Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Exploring Languedoc Wine Country in "Virgile's Vineyard"

I picked up “Virgile’s Vineyard” during a January trip to the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. Virgile Joly, the subject of this wine narrative, was eager to give me a signed copy. We’d dined together in Montpellier and I tasted through his wines at Millesime BioFair, a trade show focused on promoting organic and biodynamic wines.

Virgile struck me as a genuine man, devoid of all pretension. He listens closely before speaking, and when he does speak his words are rich with meaning. I liked his wines, too, especially his Saturne, a red blend from the Saint-Saturnin area of the Languedoc.   

I let my thoughts about the Languedoc simmer for a few months before I picked up this book and relived my experiences through Patrick Moon’s language. This book was originally published in 2003, but a new edition came out last year, which includes an 10-year retrospective epilogue.

Moon hails from England, but he spent a year-long sabbatical in an old Languedoc home that he inhereited. The premise of his book is quite simple: Moon roams the Languedoc from January to December, and each month is shaped into a chapter. As the title suggests, Moon follows Joly around his vineyard and tries to learn as much as he can about vinegrowing, winemaking and the local oenological peculiarities. He prunes vines, picks grapes and, of course, drinks a lot of Languedoc vino.

Moon’s vocabulary is undeniably British. His diction is highly elevated and his language is flowery and effusive. When surrounded by bottles of wine and awe-inspiring vineyards, writers (myself included) are prone to getting carried away, and Moon gets carried away quite often.

But there’s something very pleasant about getting lost in Moon’s overflowing banter: “The vines were, of course, completely bare at this time of year — some neatly pruned, others still a ragged tangle — but the delicate, silvery grey foliage of the olive trees gently counterpointed the starkness of the rugged, fir-clad hills immediately behind me to the north.”

The book is quite informative for those interested in learning more about the entire vineyard-to-glass process. Moon shares what he learns as he learns it, which is helpful when talking about vineyard management methods, sugar and acid levels and fermentation chemisty.

Moon spends many pages reflecting on the farm-to-table way of life in the Languedoc: “Where vegetables in England might advertise their country of origin, here I find baskets that cite specific villages, even farms, in their pedigrees. Only the oranges come from as far afield as Spain. My naïve request for basil is simply laughed at. If it isn’t seasonal, it isn’t here.”

January clouds roll over a vineyard near the Languedoc town of Calce, France.
I really appreciate reading the historical and cultural tidbits that the Languedoc locals share with Moon. For example, I connected with Joly’s comments about the sometimes rough relationship between estate winegrowers and large cooperatives: “We’re not in competition; we’re complementary… Different products, different roles. You see, for me, a healthy market means a lot of people drinking wine on a regular basis. And that means a lot of decent quality, affordable wine for everyday consumption, rubbing shoulders with the best. Which is not to say that the co-op doesn’t make some very good wines…”

One of his guides, Krystina, is full of information about the Languedoc’s important role in the world’s history of wine. Here’s Krystina on the Greek connection with the Languedoc: “Wine proved a great success with the locals, you see. And very soon the Greeks were planting the Languedoc’s first cultivated vines and making the first local wines. Same with the olive trees, because olive oil wasn’t just the cornerstone of their cuisine, they also needed it for lighting, medicine, important religious observances, you name it. Absolutely vital.”

For millennia, hardworking men and women have cultivated vines and crushed berries in this rocky, sun-drenched terrain. But, unfortunately, the region’s reputation suffered as many producers churned out lots of bland juice for the bulk market. “The region was making forty-four percent of the country’s wine from only twenty-three percent of its vineyard area,” Krystina tells Moon. “It was selling on price not quality.”

Luckily for winemakers and consumers, the idea that the Languedoc is home only to mass-produced plonk doesn’t hold up anymore. Sure you can still find insipid wines, but more and more producers — like Virgile Joly — are producing exciting, terroir-driven wines that deserve your attention.

If you’re a lover of wine, travel, food and Southern France, this book also deserves attention.

Click here for a GoPro video edit from my Languedoc travels. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hourglass: Napa Producer Excels With Malbec, Merlot, Cab Franc

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

At Hourglass, premium Napa Valley red is more than just Cabernet Sauvignon. Their Cabernets deserve serious credit, but Hourglass has been working on some great varietal expressions of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec from the Blueline Vineyard in Calistoga.

2012 was the first full vintage for Hourglass’ winemaker Tony Biagi, who took over from renowned winemaker Bob Foley. It appears Tony arrived at a great time because 2012 was a good growing season, and the resulting wines show balance and depth. The 2013 vintage marks Hourglass’ first white wine, a Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which I found refreshing and intriguing.

