Oct 3, 2023

Sella & Mosca, Vermentino di Sardegna DOC (Sardinia, Italy) “La Cala” 2022

($15, Taub Family Selections):  Sella and Mosca’s lightweight (12.5 percent stated alcohol) and bargain priced Vermentino is a delight to drink with shellfish or most anything from the sea.  It also works well by itself, especially during warm weather. Its invigorating saline minerality harmonizes with its floral character.  Good depth and an alluring hint of bitterness in finish reminds us that this Vermentino punches above its weight class.
91 Michael Apstein Oct 3, 2023

Luigi Baudana, Langhe Bianco DOC (Piedmont, Italy) “Dragon” 2021

($23, Vajra, USA):  The dragon on the label symbolizes bravery, according to the website, which is appropriate since this beauty is a field-blend.  Field blends can be tricky because varieties with different ripening times are planted — and harvested — together.  Common in the past, such field blends can also work wonderfully because early ripening grapes can provide richness, while later maturing ones provide acidity.  Vajra, one of Piedmont’s top producers, has overseen the farming and vinification of the Baudana wines for over a decade, which is why you see their name on the label in small print.  The uplifting and energetic 2021 Dragon, a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Nascetta (a local, formerly endangered but now resurgent variety), is a delight to drink.  A mid-weight wine, it’s packed with spice and stone fruit flavors, all amplified and supported by a racy underpinning.  It’s a joy to drink as an aperitif but has plenty of stuffing and verve to accompany a seafood risotto or creamy mushroom fettucine.
93 Michael Apstein Oct 3, 2023

Attems, Collio DOC (Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy) Sauvignon Blanc “Cicinis” 2020

($34, Vintus):  This mid-weight Sauvignon Blanc shows that where the grapes grow, Collio in this instance, matters.  The energetic Cicinis subtly combines the characteristic pungency of Sauvignon Blanc with a delicate creaminess.  A hint of bitterness in the finish balances appealing floral and peachy elements.  Its energy keeps it fresh throughout a meal and you coming back for more.
93 Michael Apstein Oct 3, 2023

Langlois-Chateau, Crémant de Loire (Loire Valley, France) Brut NV

($24, Vintus):  First a bit of trivia. Note the absence of a “hat” accent over the a in Chateau.  That’s because it’s not a building but rather a proper name.  In 1912, Edouard Langlois and Jeanne Chateau founded what has become the standard bearer of Loire Valley sparkling wines.  Bollinger, the Champagne firm, invested in the property in 1973, upgrading the vineyards and cellar.  A blend of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, this graceful sparkler is a delight to drink as an aperitif but has enough substance to easily accompany a hearty first course, such as smoked salmon.  Extended, far more than the appellation requires, lees-aging adds a creamy complexity.
91 Michael Apstein Oct 3, 2023

Loveblock Vintners, Marlborough (South Island, New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc “Tee” 2022

($22, Terlato Wines International):  The owners of Loveblock Vintners, Erica and Kim Crawford, are certainly no newcomers to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, having established the very popular Kim Crawford label.  Loveblock Vintners is their new venture, after selling the Kim Crawford brand to Vincor which eventually was gobbled up by Constellation Brands.  The Loveblock wines are made entirely from vineyards that Erica and Kim own.  This electrifying 2022 Sauvignon Blanc fits the profile of one from the Marlborough region with a crisp lime-tinged zing.  The barest sensation of sweetness in the finish balances all those refreshing and mouth-cleansing citrus notes.  For those to whom it matters, the wine contains no added sulfur.
88 Michael Apstein Sep 26, 2023

