Tuesday, November 20, 2012

More California Wines for Thanksgiving

Long overlooked grape varieties planted in California before Prohibition have surprisingly become fashionable again. Prior to Zinfandel becoming the iconic grape of California, other grape varieties, particularly Grenache, Mourvedre, and Carignane, were also extensively planted in California vineyards.

During the past few years a growing number of new producers, most of them young winemakers, have shunned mainstream varietal wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and, yes, even Zinfandel, and, instead, have championed Grenache, Mourvedre, and Carignane. They are inspired by what they see as underrated heritage varieties that have thrived in California vineyards for over a century.

Yet, a vision has also taken hold of this new generation of young California producers influenced by the natural winemaking trends sweeping Europe. They believe they are pursuing an enlightened approach to California viticulture by focusing on grape varieties like Grenache, Mourvedre, and Carignane that are native to the Mediterranean region, hence more suitable to California vineyards than the cool-climate Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Merlot, which often require a lot of manipulation in the vineyard and winery. In fact, after a sip of the delicious wines they make it would be difficult to disagree.

The wines from La Clarine Farm in the Sierra Foothills, Los Pilares in San Diego County, Folk Machine in Mendocino, and A Tribute to Grace in Santa Barbara are all produced in small lots from carefully chosen vineyards that are naturally farmed. They are honestly crafted, without tricks, as the aim is to deliver a product as pure as the fruit that they are made from.

San Diego County Grenache-Carignane, Los Pilares 2011 $23.00
A stunning second vintage of this 50% Grenache and 50% Carignane cuvee from fruit grown in meticulously farmed vineyards in the backcountry of San Diego County just east of Escondido. The area is ideal for growing these varieties, as it has the scrublands and Mediterranean climate that allow these grapes to produce intense, flavorful wines. 2011 produced delicate and fresh Grenache fruit that benefited from the earthy depth of the super Carignane. Made as naturally as possible with little manipulation. The fruit was hand sorted. Vinification was whole-berry, native yeast fermentation. No additives were applied nor inoculation for malolactic, just grapes. Aging was in tank, no wood. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. More elegant, higher acidity, and more polished than the previous 2010 vintage. Intense flavors that are bright and layered with delicious complexity. 13% alcohol. A revelation for San Diego County wine! Very limited availability. Just 120 cases produced

Sierra Foothills Mourvedre Sumu Kaw Vineyard, La Clarine Farms 2011 $24.00
The Sumu Kaw Vineyard is source of what I regard as La Clarine Farm's greatest red, the Sumu Kaw Syrah. The Mourvedre grown there has been used for blending with this superb Syrah, giving it structure and lift. Situated at an elevaton of 2,900 feet on a ridgetop overlooking Pleasant Valley, the vineyard is surrounded by tall pines that seem to lend some of its resiny, tarry flavors to the fruit. This is precise Mourvedre that recalls more the Provencal style. Only 81 cases produced. Enclosed in screwcap.

"This mourvedre, at 12.4% alcohol, was actually one of the first reds we picked in 2011.  The crop level was way down (which may have contributed to the increased flavor concentration) and the grapes seemed ready surprisingly early for mourvedre, a notoriously late ripening variety. It shows all the classic markers of the grape (earthiness, some leathery/dried leafy tones) in a forward, (all too) easy drinking package.  It is a wonderful introduction to the style of the vintage. It is delicious!" Hank Beckmeyer, La Clarine Farm

Sierra Foothills Mourvedre Cedarville, La Clarine Farms 2011 $24.00
From a single-vineyard up in the Sierra Foothills, farmed organically by Jonathan Lachs and Susan Marks. The fruit ripens fully and beautifully on this site, producing a wine that is readily appreciated from release. Gorgeous concentration and balance, with irresistible, seductive fruit. Scented by the Sierra Foothills garrigue. Tiny production of just 51. Enclosed in screwcap.