The new oak in these wines is nuanced and integrated, adding creaminess to the texture and accents to the fruit and earth flavors. But given the complexity of flavors, the structure and the balance, the oak never overpowers, at least for my palate.

These wines aren’t cheap, but they’re delicious and cellar-worthy. All of the wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted from 375ml bottles. The prices below represent the mailing list allocation cost for a 750ml bottle.

A pale straw color. Crisp apple and lime aromas, orange blossom, honeysuckle, a striking amount of slate and minerals. Creamy and rich on the palate, but the acid cuts through with impressive power. Richer notes of apricot, honey and orange marmalade blend with elements of oyster shell, sea salt and minerals. Lots of concentration and depth here, this is a beauty of a Napa Sauv Blanc that refuses to fit in a stylistic box. Hourglass’ first shot with white wine, and they nailed it. This wine sees stainless steel as well as some new and old French oak. (91 points)

Generous purple color. Vibrant and playful aromas of deep plums and black currants laced with violets, cola and charcoal. On the palate, fine grained but grippy tannins meet with medium acid, almost crisp. Rich and boisterous, full of bright floral tones, this wine is plummy and packed with tart berries. There’s an underlying mix of cocoa powder, charcoal, vanilla bean, cola and black olive. Bold but elegant, this is impressive stuff that shows some solid aging potential. Aged 16 months in 40% new French oak, this wine also includes 25% Petite Verdot. (91 points)

Nose of roses, raspberries, caramel, roses, a lot of explosive ripe fruit but it’s backed up by earth and smoke, menthol and smoked meat. Full bodied but this wine shows an elegant texture with fine tannins and medium acid. I get berry compote, raspberries and dark plums; all the fruit is juicy but very tangy. Significant amount of mushroom, balsamic, soy, barbecue sauce and sweet floral elements. Chewy, elegant, rich, complex, this wine is all of these, with a long finish. Could use two to four years and I think this will develop for quite a while longer. Includes 5% Petite Verdot, this wine is aged 16 months in new and seasoned French oak. (93 points)

Deep and saucy on the nose, I get blueberry, blackberry and plums, but also lots of deep loam, granite, paved road and mushroom. On the palate, wow, this is just beautiful — medium acid, great concentration, dusty tannins. Full of tart blueberry and currant fruit, like crunching through the skins, but then the earth, charcoal, cedar and eucalyptus notes come in. The mushroom, granite and tobacco flavors need time to fully show themselves. Great structure here for aging. This sees 20 months in 40% new French oak. Gorgeous. (93 points)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Sonoma Wine Tourism Post Featured On Winerist

Touring and tasting your way through Sonoma is a thrilling experience for all the senses. But, as with visiting any wine destination, I find it even more enriching when I take time to learn about the history of a place. I guess I’m old school, but I still learn by reading books. If you’re looking for great wine, and some artistic stimulation, Sonoma County beckons.

“All I wanted was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in, and get out of nature that something which we all need, only the most of us don't know it.” – Jack London

American author Jack London picked a good spot when he moved to Beauty Ranch, located in the Sonoma Valley enclave of Glen Ellen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Three 2012 Macon Chardonnays

The Maconnais region of southern Burgundy has long been one of my go-to areas for good Chardonnay at less cost than the Cote d’Or. I’d never tried any wines from Domaine Cordier or Domaine Cristophe Cordier, which are imported by Bobby Kacher, but I enjoyed these three selections. 

The Chardonnay crop in the Macon dropped slightly from 2011, but the acidity tends to be slightly higher than 2011. I need to explore many more white Burgundies from this vintage, but so far I like what I’ve tasted.

My notes...

2012 Domaine Christophe Cordier Viré-Clessé Vieilles Vignes - France, Burgundy, Mâconnais, Viré-Clessé

SRP: $27
Aromas of golden pear and peach, nutty, flora. Creamy, honeyed texture, some pear and baked apple, peach and honey. Slight mineral tones. Easy-drinking, fresh but also rich (aged in 10% new French oak). Rides that Chardonnay middle ground very well. (87 points)

2012 Domaine Christophe Cordier Mâcon Vieilles Vignes - France, Burgundy, Mâconnais, Mâcon
SRP: $20
A bright golden color. Honeydew and cantaloupe melon on the nose, some honey and bright floral tones. Medium acid, a lighter approach on the mouth, the lemon and grapefruit peel mix with notes of apricot. Some sharp mineral and oyster shell tones, with just a bit of honeycomb. Not incredibly deep or long but it’s put together well and would be a great summer sipper. (86 points)