Domaine Pernot Belicard, Bourgogne Côte d’Or (Burgundy, France) Chardonnay 2021 

($35, Jeanne-Marie de Champs):  I repeat what I’ve said before: Value in Burgundy these days is found at the lower pedigree appellations made by talented producers.  Pernot Belicard is a great example of a top producer bottling exceptional white wines at every pedigree.  The relatively new moniker, Bourgogne Côte d’Or, indicates that the grapes — Chardonnay, it is white Burgundy — come only from that revered heart of Burgundy and not from the Mâconnais or the Côte Chalonnaise.  The energy inherent in the wines of the cooler 2021 vintage support the subtle creamy minerality of this wine.  It has more depth than you’d expect from the appellation, which simply shows the talent of the producer.  Pernot-Belicard’s 2020 Bourgogne Côte d’Or, which I also recommend highly, is a little richer, reflecting the warmth of that vintage, while the 2021 delivers a refreshing and mouth-cleansing raciness.  There’s a case in my cellar, which is probably more meaningful as a recommendation than 93 points.  There is also a case of the 2020 beside it.  Get the point about the producer?
93 Michael Apstein Sep 26, 2023

Xanadu, Margaret River (Western Australia) Chardonnay “Circa 77” 2021

($18, RWG USA):  The 77 moniker refers to 1977, the year Dr. John Lagan, an Irishman, founded Xanadu.  This light, fresh Chardonnay, weighing in at only 12.5 percent stated alcohol, will delight those who avoid the opulent buttery style of that varietal.  Seemingly unoaked and despite the lack of opulence, the Circa 77 Chardonnay has a wonderfully glossy texture.  Glenn Goodall, Xanadu’s winemaker, explains that the wine was, in fact, aged entirely in oak barrels, all of which were several years old.  He ascribes the texture to the technique of stirring the lees, not oak aging.  Mild citrus notes amplify its stony character.
89 Michael Apstein Sep 26, 2023

Xanadu, Margaret River (Western Australia) Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon “Vinework” 2022

($27, RWG USA):  Glenn Goodall, Xanadu’s winemaker, explains that the blend, two-thirds Sauvignon Blanc and one-third Semillon, is the signature of Western Australia, especially the Margaret River.  He treats the varieties differently, “no witchcraft” as he puts it for the Semillon, simply tank fermentation.  The Sauvignon Blanc, in contrast, receives lees stirring and oak fermentation.  Witchcraft or not, this is balanced beauty, a seamless combination that combines the energy, punch, and zing of Sauvignon Blanc with a subtle creaminess of Semillon.  It is remarkably long and graceful.  Plenty of balancing acidity keeps it lively and fresh.  In short, a delight to drink now with you name it.
93 Michael Apstein Sep 26, 2023

Xanadu, Margaret River (Western Australia) Chardonnay “Vinework” 2021

($27, RWG USA):  Xanadu’s rich and luxurious Vinework Chardonnay bookends beautifully with their Circa 77.  It is plush yet not heavy.  It may not have the alluring minerality of white Burgundy, but it does have the Burgundian sensibility of flavor without weight, as the 12.5 percent stated alcohol reflects.  Finesse and elegance combine with an ideal depth of flavor.  The less-is-more philosophy works well here.  While there are nuances of white peaches and citrus notes, the exact flavors are far less important than the overall impression: a balanced racy Chardonnay that’s a joy to drink.  And a bargain to boot!
95 Michael Apstein Sep 26, 2023

Three Takes on Second Wines

No one wants to be second.  Nobody strives to come in second.  Second place is just not built-in to our DNA.  For example, my daughter, a NCAA Gold Medal winner coxswain during college, referred to a Silver Medal winner—2nd place—as “the first loser.”  So, the so-called “second wines” can have a pejorative connotation.

Nevertheless, a recent instance of serendipity reinforced why I maintain that consumers should be embracing second wines, not shunning them.  But before describing the serendipitous encounter, let me remind readers about second wines.

Though second wines are mostly associated with Bordeaux, they are found all over the world, and in many instances aren’t even called a “second wine.”  Regardless of labeling or nomenclature, the concept is the same: categorize the grapes and/or wine from a property based on quality and character, and bottle them separately on two tiers.  It’s easy to understand that not all parts of a vineyard will produce the same high-quality grapes because the soil and exposure of the vines are not uniform.  Furthermore, the age of the vines has an enormous influence on the grape quality, and since growers replant their vines periodically, vineyards will contain plants of differing ages.  So, you can understand why producers might opt to keep grapes from older vines that produce higher quality fruit separate, and relegating fruit from young vines to the second wine.  In appellations where blending of varieties is allowed, another important factor will be how each variety performed that year.  The late Paul Pontallier, the long-term director at Château Margaux, once told me that he diverted a substantial amount of grand vin-quality Merlot into their second wine, Pavillon Rouge, in 2005 because putting all the Merlot, even though it was of the highest quality, into the Grand Vin (1st wine) would upset its balance.