"It became immediately apparent that this wine was going to be something special. The aromas from the fermenters was incredible, and the wine from the press on November 8 (at dryness) was already quite drinkable. Malolactic fermentation bubbled along all winter long. By Spring of 2012, we had one of the most unusual mourvedre wines I've ever tasted. Lighter in color than most years, lower in alcohol (11.7%), but big in flavor, it's a wine you could very easily drink a lot of, if there were a lot. I jokingly started calling it my version of Beaujolais, and it does have a lot of similarities to a good cru Beaujolais, but with sort of a 'mutant beaujolais' feel to it." Hank Beckmeyer, La Clarine Farm

Mendocino Red "Three Ceremonies", Folk Machine 2011 $18.00
A unique blend of Carignan, Syrah, and Petit Sirah--a California pop version of the GSM Rhone blend. Superluscious without being overdone. Well balanced 13.2% alcohol. Layers of juicy red fruits and earthy spices. Just 125 cases produced. Helps bring luck for this year and next!

Santa Barbara Grenache Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, A Tribute to Grace Wine Company 2010 $41.00
One of the best California wines you would ever come across, this is very charming for its light but intense strawberry-filled flavors layered with sweet spices and herbs. 100% Grenache grown in the desolate Sierra Madre Mountains at 3,200 feet elevation. The soils are sandy and rocky and together with the cool climate produce a wine with bright, intense flavors. Brilliant proprietor and winemaker Angela Osborne vinified half the fruit in whole clusters, foot treading the grapes twice a day. The other half of the fruit was destemmed and given a light pigeage. The wine was aged over 16 months in one third new barrel and two-thirds neutral barrel. Just 141 cases produced.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Zinfandels for Thanksgiving

For many wine folks, going traditional on Thanksgiving means opening a Zinfandel or two for the celebration. Zinfandel has been called the quintessential American wine, a title that seems shrill, not to mention a heavy load to carry. What I really care for is Zinfandel's rustic flavors match up well with the gamey bird and its innumerable stuffings, as well as with the unavoidable sides of pumpkin, mint jelly, cranberry sauce, and gravy.

Of course, year-round Zinfandel is routinely enjoyed with barbecued pork, roast duck, or even roast chicken. Thus, wine folks not inclined to eating turkey would appreciate Zinfandel's culinary versatility.

At least three new Zinfandels have just arrived at the store which should bring excitement to the holiday table. One is from our good friend Kenny Likitprakong of Hobo Wine. Kenny is third generation California winemaker and his Zinfandel from a one-acre block of Branham Vineyard in Rockpile--an ancient vineyard site in California--is one of the most deliciously complex Zinfandels made.

Ottimino's Zinfandel originates from the Ottimino vineyard in Green Valley, a sub-appellation of Russian River. Evoking classic Zinfandel character with its brambly fruit and juicy flavors. The vineyard is just eight miles from the coast, on the path of cooling ocean breezes that help the vines rein in ripening and leave good acidity.

A new label, Heartfel Zinfandel is from a tiny winery run by winemaker Dan Morgan. The fruit comes from the Brignole Vineyard in Alexander Valley, planted with Zinfandel and other grape varieties dating back to 1908. Dan extracts the old-vine fruit to produce a Zinfandel that's powerful and rich flavors yet graceful on the palate.

Rockpile (Sonoma) Zinfandel "Branham Vineyard", Hobo Wine 2010 $24.00 (Click to buy!)
From a one-acre old-block parcel atop Rockpile in Sonoma. Beautifully balanced, complex, aromatic Zinfandel with layers of red berries, spicy fruit, and tobacco. Expressive and elegant. A revelation for Zinfandel. Kenny Likitprakong, third-generation California winemaker, makes only a barrel of this classy Zinfandel.