2012 Domaine Cordier Père et Fils Pouilly-Fuissé - France, Burgundy, Mâconnais, Pouilly-Fuissé
SRP: $26
Light gold color. Bright lime and dusty chalk on the nose, along with rich papaya and honey. Crisp acid, lots of minerality and stony, chalky aspects. The fruit combo of fresh lime and papaya works very well. An underlying minerality and freshness, but plenty of bold, richer elements. (90 points)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Hamilton Russell Wines and the Bliss of Walker Bay

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, looking down on the winter waves of Walker Bay (left).
After a week of surfing and sightseeing on South Africa’s Cape Peninsula, my wife and I made the trek from Hout Bay to the Southern Cape seaside town of Hermanus. It was late May, and we arrived just a bit too early for the annual Southern Right whale migration, which draws eco-tourists from around the world. 

We hired a group of local conservationists and surfers to take us on a boat into Walker Bay. We tried to find some Southern Rights arriving early but were unsuccessful. We followed a few Bryde’s whales into the bay, which was amazing in its own right. As a surfer, I was just stoked to be on a boat as a 15-foot swell was rolling in from the southern ocean. 

I was excited to visit some wineries in the Walker Bay regionwhich is a few degrees Centigrade cooler than Stellenbosch and known for producing some excellent Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. As a lover of the sea, I reveled in the oceanic influence. The air smells of crashing waves and sea shells and the wines taste crisp, clean and seafood-friendly.

On the top of my list was Hamilton Russell Winery, located in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley sub-region. This producer has been gotten some serious accolades from big American wine publications, and for good reason. 

Unfortunately, as we drove up we found that the tasting room was closed for renovations. Saddened, my wife and I drove a mile or so down the road to Southern Right Winery. I’d never heard of this producer, but, Ill admit, I liked the name and their whale logo. Turns out, Southern Right is Hamilton Russell’s sister winery. The place was empty except for a young woman who was working in the winery office. She poured us some wines from the Hamilton Russell family line-up and talked with us about the region and the different wines. We got to taste Southern Right’s two bottlings, a pair of Hamilton Russells and two wines from another project called Ashbourne.

Here are my notes on the Hamilton Russell family of wines…

2013 Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc - South Africa, Walker Bay
Clean and floral on the nose with green melon and a spearmint note. Tangy and mineral-driven on the palate with some creamy feel from two months on the lees. Intense lime and green melon mixes with sea shells and all sorts of minerals. No green grass here, just pure fruit and waves of mineral goodness. (89 points)

2009 Hamilton Russell Ashbourne Sandstone - South Africa, Walker Bay
A bit of grass on the nose, some green pepper, white tea and saline. Quite fleshy on the palate, creamy body, but tingling acid. Interesting blend of flavors: mango, honey, white tea, sea salt, showing some beautiful aged characteristics but it’s still quite lively and
I’d like to cellar it for a few more. A complex and lovely blend of 88% Sauvignon Blanc and 12% Chardonnay. (90 points)

2013 Hamilton Russell Chardonnay - South Africa, Walker Bay, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
Deep, complex aromas of peach, flowers, slate, honey and minerals. So pure, clean and fleshy on the palate, with flavors of white peach, pear. lemon curd, apricot and green melon. Creamy but mineral-driven, so complex yet subtle and nuanced, with all sorts of tea and slate notes. Long, complex, verging on the profound. Wow, this is near-epic. I’d love to cellar this for two or three years, but I think it’ll improve for longer. This was my favorite wine of the entire trip, and I think it deserves much more time for contemplation. (94 points)

2013 Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir - South Africa, Walker Bay, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
Bright ruby color. Smells of spice cake, roses, cherries, currants, as well as a blend of oregano, sage and spearmint. Basically, the nose is amazing. Fleshy red fruit on the palate, but so silky, pure and elegant as well. Fine tannins, tangy acid, effortless on the palate. The spice, anise, rose and mushroom notes are wonderful, and will only improve with age. A real beauty. (92 points)

2012 Southern Right Pinotage - South Africa, Walker Bay, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
Dark ruby color. Dark berries on the nose, with coffee, pepper and roses. Smells elegant, not stinky. Tannins are bold, but the mouthfeel is velvety. Rich berry fruit and plum cake mixes with anise, coffee and spicy cedar notes. Lively but also shows some elegance. One of the better Pinotage wines I remember tasting, and it could get better with a few years. (90 points)

2008 Hamilton Russell Ashbourne - South Africa, Walker Bay
Aromas of soft berries, spice, roses, earth, some charcoal. Grippy tannins, fresh acid. Tangy blackberry and strawberry fruit blends with smoke, roses, pepper, oregano and leather tones. A finish with sweet plum cake and cola. Complex, very pretty and elegant, which is quite an achievement for a blend of 67% Pinotage and 33% Cabernet. I’d love to lay this down for another three years. (90 points)

I was smitten with these wines, so I snagged a few to stow away in my luggage. Overall, I was beyond impressed with the Hermanus wine route experience. Its a place of uniquely stunning beauty. I could wax about it for hours, using all sorts of superlatives, but it wouldn’t do much good. It has to be experienced. 