In a forgotten corner of my cellar, I recently discovered a bottle of 2013 of Aria di Caiarossa lying next to a bottle of its big brother, 2013 Caiarossa.  Owned and managed by the same team that owns the famous Margaux Grand Cru Classé Château Giscours in the Margaux appellation of the Médoc, Caiarossa is a unique “Super Tuscan” that includes Rhône varieties and Alicante in addition to the more traditional Bordeaux grapes.  Here was a great opportunity to see how Caiarossa, the 1st wine, and Aria de Caiarossa, the 2nd wine, had evolved over a decade.

The graceful 2013 Aria di Caiarossa, an IGT Toscana blended from Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, has evolved extremely well into a finesse-filled beauty.  Weighing in at a modest 13.5 percent stated alcohol, it now wows you with a Bordeaux-like complexity, poise, and elegance.  Mild tannins lend needed support while Tuscan acidity keeps it fresh and delightful to drink.  Its graceful and suave texture can remind us why we age wines.  By contrast, the more youthful 2013 Caiarossa, also an IGT Toscana, is bolder (14.0 percent stated alcohol) with a tarry minerality, perhaps in part because of the addition of Sangiovese, Alicante, and Petit Verdot to the blend.  Still a pleasure to drink, its youthful vigor and tannins just gave it a more robust profile.  To my taste, the Aria is at a perfect stage, whereas the Caiarossa, the 1st wine, unsurprisingly, still needs another five to 10 years to mellow.

Alessandro Lunardi, the U.S. representative for Ornellaia, explains that all their vineyards are farmed with the same attention to detail, with the potential for any of the grapes to go into the first wine.  It’s only after tasting the wines from the 100+ separate plots that the team decides which ones will go into Ornellaia and which go into Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia, their second wine.  Lunardi points out that sometimes even grapes from young vines wind up in Ornellaia.  Le Serre Nuove is typically Merlot-dominant in contrast to the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant Ornellaia, which helps explain why it is more approachable when young.  The fleshy and accessible 2021 Le Serra Nuove dell’Ornellaia combines alluring savory and mineral notes, all wrapped in suave tannins.  It’s a joy to drink now (93 pts., $75).  In contrast, the far more youthful, though chronologically older, 2020 Ornellaia, a spectacularly beautiful and balanced young wine, needs at least a decade for its true grandeur and complexity to show (96 pts., $250).  For what it delivers, Le Serra Nuove dell’Ornellaia is a bargain, especially compared to Ornellaia.

Marcel Ducasse, the brilliant winemaker and general manager that Suntory hired when they purchased Château Lagrange, a Third Classified Growth in the 1855 Médoc Classification in 1983, once told me that the fastest way to improve the quality of a wine was to make a second wine.  Which is exactly what he did and why the quality of Château Lagrange soared after Suntory’s purchase.  Unusually for a Bordeaux Cru Classé, Château Lagrange actually bottles more second wine than Grand Vin.  In addition to elevating Château Lagrange virtually overnight to a place among the leading estates in St. Julien, the creation of the second wine, Les Fiefs de Lagrange, has been a boon for consumers.  Take the succulent 2016 Les Fiefs.  At seven years of age—and still available in retail shops—its lush, black current-like fruit balanced by fine tannins and enlivening acidity makes it a fine choice for current drinking with a steak (92 pts., $46).  By contrast, the monumental 2016 Château Lagrange, one of Lagrange’s best efforts, is a harmonious treasure but needs another decade of cellaring to show its full charms (96 pts., $75).  With a more velvety texture—think cashmere versus lambswool—and more complexity, it’s unquestionably the better wine, but for drinking tonight, I’d uncork the ’16 Les Fiefs.

So, my advice is to embrace those “first losers.”

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E-mail me your thoughts about second wines at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein.