Russian River Zinfandel "Ottimino Vineyard", Ottimino 2007 $26.00 (Click to buy!)
A big, classic Zinfandel that's well balanced and delivers sexy, lush blackberry, licorice flavors with beautiful, rich tannins. This powerful wine is packed with flavor but not overripe with alcohol weighing in at 14.4%. The vineyard is situated in the Green Valley enclave of Russian River, about eight miles from the coast. Marine breezes cool the vineyard, especially during the hot summer, allowing for a gradual and even ripening. The vines are dry farmed forcing the roots to go down to keep the vines healthy. Winemaker Bill Knuttel, formerly of Chalkhill Vineyards, did a perfect job in extracting the flavors and raising the wine in French oak before bottling it unfined. An outstanding Zinfandel from one of the best vintages in western Sonoma.

Alexander Valley Zinfandel, Heartfelt Wines 2010 $22.00 (Click to buy!)
From an old vineyard planted in 1908 situated in Alexander Valley's Chianti Mountain. This has luscious, juicy, ripe fruit and brambly, earthy spices. Rich and powerful but exceptionally balanced and graceful on the palate. A field blend of about 80% Zinfandel and the rest a mix of Petit Sirah, Carignane, Mataro, and Alicante Bouschet. Made by Dan Morgan, a longtime, local winemaker. A great find!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Eric Texier's Côtes du Rhône from the Northern Rhône

From the excellent 2010 vintage in the Northern Rhône are these two overachieving Côtes du Rhône from highly praised producer Eric Texier.

Texier pioneered the exploitation of the nearly forgotten viticultural area of Brézème, located just 20 miles south of Hermitage. It is the only Côtes du Rhône appellation that requires Syrah as the sole grape varietal. Historically, the vineyards were situated on the steep south-facing slopes of clay and limestone soils. As soon as Texier saw this area in the early 1990s he realized its potential for producing great Syrah like in neighboring Hermitage, which has a similar geological and topographical characteristic.

After pioneering Brézème, Eric Texier discovered another lost terroir in the Northern Rhône, the vineyards of St.-Juilien en St.-Alban. Lying on the west bank of the Rhône River across from Brézème is the area of St.-Julien en St.-Alban. There an old vineyard named Domaine Pergaud is planted with 70 year-old Syrah vines of the ancient variety, called Serine. Just a handful of producers in the Northern Rhône still have the Serine Syrah planted. Eric Texier just started producing a new wine from this vineyard. He says there only two producers in St.-Julien en St.-Alban. Here is his notes about this ancient vineyard:

"Eleven hectares of vines cut off from the rest of the world, worked like people did 50 years ago, never treated with any chemicals. The jewel of this crown is a plot of 1.3HA of old Serines (Serine is the name of an ancient type of Syrah vines), 70 years old, planted on blue marl and sandstone, never replanted but propagated by marcottage ( marcottage is a method of propagation where a live cane is buried into the ground to take root and sprout a new vine.)" -Eric Texier

2010 is another terrific vintage for Northern Rhône reds, more classic and elegant compared to the softer, riper 2009. Both these wines are beautiful Northern Rhone Syrahs at very modest prices.

Cotes du Rhone Rouge Brezeme, Eric Texier 2010 $23.00 (Click to buy!)
100% Syrah from the Northern Rhône planted on southfacing, steep hillsides. Dark, aromatic fruit with bright tones and a fleshy texture. Its elegance and depth are pure Northern Rhône.

"Brézème is made with Syrah from a cold climate area. It is an untamed wine with a strong personality, presenting blackcurrant aromas and intense black olive flavours. Showing a similar balance between crispness and structure to Burgundy wines during the first years, it softens after aging 3 to 5 years. Drink with rustic meat dishes when young, poultry and game after aging." Eric Texier

St.-Julien en St.-Alban Cotes du Rhone Rouge "Vieille Serine Domaine de Pergaud", Eric Texier 2010 $30.00 (Click to buy!)
Few have heard of this wine that Eric Texier produces from an old Syrah vineyard planted with the ancient Serine variety. The St.-Julien en St.-Alban is situated on the west bank of the Rhone River, across from the now well-known Brézème, which Texier also pioneered several years ago. The vines in the oldest parcel are 70 years-old. Texier makes less than 400 cases from this old parcel. Aromatic, rich and concentrated but graceful and complex, and showing very good finesse as you'd expect from the more classic 2010 vintage.