Outside of Southern Right winery, the locals showed up to hang out. Baboons
are fascinating animals and I was stoked to be able to watch such a large troop
On the way out of the winery, my wife and I spotted a troop of about 40 baboons. We spent a good half-hour just watching and photographing them as they played around in a small field. I’ll remember that day for as long as my mind works.

If you’re ever in South Africa, heed these words: Visit Hermanus. Tour the wineries. Get on a boat and look for some whales. Bask in the bliss that you’re alive and privileged enough to be here. I’m going back again to do just that.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Favorites From a Rhone Rangers Tasting

Wines from France’s Rhone Valley are responsible for my obsession with wine. It was Hermitage and Chateauneuf-du-Pape that got me hooked. Years later, I still seek out and collect Northern Rhone Syrahs and Viogniers, and I’ve never grown tired of red and white Chateauneufs.

For decades, American winemakers have looked to the Rhone Valley for inspiration while crafting wines that evoke a sense of their own time and place. At the forefront of this large movement is an organization called the Rhone Rangers, a non-profit group of vintners who promote American wines made from Rhone grapes.

To qualify as an official “Rhone Ranger” wine, member wineries must use one or more of the 22 varieties recognized in France, and these grapes must constitute at least 75% of the blend. Red Rhone grapes like Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre feature prominently, and white grapes like Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne are frequently blended together. (For more background on the Rhone Rangers movement, and the rising tide of American Rhone wines, check out a great piece by my friend David White from a few weeks ago: “Embracing the Rhone Rangers.”)

In early June, the Rhone Rangers made their first trek to Washington, DC, for a series of tastings, dinners and panel discussions. I caught up with this crew for a tasting held at the Longview Gallery near DC’s Convention Center. The place was packed with winemakers, winery reps and tasters. I only had two hours, and I was having too much fun chatting with winemakers, so I didn’t get to visit everyone.

The white Rhone wines from Two Shepherds are complex and beautiful.
I honed in on a few producers who I think are doing amazing things in California. Under the Two Shepherds banner, wine-writer-turned-winemaker William Allen has been putting out some intriguing stuff from selected vineyards across California. I’ve long been a fan of Donelan’s Sonoma County wines, and this tasting was no exception. And it’s not a California Rhone tasting without Central Coast staple Qupé.

Here are some of my favorite wines from that tasting…

2011 Donelan Syrah Cuvée Keltie - California, Sonoma County ($75)
Nose: dark berries, violets on the nose, warm and inviting. Juicy berry fruit on the palate, ripe but tangy. Also some meat, olive, tobacco and violet notes. Zingy, with a long finish. I’d cellar this for two years and see what it’s up to.

2009 Qupé Syrah Bien Nacido Hillside Estate - California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley ($40)
Dark berries, charcoal, some smoke on the nose. Quite elegant on the palate, with a velvety mouthfeel and some crisp acid. Pure berry and currant fruit, with complex notes of pickle, spice and soy. Rich, lasting, pure, plenty of time ahead. 

2012 Two Shepherds Grenache Saralee’s Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley ($38)
Love the nose, so floral, cool fruit, elegance. Fine tannins, crisp acid, a lighter, more elegant style at 13.3% alcohol. Cool red fruit, mixed with spice, earth and roses. Complex, versatile, I don't remember the last California Grenache I thought of as thirst-quenching. 

2011 Wrath Syrah Doctor’s Vineyard - California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands ($39)
Nose: smoke, crushed granite, meat on top of red currants and plums. Palate: firm, medium+ acid, currants and plums, but not too rich. Tangy throughout, with smoke, earth, meaty, jetty rock elements. Yup, this is doing it for me. 

2011 Cornerstone Cellars Syrah Stepping Stone - California, Napa Valley ($35)
Deep aromas, love the currants, plums, earthy, pepper, smoke, lots of depth. Juicy palate, fresh plum & currants, solid structure. Earth, loam, charcoal, chewy yet elegant. Will be even prettier with another two years. Wowed again by this wine. 

If you’re interested in notes from the full tasting, you can view my CellarTracker report here.

Have you tasted any good California Rhone wines lately? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.