September 20, 2023                  

Iris Vineyards, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Gris 2022

($18):  Iris Vineyards does it again with their racy and sleek 2022 Pinot Gris.  Despite a modest 11.5 percent state alcohol, this light-weight wine packs a pleasing punch.  Floral and bright, it dances on the palate, revealing delicate hint of pears and stone fruit flavors.  A lively saline acidity energizes this beauty.  Subtle bitterness in the finish adds to its appeal.  It’s a versatile wine, enjoyable as a stand lone aperitive, but equally well-suited to cut through a wide range of flavors on the table from spicy Asian fare to a tomato basil pasta.
95 Michael Apstein Sep 5, 2023

Mount Veeder Winery, Napa Valley (California) Chardonnay 2021 

($50):  Mount Veeder Winery, justifiably known for their Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends, has released their first Chardonnay — and it’s a resounding success.  Opulent but not overdone, it displays a buttery richness supported by uplifting acidity and energy.  It even displays a welcome hint of bitterness in the finish, reinforcing the sensory impression that it’s not a fruit bomb.  This would be an excellent choice for a roast chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce.
93 Michael Apstein Sep 5, 2023

Tenuta Perano, Chianti Classico (Tuscany, Italy) 2021

($33, Frescobaldi):  Though I have always been impressed by any of Frescobaldi’s Chianti Rufina — after all they are THE name in that appellation — I remember being disappointed when I tasted their first vintage of Chianti Classico a few years ago.  No longer!  With black juicy fruit, this vivacious mid-weight wine is a wonderful example of Chianti Classico.  A touch of spice and a hint of bitterness in the finish adds complexity and keeps you coming back for another sip.  A delightful choice for a hearty pasta dish this fall.
93 Michael Apstein Sep 5, 2023

Maison Louis Jadot, Bourgogne Rouge (Burgundy, France) Pinot Noir 2021

($22, Kobrand):  Value in Burgundy these days is found at the lower pedigree appellations made by talented producers.  Enter this Bourgogne Rouge from Jadot.  With an engaging combination of savory notes intertwined with hints of red and black fruit, this mid-weight wine is real Burgundy, or Bourgogne as the French would prefer to call it.  Thankfully, like Burgundy in general, it’s not heavy or particularly fruity.  That character along with its bright acidity and mild tannins make it ideal for grilled salmon.  It would also take a slight chill nicely which means it’s a good substitute for a Rosé.
88 Michael Apstein Sep 5, 2023

Caprio Cellars, Walla Walla Valley (Washington) “Sanitella” Estate Red Wine 2020

($88):  An unnecessarily heavy bottle forecasts a hefty wine, which it is.  A Cabernet Sauvignon-heavy blend pumped up with Malbec and Merlot, it delivers riper black fruit notes wrapped with suave tannins.  Despite a richer and deeper profile compared to Caprio’s “Eleanor” bottling, it still has an engaging and balancing bitterness in the finish.  This is a bolder, more minerally — almost tarry — rendition without going over to the darker side.  Lovely now, if it’s the style you’re looking for.
93 Michael Apstein Aug 29, 2023

Conde Valdemar, Rioja Crianza (Spain) Tempranillo 2018

($20):  It’s hard to beat Rioja for satisfying mid-weight well-priced reds.  Take this delightful example.  Conde Valdemar has made a seamless combination of dark fruitiness touched by a kiss of seductive oak, all enlivened by lip-smacking acidity.  Fine tannins make this bright and fresh beauty great for current drinking with anything from a roast chicken and mushrooms to skirt steak fresh from the grill.
90 Michael Apstein Aug 29, 2023

Duca di Salaparuta, Sicilia DOC (Sicily, Italy) Grillo “Calanica” 2022

($18):  It is no surprise that Duca di Salaparuta, one of Sicily’s leading producers, makes a delightful wine from Grillo, one of Sicily’s indigenous white grapes.  This crisp and clean light-weight beauty cries for fish or shellfish.  A saline-like acidity and hint of bitterness in the finish imparts a surprising length.  This refreshing white is ideal for the summer’s seafood.
90 Michael Apstein Aug 29, 2023