"Eleven hectares of vines cut off from the rest of the world, worked like people did 50 years ago, never treated with any chemicals. The jewel of this crown is a plot of 1.3HA of old Serines (Serine is the name of an ancient type of Syrah vines), 70 years old, planted on blue marl and sandstone, never replanted but propagated by marcottage ( marcottage is a method of propagation where a live cane is buried into the ground to take root and sprout a new vine.)" -Eric Texier

Friday, November 9, 2012

Montbourgeau's 2007 Cuvee Speciale

I was with Nicole Deriaux at Domaine de Montbourgeau last year tasting among other things her freshly bottled 2007 Cuvee Speciale. It was so freaking good I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. It took a full year before I finally did, as the wine finally arrived at the store a couple of weeks ago.

Every great Jura producer has at least one signature wine that's unique and exceptional. For Domaine Montbourgeau the Cuvee Speciale is one.

Domaine de Montbourgeau is situated in L'Etoile, which is on the southern end of the Jura region. The terroir here is unique as the air is colder and limestone soils are strewn with fossils, many of them star-shaped. Quite perfect for white grapes. Thus, Chardonnay and Savagnin dominate the vineyards as both thrive very well on southfacing hillsides.

As the name implies the "Cuvee Speciale" is a selection of Montbourgeau's best Chardonnay plantings, which are the oldest vines on the best exposure. Though the Cuvee Speciale is for all intents and purposes Chardonnay, Nicole told me there is a splash of Savagnin in it. But this is just the start. The grapes are transformed into something truly extraordinary by its vinification and elevage. Unlike the other whites she makes which are fermented in stainless steel, the Cuvee Speciale is barrel-fermented. It is topped up only once after the alcohol fermentation, and then for the next 4 years as the wine ages in barrel there is no more topping up (sous veille). As a portion of the wine evaporates and oxygen enters the barrel, flor yeasts settle on the wine radically transforming the wine... sending it to another zone.

After the long elevage the Cuvee Speciale acquires a most unique flavor and finesse that is complex and mouthwatering, and totally expressive of Jura's powerful terroir

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Donnhoff Riesling and Crab

Yesterday was the official start of the 2012 California Dungeness crab season. I had the strong urge to celebrate this local crustacean tradition by heading to the great roasted Dungeness crab joint, Thanh Long in the Outer Sunset. I've been coming to this Vietnamese restaurant since the late 1980s, when it was still a tiny hole in the wall. Back then the Outer Sunset was so remote and obscured by the fog (it still is) that there was no reason to trek there except to dine at this restaurant. Thanh Long's foresight to set up shop in this bleak location proved to be genius. People from everywhere, including Hollywood celebrities, were drawn to its insanely good crab and garlic noodles, helping anchor the Outer Sunset's trendy food scene today.

Much as I look forward to my Dungeness crab season pilgrimage to Thanh Long, I also wanted to road test the 2011 Donnhoff Riesling Kabinett Oberhauser Leistenberg that just arrived at the store this week. A brilliant wine in any vintage, it is supremely gorgeous in 2011, a vintage hailed as one of the greatest in Germany. Almost dry, it has a superb elegance that downplays its richness. A perfect Riesling with the buttery Dungeness crab and the decadent garlic noodles.

Helmut Donnhoff said during harvest that the 2011 fruit was some of the best he has ever seen. Of course, no one should doubt the words of the master. But those looking for proof will certainly find it in this Riesling that he crafted from the Leistenberg vineyard. I'm glad it arrived just in time for crab season.