Château de Chamirey, Mercurey Premier Cru (Burgundy, France) Clos des Ruelles 2015

($50):  This delightful wine shows that value in Burgundy is alive and well.  Owned by the Devillard family, the Château de Chamirey is one of, if not THE, leading estates in Mercurey, a village in the Côte Chalonnaise, just south of the Côte d’Or.  Just as with wines from that famed strip of land, red wines from Mercurey must be made with Pinot Noir.  This venerable estate covers almost 100 acres, of which roughly 40 percent are classified as premier cru.  The just under 6.5-acres Clos des Ruelles Premier cru is a monopole, that is, Château de Chamirey owns it entirely in contrast to most vineyards in Burgundy, which are divided among multiple owners.  The vineyard is composed of two pieces with slightly different exposures, which adds to the wine’s complexity.  Even the youngest vines are 40+ years old.  The combination of the old vines, complexity of the vineyard, stature of the vintage, and the talent of the producer explains the wonder of this mid-weight wine.  Suave and seductive, this energetic wine wows with its depth and persistence, not brute force.  Delicious now, its balance and stature suggest it will continue to develop over the next decade.  Why it is still available at retail for this price is inexplicable to me.
94 Michael Apstein Aug 29, 2023

Frenzy, New Zealand () Sauvignon Blanc 2022

($15, Wilson Daniels):  The Marlborough region of New Zealand’s south island is responsible for the acclaim, enthusiasm, and world-wide excitement for that country’s Sauvignon Blanc.  That region does make distinctive Sauvignon Blanc.  But, as this wine shows, Marlborough does not have a monopoly on distinctive Sauvignon Blanc.  About a third of the Sauvignon Blanc in this wine comes come from Marlborough.  The other two-thirds comes from Gisborne, a warmer area on New Zealand’s north island, which likely explains why this wine has more depth ripeness than many New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.  It achieves that extra oomph without losing any of the energy and verve typically associated with the varietal from New Zealand.
92 Michael Apstein Aug 22, 2023

Maison Louis Jadot, Santenay (Burgundy, France) Clos des Gatsulards 2020

($51, Kobrand):  Domaine Gagey in the rectangle at the bottom of the label means that the Gagey family, the longtime directors of Maison Jadot, owns the property.  So, in essence, this is an estate wine as opposed to a négociant wine for which Jadot would have purchased the grapes from another grower.  The potential advantages of an estate wine include managing the vineyard yourself and determining exactly when to harvest and press the grapes.  The stature and complexity of this village wine — more exciting than many producers’ Premier Cru — reflects those advantages.  Here is a marvelous mixture of red fruit notes, spice, and other savory elements.  Jadot has deftly added a touch of elegance to the charming rusticity found in wines from Santenay.  Even with the heat of the 2020 growing season, this wine retains grace and finesse, so, embrace for those qualities not sheer power.  This mid-weight well-priced beauty is a reminder to focus on the producer rather than worry about the pedigree on the vineyard.  Speaking of price, an even better value is the 2016 vintage of the same wine, which is gorgeously developed and even more complex, and which I have seen still available at retail for $44.
92 Michael Apstein Aug 22, 2023

Maison Louis Jadot, Bourgogne Côte d’Or (Burgundy, France) 2020

($26, Kobrand):  In a word, delicious!  And an extraordinary value.  You rarely see Burgundy of this quality at this price.  Jadot, one of Burgundy’s top producers, takes advantage of a relatively new appellation, Bourgogne Côte d’Or, which means all the grapes came from the famed Côte d’Or part of Burgundy, rather than the region’s less prestigious subzones.  One sip explains why the Côte d’Or is so revered.  With plenty of dark red fruit but enough savory balance creating an alluring ying/yang, this mid-weight wine shouts authentic Burgundy in contrast to the all too many New World fruit-focused Pinot Noir.  Bracing uplifting acidity keeps it fresh.  The long and graceful finish is astounding for a “simple” Bourgogne.  This wonderful Bourgogne shows that value exists in Burgundy today.  Though ready to drink now — the tannins are finely polished — I bet even with this lowly pedigree it will evolve nicely over the next five years.  I usually don’t focus on the packaging — I am more interested in what’s in the bottle — but this is a startlingly unconventional and modern label for Jadot, a traditional producer.  My editor, no doubt, will shudder at a 93-point score for a Bourgogne Rouge, but it deserves high praise for what it delivers for the price.  My advice, buy it by the case.
93 Michael Apstein Aug 22, 2023

Maison Louis Jadot, Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) “Celebration” 2020

($63, Kobrand):  Jadot started this unconventional, by Burgundy standards, bottling with the 2009 vintage to celebrate its 150th anniversary.  Contrary to the Burgundy mantra of terroir — a specific delineated location is paramount — Jadot blends wine from upwards of 15 individual premier cru vineyards within Beaune, to produce a wine representative of the best Beaune has to offer (there are no Grand Cru vineyards in Beaune.)  They produce it only in the best years, like 2020.  Explosive on the palate, this is real 1er cru. Suave tannins support a glorious mixture of red fruit, spice, and complementary savory herbal notes.  Refreshing acidity adds life to this racy wine.  Though a joy to drink now, I suspect it will close down in a year or so to reawaken in a few years.  So, dive in now to get a sense of what top-notch Beaune has to offer.
94 Michael Apstein Aug 22, 2023

Oregon: The Latest French Invasion

The French have always played an important role in the American wine industry.  Burgundy-born Paul Masson started making wine in California in the late 19th century, followed by Georges de la Tour, founder of Beaulieu Vineyards, in 1900.  The second wave started in 1973 when Moët et Chandon established Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley.  Other Champagne houses—Taittinger with Domaine Carneros and Champagne Mumm’s Mumm Cuvée Napa—soon followed.  To me, however, the Burgundy-based Drouhin family started the most fascinating wave when they established Domaine Drouhin Oregon in 1987.  Over the succeeding 35 years other Burgundy producers, notably Louis Jadot and Méo-Camuzet, have spread the Burgundian concept of terroir to Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the results have been nothing short of sensational.

Véronique Drouhin (the fourth generation of the family who oversees winemaking at Domaine Drouhin Oregon), Guillaume Large (the winemaker at Jadot’s project, Résonance) and Jean-Nicolas Méo, who is in charge at Nicolas-Jay, all agree that they are not trying to make Burgundy in Oregon. Instead, they seek to express the unique Oregon terroir through the great Burgundian grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  When Méo hosted a tasting of his Méo-Camuzet Burgundies side by side with Nicolas-Jay Oregon Pinot Noir in Boston recently, the differences were striking.  Wines from both continents were stunning, though vastly different, reinforcing the concept that Oregon Pinot Noirs, even when made by Burgundian winemakers, are not Burgundies—nor do the winemakers want them to be.

The story starts with Robert Drouhin, the third generation of the family, who has a habit of being a visionary when it comes to finding prime vineyards.  In the 1960s, he engaged in what many of his Côte d’Or counterparts felt was “folly,” but which has turned out to be a spectacular decision, when he purchased vineyards in Chablis, revitalizing the appellation and, with their 95 acres, making Drouhin the most important Beaune-based producer there.  He did it again when he founded Domaine Drouhin Oregon in the Dundee Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1987.  To their 125 acres of vines in the Dundee Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA), Drouhin went on to add another 125 acres in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA in 2013.  Both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from these two AVAs and made by the same winemaking team are wonderfully different, reminding us that Burgundy does not have a monopoly on distinctive terroirs.

As though to emphasize the differences between the wines (and terroir), Drouhin opted to label the wines from the Eola-Amity property, Drouhin Oregon Roserock, not Domaine Drouhin Oregon.  The differences shine when comparing the mineral-y and firm 2020 Drouhin Oregon Roserock, Eola-Amity Hills Chardonnay “Maigold” ($80, 94 pts.) with the creamy and suave 2020 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Dundee Hills, Chardonnay “Édition Limitée,” 2020 ($80, 94 pts.).  The differences imparted by site are equally dramatic when comparing Pinot Noirs, even taking vintage and cuvée differences into account.  The charming and finesse-filled 2019 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Dundee Hills Pinot Noir ($47, 92 pts.) delicately marries red fruit and savory nuances and contrasts vividly with the glossy and more structured 2021 Drouhin Oregon Roserock, Eola-Hills, Pinot Noir “Zepherine” bottling (their top cuvée; $66, 95 pts.) with its black fruit and distinct dark mineral profile.

Though Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noirs develop beautifully, gracefully morphing from the fresh red fruit notes of youth to the alluring mushroom-like savory flavors of maturity, they maintain their New World identity, at least to an experienced taster.  When I served a 1989 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir blind a couple of years ago—a 30-year-old wine—to a group of Burgundians, all marveled at its development and charm.  Anne Parent of Domaine Parent in Pommard, one of the Burgundy’s most talented winemakers, immediately identified a hint of sweetness in the finish that alerted her to its non-Burgundian origins.

Louis Jadot gingerly put a toe into the Oregon water, so to speak, in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA in 2013 when they purchased Resonance Vineyard, a never-irrigated 20-acre vineyard that had been planted with un-grafted Pinot Noir vines about 30 years earlier, in 1981.  (They have a dedicated tractor for this vineyard, so they do not inadvertently bring diseases into it.)  Initially they rented space in a winery because as Pierre-Henry Gagey, the recently retired longtime President of Louis Jadot who orchestrated the project, told me that they wanted to make sure the experiment would work before they built their own winery.

Well, it clearly has.  A decade later, they’re all in.  Jadot has since added 60 more acres of Pinot Noir vines on the Yamhill Charlton site, with the potential to add more, and built a gravity flow, state-of-the-art winery there.  They added a gorgeous, seamlessly connected tasting room, meeting area, and private dining area all made from reclaimed local barnwood on the property.  They next purchased another 15-acre vineyard, Découverte, in 2014 in the Dundee Hills AVA and are building a small tasting room there.  Just last year, Jadot again expanded by purchasing the Koosah Vineyard, an 82-acre site, 44 of which are planted, in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA.  Currently, they produce wines from two AVAs, Yamhill-Charlton’s Résonance Vineyard, and Dundee Hills’ Découverte Vineyard, and anticipate producing wine from Koosah Vineyard soon.

After tasting three vintages (2018, 2019, and 2021) of the Résonance vineyard and Découverte Vineyard Pinot Noirs with Large, the differences between the Yamhill-Carlton and Dundee Hills AVA stood in clear relief, vintage after vintage.  The Résonance Pinot Noir from Yamhill-Carlton was always denser, more mineral-y with a more structured frame compared to the more elegant and lacier Découverte Pinot Noir from Dundee Hills.  While all six of these wines are balanced and graceful, a stand-out is the striking 2019 Résonance Vineyard, which magically combines power and elegance ($65, 95 pts.) and is a bargain for what it delivers.  But frankly, I’d be happy drinking any of them tonight.

Though Jadot is clearly focused on the distinctiveness of the different Willamette Valley AVAs, they also make a Willamette Valley blend under the Résonance label (without the Résonance Vineyard designation) with fruit coming from the Résonance and Découverte Vineyards that they find unsuitable for bottling under the vineyard name, the Jolis Monts Vineyard, which are newer plantings nearby the Résonance Vineyard, and from purchased fruit.  The stylish and fresh 2021 Résonance Willamette Valley blend ($35, 92 pts.), in my opinion, the best one they’ve produced to date, is a mini version of the 2021 Résonance Vineyard bottling and manages to combine dark fruited depth with finesse.  It’s rare to find a Pinot Noir of this stature at $35.

Focusing on terroir and perhaps drawing on his experience running the small négociant business that he recently added to his Burgundy portfolio, Jean-Nicolas Méo took a different approach.  As Tracy Kendall explained (she’s Associate Winemaker at Nicolas-Jay and the on-site full-time winemaker), Méo and music executive Jay Boberg, wanted to spend money on the vineyards, not make a castle or a shrine.  Méo wanted to learn about the various terroirs, so when they started in 2014, the partners purchased grapes from various well-regarded vineyards to learn the lay of land.  As for the winemaking, they rented space at Adelsheim for three years, and then rented space for another three years at Sokol Blosser.

By 2017, they were convinced of the potential for excellent Pinot Noir from the Willamette, so they started looking to build a winery.  Finally, they found an old cattle barn in the Dundee Hills that had the skeletal potential for a gravity flow building.  Along with it came a north-facing slope for a vineyard whose exposure would minimize the effects of climate change and produce less ripe grapes that would translate into lower alcohol wines.  They transformed the barn into a modern winery just in time for the 2020 harvest, which they opted not to make because of lamentable smoke taint from wildfires.  Kendall’s eyes beamed and she became even more animated when she described how it felt to finally make wines, the 2021s, in their own place.

Méo’s model worked brilliantly.  The partners fell in love with the wines from the Bishop Creek Vineyard in the Yamhill Charlton AVA and eventually bought the vineyard, which sits at a 450-foot elevation and has own-rooted (not grafted) vines that were planted in 1988.  Wine from Bishop Creek, either bottled as a single vineyard or included in a blend, now accounts for half of their production.  Nicolas-Jay buys from seven other vineyards and has four single vineyard bottlings currently.  Their Willamette Valley blend, Ensemble, contains fruit from every AVA within the Willamette Valley except Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge.  The suavely textured 2019 Ensemble ($77, 92 pts.) is a stunning expression of the potential of what the Willamette has to offer.  All of Nicolas-Jay’s wines come from organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards, even though they may not be certified as such, and are fermented using native yeast.

The superb Nicolas-Jay 2019 Pinot Noirs reflect the diversity of the Willamette’s AVAs.  The charming Nysa (Dundee Hills AVA) bottling ($114, 95 pts.) displays a captivating finesse and elegance, while the powerful 2019 Momtazi (McMinnville AVA) bottling ($109, 95 pts.) with its dense, black, mountain fruit tension is just what you’d expect from the area’s rugged wind-blown volcanic soil.  What’s unexpected is a meagre 13.2 percent stated alcohol and its marvelous balance.  The youthful and brooding 2019 Bishop Creek (Yamhill Charlton) ($110; 96 pts.), combining power and finesse, is truly an iron fist in a velvet glove.

The splendid array of Nicolas-Jay’s 2019s Pinot Noirs is simply staggering.  It’s hard to imagine a leap in quality from this vintage for them, but I predict there will be one with the 2021s vinified in their own cellar.

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Email me your thoughts about Oregon Pinot Noir in general at Mic[email protected] and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

August 16, 2023

Vino Vasai, Laurelwood District – Chehalem Mountains (Willamette Valley, Oregon) Pinot Noir “Barrel Select” 2021 

($48):  Vino Vasai is Italian for Potter’s Wine and explains why the latter is what you see when you pull the cork.  Bill Sanchez, the winemaker and owner with his wife, Sandy, is a potter.  Sandy explains that they had trouble when they tried to trademark Potter’s Wine, so, given her Italian heritage, they opted to name it in Italian.  What is not confusing is the quality of the wines.  This refined one, for example, is the dual-headed Janus, showing both the savory and red fruited side of Pinot Noir.  Though not fruit-focused, this charmer delivers plenty of crunchy red fruit.  Thankfully, it’s not a bombastic wine, weighing in at a modest 12.9 percent stated alcohol. Instead, it’s refined and graceful.  It’s not a powerhouse but it commands a powerful presence.
93 Michael Apstein Aug 8, 2023

Vino Vasai, Laurelwood District – Chehalem Mountains (Willamette Valley, Oregon) Pinot Noir Estate Reserve 2021 

($58):  Co-owner Sandy Sanchez, describes the Estate Reserve as their top wine.  Certainly, it’s more concentrated and denser with more apparent oak character compared to their Barrel Select bottling.  At this stage, it’s also has a slighter sweeter profile, presumably from what I assume is more substantial oak aging.  Though denser with darker fruit character, it still weighs in at only 13 percent stated alcohol and remains balanced with a glossy texture.  Judging from the sensational 2019 Estate Reserve, this poised 2021will benefit from a couple of years in the bottle.  That said, it’s hard to resist now with grilled salmon.
93 Michael Apstein Aug 8, 2023